The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920) movie poster

director Wallace Worsley
viewed: 10/21/2017

Lon Chaney stars as “that cripple from hell,” a criminal mastermind in San Francisco who lost his legs in a trolley accident (though more significantly due to malpractice), by the name of Blizzard.

1920’s The Penalty is a sleazy pulpy proto-noir that helped Chaney burst into stardom despite playing largely villains or monsters. Really, he himself is the special effect. He plays a man who lost his legs beneath the knees and moves around with the help of buckets and crutches. Chaney’s legs were strapped painfully behind him.  It’s an amazingly physical role as he climbs around and menaces venally. He even slides down a fireman’s pole.

I’m not sure how much of it was shot in San Francisco but parts of the film certainly were. It’s a glimpse into a much different city.

It’s not brilliant but it is good pulpy fun despite the rather odd deus-ex-machina happy ending. It’s cool that Chaney was such a star since he’s so against type as a star though full of star-power.

“Don’t grieve, dear, death interests me,” a sweet epitaph.


Port of Shadows (1938)

Port of Shadows (1938) movie poster

director Marcel Carné
viewed: 06/24/2017

Port of Shadows may be the Frenchest French film ever made. Though I suppose that depends on your perception of France and the French. Luc Sante wrote that it “possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema,” and that it is an exemplar of “poetic realism“.

Jean Gabin stumbles into La Havre, which is drenched in fog, from one near fist fight to another, smoking and brooding about life. And then Michèle Morgan, just a kid really at 17, and yet more a woman than many twice her age. Morgan, like Gabin, like most any frame of Port of Shadows is a luminous cinematic image, eternal.

This also falls into the “proto-noir” categorization, noir before noir.

Like a transmission in a dream.

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) movie poster

director  Phil Goldstone
viewed: 02/16/2017

Unfairly obscure, Phil Goldstone’s The Sin of Nora Moran really deserves to be seen by more. The gorgeous Vargas movie poster (considered by many to be one of the most beautiful of all time) doesn’t seem to help it get seen more, at least as yet. The poster is gorgeous.

This Poverty Row proto-noir pre-code flick is perhaps far from perfect, but it has many fascinating elements, most notably its montages and editing, set in prolonged flashbacks. The striking Zita Johann stars as Nora, a girl orphaned twice, who turned to dancing and showbiz before finding herself raped by a lion tamer. And that is just the beginning.

The story unfolds in flashbacks, related by a DA (Alan Dinehart) to his sister, telling the wild tale of a lost girl who wasn’t half as tawdry as suspected. Really, she had a heart of gold (this was the Depression, of course). Her story unfolds at times as delusions she undergoes via morphine doses to calm her nerves as she sits on Death Row for a crime she did not commit but will go down for.

It’s Zita Johann and the crazy quilt montages that really deliver the film from middling mediocrity and rise it to some Hollywood version of Dziga Vertov and pop culture Surrealism. When the montages come, they come fast and furious, vivid and surprising, extremely unusual.

Goldstone was a longtime producer who only directed a dozen films, mostly in the Silent Era. Was this inventiveness his? Or some collaboration with editor Otis Garrett? Or who knows what kind of alchemy made it possible?

Really a remarkable little picture.

Le jour se lève

Le Jour se lève (1939) movie poster

(1939) director Marcel Carné
viewed: 09/30/10

I ended up queuing Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève after seeing it listed among a number of other films as early non-American film noirs.  While aspects of it could be considered somewhat proto-noir, it doesn’t really bear out the film noir but rather as “poetic realism”, a style that had brief popularity in France in the 1930’s that later influence Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave.  Certainly, when it comes to styles, few films are so pure that they can be quite simply classified in a number of ways, utterly exclusive of other categories.

The film stars the ubiquitous Jean Gabin as a factory worker who falls in love with a woman from a flower shop.  She, however, falls under the sway of an older gentleman with a silver tongue, who stages an act with performing dogs and speaks of travel and a life far removed from her urban experience.  Gabin takes up with the dog trainer’s ex-lover in the meantime, but still loves his flower shop fille.  But the cad continues to harangue him, gibe him, and make life miserable.

