The Weekly Summary #11

cry2I’m afraid I’ll need to keep this a bit shorter than normal, but here’s how the week’s viewing went-

38. The Naked Spur (1953)

39. Shock Waves (1977) – Amazon Prime

40. Cry of the City (1948)

Rocky III (1982) – 4K UHD

41. The Narrow Margin (1952)

Star Trek Picard Season Three : Episode 5 – Amazon Prime

While the worst of the week is an easy one this time around- clearly its Shock Waves, albeit with the caveat that it was not a total stinker and that I still rather enjoyed it. However,  picking a best of the week was actually a bit tricky, as I saw some really good films this week – by chance more than by design, to be sure, but hey that’s the magic of films, always a surprise around the corner. Both Cry of the City and The Narrow Margin were very good noir.

Can get a bit expensive though- The Naked Spur was so good it galvanised me into ordering a  Blu-ray copy from the Warner Bros online store  (a store discount made it cheaper than waiting for Amazon to get it next month). Film collecting is a terrible thing for one’s wallet; you see a good film and its hard to resist the need to physically own a copy. Damn, its a hard habit to break.

But anyway, The Naked Spur it is. When the Blu-ray disc arrives it’ll give me a good excuse to watch it again. Meanwhile, there’s a few more Blu-rays of Westerns on the way too…



Time-travelling through film

CC1One of the delicious pleasures of watching film noir is the escapist element, which is a bizarre thing when I think about it, considering how dark and gloomy they tend to be in subject-matter. Regardless of how cautionary the narratives are, for me the ‘escapist’ element is simply of seeing and ‘being’ in a different world, one that is is another country and also another time. These are images of a reality and world far removed from my own.

PelhamTo be sure, this is a seductive facet of all films; when one watches Dirty Harry, we’re seeing and experiencing a San Francisco that largely doesn’t exist anymore, likewise the same with the New York depicted in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three or Taxi Driver.  Films can sometimes qualify as historical documents as much as entertainments (see Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or Get Carter). Its certainly something more pronounced the further removed in time that the films were made, as the (often everyday) world of their own time is increasingly gone forever (hey, ‘Progress’). Hence part of my particular fondness/fascination with film noir.


In some ways its not far removed at all from my youthful excitement for science fiction and its futuristic worlds. Its much the same thing, really- as I have noted before, an odd thing about the best films that are set in historical periods (like Roman epics) is how the people and locations are as alien to us as in most science fiction films. Sometimes I think its all science fiction. Worlds in which people absolutely and fervently believe in pagan Gods and how They interfere in human Fate (can we ever really think or behave as a Roman or a Viking would?) are just as strange to us as anything in some exotic far-future fantasy.

vaertigo1But there is a magic in those visuals, those moments in time frozen forever, especially, as I have noted, in those 1940s/1950s noir. Its travelling in time. People dress different, society is different, the streets are different, the cars and  trucks and trains are different. Familiar, yes, but still different, something apart from the reality outside of my living-room window.

I wonder if somebody watching our current films in eighty years will watch them with a similar, peculiar fascination.

“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow. You’ve been murdered.” – D.O.A. (1949)

doaD.O.A., Dir. Rudolph Mate, 1949, 83 mins, Talking Pictures TV 

Darn it, I was so chuffed at stumbling upon a rare showing of noir classic D.O.A. in the schedules, a film I’ve been trying to see for a few years now.

The word’s ‘frantic’, ‘dizzying’ and ‘disorientating’ spring immediately to mind regards Rudolph Mate’s 1949 noir thriller D.O.A. Once this film begins it doesn’t let up the mad pace at all; in this respect it feels surprisingly modern, but I actually thought it detracted from what it could have been. A scene in a jazz club (musical numbers a frequent trope of films of the period) features a band careering through a number so fast its a wonder none of the payers keel over (or any of the club patrons, for that matter) and pretty much summarises the film as a whole. It’s a maelstrom of kinetic energy.

Which is the whole point, I suppose- the films premise, after all, regards a dying man’s last hours, racing to identify who poisoned him and why- Edmond O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow is literally a dead man walking. Its a killer premise and one that has gained this film a classic status, but in reality the film doesn’t entirely work and there’s a few issues that for me question if it really deserves that ‘classic’ moniker.

