We're still talking our personal canon, and SimonUK brings a favorite from the UK - and one hell of a film. We talk amazing performances, tight stories, and the real world of late-70's England that informed one of the hallmark films of the gangster genre. Join us for a long chat on a good movie.
A year or two ago, twitter-friendly comics artist and classic movie buff Patch Zircher suggested the film Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) my direction. This last weekend, the film aired on TCM's Noir Alley, so I was able to get the Eddie Muller discussion to frame the production and story.
The talent in the movie is undeniable - Signal Watch faves Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame star, along with Ed Begley Sr. and Shelley Winters, and Harry Belafonte, who I think Jamie was eager to see (me too, maybe for different reasons). But the talent behind the camera is also entirely notable. Expert filmmaker Robert Wise was listed as both Director and Producer, Abraham Polonsky was secretly the writer (but blacklisted at the time, did it under cover), Joseph C. Brun as cinematographer, and the great Dede Allen in an early job as editor.
Look, there's easily a book to be written about this movie, not a blog post. It's a remarkable bit of cinema for a multitude of reasons.
Based on a novel by celebrated author Richard Wright, and *starring* Richard Wright(!), the movie is maybe the most surprisingly frank depiction of the world a Black American lived within in mid-20th Century America captured on film at the time that I've seen. Now - let me also say: it is very true I watch studio movies of the era, and have not had access to, and am not aware of, much of the independent Black cinema of the the 1940's and 50's, which I am sure had plenty to say and show.
But, look, this movie was never, ever going to get made in America at a studio - at least until the 1960's. And so it wasn't. Shot in Argentina to get around the Hayes Code, the movie does feature a good number of American actors, but not all of them are... the best. And there's some serious ADR work happening over some of the rest of the talent that must have been local. But - just imagine in 2021 hearing "we had to leave the country because telling this story was so controversial, the US just couldn't handle it". I mean - that is not a great thing to have to say in a supposedly free society.
When I was 17 years old, and a curious kid, and back when movies had all sorts of content in them - I saw all sorts of stuff on the big screen. In general, I think it was actually a good thing. I learned about the adult world, how sex looked under professional lighting, and that my ex-girlfriend was right about that nice lady in the Crying Game the second she showed up in the film.
And since the video for Lucky Star, I'd also thought that nice lady rolling around on the floor seemed like a pretty good idea. By early 1993, the videos for Vogue and Express Yourself had done nothing to dissuade me of this opinion, let alone when my pal, Phil, taped the HBO concert special of Blonde Ambition for me.
In 1992, Rob, Scott and I had gone to see a sold-out showing of Basic Instinct on opening night (I thought it was "meh" - and I have 10,000 words on what this did to the notion of noir for a decade), and at the time we did not anticipate that Hollywood would see gold in them thar hills and spend the early 90's trying to recapture the magic in a series of erotic thrillers.
Simultaneously, Madonna had found she quite enjoyed freaking out America's moms via the Like A Prayer controversy (which seems both inappropriate and stupid rewatching the video now), and decided she would now say the word "sex" a lot, very much upsetting Tipper Gore. She liked it so much, she made a picture book about how much she liked the word, and in a field trip to the Houston Public Library downtown, we got one of the people who was already 18 to get it for us to all look at at the reference desk. And, man, were the librarians cheesed.
Summing up the plot to Johnny Eager (1941) would be extraordinarily difficult - but the short version is: ex-con pretends to go straight, meets Lana Turner, uses her and her step-father to get his new dog track open. Poetic boozy pal plays Eager's conscience.
Honestly, it's a hell of a movie, and it's likely the goofy title that's kept it from being checked out by enough people.
I'm not a huge fan of star Robert Taylor - who is pretty rock solid here as a handsome, devil-may-care gangster with no refinement. That's not a dig, but I think I'd only seen two or so Robert Taylor films previously. But he's totally buyable as Johnny Eager.
