Saturday 30 November 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

"My guess might be excellent or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn't raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney, and an assistant district attorney and a stenographer."
That is just one of the many gems that will tickle your ears as you watch The Maltese Falcon, another of those classic movies that you watch and quickly realise just how deserving of its status it is.

Humphrey Bogart stars as detective Sam Spade, a man dragged into quite a sticky situation by the titular item of great value. Well, he is first dragged into the situation by a young, nervous woman (Mary Astor). After the death of his partner and another man, Spade is made to feel some pressure from local police. Then it's the turn of a man named Joe Cairo (Peter Lorre). And last, but not least, Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and his right hand man (Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook Jr.) show just how much they want their hands on the artefact.

Directed by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett), this is one of the best directorial debuts I can think of. Of course, Huston had been writing films for over a decade, so he certainly gave himself the best start possible by creating such a great script, but there's something else that makes this so completely and utterly brilliant. The cast are all great, and the camerawork is great, but the different aspects of the film come together to be more than just the sum of their parts. It's pure movie magic.

Bogart is, in case you didn't already know, brilliant in the lead role, and he's surrounded by such a wonderful variety of people doing some of their best work. Astor is very good, but her character impacts the events more offscreen than on. Peter Lorre is someone I will forever be a fan of, and this is yet another great turn from him, while Greenstreet and Cook Jr. both do great in two very different roles, with the former being polite and eloquent while the latter would rather use his gun, if given the chance. And then there's Lee Patrick, adding to the many pleasures that this movie has to offer as Effie, Sam Spade's secretary and, potentially, the most reliable person in the entire movie.

If you haven't seen The Maltese Falcon by now then do so immediately. With that script, that cast, the most famous MacGuffin since "Rosebud" and everything else coming together so perfectly, this is essential viewing for cineastes.


Friday 29 November 2013

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple is the fantastic neo-noir that announced the arrival of the Coen brothers as a fantastic talent to keep an eye on. Joel and Ethan shared writing and directorial duties (although Ethan is uncredited in the latter department), and their working M.O. hasn't really changed in the near-thirty years since. Which, when the results are so often this good, we can all be thankful for.

Dan Hedaya is the wronged husband who hires a sleazy detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to deal with his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). What unfolds is a tale of treachery, confusion and mistaken identity, all shown in scenes that deliberately take time to dwell on the nastier moments. This isn't a gratuitous movie, but it's also not a movie wanting to gloss over any pain or death that could otherwise just be used as a stepping stone from one cool moment to the next.

The script is pretty lean, but has a few great lines of dialogue in there (especially from Walsh), and the direction is impressive in the way it chooses to show the events in a manner that's almost cold and clinical at times. This is noir with a roughness, slick in the way it is all played out, but also slick with blood.

John Getz is a little bit bland in his role, but he's just a man caught up in the midst of a very bad situation. Nobody here garners a great deal of sympathy, especially not Hedaya or Walsh, so Getz is someone to root for by default, not by his character or moral compass. McDormand is aloof at times, with the Coens enjoying playing with viewers who will wonder whether she's a classic femme fatale, or also just a victim of circumstance.

It's also worth noting that one Mr. Barry Sonnenfeld worked on Blood Simple as the DP (a role he would fill again for the Coens with work on both Raising Arizona and, arguably his best, Miller's Crossing).

The film looks fantastic, especially for a debut feature, contains some great performances and some of that pitch black humour that the Coens have since become famous for. If you like their work then you'll certainly enjoy this. Simple.


Thursday 28 November 2013

Detour (1945)

Hitch-hikers haven't always had the best luck in film noirs. They are either, for the most part, dangerous individuals or end up stuck beside dangerous individuals. The character trying to hitch a lift from A to B in Detour ends up in the latter camp, but only after enduring some terrible luck.

Tom Neal is Al Roberts, a man determined to uproot and head across country to join the woman he loves (Claudia Drake). All seems to be looking up for him when he gets a lift from Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) but that doesn't last long. One horrible piece of bad luck later and Al finds himself at the mercy of a woman named Vera (Ann Savage), a woman who sees Al as key to her latest money-making scheme.

Directed by Edward G. Ulmer, and written by Martin Goldsmith, this is a bit of a twist on the standard hitch-hiker scenarios that still hits a number of familiar beats. It's not up there with the very best I've seen, the script isn't that sharp, and it suffers in the last couple of minutes from a predictability to do with the time and moral code of when it was made, but it's very enjoyable nonetheless.

Neal is likable in the lead role, shown first as someone in a very bad mood before the main story is told in flashback, explaining his ill temper. MacDonald is okay, although he's not onscreen for long, but it's Savage who dominates the movie as soon as she first appears. It doesn't take her long at all to show her true colours, and it's then just one bit of bad news after another for the main character, at the mercy of a woman who will happily use him as long as she can. All of the main performances are good enough, but it's Neal and Savage working together that makes this better than average.

With its slim runtime, about 70 minutes, and lack of any BIG moments, this could be viewed as something far too slight to be enjoyed, or even to compete with other great films from the decade, but it does enough with each scene to make it worth your while.


Wednesday 27 November 2013

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

While it may not seem quite the stunning feat it was back in the late '80s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit remains a unique, and astonishingly good, piece of work. It's a bit of noir mixed in with fun for all the family that benefits immensely from the improved technology allowing actors to more realistically act alongside cartoons.

Bob Hoskins is the private detective, named Eddie Valiant, who ends up trying to find an answer to the title of the movie. Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) seems to have been driven into a rage by revelations of his beautiful wife, Jessica (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner), playing pat-a-cake with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Roger insists that he's innocent, of course, and there's the very suspicious Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) making it easier for Valiant to believe that something stinks, but will it all be enough to get him to take the case seriously and do all he can. After all, Valiant hates toons, and has never been back to Toontown ever since his brother was killed there.

The big factor that made Who Framed Roger Rabbit such a big deal when it was released, and still a fairly big deal to this day, isn't actually the blending of live action work and animation, which is impressive, but the sheer variety and number of cartoon characters mingling onscreen. As well as Roger and Jessica (with the latter being one of the sexiest cartoons to be allowed in a family movie - look, all of us young boys thought it at the time, and we've all kept thinking it ever since so don't judge me), there are appearances from *deep breath* Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Dumbo, Betty Boop, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, cast members from Fantasia, Sylvester & Tweety Pie, Porky Pig, Goofy, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Michigan J. Frog and many others. It's a veritable who's who of animated stars, unlikely to ever happen again.

Thankfully, the few human stars also do good work, with Bob Hoskins in top form as Valiant, a private eye who has let himself go over the years and is now more comfortable cracking open a bottle of bourbon than cracking a case. Lloyd is enjoyably creepy as Judge Doom, and Joanna Cassidy is adorable as the tough woman who puts up with Valiant in the hope that he will find himself again.

