Archive for the ‘Film Noir’ Category

 

 

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

 

 

 

IN A LONELY PLACE is something different. It’s one of the great American movies from the first half-century of the art form but it feels more intensely personal than many of the finest of the studio era. It takes place in Hollywood but there’s nothing bright or sunny about it. It looks like a noir and acts like one in a couple places, but really it’s a dark character piece and the central mystery is primarily internal and existential in nature. It’s a Hollywood noir, maybe. There aren’t many like it; that’s for sure.

 

 

 

Dorothy B. Hughes wrote the novel upon which the film was based. Edmund North is the writer who adapted it. The film’s star, Humphrey Bogart, owned the production company which produced the film. Nicholas Ray was the director. Ray made effective, striking genre films — i.e. THEY LIVE BY NIGHTTHE RACKETON DANGEROUS GROUNDMACAO — and later made films that were even more distinctive and bound for glory — i.e. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and JOHNNY GUITAR. He’s one of the lesser-known of great American directors. At the time the film was made, Nicholas Ray was married to its leading lady, the incomparable Gloria Grahame. Not long after its release, the marriage ended. 

 

 

The story of IN A LONELY PLACE is as follows:  Bogart, in a role reportedly close to his heart, plays Dixon Steele, a belligerent screenwriter who is assigned a crappy book to adapt.  He hires a pretty hat-check girl to come to his apartment and summarize the book for him so he doesn’t have to read it.  When something terrible befalls the girl, the police pick up Dixon for questioning.  Grahame plays his neighbor, Laurel, who saw him with the girl the night before.  She’s his alibi.  They become an item, but his erratic and explosive behavior leads her to wonder whether the cops are right to suspect him after all.

 

 

 

The suspicion drives the plot, so of course one couldn’t call it peripheral, but IN A LONELY PLACE is truly about what transpires between Dixon and Laurel. It’s hardly a typical whodunit. Whether he did it or not is important to the film primarily because of what it means for him and for her. If he’s a murderer, that’s bad, but what if he isn’t, and the film somehow ends in broken hearts regardless?

 

 

This is a doom-laden and tragic love story that is dark as night.  It’s not a date movie.  It’s kind of the anti-date movie.  Doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful though.  May not be easy or reassuring, but it says volumes about men and women and how we so often are to each other.

 

 

If you’ve never seen IN A LONELY PLACE, please turn off the computer and head down to the Metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art today.  This is a classic and a masterpiece and a bunch of other clichéd descriptions which actually apply in this case.

Killer title, too.

 

 

IN A LONELY PLACE screens at 6:30pm on Saturday at MoMA. Highest possible recommendation.

 

 

— JON ABRAMS.

@JONNYABOMB

set-up

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SET-UP is a genre film with style, a sports noir, based on a poem of all things, and directed by the versatile Robert Wise.  Though shot in film noir tradition with film noir themes of steep odds and tragic heroism, THE SET-UP is primarily a sterling example of a boxing picture, and it is a widely-acknowledged inspiration for Martin Scorsese while shooting RAGING BULL.  (I guarantee you that Quentin Tarantino saw it too, when considering Bruce Willis’ storyline in PULP FICTION.)

 

 

In this movie, Robert Ryan plays Stoker, an over-the-hill boxer who discovers that he’s expected to take a dive by a powerful gangster.  He’s a loser several times over, but he’s not about to lose for lack of trying – but there’s a price to standing up against the underworld.  That price is apparent through the pummeling Ryan takes throughout the movie.  Ryan was seldom better cast – imposing enough to be credible as a professional boxer, but wearing his heart on his sleeve, lacking of the drive and the viciousness of the most successful of punch-drunk champions. The soul is in his eyes; the fists only secondary implements by contrast. An essential Robert Ryan performance for longtime fans and soon-to-be fans of one of the most fascinating, thoughtful, and under-acknowledged of old-Hollywood film stars.

 

– Jon Abrams.

 

Please read this excellent essay on the film over at Screen Slate today.

 

THE SET-UP plays at 5pm this evening at the IFC Center in New York City. It isn’t on Blu-Ray yet but you can still find it on the DVD format.

