Monday, February 27, 2017

KISS OF DEATH (1947)

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 98m 59s


With the calm voice of a female narrator, the opening sequence of director Henry Hathaway's KISS OF DEATH is designed to make the viewer identify with Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) on Christmas Eve in New York City. The 29-year-old ex-con Bianco has a list of robberies to his credit and, consequently, no job opportunities in the legitimate business world. But Christmas gifts matter to criminals too, especially someone like Bianco with two young daughters (Iris Mann and Marilee Grassini) to consider. Naturally his jewel heist goes poorly, with Bianco halted by police gunfire. In a further attempt to play on the sympathies of the viewing audience, a sense of genetic destiny is hardwired when the narrator explains Bianco saw his father shot to death by cops. A bad guy with a good heart, Bianco has that steadfast moral code that so often guides the film noir protagonist, and he refuses to play ball with Assistant D.A. Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy). But the noir hand of fate is on Bianco when he is sentenced the same day as Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark's incredible debut), a giggling psychotic who would not give D'Angelo "...the skin off a grape." While serving his stretch, Bianco receives some horrible news and turns to D'Angelo for help. After three years of incarceration, he is now ready to "squeal" in the interest of family.



From the early moments, the narrative is structured over a liberal ideological foundation. D'Angelo recognizes the worth of Bianco, whose love for his children elevates his status above that of the common criminal who theoretically cares only about himself. "I'm the kind of a guy you can't hurt," Bianco declares, but this is a front. He cares more about his daughters than anything. Similarity is stressed between Bianco and Udo, our lead protagonist's suppressed dark half, only to create separation between the two later. Initially they are imprisoned together, even handcuffed together. Where Udo is a self-centered man who gives no thought to the wants and needs of others, Bianco is a father who must maintain a bond with his little children and devoted housewife figure Nettie (Coleen Gray, THE KILLING [1956]). Bianco is also a far better man than his slimy attorney Earl Howser (Taylor Holmes), who summons the likes of Udo to perform dirty work. Ultimately the film's progressive trappings are challenged by Bianco's moral compass, which remains intact from start to finish. Like so many moral but flawed protagonists we have witnessed since KISS OF DEATH, he must bend the rules for the greater good since the criminal justice system proves unable to contain demented sociopaths like Udo. In the film's concluding sequence, Bianco essentially assumes heroic qualities, able to survive multiple gunshots from close range.




Certainly one of the best-entitled film noirs, KISS OF DEATH was influential in terms of its location filming and character archetypes. Nick Bianco has his precursor in Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) from THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), a formative film noir whose central character, a contract killer, finds redemption before the credits roll. I am not a huge fan of Victor Mature, but his controlled performance as Bianco holds up well today, especially upon repeat viewings. Mature is particularly effective whenever his character faces renewed pressure. Obviously the more influential performance was that of Richard Widmark, whose lunatic hood Tommy Udo would be channeled in countless gangster films that would follow KISS OF DEATH. Despite a borderline over-the-top turn from Widmark, it is easy to see where even more could have been done with the role of Udo. A fair amount of suspense is created in regard to the safety of Bianco's daughters with Udo loose on the streets, but the girls are never confronted directly by Udo; the potential encounter merely is suggested. Some missed opportunity aside, the Udo character is no less than a film noir legend of criminal evil. He shows no respect for the values of civilized society. His inclination toward violence is well illustrated when he delivers one of the great movie slaps of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck recognized Widmark's emerging star power and encouraged the actor to recreate his role in the subsequent Fox productions THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948) and ROAD HOUSE (1948).




Despite a deliberate attempt by the production team to imbue KISS OF DEATH with a heavy dose of location-based authenticity, stylized film noir visual tropes and themes dutifully inform the well-paced action. A sense of Bianco's entrapment is communicated in the early going when he and his cohorts sweat it out in an elevator, surrounded by potential problems to their escape. The entrapment theme logically transitions into a prison setting, with both Bianco and Nettie framed in terms of either vertical bars or the intricate web of a textile plant. By the film's third act, director of photography Norbert Brodine's compositions become much darker, with Bianco and Udo sometimes oppressed by their environments. Interestingly, some of the most unambiguously noir images feature Bianco in his own home, where the traditional family setting shows incompatibility within the boundaries of the film noir (this common noir theme is explored in depth by Sylvia Harvey in her excellent article “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir” [WOMEN IN FILM NOIR, E. Ann Kaplan, Ed., 1978]). When Bianco checks on the safety of his daughters, one realizes the magnificent film noir THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) owes something to KISS OF DEATH. In a later sequence, darkness threatens Bianco, who awaits the unpredictable rage of Udo. In terms of locations, Sing Sing Penitentiary, a boxing arena, a bordello and various night clubs provide essential noir terrain. Another familiar noir motif is the staircase, which frequently is associated with peril, as seen in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952), just to name a few examples. Without question, KISS OF DEATH contains the mother of all treacherous noir stairways!






The Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray (3,000 units) is worth the premium price for the packaging alone, which highlights the classic film's most infamous event. Framed at 1.33:1, the feature presentation is the result of a sturdy HD transfer that displays strong contrast levels and deep blacks. The main audio tracks include English 2.0 DTS-HD MA and an English 1.0 DTS-HD MA option. Ported from the Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD released in 2005 is the audio commentary track with film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini, who have worked together on numerous studies devoted to film noir, most notably FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE, first published in 1979, and the FILM NOIR READER series (1996-2004). The authors cite director Henry Hathaway as the architect behind the "docu-noir" style. Hathaway's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946) and KISS OF DEATH all make extensive use of location footage. An opening title card claims the film was shot entirely on location, though Silver and Ursini provide the amendment that the climactic shootout was shot on a Fox soundstage after the original location footage that took place on a bus did not pan out. Ursini identifies the high-key lighting typical of location-based docudrama that gives way to low-key lighting in tune with the storyline's noir sensibilities. The author also references various layers of Christian symbolism that he credits to co-screenwriter Ben Hecht. Ursini also mentions that Hathaway violence tends to be on the graphic side, i.e. THE DARK CORNER (1946), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948). Hathaway was a volatile personality by reputation, though according to the authors he had a talent for subtle staging as well. Another good line of analysis from Silver and Ursini is the use of jazz music that fills sections of this noir city. Such locales may be alien to middle class whites, but not to the film noir protagonists in this film and other genre examples such as PHANTOM LADY (1944), CRISS CROSS (1949) and D.O.A. (1950).

A fresh audio commentary was recorded in December of 2016 for this new Blu-ray disc. This track features Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and Twilight Time co-owner Nick Redman teamed with Twilight Time essayist Julie Kirgo, herself a contributor to the must-own FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE. Kirgo places film noir within the context of a post-war, post-nuclear society mired in uncertainty. I was glad to hear her speak of film noir as a genre; I never have bought into the notion that film noir is something other than a genre (i.e. "mood," "tone," "style"). Kirgo discusses the Udo character's influence on Frank Gorshin, who modeled his Riddler's laugh after Udo for the TV series Batman (1966-1967), while Redman suggests the possibility that Widmark drew inspiration from the psychopathic villain The Joker, who DC Comics introduced in 1940. As one would expect, there is some duplication between the new commentary track and the one from Silver and Ursini, but similar observations are kept to a minimum. The Redman/Kirgo track is more descriptive than historical, not that the two voices do not pack plenty of background information into their discussion. Kirgo jokingly makes repeated references to the babysitter angle—were the film contemporary, assuredly more would have been made about when the flame began to burn between Bianco and Nettie! The other supplements include an isolated music track, the original theatrical trailer (2m 20s), a Twilight Time catalogue selectable by year (2011-2017) and a booklet essay from Kirgo.

KISS OF DEATH was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Widmark) and Best Writing, Original Story (Eleazar Lipsky). The Hathaway classic was retooled as the Western THE FIEND WHO WALKED THE WEST (1958). The original noir title returned for director Barbet Schroeder's worthwhile 1995 remake, which starred David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage. The screenwriting team of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer also combined for the fine film noir RIDE THE PINK HORSE, released the same year as their original KISS OF DEATH.



Friday, February 10, 2017

SUDDEN FEAR (1952)

RKO Radio Pictures, 111m 11s


The femme fatale gets the majority of credit for the most deceitful behavior in film noir, but the homme fatale portrayed by Jack Palance in SUDDEN FEAR deserves special mention. One of this noir classic’s highlights is a masterfully-staged sequence when Palance’s phony Lester Blaine wants to prove his honor to his significant other. Through the darkest distillation of deception, he stages an imaginary departure, as if he were going to run out on the wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) without any prior discussion. In an award-worthy performance, Blaine explains he does not deserve Hudson:  "I have no place in your life, Myra, no proper place...I don't belong to your world. You have so much. I have nothing." Hudson falls for it and Blaine seals the deal. He has found his meal ticket.