Director Robert Zemeckis handles everything with ease, which is as viewers would expect from this man who does so love to play with any toys he can get his hands on, and the script, by Peter S. Seaman and Jeffrey Price (based on the book, "Who Censored Roger Rabbit" by Gary K. Wolf), is packed full of great lines, references and gags to both the world of noir and also, more obviously, the cartoons of the past and the present.

A real triumph for everyone involved, including composer Alan Silvestri, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and, last but by no means least, everyone in the art and special effects departments, this holds up as one of those rare joys - a movie full of special effects that actually uses the technology to complement the story, as opposed to using distracting graphics and gimmickry to fill in a lot of empty space.


Tuesday 26 November 2013

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Directed by Ida Lupino, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Collier Young, The Hitch-Hiker is a thriller, based on a true story, that will please fans of noir, and also fans of The Hitcher, of course.

William Talman is the dangerous man who gets himself into the cars of unsuspecting folks before eventually killing them. When he gets into the car of two men (played by Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy) he thinks he has caught a lucky break. The men have told their wives that they are off hunting in some isolated region, when they were actually headed down Mexico way for a little bit of drinking and dancing. The hitch-hiker figures that they have a lot of time until the men are thought to be missing, time that should keep them alive.

Sleek, taut and always entertaining, The Hitch-Hiker fairly rattles along for its 70-minute runtime. Widely considered to be the first American mainstream film noir to be directed by a woman, this probably shook up audiences a fair bit in the early '50s, especially anyone familiar with the true story (of a man named Billy Cook) that it was based on. Daniel Mainwaring wrote the story that turned into the script, but received no credit.

The three main actors all do a fine job, convincingly on edge and covered in a sheen of perspiration for most of the movie, with Talman especially good as the villain of the piece. There are other people appearing onscreen, but this is a three-hander, for the most part, and nothing ever takes viewers away from that tense situation for too long.

Lupino directs well, with her best work probably being the pace of the movie. Too long just in the company of the three men and it would be quite draining, too many interruptions from other scenes and the tension would evaporate. This gets things just right.

If you've seen any other "dangerous hitch-hiker" scenario onscreen then you owe it to yourself to see this one.


Monday 25 November 2013

Mulholland Falls (1995)

A decent thriller written by Peter Dexter and directed by Lee Tamahori, Mulholland Falls is one of the best films I've seen recently without having heard any praise for it beforehand. It has some nice period detail, decent plotting and one or two good set-pieces, but the whole thing is made well above average by the superb ensemble cast.

Nick Nolte is the main character, a man investigating the death of a beautiful young woman (Jennifer Connelly). Unfortunately, that young woman was caught on film having sexual relations with one or two men, one of them being a very important General (John Malkovich). And the other being Nolte, which puts him in a bit of a compromised position, especially as he tries to keep his infidelity hidden from his wife (Melanie Griffith). As the investigation continues, moments of violence punctuate the proceedings while Nolte heads on a path that may not end well for him.

As I have done before, let me just sell this movie to people by reeling off the names from the cast list. Nolte, Connelly, Griffith, Malkovich, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Treat Williams, Bruce Dern, Daniel Baldwin, William Petersen, Rob Lowe, Louise Fletcher and Andrew McCarthy. A few of those people only appear for a moment or two, in an uncredited cameo role, but that's still a mighty fine selection of talent.

Everything is in place, with the look and feel of the movie perfectly capturing a bygone era, but it's also not spectacular in any way, with the exception of the cast. The script sadly leaves a couple of the main characters just lingering in the background of many scenes, while Tamahori deals with the material in a clean, unshowy manner, relying on the story and the characters to hold the interest of viewers. Well, although I know that many others will feel differently, that worked for me.

Not one to easily recommend to people, I will still take the plunge and . . . . . . . . . . recommend it to people. It oozes quality from start to finish, and I hope that more people like it as much as I do if/when they give it some time.


Sunday 24 November 2013

Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Let's not dilly dally here, Where The Sidewalk Ends is quite simply a brilliant piece of work. It's a classic that feels as fresh today as it would have back in 1950, it's a gripping piece of entertainment and it's a film that seems to have influenced many that came along after it (anything with a flawed, quick-to-fight, cop at the centre of things, basically).

Dana Andrews stars as Mark Dixon, a detective known for his heavy-handed ways. Unfortunately, he goes a bit too far one night and accidentally kills a man. Desperate to cover up his crime, the detective creates a scenario that makes it look as if the suspect is still alive, and has fled from the long arm of the law. It's not long until he's tasked with investigating this disappearance, which allows him to meet the lovely Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), the wife of the dead man. When the body is found and a murderer is sought, Dixon tries to shift the blame on to a gangster named Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), but instead ends up getting Morgan's father (Tom Tully) in some hot water. As he tries to put things right, Dixon gets more and more tangled up in his own web.

Directed by Otto Preminger, this is unforgettable stuff. It's gritty, it's smart and it keeps everything, or at least the main character, tightly wound.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it much here, but I've certainly already told many people about my love for Gene Tierney and this film does nothing to change that. Andrews may be the main star, and absolutely brilliant he is too, but Tierney is easily believable as the kind of woman who would make a man try to change for the better. Merrill and Tully are both good, Bert Freed does well as a fellow lawman, and Karl Malden is the Lieutenant who wants the truth, as opposed to just a neat resolution.

Based on the novel by William L. Stuart, the script was worked on by a number of people as it made its way from page to screen, but the final result shows that the effort was worth it. This isn't necessarily a film that revolves around sizzling dialogue, but the script is a good one and the way that the story plays out is, well, it's nearly flawless, in my opinion.

What could so easily have been a movie that started to fall apart after one great idea, instead goes from strength to strength, thanks to the performances and the way that it manages to feel surprisingly plausible throughout. Essential viewing for film fans.


Saturday 23 November 2013

A Simple Plan (1998)

Directed by Sam Raimi, and adapted for the screen by Scott B. Smith (working from his own novel), A Simple Plan is a low-key film from a director better known for wild adventures and some frenetic camerawork. He may not have been the obvious choice to work with this material, but the end result speaks for itself.

Bill Paxton plays Hank, a young man working hard to maintain a decent life for himself and his pregnant partner, Sarah (Bridget Fonda). But everything looks as if it could change for the better when Hank, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's drinking buddy, Lou (Brent Briscoe), discover a crashed plane in the woods that happens to have over $4M dollars on board. The men decide to keep the money, but to wait until they find out whether or not it is safe to spend. If any heat starts to come down on them, at all, then Hank will turn their find over to the police. It's not long until the money starts to cause problems, and paranoia begins to set in.

