film noir

Another Hollywood Writer

Even before the 1950s, the public (or at least the studios) had lost its fascination with private eyes.  Latter-day noir films focused on insurance salesmen and housewives and even tried to look at things from the criminal’s point of view.

By 1950, Hollywood had seemingly replaced its fascination with detectives for a tendency for major films to focus on show business and media.  We’ve discussed All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard already and now it’s the turn of a Bogart classic: In a Lonely Place.

In A Lonely Place - Humphrey Bogart

In what has been described as the role in which Bogart most closely plays himself, this one is about an alcoholic, self-absorbed Hollywood writer who is suspected of a murder.  The important issue isn’t whether he actually committed the murder, but actually about whether he would have been capable of it.

That question throws its shadow over the entire film, and eventually leads to the denouement (the poster calls it a surprise ending, but I don’t think modern audiences will find it surprising).

In a Lonely Place Film Poster

What they will find here is a fast-moving flick that holds interest from the word go, a strong performance from the leading man and a love interest that holds the interest.  A classic that flies a little under the radar for those who aren’t film buffs.  Everyone’s heard of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon but I personally hadn’t heard of this one.

The little irony is that the murder victim in the film was played by Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart).  And though she was murdered in the film, she is the final surviving star from the original cast.  So if she ever stumbles across this, hello!

Good movie.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose one crime novel follows a reporter as opposed to a screenwriter but is a spiritual successor of the kind of noir we used to get back then.  You can check it out here.

At Least it had Marilyn in it

After a couple of truly ground-breaking films, the 1001 movies list delivered a bit of a dud.  A reasonable caper film which, however, felt like a throwback to an earlier era.

The Asphalt Jungle Film Poster

OK, so calling The Asphalt Jungle a dud may seem a little bit unfair.  After all, this one was directed by John Huston, spawned a TV series and was nominated for four Oscars.  And yet, it felt like a dud in the context of the 1001 films and in 1950.  It might have been awesome in 1940.  It might have been an unforgettable classic in the pre-Code era.

We’ve been watching Code-impaired crime flicks for a while now, so we know the drill: all the interesting characters either die or go to jail at the end.  Objectively speaking, the only thing in any way special about this one was how detailed the heist planning was.  That made the movie interesting.

But other than that, it was pretty much standard fare, mixing elements of film noir in with neo-realism to create something that is neither, but isn’t particularly new.  It’s a decent Code-era crime flick, entertaining and well-paced but with the limitations of the genre.  You will never know how much you love not being able to guess how a film ends until you watch a few Code-era crime films in a row in which the main characters are criminals.  You spend the entire movie getting to know them, all the while knowing they are doomed.  An exercise in futility.

This one, however, does have one redeeming feature.

Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle

Yep, that’s Marilyn herself, playing a minor but notable part, in one of her breakout roles before her trademark look was quite perfected and looking young and innocent–although her role as one of the character’s kept women was anything but innocuous.  It’s the one thing that gives this film a link to the future as well as countless ties to the past.  Say what you want about Huston’s miss on the screenplay, but he sure knew how to pick aspiring actresses for supporting roles.

Well, at least once, anyway.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a creature feature with an utterly unpredictable ending entitled Jungle Lab Terror.  Buy it here!

 

Psychological Subtlety Lifts this One Out of Noir

I love film noir.  The moody scenes, the stock phrases, the sultry femmes fatale.  It’s a wonderful transportation to a lost world that probably never really existed.

But subtle?  No way.

The characters spiral out of control and, except when Bogart is involved, come to awful, well-deserved and often gruesome ends.

And then we come to 1949 and The Reckless Moment.

The Reckless Moment - French Film Poster.jpg

This is a noir film where the psychological motivations are much deeper than the usual greed, lust and fear.  It’s a film that leaves you with questions, even though it’s not exactly Camus.

The setup is that a mother is being blackmailed for her daughter’s indiscretions after an unfortunate accident kills off the girl’s lover.  The mother, far from being innocent, responds foolishly – but we’re never quite certain if the mother’s innocent, wholesome facade afterwards is an act or if it’s coldly calculated to draw in the man who ultimately takes the fall.

The criminal element in this one is an Irish gangster with–in what later becomes a cliché–a heart of gold.  In single handedly saving the day, he becomes the sympathetic character, the one socially conscious people point to when the say that people are good, but sometimes their upbringing didn’t give them a chance.

Like Gun Crazy, I wouldn’t call this one noir.  It just doesn’t hit the mark.  While Gun Crazy misses because it’s too B-movie simplistic, this one misses because of its attempt at sophistication.  I would call it a crime drama… but not noir.

As for the film itself, in moving away from the noir formula, I’m not certain it helped its cause.  It is both slower and less impactful than the films which share its supposed genre.  Decent, but others are better.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime thriller Timeless is the story of a journalist who gets involved with forces she can’t quite understand, much less control.  It’s sexy and fast-paced and modern… and you can buy it here.