Early in the narrative, Blaine's acting chops and unconventional looks have far less impact on Hudson, who does not feel Blaine is the proper man for her latest Broadway production "Half-way to Heaven." Later Hudson and Blaine meet on a train bound for Chicago. After a somewhat awkward reconnection, the two become friendly and enjoy each other's company while playing cards. Their difference in class amounts to a huge red flag:  Blaine is the son of a Pittsburg coal miner, while Hudson has never known anything but wealth and success. Though still smarting from being fired from his role in her play, Blaine follows the heiress Hudson to her hometown of San Francisco, where a love story between the two intensifies. Unfortunately for Hudson, the noir element of fate has drawn her to Blaine, who the viewer senses cares only about her financial statement.

Given the manner in which the plot is set up, it comes as no surprise when Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame), the woman of Blaine's past, slithers onto the scene. Director David Miller leaves little to conjecture about the nature of the relationship between Neves and Blaine, which is based on rough sex. In a classic film noir series of events, Neves arrives unexpectedly and threatens Blaine's relationship with Hudson. Blaine pushes Neves around, but such behavior only excites her! Blaine closes her apartment door so their physical connection may continue off-screen. Clearly Neves is not a woman who prefers cuddling, and Blaine is her ideal counterpart. "I'm so crazy about you, I could break your bones," Blaine assures Neves, who would not have it any other way.




One of the film's great ironies is the recordings captured by Hudson's dictating machine, which reveal both her selfless love for her worthless husband and the plotting of her demise. The dictating machine also infers a close association between sex, brutality and death. That is quite a sordid implication, and a dramatic turning point for Hudson, who finds herself forced to prove she can out-act Blaine, who must continue his own performance. The tension builds steadily as Hudson hopes her abilities as a dramatist translate to the unpredictable film noir world. SUDDEN FEAR concludes with a very satisfying chase sequence, well complemented by the convincing performances by the leads, an inconvenient mechanical dog and the pulse-quickening score of Elmer Bernstein.

Film noir themes and motifs within SUDDEN FEAR should be spotted by fans of the genre without much trouble. Mirrors are used to show the hidden truth, as when Hudson's lawyer Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett) appears worried about Blaine's motivations, or when Blaine is shown scheming behind his wife's back. Often the elaborate staircase suggests danger in the noir film, or it implies one character's superiority over another. Both motifs come up in SUDDEN FEAR, though more imaginatively than one might expect. The film's most precipitous steps do not factor in the narrative as foreshadowed, and the one moment of bodily injury associated with a staircase is faked. Thanks in part to his turn as Blackie in the sublime PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), the presence of Jack Palance around Joan Crawford's character near any of the various stairways always raises concern for her safety. Even if you are not a fan of film noir, consider SUDDEN FEAR a persistently engaging suspense thriller.







The Myra Hudson character may not have needed another hit play, but Joan Crawford had just left Warner Bros. and sought a commercial success as a freelance artist. The Joseph Kaufmann Productions feature SUDDEN FEAR performed well at the box office for its distributor RKO. My first look at this film noir gem was by way of the Kino Video DVD released in 1999. Despite an absence of extras and a mediocre presentation at best, the obvious quality of the feature film elevated the disc to one of my most prized possessions in my rapidly expanding film noir collection. Naturally I was excited to boot up the new Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray edition. This 2K restoration, presented on a dual-layered disc framed at 1.37:1, looks a little hazy in motion, especially in comparison to the top film noirs available thus far from Warner Archive and The Criterion Collection. No matter; any improvement over the lackluster DVD is certainly welcome, and the difference between the new Blu-ray and the old DVD is easy to appreciate.

Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray

Kino Video DVD

The audio commentary track recorded for this Blu-ray release features film historian Jeremy Arnold, author of TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: THE ESSENTIALS: 52 MUST-SEE MOVIES AND WHY THEY MATTER (2016). Arnold offers plenty of detail about the humble beginnings of Lucille Fay LeSueur and her emergence as Hollywood star Joan Crawford, who essentially served as the executive producer of SUDDEN FEAR. Arnold references prior treatments of the script that were improved upon for the final revision, and he also discusses the original novel by Edna Sherry, which differs from the adaptation devised by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith. Without giving too much away for the uninitiated, the source material concludes much differently than the movie. Crawford was so impressed with the novel that she agreed to a 40% profit-sharing deal, which resulted in a $1 million take for the veteran actress. The only other supplement is a re-release trailer (1m 20s).

