Category: Classic Thrillers


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Certain movie ideas shouldn’t work. A movie about two pretentious intellectuals having a two hour long dinner conversation in real time shouldn’t work. But My Dinner With Andre somehow does. A film adaptation of a decidedly internalized, fantastical religious thought experiment/coming of age tale shouldn’t have been possible to make. But Life of Pi is a modern masterpiece. An animated children’s film (per the filmmaker’s intentions anyway) chronicling a brother and sister slowly starving to death in the wake of the destruction of the second World War would never be greenlit in America. But, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful war films ever made. One can add Robert Altman’s 1973 film noir deconstruction The Long Goodbye to a list of that films that seem insane on paper but turn out great despite any initial misgivings.

Philip Marlowe, the beleaguered but cocksure private eye at the heart of a series of seminal Raymond Chandler mystery novels, became an archetype of all hard-boiled detectives to follow and his portrayal in Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep by Humphrey Bogart set the standard for practically every movie Brother Sheamus afterwards. And Robert Altman’s decision to update the iconic gumshoe from his native 1940s to the decadent 1970s and to transform Marlowe from a portrait of street-wise masculinity to a zen, cat-obsessed stoner makes no sense on paper. Leave it to Robert Altman to utterly buck convention and still craft a noir mystery that outshines many of the films that came before by becoming a masterful commentary on the genre itself (although there’ll never be a better Marlowe than Bogie).

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The Long Goodbye is a loose and modern adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name. Living in a high-rise penthouse across the way from topless, acid-dropping female yoga enthusiasts, Philip Marlowe (American History X‘s Elliott Gould) has few worries other than getting his cat to eat the off-brand cat food she despises. That is, he’s worry free until his old friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) shows up at his door and asks Marlowe to give him a lift to Tijuana. And the next day, Marlowe quickly learns to regret giving his friend that simple favor when Lennox’s wife turns up dead and days later, Lennox apparently commits suicide in the jungles of Mexico.

And it isn’t long before the cops want to pin Marlowe as an accessory in the murder of Lennox’s wife. And even if he’s able to clear his name from those charges, a gangster by the name of Marty Augustine (The Rose‘s Mark Rydell) thinks Marlowe is covering up the disappearance of Terry Lennox, who stole $350,000 from Marty’s organization. And to round out The Long Goodbye‘s appropriately large Altman cast is Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) and Roger Wade (The Godfather‘s Sterling Hayden) as a married couple whose problems with a suspicious psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) may be related to the murder/suicide of the Lennox family.

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The Long Goodbye is a deliciously anachronistic creation. Taking a story ripped right out of the early 1950s, with one of the most beloved fictional characters of the 1940s, and placing it in the coked-out world of the 1970s and cramming it chock full of period details of both eras is as inspired a decision as Altman has made in his lengthy, illustrious career. Whether it’s the ever-present 1940s jazz standards, Marlowe’s glorious 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible, the suits ripped right out of classic noir wardrobes, and the signs for food prices that are too low even by 1940s standards, The Long Goodbye creates an almost delirious atmosphere of a man totally out of time and place minus the nearly zen koans that pass as his occasional conversations with passer-by.

And, that’s the first of a major string of commentaries that forms the subtext of Altman’s neo-noir masterwork, The Long Goodbye. Film noir hasn’t been fashionable as one of the go-to American movie genres since the 1950s, but heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe (both played by Bogie at different points in his career) or Jake Gittes are timeless favorites of all serious movie fans. Although there are aesthetic elements in the appeal of noir (the black and white photography, the gorgeous femme fatales, the fashion), much of the love of the genre is the counter-culture heroes who stand just outside of normal society while still adhering to their own strict codes of honor and morality (something Altman plays with as well in the film’s shocking denouement).

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But other elements of classic noir are on display throughout, yet always in a way that subverts the traditional mold. I’ve read Chandler’s novels and there’s always an undercurrent of perverse homosexual villains (despite the fact that many Chandler historians think he was a closeted homosexual), and The Long Goodbye turns this on its head with one of the most intentionally hilariously homoerotic scenes in noir history in a scene featuring one of the first movie appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Chandler’s twisting-turning tales with ambiguity are only amplified by this film’s psychedelic, drug-soaked haze.

In practically every way, The Long Goodbye deals with the subversive sexual undertones of Chandler’s works in more honest and apparent detail than The Big Sleep. Released in 1946, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep was forced to censor so many elements of Chandler’s novel that if you hadn’t read the book, it was nearly impossible to follow. I’ve never read The Long Goodbye (I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely), but the film never had to skirt around the darker elements of the story although it also never felt the need to hammer things home in completely ham-fisted trite ways either. This is a Chandler adaptation that captures the spirit of the novels like no other film before or after.

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And, of course, The Big Lebowski couldn’t exist without The Long Goodbye. If The Big Lebowski‘s story is ripped whole-sale from The Big Sleep, it’s visual style is taken directly from this film, and I was honestly stunned by the number of direct visual shout-outs I was able to pick up on just from my first viewing of The Long Goodbye. All of the devil-may-care satire that Robert Altman crams into this film would ultimately be perfected by the Coens in their cult magnum opus. And unlike many later Altman films (i.e. Gosford Park), the film never gets bogged down with so much dialogue that you never quite know who to pay attention to although Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue is still present.

For fans of the 1970s neo-noir renaissance, including gems like Chinatown (arguably the greatest American film ever made) and Arthur Penn’s criminally underappreciated Night Moves, The Long Goodbye should be required viewing. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe may never capture the public’s imagination the way Humphrey Bogart did, but there’s a drug-fueled logic to his performance and the entire film that is there for the taking if you allow yourself to get lost in the nearly surrealist atmosphere that Altman cultivates. Alongside the film version of M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye is one of the crown jewels in the career of one of America’s most innovate filmmakers.

Final Score: A

 

Vertigo1It is one of my great hopes for this blog that I watch an established Hollywood classic that I had seen for the first time when I was younger and didn’t particularly enjoy and suddenly find myself transformed by the film’s power upon this viewing where my tastes have matured after three years of reviewing films. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. Although I’ve watched films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey which I loathed as a teenager but appreciated their technical merits as an adult, I’ve yet to find a film that I’ve completely changed my mind about. 1958’s Vertigo, long considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, is the closest one of these films has come yet, but it, too, falls short.

