Usually I would steer clear of trying to review a film by Stanley Kubrick, however I’m going to give this a good shot. It’s not one of his later films where he had since gained complete creative freedom, something that most directors dream of gaining when working in the machine that is Hollywood. Yet even inside that machine you can still try and bend the rules to create something that’s got the signature of an auteur stamped on. The Killing is a prime example of being able to produce a film that looks on the surface very much like a traditional film noir, however when you scratch beneath the surface you have a voice unique voice trying to get through to his audience.
Another reason for watching The Killing (1956) was to see the structure of the heist movie being played out. With the help in-depth help from Mark Kermode, part of his Secrets of Cinema series, with an episode dedicated to deconstructing this genre of film, that sits nicely in the realm of film noir. I’ve already touched on this series when I looked at American Animals (2018). The Killing was used as a prime example of how the team of carefully chosen men are brought together in hopes of pulling off a big robbery by the close of the film. Naturally as we have all learned, that plan never goes to plan for one reason or another. When it comes to Johnny Clay’s (Sterling Hayden) team they are no different.
Usually with the documentary strand I usually switch off from the film, finding the narration to be too distracting, being more descriptive than is necessary. However here it proves vital to understand the structure of the film as it unfolds. Instead of relying on a single member of the gang to reflect on how they failed to the audience or to two detectives in an interview room. There’s no time for any of that. Instead Art Gilmore is a vital element of the film, acting as the films social conscience, you can blame censorship for the need for the voice of reason, so we never make this mistake ourselves. Why would we when we see this group of men fail so miserably. The unusual structure allows us to see how all the men come together without the need for titles to place us back in time, they have to be used carefully and sparingly, any overuse can only lead to confusion for an audience that wants to see a group take on the system and win big in a short space of time.
Where most heist films rely on a team of highly skilled people, these lot aren’t so much gifted but perfectly placed in their jobs. Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen) an old friend of Clay’s whose willing to put up some of the supporting funds. Alcoholic Patrolman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) is so deep in debt he’s willing break the law to see the back of the loan sharks. Whilst the rest of the men George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) work at the racetrack where the heists being planned for. Two inside men who can no longer work around the public getting rich in an instant, making gamble after gamble that pays off. They all come together to see if they can finally win big themselves in a gamble that could potentially change their lives forever.
Of course with every team of characters not everyone can get equal screen time or enough development to see that they we understand their motives. Of all the men we focus mostly on the weakest link – George Peatty whose scheming wife Sherry (Marie Windsor), unhappy with her life with the mouse of a husband will jump at the chance of a better life. When George pressured into spilling the plan to her, that’s the first of many mistakes that are made through the course of the film. Sherry wants her cut of the money, devising her own plan with her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) so they can run off into the sunset. The film’s femme fatale is right under the mens noses but are too busy to notice for all the night-time planning and threats.
Another major hole in the plan, as airtight as it might seem is farming some of the work out to hired hands who know nothing about the job. With a job as big as robbing a racetrack this team have underestimated what’s involved. All the scheming and planning in the world can’t compensate for the human error and outside variables that even they can’t foresee. There are times when I see slight kinks in the plan as they finally get underway, a sign of how it all begins to unravel. These men who have come together with only one aim to get rich quick is too much for some to control in the taut film that delivers tension at every turn. Leading to an ending that just shows how pointless the whole scheme really was Just as it looks so hopeful for Clay as he makes his final getaway, even that is a struggle to pull off without any issues. Every detail here has its place and purpose, a carefully composed early work by Kubrick who was a master of all the genre he worked out. Now I’ve only got a heap more heist films to track down.
Sight and Sound ran an article on psychological Westerns, with a smaller side piece darker Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. I’ve been keeping a look out for these film, so far this year I’ve seen two – Track of the Cat (1954) and today Pursued (1947). I can’t begin the review without a brief look at Track of the Cat which just on a visual level is fascinating. The colour pallet restricted to black and white, with splashes of red, every other colour was muted down – unless you were Mitchum. He wasn’t even the overall focus of the film that saw a family restricted by the biting cold of the mountain snow. Even more so with the threat of a black cat that had been spotted. With a terrifying performance from Beulah Bondi as the matriarch who used the bible to keep her family in line. Not thinking about how the scriptures were doing more damage than good. Driving the husband and father Philip Tonge to drink, hiding a bottle of whiskey in every thinkable place, yes a serious look at alcoholism in the genre.
Coming back to the earlier film directed by a Western director Raoul Walsh in this black and white noiresque Western set again the barren landscape of Gallup, New Mexico, which mentions the Mexico Border war 1910-19, however the costume is very confusing as to the era it depicts until we return from the front lines. I’m reminded tonally of Ramrod (1947) which is more overt in it’s visual connection to noir, with Veronica Lake paired opposite Joel McCrea. I still find that film confusing even after a second watch a few years ago. Unlike the majority of of Pursued which as with most noirs that are told in flashback. With the arrival of Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) who rides into join a man in hiding with a burnt out wreck of a homestead. We find Jeb Rand (Mitchum) wounded, tired and scared.
Beginning the film where he began his short life as we fade into flashback. A young boy hiding in a basement is rescued by a woman Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson) who welcomes him to live with her two young children. Life is not safe for them as they are soon on the run themselves. It’s a film of great upheaval and change for everyone in the Callum family. It’s not just a time of change politically but also on a domestic level. With such a focus on the family the film leans more towards drama than action which the Western generally fits into. We meet the children who are able to hold more screen time, danger is slowly creeping into their lives when Jeb’s horse is shot dead from under him. My first reaction was that it’s pretty dark in any film to kill a child. Thankfully he lives to be filled with fear that he takes home to the family. A child who we know has been plagued with bad dreams which we see flash upon the screen throughout the film.
