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kiss me deadly. [another day, another movie: noir #9]

Kiss Me Deadly is about a sleazy private detective, Mike Hammer, who picks up an ill-fated hitchhiker one night. The pair get run off the road, she turns up dead (but not from the car accident) and he gets busy trying to figure out who killed her. He does this both because they tried to kill him, too, and because he thinks there may be an angle for him in it.

I’m going to have to be honest and say it has been my least favorite film so far.

**Spoilers follow.** Mike Hammer was interesting enough as an anti-hero, and there are certainly some enjoyable bit characters, but as a whole I thought the whole thing was uninteresting. The plot is wildly implausible and senseless, the characters don’t make much sense, nothing much is explained to us, and the climax features bizarrely inaccurate nuclear science. The mystery never even gets solved, Hammer just pieces together the correct name of the villain and gets to his house in time to get shot in the gut and get his partner out of the house before the lady who opened the plutonium lights on fire. Yeah, you read that sentence correctly. WTF?

A huge cult favorite, and celebrated on a number of top film lists, it left me mostly underwhelmed.

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the big heat. [another day, another movie: noir #8]

Movie #8 is in the books, putting me 1/4 of the way through noir month.

First, we had The Big Sleep, something that sounds pretty nice to an insomniac like me… unless you’re talking about death. Now, we have The Big Heat, which is the sort of thing most of the country completely understands right now with this remarkable heat wave everyone has been experiencing over the last few weeks if they don’t live on the west coast.

In The Big Heat, a corrupt cop kills himself, leaving a long letter to the DA behind. His wife finds the body and the letter, then puts in a call to a crime boss before calling the police, hiding the letter from the investigating officer. The cop put on the case is an honorable, honest cop who gets pulled deeper into the story until it hits too close to home, after which he winds up on a mission to single-handedly take down a city-wide crime syndicate.

To begin with, you need to be able to look past one ridiculous plot hole: Why would the corrupt police force put one of the few intractable, honest cops on this case? If the cops are in the crime syndicate’s pocket, then they would have made sure one of their own guys ushered the case quickly out of view. Instead, someone decides that the only cop who might create problems on the case is the guy who gets the case.

Yet, beyond that, film style pioneer Fritz Lang takes control, the story gets moving, and it makes for another enjoyable noir film. There are several winning moments with a lot of heart, especially in the movie’s final third. A major highlight is Gloria Grahame as a villain’s girlfriend, who figures heavily into most of the plot’s most important events.

**Spoilers follow***

One interesting note I found about this film, but didn’t realize while watching it, was that the film subverts the femme fatale theme. This film, instead of having a deadly female character who consciously or otherwise brings nothing but death and destruction to a male protagonist, has a male protagonist who unwittingly causes destruction for all of the women he encounters.

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ace in the hole. [another day, another movie: noir #7]

Ace in the Hole stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who has been fired in just about every major city in America, so he takes a job in the ABQ to bide his time until a big story comes along that he can ride back into the big time. On his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt he happens upon some sightseeing caves where a man has just been pinned by a cave-in. Tatum just found his big story, but how far is he willing to go to get back to the big papers?

I’d never had much experience with Kirk Douglas as of two weeks ago, but during said two weeks I’ve now seen two of his more critically acclaimed roles, in this and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. I now see what all the fuss was about. His charisma just pops off the screen. It was hard not to like his character in Ace in the Hole, even though he’s not what anyone would call “a good guy”, or “a swell fella.” It makes him perfect for this role, because we as the audience are drawn into his scheme, even while we know its wrong.

One of the best parts of doing months like this is that it opens all these other little avenues and tributaries into film history. The example here is that I know there will be more Kirk Douglas in my near future than otherwise would have been the case.

Ace in the Hole also marks the second Billy Wilder film so far (along with Sunset Boulevard). He wrote, directed, and produced this one. Wilder wrote and directed some of the most celebrated films of all time, and Ace in the Hole fits right in with greats like Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, and Some Like it Hot to name a few. He’ll also be making at least two more appearances this month, with the noir uber-classic Double Indemnity as well as The Lost Weekend. 

When the film came out it was a critical and box office failure, but since, folks have come to appreciate how strong the film is. It’s on some pretty impressive lists, including the Criterion Collection, Roger Ebert’s ‘The Great Movies’, 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die, Empire Magazine’s Top 500, and more.

Another great film, keeping the month a perfect 7 for 7 so far. Also, the last shot in this film is one of my favorites ever.

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pickup on south street. [another day, another movie: noir #6]

Wee-ow! I am just flying through noir month, and every new movie exceeds my expectations. Why have I waited so long to do this? Good question, Me… we may never know the answer.

