Secret Behind the Door (1947)

secretdoorAfter what must have been several months or longer, I’ve finally gotten around to watching the fourth and last disc in Arrow’s unimaginatively titled ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ Blu-ray set that I bought last year. This last film was generally regarded as the weakest of the set and I have to agree, although it does have its plus points. 

Secret Behind the Door is a noir from consummate visual stylist Fritz Lang, who was no stranger to the genre and later would direct The Big Heat, the Indicator release of which a few years back blew me away and a film I would count amongst my very favourite noir. Secret Behind the Door is nowhere near as good as that later classic, but it does sport some absolutely top-notch visuals. There are a few shots that are amongst the best of any noir I’ve seen- shots that are framed in a particular way, and so consummately well-photographed with lighting and shadows in selected areas, that tell the story wholly cinematically without any need of narration or dialogue. Visually we see everything regards how characters relate to each other, body language, their positioning relative to each other within the frame, the scaling, lighting… really quite arresting stuff that is sadly let down by a script that borders on the implausible and then jumps off the cliff into the frankly bizarre.

Its perhaps some testament to Lang’s skills as a director and control of the medium that he manages to hold together the film for as long as he does. By the end of the film we’ve somehow passed from dark romantic drama to murderous noir to Roger Corman’s Poe horror territory and somewhere beyond before landing with a terrific thud back into the land of ridiculous romance. I really wasn’t sure what I’d just seen, to be honest. 

Celia Lamphere (Joan Bennett) is a beautiful New York socialite who seems to have finally decided she’s spent too long carefree and single and its time she found the right man: in this case the safe choice of an old friend,  Bob Dwight (James Seay), who works with her wealthy brother. Dwight is besotted by her and is eminently dependable but its clear she doesn’t love him- he’s simply a safe choice. Before she acquiesces to his advances however she goes off on one last vacation/adventure, this time to Mexico where she finds a man who strangely excites her like she’s never experienced before; tall, dark, handsome magazine owner Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave). In just days they marry, but moving to his mansion home near New York she suddenly discovers that not only was Lamphere married, he also has a son and a household full of strange characters including a dominating elder sister and a fire-scarred assistant.

Possibly strangest of all however is her new husband who acts increasingly odd and unhinged, soon revealing his pastime of adding a wing of rooms to his mansion in which famous historical murders of wives by their husbands or lovers took place, a chamber of horrors if you will, but the final room, behind door number seven, remains mysteriously locked and whose contents he refuses to divulge. Something to do with his recently deceased wife, of his new wife perhaps?

Clearly this is a psychological horror dressed up in noir tropes: certainly not an unlikely combination at all and as I have noted, it visually wears its noir stylings spectacularly well. It simply drips noir in most every shot- deep shadows, surreal lighting and framing, exaggerated angles and backlighting accentuating mood and tension. Unfortunately Redgrave doesn’t convince as romantic lead or as twisted, haunted and dangerous male- not that’s he’s really helped by a nutty script that goes dafter with every page. The oddest thing about the film -and likely what saves it at all- is Joan Bennett who seems so intoxicated by the premise that we can almost accept, to our utter bafflement, that she hangs around with her new husband and his deranged family more than a day in his mansion of horrors. I suspect there is a valid reading of the film in which every character is quite insane, including Celia, especially when, at the films end after Lamphere has almost strangled Celia to death and both almost died in a fiery conflagration as the house of horrors burns around them, we finally see them enjoying a second honeymoon back in Mexico. If Celia at this point has not got bountiful reasons to cite for a swift divorce, no-one has. Its like the cinematic definition of jumping the shark, but hey, maybe wives were more forgiving back then.

 

 

Columbia Noir: Framed (1947)

framed1We kick off Indicator’s typically gorgeous Columbia Noir #2 boxset with a really fine effort: Richard Wallace’s Framed, featuring Glenn Ford, a new ‘star’ at the time in his first ‘above the title’ credit, and Janis Carter in a surprisingly nuanced femme fatale role. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – one can never be certain, really, what to expect coming to these features ‘blind’ when they are over half a century old- other than what might be guessed from the stark title, but it actually turned out to be quite subtle. Its relentlessly efficient, telling its story and not getting at all side-tracked with any sub-plots and nor does it divert into back-stories or flashbacks, which could feasibly have been a temptation (we never know much about our lead, Mike Lambert (Ford) even though he seems to be running away from something, and likewise there seems to be more to temptress Paula (Carter) than what meets the eye). This results in a film that intrigues long after it finishes, and I liked it a lot.

