Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1950s Film Noir

We follow up last week’s guide to classic film noir of the 1940s by continuing into the 1950s with 4 more entries. With the new decade came new progressions in realism, location shooting, and heightened character psychology.

As Paul Schrader wrote, the noir hero started to “go bananas.” What remained were graft, corruption, and the depravity of the human heart. True, gumshoes and femme fatales were never cut-and-dry. Now they were even less so. Enjoy!

Gun Crazy (1950)

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B movies form the backbone of this often down and dirty genre. There are few better than Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy an exercise in inventive economy. It tells the tale of a romance-fueled crime spree with verve and violent passion. Although mostly forgotten today, John Dall and Peggy Cummins do a fine rendition as a latter-day incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde

The Big Heat (1953)

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It’s a cops and robbers procedural with Glenn Ford as the straight-arrow family man going against the local mob. What Fritz Lang does is boil it over with newfound vindictiveness. We soon find out the good guys aren’t always untarnished nor the noir dames (Gloria Grahame) always the villains. True to form, Lee Marvin plays an incorrigible heavy.

The Killing (1956)

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It’s early Stanley Kubrick so some might find it a stark contrast to his later works. Regardless, it’s one of the finest heist films of all-time. Because the best-laid plans — even the most meticulous — always have a habit of going awry. The set-up is gritty and no-nonsense with a cast headed by a fitting protagonist: Sterling Hayden. Likewise, it’s ending just about sums up film noir fatalism.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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It’s often cited as one of the final signposts of classic film noir. With its tale of below the border corruption instigated by a portly Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) against a Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh), it more than fits the parameters of the genre. The extended opening shot is just one stunning testament of Welles’ vision as a director.

Worth Watching:

Sunset Blvd., In a Lonely Place, Night and The City, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Ace in The Hole, The Narrow Margin, Kansas City Confidential, Pickup on South Street, Night of The Hunter, Kiss Me Deadly, Bad Day at Black Rock, Murder by Contract, and so many more.

Human Desire (1954): Fritz Lang vs. Jean Renoir

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Edgar Buchanan always annoyed me endlessly on Green Acres reruns, and it’s affected me for a long time. Because only recently have I begun to realize just how broad and robust his body of film work is. He can be categorized with a breed of movie actor that is generally lost in today’s industry.

These were studio workhorses with filmographies so abundant it almost becomes second nature for them to don certain roles. It happens so easily and with such regularity, there’s rarely a need for explanation. It’s all right there in the character and the countless other pictures he’s popped up in before. His part is small but it doesn’t matter.

Because he is the kind of actor only Hollywood of a certain era would have utilized to his full potential. Why does any of this relate to the discussion of this film? My best explanation is the fact Human Desire is not a standalone entry. It comes from a lineage boasting Emile Zola and Jean Renoir’s Le Bete Humaine. And yet Human Desire can be viewed as nothing less than noir cranked out of the salt mines of Hollywood.

The traditions of Michel Carne and Jean Renoir, themselves in the late 30s, coalesced with the early works of Fritz Lang, like M (1931), to form a sturdy foundation to this American iteration of crime cinema. There’s no doubt Lang and Renoir were aware of each other. An obvious point of reference is the fact Lang would adapt La Chienne into a film of his own — Scarlet Street.

Human Desire is his second go at the eminent Frenchman’s filmography, albeit less to his liking. Lang’s railroad imagery isn’t quite on par with the evocative ever smoky grittiness of Renoir’s earlier effort and part of it must be chalked up to interiors which strip away much of the rail tie reality.

In even brief interludes there could be overlap with the work of the Frenchman’s father or other famed realist artists of generations before and there are quite a few lighter, brighter tones, although Le Bete Humaine is still a notable precursor to noir cinematography.

But then it gets dicey because Lang himself came out of the other tradition which all but berthed the dark genre, German Expression, with films like M or American pictures like Fury and You Only Live Once, unmistakable for their equally brooding imagery.

