Posts Tagged ‘Film Noir’

Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Dir: Henry Levin | Cast: Nina Foch, Stephen Crane, Barton MacClane, Osa Massen, Blanche Yurka | US thriller 63’

The rather unlikely directoral debut of Henry Levin, Cry of the Werewolf (a title not echoed by anything that actually happens in the film) is a quickie detective/horror hybrid from Columbia that owes more to Val Lewton’s films at RKO than Universal’s Wolf Man.

Borrowings abound from The Cat People, such as the click of high heels pursuing the hero below stairs at the funeral parlour. Lewton, however, would shrewdly have avoided showing us as much as the animal as we see here, which obviously isn’t a genuine wolf; and John Abbott’s vivid description on the soundtrack of the “master’s mangled body, over him stood a terrible animal, with flaming dripping jaws” is completely undercut by the inoffensive-looking doggie woggie we see nonchalantly padding off in the accompanying flashback.

The luxurious main set, lit with his usual aplomb by L.W.O’Connell, was probably recycled from an earlier production, along with the main theme from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s score for The Return of the Vampire. As a pair of matriarchal lycanthropes, Nina Foch and the enjoyably malevolent-looking Blanche Yurka wouldn’t have looked out of place as members of the Palladists in The Seventh Victim, while – probably intentionally – far more electricity is generated between the remarkably youthful looking Miss Foch (who gets preposterously little screen time) and Osa Massen than between either of them and the incredibly boring hero Stephen Crane. Barton MacLane as a tough, no-nonsense detective conducts himself as if marauding werewolves are all in a day’s work for cops on the New Orleans beat. @RichardChatten

 

This Gun for Hire (1942) ***** Blu-ray

Dir.: Frank Tuttle; Cast: Veronica Lane, Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Laird Crogar, Tully Marshall, Mark Lawrence; USA 1942, 81 min. 

Frank Tuttle gives the full film noir treatment to Graham Greene’s themes of guilt and redemption in this highly influential thriller with iconic performances from Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Adapting Greene’s 1936 novel of the same name, the action is transported to wartime US where hit man Philip Raven has killed a blackmailing chemist and his girlfriend on the orders of shady operator Willard Gates (Crogar), who is after his research paper on poison gas. Gates works for Alvin Brewster (Marshall), the wheelchair bound Nitro Chemical boss, who wants to sell US secrets to the Japanese. Cat-lover Raven is quietly ruthless swearing revenge when he discovers his pay-0ff is counterfeit.

Nightclub-owner Gates has meanwhile hired magician and singer Ellen Graham (Lane), who, unbeknown to him, is working for a Senate committee on the trail of Brewster. Ellen is also engaged to police Lieutenant Michael Crane (Preston), who is hunting Raven. On a train journey, Raven and Ellen meet by accident, and he is smitten. Gates, who is also on the train, believes Ellen is Raven’s girl and plans to abduct and kill her. But Raven will save her life, finding her chained in a wardrobe in Gates’ mansion where Gates’ servant Tommy (Lawrence) is about to dump her in a river. Ellen and Raven are on the run, trying to nail Gates and Brewster. Meanwhile Crane is hunting the two, unsure if Ellen is still on his side.

DoP John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The lost Weekend) conjures up smouldering noir settings, among them an underground chase (with shades of The Third Man) in a gas works where Ellen and Raven are fleeing from the cops.  

One of the most revered and successful film noir hits of the 1940s This Gun for Hire would see Lake and Ladd team up again although this remains their standout feature as a duo. Raven is a frightening yet oddly sympathetic hit man, Ladd bringing out his humanity in a breakout debut turn that transformed him into a star. As The New York Times said of Ladd upon the film’s 1942 release, “He is really an actor to watch. After this stinging performance, he has something to live up to – or live down.”

Working with writers Albert Maltz and WR Burnett, Tuttle also underlines Raven’s ambiguity as a broken individual suffering from an abusive childhood. This wariness of people has kept him an outsider, and the narrative revolves round his strengthening relationship with Ellen whose life as a female nightclub-chanteuse also put her in a vulnerable position in the society of the day. And whilst the censors would have insisted on a happy-end for Ellen and Crane, there are moments when Ellen is hard pushed to choose sides. Stunningly cinematic, This Gun for Hire is also a clever character study of forbidden love. AS

ON BLU-RAY | EUREKA CLASSICS RANGE | 14 SEPTEMBER 2020

 

Robert Siodmak | Master of Shadows | Blu-ray release

Dresden 1918, Robert Siodmak left his upper-middle class, orthodox Jewish home in this epicentre of European modern art, to join a theatre touring company. He was 18, and this was the first of many radical changes that would see him becoming a pioneer of film noir, and directing 56 feature films fraught with (anti)heroes who are morose, malevolent, violent and generally downbeat (spoilers).

Robert Siodmak began his film career in 1925, translating inter-titles. Later he learnt the editing business with Harry Piel. In 1927/28 he worked under Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt (Das letzte Fort) and Alfred Lind. But MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (1929/30) (left) would transform his professional life forever. Together with Edgar G. Ulmer, he would direct a semi-documentary, social realist portrait that pictured ordinary Berliners, far away from the expensive “Illusionsfilme” (escapist films) of the UFA. The idea was the brainchild of Robert’s younger brother Curt (born in Kracow), who would become a screen-writer and director of Horror/SF films, and follow his brother and Ulmer to Hollywood – along with the rest of the team: Billy Wilder, Eugen Schüfftan, Fred Zinnemann and Rochus Gliese (later art director for Murnau’s Sunrise). Robert Siodmak, Ulmer and Giese would also be part of the “Remigrants”, film makers, who would return to Germany after 1945.

People_on_Sunday_2 copyMENSCHEN AM SONNTAG was filmed on a succession of Sundays in 1929. Subtitled “a film without actors” – which is misleading, since the actors – non-professionals – co-wrote and co-produced the film, had already returned to their day jobs when the film was premiered in 1930. The five main protagonists spend a weekend near a lake in a Berlin suburb: Wolfgang (a wine seller) and Christl (a mannequin) meet for the first time at the Bahnhof Zoo by accident on Saturday morning, Christl had been stood up. On the same evening, Erwin (a taxi driver) and his girl friend Annie have a violent quarrel, tearing up each other’s photos. As a result, Erwin and his friend Wolfgang travel with Christl on the following Sunday to the Nicolas Lake. And here on the ‘beach’ Wolfgang meets Brigitte (a vinyl record sales assistant), the four spend the day together; intercut with images of the forlorn “stay-at-home” Annie. The final scene returns the quartet to the heart of the metropolis: four million waiting for another Sunday. MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG is a chronicle; a document shot against the narrative UFA style of the day. There is no story, just interaction. Even in the complex narratives of his films Noir, Siodmak would always be the bystander, the person who observes much more than directs.

Inquest_2 copyINQUEST (VORUNTERSUCHUNG), Robert Siodmak’s third feature film as a director, produced in 1931, is his first ‘Kriminalfilm” (thriller). The student Fritz Bernt (Gustaf Fröhlich), has a three year-long affair with the prostitute Erna – he also receives money from her. After falling in love with his friend Walter’s sister, Fritz wants to leave Erna. Out of cowardice, he sends Walter to her flat to break the news. But Walter sleeps with Erna’s flatmate and goes for a drink afterwards. When Erna’s body is found the next morning, Fritz is the main suspect. In charge of the inquest is Dr. Bienert (Albert Bassermann), who happens to be Walter’s father. The denouement is a surprise. In many ways, INQUEST is a “Strassenfilm”, Kracauer’s definition of films where the middle-class protagonist is in love with a sexy prostitute, but goes home to roost, marrying a bourgeois girl of his own class. Some of the main scenes of the film are shot in the staircase of the house where Erna lives, the shadowy lighting clearly foreshadowing Siodmak’s Noir period. Sexuality is the enemy of bourgeois society here, and Bassermann’s Dr. Bienert is a blustering patriarch, who would sacrifice anyone to save his son.

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THE BURNING SECRET (BRENNENDES GEHEIMNIS) is based on a novel by Stefan Zweig. Shot in 1932, it was to be Siodmak’s last German film for 23 years. In a Swiss Sanatorium, the twelve-year old Edgar (H.J. Schaufuss) is bored, and pleased to befriend Baron Von Haller (Willi Forst), a racing driver. But he does not know that Von Haller is using him to get close to his mother (Hilde Wagner). Soon Edgar gets suspicious, the two adults always want to be alone. He surprises them in flagrante and runs home to his father, although he does not give his secret away. When his mother arrives, he looks at her knowingly, but stays ‘mum’. Siodmak has sharpened the edges of this coming-of-age story, the novel concentrating more on romantic and psychological aspects. There is real violence between Edgar and Von Haller, and the lovemaking of the adulterous couple, which Edgar interrupts, is more vicious than affectionate. When the film was premiered in March 1933, Siodmak was already living in Paris, and Goebbels denounced the film as un-German, not surprisingly, since both the author of the novel and the director of the film were Jews living abroad in exile.

Hatred_1 copyWhen Siodmak shot MOLLENARD (1937) in France, it would be the penultimate of his French-set features. (In 1938, he would finish “Ultimatum” for the fatally ill Robert Wiene; and in the same year he is credited with “artistic supervision” for Vendetta, directed by Georges Kelber). MOLLENARD (HATRED) is the nearest to a film Noir so far: it is a fight to the death between Captain Mollenard (Harry Baur) and his wife Mathide (Gabrielle Dorziat). Captain Mollenard is a gun runner in Shanghai, he is shown as a hero, a good friend to his crew. When he returns to Dunkirk and his wife and two children, illness renders him powerless to his vitriolic wife, who tries to turn the children against him. Mollenard attempts to use his strength to re-conquer his wife, but fails, unlike during his days in Shanghai. The son takes the side of his mother, the daughter tries to drown herself, but Mollenard saves her. In the end, his crew carries the dying man out of the house, he would end his life where he was most happy – at sea. MOLLENARD is a contrast between utopia and dystopia for the main protagonist: the sea, where he is free (to commit crimes), and the bourgeois home, where he is a prisoner of conventions. He is unable to survive in this which cold, emotionless prison. MOLLENARD is seen as his greatest film in France, a dramatic version of Noir.

Snares copyPIÈGES (1939) was Siodmak’s last French film before emigrating to the USA – and his greatest box-office success of this period. Whilst most of Siodmak’s French films featured fellow emigrés in front and behind the camera, PIÈGES only has the co-author, Ernst Neubach, as a fellow emigré– the DOP, Ted Pahle, was American, and the star, Maurice Chevalier, already an legend was very much a Frenchman: Siodmak had established himself. (A fact, which would count for nothing at the start of his US career.)  PIÈGES is the story of a serial killer who murders eleven women in the music-hall world of Paris. The police, whose main suspect is the night-club-owner and womaniser Fleury (Chevalier), chooses Arienne (the debutant Marie Dea), to lure the murderer into the open. But Arienne falls in love with Fleury’s associate Brémontière, only to find out that he is the murderer. In the end the gutsy Arienne (Dea is a subtle antithesis to the French heroines of this period) has to risk her lift to save her husband Fleury’s. There are more than a few clues to the later “Phantom Lady” in PIÈGES.  Eric von Stroheim is brilliant as a mad fashion czar who has lost his fortune and adoring women.

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SON OF DRACULA (1943) was already Robert Siodmak’s seventh film in Hollywood, his first for Universal. Scripted by his brother Curt, SON OF DRACULA was a great risk for Robert, it was his first outing in the classical Horror genre, not to mention the great ‘Dracula tradition’ started by Ted Browning in 1931. The film is set in the bayous of Louisianna, where Katherine Caldwell has inherited the plantation “Dark Oaks” from her father, who died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. She gives a party, and entertains Count Alucard (Lon Chaney jr.) an acquaintance  from her travels in central Europe. She discards her fiancée Frank and marries Alucard. Frank shoots the count, but the bullet passes through him, killing Katherine. In prison, Katherine visits him as a bat, turning into her human form (a first in film history), and asking Frank to kill Alucard, so they can live together forever as vampires. Frank grants her wish, but also burns her in her coffin. SON OF DRACULA is pure gothic horror, but suffered from Lon Chaney jr. being miscast in a role created by Bela Lugosi as his Alter Ego. Strongest are the scenes in the bayous, where the evil still lurks after the death of Katherine and Alucard: everything seems toxic, the spell of the vampire lives on.

Cobra_Woman_1.jpg_rgb copyCOBRA WOMAN (1943) was Robert Siodmak’s first film in colour, shot in widescreen Technicolor. Its star, Maria Montez, an aristocrat from the Dominican Republic, whose real name was Maria Africa Garcia Vidal de Santo Silas, would later gain cult status after her early death at the age of 39 from a heart attack in her bathtub in Paris. Maria plays Tollea, who is whisked away just before her wedding to Ramu, to her birth island where her evil twin sister Naja (also played by Montez) holds sway. Ramu and his helper Kado follow her, but Tollea has decided to sacrifice her love for Ramu to become the new ruler of the island, so as to prevent an eruption of the volcano provoked by Naja’s sins. COBRA WOMAN is pure camp, Siodmak said “it was nonsense, but fun”.

