Dead Reckoning [1947]

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Apologies to anyone who isn’t a fan of Humphrey Bogart – this blog is rapidly turning into some kind of Bogie homage. I did nothing to avoid this by watching yet another Bogart film last night – John Cromwell‘s rather disappointing “Dead Reckoning“.

I really cant work out what went wrong here. On the surface John Cromwell might as well be making a Sam Spade film, and seems to have all the right ingredients. Bogart’s character has been lifted with minimal change from The Maltese Falcon, and has some brilliantly dark and cutting lines. Unfortunately Bogart -along with his well-written dialogue and delivery – is the only positive point.

After a strong and intriguing start, the film’s plot begins to meander and flatten, and at times becomes downright convoluted and confusing with too many red herrings and false leads. There are a few great scenes – Bogart coolly avoiding a murder set-up, and demonstrating some awesome skill at dice – but they are strung together so flatly, in such a contrived, derivative plot that it is easy to lose interest.

Lizabeth Scott appears in a role that was obviously designed with an actress such as Lauren Bacall or Rita Hayworth in mind, and proceeds to put in one of the most wooden and cringe-worthy performances I have seen in a film-noir, highlighted by one of the most awkwardly mistimed lip-synch songs that I have ever seen. I believe this is the first performance of Scott’s that I have experienced, so I may be doing her a disservice, however there is nothing here that makes me want to check out any of her other roles.

I have been very fortunate with film choices recently, and have had a good run of some great films, but Dead Reckoning was an average, nay below average, experience for me. It’s testament to Bogie’s skill that he was able to remain thoroughly convincing and entertaining amidst a sea of (admittedly stylish) mediocrity. If it wasn’t for his faultless performance it is likely I wouldn’t have finished watching. For die-hard Bogart fans only.

Even the trailer is corny…

The Woman in the Window [1944] wallpaper

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Woman in the Window was my first experience of Fritz Lang‘s American films. It’s not often that a film splits my opinion so much.

On the one hand, it’s a story of a gentle, intelligent, middle-aged man foolishly chasing youthful fantasy. Edward G Robinson perfectly portrays a man driven to an arguably justified murder, and as he attempts to cover it up he finds himself in a spiralling web of deceit. It’s a simple but satisfying suspense film of Hitchcockian proportions.

On the other hand, there is that ending. To write about it would ruin the experience for someone who has yet to see the film, so analysis is difficult. Needless to say the first twist ending is dripping in pathos and would be a beautifully dark poetic finish, but is marred, for me, by a second twist which leaves a slightly corny taste in the mouth.

Fans of Lang’s earlier works should not expect any of the trademark expressionist flair found in his UFA and Nero films, but can expect a well-crafted, well-paced suspenseful drama which raises some interesting ideas and captures a great mood. Well worth a watch even if the last couple of minutes sours the film a little.

Force of Evil [1948]

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While it is easy to slot it into the noir bracket, there are a lot of aspects that set Abraham Polonsky‘s “Force of Evil” apart from the crowd. Perhaps most obviously, rather than focus on the underbelly of society and all the shades of grey therein, this is a film which shows the usual noir character flaws and tendencies and superimposes them upon the high-fliers, the lawyers and the bankers.

Also, where the majority of noir thrillers and dramas are content to dwell in melodrama and escapism, this is a pretty thinly-veiled political film condemning capitalist culture. The message is clear here – the money-men, lawyers, and wall street are written alongside gangsters and hoodlums, dragging the working man down into the gutter, and to their graves, for their own gain.

I’m not opposed to political films (I adore Punishment Park), but in a drama or thriller I appreciate a little subtlety and ambiguity. Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street” for example, uses satire to poke fun at right-wing sensibilities without ever preaching or becoming overbearing. Force of Evil though is a full-on assault of capitalist values. This film in itself must have been pretty strong fuel for McCarthy to blacklist Polonsky (as abhorrent as HUAC ‘s processes were).

