The Third Man

  • The Third Man
  • Director:  Carol Reed
  • Date:  1949
  • Studio:  London Films Productions (UK)
  • Genre:  Film Noir, Mystery, Drama
  • Cast:  Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White
  • Format:  Black/White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  NTSC, R1 (Criterion Collection)

“Is that what you say to people after death? ‘That’s awkward.’ ” – Holly

“Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins.  Leave death to the professionals.” – Major Calloway

“Look down there, would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000  [English Pounds Sterling] for every dot that you stopped – would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?” – Harry Lime

Holly Martins (Cotten) is a down on his luck American writer who jumps at the chance when his old childhood friend, Harry Lime, offers him a job in post-World War II Vienna. He arrives in a city that’s still literally digging out from the destruction and rubble of war, and a city that’s split into British, American, Russian, and French zones (so having your passport handy is of vital importance), only to find that his friend, Harry Lime, is dead. The police believe it to be an accident. Holly has trouble believing his old friend is dead. He starts to investigate – at first, merely to learn what happened. He talks to various people, the porter at Harry’s building who witnessed a few things about the time of the accident, Harry’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, other friends of Harry’s, and becomes suspicious that not only was Harry’s death not an accident – but that something odd is going on in Vienna.

Harry also has several encounters with Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British police for the British section, and his aide, Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee). When he takes his suspicions to the police, he’s told, not unkindly, that even if Lime was murdered, the police won’t waste resources investigating – because the man was a racketeer, involved in the Black Market, and most importantly he was involved in a scheme to steal, cut, and re-sell penicillin to sick and injured men, women and children – that resulted in several deaths, and a number of children with meningitis. As first, Holly doesn’t believe his old friend would be involved in such a scheme. Later in the film, Major Calloway shows him proof of Harry Lime’s involvement, and Holly reluctantly believes it. Still later on – Calloway takes Holly to a hospital ward filled with children who were left mentally disabled because of the tainted medicine and the resulting meningitis. There is considerable restraint in the scene, the audience doesn’t see the sick children – only doctors and nurses tending to them, some shadows and medical charts, and the reactions of Holly, Major Calloway, and Sgt. Paine.

Holly also spends time with Anna, Harry’s girlfriend. He begins to develop feelings for her – and she seems to return those feelings, but it’s not to be.

About halfway through the film, when Holly’s considering leaving Vienna altogether, he actually meets Harry Lime, who isn’t as dead as everyone thought.

The second half of the film turns into more of a moral dilemma for Holly. Harry wants him to join him in another scheme to make money, that would probably harm as many people as his last one if not more. Holly tries to get Anna to go with him – but she’s still in love with Harry. Anna’s been having her own problems – she’s living with a false passport, perhaps even a false name – because, as a Czechoslovakian she would be sent to Russia. Anna’s reactions throughout the film are influenced by her blaming Holly somewhat for getting her in trouble with the police and her undying and unexplained love for Harry Lime.

Meanwhile, Major Calloway holds his duty to turn Anna over to the Russians, because she’s an illegal immigrant, and the carrot of arranging her freedom over Holly as well.

Holly agrees to set-up Harry after Major Calloway presents him with proof of Lime’s involvement in the drug stealing and selling scheme. They also discover that the person buried in Harry’s grave is the missing hospital porter Calloway’s been looking for.

However, an encounter with Anna again shakes Holly’s resolve, he meets with Harry Lime, who turns out to be a real sociopath. Harry does not take up Lime on his implied offer to go into illegal business together someplace outside of Vienna.

Holly goes back to Calloway – who this time shows him the children in the hospital. Holly resolves to set-up Lime to help the police, especially as Calloway lets him have Anna’s passport back.

Anna – gets off the train (Calloway had also supplied a ticket out of Vienna), she sees Holly and blows up at him because she knows he’s setting up Harry. She even rips up her forged passport.

The conclusion of the film is a chase in Vienna’s sewers, as Holly, then the Major and his troops, then police from the other districts of Vienna all chase down Harry Lime.

The brilliance of this film isn’t in the overall plot, though the dead man who isn’t dead was probably somewhat novel at the time – the brilliance is in the details. The cinematography of this film is just incredible. Director Carol Reed uses all sorts of unusual, tilted, and strange camera angles, which alongside the strange score, act to put the audience at unease. This odd setting emphasizes for example, Holly’s isolation and grasping need to trust somebody. It sets all the characters apart, especially Harry Lime who towers over the film, despite not really being in it all that much. Lime is the “Third Man” of the title – referring to a Third Man who witnessed Harry’s death as described by a witness, whom everyone else involved denies was even there. The discovery of a “Third Man” is an early clue that Holly discovers and uses to try to find out who “killed” Harry Lime.

The setting of this film is also unusual. Vienna is literally pulling itself out of rubble. Piles of concrete, and stone dust, and bombed out buildings are in nearly every shot. Nothing looks new and almost nothing is whole. There is evidence of war in nearly every scene. Oddly enough, the sewers are the only structures that seem solid, not crumbling or broken – and they are far underground. But it isn’t just the buildings that are destroyed – the faces of the people, all very old or very young (except the main leads who are all probably in their 30s) – are a visual hint that the able-bodied men are all gone – and good young women don’t appear on the streets. Anna, who works in a theater singing comedy opera in German, isn’t exactly what the times would have called a “good woman”. The faces of the bit players, and the few people in the streets, have character – but they have also seen pain and destruction.

