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Month: February 2016

Murder, My Sweet / Farewell, My Lovely (1944)

Murder, My Sweet / Farewell, My Lovely (1944)

“A black pool opened up at my feet again, and I dived in.”

Murder My Sweet Poster

Synopsis:
Private eye Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is commissioned by a hulking ex-con named Moose (Mike Mazurki) to find his long-lost girlfriend, Velma. Meanwhile, Marlowe is hired to accompany a man (Douglas Walton) as he retrieves a jade necklace stolen from the beautiful wife (Claire Trevor) of an older millionaire (Miles Mander), whose daughter (Anne Shirley) worries her father is being cuckolded.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “film noir classic” — “reputedly [Raymond] Chandler’s favorite adaptation of his novels” — is “director Edward Dmytryk’s best film”. He writes that while the “picture is known for its seedy characters; hard-edged, hyperbolic dialogue and narration; [and] dark, atmospheric photography”, he believes “it’s most significant because it is the one picture to fully exploit the nightmarish elements that are present in good film noir.” To that end, he notes that “because our narrator, Marlowe, spends time recovering from being knocked out and, later, from drugs in his bloodstream, he never has a clear head”, and thus “the dark, smoky world he walks through becomes increasingly surreal, indicating he is in a dream state”. He further notes that “part of the reason we feel nervous for this Marlowe is that we sense he has no more control over his situation than we do when we’re having a nightmare”. Finally, Peary comments on how effectively Powell “projects Marlowe’s vulnerability”, convincingly “making the transition from cheery crooner to hard-boiled detective”; indeed, it’s truly astonishing that this is the same actor who came to fame starring in light-hearted musicals such as 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (and 1935 and 1937), Dames (1934), and Flirtation Walk (1934).

While the storyline is dense (typical for Chandler) and requires concentration (or perhaps multiple viewings) to fully absorb, I agree with Peary that Murder, My Sweet remains a highly effective, well-acted, atmospheric noir. Powell is a stand-out — but the rest of the supporting cast is excellent as well, most notably the ever-reliable Claire Trevor, “coming across as sexy as Lana Turner”, and Mike Mazurki as “huge ex-con Moose Malloy”. Esther Howard gives a fine “cameo” performance as a boozy informant, remarkably similar to her turn several years later in Born to Kill (1947). Perhaps the true co-star of the show, however, is Harry J. Wild’s cinematography (see stills below), augmented by Vernon L. Walker’s “special effects for the memorable scene in which the drugged Marlowe has hallucinations”. Remade in 1975 as Farewell, My Lovely with Robert Mitchum, but this earlier version is much better.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances
    Murder My Sweet Powell
    Murder My Sweet Mazurki
    Murder My Sweet Trevor
  • Harry Wild’s cinematography
    Murder My Sweet Cinematography
    Murder My Sweet Cinematography5
    Murder My Sweet Cinematography4
    Murder My Sweet Cinematography3
  • The creatively filmed nightmare-drug sequence
    Murder My Sweet Nightmare

Must See?
Yes, as a noir classic. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Phantom Lady (1944)

Phantom Lady (1944)

“Don’t you realize this can result in an awful long rest cure for you?”

Phantom Lady Poster

Synopsis:
An unhappy man (Alan Curtis) attends a musical show with a mysterious woman (Fay Helm) he meets at a bar, then returns home to find his wife strangled to death and a bevy of policemen (Thomas Gomez, Regis Toomey, and Joseph Crehan) eager to question him. When Curtis is sentenced to death because he can’t verify his alibi, his beautiful secretary (Ella Raines) does everything she can to help find the “phantom lady” Curtis spent the evening with — but her efforts are foiled at every turn. Could Curtis’s best friend (Franchot Tone) have anything to do with the case?

Genres:

Review:
Robert Siodmak directed this engaging, atmospheric, but narratively flawed noir about a plucky amateur sleuth (Raines) determined to save the man she not-so-secretly loves. From the opening shot showing the back of an outlandish hat (belonging to the inexplicably gloomy “phantom lady”), Siodmak keeps us guessing about who each of the primary characters are, what role they may eventually play in the mystery (or not), and who’s ultimately behind the murder of a character only seen post-mortem in a glamorous portrait a la Laura (1944) (released later that same year). We are eventually let down by the unsubtle inclusion of a character whose deluded state of mind is far too transparent, and whose performance edges into campy territory. However, expressionistic cinematography and memorable sets make the film a consistent visual treat, and the central mystery — who IS that phantom lady, and why was she so determined to keep her identity a secret? — builds to a nice reveal. Watch for a truly deranged Elisha Cook, Jr. playing a cartoonishly lustful drummer, and Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora as a performer literally seething at the idea of another woman wearing one of her designer hats.