Vertigo is the easy answer for most critics when asked to name Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (my money is on Rear Window or North by Northwest), and it was recently named the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound critic and director’s poll. When I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was an almost irredeemable bore, and now, a month shy of being 25, I still think that’s true. For the first hour and forty minutes. Then, the film’s major twist is revealed and Vertigo starts picking up momentum. And it closes out on one of the best final sequences of any film ever (the only ending that immediately springs to mind as being better is Cinema Paradiso). I just wish the first hour and forty minutes weren’t slower than Jordan Belfort on one too many Quaaludes.

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John “Scottie” Ferguson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is a retired police detective who has developed a crippling case of acrophobia, the fear of heights, after he is indirectly responsible for the falling death of a fellow policeman. Scottie’s acrophobia has developed itself as a dizzying vertigo that appears any time he’s near heights. After Scottie’s retirement from the police force, he is asked by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to shadow the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because Gavin believes that Madeleine has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Spanish countess. But the truth is far stranger as Scottie begins to fall in love with the woman he’s meant to follow.

I won’t ruin any more of the plot of Vertigo for those who have somehow managed to not see this film over the years. Not that Vertigo goes out of its way to hide the film’s most famous plot twist. Viewers know what’s really going on half an hour before Scottie finds out. But, the transformations, both real and imagined, that occur in the film’s closing acts make up for the turgid spell that comes before. And if you don’t know what’s really happening with Madeleine, Scottie, and a new friend Scottie makes later on, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you.

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Vertigo is a Hitchcock film, and from beginning to end, it looks it which makes the film soporific first half a little easier to swallow. Hitchcock’s camera is light and fluid (much credit must be given to cinematographer, Robert Burks), and there are extended sections of the film with little to no dialogue where Hitchcock lets the story unfold through the sheer power of image. It’s fascinating and, for technically minded viewers, a treat to watch a film-maker who understood the value of composition better than any director since Sergei Eisenstein. But, somewhere along the lines, the pretty camera work grows stale, and you keep waiting for the story to finally kick in.

And therein lies Vertigo‘s most fatal sin. It’s opening stretch is vital to establishing the film’s powerful pay-off, but it all unfolds at such a languid pace. Scenes last too long. Hitchcock floods the scenes with so much compositional detail, and they certainly invite the viewer into Vertigo‘s world, but they are just bandages masking weak storytelling. Scottie is a flat character for 60% of the film, until he isn’t and that leads to the film’s astounding denouement. Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience any glimpses of the darkness simmering beneath his surface beforehand.

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But, when Jimmy Stewart is finally given real material to work with, he pulls one of cinema’s all time “against type” performances out of it. Dark, possessive, angry, paranoid. These aren’t adjectives we ever use to describe Stewart who is one of the definitive All-American movie stars. But Scottie takes a tumble down a well of pitch-black, misogynistic darkness, and Jimmie Stewart’s performance is rightfully one of the truly iconic performances in Hollywood’s history. Kim Novak is also marvelous as the mysterious Madeleine, and Madeleine is certainly one of Hitchcock’s greatest female creations.

I would talk about what makes the final sequence so brilliant (and so deliciously subversive of the feminine identity roles of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as the traditional values of masculine heroes), but I don’t want to spoil what happens in the film’s closing moments. Had the first half of the film been half as good as it’s second half, this would clearly be one of the true greatest movies of all time. As it is, it finishes on a note of absolute perfection that few films have since touched, but it isn’t enough to excuse the film’s unfortunately dull start.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’ve generally thought that the school of film criticism thought which says you should judge a film by the standards of when it was released is… and pardon my French… horse shit. From a technical perspective, The Birth of a Nation remains an astounding masterpiece, but its politics are as abhorrent today as they were in 1915. From the opposite end of the spectrum, yes, there are elements of Rebel Without a Cause which seem dated by modern standards, but its portrayal of teen angst (and subtle homoeroticism) has a universal, timeless appeal. The best movies are great no matter when they were made, and films that are simply great for their time are really only of interest to students of film history. 1948’s The Naked City plays hopscotch with my feelings on the matter. As one of Hollywood’s first great crime procedurals shot on location, it broke new ground in many ways, and while a healthy portion of the film has lost its luster over the years, the movie’s cinematography and tone kept me engaged through out and it remains a highly enjoyable proto-noir.

The Naked City was directed by French director Jules Dassin, most famous his French crime thriller, Rififi, though The Naked City couldn’t be more American, specifically more New Yorker, if it tried. There’s a lengthy montage at the beginning of the film where the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger, explains that the movie was primarily shot on-location in the streets of Manhattan (and other boroughs as the movie progresses) and it lends an almost documentary feel to most of the film’s exterior shots. Though there are campy elements to the actual crime procedural at the heart of the film (it can’t decide if it wants to be hard-boiled noir or a light mystery), when the film is outside and walking the streets of the Big Apple, you feel lost in the titular naked city and no film before and few since have so aptly captured the chaos and everyday street life of New York City.

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After clothing store model Jean Dexter is found murdered in her high-rise apartment bath tub, old school NYPD homocide detective Dan Muldoon (Going My Way‘s Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to investigate the case. Though Dexter’s murder is staged to look like a drowning, Muldoon quickly deduces (I know I’m using that word wrong like Sherlock does) that it was murder, and the hunt begins to figure out who would kill the beautiful model. Muldoon is joined by his young and fresh-faced partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who gets to do all of the real leg work of the case, with an emphasis on leg work. And when Muldoon and Halloran find a handsome young swindler named Frank Niles (Howard Duff), they realize that there’s more to this case than they ever expected.

I don’t want to say any more and ruin the pleasure of diving into the twists and turns of The Naked City for the first time even though it’s a 66 year old movie. Because most of the pleasure of watching the film is watching one of the first really detailed crime procedurals in the cinema. This isn’t a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade-style detective story. There are no tough guy private eyes. It’s a group of cops working leads and interrogating suspects. Only occasionally do hunches lead to major breakthroughs in the case. In fact, it’s safe to say that future movies like Zodiac or TV shows like The Wire owe their existence to The Naked City even if they would ultimately do the things The Naked City does, only better. And, unlike most modern crime procedurals (I’m looking at you Law & Order), the investigation rarely begins to feel stale.

