Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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Fifty years on and Bonnie and Clyde remains a cultural landmark as the harbinger proclaiming a new American movie had arrived on the scene. As a cinematic artifact, it is indebted as much to the 60s themselves as it is the Depression Era where its mythical crime story finds its roots.

The spark of an idea came from screenwriter Robert Benton’s own knowledge of his father’s fascination in real crime novels, which even led the elder Benton to attend the actual funerals of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. It’s youth rebellion and a free love revolution by way of the 1930s mythology.

Formalistically, Bonnie and Clyde was an effort by producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn, collaborating with their screenwriters, to channel the French New Wave. It’s true that at a time, two of the movements titans, Francois Truffaut and then Jean Luc Godard, were both attached to the project. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out but the spirit they’re pictures were imbued with remain even as this effort is undeniably American.

Bringing the exciting and at times challenging art pictures of Europe to the American mainstream with a jolt of new blood, squibs included free of charge. Even if everyone didn’t realize it at the time, it signaled a rebirth of a style and philosophy that was fully alive. It only took generations of new film school filmmakers to run with it and in subsequent generations eventually, kill it.

For now, we had the fateful meet-cute, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) scantily clad, bored out of her mind, and spying the boy trying to nab her mama’s car. She catcalls him and he welcomes her — nay, challenges her — to join him. He’s Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) a small-time criminal who did a stint in prison and has two missing toes to prove it (It was his gag to get off a work detail a few days before he was paroled). They share a drink over Coca-Cola in the noonday sun. He’s intent on being a big shot and she’s disillusioned by her waitressing gig.

In a moment, he brandishes a gun to exert his manhood and he’s further coaxed on by Bonnie to rob the cash register in her quaint town. She doesn’t believe he has the gumption. A minute later he rushes out with the wad of cash and they’re on their way to a giddy life of crime so thrilling, at first, with its bouncy jangle of banjo strings. This is only the beginning. They aren’t big name criminals yet. That notoriety is born out of three words: We Rob Banks!

Yes, they do. They bring on slow-witted but able mechanic C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) to keep their gears constantly turning so they can handily outrun the police and dot their native Texas with bank job after bank job. Clyde kills his first man after Moss botches their getaway and the papers start to document their harrowing exploits on the wrong side of the law.

A family reunion follows for Barrow as his older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s quibbling wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the daughter of a preacher, join their merry company. It should be noted the ladies take an immediate disliking to each other. Bonnie’s not agreeable to the domesticated lifestyle and she’s wary of Blanche, a woman she deems has no guts. It’s a perceptive observation.

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As their reputation grows, so do the prices riding on all of their heads. First, the cops look to ambush them on their holiday in Missouri. Then it’s a lone Texas Ranger (Denver Pyle) who winds up getting his picture taken to be plastered all throughout the newspapers. He’s not one to forget the humiliation and he’s aiming to make them pay.

Each and every time they take to the road again, starting up their rampage across the countryside a new, casing bank after bank, while gaining a bit of mystique with the common folk. Along the way, they pick up some extra passengers (Gene Wilder and Evans Evans) to terrorize and then make a pilgrimage to the Parker home due to Bonnie’s homesickness.

But even this move is extremely dangerous and soon another police ambush follows on their latest residence that is deadlier still. It’s a downward spiral with an ever larger target being pinned on their backs. Soon they’re picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery with Buck being mortally wounded and Blanche subsequently goes hysterical and spills her guts to the authorities all but sealing the fate of our antiheroes. Bonnie was right about her.

The other three escape by the skin of their teeth though badly battered. With nowhere else to turn, they seek asylum with C.W.’s father who extends some southern hospitality. Although, behind closed doors, he isn’t too keen about his son’s new lifestyle with tattoos and all.

We know the story must end even as Bonnie has successfully canonized their legend nationwide with a poem she penned subsequently published around the country. And they are as in love as they ever were promising to get married and dreaming of a different life where they could settle down and be normal folks. They take what they can get and love each other while they can. Because justice is swift and it comes with a vengeance.

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The old mores are upheld but utilizing a new language that was aberrant and gratuitous in comparison to the traditions of the past. But that was just it. Bonnie and Clyde was somehow the perfect vehicle of antiestablishment both in form and function. It was like the perfect storm of a cultural revolution and a medium to reflect the angst of a generation.

