Tag Archives: Film Noir

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: , , (“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)

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

Tyrone Power was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Warner Brothers’ . However, as dated as Flynn’s style of acting is, he does generate a kind of cartoon excitement. Watching the bulk of Power’s swashbucklers is more of a burden. Power is typically bland. He died at 44 from a heart attack during an on-screen duel with actor George Sanders in the filming of Solomon and Sheeba (1959). Flynn died less than a year later. Both are known for iconic roles: Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). They acted together only once: in Henry King’s version of The Sun Also Rises (1957), which (as per most cinematic Hemingway adaptations) is best avoided. Rumors in Hollywood have long claimed that Flynn and Power engaged in a brief affair. If so, then, yes, there was more to Zorro and Robin Hood than tights and mask. Of course, the seedier aspects of Flynn’s “wicked, wicked ways” are well known. Yet, behind that boyish persona, Power too had a darker personality. This began to surface later in his career with chosen roles, such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and in the earlier Nightmare Alley (1947).

Power came from a long line of actors, and although he desired meatier roles, he settled on the stability of his studio contract, rarely venturing outside of assignments. Nightmare Alley was a notable exception. After reading William Greshen’s novel Power purchased the rights and begged Darryl Zanuck to allow him to play the part of the seedy Stanton Carlisle. Reluctantly, Zanuck agreed, although he did little to promote the film.

Edmund Goulding was given the directorial reigns after he and Power had worked together in the drama The Razor’s Edge (1946). Although that film received mixed reviews, it was a commercially successful departure for the actor and commercial success was, of course, Zanuck’s primary concern. Goulding’s reputation had been cemented with the high class soaper Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and . A string of glossy, star-powered melodramas followed: Riptide (1934) with Norma Shearer and Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941), all with Bette Davis. Zanuck’s choice of Goulding was strange but purposeful (for Zanuck). Nightmare Alley lacks the visceral quality of the novel (whose author, not surprisingly, committed suicide). With such a potent literary source, the film  might have emerged as something deliriously akin to ‘s Freaks (1932), but it lacks an obsessive director at the helm. Where Nightmare Alley does succeed is in Goulding’s direction of the superb as the affable clairvoyant Zeena, Colleen Grey as the dainty circus girl Molly, and Helen Walker as the icy Dr. Lilith. (Goulding, a woman’s director, had gifted Academy Award winning performances to Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter).

Still from Nightmare Alley (1947)Nightmare Alley is further helped by the bleakly prismatic cinematography of Lee Garmes, who had previously photographed such masterpieces as Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932). Screenwriter Jules Furthman crafts a mostly compelling, pessimistic screenplay (weakened by a Zanuck-mandated semi-happy ending) that falls somewhat short of being the yardstick to measure noir by. Furthman would go one to co-write (with Willam Faulkner) two more noir “classics” ( the classics label being debatable): Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) and Hawks’ cinematic treatment of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). Art directors J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler provide exemplary mise-en-scène in their impeccably disheveled carnival settings. Cyril Mockridge composes a taut, aptly grotesque score.

Character actors Ian Keith (as Zeena’s cuckold, Pete) and James Flavin (as the brawny barker Hoatley) leave the scene too soon, forcing star Power, as a slippery pseudo-mystic, to represent the carny world’s masculine populace. Power is only half up to the job. Although his performance was almost unanimously praised by critics of the era (including the great James Agee), Power projects a woodenness in the early scenes that does not altogether convince us of his charisma. Still, perhaps his artificiality, based solely on pulchritude, makes his downfall all the more shocking; and it is in his dissipated state that Power, surprisingly, lives up to the actor’s narcissistic potential. Power reminds the viewer of the horror that was once associated with the term “geek” in what turns out to be, perhaps, his finest performance.

Despite Zanuck’s attempt to give the film a commercial sheen, Nightmare Alley was a major flop with American audiences, who fervently resisted seeing one of their established stars try something original. The critics proved more insightful, and it was they who had the final say. Today Nightmare Alley is one of Power’s most celebrated films, while the majority of his commercial fodder has aged poorly and is primarily forgotten. Despite this, the movie rarely ran on television and its appearance in the home video market was considerably belated. Naturally, its unavailability only increased its cult status, until Fox finally responded, making it part of its film noir series on DVD (it never appeared on VHS).

IDA LUPINO’S THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is the first and only classic film noir directed by a woman. Lupino began her career as an actress in notable films such as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) (both costarring Humphrey Bogart), and The Hard Way (1943). She earned a reputation as a “hard luck dame” and “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” Lupino refused to be defined by categories and ventured into directing. Her first film as a co-director (uncredited) was Not Wanted (1949), a stark and candid film (for its time) about an unwed mother. While on suspension (for turning down too many sub-par roles) Lupino and her husband started an independent film company, The Filmmakers, producing several films which she wrote and directed. As a director she was dubbed “the poor man’s Don Siegel,” which goes to show that sophistic labels die hard.

Lupino’s status as a pioneer for women filmmakers cannot be underestimated. She wrote and directed B-styled films which often focused on serious feminist themes. Her Outrage (1950) brutally dealt with the topic of rape (sadly, the film remains unavailable, but Mike Lorefice’s review should certainly be read).

Lupino ended her directorial career in television, and among her credits in that medium are memorable episodes of Thriller (starring ), The Untouchables, and The Fugitive.  Lupino’s innovative and daring success as a Hollywood filmmaker inspired an homage by jazz musician Carla Bley; it is a composition which has been much performed, most memorably by Paul Bley (Carla’s ex-husband) on his album “Open to Love.”

