Cry Terror! (1958)

Cry-Terror-Poster

James Mason, Rod Steiger, and Inger Stevens got the star credits for Cry Terror, but Neville Brand, Angie Dickinson, and Jack Klugman also deserve acting kudos in this tautly directed b-noir thriller which boasts not one but three climaxes.

An innocuous middle-class family: mum, dad, and young daughter from the suburbs are kidnapped as part of an airline extortion caper. A bomb has been planted on a passenger plane and the would-be terrorists are demanding a cool half million to disable the device. The bomb’s triggering circuit was innocently built by TV technician Dad, and Mum will be used to collect the ransom if she wants to keep hubby and the kid from harm. The scenario is sufficiently novel and the tension wound tightly enough to sustain interest throughout. Never mind the plot has holes big enough to fly a jet-liner through, and that some almost absurd derring-do in an elevator shaft staggers belief.

For a movie that runs 96 minutes there are surprisingly vivid characterizations of the major players. This comes from nuanced performances, some good dialog and, unusually for a 50s police procedural, only sketch portraits of the cops involved.

Mason is the duped father, a rather cardigan-like hand-wringer who finds unforeseen (and incredible) fortitude later on. Stevens is in melodrama-overdrive as the hysterical yet (again incredibly) when-it-counts cool under pressure mother. Steiger dominates as the patently wacko yet methodical mastermind. His menace is that more scary as you couldn’t tell him from a bespectacled bow-tie wearing 50s bean-counter. Dickinson does very well as Steiger’s girlfriend and but-is-she-really-that-ruthless? accomplice.  Brand is particularly effective as the muscle of the gang with a convincing turn as a pill-popping sexual psychopath. When Stevens is held hostage by Brand in a suburban hide-out, a perverse sexual tension is played out with a lurid simmering violence that would have made 50s audiences very uncomfortable. The studio marketing suits played this angle up with promotion stills that exposed more of Stevens’ ample bosom than in the actual movie. Klugman is good as a pseudo-nasty but nervous henchman.

The three climaxes are more than competently filmed on real locations, and edited and directed with a palpable tension by a journeymen crew, who deserve recognition: Andrew L. Stone, wrote and directed (Confidence Girl (1952), Highway 301 (1950)), Walter Strenge lensed, and Virginia L. Stone (Confidence Girl) edited. The Stones were a husband and wife team who independently produced a clutch of the thrillers in the 50s and 60s.

While the movie has the flat TV look of the period, the final dénouement in a subway station has an expressionist tone.

Definitely worth a look.

The Raging Tide (1951): More to film noir than shadows, wet asphalt, and dangerous femmes

The Raging Tide (1951)

Saying a film is overly sentimental is a pejorative pretty well entrenched in film criticism. To me what matters is sincerity, something that is in pretty short supply these days. There should be more respect for genuine emotion.

The Raging Tide starts off as decidedly noir with a violent crime at night followed by shadowy visuals as the perp – Richard Conte in an expensive suit and tie topped by a fedora – hightails it on foot across the streets of San Francisco tagged by a pounding musical accompaniment and his anxious voice-over. There are only three ways out of Frisco, and the cops have wasted no time in jamming those exits shut – because Conte has incredulously tipped the police off by a phone-call from the crime-scene as part of a weird plan to establish an alibi. The alibi is soaking wet and falls apart in quick time. This is the first of more than a few plot holes. By circumstance he ends up on the waterfront and stows away on a fishing trawler heading out of Frisco Bay.  The melodrama engine is now chugging along at a nice clip.

Back in Frisco Conte has left a girl behind. Shelley Winters is pure magic in this role with her winsome charm and simple unaffected beauty. Add a decent cop, an aging fisherman and his rebellious son on the cusp of criminality, each played with considerable skill respectively by Stephen McNally, Charles Bickford, and Alex Nicol, and you have the stuff of a misty-eyed Hollywood redemption story.  Conte as the protagonist delivers in a nuanced portrayal that grapples with emotions and regrets, matters not always explored in b-pictures, and if you read the reviews of The Raging Tide on other noir blogs, matters considered unwelcome by some noir aficionados. I say there is more to film noir than shadows, wet asphalt, and dangerous femmes.