The real hook is that Johnny can spot an angle, spot a dope, and has a mind perfectly set for operating in the criminal world - but he can't understand the straight world. People with pure motivations are a mystery that gnaws at him. More than that, his understanding of women is only as pliable tools, either as sexual playthings or as employees.
What makes the movie curious - and maybe different from other gangster films with bent leads - is the presence of Van Heflin as Jeff Jartnett, a drunk and seemingly a man of education, who hangs around Johnny as pal, enabler, and because he sees the greatness within Johnny and wants to bear witness to either the rise or fall of a great mind.
Out of prison, Johnny has put everything he's got into a dummy organization trying to open a dog track with no permits, but meanwhile it seems his control on the city is slipping. Others may be moving against him.
Annnnd in the middle of all this, he meets Lan Turner, who more or less throws herself at him. But winds up in way deeper than she barganined for, and it takes a toll on her psyche.
This is very early to be considered true noir, but not so as a gangster picture, which this most certainly is. And Turner is a femme fatale only in that she leads Johnny toward his downfall because he actually does come close to understanding sacrifice via whatever passes for love in his heart. It absolutely is a man making bad decisions (that, I mean, get him dead) over a woman, but they also redeem him, which isn't very noirish. But that he goes down throwing a hail of bullets and popped off by the cop who married his first girl? That's some symmetry there.
And that's the interesting thing about the movie, really. It's a down-in-the-streets gangster picture about a guy trying to build an empire, and sees the poetry and literary mythology in it all - right down to pointing out "he's just some guy" who dies badly in the middle of the road.
Anyhoo... I enjoyed the heck out of this movie, and not just because Turner had amazing hair through the whole thing, even when we were told she looked "awful".*
Some time ago, when I was first exploring noir, Born to Kill (1947) was included in one of the box sets I picked up to try and learn more about the genre. Honestly, if I wanted to blow the doors off the expectations I think a *lot* of people have about Hayes Code-era film, this is the movie I'd show them.
Our leads are a psychopath and sociopath, divorce(!), a brutal murder, one of our most virtuous characters is a lush, and a PI who is mostly there as an equal-opportunity grifter. Heck, there's an Elisha Cook Jr. lurking around for good measure. It's a dark, nasty little film with no POV hero - just characters who cross paths and feel a mutual appreciation and attraction, even as they're connection is going to burn them both out.
This was the movie that showed me what films of the era were really capable of when it came to stepping into the shadows. You might get sexy obsession in penty of other films, but there was always an obvious line that the characters crossed that was going to be their downfall, the thing that made you want to do the equivalent of "don't go in the basement!" as our protagonist decides to risk it for a nice set of legs or a smokey voice. Born to Kill doesn't bother with all that - these characters were going to hell, anyway. They're just speeding each other along.
Starring Claire Trevor - someone I flat out did NOT appreciate enough for several years but whom I've come back around to and adore - and the notorious Lawrence Tierney as our leads, we've got a pair with some amazing presence. Tierney's low-key menace and chiseled jaw works phenomenally well as the handsome psychopath who attracts women, but becaomes infuriated at the slightest hint of slight. Trevor manages to find a delicate balance - we know she's play-acting to certain parties, and we know better to buy it, but it's absolutely seemingly sincere.
Other players include Walter Slezak as the PI of iffy moral character, Elisha Cook Jr. as a longtime friend of Tierney's who's been maybe the only force on Earth keeping him in check. Audrey Long is Trevor's wealthy but naive foster-sister with a fortune. And, notably, Esther Howard plays a rooming house owner with more heart than you'd figure.
There is a character who is murdered with the name "Laury Palmer", and much of the mystery for the other characters is who killed Laury Palmer - and I can't help but think Lynch was winking at this character with Twin Peaks, til it was, you know, magic dream goblins or what have you.
