The 2021 sort-of Statfest and my Top Ten

greenknightWell, 2021 is drawing to a close (or has already passed, depending upon when you’re reading this) and I had a few genuine questions myself regards the year’s viewing. Primarily I was curious regards the years of the films I was watching- it seemed like I was watching quite a lot of ‘old’ films this year, mostly because of lots of catalogue disc releases and my increasing fascination with all things noir (yeah, that kind-of blew up my attempts to curb disc purchases this year), and I was wondering how it all measured up.

So anyway, I went through my list of films I watched for the first time in 2021 and how they split up across the decades and here’s how it pans out-

1920s films- nil

1930s films- nil

1940s films- 13

1950s films- 23

1960s films- 10

1970s films- 3

1980s films- 2

1990s films- 1

2000s films- 2

2010s films- 27

2020s films- 42

Its inevitable that the 2020’s dominate- that’s mostly films from this year premiering on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or films caught on disc which I missed at the cinema such as the latest Bond, so films in this group were always going to be the biggest number. What did surprise me, frankly, was the paucity of 1970s/1980s/1990s films but upon thinking about it, it made sense. As I grew up in those decades my viewing experiences have primarily been of films from those years so there’s few left that I want to see that I haven’t seen. Which is nonsense, I’m certain that are great films from those decades I have yet to see but its really a case of stumbling upon them now, and most of the films I missed during those years was from choice as they didn’t appeal to me then and few of them do now. 

The second-largest group of films is from the decade prior, the 2010s, and again, that’s mostly Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think its fair to say the majority of content on the streaming platforms is post-Millennium stuff as that is what is perhaps most relevant to viewers, rightly or wrongly. Its certainly pressing upon me just how old today’s generation seems to think the films I grew up with are; to me they actually still feel recent, but its an inescapable fact that a film from 1982 is as old to viewers today as the Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood was to me when I watched Star Wars back in 1978. Or another way of looking at it- Star Wars is as old today as the 1933 King Kong was back in 1977. 

the killers3The biggest other decades of films that I watched for the first time in 2021 date from the 1940s and 1950s, and this is where all those noir box-sets and other boutique Blu-ray purchases kick in. There’s some absolutely brilliant, classic films amongst this bunch that I had never seen before and feel all the better for having finally caught up with. Films of the 1940s like The Killers, Criss Cross, Gun Crazy, and films from the 1950s like The Garment Jungle, The Lineup, and Pushover to highlight just a few. Its clear to me that the films from these decades are generally of a much higher quality than the films from the 2020s., a group littered with soulless Netflix Originals and typical by-the-numbers blockbusters. I can certainly imagine re-watching many of these 1940s/1950s films next year whereas most of the 2020s films are better soon forgotten.

Which brings me to my favourite films of the year; I don’t usually do a Top Ten but I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m not going to list them in preference as getting a list of ten films is bad enough, actually narrowing it down to an actual order of favourite is just a nightmare. So in no order, here’s ten films I consider my favourite, most enjoyable discoveries from my 2021 viewing-

Nobody (2021)– my favourite action film of the year featuring the unlikeliest actor in an action role, Bob Odenkirk, absolutely nailing it and proving the sorcery that is casting. If films were cookery recipes, this one one would obviously be ounces of John Wick mixed with ounces of Taken and a dash of Die Hard etc thrown in- its not too far removed from any film starring Liam Neeson these days so while its nothing astonishingly original it distinguishes itself apart from what is fast becoming a derivative genre by just being… well, quite brilliant. It just works in the same way as Die Hard does; its a little bit of cinematic perfection. 

Dune (2021)– a film spoiled badly by its sudden (albeit inevitable) ending, which only gets healed in a few years when Part Two arrives. The irony that what makes it so great (being shot as two films rather than try squeeze too much into one film, as Lynch had to do in 1984) is also what handicaps it so badly, isn’t lost on me. Even as it is, the film felt too short, still having to cut out so much material (which hopefully may feature in Part Two). I loved the cast, I loved the huge sense of scale, the cinematography and the brutalist art direction… Villeneuve’s Dune does so much so right, but totally fluffs the ending. I still can’t work out what they were thinking. Villeneuve hates streaming and seems to dislike the Marvel method, but releases a film that screams modern-blockbuster tease as loud as any comicbook caper and seems designed for the streaming boxset experience. Maybe he was in a no-win situation, but I think I’d have preferred more screen time pre-Harkonnen attack and actually end the film with Paul and Jessica fleeing into the desert, with Paul maybe vowing revenge and closing with a triumphant Baron over the Duke’s dead body. Imagine that.

