Thursday, April 6, 2017
I'm not entirely certain what to make of The Blue Gardenia (1953), and possibly talking about it right after watching it is a mistake. It was this week's pick on TCM's "Noir Alley", introduced by the great Eddie Muller.
My current take on the film is that I like a huge amount of the pieces that made up the movie, but wasn't a raging fan of the movie itself. I mean, it stars Richard Conte, Raymond Burr and Anne Baxter (who does some kind of edgy stuff for 1953 - but that's noir all over). It's got a scenario as treacherous as many or most in noir, pulling the world down a normal person's ears because she made a bad decision or two. And it's one of the more straightforward "no means no" messages you're going to see in a movie, but baked into the social standards of the era - which makes it all the more challenging.
And did I mention Fritz Lang is the director? And Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past) was DP?
AND it had George Reeves in a supporting role as a wiseguy of a cop?
Yeah, I don't quite get why the movie felt a little flat.
Friday, March 31, 2017
This is likely the fourth time I've watched Tension, the 1949 pulp-tastic noir I was first introduced to by JSwift during a trip to SF a few years back. It aired this last Sunday during Turner Classic Movies' new segment, Noir Alley, hosted by Eddie Muller.*
Muller does what he does so well - introduce the movie, give some history and context and talk about the players in unpolished terms. This screening included an appreciation of co-star Audrey Totter, whom we at The Signal Watch think is absolutely tops, and a closer discussing the complicated life of director John Berry.
In addition to Totter, the movie also stars Richard Basehart, William Conrad, Lloyd Gough, Barry Sullivan - and, oddly, Cyd Charisse in a role where there is not a single step of dance. I mean, she's terrific - she's got some straight acting ability, but it's an odd fit for someone who appeared in roles with not a single line but a lot of dancing. That's sort of her deal.
It's a bit of a small-scale production, a tight cast working with a rat-a-tat script by Alan Rivkin, and good, twisty fun with some severely dated bits that don't seem aware they've inverted the Superman paradigm.
Monday, March 20, 2017
I remember trying to watch They Live By Night (1948) a decade or more ago when I was still narrowly defining "noir" as folks in hats in urban settings with tough-talking dames. Truthfully, I didn't get it. I made it about 40 minutes in and then threw in the towel.
But along the way, I've heard They Live By Night referred to so often, I began to feel downright guilty I'd never finished the movie. Maybe it's been in context of the career of Nicholas Ray, or a post WWII film that was reflective of the Depression-era storytelling that was still happening in the first years after the war. It's never given a top-billing-of-noir placement, but when writers who know noir start talking, eventually this movie gets a mention. And, as it turns out, deservedly so.
Three convicts escape from prison and hole up with the brother of one of the convicts. The youngest convict, Bowie - in for killing a man - seems to just want to get away, even as his colleagues want him as the third man necessary for committing bank heists. Bowie meets Keetchie, the daughter of the guy they're hiding out with, and they begin to fall for one another.
After the three convicts pull another heist, Bowie and Keetchie go on the lam together, splitting off for the other two. And, of course, things get complicated as the two bounce across the middle of America trying to keep ahead of both criminals and the law.
In many ways, They Live By Night is ground zero for the films that would come after it. Bonnie and Clyde. Badlands. Hell, even Gun Crazy is a funhouse mirror version of this movie in which morals are turned upside down.
Farley Granger who plays Bowie would also appear most famously in Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train. And you can see why Ray wanted him in the film. He's got a certain innocence and you can believe he really does want to do what's right if he had the slightest clue what that looked like. And, just as much, you can believe that Keetchie is the best thing that ever happened to him - maybe the only good thing. Keetchie is played by Cathy O'Donnell, who had previously appeared in The Best Years of Our Lives (an amazing post-war film), and would later appear in Ben-Hur.
Because the story has been copied over and over in many forms since, there's something weirdly modern but all-too-familiar about the movie. It's noir, so one can expect that things won't end well for the players involved, who can't make the right moves at the right times as forces bigger than them work against them.
Even the roadside wedding chapel bit reappears in a number of noir films - a sign of hope and purity made a little cheap and tawdry, something compromised about what's supposed to be a grand occasion.
Visually, the film has a few components that make it stand out, not the least of which is helicopter-mounted camera shots already in 1948, following cars blasting through prairies and dirt roads of rural America.
They Live By Night is a movie well worth checking out and I much more get how it fits in with the genre, especially in the non-urban branch of the genre, the hidden back alleys just off Main Street USA.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
We're watching the new FX series, Feud: Bette and Joan (highly recommended), and it reminded me I'd been meaning to watch Sudden Fear (1952), a noirish potboiler starring Ms. Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame.