For one, the relationship between Bigelow and his secretary, Paula (Pamela Britton) never convinces. Its something common to some of the films of this period, particularly noir, as if a romance is a mandatory element forced into the script, awkwardly tagged into a story that didn’t have one nor need it. Indeed, it leaves protagonist Bigelow looking like a complete heel, running off to San Francisco for an impromptu break to fool around with whatever dame he can pick up. Maybe we’re supposed to just put it down to male jitters at the prospect of settling down with Paula but it doesn’t show him in a particularly good light, indeed only making it worse when Paula tells him  “…there’s nothing you can do that you ever have to feel guilty about” as if condoning his actions when he departs for his planned debauchery.  It badly ages the film, but worse is what happens once he arrives in San Francisco, with the most astonishing editorial decision I have seen (or rather heard) for a long time- the wolf-whistles that litter the soundtrack whenever Bigelow lecherously eyes some dame that crosses his path are quite jarring, and wouldn’t even fit in a Carry-On movie, never mind a noir thriller… a mind-boggling addition to the film that almost ruins it completely. Some attempt at accentuating the humour, maybe, as if the studio thought the film too dark even for a noir? I actually thought I was watching a copy of the film that had been tinkered with by someone goofing around, it felt so out of place. Its horrible.

The mad pace of the film also left me questioning its own internal logic, indeed it quite confused me during the proceedings regards who did what to whom, and why. Its a mystery that doesn’t really feel substantial enough; a little like how nobody making John  Huston’s The Maltese Falcon really understood that films plot, never mind the viewers of it over the decades since. As regards D.O.A., it was apparently something to do with Bigelow notarizing a bill of sale for a shipment of stolen iridium that could put the crooks who shipped it behind bars, but more so that Bigelow’s death would also cover-up a murder that had been staged to look like a suicide, but it was all played and explained so frantically I must confess I didn’t entirely ‘get’ it – instead it very much felt like watching one of those modern films that disguise plot-holes by editing things so tightly that viewers don’t have the time to take stock and question what’s actually going on. When Bigelow is being shot at or pursued by a trio of thugs, I actually questioned who the hell these guys were, it was like they’d been dumped into it from some other movie. 

Which all makes it sound that I didn’t enjoy D.O.A. at all, which isn’t entirely true, but I was left not at all convinced that the film fully deserves its reputation as a noir classic. To me it was a film that could and should have been a great film let down by its inept execution. Was the crazy pace its undoing, or those wolf-whistles that kept on taking me out of the film, or that unconvincing romantic sub-plot (not at all helped by the film jarring to a sudden halt when Paula arrives in LA and she and Bigelow have a melodramatic parting that could raise sniggers as easily as the sympathy its actually trying for)? There’s too many things wrong about the film weighing down upon what it gets right. Or maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

All I know is, had this been remade in the early ‘fifties with a more skilled director, and maybe John Alton handling its photography, accentuating better the noir -or even horror- aspects of the doomed hero, and maybe a script that dropped the romantic handle or linked the romance to a femme fatale that was involved with the crime (at least then justifying that romance), then I think it would likely have resulted in a much better film. Which is of course that old chestnut of me criticising a film for being what it isn’t, more than what it is. Maybe my coolness to the film on this viewing will thaw upon subsequent watches when I’m more accustomed to its plot and its weird wolf-whistles/ apparent misogyny (for once, here’s a film that possibly deserves a disclaimer before its titles regards representing dated attitudes, something that rarely bothers me but did here). Time will tell.

At least I have more time than Bigelow…

The Weekly Summary #3

company1So here we go with the third week of 2023, and its pretty slim, really-

10. King of Thieves (2018) – Amazon Prime

11. Jack Ryan  (Season One, 2018)  Episodes 6 to 8 – Amazon Prime

12. Larceny (1948) – Blu-ray

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Well, clearly it was one of THOSE weeks when too much got in the way.

I wrote about Larceny (clearly film of the week, but really not much competition) in yesterday’s post. I’d just like to make a few notes regards Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, which I watched on Friday night for the first time in, oh, maybe thirty years- I think the last time I watched it was on a VHS rental. Such a pleasure to see the late David Warner again, I always enjoyed seeing him in films, a great character actor who frequently appeared in genre films and television- I’d actually forgotten he was in this. Isn’t it odd when you watch an old film again for the first time in years and a face turns up?

When I wrote about Larceny, I remarked about just how great Joan Caulfield was in that, and how I was surprised upon seeing that she had very minor success in film, working mostly in television afterwards. I could have very easily noted the same regards Dorothy Hart who played Madeline, the secretary that Rick flirts with, recruits to his con and then dismisses to New York to wait for him in vain. Hart possibly makes even more of an impression than Caulfield, in a much smaller role; she has this elegant, sultry, woman-of-the-world manner that suggests she knows she’s being taken but goes along with it anyway. Her performance suggests she could have gone on to bigger roles but she had even less success than Caulfield, departing Hollywood just a few years after appearing in Larceny and pretty much retiring from the acting game completely.

