Body and Soul

Body and Soul 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Abraham Polonsky

Director: Robert Rossen

Cast: John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brooks

Cinematography: James Wong Howe

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Studio: United Artists

Release: November 9, 1947

Awards: Won the Oscar for Film Editing. Garfield was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Ronald Colman in film noir “A Double Life.” Polonsky was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.” Also nominated: “A Double Life.”

Percent Noir: 60%

I suspect that “Body and Soul” is low key one of the most beloved films noir ever created. It’s not big and bold like “Gilda” or “Out of the Past,” nor is it dripping in crime like “Detour” or “Double Indemnity.” There is a wannabe femme fatale, but this is the rare noir where the good girl makes a bigger impression. Yes, it’s atypical to the genre in many regards, but in its own way, it’s just about perfect. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like it.

In case you can’t tell, this article is going to be a rave. Get ready.

John Garfield is excellent as the boxer Charley Davis, who has worked his way up to becoming the best fighter in the world. In doing so, he has sold his soul a piece at a time, whether it’s freezing out friends, taking payoffs or losing himself in the money. He’s in love with a woman (Lilli Palmer as Peg) who makes him a better man… so of course he abandons her when she starts pointing out how self-destructive he’s becoming. Another piece of his conscience comes from his mother Anna (Anne Revere, who is great), who doesn’t initially support her son’s ambitions and questions him whenever he starts behaving badly.

Body and Soul 2But that money is too good to turn down, especially for a poor Jewish kid from a bad neighborhood. And while many other movies follow a similar structure of downward trajectory for a main character’s soul while their bank account improves, “Body and Soul” feels fresh and new thanks to the screenplay by Abraham Polonsky.

I feel like it would be easy to throw a bunch of synonyms for “excellent” at this screenplay, but I weirdly don’t think that will do the work Polonsky (“Force of Evil”) did here justice. The character specificity in every single scene in the movie is beautifully rendered, and I was genuinely surprised in ways both big and small in every scene. There’s a moment when Charley is courting Peg where he says he wants to be a success, and she asks for clarification – he wants other people to think he’s a success? That was the exact moment I fell deeply, madly in love with this movie. Oftentimes screenwriters write in the same voice for every character – their own – but here Polonsky is careful to make every person onscreen sound different, and takes as much care sketching the small supporting roles as he does his main character.

And what a main character Charley is! I love John Garfield, and not just because of those looks – he’s been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in, but this performance is his opus, my friends. The man’s eyes are always searching, and the subtle facial expressions he makes throughout the film predates Marlon Brando’s more famous work in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” His performance here couldn’t be more different than, say, “Humoresque” or “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and the fact that he could pull off the change while still retaining his own star quality deserves a standing ovation.

Body and Soul 3He has off the charts chemistry with Palmer, who likewise crafts one of the most memorable characters in all of noir. This is especially impressive since, as stated before, she’s the good girl who is steering Charley towards the light in just about every scene she’s in. There’s a masterful scene where Charley visits her with a meaningful painting long after they’ve broken up, and the amount of emotion they conjure… both in things said and unsaid… brings me to tears every time.

Director Robert Rossen wrote or co-wrote several very good films noir, including “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” and “Desert Fury,” before transitioning into directing, and would soon be winning all the awards for “All the King’s Men.” Here he proves to be a visual master, creating indelible image after indelible image, thanks to his incredible collaboration with superstar Cinematographer James Wong Howe (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Kings Row”). Many of the shots and set-ups in the climactic boxing match were groundbreaking at the time and still hold up astonishingly well. Scorsese would steal liberally from Howe’s work and the look of 1949’s “The Set-Up” for “Raging Bull,” and it’s hard not to blame him after seeing the quality of the work here.

The fact that the word “Soul” is in the title is indicative of the amount of soul in the film itself. Noir is often cold, usually calculated and doesn’t have much faith in the world. And yet “Body and Soul” has a humanity that is rare for this genre. You often don’t give two shits about the doomed schmucks and the femme fatales doing the dooming, but here you care deeply for Charley’s fate. His decisions in the final reel have you both cheering and terrified for what is going to happen next, and that’s the sign of a story well told.

If you’ve somehow missed “Body and Soul” up to this point in your life, you can easily fix it in the next two hours. And you’ll be better for having seen it – it’s one of my personal favorites of the genre and one I’m eager to revisit. It’s a knockout.

(Sorry I couldn’t help myself.)

Score: *****

Drive a Crooked Road

Drive a Crooked Road 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Blake Edwards

Director: Richard Quine

Cast: Mickey Rooney, Dianne Foster, Kevin McCarthy

Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.

Music: n/a

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: March 10, 1954

Percent Noir: 70%

On a macro level, “Drive a Crooked Road” is as predictable as they come. Dumb guy meets femme fatale, falls for her and then falls into criminal scheme that seems to get pulled off… but then goes ass up just before anyone can get a happy ending. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. But the difference here is our hero Eddie Shannon, played by Mickey Rooney. They might be in great films, but we don’t give two shits about the fates of classic noir characters like Walter Neff or Ned Racine. But Eddie? Damn, you really don’t want anything bad to happen to the poor guy.

Eddie is a slightly disfigured mechanic who dreams of winning the big car races in Europe. One day femme fatale-with-a-soul Barbara (Dianne Foster) walks into his life and he’s immediately putty in her hands. She seduces him, then introduces him to her “friend” Steve (Kevin McCarthy, properly oily). And before you know it, Steve had Eddie driving his getaway car from a bank robbery… they have to get 20 miles in 18 minutes… and to pull it off, Eddie has to drive a crooked road. Hey, that’s the title!

