Drama, Films I Love, Noir

Sunset Blvd (1950)

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” These words are spoken by Norma Desmond, a former screen queen who longs to be back in the era of Silent films.

Norma thinks longingly of a time when actors used their faces and emotions to convey the plot and the directors intent for a scene, and also of a time when dialogue and effects were not needed or relied upon on screen.

Silent films were big in every way, from how they looked, to the scope of the stories they showed. Once sound came in however, there were still many superb films made, but films had lost that epic and mesmerising look and style that the Silent films had. There were also so many films being made, and so many stories being recycled, that you could argue that films no longer became special events, they actually became very run of the mill. 

Sunset Blvd is one of my favourite classic era films. It was one of the first classics that I ever saw and it made quite an impression on me. I love the blend of drama and Noir, the stunning photography by John F. Seitz, and for the sad and tragic tale it depicts.

This is the film that made me aware of Silent films. I was quite young when I first saw this film ,and before seeing this I didn’t even know that there had once been Silent films, I’m well aware that sounds pretty dumb LOL. Before this I had no reason to imagine there had ever been a time when films were Silent.  I also love this film because it brought to my attention people like De Mille, Swanson, Wilder and Keaton.

Superbly directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd is a warts and all portrait of Hollywood.  Wilder wrote the screenplay along with Charles Brackett(regular collaborator on so many of Wilder’s films)and D.M Marshman Jr.

The films depiction of the darker and sadder side to the glamourous perceived image of the American film industry wasn’t very well received by Hollywood upon release. I guess some people didn’t like, or simply flat out refused to see the truth that Billy so boldly served up to them with this film.

Wilder’s film showed the Hollywood community the unpleasant truth about itself; the sad truth that once great stars get tossed aside like rubbish. That people think only of themselves at the expense of others. That people use others in order to further their careers and get to the top. That fame and stardom rarely lasts all that long (no matter how much you believe otherwise when you are enjoying it).

Wilder’s film is a sad film and is difficult to watch at times. His film is spot on though and that is what makes it so worth watching; the film deals with ruined lives, damaged people and also looks at mental illness.

This film is also a very good Noir film. Holden’s character is mistaken for someone else, this then brings him into contact with Norma, and he then gets sucked deeper and deeper into her world that he reaches a point where he is a doomed man incapable of getting out of this situation. Holden also narrates the film, I’m not a big fan of voiceover work but it fits this film and doesn’t occur too often.

The film features Gloria Swanson and William Holden delivering two of the finest performances in film history. I really like that their performances also highlight the different acting styles of both the Silent and Sound eras. 

Gloria Swanson steals the show as the damaged and deranged Norma. She cannot accept that her fame has gone, that she is all but forgotten about, and that everything she once held so dear has now vanished. Swanson was one of the biggest and most talented stars of the Silent era, she had one of the most expressive faces and uses that face to its full effect in this film.

The irony of her playing this role can not have been lost on Swanson. Gloria had once been one of the biggest stars in American Silent films. Gloria’s career was over at this point, and she certainly no longer enjoyed the fame of her glory days. Unlike Norma though, Swanson (thankfully)found her change of situation easier to cope with. She was able to very successfully bring a blend of Silent and Sound acting techniques to her performance in this film. Gloria is phenomenal in this role and I consider it to be the best performance she ever gave.  Her performance is all in the eyes. Watch those eyes of hers because they speak volumes. She manages to be creepy, pathetic, pitiful, strong and fun.

Holden is both likeable and not so likeable as the down on his luck Joe Gillis, a man who seizes on an opportunity with Norma and uses her to get it. He starts out eager, outgoing, and also with some control over his life. As the film goes on Holden shows us Joe becoming desperate, on edge, depressed, a man with no control and no power. He is being used by Norma to bring her soul back to life (watch how she brightens up once he comes into her life)and even if he is unhappy he now can’t be allowed to leave this woman.

The film begins with a dead man floating in a swimming pool. The Police are gathered round the body trying to figure out what has happened. This opening shot is one of the most impressive and memorable in film history. We see the body from under the water looking up at it. The dead man is Joe Gillis, and the film that we are about to watch will show us how he came to meet his watery death.  Originally the film was to have opened in a morgue, with Gillis’s soul talking to other dead bodies, this was scrapped in favour of the opening we have now.

 

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Joe Gillis(William Holden) is a film scriptwriter who needs some money fast. By accident he meets former silent film star, Norma Desmond(Gloria Swanson). She has written the screenplay of a version of Salome, she wishes it to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille and to be her glorious return to the screen. Joe gets himself hired (to get some money)to work on her script for her. He works on it at Norma’s home(a fading luxury mansion, that I see as representing the luxury and excess of the 1920’s.)

As he spends more time with Norma, Joe soon realises that she is falling in love with him and also that she is completely detached from reality. Things get complicated when Joe falls in love with Betty(Nancy Olsen)an outgoing young studio writer. Betty offers Joe an escape from the possessive nature of Norma. Betty offers Joe love, fun, friendship, and above all some happiness. Joe’s desperation for a career opportunity and for money, means that he leaves Betty and returns to the wealth, glamour and supposed opportunity that Norma can offer him. He becomes her kept man, no different than the beloved monkey she once had as a pet. Norma dotes on him, splashes out money on him, and he can’t stand it.

Norma becomes suspicious of Joe and Betty and her anger and distress begins to steadily build up within her leading to one of the most tragic and unforgettable finales in film history.

The scenes between Norma and Joe play out like some sort of  horror film. Norma appears almost vampire like in certain scenes, and many of her hand gestures appear claw like and grotesque. Norma sucks Joe in with promises of fame and fortune, he gets caught up in her delusions and he can’t escape her, no matter how much he might try to do so.

