film noir Archive

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Noir Beat: The Finnish Connection

Film Noir had antecedents in the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and French Poetic Realism in the 30s, but there are movies from other national cinemas that also explored the corrosive aspects of modernity.

Three films that have recently come my way are in this vein. One is a German silent and the other two are later films from Finland. All feature little known actresses with a stunning cinematic presence.

asphalt1929-1

Asphalt (1929 Germany)

While Asphalt (1928), a late silent film from German director Joe May, is perhaps not in the same class as the UFA films of Fritz Lang and other Expressionist luminaries, this modest effort is firmly grounded in the bustling and bohemian life of 20s Berlin. The opening title sequence is a rhythmic documentary survey of the bustle of the modern city punctuated by pneumatic drills breaking up roads. Even tar and cement have a limited life in this burgeoning metropolis. The camera then focuses on a young traffic cop following his banal occupation. But not for much longer. On his way home he gets mixed up with a glamorous gamin who has tried to lift some jewellery from a jeweller. Seduction and circumstance soon envelope the protagonists in a dark web of passion and tragedy. The luminous ex-pat American actress Betty Amann plays the erotic femme fatale with a panache that is sensual yet hesitant, and totally sincere. A gritty melodrama that strives to greatness.

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Stolen Death (1938 Finland)

In 1938 Finnish director Nyrki Tapiovaara made Stolen Death (aka Varastettu kuolema), an elliptical thriller about a revolutionary political cell in Helsinki. Impatient for action the protagonists embark on an ultimately futile and tragic attempt to buy weapons from an arms dealer. A dark erotic triangle frustrates the actions of the fervent group of naïve young radicals. Romance, subterfuge, and betrayal are played out on urban streets and in deep focus, and mostly as a silent film, with many enigmatic scenes serving to enhance the intrigue. The moody expressionist cinematography and the tragic scenario pulsate with poetic realism. The doomed heroine played by Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo. A great film.

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Cross of Love (1946 Finland)

Director and writer Teuvo Tulio produced a string of Finnish melodramas in the 30s and 40s. Last year I reviewed The Way You Wanted Me (1944 aka Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit), a dark frenzied tale of a fallen woman, hurtling along roads of melodrama from an idyllic first love on a rural island to the hell of Helsinki bars and bordellos. From youthful abandon in the sun to a night of decrepit darkness, a young woman’s journey to perdition is one of relentless betrayal by men and by fate. Tulio’s Cross of Love (1946 Rakkauden risti) is yet another torrid melodrama of rural idyll and innocence destroyed by metropolitan decadence. What distinguishes this film is the sublime performance of Regina Linnanheimo as the tragic victim, and a tour-de-force opening sequence around a tempest at sea. The chaotic expressionism of wild scenes featuring a madman in an isolated lighthouse on a stretch of treacherous reef, jumps off the screen with a violence that has you mesmerised. A must-see.

 

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Not the Maltese Falcon: “Take off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun”

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

Hollywood made two attempts at adapting Dashiell Hammett’s pulp masterpiece The Maltese Falcon before John Huston scripted and directed the definitive adaptation in 1941. The stunning serendipity of the casting of Huston’s film defines the characterisations in concrete for all time. Yet it is still worth looking at the earlier movies as they each offer their own flavour and particular piquancy.

In 1931 Roy Del Ruth directed a largely faithful scenario penned by Maude Fulton and titled The Maltese Falcon, starring would-be heartthrob Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and the voluptuous Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly. The studio being Warner Bros. and the times pre-code, the picture has a dark gritty feel, and the sexual sparks between Spade and Wonderly are bright and thunderous.  There is a coy frivolity in their antics even though in the end Bebe gets no reprieve. An early sequence starting with a scene showing a silhouette of a couple kissing in Spade’s office, which then cuts to one focused on a pair of shapely legs leaving the office, has pre-code all over it, and deftly establishes that Cortez’s Spade is definitely a lady’s man. His secretary Effie spends a lot of time on his knee while otherwise engaged in more routine office duties. The rest of the casting got the job done, and it is interesting to see Dudley Digges’ seedy portrayal of a very thin Gutman. Interesting too is seeing Bebe Daniels taking a bath, and her bare shoulders after stripping in Spade’s kitchen to prove she hadn’t palmed some of Gutman’s cash. It all gets serious by the end though.

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Satan Met A Lady directed by William Dieterle in 1936 plays fast and loose with Hammett’s story, and mainly for laughs. Warren Williams as the private dick and femme-fatale Bette Davis chew up the scenery with rambunctious over-the-top portrayals. While a lot of the humour is over-played, ironically the whole affair can be seen as a cheeky satire of film noir made before Hollywood actually made one! While Williams’ exuberance is perhaps too theatrical, Davis is a delight, revelling in screwball antics that still have a whiff of pre-code insouciance. She has the best line in the movie when she is holding a gun to Williams – who throughout dons a hat which must have been borrowed from a nearby Western set – and demands “Take off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun!” Another novelty is the Gutman character played as a matronly but mean old lady. Great fun.

