The Shawshank Redemption

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 72

Release: September 23, 1994

Writer: Frank Darabont (adaptation), Stephen King (novella)

Director: Frank Darabont

Star: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton

Music: Thomas Newman

Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Company: Columbia Pictures

Movies concerning slight-of-hand and tricking the audience, as a rule, keep the audience at arm’s length emotionally because we expect the reversals. We know there will be double crosses. We’re looking for clues that set up that seeming out-of-nowhere twist. One of the many special things about “The Shawshank Redemption” is that you don’t expect the revelations of the final act, and instead of contradicting emotions set up previously, it only serves to deepen our existing emotions regarding the main characters.

Those main characters are Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins). They meet in Shawshank Prison after Andy has been sentenced to two life terms for the murder of his wife and her lover. Red is in prison for murder as well, a murder he freely admits to having committed. Andy, on the other hand, quietly insists that he is innocent, a statement laughed at by the been-there-heard-that inmates at the prison. Over the course of several decades, Andy and Red develop as close a friendship as two people could.

Though Andy is the one who ultimately does all the magical hoo-ha at the end, it is Red who narrates the story, as it should be. It’s Red’s story. The “Redemption” of the title isn’t Andy’s, after all, it’s Red’s. The film purposely keeps Andy at arm’s length throughout the film, and Robbins’ understated performance underlines this. We feel as if we know Andy is a good man, but he’s still an enigma we can’t quite get a grasp upon. Red spends the entire movie, even after they become close, trying to understand who his friend is, and through this narration we come to understand so much about Red as a person.

Darabont, working from a novella written by Stephen King, takes his time setting up the world and these characters as three-dimensional beings trapped in what at first appears to be a limbo state. This goes for the prison guards and administrators as well. They might not physically be behind those cell doors, but they spend their days trapped in the same hellhole the men are. Darabont uses the small character moments to surprise us. Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) is horrendously abusive and a bad, bad man, but he still allows the men time to enjoy their beer on the roof. Heywood (William Sadler) would be the prison idiot in any other film, but here he develops a personality and a set of morals. He might be slow, but he still does what he thinks is right. Even though the movie is almost two-and-a-half hours in length, it doesn’t feel long, because these small reversals in scenes surprise us and hold our interest throughout.

Because the characters are well-written, and because the acting throughout is spot-on, we don’t notice all of the small clues and tiny bits of information Darabont is feeding us. The most explicit the screenplay gets in playing its hand is when Andy has a long moment with Red explaining how he’s created an alternate person out of thin air to keep the Warden’s (Bob Gunton) illegally obtained money safe. I’ve seen the movie several times and there are still small details and the briefest of exchanges I pick up on here and there that underline just how brilliantly Darabont structured his screenplay.

It’s not that the pay-off was so ingenious and so well set-up throughout the first two acts, though. It’s also that it represents everything the movie has been building toward and feels like an honest extension of the plot and characters we’ve come to regard as people. The rarest of motion pictures (the underrated “Thomas Crown Affair” remake) can pull that off and get away with it.

In addition to Robbins’ terrific, understated performance, I was surprised to see just how subtle Freeman is here. He doesn’t play Red as an angry man who hates himself for what he did, which would have been the obvious way to do it. His Red is more torn down and acquiescent, not at peace with his actions but at peace with the fact that he’s going to pay for it with for most of his life.

Behind the camera, Darabont’s work is tremendous. Everyone remembers the two shots that set up the prison: the first is from a helicopter and follows Andy’s bus toward the building before swooping around the imposing structure to follow the inmates walking across the yard toward the approaching vehicle. The second stares up the endless walls of the prison just before Andy walks in. But there is so much more. Darabont and his editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, allow the scenes to breath and the pace to remain steady throughout, even when it would be so simple to use quick-cutting.

Quibbles? A few small ones. The prologue showing Andy before his wife is murdered is needless, and since we can instinctually tell from early on that he’s innocent, why doesn’t Darabont actually show this in the prologue? There are other small point-of-view problems where we switch to Andy. Most of the time it’s fine because we imagine this is Red’s interpretation of certain moments and scenes that he assumes happened or was told to him, but in others there is no way Red would know. Oh, and it was pretty damn lucky that Andy got the cell on the end of the row, no? But again, these are quibbles.

It’s really a wonder this movie got made. Darabont was a first time director whose biggest credit was writing “The Blob” remake (which is really awesome, by the way). As far as I can tell, there’s three women in the entire film who are onscreen for about twenty seconds total. It’s two-and-a-half hours long. Freeman and Robbins weren’t marquee names. It’s a prison movie. The title is “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s meditative. There are no action scenes. And even though it’s based on a Stephen King story, it’s not scary enough to be marketed as a “Stephen King Movie.”

Thank God it did, though. “The Shawshank Redemption” works on a human level first and foremost, but it’s also one of the smartest and well-constructed films ever made. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully directed and perfectly acted. That’s the trifecta.

My Score (out of 5): *****


Black Widow

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Nunnally Johnson

Based on the novel “Black Widow” by Patrick Quentin

Director: Nunnally Johnson

Cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Ginger Rogers, Van Geflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft

Release: October 28, 1954

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 30%

For the first ten minutes, “Black Widow” fools you into thinking that it’s going to be decent, trashy fun. Not good, mind you, but at least enjoyable. But the more you watch, the more bored you become. And then annoyed. And by the time the third act rolls out two twists you first predicted an hour before, your finger is inching for the remote, wanting to end the suffering. It’s worse than being merely bad (because bad can still be memorable, be interesting, be something) – it’s worthless.

The writer and director is Nunnally Johnson, who penned some very good noir screenplays in the past, including “The Woman in the Window” and “Moontide.” What happened here? He somehow never seemed to ask himself the fundamental question when approaching creating art — why did he want to make this movie? What story did he want to tell?

After his wife Iris (Gene Tierney) leaves town to care for her ill mom, Broadway uber-producer Peter (Van Helfin) meets a wannabe writer named Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) at a party thrown by his upstairs neighbors Lottie (Ginger Rogers) and Brian (Reginald Gardner). Peter and Nancy strike up what he thinks is a platonic friendship, and he even allows her to write in his apartment during the day when he is at work. But after Peter picks up Iris from the airport, the couple discover Nancy hanging from a noose in their bathroom. A police detective (George Raft) begins investigating and Peter becomes the prime suspect blah blah blah.

You know where this is going. You’ll yawn with boredom when it turns out Nancy was telling everyone that she was having an affair with Peter. Your heart won’t race when Peter escapes the police right before they’re going to arrest him for Nancy’s murder and has to take the investigation into his own hands. You may be asleep by the time the movie reveals that Nancy was having an affair with Brian, and that Lottie killed her in a fit of rage after finding out.

