Archive for the ‘Noir’ Category

Nightmarealleyposter

Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Jules Furthman

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith

One of the darkest of all film noirs

Nightmare Alley was the second film made by Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, following his return from wartime service in the Pacific theatre. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it was a film that Power fought to make in the face of opposition from studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who feared that the dark role of the protagonist might damage Power’s image. Although that didn’t happen, the film was not a success at the box office. Power was praised by critics for his performance, however, and Nightmare Alley has subsequently come to be regarded as a film noir classic.

Power plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a relatively junior carnival barker who is still learning the trade. Stan is an assistant for Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), the carney’s fortune teller who is trying to keep her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith), on the straight and narrow. Eager to make the big time, Stan begins to see dollar signs when he learns that Zeena and Pete once had their own highly successful psychic act outside the carney, in which Pete used a linguistic code to communicate the punters’ secrets to Zeena. Stan also learns a valuable lesson when Pete fools him with a psychic reading, in which Pete apparently sees Stan as a boy running through fields with his pet dog. Pete breaks the news that this was a stock reading: “Fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog!” Learning from this, Stan finds he is able to exercise the gift of the gab to the extent that he can prevent a hostile policeman from closing down the carnival.

Following Pete’s death Zeena teaches Stan the code. She is helped in this task by Molly (Coleen Gray), the strongman’s girlfriend. But Stan has been dallying with both women and finds himself forced into a shotgun marriage with Molly. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they set up a highly successful act in the big city. But events take a darker turn after Stan links up with a corrupt psychoanalyst (Helen Walker), using her client information to trick wealthy society folk out of their money.

Unlike many of the most famous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon, there is no humour in Nightmare Alley’s characters. It is surely one of the darkest film noirs ever made, a rise-and-fall story that presents us with a kaleidoscope of human desperation, degradation, duplicity, gullibility, and alcoholism. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, but with the characters’ faces brightly lit, exposing – by turn – their hope and hopelessness. The opening scene presents us with the carney geek, the most degraded and abused figure in American carnivals, a man – typically an alcoholic or drug addict – who would bite the heads off chickens in front of a delightedly horrified audience. But everybody is looking for something, even the wealthy, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, one of the most pitiable figures is the society man Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), whose skepticism about the “Great Stanton” crumbles when Stan, furnished with information provided by Lilith, divines that Grindle is still in love with a woman who died thirty-five years ago. He then tries to manipulate Grindle for his own gain.

Whether Stanton Carlisle is a borderline psychopath or simply the product of his own desperate background is perhaps a matter for debate. I am inclined to the latter view, as Stan appears genuinely horrified by the sight of the geek, and also seems concerned for Pete’s suffering when deprived of alcohol. Stan also displays his own gullibility at times, a trait that eventually leads to his own downfall.

Given the bleakness of its vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nightmare Alley was a failure at the box office. Indeed, its “scandalous” content led to a number of protests. But the story is beautifully structured and absolutely compelling. Tyrone Power is riveting to watch, but also wonderfully supported by a superb cast. Joan Blondell (another Hollywood great) excels as Zeena, displaying a mixture of strength, sadness, and vulnerability – including vulnerability to temptation. Zeena describes herself to Stan as having “a heart as big as an artichoke and a leaf for everyone”. As her alcoholic husband Pete, Ian Keith switches between uncomprehending drunkeness and a kind of sad wisdom, whilst Taylor Holmes’s performance as Ezra Grindle brilliantly demonstrates the cruelty perpetrated when the innocent are hoodwinked by the cynical.

Rating: 10/10

Nightmare Alley is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘The Studio Collection’ .

Advertisements

The Maltese Falcon

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston (from the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

Country: USA

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Taking film-noir to a whole new level

If the superior 1940 B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor can lay claim to being the first true film noir, then John Huston’s first directorial film, The Maltese Falcon, decidedly an A-movie, took the genre to a whole new level. A distinct visual style, a complicated plot, a hard-boiled private eye, a femme fatale, a cast of colourful supporting characters, and crackling dialogue, this film has them all.

