Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff. It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation. What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic. 

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

Review: Holiday Affair (1949)

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Holiday Affair might be a bit of an oxymoron as far as Christmas movies go. It’s not too far off the truth to christen it an old-modern Christmas classic, at least depending on how you define your terms.

It’s a Christmas picture that has all but sailed under the radar since its original release in 1949 though it has, rather recently, gained some modest recognition around Christmastime. Given Robert Mitchum’s normal workload for RKO, it feels like an outlier in comparison with most of the dramatic or noirish crime fare he was usually expected to star in. And part of this might have been due to circumstance — circumstance that might also explain why this picture wasn’t such a big hit.

Mitchum was fresh off his famed drug bust for narcotics possession which ironically, far from killing his career, managed to project his image as a bad boy and a major box office draw. But Howard Hughes wanted to try and soften his image and the picture in the pipeline was Holiday Affair. It’s certainly not what we are normally accustomed to for a Mitchum vehicle. Contemporary audiences might have concluded the same.

In earlier iterations, the film was slated to star the intriguing cast of Montgomery Clift, James Stewart, and Teresa Wright. In fact, it’s interesting to note Wright could have been in the Christmas classic of two years prior, The Bishop’s Wife (1947) as well. Alas, she did not end up in either picture. Still, that should in no way dismiss what we actually received.

Although visibly quite young for the role of the widowed mother Mrs. Dennis, Janet Leigh makes it work due to a pluckiness and genuine chemistry that buoys her relationships with her on-screen son (Gordon Gebert) and both of her male counterparts (Mitchum and Wendell Corey).

What brings them all into the most curious of love triangles is a momentary interaction at the toy store. Connie Ennis is a comparative shopper a little too eager to purchase a model train and Steve Mason (Mitchum) is the employee on the other side of the counter.

Though he doesn’t say anything, he’s got her pegged. Sure enough, she comes back to return the gift but instead of reporting her he lets it slide — only asking her never to come to his department again. He subsequently gets fired and is back on the streets, biding his time in order to realize his dreams of becoming a shipbuilder in California.

Meanwhile, Connie doesn’t have an affluent lifestyle but perhaps more important than that, it’s a generally happy existence. Her husband was killed in the war, yes, but she and her son Timmy have a tight-knit relationship. They’re truly there for one another. It’s no fluke she constantly calls her pint-sized man of the house, Mr. Ennis. Because it’s true. He is the most important man in her life.

Although there is another man who is hoping for the privilege to become a part of their family. Carl (Corey) is a divorced lawyer who has long made his intentions plain to Connie. It’s just a matter of figuring out if she’s ready for marriage. And he seems like a good practical man to go through life with. Still, that isn’t everything.

Because Robert Mitchum is added to the equation and between both men, Timmy finds Steve a lot more fun and I think it’s reflected particularly well in the relaxed performance that Mitchum gives.

He’s surprisingly compelling in his scenes with the child because, again, he may have the image of a tough guy but when you watch him speak there’s no pretense. He’s not talking down to the kid. He nearly treats him as an equal or at least not in the condescending manner that adults often have. That’s the key.

The rest of the story, including the final act, doesn’t need spelling out. You probably already can gather some sense of what will unfold. But this film is a reminder that predictability isn’t king. Sure, it’s present but there are also a plethora of idiosyncratically enjoyable moments to be relished.

Among other things, they involve gaudy neckties, hobos, salt and pepper shakers, feeding orphan squirrels, and eating with the seals in the park. A delightfully ornery Henry ‘Harry’ Morgan provides a cameo at the Police Precinct that helps draw out some of the film’s more absurd digressions.

There’s a lovely marital toast and an equally awkward confession. But more than any of this there’s the realization of what family might be and what true happiness looks like during the holidays.

In an earlier moment, in typical Mitchum fashion, he taps the lady of the house on the shoulder and proceeds to kiss the surprised Connie before proclaiming “Merry Christmas.” End scene. Or on Christmas morning little Timmy springs in on his mother to wish her a “Merry Christmas” of his own. It’s these little trifles that make this a congenial outing for those craving a bit of nostalgic yuletide cheer.

3.5/5 Stars

His Kind of Woman (1951)

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A real disaster. That’s what His Kind of Woman could have easily been because with Howard Hughes meddling in any production it was very likely that something would get dragged out, lopped off, or in some way switched around.