Joe’s relationship with Norma becomes all consuming and it changes who he is as a person. He becomes bound to her and cannot escape her, he may try to, but when he does he cannot find any peace or happiness because her shadow looms large over any joy he may find.

Norma is also grotesque in as much as she is getting old, but she won’t accept it and still dresses and makes herself up to be young. Norma and her home(and it could also be said her acting style)are starting to fade away and crumble into non existence and relevance.

It’s also a look at two different acting styles the silent era(telling the story through expressions, emotion and gestures)and the sound era. Holden and Swanson both give great performances showing us these opposite acting styles and techniques.

Swanson and Holden get strong support from film director Eric Von Stronheim, who appears as Norma’s loyal butler Max.

Max was once married to Norma and he now works for her and cares for her. He fakes thousands of fan letters which he delivers to Norma so that she actually feels like she is still remembered and valued by fans. Stroheim is excellent as a proud man brought low, he too cannot have missed the irony of his casting. He was once a man of power and influence and was now playing a former director, turned servant/carer working for one of his former stars.

Von Stronheim was once of the greatest Silent era directors and famously made a film called Greed, which originally ran for nine or ten hours! His directorial career ended soon after he directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly. That film is the film that Norma watches on her private cinema screen with Joe at her side.

Nancy Olsen is terrific as keen, pure, passionate and gentle Betty. She offers Joe an escape from Norma. Nancy’s character is a lifeline for Joe, and she lets us see that Betty is falling for Joe and that they would be good together. She isn’t on screen all that much, but when she is she sure makes a strong impression.

There are some terrific cameos from other famous Silent film figures: Buster Keaton, Cecil. B DeMille, H.B.Warner and Anna Q Nilsson. This film is an inside look at the glamour, pain, excess and madness of Hollywood and it also gives us glimpses of the different people involved in the film making process the writers, directors, actors, designers etc. 

I also like how real people and films are mentioned and shown throughout the film. Greta Garbo is mentioned by Norma as being a current actress (Garbo had been retired for about a decade by this time, so this shows how out of touch Norma is with current events)who had the same face and acting style of the Silent era. Interestingly Garbo was one of the few Silent stars who successfully made the transition to the sound era and retained the same level of fame from one era to the next. Director Cecil B. DeMille (who appears as himself) is another who successfully transitioned and retained fame and influence.

The scene with DeMille is one that I’m not ashamed to admit always makes me tear up a bit. Norma is warmly welcomed back by former colleagues, crew and studio staff. She sees that there are some who still hold her in affection and high regard.

This scene is also important because De Mille could easily have ignored Norma but he greets her with such tenderness and affection. He respects her and treats her as she deserves to be treated. De Mille also utters a line of dialogue that I think is quite interesting. When asked by an assistant if it was true that Norma was difficult to work with, he replies “only towards the end. A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”.

To me those words indicate that something in Norma’s life had been seized on by the press and stories were being run. Press intrusion is another dark aspect of Hollywood, with careers and reputations being ruined and lost due to scandals and rumours being splashed over front pages. Maybe this intrusion is what began her descent into madness?

My favourite scenes are the following. Norma’s charades performance for Joe. The New Year’s Eve party with Joe and Norma being the only guests. Joe discovering what Norma has done to herself in her despair. The “I’m ready for my close up” scene. Joe at the crowded party in the apartment. Joe and Norma’s first meeting. Norma returning to the film studios and being warmly welcomed and getting to sit on the set of De Mille’s latest film.

Thanks to this film we hopefully come to understand how brutal Hollywood can be to its own, and how awful it must be when a big star falls from their pedestal and becomes yesterdays news.

The final shot is one that stays in the mind long after the film has finished. In this scene Norma gets the fame and attention she has been so long starved of. The trouble is it is the wrong kind of attention. We know that she only has an institution to look forward to (unless Max can pull some strings and keep her at home being looked after there)and that she will never be able to act again.

For one brief moment though, Norma shines again and the cameras roll to capture her emotions and every move. Her name will never be forgotten once this story makes the headlines. Is that a blessing or a curse? She will get her fame back, but her illness and despair will be milked to sell papers, and she will most likely be ridiculed too. A sad end and one that really makes you think. In the end this is a film all about victims, and about how they are used and how they suffer.

The film could almost be viewed as a warning about getting into the film industry. If you do you may get fame and fortune, but at what cost will these be achieved? Can you stand what happens once your star starts to fade?

I think this is one of Wilder’s best films and it’s certainly the best film about Hollywood I’ve ever seen.

What are your thoughts on Sunset Blvd?

 

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Detective, Noir, Unsung Classics

Unsung Classics 8: Woman On The Run (1950)

I came across this Noir gem purely by chance a few days ago. It came up as a recommended purchase after I had bought another Noir film. I had never heard of this one before, but I really loved the sound of the story. I also really like Ann Sheridan(who is the star of the film) and so I just had to have it. Having watched this yesterday, I can report that this certainly was money well spent. 

Woman On The Run is quite a unique Noir film. Originally titled Man On The Run, the title was changed to what it is now, and the focus was taken off of the pursued man on the run, and shifted instead onto his wife.  I think this change really helps the film. Such stories would usually focus on the man who has gone into hiding, by shifting the focus away from him, the film becomes an out of the ordinary depiction of this type of story.

The film is also notable for having a female lead. It was pretty rare for a woman to have the main lead role in a Noir film; women certainly get big and interesting roles in these films, but the main character generally tends to be a male. I found it very interesting for the focus of the film to be on Sheridan’s character. Sheridan also co- produced the film. Her character is one tough and independent gal. I wish she had been given more roles like this.

