film noir

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.

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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.

Controversial Film is Nothing New

Odd Man Out - Carol Reed - Final Scene

1947.  A horrible war has just ended.  Britain is in the midst of rationing everything from petrol to food.  You’d have to be pretty brave to film a sympathetic (albeit unflinching) portrayal of the IRA just then.  Either that or somewhat mad.

Carol Reed, it appears, was precisely that kind of man, and history has repaid him for his bravery (or madness) by making Odd Man Out his best-remembered film.  It tells the story of how an unnamed (but pretty obvious) revolutionary faction robs banks to finance itself, and of the responses of the members themselves, the people they love and the rest of the inhabitants of the unnamed city as the hunt for the perpetrators unfolds.

Refreshingly (in a world where people are convinced that anyone who voted for the “wrong” candidate in the US elections is subhuman), no one is portrayed as good or evil.  Every character is shown to have their flaws and their virtues.  In fact both are taken to the utter extreme in which the characters become caricatures of themselves without turning one-dimensional in the process.  So the implacable cop does all in his power to protect people from themselves, the insane painter can see the pain of people’s souls, the poor, greedy old man, despite his need and the lack of promises on the financial end, does all in his power to help out.

Perhaps this is the reason that the only objection the censors had to this film was the violence.  The final scenes had to be toned down.  In another era, or in any other country, this one would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Odd Man Out Film Poster

Perhaps this, more than anything, is what saddens me about the current state of political dialogue.  It is important that we understand and accept that others will have different views.  That doesn’t make them less intelligent or subhuman.  Just human.  If you profess to want the best for people and then hate someone just because they voted differently and don’t care about your arguments and won’t change their vote despite all your efforts, they are not the problem… you are.

Quite a good commentary on today, considering the film is seventy years old, huh?

On a slightly geeky note and our unusual fact about this one, one of the characters in this film was played by the first doctor, William Hartnell.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer, author of the popular novel, Siege. You can buy it here.

 

 

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.

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.