Tag Archive: Film Noir


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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

 

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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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“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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Some times, you know love a movie ten minutes in. From the opening shots of J.J. Gittes’s well-maintained (but somehow seedy and desperate) office in Chinatown, I knew I was going to love that movie. From the first bit of dialogue between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction in the diner, I knew I loved that movie. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, I may not even realize I loved a film until a day after I watched it. That’s what happened with Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. Arthur Penn’s now seminal neo-noir classic Night Moves is the definition of a slow burning film but when you reach its explosive pay-off, it’s all worth it.

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a hell of a private detective but not much of a man in his private life. The same sure-eyed obsession that helps him always solve his cases isolates him from his wife (who’s having an affair) and any thing resembling a social life. So, all he has to look forward to is the thrill of the chase and basking in the glory days of his short-lived professional football career. When Harry gets a job trying to find the missing daughter (Melanie Griffiths) of a faded movie starlet, he finds himself thrown into a case that not only threatens to destroy the last strands of his relationship with his life but could pose a threat to his very life when it turns out that nothing is remotely what it seems.

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Along with Roman Polanski/Robert Towne’s Chinatown, this was one of the most important film noir movies that established character development as key to the success of the genre. Although the Sam Spades and Phillip Marlowe’s of the world were archetypes of honor in seedy worlds, they were almost devoid actual character and depth. More time is spent exploring what makes Harry Moseby tick in this film than is spent on the actual criminal investigation in the case. In fact, the case seems almost so secondary to this film that I couldn’t put my finger on what the point was of the whole film until all of the pieces gelled together for the film’s spectacular finale.

And carrying the weight of the film’s psychological complexity is the masterful turn from Gene Hackman as the schmuck of a detective. He thinks he’s the type of honorable man that Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe turned out to be, but in reality, he’s in it for reasons as personal and self-centered as those he despises. And Hackman, who was reaching the crest of middle age, finds the world-weariness and tired edge that defines Harry as much as his marital woes and his professional tenacity. And throw in great turns from Melanie Griffiths, James Wood, and Jennifer Warren, and you have a delightfully acted film.

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The film is as dark and brooding as they get, and if one thinks about the era where the film was made, the jaded cynicism and pessimism that lies at the core of the film is the perfect summation of post-Watergate angst and paranoia. The world of Night Moves is one of corruption, despair, and greed, and even the characters least touched by vice aren’t spared by the costs of the inequities of others. No one is innocent and everyone suffers. The suffering just catches up to some characters sooner or later.

I didn’t actually think I was enjoying Night Moves that much until well past the hour mark in the film. The plot meanders at a snail-like pace for a while until you realize just how perfectly the screenwriter was setting up the pieces for its denouement. But when it all comes together, you get a feel for how structurally sound a film this was and you almost get mad at yourself for questioning what has come before. Still, on a first watch, you may find yourself turned off by the film’s initial tepid pace. Let me promise you that if you invest the time in this movie, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best mystery films of the 1970s.

Final Score: A-

 

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Muddled films with a ferocious lead performance are perhaps the most disappointing films on the planet. When the audience finds itself so lost in the transformative bravado of the star only to be pulled out of the magic by a weak script or cockeyed direction, it seems to burn more than other lesser films. Sadly, it’s a common thread on this blog and throughout Hollywood. Great performances in otherwise “meh” films stand out and then draw attention to the rest of the film’s weaknesses. George Cukor’s 1947 psychological drama A Double Life falls prey to this problem though thankfully not as badly as other pictures (*cough* The Help *cough*). Star Ronald Colman gives a career-defining performance as the mentally deteriorating leading man but the script often takes a turn for the silly and much of the material has aged in an almost comically poor manner.

Anthony Johns (Ronald Colman) is the ultimate method actor. One of the most celebrated stage performers of his day, he completely loses himself in the characters he brings to life in the theatre. The catch is that Johns can’t leave the characters on stage when the curtains rise each not. If he’s making a comedy, he’s jovial and friendly. If he’s in a drama, he’s moody and petulant. His dedication to his characters cost him his marriage to the beautiful Brita (Signe Hasso), though they maintain a friendship and are frequent stage partners. When Johns’ manager decides to put on a production of Othello, Johns finally begins to lose it once and for all as his grip on reality and his acting begins to disappear. When he believes that his ex-wife is romantically involved with her press agent, the only question left is will their love story end like the Moor of Venice and Desdemona… in murder.

