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Film Noir

DVD: ‘Cry of the City’

Robert Siodmak made more film noirs than any other director. It’s not like he set out to do so–they were considered crime thrillers and murder dramas by the studios and the term film noir was given to the shadowy subset long after Siodmak stopped making them–but he helped define the genre (or the style and attitude, if you prefer) in its glory days.

Cry of the City is not as well known as Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949), and The Film on Thelma Jordan (1950), all of which star some of Hollywood’s most famous (and noir’s most iconic) performers, or his early, shadowy low-budget mystery Phantom Lady (1944), but it should be. It’s a gangster film seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, starring Victor Mature as Lt. Candella, an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Martin Rome (Richard Conte) personally. They grew up together in Little Italy and Candella doesn’t buy Martin’s excuses of poverty and culture for turning to a life of crime, not with such salt-of-the-Earth parents who treat Candella almost like family. More to the point, he hates how he’s become an outlaw hero to the kids in the neighborhood and especially Martin’s adoring kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook). When Candella goes knocking on doors for witnesses, he gets them slammed in his face. In a slum where no one trusts the cops, Martin’s brazen defiance makes him a Robin Hood, even if he fails to share any of his ill-gotten gains with the poor.

The film opens with Martin unconscious in a hospital, wounded in a shoot-out that left a policeman dead. When he’s awake he’s a glib, smart-talking guy, working his grinning charm and sardonic wit on the police (who have his ward under guard) and the hospital staff alike, and he has no illusions about his fate.

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MOD Movies: Watching the detectives – Philo Vance, The Falcon, and more

Created by author S.S. Van Dine in 1926, Philo Vance was a gentleman detective, a man of culture and high society manners, and he became one of the most popular screen sleuths of the thirties, before the invasion of the tough guy private eyes and hard boiled cops of novels and film noir. There were a dozen Philo Vance films made between 1929 and 1940, produced by three different studios with eight different actors in the role, the first and most memorable being William Powell, who inaugurated the character in the 1929 The Canary Murder Case.

Philo Vance Murder Case Collection (Warner Archive) collects the six “Philo Vance” films (and as many different actors in the role) made by MGM and Warner Bros. (the other half-dozen, including the initial three films, were Paramount pictures) on a three-disc set. The set highlight is The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell’s fourth and final performance as Vance and Michael Curtiz directing in that rapid-fire pace of Warner Bros. in the early thirties. For a locked room murder mystery that plays out largely at a society dog show and a millionaire’s manor, this film charges along with bantering dialogue, montage sequences, split screens, and whip pans that give simple cuts an energized urgency. Powell is all debonair charm, not really a man of action or tart wit like Nick Charles of the “Thin Man” movies, but quite the host for an evening of murder, and Mary Astor, Eugene Palette, and Jack LaRue provide colorful support.

Warren William took over the role in The Dragon Murder Case” an outdoor variation on the locked room mystery involving a cursed swimming hole on a millionaire’s property, with Eugene Palette back as the gravel-voiced police detective and Etienne Girardot as Dr. Doremus, the cranky pathologist who is constantly roused from meals and sleep whenever Vance is on a case. William left the series to become the screen’s first Perry Mason and then take over the “Lone Wolf” series.

The role call of Philo Vances in this set is filled out with Basil Rathbone in The Bishop Murder Case (1930), Paul Lukas in The Casino Murder Case (1935), Edmund Lowe in The Garden Murder Case (1936), and James Stephenson in Calling Philo Vance (1940). For more on the films and the series, read Lou Lumenick’s DVD Extra at The New York Post.

The Falcon Mystery Movie Collection Volume 2 (Warner Archive) completes the run of the Falcon movies with the final six films in the series, all starring Tom Conway in the role of Tom Lawrence, brother of the original Falcon Gay Lawrence (played, fittingly enough by Conway’s more famous brother, George Sanders). Conway doesn’t have the presence or command of Sanders and he’s a little too sedate to be really dashing, but he’s perfectly at ease on screen and his voice is just as smooth and distinctive, which gives Tom a cultured bearing and confidence as he tangles with street thugs and society crooks. None of the films run longer than 70 minutes and they get by very nicely on B-movie budgets and modest scripts.

Cult director Joseph H. Lewis (of Gun Crazy fame) directs The Falcon in San Francisco (1945), where he romances Rita Corday, and film noir icons Jane Greer and Elisha Cook Jr. co-star in The Falcon’s Alibi (1946). The set is filled out with The Falcon Out West (1944), The Falcon in Mexico (1944), The Falcon in Hollywood (1944), and the final film in the series, The Falcon’s Adventure (1946). The first seven “Falcon” films came out in a set in 2011, reviewed on Videodrone here.

Scene of the Crime (Warner Archive) is a 1949 film noir cop drama with an interesting collision of sensibilities. Scripted and played in the then-new police procedural mode, which shows the gears of police work between the shoot-outs and criminal mayhem, it’s like a mix of Naked City and pulp detective drama, shot in the studio rather than on location and filled with stock types and familiar conflicts. Van Johnson, who generally radiates as much hard-boiled grit as a bowl of oatmeal, works hard at playing the tough police detective and married man who always puts the job first, much to the consternation of his former fashion model wife (Arlene Dahl), who wants him to quit and take a safe job in corporate security. Meanwhile Johnson is assigned (no kidding!) to romance a brassy showgirl (Gloria De Haven) as part of his investigation of a cop killing. While his wife becomes increasingly anxious, this showgirl shows a soft, vulnerable side under her cynical front, setting up romantic complications that the film never quite commits to.