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I’m not sure if The Naked City technically qualifies as a film noir even if it’s generally lumped in with most of the proto-noir films of the late 1940s. The movie feels a little too light-hearted at times to be true noir, but one can’t doubt the film’s cinematography carrying that noir banner. It is gorgeous. As mentioned earlier, the film’s exterior and on-location shots are stunning enough considering how rare they were for the time, but even the indoor shots make perfect use of shadow and striking composition. Jules Dassin is one of the film-makers most associated with inspiring the directors of the French New Wave, and his innovative camera techniques are on display throughout the whole film. For fans of cinematography, that aspect of The Naked City is worth your time alone.

Charming performances from Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor also help ease the film along. I doubt that Dan and Jimmy are cinema’s original old/young cop partner pair, but, I’m hard-pressed to name any from this era that were as immediately likeable and compelling. In one of the film’s sadly rare character driven moments, Jimmy comes home from work to spend some time with his wife, and you get a peek behind the veil of these cop’s lives. In fact, if the movie had spent even a little more time diving into the lives of its leads, it may have truly been a real classic rather than falling just short. Barry Fitzgerald (the only redeeming part of the abysmal Going My Way) was particularly appealing as the aged Muldoon, and I wanted to know more about this wizened cop veteran.

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And that lack of attachment to the characters ultimately proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald make us care about their detectives through sheer force of performance and charm. The writing has nothing to do with it. Throw in an omni-present voice-over narration that vacillates between clever and too obvious, and The Naked City becomes unfortunately hit or miss for much of its running time. When the movie is hitting all of the right notes, it never quite reaches the heights of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street but it’s a hell of a great time. One can only wish that the movie was able to maintain a high level of quality and interest from beginning to end, which it sadly can not.

Final Score: B+

 

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Rarely do “horror” or “thriller” film seriously deal with complex and abstract emotional states of mind. Even most psychological thrillers tend to pay lip service only to the emotions of paranoia or fear. That’s about as emotionally deep a well as they are willing to dig. So, perhaps it’s the film’s devastating look into grief and a crumbling marriage, but 1973’s Don’t Look Now is a supernatural thriller unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen (even if Rosemary’s Baby is the immediate and obvious comparison). Director Nicolas Roeg’s manic film is a proto-Lynchean thriller as that serves as an exercise in impressionistic and surrealistic horror.

Though it’s a leisurely paced film (or so you might think at first glance), Don’t Look Now expertly wraps the viewer in an almost endless wave of dread and anxiety. With hyper-kinetic editing that owed a great deal to the French New Wave, the film jostles the audience along in a foreign land and with inexplicable phenomena so that one may never truly gain his bearing. And thanks to the film’s masterful pay-off, you don’t feel as if you’re just being jerked along. Don’t Look Now requires a sizable investment of patience and observation. One can not half-watch the film, but as this traumatic tale concludes, you realize you’ve been rewarded with a truly stellar ghost story.

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When a burgeois couple, American  John Baxter (The Hunger Games‘s Donald Sutherland) and his British wife Laura (Julie Christie), lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident, they move to Venice so they can escape any reminders of their horrific loss (and so that John can help renovate a Venetian church). However, at a restaurant, Laura meets two elderly British sisters, one of which is blind. The blind sister claims to be a psychic medium and that she can see the Baxters’ dead daughter. It isn’t a happy vision because the psychic gives an ominour warning that the Baxters must leave Venice because John’s life is now in danger.

It probably doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but it’s hard to reveal too much of the complex and tangled webs of the plot of Don’t Look Now without ruining the magic of discovering just what is happening beneath all of the premonitions and psychic claims. I spent the vast majority of the film (even up until its final moments) wondering just what in the hell was happening in this supernatural mystery, but when the light bulb finally clicked in my head, I was nearly bowled over by how well director Nicolas Roeg fused past, present, and future with fantasy, delusion, and just a hint of prophetic truth.

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I really can’t overstate how important the direction and editing of Don’t Look Now was on the overall quality of the film. This movie had to have been a considerable influence on the later works of David Lynch (particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.), and it’s embedded religious and sexual symbols and almost nausea-inducing flow dip the audience headfirst into a world where the difference between the sacred and the profane is almost non-existent. And, in the editing department, an excellent use of cross-cutting gives Don’t Look Now a very classy but also surprisingly explicit love scene that may very well be one of the sexiest love scenes in the history of cinema.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are both formidable in their roles. Though I haven’t found it hard to understand the dialogue of the film (the movie often felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation that I wasn’t allowed to hear every word of), when the camera was focused squarely on the suffering spouses, I couldn’t tear myself away. Sutherland and Christie both tap into the wrenching grief and anger that any parent would feel after losing a child, and in a locale where the city itself is slowly sinking (an important symbol of the film), Sutherland and Christie perfectly capture the last gasps of a marriage on the rocks.

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This may sound heretical, but I honestly think Don’t Look Now is a superior film to the more lauded and well-remembered Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, if there were a Polanski film that I could make the most positive comparisons to (even though they have little in common plot-wise), it’s Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion. I don’t think that Don’t Look Now will be for everyone. Some will likely find it unbearably dull (though if you do, you don’t have much of an imagination), but for those with the willingness to devote the mental energy to this film that it deserves, you will be rewarded with a truly unique horror experience that paved the way for some of the great modern thrillers of our age.

Final Score: A-

 

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“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s arguably the most important line from arguably one of the most important film of the 1970s. It’s the last meaningful line of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, but I can begin a review of the film with it because it manages not to spoil the cataclysmic event that has just occurred while at the same it manages to encapsulate the mood and style of the film in two clipped sentences. Among movie types, and especially among lovers of great screenplays, few films are as iconic as Chinatown. Robert Towne’s script is often heralded as the single greatest screenplay of all time. For aspiring screenwriters, it is introduction to screenwriting 101. And for director Roman Polanski (Repulsion), it is usually cited as the crowning achievement of his career. Few films can live up to the hype that surrounds every facet of Chinatown. Not only does Chinatown live up to its own hype, it exceeds them to simply be one of the greatest American films of all time.

