Out of the Past - Classic Film Pick
One of the best-loved '40s-era contributions to the film noir genre, director Jacques Tourneur’s "Out of the Past" (1947) is a definitive model. Notable for its convoluted time-shifting storyline, the film plays with its audience like a cat toying with a dumbfounded mouse. Robert Mitchum understates his private detective character Jeff Bailey with his classic laconic but lazy romanticism, which beams defenselessly from his bedroom eyes. Robert Mitchum’s sedate antihero is so resigned to his fate you can’t help but hang on to his every word. Mitchum is supremely cast opposite Jane Greer—“the woman with the Mona Lisa smile”—playing femme fatale Kathie Moffat. Before the plot twists are over Jeff Bailey must contend with Kathie’s doppelganger Meta Carson (played by the sultry Rhonda Fleming) who is every bit as dangerous--although nowhere near as passionately overwhelming--as Kathie. Jeff also keeps Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), a doting small-town girl, in the wings. Ann promises a future of stability if only Jeff can finish his business with Lake Tahoe-dwelling mobster Whit Sterling (exquisitely played by Kirk Douglas in his second film role). Ann serves as an essential foil for Jeff’s long stretches of exposition during the film’s first half.
Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring punches up the juicy dialogue with snappy one-liners that seem scripted in stone. “All women are wonders, because they reduce all men to the obvious,” is how one doomed gentleman verbally describes his dead-end passion for a woman of irreducible character on the last night of his life. During a crucial exchange in Acapulco, Jeff goads Whit and his sidekick Joe (Paul Valentine) into leaving his hotel room by telling Whit, “Let’s go down to the bar. We can cool off while we try to impress each other." Talk about smooth.
While living off Whit’s $5000 retainer, Jeff has been searching for Kathie in Acapulco. As expected, Jeff has fallen for the dame accused of stealing forty large from Whit. Kathie knows just how to play Jeff, who for his part proves equally adept at deceiving Whit. Jeff and Kathie share a “honeymoon” period in San Francisco before one of Whit’s hired bulls tracks them down. Kathie turns out to be considerably more lethal than Jeff during a nocturnal confrontation with Whit’s hired dick. Where the murder rap will ultimately hang leaves Tourneur and his ace cinematographer Nicholas Masuraca with plenty of filmic surface to paint lush black-and-white compositions that make color film pale by comparison. Layers of complex nighttime image systems pressurize the confusing narrative into a prismatic visual maze. “Out of the Past” is all about mood, tone, suspense, and emotion. Add to that big dollops of palpable lust, greed, and powerful feminine opportunism, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for noir.
The Killing - Classic Film Pick
The Big Sleep - Classic Film Pick
Howard Hawks's 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's hardboiled noir novel is about one thing and one thing only, the insanely dynamic chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Coming off their first film together (Hawks's "To Have and Have Not") the actors carried on a quiet affair with the much older Bogart mentoring Bacall as an actor as well. Bogart plays private detective Philip Marlowe, a man whose sexual appeal to women knows no boundaries. Hawks was careful to pack every available scene with as much sexual innuendo as possible.
A convoluted story involving the murder of a gambling debt collector sets the stage for Bogart to hold court as the coolest card in the deck regardless of who's holding the gun. Naturally many pistols are drawn as Marlowe follows up on an apparently blackmail-related murder. Steamy photos of a client's hot-to-trot nubile daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) are at the heart of the blackmail, but Carmen's older sister Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) generates the heat. Her bedroom eyes weighed down with erotic desire, Bacall's Vivian is the only thing more composed than Bogart's quick-talking man's man. For all the women who throw themselves at Marlowe throughout the film, only one has a chance of sealing the deal. When the kiss between them finally arrives, Marlowe aptly treats it as business to be done away with until opportunity allows an encore of such pleasant luxury. As dead bodies pile up, so too does the romantic connection between the actors who would wed before "The Big Sleep" even opened in theaters.
"The Big Sleep" is a triumph of style over substance. So much of its joy comes from the way Bogart and Bacall deliver Raymond Chandler's witty language that there's no point in trying to put the pieces of the elaborate crime plot together. Here, the entire story is merely a MacGuffin for the actors to riff on. And oh, what riffing they do!