There’s a madcap raggedness to their crime spree that’s almost comical and Penn plays it like a comedy at first. A bunch of hicks out on a road comedy caper, only it’s underscored by graphic blood-spattered violence like the industry had never witnessed before. It’s like putting the frenetic zaniness of the Keystone Kops with the violent gunplay out of the gangster tradition and it creates a disconcerting dissonance ripping apart the standards of Classical Hollywood. Because the industry had showcased degenerate criminals before — the Cagneys, Robinsons, and Bogarts — but they were always hard-bitten figures and, of course, they got their comeuppance.

Up to that point, there was arguably no characterization quite like this where our leads were young and desirable — a new kind of antihero who forged an anarchic path between Gun Crazy, Breathless, and Pierrot Le Fou.

Arthur Penn pointed out at a later date, and you could easily make the argument, for the first time film was being more accurate by showing the actual impact of a bullet on a human body. There was no cutaway. There was no inference or use of the wizardry of editing to imply the results. They were right there in from of us in all their gory reality. That was indeed groundbreaking.

Its final scene ranks right up there with Psycho‘s shower sequence for how it completely shatters everything we knew to be convention. At that point, there’s no going back. You cannot unsee it. It stays with you. Both instances brutal in their meshing of image, sound, editing, and the myriad pieces at the disposal of filmmakers to make us see something deeply manipulating.

Bonnie and Clyde would bear many of the progeny that have challenged me; films that brazenly dabble in violence, comedy, and the darkness of the human heart in almost inconceivable ways. Mixing tones, emotions, and content in a manner that is incompatible at best and deeply perturbing in their most volatile forms.

Surely, we cannot laugh at something and an instant later be subjected to the blackness of death? People cannot be villains and cast as heroes in the same breath. Everything passed down from our traditions tells us this is not the way it works. After Bonnie and Clyde, it was a whole new landscape. No question.

5/5 Stars

Bullitt (1968)

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There was never a better city for crime pictures than San Francisco. Much of this reputation comes from Bullitt and the enduring cool of its hero Steve McQueen. He had many great films and he was a part of some truly epic ensembles including The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, but Bullitt is unequivocally ruled by “The King of Cool.” There is no other focal point.

Frank (McQueen) and his partner Delgetti (Don Gordon) have an authentically antagonistic relationship running deep. Because they know, without saying anything, they have each other’s backs. However, the ensuing events lay out a premise that will test them incessantly. Self-aggrandizing political hopeful Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughan) is intent on presenting his key witness Johnny Ross (Felice Orlandi) before the Senate to spearhead his clamp down on organized crime. He’s handpicked Bullitt to give his valuable asset around-the-clock protection until he’s called upon to testify. He knows the cops exploits are popular with the local press and for Chalmers, every decision is an attempt to vie for candidacy.

For Bullitt, it’s just his job and so he Delgetti and a family man named Stanton take on the assignment ready to sit it out with Ross in a two-bit hotel room feeling like sitting targets with the large windows inviting prying eyes. Even as a certain of apprehension is maintained, the police set up watch and tell Ross to get comfortable. But the status quo was not to be. Stanton’s shift gets disrupted by a brutally unsentimental hit on a hotel room.

Ross gets blown through with a shotgun by two fugitives and Stanton is left for dead as well. Things truly ignite as Bullitt looks to pursue the culprit and feels the residual heat from Chalmers who is ready to make Frank’s life a living hell. Buying time, he hides Ross’s body to keep it out of the news and goes after the men he knows will lead him to his elusive answer.

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Aside from his motorcycle riding in The Great Escape, Bullitt‘s car chase is McQueen’s finest hour as an action star. Though he shared stunt driving duties in both films with industry-pro Bud Ekins, there’s little doubt his persona was well-deserved and he plays the part well.

10 minutes bouncing and thudding through the streets of San Francisco. Epic panoramas of the chase, swerving through traffic and careening around street corners leading to a straightaway where we get to see The Dodge Charger and Mustang really fly.

The enigmatic nature is the key to the rhythms the story settles into. It’s this sense of uneasiness mixed with pavement and payphone realism as Bullitt does the heavy lifting involved with chasing leads.

The beats of the procedural feel methodical and genuinely authentic while never obscuring the fact this is a thriller with pulsating ebb and flow. Because the best action movies are exactly that: action. Not simply in the climactic moments but the mundane. They rarely get weighed down by exposition or dialogue that we have to slog through. And as a result, they are won and lost in the ambiguity.

