The Dark Corner

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Bernard C. Shoenfeld, Jay Dratler

Based on the story by Leo Rosten

Director: Henry Hathaway

Cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix

Release: May 8, 1946

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 70%

“The Dark Corner” contains perhaps my favorite moment in all of noir. It’s a moment so perfect that I remembered seeing it when I was a kid (probably on AMC or TCM) and it lingered with me for decades after I had forgotten what movie it took place in. Imagine my surprise and delight when I realized that this film climaxes with that exact moment!

You’ve got your femme fatale, here played well by Cathi Downs, dressed to the nines in a full, glamorous mouton coat (and hat!) unloading every bullet from her gun into her husband, and then throwing the emptied gun at his body in rage. It’s all about that small beat – throwing the gun – and the bitter, resentful, furious contortion of Downs’ face that makes it transcendent. I rewound several times and loved it more with each revisit.

And the rest of “The Dark Corner”? Well, it’s great too.

Mark Stevens stars as a private dick with an unlucky name (Bradford Galt) and an even more unlucky past (he was framed for murder and went to prison for it). Galt hires a new secretary named Kathleen (Lucille Ball) who immediately begins helping him figure out all the mysterious, deadly things that are happening to him. Case in point: a heavy in a white linen suit (William Bendix) is tailing him none-too-subtly, a car nearly runs him over, and at one point he wakes up after a beating with a fire poker in hand and a dead body next to him. Involved somehow is a bananas-rich fine art dealer named Hardy Cathcart (the movie has many qualities, but giving its characters good names isn’t one of them) who is played by Clifton Webb, and his much-younger wife Mari (Downs).

Each of the major characters (except Bendix’s heavy) are given more depth than one would expect, but the standout here is Kathleen. Most “good girl” characters in noir are boring nonentities who carry one of two props – pearls to clutch or handkerchiefs to twist. But Kathleen has gumption, and most of the script’s best lines. We immediately get her bond with Galt and the movie exploits her belief that he’s a good man early and often.

It also helps that Ball has off-the-charts chemistry with Stevens, which makes it easy to root for them. Stevens, who unfortunately never hit it big like he should have, has a difficult balancing act with his performance. In one scene he’s got to spar romantically with Ball and in the next seem savage and brutal with the darker characters, but he pulls it off well.

The screenplay by Bernard C. Shoenfeld and Jay Dratler explores one of my favorite recurring themes in noir – the contrast between the lower middle class and the uber-rich. Raymond Chandler loved playing with this in his work, and it’s exploited well in this movie, with Webb’s performance as engaging here as the variation he played on it in “Laura.”

The screenplay is also smart in how it plays its hand – it pays off several twists much earlier than we expect, and others happen in ways we would not imagine. Sure, the way Bendix’s character is offed is a little rote, but that’s the exception, not the rule. It’s also interested in the psychology of a man who would be a private detective in a way most other films noir are not – Galt is a broken man after what happened in his past, and we watch as he tries to recover a portion of his soul again. But he’s hurt… as he reaches out emotionally to Kathleen, it’s tentative. He claims he doesn’t want her to get hurt but we understand that he also isn’t sure he’ll make it if everything falls in on him again. I am reminded of that fantastic scene in the otherwise-awful “Lady in the Lake,” where Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter allow all their tough-guy walls to fall for a few moments of real intimacy.

The director is noir superstar Henry Hathaway, who also handled “Kiss of Death,” “Niagara,” “Call Northside 777” and “Fourteen Hours.” His movies are visual without seeming too showy, with a few great images that linger long after it fades to black. But his real gift was exploiting his actors’ best qualities – knowing exactly how to hone their performances for maximum impact. You remember not only the headliners in his movies, but the smaller supporting players as well. You also remember the idiosyncrasies of real life painted into the film, like the little girl we see with the kazoo, or the way the dry-cleaning employees speak with Galt and Kathleen.

It’s also worth noting what a good dramatic actress Ball was. In less than a decade, she would be the most recognized person in America and is remembered as the best comedian in television history… which makes it easy to forget that she could really sell the drama just as well as the humor. In addition to this film, she starred in one of my favorite whodunits, the woefully underseen “Lured,” which was directed by Douglas Sirk of all people. She was also great in the just-okay “The Big Street” and “Easy Living.”

At one point, Kathleen mentions “The Thin Man” film series to Galt (like any private dick worth his salt, he never goes to the movies) and at the end of the film I found myself wanting the two characters to continue on in more films. If it’s good enough for Marlowe, amiright?

“The Dark Corner” is one of the most underrated films noir I’ve seen so far on this Odyssey. From script to direction to acting, and everything in between, it’s aces… always deeper, more resonant, better than it needs to be.

Score: *****


The Asphalt Jungle

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ben Maddow & John Huston

Based on the 1949 novel “The Asphalt Jungle” by W.R. Burnett

Director: John Huston

Cinematographer: Harold Rosson

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen

Release: June 14, 1950

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 60%

Many scholars claim that John Huston created the film noir genre when he directed “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941, and even if you disagree with this (which I do), you have to admit that Huston crystalized the many aspects of the private dick subgenre and the femme fatale with that film. Overachiever that he was, Huston also basically invented the heist picture with 1950’s “The Asphalt Jungle,” sending another ripple effect through film that still impacts the medium today.

The film, which Huston and Ben Maddow adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name (so that’s who we can blame for the on-the-nose title), tracks a bunch of washed up men as they attempt to pull off a major robbery. The heist has been masterminded by the brilliant Doc (Sam Jaffe), who hesitantly works with men like the once-rich-now-bankrupt lawyer Alonzo (Louis Calhern), who promises Doc he can get cash for the jewels and gold. The only person Doc trusts is his muscle, Dix (Sterling Hayden), who has run out of dreams and now just wants to go back to the horse farm where he grew up. Many other characters bump in and out of the world, from crooked cops to crooked diner owners to crooked private eyes… you get the idea.

From the moment the heist is brought up, it’s clear that it’s a doomed enterprise, but we as the audience are expecting the actual break-in to be the climax of the film. Maddow and Huston instead stage it as the mid-point – the filmmakers are more interested in watching the many scorpions dropped in a bucket stab and poison one another.