Director George Sherman, a journeyman who had made a string b-Westerns over a long Hollywood career and a b-noir, The Sleeping City, the year before, maintains visual interest with solid direction. Aided by his DP, the great Russell Metty, Sherman fashions two truly inspired scenes. The opening noir sequence and the climax aboard the fishing trawler in a savage storm out on the Pacific.

As we are in noir territory, redemption costs, and while there are melodramatic trappings to the scenario, the sincerity of the venture elevates the movie to something greater than the sum of its parts.  Credit here should also go to Ernest K. Gann who adapted his own novel, Fiddler’s Green.

There are faults to be sure. Plot holes and longuers which focus on peripheral characters, and some corny humor, but they all go with the territory, and underscore the languor of Conte’s new life as his character evolves with the slow rhythm of the fisherman’s lot. Honest work without shame or grandeur. A decency which has been suppressed starts to emerge, and in its own fractured stuttering way changes the lives of others for the better.

So I am sucker for sentiment. Perhaps sentiment is about hope. About believing in hope. Hope that evil can be overcome, that with punishment also comes the possibility of redemption.  That though life in its patent absurdity does not bare too much thinking about, faith in something beyond the expedient, beyond selfishness, and in a spirit of humility, can imbue existence with a kind of meaning.

 

Noir Beat: Just ramblin’ and a new neo-noir short

New neo-noir short 'Killer's Sight
New neo-noir short ‘Killer’s Sight’

I have kept still long enough to pen this missive from the dark side.  The older you get the less you are satisfied, and the more impatient you become with that closing window of time. An urgency takes hold that counters lethargy yet perversely also saps commitment. Who cares if I do or don’t post?

Jim Morrison at a Doors concert at the dying end of the 60s surmised to the cheers of a young raucous audience, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I’m gonna get my kicks before the whole shithouse burns down.”  Did he? Did we? Get our kicks. As for the final cataclysm, the odds haven’t lengthened. An old man once told me, life doesn’t bear too much thinking about. He was right.

In this dystopian groove, here are some shots of filmic angst.

House of Bamboo (1955) A weak Sam Fuller effort that, for some reason known only to the cosmos, was made in wide-screen Technicolor and in Japan. A sort of dark The World of Suzie Wong.  Robert Stack goes undercover to infiltrate a mob of American hoods headed by Robert Ryan, and not a Yakuza in sight. Muddled and borderline boring. Some see a homoerotic subtext.

New Orleans Undercover (1955) B-auteur William Castle helms an interesting 50s-style police procedural with Arthur Franz (The Sniper) as a docker who goes undercover to break union racketeering on the New Orleans waterfront. An intelligent script explores thwarted ambition among working men who have few options.  The dénouement is like that of many b’s – underwhelming – sort of like “Hey! we only have three minutes of film left, end it!”

New York Confidential (1955) A totally weird look at the Mob all-in-the-family melodrama with mob-boss Broderick Crawford totally without irony railing against corrupt politicians – “lousy crooks” – while fellow-mobster J. Carroll Naish munches on a salami on rye sandwich and a pickle. Richard Conte’s usual woodenness strangely works well for him as a hit-man with a heart – you have to dig deep. But a young Anne Bancroft steals the show as Crawford’s rebellious daughter, adding some sorely needed depth. Totally subversive with Conte’s demise having a certain pathos.

Cutting to the here and now, a young Italian film-maker, Antonio La Camera, has just released on Vimeo a 6 minute neo-noir short made on a zero-budget titled Killer’s Sight. The production values are surprisingly high, and the mise-en-scène impressive.  Antonio has done a nice job on the lighting which is very noir, as with the cinematography and the editing. Effective use of Gershwin over the opening credits is also noteworthy. Interest is sustained to the last frame. Definitely worth a look – be sure to follow the Vimeo link after viewing here to read Antonio’s notes on the film.

 

 

Trouble Is My Business: New Film Noir

Trouble Is My Business

I have just received the heads up on a new indie film noir, Trouble is My Business, that harkens back to the 1940s, with a thriller-mystery scenario about a gumshoe on the skids who gets mixed up with two seductively dangerous sisters. The film’s 8 minute trailer certainly gets you interested, and the production values are impressive. Nice noir visuals and characterisations with a flavor of the irony reminiscent of that great 1948 film noir I Love Trouble starring Franchot Tone, promise a fascinating ride.

