The Red House

The Red House 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer/Director: Delmer Daves

Based on the novel by George Agnew Chamberlain

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Judith Anderson, Allene Roberts

Cinematography: Bert Glennon

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Release: March 16, 1947

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 80%

“The Red House” is a weird ass film. I’m not quite sure it’s film noir (despite obviously ticking all the boxes, as evidenced by its Noir percentage), but I’m also not sure how you could otherwise define it. It’s sort of a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys rolled into “Love in the Afternoon” but also a psychological horror movie with a gothic-style mystery at its center? Who knows? All that said, what matters is that it’s good… and it is. Very good.

We open in small town USA, the kind of small town where an unseen narrator feels the need to tell you how small and town-like it is. Our main character is Nath (Lon McCallister), a normal teenager with a hot girlfriend named Tibby (Julie London) who is trying to make ends meet for his widowed mother. He takes a job on a local farm owned by one-legged Pete (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister Ellen (Mrs. Danvers). Also on the farm is Nath’s friend Meg (Allene Roberts), a sweet girl biding her time until the end of act two when she can become the love interest proper. Meg was adopted by Pete when she was young – and the mystery of her mother and how it connects with a mysterious red house in the surrounding (supposedly haunted) woods becomes a puzzle Nath is obsessed with solving.

The Red House 2Writer/Director Delmer Daves (“Dark Passage”) does his best work when simply painting around the edges of the world. He takes care to make Nath three-dimensional, and gives time to sweet conversations between him and his mother that most other films would have quickly cut during the first edit. You always have the feeling that this is a real town filled with real humans who have distinctive wants and desires.

Further, Daves is willing to take his time building the atmosphere of the mystery. So much is made of the woods and how they may be haunted, and for long stretches of the film his camera just follows Nath or the other characters as they wander through the trees, streams and I don’t know what all. Miklos Rozsa wrote the score and is the MVP of the entire production – those passages have no dialogue and so the music takes the front seat – turned up all the way in the mix. Rozsa uses the opportunity to provide one of the best in his career of excellent and diverse music, everything from “Ben Hur” to films noir like *deep breath* “Double Indemnity,” “A Double Life,” “Desert Fury,” “The Lost Weekend,” “The Killers” and many, many others.

There is one subplot that feels off, and that’s the stuff with Tibby. When she’s introduced, she’s quite horny… sweetly telling Nath that she wants him to bring his trunks to their swimming date so she can watch him change… and I was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers were just allowing a character to be interested in sex without demonizing her. This feeling stopped approximately two minutes later when it became clear she was going to cheat with town heartthrob/villain-in-training Teller (Rory Calhoun). Then again, it’s not like Nath is a good boyfriend – he actively ignores Tibby, talks about how he doesn’t want to go on the dates he’s set with her and then brings a third wheel to those dates. It doesn’t excuse the cheating or, later, the running off with a murderer, but it does certainly give it some context.

The Red House 3And now we get to Robinson, who gives a legitimately great performance as the haunted old man who is trying to be happy but never quite out of reach of his demons. He makes Pete genuinely sympathetic throughout, a hard thing to do since in one of his first scenes he belligerently screams at Nath for about three minutes to stay out of the woods. The more he spirals as the film progresses, the worse I felt for the poor guy, even after the revelation that he is a murderer. It’s a testament to the power of his performance that, after his death by suicide, the idyllic happy ending with the swelling music and the romantic kiss between our heroes has a bit of a dark shadow covering it… his death feels much more tragic than it would have with a lesser actor.

The cast is pretty solid all around. McCallister holds his own and has ample chemistry with Roberts, who has the stunning face of a silent movie star. Anderson is so good that, even though you know she’ll be dead before the final reel, her final scene still feels like a punch to the gut.

“The Red House” is one of those films noir that has fallen into the public domain and has been plopped on nearly every one of those cheap-o old movie DVD boxed sets that offers up fifty movies for like ten bucks. In some ways, this is a good thing – though the quality obviously wavers from print to print, I feel like it probably would have fallen through the cracks of time had it remained in copyright. Happily, it’s now receiving a surprising second life as people just dipping their toes into noir will have easy access to it.

Score: ****

The Night Holds Terror

The Night Holds Terror 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer/Director: Andrew L. Stone

Cast: Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross

Cinematography: Fred Jackman Jr.

Music: Lucien Cailliet

Release: July 13, 1955

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 50%

“The Night Holds Terror” is one of those just-okay movies that comes so close to being good that it’s doubly frustrating. There are three sequences in it that are damn excellent, so I’m happy I watched it, but still. Worse, the problems are almost so easy to fix that a wily editor could have made this a decent watch.

First problem: that title. “The Night Holds Terror” isn’t a terrible name, sure, but the movie takes place 80% during the day and the stuff at night isn’t terrifying or suspenseful at all… leading me to believe that the writer/producer/director Andrew L. Stone is nothing but a liar and a fraud. I mean… does his middle name even start with an L?!?!

The bland Jack Kelly plays Gene, a married father of two who makes the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker on the freeway (Vince Edwards) who immediately takes him hostage. The hitchhiker is named Victor and has two pals played by John Cassavetes and David Cross who make the situation worse, and before you know it the trio has taken Gene’s entire family hostage in his home.

The Night Holds Terror 2Okay, let’s talk about those three sequences I loved. In the first, the goons leave the house with Gene and tell his wife Doris (Hildy Parks) that she isn’t to call the police. For insurance, one of them leaves a tiny strip of paper under the phone receiver, and then five minutes later they return to see if she has done it or not. We watch as she paces, nervous, getting closer and closer to that phone, knowing the stakes are life and death.

The second is a beautifully rendered, intricate sequence showing the process of the police attempting to track the phone call so they can rescue Gene, which was one hell of a lot more complex in 1955 than I ever expected.

The third and final happens after Doris tells the police that her husband has been kidnapped. We watch the process of the complaint going out across the wire… but what the viewer knows but Doris does not is that the goons have a police radio in their car. If it’s put on the radio, Gene will be killed. The suspense here is palpable.

Any of those sequences would feel at home in a Hitchcock film. Okay, that’s overstating things a bit – they would feel at home in one of the good episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” directed by the master. They make “The Night Holds Terror” worthwhile simply for their presence… but then there’s the rest of it.

The Night Holds Terror 3The most annoying thing to me is such an easy fix, and that is the total overuse of multiple voiceovers. We need none of them. There’s this “He Walked By Night”-style guy telling us every little thing we need to know about what we are seeing on camera. He introduces the movie with a super corny build-up to his dramatic reading of the title, and then he cuts through so much of the suspense in sequences (including the ones above) by helpfully explaining everything we are seeing when we can understand what is going on… because we are seeing it.

But then there’s a second voiceover from Gene that also over-explains what we are seeing – as if Stone (“Julie”) really doesn’t trust the audience to understand what he’s going for. Gene’s voiceover completely destroys an otherwise quite good scene at a car dealership where Gene is attempting to find an escape route but is waylaid when a family blocks it.

