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

Review: A Place in the Sun (1951)

 

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George Stevens is only one among a plethora of filmmakers who came back from WWII changed. He had seen a great deal of the world’s ugliness — Dachau Concentration Camp for instance — and as a result, the films he made thereafter were more mature ruminations on humanity at large. Adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and a subsequent play, A Place in the Sun is one of those pictures crafted in the wake of such historical change.

There’s no doubt that this is Hollywood melodrama backed by a raging score from Franz Waxman but this is no less, high powered high-class stuff. It’s augmented by gorgeous black and white imagery that reaches pitch black tones and still manages to make Lake Tahoe into a scintillating getaway. Meanwhile, the camera captures the action with elegant movements, sashaying through space, at times nearly imperceptible to the eye. Though admittedly the film’s stature as a social commentary is less interesting now than it probably would have been in its day. Still, we can’t have everything now, can we?

Montgomery Clift is often forgotten in the fray of powerhouse actors but the line can easily be traced from his intense performances to the work of Brando and Dean which would also sprout up in the 50s. Though that same intensity is there, it never feels like he’s trying to sell us a gimmick or a method. He’s simply trying to provide a lens to see a bit more clearly the intricacies of an individual, in this case, one George Eastman. It manages to be a profound and at times an agonizing performance.

Of course, Elizabeth Taylor is exquisite in every frame as always but her bright-eyed sincerity is equally arresting. She feels perfectly made for the role of Angela Vickers and seamlessly transitions into more adult fare with A Place in the Sun, standing tall alongside Clift, destined to make them one of the great romantic pairings of the 1950s. She supposedly said that she finally felt less like a puppet and more like an actress after this film. It shows.

Still, though given a thankless role at times, Shelley Winters is equally important because, in her simpler, humbler way, she reflects how quickly a man can change. She’s not a bad person at all, just a frail, even helpless one who feels like she has very few people in the world to hold onto. George proves to be a comparable companion until he unwittingly finds himself running in different circles and that’s where the tension begins.

I look at George Eastman and see the same drive for recognition, power, and wealth in many of us, those desires that oftentimes can be our undoing because they turn out to be meaningless. The irony is that his intentions never seem malicious but he is undermined by something. He quickly sinks into this double life. At first, he was simply happy to have a job and some companionship. His desires were simple. But slowly, as he found himself rising in the ranks of the Eastman company and getting more recognition, he couldn’t help but want more. Are these impulses bad? Not in the least, but they led him to some pretty rocky soil.

The scene that stands out in my mind could seem fairly mundane. But Stevens maintains a fairly long shot that’s peering through Eastman’s living room and we can see into the next room over as he is on the phone. It feels like minutes go by and Stevens fearlessly never cuts the sequence. The first call is from Alice which he takes.

But the second comes from Angela and at that point, we know that things have changed. It’s set up the dilemma. He genuinely loves Angela and wishes to be with her and to be a part of her life. Yet for that to come to fruition he must do something about the other girl. Alice won’t disappear. It’s funny how someone who you used to appreciate so dearly now feels like a burden. To her credit, we feel sorry for  Winters’ character without question.

In fact, the film succeeds along those lines. We pity her for the sorrowful position she is placed in — essentially abandoned by George. And even in her frivolity and opulence, there’s a candidness to Angela that makes us want to root for her and that allows us to simultaneously pity her because she has no idea of George’s other life. If there is anyone to lash out against it is George Eastman himself and still even in that regard, Montgomery Clift reveals the full gamut of this tortured man so even if we are hesitant to feel sorry for him, he does open us up even with a tinge of compassion.

But the muddled morality is complicated by the fact that Clift’s character has a sense of remorse. Surely he cannot be all bad based on what Vickers saw in him? His capacity to love and be tender is evident. Still, that is not enough to keep him from going on trial and the film’s final third takes place, for the majority, in a courtroom. The district attorney is played by Raymond Burr, who might well be in a dry run for Perry Mason and he comes at Eastman with all the fervor he can muster to convict him in his lies. Even in these moments, we must fall back on George’s inner conflict, his capability to love others, and his intentions for love.

If A Place in the Sun gets too preachy or succumbs too much to Hollywood’s stirringly romantic tendencies, it still might be one of the finest examples of such a film. Front and center are two phenomenal stars and Stevens films their euphoric romance with a meticulous eye catching them in particular moments, with close-ups, and such angles that we are constantly aware of their intimacy.

As much as Eastman is looking for his place in the sun, and he could spend hours just sitting with Angela soaking in the sun’s rays (not many would blame him), it’s just as true that there is nothing new under the sun. That’s what we’re left with. Mankind is still distracted by many things. Oftentimes they are good things but we make them ultimate things and they wreak havoc on our lives. Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless under the sun. But that doesn’t keep us from wanting to bathe in its tantalizing warmth any less. That’s part of the American Tragedy.

