Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IX

film noir

Kino Lorber released two of their film noir sets in October which seemed weird to me since Noirvember was just a month later. But maybe they wanted to get them on the shelves a few weeks before the holiday so that fans would be ready to watch once November rolled around.

I watched these so long ago I had to read my own review just to remember if I liked this one (I did). You can do the same here.

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema X

film noir

I’ve fallen behind in posting links to my reviews over at Cinema Sentries. I wrote this one for Kino Lorber’s latest film noir boxed sets back in October, but what better time to share it than the tail end of Noirvember? To be honest this set was probably my least favorite one they’ve done. Mostly because the three films are boxing movies and not really noir. But whatever, you can read my review here.

Noirvember #11: The Dark Corner (1946)

the dark corner

I love me some William Bendix. He’s one of those great character actors that you don’t necessarily notice at first but then he keeps showing up in small parts in all sorts of films and you go, “oh there’s that guy again.” And he’s always good. I probably first noticed him in The Glass Key (1942) where he played a jovial gangster who rather enjoyed beating up on Alan Ladd.

He’s a heavy in The Dark Corner as well, but he’s smarter and more crafty, but not nearly as fun to watch. He’s been hired by the film’s true villain to spy on the hero of our picture, Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). He intentionally does a bad job of it so that Bradford will know someone’s keeping an eye on him. And then later trying to kill him.

Lucille Ball plays Galt’s secretary, but she doesn’t quite fit. Obviously, she was a gifted comedienne and a true treasure, I just wish they’d done something different with her character. They could have used her comedic talents and made something like The Thin Man where she wisecracks her way through the film. Or they could have made her the smartest person in the room. That’s what all the descriptions indicate she’ll be. I was expecting the Galt character to be rather dim-witted and she’s the smart secretary secretly solving all the crimes. Instead, she’s just a regular secretary and the love interest but is given very little of interest to do.

The story is fine, there are some good twists and it has the look of a good noir. But it never quite did it for me.

This makes yet another Noirvember film this month put into the just OK category. I fully expected this to happen as I intentionally picked relatively obscure films to watch instead of the well-known classics, but I have to admit I’m ready for something really good.

Noirvember #10: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

beyond a reasonable doubt

I’m generally not the type of person who complains about plot holes in a movie. I’m a firm believer that cinema is much more than the plot. I can easily overlook holes in a plot or problematic bits of a story when the acting, direction, cinematography, music, etc, are doing it for me.

Fritz Lang is a fantastic director. He came up making silent films in Germany so he knows how to tell a story visually, without a lot of audible or written language. But I almost turned Beyond a Reasonable Doubt off because the story was so ridiculously dumb.

Dana Andrews plays a guy who, along with his soon-to-be father-in-law hatch a plan to expose the inadequacies of the district attorney and the death penalty. The idea is to find a murder case that the police can’t solve, then plant a bunch of evidence making it look like Dana Andrew’s character is guilty. At the same time, they’ll take some photos and stuff proving they planted it. The police will catch him, the DA will prosecute him, and the jury will convict but just before he’s executed the father-in-law will reveal the plan and all will be saved. Also, they’ll expose how easy it is to convict and execute an innocent plan.

Anyone with half a brain can see how terrible this plan is. Nobody in their right mind would intentionally get convicted of a crime they didn’t commit expecting the justice system to correct itself when proof of innocence is procured. Anybody who has ever seen a film before will know that something will inevitably go wrong leading to a panic that our hero will actually face the gas chamber. Everyone will guess he gets saved at the last minute.

What I’m saying is this movie is dumb. Dana Andrews does his best to carry the plot on his shoulders. Fritz Lang does a decent job of adding what tension he can to the story. But I could not get past how stupid it all is.

Did I mention that the two men decide not to tell Andrews’s character’s fiance about this stupid, stupid, plan because they don’t want to worry her? Because apparently letting her believe her fiance is going to be wrongfully executed is no big deal. That’s how dumb this plot is.