Note: Leading man Alan Curtis plays a radically different — and much more sympathetic — character here than in High Sierra (1941), where he was cast as Lupino’s abusive boyfriend ‘Babe’; he’s also known for his leading role as a paratrooper in Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman (1943).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Eldwood Bredell’s noir-ish cinematography
    Phantom Lady Cinematography
    Phantom Lady Cinematography4
    Phantom Lady Cinematography2
    Phantom Lady Cinematography3
    Phantom Lady Cinematography5
  • Expressionistic sets and direction
    Phantom Lady Portrait
    Phantom Lady Interrogation
    Phantom Lady Cook Jr
    Phantom Lady Sets
  • An often-clever script: “Remember all my friends? Well, they aren’t.”

Must See?
Yes, as a distinctive if flawed noir classic. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

Links:

Forever and a Day (1943)

Forever and a Day (1943)

“Americans haven’t much feeling for old houses, have they?”

Forever and a Day Poster

Synopsis:
An American (Kent Smith) visiting London during World War II learns the complex history of an ancestral house he is hoping to sell.

Genres:

Review:
Marketed as “78 stars in one Great Picture!”, this ultimate-ensemble piece — involving no fewer than seven director/producers and 21 writers, and made without pay by all cast and crew — remains a surprisingly touching, engaging, and witty artifact of wartime patriotism. The storyline tells a semi-realistic story of how families and classes intermingle over time, how houses go in and out of various states of use and distinction, and how either fate or the random vagaries of life spark surprising new beginnings. The framing story begins with Smith leaving his hotel (bid adieu by doorman Victor McLaglen) and being shown around a house he’s been tasked with selling (now functioning as an Air Raid Shelter) by its tenant (Ruth Warrick) while a clergyman (Herbert Marshall) keeps up the spirits of its inhabitants. From there, we’re taken in flashback to the initial construction of the house by an admiral (C. Aubrey Smith) during the Napoleonic era, after Edmund Gwenn sells him the land; this leads to a story of C. Aubrey Smith’s son (Milland) “rescuing” and marrying a woman (Anna Neagle) escaping the clutches of her nefarious guardian (Claude Rains). Rains seeks revenge through pursuing ownership of the house, but at his own peril.

The next, much more light-hearted vignette centers around a woman (Jesse Matthews) eager to convince her iron-mining husband (Ian Hunter) to install a bathtub in their house; this is eventually completed by Buster Keaton and Cedric Hardwicke, with Charles Laughton on hand as a tippling butler. Generations pass (with Anna Lee, Edward Everett Horton and Cecil Kellaway quickly flitting across the screen), and we watch Ida Lupino’s Cockney housemaid desperate to gain a glimpse of the Diamond Jubilee as it crosses the streets of London. She’s whisked away to America by her lover (Brian Aherne), and thus begins the American branch of the extended family.

Eventually we come to World War I and the saddest of all the stories, as we’re solidly reminded that this film was made during a time of unimaginable death and uncertainty. An American soldier (Robert Cummings) arrives at the (now boarding) house and instantly falls for its beautiful manager (Merle Oberon); meanwhile, as a giddy maid (Elsa Lanchester) flits about, a stoic couple (Roland Young and Gladys Cooper) wait patiently for the arrival of their heroic son… Their understated performances are shattering. As the film closes during the present era and an air raid rocks the house, we get a final glimpse of Winston Churchill on the wall — a solid visual presence behind the entire narrative of American-British alliance: “Let Us Go Forward Together”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast
    Forever and a Day Cooper
    Forever and a Day Lupino
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Forever and a Day Cinematography
    Forever and a Day Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance, and as a surprisingly enjoyable patriotic flick.

Categories

Links:

Criminal Code, The (1931)

Criminal Code, The (1931)

“An eye for an eye: that’s the basis and foundation of the criminal code. Somebody’s got to pay!”

