Saturday, December 20, 2014


RKO Radio Pictures, 96m 45s

After the release of such formative genre staples as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), to name several, the major ingredients of the film noir formula were pretty standard:  a protagonist with a checkered past, a complex storyline, a disjointed narrative structure, up-tempo dialog, nighttime settings, chiaroscuro lighting, low camera angles and shadows that combine to suggest entrapment, a man who signs his own death warrant by falling for the wrong woman, and above all else, an unshakable sense of fate. OUT OF THE PAST delivers a potent mixture of those familiar elements, seamlessly directed by Jacques Tourneur. Justly inducted into the National Film Registry in 1991 for preservation in the Library of Congress, OUT OF THE PAST is considered by many to be one of the most accomplished examples of the film noir form, and I have to agree.

Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) and Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum)

The narrative gets started on a fatalistic note as Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) discovers the whereabouts of an old associate through chance. The man in hiding is Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who Stefanos knows has assumed a new identity. Bailey's real last name is Markham (mark him?). Via flashback it is revealed Bailey was commissioned by Stefanos's boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who according to Sterling ran off with $40,000 of his money after shooting him. Now Sterling has a new assignment in mind for Bailey, who puts up no resistance after being summoned, like a wiseguy who realizes his time to get whacked has arrived. So why would Bailey willingly march to his own doom? All of the evidence points to his past association with Moffat, who had cast her spell over Bailey without having to expend much energy. One senses Bailey was finished the moment he located Moffat. The only important question left to be answered is when.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer)

The observation that Moffat only emerges at night should be a hint and a half for a private eye, but the delicate-looking Greer, only 22 at the time of filming, does not portray the type of feminine evil that appears inherently dangerous at first glance. With her angelic, girlish good looks, especially when dressed in white, she avoids the appearance of impropriety with ease. The same never could be said about the tempting bedroom eyes of noir vixens like Marie Windsor, Ava Gardner or Linda Darnell. No wonder Bailey finds Moffat so difficult to resist, even when he should know better. She is not completely unsympathetic—she is a victim of Sterling's sometimes violent power over her—but her base instincts are completely self-centered. Bailey's other romantic interest Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) provides the opposite female archetype to Moffat, although Miller seems too good to be true, even a little boring. Exciting and cerebral, Moffat is the female most worthy of male attention, but an extreme danger factor is part of the package.

"And then I saw her, coming out of the sun..."

Moffat may be the most complicated character, but other prominent characters are also textured and more complex than the viewer is led to believe. In an early starring role, Mitchum is ideally cast as Bailey. This gumshoe is a sharp guy and a quick thinker, but he is unable to rescue himself from a hopeless obsession for the temptress Moffat. Despite his imposing physique, Mitchum is able to convey a degree of vulnerability. He is the most passive of tough guys, a little too naturally relaxed, like a journeyman prizefighter with a losing record. He never looks like he got quite enough rest the night before.

"Do you always go around leaving your fingerprints on a girl's shoulder?"

In only his second film, the first being THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), Douglas is sensational as the racketeer and tax evader Sterling, one of the many reprehensible types Douglas would become noted for playing. It is not difficult to envision Moffat letting a pistol explode in Sterling's direction. Like Bailey, Sterling is a flawed personality. "...I fire people, but nobody quits me..." he declares with smug confidence. That approach might work alright with his male cohorts, but it is the wrong philosophy when it comes to dealing with the resourceful female Moffat. Both men would have been better off keeping their distance from her, but what man could resist? Moffat must have made fools of many who came before them.

There is an infectious, raw beauty to the depth of the compositions that grace OUT OF THE PAST. Almost every frame conveys balance and cinematic meaning. Yet with such obvious attention to detail and artistry, nothing seems self-conscious—that is a tough trick to get right. The resonant themes and motifs never seem telegraphed. Shifts in tone are subtle. The stylized imagery seems natural, with a lyrical grace that complements the dialog and narration, which seems determined to register the damnation of Bailey only gradually, despite the non-negotiable nature of his downfall. As Bailey presciently points out, "...I'm gonna die last." A criminal past cannot be undone, crime cannot go unpunished, second chances are fleeting. The final scene involves a gesture that is both truthful and deceptive, a fitting tribute to the love affair between Bailey and Moffat.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) takes his place within textbook noir compositions

OUT OF THE PAST director Jacques Tourneur is noted for directing the first three Val Lewton-produced RKO horror titles:  CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943). All of these films have a film noir sensibility in terms of visuals and themes. Later Tourneur would go on to helm NIGHTFALL (1957), which like OUT OF THE PAST serves as a reminder that noir concerns are not unique to urban environments. OUT OF THE PAST is particularly insistent that film noir has invaded every square inch of North American soil, from small town gas stations in Bridgeport, California to San Francisco, from the High Sierra Mountains to the Acapulco coast. The location coverage blends surprisingly well with soundstage footage. Prior to handling the cinematography for OUT OF THE PAST, the very capable Nicholas Musuraca had distinguished himself with STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940), sometimes considered to be the very first film noir, Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE, and THE LOCKET (1946).

