The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

strangelove4From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars

99 River Street (1953)

99river4This is a Sam Fuller type crime film that’s not pretty, it’s full of gritty realism, and it ends up being an unassuming little gem that is a great joy. However, instead, this film comes from director Phil Karlson pairing him with John Payne. In film-noir, boxers always seem to take a center stage and it is never (or hardly ever) the champs. It’s the near misses or the bums. Ernie Driscoll (Payne) falls into this category as well.

After his big fight and an unfortunate conclusion to the bout, Driscoll is all washed up and he and his wife know it. He relives the moment in agony and dejectedly takes a job as a taxi driver, while he tries to figure out a future without boxing. You can tell his wife is fed up with this way of life, and she’s getting awfully snappy. Driscoll is unhappy, with his marriage going down the tubes, so his only encouragement comes down at the coffee counter with his buddy Stan and the bubbly actress Linda.

Things get worse when Ernie sees his wife with another man who also happens to be a real thug. Ernie is humiliated and looking for revenge, but on Linda’s bidding, he follows her to the theater because she is in desperate trouble. He obliges and yet again he feels like he’s been made a fool of. He cannot even seem to trust her.

Ernie wants desperately to get back into the ring, against the better judgment of his former manager. But he still is caught up in the whole mess with the cunning tough guy Victor Rawlins who stole Driscoll’s wife. The man shows how little the girl meant to him in comparison to the money and after getting a payoff for a fat load of diamonds, he waits for a freighter to take him away.

Linda wants to help Ernie after what happened on the stage, but she cannot stop Rawlins. It’s up to Ernie to duke it out on the docks, and it turns into a real brawl where he struggles not to get his bell completely rung after a gunshot to the chest. It’s the biggest fight of his career and somehow he wins. Really 99 River Street sounds like a run-of-the-mill noir, but Payne’s performance is rather good. It feels rather like Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street where no one seems to be on his side. However, he does ultimately have two solid allies in the faithful dispatcher Stan and the always vibrant Linda. Ernie finally follows Stan’s earlier advice and whispers sweet nothings into the ear of his love. It’s a happy ending for a noir.

The cast is rounded out nicely by a wonderful group of character actors including Brad Dexter, Jack Lambert, and Jay Adler who all work as the scum of the earth-dwelling in New York. The contrast of the bubbly Evelyn Keyes with the more aloof Peggie Castle was also very effective in the film. Now I need to see Kansas City Confidential as well.

4/5 Stars

The Crimson Kimono: An Analysis of Noir Realism and Race (2015)

crimsonk1What makes Film-Noir intriguing is not simply the crime aspect but the fact that they are films with worldviews that are often weighed down by cynicism. Film-Noir depicts the harsh realities of human nature that few other films would ever dare to acknowledge onscreen. People are broken at their core; continually led to their own devices whether it’s greed or their own personal insecurities. These films give us a fascinating microscope by which to examine all the pain and prejudices that abound within the human condition.  Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) shares some of these qualities, acting as a realistic procedural that employs cinematography and setting to say something about the world we live in. Furthermore, it has a remarkable stance on race relations, specifically for Japanese-Americans, that was ahead of its time and has hardly ever been matched.

Through an analysis of The Crimson Kimono it becomes obvious that it is a striking film in the noir tradition, blessed with an urban realism that brings 1950s Los Angeles to life for us. As Samuel Fuller himself points out, “The thing that is most noir about Crimson Kimono…is how [he] shot it.” He was “in Little Tokyo and lots of other actual locations downtown, with cameras hiding in trucks, shooting at night with fast film because [he] could not put out lights” and as a result, the film has “a hard, gritty realistic look” (Film Noir Reader 3). When the action heads to the streets and hooker Sugar Torch is fleeing from an unseen assailant, it definitely has the gritty, atmospheric realism that Fuller was alluding to. This is a real place where we could be. These will be the same streets that Joe and Charlie will soon be hitting on their beat. Ironically, when Fuller shot the scene live he noted that he didn’t really “get much dramatic reaction.” Despite the fact that “An almost naked, six-foot-tall blonde is running for her life down the street,” nobody seemed to care and nobody looked (Film Noir Reader 3). That is the world of Los Angeles, full of indifferent masses that could care less whether something looks real or is real. It makes no difference to them because it fails to affect their existence. It is a dismal worldview, very representative of noir, but the odd thing is that Charlie and Joe are not like this at first. They are heroic, honest individuals with the duty of weighing through this noir world as part of their vocation. Thus, they oblige out of necessity and only then does it get to them. Even so, there is an argument that it is not the world, but their personal hang-ups that tear them apart.