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This is Ronald Colman’s film and (with a few notable exceptions) every second he’s on screen, he is truly riveting. His performance in this film actually reminded me quite a bit of a more theatrical version of Laura Dern in Inland Empire. It is an “actor’s” performance. You find yourself drawn to the intensity with which he prepares for a role and the struggles he faces trying to escape it. There’s a truly brilliant moment early in the film where he discusses his stage preparations with Brita where you can simply feel his intensity mounting and he plants the seeds of his future mania. And when it is time for the menacing to begin, he flips a switch and the mild-mannered Anthony Johns becomes the brooding, hulking jealous husband egged on not by a scheming Iago but by his own insecurities and mental instability. It is a classic performance. Shelley Winters also stands Add Mediaout in a smaller role.

The film’s other fine selling point is the classic film noir cinematography. It is a moody, disturbed film (particularly for the late 1940s. I can imagine that quite a bit of the film was simply sordid) and Milton Krasner’s photography was delicious. The shadow work is as classic as the all-time greats like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street. Even when the film’s scripts takes things into the absurd, the movie looks right. And in film noir, it is not an understatement to say that look and mood are just as important as a fine script. And when George Cukor combines a muttering or stalking Ronald Colman, whether that’s in his Othello get-up or as regular Anthony Johns, with Milton Krasner’s striking cinematography, the film hits on all fronts and you’re allowed to think for a few fleeting minutes that you might be watching a true classic.

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Sadly, that feeling won’t last. Rather than allowing us to get lost visually in the mania that is consuming Roger Colman (which Bergman and Aranofsky have taught me is the best way to do things), we get absurd audio clues and we regularly hear lines from Othello as Anthony Johns loses himself in this part. That could have worked if were done well, but it’s overwrought in this picture and although Colman himself was terrifying because of the sheer difference between his usual persona and that of his crazy alter-ego, the film’s direction rarely seemed to elicit the goosebumps because things were either far too obvious or downright silly. And leave it to the ending to be a total anti-climax.

Despite those major substantive complaints, when the movie worked, it worked. Before I finally got a feel for what I diagnosed as the film’s structural problems, my overall opinion of what score it deserved swung as high as an “A-” at one point. But, sadly George Cukor doesn’t bring the consistency to this film that he brought to true classics like My Fair Lady or The Philadelphia Story. For fans of one of the earliest “psychological thrillers” that I can think of as well as fans of “A+” acting, A Double Life deserves your time. Ronald Colman will make it worth your while. His Academy Award was well-deserved. For everyone else, you can make your mind up on your own. It isn’t going to be for everyone.

Final Score: B

(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

The sun shines through the cheap plastic blinds highlighting my face like the spotlights in a police interrogation room. My mind races to find the right words before the sun rises further in its fatalistic elliptical around this floating chunk of rock we call home and my suspect brain loses the details of the lurid tale I witnessed the evening before. Who am I kidding? No passing of the sun will erase the blood-soaked memories of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Like a gunshot in the dark or a fatal fall off a moving train, there are some things you just don’t forget. It’s been years since the shady Mr. Wilder and I crossed paths. Last time around, he was peddling his story of Hollywood depravity and faded glory days, Sunset Boulevard. I was just a young gumshoe then, still learning the ins and outs of this crazy world of movies, and I didn’t appreciate the eerie eye Wilder had for capturing the essence ofnoir. I’ve worked a few cases, seen hundreds of crimes since then though, and maybe it was fate, maybe it was destiny, but the time was finally ripe for Billy Wilder and I to meet again as he and Raymond Chandler constructed a tale of murder, infidelity, and betrayal.

Imagine a middle-aged insurance salesman. We’ll call him Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). He’s one of the best in the game. He could sell automobile insurance to the Amish.  Everybody in the office loves him, even the wily and hard-nosed claims inspector Barton Keyes (Little Caesar‘s Edward G. Robinson) who can spot a phony insurance claim a mile away. Take a second to also imagine a the most gorgeous but dangerous woman you’ve ever met. She’s the type of dame that could bring down kings or presidents. Let’s call her Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and maybe it’s the months old scotch I just downed, but it’s safe to say the word “femme fatale” was created to describe her. Now imagine that the fates bring these two souls together. Walter shows up at the Dietrichson home to sell Phyllis’ husband insurance but gets drawn into a scheme that could put him and Phyllis on a one-way trip to the electric chair. The simmering sexuality that Phyllis radiates is more than Walter can overcome, and he agrees to help Phyllis kill her husband so they can collect the claim on his accident insurance which will pay off double indemnity if he dies in a train accident. Walter and Phyllis plan and pull off what they believe to be the perfect crime, but it’s not too long before Barton Keyes smells a rat in their nest of rats and their plan starts to fall apart.