At 95 minutes, the movie feels twice that length. Johnson made the “what the fuck?” decision to shoot the movie in color and Cinemascope, and neither does the film any favors. Maybe he was trying to turn the small, intimate mystery into a major prestige picture, but that was the wrong choice. Worse, he does nothing with all the technology on his hands! We get some pretty city backgrounds to focus on when things happening in the foreground get boring (which is often), but almost every single shot composition seems hindered at being forced to be in widescreen. Peter should feel like his world is closing in on him and, well, it just doesn’t. Because Cinemascope. Characters actually stand abnormally far apart in some shots simply to exploit the widescreen, and set-ups like that take the viewer out of the film.

And then there’s the acting, which is ughhhhhh. Garner is horrendous as Nancy, styled with a bad haircut and apparently unsure of how human beings behave in any given situation. When she has to embrace the black widow aspect of her personality in flashbacks, things get really cringe-y. How is this alleged human being supposed to be attractive to anyone? She even botches the best line of the screenplay, where she describes her writing style: “It’s alright to write like Somerset Maugham and it’s alright to write like Truman Capote, but not at the same time.” How do you screw that up? One can’t help but think of Eve from “All About Eve” – Anne Baxter has never received enough credit for her work there, and to imagine someone like her in this role is to imagine a movie that is still awful, but probably at least watchable.

Perhaps realizing that Garner was going to sink the movie, the rest of the cast decided to phone it in, en masse. Raft is such a non-entity that I kept forgetting he was in the movie, only to think “Hey! That’s George Raft!” every time he appeared to interrogate someone. Tierney’s role could have been performed by a mannequin, and she obviously realizes it. Gardiner was probably hired after George Sanders turned down the role, and speaks as if he has just finished yawning before every line. Heflin seems bored by the entire affair, though he hits his marks adequately. Rogers at least tries to have fun with her diva part for her first scene or two, but by the end can barely muster up enough emotion to seem villainous.

So here I am, 800 words into my article (I usually shoot for 1000 to 1200) and I’ve realized I have nothing more to say about the movie. So I won’t.

Score: *

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 73

Release: October 24, 1969

Writer: William Goldman

Director: George Roy Hill

Star: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

Music: Burt Bacharach

Cinematography: Conrad Hall

Company: 20th Century Fox

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a fun buddy comedy that succeeds mostly because of the talent and chemistry of its two leads. For a film about two outlaws who are destined for death, it’s very pleasant. This is a good movie, but since it’s on the AFI Top 100, I was expecting something…more.

The two titles characters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) are bank and train robbers extraordinaire. Butch is great with the quips and Sundance lets his crackerjack pistol aim speak for itself. They are both sorta kinda in love with the same dame, a schoolteacher named Etta (Katherine Ross).

The screenwriter, William Goldman, does a great job at setting up the characters quickly and with humor. Sundance is set up when a cocksure poker player immediately cowers upon hearing who he’s playing against, and we learn everything we need to know about Butch in how he takes down a mutiny within his own group of thieves.

Both seem attracted to Etta, but in different ways. Sundance is the one who is in a “relationship” with her, and it’s all about the sex and physical attraction. But the next morning she goes to Butch, and they play around together like little children. The two men joke around about who really loves her, but this is never brought to a head. In the end, Etta removes herself from the situation—which is just fine since this is a “love story” about the two men. And no, I’m not going to describe it by using the word “bromance,” because that word makes me want to die inside.

This type of buddy comedy needs a really good, engaging villain to make it pop, and there’s none here. One day, while robbing a train (in an inspired bit, they find themselves dealing with the same banker they almost blew up earlier in the film, who ends up apologizing to them for reinforcing his safe), a posse of men arrives and begins chasing them. They never stop. We are told who some of the men in the posse may or may not be, but we don’t meet them and they never share any lines or significant moments with our leads.

Now, let me make myself clear, this is a fantastic idea for a villain and a great way to build consistent suspense and a sense of impending doom. In a straight drama. But this is a comedy, and the long sequences of the group following Butch and Sundance no matter what they do to make them lose the trail simply doesn’t create suspense, no matter how well shot or atmospheric they are. They seem like scenes from another film, and the entire tone of the project shifts until the boys bicker about jumping off a cliff together into the rapids below.

After that close call, they decide to go to Bolivia (with Etta in tow), and then there’s a very odd, out-of-place “montage” of photographs showing the threesome leaving the Wild West and heading to New York before moving south of the border. It feels like the montage of photographs goes on forever, though in reality it must be under two minutes. But still, two minutes of photographs? Really? I would have much rather watched a two-minute scene of Butch, Sundance and Etta completely out of place in NYC or, especially, at the amusement park on Coney Island having fun with one another. Was this done to save money? I would tend to think so normally, but this was a Paul Newman movie made at the peak of his stardom, so I doubt it.

Once they get to Bolivia, there are a lot of fun little scenes, most of them of Sundance complaining about the country. Butch tries to convince him that all of Bolivia can’t be like the run-down pit they first arrive at, and Sundance’s response is great: “How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot that we’re standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia for all you know.”

The film’s ending also seems out of tone with the rest of the film. Yes, Etta had mentioned something about them being doomed to die, but the climactic gun battle seems like something out of an earlier script draft before all the wise cracks and quips had been plugged in. It’s all very “the last five minutes of ‘Thelma and Louise.’” But at least Goldman and director George Roy Hill had the good sense to freeze frame on the two guys going off into battle one final time instead of going all “Bonnie and Clyde” on us, which would have really left a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.

I’m not a big fan of movies that pretend to be light and fun and then switch gears to become deep and tragic just to seem more meaningful than they are (I’m looking at you, “Moulin Rouge!”, with that exclamation point in your title and most depressing final act ever). The smarter thing to do would be to find a way to wrap your message into the fabric of the film without altering the tone completely. I’m not against killing off the two main characters at the end of a movie, but if Goldman and Hill were planning on it, they should have created a movie that better suited the ending.

Despite this, the movie still works, and that is because of Newman and Redford’s wonderful performances. No matter how much the tone of the piece changes, they keep the boat steady by making us believe in their friendship. Their personalities really do compliment one another well and there’s a fantastic give and take in their work together. This creative team really could have made a masterpiece together. Oh wait, they did. It’s called “The Sting.”

