Niagara (1953)

800px-Marilyn_Monroe_NiagaraRainbows, the soft misting of waterfalls, and honeymooning couples going through the tunnel of love. It hardly feels threatening at all, but that’s what makes film-noir so delicious. As the film style most reflective of the human condition, it proves that the dark proclivities and jealousies of the human heart can crop of anywhere–even a gorgeous tourist trap like Niagara Falls.

Niagara’s frames are composed of grandiose and lush imagery, and the film is greatly aided by on location shooting which develops an even more engaging world for this technicolor noir to take place.

Joseph Cotten takes on a menacing role as the tortured husband, his most notable ominous turn since Shadow of a Doubt, however, a tad more sympathetic. Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe takes a turn as a seductive siren, the other half of this troubled couple spending a weekend at a Niagara Falls Cabin B.

She’s given plenty of screen time to strut her stuff and though early in her career, she would soon enough be catapulted to stardom forevermore with the likes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. As they often say, the rest was history and more so than that, she indeed made history.

If you look at her performance as Rose, while not her most enduring, it still catches the eye, due to the way she carries herself–even how she walks down a cobblestone road. You cannot help but be at least moderately mesmerized by her whole image.There was no one before or after, quite like her. She was a singular figure with no true equal.

Jean_Peters_mends_Joseph_Cotten's_hand_in_Niagara_trailer_1Without a question, Jean Peters becomes our favorite character as Polly, and it was an eye-opening for me personally to see her in a role so vastly different than Pickup on South Street. I had pigeon-holed her, rather erroneously as such a character, but Niagara shows a more tempered side to her persona that felt more representative of her as an actress. Max Showalter plays her husband, the genial and oblivious Ray Cutler, who takes his lovely wife on a long overdue honeymoon, only to have it totally ravaged thanks to the Loomises.

Henry Hathaway as per usual is a capable filmmaker, who utilizes his stars and location quite well. Charles Brackett builds this conflict between a vacationing husband and wife with his script, but it really is the visuals that elevate it to the heights of a surprisingly compelling noir. The scenes within the catacombs of the falls and at the very edge of the drop off are of particular note–both beautiful and raging in the same instance. The climactic moments between a lurking husband and his fleeing wife in the clock tower are also remarkably stylish, reflecting how a color film can still style drip with noir sentiment.

It’s a film checkered in shadows and bathed in darkness as much as it is rainbows. In some ways, that makes it all the more harrowing. Colors don’t necessarily make everything bright and cheery, they distract from what is really going on, and in this case, the falls prove to be more than an opportune locale for a honeymoon…and murder. 

3.5/5 Stars

Review: True Grit (1969)

truegrit1My father has always maintained that two of his favorite films are The Magnificent Seven and True Grit. The first one makes sense with its stellar cast, resplendent score, and some top rate gunslinging. The second film, well, it makes sense too, but for completely different reasons.

Director Henry Hathaway is never flashy but he is a self-assured worksmith of early film-noir and westerns such as The Sons of Katie Elder. Those are minor classics, and yet each one is gripping in its own way.

John Wayne is just John Wayne pure and simple except with an eye patch slung over his eye, but do we care? Not in the slightest. When you have such a presence in a film, it will never lack at least a shred of viewing value. He was always memorable, but he was probably never more iconic than his turn as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. He’s a gruff, tough, drinking man who is willing to take on anyone and everyone at the drop of a hair. Yet despite all of that fury, Wayne embodies him in such a way that makes him lovable all the same.

Wayne is usually a given to steal the spotlight but Kim Darby gave him more than he bargained for as the stubborn, no-nonsense Maddie Ross. Following suit, singer Glen Campbell showed he can do more than knock back a tune, playing the Texas Ranger.

Darby beautifully embodies the rational-minded young Maddie with her terse and straightforward rhetoric. She knows what she wants and she will not budge on those proclivities – whatever they might be. Glen Campbell was hardly an actor, but instead a country music superstar and yet the musician makes a handy Texas Ranger in a pinch bringing a sense of camaraderie and humor to wrangle with his counterparts.

As with many of his other great westerns, Wayne and company are surrounded by a solid group of stock characters including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin, and even John Fiedler.

The film is adapted from the Charles Portis novel where Maddie, intent on catching the man who killed her father, hires Cogburn to track him down. They are joined by Laboeuf and thus begins their search.

Looking at the plot alone, this film is about a journey to apprehend a fugitive man named Tom Cheney, who killed Maddy’s father as well as a Senator back in Texas. But really what we’re watching is this unlikely trio joins forces to do things we would never expect from them. It’s certainly no coon hunt, but then again it’s hardly a single-minded mission. Maddy has one opinion, the Texas Ranger has another, and Rooster Cogburn’s mostly drunk when he’s not belittling his rival or poking fun at “Baby Sister.” Do we mind? Certainly not because time makes these three companions into friends. Their ribbing gives way to trust and their anger and annoyance breed mutual respect.

Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of seeing Wayne charge across a vast meadow towards Ned Pepper and his cronies, with his guns drawn and a bridle between his teeth. The sequence is enhanced by the spectacular Colorado landscape that adds another character to the entire film. You cannot witness such a scene and simply write it off as average. That’s part of the reason we go to the movies – to see men with True Grit.

The Coen Brothers brought us a darker, more dramatic interpretation of this film, but it is hard to beat the fun of Henry Hathaway’s version. John Wayne, Rooster Cogburn, whatever you want to call him, he has True Grit. Isn’t that right baby sister?

4.5/5 Stars

Cry of the City (1947)

cryofthe1Cry of the City is a lesser noir from director Robert Siodmak with an often arbitrary plot, but since he is a mainstay of the genre it’s still an interesting foray on a number of fronts. It’s visually striking and features a number of interesting characters, especially female characters of all sorts of ranges.

The film opens with thug Martin Rome (Conte) laid up in the hospital after shooting a policeman dead and receiving some crossfire. The police, including Lt. Candella (Mature), wait around uneasily wanting to make sure that the perpetrator will make it out alive, so he can pay for his crimes. He gets a visit from a specter of a woman (Debra Paget), who disappears as quickly as she arrived. Then a crooked lawyer tries to get him to take the rap for a robbery he didn’t commit. It would take the heat off one of his other clients.

The cops begin to canvas the streets for the mysterious girl since Rome will give them nothing. And then he escapes the prison ward, fearful that he and his girlfriend will be framed. But he’s still feverish and weak from his wounds so he calls upon the assistance of his family and an old girlfriend (Shelley Winters).

He then leads the coppers to the crooked masseuse (played by the imposing Rose Givens), but time is running out for Rome, and he is finally receiving retribution for the killings he committed and all the people he has used. It’s a chilling ending worthy of the noir world.

There’s something about Victor Mature that I don’t really care for. Maybe he just feels a tad plastic as an actor. However, it is a great deal of fun watching Richard Conte, because he can play meek fellows and baddies. In Cry of the City he plays someone in between who is wholly corrupt, but his family gives him a sliver of humanity.

The film has a Godfather-like Italian culture, and it draws a fine line between the good and bad guys since in many cases they come from the same background. In this case, Rome chose the road of excess and corruption while Candella took the so-called straight path that’s a lot less glamorous. The plot, on the whole, has uneven patches, unexplained jumps, and unanswered questions. Shelley Winters felt like a rather random addition to the storyline. And Debra Paget mysteriously shows up, disappears, and comes back again. Although the film doesn’t have much of a score, Alfred Newman’s music sounds vaguely familiar — could it be from another film? I think so.

3.5/5 Stars

Fourteen Hours (1951)

fourteenhours1Fourteen Hours is a taut little thriller, based on real circumstances that occurred in New York in 1938. The film opens with a young man standing on the ledge of a tall hotel in New York City. An unsuspecting waiter happens upon him and a traffic cop (Paul Douglas) spies him from the street below. All of a sudden, a mundane day gets a little more exciting for all the wrong reasons.

Henry Hathaway’s film has the kind of self-contained drama of a modern film like Phone Booth (2002) and a media frenzy that is in some ways similar to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Really when you break it down it’s essentially about two men. Robert Cosick (Richard Baseheart) is the despondent and disturbed man tottering on the edge of destruction. He needs a friend. He needs guidance. The rapport built between him and Charlie Dunnigan (Douglas) is what keeps him where he is.

Outside of this main dynamic, we have a lot of smaller events all happening at once. The gruff deputy chief Moskar (Howard Da Silva) tries to work on the inside of the hotel to get the man indoors. A psychiatrist with a hypnotic stair (Martin Gabel) tries to divvy out advice to Dunnigan and others. Meanwhile, Robert’s histrionic mother (Agnes Moorhead) and his plain-speaking father both make appearances, but to no avail. They even finally track down his girl Virginia (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the hopes that she can get him down. All the while the journalists scrounge around for a good story that they can feed to their papers because this is news!

fourteenhours3Down in the streets below young people (Debra Paget and Jefferey Hunter) look up wishing they could do something. The cynical cabbies decide to make a wager on when the man will jump since they aren’t getting any more business for the time being. Even Grace Kelly makes an appearance (her debut), as a young wife who is about to go through with her divorce. But the man on the ledge flusters her and she and her husband have a happy ending.