All this is fixable with a simple re-edit of the film, plus rejiggering the finale – which also has the police attempting to track a phone call – so it’s not mimicking things we’ve already seen. Do that and “The Night Holds Terror” would be a solid 3… maybe 3.5 out of five.

There are other problems that you can’t fix through editing, though. When you have Edwards (so excellent in “Murder by Contract”), Cassavetes (!!!) and Cross as your trio of villains… all doing genuinely great work both individually and as a group, you desperately need heroes who can hold their own against them. Bluntly, Kelly and Parks are not those people. Boring in almost every scene and with no chemistry between them, they make you want to root for the bad guys. Even important scenes, like where Gene is being taken away from his family and will probably be murdered, are botched by Kelly when he barely hugs his children when he is ostensibly seeing them for the last time.

I mentioned “He Walked By Night” earlier, and Stone is obviously trying to mimic that John Alton-esque feel everywhere here. His cinematographer, Fred Jackman Jr., does conjure up some decent shots throughout but fails to turn the house where the family is being held into a real character unto itself. Throw in some shadows, some different framing and play with the focus and it could have been something truly memorable.

And that’s essentially the mantra for the entirety of “The Night Holds Terror”… if just a few things had been done differently, it could have been something truly memorable. But instead it’s mostly forgotten, and I can’t blame noir afficionados for leaving it in the dust – I’ll probably all but forget it existed next week.

Score: **1/2

The Chase

The Chase 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Philip Yordan

Based on the novel “The Black Path of Fear” by Cornell Woolrich

Director: Arthur Ripley

Cast: Robert Cummings, Steve Cochran, Michele Morgan

Cinematography: Frank F. Planer

Music: Michel Michelet

Studio: United Artists

Release: November 17, 1946

Percent Noir: 70%

This movie is batshit.

I do not mean that as a criticism. “The Chase” is unlike any film noir I have ever seen, and that’s a good thing. After watching so many films in the genre, it’s exciting when you come upon something which is genuinely surprising… you don’t know where it is going, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis.

Robert Cummings stars as the Chuck, a former member of the military who is now penniless, and when we meet him he is drooling over some amazing-looking pancakes and bacon. He finds a wallet filled with cash, but the goodness within him drives him to return it to the owner – millionaire Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). In case you couldn’t tell by the name Eddie Roman, he’s our villain – married to the beautiful Lorna (Michele Morgan), a bird in a gilded cage who Chuck immediately falls in love with. They plan an escape to Cuba, but murder, prolonged dream sequences, amnesia, backseat drivers and much more get in the way.

The Chase 2The title “The Chase” is the most routine aspect of the film, with just about every scene and sequence filled with a surprise, whether visual or in the storytelling. When Chuck knocks on Eddie’s door, note the way director Arthur Ripley frames the rotating head in the door – it’s a delight! The sequence where Eddie takes over the driving responsibilities from Chuck with his Bond villain-esque hidden gas pedal (?!) is as bananas as it sounds. When Lorna gets knifed in Cuba I was genuinely surprised, and the follow-up in-depth discourse about whether the murder weapon’s monkey is covering its eyes or ears had me laughing. Because the actors play these moments completely seriously, the madness lands better than it should. A movie like “His Kind of Woman” winks at the audience while doing crazy things – this does not.

Because of that, you feel genuinely unmoored for most of the running time. It helps a lot that noir superstar Peter Lorre is there to make you feel like you are in a serious film. That’s right, we are in paragraph four and I’m just now mentioning that Lorre is in it… that’s how cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs this movie is.

It’s quite difficult, moreso than most other movies on this Odyssey, to accurately reflect the tone and atmosphere of the film. It breaks filmic rules that would drive me crazy in almost any other film – literally a third of the film is a dream sequence that breaks POV several times. The main character gets amnesia at one of the most important parts of the story simply to push back the climax. Other movies have done things like this and I have rightfully tore into them for these lazy storytelling techniques. And yet here… it works. And the weird thing is that I’m not quite sure why it works, but it does. How’s that for some in-depth movie commentary?

The Chase 3Cummings is a delight as the lead, nailing the tone perfectly and never breaking character, no matter how crazy things get at any given moment. It’s a shame he’s not better remembered today… and has that last name. Lorre is appropriately Lorre-like, turning a thankless sidekick role into something memorable simply by making his presence known. Cochran is oily and quite menacing, and not just because of his token villain mustache… though that certainly helps.

The weak link is unfortunately Morgan, who shares no chemistry whatsoever with Cummings (or Cochran, for that matter). I can think of a dozen or so actresses who could have nailed this type of role, but she proves to be the least interesting aspect of the production. Perhaps it’s not all her fault – the character is more of a macguffin than a character for most of the running time. But even here, screenwriter Philip Yordan (“Dillinger,” “Detective Story”) does try to bring depth to her with a few speeches and several of Lorna’s interactions with Chuck, so that’s not quite it.

Yordan writes a great screenplay, by the way. Well balanced, and he even uses the content of the prolonged dream sequence to pay off in reality, which is much appreciated. Ripley (“Voice in the Wind”) does a gangbusters job with the direction, and collaborates well with cinematographer Frank F. Planer (“Criss Cross”). It’s a shame these three guys are not better remembered today for their work.

“The Chase” is one of those outstanding films noir that most haven’t heard about, but is definitely worth seeking out. It’s one of the biggest surprises I’ve had so far on the Odyssey, right up there with “The Locket” and “Jeopardy.”

Score: ****1/2

The Big Combo

The Big Combo 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Philip Yordan

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Cast: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Wallace

Cinematography: John Alton

Music: David Raksin

Release: February 13, 1955

Company: Allied Artists Pictures

Percent Noir: 80%

“The Big Combo” is one of those very good films noir that doesn’t quite live up to its reputation as a true classic of the genre. It has a veritable rogue’s gallery of talent behind the scenes, all turning in stellar work, so you kind of want it to be the masterpiece everyone says it is… but though there are a few moments of real transcendence, it never quite gets there.

Cornel Wilde plays a police detective named Diamond (because of course he is) who is obsessed with bringing down a powerful gangster named Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), who would later be recast as Quentin Tarantino in “Reservoir Dogs.” The key to bringing down Brown lies in his “girlfriend” Susan (Jean Wallace), who is essentially help captive by the villain as her mind deteriorates and she gets more and more desperate. Also in play is Diamond’s sorta kinda girlfriend Rita (Helene Stanton), who exists ostensibly to sit around and wait to be brutally murdered so that the stakes can be higher for Act Three.

The Big Combo 2Look, we’ve all seen dozens of variations on this story before, most notably Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat,” which was released two years prior and obviously heavily influenced “The Big Combo’s” storyline and title. Wilde is an acceptable but ultimately forgettable lead, and all of these “you’re too personally involved” speeches from his bosses aren’t different or engaging enough to stand out from the wallpaper of nearly identical scenes we’ve seen so many times before, including last week on “New York Detective Law Show” on CBS, a show I just made up but am pretty sure must actually exist and probably stars Tim Daly.

