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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The Dark Corner (1946)

Dark_Corner_1946“I’m backed up into a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”

It’s always satisfying to find another little gem of a film-noir, and I think this thriller from Henry Hathaway fits that bill. Our stars include a serious and quite beautiful Lucille Ball along with Mark Stevens as gumshoe Bradford Galt. He’s more of a Cornel Wilde type. A rather nondescript lead compared to Bogey or even Dick Powell, but he works well enough as the focal point of this story.

He served a stretch in prison after he was framed for a murder wrap and now he’s a P.I. trying to keep himself on the right side of the law. But nevertheless, it’s a dirty business that’s bound to catch up with him. He’s being shadowed by a man in a white suit and almost gets mowed down by a car that had his name on it. His secretary Ms. Kathleen Stewart genuinely worries for his safety and tries to help him, so he reluctantly lets her into his life.

Everything seems to point back to one man. Anthony Jardine was the attorney who set Galt up and sent him off to the clink. It only makes sense that he would want to silence the P.I. for good. After all, if not him who else could it be? Except things get especially dicey when Galt gets framed once more and this time he knows for sure his old nemesis cannot be involved.

darkcorner1The race is on for the real murderer because Galt must also attempt to clear his name before he gets charged with another killing leading to a date with the electric chair. This is when a juicy piece of dramatic irony comes in since as the audience we know who has it out for the P.I. We just don’t know why… Some sleuthing leads Galt to another crime scene and finally to an art gallery where he follows a hunch. His suspicions were on point, and he finally fights his way out of the corner.

It should go without saying that The Dark Corner is beautifully shot with a lot of wonderful low lit sequences that are deliciously moody. Interestingly enough, the storyline is infused with a lot of Culture whether it is jazz music or pieces of fine art. It’s a weird juxtaposition of this noir world bleeding into these higher echelons of society. The people and places criss-cross and intertwine in a web of the urban and the urbane. It proves that treachery can rise up from any level of society.

3.5/5 Stars

Cry Danger (1951)

589aa-crydanger2Here is yet another noir gem which would never get made today, much less in a mere 22 days! This directorial debut of Robert Parrish is boosted by an often witty script from William Bowers.

Rocky Mulloy (Dick Powell) is fresh out of prison after a former marine (Richard Erdman) testifies on his behalf though Mulloy already spent five years rotting away in prison. He went in right around the end of the war because of a robbery that he was assumed to be a part of.

Regis Toomey (The Big Sleep, Raw Deal) is Lt. Cobb and he is still skeptical when he is assigned to monitor the newly released man. Richard Erdman is the peg-legged, alcoholic marine who has a penchant for booze and dames. Also, he never actually knew Mulloy before. He just wants some of the loot.

So the two new found chums set up camp in a beat down trailer park of all places, with a music playing proprietor (Jay Adler). It’s not exactly the Ritz, but Delong finds some female company, and it just so happens that Mulloy’s former flame lives there too. Nancy (Rhonda Fleming) is married to Rocky’s pal Danny who is still in the clink. His mission is to prove his innocence, but could it be more harm than good?

Rocky goes to a local mobster named Castro (William Conrad) who left him holding the bag five years ago, and he wants reimbursement for his time. He gets some of it in the form of a horse race which leads to a big payoff.

But as it turns out, the money is hot and Lt. Cobb wants to know where it came from. Rocky obliges but it becomes all too obvious he’s being set up. There was one slip up though, proving Rocky is telling the truth for once, amidst all the lies swirling around. That does not help Delong much and his girl Darlene gets blown sky high. The bullets were obviously meant for Rocky and  Nancy.

Rocky confronts Castro and they play a little game he likes to call Russian Roulette, although it’s very one-sided favoring Rocky. The fearful mobster spills the truth, revealing Danny was actually a part of the plan 5 years ago all the time. Since he took a lighter rap, someone else is holding his share of the payoff. The missing $50,000. Who is keeping it warm for him? You guessed it.