SUDDEN FEAR earned four Academy Award nominations in 1953, including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Crawford), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Palance), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Charles Lang) and Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Sheila O'Brien). Cinematographer Lang also shot ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and THE BIG HEAT (1953), two of the essential film noirs of the early 1950s. Other women-in-peril films helmed by director David Miller include TWIST OF FATE (AKA BEAUTIFUL STRANGER, 1954) and MIDNIGHT LACE (1960).



Sunday, January 22, 2017

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 112m 25s


"Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
—Alonzo D. Emmerich

The best heist films examine how distinct character types react in situations that intensify with precious little warning. The placement of people in tough circumstances informs almost every sequence in John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, a heist movie of tremendous dimensions that has influenced a vast assortment of caper films. Fate may bring the heist participants together, but they succumb to their own weaknesses, mostly for women or money, or some combination of the two. The outcome may seem overly predictable thanks to the many permutations of the heist story inspired by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, yet even today there is never a dull moment, in part because director and co-writer Huston so clearly considers the criminals the most worthwhile characters.

Recently released from prison after doing seven years, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has devised an ingenious heist with a projected $500,000 net profit. All he needs to make it happen are the start-up funds and the proper personnel. Doc discusses his plan with Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who knows criminal defense lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the man Doc has heard could back the heist. Soon skilled safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) and his friend Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) are recruited. The last man brought into the mix is the main protagonist, 36-year-old William "Dix" Handley (Sterling Hayden), a small timer from Boone County, Kentucky with some priors and an unfortunate habit of betting on horses. Like any problem gambler, Dix feels confident his luck is bound to change, and it would seem it has when Dix is recognized by Doc as a good potential "hooligan" for the pending job.

The proverbial noir tough guy with a moral compass, Dix hopes to escape the filth of the city and return to the country life he lost. The crime-infested Midwest city of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE seems to wear on everyone as the representation of the urban scene seldom ventures far from the film's title. Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is chewed out by Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), who has grown tired of crime running wild in the streets. A significant part of the problem is Ditrich, a corrupt cop on the take. The grim realities of city living are audible on police radios, with crime events that occur around the clock. Some of the characters openly detest their urban environment. After his planned return to a farming community, Dix vows to cleanse himself in a creek to remove "city dirt." Louis confidently states, "If you want fresh air, don't look for it in this town!"




The narrative winds down with Commissioner Hardy's idealistic notion that a sometimes-corrupt police force is better than nothing. Without a police force, even one tainted by corruption, calls for help would go unanswered. Under such a scenario, "The jungle wins." Hardy hurts his credibility when he goes on at length about Dix Handley, who he describes as a merciless thug, when in truth Dix is not that type of criminal at all; he only wants to return to an uneventful country life. Dix is another doomed film noir protagonist whose obsession with the past will factor in his demise. In one of the cruelest of film noir conclusions, Dix returns to rural America only to be mocked by the same animals that ruined his urban existence. Apparently city filth cannot be scrubbed away; those immersed in this noir city end up dead, jailed, or widowed.

Interestingly, at one point Doc tries to steer Dix away from his determined return to country living. The more I watch THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the more I find Doc to be the most honorable character. He may be a notorious crime figure, but he is intelligent, analytical, articulate, pleasant, patient, a great communicator and a credible leader who commands respect. Rare is the person who can claim to possess all of those qualities. His one major flaw is his fondness for young, good-looking dames. Not long after his character is introduced, Doc is shown flipping through a calendar of sexy pinup girls. Later he fantasizes about chasing cuties in Mexico. "One way or another, we all work for our vice," he says. Ultimately Doc's roving eye for beauty leads to his capture after he becomes fascinated with Jeannie (Helene Stanley), an energetic gal with a passion for dancing to snappy jukebox tunes. Doc is painfully aware of what eventually brings him down, but before that happens he blames his own greed on a heist gone awry. "Greed made me blind," he admits.

