film noir

So Much Noir… So Little Time

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer inspect a dead body in Out of the Past

Everyone knows The Maltese Falcon.  We’ve all heard about The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, and we all know that noir sensibilities are synonymous with Bogart.  But the 1940s, as we’ve been exploring over the past few years (just type noir in the search box on the right for a recap), are as deep a mine for this type of film as the 1930s were for screwball comedy (still my favorite kind of funny film, even eighty-odd years later).

An aside here.  I’m pretty sure that younger generations, say people 30 years old in 2018 are not really familiar with any of the classics listed above.  Why?  I’d say that the internet has made it unnecessary to watch the kind of Saturday afternoon classic TV screening that introduced their elders to these movies.  Invariably, though, whenever they do get past their aversion to black and white and actually give these (or the screwball comedies) a chance, they come away shocked and pale and say things like… “I thought all old movies sucked.  What was that actress called again?”

That’s Lauren Bacall, young fellow.

“Oh, wow.”

Out of the Past Film Poster

Anyway, the film that brings us here today, though considered a masterpiece of the noir form, and re-filmed as Against all Odds in 1984 is not one that is familiar to the casual film watcher.  Out of the Past has no Bogart, no Bacall, and doesn’t suffer because of it.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It’s a great film whose plot is so intricate that too many stars to pander to and give screen time to would have diluted its greatest strength.

Essentially, a man trying to make a clean break from a seamy former life, gets pulled back into it by both a man he’d double crossed and the classical film noir Dalilah figure he’d loved and lost.  It gets really bad for everyone from there on out…

Like The Big Sleep, the entertainment value in this picture comes from following the twists and turns of the plot.  Double and triple crosses.  A woman whose intentions you can never guess, who is always playing both sides against the middle.  A bad guy who isn’t senselessly violent, but cold, calculating and knows when to cut his loses.

It’s nearly perfect in the genre.

What’s missing?  Well, the star power.  Though Robert Mitchum is great, he will never be Bogart.  And don’t even get me started in comparisons between Jane Greer and the aforemntioned Miss Bacall… Or Ingrid Bergman or, god help us, Rita Hayworth in Gilda.  Just not on the cards.

So it isn’t quite as impactful, not as spectacularly memorable.  The set pieces don’t stick in the mind the same way.  It’s a quieter film (if a film about sex, crima and violence can really be called quiet), an even moodier one and definitely a darker one.

Notable also because it’s an early starring Role for Kirk Douglas whose status as still surviving cast member is shared with Rhonda Fleming.

Even in a decade awash with noir, where everything had to include the sensibilities of that genre, this one stands out.  But that’s only logical: when everything is noir, some of it is bound to be good.  Some even great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author with several novels to his credit.  His latest is The Malakiad, which most definitely isn’t noir.  He is also a husband and father of a young duaghter… with another on the way.

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All About The Love Goddess

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Rita Hayworth was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood’s golden era, and it you only have to watch one movie to know why: Gilda.  Has there ever been a more perfect femme fatale in the history of cinema?  If so, I haven’t encountered her yet and the only one that really comes to mind is Loiuse Brooks in Pandora’s Box twenty years earlier.

In the noir era?  I’d say that Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman, though often playing dangerous women, were redeemed by the fact that they were dangerous because of the situation they were in, or their upbringing.  None of their parts comes close to the gleeful courtship of an early death through her own actions of title character of this film.

The film itself?  Well, it was OK…  my wife enjoyed the first half and found the second half boring while my reaction was exactly the opposite, with the film getting better as it advanced.  But I have a feeling that I’ll be hard-pressed to remember much about it in a year or two other than as the film with Hayworth in it playing a very dangerous woman.

To be honest, I would probably also recall the fact that the action takes place in Argentina.  It wasn’t filmed in Buenos Aires and didn’t show any landmarks I could identify, but it felt like the action could, conceivably, have taken place here.  So that was a fun bit of trivia.

Gilda 1946 Movie Poster

Anyway, without giving away any spoilers, this one is something lovers of noir will like, as will people with an unhealthy fascination for women who can really, really wreck your life.  As a noir, I guess it’s middle-of-the-road as opposed to brilliant, with a few interesting elements such as the casino (shades of what was concurrently happening to Bugsy Siegel permeate the film and make one wonder).  And compared to other Hays Code films, this one is much sexier in nature.