Drive a Crooked Road 2Pink Panther genius Blake Edwards penned the screenplay (?!) and takes his time developing Eddie’s lonely life. His hopes, dreams and kindness. The fact is that he doesn’t have many friends, and those he does have don’t understand his eccentricities. Rooney is ideally cast, stripping away all his over-the-top ticks from the MGM musicals and comedies he starred in… instead doing a deep dive into Eddie’s stillness and quiet demeanor. He is so much better than I expected him to be, and even when you can see the plot mechanics start to twist and turn, you find yourself hoping and praying that somehow this won’t go bad for Eddie. That he’ll get a happy ending.

This is further underlined by Edwards’ masterstroke – humanizing his femme fatale. Foster has way more chemistry with Rooney than her actual beau McCarthy, and her Barbara is very clear in that she feels absolutely terrible about what she’s doing. She likes Eddie. She doesn’t want to see Eddie hurt. And watching Barbara struggle with how to address this impossible situation is quite engaging. It’s a testament to the writing and Foster’s work that, when Barbara disappears from screen for much of act two, you miss her presence.

Drive a Crooked Road 3Heist movies like “The Asphalt Jungle” or “Rififi” always utilize the robbery itself as the film’s centerpiece, and though “Drive a Crooked Road’s” escapades come a little later in the running time than the aforementioned films, it is obviously the sequence the filmmakers spent the most effort on. Director Richard Quine (“Pushover”) isn’t as technically proficient as the directors of the aforementioned films, and stumbles a bit when you really want the sequence to soar. It opens well, with Eddie and Steve tensely waiting for the third member of their gang to rob the bank, but sputters out a bit when Eddie gets on the titular crooked road.

There are no interesting angles, no real near-misses and no moment where you feel like anything can happen. All the exterior shots of the car racing down the road are boring – I don’t think the footage is B-roll from another movie, but at the same moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. How could it be fixed? Two ideas. First, Quine could have just kept the camera inside the car the entire race, a’la Hitchcock in “Family Plot.” Or he could have better established the map and landscape of the desert road prior to the chase so the audience knows which will be the most dangerous portions.

Quire and Edwards also stumble with a third act car sequence, one where Eddie is driving up the highway to be murdered. He crashes the car way too early with little suspense or surprise, and the death of the heavy who was holding him hostage doesn’t land with much impact either.

That said, the rest of the third act is aces. The way Barbara confesses her misdeeds to Eddie is heartbreaking, as is seeing Steve’s abusive response to her confession. McCarthy can be very charming when he wants to be, so seeing the actor strip all that away to savagely attack her and tell her that she’s doomed Eddie is hard to watch… but great filmmaking.

I have to admit that I was so engaged with the characters and their predicament that, as the movie faded to black, I wanted to write a different, happier ending for them. Eddie survives but kills Steve right before the police arrive, and the last shot is him trying to comfort a completely broken Barbara on the beach. They are good people in a terrible situation, and the tragedy of the ending is powerful. That said, as “The End” pops up onscreen, I kept the characters alive in my mind. Barbara and Eddie could confess certain things, then say all the worst stuff was Steve, right? Maybe? Please?

I believe that’s the sign of a well-made film… when the characters live on in your mind after. When you want to give them the happiness the fucked-up world cannot. Though it’s imperfect, “Drive a Crooked Road” was a pleasant surprise. It’s very much a routine film noir in some ways but, more than that, it’s an engaging character piece. Rooney and Foster are just aces, and I wish they had done more films like this.

Score: ****

Human Desire

Human Desire 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Alfred Hayes

Based on the novel “La Bete Humaine” by Emile Zola

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford

Cinematography: Burnett Guffey

Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: August 6, 1954

Percent Noir: 90%

“Human Desire” is a near masterpiece and yet another high point for director Fritz Lang in his menagerie of excellent films from a genre many think the master created. Further, it’s a perfect companion piece to the director’s great “Clash by Night” in that he is finding ways to subvert genre conventions with a lot of style. “Clash By Night” asks what would happen if a femme fatale had a soul. “Human Desire” asks what would happen if one of the stupid heroes usually taken in by a femme fatale wasn’t so stupid after all.

There is another similarity to “Clash By Night” in that Lang shines a spotlight on a world we aren’t used to seeing onscreen. “Night” had the fishing industry, and here we have the railway industry. The opening credits plant the camera on the front of a locomotive, and Lang (with his cinematographer, the noir superstar Burnett Guffey) ingeniously has the tracks slightly right in the frame instead of center, giving us a sense of imbalance right off the bat. Trains are a great location for noir – they ooze atmosphere, and there’s something so fabulous about the claustrophobia of the close quarters. There are few places to run, and fewer places to hide. Lang and Guffey exploit this brilliantly as the film progresses… but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Human Desire 2Glenn Ford stars as Jeff, a Korean War veteran returning to his life as a train conductor. Though there’s the token good girl in his boarding house (Kathleen Case), Jeff finds himself drawn to the married Vicki (Gloria Grahame). Vicki’s life is a littttttttle bit of a trainwreck (I’m sorry) at the moment. Her asshole of a husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) basically asked her to prostitute herself to his boss Owens (Grandon Rhodes) so he can keep his job… and when she does it, he flies into a fit of rage. How mad is Carl? He makes her write a note to Owens to get him on a train in a private compartment, sneaks in with her and murders Owen in front of her, then keeps the letter Vicki wrote to make sure she doesn’t leave him. Yes, Carl is quite the catch. Jeff saw Vicki on the train the night of the murder, but covers for her, and the two begin an affair. Then, at a certain point, Vicki dons Barbara Stanwyck’s sweater from “Double Indemnity” and asks Jeff to murder Carl for her.