Red Notice (2021) – nah, only kidding.

The Green Knight (2021)– I really enjoyed this, it felt like a modern-day revisit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, historical myth as dreamlike fable that isn’t intended to wholly make sense or purport to be anything like reality. It looked absolutely gorgeous and would love to own it on 4K disc someday. There’s every chance subsequent viewings won’t be as rewarding, but when I watched this it just blew me away, it was so strange and unusual, with some arresting moments that took my breath away- so it qualifies for my top ten.

Hidden Figures (2016)– there must be a sub-genre now of films about the Apollo missions and everything that led up to the landing on the moon, and this film is one of the finest on the subject that I’ve yet seen. It works as an (unintended) companion piece to Damien Chazelle’s First Man and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in such a wonderful way; blessed with a sharp script, and heartfelt performances from a simply marvellous cast. So good I had to go buy the 4K disc almost immediately, a disc I really should watch soon. A fantastic film.

strangers1Strangers When We Meet (1960) – One of the discoveries of this year for me was Kim Novak, an actress I knew from Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo but little else, other than the 1980s Falcon Crest television series (which in particular would hardly suggest anything positive). Well I was doing the actress a genuine disservice, and this film in particular may have been one of her best roles. I found this to be a profoundly sad film; a drama about a married couple having an affair, it probably wasn’t scandalous in 1960 never mind today, but it certainly hasn’t dated as much as one might think, and what made it work for me was the real-life reputation of womaniser Kirk Douglas and the wholly sympathetic performance of Novak. The vividly-captured world of late-1950s America, on the cusp of the 1960s is one of the films charms (see also as a counterpoint the late-1960s drama The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, another film whose appeal is partly the whole milieu of a surprisingly distant world). Douglas is fine, and possibly admirably stretching himself, but Novak is just brilliant in this though, a beautiful woman trapped in a distinctly man’s world. 

The Killers (1946) – Watching the first ten minutes of this Robert Siodmak film is almost the very definition of falling in love with a film; it starts in such a dark and moody fashion and masterfully sets up a mystery to grab hold of. This mystery, gradually solved by flashback accounts in a Citizen Kane fashion, doesn’t really live up to that opening section, but The Killers remains a tight-packed, very noir drama that blew me away. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. 

crisscrossCriss Cross (1949)– Which brings us to Criss Cross, reuniting Burt Lancaster with director Robert Siodmak in a clear attempt to recapture the success of their earlier film. I actually preferred this over The Killers – it features another Burt Lancaster character who is doomed but I found this actually more successful, possibly because its narrative was generally more traditionally told in linear fashion but mostly because the characters were more convincing. Its a tragedy writ large in noir black and white, with a brutal ending that is… well I’m still recovering from it. They don’t end ’em like they used to.

The Lineup (1958) -a film that starts out as one thing, but then becomes another- that kind of spin always appeals to me. Its rather like having the rug pulled from under your feet, something all too rare. Here Don Siegel transforms what is essentially an unremarkable police procedural in its early stages into a haunting nightmare of crazy hitmen loose in a San Francisco mostly lost now (the film almost as much an historical document as it is a dramatic piece, featuring landmarks now gone). Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as the psychopathic killers are something of a revelation, and its true, you can fall in love with a film just from one shocking moment – here one featuring a wheelchair and an instant of violence shocking and unexpected and, well, perfect. 