We also meet an embittered Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) who soon loses an arm, which doesn’t stop him trying to muddy Jeb’s family name. But why is he out to get Jeb, how can an innocent boy have incurred the anger of this man. The ex husband of Mrs Callum who is more than happy and capable to raise three children alone, shows little fear, aware of the reasons but these are not revealed to us. The audience is left in suspense for the films duration. Tensions introduced between brothers Jeb and Adam Callum (John Rodney) after Jeb returns home early from the border war. The vendetta against Jeb is about to enter a new adult phase of fateful violence that follows him like a curse. Pushing him away from his adoptive family and love Thor who for a long time shuns him for the hurt he causes.
The question of why looms heavy over the this film. Why is Grant Callum so determined to see Jeb outcast from those he loves, to get him alone and kill him. All whilst Jeb is tortured by his recurring dream that he struggles to understand he returns to to brotherly rivalry that ends in death. Leading to the a court case being heard with the dead body in the room. The pressure to do right by the deceased and the accused has never been so acute. Whatever the result Jeb is cast out by his family, trying to find a way back into their favor. Something made harder with the a new man in Thor’s life, which is manipulated by Grant who tries to further push Jeb into the line of fire.
Throughout the film I noticed that we were missing one key ingredient of the noir genre – the femme fatale which is revealed late on and maintained for a few minutes before we are drawn into the safety of a happy ending. The women save the day after the Callum en-masse close in on Jeb who was destined to meet the fate of the rest of his family. The ending allows the woman rarely to take control on-screen, unlike the man who is generally expected to. Where there is pretty much a happy ending here, I much prefer the bleakness of Track of the Cat that left a family forced to come together under extreme pressure after such heavy losses. The turmoil that the respective families go through can’t fairly be compared. It’s the intensity of the situations and how they are resolved and that makes for more dramatic ending. Maybe it’s due to more confidence in the director, the script or a combination of both and the times that the films are made in. Either way they are both very interesting and obscure Westerns that dare to push the boundaries of the genre as it blurs with another.
A little over a week ago I caught The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Barbara Stanwyck playing the standard femme fatale role, which wasn’t nearly as effective as Double Indemnity (1944). I was a little disappointed, having her play opposite Wendell Corey who is not a natural lead actor. Leaving her to go into overdrive to make this slow burner of a film noir even begin to simmer. It never really comes to the boil. Tonight’s film however was a very different story, a massive improvement on the leading man with Burt Lancaster and a complete role reversal for Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), leaving me glued to the screen.
It’s great to see a screen veteran in Stanwyck able to play the damsel in distress still, even after 20 years on the screen, opposite up and coming Lancaster who is full of confidence clearly enjoying the chance to play opposite her. Even though characters are restricted by phone conversations and flashbacks that construct the film. Beginning with a stray connection, allowing bed-ridden socialite Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) who only wants to talk to her husband who left the office hours ago. We have little idea how strong a role the telephone will play in Sorry, Wrong Number. A mumbled conversation about a murder plot is over heard on a cross-wire – this isn’t even a shared line like the one found in Pillow Talk (1959), there’s no time for innuendo here. Wanting to do the right thing she’s back onto the operator to try and track down what is essentially an accidental connection.
She wants to reports the crime to the police, but has very little to go on, the time of a train, a New York street, not enough even for a detective to come out to her. Instead the station that took the call is more preoccupied with a baby. Law enforcement has been domesticated whilst shes crippled by an as yet unrevealed condition. We are left wondering how is she going solve this potential crime herself. It’s not like she’s living in a time when murders can be precisely predicted and prevented as in Minority Report (2002). Her only weapon is her phone. Watching this in a time where phones are now so much more than the basic communication device that connects one voice to another anywhere in the country, or even a distant part of the world. She has to rely on notes, memory and the accounts of those she calls. Building up a picture of what has happened, hopefully leading to a happy conclusion. Now we can use social media to broaden our reach, an audience less personal but able to make a bigger impact, then the killer might be stopped before times up.
I wanted to see both Lancaster and Stanwyck on-screen together, we only see this in flashback, understanding how they met and married. Using her position and money to attract Henry J. Stevenson (Lancaster) to marry her. Stanwyck plays a different of Femme fatale, not relying so much on her body and sex appeal, the lure of dangerous encounters. Her position and status are all that small town boy Henry needs, and someone being ignored to ensure they marry. A daddy’s girl who gets what she wants through her condition. A weak heart that could flare up at any minute to control the one she loves. We’ve moved away from simple marital manipulation to calm a situation down like Beulah Bondi in Vivacious Lady (1938) using an “a weak heart” for a simpler life. The wife in both situations is in control, stopping the husband in his tracks.
The flashbacks are the main way of building up the plot. We need to understand the garbled conversation. Who could be behind it. It takes an amateur bed-ridden detective with a phone racking up a massive phone bill to get to the bottom of this crime. One phone call her husbands secretary leads her in the direction of an old love rival Sally Ann Hunt (Ann Richards) who as we see plays detective, spying on her own husband, no-one can be trusted in this film. Wives can’t trust husband who don’t tell the truth or hold things back. It takes another conversation with her doctor Dr Phillip Alexander (Corey) who reveals her condition to be purely psychological, given the film a Freudian overtone, the mother from beyond the grave having a hold over her son-in-law.
