The Set-Up (1949)


The Set-Up (1949) movie poster

director  Robert Wise
viewed: 08/08/2018

A film noir adapted from a poem. That’s got to be unusual.

The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise stars Robert Ryan and Audrey Trotter and a slew of top notch character actors.

“Everybody’s a sucker for something.”

Lean, mean and sharply crafted, it’s easy to see why The Set-Up makes so many lists of best films noir. Wise keens in on the fervent bloodlust of boxing’s  bloodsport, the fatalistic nature of the genre and style. And the excellent boxing sequences and cinematography.

Also, I’m a Robert Ryan convert now.

The Prowler (1951)

 The Prowler (1951) movie poster

director  Joseph Losey
viewed: 07/27/2018

Written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (though attributed to Hugo Butler), The Prowler (1951) is a solid film noir from director Joseph Losey. Losey himself would be himself blacklisted not long after. As would Butler, as well.

Van Heflin stars as a shifty cop called in to investigate a “peeping Tom” by unfulfilled housewife Evelyn Keyes. Heflin shows up as soon as his shift ends and tries to insinuate himself with the lonely former dancer, connecting over their shared origins in Indiana. 

Van Heflin sparks and fans the flames that eventually lead to murder and beyond.

The stand-out of the film is the site of the finale, the ghost town of Calico where the couple hides out to give birth in secrecy. Ghost towns were in better shape in 1951 than they are today, I reckon. Actually, the set design is really evocative, the half destroyed home in an isolated valley where the couple attempts to set up house, the flawed and ruined attempt at the American dream.

Trumbo’s voice peeks out through the radio, the disembodied husband, who returns as specter in a dramatic moment.

Good stuff.

M (1951)

M (1951) movie poster

director Joseph Losey
viewed: 01/14/2018

A re-make of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) may have been a daunting task, even a misguided one.  Joseph Losey not only makes it work, he makes it worthwhile. In fact, he makes an excellent film noir.

Some serious credit has to go to cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and the amazing locations utilized around Los Angeles, most notably the since demolished Bunker Hill neighborhood and the still standing Bradbury Building. And the amazing cast of character actors jammed into this thing. There are a couple of notable names, but all those faces and personalities that make up the City of Angels’ mobs.

In a sense, it doesn’t seem to deserve to be as good as it is, derivative from one of cinema’s classics. But seen on its own terms, an LA film noir, tight and vivid, it’s a seriously fine film.

Dark Passage (1947)

Dark Passage (1947) movie poster

director Delmer Daves
viewed: 12/04/2017

Dark Passage is one of the great San Francisco noirs. Directed by Delmer Daves, a native of the city, the movie features a litany of shots around both San Francisco and Marin, capturing the City by the Bay in its state of being in the late 1940’s.

But that’s just one angle on the film.

It’s Bogey and Bacall in their third screen pairing. It’s also the great Agnes Moorehead in a nasty, venomous role.

It’s also the big breakthrough for pulp crime novelist David Goodis, an adaptation of his novel of the same name that had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and would wind up his most well-known work for years beyond his death.

I think that the last time I watched Dark Passage, I had just recently read the novel, and I had more of an issue with the film’s notable first-person camera perspective that hides Humphrey Bogart from the camera through the first entire hour. This time through it, I enjoyed that gimmicky approach, enjoyed the approach of the whole film, flecked with great character performances throughout. (The best sequence is the plastic surgery one, with the disgraced artist surgeon and the sly cab driver).

“Ever see a botched plastic job?”

Dark Passage isn’t Goodis’s best novel, but it’s a great film noir, worth taking in for a number of reasons or angles.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 06/21/2017

The pessimism of film noir, the dark soul of post-war America already fully formed in 1950. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is a noir of the soul, as well as a noir of Hollywood. It’s certainly placed within the world of the machine of movie-making dreams, the dark side, behind the scenes, the drunken, the embittered, the misanthropic.