Chinatown was Roman Polanski’s first film after the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate (as well as several family friends) at the hands of the Manson family (for more information on that terrible incident, I highly recommend Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime novel Helter Skelter). That’s an important piece of background information because the the senseless destruction in his personal life translates into one of cinema’s most evocative tales of despair, fatalism, and the darker realities of life. In fact, Robert Towne’s original screenplay was much lighter and Polanski made him change the ending to something much darker and tragic. Roman Polanski transforms the horrors of his own life into cinema’s starkest portrayal of inhumanity and simultaneously manages to deconstruct the entire film noir genre into its true, seedy building blocks.

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Robert Towne’s story for Chinatown is like marvelously constructed bit of modern architecture where a million tiny pieces keep this dizzying structure in place, but if you were to remove just one piece, the whole building would come crashing down. Jake Gittes (About Schmidt‘s Jack Nicholson) is a private detective specializing in catching spouses in moments of infidelity. A fastidiously dressed man, obsessed with his image, Jake is excellent at his job. In fact, it’s his talent for snooping into other people’s private lives that ends up getting him in trouble and tangled in a case that not only threatens his career but his very life. One day, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) appears in Jake’s office and asks him to see if her husband is having an affair. And thus, a tangled web of lies, deceit, and murder begins.

Working your way through the labyrinth of Chinatown’s script for your first time is one of a true cinephile’s great pleasures so I fret over spoiling too many aspects of the film. Let us throw down some basic building blocks then without revealing too much of what’s to come. Jake is great at what he does and it doesn’t take long before he catches Mr. Mulwray spending a day with a beautiful young girl. But, somebody steals his photos of the rendezvous and puts them in the paper. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) threatens to sue Jake for defaming her husband’s name but it isn’t long before Mr. Mulwray winds up dead in a reservoir. Jake wants to find out who set him and Mr. Mulwray up and along the way he stumbles into a web of public corruption more powerful than he could have ever imagined.

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I could harp on this for pages and pages and feel like I’ve already over-emphasized it, but Robert Towne’s screenplay is the real star of the film (though virtually every other facet of the film is practically flawless as well and is what makes the film such a timeless classic). Whenever you hear someone talk about the fundamental dynamics of a functional screenplay, Chinatown has all of them. From the opening images of the film down to its shocking denouement, Chinatown never wastes a second. Every line and every action has meaning. There is no filler. Even seemingly minor incidents come back in massive ways. In fact, most people’s second viewing of Chinatown will be spent marveling at all of the subtle and easy-to-miss foreshadowing that Towne accomplishes in the first couple of acts. This is a thinking man’s mystery that only gets more enjoyable upon repeated viewings.

It also doesn’t hurt that Chinatown is both an exercise in film noir mastery but it also manages to drop a ten megaton nuclear bomb on every film noir cliche that came before. Similar (but superior) to Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Night Moves, Jake is a a three-dimensional figure. Rather than being a vision of honor in a world of seedy gangsters and dangerous femme fatales, Jake is just a guy doing his job that cares a little too much what others think about him. He’s got a soft spot for dames, and he just can’t let things go. But for all of the ways that Chinatown darkens and expands on the foundations that classic noir left before it, it still does all of the crime-solving and mystery-unraveling better than anything else out there. Thanks to the breadcrumbs of clues that Towne distributes, the slow series of revelations throughout the film never seems forced or beyond belief.

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If you’ve ever seen a Roman Polanski film before, whether it’s Tess or Rosemary’s Baby or any of his other classic films, it’s very obvious that Polanski is a very visual film maker and Chinatown is no exception. The movie is very fond of long, long takes. The average take in a film (even back in the 70s when the takes were longer) was about four or five seconds. Chinatown‘s takes are often somewhere between 30 seconds and a full minute. There’s a certain technical wizardry involved in almost every shot of the film and Chinatown was one of the first great noir films shot in color. And, even without the help of black and white, Chinatown still makes great use of the shadows and soft lighting that defined the noir genre before. But at the end of the day, what stuck with me the most visually with the film were the long takes which heightened the immersion of the film to a massive degree.

And just to be the icing on the well-directed, masterfully-written cake, the performances are all highly impressive. Jack Nicholson gives easily one of the top five performances of an already peerless career as the beleaguered J. J. Gittes. Jake is cocky, charming, smooth, a little bit racist, and all-around kind of a dick. However, the role lacks any of the manic energy you often associate with Jack Nicholson (i.e. in The Shining). And so, you get to see how talented Nicholson can be even when he has to be restrained and subtle. It’s one of my favorite “change of pace” roles from one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men. Also, perhaps as a young person, I’m just so used to seeing “old man Jack Nicholson,” but watching Chinatown, you are immediately and constantly reminded why Nicholson was an iconic sex symbol and notorious ladies man. He’s able to be a charmer even with a massive bandage covering his nose.

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Faye Dunaway provides easily one of the definitive femme fatale performances in all of film noir. It is as important to the genre as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But what makes Dunaway’s performance one of the greatest of all time is, perhaps, helped by the script which slowly unravels the onion of her character, but also because Dunaway finds the dualistic nature that composes the haunted and almost broken Evelyn. It’s really a shame that Mommy Dearest ruined her career because she was one of the all-time great female leads. Legendary director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) also provides a stunning turn as Evelyn’s evil and very powerful father, Noah Cross.

It is entirely possible that I have now overhyped this film for any of my reviewers who have somehow managed to get this far in their lives and still have not seen Chinatown. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and those expectations are a little hard to match. I hope you ultimately feel the same way about it as I do. Just a little over a week removed from my “A+” score for Glengarry Glen Ross, we’re back here again for Chinatown. Both films deserve  perfect marks. What’s crazy is that either today or tomorrow, I have to watch The Godfather: Part 1 and within a week or so, I’ll be watching The Godfather: Part 2. That likely means that we’re going to have the most “A+”s in a single 50 block unit of movies that I’ve had since 2011. I’m excited about it though.