A fatal combination of lust and greed also finishes Emmerich, a far less sympathetic person than Doc. In a bad way financially, Emmerich is not satisfied with his share of the heist as proposed by Doc. The private investigator Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) rightly blames Emmerich's financial woes on his spunky kept blonde Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe). The young and vibrant Angela is the antithesis of Emmerich's bedridden wife May (Dorothy Tree), whose only wish is for her husband to play card games with her. Any character portrayed by Marilyn Monroe would have to be about the most unfair competition imaginable for a sickly wife. Naturally, perfect-looking young blondes do not come cheap. Emmerich maintains a separate residence for Angela, whose only job is to take naps and be well-rested for those numerous evenings Emmerich shares with her. A woman figures in the decline of Dix as well, even if without bad intentions. His gal Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), a personable dancehall girl, is the most well-meaning female in the film, but she does give Dix aspirin, a blood-thinner, after he had been shot.





As he did so effectively in KEY LARGO (1948), director John Huston systematically builds tension in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Few scenes lack some type of stress between the characters involved. Dix almost boils over when pressured by Cobby, who sweats perpetually over all things related to money. Gus tosses an obnoxious bigmouth out of his diner. Louis goes off on Gus over the phone. But the best instances of strained communication occur when Emmerich attempts to deceive suspicious cohorts or visiting cops. Louis Calhern (top-billed next to Sterling Hayden) was cast perfectly as the sleazy Emmerich, a loathsome character to be sure, but portrayed with a certain dignity by Calhern. Perhaps after too many years of defending shady criminals, something rubbed off on Emmerich that could not be removed (city dirt), or maybe he just could not pretend to enjoy casino games with his wife any longer. Sterling Hayden, so ideal as Dix, also appeared in another of the great heist film noirs of the 1950s, Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING (1956).

The supporting cast is exceptional. Brad Dexter, who went on to play such a great heel in 99 RIVER STREET (1953), is effective here as Emmerich's no-nonsense associate. The familiar voice of John McIntire immediately brings to mind his performance as Sheriff Al Chambers from PSYCHO (1960). McIntire possesses the perfect speaking voice to express moral arrogance ("Married 20 years. Consorting with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. It's disgusting!"). As if I need to comment, Marilyn Monroe makes for a stunning mistress in one of her earliest credited roles. I love the way she runs like an excited kid when her Angela character learns she is going to go on a trip. Though young, she already has grown accustomed to swaying male behavior with a mere look and a suggestion ("Couldn't I just—talk to you?"). And Jean Hagen, unforgettable as "triple threat" Lina Lamont in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952), shows how amiable she could be here as a nice enough girl who "never had a proper home."



Cinematographer Harold Rosson lensed two of the cinema's most famous color films, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but he handles B&W film noir visual schemes with equivalent flair. In an approach that would characterize the noir film of the 1950s, his use of location footage is apparent from the very beginning of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and his often claustrophobic compositions accurately reflect the noir sensibilities of the time, as the assorted screen captures within this review confirm.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc presents this John Huston classic in a fairly sharp 1.37:1 transfer. This new 2K digital restoration offers substantial improvement versus the Warner DVD presentation released in 2004, which distorted the original 1.37:1 image by squeezing it to 1.345:1 for 4:3 televisions. Ported from the DVD version is the fine audio commentary track led by film historian Dr. Drew Casper. The track also features archival recordings of actor James Whitmore, who portrayed the hunchback Gus, the crippled man of this film noir. Dr. Casper, Professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and author of POSTWAR HOLLYWOOD, 1946-1962 (2007), points out that THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was hardly the typical product conceived at MGM, a studio famous for its musicals, family comedies, and adventures. He goes into great detail about Huston, who worked in various genres but consistently focused on men under pressure. Huston's men are not necessarily that likable, but one is compelled to admire their resourcefulness, despite the character flaws that work against them in the end. Casper describes Huston as a post-classical filmmaker since his films deal with absurd situations and the dark irony of inevitable failure. As fate gets in the way of character aspirations, the existential sensibility of Huston's work is evident. According to Whitmore, Huston was only half-hearted in his approach to THE ASPHALT JUNGLE because he was eager to direct QUO VADIS (1951), a project from which Huston would be removed as it turned out. Also culled from the Warner DVD is a brief archival segment (50s) with Huston.