Phantom_Lady_1 copyIn 1943 Siodmak was on a roll: he would make four film that year, and PHANTOM LADY (1943) was also the most important of his American period to date: the first of a quartet, which would form with The Spiral Staircase, The Killers and Criss Cross, the classic Noir films of their creator.

PHANTOM LADY is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (William Irish), a prolific writer, whose novels and short stories were the basis for twenty films Noir of the classic period. They also provided the basis for Nouvelle Vague fare. Pivotal in Woolrich’s novels is the race against time. Scott Henderson, an engineer, is accused of murdering his wife. He proclaims his innocence, but is sentenced to death. His secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) is convinced he is not a murderer, and together with inspector Burges, she sets out to find the real culprit. Henderson’s alibi is a woman with a flamboyant hat, he meets in a bar, and spends the evening with, while  his wife was murdered – but they promised not to reveal their identities. The mystery woman  is illusive and when Carol tries to unravel her identity, the barman, who to denies having seen her at all, is run over by a car shortly after interviewed by Richman. Another witness, a drummer (Elisha Cook. Jr.), is also murdered, before Richman corners Franchot Tone, an artist, and Richman’s best friend as the murderer: he had an affair with Richman’s wife. German expressionism and Siodmak’s customary near documentary style dominate: New York is a bed of intrigue, where shadows lurk and footsteps signal danger. The majority of scenes could be watched without dialogue, particularly Cook’s drummer solo, which fits in well with the impressionist décor. With PHANTOM LADY, Robert Siodmak had found his (sub)genre.

Christmas_Holiday_10CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944), based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, has a most misleading title and is perhaps Siodmak’s most exotic film Noir. Lt. Mason, on Christmas leave, is delayed in New Orleans, where he meets the singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durham) who tells him her real name is Abigail Manette, and that her husband Robert (Gene Kelly) is in jail for murdering his bookie. In a long flashback, we see Robert’s mother trying to cover up her son’s crime. After Jackie leaves Mason, she is confronted in a roadhouse by Robert who has escaped from jail. Before he can shoot her, a policeman’s bullet kills him. Like “Phantom Lady”, CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is photographed again by Woody Bredell, New Orleans is a tropical, outlandish setting and the film has much more the feel of a French film-noir than an American. Siodmak uses Wagner’s “Liebestod” to frame the love story of the doomed couple.

THE SUSPECT (1944) is one of Siodmak’s less convincing Noirs. Philip Marshall (Charles Laughton), a sedentary middle-aged man, is driven out by his heartless wife Cora, and falls in love with the much younger Mary (Ella Raines). Philip becomes a different person, and thrives with his new love. But Cora finds out about the couple and threatens Philip with disclosure, which would have ruined him professionally. He kills first Cora, then his neighbour Gilbert Simmons, who blackmails him. Inspector Huxley has no proof against him, and Philip could start a new life with his young wife in Canada, but he decides to stay and give himself up, just as Huxley had predicted. Shot entirely in a studio, THE SUSPECT lacks suspense, and is only remarkable for Laughton’s brilliant performance.

The_Strange_Affair_of_Uncle_Harry_3 copyTHE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945) features a semi-incestuous relationship between brother and sister: John “Harry” Quincy (George Sanders) lives a quiet life in New Hampshire with his sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester. When he meets the fashion designer Deborah Brown (Ella Raines), he falls in love with her. Lettie is jeaulous, and feigns a heart attack. Harry wants to murder her, but Hester drinks the poison intended for Lettie, who is convicted for Hester’s murder, but does not give away the real culprit, since she knows that her death will prevent Harry from marrying Deborah. To mollify The “MPAA code agency”, Siodmak found a new ending: Harry wakes up at, having only dreamt the events; producer Joan Harrison resigned from the project in protest. Lettie is a psychopath in the vein of the murderer in Phantom Lady and Olivia de Havilland’s murderous twin in The Dark Mirror. But there is more ambiguity to the narrative than is obvious at first sight: there is a vey clear resemblance between Lettie and Deborah – they might have been exchangeable for Harry. THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY is one of the darkest Noirs, because all is played out on the background of a very respectable family, in small town America.

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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) is Siodmak’s most famous Noir, a classic because of its old-dark-house setting and the woman-in-peril theme. In a small town in New England, handicapped women are being murdered. Helen (Dorothy McGuire) is watching a silent movie in town, where a lame woman is strangled. Helen then hurries home, to look after the family matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who is bedridden. Since Helen is mute, she is in mortal danger: the killer lives in the house. When Helen finds the body of Blanche, who was engaged to Albert Warren (George Brent), after having left his half-brother Steve, Helen suspects Stephen and locks him in the cellar; then she tries to phone Dr. Parry, but she cannot communicate. Too late she finds out that Albert is the killer, who chases her up the spiral staircase, but his mother gets up and shoots him, causing Helen, who lost her voice after witnessing the traumatic death of her parents, to cry out loud. Very little of the background to the narrative has been mentioned: the theme being eugenics, a concept the late President Theodore Roosevelt was very keen on. Albert Warren has taken this concept a step further; he kills “weak and imperfect” humans because he believes his father would be proud of him. Like T. Roosevelt, Albert’s father was a big-game hunter. In his mother’s bedroom is a poster with a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike and the initials “TR” above an elephant’s tusk. Considering the Nazi Euthanasia programmes, this aspect of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE has often been neglected by critics.

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THE DARK MIRROR (1946) reflects Hollywood’s interest in Freud. Two identical sisters, Terry and Ruth Collins, both played by Olivia de Havilland, are suspected of murder, when one of the women’s suitors is found dead. Inspector Stevenson is fascinated by the two woman, but would not have solved the crime without the help of Dr. Elliot, a psychoanalyst. He finds out that whilst Ruth is a very adjusted and loving person, Terry is just her opposite: a ruthless psychopath, who fabricates clues, to make Ruth look like the murderess, whilst at the same time is planning to kill her sister, before Dr. Elliot is able to expose her. Siodmak deals with the “Doppelgänger” theme, which was explored as early as in the silent film era of expressionism, by using Freudian theory to explain the perversity of the “evil” sister: rejection, confusion and lastly alienation let her spin out of control, allowing only “herself” to survive. Unlike in The Spiral Staircase, the interior is totally unthreatening, which makes Terry’s murderous lust even more terrifying.

TIme_Out_of_Mind_2 copyTIME OUT OF MIND (1946/7) is more melodrama than Noir. Chris Fortune (Robert Hutton), the son of a heartless and ambitious shipping tycoon, falls in love with the servant girl Kate (Phyllis Calvert). But in 19th century New England, this was not the social norm. Kate encourages Chris to marry a lady of his class, who turns out to be a beast and drives Chris more into alcohol dependency. Chris fancies himself as a composer, but only Kate believes in his talent. The Noir aspect is the family constellation: Chris is obviously weak, and his overbearing father (Leo G. Carroll) rules over his life. More to the point, Chris’s sister Rissa (Ella Raines) seemingly protects her younger brother, but is in reality totally obsessed by him. She represents the semi-incestuous theme running, not only through Siodmak’s, noir films.

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CRISS CROSS (1949) is perhaps Siodmak’s most personal Noir. Reworking elements of The Killers – and casting Burt Lancaster again in the role of the obsessed lover -, CRISS CROSS is the story of an “amour fou”, its emotional intensity on par with Tourneur’s classic Out of the Past. Steve Thompson (Lancaster) is still in love with his ex wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), who now lives with the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). But when the two of them meet in a bar, the whole things starts up again. Dundee surprises them, Thompson comes up with an excuse: he needs Dundee’s help for an armed car robbery. But Dundee is suspicious: he and his gang kill Thompson’s partner and wound him after the robbery. When Anna goes missing with the money, Dundee suspects the couple have double-crossed him. Dundee has Thompson abducted, but Thompson bribes his captors and finds Anna. She is terrified by the thought that Dundee will find them and wants to abandon the wounded Steve, but Dundee arrives and shoots them both, before running towards the police. The final scene, when Anna’s and Steve’s bodies fall literally into each other, bullets flying as the police siren’s grow louder, is the apotheosis of everything that’s gone on since the scene in the bar. From then on, in true Noir fashion, all is told in flashbacks and voice-over narration. Anna is the quintessential Noir heroine, telling Steve: “All those things which have happened we’ll forget it. You see, I make you forget it. After it’s done, after it’s all over and we are safe, it will be just you and me. The way it should’ve been all along from the start”. CRISS CROSS is my personal favourite: dark, expressionistic, melancholic and wonderfully doomed.

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THE GREAT SINNER (1948/9) is an awkward mixture of high literature and low-brow melodrama. Based partly on Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Gambler” and some autobiographical details of this author, Siodmak struggles to bring this expensive “A-picture” to life. The stars Gregory Peck (Fedya) and Ava Gardener (Pauline Ostrovsky) – in the first of three collaborations – do their best, but Christopher Isherwood’s script is a hotchpotch of the sensational and sentimental, tragic events unfold fast and furiously, logic and characterisation falling by the wayside. Told in a long flash-back, Pauline receives a manuscript from the dying writer Fedya, in which he tells the story of their first meeting in 1860 in Wiesbaden. Then, Fedya met Pauline on a train journey from Paris to Moscow, but follows her to the casino in Wiesbaden, to study the effects of gambling on the whole Ostrovsky clan. When Pitard, a gambler and friend of Pauline, steals Fedya’s money, the latter tries to save Pitard from his fate, and gives him the money so he can leave the city. But Pitard loses in the casino and shoots himself. Strangely enough, Fedya, who has fallen in love with Pauline, also becomes addicted to gambling – but telling himself, that he wants to win the money, so that Pauline’s father can pay back his debts to the casino owner Armand, and thus free Pauline from the engagement to the ruthless tycoon. But after some early success, Fedya looses heavily, tries to in vain to pawn a religious medal, which belongs to Pauline; finally, he wants to commit suicide, before he looses consciousness. Recovered, he finishes his novel and Pauline forgives him. In spite of a strong supporting cast including Ethel Barrymore, Melvin Douglas, Agnes Moorehead and Walter Huston, THE GREAT SINNER flopped at the box-office, having cost 20 m Dollar in today’s money, it lost 8 m Dollar. Siodmak, according to Gregory Peck, did not enjoy the responsibility of the big budget production, “he looked like a nervous wreck”.

The_File_on_Thelma_2 copyWith THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1949) Siodmak returned to the safe ground of Noir films. Thelma (Barbara Stanwyck) is unhappily married to Tony Laredo (Richard Rober), but is attracted to his animalistic sex-appeal. When she discusses burglaries at her wealthy aunt’s house, where she also lives, with assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Correy), the two fall in love. When the aunt is killed, and a necklace stolen, Thelma is the main suspect, because Tony has been away to Chicago. Thelma is put on trial, and Cleve pays her lawyer and plans the trial strategy with him, even though he has learned about Thelma’s past, and is convinced that she is the murderer. The aunt’s butler has seen a stranger at the crime scene, but did not recognise him. Thelma, who knows that the person is Cleve, does not give his name away. She is aquitted and wants to leave town with Tony, when Cleve confronts them. Tony beats Cleve up and the couple flee, but Thelma causes an accident on purpose, in which both are killed – but not before she has confessed to the murder. In spite of this, Cleve’s career and marriage is ruined. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON is a neat reversal on Double Indemnity, which also starred Stanwyck as the Queen of all femme fatales. But here, Thelma and Cleve really love each other, and Thelma pays for her crime with her life, and Cleve will be ostracised by society for a long time. Whilst Wilder’s couple was evil from the beginning, Siodmak gives his lovers a much more human touch. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON was Robert Siodmak’s last American Film Noir. He would later direct two more films, which are in certain ways close to the subgenre; but he would never again achieve the greatness of his American Film Noir cycle, even his directing output would run to another 18 films.

The_Crimson_Pirate_3In the THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1951/2) Siodmak was reunited with Burt Lancaster, who also produced the film. Set in the late 18th century in the Caribbean, Captain Vallo (Lancaster), is a pirate, who tries to make money from selling weapons to the rebels on the island of Cobra, lead by El Libre (Frederick Leicester). On the island, Vallo falls in love with El Libre’s daughter Conseuela (Eva Bartok). Later he has to rescue her father, and support the revolution – even against the wishes of his fellow pirates, who do not see the reason for such a good deed – since it is totally unprofitable! In a stormy finale with tanks, TNT, machine guns and an outstanding colourful airship, our hero, now in drag, wins the revolution and Consulea’s heart. What is most surprising is the humour and lightheartedness of the production. Everything is told tongue-in-cheek, the action scenes are overwhelming and Lancaster (the ex-circus acrobat) dominates the film with his stunts. It seems hardly credible Robert Siodmak, creator of gloom and doom, dark shadows and even darker hearts, would be responsible for such an uplifting and hilarious spectacle, 15 years before Louis Malle’s equally enchanting “Viva Maria!”. Ken Adam, the future “Bond” production designer, earned one of his first credits for this film.

