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 – 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 – 85.2 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 111 mins Director: Billy Wilder Stars: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur
Billy Wilder shows that film-noir can be done just as well outside the traditional confines of murky streets and shadowy cities by giving us a dry and dusty noir that has all the punch of the more famed classics. Kirk Douglas is the professionally exiled newspaper man who takes up with a small town paper hoping for a big story that’ll propel him back into favour with the big city papers. And when a cave-in traps an average schmuck who had been looting a local Indian burial chamber, he seizes his chance with both hands. There’s just one problem: the schmuck may be rescued too soon for the story to get enough traction. Using all his wiles to co-opt the sheriff and rescuers, the driven reporter orchestrates a slower rescue while, outside the cave, the public interest reaches fever pitch.
Ace in the Hole makes for a rather picturesque film even if you don’t immediately notice it. The sun bleached New Mexican landscape contrasted with the dust and darkness of the cave harnesses the mood of Wilder’s perceptive screenplay to create a rather impressive canvas for his critique of media sensationalism. Chomping down on some outright seminal dialogue, Douglas is arguably in the form of his career and his boisterous presence is the centre of the film. As the money craving wife of the trapped man, Jan Sterling is a streak of caustic self-regard, an underrated triumph in the femme fatale stakes. But Ace in the Hole remains a vehicle for Douglas and his director. The latter peppers more languid moments of contemplation with a litany of amusing carnival type set pieces involving grandiose crane shots and wide contrasts. All framed around Douglas’ arch manipulator buzzing about somewhere within. And on top of all this, they go and give us one of the great noir endings too.
Rating: The Good – 82.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 100mins Director: Lewis Gilbert Stars: Laurence Harvey, Gloria Grahame, Richard Basehart
Lesser seen Brit noir starring a host of big names from both sides of the Atlantic and embodying all the mood and tension of the genre. Laurence Harvey is the gentleman of leisure who, after being cut off by his older wealthier wife, begins manipulating three desperate figures who he finds commiserating down the local pub into committing a dangerous post-office robbery. John Ireland is an American air force officer who has grown weary of chasing his unfaithful wife (a British-sounding [well, sort off] Gloria Grahame), Richard Basehart is a former US soldier stranded in England with his pregnant wife (a young Joan Collins) who herself is being tormented by her overbearing mother, and Stanley Baker is the ex-boxer prevented from earning a living after his no-good brother-in-law made off with his savings. With so many subplots and characters, director Lewis Gilbert, who was more famous for his later Bond movies, could’ve made a mess of this one but, armed with his and Vernon Harris’ sharp screenplay and a healthy appreciation for the aesthetic of the genre, he crafts a pitch perfect thriller and towards which, each of the subplots contribute equally. Of course, the cast are critical too and they are to a man/woman bang on form. Even Basehart and Ireland who could often be a little dull encourage much in the way of the audience’s sympathy while Baker provides a stoic force to combat Harvey’s sardonic deceiver. Grahame is a little wasted and her accent is off-putting enough question the wisdom of making her character British at all. It’s not like the film is lacking in that regard as it’s defined by London’s post-war murkiness, so much so, that it stands behind only the likes of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City in terms of quality and effectiveness. And like that little masterpiece, this one also ties up in a neat little package so that the intersection of the multiple subplots coheres poignantly with the spirit of the genre.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 86 mins Director: Joseph H. Lewis Stars: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger
One of the all time great films noir, Gun Crazy or “Deadly is the Female”, as it’s also known, stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a husband and wife sharpshooter, turned stick-up team who, piece by piece, unfold a romantic tragedy across the American Midwest. Joseph H. Lewis’s masterpiece was revolutionary for myriad reasons but most notable among the trails it blazed were the technical innovations of the movie’s shooting and its unflinching account of a homicidal woman and her guilt ridden husband. Lewis improvised a number of unique methods with which to stage and capture the various heist sequences including an early use of insert cars and modified camera cars. A solitary process shot that captures the couple’s dreamlike honeymoon is all we get in the way of rear projection, a magnificently symbolic contrast to the down and gritty life of crime that was to follow. In addition to such technical mastery, Lewis brings all his know-how to bear on