Tension (1949): Between The Good and The Bad Girl

220px-TensionPoster.jpgBarry Sullivan has an absolute field day as a homicide cop, Lt. Collier Bonnabel, with very calculated methods of getting to the root of every crime. Whether it comes by pushing, cajoling, romancing, tricking, flattering — he’ll do whatever is necessary. What matters to him is to keep stretching them because everyone has a breaking point. You just have to know how to work them so they slip up.

It’s fitting because he remains as our narrator throughout this entire story. Between his fedora and voiceover narration, Tension easily earns the moniker of film noir. He picks up the story at Coast-to-Coast all-night drugstore in Culver City where the bookish Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) maintains an unsatisfying but well-paying gig as manager.

His only reason for holding onto the job is not only security but it’s the only way to try and keep his girl (Audrey Totter). Because she’s a real horror — dissatisfied with the middling life he can give her — and constantly batting her eyes at anyone who gives her the time of day.

Quimby is such a passive and nervous husband; he’s always deathly afraid to walk into his room above the drugstore at night for fear the bed will be empty and she won’t be there waiting for him. You see, his entire worth and aspiration at a middle-class lifestyle are maintained through her. And yet when she scoffs at his attempts to buy them a house in the suburbs, its a rude awakening.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. She finds someone else and packs her bags. What follows is a sudden departure to shack up with the substantially wealthier Barney Deager. You see the same conundrum from The Best Years of Our Lives. They were youthful and on the high of WWII patriotism, but now settling into the status quo, he’s not as cute or funny as he used to be in San Diego. Everyday tedium is no fun for a girl like Claire.

Audrey Totter is easily a standout, and she even gets some saucy music to introduce her and the coda proceeds to follow her into just about every room. She’s almost in the mold of Gloria Grahame — another iconic femme fatale — except her eyes are more bitter, even severe. They burn through just about everyone.

Warren makes his way to the beach and has a confrontation with her brawny boyfriend, but what is an unassertive guy like him (now with broken glasses) suppose to do in the face of such an affront? His options seem hopelessly few. It leads to a needed trip to the eye doctor for new spectacles, and he reluctantly leaves with the year’s newest invention — hard contact lenses.

His soda jerk buddy behind the counter plants the other seed. It drives him to murder. Quimby then gains a whole new perspective, the doctor even touts that he with be an entirely different person, in the most literal sense; he takes on a new name as Paul Sothern. His entire temperament and level of confidence changes. It’s humanly unbelievable and all because of an optometrist. I should have gotten contacts sooner.

The newfound man sets up a residence in Westwood to put his plans in motion. He now has a cool, calculated dopleganger for the perfect crime, available to him at a moment’s notice.

Here we have the most roundabout and, dare we say, ludicrous way to premeditate and perfect a murder. Back in the days when taking on a new identity was a breeze. Erasing and vanishing was a matter of covering up a few loose ends and not leaving a forwarding address.

Basehart could easily be the father of Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up Doc? While not necessarily a taxing role, he is called on to play two characters as he plays opposite two very different women. Cyd Charisse is the sweet and shapely photographer who falls for Paul Sothern, despite knowing so little about him. She is oblivious to his double life, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Still, as is the case in many film noir, the very overt foils are created and Tension extends them even further. The protagonist has a choice between two women and with them two distinct lives. One is represented by the decadent yet fractured China doll, the blonde spider woman who will not release him from her web.

Then there’s the simpler, sweeter pipe cleaner doll, the brunette good girl who is almost angelic in nature and totally available to help the hero realize their happy ending, which remains in constant jeopardy the entirety of the film.

The wrinkle that really spoils it is when Claire slinks back into his life once more, and he is implicated in a murder. All of a sudden the alternate reality he started carving out for himself is altogether finished. Sothern is quashed and Quimby is suffocating in a life he assumed would be gone forever.

The cops must come into the equation now, asking questions, poking around, and pressing on all the sore spots in hopes someone will break. All character logic aside, the picture does ascribe to a certain amount of tautness suggested in its name, but so could any number of movies — even John Berry’s next film He Ran All The Way.

But I found myself enjoying its contrivances more and more with time. Because each twist of the corkscrew made for another pleasure. Barry Sullivan takes great relish leaning on everyone. William Conrad, for once, is on the right side of the law and still gets to play a gruff character.