Renoir has an appreciation for the everyman’s daily life as it pertains to this world of grunge and brutality. There manages to be something real, this animal magnetism — a literal madness that somehow feels more authentic.

Lang picks up solely on the total bleakness of a canvas bathed in black. It’s suffocating in that sense. He also functions better within the facades and inherent artificiality of the Hollywood system. Renoir tried it too, and it proved more stifling than productive. Lang, perhaps out of necessity, used the resources more to his advantage.

After the stirring success of The Big Heat, he comes back with his two stars in Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to do it again. It’s unfairly overshadowed even as Grahame turns in a blistering, merciless performance as a conniving wife. But as with all black widows, the exterior begins demure and innocent enough. It only evolves and becomes more malevolently deadly as time marches on.

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The newfound lens of a returning soldier fits into the context of the era. Because Human Desire is a story revamped for 1950s America, and it translates itself easily enough. Jeff Warren (Ford) is coming home from the army with ideals of a steady job, fishing on weekends, and nights at the movies with a pretty girl. It presents this fresh exterior just waiting to be dragged through the mire.

Because the conventions of American-grade noir, in particular, make for a compelling tale of lust and sleaze. Not that they were entirely absent in Renoir’s picture but they have a different effect.

Human Desire throws together a femme fatale and a formerly clean-cut veteran whose eyes bulge out of his sockets the first time he snatches a glance at the girl. They are not perpetrators of murder by they are implicated in the following courtroom proceedings with Warren complicit in a cover-up. There is a streamlined love triangle between Ford, Grahame, and Broderick Crawford that rarely feels interesting on its own merits.

At its best, it lives out its existence on the screen as a low-grade railway riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are obvious antecedents in its French predecessor but somehow in this context, it seems applicable to canonize it as noir. Emile Zola never felt closer to James M. Cain.

I could only consider the very concrete plot points, not the literary styles themselves. Because Human Desire, of course, is not literary at all — or if it, it is only in the pulpy seediness such entertainment engendered.

Renoir could actually claim some basis in Zola’s literature, not simply by his pedigree but also by evoking the words themselves. Regardless, the two creatures have their distinct appeals for two diverse camps. There’s no question the two helmsmen were a pair of phenomenal craftsman deserving individual repute. The differences in them are as beguiling as the similarities. The same might be said of Human Desire and its forefather. Choose your poison and my guess is you won’t be disappointed either way.

3.5/5 Stars

The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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The unofficial timeline for classic film noir is approximately given as 1941-1958 but of course, there are notable outliers including Stranger on The 3rd Floor (1940) at the front end and this film, Odds Against Tomorrow, bringing up the rear. Pictures with what can easily be categorized as noir sensibilities whether visually, psychologically, or otherwise certainly were released outside of these arbitrary parameters. However, that’s part of the fun because this “genre” is so fluid and malleable; there’s no technical cutoff or subjective standards.

Director Robert Wise is generally remembered for his later works like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) but every man has a Hollywood origin story. He cut his teeth editing Citizen Kane (1941) no less and began making gritty crime dramas in the late 40s. Two of the most commendable would be Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), the latter featuring Robert Ryan, now a crucial player again a decade later in the last of Wise’s outings in the same noir world.

We get our first glimpse of Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) walking on West Side Street in New York City and those shots assist in establishing the locale that we will be making our home in. Slater is on his way to a business arrangement with David Burke (Ed Begley).

They both have their reasons for joining forces. Burke was formerly a policeman who spent years faithfully serving on the force but when he wouldn’t get involved in a criminal investigation it all but sunk his career. Earl’s a less desirable character with a messy past as an ex-con and none too hidden racist tendencies.

He was the bigot with antisemitism in Crossfire (1947) so it’s a cinch that Ryan could play the narrow-minded white man in this picture too. We get an inclination when he playfully picks up the little African-American girl on his way to a meeting but it comes into full relief once he and the third member of their party, Ingram, are actually in a room together.

