Tag Archives: Film Noir

DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

Peter Lorre is often cited as an example of a superior European actor  who made his way to Hollywood, only to be wasted when Tinseltown didn’t know what to do with him. He had gained worldwide attention for his unnerving performance as the child-murderer in ‘s German production, M (1931). Purportedly, even though Lorre was Jewish, Adolf Hitler loved the film and the actor, inviting Lorre to return to Germany. Lorre allegedly declined by responding that Germany already had one mass murderer too many. It may be an apocryphal story, but Lorre’s image was later used in Third Reich propaganda to depict the depravity of Jews, and his name was discovered to be on Hitler’s hit list.

In Hollywood, Lorre was mostly used as a character actor who could steal a scene from anyone. He only had a handful of starring roles that suited him; a superb Raskolnikov in ‘s Crime and Punishment (1935) and as Robert Florey’s Face Behind the Mask (1941). To most Americans , he is known for appearing in 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor, arguably the first , and for his frequent teaming with co-star Sydney Greenstreet (most memorably in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon).

By the end of the 1940s, Lorre had come to despise the cartoonish roles offered him, along with the erroneous tag as a horror star (his only actual horror film was 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers). He had long wanted to direct, having learned much from working with Lang, von Sternberg, , , and Bertolt Brecht. Lorre’s continued friendship with Brecht—a rabid anti-Fascist—led to both being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as a brief stint on the studio blacklist and to his eventually being sacked by Warner Brothers. In 1951, a bankrupt Lorre set his sights on Europe, where he went to direct Der Verlorene (The Lost One) for producer Arnold Pressburger. Lorre also co-scripted a screenplay based loosely on his own novel about the suicide of Dr. Karl Rothe, who headed a research institute within the Third Reich.

Still from Verlorene (The Lost One) (1951)

Germany, still ravaged by Hitler, hardly wanted to be reminded of the Fascist period. The resulting film was a commercial disaster, despite being acclaimed, by the few critics who saw it, as a masterpiece of German cinema. With America deep in its own brand of Fascism (dubbed McCarthyism), Der Verlorene didn’t play in the U.S. Lorre never directed another film and returned to America in defeat, to continue in the caricatured roles Hollywood craved from him. Yet, Continue reading DER VERLORENE (THE LOST ONE, 1951)

ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

A social media meme depicts an image of the Fab Four with the perfect response to Beatles naysayers: “Sorry we set the bar so high.” So it is also with and those who deny his mastery of the medium—it’s merely a case of being too too envious to recognize an inimitable artist. As a narrative filmmaker (albeit an experimental one) Welles gets equally little love from the avant-garde, much in the same way the modern painter Francis Bacon was seen as a sellout because he continued figurative painting in a non-representational age. Welles hardly helped his own status with stunts like whoring himself out as an actor; his fingernails-down-chalkboard interviews with ; wine commercials; and his cheesy Nostradamus documentaries (although he should be given a gold star for his frequent guest appearances on the ultra cool Dean Martin roasts). Because Welles’ antagonistic relationship with Hollywood is almost legendary, the status quo’s acknowledgment of his body of work has been primarily posthumous. It was with 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai that he almost intentionally immolated  himself, bidding adios to Tinsel Town.

The Lady from Shanghai was birthed from desperation. Welles’ Mercury Theater production of “Around the World in Eighty Days”  was threatened with a shutdown when $55,000 worth of costumes were impounded due to outstanding debts. Seeing a copy of Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” Welles had a eureka moment. He called Columbia head Harry Cohn, suggested he purchase the rights to the book, and offered to adapt, direct, and act in it for the money needed to pay off the costumes. Smelling a three-for-one deal, Cohn wired Welles the cash. He later came to regret it, vowing never again to hire someone in such a triple capacity again because it prevented him from firing such an upstart.

Still from The Lady from Shangai (1947)The production was as chaotic as the film itself,  as documented in numerous anecdotes by associate producer . The hot Mexico shoot caused actors to be ill, including Hayworth, which delayed shooting for a month. Welles himself was incapacitated for a period when an insect bit him in the eye. Crocodiles, barracudas, and poisonous barnacles posed additional threats. Unwisely, Welles rented his pal ‘s yacht “The Zaca.” In addition to overcharging, Flynn’s contractual agreement stipulated he be present for all scenes involving the boat, and he demanded to shoot the aerial footage of the Zaca himself—and he was, per his norm, prone to disappear for days on end, thus Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

CAPSULE: THE CHASE (1946)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Ripley

FEATURING: Robert Cummings, Michèle Morgan, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre

PLOT: A mentally fragile veteran of the U.S. Navy stumbles into the employ of an eccentric gangster and inadvertently seduces the hoodlum’s wife; his dodgy escape gets dodgier when his mind snaps and he awakens in an unfamiliar apartment.

