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.

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

A return to film-noir

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I have been spamming wallpapers out lately for two reasons;

1) I get about 50-60 unique hits a day from search engines for people looking for high-res wallpapers for classic films, so I have obviously stumbled across one of the last few shadowy, unfilled corners of the intertubes.

2) Sadly I haven’t actually seen any films in the last week or so worth talking about.

I hope to rectify that a.s.a.p. I had previously decided that I had seen enough film noir for a while, but I realise that I am now seriously missing the genre. I’m craving the larger-than-life, shady characters that noir has in abundance, and longing for the fedoras, the chain-smoking, the trenchcoats, the seedy underbelly of society, and the costumed dames.

So I’m revisiting the genre. I still have a few noir DVDs left in my unwatched pile, such as “Out of the past” with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Diving back into noir also gives me a chance to cross into another passion of mine – namely Fritz Lang films. While I have watched and re-watched his earlier German films, until now I haven’t really taken much interest in his American work, and considering he was an integral part of defining what noir truly was, I’m looking forward to those especially. First of his films will be Scarlet Street and The Big Heat.

So begins my journey back to the shadows. If anyone has any “must-sees” that aren’t on the usual “top noir” lists, I would love to hear them.

Pickup on South Street wallpaper

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A 1920×1080 wallpaper for Sam Fuller‘s outstanding tale of crime and espionage “Pickup on South Street” starring the fantastic Richard Widmark. Read the review here, or click the image for full widescreen 1920×1080

The Night of the Hunter wallpaper

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Night of the Hunter is one of my favourite films, so I thought it was about time I created a wallpaper for it. Lots of blank space for your icons, currently using this on my own desktop. Click for for full 1920×1080.

Don’t forget to leave a comment if you would like a copy in a different resolution!

UPDATE: for Si 1366×768 as requested


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