Category Archives: Noirvember

Held every year during the month of November, taking a look at classic and contemporary film noir flicks I may have missed along the way.

Noirvember II #5 – Kiss of Death (1947)

kiss_of_death_1947_b_posterKiss of Death (1947)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Eleazar Lipsky (story)
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark

Our last Noirvember feature, Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777, inspired me to check out another of the director’s more famous noir works.  Made just one year before the release of Call Northside, 1947’s Kiss of Death is arguably Hathaway’s more important contribution to film noir.  Written by the legendary Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Kiss of Death diverts slightly from the usual tropes of the genre – but still features enough elements to be seen as a significant and important effort.  Shot almost entirely on location (much like Call Northside 777), and with narration by Coleen Gray, Kiss of Death feels less documentary-like than Hathaway’s next film, but the groundwork is certainly there.  While not a significant box office or critical success at the time of its initial release, Kiss of Death would slowly come to be recognized as one of the unsung greats of film noir.  It’s since been made famous and praised for its neo realistic feel – largely in part to Hathaway shooting on location, and for Richard Widmark’s star making performance as the villainous Tommy Udo.  The film was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1948 – Best Supporting Actor for Richard Widmark, and a Best Original Story nomination for Eleazar Lipsky.

Kiss of Death stars Victor Mature (My Darling Clementine) as Nick Bianco, a desperate man who lands himself in prison after a jewelry store robbery gone wrong.  Being the only one caught, Bianco is persuaded by the District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to name names in exchange for a shorter sentence – to which he declines and receives a twenty year sentence.  Prior to this, Bianco meets a sinister man by the name of Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark).  After learning of the rape of his wife committed by his former partner Pete Rizzo, his wife’s eventual suicide, and the transfer of his daughters to an orphanage, Bianco makes an arrangement with the DA. He agrees to help them solve a separate case in which Rizzo was implicated, being allowed to see his daughters in exchange.  Finally out of prison, Nick meets up with Tommy Udo – also out of prison – and the two strike up a brief partnership which sees Nick gather verbal evidence about a murder Udo committed.  Bianco reports his findings to D’Angelo to get Udo locked up again, but he is later acquitted by the court – leaving the psychopathic Tommy Udo out for revenge.  Can Bianco get away from the murderous Tommy Udo, or will he become another in a long list of Udo’s victims? Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death!

There’s no denying that Henry Hathaway had an eye for realism, and a penchant for telling dark stories – at least with the two film noirs of his I’ve seen so far. Minor elements like shooting on location go a long way to stand out amongst the crowd, since most films of the time were still being shot on perfectly lit sound stages.  There’s something genuine about Kiss of Death, despite some of its more over-the-top elements.  It may not be the best the genre has to offer, but there’s a heck of a lot to admire about it.  The best example of this is the performance of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, far and away the best thing about Kiss of Death.  Widmark’s Udo is wonderfully villainous – bringing a palpable menace to the role.  It’s at times a little hammy (in a Joker sort of way), but it works in the context of the movie.  The film, shot by cinematographer Norbert Brodine, makes the city of New York feel fully alive – especially with it being almost completely shot on location.  Complementing the performances and photography is the writing by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who create one of the most memorable silver screen villains of the 40’s, and manage to weave a suspenseful, captivating thriller in the process.  Unfortunately for them, censors of the time forced Hathaway to cut or change a number of scenes that were too dark in tone. These scenes would have done a lot to add to the film’s weight, and would have given our hero Nick Bianco some much needed development.
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What I Liked:

  • Richard Widmark’s performance here is terrific, turning Tommy Udo into one of the most menacing presences in film noir history.
  • Victor Mature’s performance as Nick Bianco is quite good as well, acting as an effective counterweight to the sometimes over-the-top Widmark.
  • The photography is wonderfully lit in many scenes, giving that dark, smoky feel that film noir is so famous for.
  • Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer’s screenplay is quite good – creating a fully realized world, an interesting concept, and writing some truly memorable characters.
  • Tommy Udo’s character gets away with some truly shocking and brutal acts – a relatively rare thing in highly censored 1940’s Hollywood.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film would have had much more impact with its original ending – which is far darker in tone.
  • Coleen Gray’s narration feels jarring and unnatural.  There isn’t a whole lot of it, but what’s there doesn’t work in the film’s favour.  
  • Nick Bianco’s character isn’t developed well enough to truly feel for. Mature brings his A-game to the performance, but as a character I found him pretty difficult to get behind at times.  His motivations feel inconsistent, as he’s constantly shuffling between sketchy ex-crook and docile family man.