Mike Lambert arrives in town in eventful fashion, crashing a freight truck with no-brakes into the back of another. This post-credits sequence is almost like a tease for the later The Wages of Fear; Lambert took the job as a way of getting to the town as its situated in mining country, and he’s a mining engineer looking for work. The trucking company is a shady outfit putting its crews at risk with dodgy trucks, and it refuses to compensate the owner of the vehicle Lambert crashed into. It sums up the efficiency of the film in that it uses this scene to quickly establishes Lambert’s character- once Lambert has eventually managed to extract the wages he is owed from his slimy boss, he hands it over to the guy whose vehicle was damaged, righting the wrong that the trucking company won’t. Clearly Lambert is a man with a moral compass who leans on doing what’s right.

So when Lambert stumbles into the wrong restaurant with the wrong waitress, and comes under her scheming eye, we know that this is a good guy who will be a foil for Paula and her banking executive lover Steve (Barry Sullivan). What we don’t know is if its Lambert’s moral code that will prove to be his undoing as Paula seduces him, nor indeed if Paula has charmed the wrong guy, not appreciating how dangerous it is for her to try seduce a genuine good guy.

framedJanis Carter proves something  of a surprise. Ford at this point is a known commodity (The Big Heat, The Undercover Man etc) but I’d never seen Carter before and she really impresses. In many ways its an underwritten role -scheming temptress caught between two lovers with a $250,000 fortune hanging in the balance- that could have been a typically noir one-dimensional evil femme fatale, but there’s a subtlety to her character,  not ruthless enough to do what needs to be done in order to successfully walk into the sunset with the cash. Her weakness for Lambert (she has an opportunity to poison him but fails to see it through) proves her undoing. I’m not entirely sure if its scripted shades of character or just simply Carter not having the ability to fully convince as the cold-hearted bitch that the best noir bring to screen, but I’d prefer to think the former. Carter is beautiful and engaging and seems to have some depth as an actress- looking her filmography up afterwards I was surprised, and disappointed, to see that she didn’t have as successful a film career as I would have expected, and Framed is possibly her signature role, eventually moving to New York and a television career before retiring from the profession entirely. Hollywood can be a cold and ruthless place I guess and its not the first time that I’ve seen impressive actresses in old films whose careers never reached the heights that they might have done (most recently Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle).

The cast of Framed is entirely excellent, the script sharp and, as I have noted, totally efficient with no waste at all (it totals just a lean and taut 83 minutes). It manages to pull some genuine twists, with a few moments in which I thought I was one step ahead and then undermining my confidence with another surprising turn. There’s possibly one or two ‘conveniences’ that undermine it from being a genuinely great noir but on the whole I thought it was a solid, engaging thriller that I really enjoyed and look forward to returning to someday. One of the most endearing facets of noir is that one can enjoy the films even more the second time around, and I’m confident such will be the case with Framed. Certainly an excellent opener for this Indicator set.

Columbia Noir: The Lineup (1958)

cnoirlineA case of saving the best until last (although both Drive a Crooked Road and The Gament Jungle make it a close-call) as Indicator’s excellent  Columbia Noir#1 boxset closes with its sixth film, Don Siegel’s crazed-hitman saga The Lineup. Based on a successful 1950s tv show, the film begins like the police procedural I expected it to be. At Pier 39 in San Francisco, a passenger ship arrives; subsequently whilst the passengers are disembarking a suitcase from the ship is stolen by a porter and handed off to a taxi that speeds away, running down a cop- the cops dying action shooting the taxi driver dead results in it crashing.  Two police inspectors arrive investigating the ensuing carnage, and discover that the stolen case belongs to an antique dealer returning from Asia, and that one of the items within it has a stash of illegal narcotics hidden inside. The inspectors deduce that drugs dealers are using tourists as unwitting drugs mules, hiding heroin inside items the tourists buy whilst on holiday in the Far East and tracking them until they arrive safely through US customs.