I really like how the marriage depicted in this film is far from ideal, and it is also far from what marriage was expected to be during the 40’s. I also dig how Sherdian’s character doesn’t cook for her husband, when asked what they do for food, she coolly replies “we eat out.” This gal is not content to sit at home cooking a three course meal for her man.  Good on her, is what I say!

The two married characters have also fallen out of love, they tolerate one another, but have no interest in, or any desire for each other any more. The only thing keeping them together is their shared love for their pet dog, and the fact that their shared life is comfortable and tolerable.

Sadly this film isn’t one that is all that well known today, and there were quite a few years where it wasn’t known about at all. It is also a film that we recently came very close to losing forever. In 2008 a huge fire burned down part of the Universal Studios lot, in the process there were also a lot of films destroyed that were stored in the film vault there.

The print of Woman On The Run was among the films lost in this blaze. The interesting story of how a copy of the film came to be found and restored is included in a booklet with the Blu-ray release of the film. It is an amazing story, and I for one am very grateful that this film was able to be restored.

The film is shot out on location in San Francisco. The locations used focus on the less well known areas of the city, and don’t focus heavily on landmarks.

The film tells the story of Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott). He is out at night walking his dog. While doing so, he witnesses a gangland execution. The killer spots him, shoots at him, and then drives off.

Frank is unharmed and calls the Police. The cops ask him if he can identity the killer, he says that he can. The cops immediately want him in protective custody, but he doesn’t like the sound of that, so he makes off into the night to take a chance looking after his own back.

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Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) persuades Frank’s wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan)to help them look for him. She is wary of leading them to him in case the gang should get to him if the Police get him to testify at the trial.

Teaming up with the charming and determined reporter Danny Legget(Dennis O’Keefe), Eleanor sets out to look for her husband. Legget will keep his silence as to Frank’s location in exchange for an exclusive interview with the couple. There are a couple surprising twists late in the story, which lead to a thrilling and suspenseful finale at an amusement park.

This is a very good film and it is one in which the characters and actors are the real stars. There is some very funny dialogue throughout the film. The wisecracks being thrown back and forth between O’Keefe and Sheridan are class. I also love the dialogue and scenes between Robert Keith and Sheridan, Eleanor and the Inspector rub each other up the wrong way, but they both come to develop a mutual respect for one another.

Sheridan is very good as the tough woman who discovers herself falling back in love with a man she thought she was over. Dennis O’Keefe is a highlight in the film, I think this is one of the best performances he ever gave. I really like how O’Keefe conveys his growing feelings for Eleanor to us. Robert Keith (father of Brian Keith)steals all the scenes he is in, I love his character and the way he delivers his lines.  

The film clocks in at 1 hour and 18 minutes, but boy does it manage to pack a lot in during such a short space of time. This one reminds me a bit of The Narrow Margin, with both films being compact Noir films that pack quite a punch, and have a gripping story.

My favourite scenes are the following. The skylight sequence between Leggett and Eleanor. The finale in the amusement park. Ferris speaking to Eleanor for the first time and looking around her apartment. Leggett and Eleanor escaping a Police officer tailing them.

This film also contains a very funny exchange between a drunk woman and Eleanor. It’s one that is funnier when you see it, rather than when you read the dialogue.

Woman -“Say, why don’t you wear a hat?”

Eleanor – “I look funny in hats”

Woman – “You’re not wrong!”  Haha.  🙂

Cracking little flick that deserves to be much better known. Do you love Film Noir? Then this is a film for you.

British Cinema, Drama, Noir

It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

This film is one of the best screen portrayals of everyday life in post World War Two London that there has ever been.  We see the grime, the claustrophobia, the boredom, the frayed tempers and the nosy neighbors. Part Noir thriller, and part superb character study, this  flick came out of Ealing Studios during their grittier and darker period in the 40’s.

The film is interesting because Douglas Slocombe shot out on location in and around the streets of London. This choice certainly gives the film a great deal of realism, and it really helps to add atmosphere to the film. We see the cramped and busy city streets, and the somewhat calmer residential streets.

Rose Sandigate is a London housewife whose dull Sunday morning is turned on its head by the arrival of her former sweetheart Tommy Swann(John McCallum). Tommy has been in prison for years and has escaped; he is now on the run and is being searched for by the police in a manhunt led by the highly experienced, observant, pipe smoking Detective Fothergill (Jack Warner).

Rose hates Tommy for having left her, but she won’t turn him over to the cops, and she will try and offer him what little help she can (shelter, food and money). The trouble is Rose is now married to George (Edward Chapman)and is the mother to her own son, and to her two stepdaughters, Vi and Doris. Her family are in and out of the house and she must try and hide Tommy from them, her neighbours, and from the police.

The escape of Tommy isn’t the only story of the film though. There are several other stories being told, and the paths of some of the other characters in those stories end up connecting with Tommy Swann later in the film. There’s the three criminals who are trying to flog stolen rollerskates, the reporter who is also trying to find Tommy, and the crime boss who Doris’s boyfriend wrongly assumes fancies her.

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We also follow Rose’s two stepdaughters Vi (Susan Shaw)and Doris (Patricia Plunkett) and their love lives. We also see the antagonism they (more so Vi)have towards Rose. Interestingly Vi and Rose are both quite similar in that they are strong and determined women, and they both fall for a guy who breaks their heart; in Vi’s case it is the suave, married musician and music store owner Morry (Sydney Tafler). Vi and Rose have more in common with one another than they’d like to realise.