Director Peter Yates was hand-picked for the project based on his work on Robbery from the year prior, complete with its own defining car chase. Then, screenwriter Alan R. Trustman works with Harry Kleiner to follow up The Thomas Crown Affair, his other vehicle for McQueen.

Bullitt became the standard neo-noir cop film to measure all others from William Friedkin’s French Connection, its East Coast rival, to Dirty Harry and many of the later works of David Fincher including Se7en and Zodiac.

The film is blessed with unprecedented access to San Francisco, which would be all but unheard of today. From streets being closed off, to shooting in full hospital wings, and taking over SFO airport for an evening. These authentic locations all throughout the city not only guarantee a certain degree of authenticity, they also meant Bullitt needed no sets.

Because at the time the picture was shot, S.F. was not necessarily a film mecca though films such as The Sniper, The Lineup, and of course Vertigo were shot there. But Bullitt and other equally atmospheric projects captured its shading for all posterity in the subsequent years. It became so much a part of the cultural consciousness Peter Bogdanovich would very purposely do a sendup of the chase in his neo-screwball What’s Up, Doc.

Handheld Arriflex cameras allow Yates a fluidity and a similar intimacy with the real world that all but plants us in the environment. Steve McQueen racing across the tarmac to nab his man, ducking and diving under oncoming planes taxiing out masks nothing. It feels real and fearless in a way that’s hardly for show. McQueen embodies this type of tenacity.

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In the end, it’s not much of a spoiler that we see another bloody body, this time with wounds inflicted by the police and we’re reminded how similar they look. Yes, one was committed as an act of crime, the other an attempt to maintain public safety but they both lay there horribly mangled.

If the film began with an unsentimental gut punch then it’s safe to assume it would not change and thankfully it does not. Bullitt is the quintessential police film with grit and violence, forged through by a cop who’s willing to go rogue and stand in the face of powerful men to uphold his responsibility. He’s not looking to make a name for himself. Even as he pushes back against the establishment, he’s reined in by his own moral compass. It’s what guides him.

Jacqueline Bisset is enchanting as his girlfriend though she isn’t given much of a purpose in the film except for providing him someone to go home to. She is a much-needed person to draw out the more sensitive side of his normally guarded self. But she’s also the one to put into question his line of work: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? Or are you so used to it by now that nothing really touches you? You’re living in a sewer, Frank.”

Here is the conflict I imagine within most any police officer. This internal tug-of-war between wading through the refuse to clean up the streets and becoming one with it. Of becoming so used to evil, you’re soon callous and cynical toward all good. When the only way to fight violence is with violence in an equal and opposite direction.

At the very least it spells a compromise of integrity and morals and of a belief system. If that’s getting a little too moralistic, know Bullitt is just about the best police procedural we ever had. It certainly holds a well-deserved place in the pantheon of crime genre archetypes. With or without morals.

4.5/5 Stars

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

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To watch the original Thomas Crown Affair now is to see a film that is so completely and confidently of its time. It opens with a Bond-esque enigmatic title theme, “Windmills of The Mind,” playing against blocked split-screen images composing the credits. As such, it’s easily dated by its 60s suavity, which nevertheless serves the film handsomely as it progresses and sinks into its story.

A heist is in its latent stages, composed of the same stylized patchwork of images visually coordinating all the parties involved as Steve McQueen pulls all the switches from the comforts of his corporate office. The streamlining techniques being utilized effectively consolidate the footage and make us more overtly aware of Hal Ashby’s influence serving as the film’s editor. It’s at times discombobulating, particularly when used extensively later on during the polo match to multiply the frames. But it more than serves its purpose through the stylized manipulation of the individual images.

It’s only a heist film for what seems like a few solitary minutes but it’s immaculate in both conception and execution as all parties converge on their target, get in and get out with their prize and very few complications. In this regard, those familiar with Kansas City Confidential (1952) might notice some nominal similarities. The brilliance of the crime comes in using robbers who have never met and can never be tied back to each other again.

The money is dropped off at a checkpoint and all parties involved will get their money when things cool off. In these opening moments you’ll wonder if Steve McQueen is actually a bad guy and where Faye Dunaway is because, after all, she robs banks too. When things begin to unfold and we see where we are destined, it’s not at all what I imagined with McQueen and Dunaway batting for different teams much of the film.