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Advise & Consent

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Wendell Mayes

Based on the novel “Advise & Consent” by Allen Drury

Director: Otto Preminger

Cinematographer: Sam Leavitt

Music: Jerry Fielding

Cast: Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda

Release: June 6, 1962

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 40%

The films noir that director Otto Preminger made in the 1940s and early 1950s were connected in that they all showcased the director’s obsession with one of their respective characters. The films might have been ensembles, but “Laura” was obsessed with Waldo Lydecker, “Whirlpool” with David Korvo, “Angel Face” with Diane Tremayne, and so on. They were often the villains, but not all the time – “Where the Sidewalk Ends” offered up one of the most complex characters in Preminger’s filmography with Mark Dixon. By 1962, things had changed. You notice right away with “Advise & Consent” that the film has a very scattered viewpoint, for better and worse. It ping-pongs from character to character, almost all played by marquee stars, staying with some longer than others, but ultimately unable to choose a main character. Preminger seems at once obsessed with everything about this world… but also nothing.

In theory, this is smart because it shows how one (comparatively) small scandal can start dominos falling all over the political world of Washington D.C. In execution, it works to a certain extent because most of the characters we visit are interesting in their own right, but ultimately creates a hollow experience for the viewer when the climax hits. The scandal at the center involves the President (Franchot Tone) choosing controversial Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as his new Secretary of State, and the difficulties with getting him confirmed by the Senate. The President is dying, and his Vice President (Lew Ayres) gives him no confidence that he’ll continue the President’s foreign policies.

Despite being the lynchpins of the plot, Fonda, Tone and Ayres aren’t given much to do… it’s those surrounding their circle that Preminger and writer Wendell Mayes prefer. Charles Laughton plays Senator Seab Cooley, who will go to almost any lengths to get Leffingwell out of the running. Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority Leader, who is constantly punching the rising tide around him. Don Murray plays the leader of the panel investigating Leffingwell who finds out that the candidate lied, but is blackmailed before he can reveal the truth to the public.

Fuck, that’s a lot of characters, and I haven’t even gotten to Gene Tierney or Burgess Meredith or Peter Lawford yet. Even boiled down as much as I have above, the story sounds like quite the clusterfuck, and to the filmmakers’ credit, it rarely feels that way. Especially in the first act, there is a bit of whiplash as the film cuts from character to character and subplot to subplot, but Preminger was smart to cast mostly icons so that it’s easier for the viewer to keep them all straight. But, once you realize that this is how the film is structured, you settle in. That said, the event that ultimately is supposed to bring all the disparate threads together (Murray’s character commits suicide because of the blackmail) isn’t exploited well enough in the final act.

I’m also surprised how easy the intricacies of our government are to follow here. There’s one moment of very awkward exposition where Gene Tierney’s character trots out two other women and explains to them what the Senate does (in fact, part of me suspects this is the only reason Tierney’s character is even in the film), but other than that, the exposition is well-placed and well-hidden by Mayes.

With a cast this big, there will be some major hits and misses. Fonda, for example, doesn’t make much of an impact, nor does Tone (but what else is new?). Laughton is a riot as the Southern Senator who always seems both amused and infuriated. Murray has the meatiest role with the most melodrama and fully realized character arc, and does not disappoint – I’m not very familiar with his work, but wish I was.

The revelation that Murray’s character, Brig Anderson, had a gay love affair with a fellow soldier in his past is quite problematic. First, we have a morbidly obese man in bad clothing surrounded by cats toy with Brig, and then Brig enters a gay bar – Preminger frames the reveal garishly, with spinning lights, Brig’s eyes bugging out and the gay men catcalling after Brig when he runs out of the bar in horror. Yeah, not the best. I want to give the filmmakers a bit of leeway because it is a major twist, but the way it’s handled doesn’t feel right… if that makes any sense. And the fact that Brig literally leaves his ex-lover in the gutter as he drives off doesn’t help matters.

You also get the feeling that a good half hour can be chopped off the 139-minute runtime without missing much of anything. Tierney is a nonentity, as is Lawford. And there is much fat that could be trimmed in between Brig’s suicide and the final vote… the tension relaxes just when it should be tightening.

Visually, Preminger has a field day with capturing the dirt and grime of Washington D.C. and then contrasting it with the gleaming perfection of its rooms and structures. He was smart to keep the movie in black-and-white and not color – there’s something a little seedy about black-and-white here that works in the film’s favor. I also love the way he and cinematographer Sam Leavitt frame the senators in the climax – he manages to find new and interesting angles in a room that has been in hundreds of movies before and since.

“Advise & Consent” isn’t top-tier noir (many would argue that the film isn’t even part of the genre), nor is it prime Preminger, but it is a fascinating, flawed statement of its time. Like our government, its imperfections reflect things that worked back then and remain gripping today, and things that seemed boundary-pushing then but today seem tone-deaf.

Score: ***1/2

The Silence of the Lambs

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 74

Release: February 14, 1991
Writer: Ted Tally
Director: Jonathan Demme
Star: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine

Composer: Howard Shore

Cinematographer: Tak Tujimoto

Company: Orion Pictures

Clarice Starling’s quest to become an FBI agent and do good seems futile from the opening frames of “Silence of the Lambs.” The other agents-in-training tower over her and judge her with every lingering glance. Her hillbilly accent gives her speech much less authority than it should. Most importantly, the world around her seems to have rotted and spoiled from its core.

Yes, this is a horror movie, but the viewer would still expect certain scenes to be filmed with warmth or beauty, if only to counterbalance the darkness. Not here. The forest Starling (Jodie Foster) trains in as the film opens is gray, wet and ominous. The river agents fly over to investigate a corpse is brown with waste. Even the main titles are black and ugly. Every location these characters encounter seems devoid of anything alive or worth saving. As if dead forests and deteriorating buildings on the surface of the Earth weren’t enough, the monsters that inhabit the film live beneath that surface in isolated, cold caverns.

The film has two such monsters. The first we meet is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Starling is sent by the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to get Lecter to fill out useless profile forms. To get to Lecter’s cell, Starling descends flight after flight of stairs, then is escorted through a seemingly endless collection of barred doors and safety locks. When she finally gets to Lecter’s beyond-maximum security hallway, we notice that the other inmates are kept behind bars while Lecter is held behind Plexiglas. Holy crap.

The second is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). He seems to live in an unimpressive middle-class home, but underneath is a cavern that seems to reach endlessly out under the earth. He keeps his live victims at the bottom of a dry well and, a few rooms over, sews his dead victim’s skin into a sickening coat of flesh.