Pickup on South Street opens with a man lifting a woman’s wallet out of her purse on a subway train. It begins as a simple pull, but he stole more than he bargained for, and his arrogance lands him in a deadly confrontation with communist spies. Sure, the love story in the film is particularly ridiculous (which by the standards of the 40’s and 50’s is really saying something), but almost everything else is great!

I really enjoyed Sam Fuller’s direction. The way he showcased faces captures how fantastic most of the film’s performances are. The best two performances are Richard Widmark (making his second appearance this month) and Thelma Ritter.

Widmark plays the pickpocket. The character is a huge dick, and is so different than Widmark’s character in Night and the City, yet he disappears into each role wonderfully.

Ritter plays a professional snitch, and offers all the film’s heart. She’s the only character you’d probably want to hang out with, even though she’d try to sell you a cheap tie she claims matches your personality.

Based on the sort of lists the film has been included on, it is delightful but not surprising that Pickup on South Street is another winner.

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the big sleep. [another day, another movie: noir #5]

The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is the second film in a row that I’d already seen before. Only four films that I’d seen previously made the list, and The Big Sleep made the cut because it played no small part in making me want to do a month like this to begin with. I love this movie! With a screenplay by the William Faulkner, directing by Howard Hawks, and Bogart and Bacall delivering line after memorable line, it’s the sort of perfect storm that can often result in cherished classic films.

In this wonderfully complex plot, with all sorts of mysteries and surprises, Humphrey Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, a private detective who gets a job from a wealthy, sick, old client to begin the film. The client has two beautiful daughters who figure in heavily to the plot’s twists and turns, none of which will I spoil here. Suffice it to say that every time Marlowe gets a handle on what’s happening, something happens to convolute the situation and turn everything upside down again.

I fell in love with Philip Marlowe from the very beginning of the film, when Marlowe meets one of said beautiful daughters in the first scene and she coyly says, “You’re not very tall are you?”, and he responds with a straight, “Well, I try to be.” He’s a hard-boiled, hard-drinking, lady loving, quick-witted, clever, smart-ass with a heart of gold. It’s Humphrey Bogart at his very best. It makes me sad that he never returned to the character, since Marlowe is the protagonist of many Raymond Chandler crime novels.

Also notable is the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Electric! It may have been even more electric if it weren’t for that silly Hays Code, which severely limited what you could show or say on screen during a movie (apparently much of the novel had to be altered on its way to film because of how strict the Hays Code was, since you couldn’t make any reference to pornography or homosexuality, and of course, there couldn’t be any nudity). Bacall and Bogart had met during filming of their previous film (To Have and Have Not), and the beginning of their world-famous love affair bled onto the screen in this film. If you’ve never seen film noir before, this would be a great place to start!

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sunset boulevard. [another day, another movie: noir #4]

This is the first film of the month that I’d already seen before, but decided to revisit for noir month. On no fewer than a whopping 26 of the official lists compiled at iCheckMovies, Sunset Boulevard isn’t just one of the most celebrated noir films of all time, it is one of the most celebrated films of any genre or type. In the opening we, along with our narrator, follow police to a murder scene on Sunset Blvd. We find a body in a pool, the camera appearing to rest at the bottom of the water, shooting up at our victim. From there our narrator, the victim himself, takes us back to tell us his sad, deranged, ghoulish story.

Darkly and sarcastically funny at times, the film plays as much like a horror film as it does like a noir, with former silent film megastar and Cecil B. DeMille cohort Gloria Swanson delivering a chilling performance as the mentally unhinged former silent film megastar and Cecil B. DeMille cohort Norma Desmond. The story takes place mostly in a huge, decrepit 20’s era Hollywood mansion in which Desmond keeps herself hidden from the world, with an organ that plays by itself when the wind blows through the pipes. Surrounded by photos of her youth, Desmond is desperately trying to cling to immortality. It’s as if she wants to be Dracula, but isn’t actually immortal, making her creepiness pathetic rather than terrifying. Her butler is a bizarre sycophant, an Igor type. And the entire film is narrated by a dead man. Horror themes abound.

The performances of Swanson and her butler, played by Erich von Stroheim, are also unapologetically informed more by horror than noir. It’s somewhat like times when great comedy is funnier because the actors play it like a drama, although in this case it is a great noir film in which some of the actors play it like a horror movie, yet only the actors playing characters in the weird little make believe world of Norma Desmond, into which our protagonist is pulled by his own mild greed.

Unlike any film I’ve ever seen, and featuring iconic lines that rank among the most famous in film history, (such as the film’s most famous line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”) Sunset Boulevard is singular, not only as film noir, but within film history.

Also, Buster Keaton (among others) plays one of Desmond’s bridge partners, as an unnamed former silent film great. Just a little wink, you know, for the fans.