Unbeknownst to the police, two gangsters, Dancer and Julian, arrive in the Bay area tasked with tracking down the other tourists and relieving them of the hidden drugs. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a crazy psychopath, being mentored by his elder partner Julian (Robert Keith) who is morbidly fascinated by the last words of Dancer’s victims, scribbling them down into his notebook: The Lineup takes an ingenious turn when it suddenly shifts from a police procedural setting up its premise to focus instead upon the twisted killer duo. Its almost like its two different movies and I have to wonder if writer Stirling Silliphant deliberately chose to write his twisted noir under the false pretence of a movie based on a TV cop show. By the time it hits its stride, the charmless police are forgotten and the crazy bad guys are suddenly the stars. Did the studio really appreciate the film Silliphant and Siegel were making?

This film reminded me so much of Kiss Me Deadly, that insane and violent  noir directed by Robert Aldrich that blew me away last summer. Both films are so very subversive, and so very noir, glorifying in their darkness and shocking in their violence. A particular pleasure of The Lineup is how it predicts thrillers that would follow like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The French Connection, films that don’t visually nod to noir but nonetheless further the inherent sensibilities of noir. Dirty Harry of course was also directed by Siegel and set in San Francisco, and I imagine watching The Lineup and Dirty Harry together would make for a riveting and successful double-bill. As it is, The Lineup feels very modern and ahead of its time.

And to be certain, the violence is quite shocking in this film- the suddenness of it is quite harrowing, particularly the brutal conclusion of an exchange between Dancer and a villain in a wheelchair. I actually gasped at this scene, wondering if I’d actually seen what I thought I’d seen. Its wonderful when films do that, pulling the rug from under even seasoned movie-watchers such as I.

I understand Eli Wallach was a little dismissive about his role as the psychopath killer in this film, as if perhaps embarrassed by it or feeling guilty. I can see why the intensity of the finished film may have given him reservations afterwards but its in my eyes one of his very best performances (following a start in television, I think this was only his second movie). Quentin Tarantino practically made his career out of making films like The Lineup: I dare say this must be one of Tarantino’s favourite movies as it provided him a road-map for many of his own films. You can certainly see Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent and Jules in this film’s Dancer and Julian.

 

The Dark Mirror (1946)

DM1I watched Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror as it was included within Arrow’s Blu-ray boxset ‘Four Film Noir Classics’ which I bought a few months back (two of its titles that I’ve seen since being Force of Evil and The Big Combo). The Dark Mirror concerns the murder of a doctor, and thanks to witnesses there is an obvious suspect- but unfortunately for the frustrated police detective handling the case, the suspect has an identical  twin sister with a cast-iron alibi. Unable to distinguish which sister is which, the investigation collapses.

It sounds like a film noir, and indeed it opens like a noir, with a gliding camera accompanied by moody music entering an apartment and slowly unveiling the scene of the crime and the body with a knife in its back. Unfortunately the tone of the film appears to be all over the place not really helped by the curious casting of Thomas Mitchell prefiguring his dizzy Uncle Billy from Its a Wonderful Life (which was made in the same year, but came out at the start of 1947, so I assume The Dark Mirror was shot first). Mitchell’s Police Lt. Stevenson is too light-hearted with humorous lines lightening the mood – the character needed to be someone darker, more obsessed with the crime and maddened by the frustration of knowing a killer has escaped the law. Someone like Kirk Douglas, say, in the role would have raised the film to some other level entirely. As it is, the comic relief of the detective feels ill-placed and hurts the film: at one early point establishing the character, Stevenson’s dismissive comment about “Chinese music” is accompanied by composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s intentionally comedic quote of such music, a moment that seems something straight of a comedy. 

Likewise the film had a real opportunity to be really dark and noir by playing up the difficulty identifying the twins. Once it has established they are both totally identical and the police case is thwarted, the film then has the two women wearing necklaces with their names (‘Ruth’ and ‘Terry’) so we always know who is who, bizarrely undermining their own defence, unless of course the women are switching necklaces. 

What makes the film succeed as a thriller (if not a noir) is the brilliant performance/s of Olivia de Haviland who plays the twin sisters. The film employs split screens and some opticals to excellent effect to allow de Havilland to be onscreen as the two characters at the same time (moving shots enabled by a double viewed from the rear). While the technical aspects might take the plaudits, the real success of the conceit is the timing and acting skills necessary for her to have convincing conversations with herself (actually seperate shots filmed apart). It really is impressive, a real tour de force. The lady was a hell of an actress, no doubt.