But where “The Big Combo” really does set itself apart from the rest is its treatment of the Susan character – it very honestly shows the character as a genuine abuse victim who is in the throes of her own personal version of hell. Wallace’s work is pretty astonishing considering how most other actresses would have handled the role – it lingers with you so long after Wilde’s work fades from memory. Even better, screenwriter Philip Yordan (“The Chase”) gives her an active role in the climax, with her snatching up a spotlight to both allow the police to find Brown and blind him so that he can’t shoot the good guys. After watching heroines lose their voice in noir third acts over and over and over and over again, this was such a pleasant surprise that I almost stood up and cheered.

Yordan also excels when it comes to characterizing the villains. Brown is simply a terrible man – he doesn’t twirl his mustache, nor is he eeeeeeevil and taking glee in his acts of horror. He’s just an unexceptional man who happens to be a horrible person put in a position of power. His sidekick/the man who wants to kill him and take over, McClure (Brian Donlevy) is nearly deaf and needs a uses a hearing aid, and Yordan exploits this twice in ways quite brilliant. The first is when Brown uses the hearing aid as a method of torturing Diamond – placing the aid in his ear and playing deafening music into it. And then, when McClure is gunned down later, Brown removes the hearing aid just before the murder… all sound of the act of violence disappear from the soundtrack, even though we can still see it happening.

The Big Combo 3If you know film noir at all, you will not be surprised at all to learn that the movie looks like a million bucks. Director Joseph H. Lewis is dependably excellent at creating beautiful noir imagery, as evidenced by his work on gems like “Gun Crazy” and “My Name is Julia Ross.” And Cinematographer John Alton (“T-Men,” “He Walked By Night”) is so well-respected and idolized that he actually has entire DVD sets devoted to his work – which never happens for cinematographers. They don’t go crazy right off the bat here, instead slowly building to those indelible moments and scenes, like the aforementioned murder of McClure and spotlight climax. The final shot, which seems to reimagine the finale of “Casablanca,” of all things, has rightly become one of the most famous of all noir, though the stills of it frankly rob the moment of some of its power – that fog looks so much better in motion.

With all these masters behind the camera, and the excellent ensemble in front of the camera, one can’t help but wish that things were just a little different with the main spine of the film. I wanted a few surprises that actually felt like surprises, or a moment or two where the viewer feels like anything could happen. Perhaps Diamond could have been murdered in that hit instead of his girlfriend? Or maybe McClure’s coup could have paid off and he took over? But “The Big Combo” is content with keeping its train on the rails for the entire 90-ish minute runtime, instead looking for smaller great moments to set it apart from the other films in the genre.

Which, I suppose, isn’t the worst thing. There is something to be said for a movie that strives to simply be the best version of a simple story possible. I didn’t feel challenged in any way during “The Big Combo,” but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t entertained the entire time. It’s a damn good film and an excellent noir – not essential but certainly a fun touchstone for any noir afficionado.

Score: ****

Lightning Strikes Twice

Lightning Strikes Twice 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lenore J. Coffee

Based on the novel “A Man Without Friends” by Margaret Echard

Director: King Vidor

Cast: Ruth Roman, Richard Todd, Mercedes McCambridge

Cinematographer: Sidney Hickox

Music: Max Steiner

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release: March 10, 1951

Percent Noir: 50%

I’ve probably written articles on 150-200 films noir at this point, so I need you to understand that I have a lot of context when I write the following statement: Shelley Carnes is the stupidest heroine I have ever seen in this genre of film. There isn’t a choice she makes during the 91 minute runtime of “Lightning Strikes Twice” which feels smart or, hell, even neutral. All you can do it shake your head watching her, then put your head in your hands, then finally shout helpful advice at her… knowing she wouldn’t take it even if she could hear you.

Ruth Roman plays Shelley, an actress who had a health scare while with a touring Shakespeare company. She’s been told to get some rest and relaxation and is trying to get to a desert ranch to do so when she is waylaid by a storm. Her borrowed car stuck in mud, she trudges to the nearest home to meet Richard (Richard Todd), who was on trial recently for murdering his wife and who basically screams at her and breaks logs menacingly in front of her for the entire night… but since he is handsome and gives her fried chicken she falls deeply and madly in love with him. Despite the fact that everyone, including Richard, tells her not to investigate the death of his wife, Shelley does so anyway. Is it Liza (Mercedes McCambridge), who owns the ranch Shelley is supposed to stay at and was the sole jury vote to clear Richard of the murder? (Also, isn’t it illegal to be on the jury if you know the person accused? Never mind.) Or Liza’s brother String (Darryl Hickman), who screams a lot about the murder and is named String, which is super suspicious in and of itself? Or maybe the mustachioed Harvey (Zachary Scott), who drives Shelley around at insane speeds while she begs him to stop for fun and has the aforementioned evil-man mustache?

Lightning Strikes Twice 2Behind the scenes were a bunch of really good filmmakers who should have known better than to make this movie. The screenwriter is the awesomely named Lenore J. Coffee, who penned several films noir including the excellent “Sudden Fear,” which netted star Joan Crawford an Oscar nomination. The director is King Vidor, who directed the all-time great “The Crowd” as well as “Duel in the Sun,” among many other well-remembered films. The cinematographer was Sidney Hickox, who lensed “Dark Passage” and “The Big Sleep.” How did no one stop and say “Uh, our main character is pretty terrible. Maybe we should rethink this.”

To be fair, Shelley’s macro arc appears to be lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” where the main character falling in love with a man who may or may not have killed his wife. Falling in love with a probable murderer isn’t the smartest thing to do, but it is something you can forgive… especially in a genre like film noir. But Shelley’s stupidity goes far beyond this – there isn’t a scene that goes by without her making a dumb choice. There are small moments, like where she decides to pursue Richard by climbing across a perilous cliff’s edge despite having vertigo. Then there are the huge things. In the final act, she marries Richard and then, after a supporting character says something that throws some suspicion on him (but nothing more damning than anything she’s heard the entire movie about him), Shelley immediately forgets that she thinks he’s innocent, locks him in their bedroom and drives off to the home of the real murderer for safe haven. It’s taking all my inner strength not to throw multiple exclamation points at the ends of these sentences to underline her stupidity and my fury that the filmmakers allowed this to be their main character.

Lightning Strikes Twice 3Adding to my frustration is the fact that this is a damn good-looking movie. Vidor and Hickox collaborate beautifully, creating the barren world of the desert into everything foreboding. The first act storm that Shelley gets stuck in is beautifully realized, to the point where I would have been happy if the entire movie had taken place in that empty house as the rains raged outside.

The cast is filled with solid supporting players – McCambridge and Hickman are both outstanding in roles that could have easily been write-offs. After watching Roman suffer through the heinous “Five Steps to Danger,” it’s frustrating to see her again struggling with a terrible character. There are flashes where you see the good actress buried underneath the horrible Shelley, but they are honestly few and far between. If this had been my first movie seeing Roman, I wouldn’t walk away with the best impression. Todd and Scott excel at being blocks of wood, with Todd in particular not getting across any of the sexuality that should come with the danger… he just seems like a boringly handsome sociopath.