All the conversations start to come together as we meet one of her fathers employees Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who adds the final piece of the puzzle that we have been trying to solve. It becomes even more complicated as a man trapped by marriage, wealth and all the trappings of his position, using them to plan his escape, calculated and cold until cracks begin to show. Leaving his wife alone in there home where she slowly looses her mind over the course of the film. A woman who once had all the control has lost everything, her independence, the care of the nurses, her husband and ultimately her life. A climax that leaves you wondering if she will be saved at the last minute, after all those calls, building up a case of confessions and evidence. If only she took the time to write it all down, its all if-only’s now. Left one one hell of a cliff-hanger.
Sorry, Wrong Number has been a film worth waiting for, the structure allows a plot to be told via technology rather than traveling around, the lead character visiting everyone as they carryout a physical investigation. Based instead entirely on her emotions, feelings running wild as she holds a phone receiver to her face. Ultimately it’s Stanwyck owns the film, bringing it into melodrama at times without loosing the darkness of the plot, a murder will be committed somewhere tonight, the only question is – whose the victim? She asks all these questions from the confines of her bedroom, slowly going mad with the help of some interesting crane and mirror shots, we really don’t know if she’s coming or going, it’s a real roller-coaster ride from start to finish.
I think like everyone who first heard the news that a sequel was in the works to Blade Runner (1982) I was naturally very cautious. There have been a slew of sequels/reboots etc recently of modern classics made so long after the original that it becomes too much to even consider how a new film could follow on from a much-loved film. Then I saw Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve which I found to be one of the best piece of science fiction in a long time to be seen on film. None of the standard flashy techniques or effects, everything paired down, to help inform the tone, that sees a female linguist fight to make first contact with visiting aliens. Wanting to use words not violence that is usually associated with the genre in the past, shoot first, ask questions later. On learning that the Villeneuve would be at the helm this film, alongside Ridley Scott as producer, it was a massive reassurance that the not so long-awaited/muted sequel to the 1982 classic would be in very safe hands.
Honestly it’s been a while since I’ve seen Blade Runner, the final-cut seen as Scott’s definitive vision of the film. The lingering images from the film meant its something special, which is going to be hard surpass. Last night, a month since Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was first released, yes I know it’s a long time coming and I’m glad I’ve finally seen what in short is a worthy sequel without trying to outdo the original, which would have been wrong to even try. As I’ve mentioned before in countless reviews, the trailer can really affect a film before you go and sit down to watch it. Here the marketing team have put edited together a misleading piece that allowed me to be blown away by the full 2 and 1/2 hours film. Wanting to focus on Harrison Ford‘s role in the film.
I could never forget the opening sequence of the original, the all-encompassing eye and the burst of flame that reflect within. The never-ending model miniature city-scape and flying cars that zoom across, its a future that we fear but want to explore to see whats in the depth. Film noir had met the future with all the bleakness you can have wanted. A film that is both hard to really top or even live up to. I feel that Villeneuve has definitely lived up to the challenge bring his own sensibility for the serious, insightful whilst maintaining the look, the legacy and the concepts.
Anyway enough of the build up, time to look in more detail at the film. I already knew from a few vague descriptions of the film that Ryan Gosling played a replicant working as a blade runner who we see on his latest mission touching down in a vast farming facility, ready to capture his next rogue replicant. There’s no pretense as to whether or not he’s a replicant unlike the original which had you guessing until the end the true identity of Rick Deckard until we get the unicorn at the films close. There’s less ambiguity at this point, we know who we are dealing with and following as he uncovers a new case that has the potential to change the balance of power in this dystopia. A skeleton of a former replicant is found with some surprising marks that are found during examination.
With K we see more into the Blade runner life, not just the found em and kill em aspect which we had before. Instead the life of a replicant, the regimented de-briefs/recalibrations which are scarily effective as Gosling just loses himself to this role. It’s quite intense to watch, the repetition and testing that goes on to ensure he’s inline and ready to function to the best of his programming. Very much the slave to his master, yet free to enjoy his time off. Spending most of that with his holographic Joi (Ana de Armas) who confined to the projector. It was the first reminder of another science fiction characters – the first of many reference – as I found in Arrival. The Doctor (Robert Picardo) or Emergency Medical Hologram/E.M.H. in Star Trek: Voyager whose confined to the holographic emitters in sick bay, a prisoner of his own programming and limitations. Until much like Joi they are given their freedom – a mobile Emitter or it’s Blade Runner equivalent. Carried by the program or the end-user. The E.M.H. character was exploring his sentience, whilst Joi was just discovering her new found freedom outside the apartment. We get under the skin, well the zeros and ones of how she perceives the world around her. Later touched in a a sex scene that reminded me of a very similar scene in Her (2013), technology connecting with another, via a biological host. Again this is explored more sensually from Joi’s perspective which made the scene more engaging to watch.
K’s investigation takes in some familiar places and faces (not Ford just yet) which again really gives the film stronger foundation that just being in the same universe, we meet old characters and others who reminds us of the original along with other little nods. If only briefly they contexualise what happened in the prologue which explains the 10 day blackout when most files from that time were erased. It doesn’t leave any detail out and woven nicely into the script without seeming forced. However on reflection that opening of the film, tried too hard in places to replicate the original tone that was then original, maybe this is more out of uniformity for the film. The world itself is very much the one I’ve visited before, relying on model miniatures to create as much of it as possible, allowing you to engage with the physical in this possible future which we maybe nearer too than we care to admit. Not only does it rain but it snow constantly too.