Insurance Investigator Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) is brought on as a favor to her friend to help a harried detective gain some much-needed closure on the case. She makes a stunning entrance and never lets up with the wardrobe changes. Ms. Anderson has an immaculate outfit to coincide with each subsequent scene and an answer for every situation. In fact, she’s the one who intuitively pins Thomas Crown as her man. All she’s got to do is prove it and she certainly can be very persuasive.

McQueen is the eponymous affluent playboy businessman who’s bored stiff by his day-to-day. It includes diversions like polo, dune buggy rides sliding across the sand and soaring through the skies in his custom-built sailplane. For a man like him, it’s not enough so he devotes himself to the perfect crime and it’s his lucky day when he meets a ravishing woman looking to trap him. It makes life a bit more exhilarating.

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Among other rendezvous, they play a literal chess match in his parlor, which serves the dual purpose. Not only does it reflect the sparring going on between the two of them but it effectively accentuates the romantic chemistry pulsing through them with every headlong glance, every thoughtful thrumming of the fingers, or caress of a chess piece. It’s near-wordless with Michel Legrand’s score impeccably setting the quietly sultry mood in the low light.

On top of the title track, Legrand devised his score by composing against the uncut footage and in a generally unprecedented move, the movie was cut to his work. What we are met with within the same extended sequence are faces eventually framed in lingering close-ups. Eyes, mouths, nervous ticks denoting concentration. What’s more, it all culminates into a spiraling kissing extravaganza kaleidoscope of color.

As Vickie closes in on Thomas, he knows she cares about him and he must force her hand instigating a nearly identical heist to draw out her response. She can either work with the authorities or chase after him as he soars away in his jet decked out in his iconic blue-tinged Persol sunglasses. It’s her choice.

The Thomas Crown Affair is the most backward game of cat and mouse with the coolest rodent you ever did see crossing wits with an equally wily and lovely feline. But the stakes are minor in this sumptuous affair as it’s all style over substance in this second teaming of McQueen with director Norman Jewison. Of course, when you have two stars as scintillating as McQueen and Dunaway one could argue that you don’t need much else. Purportedly McQueen jokingly christened his unestablished costar “Done Fade-Away” as a little picture called Bonnie and Clyde (1967) hadn’t been released yet. Boy, was he wrong. She was here to stay.

3.5/5 Stars

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

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The opening images of The Cincinnati Kid are nearly inexplicable but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Steve McQueen brushes past a funeral procession of African-Americans complete with a groovin’ brass band. Then there’s a bit of a needless opening gambit where he’s tossing pennies with a precocious shoeshine boy. If the sequence serves a purpose it’s to indicate the world we find ourselves in — New Orleans during the Depression — and it also says something about our protagonist: He’s a winner.

This was Norman Jewison’s first promising picture to follow up a trio of frothy 60s comedies. As far as star power goes, he couldn’t do much better than Steve McQueen as the up-and-coming “Kid” even if the established star might be a bit old for the role. He’s got the prerequisites, confidence and an emotionless poker face, making him a believable big stakes stud. In fact, he’s one of the best around.

We get our first actual taste of the Kid’s talents when he walks off with the pot after challenging a smug nobody in his bluff and flying out a window before sauntering across the nearby railroad tracks after a washroom altercation. Steve McQueen takes it all in cool breezy stride like he does it every day. In truth, he had an action scene written into his contract for every picture and so the film gets the obligation out of the way early.

Afterward, it settles into its happy equilibrium. Edward G. Robinson is stately with beard and silver hair as Mr. Howard, the veteran of the poker-playing world who has seen a great deal and has remained the best of the best even after all these years. It’s all but inevitable The Kid will have to face him. There is no glory, no true ascension to the top of the pantheon of the greats if he cannot topple the old guard.

The Kid has a girl (Tuesday Weld) who he’s intent to keep around even as she goes back to her hometown for some space. He’s not much for talk and that serves McQueen as an actor just fine, but he does show her that she still means something to him.

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Meanwhile, his buddy Shooter (Karl Malden) lines up a date with The Man himself, Lancey Howard. Though I love Malden to death as an actor, he seems slightly miscast as the veteran card sharp. His wife is another story entirely. We meet Melda (Ann-Margret) as she cuts puzzle pieces to size when they don’t fit together. She cheats at everything. Ann-Margret proves as frisky as a calico cat and provocative as ever; the fire blazes between her and Steve McQueen and never stops burning. The camera seems to love them both. But Melda’s overt advances and The Kid’s passive acceptance do have repercussions. It never reaches the notes of melodrama but it’s no question that feelings are hurt and relations are strained.