Just the casting alone was enough to raise an eyebrow. Of course I've seen a number of Grahame's pictures, a handful of Crawford's, but when it comes to Jack Palance, I've seen Batman, Shane and, sigh, his pair of 80's City Slickers comedies.* And to see him in a movie where he has to act like a basically normal, functioning human was almost bizarre. Because by the time I was a kid, even in real life Jack Palance was acting like a cartoon weirdo.
It's a strong, taught thriller with some great cinematography, tremendous use of sound and Crawford putting it all out there as she does a large amount of her acting completely alone.
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Before all of you get excited, I did not watch the Patrick Swayze movie of the same name. So settle the hell down.
Instead, I spent part of my Saturday watching the Ida Lupino starring noir, Road House (1948). And, coincidentally, I finished the movie, looked at facebook and the Film Noir Foundation informed me that it was Lupino's birthday. So, happy birthday, Ida.
I'd heard some good things about Road House, and I'm becoming a bit of a fan of Lupino. Add in that the cast included Richard Widmark in crazy-villain mode, and it was one of my two rentals from Vulcan Video on Friday night.
If you've seen the trailer for this movie, and you think that maybe you have a rough idea of what this movie will be like - bingo. You are correct.
Hell or High Water (2016) is currently nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, which is maybe the surest sign that the Academy is comprised of white people over the age of 65. A post No Country for Old Men meditation on justice in the sun-baked desert plains of West Texas, it's an enjoyable enough way to spend the run-time of a movie. But with no non-standard plot turns or character moments, a movie where the sub-text of the film is text, it's the sort of thing that's been done better elsewhere (see the movie named at the beginning of this sentence) and has characters walking a path of moral uncertainty enough that you can say it has some edge to it.
That said, I didn't actually dislike Hell or High Water. It's a fine movie with characters you'll enjoy (I've seen these same characters done a few dozen times, and if you're going to do those characters, this is pretty good), a decent plot, and if you like Chris Pine (I do!) and Jeff Bridges (what sort of psychopath doesn't like Jeff Bridges?), I've got a movie I'd say you can watch comfortably with your dad. Or, better yet, your sibling.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Sunday, December 11, 2016
We were asked to review Cry of the City (1948) by NathanC over at Texas Public Radio.
Click on over there and read my review and Nathan's review of Boomerang (which I've never seen, but now I want to). A thousand thank-you's to Nathan. I had a great time watching the film (which I really, really liked. But I also think Mature and Conte are Mitchum cool.), and it was a great pleasure getting to contribute to TPR.org.
I'll post a draft of the review here in the future, but for now, please do click over to TPR.org
Thursday, August 4, 2016
After two great movies in a row, the third installment of the Thin Man series, Another Thin Man (1939) feels like a project that just didn't gel as well as it could have.
I recently completed reading The Return of the Thin Man, which is less a book and more the lost story-treatments and scripts that Dashiell Hammett worked on during his tenure in Hollywood and some editorial/ historical notes about what was going on with Hammett in relation to the work. Frankly, you're probably better off just watching the two movies it covers - After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, but completionists will find the book worth checking out.
The gist of the notes about this third movie indicate that not only was Hammett sort of done with Nick and Nora before he even started work on the movie, the credited screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett - who had worked with Hammett on the two prior films - were also ready to call it a day.
All in all, the film does work. Let's not call it a troubled film. But the alchemy that caught everyone's attention in the original that semi-carried over to the sequel, is fizzling a smidge by this installment.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
In the 1990's, for reasons that involve a lot of co-option of black culture by suburban white kids, and waffling between irony, genuine appreciation and I think a sincere love for the score - young white America somehow became invested in the 1971 film that was considered one of the best films to come out of the blaxploitation movement, Shaft.
Context free, a lot of us cracker kids watched I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka on VHS or HBO, maybe understanding that this was riffing on movies of a prior era, but I hadn't seen them, nor had my peers. I think the closest I got to taking in any blaxploitation film until the early 90's was tuning into Super Fly one night as a kid in middle school, believing from the title that it was a superhero movie I'd somehow missed. If anything, I got a clue as to what the spoof movie had been on about via reruns of TV shows that lifted from blaxploitation, but I confess to being mostly ignorant of the genre until maybe 1992 or when I got to college.
Kids hipper to a wider variety of music than what I listened to picked up pop-culture references as 80's and 90's hip-hop name-dropped and sampled from 70's actioners and that bled over to other genres of dance music. The curious kids picked up some of those movies to rent and saw a lot of stuff I didn't catch until others got me to take a look or I heard about it word of mouth (the internet was just Star Trek fan pages and lo-fi porn then, you see). Other kids who had gotten into soul and funk music tracked down Isaac Hayes and wanted to actually see Shaft. I do know that by the time I left high school, I was at least aware of who Hayes was, but that was about it. Had maybe heard of Shaft, but this was also an era in which your local Blockbuster likely didn't carry movies that were older than 7 or 8 years from the theater.
