Noirvember: Mystery Street

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This week I bring a close to my film noir spotlight. I won’t stop watching or writing about them in the future. But this is the last weekend of Noirvember. The last film noir I’ve chosen is one of the best kept secrets in cinema. It’s Mystery Street from 1950. It stars, among others, Ricardo Montalban. Yes, the same man who played Khan so memorably on Star Trek and Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. But he did a few film noirs in his career too. Mystery Street is the best of the bunch.

The plot sounds like a routine crime movie. But it’s much more than a by the numbers police procedural. Here’s the gist of the story to get you started:

A human skeleton is found among the tall grass in the dunes on a Cape Cod beach. Barnstable Police Lieutenant Pete Moralas (Ricardo Montalban) is leading the investigation, with his gut feeling being that the victim met with foul play. He is enlisting the services of Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett)  with the Legal Section of the Harvard Medical Department. Pete will use whatever forensic evidence Dr. McAdoo can uncover from the skeleton and the crime site, combined with regular police evidence, such as missing persons cases, to discover the victim’s identity. With that evidence, they are able to determine that the victim is twenty-four year old Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling), a Boston based nightclub dancer and bar girl. She had been reported missing four months earlier by Jackie Elcott (Betsy Blair), who was a neighbor in a rooming house owned and operated by Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). Jackie knew that Vivian, like herself, was all alone in the world, that being the reason Jackie felt compelled to look out for her. Dr. McAdoo also discovers that single Vivian was in the early stages of pregnancy when she died. Pete is able to track Vivian’s movements on the night she was probably killed, including how she got out to Cape Cod from Boston. With that evidence, Pete is able to charge married Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson)  with the murder. Henry pleads his innocence, admitting that he had met Vivian that evening at the bar where she worked, but that he was drunk, drowning his sorrows as his wife, Grace Shanway, (Sally Forrest) was in the hospital just having miscarried. The evidence against Henry includes several eyewitnesses being able to identify him as being with Vivian that night, those people including the bartender where she worked, one of her casual friends, and an employee at a roadside diner in Cape Cod. Mrs. Smerrling also identified him as snooping around the rooming house immediately following. Pete has no choice but to charge him, even though there still is a nagging feeling that something is missing in the investigation. That something could be helped or hindered by one of the external parties working on his/her own agenda.–IMDB

Mystery Street set the stage for forensic science crime shows like Quincy, M.E. and CSI. One of the things that makes the film so effective is that it has a documentary feel. We’re with Ricardo Montalban’s character through every step of the investigation. Seeing the nitty-gritty of police work may sound boring on the surface. But it’s presented in a way that makes it impossible for you to take your eyes off the screen. The film is like watching the police work in real-time. It should be noted that forensic science was a relatively new thing when the film was made.

The cast is stellar, led by Ricardo Montalban. While I primarily knew him for his television work prior to seeing this, I have since discovered he had a very extensive and diverse film career. He did musicals, dramas, and even worked in a movie with Esther Williams (Neptune’s Daughter). In Mystery Street he’s just as convincing playing a dogged cop as he was playing the menacing Khan on Star Trek. Montalban’s acting chops and charisma cannot be denied. I also want to mention Elsa Lanchester. She’s excellent as the concerned neighbor. Lanchester to me is still an underrated actress. It’s a case where someone has been so consistently good that we take them for granted.

Mystery Street was skillfully directed by John Sturges. His other credits include The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, just to name a few. In Mystery Street, we see that Sturges is just as capable of making a small, gritty film as a sprawling World War II escape picture or a western. The cinematography by John Alton and Oscar-nominated screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks on top of the great direction, combine to make Mystery Street a riveting little gem of the film noir genre. While it doesn’t show up on many great film noir lists, it deserves a wider audience. Montalban’s performance in particular is worth seeing. The man had quite a range as an actor. Mystery Street gives the viewer a glimpse of it. It’s gritty, groundbreaking, and not to be missed by anyone who loves film noir.

That’s a wrap for Noirvember! See you in December for my next cinema spotlight.

Noirvember: Double Indemnity

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Continuing with my Noirvember theme, this week I bring you my take on Double Indemnity. Read any list of great noir films and you’re sure to see it mentioned. Along with The Maltese Falcon, it’s one of the best in the history of the genre. It’s one of many great films in the career of director Billy Wilder. Why is it that makes Double Indemnity such a shining example of film noir? Let me tell you.

First, here’s a plot summary in case you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen it.