Their investigation leads them to “Little Tokyo,” which becomes an integral locale within the context of the film and Fuller uses it effectively. For instance, in one scene Joe walks the streets with a Mr. Yoshinaga after meeting him at a cemetery. It’s a highly mundane moment and yet Fuller still manages to make it interesting. It is also less austere than the earlier scene of Sugar’s murder since banners are flying and locals are milling about the storefronts. That’s why it becomes an interesting setting for a chase sequence, taking the everyday environment and turning it into a point of drama. It reinforces the fact that Fuller seems to be more interested in the realism of common incidences compared to high drama. It’s almost as if he’s a journalist again trying to get a juicy feature story. It’s ordinary, real and it meets people where they are at.

One of the most significant moments occurs later on during the kendo match where Joe and Charlie are supposed to face off as part of the Nisei Week Festival. It’s a big deal and flyers are plastered all over the town so people will turn out for the event. Within the context of the film, it matters on several levels. The fact that Charlie is Joe’s equal suggests that martial arts are not just stereotypically Asian, but they can be universal. Perhaps most importantly their bout reveals the descent of Joe into utter resentment because he disregards all the traditions of Kendo and begins to go after his friend with a vengeance. It’s the turning point that Charlie cannot forgive Joe for and for good reason. The sequence plays out as quick cuts between masked faces, swords, dancing feet, and exuberant onlookers. Practically before we know what has happened Joe begins beating Charlie over the head and lays him out. It is such a rapid about-face that is underlined by Joe’s own insecurities, which we will get to delve into later.

The culmination of the film occurs during the festivities, with music, dancing, banners, lanterns, and girls in kimonos. It seems fitting that Fuller’s entire story leads us to this point at such a public place full of your usual bystanders. It’s theatrical while still maintaining a sense of the real world. Here again, we have a third chase scene except this time Fuller does something especially interesting with the music. During the pursuit there is a symphony of conflicting tunes going on between the bands: “One plays classic music, one plays Japanese music, one plays hot music, and so on. Whenever [Fuller] cut from the killer to the pursuer, the music changed. That gave [him] the discordant and chaotic note” that was desired (The Director’s Event). It seems like such a simple detail and yet it truly is clever in conception, because it adds another layer of realism to the scene while simultaneously utilizing diegetic sound for dramatic effect. It could be implied that the music also reflects Joe and Charlie’s own feelings of confusion and friction, which injured their friendship and Charlie’s ego. It’s ultimately Joe who has to parse through all the noise and commotion ultimately finding the truth. It’s no small coincidence that once again we find ourselves on the urban streets at night just like when Sugar Torch was gunned down. Fuller parallels that earlier scene and yet so much has changed. This time around there is a hint of hope, but a sour taste is still left in the mouth. It suggests that you cannot fully escape the darkness and anxieties that seem to engulf us because this world can never truly have a perfect ending.

Fuller’s film crimsonk2has murder attempts, gunshots, fist fights, etc. However, he knows how to simplify scenes getting only the necessary elements out of them. When Sugar Torch crumples to the ground we hear the shot and that’s all we need. When an attempt is taken on Chris’s life we see the gun pointed ominously and again we hear the shot but that’s all. There’s a cut to a new scene and Fuller gives us all the details we need to know.  In a sense, it’s about an economy of images that allow this film to be short, at only 78 minutes, and still, pack a punch. It definitely was out of necessity that Fuller did many of these things which would have saved time and money, but it also undoubtedly caused him to come up with creative solutions. The Crimson Kimono like many of Fuller’s films is hardly sleek or polished and that is part of the allure. It is the opposite of typical Hollywood and it fits film-noir so beautifully. It has the same harshness as one of Fuller’s other works Pickup on South Street (1953). What it lacks in a femme fatale or Cold War sentiment, The Crimson Kimono makes up for in how it tackles romance and the job of a policeman with a subtle touch. For this reason, it may be less of a film-noir than Pickup and perhaps a lesser film, but there is still power in its story and the racial lines that it willfully challenged. It also seems necessary to acknowledge a bit of Samuel Fuller’s background, because it further influenced his filmmaking. He came from a Jewish family in New York and dropped out of school to write for a newspaper along with penning pulp fiction novels. He served during WWII and when he came back he began a storied career as a writer and director of frequently subversive “B pictures.” His versatility is especially remarkable, cycling through all types of films from westerns, to crime films to war dramas, elevating them above “B” quality. Part of the reason is that he never gave into conventions and his genuine depictions of race in films like The Steel Helmet (1951), Run the Arrow (1957) and The Crimson Kimono were ahead of their time.

