God’s Angry Man: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

P1110321 (2)Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959, 94 mins, Blu-ray

Well we’re back in Noir city and this Robert Wise film, one of the last films of the ‘classic period’ noir. It’s fairly easy to tell its from the end of the ‘classic period’ (1940s/1950s) because even though I wasn’t alive back then, and not American either, its nonetheless easy to feel the 1960s bearing down upon films like Odds Against Tomorrow (see also Murder By Contract). You can feel the world changing; the post-War period is fading away and the Space Age is coming, and with it the Swinging Sixties, the Beatles, hippies, all that stuff… you can almost smell it in the wind, even in films like this; the world changing. Watching earlier noir, it can feel like something from another world, remote somehow, no matter how familiar and universal the themes and tones of the films, the fashions and social sensibilities are distant. The films can still be terribly relevant; that’s the magic of noir, they often seem the most relevant of all cinema, but there is a distance, too, sometimes comforting, sometimes frustrating, but its there. But less so in films from the close of the 1950s into the 1960s; what we see and hear is more what we know.  

So here we are and yet again we are graced with the chiselled-stone countenance of the great Robert Ryan, here playing Earle Slater, an ex-con and racist, tough as nails and angry- indeed, he’s like Gods Angry Man, raging at everything. He can’t stick anything out; job, career, relationships, he always turns any success into failure and knows it but can’t change it, its who he is, what he is. Slater’s self-destructive drive is demonstrated when he cheats on his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) with a frustrated housewife from the floor above, played by Gloria Grahame, veteran of earlier noir like In A Lonely Place and The Big Heat. Lorry doesn’t deserve it and Slater knows it, but he’s angry at himself, at Lorry, at the world, and he can’t help himself, his fury just makes him wreck everything.

P1110318 (2)Could anyone play Slater as well as Ryan does here? Doubt it. The irony that Ryan would later bitterly resent the fact that he never seemed to play the leading man, the hero, in any of his seventy-plus films isn’t lost on me when watching him in films like this. He was just too good, too convincing, as horrible charming monsters. Women could see themselves falling for him, men would love to drink with him, but neither could imagine turning their back on him and still feel safe.

Slater is approached by David Burke (Ed Begley), a former policeman hounded out of the force after thirty years when he refused to cooperate with crime investigators: seems he was a bent cop who turned the other way when it suited, justifying it as living in the real world of shades of grey and mocking those with sensibilities more black and white. Bitter at being cast out Burke has a plan for a Bank robbery that is so easy and simple it cannot fail; it just needs three guys to see it through. The third man he has in mind for the job is Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) a black nightclub singer whose gambling addiction has gotten him heavily into debt and ruined his marriage.

P1110314 (2)Slater and Ingram are instantly at odds when they meet with Burke and both refuse the job, but grudgingly change their minds when they realise they have no choice: Slater, unable to get or hold a job because of his criminal past and temper, is furious at being emasculated by his working girlfriend Lorry  who supports him, and sees the robbery and its promised $50,000 as a way to be a ‘proper man’ and breadwinner again. Ingram meanwhile has debts to a criminal boss who threatens (at Burkes behest, curiously) the safety of Ingram’s separated wife and young daughter if he cannot make good on his debts, so the robbery is his only way of saving his estranged family. 

Burke thinks that hiring two men as desperate as he is will ensure their compliance with his scheme, and prove to be excellent allies, but doesn’t realise how the trio will prove horribly self-destructive: its all a recipe for disaster. All three are trapped with no way out but the inevitable one.  

Was Robert Wise one of America’s greatest directors? His earlier noir, The Set-Up, also starring Ryan, was pretty great, and while Wise seemed to have a talent for noir he was just as good turning his directorial hand at anything- after all, his next film would be West Side Story, and besides starting his career as editor with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (notable enough, surely) his other films would include such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain… its a hell of a list. And yet I never seem to see him mentioned alongside the likes of Hitchcock, or Spielberg .

P1110311 (2)Odds Against Tomorrow features a great deal of location shooting, its a remarkable-looking film- like so many noir shot ‘on the streets’, it succeeds even if only as a visual document of the times, but I think Wise demonstrates here his particular flair with actors; characters are defined really well, horrible as some of them are, and the three leads are excellent. There’s that odd dichotomy typical of noir, when we know the guys are bad and we don’t like them at all, but we still want to see them succeed.  The mechanics of the heist, the drama as it unfolds and how it falls apart, is also well realised. Its clear early in its staging that things are going wrong, but the three crooks are too desperate to realise it, or unable to see any alternative than just see it out.

The film is as much social commentary as it is a heist thriller, maybe more so- certainly today it seems more famous for its racial issues than the heist it centres upon, and is surprisingly complex- at one point Ingram rages at his wife for mixing with white people, for betraying her own race-  Ingram betraying racist tendencies of his own, albeit possibly reactive against the racism he suffers: “It’s THEIR world and we’re just living in it,” Ingram berates her.

Its inevitable, really, that Ingram and Slater’s rage at the world and their respective plights turns in against each other in a literally explosive finale. Odds Against Tomorrow isn’t a perfect film, some of the jazz music seems overly melodramatic at times, feeling an ill-fit in places, but on the whole its pretty powerful stuff and its sense of place and time, thanks to its location shoot, is as captivating as any noir. 

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Crossfire (1947)

crossfire4Well we’re back to noir and the 1947 drama Crossfire starring Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Young. Directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper, Bluebeard) the film also features Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat) in a supporting role. That’s quite a pedigree, and also so many connections to other films I’ve seen; how could it fail?