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MOD Movies: Brahm’s Quartet

John Brahm was part of the grand flight from Germany during Hitler’s reign. Born Hans Brahm, he trained on the stage and shifted to cinema, making his directorial debut in 1936 (a British remake of “Broken Blossoms”) and his Hollywood debut a year later. His legacy rests on a pair of early gothic film noirs, his handsome 1944 remake/revision of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” and the 1945 follow-up “Hangover Square,” both starring the great character actor Laird Cregar, a longtime heavy that Brahm promoted to dark, troubled leading man status. Both of those are on DVD from Fox (in a box set with his earlier B-movie production “The Undying Monster”), but until recently that was almost all that was available of his film work. Thanks to the proliferation of manufacture-on-demand releases, his available features on disc have about doubled.

At his best, John Brahm had a handsome sense of design, a strong feeling for interesting women characters, and a Gothic sense of the shadows hanging over life, just threatening to move in and swallow us.

That’s right up front of Let Us Live (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), a 1939 proto-noir with Henry Fonda as a taxi driver arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit (Fonda’s second time, after “You Only Live Twice”). It anticipates Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” in a low key, but with an emphasis on heroine Maureen O’Sullivan, the tirelessly supportive girlfriend turned plucky investigator who teams up with a maverick police detective (Ralph Bellamy).

What Brahm brings to the film is a terror born of official indifference — neither the District Attorney’s department nor the police will look into possibly exonerating evidence after Fonda and his equally innocent buddy have been handed the death penalty — and he turns the race to stop the execution into a battle with bureaucracy. It’s not a matter of corruption, merely the banality of power and privilege over compassion, and the distinction is not lost on Brahm. In place of a happy ending, he leaves a man broken by his ordeal and a film without any faith in the system or the gatekeepers who are supposed to be more interested in justice than job security. Sony has a great track record with their MOD releases and this is no exception. It’s a solid, well-mastered B&W print.

The Locket (Warner Archive) is prime film noir from 1946, a dark romance that stirs darkness into melodrama with the story of a kleptomaniac (Laraine Day) on her wedding day, an event interrupted with a circuitous flashback (and then a flashback within a flashback within the flashback, which I think is a record, at least for an American film) that reveals her shadowy history. Not that she’s a killer, merely a compulsive thief and a woman in the shadows of denial.

Robert Mitchum (still a rising young star at the time) brings his easy intensity to the role of her first husband and Brian Aherne is the film’s authority figure, a psychiatrist who explains all in the labyrinthine layers of flashback, while cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (RKO’s house specialist for mood) layers the screen with smothering shadows and a claustrophobic atmosphere. The darkness of this noir world isn’t a matter of violent crime or fatal betrayal, but the shadows of memory and guilt and obsession in the damaged psyche of a beautiful woman. It provides all the doom and darkness you could want. The Warner Archive print is excellent.

The Brasher Doubloon (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), made the very next year in 1947, is something of a B+ movie, a low-budget treatment of Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” made with ambition and style, at least in key scenes. George Montgomery makes for a light, easy-going Philip Marlowe, a snappy, streetsmart guy with more confidence than command. He’s hired to retrieve a valuable coin and uncovers a blackmail scheme that his employer would rather keep buried. Nancy Guild co-stars as Merle, an emotionally-icy young secretary fiercely devoted to her matron (Florence Bates), a millionaire widow who treats Merle with a callousness verging on contempt. Brahm reserves his contempt for her spoiled son Leslie (Conrad Janis), a juvenile delinquent with an expense account.

Brahm seems rushed through much of the production, dutifully pushing through interrogations and exposition. But when Marlowe stumbles across a murder victim, the film takes on a sudden urgency: the camera takes to startling angles and distorted compositions and the screen becomes criss-crossed with shadows and frames closing in on Marlowe. Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern has his moments of inspiration, surely pushed by Brahm in those instances, but is merely functional for the balance of the film. The Fox disc is somewhat washed out and scuffed up, but it’s perfectly watchable.

The Mad Magician (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), made in 1954, is clearly cashing in on the success of “House of Wax.” It’s got Vincent Price as another artist turned killer, a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, a period setting, and grisly murders and visual stunts in 3D (the disc is standard, but when you see a stream of water shot into the lens, there’s no question of its origins). Price plays an inventor of magic-act props and tricks who is betrayed by his controlling boss when he tries to strike out on his own. The mild-mannered inventor turns murderer and turns to an elaborate cover-up to continue his reign.

Overly complicated and under-developed, this stock horror has its moments of invention, and Brahm even quotes from his own glory days of Gothic noir: the rented garret hideaway of the 1944 “The Lodger” and the bonfire piled high with sticks and furniture, the perfect place to get rid of a corpse, from “Hangover Square.” The rest is just another knock-off rushed through on the cheap by a director who gives his best in trying circumstances, but it could be the template for the kind of films Price would go on to make for William Castle. The disc is nicely mastered.

MOD Movies: The Dark Side of Jean Negulesco

Jean Negulesco is not the first name that comes up when discussing the great directors of film noir. In fact, it rarely comes up at all. The studio photographer turned director is still best remembered for glossy studio films like How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and Daddy Long Legs (1955). Even the recently released book “Film Noir: The Directors” from editors Alain Silver and James Ursini skips him completely. And I confess, his absence only registered with me recently, in light of three recent releases from the Warner Archive. The Conspirators (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and Nobody Lives Forever (1946), three of the four features that elevated Jean Negulesco from studio contract man cranking out theatrical shorts to A-list Warner director, are the first films from the Warner Archive to carry the brand “Film Noir.” And they earn the brand.

