Noirvember: D.O.A.

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Greetings, readers! This week is the last of my blog posts for Noirvember 2017. I know. It makes me sad too. But for my last noir film I have chosen a real hidden gem. It’s 1949’s D.O.A. It starts with a shocking opening and then only gets more intense and spectacular from there. It has one of the most compelling narrative arcs in all of noir. It may not be mentioned as a great noir film as often as, say, The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. But it’s essential viewing for anyone who loves the genre.

The film stars Edmond O’ Brien as a man who’s been poisoned, told he has only days to live, and how he tries to find out who did to him and why.

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’ Brien) goes off to San Francisco for a week’s holiday. He’s a self-employed accountant and is engaged to his assistant Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton). He checks into the St. Francis Hotel and is soon partying with a group of salesman who are having a party. He ends up at a jive bar where a mysterious stranger switches drinks with him. He awakens the next morning feeling unwell and after having some medical tests is told that he’s been poisoned and there is no cure. He has one week to live. When Paula tells him that a man in Los Angeles had been trying to reach him, he sets off to learn if there might be any connection to his current situation. Unfortunately, the man committed suicide by jumping off his high-rise apartment balcony not long after trying to contact him. He soon learns that some very shady characters are involved but why they might be interested in him is what he really wants to know.–IMDB

D.O.A. gets a great deal of its tension from the almost real-time narrative. Right from the opening we know the stakes are high. The opening credits feature Bigelow walking down a long corridor to see a policeman. The music (composed by the great Dimitri Tiomkin) playing over the credits has an almost march to the gallows feel. And that’s exactly the right tone for the story. The film wastes no time in telling us the plot and involving us in the situation of the Edmond O’ Brien character. He reports his future murder by poisoning to a policeman, and then tells the story in flashbacks. By the way, if the police captain at the beginning looks familiar, it’s because he’s played by prolific character actor Roy Engel. He played Doc. Martin on the hit series Bonanza, among other things. But I digress.

D.O.A. succeeds for a multitude of reasons. The primary one is that Edmond O’ Brien’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. He’s believable as the dogged every man in an impossible situation. He’s convincingly vulnerable when he finds out his medical diagnosis. And he’s a likable yet complex character who we root for every second of the movie. O’ Brien had a long and storied career that included a few other noir classics: White Heat and The Killers. I still think he doesn’t get enough credit as an actor. His performance in D.O.A. is a tour de force.

I also want to give credit to Pamela Britton who plays O’ Brien’s love interest. Her compassion for him feels genuine and it’s heartbreaking knowing how their story line is going to end. Noir is just not the place for happy endings.

Another thing that’s fascinating about D.O.A. is that it was directed by Rudolph Mate. He has 32 directing credits between the big and small screen. But he was primarily known as a cinematographer. Among his impressive cinematography credits are: Foreign Correspondent, The Pride of the Yankees, and Gilda. Mate proves himself to be a solid noir director with D.O.A. It’s a shame he didn’t work more in the genre. But we have many films that look great thanks to his camera skills. So all is not lost.

D.O.A. plays like a real-time crime drama. It’s thoroughly involving and a great example of film noir. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.

That’s a wrap for Noirvember. See you in December!

 

 

 

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Noirvember: The Set-Up

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This week it’s time to once again disappear into the shadows and seedy alleys. This week my salute to film noir in honor of Noirvember continues with another favorite film. This week’s selection on the surface is a boxing movie. But it’s so much more than that. It’s The Set-Up from 1949 directed by Robert Wise.

The Set-Up features two gifted, but in my opinion underrated actors, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter. The plot involves boxing, gangsters, and corruption,

Over-the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his sexy wife Julie (Audrey Totter) pleads with him to quit. But his manager Tiny (George Tobias) is so confident he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from tough gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter)…without bothering to tell Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), unaware of what will happen to him if he does.–IMDB

It’s fascinating how The Set-Up manages to weave together the genres of sports and crime in a way that is absolutely fascinating. That’s a credit to director Robert Wise, who I’ll get to shortly. But there are a number of reasons I’ve chosen The Ser-Up.

First of all, even though the film is about much more than boxing, the scenes in the ring are just riveting. You really feel in the ring and can feel the blood and sweat on the camera lens. If the look of the film feels familiar when you see it the first time, it’s likely because it inspired the look of another great boxing movie: Raging Bull. As Internet Movie Database notes:

Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film and was so impressed by the boxing sequences that he had to deliberately avoid copying any of Robert Wise’s camera tricks when it came his turn to make a boxing movie, Raging Bull.

Credit the great look of the boxing scenes, and for that matter, the whole movie, to cinematographer Mlton R. Krasner. Among Krasner’s other credits? All About Eve and How The West Was Won. He had an impressive range.

On top of the great look, another reason The Set-Up is such an effective noir is that it takes place in real-time. It adds to the tension of a crime story. Knowing the clock is ticking just raises the stakes that much higher.

Of course, none of this would make any difference without strong performances from the cast. Robert Ryan in the lead role delivers one of the best performances of his storied career. He’s believable as a boxer, but also as a vulnerable struggling athlete on the downside of his career. The other performance I want to mention is Audrey Totter. I must admit I haven’t become very familiar with her work until recently. But her work in The Set-Up and Lady and the Lake establish her as one of the quintessential film noir actresses.

The film also benefits from a screenplay Art Cohn, working from a poem by Joseph Moncure March. And The Set-Up also wouldn’t be the great movie it is without director Robert Wise at the helm. Wise was one of the most versatile people to ever work in Hollywood. He started out as an editor at RKO Pictures. In fact, one of his editing credits was for a little movie you may have heard of: Citizen Kane. Wise eventually moved up to directing, working early on for legendary horror producer Val Lewton on films such as The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Wise went on to direct the great musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music as well as the horror masterpiece The Haunting. Wise could direct for any genre. In The Set-Up he shows he has an ability to tell a taut crime story as well as show us a great song and dance number. The world lost a great talent when he passed away in 2005 at the age of 91.