The film’s very anti-Hollywood ending, maybe the surprise that was unexpected, that love does not conquer all, vindication for a criminal charge doesn’t solve the problems, that the darkness of men’s souls may still overtake it all. Hardly riding off into the sunset after a prolonged kiss.

I’d seen In a Lonely Place before, decades ago, and was duly impressed, as I am with most of Ray’s movies. But more recently, I read the novel In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which is absolutely among the best crime novels I’ve read. What’s amazing is how far departed the film and the book are, so far departed that they are truly absolutely distinct entities, whose qualities are as different as the works themselves.

Hughes’s novel is about a serial killer, a lost man, back from the War, haunting the greater Los Angeles as he kills and kills again. It’s a haunting, frightening portrait, not at all the psychological violence that underscores this film. In Ray’s picture, the violence is under the skin, in the heart and mind, and mostly off-screen, utterly in the soul.

It’s also remarkably funny and snappy as well. Some really great dialogue.

A classic film from a classic book (that more people should read) though barely the twain really meet.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) movie poster

director Robert Montgomery
viewed: 05/03/2017

Ride the Pink Horse is an unusual name for a film noir. Despite the fact that I’ve recently read the Dorothy B. Hughes novel from which it was adapted, its oddity still stands out, even knowing contextually from whence it comes.

Hughes’s novel is set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during a fiesta in the small town that has drawn locals from all over the state for the festivities, still somewhat pagan in their origin. Director/star Robert Montgomery and screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer change the setting vaguely to San Pablo, a stand-in for Santa Fe, even though some shots seem to indicate that Santa Fe also stands in for itself.

As an adaptation, it’s quite deft, tightening up some parts of the story, softening others, developing some of its own designs and ideas. Though Hughes’s novel was published in 1946, Montgomery and crew shift this noir into more specific post-war haze. Montgomery’s character is no longer a thug turned blackmailer but a veteran turned blackmailer. And his pursuant lawman, no longer a local Chicago cop, but a federal agent straight out of D.C.

A couple of the best things about the film are some character actors: Wanda Hendrix as Indian waif Pila, Thomas Gomez as immensely affable Pancho the owner of the litte carousel, and Fred Clark as the big villain with a hearing aid. All three are excellent in their own ways (Gomez even became the first Latino-American actor nominated for an Oscar for his role). Hendrix may not look the least Indian or Latina herself, but she’s very beautiful, and young and small, really embodying the spirit of the character.

I liked this much better than Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947). Hughes is an excellent crime novelist of her era. She also wrote the amazing In a Lonely Place, which was also turned into a a classic film noir. I was surprised to see this was a Criterion production, but glad to see it gets recognition.

Shock (1946)

Shock (1946) movie poster

director Alfred L. Werker
viewed: 4/20/2017

Shock is a film noir starring Vincent Price and Lynn Bari, set supposedly in San Francisco and the Bay Area, though not a frame of the film looks to have been shot on location.

The “Shock” of the title befalls a young woman (Anabel Shaw) who has come to the city to meet her husband returning from WWII. Her husband, though, is running late, and in a distressed state of mind, she witnesses a murder (by candlestick) in a neighboring room and is later found catatonic. Conveniently enough, the murderer is also a crack psychiatrist and is also Vincent Price, who takes her to his sanatorium for treatment. Only his conniving nurse/lover (Bari), a true femme fatale, thinks they should brainwash or kill her or just call her crazy.

On the edgier side of the style and genre is an early dream sequence of Shaw’s that involves some surreal imagery and is kind of interesting. Outside of that, it’s neither the richest or the poorest noir you’ll ever see, though it remains consistently interesting throughout its concise 70 minutes.

Films in the public domain aren’t always in the best shape, but Shock is certainly worthwhile. And the poster is pretty sweet.

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Hangmen Also Die! (1943) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 02/19/2017

This year has got me thinking a lot about resistance to Nazis and fascists. So, now I’ve opened a new trope in my movie-watching “Anti-nazi/Anti-fascist movies”, particularly those made during the build-up and duration of WWII.