What the Cincinnati Kid can’t put out as far as substance, it more than makes up for with an abundance of stylized cool instigated by McQueen. It is rendered through a Depression-era palette by way of the 60s, coquettish dames, and a stunning range of impressive personalities, including a boisterous Joan Blondell, who all help fill out the hazy backroom poker joints.

The steely, unblinking eyes of McQueen are made for the poker table. Then again, the same might be said of Robinson, his face never flinching or wavering, with an air of disinterest to match The Kid’s quiet confidence. They’re two sides of the same deck, both winners.

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The last 40 odd minutes or so are admittedly stagnant though having McQueen and Robinson around a table together actually does have the pretense of drama thanks to the stakes and the characters that have been brought to the fore.

It’s hardly an expositional movie but we know the archetypes. The young buck out to prove he can be the best. The old white wizard who’s looking to prove he’s not quite ready to call it quits as he attempts to go out on his own terms. Likewise, we have cocky card players who get taken to the cleaners and card dealers who’ve been around but that can’t always keep them out of a bind.

The film benefits by downplaying most of its dialogue-heavy scenes for the more cinematic moments, which essentially get carried by the faces of McQueen and Robinson alone with a room full of hushed onlookers. McQueen was by pedigree an action star and he reveled in those environments but there’s no question he has a certain mettle that makes his battle going toe-to-toe with Robinson equally compelling. And of course, the older man still carries his same self-assured confidence even if his days of being a Warner Bros. gangster have long since passed. It makes The Cincinnati Kid a cinch to be a winner no matter the outcome.

It’s true the picture went through substantial personnel changes including Spencer Tracy dropping out due to his failing health and Sam Peckinpah was also fired as director paving the way for Jewison. Tuesday Weld also ended up in the project instead of Sharon Tate. She’s a meeker performer but perhaps it works better in contrast with Margret’s character because even though they are friends, they also serve as obvious foils for the Kid’s affections.

Watching the beats the story goes through, one cannot help but think we already have The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman playing much the same role facing off against Jackie Gleason in what proves to be a stellar black and white classic. While that doesn’t nullify The Cincinnati Kid, it does feel like a similar framework. Thankfully, it still manages to be delectable entertainment in its own right. The closing credits are sung by none other than Ray Charles and a relatively downbeat ending, ironically, provides a breath of fresh air.

3.5/5 Stars

House of Strangers (1949)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.

It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.

Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.

As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.

Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.

Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.

In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.

If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.

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Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.

The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.

Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).

On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…

However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.

Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.

The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.

Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.

3.5/5 Stars

The Red House (1947)

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What Delmer Daves has gathered together is an oddly compelling mix of rural drama with undertones of horror somehow merged into what we might be able to pass off as a strain of noir. What I find particularly intriguing is not so much the mysterious Red House at the core of the story, as the impending pandora’s box of doom and personal revelation, but it’s the curious character dynamics that stay with me.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Pete, a man with a wooden leg who has long lived in seclusion with his sister and adopted daughter. He’s been content with this lifestyle remaining self-sufficient and living off the bounty of their farm. He hasn’t needed anyone else for a long time and he’d generally like to keep it that way.

Perhaps by this point, I simply take his skill for granted but it was the performances around Robinson that were the most engaging for me. Judith Anderson plays a surprisingly compassionate and maternal woman who has sacrificed a lot and is more sympathetic than most roles I can recall within her body of work.

But this is a young person’s story as much as it’s about the adults. That’s where much of the heart lies. The local high schoolers ride to and from school on the bus and in the back row is where the story’s main romantic relationship of interest is conceived in one of the most visually awkward setups imaginable. We meet a young man with his girlfriend with another girl sitting in the frame uncomfortably.

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Lon Mcallister returns with the same bright and boyish countenance from Stage Door Canteen bringing a kindly spirit to the screen that’s wholly unassuming and morally upright. Likewise, Allene Roberts proves reminiscent of the demure Cathy O’Donnell while her eyes are imbued with a near doleful innocence. She is the girl who sits on the bus, the awkward third wheel. As Nath and Meg, they are two young folks exuding an utterly sincere candor.