 

A Film Inspired by Bonnie and Clyde which Inspired the Film Bonnie and Clyde

Gun Crazy is a Hays Code era movie about a couple of gangsters united by their love of guns.  Fortunately, his one manages to be both disturbing and sexy despite the era’s often-obtrusive censorship.

Gun Crazy Movie Poster.jpg

Essentially, it follows the death spiral of an initially well-meaning couple, a guy who is the best shot in town who just came out of the army and wants to get a job at Remington to stay close to his passion and a bit of a fallen woman who falls in love with him (and who also has a passion for handguns) and promises to try to be good.

We all know she’s going to fail.

From the very beginning, the wheels start to fall off.  A bad night at a casino puts their back against the wall financially, and the woman, now a wife, bluntly informs him that either they get more muney–a LOT more money–or she’ll walk.

So they turn to armed robbery.  The guy, essentially a country bumpkin at heart, doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, but the girl is the one who is Kill Crazy on the poster above.  She is utterly trigger-happy, and her protestations–probably code-related–that she shoots because she just gets so scared, aren’t really believable.

And that makes it better.  We like our crazies undiluted.

This one is considered one of history’s better b-movies and, though I didn’t love it, I admit that it deserves its position on the 1001 movies list.  And the main reason I didn’t like it is not even the movie’s fault.  The problem with crime flicks under the Hays Code is that the code wouldn’t permit the movie to have a happy ending for criminals… so as soon as they started on the downward path, you knew they were going to end up as a couple of photogenic corpses.

As always, I like to give a shout out to surviving actors from the old films I watch.  In this case, the survivor is Russ Tamblyn, critical in the film because, in his role as a younger version of the protagonist, he is the first person we see on screen.  So hello, Russ!

Watchable, although I wouldn’t classify it among the noir genre, because it didn’t feel like noir to me, this one laid a lot of the groundwork for the later Bonnie and Clyde films, especially the one from 1967.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s crime fiction is best represented by his thriller Timeless.  Just as disturbing, and much sexier than this film, you can buy it here.

The Hays Code Ruined this One

The Lady From Shanghai Film Poster

Almost from the first scene of The Lady from Shanghai, you know it isn’t going to end well for at least a few of the protagonists.  Why? Because one thing that the damnable Hays Code insisted on was that no one involved in crime or amorality was allowed a happy ending.

It is a classic, apparently, but it could have been so much better.

Directed by Orson Welles (who also played the lead role) and starring Rita Hayworth, it should have been better.

But it wasn’t.  It’s a disjointed noir story about unfaithful wives after money, as in so many other noir films (Double Indemnity springs to mind immediately), except here, the narrative is full of either plot holes or intentional ambiguity.  No one acts the way they probably should, although the debauched atmosphere does go a way to explaining it all.

In its day, the fault for the movie being a flop was laid at Welles’ feet, and I suppose he does shoulder a good part of it, but as I said, I was immediately certain that the thing would end badly for most of the cast because I knew the rules you had to play by in the Hays Code era.

If you wanted to have a happy ending for an ambiguous hero, you essentially had to move to France and film there.  Likewise if your heroine crossed a few too many lines.

So this one is a mixed bag, likely only of real interest to Orson Welles’ completists and to people who really, really love the shootout in the mirror maze (admittedly, that part was pretty cool).

Maybe put this one on the back burner until you’ve watched more pressing films.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book, Love and Death is a series of intertwined stories that delve deeply into what it means to be alive and what love means in different scenarios.  You can buy it here.

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Force of Evil Film Poster

Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why.  While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.

In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results.  So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems.  The ending is left open.

But none of that makes the film better.  The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow.  Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context.  The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense.  This film loses its way on those counts.

John Garfield on the Phone in Force of Evil

On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.

I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list.  Why, I ask myself is it there?

I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.

I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature.  What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield.  A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.

Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy).  And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.

If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…

But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres.  His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded.  It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

An Enjoyable Product of its Time

One of my pet peeves, as readers of this space have probably already noticed, is when modern readers or critics attempt to disparage a classic work because it doesn’t conform to present-day expectations.

Racist.  Sexist.  Colonialist.  They are all words used to attempt to deny masterpieces their rightful place in the canon.  So far, fortunately, this agenda seems to be failing, and one can still enjoy Heart of Darkness, to take an example at random, secure in the knowledge that one is reading a pillar of the twentieth century.

What needs to be clear is that these works are a product of their time, and they need to be enjoyed without our modern prejudices, in much the same way as we read the Greeks or Romans.  If you can do that, you will likely enjoy them quite a bit.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu is a glorious example of the type of thing I’m talking about.  It centers around one of the fears of nationalistic Europe in the early 1910s: The Yellow Peril, or the possibility that Asia would throw off the chains of empire and attempt to dominate the “civilized” world.

I’d love to see what kind of an effect tossing this one into a modern literature course would have–the fur would fly–but if you can turn off the modernity, it’s a brilliant story, well told.