The hunt for Bill drives the story but Lecter is the one who lingers most in our minds. His speech is mannered and his persona is by turns cold and inviting. He’s an enigma, and in that way he interests us in the same way he is interested in Starling. Of course the real reason we grow to “enjoy” Lecter is because he is sympathetic to Starling. On the whole, he’s kind to her in a world of men who dismiss her, perhaps because she doesn’t cave in the same way so many others would when he calls her a generation away from white trash. Hopkins is perfect in the role and makes the delicate balance between gentleman and monster seem easy. After one of the other inmates throws semen on Starling, Lecter whispers to him until he goes mad(der) and swallows his own tongue. He’s not flirting with her in any sense of the word, but the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that Lecter is male and Starling is female. The moment their fingers touch, albeit only for a second, is electrifying.

That Starling can hold her own with him is a testament to her character. Foster delicately balances Starling’s innocence with her inherent strength. After all, she’s only in training at the FBI, and writer Ted Tally shows that, though very smart, she isn’t a prodigy in her department. Tally and director Jonathan Demme get a lot of mileage out of a small moment in her training where she runs into a room and is about to cuff a faux-suspect but forgets to check behind the door she entered through first. During the final moments of the film, as she is desperately checking through the rooms of Bill’s underground lair, the audience is screaming for her to check behind the damn doors every time she enters a new level of hell.

Demme makes a very ballsy move by shooting the movie head-on. When Crawford is first introduced, he stares directly at the camera to read his lines. When Lecter asks to see Starling’s credentials he is staring through the glass directly at us (“Closer, please. Closer.”). We see the group of local police men staring at us as Starling tries to get them to leave the room. It’s unnerving, but hugely successful. We immediately feel for Starling, understand what she’s gone through her entire life and feel added suspense as she stares down these monsters. If the Crawford character did not look at the camera head-on, we would perhaps think much differently of the subplot where we wonder just what he wants with Starling. Is he aroused by her or does he see her as an equal? Glenn plays the beats of the character just right, and the ambiguity of their parting handshake speaks volumes as a result.

The movie makes another ballsy move in abandoning Starling for fifteen minutes during the second act, but here I’m more torn about its success. Tally and Demme instead follow a bunch of nameless officers after Lecter has escaped from his cell. The scene is well shot and the thrills are well choreographed, but since we care nothing about any of these characters it doesn’t resonate emotionally with the viewer. The pay-off of Lecter pulling off a mask of skin in the ambulance, almost makes it worth it. Almost.

Above all else, “Silence of the Lambs” is scary. I’ve focused almost exclusively on the characters and world, but the point of a horror movie is to scare the viewer, and this one does its job brilliantly. When Starling is in the Bill’s basement at the climax of the movie it only takes up about seven minutes of screen time, but after multiple viewings it still feels like a horrifying, suspenseful eternity. I always see the movie referred to as a “thriller,” perhaps because it sounds classier than “horror movie” and movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture should seem classy, but make no mistakes, this is a horror movie. To call it anything else demeans the rest of the genre, which is just as visceral and important as every other film genre. There is a notable lack of horror movies on the AFI Top 100 list (“The Sixth Sense,” “Jaws” and “Psycho” are the only others) and this is a horrible oversight that, frankly, angers me. When AFI created Top 10 lists for all of the major genres, “Horror” was not one of them. You always hear that the best horror and science fiction movies “transcend” their genre, as if there is some shame in those genres. Movies like “The Exorcist,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Shining,” “The Uninvited,” “Halloween” and “Rosemary’s Baby” have just as much artistic merit as any movie on this list, and to pretend they do not because they involve “cheap scares” is laughable.

The “cheap scares” in “Silence of the Lambs” are well earned and beautifully executed. They impact us because we care so much about Starling. They linger with us because they tap into those moments where we are by ourselves, on edge, and can’t figure out why. Who hasn’t been alone in the dark and felt like there was someone else there, watching us?

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Ace in the Hole

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels & Billy Wilder

Story: Victor Desny

Director: Billy Wilder

Cinematographer: Charles Lang

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Richard Benedict

Release: June 29, 1951

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Awards: Nominated for “Best Story & Screenplay” at the 1952 Oscars, but lost to “An American in Paris”

Percent Noir: 50%

“Ace in the Hole” is the final of a quartet of films noir directed by Billy Wilder – and the other three are “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Blvd.” That trio were all nominated for Best Picture (“Lost Weekend” won), Best Director (Wilder won for “Weekend”) and Best Story & Screenplay (“Weekend” and “Sunset Blvd” won). Wilder was one of the most bankable directors of all time, which is probably why Paramount Pictures couldn’t fathom that “Ace in the Hole” failed financially.

Unable or unwilling to accept defeat, Paramount rebranded the film as “The Big Carnival” and re-released it. It bombed again. Because of this, “Ace in the Hole” has garnered a black sheep reputation among historians, many of whom bend the truth by saying the film was a critical disaster as well. It wasn’t – rereading period reviews today, I was struck by how supportive they were of the movie and its darkness. Sure, they didn’t call the movie a masterpiece (a label carved out in recent years, most notably since the film’s release by the Criterion Collection), but they appreciated Wilder’s filmmaking, and the re-release was ultimately nominated for Best Story & Screenplay at the 1952 Oscars (don’t ask me how that didn’t break a bunch of rules).

For me, “Ace in the Hole” is the least of the four Wilder films noir, but since the other three rank among the best films ever created, taking fourth place in this race isn’t a bad standing.

Kirk Douglas plays a soulless reporter named Chuck Tatum, who boasts about being fired from eleven major newspapers in his forced job interview with the Editor-in-Chief of an Albuquerque newspaper. He ends up spending a year there in his version of hell (No garlic pickles?! For shame!) before he and upstart photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) happen across the moment Tatum has been waiting for.

A man named Leo (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in a cave in amongst some Native American ruins. Practically panting like a dog in heat, Tatum takes over every facet of the story, controlling who gets access to what and managing to tap into the national zeitgeist. Sensing malleable men around him, he teams with the town Sheriff (who carries a live rattlesnake around in a box with him in a much-too-obvious metaphor) to keep other reporters from getting any scoop. He offers a construction manager extra money to drill through a mountain to get to Leo instead of taking twelve hours and doing it the easy way. And Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling)? So what if she was planning on leaving her husband and may have less of a soul than Tatum (if that’s possible) – the guy makes sure she cries on cue.

The story becomes so popular that sightseers arrive at the cave, first at a trickle but then by the carload, filling the desert with musicians and even a carnival with a Ferris wheel. All the while Leo, whose life is legitimately in grave danger every moment he spends in the cave in, twiddles his thumbs and tries not to go crazy from the drilling, a footnote in his own story.

“Ace in the Hole” is cynical in the way all of Wilder’s films noir are, and the movie also serves as an amalgamation of many of the master’s interests. Journalism is something he would visit time and again in his career, as would making a soulless character the “hero.” And the climax, where an injured Tatum wanders about, trying to confess his story, is reminiscent of the framing device of “Double Indemnity.” I don’t list these things as criticisms, because Wilder handles them excellently, but out of interest as a huge admirer of his work. You see moments like these and feel like a piece has been perfectly locked into the puzzle of his soul and filmography.