In this case, the whole film was shot by John Farrow only for Hughes to bring in Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin) to reshoot some material as well as calling on the services of Earl Fenton for some script doctoring. Not only that, but the picture sat on shelves unreleased for at least a year. Despite Hughes’ best efforts even unintentionally, His Kind of Woman somehow still succeeds for the very fact that it is so different from many of its contemporaries.

There are moments in hindsight where you see where one thread was tied to another or one scene was inserted to make the story comprehensible. However, in its essence, this picture is not so much a product of its plot but of its characters and the tone it deems germane in any given situation.

The chemistry is sizzling hot down to the last clothes iron between Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. It’s also a contest of the sidelong glances as they both case each other’s faces with their pair of iconic eyes. One pair indifferently cool as Mitchum always was and Russell as her playfully seductive self. But this venture is as much of a farce as it a true blue film noir. More on that momentarily.

It opens in Italy where a gangster (Raymond Burr) is on the lamb still trying to figure out how to get back into the U.S. to protect his interests. Our narrator (Charles McGraw) relates the action from Italy to Mexico and then Los Angeles where we finally get a line of one of our stars. Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) is a detached gambler with few things tying him down when he receives a house call.

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The premise, on the whole, is an odd one. Mitchum goes to Morro Lodge on assignment. His orders are to wait and he gets $15,000 in advance for doing so and $50,000 total. We don’t know why he’s there but it gives us time to feel out the people who inhabit this curious getaway on a hidden inlet below the Mexican border. And it’s quite the crew aside from those already mentioned. It’s the same story for about an hour and the good news is it’s actually quite a diverting place to be.

We find out that Mitchum does have a noble side pulling a parlor trick in a game of poker that feels rather like Rick’s roulette wheel in Casablanca (1942). Then, a swacked pilot drops down at the nearby airfield. At first, it’s easy to surmise he’s a Howard Hughes caricature until you realize he’s actually a Federal Agent. Otherwise, we don’t know what we’re waiting for or even really why we’re waiting at all but in the meantime, we have some quality entertainment — a real first-rate floorshow from the stock company.

Jim Bachus is a wise-cracking real estate man who constantly searches out his latest gin rummy partner while trying to relive his old glory days out on the football field to impress the wife of another vacationer. His flabby physique and general manner do not do much to win her over. Still, he’s not a bad sort of fellow though he thinks the love life of a real estate man might make a good motion picture.

Anyways, the true attraction and the figure who causes us to stick around and truly relish the back end of His Kind of Woman is Vincent Price. He provides one of his most brilliantly wacky performances to offset any moments in the film that might give the pretense of being serious.

Mark Cardigan is batty about hunting and so enraptured with his own performances on the screen. One night he’s cooking up his duck for a nice dinner for three only to get his party disrupted by his publicity agent who also brought his estranged wife. Finally, he goes into battle spouting off Hamlet just as the film starts getting tense and someone must be spurred to action.

He’s a gung-ho hero both on the screen and off gathering the most delightfully mismatched band for his counterattack on the enemy fleet parked nearby. But to say they’re sunk before they’ve started proves too true.

What follows is a perfect collision of tones as has probably never before been captured in film noir. Though I must admit it’s a bit of a shame that Jane Russell is conceivably trapped in a closet for much of the film’s prolonged finale. She did so much to bolster the opening moments but alas Robert Mitchum is at it alone fleeing his adversary aboard a clandestine barge.

In fact, everything takes a turn toward a brutal course that feels much more like prototypical noir. However, this cannot outlast the vein of light humor and sensual chemistry that comes with the onslaught of Vincent Price and his seafaring battalion followed by a romantic reunion. Russell gets out of the closet just long enough for another sweltering exchange with Mitchum that reminds us just why she was missed.

3.5/5 Stars

Russell: What’s Out There?

Mitchum: Islands. 

Russell: Samoa and Tahiti

Mitchum: Bikini

Russell: You’re such a wise guy. 

Pursued (1947)

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A film like the Searchers (1956) or even The Bravados (1958) frames the western as a tale of vengeance, where a vendetta is carried out from start to finish, only to get twisted up along the way across moral lines. Pursued is a psychological western that takes up the story from the opposite end of the barrel, as its name implies, though the way it goes about it isn’t altogether straightforward. Such stories very rarely are.

Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is hiding out in a cave as his love Thor (played by Teresa Wright) rides to him. We don’t know their history, why he is there, or who is coming after him. All we know through obvious inference is that all these things must be true.

It’s screenwriter Niven Busch’s ploy to draw us into our story and then he fades into a flashback that carries most of the picture’s weight. As many stories channeling Freudian theories must begin, this one is conceived in childhood.

A young boy remembers glimpses of a horrible event. Bullets flying. A body of a woman crawling towards him as he hides under a bed. And this woman (Judith Anderson) would become his adopted mother as her two own kids become rather like his siblings. Thor and Jeb get on well enough but from their boyhood, there has always been an unresolved conflict between Jeb and Adam. The animosity stems from the fact Adam will always see the other as not a true part of his family and Jeb lives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, understandable or not.

For the sake of their mother and their sister, they begrudgingly tolerate each other and that’s the extent of it. When the Spanish-American War erupts one of them must go and so they decide it in the most arbitrary way possible. With a coin flip. Jeb loses and goes off to be a war hero.

When the family finally reunites and gathers around to sing “Danny Boy” to the tune of Londonderry Aire, there is a sensitivity we feel unaccustomed to, since the rest of the story is brusque and distant nearly scene after scene.

While in its opening moments it began as a story of hospitality and family, Pursued really starts falling apart and allows its core themes to exert their full presence. It’s in these moments where we begin to see hints of a story playing out not unlike a crazed version of the prodigal son.

On another coin flip, Jeb loses out on his piece of the ranch and after having it out with Adam turns to his buddy (Alan Hale Sr.) at a gambling house. He is brought on as part of the operation. Meanwhile, the jealous older brother character begrudges the fact his mother will give Jeb an equal inheritance so he is looking to avenge this personal affront. It doesn’t end peaceably.

At his ensuing trial, Jeb’s life is on the line but even though he gets away scot-free, his relations with his surrogate family will never be the same. And it’s only made worse with every subsequent moment including a town dance where Thor’s latest beau (Harry Carey Jr.) is egged on to confront Jeb.

Dean Jagger makes a nuisance of himself hanging over the entire picture menacingly, but it does feel like his talents are generally wasted. Because when everyone else is gone, the most traumatized parties are Mitchum, Wright, and Anderson.

However, this noir western is a genre-bender blessed by the beautiful black and white imagery of James Wong Howe matched with the direction of that old Warner Bros. vet Raoul Walsh. Whether it’s the distant silhouette of Robert Mitchum illuminated in the doorway at night or the sheer magnitude of the cliffs and crags as they frame insignificant riders galloping by on their horses, the images are undeniably evocative.

There’s nothing all that surprising or thematically interesting about the film’s content initially. Still, this is not a full denunciation of the picture outright. Because the way it plays out does become marginally more intriguing as Mitchum comes under attack and finds himself becoming more abhorred by the minute.

I must admit it’s hard to buy sweet, innocent Teresa Wright could be vindictive at all. However, what the two stars breed is the most detached married life known to man. It’s a tribute to both of them. But they can’t stay that way forever.

What does remain is the fact Mitchum has been hounded his whole life by some unnameable specter hanging over him, and the picture has been hemming and hawing for a final showdown all along. It finally comes, though the ones who take a stand are not who we might expect.

The psychology puzzle of it all is up for debate — how memories come flooding back at just the right moment or how people can love someone and them turn around and hate them and then love them again almost on a dime.

But this does not completely neutralize Pursued which still deserves a reputation as a brooding and atmospheric take on the West. It’s not as mentally stimulating as might have been warranted but with the cast of Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, even ill-fit as they may seem, this oater still comes as a fairly easy recommendation.

3.5/5 Stars

Crossfire (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

Angel Face (1953)

angelface1Rumor has it that Howard Hughes was angry at Jean Simmons who had cut her hair short prior to filming, as her contract was due to expire soon. But not to be outdone he told Otto Preminger that the director would get a bonus if he could shoot the picture before Simmons was released. That he did, and in the 20-day interim he gave us yet another stylish film-noir classic to follow in the footsteps of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Robert Mitchum plays ambulance driver Frank Jessup who falls victim to the webs of young beauty Diane Treymayne who adores her superficial father, but nurses a lifelong grudge against her step-mother. She has it in for her arch nemesis and meanwhile strings Frank along, coaxing him to become her family’s chauffeur. He loses sight of her other side, and their budding romance means trouble for Frank’s longtime relationship with the sensible Mary. She sees a better fit in one of Frank’s ambulance coworkers, but he still wants her back.