“Lightning Strikes Twice” is the worst kind of bad movie. It insults your intelligence, is boring but there are flickers of goodness that serve as just enough to remind you that this could have been a decent film. I walked away frustrated and annoyed, and I have a feeling you will too. Avoid if you can.

Score: *

Five Steps to Danger

Five Steps to Danger 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Henry S. Kesler & Turnley Walker

Based on the novel “The Steel Mirror” by Donald Hamilton

Director: Henry S. Kesler

Cast: Ruth Roman, Sterling Hayden, Werner Klemperer

Cinematography: Kenneth Peach

Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter

Studio: United Artists

Release: January 30, 1957

Percent Noir: 30%

The first ten minutes of “Five Steps to Danger” are quite intriguing – a woman named Ann (Ruth Roman) is speeding through the desert as fast as her car will take her. She meets John (Sterling Hayden), who is on his way to a fishing vacation but whose car has just broken beyond repair. She offers him an idea – she drives all day and he drives all night… the sooner they get to Santa Fe the better. But on one condition… he asks no questions about why she wants to go.

This is a solid set-up that could have resulted in a great noir. Roman and Hayden are solid players, and the desert setting and murky motives offer up enough mystery to keep the viewer engaged. But the movie almost immediately goes off the rails, offering up one insane (and inane) scenario after the next, none of which are interesting and none of which pay off in a meaningful way.

Five Steps to Danger 2Turns out Ann has a compact mirror with a secret military code on it that she is trying to get to a certain professor in Santa Fe, but is being chased (but also encouraged?) by a shady psychologist who is treating her after a nervous breakdown because her brother died in the war. She’s heading to Santa Fe because of a newspaper clipping saying the professor is at a specific university, but the clipping may be fake because twist!, and the duo are soon on the run from the cops but also being protected by the CIA? And there are assassins who decide not to run the duo off a mountainous road but pretend they need a tire changed and hope Ann and John stop to help them? And even though there are hundreds of miles of desert roads, the four or five main players keep managing to find one another within minutes? I’m putting question marks at the end of a lot of sentences because I have seen the film twice and still don’t understand it very well myself… possibly because it just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Look, if a movie is fun you don’t have to give a shit about logic. Look at films like “The Chase” or “Ministry of Fear,” the latter of which is similar in structure to “Five Steps to Danger.” But “Ministry of Fear” had a bunch of excellent set-pieces, fun visuals and always felt like it was building to something great. That isn’t the case here. This is the type of movie where Ann and John become handcuffed to one another for almost an entire day (in a direct lift from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur”), manage to get their hands on a hacksaw at a local motel… and then don’t use it because they find the key to the handcuffs randomly in Ann’s purse. What an amazing payoff, I write with complete sarcasm!

FIVE STEPS TO DANGER, Sterling Hayden, Ruth Roman, 1957What’s worse, no one seems like they are having fun. When you have a storyline this cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs, the only way to make it work is to just lean into the weirdness and go as ape-shit as the content. But for a movie where the stakes are so high, everyone seems incredibly calm and soft spoken about it. People calmly walk into rooms, calmly talk about the situation, calmly uncover sleeper agents, calmly have nervous breakdowns… at some point you just wish someone would put an exclamation point at the end of a line of dialogue, but that never happens.

As a result, the movie feels one hell of a lot longer than its 81-minute runtime – had I not looked, I would have guessed that it was over two hours. I place all the blame here on the director/co-writer Henry S. Kesler. His sense of pacing is non-existent, as are his sense of fun and danger. As a writer, he has no ear for genuine-sounding dialogue, and his collaboration with cinematographer Kenneth Peach offers up not a single lingering image or visual idea.

Roman is, by all accounts, a decent actress who does what she can with the big pile of nothing handed to her by the production. Hayden, on the other hand, seems to know the quality of the production around him and doesn’t engage much as a result. The duo have no chemistry with one another either.

While on this Film Noir Odyssey, there is always something a little exciting about putting in movies like “Five Steps to Danger” – films that have fallen through the cracks of time and are remembered by no one except the people producing those DVDs-on-demand for the big studios. Sometimes you are rewarded with a genuine surprise… a great film that merits rediscovery and serious appraisal by the modern film community. But then sometimes you get a movie like this, where you wonder why you even started doing this in the first place.

Score: ½*

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity 1The Film Noir Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 29

Writer: Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler

Based on the novel by James M. Cain

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson

Cinematography: John Seitz

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Studio: Paramount

Release: July 3, 1944

Percent Noir: 100%

The dame. The dialogue. The gun. The descent. The Venetian blinds.

If I had to choose one movie that defines the film noir genre, it would be “Double Indemnity.” The film breathes bleakness. It has the best femme fatale (sorry, Kathleen Turner) ever to grace a staircase. The script is the most literate, quotable noir ever (sorry, Robert Towne) and the movie’s direction is beautiful in its shadows and specters.

This was Billy Wilder’s gift. Over his long career, he worked within almost every major film genre (even ones, like noir, which had yet to be defined as such) and in doing so brought those genres to their pinnacle. He completely understood his subject matter, and his work rarely judged, reinvented or deconstructed—instead he just polished the conventions until they gleamed. “Double Indemnity.” “Sabrina.” “Sunset Blvd.” “The Seven Year Itch.” “Witness for the Prosecution.” “The Apartment.” “Love in the Afternoon.” In fact, his few missteps were when he did deconstruct the genres he was working within, as with “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” or “Fedora.”

Double Indemnity 3Wilder wrote the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels are masterpieces of style over substance. I’m guessing Wilder brought the structure and morals (okay, lack of morals) to the table while Chandler focused on dialogue and characterization. All historians point out how much the duo hated one another but the result is just about perfect.

The story focuses on an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) named Walter Neff (“with two f’s, just like Philadelphia”). Neff seems like a normal Joe who knows how to light matches in a really, really cool way. The moment he sets eyes on Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) wrapped in a towel on top of a staircase, he’s doomed. There’s a lot of foreplay, the kind that makes you all sweaty without any physical contact, and soon Neff is Phyllis’ willing toy. She wants to murder her husband and collect his accident insurance, and Neff is more than willing to help. Complicating matters is Neff’s best (only?) friend Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), who is his boss at work but also his moral compass. Keyes smells something wrong with the murder, but just can’t put his finger on it, and Neff is right when he concludes that Keyes was just too close to the case.

Neff and Phyllis circle each other beautifully as they wait for the perfect moment to finally be together. There’s no sex in the relationship—instead they make love to one another through beautifully constructed phrases and small gestures. They say they love each other, but you have to wonder if either of them really believes it. To me, they could care less about one another, but the idea of working together and getting away with being very, very bad people is the major turn on. They need one another in that way, and without the other all that is left is an empty shell. Look at a small moment in a grocery store, where Neff leaves and Wilder linger his camera on Phyllis for a few seconds at the end of the scene. While Neff was there her eyes were filled with fire and passion, but the moment he steps out of frame Phyllis’ eyes go completely dead. It’s unnerving.