Well, it can’t fail, really- as far as noir films go, this one looks utterly gorgeous, photographed by J.Roy Hunt, whose work here is simply high-art; its so beautiful (I only wish I had watched this on a Blu-ray, instead of an off-air recording). Although the script and acting are very good, its how the film looks that really struck me. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve watched plenty of noir, particularly over the last year or so, so I’ve plenty to compare it to, and this film’s visuals compares with the best. Its moody, atmospheric and full of all sorts of creative and imaginative touches, painting with light indeed.

Police investigating the brutal death of Joseph “Sammy” Samuels (Sam Lavene) find that the evidence leads towards a group of demobilized soldiers, “Monty” Montgomery (Ryan), Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper), Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Floyd’s friend Leroy (William Phipps) who were seen with Samuels in a bar – particularly Mitchell whose wallet is found near the body, and who has gone missing. Capt. Finlay (Young) of the police department is approached by a fifth soldier, Sergeant Keeley (Mitchum) who is convinced his friend Mitchell is incapable of murder and sets out to investigate the crime himself, and try track down Mitchell before the police do.

Crossfire is a very atmospheric and gripping murder mystery telling the tale partially via seperate flashbacks of the events leading to Samuels murder, which we see in the immediate post-titles sequence but in such a way that we cannot identify the assailant. Gradually the film reveals to the audience who the murderer is and how he intends to cover up his guilt, instead pointing the blame upon Mitchell, and from that moment on it becomes a drama regards if the police or Keeley will discover the truth. The film is very good, with plenty of twists and turns, featuring some memorable characters and simply superb acting, particularly from Robert Ryan whose work resulted in him Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Gloria Grahame, whose turn as Ginny, a girl from the wrong side of the street resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The film received five Oscar nominations in all, perhaps indicating just how well the film was regarded at the time, and its aged very well, except for when it becomes, for me, a little too preachy towards the end. That last observation really is just a personal viewpoint, films back then, as I have mentioned before concerning films of that period, had an habit of preaching messages at the audience and sometimes its just, well,  a little too forced, as I thought it was here, in the form of a long monologue from one character to another but clearly intended direct to the audience: I half-expected the speaker to directly face the camera. I’m not contesting the moral point that is voiced at all, the film carries a worthy and important  message that’s unfortunately as timely now as it was back then, its just that I would have preferred more subtlety, but as I say that’s a personal view and many will likely have little problem with it.

Other than that, the film is pretty much perfect, and I hope a Blu-ray release arrives over here in the UK so that I can watch it again in better quality. Its funny; noir films have been well represented on Blu-ray over the past few years and its clear I’ve been rather spoiled. It just goes to further prove just how important home video releases on physical media really are for older, classic films such as this, especially HD and 4K.

In A Lonely Place (1950)

lonely22016.96: In A Lonely Place (Blu-ray)

One of the pleasures  of being a film-fan is discovering old films that you haven’t seen before and simply falling in love with them. Its like they’ve been waiting all those years just for you. In the case of Nicholas Ray’s film noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place it’s been 66 long years- it’s in like those movies where a character asks “where have you been all these years?”, it seems incredible that this film has been out there and I’d been ignorant of it. Thanks to Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of this classic noir, and subsequent rave reviews that got my attention, I’ve finally fallen under its spell.

(Its the ‘magic’ of disc releases of catalogue titles; many of them don’t seem to appear on tv anymore and its only through these releases, like so many by Warner Archive and Arrow Films, Eureka etc., that these older films get my attention. It’d be such a shame if disc releases get replaced by streaming and downloads, as I’m sure these older films will suffer. You can’t rely on late-night television screenings anymore (they just don’t seem to happen these days)).

lonely3The genius of In A Lonely Place is that while its film noir, its really a story of a doomed romance, a tragic love story. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter with a vicious temper. He becomes the prime suspect in a Hollywood murder, and his alibi proves to be his seductive, beautiful new neighbour  Laurel (Gloria Grahame). The two of them are lonely, broken souls and they start a passionate affair while the police continue to try to pin the murder on Steele. As the film continues, the romance is clearly good for Steele- he gets back to writing again, and gets a whole new zest for life, but Laurel’s happiness starts to unravel as she begins to witness Steel’s temper and his hair-trigger for violence. Doubts start to form in her mind -and in the audience- regards Steel’s innocence. Are the police right after all?

Its all very dark and complex, with elements that would later surface in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo a few years later. Indeed it very much feels like a film noir Vertigo, and in some ways In A Lonely Place seems actually superior to that classic, concluding with a similar dark and tragic inevitability. Of course, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite ‘Top Ten’ movies, it’s inevitable that I would fall in love with this noir masterpiece that shares so many of that film’s themes.

lonely1Bogart delivers a brilliant, complex and subtle performance, displaying both a vulnerability and a simmering darkness. Grahame is equal to Bogart with a sultry swagger that slowly becomes something more tender and then fragile. Both are phenomenal, both are perfect- its one of those films where you cannot possibly imagine any other actor inhabiting the roles they take. Bogart is not an actor I ever had much interest in when growing up; other than his early  gangster roles I was pretty much ignorant of his films- I only finally caught up with Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon this year. I think I’ve been missing out on something. I think thats something I will have to rectify.

In anycase, In A Lonely Place may be 66 years old, but its one of the very best films that I have seen all year. Its one of those films that lingers in your head for days- “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dialogue and sentiments like that, in tragedies like this, it’s pure Hollywood magic. If  you are as ignorant of this film as I was a little while ago, really, this film is not to be missed. Its simply brilliant, and I can hardly wait to watch it, live it, all over again.