The film’s maker Thomas Konkle is taking the film to the American Film Market in Santa Monica November 9 -12 and can be reached at www.lumenactus.com, or by visiting the movie’s web site.

Check out the Vimeo trailer below.

Ossessione (Italy 1942): A dance of “death and sperm”

Ossessione (1942)

Luchino Visconti’s first feature film Ossessione (Obsession) opens with a darkly melodramatic musical motif as a truck rumbles through a bleak sun-bleached landscape along a slowly curving stretch of road hugging the river Po. The frame is confined within the cabin and we look down and out the windscreen to the unfolding road. We do not see the occupants of the cabin. A relentless fate seems to be driving the truck on its unwavering path as the opening credits roll. The truck eventually does stop with a jump cut to the driver and his off-sider climbing out of the cabin at a rest stop in front of a local trattoria. A hitchhiker is found sleeping in the back of the open tray. He is shaken awake and admonished by the driver and the trattoria’s owner.

The camera in almost a gesture of abandonment swoops up and looks down at the tramp as he heads into the trattoria. The tramp enters the trattoria and hears a woman singing a love song. He follows the voice to the kitchen. The man, Gino, and the woman, Giovanna, the young wife of the trattoria-owner, stare fixedly at each other, as we see their faces for the first time. Gino is young and virile, Giovanna older but molto simpatica, while the trattoria owner is on the cusp of old age and corpulent. This confrontation ignites an obsessive desire the flames of which will ineluctably engulf and destroy them. Thus commences a dance of “death and sperm” as Visconti’s co-scenarist Giuseppe De Santis put it.

Film noir aficionados will recognise this scenario from the opening sequence of the Hollywood adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti was given a type-written translation of the novel by mentor Jean Renoir, and made his film without crediting Cain, four years before the Hollywood version. The frank treatment of sex and a homoerotic subtext did not find favour with Italy’s fascist authorities and the film was savagely cut, and the negative eventually destroyed. The film survives because Visconti had secreted a second negative. (The film did not screen in the US until the 1970s because of the breach of screen rights.)

Ossessione is credited as the film that heralded Italian neo-realism, reflecting its concerns with the unadorned lives of the common man, while taking the camera out onto the streets. Although Visconti cast established actors in the main roles, he follows the protagonists as they move in society, with the camera lingering within the mise-en-scène on ordinary people and the rhythm of life in a small semi-rural town. There is also an eddy of melodrama which at critical moments floods the senses as emotions are telegraphed with operatic musical flourishes. Underpinning the film’s aesthetics though is a subversive preoccupation with the anguish of the two protagonists, as they confront the reality and the consequences of their actions. When finally at the end fate closes the books, their destinies assume tragic proportions. That we are being to a degree manipulated though has to be recognised. The husband in keeping with book’s characterisation is oafish, and as his actual demise is not shown, his fate is easily left behind.

What makes Ossessione particularly compelling is an homoerotic strand interwoven with a critique of ‘petit-bourgeois’ values. Visconti was gay and a Marxist. His scenario here has a depth and complexity you will not find in Cain’s hard-boiled prose nor in Tay Garnett’s workmanlike Hollywood adaptation. Visconti confounds the amour-fou of the two protagonists with an interlude that has Gino befriended by a roaming entertainer, ‘Il Spagnolo’, after they share a bed in a flop-house. The dialectic is only thinly veiled. Il Spagnolo represents freedom and a kind of self-sufficient integrity with his itinerant life and rejection of bourgeois values. Giovanna seeks stasis and wants to build up the trattoria as she and Gino take over the dead man’s business – yet there is a dialectic here too. Giovanna accepted marriage to an older man to end her life of poverty and degradation. She makes it clear that hunger had forced her into prostitution. Towards the end of the film, when Gino mistakenly thinks Giovanna has betrayed him to the police, he has an encounter with a young girl who “cannot go home”. This short reprieve tragically harkens to what might have been.

