Saturday, December 12, 2015

Two Noir Series: The Big Combo; The Big Sleep; The Maltese Falcoln; Murder, My Sweet; The Burglar; Phantom Lady; Black Angel; The Glass Key; Miller's Crossing

So, here's one of my favorite things from that trip to San Francisco I took in May:

Where it happened.

I didn't exactly stumble onto it, but when you see that while flipping through your guidebook for something to check out in the morning, you've got to check it out and probably find it delightful that someone would decide to put a plaque up to commemorate one of the great films, even if it was probably all done on a soundstage in L.A.

Similarly, when the Harvard Film Archive and the Brattle Theatre are both running film noir programs - "Five O'Clock Shadow" for the former and "Authors of Noir" for the latter - you just sort of accept that this is going to be taking up a fair amount of your time over those couple of weeks, not grouse too much about not going home for Thanksgiving because you'll get to see two of Bogarts's best on that afternoon/evening, and enjoy a lot of 35mm film.

My one issue - and it's a truly minor one - is that the Brattle's films were almost all things I'd seen before, even if I didn't remember doing so. In fact, I'd seen two of them (Phantom Lady and Black Angel) as the same double feature three years ago, although that turns out to be just about the perfect amount of time to not quite remember various details. The only ones in the series that I hadn't seen before turned out to be the ones on the night where work kept me late and the MBTA made the delay worse, so I wound up missing that night.

Still, I'm really hoping that both of these series reprise sometime in the winter or spring - the Brattle's celebration of the genre's 75th anniversary has a few more permutations to go through, and the HFA is great for doing somewhat deeper dives into a genre.

The Big Combo

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2015 at the Harvard Film Archive (Five O'clock Shadow, 35mm)

There's something to be said for a movie that gets right down to it the way The Big Combo does, laying out what it's about quickly and then just going right after it in fairly direct fashion. That's probably the best way to go about presenting what actually winds up being a fairly convoluted plot - just plow through it, and let a fairly game cast do their things.

The film focuses on a hard-driving cop, Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde), who had been spending half his department's resources on trying to build a case against Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), who had risen to control of the local syndicates through a combination of ruthlessness and his predecessor going on the run. Brown's girlfriend Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) seems like the best target, but she is willing to attempt suicide rather than flee. Word comes down to abandon the investigation, but Diamond can't do it, leading Brown to start striking at him personally.

For as much as the crime pictures called "film noir" are often renowned for their morally compromised heroes, there's not necessarily a reciprocal complexity to the villains, and Mr. Brown is one of the more unrepentantly monstrous gangsters an overzealous cop has ever found himself facing. It's clear from the start as he lectures a boxer about the need to utterly destroy one's opponent without any hint of sadness, and there's no sign of irony or regret anywhere else in the film as he attacks enemies and treats Susan like a possession whose ability to think for herself is nothing more than a nuisance. Richard Conte dives into it with relish, making Brown a memorable villain despite being predictable in his evil - he's almost always going to do the worst thing possible - by being neither a cackling nor a joyless psychopath. He's a shark, but a clever one.

Full review on EFC.

The Big Sleep

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, 35mm)

If you can't make it home for Thanksgiving, then a double feature of classic film noir on 35mm at the Brattle Theatre is not a bad trade-off, and there is not much that is more classic than The Big Sleep.

No matter how many times I watch this, it's the same, and that's pretty rare. Just the other day, I was writing how House was not the same on subsequent viewings because it becomes a matter of waiting for the greatest hits, and it just can't surprise or shock a second time. The Big Sleep, on the other hand, doesn't rely on shock or surprise, it's about perfect execution, keeping things moving fast enough that its confusing bits don't bog it down but not so much that there's no time to relish the many, many good pieces, along with perfect casting and a script that gives Bogie, Bacall, and everyone else room to do their best.

Full review (from 2006) on EFC.

The Maltese Falcon

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, 35mm)

Watching Humphrey Bogart play Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade back-to-back is Lenape the best possible reminder that he was a pretty fair actor in addition to being a movie star with a persona that transcended whichever particular role he was playing that month. Though superficially the same - smart-mouthed private eyes - Raymond Chandler's and Dashiell Hammett's respective creations have distinctively different attitudes which Bogart captures perfectly. Marlowe has a thin shell while Spade is more resolutely cynical, and there's something very exciting about the meanness that Bogart brings to the latter.

He's only a part of The Maltese Falcon, but he's the best part. That's not to disparage anything else in the film - from the pulpy backstory that adds a certain sort of grandeur to what can at times be a situation where characters are running around San Francisco in circles to the late entry of Sydney Greenstreet, the is a lot of good stuff here - but to marvel at how consistently good Bogart is. Other elements will occasionally veer off into being a bit silly for a moment or two, but Spade stays on-target throughout.