Lupino’s most acclaimed film is probably The Hitch-Hiker. Distributed by RKO, it is inspired by the true story of early 1950s serial killer Billy Cook. Lupino (who co-wrote the screenplay) creates a confidently bleak, taut atmosphere in The Hitch-Hiker. The pacing is psychologically relentless, and Lupino masterfully takes full advantage of claustrophobic compositions (in a car), an expansive, arid landscape, and the noirsh city at night.

Still from The Hitch-hiker (1953)On the run, killer Emmet Meyers (William Talman) kidnaps the two fisherman: Roy (Edmund O’ Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy). Talman (best known as the nemesis of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason) gives THE yardstick performance of unadulterated sadism.

Fortunately, Lupino does not succumb to exploitation-movie sermons: she does not take time to, filling the film’s 71 minute length full of exposed nerves. Lupino handles the material with astute sensitivity, directing three male actors without ever resorting to displays of chest beating machismo. The building tensions between the three men were unsettling enough that RKO head Howard Hughes denied original story credit to the (supposed) leftist writer Daniel Mainwaring. Hughes was convinced the story was a parable about Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism. Leave it to Hughes to be paranoid about depiction of paranoia.  The Hitch-Hiker quickly became a cult hit for a reason: it is simply one of the best examples of Hollywood film noir.

Next week: Cat People begins our coverage on the films of Val Lewton at RKO.

EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

Reviewing ‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.

Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”

The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.

Still from Detour (1945)Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S DETOUR (1945)

EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

The recently departed critic Andrew Sarris recommended further study of  when he amusingly wrote: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Edgar G. Ulmer, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which be signature of a genuine artist.” ((All Sarris quotes come from Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema: Directors and Direction. 1929-1968.”))

Writing in the Village Voice, Sarris’ criticism had developed Truffaut’s “auteur” theory, which holds that a film is the personal vision of the director. The director, therefore, is the primary author, the “auteur.” Sarris’ adherence to this theory inspired ridicule from Pauline Kael, who argued that film, being a collaborative medium, is multi-authored. While Kael respected Sarris, she found the theory absurd.

Sarris often used Ulmer as an example of this theory: “Most of Ulmer’s films are of interest only to unthinking audiences. Yet, anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, a film so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr. Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Ulmer’s camera never falters, even when his characters disintegrate. When his material is less impossible, his reflexes are still sharp. That a personal style could emerge form the depths of poverty row is a tribute to a director without alibis.”

Poster for The Strange Woman (1946)Strange Woman (1946) was a rarity in Ulmer’s oeuvre: he had a worthwhile budget, a script based off a best-selling novel. an accomplished cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), and a topnotch cast, headed by a star actor (Hedy Lamarr, who also produced). The result was a hit upon its release, yet it has become one of the more obscure Ulmer films; perhaps, because it is typical of the 1940s femme fatale melodramas and cannot compare to the likes of the better known Gilda, which was released the same year.

Lamarr, who had been a childhood friend of Ulmer’s, personally chose him to direct. Ulmer repaid the favor with sensual close-ups of the beautiful actress. Her performance as Jenny ranks with similar evil gal performances by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. Strange Woman is, easily, Lamarr’s best screen work, since she was normally used as mere decor. Lamarr would have been a bigger star if she had continued in similar projects, but her Continue reading EDGAR G.ULMER’S THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946)

EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)

 began his career at Max Reinhardt’s theater, became an apprentice to F.W. Murnau on the director’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), and received a commission to direct Universal’s two new horror icons, and Bela Lugosi, in their first co-starring film. With The Black Cat (1934), Ulmer secured an enviable budget and practically carte blanche. The Black Cat may not have had much to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but the legendary 19th century writer would have loved Ulmer’s deliciously black deco homage. 1934 critics and audiences most certainly did, making it a bona fide hit. Ulmer’s idiosyncratic cult film remains the two stars’ best film together. The director was at the top of his game and looked to have a long and successful career ahead. By all rights, Edgar G. Ulmer should have had a career and body of work that could be placed alongside the films of  and Tod Browning. Then, Ulmer screwed up.

Universal was a family-run studio when Ulmer decided to have an affair with the wife of a top-ranking Universal studio executive. Ulmer was fired and blacklisted, by the major studios, for life. Believe it or not, Hollywood once had a sense of morality. Ulmer was reduced to working for the poverty row circuit, namely PRC Studios. He later claimed that this was his artistic choice to do so, because it gave him greater creative freedom. He lied. Ulmer loved European culture, art music, and was known to discourse fluently on the aesthetic process with actors (Karloff was delightfully challenged by Ulmer). Many of Ulmer’s contemporaries freely acknowledge that Ulmer was also a pathological liar. Of course, this only makes him more interesting. He consistently exaggerated his background (when he didn’t need to), padded his resume, and made outrageous claims about himself. Despite all of that, Ulmer had a unique aesthetic sensibility and conscientiously tried to inject  that into his films, even in scripts that could only pass for excrement.

Ulmer struggled as much with PRC as he did with Universal. It was the classic case of artist vs. executives. Ulmer lost far more battles than he won, although he naturally fared best when he was allowed to act as his own producer. Ulmer desperately wanted to make a film of the Bluebeard story for 10 years. Originally, it was supposed to star Karloff and would be his follow Continue reading EDGAR G. ULMER’S BLUEBEARD (1944)