It will never be absolutely clear why Robert Siodmak decided to leave Hollywood after he finished THE CRIMSON PIRATE, to work again in Germany (with a one-film stop in France, so as to repeat his journey of the thirties backwards). In the USA, he was offered a lucrative six-film deal and had shown with his last film, that he could now also handle big productions successfully. There are rumours of pending HUAC hearings, because of his friendship with Charles Spencer Chaplin, but Siodmak himself never mentioned these as a reason for the return to his homeland. Rather like Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer, it can only be assumed that “Heimweh” was the reason for Siodmak’s return. True, he lived in Ascona, Switzerland, but he worked nearly exclusively in Germany. What he, and other “Remigrants” did not reckon with, was the political and cultural climate in the Federal Republic of Germany. When these directors had left Germany, the Nazis had just started the transformation of the country. But in the early fifties, the democracy of the country was not chosen, but forced on the population by the Allies. Old Nazis were still in many powerful positions, and the majority of the population still grieved, full of self-pity, about their defeat. The Third Reich, and particularly the Holocaust, were more or less Taboo, both in daily life and in all cultural referenced. The film industry also suffered from the lack of a new beginning; even Veit Harlan, director of Jud Süss, was allowed to restart his career. It is no co-incidence that neither Lang or Ulmer produced anything notable after their return.

The_Devil_Strikes_at_Night_4 copyThe same can be said for Robert Siodmak, with one exception: THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT (NACHTS WENN DER TEUFEL KAM), which he directed in 1957 was, deservedly, nominated for the “Oscar” as “Best foreign film”. Set during WWII in Hamburg, the film tells the story of the serial killer Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf). When caught by inspector Kersten (Claus Holm), the latter’s superior, the Gestapo Officer Rossdorf (Hannes Messmer) points out that another man had already been ‘convicted’: Willi Keun (Wolfgang Peters), a small-time party member, had “been shot whilst escaping” – without informing the population about the murders, since just a monstrous criminal did not fit in with ruling ideology of the Aryan supremacy. Both, police man and Gestapo officer, now have the difficult task to start to convince the authorities that a German serial killer was on the loose for over a decade. Both will be sent to the Eastern front, to cover up the case. The film is based on real events, Bruno Lüdke (1908-1944) was mentally retarded, but may have confessed to more murders than he actually committed – to clear up unsolved murder cases. Siodmak re-creates the atmosphere of his best Noir films: the city is darkened, the image dissolves from an omniscient perspective to a particular one – particularly in the scene where Lüdke is caught in the headlights of a car. Fear and excitement permeate like a black stain throughout. Kesten’s obsession with the case create a fragmented world, where the images seem to splinter. Chaos rules, and nobody seems to be safe: the hunt for Lüdke, which frames the film, is shown like a haunting parable on the destructive nature of the 3rd Reich. Unfortunately, Siodmak fell short of this standard in the other 12 films directed in West Germany between 1955 and 1969.

The_Rough_and_the_Smooth_1In 1959 Siodmak worked in the Elstree-Borehamwood studios, to direct THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, based on the novel by Robin Maugham. Robert Cecil Romer, 2nd Viscount Maugham, nephew of Somerset Maugham, was the enfant terrible of his family. Socialist and self-confessed homosexual, he was a very underrated novelist: The Servant, filmed in 1963 by Joseph Loosey, with Dirk Bogarde in the title role, is one of the classics of British post-WWII cinema. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH shows similarities: Mike Thompson (Tony Britton), an archeologist, is engaged to Margaret (Natasha Parry), the daughter of his boss, who finances his work. Mike feels trapped in a loveless relationship, and falls for Ila Hansen (Nadja Tiller), a young and attractive woman. But she has a secret: not only is she in cahoots with the tough gangster Reg Barker (William Bendix), but there is a third man in her life, who has a hold over her. After Barker commits suicide, driven by Hansen’s demands, the latter tries also to blackmail Mike and Margaret. The ending is quiet original. There are very dark undertones, particularly for the late 50s, when Ila comments: “I don’t cry much, I have been hurt a lot”. THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH is a subversive film considering the context of its period. The camera pans over stultified Britain of the last 50s, where there seems to be no middle-ground between boring respectability and outright perversion. When the two worlds collide, the conflict is fought on both sides with grim, violent determination. With THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH, Siodmak, would, for the last time, come close to his American Noir films, for which he was called “Prince of the Shadows”: referring not only to the quality of the images, but also to a society, where, to quote Brecht, “we are only aware of the ones in the light, the ones in the shadows, we don’t see”. Robert Siodmak made sure that the ones in the shadows played the major roles in his Films Noir career. Andre Simonoviescz ©

MASTER OF SHADOWS | A RETROSPECTIVE OF ROBERT SIODMAK

Masters of Cinema home video release of CRISS CROSS; Robert Siodmak’s influential film noir masterpiece; to be released on 22 June 2020.

 

 

 

Woman in Chains (1968) | Classic Clouzot on Mubi

French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) is best remembered for his dark thrillers and some of the greatest films of the 1950s.  The Wages of Fear won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Berlinale Golden Bear in 1953, and rounded off the hat trick with a BAFTA two years later.

Even Alfred Hitchcock docked his hat to his French contemporary whose documentary Mystere de Picasso records the legendary artist painting various canvasses for the camera, allowing us to understand his creative purpose at work.  Le Corbeau is now available to watch at home, together with Elizabeth Wiener’s distinctive performance in Woman in Chains  (aka La Prisonniere, Clouzot’s last film and his only one in colour). Quai des Orfevres, completes the trio, of stylish films from the French Master of Suspense now emerging from the shadows to watch online at MUBI. With striking visuals and an unforgettably tense style, Clouzot’s films make classic noir viewing.

Le Corbeau (1942)

A stylish masterpiece of French cinema, Le Corbeau is a dark and subversive study of human nature starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc. In a nod to the Vichy regime of the era (not to mention Nazism), a wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of unsettling letters soon becomes a flood, and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations. Upon its release in 1943, Le Corbeau was condemned by the political left and right and the church, and Clouzot was banned from filmmaking for two years.

Woman in Chains (1968)

Josée (Elizabeth Wiener) is the wife of an artist whose work is exhibited in Stan Hassler’s modern art gallery. Stan (Laurent Terzieff), impotent and depraved, satisfies himself by photographing women in humiliating poses. Josée is fascinated by the man and soon falls completely in love with him.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A marriage that has fallen on hard times is further tested by the couple’s implication in a murder. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman (Charles Dullin) offers her the chance of some gigs. However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening – Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Antoine, played by Louis Jouvet, leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.

Henri-Georges Clouzot Focus now on MUBI.com

 

 

 

 

Femmes Fatales of Fashion | London Fashion Week 2021

The sinister crime-laden dramas that came out of post war Hollywood were the visual expressions of anxiety. Film Noir featured venal antiheroes, mysterious femme fatales, and rain-soaked urban settings where shadows and intrigue played upon the inner consciousness. The tightly scripted stories were also richly thematic, compellingly seductive and wonderful to look at. And that iconic look was often created by women designers. 

Based on hard-edged detective stories from the likes of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, ‘Crime Noir’ was spiced up by the wartime influx of sophisticated European craftsman such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tourneur and Robert Siodmak whose edgy expressionism and Avantgarde lighting techniques added zest to the predominantly black & white post war genre. 

By the mid 1940s Film Noir reigned supreme. Nightly screenings – and each night was different – saw the stars of the day strutting their stuff but also looking amazing into the bargain: Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogarde, Gene Tierney and June Vincent all had their particular allure. And some Noir actors also directed the genre such as The Big Combo‘s Cornel Wilde with Storm Fear (1955). But while the narratives were unsavoury the costumes were quite the opposite: the elegant couture, hairstyles and even jewellery made style icons of these scheming antiheroes, adding charisma to their public profiles in stark contrast to the characters they played. By association, film noir became arguably the most strikingly seductive genre in the film firmament.   

But while the filmmakers arrived from Europe, the costume designers were often American woman with noirish backstories of their own to the bring to the party. Universal’s head of costume design for twenty years VERA WEST (1898-1947), met a tragic death drowning in her own swimming pool, dressed in one of her signature silk dressing gowns (ironically her designs for Virginia Grey had the been the star turn in Charles Barton’s film-noir Smooth as Silk the previous year ). Although the evidence pointed towards suicide as a result of a troubled past, there have since been rumours that her husband was to blame.

West had trained in Philadelphia and worked as apprentice to the pioneering British catwalk designer Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile) before being hired by Stanley Kubrick to create Ava Gardner’s look in The Killers (1946). She also designed for June Vincent in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946); for Teresa Wright in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and the outfits for Lewis D Collins’ Danger Woman (1946). Despite these high-profile commissions, she never received an award until finally winning the Costume Designers Guild Hall of Fame in 2005. 

Another female Hollywood designer shrouded in intrigue was IRENE LENZ GIBBONS – known simply as Irene (1900-1962), whose private life was as colourful as her gowns. A shrewd business woman she ran a series of boutiques and was also appointed head of costume design at MGM, replacing the well-known legend Adrian. Her Noir credentials included couture for Katherine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946) based on a story by Thelma Shrabel.

She also was credited for the couture creations in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) where a married Lana Turner and her lover plan to kill her husband (Cecil Kellaway). Other Noir and thriller projects included Roy Rowland’s Scene of the Crime (1949) and Gaslight (1944). Reports of her long-standing love affair with Gary Cooper were never confirmed but she committed suicide after slashing her wrists and jumping out of Los Angeles’ Knickerbocker Hotel a year after his death. 

One of the most successful female designers of film noir was undoubtedly BONNIE CASHIN (1915-2000). Cashin was already making dresses from the age of 8. By 16 her talent was making her a living as designer for the chorus line based in Los Angeles which led her into theatre work in New York. Returning West in the early 1940s she signed with 20th Century Fox where she made a name for herself with the gowns in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945); Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948) – Shelley Winter’s leopard skin coat would have the activists up in arms, but back then it certainly made her stand out in the sleazy night scenes.

Cashin’s style worked wonders for Signe Hasso in Hathaway’s Oscar-winning The House on 92nd Street (1944) and for Gene Tierney in Laura. Nightmare Alley (1947) gave her the opportunity to work with a leading cast of Tyrone Power (as antihero Stan Carlyle), Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. Power’s untimely death of a heart attack aged 44, saw the film gain wider circulation over the years due to his popularity, and Cashin’s costumes lived on into the late 1950s and beyond. MT

London Fashion Week 2021

LAURA is now on Bluray courtesy of EUREKA (MASTERS OF CINEMA) 

The Wild Goose Lake (2019) *** Cannes Film Festival 2019

Dir: Diao Yinan | Cast: Hu Ge, Gwei Lun Mei, Laio Fan, Wan Quian, Qi Dao, Huang Jue, Zheng Meihuizi, Zhang Yicong, Chen Yongzhong | China 113′

Chinese writer-director Diao Yinan’s long-awaited follow up to Berlinale winner Black Coal, Thin Ice is a beautiful and beguiling crime caper that somehow fails to deliver the thrills it promises, rather like the bathing beauties who seduce and tease on the murky shores of the Wild Goose Lake of its setting.

This enjoyable and elegantly styled noir thriller is certainly awash with wonderful set-pieces and exquisite visual moments which skilfully echo China’s gilded past and leave us in no doubt of its contempo criminality and territory wars. The enigmatic plot involves a sinuous gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) on the run from his own mob and the local police, one of whom he shot by accident in a frenzy-fuelled bike escapade along the lake, near the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Sashaying between various timeframes The Wild Goose Lake follows Zenong as he meets up with  with Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun Mei/Black Coal, Thin Ice) one of the bathing beauties (sex workers) who works for his boss, and may have been sent to help him. But the police have also set a ransom on his head so Liu Aiai may be tempted to turn him in.

The two chase through narrow streets and backwaters, Zenong on the run from everybody, including his shop worker wife Yang Shujun (Wan Qian), and Liu Aiai pursuing him in a chase that turns out also to be fuelled by lust. Eventually she catches up with him in a languorous lakeside scene where Zenong is lounging in a becalmed boat, bleeding profusely from his wounds. She seduces him and spits his semen out into the water, from then on the two are close allies. Swinging through the backstreets and side alleys, Dong Jinsong’s fast-moving camerawork skilfully captures the neon drenched ambiance. One scene features dancers rocking to the 70s disco hit “Rasputin” their LED-lit trainers adding a jewel-like dimension to the night setting.

But these are Noirish nights and there’s no happy ending in sight for the lovers as they rush from scene to scene. The Wild Goose Lake is at heart a wild and beautiful goose chase between the cops, the crooks, a gangster on the run and his femme fatale. But when did Noir thrillers ever have a happy ending? MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | IN COMPETITION 14-25 MAY 2019

 

Phantom Lady (1944) ****

Dir: Robert Siodmak | Wri: Bernard C Shoenfeld | Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Elisha Cook, Regis Toomey, Fay Helm | US Noir Thriller 87′

This was Robert Siodmak’s first American success, a Noir thriller based on a book by Cornell Woolrich who would seed the storyline for a series of similar titles. Woody Bredell’s moody camerawork and Siodmak’s jagged angles echo German expressionism heightening the suspense of this twisty whodunnit. The wife of an unhappily married engineer (Alan Curtis) is murdered and his only alibi is a woman with a distinctive hat who disappears without trace after the two spend an impromptu evening together. But no one can remember the woman after their soiree so Curtis faces the chair, depressed and losing faith in his own judgement. His only hope is his faithful secretary (a vampish Ella Raines).who is determined to save him, along with a cop called Gomez (Burgess) who adds psychological insight into the criminal mind. As they work through the clues and the evidence together, the woman and the hat eventually emerge. Taut and tightly scripted, Phantom Lady seems to pack a great deal into its modest running time. Stylish costumes are by Vera West (Shadow of a Doubt) and musical choices are evocative. There’s also a racy jazz scene, the instruments filmed up close, adding a frenzied feel to the affair. MT

OUT ON BLURAY FROM 4th March 2019 | with extras Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir a documentary with insight from Edward Dymtryk, Dennis Hopper and Robert Wise. 

