House on Haunted Hill (1959)

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The finest compliment I can extend to House on Haunted Hill is how it manages to exemplify many of the tropes we have come to imagine in old horror movies of yore even without having seen one. Because the hallmarks of the genre, by some curious form of cultural osmosis, have been passed down through the generations. Rather than a blank slate, an entire history of preconceived notions serves you well since many of us do not have the benefit of the former.

Much like Psycho (1060), we have some vague sense of what we have consigned ourselves too before we’ve begun. In fact, the low budget success of director William Castle’s picture is said to be behind Hitchcock’s own impetus to make a low budget horror flick. It, of course, paid absurd dividends at the box office. But now for House on Haunted Hill which proved successful in its own right.

In the very nature of its quintessential campiness, this haunted mansion seems to have just about everything. We are met with shrieking screams in the night and for someone like me who partook through in-home viewing, we have to use our imaginations in order to fully appreciate what a pitch black theater and surround sound would do to the nerves.

Because House on Haunted Hill is very much about a created atmosphere both architecturally with the facade of the house in exterior shots and then interiors which though obviously shot on sound stages, develop the ever-present eeriness handily. The soundtrack as well is an integral component with creaking doors, the liberal use of the theremin, and of course, a blood-curdling scream sprinkled throughout every now and again.

Our first introduction comes in the form of the disembodied heads of first Elisha Cook Jr. and then our host. While the memorably flighty actor preaches a message of spooky legends, Mr. Vincent Price comes in to recount how he and his wife decided to throw a little spend the night ghost party.

With the trademark condescending lilt of his voice, he introduces his guests and blandly acknowledges how amusing his wife, Mrs. Loren, is for planning such an affair. However, it really does seem like he had a major hand in it, providing an incentive to each guest of $10,000 apiece if only they manage to stay in the building alive through the night.

Whereas his wife Annabelle (Anna Ohmart) seems generally lukewarm about the gathering, he seems strangely obsessed with it. A bedroom encounter sets up just how dysfunctional their relationship is hinging on dueling strains of jealousy and avarice. What makes it delightful is the playful threats embedded in their jousting. They are cajoling each other constantly but there’s also something sinister lingering behind their words.

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The guests themselves are wide-ranging. Watson Prichard is called upon to make the festivities more chilling. The rest of the continent include a dashing airline pilot (Richard Long), a distinguished psychologist (Alan Young), a local newspaper columnist (Julie Mitchum), and lastly a young secretary (Carolyn Craig) employed in Mr. Loren’s company. What ties them all together is their desperate need for cash even if some veil their intentions behind personal preoccupations.

Their welcome is hardly cordially as they let themselves in and have a moment to get acquainted and get accustomed to their surroundings — hardly a place of gaiety and warmth. Finally, Mr. Loren makes his entrance. By now, we know his relationship with the missus is a troubled one but that is privileged information.

For the time being, he leads the guests on a tour of his recently acquired property as Prichard recounts tall tales of severed heads of his ancestors among other legends. Ceilings dripping blood and a basement complete with a trapdoor leading to a vat of acid are two of the most harrowing attractions.

But Mr. Loren relishes to make the occasion interesting and after his wife makes a stunning appearance he passes out the party favors — in the form of handguns.  They aren’t much use against spirits so one must gather they are to fend off humans. It’s a startling twist to the proceedings though he doesn’t give much explanation for such a deadly gift.

Everyone decides to lock themselves away in their rooms. Easy enough right? Wrong. Because Ms. Nora Manning seems especially susceptible to scares at the hands of horrible creatures lingering in the shadows. They frighten her out of her wits and she races around looking for some friendly face. Only time will tell what other hideous unspeakable acts she will witness.

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But House on Haunted Hill has far more human origins than we might initially suspect. It’s not just a pop out at you scary movie. Though the atmospherics are a large part of the allure, there is also an underlying motive to all we see. It provides a crucial tie back to the real world and the people assembled.