The Conspirators is less film noir than cloak-and-dagger espionage thriller set in exotic locales of World War II resistance. In many ways it is an unimaginative Casablanca knock-off relocated to Portugal, with half the cast carried along with it. Paul Henried is once again the resistance hero on the run from the Nazis, this one from the Netherlands (he’s nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman”) and hiding out in the technically neutral Lisbon while awaiting passage to London, and Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as members of the Portuguese resistance. Hedy Lamarr takes the Bergman role here as an elegant spy and Joseph Calleia is wonderfully ambiguous in the Claude Rains roles as the Portuguese cop who works with the Nazis out of necessity but not conviction. There’s even a variation on the romantic triangle of “Casablanca” at the center of the romantic tension between Henreid and Lamarr.

Unlike its inspiration, this is very much standard studio fare, with overwrought dialogue and romantic overkill (Hedy Lamarr isn’t much for showing emotion so she has to verbalize it all), and the resistance cell is more social club than fighting force. Negulesco doesn’t necessarily overcome the material but he, along with a cast of character actors having fun with their roles, delivers an entertaining Hollywood espionage melodrama. Negulesco shows a flair for this kind of material, opening the film with great energy and swiftly carrying us from the action of the Dutch resistance to the shadowy underworld of Lisbon. Henreid’s entrance into the city’s nightclub of note (not quite the film’s answer to Rick’s) is a terrific web glances and nods, an atmosphere of surveillance where everyone is watching everyone else, dropping loaded comments and slipping out of the clubs and into the shadows. While I wouldn’t exactly describe it as classic film noir, it could certainly be included in the conversation.

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MOD Movies: ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ and other Hollywood Lessons

“Once again, as the MGM crime reporter, it is my privilege to present to you another episode in our Crime Does Not Pay series.”

MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay (Warner Archive) series numbered 50 dramatic short films between from 1935 to 1947, all running about 20 minutes, most serving as a training ground for up and coming directors, and all of them proving that, just as the title promises, crime does not pay. The debut episode, “Buried Loot” (1935), makes the case in spades. Robert Taylor takes an uncredited lead as an embezzler with a long-term scheme and a morbid end, thanks to a twitchy case of obsession and an ill-advised use of acid on his own face.

Not all shorts featured performers of Taylor’s stature but minor players from the MGM studio were shuffled through these films, along with the occasional A-list supporting player or future lead. Like Marc Lawrence and Laraine Day in the shoplifting drama “Think First” (1939), where nice girls lured into a ring of thieves suffer dearly for their mistakes, or Dwight Frye (Renfield in “Dracula”) as an arsonist killed by his own firebug actions in “Think It Over” (1938), the latter an early film by future auteur Jacques Tourneur. He’s one of the most notable filmmakers who got his start in this series, along with future Oscar winner Fred Zinneman (whose “While America Sleeps” is a terrific industrial espionage thriller and “Help Wanted” stars Tom Neal as a working class Joe who helps the government take on the crooks in the employment rackets, both from 1939) and Joseph Losey (“A Gun in His Hand,” 1945),

Other directors include George B. Seitz (who directed most of the Andy Hardy films), Felix Feist (of “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” fame), Harold S. Bucquet (he went on to direct the “Dr. Kindare” series), Joseph H. Newman, and Roy Rowland, and future film noir screenwriter John C. Higgins apprenticed on half a dozen scripts.

This series is a mix of procedural, with detectives doing proto-CSI work to solve the crimes, and morality tale with terrible ends for the criminals. And while they are clearly low budget, they feature better production values than a lot of B movies and generally move at a driving pace, at least once we get past the stiff, documentary-eque opening, most featuring real-life officials but a few with real actors in the role of authority (such as Leon Ames or Al Bridge). There are no lost masterpieces in this collection, but many are lively and engaging and they often carry an unexpected punch to the action or the dramatic twist, which is better than most of the feature-length B-movies of the era.

The Big Heat

[May 9, 1972, program note for a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Fritz Lang in America”]

The Lang city of night: Alexander Scourby as another Master of Metropolis

With the possible exceptions of Scarlet Street and parts of FuryThe Big Heat is the most corrosive of Fritz Lang’s films. Its very title sounds definitive of the darkly, sometimes loathsomely brilliant film noir, a class—if not precisely a genre—of American movie to evolve in the wake of the Second World War or, more accurately, after the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies: tortured imagings of a then-contemporary America, the high neurotic intensity of which would astound anyone who fancies the movies came of age this side of Stanley Kubrick. The film noir put out inky tendrils in many existent genres, forever altering even the Western (Anthony Mann, perhaps the most gifted director associated with the new vision, the new mode, also began his remarkable series of James Stewart Westerns in this era: Winchester ’73The Naked Spur, etc.); and certainly its temperamental affinities to the science-fiction film, a prime manifestation of the McCarthy era, are worth a nod. Basically, though, the film noir flourished in and reflected a contemporary milieu; films noirs tended to have to do with the world of crime, whether overtly (police and FBI stories, private-eye flicks, gangster stories) or by extension—that is, films in which “the world of crime” proved to be inseparable from the world of nightclubs and cabarets, offices and tenements, cars and homes where private citizens might become, by accident or design, guilty souls. The arrival of the film noir coincided with a new penchant, inspired by Italian neorealism, for moving out of the studio on occasion and onto the great rich set of the American city and its suburbs, a readily available set which became, sometimes with only minimal adjustment of light and shadow, fully as “Germanic” as anything constructed at Ufa in the Twenties. Of course many makers of films noirs were authentically Germanic: Robert Siodmak (Phantom LadyThe Killers), Billy Wilder (Double IndemnitySunset Blvd.), Otto Preminger (LauraFallen AngelWhere the Sidewalk Ends), not to mention other directors and—just as important—designers and cameramen. But the most Germanic of all, Fritz Lang, clung to the resources of the soundstage. Still, part of the reason why The Big Heat looms large even in the incomparably rich spectrum of cinema that is film noir is its recognizability as a studio re-creation (specifically, mid-Fifties Columbia, as Man Hunt represents early-Forties Fox craftsmanship at its highest). The imagined milieu of The Big Heat may look less freaky than that of that earlier Lang picture of an earlier generation, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), but its distortions are (therefore?) more subtle, its ultimate force and effect more subversive.