Overall, I would highly recommend watching The Third Man at least once. Visually it’s a film not to be missed, despite the bleak setting. I’d say it really needs to be seen because of the bleak setting.

Recommendation:  See it
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Suspicion

  • Title: Suspicion
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
  • Date: 1941
  • Genre: Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Leo G. Carroll, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce
  • Format: B/W, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“I’m honest because with you I think it’s the best way to get results.” — Johnnie

“Monkey-face, I’ve been broke all my life!” — Johnnie

Suspicion starts like any light romantic comedy. Johnnie (Cary Grant) meets Lina on a train and tries to pick her up, but she’s unimpressed. They run into each other again at a fox hunt. He talks her for a walk on a Sunday and makes a date for later that afternoon. Lina announces this to her parents, but he breaks their date for that afternoon, and for a week, Lina is miserable because she hasn’t seen him in so long. However, he returns just in time for the hunt ball. Very soon after, Lina sneaks out of her parents’ house and the two are married at the registry office. The two go on a whirlwind European honeymoon, then return to a new house – where Lina discovers that Johnnie has no money.

Suddenly, instead of a light romance, the film resembles Gaslight. Over and over, Lina picks up on her husband acting weirdly, or suspiciously. But she has no proof, no idea what’s really going on, and every time Johnnie’s money troubles seem to catch up with him, he suddenly comes up with the money he needs (such as a £2000 pound windfall that Johnnie claims he got from the track). Lina notices her husband is fascinated with detective and murder stories… but at first, thinks nothing of it. But when Johnnie’s dear friend, Beaky, dies under mysterious circumstances, Lina goes to their mutual friend Isobel, a mystery writer. Isobel talks about her recent mystery, where a man causes another man to walk over a weakened footbridge and fall to his death. Isobel says that morally it’s murder if the first man knew the bridge was weak. She then casually says “It’s the same with Johnnie’s friend, Beaky.” Beaky had died after drinking a large amount of brandy in a drinking contest – despite his allergy to brandy. Lina freaks at this because she knows that Johnnie knows about Beaky’s allergy and that Beaky would sometimes still drink brandy even though it caused him to have fits, and trouble breathing. Later, Isobel, her husband, Lina, Johnny, and a strange blond woman dressed as a man have a dinner party. Johnnie’s dinner conversation though not only focuses on murder but on untraceable poisons. Lina’s so freaked she won’t let him into her bedroom that night.

Things finally come to a head when Lina decides to go home to spend a few days with her mother. Johnnie insists on driving her. On a winding road, Lina thinks he’s trying to kill her, but he pulls her back into the car, then yells at her. When they talk, Lina comes to the conclusion that Johnnie was considering suicide as a way out of his money problems, and for her to get his insurance money to settle his debts for once and for all. Lina throws herself into his arms, and they drive back towards their house.

In Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman gradually comes to realize that her husband is a criminal who only married her to have access to the empty house next to hers, where he thinks there’s a treasure. The husband manipulates his wife, trying to make her think she’s going insane – and she’s only saved at the last minute by a kind policeman.

Suspicion is much more unsettling. Cary Grant is very menacing – and switches from his “happy go lucky”, “everything is fine” personality to someone who is truly scary like lightning. He clearly seems to not only not want to work, but to only have a talent for losing money – and he routinely borrows money to pay off his most insistent debtors. Yet, at the same time, Joan Fontaine’s Lina seems almost paranoid. We see her getting little pieces of evidence that her husband’s up to no good, such as when she goes to visit him at his office and learns from his employer and a family friend (played brilliantly by Leo G. Carroll) that Johnnie was fired weeks ago after £2000 went missing from the business. But each time she finds something out, he has an explanation and she forgives him and realizes that she loves him.

What makes the film brilliant is that because of Grant’s superb acting, and the way he flips back-and-forth between menace and light-hearted kindness, one is never sure of his motives. Does he want to kill his wife for her money? It doesn’t appear so, he never actually does anything to her. Yet, at the same time, he’s almost slimy in the way that he always has an answer for everything. At times, Lina seems very alone, but at others, she has no problem going out – she visits Isobel with no problems, and sees other friends who seem jealous of her relationship with Johnnie. Suspicion is a masterful, and short (only 99 minutes) film with no concrete endings. I highly recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Swing Time

Batman Year One

  • Title: Batman: Year One
  • Directors: Sam Liu, Lauren Montgomery
  • Date: 2011
  • Studio: Warner Brothers Animation
  • Genre: Action, Drama, Animation, Film Noir
  • Cast: Bryan Cranston, Ben McKenzie, Eliza Dushku, Katee Sackhoff
  • Format: Color, Widescreen Animation
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

The animation in this film is very impressive — it’s difficult to get a gritty, dark look to animation, yet Batman: Year One manages to do so. This film impressively keeps the look of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One from the Batman comic book published by DC Comics. This is also Jim Gordon’s story, and cast in the role of Lt. James Gordon is Bryan Cranston, who does a good job.  The film is also real film noir stuff. Film Noir doesn’t have heroes, it has protagonists. The difference being a hero is frequently perfect (or can be thought of as perfect or trying to obtain perfection. Superman is a hero — invulnerable to anything bar Kryptonite, immortal, and always, always doing the perfect thing without errors or mistakes). A protagonist is much more realistic — Batman, in whatever guise you find him, has always been a protagonist.