Turning to the Tyrell organisation, now under the weird control of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who sends his favorite replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) out to hunt down. We see so little of Wallace that I didn’t feel his presence in the film, Leto is again having a lot of fun with the role. Whilst Hoeks has a meaty role that makes her mark on the film. The henchmen of the piece, nothing stops her from getting what she wants, showing us that you don’t need to male, butch with scars to get the job done, you can be incredible feminine in appearance and still make your presence known, much like K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) whose more fierce than Deckard’s predecessor.
Looking back at this very rich piece of science fiction that gracefully nods and acknowledges the original, it doesn’t try to repeat the past plot, instead it builds and expands with ease into this world that I wasn’t expecting to find. When Ford finally makes his first appearrence, which is for about 20 minutes or so of the film it feels natural, all the build up to find him. He doesn’t try to own the film or take it away from Gosling whose in complete control. The trailer wanted us to meet him early on, without knowing why. K’s investigation is a slow burner that had me glued in silence to the screen. I had returned to a world I had once explored with awe that has been expanded, getting our fingers deeper into this world. I do however miss Vangelis ‘s inspiring soundtrack, we do have Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer who do a more than respectable job in his strange absence. My only fear is that if ever there was another sequel, which again leaves me uncertain, I would hope that Villeneuve is somewhere within its production. I would also ask that this sequel would be allowed to breathe before anything happened, to find a place and be appreciated for what it is and has achieved.
I watched Leave her to Heaven (1945) but unlike other films it’s stayed with me. I had every intention of watching The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) that night, I changed my mind at the last-minute and what a chance I took on this very dark yet starkly colourful film noir. I was considering how it would look if I was to convert a short section to the traditional black and white, so it would conform to the visual style of the genre. The longer the film was playing I knew that such an intervention would only be detrimental to the film. The contrast too high, the use Technicolor the dazzle and lure you into the dream world that is little more than an illusion. For what lies beyond the lake in the opening scene is trap which an innocent man falls into. What looks like a treat, the wide open countryside, the greenery hiding narrative that is about to unfold before us.
A quiet man – Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) lands of the water from a biplane that has brought him back home, a place that holds bitter-sweet memories and the start of a new chapter in his life and his new-found freedom. The lake I know is where the iconic boating scene takes place, but that has to wait, I want to see how it all unfolds, courtesy of his old friend and lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins) who allows us to flashback to their first meeting on a train. It’s all by chance that they meet, two strangers, but that end there when she’s Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) reading his novel on the train. This is only revealed in a later scene, but allows him to get closer to her, using a passage from his book to hook her under his own spell.
The chance encounters allowed to continue as the train stops in New Mexico, even staying at the same accommodation so far its a really nice coincidence that these two have met and been able to see each other is all pure Hollywood. As the Bernet family have come to a resort to scatter their fathers ashes. A connection to the late father and Richards made, they look the same, its uncanny or fate, I’ll let you decide in a bit. It’s clear that he’s falling for her, and she’s reeling him slowly as they get to know each other at the resort, its casual yet there’s an air of mystery. He’s enjoying all of this and even the temptation of her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) who doesn’t even know he’s being tempted. Its one holiday brimming with 1940’s style temptation, something I’ll return to later.
The honey trap is finally triggered with the arrival of ex-lover and lawyer (running for district attorney) Russel Quinton (Vincent Price) when out of nowhere Richard and Ellen announce they are getting married. A shock not just to us, but to Richard whose as shocked as us, we have entered the realm of melodrama, the fast-moving unpredictable (take that lightly) world of storylines going off to the deep end. Have we just met the ultimate femme-fatelle of film-noir. This the first sign that this woman is not about to be walked all over. The traditional role of the man proposing to the womans dismissed, she is wearing the trousers in this relationship. We can see that Russel is no longer the object of her affections and this act tells him that she no longer wants him, its final, its fast its fantastically come out of nowhere to end one relationship and further another one, simply by moving her net from one man to another.
The melodrama element of the film is cleverly enhanced by the Technicolor, signalling the look of Douglas Sirk’s in the following decade. If we look even further forward to Gone Girl (2014) which I will touch on later we can see how the manipulating woman can really screw over her husband. Leave Her to Heaven is the first time we are really seeing a woman manipulate a married man. Sure film-noir is full of women who use and abuse men to their own means, usually the men are either single or on the run, or hopelessly in love with the women of the film. The man object of desire is the woman’s object of control, leaving the man broken and unable to go on. The trap laid here in New Mexico see Richard being emasculated, becoming the stay at home husband. When they finally marry, we meet his brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) who has spent the last few years in a sanitorium, having lost the use of his legs through unmentioned accident, it’s all about his recovery that speeds up with the arrival of his brother and new sister and law. She makes her mark in his life, she’s playing the big sister, wanting to earn his love. It doesn’t take much, this is the beautiful Tierney who glistens in a rare colour film.
Danny’s introduction in the film shows how Ellen’s starting to get into the family, adapting to married life, or adjusting her plans. We next see her in the doctor’s office, who she manipulates to withhold Danny’s discharge, before Richard enters when she announces that he’s coming home. Completely having control over the men and the situation in this scene. They are left bewildered and surprised, again another example of emasculation, the fear that women can rise up from the kitchen and take control, this shows the male fear of how far it could go. And boy does it go off to the deep end as the film progresses from the death of Danny that she doesn’t prevent, allowing him to drown, only looking on with cold contempt for the innocent boy who has given her only love. A classic scene that stays with you long after the film is over. She only gets worse, as she falls pregnant, however that would only bring more people into the relationship that she wants with Richard, keeping him solely for herself. Committing this awful acts, not so much for attention but to ensure Richard’s commitment to her, not so much the marriage but to stay under her control. Is this psychological domestic violence, it surely comes close.