Double Indemnity 2Though MacMurray is billed first in the credits, this is Stanwyck’s movie. MacMurray is very good in the role, but can afford to be a bit wooden (the role calls for this, so it’s not a shortcoming) because of the voice-over narration throughout. Stanwyck must use every line, every gesture, to get her allure and venomous nature across. She uses her beautifully curvy body as she approaches MacMurray after fixing him a drink. After three or four lines, it’s easy to understand exactly why Neff would break a man’s neck for her. She’s the ultimate femme fatale. Her later performance in Fritz Lang’s underrated noir masterpiece “Clash By Night” is a beautiful companion piece to “Double Indemnity.” In “Clash By Night,” she is a femme fatale desperately trying to go straight in a world filled with oily men trying to bring out her wicked side.

Keyes is one of the best of all Noir foils because of his friendship with Neff. He never wavers and never questions Neff’s honesty—he simply believes his friend is a good person and nothing will sway that, even though the evidence keeps stacking up against Neff. What makes the role even juicier is that Keyes is such a swift, perfect judge of character. At one point Keyes overhears Neff’s half of a phone call between him and Phyllis. Neff chooses his words wisely so as not to incriminate himself and yet, as soon as he gets off the phone, Keyes already understands the caller’s character: “I bet she drinks from the bottle.” This is one of Robinson’s best performances in a career of “best performances,” and it’s because he has such a gift for showing humanity in the characters he plays even though his exterior seems to contradict this.

The three characters play their life-and-death game of chess in drawing rooms and offices overflowing with shadows, reflections and unease. The Italian-style home Phyllis lives in only seems beautiful upon first glance in the full sunlight. Once inside it seems imposing, almost sinister. And the dread-filled insurance office we see in the opening moments of the film still seems creepy during daylight hours because we know the blood trails will be there sooner rather than later.

Wilder shoots these locations in lingering, long takes. He doesn’t throw in too many close-ups, instead letting the dialogue flow through the rooms and scenes. He works hard to not show off too much, though he starts us off with a doozy of a long take that introduces us to a lobby, elevator and then a two-story office. Wilder knows that the stars here are not the spaces and atmosphere (though they add a lot), but the words and the people.

It would seem upon first glance that “Double Indemnity” is one of the bleakest films noir. The anti-heroes succeed in the murder they plotted. The “hero” is caught and will be hanged. The “heroine” is brutally shot by the “hero” after declaring her love for him. And yet it doesn’t feel depressing. The exchanges between MacMurray and Robinson in those final moments manage to redeem Neff’s character in a way seeing him die never could. Thanks for that, Edward G. Robinson. I love you too.

Score: *****

Awards: “Double Indemnity” was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to “Going My Way” (also nominated: “Gaslight”). Wilder was nominated for Best Director but lost to McCarey for “Going My Way” (also nominated: Otto Preminger for “Laura”). Stanwyck was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight.” Chandler and Wilder were nominated for Best Screenplay but lost to “Going My Way” (also nominated: “Gaslight” & “Laura”). Rozsa was nominated for Best Score but lost to “Since You Went Away” (also nominated: “Address Unknown,” “Christmas Holiday,” “Summer Storm” and “Voice in the Wind”). Was nominated for Best Sound Recording but lost to “Wilson.” Was nominated for Best Black & White Cinematography, but lost to “Laura” (also nominated: “Gaslight”).

My Favorite Films of the Decade

These are not the best films of the last decade.

I want to write that upfront, because in all honesty I am exhausted by those lists. Any compiled list is completely subjective, tastes change over time, blah blah blah. Truly, the only purpose behind such lists is to put a spotlight on films that otherwise may be overlooked… it allows readers to notice films that may have slipped through the cracks when they first appeared. But ranking? Writing that things are “definitive”? Ugh.

So instead I’m simply spotlighting 25 films that touched my soul over the past decade. The reasons are myriad, making the one connective tissue between them simple: I love them. And I think you may love them too, so if you’ve missed out on them, I encourage you to seek them out.

Decade Top Before Midnight“Before Midnight” – 2013

Writer: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

The third installment in the “Before” trilogy equals the first two – with Hawke and Delpy’s Jesse and Celine remaining characters you love and want to spend time with. For most of the running time, they simply walk and talk as we listen to how their life has settled, how they have changed… and how they haven’t. And that would have been enough, but the places the writers go to in the last third makes this into an experience I’ll never forget.

“Boyhood” – 2014

Writer/Director: Richard Linklater

Linklater again. This time he filmed scenes over 12 years (!!!) to compile a story about becoming an adult, about maturing… and about discovering who you are. The performances are extraordinary, and the power the final sequences summon are unlike anything you’ve seen on film before, since we have literally grown with these characters.

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.indd“Brooklyn” – 2015

Writer: Nick Hornby

Director: John Crowley

I remember seeing “Brooklyn” on opening day at the Arclight and it seemed as if the entire theater was crying for the last half hour of the film. This shared emotional experience was beautiful – I feel like Los Angelinos understand it more because so few of us grew up here… it’s our adopted home in the way New York is for Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis. This is a story for people like us – about recognizing how where we grew up formed who we are… and yet recognizing that it is another place where we can truly find happiness.

“Call Me By Your Name” – 2017

Writer: James Ivory

Director: Luca Guadagnino

I saw this movie a day before a major break-up… and then again the next day. The speech given by the main character’s father (one of the best movie dads ever) to his heartbroken son was something I needed to hear at the time, and it remains one of the most powerful, emotional moments ever committed to film. The rest of “Call Me By Your Name” is fantastic as well, with a great soundtrack backing a beautiful romance that feels as honest as it does real. And yes, those are two very different things.

“Certified Copy” – 2010

Writer/Director: Abbas Kiarostami

I walked around for an hour after I finished “Certified Copy”, not wanting to talk to anyone so that I could digest what I just saw. And, all these years later, I’m still digesting it. It contains two of the best performances of the decade, and though at first it seems a grounded exploration of a relationship… the film literally begins to rewrite itself as we watch, discarding things and editing others until all that is left are the raw emotions.

Decade Top Cloud Atlas“Cloud Atlas” – 2012

Writers/Directors: The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer

My jaw dropped numerous times while seeing this undefinable, beautiful epic for the first time. A bunch of stories that are interconnected and a bunch of actors who switch race, gender and more from segment to segment, “Cloud Atlas” gains power the deeper we fall into its worlds. There has never been another film like this, and there never will be again… the fact that it’s a masterpiece is just a bonus.

“The Conjuring” – 2013

Writer: Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes

Director: James Wan

The movie that launched a franchise of surprisingly good sequels and spin-offs, none of them have come close to eclipsing the original “Conjuring.” Wan plays his audience like a piano, offering one exquisite scare sequence after another, brilliant in what he chooses to show… and what he doesn’t. But the reason the movie is transcendent is because of its main characters – it never loses track of humanity or love in its search for scares.

“Crimson Peak” – 2015

Writer: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Del Toro’s mash-up of the haunted house and gothic romance genres may well be one of the most beautiful horror movies of all time. Years later, I can still remember so many small details of that big house. But the film would be nothing if it wasn’t filled with engaging characters, and the trifecta at the center of “Crimson Peak” are three-dimensional and engaging – you can’t look away from them. I wish Jessica Chastain would embrace her inner melodrama more, because hers is one of the best villains of the past decade.

