Posts by Tony D'Ambra

Films, Lobby

Noir Beat: Johnny O’Clock and more

Poster Johnny OClock 1947 Noir Beat: Johnny O’Clock and more

Lately I have been watching some old b’s that echo film critic Pauline Kael’s view that a “movie doesn’t have to be great… you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line”.

Robert Rossen’s first directing effort Johnny O’Clock (1947) – and he wrote the script – is a strange bird. The movie has a weird disconnected ambience that harkens back to Von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941). It is almost surreal in its distance from what happens inside the frame. Dick Powell leads as the junior partner in a gambling joint, reprising the hard-boiled persona he adopted in Cornered (1945) and Murder, My Sweet (1944). Add a murder, a conniving business partner, two dames, a crooked cop, and an honest cop, and you have a fairly solid mystery thriller that keeps you guessing. Rossen’s camera is nervous as you would expect in a novice effort, and keeps making jumpy moves and self-conscious pans, but he keeps the scenario taught. The dialog is both street-wise and poetic, and delivered with Powell’s signature take-it-or-leave-it. But the “joy” as Kael put it is in the performances, which are full-on engaging. Powell’s partner in racket is a paranoid Thomas Gomez, whose wife has the hots for Powell, and who is not interested. The wife is brassy and beautifully played by Ellen Drew. We have a delightfully world-weary wise-cracking cigar-chewing Lee J. Cobb as a cop. The icing on the cake is the wonderful Evelyn Keyes as the love interest. She is totally beguiling, as only she knows how.

quicksand 1950 Noir Beat: Johnny O’Clock and more

Mickey Rooney’s first noir entry Quicksand (1950) is an ok programmer that moves quickly but predictably to a hackneyed redemption ending. Rooney is a mechanic who gets mixed up with a dangerous floozy and as the title implies gets ever deeper into a spiralling mess after “borrowing” 20 bucks from his boss’s cash register. Rooney does fairly well but his voiceovers have an unfortunate ‘duh’ quality that border on the risible. The hidden treasures here are Peter Lorre’s cameo as a shady penny arcade operator and Jeanne Cagney as the floozy. The veteran and the bit-player deliver in equal measure.

timetable1956 Noir Beat: Johnny O’Clock and more

In Time Table (1956) Mark Stevens, who was so good in The Dark Corner (1956), is an insurance dick assigned to investigate a train heist. There are sufficient twists and turns to keep you interested, and one twist totally out of left field just about knocks your socks off. Stevens also helmed in this his second director job after Cry Vengeance (1954). While the picture never goes beyond its b agenda, Stevens and his veteran DP Charles Van Enger deliver at the end with a gripping shadowy South of the border shout-out on the streets of Tijuana.

 

 

Films, Lobby

Drive a Crooked Road (1954): Dreams on Malibu

DriveACrookedRoad 1934 Drive a Crooked Road (1954): Dreams on Malibu

And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

- Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

Mickey Rooney is a withdrawn car mechanic and amateur racing driver who is seduced, and then conned into driving the souped-up getaway car in a bank robbery. Drive a Crooked Road takes its time in getting to the business, about as long as the femme-fatale takes to bring the shy loner out of his shell. He falls for her – and big time.

The actual heist is an anti-climax and really only sets the scene for the anti-hero’s destruction. The dame gets a conscience and so the carefully laid plans of the villains fall apart. When Rooney reaches the closing scene, two hoods are dead, and he is standing over the prostate femme by moonlight on the sands of Malibu, a smoking revolver in one hand, and the other stroking her hair.

A bleak scenario that has a hard and cynical edge, is rendered competently by a Columbia Pictures team. Not surprisingly Blake Edwards had a hand in the script with the assistance of director Richard Quine. Rooney is low key and carefully resists melodrama in a sympathetic portrayal. Minor 50s actress Dianne Foster is leggy, sultry, sweet, and repentant, by turn. A final descent into histrionics weakens the portrayal though.

The dénouement plays out in the shadow of a beach house on Malibu and harkens forward to the nuclear apocalypse that ended Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly the following year. Here the devastation is totally personal. The crushing of a less than average joe is brutal and undeserved. Fate and good ol’ American greed in cahoots take a man’s dreams and loneliness and twist them into a lose-lose no exit dilemma.

The hoods are distinctly middle-class. Dinner parties at the beach house and the conniving host cooking up a storm in the kitchen. It’s only a business proposition you see. Forget that a wise-cracking loathsome henchman mans the bar.