But the film actually opens with Gabin slaying his oppressor.  The film follows Gabin who has locked himself in his top floor apartment, holding off the police with a gun, and the story comes about in a series of flashbacks, leading to understand how Gabin’s character wound up in this situation.

I’d never seen any of Marcel Carné’s films, even though his Children of Paradise (1945) is popularly considered one of the best French films of all time in France.  The film fits well with Jean Renoir’s  La bête humaine (1938) or The Lower Depths (1936), which might also be considered a representative of poetic realism as well, featuring humanist stories, steeped perhaps in a literary tradition, depicting life on the lower echelons of the social structure.  And like those films, it’s quite well-done, featuring a number of interesting camera techniques and weaving a compelling fatalistic yarn.

You Only Live Once

You Only Live Once (1937) movie poster

(1937) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 09/11/10

After seeing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), I was interested in finally seeing more of his other films, his American films that he made after emigrating before the outbreak of WWII.  The first of these films that I queued up for myself was the Depression-era crime film You Only Live Once, starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney.

Considered a proto film noir, the movie is actually the first cinematic interpretation of the story of Bonnie and Clyde (with a great deal of liberties thrown in).  What’s most striking about the film are both some of Lang’s very poignant and powerful visuals and violence, but also the outsider drama and passion for the two misunderstood criminals.  I would argue that surely it’s proto-noir, not the genuine article, but that it is a fascinating step in the generation of the style while tying itself to the populist antihero criminals that are its stars.

Fonda plays a small-time criminal who is just being released from prison, reformed and ready to toe the straight-and-narrow with his loving new wife Sidney.  But a harsh world for ex-cons doesn’t show him either hospitality nor much leeway and he quickly loses the job that he’d gotten lined up for him on the outside.  Down on his luck, things get worse when he is framed for a bank heist that kills four bystanders and cops, and when his wife convinces him to turn himself in to prove his innocence, that backfires too and he is found guilty and sentenced to death.  His innocence on the crime is found out, but not before he kills a priest, a friend of his who has worked hard to help him, in a desperate jailbreak.  This lands both Fonda and his once innocent wife on the wrong side of the law for good and they take to the lam in a tragic story arc.  Harsh times beget harsh realities.

Really, it’s a very pessimistic film, a dark message for the Depression-era audience.  But it’s lively and well-made.  Fonda has never been a favorite of mine, but he and Sidney are strong in the film.  The real star is Lang’s construction, in most particular the violent bank robbery, which is deftly shot and powerful.  It’s fascinating to see the heroes/anti-heroes, good-hearted, good-natured people driven to extremes, driven in desperation by a world that doesn’t cut them an even break, and to see it all wrapped up in tragedy, not a merry ending.  Harsh times indeed.  Excellent film.

La bête humaine

La Bête humaine (1938) movie poster

(1938) dir. Jean Renoir
viewed: 04/05/10

As I noted about a year ago when I watched Jean Renoir’s The Lower Depths (1936), I’d had an introduction to Renoir when I had been living in England, but since that time I haven’t really seen any of his films.  La bête humaine is actually not entirely different from The Lower Depths in that it’s a literary adaptation, this time Emile Zola not Maxim Gorky, and also one with some change of setting.  In this case, the story is modernized a bit, which was a choice for production costs, according to some of the extras on the Criterion Collection disc.

La bête humaine plays out a bit like film noir though film noir wasn’t to come for another decade almost (though there are debates about its origin if such a thing can be clearly defined).  A humanistic approach to the story of love and murder among the working class, the films stars Jean Gabin and Simone Simon, the doomed lovers of this tale.

The cinematography is quite striking, set amongst the world of steam trains and the engineers and other workers in this world.  The film opens, interestingly, with no dialogue, but with the images of the train, the work that it takes the men to make the train run, and the physicality of the entire milieu.  Apparently, Gabin learned to run the trains himself, and there was much put into the verity of the work situations, the realit of the work and effort, not simply into the characters’ personas.

