Film Noir Notes: New Melville DVDs and San Francisco Noir Locales

Le Deuxième Souffle (1966)

New Melvillle DVDs from Criterion
Criterion has released two new DVDs from French director, Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Doulos (1962) and Le Deuxième Souffle (1966).  Read the reviews at IFC Film News.

Virtual Tour of San Francisico Noir Locales
At 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 the San Francisco Film Society’s creative director, Miguel Pendás, will take you on a virtual tour of “the ritzy homes of the rich on Nob Hill to the sleazy dives of the working class on the Embarcadero to see where some of the classic moments of 1940s and 1950s cinema were set” and explore  shooting locations of classic noirs such as Dark Passage, The Lady from Shanghai, Born to Kill, Sudden Fear, and The Maltese Falcon. Guest speaker Eddie Muller will provide an historical context and talk about his favorite San Francisco noir locations. Full Details

German Expressionism: New DVD Collection

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Kino has released a 4-DVD box set titled German Expressionism Collection, which includes four silent classics from the period of German expressionism, which some film scholars consider is the genesis of the dark shadowy look of film noir.

The four titles are:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) Directed by Robert Wiene
Warning Shadows (1923) Directed by Arthur Robison
The Hands of Orlac (1924) Directed by Robert Wiene
Secrets of a Soul (1926) Directed by G.W. Pabst

The Hands of OrlacSecrets of the Soul

The release is reviewed here by Justin DeFreitas of The Berkely Daily Planet

The Harder They Fall (1956): For a few lousy bucks

The Harder They Fall (1956)

In his last role, Humphrey Bogart, as an aging down-on-his-luck sportswriter, is drafted into fronting for a mob-controlled boxer. ( Dir. Mark Robson 109 mins)

After a stunning opening which tracks a series of cars heading to a New York boxing studio, The Harder They Fall, lapses into a visually mediocre boxing movie.  Strong performances from a haggard Bogart, who died not long after completing the picture,  and Rod Steiger as the mobster, keep the interest up, but overall the picture is flat and unmoving.

Bogart’s redemption comes too late and reluctantly, and seems shallow after the avoidable death of a punch-drunk boxer in which he is complicit.

What is interesting is the inclusion of fight fans in the denunciation of the “sport”. Bogart tells the boxer Toro when trying to persuade him to throw his championship fight to avoid getting hurt:

What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you?  Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.

Another cynical touch is the scene where the mob “accountant” insists on itemising the “deductibles” from the million dollar take on the fight leaving the hapless boxer with $49.07 after “overheads”.

Factual Note: The interview on skid-row of real-life ex-boxer, Joe Greb, was not scripted or rehearsed.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

The Dark Cinema of David Goodis Series

Nightfall (1957)

Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis will run from August 1 – 23 at the Pacific Film Archive. Kelly Vance in a feature in today’s East Bay Express, previews the program and gives a short biography of Goodis.

The films to be shown:

And Hope to Die
The Burglar
The Burglars
Dark Passage
Descent into Hell
Nightfall
The Professional Man x Two
Shoot the Piano Player

The Unfaithful

There is a full program at the Archive’s web site.

Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition DVD

Touch of Evil (1958)

A special 50th Anniversay 2-DVD set of Orson Welles’ film noir, Touch of Evil (1958), to  be released by Universal on October 7, will include in three versions of the movie, which most noir pundits agree marks the end of the classic film noir cycle:  theatrical, preview and restored based on Welles’ original vision, and a copy of the  58-page memo Welles  wrote to the studio before the film’s release asking for his original-cut re to  be restored, after it had been butchered by studio hacks. The request fell on deaf ears.

More info from Welles.Net.

Body and Soul (1947): “Everybody dies”

Body and Soul (1947)

“A knockout on all levels. In what’s probably the greatest performance of his career, John Garfield portrays Charlie Davis, a Jewish prizefighter who quickly rises to the top of the heap, only to fall hard and fast. Robert Rossen‘s direction is superb, and the marvelous photography of James Wong Howe and the Oscar-winning editing by Robert Parrish set a whole new standard for fight pictures.”