Rocky goes back to the trailer park where Nancy spills all her beautiful guts to him. What she gives is a tempting offer and Mulloy lets her believe it will happen. Off he walks with Lt. Cobb ready to swoop in. Rocky may have gone straight, but it doesn’t mean it makes it any easier. He had to turn on one of the most beautiful girls in the world, courtesy of Rhonda Fleming.

Dick Powell has another laconic performance which nearly matches his turn as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet. I always love seeing Richard Erdman as a young jokester, because he has gained a following more recently for his work in the television show Community as Leonard. William Conrad will always be the narrator in Rocky and Bullwinkle as well as Cannon. However, his big frame and mustache make for a good criminal type. What can I say about Rhonda Fleming except that she looks stunning in black and white, much less technicolor?

Lt. Gus Cobb: Now, just get it through your heads that the pressure’s on. 
(To Nancy)
Lt. Gus Cobb: I wouldn’t give a nickel for your husband’s chances before that parole board with all this going on.
(To Rocky)
Lt. Gus Cobb: And I wouldn’t give a nickel for your chances with those two apes running around looking for you.
(To Castro)
Lt. Gus Cobb: For you, I just wouldn’t give a nickel.

4/5 Stars

Pitfall (1948)

4ac39-pitfall2In Italy Pitfall‘s title was translated to Tragedy in Santa Monica. And that it is, but it plays out as a typical, everyday tragedy. It is far from Shakespearian. John Forbes (Dick Powell) is sorely tired of the monotony of his life: A wheel within a wheel within a wheel so to speak. And he is tired of being the so-called “backbone of the country” employed at Olympic Mutual Insurance Company.

He has a steady job and all, a beautiful, loving wife (Jane Wyatt), and a cute little son Tommy. He’s your prototypical middle-class man from your typical middle-class family. That’s what’s wrong with his life. To put it plainly he’s in a rut and desperately wants to get out.

Pitfall is a  bit of a riff off of Double Indemnity. There is some of the same framework but very different variables and outcomes, so that’s enough comparison.

Things get interesting when Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) comes into the picture. She is a model with a boyfriend who was just recently put into prison for embezzlement. Now Forbes’ company is charged with getting back some valuables from Stevens and she gives them up willingly. Along the way, a hired private investigator named Mac (Raymond Burr) takes a liking for her, but the feelings are not reciprocated. That’s before she meets Forbes.

When they meet, Forbes is immediately struck by her and she takes a liking to his goodwill. Everything would be great in another world. Except in the real world, Forbes is married and Mac is jealous. After he gets accosted by Mac, Mona finds out about her fling’s home life. Surprisingly she lets him off the hook, but Mac won’t let her off.

Forbes’ overall demeanor changes and he feels reinvigorated, even back at home and in the office. But it’s never that simple, and things begin to get messy as Smiley finally gets his ticket out of the clink. Mac has been his constant visitor, filling the paranoid brute with ideas. He thinks Mona has been unfaithful, and he wants to get the guy she was with.

The ending of Pitfall is far more painful than a multitude of meaningless deaths in a monster movie. The reason being, these characters actually have some importance. There is a sense that human life is sacred and if anyone dies it is a big deal, whether they were “good” or “bad.”

Furthermore, there are hardly words enough to describe the look on Jane Wyatt’s face when she finds out the truth. This is one instance when the father did not know best, and their marriage was shaken to the core. It feels all too real. However, this film’s denouement is not quite as fatalistic as Double Indemnity. There still is a tinge of hope that these two individuals can salvage something out of a very difficult situation.

This is yet another feather in the cap of film-noir. So simple and yet so potently effective. I cannot wait for more with Dick Powell.

3.5/5 Stars

The Long Goodbye (1973)

LongposterIn the storied tradition of film-noir comes another film in the canon and yet another depiction of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. However, the world with which Robert Altman places his private eye is far different than any place the character has ever inhabited before. Whereas another neo-noir such as Chinatown followed the storied tradition of noir in many ways, The Long Goodbye is often more of a satire than a new addition to the genre.