 

So Dark the Night (1946) *** Bluray release

Dir: Joseph H Lewis | Cast: Henri Cassin, Micheline Cheirel, Eugene Borden | US Noir, 70′

Joseph H Lewis dabbled in various genres but is particularly well-known for his 1940s film noir outings . So Dark the Night has the advantage being shot by the Oscar-winning Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde) whose chiaroscuro mastery elevates this rather implausible French-set whodunit making it stylish and worthwhile, along with its fine score by Hugo Friedhofer (who would win the music Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives in the following year). Based on a novel by London-born Aubrey Wisberg, it stars Steven Geray as exhausted Parisian detective Henri Cassin who decides to take a break in the country. There he falls for the hotelier’s daughter Nanette (Hollywood star Micheline Cheirel) who is already engaged to a local farmer, but who (as usual) yearns for the bright lights of gay Paree. On the night of their engagement both Nanette and the farmer disappear leaving the hapless detective with another mystery – and more work – on his hands. Plus ça change!. MT

OUT ON BLURAY FROM 18 FEBRUARY 2019 COURTESY OF ARROW

Budapest Noir (2017) *** UK Jewish Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Eva Gardos; Cast: Krisztian Kolovratnik, Reka Tenki, Janos Kulka, Adel Kovats, Franziska Töröcsik; Hungary 2017, 94 min.

Veteran director Eva Gardos (An American Rhapsody) serves up a slick but conventional noir spoof that offers decent entertainment despite its cliche-ridden script. There are too many holes in the narrative, the brothel scenes are voyeuristic, and without any knowledge of the complex Hungarian history of the era, audiences will find it hard to understand what’s going on. But BUDAPEST NOIR looks simply stunning and serves as a perceptive study of Hungarian fascism and Anti-Semitism.

In October 1936, Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, had died of cancer in Munich. His body was received in Budapest with full military honours (Gömbös had boasted about his fascist credentials). Crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon (Kolovratnik) meets an enigmatic young woman in a restaurant, who tells the waiter that the journalist will pick up her bill. When he finds her note to him, promising to pay back the money, the womanising journalist’s interest is aroused – only to discover her murdered a few days later. But when her body then disappears from the morgue, Gordon makes his own inquiries against the advice of the authorities. He finds out that the girl in question, Fanny (Töröcsik), is the daughter of Andras Szöllosy, a wealthy Jewish coffee importer with links to the government. He converted to Catholicism, and started a lucrative business with Nazi Germany. Helped by his on/off girl friend Krisztina (Tenki), a photographer who had just had an assignment in a German camp (sic), Gordon finds out that Fanny’s father had driven his daughter into prostitution, forbidding her to see her Jewish boyfriend, because of his fears for her future. But after Fanny had become pregnant in a high-class brothel, her situation deteriorated. And when Gordon finally catches up with Fanny’s parents, he mother Irma (Kovats) reacts dramatically.

Sad to say, Hungarian Fascists were as brutal as their Germans counterparts. The ruling Regent, Admiral Horthy, felt superior to Hitler, who had spent a decade in a dosshouse. Gömbös, Horthy’s Prime Minister, wanted two nations to be more closely allied, whilst Horthy only supported Hitler without reservations after the outbreak of WWII, when Hungarian troops fought on the side of the Axis.

It is ironic that Horthy was deposed by Hitler when it came to the deportation of the 400 000 Hungarian Jews in 1944 – it turned out that the Hungarian fascists (Pfeilkreuzler) and the population as a whole, did not share Horthy’s reservation, they enthusiatiscally assisted the Germans to send the Jews to the death camps.

There are scenes of open Anti-Semitism in Budapest Noir: in one scene, a bar singer croons a song composed by a Jew, and some Anti-Semites in the audience attack him. Gordon stops them, but the real fighter is his Krisztina, who leaves him for London, to show her death camp images in an exhibition “because over there are people who really care”. The Szöllosy’s family history is typical for Jews of the region: many had converted to Catholicism, trying to deny their Jewish heritage, and, like Fanny’s father, would marry their offspring to anybody but a Jew. Gordon represents the cynical by-stander, who is only after a good story, he does not mind taking a beating, but is totally non-committed on a personal and political level. Strangely enough, Budapest Noir is – in spite of its obvious faults – a mirror of a society where the points for the future genocide are being put in place. AS

SCREENING DURING UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2018 |

Secret Beyond the Door (1947) | Bluray release

Dir: Fritz Lang | Noir | US 1947

This domestic noir from Fritz Lang. SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR  stars a luminous Joan Bennett as Celia, a elegant woman who marries a troubled and mercurial architect Mark (Michael Redgrave) with a secret past. Lang himself had started studying the profession in Vienna (his father was an architect). Film Writer Walter Benjamin wrote: “that watching films is a simultaneous and collective effort, therefore architecture is closest to the cinema of all the classical art forms. They are related and they are viewed the same way, but cinema is able to show the masses in their way of life. Film shows us an enlarged, unbelievable new world”.

So Death and architecture are again the themes here, as they were in Metropolis (1927): more than twenty years after Der Müde Tod Lang (1921) Lang again picks one of his favourite combinations. The feature has a layered Russian-Doll like structure, there are continuous flashbacks – optical, verbal and architectonic – including daydreams, hallucinations and phantasies that come to life. All the time, the objects become symbols, which often in a pathological way, transform memories and phantasms into a much more potent layer of consciousness than the real world.

0263_SECRET_BEYOND_THE_DOOR_01The architect Mark Lamphere (Redgrave) has closeted himself in a gothic mansion where he has designed three rooms, filled with furniture from a secret room where a murder had occurred. This room is dedicated to the memory a wife stabbed to death by a husband who thought she was being unfaithful. In the second chamber, a young man tied his mother to a chair, and drowned her. The third room is the copy of the bedroom of Mark’s first wife Caroline (Revere), for whose death Mark feels responsible. He has certainly a very disturbed view of women, and when he shows his second wife Celia (Bennett) the third room, she is stunned to recognize her own bedroom. Since his childhood, Mark had repressed murderous instincts, for which he feels guilty. Celia knows that if her “therapy” is not successful, she will pay with her life.

Lang himself was no fan of this feature –  during the shooting there were many setbacks. “The ending is really ridiculous. Nobody is healed so quickly from traumatic obsessions”. But there is much to be said in favour of Secret Beyond the Door: Silvia Richards’ screenplay, based on the novella by Rufus King, is very tight but also innovative. veteran DoP Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Andersons, Night of the Hunter) excelled with his stylish dissolves and long panning shots and the music of Miklos Roza is haunting, but never competes with the visuals. Lang might not have like the end product, but Secret is a small masterpiece.

NOW AVAILABLE COURTESY OF ARROW ACADEMY FROM 25 JUNE 2018 

 

The World is Yours (2018) ***


Dir: Romain Gavras | Writers: Noe Debre, Romain Gavras, Karim Boukercha | Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Vincent Cassel, Francois Damiens, Karim Leklou, Norbert Ferrer | Comedy Crime | France | 100′

Romain Gavras’ rambunctiously glossy gangster comedy is stashed with French household names and beats as it sweeps towards a preposterous finale. Best known for his music videos for the likes of Jaz-Z, this energetically stylish comedy is full of French verve and punchy argot making it less accessible for non-French speakers with its raucous, over-the top absurdity. Isabelle Adjani and Vincent Cassel boost a brash and ballsy plotline that sees a North African crime syndicate dream of better things from their humble Paris council flats. A Prophet‘s Karim Leklou (Fares) is the surprising standout as a feisty grifter who is desperate to make some cash so he can retire to the sun. Meanwhile his unmanageable matriarch Danny (Adjani) has her own hair-brained schemes, so it’s up to mid-mannered Fares and his motley crew to make it all happen. Bonkers but delightful if you like this kind of French caper. MT

NOW SHOWING AT CINE LUMIERE FROM 25 APRIL 2019 | QUINZAINE 2018

Eva (2018) * * * | Berlinale 2018


Dir: Benoit Jacquot | Gilles Taurand | James Hadley Chase | Cast Isabelle Huppert, Gaspard Ulliel, Julia Roy | Drama | France | 100

Benoit Jacquot (‘A Single Girl’) and Isabelle Huppert (‘Elle’) are together in this enjoyable but unconvincing adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s sixties bestseller Eva.

Annecy is the snow-capped setting for this often unsettling menage a trois that would have us believe that a good-looking young gigolo (Gaspard Ulliel) leaves his luscious blond babe (Julia Roy) and falls in thrall to an ageing geisha girl (Isabelle Huppert) whose stick is ‘treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen.

But what starts an alluring affair rapidly loses its way. That said It’s typically French, flirty and fun. Jacquot and scripter Gilles Taurand’s version opens as wannabe something Bertrand (Ulliel), is tending to the needs of a dying writer – whether as carer or call boy is never made clear here. As the old man chokes, Bertrand makes off with his manuscript of a play entitled Passwords, hoping to make it to the bright lights which he does with his wealthy girlfriend in tow. But the second play poses a problem and his producer (Richard Berry) is becoming impatient.

Despite its light-hearted overtones there’s a menacing Hitchockian undertow that keeps the noirish tension tight and ticking over as the action unfurls with its rather unsavoury characters that definitely have a retro twang of the Sixties. Isabelle Huppert does her stuff with perky aplomb but we never really buy into the dicy dynamic between her and Ulliel which eventually leads to his undoing. quickly becomes an obsession that will ruin his life in a drama, that while entertaining to a certain extent is ultimately rather empty.

BERLINALE 15-25 February 2018 | COMPETITION

The Big Combo (1955) | Four Film Noir Classics

 

Dir: Joseph H.Lewis | Noir Thriller | US | Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Helen  Walker, Jean Wallace

“I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond, a strange, blind and backward maze. All the twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown.”

That is platinum blonde Susan (Jean Wallace) delivering Philip Yordan’s deliciously noir dialogue in Joseph H. Lewis’s THE BIG COMBO. Police Lt.Diamond (Cornel Wilde) not only loves Susan but is trying to expose and destroy the “combo”, a money – laundering / lending criminal banking system run by the sadistic Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). And the police’s only hope of evidence for this, and a murder rap, is to trace Brown’s wife Alicia (Helen Walker) now hidden away in a sanatorium under another name.

Susan is not a femme fatale; most of her screen-time she is an observer in a drugged, confused, almost dream-like trance: swaying dangerously between the sexual infatuation of Diamond and Brown, caught as Brown’s mistress, yet never actively Diamond’s lover. Although it is never explained why Susan (a ‘society gal’ and ex-concert pianist) was drawn to Mr. Brown, Jean Wallace’s captivating performance allows us to acutely feel her entrapment and vulnerability. Indeed, although the principal characters of The Big Combo are morally reprehensible, we experience such empathy for them that they retain our sympathy in spite of sleazy and brutal acts of torture and killing.

Take Joe Mc Clure (Brian Donlevy) the ineffectual second in-command of the mob. When he sees that Mr. Brown’s time is over, he thinks he persuades Brown’s hired killers Fante (Lee Van Cleefe) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to dispose of the boss. But it’s Brown who ends up instructing the killers to make Joe their target. Joe wears a hearing aid that’s pulled from his ear moments before his killing. From his point of view, we witness (in a quasi- surreal shot) the killers letting their machine-guns rip, with the sound now poignantly silenced.

Joseph H. Lewis always sought fresh ways to film conflicts. The Big Combo murder has a dreamy look that is an early throwback to Susan’s expression, before she faints, in the arms of an old music professor. Jean Wallace’s expression, the angle of her body and overall look are suggestive of a Man Ray photograph. Even the film’s opening is executed with style. Susan is not so much pursued by Brown’s men than engaged in a ‘balletic’ struggle paced by David Raskin’s fine jazz music. Proceedings are interrupted by the camera rapidly panning to an outside street diner consciously modelled on an Edward Hopper painting.

These touches probably annoyed Lewis’s producers who never appreciated the ‘fancy stuff’ and just wanted things done cheaply and quickly. Yet what probably disturbed them more were the risqué elements (for 1955) of The Big Combo. Though it is never graphically depicted, oral sex, between Mr. Brown and Susan, is certainly suggested. And the partnership of Fante and Mingo (separate beds in the same bedroom) signals a close gay relationship.

However the most powerful operative auteur in The Big Combo is probably cinematographer John Alton. His work has been praised for its masterly lighting and staging. Big Combo’s torture scene echoes a similar scene in Mann’s 1954 film T-Men (another Alton assignment) and looks forward to the Anthony Perkins cupboard-room interrogation in Welles’s The Trial (1962). Alton provides a menacing and sparsely lit inky darkness that wonderfully heightens the screen violence. The fog sequence at the climax of The Big Combo is probably the most thrilling element here.