However, it is his partner who sets up some very convenient and slightly awkward interactions on a hunch. Quimby is forced to interact with his girl from another life as if it was just a piece of pure happenstance. Then, Claire and the purported “other woman” are somehow pulled together accidentally to churn up a little jealousy.

Bonnabel is like Columbo at his most nefarious, except slightly more conniving and less scruffily endearing. He nabs the dame because, being conveniently trapped in a lie, she confesses. Unlike most Columbo villains, she struts out as defiantly as ever. There’s no recompense or sense of somber civility. With the way she was going before, why bother? Thankfully Totter’s performance is not compromised; she remains icy to the end.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Gilda (1946)

Gilda_trailer_hayworth1If you’re worried about Johnny Farrell, don’t be. I hate him~Gilda

And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?…There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Didn’t you feel it tonight? ~Ballin

Gilda became synonymous with Rita Hayworth and for good reason. She was the embodiment of so many of the things found desirable by many men from a certain age. Frisky. Sultry. Beguiling. Teasing men, leading them on, and leaving them. Hating them as much as she loves them. That’s where the passion derives from — very volatile beginnings.

It’s true that Hayworth’s playfully ravishing seductress was forever immortalized in Shawshank Redemption and really in the mind’s eye of anyone who ever has seen her singing “Put the Blame on Mame” even once. She’s also, consequently, the epitome of the deadly lineage of femme fatales at times both tragic and destructive, alluring and lively. It’s difficult not to get drawn in like a moth to the flame.

But underlying such a performance is something a little more disheartening as this is only a cinematic depiction. It is not reality and yet it brings to mind a paraphrased quote that I will attribute to Hayworth, perhaps recalling her turbulent union with Orson Welles or maybe all the men who found their way into her life. “They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.”

The implications, of course, are far-reaching suggesting just how much this fawned over female ideal was a pure fabrication. It’s not real. Rita Hayworth could never measure up to that fantasy nor should she have to. Because while Gilda’s tantalizing as a cinematic siren, in real life she could never exist. Her passions impinge on her entire existence where she sees hatred, lust, and love all in synonymous terms. She hates Johnny and she loves him. She doesn’t want him and she does for those very reasons.

While not to downplay the negative impact the role may have had for Hayworth’s personal life, there’s no doubt of its cultural clout even today and it helps make this film-noir directed by Charles Vidor a high water mark of the dark genre for the very reasons mentioned before. Jo Eisinger’s script is also a strikingly perverse number as it begins to draw up the relationships between Gilda and her men.

Because it doesn’t end with her. Gilda needs others to play with and she’s given the perfect counterparts in Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) a man who willfully counters anything she offers up in the areas of sexual tension, embittered ridicule, or psychological warfare. It’s like they enjoy to torture each other — they enjoy to be able to make each other reel and fume. It’s all part of the twisted game they play of love and hate. He seethes with a vindictive coiled anger just waiting to be unleashed and he lets it go time after time. Sometimes upon provocation and other times out of sheer malice.

It all finds roots in a past we can only presume about and it’s true that all three of our leads are shrouded in some mystery when we’re introduced to them. First, Johnny Farrell a smart aleck gambler who gets himself a job as the right-hand crony for Ballin Mundson (George Macready) a man who is far more than a simple casino magnate. His business dealings run a little broader and more clandestine than he initially lets on.

Farrell’s a quick learner and ambitious so he moves up the ranks and soon he’s got the most prized position by Ballin’s side as his closest confidante and most importantly of all he’s there to watch over the other man’s wife — his favorite treasure to flaunt — the one and only Gilda.

It’s in that unspoken past that Gilda and Johnny learned to disdain each other and it stokes the flames of their relationship. It’s brutality mixed with sensuality which is at one time disconcerting but at the same time hard to pull away from. Again, moths to the flame.  It’s so wickedly twisted with rage and passion and all those human emotions that make us despise one another one moment only to make us no be able to live without each other in the next.

At a certain point, there’s no longer any sense in trying to draw up sides whether it’s feeling sorry for Gilda or empathetic toward Farrell and the thoroughly uncomfortable position he has been placed in as keeper of the bosses wife. Both of them have the makeup of true noir protagonists.