Message-making aside, this really is a technical beauty. Shot under the watchful eye of George Barnes (DP to films such as Hitch’s Rebecca and Spellbound), light and shadow are used beautifully to contrast between the luxurious offices, and the underground gambling banks. To add further distance to usual noir style, a few location shoots pepper the film, akin to the documentary-esque shots found in Jules Dassin’s “Naked City“.

The dialogue here is pleasingly sharp and biting, with many killer lines delivered through John Garfield‘s internal narration :

“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”

There are also a couple of stand-out scenes. One in particular – set to Beethoven – where we see Howland Chamberlain‘s nervous, innocent character brutally slain by rival gangsters, is a perfect harmonious marriage of emotion, image and music for about 60 seconds. This is also unfortunately where the emotional connection is lost though, as the only likeable character in the film is taken out of the picture.

The film’s pièce de résistance follows shortly after this scene. Two men against one, in a small, totally dark office, each wielding a gun. They are only feet from each other yet totally blind, no-one willing to take the first shot and give away their position. Dripping in tension, the scene is nail-bitingly exciting.

Taken individually, the aspects of the film would seem exemplary. Great dialogue, a densely plotted yet easy to follow screenplay, beautiful neo-realistic noir visuals, and a couple of great set-pieces ultimately do not add up to a masterpiece. The film’s lack of empathy due to its heavy-handed political assertions, and middle-of-the-road “safe” performances from the majority of its cast (including John Garfield) hold the film back. It’s still worth your time though, and essential for any fans of Martin Scorcese, being a film he personally champions and cites as a great influence.

Review: In a Lonely Place [1950]

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Ask someone what Humphrey Bogart‘s best performance is, and you are likely to hear “Casablanca” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre“. Without a doubt though, his portrayal of Dixon Steele in Nicolas Ray‘s “In a Lonely Place” is his most raw, honest and accomplished, and anyone who does not even consider it an option, has simply not seen it.

Screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart), faced with the odious task of scripting a trashy bestseller, has hat-check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) tell him the story in her own words. Later that night, Mildred is murdered and Steele is a prime suspect; his record of belligerence when angry and his macabre sense of humor tell against him. Fortunately, lovely neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) gives him an alibi. Laurel proves to be just what Steele needed, and their friendship ripens into love.

The title of Nicolas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” works on a few different levels. For one, we are told by the police that the murder Dixon Steele is accused of occurred “in a lonely place”, on a road above a canyon. More importantly though, it is a description of the psychological state of Steele. A screenwriter who is surrounded by friends and admirers, yet feels alone and detached from others. The film is initially presented as a murder mystery, but it very quickly becomes apparent that this is not the focus of the film. The murder is an event which allows us to study the effect it has on the character’s relationships.

Dixon Steele is a volatile and violent personality at times, and intelligent and charming at others. Traces of Bogart’s usual cool charisma occasionally reveals itself during Dixon Steele’s euphoric high-points, such as when he finally opens up and makes a rare connection with neighbour and accidental alibi Laurel Gray. During the many lows though we see what is arguably Bogart’s most naked and vulnerable performance. While titles such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon showcase his suave and effortlessly cool machismo, In a Lonely Place takes him to a whole new level, as he swings with ease from maniacal rage and paranoia, to charm and wit.

As Steele’s dark side is revealed to Laurel, the films develops into something which feels very similar to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, as Laurel (along with the viewer) starts to wonder if he could be a murderer. Steele’s paranoia is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his accusatory speeches and actions push Laurel into acting suspiciously as she begins to doubt his innocence. Thankfully Ray succeeds where Hitch (or was it RKO?) miserably failed – with a deliciously dark and ironic conclusion. It is in this thematic framework that Gloria Grahame really comes into her own, walking the tightrope of doubt and trust with subtlety, personifying the audience’s feelings, and is nothing but believable as her character lets suspicion overtake her.

Just as Billy Wilder‘s “The Lost Weekend” was one of the first films to accurately paint a picture of life-threatening addiction, In a Lonely Place – while never explicitly stated – could be one of the first films to realistically portray the isolation of a man dealing with social illness, and the trials of manic depression, and you can’t help but feel Ray has an all-too familiar handle on the subject matter, perhaps confirmed by sets which are copies of his childhood home.

All in all this is a very smart film. It’s a deceptively complex character and relationship study, a suspenseful experience, and a very realistic portrayal of the swings of depression and mania. Ray coaxes a raw, natural performance from all the players, but Bogart especially gives the performance of his career as Dixon Steele. If anyone ever doubted that Bogart lacked range, they should be pointed towards “In a Lonely Place”.

4.5 / 5

Five Graves to Cairo [1943] wallpaper

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I’m a huge fan of Billy Wilder, owning pretty much all of his films that are possible to obtain on DVD. While he is known for churning out hit after hit of hugely popular and artistically credible films as Sunset Blvd, Some Like it Hot, Sabrina and Double Indemnity (I could go on) there are also a few gems in his oeuvre that are often overlooked. Five Graves to Cairo is one of them.

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IMDb summary : “June, 1942. The British Army, retreating ahead of victorious Rommel, leaves a lone survivor on the Egyptian border–Corporal John Bramble, who finds refuge at a remote desert hotel…soon to be German HQ. To survive, Bramble assumes an identity which proves perilous. The new guest of honor is none other than Rommel, hinting of his secret strategy, code-named ‘five graves’, and the fate of the British in Egypt depends on whether a humble corporal can penetrate the secret…”

This is early Wilder – following up from the kitsch but charming Ginger Rogers vehicle “The Major and the Minor” – but it still oozes with his trademark screenplay writing skill and his innate sense of rhythm and perfect pace. Its origins as a play are sometimes felt in a slightly “stagey” mise-en-scène, but this is a star-laden, tense wartime drama that is very entertaining.

Even at this very early stage in his Directorial career, Wilder had a knack for attracting star power to his films, or creating stars overnight. As you would expect from the actress who held her own alongside Bette Davis in All About Eve (no mean feat!), Anne Baxter‘s sultry looks and acting skill shine through even with her slightly phoney French accent. Franchot Tone owns the lead role that Cary Grant famously turned down, but the real star here is Erich Von Stroheim, whose larger than life self-caricature slots perfectly into the role of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

Any fans of Billy Wilder cannot truly call themselves a fan until they have seen this film. While it may not match the undeniable qualities of his more critically acclaimed works, it is still a fitting example of his output, and shows that even an average Billy Wilder film is leaps and bounds ahead of the opposition.

Flesh and Fury [1952] wallpaper

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In honour of Tony Curtis who sadly passed away a couple of days ago, I finally got round to watching a DVD which has been gathering dust on my shelf for quite some time – Flesh and Fury, and it was a lot better than I was expecting it to be. Click the above image for full 1920 x 1080 resolution wallpaper.

Curtis plays Paul Callan, a deaf boxer who is being exploited by his loathsome, gold-digging girlfriend Sonya Bartow (played by Jan Sterling). When a journalist arrives on the scene (Mona Freeman as Ann Hollis) to write a human interest story on Callan, they quickly fall for each other and Callan undergoes an operation to restore his hearing, with life, and career-changing results.

The film is a perfect early vehicle for Curtis. Even though later in his career he was to show some undeniable acting skill and range (Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like it Hot, The Boston Strangler etc.. ) it’s safe to say that he was initially given roles because of his good-looks, a point that Curtis himself seemed to be very aware of in his books and interviews. So a film where he plays a muscle-bound, athletic boxer who is mute due to deafness was tailor-made for Curtis at this point in his career.

The boxing matches, while not up there with the likes of “Body and Soul“, are still very well shot and edited, and pretty realistic for the most part. The film’s plot is fairly shallow, predictable and saccharin sweet at times, but at a brief 80 minutes long, it is swift enough to remain entertaining.