Like “The Maltese Falcon,” it’s difficult to look at “The Asphalt Jungle” today without comparing it to all the films that it inspired over the next several decades. And in both cases, the movies come up wanting. It’s neither film’s fault – they are still very good entertainments that have more than earned my respect and admiration. And yet it’s impossible to look at the ten-ish minute break-in scene without thinking of the superior ones in “Rififi” or “Mission: Impossible” or countless others. That isn’t to say the robbery is in any way mediocre – Huston executes it well, having a lot of fun with the sound of the men’s footsteps as they march to and fro. It’s just not the best. I also have to throw some side eye at reviewers who post in their articles sentences like “It invented the heist… and it’s never been topped!” It seems like these people are only writing in the hopes of getting a pull quote on a Blu-ray back cover.

One of Huston’s many gifts was casting, and here he is in top form. The leads are all excellent, but it’s the bit parts that make this world of scum and lost souls feel real. Jean Hagen, who plays a pathetic love interest for Dix, is given third billing but is really a bit player, and she makes every moment count. How can you forget the moment where she pulls off one of her eyelashes? Dorothy Tree’s few minutes of screentime as Alonzo’s bedridden wife, who only wants to spend time with her husband, goes far in making us care about Alonzo because we don’t want to see the ways his sins would hurt her. And Marilyn Monroe acquits herself well as Alonzo’s mistress, who is probably smarter than she looks but very good at hiding it.

I feel like the Hays Code came into play during the final act of the movie, which steers some of the drama onto the “good cops” in the police department in scenes that could be easily deleted. Most notably is a time-to-take-the-bathroom-break moment where the Police Commissioner (John McIntire, who does his best with the material) is interviewed by reporters about the still-escaped Dix and is given a whole mouthful of lame dialogue about how great the cops are and how they do everything they can to ensure the bad guys don’t win. It would be annoying in any case, especially considering our main view into the police previously was a dirty cop, but the dialogue actively tries to roll in the whole “asphalt jungle” as a metaphor and falls even flatter as a result.

That said, watching the way our characters get their various comeuppances makes the stumblings more than worth it. Alonzo writes an apology letter to his wife before tearing it up and committing suicide. Doc, whose weakness is women, spends two minutes too many watching a woman dance in a diner. And Dix, who has been slowly bleeding out for days, finally makes it a few steps back onto the family farm before dropping dead. The endings are appropriately tragic and quite fitting for the characters.

Huston has one of the craziest filmographies of any film director. We’ll be exploring him again for his “Key Largo” and the aforementioned “The Maltese Falcon,” but noir was only the tip of his work. His genres and storytelling varied wildly, from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to “Annie” to “Night of the Iguana” to “The Bible.” Not many guys could pull off adapting both Tennessee Williams and God, but apparently Huston is one of them. And, of course, his personality was infamous and has merited many great biographies and lightly-fictionalized novels (the episodes of the podcast “You Must Remember This” devoted to him are essential).

It’s a testament to his excellent writing and direction that “The Asphalt Jungle” still works today as well as it does, despite those countless rip-offs. Even if the heist has been bettered, you move to the edge of your seat at all the appropriate points and feel some semblance of sadness for all these poor bastards as they circle the drain.

Score: ****

Sweet Smell of Success

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Clifford Odets & Ernest Lehman

Based on the Ernest Lehman story

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Cinematographer: James Wong Howe

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner

Release: June 27, 1957

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 30%

I don’t want to know any of the characters in “Sweet Smell of Success.” Further, if any of them walked into a room where I was, I would more than likely exit immediately. And yet, while watching them make the lives of everyone around them miserable, I could not look away. Here is one of the most engaging character portraits in the history of cinema – just expect to feel that noir grime covering you after it’s all over.

Tony Curtis, all over-greased hair and sweaty hands, stars as Sidney Falco, a middling press agent who is being squeezed out by influential New York columnist J.J. Hunsucker, who refuses to publish anything in his columns about Falco’s clients. The reason? Hunsucker has told Falco to break up a romance between Hunsucker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a local jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). So Falco pings from place to place in New York City like a pinball, sinking lower and lower in search of a way to please his master.

Neither Falco or Hunsucker have a soul, but Falco teases himself late in the movie that he might grow one. Falco wants everything Hunsucker has, and Hunsucker relishes the fact that Falco would do anything for him. The men need one another in the most fucked up of ways, destroying lives because they can and taking pleasure from what little power they have. You don’t have to squint to see all sort of sexual undertones to their relationship, but Hunsucker’s weird, incest-y relationship with his sister also merits mention.

Curtis is so good as Falco that it becomes difficult to separate him from this persona in other films. Perhaps the best dramatic moment of his entire career comes in a scene where he attempts to blackmail another popular columnist in order to get a smear item published about Dallas. Curtis flaunts that he knows the columnist had an affair with a cigarette girl, then invites himself to sit at the columnist’s table… with his wife. All the while Falco keeps shoving the piece of paper with the item at the columnist, until the columnist simply calls Falco’s bluff. “Do you have something to say to my wife?” the columnist demands, making a scene before confessing everything to his none-too-surprised wife. Curtis doesn’t have much dialogue in the scene (he nails every line), but watch his reaction shots. When the columnist is making a scene, his eyes nervously ping pong from the columnist to the wife to the other restaurant patrons to the staff, suddenly powerless and embarrassed. It’s incredible acting, and I doubt many others could have pulled it off.

Lancaster wears big glasses that somehow warp his handsome appearance, accenting the sharpness of his cheekbones and making him seem almost inhuman as a result. He speaks “logically” in almost every scene, which makes him all the more dangerous. As soon as I finished the scene where he destroys what begins as a simple meeting between himself, Susan and Dallas, I watched it again to note all the small ways Hunsucker grabs power from the other characters. Lancaster is astonishing here.

Poor, poor Harrison and Milner always get the short end of the stick in conversation about the film because Curtis and Lancaster are just that good. But both give excellent performances in their respective roles – Harrison at being a “kept” woman (albeit kept by her brother) desperate to find a way out, and Milner at barely concealing his rage at Falco and Hunsucker.