What makes the characterization so fascinating is though it’s so easy to envision Ryan in such roles because he plays each with such convincing enmity, he was a real-life crusader for Civil Rights and numerous other progressive causes. This is by no means his actual stance; far from it. Yet he makes us believe.

Though predominantly remembered as a singing star and for his presence in musicals, this was a self-selected part for Harry Belafonte (through his HarBel production company) that substantiates itself as arguably the most rewarding part of his career. He is Johnny Ingram a nightclub crooner who also plays a mean xylophone. But his greatest vice is that he’s a compulsive and extremely unsuccessful gambler — a bankroll of over $7,000 he’s supposed to dish out to a local mobster is residual proof.

Ed Begley, in a particularly charming role, acts as the calming force assuaging egos and keeping his team from completely tearing each other apart. Because he appreciates their talents and keeps them focused most of all on the payday that awaits them, $50,000 they could all use desperately.

Obviously, Ingram has his debts but also a daughter and an estranged wife to look after. Slater is rather unhappily married to a woman (Shelley Winters) who is supporting him for now. But he’s also fairly amicable with his neighbor down the hall (Gloria Grahame).

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Although the bigotry angle is no doubt important it’s not necessarily the focal point of the picture. Foremost of all, Odds Against Tomorrow is a showcase of style and atmospherics. There’s a seedy urban realism that aids in fashioning a tale of claustrophobic impending doom merely supplemented by the racial undertones. Wise achieves a certain look widely due to his on-location shoot but also infrared film stock which gives a very specific monochromatic quality to the exterior shots. Backed by jazzy scoring courtesy of John Lewis and we have a complete package standing toe to toe with Wise’s grittiest efforts.

Whereas most heist pictures take the route of letting the job occur and slowly unravel with mishaps that lead to extended agitation, this picture takes a slightly different approach. We get a line on the characters — their significant others and their problems — so their decisions make more sense. We know why they feel compelled to go through with what looks like “easy money.” However, the actual undertaking torques the picture’s ending into a fever pitch.

Because the title, of course, refers to gambling and the outcomes prove to be pretty bleak. Though the racial element began in the periphery it can’t help but reveal its ugliness in the film’s fatalistic finale. I won’t say the story comes off perfectly but if one is willing to feel it out and become immersed in the atmosphere, it generally succeeds by reveling in its environment.

3.5/5 Stars

Crossfire (1947)

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Like any self-respecting film noir, it opens with men whaling on each other amid stylized darkness. Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire is an issue-driven picture and it’s an important one given the cultural moment in which it came into being. There’s no doubting that.

But though the imagery is spot on and we have numerous noir regulars, it doesn’t feel like a noir film in the semi-conventional sense. Maybe it’s because the issue it was looking to root out takes precedence over any of its more formalistic qualities and that’s perfectly fine.

From a practical standpoint, Dymytrk opted to shoot the film with low key lighting as it’s a cheaper set-up and also a lot quicker which allowed the picture to be churned out in a mere 20 days. However, it’s still quite befuddling how a film this short can still somehow be incomprehensible at times.

Like any good procedural it whips out a long list of characters introduced in every sequence who either have significant amounts of screentime or show up for a few moments and still manage to play a crucial part in this obscured piece of drama.

Realistically, Crossfire can be touted as the film of the three Roberts: Young, Ryan, and Mitchum. Robert Young will always be heralded as a television father much like Hugh Beaumont and so while I can never take him quite seriously in such a role as a police investigator, he certainly doesn’t do a poor job as Captain Finlay.

Paradoxically, Robert Ryan is one of those actors who is probably grossly underrated and yet as far as personal taste goes I’ve never liked him much (Though my esteem steadily rises). Maybe that simply pertains to the kind of characters he often played such as the belligerent Montgomery in this film. They are not meant to be affable and he does a wonderful job of eliciting a scornful reaction.

