I have recently finished watching 33 features from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to the HBO series Mildred Pierce (2011). Of these 33 features 30 are from the classic period of film noir 1941 – 1958. This has been an exciting journey where film after film my expectations were exceeded. Time and time again I was left speechless by the brilliance of these films – the artistry, the script, the photography, the story, the performances, the emotion, the excitement. I feel that film noir is one of the most accessible movements in film history while also packing a punch artistically and emotionally.
Between 23rd August and early December 2014 I only watched film noirs so I have been soaked in an atmosphere of noir. In addition I watched these films in chronological order and am left with a new appreciation of how film noir developed – along the way I also broadened my definition of what film noir means to me.
When you listen to critics, film-makers, commentators you will see that they have very personal views on what exactly film noir is. It is very difficult to define what it is – Sydney Pollack put it perfectly – “I can tell you I know it (film noir) when I see it but I don’t know how to define it.”
Prior to watching this series I would have defined film noir as being a film with a femme fatale (a wolf in sheep’s clothing), a protagonist who crosses a moral threshold for money and/or for a woman, shadowy artistic black and white photography and a story and dialogue that are theatrical as opposed to realistic. Having watched this series my definition has broadened.
There are 6 features that I watched in this series that after viewing I felt did not fit into my definition of film noir – Caught (1948), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Chinatown (1974), L.A Confidential (1997) and Mildred Pierce (2011).
What is film noir?
The obvious place to start is back with French critic Nino Frank who first coined the term to describe a batch of films – The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944) - which reached Paris in the summer of 1946. The Woman In The Window (1944) followed in September 1946. In early 1947 The Lost Weekend (1945), The Spiral Staircase (1946) and The Killers (1946) reached Paris.
I speak French and I was very curious to better understand what exactly Nino Frank saw in these films that made him use the term film noir. My search led me to the brilliant and definitive site by Margaret Holmes www.rememberninofrank.org . Margaret has produced a document that is thoroughly researched and dispels many of the myths that so many noir commentators use today. I exchanged a few emails with Margaret and she was extremely generous with her knowledge.
French film-making has a very important place in the history of cinema. The French were innovators from the beginning but World War 1 severely crippled the industry. Despite this set-back great French film-makers arose who pushed the artistic boundaries of the medium – Abel Gance, Marcel L’Herbier, Jean Vigo, Jean Epstein, Jean Renoir etc. These film-makers produced works that challenged audiences and were in stark contrast to the commercial studio creations of Hollywood. The adult themes of these French films helped to move cinema into a more serious realm to rival the complexity of literature.
Alongside these great film-makers were French critics who applied a similar passion and seriousness to the criticism of film. Nino Frank was an extremely educated man - particularly in literature (French, Italian, German, Russian, English). He lead a distinguished career writing for literary and film periodicals – he interacted with many of the greatest French and international writers and film-makers of his era. He had very close ties with James Joyce.
The French film industry was again hit very hard during World War 2. The Nazi Occupation of France had severely dented the French pride – they sought to re-invigorate their nationality. Nino Frank and many others, felt that cinema could play a role. The clandestine weekly publication L’Ecran Francais was begun during the Nazi Occupation and expressed the liberal views of the French Resistance Movement.
The French cinema of the 1930s had produced astonishing works from the likes of Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carne, Raymond Bernard etc. During the week of 3-9th July 1946 some of these great films (previously banned under the Occupation) were shown again in Paris cinemas – Le Jour Se Leve, La Bete Humaine, Pepe Le Moko and La Regle Du Jeu.
In July 1946 Frank wrote an article entitled “And the Third Dimension?” which criticised contemporary cinema and stated that what cinema needed was a third dimension – “a touch of substance, a touch of depth, the logic of cinema definitively replaced by the logic of truth.” Clearly he was advocating a return to the qualities of the great 1930s French films.
Then in August 1946 the first batch of new Hollywood films reached Paris. On 28th August 1946 Nino Frank’s article “Un Nouveau Genre Policier: L’Aventure Criminelle” appeared in L’Ecran Francais with the first use of the term “film noir” in relation to these American films.
Margaret was kind enough to email me a scan of this article and although everything was not legible I got the essence of the piece – what Frank admired the most is that the characters take centre stage over the plot and that through various techniques (narration, complex characterisation) we, the audience, relate to them and so become more invested in the films. The stories are personalised and real – “le cote vecu”. This complexity of character delighted Frank and reminded him of those French films of the 1930s.
Margaret put it very well in an email to me – “this seemed to be the first time Hollywood had been prepared to go beyond their simple Good or Bad characters, especially in crime films”. We live in a complex world and we have difficulty relating to characters who are too black and white - hence the anti-hero. The private detective is in a class of his own – Raymond Chandler described him as a knight in dirty armour and this phrase perfectly captures the questionable methods that they use whilst still maintaining some kind of justice.
Clearly Frank was very excited by these films and he found this “third dimension” that he had written about. He saw a new kind of film-making that post-WW2 French directors should aspire towards.
If we consider the first group of films – Laura, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, The Maltese Falcon – is it any wonder that Nino Frank and his colleagues were overjoyed to see these films and moved to use a new term to describe them? These are amongst the greatest films ever produced in America.
Since 1934 the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays code) had a strangle hold on American films – it was there to force a morality onto films and in the process often made them feel contrived and artificial. Adventurous filmmakers sought constantly to make their films more true to real life by “smuggling” forbidden themes and stories into their films. The pulp magazines and literature of the 1930s offered alternative themes to mainstream literature – to the contemporary reader the pulp writings were honest, realistic and exciting. 1930s Hollywood promoted an optimism and an escapism that would have stuck in the craw of many Americans who had suffered and continued to suffer during the great depression.
Double Indemnity is a milestone in Hollywood history – a prestigious A-Picture with major film stars involved in a story that was long deemed unfilmable. When I watch the film today nothing feels censored (granted by todays standards the relationship between Phyllis and Walter would have been portrayed in a more overt sexual way but this does not detract from the film). A smart, capable, successful and handsome insurance agent falls for a married woman and soon falls willingly into a plot to murder her husband and to set-up the life insurance for a double pay back. Greed, Murder, Adultery, Fraud - all wrapped up in an intoxicating and exciting atmosphere. This film garnered the most admiration from the French critics.
Laura is less challenging than Double Indemnity – it is one of the most delicious murder mysteries ever made. The characters are complex and fascinating.
The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet come from “pulp” literature and through the private detective we are led into the homes of the very rich, the criminals, the morally corrupt, the virtuous. The private detective has a questionable moral compass – the end justifies the means. They look after their own interests as much as serve justice - a new kind of anti-hero perfect for the times.
The Woman In The Window was treated by the French critics as being a film noir in it’s own category due to the tragic aspects of the story – an innocent man cruelly ensnared by fate. Commenting on this film Jean Vidal made the first significant reference to chiaroscuro lighting (which has become so closely associated with these films) in film noir.
The French critics went on to praise The Lost Weekend when it arrived in France in late 1946 – the use of real locations (New York streets) and again this vivid character portrayal which led to the audience empathisig with the characters.
Margaret points out that many of the French critics felt that the freshness of these new Hollywood film noirs lost it’s potency in subsequent films and that even by The Killers 1946 it was beginning to feel somewhat contrived.
There is a published anthology of the film journal “La Revue du Cinema” (in French) that I am very tempted to buy – I have been so impressed by the quality of the French criticism on film noir.
Margaret dispels the myth that the “Serie Noire” book series (published from 1945 onwards) was a major influence on Frank’s use of the term “film noir”. The use of the adjective “noir” in the French literary criticism has a much older history.
In addition Margaret clarified that the use of the term film noir in the French media in the 1930s was limited to large newspapers and generally expressed a fascist viewpoint that was critical of these Renoir/Carne/Duvivier films. This negative use of the term film noir was again used against these films from 1939 onwards when the political situation in France approached a crisis situation and censorship prevailed.
Then Margaret demonstrates that when Borde and Chaumeton published their book Panorama Du Film Noir Americain 1941-1953 in 1955 they looked back on the film noirs and associated the term with strangeness (violence/surreal/perverse/sadism etc.) and crime in a way that was somewhat different to Nino Frank’s original meaning.
Borde and Chaumeton:
In attempting to describe the common characteristics of film noir they declared “It is the presence of crime which gives film noir it’s most constant characteristic”. Based on the films that I have watched crime is present in every film.
“The film noir is from within, from the point of view of the criminals” – again as I look over the list of films this applies to almost to every film – the private detective noirs are different in the sense that they allow us to travel into the criminal world but see the story through the eyes of the private detective.
They speak of “the ambiguous protagonist”. The anti-hero: a more complex, realistic and interesting hero - also the presence of the femme fatale who is even more ambiguous than the protagonist.
Borde and Chaumeton wrote “The moviegoer is accustomed to certain conventions: a logical development of the action, a clear distinction between good and evil, well-defined characters, sharp motives, scenes more showy than authentically violent, a beautiful heroine and an honest hero. At least these were the conventions of American adventure films before the War” – obviously film noir shattered these conventions!
This book went on to influence modern researchers who began to be interested in film noir in the 1970s:
Raymond Durgnat in 1970 argues that film noir is not a genre but a tone. His document “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of Film Noir” is very detailed and categorizes film noirs under several headings. It did not interest me greatly and I only partially read it.
One of the most influential writings on film noir is Paul Schrader’s “Notes on film Noir” (1972). This article was a very important catalyst in bringing about the interest that developed in film noir in 1970s America.
Paul argues that film noir is a historical movement that is specific to the 1940s and 1950s – I agree with him!
He puts foward 4 factors that influenced this new film movement:
1. World War 2 and Post-War disillusionment
2. Post-War Realism (Location shooting possible due to technological innovation)
3. German Influence
4. Pulp Fiction – 1930s Depression cynicism which was ripe to re-use Post WW2.
Paul notes 3 Phases:
1. 1941 – 1946: Studio Productions. Many private detective stories.
2. 1946 – 1949: Realism. Location Shooting. Crime thrillers. Independent B Pictures. Less romantic leading roles.
3. 1949 – 1953: More psychotic behaviour. At this point Film Noir had ground almost to a halt – he mentions Big Combo (1955), Kiss Me Deadly (“the masterpiece of film noir”, 1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) as notable exceptions.
When I look at the 30 films that I watched from this period I would largely agree with Paul’s catagories. Paul’s Period 1 (1941-1946) contains a lot of studio A-Pictures – also Chandler’s influence is all over this period. As I moved beyond 1947 in my series there were no more studio A-Pictures!
Paul wrote “Taken as a whole period, film noir achieved an unusually high level of artistry.” I could not agree with him more!
Paul’s document is very interesting and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in film noir.
