film noir Archive

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La Chienne (1931): Darker than Scarlet Street

la chienne 1931 La Chienne (1931): Darker than Scarlet Street

A sensitive mild-mannered clerk who likes to paint despite the shrewish laments of his wife that he is wasting time and her money, falls for a conniving prostitute and when it all comes unstuck, takes to a life on the streets like a duck to water. Liberated from bourgeois respectability he is in the final scene gleeful in his perdition, and indifferent to an otherwise salutary reminder of his fall shown careening away in a swank motor car.

“humour as much as human frailty and baseness figures prominently”
Jean Renoir’s second film starring that colossus of French cinema Michel Simon, fashions a dark tale where humour as much as human frailty and baseness figures prominently. The pimp who exploits both the harlot and the mark is not so much a shiftless parasite more a totally amoral being.

The film is a savage satire infinitely darker than Fritz Lang’s (certainly respectable) Hollywood remake Scarlet Street (1945), where melodrama and Hollywood inhibitions dictated a more angst-ridden dénouement.

As the narrator of the canny puppet show framing says at the beginning of La Chienne, there is no moral to the story.

 

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”.

“The dialog is both street-wise and poetic, and delivered with Powell’s signature take-it-or-leave-it.”
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.

“Rooney is low key and carefully resists melodrama”
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.

 

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.

 

Films, Lobby

Alan Fassioms on Dementia (1955): Beatnik Noir?

dementia 1955 1 Alan Fassioms on Dementia (1955): Beatnik Noir?

Dementia (1955 aka Daughter of Horror 57min)
Director/Writer – John Parker
Cinematography – William C. Thompson
Music – George Antheil

I’m sure the 50’s hep-cats and ‘seasoned’ film-noir enthusiasts among you will already know of this film. Nevertheless for a greenhorn like myself, I find it damn near impossible to simply watch something like Dementia and not say a few words about it; even if it is just to confirm, through the reader’s feedback, whether or not I’m clueless as to what defines art, missing the point all together, or that I’m simply a weirdo!

Dementia (or as it was later changed to: Daughter of Horror) is a very stylish and strange short film (ca. 57 mins) from deep within the archives of the 50’s avant-garde b-movies. In fact, most movie-buffs may know it more as the film being watched in the cinema, during that famous scene in the 50’s cult-classic, The Blob, rather than a movie of any cinematic significance. It is believed that it was Jack H. Harris, producer of The Blob, who eventually bought the film from Parker and added the narration, renaming the movie Daughter Of Horror. This would make complete sense as Harris could then feature it in The Blob without hindrance. And the added narration, which can be heard in the background during The Blob’s famous cinema scene, serves well to intensify the suspense as The Blob approaches the screaming kids. Even the name ‘Daughter of Horror’ seems like it was added with The Blob in mind, as a poster for ‘Daughter of Horror’, and not ‘Dementia’, can also be seen for a split second during that scene.

dementia 1955 2 Alan Fassioms on Dementia (1955): Beatnik Noir?

This mostly ‘silent’, black and white film opens with a high-angle, night-time shot of a neon-lit street, when, after being invited by the narrator to come with him, ”into the tormented, haunted, half-lit night of the insane”, we are drawn slowly through an open window into a young lady’s bedroom, á la Orson Welles. On the bed lies the sleeping beauty squirming and clutching her bed-sheet tightly. Is she having a nightmare… or an erotic dream? Of this the audience is kept guessing, and from here on in, the tone is set for a private view into the young lady’s twisted and perverse psyche. After wakening from her dream-state, she takes a flick-knife from the drawer and ventures out onto the streets, where she encounters all forms of low-lives, debauchery and sexual depravity, all tied together by hallucination sequences that even have the viewer questioning ‘what is reality/ what is fantasy?’.

Although the film has strong ‘noirish’ elements (lighting, street scenes, atmosphere etc), it’s intrinsically expressionist in nature. Very reminiscent of works by German expressionist film-maker, Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). Though I’m sure French Impressionist aficionados will argue with this. And they would have every right to, as the film (whether intentional or not) also pays homage to the early, experimental works of the great Luis Buñuel. Either way, this will put into context for you, that this isn’t your average Sunday-afternoon matinee, but rather a performance art concept masqueraded as a film-noir. It also fits into the horror bracket. Although as a horror it struggles to hit its mark. Throw in some very jazzy underground scenes featuring the legendary West Coast jazz ensemble, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, (which along with the narrators voice and a some sound effects are the only sounds you hear, as the film has no spoken dialogue from the actors whatsoever) and you have yourselves a compelling and ambitious ‘Art-Noir’ film (eventually favouring this term over ‘Beatnik-Noir’!) that needs to be seen to be appreciated.