Anyway - "wow, this things DARK" is not really much of a selling point, I suppose, but the execution of the movie, the performances and the winding story are all masterfully handled by director Robert Wise (yes, the man who brought you films as diverse as The Set-Up, The Haunting, The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
But if you want to see what Hollywood could pull off (and Claire Trevor plotting in some excellent outfits), highly recommended.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is among the top ten films I'd recommend in a "what you need to know about noir" seminar. It's got an earned place among the noir canon, and even though I've read the book and seen it half-dozen times, I find myself thoroughly enjoying every time I return to it. It simply works.
It shares a certain headspace with Double Indemnity, which makes sense as both started as novels by James M. Cain. There's not just a gritty realism in how characters are and behave, it's matched by the worlds Cain created that seem not far off from our own. Roadside diners, insurance offices. Heck, throw in Mildred Pierce and you're in the suburbs and building up comfortable eateries.
All it really takes is infatuation to become an obsession, and everything can go off the rails.
Michael Curtiz directed innumerable good to great movies, and we find ourselves watching his output a few times per year one way or another, but since finding The Unsuspected (1947) as part of my "let's watch all the Audrey Totter stuff we can find" quest, I'm a little surprised it just isn't more widely discussed. The cinematography alone is noteworthy, courtesy industry veteran Elwood Bridell. Add in a Franz Waxman score, and multiple hooks for a story, and it already has plenty to recommend it before you point out Claude Rains stars.
A thriller which lifts elements from plenty of Gothic mysteries, borrows from noir, and has an ending that's maybe whatever the opposite is of deus ex machina, Jennifer (1953) has some great things going for it, but was not my cup of tea, exactly, but I found myself actually fairly wrapped up in the mystery.
Starring the lovely and talented Ida Lupino, with photography by James Wong Howe (one of the best to ever DP a movie), it still feels oddly like a B- picture, and maybe it was. The film runs (blessedly) short, relies upon a small cast where Lupino is the biggest star, and we see only a handful of locations.
Lupino wasn't quite done with movies at this point, and two of my favorite of hers follow this one: Private Hell 36 and the phenomenal The City That Never Sleeps. She'd just come off two great films with Robert Ryan, Beware, My Lovely and the icy On Dangerous Ground. By the time she hit her 40's in the late 1950's, she was more or less transitioning to TV where she'd remain for the rest of her career - as, at the same time, she took to directing as much or more than acting.*
I think Jamie has become a full Barbara Stanwyck fangirl, and that's a feature, not a bug. So, I used that to leverage spending our Saturday night watching Witness to Murder (1954), a great small-scale thriller with two terrific leads in Stanwyck and George Sanders - an actor I realize I may see in more movies by happenstance than anyone else.
Our plot seems derived from Rear Window, but this movie came out just before the Hitchcock classic, and the structure is very different. Before the credits finish rolling, Stanwyck awakens in the night and happens to look across the way out her window just in time to see a neighbor choking a woman to death. Naturally, she calls the police, but the murderer, George Sanders, has figured what's happening and manages to stash the body when the cops drop by.
From here it's a game of cat and mouse, with Stanwyck certain of what she saw, but with no evidence to back her up and Sanders out-maneuvering her, and, in fact, beginning to plot against her.
The real villain of the movie is, curiously, 1950's attitudes about gender roles and women and their crazy lady brains not being good like man brains. Curiosuly, this is focused through our upright cop/ love interest played by Gary Merrill (who never actually seems worthy of the attention of Stanwyck, but we'll just let that one go), as well as his parter played by Jesse White and the police Captain. Sanders is able to leverage their "well, she has a crazy lady brain" predisposition against Stanwyck repeatedly and to to great effect.
Muller took time in his post-movie wrap up to give modern critics a bit a knuckle-wrap for calling the movie "unrealistic", and I can't be sure how I would have thought of the film had he not made sure we thought hard on this before and after. But here's what I know (SPOILERS) - putting inconveniently brash or argumentative spouses and children in psych wards was all the rage for a good chunk of the 20th century. With psychology on the rise in post-war America, and using science as a blunt instrument, it didn't take much to get someone tossed in a hospital.