Still from The Chase (1946)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it is rare to find an example of film noir that isn’t worth seeing, it is also rare to find one that fits the description of “weird.” The Chase dabbles with some strange encounters and has a plot explosion that very nearly carries it into 366’s warm embrace, but it comes up short enough to make one wish the film-makers had gone the distance.

COMMENTS: With a scramble of memory loss, noir grit and brevity, oddball bad guys, and a side of Peter Lorre, The Chase cruises down its narrative path with an unlikely mix of the conventional and the abnormal. We dive right into the story of Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a down-at-the-heels navy veteran in Florida who finds and returns the cash-filled wallet of one Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Both impressed and amused by the man’s honesty, Roman hires Scott as his chauffeur, firing the man’s predecessor on the spot. Scott quickly gains the trust of Roman’s captive wife, Loran (Michèle Morgan), and after a number of trips to a nearby beach, they plot an escape. An hour in, we are deep indeed in standard noir territory—and then something odd happens.

But please allow me to back-track for a moment. As characteristic as it was to start with, The Chase already seemed to have a weird undercurrent attempting to break free. The scene where Scott tracks down Roman and tries to get a meeting with him to return the wallet is a bizarre set-piece that I can only describe as repetition at the corner of creepy and amusing. Through the door’s peep-hole, Scott first explains himself to a butler (named “Job,” of all things), then holds the exact same conversation with a henchman, one “Mr Geno” (Peter Lorre). Gaining entrance, Scott explains himself a third time before Mr Geno reluctantly directs him to Eddie Roman, who is being groomed by two female attendants. Roman asks one, “How do you feel being a barber … cutting a man’s hair. Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Between this scene and the twist we see a souped-up luxury car with rear-seat gas and brake, Peter Lorre laconically quipping, a knife-throwing Cuban waiter, and a biddable Asian imports/exports shop-keeper. Or do we? There is a dimly lit transition shot of a telephone ringing and all of a sudden the movie jumps from bad things happening in Cuba to unclear things happening back in Florida.

Scott, waking up in a room we know he lives in, has no idea what’s going on. He stumbles around a little, he takes the medication he left on the desk, and makes a phone call, explaining, “…it’s happened again.” At that point, The Chase seems to shift into high-weird gear, and we start trundling down an understated but “off” string of events. Build, build, build—and oh so sweetly—only, alas, to have the weird rug pulled away to make room for an altogether too prosaic ending. I generally don’t say this, but this film seems ripe for a re-make by a director who’d be willing to go as far as coherently 1)Or, for those who’d prefer, as incoherently as possible. possible; that said, I recommend you check this one out.

Kino Lorber’s 2016 DVD/Blu-ray release of The Chase includes commentary by none other than .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an especially bizarre jaunt through a nightmarish crime world… More than any classic film noir that I can think of, The Chase stands as a predecessor to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.“–Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr

References   [ + ]

1. Or, for those who’d prefer, as incoherently as possible.

ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panicFearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically backlisted and spent the rest of his career primarily in Europe, acting in almost anything to scrape up enough money to produce his own films.

Welles had already been cast for the role of Captain Quinlan in Touch of Evil when co-star Charlton Heston dared to suggest that the man who made Citizen Kane could also direct. According to Heston’s “Actor’s Journals” memoirs, the producers initially thought his advice was ludicrous, but realized that they would essentially be getting a “two for the price of one” (actor and director) bargain. Welles was signed on to direct, and immediately re-wrote the screenplay for Whit Masteron’s 1)A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. novel “Badge of Evil.” The result was another repeating chapter in Welles’ ongoing story: the film was a commercial flop until later audiences discovered it.

Of course, there is a very small body of hopelessly predictable, wannabe filmmakers and critics who erroneously fancy themselves as “going against the establishment consensus” by denying the artistic merits of Welles, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, or The Trial (1962). Such an attitude is like that of the equally small minority in contemporary pop music who feebly attempt to deny or protest the artistry of t, simply because that band set the bar too high. However, as an art professor once told me: “If you want to be a great painter, then you have to know great painting.”  Those who are too uninformed to know the difference between elitism and discernment can be dismissed. Failure to recognize the aesthetic eminence of Welles’ or his greatest works renders one superfluous.

Still from Touch of Evil (1958)Touch of Evil does not merely stand with Welles’ best work, it also stands among the greatest achievements of American cinema. On the surface, it shouldn’t. After all, it’s garish, grotesque, and pure sleaze; indeed starring Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich both in Mexican makeup, which almost amounts to black face, an obscenely obese 2)Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff., dissipated Welles in padded nose, Za Za Gabor (in a small part), and some of the most laughable dialogue writing ever committed to celluloid… until you recognize it as the baroque, pulp parody it is.

Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Gabor, and Dennis Weaver are delightful. Under Welles’ direction Heston shines in his most emotionally complex role as Mike Vargas, making one wish the actor/director team had worked together more often (Heston, worshipful of Welles, attempted to commission the director for both 1970’s Julius Caeasar and 1972’s Antony and Cleopatra). Dietrich, as the Mexican fortune telling Gypsy whore Tana, delivers jaw dropping zingers with characteristic aplomb: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” and “You should lay off the candy bars, honey. You’re a mess. Your future is all used up.” She could have been making epitaphs for Welles himself, whose last American film this was. Despite being hailed, even in its botched studio cut, by luminaries such as , François Truffaut, and , and highly praised throughout Europe, Touch of Evil was relegated to playing on double “B” movie bills in artless America. Naturally, Welles was blamed, and considered finished by the studio systems.

Volumes have been written about the twelve minute opening shot, Welles’ choreography, and the virtuoso black and white camerawork of cinematographer Russell Metty. Part of the film’s initial stateside rejection was undoubtedly due to the meddling of Universal executives who recut the film, attempting to make the roaming, overlapping, unorthodox narrative into something linear (it didn’t work). A disgusted Welles disowned the cut. Just as he stuck by Sam Peckinpah when the studio interfered with Major Dundee, Heston condemned Universal for mutilating Welles’ work. Seven years after Welles’ death, editor Walter Murch, following the original script and volumes of memos, restored Touch of Evil to the director’s intent. In its mid-90s theatrical re-release, American critics loudly echoed their European counterparts, making it a belated success, which is only fitting. It’s terrific entertainment. Watch it first for its aesthetics, then again for its narrative.

References   [ + ]

1. A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller.
2. Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff.

CAPSULE: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: , Powers Boothe, , , , , ,

PLOT: Three stories involving gamblers, thugs, private detectives, strippers, corrupt senators, and femme fatales, and other disreputable denizens of the mythical Sin City.

Still from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t do anything new or better to distinguish itself from its Certified Weird predecessor; not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, entertainment wise, but the original represents the Sin City franchise on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies well enough.

COMMENTS: First, the good (or bad) news: this 2014 followup does such a good job recreating the look and feel of the surprise 2005 hit, right down to renovating the rapidly aging faces of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis to the point where they’re indistinguishable from their decade-younger selves, that you could edit the stories from A Dame to Kill For into the original Sin City and never notice the difference. The tangled timeline—some of the stories here take place before any of the events in the first movie, while others are roughly contemporaneous with it—helps with that sense that Dame is not so much a sequel (or prequel) as it is an organic extension of the original, almost as if we were viewing deleted scenes. Returning from the first film is Rourke’s Marv, that slab of grizzled muscle with a vertical nose and a horizontal chin, who unites the stories and plays a supporting role in two out of three tales; Willis’ romantic cop Hartigan, in what is basically a cameo; and Jessica Alba’s diva stripper Nancy, now an alcoholic wreck. Josh Brolin tackles a younger (yet somehow more bitter and jaded) version of the role played by Clive Owen in the original, while Powers Boothe’s corrupt politico has a greatly expanded part as the new principal antagonist for two of the three characters. There are numerous callbacks to the previous films (e.g., a portrait of Nick Stahl’s Yellow Bastard on his fathers’ wall) and origin stories (we learn how Manute got his stylish gold eye). The real stars here are the new characters, though: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, a gambler with a golden touch whose boyish looks are a welcome contrast to the craggy male miens that otherwise populate the city, and especially Eva Green’s seductress Ava. Green is frequently nude—in fact, her first appearance naked, on a diving board in front of a digital moon, is itself justification for the movie’s existence—but she is also the first female character in the Sin City universe who is a worthy adversary for a male. Her femme fatale performance is campy, but riveting, and with ruby red lips and turquoise eyes accentuating her classical black and white beauty, she’s a breathtaking update of the archetype. The digital cinematography is as crisp and beautiful as the original film: the whites of characters’ eyes sometimes appear to glow, as does their spurting blood, and there are wonderfully evocative effects like tendrils of steam that hang in midair without dissipating. There are scattered weird visual touches, the most impressive of which is a giant poker hand (you’ll know it when you see it). Overall, fans who loved their first visit should find plenty of reason to go slumming again in this City, while those who had their misgivings about the trip may find themselves depressed by the burg’s seedier aspects, now that it’s really showing its age.