Likewise, Robert Mitchum has arguably the least important role of the three, but he still has that laconic magnetism that wins us over, portraying one of the other soldiers caught up in this whole big mess. Sgt. Peter Keeley is a bit of a tough guy but also ready to watch the back of his brothers in arms. He’s our counterpoint to Robert Ryan.

The minor players list out like so. The victim of it all was a man named Samuels (Sam Levene) who crossed paths with the demobilized soldiers in a bar and seemed nice enough. He even struck up a conversation with a homesick G.I. named Mitch (George Cooper) who Keeley guesses might be a prime suspect for murder.

Jacqueline White is the wanted Corporal’s concerned spouse while Gloria Grahame plays a characteristic noir dame who might prove to be an invaluable witness on his behalf, if only she’ll cooperate.

This is yet another link in the chain of post-war crime pictures where soldiers were returning home only to meet a new kind of disillusionment (ie. The Blue Dahlia or Act of Violence). A certain bar scene played over from multiple perspectives proves to be a pivotal moment, but it’s full of fuzzy recollections and screwy bits of information. No one seems quite sure what happened and the film banks on this ambiguity.

However, it’s about time to cease skirting around the obvious and say outright what the film is an indictment of. It’s anti-Semitism. “Jew-boy” is the trigger word. Though the film requires some reading between the lines, thanks to the production codes, there’s no context needed to understand what that means. It’s instantly apparent bigotry is rearing its ugly head.

As such, Crossfire shares a similar conviction with the year’s other famed issue-driven picture The Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and it brings to mind the wartime short film headlined by Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In (1945).

But, of course, when you begin to analyze one group of people there always seem to be others still being marginalized whether Japanese-American, African-American, Mexican-American. You name it. And that’s part of what makes such a portrait fascinating. To see to what extent the lines of inclusion will be drawn up.

Though it’s evident that he’s preaching, there are still some steadfast truths coming from Robert Young as he tries to convince a soldier (William Phipps), still wet behind the ears, what he must do for the sake of his conscience. There’s a need to stand up to the bigots because hate is always the same. They hated the Irish and the Italians before just like they will continue to hate some other people group in years to come.

Even if the history gets pushed to the fringes and it doesn’t get taught in school, that doesn’t make it any less of the truth or any less of our history. It’s possible to contend that we are made stronger, not weaker when our troubled history and past indiscretions are fully acknowledged. Only then can we learn, heal the wounds, and pursue a better future together.

So Murder, My Sweet (1944) is still a superior film noir from Edward Dmytryk and probably a great deal more fun, but there’s no denying the message that’s at work behind Crossfire.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: In a Lonely Place (1950)

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Director Nicholas Ray customarily takes his material and subverts our expectations or better yet deconstructs the conventions that we often take for granted. But this is also matched with his penchant for showing a very raw and honest percolation of emotion. It causes every one of his movies to leave a perceptible toll on the audience because it’s difficult to have any other response. In a Lonely Place is another textbook example.

Here is a film with a murder plot which would normally be of primary concern. Instead, it ends up falling by the wayside to become nearly unimportant. It sounds almost callous to make such a claim since a life is at stake but then there is a bit of a detached quality permeating the picture.

A brooding Humphrey Bogart is at his most explosive as screenwriter Dixon Steele, a man with some talent, but a very odd way of exercising it. He’s an exasperating case for many in the industry, including his agent. Art Smith provides a wonderfully vivid performance as the agent nursing his ulcers while still faithfully standing by his client despite the turbulent nature of his temper. (Coincidentally Smith was featured in the earlier Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation Ride the Pink Horse).

It’s true “Dix” can be a tough man to figure out. Bogart may have played more appreciated, more iconic characters but there’s something especially raw about him here.

On top of Bogart’s performance, this is Nicholas Ray’s own examination of the Hollywood industry’s mechanisms, spitting out has-beens and flops as much as fame and fortune. There’s the continuous inner conflict between making a smash — the kind of trashy stuff that sells — and then trying to create something of worth on the spectrum of art.