Set in a Minnesota covered in snow - I don't know if it's often so white there or just seasonally - this is a stark film. A film that juxtaposes death and blood right beside all of that pure, white snow. It also juxtaposes a situation getting out of control with performances that are brilliantly calm and natural. Paxton has rarely been better in an everyday Joe role, Thornton is as great as he so often can be, and it's only Briscoe who gets to act up a bit, although his character still feels very believable as he just happens to be that kind of drunken ass. Fonda's character is not onscreen all that often, but makes quite an impact on the proceedings with the ideas that she gives to Hank. And then there's Chelcie Ross and Gary Cole, both doing great work in small, but vital, roles.

One of a few Sam Raimi movies that doesn't feel obviously like a Sam Raimi movie, this shows that he can leave his reliable bag of tricks aside, when the material is strong enough, and focus on crafting a story full of memorable characters without any quirks, overdone horror or ridiculous diversions pandering to his own sense of humour. That's not to say that I don't love many of his other movies (I do, I REALLY do, especially the three films featuring a certain young man named Ash battling a load of demons in a cabin in the woods), but it's always good to see him stretching himself slightly instead of relying on the stuff that he knows will please his fans.

A film executed in a way that almost mirrors the plotting, this seems simple enough, but there's plenty going on to make it appear so enjoyable and effortless. It's well worth your time.


Friday 22 November 2013

Out Of The Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum stars in this classic film noir, directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by Daniel Mainwaring (using the name Geoffrey Homes to adapt his own novel, "Build My Gallows High).

When Mitchum first appears onscreen he is just Jeff Bailey, the owner of a gas station in a small town, causing small ripples with his blossoming romance with Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). It's not long until we find out about Mitchum's past, due to the appearance of a man named Joe (Paul Valentine). Joe wants Jeff to accompany him to meet up with a gangster named Whit (Kirk Douglas), which leads to Jeff having to tell Ann all about a tale from his past that he'd hoped to forget. A tale of love, crime and a woman named Kathie (Jane Greer).

A film that moves from relative light to darkness, Out Of The Past is noir in an almost literal sense, as a shadow falls over the life of the main character and starts to grow, consuming him and keeping him in its clutches. For fans of noir, and this film in particular, there's a much better review here by Christianne Benedict (damn her for being such a consistently better wordsmith and more knowledgeable cinephile than I am). But I will struggle on and try to write down my own thoughts on the film.

As you might expect from the talent, both onscreen and off, this is a class act, through and through. The script is very good, packed with information and small details that all feed into the plot, but the emphasis is on the visuals, as Mitchum is consumed by a past that he thought he'd escaped.

By the time the third act comes along, viewers may sense an air of fatalism. Many noirs have that aspect, but this one is more poignant than most. Mitchum is an anti-hero with a better heart, a character less deserving of any bad luck than most from these movies. Of course, he makes a few bad decisions, but he does so out of love, as opposed to greed (although it could be argued that such a strong love IS a form of greed).

The cast all do a great job. Mitchum may have been better, in my opinion, showing the cheeky charm that he showed in The Big Steal, and his best performance remains the peerless Night Of The Hunter, but he's very easy to like here, he's a flawed character that everyone will root for. Douglas is a great bad guy, all the more dangerous for being so charming and pleasant. Huston is sweet as Ann Miller, perfectly balancing out the cool, twisty turn by Greer as Kathie.

Rightly regarded by many as one of the classic film noirs, Out Of The Past manages to check all of the boxes, and deliver style and entertainment in spades, while still twisting things subtly to help it stand out from the pack. It also, unlike many other (still great) films in this style, manages to marry the cool, thriller aspects with some real heart.


Thursday 21 November 2013

Kill Me Again (1989)

The directorial debut of John Dahl, Kill Me Again is an enjoyable neo-noir that suffers in comparison to the future films that Dahl would deliver (most notably, The Last Seduction, but also the great Red Rock West).

Things start off with Fay (Joanne Whalley, billed here when she was Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) and Vince (Michael Madsen) making away with a suitcase full of stolen money. It turns out to be a lot more than Vince thought it would be, leading him to start worrying and considering where they can go to lie low. Fay doesn't want to lie low, so she gets Vince out of the picture and heads off on her own. Well, on her own with the suitcase full of money. Knowing that Vince will be in hot pursuit, Fay contacts a private eye (Val Kilmer) and asks him to help fake her death. She doesn't tell him the truth, of course, but she tells him enough to get him interested, with the bit about paying him $10,000 - an amount that he owes to people who are happy to hurt his fingers - probably the most interesting part. Things go according to plan . . . . . . . up to a point. Then, almost inevitably, things start to go awry.

Both Kilmers do well in their roles, with Val Kilmer playing the standard detective part well and Joanne Whalley being suitably sexy and manipulative. Michael Madsen remains a credible threat throughout the film, and there's a small role for Jon Gries (an actor I always enjoy watching, especially in '80s fare). Unfortunately, nobody else really stands out, good or bad, and the main characters aren't developed well enough to make the whole movie great. It's quite good, with the main problems being the pacing and a loose feeling to the whole thing, but it's not great.

Dahl, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David W. Warfield, shows his potential here, but also can't hide the fact that this is his first directorial feature. He has a good sense of style, and the script has a decent "skeleton" to it, but there just isn't enough good stuff fleshing out the movie beyond the main plot points.

It's okay, worth giving some time to if there is nothing better available, but it should have been more exciting, a bit sexier and a bit less . . . . . . . slapdash.


Wednesday 20 November 2013

This Gun For Hire (1942)

Alan Ladd stars as Philip Raven, the hired gun of the title. He gets in some hot water when his latest employer, via a cowardly middle man (Laird Cregar), pays him his fee in bills that have been reported as stolen. Out for revenge, Raven soon finds himself dragging the beautiful Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) into his plan. Unfortunately, Graham has a boyfriend who is in the LAPD (Michael Crane, played by Robert Preston), and it's not long until the net starts to close in around them.

Based on a novel by Graham Greene, this is an enjoyable film noir, but it's the least of the Ladd-Lake pairings in this style. Lake, especially, isn't treated well in the first half of the movie, being given a couple of minor musical numbers that feel out of place.

The script by Albert Maltz and W. R. Burnett isn't too bad, those musical moments aside. It keeps the character of Raven interesting, even if he's not very likeable, and lines everything up in time for a satisfying finale that ensures viewers are rooting for the right character by that point.

Director Frank Tuttle does well enough, but I can't help thinking that he could have done better with the cast he has.