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company’s top salesman, returns to his office late one evening, bleeding from a gunshot wound, and dictates a memo to colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). It all started the previous May, when he stopped at a client’s home for a routine renewal inquiry and instead met the client’s wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She asked about buying accident insurance for her husband without his knowledge, and Neff understood that she intended to kill him. Neff and Phyllis were soon lovers, with Neff taking charge of the killing. Initially their plan went off without a hitch, but then Neff realized that he had been played and decided to do something about it.–IMDB

There are a lot of classic noir elements here: murder, love, betrayal, and a crooked scheme. Billy Wilder does a superb job of bringing James M. Cain’s novel to the screen. It should be noted that for years Double Indemnity was thought unfilmable. The original source material is even darker and more sordid. How could such a movie ever hope to get made in the era of the production code? Well, through a lot of hard work, it got made. Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay along with Raymond Chandler (yes, the same man who wrote The Big Sleep). Wilder and Chandler clashed a lot during the process, and Chandler never wrote another screenplay again. But in spite of their differences they turned out one of the best written films in noir or any genre for that matter. The great lines are too many to count. But here are a few of my favorites:

Neff: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

That last one may be the most quintessential noir line ever written. Side note: Cain also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. Both got turned into great noir films. But Double Indemnity’s screenplay wouldn’t be worth anything if the actors sleep walked their way through making the movie. Thankfully the film has three leads that are all at the top of their game. Fred MacMurray was mostly known for playing nice guys in Disney movies at the time Double Indemnity was made. Barbara Stanwyck was a little uncomfortable with the material. And Edward G. Robinson would not get top billing in a movie for the first time since Little Caesar. Thankfully all three eventually agreed to participate. MacMurray in particular really got to shed his good guy image. Neff is sympathetic at first. But when he gets seduced by Phyllis we really see his character go over to the dark side quickly. That isn’t to say we don’t feel bad for him at the end. After all, he gets used by Phyllis. But there’s the pesky fact that he was part of a murder scheme. MacMurray’s range is undeniable after seeing Double Indemnity.

But MacMurray isn’t the only one shaking up his image. Barbara Stanwyck creates one of the definitive screen femme fatales in her portrayal of Phyllis. Right from her iconic entrance coming down the stairs in a towel and an anklet, we know Neff is in trouble just crossing paths with her. She projects danger right from the word go. Neff is no match for her feminine wiles. It’s easy to see why Neff is taken in by her. To this day I believe Barbara Stanwyck still doesn’t get the credit she deserves as an actress. She’s not only beautiful, but incredibly versatile. Look at Christmas in Connecticut and then Double Indemnity. Talk about playing completely different ends of the spectrum! Phyllis Dietrichson has no redeemable qualities. And yet, for the nearly two our running time of the movie, you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s that compelling. That’s a testament to Barbara Stanwyck’s acting chops. She makes you fascinated by someone you love to hate. What a performance!

While most of the conversation surrounding Double Indemnity revolves around MacMurray and Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson as Keyes is the real scene-stealer. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time. But he absolutely owns every scene he’s in. When we first see him, he’s meticulously tearing apart a phony insurance claim as Neff enters. He does it with intelligence and humor. Keyes is the conscience of the film. It’s a treat watching him cut through Walter and Phyllis’ scheme. And the relationship between Keyes and Neff is really the heart of the film. That’s what makes the ending so heartbreaking. When Keyes finds out he’s been betrayed by Neff, his friend and colleague, the look of betrayal and his face and the disgust in his voice really gives it an emotional punch. Robinson to this day is known for playing gangsters. He did shoot to stardom playing one in Little Caesar after all. But Robinson was one of the most dynamic actors of his era. In Double Indemnity he shows he can be a character actor as well as a lead. And by infusing Keyes with humanity and humor, we get to see what a wide range he had. Robinson was one of a kind.

I’ve covered plot, screenplay, directing, and acting. But I wan to note two other contributors. First, the cinematography by John F. Seitz is absolutely masterful. He does little things like using silver dust mixed with some subtle smoke effects to create the illusion of waning sunlight in Phyllis Dietrichson’s house.The whole film is beautifully shot and lit. One of the things that Double Indemnity did and many films later copied, was use the shadows of venetian blinds on the characters as a way to symbolically show prison bars. It’s particularly effective in an office scene between Keyes, Neff, and their boss. The bars streaming over MacMurray tell us as an audience that he’s getting closer to being found out. I could sit here and talk about great looking shots in this film all-day. It’s that well photographed. The other contributor I want to mention is Miklós Rózsa. His score sets the tone right from the beginning. It has a march to the gallows feel to it. The sense of foreboding and mystery is absolutely palpable. It’s an effective score that isn’t particularly showy. There’s just the right amount of music and it’s used in the film at exactly the right times. It’s one of the composer’s best scores.

Double Indemnity is one of a handful of films I tell people to see when they want to dive into the world of film noir. Everything the genre is known for is done to perfection in Double Indemnity. There’s forbidden love, murder, betrayal, crooked characters…you get everything you could possibly want. Billy Wilder could direct in practically any genre. Two of my favorite films of his just happen to be noir films: Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. The cast is superb. While Stanwyck was the only one of the actors to earn an Oscar nomination, MacMurray and Robinson richly deserved recognition as well. The screenplay is sharp, it’s beautifully shot, the score puts us on the edge of our seat right from the title sequence…this is filmmaking at it’s finest on every level. While may film noirs have been made over the years, few have been made as well as Double Indemnity. It’s an absolute masterpiece. No lover of film can afford to miss it.

Noirvember: Raw Deal

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This month I’m focusing on the film noir genre in honor of Noirvember. I kicked things off with In A Lonely Place. This week I’m switching from a noir about a tortured screenwriter, to one that has a twisted crime plot (a common hallmark of the genre). From 1948, it’s Raw Deal directed by Anthony Mann.

Let’s get right to the plot, because it’s a rather complex one. But if that’s not noir, what is?

Joseph Emmett “Joe” Sullivan (Dennis O’ Keefe)  is in the State Prison for taking the blame for gangster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) that owes him $ 50,000.00. Joe is visited by the young Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) that works at the law firm that is defending him and she tells that after three years, Joe will certainly be on probation. However his lover Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) also visits him and tells that Rick has plotted an escape for him during the night. What they do not know is that the sadistic Rick wants to get rid of Joe and expects that Joe will be murdered or caught during the prison break. Joe is well-succeeded in the escape and Pat drives the runaway car. However the car is shot in the tank by the police officers and they run out fuel. Joe brings Pat to Ann’s house expecting to have a hideout for a couple of days, but Ann calls the police believing that she would help Joe. They escape in Ann’s car and head to Crescent City, where Joe expects to meet Rick to receive his money and travel to South America with Pat. But Rick sends a hit-man to kill Joe while Pat feels that she is losing Joe to Ann that has fallen in love with him. Will Pat and Joe have the chance to travel together to South America?–IMDB

Crime, a love triangle, the mob, betrayal, lots of plot twists…Raw Deal has everything you could want in a film noir. The film was directed by Anthony Mann, who directed another noir film: Border Incident. What’s interesting about Mann, is that he also directed a few noir westerns. Among them are a trio of great ones featuring Jimmy Stewart: The Naked Spur, Winchester ’73, and The Man From Laramie. In all three we get to see likable Jimmy Stewart show off his dark side a little bit. I mention all of this not just as a history lesson. One of the things that surprised me about Raw Deal was seeing Raymond Burr play such a nasty, loathsome character. Until I saw this movie, I always thought of Burr as one of the all-time good guys from his days playing Perry Mason. Turns out he had a long career in noir, and played a bad guy practically every time. Goes to show what a versatile actor he was. Rick Coyle is one of the great film noir villains.

Raw Deal not only has Raymond Burr, but the wonderful Claire Trevor. She appeared in two other great film noirs: Murder, My Sweet and Key Largo (for which she won an Academy Award). She’s great here as the love interest who wants to help Joe, but is jealous of his budding relationship with Ann. You really root for Joe and Pat to get away from Coyle and escape to South America.

All of this complicated plot works because of Anthony Mann’s direction and the screenplay by Leopold Atlas and John C. Higgins. The plot twists never seem forced. The love triangle plays out like genuinely believable human drama rather than hammy soap opera. And it’s a thoroughly absorbing crime drama from start to finish. This is a great film to introduce people to film noir with.

Raw Deal came to my attention during the Turner Classic Movies Summer of Darkness course last year. It has grown on me with repeat viewings. It’s effectively directed by Anthony Mann, well-acted by its cast, and beautifully shot by cinematographer John Alton. Raw Deal is gritty, smart, and one of the best film noir films you’ll ever see.

Noirvember: In A Lonely Place

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This month is November. But to Old Movie Weirdos it’s Noirvember, a month to celebrate the film noir genre. In that spirit, this month I will be highlighting some of my favorite noir films. First up is In A Lonely Place from 1950. It stars the king of noir, Humphrey Bogart. While he did many films in the genre, including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and High Sierra, this one has quickly become a favorite and is one of the best kept secrets in the genre.

In A Lonely Place is especially interesting to me because it’s not just a great noir film, but an interesting film about the film industry. Here’s a plot summary to get you started.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a successful screenwriter who has not written anything worthwhile for a long time. He is a very violent man, with a bad temper. His agent asks him to read a book and prepare the screenplay. Dix invites Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who is the receptionist of the restaurant where he is habitué and had read the book, to go to his home and present a summary of the story. The girl has a date, but she decides to call off and go with Dix. After midnight, he gives some money for the cab and Mildred leaves his apartment alone. On the next morning, she is found murdered and Dix becomes the prime suspect. He goes to the police station and stumbles upon his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) that gives alibi to Dix. Then they fall in love with each other, but Gloria can not trust him completely. With the support of Gloria, Dix starts working again, and prepares an outstanding screenplay for his agent. Meanwhile he proposes her to get married with him, and although Gloria is in love with him, she is not sure whether he killed Mildred or not. Did Dix kill the girl?–IMDB

It’s a murder mystery, which is a common plot line in noir. But one of the things that makes it standout is how the screenplay keeps us guessing right up until the end whether or not Dix is guilty. For the roughly 90 minutes of the films running time, it’s riveting to watch Bogart play the character of Dix. He comes off as tortured, violent, and a bit of an enigma. Dix is a complex character, and Bogart as usual does a great job of bringing all of the characters facets to the screen. While Dix has a temper and comes off as a jerk, he’s still sympathetic. The noir genre really is a great place to find anti-heroes.