One of the great names in film noir is Eddie Muller – President of the Film Noir Foundation. I love Eddie’s Book “Dark City” which is such a love letter to film noir and so enjoyable to read!
Here are some of the facts that I collected on film noir from interviews with Eddie:
- · Between 1944 – 1952 8 of the major film studios were putting out about 8-10 film noirs per year. This amounts to quite a body of work!
- · In the press releases sent to theatrical distributors these film noirs were categorised in 2 ways – as Murder Dramas (involved amateur criminals) or as Crime Thrillers (involved professional criminals).
- · Studio film noirs in the 1940s had virtuoso production design (this suited the Emigre directors who excelled at cinematography and set design). By the 1950s realism and hence location shooting became more important. I noticed this change very clearly while watching this series of films.
In the Noir City Sentinel 2 page 14 Eddie argues that “film noir” is a specific visual style from a specific historical era – this is in agreement with Paul Schrader and I strongly concur with this view. Eddie goes on to say that the adjective “noir”, which is so widely used nowadays, describes films where the viewer is “empathising with characters crossing into darkness.”
It is interesting to see how the stereotypical view of film noir often references the themes of the very early films – for example in the documentary “Dark and Deadly” actor/director Dennis Hopper says that film noir is typically about a woman who seduces a man and then gets him to kill her husband. From what I watched this theme only applies to the James M.Cain adaptions of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I am not aware of any other films that have this plot and yet it has become ingrained in our minds as what film noir is!
This also applies to the film score where so often we think of jazz music in film noir – this is in fact very rare. We find it in Crime Wave (jazz elements), The Big Combo and Sweet Smell Of Success but that is all (from the films I have seen). Film noir scores are classical and the great Miklos Rozsa wrote some of the best.
The voice-over narration of the main protagonist is one of the most iconic elements in film noir. I love how Paul Schrader describes the “romantic narration” as conveying “an irretrievable past”. That sense of almost nostalgia is something I love in noir narration. It adds a story-telling aspect to the films.
The cinematography is a feature of film noirs. Black and White photography is by it’s nature removed from reality and hence it is possible to get artistic and dramatic effects that would not work in colour photography.
Right from the start Double Indemnity displayed beautiful and innovative photography. The final confrontation between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is such a magnificent example of chiaroscuro photography. The use of Venetian blinds to cast a pattern over the shots became a standard of film noir. Murder, My Sweet has a very distinctive use of single-source lighting – however the director Edward Dmytryk states that the main reason for this style was budgetary. He was shooting a B-Picture and there was only a tiny set-design budget – therefore keep the sets in darkness and only shine a light on what you need to show. He also states that he was so committed to realising Chandler’s wonderful prose that he focused his time and budget on working with the actors.
The films that have the most striking cinematography came a little bit later – John Alton (Hungarian) spoke of his love for making B-Pictures because he was given the freedom to experiment – something that he would not get on a big studio film. He left us with perhaps the most beautiful examples of film noir photography in T-Men, Raw Deal and The Big Combo. John Alton spoke of his influence from the great painters particularly Rembrandt. Certainly while watching his films I am bowled over by the beauty of the images.
James Wong Howe was another master – the photography of Body and Soul and The Sweet Smell of Success is simply breathtaking.
Orson Welles gave us magical images in The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil.
Nicolas Musuraca (Italian) gave us what is considered the first film noir photography in Stranger On The Third Floor and one of the greatest examples in Out of the Past.
The cinematographer John Bailey described how the best film noir photography pushed the visuals to the limit of black and white contrast that seem to conjure up in our subconscious, images of Good vs. Evil as well as philosophical and almost religious feelings.
German Expressionist photography is regarded as a major influence on these films and with the European artists working on this genre it is not surprising to learn of this.
The femme fatale is one of the quintessential elements in film noir. Yet watching these films it became clear to me that the femme fatale as a principal role finished with Gun Crazy and really belongs to the Double Indemnity to Out of the Past period. A glamorous, seductive woman – “a cookie full of arsenic”. Surely these are some of the greatest female roles in cinema- the incomparable Barbara Stanwyk, Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor, Rita Hayworth, Eva Gardner, Jane Greer, Peggy Cummins and Marie Windsor. One actress who I think would have made an outstanding femme fatale was Ingrid Bergman but sadly she never played such a role. Such a joy to watch their performances!
When I first became interested in cinema about 20 years ago film noirs captured my imagination – The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil etc. They have always remained favourites of mine.
Rewatching them this time (mostly on BluRay) projected on a screen has only served to strengthen my admiration for these films.
There are a few obvious omissions that I have never seen (Stranger on the Third Floor 1940, In a Lonely Place 1950) or that I do not own (Asphalt Jungle 1950) however I feel strongly that the films that I have watched represent the heart of film noir.
Now I will go through each of the films I watched as part of this project.
Maltese Falcon (1941) BluRay Warner
I have seen this film many times and it is a classic, timeless film that looks beautiful on BluRay.
This film belongs in the private detective pulp fiction category. The story was written by Dashiell Hammett and first published in 1930. The work reflects much of the cynicism of the Depression Era. Hammett had worked as a private detective himself so the film is full of realistic details.
The film had a modest budget and relatively unknown actors (except the brilliant Mary Astor – amazing character she developed). The film was John Huston’s first shot at directing and he scored a major success.
This is my favourite Humphrey Bogart detective performance – it is a brilliant anti-hero character full of complexity and contradictions: a knight in dirty armour!
It is a classic – it really is the “stuff that dreams are made of”.
Double Indemnity (1944) BluRay Masters of Cinema
Wow! This film is perfect!
This is the most iconic film noir plot – man is seduced by an alluring woman who convinces him to murder her husband so she can collect on the life insurance policy. To make it even more sordid and audacious they devise a plan to murder the husband in such a way that the insurance company will cough up double the money!
This is an A-Picture for Paramount Studios. A realisation of a source material that was long branded unfilmable due to it’s unsavoury story by James M.Cain. Director Billy Wilder knew that he if he could pull it off it would be a major sensation. He told the L.A Times on 6/8/1944 that he intended to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock”. Did he succeed? – well, after viewing the film Alfred Hitchcock wired Billy Wilder saying “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are Billy Wilder...”!!!
I bought the original book but have not yet read it. The screenplay was done by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder – their personal differences made the work arduous but produced one of the greatest adaptions of all time. Add to that Edward G.Robinson just nailing the delivery of his dialogue!
The film packs a hard punch! There is a gripping classical score by the great Miklos Rozsa which adds so much weight and drama to the film. Sensational photography by John F.Seitz – the final Phyllis-Walter scene photographs Phyllis lighting a cigarette and thus illuminating her face, blonde hair and white dress in one of my favourite shots of all time! The acting is inspired – Barbara Stanwyk (the most iconic femme fatale of all time), Edward G.Robinson and Fred MacMurray. The dialogue is scorching hot! The drama is so moving and the relationships are so complex – the almost fatherly relationship between Walter and Barton that ends with that heartbreaking lighting of the cigarette! The Phyllis and Walter relationship goes through so many changes in the 108 minutes. The story is gripping and twists and turns keeping us gasping for breath. The narration really draws me into the characters and involves me in the story – just like Nino Frank described in 1946. The image of Walter Neff narrating the story into the Dictaphone is pure magic!
This is it for me! If I have to own just one film noir then I choose this one. It is my favourite and I get more out of this film each time I see it. As Eddie Muller said, if I have to show one film to someone to demonstrate what film noir is it is Double Indemnity!
Great BluRay package from Masters Of Cinema – however the commentary was very disappointing!
Laura (1944) BluRay Fox
My affection for this film grows each time I see it – and watching it on BluRay only adds to that enjoyment.
The film feels like a classical building – perfectly proportioned! Everything works in harmony: the music, the plot structure (neatly dividing the film into two halves), the unfolding of the mystery and the development of the characters, the beautiful but understated photography that does not draw attention to itself and the controlled interior studio settings that all add to the elegance of the film.
It is one of the most enjoyable mystery films of all time but is it film noir? For some reason that I find difficult to explain I “feel” that it belongs in the film noir category although I certainly would not use it as an example of film noir to show to someone.
The acting is magnificent! Wow is Gene Tierney good – a rare toned down leading performance: strong, beautiful, independent and intelligent. Dana Andrews builds a great character that I admire more on each viewing – a restrained and complex performance. Clifton Webb gives a remarkable theatrical performance. Vincent Price is just perfect! Judith Anderson – her scene when she confesses that she and Shelby are both rotten is an outstanding piece of acting!
This film is a classic! Like an exquisite pastry served in a Michelin Star restaurant!
The Woman In The Window (1944) DVD Optimum
I first watched this film in 2013 and wrote “I was so thrilled and impressed by this film up until the last few minutes”. How would I feel rewatching the film now in 2014?
I love this film and it is one of my favourite film noirs – the ending certainly softens the film. The literary source material has the professor die by suicide. Why did Fritz Lang change the ending? I first presumed that the Production Code would not have allowed the suicide ending – I also saw this explanation on various online sources. However Lang told Peter Bogdanovich that he fought with the producer and screenwriter for this dream ending – where is the truth (what Lang said cannot necessarily be taken as fact)? Lang had some involvement in the early stages of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari – was he influenced by that film? I also read somewhere that Lang tested the film to an audience and so changed the ending because of their negative reaction. We need Masters of Cinema/Criterion/Kino/Arrow to release this film on BluRay with a commentary by the great David Kalat to try and unearth the truth! This film really deserves a BluRay release – it is a major work from one of the great film-makers.
To me this film has a kind of purity to it – the theme of fate looms large in film noir. In many of the purest film noirs the protagonist crosses a moral threshold and from that moment on he is doomed (Double Indemnity, Scarlett Street, Postman Always Rings Twice, Out Of The Past, Nightmare Alley, The Killers, Criss Cross, Raw Deal, Force of Evil, Gun Crazy, The Prowler). As the character says in Detour: fate sticks out it’s leg and trips you up for no good reason at all. Lang really develops this theme in the nightmarish mesh that entangles the protagonist here. I empathise and sympathise so much with Alice and Richard as cruel circumstances tighten the net around them. Lang gets so much suspense from this story that upon first viewing it seemed to me as good as anything Hitchcock ever did.
The French critics saw the complexity of this film putting it into a category of it’s own resembling Greek tragedy in the pathos that it evokes in the viewer. Jean Vidal wrote that “Everything seems so probable that every spectator can think that in similar circumstances he would have acted like the involuntary murderer.”
Jacques Bourgeois wrote that in general film noirs led the protagonist to his downfall due to some psychological flaw he possessed. Here Fritz Lang portrayed a man cruelly led to his downfall through no real fault of his own – an ending “which fate has prepared for him” – “morality is excluded from the matter”.