Daniel Mainwaring adapted his novel BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH as Geoffrey Homes, the pseudonym he often used. Even today, his writing is quite quotable, and the snappy dialog does not sound as stilted as some noirs do. OUT OF THE PAST originally was released in England as BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH. It was remade as AGAINST ALL ODDS in 1984, with Greer among the cast. Greer and Mitchum would star together again in Don Siegel's THE BIG STEAL (1949), co-written by Mainwaring. In 1987, Mitchum hosted Saturday Night Live and was featured with Greer in a spoof of OUT OF THE PAST.

Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the Blu-ray version of OUT OF THE PAST now available through the Warner Archive is among the site's premier offerings. Skin tones and contrast show noticeable improvement compared to Warner's 1.33:1 DVD version released in 2004. The dual-layered Blu-ray maintains the audio commentary track by film scholar James Ursini that was included on the DVD.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Paramount Pictures, 85m 19s

A memorably physical human connection accents the opening sequence of THE GLASS KEY:  after political boss and "biggest crook in the state" Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy, top-billed) makes an unflattering comment about her brother, feisty Janet Henry (Veronica Lake) delivers a heavy slap to Madvig's stunned countenance. Lovestruck, he concludes he has met his future wife, and pledges support for the Reform Party campaign of Janet's father Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), who is running for governor. Some conflict is introduced in the form of Janet's deadbeat brother Taylor (Richard Denning), a hopeless drinker and chronic gambler indebted to area gangster Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia). Taylor is in a relationship with Madvig's 18-year-old sister Opal (Bonita Granville), and naturally Madvig does not approve. So when Taylor is found face-down in the street, Madvig becomes the logical suspect. That leaves it to Madvig's most trusted associate Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) to determine what happened to Taylor.

Janet Henry (Veronica Lake) ignites male passion in THE GLASS KEY

Based on the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett novel, this screen adaptation by Jonathan Latimer (NOCTURNE [1946], THE BIG CLOCK [1948]) radiates a lot of human indifference to brutality and death. Ladd creates an exceptional noir protagonist, just as he had in the same year's THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Director Stuart Heisler (STORM WARNING [1951], I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES [1955]) strives to make the viewer feel the pain when Beaumont is held captive and savagely roughed up; the raw sequence culminates with a further test of Beaumont's endurance when he survives a fall from dangerous heights after a daring escape through a last-chance window.

Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) is not to be messed with

The theme of humans connecting physically boils over when archetypal noir sadist Jeff (William Bendix) prepares to administer another thorough beating of Beaumont, but not without the two indulging in a friendly round of drinks first. When it comes to homoerotic noir tension, this is about as overt as it gets, with word choices such as "baby" and "sweetheart" in active use. Like so many American films (not just noirs), the crucial relationships are between men in THE GLASS KEY. At one point Madvig refers to Beaumont as his "partner" and makes a strong suggestion that the relationship is closer than people would guess. Beaumont is the most composed character of the film, even when he is getting the beating of his life from the psychosexual Jeff. Beaumont's notion of a moral compass is THE GLASS KEY's most defining component. It is probably safe to say his is not much like the moral code of the average person—as when he uses a betrayed man's suicide to his advantage—but Beaumont's intense loyalty to Madvig is what bonds the viewer to Beaumont as the character most worthy of our trust.

Jeff (William Bendix) leads a perverse courtship of Beaumont (Alan Ladd)

The deeply embedded sense of eminent corruption that characterizes this important early film noir recalls traditions established in the gangster films of the prior decade. Seeking the (glass) key to an extended stay at the governor's mansion, Ralph Henry teams with Madvig, a slightly-cultured, old-school thug from "the old 8th ward" who still talks unmistakably like a tough guy. In a similar dynamic, a murder becomes a handy political weapon manipulated by the gangster Varna. District Attorney Farr (Donald MacBride) is a spineless lush, easily pushed around by Beaumont. The interconnectedness of politics, law, the press, and the criminal underworld is best exemplified by Varna's grip on the mortgage of The Observer, the newspaper run by Clyde Matthews (Arthur Loft).