TV Guide

“With its mean streets and gritty performances, its ringside corruption and low-life integrity, Body and Soul looks like a formula ’40s boxing movie: the story of a (Jewish) East Side kid who makes good in the ring, forsakes his love for a nightclub floozie, and comes up against the Mob and his own conscience when he has to take a dive. But the single word which dominates the script is ‘money’, and it soon emerges that this is a socialist morality on Capital and the Little Man – not surprising, given the collaboration of Rossen, Polonsky (script) and Garfield, all of whom tangled with the HUAC anti-Communist hearings (Polonsky was blacklisted as a result). A curious mixture: European intelligence in an American frame, social criticism disguised as noir anxiety (the whole film is cast as one long pre-fight flashback).”

– Time Out

“It is Canada Lee, however, who brings to focus the horrible pathos of the cruelly exploited prizefighter. As a Negro ex-champ who is meanly shoved aside, until one night he finally goes berserk and dies slugging in a deserted ring, he shows through great dignity and reticence the full measure of his inarticulate scorn for the greed of shrewder men who have enslaved him, sapped his strength and then tossed him out to die. The inclusion of this portrait is one of the finer things about this film.”

– Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, November 10, 1947

Body and Soul is one of the great movies of the 40’s.  The powerful screenplay by Abraham Polonsky is brought to the screen with an authority and beauty that is still breathtaking. From the editing to the photography and direction, the film is a work of art.  Throughout the picture, from the opening scene of the empty boxing ring and the fluid use of flashback and dreaming to the sensational fight climax, there is an assured elegance and, most profoundly, a freedom of expression that is rarely matched.  (The film was made by Garfield’s independent Enterprise Pictures.  Sadly, after one more great noir film, Force of Evil (1948), where the numbers racket came under the spotlight, and starring John Garfield with  the screenplay and direction by Polonksy, the company folded.)

The essential quality of Body and Soul is integrity: a masterwork by craftsmen committed not only to their craft but to film as social critique.  On one level the picture is a brilliant melodrama and expose of the fight game, and on another level a savage indictment of money capitalism where the individual has only commodity value, and the artisan and worker is owned body and soul by the capitalist. The boss and the laborer, even the crooked fight promoter and the boxer, are in antagonistic relations of production dictated by the market. When Charlie Davis in an heroic act of rebellion, in finally refusing to throw his last fight, breaks the chains of greed that bound him to a venal, shallow and alienated existence, his action is a subversive challenge not only to the crooked capitalist but to the false imperative that dictates he should act only in his material self-interest. By rejecting this false consciousness he not only exposes himself to retribution but to penury.  In the final words in the movie, spoken by Garfield to the promoter, he throws down the revolutionary gauntlet in an ironic play on the words “everybody dies” used by the promoter in an earlier scene when he writes off the life of the black boxer Ben:

Charlie: Get yourself a new boy. I retire.
Roberts: What makes you think you can get away with this?
Davis: What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.

The final sad irony is the destruction of the careers of Polonsky and Garfield, and Canada Lee, who plays the black boxer Ben, by the HUAC which-hunt only a few years later.  Garfield died prematurely in 1952 at the age of 39 as the HUAC blacklist finally took its toll on his ailing health.

Body and Soul (1947)

Framed (1975) Released on DVD

Framed (1975)

The last movie from a team of noir veterans, Framed (1975), has been released on DVD.  Dave Kehr’s NY Times review is worth reproducing in full:

Released in 1975, “Framed” is among the last of the old-school films noirs. Three principal members of its creative team were part of the genre’s prime: the director Phil Karlson (“99 River Street,” 1953), the producer and screenwriter Mort Briskin (“Quicksand,” 1950), the cinematographer Jack A. Marta (who shot close to 200 B movies for Republic Pictures). The plot is practically a pocket guide to noir conventions. Joe Don Baker, a big man with a sad mouth, stars as Ron Lewis, a professional gambler who stumbles across a homicide involving some unknown, powerful people, who get him out of the way by sending him to prison on a trumped-up charge.