crimsonk3The Crimson Kimono is an extraordinary film historically because it depicts something that we very rarely see, especially for 1959. The late, great actor James Shigeta portrayed the straight-laced policeman and former Korean War hero named Joe Kojaku. He’s a sympathetic figure and hardly a caricature. His best friend is the Caucasian Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), who is on the LAPD with Joe and a war buddy. They are inseparable and they share a flat. Above all, the most amazing thing is that Joe gets the girl over his friend! That might be a small victory, but I have seen a lot of films to know that the Asian guy never gets the girl, especially if she is Caucasian. Sam Fuller subverts the norm and it is a major statement on interracial romance in an age when many would have scoffed at it. However, Fuller also takes immense care to look at both sides of the equation, and he allows both men the benefit of the doubt. Joe must figure out his own identity even acknowledging, “I was born here. I’m American but what am I? Japanese, Japanese American, Nisei? What label do I live under?” The question is not an easy one and it is one that he struggles with over the course of the entire film, navigating his feelings towards Charlie and then the beautiful artist Chris (Victoria Shaw).

The-crimson-kimono-1959_posterRegrettably, posters for this film were highly shallow and sensational reflecting the age with taglines like “Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” or “What was his strange appeal for American girls?” It places this character in the typical category of an exotic lover. He’s not a real man, only an enticing mysterious foreigner with strange appeal. Likewise, the title Crimson Kimono itself brings to mind oriental exoticism involving strange dress and foreign culture. This could have just as easily been a dated film of yellowface and Asian stereotypes, but it’s superfluous to judge this film by its posters and title alone. When you actually watch Fuller’s work these are not the focal points at all. As Fuller later said himself, “The whole idea of [his] picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They’ve got chemistry” (A Third Face). Chris likes Joe because he is a genuine hero, not because the other man is not. Joe is sweet and shares a love of art (piano and painting) like her. She could care less that he’s Asian just like Charlie could care less. Those are the kind of people they are.

Fuller’s depiction goes both ways, however, because while he never sells Kojaku short, he also suggests that Joe might be part of the problem. Fuller notes that he “was trying to make an unconventional triangular love story, laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that is just as deplorable as outright bigotry. [He] wanted to show that whites aren’t the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts” (A Third Face). This ends up happening with Joe since he gets so caught up in prejudice, his own prejudice, that it wrecks his relationships with his friend. Charlie is not angry because Joe, an Asian, stole his girl. Charlie is understandably irritated because his best friend took the girl who he really liked without telling Charlie his true feelings. Joe makes the mistake of attributing this to a question of race, but Charlie, like Fuller, is not that shallow. His reaction is purely a human reaction that develops in any romance when two men who are equals go after one girl and only one can come out on top. It hurts no matter what race, color or creed they are. That’s just the reality and that’s the lesson that Joe does not understand at first. He seems to care too much about the race question and potentially even his identity. It ultimately damages his relationship with Charlie and we cannot know for sure if it will ever be repaired, even if we would like them to patch things up. Thus, Fuller combats racism from both angles, including minorities who might take on the role of a victim too quickly. Because the reality is, issues of race almost always get blown way out of proportion with both sides being hypersensitive. Fuller seems to have the right handle on the situation, not stooping to unwarranted stereotypes and not heaping all the blame on the majority. Sometimes everybody is at fault at least a little bit. That’s simply how life is and that’s how it gets depicted in The Crimson Kimono, with a sensitive, albeit, realistic touch. Furthermore, one could argue that it is a typical noir ending because although Joe still gets the girl it came at a steep cost.

crimsonk4The Crimson Kimono is riveting from the beginning because it is such a groundbreaking and rare piece of film history. It presented on film something that we never see or very rarely see: a relationship between an Asian man and Caucasian woman. In the hands of Samuel Fuller, this unique but still mundane tale is kept thoroughly engaging. He infused his screenplay with visuals of Los Angeles and realism that makes his characters all the more believable. His camera is able to take the everyday and make it dramatic while we continue to invest in these people. It seems fitting to end the discussion with a quote from the man himself. He affirmed that “One film never really gives me complete satisfaction. Nor should it. All creative people must learn how to deal with the imperfect and the incomplete. There is no end in art. Every accomplishment is the dawn of the next challenge.” That’s what makes the films of Samuel Fuller meaningful. No one film can ever have everything. The Crimson Kimono does not have every answer on race and it certainly does not have every convention of film-noir. It’s imperfect, but it is a jumping off point for future endeavors and dialogue.

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

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 Crimson Kimono (1959)

crimsonk1From director Samuel Fuller comes another welcomed addition to his canon. It features the same type of seedy urban landscapes and back alleys of Pick up on South Street (1953) and there are some equally interesting characters like Mac (Anna Lee). It all is underlined by some sleazy jazz music in the vein of Sweet Smell of Success except this one is set in L.A.

The plot line is basic enough following two policemen as they investigate the homicide of a local stripper with a heart of gold and wasted plans for a new show involving kimonos and karate. Their only real lead is a painting and the name that goes with it. That’s where the more interesting part of the story begins.