I note this because there is a very similar situation as regards the actress who stars in The Company of Wolves. Now, the first time I watched this film, many full moons ago, my attention was clearly on the atmosphere, the horror elements and the werewolf effects. This time around I was utterly captivated by the quite remarkable performance of Sarah Patterson who plays the film’s heroine (and Red Riding Hood), Rosaleen. It is a very nuanced, sophisticated performance considering her young age (she was only twelve when cast), having a genuine presence onscreen, especially impressive considering she’s in scenes with the like of David warner and Angela Lansbury (Lansbury soon after to become world-famous in that Murder, She Wrote nonsense). I was genuinely shocked to see that Patterson only made one more film – one of those dodgy Cannon vehicles from that ‘eighties era, Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs in 1987- and left acting entirely, only later appearing in minor roles in two films; Do I Love You? in 2002 and Tick Tock Lullaby in 2007, films I’d never heard of and likely will never have opportunity to see.

So it just seemed curious that this week was a week of noticing actresses in impressive performances which promised great careers which largely never happened. Of course there’s likely nothing really remarkable about this, other than I observed it watching two films in succession, chasing up actress bios on imdb to connect the dots to other roles/films to keep an eye out for, and being shocked to discover the lists were scant indeed. In Patterson’s case, it would seem evident that she always had her eye on some other preferred career, and concentrated on her studies, but it does seem to have been the film-world’s loss. One of those what-if’s I guess (for instance, I did idly wonder what she might have brought to Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen a few years later).

“Stop twisting my arm! People will think we’re married!” – Larceny (1948)

Larceny1948Larceny, Dir. George Sherman, 1948, 79 mins

Not all films are going to punch you between the eyes and leave you dazed at their audacity and brilliance. Some films -most films, really- are more like a slow burn that sneak up on you. If all films were like The Matrix or Jaws or Citizen Kane or The Godfather… well, those are just a few that immediately spring to mind, but if all films were like that, watching films would prove to be exhausting, and I suspect less interesting. What makes the special films what they are is simply that they are special. Which is not to say that all other films are necessarily lesser, but while some films are instantly remembered, revered, countless others which are perfectly fine are released, entertain and then largely consigned to history, forgotten and subsequently rarely encountered. I am constantly bewildered by all those films I have never even heard of which somehow by chance come to my attention and surprise me. They may not be as special as the genuine greats, but they certainly have their worth and don’t deserve to be lost/forgotten.

uninoirI think Larceny, part of Indicator’s Universal Noir #1 boxset, is one of those films; its a fairly minor film, really, largely most interesting because of its cast, regards which there are actually two points I’d like to make here. The first, is regards the better films some of that cast would move on to; that game of connect-the-dots which film-lovers can play, how one film leads to another like some kind of treasure hunt. The other point is regards those members of the cast who really impress here but who strangely don’t seem to have gone on to any great success or necessarily better movies. In this case, its the arrestingly beautiful ladies; Joan Caulfield in particular, who is breath-takingly pretty and gives a performance that deserves a much better movie, and who didn’t go on to those better movies and seemingly had a career that largely languished in 1950s television (probably popular shows at the time but utterly forgotten now). There’s shades of Grace Kelly to her, I think, and I’m very surprised she didn’t find more success in films: admittedly, that’s something I have noted before regards other actresses. Were pretty faces a dime a dozen in Hollywood? Was talent immaterial, or shelf-life (pardon the term) limited with so many younger, fresher faces always waiting in the audition rooms?

So anyway, Larceny is a film which largely just works on its own terms, a story of the dark underbelly of the American Dream which doesn’t draw attention to itself through any visual flourishes typical of noir -instead it just tells its story in a quietly efficient manner. Admittedly the film is possibly more melodrama, more predictable soap opera than the criminal procedural that one might expect, and to be fair, the plot doesn’t really surprise. One won’t be shocked by any noir twists here as one can confidently predict where its going, to the extent that its almost a calmly reassuring watch. There’s no rugs being pulled under the viewer’s legs here.

Dan Duryea (Too Late For Tears, Criss Cross, Scarlet Street, Ministry of Fear), was an actor who was something of a noir staple, here he is in typically fine, no-good form as a con man leading a team of decidedly no-good grifters in post-War America. One can’t underestimate the ill-repute of these swindlers, who don’t care who they cheat or walk over; in this case, intending to swindle the widow of a war hero, which must have seemed especially disgraceful so soon after the war. Were war heroes, even the dead ones, no longer sacred? The elaborate con involves Rick Maxon (John Payne) travelling to Mission City to seduce war widow Deborah Owens Clark (Caulfield) after posing as one of her late husband’s war buddies. He’s to give her the idea of creating a war memorial in the town, then swindle her of the funds she raises from all the wealthy socialite’s of the town.