Henry Hathaway proves again with Kiss of Death that he had a terrific eye for film noir, but maybe didn’t have the skills or the budget to bring to life a true masterpiece.  His 1947 film features some very memorable elements and shocking moments, but ultimately falls short of being one of the greats.  When Kiss of Death is good, it’s very good – overcoming the production code by delivering some very brutal moments, creating a sadistic and very memorable villain, and featuring a realistic setting through its use of location photography. Henry Hathaway’s film certainly deserves a place in the film noir canon, but it just doesn’t do enough to sit with the all-time greats.  Kiss of Death is recommended.

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Noirvember II #4 – Call Northside 777 (1948)

call-northside-777Call Northside 777 (1948)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds
Starring: James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Helen Walker, Betty Garde

Without a doubt my favorite thing about film noir as a genre is its versatility – with the exception of usually featuring a few trademark elements, the classics of the genre are all so different in scope and size.  Henry Hathaway’s 1948 film Call Northside 777 is a perfect example of this – blending common noir elements with the structure and pacing of a procedural crime investigation. Henry Hathaway directed numerous film noirs during his career, with Call Northside being the most successful of the bunch.  Hathaway is probably most notable for directing one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films, the Oscar-nominated The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, as well as his work with legendary tough man actor John Wayne, directing him in North to Alaska, Circus World, The Sons of Katie Elder, and his Academy Award-winning performance in 1969’s True Grit.  The legendary director’s filmography consists of more than 60 feature films, featuring some of the greatest American actors to ever live, and spanning a wide variety of genres.

Call Northside 777 stars the always charming James Stewart as P.J. McNeal, an ambitious and brash reporter for the Chicago Times.  McNeal unexpectedly becomes involved with a ten year old murder case involving a young man named Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who is serving 99 years in prison for the alleged murder of a Chicago police officer.  Wiecek’s mother has put up a $5,000 reward for whoever can present information about the “true” killer’s of the officer, effectively proving her son to be innocent.  After learning of the reward, McNeal’s Chicago Times editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) quickly assigns P.J. to the case. Though McNeal believes Frank Wiecek to be guilty of the killing, the young reporter reluctantly accepts the job in order to prove himself as an investigative reporter.  Not wanting to be embarrassed or exposed by the investigation, Chicago police and state attorney’s become involved in the case – giving the skeptical McNeal more resistance than expected.  Will P.J. McNeal crack the case and prove young Frank Wiecek innocent, or will resistance from law officials prove too much for the young reporter?  Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777!

The addition of Call Northside 777 into this year’s Noirvember schedule was a last minute decision based entirely on two things – the film’s star, James Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite actors, and the fact that I had never seen a Henry Hathaway film.  After finding out about the movie’s procedural and investigative nature, I knew that I had made the right decision.  Call Northside 777 is nowhere near as stylistic or suspenseful as other, more-revered classics of the genre, but Hathaway’s film is a highly intriguing and graceful effort.  Northside lacks most of the trademark elements that make film noir such a captivating genre, but makes up for it with solid, uncompromising film-making, and an intriguing true story adaptation.  The procedural style of storytelling (which I have an unabashed love for) works wonders for the film’s mystery, which is small in scope but grand in its implications.  It’s often said that Hathaway never had a distinct style as a director, being known rather as something of a journeyman filmmaker. His apparent lack of a “trademark” style ultimately works in Call Northside 777’s favor – with Hathaway delivering an intriguing, concise, uncomplicated, and grounded investigation in realistic, documentary-like fashion.  James Stewart turns in a typically solid performance as P.J. McNeal, who is incredibly easy to get behind as an investigative journalist.  McNeal remains skeptical for much of the film, completing the job mostly out of obligation to his editor.  Once he’s thrown up against the resistance given by the law, he begins to question his own morals and proves that he is unafraid to go over the heads of those above him. Stewart’s performance goes against his stereotyped “golly-gee” personality, with the veteran actor instead coming off as hardened and sardonic.  All in all, Call Northside 777 isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it’s certainly quite a good one.
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What I Liked:

  • The opening minutes of the film are presented in an unflinching, documentary style that lays the groundwork for the film’s mystery.
  • James Stewart ventures slightly out of his comfort zone, giving a rock solid performance as P.J. McNeal.  
  • Henry Hathaway’s lack of a distinct style allows for the director to focus on what is most important about this film – the storytelling.
  • The pacing is slow, but deliberately so.  Stewart’s McNeal follows all possible leads, reports back to his superiors multiple times, and thwarts resistance efforts by Chicago law enforcement.  Not a minute feels wasted.
  • The scene in the final act with witness Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde) adds some effective and much needed suspense to the story.

