Monday, March 19, 2012

Noir Weekend: The Lady from Shanghai and The Postman Always Rings Twice

I skipped the first half of the first the Film Noir Weekend (In a Lonely Place and Sunset Boulevard); there were other things I wanted to check out in those slots and I've seen both before.

Another good two-fer this coming weekend: The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps on Friday and Sunday. Two early British Hitchcocks in 35mm. Be all over that, folks!

The Lady from Shanghai

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Film Noir Weekend, 35mm)

The basic plot structure of The Lady From Shanghai is quite a familiar noir template - a man who's tougher than he is smart falls for a beautiful woman above his station; she surprisingly reciprocates, claiming that her life isn't as perfect as he imagines; they make plans to run away together, but before they can, there's a little murder that must be done. This one, though, has Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and that's a combination that that can give any movie quite a boost.

Welles plays Michael O'Hara, an Irish sailor with no fixed address who meets a pretty girl and even comes off as a hero for breaking up a mugging. He and Elsa (Rita Hayworth) hit it off - she's as well-traveled as he is - until she asks if he might crew on her yacht. Well, her husband's yacht. Recognizing a bad situation, Michael determines to ship out on the next vessel hiring, only to have Elsa's husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), the greatest trial lawyer in the country, come down to the docks to ask for him personally. So there he is, on a boat with the pair, sailing to California via the Panama Canal. They're joined by Bannister's partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who is terrified of the new specter of atomic war, and has a proposition for Michael. Five thousand dollars might be enough money for Michael and Elsa to run away on...

In addition to staring opposite Hayworth, his wife at the time, Orson Welles wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed this movie, and even if it's not quite the very best of his works, it's worth noting that this movie was very nearly made by William Castle (as with Rosemary's Baby at the other end of his career, he settled for a producer credit). And bless his heart, the way Welles and company play The Lady from Shanghai out is kind of loopy from start to end: Welles's narration is equal parts broad Irish accent and tough-guy dialogue, with a dry self-referentiality, even the smallest character is played somewhat larger-than-life, and the final showdown in an abandoned amusement park is equal parts absurd slapstick and artsy cinematography. Welles isn't quite dead serious about things that would today be played as parody, but there's no mockery to his approach. He was an artist who saw the grandeur in pulp.

Full review at EFC.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Film Noir Weekend, 35mm)

There's no shame in admitting that you think that you thought that this movie was about a housewife having an affair with the mailman, or maybe concerned about the mailman interrupting some other rendez-vous. In actual fact, it's got nothing to do with the delivery of letters and parcels whatsoever, aside from a somewhat tortured metaphor at the end. Instead, it's a film noir that, while it has its problems, is a bit better than the sum of its parts.

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is profoundly unattached, hitch-hiking his way through California, when he comes to rest at a roadside diner/gas station/garage owned by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). It seems like a simple, comfortable situation, but Nick's got a pretty young wife, Cora (Lana Turner), and while she initially wants no part of the handsome drifter, their attraction cannot be denied. Still, Cora isn't one to just hit the road, which means that something will have to be done about Nick.

Though not particularly long by today's standards, The Postman Always Rings Twice seems drawn out in all the wrong places and too compact in others, and there are elements that haven't aged well at all. In the first half, for instance, the audience is likely to find themselves wishing that Frank and Cora would just kill Nick already, not so much because of any animosity toward the character, but because it's clear that either Nick has got to die or something extremely unexpected must happen for the story to move forward, and any further delay just means less time to put the screws on the characters in the second half. As it happens, the second half does feel rushed, driven by hysteria rather than the slow, calculating burn that had come before. It's not a crippling issue, but one that could use some adjusting.

Full review at EFC.

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