While the City Sleeps (1956)

While the City Sleeps (1956) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/27/2018

While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang’s second to last Hollywood film, feels more nominally noir that fully noir. Not that noir is such a definitive thing itself.

Visually, at least, Lang takes the film into the subway tunnel for a brief chase of the serial killer, in a brief but effective sequence of something much more noir than the rest. From what I’ve read, production costs and studio limitations hampered Lang’s visual style in his last couple of films.

So, yes, there is a serial killer, but the primary focus of the film is a media empire at odds with itself. With the death of the empire’s president and namesake, the heads of the newspaper, the wire service, and the photography branch all vie for the top job under the president’s ne’er-do-well son (Vincent Price, in short and tall dark socks at one point).

The ham-fisted script roils with plot points and way too many convenient twists, but still puts up a good testament to importance of the free press.

Dana Andrews is the one reporter with a nose for the news, but he’s a drunk who’s willing to put his fiancée out as bait for the “Lipstick Killer”.  The convoluted drama is rife with noirish cynicism, but frankly, While the City Sleeps might be my least favorite Fritz Lang film I’ve seen.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) movie poster

director Otto Preminger
viewed: 08/25/2018

Where the Sidewalk Ends was shot on location in New York City, but since most of the events go down at night, director Otto Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle craft a mise en scène that has all the control of a studio set. There’s a shot where Dana Andrews steps outside and an elevated train in the background comes to a stop. Magical shot.

If I’d seen Where the Sidewalk Ends before having seen Preminger’s more well-appreciated Laura (1944), I might have had a better liking for his direction and noir films. This 1950 film noir, reuniting Laura stars Andrews and Gene Tierney (Wot a babe!), is far grittier and far more noir. Tierney and Andrews are great together, easy to see why they would be paired so often.

I’ll forgo summarizing the plot because I didn’t know what was going to happen and the film’s main twist came as a surprise.

I quite enjoyed it. Solid noir.

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.