Otherwise, Rudolph Mate’s gorgeous imagery is absolutely fantastic and is certainly worthy of simply being marveled at on multiple occasions for its delicious compositions and use of shadow. Hayworth is rendered even more beguiling and Macready becomes an even more perplexing figure masked in darkness. Meanwhile, the Carnival celebrations are cast as stunning spectacle and over the top extravagance that’s also rudely disrupted by murder.

One could take it as a metaphor suggesting that the post-war era had commenced with a flourish but that cannot completely get rid of the sour taste left over from the war. A veil of darkness still remains.  Along similar lines, there’s a bit of Casablanca’s tension running through this film, and its atmosphere, while not quite on par with its predecessor, still rings with a lot of character.

The roulette wheels are in fine form and the establishment is full of its own rogue gallery of humorous and foreboding figures alike. The always lovable Uncle Pio provides a dose of good humor but there are also treacherous Germans, numerous rich boy toys, and a surprisingly civil government agent who all make a habit of frequenting the most popular casino in Buenos Aires.

It might be true what Johnny says about gambling and women not mixing but then again with the lens of film-noir they prove to be a high octane combination, representing vice and sensuality, two of its most readily available commodities.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown

The more you watch movies like Chinatown, the more you realize how much you’re still learning. I saw it the first time and I naively thought I knew everything about it. After all, it seemed fairly cut and dry. But the beauty of this film is a labyrinth-like story that can still keep me engaged after multiple viewings. There are things that I missed, things that I have to piece together once more, and more often than not details I simply forgot. Robert Towne’s script has an intricacy to its constantly spiraling mystery plot that remains powerful and Roman Polanski — with cameo included — directs the film with a sure hand as well as a cynically bitter ending worthy of his work. At that point, he was returning to the same city where a few years prior his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered and that certainly had to still be heavy on his mind.

Throughout, Chinatown has elegant visuals of a desert dry Los Angeles circa 1930s, and it is aided by a smooth Jerry Goldsmith score made for such a period crime film as this. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is the smooth-talking, smart-aleck P.I. with a penchant for trouble, but that goes with the business. In the tradition of all his heirs like Spade and Marlowe, the whole story is told from his point of view and we get the details at the same pace as him. That means a lot of the time we are just as confused as him, trying to pick up all the pieces.

Aside from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway’s performance is an interesting reworking of the archetypal femme fatale, because she has a different side to her. Also, John Huston’s performance is wonderfully nefarious, because he plays Noah Cross with a top layer of geniality that is ultimately undermined by his base nature. It’s wonderfully wicked.

In the story’s first few moments of being in his office, we begin to learn a little about the means Gittes uses to appease his clients. Then, his newest client walks through the door, a Mrs. Mulwray, who wishes for him to tail her husband. And so he does, just like that, and he’s pretty good at it too. Hollis Mulwray (an anagram for Mullholland) happens to be an integral part of the L.A. Department of Water and Power as the chief engineer. From what Gittes sees, the bespectacled Mulwray seems to have his scruples, but he also has a secret girl, who the P.I. is able to snap some incriminating photos of.

chinatown2Back at the office, another woman shows up, a Mrs. Mulwray, but this time the real one. She wants to slam J.J. with a lawsuit, but he realizes he got framed, and in the end, she quickly drops her case. Pretty soon Gittes former colleague Lt. Escobar digs up Mulwray’s body and the cause of death is the height of irony. He drowned during a drought, a cruel demise, and his body is joined by that of a drunk, who also was wandering around the local reservoir. It’s time for our nosy P.I. to do a little more snooping, but he is scared off by two security guards from Water and Power who give him a deadly nose job.

None worse for wear aside from a small cast, J.J. knows the department is diverting water. It’s more than a little runoff like they contend. He gets lunch with Noah Cross (The great John Huston), who is the father of Mrs. Mulwray and the former business partner of the deceased. Like J.J., he’s curious about finding the mysterious girl, and he sweetens the pot for the P.I.

