Film noir aficionado Ray (“Cigar Joe”) Ottulich has launched a new blog where he will collect his film noir reviews from various forums, and post new reviews and noir-related snippets. The blog is appropriately titled Noirsville.
Ray over the past few years has introduced me to a number of b-movies and little-known neo-noirs, and Noirsville is a very welcome addition to the film noir blogosphere.
Click here to read his latest post on Arouse an intruiging and very obscure neo-noir from 1966.
Film Noir had antecedents in the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and French Poetic Realism in the 30s, but there are movies from other national cinemas that also explored the corrosive aspects of modernity.
Three films that have recently come my way are in this vein. One is a German silent and the other two are later films from Finland. All feature little known actresses with a stunning cinematic presence.
While Asphalt (1928), a late silent film from German director Joe May, is perhaps not in the same class as the UFA films of Fritz Lang and other Expressionist luminaries, this modest effort is firmly grounded in the bustling and bohemian life of 20s Berlin. The opening title sequence is a rhythmic documentary survey of the bustle of the modern city punctuated by pneumatic drills breaking up roads. Even tar and cement have a limited life in this burgeoning metropolis. The camera then focuses on a young traffic cop following his banal occupation. But not for much longer. On his way home he gets mixed up with a glamorous gamin who has tried to lift some jewellery from a jeweller. Seduction and circumstance soon envelope the protagonists in a dark web of passion and tragedy. The luminous ex-pat American actress Betty Amann plays the erotic femme fatale with a panache that is sensual yet hesitant, and totally sincere. A gritty melodrama that strives to greatness.
In 1938 Finnish director Nyrki Tapiovaara made Stolen Death (aka Varastettu kuolema), an elliptical thriller about a revolutionary political cell in Helsinki. Impatient for action the protagonists embark on an ultimately futile and tragic attempt to buy weapons from an arms dealer. A dark erotic triangle frustrates the actions of the fervent group of naïve young radicals. Romance, subterfuge, and betrayal are played out on urban streets and in deep focus, and mostly as a silent film, with many enigmatic scenes serving to enhance the intrigue. The moody expressionist cinematography and the tragic scenario pulsate with poetic realism. The doomed heroine played by Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo. A great film.
Director and writer Teuvo Tulio produced a string of Finnish melodramas in the 30s and 40s. Last year I reviewed The Way You Wanted Me (1944 aka Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit), a dark frenzied tale of a fallen woman, hurtling along roads of melodrama from an idyllic first love on a rural island to the hell of Helsinki bars and bordellos. From youthful abandon in the sun to a night of decrepit darkness, a young woman’s journey to perdition is one of relentless betrayal by men and by fate. Tulio’s Cross of Love (1946 Rakkauden risti) is yet another torrid melodrama of rural idyll and innocence destroyed by metropolitan decadence. What distinguishes this film is the sublime performance of Regina Linnanheimo as the tragic victim, and a tour-de-force opening sequence around a tempest at sea. The chaotic expressionism of wild scenes featuring a madman in an isolated lighthouse on a stretch of treacherous reef, jumps off the screen with a violence that has you mesmerised. A must-see.
Hollywood made two attempts at adapting Dashiell Hammett’s pulp masterpiece The Maltese Falcon before John Huston scripted and directed the definitive adaptation in 1941. The stunning serendipity of the casting of Huston’s film defines the characterisations in concrete for all time. Yet it is still worth looking at the earlier movies as they each offer their own flavour and particular piquancy.
In 1931 Roy Del Ruth directed a largely faithful scenario penned by Maude Fulton and titled The Maltese Falcon, starring would-be heartthrob Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and the voluptuous Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly. The studio being Warner Bros. and the times pre-code, the picture has a dark gritty feel, and the sexual sparks between Spade and Wonderly are bright and thunderous. There is a coy frivolity in their antics even though in the end Bebe gets no reprieve. An early sequence starting with a scene showing a silhouette of a couple kissing in Spade’s office, which then cuts to one focused on a pair of shapely legs leaving the office, has pre-code all over it, and deftly establishes that Cortez’s Spade is definitely a lady’s man. His secretary Effie spends a lot of time on his knee while otherwise engaged in more routine office duties. The rest of the casting got the job done, and it is interesting to see Dudley Digges’ seedy portrayal of a very thin Gutman. Interesting too is seeing Bebe Daniels taking a bath, and her bare shoulders after stripping in Spade’s kitchen to prove she hadn’t palmed some of Gutman’s cash. It all gets serious by the end though.
Satan Met A Lady directed by William Dieterle in 1936 plays fast and loose with Hammett’s story, and mainly for laughs. Warren Williams as the private dick and femme-fatale Bette Davis chew up the scenery with rambunctious over-the-top portrayals. While a lot of the humour is over-played, ironically the whole affair can be seen as a cheeky satire of film noir made before Hollywood actually made one! While Williams’ exuberance is perhaps too theatrical, Davis is a delight, revelling in screwball antics that still have a whiff of pre-code insouciance. She has the best line in the movie when she is holding a gun to Williams – who throughout dons a hat which must have been borrowed from a nearby Western set – and demands “Take off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun!” Another novelty is the Gutman character played as a matronly but mean old lady. Great fun.
I haven’t posted here for a while: I have my own demons to contend with and my attention scatters.
The recent release of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) on Blu-ray coincided with my reading of Dorothy B. Hughes original novel. The film has the same principal characters and the story-line is similar, but when you compare the ethos of Hughes’ story with the film’s screenplay, there is a big disconnect.
The film is a call to good ol’ Americanism. The novel is decidedly down-beat and has a mystical element shaped from a locus of events played out over only a few days in a small New Mexico town during Fiesta. Hughes’ prose explores the tension between the hard-boiled musings of the criminal protagonist, the stoicism of the native Indians, and the pagan-inflected Catholicism of the local Latinos. There is the counterpoint of an unlikely friendship between three very different people: a Gringo desperado named Sailor, a young Indian girl, and Pancho a dirt poor Mexican man who operates a merry-go-round. Pancho’s tequila-fuelled philosophy centres on the local Indians and – to borrow a recent expression of an otherwise high falutin’ intellectual hubris – the end of history:
“Because they do not care -for nothing. Only this their country. They do not care about the Gringos or even the poor Mexicanos. These peoples do not belong to their country. They do not care because they know these peoples will go away. Sometime.” “A long time,” Sailor said, seeing the little shops, the dumps and the dives. It wasn’t easy to get rid of the stuff that brought in the two beets feefty sants. “They can wait,” Pancho said patiently. “The Indians are a proud peoples. They can wait. In time . . .” One thousand years. Two thousand. In time. Maybe it was the way to do things, not to worry about the now, to wait for time to take care of things. What if the measure of time was one thousand, two thousand years? In time everything was all right. If you were an Indian. Maybe that was the terror the stone Indian generated. In time, you were nothing. Therefore you were nothing. He’d had enough of Pancho’s tequila philosophy. Enough of thinking. “Drink up,” he said. “I got to get some sleep. Got business to take care of tomorrow.” Pancho squinted at the small remaining drink. “You promised your sainted mother.” He filled his mouth with the tequila, rinsed it from cheek to cheek, savouring it.
Don’t get me wrong. The movie is great. One of the signature noirs. My review from four years ago is here. I love it. But Hughes had more and deeper things to say than Ben Hecht and Robert Montgomery allowed.
Late night LA. A taxi-driver on the graveyard shift picks-up a fare. The passenger is edgy and well-heeled. He will pay good money for the cabbie to just drive while he waits for a call on his cell phone. It isn’t long before the edginess infects the driver. When can he dump this guy who is getting liquored up and more and more desperate? The booze loosens his tongue. He is in trouble. A financial scam. Big money. The driver has got more than he bargained for. Or has he?