Final Score: A+

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(Quick reminder before I start this review. I just want to remind all of my regular readers that I have another film studies class this semester. And it’s all gangster movies. And we’re starting with the classics. That’s why there’s two James Cagney movies in such short succession like this. The last was The Public Enemy and now we’ve moved on nearly twenty years to a film that’s just as influential and celebrated. But more on that later. That little aside was for anyone who might be getting burnt out on the gangster movies. And I hate to tell you, but The Untouchables is the next thing in my Netflix Instant queue. But that’s the random blog gods. Not my class. Seacrest out.)

“Made it, ma! Top of the world!” It’s one of the most famous (and misquoted) lines in all of cinematic history from one of the medium’s most famous closing scenes. And it comes from a heralded classic of both the gangster and film noir genres (though by the mid 1940s, the two were inseparable). Director Raoul Walsh’s 1949 crime epic, White Heat, contains one of the most legendary villainous performances in film history from James Cagney as a man at the top of his game, and having seen two of his films in short succession, it’s easy to say that he may be one of the most influential performers of all time. Though certain aspects of White Heat devolve into a dull police procedural, this film easily represents one of the high watermarks of the entire gangster genre, and Cagney’s explosive performance (visual pun intended) cements his legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men.

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White Heat is the masterfully constructed tale of the psychotic and mama-obsessed Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). Leader of a group of then modern day bandits, Cody Jarrett is a mentally unhinged murderous madman with the mother of all oedipal complexes (once again, pun sort of intended) thanks to his equally evil mother, Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly). When Cody, Ma, and Cody’s gold-digging wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) finally realize they’re trapped by the law, Cody concocts a plan to get himself sent to jail for a different crime than the one he’s being accused of (to make an alibi for the actual capitol offense). But the police know the truth, and they send in undercover cop Hank Fallon (A Double Life‘s Edmond O’Brien) to figure out where Cody’s stashed the money from his last heist and to catch Cody’s high-level fence. When Cody busts out of jail dragging Hank with him (as he’s become the only man Cody trusts), it all leads to a fiery finale.

If I thought Cagney was great in The Public Enemy, he just blew me away in this film. Alongside slowly unhinged performances like Nicholson in The Shining or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Cagney manages to envelope the audience in Cody Jarrett’s madness. With his headaches (and possible epilepsy) and schizophrenic mood, Cody Jarrett is a being of pure, destructive energy, and Cagney taps into something dark and deep to provide the chills. Without wanting to spoil a plot point, there’s a scene in the prison where Jarrett gets bad news that causes Jarrett to (pardon my french) flip the f*** out. He loses his shit. And none of the extras in the scene knew what Cagney was going to do. And the pure look of shock on their faces in that scene is real as they begin to wonder if James Cagney hasn’t already lost his damn mind.

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And unlike The Public Enemy, there were few if any botched supporting performances to bog the film down. Edmund O’Brien was surprisingly endearing as the undercover cop even as the scenes with his peers threatened to destroy the film’s pacing. Virginia Mayo was delightfully crude and vulgar as Cody Jarrett’s simple-minded femme not so fetale. Margaret Wyncherly was the perfect proto-Livia Soprano as Cody’s domineering and manipulative mother. In fact, Edmund O’Brien and Margaret Wyncherly brought so much presence to the film that although they weren’t able to compete with James Cagney for the audience’s undivided attention, they ensured that any scene focused on them didn’t leave you wishing that Cagney was still on screen.

And man. This film was violent. For a film from the Hays Code era, Warner Bros. really got away with a lot of (for the time) shocking scenes of destruction and wanton mayhem. Before the film started, my film studies professor put up the film’s total death count which was at 17. That may seem tame in an era of Die Hard‘s and zombie movie revivals, but for the time, they may have well just spent the whole film massacring cops and robbers. And Virginia Mayo’s Verna snores, drinks, spits out her gum and generally doesn’t act like a lady at all. It destroyed the notion of what a mother was supposed to be in classic cinema. And the film builds to an absolutely rousing climax that left me on the edge of my seat even though I more or less knew how it was all going to ultimately go down.

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And yeah, the parts that are told through the point of view of Hank Fallon’s partners in the feds aren’t as gripping as either Hank’s attempts to not be discovered by Cody Jarret or Cody’s simple attempts to stay alive and get his vengeance. But, for a film that is 63 years old, White Heat has aged spectacularly. After just two of his films, Cagney has proven to me why his legacy exists in the first place, and White Heat reminds me why film noir is a regular contender for my favorite film genre. This film is likely the peak of Cagney’s career and he probably never did anything half this good after this (I can’t remember any other high profile roles after this of his), and for real movie lovers, it’s a must-see. Gangster cinema at some of its finest.

Final Score: A-

(Quick aside before the actual review. Yet again. There’s a decent possibility we’re entering one of those rare [but beloved] periods on my blog where I review a bunch of really good movies in a row. Rashomon was excellent. The movie I’m about to review was also great. And the other movie I have at home is a Woody Allen film. Odds are that it will be good. I review such a wide range of films to ensure that I can practice reviewing movies I don’t like [since not every movie that a real critic reviews is a winner], but with how my blog’s list works, moments like these do happen every now and then. And thank god because they give me the energy to keep this blog going. When I review a bunch of movies in a row I don’t like, it sucks the energy out of me. End aside)

Is there anything worse than when one aspect of a film stops it from reaching perfection? There is. It’s when the aspect of the film that drags it down is an obvious (and unfortunate artifact) of the age said film was released in. Rebel Without a Cause (which I actually think is pretty much perfect so probably the wrong example to use here) had to be far too subtle about the homoerotic subtext between Sal Mineo’s Plato and James Dean’s Jim Stark. The ending of Double Indemnity the film (as opposed to the novel) was practically forced upon Billy Wilder by the Hays Code. The Hays Code remains as a fairly infamous reminder of a time when Hollywood was under strict scrutiny and any thing remotely morally subversive was doomed to wind up on the cutting room floor. The film noir classic Pickup On South Street came out at the end of the Hays era, but it’s absurd anti-Communist overtones mar an otherwise thrilling picture.