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MOD Movies: ‘Screaming Mimi’ and outliers of film noir

Screaming Mimi (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), directed by Gerd Oswald from a novel by Fredric Brown, is a real cult item in the film noir filmography, weird and lurid and kitschy, but fascinating all the same. Anita Ekberg stars as Yolanda, an exotic nightclub dancer who survives an attack from a serial killer and becomes much more than a story to “night beat” reporter Bill Sweeney (Philip Carey), a combination crime reporter and nightlife columnist who accepts free drinks from the clubs he plugs. Carey comes off as an oily Richard Carlson, a B-movie version of a second-tier performer, while Ekberg is pure sexual fantasy: voluptuous, scantily clad, dancing as if in a trance, and inviting the reporter’s advances with every glance. Or at least it seems to Sweeney, who clashes with Yolanda’s possessive manager (Harry Townes) as he traces the killer back to the Screaming Mimi of the title, a statue of hysterical woman.

A hothouse atmosphere of sex and obsession pervades this picture, as much due to the low-rent environs of the low budget sets as to the nightlife culture itself. Her manager is also her doctor (from when she was the best dressed patient in the asylum) and, we can assume, her lover, while the nightclub matron (Gypsy Rose Lee) shows an equally possessive interest in the petite cigarette girl (Linda Cherney), who she keeps around like a pet. I don’t know if “tea for two” was a cultural euphemism for female couples, but when Sweeney says it, it sure sounds like it. And when Yolanda runs out on the reporters and spends the night at Sweeney’s home, the two cigarettes burned to butts side by side in the ash tray says all you need to know about the sleeping arrangements, regardless of the fact that she emerges from a separate bedroom. Oswald knows how to cue the details of this dime novel world behind the restrictions of the production code. Even the deficiencies of the performances, from Ekberg’s breathy vacancy to Carey’s smugness to Gypsy Rose Lee’s overworked folksiness and sass to Red Norvo’s smart-aleck jazzbo comments, add to the weirdly off-key tone. The screenplay is largely faithful to Brown’s novel, except that it irons out his storytelling twists, dropping the detective story discoveries into the prologue. Curiously, it doesn’t affect the mystery much, it merely establishes the sordid attitude much earlier.

The disc is presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, approximating the original release aspect ratio just fine, and the image is solid, from a clean, well-kept black-and-white print.

The Big Night (MGM Limited Edition Collection), the final American film made by Joseph Losey before he fled Hollywood and the blacklist for Europe, has a title just generic enough to suggest anything from a musical extravaganza to a teen sex comedy. But vagueness aside, it’s really quite a provocative youth noir with John Drew Barrymore as an angry young man out to revenge the brutal beating of his old man (Preston Foster), a modest barkeep, by a bullying sports reporter with the marvelously ironic name of Al Judge (Howard St. John). Neither juvenile delinquent drama or a wild youth thriller, this is a portrait in rage and shame and disappointment in fathers and father figures. On this big night, as he arms himself with a handgun and hunts down the newsman, he is let down by one authority figure after another, from his father to a friendly but cowardly professor who takes him under his wing to a corrupt, predatory cop in the pocket of Judge. This is some coming of age as he discovers over this long night that his heroes and the authority figures he’s been taught to respect are not merely flawed, but often corrupt, petty, and unreliable.

Losey made this for an independent producer on a small budget but his direction is commanding, making his odyssey through the city at night into a journey through the heart of darkness. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore, Jr.) never really established himself as much of an actor (though I’ll always love him for his beat poetry history lesson in High School Confidential), but Losey pulls a vivid, tormented character out of him here, almost dizzy with hurt and fury and confusion as he pushes himself to follow through on his vengeance. There is a powerful undercurrent to this modest production.

The Black Book (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is another kind of cult noir: pure American urban film noir sensibility dropped into the Terror of the French Revolution, with guys and dames in flouncy costumes and flamboyant hats talking like gangsters and street thugs. It’s been available in some truly wretched PD editions, until VCI released a decent copy a couple of years ago. While it was fine, this edition is far superior, really providing an appropriate showcase to Anthony Mann’s shadowy scenes of death and double crosses in the alleys and dungeons of 18th century Paris as suggested on backlot sets. This is, in a word, formidable!

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The Missing Juror (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), one of the very first features helmed by westerns master Budd Boetticher (credited as Oscar Boetticher, Jr. early in his career), is a typical B-movie mystery about a glib newspaperman (Jim Bannon) chasing a story about members of a high-profile jury turning up dead. What should be an ominous thriller is knocked off-balance by outsized personalities and comic by-play, like a film trying to split the difference between crime movie, screwball romance, and snappy newspaper film, all played out on cheap backlot sets. Boetticher doesn’t bring much to the film beyond energy: this film moves along with a momentum that almost fools you into thinking there’s something going on.