So, in the end, it works best blurring genre lines between mystery, ghost story, and a tale of murder. It’s served by elements akin to Diabolique (1955) as much The Spiral Staircase (1946) though admittedly catering to the B-grade crowd. Mind you, that’s not meant to be an insult because in its own right House on Haunted Hill is a ghoulish delight.

Although I have to admit I couldn’t help but smirk when Vincent Price’s skeleton came alive again, it is soon tied back to something rational we can comprehend. The movie plays all these pieces as parlor tricks as much as supernatural acts. And this melding makes the dividing line between the two blurry. It could be everything Watson Prichard spouted was the truth. Then, again, it’s not hard to believe everything was a fabrication utilized solely for human gain. Because everyone in this picture wants something. This is important.

As per usual, it’s hardly difficult despising Vincent Price’s characters. However, in some paradoxical way we like him for the sardonic edge. Because he holds undying scorn for just about everyone. It’s so very easy for him to turn into a parody of himself but then again in a genre such as horror so often prone to parody, it rather works to his advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

Plunder Road (1957)

220px-Plunder_Road_posterThe rain is pouring down. A group of men sits in silence in truck cabs their heads full of all sorts of thoughts. Two more sit in the rear hoping the explosives sitting in their stead don’t decide to go Kablooie over the next bump. Nary a word is spoken, the entire sequence playing out in silence except for the inner monologues of each man.

But surprisingly enough all goes as clockwork with this heist as they gear up for a train carrying a U.S. Mint gold shipment. They divert the track. Get their men in place and board the vehicle to subdue all aboard. That’s done quick and efficiently and they continue doing their work that same way. They use one of the truck’s crane to hoist their plunder into the waiting beds of their getaway vehicles. No one sees it go down and no one will know anything about their job until they’re well on their way.

Of course, that’s only the first leg as the five accomplices break off. Now the spoil is split between the three trucks one loaded with furniture, another with “chemicals” and so on. So even though the events have all been done before, the execution of Plunder Road makes its version interesting in its own right.

The one lone driver steadies himself by chewing gum like there’s no tomorrow but that doesn’t help him to get past a police checkpoint after some radio static gives him away. He’s one casualty.

The only name of repute in the film that I knew was Elisha Cook Jr. now quite along in years and he’s playing a con man with the gift of nervous gab in the second vehicle. He tries to get buddy-buddy with his mate and we actually do learn some small trifles about them. It’s not much but it’s the kind of stuff that begins to make them into human beings.  They both have sons. One had his wife die while he was in the clink. The other never married. Their journey takes them to a rural gas station out of necessity and there we have the second casualty a neighborly old gas station clerk.

By this time the story has progressed to the third vehicle and they’re really sweating it now no thanks to special correspondent John Oliver from Salt Lake City who practically lives on the radio airwaves to provide the latest up to date news flashes. They weather routine police questioning and bide their time at the usual rest stops on their way to their final destination — a foundry near LA.

It’s an odd place to go but they do their best to conceal their prize in order to make their final getaway way far away from any nosy policemen. Though there plan doesn’t work completely. Still they manage. They pick up a girl who has their passports waiting for them and it looks like smooth sailing. But film-noir was born in an era that was hard-pressed to allow crime to pay and it’s a single moment of cruel fate that leads the heist off the tracks for good. Like Detour or The Killing and other such classics when fate rears its ugly head, things are never allowed to work out. That’s the accepted convention.

Plunder Road is so close to letting at least a few of its perpetrators get away but then it snatches their gold away from them. Compact heist films don’t come much better than this and this one benefits from a heightened sense of unsentimental realism.

3.5/5 Stars

Hellzapoppin (1941)

Hellzapoppin_movie.jpgIt essentially begins with a fourth wall break. That’s all you need to know. Because that gives you exactly an idea of what you’re in for with Hellzapoppin’ or rather it gives you no idea whatsoever what you’re in for but really they’re one in the same. I’ve seen the movie and I still don’t quite know what it was.

