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noir month, #20-25. [another day, another movie.]

This post was getting a bit long for one post, so here is 20-25, which will be followed by one more concluding the month with the final six movies. I only have four more movies to watch, which is crazy. I can’t believe it went by so fast.


#20 – White Heat

White Heat brings James Cagney in on the noir month fun. I actually expected Cagney to be a bit of a John Wayne type situation, where I watch a particular sort of megastar from the past and can’t get into it at all. Yet, that wasn’t the case. He was actually pretty fun most of the time. White Heat is a great crime film, and far more violent than most movies from the time. There is violence in all these films, but it is more casual in this film. Four people are dead in the early moments just to show how bad the gang of thieves is.

It was tense, had an enjoyably intelligent cop as the hero, and Cagney was a wonderfully deranged villain. This is also a film with an iconic movie moment from film history, with Cagney’s final line, “”Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” It was a pretty great moment for our insane bad guy. It’s also pretty early on in heist film history, influencing those which came after. The heist film is something near and dear to my heart (even though it is so rarely done well).

Thumbs up all around!


#21 – The Sweet Smell of Success

This movie is damned near perfect. The dark story of a press agent trying to get back in the good graces of a powerfully influential, maniacally egotistical columnist. It works on every level: it’s a small, realistic, perfectly acted noir film; it’s an engaging time capsule of 1950’s New York; the jazzy score is far and away the best soundtrack so far this month; and it is a gripping and tense look at the interaction between corruption and innocence, power and weakness.

After a week or so of underwhelming films earlier in the month, the recent string of great movies has noir month back in a big way.


#22 – Scarlet Street

It was hard to watch this film much of the time, because I wanted to punch all of the characters in their faces regularly, especially the young paramour of the film’s leading lady. The plot developments didn’t feel particularly believable to me, and much of the time there wasn’t much basis for how characters were getting away with their stupid and immoral decisions.

I enjoy immoral characters who are complex, complicated, interesting. These characters just felt like stupid people to me.

However, the last fifteen minutes were much better than the rest of the film.


#23 – Touch of Evil

Ramon Miguel Vargas is a Mexican drug cop on a honeymoon with his American bride. A car bomb explodes, killing two people, just across the border into America. Worried about what this could mean for Mexico and border relations, Vargas uses his status (he’s kind of a big deal) to become involved with the case as an observer, but finds both his own life and that of his wife in danger as events continue taking one sinister turn after another.

To get the negative out of the way first: Right off the bat, the primary problem is that this movie was made in a time where a studio wouldn’t cast an actual Mexican-American actor to play the Mexican hero, so Charlton Heston painted brown did it instead. This is odd, because the movie actually has a pretty solid stance against racism, with the truly noble, heroic, honest, brave character being a Mexican police officer who spends most of this working hours trying to take down a major drug ring in Mexico, as well as a villain who was casually racist throughout. Also, the inclusion of an interracial marriage was no small matter at the time. It’s just disappointing this was the route they took. Charlton Heston playing a Mexican will always be absurd, and an embarrassing mark on American history, regardless of how strong his performance was.

However, beyond that, Welles takes over. He reworked the screenplay, directed the film, and costarred as the film’s villain. Right away, with the film’s three minute and twenty second single shot to open the film, you know this is turning into something special. It’s truly an amazing bit of filmmaking, with so many moving parts.

Welles was so remarkable. Even shots I didn’t like were impressive, they were all so bold and decisive. Also, Welles is a master of the noir style, so it was fun to watch him play in it for the duration of Touch of Evil. This film is a visual delight throughout.

The narrative was compelling, albeit with a few weak links here and there. I was genuinely worried for characters several times.

Another great example of what noir could be as a film style. As is the case with many of these movies, I haven’t seen Touch of Evil for the last time.

I’ve embedded the opening crane shot, because it’s worth just over three minutes of your time to see one of the greatest shots in film history.


#24 – The Asphalt Jungle

For the most part, The Asphalt Jungle is a solid, ordinary film noir. The story centers on a group of men who plan and carry out a jewel heist. Watching it from the lens of 2012, everything in it is pretty boilerplate, but this film was influential in the 50’s, thus it is largely responsible for what stands as boilerplate these days, especially in heist films.