Decade Top Drive“Drive” – 2011

Writer: Hossein Amini

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

I have struggled mightily with loving any of Refn’s follow-ups to “Drive,” often walking away frustrated and angry. And yet his voice is perfectly suited to this modern noir, and Ryan Gosling his perfect partner in creating an indelible tragic figure with that awesome jacket. It could have come across all surface, but Gosling and Carey Mulligan give the film its beating soul… selling you on every step into the darkness ahead.

 

“Gloria Bell” – 2019

Writer: Alice Johnson Boher and Sebastian Lelio

Director: Sebastian Lelio

The word that I identify with “Gloria Bell” is joy. I look back on this tremendous film and smile, remembering moments and then getting lost in its spell once again. This is, for my money, the performance of Julianne Moore’s career, and her final minutes on the dance floor are all but guaranteed to levitate you out of your chair.

Decade Top Gone Girl“Gone Girl” – 2014

Writer: Gillian Flynn

Director: David Fincher

Gillian Flynn offers up one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read in this twisted thriller that manages to improve upon her own excellent novel. Like its main character, it simply refuses to play by any rules, slowly revealing its black heart with David Fincher’s signature cold style. All that, plus Rosamund Pike’s astonishing femme fatale for the ages – it’s one exquisite thriller that holds up even after you know its secrets.

“The Great Gatsby” – 2013

Writer: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Luhrmann’s lavish retelling of the great American novel is perfectly pitched for his voice: explosive, loud and flashy at first… until the somber tragedy finally begins to bleed its way into frame. A huge hit but woefully misunderstood critically at the time of its release, I have every confidence it will slowly gain traction as time passes – like Luhrmann’s other films – until it is regarded as the masterpiece it is.

Decade Top The Handmaiden“The Handmaiden” – 2016

Writer: Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung

Director: Park Chan-wook

An elegant maze of a movie that presents itself as an erotic thriller before twisting and morphing over and over, finally revealing the humanity hidden underneath all the bells and whistles. It’s got chopped off fingers, hanging sex mannequins and a gigantic octopus… and yet what lingers long after are the looks our two protagonists give one another throughout.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II” – 2011

Writer: Steve Kloves

Director: David Yates

Studios keep embracing franchise storytelling, and yet it almost never pays off as well as “Deathly Hallows Park II.” The filmmakers had an impossible task at somehow pleasing fans who loved the books and had been waiting for this movie moment through eight films… most had literally grown up with Harry Potter. And for a film that is essentially a two-hour action climax, it still finds time to give each of its characters a brilliant send off. Sitting at home when I was 15 reading J.K. Rowlings’ books while eating potato skins and listening to Goo Goo Dolls, I would have never thought something could rival my imagination… and yet this did.

“Hawaii” – 2013

Writer/Director: Marco Berger

You haven’t seen “Hawaii,” but you should. Hidden in a terrible DVD release that plays up the skin of the main characters, the film is actually an intimate character portrait of two old friends slowly realizing they are in love with one another. It’s sweet, it’s very sexy, and the slow build of the two men’s feelings is excruciating… in the best way possible. Such a shame this one fell through the cracks of time – it deserves to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.

Decade Top Beale Street“If Beale Street Could Talk” – 2018

Writer/Director: Barry Jenkins

When the lights came up after “If Beale Street Could Talk” ended, I literally could not move from my chair. This exquisitely rendered work of art by Barry Jenkins destroyed me emotionally to the point where I was a sobbing mess of a human being. Regina King gives a once-in-a-lifetime masterclass in acting. The score, the cinematography, the everything mixes together to create one of the great love stories of our time.

“Inside Out” – 2015

Story: Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen

Writer: Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley

Director: Pete Doctor

Pixar makes great films on a regular basis, but “Inside Out” is in a league of its own. It manages to concurrently give insight into our emotions while also having a grand time playing with them, all the while creating an astounding world the likes of which have never been onscreen before.

“Julieta” – 2016

Writer/Director: Pedro Almodovar

Unjustly overlooked by critics and audiences when it was released, “Julieta” disappeared from American theaters after a week and didn’t even make the shortlist for the Oscars. And yet it’s the most mature, heartbreaking film Almodovar has made in a decade of mostly excellent movies – visually splendid as always but grounded in a sadness unusual for the maestro. If you missed it when it first came out (which you probably did), seek it out and let it capture your heart the same way it did mine.

Decade Top La La Land“La La Land” – 2016

Writer/Director: Damien Chazelle

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is my favorite film of all time, so it’s no surprise that Damien Chazelle’s marvelous feature-length homage also touched my soul in the same way. Starts with a bang as all of Los Angeles breaks into song and dance on a crowded freeway, but is quick to remember the hearts of these dreamers and the hope within them. It not only made me feel… but it made me feel all the feelings.

“Little Women” – 2019

Writer/Director: Greta Gerwig

Greta Gerwig’s fantastic re-framing of the classic, oft-told story feels like everything I loved about the best Merchant/Ivory films, but taken a step further thanks to her distinctive voice. It is the story you love, certainly, and yet Gerwig tilts the point-of-view to make it much, much more than you were expecting. The final moments both inspired me and reminded me why I wanted to be a writer, so there’s that, too.

Decade Top Mission Impossible“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” – 2011

Writer: Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec

Director: Brad Bird

Watching this movie in IMAX opening night, I was feeling dizzy from the skyscraper sequence. It’s a near-miraculous action film that feels effortless even though you know so much attention went into every moment. The entire series of films range from good to excellent, but for my money this is the peak action blockbuster of the last ten years.

“Nocturnal Animals” – 2016

Writer/Director: Tom Ford

Tom Ford’s weird, wild modern noir feels both old-school and like something brand new being ushered into existence before our eyes. The screenplay has all sorts of fun twisting your expectations while remaining grounded, and Ford’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography conjures up many indelible images you will never forget.

“Prisoners” – 2013

Writer: Aaron Guzikowski

Director: Denis Villeneuve

So often films feel safe – even when there are surprises, you always feel like the train remains on the rails. Not so here. At a certain point, Hugh Jackman’s Keller does something so unexpected that any expectations one could have for this type of thriller shatter. From that moment, the movie feels dangerous, calling into question everything we think we know about studio filmmaking.

Decade Top Silence“Silence” – 2016

Writer: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese

Director: Martin Scorsese

“Silence” is as serious an exploration into faith and belief in God as I think I’ve ever seen onscreen… a film that reaches for the answers it knows it will not receive… and yet keeps reaching nonetheless. Andrew Garfield offers up one of the great performances of the decade, one as tortured and brave as his character. I was one of only three people at an Arclight screening opening weekend, and have always been heartbroken that the film never got the attention it deserved.

“Sing Street” – 2016

Story: John Carney and Simon Carmody

Writer/Director: John Carney

Life-affirming in every way possible, “Sing Street” is a love letter to that very specific moment in your life where you have realized that you have grown up… but still don’t want to let go of being a kid. Great song after great song (my favorite is “Drive It Like You Stole It”) punctuate a film that would have been great without them… but adding them in made it transcendent.