Ladd is as good as he usually is in this type of role, Lake is luminous once again, and Crane is solid, but it's the supporting cast members who raise this above average. Cregar is a fantastic, conniving, coward, a man easy to dislike while remembering that he would always have someone else giving him orders, and Pamela Blake makes a great impression, despite only having a couple of scenes. She plays a young woman who dislikes Raven, with good reason, and her performance is a spirited mix of anger and fear.

Having only recently discovered both Ladd and Lake on film, I must say that they have yet to disappoint me. While This Gun For Hire may be the weakest of their film noirs, it's still a good film, and I don't think fans will regret giving this, or any of their other collaborations, a watch.


Tuesday 19 November 2013

Bound (1996)

Written and directed by the hugely talented Wachowski siblings, Bound is a sleek and sexy neo-noir, perfectly cast and paced, and shot with the same eye for visuals that would develop further in their future hits.

Jennifer Tilly plays Violet, a frustrated and unhappy woman living with Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Caesar is a small cog in the big machine that is the mob. He launders money, as well as doing some other odd jobs. It's enough to give them a decent life, but Violet wants out. She sees a chance to do that when she falls for Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-con who has just moved into the apartment next door. As Violet and Corky spend some time developing a relationship, Violet discusses a plan that could leave them with everything they want. Caesar is holging just over $2M in the apartment in a suitcase. If that money was stolen, in a way that was made to look like it was done by Johnnie Marzzone (Christopher Meloni), then Caesar would just have to run. He hates Johnnie, but the man is the son of the big boss, Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian). But it's never quite that easy to get everything you want.

Although the script is decent enough, this is a movie that's all about the style and the characters onscreen. The plot isn't as twisty and turny as other neo-noirs, but there are enough moments of added tension to keep viewers interested until they get to the conclusion.

Tilly and Gershon are both excellent in their roles, very believable in their attraction to one another and both smart enough to deal with the many potential obstacles that may thwart their plan. Joe Pantoliano is his usual greatness, clearly enjoying how he gets to play Caesar, as a small fish pretending he's not in such a big pond. Meloni is an enjoyable asshole, and John P. Ryan easily commands respect as Micky Malnato, a fellow mobster who thinks highly of Violet.

The other big plus point for Bound is that it's damn sexy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the type of guy to think any time two women kiss is a big turn on, but this movie starts to turn up the heat from the very first scene and keeps things at boiling point until about the halfway mark, where it goes down to a steady simmer.

Definitely one to watch if you haven't already, Bound is a great blend of elements that shows the potential that the Wachowskis would achieve just a few years later.


Monday 18 November 2013

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

While it's no classic, and certainly a rung or two below The Glass Key (a film sharing many of the cast members), there's some easy fun to be had with The Blue Dahlia, a film written by Raymond Chandler and directed by George Marshall.

Alan Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a man who gets home from military service to find that his wife (Doris Dowling) hasn't exactly been sitting at the window with a lamp on, awaiting his return. She's been living it up, particularly enjoying the company of Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). The husband and wife argue, the husband storms out, and later that night there's a murder. It looks like Johnny is the man the police desperately want to get a hold of, but his friends, played by William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont, don't want to see him imprisoned. Even if they suspect that he may have done it. Johnny also finds an ally in the shape of a woman (Veronica Lake) he doesn't realise is actually Mrs. Harwood.

The Blue Dahlia may not have the best script or the most thrills, but it's an enjoyable enough watch, thanks mainly to the characters populating the onscreen world. Ladd has always been more of a stoic than charismatic lead, but that suits just fine in a film such as this. Lake is always captivating, Da Silva is enjoyably slippery and nobody does the big lug quite like Bendix. Will Wright, Tom Powers and others all help to keep boredom at bay.

There aren't any surprises here, no twists and turns beyond those that fans of crime flicks will see coming a mile away, but everything moves along well enough. There's a final scene that ties up any loose ends, without spending more time than necessary on each detail, and every element onscreen is at least competent and satisfying, despite being unspectacular and a bit lacking in excitement. Still worth a watch though, especially for anyone who enjoys the movie stars of this era.


Sunday 17 November 2013

The Last Seduction (1994)

In the opening scenes of The Last Seduction we find out that the lead character, Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino, in her best ever role), isn't very nice. She's smart, but not very nice. Just how smart she is, and how nasty, only becomes clear as the plot unfolds, and things move towards a fantastic, dark, entertaining climax (no pun intended, considering the libido and confidence of Bridget).

Directed by John Dahl, and written by Steve Barancik, The Last Seduction is one long con game being played out by Bridget, a woman who has left her husband (Bill Pullman) with a bag of money that he made from selling drugs. The husband owes money to people who tend to damage his thumbs whenever he can't pay so he's understandably angry. Bridget continues to plan her exit strategy, biding her time in a small town that has very little going on, but allows herself some fun with a local boy, Mike (Peter Berg). Poor Mike doesn't realise that he's about to be involved in some wild mind games as Bridget coldly lines up all of the pieces for her big play.

John Dahl is a fine director  (having also given audiences the superb Red Rock West and Joy Ride AKA Roadkill) and he does himself a few favours here by working with a superb script, by Steve Barancik, and assembling a cast all doing some of their best work. Fiorentino, especially, hasn't had any better role to sink her teeth into, but Berg is great as the small town boy who dreams of bigger things, Pullman is surprisingly good in an atypical role for him, J. T. Walsh does his usual stellar work in an all-too-brief role, and Bill Nunn does well as a detective hired to find Bridget/the money. Dean Norris also has a very small role, alongside Brien Varady, the two of them playing friends of Mike who don't waste their energy on big dreams and are just happy with small town life.

Everything comes together perfectly to make this a real treat for fans of neo-noirs. The script is chock full of great lines and exchanges, the characters are all memorable (even the more minor characters like the poor schmuck, played by Mik Scriba, who is tasked with tailing Bridget), and the lady at the centre of events is one of the best femme fatales ever. Very smart, very sexy, and as cold-hearted as they come. Which always makes things more fun in the world of noir.


Saturday 16 November 2013

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

AKA Farewell My Lovely

Dick Powell stars as private eye Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel that entertains while never really attaining greatness.

Marlowe's day starts when he's asked by a big moose of a man (Moose Malloy, played by  Mike Mazurki) to track down a woman he loves. Moose turns out to be a bit of a hard man to keep passive, but that's only the start of Marlowe's worries. He then agrees to accompany a man (Lindsay Marriott, played by Douglas Walton) as an exchange is made - cash for a stolen necklace. The exchange doesn't go according to plan, and Marlowe finds himself getting deeper and deeper in trouble, thanks, he suspects, in no small part to Mrs. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) and her step-daughter, Ann (Anne Shirley).