But as dark and exciting as much of “Ace in the Hole” is, I do have a few major stumbling blocks with the screenplay. First, I don’t buy the tent of other reporters just sitting there and doing nothing for days on end – all of them distrust Tatum and are smart, capable reporters in their own right – so why not add to the tension by having them uncover some of Tatum’s misdeeds? Second, I wish there were more to the Leo story: it’s hard to buy an entire nation waiting with baited breath for a week when the story doesn’t evolve or change in any meaningful way. When Leo dies, nothing much has changed from when Tatum found him… what was the guy writing about all those days?

But when the movie is good, it’s great. Douglas does a good job of personifying the kind of odious human being you don’t want to spend more than two minutes in a room with, but can’t look away from onscreen. Sterling is superb as a bored femme fatale who needs lessons in balancing her greed with her public appearance of grief. The way she says “I don’t go to church — kneeling bags my nylons” is one of my favorite line readings in all of Wilder.

Then there are all the small moments Wilder is famous for, like Tatum’s very specific way of lighting matches on a typewriter, or the fact that one of the supporting characters name checks the same insurance company that Fred MacMurray worked for in “Double Indemnity.” And how many times do you think Douglas had to do the fall in the final shot of the movie so his dead eye would be perfectly lined up with the camera? However many it took, it was worth it.

Score: ****

In the Heat of the Night

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 75

Release: August 2, 1967

Writer: Stirling Silliphant

Director: Norman Jewison

Star: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant

Music: Quincy Jones

Cinematography: Haskell Wexler

Company: United Artists

It’s not just that Virgil Tibbs is a black man. It’s that he’s a black man who represents sanity and logic in a small Southern town full of emotion and anger. The world seems to have passed right by Sparta, Mississippi without taking much notice, and its citizens are trying to convince themselves they aren’t angry about it. But, of course, they are.

While “In the Heat of the Night” goes through the motions of being a mystery, it’s not. There is no possible way a viewer can collect clues and deduce the real killer’s identity, no matter how many Agatha Christie novels he or she has read. It’s a character drama pitting two opposite character types against one another before having them team up for the greater good. Taken on those terms alone, the film is fairly successful, but falls short of true excellence simply because the Tibbs character is so much more interesting than the Sheriff he butts heads with.

Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested for murder near the beginning of the film partially because he is a stranger to Sparta but mostly because he’s a black man. From the moment he is introduced to the town’s Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger), we know that this isn’t going to be a fair fight. Sure, Tibbs is well-dressed in a suit while Gillespie is sweating through his tight police uniform, but it’s about so much more than that.

The writer, Stirling Silliphant, stacks the odds against Gillespie by making him so wrong-headed about every single thing he does during the first half of the movie. For a man with so much experience as a police officer, Gillespie seems to overlook every logical question one would ask about the murder. I know nothing about murder or investigating them (or at least that’s what I want you to think), but even I would know to check the wound to see if the killer was left or right handed. But no, for most of the movie Gillespie and his troupe of Andy Griffith-wannabe deputies are so overcome by racism that they can do nothing else but make idiotic decisions and then argue with the (obviously right) black man about everything that comes out of his mouth. In a horribly sloppy move, Gillespie’s character is denied any sort of character development until after he realizes Tibbs might know what he is talking about. All we know about him is that he can’t seem to stop chewing gum in the most annoying way possible at all times. Because of this, we have no reason to invest in the character until it’s too late.

Then again, even if Silliphant would have gone out of his way to weave a three-dimensional character for Steiger to inhabit, Gillespie would still be blown out of the water by his rival. Tibbs is just too strong of a character and Poitier is just too charismatic of an actor for anyone else to successfully steal the screen from him. He’s the rarest of actors, like Ian McShane or Laurence Fishburne, whose presence is so strong that viewers have a hard time looking away from him onscreen, no matter what is happening in a given scene.

Jewison inherently understands this and often just keeps his camera on Poitier no matter what is going on. Look at the moment where Poitier must inform the dead man’s widow (Lee Grant) that her husband has been murdered. Instead of cutting to Grant’s face as she gets the news, Jewison just stays on Poitier until the very end of the scene, finally lingering on Grant now that Poitier has left the room.

Jewison’s camera moves quite a bit in the movie, giving viewers long takes that move back and forth to whatever is most interesting. My favorite shot in the movie is a long take that follows Tibb’s hands as they explore a dead body, twisting muscles and exploring skin color as Tibbs tries to make sense of the death. His lack of editing also allows for some wonderful surprises. For instance, in the scene where a white man slaps Tibbs only to immediately be slapped back, the viewer would expect several cross-cuts to close-ups and medium shots for added impact. Instead, Jewison just holds the camera on the men, making Tibbs’ retaliation against the slap much more startling.

From the moment we discover Tibbs in a train station, we know where the story is heading. He will face a lot of racism and opposition from the sheriff and the rest of the town but his logic and insistence on the truth will finally win Gillespie over, allowing them to team up to catch the real killer. The story doesn’t veer at all from the team-up routine, so I began to focus more attention on the murder mystery. The investigation in kind doesn’t start until about an hour into the movie, and even then there are a bunch of sloppy inconsistencies. The police catch a suspect after a harrowing chase through the forest and banks of a river, and we can plainly see the suspect getting his hands in mud and dirt. But moments later when Tibbs checks under his fingernails all he finds is chalk. Huh, that’s odd.

Other details, mostly involving Tibbs and Gillespie, the movie gets just right. It’s fantastic to see the building fury on Gillespie’s face when he first realizes that Tibbs makes more money in a week than the sheriff makes in a month, and then he finds out that Tibbs is a police officer. Or when the men drive through a cotton field and you can see Gillespie relishing the opportunity to make a crack about slavery and trying to decide what the perfect words would be to make the most impact. Then there are weird beats, as when the title song randomly plays over the men’s drive through that cotton field despite it not being at night nor seeming too hot.

The movie does get much stronger once Gillespie develops a personality other than “I’m a racist and I hate you.” The quiet interaction between Steiger and Poitier in Gillespie’s home is a master course in understated acting, and their parting scene at the train station is more emotional than the movie deserves thanks to the fine acting. You have to wonder just how amazing the entire film would have been if the character tension and interplay from the final third of the movie was present throughout.