On Dangerous Ground (1951) – Alongside ‘discovering’ Kim Novak, this year seems to be the year I wised up to the genius of Robert Ryan, who just seemed to turn up in so many of the films I’ve seen this year (Crossfire, House of Bamboo, The Racket, Born to be Bad). Here he’s a bitter detective who has been brutalised by his job, having seen too much of the worst of humanity, who finds salvation in the love of a blind woman whose brother he is hunting down. Like The Lineup, its a film that seems to be one thing which then spins into something else- in this case, a thriller turning into a romance. It seems unlikely but it works, and much of this is thanks to Ryan’s performance. Ryan was wildly successful in film, in a career that lasted over three decades until his too-early passing at the age of just 63, and I gather he was disappointed in the roles given him, but I think he’s been quite brilliant in every film I’ve seen him in. There’s a dark intensity to his face and performances which left him largely cast as a villain and not the leads he felt he deserved, and he might have been right, but it seems he left a formidable body of work that I’ll hopefully discover more of in 2022.

gia2The Garment Jungle (1957)- I’m not sure why, but this film left such a mark on me. Perhaps its the performances, as it features Lee J Cobb, Robert Loggia and Kerwin Mathews in brilliant form in a tense noir with genuine twists- its certainly a solid film. But perhaps its more the haunting beauty of Gia Scala, an actress whose life is one of those Hollywood tragedies that lingers on because they are frozen in time in celluloid. Just on the strength of her role here, one would think Gia would have become a superstar, but due to real-life problems with depression (and, I gather, alcohol addiction, oh so Tinsletown) it was not to be, and she was found dead from an apparently accidental overdose at just 38 years in 1972 (although her sister would contest her death as suspicious, in similar manner to how some consider Marilyn Monroe’s death). Watching her frozen in time in The Garment Jungle, so talented and beautiful with the world surely at her feet, is a rather disturbing experience knowing what befell her later. She deserved better, but in life and Hollywood there is no ‘deserved’, there is just ‘is’; a fittingly noir thing to contemplate as I round off this top ten with another noir. One last thought- were women simply more beautiful back then in that era?

So that’s ten favourite films. Whether its even THE top ten of 2021 is another matter, but looking through my list of what I’ve watched this year, it looks about right regards which films I enjoyed the most. A pretty good year of films, really. I think its inevitable that I find more recent viewing (The Last Duel, No Time to Die for instance) hard to qualify as I haven’t absorbed them enough or had the time to properly judge them, whereas many of the films in that top ten have been bouncing around in my head for months in that way only the best films and performances do.  

 

Strangers When We Meet (1960)

strangers1I must confess, I was greatly surprised by just how sad Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet turned out to be. There’s a melancholy that runs through it, much of it surrounding Kim Novak’s character, Maggie. I’ve read that there was a possible intention by the director and writer Evan Hunter (who wrote the screenplay from his own novel) for the film to be a positive, albeit bittersweet story (better to have loved and lost, that kind of thing) but while I can understand that, I think the balance falls more towards the tragic. Maybe I’m just more of a glass half-empty guy; its interesting that the films ending may reflect something of the viewer regards what one gets out of it. Anyway, as the credits came up they did so accompanied by a typical-of-the-era song, the tone and lyrics suggesting some positivity to put a bounce in the audience’s step but it felt ill-judged to me, as the way it ended really felt pretty bleak leaving me with rather a sour taste in my mouth.

The film is essentially a doomed romance, with a midlife crisis twist to it. Both main characters, Novak’s Maggie Gault and Kirk Douglas’ Larry Coe are suffering midlife angst: suddenly feeling reflective of unfulfilled lives, questioning earlier life choices; Larry is feeling trapped in an unrewarding job, his early-career ambitions unrealised, and Maggie feels trapped in a marriage lacking passion, without a sex life worth speaking of – a husband, Ken (John Bryant) who is physically distant and withdrawn (and married to Kim Novak? Go figure). On an early-morning school run, Larry drops off his son at the school bus stop and sees Maggie there with her own son; instantly attracted to her, his lingering stare is subtly returned by Maggie but that’s about it- maybe usually that’s all it would ever be, but Larry is restless both at work and at home and is soon chasing Maggie, who is naturally given her own situation quite susceptible to a man’s advances. We later learn that this isn’t her first extra-marital encounter, and its to the films credit that it doesn’t condemn her as being some kind of wanton, scarlet hussy, but rather more sympathetic. I think much of this is due to Novak’s typically fragile performance; clearly from the four films I’ve now seen her in, much of her personal character was shining through in her roles- at least the roles I’ve seen her in. Maggie here isn’t very far removed from Madeleine of Vertigo or Lona of Pushover, all her characters seem subject to the predatory male gaze and trapped by it. I’ve read before of actresses being uncomfortable with being sexual objects in film no matter how bewitched the camera is with them, and that seems the case with Novak from what I’ve seen. There is a complexity to her that belies the simple category of Hollywood sex siren. 