Adapted for the screen by John Paxton, and directed by Edward Dmytryk, Murder, My Sweet has some decent dialogue and an entertaining cast of characters (with Moose Malloy particularly reminsicent of some Dick Tracy hoodlum), but nothing feels quite as sharp as it could be.

Powell isn't terribly charismatic in the lead role, which ultimately drags the whole film down a notch, and the two main ladies also fail to really create any sparks, although both do slightly better than anyone else onscreen, with the exception of the enjoyable Mazurki. Donald Douglas is good as an exasperated Police Lieutenant, but Otto Kruger and Ralf Harolde are both instantly forgettable as soon as they move offscreen.

Fans of this type of movie WILL find enough to enjoy here. The plot twists together nicely, a few one-liners tickle the earlobes and the finale is enjoyable and satisfying. But there are many other movies more deserving of your time.


Friday 15 November 2013

Lord Of Illusions (1995)

Clive Barker hasn't always had the best of luck in adapting his works for the medium of film. Hellraiser and Candyman were great successes, but it's only now, many years later, that Nightbreed is being seen in a cut closer to his vision, and Lord Of Illusions is a film that perhaps should have been left a while, given time for Barker to develop a better budget and make use of some better CGI. It also may have worked better with a better cast.

Scott Bakula takes the lead role, playing detective Harry D'Amour, a man who is no stranger to the occult, as the newspapers keep reminding the public in any articles about him. His latest case brings him in contact with a renowned illusionist (Philip Swann, played by Kevin J. O'Connor), his lovely wife (Famke Janssen) and a number of members of a dangerous cult who are awaiting the return of their leader (Daniel von Bargen). He also meets a number of magicians and has to start differentiating between what is magic and what is illusion, and which, if any, can do him harm.

Written and directed by Barker, from his own work - "The Last Illusion" - there is a lot to like in Lord Of Illusions, but almost just as much to dislike. As previously mentioned, the CGI is a particular problem, at times. That's a great shame because some of the practical effects are great, and a film so concerned with magic should have kept things as practical as possible. The same mistake was made in the much more recent Now You See Me.

Bakula tries his best in the lead role, but he's just never been a leading man, in my opinion, outwith TV. This is a great role, an archetypal private eye who gets out of his depth, but he still struggles. Kevin J. O'Connor does a bit better as Philip Swann, but he's another actor who I've never been that impressed by. Thankfully, Janssen does her best with a pretty weak role, and Daniel von Bargen is as great as he usually is.

The movie does well when Barker fills the screen with small, disquieting details, as he does in the opening scenes (a prologue that shows the apparent end of von Bargen's cult), and it has one or two good ideas that deserved better treatment, but this ends up being quite a disappointment. The detective story strand isn't all that entertaining, the horror isn't scary and viewers are just left with a bunch of separate, flat moments sandwiched in between good 5-10 minute sequences at either end.


Thursday 14 November 2013

The Glass Key (1942)

Brian Donlevy plays the central character in this enjoyable film noir, but the movie really belongs to Alan Ladd, playing his smart, loyal, right hand man. And the fact that Veronica Lake is also in the cast means that she steals many scenes simply by being as beautiful as she is.

The story, by Dashiell Hammett, is all about a smooth criminal named Paul Madvig (Donlevy) who wants to straighten up his act and move forwards in life. This is due, in no small part, to his falling for Janet Henry (Lake). As Paul starts to ruffle some feathers, particularly those of a crook named Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), he finds himself being set up for a big fall. A murder rap could be pinned on him, and it could be hard to beat. Thankfully, his friend, and star employee, Ed Beaumont (Ladd) is also hard to beat, and he keeps digging around to find out who the real murderer was and how everything is being laid at Paul's feet.

Directed by Stuart Heisler, this is an unspectacular film that eventually blossoms into a thing of subtle beauty. Early scenes make viewers prepare themselves for another standard crime flick, but as Ed starts to use his intelligence while so many other people use fists and/or bullets it goes from strength to strength.

Ladd may not be the most charismatic actor to have graced the silver screen, but in the latter half of the film he does perfectly fine as someone who won't give up, no matter how much others try to deter him with threats and beatings. Donlevy is wonderfully smooth, and often a step or two behind Ladd's character, in the role of Paul, making him a reformed criminal that's easy to root for when compared to the other bad guy. And Calleia is good enough as that other bad guy, he's suitably ruthless and brutal. William Bendix, as a big man who administers beatings when ordered, is also pretty brutal, and there's a middle section that's surprisingly gruelling to watch thanks to his involvement. Lake is lovely, it's all too easy to see why a man would change his ways to try to be with her.

The script, by Jonathan Latimer, is very good, even if it falls just short of the greatness of the truly classic noirs. Ladd gets most of the best lines, but any exchange of dialogue between himself and Donlevy or Bendix ends up being quite enjoyable.

I'm not sure if this is a generally well-liked film, but I certainly liked it, a lot, and I hope that others will at least give it a watch, to see whether or not they agree.


Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

Another version of the tale originally written by James M. Cain, this movie caused quite a sensation when first released in 1981. Viewing it today, it's hard to tell just why people thought it was so good. It's also hard to tell why people thought stars Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange decided to actually have sex in their passionate sex scenes. It may be spicy stuff, but there's nothing to suggest that it's more real than many other movie sex scenes.

Nicholson plays drifter Frank Chambers, and Lange is Cora Papadakis, married to the kind and trusting Nick Papadakis (John Colicos). As Frank and Cora grow closer to one another they decide to get Nick out of the picture. Things don't go quite according to plan (do they ever?) and the two characters soon find themselves being played against one another by those seeking justice. Thankfully, they have the shrewd Mr. Katz (Michael Lerner) on their side.

Directed by Bob Rafelson, and adapted for the screen this time by David Mamet, this focuses more on the fires that burn within the central characters, and the almost masochistic nature of their relationship, than the main crime and its repercussions.

Nicholson and Lange are both very good in the lead roles, as you'd expect from this pair in the 1980s, and the support cast are great (Colicos is just jovial and sweet, Lerner does well with a relatively small role, likewise with John P. Ryan, William Traylor and Anjelica Huston).

The problem I have with the film nowadays is that it feels as if it was designed to shock, with very little else to it. The fact that it still proves relatively watchable is due, mainly, to Nicholson and Lange, but the sex isn't sexy, the characters aren't people that you want to spend too much time with and even the very end of the film disappoints, especially compared to the 1946 version of the tale.

Still one to watch, and there are lots of people who rate this higher than I do, but I didn't find anything more to it than the sex and treachery. I love a bit of sex and treachery, but I also love a bit more going on, either technically or throughout the script, which this doesn't have.


Tuesday 12 November 2013

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Based on a novel by James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a very enjoyable tale of love, hate, treachery and misfortune. It hits all of the beats that noir fans will expect, but it does so in a way that's enjoyably different from the other movies of the era.