I failed to mention that one of the cops is Caucasian. His name is Detective Sergeant Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett). His partner is Japanese-American or “Nisei,” meaning the second generation. Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) is his name. The beauty of their relationship, which is one of Fuller’s focuses, is that they are equals who are inseparable ever since landing in a fox hole together in Korea.  Charlie was saved by a pint of Joe’s blood, Charlie practices kendo with Joe in their off hours, and they live together on the side. You cannot get much closer than that.

The movement of the plot leads them to Ms. Chris Downes (Victoria Shaw), a pretty young painter who is the only witness who potentially saw the man who shot Sugar Torch. In between looking at journals full of mug shots, she gets to know both Charlie and Joe. Charlie sees himself falling in love with her and like anyone he tells his best friend. Joe is happy for him until the fateful moment when he is alone with Chris. She makes her affection for him quite plain because he’s a pretty great guy, but as a good friend, he doesn’t do anything. It tears him apart and it only hurts them as they plod on with the homicide.

What follows is a painful love triangle embroiled with issues of race, friendship, and misguided notions. It’s jarring because these three are all likable and you want only the best for them, but it cannot be remedied like the murder which ultimately gets wrapped up neatly.

crimsonk4Samuel Fuller always tackles issues of race head on like no other. In fact, he was ahead of his time when no one else would show such relationships, romantic or otherwise, on the silver screen. Beyond whether or not an Asian man and a Caucasian woman romantically involved was accepted back in the 1950s or not, it probably was not what audience cared to see at the movies. To me, now, it’s really interesting, especially to see such non-stereotypical roles all across the board. It’s a breath of fresh air from the Charlie Chans and Mr. Motos.

On another level, Fuller’s camera makes solitary L.A. street corners and the bustling Nisei festival amazingly dynamic. It brings Little Tokyo alive, filling it with genuine people, sights, and sounds. Thank you, Sam Fuller.

It’s like mixing two dabs of paint together. You could never separate them.” ~ Mac on Charlie and Joe

It’s what you think is behind every word and every look.” ~ Chris Downes

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

Raw Deal (1948)

5453f-rawdeal2Anthony Mann may be most widely known for his westerns often headlined by Jimmy Stewart, but he most definitely honed his craft earlier on. Raw Deal is everything you want and expect from film-noir. Our protagonist is a man who breaks out of the State Penitentiary, you have your potential femme fatale, the moral ambiguity, and most of the other necessary hallmarks.

As a lover of black and white cinematography, Raw Deal is highly appealing with its chiaroscuro, silhouettes, and framing of characters. But after all, that’s often part of the allure of noir.

Claire Trevor’s matter of fact voice-over backed by the theremin is highly effective in dictating the disconcerting mood for the entirety of the film. All our previous predispositions tell us the stage is set for a chilling ending but we can hardly imagine what it is at this point.

After Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) busts out of prison, we get much of what you would expect. A tense manhunt involving a dragnet crossing multiple state lines and a fugitive at large with accomplices. There is violence and melodrama galore as Joe dodges the police while also trying to reconnect with a crooked mob boss named Rick (Raymond Burr), who leveraged an escape attempt so Joe would get knocked off.

With the circumstances as they are, he’s not too keen on giving Joe the 50Gs that he is owed and so Rick wants the fugitive knocked off if the cops don’t get to him first. Put in this light, the film feels analogous to many other noir staples like White Heat, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy or The Big Heat to name a few. However, it has its own wrinkle that makes it interesting.

Joe has his femme fatale to be sure, but the kicker is that there are two dames pulling at his heart strings. Pat (Claire Trevor) is more the dame since she was born in a bad area and has been waiting around for Joe a long time. She’s faithful even to the point of helping him escape, but she’s not the most endearing of characters. Ann (Marsha Hunt) on the other hand is the tender social worker who has been trying to help Joe the legal way. When he breaks out she is taken as a sort of hostage and has difficulties reconciling her feelings for him with what she sees in front of her.

However, he’s certainly not all hardened criminal and so that is part of what makes the rest of the film so interesting. Each character walks the thin line of morality and each one crosses over to the other side even if its only for an instant.

For, Pat the clock continues to tick and her conscience ultimately catches up with her. As the drama reaches its near apex we see Joe’s true feelings, and in a sense, who he has become compared to who he was earlier. However, we cannot help feeling a tinge of remorse in the end. So you see, the film succeeded in doing the near impossible, making me sympathize for Claire Trevor’s character. She seemingly often plays undesirables, but they are never cookie cutter and the same can be said for Raw Deal.

4/5 Stars

“You’re something from under a rock” ~ Ann Martin