Rating: The Good – 83.1 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 99mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya
The Coen Brothers’ debut and arguably their signature film stars Ray Hedaya as a wealthy but jealous bar owner who hires a seedy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), firstly, to confirm that his younger wife (Francis McDormand) is having an affair with his employee (John Getz) but eventually, to kill them both. As you’d expect from the Coens, there are lots of ins and lots of outs in this story and, combined with the seductive dialogue, it makes for a compelling modern film noir that ranks among the best of the genre. Appropriate also to the genre is Barry Sonnenfeld’s atmospheric photography and the way in which the wider setting (in this case Texas) becomes a character in the story in and of itself (ditto Carter Burwell’s seeping score). The cast are uniformly excellent with McDormand, Walsh, and Hedaya being particularly memorable. Hedaya for his part has never been better and would easily run away with the film if it wasn’t for the caliber of his co-stars. Blood Simple is as atmospheric as movies get and there isn’t a single feature of the production that a movie buff wouldn’t relish. Most importantly, however, is the fact that it’s an electric story with more twists and turns than a bag full of corkscrews.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Crime, Film-Noir Duration: 100 mins Director: Raoul Walsh Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis
The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 71 mins Director: Ida Lupino Stars: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play two buddies whose fishing trip takes a nasty turn when they pick up William Talman’s murderous hitchhiker. As one of the first women to step behind a camera in Hollywood, Ida Lupino blazed a cinematic trail by penning and directing this relentless film-noir and the fact that it was loosely based on a real story of the time makes the drama all the more chilling. O’Brien and Lovejoy are terrific in different ways and give their characters a believable chemistry. Talmam on the other hand is truly intimidating as the sadistic serial killer with far too many points to prove. It’s the characterisations that make this story so telling with the final scene being particularly perceptive. Lupino does as well behind the camera as she builds an increasingly uncomfortable tension with every passing frame until that breathless finale. The Hitch-Hiker is dark cinema even for the heyday of film-noir but its textbook construction and acting make it just as compelling.
Rating: The Good – 70.9 Genre: Thriller Duration: 114 mins Director: Scott Frank Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
A refreshingly focused thriller from a writer-director who continues to defy the current trend by honouring the genre’s best traditions of putting brains before action. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who’s hired by a drug dealer to find the brutal lunatics who kidnapped and murdered his wife – before they sent her back in pieces. Walk Among the Tombstones walks a number of lines very well. It’s dark without being dreary, thrilling but not over the top, and pensive without being boring. But most welcome of all is that it’s paced with an old time respect for story. The well nourished plot develops seamlessly around three or four intriguing characters from the excellent Dan Stevens as the atypical dealer with a thirst for vengeance to Brian “Astro” Bradley’s homeless kid who latches onto Neeson with notions of being a “Sam Spade”-like partner. And as the killers enter the fray, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson provide just the right amount of menace to not detract from the film’s tempered mood. After a solid debut behind the camera with The Lookout, the writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty raises his game further by achieving a more comprehensive balance between the script, production design, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s clean cinematography, and Carlos Rafael Rivera’s quietly tense score. Unsurprisingly, given his writing credits, the dialogue is laced with hard grit and the cast, particularly Neeson and Harbour, eat it up. The finale threatens some melodrama and a familiar backstory to Neeson’s character hold this one back a little but its overall tangibility and coherence raise it well above the recent fluff the genre has suffered. And on top of all that, how great is it to see Neeson back in a role worthy of his talent!?!
Rating: The Good – 74.3 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 95 mins Director: John Berry Stars: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Barry Sullivan
Wonderful if obscure thriller capturing much of the cleverness which defined the best film-noir but perhaps missing out on the genre’s overall dexterity. Richard Basehart is the meek pharmacist working the long night shift to keep his materialistic and altogether distasteful wife (Audrey Totter in true vixenish form) happy. When she brazenly leaves him for a wealthier man, he creates an alter ego who he intends to ultimately kill the interloper and then promptly disappear. To say it all goes pear-shaped and that unintended homicide is involved isn’t giving much away but the audience is dealt an engaging series of twists and turns along the way. Basehart is as good as his limited craft typically allowed him to be while Totter channels the latter side to the femme fatale trope with relish. Pure vinegar and no wine, she might not grasp the necessary complexity of the great cinematic tradition but she nonetheless makes for one hell of a nasty steak of self-regard – and director John Berry and composer André Brevin don’t waste an opportunity to build the movie’s darker more sultry moods around her. Barry Sullivan is great fun as the homicide detective who wines and dines his suspects until he gets what he wants out of them – even if he is central to a bemusing introduction which seems to serve no other purpose thank to explain the relevance of the title.