As I mentioned above, In A Lonely Place is a great insider’s look at Hollywood. It’s a great noir about a screenwriter, right up there with Sunset Boulevard, a great companion film for a double bill. The scenes of all the Hollywood people interacting feels authentic. The film even has great nods to classic films from Hollywood’s past. “What does it matter what I think? I’m the guy who tried to talk Selznick out of doing Gone with the Wind!,” one character muses. It’s a great look for the audience at the world of Hollywood, especially the world of screenwriters. For a more modern take you should watch Robert Altman’s The Player. But I digress.

In A Lonely Place was brilliantly directed by Nicholas Ray. His other credits include: Rebel Without a Cause, King of Kings, Johnny Guitar, and They Live By Night. His career was brief. But the few films he made were pretty impressive. In A Lonely Place happens to be my favorite. The film also benefits from a great screenplay by Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North (it’s based on a story by Dorothy B. Hughes). Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is exquisite. And then there are the superb performances. I mentioned Bogart, but I want to acknowledge Gloria Grahame. She’s very believable as a love interest for Bogart. She really makes you feel the trepidation her character has about getting involved with Dix. When an actor gets the part of a character who’s paranoid often there’s a tendency for the performance to be over the top. Grahame’s performance doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s a subtle, perfectly pitched performance. If you like Grahame here, check out another noir she made called The Big Heat.

It’s hard to make a great noir and a great film about Hollywood. In A Lonely Place succeeds on both counts. The film was recently released in the Criterion collection. I have every intention of asking for it this Christmas. When you see it you’ll understand why.

Creature Feature Spotlight: The Thing From Another World

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For my last film in my creature feature spotlight, I’ve chosen The Thing From Another World. While I must confess that John Carpenter’s remake is even better, the original is a masterpiece in its own right. It said the stage for films like Alien, and inspired umpteen imitators.

The plot?

In 1949, in the Officers Club in Anchorage, Alaska, the pilot Captain Patrick “Pat” Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is summoned by General Fogarty  to fly to a remote outpost to investigate something that has crushed on Earth. Captain Hendry flies with his crew and meets Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite)  and his team of scientists and they fly to the location. They discover a flying saucer buried in the ice and they use Thermite bombs expecting to release the spacecraft. However, it explodes and is totally destroyed by the bombs. They also find a frozen life form and bring it to the research station. When the creature thaws, it attacks the dogs and loses one arm. Dr. Carrington researches and discovers that it is a vegetable life that reproduces like plants. Captain Hendry believes that the dangerous creature is an invader and decides to find a way to destroy it with his team. But Dr. Carrington believes that the scientific discovery is more important than lives and protects the creature.–IMDB

Does the story sound familiar? It should. The Thing From Another World is based on a story called Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. It’s one of the most influential science fiction stories ever written. So why did I pick this film? It’s made with superb craftsmanship, and achieves a sense of paranoia nearly unequaled in film history, save for John Carpenter’s remake.

James Arness plays the creature. Yes, the same man who made his name on the classic western TV series Gunsmoke. While he has no lines of dialogue, Arness makes the creature genuinely terrifying using just his body language and making primal noises. It’s a terrific performance.

There’s so much to love about this film. The scene where the flying saucer is discovered under the ice is one of the greatest reveal scenes ever filmed. The sight of the crew forming a circle around the UFO and being in awe is the stuff that classics are made of. There’s also the great scene where the creature breaks into the outpost building and the scientists set fire to it. It’s the most effective scene of its kind since the angry mob stormed Frankenstein’s castle.

It should also be noted what a technically marvelous film The Thing From Another World is. Russell Harlan’s black and white cinematography is equal parts gorgeous and eerie, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is perfectly suspenseful…this was a brilliantly made film from top to bottom. Director Christian Nyby (and uncredited directed Howard Hawks, who also produced the film), did an amazing job bringing the story from page to screen. If I have one quibble, it’s that there’s one female character and she’s there to be a token female character. That’s one change I’m glad was made in the remake. Many films have imitated The Thing From Another World, but few have stood the test of time the way it has.

That’s a wrap on creature features! Join me in November for a film noir spotlight.