crime film

A Last Gasp of Noir Air: The Big Heat

I think of the original film noir era reaching its pinnacle in the forties, getting less and less subtle and losing a little bit of quality as everyone jumped on the bandwagon late in the decade and in the fifties. They are still more interesting to me than, say, Westerns, but they aren’t up to the standards of the great early efforts. I didn’t even like Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce that much.

Every so often, however, a later film struck gold. Whether through genius or coincidence, they managed to bring back some of the freshness (albeit none of that classic Bogart-noir feeling) of the early noir era. The Big Heat is one of those films.

Now, today, we’re inundated with revenge films in which a man (or Uma Thurman) goes out on a binge killing the people who’ve wronged her. Interestingly, that made the pivotal scene, the one that changes this one from a police film to a revenge film, seem inevitable… but audiences in the 1950s would not have seen it coming, and the shock value lifts this one out of the crowd.

It’s a Hays-era film, of course, which mans that the good guy doesn’t just gun down the bad guys, but other than that, it establishes the template for the “cop gives up his badge and takes down the mean people” film for decades to come.

Fast-paced, well-written and well-directed (by Fritz Lang, no less) The Big Heat holds up well even today. It’s a definite keeper, and should be watched whenever the opportunity arises.

Having said that, the feel of it is just so different from classic noir. I suppose my problem is that, to me, classic noir is the Maltese Falcon, and the aesthetic should always be that of the final scene of Casablanca, so I’m hard to please. This film might be just a few years removed from those classics, but it feels decades away. The vibe of the older films was somewhere in the prewar decades, while The Big Heat is firmly grounded in the 1950s.

It also has one foot in the 1970s. Why? Lee Marvin, that’s why. He’s one of the major antagonists in the flick, but he will always be part of The Dirty Dozen in my mind. So yeah, I could never quite put this one in that “classic noir” basket which holds space in my head that can never cross over with the seventies. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but watch it anyway.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, Timeless, takes the genre into the modern age. Fast-paced, sexy and set in the world of international smuggling as seen from southern Europe, it will keep you turning pages. You can check it out here.

Pickup on South Street… Doing Message Right

When I reviewed Adam’s Rib, I pointed out how a film–even one with a glorious cast–can be utterly ruined when the message gets in the way of the story. Now let’s have a look at one that sends a message but is still amazing.

Pickup on South Street is a film I’d never heard of until I got my copy of the 1001 films book. And if I tell you the way it works out, you’ll think it was a McCarthy-era, commie-scare piece of political propaganda with zero redeeming traits. So here goes: it’s basically about a pickpocket who redeems himself by breaking up a communist spy ring in New York.

Pure cold-war jingoism, right?

Wrong. It’s a fun spy flick in an unforgettable 1950s New York setting, where the communists are, while watching, incidental in the plot. The plot needed some spies, and the spies in the post-Nazi era were communists.

Yes, I agree that the impact of the message might have been blunted by the fact that communists, like Nazis, make for excellent bad guys. Totalitarian regimes which hate any sort of individuality are always nice to make fun of. But the film rises above that, not breaking stride to moralize about the evils of the reds… it tells the story in much the same way a crime movie would, without stopping to preach.

And that’s what makes this movie. Its message is powerfully delivered precisely because it doesn’t beat you over the head with it… and it makes you wonder: how the hell did the people making The Last Jedi and other modern preach-fests forget this lesson? I suspect the arrogance of the modern political elites makes them think that they can preach at the audience without having their films lambasted as imbecilic. They are wrong, and at least part of Hollywood knew it in the 50s.

And just how huge is the message they managed to hide in this one?

It’s enormous, but you need to know a little about Hollywood back then to grasp it. In the 50s, the Hays Code was still going strong, which meant that you couldn’t have a happy ending for a criminal. Well, in this one, the protagonist robs a purse, beats a woman, lies to the cops and tries to extort a bunch of money from the communist gang… and in the end, walks free (and gets the girl–the same one he spent half the film slapping around).

So WHY does he get a happy ending? Because all of his crimes are offset by the glory of having destroyed a communist spy ring. It’s really that simple.