As a good, sorta-hip white kid of the 1990's, I caught Shaft at some point during film school. I don't remember if it was before or after a unit on blaxploitation as a genre and my first exposure to Pam Grier (something a young man never forgets).
The funny thing is - watching it this last weekend, I didn't really remember Shaft all that well. Once the one guy gets tossed out the window, I couldn't really piece together what the plot had been, just snippets here and there. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find out - Shaft is actually a strong private detective story in a classic pulp-crime style (deeply appealing to this viewer), with a fascinating protagonist who is literally not playing by anyone else's rules - if'n you should ever want to see what that actually looks like, you with your anti-heroes.
And, of course, Shaft is a Black superhero who cuts through white culture through the sheer power of not giving a good goddamn.
Monday, May 30, 2016
Sometime about twenty years ago I actually read the novel this movie was based on, but all I can remember about it is that there is no literal "Big Clock", and more than there is any literal "Long Good-Bye" or literal "Big Heat" in those respective movies or books. But, hey, not so in the movie adaptation of The Big Clock (1948). This movie practically goes full-Batman in literalization of a rich sociopath's obsession.
The movie definitely qualifies for noir - a mysterious and sultry woman is responsible for the life-altering, seemingly insurmountable situation a man finds himself in - one only partially of his own doing, but one had he been behaving better, he never would have found himself in. But, really, it reminded me in many ways of a Hitchcockian-thriller, and that's no complaint. I enjoy a good Hitchcock movie from time to time.
I just remembered that I'd failed to write up a movie I watched last week, 1949's Criss Cross, starring Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo and the always hiss-able Dan Duryea.
The movie seemed to be trying to recapture a bit of the magic of 1946's The Killers, also starring Lancaster, with Ava Gardner as the twisty (and, let's be honest, dangerously sexy) femme fatale. That picture is surely one of the purest examples of what we think of when we think about noir. In Criss Cross, once again Lancaster plays a fellow who can be led astray by a good looking brunette - not stumbling across a mobsters' girl this time, but coming home to Los Angeles, trying to tell himself it's not so he'll see his ex, Anna (the terrific Yvonne DeCarlo), but to settle in and lead a domestic life with his parents and brother. Get his old job back. But before he's even made it in the front door of the family house, he's back at his old haunt, seeing how things have changed.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
The Little Sister (1949) is the fifth Raymond Chandler novel starring Phillip Marlowe, the detective character made most famous in The Big Sleep. Clearly written after Chandler's stint in Hollywood (he would team with Billy Wilder during the writing of Double Indemnity), Marlowe's time in LA finally gets him crosswise with Hollywood machinations and mob ties.
A fairly prissy but possibly pretty young woman with the unlikely name Orfamay Quest from Manhattan, Kansas appears at Marlowe's office. She's seeking her brother, Orrin, who has been in LA for a while, but seems to have disappeared. Taking Midwestern thriftiness to extremes, she hires Marlowe at half-price (also, because Marlowe is bored and has no other clients that day) and it soon becomes clear the touchy Orrin may have been in deep into something shady, and, because it's a Chandler mystery, deadly.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
Due to work-related needs, I only attended the first double-bill of the day the Noir City Austin 2016.
I want to thank the Film Noir Foundation, Alamo Drafthouse Ritz and Austin Film Society for making this year something I wish I had planned for much, much better. Because what I was able to attend was absolutely fantastic, well planned and curated.
And, of course, once again thank Eddie Muller for being such a terrific host and guide through the world of film noir, film history and fantastic historian in his own right. People will be relying on his work for decades to come.
The two films they showed at mid-day were pure film noir, and as had been programmed in the double-bills all series, an A and B picture. I was a big fan of both of these films, neither of which I'd seen before. And that's much of the fun of Noir City. Yesterday I was talking to the guy sitting next to me when he asked if I was a fan of film noir or classic film. And I said "well, yeah, but, honestly, I hate to claim any expertise. I feel like no matter how much I've seen, there's an endless amount of content I haven't seen."
The Dark Corner (1946) is a just-post-war private dick film, starring Mark Stevens as a clear nod to the Philip Marlowe type, a sort of rusted Galahad in a fedora who maybe gets too personally involved in his cases. His Gal Friday is played by a pre-comedienne Lucille Ball, and she's actually sharply witty in this movie, and steals a lot of spotlight from her co-star. But, as I may have mentioned before, I find "sultry Lucy" kind of an odd concept after spending a lifetime thinking of her as Mrs. Ricardo, but there it is.
Saturday, May 21, 2016
I was intending to pace myself during Noir City Austin, but I wound up getting paced by external forces. The gameplan for today was to skip the morning shows, sleep in, walk the dogs, go to movies for a few hours in a row, be home around 10:30 this evening.