Noirvember #9: The Dark Mirror (1946)

the dark mirror

I’ve been slacking in my film noir reviews. I’d apologize, but I can’t imagine any of you actually care.

The first fifteen minutes or so of The Dark Mirror are terrific. A man is stabbed to death in his apartment. Several witnesses put the man’s girlfriend Terry Collins (Olivia De Havilland) at the scene. But when Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) questions her, she provides several witnesses that can prove she was nowhere near the murdered man at the time of his death.

What the…? How can that be? Twins, that’s how. Terry has an identical twin sister named Ruth (also De Havilland). So, one of them did kill the man but the other has an airtight alibi. Trouble is no one can tell which one did what except the two sisters, and they aren’t saying.

The film has a lot of fun playing with that situation, befuddling the lieutenant at every turn. But then it introduces a psychologist, Dr. Scott (Lew Ayres) who has made a career out of studying twins. He begins seeing the girls individually, running them through a series of tests. Naturally, he also falls in love with one of them.

One of the twins is insane and has been gaslighting the other their entire lives. Naturally, there is a bit of a switcheroo with the twins, because you can’t have a movie about twins without having them pretend to be each other at some point. Once the doctor is introduced I started losing interest. He all but pushes the lieutenant out of the way and the story becomes less about a cop trying to solve a murder and more about a doctor analyzing patients. Boring is the word.

De Haviland is great. She creates two distinct characters out of the sisters while still making them fully believable as twins. Michell is very enjoyable as the lieutenant as well. I wish the film had stuck with him instead of getting all psychobabble with the doctor.

Noirvember #7: Fallen Angel (1944)

fallen angel poster

Laura the Otto Preminger film from 1944 is one of the all-time classic film noirs. It was a huge success upon its release and remains one of the genre’s most beloved films. Preminger followed it up with another noir, Fallen Angel, which also stars Dana Andrews. Here, he’s no longer a detective trying to solve a murder, but a drifter, a conman who gets into trouble he may not be able to get himself out of.

His name is Eric Stanton and he drifts into a small town called Walton because he doesn’t have the bus fare to make it to San Francisco and the driver kicks him off at the first stop once he learns Stanton doesn’t have a ticket. There he meets Stella (Linda Darnell) a beautiful, sultry waitress and like any good film noir sap, he falls immediately in love. But like any good dame in a film noir she won’t have him until he’s got some money. He figures he can get it from June (Alice Faye) a pretty, but reserved woman who hasn’t had much luck in love, but does have a lot of money.

Stanton figures she’s an easy mark. He can get lovey-dovey with her, score some cash out of her fat wallet then drop her and head back over to Stella. Naturally, things don’t go as planned and he finds himself on the run from the cops as a murder suspect.

The plot is just as complicated as Laura, but it isn’t nearly as compelling. Linda Darnell is the standout. She is radiant and mysterious. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get a ton of screen time and her character isn’t given much. Dana Andrews is fine. I love morally murky characters, especially men who think they have it all under control but are really quite clueless. Likewise, Alice Faye is perfectly acceptable but she’s missing that certain something to make this film truly great.

Well worth your time, but if you haven’t seen Laura grab that one instead.

Noirvember #6: This Gun For Hire (1942)

this gun for hire

I had forgotten I had seen this before, but once I got started it was too good to turn it off.

Alan Ladd, in his first real role (he’d been in other films before but they were bit parts, so small he gets an “introducing” credit here) stars as Raven, a sadistic killer-for-hire. But he’s so good in it, he brings such emotional complexity to the role that you can’t help but root for him. He’s hired by Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) to bump off a chemist and steal some papers. Raven doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t care what’s in the papers. He just does his job and takes his pay.

Gates double-crosses him by paying out in marked bills, ones that he claims to the police were stolen from his company. Detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is put on the case. He’s in love with Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) who was just hired by Gates as a performer in one of his nightclubs. She accidentally winds up on a train next to Raven. Gates sees them sitting next to each other, thinks they are in cahoots, and calls the cops. Raven holds Ellen hostage in order to get away from the cops. Though she isn’t in cahoots with Raven she is working with a local senator who believes Gates is selling secrets to foreign agents.