Human Desire 3So the set-up is the kind of classic noir story we’ve seen hundreds of times before. But there are two things that immediately separate “Human Desire” from the rest of the pack. The first is that the audience is instantly empathetic towards Vicki. She is introduced as a good wife – when told her husband has lost his job, she volunteers to start working ASAP. She resists going to see Owens, and our hearts go out to her when the first thing Owens says upon seeing her is “You’ve put on a little weight since you got married.” We see how abused she is by Carl, both mentally and physically. And for the longest time, we never quite know how insidious her character is. Stories turn grey and she often says things that don’t quite line up with what we’ve already seen or heard – is she lying to Jeff? Carl? Herself? By the final reel we finally know the score, but that doesn’t make her fate any less tragic… she might have been a monster, but we now understand why she became one.

The second is that Jeff is smarter than your average Walter Neff. Yes, he immediately falls for Vicki and seems to buy her line that Carl needs to be offed for the two of them to be together. But whereas 99% of noir films would have Carl dead before Act 3 started, Jeff stops himself from doing the deed. And then has the smarts to break it off with Vicki when he picks up on her lies! I must admit that, when the scene unfolded, my jaw dropped. This dude deserves a round of applause, ladies and gents!

Grahame turns in an incredible performance, matching her career-best work in “In a Lonely Place.” She is at once a snake, vulnerable, sexy and strong… a near-impossible trick to pull off. I wish I could say the same for Ford, whose abilities as an actor find their limits here. Ford has given good performances elsewhere, in classics like “Gilda” or “The Big Heat.” But both of those characters had one note for Ford to play the entire film. Here, the character of Jeff is shaded and needs subtleties that are beyond Ford’s talents. It’s a shame, but at least he shares enough chemistry with Grahame to sell the romance.

The supporting actors in the ensemble all do excellent work as well. Most notable is Case as the good girl – she’s got magnetism and really sells her few emotional scenes with Ford. It’s a shame she never got more substantive roles to sink her teeth into.

One other small annoyance – the score by Daniele Amfitheatrof (“Song of the South”… yikes) is not good. It’s too pushy with what emotions we should be feeling, veering from sitcom-y zaniness to over the top treacle over the course of one scene. Worse, it’s so high in the audio mix.

Still, one mediocre performance a bunch of bad musical notes don’t detract enough from “Human Desire’s” excellence. This is a must-watch for any fan of Lang’s style… which should be everyone reading this… and a great way to undercut the usual noir narrative. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

Score: ****1/2

Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: N. Richard Nash

Story: Paul Webster & Jack Sobell

Director: Vincent Sherman

Cast: Kent Smith, Ann Sheridan, Bruce Bennett

Cinematography: James Wong Howe

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: February 21, 1947

Percent Noir: 70%

I recently wrote an article on the noir “The Unfaithful,” which was released in theaters a scant few months after “Nora Prentiss.” The films share a director in Vincent Sherman, star Ann Sheridan and the subject of adultery. I pretty much hated all of “The Unfaithful” and was not eager to watch this film… and I am happy to admit that “Nora Prentiss” is much, Much, MUCH better in just about every way. It may not be a great noir, but it’s a damn good one.

Despite Nora Prentiss (Sheridan) being the title character, our “hero” is Richard Talbot (Kent Smith). A well-to-do married doctor with two kids who is super bored with his everyday life, one day a freak accident sees him caring for the leg wounds of Nora… and before you know it, he’s head over heels. It’s difficult to blame him, Nora is one hell of a woman. A sexy, sultry lounge singer, Nora has a fiery personality and Richard is easily outclassed… but Nora finds herself falling for him too.

Nora Prentiss 2If it’s difficult to blame Richard for crushing on Nora, it’s less difficult to blame him for beginning an affair with her and then being too cowardly to tell his wife that he’s leaving her. And for the first hour of the movie, it follows the standard arc for such stories, with Richard becoming worn thin because of his, uh, busy schedule and his growing obsession with Nora. It’s all very good, with crisp dialogue and well-drawn characters… but a little expected.

But then the last third of the film takes a turn for the looney, throwing in twist after twist that would be right at home in a classic E.C. comic like “Crime SuspenStories” or “Shock SuspenStories.” After one of his patients dies of a heart attack in his office, he does what any normal person would do – he plants his clothes, wallet, keys, etc. on the dead man, throws him into a car with a bunch of gasoline and then drops the car clean off a cliff… sneaking away and beginning a new life with a new identity with Nora across the country. Oh, and he doesn’t tell Nora what he did because obviously – he just tells her that he told his wife he wanted a divorce. Because this is easier.

Look, Richard’s actions fall on the cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs side of the scale even for dumb film noir main characters. And yet I can’t help but applaud “Nora Prentiss” for just fucking going for it – when you unload a twist like that, you can’t go for half measures.

And I haven’t even gotten to the craziest shit yet.

The film opens with a flash forward of a mysterious man who has been arrested and just found guilty for murdering Richard. His face is obscured, and for most of the film, the audience looks at all the male characters and tries to figure out who was arrested… until the truth comes out.

Nora Prentiss 3At one point, Richard almost murders this guy who likes Nora because of course he does and, when he’s escaping from the police in a car, he crashes it and his face gets badly burned. NuRichard is unrecognizable, immediately arrested for killing Richard and put on trial.

If that last paragraph didn’t put a smile on your face, this movie is not for you. If you grinned, you’ll love it. It’s all melodrama played to the rafters, but accepted on its own terms, it’s an ingenious twist. I write this even as I admit that the trial itself takes up way too much of the runtime – it would have worked better as a simple montage.

If I’m being honest, “Nora Prescott” is not the right name for the film – it’s too normal. But I can see why Warner Bros. would want to put their new star Sheridan front and center on all their promotional material. Though I was ambivalent to Sheridan’s work in “The Unfaithful,” she is absolutely wonderful here, helped immensely by the excellent screenplay by N. Richard Nash (“The Vicious Years”). We understand that Nora is a good person at heart holding onto Richard because she actually loves him… we can see that it hurts her that he is married. It’s very telling that, after Richard is disfigured and put on trial, Nora sticks by her man for as long as possible.