Within this corrupt system roam alluring but conniving women who just cannot be trusted. This theme would become the noir normal very early in the cycle that proliferated from 1940-1959. Beaumont struggles mightily with his feelings for Janet, who he suspects is trying her best to send his (boy?)friend Madvig to the chair. Tellingly, Beaumont is willing to turn in Janet for a crime even though he knows she is innocent. Then there is Eloise (Margaret Hayes), the shameless couch kitten of puppet newspaperman Matthews. As soon as she learns her husband is broke, the bitch immediately gravitates to Beaumont, right in front of her suddenly discarded husband!

Madvig (Brian Donlevy) and Beaumont (Alan Ladd) discuss a dead body

I’ve looked better

Again the man in the mirror is Beaumont (Alan Ladd)

Dashiell Hammett's original fiction first appeared in the pulp magazine BLACK MASK in 1930 as a four-part serial ("The Glass Key," "The Cyclone Shot," "Dagger Point," and "The Shattered Key") before being published as a novel in 1931. Paramount released the first film version in 1935, with George Raft featured as Ed Beaumont and Frank Tuttle (THIS GUN FOR HIRE [1942]) directing.

Presented without comment

THE GLASS KEY is available as part of the Film Noir 10-Movie Spotlight Collection 6-disc DVD set available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Columbia Pictures, 64m 58s

An adaptation of the Anthony Gilbert novel THE WOMAN IN RED, written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton, this rousing B-picture was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who would go on to direct two of the most deservedly famous film noirsGUN CRAZY (1950) and THE BIG COMBO (1955).

Fire destroys an image of Julia Ross (Nina Foch)
Interestingly, the restoration of Ross involves water

Shot in 18 days on Columbia's backlots, MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS begins properly enough for a noir film, with our protagonist introduced upon rain-soaked streets. Londoner Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is looking for work with a certain sense of desperation. She learns of a secretarial position available with a Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty), who seeks an applicant of unwavering commitment. Ross pledges she has no personal life to speak of that may interfere with her job performance, and agrees to move in with Hughes. Soon after that, the Hughes family leaves London behind for an isolated seaside estate in Cornwall. Ross awakens from a lengthy drug-induced slumber to be greeted as Marion Hughes. Her "husband" Ralph Hughes (George Macready) does not seem to be all there, as he makes a habit of destroying household fixtures with obsessive knifework in repeated displays of symbolic impotence. Sort of makes you wonder what happened to the original Marion Hughes.

The unlucky Ross falls into an extremely dark place through no fault of her own—all she wanted was a job! Her disorientation begins with being drugged, then she must endure being treated as someone she knows very well she is not. MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS anticipates the better-known noir films SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952), both of which feature women being targeted by their own husbands. There is also a connection to "walking dead" noir permutations like DETOUR (1945) and DECOY (1946). In terms of setting, MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS involves a woman being menaced within the confines of a gated gothic environment, similar to the same year's THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945). Ross even encounters a treacherous staircase in a particularly suspenseful sequence (staircase danger is an overused but stylistically bankable noir trope).

A Nosferatu-like presence torments Ross (Nina Foch)

Some traditional elements of the horror narrative come into play in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, especially in regard to visuals. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey's compositions recurrently emphasize the presence of closed doors, barred windows, elaborate fences, and imprisoning shadows. Guffey would work on a large number of high quality noir productions, including JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), and THE SNIPER (1952), to name just a few. He teamed with Lewis again on SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946) and THE UNDERCOVER MAN (1949).

A personality oppressed via imagery

A commercial success, MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS likely influenced future noir films with horrific sequences like NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) and THE WINDOW (1949), as well as color thrillers that emerged in the '60s, i.e. DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (1965) and THE COLLECTOR (1965). MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS would be remade as DEAD OF WINTER in 1987.

The noir psychopath usually comes to a bad end, as he does in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS

Part of the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III 5-disc DVD set contains a 1.33:1 presentation of MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, along with some worthwhile supplemental material.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Columbia Pictures, 78m 54s

The archetypal money satchel gets a workout in NIGHTFALL, an ambitious outing from the great director Jacques Tourneur, a pioneer in the art of horror noir, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Written for the screen by Stirling Silliphant (5 AGAINST THE HOUSE [1955], THE LINEUP [1958]) and based on a novel by crime fiction writer David Goodis, NIGHTFALL concentrates on the whereabouts of the aforementioned satchel and its $350,000 of stolen money inside.