the movie’s aesthetic, rendering this one of the more beautifully shot noirs. A relative abundance of daylight sequences would appear to belie the genre’s more typical remit but they serve here as a conceptual contrast as powerful as any amount of shadow or key lit faces (though there’s plenty of those too). What stirs most effectively however is the simple tale of desire and morality that’s spun at the film’s core. Cummins’ Laurie cuts a sinister strip through the film and while Cummins is more than adequate in the role, it’s (then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo’s writing that largely plumbs her murky depths. Dall’s is the more tragic character and an extended introduction of him and his childhood makes him resoundingly sympathetic before we ever lay eyes on the actor himself. Armed with some heart wrenching dialogue and thrillingly shot set pieces, Gun Crazy ever develops a subtle power as it moves through the reels, so much so that its wonderfully staged finale will linger as long in memory as the outlaw mythology it so deftly taps.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 103 mins Director: William Wyler Stars: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix
“You must have been kissed in your cradle by a vulture.” Kirk Douglas puts in a tour de force performance as a morally conflicted detective who allows his near fanatical dedication to bringing criminals to justice to excuse his hard edged and even violent treatment of anyone even suspected of misdeeds. This wasn’t an easy role to pull off but Douglas handles it with ease as he keeps the audience both rooting for him and appalled at him in equal measure throughout.
The assorted characters who make their way into his precinct during the course of the single day in which the drama is set are each fascinating in their own right and played perfectly by the ensemble cast. William Bendix scores especially well as Douglas’ caring partner, a more rewarding role to the tough guy persona he was normally govern to play. Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan’s screenplay is a real treat to the ears, littered with wonderfully cutting turns off phrase and some insightful character construction. Director William Wyler contributes strongly too, allowing the tension to build up softly in the background giving the drama an increasingly taught feel which peaks right at the end. However, this movie is all about Douglas who at the time was at the height of his powers and in practically every scene demonstrated just that.
Rating: The Good – 91.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 100 mins Director: Alex Proyas Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly
This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a Kafkaesque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him.
For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets.
Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.
Film-noir was always much more than just hard boiled detectives going up against vicious criminals. It’s about volatile personalities following their dark and natural trajectories to an increasingly inevitable collision point. Night in the City is one of the purest examples of such. Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, “an artist without an art”, who spends his nights crawling through the underbelly of London’s nightlife looking for the next big thing. When he thinks he’s found it, he drags everyone from his devoted girlfriend (the always radiant Gene Tierney) to his bloated boss into a scheme which will make or break him.
Widmark is outstanding in a difficult role which required the audience to dislike him yet simultaneously root for him while the supporting cast, one and all, give their characters colourful flourishes which make them instantly memorable. Tierney is unfortunately a little underused but steps up admirably when she’s needed. Jo Eisinger’s screenplay (adapted from Gerald Kersh’s novel) catches the cold cynicism of the darker characters with every uttered syllable and Jules Dassin gives post-war London a style and verve rarely achieved yet brilliantly uses the still rubble-laden areas to frame Fabian’s lower moments, particularly his ultimate descent.
Night and the City is one of the great film noirs built around the tension of one man’s desperation and the uncomfortable but unstoppable inertia of that despair. In short, it encapsulates what the genre is about.
Rating: The Good – 84.7 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 88 mins Director: Otto Preminger Stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb
Otto Preminger’s exploration of the two sides to obsession is quite simply a champion of its genre. Gene Tierney is the titular focal point of that obsession as the movie spirals dizzyingly towards her feminine ideal. The story begins with the investigation into her murder as Dana Andrews’ Detective MacPherson begins interviewing potential suspects: Clifton Webb’s venomous yet respected columnist and a young Vincent Price as her playboy suitor. As they each recount how they met Laura, her story is told in flashback and Preminger begins seducing the audience with the picture of an innocent, pretty, and vibrant young woman just as surely as MacPherson is being seduced.