My Score (out of 5): ***

A Bullet For Joey

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Daniel Mainwaring, A.I. Bezzerides

Story: James Benson Nablo

Director: Lewis Allen

Cinematographer: Harry Neumann

Music: Harry Sukman

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Audrey Totter

Release: April 15, 1955

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 80%

If you squint real hard at “A Bullet For Joey,” it may convince you that it is a good film. All the parts are there, and every aspect of the execution is passable, but not much more. If you’re really in the mood for a noir and, for some reason, all of your other film noir DVDs and Blus have broken, and your internet is out so you can’t stream anything, you could do worse.

Here, let me tell you what it’s aboot (that’s a Canadian joke – you’ll understand it in two words): In Canada, a nuclear scientist named Carl Macklin (George Dolenz) is wanted by “a foreign power” (*cough* Russia *cough*). So an American gangster named Joey (George Raft) is brought up to kidnap him for $100,000. Joey enlists his ex-flame Joyce (Audrey Totter) to seduce him, but she starts to actually like Macklin and realizes that maybe aligning herself with the bad guys might *gasp* make you a bad person as well. All the while, Canadian Mountie Inspector Leduc (Edward G. Robinson) is on the case.

It’s not a bad premise, and who hasn’t wanted to see a noir set in Canada? That was a joke, but in theory it should lend some color to the proceedings… until you realize that no one is speaking with Canadian accents, or that there’s any real reason it’s set up north when everything looks very Los Angeles. Oh well. At least the organ grinder in the first scene who turns out to be a trained assassin is eccentric (though the chase scene involving the assassin that immediately follows is horribly staged and edited) and results in one of the best bad lines in all of noir, spoken by Robinson at Mountie headquarters: “Really? An organ grinder? Out that early in the morning?” Apparently in this Canadian small town/harbor city/it changes from scene to scene, it’s normal for organ grinders to be out and about, but only after noon.

If I were only looking at the poster, “A Bullet For Joey” has all the ingredients of a great film. The director is Lewis Allen, who made the best haunted house film of all time with “The Uninvited,” and would later in 1955 reunite with Robinson for the crackerjack noir “Illegal.” It was written by Daniel Mainwaring (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) under a pseudonym and A.I. Bezzerides (“Kiss Me Deadly,” “On Dangerous Ground”). In addition, noir superstars Robinson and Totter are in front of the camera. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with noir, this would appear to be a must-see.

But the problems start as soon as the opening credits roll, with a cutaway after the title to a gun firing directly at camera, a lame visual that hasn’t stirred an audience since it was first used in 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery.” Throughout, the movie keeps flirting with being better than it is, but consistently shies away from doing anything interesting. There’s a subplot where one of Joey’s heavies (William Bryant) must romance a Macklin’s secretary (Toni Gerry) to get info out of her. The secretary is an unattractive bookworm and the heavy is very handsome, and their odd pairing could have easily resulted in something wonderful had the two characters liked one another. But no, nothing of the sort happens and, when the secretary realizes it’s a ruse, she immediately does the stupidest thing possible (tells him she’s going to the police, gets out of the car and slowly heads for town on food down the middle of a mountain road) so we feel nothing when he guns her down.

Then much is made out of the fact that Joey still loves Joyce, despite her strong misgivings about going back to the dark side. This is all in the script – Raft and Totter have less than zero chemistry, but regardless, after Joyce decides to betray Joey and tell the police everything, you think things are going to heat up. Then Joey discovers her betrayal… and does nothing. Here could have been a wonderful, heartbreaking (at least in theory) moment where he has to kill his love… or something. But no, Raft just grimaces, then dumps her on a boat with Macklin.

All the while, Robinson gives the worst performance I’ve ever seen from him – he genuinely seems like he does not want to be in this movie. In the third act, his character has a barnburner speech where he convinces Joey to switch to the side of good, and Robinson might has well be yawning between sentences. Raft may or may not be trying to turn in a good performance – but he’s bad regardless and is much, much, MUCH too old for the character he plays. Totter has a couple sweet scenes with Dolenz, but seems to recognize that no one else around her cares, then lowers her standards accordingly.

And if you thought the acting was “eh,” just wait until you see the visuals! Allen and cinematographer Harry Neumann (a bunch of Mr. Wong and Monogram Charlie Chan films) seem intent to make every set seem flat and uninspired, including the storage ship where the third act is set! How do you screw that up?! There isn’t a single moment of visual distinction in the entire running time.

Every filmmaker was capable of greatness and achieved it often elsewhere, but not with “A Bullet For Joey.” When a movie is this phoned in, you can’t help but wonder at what point in the production did everyone realize that no one else cared. Was it the first day on set, or did it take a couple days before it hit every crew member?

Score: *

The Cell

The Tarsem Odyssey

Writer: Mark Protosevich

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Dylan Baker, Dean Norris

Producer: Julio Caro, Eric McLeod

Cinematography: Paul Laufer

Music: Howard Shore

Company: New Line Cinema

Release: August 18, 2000

Awards: Michele Burke & Edouard Henriques were nominated for an Oscar for Best Makeup, but lost to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

For a film that was released during the dying breath of the serial killer film craze of the late 1990s and treated like yesterday’s trash, “The Cell” seems astonishingly ahead of its time today. Aspects of its storytelling that were attacked when it was released – most notably that it dared to psychoanalyze… even show sympathy… with a serial killer – are routinely in the zeitgeist today in television series like “Hannibal” and “Mindhunter.” And its visual audaciousness seems perfectly in tune with the visual studies produced in any given CGI blockbuster today. All that said, it’s a testament to the craft and precision of its filmmaking that “The Cell” still feels bold and distinct when viewed in 2018.

Right from the first frames, which show a maiden in a beautiful white gown galloping on a black horse across a stark, red desert, you can tell that you’re in for a different kind of serial killer movie. This was Tarsem’s first feature after years spent directing well-received music videos and commercials, and it’s clear from the very beginning that he approached every aspect of the production from a “Why not put it in?” perspective. Here is a film always interested in what’s around the next bend… what carrot it can chase next. There’s a scene about halfway through the film which is as close to rote as the movie gets, where Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn’s characters are discussing the killings in the hospital room of a comatose child. It’s the usual set-up: over, over, two shot. Three minutes into the scene, Lopez abruptly stops the conversation and demands a change of scenery –though her proclamation works in the context of the story, one has to wonder if she spoke for Tarsem, who was desperate to reframe the scene in a more distinctive visual way.