Touch of Evil - Classic Film Pick
In 1957 "Touch of Evil" became Welles's first return to studio work in Hollywood after his experimental version of Macbeth ten years earlier. Universal hired Welles to write, direct, and act in what they considered to be a B-picture. Little did anyone know that "Touch of Evil" would mark the end of the cinematic movement known as Film Noir. Welles adapted "Touch of Evil" from a functional pulp novel called "Badge of Evil" (by Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller), and crafted it into a bizarre anti-capitalist, anti-racist morality tale. Welles cast himself as Captain Quinlan, a nasty police officer with a low code of ethics. By telling the linear story from three different viewpoints, Welles avoids structural clichés like flashbacks or narration. Welles was careful to give special attention to the material's obsession with vice that colors every scene. In one of the most harrowing scenes in all of film noir, Janet Leigh is drugged and lies passed-out in a darkened hotel room where Quinlan strangles to death a Latino man against the brass bedpost where she lies.
Marlene Dietrich speaks the film's theme lines as Tana, a Mexican prostitute with a German accent. Every frame of Dietrich's non-blinking screentime spits humanist ethics against the corruption that surrounds her character. When Quinlan comes sniffing around Tana's brothel in the middle of the night, he asks her to read his fortune. Tana replies, "You haven't got any; your future's all used up. Why don't you go home?" Dietrich's bedroom eyes belie the somber world-weary tone of her gutsy character. The lines are all the more poignant because "Touch of Evil" also represented a kind of finishing touch for Welles's and Dietrich's careers. Welles once fought in a bullring in Spain during his youth, and went on to spend his life searching for cinematic challenges that could match the power of a grunting bull. In "Touch of Evil," Welles finally kills his metaphorical toro.
Kicking off with a wicked little short film called "Spider," the Edgerton Brothers announce their ability to shock you in a way you've not quite been surprised before. The Australian siblings set the main event story around Ray and Carla an adulterous couple (well played by David Roberts and Claire Van Der Boom). Carla arranges for Ray to steal the cash from her criminal husband's latest heist so they can run off together. With this little pot-of-gold MacGuffin, the filmmakers take the audience on a twisting path of moral corruption that takes a heavy toll on all concerned, and even some on the periphery. The "square" of the film's title refers to a concrete building foundation that contains its own secret. "The Square" is a masterfully conceived and executed neo-noir from a couple of promising newcomers who have very keen ideas about weaving suspense with thematic weight. It's one very satisfying genre piece to share with your suspense-loving friends.
Not Rated. 105 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ace in the Hole (Classic Film Pick)
After a string of successes which included "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) Billy Wilder defied Hollywood expectations with a scathing indictment of the American media that still stings today. Wilder based his story on a 1925 media circus. The nation followed the trials of spelunker Floyd Collins, trapped in a cave in Kentucky. Collins died, but unorthodox reporter William Burke Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story. In “Ace” washed-up bad-apple New York newspaper man Charles Tatum (played ferociously by Kurt Douglas) has been reduced to working for a small paper in Albuquerque. Then he stumbles upon the plight of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has gotten himself stuck at the bottom of an ancient Indian burial cave. Originally released as "The Big Carnival," Wilder's film-noir vision flaunted cinema conventions with American cinema’s ultimate anti-hero. Douglas delivers desperation and a cynical rejection of humanity that is repulsive as it is mesmerizing. Tatum plays his "ace in the hole" when he cooks up a vile scheme with an election-hungry sheriff (Ray Teal) to milk Minosa's story for "seven days" by having a rescue team drill into the mountain from the top instead of going in as quickly as possible. At turns hilarious and vile, femme fatale Jan Sterling plays the trapped miner's feckless wife; she happily goes along with Tatum's scheme. Although not a traditional noir, "Ace in the Hole" (1951) stakes its claim in the genre by building a gathering storm of crass opportunism via a capitalist wormhole. The noir shadows here come from the claustrophobic interiors of Leo Minosa’s cramped mountain coffin. Meanwhile, the world outside celebrates his plight. As thousands gather, the cold insensitivity of the masses belies their commercially charged sense of community.
German auteur Christian Petzold's original take on a "Postman Always Rings Twice"-styled love triangle cultivates rich suspense from the degrees of his ethically variable characters. Brenno Furmann is captivating as Thomas, a broke dishonorably discharged soldier who inherits his ramshackle childhood home from his recently deceased mother in the small German town of Jerichow. Thomas finds much-needed employment with Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a wealthy Turkish immigrant with a chain of snack shops and a sexy wife named Laura (Nina Hoss). In spite of Ali's knack for suspicion, Thomas and Laura strike up a romance that spirals out of control. Petzold leverages shades of gray in his characters to color a modern noir suspense story that thrives on a modern multi-cultural European milieu.