Ossessione demands and rewards multiple viewings. A master film-maker has taken a hard-boiled story and imbued it with intelligence, polemic, a humanist outrage, and above all, a deep compassion for the human predicament.

1946: The numbers and the when and why of Film Noir

Kiss of Death (1946)
An ad for Kiss of Death in a 1946 issue of the Hollywood trade journal ‘The Film Daily’

Some film noir academics dispute the widely held view that the “expanding cycle of hard-boiled and cynical films” (as Bosley Crowther described them in the New York Times in his May 1946 review of The Blue Dahlia) produced in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period, necessarily reflected a darker pessimistic mood in American society in the shadow of WW2, as there was still plenty of Hollywood’s traditional romantic and escapist fare screening in the US at the time, and that the movies retroactively labelled as film noir were not big box office.

Mike Chopra-Grant in his 2006 book, ‘Hollywood Genres and Postwar America’, put this view as follows (my emphasis):

“when I began to look at the rental revenues earned by films in the American market in 1946 no single mood or tone could be identified that uniformly characterized all of the most popular films, although the dominance of musicals and comedies suggested a lighter and more exuberant mood than the emphasis on film noir in academic writing would suggest… Despite the inconsistency between the number of upbeat musicals and comedies among the most popular films of the early postwar period and the “mood” of that period suggested by much film noir scholarship, I do not entirely reject the suggestion that the “tough” movie represents one response to the disruptions and uncertainties of the wartime and postwar period. I do, however, take issue with the suggestion that this kind of film represented the typical response of Hollywood filmmakers, and with the implication that the “tough” movie captured the zeitgeist of American culture in the period after the Second World War: the evidence provided by the popular films suggests otherwise, and in the contradictory impressions of the period presented by the combination of the most popular films and the “tough” movies the very notion of zeitgeist is revealed to be highly problematic…  Although explaining these films in vague sociological terms, as a manifestation of historically existing social anxieties, produces an inadequate account of their place within the wider culture, examination of these “tough” movies in relation to the specific themes and discourses already discussed in relation to the popular films of the period does provide a way of understanding the position of film noir within its historical setting without the need to resort to common-sense truisms about the “mood” of the culture.”

On the other side and in the same year in her book ‘Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir’, Sheri Chinen Biesen argues that the dark expressionism of crime movies that started to appear during WW2 arose out of the economic constraints imposed on Hollywood by the war effort, such as the shortage of film stock and electricity rationing, dark lighting to hide cheap sets, and other deprivations, together with growing audience demand for “red meat” entertainment.

The other day I was idly ‘flipping’ through on-line archive copies of The Film Daily, a Hollywood trade journal of the period, and came across an interesting tabulation in the Friday May 23, 1947 issue: The Broadway Run Score Board comparing the weekly runs of new release movies in Broadway cinemas for the periods Jan-June 1946 and Jan-May 1947. The Scorecards are reproduced at the end of this article.  I have highlighted all the movies that are now identified as films noir. There are quite a number, and more than a few had exceptional runs. Some prestige noirs did very well. Clearly, there was something going on.

How we account for these numbers I leave to the experts, but I do have a view which I set out in my article What is Film Noir. Basically, while many see film noir originating in post-WW2 trauma, I believe the origins of film noir lie largely elsewhere. Film noir was a manifestation of the fear, despair and loneliness at the core of American life apparent well before the first shot was fired in WW2. This is not to say that the experience of WW2 did not influence or inform the themes and development of the noir cycle in the post-war period. The origins of film noir and why it flowered where and when it did are complex, and we can’t be definitive, but it is fairly evident that noir emerged before the US entered the War, and had it’s origins principally in the new wave of émigré European directors and cinematographers, who fashioned a new kind of cinema from the gangster flick of the 30’s and the pre-War hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornel Woolrich. We can also clearly see the influence of German expressionism, the burgeoning knowledge of psychology and its motifs, and precursors in the French poetic realist films of the 30’s. Noir was about the other, the “dark self” and the alienation in the modern American city manifested in psychosis, criminality, and paranoia. It was also born of an existential despair which had more to do with the desperate loneliness of urban life in the aftermath of the Depression.