It would be so easy to lose the story thread amid all the neat camera tricks, extensive special effects work and colorful costuming. So it’s a credit to Mark Protosevich’s screenplay that the story is always clear, always understandable and, mostly importantly, always engaging. In any given moment, we always understand the stakes, and the story never seems to be in a rush to get from beat to beat. Lopez stars as Catherine Deane (her name is perhaps the most routine thing in the picture), a doctor who is attempting to connect with patients emotionally by literally placing her consciousness into their consciousness. Elsewhere, Vince Vaughn plays FBI Agent Peter Novak (never mind, that’s the most routine thing in the movie), who is hot on the trail of a serial killer who drowns his victims in a giant glass room that fills with water before turning them into haunting human “dolls” wrapped in plastic much like poor Laura Palmer.

We meet the killer, Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio), within the first reel, and at first the filmmakers seemingly have no interest in creating sympathy for him. How can you tell? Well, one of the first things he does is hang himself from chains sticking out of his back while masturbating over his newest (already dead) victim. In a genre where out-grossing your competition is the main draw, this visual remains blunt and terrifying in a way that haunts you through the rest of the running time.

Stargher is a schizophrenic and, while taking a bath, has some sort of seizure that sends him into a vegetative state. Seconds later, Novak and his comrades (one is named Gordon Ramsay – not kidding – and another is Hank from “Breaking Bad”) break into the apartment to arrest him.

Movie over? Not quite.

Before his episode, Stargher had kidnapped his next victim, who is trapped in that glass room where she will drown in a matter of days/hours (the timeline isn’t quite clear). And thus the disparate threads of the film all converge, with Deane having to explore Stargher’s subconscious and figure out where his victim is hidden.

Of course, this is all completely bonkers.

But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t fully onboard the entire time. Protosevich takes his time laying the track to get to his central conceit, and does many things both major and minor to make us buy the craziness happening onscreen. Note how the screenplay frames the scene where Deane and Novak’s storylines finally converge. Novak has to push Deane hard to get her to agree… even to the point of begging. Without articulating it, Deane seems to view this storytelling twist with the same wariness the audience may, and because of her behavior here, it’s easier for us to swallow what we are seeing.

That said, I still take issue with a later development. When Deane gets lost in Stargher’s subconscious, Novak finds himself diving into the killer’s mind as well to rescue her. Perhaps if there was only one expert technician person overseeing the entire experiment it would be easier to swallow, but there are two (Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Dylan Baker, sadly wasted), and both seem to be doing nothing more than monitoring what’s happening and saying nursery rhymes to Deane. Deane can send herself into a mind and pull herself out easily enough (she effectively locks the others out of the room and does it by herself in the finale), so they seem like they would be perfect candidates to help out. But no, it has to be Novak, who only found out about this whole thing three hours before… thank goodness there is a perfectly fitted bodysuit in just his size in a closet somewhere waiting for him!

Yes, I know, we need him to go inside Stargher’s mind so he can get the clue that will help him figure out where the woman is hidden blah blah blah. But in a film where every twist is better written than one would expect, this is the one where there is still a rough edge. I understand its necessity in theory and appreciate the places this moment leads to in the third act, but that doesn’t excuse the moment itself.

The execution of the subconscious remains a towering achievement. Aside from one or two dated choices (the echoing of the voices in the opening sequence, most notably), much of the visual splendor that Tarsem and his army of creators pack into these sequences holds up. In fact, much of the inventiveness looks better than the obvious CGI fantasy we get today, 18 years after “The Cell” was released. Of course, it helps that these sequences aren’t supposed to be entirely realistic, but you cannot discount the fact that they have a weight to them missing from today’s movies.

I would begin to name my favorite visuals, but that would turn into an awkward, long list. Instead I want to focus on the fact that Tarsem doesn’t choose a single visual style for the subconscious… each trip is distinctive, original and different. He pulls his shots from H.R. Giger, Damien Hirst, Odd Nerdrum, “Twin Peaks” and even seems influenced by his own work from R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video for the scene where Deane loses herself in Stargher’s mind. Everything looks amazing – I am genuinely shocked that Cinematographer Paul Laufer hasn’t done any film of note since “The Cell.”

The rest of the technical team is aces too. Before he landed in Middle Earth, Howard Shore was most noted for composing serial killer films like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en.” Here he is allowed a little more diversity thanks to the dream sequences, but the overall effect of his music seems to be inflicting trauma on the listener. Oh, in case you didn’t know, I meant that last bit as a compliment.

Tarsem began his creative love affair with costume designer Eiko Ishioka here (she shares credit with April Napier) – anyone who has seen the film will remember the dream suits that feel like a precursor to the “Body” exhibits today, and that amazing costume with the odd silver partial mask that Lopez wears while trapped in Stargher’s mind.

As the film climaxes, I couldn’t help but applaud the hat trick that the filmmakers had pulled off – they had somehow made two developments which would reek of false suspense in most other films impossible to look away from. When Novak discovers Stargher’s victim, she is sucking air from a pipe in the room, not really in much danger of dying anytime soon. But your heart still races when he breaks the glass and cradles the woman. Likewise, it should not matter whether Deane saves Stargher’s soul, since his body will be comatose for the rest of his existence, and yet her final confrontation with Stargher’s demon (and realization that by killing the demon, she is killing the innocent within as well) summons up much emotional resonance from this viewer. Amazingly, Tarsem and his editor Robert Duffy intercut these over-the-top visuals and the chase to find Stargher’s victim. For the rest of the film, the mind sequences were like islands unto themselves, with Tarsem taking all the time he needed to develop mood, using cutaways to “the real world” as sparingly as possible. Here, he blends the fantastical with the reality, and though it shouldn’t work, it does, climaxing with the duel images of Novak and Deane in baptismal stances.

It’s probably telling that I haven’t even begun to address the acting. Lopez does not give a great performance as Deane, but she gives the right performance – exhausted, vaguely optimistic and patient throughout. She looks great in her fantastical costumes, but in these moments seems like Jennifer Lopez the person, not Deane the character. Vaughn had just belly-flopped as Norman Bates in the abortive “Psycho” remake, and his performance is much more tentative than the role needs – Jake Weber (as Gordon Ramsey, not the chef) does a much better job of convincing you he is an FBI agent than Vaughn ever manages to. D’Onofrio comes across the best of the three, maniacally going over the top through his makeup as he slowly pulls Novak’s intestine out of his body. When he gets made up, he seems in sync with whatever iteration of his character we see, calibrating his performance higher or lower as a result.

“The Cell” was a modest success at the box office, grossing $104 million off a $30-ish million budget, but seems to have become lost to history. And what a shame, because for all intents and purposes, it holds up better than 99% of its serial killer counterparts. Critics were vastly divided on the film, with a small minority loving it (Roger Ebert was a major champion, placing it among his top ten of the year) while most just loathed it. Looking at the reviews today, there doesn’t appear to be many who went “meh.” And, as always, I’d prefer a movie that polarizes audiences than one everyone agrees on – that proves its filmmakers took chances others did not.