Independent film-maker Steve Anderson’s new feature is a crowd-funded movie that looks like a big studio production. Helped by seed funding garnered through the Bogart Estate and a reboot of Bogie’s original production company, Santana Films, Anderson has brought some serious talent together in this slick production. Visceral and confronting it ticks all the boxes: tight scripting and dialog, fluid editing, solid acting, assured direction, an effective low key score, and visually inventive. The scripting and editing seamlessly handle flashbacks and exposition with real finesse. The cinematography of Patrick Mead Jones is lush and assured, with a real feel of a big city late at night. Jones deftly demonstrates you don’t need monochrome and deep shadows to portray the night soul of the metropolis. The three principal players, Rhys Coiro, Xander Berkeley, and Carly Pope, are pitch perfect in their portrayals and thoroughly convincing. A truly ensemble effort. Pope’s black widow is a master-class in malevolence.
This Last Lonely Place is unflinching and while it’s graphic violence is not for the squeamish, the pathology and greed that drive the narrative give it context.
The movie will be released on October 28. You can check out the trailer and if you have some spare lucre support the marketing effort at IndieGogo.
The HBO television hit True Detective (2014) on its face is a mystery thriller with gothic overtones. The pursuit of justice for children disappeared and remembered only by loved ones and an obsessed damaged cop, is itself a dark journey through a dank swamp of troubled minds. Here is where the resonance of writer Nic Pizzolatto’s story has its source. Not so much in the plot-line of moral corruption and cover-up, but in the troubled lives of the two detectives and of those on the periphery of the search for a deranged killer in the seductively scenic bayous of Louisiana. One a desperately lonely man trying to escape his deadening upbringing and a family tragedy, in a fervid nihilism that is probably right yet not a way anyone can live without drowning in booze, cigarettes, and drugs. His desperation is not quiet. More vocal and in your face. His partner is a man who refuses to grow up, to face his aging visage in the mirror, or the imperatives of his familial obligations. He destroys that which he holds most dear through neglect and sexual indulgence. Then there are the lost souls encountered on the way. The preacher lost to disillusion and alcoholism. The mother who has lost a daughter first to drugs and prostitution, and lastly to murder, her hands toxically disfigured by workplace exposure to dry cleaning fluid. And the parents who have lost children and are in a place between living and dying.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Deux Hommes dans Manhattan (1959) is a monochrome homage to New York, yet manages to be a caustic satire on the values that drive the neon-encrusted metropolis. Where night brings to light the fractured morality feeding the mill grinding out the glitz. A French diplomat has disappeared and a journalist from Agence France-Press sets out to find him. The journalist recruits another French ex-pat to help. A paparazzo and a lush with the right connections. The search for the married diplomat’s girlfriends ergo the diplomat covers a night and early morning on the streets and in the dives of Manhattan. An ironic jazz score, “cool” ambient music, and surreal encounters with spaced-out women give a bizarre edge to the scenario. Melville’s cuts and edits give the visuals an added bounce. The photography is crisp and there is a vibrant 50s feel. But the vibe is French. Melville and his DP Nicola Hyer portray the city through a continental filter. A comparison with Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) filmed in New York at around the same time underlines this most strange phenomenon.
Orson Welle’s The Trial (1962) is a vivid and faithful realisation of Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel. Another monochrome metropolis where soulless apartment buildings with claustrophobic low ceilinged rooms exist across a wasteland of highways and desolate empty blocks – a city sadly reminiscent of today’s Detroit. Monumental buildings exist but in an unreality where solitary figures fretfully traverse from massive offices laid out like factories to decaying baroque edifices infested with nameless operatives, accused ciphers, nymphomaniacs, tribunals held in massive arenas in front of baying hysterical crowds, and horrid basement cells where corporal punishment is meted out to erring cops. The Trial is your worst nightmare – and a significant rumination on the unfathomable vagaries of fate and the cruel anonymity and isolation of entrapment.