Pickup on South Street remains fresh 60 years later for a multitude of reasons (and even manages to make it’s Red Scare paranoia seem like a minor complaint). Without question, Pickup on South Street is one of the most brutal films of the Hays era that I’ve ever seen. Throw in its salacious sexual undertones, and it would appear that it was a miracle that it ever got made in the first place (much like Double Indemnity, there were many versions of the script that were deemed unacceptable by the Production Code office). Although it’s tame even by the standards of film that would get PG-13 ratings today, this film could pack more sexual sizzle into a roguish leer on the subway than some cheesy macho flick could with actual sex. More modern film makers could learn to operate by a less is more principle. One can only imagine what directors like Billy Wilder or Pickup on South Street‘s Samuel Fuller could have accomplished post-Code.

Candy (Jean Peters), an ex-prostitute, is on the subway when her wallet is nicked by two-bit pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Although Candy knows she’s delivering a package on behalf of her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), neither Candy nor Skip know that her wallet contained microfilm full of government secrets that Joey was planning on selling to Communist agents. After the feds, who were tailing Candy to bust the head Communist spies, and the local police try to lean on Skip to return the wallet’s contents (which they can’t prove he has in the first place), Skip gets wise to Communist plot. Despite falling for the tough-headed Candy, who uses her wiles to locate Skip herself not knowing she’s a pawn in espionage, Skip tries to play both sides to his advantage until his friend, a local snitch named Moe (Thelma Ritter), gets caught in the cross-fire.

From the film’s opening shot, you knew you were in for something special. It’s a long, complex scene with zero dialogue. As Skip gets on the train and unknowingly embroils himself in an international conspiracy, the camera frantically cuts back and forth between about four different faces. Every person we see has a motive. Candy wants to get to her drop-off without drawing any unwanted attention. Skip wants to distract Candy with his good looks so he can nick her wallet. And the two cops don’t want Candy or Skip to notice that they’re watching both of them. The sexual chemistry between Skip and Candy threatens to derail the entire picture in the first scene alone (and that’s before they know each other’s name or try to outmaneuver the other sexually to stay ahead). As Fuller cuts back and forth between their faces, you know this is a film that was hell-bent on crossing what “the line” meant in the early 1950s.

Richard Widmark was everything you’d want in a film noir anti-hero (and the exact opposite of every complaint I had about Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity). Never really becoming a good guy even after becoming the hero of the story, Skip is cocky, a rake, and only out for himself. He cares about people. He surely cares about Moe and even defends her when Candy lets Skip know that Moe was the one to rat him out. His attraction to Candy leads to the film’s violent climax. Yet, at the end of the day, he’s a thief and the little glimmer he gets in his eye as he nicks Candy’s purse or takes a gun off a Communist spy in a moving subway shines as bright as anything else in the film. For a textbook example of how to play a prideful but talented con man, you need not look much further than Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street.

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called her a bland punching bag in the paper’s original 1953 review, but Jean Peters should join the pantheon of the great troubled dames of film noir. She may not have the ice cold veins of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (the film I can’t seem to help keep making comparisons to), but as a tough broad who gets caught up in a mess beyond her wildest dreams, she shines. It’s no wonder that her hard-edge and sensuality are enough to soften the armor surrounding Skip McCoy. She may not have Stanwyck’s dark side, but she can go toe-to-toe with the all time great femme fatales in the sexual heat department. She just has to flash her doe eyes and strut her flirtatious walk to get every man’s attention. While the script never came right out and said she used to be a hooker, context clues and Jean Peters’ knowing face  told the audience everything they needed.

The remaining stand-out performance was the Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter as the elderly stool pigeon Moe. In a film full to the brim of fast-talkers, Moe still seemed like the blue-print for all motor-mouth hustlers to come. Whether it’s her wounded pride when Candy calls her a “stoolie” or her showmanship selling cheap ties as her front as a snitch, Ritter captures both the tiredness that Moe feels towards “the game” as well as her constant scheming and survivalism. There’s a truly wonderful scene (that also simultaneously manages to be one of the movie’s most ridiculous moments but more on that later) where Joey shows up at Moe’s place to question her about Skip’s whereabouts that Ritter truly imbues Moe with the world-weary hustler pathos that is slowly weighing this old woman down.

Much like The Grifters, the dialogue in Pickup on South Street pops with an authentic vitality. The film almost never slows down to explain to the audience the myriad street crime/police slang terms that flow out of the protagonists mouth like water. Too many films insult the audience’s intelligence by assuming we can’t keep up with insider dialogue, but Pickup On South Street trusts the audience’s ability to use context clues. It makes the film feel like the ultimate pulp dime novel turned into a film, and for aficionados of the film noir genre, it’s an aural delight. The film absolutely drips with the perfect combination of intellectual and masculine energy that it gets your blood pumping while simultaneously stimulating your deep-seated desires for an inside look at the seedier underbelly of the 1950s.

But then, there’s the anti-Communism hysterics which threaten (but fail) to distract from an otherwise remarkable picture. In the same scene where Joey confronts Moe (and she gives an excellent speech about how tired she’s become), this same stool pigeon, who was willing to sell out her friend for $50, won’t talk to Joey cause he’s a Red. Just thinking about what she says is almost enough to make chuckle. She says she doesn’t know much about Commies, but she knows one thing. “I just don’t like ’em.” The whole film is painted with this whole anti-Red McCarthyist tinge, and it gets increasingly absurd. Just about the only manner in which the film averts brow-beating jingoism is with Skip who doesn’t care that Joey is a Commie. He’s upset because he kills Moe and slaps around Candy.

For all film noir fans, it’s a no-brainer. Pickup On South Street may not have the name recognitions of the Maltese Falcons or Double Indemnitys of the world, but it’s nearly as good. It’s a tough, smart, sexy movie that skirts the production rules of the era like few films before it. So, as long as you aren’t a Red (or aren’t a liberal that can’t look past the cultural era the film was made which produces it’s one unfortunate flaw), head on down to dark alleys and crowded subways of New York City. Just make sure you keep an eye on your purse/wallet. Skip McCoy might be hanging around waiting to nick it from you.