Its just such a pity that the film didn’t really go as dark as it might have, had it been what I would consider a ‘true’ or genuine film noir- had we not been able to be quite certain in the film which twin de Havilland is playing at any one time, mirroring the confusion of the police, then the film would have been a labyrinth of suspicion and doubt- indeed, a really fine noir might have ended maintaining the uncertainty of whether the correct twin had been accused of the crime and sent to the Electric Chair. Such mind-games were probably considered a step too far for audiences of 1946, because as I’ve noted, the girls wear necklaces throughout the remainder of the film and its fairly obvious which is the killer (the script/director can’t help but push de Havilland into playing one darker than the other, something which seems to pass Mitchell’s dizzy detective by). At one point they even have one of the twins dressed in white, the other in black- subtle, not.

The film also slips into traditional melodrama by having psychiatrist Dr.Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), brought in by Stevenson to try deduce which of the twins is actually the killer, then falling in love with the ‘good’ twin. Considering this twin was the one who was likely getting engaged to the doctor who was shown murdered at the start of the film just a few days earlier, its remarkable that the twin reciprocates his feelings immediately rather than be in mourning for awhile. This last point had me intrigued, considering that perhaps both twins were ‘in’ on the crime, and that they were actually both responsible, but the film failed to go that way.

I enjoyed the film but was frustrated, really, by the film not being quite the film noir I expected or hoped it to be. In the end its a routine romantic thriller/crime drama with very slight noir undertones, memorable mainly for the remarkable performance/s of Olivia de Havilland. That said, its a hell of a star turn and itself makes the film worthy of repeat viewings and some admiration. Just such a pity the film could not have maintained an even, darker tone throughout.    

Dark City (1950)

dark1You waited long enough. Why Now?  Well, this film first came to my attention just a year or so ago, when I noticed that Arrow had released a Blu-ray of it- since its a film noir, and stars the man-mountain that is Charlton Heston, it stayed on my radar, and I actually came close to buying it when I noticed it in a sale. Anyway, it turning up in the Talking Pictures schedule this week finally sealed the deal with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Yes, I know I’m 70 years late to the party, but I have the excuse I wasn’t born back then. Also, films like this don’t appear on the networks at all often, even though they patently should do.

So whats it about, then?  Charlton Heston plays Danny Haley, a small-time bookie whose operation is shut down by the police one time too many, leaving him keen to get out of town and try his luck elsewhere- if only he could get the money to do it. Danny thinks his luck has at last changed when he stumbles across Arthur Winant, a businessman from Los Angeles with too much money in his wallet. Danny and his work associates sucker Winant into a series of poker games where they fleece him of all his money- including $5000 that isn’t his. Winant staggers off distraught and the next morning the hustlers learn he has killed himself in shame; Danny and his cronies try to cover their tracks but later learn that Winant had an older brother who is out for revenge.

Any good? Perhaps not a classic, definitive film noir but very good nonetheless. Its curious seeing a young Charlton Heston channelling a sulky, moody character struggling with right and wrong and lashing out at the world- there’s clearly all sorts of nascent Ben Hur bubbling away here, and isn’t it strange, with this film featuring a “Introducing Charlton Heston” credit, that that most famous of all epic movies was released in 1959, just nine years later. What a meteoric career Heston must have had. That being said, I’ve noticed on IMDB three earlier credits for Heston so perhaps the credit referred to it being his first starring role in a major studio picture or something.

So worth waiting for? Crikey, yes. Some of these film noir are just fantastic, full of mood and atmosphere and menace, and they manage to spring twists and surprises, even for old jaded fools such as I, who’ve seen too many films and rarely get surprised anymore. Modern films tend to telegraph things too easily, I guess, and I’m pretty certain that script-writing is something of a lost art. As a movie buff, seeing such an early film for Heston is particularly fascinating too- like Clint Eastwood in bis early films (like Play Misty For Me a few days back), its clear this guy was destined for movie stardom.