Criterion Blu-ray

Warner DVD

The remaining supplements are unique to this Criterion edition. At the top of the list is the documentary feature PHAROS OF CHAOS (Leuchtturm des Chaos, [1983], 119m 2s), written and directed by Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler. Essentially it is the type of thing Werner Herzog sometimes does, with a camera following around a human oddity for a sustained timeframe. In this case Blank and Bühler film Sterling Hayden aboard the 65-year-old actor's river barge "Pharos of Islandia," where he smokes hashish and drinks liquor from the bottle six months per year. Hayden's alcohol abuse in particular becomes a major topic during the course of filming. Hayden almost drowns after a night of drinking and probably would have had he not been plucked from the river by his son Dana. Hayden has an annoying habit of saying "hmm?" or "huh?" after every idea he expresses, but that persistent quirk somehow becomes less intrusive as his "war with himself" unspools. A sailor at the age of 15 and a captain by the age of 20, the itinerant Hayden is the author of WANDERER (1963) and VOYAGE: A NOVEL OF 1896 (1976), but of course he is best remembered for a Hollywood career he mostly resents. Hayden named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was rewarded with a busy movie career throughout the 1950s.

PHAROS OF CHAOS

"Eddie Muller on The Asphalt Jungle" (24m 10s) allows film noir historian Eddie Muller, decked out in movie wiseguy garb, to make his case for THE ASPHALT JUNGLE as the starting point of a new genre. Muller considers Huston's film to be the first of its kind to associate everyday people with criminal activity. Huston greatly admired the work of author W.R. Burnett, who preferred to present his material from the criminal's perspective. Burnett was the author of LITTLE CAESAR (1929) and HIGH SIERRA (1941). The latter was co-written for the screen by Huston, who endeavored to stay true to the Burnett novel THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1949). In fact, Huston made sure the movie rights were picked up before the novel was completed, which challenges the Whitmore assertion that Huston was not overly excited to be working on THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Leave it to Muller to unearth a terrific footnote I never would have thought to look up:  Helene Stanley, the diner dancer, worked at Disney as the model for CINDERELLA (1950) and SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Her scene plays somewhat differently when the viewer is aware of that.

"More Than Noir:  Cinematography in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE" (20m 12s) collects the thoughts of cinematographer John Bailey, who rightly identifies cinematographer Harold Rosson as a master of both foreground and background action (I would add middleground). He uses the introduction of Doc as a sterling example of Rosson's command of camera placement and lighting. Though the film under review certainly conveys the visual elements of film noir that had become popular, Bailey notes characters seldom appear entrapped by environments (though Dix and Doll seem visually oppressed when they share the front seat of a car in the film's concluding moments).

Next up is an episode of the Canadian television program CITY LIGHTS from October 10th, 1979 (48m 28s). Host Brian Linehan interviews Huston, who discusses some of his most notable productions, such as THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), THE MISFITS (1961), FAT CITY (1972) and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975). Huston does not reference THE ASPHALT JUNGLE among his favorite accomplishments as a filmmaker. "The Huston Method" (6m 1s) confirms that Huston always set out to be faithful to the source material he admired. Also on hand is a theatrical trailer (2m 37s) and a booklet essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. I cannot recommend this Criterion release more highly.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Jaffe), Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay (Ben Maddow, Huston) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. W.R. Burnett's novel would be adapted another three times by MGM:  THE BADLANDERS (1958) directed by Delmer Daves, CAIRO (1963) directed by Wolf Rilla, and COOL BREEZE (1972), directed by Barry Pollack.

Other notable film noir heist efforts of the 1950s include Richard Fleischer's ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950), Jules Dassin's incredible RIFIFI (1955) and Robert Wise's underappreciated ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959).


Monday, December 26, 2016

MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)

RKO Radio Pictures, 95m 25s


At the time of this writing, I have evaluated over 50 film noirs in this blog. That I only now am getting to the very influential MURDER, MY SWEET seems like an oversight of some kind, since director Edward Dmytryk's intriguing film is so evocative of the noir cycle that flourished in the mid-to-late 1940s. It is based on the Raymond Chandler novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940), the second of his works to feature Philip Marlowe. The widespread urban corruption that informed Chandler's novel would become a given as the film noir movement of the 1940s developed, with MURDER, MY SWEET having served as a major catalyst.

The sometimes downright perplexing storyline requires close attention to follow, but the driving force behind the narrative is simple enough. Fresh from an 8-year prison term, Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) seeks his old flame Velma Valento, a cute, leggy showgirl. More brawn than brains, the intense personality Malloy appears in the LA-based office of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), a cynical PI and former cop who was fired by the DA for incessant backtalk. Somewhat reluctant but in need of the work, Marlowe agrees to accompany Malloy to an establishment that once employed Velma. However, the place is under new ownership and nobody present knows anything about Velma. Without the violently impatient presence of the abrasive lug Malloy, Marlowe visits the nightclub’s previous owner Jessie Florian (Esther Howard), who at first denies knowing Velma, only to later claim Velma is dead. The following day, Marlowe accepts money, again with some hesitance, from the effeminate Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who wants the private detective to accompany him to a nighttime location where payment is to be made to recover some stolen jewelry. Marlowe gets knocked out for his trouble, and delivers one of film noir's most emblematic lines of dialog:

"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom."

Marlowe awakens to learn Marriott has been iced. The remaining plot is as challenging for the viewer to navigate as it is for our main protagonist ("I don't know which side anybody's on. I don't even know who's playing today."). At the exposition, Marlowe's ordeal is expressed tellingly in a police interrogation setting. Our guide through the noir universe has bandages that cover his eyes when we first meet him. In other words, our voice of guidance will be that of a blind man. The narrative structure is dominated by flashbacks, with only the beginning and end of the film set in the present. MURDER, MY SWEET is layered with surreal visuals that imply ambiguity, along with low camera angles that convey character entrapment. The mid-1940s noir movement would become noted for this approach, as well as the persistent narration that complements the mostly nocturnal environments. Marlowe is knocked cold repeatedly as he makes his way through this nightmare in black and white. After a meeting with mysterious intellectual Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger), the resourceful Marlowe must prove his toughness during an uncomfortable spell when he is under the disorienting influence of narcotics. His hallucinatory spider webs take over the frame and effectively immerse the viewer into the featured protagonist's regrettable situation, which recalls the torture of Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) in THE GLASS KEY (1942). The expressionistic dream sequence was captured by cinematographer Harry J. Wild, a man who would lens a staggering amount of subsequent noir films, i.e. NOCTURNE (1946), PITFALL (1948), THE THREAT (1949) and the very impressive but seldom referenced WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950).

Story of a blind man

A manifestation of an urban wasteland appears

Real-life chess match?

Very much in the spirit of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MURDER, MY SWEET employs a MacGuffin that proves far less important than the truth about an enigmatic woman. Despite the alleged monetary value of a rare jade necklace, the clue to what is of primary interest comes by way of the surname Grayle, an obvious homophone for grail, which speaks volumes about the nature of the search for Velma Valento. The most striking theme at work in MURDER, MY SWEET is that of female duplicity and the male's struggle to perceive it. Women like Velma always change, while men like Moose Malloy are incapable of change. A surrogate for the returning war veteran who appears in numerous film noirs, the ex-con Malloy pensively acknowledges the world has changed over the past eight years, but is slow to warm up to the idea that his beloved Velma may be something far different from the image conveyed in her idealized glamour photo. She is the grail of Malloy's doomed quest.

"Dames lie about anything—just for practice."
—Detective-lieutenant Nulty, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY

As often holds true with Chandler material, a woman is at fault for everything that goes wrong in MURDER, MY SWEET. The search for a woman who proves more complex than she first appears sets the stage for the film's recurrent motif:  women frequently change; sometimes in the short-term, sometimes for the long-term, and quite often for the worse. The notion of a woman who is one thing who mutates into another is introduced when Jessie Florian flip-flops over questions about Velma. Florian also goes from being drunk to collectedly sober in an instant. Later Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) introduces herself as a reporter to Marlowe, who quickly sees through that lie, but does not realize when he first met her because of the altered state of mind he was in at the time. Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) is first glimpsed by body part (leg, of course). The former redhead has metamorphosed into a "big league blonde," married to the prosperous but much older Leuwen Grayle (Miles Mander), a 65-year-old man of limited energy level who tolerates the constant infidelities of his second wife. "...I've gone out with other men. I find men very attractive," she admits freely. A spider woman beyond redemption, Mrs. Grayle enjoys a high standard of living thanks entirely to her impressive physical attributes and womanly wiles. The film may conclude with a less denigrating take on female sexuality, but the upbeat ending hardly neutralizes the darkly noir buildup of feminine duplicity.




Raymond Chandler's source novel FAREWELL, MY LOVELY was an amalgamation of the author's prior short stories "Try the Girl," "Mandarin's Jade" and "The Man Who Liked Dogs." This filmed adaptation devised by screenwriter John Paxton stays true to the general structure of Chandler's material, though there are some major divergences and omissions. For instance, the Anne Riordan character of the novel is of no relation to the Grayles. The section that transpires around a gambling boat is omitted from the film, and Marlowe seems to have a much more serious affection for alcohol in the book (Chandler himself was a famously heavy drinker).

Reputedly Chandler's favorite adaptation of his fiction, MURDER, MY SWEET originally screened in December of 1944 appropriately entitled FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, but studio executives decided to re-title it so the tough-guy detective film would not be confused with the comedies and musicals lead actor Richard Ewing "Dick" Powell was known for at the time. The title change did not seem to harm the film from a commercial perspective; MURDER, MY SWEET would register a healthy $597,000 profit for RKO. The source novel had been brought to the screen previously as THE FALCON TAKES OVER (1942), though Philip Marlowe was not a character. Powell and Trevor assumed their original roles when MURDER, MY SWEET was condensed to an hour-long radio play on the June 11th, 1945 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater. Hollywood Startime presented another radio version in 1948, which this time teamed Powell with Mary Astor. Dmytryk, Paxton, Wild, and Powell would work together again for the following year's CORNERED (1945), another fine noir film from RKO. Dmytryk and producer Robert Adrian Scott were among the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October of 1947. MURDER, MY SWEET would be the final film to feature Anne Shirley, who retired from acting at the age of 26.


The Chandler novel was adapted again as FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), with Robert Mitchum cast in the role as an aging Philip Marlowe obsessed with Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. That historical footnote sets the narrative in July of 1941, which makes this Marlowe outing something of a nostalgia trip, though a contemporary society stung by the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War is very much evident.

Directed by Dick Richards and adapted for the screen by David Zelag Goodman, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY restores some elements of the novel that were absent from the 1944 film:  the club once owned by the Florians is now a black-only place in the heart of the black community, the strangulation tactics of Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran) are more true to the original story, and Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe) and his gambling boat are along for the ride in this version. Some of the differences from the source material are dramatic, none more so than the transformation of the Amthor character, and what that says about the background of Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling). Other situations directly recall the 1944 film, especially the drug-fuelled dream sequence. Like MURDER, MY SWEET, the conclusion of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY differs radically from that of the novel, which at least suggested the possibility of a shred of goodness hiding somewhere within Mrs. Grayle. But when it comes to femme fatales, film noirs seldom make room for such gray areas. By 1975, the Marlowe character had less interest in money than he did in 1944, and there is no Ann character for Marlowe, or any other romantic interest. Marlowe's gesture in the remake’s final moments, however, confirms his strong moral code, and challenges the element of racism threaded throughout the Chandler novel. Mitchum would portray Marlowe once again in director Michael Winner's THE BIG SLEEP (1978).

To view FAREWELL, MY LOVELY today is to be reminded of its heavy influence on THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD! (1988). Like it or not, one cannot listen to Robert Mitchum's narration as Marlowe without immediately thinking of Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). As if to erase any doubt about the connection between the two films, the introduction of Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley) in THE NAKED GUN is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the reveal of Helen Grayle in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

Film noir selections available thus far from the Warner Archive have set an undeniably high standard. The 1080P dual-layered Blu-ray edition of MURDER, MY SWEET boasts an impressive interpretation of the B&W film, framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1. Compared to the approximately 1.35:1 Warner DVD released in 2004, the Blu-ray version offers enhanced detail and more information within the frame. There is one glitchy moment around 17m 21s when Marlowe surveys a secluded area, but the rest of the presentation looks tremendous (the DVD version has trouble at the same juncture). In a more pleasant instance of duplication, noted film noir historian Alain Silver's audio commentary track was ported from the DVD. The co-author of RAYMOND CHANDLER'S LOS ANGELES (1987) reminds us that only about a dozen film noirs actually featured a private investigator in a central role, and about half of those were based on Chandler's Marlowe character. He describes Chandler as a "curmudgeon" who hated what Hollywood did to his work.

The only other extra is a theatrical trailer (2m 9s) of abhorrent quality.