For those brave enough to give Dementia a chance, and once you get over the initial feeling that your watching an Ed Wood movie, you’ll be pleasantly surprised as to how skilfully director John Parker manages to pull off a project which, on paper, you’d swear was doomed from the start. Personally, I loved Dementia. But like I said at the beginning of this review, maybe I’m just a weirdo!

Alan Fassioms writes on film noir, expressionist cinema, and obscure silent films at his blog Stranger on the 3rd Floor.
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
Articles, Lobby

Guest Post: Alan Fassioms on Uncovering The Mysteries Of The Origins Of Film Noir

TheLastLaugh Guest Post: Alan Fassioms on Uncovering The Mysteries Of The Origins Of Film Noir

The plots and subtexts of Expressionist films often dealt with “intellectual” topics such as madness, insanity, betrayal, and humiliation, as we see here in a still from F.W. Murnau’s 1924 silent classic Der Letze Mann (aka The Last Laugh)

After some encouragement from my Film Noir-loving comrades, I’ve decided not to be modest about my enthusiasm for Film Noir and to share this with you.

Recently I became slightly obsessed with the origins of Film Noir, of which I knew very little about, so decided to do some digging. Boy, did I ever underestimate the incredible journey that I was about to embark upon. It was a journey of discovery that took me through the mysteriously dark, yet compelling archives of silent horror movies, to early divas that shaped the mould for our beloved femme fatales (one of two for whom I developed a slightly unsettling school-boy crush), to the meaning of Pre-Code and the realisation of just how much freedom these early film pioneers were permitted in expressing themselves in the most imaginative ways. The results were often horrific, shocking, slightly perverse and even upsetting to watch sometimes, yet compelling to the end. Nevertheless, they had in common the fact that they were stylish, sexy, incredibly intellectual, and possessed of a charm that would make a grown man weep at their sheer, simple beauty.

I feel that it would be unfair to keep this treasure to myself, and so would like to share it with those yet to discover the mysteries of Film Noir’s origins. I use the term ‘treasure’ deliberately because the journey of discovery into this world is exactly that: a treasure hunt; identifying clues along the way that will lead you further and further back into cinematic history. My own personal treasure-hunt led me as far back as the mid 1910’s. But even here I had the distinct impression that the blueprint for what would later become known as Film Noir, had already been well established.

So you can call this little write-up a map of sorts, if you decide to take on the case! On the way you may encounter the very first femme fatales. You’ll then exuberate: “Oh, wait a minute. Ah, now I see where that came from”. I saw my first fatale in a 1913 German silent  titled Der Student Von Prag (The Student of Prague) directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener. She was quite tame, and not as ‘naughty’ as her counter-part in the 1926 remake of the same name. But still she was distinctly present and up to no good. If you do decide to do some digging yourselves, I would suggest going down the ‘availability’ route, as so much early material has been lost. If you can get hold of anything pre 1930 from any of the following directors, you’ve found yourself a gem and another piece of the puzzle: Fritz Lang; F.W. Marnau; Robert Wiene; and Josef von Sternberg. A good starting point is Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931) and then work your way back through the 1920’s and before.

Alternatively, you may consider yourself a bit of a maverick like me and think, “To hell with that. I’m going to start with material from as far back as I can possibly find and end with M. That makes more sense to me”, then bravo and good luck. That’s a tougher route because you may spend all your time looking for the door to the treasure chamber when you could be inside looking at the treasure itself. But it does indeed make more sense to do it that way starting with The Student of Prague (aka A Bargain with Satan) from 1913. Last I looked, it was available on YouTube. If you can’t find the original version, the 1926 remake, (aka The Man Who Cheated Life) directed by Henrik Galeem, which is just as important as its predecessor. Many critics claim it’s even better, but that’s for you to decide. These silent classic will be your Stranger on a Train pushing forward or back in time.

Obviously none of these films are listed as Film Noir, but rather as horror films, thrillers, crimes or dramas. They are almost all silent films and mostly German (or directed by Germans in Hollywood).

Your assistants on this journey will be YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, IMDB and a multitude of online streaming sites. Finally, here are a few clues to get you started. Beware there is a red-herring among them!

  • German Expressionism (this is a massive clue!)
  • Caligari
  • Eliza La Porta
  • Nosferatu
  • Metropolis
  • Hitchcock
  • Hermann Warm
  • Weimar era
  • Walt Disney
  • George Wilhelm Pabst
  • Louise Brooks
  • Leopold Jessner
  • “An azure-colored celestial being”
  • Paul Wegener

Good luck. I envy you – especially if you have not yet made the acquaintance of Louise Brooks!

Alan Fassioms is a freelance writer and  self-confessed “film noir addict”. You can read more of Alan’s writing on film at his blog Stranger on the 3rd Floor.

 

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.