The final nail in the coffin, literally and metaphorically is a suicide that she frames as murder on her sister. Seeing how the couple after seeing Richard drift away and back towards the temptation that is Ruth who has been around since Danny’s death. It’s a cold and calculated and all for maximum effect. Her death sparks a court-room drama ending that begins to answer the opening of the film, where has Richard been for two years, and how did he end up there. What makes it worse is that Ruth’s framed for the murder. Allowing for Vincent Price to return in what is probably a pretty substantial part for the actor even in a supporting role, he tears up the set with his performance, he’s in control, this is his world where he can see justice carried out against the family that had cast him aside in favor of the stranger. It’s just full of classic court-room scenes, adding to the drama that has already happened as we get closer to answering that question of how and why.
Coming back finally to Gone Girl which sees a manipulative wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) who frames her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) for her murder. Of course the structure and plot are very different, combining flashbacks to explain how they both met, whilst also showing how both are coping and understanding the situation. Amy enjoying sticking the knife into his back for his infidelity. The use of media who share the “story” as it unfolds in the modern-day world of fast-moving over dramatised news, all for ratings. Amy and Ellen both have the upper hand over their husbands, more literally in Gone Girl when he finds a gift of Punch and Judy puppets. Nick begins to understand what is going on and knows ultimately hes trapped unless he can find a way to break free. Ellen goes even further, shes doesn’t just plan her death meticulously, she sees it through and is twisting the knife from the beyond the grave. Amy is not that brave, preferring to come back and honor the image of marriage. No such thought goes through Ellen’s mind. If anything Leave her to Heaven is really the darker film, if ever remade it would be far darker than Gone Girl leaving it in the dust in terms of psychology and violence. The media in the latter film really makes it more contemporary, it wouldn’t be needed for a Heaven remake. I just hope they never do that.
I’m going to try something new in this review – 3 films, well 2 films and a TV episode all titled – Cape Fear. For sometime I’ve been thinking about the relationship between these horror films. Having also read that the Martin Scorsese remake in 1991 was pointless really, I need to see this for myself to understand what is actually going on here. Has Scorsese wasted a cast and crews time and a film companies money, not to mention the audience who went to see etc. I’ll finish on a more comedic note with The Simpsons spoof Cape Feare which combines the best of both films. I’m one film in – the original which I shamefully saw in about 9 parts on YouTube whilst working at a summer camp a few years ago.
The 1962 original released as part of a cycle of horror films that attempted to emulate Psycho (1960) which reshaped the genre forever, what a was expected from the genre and its very form. What followed was a series of cheap knock-offs so to speak that tried to replicate that magic for the next few years. With time for the industry to react one of the first films out using A-list actors with well established careers, such as Deborah Kerr‘s The Innocents (1961), and the cult classic of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). However Cape Fear has more in common with film noir, or the first shoots of neo-noir after it ended a few years earlier with Touch of Evil (1959). Take some of the best bits of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and repackage it into a more audience friendly film that has also become a classic.
Taking the Charles Laughton noir of a preacher who works his way into a community, marrying a Jail birds widow, in order to get his hands on the money which the dead husband has hidden. Memorably played by Robert Mitchum, whose physical presence transformed the role and the film into that of almost folklore horror. Seeing America through the eyes of an English director who gave us his vision of a country deeply rooted in its religion that could be so easily be corrupted. The Mitchum character of Harry Powell becomes Max Cady, again not long released from prison has a one track mind, not money, he has plenty of that. Its more like a destiny that he has to fulfill coming to the home town of successful lawyer and family man Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who had to testify against him on an attack charge against an innocent woman. After first meeting Cady we know he’s not a family man, not meant to live around law-abiding people. He’s not a gentlemen who stops to pick up papers for woman on the stairs. He’s to be avoided, even before we learn his back story.
The Cady’s live in reasonable comfort, a small lawyer whose life is about to be turned upside down, about to take him and his wife Peggy (Polly Bergen) and daughter Nancy (Lori Martin). I couldn’t help but start to draw comparisons with this to the remake, what were the new relationship that brings Cady to town. It’s more complex for sure in the remake. Back to this more straightforward film that doesn’t waste time establishing whose the good and bad guys. However it’s the law whose hands are tied, Cady’s being doing more than marking the days in his cell before being released. Reading up on the law and planning his revenge. Starting his war of terror against Bowden and his family, taking aim at the teenage daughter – Nancy whose awareness of the male gaze and sexual power is about to blow wide open.
Cady is not just a deranged criminal out for revenge he’s a sexual predator too, making Nancy his next victim. This could be where Scorsese got a bit of tunnel vision, along with changing taste and the loosening of censorship which allowed for a more adult version of the film. Nonetheless the original filmed in cheap/standard black and white adds another layer to this dark film that gets more intense scene by scene. Tying Sam in knots with nowhere to turn but to lead him into a trap on the houseboat along the Cape Fear river. The sexuality is all coming from Mitchum, even middle-aged has a decent body that added to his domineering on-screen presence. If anything I found the ending lackluster, instead of what the audience wants – and Scorsese gives us. We have the law winning out, the courts of justice putting Cady back behind bars before a swift and happy ending. It feels after all of that struggle the good and civilised in Bowden wins out, his primal desire and wishes earlier on in the film to shoot him are repressed to allow him to drag him to a prison cell before a having another trial. Hopefully leading to reform, something I really can’t see happening to Cady, whoever plays this disturbed character.