Each character had their eye on something that the payday of this massive jewel take would provide. A way out, a way home, or a way to Mexico for retirement, each had a reason to undertake the venture, while each also had a vice that handicapped them from realizing their dream. At times, it goes a bit too far in hammering home a point. I also think more could have been done to increase the tension and desperation we felt in the characters, but this film really stands out for its cinematography anyway. Huston fit right in with that noir tradition that no shot should be ordinary. He would throw off an angle, or change the framing, or alter things just a bit to add noticeable style to each shot. I’d say it’s worth watching just for that, and the engaging story adds an extra bonus.


#25 – Mildred Pierce

Another great film, this one was recently remade as a miniseries for HBO starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, and Guy Pearce.

It begins with a murder, then the story unfolds from there as we learn what led up to the murder. It features a woman who is quite possibly the most hate-worthy character in the history of film. She is awful! Effectively so, of course, the character is supposed to be awful.

Great acting all around, as well as a compelling story which offers an enjoyable slant on noir tropes, make for a really great noir film.



double indemnity. [another day, another movie: noir #19]

There is no more important noir film than Double Indemnity. It is the story of an insurance salesman who works with the married woman he is seeing to plot her husband’s death, in such a way so that they both cash in on an accidental death payout.

It contains all of the themes that best represent noir, full of darkness, cynicism, passion, lust, betrayal, dishonesty, murder, and tragedy. The fast-talking characters are a joy to watch and listen to, each major character (and actor) electric with intelligence and wit. Barbara Stanwyck plays the ultimate femme fatale, a ruthless woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, with little care for human life, who uses her sexuality as a weapon. And Fred MacMurray, as the film’s protagonist, gives a performance upon which countless noir characters would be based moving forward. A noir protagonist is most often either an anti-hero (very frequently with a heart of gold), or a morally ambiguous character who does some truly evil things. MacMurray’s insurance man falls into the latter character, a man who doesn’t need much of a push (or really any push at all) from the femme fatale to make the transition into becoming a murderer.

I hadn’t seen this one since college, somewhere around 10 years ago. Watching it again, with different sensitivities and sensibilities, was really great. This film deserves all of the attention and praise which is lavished upon it. It pushed boundaries and challenged content codes, combining with the great filmmaking on display to earn its place firmly in the Hollywood canon.


the lost weekend. [another day, another movie: noir #18]

Oh my God. This movie is amazing. The year it came out it won Oscars for best picture, actor, director, and screenplay, and it was one of those films that definitely deserved it. This was a throwaway choice for me. I put it on the list because it was on 12 lists on iCheckMovies, but otherwise I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, nor was it one of the films I was particularly looking forward to once the list was completed. It was such a wonderful surprise.

It stars Ray Milland as failing writer Don Birnam. Mostly he’s failing because he is an alcoholic, although he is also, in part, an alcoholic because he is failing. He is supposedly ten days off the sauce to open the film, preparing for a weekend away with his brother. He can think of nothing more than finding his next drink, so he manages to trick his girlfriend and his brother out for the afternoon so he can find his way to some alcohol. What follows is a weekend plunge into drunkenness, shame, pain, and humiliation as things just keep getting worse. Any hope he has is slowly whittled away by the grip alcohol has on his life.

Ray Milland is absolutely fantastic as our drunken protagonist. He’s an uncanny mash-up of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, which would be distracting if his acting in this film were any less gripping.

Also, the film marks the return of Billy Wilder to noir month. This is his third appearance as writer and director, and he’ll be back again before the month is through. Very soon in fact, when I rewatch Double Indemnity, another noir uber-classic.

This movie also hit really close to home. When Don would break down and share his darkest feelings, his shame and frustration at continuing to fail as a writer, his feelings of uselessness, that the people who care about him would be far better off if they’d never met him, realizing he peaked too young as a human being… it was like I wrote it myself. The only difference between us is that his mental illness is alcoholism, and mine are depression and insomnia. It only helped all the more to shoot this movie up into one of the more impressive films I’ve seen. By far the biggest surprise of the month. I would probably have changed the ending, but it is an otherwise perfect film.



in a lonely place. [another day, another movie: noir #17]

Seventeen movies in!