Smith’s performance is likewise aces, especially impressive because he has to change from a boring drip to a homicidal maniac over the course of 110 minutes. It’s usually the boring part that is difficult for actors, but Smith is sympathetic and engaging throughout, even when his character isn’t supposed to be.

Director Sherman isn’t a great visual director, but I’m happy to report that “Nora Prentiss” also looks much more polished than “The Unfaithful.” I have a feeling this mostly has to do with cinematography superstar James Wong Howe’s (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Body and Soul”) contributions. Most of the movie is well shot but not showy, but after the disfigurement, Howe has a lot of fun hiding the scars, showing bits and finally putting a light to Richard’s full face.

Look, “Nora Prentiss” may not be a movie you enjoy… it’s too wild and eccentric for more serious noir afficionados. Smith and Sheridan ground the proceedings – always playing it straight and never winking at the camera as things get more and more looney. Is it a good film? Yes, I think it is, because it knows how crazy it is and doesn’t try to be anything but that.

Score: ****

So Dark the Night

So Dark the Night 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Dwight V. Babcock and Martin Berkeley

Story: Aubrey Wisberg

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cast: Steven Geray, Micheline Cheirel, Eugene Borden

Cinematography: Burnett Guffey

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: October 10, 1946

Percent Noir: 80%

So I’m watching “So Dark the Night” and trying to play along like a good film noir fan, but at a certain point I began to ask myself “how much is too much?” This film is the equivalent of an extra, extra large deep dish pizza with triple cheese. And I’m the first person to admit that I have a soft spot for movies that go cuckoo for cocoa puffs… look at my article on “Desert Fury” for evidence of that. But those filmmakers knew they were going cray… here, I’m not so sure. And that’s the big difference.

We open in France, where the country’s best detective Henri (Steven Geray) is taking his first vacation in 11 years. He heads to the scenic countryside, which looks one heck of a lot like a badly dressed backlot, where he falls in love with the town and citizens. Well, one citizen specifically: Nanette (Micheline Cheirel). Sure, she’s already sort of in a relationship with Leon (Paul Marion), who looks like he has muscles on his muscles and definitely has a temper problem, but whatevs. When Nanette turns up murdered, Henri is the only one who can solve the crime. Concurrently, Henri is also having lapses in memory and doesn’t seem himself. Could the two things be connected? Le gasp!

So Dark the Night 2I tend to like it when noir films give us a new or unexpected location that we haven’t seen before, and at first I was excited to see the French setting. But soon enough, I realized there was (to continue the food parallel) a little too much frosting on this cake. The accents are super accented. Every cliché of French dress and hair is on display. Any French phrase which turned into a clam over a century ago is trotted out. Hell, there’s even a random Hunchback (!!!) in town, apparently rented from the Notre Dame set on the Universal backlot. It’s France created by people who have never been to France. Strike that, it’s France created by people whose only context is Pepe Le Pew cartoons.

I should talk about the twist ending, which unfortunately was a bit predictable thanks to the clunky exposition that sets it up. Turns out that Henri is the killer and unaware of it until the third act, when he solves the crime and realizes he must be having psychotic breaks. I’ve already seen similar twists multiple times on this Odyssey, all the way back to 1931’s “The Bat Whispers.” Make no mistake, having the detective investigating a crime be the killer can work, and did most famously in Agatha Christie’s play “The Mousetrap.” But the screenwriters here lack Christie’s near flawless clue planting, and the resulting revelation doesn’t pack the punch it needs to.

The acting across the board is fine. There’s no single performance bad enough to take me out of the movie… even the dude playing the Hunchback isn’t terrible. That said, it’s been a day since I watched the movie and I’ll be damned if I can remember a single moment of acting that I found outstanding. Geray is an excellent character actor – I remember him from “Gilda” and “In a Lonely Place” – and I’m happy to see him get the opportunity at a lead. But he never quite convinces me he’s a great detective, or in love… or even homicidal at the end.

The director is the talented Joseph H. Lewis, who has made several movies that I’ve liked very much (“Gun Crazy,” “The Big Combo,” “My Name is Julia Ross”)… but I had a lot of trouble with his visuals here. Working with noir all-timer Burnett Guffey (“In a Lonely Place,” “The Reckless Moment”) as his cinematographer, almost every shot in the movie has something in the foreground blocking part of the action. Let me write that again:

Almost every shot.

Has something in the foreground.

Blocking part of the action.

So Dark the Night 3Lewis does a trick like this to great effect in “Gun Crazy” when the Annie character and her pistol are introduced, but here? It’s too much! Did that plant really need to be there? What about that lamppost? Once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it, and because Lewis uses the trick so damn much, it takes away from moments where it could actually work wonders. Look at the climactic battle, where Lewis places his camera behind the fire in the fireplace, looking out at two men fighting to the death. That’s great! And more than enough.

“So Dark the Night” has developed something of a cult reputation among noir enthusiasts, probably completely due to Lewis. Understandable, considering the quality of the rest of his filmography in this genre. And yet something doesn’t connect with me – the title and twist ending scream that this should be a great tragedy, and yet all the bells and bobs scream out that we’re in a light comedy. I want to like it, but any appreciation eludes me after two viewings. S’il vous plait pardonnez-moi.

Score: **

Tight Spot

Tight Spot 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: William Bowers

Based on the play “Dead Pigeon” by Lenard Kantor

Director: Phil Karlson

Cast: Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Lorne Greene

Cinematography: Burnett Guffey

Music: n/a

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Release: March 19, 1955

Percent Noir: 60%

“Tight Spot” is a perfect example of a film noir that is more than the sum of its parts. It is based on a play and very much feels that way, its lead is miscast and the main twist is visible from about minute seven. And yet, somehow, it still works better than it has any right to.