It's played up for dramatic effect, I guess, but I think the most frustrating bit is that Stanwyck keeps cozying up to the detective who "wants to believe her", but just can't. And, frankly, the script and Sanders himself do a great job of giving him the upper hand as the devious sociopath versus Stanwyck just being smart and plucky. But, yeah, you want to have Stanwyck just give that cop the business, and it just doesn't happen.
IE: I agree with Muller that this movie is not "unrealistic" in how folks dismiss a single, late-night witness to a murder that doesn't appear to have happened to a body that no one has seen.
You don't need me to tell you Stanwyck is great in this, or that Sanders is terriific as the killer (and, btw, he's a Nazi, too!). The direction is fine, but with John Alton as the DP, the movie looks like a million bucks based on some of those set-ups alone.
I find myself digging thrillers like this. This same script would have turned into something tedious by the late 1980's and through to today, with a post, Athony Hopkins killer and a chase scene that would go on for, like, a year. I feel like Crawford's Sudden Fear is in a similar vein of small-scale thrillers from this era, or even Lupino and Ryan in Beware, My Lovely.
Here's to hoping Jamie continues to volunteer her time for more Stanwyck pictures, because Barbara made, like, 100 movies. I'm sure we'll keep finding good stuff.
Measured by the fact I think this is the fourth time I've seen this movie, you can take it at face value - I think pretty highly of The Glass Key (1942). But, it is based on a novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, co-stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and has a large supporting role for William Bendix - w, yes. I'm pre-disposed to like the film.
We're going to cover Miller's Crossing on the podcast at some point, an early 90's Coen Bros. film, and one of my personal canon. I think I was in early college when I read my first Hammett on JAL's recommendation and got a few pages into Red Harvest before saying "wait a minute, maybe the Coen Bros. weren't so darn clever after all...". Because, honestly, Miller's Crossing is the love child of The Glass Key and Red Harvest, both Hammett books.*
I did read The Glass Key before seeing this film (and just learned via Eddie Muller there's an earlier version starring George Raft - which may lead to me skipping it) - and, sure, the book is better, yadda yadda. But, the film is terrific all on its own - a twisting, double-double-crossing political/gangland yarn that adds up perfectly, but the first time through can be hard to keep track of all the parts of the equation.
Ladd plays the lieutenant to a political boss who, upon meeting the daughter (Lake) of a reform candidate decides to back the reform candidate. This gets his boss crosswise with another, shadier, political boss, and all of a sudden Lake's brother winds up dead on the street.
The movie has a similar tone to a Hammett novel when it comes to casual brutality and unsavory characters. That includes our lead, who never really throws a punch, but he's not exactly a knight in shining armor as he works angles, falls out with his boss, and tries not to fall for Lake.
The movie is difficult to discuss, but the characters in it are terrifically drawn, each instantly knowable in broad strokes, even if in the framework of the story, they're all capable of anything - which is part of what keeps the mystery of the story rolling.
Frankly, this is a "could be a TL;DR post" kind of movie, and I'm not going to do that. Maybe I'll podcast this movie one day instead. But in the meantime, I highly recommend the film. Just go with that.
*and a bit of visual flavoring from The Conformist
I'd been wanting to see this one for a while, so I'm glad it came on Noir Alley. Directed by Robert Siodmak (one of those names that means this should be, minimum, pretty good), starring George Sanders, Ella Raines and Geraldine Fitzgerald and - a more recent interest - produced by Joan Harrison - it had a lot of elements that made it worth at least a look.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945) centers on a man aging into permanent bachelorhood as he pays the way for and cares for his two sisters - one a widow and the other an invalid. The family fortune disappeared in the Depression, leaving the siblings scraping by in the rambling house that is a reminder of better times. "Uncle Harry" (Sanders) meets a co-worker in from New York (Ella Raines) and the two spark an interest.