Lewis wanted to convey an airport setting. Difficult when confined to a studio and having little cash. So Alton simply told Lewis to drape the whole set in black velvet, create a fog and have a constant revolving light. Critics have remarked that this reminds them of the airport ending of Casablanca. Yes, in black and white cinematography terms it does. But the ending of The Big Combo is anti-romantic, even despairing. The fog scenes it really emotionally connects with are those to be found in Antonioni’s The Red Desert and Identification of a Woman. If there’s a final sense of existential loneliness and uncertainty then the fog metaphor powerfully feeds into Susan’s neurosis that she’d been trapped in a maze created by Mr. Brown. Susan turns the car headlights on Mr. Brown (struggling in the fog) in an attempt to pin him down and free herself from the maze of the Combo nightmare. The fog may eventually clear, but for Lewis and Antonioni the characters remain decidedly shaken and lost.

Lewis’s four late illustrious films The Big Combo, Gun Crazy, The Halliday Brand and Terror in a Texas Town are minor masterpieces of B picture production values, containing a visual density of information worthy of study by aspiring filmmakers, for their mise-en-scene is both emotionally complex and remarkably crafted.

As for aspiring cinematographers, they should examine Alton’s work of the 1950s. Indeed, also read his seminal book on photography Painting with Light. And Richard Conte delivers a ruthlessly intelligent performance that should be a model villain for actors whether in B pictures or blockbusters.

Whilst for all who simply love the dark pull of film-noir, The Big Combo is a brilliant expression of its elements. Arriving near the very end of the classical American noir (Welles’s Touch of Evil is probably that) this is a heady irresistible nightmare that you perversely don’t want to come to an end. Let the fog never lift!  Alan Price©

ON ARROW PLAYER from 1 April 2021 |  DUAL FORMAT LIMITED EDITION: THE DARK MIRROR (1946), FORCE OF EVIL (1948), SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR |

 

Jean-Pierre Melville | Collection | bluray release

Unknown-2Bluray releases to celebrate the artistically ambitious cinema of independent filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) in his centenary year.

France in the 1940s and 50s is seen as a broken nation, where male solidarity – be it in the gangster milieu or the bourgeois living rooms – relegated women as second class citizens– or even worse, as cold blooded killers. But the defeat in the WWII to the Germans on the battlefield, was nothing compared with the moral degradation as the result of the collaboration between the huge majority of French citizens with the Nazis, until their liberation by allied troops in 1944. Much admired by Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino as well as the directors of the French New Wave, it’s chief protagonist Melville was so revered he had a part in Godard’s seminal Breathless (1960).

Unknown-1Melville’s feature-length debut LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949), is a drama about the Nazi Occupation which was made cheaply and clandestinely, and none the worse for it. Melville’s collaboration with Jean Cocteau on an adaption of the latter’s novel LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1950) is a claustrophobic, psychologically astute drama about a sister and brother retreating into an isolated world of erotically charged game-playing. Despite disagreements with the author, it remains one of the finest of all Cocteau adaptations, its keenest admirers having included François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Though the noir-tinged melodrama WHEN YOU READ THIS LETTER (1953) is perhaps Melville’s least typical film, there’s still much to enjoy both in its depiction of a faintly Americanised Nice underworld and in its psychological ambiguities.

MV5BMTQxNTUxNzM5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDMwMDkwMzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956) was Melville’s first script as director and offers a light-hearted portrayal of an ageing criminal whose passion for gambling and women jeopardises his plans to rob a casino. Beautifully shot by Henri Decaë, the film is a love letter to Paris and an affectionate nod to Hollywood heist movies like The Asphalt Jungle. Melville’s homage to America TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (1959), sees two journalists (one played by the director himself) investigating the disappearance of a French diplomat in New York.  Another German Occupation outing, Léon Morin, Priest (1961) is a study of deception in which an attractive priest crosses the boundaries of his calling in  trying to convert a female member of his congregation. A complex film of ambiguities and ironies, it boasts superb lead performances from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva.

doulos_le_bfi-00m-pmtOne of Melville’s great thrillers, LE DOULOS (1962), is a dazzlingly intricate tale of deadly suspicion and betrayal starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani. Establishing an atmosphere of unease, distrust and deception with a beautifully staged opening scene, Melville combines ingenious plot twists with a near-mythic evocation of underworld customs and fashions, and also shows what happens to treacherous women. The gangster Silien (Belmondo), best friend of Maurice (Reggiani) is suspected, to have sold his friend out to the police. But the true culprit is Maurice new girlfriend Therese (Hennesy). And she suffers heavily (and graphically) for it: Silien first beats her up to get the address of a new burglary, than he kills her brutally, making it look like an accident. Later, Melville shows how brave and honorable Silien and Maurice are dying for each other – Nicolas Hayer’s cold, grainy images very adapt to this this drama of male solidarity to the death.

UnknownMelville is probably best known for his artistic crime movies which he made in the latter part of his career, and these feature in Part Two of including LE SAMOURAï (1967), LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970), LE DEUXIEME FLIC (1972) THE ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969) and L’AINE DES FERCHAUX. Melville made meticulously stylised films with an abiding interest in loyalty and betrayal, courage and camaraderie, honour and dignity: themes found not only in his tense explorations of underworld ethics, but in his lesser-known earlier studies of troubled, even perverse relationships.

JEAN PIERRE MELVILLE’S bluray releases are available on Amazon | 4 December 2017

Blood Simple. (1984) Bfi player

Directors: Joel Coen | Script: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen | Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedeya, M Emmet Waltsh | US | Thriller | 92′   US

The Coen brothers pull a clever mix of cinematic tricks from their box in this tightly-plotted neo-Noir focusing on four characters. With brilliant cinematography (Barry Sonnenfeld) and a darkly humorous, whip-sharp script, this neo-noir thriller keeps you on your toes til the end with more nasty surprises than an angry rattlesnake.

Very much a throwback to the Hitchcockian thrillers of the forties and fifties, the action here unfolds in a shady Texan backwater in the eighties and established the Coens as creative leaders of the American art house genre.

Supremely well-cast: Frances McDormand came on board as a newcomer in place of Holly Hunter, and subsequently went on to win an Oscar for her performance in the Coens’ Fargo. John Getz stars as her lover Ray, and baddie Dan Hedaya plays her jealous controlling husband Marty who hires veteran villain M Emmet Walsh as a private detective Loren Visser to kill them. Naturally, the plan backfires. The car scene where the two are discussing the contract killing is a masterpiece of facial expression.

 

 

Blood Simple. won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance the following year. The Coen’s had spent a year raising the development finance by going ‘door to door’ to financiers with a two-minute teaser trailer of the film they planned to make.

The latest restored ‘Director’s Cut’ is actually shorter by 3 minutes than the original 1985 version due to tighter editing, shortening some shots and removing others altogether. In addition, they HAVE resolved long-standing right issues with the music. MT

NOW Bfi Player | 12 April 2021

 

Victim (1961) | re-release

Dir: Basil Dearden | Writers: Janet Green & John McCormick | Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Nigel Stock, Peter McEnery, Donald Churchill, Anthony Nicholls, Hilton Edwards, Norman Bird, Derren Nesbitt, Alan MacNaughton, Noel Howlett, Charles Lloyd Pack, John Barrie, John Cairney, David Evans | UK / Drama / 100min

VICTIM was the second – and achieved by far the greatest impact – of a trio of topical “problem pictures” made by the team of producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden from screenplays by Janet Green. Sapphire (1959) had been about race relations, and Life for Ruth (1962) about religion. Of the three, VICTIM had had the most clearly defined purpose behind it, which was the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 criminalising homosexuality – described in the film as “The Blackmailer’s Charter” – as recommended by the Wolfenden report of 1957.

Janet Green (1908-1993) had read the report, and while the government of Harold Macmillan – for reasons made only too apparent by VICTIM itself – was dragging its heels, she, with her husband and co-writer John McCormick, anticipated Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969) in employing the conventions of a fast-moving, entertaining thriller to make a serious political film that packs a lot into a trim 100 minutes; embellished by handsome London locations and noirish interiors, by veteran cameraman Otto Heller (responsible for the visual impact of other classics like Peeping Tom and The Ipcress File).

It’s easy now to mock VICTIM for being dated, but politicians and other public figures today still dread the power without responsibility triumphantly wielded by our tabloid press. The role of the redtops in the fear and paranoia depicted in VICTIM is occasionally mentioned in passing; and just two years later the field day the Sunday papers had with the revelations that came out in court about the activities of our social betters during the trial of Stephen Ward vividly convey what Melville Farr could look forward to at the conclusion of VICTIM . On 9 November 1998 – over thirty years after decriminalisation – The Sun was still stoking the flames with its classic front page headline “Are we being run by a gay Mafia?”. In the United States VICTIM was refused a seal of approval by the Production Code Administration, and this remarkable passage in Time magazine that greeted its US release in February 1962 is worth quoting at length:

“What seems at first an attack on extortion seems at last a coyly sensational exploitation of homosexuality as a theme – and, what’s more offensive, an implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice. Almost all the deviates in the film are fine fellows – well dressed, well-spoken, sensitive, kind. The only one who acts like an invert turns out to be a detective. Everybody in the picture who disapproves of homosexuals proves to be an ass, a dolt or a sadist. Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself.”

VICTIM was released bearing an ‘X’ certificate, and the era it depicts now seems as remote as the war years: a time when the police drove Bentleys and ‘phone boxes still had a button B. But anybody who considers the issues it raises moribund should remember that as I write there are about a dozen countries in the world today where homosexuality is punishable by death. One only needs look at the debate (and the language) the film continues to provoke in forums like YouTube to be reminded of how this issue still polarizes society, and that there are plenty of bigots still out there, irately convinced that they’re being muzzled by political correctness; “our crime”, as Lord Fullbrook puts it, “damned nearly parallel with robbery with violence”. While Eddy complains that “Henry paid rates and taxes…but they knew he couldn’t go out and call the cops”, it’s interesting to be reminded that one of the blackmailers accused the police of “Protecting perverts” even when homosexuality was illegal, and back in 1961 could firmly be of the opinion that “They’re everywhere, everywhere you turn! The police do nothing. Nothing!!”.

VICTIM goes out its way to avoid sensationalism, and it is precisely because it in every other respect so resembles a conventional black & white crime film of the period that one can still feel the shock audiences must have experienced in 1961 when Inspector Harris deceptively casually asks Farr “you knew of course that he was a homosexual?”, followed by the eye-watering statistic that at the time “as many as 90% of all blackmail cases have a homosexual origin”. If it seems too genteel for 21st Century tastes, the scene in which Derren Nesbitt wrecks Charles Lloyd Pack’s shop still provides a literally shattering reminder of the barely contained physical violence always ready to rear up from behind the prejudice now known as “hate crime”.

The casting of Dirk Bogarde makes the film what it is. Several other actors (including Jack Hawkins, James Mason and Stewart Granger) had understandably already turned down the role, but Bogarde accepted without hesitation; and on so many levels the film is inconceivable without him. (Anyone who thinks it was the first time he’d played a homosexual onscreen, however, plainly hasn’t seen the film he made immediately prior to it, The Singer Not the Song.) Almost as bold on Bogarde’s part was that in VICTIM he was for the first time playing his age – 40 – although this is more than compensated for by the fact that he never looked more debonair and distinguished than he does here. The entire cast obviously cared about their roles, right down to the smallest parts (as frequently happened in those days, veteran character actor John Boxer as the amiable policeman attempting to comfort Boy Barrett in his cell, and John Bennett – who in the opening episode of ‘Porridge’ was the prison doctor who asked Fletcher if he had ever been a practising homosexual – as “the bloke in the pinstripe”, make vivid impressions without being included in the cast list at the end). Although the blackmailers themselves are often described in accounts of the film as “a ring” or “a gang”, there in fact turn out to be only two of them; a pair of bloodcurdling ghouls worthy of the Addams family – the grinning, cheerfully amoral Derren Nesbitt and his vengeful associate piously convinced that “Someone’s got to make them pay for their filthy blasphemy.” As Inspector Harris (a superb performance by John Barrie) says to his stern Scottish sergeant (John Cairney), “I can see that you’re a true puritan, Bridie…there was a time when that was against the law, you know.”  Richard Chatten

VICTIM IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS

Frank and Lola (2016) | DVD | Digital Download

F&L PackshotDir|Writer: Matthew Ross | Cast: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Emmanuelle Devos, Michael Nyqvist, Rosanna Arquette, 88min | US | Romantic thriller

Michael Shannon is the one to watch in an electrifying neo-noir that explores desire, domination and redemption. His star quality and sizzling sensuality oozes all over this stylish curio where he plays the strong and sincere Frank alongside Imogen Poots’ dreamy airhead Lola.

It all kicks off with a torrid night of lust in the playground of Las Vegas. The two have just met. Divorced, forty-something Frank is a talented chef in a city where restaurants are legendary and Lola is a newly-arrived fashion graduate whose enigmatic past drives the narrative backwards and forwards to France threatening to destroy their convincing stab at coupledom.