Ginger Rogers plays Sherry, a woman in jail who makes a point of only doing the very least required of her in any situation. She is pulled out of prison by US Attorney Lloyd Hallett (Edward G. Robinson), who needs her to testify in court against infamous mobster Benjamin Constain (Commander Adama). Sherry is understandably wary, especially because Benjamin has sent men to kill her before she can take the stand – Lloyd has her staying in a fancy hotel room guarded by the obviously named Detective Vince Striker (Brian Keith), who seems to very much hate Sherry but also very much wants to sleep with her.

Tight Spot 2The moment screenwriter William Bowers (“The Web”) introduces us to two authority figures – Lloyd and Vince – the audience becomes aware that one of them is going to be a mole. And from there, we wait for the big reveal. Would the film have been better if the main character was shifted to Vince in order to watch his ethical dilemma – should he allow Sherry to be killed or stop the assassination – from minute one? Perhaps. But then again, Bowers goes so over the top in making Vince hate Hate HATE Sherry from their first encounter that I suspect it would be difficult to conjure any audience engagement. And, fair warning, some of the things he says to her upfront haven’t aged well, and neither has a line Sherry says to Benjamin in court.

Bowers also stumbles a bit adapting the play upon which the film was based to screen. It feels stagey, and not in a claustrophobic, impending doom kinda way. It feels stagey in that way where characters babble and monologue about metaphors and things that don’t really matter for minutes at a time… things that work when you are in live theater but break the much needed tension when you are watching a thriller onscreen.

All that said, I really don’t want to rake Bowers over the coals too much, because he really nails the one thing that genuinely makes this a good movie – the characterization. Sherry is one of the most fascinating heroines in all of noir, and I’m being completely serious here. Burned multiple times by the system and in jail for something she technically did but realistically should have been forgiven for, she is rightfully exhausted at even the idea of sticking her neck out for “the good of the people.” Watching her humanity come forth and her relationships with the other main and supporting characters mature over the course of the film resonates, as do all the great little moments of her remembering life on the outside. She can’t decide on which fancy dinner to order from room service. She wants the television on in the background just because she misses the noise. It’s moments like this which you’ll remember long after the movie ends.

Tight Spot 3Rogers is an excellent actress, both in her comedic and dramatic roles, but she was not right for Sherry… and her haircut is not right for her. I was not surprised at all to read that she was a last-minute replacement, but damn if she doesn’t summon up all her inner moxie and try her hardest to make the role work anyway. And, almost miraculously, by the 30-minute mark, you forget that she’s putting on that accent way too hard and overacting a tad too much in every scene and just accept her characterization of the role. Once you do, you can appreciate more the impressive small moments she finds in Sherry’s demeanor that humanize her.

It also helps that she has good chemistry with Keith – when he sacrifices himself at the climax, you are legitimately touched by his actions. Robinson doesn’t have much to do but play the straight man, but still offers up a fine turn. There’s a scene where his character buys Sherry a very, very ugly hat which is the best in the entire film.

The director is Phil Karlson, who made the very good noir “Scandal Sheet” and the very bad noir “5 Against the House.” Here he concentrates more on getting good performances out of his trio of leads instead of going over the top with mood and atmosphere, which is the right choice. That said, there is one sequence – an attempted assassination of Sherry – which Karlson visually nails, and in the process rachets up the tension, which had been faltered until that point.

There are many problems with “Tight Spot,” but the good things it has going for it manage to tip the scales in its favor. With its excellent premise and three-dimensional characters, I’m quite surprised it hasn’t been remade or modernized yet – with the correct writer and cast, this could be a gangbusters indie thriller. If you are looking for a great female protagonist in a classic noir, this would be a solid starting point for you.

Score: ***

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon 1The Film Noir Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 31

Writer: John Huston

Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett

Director: John Huston

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre

Cinematography: Arthur Edeson

Music: Adolph Deutsch

Company: Warner Bros.

Release: October 3, 1941

Awards: “The Maltese Falcon” was nominated for Best Picture along with “Citizen Kane” and “Suspicion,” but all lost to “How Green Was My Valley.” Sydney Greenstreet was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Donald Crisp in “Valley.” Huston was nominated for Best Screenplay but lost to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”

Percent Noir: 100%

The statue at the center of John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” is one of the most intriguing of all MacGuffins because it doesn’t seem to fit within the world around it. Sure, we can see the pornographic photographs in “The Big Sleep” or the lighter in “Strangers on a Train” fitting right into the world of noir… but a gold, jeweled bird statuette from the 1500s? Really? And yet that is part of the film’s appeal: Everything is twisted and reality seems hopelessly lost somewhere within the knots, even when truths are finally spoken late in the second act. This film feels like the opposite of “Double Indemnity,” where the characters can’t stop themselves from speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Most film scholars agree that this is the first true example of film noir, though I don’t personally agree. It does, however, usher in many firsts within the genre itself, like the long-suffering (and often drunk) private investigator with a glass jaw and a lot of gritty witticisms.

The Maltese Falcon 2Looking at “The Maltese Falcon” today, the movie feels like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers. It’s reliable, interesting and enjoyable, but I wouldn’t single out any aspect of the film as being the pinnacle of its genre. The mystery is intriguing if ultimately lacking a pay-off. The dialogue flashy but without the real spark or edge of someone like Raymond Chandler. The direction apt and beautiful in places, but the movie lacks the deep shadows and specters we usually expect from noir… it feels more like a stage play than movie. If I were being very honest with myself, this resembles a solid piece of craftsmanship more than a masterpiece.

The plot doesn’t matter because it’s really about the characters, but here we go. We start off thinking Private Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner are trying to rescue a kidnapped woman from a bad man named Thursby, but that soon morphs into a desperate hunt for the bird in the title. Spade’s partner gets dead, his stomach filled with bullets and betrayal. Thursby gets even deader, and Spade becomes a suspect in both murders. The dame who hired them (Mary Astor) changes motives and her story with each subsequent reel of film. A gay con-man (Peter Lorre) and his horrible, well-spoken boss (Sydney Greenstreet) become involved. Everyone lies, and even when they don’t there’s no reason for us to believe them.