What I Didn’t:

  • Lee J. Cobb’s character feels undeveloped to a fault.  At times it feels like he has ulterior motives for assigning McNeal to the case, but this point is never really clearly presented or followed up on.
  • The film’s conclusion, while unique, feels a little too rushed and convenient for my liking.  
  • With the convenient conclusion comes an odd and out of place tonal shift from stark and cynical to suddenly much more hopeful.

With it being a last minute addition to this month’s lineup, I couldn’t have been more surprised with my experience with Call Northside 777.  It’s no doubt a flawed film – largely due to some of its overly-convenient writing – but Henry Hathaway’s focused direction and the attention and respect paid to procedure and investigation makes this a more than worthy film noir.  James Stewart brings a good performance to the film, serving as the perfect leading man in a performance-driven piece.  It won’t ever be considered to be one of the greats of the film noir genre, but it is a solid crime film with an incredibly intriguing mystery at its core.  Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 is recommended.

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Noirvember II #3 – Scarlet Street (1945)

scarlet-street-movie-poster-1945-1020413479Scarlet Street (1945)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardiere (novel) and Andre Mouezy-Eon (play))
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Jess Barker

“Jeepers, I love you Johnny” – These five seemingly innocuous words have haunted me since my first viewing of Fritz Lang’s brilliant film noir Scarlet Street.  Coming just two years after the previously reviewed Hangmen Also Die!, Lang shows the world exactly why he is regarded as such an innovator of the genre.  Starring the prolific Edward G. Robinson as a down-on-his-luck sad sack who gets wrapped up in an apparent love triangle, Scarlet Street offers up the trademark psychological twists and turns of the film noir genre, while also serving as an intricate and complex character study.  Today, Lang’s film is hailed as one of the best films the genre has to offer, but it didn’t fare nearly as well during its initial release.  Despite being a monetary success at the box office by more than doubling its budget, some critics felt that it was cliched and unethical – definitely not the first time in the history of the medium that the consensus would vary so wildly all these years later.

Scarlet Street follows a hapless middle-aged store clerk and aspiring artist named Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) as he very literally stumbles into an unrequited romance with a younger woman named Kitty (Joan Bennett).  Cross, unsatisfied with his loveless home life, is immediately smitten with the young Kitty, who sees an opportunity to easily swindle the gullible Chris.  Together with her boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea), the two plot to extort money from Chris, whom they foolishly believe to be a famous and well-regarded painter.  Johnny, being the bold and mischievous man he is, steals paintings from our sad sack protagonist in order to sell them to an art dealer.  Through a series of misunderstandings, Kitty is given artistic credit for the paintings after art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) expresses interest in them.  This triggers an unforgettable and unpredictable chain of events that will forever change the lives of Chris, Kitty, Johnny, and all those around them. In typical film noir fashion, nobody gets off easy.

Fritz Lang is a director I’ve been interested in for many years now.  I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen nearly enough of his films, but the ones I have seen have largely been excellent.  In my opinion, Scarlet Street stands out among classics like Metropolis and M as one of his very best.  It’s an incredibly bleak, obsessive, soul-crushing affair, but that’s where most of its charm comes from. While the story may seem contrived to some viewers, it’s one of the more focused and organic film noir’s I’ve seen.  The screenplay by Academy Award winning writer Dudley Nichols (The Informer, The Long Voyage Home, The Bells of St. Mary’s) is razor sharp, pitch black in tone, and concise.  Nichols’ focused narrative, paired with Lang’s penchant for moody, dimly lit imagery and fluid camerawork, makes for one of the most satisfying film noir experiences in the history of the genre.  Edward G. Robinson steals the show as Christopher Cross – perfectly capturing the spirit of the truly sad and pathetic character. Married to a woman who still pines for her ex-husband, stuck in an unsatisfying career, and hopelessly lusting after a beautiful young woman, it’s at times difficult to sympathize with Robinson’s character.  He very rarely sticks up for himself, letting all those around him treat him like a human doormat or a sad punchline.  He’s not particularly good at anything he does, he’s not especially charming or handsome, and yet there’s something so refreshing about the character. Edward G. Robinson’s Chris is one of the most complex, layered, and ultimately tragic characters I’ve seen in the genre yet.  It’s a shame that Scarlet Street initially opened to such a lukewarm reaction, because otherwise I would have considered it a shoe-in for a host of prestigious Academy Award nominations.
edward-g-robinson-almas-perversas
What I Liked:

  • Edward G. Robinson delivers one of the most complex and powerful performances I’ve ever seen.
  • Joan Bennett’s Kitty is another standout performance, mostly in how she successfully manages to convince both Chris and the audience that her intentions aren’t cruel.  She’s the perfect femme fatale.
  • The repetition of specific sounds and phrases (the record player skipping, “Jeepers, I love you Johnny”) throughout the run-time creates a haunting and at times hallucinatory atmosphere.
  • The film’s ending is perfectly twisted and tragic – ensuring that no single character escaped the situation unscathed.
  • Dudley Nichols’ narrative felt very unique and important, despite being so small in scope.
  • Rosalind Ivan’s turn as Adele Cross, Chris’ unhappy and spiteful wife, was perfectly grating and easy to hate.

What I Didn’t:

  • The emergence of a subplot involving Adele Cross’ deceased ex-husband feels too convenient in the context of the film.  I don’t have a problem with the actual subplot – it’s just introduced far too late into the film.
  • Dan Duryea’s performance as Johnny is slightly too ham-fisted to be a believable mastermind of the plot.  He comes off as brutish and dopey – never clever enough to be perceived as an actual threat.

While perhaps not as important as some of his earliest masterworks, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is a brooding, haunting, hopelessly bleak near-masterpiece.  It features a remarkable performance by one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung stars, an excellent supporting cast, a sharp script by veteran writer Dudley Nichols, and excellent film noir imagery by one of the genre’s innovators.  It may be flawed, but it’s an unforgettable and thrilling experience that I can’t wait to revisit over and over and over again.  Much like Christopher Cross, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to purge the phrase “Jeepers, I love you Johnny” from my mind – but unlike him, I’m certainly not complaining.  Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street gets my highest recommendation.

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Noirvember II #2 – The Naked City (1948)

pdccueqhThe Naked City (1948)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Albert Maltz (screenplay), Malvin Hald (story, screenplay)
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

Note: We previously covered director Jules Dassin in last year’s Noirvember feature of Night and the City.  Check it out here.

The hot, bustling streets of New York City are the real star of Jules Dassin’s seminal film noir The Naked City.  Filmed entirely on location in the big city, Dassin’s film is quite unique and very much ahead of its time by not being confined to a sound stage like many of its contemporaries.  Impressively, this film came before Dassin’s biggest successes – Night and the City and Rififi – and serves as one of the early indicators of Dassin’s skills behind the camera. Director of photography William H. Daniels was honored with an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his brilliant photography of New York City. Daniels managed to capture the feel of a true film noir despite filming a majority of the scenes in broad daylight, creating a relentlessly hot, muggy atmosphere in the process.  When we’re not under the bright sun, Daniels captures breathtaking images of New York City horizons at sunset, giving us a wide variety of photography.  Daniels’ skilled eye, combined with Dassin’s prowess behind the camera, and frequent narration from Mark Hellinger gives The Naked City an almost documentary-like feel.

Starring veteran actor Barry Fitzgerald and the young Don Taylor, The Naked City is procedural in every sense of the word.  Fitzgerald plays Lieutenant Dan Muldoon, who we follow as he investigates the apparent murder of a young woman named Jean Dexter.  Dexter is thought to have been drowned in her bathroom, and drugged using prescription sleeping pills.  Rookie detective Jimmy Halloran (Taylor) accompanies Lt. Muldoon through the proceedings. The two question a wide range of suspects and connections, including Dr. Stoneman (House Jameson), who prescribed the pills, Frank Niles (Howard Duff), who carried out an affair with Dexter, and a veteran professional wrestler turned burglar named Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia).  Muldoon and Halloran come to the conclusion that multiple suspects are responsible, and pursue any lead they can find.  This leads to the veteran Muldoon handling much of the questioning, and Halloran on the New York City streets.  What ensues is a thrilling, suspenseful, and unpredictable turn of events that will see Jean Dexter’s killer apprehended by the authorities – but at what cost?  Find out in Jules Dassin’s excellent The Naked City!