In the tight working community of Las Vegas, Frank becomes surprisingly jealous when he overhears Lola being offered a job over a drink in a local bar. Her new employer (Justin Long) is a young, glib and confident and appears rather too keen on Lola. And when she turns up the following evening distressed and tearful Frank decides to probe Lola’s past. An interview in Paris gives Frank the opportunity to track down a suave Frenchman (Michael Nyqvist) who was once involved with her sophisticated mother (Rosanna Arquette in a coquettish cameo) and has now married a wealthy Frenchwoman (Emmanuelle Devos) who has recently been in Las Vegas.

What starts out as a seductive love story develops into a peripatetic psychological thriller well served by a witty script and infused with an intriguing menu of subplots that lead us into the often bizarre world of the superrich with lashings of food and property porn and an over-cooked side dish of real porn. Shannon’s Frank is the kind of man who women desire: strong and masculine yet sensuous and vulnerable as his love and protective obsession for Lola permeates every scene. Frank bears his soul for Lola without ego or rancour from his romantic past, channeling masculine jealousy into a passion that ultimately makes him a great lover and a better man. Poots’ Lola is a flighty and fluffy female who remains an elusive dark horse right until the final denouement, and even then we’re unsure of her motives. Michael Nyqvist nails a new kind of macho male: one whose ego sits uncomfortably with his role as a kept man hanging around nightclubs and playing the field. As Frank puts it plainly: “you’re a bit long in the tooth to be playing these kind of games. You’re not 35 anymore, come on Pops move on with your life”. Matthew Ross is a talented directer who is crafted a set of authentic characters with convincing and complex agendas in this provocative and exciting feature debut. MT

FRANK AND LOLA IS OUT NOW ON DVD AND DIGITAL DOWNLOAD |  10 APRIL 2017

ON

 

Mojave (2015)

Director: William Monahan

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Garrett Headlund, Walton Goggins, Mark Wahlberg, Dania Ramirez

93min  Thriller  US

Disenchanted with his charmed life, a Hollywood hipster heads out to the desert where he meets a dangerous drifter with nothing to lose but everything to gain by following him back to his existence home home.

Director and Oscar-winning scripter William Monahan’s noirish thriller occasionally feels rather forced and artificial but his clever casting of Garrett Hedlund and Oscar Isaacs ensures an entertaining ride through contemporary California urging us to contemplate the meaning of fame, love and the ties that bind and asking the question: “When you get what you want, want do you want?”

MOJAVE‘s premise is actually very solid and even a noble one: the world of stardom is full of narcissistic types who can turn extremely dangerous if they don’t get the fame they think they deserve and this kind of twisted psychology runs rife in the concentrated toxicity of Hollywood’s starry Hills. Garrett Hedlund plays Tom, tells us in the opening scene how he’s “been famous since he was 19”. But in his early thirties, this facile success has left him empty and deluded: his English wife and daughter have abandoned him with his part-time lover (Louise Bourgoin) in a bijoux villa with infinity pool, and he is bored with the present and truculent about the future. Casting off to the Mojave desert in his jeep, in the hope of shaking off this ennui, he comes across a well-kemp wayfarer whom success has clearly deluded but whose articulate if embittered patter (“I’m into motiveless malignity”) indicates he’s no fool.

But things turn nasty as Tom immediately spots his alter ego, and after a brutal scuffle Tom takes Jack’s gun and finds refuge in a cave from whence he shoots and kills a federal officer mistaking him for Jack in the half-light of dawn. Tom then destroys the stolen gun and heads back to Los Angeles.  But Jack follows him back and after killing a gay guy who tries to pick him up, he uses his house for a base from which to stalk Tom, as he re-invents himself with a new look. Essentially a two-hander, support comes from Walton Goggins in an campy cameo as his agent and Mark Wahlberg as  his stroppy and petulant producer/partner.

Chocful of witticisms and literary allusions, Monahan’s script makes this desert duo slick and entertaining – but in a way that feels rather overplayed and pleased with itself. Clearly these two are easy on the eye and amusing to be around but Wahlberg’s turn just doesn’t work and is something he will regret in retrospect. These are people we don’t care tuppence for and so the denouement evokes little reaction other than reminding us that Hollywood and Los Angleles are places that echo loudly with an emotional and spiritual void.

Ultimately MOJAVE is a well-paced thriller: over-talky but always entertaining, Oscar Isaacs does his best at being a nasty psychopath but previous roles in A Most Dangerous Year and even The Two Faces of January have suited his talents better. Hedlund’s role is rather one-dimensional, but he plays that dimension very successfully and is mesmerising in each scene. MT

ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM MARCH 25 2016

The Beat that My Heart Skipped | Blu-ray release

Director: Jacques Audiard | Cast: Romain Duris, Aure Atika, Emmanuelle Devos, Niels Arestrup | 108min |French

In THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED Jacques Audiard ((Rust and Bone) turns the story of James Toback’s 1978 Fingers into a profound and gritty study of alienation and redemption experienced by Tom (Romain Duris) a petty Parisian crook who is caught up in a web of dodgy property deals, inherited from his father (a masterful Niels Arestrup). Essentially a decent bloke, Tom is desperate to get on the straight and narrow so he can focus on his real dream; that of becoming a concert pianist. Romain Duris is superbly watchable here as Tom, balancing the two sides of his life with tangible nervousness in a drama as taut as the strings of his treasured piano. MT

OUT ON BLURAY FROM 14 March 2016 COURTESY OF CURZON ARTIFICAL EYE

 

Gaumont | The Birthplace of French Film | UK French Film Festival 2015

Nostalghia_Artificial_Eye_2This Autumn’s UK French Film Festival (nationwide until 13th December) brings into focus the powerhouse of French Cinema GAUMONT. Originally founded to produce articles for the photographic industry, Gaumont started making short films in 1897. As Leon Gaumont’s secretary, Alice Guy-Blache became the first female film director with her debut La Fée aux Choux in 1896, perhaps the first narrative film in the history of cinema.

Later she became the head of the Gaumont Film’s production company from 1896-1906, with the studios at La Villette in Paris 19th arondissement, at the time the largest studio in Europe. After Alice Guy-Blache went to Hollywood with her husband, Louis Feulliade became head of production at Gaumont. The company branched out to Britain, acquiring a cinema chain under the name Gaumont British, also producing early Hitchcock films, among them The Thirty Nine Steps (1935).

In 1937 film production stopped, due to Hollywood’s products swamping the French market. The production arm of the company was bought up in the same year by Havas, and renamed Société Nouvelle des Éstablissements Gaumont. Huge losses were made again between 1943 and 1947, but with the birth of Nouvelle Vague, the fortunes of the company changed again. Gaumont distributed one of the fore-runners of the Nouvelle Vague features, Robert Bresson’s Un Condamné à mort s’est echappé(1956). Later Gaumont would acquire the rights to the first two Chabrol films, Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959). Rohmer (The Marquise of O), Godard’s (Histoire(s) du Cinéma) and Truffaut’s La Femme d’à Côté) were also in the Gaumont catalogue, together with Tarkovsky’s Nostalgie, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Fassbinder’s Querelle during its golden era

In celebration of this tribute, let’s have a look at some of Gaumont cult classic successes:

99742L’ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21  | THE MURDERER LIVES AT 21 

Dir.: Henry-George Clouzot; Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair; France 1942, 83 min.

Made during Gaumont’s loss-making period, this Noirish comedy thriller was a success with French audiences. Inspector Wencslas Vorobechnik (Fresnay) – Wens for short – is hunting a serial killer, Mr. Durand, who leaves a calling crad after his seemingly unconnected murders. Together with his girl friend Mila Milou (Delair), an aspiring actress, he chases the murderer down to a boarding house, were the number of suspects is large – everybody seems to have something to hide. After arresting the wrong person, Wens finally solves the case with the help of Mila.

Whilst Clouzot’s first film as a director might be classified as a text-book ‘who-done-it’ in the Agatha Christie mould, there are many typical moments of Clouzot’s misanthropic nature: whilst the hunt for the murderer is going on, the chief of police phones his assistant, and threatens him with the sack, if success is not imminent. The man’s reaction is to pick up the phone and threatens his underling with unemployment – and so on, until poor Wens, the last in the long row, gets his phone call. In another scene, Clouzot cleverly arranges the sequence involving a policeman lighting his cigarette, giving the effect of the prisoner inadvertently giving the ‘Hitler greeting’ with his arm. Clouzot’s humour is very black throughout here, showing early signs of his love for sadism.

img_3LE SILENCE DE LA MER | THE SILENCE OF THE SEA

Dir.: Jean-Pierre Melville; Cast: Howard Vernon, Nicole Stephane, Jean-Marie Robain; France 1949, 88 min.

Melville’s first film as a director, shot immediately after his release from the Resistance, is based on the novel by Jean Bruller, this being the first of three Melville films about the Resistance, followed by Leon, Morin, Prêtre and L’Armée des Ombres. LE SILENCE is a ‘chamber-piece’, set in the house which an unnamed Frenchman (Robain) and his niece (Stephane are forced to co-habit with a German officer, Von Ebbrenac (Vernon). The German officer, even though polite and obviously cultured, is cold-shouldered by the two French who treat him with an icy silence –after all, he is occupying their house as a member of the German army. The voice over cleverly echoes their feelings, known to the audience, whilst the German tries hard to break through to them with mounting pressure. LE SILENCE is a cold film, Henri Decae’s camera showing the trio like fish swimming round an aquarium: the b/w images create a claustrophobic prison for Von Ebbrenac, only duty on the Eastern Front can release him. A relentless, obsessive masterpiece.

The Big Blue picture4-hi-resLE GRAND BLEU

Dir.: Luc Besson; Cast: Rosanna Arquette, Jean Marc Barr, Jean Reno; France 1988, 168 min.

Besson wanted to break free of the excessive intellectualising in French cinema. LE GRAND BLEU was his escape bid – focusing on the visual quality of cinema, it showcased the advent of his ‘Cinema du Look’ approach. It explores the rivalry that overshadows the longtime frienship of two divers. Jacques Mayol (Barr) falls in love with the insurance broker Johana (Arquette), who follows him and Enzo Maiorca (Reno) to all their competitions. Co-written by Mayol (whose real life rivalry with Maiorca was actual, even though both survived), the story is told in vibrantly romantic images, the Sea being much more attractive than the Earth. But despite its magnificent visuals, LE GRAND BLEU is still only a variation on the ’Buddy-Movie’, where men’s friendship supercedes their relationships with women; the sea representing the emotional element. Ironically the film was the favourite Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic. AS

THE UK FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL CONTINUES NATIONWIDE UNTIL 13 DECEMBER 2015

 

Un Homme Idéal | A Perfect Man (2015)

Director: Yann Gozlan

Cast: Pierre Niney, Ana Girardot, André Marcon, Valéria Cavalli, Marc Barbé

104min | French | Thriller

with the feel of Hitchcock and Chabrol (remember that scene in Le Boucher when blood drips through the celling?). Yann Goslan’s terrically tense thriller is a delicious treat sumptuously set in the summer heat of a villa in Var. It stars Pierre Niney as a struggling writer, driven to extremes by his desire to produce a decent novel., or at least any novel at all.

Mathieu Vasseur (Niney) first manuscript, The Man From Behind, has been rejected by publishers. Working parttime as a cleaner in the local College near his Parisian bedsit, Vasseur stumbles into a lecture being given by a young woman, Alice (Ana Girardot), on the topic of scent and memory. When he’s hired to clear out the home of a dead man who has no living relatives, Vasseur finds a leather bound tome recounting the man’s experiences in the Algerian war. Vasseur has the brainwave to pass this off as his own work, and before he can say Highsmith, he’s written his perfect ‘debut’ novel.  Soon he’s mixing in the same circles as Alice and when the pair become engaged, they head off to her parent’s gorgeous Villa near Dijon, armed with an advance to work on his second novel.

But Vasseur is somewhat of a slacker And his publisher is breathing down his neck for a few sentences. Meanwhile a friend of the original author also gets in touch and not just for a chat over a cafe creme – he also means business and tries to blackmail Vasseur.  then One of Alice’s exes, Stanislas (Thibault Vincon), arrives at the villa and senses the  the edgy tension in Vasseur.

Niney is perfect as the highly-strung, feline Vasseur, in this follow-up to his role as Yves Saint Laurent. With his sensitive masculinity he makes Vasseur a compelling character both sensual and vulnerable and his chemistry with Ana Girardot is perfectly believable. Vasseur’s nerves of steel make him similar to the famed Mr. Ripley character of Patricia Highsmith, novel.  Gozlan’s crafts a portrait of an intellectual con man who allows his desperation for success to go against his better judgement. Sadly the background of the Algerian war is hardly mentioned and could have provided a rich counterpoint to the narrative that descends into blackmail and eventually murder and a really tragic denouement.

Still, the absolutely brilliant noirish score by Cyrille Aufort (A Royal Affair) and Antoine Roch’s gorgeous cinematography make this a gripping and watchable thriller  for a Saturday night at the movies – or any other night of this week for that matter. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 20 NOVEMBER 2015 COURTESY OF STUDIO CANAL

 

Black Souls (2014) Anime Nere

Director: Francesco Munzi

Writer: Francesco Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello

Cast: Marco Leonardi, Peppino Mazzotta, Fabrizio Ferracane, Anna Ferruzzo, Barbora Bobulova

Drama, Italy, France, 103 mins

Dubbed as the new Gomorrah in some circles, Francesco Munzi’s mafia family drama purrs with tension, taking the brutal Mafioso world to the rustic villages of the Calabrian foothills at the southern tip of Italy.