If you wanted to put labels on it, I think it would be relatively safe to say that this is a comedy. In some small way, it transplants the feel if not the entire success of Ole Oleson and Chic Johnson’s Broadway hit of the same name. And Hellzapoppin’ was a big hit. It only makes sense that Hollywood would want to try and commoditize it.

But fearful of such a fearless anything goes endeavor the studio got cold feet and wanted some “substance” too. And not to be outdone the film’s two stars gave them a plot, ironically, about Ole and Chic finding a plot for the movie they’re in. So there you have it. Problem solved and everyone’s happy. The two nutcases go from an opening routine in hell with a steady barrage of gags to a mediocre plotline at a stately mansion still strung out with a line of gags and it wears its movie within a movie reality right on its sleeve, brazen enough to bring in its director and plucky screenwriter (none other than the always imposing Elisha Cook Jr.). So it’s as close to an “Anything Goes” musical as you can actually get. Yes, you heard that right. Cole Porter eat your heart out.

Anyhow, it’s a testament to the front half of the film, it’s so wonky and zany with wall to wall gags, non-sequiturs, and bits that by the film’s latter half it just cannot maintain that same frenetic pace. And how can you blame it? It does absolutely, insane, inane, and absurd things in the course of an hour or so.

To begin with, it’s barely functioning as a story or if it is a story only for the purposes of its fourth-wall breaks, sight gags, stupid puns, slapstick, and general stretching of all narrative conventions for the sake of some guffaws. But it also happens to be absolutely uproarious in nearly all the right ways — a sheer delight of pure nuttiness.

It’s a comedy disguised as a musical on top of a romance all wrapped up in a metanarrative that will make you scratch your head again and again. You’ll have no idea what you’re watching. You’ll question if the real-life director (not the one in the film) went through a midlife crisis, or if the scriptwriter (again, not the one in the film) was on something, or the projectionist (also not the one in the film played by Shemp Howard) accidentally spliced together multiple reels from different movies right before the film was sent for mass production.

As such, there are no comparisons to be made. Nothing comes close. Maybe Night at the Opera (1935) is the closest I can come– somehow matched with the fourth wall breaking of Rocky and Bullwinkle serials and the metaness of some of Community’s most self-aware episodes. Unfortunately, that’s the best I can do.

When you keep throwing mud up against a wall hoping it sticks comedically speaking, making funny faces, having random people walk in front of the camera, talking to people behind said camera, inserting a storyline to give the pretense of narrative, using every kind of prop imaginable, all while taking some allotted time for song and dance and random asides, this is what you get. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s all I can say. Because there’s no possible way to even begin to describe what this is.  It’s Hellzapoppin. That’s what. Just watch it. Unless you’re Stinky Miller. Then, go home. Your mother’s calling you (wink, wink)…

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Phantom Lady (1944)

phantom-lady-1Robert Siodmak might not be the foremost of lauded directors, but it’s indisputable that film noir as a genre, a movement, a style, whatever you want to call it, would be a lot less interesting without him.

Phantom Lady is a perfect illustration of that fact as it takes a simple plotting device and rides it through the entire story to a fitting conclusion. It’s not a taut thriller or really anything of the kind but the characters and even the cinematic choices make it a surprisingly shadowy delight.

As the title suggests, any explanation of the narrative must begin and end with this phantom lady who, if you want to use storytelling terms, is the MacGuffin, the entity driving the plot forward to its final end. She’s necessary but as we might predict she’s at the same time integral to the story and not at all important.

Because the fact that she is missing is simply a pretense that leads to a response from our hero. And at first, our hero seems pretty obvious, the handsome down on his luck Joe with a pencil mustache (Alan Curtis). Once upon a time, I confused him with another noir regular Brian Dunlevy but no more. Anyways, our actual hero comes to the fore after the inciting incident. This man Scott Henderson all of a sudden comes back from a crummy night at the theater to find himself accused of strangling his wife. The cops seem to have a guilty until proven innocent modus operandi. True, the eyewitnesses for his alibi seem knee deep and yet everyone has hushed up, including a bartender, a jazz drummer, a flamboyant performer. Worst of all his female companion for the evening has vanished into thin air.