The story (actually the third filmed version) is based on the novel by former Pinkerton agent, Dashiell Hammett, and features Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade. This prefigured by five years Bogart’s performance as Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep.  There are resemblances between the two, not least because Chandler himself was undoubtedly influenced by Hammett, and wrote approvingly of his detective fiction in the 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder. However, Sam Spade is actually a grittier and more cynical character than Philip Marlowe. When, at the start of The Maltese Falcon, he learns that his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been murdered, Spade barely reacts; shortly after this we discover that he is having an affair with Archer’s wife. The day after Archer’s death, Spade tells his secretary to have his partner’s name removed from the office signage.

The story begins with Spade being hired by beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy (a.k.a. Miss Wanderley) to find her missing sister. However, she is really hunting for the Falcon. Whereas femme fatales typically cause disaster for the leading man, in this instance Spade has her measure right from the start, taking her money but not believing her story. This does not stop him falling for her, and she apparently for him. The combination of love and lying makes for an intriguing cat-and-mouse game between the two.

Also hunting for the Falcon are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Lorre gives another superb performance as the (understatedly) gay Cairo, and probably relished this role, coming as it did in the wake of his nine performances as the Japanese detective Mr Moto. Lorre’s opening scene is a masterpiece in how to grab an audience’s attention. It was Greenstreet, though, who got the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the age of 61, it was the first screen role for this 20 stone performer. As Kasper “the fatman” Gutman, Greenstreet is a perfect combination of urbanity and amorality. Gutman is what economists would call a rational actor. He is only interested in what is good for himself. Other people matter only insofar as they have something to offer him and, consequently, he is continually weighing advantages and disadvantages, and is willing to shift alliances when circumstances change. Moreover, he is quite open about all this. When the time comes for him to sacrifice his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), he tells the young man “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon”.

Lorre and Greenstreet aren’t the only actors turning in top performances here. All the key figures are superb. For Bogart, the role of Sam Spade was an opportunity to break away from the bad guys he had been so used to playing, and to portray a rather more nuanced character; Spade is tough and flawed, but beneath it all there is a kind of rough integrity. Mary Astor is delightful to watch as she acts the innocent, vulnerable woman, whilst spinning a bunch of yarns to Bogart. Also turning in a fine performance is Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the young tough who is continually undermined by Sam Spade (Cook would later appear with Bogart in The Big Sleep).

Rating: 10/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September – October 2014.

Strangeronthethirdfloor

Director: Boris Ingster

Writer: Frank Partos

Country: USA

Runtime: 64 mins

Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles D. Warde, Elisha Cook Jr.

A noteworthy B-movie that is widely credited as being the first true “film noir”

I have always enjoyed old black-and-white Hollywood movies, even those that aren’t terribly good, and it is always a pleasure to discover pictures that I wasn’t previously aware of. Stranger on the Third Floor is a noteworthy, and rather good, B-movie that is now widely credited as being the first true “film noir”.

The film begins with reporter Michael Ward (John McGuire) preparing to testify in the trial of Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.), who has been accused of murdering a coffee shop proprietor. Ward’s fiance, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), is extremely fretful that Briggs might be innocent, and when he is found guilty Jane’s distress puts something of a strain on her relationship with Ward. Returning home from the trial, Ward notices an odd-looking stranger (Peter Lorre) on the steps of his lodgings. Later, he discovers the stranger inside the building and challenges him, but the man runs away. Aware that he can’t hear the usual snoring from the annoying busybody next door, Ward first begins to worry that he might be dead. Then he falls asleep and dreams that he is being accused of the man’s murder.

Upon waking, he goes into his neighbour’s room and discovers that he has indeed been murdered. Ward’s first inclination is to run, but Jane persuades him to go to the police because the victim was killed in the same way as the coffee shop proprietor, and this connection could get the verdict against Briggs overturned. However, Ward then finds himself suspected and the stranger is nowhere to be found.

