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?