Worthless observation? Co-star Lizabeth Scott, who plays Fran, a singer hopelessly besotted with Danny, was no stranger to noir films (that’d be her husky, too-many-cigarettes-voice, I’d imagine) and later starred in an Elvis Presley movie (Loving You, 1957)). And its great, also, to see Dean Jagger as wise cop Captain Garvey; he was a very fine character actor who I recently also caught in Hammer’s X: The Unknown. Yeah, sometimes its a small world watching films from a certain era. Finally, no, this film is not to be confused with the 1998 Alex Proyas sci-fi thriller that borrows so many noir tropes itself.

Pre-Crime Doesn’t Pay: Minority Report

minorityLa La Land has just released  Minority Report as the latest in their series of expanded John Wiliams soundtracks; its not a score I’m particularly fond of so I’ll be saving my money on that one, but the news did get me deciding it was past time I dug out my old Blu-ray and gave the film another watch. Its been years since I’d seen this last.

Considering it came out in 2002, when Spielberg was well into his grown-up, more adult-orientated, ‘take me more seriously’ period, Minority Report is surprisingly juvenile. Indeed its a really mainstream, rather dumb science fiction film posing as something highbrow and dark. Its quite surprising to see how it poses as a science fiction future-noir film, with the obvious nods to Blade Runner, Gattaca etc, but all the time maintains Spielberg’s routine safety-net of warmth and lack of edginess.

I could go on about the films horrible ‘nice’ ending with its comfortable message that the good guys win and the bad guys don’t, and how it all feels like bullshit. I prefer to watch Minority Report safe in the knowledge that everything once Anderton is Haloed is just a fantasy in his imprisoned head. I prefer to imagine that after Anderton is ‘victorious’ the film should segue to a cut ‘real’ ending that features Sydow’s villain seen heading up a flourishing National Pre-Crime department with suggestions that in future any non-authorised, say, anti-establishment thinking will become a crime too. You know, something genuinely dark that pulls the rug from under the audience.

Because anyone who thinks its not a WTF moment when the crime-scene stuff (like Anderton’s gun, the murder weapon for goodness sake, or his bag of original eyes) is just put in a box of his personal belongings so that his wife can go all vigilante and just walk into the prison to free him… I mean Jesus in a handbag, that’s so crazy it deserves all the contempt it can get.

I was always troubled by the premise that the whole drama about the expansion of the Pre-Crime unit going National with the three Pre-cogs was nonsensical. How would it even work? Those three Pre-Cogs would just go into meltdown if they had to ‘read’ all the Nations dirty murderous minds, and I don’t believe there was any method of making more Pre-Cogs (a few times they are described as miracles). I actually think the script missed a trick there- if the actual conspiracy that Anderton and Agatha was uncovering was that a secret government department was canvasing medical records for children with nascent psi-abilities and was snatching them for genetic experiments to develop their talents and turn them into Pre-cogs, that national expansion thing would make sense and, more importantly, tie into Anderton’s personal history of his son being snatched. Immediately that back-story takes more importance, and there’s a nicer ending in which Anderton finds his son alive in a lab or indeed being enslaved as a Pre-Cog. The irony of his son’s disappearance being directly linked to his job and vocation, thus undermining his whole life/career, would be a lovely noir twist with which the film would justify its adult future-noir aspirations.

But hey, I’m doing Hollywood’s job again. They pay scriptwriters and producers a hell of a lot to not come up with ideas like this.

 

 

Shadows and Fog (1991)

shadows2Part of Arrow’s Woody Allen blu-ray box-set that I bought last year, Shadows and Fog is one of his films that I hadn’t seen before, and I came to it not knowing what to expect, but you know, it’s a Woody Allen film, so you expect it to be… well, everything this film largely isn’t, as it turns out. Because this was a very, very, strange film- which is possibly the kindest thing I can say about it (the unkindest thing I can possibly say is that it demonstrated some kind of masturbatory level of self-indulgence).