strangers2Clearly, the film is a product of its time. I don’t believe any of the wives seen in the film have careers of their own, or lives away from the home unit (raising the children, doing housework and taking care of their husbands), so the sexual politics at the heart of it are quite dated – you couldn’t make this same film today. Similarly the film seems to excuse, in a roundabout way, adultery, in that Larry’s misery at home and work seems to excuse his affair with Maggie. Their affair is instigated by him (as if Maggie is available just because she’s miserable) and also ended by him (opting for fresh start with an exciting career opportunity whisking him and his family off to lovely Hawaii) leaving Maggie high and dry back in the situation she started in, immediately afterwards being lecherously eyed by a construction worker which almost broke my heart. Its possibly the one thing that betrays the films age- the man gets his life changing for the better and the woman is left behind in the same mess she was in before (there’s certainly no indication that the affair has convinced Maggie to finally leave her husband and try make a better life for herself elsewhere). Maybe I would have enjoyed the film a little more if Larry was as miserable as Maggie when their affair is finally ended, as if they each return to their quiet lives of suburban midlife misery for the sake of their marriages, their children and the status quo, but its certainly a better outcome for Larry than Maggie.

But despite all this I absolutely loved this film. Novak as always is a treasure, okay I’ve not seen her in many productions so I have no idea if her performances are always what some may consider one-note (I believe she came from a modelling background with no formal dramatic training?) and that seeing her in more films might become a somewhat repetitive experience, but like with Vertigo, this film seems to fit her like a glove. As an actor I always enjoyed Douglas –Spartacus, Ace in the Hole, The Vikings, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea…)  although I’ve become rather uncomfortable with tales of his private life- its just one for those situations where one has to seperate the man and his considerable ego from the performances he left onscreen, and I rather think this is one of his better ones. Can one possibly imagine the life Douglas led at the time, a major star and producer in Hollywood? Perhaps his personal life infers something in the film- if half of what I’ve heard and read regards Douglas is true, he seems eminently qualified for the role and he’s definitely pretty convincing as Larry. I don’t think, say, someone like Jack Lemmon would convince as much, as great an ‘ordinary Joe’ character actor as he was (curiously, Lemmon’s own The Apartment was released that same year, itself a commentary on American lives and sexual politics (albeit regards the workplace rather than Californian suburbia)). No, while Novak suits Maggie its clear that Douglas absolutely fits the part of Larry: consummate casting for both.

strangers3The supporting cast is very good, particularly Walter Matthau as the lecherous and frankly despicable neighbour Felix Anders who learns about Larry’s affair and uses it as an excuse to make a worrying advance on Larry’s wife Eve (Barbara Rush, whose underwritten character is one of the films possible weak points) in a really edgy scene in which the film almost transforms into something else entirely. I thought John Bryant as Maggie’s passionless husband was very good in what could have been a very tricky role- my own suspicion that he was secretly gay, but just assuming the role of married man with children in order to fit in society and have a successful career, proved unconfirmed in the film but it would certainly explain his character. Bryant manages to play Ken as fairly warm and loving, albeit at too much of a distance for Maggie, when the role could have been simply cold and one-dimensional, less convincing. He’s not a bad husband, he’s just not the husband that Maggie needs.

A game I sometimes play after film narratives end is imagining what might happen next, if, say, sequels were as prevalent back then as they are today- would a sequel/spin-off continuing Maggie’s story further investigate her marriage and perhaps confirm my suspicions of Ken hiding his true sexuality? What a daring and controversial film that might have been back then (its a little like imagining what happens after the end of The Apartment, say, mindful of the seductive possibility  running through Glengarry Glen Ross that Jack Lemmon is secretly playing The Apartment‘s CC Baxter at the wrong end of the American Dream).  Or maybe -lets be romantic- that Larry’s problems run deeper than his career and is just not happy in Hawaii, and flies back to be with Maggie after all.