If you couldn’t tell, I was trying to write my review of this excellent film as if it were the inner monologue of a film noir protagonist which is to say full of intentionally cheesy and melodramatic pulp fiction (as in the genre not the Tarantino film) dialogue. However, that was fine for the opening paragraph and my plot description. I’m not sure I could have accomplished that while trying to discuss the technical aspects of the film like acting and writing. Well, a better writer probably could but I still need to review the final disc of the first season of Angel so I don’t have the time to put that much thought into it. Fred MacMurray wasn’t particularly impressive. His whole performance just felt very restrained and I had trouble believing the paranoia and guilt that he was supposed to be succumbing too. I would have also had trouble buying his “seduction” of Phyllis but she only wanted him to think she seduced him since it was actually her seducing him. However, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson were great in their roles. While I’d never seen this film before, I knew it was one of the archetypal film noir films that set the standards for a lot of the genre pictures to follow. And if Barbara Stanwyck’s performance wasn’t the standard for all of the femme fatales to follow, I don’t know what was. She oozed a darker sexuality. She could simultaneously play the vulnerable damsel than switch to the scheming Lady MacBeth at the flip of a hat. Similarly, as the fast talking and quick thinking Barton Keyes, Edward G. Robinson channeled the intelligence and single-minded determination that made Barton such an effective claims inspector.

This was film noir before film noir even existed as a discrete genre of film. I might not be willing to say that this film is as great as The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca (which the former is certainly noir while the latter vaguely fits in the genre), but it’s one of those rare classic dramas that I think is deserving of the title “classic.” This film spent eight years gestating at the script phase before the Hollywood censor office would let it be made. The Hays Code (which determined very specific rules about what type of content could be released in a Hollywood film [and their standards were unbelievably strict]) rejected countless versions of this film as being too “disgusting” and “offensive” to all contemporary senses of moral decency. So, it’s a miracle that Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler were still able to fit so many double entendres and implications of violence and sexuality into the film. I’m really curious what the original script could have looked like (I imagine it more closely resembled James M. Cain’s original novel). A lot of films that help to create entire genres of film often seem dated and cliched when you see them after watching plenty of other genre films, but Double Indemnity managed to seem as fresh and exciting in 2012 as it did when it was first released 68 years ago.

I could go on at length about the gorgeous black and white cinematography (and how the film’s use of shadow set the standard for all film noir films to come) but I’m hungry, and I want to eat lunch. So, let me close this review out by saying that while I might not quite consider this to be an “A+” film, it’s still one of the best film noir that I’ve ever seen. For all fans of classic dramas and film noir, this is about as easy a sell as you can get. Anyone reading my blog that is capable of appreciating classic cinema should watch this. It might not be perfect (mostly because of Fred MacMurray) but it comes pretty damn close. I’m now able to get excited about the rest of the Billy Wilder films that are on my list for this blog. Considering he’s one of the most celebrated and beloved Hollywood directors of all time, there are going to be a lot of his films before I’m done here.

Final Score: A

Well space cowboys, we’ve come to the last leg of our journey. Our time upon the Bebop has come to a close and we must bid Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein a most fond farewell. It was a fun trip that involved amnesiacs, mind control, truckers, blobs in refrigerators, yakuza, artificially aware satellites, and more crazy awesome than you can shake a stick at. But like the Native American in the finale said, all great journeys must eventually come to a close. And it will be time for a new one to start for me soon enough (actually as soon as my next Netflix DVD’s come in the mail and I start getting Neon Genesis Evangelion).

While I’ve written 5 other reviews for the series so far, they focused on the particular episodes that I had seen at that point. This will try to be a general synopsis of my feelings for the series so I apologize for the fact that a lot of the things I’ve said before are probably going to be repeated. Unlike many anime which are highly serialized and consecutive in their myth arc development, Cowboy Bebop is much more episodic in nature and the myth arc is developed slowly but beautifully over the series course, and much of that is simply character development and universe building. The show focuses on the antics and adventures of the crew of the spaceship Bebop. The primary protagonist is Spike Spiegel, a Cowboy, which is the show’s word for a bounty hunter. He’s joined by ex-cop and father figure Jet Black, mysterious con woman Faye Valentine, genius child prodigy Ed, and the dog Ein. Over the course of the show’s 26 episodes, you get a deeper and deeper look at their stories and the universe that they live in, and it all culminates in an absolutely beautiful series finale.