Vice Raid (MGM Limited Edition Collection) gives top billing to Mamie Van Doren, playing a brassy working girl hired by mobster Brad Dexter (in smirking sleaze mode) to frame incorruptible cop Richard Coogan (a charisma-free stiff), who gets kicked off the force and goes rogue to take down the syndicate. Mamie is actually the classiest thing in this cheap little crime 1959 knock-off from Imperial Pictures, which isn’t really noir as much a noir by product. It never creates an appropriately sordid atmosphere to match the culture of corruption, just a general generic sleaziness. The disc is presented in the square 1.33:1 format (what was once called full frame, a term that has become rather confusing in the era of widescreen monitors), but was shot to be seen wider and is better watched zoomed to fill the 16×9 screen.

Sony Pictures Choice Collection:
Screaming Mimi
The Black Book
The Missing Juror

Available by order only from Sony Pictures Choice Collection, from Amazon, Critics Choice Video, Classic Movies Now, Warner Archive, and other web retailers.

MGM Limited Edition Collection:
The Big Night
Vice Raid

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Critics’ Choice Video, Classic Movies Now, Warner Archive, and other web retailers.

MOD stands for “Manufacture on Demand” and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and “burned” individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.

DVD/Blu-ray: Tokyo Drifter

Seijun Suzuki isn’t necessarily a familiar name to many fans of foreign cinema — he was practically unknown outside of Japan for decades — but in the early 1990s, his “rediscovery” stateside made him an instant cult hero to fans of genre cinema with maverick visions. Suzuki was nothing if not a maverick, a prolific filmmaker who cranked out one assignment after another in the low-budget end of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1960s — war movies, youth dramas, roman porno and especially yakuza thrillers — on tight shooting schedules, and managed to inject them with madcap energy, inventive style and wicked wit.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) is one of Suzuki’s greatest, and by that I mean one of his wildest, weirdest and most unpredictable. Ostensibly a gangster thriller about a rival mobs locked in a war over a business venture after one outfit tries to go legit, it plays like a mix of spaghetti western and samurai melodrama relocated to the pop-art splendor of 1960s Japan, a world of swinging discotheques and sleekly austere nightclubs on the one hand, and grimy waterfronts and seedy hideouts on the other. Suzuki opens the film on the latter: a gangland beating on the docks in overexposed black and white.

It’s a rough and ready introduction. As a trumpet brays a tune that sounds like a nightclub version of a Morricone theme from a lost Sergio Leone film, the object of the abuse refuses to lift a finger while. But as the thugs leave he looks down at a toy gun, jumping out of the image as single drop of red into the monochrome landscape, and mutters “Don’t get me mad.” Suddenly Suzuki blasts the screen with comic book color and pop-art hues. The grit just turned groovy.

Matinee idol Tetsuya Watari is the Tetsu, aka Phoenix, the Tokyo drifter of the title. Looking like the young, Japanese pop-star incarnation of Alain Delon in his dark glasses and sporty suits, Tetsu is the unfailingly loyal right hand to Kurata (Ryûji Kita), a one-time yakuza godfather gone straight. Thus his refusal to fight, proof of the honor of his vow to steer clear of the rackets. It only encourages ambitious rival Otsuko (Eimei Esumi), a fast-rising thug headquartered in back of a discotheque perpetually filled with gyrating kids, to move in on Kurata.

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Available on Amazon:
Tokyo Drifter (DVD)
Tokyo Drifter (Blu-ray)

The Earth Is Made Of Glass: Orson Welles’s ‘The Stranger’

The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.

The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.

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MOD Movies: Budd Boetticher in the City

Despite the efforts of such fans as Clint Eastwood, who produced two documentaries on the director, and Martin Scorsese, Budd Boetticher is still a name known mainly to film historians and fans of classic westerns. Boetticher made some of the greatest, purest, most austere westerns of all time: Seven Men From Now (available from Paramount), The Tall T, Comanche Station, and Ride Lonesome (the latter three in a box set from Sony and Scorsese’s The Film Foundation). But like any successful director of the era, Boetticher made a lot more than just westerns. Yes, he did direct three bullfighting dramas (talk about a specialized niche), but he made war pictures, adventures, youth dramas, mysteries and crime pictures. Two of his best crime films arrived almost simultaneously via MOD earlier this.

Between his big studio breakthrough at Universal (where he made nine pictures in two years, most of them westerns) and his first of seven pictures with Randolph Scott, Boetticher directed The Killer Is Loose (MGM Limited), a 1956 crime drama starring Joseph Cotten as a police detective whose wife (Rhonda Fleming) is targeted by an escaped criminal looking for payback. Wendell Corey is superb as the soft-spoken bank teller turned robber who becomes twisted by revenge and pretty much slips over the edge of sanity. Boetticher’s biggest strength is efficiency and restraint, creating a camaraderie in the police squad room and a sense history between Cotten and his partner (Michael Pate), and he’s at his best building tension through dialogue and stillness that builds to a sudden burst of action. When Corey takes his former sergeant (John Larch) hostage, he never looses that quiet, deliberate composure, calmly reasoning his way to murder and executing his sacrifice without hesitation. Boetticher punctuates the gunshot with one of the great images of explosive violence: a shattered milk bottle. The sudden explosion shatters the tension of the deliberately measured scene and the burst of white milk against Larch’s black suit gives the sound a striking visual dimension.