A bit of detective work takes Gittes to the hall of records and then a vast acreage of orange groves where he is mistaken for a member of the Department of Water and Power. They aren’t too happy to see him, but Mrs. Mulwray is able to bail him out. They check up on an assisted living home and tie it into the whole conspiracy. Someone is buying up land under the names of the unknowing residents.

chinatown3But as it turns out, Mrs. Mulwray is hiding a major secret of her own that she’s been keeping. Another girl is murdered and since he’s found at the crime scene, Gittes is in a tight spot with a police and so he wants to get thing straightened out. But he doesn’t quite understand what he’s gotten himself caught up in. At the last minute, he decides to take the heroes path, but it’s to no avail. The good is snuffed out, the bad walk away free, and corruption still runs the streets of L.A. There’s not much the cops can do about it either.

chinatown4So many people remember the films final words which epitomize this place of confusion, corruption, and helplessness. The final words of Jake are just as illuminating, however, because he repeats the words he spoke to Mrs. Mulwray earlier when she asked what he did when he worked a beat in Chinatown, “As little as possible.” It’s so pessimistic and yet it’s the truth that everybody knows. He must resign himself to doing nothing because there is no way he can win, no way to overcome the forces that be. It’s a haunting conclusion, but ultimately the most powerful one we could hope for.

Earlier I alluded to the fact that every time I watch this film I pick on things that I missed before. For instance, within Robert Towne’s script are some interesting instances of foreshadowing. The first comes in the form of a pun uttered by the Chinese gardener who is constantly muttering, “It’s bad for the glass/grass.” Then, while they are in the car Mrs. Mulwray dejectedly drops her head on the steering wheel and it lets out a short honk. This acts as an important portent to the end of the film along with the blemish in her left eye. If you have not seen the film yet, this might sound very cryptic, but if you keep your eyes open these little details are rewarding. Chinatown is a fascinating place to return to again and again after all.

5/5 Stars

Detour (1945)

detour1Hollywood is really missing out, because with the direction that the industry has gone there really is no space for a film like Detour to be made by conventional methods anymore. It was shot in less than two weeks. It cost a minuscule amount compared to the contemporary A-Pictures, and yet it used its low production values as an advantage, not a curse.  Director Edgar G. Ulmer was the king of so-called B-films of Poverty Row and Detour was his shining gem. It feels a lot like the later film-noir D.O.A. because both have a main conceit that might be hard to swallow at first, but if you do that initially, you quickly find the film thoroughly rewarding on its own merit.

The sets are simple. A diner, a car, a hotel room, and that’s honestly about it. The actors are pretty obscure by today’s standards. Tom Neal was made for this role of the fateful victim Al Roberts, with his constantly pouting face and a pair of despondent eyes. As he sits glowering in a roadside diner it’s hard to imagine he’s ever smiled in his life. He’s a real sourpuss.

There was a time, back in the day, when he made a modest living as a piano player in a New York club. He had a girl named Sue, and he was relatively content playing the bouncy tune “I Can’t Believe You Fell in Love With Me” while making a few bucks. Now the song haunts him wherever he goes. Sue left to try her luck in Hollywood and soon after Al began his long hitchhike to California to rendezvous with her. On one unassuming evening, all his luck changed. Just like that.

An obliging fellow offered him a ride and they get on well enough. He’s a bookie, but not a bad fellow, so Charles Haskell and Al get on fine. Then they switch up driving duties and a little light rain starts coming down into the convertible. Al goes to put up the top because he assumes Haskell’s only asleep. But when he opens the side door, Haskell falls to the ground. DEAD! Al does what any normal human being would do and he freaks out. Should he dump the body? What should he do with the car? Did anyone see him? Will the people back at the rest stop be able to I.D. him? What will the cops say if they hear his story?

And so he ends up getting rid of Haskell (in a sense playing the role of guilt) and takes on the man’s identity. But wouldn’t you know it, the first person he picks up is the fiery Vera (Ann Savage), who looks apt to claw your eyes out. Of course, she too got a ride from the real Haskell and isn’t buying Al’s story. She’s got him on the rack and she’s not about to let him get off easy. She wants a cut, she wants to sell the car, and Vera’s the only one who is going to call the shots. Al is a stuck, trapped, and paranoid, as Vera waves blackmail in front of his face and won’t let him breathe. She’s got him around her finger and there’s absolutely nothing he can do. After all, who would believe his story?