Watching it, I quickly came to the suspicion that it was a shambolic mess,  experimentally shot like a latter-Terrence Malick film, without any script and just ad-libbed on the fly by actors briefed on a rough outline on what was to happen in each scene. It seemed that loose and unstructured- but of course, this is a Woody Allen so that’s obviously not the case, and it’s clear from the familiar Allen-styled dialogue that this was indeed scripted, unfortunately it’s just a really bad script… unless…

Unless, well, here’s the thing- I’ve been pondering this film most of the day and I’m just beginning to wonder if there is some kind of mad genius at work here.

shadows1Here’s the problem: Shadows and Fog is unfortunately an extreme case of style over substance, which is in itself a really odd thing for a Woody Allen film. Up to now, every Woody Allen I have seen has been pretty basic visually, there’s not usually too many bells and whistles, he’s usually just telling a story in a way that doesn’t draw any attention to itself. The story and the characters are the thing and Allen never wants to distract us from the characters or what they are saying and doing.

Allen’s genius (if that’s the word) is his gift for conflicted characters with neuroses and doubts and a world that is ignorant of them- usually his protagonists have no impact at all on the world around them.

shad3That’s maintained here but the style here is everything- this seems to be Allen’s response to (or declaration of admiration of)  film noir and its origins in German Expressionism and the b&w films of the 1920s and 1930s, and visually it’s drenched in those sorts of visuals and motifs- lots of backlighting and darkness and shadows. This is the thing that has bothered me all day- in this film, the world dominates the characters so much so that they (literally, I suppose) get lost in the fog. The film has a very dreamlike feel, and looking back on it, I have begun to wonder that perhaps this is indeed all a dream of its lead character, Kleinman (Woody Allen). It would explain such a great deal. For instance, the time and place, and the space that the characters move in, seems deliberately vague, and Kleinman seems distracted by anxieties about work, about relationships with freinds and neighbours and particularly women, as if its his subconscious dreaming mind filing away all his daytime issues. The film is quite episodic, and Kleinman bounces around not knowing what he is supposed to be doing and always seems pressured and bullied by others. In this respect, it makes some sense of the nonsensical attributes of the script, in how he moves in dreamlike fashion through dreamlike settings and meets presumably exaggerated dream-versions of people from his waking life. At one point he approaches his ex-fiance for help, and she ridicules him for jilting her at the altar before dismissing him: the encounter adds nothing to the narrative at all. But if this is indeed a dream narrative, it sort of makes sense. How, as well as his ex-fiance, he encounters his boss and later his chief rival from work, all as he aimlessly wanders the foggy streets on this timeless, endless night. It would also explain, in particular, his fascination with magic- a magician that may be a childhood hero, a circus that might be a childhood memory and the concluding moments of impossible magic/sleight of hand that could only happen in a dream.

Hmm. Maybe I need to see it again, because this ‘reading’ may actually help explain and improve the experience of the film. That’s the funny thing about films- watching this one I thought ‘this stinks, pretty much’ but having thought it over during today, I’ve more deeply considered its dreamlike attributes and arrived at this reading of the film- misguided as it may be. Even the bad films can linger and play around for awhile in your head.

So sure, maybe it’s just a lousy Woody Allen film and possibly one of his worst, but you know, maybe there’s something else going on here. But then again, there’s no excuse for Madonna being in this, unless he’s clearly exaggerating the dreamlike otherworldliness of the film with his casting.

Wind River (2017)

windrvr1Sometimes it can be frustrating, when prior work creates unnecessary hype and expectation for a new project- in this case, Wind River, perhaps weighed down by the fact that it is written and  directed by  Taylor Sheridan, who previously wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, two of the best thrillers released in the past few years. Personally, for me Wind River more than lives up to that expectation- its a finely crafted, atmospheric, character-driven procedural thriller that, yes, maybe suffers from one or two missteps, but on the whole is a great piece of work. One of the best films of 2017 in fact.

Wind River begins with a partly-clothed young woman fleeing across the frozen tundra at night. She’s in a pretty bad way. Cut to a daytime scene; Wildlife Officer Cory Lambert  (Jeffrey Renner) is out doing his job, shooting wild wolves to protect livestock. Later when hunting down a mountain lion and its cubs that have killed some cattle he discovers a body frozen in the snow- the young woman we saw at the films opening. An FBI agent is summoned, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, hey, its something of an Avengers reunion) a fish-out-water operative who is inexperienced and needs Cory’s help to solve what quickly becomes a rape/murder investigation in what is, for Banner, a totally alien environment.

In some ways the mystery of what the girl was doing out in the snow, who she was fleeing from and who raped her, is incidental to the film. The heart and soul of this film is the barren, wintry landscape, and the melancholy that enshrouds the film and pretty much every character in it. Set in the Wind River Indian Reservation, the film is a study of the Native American’s plight, a defeated people lost and trapped by where they live.