Batman: Year One, though, makes Jim Gordon the protagonist. He’s an honest cop, which is dangerous in a town with a dishonest and corrupt police force. He’s just moved to Gotham City, after turning in a dirty cop to Internal Affairs in another city, and not being thanked for his efforts. But Gordon is no perfect angel. He has an affair while his wife is pregnant. He watches and waits as he’s introduced to the corruption in the Gotham PD, but he isn’t anxious to make the same mistakes he did before. And he’s tough.

Batman: Year One, is also the story of Gotham City. A nightmare town, full of danger, violence, graft, corruption, and sex. Catwoman starts off as a hooker. She’s also trying to protect a young girl who’s starting in the trade as well when Bruce meets her for the first time. Gotham is rough, scary and dark — and it needs the Dark Knight as a protector. This is a city that understands when Batman says, “I am the dark, I am the night, I am Batman.”

Unfortunately, Batman doesn’t get to utter that line, or any other seminal Batman lines of Bruce claiming his identity as his own. Part of the problem is the actor they got for Batman/Bruce (Ben McKenzie) just doesn’t do a very good job. I can’t believe this guy as Batman, he just doesn’t work. Why, oh why, couldn’t they have asked Kevin Conroy back? Or at least Bruce Greenwood? This Batman is too weak and doesn’t work as Bruce either. A good Batman must also always be able to carry the part of Bruce Wayne, something Christain Bale and Kevin Conroy could do. In this version, Bruce is either WAY over-the-top, or so morose he sounds semi-suicidal. Neither is right for Bruce Wayne, not even a young Bruce Wayne.

Alfred is also practically non-existent in this film. One of the advantages of early Batman stories, is they tend to use Alfred more. And the Alfred and Bruce relationship has always been one of my favorites in the Batman mythos. (The other is Batman and Nightwing. And there’s a similarity between those two relationships. Alfred is very much a father to Bruce — he raised him and is the only person in the entire DC universe to have any idea what Bruce was like before that fatal night. Bruce, in turn, raised Dick Greyson, and he’s very much a father to the younger man.) There was a missed opportunity, by showing Alfred hardly at all.

But if Alfred is practically non-existent in Batman: Year One, it’s ironic, given the title of the film, that Batman really doesn’t get much screen time. This is Gordon’s story, it’s Gotham’s story, but it sure isn’t Batman’s story — and therefore it misses the boat. I was disappointed, for I did have high hopes. So, yes, the film is good, and the animation is incredible, but it’s not great (as it should be), and that’s to be laid at the feet of a major casting misstep.

Recommendation: See it at least, it’s worth it for the noir story.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Sunset Boulevard

  • Title:  Sunset Boulevard
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date: 1950
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast:  William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Jack Webb
  • Format:  Standard, Black/White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I just think a picture should say a little something.”– Betty
“Oh, one of the message kids, just a story won’t do.  You’d’ve turned down Gone with the Wind.”– Joe
“No, that was me.  I said, Who wants to see a Civil War picture.”– Sheldrake

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”– Norma Desmond

“Still wonderful, isn’t it?  And no dialogue.  We didn’t need dialogue, we had Faces.”– Norma

“Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture.  They think the actors make it up as they go along.”– Joe

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is one of the best movies made about movies, ever.  It’s also an excellent Film Noir, filmed by one of Film Noir’s best directors, Billy Wilder. The dialogue sparkles, and much of this film is quotable.  The characters are sympathetic, but doomed – as is characteristic of Noir films.

Sunset Boulevard is the story of Joe Gillis, down on his luck Hollywood screenwriter, and Norma Desmond – once queen of the silent silver screen, now all but forgotten in her decrepit Hollywood mansion. The film opens with a shot looking up at a dead body floating in a swimming pool. Narration sweeps the viewer into the story, telling us how Joe ended up in the swimming pool. Yes, this is the second time Wilder’s started a film with his protagonist dead or dying and used narration to explain how he wound up in such a state (the other being the wonderful Double Indemnity). Joe’s a writer, but he’s hit a “slow” point, so much so that he’s three months behind on the rent on his apartment, and his car is about to be repossessed. Without his car, Joe’s in trouble, so he dodges the finance company, which leads him to Norma Desmond’s mansion — he gets a flat and pulls into her garage.

Norma, once Queen of Silent Films, has now gotten old and lives in seclusion with her butler, Max. Joe introduces himself to her, recognizing her, but really has no interest, he only wants to hide out until he can get the money to pay what he owes on the car. But Norma is fascinated by this young man, thrown into her clutches by fate. When he tells her he’s a writer, she shows him her script for “Salome”. It’s truly dreadful, and about 600 pages too long, but Joe reluctantly accepts a job as editor/re-writer/ghost writer.