Bogart is back for In a Lonely Place, the story of a writer who winds up suspected of murder until a beautiful neighbor helps him alibi out. The two fall in love, but then she begins to doubt his innocence.

As far as weaknesses go, there are several. Brian and I spent this afternoon brainstorming what we might have done with the screenplay. Mostly, I would have included much more ambiguity in a number of places, as opposed to simply drastically changing a character part of the way through the movie.

As strengths go, the story is actually mostly entertaining, and the dialogue is fantastic. Bogart and Gloria Graham have so many amazing lines, perfectly delivered. I could watch Bogart in the first 40 minutes of this film on a loop indefinitely.

Also, in somewhat unrelated news, we found a story about Bogart and Bacall’s role in founding the Rat Pack. According to Bacall, the point of the group was to, “to drink a lot of bourbon and stay up late.” In other words, I was born in the wrong decade, because I was basically invented to be a member of the rat pack.


the postman always rings twice. [another day, another movie: noir #16]

Since the plan is to watch 32 noir films in 31 days, this marks the halfway point as far as films go. Sixteen in the books.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, a drifter takes a job at a roadside cafe/gas station where a beautiful woman is married to a much older man. As is the case in noir, sparks fly, passion ensues, and the pair starts plotting how they might be able to kill the old man so that they can get rid of the third wheel without giving up the financial revenue of having their own roadside cafe/gas station.

If the private detective template from The Maltese Falcon is the one most people imitate when they are referencing a noir story, the template of this story, in which a couple plans someone’s murder for financial gain, is a close #2.

While I certainly have my complaints with some portions, it is none the less another impressive turn. The story is partly a morality tale about the fact that one never truly gets away with murder.


the maltese falcon. [another day, another movie: noir #15]

The Maltese Falcon is the third film I’d already seen entering noir month, so no surprises here one way or the other.

So much of the time, when people are paying homage to, parodying, or mimicking film noir, this is the film they are mimicking. The film opens in San Francisco, on Bogart, who plays Sam Spade, a private detective. His secretary comes in and lets him know there is “a knockout” in the waiting room. In comes our femme fatale, who gives our private eye a sob story about a sister who ran away from home with a man, a man she needs Spade and his partner Archer to follow. It’s not long before murder breaks out, mystery unfurls, and a group of seedy characters all wind up in a race to find a precious historical artifact: The Maltese Falcon. The falcon is really a bit of a MacGuffin, but there’s nothing wrong with  that when done responsibly. The characters circling around the MacGuffin make sense, albeit in a slightly cartoonish way quite common in the 40’s, even in noir.

The movie starts off alright, but grows more enjoyable as the minutes pass and the story unfolds. Not my favorite noir, but still a wonderful example of the genre. Obviously there is a reason I chose to watch it for a second time.

As a bonus, several cast members from Casablanca appear as major players in this film as well. If only they could have brought Ingrid Bergman with them.



the killers. [another day, another movie: noir #14]

Yes. Yes. Yes.

This is what I had in mind when I decided to do a month of noir. An absolutely fantastic film, as well as a noir in the sense most of us think of when the idea comes to mind. I’ve been really glad to have my understanding of noir expanded over the month, but it was still  nice to get back to a film like this one. It’s a taut crime mystery, nearly every shot is a contrast between light and shadow, there are seedy characters throughout, we get a down the middle femme fatale, at the center of the mystery is a poor sap who gets pulled in over his head and loses everything, and the action is driven by an investigator who is sorting through the myriad clues to try and piece together what really happened as he follows the money.

The opening moments of the film, up until probably around the 20 minute mark, are based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway (one of his Nick Adams stories). The introduction alone is worth the price of admission. It’s amazing, electric, tense, and perfectly shot, as two hitmen blow into town on a contract, a man who turns out not to give much resistance to his coming demise. Then, the rest of the film is original, and no longer based on the short story, as an insurance investigator gets hooked by the case and keeps working the knot until the threads begin to loosen and the mystery unravels.