Vera Caspary and Jay Drattler’s luscious script oozes dark and unfettered passion and the glowing cast feed off it one and all. Tierney is sensational in one of the great noir performances while Andrews was never better as the cautiously clever detective. Of course, on the acting front, all performances take second place to Webb’s truly memorable turn as the sniping elitist. With every word and self-regarding mannerism, he shoots daggers and it’s real treat to watch him go.
However, as good as the aforementioned are, Laura is all about Preminger’s directorial siren’s call. Made in a slightly more classical style than other film noir of its time, it makes for a more incisive character study. His staging, lighting, and slow tracking of the camera gives the film a sumptuous look which seeps into the audience’s subconscious and that in turn, imbues the story with an internalistic, almost voyeuristic feel. Laura is quite simply cinematic story telling at its best.
Rating: The Good – 84.4 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 110 mins Director: Charles Vidor Stars: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready
Rita Hayworth sizzles in one of the great noir roles as a nightclub singer caught in the middle of a love triangle between her new husband and his right hand man, a man with whom she shares a turbulent and mysterious past. Hayworth dominates the screen in the way few actors ever have and the film is completely imbued with her presence. Even the strong turn from Glenn Ford as the former love interest is somewhat overshadowed by her although it must be said that their splendid chemistry each helped the other enormously. George Macready makes for an unusual villain and has a touch of the James Bond baddie about him.
Gilda is a fascinating watch with some well framed and dark themes of suspicion and jealousy running through it. Charles Vidor gives the South American setting an extravagant feel that comes across as just right for the time and place. With the exception of Ford’s somewhat redundant voice-over (not the first Ford to be linked to such a thing!), he gives us a captivating and sultry film-noir that peaks a number of times across its 110 minutes but nowhere more than when Hayworth does her show-stopping “Put the Blame on Mame” routine.
Rating: The Good – 72.4 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 88 mins Director: Robert Siodmak Stars: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea
Burt Lancaster and director Robert Siodmak revisit The Killers territory in a not too dissimilar plot involving a double crossing vixen and a complicated heist. As he did in The Killers, Siodmak seamlessly blends back story with present tense so that narrative plays out with a comfortable flow. However, the polished touches of noir which are found all over the aforementioned classic are often missing here. The writing too is missing much of the swift momentum of that picture but given the differences in the source material that’s understandable.
That said, Siodmak’s direction is commanding and it never lets the audience stray from the central theme of the film. There are some wonderfully seductive moments where his combination of source music, lighting, and tracking are inspired. Furthermore, Lancaster is strong as ever in a role that wasn’t as physically intimidating as the Swede but just as emotionally vulnerable. Yvonne DeCarlo is a worthy femme fatale and Dan Duryea adds an interesting menace to his role of mobster but in truth he’s underused. Cross Cross is a fine yarn and solid crime flick but it probably doesn’t rank with the greats of the era. It carries all the overt touches of the classic film-noir but only some of their more subtle hallmarks.
Rating: The Good – 90.9 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 85 mins Director: Stanley Kubrick Stars: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards
We shouldn’t be too surprised that the director who gave us the best science fiction film ever made, the best period piece ever made, the best black comedy ever made, one of the best horrors and one of the best war films (Paths of Glory) ever made is also responsible for one of the very best films noirs. Sterling Hayden is dynamite as the man with the genius plan to rip off a race track whilst staying ahead of security, the cops, the insecurities of his men, and the deviousness of their wives. The story has all the usual multiple threads of a film noir but it’s the way Stanley Kubrick brings it all together that is so fascinating to watch and indeed so compelling. The Killing is perhaps the earliest indication of the breadth of the great director’s confidence and the stunning innovation that came with it. Watch how he dollies the camera through the walls of the apartment (something Scorsese and Tarantino would go on to recurrently use to splendid effect) and revel in his exquisite and visionary lighting which he uses to disguise faces, eyes, and entire characters even when they’re speaking. And then there’s that electric screenplay with Jim Thompson’s seminal dialogue that went on to inspire some of the coolest films of the 90’s. And last but not least, it’s is also a chance to see the ingenious yet completely eccentric Timothy Carey in one of his more memorable cameos as “the shooter”.