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Warner Archive), Boetticher’s last film before he headed to Mexico for an eight-year odyssey, came out in the mini-boom of low-budget prohibition-era gangster films with second-tier stars of the mid-fifties to early-sixties, like Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone with Rod Steiger. Ray Danton stars in the 1960 production as the real life dancer turned urban thug and mob killer Jack “Legs” Diamond, who made his name terrorizing other criminals in New York City, essentially running a protection racket aimed at the disorganized crime in a city yet to get mobbed up. What Boetticher brings is a smoothness, charm and brazen arrogance to anti-hero, building a film around a brazen villain with nary a hero in sight. As presented in the film, he’s not so much fearless as a rabid dog of an opportunist, driven by pure cussedness and arrogance and protected only by the belief that “The bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me,” a mantra he comes to believe after surviving so many shoot-outs. You know that’s going to last in a gangster film with the phrase “rise and fall” in the title. Karen Steele is somewhat blank as Alice, his dancing partner turned oblivious lover who spends the film with a wide-eyed expression of gullibility and surprise and, once she tips to the truth, drowns her misery and guilt in bootleg liquor. Elaine Stewart is far more convincing and interesting in a smaller role as a sultry but soiled showgirl discarded by Legs. And then there’s Danton in perhaps the best role of his career. He oozes cheapness and insincerity even at his most charming but becomes pure rage and drive when he pulls out his guns and starts blasting his competitors, wading in with no hesitation like he’s got nothing to lose. That’s part of the obligatory irony of his fall: it’s only when he starts losing it that he loses his cool and his fearlessness. Released in a fine-looking “Remastered Edition” in an anamorphic master (the case claims it is 1.85:1 but it’s actually 1.77:1, a minor difference but one worth noting for purists).

The Halliday Brand (MGM Limited) is neither a crime picture nor a Budd Boetticher film but I shoehorn the inclusion of this 1957 western because of star Joseph Cotten, who plays the eldest son of frontier lawman Ward Bond, and the late fifties low-budget sensibility. Both Cotten and Bond are too old for their roles, at least for the flashback story that shows how Bond’s racist streak and brutality turn his son into an outlaw guerilla. It begins with the old man on his death bed trying to make peace with his past, but it turns out prejudice and retribution are thicker than blood. It was one of the final features by B-movie veteran Joseph H. Lewis, who made a couple of film noir classics (Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) but never made the leap to big studio assignments. Always one to find creative solutions to budgetary challenges, he effectively creates a lynch mob scene out of off-screen crowd sounds, shadows across set walls, feet clumping up a staircase, and even more evocatively tells the story of the aftermath with a simple, suggestive image loaded with emotional pain. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in the rest of the film. He dutifully plays out the hand this production deals him and cashes out with a draw.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Collection, from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Classic Movies Now and other web retailers:
The Killer Is Loose (MGM Limited)
The Halliday Brand (MGM Limited)

Available exclusive from the Warner Archive:
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Warner Archive)

MOD Movies : Fritz Lang’s Farewell to Hollywood

Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood as an artist in exile and, as the creator of some of Germany’s most famous and most successful films, accorded all due respect. Unlike a lot of artist refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he was offered prestige assignments, “important” subjects and major stars. At least at first. Without major hits or awards to his credit, and with a reputation for autocratic methods (there’s nothing a studio hates more than a “difficult” director), he very slowly slipped down the ladder into smaller budgets and increasingly turned to independent productions.

Fritz Lang’s final three American productions were released through the Warner Archive Collection this year. And while they never reach the heights of his greatest American films—You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street  (1945), The Big Heat (1953)—they have their pleasures and rewards.

Moonfleet (1955) was Lang’s last film for one of the Hollywood majors. The budget-minded MGM production set in 18th century England, it’s like “Great Expectations” by way of a gothic film noir, in this case a world of smugglers, knaves and decadent, corrupt gentry  on the rocky, foggy British coast. Jon Whitely is the film’s answer to Pip, a plucky young orphan sent to live with the dark criminal aristocrat Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a brigand with money and status torn between his mercenary instincts and his growing sense of responsibility for the innocent and unfailingly loyal boy, the son of the woman he loved and in many ways the symbol of the road not taken.

Lang shot in CinemaScope entirely in the studio and still creates a claustrophobic world of craggy moors and bleak architecture. Even the stony church is a bleak sanctuary where cold statues seem to judge, if not outright threaten, the parishioners. Visually it anticipates the look of the Hammer Gothic horrors and Corman’s Poe films, with its studio moors and gloomy sets of stone gray and rough wood and costumes of royal purple and soldier crimson, all shrouded in fog and mist like a perpetual purgatory. Granger delivers a perfectly sardonic and arrogant performance while George Sanders purrs pure aristocratic decadence and moral bankruptcy, relishing his easy corruption with wry looks and cheerfully greedy behavior. “You’re cheating,” accuses one man at a card game. He fixes a weary smirk and replies: “Even if I were, I’d consider it grossly impolite to say so in my own house.” Sure, there’s a redemption in the offing, but the brigands are a lot more fun.

After this low-end studio assignment, Lang ended his Hollywood career at RKO, once a major studio slowly withering under the capricious command of Howard Hughes, working with falling stars and budget-starved productions in black and white that he did his best to turn into an asset.

While the City Sleeps (1956) is less an all-star cast than a veteran line-up of studio pros: Dana Andrews as the ostensible lead, a TV newscaster in a multi-media news company that encompasses a metropolitan daily paper and a wire service, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price and Ida Lupino as the newspaper columnist whose nose for office politics is her greatest survival skill. Ostensibly a thriller about a serial killer (John Drew Barrymore) and the media circus around the investigation, there isn’t much tension or crime movie thriller energy, but it does offer a thoroughly corrupt portrait of life: while a psychotic leatherboy kills girls and blames his mom, the staff of a new organization plays politics to maneuver themselves into a promotion when the playboy son (Vincent Price) of the deceased owner takes over and essentially pits his employees against one another to vie from promotion.