However, one of the sisters isn't quite ready to let Harry go. And things get weird.
The movie was made at the tail end of WWII (released pretty much the weekend after VJ Day), so it's got some similarities to other WWII-era films in that the cast is female-centric and the dashing male lead is George Sanders. It takes place in limited spaces (based on a play, so there's that) and overall feels initimate and somewhat scaled down.
It's as easy to call this a melodrama as a noir, but I can see why Joan Harrison would have been interested in the script. The characters are interesting and imperfect - no one (not even Raines) is a saint, and there's some genuine weirdness going on that goes beyond just sisterly affection.* But, at the same time, Raines' character feels shockingly direct regarding her interest in Harry - she's no coy young lady, even when asked specifically to play that role.
As I thought - direction and performances were terrific, Sanders is in great form, and Geraldine Fitzgerald is note perfect. But despite the actual warning not to spoil the ending they literally tag onto the end of the movie, I'll say: the studio enforced ending that led to Harrison's parting with Universal and Siodmak shooting the bird at the studio is... awful. The movie builds and builds to something absolutely mind-scrambling, and then... we get this cheesy ending. But, you know, when they were wrapping this thing up, we were still fighting in Japan. I get that maybe they wanted something that wasn't so depressing.
So, it makes it hard to actually recommend the movie. It's a solid film right until, literally, the last minute, and then everything falls apart. Did not like.
During the intro and outro, Eddie was joined by scholar Christina Lane - who has too many credentials for me to get into here - but she's an accomplished film academic. I just picked up Lane's book on Joan Harrison and plan to crack it this weekend. So - while I've seen a lot of Harrison's movies over the years, I'm looking forward to reading about the actual woman who made them happen (I also recently picked up Phantom Lady on BluRay and keep intending to show it to Jamie, and then I forget).
*that lady in the negligee is not the romantic subject of the film
An insurance detective comes to a small town to look into the apparent suicide of a wealthy man with a considerable settlement coming to the benficiaries. Arriving in town, he finds everyone hated the guy, it sure looks like murder, and everyone - including the foxy young lady he met on the bus on the way in, are in on a cover-up. Thus, the name of the movie.
A dopey young doctor has fallen for his patient - a mental patient with a phobia of birds and a love of stirring shit (Anne Baxter). Reasonably, he takes her to meet his idiotic family (minus one key player). Unreasonably, he just f'ing leaves her with his idiotic family who just met her. She gaslights the living shit out of everyone, including an 8 year old girl.
This movie features:
3 great 1940's hairstyles on lovely women
1 coocoo bananas psycho
Multiple dum-dums who clearly never met a Mean Girl
1 Margaret Hamilton reminding you why it was hard for her to find work after Wizard of Oz seared her into your mind as a broom-riding funster
1 wife who is wildly tolerant of 1 husband who is clearly banging his model no matter what the script tries to tell us
1 man who has all the appeal of a soaked Ralph Bellamy that is, because filmed during wartime, the only man around sold to us as a real dream boat
1 bird pining for the fjords
It is not a BAD movie, but it is also not hard to imagine how this movie could be better. Also - how this sort of movie became a Lifetime movie, which would be called "Psycho Sister-In-Law".
However, this movie ALSO was released under the name "Satan in Skirts", which... *chef's kiss*.
Jamie and Ryan talk the 2005 neo-noir by Shane Black and starring RDJ jr. and Val Kilmer. We hadn't seen it and were heartily surprised by the film - a noir murder mystery sort of thing with a lot of classic detective pulpy roots as both text and plot.
I watched this film once before and did a brief write-up, so I won't belabor the points there. Instead, I'll dwell on how there's always multiple reasons to watch a movie, starting with "is it any good?" and "was the story worth it?" And, yes, and yes.