This film is thrilling, suspenseful, funny and realistic. There are strong characters and performances to enjoy throughout.

The standout performance is Googie Withers as Rose. She perfectly captures this woman’s boredom and her unleashed excitement when the situation with Tommy makes this Sunday one she’ll never forget. Rose is on edge throughout the film, struggling to control her temper when she argues with Vi, struggling to ignore her feelings for Tommy, and struggling to endure the dullness of her life as a housewife.

Susan Shaw is excellent as the glamourous Vi. Shaw shows us that this woman is tough and also easily hurt. Shaw had a tragic life, she married the popular actor Bonar Colleano, and became an alcoholic after he was killed in a car crash in 1958. A sad life and end for a very promising actress.

Sydney Tafler is excellent as Morry. He steals every scene he is in as the man who cheats on his wife, but who wrongly assumes she doesn’t know when she actually does. This leads to him rather amusingly finding out he is wrong in that. He breaks a lot of hearts, and doesn’t give it a second thought. What a cad!

I like how the film shows how the family have frayed tempers because they live in such a cramped environment and have little privacy from one another. This would have been the reality in many homes at the time. The film also reflects the dullness of everyday living and the excitement that beckons from living in the city, or from living your life outside of the norm.

The film also shows us the two sides of criminal life. There’s the money and nice times when the criminal succeeds, and there is also the imprisonment and heartbreak when they fail and are caught and punished. This is reflected in the exploits of the gang trying to flog their stolen skates, and in Tommy, who literally embodies what happens to a criminal when they are caught and punished. In the film Tommy is shown to have been severely flogged while in prison. He has come out a scared, broken and desperate man. Hopefully his situation may have served as a wakeup call to anyone in the audience who thought crime pays.

I think this film also highlights that it is women who so often are left to pick up the pieces, and to suffer great emotional pain when their men go and do something stupid (be it crime or cheating). The women take that pain and use it to make themselves stronger, as that is the only way they can go on after what has happened.

The film also makes Rose an interesting character, she is shown as a married woman who still has feelings for her ex, and there is a scene where it is pretty strongly hinted that they have sex in her bed! Also the rather shocking decision she makes near the very end of the film is also interesting; I think that it must surely have shocked quite a few people morally at the time of release.

This choice Rose makes adds even more darkness and despair to a film already swimming in both of those things. Interestingly though Rose does get some happiness at the end, which goes against what usually happened to characters like her, especially if they made the decision she did at the end.

Interestingly the rain itself becomes almost like a character in the film, and one part of the music by Georges Auric sounds just like the patter of raindrops as they fall, which I think is very clever and adds so much to the film.

This was one of Googie Withers best film roles, and sadly it was to be the last film that Googie would make for Ealing. She continued to make films elsewhere though. She and John McCallum fell in love while they made this film and they were married the following year. They moved to Australia in the 1950’s and stayed married until John died in 2010. Googie died the following year.

This is one of the best British films, and I think it does such a good job of portraying the post war life. It has become a great favourite of mine, and when I’m in the mood for a well acted British Noir this is one I turn to.

I like how many of the characters actions, gestures and words give the film its authenticity and realism. One of my favourite examples of this is the scene with Hermione Baddeley as a landlady interviewed by the police, she is disdainful and walks away from them yawning and scratching her bum. It’s the little moments like this that bring characters to life and make a film or series more realistic.

I also like how the people in this film are relatable and ordinary, they are not rich or doing things that most people at this time would never have been able to afford to do.

My favourite scenes are the following. Rose and Vi’s argument and fight about the bedroom door and the mirror. The entire sequence at the railway yard. The inspector speaking to the three men in the pub. The opening scene where Doris has to make breakfast, and the family all start to get up and get ready. Tommy and Rose’s first meeting in the air raid shelter. The flashback sequences showing us Tommy and Rose’s romance.  The two boys blackmailing Morry in return for their silence about seeing him with Vi. The ending.

Any other fans of this one?

 

Blogathons, Noir

The Alan Ladd Blogathon: This Gun For Hire (1942)

Alan Ladd Blogathon YellowRachel, over at Hamlette’s Soliloquy is hosting this blogathon all about the actor Alan Ladd. Be sure to visit her site to read all the entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself. I’m writing about Alan’s performance in the Noir film This Gun For Hire.

In 1942, Alan Ladd (seen in the banner above) was cast in the lead role in a little Noir film which would catapult him to film stardom. For several years before this role came along Alan had been working very hard trying to get his big screen break. 

Since the early 1930’s Alan Ladd had been seen on screen in bit parts, including in a small role as a reporter in Citizen Kane. Try as he might though, he just wasn’t getting cast in any major film roles and it seemed like he was going nowhere mighty fast. 

Alan’s luck was about to change though when he was offered the role of the contract killer Raven, in Frank Tuttle’s 1942 Noir film, This Gun For Hire.

Who knows what Ladd thought of his role as Raven, or indeed if he had any expectations at all as to audience reactions to his performance. Whatever he may have thought though, he was in for a very pleasant surprise indeed. This film made him into a star.

Following his performance in this film Alan Ladd would go on to become one of the most beloved stars of the 40’s and 50’s. His career peaked with the 1953 Western film Shane. Alan sadly died in 1964 , aged just fifty years old. A sad loss indeed for the film industry.

This Gun For Hire is a very good film indeed, but I think it is Ladd who makes this film remain so memorable today. He is downright scary as the ice cold killer calmly killing to order. He steals every scene he is in with just a look. He really doesn’t need much dialogue in this one, his face tells us all we will ever need to know about this guy and what his motives are.   

Right from the films opening scene Ladd has our attention with every little move he makes, and with every look which crosses his face. He gives us a very clear impression of Raven. We see that he is kind and tender towards his cat, and that he shows absolutely nothing but contempt and hatred towards the cleaning woman who hurts his cat. Raven slaps the cleaning woman and roughly makes her leave his room. 

As the film goes on we see that Raven isn’t a people person, and he has no qualms whatsoever about killing other people to order. He will use his own judgement though at times and if something doesn’t seem right to him he will go against orders. He is also a very good judge of character too.

This film also saw the first pairing of one of cinemas greatest screen couples. Who are they? Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake of course. This couple worked together in four Noir films. As far as I’m concerned this first film is one of their very best pairings. They are magical together and have real chemistry. Ladd’s baby faced, tough guy, and Lake’s cool, sensual blonde sure do make for a very memorable screen pairing.

The growing relationship between their characters is a major part of why I love this film so much. They slowly grow to trust and like each other, and Raven opens up to tell her about his past, which then explains so much to us about how he came to be the man he is. The interactions between their characters is the heart and soul of the film. Ladd and Lake (and their characters) are the reason (in my opinion)why this film stands up so well when viewed today. The film has a really cracking story, but it is the strong performances which linger most in your mind after viewing this one.

Raven (Alan Ladd)is a gun for hire, he is not a people person and much prefers the company of animals. Raven is hired by the peppermint chewing Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) to kill a blackmailer who has stolen a chemical formula from the Nitro Chemical company where Gates works. Raven (in a pretty brutal sequence for the era) kills the blackmailer and his girlfriend, and then leaves with the recovered formula.

Gates betrays Raven by paying him off with some marked money. Gates then reports Raven to the Police. Raven doesn’t trust Gates and he buys something from a shop to test if the money is being watched for. He sees that it is marked, and so Raven then goes after Gates for revenge.

Gates also works as a nightclub manager and hires the talented singer/magic act entertainer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) to work for him. Unbeknown to him she is the girlfriend of Detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston)who is on Raven’s tale. Ellen is also asked to spy on Gates by a Senator, who is himself being blackmailed by Gates.

It soon transpires that Nitro Chemicals, Gates, and his colleagues are under suspicion of being traitors to their country. Ellen risks her life to get dirt on Gates, and is soon also thrown together with Raven. The two get closer and closer to danger and to the truth.

My favourite scenes are the following. Ellen’s magic trick act for Gates(featuring a catchy song and some clever camera trickery and editing.) Raven evading the Police at his hotel. Raven telling Ellen about his childhood. Raven and Ellen meeting on the train. Gates discovering Raven is on the same train as him and getting very worried indeed.  

This is a solid Noir/thriller about a brave gal, and about a morally dubious man, who in the end does show some redemptive qualities. Ladd steals every scene he is in here. It’s really not hard to see why this performance turned him into a star. This is one of my favourite films of his, and I think it would be a very good place to start to introduce someone to his film work.

Here are my five favourite Alan Ladd performances.

                                                                 1- This Gun For Hire

                                                                 2 – The Blue Dahlia

                                                                 3- Shane

                                                               4- Hell Below Zero

                                                               5  -The Proud Rebel

What are your thoughts on this film?  Any other fans? What do you think of Alan’s performance as Raven? Please leave your comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

Detective, Noir

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 10:The Big Heat (1953)

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What a film this is! A gripping story of violence, corruption, hate, revenge, and a strong determination to fight back against evil. It also quite interestingly shows us that the line between people who are good and bad can sometimes get quite blurred.

The film is based upon the Saturday Evening Post Serial by William P. McGivern. I have never read this but would love to do so. If you have read it, I would love to get your take on the differences  and similarities between the text and the film. 

For a film from the 50’s, this one is very violent and brutal. Some of the violence we actually see on screen, some is inferred, but all of it makes quite an impact on us. The film still shocks and grips when viewed today. The clothes and cars may have dated, but the story, shock of the violence, and  the types of people seen in the film certainly haven’t changed.

The film is directed by Fritz Lang. He made so many masterpieces throughout his career(especially his German Silent films, such as Metropolis), that it is very hard to single out any one of his films as being better than others. The Big Heat is one of his that I would certainly single out though, and for me it is his best American film.

Lang focuses on the darkness of humanity and really rubs our noses in that darkness and dirt. He also lets us see that there can sometimes be good, decency and courage found in the sewer of humanity. This is a film that is all about humanity, and Lang focuses upon the characters and their actions instead of making the film one that is all about visuals or action. 

This is an actors film, the camera is focused on them throughout and lets them convey to us what’s going on. The entire cast all deliver superb performances, and for some I think it’s fair to say they deliver career best performances. Glenn Ford in particular is excellent as the good detective who ends up going around filled with barely concealed rage and hatred.

The vast majority of the films power comes via the interactions between characters and their reaction to the violence that occurs throughout the film. I also love how the film is split into little sections which almost come across as mini films in their own right. Apart from one scene, the film all takes place inside. The interior locations and the close way the camera is focused on the actors really gives the film a claustrophobic feel. Much of the film also has an almost documentary style feel about it, there is a strong sense of realism in this film.

Women play a major role in this film. The female characters we see are very strong women and once they get mixed up with Bannion’s investigation they suffer unspeakable cruelty. Much of the violence in this film is directed towards women. Women are the main victims in this film, they either end up getting killed, physically scarred, emotionally damaged, or have their lives put at risk. Even Detective Bannion’s own daughter suffers too; in as much as her childhood innocence gets shattered and lost by what happens to her mum.