It’s difficult not to compare The Naked City to Night and the City.  They were released within two years of each other, directed by Jules Dassin, prominently feature a moody big city atmosphere, and oddly enough feature professional wrestlers in their story.  If there’s one thing that sets The Naked City apart from Dassin’s later noir masterpiece, it’s that the former has much more personality to it.  The Naked City features elements of humor throughout, often delivered through Mark Hellinger’s excellent narration.  Hellinger’s narrator helps to personify the city of New York, further pushing the sprawling metropolis as a lead character in The Naked City.  He gives voices to the people of New York, who are going about their daily routines without knowing anything about the events taking place in the film.  The personality is furthered even more through William H. Daniel’s incredible photography, the suspenseful and enthralling crime story as told by screenwriters Albert Maltz and Malvin Hald, and some terrific early direction from Jules Dassin.  The combination of these elements creates a truly memorable and unique film noir experience, which I did not expect going into The Naked City.  It’s dark, it’s funny, and it’s beautiful – It’s everything film noir should aspire to be.
NAKED CITY, THE
What I Liked:

  • William H. Daniel’s cinematography really adds a lot to the film.  His photography brings New York City to life.
  • Barry Fitzgerald’s performance as Lt. Muldoon is a perfect anchor, bringing a lot of veteran instincts to a film featuring a great deal of newcomers and first time actors.
  • The score by Miklos Rozsa and Frank Skinner adds suspense and levity to the film, especially in its last act.
  • The final scene on the Williamsburg Bridge is terrific and feels well-earned and satisfying.
  • Mark Hellinger’s narration is humorous and insightful, it really brings the film together.  Hellinger also served as producer on the film, but died before its release.
  • The procedural elements never get too bogged down in the nitty gritty details, which definitely helps the pacing of the film.

What I Didn’t:

  • At times the reasons behind the murder of Jean Dexter felt contrived, but that pretty much sums up the motives of criminals in film noir.
  • The character of Willie Garzah should feel like more of a threat.  He does for a brief moment, only for it to crumble almost immediately.  

Having now seen three of director Jules Dassin’s most famous films, I can absolutely appreciate what he did for the genres of film noir and crime, but also for movies as a whole.  Dassin understands suspense and the importance of a strong build-up like few others – any comparisons to the works of Alfred Hitchcock seem well warranted.  The Naked City is a stylish, fast-paced crime procedural that will please viewers of any background.  It features stunning on-location cinematography, a fun lead performance by Barry Fitzgerald, sharp writing, editing, and pacing.  It truly is everything a film noir should be.  It probably won’t change your life in any meaningful way, but I think it’s safe to call it a classic of the genre.  Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is highly recommended.

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Noirvember II #1 – Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

hangmen_also_die_1943_posterHangmen Also Die! (1943)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang (story), Bertolt Brecht (story), John Wexley (screenplay)
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Anna Lee

Back in October I briefly reviewed Sean Ellis’ new film Anthropoid, the story of a secretive British-Czech joint operation to kill high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich.  That film was not the first time it has been adapted for the big screen.  Released just one year after the events took place in 1942, legendary Hollywood director Fritz Lang adapted the true story for his film Hangmen Also Die!  The film is more of a loose adaptation of the true story, as the details of the event vary wildly from those portrayed in the film.  Director Fritz Lang is responsible for some of the most acclaimed films of the era, and made an entire career out of directing suspenseful and stylish film noir and crime movies.  Some of the most acclaimed works in his prolific filmography include Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, M, Fury, The Big Heat, You Only Live Once, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street.  It is important to note that Lang left his native Germany during the rise to power of the Nazi Party, and so had a tremendous stake in the outcome of the second World War.  Fritz Lang’s influence on the film noir genre cannot be understated, first with the development of early noir in Germany, and later with his incredibly successful dark Hollywood noirs.  His trademark shadowy lighting style, pessimistic worldview, and famous composition can be identified in nearly all of his films.

Hangmen Also Die! tells the story of Dr. Franticek Svoboda (played by Brian Donlevy), who has just taken part in a mission to assassinate the “Hangman of Prague” Reinhard Heydrich.  Svoboda’s safe house is compromised at the last minute, and the young doctor is forced to seek shelter.  He meets a woman named Mascha (Anna Lee), her father Dr. Novotny (Walter Brennan), and a group of various Czech rebels who assist Svoboda by misleading the Nazi soldiers sent to find Heydrich’s assassin. Before long, an incentive program is created to out the highly sought-after assassin – Czech citizens will be executed forty at a time until the perpetrator is given up to Nazi officials.  Dr. Svoboda’s ally Professor Novotny immediately becomes a target of these executions, creating tension between the doctor and the Czech rebels.  Will Svoboda be given up to the Nazi’s, or will the Czech people work together in order to find a solution to save their own and the Heydrich’s assassin?  Find out in Fritz Lang’s 1943 film Hangmen Also Die!