Meg earnestly wants the young man to help her uncle out on his farm. She thinks he will be of great help and she excitedly goes to her aunt to share the good news that he’s accepted the offer. It’s even more curious that Nath so quickly accepts the job offer knowing it will mean long hours, a mile walk out of his way, and time spent in close proximity to this earnest young girl.

Because they aren’t a couple. This privilege goes to Julie London as his sultry and slightly entitled beau Tibby. Think about it too long and they don’t seem to fit each other but since it is already, we buy into it; she might just like a nice guy like him. Because in this slice of America, the boy-next-door speaks to something desirable still.

However, there’s also Rory Calhoun as Teller, the dark and imposing stud who Pete has made the keeper of the forests near his farmhouse for some undisclosed reason. That in itself is a strange setup but if anything it gives the dashing man free license to lord over the mysterious territory and keep others off the woodlands by any means possible. He’s been sanctioned by Pete to undertake any measures necessary and he does.

Just as we have two kind, innocent people to lend an underlying decency to our picture, we have their foils in two beautiful people who look to be out for themselves. Surely, they must get together and such a scene is instigated when the broodingly handsome fellow waits to intercept Tibby on her way home. He carries her across a stream and snatches a kiss from her as due payment. She doesn’t seem to mind too much.

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But that is hardly the calamitous heart and soul of the picture, the dark underbelly of Middle America hidden away in isolation. For that, we must look to Robinson harboring a secret bubbling ominously beneath the surface. His niece is intent on finally visiting the house that he has continually forbidden her to see. She wants to know why. She has the right to know even if it hurts her.

But again, I never cared too much about the deep dark secret buried there because I think most of us have a general inclination of what it might be about. The anticipation comes in the created experience, not the forthcoming outcomes.

In some regards, The Red House shares some commonalities with the noirish western thriller Pursued, also released in 1947. Aside from featuring Judith Anderson, the other picture also concerned itself with psychological issues and a murky past laden with all sorts of trauma. But The Red House is more straightforward and clear-cut making the interpersonal relationships between characters paramount over any sequence of action.

The narrative is capped with a picturesque final shot worthy of such a peculiar movie. Framed with its idyllic beginnings and equally peaceful panoramic endings, it’s nearly possible to forget what we’ve just seen. All the rough edges have been smoothed out and the dark recesses of rancor replaced with young love.

It’s this startling dichotomy that gives the film’s its allure; that and the strength of its performances. Everyone plays their types exquisitely from the established stars like Robinson and Anderson to the winsome newcomers. Allene Roberts left a striking impression most of all. To read about her life story is to fall in love with her even more. She seems like a lovely person. God bless her.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: Since originally writing this review, Allene Roberts passed away on May 9th, 2019.

Review: Scarlet Street (1945)

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Scarlet Street is an obvious reunion picture bringing together Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennet and Dan Duryea among others from the prior year. Dudley Nichols’ story, while taking elements from La Chienne, which had already been made into a film by French master Jean Renoir in 1931, is elevated by its own unique elements.

A party is being held for one Christopher Cross (Robinson) in appreciation for his many years of faithful service at his company. As a gift, he is bequeathed a fine watch. That’s what he has to show for the last 25 years. However, he has two unfulfilled dreams from when he was young. The first was to be an artist and well, the second, was to have a beautiful woman look at him with love in her eyes. He’s never experienced that warm sensation before.

It happens the way it always does with a single moment of instantaneous decision. He intervenes when a thug is beating up a lady and he’s pleasantly surprised to find the lady to be quite ravishing. There sits Joan Bennett unlocking her jaw and surveying the damage to make sure she can flaunt her face another day, dolled up in her raincoat. In these initial interludes, she’s playfully provocative and endearingly colloquial (“Jeepers”). In fact, she’s utterly charming when you first get to know her. But that’s not to say she takes her latest conquest too seriously. She’s already got herself a man.

Oblivious and lonely, Chris begins to open up gushing about all the things about art and love that’s he’s always kept bottled up. But Kitty makes him feel like a happy schoolboy again because she seems to take a genuine interest in him as a human being. You see, Chris is a model of that inherently human desire. He is hardwired like all of us to crave some form of intimacy or better still to be fully known by someone else in a way that is complete and vulnerable

Little does he know that not everyone is so trusting and sincere as him. Sometimes people are only looking to get something out of you — to use you — and that’s much of what this story is about. That’s what makes it a noirish film at all. Certainly in the hands of Lang reteamed with cinematographer Norman Krasner they paint enough in darkness and billowing smoke. But anyone will tell you film noir is not just a look but a sensibility, a worldview, and an outlook.