With no alibi, Scott still sticks to his ridiculous story that no one believes and he winds up sentenced for the murder of his wife. If you’re still following, it’s at this juncture where the story really begins. Henderson’s plucky secretary “Kansas” (Ella Raines) is smitten with her boss and determined to prove his innocence. So she becomes our intrepid noir hero digging around in the sleazy bars and dance halls, tracking down possible leads. A tight-lipped bartender is subjected to her merciless tailing and she even ingratiates herself to a swinging jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who can really make his sticks fly.

They get her closer to the trail but each one becomes a successive dead end. She gains some encouraging allies in the initially skeptical detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as well as Scott’s best friend who has just returned from a trip to South America (Franchot Tone). Together they try and wrap up the loose ends. Of course, as an audience, the dramatic irony sets up the tension as we know what’s going on behind the scenes. So this is still partially a mystery as the search for the phantom lady continues but the joke’s really on us because soon enough we know what’s happening. However, whether it’s too late for our heroes is quite another question altogether.

Siodmak does well to develop a stylized atmosphere and there are some especially intriguing touches. The foremost is how many sequences, including the tailing sequence, function without music and yet jazz is utilized in a frenzied interlude that is almost unheard of in noir for its sheer vivacity. It’s oddly disconcerting, the juxtaposition suggesting this utter contrast between personified joy and the darkness that is seeping into the story. After all, a man is about to be sentenced to death. Jazz certainly does not fit the mood.

There’s also the paradigm of the noir working girl played perhaps most iconically by the audacious Ella Raines. In many ways, this is her film and she’s as good and almost better than many a gumshoe and insurance investigators. It’s a role that Raines embodies with great resolve and a certain amount of drive that we can appreciate in a female character of that day and age. She’s far from an objectified figure because she has brains and desires of our own — even if they are all for the well-being of a man.

It also should be noted that this was the first production credit for pioneering British screenwriter Joan Harrison. She was only one of only three woman producers in Hollywood at the time and this is a film that she could certainly be proud of with an impressive noir heroine.

3.5/5 Stars

Don’t Bother Knocking (1952)

Don't_bother_to_knockYou’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other.” – Richard Widmark as Jed Powers

For a film so short, Don’t Bother Knocking is overflowing with wonderful talent from Richard Widmark to Anne Bancroft to a haunting performance from Marilyn Monroe. Then Elisha Cook Jr. shows up as the obliging doorman, Jim Bachus as a young girl’s father, and even the prolific Willis Bouchey takes a turn as the bartender. It’s one of those story’s that revels in the classical age of the Hollywood studio actor. The familiar faces carry with them a certain amount of depth that allows the characters to mean so much in only a few fractions of the time normally required.

Anne Bancroft’s nightclub singing (in her screen debut) sets the background mood for everything going on within the  McKinley Hotel — a seemingly upstanding establishment. It’s precisely this aloof demeanor established by the music that lends itself nicely to the strangely haunting aspects of the film.

All characters seem to lack passion, emotion, and most any type of energy except the bubbly camera gal who goes around trying to sell snapshots to patrons. Widmark is at his morose dirtbag best yet again as Jed Towers, a guy who can’t figure why his girl has dumped him.

It’s a chamber piece, and while not a man on a ledge story like Fourteen Hours, it still uses the corridors and diegetic street sounds to create a mildly intriguing environment for some minor noir thrills. You can see the lust in Widmark’s eyes when he looks out the window at Monroe prancing and swaying about seductively. Little does he know what her deal is. His frustration with life and love is right at the center of this film and he must rectify his situation one way or another.

For her part, she has some telltale signs of psychological distress aside from a constantly glazed expression. Namely, scars on her wrists. Strings of little white lies, compulsive fibs that trickle out and a flustered edge that slowly becomes more and more demented by the minute.Whether it’s Monroe’s best performance is up for interpretation but it’s certainly her most terrifyingly dramatic.