Duryea’s Silky Randall -what a name for a slime-ball-  orchestrates his team with ruthless efficiency, but is undone by his jealousy regards his beautiful blonde girlfriend, Tory, a no-good temptress who is bored with Silky and instead desires and is obsessed with (like every other dame, it seems) Rick. Its a typical noir romantic triangle, and destined for a typically noir end.

larceny1948bRick is consummately played by handsome hunk John Payne; all the women love him or desire him, and that’s his problem (a problem I’ve never personally had the pleasure of, but hey, that’s the Hollywood dream that keeps pulling me back, living vicariously through others). Oh, but its such a problem and nuisance – wistfully starring at the stars as if wishing he was far away from all of them, Rick just keeps batting them off or filing them away for later use when they may be of some purpose to him. He teases a waitress at a diner, then a secretary at the real estate agents. He doesn’t even have to try, every girl swoons after him; its a crux of the film because it makes it seem all the more reasonable when, say, he needs to push Deborah into a rash decision Rick gets that secretary to become a party to his crime. Rick promises the secretary that he’ll be with her later, sending her packing to New York where she’ll be waiting in vain for him until she realises she’s been had.

It does make him interesting though- Rick is the nominal lead of the film but he’s certainly no hero; indeed its what possibly elevates Larceny as a film, because he’s quite the broken man. He’s bad, he’s ruthless, but it becomes apparent that he is filled with self-loathing. Its tricky though to pin down why; it isn’t because of guilt. The one thing that surprises regards Larceny is that of all the things that are predictable, what does confound is that the inevitable budding romance between Rick and his mark, the widow Deborah, doesn’t blossom as we expect- while naturally Deborah like all women falls for Rick, Rick doesn’t fall head over heels for her in turn or gain a moral compass for her sake.

Silky’s frustrated girl, the blonde temptress Tory is played by a very young Shelly Winters who, forgive me, rather shocked me in this film  regards how well she played a sexy femme fatale, considering my perception of her was influenced by her later more sedentary years in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) or John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) biopic in which she played the singer’s matronly mother. Shelley was, er, surprisingly hot and sexy, back in the day? Bah. I should have known better; she was young and pretty in Odds Against Tomorrow, after all, but in Robert Wise’s film she was plainly a good girl, while in Larceny she’s absolutely a bad girl and nothing but trouble. Its’s astonishing really how Shelley chews up the scenery, she’s great, careering through the film like a hand grenade ready to go off at any moment.

Inevitably of course (this being a noir after all) the hand grenade that is Tory does indeed go off, after gradually becoming an ever greater foil to the con. Silky grows increasingly sure that Troy is cheating on him with Rick, Troy grows increasingly sure that Rick is falling for Deborah, Deborah grows increasingly sure she’s found a man in Rick that measures up to her dead husband, but everyone is wrong.  So even though the con works it suddenly becomes derailed at the end by the jealousy and suspicion, bringing Rick the self-destruction he possibly desired all along. Larceny would probably be a better film with a more shady, definitively noir ending, but this was 1948 and bad guys can’t really win. Still, its one of those noir endings in which nobody is happy or content at all.

The Weekly Summary

thewebposterI thought I’d try posting weekly summaries on Sundays, a catch-all to track what I’ve watched, what I’ve missed and maybe comment on stuff when the posting of actual reviews slips.

1.The Web (1947) – Blu-ray

2.Naked Alibi (1954) – Blu-ray

3.Sudden Fear (1952)

Event Horizon (1997) – 4K UHD

4.The Glass Key (1942)

5.Phantom Lady (1944) – Blu-ray

The Rig (Season One) – 2023, Amazon Prime

There’s a (typical of late, really) lot of older stuff there, a continuation of my fascination with 1940s/1950s films and noir in general. I can’t see that changing much, at least in the short-term because I have a few Christmas presents to work through which includes Indicator’s Universal Noir #1, the Godfather trilogy on 4K UHD and quite a few titles bought in 2022 that still sit on the watchlist pile.  As you can see from that list above and its lack of links, I’m already behind on reviews. Hopefully I’ll get that back on track soon. I will just tease that my favourite of the week was probably Sudden Fear and my least favourite was The Glass Key. Biggest disappointment of the week was going to my Tivo, putting on a film I’d recorded on Sky Arts several weeks back, the 1942 noir This Gun For Hire, only to discover they’d substituted it with a documentary about Jackie Kennedy instead. How often does that kind of thing happen?