All About Eve

All About Eve CoverThe Criterion Odyssey/The AFI Top 100 Odyssey

Spine #1003

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 28

Writer/Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Based on the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr

Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm

Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner

Music: Alfred Newman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Release: October 13, 1950

Country: USA

All About Eve 7The secret of “All About Eve” is that it convinces you for a very large part of its running time that it’s much more cynical than it actually is. Considering the film’s title, purposely dry voiceover and the framing of the movie so it begins at Eve’s moment of triumph, one would believe the story is simply about Eve (Anne Baxter) knocking everything and everyone out of her way on her path to stardom, but I think that’s wrong. It’s about those people who survive Eve as she pushes her way through them—they are good, flawed people who ultimately find the strength to be happy despite the fact that they could have easily been roadkill.

We first meet Eve, and those survivors, in the film’s opening minutes, at a theatre awards dinner where she is about to be given, from what I can surmise, the “Greatest Actress Ever” award. The voiceover that introduces us to the characters is provided by Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), a theatre critic and columnist who has declared himself the most powerful man on Broadway. He doesn’t actually say this in the film, but I’m guessing he’s forced that surname into the masthead of his newspaper. A close cousin of Waldo Lydecker in “Laura,” he’s the kind of guy who you can’t help but call by his first and last name because to do otherwise would feel wrong, and his words here crackle with wit:

All About Eve 6“The distinguished looking gentleman is an extremely old actor. Being an actor, he will go on speaking for some time. It is not important that you hear what he says.”

We soon flash back to how Eve got on that podium and meet the people she will step all over to get there. Chief among them is Margo Channing (Bette Davis), who Eve basically stalks until she gets an introduction thanks to Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm). Davis’ performance doesn’t seem like a performance, which is the highest compliment I can give it. Margo has recently turned 40 and is at the peak of her career and skills, but knows she’s now too old to play young 20-somethings. She is horrified about what will happen when the rest of the theatre community realizes this as well. She’s so afraid of her age that she refuses to marry the love of her life, Bill (Gary Merrill, memorable thanks to the extremely annoying way he holds his cigarettes) because he’s a few years younger.

All About Eve 1Margo and Eve become “friends” and Eve begins to use Margo’s contacts as stepping stones, making small jumps at first until she ultimately uses blackmail and threats of adultery to get her way. Margo’s maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) notices things first; “It’s like she’s studying you!” she says to Margo at one point, and soon enough Margo gets wise to what’s happening as well. Mankiewicz is extremely smart to let the characters become privy to Eve’s motives early enough to make them seem wise and not like the idiots in soap operas who can never see what’s right in front of them.

All About Eve 3It’s the women that notice everything first, of course, and their men take a bit more time to get it together. All the while I was astounded by how raw and real the characters, particularly Margo, were. When Margo self-destructs at a party for Bill, we are horrified but our hearts still go out to her. Because we recognize Margo as a fragile person, we don’t want Eve to succeed, but of course ultimately Eve’s machinations are just the kick in the pants Margo needs to get herself and her life together.

All About Eve 5Eve’s character becomes much more prominent as the film continues, with Mankiewicz phasing Margo and the other characters out once they’ve found their strength and happiness. Davis gets all the huzzahs for her performance while Baxter’s is usually regarded as less-than-stellar, but I don’t know about that. I’m guessing that Mankiewicz wanted her to be a cipher more than anything else, and the way he shoots and blocks her supports that. In his tremendous script, full of intelligence, humor and wit, there isn’t a single line from Eve that lingers in our mind. She never begins a conversation and only seems to speak in response to what other people say. The most initiative she takes (until the final scenes) is to ask questions instead of making blatant statements. Perhaps that is why everyone finds her so acceptable—because she agrees with everything they say and there’s a vagueness about her personality that makes you define her instead of defining herself.

Mankiewicz’s script breaks a bunch of rules about structure, voice-over and narrative point-of-view, but does it with such elegance and ease that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Note, for example, that we never see Margo or Eve actually acting on stage in a film that is about actors. I’ve seen the movie a few times now, and with each viewing I become more in awe of his direction, and that he didn’t stoop to theatrics. The movie didn’t need it. His camera is never showy until the last shot, but its placement and use is still great. Note how he always puts Eve in the same frame with Margo and Bill early in the movie, foreshadowing what is to come later. Or how he blocks Margo and Bill breaking up, the most melodramatic moment in the film (purposely so) on a stage among exaggerated props.

All About Eve 2Oh, and did I mention Marilyn Monroe is in the movie in a small-but-crackerjack supporting role? She’s never given a major close-up and yet our eyes cannot help from lingering on her no matter what else is happening in the frame. I believe that’s what it means to be a movie star.

Perhaps the smartest move Mankiewicz makes is not allowing Eve to get her comeuppance during the film. She thinks she’s triumphed, but we see that the other characters have moved on from her games and will not have to deal with her again since she’s leaving for Hollywood. And then, of course, there’s Phoebe, Eve v. 2.0. Just her introduction and a small hint of what to come was enough. Anything else would have been unrealistic and far too much. Here is a movie that knows its audience is smart, knows it can get away with subtlety and knows what we come up with for Eve’s fate is so much more delicious than anything that could have been up on screen.

Awards: “All About Eve” won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Sanders, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording and Best Costumes (Black & White). Davis and Baxter were nominated for Best Actress but lost to Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday. Holm and Ritter were nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Josephine Hull in “Harvey.” Newman was nominated for Best Score but lost to Franz Waxman’s “Sunset Blvd.” It was nominated for Best Art Director/Set Decoration (Black & White), but also lost to “Sunset Blvd” there. It was nominated for Best Cinematography (Black & White) but lost to “The Third Man.” Finally, it was nominated for Best Editing but lost to “King Solomon’s Mines.”

Cover: Greg Ruth triumphs with the cover, brilliantly capturing the beauty of Davis while keeping Baxter juuuuust out of focus but in frame. It’s one of the best covers of the year, and the interior artwork is just as good.

I award it five fastened seatbelts out of five.

Essay: Terrence Rafferty provides a serviceable essay that unfortunately keeps things on the surface when I really wanted something way more in-depth. There is little insight to the filmmaking or process, and the only interesting tidbit I hadn’t read before was that other directors attempted to warn Mankiewicz off of hiring Davis.

I award it two raincoats out of five.

Extras: Perhaps the most stacked single release of the year? Though, to be fair, a large portion has been transferred from the Fox release.

  • Two audio commentaries. The first features Mankiewicz’s son, Holm and Kenneth Geist. It’s all over the place, but generally engaging. The second is Sam Staggs, which is filled with excellent nuggets and kept me locked in all the way through.
  • Mary Orr’s original story upon which the film is based is included in the booklet. It’s fine, to put it generously, but is far from the quality of its adaptation.
  • A documentary about Mankiewicz which is a ton of fun and breezes by despite the long running time.
  • Several episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” (God bless this man) where Davis and Merrill guested. Stay for Davis, nap during Merrill.
  • A program on costumes with Larry McQueen. I didn’t like him in his feature on “The Heiress,” and I like him here less.
  • A documentary called “Hollywood Backstories” featuring a bunch of archive interviews that is a nice starter if you’ve never seen the movie before.
  • A bunch of mini-programs on Mankiewicz, the short story and more. Honestly, I was tiring out at this point and scanned through them. But they seem interesting.
  • A radio program featuring all the main players. I only find these interesting when it’s different actors playing the roles, so this was not that engaging.