Final Score: A

With 1965’s Repulsion, Roman Polanski proved himself to be the master of psycho-sexual horror. While the film took a while to get off it’s feet (apparently a trademark of Polanski pictures), few films have left me feeling so completely disturbed. With the unsettling subversions of Freudian sexual iconography (let’s not get into the hand’s extending from the walls) as well perversions of Catholic imagery, Repulsion transcended Catherine Deneuve’s stilted acting to scare the holy hell out of generations of viewers. Polanksi’s 1968 classic, Rosemary’s Baby, is far more well-known although ultimately less satisfying. It can be genuinely eerie and Polanski’s stylistic direction is as memorable as ever. But even more so than the tepidly paced Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby tests the patience of its viewers and Mia Farrow’s performance is underwhelming to say the least.

At a conceptual level, Rosemary’s Baby could have even eclipsed the psychological mind-games of Repulsion. It was only in the actual execution where it really faltered. Struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) and his stay at home wife Rosemary (Radio Days‘ Mia Farrow) have just rented a room in a fancy apartment with a dark and storied past in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They have two neighbors on their floor, the kindly but eccentric Castavets, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer). Guy and Rosemary want to have a baby, and after Rosemary has a nightmare where she’s raped by a demon as naked occultists (including her husband and the Castavets) watch. Shortly thereafter, Rosemary finds out she’s pregnant and slowly comes to the conclusion that her husband and neighbors are conspiring to hurt her and her baby. Is it real or is it all in her head?

One can applaud Polanski’s attempt to delay the introduction of any of the horror or thriller elements to the story if it meant he had spent the beginning of the film developing the characters in a meaningful way. That isn’t what happens. Although the film makes liberal use of foreshadowing (Rosemary’s old landlord detailing the history of their new apartment building, eerie chanting at night, the sudden suicide of a younger neighbor), the film makes you wait for any real plot development. And that time isn’t spent making us sympathize or understand Rosemary and Guy. Though it’s obvious Guy is a bit flippant and sarcastic, all you really learn about Rosemary throughout the entire film is that she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to take care of her unborn child. Compared to Polanski heroines like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, she is as one-dimensional as you can imagine.

However, from the second that Tess has her nightmare involving her rape by Satan, you realize you’re still in the world of Roman Polanski (pre-the murder of his wife by Charles Manson). During Rosemary’s multiple dream sequences (the film has Rosemary dream multiple times so that you are never really sure whether her nightmare was real or a dream), the film gains a surreal, Lynchian quality (though I suppose, since Polanski came first, it’s insulting to compare him to Lynch) that breaks the monotony of much of the rest of the film. Whether it’s a sudden stylistic shift where the film looks like it was shot on home video, or using hand-held cameras (Polanski was highly influenced by the French New Wave), Polanski infects the viewers with the same unease and paranoia that’s gripping the young and increasingly unhinged Rosemary.

Mia Farrow comes off (similar to Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls) as slightly touched in the head and not quite in the way the role calls for. With her high-pitched voice, affected manner of speech, and general obliviousness to the world around her, you sometimes wonder if she’s a little disabled mentally. Although you innately sympathize with Rosemary’s situation (her doctor ignores her severe pregnancy pains, her husbands claims that the night of her demon nightmare he had sex with her while she was asleep), her performance alienates you because she seems so detached from the situation happening around her. It’s almost as if Mia Farrow doesn’t realize the severity of what’s going on in Rosemary’s world as her two modes are passive obliviousness or campish over-acting. She never finds a balance between the two.

Thankfully, the rest of the supporting performances are top-notch. Ruth Gordon excels as the nosy, talkative, and flamboyant Minnie Castevet. When she whirls into a scene, you may not catch every word out of her motor mouth, but you’ll certainly know she’s acting circles around everyone else in the scene. I’ve heard some call her performance “hammy” but it’s what the role called for. I haven’t seen any of the other nominees but Ruth Gordon’s Oscar seems well-deserved. John Cassavetes is a proto-Don Draper (with an even darker side) as the glib and narcissistic Guy. Sidney Blackmer also nails the difficult part of simultaneously being a kindly grandfather figure as well as an ominous, foreboding menace. The interplay between the three lead supporting stars is wonderful and nearly makes up for the non-presence of the actual star.

The film’s decision to wait until the very last scene to reveal whether Rosemary was crazy or actually at the center of a Satanic conspiracy was well-played (and assuages the primary complaint I have with The Exorcist). Although I would have certainly preferred the film to come down on the other side of conclusion it followed through on, the film’s last twist at least made the ending more bearable. While the film gives Rosemary plenty of evidence that she’s part of some plot, most of it sounds like crazy conspiracy theory talk if you look at it too deeply. Polanski gives you ample reason to believe that perhaps Rosemary is just got a few screws loose (and with Mia Farrow’s addled performance, it’s easy to believe it). Although the film can get a little too heavy-handed with its occult symbolism (666 makes numerous appearances), the film will leave you torn as to what’s real and what’s imaginary.

For classic horror fans, Rosemary’s Baby‘s place in the established canon makes it required viewing. It’s fans often see an undercurrent of feminist commentary (which would be in line with Polanski’s body of work) on the isolation and mistreatment of modern women, but I didn’t really catch that. I can see why people believe it’s there, but I don’t necessarily buy that was Polanski’s plan all along. At the end of the day, Rosemary’s Baby is a psychological thriller with enough truly inspired moments to warrant recommendation but at the same time, it is burdened by enough troublesome flaws that it doesn’t come whole-heartedly.

Final Score: B-

 

Back when I reviewed the “classic” WW II movie The Longest Day, I talked about how a lot of the politically-tinged films of that era were are almost nothing more than jingoistic propaganda. The Longest Day itself wasn’t quite that anvilicious, but overbearing political talking points for the government were (and to an extent still are) a common part of so-called “message” films back in the day. Nowadays, there aren’t industry rules in place keeping studios from making political films that disagree with the government. As a modern day liberal pacifist, when I go back and watch obvious jingoistic propaganda films, it makes me a little bit sick to my stomach that great artists were basically selling their souls to make a quick buck. It’s really frustrating when there’s a halfway decent film beneath all of the obvious shilling. Such is the case with Fritz Lang’s political thriller, Man Hunt, a film that was released on the eve of World War II. The core tale of a man on the run for his life from the Gestapo was a passable if not exceptional tale of spy antics, but with its ludicrously over the top ending and almost cartoonish depiction of the Third Reich, Man Hunt has simply not aged well at all (especially compared to another film from the 40s that I’ve watched in the last 24 hours, Double Indemnity).