Chris Cross begins so innocent and unperturbed by the world even as he feels something is missing in his life. But, when it’s all said and done, he gets absolutely decimated and crushed into the ground unmercifully.

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She has another love; he’s abusive and knocks her around but she doesn’t seem to mind. He’s got something she likes that her roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay) rolls her eyes at. They probably deserve each other. At any rate, in Kitty’s eyes, Johnny’s a real man whereas Chris is a piddling old fool, at first a plaything, then a cash cow, and finally a nuisance. Johnny coaxes his “lazy legs” to see how much she can weasel out of him. She’s oh so charming and he’s a light touch. Chris would literally go to the moon and back for her if possible.

His home life is continually suffocating him. Rosalind Ivan is tasked with the same nagging wife role from The Suspect (1944) this time torturing a meek Robinson instead of an angelic Charles Laughton. The results are very much the same. A man can only take so much flack

But the other angle has to do with Chris’s art. He’s maintained the hobby even as his wife considers it a waste of time and threatens to throw away all his work as it clutters up her house. However, Kitty gets ideas that Chris is some bigshot artist. Knowing nothing of painting, she tells Johnny about it and he convinces her to let him try to sell the pieces.

They wind up stumbling on something outstanding rather incredulously. John Decker’s idiosyncratic and still striking compositions fill in for the amateur painter’s style. Soon, Kitty’s fronting for Chris’s work without his knowledge to make a profit and suck him dry. By now she’s even got enough of a reservoir of his monologues to repurpose his sincere words for monetary gain. Soon she has a prestigious art collector interested and a local critic eating out of her hand. Meanwhile, Chris still has nothing simply a lingering devotion to Kitty that will only break his heart.

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A galvanizing moment, where Chris’s delusion or his innocence comes to bear, occurs during a chance visit to Kitty’s apartment to announce his marriage is terminated and he’s a free man. She turns away from him and he tries to comfort her in her despair. Saying that they’ll go away together, make a new life, and start anew. But then she turns around and those tears instead turn out to be derisive laughter. The one person he thought he could trust betrays his emotions and wounds him to his core. Because this relationship too, proves to be an utter lie as she tears him down in the most humiliating fashion. It’s more than he can bear.

One can gather that everything else happening to Chris is all but a blur as the trajectory of his life soon finds him spiraling into the gutter. As one convenient commuter on the train puts it, “We each have a courtroom in our heart, judge, jury, and executioner.” It’s this sense of conscience that is shown to tear Chris apart in totality. He can never return to be his former self.

Here we see once more thematic elements common to Lang involving the complex and often flawed wheels of justice. But it’s only a mechanism for the most perplexing elements as Chris is haunted by the specters of his tormenters, trapped in his own private hell.

Robinson was probably just as aware as anyone the similarities between this and Woman in The Window (1944) and he was no doubt looking forward to moving on to something different. One could wager a bet that Bennett and Duryea are the real standouts because there sliminess is what makes the picture take.

They linger over its frames and they do so much to ruin Chris. In this day and age, I don’t know if we’re as appalled by their activities as in the 1940s where the picture was even banned locally. Now I think we see it and we’re overly conditioned to what seems mild fare or we’ve come to terms with the fact humanity has much evil within them. You cannot witness something like Scarlet Street, however ludicrous it might seem and think for one moment human beings are inherently good. It just doesn’t work.

What I appreciate about this picture more than anything is how it has the gumption to never pull a punch. Woman in the Window (1944) had a conceit and ending that worked given its psychological underpinnings. The way Scarlet Street resolves itself is no less fitting in choosing to be so very conflicted and ambiguous. If Chris was not a pitiful specimen before, he certainly is now.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Woman in The Window (1944)

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The first time I ever saw The Woman in The Window it always struck me as odd. Here was the fellow who was known as a gangster through and through and yet he was playing a bookish professor buried in his work and obsessed about psychoanalytic theory. His idea for a fine time is conversing with his intellectual friends (Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon) at the Stork Club. He’s the epitome of middle-aged solidity and stodginess as he so aptly puts it.

But in confronting these very things, you realize Robinson might have enjoyed any opportunity to get away from what everybody seemed to peg him as — to exercise a certain amount of elasticity as an actor — to be the antithesis of his image. This is all mere conjecture, mind you, because as the story progresses, you realize the character is a bit mundane.