This week was really one about two noir ladies- Gloria Grahame, who featured in Naked Alibi and Sudden Fear, and Ella Raines, who starred in The Web and Phantom Lady. In each case the first film led to the other. Grahame likely needs no introduction, appearing in  It’s A Wonderful Life and particularly in many noir, including The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place and Odds Against Tomorrow. Grahame is an actress who is as famous/notorious for her real-life escapades as much as anything she did on screen, which I’ll likely get into when I get around to reviewing Naked Alibi and Sudden Fear.  The more I see of Grahame the more I think I need to reassess her appeal/performance’s in general, and find the urge to go back and rewatch those other films I’ve seen her in. Its a curious fact regards watching more films that feature the same actor, that each in turn can offer more perspective on the others, especially when one learns more about their personal lives and careers as a whole. Indicator’s disc of Naked Alibi features a particularly informative video essay about Grahame that concentrates more on her films (and only tangentially covers her  personal life), which immediately sent me scurrying towards Sudden Fear. Again, a great example of the positives of physical media and the often illuminating featurettes and commentaries that they feature (particularly those of Indicator, who have surpassed Criterion -generally considered the benchmark for such stuff- for quality in my eyes).

Ella Raines meanwhile is a particularly interesting case- a very beautiful and very talented actress who almost steals the show in The Web and proves absolutely spellbinding in Phantom Lady, Raines appeared in only about 22 films and a few television series before she retired in 1956. One of those actresses (such as Gene Tierney) who left the business for some reason or other- I like to think of it as favouring the joys of real life over the frustrations of the silver screen, although that isn’t always the case (Gia Scala, for instance) – but it can prove a little frustrating for those film-lovers suddenly smitten, as I was re: Raines, only to discover that their filmography is alarmingly scant.

And now a teaser for next week- catching up on some of those outstanding reviews, some newer films (there’s a 4K disc of Jurassic World: Dominion threatening me with a bad night, and a few things popped up on Netflix), as well as a few more discs to watch such as  Kino’s 4K release of 1970s fave The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and a trip to an actual HMV store for the first time in a few years (will my wallet stand it?).

Film Noir: The Web

theweb2The Web (1947), Dir. Michael Gordon, 87 mins, Blu-ray

This was a curious one- lawyer Bob Regan (Edmond O’Brien, seen previously in The Hitch-Hiker, Between Midnight and Dawn, 711 Ocean Drive and The Killers) is a very unlikely protagonist and as far removed from the crooks, shady cops and hard-boiled cynical Private Detectives of typical film noir that one could imagine. Regan is certainly sincere, but is all bluff and bluster and obviously out of his depth, even if he can’t see it. Is his blindness to his situation endearing or irritating?

Something in Regan’s earnest commitment to one of his clients catches the attention of finance tycoon Andrew Colby (Vincent Price, seen previously in, oh, too many to mention). Colby fears that an old business associate who has just gotten out of jail will make an attempt on his life, and hires Regan to be a minder/bodyguard for two weeks, after which Colby will be safely out of the country. Regan doesn’t own a gun or even a permit for one, but is so blindsided by Colby’s offer of an excellent salary ($5,000 for just a few days work) that he doesn’t really consider how ill-suited he is for the job, nor sufficiently questions why Colby thinks he can do it.

Of course, what Colby is REALLY thinking behind his disarming smile is that Regan will make a perfect patsy. Sure enough there is (what appears to be) an attempt on Colby’s life and Regan shoots the assailant dead to protect Colby, hence coming under the scrutiny of the cops for murder when they smell a rat. Regan has clearly been set-up by Colby to remove someone who could damage Colby’s business schemes without Colby himself coming under any suspicion, his business scrutinised and his shady practices becoming uncovered.

The Web is a good crime thriller with some genuine noir undertones. Its cannily directed with some very good cinematography, but what really enables the film to succeed as well as it does is its cast. Edmond O’Brien was always a very good Everyman, hardly exuding anything extraordinary in most any of his roles, so is absolutely perfect for the role of Regan. Price, of course, was always the charmer with a sly menace hidden behind his natural elegance, so is perfectly cast as the cunning tycoon whose schemes trap the hapless Regan in a web of fate. The feminine foil that comes between them is Colby’s personal secretary Noel Faraday, played by the very beautiful Ella Raines (who I’m not familiar with, although she did appear in Brute Force). Noel is a typical noir woman, if not a genuine femme fatale; beautiful but with the suggestion of hidden depths- close to Colby and indeed even living in his house, we’re never too certain how much of a party she is to Colby’s plans or indeed what her motives are when she flirts with Regan. I think Raines is as good in this as Price and O’Brien are; she certainly holds her own in scenes with them and I look forward to seeing more of her work (she stars in The Suspect, a noir which is coming out on Blu-ray from Arrow in March).

I really enjoyed this film. The cast, of course, really makes it: this is one of those films where the casting really is everything, making the director’s job much easier than it might have been. The script is pretty tight and its dialogue laced with some great one-liners so typical of noir, and I must say I found it rather refreshing to see a protagonist that is so ill-suited for the role. Usually heroes of film, including noir, are tough guys good with their fists and self-assured with their women, and Regan’s not naturally gifted at either. In a lesser film, it might have even been played for laughs, but here it actually makes us more worried for Regan and curious how he might eventually turn the tables on Colby, especially when it seems Regan’s investigations only seem to increasingly incriminate himself.

The film isn’t perfect- its a curious fallacy of these films just how fast the heroines fall in love with our heroes; I tend to shrug it off as a sign of the times that the films were made in, but in The Web‘s case this unlikely romance works in the films favour, making us doubt Noel’s sincerity. After all, what DOES this beautiful woman see in this jerk Regan? Maybe there’s some hope for all of us.

At the mountain of Noir madness

Jury1 (3)I, the Jury, 1953, Blu-ray

Wow. Bad casting can really kill a movie, especially when its your lead. Such is the case with I, the Jury, a violent noir that was the cinematic debut of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, unfortunately played here by Biff Elliot – well, I write ‘played’ using that term awfully loosely. Watching I, the Jury is like watching a long car crash in slow motion. Right from the start its clear something is horribly wrong. Biff seems to be overplaying everything, his physical performance so cartoonlike its really quite bizarre. At first I thought it might have been a deliberate directorial approach; I’ve never read any of Spillane’s fiction but I do know its over the top, likely too violent and oversexed to make it to films back then without being diluted and perhaps being intuited in other ways visually, like via Biff’s swagger. One only has to reference the later Hammer caper, Kiss Me Deadly, that stared Ralph Meeker in another overcharged performance as everyone’s favourite private-eye sadist, to know the character is slow witted but fast to bursts of violence. But Biff lacks any of Meeker’s charm or charisma. He stomps and swaggers around like some kind of cartoon character, giving this film a sense of actually being a parody, spitting out inane dialogue with such sincerity it feels like the stuff of farce.

If there’s a good film in here, I can’t see it, its so buried under Biff’s mind-boggling performance of almost incandescent badness. It rather unravels around him. Which is such a pity, because a lot of the rest of the cast are actually great. The chasm of ability is obvious every time you see him acting with anybody, especially any scene he’s in with Margaret Sheridan or Peggie Castle, two ladies who are clearly in some other league beyond Biff. Its like watching professional actors working with some joe pulled off the street.

I tried, I really did. I thought, maybe if I can tune into this guys weird wavelength. The whole thing was like the Robert Rodriguez/Fran Miller-directed Sin City movie from several years back- hyper-stylised, over the top cartoon action. I, the Jury just has the same feel. Partly its a similar expressionist noir cinematography (John Alton again), the artificial  ‘look’ of a lot of the on-set filming (greenscreen virtual sets in Sin City, sheer cheapness in I, the Jury) on sets that don’t really convince, partly its the dialogue, the excessive (any excuse for a fist-fight) action that bursts comically from out of nowhere.  It doesn’t help that the plot is buried under all the theatrics, I could hardly follow what was going on or what Hammer was doing or to whom.

Jury1 (2)But the film isn’t a total bust. As I have noted, the ladies are excellent- both Sheridan (of The Thing From Another World) and Castle are beautiful and convincing, Sheridan as Hammer’s secretary/assistant Velda who as usual proves smarter than the dumb shmuck she’s working with and Castle may not at all convince as the scheming psychologist Charlotte, but she sure does melt the screen, especially at the end when she nearly gets the better of Hammer (God, I wish the film had a twist in which she shot him dead and put him out of our misery). Castle is close to the definitive femme fatale, smouldering and deadly. There is also extensive location shooting in the Bradbury Building of DOA/ Blade Runner fame, during which scenes I kept on mentally comparing camera angles to that of Ridley Scott’s film. Did Hammer really have a long fistfight on the very staircase where Rick Deckard sneaked up to Sebastian’s apartment? And yes, above all else, the relentless strangeness of Biff’s performance, the pace of the film, the incomprehensibility of the plot and cast of characters that drift in and out, its quite utterly bizarre noir. The final confrontation between Hammer and Charlotte is verging on hysterics, its like a parody of noir- only Castle’s performance manages to hold it back.