Dana Andrews is back in the lead of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a clever little thriller that has Andrews and a crusading newspaper publisher (who is, not so coincidentally, the father of his fiancée, Joan Fontaine) staging his “guilt” in a murder investigation by planting circumstantial evidence. It’s all an elaborate anti-capital punishment protest, until an untimely accident destroys all the evidence of his innocence and leaves him facing the death penalty while Fontaine takes up his cause. It doesn’t have the poetry or the intensity of his best American films, and it lacks the power of “The Big Heat” or even the embrace of the decadent and corrupt world of “Moonfleet,” but it makes an odd little bookend to Lang’s 1930s dramas of social protest and it boomerangs back with a weirdly cynical twist. Those familiar with Lang’s disdain for Hollywood’s contrived happy endings will have a field day imaging how Lang would have preferred to end this barbed little picture.

Both of these films are presented in the SuperScope process, a cheap widescreen alternative to the anamorphic CinemaScope process. Where CinemaScope used the entire 35mm frame, the widescreen of SuperScope uses only a portion of the frame, masking off the top and bottom and rephotographing the image on an optically squeezed anamorphic print, which would then by widened out by an anamorphic lens in projection across the big screen at a ratio somewhere between 1.75:1 and 2:1 ratio (twice as wide as it is high). The process inevitably resulted in a soft, degraded image and for years television prints presented the original, unmasked version. David Bordwell offers much more detail on the process at his blog here. The process, needless to say, didn’t last long.

There is some debate over what Lang intended and how the film was ultimately shown in the U.S., given the rather inexact nature of the process and the sometimes capricious treatment of films by studios who could “widescreen” a film in post-production. These discs present the SuperScope editions at 2:1 and you can see that they are just a little softer and grainier than the usual widescreen movies, not distractingly so on home video but enough to notice the sacrifice. And they like fine to my eyes, though a little cramped at times. David Bordwell digs into the debate, does his research and offers illustrations here.

All three films available exclusive from the Warner Archive:
Moonfleet (Warner Archive)
While the City Sleeps (Warner Archive)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Warner Archive)

On a side note, these last two films got me thinking about the strange case of Dana Andrews, the leading man of the forties who aged into lower budget and off-studio productions as the fifties wore on. He was off the A-list but still cast as romantic leads, often opposite women decades his junior. Not an unusual state of affairs of Hollywood then (see Clark Gable) or now (Bruce Willis anyone?), but next to the square stiffness of Andrews it plays a little weird. Such as in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” when he picks up a showgirl in his campaign to stage his guilt, or in Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a 1958 Cold War drama that plays on fears of spies and propaganda and the insidious manipulation of public opinion polls to shape (rather than measure) public opinion. The subject matter is as timely as ever but the film itself a confused production that, even as it hammers on its themes in speech after speech, conflates the Red Scare with Fascism and stumbles over its insistent exposition. Meanwhile, this Korean war veteran hero deals with PTSD (not named as such, of course, and rather too easily conquered) and solves the murder of his partner while winning the girl (Marilee Earle, easily two decades his junior) and striking back against the “fellow travelers” with his two American fists. The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument watch on in approval.

Andrews starred in a great number of superb American films, well cast and directed in Laura (1944), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and two of Jacques Tourneur’s best films, Canyon Passage (1946) and Curse of the Demon (1957). The Fearmakers is a disappointment, but its attempt to discuss the complex issues of media manipulation and political opinion makes it and interesting disappointment. It also illustrates why Mel Torme, who has a supporting role as a milquetoast conspirator, never became a movie star.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Collection, from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Classic Movies Now and other web retailers.

MOD Movies Spotlight: B-Noir and Forgotten Crime

The Threat (Warner Archive), a 1949 programmer from Felix E. Feist, opens with a rat-a-tat energy, quite literally: a prison break, a whining siren, and then the almost unbroken blasts of machine gun fire standing in for a musical underscore during the opening credits. All accomplished with a couple a few simple sets against the black of night. That’s making the most of limited resources. And that’s part of the pleasure of this kind of cinematic archeology.

Felix Feist is no auteur but he made some minor classics of the noir genre, notably The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Tomorrow is Another Day. Here he has a good story (if not always a great script) and a truly menacing heavy in Charles McGraw as death-row killer Red Kluger, his tenor gravel and heavy frame carrying the threat of the title in every step and speech. Red isn’t simply engineering a getaway, he’s plotting his revenge against everyone who put him in prison and getting rid of anyone standing in his way.

We’re not talking lost masterpiece here; Feist is saddled with flat dialogue (“Now you know how a good detective works. When he finds something, he calls!”), generic sets and a cast of frankly non-charismatic leads (Michael O’Shea adequate as the cop hero, Robert Shayne a real stiff as his partner, and Frank Conroy almost a non-entity as the D.A..). But Virginia Grey is superb as a trampled flower of a showgirl and Feist allocates his limited budget cleverly, saving his resources for a few set pieces, notably the finale in a hunting cabin where the wait for a getaway plane drags on and the tension turns to violence with a dynamic crane shot and a brutal bare-knuckle brawl. This is the kind of punch that low-budget crime films could and, at their best, did deliver.

Follow Me Quietly (Warner Archive), a 59-minute thriller from Richard Fleischer (soon to be a major studio director but in 1949 paying his dues in specialty shorts and B-movies), is just as good, and just as limited. This was clearly timed to play the bottom of a double bill, but it has better production values than most B-movies and Fleischer devotes much greater care to the direction. He’s announcing his ambitions here.

