Saturday, October 24, 2015

Crime, Noir, and Proto-Noir: Lady in the Lake, The Devil Is a Woman, Shanghai Express, You and Me, and They Drive by Night

October has been a good month for folks who like black-and-white crime in Harvard Square, as the Harvard Film Archive has kept up their "Five O'Clock Shadow" series (which I hope just becomes a regular Sunday afternoon thing beyond the current calendar) while the Brattle kicked off what they describe as a year-long celebration of film noir's 75th anniversary with a "proto-noir" series, examining the crime, horror, and other films that served as the ancestors of what French critics would later call "film noir".

It was a kind of discombobulating series for me, in part because it winds up highlighting elements that are fairly secondary for some of these films. You tell me this is noir, and I go in looking for crime, and when what comes out is more of a comedy or romance, it winds up feeling more disappointing than it should be. It's important to remember to take things as they are, rather than for what they are expected to be, because ambitious people generally don't make a movie based upon how well it fits into a box.

And, hey, considering that these two series are taking place in a spot that refers to itself as Boston's unofficial film school and in the basement of an actual school, it's good to feel like I'm learning something. If I had more time, I would consider outright re-reviewing Shanghai Express, as I was not great at appreciating vintage movies back in '04, or just writing in general. This isn't the time to do it, not least because I was fairly worn out for the Sunday double-feature at the Brattle, and try not to give full write-ups to movies where I might have missed a few minutes.

Also, I need to unpack my books. Lady in the Lake gave me a hankering to actually hear Chandler's words in my head again.

Lady in the Lake

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (Five O'Clock Shadow, 35mm)

This is a review that one would like to start with "Lady in the Lake is best known for its gimmick, but..." before listing all of the other great things that make it worthy of note. And while star Robert Montgomery's first film as a director is capable and creative enough, it lacks the personality that makes Raymond Chandler's mysteries so entertaining, and a unique first-person perspective isn't a great trade.

Philip Marlowe (Montgomery) begins the tale by addressing the audience directly, mentioning the murder case that's been in the news, before detail his involvement. He's called to the office of a magazine that publishes detective stories to be told he's sold one, although editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) also would like to retain him as a detective to track down the wife of her boss, Dearce Kingsby (Leon Ames), whom she has clear designs on. The trail leads to the suburbs and gigolo Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), as well as to the Kingsbys' vacation house, where the caretaker's wife has recently drowned. When Marlowe comes looking for Lavery and instead finds a gun-toting landlady (Jayne Meadows) - well, that's where the mystery gets complicated.

Raymond Chandler's Marlowe stories were written in the first person, so it's not an unreasonable idea to try and shoot a movie adapting one that way, especially as advances in technology were making the cameras more mobile than they had been before that point. That Montgomery plays the main character - whether as a voice or a face in the mirror - and directs isn't necessary but seems right, and on a strictly technical level, he and cinematographer Paul C. Vogel handle this smoothly enough, giving us a steadier perspective and maybe moving a bit slower than would be strictly realistic but not creating the motion-sickness issues often associated with the contemporary use of the technique in horror movies. A fair number of the shots are clearly playing with the technique, but it's enjoyable to watch the filmmakers experiment and things like watching Marlowe's gaze track the receptionist played by Lila Leeds are amusing.

Full review on EFC.

The Devil Is a Woman

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, 35mm)

I suspect that I would like The Devil Is a Woman a bit more in another context; while one can see the roots of what would become film noir in it, the film itself is too lighthearted when you're anticipating that kind of crime story. Marlene Dietrich's Concha Perez may do a lot of things that would define later femmes fatales, but she's almost too cheerful about it, so frivolous that it's hard to take the film's later dramatics seriously.

The flashback structure undermines it a bit, too. It starts out as an entertaining enough romance - handsome young rebel (Cesar Romero) hiding out during festival season falls for the town's prettiest girl, only to be treated to a long flashback when he asks an older friend who has settled down (Lionel Atwill) what he knows about her - which is that she is trouble in an almost comically exaggerated way. It's so plainly laid out, complete with a funny, flighty performance by Dietrich, that the eventual duel is more frustrating than tragic. These guys know better, and Concha is so nakedly opportunistic that either convincing himself that he is her true love is a step too far.

So despite having the template of both a historical romance or tale of obsession, it doesn't work very well as either. As a comic take on those ideas, though, it has its moments - Dietrich is funny and exaggerated but also surprisingly introspective at the moments when Concha might seem most like an unchangeable force-of-nature plot driver, while Edward Everett Horton is a hoot as the frustrated ocal governor. Both Skipworth and Romero make for appealing men who find that they are no match for Concha.