When, four years later, Lewis returns to the unnamed Southern metropolis he calls home, he finds that his adversaries have taken political control of the city and are moving in on the state. But Lewis, dehumanized by his experiences, isn’t deterred: with the help of a prison buddy, a syndicate hit man with a Sonny Bono haircut (Gabriel Dell, one of the original Dead End Kids back in the 1930s), he sets out to exact a terrible, bloody revenge.

“Somebody I don’t know took everything I had away from me,” he says, in a line from the Film Noir Hall of Fame, “and I’m going to make him pay. Double.”

Karlson and Briskin enjoyed a freak hit in 1973 with “Walking Tall” — essentially, a retooling of Karlson’s noir classic of 1955, “The Phenix City Story” — with Mr. Baker as a Southern sheriff fighting corruption. Their “Walking Tall” clout allowed them to make “Framed” without compromises, and this is a harsh, unlovely film, charged with unsettling anger and filled with a violence that was quite graphic for the time, and is still startling today.

Although “Framed” would prove to be the last film for both men, it is no nostalgic farewell. It’s a poison-pen letter filled with bitterness, paranoia and despair. When Lewis finally tracks down the individual responsible for his suffering, he finds — in another classic noir device — a man much like himself, with personal reasons for what he’s done. At the end of the journey lies its beginning, a film noir way of knowledge. (Legend Films, $14.95, R)

New Criterion DVD: “The Furies”

The Furies (1950)

Criterion today released on DVD one of the great noir westerns, The Furies (1950) directed by Anthony Mann.

From the LA Times review by Dennis Lim:

In truth, “The Furies,” frontier setting notwithstanding, barely counts as a western. There are elements of film noir in both the plot and the look; many key scenes unfold under cover of darkness (Victor Milner earned an Oscar nomination for his moody cinematography). Above all, though, it plays like a Freudian melodrama, dissecting the hysterical and ultra-competitive love-hate relationship between widowed patriarch T.C. Jeffords ( Walter Huston) and his headstrong daughter, Vance ( Barbara Stanwyck).

From the NY Times review by Dave Kehr:

Mann gives the action a metaphysical dimension that overwhelms easy psychoanalytic readings. As in his films noirs (Raw Deal, Desperate), he systematically composes his shots to create a sense of instability, using lines of perspective or boldly massed foregrounds to pull the images off balance. The titanic struggle between father and daughter has knocked the world off its axis.

The Furies (1950)

Links:
LA Times Review by Robert Lim
NY Times Review by Dave Kehr
Criterion: The Furies
The New Yorker Review by Richard Brody
The House Next Door Review by Dan Callaghan

The Big Sleep (1946): Love’s Vengeance Lost

The Big Sleep 1946

Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep is one of the truly great Hollywood pictures: the Raymond Chandler novel is brought to the screen with panache and authority, and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is unsurpassed.

While the protagonist lovers are good guys and there is no femme-fatale, the movie has a strong noir aura. The darkly lit atmosphere and strong sexual tension shape our response to a grim and dissolute nether world where PI Philip Marlowe doggedly solves an enigma within a mystery, in a plot so convoluted not even the film-makers fully understood it.

The picture is essentially a love story where the lovers must overcome mutual distrust and risk all to escape a brutal nightmare of betrayal and death. The Big Sleep is a lot darker than the earlier Murder, My Sweet (aka Farwell, My Lovely – 1944). The Marlowe of The Big Sleep is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.

I find the actions of Marlowe in the final reel disturbing. He is almost a proto-Dirty Harry. Clearly shaken by the death by poisoning while he stood by of the small-time hood who leads Marlowe to the final showdown, Marlowe responds with vengeful brutality in the shootout with the goon, Canino, and then in the final scene when he confronts the crooked casino-operater, Eddie Mars.

While the killing of Canino at a stretch can be put down to self-defense, there is no moral justification apart from vengeance in the way Marlowe engineers the death of Eddie Mars – the killing is gratuitous and was not the only way out for Marlowe and Vivian. It is this final scene that marks The Big Sleep as a film noir. Marlowe has survived and got the girl – but at what cost?