William Lundigan is the lead detective on the trail of a self-styled executioner called “The Judge” and Jeff Corey is his loyal, supportive partner, supplying the wry remarks as Lundigan applies modern techniques to build a physical and psychological profile from a smattering of clues: an early profiler in a shadowy film noir world. Fleischer does a tremendous job of whipping up drama from a generally static script, though even he can’t generate much heat from the love-hate tension between Lundigan and spunky, persistent reporter Dorothy Patrick. But while Fleischer garnered well-deserved kudos for a couple of sharp cinematic stings involving the dummy they mock up from the clues, his more impressive achievement is the eerie mood he creates from a generic backlot city street set and the chase finale he stages in an industrial plant, full of pipes and tanks and catwalks and ladders, a labyrinth that Fleischer employs superbly before the film’s final jab. (You should just ignore the romantic comedy of the framing coda, just one of those conventions of B-crime movies designed to left audiences back out of the darkness before send them out of the theater.)

Both of these films are given solid presentations: no frills, as is the MOD way, but solid, sharp masters from clean prints. They are fine looking discs.

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Legends of the Fall, 2011: Another noir season at SAM

Ella Raines looking far from her usual all-American girl self in an especially atmospheric moment from Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

“Desperate men and dangerous women, smooth talk and barbed wisecracks, cheap perfume and gun smoke, dreams and dead ends. The night, shaped like movies. The world’s longest-running film noir series celebrates its thirty-fourth season with an opening night feast of black and white doughnuts, courtesy of Top Pot Doughnuts.”

The words and the address are inimitably Greg Olson’s; he’s been Seattle Art Museum film programmer for more than those 34 years. This autumn, for “Heart of Darkness: The Film Noir Cycle,” Olson’s managed to retrieve a night from the SAM powers-that-be, who last year cut back his series from ten films to eight. 2011’s noirfest features nine titles, to run Thursdays from Sept. 29 through Dec. 8 (omitting Oct. 14 and Thanksgiving), at 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Plestcheeff Auditorium.

It’s the best batch in several years, starting off with two pungent classics from noir’s golden age. Fact is, I used to open my own University of Washington film noir classes with Phantom Lady (Sept. 29), the 1944 Robert Siodmak picture that Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy once called “the Citizen Kane of B-movies.” Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a feverish hour-and-20-minutes in which sweltering urban heat, the pervasive cheapness of Universal production values, and director Siodmak’s jaggedly Germanic style combine to create a near-hallucinatory experience. A respected engineer (Alan Curtis) is accused of his wife’s murder; his only alibi is a nameless woman with whom he shared an innocent evening at the time the crime was committed. Washington-born Ella Raines plays the loyal, and of course secretly adoring, secretary who embarks on a quest to locate the woman and save her boss. Have no doubt that she gets herself into sundry seamy and queasy situations—none seamier and queasier than an after-hours flirtation with a leering jazz drummer, an indelible portrait by Elisha Cook Jr. Others in the cast include Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Fay Helm (in the title role). Longtime Alfred Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison produced.

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“Kiss Me Deadly” – Film Noir Apocalypse, Then and Now

Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)

Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.

Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.

Kiss Me Deadly delivers a pulp punch while it savagely satirizes the entire hardboiled mythos with its bare-knuckle brutality, flights of purple prose dialogue and the sheer he-man chauvinism of its dogged hero of scar tissue and street smarts, who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Quentin Tarantino paid tribute to it in Pulp Fiction (and, before that, so did Alex Cox in Repo Man). Mickey Spillane hated the film. I love it. Va-va-voom! Pow!

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It’s Twilight Time: The Kremlin Letter and Violent Saturday debut on DVD in limited editions

The debut release from Twilight Time

The DVD debut of John Huston’s sprawling, globetrotting 1970 espionage thriller The Kremlin Letter is also the debut release of Twilight Time, a new boutique DVD label (that’s actual pressed DVDs, not DVD-R or MOD) featuring limited run releases of select titles from the 20th Century Fox library. The creation of Warner Bros. veteran Brian Jamieson and filmmaker/music restoration specialist Nick Redman, the label is initially slated to release one disc a month (and later perhaps more), all from the 20th Century Fox catalogue, all from Fox digital masters, all in limited edition runs of 3,000 units.

“All our releases will be properly manufactured DVD’s and Blu-Rays – we were not interested in the DVD-R’s, as we feel they do an injustice to the titles in the long run,” explains Brian Jamieson. “While I’m sure collectors will find they fill a void in their collections, but we wanted to deliver a quality product, something that meets our own expectations and something we could be proud of. We love the old Fox film classics, especially from the 50’s.”

John Huston has been accused of cynicism in his films but The Kremlin Letter, a complicated plot of Cold War spy games is the most cold-blooded portrait of an mercenary world he’s ever presented. Charisma-challenged Patrick O’Neal is the ostensible leading man here, playing a career Navy officer coerced into joining a covert private team and go behind the Iron Curtain to retrieve a diplomatically dangerous letter, but in the scheme of things he’s just another player in a big, messy, tangled ensemble piece. Richard Boone is the standout as a hearty bear of an intelligence veteran who mentors O’Neal in the insidious games played in the name of counter-intelligence, and George Sanders (first seen in drag playing piano in a gay lounge), Nigel Green (a pimp in Mexico), Dean Jagger (hiding out a country vicar) and Max Von Sydow (as a deadly Soviet assassin who, haunted by his past, may be the most human figure in the bunch) fill out the deadly rogues gallery.

The colorful figures and their elaborate schemes (involving extortion, seduction, prostitution and the drug trade) is like Mission: Impossible in the unforgiving culture of international espionage of John Le Carre’s double agents and plots-within-plots. This is not a world where trust gets you anywhere and even the so-called good guys resort to subterfuge and manipulation in dealing with their own people. The personal endgames drive the international agenda and the players are expendable pieces in the elaborate international chess match.

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