The series is science-fiction first and foremost, but it masterfully weaves a tale that incorporates all of my favorite genres of fiction. Film Noir, westerns, mafia pictures, comedy, psychological drama. And it does all of them better than most shows can do a single one. Some of the episodes of this show are my favorite episodes not just of anime but of any type of TV. Spike and Ed are two of my favorite characters in all of anime. Spike is simply one of the coolest dudes to ever be drawn on screen and Ed’s never-ending word salad is always endearing. Series big bad Vicious is also one of anime’s most compelling villains. The animation and art direction are also superb enough to match the story-telling, which is often a rare feat in a lot of anime.

One of the most memorable aspects of the series is its soundtrack. Live action or animated, no show has a better score than Cowboy Bebop. Yoko Kanno, over the course of the series 26 episode run, delivered a score that can only be described as perfect, and while it is heavily jazz-influenced, it also shows streaks in practically every genre of music, and it never failed to impress me. If you have no interest in the show, you should at least check out its superb soundtrack. The voice acting on the show is also top notch and has the finest English dub of any anime that I’ve watched. No voice actor drags the series down and it never succumbs to any of the cliches of most English anime dubs. I actually think the English dub is better than the original Japanese voice acting.

Cowboy Bebop is the greatest anime of all time. It outclasses its closest competition for me, Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, by a mile. Even if you don’t like anime, you should give this one a go, especially if you were a fan of science fiction cult classic Firefly. This show has multi-demographic appeal and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Bang.

Final Score: A+

Well, in the immortal words of Jim Morrison, this is the end, or almost anyways. I’ve got one disc of Cowboy Bebop to watch after this review is over. It should be coming from Netflix within the week and that means my return to the spaceship Bebop and the adventures of its inhabitants will have finally drawn to a close. It’s a bitter sweet emotion because I’ve been really loving watching this show these last couple weeks. All great things must come to an end I guess.

The first episode of the four on the disc was probably one of the weaker episodes of the series that I’ve watched so far and I was never really exactly sure what was going on. However, that’s ok because the second episode “Pierrot Le Fou” has been my second favorite episode of the series, only behind the 5th episode. It was a really cool departure from the norm for the series and the villain was quite effective, and overall the episode was just incredibly creepy. The third episode was  jet episode that almost played like something out of True Grit, and the last episode was a sort of hilarious urban western that introduced a new bounty hunter named Andy that took the cowboy thing way too far. It was really funny.

The music and art direction of the show have remained fantastic. The abandoned theme park scenes in the second episode were just amazing looking, and in the urban western episode, they did a really great job of evoking the sort of melodies and themes you’d expect from an Ennio Morricone score in a Sergio Leone film like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When I finally finish this show, I will be moving straight into Neon Genesis Evangelion. It will be interesting going from the fun of this show to the never ending depression of that other classic. Should be interesting.

Score in Progress: A+

I have to be at work at 10 in the morning tomorrow which means that I need to wake up at 9 at the latest which means that I should have gone to bed at 1. So, while I probably shouldn’t have stayed up at all to write this particular set of reviews, I’m going to do my best to keep this one short and sweet so as to get my stupid ass in bed as quickly as possible so that I’m not dragging my feet at work all day tomorrow. So, let’s head back once again to the Bebop and see what’s happened over the course of these last four episodes.

The first episode did a hell of a job explaining some of the back story of the mysterious Faye Valentine, and why she’s such a cold-hearted woman and con man and why the mob bosses at the casino thought she was like over 100 years old when we were first introduced to her. It was a fantastic episode with a nice romantic subplot that was given the great Cowboy Bebop treatment in how it was able to not play out exactly the way you’d think it would. The next episode gave us a decent look at Jet’s back story again and his time as a cop before he became a bounty hunter. The third episode is one of the series’ more infamous episodes and it involved our heroes tripping on magic mushrooms out on a desert planet. And it was hilarious. The final episode wasn’t as good as the other three but it also gave us another bit of a look at the story behind Faye, and also gave us some hilarious moments involving the lack of understanding by our heroes on the difference between a beta max player and a VCR. Funny stuff.

I’m well past the half-way point in the series and I’ve only got two discs of episodes left. It’s nice watching two anime series in a row that aren’t more than 30 episodes long. If I were reviewing the complete series of Dragon Ball Z, I would be reviewing that show for a good year or so since there’s like over 200 episodes. I’m glad I decided to re-watch Cowboy Bebop. I’ve been having a ton of fun jumping back into the series.

See you space cowboy

Score in Progress: A+