It’s not that Hollywood itself was ahead of the game on this, because in fact, it largely wasn’t. There was still money to be made in Europe and calling out the fascists didn’t happen a lot until war was actually declared. And by that time, the stuff shaped more in the form of propaganda a lot of the time.

Emigree director Fritz Lang made three films during WWII with explicit depiction of Nazis. He claimed to have been approached by Joseph Goebbels to join the Nazis as a propagandist and took this meeting as signal to get the heck out of Germany. Whether that story is disputable or not, Lang did emigrate and make films like Hangmen Also Die! a film noir resistance thriller based loosely on real events.

Hangmen depicts a fictional version of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague, the highest ranking Nazi assassinated during the war. In Hangmen, the assassin is Brian Donlevy, a doctor involved with the underground Czech resistance. In his flight after the murder, he runs into a young woman (Anna Lee) who inadvertently helps him escape and soon becomes involved in his continued escape during a vicious and random crack-down by the nazis to root out the killer and any possible associates.

The ruthlessness and brutality of the crackdown no doubt have basis in fact, but the rest of the story is total fabrication. But it works and is tense and thrilling. Shining brightest is Tonio Selwart as the chief of the Gestapo, the canny, cruel mustachioed policeman who orders roundups and executions with cheerful disregard for humanity.

Propaganda is propaganda, but Nazis suck.

Sudden Fear (1952)

Sudden Fear (1952) movie poster

director David Miller
viewed: 02/17/2017

When a dictaphone is shown in the home office of a writer with such elaborate demonstration, you know it’s going be a key plot device later in the film. And that’s the thing with Sudden Fear. It’s not so much boilerplate woman-in-distress noir, as it is rather conventional and obvious.

Leave it to star Joan Crawford and an excellent Gloria Grahame and a slithery Jack Palance to give heft to this piece. And old San Francisco gets shown off in some glory as well, maybe not as primely as in a couple other notable SF noirs, but still pretty nice.

I’ve always had some weird issue with Crawford, just the extremity of her visage. Those eyebrows! That mouth! Those eyes, almost always glaring. But she’s very good here as the semi-spinsterish successful playwright who foolishly falls for an actor she fired (Palance).  Grahame on the other hand is pitch perfect as Palance’s floozy girlfriend, pretty and nasty.

I guess that’s why there were movie stars. To elevate mediocre pictures to decent ones.

Angel’s Flight (1965)

Angel's Flight (1965) title shot

directors  Raymond Nassour, Kenneth W. Richardson
viewed: 01/28/2017

Somewhat maligned (one user review reads “Bad Writing, Bad acting, Bad Editing – Great Locations!”) and super obscure, the 1965 film noir Angel’s Flight is pretty interesting. It’s named for the funicular railroad running up Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill, the structure still exists, though the hill itself and the neighborhood depicted in the film, were razed in 1969 via urban renewal.

I’d noticed the Angel’s Flight funicular railroad in another film noir, 1949’s Criss Cross, and it really caught my eye. Apparently, Angel’s Flight and Bunker Hill showed up in a bevy of films noir like Cry Danger (1951), Joseph Losey’s American re-make of M (1951), and Robert Aldrich’s classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I’ll have to make it a point to watch and re-watch those.

The movie itself is low budget and feeling it, but watching the movie via a rough YouTube print, cries out for restoration. To get your hands on an obscure flick, it’s worth watching, but the print doesn’t do the movie any favors.

Indus Arthur stars as a neighborhood burlesque dancer (read: “stripper”) who slashes “pretty men” when they start to get fresh. William Thourlby (the original Marlboro Man) is the drunken writer who wants to pen an ode to Angel’s Flight, falls for the dancer, and discovers her secret.

There are campish aspects to the movie, but it’s also far from the worst movie of its period and type. The camera work is actually pretty good. And then it’s got what it has: location, location, location.

There is an excellent write-up about Angel’s Flight on by Steve Eifert. I had the pleasure of seeing the railway first-hand the very day I watched the movie (the raison d’etre for the viewing), but it’s very interesting, even if you can’t see what’s left of it in person.