He's never better than at the film's climax, which is fifteen minutes or so of perfect cinema. Spade is setting the others against each other with a ruthless practicality, stripping the veneer away from the room full of people eager to sell each other out without making it any less tense, and then once it's down to just him and O'Shaughnessy, he goes on a tear that includes the film's most famous line ("when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it"), but that's just the start of a steamroller, and "don't be so sure I'm as cropped as I'm supposed to be" works because Bogart and director John Huston don't give her or the audience the time to fully consider what that means before the fallout is on display.

I feel like I've been guilty in the past of not loving The Maltese Falcon enough. When someone asked, I've said I liked it, because of course I do, but it hasn't been one that immediately popped up when someone asks me for favorite movies and I don't immediately blow the request off. It should be, though, because they really don't make movies this exciting as often as they should.

Full review (from 2006) on EFC.

Murder, My Sweet

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, 35mm)

In the space of barely more than two years, four different studios released four different adaptations of Raymond Chandler novels with four different actors playing Philip Marlowe, a situation that seems almost inconceivable today. The second and third are the best-known, because The Big Sleep is an all-time classic while The Lady in the Lake is an interesting experiment, if a failed one, while the fourth (The Brasher Doubloon) is almost completely unknown. This first one is quite good, and even knowing The Big Sleep was being made at about the same time doesn't make it any sort of a disappointment.

In this tale, private detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) finds himself with two cases: First, a walking slab of meat by the name of Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) just back from eight years in the joint wants him to track down his old girl; there's also nervous fellow Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who needs backup making an illicit payment. The second should at least be straightforward, but it's a setup that also pulls in Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), her wealthy father (Miles Mander), and his much-younger wife Helen (Claire Trevor), who appears connected to both Marriott and Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), whose quackery is so ill-defined as to barely disguise his actual activities.

It's no surprise that there was such a rush to adapt Chandler's books in the mid-1940s (and in spurts since); they're great reads, and if Chandler's creation of a tough private eye who punctuates surprisingly eloquent narration with self-deprecating wisecracks wasn't entirely unique, it has seldom if ever been improved upon. At times, screenwriter John Paxton and director Edward Dmytryk struggle with that, especially when they try to drop prose from the novel right into the film as Marlowe gets knocked unconscious - moments when a film becomes as subjective as prose stick out a bit when the rest is conventional. They wind up about fifty-fifty on narrative flourishes.

Full review on EFC.

The Burglar

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2015 at the Harvard Film Archive (Five O'clock Shadow, 35mm)

The introduction to this screening of The Burglar talked about how director Paul Wendkos was not just a great fan of Orson Welles but clearly heavily influenced by him on this film, and it's not exactly hard to miss. It's also fairly clear that not everyone can pull off what Welles did, but the attempts should be encouraged, because aiming high can yield a fine movie even when it has a rough patch or two.

This one starts with newsreel footage slowing how a "spiritualist" calling herself "Sister Sara" (Phoebe Mackay) may not have received a large mansion, jewels, and furs as donations, technically, but that she paid just a few dollars to acquire them makes her not just a tempting target, but arguably a deserving one. So enter Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), the sort of professional burglar who plans meticulously and never uses a weapon. He's the leader of a crew of four, including Baylock (Peter Capell) to sell the emerald pendant they're targeting, Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy) for muscle, and Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) to case the joint. A pair of traffic cops (Stewart Bradley & Sam Elber) put a crimp in their plans, forcing the gang to lay low.

That causes more problems, naturally - Baylock and Dohmer are naturally finding their gaze drawn to Gladden, who is only interested in Nat, who was taught the ropes by her father and therefore sees her more as a kid sister than anything else. The tone during these scenes can shift rather drastically - rather than a slow build in tension, Wendkos and writer David Goodis will suddenly have everybody crazed enough to be at each other's throats, and while the situation won't roll all the way back to calm, the changes in tension are a jagged enough line to work against the movie a bit, especially when it seems like actual violence affects them less than vague threats. There's also a fair amount of waste early on - Wendkos uses a fairly noteworthy gimmick to introduce Sister Sara, but that seems to fizzle, and the heist that must have Nat in and out in fifteen minutes is not particularly memorable. It's the sort of thing that needs to involve the whole team and make every second count, but doesn't.

Full review on EFC.

Phantom Lady

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, 35mm)

Phantom Lady is, in a way, a demonstration of just how hard a good mystery can be to construct: The opening sequence seems tremendously unlikely on its face, but that's what it takes for a murder to become a puzzle worth reading about or watching, and the steps needed so that an amateur is the one to investigate and solve it... Well, it's unlikely.