The movie was written by two of the best writers of the twentieth century in Clifford (“The Country Girl,” “Clash by Night”) Odets and Ernest (“North by Northwest,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) Lehman. Lehman originated the story (and was supposed to direct) and did some drafts of the script before an illness forced Odets to take over. Like any noir worth its salt, the dialogue isn’t realistic, but note the way the writers make Falco and Hunsucker in particular speak in ALL CAPS, as if they were writing headlines mentally as they spoke.

Most of director Alexander Mackendrick’s filmography isn’t well known today or overwhelmingly loved, but he still should get all the credit in the world for pulling the performances he does from the leads and then getting out of their way. Cinematographer James Wong Howe gets most of the credit for creating the indelible look of the interiors and exteriors of New York City, managing to make things look at once opulent and a little seedy, which is no small feat. A case could be made that Howe is the best cinematographer in film history, and you won’t hear much argument from me.

For a film that sails through most of its 95-minute running time, it’s a shame that the film sags a bit towards the finale, which offers up Falco talking and talking and TALKING to Susan when less dialogue and more emotions would have been more resonant. Things improve exponentially when Hunsucker enters the proceedings, though. I do have to wonder, though, just how many films noir end with a female character walking off into the light, preferably by herself. Though it works here, I feel like I’ve seen some variation on this at least 20 times so far on this Odyssey, and it’s becoming a clam very quickly.

“Sweet Smell of Success” is one of those movies that is hard to categorize. It’s a masterpiece, but it doesn’t really have a genre. Like “The Lost Weekend,” it’s easy enough to wedge into noir because of its oily “heroes,” dark storytelling and excellent visuals. And yet… perhaps it’s one of those movies that is just so good that it transcends all genres, becoming its own thing. Perhaps.

Score: *****

Ride the Pink Horse

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer

Based on the novel “Ride the Pink Horse” by Dorothy B. Hughes

Director: Robert Montgomery

Cinematographer: Russell Metty

Music: Frank Skinner

Cast: Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, Thomas Gomez

Release: October 8, 1947

Studio: Universal Pictures

Awards: Thomas Gomez was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Also nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year were Robert Ryan in “Crossfire” and Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death.”

Percent Noir: 50%

When the Criterion Collection releases any film, you take notice. When they release a little-known film noir with an atrocious title, you press “Play” expecting great things. Well, the movie ended and I watched all the special features, I was still scratching my head. Yes, it certainly focuses on a jaded former member of the military after World War II, which is one of the hallmarks of noir, but other than that, “Ride the Pink Horse” is a perfectly acceptable entry into the genre… nothing more, nothing less.

That said, it is much better than director/star Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut, the woefully misguided “Lady in the Lake” experiment. Sure, that’s not a high bar to clear, but still, it’s something. The film focuses on the unfortunately named Lucky Gagin (Montgomery) arriving in a little Mexican town the week of its annual fiesta. He’s come looking for revenge after his friend was offed by a hearing-aid-wearing rich guy named Hugo (Fred Clark). He has an illegal check stub and tries to blackmail Hugo, but Hugo decides it would be easier to kill Lucky than pay him. Oh! And Lucky is befriended by the local merry-go-round owner Pancho (Thomas Gomez) and vaguely stalked by a young, weird Mexican girl named Pila (Wanda Hendrix – and in case you can’t tell from the name, she is not a Mexican actress).

I will say this for Montgomery: he and his co-screenwriters Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer begin the movie incredibly well. Lucky arrives in the small town and immediately heads into the bus station. He takes a gun and an envelope from his suitcase. He keeps the gun but puts the envelope in a locker, then takes the key and sticks it to a piece of chewing gum… sticking both behind a local map. It’s a great way to whet the appetite of the viewer and an awesome introduction to the world of the film.

But then things fall apart pretty fast. Lucky can’t talk to Hugo for at least a day, and so long (long!) scenes are spent wheel spinning, with him taking in the local flavor and getting to know Pila and Pancho. All the while, we get bored waiting for the meeting with Hugo then, as soon as he meets Hugo, the wheels start spinning again while we wait patiently for an attempt to be made on Lucky’s life (because, let’s face it, we know it’s coming).

There’s some crackling dialogue to be had in these scenes – Hecht (“His Girl Friday”) and Lederer (“Notorious”) could write great dialogue in their sleep, but not much else. If the intent of the filmmakers was to give the viewer a flavor of local Mexican culture, that flavor is filled with clichés we’ve seen hundreds of times before. The oddest element of the film is Pila’s character. I must give the filmmakers credit for not developing her relationship with Lucky into a cheap romance, which would have been so easy, but the character just doesn’t work. Around the time she was told to get a makeover (oy) and returned with a dandelion on her head (double oy), I realized she was a lost cause. Hendrix, in unconvincing make-up, is woefully adrift in the role, playing it as if Pila is genuinely cuckoo in one scene and then just eccentric in the next.

Things pick up significantly once the attempt is (finally) made on Lucky’s life around the one-hour mark. Dripping blood from a stab wound on his shoulder and barely able to stay conscious, Lucky turns to Pila and Pancho for help, and the centerpiece sequence of the film has Lucky hidden with Pila on the moving merry-go-round while Pancho is almost beaten to death by the goons. Montgomery ingeniously frames the moment from the POV of the merry-go-round, spinning around and just catches glimpses of the violence going on nearby. I wish Montgomery had held the shot longer.

Montgomery is capable in the lead, not outstanding, though he has no chemistry with Hendrix. Gomez is quite good in his small role, as is Clark, who plays up the differing shades of his villain wonderfully, as well as his handicap.

Russell Metty (“Spartacus,” “The Stranger”) was the cinematographer, and he doesn’t bring any real distinction to the “location.” I put that word in quotes because Mexico is obviously the Universal backlot, with noticeable faux backgrounds and a cardboard cemetery. I wanted more visually – even during the fiesta when we see a ten-foot-tall effigy, the world doesn’t feel engaging.

So yeah, despite all the excellence positioned behind the camera, “Ride the Pink Horse” never takes off like it should. I haven’t even mentioned Joan Harrison, who produced the film (and several other films noir) but is more known for the films she co-wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, which include “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent.” I’ll remember the merry-go-round scene, but not much else. Oh, probably that unfortunate dandelion on Hendrix’s head too, but that’s not exactly a good thing.

Score: ***

No Way Out

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Lesser Samuels, Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cinematographer: Milton R. Krasner

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Sidney Poitier, Linda Darnell, Richard Widmark

Release: August 16, 1950

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Awards: “No Way Out” was nominated for Best Story & Screenplay at the 1950 Oscars, but lost to the noir masterwork “Sunset Blvd.” Also nominated in the category was the film noir “Caged.” Co-screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz won a Best Screenplay and Directing Oscar that year for “All About Eve.”

Percent Noir: 40%

“No Way Out,” which deals with racism, is the second “message” movie I have covered in the Film Noir Odyssey, and I’ve concluded that this type of movie isn’t very compatible with the genre. Noir relies on the grey area of human behavior, and in both “Crossfire” (the film I previously covered) and “No Way Out,” there is no room for that with the message being delivered, to the detriments of the films.

That said, “No Way Out” is still leaps and bounds better than the abortive “Crossfire.” I know, talk about faint praise. Sidney Poitier stars in his first major role as newly minted doctor Luther Brooks, who is assigned to the prison ward when two brothers, both with gunshot wounds to the leg, show up. Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is conscious and spewing racist invectives moments after arriving, but Johnny is barely conscious and far from coherent. After Brooks learns from the officer who shot the men that Johnny was staggering around before he was shot, Brooks thinks he may be having a brain hemorrhage from a tumor, and begins a spinal tap… only to have Johnny die on the table in front of Ray.

Brooks’ superior (Stephen McNalley, cashing the check) assures Brooks he acted right, even though no one is sure whether Johnny had the tumor or not. Brooks wants an autopsy, but belligerent, grieving Ray is certain that the doctor murdered his brother, and plots his revenge. He pulls into the mess Johnny’s ex-wife Edie (Linda Darnell) and his other brother George (Harry Bellaver), who is deaf and mute. Then a race war happens. Wow, that escalated fast.

With Brooks representing ultimate good (we never for a second doubt he did the right thing and that an autopsy will clear him, even if there “is a chance” Johnny didn’t have the tumor), and Ray representing everything wrong with the world, the most fascinating character in the movie is Edie. At first, she is genuinely torn concerning what happened to her husband, before Ray convinces her to back him… but then she begins questioning those choices. I think the screenwriters sensed she was the best thing about the movie, because Edie basically takes over the story once she makes her first appearance, with Darnell turning in the best performance in the movie. I just wish the rest of “No Way Out” rose to her level.

Don’t get me wrong – there are interesting things about the movie besides Edie. I love that one of the villains is deaf and mute, and the way Edie escapes from him late in the film is quite thrilling. And setting much of the action in the prison ward of a hospital is an interesting location that isn’t exploited enough in filmmaking. But the middle act in particular sags because it shifts its focus from Brooks, Edie and Ray to overall societal problems, with a bunch of racist hicks from the unfortunately named slum Beaver Canal plotting to murder any black person they can find in a section of town they have named after the N-word. Screenwriters Lesser Samuels and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also directed) here really try to hammer home their message, but in taking the focus away from the characters we care about, our attention wanes.

And, like “Crossfire,” “No Way Out” is not immune to loooooooooong speeches that underline their opinions. Then throw several exclamation points at the end. Speeches like these, I suspect, are the reasons the filmmakers wanted to make these movies in the first place, but today they stick out like sore thumbs. The most blatant example here is when Brooks gets home and falls asleep in the lap of his wife (Mildred Joanne Smith), and she waxes lyrical for minutes (minutes!) about all the hardship the family has gone through to support Brooks to get him to where he is. The scenes directly before this, which show Brooks interacting with his family, go much further and do a better job illustrating the points the movie is making, all without speechifying. I wrote it in my previous article and I will write it here again – the movie should be praised to no end for sending the message it does, but that does not make it immune to criticism for the storytelling choices its filmmakers make.

First-billed Widmark cackles and rants well, but the entirety of his dialogue seems to involve a few sentences repeated over and over ad nauseum (all of which include the n-word). The result is a paper-thin villain who just makes you wish you were watching “Kiss of Death” instead. Poitier does well enough in what is really a nothing role – he is ultimate good and that’s about it. I’m genuinely surprised (and pretty annoyed) that the filmmakers cut away from the two moments where Poitier really would have had an opportunity to showcase his acting chops: when Brooks realizes that Johnny is dying in his care, and when he turns himself into the police.

One of the things I adore about film noir is that most movies in its oeuvre feel timeless – so “No Way Out” is an exception in that it has aged rather poorly. Its message and story were necessary at the time (and, unfortunately, still might be in certain red states), but the clunky execution hobbles the movie from really soaring. That said, Darnell is amazing and the movie is worth a watch simply to see her dig into a role worthy of her talents.

Score: ***

Night and the City

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Jo Eisinger

Based on the novel “Night and the City” by Gerald Kersh

Director: Jules Dassin

Cinematographer: Max Greene

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom

Release: June 9, 1950

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 70%

Richard Widmark was excellent in several other films noir, but he was born to play Henry Fabian. He’s handsome, but not handsome enough to fool an audience or any of the characters to buy his line of bullshit. His face has this elastic quality, almost like Lucille Ball (this is a compliment), that can adjust from joy to terror in a fraction of a second. And his wirey, long body seems built for running – Widmark doesn’t run like a confident man here, but like a rat searching for a hideaway.

Widmark is far and away the best part of a movie overflowing with iconic noir names. Gene “Laura” Tierney. Jules “Rififi” Dassin. Jo “Gilda” Eisinger. Franz “Sunset Blvd” Waxman. His Fabian always seems like he is sweating, so much so that one of the characters comments on it. He’s a two-bit hustler on the London streets who one day happens upon the opportunity to control a huge portion of the wrestling scene in the city, but in doing so lies, backstabs and then lies some more to just about everyone he knows. Some of them are good-ish people, like his maybe-girlfriend Mary (Tierney). Others are blunt objects Fabian points in a direction and sets loose, like iconic wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbysko). Still others are scorpions, innocuous enough until they sting, like estranged married couple nightclub owner/manager Phil (Francis Sullivan) and Helen (Googie Withers, who has the most awesome name ever).

Fabian desperately ping pongs between the characters and situations, begging, pleading and setting them against one another. But he’s not talented enough, charming enough or resourceful enough to get away with it in the long run. We sense early that Fabian isn’t long for this world when screenwriter Eisinger goes to lengths to introduce an upstairs neighbor for Mary who is very obviously a good man whose arms she can fall into after Fabian checks out. Fabian, on the other hand, isn’t a good man. His character also doesn’t have any depth… and yet he doesn’t need it. All we need to know is that he will adjust himself in any given situation to make the best of it until he is unable to do so anymore. His introduction is all kinds of perfect – running from a guy he owes money, Fabian stops long enough in the street to pick up a carnation to wear for the next person he runs to in order to ask for money.

But as great as Widmark makes Fabian, Tierney’s Mary falls short. Tierney gave perhaps the iconic femme fatale performance in “Leave Her to Heaven,” and giving her character some darkness and unpredictability would have been perfect for this film. But Mary remains one of those bland, handkerchief-clutching heroines who the movie forgets about for reels at a time and is weighed down by one of those horrible lip-synched nightclub songs you have already forgotten before it’s over. Maybe if she was cast as the Helen character instead? Either way, it’s a huge missed opportunity for the filmmakers.

Dassin and his cinematographer Max Greene have a field day turning London into a grime-covered, dark world of little redemption — you can almost smell the smoke in the nightclub Fabian sometimes works for. He also stages one of the most grueling fight scenes ever filmed, a no-holds-barred battle between Gregorious and a man called the Strangler (Mike Mazurki). The two hate filled men just continue to beat away on one another, with Dassin throwing subtle cracks and crunches on the soundtrack, making you wince and wonder how much damage the men are really doing to one another. The entire sequence is so realistic you wonder if they really did cause another serious damage during the filming.

Which brings me to my other issue with “Night and the City” – for as excellent as it is to watch the filmmakers set up Fabian’s wobbly house of cards, everything falls apart in a fairly expected way. Characters backstab at the moment you expect them to backstab, and aside from a surprising suicide, everyone ends up about where you expect them to. That’s especially a shame for Fabian… had the filmmakers not telegraphed his death earlier in the film, the final ten minutes of the film would have had an astonishing impact. As it is, the climax is still powerful, especially the shot of the Strangler carrying Fabian’s lifeless corpse and tossing it into the river like the rat he is, but it could have been transcendent with a little more nipping and tucking of the screenplay.

Much is made of the two different versions of the film, one released in America and the other England. The American version is shorter with a truncated ending, while the European version has extra scenes of Fabian twisting and snaking around, as well as a prolonged ending with Mary and her other suitor walking into the sun together after Fabian’s death. There are also two different scores, with Waxman’s US score far superior to Benjamin Frankel’s more sparse offering. Dassin prefers the US version, as do I. The added scenes hurt the pacing, particularly in the first act, and I prefer the quick, nasty ending. The one without the false hint at redemption.

In the end, the movie leaves us with the echo of Fabian’s feet tapping against the wet London streets. You don’t really feel anything when the Strangler snaps his neck, but you can’t help but admire the guy for flying as close to the sun as he did. And Widmark’s performance remains one for the ages. He made better films noir – “Kiss of Death” and “Panic in the Streets” come to mind – but was never better than here.

Score: ****

Ministry of Fear

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Seton I. Miller

Based on the 1943 novel “The Ministry of Fear” by Graham Greene

Director: Fritz Lang

Cinematographer: Henry Sharp

Music: Victor Young, Miklos Rozsa

Cast: Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond

Release: October 2, 1944

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Percent Noir: 40%

So finally we come to Fritz Lang. Here is the man who it is generally agreed upon invented the film noir genre with his German masterwork “M,” and has ratcheted up more good or great films noir than any other director. Even if a Lang work misses the mark, there are still more pleasurable things in it than the entirety of other mediocre features. “Ministry of Fear” mostly hits the mark.

The film begins with Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) being released from an asylum after being committed there for the mercy killing of his ill wife. While waiting for his train, Neale sees a town fair going on to benefit the Mothers of Free Nations charity. He guesses the weight of a cake, sees a fortune teller who is vague about his future but serious that he needs to re-guess the cake weight, and when he does, he wins.

But it turns out that cake has something inside of it that a band of undercover Nazis would kill for, throwing Neale on a journey involving bombing cabins in the Blitz, phony seances, fake dead people, real dead people, suitcases that are supposed to be filled with books but are really filled with bombs, rooftop rain shoot-outs and badly tailored suits. Yeah, it’s one of those “everything but the kitchen sink”-type movies.

The plot makes a vague sort of sense if you squint at it while drunk, but if you walk into “Ministry of Fear” expecting a coherent narrative where everything introduced pays off, you are in for an almost unbearable hour-and-a-half. This is one of those “just go with it!” movies – enjoyable to watch on a minute-to-minute basis and afraid to stop moving because, if you think about it too much, it will implode.

Ray Milland leads the film with a grounded performance that is just what this type of movie needs. Surprisingly grounded, considering his character killed his first wife and just got out of a looney bin, but aside from some dialogue throughout, this fascinating character background means nothing to the movie we are watching. That said, Milland is great in roles like this or “The Big Clock” because he never winks at the audience. Sure, the guy has a great sense of comic timing, but he knows to play a scene where an insidious tailor is brandishing the largest pair of scissors you’ve ever seen in front of him completely straight, and the movie is better for it.

He’s surrounded by a slew of just-okay performances. Lang had a myriad of gifts as a director, but casting character actors in small roles was not one of them. Someone like George Cukor or Alfred Hitchcock could have knocked the ensemble out of the park, but instead we get a line of “meh” work from Marjorie Reynolds on down the line. Especially bad is Carl Esmond, who overplays every line, can’t sell a bit of his good dialogue and unfortunately can’t shoulder the burden of being the ultimate bad guy in the final act.

Luckily, Lang makes up for that in other key ways, particularly creating a wonderful atmosphere. The first 25 minute stretch, from the asylum to the fair to the train to the bombing of the field, is truly a masterwork in how to tell a story with style and economy. Throughout, Lang indulges his passion for bringing odd eccentricities to otherwise normal scenes, like having the “blind man” start to finger through a piece of cake suspiciously before giving up and walloping Neale with his cane. Or when Milland and his friend arrive at an apartment to deliver the books/bomb and realize there is something wrong by noting that there is nothing wrong – no cigarettes, notes, no personal flourishes at all.

Grahame Greene, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, hates the film because screenwriter Seton I. Miller deleted a key subplot where Neale got amnesia halfway through the book, which to me seems like a very smart cut. Unless it is the basis for the plot itself, as in “Dark City,” amnesia subplots, especially ones that serve as complications, are never successful and usually groan-inducing.

The production also has a weird background, much of which I don’t believe. Apparently either because of a clause in Miller’s contract or a clause missing from Lang’s, Miller got complete creative control over the screenplay and, even more astonishing, could control any improvisations on set. It’s not just me, right? That sounds completely fucking insane. Miller was a well-regarded screenwriter at the time, having penned “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” but looking at his filmography, he had several misses as well, so it’s hard to believe Paramount would allow him such creative control. Also, need I remind you that the director is Fritz Lang. As in THAT control freak Fritz Lang whose last film was the hit “Hangmen Also Die.” Would he really allow such control taken away from him? I doubt it. But it makes for a good story, I suppose.

Whatever the case, the final product is a lot of fun. It’s like eating a bag of popcorn, salty and delicious but forgotten after a few hours. Lang’s next two films would be noir icons “The Woman in the Window” and “Scarlet Street,” but then again not every film needs to be a dark, vindictive alley with no hope for redemption. Sometimes you just want to watch a movie with microfilm hidden inside a cake.

Score: ***1/2


The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein & Elizabeth Reinhardt

Based on the novel by Vera Caspary

Director: Otto Preminger

Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle

Music: David Raksin

Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

Release: October 11, 1944

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Awards: Won an Oscar for Best Black & White Cinematography (also nominated were “Double Indemnity” & “Gaslight”). Nominated for Best Director (lost to Leo McCarey for “Going My Way. Also nominated was Billy Wilder for “Double Indemnity.), Best Supporting Actor for Webb (lost to Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way”), Best Screenplay (lost to “Going My Way.” Also nominated were “Double Indemnity” and “Gaslight”), and Best B&W Art Direction (lost to “Gaslight.”)

Percent Noir: 90%

When I was in undergrad, I took this class on film noir. For the life of me, I cannot remember a single film that was screened during that semester except for “Laura,” which my two instructors insisted was the first film noir. Even 19-year-old me was dubious about that statement. And they were unfortunately mistaken. “Laura” was not the first film noir (take your pick for candidates there…), nor was it the movie that perfected the genre (“Double Indemnity” was released a month earlier), but it is one of the transcendent examples of the genre. I don’t want to seem like I’m using hyperbole here, but I genuinely believe this is one of those rare films which is unforgettable.

The reasons for this are myriad, but on a macro level can be viewed thusly: it is a great mystery, and it is also a fascinating character study. Modern critics love to dive into the psychology of the film, which I’ll get to in a couple of paragraphs, but I want to focus on what a great damn murder mystery it is first.

The storyline involves the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a New York socialite who is in equal amounts loved and obsessed over by every member of her inner circle. After she was shot in her apartment point blank in the face by a shotgun, Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is brought in to investigate. Was it famous newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who took Laura under his wing and helped establish her among Manhattan’s elite? Or perhaps it was her maybe-fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who was probably cheating on her? But what about Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who seems to love Shelby more than Laura ever did? And then there’s Laura’s maid Bessie (Dorothy Adams), who remains faithful to her employer even after her death…

It’s a trick question, of course, because Laura isn’t dead. It was a model Shelby was sleeping with who took the gunshot to the face. Laura’s return means she’s a suspect too, which sucks because Mark was becoming as obsessed with dead Laura as the others were with alive Laura.

This is one beautifully structured and composed mystery. The twist that Laura is alive is one of the best in film history – a twist so awesome that it hasn’t been ripped off countless times because it’s just that iconic. But more than that, the screenplay by Jay Dratler (“The Dark Corner”), Samuel Hoffenstein (“The Phantom of the Opera”) and Elizabeth Reinhardt (“Sentimental Journey”) sets up a beautiful maze of red herrings, misdirects and hiding things in plain sight. I mean, one of the first shots of the movie is one of the iconic clocks that is the key to the entire mystery!

The other genius move by the screenwriters is to give us voiceover from the beginning from Waldo’s character. It puts the audience at ease with him, tricking us into thinking he is our way into the film instead of Mark and subtly making us eliminate him as a suspect in our minds. Having the murdered woman be Laura’s rival immediately adds intrigue to Laura’s return – perhaps she’s not the saint everyone makes her out to be, and when she behaves as such, we suspect her even more.

And then there is all that fucked-up psychology, which is a hallmark of director Otto Preminger’s films noir. Even the smallest of roles are fascinating. Take the maid Bessie, who keeps insisting on showing up for work despite that she has no one to clean up after now. From a mystery standpoint, we wonder if she’s coming back to ditch evidence, but from a personal standpoint, how messed up is she? It’s never explicitly hinted at, but Bessie is pretty obviously a lesbian who has been obsessed with Laura since she was hired, now unable to make peace with the fact that the woman she loved is dead and will never know.

But the trio of characters who will forever get the most attention from “Laura” are Waldo, Shelby and Ann. The three actors portraying them are having an absolute ball finding new ways to chew on the furniture, and the line between the characters relishing what is going on and the actors relishing the roles is a grey one. First we get Ann, inhabited by Anderson (Mrs. Danvers represent!) as a woman who desperately attempts to be above whatever drama is surrounding her, because to admit she is part of it would be to admit that she’s a broken woman, obsessed (there’s that word again) with a man who puts up with her, even likes her… but will never love her.

Price plays Shelby with an accent that is sorta kinda his own, but with a little whisp of… well, something else. He doesn’t quite sound like the Vincent Price we know and love, which leaves us immediately unbalanced when listening to Shelby speak. Shelby is a weak bastard – just about everyone in the movie (including him) talk about this, sometimes in front of him. And yet he seduces Laura enough to become engaged to her, and is the object of Ann’s every desire… despite being pretty bland. But while the character is purposely bland, Price’s performance is anything but, twisting every conversation the character has into something so innocent that you just know there are dark undertones somewhere in there.

Waldo is not only the best character in the movie, but one of the best characters in film history. He makes a grand entrance, nude in his gigantic bathtub (I want one) with a typewriter over his junk in a way that prevents the audience from seeing it but not Mark. I suppose Waldo did this because, in his messed-up, elevated melodramatic mind he believed that he was revealing his “naked self” metaphorically and physically to the police dick (sorry, I had to) means he’ll not be as much of a suspect. Very gay but still super-pissy when Laura decides she needs more than just a BFF in her life, Waldo insists to Mark that she “melted his cold heart.” And perhaps she did… and since he could now feel affection, he could also feel obsession and hate, which is why he attempted to kill her. Waldo gets most of the best lines in the movie, all of the best reaction shots, and his death leaves the movie feeling like a tragedy even though he’s a straight-up killer.

And then there’s the leading duo of Mark and Laura, who have historically been called the least interesting characters in the movie. I don’t know about that… just because the parts aren’t showy doesn’t mean that the characters aren’t interesting. Mark does get the most iconic sequence in the film, where he wanders through Laura’s empty apartment, searching through her belongings while almost pretending he’s on a date with the woman. Mark is a blunt object (Waldo says as much), and functions as the antidote to Waldo’s sophistication. He has no real power in any given situation with the characters… note how he always threatens to arrest them but never does… and is impotent in his love of Laura because first, she was dead and second, she was a suspect. I’ve run hot and cold on Andrews’ work in the last couple of films I’ve seen him in, and it’s not a great performance here. But then again, it’s not supposed to be… he does what he needs to do, stares in amusement/annoyance at all the other characters, looks handsome for Laura, and that’s all.

Tierney’s performance is fascinating to watch. The idea of Laura is that she is all things to all people all of the time, which is of course impossible to achieve. Tierney knows this, and though her character remains distinctly “Laura” in every scene, she recalibrates her performance slightly depending on which character she is interacting with. Note in the flashbacks with Waldo that Laura is spunkier, more combative. That is what Waldo wanted from her. Then with Mark she is more malleable, more feminine… which is what his character desires from her. There’s a lot of subtlety here many critics apparently haven’t picked up on.

Preminger directs his actors well, and also gets grand work from all his technical partners. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (“Fallen Angel”) won an Oscar for his work, which goes wonderfully crazy with atmospherics at the film’s climax. David Raksin’s score has become as iconic as the film itself, not just because of the hit song birthed from it, but because it captures that mood of romance and uncertainty to perfection. This is one of Preminger’s first films, and the steady hand with which he guides the production is astounding.

Many of our greatest films are about the obsession to capture an ideal… either through a want, a desire, an identity, a passion. But how often do these masterpieces actually clash that obsession – that idealization – with reality? Almost never. And that’s one of the reasons “Laura” remains one of the great masterpieces in all of film.

Score: *****

In a Lonely Place

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Edmund H. North & Andrew Solt

Based on the 1947 novel “In a Lonely Place” by Dorothy B. Hughes

Director: Nicholas Ray

Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey

Music: George Anthiel

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy

Release: May 17, 1950

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Percent Noir: 90%

“In a Lonely Place” is a movie that comes with a lot of baggage. So much so that it’s nearly impossible to separate discussion of the film itself with everything that went on behind the scenes. In case you somehow are not in the know: Nicholas Ray essentially made his then-wife Gloria Grahame relinquish any freedom from expression over the making of the film in the contract she signed, and then the marriage quickly dissolved thanks to Grahame sleeping with Ray’s 13-year-old son from an earlier marriage. Yep, pretty fucked up.

But was all of the suffering worth it? Many film buffs point to abusive sets like “Last Tango in Paris” or “Marnie” and call the films masterpieces because of the suffering inflicted during their creation… not in spite of it. To that I call bullshit — and also don’t think either of the above films are masterpieces, or anywhere close. Would I prefer that “In a Lonely Place” didn’t exist and its creators instead all found peace? Duh. But here it is, and so we shall discuss it.

This was the first film Humphrey Bogart made with his independent production company, and it’s not an overstatement to say that the film would not work without him as the lead. The plot involves a washed-up screenwriter named Dixon (Bogart) who one night invites a young woman (Martha Stewart, no not that one) home with him to tell him all above a novel he may be hired to adapt. The next morning the woman is dead and Dixon, with his history of alcoholism and physical abuse (at one point the cops show a file thicker than most Chandler novels), is the obvious suspect. But Dixon’s neighbor Laurel (Grahame) gives him an alibi – not because she actually saw him, but because she’s attracted to him. The attraction is mutual, and the duo fall deeply and madly in love, with the emphasis on the word madly. After all, if Dixon didn’t kill the woman, who did? And the more Laurel watches Dixon fly off the handle, the more concerned she becomes…

The reason only Bogart could have played Dixon is that he is the only actor who could have pulled off the tightrope of making us care about his character for as long as we do. Put the dialogue and actions in the lap of any other major Hollywood actor and the character fundamentally doesn’t work. But because we inherently love Bogie and want to root for him, we invest in his relationship with Laurel. After all, his first violent outburst in the film is defending a drunken actor’s honor… so he can’t be all bad, right? We root for them, despite the festering feeling that our hearts are going to be broken. And the one-two punch of the ending reveal that Dixon isn’t guilty of murder directly before he almost murders Laurel in fury is a total gobsmacker.

Both Dixon and Laurel are well-sketched characters dripping with history – you understand that they are both wounded from their pasts, and so it’s easier to believe that they fall so quickly and completely in love. Laurel has an unfortunate history with another man that ended very badly, and Dixon has several unfortunate histories with women that ended worse. Watching the film again, the most heartbreaking scene is when they are most happy, living in domestic bliss as Dixon pens his comeback script while Laurel fawns over him and types up his handwritten pages. Your heart breaks not because of the content of the scene, but because of what could have been.

And yet, fundamentally, the two characters could never be happy. Despite their murky backgrounds, Laurel is essentially a good person while Dixon is essentially a bad guy. Not because he may or may not be a murderer, but because he’s an abuser. There’s a scene early in the second act where Dixon explains to two friends how the murder must have taken place, going into excruciating detail about how it happened and forcing the obviously uncomfortable couple to act it out in front of him. Co-screenwriters Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt inform the viewer very explicitly in that moment that Dixon, if not the actual murderer, is one of the dregs of humanity. It works as both a red herring and character building… but because it’s Bogie we try to forget. We try to forgive. Just like Laurel. Until you can’t…

This is perhaps the best of Bogie’s many fine performances – though it would seem impossible, he makes you both care for Dixon while also be terrified for Laurel’s life the entire time they are together. By the end of the film his performance has twisted your stomach in knots. And Grahame is all aces too, mixing vulnerability and hardness to perfection throughout. She’s famous for playing a live wire and does that well, but her more subdued work here is just as powerful. And those eyes!

Together they inhabit one of the most alive places in all of noir. The collection of small apartments seems idyllic at first, but the production designer is careful to create a series of gates and bars that can seem constricting once night falls. It underlines perfectly that Laurel truly can’t escape – the man she so loves but is so afraid of is only a few paces away.

In addition to being one of the best examples of film noir, “In a Lonely Place” also has dialogue, created by Dixon for the film he’s writing, which serves as a mantra for the genre: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” I can think of a few quotes that may equal it, but none better. Writing doesn’t get much better than that, folks.

Score: *****

His Kind of Woman

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Frank Fenton, Jack Leonard, Earl Felton (uncredited)

Director: John Farrow, Richard Fleischer (uncredited)

Cinematographer: Harry J. Wild

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price, Raymond Burr

Release: August 25, 1951

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 70%

“His Kind of Woman” is the rarest of films noir – a comedy. Now, many a noir have dialogue that will leave you laughing until your sides ache, but it’s kind of a necessity of the genre to have shadows, darkness, moral ambiguity and the like. And the reason that this film works as well as it does is that would work perfectly with all the gags stripped away and just played straight. But those gags? Oooh, gurl.

The leading role could only be played by noir antihero supreme Robert Mitchum (sorry Bogie). He plays Dan Milner, who is given $50,000 by exiled drug lord Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) to hop on some planes and head…well… somewhere. Milner is completely in the dark, but at least he has a good sparring partner on his trip in the form of Lenore Brent (Jane Russell). They arrive at an idyllic beachfront resort in Mexico, where Lenore’s boyfriend is waiting for her – an A-list actor named Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), and where Milner continues to try to figure out why he’s been hired and why he’s been brought there.

The movie starts off as hardboiled as they come – after Milner is beaten to a pulp by some thugs, he gets a phone call where someone asks how he is: “I’m about to take off my tie… and trying to decide is I should hang myself with it.” Russell is introduced singing a catchy ditty, but it’s up in the air for awhile if she’s a femme fatale or not. Then Vincent Price shows up and effectively steals the entire movie.

Cardigan is one of the best characters in all of noir because he desperately wants to be the type of film noir hero we expect – the tragic Shakespearean type… but he’s too busy being a narcissistic actor to pull it off. There’s a lot of crackling dialogue throughout the film, but no one sells it quite like Price. And the screenwriters Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard (with uncredited rewrites by Earl Felton) have a ball breaking down tough-guy stereotypes, romantic figures and Hollywood. When Cardigan shows his newest film to the hotel guests, one of the characters insults it and another comforts Cardigan by saying “You know, you can’t take his opinion on anything – he’s an intellectual.” Oh, how I laughed!

In the background of all this fun is the simmering mystery of why Milner is there. And the answer is legitimately cool, with Ferraro planning on getting plastic surgery to look like Milner, killing him and then heading back into America with his face. The final act manages to thread the needle of cutting back and forth between the hilarious action of Cardigan gathering the hotel guests and Mexican police to attack a yacht, and the aforementioned yacht where Milner is being held captive, tortured and repeatedly nearly killed. The Cardigan stuff is played totally for laughs and the Milner stuff completely straight… and yet contrasting the two next to one another makes them work better, which seems impossible until you actually see the movie.

The movie was famously shot, reshot and then reshot again at the behest of Howard Hughes, who was then the head of RKO. Original director John Farrow was out, and allegedly over 80 minutes of the two-hour feature were reshot by “The Narrow Margin” creative team of director Richard Fleischer and Felton. First, as possibly the biggest fan of “The Narrow Margin” there is, I applaud his choices. Then after most of the film was reshot, Hughes noticed Burr in a film, hired him as the villain and then reshot all those scenes as well. So yeah, basically the movie has no reason to work as well as it does. And I think the reason it’s regarded not as a masterpiece but as a “very good” noir is because the scattershot directing style isn’t a good story for critics and historians who prefer leaning into the auteur theory hard when considering anything “worthwhile.” That’s total bullshit, but also beside the point.

Mitchum and Russell were perfectly cast as the leads. Mitchum had been doing these types of movies for a decade now, and here he brings a jaded amusement to every scene he’s in – he doesn’t quite wink at the audience, but you can see the smile on his face as he recites dialogue about ironing his money. Russell, of course, is one of the most gifted comedians in film history, and brings a light, fun energy to every one of her scenes – and also manages to nail every punchline she’s given. She looks great in her myriad of beautiful clothing (I think the only comparable film noir is “Gilda”), and if the movie does have a problem, it’s that it eliminates her from the final act. That said, locking your heroine in a closet so she won’t sacrifice herself to save her true love made me giggle for almost a minute, so it’s hard to be mad.

The directors (it’s hard to tell who recruited who) did a great job at finding great character actors to fill out the supporting players. Burr is ruthless and his eyes reflect great intensity throughout, and there are aces performances by Tim Holt, Charles McGraw and Thurston Howell III. The movie even has fun with the “good girl” noir image – Jennie (Leslie Banning) is introduced as the new bride of a nice guy who gets in too deep gambling. Milner takes pity on her and helps the guy break even. Then Jennie shows up and kisses Milner for a beat (did I see tongue?!), telling him her husband okayed the make out sesh.

I love “His Kind of Woman.” It’s as essential a noir for me as “Double Indemnity,” and it also happens to be one of my favorite comedies. There has never been a film before or since that quite managed to pull off the tight-rope walk of humor and crime. It’s my kind of movie.

Score: *****