But despite the utter lack of subtlety of the political message it never, not once, gets in the way of the storytelling and the art of this film.

And that, my friends, is how it’s done. Highly recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni in a novelist and short story writer own version of an edgy, modern thriller is entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.

When Obi-Wan Kenobi Robbed a Bank

Alec Guinness was an important actor, of course.  He was world famous long before he played that hermit, Old Ben, but unlike many of his great films, Star Wars is still a hugely central part of modern culture.  Perhaps it should have been more important to us that he played several weird roles in the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets, but to be honest, it was more mind-bending to see Kenobi robbing a bank in The Lavender Hill Mob.

Audrey Hepburn and Obi Wan Kenobi in the Lavender Hill Mob.png

This is a British caper film classic, in the style of The Italian Job, a nice counterpoint to the dense, grim crime films that were being produced in the US as noir disappeared into its own nether regions.  It’s lighthearted and a joy to watch, and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the plot.  All you need to know, all anyone needs to know is that Kenobi robs a bank.

Half the time, I was expecting him to do the Jedi hand wave or go berserk with a lightsaber, but he stayed in character and used his mind to run the job.  I suppose that was best for the film.

Several actors that went on to great things got their screen debut in this one, but the two that caught my eye were not on their first film, but still hadn’t played the roles that fixed them in my head.

The first, as you can see from the picture above, is Audrey Hepburn, who has a minor part at the very beginning of the film.  She plays a charming young woman, so no real surprise there.

The second, and much more important in my view is Desmond Llewelyn, who played a tiny, uncredited role in this picture, later went on to scale the heights of movie glory.  Why?  Because he played Q in the James Bond films.

There used to be two film franchises that I would go to the movies for: Star Wars and James Bond.  Star Wars lost that distinction after The Last Jedi (I skipped Solo because I hated the preaching, message-filled stupid of TLJ) and James Bond, which is still attractive (although we’ll need to see if the character, so beautifully neanderthal, survives much longer in this day and age.  While he stays true to the original, the producers will get my money).  So Q is an important figure in my movie-watching.

Anyhow, this is one to watch.  Fun without any ifs or buts.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  If you enjoy your crime modern, edgy and international, then this one is definitely for you – have a look here.

Ambrose Bierce by way of the Rashomon Effect

For those, like me, who had never heard of the Rashomon Effect, it briefly means that, in a court of law (or other situation), the testimony of two witnesses to the same event may vary wildly, be it through intentional manipulation of the facts or simple difference of interpretation.

The Rashomon Effect

This term comes from Rashomon, a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa in which several eyewitnesses to the murder of a Samurai, including the victim himself (by way of a medium), tell the story of how he died.  Set in ancient Japan, the sale serves as a morality fable, highlighting the inherent pride and weakness of each of the characters.

The events themselves are gripping enough to keep attention despite the fact that the same story is essentially retold from four points of view–that of the murderer, the wife of the victim, the victim himself and, finally, the man who reported the crime to the police… a man who supposedly only found the body.

Rashomon Movie poster

This one is undoubtedly a classic, one of those films that stays with you and which, despite the miserable way the characters act for the most part, ends in an upbeat manner.  Interesting to see is how overacted it seems compared to equivalent films in the Western canon–whether that is because the film accurately depicts Japanese emotional responses in the era pictured, whether it was an artistic style popular in Japan, or whether it was an artistic license on the part of the director, I don’t know.  I did find it a bit distracting… but then, unfamiliar things often grab the attention.  There are a few more Japanese films on the 1001 movies list, so I’ll be able to give a more informed opinion moving forward.

One interesting note was that the film was based on a Japanese story which, in its turn was based on a story by Ambrose Bierce.  I’m mainly familiar with Bierce’s work via paperback horror and weird fiction anthos, and his link to the film explains the otherwise inexplicable presence of a dead man giving testimony.

Definitely worth watching and an experience which will let you think about the film itself as well as the cultural and literary links surrounding it.  Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s literary fiction, a series of stories that twine together in a similar way as the testimonies in Rashomon, is collected in Love and Death.  You can buy it here.