John Garfield stars as Frank Chambers, a man with a bad case of itchy feet. He is finally persuaded to settle down when offered a job by the kindly Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). It's not Nick's kindness that persuades him, however, it's the beauty of Nick's wife, Cora (Lana Turner). The two don't immediately get along, but when the cool lady starts to warm up to Frank it becomes clear that the husband will have go go.

The screenplay here, by Niven Busch and Harry Ruskin, isn't the sharpest, with only a few barbed exchanges sticking in the memory, but the direction from Tay Garnett is good enough and the cast is, well, it's a mixed bag, but with plenty of treats.

Garfield is one of the weaker leads, but Turner is much more memorable as Cora. Like every other aspect of the movie, she's not the best archetype seen in the subgenre, but she's one of the best onscreen. Kellaway is very good as Nick, a very kindly soul, oblivious to plans being made for him. Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames are both great as legal eagles on opposing sides.

Although the events unfold onscreen in a fairly unpredictable manner - with most of the developments signposted in advance for eagle-eyed viewers - it must be said that the bigger twists are a bit out of left field, and enjoyably so. The whole final act, in particular, is a fun attempt to repeatedly blindside the viewer, though most of the events that occur do so with at least a little foreshadowing to help people expect the unexpected.

Well worth a watch, but it never quite reaches greatness, in my opinion.


Monday 11 November 2013

Angel Heart (1987)

A blend of horror and noir, Angel Heart is a highly regarded movie, and with good reason. If you haven't seen it yet then get to it. If you have seen it, give it a rewatch and find out just how rewarding it is on repeat viewings.

The story sees detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a missing singer named Johnny Favorite. As Angel starts to make progress, tracking down those who knew Favorite and trying to find out more about his past in order to lead him to Favorite's whereabouts in the present, people start to turn up dead. The finger points to Angel in each instance, but with the growing danger comes a chance to spend some time with the gorgeous Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet).

Directed by Alan Parker, who also adapted the book by William Hjortsberg into screenplay form, this is a film dripping with atmosphere and full of wonderful details throughout, both in the visual style and design, and also in much of the dialogue. It's a hot and sweaty movie, taking place mostly in New Orleans, a film that can almost make you smell the surroundings. It also builds and builds towards a third act full of real, impressive, horror and nastiness.

Rourke has, in my opinion, never been better (but I have yet to explore more of his movies from this time, so that opinion is subject to change). He's a permanently rumpled, doggedly determined, figure. A man who starts to suspect that he's being played for a schmuck, even as he keeps digging for answers. De Niro is a lot of fun in the role of Cyphre, charming and quietly menacing in almost all of his scenes. Lisa Bonet is sexy as hell in a role that couldn't be further removed from her sweet, wholesome turn in The Cosby Show. Charlotte Rampling is also very good, playing almost the polar opposite of Bonet's character. And there are also small, enjoyable turns from Brownie McGhee, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Whitcraft and Pruitt Taylor Vince.

As shocking, at times, as it is entertaining, I rate Angel Heart as a near-perfect movie experience and a bit of a modern classic. There's nothing to fault in terms of the construction and technical side of things, and it's all topped off by a central performance that ranks as one of the very best.


Sunday 10 November 2013

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

As hard-boiled as they come, Kiss Me Deadly is essential viewing for film noir fans, and proves to be an interesting and dark movie over half a century after it was first released.

Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, a private detective who finds himself into something way over his head after he picks up a young woman named Christina (Cloris Leachman). Christina is very scared, and she's right to feel that way. Certain people aren't wanting her to live. Which means that, once Hammer is involved, certain people don't want him to live either. Despite a major attempt to put him in his grave, Hammer smells something BIG and sets out to get to the bottom of things, despite warnings from both allies and enemies.

Directed by Robert Aldrich, this is a film as archetypal and influential as it is twisted and strange. From the unique style of the opening credits to the very last shot, this is a slightly disorienting, slightly unnerving movie with a dark, dark heart. The script by A. I. Bezzerides, based on the book by Mickey Spillane, is a corker, full of snappy, cool dialogue while also dropping breadcrumbs that will lead everyone to a powerful finale.

The acting may not be so consistent, but there's plenty to enjoy. Meeker is great in the lead role, acting cold and selfish much of the time, keeping his emotions in check until people he truly cares for end up endangered. Leachman may not be onscreen for long, but she makes a great impression in her first cinema feature. Maxine Cooper, as Velda Wickman, has some more screentime, and makes an equally great impression as  Hammer's assistant who cares for him a great deal. And then there's Gaby Rodgers as Carver. Her acting isn't as good, she's a bit stilted when she's not overdoing the nervous and vulnerable schtick, but it somehow ends up being good enough come the end of the movie. Jack Elam is as memorable as ever as one of the henchmen who tussles with Hammer, and Paul Stewart and Albert Dekker round out the cast of villains.

Becoming much more than just the sum of its parts, Kiss Me Deadly is a thrilling detective story, unflinching at times and defiantly unafraid to show the many wrongs in the world and how they can't always be put right, even by someone with the best intentions and a whole lot of, perhaps foolhardy, courage.


Saturday 9 November 2013

Body Heat (1981)

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, with no small amount of debt owed to the classic Double Indemnity, Body Heat is a slick, sexy, sweaty thriller that benefits greatly from the central performances, not least that of Kathleen Turner making an astonishing big-screen debut.

William Hurt plays a lawyer, Ned Racine, who falls for the gorgeous Matty Walker (Turner) during a stiflingly hot Florida Summer. The two begin a steamy affair, which then leads them to start thinking about how to deal with the oft-absent Mr. Walker (Richard Crenna). It's not long until murder is mentioned, with Ned clearly making decisions based on his libido as opposed to common sense, and Matty starts to show her ingenuity as the plan is put into effect.

With decent, unfussy, direction and a fine script, Lawrence Kasdan certainly puts all of the pieces in place to make Body Heat an easy movie to enjoy, but his biggest coup was with the casting of the main roles. Hurt has always been a very good actor, and he's as good here as he's ever been, but none of the twists and turns would be believable if he wasn't jumping through hoops to be with Kathleen Turner. Because I can't think of many men who wouldn't jump through hoops to be with Kathleen Turner in the early '80s. The lady dominates the movie, even when she's not onscreen, but that doesn't stop viewers also getting great performances from Crenna, Ted Danson (in what remains one of his best roles), J. A. Preston and a youthful Mickey Rourke. There's also Kim Zimmer, who manages to make a good impression despite only being onscreen for about a minute.