But in the end, it’s all about that Hayworth woman.

We always do a few fun facts about the different films here, and this one’s is about the woman who dubbed the singing on the earworm signature tune Put the Blame on Mame.  Turns out that Singer Anita Ellis is still alive (albeit suffering from Alzheimers) – hope she is lucid enough to receive this shout-out and know we love what she did with that song!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was published in 2017.

Grant and Bergman and Hitchcock, Plus Uranium and Nazis? Where Do We Sign Up?

Hitchcock's Notorious - Film Poster - Cary Grant - Ingrid Bergman

Many of the people who follow this space came here for the reviews of the 1001 movies, which makes it a bit sad that we’ve been neglecting it over the past couple of months.  But we come back today with a cracker: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious!  Though reportedly not his favorite film, this one was perfectly timed: less than a year after the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Japan, here’s the master of suspense with a film about Nazis in Brazil looking to build their own.  Perfection.

Quickly, the story revolves around a spymaster (Cary Grant) who convinces the daughter of a Nazi spy in the US (Ingrid Bergman) to help them disband a Nazi plot in Rio de Janeiro.

The setup becomes complicated when they fall in love because the assignment means that Bergman’s character has to seduce one of the Nazis, and she’s gone and fallen in love with Cary Grant (I suspect that falling in love with Cary Grant was a common affliction in the forties), who has also fallen for her.

Cay Grant Ingrid Bergman Kiss From Notorious

The only bad part of the film is that the whole stoic acceptance of duty and not talking about how they each feel about the other stretches the suspension of disbelief a little far and makes you want to hit them with their own hats.  But other than that, it’s a fun little romp and love story where good triumphs because good people risk their lives to ensure it.

It seems the exiled Nazi theme was popular immediately post war.  Hollywood, as always, was perfectly happy to make a buck by exploiting the fears of the common man.  Interestingly, the uranium that plays such a critical role in Notorious was in the script from the beginning, long before it was widely known that it could be used for atomic weapons.

This one is highly recommended.  My wife, who regularly falls asleep during viewings of the 1001 films list, was on the edge of her seat the whole time, anxious as hell to know what happens next.  Not all that usual for a film from seventy years ago.

Finally, our tradition of finding something unique or interesting about the film continues because of the presence of Fay Baker.  You see, apart from being an accomplished actress, Baker, it seems, wrote novels under the pseudonym Beth Holmes.  As a writer myself, I’m always happy to see that other people (Hollywood actors in this case) manage to understand that writing, even with all its heartbreak, is still better than the day job.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel is Incursion.

Too Late to Really Kill It

The Killers movie poster

One has to feel for the producers of 1946 film The Killers.  While it’s true that not many films can claim to be the single adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway story that the great author truly liked, and it was also a commercial and critical success, one can’t help but feel that it is just another noir film in a decade full of them… and while The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and their ilk are revered today, The Killers is all but forgotten by casual cinephiles.

This is too bad because it’s a pretty good movie.  Some of the plot points that weren’t lifted from the Hemingway story are at the far end of plausible suspension of disbelief but, other than that, this one is a winner.

Essentially, the plot isn’t about the killers of the title at all, but revolves around their victim and why he was killed.  It does so with all the noir elements you could ever want.  Untrustworthy dame?  Check.  Two-bit hoods?  Present.  Heart-wrenching betrayal?  Yep.  It flows well, with the big reveal at the end coming as something of a surprise, but not too big a shock.

It’s a good film.

And yet, other than fanatics like the Classically Educated crew that watches the 1001 movies obsessively in order, few people you might encounter will ever have heard of it.  I guess that’s what happens when you arrive just that tiny bit too late.

maltese falcon original statue

Interesting things about this film are that it gave Burt Lancaster his first big break (even though his role was as the victim of the killing).  But better still is that another actor in the film, William Conrad, was a) the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle and B) the owner for quite some time of one of the two Maltese Falcons ever made.  It’s nice to see that someone involved in the film was linked to The Maltese Falcon, anyway.

The Noir Film to End all Noir Films

Bacall and Bogart in The Big Sleep

We don’t normally start our articles with a caveat, but we’ll make an exception for this one.  We’re not considering Casablanca a noir film for this one, mainly because it doesn’t quite have the necessary cynicism in many of the characters that noir embodies.

Having said that, we can move along.

It seems that, over the past few years, a very good chunk of our posts regarding the 1001 films one must view before the grim reaper arrives have been about noir in one form or another.  It’s pretty much to be expected, as we’re traversing the golden age of the genre, the mid forties.

We’ve seen some films that we liked, a few that played with the expectations, and at least one which was just that little bit too dense to be enjoyable.  Hell, we even thought we’d finally found the be-all and end-all of noir film.

We were wrong.  The best noir film ever made is The Big Sleep (1946), and the reason it beats out To Have and Have Not is twofold.  The first part of the explanation is that the producers built on a formula that was pretty much perfect.  They took the same insanely talented group of actors and writers and applied the lessons that they and everyone else had learned over the intervening two years–and though two years might not sound like much, remember that there was more noir going on in those two years, than any time before or since.

The second reason is that, though we’re including To Have and Have Not among our noir films, it’s actually, to a certain degree, more aligned with Casablanca than with The Maltese Falcon.

The Big Sleep Movie Poster - Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

But there’s no doubt about The Big Sleep.  As soon as Marlowe walks in, you know it’s the real deal… almost by definition.  In fact, we’re going to establish a new definition for noir: it has to contain either Marlowe, Hammer or Spade.  There.  We said it.

But even if the main character was some other detective, we’d have allowed this film in.  The plot twists and turns like a corkscrew, and you need to pay attention, or you’ll miss just what the heck is going on.

The women are beautiful–even the ones that aren’t Lauren Bacall–and the fact that the characters inhabit a world where night never seems to end is an inspired artistic decision.

Unusually, there are two versions of this film, one from 1945 and this one. The ’46 version is one in which the studio made a bunch of alterations… and, in an unusual turn of events, is actually better than the director’s original vision (more Lauren Bacall can never, ever be a bad thing, can it?).

So, if you are going to watch only one noir film in your life, this might be it.  It is film noir fully grown up and using all the tricks it learned in adolescence.

 

Also, here at CE, we’d like to give a shout out to surviving members of the cast: Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin, two women who have had an extraordinary run… long may it continue!!

Who needs Rosebud? We’ve Got Nazis!

Orson Welles in The Stranger

When Orson Welles set out to direct The Stranger (1946), he did so under unfavorable conditions.  Saddled with a well-deserved reputation for being constitutionally unable to complete films on time or anywhere near the budget, he simply agreed to everything and got down to it.

How much of the result was actually his fault is open to discussion, but the bottom line is that, though this film has a certain Wellesian nightmare quality, it is far removed from his more atmospheric work.  It’s definitely not terrible, but there’s a reason Citizen Kane is a household name and this one isn’t.

Let’s start with the good.  The tension in this film is constant and constantly ratchets.  It is mainly driven by concern for the wellbeing of the young bride and her family as opposed to any sense of mystery as to what is really going on.

And therein lies my major complaint about this movie: there’s no mystery, about whether the protagonist is the bad guy or not.  That’s pretty much cleared up in the first five minutes of the movie (contrast that with the Rosebud mystery), so we’re pretty much left with a melodrama of a thriller.  That’s fine for some audiences, I suppose, but one expects better of Welles.

The Stranger DVD cover

Perhaps what got this film its place on the 1001 movies list (apart from the name of its director) is that it was the first hollywood film to use images of the Holocaust at a time when many Americans were either unaware of what had transpired, or simply didn’t believe it.  They are strong scenes which, perhaps, have lost a little bit of the effect on modern audiences that they would certainly have had on period viewers–making the job of reviewing it just a tad more difficult.

So, even though it’s certainly not a bad movie, it certainly wasn’t the best thing Welles produced, but as a document of its time… definitely worth watching.

Our unusual note returns today with the fact that one of the actors went on to play Mayor Linseed in the 1960s Batman series.  Not sure what that might mean, but it has to mean something, right?

BTW, don’t forget we have a Facebook page you can hit like on!

 

 

…and Other Times in English

We’d already done a review of one film adaptation of James Cain’s seminal novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, but that one had been in Italian.  The Hollywood version was actually the third to appear, after the Italian version and one in French.

Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Why?  Well, like much else that was wrong with cinema in the 1940s, the Hays Code was to blame.  The self-righteous thought police was hard at work back then attempting to control what people did and thought (plus ça change…) with the effect that filmmakers were loathe to do anything that might offend the censors.

If you ever wondered why people who broke the law–even the romantic, sympathetic ones–never got away with it it was because one of the articles of the code expressly forbade that.

If you wondered why kisses never lasted more than three seconds… ditto.

The main question, of course, is: in the golden era of film noir–a genre whose success depends on the basest of human emotions: lust, betrayal, greed–did the limitations on the films make them less than they could have been or did they have the opposite effect and force the directors to go above and beyond to get around the limits?  We’ll never know, but the films that have come to us make me think the second is more likely,

Eventually, however, the studio moguls decided that, though the book’s subject matter was quite sordid, it was no worse than much of the rest of the genre, so they went ahead and filmed it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice Movie Poster

This one is, perhaps, a slightly more faithful adaptation of the book than Ossessione, but the two are, of course essentially the same.  The main difference is in the visuals.  For some reason, the sense that the Italian version gives is that most of the action takes place during the daytime, while the American one is much darker and more nocturnal, probably because that was the predominant aesthetic of the genre, or maybe it was a conscious effort to separate the two.

Whatever the cause, it works.  The film is a moody take on an already dark subject.

There isn’t really much more to say about it without rehashing the plot or repeating what other critics have said.  My own recommendation is to watch them both.  I think the Italian version is better at creating believable sexual tension between the characters–and, unhindered by the Code, at showing it–while the American version shines in the legal aspects and nighttime scenes.

Both are worth a look.

Of Unrealistic Choices on Film

We’ve all been there.  Staring at the screen in disbelief controlling our urge to yell at the doomed character: “Don’t run up the stairs, you idiot! You were right next to the front door.  The guy with the hockey mask and the axe is in the house…  so why would you do that?”

The answer, of course, is that either that particular character is toast, or, if it is the main character, then having him or her run out the door and onto the street and into the nearest 7-11, where the armed cashier then proceeds to fill the bad guy with lead, doesn’t exactly ratchet up the dramatic tension.  So you end up having characters make choices that no one but a moron would make in real life, all in service of the plot.

It’s annoying as hell when it happens in a cheesy horror flick, but even more when it happens in a film that has been anointed by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Of course, Detour from 1945, didn’t start off that way.  It started off on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, being filmed with a reported (albeit unlikely) budget of $20,000.  Other sources cite $100,000 but it was not a high-budget film by any stretch of the imagination.

Detour 1945 Film Poster

It’s essentially a hard luck story, and one never really wonders, even for a second, why the main character is having such a bad time.  It’s clear that he is the kind of guy who would be incapable of tying his own shoelaces and is his own worst enemy.  Unlike in The Lost Weekend, which we discussed here, the main character in Detour cannot use alcoholism as an excuse for his bad choices.

Fortunately, the bad choice is early in the movie, so it won’t really spoil all that much if I tell you about it.  Essentially, the guy is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a random motorist.  The man in the car takes some medicine, starts feeling bad, parks the car and, in an attempt to get out, stumbled and hits his head on a rock.  In keeping with Hollywood tradition, he dies.

The main character decides that the police will blame him for the guy’s death.  The only logical thing to do, therefore, is to steal the man’s car and belongings and pass himself off for the dead man.  Of course.  It’s what anyone would do in that situation.

So everything else that happens afterward is his own fault.

But that’s not even the worst part of the whole thing.  I understand that penniless drifters are usually not well regarded, but to automatically assume that the police will blame them for everything and expect audiences to sympathize is another Hollywood-ism that annoys me to no end.  Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to unite against authority and “The Man”, but, just once, I’d like for the police to believe the main character when he says it was an accident and calls them to report it.

All of the above is too bad.  The acting, the mood, the dialogue were first rate… to the point where it was supremely well-received.  I suppose that audiences and critics will often overlook a single moronic decision if the rest of the elements are in place.  Maybe they are correct to do so.

But in my case, having to write my own thoughts a few months after seeing the movie, that single stupid choice was the most memorable part of the film, and therefore became what I write about.  Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Bizarre or interesting note?  None in particular, except for the fact that, since the film was produced by a studio that no longer exists, and the rights seem to have fallen into some kind of black hole, it is now in the public domain.  Which means that I can link you to a place where you can watch the thing legally.

Oh, and it’s noir.  I did mention that everything in 1945 was noir, didn’t I?

 

Perpetuating the Alcoholic Writer Cliché

Our look at the 1001 films one should watch before one dies continues today with The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism but which is very steeped in the noir tradition.  This last is completely unsurprising, as the box-office success of one noir film after another affected the production philosophy of every other genre, regardless of whether it was related or not.

The Lost Weekend (1945) Movie poster

Some of the results were less than stellar, but in the case of The Lost Weekend, this blend worked extremely well, resulting in a number of Oscars.

As a writer, the most interesting aspect of the film to me is that it is purportedly an attempt by the director, the great Billy Wilder, to make a movie about Raymond Chandler, with whom he’d worked with in the production of Double Indemnity (there’s that ever-present noir link again…).

While not biographical by any means, The Lost Weekend deals with how a writer’s insecurities can lead to rampant alcoholism.  It doesn’t pull any punches: the scenes used to show the awful consequences progress from lying to stealing to delirium tremens and, finally, to the decision to commit suicide.

In the end (spoiler alert), all seems to end well thanks to the power of love (yes, gratuitous Huey Lewis reference), but I got the feeling that the reprieve was only temporary, even if the filmmakers wanted the message to be upbeat.

Why don’t I believe them?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a writer.  I know that writing is 99% rejection of some sort.  Whether it be publishers who don’t publish your book or stories, critics who hate it once it’s published or readers who don’t buy your book in droves, writing is not a place for those of fragile ego.  And if your confidence issues lead you to contemplate suicide… well, maybe you should be doing something else.

But if you’re not afflicted with the writing gene/curse, it’s a film that not only explores an interesting topic in a pretty much definitive way, but also, despite the darkness of the character’s situation, manages to entertain.

Ronald Reagan: Film Husband!

The interesting or unusual note that we always try to find int hese movies?  It’s present… This one stars Ronald Reagan’s first wife!

Noir Fantasy – Double the Fun

Anyone who’s been following Classically Educated is well aware that we have a soft spot for noir around here.  We like it in film, we like it in writing.  We would like it in plays and tweets if it were available widely in those formats.

We also enjoy the fantasy genre.  Again, film and literature are our preferred genres, but who can really resist playing Zelda every now and then?

So when writers decide to mash these two genres together, we sit up and pay attention, with the result that we’ve decided to share some of our experiences with two very different takes on the subject.

Exhibit A is a recent anthology entitled Darker Than Noir, edited by Faith Kauwe.  It’s a collection of short stories which does exactly what the title says:  blend the noir detective sensibility with the darker end of the fantasy spectrum.  A few of the tales could rightly be called supernatural horror, but all have fantastic elements.

Darker Than Noir

In this book, our fearless–or, in other tales, hapless– detectives investigate everything from actors who want to stay young forever to misdeeds at a furry convention.  There’s something here for every taste, as long as you like it dark and with hardboiled sensitivities.

As a primer to get one’s feet wet, it’s nearly ideal.

But that’s an appetizer – for the main course we’d like to discuss the man who, in our view, takes hardboiled fantasy to its most exalted heights:  Glen Cook.  Yes, he’s better known for his military fantasy series, The Black Company, but we’d argue that he will be remembered for being the man who most perfectly blended put a human private eye in a world of elves, ogres and pixies.

Cook’s P.I. Garrett series has to be one of the most entertaining fantasy series out there, bar none.  It tells the tale of a former marine who makes his living by investigating crimes.  As expected in a fantasy world, the bad guys are usually both magical and very, very twisted.

Sweet Silver Blues - Glen Cook

What makes these compelling, though, is the main character’s voice.  Honoring the noir canon, they are told in the first person, in the world-weary, street-savvy voice we’ve come to love from the genre.  Garrett shows his human side early and often, and in so doing makes you laugh and suffer with him.  It really is a change from implacable heroes (even the flawed ones are often implacable in fantasy) and perfect elves we’ve come to expect.

It’s not our intention to do a blow-by-blow of each book here (read them, you’ll thank us), but just to point readers who share our interest in a couple of interesting directions.  Both of these very different propositions proved entertaining–so think of our pointing you their way as a public service!