Onto the remake now, which after hearing it was pointless, I’m starting to see why after just finishing it. I first watched it at University, thinking it was a great thriller, I even used it as part of my research for thrillers and suspense. What the hell was I thinking, more to the point what was Martin Scorsese thinking. It wasn’t even a film he wanted to do, it was an assignment given to him by the Universal, for reasons I just don’t understand, I don’t think he does either. Probably hoping to get his next project The Age of Innocence (1993).
Lets take a look at the film on the face of it, a remake of the 1960’s classic thriller which saw the Bowden family being tormented by the deranged Max Cady that still remains at the core of this film. However 30 years have passed and the script admittedly needed altering in some respects. There’s far more sex on-screen, along with the usual depiction of Scorsese penchant for violence. Making it a good match, but then the same can be said of lots of directors. He’s a director for hire here. The main difference is Cady played by a hammy Robert De Niro whose clearly having a ball, glad to be working with his old pal Marty one more time. The crime committed now is, aggravated assault, essentially rape when you get to know the character. He’s come back to get revenge on his old lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who we learn buried evidence that could have allowed Cady to go free. That facts are made clear early on away from Cady who is beginning his campaign of fear.
Originally Bowden was a witness to an assault committed by Cady, now we see that the lawyer has used his professional power to alter the course of Cady’s life. I couldn’t have seen that working in 1962, only a few years from playing Atticus Finch (Peck) couldn’t betray that upstanding heroic image. Whilst Mitchum could’ve easily played that role to the extreme without getting as hammy as De Niro. We spend more time with the daughter now named Danielle (Juliette Lewis) who is more sexually aware. Whilst the wife is pretty much unchanged, reacting instead to the plot as it unfolds. If anything she is more traumatised by the films events. So the father and daughter get the thick of it.
A memorable addition or “nod” of approval to the remake, is the inclusion of three of the original cast Peck, Mitchum and Martin Balsam each having a few scenes. Was this more a ploy to bring in the older audience to see three older actors once more, or to say that the film is not being made without their blessing. I think its more the former with a bit of promotional casting. Mitchum first appears as the detective who wants to help but is forced to not suggest to seek alternatives. Whilst Peck is clearly having more fun in his cameo as Lee Heller who is Cady’s defence lawyer. Whilst a clearly bored Martin Balsam the original detective plays the judge who rules a restraining order in Cady’s favor. The aging actor clearly underused and wondering what the hell he is doing on set.
The law is clearly not in Bowden’s side throughout, doing all he can to protect his family, being screwed at every turn by a criminal who has read his books, including the Bible and Sexus (just for added smut). There are times when you are on the Bowden’s side, then you think, haven’t we been here before, only in black and white and not for as long. Drawing out the scenes and adding new ones that only drag out this practically scene for scene remake. The religious overtones are very heavy and clearly a directorial stroke, which makes the work his – overtly.
Ultimately it’s a hammy overreacted, waste of film that sees an accomplished director scraping the barrel with sacred material that shouldn’t have been touched. He should have looked back to Dead Calm (1989) which had the boat thriller in the bag in every way. We have actors who are doing their best, whilst some are just glad for the bigger paycheck and a few days work. Lastly Scorsese only makes you think about the original more overtly with the lazy use of the original score by Bernard Herrmann, conducted by Elmer Bernstein who simply conducted it for the “new” soundtrack. There’s no attempt to be really a unique film that is about the same basic premise, its the just the same just sexed up.
Now I want to watch the far superior Simpsons parody which focuses in the best elements. The second episode of season 5 – (yes it’s that old), a longtime favorite of mine. I remember getting it on video – the murder mysteries tape. Makes me feel old just thinking about it. It’s been a while since I last saw the episode until last night. It was still as fresh and spot on with the jokes that came thick and fast. Midway through the golden age of the now long running animated sitcom, which has now become the longest running of its kind too. Cape Feare was also the third time that Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) appears in this now iconic role. Assuming the Max Cady role directly from the Scorsese’s film gave us a year before. It’s a cheeky spoof that is more entertaining that the thriller which is 6 times as long.
I think the focus was on the more recent film still fresh in the public consciousness, which is understandable, leaving the original alone. Taking the best bits of a pointless film and making fun of the rest in 20 minutes of animation. We already know that Bob has it in for Bart (Nancy Cartwright) who has twice already found him out, once for robbery, and for attempted murder. Now it’s time for revenge. There’s no need to build up that history between the two except in a few short scenes. The blood written letters and the parole hearing before Bob’s released, using his charm to gain his freedom.
Already the Simpson family are on edge, the letters and now the cinema scene which is ensures we are in for a scene for scene spoof. Of course there’s more common sense at play, the harassments taken seriously by the police instead of going down the private detective route – which leads to the fishing wire and teddy bear set-up which isn’t taken seriously. Ultimately they’re referred to the FBI who put them into the Witness Relocation Program giving them a new identity and opening titles. It’s all played fast a loose. Yet the law is on the families side, moving the spoof quickly on, there’s no time to discuss the need to use a gun or to kill Bob, it’s about hiding.
The finale is more family friendly with a Gilbert and Sullivan homage, making the most of an earlier scene in the car journey. The houseboat is loose on the water, just not out of control as Bart uses the performance to buy him time. He’s too clever to result to deadly violence to see his enemy (not Moe Szyslak (Hank Azaria) and his panda’s). The episode delivers some of the finest moments not just of the season but a collection of jokes that are better than the expensive thriller that tries to outdo the original.