If we had to draw up thematically similar films, All About Eve is a more flamboyant choice and Sunset Blvd. boasts the cynical edge but In a Lonely Place probably deserves to keep the same company with these noted classics from 1950 as a film of truly morose sentiments. It’s not simply cutting through the artifice of Hollywood. It’s trying to provide a deeper study of the people who are cogs of the industry.

After a precocious hat check girl (Martha Stewart) is found murdered it sets off an investigation by the police force. As Steele had requested the girl come over to his home to give him the plot summary of the low brow novel he is meant to adapt, just hours before her demise, he is placed on the top of the lists of suspects.

Conveniently, his neighbor across the courtyard, a bit part actress (Gloria Grahame at her most aloof and restrained), who he hardly knows, is brought in and vouches she saw him and it’s not a lie. He really was at home and he did not commit the crime.

If we wanted to, we could leave the story right there but that’s not all the film is working away at. It unravels in other ways too. In another world, this almost voyeuristic setting could have been made for Rear Window (1954) but this is not that film either.

Frank Lovejoy is the average cop with a thoughtful wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell) — a genuinely nice guy who knows “Dix” from back in their war days. He takes orders but he also has an inherent confidence in Steele as a human being. At any rate, he wouldn’t be prone to killing girls and so Brub helps to humanize this man in the eyes of the audience.

And yet there are still some troubling caveats on Dixon Steele. He owns a history of violent outbreaks but it goes beyond this. There’s a raging darkness that is part of his makeup as a character. He is tortured by hatred and by his own accompanying desolation. We can chalk it up to a number of things. His own personality. His lack of consistency. The often cruel industry that became his livelihood. It could be any number of these things or all of them.

In fact, for a film noir, the outcomes prove to be unique. It has murder but we never see it. There’s an actress who played countless femme fatales playing a slightly different iteration here. Even Bogart, though carrying a simmering temper that goes off on several occasions, is generally not a hardboiled heavy. Just a tormented screenwriter with demons to exorcize.

Beating up a college kid doesn’t go with the glorified and gritty brutality that might crop up in a Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946). It’s just callous barbarity in the normal world. Throwing phones or beating up friends in public is not normal behavior. There’s no other conventional excuse for it.

But this is Dixon Steele for you. He’s just a troubled man. Not an archetypal noir antihero. As much as we fear for the people in his stead, there’s also a mild pity reserved for him. He shows himself capable of love. He simply proves to be very ill-equipped for the endeavor.

The layers go deeper still and more personal as Gloria Grahame’s marriage with director Nicholas Ray was splintering and was finally absolved quietly during filming.

Beyond that, you get the sense, Bogart who financed the picture is playing someone, not unlike himself. Perhaps it’s the closest he ever got. Like the film, he found love in a woman, Lauren Bacall, many years his junior who nevertheless made him very happy. Sure Bogey was a success but it took him a long time to get to the top of the summit. He was a hard-drinker with a notoriously white-hot temper to match. Still, he was a romantic and an idealist in such a way we sympathize with. He’s ardently beloved today as he was in his heyday.

The contents of the story take on an entirely new spectrum of meaning with this personal context. In a Lonely Place wasn’t just an examination of Hollywood and the lives of people who could be real. In a Lonely Place feels far more transparent. It is Hollywood and these are the very people who find themselves caught up in its disillusioning grip.

Loneliness is there’s to have and to hold. They don’t need the prototypical genre conventions of graft and crime — the brand we conveniently label as film noir. There’s really little need for the more darkly cinematic overtones. They have themselves. That’s dismal enough already.

4.5/5 Stars

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Review: The Big Heat (1953)

bigheat2The Big Heat is not a noir where the darkness comes from the shadowy visuals, but from within its characters themselves. In fact, some of these individuals are so subtle in their corruption that it easily gets overshadowed. Homicide cop Dave Bannion is, rather ironically, the straight-arrow trying to do what is right, and he becomes the most vengeful character in Fritz Lang’s film. It’s a subversion of the typical noir arc because his greatest help ultimately comes from the former femme fatale. That’s not how it’s supposed to happen, but then again a lot of things happen a little differently in The Big Heat.