Regardless, veteran Hollywood screenwriter Nunnally Johnson spins a story of psychological intrigue as his first showcase for his newly founded production firm International Pictures. This Fritz Lang effort along with a handful of others would instigate the stylistic categorization of “film noir” by French critics in the post-war years. There’s little doubt it fits many of the fluid conventions of noir. Though overshadowed by the even more sinister Scarlet Street from the following year, it is a genre classic in its own right.

As alluded to already, it’s also steeped in psychology. In fact, it gets knee deep in it from the opening moments in such a fashion that we know it will remain all but integral for the entire run of the narrative. Professor Wanley is enraptured by an image, a portrait of a woman to be exact, and it elicits the same spell Gene Tierney would have in Preminger’s Laura (1944). But of course, it is the woman being animated for real that brings true life to the movie and it’s no different here.

This brings us to the part that’s actually the most gratifying and probably would have been the most enjoyable to play. That of the eponymous woman staring back through the window. Joan Bennet is positively bewitching and grouped with Scarlet Street (1945), it remains some of the defining work of her career, which is hardly something to be dismissive of.

As best as it can be described, she has a pair of those coaxing, inviting eyes. Bennett, to a degree, seems to play up her Hedy Lamarr appeal with jet black hair but her looks are her own as is the spellbinding performance and it works wonders starting with the man on the screen opposite her.

He foregoes a burlesque show to engage in some “light” after dinner reading of Song of Songs. Though he’s probably looking at it from a purely academic perspective, one can gather that between his psychological theories and the fairly explicit poeticism of his reading, he’s got quite the cocktail brewing in his mind.

He gives the portrait another look as he’s about to head home, as is his normal tendency. In this particular instance, the woman is present in the flesh and they share some complimentary words. That leads to drinks and then a venture to her apartment to wind down the evening perfectly innocently.

However, instantly his life is transformed into a living nightmare as they are interrupted by a scorned boyfriend with a horrid temper going at Richard who has no recourse but to strike his adversary down in a frantic attempt at preserving his own life. It was self-defense but the damage has been done and the results are not-so-conveniently lying on Ms. Reed’s carpet.

Even with these turn of events, the professor takes them in stride, systematically and semi-rationally coming to a decision that while risky just might be the most beneficial plan of action, at least in theory. There is much that needs to be done. He enlists Alice to clean up the crime scene by both getting rid of blood and incriminating fingerprints. Any evidence that would implicate either of them must be done away with methodically.

He puts it upon himself to dispose of the body, which is no small task as the dead man has a massive frame. It takes up a lot of space and causes him some grief. He gets rid of it but not without incurring a cut and a rash of poison ivy while also leaving behind some clues that indubitably will have a bearing on the case.

However, he also has the rare privilege of being so close to the district attorney and the head of the homicide department to see first hand how they’re getting on with the case. If anything it unnerves him more assuming he will soon incriminate himself with a minor slip of the tongue or worse yet be found out in his clandestine activities due to the thorough investigation underway.

Dan Duryea has a small-time role playing what he was best at, a sleazy enforcer looking for blackmail or any other dishonest way to make a buck. Thankfully his part would be expanded upon in Scarlet Street as he came back for a second helping. His career is composed of an interesting trajectory even earning him a few starring spots in his later efforts like Black Angel. He’s an underrated talent who made classic Hollywood and noir in particular that much more engaging. One could wager it’s Bennett and Duryea who really clean up shop as they would do again the following year.

To mollify the production codes, Fritz Lang settled with the ultimate cop-out ending. While it would normally disgruntle me, the sheer lunacy of it all and the fact the picture is so embroiled with themes of the human psyche makes it marginally okay. If anything, the fact there was a superior followup the next year takes the sting out of it. Still, there’s no downplaying that Woman in The Window was crucial in laying the groundwork of what we now consider film noir, complete with murder, femme fatales, fatalistic heroes, and shadowy extremes courtesy of cinematographer Milton Krasner. What’s not to love? It’s certainly worthy of a second dose.

4/5 Stars

The Sea Wolf (1941)

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“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost

Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.

From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.

Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.

John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care.  Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.

In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,”  its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.

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The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.

It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.

However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.

A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.

But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.

Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.

4/5 Stars

Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).

 

Barbary Coast (1936)

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The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

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Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars