film noir

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.

The Bigamist was a Great Film… Except for the Title

I suppose the fact that the title spoils one of the ‘Aha!’ moments of the 1953 film The Bigamist, should bother me less than it does. But even though this reveal comes early in the film, audiences already knew it was coming… and it would have been a wonderful moment.

I suspect that this bad decision was caused by either the marketing folk sacrificing a delightful moment for a lot of box-office prurient interest (the film was on shaky financial footing pre-release) or the director wanting to stop the shock of the reveal from becoming the most important part of the film so audiences could focus on the human interest story behind it. Whatever the reason, it led to my main disappointment with this one. I would have loved to be shocked by the discovery that the main character was a bigamist instead of knowing exactly why he was worried in the first scene before it was revealed.

The other disappointment was knowing it would end badly. The Hays Code (which we hate) meant there could be no unambiguous (miraculous, seeing the mess this dude was in) happy ending allowing people to leave theaters uplifted. I don’t mind unhappy endings, but I prefer not to know it’s coming from the off. When that happens, it weighs on me all the way through the movie, the dread of bad news to come.

And the prophecy comes to pass, even if the ending isn’t as awful as some of the crime movies where everyone ends up dead.

Joan Fontaine is utterly charming in this one–an actress in her mid-thirties who was much more attractive than she herself was in her twenties, unusual as that may sound.

Anyway, you already know what the guy’s crime is, and you know it won’t end all that well… but watch it anyway. It’s a good psychological study which goes right to the heart of human emotion and is just as relevant today (perhaps more in our alienated world) as it was in 1953.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own look at human emotion is a book entitled Love and Death, a novel told in short story form following a cast of characters whose lives, unknowingly intertwined, form a single coherent narrative. I won’t tell you whether it has a happy ending, but you can check it out here.

Angel Face Would Have Been Treated Much Differently Today

Angel Face, for those who haven’t seen it (a group that included me until last week) is a clear descendent of the noir films of the classic era. Jean Simmons plays a classic femme fatale in the most literal sense of the word, and Robert Mitchum’s character is ripe for falling into her web.

It’s another of those unflinching noirs from the fifties–entertaining but without the possibility of redemption that tipified the true greats in the genre.

But the fact that noir had completely lost its way in the fifties is, in this particular case, not the point. What jumped out at me from this movie is that it would never be made with the same focus today.

The plot is driven by an obsession–the femme fatale, in this case, is compulsively in love with the guy, and this drive eventually, as in all fifties noir, ends badly.

So far, so good, but I got to thinking: would this film ever be made today?

And the answer appears to be “no way”. In fact, if this one was filmed in 2020, it would either be a horror film in which we focus closely on the disturbed, deranged character of Simmons’ character, moving through the evolution of her obsession while she wreaks tragic havoc on those around her. A psychological thriller could work, too, but a harsh one.

The other possible take would be to look at the woman as a victim. Undiagnosed mental illness leading to awful, tear-jerking events and, eventually, to her doom. All very touching and sad.

In a nutshell, this is why we’re still watching movies from the 1950s. It’s much more fun to watch the femme fatale doing her thing for no reason except that that is what femmes fatale do. And the plot built around that is much better than what would transpire viewed through a “modern” lens.

In fact, this overly indulgent attitude towards people who create serious problems is probably the reason Hollywood has moved to the science fiction blockbuster: having caricatured bad guys is much more entertaining than a politically correct view of mad criminals. People want to be entertained, so anything that doesn’t preach at them is appreciated.

And that makes Angel Face, a film made in 1952, refreshing.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Outside gives a nice mad bad guy to go with a well-thought-out science fiction setting. If you enjoy Loki in the MCU, you should love Graham. You can check the book out here.

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.