So, I made it out for the 3:00 - 6:15 double-bill of Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Destiny (1944), and Jamie had even come to meet me for the 6:45 show of Scarlet Street, but during Destiny, I started getting an upset stomach - which I think was from just a combo of things I ate - and I was all sweaty and clammy and wasn't sure how I was doing, so we went home and I made her watch Criss-Cross instead.
But, man, the double-bill I did catch was pretty terrific, even if Noir Czar Eddie Muller admitted, it wasn't really noir, but more of a rare opportunity to catch a couple of films that aren't really in release anywhere, and that we were watching new prints from Universal.
Flesh and Fantasy (1943) is a fascinating experiment that feels 85% complete, but learning that the film had studio fingerprints all over it explained a tremendous amount. Essentially three tales hovering between magical realism and pre-Twilight Zone ironic and uncanny, the stories are held together with a studio-created book-ending mechanism of Robert Benchley being read three tales that relate to his current predicament of not being sure whether to believe a dream he had or a gypsy's fortune.
Friday, May 20, 2016
This weekend I'm attending the third Austin Film Noir Fest, or, at least, a good chunk of it. It's going on down at The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz on Austin's famed 6th Street.*
It's gonna be interesting but a bit of a marathon as each showing is a double-bill, and there are three showings on each day Saturday and Sunday.
The whole deal is hosted by Film Noir Foundation founder and President, Eddie Muller, whom you may have seen on TCM last summer, in interviews about the film noir genre, or popping up wherever film noir is found. Muller is a terrific author (from what I've read) - writing scholarly works on the genre. He also works to promote the preservation of film noir, restoring films and uncovering lost movies. And, I really think he and the Film Noir Foundation have been responsible for a resurgence and growth in interest in noir beyond the 10 or so films folks name-drop when it comes to noir classics.
This evening's pictures included noir staple (and a personal favorite of mine), This Gun for Hire (1942) and a far lesser known film, Fly-By-Night (1942). The idea is that each bill is an A and B picture from the same time period in the history of noir, so you can see a growth in the genre's development.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Noir City returns to Austin at The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz on Austin's famed 6th Street! Dates are May 20, 21 and 22.
I'm going to a bunch of the shows, but I fully expect to be worn out only attending a portion of the full program as each showing is a double-bill.
To see which shows are available, check out the calendar at The Alamo Ritz website.
Right now I have tickets to a whole bunch of the showings, which you can see in the calendar on this site.
I'd spend more time coordinating with you fine people to see who wants to go, but I'm flying out for Atlanta for a conference tomorrow.
I have tickets for Row 3, Seat 20 (and 19 for some screenings so I don't leave Jamie alone all weekend).
I don't know too many of these movies, which is something I'm pretty excited about. Always fun to see new things.
Come on down and join us/ me!
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Movies produced during the height of WWII are always interesting. You certainly get to see who signed up to serve and who stayed stateside. That's no judgment, everyone had reasons they did what they did. Just a couple of weeks back, for the first time I saw the government docs telling my own grandfather he was not going to be signing up as his civilian job was considered vital to the war effort.
So, we get Franchot Tone, not really the biggest star to come out of Hollywood, and hardly a household name in 2016 (he was married to Joan Crawford for several years, so may God have mercy upon his soul). I don't think I know Alan Curtis except for looking familiar enough he must have been in something I saw (ah. High Sierra.). And Ella Raines is both very good in the movie and terribly attractive, so its a bit odd this movie in particular didn't launch her further along.
Noir fans will, of course, delight to see Elisha Cook, Jr. show up in a movie doing anything, and hear he plays a lecherous jazz drummer.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
Short of Harrison Ford, there aren't too many actors I look at and think "that guy is so cool. I wish I were that guy." But, yes, Sterling Hayden is absolutely one of those guys. Maybe throw in Alan Ladd.
Today marks the 100th birthday of Sterling Hayden, the tall, tough-guy actor in two of my favorite noir movies of all time, The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle. Of course, he was also the whacked out General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and Capt. McCluskey in The Godfather. And, for extra credit, he was in Johnny Guitar (as Johnny Guitar), mooning over a pancake-make-upped Joan Crawford.
Here's an article in The Boston Globe celebrating Hayden. He sounds like maybe he was a difficult man, but I respect anyone who ran away to sea at 17 to sail the world and was in the 20th century up to his elbows as much as he was. He was a goddamn commando in the OSS! He flirted with being a Red! He hated acting and just wanted to be on boats!
No one quite did world-weary-but-seemingly-invulnerable like Hayden.
If you've not seen The Asphalt Jungle, do so now. It's got Monroe in an early role, it's directed by John Huston, and has Jean Hagen in a heartbreaking role as Doll. And, of course, Hayden as Dix, the heist man who just wants to get back what his family lost in Kentucky. Failing that, watch The Killing. Which is early Kubrick, features a platinum Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr. and a host of other perfectly noir faces.