It is also the women in this film who take most of the risks, and in the end it is a woman who gets revenge on two of the main villains of the film. Bannion, who is the films hero actually doesn’t get his hands dirty often, but through his investigation and persuasion others face danger or lose their lives by helping him get revenge. Bannion also does or say things that make him not unlike the people he is seeking revenge against. There’s that old saying which I think applies to him and his situation; violence begets violence. Revenge is just a never ending cycle of pain and violence.

The film begins with Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan)hearing a gunshot. She comes downstairs and finds her husband (a police detective)dead in an apparent suicide. She reads a letter he has written, but we don’t see what is in it. Throughout all of this she never looks shocked or upset in any way, she looks cold and seems unbothered by the grim sight before her. She makes a call to dapper crime boss Lagana (Alexander Scourby)to inform him of the death, he seems to have mixed feelings to her news, and he says he will see her soon.

Detective Dave Bannion(Glenn Ford)is put on the case and at first seems convinced it is a simple suicide. His suspicions are aroused when he speaks to Lucy Chapman(Dorothy Green)a woman who was Duncan’s mistress and who claims there is no way he killed himself. Bannion sees there is more to this when Lucy is found brutally murdered shortly after telling him what she did.

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Across town, the thuggish Vince Stone (Lee Marvin)is one of Lagana’s men and he is put in charge of getting rid of Bannion. A car bomb meant to take out the curious detective accidentally kills Bannion’s wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) instead. Bannion driven crazy by grief is determined to get revenge and uncover the truth about the case. He also puts his young daughter into the protective custody of former army pals of his to keep her safe. 

Stone’s flirtatious, and fun loving girl Debby(Gloria Grahame)is rebellious and takes a liking to Bannion. This affection gets her a pot of boiling coffee in the face, scarring her for life. Debby teams up with Bannion in his quest and dishes out some revenge of her own.

Glenn Ford is excellent as a decent, ordinary man plunged headfirst into violence, grief and pain. He is excellent at conveying little gestures or looks showing Bannion becoming enraged and no longer playing by the rules. His performance is all in the eyes, pay close attention to him in every scene. Glenn often looked quite baby faced in many roles, but here he looks more mature and proves what a good dramatic actor he could be.

Lee Marvin steals every scene he is in as the despicable heavy, who has no feelings for anyone, not even for a woman who is supposed to be his girlfriend. Marvin had such an expressive and fascinating face and here he says so much with that face.

Gloria Grahame (who to me has always been quite an underrated actress)is at her best as the fun loving, strong and independent Debby. In the last part of the film Debby becomes the main focus of the film instead of Bannion. Gloria relishes these scenes where she shows us Debby overcoming her pain to become a strong woman determined to get some justice for herself and Bannion.

Jocelyn Brando (older sister of Marlon) is very good as Bannion’s loving wife. She gives him a normal, happy and stable existence away from the darkness of his job. Jocelyn and Glenn work well together making us feel this couples connection and devotion.

Jeannette Nolan steals every scene she is in as the ice cold woman who thinks only of her self. Her character is one of the most interesting and controlling in the whole film. Jeannette was a superb actress, but I think this may be one of the best performances she ever gave.

Alexander Scourby oozes evil as the big boss who thinks he is king of the city. He has people very afraid indeed, but of course he won’t dirty his own hands by killing or injuring, he hires heavies to do that for him. Lagana uses words and body language to scare and intimidate, he finds this doesn’t work on Bannion. Scourby is excellent and gives you a good sense of what his character is all about.

This film features many fine supporting performances from the following: Dan Seymour, Willis Bouchey, Edith Evanson and a young Carolyn Jones.

My favourite scenes are the following. Debby answering the phonecall from Lagana for Vince. Bannion and Katie sharing a steak, a drink and a cigarette. Debby going to Bannion after she has been injured. The carbomb sequence. The “sisters under the mink” sequence. Bannion speaking to the old woman through the fence. The finale in the penthouse. Bannion’s Lt speaking to him after Katie’s funeral.

A taut film that packs quite a bit into just 89 minutes. There is not one wasted second in this. There are also scenes where you don’t find yourselves wondering why two characters are suddenly together, as they will say a few words that explain all (we don’t need to see them come together to do what they are about to when we catch up to them.)

I also have to praise the photography by Charles Lang, he keeps the camera close to the actors at all times and makes us feel a part of the scenes. The film is interesting visually, without the look of the film being the sole focus of attention (like many of the visuals in Fritz Lang’s Silent films.)

Be sure to see this one on Blu-Ray to see it looking its best. This format also has some great extras for you to enjoy.

Any other fans of this film? Please leave your comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

Noir

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 9: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

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Odds Against Tomorrow is directed by Robert Wise. The film was one of two films to be produced by its star Harry Belafonte’s own production company – HarBel Productions.

This is a film that I love very much. I recently treated myself and bought it on Blu-ray. I highly recommend that you purchase it in that format as it looks fantastic, there are some great extras  on it to also enjoy.

This is a taut, atmospheric, and gritty film about desperate people doing desperate things in order to survive. The film also takes a hard-hitting look at racism too.  The final shot shows the stupidity of racism(and other prejudices) because we are all the same, we are all humans trying to live and when we die it doesn’t matter what skin colour, sexual orientation, gender etc we are, as we are all equally dead and are the same in death. So what the hell are we wasting time fighting for when we are alive?

As the film goes along we also see that Belafonte and Ryan’s characters are more similar than disimilar, both in terms of their struggles, prejudices, and also in their mutual run of bad luck.

The film was shot out on location in New York, and for me this helps to give the film a very realistic feel. In terms of its atmosphere and look this film really reminds me of Sweet Smell Of Success.

Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan both deliver two of the best performances of their respective acting careers. They are both excellent as the two tightly wound men edging ever closer to their respective breaking points.

Both Belafonte and Ryan make us care about their characters and convey to us how frustrated they are with their respective situations. Both tell us much about their characters simply by an expression, or by the way they respond to something someone says to them.

This film was quite daring for the time it was made in because it showed black and white people as being the same; they both have good times and bad, they have the same problems and have the same hopes and dreams too.

Despite their hatred for one another, Earle and Johnny are actually very similar men. We can tell these are just two broken, lonely and essentially decent guys just trying to survive and get by doing what they have to. Both men love their wives very much and are trying to make a better life for their families.

Dave Burke (Ed Begley)is a bitter ex detective who is living a pretty crummy life. He has planned what sounds like a perfect bank robbery. He just needs two people to help him do the job. He enlists embittered, WW2 veteran and ruthless killer, Earle Slater (Robert Ryan)and heavily in debt, gambling singer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to help him. Each man stands to get $50,000.

The robbery should be pretty simple, but Johnny and Earle’s mutual hatred of each other causes tension and chaos. Earle is openly racist and Johnny is not one to stand by and just take that foul rubbish lying down, he returns the hatred and Earle doesn’t like it.  It all leads to a tense and violent finale.

 

The main trio of Ryan, Belafonte and Begley are all excellent. Begley is another actor in this who tells you much with just an expression or glance. I believe from the way he reacts to racist comments that his character, David, is not a racist, and that is an interesting angle to the film. David is shown to be friends with Johnny and they have known each other for years. David doesn’t like Earle’s attitude and is shown to be disgusted by Earle’s words.

Belafonte plays Johnny as a tightly wound man who has got where he has in the world due to his own success and failure. There are times when he wants to say something to people giving him grief, but stops himself knowing there will be trouble. I love the nightclub sequence where his eyes show the undisguised hatred he feels for the gangster he is heavily in debt to.

Ryan plays Earle like a ticking time bomb. This man has a temper on a real short fuse. He feels less of a man due to his dire situation and thinks money will make him something more. Keep your eye on Ryan throughout and you will see him on edge, just waiting to unleash his pent up anger on anyone who happens to be around.

Shelley Winters, Kim Hamilton and Gloria Grahame play the dames in the lives of Earle and Johnny.

Kim is Ruth, Johnny’s ex wife and mother of his adored daughter. Ruth loves him but cannot take his lifestyle nor his hatred of white people, and blaming them for things. Ruth will always love him but she can’t be with him anymore.

Shelley is Earle’s much younger wife Lorry, she loves him dearly and with her he can be vulnerable and himself. It is in scenes with her that we see his tender and gentle nature.

Gloria is Helen, a friend of Lorry’s who lives in the flat above theirs. She wants to be taken out of herself and treated as a woman (an escape from the drudgery of her life)she fancies Earle and he knows it. Earle has never cheated on Lorry but one night he and Helen are talking and it’s obvious to them (and certainly to us)that they are going to have sex; the tension between them is electric and they let it happen.

The actresses sadly don’t have as much to do as the men do, but they are all excellent and make an impression when they are on screen.

Keep an eye out for Richard Bright (best known for playing Michael’s loyal bodyguard Neri, in The Godfather)as a homosexual henchman of the gangster Johnny is in debt to.

Wayne Rogers (of MASH fame)also has a small role as a soldier who gets on the wrong side of Earle.

I’m always left feeling sorry for those who love and are waiting for these men to return from their date with crime – Earle and Johnny’s wives, and David’s beloved pet dog, the one thing on earth who appears to love him and who is loved in return. They all have my symapthy and I’m always left wondering what happened to them all? following the events that end this film.

My favourite scenes are the following. Johnny taking his daughter to the park. Lorry telling Earle he can borrow money from her. Johnny’s funny exchange with the elevator operator. Earle punching the soldier in the bar. The entire final 30 minutes of the film.

This story comes across as just one example of thousands more like it. We are all (whether we are men or women) trying to escape from some pain or perceived weakness, we all want a better life and we are all trying to get by. This film captures the lonelieness and problems of humanity well. It also shows us that racism is so stupid as we are all the same, can’t we make some effort to get along while we are living on this planet?

I’d also like to mention that you get to hear Harry sing a couple of times and that is an added treat. The jazz score adds greatly to the tension and atmosphere throughout.

I’d love to know what you think of this film? Please leave your comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

Noir

Taking A Walk Through The Dark Alley of Film Noir.

 

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If pressed to choose just one film genre as my all time favourite, I would certainly have to go with Film Noir. Why is this genre such a favourite? Well, it’s because I love these films because they reflect the truth of humanity. We all have good and bad within us, we are all complicated in some way, and we all do what we have to do to survive and get by in life. Noir films reflect this reality back at us.

Following the horrors of WW2, 1940’s film audiences began to be bombarded with films which reflected the reality of the life they were living at the time. Not since the 1930’s gangster flicks had films been so violent. These films dished out a slice of real life for many viewers, and they captured the cynical and bleak mood of the times. People now were much more aware of the dark side of humanity, and everyone in some way had been affected by the darkness of the war. Noir films picked up on the mood of the times.

The Noir villains were ice cold and very nasty pieces of work, the women were independent, strong and even manipulative; even the heroes themselves were not clear cut good guys. The public lapped these films up and they continued being made throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.

It was the French film critics who first came up with a name for these films. The word they chose was Noir(meaning black or dark.) This word was their way to best describe these films being made in the States. The French themselves though had also made many excellent Noir films; films such as Le Jour Se Leve and Rififi for example. These moody and atmospheric films are among the very best in the genre. My favourite French Noir is Le Jour Se Leve, featuring an unforgettable lead performance by the great Jean Gabin.