Its a slow-burn film in which any violence is sudden and unexpected, and all the more powerful for that. I thought a shoot-out near the films conclusion was very well done – some have questioned the internal logic of it but hey, I doubt most people who are feeling threatened can coolly think themselves out of a situation when they think their lives are at risk and they have a gun cocked in their hand. Fight or flight and all that. I thought it was very well-choreographed and convincing.

Cory has a haunted past that drives him to help FBI Agent Banner and in a traditional movie, the denouncement that vindicates his actions would offer him peace and closure but it really doesn’t here. There is no getting lost family back, and while I’m hardly spoiling the film by saying the bad guy/s get caught/punished, I will say that it doesn’t really solve anything, and the air of melancholy and tragedy persists into the last scene and beyond.  Wind River is perhaps partly crafted (and certainly marketed) as a crime thriller but really its a study of the plight of the Native American people, and of loss and pain. Its dark and devoid, really, of any hope- a sort of wintry Film Noir set in the barren snows of Wyoming.

Hey, I think we just found the writer/director for the next Blade Runner film…

Detective Story

detect1.png2017.28: Detective Story (1951)

You know how in detective films and tv shows, they pin up clues on a wall, photos or other items, and use different-coloured pieces of string to connect them together? Like huge complex diagrams or charts, somehow the connections revealed by those webs of string solve the case. But the connections are the thing.

Sometimes it seems a little like that with films. You can watch films at random and suddenly be struck by odd coincidences or connections. As if hidden in the randomness there is some sort of pattern. Maybe there is a meaning to it.

Or maybe not. Why do I mention this?  Well, it was a little curious that only the other week on a whim triggered by TCM’s scheduling that I rewatched The Naked Jungle (1954) and now by sheer chance I was watching William Wyler’s 1951 film noir Detective Story, and it turns out they feature the same lead actress, Eleanor Parker. That coincidence of casting may not be a big deal, but its not the end of it though. The Naked Jungle starred Parker has a mail-order bride initially cast aside as “used goods” when her new husband learns of her previous marriage. In Detective Story, it turns out she again plays a wife with a rather shady past/secret. This time her husband, Det. Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is unaware that her past is linked to a criminal he is chasing; “Dutchman” Karl Schneider, a New Jersey doctor suspected of being an abortionist linked to the deaths of young women. It transpires that she had an affair with a married man a few years before she met her McLeod and went to Schneider for an abortion. The revelation threatens to shatter both their marriage and McLeod’s obsessive worldview/attitude to policing and crime.

Poor Eleanor. Was she being typecast as reputable-looking women with hidden secrets?

Detective Story is a great little film- I say ‘little’ as it’s based on a stage-play and hence has few locations and  pretty much functions as a one-set acting ensemble akin to 12 Angry Men. Its a great, dramatic character piece where action is secondary to the plot and character arcs. Rather the exact opposite of most films that are made today. In that respect, the film is a curio. There are no action scenes, no stunts, no visual effects, just a story, told with characters in a drama set over the course of one evening.

Based on a Broadway play it naturally has the feel of something being performed on a stage. There is a sort of unreality about it that, with its film noir sensibilities, gives the film a curious atmosphere of a police procedural via the Twilight Zone. KIrk Douglas is as intense as ever- perhaps too intense, but that is perhaps because his character is as much damaged goods as anyone else, his character crumbling as he rushes headlong towards his inevitable destruction.

Much like The Naked Jungle, the sexual undertones and sensibilities of the film betray its age and era. The McLeods are happily married, albeit struggling to conceive a baby, but this apparent idyl is on shaky foundations- when his wife admits to having had an abortion in her past, the social stigma and its impact on the detective’s black and white worldview of absolutes cannot cope. Suddenly she is a tramp, as if the knowledge she wasn’t a virgin on their wedding night invalidates the whole marriage- she was used goods, just as Charlton Heston’s character rages in The Naked Jungle. In that film, it is at least inferred that he too is a virgin (as unintentionally funny the idea of Heston playing a virgin might seem to viewers now). Detective Story rather skirts this, as McLeod is clearly a man of the world and hardly subject to the same restrictions/moral limitations as women are in that world. However, the inferred betrayal, and its impact, inevitably lead to Mcleod’s end. Right and wrong, good and evil, are absolutes for McLeod; all criminals must pay for their crimes, regardless of their circumstances- it is something he ‘learned’ from his own terrible father and how he treated McLeods mother.