The Maltese Falcon 3Bogart here plays a variation on the tough-guy routine he perfected over the course of his career. But while his characters often began gruff before revealing great feeling (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen”) or great anger (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Conflict”), here his Sam Spade resists all character depth. This isn’t a problem for the film—Bogart’s characterization provides the viewer with an anchor amidst all the double-and-triple crosses. Interestingly, for the first reels of the film, Huston ensures that we never see the moment when Spade would show any emotion, perhaps to get the viewer used to his detached nature. When Spade learns of his partner’s death, he receives the news just out of frame. When Spade looks down into the ditch at his dead partner, we don’t cut to a close-up of Bogart’s face but instead a medium shot of his back. It is only after we see him kiss his dead partner’s wife and coldly order his secretary to alter the sign on the door that we face him head-on every time he makes a choice or reacts to a situation. His parting words and literal kiss-off of Astor is one of the best acted moments in all of Bogart’s career.

The deeper Spade delves into the case, the more interesting characters the film unearths. Lorre’s Joel Cairo is a fascinating rat of a human being, sweating constantly and always appearing ready to curl up in the fetal position if someone touches him. Oscar-nominated Sydney Greenstreet is fantastic as the coyly named Casper Gutman, who speaks with such eloquence that he seems to have stepped out of a Roman art gallery and onto the film’s sets. His first encounter with Spade, where he compliments just about every characteristic Spade showcases while trying to slip him a drugged drink, is the best in the picture, all the more impactful because of Huston’s playful long take of the scene. These characters, like the falcon itself, seem out of place in the world of noir, and therefore all the more memorable.

Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy has a very fun name, but I’m afraid her allure ends there. Her femme fatale doesn’t convince the viewer for a moment that she has the wiles, charm or sexual prowess to get away with what her character gets away with in the film. Astor seems too old for the role, not in age but in the way she dresses and carries herself around Spade, who she tries to seduce. I recently saw Astor in “Desert Fury,” made six years later, but she seems over a decade younger and much more engaged there. Her lies don’t seem convincing from the start (in fact, Spade is quick to point out that he figured out she was lying about everything before the end of their first meeting), so every time she appears on screen and is given any sort of substantial dialogue, we tune her out. It doesn’t help that Spade calls her out on her lies after one of her more out-there stories and she laughs about it, admits to lying about everything, and then continues to do it as if the conversation didn’t happen.

It’s such a shame, because the emotional heft we should feel about Spade’s decision to turn her in at the finale (the aforementioned scene of Bogart’s great acting) is lost because we dislike O’Shaughnessy so much. I would have much rather we stayed with Cairo and Gutmen, who are far more interesting and speak with actual gravitas.

I try to keep a movie’s place in film history and its importance out of these articles because the point of this blog is to examine films on their own merits, but here I must break from that. This entire article all I’ve wanted to do is sum up “The Maltese Falcon” thusly: It’s a great first try. The cast and filmmakers were unconsciously helping to create an entire genre as they produced this movie, so of course there would be stumbling points. Bogart is a phenomenal actor and Huston is a fantastic director. Both would go on to make better movies, both together (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Key Largo” “The African Queen”) and separately (“Casablanca,” “Sabrina” and numerous others for Bogart, “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Heaven Knows, Mister Allison” and others for Huston), and none of that would have been possible without this film. “The Maltese Falcon” is a very good movie and a promise of better things to come from two of the most unique voices in film, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Sorry, Wrong Number

Sorry Wrong Number 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lucille Fletcher

Based on her radio play

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards

Cinematography: Sol Polito

Music: Franz Waxman

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Release: September 1, 1948

Awards: Stanwyck was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar but lost to Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda”

Percent Noir: 90%

The ending of “Sorry, Wrong Number” is one of the most iconic in film history, so much so that even if you’ve never heard of the film, if I described the plot you probably could tell me what happens in the finale. Unlike films like “The Sixth Sense” or “The Usual Suspects,” whose ends rely on twists, “Sorry, Wrong Number” simply refuses to let the audience off the hook, painting a black-as-pitch ending which leaves the viewer stunned by its ballsiness.

That aspect of the film is why it’s one of the most famous in noir. But if we ignore the ending, I have to say that the entire package does not hold up as well as I wanted it to. In my eyes, there are several fundamental problems that the movie, for its many attributes, cannot overcome.

Sorry Wrong Number 2But first, the story… in case you were somehow unaware. Queen of noir Barbara Stanwyck plays the bedridden Leona Stevenson, making busybody calls to fill her evening until her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) comes home. Thinking she’s hearing a crossed line, Leona overhears two men preparing to murder a woman in her home that night. Many, many phone calls later, Leona realizes that the person about to be murdered is her… and that her husband is behind it all.

The film is based on an incredibly popular radio play by Lucille Fletcher, who adapted it into a screenplay. The original play, which starred Agnes Moorehead, is only a half hour and is genuinely gripping and engaging all the way through. In expanding (and expanding (and expanding)) the storyline to feature length, Fletcher is not only throwing in a lot of hot air, but accidentally placing a spotlight on coincidences and plot holes. They worked in the short drama because the script was already moving on to the next thing, but not here.

Further, the radio play works because it is intentionally claustrophobic. We can feel the walls closing in around Leona. In the film, director Anatole Litvak (“The Long Night”) goes to extreme pains to open up the world. The camera swoops all through Leona’s house. Leona’s calls always go through to crowded, expansive rooms. Flashbacks expand the world further. It seems to me that, in jumping through all these hoops to legitimize turning the radio play into a film, the filmmakers had completely lost track of why the play worked in the first place. Oops.