But whether it’s fate or whatever you want to call it, he gets out of it much in the same way he got into it. The resolution makes me grin because it’s so wonderfully contrived. There’s a tacked on ending to mollify the Production Codes (because Al couldn’t get away with his crime), but although it is an easy fix, it hardly takes away the potency of Detour. I long for the days they made films like this. Ann Savage somehow is nastier and crueler in a few minutes than most any character is in an entire film. It’s a brilliant role and honestly, she’s not my favorite femme fatale, but she has to be one of the most notorious. She seriously sends shivers up the spine.

“Isn’t that a laugh? Haskell got me into this mess, and Haskell was getting me out of it. The police were searching for a dead man. I keep trying to forget what happened, and wonder what my life might’ve been if that car of Haskell’s hadn’t stopped. But one thing I don’t have to wonder about; I know. Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” – Al Roberts

4/5 Stars

Angel Face (1953)

angelface1Rumor has it that Howard Hughes was angry at Jean Simmons who had cut her hair short prior to filming, as her contract was due to expire soon. But not to be outdone he told Otto Preminger that the director would get a bonus if he could shoot the picture before Simmons was released. That he did, and in the 20-day interim he gave us yet another stylish film-noir classic to follow in the footsteps of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Robert Mitchum plays ambulance driver Frank Jessup who falls victim to the webs of young beauty Diane Treymayne who adores her superficial father, but nurses a lifelong grudge against her step-mother. She has it in for her arch nemesis and meanwhile strings Frank along, coaxing him to become her family’s chauffeur. He loses sight of her other side, and their budding romance means trouble for Frank’s longtime relationship with the sensible Mary. She sees a better fit in one of Frank’s ambulance coworkers, but he still wants her back.

Instead, Diane and Frank get caught up in a trial for their lives, after they are accused of a murder that Diane did indeed commit. But due to some wheeling and dealing, their shrewd attorney gets them off. It’s at this point that Angel Face takes an unsuspecting twist that ends up being intriguing. Could it be that the seductive Tremayne girl is actually remorseful for her actions? Is she a more nuanced femme fatale then would first be assumed? Frank was an unsuspecting lout, but then again maybe Diane is a sort of victim to. Her tryst with Frank is doomed and he is stuck becaangelface2use Mary no longer wants him, so of course, he can only end up going one place. The slow buildup to the finale makes these last moments all the more shocking. Angel Face seems to be less of a deadly poisoning than a slowly ticking time bomb just waiting to blow.

Jean Simmons is most often associated with civilized and demure beauties. A couple counterpoints or variations would be The Grass is Greener and this film. Playing against type proves to be as fruitful for her as it did for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda, just to name a few. However, in a way, Angel Face had a far more complex femme fatale than I was expecting and that’s to its credit. Still, I would never want to be trapped in her nightmarish world like Frank.

4/5 Stars

Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

guncrazy2

Bart has an intense obsession with guns. It’s what his life revolves around. It’s the only thing he wants to do as a boy and the only things he seems to think about. It becomes a problem when he breaks a store window, but during the following hearing, his sister and friends vouch for his character. He would never take a human life or kill. That’s not in his nature.

No matter, it is decided Bart should be sent off to a special preparatory school, and he only returns years later as a grown man recently off a stint in the army.  He’s back in his hometown not quite sure what his future plans will be, but his buddies are glad to see him. They shoot some, drink a few beers, and decide to take a jaunt to the carnival for a night of fun.

Their Bart meets the girls of his dreams. There’s a quality to John Dall that makes Bart into a pure victim of his circumstances. He’s quickly infatuated with the gun slinging and sensuous Peggy, who seems to share his one love. A goofy smile is plastered on his face as he faces off against her in an act of skill. He makes her uneasy and ultimately beats her. 

He gets a job with the carnival and spends as much time as he can with her when he’s not shooting guns. They are fed up with their boss and leave the migrant life behind. Marriage is on their radar, and they live it up with the money they have. But Peggy wants more and she wants to keep living the high life. 

She wants to rob a gas station. It’s one little idea that soon blows way out of proportion. They are holding up banks, gas stations, and any place with money that they can lay their hands on. The pair is fugitives with exploits plastered all over the front pages and roadblocks waiting to stop them up. All the while Bart makes Peggy promise not to shoot anything because he still is totally opposed to killing people. 