As you can see, it is a complicated, convoluted plot. Director Frank Tuttle keeps things moving at a quick pace but still manages to more or less keep all the convolutions understandable. Veronica Lake is lovely as usual though she isn’t given much to do. She sings a couple of songs while doing some pretty fun magic tricks and makes googly eyes with Detective Crane. Her scenes with Ladd are good, but mostly she’s just there to look pretty. Preston has even less to do. He’s top-billed but he’s in the fewest scenes out of the three main cast members and when he is on screen it is just to move the plot along.

This is completely Ladd’s film and it is easy to see why he became a star. He really nails the nuances of the role and makes us feel sorry for a guy who kills for a living.

Noirvember #5: Reign of Terror (1949)

reign of terror

The thing about film noir is that nobody really agrees on exactly what makes a film noir a noir. The plots for this genre are all over the place. But the one thing everybody agrees upon is that a film noir has a certain style, a certain look. It is all about the light and the shadows. Noir had a way of lighting a set and a character like nothing else.

Normally you wouldn’t say a movie about the French Revolution could be a film noir, but director Anthony Mann who was no stranger to the genre having directed He Walked By Night, one of the great noirs, films Reing of Terror just like it was a perfect fit.

In this version of events, Maximilian Robespierre (Richard Baseheart) is not satisfied with having led France into a revolution, overthrowing the King and instilling a reign of terror by beheading anyone who opposes him, he wants to be dictator for life as well. Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) is tasked with infiltrating the Jacobin Party in order to find a Black Book. In this book written all the names, Robespierre intends to kill at one time or another. Since nobody knows whose name is in the book, everyone is afraid to oppose him. But if the book is opened to the people then the people may decide the time has come for Robespierre to face the guillotine.

Or something. The details of the plot get a bit muddled as it goes along. But it looks fantastic. The sets are brilliant and the lighting is full of bold, dark shadows. It is the sort of film where you can forget what is happening in the actual story because you are so mesmerized by how it looks.

Cummings is good but it is Arnold Moss who steals the show as one of Robespierre’s henchmen who wouldn’t mind seeing him at the wrong end of a guillotine if it helps line his own pockets and gains him a little more power.

Reign of Terror is definitely worth the watching.

Noirvember: The Big Clock (1948)

the big clock poster

Knowing that I’m a big film noir fan, my wife recently bought me a bunch of postcards with film noir posters on them. Some of them I’ve seen, some of them I haven’t. A big chunk of my list of films to watch this month comes from those postcards. This is one of them.

Ray Milland plays George Stroud an editor at a big magazine in New York City. His boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) is tyrannical. He’s the type of guy who calls a meeting to yell at everybody because subscriptions are down, then demands they come up with immediate solutions only to berate them when they respond. He doesn’t berate George because he’s just got a major lead on a missing person’s case. Janoth demands that George stick with the case even though he has a vacation planned for the next day.

George can’t miss that vacation. He’s missed too many vacations with this job, including his honeymoon. His wife is none too happy with him. He quits the job, but still misses his train. A glamorous woman, Pauline York (Rita Johnson) overhears his predicament and sees it as an opportunity. She’s Janoth’s secret lover and she’s ready to sell him out. She wants George to tell the story.

She gets herself murdered. Janoth learns that someone was seen leaving her apartment not long after the time of death. He forces George to supervise a team of reporters to figure out who that man was.

Spoiler alert: that man was George. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find himself.

The Big Clock is a lot of fun to watch. Milland and Laughton are terrific. Elsa Lanchester, in a tiny role, steals the show. It is one of those films that’s really quite good, but there is some little something that keeps it from being great. Still, it is a swell time at the movies.

The Accused (1949)

the accused

If you are growing tired of #31Daysof Horror then feel some relief in knowing that #NoirVember is coming in just a few short weeks. That’s when I’ll be talking about a lot of film noirs. But until then you can enjoy my review of The Accused, a rather good film-noiresque drama starring the always wonderful Loretta Young. You can read my review here.