Sorry Wrong Number 3And then there’s Stanwyck’s casting as Leona. As previously established in most of my articles on this Web site, I love Stanwyck. But here I think she’s gravely miscast. Not because she can’t play a horrible person, because she obviously can… and do it well. She’s miscast because I don’t for a moment buy her as an invalid. And yes, there a vagueness to how sick Leona actually is, but Stanwyck conveys this inner strength in all her characters that comes through here… when it shouldn’t. It feels like she is putting on a show instead of actually inhabiting Leona, and her increasing paranoia as the movie continues equates to her going further and further over the top. It’s a real shame. Then again, Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here, so I assume I’m in the minority.

The final fundamental problem I have here is the story’s predictability. The film is 89 minutes (it feels longer) and by minute 3 any viewer of moderate intelligence will be able to figure out that Leona’s husband Henry is behind everything. Plus, there’s the poster. And then we wait and wait and wait and wait and wait for the reveal. To her credit, Fletcher tries to throw in some red herrings and also hints at a larger conspiracy at play… but none of these are engaging enough to keep us from focusing on Henry’s guilt. Plus, he’s played by Burt Freaking Lancaster, so you know he didn’t show up for a nothing role… even if, ultimately, the performance and character still come across as thankless.

For all these problems, and they are myriad, I didn’t hate “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Honestly. There are a lot of small things that the film gets exactly right, especially in the character details, that makes me appreciate both Fletcher and the ensemble’s talent. And though I think Litvak took the wrong approach for this adaptation, I must admit that the location work and the atmosphere of the apartment look great, thanks in no small part to his collaboration with cinematographer Sol Polito (“The Long Night”).

And then there’s the fact that the film fills a bunch of walk-on and small roles with African American actors, including the cutest little girl ever as a lost child in a police station. As sad as it is to admit it, I’d gotten completely used to seeing these all-white films noir… and it was such a pleasant surprise to see diversity here, even if they are background characters.

I think that, at some point, every noir enthusiast finds his or her way to “Sorry, Wrong Number.” And, dear reader, I genuinely hope that you end up liking it much better than I do. That finale still packs a punch… but the rest of the movie leading up to it is a swing and a miss. Did I just mix metaphors? I don’t know sports…

Score: **

So Evil My Love

So Evil My Love 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ronald Millar & Leonard Spigelgass

Based on the novel “For Her to See” by Marjorie Bowen

Director: Lewis Allen

Cast: Ann Todd, Ray Milland, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Cinematography: Mutz Greenbaum

Music: William Alwyn, Additional Music by Victor Young

Company: Paramount Pictures

Release: March 3, 1948

Percent Noir: 60%

In this genre, there are almost infinite variations of the gullible guy being preyed upon by a femme fatale, and “So Evil My Love” (it kills me that there isn’t a comma in there) reverses the genders, in the process making everything feel a little fresher than you would expect.

Ann Todd plays Olivia Harwood, a grieving widow in the 1890s who has played it safe her entire life… doing as she is supposed to because she’s told it’s what is right. We first meet her travelling home to England from the West Indies, rightfully angry and bitter over her loss but still willing to help a malaria patient on the ship. That patient is Mark (Ray Milland), an art thief and sometimes murderer who is very wanted by authorities in several countries. He inserts himself into Olivia’s life, makes her fall for him and then systematically begins to tear her soul apart with his schemes.

So Evil My Love 3Olivia becomes a companion for the batty Susan (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Susan’s awful husband Henry (Raymond Huntley) doesn’t like Olivia… and also has a heart condition. As soon as you hear the words “heart” and “condition” together in any film, you might as well start a timer because that character is going to be dead in a reel or three, guaranteed. That is the case here as well, with Henry suffering a heart attack after Olivia tries to blackmail him and Henry decides to blackmail her right back. Ever resilient, Olivia poisons his medicine and then manipulates Susan into feeding him that medicine, keeping her hands clean even as she loses the last of her innocence.

Milland is exceptional as the likeable monster, convincing the viewer in one conversation that he really might be falling for Olivia and then whispering those same nothings into the ear of his side piece… while offering her one of Olivia’s necklaces for good measure. He was built for this type of role, and really seems to be relishing the opportunity to unleash his bad side. Let’s face it – a story like this is predictable from minute one – so it’s nice to know the actor is having a lot of fun along the way.

So Evil My Love 2His work is so good that it more than makes up for Todd’s slight miscasting. She pulls off the brittle nature of Olivia quite well and shares ample chemistry with Milland… but stumbles in the moments she’s supposed to bond with Susan or wage war with Henry. It’s so rare to have a female character lead a noir (Milland is first billed, but this is Olivia’s story through and through) that I wish Todd had knocked it out of the park… and it’s a shame she doesn’t quite pull it off. Still, she does excellent work in the climactic carriage scene between Olivia and Mark, so there is that.

That final scene, where Olivia stabs Mark to death, owes a bit of a depth to a similar sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Sabotage” where a wife who has just lost her little brother chooses to stab her husband to death after finding out he was behind the killing. The director here is the excellent Lewis Allen (“Desert Fury,” “Suddenly!”), who leans quite a bit into Hitchcock’s style throughout. Note the moment Mark asks to rest his head against Olivia’s shoulder in order to avoid being noticed by police. Or the way he uses shadows to show Olivia poisoning the medication. It’s quite a departure from his usual style, but quite welcome here because the story calls for it.

The screenplay, credited to Ronald Miller and Leonard Spigelgass (“The Accused”), is leisurely paced… which is sometimes an asset and sometimes a detriment. The extra space really helps the duo flesh out Olivia’s character – it makes us understand who she was before the movie fades in and goes to great lengths to have us understand why she is making each decision she makes. But at the same time, they exploit Mark’s badness way too early. It’s clear he’s a bad guy from minute five and then doesn’t do much to convince us he’s anything but. It’s almost entirely Milland’s inherent likeability at the center of why Mark is watchable, because the screenplay does him no favors.