Criminal Code Poster

Synopsis:
A young man (Phillip Holmes) sent to prison for accidental manslaughter by a sympathetic but by-the-books D.A. (Walter Huston) becomes a shell of his former self, yet finds renewed reason for living when he falls in love with Huston’s daughter (Constance Cummings) after Huston becomes warden of the prison. However, Holmes’ loyalty is put to the test when his cellmate (Boris Kalloway) murders the prisoner (Clark Marshall) who squealed on his getaway attempt, and Huston attempts to bully Holmes into confessing what he knows.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is a big fan of this early Howard Hawks flick (based on “a Broadway play by Martin Falvin”), referring to it as a “powerful prison drama” that “expresses one of [Hawks’] frequent themes: both lawmen and criminals must adhere to their own distinct codes”. He writes that it “shows [the] misery of prisoners (guards are brutal, food is awful, cells are tiny and claustrophobic, grounds are overcrowded) and makes clear their desires” — but numerous other films since then have shown the same conditions to equally numbing effects, and with more realistic representation of prisoners from diverse racial backgrounds. The movie also suffers from overly slow pacing at times (perhaps a function of its status as an early “talkie”). With that said, Peary’s assertion that the “picture is full of fine scenes and striking characters” is most certainly true: James Wong Howe’s cinematography and Hawks’ direction make this a consistently visually atmospheric outing. Huston gives a strong central performance in a psychologically complex role, and Boris Karloff “steals the film as Holmes’ slightly wacko cellmate who has ‘an appointment’ with a squealer”. Overall, however, this one is recommended rather than required viewing for film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Huston as Mark Brady
    Criminal Code Huston
  • Boris Karloff (in his first major picture) as Galloway
    Criminal Code Karloff
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
    Criminal Code Cinematography
  • Many striking scenes
    Criminal Code Barber
    Criminal Code 215
    Criminal Code Cowering

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing. Named one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Links:

Pyx, The (1973)

Pyx, The (1973)

“You’re going to help me achieve a miracle.”

Pyx Poster

Synopsis:
After a woman (Karen Black) is seen falling to her death from a high-rise building in Montreal, a pair of detectives (Christopher Plummer and Donald Pilon) investigate the case while Black’s life as a heroin-addicted prostitute with a controlling madam (Yvette Brind’amour) is shown in flashback.

Genres:

Review:
This atmospheric thriller — featuring Karen Black as both lead actress and singer/songwriter on the soundtrack — was directed by Canadian Harvey Hart, perhaps best known by film fanatics for the prison exploitation flick Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971). The Pyx (the title refers to a container for the consecrated “body of Christ” in Catholicism) taps into both the nascent heroin-addiction crisis — chronicled in movies like The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971) — and, as noted in Mondo Digital’s review, the success of Klute (1971), another film about a high-class call girl in trouble. Unfortunately, the film’s flashback structure — in addition to “giving away” the ending — makes the timeline needlessly confusing, as we’re shuttled back and forth between the detectives’ quest to learn why and how Black died, and Black’s life as a heroin-addicted prostitute. Black turns in a fine performance, but we learn too little about either her or the cult she’s sucked into to remain truly absorbed.

Note: This film’s more colorful video-release title was The Hooker Cult Murders.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Karen Black as Elizabeth
    Pyx Black
  • René Verzier’s cinematography
    Pyx Cinematography
  • Good use of Montreal locales

Must See?
No, unless you’re a Karen Black fan. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)

“It is the task of science to discover the truth. There is no shame attached to the recognition of error.”

Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet Poster

Synopsis:
With the support of his loyal wife (Ruth Gordon) and colleague (Otto Kruger), Dr. Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) leaves his clinical career behind to pursue scientific research on potential diagnosis and cure of bacterial diseases — including syphilis.

Genres:

Review:
Of all his many celebrated roles, Edward G. Robinson was purportedly most proud of his work in this Warner Brothers biopic about the Nobel Prize-winning German physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich: “It was, I think, one of the most distinguished performances I’ve ever given,” he stated. It’s easy to understand why Robinson so enjoyed getting to portray this justly famous man; as summarized by the review site And You Call Yourself a Scientist!:

Ehrlich pioneered the discovery of specific bacteriological stains to facilitate diagnosis; was involved in the development of a treatment for diphtheria; elucidated the toxin/antitoxin relationship, which allowed the standardisation of serum-based treatments; refined and improved the treatment for sleeping sickness; discovered a cure for syphilis; proved the existence of the blood-brain barrier; originated the concepts of “autoimmunity” and “chemotherapy” and conducted groundbreaking research in these new fields; and won the Nobel Prize.

Wow. He did all this, and apparently fought many uphill battles to do so. Of course, any dramatization of a person’s life will necessarily be that — a strategically crafted dramatization — but it seems there’s enough of the “truth” incorporated here that one can watch with reasonable assurance that we’re learning about a critically important figure in medical history.

Robinson’s performance is indeed top-notch; he ages 35 years throughout the film, and does so seamlessly (kudos to the make-up department as well). Ruth Gordon, sadly, is given much less to do in her gratuitous role as the “supportive wife behind the scenes”, who gets to make statements like: “There must be something we can do. There must be!” Cinematographer James Wong Howe films the entire affair with atmosphere, and the screenplay — co-written by John Huston — effectively humanizes the illnesses Ehrlich and his colleagues worked so diligently to cure. It’s refreshing to see (uncredited) Wilfred Hari as Ehrlich’s research partner, Nobel Prize-nominated bacteriologist Dr. Sahachiro Hata, though he’s given an unfortunate line about how Dr. Ehrlich is the one doing “all the thinking” (!). So it goes when one attempts to immortalize a single man.

Trivia: According to TCM’s review, director William Dieterle’s “talent let him get away with some bizarre habits, such as never starting a film unless his astrologer cleared it, and always wearing white gloves on the set.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Ehrlich
    Dr Ehrlich Robinson
  • Several suspenseful sequences of medical breakthroughs
    Dr Ehrlich Medical
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
    Dr Ehrlich Cinematography2
    Dr Ehrlich Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for Robinson’s performance.

Categories

Links:

High Sierra (1941)

High Sierra (1941)

“Of all the 14-karat saps! Starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog…”

High Sierra Poster

Synopsis:
Ex-con “Mad Dog” Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) — sprung from prison by an ailing friend (Donald MacBride) — connects with a pair of hoodlums (Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis) and their luckless moll (Ida Lupino), who are collaborating with a hotel clerk (Cornel Wilde) to stage a heist. Along the way, he meets and befriends an impoverished man (Henry Travers) who is traveling to California with his wife (Elisabeth Risdon) and beautiful granddaughter (Joan Leslie). Lupino falls for Bogart while Bogart falls for Leslie, hoping to woo her through paying for an operation to fix her club-foot. Meanwhile, the heist goes awry and “Mad Dog” is on the lam once again with Lupino and a bad-luck mutt known as “Pard”.

Genres:

  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Ex-Cons
  • Gangsters
  • Heists
  • Humphrey Bogart Films
  • Ida Lupino Films
  • Joan Leslie
  • Love Triangle
  • Raoul Walsh Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Raoul Walsh directed and John Huston co-scripted this “gangster classic” — based on a novel by co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett — which allowed Humphrey Bogart to become “a full-fledged leading man”. Peary writes that “Walsh really takes a classic western story and transposes it to the gangster genre”, noting that Walsh later refined the story in his gangster flick White Heat (1948) and remade it as an actual western, Colorado Territory, in 1949. Peary argues (and I agree) that the subplot about Bogart’s friendship with Travers, Risdon, and Leslie — despite allowing “Earle to display his good heart and Bogart to reveal a side of himself that hadn’t been seen yet on film” — “weakens the otherwise tough drama”. Though Bogart’s desire to turn over a new leaf and marry a fresh and “innocent” new girl makes sense on some level, it’s incomprehensible that he believes he can hide, sugarcoat, or excuse his past — especially given how notorious he is across the nation. Meanwhile, why would Leslie happily allow Bogart to take her hand romantically (during a key scene) if she has no interest at all in him “that way”? Other concerning elements of the film include William Best’s caricatured role as a rolling-eyed African-American “assistant” and Henry Hull’s cartoonish “Doc” Banton, whose wig and make-up are distractingly inauthentic.

With that said, there is still much to recommend in this film, which is generally acknowledged as an early example of “gangster noir” (the cinematography by Tony Gaudio is wonderfully atmospheric). According to DVD Savant, it’s notable as the film that “officially marked an end to the five-year ban on sympathetic gangster characters”. Walsh makes excellent use of on-location shooting in Lone Pines, California, and Lupino gives a nuanced and highly empathetic performance as a down-on-her-luck gal desperately in love with clueless Bogart. It’s certainly worth viewing by all film fanatics — and more engaging than its decent but unexceptional western remake.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ida Lupino as Marie
    High Sierra Lupino
  • Humphrey Bogart as “Mad Dog” Earle
    High Sierra Bogart
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
    High Sierra Cinematography3
    High Sierra Cinematography1
    High Sierra Cinematography2
  • Effective live-locale filming in the San Bernadino mountains
    High Sierra On Location

Must See?
Yes, as a dated but historically impactful gangster flick.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Hitch-Hiker, The (1953)

Hitch-Hiker, The (1953)

“You guys are going to die, that’s all — it’s just a question of when.”

HitchHiker Poster

Synopsis:
Two pals (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing vacation in Mexico make the mistake of picking up a homicidal hitch-hiker (William Talman).

Genres:

Review:
Helmed by one of the few female directors of her era (Ida Lupino), this no-holds-barred thriller begins on a tense note and maintains a high level of suspense throughout its 71-minute running time. After watching cleverly shot and edited opening sequences of a faceless hitch-hiker murdering two sets of victims (Talman gives an eerily effective performance as “Emmett Myers”, based on real-life Billy Cook), we’re introduced to O’Brien and Lovejoy, who casually pick up Talman without a second thought. Talman is hidden in shadows in the back seat until we’re finally given a glimpse of his face — which would be somewhat menacing under any circumstances, but is especially so given his paralyzed right eye. Because Talman is indubitably a cold-blooded psychopath with no scruples whatsoever, we’re kept in as much terror and suspense as the two luckless fishing buddies. O’Brien and Lovejoy’s performances are spot-on as well: we can see the wheels turning in their heads as they debate on a moment-to-moment basis what risks they can take (or not) in their perilous situation, as their masculinity and sense of agency are repeatedly debased. The screenplay — co-written by Lupino and her producer-husband Collier Young, and based on a story by blacklisted author Daniel Mainwaring, who wrote Out of the Past (1948) — is peppered with multiple tension-filled moments for possible violence, as well as various refreshing encounters with respectfully-presented Mexican citizens. Nick Musuraca’s atmospheric cinematography is a definite highlight as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Strong performances by all leads
    Hitch-Hiker Actors
    Hitch-Hiker Talman
  • Nick Musuraca’s cinematography
    Hitch-Hiker Cinematography2
  • A consistently tense, finely directed script: “My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost.”

Must See?
Yes, as a nifty little thriller. Be sure to catch this one!

Categories

Links:

Light That Failed, The (1939)

Light That Failed, The (1939)

“Painting is seeing, then remembering better than you saw.”

Light That Failed Poster

Synopsis:
A British painter and former Sudanese-war correspondent (Ronald Colman) pines after his childhood sweetheart (Muriel Angelus), who prefers to pursue her own painting career. Meanwhile, Colman’s eyesight — damaged during an attack while protecting a fellow soldier (Walter Huston) — begins to fail him, and he is determined to finish a key painting of a Cockney model (Ida Lupino) before he’s completely blind; but will Lupino’s anger at Colman for squelching her relationship with Huston get in the way of Colman’s final artistic accomplishment?

Genres:

Review:
There are quite a few “classic” (i.e., older) films that may remain beloved by a few, but by and large have passed their prime. Such is the case with this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s pro-British, pro-Colonialist, classist novel, which will likely only appeal to fans of Kipling’s era-specific work. There simply isn’t much here to hold our interest, other than Lupino’s feisty portrayal as a woman of few means — a “dissolute little scarecrow, a gutter-snippet and nothing more” — who sees an opportunity for betterment and latches onto it (though she’s essentially villainized for this attempt). It doesn’t help matters that Colman’s portrait of her — upon which the entire storyline hinges — seems like far from masterpiece material, which I suppose is a problem for any film centering on a pivotal piece of art (viz. The Picture of Dorian Gray — though that movie, despite its own flaws, is infinitely more nuanced and interesting).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ida Lupino as Bessie Broke
    Light That Failed Lupino

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

Links:

Thunderbolt (1929)

Thunderbolt (1929)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Guide for the Film Fanatic title; click here to read more.]

“There’s a dame behind every guy in this joint.”

Thunderbolt Poster

Synopsis:
A wanted gangster named “Thunderbolt” (George Bancroft) refuses to let go of his long-time moll (Fay Wray), even though she’s in love with a hard-working banker (Richard Arlen) who wants to marry her. Bancroft eventually gets sent to jail, and is soon joined by Arlen, who has been framed for murder — but will Bancroft confess to playing a part in Arlen’s unjust imprisonment before he’s put to death?

Genres:

  • Fay Wray Films
  • Framed
  • Gangsters
  • George Bancroft Films
  • Josef von Sternberg Films
  • Obsessive Love
  • Prisoners

Review:
Made between The Docks of New York (1928) and The Blue Angel (1930), this Josef von Sternberg flick — starring Oscar-nominated George Bancroft — isn’t listed in Peary’s GFTFF, but is mentioned in his Alternate Oscars, which is why I’m quickly reviewing it here. Unfortunately, it deserves its status as a “Missing Title”: there’s little here to keep one’s attention or interest, other than occasional evidence of von Sternberg’s visual talent. As noted in Time Out’s review, the director’s “first talkie suffers from painfully slow pacing, poor performances, and gobbets of excruciating sentimentality.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography
    Thunderbolt Nightclub
    Thunderbolt Cinematography

Must See?
No; skip this one unless you’re a diehard von Sternberg completist.

Links: