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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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.

Scarface [1932] and its X motif

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Howard Hawks’ Scarface is one of the quintessential classic gangster movies. A story of relentless hunger for power and wealth, carried out with violence, laughs and balls that could only come from a pre-code film. Scarface, helped in no small part by Paul Muni‘s portrayal of the maniacal Tony Camonte, has to be one of the most influential movies in cinema history.

A great little artistic flourish that Hawks integrated into the set design is the “X” insignia visible when a body lies cold by the hand of Scarface Camonte . Whether the X is a signature of sorts – the bodies signed with an X to match Tony’s scar – or just a literal representation of a killer “X-ing” his victim is up for debate. Perhaps its a nod to journalistic practices at the time which used an X to show where a body lay in photographs. Whatever the reason, it’s a unique feature that has since been imitated and copied in countless other films. Here are a collection of stills which show the technique in effect. If you are planning to see this film any time soon, bear in mind some pretty big spoilers lie ahead.

First, the most important X of all. Tony’s scar:

Tony pays a visit to a victim in hospital, as the mark of death is cast as a shadow on the wall

Another victim of Camonte’s reign of terror lies under the crossed shadow of an undertaker’s sign.

A neon X sits high on a wall as Tony’s crew take out a rival’s car.

One of my favourites. 7 people are lined up against a wall in a representation of the infamous St Valentine’s day massacre. The camera pans up and we see 7 x’s in the roof struts


A beam of light forms a perfect cross on a body.

Here the X is used as a foreshadowing device. No killing takes place in this scene but the ominous X of light clearly shows Gaffney is a marked man.

Gaffney’s cards are marked, in more ways than one. After crossing off a strike on his scorecard, he is in turn crossed off in a bowling alley.

In a dancehall scene, Tony’s sister is the only girl with crossed straps on her back. Another foreshadowing X .

A desk-fan is strategically placed in the background as Tony takes down boss Johnny Lovo.


Two for one in this scene (a visual double-cross?) as Scarface takes down his own henchman Guino.

As Tony’s sister takes a bullet deflected by his shutters, a fallen lamp in the background provides the familiar motif.

I’ll leave you with the trailer, which again is pretty full of spoilers and should be avoided if you plan on watching this great film.

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.

 

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

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 >>