And thus begins Joe’s descent. He becomes a “kept man”, with Norma buying him gifts of fancy clothes, jewelry, watches, cuff  links, etc. Joe, a “plain speaking” sort, isn’t impressed with Norma’s gifts, but he’s caught in her web and helpless to get himself out.

At the beginning of the film, just prior to meeting Norma, Joe has a meeting at Paramount Pictures with Mr. Sheldrake, to plug his new baseball picture. The meeting goes nowhere, though he meets Betty Schaefer, a script reader with aspirations to be a writer. They meet later in the picture, when Betty tries to convince Joe to develop about six pages of his failed script into a full-length movie. They meet again and begin to work on the new script together, and even start to fall for each other. But their relationship is doomed because she’s engaged to his best friend, Artie (Jack Webb); and Joe, though he’s not in love with the much older Norma Desmond, feels a certain responsibility to her.

Every time it seems that Joe might break away from Norma… and find happiness with friends his own age like Artie and Betty, he’s drawn back.

Meanwhile, Norma lives in the past, watching her movies on a theater screen in her home. (Something Joe scoffs at… one wonders what he’d think of the VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray market today?) She even performs live shows for Joe once in awhile. Once a week, what Joe describes as “her waxworks” come to play bridge, they are cameos of other classic silent era film stars. Norma is an aged beauty, and she hasn’t handled the fact well. Partially because of Hollywood’s standards of young perfection, but also partially because she was never able to change with the times or re-invent herself. Which is a fate of many Hollywood stars, especially women.

Norma finally drops off her script for “Salome” in person to Cecil B. De Mille (played by De Mille himself). When an aide at Paramount calls her, she instructs Max to hang up… playing hard to get. She later goes to the studio in person and meets De Mille. While he’s checking out the calls she’s received, an old lighting gaffer recognizes her, and turns a huge floodlight on her. Soon behind-the-scenes people and actors alike are flocking around her with cries of, “Norma Desmond!” and “It’s Norma Desmond!” and “I thought she was dead!”. De Mille, meanwhile, discovers that the calls were about her car… someone wanted it for a Crosby picture. De Mille decides to save Norma’s feelings by not telling her, and even promises to shoot “Salome” after his current film.

Norma returns home and books every type of beauty treatment she can. Joe gets even more frustrated, but won’t leave, he can’t leave.

Finally, Joe starts sneaking out during the evening to meet Betty and work on their script, “Dark Windows”, a romance. They start to fall for each other. But Joe doesn’t want to break up the engagement between Betty and Artie. Norma also becomes jealous and even calls Betty to tell her “what kind of man he is”. Joe catches Norma at this, invites Betty over, then cruelly explains his circumstances. He’s driving her away because Artie’s a nice guy. After Betty leaves, Joe goes to his room, grabs his suitcase, and begins packing – taking only his own clothes, and leaving the rest. Norma has a fit… and in her anger, shoots him three times (and thus, Joe winds up in the swimming pool). Later, reporters, police, detectives, and others gather. By this time, she’s gone completely mad and has no idea where she is or what’s going on. Max, her director, and first husband, directs her down the stairs, and with newsreel cameras rolling, she delivers her speech about how great it is to be back in pictures, and the film’s immortal last line:  “Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.  All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Sunset Boulevard is brilliant. It’s dark, and chilling, and Joe, a perfectly nice guy, a writer from Ohio who came to Hollywood to make it big, and died in a swimming pool, is both a warning and a ideal protagonist. The film’s theme is broken dreams: Norma became a star at sixteen, but now she’s fifty and has no one, and no concept of how to live in the world. Joe only wanted to become a working writer in Hollywood, and, well, didn’t. The film is the antithesis of  the rags-to-riches tale that is so popular in the American psyche and in Hollywood films and musicals in particular. It’s also a tale of how Hollywood uses beautiful women and then spits them out to replace them with someone younger, and more beautiful (though that’s implied not explicit). I love this film, and Billy Wilder’s directing. And, again, as in most Film Noir films, the dialogue sparkles.

I highly, highly recommend Sunset Boulevard. If you’ve never seen it, make a resolution to watch it, you won’t be disappointed.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Superman/Batman:  Apocalypse

L.A. Confidential

  • Title: L.A. Confidential
  • Director: Curtis Hanson
  • Date: 1997
  • Studio: Warner Brothers, Regency Entertainment
  • Genre: Drama, Mystery, Film Noir
  • Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Straithairn, Simon Baker (Credited as Simon Baker Denny)
  • Format: Widescreen, color
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Come to Los Angeles… there are jobs a plenty and land is cheap…”— Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito)

“I admire you as a policeman, particularly your adherance to violence as an adjunct to the job.” — Police Captain Dudley Smith to Lt. Bud White

“How’s it going to look in your report?” — Det. Lt. Exley
“It’ll look like justice. That’s what the man got, justice.”— Lt. Bud White

LA Confidential is a brilliant modern film noir. The film weaves deep layered characters into a complex plot of police corruption, graft, drugs, and murder. All the actors give brilliant performances. Russell Crowe, in an very early role, is Lt. Bud White, police captain Smith’s “enforcer” with a soft spot for abused women. Watching his journey from tough guy and bruiser to someone who actually starts to figure out what’s going on and who stops just following orders and starts to think — even when solving the case leads right back to the police department — is a joy in this film. Guy Pearce is the college-educated “new cop” who isn’t afraid to testify against other dirty cops, as long as it allows him to get ahead. But he too has to make decisions — does he “do what he’s told, and reap his reward” or does he follow a more difficult path and expose the corruption he and Bud have uncovered? And brilliant as always Kevin Spacey as “Hollywood Jack” Vincennes, who’s a technical advisor on the TV cop drama “Badge of Honor” (think “Dragnet”) and partners with tabloid reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito) accepting payments to pass along info about upcoming busts so the reporter can photograph them. Sid, a pioneer in bottom-feeding tabloid journalism, and publisher of the tabloid “Hush-Hush” regularly gives Vincennes gifts and bribes, as well as passing along information. In other words, their partnership is two-way.

The film weaves a complicated plot, starting with the beating, in the LA lock-up, of several Mexican-Americans, resulting in the expulsion of several bad cops and the meeting of our characters and seeing how they react. Vincennes is transferred between departments and temporarily taken off “Badge of Honor” as Technical Advisor. White refuses to roll on his partner, or become a snitch. Exley not only offers up info as a snitch, but gives advice on how to get to other cops, though this gets him a promotion – it doesn’t endear him to the other cops. After “Bloody Christmas” but before the trial even starts, there’s a mass shooting at the Nite Owl coffee shop, one of the victims is White’s disgraced partner. The hunt for the killers leads to three young black men, who are brought in, questioned, escape, and then are caught again and killed.

However, all three of our main characters soon realize that the three men, though guilty of kidnapping and raping a young Mexican girl, aren’t guilty of the Nite Owl killings. And, again, the investigation, though it also involves a millionaire who’s running a high-class call girl outfit of girls “cut to look like movie stars” and heroin, ultimately leads right back to the police department. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you reading this who haven’t seen this brilliant Noir film.

This film starts with a sarcastic voice-over, by Danny Devito, describing the bright, sunny, perfect California that’s being sold as an image — only to expose a dark, dirty, and very corrupt underbelly.  Irony underlies a lot of the picture (such as showing the ground-breaking ceremony for the Santa Monica freeway “LA to the beach in 20 minutes”). But the characters also present an opening image that changes throughout the film — Bud White starts as a tough, an enforcer, a brutal cop, albeit with a soft spot for battered women and kids, but he develops, putting together a lot of the clues leading to an explanation of what really is going on. Exley seems like the college-educated “new cop” who won’t be able to hack it in the field – yet, he also manages to prove his smarts and his investigative chops, as well as his ability to handle violence when needed. Vincennes, “Hollywood Jack” has somehow lost his way. Asked, “Why’d you become a cop?” He answers, “I can’t remember”. Jack is like the tough, hard-boiled, cynical protagonists of a lot of Classic Noir. Yet, like those protagonists, his journey in the film is to discover that he can’t turn a blind eye to the corruption around him any more, especially when he inadvertently causes a young male actor/hooker to get murdered. There’s more to Jack than the smoothness one first sees.

The film is set in the 1950s, but the historical detail, though there, is not at the forefront of the film. The score is fantastic from Jerry Goldsmith’s original instrument themes, to the use of period music by Johnny Mercer and Dean Martin. The film also gets physically darker, as the characters discover the true darkness around them.

I highly, highly recommend this film. It has brilliant acting, brilliant writing, a dense, complex plot, and the feel of a true Noir film, but made in a modern style. The film is very intelligent — both the writing and dialogue and the plot. And, though violent and bloody at times, it’s still quite, quite worth seeing.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Notorious

  • Title: Notorious
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date: 1946
  • Studio: RKO
  • Genre: Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD format: R1, NTSC, (Criterion Collection, single disc)

“Waving the flag with one hand and picking pockets with the other, that’s your patriotism.” – Alicia

“I’ve always been scared of women, but I get over it.” – Devlin

In Hitchcock’s Notorious, Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, whose father’s been tried for treason, found guilty and jailed. We later learned that he “died in his cell”, which is only marginally better than “shot while trying to escape”. Bergman is indifferent to her father’s death, knowing he was a traitor (or as he put it in a recorded conversation – loyal to Germany and his own pocket) – but seems apolitical. She is, however, a hopeless alcoholic, even driving drunk. She meets Devlin at one of her parties and quickly discovers he’s an American agent. He brings her to his bosses to use as an agent. Reluctantly, she agrees and the two fly off to Rio. It’s interesting to note that Alicia’s friends had also wanted her to take a vacation, but suggested Cuba!!! Anyway, once in Rio, Alicia, and Devlin discover what the job is that Devlin’s un-named agency wants her to do. She’s to become romantically involved with Claude Rains’ character, a man she knew as a young girl, and someone who seems to be supporting some shady scientists, though to what end is unknown – that is what Alicia is to find out. Devlin isn’t happy about Alicia’s assignment, because the two have fallen for each other. Alicia, however, agrees. She quickly forms an attachment to Rains — and even marries him. Devlin, meanwhile, becomes her handler – but gets more and more angry to see the woman he loves with another man.