With a filmography that includes some of the greatest films ever made, Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! is a difficult film to rank.  It certainly isn’t Lang’s best work – it lacks the focus and innovative filmmaking techniques that defined his work.  At the same time, it certainly isn’t a bad film by any stretch.  It’s contemplative and suspenseful, and features some really solid performances. The problem with Hangmen Also Die! is that it’s bloated and at times pretty dull. At more than two hours long, Lang’s combination of noir and war film struggles to hold the attention of the viewer, despite having a complex and intriguing plot. Unfortunately, the film features very few truly memorable moments, instead slowly building up its complicated but fascinating narrative.  It lacks many of the trademarks that make film noir such a beloved genre: there is little mystery to be found in the screenplay, no dark or guiding narration, and features a pretty basic use of the foggy, shadowy cinematography employed in the genre’s best features. Hangmen Also Die! is a film I’m very glad to have seen, but it’s one I fear won’t be committed to memory for very long.
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What I Liked:

  • The changes to the true story are enough to present an original story while also paying tribute to the courageous act of heroism.
  • The primary messages of patriotism and sacrifice in the name of country are very clear and subtle.  These themes could be over-the-top and obnoxious, but instead become uplifting.
  • The supporting players serve as the most compelling performances in the film.  Highlights include Walter Brennan’s Professor Novotny and Gene Lockhart’s Emil Czaka.
  • The film never resorts to cheap action set pieces to push the suspense and stakes.  The core story elements are more than enough to make the plot feel important.

What I Didn’t:

  • Fritz Lang’s usually innovative and brilliant direction seem to be missing – replaced instead by slightly uninspired filmmaking.
  • The runtime is completely unearned, especially since so much of it is spent on what feels like such minor elements of the story.
  • The lack of established noir elements makes Hangmen Also Die! feel like something of an ugly duckling in the genre.  The basic framework is there, but things just don’t feel right.
  • The audience is never given a reason to despise Heydrich as much as the Czech people in the film do, which creates something of a disconnect between viewers and the movie.

While Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! isn’t a great film, it certainly isn’t a bad one by any means.  The film’s story often feels important and heavy, even if it’s a little bloated due to its runtime.  Supporting players like Walter Brennan and Gene Lockhart deliver solid performances, but they’re at times undermined by the slightly uninspired filmmaking and lack of classic film noir elements. Hangmen Also Die! is absolutely a better film than Sean Ellis’ recent Anthropoid, but it’s also a completely different one altogether.  It’s a respectable and entertaining tribute to the acts of heroism by the Czech people during a time of great turmoil, and delivers an important message about these same themes.  It probably won’t change your life – nor is it a great starting point for those looking to be introduced to film noir – but Hangmen Also Die! is recommended.  

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Noirvember Feature #10 – Touch of Evil (1958)

TouchofevilTouch of Evil (1958)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles (based on Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Marlene Dietrich

Orson Welles is without a doubt one of the most stories directors in Hollywood history.  His feature length debut film, Citizen Kane, is known as one of the greatest films ever made, and even managed to completely re-define the way films were made.  His influence is felt to this very day, not only through Citizen Kane, but his other ambitious projects like Shakespeare adaptations Macbeth and Othello, the Academy Award nominated The Magnificent Ambersons, his documentary essay film F For Fake, and his film noirs like The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and the final Noirvember feature, Touch of Evil.  Welles’ film noir is often regarded as one of his best films, and one of the last “true” film noirs of the era, and because of this it’s only fitting that I’ve picked it to close out this month’s festival.  The film was released in 1958, and would prove to be the final project that Orson would direct on American soil.  After the release of Touch of Evil, Welles would focus on strictly European productions, and would move onto more challenging projects than ever before, even tackling ambitious projects he had no hope to finish.  By the time Welles passed away in 1985, his list of incomplete films would rival his own finished filmography, many of these projects developed after the release of his last film noir.  Touch of Evil has been met with both wide amounts of praise and controversy over the years, mostly because of its whitewashing of non-white characters.  The biggest offense comes in the form of Charlton Heston, who in the film plays a Mexican man, but in real life is as American as they come.  His character wears dark-colored makeup to give him the appearance of a Mexican-born man, and critics and historians alike have questioned the choice of not just casting a real Hispanic actor.  Despite this questionable casting blunder (Heston is still incredible in the role), Touch of Evil has endured the test of time on most other fronts, and is now widely considered to be not only one of the best film noirs of all-time, but one of the great films of the 1950’s.