Stranger on the Third Floor is a good illustration of how story and plot are not the same thing. The plot here is remarkably simple and not enough to sustain the film by itself. However, the viewer’s interest is sustained principally through Ward’s paranoid interior monologue and the splendid noirish cinematography. The camerawork and lighting was courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, who had already worked on a hundred films by this time, and went on to shoot the celebrated 1947 Gothic thriller Cat People. Other important contributors were Vernon L. Walker for special effects, and Van Nest Polglase for art direction. The highlight of the film is Ward’s dream sequence, which features various distorted perspectives, including huge courtroom interiors, and imposing shadows.

Top billing for the film was given to Peter Lorre, although he is only onscreen for a relatively short period of time. His performance is essentially a reprise of the child killer in Fritz Lang’s classic M. However, he once again gives an impressive demonstration of how easily he can switch between menacing and kindly (in one sequence, he raises our fears by ordering raw burgers in a restaurant, but then it turns out that he wants to feed a stray dog; shortly after this act of compassion he then menaces Jane).

The dramatic finale, when it comes, is perhaps over a little too quickly. I felt that the suspense could have been extended a little further. However, for a B-movie this is definitely above par. Although Stranger on the Third Floor received rather mixed reviews upon release I think this film deserves a rather more positive reevaluation.

Review: 7/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September 2014.

Double_indemnity

Long before television’s Columbo familiarised us with the detective yarn where the killer is revealed at the beginning, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler gave us the early reveal in their seminal film-noir Double Indemnity. These two great writers had a famously fractious relationship throughout the process of adapting James M. Cain’s novella, but the end result was a dark, beautifully-paced movie full of whip-sharp dialogue. The story concerns insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who, during a routine call to the house of Mr Dietrichson, instead encounters his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) and promptly falls for her.

Phyllis has a plan to insure her husband and then arrange for his “accidental” death. It turns out that Neff, whilst considering the ways in which clients might try to commit insurance fraud, has gotten to wondering how he could pull off the perfect fraud himself. The two of them appear to be a match made in heaven (or hell). As an insurance expert, Neff knows that accidental death on a train is almost unheard of, and insurance payouts from such rare causes are twice the usual amount – the double indemnity of the title. He cooks up a plan to knock off the old man on a train but, of course, no sooner is the deed done than problems arise.

It is clear from the outset that the plan has gone badly wrong. Most of the scenes are flashbacks, but the present-time beginning of the film shows a wounded Neff making a voice recording of the whole story, including his confession to murder, for his boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The intrigue in the tale is in discovering just what went wrong and the wonderfully tight plotting does this brilliantly.

Double_indemnity_screenshot_3

The characterisation sets the tone for many a noir film to follow. MacMurray’s Neff is tall, handsome, and confident, but turns out to be a complete sap at the mercy of Stanwyck’s femme fatale. Much play is made of the ankle bracelet worn by Phyllis Dietrichson, which is clearly meant to indicate that this is not just a blond but a sleazy one. Almost as soon as Neff encounters her (wrapped in a towel initially) he starts making moves. For all of about two minutes she puts up some token resistance, telling him “There’s a speed limit in this state Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour”. He says “How fast was I going, officer?” and she tells him “I’d say about ninety”.

The use of shadow, a classic tool of the noir film-maker, is also used to emphasise the sleaze element. In one scene we see Phyllis sitting on a couch whilst she talks to Neff. Her face is in shadow but the side lamp ensures that we are aware of the shape of her breasts through her tight white sweater. Light and shadow is also used elsewhere to great effect. In various of the office scenes the light coming through the venetian blinds throws shadow lines on the walls and floors, an effect copied in many subsequent noir movies.

As well as being an outstanding movie, Double Indemnity is also notable for one curiosity: Raymond Chandler makes his only known film appearance – for about one or two seconds – in one of the early scenes.

Rating: 10/10