This is the heartland of the ‘ndrangheta, the biggest and furthest-reaching mafia group in Italy, far stronger than the Comorrah and the Sicilian mafia, but more secretive and rarely infiltrated by outsiders. It’s because the group is made up of family units that the ‘ndrangheta are so tight, but it also means that entrance to the group for descendants is tacitly obligatory. If you don’t want ‘in’, you’re asking for trouble.

That’s the case with Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), a farmer whose brothers are long-standing members of the Carbone clan; he instead tends to his farmland of goats on the slopes of the Apennine Mountains. His son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), however, is eager to join a group where he’ll gain respect, and in an age where Italian youngsters are frequently downtrodden by unemployment, this is something he is eager to commit to. His uncle Luigi (Marco Leonardi), a drug dealer who travels Europe, takes Leo under his wing, but after an altercation between Leo and a rival clan, events spiral to take the apparently peaceful town to gang war.

This is a slower, more composed film than Gomorrah, and doesn’t have that film’s electric socio-political edge. Instead, it works as a family drama that simmers with personal tragedy and works up to a powerful, gripping finale. Sumptuously filmed in the village of Africo, often said to be the home of the ‘ndrangheta, and with the peninsula’s craggy dialect, it convinces as a place where the state, the police, and perhaps conventional morality have trouble accessing. Among a cast of non-actors and professionals, Fumo, plucked from hundreds of local kids, is remarkable in his debut role as Leo, saying little but carrying a primordial terror with every retort at his disillusioned father.

Munzi’s script, co-written with Fabrizio Ruggirello, starts the film in Amsterdam and Milan, and perhaps could have done with setting the film more tightly in the insular ‘ndrangheta communities. Here it feels like there’s no escape, where every aspect of life is dominated by the mafia. The organisation helps local politicians gain election, bars and shops have to obtain ‘protection’ by one of the clans, and respect to members is non-negotiable. But that blinkered view of the world is also this family’s downfall, as the cracks in the foundations make the whole house fall down. Ed Frankl.

REVIEWED AT VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2014 | NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 30 OCTOBER 2015

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Othello (1952) | Venice Classics | Venice Film Festival 2015

Director | Producer .: Orson Welles    Writer: William Shakespeare

Cast: Orson Welles, Michael MacLiammoir, Robert Conte, Suzanne Cloutier

Italy 1952, 97 min

When he was more or less spurned by Hollywood and its money men, Orson Welles settled in Europe, where he hoped to find producers who were more open to art and creativity and less to lining their hand-tailored pockets. OTHELLO was due to be shown in September 1951 at the VENICE FILM FESTIVAL, but Welles suddenly withdrew the film, claiming it was not ready. It had its premiere in Cannes a year later, winning the PALME D’OR.

Welles’ OTHELLO is a brilliant mixture of German expressionism and film noir: Macbeth and The Lady from Shanghai rolled in one. The beginning is Murnauesque as the coffins of Desdemona (Cloutier) and Othello (Welles) are macabrely  carted along against a glowering skyline, whilst the treacherous Iago (MacLiammoir) is put into an iron cage and hung high up to rot in the boiling sun. Most buildings appear trap-like, in keeping with Welles’ noirish inventiveness. The main protagonist is caught out among the chiaro-scuro shadows like a raven in a bid to escape. OTHELLO is permanently in motion, in battle and in private scenes where Welles is seen tenderly embracing Suzanne Cloutier from the ceiling of their boudoir. As an outsider and a Moor the zenophobia is rife and he is forced to fight for his status as General, and for his bride, whose father does everything in his power to de-rail the marriage. Whilst Othello is aware of racial prejudice, he has a blind side: he desperately wants to be liked. As his Lieutenant, Iago is highly aware of this ‘achilles heel’ and works on it to maximise his influence over his Othello. Iago is a vicious and jealous character who looms large over Othello, despite being physically smaller; only at the end, in the cage, is he reduced to small animal – like a rat caught in a trap. Desdemona is a creature of light and empathy, a person without shadows. Even when Othello strangles her, white dominates his brutal act. Rodrigo (Robert Coote) is both victim and seducer – he believes Iago that he can capture Desdemona and insinuate himself into Othello’s position. But as Othello he is also blind: Iago has found two victims who are very much alike: insecure for different reasons, but both desperate to advance their statuses. The fleet, commanded by Othello, returns triumphant after the victory against the Turks, but Othello’s glory and ego ultimately surpass his love for Desdemona, thus sowing seeds for death and deceit. Production designer Alexander Trauner (Les Enfants du Paradis), and DOPs G.R. Aldo and Anchise Brizzi create an menacing, magical maze, from which none of the main protagonists can escape, Iago’s wife, becoming his last victim. Welles’ OTHELLO is far from being filmed theatre, its cinematographic power is equal to Shakespeare’s text. Without doubt it is one of the most fabulous experiences here at Venice Film Festival 2015. AS

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 2 -12 SEPTEMBER 2015

Pickup on South Street (1953) | DVD | Blu-ray release

Dir.: Samuel Fuller | Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Marvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willies Bouchey | USA 1953, 80 min.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is another classic fifties film noir which gained considerable clout from the director being adamant about the female lead. 20th Century Fox wanted either Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters or Ava Gardener for the role of Candy, but director Samuel Fuller not only resisted this trio, on the grounds of them being “too beautiful”, but he also threatened to walk off set if Betty Grable (who wanted a dance number for herself) was cast instead of his choice Jean Peters, whose screen debut was alongside Tyrone Power in Captain from Castile.

In New York, pickpocket Skip McCoy steals a wallet from Candy (Peters) in a subway train. FBI agent Zara (Bouchey) tails Candy but loses Skip. After contacting Police Captain Tiger (Vye), who asks his old informer Moe (Ritter) to identify Skip, she agrees happily. Zare goes on the hunt for the micro film in Candy’s purse which she picked up (unwittingly) from the her ex-boyfriend Joey (Kiley), a communist agent. Candy has fallen in love with Skip, but he has no faith in her. Finally, Skip tracks down Joey and the communist ringleader and a happy ending ensues.

Samuel Fuller was known as a anti communist but Pickup, in spite of its topic, is very ambivalent about taking sides. As often in Fuller’s films, the American bourgeoisie, which had most to gain from the status quo, is ‘saved’ from communism by the down-and-outs of society. Moe, who lives in utter squalor and Candy (an ex-prostitute) are the most violent defenders of the system, Moe does not want to sell her information, after she has learnt that Joey is a communist: “Even in our crummy kind of business, you gotta draw the line somewhere”. Pickup is first and foremost a gangland noir, a milieu which the ex-crime reporter Fuller was well-accustomed to. Fuller might have been an anti-communist but he took very badly to J. Edgar Hoover’s criticism of Pickup – Skip laughs off appeals to help as ‘patriotic eyewash’ and only goes after the communists in revenge for the beating they gave Candy – with producer Daryl F. Zanuck backing Fuller up in a very acrimonious meeting with the FBI boss. Pickup was selected for the 1953 Mostra in Venice, where it won a Bronze Lion, in a year when the jury withhold the Golden Lion for ‘lack of a worthy film’, but compensated with six Silver and four Bronze Lions. AS

NOW OUT ON DVD | BLU-RAY AS PART OF EUREKA’S MASTERS OF CINEMA SERIES | 17 AUGUST 2015 

Cry of the City (1948) | Robert Siodmak Retrospective | BFI April – May 2015

Cry_of_the_City_1 copy copyDir.: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Victor Mature, Richard Conte, Fred Clark, Shelley Winters, Betty Garde, Deborah Paget

USA 1948, 95 min.

Robert Siodmak made this noir thriller between THE KILLERS and CRISS CROSS, and although CRY OF THE CITY is not as spectacular, as a study of crime in the city – with the Little Italy being the real star – in all its brutality, photographed in grainy black and white by Lloyd Ahern, this is ultimately a superior film. It does not go for identification with the main protagonist as in THE KILLERS nor does it have the spectacular ending of CRISS CROSS. It is a noir in the true sense of the word, with no borders between police and criminals.

Martin Rome (Conte), a hardened criminal, is in hospital after a shoot-out. The police, led by Lt. Candella (Mature), wrongly suspect him of a jewellery heist where a woman was killed. Rome escapes, fearing rightly that Candella will frame him and his fiancée Teena (Paget) for the robbery. Candella and Rome grew up in the same neighbourhood and Siodmak shows that they are not very different. Rome is helped by his teenage brother Tony (Cook) and an old girlfriend Brenda (Winters in fine form). In spite of being chased by Candella, Rome finds the real mastermind of the jewellery heist, a murderous masseuse (a grotesque portrait by Hope Emerson). When Candella appears on the scene, he is wounded in a shoot-out. But, like Rome at the beginning, he leaves the hospital to hunt his prey, leaving Martin at the mercy of his brother.

The city is permanently present: its sounds, always important in Siodmak’s noir-films, accompany the action and showcase the vibrancy of New York’s Little Italy in the late forties. The clear images of the interaction are always framed by shadows of the environment. Doors in the background and side windows allow the replication of images: pictures of pictures. The cars and the huge crowds engulf the protagonists, very much like “Menschen am Sonntag”. A dominating city is shown in glamorous panorama shots. The narrative is not limited by an inner or outer world: violence is everywhere, and police violence is no exception. This is a cruel and callous environment, everything is played out with murderous hatred in front of witnesses. Italian emigrants in Martin Rome’s family home strive to replicate the emotional closeness and warmth of their homeland but there’s a bitter edge to their hospitality. Nothing escapes the beady eye of the voyeuristic camera, witnessing the action: even an emergency operation in car in the middle of the rush hour is witnessed, portraying a world of murkiness – with nowhere to hide adding texture to the narrative and placing it firmly in the historic context of post war New York. The psychology of ordinary life is subverted by the violence. The real, ordinary world has changed though, it loses its significance, not only for the protagonists, but also for the audience, who had submitted to the same violence of a society in crisis: the depression was not forgotten, and the Second World War had just ended. CRY OF THE CITY is dark and the camera penetrates this darkness – but what it shows is just a human twilight world – bordering on the psychotic. AS

ON GENERAL RELEASE HEADLINING A RETROSPECTIVE OF ROBERT SIODMAK IN MARCH 2015 AT THE BFI

The London Spanish Film Festival’s 5th Spring Weekend | 17-19 April 2015

safe_image.phpA selection of the latest Spanish films arrives in London on 17th April, with a chance to see multi-award-winning Noirish thriller LA ISLA MINIMA (Marshland) before it goes on general release this Summer.

LA ISLA MÍNIMA | Marshland

dir. Alberto Rodríguez, with Raúl Arévalo, Javier Gutiérrez, Antonio de la Torre, María Varod | Spain | 2014 | col | 105 mins | cert. 15 | In Spanish with English subtitles | London Première / Special preview courtesy of Altitude

Two ideologically opposed detectives are sent to the Guadalquivir river marshes to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls during the small town’s festivities only to discover that they have been brutally murdered and that there were many others before them. Marshland is a noirish and gripping thriller in which everything feels slippery as the marsh itself and, for this, oppressively real. Sevillian Alberto Rodríguez and long-time co-writer Rafael Cobos create here a captivating atmosphere thanks in part to their knowledge of the area and the depth of the characters. The film was the absolute winner at this year’s Goyas with ten awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Javier Gutiérrez).

Followed by a Q&A (tbc)

Enjoy a glass of Albariño wine courtesy of Martin Codax from 7.45pm

Fri 17 April | 8.40pm | £12, conc. £10

10.000 km (main pic)

dir. Carlos Marqués-Marcet, with Natalia Tena, David Verdaguer | Spain | 2014 | col | 99 min | cert. 13 | In Spanish with English subtitles

10,000 km makes reference to the distance between Los Angeles and Barcelona, the distance between Alexandra and Sergio, who love each other but have to spend one year apart with their computer as the only tool to fight for their love and keep it alive. Based on the director’s own experience when he had to leave Barcelona, family and friends, the film is a reflection on the immediacy of communication nowadays and how there are certain things that cannot be substituted and that are key to our lives, such as touch and smell.

Fri 17 April | 6.30pm | £12, conc. £10

Sun 19 April | 5.00pm | £12, conc. £10

LA VIDA INESPERADAThe Unexpected Life

dir. Jorge Torregrossa, with Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo | Spain | 2013 | col | 105 min | cert. 13 | In Spanish with English subtitles | UK Première

“Primo” lives in Spain and, between jobs, decides to pay a visit to his cousin Juanito, who lives in New York City and works as an actor. Shortly after his arrival both cousins realise that the other’s life is not as good as it seemed. Written by Elvira Lindo and based in New York City, where the Spanish artist spends part of her time, La vida inesperada is a delightful romantic comedy about the uncertainties of life avoiding cultural stereotypes. Javier Cámara and Raúl Arévalo, two of Spain’s finest character actors, wander the streets of New York trying to find a sense to their lives when nothing is what it looks like.