4.5/5 Stars

Harper (1966)

harper1We are brought into the world of Lew Harper with a cold open full of character. There he is. Paul Newman. Soaking his head in a sink full of ice. Making his morning cup of Joe. Popping that first piece of chewing gum before heading off to his first appointment.

What follows is a narrative courtesy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target and an up-and-coming screenwriter William Goldman. Really, the film pays tribute to all of Bogart’s great P.I. roles (even going so far as casting Lauren Bacall), becoming a ’60s revamp of The Big Sleep.

But although the plot is not quite as incomprehensible as its predecessor, the greatest joy of this storyline is the witty repartee of Goldman’s pen paired with wall-to-wall star power. We have Newman and Bacall headlining as a gumshoe and his client who is looking rather half-heartedly for her missing husband. We have young blood with Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin. Then some old reliable talent in the likes of Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, and Strother Martin. The characters might not be the most insightful, but who needs that when they’re fun.

Lew Harper’s marriage is going down the tubes as he begins digging around for leads on the whereabouts of millionaire Ralph Sampson. He begins his inquiries which ultimately lead him to a washed-up starlet (Winters) who he pumps for information. He meets her charming husband and pays a visit to a nightclub singer (Harris) with a drug habit.

The dive musical halls, a rogue truck, and an encounter with a new age religious cult point Harper toward’s Sampson’s kidnapping, but he must piece together all the broken shards. There are twists, turns, and big reveals that are only fitting for a mystery of this inclination.

It’s certainly a nifty charade of mystery accented by a bouncy score courtesy of Johnny Mandel. But this sublimely Paul Newman role is more fun.  In his own words, “He’s a regular beaver,” a jaded cynic prone to smirks and sarcasm. He’s a sly dog even before Jim Rockford. He gives off an air of not being particularly happy in his work, but who would be thrilled to be a private investigator? On top of the lousy lifestyle and unglamorous dirty work, his wife is calling for divorce proceedings.

And yet he reveals moments of humanity and charm, whether he’s stacking up on tea sandwiches, chatting it up with his pal Albert, or pulling one over on his wife over the phone with paper towels stuffed down his throat.

Harper serves up exactly what we want with Newman grabbing hold of a cynical streak like he does best and riding the waves of Goldman’s engaging script. It’s not rocket science, but everything translates into a thoroughly enjoyable experience all around.

3.5/5 Stars

(After being beaten up again)

“Hey Lew, you alright?” ~ Albert

“I’m awful tired of answering that question” ~Lew

Alfie (1966)

alfie“I’ve been doing things my whole life I’m not suppose to” ~ Alfie

Alfie is a real character, with his cockney accent and personal insight about the world he resides in and the people he crosses paths with. Before Ferris Bueller, there was originally Alfie constantly breaking the fourth wall. Although that’s where any comparison ends because Ferris may be a schemer but he is good at heart. Safe to say Alfie is no Ferris Bueller. Not by a long shot. He is a self-indulgent, hedonistic, womanizer, constantly playing the field without looking for anything real.

True he has a kid, a few affairs and casual trysts, but he never sees “Birds” as anything more than objects. Every girl is an “It” not a “Her.” They fulfill his desires and their main purpose is to be used for his pleasure and his needs. He is a man who lives for himself and no one else. He is a real cynic and a deplorable sort of person at that.

Initially I had nothing complimentary to say about the character because the reality is there really was nothing good to say about him. But in a single moment Alfie proved that he might be selfish but not heartless. He finally attempts to “settle down” only for it to backfire on him. That’s the way it works and so Alfie is about right back where he started. I would like to think his heart is a little softer though.

Michael Caine is likable enough to make me not completely hate Alfie and that is to his credit because it was difficult not to. His various conquests and companions were played by, among others, Julia Foster, Jane Asher and Shelley Winters. The film’s jazzy score may not be rock and roll but it seems to personify Swinging London as much as Double-Deckers and Tower Bridge.

3.5/5 Stars

A Place in the Sun (1951)

In this film starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, with George Stevens directing, a young man (Clift) tries to rise up in his uncle’s company. He is poorly-educated yet ambitious and he slowly moves up in the Eastman business. While he works George begins to fall for a modest girl (Winters) who also works in the assembly. They slowly begin to show romantic feelings for each other because they face the same hardships. With a new found postition George begins to interact with people of higher social status. Although he feels out of place there, he meets the beautiful and rich Angela (Taylor) who he begins to fall in love with. As he begins to get more involved with Angela, he learns that his former love interest is pregnant and therefore wishes to marry him. Faced with a dilemma, George makes a decision that will ruin him forever, whether he goes through with it or not. A hard-hitting drama, and an adaptation of “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, the latter half is the best part, including the chilling finale.

4/5 Stars