The Score Boards – Double-click on the image to zoom:

The Film Daily Score Card - click to to zoom in
The Film Daily Score Board- click to to zoom in

 

Noirish: An exciting new noir blog on the block

Noirish

John Grant, the author of the just published ‘A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide’, which I reviewed recently, has started a blog titled Noirish as an annex to his book where he covers at greater length (spoiler alert) movies that are either too borderline or too recent to have made it into the book.

This is great news for film noir fans. There is a dearth of published authors blogging about film noir, and John already has blogged about a whole bunch of intriguing titles ranging from obscure Monogram b’s to foreign films, and more.

He is certainly prolific, and must have privileged access to a secret vault of seriously old celluloid.

 

Alienation in the Modern Metropolis: The built environment New York 1964

These frames from The Pawnbroker (1964) illustrate how Director, Sidney Lumet and Cinematographer, Boris Kaufman deftly cast the high density built environment to visually portray the isolation of the individual in the modern metropolis.

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

The Pawnbroker (1964)

Once a Thief (1965): Late noir à la européenne

Once a Thief (1965)

Once A Thief from director Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight) and DP Robert Burks (Vertigo), and starring Alain Delon (Purple Noon, Le Samouraï) in his first Hollywood feature, is a derivative late noir with a hip Lalo Schifrin score and atmospheric on the streets of San Francisco visuals tinged with a European neo-realist aura.

Zekial Marko’s script has all the noir tropes but the picture never gets beyond the promise of the brilliant opening credits which feature Frisco freaks getting off at a jazz club.

Delon, as a young immigrant from Trieste with a wife and daughter, both played with considerable effect by Ann Margret as the wife and 6yo Tammy Locke as the child, is trying to go straight after doing time for a robbery and shooting a cop. After a frame-up his estranged older brother and mobster Jack Palance (Panic in the Streets, Sudden Fear, The Big Knife) turns up and wants him for one last big heist. It all moves predictably to a violent denouement on the Frisco waterfront. Delon strangely, when you consider his persona in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, is less than effective, while Palance brings a certain realist cred to his portrayal of a hood who wants to keep things in the family. Margret delivers some justified histrionics at the climax while managing to steer clear of melodrama. An aging and visibly weary Van Heflin (Johnny Eager, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Prowler ) as a cop tries hard but his heart is not in it. Particularly effective and chilling is John Davis Chandler as a violent psychopath in a signature henchman role.

The violence while stylised is brutal enough to evoke both shock and empathy. A lengthy heist sequence and a kidnapping borrow a lot from Jules Dassin’s Rififi and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, both immeasurably superior films.

Check out the opening credits which I guarantee will have you intrigued:

The Long Wait (1954): Tie Me Up And Kiss Me Deadly

The Long Wait (1954)

Anthony Quinn as an amnesiac who is wanted for murder? You got him in The Long Wait, and not one but four femmes noir. Three blondes and a brunette. All leggy and not backward in coming forward.
This violent and brutal flick has Mickey Spillane all over it. The second Spillane novel to be filmed in Hollywood – after I, The Jury (1953) – The Long Wait takes pulp fiction down to a new level. A preposterous plot with more holes than a pair of fishnet nylons itches a perversely compelling pastiche of noir tropes: amnesia, corruption in high places, crooked cops, frame-ups, violence, duplicitous dames, and sex. But no Mike Hammer. Our protagonist is strictly an amateur. But that doesn’t make him any less able to dizzy the dames nor prove his innocence – even if the key to the frame is patently absurd.

Quinn is a hunk and knows it. His kisses and clinches are not for the faint-hearted. He beds the first girl to show an interest. In fact, she picks him up. A frank come-on and cut to her apartment, where after a shower she is ready for the bout naked under her wrap. You get the picture.

Despite a strange incoherence and lackadaisical direction from Brit Victor Saville, the talented lensing of Franz Planer sustains visual interest, with suitably dark lighting and expressionist flourishes.

This brings us to the climax which melds sex and violent entrapment into an amazing expressionist sequence involving a spot-light and deft crane shots. Quinn is tied-up in a chair and a girl called Venus trussed on the floor is being goaded by the bad guy to crawl to Quinn for one last kiss. The resolution is neat and unexpected. One of those rare moments when you are left open-mouthed before the craft and audacity of what you have just seen. Totally weird.