Despite it’s fantastic cast – Notorious is a very, very slow moving film. Yes, the tension does build up, especially when Rains’ mother discovers Alicia is an agent and begins to poison her coffee, but the pacing is so slow as to be irritating instead of suspenseful. I actually found Rains to be the most fun – it’s nice to see him in a juicy “bad guy” role as opposed the to lighter characters he normally plays. Bergman is excellent as the newly minted tough-as-nail agent, but her easy submission into taking the poisoned coffee (and not realizing there might be a reason she feels so sick) undercuts her strong woman persona. Grant, of course, rescues her at the end, but the film still has a strange ending (they leave the house, but we don’t know, for sure, if Grant got to her in time for the poisoning to be reversed). All in all – I think Notorious is a good example of a film that would work better as a TV series. I’d have loved to see a pair of secret agents – one male, one female, who gradually fall for each other – and eventually marry. It could be especially interesting if the woman still must “honeytrap” other spies as part of her job. A TV series, however, could gradually work the relationship of  “Alicia” and “Devlin” – making it more realistic, as well as dealing with the difficulties of a couple in such a dangerous profession.

But, getting back to the film, Grant is fantastic in Notorious – giving a subtle performance, and projecting a core of steel and violence. I loved that.

Overall, though Notorious has it’s good points and an excellent cast, it’s like a novel by a great writer who needs an editor and without one writes books which are overly long. The film really needed to be tightened up, the pacing improved, and the ending needs to be more concrete and less confusing.

Still, I would recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Philadelphia Story

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

  • Title: The Maltese Falcon (1931)
  • Director: Roy Del Ruth
  • Date: 1931
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Genre: Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“This is murder and don’t you forget it!”  — Police Detective Dundee

This film is one of two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett classic mystery included on the Warner Brothers three-disc special edition of the classic Film Noir version starring Humphrey Bogart from 1941. I actually avoided watching it for over a week. However, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be. It’s no classic, but it’s not a disaster either.

Richard Cortez plays Sam Spade as a hopeless flirt, who trades quips with his secretary and is definitely having an affair with his partner’s wife (something alluded to in the 1941 edition, but definitely toned down). Archer, moreover, knows about his wife’s indiscretions. The only woman Sam doesn’t seem to flirt with, is his client, Ms. Wonderly.

Since we actually see Archer in this film, he’s slightly more sympathetic.

Watching the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is very much like watching a stage play version of a favorite film. Much of the dialogue is the same or recognizable, but it’s delivered completely differently by a different crew of actors, none of whom are well-known. I didn’t mind flirty Sam Spade, though Bogart gives a much more nuanced and haunted performance. Bogart’s Spade is a man on the edge. Cortez breezes through the film like he’s having a grand time, and even reminded me a bit of Errol Flynn. Bebe Daniels, in a way, I actually liked better than Mary Astor. At least she’s fairly straight-forward, even when she’s lying to Sam. (This version drops her multiple identities from the plot). But the bit players – Cairo, Gutman, even Wilbur are very bland here. The 1941 version is much better with Peter Lorre, Syndey Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr.

This film is much shorter (around 71 minutes), and less complicated. And, like a play, many larger (more expensive to film) scenes are dropped or mentioned but not shown (we never see Archer’s body, or the burning of La Paloma, the ship that brings the Falcon to San Francisco). Also cut is some of Sam’s wandering around the streets of his city, thinking things over.

  • Recommendation:  Skip it, unless you happen to get a free version as an extra, then you may as well watch it.
  • Rating:  2.5 Stars
  • Next Film:  Mary Poppins

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  • Title:  The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • Director:  John Huston
  • Date:  1941
  • Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama, Mystery, Film Noir
  • Cast:  Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“That’s good coming from you. What have you ever given me besides money? Ever given me any of your confidence, any of the truth? Haven’t you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?” — Sam Spade

“Our private conversations have not been such that I am anxious to continue them. Forgive my speaking blunting but it is the truth.”  — Joel Cairo

“I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”  — Kasper “The Fat Man” Gutman

The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel almost defines the genre of Film Noir, though for Noir films, I prefer Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The Maltese Falcon is a tad long, and rather confusing, even after several viewings (and I have seen this film several times over the years). However, it still does have many Noir hallmarks:  the snappy, fast dialogue, the designing woman (or femme fatale), and introduces the Noir staple of the tough-as-nails, but honest, private detective.

Bogart, and the rest of the cast, which includes Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, as well as Elisha Cook, Jr. and Mary Astor are all good, and excellently cast in their roles. And this film is from the heyday of Warner Brothers, when the studio turned out dozens if not hundreds of Noir films (including their gangster films) a year. This is also a breakout film for Bogart, moving him from day player at Warner’s (oddly enough often playing “heavies” simliar to Cook’s role in this film) to leading roles.

The plot, involving the chase for the the Falcon (often called “The Black Bird”, and once, by Spade, “The dingus”), is more of a McGuffin — the real plot, and the driving force of the film is the murder of Spade’s partner, Archer, at the beginning of the film. This murder is nearly forgotten until the end, when the audience discovers that Sam hasn’t forgotten, at all, what happened to Archer. And, despite the fact that Sam may have had an affair with Archer’s wife (or she at least has a crush on him, she pretty much throws herself at Spade, while still in Widow’s Weeds), he still considers it his duty to do something about the murder of his partner, no matter what. Sam is an honorable man and will keep his honor, whatever the cost. Thus it is the conclusion of the film that is excellent and memorable.