I agree that this impersonal destruction brought upon the protagonist by fate is utterly horrifying. As in Detour I am shaken to my core with the fear that this could happen to any of us regardless of the moral life that we lead. This film is extremely powerful.
The acting is extraordinary – again we have a brilliant performance by Edward G.Robinson. Joan Bennett gives one of my favourite female performances in film noir. Her character is very complex and confusing: she is seductive, initially she displays her sexuality to this married man (she wears a see through blouse where the form of her nipples can be clearly seen in 1944!) and yet she emerges as a character with great dignity and sincerity as the film progresses. When she telephones Richard I was expecting her to blackmail him but no!
The film feels in the hands of a master – it feels effortless. Masterpiece!
Murder, My Sweet (1944) DVD Universal
Raymond chandler is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Commentators exclaim that Chandler has a totally unique style. So obviously when adapting Raymond Chandler’s books success hinges on the dialogue.
For me Dick Powell gives one of the great private detective performances and he is up to the task of delivering Chandler’s brilliant dialogue. I was shocked to learn that many do not like his performance! For me he gets the cynicism, quick wit and the insubordination just right. I have heard commentators who know Chandler’s writings (Klute and Edwards) arguing that he lacks the gravitas and weight of Philip Marlowe of the books. I cannot answer that criticism as I do not know the source material. But for me he is perfect – a knight in dirty armour!
The plot is complex and so even after watching this film several times and even rewinding scenes, do I fully understand the plot? Maybe not – does it matter? – No!
This is real fire-cracker dialogue performed brilliantly by the actors.
This was a relatively low budget film and I said already the sparse camera work was very much a budgetary and time necessity. It since went on to influence the film noir style.
Claire Trevor is wonderful as the femme fatale - “cold like blue steel!”
This film really deserves a restoration and BluRay release. It is a classic of American cinema.
The Year 1944
6/9/44 Double Indemnity
3/11/44 The Woman In The Window
18/12/44 Murder, My Sweet
These 4 sensational films released in a period of 3 months. It is staggering! Herein lies the blueprint of Film noir. Is it any wonder that Nino Frank and his colleagues were so enthused by these films – they are amongst Hollywood’s greatest productions and they helped to define a new direction for American cinema – complex characters, themes that challenged head on the Hays Production Code, sizzling dialogue, great cinematography, brilliant direction.
Lost Weekend 1945 Masters of Cinema BluRay
After watching this film my immediate reaction was this is not film noir to me. I understand that the French critics felt that it belonged in the film noir category but it does not do it for me. And having completed my series of film noirs I can say that even more strongly now. This is a gripping dark drama about alcoholism.
Scarlett Street 1945 Kino BluRay
This is one of my favourite film noirs (you will see that I am going to say this many many times as we go through the series!).
This is a very dark film and quite shocking for it’s day or for anytime for that matter. This was my second viewing of the film and it was equally powerful to the first viewing.
The protagonist starts out as a harmless good citizen and by the end of the film he has been savagely reduced to a desolate and homeless murderer. The themes of this film are so complex – exploitation, delusion, male violence and justice.
Joan Bennett gives an extraordinary performance as Kitty Collins. She is so cute – yet such a slob (throws her grape pits around the room, tosses her cigarette butts into the sink full of dirty dishes, flings her clothes around the apartment) – I love it! Her toying and manipulation of Chris is both fascinating and painful to watch. We, the audience know what is going on so his humiliation is almost unbearable to watch.
Dan Duryea – his grin is so slimy! I have a few reservations about his performance but I have the feeling it will grow on me with repeated viewings.
The heart of the film is a profound tragedy – Chris suffers emotional abuse at home from his unaffectionate (poisonous would describe her better!) wife. He is deluded into believing that the young Kitty Collins may be interested in him romantically and we watch aghast as she cynically (driven on by Johnny) exploits him leading to him stealing money to give to her to prove his love and to maintain the fiction that he is a wealthy artist. It is sad and pitiful and his humiliation becomes unbearable and in a moment of rage he murders Kitty which is very distressing to watch.
He escapes justice and is left to wander the streets, a broken homeless man. It is terrifying! This is an example of a film that really challenged the Hays Code.
Again Lang gives us a cautionary tale where we watch this man torn apart and left ravaged in a situation from which he will never return.
Edward G.Robinson is brilliant – look at his range across Double Indemnity, Woman In The Window and Scarlett Street shot over a 15 month period!
Apparently Robinson was experiencing a very difficult period in his life at this time with his wife who was mentally ill – I can only assume that this informed his performance.
This film is a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne – Renoir could be more frank and Kitty is clearly a prostitute and Chris knows this. American morality would not have allowed this so Lang had to infer that she was a prostitute.
The film was shot on studio and it just feels effortless – Lang is such a master film-maker.
Lang had almost total control over this film. Amazingly for the sordid and adult content of the film, Universal studios were ecstatic with the quality and commercial potential of the film. They required 3 minutes to be removed from the film and when producer Walter Wanger agreed Lang flew into a rage. What should have been the start of a fruitful relationship with Diana productions descended into a bitter burning of bridges on Lang’s part – he was clearly an extremely self-destructive character. By this time he had irreparably damaged relationships with many of the studios and more would follow during the subsequent years.
Interestingly Lang had wanted a soundtrack based on source music – he had revolutionised sound design in M and he wanted to repeat this but the producers insisted on an orchestral score. Interestingly Orson Welles also wanted this source music in his films – for example The Lady From Shanghai but did not get it also.
The Kino BluRay has a pristine transfer and an invaluable commentary from the great David Kalat.
I leave the final word to Jonathan Rosenbaum - “worthy of Erich Von Stroheim in the intensity of it’s passion and treachery.”
Gilda 1946 BluRay Sony Italy
This was my first time watching this film!
The film feels somewhat contrived to me. The ending which redeems the character of Gilda feels like a false note – Orson Welles presented a much more impactful ending for Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai.
The central location of the casino in Buenos Aires immedietly felt like an imitation of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca – the central meeting place for the wealthy, the criminal, the beautiful and the law. Again it felt a little contrived to me. The foreign location (Buenos Aires – not as exotic as Casablanca) serves the function of allowing characters to escape their past and start afresh.
Despite some of the artificiality that I felt from the film there are many strong and enjoyable aspects. The most obvious is Gilda, Rita Hayworth. This picture was designed to be a vehicle for Rita, the star of Columbia pictures. There are so many choreographed “star” moments in the film – her entrance, Put The Blame on Mame song and dance etc. - and she is spellbinding! She is also a very engaging and magnetic actress – she succeeds in conveying a wide range of emotions and I was very drawn to her character.
Rita was a wonderful dancer (she trained with her father, a professional dancer) and I love the sheer enjoyment that is visible in her during those routines. I really would like to see her Fred Astaire films!
I have read a little on Rita’s life and I am profoundly moved by the tragedy of this woman. From what I have read there is strong evidence that she was sexually abused by her father and even prostituted out to other men by her father and first husband. In addition her father pressurised her as a teenager to enter show business and he exploited her for his own gain as did her first husband. On top of that she was unlucky with the men in her life (Orson Welles married her but he slept promiscuously with other women and soon lost interest in her and she was left alone) and in her later years alcoholism and alzheimers took a tragic hold on her.
And then Gilda arrives – again she is being exploited for sex! She must have been sickened by the whole thing!
All her great achievements on the screen pale into comparison with the tragedy of her life for me.
I like Glenn Ford and here he is a young man with that trademark explosive energy.
I very much liked that we do not learn about their past relationship. It means that I don’t judge the characters.
This film is a Columbia A-Picture. The glamour is really heightened and I very much appreciated Baz Luhrmann’s insight into the amount of work that is required to glamorise Rita to this extent – every gesture is meticulously choreographed – her hair falls exactly where it should, the camera catches her eyes at exactly the right angle etc.
The film has a lot of strong and complex emotion – hate, exploitation, power, desire. The relationships have a distinct inclination towards bitterness and unwholesomeness. Farrell’s captivity of Gilda is very disturbing. Many commentators highlight the implied homosexual relationship between Farrell and Mundson but I did not feel it too strongly.
This edginess is in contrast with the conventional glamour of the film. It felt like a curious blend of elements that did not gel perfectly together.
The ending of the film is extremely unsatisfying – Mundson is murdered by an innocent bystander thus keeping Farrell and Gilda blemish free. Then a policeman reveals that Gilda has not been unfaithful after all – it is so immature that the studio would insist on such a crass ending.
I want to rewatch this film soon. Very good BluRay image.
Postman Always Rings Twice 1946 Waners BluRay
This is a curious film – from MGM, The Dream Factory. I think I saw this film before but am not certain that I saw all of it – I had no recollection of how the story unfolds and the twists and turns that it takes.
The story is a gritty James M.Cain novel – the plot remains but the characters have been sanitised – particularly Cora (played by Lana Turner).
Casting John Garfield adds an edge to the film – he was a very different actor for his time and he brings an intensity and a street-like authenticity (he grew up on the streets of New York). John Garield is an iconic film noir actor and this is the first of 3 films in this series that stars him.
Lana Turner – excellent actress and a real beauty. Her intro in the film is fantastic! I had the greatest difficulty with her character as she is so inconsistent – in order to satisfy the Hays Code and also to fit with the MGM Star persona her character has been softened from the novel. In the novel she is sexually aggressive (sado-masochistic), greedy, ruthless. In the film adaptation she is inconsistent – first she is a temptress, then she is defiant then she becomes more feminine and gentle.
The plot twists and turns and is very suspenseful right up to the last scene.
The story contains much hard-hitting material – pressure on women to find a husband to support her (this is more grimly portrayed in Visconti’s Ossessione), marital infidelity, greed, murder, justice (ambivalent viewpoint which is very daring).
Oddly the film feels like a big Hollywood Studio picture and yet much of it is subversive and realistic – location shooting which is very new for this era.
As with Double Indemnity this really is how we imagine noir – a man is seduced by a woman and agrees to murder her husband. There is something so fascinating and corrupt in this theme.
In the James M.Cain novel the characters are very ordinary and driven by almost animalistic attraction. In the MGM adaption Cora becomes a woman much more controlled by reason than by animal instincts. The Visconti film is much more gritty, desperate and emotional.
The Big Sleep 1946 Warners DVD
This is a film that I loved when I was first getting interested in film. I have not seen it for a very long time and I was very interested to see my reaction now.
This is an A Picture. Howard Hawkls was one of the most prestigious directors and Humphrey Bogart was one of Hollywood’s leading men. Remember that the studio had moved Humphrey Bogart into the role of a romantic leading man since Casablanca. At this point in his career it was highly unlikely that he would be allowed to portray another Sam Spade.