Instead, Diane and Frank get caught up in a trial for their lives, after they are accused of a murder that Diane did indeed commit. But due to some wheeling and dealing, their shrewd attorney gets them off. It’s at this point that Angel Face takes an unsuspecting twist that ends up being intriguing. Could it be that the seductive Tremayne girl is actually remorseful for her actions? Is she a more nuanced femme fatale then would first be assumed? Frank was an unsuspecting lout, but then again maybe Diane is a sort of victim to. Her tryst with Frank is doomed and he is stuck becaangelface2use Mary no longer wants him, so of course, he can only end up going one place. The slow buildup to the finale makes these last moments all the more shocking. Angel Face seems to be less of a deadly poisoning than a slowly ticking time bomb just waiting to blow.

Jean Simmons is most often associated with civilized and demure beauties. A couple counterpoints or variations would be The Grass is Greener and this film. Playing against type proves to be as fruitful for her as it did for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda, just to name a few. However, in a way, Angel Face had a far more complex femme fatale than I was expecting and that’s to its credit. Still, I would never want to be trapped in her nightmarish world like Frank.

4/5 Stars

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

heavenknows3From John Huston comes another film about a woman of principle and a man who seems to be everything she is not. This time instead of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart aboard The African Queen in WWI, we have Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum stuck on a deserted island together during WWII.

Kerr is Sister Angela who was on the island only a few days with a priest before he passed away. Now she is alone taking care of herself in solitude. That is until castaway Marine Mr. Allison washes up on her shore in a raft. For a time it is just the two of them as the Sister offers the marine food after his long, arduous journey. But after getting rest and some nourishment, he returns the favor proving his resourcefulness at scrounging up food on the island. For a while, they live in relative ease like this.

But they are reminded that the war is still going when the Japanese set up camp on the island. The unlikely pair finds themselves living in a cave together. Allison invades the camp on the sly to acquire food for them, and they continue to manage in hiding. Once the enemy is gone, the exuberant marine gets drunk on some sake and professes his love to the novice nun. Although the situation had never quite been awkward up to that point, it quickly becomes so. Sister Angela, in a tizzy, flees out in the pouring rain and winds up getting sick as a result.

heavenknows5To add to the predicament, the Japanese forces return, and back to the cave, it is. This time Mr. Allison must kill a soldier in order to get a blanket for Sister Angela. Soon the Japanese are burning the underbrush in pursuit of the culprit. It’s dire straights certainly, but then help comes.

Mr. Allison once again proves himself and regains the faith and admiration of Sister Angela. Once the marines roll in Mr. Allison is able to leave the island on a stretcher with the faithful novice by his side. They are a strange pair, but their relationship makes this story actually engaging. In a way, the life of a marine and a nun have some similarities, although they fall at completely different ends of the spectrum. In the same way, Mitchum and Kerr are adept at playing their roles to that degree. Allison is rough around the edges, a Joe Palooka type, and yet he means well. The nun is devoted to her calling, proper, and it never seems as if she could ever approve of Mr. Allison. And yet, in the midst of all the divides that seem in place, a true bond forms. It’s an entertaining relationship and these two stars,  led by John Huston’s direction, made it thoroughly enjoyable.

4/5 Stars

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

76af9-the_friends_of_eddie_coyleIn this precursor to other gritty Boston crime films like The Departed, Eddie “Fingers” Royle (Robert Mitchum) is a middle-aged truck driver who does some gun running on the side for the mob. On one occasion he got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and it meant two more years of jail time. He’s seen the clink before.

Three men have been pulling off bank jobs in clear daylight using hostages and new guns each time. Eddie is the guy who has been delivering the guns, and he deals with a young thug (Steven Keats) who acquires the stolen merchandise.

Eddie also gets acquainted with F.B.I. agent Dave Folley (Richard Jordan) who tells Eddie his only way to dodge prison is to become an informer. Unbeknownst to Eddie, Folley has another informant working for him, in fact, it’s the man who set Eddie up. Now Eddie is thinking of himself and so he sets up the gunrunner Jackie because he has everything he needs. Folley closes in and nabs the guy. Eddie wants to be done with it, but Folley wants more. Eddie’s buddies who have been pulling the heists are his next victims, but Folley’s other man gives him the information faster and Royle is left with nothing to bargain with. To top it off, he is suspected to be the stool pigeon, and a hit is secretly planned on him. The middle-aged, hopeless, beat down, world-weary, nobody is knocked off and no one loses any sleep over it.  The manipulative stooge reaps the benefit and agent Folley has what he wants. Royle was the one who got the short end of the stick. Some friends he had.