She becomes the lightning rod for all the drama, lashing out against the little girl put in her stead and distressing her uncle (Elisha Cook Jr.) who got her this gig, despite her utter lack of experience. Nell Forbes flutters so quickly between fear and hysteria, at first wary of Towers and fawning all over him the next moment — afraid that he will leave her.

It’s her histrionics that force a reaction out of Jed. He must choose what type of guy he wants to be, whether he chooses the tame or wild side of life. And as it turns out, there’s absolutely no contest in the end. He knows full well which girl is for him.

Unfortunately, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, because it is the relational and psychological dysfunction of the characters that becomes most rewarding and, in the end, most indicative of the noir malaise. A happy resolution, therefore, does not stay true to the heart and soul of this film. Stone cold and depraved. Still, this one’s a winner at 76 minutes.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Shane (1953)

shane1Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the looming Tetons lend the same iconic majesty to this western that Monument Valley does for many of Ford’s best pictures. But then again, George Stevens was another master and he too was changed by the war, coming back with a different tone and an “American Trilogy” that included some of his best work. Shot in Technicolor, this picture boasts more than wide open spaces and raw Midwestern imagery. Stevens has some wonderfully constructed sequences and there are a number of great characters to inhabit them.

Shane is the eponymous gunman who is content to linger in the background while others become the focal point. Namely, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a man who came to the untamed land due to the Homestead Act and won’t let the rancher Stryker muscle them off the land that he believes is rightfully theirs. Despite this being her final film — and a favor to her previous collaborator Stevens — Jean Arthur is as wonderful as ever. The character Marian is brimming with goodness and a sensitivity that is hard to discount. It’s a part very different than her earlier work and yet she plays it so wonderfully. As for newcomer Brandon De Wilde, he’s an astute little actor and we really see this world through his eyes, so he does wonders to hold the story together.

Grafton’s general store and saloon become a wonderful arena of conflict within the film because it is rather like Ryker’s stomping ground since he and his men can always be found lounging around there when they aren’t terrorizing some poor sodbuster. After he agrees to work for Starrett, Shane goes into town for new duds, leaving his gun behind, and he quickly learns what he’s in for. It’s in such a scene that we learn who this man really is. He’s not a hot-head and he initially takes the abuse of Stryker’s guns, who call him out for purchasing soda pop. It’s for the boy Joey, but he doesn’t have to say that, because he needs not prove himself, at least not yet. Also, the relationship between Shane and Marian might be troubling to some — will they fall for each other — but when Ryker makes insinuations about Starrett’s wife, Shane is quick to shut him up. He’s not that kind of man. When Shane does return to the store, he’s prepared this time for retaliation and although it might not have been the smartest thing, it sure is gratifying for him and for the audience. He and Starrett make a killer team, after all, beaten and bruised as they end up.

shane2What follows is retribution from Stryker as he tries to buy out, threaten, and continually lean on the sodbusters, but Starrett remains resolute in keeping his friends together. In fact, there’s still time to share a wonderful Fourth of July dance with all the neighbors and it shows signs of a brighter, happier time that could be possible. With neighbors joining together in simple community and sharing life together. Shane feels somewhat out of place in this type of environment, and maybe deep down he knows it too, but he seems oddly content.

This happy time is juxtaposed with the funeral of ornery “Stonewall” (Elisha Cook Jr.), who was gunned down near the saloon by hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). His death is making some of the others jumpy, but once again Starrett keeps his group together, by first giving their former friend a proper burial and banding together once more. But by this point, they’re barely hanging on. Stryker’s got them on the run and Joe knows he needs to have it out with his arch-nemesis once and for all if things are ever going to return to the status quo. His dreams of ending this whole thing are ludicrous because there is no way he can get out alive. His wife knows it. He knows it, but it doesn’t stop him and his American Dream.

shane3It’s interesting how Shane at first does not try to stop him, but then he gets tipped off to what awaits Joe, and he decides to go in his place. This is his arena after all. The gun we all fawn over is finally getting put to use as Shane rides into town for the final showdown to have it out with the men in the saloon. However, although the shootout is intense it ends very quickly. Thus, what is really interesting are the moments beforehand where friend is literally fighting friend. Both doing what they think is right. However, since Joey only thinks in absolutes, when he sees Shane hit his father over the back of the head, he initially reacts with hatred towards his fallen hero. He doesn’t understand why all this is necessary. But as time goes on and he sees events unfold, he gets it.

As Shane rides off into the night, Joey yells after him to come back, he cannot bear for this idolized man to ride off. It makes me wonder if young Joey grew up with the image of Shane, the hero of his childhood. The doer of good and the ultimate champion of the oppressed.

The cast was rounded out nicely by some solid supporting players like Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr., and down to Ellen Corby and even Nancy Kulp. It’s astounding to think that this film could have starred Monty Clift and William Holden potentially with Katharine Hepburn as well. Because, after all, the casting of Shane feels just right. Clift would have brought depth and emotional chops to the role, as a wonderfully impassioned actor. Just look at George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) for proof of that. However, what Alan Ladd has is a serenity and simple goodness that still somehow suggests something under the surface. It begs the question, how can someone so upright make a living packing a six-shooter? No doubt I like Holden better as an actor, but Heflin has the scruffy outdoors-man look, while still reflecting high ideals. Hepburn just does not seem to fit a western. This is one of the instances when all the pieces seemed to fit into place and we were blessed by a western classic that never seems to lose its luster. In a sense, we become boys again like Joey, completely in awe of Shane. Let us revel in that feeling, that moment of innocence once more.

5/5 Stars

I Wake up Screaming (1941)

iwakeup1So the title doesn’t have a bearing on much of anything, but who cares? It sets the tone brilliantly for this wickedly twisted noir. The film opens like other films, after the death of a beautiful young woman. Two people are getting grilled in adjoining rooms. Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is a promoter and the former love interest of the girl, so he also happens to be high on the suspect list. He lays out how he first met the pretty young waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). With the help of two conniving friends, he made her into the next big thing. The has-been actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) helps her reach the higher echelon of society. Mustachioed gossip columnist Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn) plasters her name and picture all over his paper until the world is bound to notice. They make quite the trifecta, all too happy to give this unassuming girl a break.

In the next room, Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) tells her side of the story: She saw how Vicky was beginning to change. She stopped working as a waitress, became entitled, and began to look down at all those around her. Now a real prima donna, she ditches her benefactors ready to head off to Hollywood for a screen test, and Christophers is understandably ticked. It doesn’t help that both Ray and Evans fell in love with Vicky. There’s also something going on between Jill and Frankie, because in the wake of the murder they turn to each other.

iwakeup2For a time the murder gets pinned on the switchboard operator — the always wide-eyed and nervous Elisha Cook Jr. But the menacing police officer Cornell (Laird Cregar), has an almost obsessive drive to find Frankie guilty of the murder. There’s something else going on here. Like so many films of this period, this story is full of men desiring women. Some of it is understandable, some of it is casual, and some of it is downright twisted.

Although she is out of the film early on, Carole Landis has the key role as the rising starlet and she is the closest thing to a femme fatale in this film. But there are a lot of characters of interest aside from our main couple of Betty Grable and Victor Mature. His two opportunistic friends are no-goods but thoroughly entertaining, and Laird Cregar is downright spooky. The film takes on another level of significance due to the tragic suicide of Carole Landis which occurred in 1948. There is most definitely an allure to her just like the women in prominent film-noir like The Woman in the Window or Laura (1944). Throughout some haunting refrains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” can be heard, helping to make I Wake up Screaming disconcerting from beginning to end.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

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Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly Raymond Chandler’s character, but Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart brought him right out of a pulp novel and stuck him on the silver screen to ever be solidified in our minds. Needless to say, this is a quintessential film-noir coming right at the tail end of WWII, known as much for its incomprehensible plot line as it is the romantic pairing of Bogey and Bacall.The title credits role and the contours of our two leads can be seen in the background, cigarette in toe with Max Steiner’s furious score pulsing in rhythm. We find ourselves on the doorstep of a man named Sternwood. A hand is ringing the doorbell and a servant answers. The hand, of course, belongs to Humphrey Bogart or closer yet Philip Marlowe. Right off the bat, he gets the come on from the flirtatious younger daughter of Sternwood and he takes it in stride.