 

 

 

 

FEVER

 

 

Megan Abbott’s new novel, The Fever, is in bookstores today. I just grabbed my copy — it’s rare I run out to find a book the day it’s released, but this is exactly like the excitement I feel when a long-awaited movie hits theaters.

Megan Abbott’s stories are dark in tone and subject, bolstered by psychological detail and impeccable prose. Her characters are unforgettable. This particular story is drawn from an actual case concerning an outbreak of mysterious seizures among a clique of high school girls in New York. To me, that sounds both refreshingly different from Dare Me, the previous book by the same author, but also of a piece with it. I’ll find out as soon as I start reading!

You can buy The Fever sight-unseen, in full confidence it will be excellent. And you can go get your copy signed this evening at the terrific bookstore Book Court, assuming you’re anywhere near Brooklyn.

 

Below is the brief appreciation I wrote for Daily Grindhouse about Megan Abbott’s 2012 masterwork, Dare Me.

 

 

 

Most writers dream of creating their own genre — Megan Abbott has actually done it.

Dare Me is best described as cheerleader-noir, and if that doesn’t sound immediately awesome and intriguing to you, then that’s my failure, not the book’s, and I should keep brainstorming genre names until I find one that justifies the brilliance of this darkly humorous and unforgivingly engrossing novel.

The story centers around a high school cheer squad, its queen bee and her second-in-command (the book’s narrator), whose accepted hierarchy is upended by a new coach. A power struggle, death and manipulation and paranoia ensue — if you’re thinking of teen comedies from the set-up, even the good ones, please don’t — this is black as pitch, unrelenting and upsetting.

If I had to choose a dream director for the upcoming film adaptation, it’d be Jacques Tourneur, but unfortunately he isn’t available. Natalie Portman is currently attached to the project (presumably in the role of the coach); let’s hope the movie does this unique and brilliant book justice.

 

Find out more at the official website for the book.

 

 


@JONNYABOMB

 

 

Touch of Evil

 

It’s Orson Welles’ birthday today (he would have been 98), and so here’s a little thing I recently wrote about one of his masterpieces, TOUCH OF EVIL

 

TOUCH OF EVIL

 

Here is a movie that can’t be contained by a single paragraph. There’s not a single aspect of its essence that lacks for greatness. Before you even see a human being in the frame, TOUCH OF EVIL announces its excellence with Russell Metty’s landmark camerawork, roving up and over the terrain of the bordertown where the story takes place. The typically cool, swinging, swaggering score is by Henry Mancini.

 

 

 

 

Then the movie brings in its sole source of light in Janet Leigh, and one of its many sources of weirdness in Charlton Heston, playing her new husband. His role is as a Mexican cop, and of all the memorable histrionics Heston snarled through gritted teeth over the course of his career, there’s good reason he was never revered for his accent work.

 

Mexican

 

The sudden and conspicuous explosion of a car brings law enforcement officials to the scene, most notably Hank Quinlan, who is played by an unrecognizable Orson Welles, who also wrote and directed. As galvanizing a figure as he was in CITIZEN KANE and as romantic a figure as he was in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, that’s how grotesque and captivating Welles is as Hank Quinlan. As visually repellent as Welles makes himself here, there’s a magnetism that makes him the immediate and eternal center of this film, and it’s wholly believable that Marlene Dietrich’s Tanya still carries residual feelings for Quinlan, no matter how far he’s gone to seed. 

 

ORSON & MARLENE THEN

 

TOUCH OF EVIL is one of the more eccentric, unusual of the widely-acknowledged canon classics you’re likely to see. It works as tragic noir but it is also full of strange, unique touches — unless you know of another border thriller where the lovely blond ingenue has a hallucinatory drug trip in a seedy motel. Really! If you haven’t already, check it out, and have your cranial movie glossary instantly expanded.

 

ORANGE

 

 

Here’s a drawing I did of Welles as Hank Quinlan:

(a Hank Quinlan drawing I did)

 

@jonnyabomb

ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948)

 

 

This is a quietly astounding movie, one which is not nearly as well-remembered as it could and probably should be.  ACT OF VIOLENCE began as a story by Collier Young, who was married to and divorced from Ida Lupino and Joan Fontaine. That’s a pretty interesting off-screen life. The script is by Robert L. Richards, who also wrote WINCHESTER ’73 and GORGO but was blacklisted on account of his left-leaning beliefs, which very likely are trace elements noticeable in the finished film. Directed by Fred Zinnemann (who also made HIGH NOON and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), ACT OF VIOLENCE isn’t overtly political but is easily applicable to many of the major social issues of its era, and still.

 

Act of Violence

 

Robert Ryan plays Joe, a crippled POW who returns to plague a local war hero, Frank, played by Van Heflin (from POSSESSED and SHANE), and by proxy his young wife, played by Janet Leigh (of PSYCHO fame).  Joe is so furious in the pursuit of his quarry that Frank, in frantic desperation, turns to some shady characters for protection, namely an aging prostitute, a lawyer, and a hitman. It’s a shockingly rapid moral decline, or else a violent stripping-away of heroic tropes. The look of the film reflects this descent into darkness, beginning in glorious day and heading into an unfathomable night.

 

AOV

 

ACT OF VIOLENCE was lit and shot by the cinematographer Robert Surtees, Oscar-nominated sixteen times over — and father to Bruce, a talented cinematographer in his own right who shot many of my favorite movies and worked frequently with Clint Eastwood.

 

Act of Violence

 

Why is Ryan’s character so intent on wreaking vengeance on a small-town  an all-American hero, his former friend)?  The answer to that question is truly surprising – in my opinion this film is one of the great morality plays of the film noir era.  In ACT OF VIOLENCE, Ryan literally emerges from shadows; he’s intense, and scary, and ultimately, entirely within comprehension, as the kind of tormented figure that is created by wartime. Torment is something Robert Ryan played particularly well, so fans of his should rush to see this film. And if you aren’t already a fan, this is exactly the kind of movie that’ll make you one.

 

TRAIN

 

This piece is expanded a little from my capsule review included in my tribute to the great Robert Ryan. Check it out!

 

@jonnyabomb

 

The Big Lebowski.  To watch it once is sublime.  To watch it twenty times is sublime twenty times.  To watch it with a full crowd is probably about as much fun as is legally possible within city limits.  I’ve seen it with small groups many times, but I’ve only actually seen it with a crowd once, back in 1998 when it was first released.  As the credits rolled, my buddy and I turned to each other and both said, “I could’ve watched that all day.”  The rest of the world has since come to share in our enlightenment.  In the intervening years, the Lebowski legend has only grown, and pretty much everyone with a brain and a soul and a sense of humor is in agreement.

It’s actually really hard to write about The Big Lebowski because it’s such well-trod turf and because it’s such an individualistic piece of work that its primary charms are in watching it, not having it described to you.  Of course, if you know your film history, you know that The Big Lebowski didn’t spring up out of nowhere — it’s a fairly direct takeoff of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (a distant relative of yours truly, for the record).  I was lucky enough in 1998 to have just chanced to watch The Big Sleep for the first time about a week before I saw The Big Lebowski for the first time.  I can’t possibly understate how
much funnier The Big Lebowski is when you’re in on the joke:  The pointed difference between 1940s Los Angeles and 1990s Los Angeles, the jazzy past versus the country-Western present, the labyrinthine mystery plot that one suspects even the screenwriters couldn’t decipher (and in The Big Lebowski at least, treat as almost an afterthought), and most of all. Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing.

In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart tries to get a vital clue from running a pencil over the indentations of a notepad.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges attempts the same trick, only to find that his adversary has been idly doodling penises while on the phone.  That joke is incredibly hilarious on its own, but once you realize that it’s a spoof of a deadly-serious source, it becomes transcendently funny.

The Coens’ brilliant inspiration was to take a Chandleresque noir set-up, and then drop two amazing and ridiculous characters into it to see how they’d handle things.  First there’s Jeff Bridges as The Dude, about which plenty has been written and said but not as often the fact that the character is based off a real person the Coens know.  And then there’s John Goodman as the bellowing and verbose gun nut Walter, who again is a stroke of genius even if you don’t know that he is playing a real person with very little exaggeration.  John Milius is a writer and filmmaker who was an early confederate of Steven Spielberg and the 1970s film-school generation, who had a hand in the writing of the Indianapolis speech in Jaws and in one of the Dirty Harry sequels, and who made the vastly misunderstood and thoroughly awesome 1982 adaptation of the Conan The Barbarian pulp stories.  If you’ve ever listened to the incredible DVD commentary for Conan The Barbarian, you’d know that what John Goodman is actually doing in The Big Lebowski is a pitch-perfect John Milius impersonation.

Goodman.

Milius.

Like I say, The Big Lebowski is funny enough without knowing these little factlets, but it becomes a new level of comedic achievement when seen in that light.

Another great joke of The Big Lebowski is that for a movie about confused bowlers of conflicting political ideologies solving mysteries, it is as impeccably crafted as any prestige picture.  The photography by Roger Deakins is typically beautiful, the editing by the legendary Roderick Jaynes is crisp and sharp.  Just think back on those elaborately-choreographed and inventive Busby Berkeley dream-sequence numbers.  This isn’t lazy filmmaking by any stretch.  It’s as smart and as artistic as any so-called “Best Picture.”

The Coens are such an interesting case.  They work in two distinct modes: madcap and noir.  The first mode is exemplified by their comedies, a la Raising Arizona.  The second mode is the Miller’s Crossing mode, which dates all the way forward to their recent triumph No Country For Old Men.  (There’s actually a third, far more esoteric and personal mode, which includes movies like Barton Fink and A Serious Man, but that’s a subject for another day).  The Big Lebowski comes down stronger on the side of comedy, though it’s an intriguing blend of madcap and noir.  The stakes, as far as The Dude and Walter know, are real:  A young woman could be killed if they don’t deliver a ransom.  But the fact that these two guys are the world’s least-qualified messengers, who spend their private-dick downtime at the bowling alley, is what makes the movie so fresh and so funny.

For having said up front that The Big Lebowski is hard to write about, I sure have found plenty of words.  I guess it IS fun to write about.  But I’d still rather go watch it again.

The Big Lebowski is screening tonight FOR FREE in Central Park.

And I’m 24-7 over here: @jonnyabomb

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:  A vintage classic is “re-imagined” for a modern era, with mixed results.  It’s a pretty common joke nowadays, but back in 1984 it was still fairly novel.  Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds is a loose remake of Jacques Tourneur’s impeccable noir Out Of The Past (1947), with Jeff Bridges stepping in for Robert Mitchum, Rachel Ward stepping in for Jane Greer, and James Woods stepping in for Kirk Douglas.  I’m a huge fan of the original film, written by Daniel Mainwairing (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), who adapted Out Of The Past from his novel “Build My Gallows High“, which he wrote under the name Geoffrey Homes and which I’ve read and can highly, highly recommend.

So it’s fair to be skeptical of any 1980s movie that is meant to walk in those shoes, but it’s apparent that Against All Odds, however artistically successful it may or may not be, was at least very evidently a passion project, having generously made room in the cast for a pair of vintage noir icons.  It’s like the way Stan Lee keeps being dutifully included in all the Marvel movies, only the point of comparison would be if he got to play Doctor Doom.  Interestingly enough, original femme fatale Jane Greer has a role in the newer movie, playing the mother of the character she would have been playing in 1947, and in a bizarre but very welcome nod to noir history, veteran actor Richard Widmark gets to play the nefarious string-puller — it’s only bizarre because while Widmark played the heavy and the hero in so many classic films, none of them happened to be Out Of The Past.

That eagerness to pay tribute to the soon-extinct lions of noir is what endears this movie to me, even as its conflicting filmmaking approach probably disqualifies it as the real thing.  Journeyman director Taylor Hackford made the huge hit An Officer And A Gentleman right before he made Against All Odds, and that brand of sweeping romanticism somewhat clashes when grafted onto a genre of lovecrimes, coldblooded violence, and heartless betrayals.

Unlike authentic film noir, Against All Odds is a film drenched in daylight.  It begins with its hero, Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) roaming a tropical paradise, in search of an heiress, Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward) who has gone missing and who Brogan has been hired to find by her boyfriend, skeezy bookie Jake Wise (James Woods, who else?), against a competing offer from Jessie’s mother (Jane Greer) and her consigliere (Richard Widmark).  The fact that all these people can find no headhunter any more experienced than Terry Brogan, who is an aging football star eager to reignite his fading career, is a bit of a head-scratcher which the movie doesn’t seem bothered to pry into too deeply.  Terry has betting history with Jake, which means Jake has him over a barrel, but still, if you have a mystery to be solved, do you hire a Tom Brady or do you find a Lt. Columbo?  And again, doubling back after the initial tropical opening, to go into football-field flashbacks isn’t exactly fertile noir territory.  After a brief cameo from the great Bill McKinney as the head coach of Terry’s team, the trainer Terry turns to in his hour of need, Hank Sully, is portrayed by one-time NFL star Alex Karras, best known to most of us for his henchman role in Blazing Saddles and for playing Webster’s dad.  It’s no great surprise that Sully turns out to have a role in the network of double-crosses that ensues, but with bad guys like this one, it is hard to buy into the menace that the movie kind of needs to be a true noir.   James Woods does supply some snakish creepiness, especially in a legitimately-terrific practical-stunts sportscar scene where he and Bridges race each other in actual traffic on Sunset Boulevard in West L.A., but the plot sidelines and neuters him in ways Kirk Douglas never had to worry about in the original.

The main point of interest in this film, and the reason why 92Y Tribeca screened it recently, is that it is a lesser-remembered part of the filmography of Jeff Bridges, who is now finally receiving his just due on a widespread basis.  As an older character actor, he’s endlessly fascinating, but as a leading man, he had an all-American quality that led some to undervalue his acting talent.  There was never anything bland about Jeff Bridges, and taking another look at even his earliest movies confirms it.  There’s an edge and a viciousness that creeps into Bridges’ portrayal of Terry Brogan that gives the movie more weight than it would have had with any other lead actor.  I don’t believe that this is a very great noir, but he’s good at playing a noir hero.  The other thing you’re going to notice about him in this movie is, “Holy crap that guy is good-looking.”

I don’t care how straight you are, and I’m pretty damn straight so I will venture to speak for the species, but it’s pretty impossible not to notice that this is some attractive dude.  Rachel Ward is a pretty excellent-looking woman, but she’s away from the screen for large stretches of this film, whereas Jeff Bridges is on screen pretty much the entire time.  It definitely occurred to me more than once that “If I looked like that, I’d probably only have half the problems I have now.”  This movie ogles Jeff Bridges the way most movies ogle beautiful women.  Maybe that was the intent.  Maybe this was meant to be a new hybrid: chick-flick film-noir.  If that’s the case, more power to ’em.  But please, watch the original first.

Now there’s only one thing left to address about Against All Odds, and that’s the elephant in the room:  Phil Collins.

Phil Collins wrote and performed the title track, which became one of his signature songs, and in retrospect the song is probably more famous than the movie from whence it came.  You really can’t watch the movie now and not be nervously anticipating the arrival of Phil Collins.  I’m not slagging Phil Collins — I think it’s a good song and I happily admit that I like it, even though I think the dramatic kicking in of the drums is a bit of a bite off of Phil’s own song “In The Air Tonight” — but again, this is not the kind of tune that ever would have accompanied a classic studio noir and all you have to do is turn on TCM to see what I mean.  A real film noir could never provide you with your wedding song, ladies and gents.  A real film noir might make you consider swearing off the notion of romance for at least as long as you forgot you swore it off.  Not to mention the fact that there’s not a great reason for this movie to be named “Against All Odds” except for the fact that it has a song called “Against All Odds” at the end of it.  I can’t say I was completely unaffected by that ending — I’m only human, damn it! — but again, it’s not of a tone that truly fits the genre of films the movie seems to have planned to homage.  True noir achieves a poetic bleakness, not a romantic yearning.  I suppose what I’m saying is, Against All Odds succeeded in getting its title track stuck in my head, but the rest isn’t quite as inescapable.

P.S.  If you were wondering why Against All Odds reminds you so much of The Golden Child, it’s because both movies share a cinematographer (Don Thorin) and a composer (Michel Colombier.)  Also, if you look closely, you can see Victor Wong fly through one of the island scenes in the form of a tropical bird.

(Yes, this was a very strange place to make a very specific reference to The Golden Child.)

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