(Cinema Guild) Not Rated. 93 mins. (B) (Three Stars)
The Maltese Falcon (Classic Film Pick)
John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. Although Dashiell Hammett’s “stuff that dreams are made of” novel already had two film versions under the title “Satan Met a Lady,” screenwriter John Huston chose the story for his directorial debut. Huston emphasized its suspense elements to create a noir that didn’t rely on spectacle, but rather on the intrigue of its amoral characters. Hitchcockian right down to its statuette maguffin of a black bird, “The Maltese Falcon” is considered the first “film noir” and launched Humphrey Bogart’s career. Every scene is something to savor thanks to great performances from Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet as “the fat man.”
(A+) (Five Stars)
Chinatown (Classic Film Pick)
Like "Casablanca," "Chinatown" represents a perfect storm of enormous cinema talent coming together under an intoxicating noir setting. Robert Towne's screenplay is the stuff of legend--a perfectly sculpted script without a scrap of fat on it. The setting is '30s era Los Angeles where political wrangling over water rights for the area is cause for more than a little criminal activity on every level of social strata. In a career-topping performance, Jack Nicholson plays private detective J.J. "Jake" Gittes, hired by a squirrelly dame named Ida (Diane Ladd), posing as Evelyn Mulwray, to follow her water commissioner husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) on suspicion of cheating. The web of deceit that Jake enters into costs him dearly on the way toward a downbeat ending that still shocks audiences. Conspiracy, incest, and murder triangulate in a real historical context of Los Angeles' scandalous past. For her part, as the real Evelyn Mulwray, Faye Dunaway plays a tragic figure of iconic proportions--a tainted heroine doomed to be violently misunderstood. "Chinatown" would be Roman Polianki's last American film, and as such carries a particular aura of the unavoidable hand of fate. The film was nominated in eleven Oscar categories in 1974, and won for Best Screenplay.
The Big Heat (Classic Film Pick)
Based on William P. McGivern's novel, Glenn Ford plays a by-the-book police sergeant named Dave Bannion, so busy grappling with the crime that rages around him that he isn't able to see his own negative influence. The women Bannion comes in contact with don't fare so well afterward. Suicide, a nasty face scalding, and vengeful murder collide in Fritz Lang's explosive 1953 noir about police procedure as exemplified through Sergeant Bannion's tunnel-vision perspective. Lee Marvin makes an impressive turn as a brutal gangster in this perfect representation of the noir genre that opens with one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema where a hand reaches into the frame to pick up a police issue .38 caliber pistol. Considered the most violent movie of its day, everything about "The Big Heat" is "hard boiled."
There's nothing worse than a soft-boiled noir. Splashes of '30s era style and tame blues music contain wobbly Gabriel Mann ("Mad Men") as New Orleansesque child of privilege and club owner Chaz Davenport. Associates are turning up dead and Chaz is having money problems when he auditions and hires Madelaine (Izabella Miko), a beautiful new singer to compete with his girlfriend/chanteuse Crystal (Bijou Phillips). Based on Rachel Samuels' stage play, "Dark Streets" is a disappointing film that only manages to entertain during some of its musical set pieces. Elias Koteas is squandered as a menacing police detective. Dashiell Hammett this is not.
(Samuel Goldwyn Films) Rated R. 85
mins. (D+) (One Star)
(Samuel Goldwyn Films) Rated R. 85
mins. (D+) (One Star)
French auteur Olivier Assayas continues his skewed logic of post modern noir with an erotically charged thriller about Sandra, an ex-prostitute turned international drug runner (played by Asia Argento), who revisits her former lover Miles (played by Michael Madsen) for one last roll on the floor. The couple hasn't lost their flair for dramatic S&M encounters, and the bawdy sequence is the centerpiece of the movie. What follows is an unfulfilling chase story that ends on a diminished chord. Olivier Assayas's films are a frustrating cinematic ritual for their oblique rendering of kinky sexual intrigue lurking beneath the surface of every business decision and transaction perpetrated by his characters. Call it a cinema of guilty pleasure, and don't worry if you fall asleep in your seat after the sex scene is over. You won't be alone. Rated R. 106 mins. (C) (Two Stars)
French auteur Olivier Assayas continues his skewed logic of post modern noir with an erotically charged thriller about Sandra, an ex-prostitute turned international drug runner (played by Asia Argento), who revisits her former lover Miles (played by Michael Madsen) for one last roll on the floor. The couple hasn't lost their flair for dramatic S&M encounters, and the bawdy sequence is the centerpiece of the movie. What follows is an unfulfilling chase story that ends on a diminished chord. Olivier Assayas's films are a frustrating cinematic ritual for their oblique rendering of kinky sexual intrigue lurking beneath the surface of every business decision and transaction perpetrated by his characters. Call it a cinema of guilty pleasure, and don't worry if you fall asleep in your seat after the sex scene is over. You won't be alone.
Rated R. 106 mins. (C) (Two Stars)