Rating: The Good – 80.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 95 mins Director: William Wyler Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 92 mins Director: Anthony Mann Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Wallace Ford, Alfred Ryder
Ignore the propagandist and rather wooden introduction to the “six fingers of the Treasury Departments’s fist” and that completely unnecessary narration and what emerges within these 92 minutes is a gritty, cleverly written detective noir with a winding plot and more hardbitten dialogue than you can shake a blackjack at. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder are the two Treasury Agents (or “T-Men”) infiltrating a counterfeiting ring operating between LA and Detroit. But, as they increment their way to the top of the organisation, they find it increasingly difficult to guard against discovery especially with Wallace Ford’s crafty “schemer” in the mix. With the great John Alton operating the camera and Anthony Mann orchestrating, T-Men is as sharp looking a noir as you’ll find. Whether it’s the neon signs reflecting in pools of rain water or their run-down backstreet locations, the grime of the city seems to be veritably painted into the cracks of the walls. Virginia Kellog’s story is a crime thriller dandy in its own right but John C. Higgins’ screenplay gives it a dynamism that rivals the most slippery of noirs. Ford steals the show as the panicky self-serving old-time crook and Ryder is every bit the wise guy/detective. While O’Keefe is perfectly solid, he’s undeniably missing the personality of the genre’s heavyweights. Throw a Mitchum, Bogie, or Widmark into that role (and remove that godawfully stilted narration) and T-Men would’ve been as good as anything the genre had to offer. As it is, well, it’s still a peach.
Rating: The Good – 66.1 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 99 mins Director: Henry Hathaway Stars: Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix
Mark Stevens stars as a private dick picked as a fall-guy by Clifton Webb’s ruthless art dealer when he decides to knock of the man stepping out with his wife. Leo Rosten’s cracking story is every bit on the level of the genre’s classics but a litany of rewrites and imported screenwriters does it no justice as the dialogue struggles dismally for the lyrical wit and cynicism of the hardboiled greats. Stevens too turns in a typically flat performance and while Lucille Ball adds personality, her lines are just as weak as the rest. The villains fare a little better with William Bendix giving us another memorable version of his rough-house henchman and Webb, though not spitting nearly as much venom as his Waldo Lydecker, is fittingly acidic. Henry Hathaway brings his modest touch to the movie’s directing and, while not proving memorable, the movie remains a wholly decent picture to look at.
Rating: The Good – 75.9 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 91 mins Director: William Keighley Stars: Mark Stevens, Richard Widmark, Lloyd Nolan
Thrilling undercover detective noir that sees Mark Stevens’ FBI agent infiltrate Richard Widmark’s methodical gang of thieves and murderers only to find himself in a highly organised underworld where every recruit is screened and validated through illicit access to confidential police files. Joseph McDonald (he who shot My Darling Clementine) brings an irresistible neon glow to the damp and murky streets of the fictitious Central City that ranks with the seminal look of that noir classic Murder My Sweet. Director William Keighley utilises every bit of it too as he frames many a dramatic moment around that glitzy grey world. Perhaps even more remarkable is Harry Kleiner’s script that, when enacted through McDonald’s lens and Keighley’s conceptualisation, was to become a major influence on everyone from Scorsese to David Chase. And it’s the inimitable Widmark who is chiefly responsible for its most potent realisations. As the quirky kingpin with a serious distaste for draughts and colds, Widmark’s “Alec Stiles” was to personify a new kind of American mobster whose intelligent yet impatient control over his gang led to many a violent reprimand and foreshadowed that of Goodfellas‘ Jimmy Conway and later on, one Tony Soprano. As the thorn in his side, Stevens is actually quite strong given that he could sometimes fall flat in the lead. Even if one is left with the impression that a more substantial actor would’ve made more of the role, it remains a playful turn as the streetwise detective and nicely complements the sophistication of Stiles’ clever helmsmanship. Where this piece of crime fiction falls short of the classics, however, is in its hokey championing of the FBI as a glowing beacon of honesty in the criminal justice apparatus. It was a feature of a peculiar type of movie being made at the time where the cooperation of the justice system in providing locations and on-set advice seemed to be repaid with an unabashed adulation.