That opening has Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) walking into a bar, his plans for the evening dashed, and meeting up with a woman (Fay Helm) for whom things don't seem to be going much better. He eventually convinced her to use the second theater ticket he has, and while they have a good time, he never gets her name, and indeed had a hard time remembering what she looks like underneath a distinctive hat. That turns out to be a big problem, because when he gets home, police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) is there to inform him that his wife has been murdered, and an alibi would be pretty useful. After the trial, Burgess has a nagging feeling that they've put the wrong man on death row, but it's Henderson's secretary Carol Richman (Elsa Raines) who is working hardest to prove his innocence, though Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone), a friend of his recently returned from South America, pitches in as well.

It's a fun murder mystery, though a rather unlikely one, often seeming to rest more specifically on finding the phantom lady of the title more than really seems necessary. Shouldn't the other scraps of alibi be enough, and doesn't everything else have to live up kind of perfectly? The screenplay by Bernard Schoenfeld (from a novel by Cornell Woolrich under a pseudonym) stretches credibility a bit, but I like the way it works; rather than playing it as a fair-play amateur detective story, it lets the twist happen as early as possible and has fun playing it out, and manages to do so without making its heroine look the fool.

Full review on EFC.

Black Angel

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 November 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, 35mm)

Both times I have seen Black Angel, it's been as part of a double feature with Phantom Lady, which makes one ponder for a moment or two whether pulp writer Cornell Woolrich had other stories in him than variations on a good woman attempting to exonerate the man she loves of killing an unpleasant wife or lover. He does, of course, but the evidence says that he's pretty good at this one, especially when it's adapted to film by good collaborators.

In this case, the unpleasant woman is Mavis Marlowe (Constance Darling), a former singer who has moved into a swanky apartment by switching her focus to seduction and blackmail. The prime suspect when she is beaten to death is Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), although his story has another, unseen man in the room. Kirk's wife Catherine (June Vincent) believes it although she can't convince the homicide squad's Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford). So she decides to investigate on her own, with the trail quickly leading to Mavis's husband, songwriter Martin Blair (Dan Duryea). Martin's alibi is worrying but solid - when he gets this drunk, his landlord locks him into his apartment with a latch on the outside of the door - and he soon decide to investigate another fellow Mavis had something on, shifty ex-con Marko (Peter Lorre), by going undercover in his club as the new floor act.

Black Angel is a fun little mystery that occupies a space between what we now call film noir and a more traditional mystery story, although it's the kind of story that could be played both a lot lighter or darker than it is and still make for an interesting movie, and it might be fun to see what different filmmakers would do with Woolrich's novel. This middle ground is pretty good, although it might have been interesting if the focus wasn't quite so much on Duryea's Martin Blair compared to Vincent's Catherine Bennett. There's fun angles to play with her; such as how far she would go with the character she is playing on this quest fueled by devotion to her husband, or whether the life she is leading could prove seductive. On the other hand, one does kind of have to admire the restraint and devotion screenwriter Roy Chanslor and director Roy William Neill show by not going there much: This is a whodunit, and those storylines don't resolve murder mysteries.

Full review on EFC.

The Glass Key

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, 35mm)

That Veronica Lake, she was something, wasn't she? Astonishingly beautiful, amazing figure, commanding voice; her character spends this entire film scheming to string someone along for her father's political gain and somehow never loses the sense of being the good girl. She's not really the star of this movie, but she's sure as heck the part that makes the biggest impression.

Which is not, perhaps, ideal, especially on a second viewing where one would perhaps expect to get a little more drawn into the story and the class conflict between the wealthy and high-minded family and the lower-class folks trying to get things done. That part of Dashiell Hammett's story is still interesting, at least, although I had a bit of a harder time getting into the unraveling of it the second time around.

It's still some pretty decent noir, though, and it's got Veronica Lake, which is no small thing. Certainly worth catching at least once.

Full review on EFC (from 2013).

Miller's Crossing

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2015 at the Brattle Theatre (75 Years of Film Noir, Part 2: Authors of Noir, DCP)

Second movie of the evening after a full day of work was not the best way to finally see what is considered one of the Coen Brothers' best, especially about a week or so from seeing one of its more memorable scenes referenced on Fargo. It's only half sticking on its own. I'm going to have to see it again to get a better feel for it.

I will, though, because this thing is great. Dropping Gabriel Byrne into the middle of a quirky Coen exercise as a melancholy sort of hero is a brilliant move, offsetting their archness just enough for a sense of impending doom where it's necessary and tragedy as close relationships are ripped apart. It's neat to see Steve Buscemi and Mike Starr just as they're about to become noteworthy character actors, and Jon Polito and Albert Finney as rather different types of gangsters.

More next time I see it, because there definitely will be one.

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