It seems like things might end peaceably, except once again the gun-toting lovers are nearly flat broke so Peggy coaxes Bart into one last job to end all jobs. For the first time, despite their planning, just enough goes wrong to nearly botch their mission. Bart drives off and Peggy shoots a guard. He’s not the only one. 

 guncrazy1When Bart finds out, after the fact, he realizes they have just stepped up a level with murder stuck on them. The game is winding down and the only place Bart can turn is his hometown where his sister is. For good reason, she cannot stand Bart or Peggy who she sees as poisoning her brother. And it’s true. Bart seems different now, so paralyzed by fear that he even pulls a gun on his old friends.

The last ditch effort of Bart and Peggy is to literally head for the hills. The dragnet is sent out and the hounds are let loose. They hardly have a chance before dropping from exhaustion in a swamp. They’re trapped and a crazed Peggy looks to shoot it out to the death. But for once Bart breaks with her remembering his friends. It doesn’t help him much.

Gun Crazy is a B-film and yet it is easy to forget because the way Joseph H. Lewis constructed this film is so impressive in its economy. One scene that reflects this so beautifully is the long take from the back seat of the car. The camera does not change positioning and so we see a bank job from the outside, and it only helps to build up greater tension.

 We also have enough time to care about certain characters. We have enough time to see Peggy is really no good. Yet with her keen marksmanship, she is a different shade of femme-fatale who is still as deadly as any of her contemporaries. Along with They Live by Night (1948), this is one of the archetypal Bonnie and Clyde-esque films. Thank goodness this film’s title was changed from Deadly is the Female to the more apt Gun Crazy. That it is. 

4/5 Stars

Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

b4c25-bigsleep1

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

Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

mildredpierce1Mildred Pierce is a hybrid between two genres in a way. It most certainly could be categorized as a weepie 1940s melodrama, a so-called “woman’s picture,” and yet it has the undeniable framing devices of a typical film-noir. It’s unique in other ways as well. It features a strong, independent woman as the lead, the eponymous Mildred Pierce and her aspirations and the struggles in her life become the focal point of this story.

Before any gun was fired or a dead body was found at a beach house or any of that happened, Mildred was a stay at home housewife with two daughters and a husband. It becomes all too clear that all is not right in the Pierce household as Bert becomes annoyed with Mildred, who spends so much time doting over eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). It’s as if she needs to earn Veda’s love and Bert realizes the issue early on. They separate and soon after they watch their youngest daughter die of pneumonia suddenly.

What happens next is Mildred’s big break. She starts out all alone and discouraged before finding a job as a waitress, and ultimately, starting up her own restaurant with the help of the hapless Wally Fay (Jack Carson). She finds a loyal friend and employee in Ida (Eve Arden) and a rejuvenated love life thanks to the socialite Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott).

Veda on her part is ecstatic to finally have a life of nice things with the stream of income coming in from her mother, however, she still does not approve of her mother working in the restaurant business. Mother is so Philistine after all.

Thus, despite all the work and effort, she has put into holding onto her one remaining daughter, Veda begins to drift farther and farther away from Mildred until a fight causes Veda to leave home. Most people would say good riddance, but Mildred Pierce is not like that. She has an unhealthy, almost obsessive need for her daughter’s affection. She will do anything to get her back and most of it has to do with giving Veda stuff.

She is far from happy but finally marries Beragon, because she thinks it might bring Veda back to her home. It works but what she doesn’t know is that she is getting forced out of her own company by Bergaon. That evening she found her gun and then Beragon got murdered on the premises of his beach house.

Back in the station, the shadowy noir sensibilities are still present and Mildred abruptly finishes up her tale. Except for the police investigator and the audience know better. That was not the end of the story. There’s one last cruel twist.

In my mind, Joan Crawford is rivaled only by Bette Davis in giving me the shivers, except in this film her eyes are so expressive, giving off emotion without her even saying anything. Within this film, I find the character dynamics and gender conflict to be quite interesting and there are really 6 main characters we can look at:

Mildred: A strong woman who gains her independence the hard way by putting in work to earn her honest wage. She is not a bad person per se, but her weakness is an unhealthy love for her daughter, or rather, a need to have the affection of a girl who never can be satisfied. It leads to divorce, a loveless marriage and a lot of heartaches.

Veda is a little spoiled brat and most of the pain and problems in the film stem from her. She constantly plays on her mother’s emotions heartlessly and even goes so far as to steal her man. That is perhaps the ultimate slap in the face after all she has already done.

Ida: Along with Wally Fay, Ida is perhaps one of the more likable characters in the film, because she is a strong woman who also holds a lot of wit thanks to the performance of Eve Arden. She also utters the famous line that shines some light on the Veda situation (Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young).

Bert: Although he takes part in an affair and is not the perfect husband, I think Mildred and the audience realize how right he was. He saw all the drama with Veda coming, and he remained civil with Mildred through it all, continuing to look out for her.

Monte: He may not be a “villain,” but Beragon is ultimately another corrupt character who is driven by money and his social status. However, it is interesting to ponder whether it was his own avarice and playboy instincts that led him to do what he did, or was he wholly influenced by Veda?

Wally: Finally, we have Wally Fay played the always enjoyable Jack Carson. He too has his eye on Mildred, but although he can be forward and a little annoying, he ultimately looks out for her much like Bert. And yet to call him an angel would be an overstatement because he still has his own interests in mind.

That’s what makes these characters so fascinating since there are some obvious antagonists, but each character, at their core,  has faults. Thus, it makes sense that this film has melodrama brought on by familiar conflict and the like, only to descend down into the noirish world brought on by vice and greed. Whatever you label this film as, the fact of the matter is, it was a major hallmark for the fading Joan Crawford as well as the ever versatile director Michael Curtiz.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana_Turner_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_TwiceThe first time I saw this gripping noir, my least favorite part of the film probably was the title, and it still is. That’s saying a lot, and the film is adapted from the James M. Cain crime novel anyways, with the title included free of charge. Otherwise, Postman is a wonderful example of the film noir canon, and yet it lacks the elements of your more typical private eye mystery.

It trades dark streets of crime for a small roadside burger joint owned by a shrewd man and his noticeably younger wife. Bring a drifter searching for a quick buck and you have everything set for the deadliest of love triangles. At the tips are John Garfield as the rambling man Frank who initially couldn’t care less for his boss’s pretty wife. Then there’s Cora, the alluring girl who seems out of place in her life. Then you have the money-grubbing Nick (Cecil Kellaway) who seems naively oblivious to the whole situation.

At first, nothing seems to be afoot, and Cora is adamant about not getting involved with the new hand. However, ultimately things evolve. That’s not necessarily the exciting part. We expect the rapid and lurid love affair that soon besets Frank and Cora.  We expect, more likely than not, that Nick will either catch them or they will knock him off first. They choose the latter and its far from preferable. Soon the district attorney is down their throats with his own suspicions about the forbidden couple. He’s pretty smart too.

Sackett plays Frank and Cora off of each other. They’re both scared. Neither one wants jail or worst the gas chamber. Nora ends up being the only one prosecuted, but her sly lawyer (Hume Cronyn) is able to call his opponents bluff and get Cora off with hardly a hitch. The only problem is that Frank and Cora hate each other guts now. They are positively poisoned to each other.

The story could end there and it would be ironic enough, but it doesn’t. It has yet another act where Frank and Cora make up following the illness of her mother, the flourishing of her establishment after the trial, and a bout with blackmail. All seems to be better than it ever was, but fate can have a cruel sense of humor.

On one out of the ordinary car ride, Frank crashes and in the aftermath, Cora is left dead with Frank on the fast track to the gas chamber. And that’s where the title comes in. The Postman Always Rings Twice. In other words, if you don’t pay for your crimes the first time around, you always end paying up one way or another. Cora was killed and Frank faced execution. Neither one got off in the end.

Putting aside the Hay’s Codes need for justice to be dealt, this is a wonderfully sardonic tale and ultimately sensual noir for the 1940s. Lana Turner was never better dancing with relative ease between amorous sweetness and acidic intentions. And the moment she first shows up on the screen is one of the most eye-catching entrances by a femme fatale period. Although not the greatest of leading men, John Garfield is surprisingly credible opposite, Turner. He plays the hard-working everyman incredibly well. Hume Cronyn, for his part, plays his wily prosecutor wonderfully with a sly smile all the while. I cannot quite put a finger on it, but I like him.

4.5/5 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