Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Born to Kill (1947)

born-to-kill-1If you know what you want in life be sure of it and you can’t miss. I found that out early.  ~ Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde

Reno was always a Hollywood euphemism. What it stood for, of course, was divorce, a dirty word given the sensibilities of the 40s and the 50s. But then again, being the dirty, licentious, pernicious movement that it was, divorce is a perfect starting point for film-noir. That’s where we first meet Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) as she walks down the front steps of the courthouse.

She’s free of her former husband and about to leave her current residence to be closer to her sister back in San Francisco. She also has a wealthy beau on tap who seems to fit her well-to-do, refined nature. In fact, Claire Trevor is different than perhaps we’ve ever known her before, tempered and proper from the higher echelons of society — hardly a femme fatale — so it seems.

Except that’s not quite the case. Put her in contact with a certain type of man, a man of brute aggression and unfettered jealousy and she’s bound to get into trouble. It happens rather haphazardly as Sam Wilde stiff arms his way into her life. Because, the fact is, that is how he does everything. Their meet-cute happens over a craps table of all places. No words are spoken. They give each other the eyes. He is just off a fit of rage and she is looking to return home. So in the end, they wind up together, drawn to each other.

But she is spoken for, and not to be impeded by anything Sam easily shifts his sights on Helen’s younger foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) who actually holds the wealth in the family after receiving a great inheritance. That suits Sam just fine as he closes in on this new prize. Georgia in her innocence is taken by this new man. Meanwhile, Helen at the same time abhors this man pursuing her sister and still madly desires him in some twisted way. Their affair is as passionate as ever.

born-to-kill-2However, evil always looks to catch up with the guilty party and a private investigator is poking around in all the places he can to find the culprit behind an egregious crime. Walter Slezak’s Albert Arnett is a witty sleazeball with the lowest scruples imaginable when money is concerned. But he also happens to be decent at his occupation bringing him to San Francisco in pursuit of answers.

Sam is assisted by his faithful accomplice Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) showcasing his ability with playing crooked pushovers. In the meantime, Helen finds herself losing her fiancee in the drama while being blackmailed by the shady Arnett.

There’s now nothing buffering Helen from the explosive evil in her drawing room. Her sister’s life is torn apart and Helen and Sam must have it out once and for all. They’re too deadly — too volatile for their own good — as everything around them begins to unravel and implode. We expect nothing less in the end.

For being a lesser star, Lawrence Tierney undoubtedly made a killing off his fist-throwing brusque tough guy roles. He’s no turnip, as he puts it, and if there ever was a homme fatale — a deadly male — he most certainly would be the gold standard…

I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and he who falls beneath her spell has need of God’s mercy.” This is a bit of poetic observation from Slezak but there’s also a tremendous resonance to what he says quoting straight from the Bible’s wisdom literature. But perhaps this wisdom also goes both ways since it’s not just the woman who is fallen and corrupted but most certainly her male counterpart. Humans were not Created to Kill but over time they have been Born to Kill and Born to Die too. There’s a difference and that really is the tragic lot of humanity as we know it. Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. 

This is without question Robert Wise’s toughest, deadliest, grittiest picture. He never made a film with more vices or more despicable characters. Imagine, a character who kills for no good reason at all. Just because someone gave him the cold shoulder. It really scrapes the darkest recesses of the barrel. The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity. More’s the pity. It’s cynical too.

3.5/5 Stars

The Set-Up (1949)

SetupPosterWhat it manages to bring together within the frame of a meager B-film plot is quite astounding, balancing the brutality and atmospheric visuals with the direction of Robert Wise to develop something quite memorable. Boxing movies have been bigger and better, but film-noir has a way of dredging up the grittiest pulp and the Set-Up is that kind of film.

Its fight sequences are violently staged with human forms evoking the early realist images of George Bellows. However, it’s as much of a backroom drama as it is a fighting film. We see the payoff taking place behind Stoker Thompson’s (Robert Ryan) back as his manager (George Tobias) cuts a deal with the opposition without telling his main man what’s going on. He figures Stoker is all washed up at 35. There’s no way in heck he can beat the young buck he’s up against.

The dressing room is full of has-beens, young guns, and hopefuls who in just a few minutes paint a picture of what the boxing world really is. It’s a cruel game that is sweet in victory and sometimes even deadly in defeat. Still men of all backgrounds and values are drawn to it for one reason or another.

In fact, they are not the only ones. One of Robert Wise’s most formidable allies in this film are his close-ups that ratchet up his drama by utilizing the emotive reactions of his crowd. He builds a cadence introducing each nameless face early on and riding their reactions all the way through the fight. There is the woman who feigns repugnance only to reveal her ugly penchant for brutality. There’s the tub of lard who fills up on every concession imaginable while greedily watching the violence unfold. Then, the nervous husband who is constantly hitting and jabbing a phantom opponent. The list goes on.