Given that the new Sin City is pretty much of a piece with its predecessor, its lackluster performance with critics and box office patrons requires explanation. The core fanbase seems appeased, based on a decent 7.2 IMDB rating, so we assume that the movie failed to put casual fans’ butts in theater seats. The lesson is that nine years between installments is not exactly striking while the iron is hot, no matter how faithful to the original you make the followup.  On the critical side, Dame bashing may be partly a chance to reappraise the original, which caught reviewers by surprise with its technique. (Nathan Rabin candidly takes this tack in his review for The Dissolve). In 2005 nothing else quite leapt off the screen the way Sin City did, and the glowing visuals, star power and cinematic energy caught critics by surprise and allowed them to overlook the film’s many flaws: its painful faux-Chandler dialogue, pornographic brutality, and adolescent understanding of both masculinity and femininity. Since the visuals are no longer original, today’s reviewers appear to be looking past the screen’s gilded surface and letting their misgivings about the movie’s lack of any worldview beyond appreciation of the awesomeness of violence dictate their opinions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it was easy to imagine that A Dame to Kill For would try to one-up the original, to push the envelope of perversity in some fresh and jarring (if likely unsuccessful) way. Instead, Rodriguez and Miller have erred in the opposite direction, offering up a movie that feels timid, half-hearted, eager to play it safe. The former path might have been a mistake. This one feels almost like a betrayal.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

 

173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Billy Chapin, ,

PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.

Still from Night of the Hunter (1955)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but has long been out-of-print; Centipede Press is releasing a limited-edition hardcover edition of the novel in July of 2104.
  • Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
  • was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
  • Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
  • This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
  • Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
  • In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
  • Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.


Original trailer for Night of the Hunter

 COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical Continue reading 173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

171. SIN CITY (2005)

“It’s pretty damn weird to eat people.”–Marv, Sin City

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , Quentin Tarantino (“special guest director”)

FEATURING: , , , , Nick Stahl, Jaime King, , , , Brittany Murphy,

PLOT: The movie tells three stories (with some common characters) set in the mythical Basin City: in one, a police detective risks his life to stop a child-killer. In a second, a brutal, mentally ill criminal hunts down the men he believes killed the only woman who ever showed kindness to him. A final strand tells of a suave assassin who attempts to prevent someone else’s accidental killing from turning into an all-out war between the cops, the mafia, and the self-governing prostitutes of Old Town.

Still from Sin City (2005)
BACKGROUND:

  • A fan of Frank Miller’s original series of Sin City comics, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make the movie as true to the book as possible: “a translation, not an adaptation.” The actual comics were used as the storyboards. The stories selected were “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” as well as the short “The Customer is Always Right.”
  • Rodriguez shot the opening segment, “The Customer is Always Right,” in one day as a proof-of-concept to convince Miller that he could do justice to the art style. He then used that clip to convince actors such as Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro to sign on to the project.
  • Rodriguez insisted that Miller receive a co-director credit on the film, but the Directors Guild of America objected to the credit (they do not allow co-directing). He then decided to give Miller full credit, but Miller refused. Rodriguez then resigned from the Guild so the co-directing credit could remain.
  • Quentin Tarantino directed a single scene in the movie (a segment from “The Big Fat Kill” involving a conversation between the severed head of Del Toro’s “Jackie-Boy” and Clive Owen’s “Dwight”). Tarantino directed for a salary of $1 as a way to repay Rodriguez for composing music for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for $1.
  • The movie was entirely shot on Rodriguez’s “digital backlot” (green screen studio) near his home in Austin, Texas.
  • Sin City screened in competition at Cannes and won the Technical Grand Prize.
  • Plans for a sequel (based on Miller’s “A Dame to Kill For“) were announced immediately after the film was completed; the followup feature was delayed until 2014, however.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: From the very first frame—a woman in a blood-red backless cocktail dress on a balcony staring out over a steel-grey city—Sin City‘s pulp Expressionism is consistently startling and poetic. Since we’re fascinated by the weird, we’ll select the first sight of the Yellow Bastard, the bald, satellite dish-eared pedophile killer dyed the color of French’s mustard, as our unforgettable take-home image from the movie.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A marriage between the mythologies of film noir and violent comics, Sin City‘s bloody tales are set in an abstract urban hellscape inhabited by invulnerable tough guys and rough sexy dames. They play like the lost works of Raymond Chandler’s alternate universe grandson, written to scrape up a few bucks for a bottle of booze while he was down and out in Gotham City. With a cast of cannibal serial killers, jaundiced pedophiles and ninja hookers, the adventures of the hard-boiled demigods of Sin City are as fantastical as its random splotches of color in a monochrome landscape are visually unreal.


Original trailer for Sin City

COMMENTS: Sin City earns its “recommended” label almost solely on the basis of its visuals (bolstered by some finely weird touches), and not for its Continue reading 171. SIN CITY (2005)