So ends my first 3 (2 and a spoof) film review, attempting to find a relationship and history. I’ve chosen an easier trilogy (of sorts) to begin with a film, a remake and a spoof. I can see how it a classic (before it was more common) to remake a film. Seeing that it was sexed up, add some violence and some cheeky cameos to draw in the audiences. Whilst a controversial cartoon plays fast and loose, appropriate the events of a recent film and make fun of it, so is the nature of a spoof which in the case of this film is more entertaining, than the remake.
On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.
Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capra’s Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.
Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.
With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves
It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.
All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about
‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?
“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.
“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10
A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.
I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.
The Haunted Past –
“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.
The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.
These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.
The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16
If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.
Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.
I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.
Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.
I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.
Until recently I’ve not seen a film noir for a long time, even longer since an Edward G. Robinson film, which itself is real treat. Sadly not from the 1930’s, yet to see one of those gems. I’ve had to settle for a Fritz Lang which really isn’t so bad after all. Scarlet Street (1945) a film I’ve been looking out for, along with Woman in the Window (1944), the later film a return of both director, actor and Joan Bennett another chance for her femme fatale to work her charms as she gets her claws into her unsuspecting victim. I can only respond to Scarlet Street which was a real slow burner, working it’s magic on me, drawing me into and under the spell of yet another unsuspecting victim as he goes on a downward spiral.
I can see how Robinson was drawn to this film, a lover and collector of art, this is an easy on-screen expression of that, the lengths that an aspiring artist would possibly go to for success. I’m not drawing comparisons between himself and I, but I can sympathise with him to a point. We see him being celebrated by his colleagues, a lifetime of loyal service as a cashier, a comfortable life however not completely happy however. Leaving him vulnerable to any woman who showed the slightest sign of affection or attention. A man who would naturally jump at that chance also a fallible human being. When Christopher Cross meets Katharine ‘Kitty’ March (Bennett) who is “saved” from a mugging’s encouraged to gain his confidence in order to get money out of him. Believing him to be a successful artist, of course these are boasts that are blown out of proportion, her own ignorance draws her into his own projection.
Both are projecting an image of themselves, one comes from the heart, another from a false place that has no emotional connection. Cold and calculating and manipulated by her boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) who is the real con man of the film. Pulling the strings through manipulation and abuse towards Kitty who may appear to take it without being affected by the control his has over her. The femme fatale is at the mercy of a male counterpart, a term that I can’t even coin for this review Princes role is very rare in the genre, seen more as an abusive lover.
Turning to Christopher again we have a character who is weak and soft, the very reverse of Robinson’s previous work. Maybe he too was tired of the hard roles like James Cagney wanting more emotional and vulnerable roles to get his acting chops around. I can’t help but think of his distinctive role in Double Indemnity (1944) Barton Keyes an insurance man who’s sure of his profession discovering he’s no longer at the top of his game when he works with the insecure and faltering partner Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who tries to fraud the company he works for, all for what he believes is in the name of love. Keyes world of certainty has crumbled around him, he can’t trust his colleague who he has known for years. The modern world of WWII is a far darker place than of a decade earlier, the lengths that customers may go to make a claim see Keyes start to question the world around him.
Robinson’s character a year later in Cross holds a lesser role of responsibility a cashier, it’s still a position of trusts brought into a world that is far different from his regular life. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who all but despises him. She sees him more as a lodger in the way, his painting a hobby that will get him nowhere. When his talents encouraged by his “lover” Kitty he comes alive, living a double life of husband and lover, he’s on fire in aspects of his life that he had long but given up on. Of course Johnny Prince is always lurking in the shadows, wanting to get as much money as he can out of Cross who reluctantly gives into this love-soaked demands for cash. Kitty an “actress” moves to a more expensive apartment, her lifestyle has to be supported if she is to maintain it. Of course it’s all a façade for what they both really want.
Of course this all sounds rather standard, even with a cowardly Robinson who even allows for his work to be accepted as the work of his lover. He can no longer look forward to fulfilling his dreams of being a successful artist in his own right. Giving up one dream for another to make another possible. Is he mad or just human as he sees his work being celebrated yet looking on from the sidelines, unwittingly creating his masterpiece her “self-portrait”. It’s hard to watch him loose grip of his dream, giving more than just his money, his creative control, his dignity, his job and ultimately his sanity. He loses more than what he hoped to gain.
It’s a depressing decline that we hope would never happen, how can our hero of countless films become just another human being before our eyes. The artist in me wanted to shout to him, to take back what is rightly his time, his fortune and glory, to be celebrated, not another overlooked talent taken advantage of. Lowering himself to commit worse crimes than both Kitty and Johnny who wanted on his money, he takes something far more valuable. It is however a work all of his own, committed in the moment that again only he knows who the true artist is which is even more torturous for him. Ultimately none of his work will ever be credited to him by others except all of us who can look passively on.
I’ve been watching a few of Orson Welles‘s later films (with cameo’s) and I thought it was time to take a look at one of his own films, one that on the surface doesn’t appear to have been butchered in the editing room. You could say that The Stranger (1946) has come out practically unscathed after what happened with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) which is only half as good as it really could be. If only the footage that was cut could be found and pieced back together again. Still that’s another discussion for another review. Looking at this film-noir that on the surface appears more main-stream, has more in common with the genre that accidentally grew around that time and Welles’s breakthrough film Citizen Kane (1941) where he was left to his own devices. OK here we have less of that style which he uses more subtly to get the feelings of fear, shock and innocence across to an audience who at the time had just come out of war with Germany and Japan that finished that year. They were being exposed to newsreels of harrowing images of concentration camps that had been discovered. The full extent of Nazi crimes was being made public. Even for an audience today seeing footage from the camps is unsettling, traumatic, a hard watch to say the least in the face of incredible human suffering and loss. Orson Welles has taken a gamble playing with the images that have been burned into the short-term memory of America.