The look of the film is great, and it’s set in atmospheric San Francisco, which helps, though I doubt it was filmed there.

Overall, The Maltese Falcon is one of those classic films one just really needs to see, and appreciate and occasionally re-watch. For such a dark film, enjoyable isn’t really the correct word, but it is a very good film, and an important contribution to Film Noir.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Lost Weekend

  • Title:  The Lost Weekend
  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Date:  1945
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast:  Ray Milland, Jane Wyman
  • Format:  Standard, Black & White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I’m trying, I’m trying…”  — Don
“I know you’re trying, Don, we’re both trying.  You’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you.”  — Helen

“Ever lie in your bed looking out the window?  A little daylight’s coming through and you start to wonder — is it getting lighter or getting darker?  Is it dawn or dusk?”  — Don

The words “film noir” usually conjure up images of PIs in fedoras walking down dark misty streets; femme fatales, and intricate plots about the darker side of  life.  But film noir also had another side, that of  films like The Lost Weekend – which is a realistic portrayal of an alcoholic on a bender.  The only other film about alcoholism that I can possibly think of is Sandra Bollock’s 28 Days — and that focused on recovery.  The Lost Weekend focuses on Don, an alcoholic, and his slide from taking one drink to a hopeless bender on a weekend.

When the film opens, Don and his brother Wick are in Don’s apt, packing for a weekend in the country.  Helen, Don’s girl arrives, and they quietly discuss how much Don needs the time away from everything, “after everything he’s been through”.  What Don has been through isn’t specified — the characters know but the audience doesn’t.  Don jumps through some hoops to get Wick and Helen out of his apartment. He’s hidden a bottle of  booze, and wants to sneak a drink.  But Wick finds the bottle and dumps it in the sink.

His brother and his girl leave, and Don is left alone.  The land lady arrives, saying that Wick should have left the rent for her ($10.00 !!!!!).  Don tells her he didn’t, then takes the money and goes out and buys two bottles of rye.  He then goes to his neighborhood bar, and starts drinking with the change.  He asks the bartender to tell him when it’s a quarter to six, so he can meet his brother for the train to the country. Needless to say, he misses the train.

Don continues to drink his way through the weekend, alternating between his apartment, Nat’s Bar (his neighborhood bar) and other establishments.  We discover that Don has always wanted to be a writer, and he even published an article when he was still in college, before dropping out.  He met Helen at the opera when their coats were mixed up by the coat check clerk.  Don has an issue with his self-confidence, his fears prevent him from even trying to be a writer.

As his weekend gets more and more hazy, and he becomes more and more desperate, Don decides to pawn his typewriter to get more money for booze — but all the pawnshops are closed because it’s Yom Kipper, and the non-Jewish pawnshops are closed out of courtesy.  Don goes to see Gloria, a woman who frequents Nat’s Bar and asks her for money.  She tries to throw him out, but at the last minute takes pity on him and gives him some money.  But as he’s leaving, he trips over an eight-year old coming up the stairs and falls.  He’s taken to the hospital, unconscious, and wakes up in the alcoholic wing.  After a harrowing experience, he goes home, exhausted and spent. (but he also steals a quart of rye on his way home).

By this time, his girl, Helen has gotten quite worried about him — she’d left a note for him on his door, tried Nat’s bar, and he even finds her in front of his apartment door asleep.  She tries to discourage him, but won’t leave.  Eventually, he takes Helen’s leopard coat, the one she was wearing when they met.  She thinks he’s going to pawn it for money, and blows up at him.  But then she finds out he took the coat to swap it for a gun.

Helen rushes to his apartment.  She tries to talk to him. Don keeps trying to throw her out of  the apartment, telling her goodbye.  Then there’s a knock on the door, it’s Nat, returning Don’s typewriter, which was left at Gloria’s.  Don finally calms down.  Helen tells him he needs to finish his novel, “The Bottle”, and the movie ends on an artificially happy note.

Overall, The Lost Weekend is a dark and depressing film.  But  the ending feels very tacked on, and very artificial.  I somehow think the censorship boards forced the “happy” ending.  Anyway, Billy Wilder’s direction is marvelous, and the story moves along at a good clip.  The dialog feels more real than other films of the period as well.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Lord of  the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (2 disc Theatrical ed.)
Note on Lord of  the Rings — I have the 2 disc and the 4 disc versions of  all three films.  I will watch the two discs first of all three films in order, then the four discs of all three films.

Gaslight (1944)

  • Title:  Gaslight
  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Date:  1944
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir, Suspense, Classic
  • Cast:  Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC, (Double-sided)

“I was right about you — I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to me.” — Gregory
“I knew from the first moment I saw you, you were dangerous to her.” — Mr. Brian Cameron, Scotland Yard

I’ve always thought that Gaslight is one of the scariest movies to watch. It’s spine-tingling and chilling, rather than gross, or shocking. The best way to get the full effect, is to watch it with all the lights off, at night, when you’re alone in the house, and of course a thunderstorm helps. There is nothing scarier than the idea of someone coldly trying to drive you insane. Films about those kinds of mind games are truly frightening.

The movie opens with Paula leaving her aunt’s house, she thinks for the last time. She had been raised by her aunt, after her mother died in childbirth. She’s been encouraged to go to Italy to study singing and forget the recent tragedy that’s befallen her. We learn later that her aunt was a famous opera singer and she was murdered. Still later we learn the murder is still unsolved, there was a jewel theft at the same time, but the jewels were never found, sold, or traded.

In Italy, Paula quickly discovers she has no talent for operatic singing, and she meets the man of her dreams, she thinks. After two weeks, he’s proposed. She tells him she needs time to think about it, and wants a week to herself at a lakeside vacation resort. When her train arrives there, he’s waiting for her. He talks her into settling down in London, and even though Paula doesn’t want to return to London, she agrees. The film is, by the way, set in Victorian London. They end up living in Paula’s Aunt’s house, which Paula has inherited.

The film then gets weird – Gregory Anton completely controls his wife’s life. He doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, not even on a short walk (even by Victorian standards, that’s excessive). He fires Paula’s maid, and hires an impertinent girl named Nancy (beautifully played by Angela Lansbury as alternately sinister and flirty). Again, normally the hiring and firing of servants would be a woman’s job.  And he slowly starts to drive Paula insane, giving her things, then taking them away but telling her she lost them. Taking a picture down off the wall, then pointing it out to be missing and saying she did it.  And going out at night, leaving her alone with a deaf cook and rude maid, who do everything he says and thus join in on his mind games of turning down the gaslight (and saying it hasn’t been) and ignoring the footsteps in the closed off attic that Paula hears.

But the genius of  the movie is that it isn’t obvious about any of this. We don’t actually see Gregory take a brooch from Paula’s purse, we only see him fiddle with it. We don’t see him tell the servants to lie to make Paula look nuts either – we only see him tell Nancy she’s to take all her orders from him and not her mistress.

Joseph Cotten is Mr. (Brian) Cameron, a Scotland Yard detective who happens to see Paula with Gregory one day when they are sight-seeing at the Tower of London. Gregory is immensely jealous when Paula smiles at Cameron after he tips his hat to her, but she was merely being polite. Gregory then goes back to the Yard and examines the cold case of Paula’s aunt’s murder, but is told to leave it alone.  Luckily for Paula, he doesn’t.

Paula, Gregory and Mr. Cameron again run into each other at a party thrown by one of Paula’s aunt’s friends. Again, Gregory pulls his slight of hand, telling Paula his watch is gone and pulling it out of her purse – the hysterical Paula is led from the party.

Gregory’s cold, calculating, insidious little plans get worse and worse, as he tells Paula a letter she found in her aunt’s music doesn’t exist and she was staring at nothing, and that her mother didn’t die in childbirth but rather a year later in an insane asylum.

Fortunately, by this time Cameron and a bobby named Williams have started investigating, and find out  Gregory only goes out to “work” at night, they even find that he disappears in an alley behind the house, and comes out looking dirty and dusty, his tie askew. One night, when Gregory has left, Cameron goes to the house and finds Paula, he starts talking to her when the gaslight dims. She’s excited that he also sees the gas lower. Then he hears the footsteps, and, knowing what he does from his own investigation, concludes her husband is poking around in the attic. They also find the letter that Gregory had claimed didn’t exist.

Then the light turns to normal, Paula encourages Cameron to leave, he does, and when Gregory returns he, and Elizabeth try to convince Paula no one was there that evening. Paula starts to break down and Gregory arrives. After a struggle, Cameron arrests Gregory finding the jewels on him.  Paula’s aunt had sewn them on her costume amongst all the paste jewels. Nothing like hiding in plain sight!

But this isn’t a case of the boy rescues the girl. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is masterful – she portrays a deliriously happy bride, and a frightened wife equally well. But her best scene is at the end of the movie, as she turns the tables on her husband, playing the same mind games on him that he had played on her, if only for a short while, before turning him over to Cameron and the police.

The directing, the use of light and shadow, and the acting, especially by the women in the piece is all masterful.  It’s also a flip-flop of the typical Film Noir motif — that usually involves a cunning, conniving, designing woman, known as the femme fatale, dragging a relatively innocent man down into a well of crime and evil, and thus destroying him. In Gaslight, it’s the man who’s cunning, conniving, cold, and chilling, and he’s attempting to drive his wife insane, after murdering her aunt, to get the jewels he didn’t have time to steal because she had interrupted him. (The police knew Paula had awoken, walked down the stairs, and found her aunt dead, but everything else on the case remained open.) Also, where the man often dies as a result of committing a crime for the femme fatale – here Paula not only survives, but in the end, she’s triumphant, discovering she’s not going insane, getting the chance to pay her husband back (who’s secretly married to someone else, and thus not legally her husband), and possibly even finding happiness with the detective who solved the case. How often can a Film Noir film have a truly happy ending? Not often.

Anyway, it’s an incredibly good film, everyone in it does an excellent and admirable job, and I love it. It can be good to watch something spooky occasionally.

Recommendation:  See It!
Rating:  5 Stars
Next film:  Gaslight (1940)