Always interested in class, Renoir here is actually much more situated within a single class, not demonstrating many characters from othere walks of society, with the key example of the corrupt godfather of Simon’s character, who was a womanizer and user of women, using even his relationship with Simon as her godfather to have an affair with her until he’d tired of her.  He meets a ruinous end, but at the hands of Simon’s jealous, small-minded husband, not purely for moral flaws.

Simone Simon, who I’d only ever seen in Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), is a lovely woman, yet again a victim.   Though in this case, she’s a victim of the strange, psychological urges of a man possessed of the blood poisoned by the sins of his forebears.

A great film, truly.  Renoir was a humanist above all and a great teller of story.  All is apparent here in this film.


Underworld (1927) movie poster

(1927) dir. Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/11/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The first of three or four films that I went to see at the Castro this last weekend as part of the Silent Film Festival, Underworld is notable as a prototype “gangster” film, written by Ben Hecht, who would go on to a very notable career in screenwriting, including Scarface (1932) and others far too many to mention.  The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg with great style and flair and features quite a bit of fun.

The film was introduced by Eddie Muller, local noir aficianado, who suggested it as one of the earliest instances of the gangster film and one of the precursors to noir, though certainly not noir specifically.  And those points were easy to see.

It was interesting to see the gangster film as a silent, since in watching several gangster films lately, the language and delivery of the dialogue seemed so key.  The story is more purely prototypical, as are some of the characters: the moll, the smallish but very tidy gangster, the bigger than life antihero.  According to Muller, Hecht felt that von Sternberg ruined the film with some more sappy sequences.  Again, hard to say, but the film wasn’t as “hard” as some of the later, more well-known gangster films that would soon follow.

I enjoyed this film, but oddly, I am not finding a lot to say about it.  So, I’ll leave it at that.


Pépé le Moko

Pépé le Moko (1937) movie poster(1937) dir. Julien Duvivier
viewed: 01/12/08

Pépé le Moko fits well within several types of filmic explorations that I am currently on.  A post-WWI French film about a criminal hiding out in the Casbah in Algiers, Pépé le Moko is played by the suave and handsome Jean Gabin, who I’d recently watchin in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954).  The film is a sort of proto-noir, a seminal film, whose influence echoed throughout much of true film noir and many later films of and around the French New Wave.  The film was re-made in the U.S. twice, first as Algiers (1939) and again as Casbah (1948), and it offers the classic line (though in French and not French-accented English), “Come with me to the Casbah”.

Gabin is excellent as the ultra-lady killer criminal, who has slept with almost every gal in the Casbah and has them all swooning heartily when he sings from the rooftops.  But Pépé, who has been hiding out in the Casbah for 2 years, is trapped by the labyrinthine, nearly M.C. Escher-esque world of the Casbah.  The moment he leaves the maze and its protection, he’ll be arrested and sent to prison.  He longs for Paris, fantasizing about it with the woman for whom he falls.  And the police, while incapable of capturing him on his own turf, are wily and waiting for him to make a mistake.

The use of Algiers itself is extremely effective, a multicultural mishmash, a strange and exotic world.  For Pépé, however, all of its trappings have become traps, even the beautiful Inès, his Casbah woman.  He yearns for his home, and ultimately falls in love with Gaby, a girl from a nearby neighborhood to his.  There is a significant sexism that I have to estimate is not a-typical for the time and the culture.  Pépé can be brutal, brutally blunt, brutally physical.  But this passion and physicality is meant to be part of his overall charms.  He is a man, a true anti-hero, a thief but not a killer (he shoots the cops in the legs on purpose), capable of violence but also the romantic hero, a true French Man.

The film has great elegance in its production, simple but effective camerawork, and a narrative that is quick-footed and spry.  It’s interesting to see the French crime film, with its echoing influence of American crime films, yet its completely French difference, or is it differance?  Vive la différence!  Much like Gabin, the film is suave, romantic, and classic.