Phew.

I award it five curtain calls out of five.

Up Next: “Cold War”

Betty Blue

Betty Blue CoverThe Criterion Odyssey

Spine #1002

Writer/Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix

Based on the book by Philippe Dijan

Cast: Beatrice Dalle, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Gerard Darmon

Cinematography: Jean-Francois Robin

Music: Gabriel Yared

Release: November 7, 1986

Company: Gaumont

Country: France

I’ve begun noticing a trend in my Criterion collecting – when I read an essay where the author is defensive right off the bat about the quality of the motion picture it supports, then chances are I will not like the film itself. It’s happened probably a baker’s dozen times. Sure, it makes a certain kind of sense to structure the essay that way, and I certainly have fallen into this trap writing about movies I like but others do not – a quick Google search and alarm bells start going off, so why not address the challenge right away? Chelsea Phillips-Carr’s essay for “Betty Blue” is such an essay, and I was not surprised to learn that the movie itself is pretty awful.

Betty Blue 1Though, to be fair, it wasn’t just the essay that tipped me off. I have seen the theatrical cut of the movie before during my graduate program at AFI, and really detested it then. That said, the Criterion edition features a much, much longer director’s cut than the version I saw, so I walked in trying to keep as open a mind as possible. And I have to admit I was pretty astonished – writer/director Jean-Jacques Beineix managed to retain all the shallowness of the original cut while also adding literally nothing new to the table. Why is that astonishing? Because it jumped from 120 to 185 minutes. One would think something interesting would have been added.

But one would be wrong.

Betty Blue 2Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade) is a thirty-something handyman working on a bunch of beachfront properties when the livewire 19-year-old Betty (Beatrice Dalle) comes into his life. They have sex a lot, and then more sex… and at a certain point he reveals to her that he is an aspiring writer and she decides he has written the next great American novel. She does anything and everything to get it published. While this is happening, the couple drift from place to place, with Betty’s mental state deteriorating gravely as the running time winds down.

I have a couple of fundamental problems that just keep getting stuck in my craw every time I think about them. First and foremost is the central relationship itself. In both cuts of the film, Zorg is our main character and our point-of-view into Betty and her inner demons, which I do not take issue with – stories of people loving others with mental illnesses can be emotionally resonant. But then there’s the fact that he’s 35-ish and she is 19. The age difference itself doesn’t bug me… you love who you love… but it’s the fact that Zorg ostensibly is treated as a three-dimensional character who is mature, but he ignores every fucking red flag in the book, and behaves in such a way that makes him seem somehow younger than she is. Why not just have them both be 19? Anyone?

Betty Blue 4Yes, when you are in love with someone it’s often easy to wave off some behavior, but the expanded running time just offers up a myriad of new things that should have made Zorg go “huh.” Couple that with the fact that he is, for all intents and purposes, a great writer with insight into the human condition and things are further blurred. After things escalate to the point where Betty has a mental breakdown and stabs herself in the eye, one would think he would take a step back and examine his actions, while also listening to the medical professionals and trying to figure out a plan to help her recover at least part of her personality.

But no. Instead he takes one look at the near-comatose Betty, screams at the doctors until security has to escort him from the hospital, dresses in drag so that he can sneak back and then proceeds to recreate the climax of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Because obviously.

Betty Blue 5
Betty Blue (1986 France) aka 37°2 le matin Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix Shown: Jean-Hugues Anglade

Yes, what I just wrote sounds terrible and is certainly terrible when viewed… but even here, one could swallow it if the narrative embraced that he was also falling into mental illness. But no, all Betty’s arc and death mean to the narrative is that it inspires him to write again… which also leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

And that’s another one of my struggles with “Betty Blue” – it wants to treat Zorg as a person but Betty as an object. The film opens with a long, graphic sex scene, and I do have to say that I appreciated the equal-opportunity nudity here as opposed to most films that would keep her naked but him covered up. But Zorg is given voiceover to explain his character and motivations, and Beineix spends an ample amount of time in the next hour defining him. By the way, he’s pretty boring.

Betty Blue 6Betty, on the other hand? She remains a sex object to the audience until her mental illness is added as a character trait… but even here it is used as a plot device to make her seem like a wildcard instead of a human being. With all the extra runtime at his disposal, I hoped that Beineix would have crafted other scenes that gave her the same opportunity to become a three-dimensional person as Zorg is afforded, but nope. This doubly sucks because, as stated previously, Zorg is boring and Betty is much more interesting.

I mean that both as a character and on a performance level. Anglade is perfectly serviceable as Zorg, but whiffs the many tonal shifts into comedy and can’t summon the emotion necessary at the climax to make us care about his decision. Dalle, on the other hand, is always fascinating to watch onscreen. Her eyes are always bright and searching, and though you can tell she’s a new actress, she makes very interesting acting decisions in almost every scene. Some of them are incredible, some not so much, but they are always interesting. The actors do share some chemistry, particularly in two scenes: one where they are playing pianos and another where they are trying to fix a couch. The scenes are so charming they made me believe them as a couple… it’s just a pity they happened long, long into the movie.

Betty Blue 7You won’t be surprised to learn “Betty Blue” is a wonder to look at. Beineix and his cinematographer Jean-Francois Robin create some brilliant imagery – the movie is colorful, rich and visually resonant. And it’s impossible to ignore Gabriel Yared’s super ‘80s cheesy romance score that you like despite yourself. But all the extra bits and bobs are for nothing if the center does not hold. And here there isn’t even a center. “The Inland Sea” is still the weakest Criterion release of 2019 for me, but “Betty Blue” gives it a run for its money.

Cover: A lovely, eye-catching cover by Century – a really appreciate the paint motif and splitting the cover directly in half. It would make a great poster.

I award it four pianos out of five.

Essay: I mentioned Phillips-Carr’s essay earlier, but I should also point out that it is quite well-written and researched. I fundamentally disagree with many of her thesis statements and think she’s fudging several aspects of the storytelling to make her points, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time reading it. I believe that’s the sign of good writing – you can enjoy it even if you disagree with it.

I award it three-and-a-half pink paint covered cars out of five.

Extras: A solidly packed release.

  • A documentary featuring all the major players talking about the film and what they hoped to accomplish. It’s overlong at more than an hour, but some of the content is good – I was especially interested to hear Dalle’s thoughts on the project.
  • A skippable short documentary featuring Beineix and the novel’s author. Not even sure why this made it to the disc.
  • A short film from Beineix’s early career. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t finish it. But your mileage may vary.
  • A period interview with director and star that is quite surface, but interesting just to watch how the two regard one another.
  • Dalle’s screen test. She’s a star, and it’s evident in every frame here.

I award it three-and-a-half typewritten pages out of five.

Up Next: “Cold War.”