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…

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Crossfire [1947]

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IMDb summary : “Homicide Capt. Finlay finds evidence that one or more of a group of demobilized soldiers is involved in the death of Joseph Samuels. In flashbacks, we see the night’s events from different viewpoints as Sergeant Keeley investigates on his own, trying to clear his friend Mitchell, to whom circumstantial evidence points. Then the real, ugly motive for the killing begins to dawn on both Finlay and Keeley…”

More message-movie than conventional film-noir (is there any such thing?), this is a cracking detective story that tunes in to the anti-semetic sensitivities of 1940s America.

It is worth noting that while Crossfire makes a (rather obvious and heavy-handed) statement renouncing antisemitism, the book that the film is based on actually focused on homophobia. As the Hays Code forbade any kind of discussion or representation of homosexuality, and tapping into the zeitgeist of 1940s America (the film arrived more or less alongside the similarly-themed “Gentleman’s Agreement“), the film changes a homosexual victim to a Jewish victim, but in truth the film could be about any form of extreme prejudice and would arrive at the same conclusion.

There are still a couple of remnants of the original focus on homosexuality however. Armed with this knowledge it makes a lot more sense as to why a Jewish man would invite a young upset squaddie back to his room alone. It’s also clear why this young soldier would then go out looking for female company to assert his masculinity after this encounter with a Jewish man. While watching the film it isn’t really noticeable, but the pieces slot together even better when in hindsight you replace “Jewish” with “homosexual”.

With a simple plot and a strongly played message, Crossfire’s strength lies in the characterisation of its main players, none more so than the intelligent portrayal of Captain Finlay by Robert Young. The Oscar winning Gloria Grahame is earthy, sassy and alluring as card-girl Ginny. Robert Mitchum‘s character is solid, but as later stated by Mitchum himself, could have been played by anyone. Robert Ryan is utterly believable as a drunken war vet who seems to be covering something up. The fantastically well-written characters, a swiftly paced screenplay, some great acting and the noir-style visuals elevate the film above what could be a conventional message movie, into a very entertaining detective drama.

A great film. Big thanks to iluvcinema for another spot-on recommendation. To finish up, here is a great little propaganda trailer / teaser, which shows you just how it was perceived by audiences and the studios at the time.

 

Classic Review : Laura [1944]

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Next stop on the iCheckMovies noir list is Otto Preminger’sLaura“, a sophisticated, classy detective drama, which unfortunately left me feeling a little disappointed.

Read the full review >>

Classic Review : Touch of Evil [1958]

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As I’m currently working through the iCheckMovies film-noir list, I am going to set myself a goal to try and write a few words about each film I see, even if they are more cliff notes than a fully fledged review. Today was Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.

This B-movie film noir has many faults, but at the same time is a defining example of what makes a film-noir truly noir. The film captures the seedy, grimy aspects of human nature in a film with such brilliantly crafted “shades-of-grey” characters, blurring the line between good and evil.

Welles puts in a brilliant performance, his monumental stomach adding to the dominating presence of his internally tortured, corrupt detective Hank Quinlan. Heston is great (I’ll leave the arguments about a white American playing a Mexican out of this for now) as the idealistic law official determined to expose  Quinlan. Star turns also from Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff and Marlene Dietrich help drive the shadowy, intricate plot forward. The film’s opening scene is the stuff of legends, and rightly so, with a long, complex tracking shot which lasts 3 and half minutes minutes and introduces to us the some of the main players and kickstarts the film’s plot. It’s not just the opening shot that impresses – throughout the film, Welles’ influence is felt behind the camera, with trademark POV shots and twisted camera angles. Mancini’s score, while hitting a few “elevator muzak” moments, generally compliments the on-screen action adequately, and in a few key moments (the murder of Mexican gang boss Grandi) steps up to the level of perfection.

On the negative side, B-movie production values sometimes creep to the foreground. Wobbly set design and a very awkward, weirdly overacted performance from Dennis Weaver as a mentally-challenged motel Night Man (see picture below), for my money hold the film back from its potential as a masterpiece. While there are also a few strange cuts and pacing decisions in the first third of the film, these may have been introduced when the studios infamously butchered the final edit. I watched the version which has been reconstructed based on Welles’ furious memo to the studio execs, but it is likely there are still remnants of their interference in this cut.

Overall it is testament to Welles’ skill that a second-billing B-movie is as accomplished as this. A few weak moments and lapses in production values (no doubt budget-related) do not stop this being about as dark, grimy and intricate as film-noir gets and comes highly recommended.

4.5 / 5

Classic Review : Naked City (1948)

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Jules Dassin’s Naked City is a refreshing spin on the American noir detective genre of the 40s, and a turning point for all film productions. Rather than use the glossy, perfectly lit sets of films such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, Dassin chose to use no sets, and film right in the thick of real-life New York City. Hidden cameras were used to film much of the street action to capture the essence of the city itself, lending a documentary slant, and making the beautiful art deco city an organic character in the film, rather than a stale, pref-fab backdrop.

As the film opens, and fitting with the documentary style employed by the picture, we are shown brief snippets of everyday life for a few NY civillians, one of which is our fictional story, the murder of model Jean Dexter. That the story we are witnessing is but one of the 8million stories happening around the vast city of New York, is a recurring visual and narrative theme of the film.

The documentary style shooting, while giving the film an impressive, unique flavour and style, has some disadvantages, predominantly sound. On the interior shots, the lack of a soundstage is very noticeable, and character voices are often echoing, and fighting for microphone-time with the hum of real life. On two occasions in the film I had to rewind and concentrate to decipher the dialogue. When outdoors, capturing the sound was near-impossible with the equipment and technology available to a hidden crew, and so a narrator was employed. Rather than hinder the film, the narration actually benefits it, enhancing the documentary feel, and masking much of the flatly-delivered and sometimes melodramatic dialogue of a few cast-members.

There is one exception to the dialled-in performances, and that is the exemplary Barry Fitzgerald as the heroic, aged, yet sharp as a pin Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon. While dealing with an obviously mentally ill lady who claims she knows something about the murders, Muldoon slips behind her and makes a “cuckoo!” face to the other characters, and while trying to revive an unlikeable character from unconciousness, he plants an extra hard slap on his face while no-one is looking, grinning like a naughty schoolboy. With moments of comic relief, and others of sheer guile, Fitzgerald manages to walk the line between authoritative and likeable without missing a beat, and along with the city itself, is easily the highlight of the cast.

The film’s plot is a fairly simplistic and straightforward affair, but is extremely nimble and progresses smoothly enough to be very entertaining. There are no complex twists here, instead we are treated to the facts as the police uncover them, and the “in the moment” feeling the film produces is more than satisfactory for any fans of traditional detective yarns. The finale is an exciting one, and capitalises on the films outdoor shooting style with a fantastic chase across New York, which is peppered with the most beatifully shot views of urban art deco architecture.

Overall the film was an inventive and fresh take on the genre, and despite some overly-melodramatic performances manages to remain fast-paced and entertaining. The tight direction, impressive visual style and Fitzgerald’s performance combine to elevate the film above some mediocre acting, into an entertaining movie. Recommended for genre-fans looking for something a little different to the usual Noir fare.

3.5 / 5