Thanks again to Colin for his recommendation regards this film: one of the many pleasures of this blog are the comments from people I have the pleasure to consider freinds who I would never otherwise meet, and their tips and recommendations for films and television shows I often have never even heard of. Colin’s own review of Strangers When We Meet can be found here. As is usual with very good films, my life is all the richer for the pleasure of having seen this little gem from 1960 and I shall return to it again. Mind, this really isn’t an easy film to see, but I was fortunate to be able to cheaply buy a second-hand DVD copy from CEX of all places (well, there’s another first, and I’ve had to create a new ‘DVD’ category for this blog, yikes never saw that coming). I can only hope that, as its a Columbia picture, that Indicator might be able to restore and release the film on Blu-ray someday. It certainly deserves to be, its a lovely-looking film that deserves a HD release, the DVD is fine as an opportunity to actually see the film but it really deserves better. 

 

Columbia Noir: Pushover (1954)

pushoverWatching old films for the first time from the vantage point of, in this case 2021, is that the perspective cannot be anything like watching a film when it first came out. In the case of Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Pushover, I suppose my viewing was skewed from having seen Fred MacMurray so many times in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, and Kim Novak being, in my eyes, forever the doomed fantasy of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

In MacMurray’s case, he will always be the slimy cheat Mr Sheldrake that I despised so much whenever I re-watched The Apartment growing up, so I had no problem at all with Pushover‘s greedy detective Sheridan, smitten by Kim Novak’s Lona McLane and tempted by the chance of what he thinks is easy, life-changing money. Far as I was concerned, its perfect casting – I seem to recall reading of people actually being shocked by his turn in The Apartment as they had previously watched him in his run of wholesome Disney family titles, but on the evidence of films like Pushover, it seems to me he was almost lazily cast to type in Wilder’s dark comedy. There’s a nervous edge to him that’s fascinating to watch and I’m almost surprised he didn’t have a career typecast as a Hollywood bad guy. There’s something wrong about him, and he’s perfect here; I believed in his fall from grace absolutely. Of course, he’d done much the same in Billy Wilder’s earlier noir classic, Double Indemnity.

As for Kim Novak, I’m beginning to think my film education needs some revision. Novak didn’t make very many films, really, considering how famous/infamous she is, and I’ve actually seen almost none of them. I grew up seeing her late in life in the frankly awful television series Falcon Crest in the 1980s, and nothing else until I caught up with Vertigo and was totally blown away. But that’s it, until I saw her in the very average thriller 5 Against the House  early last year (part of Indicator’s first Columbia Noir set), a film which did her few favours, really, but in Pushover she’s quite incandescent. In this she has star written all over her, and I believe this was her Hollywood debut, no less. There’s always some kind of tag line about someone being the hottest thing to hit film since whatever, but in this case it would have been very true- Novak is hot, hot, hot. Just twenty-one, I understand, when she made this film, her turn is at times daring (her dress in her first scene that is practically see-through), at times sympathetic, at times over the top… its a tour de force and frankly totally distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes of her and she really makes MacMurray’s fall not just believable, but actually inevitable.

After the pretty mundane Walk A Crooked Mile, this film is a real return to form for this fourth Indicator noir box- Pushover is totally noir, totally cool and totally dark and fascinating. I loved it. There is something wonderful watching a guy’s increasing desperation as his scheme continues to unravel and the clear futility of him trying to get things back on track. Novak’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, and I think its quite a pity she was never (as far as I know) cast as a genuine, scheming femme-fatale in some dark noir. You’d believe she could turn a man to anything and I suspect, on the strength of this film, that Hollywood missed a trick. Or maybe not: its actually curious how much her Lona McLane is like her Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For a woman who seems so naturally gifted with an ability to bewitch and control men, she always seems so fragile and easily manipulated by them: almost a sweet girl in a body built for sin, quite a combination, and perhaps an indication of her real persona?

In any case, Pushover is a simply terrific noir: it looks ravishing at times, mostly shot at night in streets hammered by rain, and it has all the usual tropes of lots of smoking and drinking, with a rather disturbing dash of voyeurism when a cop spies upon McLane’s pretty neighbour who doesn’t realise she’s being watched and really shouldn’t be, especially by a guy who creepily has the hots for her while he should be watching her neighbour. There’s shades of the more uncomfortable moments of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which curiously was released the very same year so while I thought, when watching Pushover, that it was simply mimicking Hitchcock’s classic, I should have given it more credit- I imagine both films were shooting pretty much concurrently and its just a case of Hollywood coincidence. 