So good. Everyone in it is pitch-perfect. Especially Edmond O’Brien as the insurance investigator; Burt Lancaster as our ill-fated center of the action: The Swede; and Ava Gardner, who lights up the screen in her few short appearances as the film’s femme fatale. Seriously, though, everyone was really great.

I loved the writing, the acting, the cinematography, the direction, the pacing. This is a perfect noir film, instantly launched into my top three favorites so far this month.



shadow of a doubt. [another day, another movie: noir #13]

Shadow of a Doubt is the story of a young girl named Charlie, who adores her Uncle Charlie, after whom she is named. He comes to visit the family, to the delight of everyone, but is he actually a homicidal maniac?!? Dun dun dunnnnnnn!

After a brilliant start, I’ve reached a bit of a lull in this noir version of ‘Another Day, Another Movie.’ Well, whenever something like that happens, the wisest course of action is to apply some Hitchcock to the problem. That’s what I did by watching Shadow of a Doubt. 

It’s not the best movie of the month, but it is certainly a return back to engaging stories I actually enjoy watching. There are some silly leaps of logic, a pretty unclimactic climax, and some plot holes which can’t be looked at too closely, else they’ll crumble the whole thing… oh yeah, and a really creepy dynamic between uncle and niece early in the film.

Still, with this film we get Hitchcock’s technical wonders (my favorite shot is one where a character learns something terrible, and what begins as a close-up keeps panning out until the character is seen alone in a big, dark, empty room, with the shot pulled all the way out and up to show how isolated and far away the character is in that moment), along with some genuine emotion for once. We actually get some characters who make at least a little sense. Also, leave it to Hitchcock to be the guy who subverts all of the noir pitfalls regarding women when he makes a noir. The main character is a woman, and instead of being a femme fatale (which I’ve actually learned this month is exaggerated as a primary part of noir, there have actually only been a few in the 13 movies so far), she’s the one unraveling the story’s mystery. Also, the film features a little girl who spends all of her time reading, because she has taken a ‘sacred oath’ to read two books a week, the little girl looks down on her father for the silly crime novels and stories he reads. The main character is strong, smart, and independent, the leader of her family. While she does date a guy during the film, there is never any moment where we feel he is necessary to her, or completes or… **spoiler** he doesn’t even swoops in to save her in her moment of need. **spoiler ended**

Not the typical female characters you find in early 1940’s film.

I assume some don’t consider this one of Hitchcock’s lesser works. I do, but I think it just goes to show that even his lesser works are worth my time. Up with Alfred!!


gun crazy. [another day, another movie: noir #12]

Gun Crazy (also known as Deadly is the Female) is a precursor to 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, as the story of a man and a woman who fall in love (largely over a shared love of marksmanship), and wind up running around the country robbing people at gunpoint. Inevitably, things get deadly.

Gun Crazy was another film that was hit or miss all the way through. There are some really impressive technical achievements in the film, along with several things I imagine were being done for the first time. Most notable is a really impressive single shot filmed from the back seat of a car. The shot includes our bandits driving up to a bank, the guy going inside, a cop approaching outside, the woman distracting the cop, the guy running back out of the bank, and the pair getting back in the car and starting their escape. Not too shabby.

However, while much of the filming is impressive, I wasn’t particularly engaged by the story. I never felt any chemistry or heat between the leads, nor was their ever any believable passion that led up to any of the film’s murders. The beats were all pretty flat. It was also frustrating to watch the half-assed and misguided attempts to make everything her fault, but without actually including any ambiguity or believable build of tension or feeling.

As a lover of film history, I’m supposed to love this movie. I didn’t. Maybe I need to find a bonafide film historian to start watching movies with me.



leave her to heaven. [another day, another movie: noir #11]

A novelist meets a woman, a friend of a friend, and falls for her right away. They get married quickly, and it turns out she’s a murderously jealous crazy person. The moral of the story, don’t marry someone you’ve known less than a week.

I didn’t particularly care for this one. It dragged most of the time, leaving me bored. Gene Tierney’s performance as the crazy woman was decent, but most of the time I found her character merely deplorable instead of chilling. The rest of the characters were poorly fleshed out, and pretty flat. I’m in the minority of people on this one, but I just couldn’t get myself interested in anything happening onscreen.