Months before Germany and England declare war on each other, the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain and Germany’s own imperialistic military ambitions mean that the uneasy peace between the nations could be shattered at the slightest incident. When British ex-military man and now leisurely big game hunter Capt. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) decides to hunt the biggest game of all, his actions threaten to shatter the peace once and for all. On what he claims is a “sporting stalk” (which means he puts a target in his gun sights with no intention of pulling the trigger), Thorndike manages to get none other than the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler himself, in his gun sights (and even dry pulls the trigger [which means there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber]) when he’s caught by the Fuhrer’s guards. A Nazi intelligence officer wants to use Thorndike’s stupidity as an excuse to start a war with the British (and gain international support for it) by having Thorndike sign a confession to an intentional assassination attempt of Adolph Hitler and that he was acting under the orders of the British government. When he refuses again and again (even after being tortured), his captors try to make it look like he killed himself. However, he escapes and with the help of a young boy on a steam boat (The Poseidon Adventure‘s Roddy McDowell) and a young British prostitute (Joan Bennett), he leads the Gestapo on a chase through London as he tries to clear his name and escape the claws of the German machine.

Up until the end, Man Hunt was an enjoyable if generally unremarkable film. There was nothing about any of the performances (except for perhaps George Sanders as the Nazi intelligence officer) that was especially striking. The film was shot in fairly conventional fashion and the script took where you expected it to go. There was some slight stuff in there about the British class system (very, very slight), and perhaps some commentary about how much the British were being pussies about Hitler before he invaded Poland, but other than that, there just really wasn’t a whole lot happening in this film besides the plot which followed conventional “chase” film fare. However, it had its own nostalgic, innocent value at times. I really like a lot of the heroes from older thriller films. They’ve got a lot more steel in their spines and conviction in their beliefs than contemporary heroes (which is perhaps why contemporary great characters are better than most of the classic great heroes. The new characters are more complicated), but their innocent simplicity has its charm. But, boy, did this film’s end just drag the whole movie off a total cliff. Had it ended about two or three minutes before the real ending, this movie could have been a “B-” meaning I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t great or even particularly good. However, let’s just say that its ending was so Goebbels-esque in its over-the-top pro-war propaganda and calling British men to action that it ruined a lot of the rest of the film.

I’m going to keep this review short because Game of Thrones comes on in half an hour and I want to eat a little bit before it comes on. Man Hunt was never going to be a great film, but it had some good things going for it, and I know that Fritz Lang is a better director than this. M. and Metropolis are all-time classics. It’s a shame that Man Hunt threw away all of its artistic credibility away at the end of the film. If you enjoy classic political thrillers, you may find something to enjoy about this movie, but if you get irritated when political messages are awkwardly tacked on to films that seem to have no natural fit with the rest of the picture, you’ll probably get as frustrated with Man Hunt as I did. Outside of that niche of movie fans, the rest of you can pass.

Final Score: C+

Have you ever had a dream where you were so scared that you couldn’t speak. You were so immobilized with fear that no sound would come out of you. It is a terrifying feeling to be in danger and know that you have no way of alerting others to your plight. This is why isolation and loneliness are such major themes of so many horror films. The films hope to prey on that most basic of human fears and use it to enhance the sense of terror from whoever the film’s villain may be, whether this is Michael Meyers, Jason Vorhees, or random strangers terrorizing you and your wife in a cabin. In 1946’s The Spiral Staircase, this terrifying sense of helpless vulnerability is taken to its logical extreme by making the  endangered heroine mute and showing that without one’s voice, we are as shieldless among others as we are alone if no one can hear us scream. Alas, a fairly predictable and conventional plot are saddled with the additional burdens of hammy over-acting and the subtlety of a wrecking ball, but thankfully, the film’s cinematography is simply gorgeous and saves what would have otherwise been a terribly mediocre picture.

In The Spiral Staircase, Dorothy McGuire plays Helen Capel, a mute serving girl caring for the elderly Mrs. Warren (an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore) in her massive estate. The film begins by setting up the major conflict of the film which is that a serial killer has been murdering all of the disabled women in town and has just murdered a crippled woman in her hotel room. Everyone in town believes that Helen will be next, and so she is under strict orders not to leave the mansion of the large family she takes care of. Rounding out the cast are George Brent as Mrs. Warren’s son, a professor, and the virtual patriarch of the mansion as Mrs. Warren is very ill and bed-ridden, Kent Smith as the local doctor who loves Helen, and Gordon Oliver as Professor Warren’s womanizing stepbrother. As the night progresses, we soon see how any of these men could potentially be the killer, and slowly but surely, the killer begins to make his move to take out the defenseless Helen.

Despite the heavy-handed nature of the story which tried to sell you so obviously on certain characters being the killer that you knew it wasn’t them, this film was shot in a stunning black-and-white and the effective camera-work made even the most obviously red-herring scenes more tense than the actual final stand-off. The film did some really creative things in terms of composition of shots such as some scenes being shot as reflected off of an eyeball. It’s been done to death these days, but in the 1940’s, that was a fairly revolutionary technique and it works. Also, the shadow work was phenomenal and it did an extraordinary amount to sell the tension and grimness of the proceedings. Ethel Barrymore was always shot in such a way as to make her seem like an even more ill and crazy version of Miss Havisham from David Lean’s version of Great Expectations.

For fans of classic crime thrillers, this is definitely a must watch as it will throw in virtually every trope and cliche of the murder mystery genre. At one point a character says that the killer could be anyone in the room, and I almost started laughing because no one says that line in a serious voice these days. This film hails from a more innocent and less refined time, and as an initial foray into some light psychological thrills, the movie definitely has some value. For those who require the complexity and ambiguity of modern thrillers, you may find this film to be hopelessly ham-fisted but one must always remember to analyze old films in the context of their times and not necessarily by today’s standards. I’m not able to forgive the acting which was pretty over-the-top all around except for maybe Ethel Barrymore, so that’s the only truly awful part of the film. All in all though, if you’re looking for a good thrill that you’ve never seen before, you could do worse than The Spiral Staircase.

Final Score: B-