Very often watching these ‘old’ movies, I see familiar names in the credits, catching my eye- in this case, that of Arthur Morton, who composed this films effective score but is much more famous to me for his later career as a Hollywood orchestrator, chiefly for the scores of Jerry Goldsmith, particularly Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Poltergeist, First Blood, Innerspace… you name it, practically  every soundtrack by Goldsmith I ever bought has Morton’s name in the credits. I didn’t actually appreciate he worked as a film composer in his own right, so hey, you learn something new every day. 

Director Richard Quine had earlier directed the excellent noir Drive a Crooked Road and would later direct one of my favourite comedies, How to Murder Your Wife, which I have on Blu-ray and really need to watch again sometime soon. He also made two more films that starred Kim Novak which I have on my watchlist already: Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet, which like too many older movies are just very hard to get hold of, certainly on Blu-ray. If only Indicator could turn their attention to them and treat them to that magical Indicator TLC.

 

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

lady2I first watched this film back in 2017, when I bought the Indicator Blu-ray- I didn’t write a review about it at the time because I honestly didn’t know what to make of the film. I decided to wait for a second viewing, not realising that it would take as long as it has, but having just seen Rita Hayworth in the brilliant Gilda it seemed its time had come at last.

Second time around then, what did I think? Well, I think I’m in about the same frame of mind as I was first time around: there’s something very wrong with Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, a film that continuously veers from melodrama to farce, is peppered by brilliance but seems to waste all its promise as it routinely slips from jittery noir to black comedy to unconvincing romance to weak drama, as if there’s four different films fighting for dominance and none of them wins.

The thing I love, and find endlessly fascinating, regards film noir is that for the most part, however stylised they may be with expressionistic, nightmarish lighting etc, they are gritty, down-to-earth, realistic tales with believable, albeit flawed characters. Very often the worlds of the 1940s and 1950s may look and sound very different from our own but they are always convincing, there is always a sense of truth to them. The Lady of Shanghai deliberately bucks this approach, as if Welles was deliberately usurping Hollywood tropes, to the point at which the courtroom sequence towards the end is practically a mockery of Hollywood courtroom scenes (really, it almost seems disrespectful). The main characters, too, are far from realistic- quirky, camp, irreverent and often annoying, they don’t feel ‘real’ at all (what in the world is going on with Glenn Anders monstrously misjudged George Grisby, a central character to the plot who grates throughout?). Its hard to empathise with what is essentially a freakshow, and harder still to believe anything they do or say.

The central problem I have with the film, and its a fundamental one that it can never really recover from, is the frankly bizarre performance by Orson Welles in the role of the central protagonist, Michael O’Hara. I’m not exactly sure what Welles was trying for, and believe that as he was the writer, producer and (the oddly uncredited) director of the film, perhaps he should have hired another actor better suited for the role. He’s really pretty awful as the Irish adventurer, utterly unconvincing and painful to watch: I just didn’t ‘get’ him at all: perhaps individual mileage varies, but its hard for a film to recover when central casting derails everything. I suspect that Welles was being deliberately contrary, an intellectual approach to the role perhaps that doesn’t at all come off. Chiefly its the odd accent but to be honest, there is something wrong with the character in general: aloof, noncommittal, he doesn’t feel convincing, and most  damning of all, there seems little if any chemistry between Welles and Hayworth, who were married at the time (albeit estranged, I understand) – perhaps the state of their failing marriage surfaced in their performances. As it is, the lack of chemistry is like a black hole at the heart of the film, for all the pouting and panting Hayworth attempts here (compared to the sexual fireworks between Hayworth and Ford demonstrated in Gilda, its a bleak chasm that the film can’t climb out of).

Hayworth, of course, was ‘the Love Goddess’ of 1940s Hollywood, and her transformation from Gilda to how she appears here as femme fatale Elsa Bannister is quite astonishing, and indeed caused some consternation at the time. Gone were Hayworth’s long red locks, replaced with a short platinum-blonde hairstyle – she looks like the archetype for Kim Novak’s Madeleine from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Considering that this film came out just a year after Hayworth’s seminal role as Gilda in Charles Vidor’s classic noir, the change is breathtakingly brave (or recklessly foolish as studio head Harry Cohn believed, horrified by what Welles had done to his star performer).