Elliott Gould as Phillip Marlowe has the smoking down like Bogart or Dick Powell, the garb, and even the car, but his environment is the 1970s, making him quite anachronistic, and that seems to be just fine with Altman. He subverts the genre by placing Marlowe in a world he does not seem to fit in and yet he himself does not seem to question it.

The girls next door are hardly your typical girls-next-door. The police station looks like it could be out of The Rockford Files. John Williams and Johnny Mercer’s title song pops up in all places from the elevator to the car radio. His tail Harry is an incompetent joke. Passing cars give the security guard time to practice his best movie star impressions. Marlowe as well proves he is not much of an animal guy with a cat that he loses and a dog that hates him.

The drama is not much better in that regard. Two murders take place (including the death of a friend), which are later followed by a man’s suicide and his beautiful wife fleeing the country. All the while, on the case Marlowe is scrounging around and coming up mostly empty. The cops bring him in, an unhappy thug roughs him up over some money, and he can get very little out of the drunken writer Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) or his wife (Nina van Pallandt) before she disappears.

By now we know better than to compare this Marlowe to any predecessor. He gets smashed about by the waves trying to stop a suicide and ends up in the hospital after getting bowled over by a car. He seemingly does his best detective work in a stupor, and he somehow escapes a chilling confrontation where everyone is removing their clothes. All these scenarios make little sense and even with the twisted conclusion to the mystery, there still is no explanation for the way things are. Altman gives us a surprising end but no answers as we watch Gould dance off into the distance playing a mini harmonica. Marlowe can often be heard saying, “It’s okay with me.” It’s the story of his life and if he is fine with it, I suppose his audience will just have to accept it too, even if they do not quite like it.

4/5 Stars

Review: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

e30de-murdermysweet1Ann Grayle: You know, I think you’re nuts. You go barging around without a very clear idea of what you’re doing. Everybody bats you down, smacks you over the head, fills you full of stuff…and you keep right on hitting between tackle and end. I don’t think you even know which side you’re on.

Phillip Marlowe: I don’t know which side anybody’s on. I don’t even know who’s playing today.

Now after seeing the original Dick Powell as a crooner in light song and dance flicks, his re-imagined image as Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is that much more surprising. This film quickly dropped being the potential musical Farewell my Lovely and ultimately became a hard-boiled Noir called Murder, My Sweet. To Powell’s credit, his new alter ego works and he brings his own spin to the role. Perhaps he has a little more humor than Bogart but there is still enough of the tough guy in his role to make it work. He’s also deliciously cheeky which is perfectly illustrated by a scene where he lights his match on the butt of a statue. It’s great.

Edward Dmytryk gave us a film that has often been credited with helping to define the film-noir style of the 1940s. It makes perfect sense since his film brims with many of the major hallmarks of the genre. The powder-burned Marlowe’s initial narration carried through a flashback lends a wry and cynical commentary to the entire story. The screen itself is cloaked in shadows, filled with billows of cigarette smoke, and is often superimposed with disorienting images.

Early on one man named Marriot is dead, Marlowe gets clocked over the head, roughed up several times, not to mention drugged up. He gets hired, used, thrown off, and seduced more than once. All because of an expensive jade necklace. As Anne (Anne Shirley) notes, Marlowe goes charging into his case not quite knowing what is going on or who he is dealing with. That ambiguity is one of the strengths of this film because we are never allowed the comfort of knowing who to side with.

By default, we begin the film from the point of view of Marlowe, and so he is our anti-hero who we track with the entire film. He gets the giant thug Moose (Mike Mazurki) tossed his way first. Marlowe meets the pretty Anne who hides her true intentions, introducing him to her wealthy father (Miles Mander) and seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor). Next up is quack doctor Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) who appears to be our most clear cut villain and yet nothing is for sure.

It takes a late night confrontation at a beach house for things to straighten themselves out. Yet even up until that point, we do not know Marlowe’s true intentions, and he does not find out the resolution of the case until well after, thanks to the powder burns to the face.