Taking that context into a film that is today very much forgotten among more memorable films he directed. This is very much a product of its time. You could dare I say remake it today with an Islamic State focus rather than a Nazi that has gone into hiding. Typically played by Welles himself you see less of him and more of the investigating detective Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) who takes a chance by releasing another Nazi onto the streets. Hoping that he will lead him to the bigger prize, that of Professor Charles Rankin otherwise known as the notoriously media shy Franz Kindler who played a major role in the gas chambers, a high-ranking Nazi that got away. Thankfully a fictional Nazi that made this film slightly safer, instead of a true account that never happen thankfully. However it’s the thought that even in the safety of a state of rich, prosperous and middle class Connecticut, it makes you think how this could happen in small town America.
Welles even takes a lower billing, it’s all about the search for the truth, seeking to restore safety and security in America. A brave choice by the director who really has a lot of fun in the role. Robinson’s seen to be settling into roles of a maturer man which really suits him, he’s no longer the gangster of the 1930’s. He brings really weight to the role, you feel he believes the lines he is delivering. He’s Americas conscience still fighting and reeling from the trauma of war. Whilst Loretta Young is more side dressing between these two men. She’s weak and indecisive, trapped in a marriage of convienence to a man hiding. Shes America that is still in denial, needing that jolt of reality to wake up to the horrors of the previous half decade or more.
Stylistically this film is very much Welles, the cinematography never stays still for long. Un-nerving us with heavy and high tracking shots, mixed with cuts that leave you on the edge of your seat. It really is not a film-noir of the standard we are used to in the city, I wouldn’t even call it a noir on these terms Welles simply uses the devices he pioneered and pushes them further. It’s not quite as dark as The Lady from Shanghai (1947) or Touch of Evil (1958), he’s still fine tuning. We are outside in the sunshine of Eastern America where trouble never really happens. We are taken into an unsettled world that is yet to full understand what is happening either at home or in Europe. This isn’t even a war-film, it falls more into straight thriller with over-powering sense of fear that has loosened a little with time. We no longer have this enemy around us, a few are being found into their old age.
I guess to really feel the power of this film you have seen it on first release. You do wonder if the truth will out itself and that is what remains. An enemy that has long been put to bed can still stir up your deepest fears, which shows the power of the film over the course of time. The context maybe more historical, its the fear of the unknown and distant being closer than you think which stays with you. I could watch this film on mute and still it would have a power over me which is all down to the strong visuals that stay with you which is what you want from a film of this age.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 1950 was a very introspective year for Hollywood, in terms of the films it was releasing, looking in on it self, with the addition of this early Nicholas Ray film noir that shows he doesn’t always needs blistering saturated colours to convey the pent-up frustration that his characters feel as they are pushed into a corner. We’ve seen it before with the young lovers on the run in They Live By Night (1948), the lynch mob that hunts down a woman in Johnny Guitar (1954) to most famously the misunderstood teenager of Rebel Without a Cause (1955). It’s not just the young and women who are in these positions, older and once successful screenwriters in In a Lonely Place (1950) such as Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) who was once on-top has reached a low that he may never get out of.
Given the opportunity to turn the latest sensational novel into a film he has been given the chance to make his name again. If only he liked the material, just another melodrama that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. Inviting back a young woman who can recite the book to him, sounds innocent enough right? Not when the same girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) is found dead the next morning, he was the last person to be seen with her could he really be the killer? He has the temperament to do such a thing, but why would he after giving her taxi money, it doesn’t make sense. A young girl who has so much ahead of her found strangled. Steele’s only chance of being saved is an alibi that is given by his neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) who seemingly gets him off the hook.
His violent past and record leave doubt in the minds of those investigating the murder. The audience is certainly left guessing, we doubt his innocence the more we learn from Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) his old army friend investigates. Almost certain that it’s Steele that has killed the young woman. We have only Laurel’s alibi to keep him in the clear and that’s not exactly airtight as it only covers the early evening when the woman was still alive. She slowly grows close to him in classic Hollywood style, falling for his charms and dangerous ideas. Not fully aware of what he is capable of. We see him put under immense strain by the police as the is questioned multiple times. He goes over the murder himself as if it were one he wrote himself. A coping mechanism maybe or was he the killer.
As the film progresses, so does romance between the two, softening up around Laurel enough to write that screenplay he’s asked for. He has come alive in more ways than one, all his passions are awoken. Be careful what you wish for as he begins to unravel, we see the rumour’s become fact, a monster is waking up before us. Is he the killer we still ask ourselves, as we even back him into a corner. Bogart could easily play either the good the bad or the flawed guy wanting, show the range of this incredible actor whose time on-screen was prolific and dark. Opposite one of the film-noir’s classic blonde-bombshells Gloria Grahame who softens from the hardened abrasive neighbour to the lover living in fear.
Where does this fit into Ray’s work though? At the beginning of his directing career, given what was probably an assignment to complete, lucky enough to work with these two actors who made this film a classic. Looking inside Hollywood to find a dark underworld of murder, lies and mistrust. Much like Billy Wilder‘s Sunset Blvd. (1950) which delves even further into that world of dog-eat-dog. Ray has yet to come out to give us more emotion that I found in They Live by Night or as late as Bigger Than Life (1956) with all its pent-up emotion just wanting to release. He has still produced a classic of the period that still works today and shows how great Bogie can be and whats better than that?