Alas, Elsa isn’t nearly as fascinating as Madeleine would be a decade or so later. Certainly Hayworth is as beautiful as ever, but the character is underwritten and I suspect this too was deliberate by Welles, bucking the traditional femme fatale role. Hayworth isn’t given anything with which to chew up the noir scenery as the scheming temptress the film needs her to be. Partly this issue is down to enabling the ‘twist’ that it doesn’t want us to see coming, but this scuppers what could have been a memorable and even iconic role – Hayworth looks the part but has to play a trapped wife and insipid, romantically frustrated victim for most of it. If she’d been more of a traditional femme fatale it might have helped Welles’ Irishman to have been more convincing, too, his role then more of a traditional luckless noir hero seduced by a beautiful woman- but again, Welles isn’t making that kind of noir here. 

Welles, perhaps true to his own nature rather than as professionally workmanlike as he should have been, wasn’t looking to be traditional, and this is hardly traditional noir (brave indeed perhaps but when it undermines a film working as well as it should, perhaps actually pretty foolish). The fact that this film even IS noir is mostly down to its remarkable, visually audacious ending in a hall of mirrors (if you haven’t seen it, you’ve certainly seen some film mimicking it). After the failure of Citizen Kane and Welles subsequent loss of final cut and his troubled films after, its unfortunate that Welles couldn’t just make a more traditional, ordinary, moody noir. I’m sure it would have been spectacular (Kane itself is proof enough of that). But for some reason -likely sheer ego, it was Welles, after all- Welles seemingly couldn’t be a director for hire and play by the rules, he had to do his own thing like some crazy maverick in the studio system. Inevitably, he wouldn’t be able to find work in that studio system for long; this, the man who made Citizen Kane, arguably the finest (certainly most influential) film of all time. Turns out Welles was probably his own noir hero; how ironic is that, on the evidence of the horribly flawed The Lady From Shanghai?  

lasy3

 

Columbia Noir: 5 Against the House (1955)

cnoir5Ronnie (Kerwin Mathews), the smartest of four college students who have spent a night at a Reno casino, is excited by the challenge of robbing it. Its the intellectual challenge that inspires him, seeing it as a prank, intending to inform the police of where the money is once he’s stolen it- but one of the four friends, traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war, has no intention of returning any money.

I didn’t really click with this one. The premise is very promising, but its not really the tense thriller that the title or the synopsis would suggest: indeed, the tension really doesn’t come from the heist (which takes most of the film’s running time to even get to), rather coming from Brick going off the rails. For some reason -presumably the source novel by Jack Finney- the focus is largely on Brick, with an awkward aside to Kim Novak’s sexy dame who seems shoehorned in (the film crunching to a halt for her to sing a romantic song or two). Its really a very odd feature, and hardly much of a traditional noir- instead it feels like a genre mash-up, stuck in-between the dark heist thriller I expected and the light-hearted caper film that harkens more towards Oceans 11 (that would arrive five years later). It has its moments, particularly its genius finale set in what I can only describe as an automated parking garage in which cars are parked vertically in columns above each other – absently predating the finale of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Its an early feature for Mathews, a familiar face from films I watched in my childhood (particularly his Harryhausen films, which possibly did his career more harm than good as he’d later become rather typecast with those matinee swashbuckler adventures that quickly slipped out of fashion). Curiously, Matthews will also turn up in the next film of this Indicator noir set, The Garment Jungle, in a superior role that would indeed suggest better things should have lay ahead of him.

I quite like this kind of thing, the links between films, connections of sorts: Nina Foch of course appeared in the first two films of this set, another is that this film’s screenplay was co-written by Stirling Silliphant, who would later write the sixth film in this set, The Lineup. It was an early feature for Kim Novak (her second credited role, I believe), who, unlikely as it might seem from this film, would go on to appear in one of the greatest films ever made, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just a few years after. Both are Matthews and Novak fine, as is Brian Keith who plays Brick, the war-vet student who goes off the rails in rather melodramatic fashion. One curious piece of trivia for viewers of a certain age is the appearance of William Conrad in a minor role, who would later star as Cannon in the hugely popular tv series of 1971-1976, and notable to geeks like me as the narrator of the 1977 Making of Star Wars tv-documentary and the voice that opened every episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980). Those were the days.