 

Books, Films, Lobby

Noir Beat: Tequila Philosophy

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

I haven’t posted here for a while: I have my own demons to contend with and my attention scatters.

The recent release of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) on Blu-ray coincided with my reading of Dorothy B. Hughes original novel. The film has the same principal characters and the story-line is similar, but when you compare the ethos of Hughes’ story with the film’s screenplay, there is a big disconnect.

The film is a call to good ol’ Americanism. The novel is decidedly down-beat and has a mystical element shaped from a locus of events played out over only a few days in a small New Mexico town during Fiesta. Hughes’ prose explores the tension between the hard-boiled musings of the criminal protagonist, the stoicism of the native Indians, and the pagan-inflected Catholicism of the local Latinos. There is the counterpoint of an unlikely friendship between three very different people: a Gringo desperado named Sailor, a young Indian girl, and Pancho a dirt poor Mexican man who operates a merry-go-round. Pancho’s tequila-fuelled philosophy centres on the local Indians and – to borrow a recent expression of an otherwise high falutin’ intellectual hubris – the end of history:

“Because they do not care -for nothing. Only this their country. They do not care about the Gringos or even the poor Mexicanos. These peoples do not belong to their country. They do not care because they know these peoples will go away. Sometime.” “A long time,” Sailor said, seeing the little shops, the dumps and the dives. It wasn’t easy to get rid of the stuff that brought in the two beets feefty sants. “They can wait,” Pancho said patiently. “The Indians are a proud peoples. They can wait. In time . . .” One thousand years. Two thousand. In time. Maybe it was the way to do things, not to worry about the now, to wait for time to take care of things. What if the measure of time was one thousand, two thousand years? In time everything was all right. If you were an Indian. Maybe that was the terror the stone Indian generated. In time, you were nothing. Therefore you were nothing. He’d had enough of Pancho’s tequila philosophy. Enough of thinking. “Drink up,” he said. “I got to get some sleep. Got business to take care of tomorrow.” Pancho squinted at the small remaining drink. “You promised your sainted mother.” He filled his mouth with the tequila, rinsed it from cheek to cheek, savouring it.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is great. One of the signature noirs. My review from four years ago is here. I love it. But Hughes had more and deeper things to say than Ben Hecht and Robert Montgomery allowed.

Films, Lobby

La Chienne (1931): Darker than Scarlet Street

La Chienne (1931)

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

 Johnny O'Clock (1947)

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)

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.

Time Table (1956)

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 shoot-out on the streets of Tijuana.

 

 

Films, Lobby

Drive a Crooked Road (1954): Dreams on Malibu

Drive A Crooked Road (1934)

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 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 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.
port-of-shadows Double Indemnity 1944 US All the elements of the archetypal film noir  are distilled into a gothic LA tale of greed, sex, and betrayal.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows The Big Sleep 1946 US Love’s Vengeance Lost. Darker than Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. Bogart is tougher, more driven, and morally suspect.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows Body and Soul 1947 US A masterwork. Melodramatic expose of the fight game and a savage indictment of money capitalism. Garfield’s picture.
port-of-shadows Out of the Past 1947 US Quintessential film noir. Inspired direction, exquisite expressionist cinematography, and legendary Mitchum and Greer.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows T-Men 1947 US Mann and Alton offer a visionary descent into a noir realm of dark tenements, nightclubs, mobsters, and hellish steam baths.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows Force of Evil 1948 US Polonsky transcends noir in a tragic allegory on greed and family. Garfield adds signature honesty and gritty complexity .
port-of-shadows Raw Deal 1948 US Sublime noir from Anthony Mann and John Alton. Knockout cast in a strong story stunningly rendered as expressionist art.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows 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 1950 US/UK Dassin’s stark existential journey played out in the dark dives of post-war London as a quintessential noir city.
port-of-shadows The Asphalt Jungle 1950 US Quintessential heist movie transcends melodrama and noir. A police siren wails: “Sounds like a soul in hell.”
port-of-shadows On Dangerous Ground 1951 US City cop battling inner demons is sent to ‘Siberia’. A film of dark beauty and haunting characterisations.
port-of-shadows The Prowler 1951 US Van Heflin is homme-fatale in Tumbo thriller. Director Losey is unforgiving. Each squalid act is suffocatingly framed.
port-of-shadows The Big Heat 1953 US Gloria Grahame as existential hero in Fritz Lang’s brooding socio-realist noir critique.
port-of-shadows Kiss Me Deadly 1955 US Anti-fascist Hollywood Dada. Aldrich’s surreal noir a totally weird yet compelling exploration of urban paranoia.
port-of-shadows Rififi 1955 France Dassin’s classic heist thriller culminating in the terrific final scenes of a car desperately careening through Paris streets.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows 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.
port-of-shadows 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 (Daughter of Horror) 1955

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 (Daughter of Horror) 1955

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

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

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.

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