It may not be quite as clever as it wants to be, and certainly stretches plausibility on numerous occasions, but there's always something going on in every scene to entertain and distract from the plot holes. While this isn't on a par with the very best classic or neo-noirs, it still deserves to be allotted a place near the top tier. And Matty Walker is a character who ranks as one of the most memorable, for a mixture of right and wrong reasons.


Friday 8 November 2013

Dead Again (1991)

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson star in this enjoyable thriller/neo-noir that stars the former as a private detective, named Mike Church, trying to help the latter after she has lost her memory and voice. That's not all, however, as both stars also play characters who have shared a tragic event in the past. Has the trauma that occurred many years ago in the lives of Roman (Branagh) and Margaret Strauss (Thompson) somehow affected the mental state of the woman who needs help in the here and now? Perhaps a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) can help. As revelations start to come to the surface, the young woman starts feeling more afraid, worried that the past will repeat itself.

As well as starring in one of the main roles, Branagh also directs the movie, and a fine job he does of it too. The script, by Scott Frank, is pretty well put together, with a number of very enjoyable twists en route to the grand finale and nice, easy transitions between the present and the past (although it helps that the past scenes are in black and white - a choice made after filming had been completed).

The cast are great, with Branagh and Thompson both enjoyable in the lead roles, despite affecting some horrible accents (a bit of a distraction). Jacobi is wonderful in his role, Wayne Knight gets to play someone likable, which is a rarity, Andy Garcia is very good as a reporter who covered the Strauss incident, and Robin Williams has a small, but highly entertaining role, as an ex-psychiatrist who can offer a second opinion on the condition of the leading lady. Campbell Scott appears onscreen for a moment or two, long enough to make quite an impression with his smooth, too good to be true, persona.

Dead Again is a fun film. It's enjoyably old-fashioned and full of many nice details. The more I think about it, the more I like and appreciate it, even with those horrible accents being used by Branagh and Thompson. I'm not sure if it all holds together perfectly, but I can't think of any huge plot holes that pulled me out of the viewing experience, and it develops the narrative strands - past and present - in a way that keeps things interesting, and surprisingly fresh, without getting too smug.

It may not be AS essential viewing as many other movies from this category, but it turns out to be well worth your time.


Available to buy here, but do NOT read the spoilerific product description if you haven't seen the movie -

Thursday 7 November 2013

Crossfire (1947)

While investigating the death of a man named Samuels (Sam Levene), a Police Inspector (Robert Young) starts off with one prime suspect (an army lad named Mitchell, played by George Cooper) but soon realises that there may be more to the crime. Mitchell has Keeley (Robert Mitchum) on his side, but there's also someone (Montgomery, played by Robert Ryan) who seems determined to help the police strengthen their case against Mitchell.

Written by John Paxton, and based on the book by Richard Brooks, Crossfire is an enjoyable, dark thriller that also takes some time to highlight the ugliness of anti-Semitism while never feeling too preachy. There are one or two moments that stop the action in order to make a major point or relate an appropriate moral anecdote, but the performances from everyone onscreen ensure that the film never feels as if it's trying too hard to make its points.

Director Edward Dmytryk does a decent job, but most of the groundwork is laid out by both the fine script and the casting of the lead roles.

Young is great as Finlay, a conscientious policeman who doesn't take long to suspect that he may have been put on the trail of the wrong man. Mitchum doesn't have too many scenes in the movie, but he does well with what he's given. Cooper may be a bit weak in his role, but this works just fine, considering the nature of his character. Last, but far from least in this little tale of death and deceit, we have Ryan, who excels with a performance that makes him easy to hate. Gloria Grahame and Jacqueline White both do good work, with the former especially enjoyable as an unhappily married woman who may be able to provide Mitchell with a vital alibi.

It may be, in many ways, a low-key movie that focuses on characters more than major plot twists and turns, but Crossfire still manages to be surprisingly enjoyable and exciting from start to finish. It's well worth a watch.


Wednesday 6 November 2013

The Big Steal (1949)

Film noir purists may shake their head at The Big Steal being in the same company as movies such as The Killers and Double Indemnity, but that doesn't make the movie itself any less enjoyable.

What The Big Steal lacks in darkness and grit, it more than makes up for with charisma (thanks to Robert Mitchum in the lead role) and a cracking script.

Mitchum is a man who has been accused of robbery. To clear his name he must capture the real thief (Patric Knowles), a man who is also being pursued by a woman named Joan Graham (Jane Greer). The two pursuers initially mistrust one another, but end up joining forces to get to their target. Meanwhile, William Bendix plays a man who is chasing Mitchum and Ramon Novarro is an Inspector General who suspects that something is going on right under his nose, but allows everyone to go about their business while he keeps tabs on them.

Directed by Don Siegel, this feels more in line with adventure movies than film noirs. It's worth noting, however, that the script (by Daniel Mainwaring and Gerald Drayson Adams) has some great twists and turns in there. The first scenes play around with the identities of the main characters while the third act mixes some tension with one or two fun reveals.

Mitchum, who began his career in the 1940s and seemed to spend the next two or three decades making up for lost time, gives a wonderful performance here. He's as tough as he needs to be, and also charming enough to keep Greer, who holds her own alongside him, on his side. Knowles and Bendiz are both just fine, but it's Novarro who steals a number of scenes as he hides his intelligence behind a fumbling exterior.

While it's unlikely to make any "best of..." lists, this is a fun time from start to finish, especially for fans of the main stars.


Tuesday 5 November 2013

V For Vendetta (2005)

"VoilĂ ! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it's my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V."

It's sometimes heavy-handed, it's sometimes simplistic, it's NOT The Matrix (which is what many expected, I think, when this was heavily pushed as being from the Wachowskis, who wrote the script), but V For Vendetta is also absolutely brilliant stuff that packages some very interesting ideas in a mainstream blockbuster form. A lot of the themes explored in the movie are scarily pertinent to civilians living in first world countries nowadays and it's nice to be able to enjoy something so subversive that also has a couple of good action scenes thrown in for good measure.

Natalie Portman plays a young woman, Evey, who has her eyes opened one evening when she is saved from a nasty situation by a masked terrorist, V (Hugo Weaving, behind a Guy Fawkes mask for almost the entire runtime). V takes a liking to Evey, but things get complicated when she gets in the way during another of his spectacular strikes against the repressive government. This means that Evey becomes almost as wanted by the authorites as V, but one policeman (Stephen Rea) starts to dig around and starts to see what V might be trying to show the entire nation.

Directed by James McTeigue, and developed from a graphic novel by David Lloyd and Alan Moore, this is an action movie not designed for those who need a fight sequence every few minutes. It's paced carefully, allowing more time for the dialogue and ideas than the actions that they necessitate.