Aside from Dick Powell’s anchoring performance, Claire Trevor is a tantalizing femme fatale, while Anne Shirley plays the guardian angel rather well. The juxtaposition of a morally questionable woman and an innocent girl develops the tension, not to mention that they are step-daughter and step-mother. When it’s all said and done, Marlowe got a sweet deal. He didn’t even need the jade necklace.

4/5 Stars

The Big Combo (1955)

b456e-bigcombo1There is so much to the plot of The Big Combo, but the irony is that the story is not altogether extraordinary. Instead, highlights include David Raksin’s (Laura) jazzy score infused with brass which is somewhat unusual for the genre. Cinematographer John Alton also helped in making this film visually and stylistically engaging. There are some crazy, overstated shadows making this undeniably film-noir. There are very few better examples of so-called “dark” cinema with prototypical chiaroscuro and low key lighting.

Honestly, I have never been a huge fan of Cornel Wilde, and I can understand why he is not that popular or well known. He’s relatively beady-eyed, not particularly good looking, and his voice is not altogether memorable. Like Mr. Brown said in the film, “It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop.” Even Dick Powell has some wit but Wilde’s character is straitlaced and steady. There’s nothing of much repute about him. But enough about Wilde.

The story is your somewhat typical procedural with a righteous cop facing off against a big time mobster. Mr. Brown is practically untouchable with a large pool of money at his disposal and a group of faithful thugs ready to do his bidding. He has a girl, Susan Lowell, who is about fed up with him, but she sticks around.

Lt. Diamond (Wilde) is totally fed up with the corruption but himself is also infatuated with Lowell. His only lead is the name “Alicia” which leads to trouble with Brown and his thugs who rough him up and leave him drunk. However, he learns from a man named Betini that “Alicia” was Brown’s wife who was supposedly murdered and thrown overboard with an anchor.

Next on the beat is a tight-lipped Swedish antique dealer, and ultimately, Diamond comes up with proof that Brown’s wife is still alive. He’s getting too close so Mr. Brown sends out his thugs Fante and Mingo to shut him up for good. They get the wrong person.

Alicia finally turns up, a few more figures get mowed down in Mr. Brown’s wake including Diamond’s trusty colleague Sam (Jay Adler). All that’s left is a showdown at the airport that is like Casablanca‘s atmosphere on steroids. It truly is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis.

There is not a great deal of sympathy to be had for a lot of the characters who got it, and though she seemed to have little bearing on the plot, Rita’s demise was surprisingly difficult to take. She was the girl with the heart of gold. Brown’s heartlessness finally came back to bite him but honestly, I could have cared less if Diamond was the one to catch him or not. He couldn’t have done it without Susan anyways.

3.5/5 Stars

Murder, My Sweet (1944) – Film-Noir

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This film-noir adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel stars Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, and Anne Shirley. It opens with a blinded Philip Marlowe being interrogated and so he agrees to spill everything he knows.

It all started one evening in his office when a big thug named Moose came in to get his help in finding a girl. Marlowe agrees to take the case and he questions a drunken bar owner but all is not right. He returns to his office where a man named Marriot wants his protection during a ransom drop off. However, at the location Marlowe is knocked out and the man is left dead. Through a series of events he meets Helen Grayle and her significantly older husband, who are both involved with a necklace. Also involved is the shady psychic adviser Jules Anthor, not to mention Mr. Grayle’s protective daughter Anne. Marlowe is forced to meet with Anthor and he eventually finds himself locked up in a facility. He gets away and after a meeting with Anne they head down to the Grayle’s beach house. There they have a confrontation with Helen. Now Anther is dead and Marlowe agrees to show Moose his girl Velma. They head down to the beach house and Marlowe puts all the pieces of the case together in front of Helen. Then Ann, Mr. Grayle, and finally Moose all burst onto the scene in a final chaotic finale.  Despite this bleak conclusion, there is also a hint of a happy ending. Much like the Big Sleep this film at times becomes incomprehensible but it just means your brain must work fast to catch up. Dick Powell I felt was a great Marlowe and Anne Shirley was a strong heroine. This is a quintessential film noir to say the least.

4/5 Stars