Raymond Chandler has been a very important figure thus far in the evolution of film noir. He is a co-screenwriter of Double Indemnity. His book Farewell, My Lovely was adapted into one of the quintessential film noirs Murder, My Sweet. In 1946 he is the screenwriter on The Blue Dahlia. In 1946 his novel The Lady In The Lake was made into a film. And in 1945 his first novel, The Big Sleep, is adapted for the screen.
I found this to be a really good fun private detective mystery film – it almost feels cartoonish! There is no real grit to the film – it is a sleek production. However several scenes bothered me and I was fascinated to learn that many of these scenes were the reshoots meant to capitalise on the Bogey-Bacall relationship and establish Bogie as a romantic lead: the scene in the bookstore when the attendant seduces Marlowe and closes her bookstore in order to get intimate with him, the woman cabdriver who casually flirts with Marlowe, the “horseracing” dialogue between Bogie and Bacall felt really false to me. These elements were all added to the screenplay in order to romanticise Bogart – this feels false and to those who know Philip Marlowe through the novels, it feels wrong.
Most of the film was shot in October 1944 – January 1945. The release was delayed due to prioritising the release of war time films – the studio had some war films already made and needed to release them before an armistice was agreed to end the war. To Have And Have Not was a great success and there was enormous publicity around the recent marriage (May 1945) of Bogie and Bacall. In addition Miss Bacall’s film Confidential Agent was released in 1945 and Bacall received terrible reviews. Bacalls’ agent (also Howard Hawks’s agent – remember Bacall was Hawks' protege) convinced Jack Warner to reshoot additional Bogey-Bacall scenes in late 1945 that would capitalise on the success of To Have And Have Not and the Bogie-Bacall phenomenen. “Give (Lauren Bacall) at least 3 or 4 additional scenes with Bogart of the insolent and provactive nature that she had in To Have And Have Not”. About 18 minutes of extra footage was shot (mainy scenes adding Bacall into scenes where previously she had been absent) and scenes were removed – including a 9 minute scene where Marlowe explains much of the story to the district attorney. William Hearn wrote “What the film gained in Bogie and Bacall magic it lost in sense and continuity”
Chandler wrote “The love story and the detective story cannot exist (together)”. The end of the Chandler novel concludes with Marlowe having a double scotch in a bar and uttering in a voice over “I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double scotches . They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of (her), and I never saw her again.”
So 2 versions of this film exist. The original 1945 version – released theatrically overseas and now available on DVD (Region 1) – and the revised 1946 Bogie-Bacall vehicle. My UK DVD only has the 1946 version.
I really hope the film gets a BluRay release and that I get the chance to watch the 1945 version to see if it appeals to me more.
Great music by Max Steiner.
Ther Killers (1946) Arrow Films Blura (watched on 4/4/15 and again a few days later)
I was really looking foward to receiving this BluRay and watching the film - I first saw this film in less than ideal circumstances on Youtube through my laptop! Despite this I instantly loved the film. Now fast foward 3 years or so and I have recently finished watching a substantial series of film noirs - how will I view it now?
1st viewing: I feel somewhat divided. I am fully involved involved in the "Swede's" story. However Reardon's investigation is somewhat problematic for me.
The main story is that of a fallen man - fate tears away his dreams of boxing professionally, he crosses the moral threshold into crime, he is seduced and ultimately betrayed by a femme fatale costing him his life. He is a tragic "fall guy" figure. Burt Lancaster is superb in his screen debut - he has an impressive physique (broad shoulders and slim body) and a very expressive face capable of getting across great emotion. His performance feels very modern for it's time - surely an influence on Clift/Brando?
Kitty Collins - one of the great femme fatales (there are so many!). Eva Gardner on BluRay is astonishingly beautiful - we truly believe that the Swede would lose his mind over her! Eva Gardner has so many iconic moments in this film - her introduction as she sings at the piano/"you won't live 'til morning"/ Her impassioned and desperate pleading at the film's conclusion.
The opening scene is excellent - the Swede's execution is very artistically photographed and immedietly establishes a sense of profound gravitas to the story.
The whole story unfolds arising from the investigation of an insurance agent who encounters the Swede's associates and through a series of flashbacks we learn about his life. The problem for me is that Reardon never becomes drawn into the emotional and moral complexity of the Swede's life - he simply is trying to uncover the details for insuarance purposes. We never get any sense that Reardon admires or has contempt for the Swede - he is neutral. When he later becomes more active in the unfolding of the drama I am a little unconvinced - I don't particulary care for his involvement as he does not represent a sense of justice to be served - he simply wants to resolve an outstanding insurance case. There is an element of the drab police procedural about his investigations. This somewhat dilutes the power of the Swede's story.
For me the emotional climax of the film occurs with Kitty's desperate pleading at the corpse of her husband. The film should have ended there - instead we end on Reardon getting something of a pat on the back from his insurance boss - to me this scene sits uncomfortably with what has just happened previously and the sprinkling of "humour" is a little bit trite.
I wrote "I will be very keen to see how I react to a second viewing"
I was very impressed with the boxing scenes - a year before Body and Soul.
I read a piece on the film by Scott Nye on CriterionCast and found myself agreeing with most of what he wrote.
A few days later I rewatched the film. I was so keen to see how the film would sit with me on second viewing.
I enjoyed the film much more and felt that it deserved it's classic status.
First of all the plot is complex and I was able to follow it this time through all it's subtle details. It is difficult to get a hold of the actions, timeline and motivations of all the characters (Colefax, Blinky, Dumb Dumb, Kitty, Charlston etc.) on first viewing
Now that I followed the story every twist and turn delighted me. I was not bothered by Reardon's investigation as I was so satisfied by the intricacies of the story and absorbed by the plot as it unfolded. Sure, I still wish the film ended with Kitty's pleading instead of Reardon and his boss, but I ignored this now as I had been so satisfied by the story. Somehow my respect for Reardon grew - where before he seemed lucklustre this time he impressed me.
The opening scene seemed even greater than on previous viewings - great dialogue, pacing, photography, acting and intrigue.
I now would not hesitate in calling it a classic of film noir. Very happy I revisited this and look foward to a third viewing!
Decoy (1946) Warners DVD
This is a really fun movie! I love this B-Picture noir style (Raw Deal is another).
This is a real pulp film – outrageous femme fatale, wonderful classical music score that adds so much to the film atmosphere, an audacious plot. This is a lean film with no fat – testament to director Jack Bernhard.
This film was long out of circulation and when revived it garnered quite a reputation. Jean Gillie has become one of the most iconic femme fatales and she lives up to her legendary status – believe me you do not want to fall in love with this woman – she murders her lover and partner and then reverses the car (twice in the lost uncensored version) over him!
The combination of a sweet, attractive and intelligent woman who is like a stick of dynamite is one of film noir’s lasting appeals. Jean Gillie (died tragically very young) makes the most of every moment.
The other acting is mainly very good - the hard boiled cop Joe (love when he slaps the hoodlum early on in the nightclub), Vincent – brilliantly played by Edward Norris. However the actor playing the doctor did not impress me at all.
The tender scene between Margot and Joe at the end is fantastic- the lush dreamlike music – the mutual respect between them (even admiration that Joe feels for her although he is firmly on the side of the law). Her laughing in his face is delightful.
The narration by Margot again adds the wonderful dreamlike storytelling quality to the film.
The Methylene Blue story is great – the awakening scene is a little bit clumsy but hey!, this is low budget film-making!
Monogram Pictures specialised in making quality budget films – the film never looks cheap.
There is an excellent commentary with screenwriter Stabley Rubin and Glenn Erickson which is a real joy to listen to. Stabley recollects that the film was shot in 2 weeks!
Highly recommended as a real pulp film gem! Solid DVD print! These independent B-Picture noirs have a real charm of their own.
The Lady From Shanghai 1947 BluRay TCM Vault Columbia Pictures
This film was produced from 2/10/46 to March 1947
Voice-over narration adds mystery and a sense of storytelling to the film.
I actually really enjoy the opening scene – nice camerawork, dialogue and a sense of mystery. In the commentary by Peter Bogdanovich he spoke of Welles detesting this scene likening it to a hundred other cheap studio openers.
The camerawork in this film is beautifully expressive. Welles can capture shadowy expressionist shots even in broad daylight on a yacht! The open ocean scenes obviously have a bright hue – it is simply brilliant how Welles can capture the shadows from the eyes of a face in broad daylight. Look at how he captures light and dark as Elsa and Michael walk through Acopulco in and out of shadows.
Welles (a natural storyteller) invented a story based around how he sourced finance for the film – this story became the stuff of legends. Obviously with the internet these kind of “tall-tales” have no chance of surviving.
There can be no doubt that the most important element in the film is Rita Hayworth. Since Gilda earlier in 1946 Rita had become a sensation – the greatest female star and sex symbol at this time. Her studio boss, Harry Kohn, wanted to capitalise on her popularity so, with Gilda, Kohn wanted a film that showcased her talents (although his idea of her talents and Orson Welles’ idea were not in harmony).
Where Gilda had long voluptuous amber hair, Elsa has her hair cut short and died blonde! First statement of intent from Orson that he intended to do this his way!
Gilda is lovingly photographed in close-up throughout the picture. Orson chose to shoot Rita almost exclusively in medium shot surely knowing that this would antagonise the studio – it did and reshoots of close-ups were done later. And just as Gilda sang so wonderfully in that film, the studio demanded a scene of Elsa singing a song.
Gilda is redeemed in that film in a very unsatisfying studio manner - here Orson allows Elsa’s character to become blackened and she dies in anguish, crying “I don’t want to die!”.
Orson seemed determined to make HIS film and not to follow the studio directives or desires. The problem was this was an A-Picture with Rita Hayworth – the studio took his film (155 minutes) and cut it down to 88 minutes! This led to a 9 page memo from Orson – he requested that the score that was essentially variations (like in Laura 1944) on the song “Please Don’t Kiss Me” be reduced. He argued for natural sounds to be used in many scenes and requested that no music be used in the Hall of Mirrors and closing scene. Here we see Orson ahead of his time and artistically way above the studio vision. I would have loved to have heard the sound design that Welles wanted – something like Lang’s M or Touch of Evil.
The studio did not know what to do with the film – released in France in December 1947 (much admired – what version was this?) and held off from release in America until June 1948 when Columbia’s accounting department persuaded Cohn to try and make some money from the film. What was the studio thinking? They failed entirely to see that they had another Welles masterpiece in their hands – it is a real tragedy that nothing remains of Orson’s original 155 minute cut. I would so love to see that!
