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

The Big Heat (1953) – Film-Noir

*Contains Spoilers

Starring Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin, with direction by Fritz Lang, the film follows an everyday cop named Dave Bannion (Ford). This film-noir begins with a mysterious suicide of a cop. Soon Bannion is on the case trying to put the facts together and then everything heats up. First, a young woman he talked with is found beaten to death, then his wife is brutally killed by a car bomb. Enraged by the death of his loved one, Bannion obsessively seeks justice. Everything becomes clear when he comes to the realization that one man controls the town through his influence and strong-armed tactics. With his badge taken away, Bannion meets Grahame’s character and she falls for him. However, her thug boyfriend (Marvin) scalds her face and so she becomes determined to help Bannion and she even commits murder. Fatally wounded by the thug, she dies but her actions close the case and bring along justice. Fittingly Bannion is promoted to sergeant by the end of the film and starts on a new case.

4.5/5 Stars