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I also really like Noir films because they are often very interesting visually. The black and white photography captures long shadows and creates an atmosphere unlike anything seen before or since (with the exception of German expressionist films of the 20’s.) Darkness is all around in these films, clinging to all the characters like a suffocating fog. The photography and lighting are such important parts of these films, so much of that Noir atmosphere and look is down to the skill of the camera and lighting crews.

Another major and memorable part to a Noir film is the femme fatale. As a woman I love that these films offered such juicy roles for women to play. The Noir era was really the first time since the 1920’s, and pre-code 30’s, that actresses had been offered such strong, and obvious bad girl roles. The femme fatales are overtly sexual, devious, independent and sexually aggressive women. These gals know what they want and they go after it.

These women are not content to stay at home cooking in the kitchen and looking nice for their men. They use men and then toss them aside without a second thought. My favourites amongst these women are Kathie (Jane Greer)in Out Of The Past, and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck)in Double Indemnity.

I think it must have fun for the actresses to be able to play these women in this way. When you look at the roles of Noir actresses film credits, you’ll often find that their Noir characters are the most memorable and interesting roles of their career. Mention Stanwyck, Bacall, Peggy Cummins or Lana Turner, and what is the first film of theirs that usually gets mentioned? nine times out of ten it is their Noir films – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Gun Crazy and The Postman Always Rings Twice respectively. These strong female roles remain as memorable and impressive today as they were upon release.

As well as the bad girls, Noir also features many memorable good girls too. These are also strong and independent gals, who will happily get mixed up in danger and who prove to the cynical men in their lives that not all women are femme fatales. These gals don’t get their kicks in using and hurting men.

My favourites of these characters are Kathleen (Lucille Ball)in Dark Corner (1946). Kathleen is the loyal secretary to Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)a tough Private Investigator who is being set up. Kathleen happily puts herself at risk to help him uncover the bad guys, and proves herself to be a woman worthy of his heart.

My other favourite is Candy (Jean Peters)in Pickup On South Street. Candy is a tough gal who puts up a I can take care of myself front, when in reality she can be easily hurt. Candy puts herself in great danger helping Skip (Richard Widmark)uncover a communist gang.

The men in Noir films (both good and bad)are usually cynical and world weary chaps. They are tough and comfortable with dishing out (and being around) violence. Some are bad guys with no redeeming features; while others have tough exteriors in order to survive, but who underneath are total sweethearts. Sometimes a decent guy (like Walter Neff for example)gets caught up in a web weaved by a femme fatale, and becomes caught up in murder and crime and soon finds they have no way out and will end up dead or in jail.

Actors like Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark, Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum played some of the best remembered Noir male characters. These performances remain powerful when viewed today. My favourites from the Noir guys are Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell)in Farewell My Lovely, Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens)in The Dark Corner, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) in The Narrow Margin, Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) in Pickup On South Street and Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Despite being made in the era of the censor, these films contain images and dialogue that make me sit up and go “did I really just see or hear that?” These films are very violent without being overly so, most of what we see is implied but it still packs a punch for the viewer. The films also contain dialogue or shared glances between characters that leave you in no doubt as to meaning, be that implied meaning sexual or violent.

When you mention Noir, I will bet that most people automatically associate that word with American cinema. Noir films were predominantly American, but there were many fantastic Noir films made outside of the USA though.

I’ve already mentioned that the French made many fantastic Noir flicks. There are also many Noir treasures to be found in British cinema. Films like: The Long Memory, Pool Of London, Hell Is A City, The October Man, Odd Man Out, It Always Rains On Sunday and Brighton Rock. My favourite of these is The Long Memory, which sees John Mills playing against type as a tough, embittered man wrongly accused of murder who is out for revenge. I also love Pool Of London, Pink String and Ceiling Wax, It Always Rains On Sunday, and Hell Is A City.

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Noir slowly began to wind down towards the end of the 1950’s. It enjoyed a revival in the 80’s though, with the release of the much more sexually explicit Body Heat. In this film, Kathleen Turner is Mattie, the sultry femme fatale leading William Hurt into her trap. Sex is Mattie’s weapon, and she is in complete control of her situation. I consider this to be the best Noir film made outside of the 40’s and 50’s.

Since then films such as Basic Instinct, Femme Fatale and LA Confidential have gained Film Noir new generations of fans. Hopefully people who liked these flicks, characters, and the look of the films, will go and check out Noir titles from the 40’s and 50’s. If they don’t, then I say that they are missing out on so many superb films and performances.

My top 10 Noir films are: Farewell My Lovely (Dick Powell version),Double Indemnity, Pickup On South Street, Le Jour Se Leve, The Dark Corner, The Big Heat, The Narrow Margin, Body Heat, LA Confidential and The Long Memory.

My favourite decade for Noir? Without a doubt it has to be the 1940’s. When I hear the word Noir, I immediately think of black and white images, smoke filled rooms, the light catching the shadows on the blinds, which in turn cast long dark shadows. This decade has so many films that I think are the best of the genre. For me just the word Noir, conjures up images of world weary detectives, cynical people trying to make it from one day to the next, and of women whose greatest weapon is themselves.

My favourite Noir actor? Dick Powell, he suited these films perfectly. His appearance in these films gave him a nice career change proving he was a gifted dramatic actor.

My favourite Noir actress? A tie between Jean Peters and Barbara Stanwyck. They were both perfect as tough and sultry dames.

Do you love Noir too? Please share your thoughts below. What are your favourite Noir films? Who are your favourite Noir characters?