Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Tyrone Power was a handsome fellow and it led to a meteoric rise among Hollywood’s elite. But as often is the case, a pretty face can be your undoing as people only see a movie idol and not an actor. Daryl Zanuck for one saw one of his biggest box office draws in Tyrone Power and he was protective of that image even after coming back from the war.

However, to his credit, in Nightmare Alley Power persistently went after a role that put his talents on full display by wickedly subverting his longheld screen persona. Zanuck was undoubtedly horrified by the results and pulled the picture out of circulation as quickly as he possibly could while giving it little publicity. And yet thank goodness this picture remains today — a testament to the peculiar oddities that managed to come out of Hollywood — for one an A-list picture where one of the biggest names in the business plays an opportunistic sleazebag.

Stan Carlisle (Power) is an up-and-comer in a trashy traveling carnival that brings in the hordes of local yokums through sleight of hand, mysticism, and outright exploitation. One of their biggest acts is the dubiously named “Geek” show while Stan does his bit with “Madame Zeena” (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic has-been husband.

Meanwhile, the young man’s charismatic qualities aid him in talking up hick sheriffs trying to close down the establishment and run them out of town. He seamlessly spouts off the gospel he learned in an orphanage to captivate his audience noting foxily, “Boy how I went for salvation. It’s kind of handy when you’re in a jam.” He can spin just about anything to get what he wants.

Though Pete is all dried up, Zeena still has it and the ever-industrious Stan convinces her to teach him the secret code that they used to utilize in the old days to completely captivate the crowds with feats of extrasensory perception. Ever the carnival showman he soon rebrands himself as a mentalist extraordinaire “The Great Stanton” taking his adoring carnival cohort Molly (Coleen Gray) along with him following a shotgun wedding demanded by the resident strongman (Mike Mazurksy). Zeena and the other carnival nobodies get left behind without a note of gratitude.

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There are innumerable intricacies found throughout Nightmare Alley but the overarching themes revolve around the three women in Stan’s life who ultimately shape his existence. Zeena is the veteran who gets him his foot up while her deck of tarot cards including a hangman remain a harbinger of future misgivings.

Only now do I realize that Colleen Gray’s demure qualities are rather reminiscent of Joan Fontaine and she remains a textbook guardian angel figure. In later years she would devote herself to numerous charities including Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. What so easily gets forgotten, in the midst of Power’s disingenuous portrayal, is Helen Walker as the equally unscrupulous psychoanalyst who in many ways bests him in a very unconventional femme fatale role.

However, with Molly’s assistance, they’re initially able to begin to realize his dreams of the big time where they take their shows into swankier places with more respectable audiences who they are nevertheless still able to dazzle. And yet the recurring attribute of a man such as Carlisle is that he can never be satisfied. There must always be another greater success to follow up every previous exploit.

He unwittingly finds his next access point when crossing paths with the dubious analyst named Ms. Ritter (Walker) with extensive records on numerous influential people. She and her new accomplice go in cahoots and Carlise soon realizes his next aspiration that of a spook act. But far from just being a gimmick to get money, it becomes a form of spiritual comfort to people. In many ways, it seems like he is playing with fire. He hardly knows who he is dealing with in Lillith Ritter and he keeps the entire arrangement conveniently hidden from his wife.

Instead, he tries to use her in one last payoff with Molly masquerading as the specter of an old man’s long-lost beau. But she is so unlike Stan. She cannot manipulate a man in such a way and she’s equally afraid. She confronts her husband, “You make it sound so sacred and holy when all the time it’s just a gag with you…You’re just laughing your head off at these chumps. You think God’s going to stand for that?”

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Not only is Nightmare Alley a carnival noir with the dark palette courtesy of veteran Lee Garmes but thematically, we also take a cynical nosedive into ominous even sacrilegious territory. It’s an heir apparent to such 1930s films like Blue Angel (1930), Freaks (1932), and Miracle Woman (1931). Fundamentally it charts the rise and fall of a single man who used religious clout and chicanery only to end up as an ostracized carnival commodity. He went from using others to being used because he winds up a good-for-nothing. So the story predictably comes full circle.

The film is good enough not to give us a happy ending. Yes, it cuts the dramatic arc short but that only saves us from the foregone conclusion. Molly clings to a now paranoid and wasted Stan — a shell of the whip-smart punk he used to be — promising to take care of him. Zeena made that promise before to her husband too and look what happened to him.