However Welles had made an experimental film and Harry Cohn doubted it’s ability to make money at the box-office. At a preview screening he apparently offered $1000 to anyone who could explain the plot to him. Is it any wonder that he set about to drastically alter the film? After all film-making is a business and losses jeopardise the likelihood of making films in the future. Can we really criticise Cohn for the changes he made? – after all Welles got paid regardless of how the film would fare at the box-office, he took no financial risk. Cohn, as head of the studio, took all the risk. Remember in those days the idea that films would have a commercial value with re-runs in the future and (much later) a value in home entertainment did not exist – the film had one chance to make money and that was when it was released. Cohn’s studio employed a lot of people who relied on the studio being profitable and continuing. Although I am disappointed that Columbia did not allow for Welles’ cut to be preserved looking at it from Cohn’s point-of-view he only tried to ensure the film would have success at the box-office – as a responsible business owner that is his duty! It is unfortunate that the studios did not have more faith in the artistic vision of Orson Welles and did not put all their resources behind promoting an Orson Welles cut of The Lady From Shanghai to maximise it’s potential to make a profit.
Orson Welles wrote a very moving obituary for Jean Renoir – in it he lamented that the Hollywood moguls/studios did not really value cinema as art. They were prepared to pay extravagant money to purchase a painting by Auguste Renoir (Jean’s father) and hang it in their office/home but they would not invest in a Jean Renoir film as a piece of art – films to them had to make money and their value was primarily measured by their profitability! Harry Cohn was not prepared to invest in an “Orson Welles” – maybe he had a Renoir painting on his wall? This attitude seems perfectly understandable to me – films are the studios’ business and they cannot help but to look on them as commodities particularly as at this point in time (1947) there could be no assumption that The Lady From Shanghai would ever be shown again after it’s theatrical release.
The courtroom scene apparently is a very direct criticism of the American justice system where judges were (maybe they still are?) politically appointed and so usually totally unsuited to the serious role – also their appointments were marred by corruption.
Orson gets such a tender and touching performance from Rita – she looks at him so searchingly in the film and with such sadness. By this point they had been separated for some time and it seems that Rita had hoped for a reconciliation to come out of the film but she was to be disappointed.
Very few rear projection scenes – almost all real locations. This was a sign of the times and the future direction for noir as it moved away from the studio atmosphere even at this early stage.
Orson gives us greatness here – poetry, pulpy noir, artistry and emotion. I love it. Masterpiece!
I love the story – it is sordid, mysterious and emotional (film noir!). The ending is very satisfying – Welles has the courage to allow Elsa (Rita Hayworth) really show her true femme fatale colours and then die in anguish in a heartbreaking scene.
Andre Bazin points that the poor reception of the film in America was in part because of how Rita Hayworth was treated – at the end of the film “he let her die like a bitch (dog) on the floor” defying the convention that the hero takes her in his arms. “This time the case of Orson Welles was decided. Hollywood had enough of a genius who in seven years’ time had cost it millions of dollars.”. Could we expect any business to re-employ someone who costs the company millions of dollars? – the sad truth is that the responsibility may lie with the American audience who rejected Welles’ artistry and thus sealed his fate. His genius and artistry did not appeal to the masses.
Here are some details from Simon Callow’s book “Orson Welles Hello Americans”:
“The impulse to make The Lady From Shanghai was by no means purely artistic. Pressing financial demands were the motor for Welles’ involvement in the film”. Welles owed money to Rita Hayworth (still married though separated), he was failing to pay maintenance for their daughter Rebecca and he had debts with the United States Revenue department. He spent money recklessly, his radio work was finished, he was paying maintenance on his first marriage and daughter and he made heavy losses on a production of Around The World In 80 Days.
Welles and Harry Cohn had fallen out previously (he opposed him marrying Rita) – it is surprising that Cohn made Welles such a generous offer ($2000 per week, $100,000 bonus if certain conditions were met, 15% of the producer’s profit). I have seen it referenced elsewhere that Rita played a part in convincing Cohn that Welles should work on this project.
Simon Callow traces the idea for the film back to 1943 when Welles was presented with a copy of If I Die Before I Wake from producer William Castle and Welles responded enthusiastically saying that he (Welles) should play the lead and Rita (not married at the time) should play the female lead.
Then in 1946 Castle (producer at Columbia) was summoned to Harry Cohn and told (to Castle’s shock) that Orson Welles had sold the idea to Cohn to produce, direct, write and star in If I Die Before I Wake. Welles had requested Castle to be an associate producer – Castle put aside his anger and accepted the job.
Simon compares the screenplay to the book – the character of Michael has been made Irish, romanticised, made innocent and is made captain of the Bannister’s yacht – novel is set on Long Island but Welles journeys from New York, to Mexico to San Francisco.
The character of Elsa is similar to the book but Welles makes her more passive and mysterious and ultimately more evil.
The other characters are very faithful to the novel. Welles needed to make some changes to his screenplay to appease the censors (including Elsa committing suicide), and Harry Cohn insisted on some alterations to make the plot clearer and then Welles was left to his own devices to shoot the film.
A studio team was assigned to Welles so to make himself more at home he cast several Mercury players and chose stage actor Glenn Anders to play Grisby.
Welles himself dieted to get in shape for the part. He dyed and cut Rita’s hair – this outraged Cohn. Rita was curious – she trusted Welles and was eager to extend herself beyond Gilda.
The team prepared to go to Acapulco to start the project – Welles screened The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari for the crew before they left (interesting!).
It was mid-October and an unwise time to be shooting in Mexico – very high humidity and a series of storms/mini-hurricanes severly hampered shooting. Simon recounts the confusion and mess around hiring Errol Flynn’s yacht and having him (“drunken, lascivious, racist, potentially violent”) accompany the film-making.
Dysentery plagued the crew and meant great loss of time. Rita was quite sickly and unproductive. When they reached San Francisco for shooting it was cold and damp and on 27th December 1946 Rita collapsed and was absent for 10 days. Coupled with this was enormous difficulty with the unions in Hollywood – Welles exasperated at one point broke into the studio at night and together with some associates did all the painting themselves. The unions cried and out and won the right to repaint at triple time! – as a business owner I can only imagine how frustrating and unproductive it must be to face this kind of blackmailing from the unions! In addition Welles faced cameramen working slowly and adding to the escalating budget – for a brief time Rudolph Mate (Dreyer’s Vampyr and Joan of Arc) replaced the cinematographer and the work sped up considerably.
Welles seemed inexhaustible despite all the problems. On a directive from Harry Cohn they shot the scene of Rita singing. The difficulties resulted in a 65 day shoot running to 98 and a budget over-run of almost $500,000. The associate producer Dick Wilson supported Welles against charges of wastefulness. The Columbia team had been very difficult to work with.
Harry Cohn wanted a profit from this film! He ordered close-ups of Rita to be shot and added a score by Heinz Roemheld (opposed by Welles in a memo which advocated a very sophisticated location source soundtrack). Welles estimated about 20% of the footage was lost.
Welles referred to the score as being of the “Disney” type – he is scathing in his opposition. He wanted a mysterious sound design to the film to emphasise the atmosphere of a “bad dream”.
Simon Callow goes through the scenes of the film in detail discussing any changes Welles made from the book and any studio imposed changes (numerous examples of how the studio interfered with Welles’ sound design for the film).
Interesting to note how hard Welles worked on the Crazy House scene decoration (a Caligarish nightmare) only to have most of it removed by the studio.
Simon Callow hypothesises that Michael’s last utterance “Maybe I’ll live so long that I forget her – maybe I’ll die trying” more likely could be seen as referring to his relationship with Hollywood than with Rita Hayworth.
Nightmare Alley 1947 DVD Masters of Cinema 20th Century Fox
Film Noir? I believe that Nino Frank would have labelled it so.
Tyrone Power is really outstanding in this film. He came from a theatrical family (his father was a renowned stage actor) and he himself trained and began on the stage. In Hollywood he became a star typecast for his good looks – he was frustrated by the limited roles he was offered and he became engaged in producing this project (he bought the rights to the book) in order to give himself the opportunity to take on a serious role. And he is fantastic – his transformation into the geek at the end of the film is truly terrifying and a testament to his acting skills.
The story of the film is very dark – while working in a carnival Stan sees the potential to exploit the audience and when the opportunity arises he decides to shoot for the big time in the city. He callously exploits the emotions and weaknesses of people targeting the rich who will pay him handsomely for his “gift”. It sets itself apart from the films I have watched up to this point as there is no murder in the film – it is about cynical exploitation and a kind of superstition that such a life can lead to a downward spiral down to the gutter. Greed leads to a downfall – classic theme. Stanton has a kind if hubris dismissing the old-style superstition of the carnival folk.
Quite rare for an A-Picture to be this dark despite the ray of hope offered at the ending of the film – this hope was not in the original book. The film had a poor box office reception and because of copyright issues the film disappeared from circulation until 2005 by which time it had garnered a cult reputation.
Strong film. Morbidly dark. But somewhat out-of-step with the themes so far. There are complex characters, realism, bitter cynicism, cruelty and fate!
Is it film noir to me? I guess it is!
Out of the Past 1947 RKO Studios Warner BluRay
This is one of the most celebrated film noirs. It was made in 1947. At this point film noir is an established movement in Hollywood attracting some of the biggest stars of the time and in many cases considerable studio budgets.
This Warner Archive BluRay release really looks incredible – the Warner Archive podcast series dedicated a programme to Out Of The Past with George Feltenstein and Eddie Muller. It is so heartening to hear George talk about his dedication to only release BluRays of a high quality to justify the medium. I hope that Warner take their time and release other noir BluRays to this high standard (Big Sleep, Asphalt Jungle, Murder My Sweet etc.). George mentions spending a year cleaning the print of this film – and it shows! George really feels like an ideal person for these restorations and I greatly look foward to future (Random Harvest, Pride and Prejudice and Goodbye Mr Chips please!!!)Warner Archive BluRays.
The cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca gives us one of the great examples of film noir photography. Musuraca was born in Italy and was the cinematographer on what is considered the first fully-fledged film noir The Stranger On The Third Floor (1940). The style of the photography is very interesting – there is a contrast of style between the pastoral outdoor daylight scenes and the noir scenes (city nightscapes, shadowy interior photography) - this gives a great thematic contrast between the life that Jeff is trying to lead (outdoor pastoral) and the life that he is trying to escape (noir photography).
This film makes good use of location shooting (pastoral scenes) which really adds to the believability of the story. The interior studio settings (San Francisco apartment, houses etc.) work so well for film noir – the artificiality of the studio scenes is very much a part of early noir and gives it that dreamlike/unreal atmosphere.
Robert Mitchum gives one of the greatest private detective portrayals – maybe my favourite of the classic noir period. He is smart, savvy, competent, tough when he needs to be, likable, fair. He has a wonderful physique – broad shoulders and a handsome, gentle face.