It tells of the world’s smartest man: an Asian mastermind whose job is to undermine the Western powers so that a shadowy Chinese group can take over the world.  Pretty standard stuff so far.

But Fu Manchu isn’t just a criminal.  He’s a genius and a gentleman who honors his enemies and only kills when he must… even though, as an utter madman, he enjoys it when necessary.  It’s those contradictions which make him frightening and lead to this story, as anachronistic as it is, to remain in print to this very day.  Hollywood also took note and there were a couple of films.

The British heroes are, at all times, conscious of their inferiority, and yet struggle on regardless… perhaps a portrait of their own national characteristics.

I wasn’t familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work, but I liked this one, and will be purchasing more of them.  It’s the perfect antidote for today’s oh-so-offended world… an intentionally exaggerated reminder of what the same people who are now socially conscious used to consume by the truckload.  And a great story to boot.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside deals with the problems society will be facing in the near future.  You can have a look here.

 

Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block – My First Time

The Girl With the Long Green Hear by Lawrence Block

It’s no real secret that I like noir, whether it be in film form or book form.  It’s just so evocative of another era and a kind of person, the hard-nosed, gritty guy who lives in the real world whether he likes it or not, who no longer exists.  As an escape from reality it’s just as fantastic as anything Tolkien ever put to paper.  Can you imagine a Millennial Sam Spade in today’s era of political correctness?  I’ll wait while you stop laughing.

So when I spotted a brand new copy of Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart in the bargain bin of a bookstore at the beach town where I usually go on vacation the same bargain bin that, a year or two earlier had disgorged a King James Bible, I snapped it up.  A bonus, at least for me was that it was a Hard Case Crime edition of the book.

As a writer, Hard Case Crime is on my radar as the first publisher to send any noir novels I might happen to write (I don’t write a ton of crime fiction, but if I do…), but as a reader, I just love their selection.  More importantly, though I love their covers.  They hearken back to the golden era of lurid art featuring scantily clad women and/or dead bodies, all tied together by excellent design work with the right sensibilities.

Block, on the other hand, was new to me.  I’d read the classics Hammett, Spillane, McDonald etc., but not the bread-and-butter crime writers of the era, especially not from the sixties.

I think I’ve been missing out… a quick Wikipedia perusal tells me the man is worth reading, although this is probably not his best book.  Nevertheless, it is a great example of its kind.  A couple of con men get into a deal with no real idea of where they really stand…  it’s grim and doesn’t pull any punches, but also hopeful in a twisted sort of way.

I think what I like most about crime fiction is that it doesn’t try to judge or moralize.  It tells the story (often in the first person), as the protagonists would have told it, not as a well-educated writer might see it.

And that is what allows the escape to be fully realized.  And this one works perfectly in that sense.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Ice Station: Death, is a creature feature thriller set in Antarctica.  You can buy it here.

The Master of Noir Writing?

Noir detective girl in door

You saw the title and I bet you’re thinking Dashiell Hammett?  Raymond Chandler?  Perhaps these two men would dominate if we were awarding style points, but the hard-boiled genre isn’t about flash or pretty prose.  It’s about page-turning grit, two-fisted aggression and the dod-eat-dog underbelly of society.  It’s the kind of thing a grunt would carry in his pocket in Flanders or Normandy or Korea as opposed to the kind of thing whose author would be fêted on Fifth Avenue.

Noir film has understood this since the beginning, which is why the source material is often forgotten.   Honestly, most people have seen The Maltese Falcon, and recognize it as a classic, even today, but how many have read the book?

Even we at Classically Educated are guilty.  Looking back at our history of book reviews, we’ve done Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which, as postmodernist literature would likely have been about as popular with the troops as gonorrhea, we’ve done Agatha Christie which has murder and popular appeal, but isn’t noir, and we’ve looked at the wonderful Garrett books by Glen Cook, which tick all the boxes, but are undermined as pure noir by the fact that they tick an extra box: they’re fantasy.

It’s time to address that failing.

To do so, we need to grab the bull by the horn and go for the noirest of the noir, Mickey Spillane himself.  In his day, especially in the 1950s, the man probably outsold every other noir writer combined…  and he did it the old-fashioned way: by making his stories more violent, sexier and more sensationalist than anyone else.

A good way to get a feel for what this implies is to pick up one of the omnibus editions out there.

Mickey Spillane Volume I - I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!

So I did, and I have to say the man earned it.  I read the big block of a book containing Spillane’s three first novels (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, Vengeance is Mine!) in a breathless rush that was only resolved in the last sentence.   While not every writer would be well served writing this way (I wouldn’t try it–the critics would have a field day), it works perfectly for Spillane himself.

Mike Hammer might not be as well-remembered today as Marlowe or Spade… but he should be.  And some of the endings might be predictable if you’re familiar with the genre, but none of them will leave you unsatisfied (and remember that they are probably predictable because they’ve been copied).

Just the thing to forget about those shells falling all around your foxhole in some foreign land.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novel Outside will also keep you guessing until the last pages (not the last sentence, though.  He chickened out).  You can check it out here.