Heavy machinery spells danger in Jacques Tourneur's NIGHTFALL

In a nod to the noir form popularized in the ‘40s, and Tourneur’s own OUT OF THE PAST (1947) constitutes a prime example, present day complications have their basis in past events that are revealed via multiple flashbacks. The lead protagonist is Chicago-based commercial artist and veteran Art Rayburn (Aldo Ray in a likeable turn), who currently masquerades as James Vanning for reasons that are not apparent at the outset. So alienated from society is Rayburn that he carries no identification. He picks up model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) only to become entrapped by John (Brian Keith) and his unbalanced accomplice Red (Rudy Bond in the noir psychopath role), a couple of bank robbers in search of their lost heist money, which lies somewhere in the vast mountainous wilderness of Wyoming. Rayburn knows—roughly, anyway—where the loot is.

Art Rayburn (Aldo Ray) and Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft)

In a departure from the noir form of tarnished characters, our point of identification in NIGHTFALL is at no fault for his predicament. The wrong-man-on-the-run Rayburn finds himself pursued by not only the two crooks, but determined insurance man Ben Fraser (James Gregory). Rayburn is deceived, beat down, shot at, chased relentlessly, and suspected of getting rid of his hunting and fishing buddy Ed Gurston (Frank Albertson), who left behind a widow linked romantically to Rayburn. The classic noir element of randomness is palpable, especially when Rayburn explains to Gardner in no uncertain terms that fate brought them together, “Because you were unlucky enough to talk to me tonight.”

Red (Rudy Bond) toys with Art Rayburn (Aldo Ray)

The narrative is introduced in the traditional urban locales in which noir stories so often play out, then Tourneur and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (IN A LONELY PLACE [1950]) explore rural exteriors—atypical staging for the noir film, but not unique (ROAD HOUSE [1948], ON DANGEROUS GROUND [1951], CRY VENGEANCE [1954]). The mise-en-scène comes exceptionally tough for 1957, as when John and Red confront Rayburn at an oil field. And whenever the expansive snow-covered landscape is emphasized, as when Rayburn flees a murder scene while carrying the money satchel, and when a character meets a grisly fate via a most unforgiving snow blower truck, the progenitor of FARGO (1996) is strikingly evident.

My best fiend

The title track performed by Al Hibbler does not compliment this otherwise outstanding film noir, by far one of the most accomplished of programmer length. Tourneur’s suspenseful CURSE OF THE DEMON also was released in 1957. A clean-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation of NIGHTFALL is available as part of the 5-film Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II DVD set available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 29th – Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Last night NOIR CITY 6 got started properly with the Film Noir Foundation's new 35mm restoration of TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949, United Artists, 99m), pieced together from three different sources over a 5-year(!) period according to film historian and festival host Alan K. Rode.

Jane (Lizabeth Scott) and Alan (Arthur Kennedy) review finances in TOO LATE FOR TEARS

Even for a film noir femme fatale, Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott) is exceptionally venomous. She and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) get possession of a sizeable satchel of money, which makes Alan nervous from the get-go. But Jane thinks her prayers have been answered, and will do absolutely anything to keep the money. Another claimant to the cash emerges, tough guy Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), who does not hesitate to get rough with Jane when she proves uncooperative. Danny is used to having the upper hand with women, it seems, but it is not long before Jane starts to effectively manipulate him, as she does everyone else. She's so single-mindedly greedy and vicious even Danny can't believe it; his final look at her says it all.

Working from a screenplay by Roy Huggins (THE FUGITIVE [1963–1967], THE ROCKFORD FILES [1974–1980]), director Byron Haskin (I WALK ALONE [1947]) subtly drags the viewer uncomfortably close to the violent subject matter. TOO LATE FOR TEARS is one of the most complete examples of late '40s-era noir to feature Lizabeth Scott, though Rode noted this is not one of her favorites (the retired actress is still alive, now in her early 90s). This new restoration is not perfect—some artifacts sprout up from time to time—but overall this is a terrific presentation of TOO LATE FOR TEARS, and it was received enthusiastically by last night's large audience. Let's hope this resurrected noir treasure gets the Blu-ray or DVD reissue it so richly deserves.