There are so many classic noir elements in this film: private detective (trenchcoat, hard smoking, wise-talking, capable), flashback narration, iconic noir photography, Chandleresque dialogue (James M.Cain is mentioned as an uncredited writer on the screenplay), labyrinthian plot, theatricality (dreamlike/unreal atmosphere) complex femme fatale (I was left guessing throughout the film – did she take the money? did she love Jeff? Was she afraid of Whit or drawn to the lifestyle? Jane Greer gives an incredibly mature and confident performance (she was only 22 at the time).
The sense of justice in this film is very complex – there is a heavy sense that Jeff must pay for his mistakes. He has no sense of self-pity – he accepts his lot (such an iconic film noir trait – the doomed protagonist has no sense of self-pity).
Within this exciting film noir lies a very human story – there is a tragedy to Jeff’s fate that touches me. At the end only by tarnishing Jeff’s character will Ann be free to live her life.
Body and Soul 1947 Enterprise Productions BluRay Olive Films
This was my first time watching this film – it is an extraordinary film!
This film has several important film noir elements – actor John Garfield who changed screen acting gave us 3 iconic noir performances (Postman Always Rings Twice, Force Of Evil, Body and Soul), Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul, Odds Against Tomorrow), James Wong Howe - this film, together with Sweet Smell of Success gave us some of the most iconic film noir photography. The camera movements are balletic.
John Garfield had formed Enterprise Productios after his Warner contracted ended in 1947 – he wanted more realism in the characters he could play – here he creates an unforgettable character. He is committed, unique, magnetic – surely a major influence on the Clift/Brando style to come.
One thing that strikes me in Garfield’s character here and in Force of Evil, that he conveys so well, is the sense of someone who believes that they can control the situation – that they can play with fire and not get burnt. Almost a kind of hubris – needless to say circumstances drag them down.
Lilli Palmer was a revelation to me –such a unique persona. She was German (superb English) and she had worked in Britain from 1935 – 1942. She has a beautiful speaking voice and she creates such a warm character.
All actors are great in this film!
Realistic fight scenes – it is obvious that Garfield had trained at boxing in his younger days. At one moment he gives an impressive strike at the punching bag!
Camerawork – I definitely saw reflections of Raging Bull in this.
Polonsky story – socially pessimistic but personally optimistic. There is a moralistic tone to the film but due to the complexity of Garfield’s performance it is very subtle. Both Polonsky, Garfield and Robert Rossen were New York Jews with a communist inclination. This surely reinforced the bond between these artists.
The film certainly feels different to studio productions – more realism, more violence. Use of location shooting – a pity that there is still rear projection of Garfield driving in some scenes.
The dialogue is very memorable and has that pulp quality. There are so many great classic scenes, great expressionistic artistic photography, adult themes.
Is this film noir? There is a shift in focus with this – the plot is less theatrical more realistic – not a typical noir plot. Yet by Nino Frank’s definition this is pure noir – this film looks for the emotional truth in the story and we empathise strongly with Charlie Davis. In addition some of the classic Noir traits are present – seering dialogue, expressionistic photography, music, themes (a man crossing a moral threshold for money – although here Charlie believes that he can keep his integrity intact somehow).
A masterpiece! The BluRay edition is superb.
Criss Cross 1948 Universal DVD
I was disappointed by this film - my first viewing. I bought this film on DVD for several reasons – Siodmak, Lancaster in film noir and also Eddie Muller ranked it as number 2 in his best film noir list.
I know from past experience that many films deserve a second viewing and that my opinions can change significantly so I will rewatch this film sometime.
I saw The Killers for the first time about 2 years – sadly I watched it on Youtube. I will be getting the new Arrow Films BluRay very shortly. The Killers was an absolute delight! A real noir masterpiece!
So my expectations were very high for Criss Cross. I love the opening – brooding Miklos Rozsa score over an aerial city landscape. The plot seemed contrived – nothing felt natural. I was left feeling flat from many of the performances. The suggestion that the heist is planned simply because Anna is found by Slim in Steve’s home and Steve needs an excuse – very unsatisfactory.
Lancaster – he really works hard in this film and despite how much I like his performance he is let down by the story and other actors. Apparently Lancaster was unhappy that the story was changed from a racetrack heist to a romantic love triangle plot!
Yvonne DeCarlo lacks emotional weight for me – her character was really badly defined – is she good or bad? Will she double-cross Steve – I didn’t care.
It feels like the production tried to tick all the noir boxes but they feel patched together into a design that did not work for me.
I will give it another go in the future.
T-Men 1947 Eagle-Lion Productions DVD VCI Entertainment
Fascinating film – belongs in the documentary film noir sub-category.
The film gives us a glimpse into the workings of undercover agents risking their lives in the fight against crime. The film is full of realistic touches – opening narration by Elmer Lincoln Irey, one of the officers who worked on bringing Al Capone to justice.
The voice over narration here conveys a very different atmosphere to classic film noir narration. Here a third-party narrator acts as our guide, filling in plot details, as we follow these agents. The narration style is impersonal. Compare this to classic noir narration where the voice-over conveys the personal emotion of the protagonist.
The characters here are complex – the undercover agents (particularly O’Keefe) are disturbingly comfortable behaving within the criminal underworld. They are tough, wise-talking, intelligent, assertive, confident. Brilliant acting.
What really makes this film an important film noir is the photography. For me John Alton gave us the most iconic and artistic film noir photography. He pushes the light/dark contrast to the maximum attaining an atmosphere that is really unique. This film has so many memorable shots. Alton would have greatly appreciated the artistic freedom that this low budget film would have offered to him.
Look at the poster that was made for this film – a drawing of a classic hard-boiled protaganonist and a glamorous femme fatale. Shows you how established the noir formula was – there is no femme fatale in the film yet the advertisement poster implies there is!
Raw Deal 1948 Eagle-Lion Productions DVD VCI Entertainment
A B-Movie Masterpiece. One of my all-time favourite film noirs!
This film has a B Movie pulp noir atmosphere that reminds me of Decoy.
This film has great atmosphere – dreamlike music (theremin) giving such a mysterious atmosphere, gritty realism, pulp dialogue, artistc photography (the incomparable John Altan), moral complexity, heartfelt emotion, tight pace.
This film is narrated by a woman and it signals that really it is her story – her dreams, her hopes, her effort, her doubts and in the end her tragedy. The theremin music that accompanies her narration is wonderful! On first viewing I was a little underwhelmed by Claire Trevor’s performance, but this time she felt just right. She is devoted to Joe but full of doubts that he feels the same about her.
Dennis O’Keefe gives one of the great noir protagonist performances – realistic, tough as nails, sympathetic, heroic, humane and ultimately noble. This performance is so underrated – it ranks for me up there with Mitchum, Garfield, Powell, Bogart etc.
Marsha hunt is wonderful. She heightens the complexity of Joe’s character.
Beautiful photography – this film really deserves a pristine BluRay edition. John Alton is a master craftsman. The open countryside vistas reminded me of Out of the Past - however here much of the countryside is shot at night-time in forests as opposed to open landscape in broad daylight in Out of the Past. There are so many iconic photographic moments – too many to mention. Just go watch the film!
This is a masterpiece – poetic, hard-hitting, emotional, social commentary, peerless cinematography. One of the greatest film noirs – we are a long way from Chandler here! Brilliant film-making from Anthony Mann.
VCI have an upcoming BluRay release of The Prowler which gives me some hope for a BluRay of this film.
Force of Evil 1948 Enterprise Pictures BluRay Olive Films
Wow that is a great film! I wholeheartedly endorse Martin Scorsese’s praise.
The heart of the film is John Garfield – brilliant, engaging, modern. He conveys so much moral complexity in this film – nothing is black and white. Joe convinces us that ambition is not wrong but simply good sense – a sign of self-respect, intelligence.
Joe thinks he can control the situation – he is playing with fire but feels that he won’t get burnt – he is too smart. He gets in over his head and the darkness takes over. Then real tragedy strikes.
There is a fascinating dynamic in this film – like a dog turning on his master and savaging him! Joe is set upon by the evil forces that he has befriended.
The film feels very moralistic, it offers judgements. It has tragic elements like The Woman In The Window however Joe is not so innocent as the Professor was!
This is the last film noir in the series to include a voice over narration leading us into a flashback.
The film is very dark and realistic – again the move to real locations is evident.
This film is a cautionary tale – powerful film-making. A classic!
The BluRay quality is superb.
Caught 1948 Melange Pictures Bluray Olive Films
I bought this on the strength of having seen Letter From An Unknown wWoman and Madame de – these 2 movies were amongst my favourite films that I saw in 2013/2014.
Caught is a good film. However it is not film noir to me. It is a dark drama. Yes there are some traits that are also found in film noirs but that is the extent of it for me.
Gun Crazy 1949 BluRay WildSide
The ride continues – another fantastic film noir!
What struck me on this viewing is how emotional I found the film. This is thanks to the acting of Peggy Cummins and John Dall who are both extraordinary.
John Dall is the one that I empathise with. He never loses his essential dignity through the film. He crosses a moral threshold and things take control of him – unlike John Garfield in Force of Evil, he senses that he will lose control and that things will end badly. It is very moving to watch his performance.
Peggy Cummins – one of the great femme fatale performances. So adorable and cute yet deadly! She wants to do things her way – she is incredibly selfish. She has no moral compass to guide her and it is sad to watch the tragic journey that she is on. The central role of the femme fatale has not been seen since Out of the Past and The Lady From Shanghai – this character is the last central femme fatale performance in the series.
The relationship between the two of them is touching yet so misguided. They are both wrapped up in the excitement of each other and what they are doing together.
This film really demonstrates the broadening of film noir – there is still some very stylish photography of Peggy and a certain glamour in how she dresses yet we are in very different territory to early noirs.
The film is less dark than classic noir – as we have seen in recent films noir has introduced more and more location shooting and countryside scenes. This film also advances in the realism department – long takes, absence of rear projection for the most part, location shooting, theme (we now are faced with protagonists who are gun-robbers).
I was delighted to get these in-car camera shots as opposed to rear projection which always bothers me.
The script is memorable in a way that all great film noirs have in common. The script is very powerful and cleverly addresses issues of the Hays Code restrictions. This film makes us empathise and even sympathise with a couple involved in a crime spree. This is extremely controversial subject matter for this point in history. It is no surprise to learn that one of the co-writers was Dalton Trumbo (under the alias Millard Kaufman – Dalton had been blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to testify at HUAC). Dalton specialised in getting subversive themes into scripts that would pass the Hays Code censorship – we will see him in our next film.
A great film! A cautionary tale. A film subject that would resurface later in Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers etc.
Definitely a shift in the subject and atmosphere of noir. The city nightscape which has been such a feature in early film noir has all but disappeared here.
The WildSide BluRay release is something to behold. A wonderful print and it contains Eddie Mullers book “Un film de Joseph H.Lewis?” – I have yet to read it.
The Prowler 1951 DVD VCI Entertainment
Another really great film noir! My first viewing.