 

Articles, Directors, Films, Lobby

The Oscars, Jean Renoir, Raymond Chandler, Auteurism, and Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose (1956)

The Killer Is Loose 1956 The Oscars, Jean Renoir, Raymond Chandler, Auteurism, and Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose (1956)

In a 1954­ interview Jean Renoir said of Hollywood: “Don’t go thinking that I despise “B” pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

Raymond Chandler in 1948 in an acid essay on the Oscars, and 20 years before Pauline Kael wrote ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies’, framed his critique by saying of the motion picture “that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can.”  Though he didn’t spell it out it, Chandler was clearly highlighting the artistic choices made by the director of a film. Not until the 1950s did the enfants terribles of Le Cahiers du Cinema develop the insights broached by Chandler.

American film academic and writer Justus Nieland in a piece foreshadowing tonight’s Oscars titled ‘Auteurism and the Genius of the Market’ and published last week in The New York Times, writes:

“This logic of aesthetic judgment, in which films and their directors mutually ratify each other’s greatness has, of course, auteurist roots. The word persists today because a group of film critics in the 1950s hashed out a “politique des auteurs” that discerned, among the industrial products of American mass culture, signatures of a presiding, singular artist like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang or Nicholas Ray, among others. This Romantic view of expression, with its abiding myths of freedom, style and personality, sought to solve the problem of how industrially produced and distributed mass entertainment might also be art. But auteurism was also a category of reception, allowing cinephiles to sift and sort, and value and hierarchize, the films and directors to which they had access. In France and elsewhere in the 1950s, that meant seeing Hollywood cinema as a cultural sign of the economic and political power of the U.S… If the Oscars are important, then the best director award is the most important not just because it rewards the work of gifted nominees (and this year’s are an estimable bunch), but because the name of the director remains, for better and worse, contemporary film culture’s way of organizing knowledge about film artistry and its relation to markets and consumers. This says as much about what persists in our fantasies of aesthetic agency as it does about the strategies of the corporate present that shape, and limit, our power to discern the best.”

Hollywood ‘B’ movies of the 40s and 50s were production line ‘filler’. But for the reasons identified by Renoir and Chandler, and despite being made quickly and on the cheap, they sometimes transcended their humble aims and by virtue of the craft and artistry (of mostly journeymen film-makers) made a claim to being considered as art.

One such ‘B’ movie is The Killer is Loose made in 1956 by United Artists and directed by Budd Boetticher, who after completing this film went on to make six cult Westerns that established his auteur status. The Killer is Loose is not a great movie nor is it even particularly good. The plot is by this late stage of the classic noir cycle more of the same police procedural that noir largely devolved into as the War years receded.  A gormless war veteran working as a bank teller provides inside information for a heist, and when cornered by police in his apartment and his innocent wife is accidently shot dead by a police detective in the shootout that ensues, he swears vengeance on the wife of the cop. After a couple of years he escapes from detention and heads onto a bloody path to the cop’s wife.  The climax is a stakeout at night in suburbia. Strong performances from Wendell Corey as the disturbed killer and Joseph Cotton as the cop, and Rhonda Fleming as the hapless wife, don’t quite overcome the inertia of the scenario and plot-holes that most likely derive from keeping the running time to 73 minutes. The score is dramatic in the wrong places, better dialog is not hard to find, and the ending is predictable. What unshackles the movie is the consummate direction and editing. Deep focus outside and long fluid takes inside.  The climax is a master-class in editing for suspense. Even daylight scenes have a tension that subverts otherwise normal life in the suburbs. A journey on a crowded brightly light bus at night holds a palpable existential terror.

In November last year The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody named the recent archive release of the The Killer is Loose his DVD of the Week, writing that “Boetticher… saw violence everywhere and was sensitive to its ambient horrors, even when unleashed with principle. This movie, with its focus on crime and punishment—and on the private lives of police officers and criminals alike—redefines the very idea of the war at home.” Brody’s video review of The Killer is Loose is featured below.