Next up was a newly-created 35mm print of ROADBLOCK (1951, RKO Radio Pictures, 73m). Directed by Harold Daniels, it's another story with a large quantity of cash at its center, but a more mild brand of femme fatale. Insurance investigator "Honest Joe” Peters (Charles McGraw) earns $350 a month, hardly enough to maintain the interest of a sexy young brunette like Diane (Joan Dixon). Based on some inside information, Joe devises a plan working with local racketeer Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore) to secure sufficient funding to provide for Diane's needs. Rather amazingly, Diane does an about face regarding the importance of money. More predictably, it is not possible to cancel the crime operation that has been initiated.

This is a supremely entertaining "downward spiral" B-noir, with McGraw offering his usual assertive performance. The suspense builds to a climactic chase within the concrete confines of the Los Angeles River, a sequence well covered by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (CAT PEOPLE [1942], OUT OF THE PAST [1947]). ROADBLOCK is available as a made-to-order DVD via the Warner Archive.

This year's week-long NOIR CITY event has an international flair. Complete information on remaining showtimes can be found here:

For film fans of all kinds, attendance is mandatory.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Warner Bros., 113m 51s

With the passing of Lauren Bacall on August 12th at the age of 89, one of the last of the classic Hollywood screen legends has left us. Born Betty Joan Perske, Bacall was just 19 years of age when the tall, slender actress stole scenes in her screen debut, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), directed by the great Howard Hawks. Her appeal was so obvious that her original role actually expanded while filming progressed. What more famously expanded was her relationship with her co-star Humphrey Bogart, who would become her husband in 1945. Bacall would be matched with her husband next in the film noir under review here, with Hawks again directing and co-producing, despite the fact he did not much care for the personal relationship between Bogart and Bacall.

The Look

As convoluted as THE BIG SLEEP becomes, its exposition is straightforward enough. Recently fired by the D.A. for insubordination, 38-year-old P.I. Philip Marlowe (Bogart) arrives at the Sternwood residence in LA. Almost instantly he is greeted by the flirtatious but vacuous Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers). Adorned in short shorts, she throws herself at Marlowe even before he gets to meet the family patriarch who has requested the detective's services. General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), paralyzed in both legs, is the polar opposite of his youngest daughter. The film noir landscape is rife with crippled males, and Gen. Sternwood is probably the preeminent example. He has more in common with plants than he does people; his blood is so thin he and his wheelchair are confined to the greenhouse. Sternwood is being blackmailed—again—and wants Marlowe to look into his youngest daughter Carmen's alleged gambling debts.

Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) finds Carmen (Martha Vickers) in a mind-altered state

It would be futile to attempt to explain much beyond the abbreviated plot summary above. THE BIG SLEEP truly seems new every time you see Marlowe follow the trail of the dead. Noir conventions get started early and are persistent throughout the narrative. After reckless female sexuality is made perfectly clear, the tone-setting noir motif of rain soon punctuates Marlowe's investigation, and a maddeningly complex plot structure settles in, generally in nocturnal settings. There is also a WWII-era distrust of all things Oriental, as personified by the mysterious character Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz).

Based on the 1939 novel by Raymond Chandler, his first to feature Marlowe, THE BIG SLEEP was adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. No doubt the sheer number of contributors added to the film's disjointed structure, but the source material was itself an amalgam of different Chandler stories. No matter, it's the hard boiled dialog that really makes this production get up on its feet. Bogart makes a terrific tough-talking detective, as he had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). No matter the situation, Marlowe knows how to react effectively. He plays whatever is in front of him for all it's worth. No wonder Carmen and her big sister Vivian Rutledge (Bacall) are not the only women who express an interest in Marlowe. Other attractive women offer him a green light, including a schoolboy-fantasy book shop owner (Dorothy Malone) and a cute taxi driver (Joy Barlow).

Of course, only one female character is of serious interest to Marlowe, and she is played by Bacall. Interestingly, Bacall's character was developed further while a version of THE BIG SLEEP completed in early 1945 was getting lonely on the shelf at Warner. While the studio rushed more time-sensitive war stories to the theatrical market, Bacall's agent Charles K. Feldman lobbied Jack L. Warner to revise THE BIG SLEEP to include more of Bacall, who had received alarmingly bad notices for CONFIDENTIAL AGENT (1945). One of the new scenes interjected has become one of THE BIG SLEEP's best remembered:  the sexually-charged conversation between Bogart and Bacall about horse racing. Bacall is in sexual beast mode here, and it’s easy to forget that even with the additional material created for the 1946 release, THE BIG SLEEP is really Bogart’s vehicle. Another great scene that combines the two is also playful, with the duo antagonizing the police desk over the phone. The one chink in Bacall's armor was her singing voice, which is average at best as she offers her rendition of "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine."