It's an awkward split between them, although that split is the point of the story - that she will leave a trai of helpless men in her wake. Maybe that would work a bit better if it were less funny, although that seems an odd thing to say about a movie that is actually good at getting laughs.

Shanghai Express

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, DCP)

It's been a while since I last saw Shanghai Express - this blog was very young - and I wasn't terribly impressed (and nobody's going to be imperssed with that writing, either). It's still not a particular favorite, although I have developed more of a taste for this sort of 1930s melodrama since, and there's no denying that Josef von Sternberg mounts a very impressive production, and one that seems a little more willing to wrestle with its colonialist underpinnings than other films of its time, even if one of the two most prominent Chinese characters is played by a white guy.

As much as I find myself appreciating what it does do better now, I do still think it suffers a bit for trying to be a romance at heart and really not really doing much with the relationship between Dietrich's "Shanghai Lily" and Clive Brook's handsome but bland English army doctor; they're not a compelling enough pairing to outshine the great big pile of characters stashed around them.

Unlike The Devil Is a Woman, though, it does well being slotted into this "proto-noir" program; one can see it trying to evolve into something moodier and more dangerous rather than something relatively bound by convention.

You and Me

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, 35mm)

The title of "You and Me" was likely bestowed upon this film with no small about of playfulness; a couple buying tickets to see this odd assembly of romance and crime in 1938 might joke about Paramount pointedly trying to make a movie for both of them. It comes together much better than one might expect for that, as it turns out, and has matured into the sort of second-tier vintage film that may not be essential, but is certainly entertaining and interesting.

Then, as now, folks who had been to jail had a difficult time finding work after being released, so it's notable that department-store owner Jerome Morris (Harry Carey) is willing to hire parolees. One who works in the sporting-goods department, Joe Dennis (George Raft), has kept his nose clean and is now a free man planning to take Morris's recommendation with him to a new life in California, despite gangster Mickey Bain (Barton McLane) trying to recruit him for a job. A celebratory drink with his co-worker Helen (Sylvia Sidney) where he realizes that he likes her as more than a friend changes his plans - they find a justice of the peace, get married, and move into her apartment, wtih Joe getting his old job back. Helen warns him that they have to keep quiet about their marriage at work, because it's against store policy, but the truth is that she is also on parole, and marriage is a violation.

That seems like a bizarre restriction to put on a parolee, both because it leads to goofy moments like Helen's parole officer saying "no falling in love!" as a stern order and because one would think that the justice system would want to encourage that kind of stability even if it doesn't exactly push people toward marriage, but, hey, it's not like we've ironed all the contradictory impulses out of our criminal justice system seventy-five years later. That Helen doesn't tell Joe that she's also on parole early on and thus avoid a whole lot of hassle does occasionally seem to be on shaky ground; for as much as screenwriter Virginia Van Upp makes sure the audience sees that the parolees aren't informed of each others' status and that Joe is a bit of hypocrite about this, the double-standard she's fighting against could be a bit more prominent.

Full review on EFC.

They Drive By Night

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir Part 1: Proto-Noir, 35mm)

Depending on your perspective, They Drive by Night either takes its sweet time in becoming a crime story or veers off from its story of the challenges faced by the independent trucker in pretty spectacular fashion. I'm going to go with the first, because that puts Ida Lupino's femme fatale front and center, even if it does push Humphrey Bogart off to the side. Director Raoul Walsh and company may handle both halves fairly well, but it's the flamboyant one that gets remembered.

It starts with the Fabrini brothers, Joe (George Raft) and Paul (Bogart), co-owners and drivers of a truck that mostly moves produce up and down the California coast, this time a shipment of apples. A delay because of a blown tire puts them behind the eight-ball with a loan shark seeing a chance to repossess their truck, but also means they can pick up some better cargo - hitchhiker Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan), who has has enough of the wandering hands at the greasy spoon where she was working as a waitress. Paul is happily married, but Joe falls hard. Being an independent means taking on a lot of risk, though, both financially and in terms of driving dangerously, which might make an offer from Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) to drive for his company tempting, despite the advances of Ed's wife Lana (Lupino).

There's something almost instructional about the first half of They Drive by Night, not so much that a person could operate a trucking business afterward, but they might get some idea of what the job entails - long nights, days away from the family, a genuinely difficult decision in terms of working for one's self or someone else, razor thin margins for error, the danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Marsh and screenwriters Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay (adapting an A.I. Bezzerides novel) don't stop to explain much, although the Fabrinis will occasionally toss a line Cassie's way when things aren't immediately clear, and rather than making it dry, it's bolstered by some earnest drama and colorful characters. It's not a bad movie about trucking even without a heightened storyline.

Full review on EFC.

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