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The film begins on a quite literally explosive note, seeing main characters Ramon Miguel (or Mike) Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) brush with death multiple times by strolling past a car containing a ticking time bomb.  When the car passes the over American border, it finally explodes. The sudden explosion kills those within the car, and quickly launches the drug enforcement officer Miguel Vargas into an investigation. The leader of said investigation is Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a no-nonsense, disheveled, and clearly past his prime officer of the law.  Vargas unofficially joins the efforts by Captain Quinlan, and the team soon comes to suspect that the incident has been perpetrated by Sanchez (Victor Millan), the secret husband of the victim’s daughter.  After Vargas accidentally uncovers some very dirty police work by Quinlan and gang, he launches into a full independent investigation of the man’s previous detective work.  The investigation proves Vargas’ hunch correct, and he finds that Quinlan has been planting evidence and sentencing innocent men for years.  When Vargas and his wife suddenly become the targets of unwanted attention by the brother of a suspected bomber, they are moved into a small roadside motel in the middle of nowhere.  While Vargas is out trying to fight the corruption found in Captain Quinlan’s police force, his wife Susan is unknowingly being stalked and her motel room cased.  Will justice prevail over corruption, or will the efforts of Miguel Vargas prove to be fruitless?  Find out in Orson Welles’ incredible Touch of Evil.

Wow.  Even if Noirvember had somehow been a complete disappointment in my books, Touch of Evil is a film so good that its presence alone would have made the marathon a success!  Orson Welles is a filmmaker I’ve always admired greatly, and Touch of Evil only furthers my esteem for the great Hollywood mind.  Not only is his direction incredible throughout (especially the opening long-take, finally interrupted by a massive explosion), but his performance is one of the film’s many standouts.  His drunk, sleazy border sheriff character Captain Quinlan feels larger than life while never becoming hamfisted, and the whole thing is so perfectly believable in its execution.  Charlton Heston and the future Psycho star Janet Leigh have terrific chemistry throughout, and both performances capture ideal characters who believe in justice above all, and are blind enough to fail to see the danger lurking immediately before them.  Despite the role being unfortunately whitewashed, Heston’s on-screen presence makes you immediately forget about the injustice, and instead focus on and appreciate the subtlety in the actors performance.  Heston, who before this had largely starred in epics like Julius Caesar, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments, showed restraint and talent that I had no idea the actor even had.  Touch of Evil is a film so well-realized and so atmospheric that it instantly makes you forgive its overly-complex and convoluted story, and instead focus almost entirely on the artistry at hand.  The film was originally released in a double bill as something of a B-movie, and would go on to crush the hopes Orson Welles held for a Hollywood relaunch.  The handling of the film by Universal was so unbelievably botched that it almost sounds like fiction.  Instead of releasing and embracing this great film noir directed by one of the all-time great directors, and starring a cast of A-list stars, the studio would feel ashamed of the effort and instead bury it in trash.  It makes me so incredible happy to see the public opinion of the film change to such a positive one, and it’s so incredibly deserved for a masterpiece like Touch of Evil.

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Orson Welles’ final Hollywood production would prove to be a financial flop, but would fortunately be looked at historically as one of the best films ever made.  Touch of Evil is a beautiful, dark, and atmospheric noir that features incredible direction by Welles, terrific performances by the entire cast, and some incredibly tense moments that you’ll have to see to fully appreciate. It is a film I’m disappointed took me so long to finally see, but I know it’s one I’ll never forget.  Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil gets my highest recommendation.  