While not one of the all-time greats, if you are looking for an easy to watch, light drama on a Sunday afternoon, or just want to see why Curtis was so adored by women, you could do a lot worse than Flesh and Fury.

Review : The Man who shot Liberty Valance [1962]

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John Ford‘s “The man who shot Liberty Valance” is at first glance a well produced, star-studded, entertaining Western. However it is when you start to strip away the name actors and get to the heart of the story, that the film’s complexities come to the fore.

Jimmy Stewart stars as attorney at law Ransom Stoddard, a man from the comfortable East of America, determined to bring the freedom of Democracy to the Western town of Shinbone. As he arrives he gets his first taste of the lawlessness of the West, a vicious encounter with the maniacal Liberty Valance (portrayed with fervour by Lee Marvin). He is rescued from near-death by the roguish charm of gunslinger Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who takes him to be nursed by his love interest Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). Once recovered, Stoddard sets upon his task to bring law and order, and to rid the people of Liberty Valance. Not using the violent and fearful methods that the people of Shinbone are so accustomed to but through education and morality.

On the surface, the film as an entertaining Western is near perfect. Jimmy Stewart – who despite lacking range remains one of my favourite actors –  utilizes his usual affable tics and mannerisms to great effect. Wayne really shows some surprising depth here, bringing his usual machismo, but adding in some humour, charm and a certain vulnerability as the events unfold around him. Lee Marvin, despite being the titular villain, is not given an abundance of screen-time, but controls any scene he is in with a wild-eyed veracity. Disregarding the usual cinematic elements though, where “The Man Who..” really excels is how it intertwines rich allegory with what is already a strong film.

The film is set on the cusp of the transition from the old violent ways of Western America, to a new Republic governance, and it is the values and ideals of both sides of the era that is personified so perfectly in Wayne’s Doniphon and Stewart’s Stoddard. They are two sides to the same coin, with similar aims but very different methods. While they would both like to be rid of Valance, Doniphon settles disputes with steel and lead, Stoddard with democratic values. It is this allegory that gives this film so much depth.

Doniphone is bemused by what he sees as Stoddard’s naive, new-fangled way of handling himself, and is reluctant to adopt his way of thinking. He tells Stoddard he will fail, and urges him to toughen up and use violence to settle his dispute with Liberty Valance and clean up Shinbone. Stoddard continues on with his mission, but Valance gradually wears him down, until he feels there is no other way to deal with the situation but to use force. This is the crux of the film. In a tense, inevitable showdown between Stoddard and Valance, Valance is shot and killed. It appears Stoddard has beaten him, but Valance and what he represents, is still the victor. Violence succeeded where modern law failed, and progress stalls.

As Stoddard is lauded for ending the scourge of Liberty Valance, he runs for office, however his claim to the position of Governor is quickly knocked back by his opposition based on his apparent hypocrisy. How can a man stand to represent freedom and law and order with blood on his hands?It is then that Doniphon appears and we find that it was him that shot Valance from the shadows. Doniphon, the personification of old-west ideals, has bowed down to progress and accepted that the world has moved on without him. He essentially sacrifices any chance of his own place in the new world, to enable Democracy to guide the way. He gets blood on his hands, so that the new law doesn’t have to, and stuck as a product of his time, he dies alone many years later. The wild West begrudgingly, but honourably, gives in to allow a more civilized way of life to pass.

Ford is not condemning the old world – far from it in fact – Doniphon’s noble sacrifice is showing us that while progress was inevitable, it was only possible by standing on the shoulders of the men that fought and lived in the “wild” West. Once you are open to the idea that it is deeper than it appears initially, the film reveals its bounty without over-analysis.

The Man who shot Liberty Valance is a wonderful, dark film, that is as deep as it is visceral. A 5-star must see.

5 / 5

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