The film opens and within a second a man has shot himself and left a confession on his desk. The cues tell us that he’s a cop and he’s just committed suicide. His wife comes downstairs strangely composed and shuffles through the pages he has written. She goes to the phone, not to call the police, but she talks to a third party. We quickly forget what’s she’s done, but the fact is Mrs. Duncan represents the corruption that reigns supreme in this film. She’s used a juicy piece of blackmail to receive large payoffs from someone and she’s not the only sellout.

Bannion (Glenn Ford) is a cop by day and a family man at night with a loving wife and a beautiful little girl. By convention, he is supposed to be the moral compass of this film — the emblem of good conquering evil. He takes on the straightforward case of Officer Duncan’s death, but it gets convoluted when a B-girl named Lucy Chapman calls him up to say she knew the deceased, and he would never kill himself. Initially, Bannion takes little heed of this girl, because she is hardly as respectable as Mrs. Duncan, or so society says.

He gets pressure from his superior Wilks to lay off, but Bannion is discontent with loose ends, especially when he receives news that the Chapman girl has been brutally murdered. This can’t all be all coincidence, and he begins sniffing out the truth like a bloodhound. Bannion leads us into the home of this empire of crime literally. He confronts local businessman/crime boss Mike Laganna, who he accuses of involvement in the corruption. Things are beginning to heat up, and they start to infiltrate the sanctity of his home life. The dark recesses of the noir world can never be subdued, and Bannion dives deeper into the labyrinth that is created by his own obsessive vendetta. He has no tolerance for his colleagues who don’t take a stand, in favor of their pensions. He can’t stand tight-lipped locals who give him no help and most of all he hates Laganna’s guts.

bigheat3At the local shady nightclub “The Retreat,” Bannion has his first run-in with the hired thug Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Afterward Vince’s girl Debby is genuinely impressed by Bannion’s methods, but he will not give her the time of day. He expects her to be the same superficially ditsy dame that we have all seen before. Hardly a femme fatale, but still there is the potential to be deadly. The one character who seems to conform to the stereotype is Stone, and yet he is even more brutal than most, burning girls with cigarette butts and splashing scalding coffee on Debby’s face.

Bannion gets to one of the other hired guns named Larry and both Stone and Laganna decide that something must be done to stop Bannion in his tracks. The obvious target is his little girl, but this time the family life prevails over the noir world. His family and colleagues rally around him and yet Bannion is not done with his obsession.

In fact, it is Debby who actually finishes off Bannion’s work by paying a visit to Mrs. Chapman and then Vince. Bannion arrives soon after to reprimand Vince, but Debby has already done the dirty work. The nightmare is over and everything that is good and right comes to the forefront. Debby proves her allegiance, the criminals are put away, and Bannion gets a new position with the homicide department. But underlying this seemingly happy ending is still a sense of tension. The film ends as Bannion heads out on a new homicide case with the cycle continuing and it seems like he will never be free of it.

The world will continue ripping away the ones he loves. Before he knows it, he will be left with only his personal vengeance to drive his future. Bannion very easily could cross the line between righteousness and corruption. He already almost strangled two characters and was not opposed to slugging it out with others. It’s only a matter of time before he totally blows his cool and collected exterior. It’s a dark assumption, but then again that is a lot of what film-noir is. Fritz Lang seems to get this and that’s what makes his characters here so powerful because he knows that the root of all evil can be in everyone.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

5632c-wonderfullife4Every time I go through the emotional, romantic, heart-warming and at times uncomfortable roller coaster that is It’s a Wonderful Life, something new always seems to stick out to me.