I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 01/11/09

An excellent pre-code flick, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is Hollywood social criticism and drama in effective, realistic, and iconic ways.  Directed by Mervyin LeRoy (Little Caesar (1931)) and starring the excellent Paul Muni (Scarface (1932)), it’s pretty primal, gritty, pre-noir, yet with some truly noirish character.  Based on a book about the true-life experience of a chain gang fugitive from Georgia, this film actually helped to bring an end to the brutal chain gang system that it depicts.  How many Hollywood films of any era have had such significant social effect?

Muni is a decorated war hero, returning from WWI (notably at the time the only “World War”), but he’s not satisfied with returning to the old job, the small town.  He has had a taste of the world, the opportunities in engineering and the depravity of war, and wants more.  Hitting the road to find work, he travels a very Great Depression-era experience, hoofing it, living hand-to-mouth, and not making his name.  When he gets mixed up in a small-change robbery and arrested, he winds up on the brutal chain gang, where beatings are ritual, and men in chains are treated worse than animals.

LeRoy’s narrative style is very visual, with rhythmic repetitions of the hammers striking the rocks as time ticks past, the chain gang spirituals intoned by the men, and the grim faces of the slave-like world.  And it’s an exciting and fast-paced tale, moving through the narrative with rapidity, and using language and vernacular in ways that feel strongly of the world of the time.  While Preston Sturges echoed this experience in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one kind of imagines that it was both of these films that inspired the milieu of the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), especially with this film’s use of music.

It’s excellent stuff.  The final image of the film is awesome and telling, too.  After having re-submitted himself to the the chain gang system to pay his debt to society, Muni is tricked into a never-ending cycle again, and is forced to escape a second time.  He appears to his lost love out of the shadows, saying that he is on the run and that he’ll always be on the run.  And rather than some solution and reconcilliation, he drifts back into shadow, with the hunted look on his face, it’s a haunting ending.  Excellent, excellent stuff.

Lady Killer

Lady Killer (1933) movie poster

(1933) dir. Roy Del Ruth
viewed: 12/10/08

Well, I said that I was going to watch some more Jimmy Cagney movies, and here we go!  Lady Killer isn’t a true Gangster film, though the film riffs on Cagney’s earlier movie The Public Enemy (1931), which I had just so happened to watch the night before, referencing the notorious scene when he shoves a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face with several small gags and asides.  It’s a riotously-paced flick, helmed by Roy Del Ruth, another solid Hollywood director of the period.  And, you know, it’s pretty clever and funny.

The film follows Cagney’s character Dan Quigley, a sharp smart-ass of a fellow who begins the film as an usher in a big New York movie theater (in a scene that is interesting in its own anachronism, having a fleet of ushers standing at a military-like attention for review by the theater manager — you know, service at a movie theater sure ain’t what it used to be!).  He’s a gum-chewing, dice-playing fellow, and he’s given the gate.

But Quigley moves quickly, joining up with a small band of small-time thieves and card cheats, he gets involved in a robbery that leads to a death, and they all hit the road.  I think this all happens in the first 20 minutes of the film.  The rise and fall encapsulated.  Of course, Quigley’s ride isn’t tragic.  He’s not a bad bad guy.  He’s just brassy and tough, but funny and charming, too.  When he gets picked up as an extra at a movie studio, he quickly makes himself a star by writing his own fan mail.  And then the story works toward its conflict and culmination when his former gangmates, who hightailed it out of town and left him in jail, come back and start to blackmail him and cause more havoc.

The film is not quite piss and vinegar, but wise, tough, and clever.  Mae Clarke, of the grapefruit fame, has a larger role in this film, playing the moll of the gang, who was early on Quigley’s gal, but betrays him.  When she shows up, many references to fruit are thrown in, but Roy Del Ruth one-up’s the The Public Enemy‘s brutality.  Cagney finds Clarke in his bed at an inopportune time and when she refuses to leave, he grabs her by the scalp and drags her through two rooms to throw her out the door.  It’s shockingly brutal, yet comic.  It’s a stand-out sequence in this sharp, fast-paced comedy.

It’s a lot of fun, this film, and another good pairing with The Public Enemy.  It’s kind of funny, but I don’t know if I’d watched any James Cagney films before.  Now I’m all about them.  Great stuff.