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Noirvember Feature #9 – Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

KissMeDeadlyKiss Me Deadly (1955)
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Written by: A.I. Bezzerides (based on Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane)
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez

Robert Aldrich is perhaps one of the best known directors of the entire marathon, with a filmography including Noirvember’s latest feature Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Flight of the Phoenix, and The Longest Yard.  To say that Aldrich has had an undeniable influence on the history of genre filmmaking is an understatement.  Some of the films listed above are very likely to have paved the way for the future generation of blockbuster and big budget filmmakers.  Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly came early on in his directing career, and would would go on to be recognized as one of his great films.  The film perfectly captures the manic paranoia of Cold War era United States.  Nearly every character in the film is mysterious, immoral, unpredictable, and dangerous, just like the threat of imminent nuclear war during the 1950’s.  Kiss Me Deadly stars Ralph Meeker as detective Mike Hammer, a role that would define his career of starring in low budget and cult films.  The success of Kiss Me Deadly can’t be attributed to its director or star, both of whom were relatively unknown as the time of its release, but rather the controversy and discussions that were generated by the famous film noir.  Both the controversial beginning and ending of the film have had critics and historians poring over and debating the merits of Kiss Me Deadly for decades now.  The fact that people are still talking about this film sixty years after its release speaks for itself as far as the final judgment made by the public.

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Kiss Me Deadly begins with detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picking up an extremely distressed hitchhiker Christina (Cloris Leachman).  The panicked woman tells Hammer to drive her to the bus station, where he can then forget all about her.  She mentions that if for some reason they don’t make it to the bus station, that it’s important the detective should remember her.  Hammer and Christina are quickly run off the road, the hitchhiker brutally tortured and murdered, and Mike left for dead.  He wakes up to find himself in the hospital, and very quickly gets to work on trying to solve who the woman was, and what she was on about.  Mike quickly finds out that Christina had escaped from a nearby mental asylum, that she had important knowledge held by few, and that the people who are responsible for her death are now after detective Hammer.  Unfortunately for them, detective Mike Hammer isn’t a man who can be bullied into submission by thugs, because our main character is every bit corrupt and dirty as the criminals he is now chasing.  After meeting Christina’s supposed roommate, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) Hammer learns of a valuable box she held in her position, whose contents are a mystery.  We later come to find out what the contents of the mysterious box are and what they represent, and hold the knowledge that if opened could forever change the lives of those around it.  Will Mike Hammer track down the men responsible for Christina’s death and recover the mysterious box, or will the detective be outmatched and outgunned by the clever criminals chasing him?  Find out in Robert Aldrich’s incredible Kiss Me Deadly.

“If I catch ya snooping around with a gun in your hand, I’ll throw you in jail!” – Going to jail is literally the least of Mike Hammer’s concerns in Kiss Me Deadly, and that fact only makes the film greater in its high stakes nature.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve watched the film nearly three times in the last week in order to fully comprehend the twists and turns it makes, as well as understand the fairly complex plot at hand in the film.  At first nothing clicked with me, and I thought that maybe Kiss Me Deadly’s complex and fast-paced plot and large cast of characters just wasn’t for me.  On a rewatch, however, I found out just how wrong I was.  Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, based on a novel of the same name by writer Mickey Spillane, is an incredibly taught and suspense noir, and will very likely go down as one of the most memorable I’ve seen to date.  The cast of characters are all corrupt crooks looking out for themselves, which helps establish the film’s dark and eerie mood.  Mike Hammer is such a complex and unique character that it took me those three watches to finally appreciate him.  I can’t possibly imagine how Ralph Meeker’s performance as Hammer didn’t launch him into a more notable career, but at least it’s here for us to praise all these years later.  The film’s climax is one of the most nihilistic and downtrodden I’ve ever seen, not just in the film noir genre I’ve been featuring this past month.  I can’t possibly spoil it for anybody reading, but I’ll say that it’s explosive in its energy and suspense, and that it’s well worth the wait.  Kiss Me Deadly can be looked back upon as the originator of the “mysterious box” trope found in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which was inspired by Aldrich’s film.  The film is an obvious product of Cold War era Hollywood, feeling incredibly paranoid and untrustworthy in every twist and turn it makes, and this helps further the plot and character building in its own unique way.  

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In all of its dark, moody, corrupt, and paranoid glory, it’s easy for me to say that Kiss Me Deadly is an absolute masterpiece of the genre.  The character of Mike Hammer is incredibly complex and a delight to watch onscreen.  It makes me wish that more serious adaptations of the novels featuring him as a character were made, and that the team of Aldrich and Meeker were able to collaborate on more than one of them.  Kiss Me Deadly is about as depressing as film noir gets, and it works in every single frame.  I can say without a doubt in my mind that Kiss Me Deadly is highly recommended, and that anybody reading this would find something in it to fall in love with.

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