When he meets the sickly man of the house, he’s stricken to a wheelchair parked inside a greenhouse. He and Marlowe get chummy, and he calls upon the P.I. to find a man named Geiger, while bemoaning the trouble his daughters get into. For good measure, Marlowe also gets his first taste of Sternwood’s older daughter Vivian Rutledge who is more mature, but suspicious all the same. From then on the case is a series of storefronts, L.A. street corners, and car interiors. It’s hard to believe, but it also seems so dark and dreary with buckets of rain to boot. It must be L.A. in winter (or in an alternative universe). Bogey has a little fun masquerading as an antique book aficionado and every lady he interacts with feels like another Carmen Sternwood. Always ready to flirt and he usually gives them the time of day.
He stakes out a home and he investigates a piercing scream only to find a disoriented Carmen in a big mess. Next, a dead man is pulled out of a Packard near Lido Pier. The names keep piling up too. There’s A. G. Geiger, Sean Regan, Owen Taylor, Joe Brody, Eddie Mars, Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.) and a number of others. Most are seen at one time or another but a few are not.
08bfb-bigsleepBy this point, The Big Sleep is less about all the facts and more about how we get there in the end. Obviously, the source material is from Raymond Chandler, but the witty script full of great patter is courtesy of William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett of all people. Bogey and Bacall have some fun on the telephone (You like to play games don’t you) which coincidentally has no bearing on the plot. Later on, they have some more spirited back and forth about horse racing. It’s at these times that you cannot help but chuckle at the rapier wit of the script. Philip Marlowe is a great character with a lot of great things to say indeed.
Soon we suspect there is something romantic going on between Eddie Mars and Rutledge. A few more stooges get it and Marlowe gets himself beat up in a dark back alley (Of course). Next thing we know is our new favorite gumshoe is tied up in a house with two ladies. Rutledge is there and the wife of Eddie Mars. What? He gets out of harm’s way thanks to Vivian, and the showdown that we have been waiting for comes to pass. Marlowe outsmarts everyone and puts the damper on the case. Everything seemingly comes to a smooth resolution, the audience just has little idea how we got there. But that’s not the greatest of concerns.

It would be great enough to watch The Big Sleep for the sass and repartee which it is positively dripping with. Thanks to the reworking of the film in 1946, the Bogey and Bacall dynamic became more prominent and fun. Although it is slightly disappointing that a lot of Martha Vickers performance ended up on the cutting floor, it is made slightly better by a memorable appearance by a young Dorothy Malone. All in all, there is very little to complain about if you just sit back and enjoy this very engaging film-noir for what it is. Howard Hawks brought us yet another unassuming post-war classic that is unequivocally American.

4.5/5 Stars

Phantom Lady (1944)

PhantomladyThe film uses the motif of a mysterious lady who cannot be found as the jumping off point for this Film-Noir. It is this so called phantom lady who Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meets at a bar after having a spat with his wife. They lift each others spirits and part ways. Returning home, he is met by the police inspector (Thomas Gomez), who found that Henderson’s wife was strangled to death. Scott is the prime suspect and now he needs his alibi which seemed so airtight before.

She truly has vanished and no one remembers her so Henderson is on the verge of the death penalty. It is his smitten secretary Carol (Ella Raines) who takes up his cause. She retraces his steps interrogating a bartender and wheedling information out of a puny drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). Soon an old friend (Franchot Tone) of Scott’s returns from South America and everything gets a little more interesting.

Phantom Lady stars a cast of only a couple recognizable names, however Robert Siodmak does a decent job at making this noir interesting and it is certainly worth a watch.

3.5/5 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