Followed by a Q&A with the director

Sat 18 April | 6.30pm | £12, conc. £10

TODOS ESTÁN MUERTOS | They Are All Dead

Dir. Beatriz Sanchís, with Elena Anaya, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Angélica Aragón | Spain | 2014 | col | 93 mins | cert. 13 | In Spanish with English subtitles

Beatriz Sanchís debut feature, is an inspiring film mixing evocative Mexican magic realism touches with 80s style music reminding the Movida madrileña, in which pragmatic Paquita invoques his dead son Diego to come back amongst the living to force her daughter Lupe to take responsibility for the education of her son Pancho. Best known to British audiences for her roles in Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucía and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, Elena Anaya delivers a stunning as well as moving performance as the traumatised ex-music star overwhelmed by guilt feelings for the death of her brother. Both Anaya and Sanchís received several Best Actress and New Director nominations.

Followed by a Q&A

Sat 18 April | 8.50pm | £12, conc. £10

EL_NINO_4 copyEL NIÑO

dir. Daniel Monzón, with Luis Tosar, Jesús Castro, Eduard Fernández, Sergi López, Ian McShane, Bárbara Lennie | Spain | 2014 | col | 136 mins | cert. 15 | In Spanish with English Subtitles | Screening courtesy of Studiocanal

After Cell 211’s hit, Daniel Monzón comes back with an enthralling drug-trafficking action film based in real facts and set in the Strait of Gibraltar enriched by the presence of the social background. With stunning visuals and an impressive cast, the film follows El Niño (“The Kid”, superbly played by newcomer Jesús Castro) who, with his friend El Compi (“The Buddy”), dreams of a better life and thinks he can get it by running drugs across the Strait in his jet ski. After him are four very human cops…

Followed by a Q&A (tbc)

Sun 19 April | 7.30pm | £12, conc. £10

THE LONDON SPANISH FILM SPRING WEEKEND | 17 – 19 April 2015

The Killers (1946) | Master of Shadows | April 2015

Dir.: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, William Conrad, Charles McGraw

USA 1946, 102 min. (spoilers)

Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, THE KILLERS was one of many classic Film Noirs by one of the key Noir craftsman, German born director Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). He was one of the team of filmmakers behind Menschen am Sonntag (1929); his fellow creators and emigrants Edgar G. Ulmer and Billie Wilder would, like him, excel in directing noir-movies in Hollywood, as well as another couple of ex-UFA directors: Fritz Lang and John Brahm. Considering that Robert’s brother Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), who became a busy script-writer in Hollywood, was also involved Noir-films, one can draw the conclusion, that all these emigrant directors transferred the traumatic displacement they had suffered in Nazi-Germany, into their new environment with films, in which everything, from the role of capitalism to gender roles, became questionable.

Robert Siodmak’s list of noir films between 1941 and 1949 is quiet staggering: Flight by Night,  Conflict  Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Spiral Staircase, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and Thelma Jordan. Apart from being aesthetically original, these productions were often great successes at the box office, and Siodmak had enough clout with the studio bosses, to cast an unknown debutant in the leading role for THE KILLERS: Burt Lancaster.

The film starts with two psychotic killers Max (Conrad) and Al (McGraw) entering the small town of Brentwood in New Jersey at night, going to the local diner and enquiring about Pete Lunn, called “The Swede”. After being told that he has not come for his usual dinner appointment, the killers terrorise owner and personnel of the diner in frustration, before turning their enquiries elsewhere. Finally, they enter the boarding house where Lunn (Lancaster) lives, shooting him in cold blood. Jim Reardon (O’Brien), an insurance inspector, investigating a life-insurance claim (Lunn had a life-insurance policy, a motel maid in Atlantic City being named the beneficiary), is puzzled why Lunn never ran away, even though he was warned by one of the guests in the diner about the arrival of the killers.

With the help of police detective Sam Lubinsky (Levene), who knew Lunn when he was a young boxer and put him behind bars after Lunn took the rap for a jewel theft for his secret love Kitty Collins (Gardner), Reardon tries to uncover the truth behind Lunn’s suicidal behaviour and finds out that Collins was the girl-friend of Big Jim Colfax ((Dekker), who was in charge of a heist, in which Lunn and three other members of the team successfully robbed a payroll worth $250 000. The jealous Colfax wanted to cut Lunn out of the proceeds, but Kitty warned the latter, and Lunn grabbed the loot and disappeared for good, being hunted in vain by the other gang members. But the more Reardon learns, the less sense it makes…

The narrative is told at first as a series of flashbacks portraying Lunn’s life, before the two killers from the opening sequence make another appearance, this time trying to get rid off Lubinsky and Reardon, setting in motion a series of shootouts. The acting is near perfect: Lancaster’s “Swede” is a naïve, emotionally immature man, who does not even know that Lilly is in love with him – she prompotly marries Lubinsky – whilst Lunn just loves the unobtainable Kitty from afar, only confronting the rough Colfax once before the heist. When Lunn meets Gardner, she is tthe ‘little girl lost” in the company of gangsters, begging Lunn to save her, and Lunn is only too happy to oblige, even if it costs him three years of his life. Their meeting in Atlantic City, when Kitty tells him of Colfax treachery, is the high point of the film: one literally feels the burning lust. Dekker’s Colfax is steely and arrogant – Ronald Reagan would play him in Don Siegel’s remake of 1956 – and Conrad and McGraw are truly frightening in their unrestrained violence. DOP Elwood Bredell plays masterly with shadows and light, creating an atmosphere of violence and repressed lust. The male protagonists are all severely damaged, even Lubinsky is just shown as a cop, who easily sells his friend Lunn out, even though he had the chance to save him; whilst Reardon is just a stupid insurance agent, who risks his life to maximise the profits of his company. Siodmak creates a totally corrupt and amoral world in this near perfect film. AS

SCREENING DURING MASTERS OF SHADOWS: A ROBERT SIODMAK RETROSPECTIVE AT THE BFI LONDON IN APRIL 2015

 

The Killers (1946) | Blu-ray release

image014Newly restored High Definition (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by Universal

Dir.: Robert Siodmak

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, William Conrad, Charles McGraw

USA 1946, 102 min.

Based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway, THE KILLERS was one of many classic film noirs by the German born director Robert Siodmak (1900-1973). He was one of the team of filmmakers of “Menschen am Sonntag” (1929); his fellow creators and emigrants Edgar G. Ulmer and Billie Wilder would, like him, excel in directing noir-movies in Hollywood, as well as another couple of ex-UFA directors: Fritz Lang and John Brahm. Robert’s brother, Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), also became a busy Hollywood script-writer in Hollywood involved in noir-films so clearly all these emigrant directors transferred the traumatic displacement they had suffered in Nazi-Germany to their new environment creating films in which everything, from the role of capitalism to gender roles, became questionable.
Robert Siodmak’s list of noir films he directed between 1941 and 1949 is quiet staggering: Flight by Night; Conflict; Phantom Lady; The Suspect; The Spiral Staircase, The Dark Mirror; Cry of the City; Criss Cross and Thelma Jordan. Apart from being aesthetically original, these productions were often great successes at the box office and Siodmak had enough clout with the studio bosses to cast an unknown debutant in the leading role for THE KILLERS: Burt Lancaster.

The film opens with two psychotic killers Max (Conrad) and Al (McGraw) entering the small town of Brentwood in New Jersey at night, where they start at the local diner enquiring about Pete Lunn, called “The Swede”. They get a dusty answer and terrorise  the owner and staff in frustration before turning their enquiries elsewhere. Finally, they track down Lunn’s (Lancaster) boarding house and shoot him in cold blood. Jim Reardon (O’Brien), an insurance inspector investigating a life-insurance claim (Lunn had a life-insurance policy, a motel maid in Atlantic City being named the beneficiary), is puzzled as to why Lunn never ran away, despite being warned by one of the guests in the diner about the arrival of the killers. With the help of police detective Sam Lubinsky (Levene), who knew Lunn when he was a young boxer (putting him away in jail after Lunn took the rap for a jewel theft for his secret love Kitty Collins), Reardon tries to uncover the truth behind Lunn’s suicidal behaviour. But the more Reardon learns, the less sense it all makes…

The narrative is told at first as a series of flashbacks portraying Lunn’s life before the two killers from the opening sequence make another appearance, this time trying to get rid off Lubinsky and Reardon, setting in motion a series of shootouts. The acting is near perfect: Lancaster’s “Swede” is a naïve, emotionally immature man who does not even know that Lilly is in love with him – she promptly marries Lubinsky – whilst Lunn obsesses about the unobtainable Kitty from afar, only confronting the rough Colfax once before the heist. When Lunn meets Gardner, she is “the little girl lost” in the company of gangsters, begging Lunn to save her, and Lunn is only too happy to oblige, even if it costs him three years of his life. Their meeting in Atlantic City, when Kitty tells him of Colfax treachery, is the high point of the film: one literally feels the burning lust. Dekker’s Colfax is steely and arrogant – Ronald Reagan would play him in Don Siegel’s remake of 1956 – and Conrad and McGraw are truly frightening in their unrestrained violence. DOP Elwood Bredell plays it masterly with shadows and light, creating an atmosphere of violence and repressed lust. The male protagonists are all severely damaged, even Lubinsky is just shown as a cop who easily sells his friend Lunn out, even though he had the chance to save him. Reardon is just a stupid insurance agent who risks his life to maximise the profits of his company. Siodmak creates a totally corrupt and amoral world in this near perfect cult classic. AS

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OUT ON 8TH DECEMBER ON BLU-RAY COURTESY OF ARROW FILM

Original uncompressed PCM mono 1.0 audio
Isolated Music & Effects soundtrack to highlight Miklós Rózsa’s famous score
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
Frank Krutnik on The Killers, a video piece by the author of In a Lonely Street, which introduces the film and offers a detailed commentary on four key scenes
Heroic Fatalism, a video essay adapted from Philip Booth’s comparative study of multiple versions of The Killers (Hemingway, Siodmak, Tarkovsky, Siegel)
Three archive radio pieces inspired by The Killers: the 1949 Screen Director’s Playhouse adaptation with Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters; a 1946 Jack Benny spoof; the 1958 Suspense episode ‘Two for the Road’ which reunited original killers William Conrad and Charles McGraw
Stills and posters gallery
Trailers for The Killers, Brute Force, The Naked City and Rififi
Reversible sleeve featuring one of the original posters and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Sergio Angelini and archive interviews with director Robert Siodmak, producer Mark Hellinger and cinematographer Woody Bredell, illustrated with original production stills.

AVAILABLE FROM MONDAY 8TH DECEMBER COURTESY OF ARROW FILMS

In The Shadow (2012) UK Jewish Film Festival 2013

Dir.: David Ondricek; Cast: Ivan Trojan, Sebastian Koch, Sona Norisova, Jeri Stepnicka;

Czech Republic 2012, 106 min.

This Czech Republic Oscar entry 2013 is a film noir that takes us back to Prague 1953: Detective Hakl (Ivan Trojan) is working on a case of robbery where jewellery has been stolen, and a safe cracked open in a very unprofessional way.  Kirsch, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, living in the Jewish Centre of Prague, seems to be the main suspect, but Hakl soon finds out, that he is only the fall guy in a conspiracy which leads to the top of the Prague Police.  Hakl’s boss, soon to be promoted, has ‘arranged’ not only this crime, but also a robbery on a post office, where a huge amount is stolen, and witnesses, including a police officer, are killed.

All this is set up to prosecute members of the Jewish community as ‘Zionist agents, who rob the state to buy weapons for the Zionist state as part of a worldwide American conspiracy’.  Hakl meets Zenke (Sebastian Koch), an Ex-SS man, who has returned from a Siberian prison, to help the Czech police with this case. Zenke, who can’t speak the native language, is shown as a piano-playing, cultured man, who flirts with Hakl’s wife Jilka and plays football with his son Thomas.  Hakl confronts Zenke, but he can’t stop the show trial of the  ‘Zionist conspirators’, and Zenke returns to Germany in a swap for a German spy.

This film has two sides: the brilliant aesthetics of the camera work; the sets (the film was shot in Lodz, Poland);  the haunting music that echoes the sinister mood and the restrained but subtly-convincing acting.  The bleak city; the grey buildings with the bullet marks of the Second World War; the lack of food and the dreariness of everyday life is wonderfully re-created.  The camera follows Hakl, from hunter to being hunted though the labyrinths of a decaying city, where it is never really light. This is a true film noir, which catches the joyless atmosphere of Stalinism perfectly.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers have, in their justified grievance against the Stalinist state, made the plot rather unbelievable, by introducing a SS man, fresh out of a Siberian prison as the main helper of the Czech police.  What help can the man give, when he can’t even speak the language of the country?  Where did he get the information, since he came straight from Siberia?  Why would the German’s swap him for a spy, since he has no value for them.  There a no excuses for the excesses of Stalinist policies, their crimes against humanity are well documented. But the filmmakers don’t help their cause in making them looking worse, by introducing a SS man as their willing tool.  Because we should not forget either, that the war criminals of the SS were sheltered by the West German state, helping them to avoid prosecution.  And Anti-Semitism was as rife in Germany as well as in the rest of Europe, which is proven by the help of the police in all the countries occupied by Germany, helping the occupiers to organise the journeys of Jews to the extermination camps.  A shame that such a visual feast depicting an important part of Czech and Jewish history is spoiled by an absurd plot. AS

 

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