Peter Yates proves again after Bullitt that he can deliver on gritty crime films. He left San Francisco and car chases behind for Boston, Mass. and bank jobs. Murder seems prevalent everywhere and with the killing comes a wide array of tough guy types. The violence is not over the top and neither is the drama, but it is cool, collected and unsentimental.

I cannot help but compare Mitchum’s performance to earlier crime films of his like Out of the Past. He has some of the same grittiness and toughness, but he is decidedly wearier in this film. He has similar moral ambiguity, but his death is far more pitiful. There is no redemption here, and he is a lowlife loser to the end. Despite his rough edges and shady activity, it is difficult not to feel just a little sorry for the man. The film’s title only helps to point out the irony of his situation. We thought he was the rat, but it turned out it was someone else. He needed to find new friends, but then again it takes one to know one. They were a product of their environment and that environment was not the friendliest place to be.

4/5 Stars

“Look, I’m getin’ old, you hear? I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a buncha punks drinkin’ the beer, eatin’ the hash and the hot dogs and watchin’ the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood up but I can’t take no more chances. Next time, it’s gonna be me goin’ to Florida.” ~ Eddie Coyle

El Dorado (1966)

5a6c7-eldorado3 El Dorado is less of a remaking of Howard Hawk’s previous western production Rio Bravo and more of a reworking of it. This time the town drunk is sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who got his heart broke by a girl. The kid is Alan Bourdillion Traherne (James Caan) also known as Mississippi. He can be found with a shot up old hat on his head and a sawed off blunderbuss for a gun. It’s not his weapon of choice anyway. Then, there’s old reliable Bull Harris (Arthur Hunnicut), who holds down the fort and looks after the sheriff when he’s laid up. As the main love interest, there’s Maudie (Charlene Holt), a resident of El Dorado since her childhood days.
As always the man who calls the shots is Cole Thorton (John Wayne), an old war buddy of J.P.s. He has one of the fastest draws around but also has a surprisingly soft spot for doing good. He befriends the younger Mississippi and comes to the aid of J.P when he could have joined the other side.
Thorton rejects the offer of local villain Bart Jason (Ed Asner), but a threatened local ranch family wishes to take no chances. When it is all said and done Thorton receives a bullet in the back that causes him problems afterward.
Now lethal hired gun Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) has taken up Jason’s offer, and they ride into the town. One of their first meetings takes place in the old church and it ends in the arrest of Jason for his part in the whole affair. Another shootout takes place that night and now the formerly drunk sheriff also gets nicked in the leg.
Maudie is fearful of the thugs milling around her place and when Thorton and Mississippi go over to investigate they get ambushed because Cole has physical ailments of his own. They get Cole back but not without giving up their own prisoner. With one of the McDonald’s kidnapped a quick plan is devised and the final showdown begins. Our ragtag crew gets the job done, but J.P. and Cole make quite the pair. They look more like crippled old men than hardened gunfighters, both hobbling down the street with a crutch.

I must admit I am partial to Hawk’s original Rio Bravo and I have yet to see Rio Lobo, but I did really enjoy these characters. Wayne and Mitchum seem to play against type because at times they are quite comical. Mitchum is not a tough P.I. or ruthless villain, but a town drunk! Wayne can hardly shoot a gun at times and he even gets taken. That’s unheard of. It’s as if they softened with old age, but I don’t mind, because the interactions between those two, Mississippi, Bull, and Maudie are a lot of fun. Even the antagonist McCleod is a man with a sense of honor and good fun. Some great moments include Mississippi’s miracle concoction and numerous bars of soap being brought to the dirty sheriff when he finally takes a bath! The initial introduction of the two leads is priceless too. They both were smitten with the same girl.

Howard Hawks really knew how to make westerns not simply about guns and shootouts, but colorful characters who oftentimes seem more content kicking it back in the jail than in smelling out trouble. He proved it again with El Dorado.

4/5 Stars
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long
Singing a song, 
In search of El Dorado