"A lot depends on who's in the saddle."

Sharing a fun moment

Despite rewrites, reshoots, and an extremely delayed release, theatrical audiences didn't seem to object to the final product. THE BIG SLEEP became the third-highest grossing Warner release of 1946. Warner paired up Bogart and Bacall again in the mediocre DARK PASSAGE (1947) and the superb KEY LARGO (1948). Most of THE BIG SLEEP was shot on Warner backlots by cinematographer Sidney Hickox (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, DARK PASSAGE, WHITE HEAT [1949]). As of this writing, the Warner Home Video DVD is readily available, and it contains both the 1945 prerelease version (116m 12s) and the more familiar 1946 version, as well as a brief featurette that helpfully documents the major differences between the two.

Darkness sets in on Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart)

Director Michael Winner remade THE BIG SLEEP in 1978, with Robert Mitchum starring as Marlowe. Definitely worth a look, especially for fans of the revisionist noir movement of the 1970s.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Allied Artists Pictures, 87m 52s

A masterful achievement in film noir:  THE BIG COMBO

Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN [1945], ROAD HOUSE [1948]) has been investigating notorious big timer Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) for years, but cannot make anything stick. Captain Peterson (Robert Middleton) lectures Diamond about lost time and money spent in hopeless pursuit of an untouchable, but Diamond is not discouraged easily. The lieutenant's determination is explained in part by his more than merely professional interest in Brown's beautiful blonde girlfriend Susan Lowell (Wilde's wife Jean Wallace). After an attempted suicide, Lowell mumbles the name "Alicia," which Diamond correctly identifies as an important lead when it comes to putting away the maddeningly elusive Brown.

L-R:  Fante (Lee Van Cleef), Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) and Mingo (Earl Holliman)

Lowell is a decent, cultured woman, ostensibly the antithesis of the arrogant crime lord Brown, who hates her passion for classical music (though definitely a man of means, he's connected to the low-brow culture of professional prizefighting). Why would such a woman become attracted to a man like Brown? The answer is suggested memorably when Brown disappears from a close-up to focus his attention on Lowell below her neck (a controversial scene that infuriated Wilde).

Brown (Richard Conte, off-camera) pleasures Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace)

While attending a piano concert, Lowell reveals, "I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond, a strange, blind and backward maze, and all the little twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown." As obsessed as he is, Diamond could have made a similar statement at this juncture. In a related sequence, Brown mutates his girlfriend's passion for music into an unnervingly painful torture session for Diamond (and the viewer).

Can you hear me now?

The other featured females of THE BIG COMBO effectively elevate Lowell the gangster moll to respectability. Alicia (Helen Walker) is a lush who became an embarrassment to Brown. Diamond's plaything Rita (Helene Stanton) is a dancehall girl who lives with less consideration than she deserves from her part-time lover. Conventional man/woman relationships all have their issues in THE BIG COMBO. The most loving relationship in the film is between Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), a romantic angle that seems strikingly overt for an American film released almost 60 years ago.

L-R:  Fante (Lee Van Cleef), Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy) and Mingo (Earl Holliman)

Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) and Rita (Helene Stanton)

Actors again face the camera in conversation:  a popular noir convention

Screenwriter Philip Yordan was a creative power behind a number of notable noirs before the production of THE BIG COMBO, such as THE CHASE (1946), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), NO WAY OUT (1950) and DETECTIVE STORY (1951). The emphatic chiaroscuro B&W imagery captured by cinematographer John Alton is among the most expressionistic of the mid-'50s noir strain. Alton had served behind the camera for some other gritty noir classics, including T-MEN (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), and the underappreciated MYSTERY STREET (1950). Director Joseph H. Lewis adapted the ending of his top-tier noir GUN CRAZY (1950) to conclude THE BIG COMBO, with unseen police voices, again obscured by fog, closing in on the criminal.

A new beginning is implied when the principals turn away from the camera

Having earned his noir stripes in CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949), THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949), WHIRLPOOL (1949), and THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), Conte is superb as the confident, smooth-talking hoodlum fond of imparting life lessons to all those he encounters. Sadly, the behavior of the Lowell character reflects the troubled life of Wallace, who attempted suicide twice in the 1940s.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with The Film Foundation, the Blu-ray available from Olive Films is not entirely free from artifacts, but it’s newly re-mastered in HD, framed at 1.78:1, and a nice upgrade for film noir fans.