I thought Kiss Me Deadly was odd. Seems it had an even crazier precursor. I suppose as a piece of yellowed-paper, decomposing pulp paperback fiction I, the Jury is almost working on some level of perfection, but I’m reminded that what works in four-colour Marvel and DC comicbooks doesn’t necessarily translate so well to live-action, hence the changes that are made to maintain a suspension of disbelief that results in said films not being entirely ‘authentic’ to the comicbooks. Maybe there’s an argument that I, the Jury is the purest form of pulp noir.

It’s a Raw Deal, region-wise.

raw1Raw Deal, 1948, 79 mins, Streaming (Amazon Prime)

In about six months, I guarantee I’ll look back on Raw Deal and get confused between it and Pitfall. I have an unfortunate habit of misremembering noir, the details blurring between films- the connection between Raw Deal and Pitfall being Raymond Burr, who in both films consummately plays utter bastards. I’m of the generation that remembers Burr from his Ironside TV days, a show that was a staple of 1970s network television here in the UK back in the 1970s (it ran for an extraordinary -in these 8 episode, cancelled after two seasons Netflix days- 195 episodes between 1967-1975 in the US) so I am always shocked when Burr is such a despicable villain in something. I remember seeing him several years ago in Rear Window thinking it must have been clever casting by Hitchcock, but it was clearly nothing of the sort; by the time of Rear Window in 1954, Burr was already a frequent bad-guy and it probably didn’t surprise anyone at all.  

But I watch so many noir lately (so many films, period, but so many noir in particular, these past few years), that they can’t help but blur in recollection, months later. Maybe its an age thing. I think that’s why I like to write about them here on my blog, as its a journal of sorts to help me keep things clear in my head regards everything I watch (alas so many slip through the net even then). Writing as such a lover of films, it feels a little disrespectful, misremembering things and getting confused; some of these films are genuinely great and deserve better.

I think Raw Deal qualifies as one of the ‘great’ ones- its story is that of a fairly routine pulp potboiler, I hesitate to refer to it as generic, but other than it having a female character giving the film its moody voiceover, on the whole it doesn’t really shake things up from a standard ‘guy on the run’ noir. Instead what really marks Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal out and elevates it to that higher level is the sublime, peerless cinematography by John Alton, a master of his craft who also filmed the exquisite-looking The Big Combo – I have another film that Alton shot, I, the Jury on Blu-ray waiting to be watched and knowing that Alton shot that too only makes it disc a more enticing prospect than ever (I heard that I. the Jury has some kind of Christmas theme/setting so have been holding on for a bit to watch it in the glow of the Christmas tree lights). 

raw6Raw Deal doesn’t just look arrestingly (almost ‘pause the film!’ kind of) beautiful, its how objects are composed within the frame that impresses, such as when a guilty Pat struggles with her conscience with time running out- her face dominates the frame with a clock behind her, as if slowly torturing her. Some viewers may find that kind of composition too obvious and literal but I think its Pure Cinema and typical of how imaginatively shot the best noir films are.

So as I have noted, narratively Raw Deal hardly a revelation, but it is pretty solid.  Dennis O’Keefe (who I’ve seen also in Chicago Syndicate,  Walk a Crooked Mile and Woman on the Run) plays Joe Sullivan, stuck in prison having taken the rap for Rick (Raymond Burr), who owes him $50,000. Joe is eager to get out and get that money, so he’s not about to serve two to three years on good behaviour to get the parole that his caseworker Ann (Marcia Hunt) urges him to be patient for. Instead Joe has got his girlfriend Pat (Claire Trevor) to liaise with Rick in setting up an escape. What the two lovers don’t know, though, is that Rick is only arranging the escape attempt because he’s confident it will fail and Joe will be shot dead, as Rick has no intention of parting with the $50,000. However, Joe succeeds in his breakout, thanks to the help of Pat and the reluctant assistance of Ann, whose car they have to steal in order to break a police cordon. Getting nervous, Rick sets some of his goons to hunt Joe down, while Joe suddenly finds himself having to choose between the decent, law-abiding Ann who thinks there might be a decent, sensitive heart under Joes tough exterior, or his streetwise and desperate lover Pat who loves him for all his faults and will take him at any cost. Pat can clearly see Joe starting to fall for Ann, so what cost will she be willing to pay to keep the man she loves? 