We also witness the initial reluctance of Stoker’s girl (Audrey Totter) to go see him get beaten to a pulp. This is more than just fighting–it affects their future life together. And while he gets ready to fight, she listlessly wanders the streets too frightened to watch him get his block knocked off and still not yet empowered enough to change things. All she can manage is a jaunt through an arcade parlor, a few furtive glances overlooking the passing trains, and finally a lonely visit to a midnight diner. But this is hardly casting blame mind you.

The bottom line is that Stoker doesn’t see his girl ringside, and it feels like everyone down the line has abandoned him. There’s a need for vindication–to prove his worth when no one will give him a second thought. And that’s a dangerous place to be when people are betting on you to take a fall compliantly, namely one big whig named “Little Boy.” But Thompson’s not about to do that, fighting until he has nothing left to give. And he wins someway, somehow.

It’s when he gets ready to leave the building after the crowds have filed out and the trainers have left for home, that he meets an ominous welcoming committee. It’s not an unsurprising conclusion, but still, Thompson’s story finds a silver lining amidst all the violence. This film is a miracle of the studio age and Wise makes it an incessantly interesting piece of noir.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Citizen Kane (1941)

citizenk3“That’s all he ever wanted out of life… was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.” – Jedediah Leyland

It might seem rather trite to attempt to write anything on Citizen Kane, but as someone who can admittedly be trite sometimes, there seems to be a need to give it a go. Here it goes. Citizen Kane is forever an enigma, in the sense that it was fully under the control of the independent-minded and ultimate auteur Orson Welles during the studio age. It didn’t come out of some movie making assembly line, but instead, it’s a debut that exhibits so many elements that have befuddled and fascinated audiences for generations. There’s certainly the technical and production aspect which became the watermark and inspiration for countless millions. Then you have the human aspect which also deserves some attention.

Swirling around a film with this much mythology there is always bound to be hearsay and rumors, but supposedly in later years, Welles considered Citizen Kane a comedy, in the sense that everything is over the top camp, much in the same way that the Welles the man was a larger than life caricature. He played the part of an alienating artistic mastermind to a tee and it fit the way he made this film. Grandiose in scope,  infused with inspired vision, and really an all-out war for acknowledgment.

Because of the many stories about Kane which have now become the stuff of legend, the parallels between Charles Foster Kane and news magnate William Randolph Hearst stand out. Whatever his opinions of the actual film ended up being, Hearst did his best to besmirch the film and keep it out of theaters. And so it goes Welles’ debut did not get much of an opening, ironically because of a man rather like his main character. It would be interesting to know what Welles would have thought of such a situation. Would he have been greatly incensed or taken it rather like a compliment that he had created something so volatile? Because it’s true, Citizen Kane is still smoldering today, and it retains a constant place in cinematic discussions even 70 years after its release.

There’s so much to talk about and so much that most everyone has probably already talked about. It has such an intriguing narrative structure and it models time in such fascinating ways. Because a lot of this film is about the passage of time as it pertains to one man’s life and the memories of his life. He is dead after uttering that immortal word “Rosebud,” but his memories live on through the recollections of those around him.

We get access to the story through a newsreel, but like such a reporting device we leave it knowing very little about the man except for his material possessions and maybe a little about his career. What we really want to know is the man, and the nameless reporter becomes our stand-in.

He pieces together Kane’s childhood by sitting in a musty vault and reading over the thoughts of the boy’s caretaker and financial adviser Mr. Thatcher. With one particularly memorable match cut, we jump a number of decades in a matter of seconds as the banker speaks to a young Kane only to turn around speaking to a young man. But he’s not much help except that Kane put Thatcher under fire with his brand of yellow journalism.

citizenk2Mr. Bernstein is a kindly fellow and an old man by now who used to work with Kane at the Inquirer when it all began. He knew the man who had a song named after him, who bought out the staff of the rival paper the Chronicle, started his own war and married the niece of the president.

From the now elderly and slightly infirm Jedediah Leyland (Joseph Cotten) we learn of the rise and slow decline of the man along with his friendship with Leyland. There is a sequence here with Kane’s first wife that wonderfully shows the degradation of a marriage over the years as he is more devoted to the paper than his spouse. It’s tragically sad, and there’s more heartbreak in that one scene than most films can muster in their entire runtime. Because Kane could love and he wanted love, but he also seems to love himself more than any other person. He’s married to his work and the personal independence that comes with it. Ultimately, Kane’s political career suffers from scandal and his own bullheadedness. Leyland switches branches to get away and becomes a drama critic prepared to lambaste the operatic debut of Kane’s second wife. It really is bad, but Kane will never hear of it, but he also is always in need of proving himself to those around him.

Our investigative journalist returns to the nightclub of Susan Kane to get the rest of the story from her, and it only becomes more depressing. After being forced into an opera career she has no ambition for, Kane finally relents and Susan spends her days in Xanadau, the fortress he built for her sake. But she wants more than the stuff that he can give her. She wants to get out, have fun and have companionship. Kane doesn’t know how to do that, and soon after she left him.

What was left was a deeply troubled, isolated old man with nothing but material possessions to weigh him down in a river of loneliness. His life was a jigsaw puzzle and yet when we get the piece pertaining to his final word it fails to help us make any headway. Because the reality is that no one word can explain a man’s life. It is interesting how Kane desperately wanted love so you would think that his last words would refer to a person. It just shows how messed up his relationships were. He thought he could get joy from possessions so it’s only fitting that his final words were another thing. It’s sad really, so if Orson Welles wants to call Citizen Kane comedy, there seems to be a need to qualify that and christen it a “tragi-comedy.”

Herman Mankiewicz script with Welles is the quintessential tale of the rise and fall of one man and with the ever-changing times that archetypal narrative has remained prescient because America is still built on those sorts of individuals. It can be the nation of visionaries as well as tragedy. Wealth and loneliness.

As for the great Bernard Hermann, his score personifies the changes in Kane over the years and this was the first time I noticed the wonderful reprises of his theme song. It can be heard throughout although it seems to lose all the gaiety and luster it had years before.

citizenk1Gregg Toland’s cinematography is strikingly beautiful utilizing the distinctly clear, deep focus to frame shots wonderfully. Background and foreground remain equally important becoming a wonderful way to convey distance. Also, the camera always seems to be making the viewer crane our necks, getting a slight view of the ceiling or it has us looking down at the figure below us. We very rarely see them head-on as they appear. Furthermore, Kane is steeped in trick shots, mirror images, and all sorts of things that I cannot even begin to do justice to. It could be a nurse walking into a room or Kane solemnly plodding through the vast corridors of his domain. It’s a veritable paradise for the eyes because we are always being met with visual marvels. Citizen Kane has grown on me every time I see it since it’s not simply narrative, or backstory, or history, but also at the most basic level, it’s one of the most prominent expressions of this highly visual medium called film.

5/5 Stars

Review: West Side Story (1961)

westside1Look at West Side Story through a simple lens and you might see a Shakespearian classic given a 1950s facelift and set to music. It might seem antiquated, perhaps not as politically correct as we have come to expect, and maybe a bit regressive. However, this musical based off of the bard’s famed Romeo and Juliet is most definitely a thematic spectacle pulsing with song and dance. It’s full of romance, full of angst, all expressed through the motions of the human body. In an age where we often feel like we have come so far and know so much, maybe a film like this is good for us if we take a step back for a moment.

Robert Wise’s film opens over the skies of New York and we are quickly introduced to the two competing forces that rule the streets with a “snappy” opening number. You have the local street gang, the Jets made up of delinquents of New York and the Sharks consisting of young immigrant Puerto Ricans. They hate each other for different reasons, but the bottom line is that they hate each other, and there’s no other way to slice it. A tiny scuffle broken up by Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke is only a small tremor of what is to come, but it sets the tone.

The Jet’s leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is looking to have a rumble with their bitter rivals and the neutral territory at the local dance is the perfect opportunity to set things up. Although people are having fun and it’s a grand ol’ time you can tell there’s unrest between the factions bubbling under the surface. The indubitably funny John Astin makes a valiant effort to get them all to be friends, but it doesn’t work so well. Bernardo (George Chakiris) the leader of the Sharks accepts the offer to have a war council because he wouldn’t mind getting a piece of one of the Jets.

The glue that holds the narrative altogether, of course, is the romance that buds on the dance floor when our star-crossed lovers Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) first meet. This is important because Tony use to be a Jet and is still the best friend of Riff. Meanwhile, Maria happens to be the younger sister of head Shark Bernardo. This is a relationship that’s not supposed to happen and yet their inhibited, naive passion disregards all else. He’s obsessed with a girl named “Maria.” That’s all he has, a name to go with a face and yet he’s infatuated. The singing of “Tonight” reflects how caught up in this dream they really are. And finally “I Feel Pretty” is Maria’s own exuberant reaction to the turn of events.