Links:

 

Films, Lobby

FilmsNoir.Net’s Top 25 Films Noir

My top 25 films noir by year of release. Ranking them would be arbitrary as there is little if anything between them.  For my full listing of essential films noir click here.

port of shadows FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Port of Shadows 1938 France Aka Le Quai des brumes. Fate a dank existential fog ensnares doomed lovers Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan after one night of happiness.
the maltese falcon FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Maltese Falcon 1941 US Bogart as Sam Spade the quintessential noir protagonist. A loner on the edge of polite society, sorely tempted to transgress but declines and is neither saved nor redeemed.
double indemnity FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Double Indemnity 1944 US All the elements of the archetypal film noir  are distilled into a gothic LA tale of greed, sex, and betrayal.
murder my sweet FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Murder, My Sweet 1944 US (Aka Farewell, my Lovely) The most noir fun you will ever have. Raymond Chandler’s prose crackles with moody noir direction from Edward Dmytryk.
the big sleep FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Big Sleep 1946 US Love’s Vengeance Lost. Darker than Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. Bogart is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.
ride the pink horse FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Ride the Pink Horse 1946 US Disillusioned WW2 vet arrives in a New Mexico town to blackmail a war racketeer. Imbued with a rare humanity.
body and soul FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Body and Soul 1947 US A masterwork. Melodramatic expose of the fight game and a savage indictment of money capitalism. Garfield’s picture.
out of the past FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Out of the Past 1947 US Quintessential film noir. Inspired direction, exquisite expressionist cinematography, and legendary Mitchum and Greer.
the lady from shanghai FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Lady From Shanghai 1947 US Orson Welles’ brilliant jigsaw noir with a femme-fatale to die for and a script so sharp you relish every scene.
t men FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir T-Men 1947 US Mann and Alton offer a visionary descent into a noir realm of dark tenements, nightclubs, mobsters, and hellish steam baths.
act of violence FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Act of Violence 1948 US Long-shot and deep focus climax filmed night-for-night on a railway platform: the stuff noirs are made of.
foce of evil FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Force of Evil 1948 US Polonsky transcends noir in a tragic allegory on greed and family. Garfield adds signature honesty and gritty complexity .
raw deal FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Raw Deal 1948 US Sublime noir from Anthony Mann and John Alton. Knockout cast in a strong story stunningly rendered as expressionist art.
the set up FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Set-Up 1949 US Robert Ryan is great as washed-up boxer in Robert Wise’ sharp expose of the fight game. Brooding and intense noir classic.
the third man FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Third Man 1949 UK Sublime. An engaging cavalcade of characters in a human comedy of love, friendship, and the imperatives of conscience.
night and the city FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Night And the City 1950 US/UK Dassin’s stark existential journey played out in the dark dives of post-war London as a quintessential noir city.
the asphalt jungle FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Asphalt Jungle 1950 US Quintessential heist movie transcends melodrama and noir. A police siren wails: “Sounds like a soul in hell.”
on dangerous ground FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir On Dangerous Ground 1951 US City cop battling inner demons is sent to ‘Siberia’. A film of dark beauty and haunting characterisations.
the prowler FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Prowler 1951 US Van Heflin is homme-fatale in Tumbo thriller. Director Losey is unforgiving. Each squalid act is suffocatingly framed.
the big heat FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Big Heat 1953 US Gloria Grahame as existential hero in Fritz Lang’s brooding socio-realist noir critique.
kiss me deadly FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Kiss Me Deadly 1955 US Anti-fascist Hollywood Dada. Aldrich’s surreal noir a totally weird yet compelling exploration of urban paranoia.
rififi FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Rififi 1955 France Dassin’s classic heist thriller culminating in the terrific final scenes of a car desperately careening through Paris streets.
the big combo FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir The Big Combo 1955 US “I live in a maze… a strange blind backward maze’. Obsessed cop hunts down a psychotic crime boss in the best noir of 50s.
the sweet smell of success FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Sweet Smell of Success 1957 US DP James Wong Howe’s sharpest picture. As bracing as vinegar and cold as ice. Ambition stripped of all pretense.
odd against tomorrow FilmsNoir.Nets Top 25 Films Noir Odds Against Tomorrow 1959 US A work of art from Rober Wise. New York City and its industrial fringe are quasi-protagonists that harbor the angst and desperation of life outside the mainstream – sordid dreams of the last big heist that will fix everything.

 

Lobby, News

Kickstart a New Film Noir Short: The Man In The Chair

maninthechair Kickstart a New Film Noir Short: The Man In The Chair

British film-maker David Beazley is seeking financing for a new film noir short, The Man In The Chair, a dark comedy about an out of work lawyer who lands a client – one problem though – the client is a dead man.

Beazley’s work has been screened at film festivals, including the London Film Festival, Raindance, Edinburgh, San Francisco, Soho Shorts, Palm Springs & the European Film Festivals, and his documentary short, ‘Gravediggers’, was nominated for Best Short Documentary at the 2013 Sheffield Doc Fest. He has produced and directed commercial & music videos for Red Bull, Robbie William’s Farrell, Brora, Clarks, Tinie Tempah, Bryan Ferry, Above & Beyond, and Metronomy. His film portfolio is featured at www.vimeo.com/beazknees.