The performances in Raw Deal are very good- we’re never entirely confident just how good or bad Joe really is, there’s a duality to him which is interesting, especially regards which of the two women he’ll choose in the end, and Burr is utterly cold and hideous as the mobster betraying him (there’s a scene involving Rick callously maiming a drunk woman in a moment of rage that is genuinely shocking).  

raw5I watched the film streaming on Amazon Prime, and while it was clearly not the film at its best, it was at least an opportunity to watch what has, I believe, for many years been a pretty rare and underappreciated b-movie, as often the case another half-forgotten noir film desperate for restoration. I suppose you can guess where I’m going with this- the dreaded region-coding rears its ugly head again. I looked up the film to see if a disc release was available, and yes as is often the case, there is a properly restored HD edition but its a release Stateside that is region-locked. Exactly why a niche film such as this which is unlikely to ever get a release in foreign territories has been region-locked is really beyond me. I mean, what’s the harm? Maybe the counter-argument is that anyone who is enough a film-lover to be after a physical copy of a film like this is more likely to have access to a region-free player. Well, I’m the example that this isn’t always the case but hey-ho, you never know. Either someone over here in the UK or Europe will start releasing some of these obscure noir (which seem to be very good sellers, if Indicator’s box sets are any indication (sic)) or I may have to take a reluctant plunge – I’d rather not have two players nestled under the home television though. Ain’t there too may wires down here already?

Well, be that as it may, I think Raw Deal was yet another really good film and a great example of noir  that is as much a work of art as its is entertainment. I clearly haven’t seen the film at its best but you never know, maybe one day. Certainly worth a punt for anyone who has Amazon Prime already, as it won’t cost you anything. 

Powderpuff punch and a glass jaw… that’s a great combination!

Harderthey1The Harder They Fall, 1956, 109 mins, Blu-ray

This one’s a corker. A genuinely brilliant noir drama, with a fantastic cast, a great script, blistering direction, with some excellent cinematography. Its rather a pity that this films quality has to a large degree been overshadowed by it being best known as Humphrey Bogart’s last film- Bogart was ill during the filming and then diagnosed with oesophageal cancer soon after it was completed, finally succumbing to the illness in 1957. It’s clear in a number of scenes that he is struggling, a tension in his body even though he still manages a twinkle in  his eyes. I’ve never been a big fan of Bogart but on the evidence of this film he’s won me over- anybody with the class to work his craft with health issues such as he was experiencing here has to be admired. The sheer dogged professionalism, and ability to hold his own against a sparkling Rod Steger (who himself was rarely better, absolutely brilliant here) – well, now I know why Bogart is considered such a legend by many. 

Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall is a boxing drama, akin to other noir like The Set-Up, and its really a pretty incendiary condemnation of the sport, and the corruption behind it (during the time this film was made, anyway) in which racketeers exploited the fighters in the ring who were considered expendable saps and a means to an end (making lots of money).

Primarily it’s the story of a once successful writer, Eddie Willis (Bogart) who lost his job when his newspaper folded and whose career has never recovered. Clearly considered yesterdays man and all washed-up, Willis is plainly on the ropes (sic) and easily seduced by bullish fight promoter, Nick Benko (Steiger) into a lucrative promoting gig which involves a foreign boxer that Benko has signed up. This fighter, Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), is physically a giant but it is clear he is no great boxer- since Toro is unknown from other shores Benko intends claim he is a foreign champion and then fix all of Toro’s fights, slowly setting him up for a lucrative title fight at which Benko will cash in and make a fortune. Benko’s scheme will only work if Toro is cannily promoted and the sports-writing fraternity hoodwinked (hence he needs Willis’ connections in the boxing game). Promised a share of Benko’s huge windfall, Willis cynically conducts the circus around Toro while Benko’s heavies pay off and threaten boxers and their managers to ensure Toro wins every fight. Along the way one boxer gets killed and Toro, utterly innocent and believing he is winning the fights legitimately, is overcome with guilt and wants to quit. He asks Willis, who he trusts, for his help getting out before Benko (and of course Willis) can make their big score. Will Willis stick with the scheme to make his fortune with Benko or will his conscience finally get the better of him? Or will Benko and his heavies allow his sure-bet scheme to make millions get away from him?

Harderthey3This film is  relentlessly paced right from the start, tough and uncompromising and shot in a docu-drama style with gritty location shooting. Curiously it feels very modern, even though inevitably some plot points feel dated (hey, its over sixty years old, lets see if many 2022 films don’t date worse). There is something almost hypnotically appealing about so many of these 1950s noir, especially those filmed on real streets showing a world so tactile and real. It’s not so much a sense of escape, but rather the seductive power of bold black and white worlds casting long shadows with interesting, flawed and conflicted characters trapped by fate or greed. I have noticed with some curiosity how my film-watching over the past few years has become increasingly skewed towards older films rather than more recent ones. Better screenwriting, better drama, better craft in general. The pace of this film, and the sparkling dialogue and character beats, just never lets up, and the boxing fights themselves are brilliantly realised. It is surely one of the best boxing films ever made, and yes, you guessed it, up until a few months ago I’d never even heard of it. Indeed this is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and most likely the best film included in this Columbia Noir set from Indicator.  Great stuff.