The cast all do a fantastic job. Portman just about carries off her English accent from start to finish, despite a few wobbles, and Weaving somehow invests his character with so much wit and intelligence that the mask he wears SEEMS expressive, despite the fact that it never really changes. Rea can do the tired, hangdog act about as well as it can be done, and his performance here is a treat. The casting of John Hurt as the leader in a Big Brother world may be a bit of a stunt, but it works. Elsewhere, Stephen Fry does a great job (perhaps, mostly, because he's voicing opinions that don't require him to stretch himself in the acting department), Tim Pigott-Smith and Rupert Graves do well with lesser roles, and Eddie Marsan, Sinead Cusack and Imogen Poots also do well, despite very limited screentime.

But the cast have the Wachowskis to thank (who can, in turn, thank Lloyd and Moore) for such great material. Love or hate their movies, it's hard to argue with the fact that the siblings have succeeded more than any other modern film-makers in packaging smart and/or potentially off-putting material into mainstream blockbusters.

I liked V For Vendetta when I first saw it, but now I love it. Part of that is, undoubtedly, to do with my recent, growing displeasure with the British government and the ever-growing economic divide. But a lot of it is to do with the fact that it's just a bloody great film.


Monday 4 November 2013

The Killers (1946)

Burt Lancaster made his screen debut in this fantastic film noir, and it's easy to see why he went on over the next couple of decades to become such a major star. Even in his first movie role he has a presence and charisma that's hard to beat. It helps that he's surrounded by a great cast, but there's no doubt that his performance in the lead role is a big plus for the film.

Lancaster plays Ole 'Swede' Andreson, a man who is, at the very beginning of the movie, killed by the killers of the title. Just who killed him, and why? That's what insurance investigator Jim Riordan (Edmond O'Brien) wants to find out when he is given the task of finding the man's beneficiary and paying her a lump sum. As he uncovers the story leading up to the killing he starts along a path that may just lead him back to a major, unsolved crime from a number of years ago.

Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers was adapted for the screen by Anthony Veiller and directed by Robert Siodmak. From beginning to end, it's a great mix of grim moments and surprisingly deft humour that makes the runtime just fly by.

Ava Gardner is the other main draw, and she's fantastic as the potentially dangerous Kitty Collins. Lancaster and O'Brien are both great, and Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett and Jack Lambert portray a number of very memorable supporting characters, with Lambert particularly memorable as the gruff 'Dum-Dum' Clarke.

Finding out the events that led up to the opening killing is a very interesting and entertaining journey. The twists and turns may not be entirely unpredictable, especially nowadays, but the whole thing is tightly put together and never feels implausible or illogical.

Lancaster may seem to be a bit too much of a schmuck at times, but the world of film noir is full of schmucks, proving time and time again that there's a sucker born every minute. But, then again, who wouldn't risk being a sucker to stay in the good favour of the gorgeous Ava Gardner?


Sunday 3 November 2013

Double Indemnity (1944)

Fred MacMurray plays insurance salesman Walter Neff in this classic film noir from director Billy Wilder (who co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, based on the book by James M. Cain). Neff is a good guy. He's a great salesman and also a colleague that claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) can depend on. That all changes, however, on the day that he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). He's only visiting to get her husband (Tom Powers) to renew his automobile insurance policy, but Phyllis soon starts guiding the conversation towards life insurance and a policy she could get for her husband that would guarantee a big payout if, god forbid, anything ever happened to him.

Highly influential in all the right ways, Double Indemnity holds up today as a great slice of entertainment and a quintessential film noir. It was far from the first movie in that subgenre, but it's one that remains an almost perfect example containing many of the tropes and showing how to perfectly piece them together.

The one MINOR criticism I have is that the dialogue, so cool and great to listen to, quickly becomes a bit too unnatural. Mind you, after listening to an exchange like the entire first meeting between Walter and Phyllis, the many hits are worth the few misses. It's worth noting that, although it seems I am contradicting myself, at least 90% of the script is a joy to tickle and caress the earlobes.

MacMurray and Robinson are superb in their roles, with the former somehow managing to stay sympathetic and likable even as events take a turn for the worse, but this movie belongs to Stanwyck, who grabs her role with both hands and delivers a performance that film-makers have rightly remembered and tried to emulate ever since. There's also a lovely performance from Jean Heather, playing Stanwyck's stepdaughter, never warming to the woman with good reason.

Billy Wilder gave cineastes a number of classics throughout his career. This is one of them. The voiceover narration, the plot twists, the details teased out in the conversations, the performances, the secondary characters who get to make almost as much of an impression as the leads. I almost gave this 10/10, and many will argue that I should have, but that's the joy of us all having different opinions.


Saturday 2 November 2013

Dark Country (2009)

Many thanks to the GGTMC for their fantastic interview with Thomas Jane from some time ago that turned me onto this film (and, indeed, made me an even bigger fan of the actor).

Thomas Jane and Lauren German star in this interesting neo-noir that wobbles constantly between thriller and horror movie territory. It may feel like little more than an extended episode of The Twilight Zone as the end credits roll, but that's no bad thing.

Jane plays a man who has just woken up in a motel beside his new bride (played by German). The two of them have only recently met - one of those crazy, drunken nights in Las Vegas - and they're about to set off down the road to start their new life together. Unfortunately, that new life together is interrupted when they find a seriously wounded man in the middle of the highway. The near-dead man has a hugely disfigured face and a disconcerting way of putting the newlyweds on edge as they try to help him. Does he know something about one, or both, of them? Something that, perhaps, one hasn't yet shared with the other?

Written by Tab Murphy, and directed (very well, I might add) by Jane, Dark Country is a homage-packed love letter to the crime and noir movies of the past. Even I spotted more of the obvious references, and I'm sure that those more familiar with the sub-genre will find many more. The sardonic voiceover is there, the rear projection is deliberately obvious during most of the driving scenes and many of the scenes are processed in a way that makes the whole thing feel a bit older than a 2009 release. It's nicely done.

Despite the other people who appear - the accident victim, a police officer played by Ron Perlman, one or two others - this is, for the most part, a two-hander between Jane and German. Both do a great job. The former is a nice mixture of cynicism and optimism, while the latter is sweet and damn sexy. One particularly memorable scene with an ice cube is now seared into my brain, it's one of the most impressively erotic moments that I've seen in recent years.

Of course, being the type of film that this is, the characters are far from flawless, and each has a moment or two of being a bit too rough on the other one. Viewers will start to wonder if German is a standard femme fatale one moment, the next they will just be thinking of Jane's character as, to be blunt, a bit of a bastard.

While it's not going to win any awards, this is a great little movie that keeps things entertaining while wearing plenty of influences on its sleeves. Sit back, strap yourself in and go along for the ride.