You can check out the project at Kickstart.  Only six days before the funding window closes, so if you have the inclination – and the readies – start clicking. Forty backers have already pledged £2,419 towards the goal of £3,000.

 

Lobby, Videos

AnnA: New Neo-Noir Short from Britain

AnnA AnnA: New Neo Noir Short from Britain

Two very talented film-makers from the UK, Robin Hudson and Stuart Albone, have recently released a compelling neo-noir short titled AnnA. Filmed on location in Brighton and London, the elliptical story centers on a young night-club singer and her descent into a real or imagined crisis. In some ways the scenario is reminiscent of the dream imagery in Maya Deren’s classic short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

The production values are very impressive, with all round solid direction, photography, and editing. Some neat technical work has been deftly done, and a minimalist score works well too. An interesting and sexy protagonist with the nice use of voice-over draws you in, and the mystery keeps you interested.

Here is the YouTube video. Highly recommended.

0 AnnA: New Neo Noir Short from Britain
Films, Lobby

Cry Terror! (1958)

Cry Terror Poster Cry Terror! (1958)

James Mason, Rod Steiger, and Inger Stevens got the star credits for Cry Terror, but Neville Brand, Angie Dickinson, and Jack Klugman also deserve acting kudos in this tautly directed b-noir thriller which boasts not one but three climaxes.

“For a movie that runs 96 minutes there are surprisingly vivid characterizations of the major players.”
An innocuous middle-class family: mum, dad, and young daughter from the suburbs are kidnapped as part of an airline extortion caper. A bomb has been planted on a passenger plane and the would-be terrorists are demanding a cool half million to disable the device. The bomb’s triggering circuit was innocently built by TV technician Dad, and Mum will be used to collect the ransom if she wants to keep hubby and the kid from harm. The scenario is sufficiently novel and the tension wound tightly enough to sustain interest throughout. Never mind the plot has holes big enough to fly a jet-liner through, and that some almost absurd derring-do in an elevator shaft staggers belief.

For a movie that runs 96 minutes there are surprisingly vivid characterizations of the major players. This comes from nuanced performances, some good dialog and, unusually for a 50s police procedural, only sketch portraits of the cops involved.

Mason is the duped father, a rather cardigan-like hand-wringer who finds unforeseen (and incredible) fortitude later on. Stevens is in melodrama-overdrive as the hysterical yet (again incredibly) when-it-counts cool under pressure mother. Steiger dominates as the patently wacko yet methodical mastermind. His menace is that more scary as you couldn’t tell him from a bespectacled bow-tie wearing 50s bean-counter. Dickinson does very well as Steiger’s girlfriend and but-is-she-really-that-ruthless? accomplice.  Brand is particularly effective as the muscle of the gang with a convincing turn as a pill-popping sexual psychopath. When Stevens is held hostage by Brand in a suburban hide-out, a perverse sexual tension is played out with a lurid simmering violence that would have made 50s audiences very uncomfortable. The studio marketing suits played this angle up with promotion stills that exposed more of Stevens’ ample bosom than in the actual movie. Klugman is good as a pseudo-nasty but nervous henchman.

The three climaxes are more than competently filmed on real locations, and edited and directed with a palpable tension by a journeymen crew, who deserve recognition: Andrew L. Stone, wrote and directed (Confidence Girl (1952), Highway 301 (1950)), Walter Strenge lensed, and Virginia L. Stone (Confidence Girl) edited. The Stones were a husband and wife team who independently produced a clutch of the thrillers in the 50s and 60s.

While the movie has the flat TV look of the period, the final dénouement in a subway station has an expressionist tone.

Definitely worth a look.

Lobby, Videos

Since My Baby’s Gone: New neo-noir short from Ray Ottulich

sincemybabysgone Since My Babys Gone: New neo noir short from Ray Ottulich

Ray Ottulich has released on Vimeo and YouTube a new neo-noir short in his series riffing on familiar themes and motifs from film noir titled Since My Baby’s Gone about the perils of giving lifts to dangerous dames. The scenario is a nod to the cult noir Detour and was filmed on the road way out West. Ray has done a really fine job of editing which gives the movie a nice rhythm, making the visuals particularly compelling. Here is the Vimeo video. Enjoy.