detect3If McLeod ever ‘sees the light’ it is only in the face of his own destruction. His wife has left him, knowing he cannot shake his moral beliefs or give her a second chance. But seeing the love of a young woman for a young first-time offender that he was previously adamant had to be prosecuted, McLeod tells his colleagues to the criminal go. He gives the man the second chance he refused his own wife, and as he draws his last breath the two lovers flee the Precinct… love conquers all after all, for a precious few at least.

 

 

The Brutal Big Heat

bigh2017.23: The Big Heat (1953) – Blu ray

There’s a scene in The Big Heat… happily-married, decent cop and father Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is at home with his wife and child. Already under the attention of ruthless criminals and their boss who is the kingpin of a corrupted city, Bannion hugs and kisses his loving wife, and for a moment everything seems right in the world. If this was a modern movie, they’d kill his wife or go after his child, I thought to myself. And then- bang. Bannion’s world collapses as his wife goes out to the family car and is blown up by an explosion intended for Bannion. Having ripped away from him his family, it sends Bannion onto a road of revenge and hate, giving up his badge and taking the law into his own hands. This a 1970s flick or a modern Liam Neeson thriller, right?

The Big Heat is a thoroughly modern film; other than featuring Production Code-mandated bloodless gunshots, it is surprisingly violent, and brutal. I don’t know why the death of Bannion’s wife seems so shocking, but it is, as if the film steps suddenly over some unexpected line that films from the ‘fifties aren’t meant to cross. But why the surprise, this is a film-noir, right? Perhaps it is how Glenn Ford, as an actor, seems to embody American decency and his family some American Ideal. Ripping it away from Bannion and the audience just seems something done in 1970s movies, not a film from 1953. A ridiculous notion I know, but all the same, I can only imagine how shocking this film was to viewers at the time, particularly with how Ford portrays the grieving Bannion’s descent into darkness and single-minded path of revenge. The film seems to start as one thing, then turns into another, darker piece with subversive undercurrents.

The clues come earlier of course- the first shot of the film is of a handgun, and the first scene is of a suicide. A woman hearing the noise of the gunshot walks down the stairs but does not react to the suicide scene; instead she calmly walks over and finds, and examines, what appears to be a suicide note/confession addressed to the District Attorney.  She takes the note and moves to a desk phone and makes a call. Its clear that something is wrong- and the District Attorney is not going to receive that letter.

We are about to enter a dark and pretty-much permanently night-time world of criminality and corruption which will cost our one good detective his family.  Its a pretty desperate, violent world, too- particularly for women. After one woman raises doubts about the suicide and is seen talking to Bannion, she is tortured and killed, and when another is caught talking to him, she has hot coffee thrown in her face, permanently disfiguring her. It’s as if they are caught in some web of fate being woven about Bannion’s sense of righteousness that even destroys his wife.  Its almost the definitive film noir, and Bannion becoming a wild card as dangerous to others as the criminals that he is hunting. Even his child daughter becomes a target of the criminals desperate to rein him in; distressingly, anything goes, there are no rules. How alarming this must have seemed to audiences back in 1953.

bigh2.jpgSo what price justice in this dark world? Bannion has to resort to his fists and his gun to get the justice he needs, threatening violence to others at every turn.  Eventually Bannion brings the criminals to account for their crimes and justice is served, and he returns to his job as a celebrated lawman, as if we are back in some old western. But it isn’t as simple as that seems- he has left three dead women in his wake and he has lost everything he held dear, indeed only left that which cost him everything he lost. There is a bitter irony to the closing moments. Somehow this just feels thoroughly modern.

Its a brilliant, thrilling and rather disturbing film.

Another blu-ray release from Indicator, this is pretty exceptional. There are some very fine extras alongside a great HD picture, and I must make special mention of the excellent booklet. I love informative booklets and this is one of the very best I’ve seen, with an essay, an archive interview with the director and several excerpts of reviews of the film offering various viewpoints. Highly recommended and essential for fans of film noir.