As an aside, Richard Beymer supposedly wanted play Tony rougher around the edges instead of a hopeless romantic, but ultimately it seems alright that he did not. Only because this film is not simply a drama where a nuanced performance would be suitable, but it is also a musical and a romance. In many ways, we need his character to be as love-struck and idealistic as he is. Because his song and his love story are a striking contrast with the world he and Maria live in.

westside2With the rumble afoot the following night, it can only spell trouble for all involved. The moment that Tony promises Maria that he will try to stop the fighting, he is part of it. Things turn out as he could never have imagined. In fact, no one wanted things this way, revealing how big a difference one single day makes. Tragedy hits with a vengeance, making this a marvelous piece of cinematic expression, but also a jarring indictment of this broken world we live in.

All the choreography in the film is directed by Jerome Robbins, and it is beautiful to see the melding of something so graceful like ballet crossed with the street gangs of New York. There’s something inherently contradictory about it and yet the culture, as well as the angst, is revealed so beautifully. It can be smooth and slick with a group of buddies or violent with arms flailing, heads contorting, and bodies all over the place. But it’s never vulgar, the people might be, but the dance never is. It is always enjoyable to see George Chakiris dance, and he’s not the only one, from Rita Moreno to a whole host of others. They move with such grace but it is never dull because it has feeling. And that extends to their entire performances. In fact, Chakiris and Moreno are probably the most enjoyable, because they are far removed from the dreamy-eyed couple of Tony and Maria.

The composition by Leonard Bernstein is obviously outstanding and this is one of the famous soundtracks in musical history including the “Jet Song”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, and “I Feel Pretty.” However, I think I was especially interested in “America” and “Gee Officer Krupke.” The first puts to song the two conflicting perspectives that lead to civil unrest. There’s the idea that America is this land of opportunity and yet there’s also a negative flip side to this ideal. Also, the second song in a comical way, comments on the treatment of the youth of America. From a film that might seem outdated, it has some pretty frank analysis of the never-ending cycle that goes on.

westside3In fact, if we give our society a good hard stare, have things really changed? Are our discrimination and racism better than that of Lt. Schrank or just veiled behind greater open-mindedness? Are people still hating one another, even when they might be more similar than they realize? Is our society working towards collective good or are we slowly “killing” it through our acts of hate? Even a likable fellow like the drugstore owner Pop (Ned Glass) brings into question those who are against the violence but don’t really seem to do much about it. Words don’t act unless the people behind them do. That can go both ways.

All this pops into my mind because of a musical from over 50 years ago where, yes, Natalie Wood was, unfortunately, playing a Puerto Rican. But hopefully, we can look past that for a moment and see the artistic merit here and then think for a moment what themes we might glean from this West Side Story.

4.5/5 Stars

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

911a0-day_the_earth_stood_still_1951Starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie with direction by Robert Wise, this sci-fi film begins with the landing of a mysterious alien space craft in Washington D. C. At first nothing seems to happen and the whole country is tense. Then an extra-terrestrial named Klaatu gets off followed by his giant cohort Gort. He comes in peace but he is wounded by a frightened gun. From that point he is taken to a hospital but his only mission is to warn the world that they must change their ways. 

Klaatu gets away from the hospital and he takes up the identity of one Carpenter in order to integrate himself so he can give the people his message. He ends up befriending a widowed lady and her small boy with his quiet kindness.  

His goal is still to deliver a message to the leaders of the world and the man he wants to speak to is Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). When he finally is able to talk, he warns against the use of atomic power, because other planets have become apprehensive and will surely neutralize the earth if they do not stop.

He is followed by Bobby and Klaatu finally reveals his true identity to Helen. Soon he shuts down all the non-essential power across the country, and when the chaos dies down, the manhunt for the culprit intensifies.

In his final entreaty before leaving earth Klaatu pleads with the people:

“It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rest on you.”

So ends a film that was not just another sci-fi flying saucer movie of the 1950s. It was a representation of the atomic age and an indictment of the Cold War sentiment at the time. Klaatu in many ways becomes a Christ-like figure who calls for peace, takes the name “Carpenter,” and even rises from the dead. In many ways he saved humanity too, on the day the earth stood still.

4/5 Stars

West Side Story (1961)

354d1-west_side_story_posterIn this 1960s, musical adaption of Romeo and Juliet, two lovers become infatuated with each other but the problem is that none of their friends would ever approve. They come from two different classes and backgrounds which are constantly at odds. The two sides frequently clash as represented by the Shark and Jet gangs. Naively, the lovers believe they can get away and be happy forever. However, the situation escalates when the gangs take part in a rumble. Pretty soon the situation is out of control and it has become something nobody wanted. Hope for the future finally seems possible for the pair but it is brutally crushed in an instant. The viewer is left with a feeling of tragedy. This is a very good film for the most part and many of the songs are great, sticking with you afterwards. I suppose it is quite difficult to go wrong with a story from Shakespeare .

4.5/5 Stars