It is always impressive for a film of this length that so much is packed into it. Within minutes we are fully enveloped in this story, and every sequence gives further insight into these characters. There is hardly ever a wasted moment because there is significance in each scene. Pointing us to the nature of George Bailey.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget the darkness that this film submerges itself in because it reaches such a jubilant crescendo. However, this is a story that covers the years including The Great Depression and World War II. Its protagonist sinks into a state of wretchedness complete with angry outbursts, negative feelings, and drunkenness. George Bailey loses all hope and his perspective is so completely distorted. For all intent and purposes, his life looks like it’s over, and it takes a frightening alternate reality to shake him out of his disillusionment. Put in this framework, it makes sense why it was a commercial flop when you juxtapose it with the big winner that year The Best Years of Our Lives. They both deal with post-war reality, but with very different lenses.

That’s the benefit of hindsight and a new context since we do not usually see It’s a Wonderful Life as a gloomy post-war tale, but a more positive parable that is universal in its impact. The first part of this story feels a bit like a Job story of hardship, and the second act is reminiscent to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s the simplest of observations. There is a lot more to be parsed through.

The romance of George and Mary is what many of us aspire to and it causes us to really empathize with their young love that weathers the good and bad breaks they receive. It’s the fairy tale love story we want, with the rock hard reality we are used to in our own lives. Some favorite moments in their life together would be the splash they make during the Charleston dance off, singing Buffalo Gals together, smooching on the telephone together, sharing a makeshift honeymoon together, and embracing after George gets his new perspective on life.

There are a fair number of close-ups utilized in this film, but they are usually used at crucial points in the narrative, and they tell us a great deal about both George and Mary.

The first key moment comes during a freeze frame of grown up George with hands outstretched giving us our first look at the man we will be following from there on out. The next big moment occurs when George learns that Potter will gain control and the Building and Loan will be disbanded if he leaves. He realizes in an instant that he must give up his plans. Then, he waits excitedly for Harry with Uncle Billy and it is a happy moment, but George learns his younger brother might have another job. The camera follows his worried face as he goes to follow his new sister-in-law. Never thinking of himself, he realizes that Harry has a chance for better things and that leaves George still working the Building and Loan.

After their tiff, the scene where George and Mary are talking on the phone with Sam Wainwright is a solidifying moment in their relationship. There are so many underlying emotions and unspoken feelings that they are having trouble figuring out and reconciling. And yet there is that violent epiphany when their eyes link. The tears and anger are quickly traded for passionate kisses reflecting the often complicated facts of romance.

One of the final close-ups that hits home occurs when the now non-existent George stumbles away from the front door of his mother, who now has no concept of him. There is sweat on his brow (maybe from the 90 degree summer heatwave) and desperate bewilderment in his eyes. This is the lowest point he could have imagined. His own mother does not know who he is. His wife has grown old and lonely in an existence of exile. Stewart’s face is so expressive and earnest suggesting that George knows just how important human companionship is. Humanity was made to be in fellowship with each other. Lack of money means very little in comparison to our friendships and family ties. This is essentially what George finally comprehends and what Clarence reminds him. George understandably lost sight of his wife and his children and his friends. They were a gift not to be taken lightly.

Aside from these close-ups, it is also evident that a great deal of  effort was put into creating this world from the characters and their back stories to the town itself which was constructed on the RKO lot. Everything from the building facades, to stray dogs, and snow make the drama more atmospheric. It’s one of those films that reveals the beauty of using real props inhabited by seemingly real people. That’s why I sometimes am disillusioned by CGI. Although it can allow us to create amazing spectacles, oftentimes it creates a world that feels altogether fake and alien. It’s not relatable and it lacks the humanity that makes up our existence each and every day. In other words, it has very little of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so compelling to me.

Perhaps there are more impressive or greater films, but there are few with greater heart and there is something to be said for that.

5/5 Stars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This is not only a Christmas classic but a classic in any sense of the word. It is the best of Stewart and Capra adding up to one of the most heartwarming stories of all time.  This may exhibit Stewart is his everyman role once again, but it breaks away from Mr. Smith in many ways making it another uniquely great film. A film like this that makes you know and feel for characters so profoundly is certainly worth watching.

Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with a fantastic supporting cast,  the film tells the life story of George Bailey. We watch with the angel Clarence as he sees George’s life unfold. George saves his brother Harry as a boy and as a result, loses hearing in his ear. He works in the Bedford Falls drugstore and keeps the proprietor Mr. Gower from making a deadly mistake. Later on, he plans to travel the world and go to college so he can escape his hometown and do bigger and better things. But once more he sacrifices. One fateful day, he doesn’t know it yet, but he meets the love of his life Mary, and the same day his kindly father has a stroke. Soon after,  Harry goes off to college and George is left holding down the fort at their father’s old building and loan. He builds up all those around him with selfless kindness, while simultaneously standing up to the grumpy millionaire Mr. Potter. Eventually, he marries Mary and has children. First, during the Depression George gives up his honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Then, during WWII while his brother and others become heroes, George stays in Bedford Falls because of his poor hearing. In this post-war period, the story picks up in the present.

Although, by unfortunate circumstances George Bailey finds himself contemplating suicide after the absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000. That’s when Clarence comes into his life to show George just how important he really is. George sees a world where Harry is dead, Mr. Gower is a disgrace, Martini does not own the bar, his mother has no sons, Uncle Billy is insane, Violet is disgraced, Bert and Ernie do not know him, Mary is an old maid, and Mr. Potter has monopolized Bedford Falls.

Once he gets his life back George finds immediate joy and gains so much because of his friends and family. He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls yelling out “Merry Christmas,” because he is simply grateful to live again. Miraculously, the whole town rallies around him, and George reaps the reward for all he has sowed over the years. Clarence is finally awarded his wings and George Bailey is the richest man in town. There is nothing much to do after this film but simply be happy and sing “Auld Lang Syne.” It is a Wonderful film in many ways, with a wonderful cast, and a wonderful message. It has some of the greatest character development of any film ever because you do not simply become attached to one man but an entire community. That’s what makes the scene where Uncle Billy loses the money one of the most difficult for me to watch. Each and every time I’m so attached to these people. Even if I already know the resolution, I cannot bear for anything bad to happen to them. In fact, it is interesting to focus on just one of the supporting characters and see how they are affected by the life of George Bailey. It makes me ask myself if I were to die tomorrow would anyone care? We know in the case of George they certainly would.

I am further reminded of the phrase that is written on the wall of the building and loan, “You can only take with you, that which you give away.” This is what George Bailey did, and I believe it is something that each and every one of us should be mindful of. He is a great character not only because James Stewart played him genuinely and with such magnetism and heart, but because he was such a sacrificial figure. True, this is a sentimental film given the title and the director, but it is paramount to realize the progression this film follows. George must sink into the depths of his despair and disillusionment before he can truly realize that It’s a Wonderful Life. I would challenge you the next time you watch this film, to not simply acknowledge it as perennial Christmas fare, but look a bit deeper because there is so much more here. As always, Attaboy Clarence! You did it again.

5/5 Stars

In a Lonely Place (1950) – Film-Noir

Starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame with direction by Nicholas Ray, the film is about a struggling screenwriter with a hot temper. Dixon Steele (Bogart) has not written a good script in a while but then one evening he has an enthusiastic young woman explain a novel he is supposed to adapt since he has not read it. Everything goes seemingly normal however the next morning she is dead and Steele is the main suspect. The police investigate, including Steele’s detective friend, but a neighbor gives an alibi which seems to save Steele. Soon Grahame begins to fall in love with him and vice versa. However, she soon realizes his violent side and second guesses Steele’s innocence since he has such a violent history. Although they are to be married it is broken off when he finds out she was going to leave. Only then does Grahame find out he was indeed innocent but the damage is already done and their relationship cannot be saved. This is a pretty good film noir with powerful characters.

4.5/5 Stars