Dalton Trumbo again is a co-writer and is the main reason why this script got the OK from censors office. The dialogue is very effective and the film is full of realistic emotions.
Again we can the see development of film noir – more location shooting, desert scene, the dialogue is more realistic less pulpy, the protagonists are more seedy and we sympathise less with them if at all.
This film is very uncomfortable viewing.
I was uncertain about Evelyn Keyes’ motives for quite some time – testament to the script, acting and directing. She is very complex and not always easy to understand.
Van Heflin – this is an amazing performance. Very unique and well-fleshed out character: menacing, smart, amoral.
Beautifully shot crisp black and white photography that is such a joy to watch in this excellent DVD presentation (coming to BluRay in February 2015!).
Theme – protagonist crosses the line to get what he wants. No woman is corrupting him – he is rotten from the outset. He exploits this woman who is lonely, anxious, scared and unfulfilled in her marriage.
The ending is terrifying. The image of Van Heflin trying to run up the sand hill is such a powerful image – there is no escape!
At the end Evelyn is left a widow, alone with her newly born daughter. Bleak! Extraordinary that it passed the censors.
This film is very sordid and bleak material yet thrilling to watch due to powerful direction and acting.
The Big Heat 1953 Columbia BluRay Twilight Time
I find this film to be very powerful. I have seen it 4 or 5 times in the last 2 years or so and it really is impressive on BluRay.
Lang is such a distinctive voice – he is an excellent visual storyteller. The opening suicide scene impresses me everytime I see it.
The camera movements always feel just right. Lang gets incredible acting performances from everyone. He uses music judiciously and very effectively.
Lang is a master at creating an atmosphere of violence on screen. There is a real threat of violence behind so many characters in this film.
This film is scathing in it’s portrayal of corruption. A line exists from the gangster boss Lagana through the police commissioner down to the police station.
The role of Bannion is very difficult to pull off. It is not a realistic character – it is a vigilante type hero. Bannion is a good man driven to recklessness because the system is so corrupt. When his wife is murdered he knows who did it and that only by his own methods can he bring about justice. I find Glenn Ford to be very convincing in a very difficult role. His scenes with his wife (Brando’s sister Jocelyn) are very tender and contrast with the extreme violence of the film.
The acting is perfect. Let me highlight Jeanette Nolan as Mrs. Duncan – truly cold like blue steel! Lee Marvin is a revelation. Gloria Grahame’s performance gets stronger every time I see it.
The film feels like a studio production. Lang excelled at production design and we feel it here – in contrast to some of the more realistic films that we have recently seen.
The film cannot be said to make much use of chiaroscuro photography – it is shot in a very classical manner.
This is essentially a crime drama which turns into one man’s quest for justice. I would not call this a strong representation of the film noir style however there are enough strong noir elements in the film for me to include it as a film noir – the sense of corruption everywhere and the glamorous front that Lagana and his boys exhibit. Gloria Grahame is a glamour puss. Mrs. Duncan is a ruthless woman.
Very lean movie, brisk pace. I really like it!
Crime Wave 1953 DVD Warner
The shift in film noir is further evidenced here – we are a long way from Double Indemnity!
Realism – Andre De Toth in an interview late in his life stated that location shooting is a must for film noir – early classics were studio productions? As we have seen location only became possible during WW2 and it gradually increased in popularity towards the end of the 1940s.
Andre De Toth believed in truth, reality and hence location shooting. In this film everything feels real – they shot in LAPD offices. There is some rear projection at the end after the bank robbery scene – the commentary hypothesised that these were most likely studio retakes. I am sensitive to rear projection and they stick out like a sore thumb here.
This was my first viewing and it is a tremendous B-Picture film - taught, realistic, suspenseful – with wonderful characters and relationships.
Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk have a wonderful relationship – full of tenderness and decency.
Sterling Hayden – brilliant presence. Determined effective cop – his methods are questionable but he is on the side of the law. James Ellroy said that his Bud White L.A Confidential character was based on this performance.
Charles Bronson is slightly wooden with his speech. I did not recognise him and I thought he was a professional athlete with his developed biceps.
Lovely crisp photography – not especially expressionnistic.
The film was shot in 13 days! November to December 1952. Really high quality film-making here.
Film noir has developed into a taut crime drama (early ones are murder mysteries). Realistic. Location Shooting. The dialogue is still extremely memorable but has a harder, more gritty feel to it. Not like the smart Chandler patter.
I imagine that this was a major influence of The Killing.
Kiss Me Deadly 1955 MGM BluRay Criterion Collection
This is an outstanding B-Picture film noir – remember Paul Schrader called it “the masterpiece of film noir”!
The director Robert Aldrich had been an assistant on Body and Soul.
Here he gives us an original film noir that further expanded the genre.
I love the opening of this film – the shock of the woman stepping out into the road accompanied by harsh music. Then the car radio playing Nat King Cole softly singing Rather Have The Blues adding such a mysterious atmosphere as the woman is picked up by Mike Hammer. So much tension and atmosphere is established immedietly in the opening scene.
Mike Hammer is a private detective – there has not been a private detective story in my list since Out Of The Past and it is very much associated with the early period of film noir.
Ralph Meeker gives us one of the great private detective portrayals – unlike anything that we have seen before. The world that he works in is different – it is not a stylised Chandler world nor the romantic/heroic world of Jeff Markam. Mike Hammer is tough, selfish (isn’t that necessary in his line of business) and has questionable ethics (involved in divorce proceedings and that involves some underhand moves). In much of what I have read people call him stupid and sadistic – I strongly disagree. To me he is very smart – just a bit naive in thinking that he is bullet-proof (like John Garfield in Body and Soul/ Force of Evil) and so he bites off more than he can chew! I do not find him sadistic – his threatening manner is simply an effective method to aid his investigations.
I am on his side throughout the movie. Ralph Meeker is outstanding – I believe every word, every gesture.
I love how they pick up the Rather Play The Blues song again when Mike visits the nightclub – adds to this feeling of things being linked and adds emotion to the film.
Maxine Cooper as Velda is a little unconvincing I find.
The plot is very complex – I think I got the full story this time but am not 100% sure.
The film has so many of the pulp elements that are so important to film noir – the dialogue, the dames, the colourful crooks, the twists in the story.
The secret box is such a wonderful plot – as the world entered the nuclear age this was the power to be reckoned with. It has parallelles with the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark – mankind had created a power of unnatural force.
The mythological association between Lilly and Pandora’s Box is unmistakable.
End of the film is terrifying - a new power has been unleashed.
It is so satisfying to see just how effective special effects could be in a 1955 film – the light and sound effects when Mike first opens the lid of the box are simply terrific and perfectly believable.
Film was shot in 20 (or 22?) days on quite a low budget – remarkable what they could do back in this era of film-making in such a short time period of shooting. Real professionals!
The Big Combo 1955 BluRay Olive Films
Again I am speechless!
This film is a work of art! The photography is nothing short of breathtaking. I cannot praise John Alton enough and it is superb to have his images on BluRay looking so good!
The opening of this film is something that many of us associate with film noir – a city night shot and jazz music. This is actually extremely rare in film noir and only appears in later 1950s films (somewhat in the classical/jazz opener for Crime Wave and particularly here in the Big Combo and Sweet Smell of Success)
We get so much great noir photography here – achingly beautiful black and white contrast, city streets with the polished cars glistening, neon lights animating the streets – reminds me of the sparkling diamonds on women in many classic black and white films.
Again here we have no rear projection!
I feel that Crime Wave and The Big Heat are likely influences on this film.
All of the acting is excellent – Cornel Wilde has a few unconvincing moments. Jean Wallace is mesmerising – she brings so much feeling to the role. Beautifully shot- the hospital head shot with the light illuminating her face is almost spiritual. One of the major themes in the film is the fight to regain Susan’s soul.
Richard Conte is brilliant – just perfect.
The theme of power is all over this film – Mr.Brown has power (over women, his employees, his rivals, the law, his ex-wife etc.) through his violent ambition, his confidence, his willingness to act, his money and his “personality”. He is the Alpha Male- however ultimately power turns on itself.
I am very close to calling this a Masterpiece! Independent B Picture!
The Killing 1956 BluRay Criterion Collection
Again this film demonstrates the change in film noir - emphasis on crime dramas
This film is very much a realistic enactment of a racetrack heist laced together by the drama of the individuals participating in this crime. The voice over narration does influence the atmosphere – it reminds me of T-Men and does push the film towards the police procedural and is in contrast to the romantic voice over narration that was such a feature in classic noir. It must be said that Kubrick was against the voice over which was a studio request.
In film noir characters need to be larger-than-life. Kubrick builds an array of complex stories that interweave and ultimately it is the personal stories that determine the fate of these individuals.
Elisha Cook Jr and Marie Windsor are a classic noir couple - Elisha is a feature of so many early noirs (Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep) and Marie Windsor is one of the most acclaimed of the femme fatales – Force of Evil etc. Their scenes and dialogue together are classic –his pathetic behaviour and her cruel taunting of him. She delivers some of the greatest lines of pulp dialogue (Jim Thompson needs to be credited for this).
Another step away from classic noir is the photography which is not particulary expressionistic – the lighting of the film seems to take a back foot to the fluidity and movement of the camera which gives a very free feeling to the film.
24 days shooting! These major achievements on short schedules should be a source of inspiration for aspiring film-makers.
Great Criterion edition as always – I did not watch Killer’s Kiss.
Sweet Smell Of Success 1957 BluRay Criterion Collection
James Wong Howe cinematographer- pure art! The Criterion picture image is exceptional and shows the beauty of the black and white photography.
This film further develops the noir landscape. it is interesting that to me this is definitely film noir - the photography, the biting corruption, the snappy dialogue and the theatrical characters. There is no murder in this film however morality has almost no place in this world!
The acting is excellent. Tony Curtis’ performance gets better every time. Sydney Falco is already greedy, inconsiderate, cruel and dishonest – Hunsucker simply pushes him to heights of sordidness that he hasn’t been to before.
Lancaster has such presence – both physical and emotional. He is like a Greek/Roman statue – chiselled face, lean body and broad shoulders. Both his physique and voice are very imposing. He really defines the role – unique. Apparently on set Lancaster could act like Hunsucker – threatening and prone to violent outbursts.
I love the side stories: the Steve/Susie relationship is very touching and the sincerity contrasts sharply with the bitter cynicism that surrounds them.
Music – the opening night city photography accompanied by jazz music is one of the few examples in film noir. The Chico Hamilton quintet lends an obviously authentic feel to the film.
The Hunsucker/Susie relationship is very dark – is there an abusive or incestuous history here?
The film feels very fresh and modern – gone is the studio feel of early film noir in favour of realism and location shooting. Iconic film – a piece of art!