Hour after hour drags on as Dunnigan continues to work on Robert to get him to come in. He loses his temper once, converses about fishing for floppers, and talks fondly about his wife. By far Paul Douglas is the standout because he has such a genial quality that makes his new found friend, and the audience, trust him. He’s a good egg as they say, and at the end of the day, he gets to walk off with his wife and son after a good days work.

I think it’s true that the film was remade as Man on the Ledge, but I doubt that I would ever want to see it after this film. Don’t get me wrong, it crawls a little bit in the middle, but the combination of this human drama and the plethora of characters lent itself to a generally interesting tale. Also, it’s never static visually. Hathaway gives us a lot to look at. I will admit that several of the storylines were flimsy and unnecessary, but it was still fun to see Grace Kelly for at least a few moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Call Northside 777 (1948)

callnorth1It’s not really noir and it’s hardly a procedural. After all, it’s not from the point of view of the cops, but an intrepid investigative journalist who is looking to clear a man’s name after 12 years. Henry Hathaway’s film has the feel of a docudrama much in the same vein as it’s post-war contemporaries T-Men and The Naked City.

It’s methodical. It goes through the paces. Setting up the story by first going back to the prohibition era in 1932. That was the year that the unassuming Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) was sentenced to a 99-year sentence thanks to some eyewitness testimony.

Years later the story catches the attention of a newspaper thanks to an odd ad in a paper offering a $5,000 reward for answers. The editor of the Chicago Times (Lee J Cobb) thinks there’s a story behind it and that sends his ace bloodhound P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) out to dig around for answers. Others have sympathy for Wiecek, but McNeal comes into the story as a skeptic. He’s just looking for an angle, a way to spin it to get a good story. But after testimony, lie detector tests, and bits and pieces of information he begins to change his tune.

However, the puzzle pieces just aren’t fitting together completely and he even begins searching around the Polish sector for the key witness Wanda Skutnik, but the state attorney’s office is putting pressure on him. In the end, it ends up being technology, in the form of blowing up a picture, that is able to set Wiecek free and it’s all thanks to McNeal.

Obviously, the main reason to watch this film is Stewart because this film feels strangely different than anything else he ever did. After the war, he was done with the idealism of Jefferson Smith and later on he would devote himself to westerns and thrillers steeped in psychology. Call Northside 777 is a rather straightforward film, about cold hard facts, and the truth. Almost like an episode of Dragnet with Stewart’s reporter standing in for Joe Friday. His dynamic with Helen Walker feels genuine and real so it’s a shame that his home life did not play more of a role. Richard Conte also does a good job at exuding innocence (very different from his role in The Big Combo). Aside from an understated role from Cobb, we also have E.G. Marshall, and we even see Thelma Ritter for a brief moment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Dark Corner (1946)

Dark_Corner_1946“I’m backed up into a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”

It’s always satisfying to find another little gem of a film-noir, and I think this thriller from Henry Hathaway fits that bill. Our stars include a serious and quite beautiful Lucille Ball along with Mark Stevens as gumshoe Bradford Galt. He’s more of a Cornel Wilde type. A rather nondescript lead compared to Bogey or even Dick Powell, but he works well enough as the focal point of this story.

He served a stretch in prison after he was framed for a murder wrap and now he’s a P.I. trying to keep himself on the right side of the law. But nevertheless, it’s a dirty business that’s bound to catch up with him. He’s being shadowed by a man in a white suit and almost gets mowed down by a car that had his name on it. His secretary Ms. Kathleen Stewart genuinely worries for his safety and tries to help him, so he reluctantly lets her into his life.

Everything seems to point back to one man. Anthony Jardine was the attorney who set Galt up and sent him off to the clink. It only makes sense that he would want to silence the P.I. for good. After all, if not him who else could it be? Except things get especially dicey when Galt gets framed once more and this time he knows for sure his old nemesis cannot be involved.

darkcorner1The race is on for the real murderer because Galt must also attempt to clear his name before he gets charged with another killing leading to a date with the electric chair. This is when a juicy piece of dramatic irony comes in since as the audience we know who has it out for the P.I. We just don’t know why… Some sleuthing leads Galt to another crime scene and finally to an art gallery where he follows a hunch. His suspicions were on point, and he finally fights his way out of the corner.

It should go without saying that The Dark Corner is beautifully shot with a lot of wonderful low lit sequences that are deliciously moody. Interestingly enough, the storyline is infused with a lot of Culture whether it is jazz music or pieces of fine art. It’s a weird juxtaposition of this noir world bleeding into these higher echelons of society. The people and places criss-cross and intertwine in a web of the urban and the urbane. It proves that treachery can rise up from any level of society.

3.5/5 Stars

Kiss of Death (1947)

kissof1Film-Noir gets interesting when the stylized, more formalistic world of this dark genre begins to seep into the familiar human drama that we as an audience are more used to. Many of us have families. We have jobs so we can provide for our families.  Or maybe some of us don’t and that makes for some tough decisions.

In Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) has been out of work for a long time now, so on Christmas Eve, in order to get presents for his two little girls, he robs a jewelry store with a few other accomplices. What sets him apart is he’s not your stereotypical ruthless criminal. He’s a family man, but he’s also bought into the idea that you don’t squeal. So inevitably after he gets caught and booked, Nick will not talk and he gets sent to the clink. The assistant D.A. (Brian Dunleavy) tried to help him, but Bianco took the three years in Sing Sing instead.  After all, his wife is doing fine and so are his daughters.

While he’s in the clink, however, he gets tragic news that his wife committed suicide and his two girls were sent to an orphanage and that changes his entire outlook. He needs to get out of there, and he’s ready to sing if that means getting to see his girls. He begins communication with D.A. Louis D’Angelo again, and he also begins to receive visits from a pretty young woman named Nettie (Colleen Gray), who used to babysit his girls back when his wife was still alive. As his relationship and gratefulness in Nettie grow, Nick also comes in contact with Tommy Udo who is also serving time. He’s a thug with a maniacal laugh and psychopathic personality if there ever was one. He’s not a good guy to cross.

The dkissof2ay finally comes when Nick gets out and he has Nettie waiting for him with his two girls. They are a beautiful happy family and Bianco has remade his life possibly better than it ever was before. However, he’s still beholden to the D.A. and they want him to get dirt on Tommy Udo. They don’t know what they’re asking, but still, Nick goes through it reassured that depending on what he can get, Udo will be put away for good. But of course, the slimeball beats the rap and Nick’s now a sitting duck. He sends his family away and waits for a confrontation with Udo.

His home life has all of a sudden been shattered, and he’s a wreck. Udo’s sadistic laugh undoubtedly ringing in his ears. In a different era, this film could have spiraled deeper and deeper into the darkness after the final confrontation. Supposedly there was one cut of the film where Widmark’s character actually got away and Mature was left for dead. The ending that was decided upon is still harrowing but holds a Hollywood silver lining as Coleen Gray’s narration ties up the story in a nice bow.

There potentially was also a scene in Kiss of Death with Mrs. Bianco where Udo took advantage of her and drove her to commit suicide, but it was deemed too graphic at the time. Although I would admit that such a scene would have made Udo even more despicable, he really did not need much help. Widmark plays him to a tee with a chilling laugh that would make the Joker proud. Mature is certainly not the standout, but he’s a necessary every man who we can empathize with. The demure Colleen Gray (who unfortunately just left us) is also fun to watch as the girl who stands by him. She also serves to narrate our story informally. Maybe it’s just me, but I really do not grasp the importance of this title. It gave me major misconceptions going in, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

4/5 Stars

True Grit (1969)

6c138-truegritposterJohn Wayne was always memorable but he was probably never more iconic than his turn as Marshall Rooster Cogburn. He is a gruff, tough, drinking man who is willing to take on anyone and everyone at the drop of a hair. Yet despite all of that fury, Wayne embodies him in such a way that makes him lovable all the same.

Wayne is usually a given to steal the spotlight but Kim Darby gave him more than he bargained for as the stubborn, no-nonsense Maddie Ross. Following suit singer Glen Campbell showed he can do more than knock back a tune, playing the Texas Ranger.

As with many of his other great westerns, Wayne is surrounded by a solid group of stock characters including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Strother Martin, and even John Fiedler.

The film is adapted from the Charles Portis novel where Maddie, intent on catching the man who killed her father, hires Cogburn to track him down. They are joined by Laboeuf and thus begins there search.

Nothing beats seeing Wayne charge across a vast meadow towards Ned Pepper and his cronies, with his guns drawn and bridle between his teeth. The sequence is enhanced by the spectacular Colorado landscape that adds a character to the entire film. The Coen Brothers brought us a darker, more dramatic interpretation of this film, but it is hard to beat the fun of Henry Hathaway’s version. John Wayne, Rooster Cogburn, whatever you want to call him, he has True Grit. Isn’t that right baby sister?

4.5/5 Stars

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

eb358-sons_of_katie_elder_1965Although John Wayne was old enough to play the father, the dynamic between the sons of Katie Elder is a fun one, besides the fact that John Wayne and Dean Martin could never in a million years be brothers.

Otherwise this is a relatively typical western with a menacing bad guy who has control of the small western town facing the brothers who are in the right. However, the town ultimately turns against them thanks to corruption and the stupid bravado of an inexperienced deputy. The balance is finally returned and justice is dealt, but not without some bloodshed of course.

Besides Wayne and Martin, there were some memorable turns by James Gregory, George Kennedy, Paul Fix, and a few others.

3.5/5 Stars