Watching Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) again, I found it seems to intersect at a lot of places in cinema and cinema history. It's not breaking ground, but it does feel like 1951 is a particular time and place in what we're talking about, and the aesthetics of how that story is done. And - it's helped along by the plot element of the basic set-up.
Steve Cochrane - who is becoming a personal fave - has just been released from prison after killing someone when he was still a teenager. Now in his early 30's, he doesn't really know anything about post-Depression America. Or how to function as an adult in society. He's basically a 15 year old kid in a grown-up's body wandering the streets of post-War America with no context for anything from a 1950's era car with power windows to how to get a job.
One of the curious aspects of watching movies from the 1920's - 1960's is getting used to the wardrobes, ideas and fashions of each era - and getting your head around what the 50's looked like compared to the 1930's, and that can all bleed together in hats and suits in black and white. But here it's a plot point to know the hat of 1951 is not the hat of 1935, and the cut of the suit is different (those of us who grew up in the 80's know our 1990's suit from our 2020 suit).
For us sitting in 2020, who are staring at the taxi dancer sequence with wonder - this movie may have the most straight-forward presentation of what was going on in these places that doesn't assume a lot of audience knowledge (as Cochrane's character tries to sort it out).
But the film also sits on the edge of the 1940's. The urban portions, where Cochrane heads to NYC, feel like any movie from 1944-1950 (and miles away from the NYC of Sweet Smell of Success in 1957). It's still dime-a-dance girls and tenement apartments. But the back third of the film where Cochrane and Ruth Roman join seasonal workers picking lettuce - feels almost pre-war. It's not the picture of post-war prosperity that we tend to think of, but which does show up in films like Border Incident and Thieves' Highway. The hand-to-mouth existence of anyone wasn't always shown - but here it's a reminder of the struggles of a lot of America that the movies never really sought to show once the war came along.
It's not the way anyone really intended you watch the film, but every once in a while the structure or story of a film of the era can be a window into the period in ways that weren't necessarily intended, but wtill jump out at a modern viewer.
I did like 95% of the movie again - but, man, that ending.
There was a time before Mickey Spillane was a name everyone kind of knew, and before Mike Hammer books had been adapted by major studios. I, the Jury is one of the first Hammer books, released in 1947. This poverty row movie adaptation came out in 1953 - and it really isn't like anything else coming out at the time.
Yeah, the acting in this film wasn't going to threaten the usual Oscar contenders, and at first blush, there's a lot of what you might have seen in a Marlowe mystery - but (a) this case starts personal and finishes even more so for our detective, and (b) this detective is going to punch his way through the mystery.
Where Marlowe tries to keep his cool, often over the top of rage whichs pills over, Hammer starts at a ten and goes up from there. When your mystery starts with a dead best friend and you're on the trail through a bunch of weirdos - any of whom could have done it - I guess I can see how you'd be testy.
Star Biff Elliot who plays Hammer is a curious choice. He's not the stringest actor and his decision to go "angry" in every scene means that there's nowhere to go, really. He blasts into the frame the first time we see him, and barges into every room thereafter - so we don't ever really see him in any other state. And anger is an easy go-to for actors, but it's hard to maintain.
The rest of the cast is actually pretty solid. Peggie Castle as a love interest/ psychologist and Margaret Sheridan as Velda are both pretty great. And Frances Osborne - who I'd only seen elsewhere in Murder By Contract - was very good as the mourning girlfriend of the murder victim.
I discussed Spillane's semi-controversial place in crime-fiction, and this movie doesn't do much to dismiss the notion. It's got as gritty a crime and violence angle, adjacent to overt sexuality as anything I can think of from this era - but still coded deeply enough that it was going to fly past the censors. But, man, that ending is something else for the era.
The film was shot by John Alton, who always makes any picture look far better than it has a right to look - and I'd argue this movie had a huge impact on Frank Miller and his Sin City look and feel, from the deep shadow and windy mystery to the cinch in Hammer's raincoat.