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 94 mins Director: Jules Dassin Stars: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb
Unique noir drama courtesy of one of the genre’s great directors follows a couple of truck drivers as they attempt to sell a consignment of apples to a cutthroat retailer while at the same time wrangle the money he cheated from one of their fathers during a previous sale. Richard Conte stars as the offended party determined to stand up to Lee J. Cobb’s hardened chiseller and, if possible, exact some revenge for his role in his father’s paralysis. The pair cultivate a fine antagonism that Jules Dassin slow cooks for most of the film while he goes about showing us the ins and outs of the backstreet produce trade. As Conte’s partner, the craggy Millard Mitchell adds a worldly presence to contextualise Conte and Cobb’s personal duel while providing a tense subplot involving Millard and a couple of competitors. With Dassin behind the camera, take it as a given that Thieves’ Highway looks every bit the classic but for a story outside the traditional noir territory of murder and detectives – a tradition that lent itself to a raw visual aesthetic – it’s particularly accomplished in its execution. Norbert Brodine’s polished photography and Thomas Little’s set design are especially stunning to behold and fit for the purposes of A.I. Bezzerides’s unusual take on the doomed inertia of the noir hero. Adapting his own novel, the latter strikes a delicate balance between the intimacy of the working man’s plight and the hard edge of criminal ethics but it’s Dassin exquisite orchestration that brings it all together in such riveting fashion.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 73 mins Director: André de Toth Stars: Gene Nelson, Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson
Another top class crime thriller from the annals noir, this one coming courtesy of maverick director André de Toth, who fought tooth and nail with Jack Warner so that Sterling Hayden could take on the role the latter wanted for a certain Humphrey Bogart. Hayden stars as the cynical detective on the tail of two escaped prisoners who are forcing an ex-con gone straight and his wife to help them in a bank robbery. Ted de Corsia is the brains of the nasty outfit, a young Charles Bronson is the volatile brawn and a host of other gnarly faces of the time (including an even spacier than usual Timothy Carey) provide the backup. Needless to say, Hayden chews the scenery about as much as does the toothpick sticking out his mouth in place of the cigarettes the doctor has banned. There’s rarely been a more grizzled character actor so well suited to gritty street noir but he tempers that nicely here with a veiled compassion for the two victims at the centre of the tale. Relatively unknown at the time, Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk are genuinely excellent as that couple and provide the perfect platform to connect both sides of the law. Crane Wilbur’s hard bitten screenplay simply oozes class and funnelled as it is through de Toth’s focused momentum, it gives the movie a palpable energy. Choosing to shoot on location in LA, de Toth dresses his film in that priceless atmosphere that was an unfortunately rare feature of the majority of studio shot thrillers of the day. From the first person perspective of the daytime driving sequences to the fleeting shadows of the nighttime encounters, he turns Crime Wave into the cinéma vérité masterclass of the LA noir.
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 93 mins Director: John Sturges Stars: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett
One of the earliest police procedurals, this wonderful little thriller focuses on the attempts of a detective to solve a Jane Doe case using the help of forensic medicine expert. Ricardo Montalban puts in a composed shift as the young detective and manages to work much of the charm he’d be later renowned for into a personality driven by perfectionism and the anguish of potentially being wrong. Bruce Bennett is slightly more languid as the learned expert who instructs the police on the science behind the clues. Forensics was still in its infancy at the time Mystery Street was made so one could’ve forgiven director John Sturges and co. for framing the movie entirely around the investigation but it’s to their credit that they made a proper drama of the characters and plot. As the investigation develops multiple strands, each is fleshed out by some memorable personalities. Jan Sterling makes a relatively brief appearance as the soon to be victim but sets a brass tone for the more heartless side to the story. The perennially eccentric Elsa Lanchester is delightfully untrustworthy as her greedy landlord while Betsy Blaire, as her kind neighbour, is a ray of sunshine in those otherwise murky digs. And then you have Sally Forrest almost stealing the show as the desperate wife of the man who the police have mistaken for the killer. Such casting provides a solid base to what was happening on the other side of the camera and, in fact, it’s perhaps the technical side to the film that most impresses what with its sly plot and Richard Brooks’ equally cynical dialogue dripping from the tongues of the good and bad alike. Bringing it all together is a pre-prime Sturges exhibiting the controlled energy of his later work but with a welcomed levity. Of course, having the great John Alton shooting the film is no small bonus and the lighting and use of perspective throughout is of surprising quality for a small feature, not to mention, a genuine treat. All in all, there’s little fault to be found here, just a cracking good story shot with plenty of class.