There was no reemergence or getting back to the way things used to be. What’s to make us think that this version will be any different? In fact, it’s probably even more haunting than actually knowing definitively what will happen because we are forced to leave the movie in the shadowy ambiguities. What isn’t ambiguous is Tyrone Power in the most duplicitous and simultaneously most devastating showing of his career.

4/5 Stars

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

KCConfidential.jpgSaying that Phil Karlson has a penchant for gritty crime dramas is a gross understatement. And yet here again is one of those real tough-guy numbers he was known for, where all you have to do is follow the trail of cigarette smoke and every punch is palpable–coming right off the screen and practically walloping you across the face.

Like all heist films, there must be a point of inception, however, Kansas City Confidential finds its story after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have split up without a hitch. The man who takes the heat, their fall guy and the unsuspecting stooge is Joe Rolfe (John Payne who is adept at playing such roles) a nobody truck driver and a convict once upon a time.

It seems like the perfect crime as the three hired hands all wore masks and had no connection to each other, except for the stocky and demonstrative Mr. Big, the mastermind behind the whole operation and the one calling the shots. He sends each man off with enough money to tide themselves over until he contacts them to reconvene for their big payoff. Whether or not he will actually cough up the 300,000 clams he owes each of them is quite another story.

Still, each man heads his own way and Joe is getting grilled by the cops day after day in the hopes that he will crack. Finally, he is released, but with no prospects and no job, he sits in a bar stewing in his anger. The story takes it’s next big turn when he follows a lead down to Mexico to tail one of the hoods in on the job Peter Harris (Jack Elam). And although Joe is going in blind, he soon catches wind of the impending rendezvous in Barados and decides he’ll just show up as well, to get to the bottom of the entire mess.

It’s there where he first crosses paths with two other leering hoods, the beady-eyed Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and the silently brooding Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). However, while keeping tabs on these cronies, he keeps company with a budding lawyer Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), who has come to call upon her protective father, the former policeman Tim Foster. If this set up isn’t plain enough already, it certainly becomes increasingly interesting as the gears continue to turn towards the story’s inevitable climax.

Most certainly Kansas City Confidential boasts jarring close-ups, low budget facades and perpetually sweaty faces that accentuate its unsentimental noirish qualities. However, Coleen Gray acts as a more enlightened noir heroine, who does not grovel for her man or weep incessantly at the thought of danger. Instead, she’s training to be a lawyer, and rational but still unequivocally kind. Despite not having a proper meet cute, the chemistry between Gray and Payne still works surprisingly well.

What makes the film inherently more interesting is how the crime is embroiled with family issues. Because, as an audience, we know Mr. Big’s identity: a corrupted cop who got a bum steer and now is going to reap the benefits of setting up some real losers. Still, that doesn’t excuse what he did and Joe got dealt a similarly sorry hand. The fact that Foster’s daughter is involved sheds him in a more humane light and in the same instance makes Joe a more likable figure. In many ways, she brings out the best qualities of both these characters. It’s the darker recesses that lurk behind their characters. Those are made more evident by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand, a real rogues gallery of baddies if there ever was one.

4/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

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2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

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3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

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4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

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Review: Red River (1948)

redriver1Any conversation on quintessential American Westerns certainly has to at least consider Red River. It has genre mainstay John Wayne in one of his most stirring performances, a moody precursor to The Searchers. It boasts the debut of the often criminally under-appreciated method actor Monty Clift. Moreover, it’s cinematic space is filled out by a colorful array of prominent Western stock players. You have the always ornery Walter Brennan, pudgy Noah Beery Jr., Harey Carey Jr., Hank Worden, and numerous others. For a second you can even forget that this isn’t a John Ford film, but instead, the story is placed in the ever-adept hands of Howard Hawks, who knows how to craft compelling stories no matter the genre he’s working in.

In 1851, before Tom Dunson (Wayne) settles on a new plot of land near the Rio Grande and begins to raise his cattle with the brand of the Red River D, he loses the love of his life to an Indian raid, while also picking up an orphaned boy in the aftermath. That young man, Matt Garth (Clift), would become like Dunson’s adopted son and his right-hand man when it comes to running his ranch. The rest of Red River is essentially a road film that chronicles the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail. It’s bound to be a gritty, sweaty, and undoubtedly smelly road ahead as Wayne and Clift take the reins on this journey. The intrigue comes with power dynamics because when you put two or more people in a confined space sparks are bound to fly at some point.

redriver2When Dunson begins the massive journey to sell his cattle in Missouri, many wranglers sign on for prospects ahead, but they don’t quite know the degree of hardship that they will face. Soon enough, a stampede leaves one man dead and the company without one of their chuck wagons of provisions. Dunson is a hard taskmaster, who expects his hired hands to finish their job. Morale in the band begins to sink from lack of food and fierce downpours that leave most everyone dejected and distraught.

Then, when Dunson prepares to hang two deserters to make an example out of them, Matt must finally step in. He’s always the subservient one, always backing Dunson with his gun, but for the first time in his life, he crosses the will of his mentor. All the wranglers are quick to continue the journey as they change course for Abilene Kansans and the prospect of the railroad. But Garth leaves a brooding Dunson behind, vowing to kill Matt if it’s the last thing he does. It’s this act of the story which brings to mind the Biblical vendetta of Esau as he pursues his kin for stealing his birthright.

redriver6Garth and his contingent do end up getting to Abilene and are met with open arms by the kindly Mr. Melville, however, perhaps, more importantly, Matt falls in love with a fiery beauty (Joanne Dru) and must leave her behind. Days later Tess Millay also meets Tom Dunson, the man she has heard so much about, and he’s far from being dissuaded from his mission.

Thus, the expected showdown comes with Dunson riding into town with his hired guns, the alarm being sounded, and Garth waiting for him. Dunson draws and Garth will not. It’s a fitting moment, but Howard Hawks develops it in a fabulous way. He fills it with tension and ultimately a hint of humor. The addition of Joanne Dru shifts the power dynamic and she says what everyone else is thinking while angrily packing a pistol.

redriver4Because if Red River was story alone, it would not be the preeminent Western that it is, and I think I made that mistake before. Hawks is a master at using all his actors to perfection in not simply the climactic moments, but also the lulls. With such a substantial ensemble, even the way he positions all his players in the scene holds importance. His scenes are continually interesting from talk of Walter Brennan’s false teeth to complaints about the abysmal quality of the coffee.

My only qualm with the film is the rather shoddy transitions, and so I am interested in getting a look at the theatrical cut with narration from Brennan. John Ford famously quipped that he never knew that Wayne could act until this film, and it’s true that he gives a darkly vengeful performance. But in many ways, Clift proves himself as a worthy co-star. There’s always a tightness, a lilt to his voice, that signals an earnestness and vulnerability. It starts coming out in this film right when he knows that he’s no longer going to follow Dunson. It took two starkly different actors to make the narrative work as well as it did, and Hawks added yet another classic to his catalog. On a side note, the music of Dimitri Tiomkin was noticeable, because the refrains can be heard verbatim in Rio Bravo. If something’s good why change it, right?

4.5/5 Stars

Kiss of Death (1947)

kissof1Film-Noir gets interesting when the stylized, more formalistic world of this dark genre begins to seep into the familiar human drama that we as an audience are more used to. Many of us have families. We have jobs so we can provide for our families.  Or maybe some of us don’t and that makes for some tough decisions.

In Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) has been out of work for a long time now, so on Christmas Eve, in order to get presents for his two little girls, he robs a jewelry store with a few other accomplices. What sets him apart is he’s not your stereotypical ruthless criminal. He’s a family man, but he’s also bought into the idea that you don’t squeal. So inevitably after he gets caught and booked, Nick will not talk and he gets sent to the clink. The assistant D.A. (Brian Dunleavy) tried to help him, but Bianco took the three years in Sing Sing instead.  After all, his wife is doing fine and so are his daughters.

While he’s in the clink, however, he gets tragic news that his wife committed suicide and his two girls were sent to an orphanage and that changes his entire outlook. He needs to get out of there, and he’s ready to sing if that means getting to see his girls. He begins communication with D.A. Louis D’Angelo again, and he also begins to receive visits from a pretty young woman named Nettie (Colleen Gray), who used to babysit his girls back when his wife was still alive. As his relationship and gratefulness in Nettie grow, Nick also comes in contact with Tommy Udo who is also serving time. He’s a thug with a maniacal laugh and psychopathic personality if there ever was one. He’s not a good guy to cross.

The dkissof2ay finally comes when Nick gets out and he has Nettie waiting for him with his two girls. They are a beautiful happy family and Bianco has remade his life possibly better than it ever was before. However, he’s still beholden to the D.A. and they want him to get dirt on Tommy Udo. They don’t know what they’re asking, but still, Nick goes through it reassured that depending on what he can get, Udo will be put away for good. But of course, the slimeball beats the rap and Nick’s now a sitting duck. He sends his family away and waits for a confrontation with Udo.

His home life has all of a sudden been shattered, and he’s a wreck. Udo’s sadistic laugh undoubtedly ringing in his ears. In a different era, this film could have spiraled deeper and deeper into the darkness after the final confrontation. Supposedly there was one cut of the film where Widmark’s character actually got away and Mature was left for dead. The ending that was decided upon is still harrowing but holds a Hollywood silver lining as Coleen Gray’s narration ties up the story in a nice bow.

There potentially was also a scene in Kiss of Death with Mrs. Bianco where Udo took advantage of her and drove her to commit suicide, but it was deemed too graphic at the time. Although I would admit that such a scene would have made Udo even more despicable, he really did not need much help. Widmark plays him to a tee with a chilling laugh that would make the Joker proud. Mature is certainly not the standout, but he’s a necessary every man who we can empathize with. The demure Colleen Gray (who unfortunately just left us) is also fun to watch as the girl who stands by him. She also serves to narrate our story informally. Maybe it’s just me, but I really do not grasp the importance of this title. It gave me major misconceptions going in, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Killing (1956)

e4855-thekilling1Stanley Kubrick is one of the most acclaimed directors of all time, and The Killing is his first great film. The main focus of the action takes place at a racetrack, but a great deal of the story occurs in other places before and after the job is pulled.  Recently released Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is the mastermind behind an intricately planned job. It’s a whole complex jigsaw puzzle involving a few “Average Joes” and a couple professionals. When you put it together it all adds up to the perfect heist.

Marvin is a friend of Johnny’s and a fatherly figure who is backing the deal. George (Elisha Cook Jr.) is the paranoid window teller banking on the job so he can hold onto his shallow wife. Randy is the policeman who is set to pick up the plunder. Then, Mike is the bartender who is supposed to help with the distraction. Johnny lines up the brawn, Maurice, to start a fight at the race track with Mike. He gets a sharpshooter named Nikki to bump off a horse and it’s all set. All their plans revolve around the Seventh Race, and they have it planned out to the minute. The beauty of The Killing is that it all but works like clockwork. The horse is shot, the brawl does its job, the vault is cleaned out, and the money gets picked up. Only a few small problems crop up.

After the job is done is another matter, as the perfect timetable begins to break down. In a matter of seconds, things blow up thanks to George’s backstabbing wife (Marie Windsor). Soon the carnage is strewn all over the floor. Johnny holds onto the money as previously decided since things go awry, and he makes the getaway. His girl (Colleen Gray) is waiting at the airport and it looks to be smooth sailing from here on out.

Thanks to a yippy dog and a precarious perch, the money-laden suitcase takes a tumble and the contents fly off. All too soon it’s raining money, and there’s nothing Johnny can do about it. He leaves the terminal with Fay, but with no taxi to be had, he gets nabbed and there is no chance to escape. After everything lining up so perfectly for him, in a cruel turn everything that could go wrong did. He was not going to be so lucky.

The title of this film always struck me as ambiguous, whether it meant the amount of money being taken or the deaths that take place I’m not sure. However, I do know that The Killing is tautly constructed. The non-linear and sometimes overlapping narrative is held together by the narrator. He seems fit for a newsreel, but he complements the straightforward procedure of the film with timestamps included.

Because of the lead performance of Sterling Hayden and the main plot element of a heist, this film can sometimes be confused with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). However, I enjoy this storyline more because the heist is not the issue. It is the aftermath and all the subsequent problems occurring so rapidly.

It is a wonderful unraveling thriller and although we do not see Johnny arrested, he might as well be because there are two men with pistols drawn walking right towards him. The Killing was not a big payoff for Hayden’s character, but it certainly is for the audience.

4.5/5 Stars

 

The Killing (1956) – Film-Noir

1eadc-thekillingposterkubrickDirected by Stanley Kubrick and starring Sterling Hayden, the film follows a group of crooks and everyday race track workers who carry out an intricate robbery. In the planning stages they have everything figured out completely with one small disturbance. When the day arrives, the plan begins as expected. Each man takes his place in order to do his part. Perfectly coordinated with a disruption in the race and a planned riot. Hayden grabs all the money he can and drops it to an accomplice with hardly a snag. While waiting to split the heist there is finally a wrench in the plans that turns fatal. Hayden catches wind of it and splits as was decided beforehand. With his money and his girl he gets ready to leave the trouble behind him. In a final cruel twist of fate his plan is accidentally uncovered. The shock takes all the fight out of him. This film is wonderfully constructed with its different point of views all hinging on race #7 and the subsequent “killing.”

4.5/5 Stars