Lancaster-Hecht-Hill production – seeking more challenging material than studio fare.
Film lost a lot of money with poor box office receipts – now a classic!
I was disappointed that this film is not featured in Eddie Muller’s “Dark City” book. What were you thinking Eddie?
Touch of Evil 1958 Universal BluRay Masters of Cinema
The film has the touch of a genius – almost everything feels perfect.
I remember contacting the MastersofCinemaCast podcast in July 2013 regarding their episode on this film – at the time I argued that this film has “noir” elements but is not true film noir. I even argued the point with the now-retired legendary podcaster (West Anthony) by email! How do I feel now?
Watching this series of film noirs allows me to get a better appreciation for the genre – I can see that my previously held view of what film noir is relates principally to those early film noirs – from Double Indemnity through to Out of the Past. These are films with scorching femme fatales, protagonists crossing the moral threshold due to greed or lust, Chandleresque dialogue, theatrical studio production design. Now going through these films in sequence my definition has broadened and I now feel that Touch of Evil is a quintessential film noir.
I now believe that Touch of Evil straddles the old film noir style with the new – we have a blend of theatricality (character of Hank Quinlan etc.) and realism (location shooting, outdoor vistas).
This film is in keeping with the theme of corruption that is ever-present in film noir both at the personal and societal level. Justice is oppressed by criminality (Grandi family) as well as elements of the police force (symbolised by Quinlan). In the middle of this lies Vargas – honest, driven, fearless and honourable. Yet in this world even he is realistic – he won’t interfere too much with Sanchez’s detention and interrogation.
In this film noir series we have seen some sordid (The Prowler), corrupt (The Big Heat, Ted de Corsia in The Killing) and questionable (Sterling Hayden Crime Wave) police but really they are like kittens compared to Hank Quinlan.
Quinlan is ravaged on the outside (obese, unkempt, rude, physically handicapped - limp) and on the inside (bitter, angry, morally bankrupt, dishonest and racist). Welles makes everything about him to be repulsive – the references to his wife’s murder do not register due to his violent and vengeful actions in the film – Welles brilliantly never reaches for our sympathy. Quinlan is allowed to flourish in the system due to an unintelligent and misguided policeman who is devoted to him and a corrupt, lazy and spineless D.A who cares nothing for justice and honour.
This is the modern noir landscape – a societal web of injustice that enmeshes everyone. In early noir the web was spun by a woman!
Vargas is the hero of the story but not the main protagonist. Once his wife has been exonerated he departs from the film. We are left with Quinlan and Menzies – as West Anthony highlights this is the emotional core of the film. Menzies’ naive trust in Quinlan has been shattered and he has shot the man he once idolized.
Quinlan is dead. Marlene Dietrich then utters the immortal line “What does it matter what you say about people?” Her delivery is extraordinary.
The use of music from real location gives a very modern feel to the film and this was what Welles seems to have wanted to do on Lady From Shanghai.
There is some beautiful chiaroscuro photography in this film – Grandi’s murder is pure expressionism!
The camerawork is very free and this gives a dynamic pulse to the film. Welles also demonstrates his mastery of the long shot – opening scene and Sanchez’s interrogation. The film is also full of wonderful theatrical close-ups.
Dialogue has many elements of the classic film noir over-the-top feel. Welles wrote the script.
The acting is superb – I really like Heston’s performance though I wish he was more convincing delivering his Spanish dialogue. Orson Welles gives a towering performance – he creates a monster in Hank Quinlan! Joseph Calleia skilfully gets the balance right between his misplaced loyalty and his gradual realisation of the truth and the betrayal that he feels. Marlene Dietrich is superb – she has so much presence and despite her short screen time adds so much weight to the story.
What struck me on this viewing is the shades of Iago in the story of Hank Quinlan.
This film explores very dark themes – savage endemic corruption of the justice system, drug addiction, implied gang rape, racism.
Sadly the film horrified the studio who edited the film and ordered re-shoots. The studio did not get behind promoting the film properly and as a result the film faired poorly at the box office. Again the Europeans recognised it as a classic.
What should have been the start of a new phase of Orson Welles making pictures for the Hollywood studios ended – this was his last.
I was shocked to read in Heston’s diary dated 3/7/1958 regarding screenings of The Big Country “After my wildly wrong guess on Touch of Evil, it’s a pleasure to see a film that lives up to it’s dailies. This is beyond question a superior film”. What was Charlton thinking?
I am delighted that we now have a version that is faithful to Welles’ vision.
This film is a masterpiece. It is often seem as being the last notable film from the film noir period. I certainly won’t argue with that!
Chinatown 1974 Paramount BluRay
So with the classic film noir period behind me I was fascinated to see how I would view Chinatown.
I have never made a list of my favourite Top Ten films of all time but I am certain that if I do Chinatown will be on that list.
I think that, together with Vertigo, no other film has made such an impact on me. I watched Chinatown on BBC television about 20 years ago as a teenager and the film made an indelible impression on me.
For some reason the opening title sequence with the brown backround always reminds me of brown photographs I would have seen in my grandparent’s house.
The music immedietly sets the scene – the emotion and the tenderness.
It is a film that I believe would appeal to most people – if I wanted to introduce someone to adult serious cinema this would be the film that I would choose. As with the greatest films everything feels just right – the atmosphere, the pacing, the acting, the story and the music - testament to Roman Polanski. In an interview Roman described making this film to being on a formula one team – he says all the support was there to accomadate all of his needs throughout the production.
Robert McKee writes about this film in his Filmworks book. Robert describes the original Robert Towne screenplay as a meticulously researched screenplay based on true stories he had been told by his father concerning the scandal of Los Angeles’ water supply history. Robert writes “At the climax of Towne’s screenplay, detective J.J Gittes nails the murderer and all live happily ever after.” He continues that when Paramount approached Roman to direct he “had one big problem – the ending. He couldn’t buy the idea that a two-bit private eye could win out against such enormous political power.” Robert continues “he (Roman) lifted it (the script) from good to great" and “in a gentlemanly gesture, he took no screenwriting credit on the film that established Robert Towne’s career”. In Roman (by Roman Polanski) the director wrote “I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die.”.
Robert McKee continues “Of course, to this day Towne will tell you Polanski ruined his screenplay. But make a simple comparison of Towne’s version to the shooting script, and it’s clear that virtually everything that makes Chinatown a work of art is Polanski”! I am delighted to read Robert McKee state “Some critics have called it film noir – but it’s not.” However I don’t agree with all his reasons that he gives to justify this – namely he claims that a film noir private eye would never “take matrimonial cases” – he has never seen Kiss Me Deadly!
Also Robert writes “I can’t help but think that when this film was written the world’s oldest detective story, Oedipus Rex, was not far from mind” – I had the same thought.
The period reconstruction is both beautiful and feels authentic. It is Los angeles of the 1920s and 1930s – the Hollywood of Chandler.
The private eye medium (as seen in early noirs) works so well at allowing us to journey into the complex layers of the film. As in Kiss Me Deadly here the private eye is out of his depth yet he feels that he can deliver a sense of justice. In Kiss Me Deadly his stubbornness nearly gets him killed and almost lets a criminal organisation get their hands on nuclear power. Here in Chinatown it destroys the person that Gittes’ is trying to serve – history repeats itself – Gittes said he was trying to protect someone previously in Chinatown and he ended up making sure she got hurt – here the tragedy is almost unbearable.
There are “noir” overtones to this film – Chandler Los Angeles, private detective and the corruption. However to me the feel of this film is very different to film noir.
The human tragedy and sincerity elevates this film to a very high level and I feel wrong in using the term film noir which is a genre about visual excitement, thrilling stories, anti-heroes.
We have seen so many iconic private detective characters by now – Powell and Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, Mitchum’s Jeff Markam, Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. As befits the subject matter Jake Gittes is more complex – he is more of an Oedipus character. Ultimately his interference (he calls and arranges to meet Noah Cross) makes him somewhat responsible for the horrendous tragedy that ensues.
I feel that Gittes’ journey is mainly emotional as opposed to simply solving the puzzle.
Chinatown examines abuse – the man who abuses a whole city and it’s environs and who commits the most horrendous personal abuse in the rape and impregnation of his own daughter. The ending of the film is so profoundly disturbing – where is justice both at a societal and personal level? For what reason do innocent people suffer so deeply? How can evil triumph? Roman Polanski must have asked himself these questions since the murder of his wife 4 years previous to this film.
Chinatown leaves me profoundly disturbed (as it should). The revelation scene between Gittes and Evelyn Cross is difficult to watch – her pain and humiliation touches me so deeply. I cry everytime I see this woman slapped and humiliated into revealing the abuse she has suffered and the horror that she lives with – my heart breaks everytime I see this scene. And Gittes who believes he is serving justice is shattered.
The ending is hard to bear!
The only film noirs in this series that have tragic tones are Body and Soul and Force of Evil (both Polonsky interestingly).
I do not classify this film as film noir – as I said it is film whose goal is to invoke pathos in the viewer and for this it belongs in the category of a tragedy.
Nino Frank would have been in awe of this film.
L.A Confidential 1997 BluRay
This was my 3rd viewing of the film. Again I was intrigued – will I view it as film noir?
I do not classify this as film noir. I felt that this film was closer to Goodfellas (although I have not seen this film in about 15 years) than to Chinatown or any classic film noirs. The hip old-style music adds a kind of a bubblegum feel to the film in the style of Goodfellas.
Corruption (personal and societal) is a principal theme of classic film noir. That does not mean that every film that deals with corruption is film noir! I already tried to argue this point in Chinatown. The corruption in this film is disturbing and gripping – I am currently reading Otto Friedrich’s brilliant City of Nets book and I am shocked to learn about the racism of the LAPD during the 1940s and it sheds light on L.A Confidential.
When I first watched this film I immedietly felt the echoes of Chinatown in Jerry Goldsmith’s trumpet music.
L.A Confidential is a terrific film – superb period detail, fantastic acting (I cannot praise Guy Pierce enough – he is so committed to this role and gives a truly magnificent performance), complex story that stands up to repeat viewings, good suspense-mystery element that is very satisfying. The ending certainly shies away from the tragedy of Chinatown but it is a strong ending none-the-less.
This film is more drama than film noir! Great film-making.
Mildred Pierce 2011 HBO Series
This was my final selection. I was very interested because it is a James M.Cain (the writer of the classic woman seduces man and convinces him to murder her husband stories) adaption and it is widely praised.
I was surprised how different the story was to his other film noir stories – I was waiting for desperation to set in and to result in a sordid crime being committed but it did not happen.
I found this to extremely well made – Kate Winslet gives a powerhouse performance. I cannot sing her praises enough - brave role, full of commitment. Guy Pierce is excellent. The direction (Todd Haynes) is very accomplished.
Great drama that held my attention throughout but not a film noir!