If you like sports movies, The Set-Up is for you. It’s also for you if you enjoy a good, twisted crime story or are fans of Ryan and Totter. It’s just a great movie period. I can’t say enough good things about The Set-Up. It’s as good the first time as it is the 50th time.

 

Noirvember: The Naked City

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Greetings, noiristas! It’s week two of Noirvember, a month devoted to celebrating all things film noir. This week my selection is a film that, on the surface, is merely a police procedural. But its craftsmanship makes into one of the definitive films of the genre. It’s 1948’s The Naked City.

On the surface, the plot is a simple one. Two cops are investigating an apparent suicide. In true noir fashion it turns out to be a murder.

Amid a semi-documentary portrait of New York and its people, Jean Dexter, an attractive blonde model, is murdered in her apartment. Homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) investigate. Suspicion falls on various shifty characters who all prove to have some connection with a string of apartment burglaries. Then a burglar is found dead who once had an elusive partner named Willie. The film ends with a tour de force manhunt.–IMDB

Like I said, it’s pretty routine. Sounds like a Law & Order episode in movie format. In fact, The Naked City paved the way for programs like Law & Order, Hill Street Blues, and many other gritty cop dramas.

What really makes The Naked City a quintessential noir film is its look. The film was shot entirely on location in New York City. That choice gives it a gritty, documentary feel. We really walk the means streets with these detectives and it unfolds like a case being investigated in real-time. The plot twists and turns never feel forced. It’s absolutely compelling from start to finish.

At the heart of the movie are two superb performances by the actors playing the detectives. There’s Barry Fitzgerald as Muldoon. Anyone that has seen a classic movie has no doubt seen Fitzgerald at some point. He was one of the hardest working character actors of the era. You may remember him from his scene-stealing performance in The Quiet Man. And Don Taylor is equally solid as Halloran. The two actors really compliment each other beautifully. Their performances suck us into the investigation.

The director of The Naked City, Jules Dassin, is no stranger to noir. He also directed the noir masterpiece Rififi (one of the best of all heist films), Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. All are great ways to introduce yourself to the genre.

The Naked City won an Oscar for William H. Daniels’ brilliant black and white cinematography. The editing by Paul Weatherwax and writing by Marvin Wald also were nominated. When you see this film you’ll understand quickly why all three were recognized. As far as crime movies go, they don’t get much better than The Naked City.

Noirvember: Cornered

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October has come and gone, and with it, Halloween. But November gives us more fun in the shadows. Yes, it’s time once again for Noirvember: a month devoted to the twisted world of film noir. Once again this year I’ll be spotlighting some of my favorite noir titles. Some will be familiar to you, while others are hidden gems I’ve discovered in the last year or so. My first selection is one that may be new to you. It doesn’t appear on that many great film noir lists. But it’s worth discovering all the same. It’s 1945’s Cornered. Starring Dick Powell in his second noir outing following the wonderful Murder, My Sweet, it’s a solid film noir offering.

Cornered has a twisted plot, even by film noir standards. It involves murder, international intrigue, and revenge. The film really has everything.

On being discharged at the end of the war, Canadian flyer Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell) returns to France to discover who ordered the killing of a group of resistance fighters, including his new bride. He identifies Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler), who is reported as dead himself. Not believing this, Gerard follows the trail to Argentina where it is apparent that Nazism is also far from dead.–IMDB

The way the plot unfolds does get a bit overly convoluted. The crosses and double crosses of characters seem to come left and right. You almost need a map of who is connected to who and what their place is in the story line. It’s not as confusing as, say, The Big Sleep. But it does get bogged down in plot elements at times for a little too long. That quibble aside, the film is never boring. It has some solid dialogue, fascinating characters, and some fun shooting locations (including Bronson Caves). All of these elements provide a very effective film noir world.

One of the many reasons I picked Cornered was Dick Powell. Most classic film fans know him as a crooner from films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1939. As much as I love Powell in musicals, the part of his career where he dabbled in noir is even more fascinating. I was skeptical when I watched him in Murder, My Sweet. How could anyone come close to be as good of a Philip Marlowe as Humphrey Bogart? While Bogart is still the interpretation of the character I prefer, Powell’s take on the iconic private eye was very effective. He won me over in that film as a noir actor. In Cornered, he continues to go over to the dark side in the characters he plays. It’s gripping watching him evolve into a high-caliber dramatic right before our eyes. Did I mention that Powell directed a few films too? He really was one of the most versatile people of the Hollywood golden age.It should be noted that in Cornered Powell has a strong supporting cast that includes Walter Slezak.

Cornered also benefits from the direction of Edward Dmytryk. His other film credits include Murder, My Sweet (also with Dick Powell), Crossfire, and The Caine Mutiny. Cornered is one of his many solid directing efforts. The screenplay by John Paxton, John Wexley, and an uncredited Ben Hecht has a good mix of gritty noir dialogue and creates a very effective labyrinth of a plot for us and the characters to sort through. It’s fascinating how Nazism ties into the plot and reveals and anti-fascist message in this international detective story. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is the icing on the cake. This is a gorgeously filmed noir. The scene where Powell goes to visit his wife’s grave, for example, is very moody and somber.

Cornered is flawed, but definitely worth seeing. Dick Powell is solid in the lead role. We really believe him as the grieving husband who wants to avenge his wife’s death. The screenplay is good, even though it’s occasionally a little murky. Overall it’s a very involving noir tale and it’s worthy of more recognition.