 

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night and the city. [another day, another movie: noir #3]

Another day of noir, another fateful tragedy. Night and the City is a film that wasn’t on my radar at all before making the list for this month, which is exactly why I love doing things like this. Featured in the Criterion Collection, it is an American film, but shot on location in London. It seems pretty common to erroneously call this a British film. It’s a 20th Century Fox film with American stars and an American director. However, the internets are full of people listing it as great British noir. There actually is a British version which is five-minutes longer, features an entirely different score, and apparently had a happier ending, but Dassin said the American version is closer to what he actually had in mind.

As seems to be the case with many of these films, there is an interesting story behind the camera as well. In the case of The Night and the City, director Jules Dassin was blacklisted during production, and wasn’t allowed on set for editing or to oversee the score.

The film itself is the story of a man too desperate to make a name for himself and live “a life of ease and plenty” for his own good. He’s cocky and delusional enough that he never seems to realize how pathetically over his head he gets himself until events are screaming out of control.

Starring noir mainstays Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney (neither of whom have made their final appearance this month), the film transcended any of my expectations. It was wonderful, aside from featuring the worst lip-synched song performance in the history of the universe. Maybe that had something to do with Dassin not being allowed on set for that audio work. The cinematography was my favorite of any of the films so far (although there were several impressive shots in Hitchcock’s Notorious to be sure). You could watch this film on mute and still get your money’s worth, especially during the final 30 minutes.

Three days in, and so far noir month is even better than I’d hoped.

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notorious. [another day, another movie: noir #2]

One of the most exciting things about this upcoming month of all things classic noir is the remarkable talent involved. It wasn’t a true genre, but instead a stream of films with a particular mood, themes, or generally dark worldview. However, it was enormously popular, and it seems just about everyone wanted to get their hand in, often multiple times. Thus, after Bogie for day one, day two upped the ante with Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains (you probably know him as the Vichy Captain from Casablanca).

As a brief aside: I’m still a noir novice, it’s an extremely difficult type of film to nail down, so you often find contention as to what counts as a noir and what does not. There are the easy ones, like, Maltese Falcon, Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity. The films in that mode are so iconic as noir films, and everybody agrees. However, beyond the easy ones, I am still incapable of deciding what is and isn’t film noir. The primary source I am using to sidestep this problem is the They Shoot Picture, Don’t They noir list: They Shot Dark Pictures, Didn’t They? 250 Quintessential Noir Films (1940-1964). It’s a compilation of the most cited films in noir history during that era, based on TSP’s research. You should check out the linked article if you want a helpful primer on film noir. TSP loves noir movies so much, making it a really enjoyable resource.

Anyway, I mention that because I never would have guessed that Notorious counted as a noir film if it weren’t selected by TSP. It is also listed on the wikipedia page for film noir as one of the four consensus noir films by Hitchcock (along with Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and The Wrong Man).

Suffice it to say, I still have a lot to learn, and I love it.

Notorious is a story of post WWII espionage. Alicia Huberman’s (Ingrid Bergman) father has just been convicted of treason for working with the Nazi’s, but knowing she is loyal to the great old USA, she is approached by the perfectly handsome T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to get chummy with her father’s Nazi friends to thwart any plans they may have. The two fall in love on their way to Brazil, which is where the Nazi’s are hanging out, only to discover that her mission involves seducing an old friend of her father’s. He’s pissed she’s willing to do it, she’s pissed he didn’t ask her not to, and we set off on a dangerous story of lies and betrayal. Good times.

The film is on 19 official lists on iCheckMovies, has been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, and has been selected (separately) by both Time and Entertainment Weekly as one of the 100 greatest films of all time.

You should watch it.

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high sierra. [another day, another movie: noir #1]

Noir fest is underway! Huzzah!

Who better to kick things off with than quintessential noir star Humphrey Bogart? That’s right, no one.

High Sierra is the story of Roy Earle, a bank robber who gets pardoned from prison as the film opens. Turns out, he was pardoned because a mob boss greased the wheels of the system so that Roy could perform a heist at a resort not far from LA. That is where our noir action takes off.

This was Bogart’s first big lead role, as before this he was just a supporting actor. See that poster above? Yeah, you see that correctly, he doesn’t have top billing! So, he made the most of his big break, bringing to life a character the audience could care about (believing he really just wanted a simple life back on the farm with a nice girl) while also loving every second when he flipped the badass switch (believing that though he was short in stature, he was the laaaaaaast mobster you wanted to piss off by running your mouth or being rough with the ladies… careful, he just might hit you with his gun, that’s his move). This film kicked off one of the most iconic careers of film history.

As noir films go, it has much of what you would expect. Sure, missing was the smoky rooms, the rainy and shadowy streets, etc. Yet, it still had the tragic twists of fate, the awful wages of crime, there’s even a dog that embodies the danger looming for our protagonist.

Minus the inexplicable three minutes of racism, it was a solid start to noir-fest.

 

 

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