Then there’s the actual murder, which doesn’t take place until an hour and twenty minutes in… far too long. And after it happens, the pace significantly increases as the writers race for the finish line, when the movie could have lived in the tension and paranoia of them being caught much longer.

Still, the above problems don’t come close to sinking “So Evil My Love.” It works better than one expects, and its period setting and gender flipping give the film a freshness that is hard to come by in this well-worn genre. Little known but ripe for rediscovery: it’s worth seeking out and spending the extra few bucks on the rewritable DVD.

Score: ****

Vertigo

Vertigo 1The Film Noir Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 9

Writer: Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor

Based on the novel “The Living and the Dead” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Cinematography: Robert Burks

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Company: Paramount Pictures

Release: May 9, 1958

Awards: The film was nominated for Best Sound but lost to “South Pacific” and Best Art Direction, but lost to “Gigi.”

Percent Noir: 60%

If “Rear Window” (my favorite Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Alfred Hitchcock as a director and “Notorious” (the best Hitchcock film) tells us the most about Hitchcock as a craftsman, then “Vertigo” tells us the most about Hitchcock as a man. If you have any familiarity with his body of work or his personal life, you’ll feel much insight into his personal obsessions and emotions after finishing the movie. Whereas so many of his other films are so polished, with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed, “Vertigo” is unafraid to be messy…to leave questions unanswered and emotional journeys unfinished. In an odd way, it’s the ultimate Hitchcock film but also his most atypical.

The story opens with a riveting chase sequence over the roofs of San Francisco. Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) almost tumbles over the edge of a building and, because he is so crippled with vertigo, accidentally allows his partner to fall to his death. This is the first time we see the much-imitated vertigo effect that has been used countless of times since whenever someone’s world goes wonky in a film or on television. It still works.

Vertigo 2We fade to the future, and Scottie is shown about as emasculated as possible. His next scene is with his best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), and he’s wearing a corset (yes, you read that right) and faints after stepping up on a chair. There’s also some implication that he’s impotent, but that’s the only subtle thing in the scene. The rest of the long-winded scene is bad-exposition central. “Here, let me tell you what happened with me retiring from the police force, who I am, what vertigo is and why we aren’t married” isn’t explicitly stated by Scottie, but it might as well be dialogue.

The next scene isn’t much better, with Scottie’s old college friend Elster (Tom Helmore) explaining how he wants Scottie to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), because she disappears for hours at a time, both physically and mentally. Lots and lots of talking, but then Scottie begins his investigation and things pick up immediately. There are undertones that Madeline is being possessed by the ghost of an ancestor who committed suicide when she was young, and this “how realistically should we take this situation?” permeates the first hour of the film. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline, making fewer and fewer phone calls to Elster and they seem to fall for each other…until she “kills herself.”

Up until this point, “Vertigo” could be like any other Hitchcock movie, but then the really interesting stuff starts to happen. Scottie has a nervous break and, after recovering enough to be let out of an asylum, spies a woman named Judy (Novak again), and the obsession begins again. Judy seems almost identical to Madeline, and we quickly find out that’s because she is the same person. Instead of saving the twist for the final reel, screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor reveal that Judy was impersonating Madeline for Scottie so that Elster could get away with murdering his wife. It’s such a surprising place to make the reveal, but in doing so it gives the final act of the film added power. Judy really did fall in love with Scottie, you see, so things get complicated fast.

Vertigo 3Because of this, we sympathize with Judy more than Scottie in the final act. Scottie becomes an animal, only interested in Judy because he wants to make her into Madeline, and Judy allows this to happen because she loves him so much. We sympathize somewhat with Scottie, knowing that the truth must be revealed and that it will break him once more, but watching him almost use every mental manipulation and abuse to get Judy to become Madeline just feels…wrong. There’s a scene in a dress shop that is particularly cringe inducing…in a good way.

You can’t watch these scenes without thinking of Hitchcock’s blondes. Grace Kelly was his ultimate blonde, and in a way every other actress who came after (Novak, Barbara Harris, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles, Doris Day…phew, I’m sure I forgot someone) was groomed specifically to be some version of Kelly. Scottie’s devastated lines to Judy in the final scene seem especially apt:

“Did he train you!? Did he rehearse you!? Did he tell you what to do and what to say!?”

If that line works on a macro level concerning the Master director’s obsessions, it is also perhaps the most emotionally raw and unhinged we see any hero in one of his films (I write “perhaps” because of Ingrid Bergman’s drunken tirade at the opening of “Notorious”). Scottie screams these lines, but he might as well be screaming them at himself—he has, in essence, become the same monster he demeans. As dark as the ending is (Judy commits suicide after mistaking a nun for a ghost) and as close as the writers allow Scottie to get to the edge, they still give us the smallest glimmer of hope in the final seconds. After Judy falls, Scottie follows her out on the ledge of the belltower—not to kill himself but to look out over the edge at his fallen love. His vertigo is cured.

“Vertigo” is one of those movies that has great ideas and emotional depth, but is imperfect. As excellent as Stewart is here diving into his obsession, he’s really just not that good of a match with Novak in the love scenes. The lazy writing at the beginning grates, but the atypical, powerful third act more than makes up for it.

Speaking of obsession, when I was in grade school I became obsessed with Hitchcock and his films. I would go to the library on weekends and rent ten movies, then watch them in bulk over the course of the week. At some point after I had gotten through all the library’s movies multiple times, I came across an old VHS copy of Hitchcock’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony. When I watched the ceremony, I was swept away by the idea of the American Film Institute…and at one point Hitchcock turned to a selected group of Fellows from the Conservatory to impart knowledge on them. One of the clearest memories I have from childhood is running into the kitchen and telling her that one day soon I would be studying film at AFI. Fifteen years later, I was.

My Score (out of 5): *****