I think a lot of the hate came because this was released in 2000, when critics were sick and tired of serial killer tropes, and generally unwilling to accept anything from the genre, no matter how good. We were nine years past “Silence of the Lambs” and five years past “Se7en.” The past three years had some genre hits at the box office, most notably 1997’s “Kiss the Girls” and 1999’s “The Bone Collector,” but critics hated them. Comparable movies like 2000’s “The Watcher” were dying on the vine, and even a horror icon like “American Psycho” got mixed reviews and barely grossed $35 million. Taken within that context, it’s easy to see how “The Cell” got lost in the mix, and how critic didn’t want to see a serial killer, let alone dive into his subconscious.

This bad timing would follow Tarsem throughout his career to the present day, with each of his subsequent works being released at the wrong time and, consequently, being compared unfavorably to other parts of the zeitgeist. “The Fall” was trapped in “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” shadow, while “Immortals” was essentially seen as “300”-lite. “Mirror, Mirror” was released after “Snow White and the Huntsman” but before Disney’s “Malificent” began the current fairy tale revisionist trend. And you couldn’t find a review of “Emerald City” that didn’t compare it unfavorably to “Game of Thrones.” What a shame.

More interesting is why “The Cell” hasn’t been rediscovered by modern audiences. It doesn’t help that Tarsem never developed the following he should have, and its two major stars are now more known for their films in other genres (Lopez for romantic comedies, Vaughn for lowbrow comedies). And yet there the film sits, aging better than its contemporaries and waiting. Just waiting.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

postman 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Harry Ruskin & Niven Busch

Based on: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain

Director: Tay Garnett

Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner

Music: George Bassman

Cast: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Hume Cronyn, Cecil Kellaway, Audrey Totter

Release: May 2, 1946

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 80%

James M. Cain’s short novel version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is a great crime story. Adaptation is a tricky thing, especially when it concerns a work as well regarded as this, and the 1946 film version pulls off the hat trick of being very faithful to Cain’s words while still existing as its own entity. The overt sexuality of the novel is left to implication in the film, and that surprisingly strengthens the narrative. It’s equal to the book in almost every way, and even better in others. This is a movie that casts a spell on the viewer – I stopped taking notes almost immediately after starting it, caught up in the storytelling.

John Garfield plays a drifter named Frank who gets a job at a highway-side gas station/diner partly for the money and partly for the blonde bombshell who lives there, Cora (Lana Turner). Frank is head over heels from minute one, but Cora is icy… and married to the kindly but drunken Nick (Cecil Kellaway), who is older than Cora and not a match for her at all.

postman 3The first act is as much about sex as any movie I have ever seen, despite the fact that it’s not explicit in any way. Cora’s introduction is incredibly sexy, with her “accidentally” dropping her lipstick and Frank giving it back to her. A few days or weeks later, Frank kisses Cora passionately. He stands back, proud of himself, waiting for a response. Her response is not to speak, but just put her lipstick on coldly before walking away.

At some point Frank and Cora start sleeping together. Or maybe they don’t. That’s part of the fun of the film – you can totally believe them having great (unseen) sex as Frank gets more and more under her spell. Or you can imagine that they aren’t having sex, and that’s why Frank is getting more and more obsessed with having her. Turner wears only white until the third act, and it meshes perfectly with her blonde hair – she never looked more beautiful on film. And Garfield is no slouch either. Director Tay Garnett shoots him softly and from flattering angles so that you totally get his sex appeal.

At a certain point, Frank and Cora plot Nick’s murder. The cold logic they use is weirdly flawless. But when the first attempt doesn’t take (Nick is banged but not broken), they promise never, ever, ever, ever to do that again. Five minutes of screen time later, a new plan is hatched, and this one does take, but a suspicious district attorney (Cecil Kellaway) becomes set on making sure they, specifically Cora, fry.

postman 2Enter Hume Cronyn, who walks into the film as slimy lawyer Arthur Keats knowing he’s got the showstopper part and acting it out fantastically. The way he approaches Cora (Turner’s best scene in the movie is where she screams at Arthur and somehow manages not to go over the top), uses Frank and ultimately gets them both released is pretty stunning, and a testament to the fact that law minutiae can be absolutely compelling when presented in the right way. Cain would do the same thing with the intricacies of the insurance industry one of his other noir novels, “Double Indemnity.”

Then, shockingly, at a certain point you start rooting for these two crazy kids to work things out. This is a most rare occurrence, and perhaps I’m a bit of a psycho for liking them after they murdered someone, but there it is. You yell at the screen when Frank betrays Cora, you yell at the screen again when Cora is cold to Frank, you want to hit Frank upside the head for cheating on Cora with femme-fatale in training Audrey Totter… and yet you keep rooting for them.

This makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. They were ready to start anew! She was going to have a baby! But when the car accident happens, the filmmakers do the most beautiful thing to bring their relationship full circle – our final moment with Cora is watching her limp, dead hand drop her lipstick, which rolls forward to Frank.

Aside from Garfield, who would also make the films noir like “Humoresque” and “He Ran All Night” and novelist Cain, who provided the source material for the noir masterpieces “Mildred Pierce” and the aforementioned “Double Indemnity,” most of the cast and crew seem oddly matched to the crime genre. Cinematographer Sidney Wagner, who was in the final year of his career, bathes most of the film in light, only bringing in the noir shadows during the first car accident and a later scene in the ocean (which is set against a very unfortunate fake water backdrop). This was probably a missive from MGM in order to make the content not seem too salacious (I also have a feeling Turner’s white wardrobe spawned from the same feeling, though that works beautifully in the movie’s favor), and Wagner makes up for those shortcomings by having his camera make love to Garfield and Turner in basically every frame. Workhorse director Garnett and writers Harry Ruskin & Niven Busch never came close to making another film as amazing as “Postman,” (though Garnett’s “One Way Passage” is pretty dang great), but perform their respective duties admirably. Garnett in particular seems to have made the movie in the middle of a nervous breakdown (he fell off the wagon during shooting and had to be placed in rehab), but his camera and character work is never less than exquisite.

There have been almost a dozen adaptations of Cain’s novel (including an opera!). I haven’t seen any of the others, which include the very first Italian neorealist film “Ossessione” and David Mamet’s version starring Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. I’m curious to see Mamet’s work – it appears to make explicit everything that was only hinted at here, and I want to see if the story works as well.

And it does work beautifully here. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is one of my favorite films noir, and one that never fails to get me excited to experience again. Like the canyon where Nick is murdered, the movie echoes long after you’ve finished it. You think back on the characters and think about their lives and wonder…

Score: *****