Noirvember: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

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This marks the last week of Noirvember. While most of my selections this month have been traditional noir films, I decided to end the month on a light note with the underrated Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Starring Steve Martin and directed by Carl Reiner, the film is a spoof of noir films sort of like Airplane! is a spoof of the Airport movies. The more noir films you’ve seen, the more you’ll appreciate Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

The film’s plot involves private detective Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) investigating the murder of noted scientist and cheesemaker John Hay Forrest (George Gaynes). Forrest’s daughter Juliet (Rachel Ward) hires Reardon to look into the case. Juliet and Rigby go to Dr, Forrest’s lab and find two lists. One is titled Enemies of Carlotta and one is titled Friends of Carlotta. The two are interrupted when a man posing as an exterminator gets the lists from them and shoots Rigby. But Juliet helps him get the bullet out and he lives to fight another day. Rigby Reardon getting shot is sort of a running gag in the film.

But the labyrinth plot is not the real attraction of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. What makes it a joy to watch is how it tells its own story but intercuts scenes from other iconic noir films, including Double IndemnityThis Gun For Hire, and Suspicion, to name a few. Rigby Reardon’s mentor is none other than Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart). The filmmakers made the brilliant decision to film it in black and white so that they could incorporate scenes from classic noir films to help tell a new story. This is a spoof but also a love letter to classic film noir and pulp novels of the 1940s.

Steve Martin is someone who is so good I think we take him for granted sometimes. Here’s a man who can do standup comedy, write plays, have his own banjo band, and act in comedies as well as dramas. The part of the slick and wise cracking private eye Rigby Reardon fits him like a glove. And of course he’s funny. He has some of the best comedic chops in the business.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is smart, funny, and very imaginative in the way it cuts the current and classic movies together. Credit Carl Reiner for his solid direction and editor Bud Molin for making it all work. This isn’t just a film ripping off other films by incorporating clips of them into the storyline. This is a film that loves film noir and everyone that made the genre something that is still being studied and going strong decades later. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid may not have been a box office smash upon initial release. But since its release more and more film lovers are embracing it. Better late than never.

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Noirvember: The Killers

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It’s week three of Noirvember. This week my noir selection is regarded as one of the best ever made. It’s Robert Siodmak’s 1946 masterpiece The Killers. It features Burt Lancaster making his big screen debut and Ava Gardner as one of noir’s greatest femme fatales.

As the film opens, hitmen Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw) have just rolled into Brentwood, New Jersey. But the duo isn’t there just for kicks. They’re on a mission to kill Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster) also known as The Swede. When one of The Swede’s coworkers at the gas station tries to warn him, he doesn’t put up a fight at all. Instead he accepts his fate. The Swede is murdered in his hotel room.

On the case is insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’ Brien). Turns out The Swede had a $2,500 life insurance policy and Reardon has to track down and pay his beneficiary. The story is then told in flashbacks by the Swede’s friends, as well as police Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene). It is revealed that the Swede was in fact a professional boxer named Ole Anderson. But an injury to his right hand cut his career short. Lubinsky suggests that Anderson join the police force. But Anderson ends up falling in with a bad crowd instead. This is film noir after all. Among the shady people he gets involved with is Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). One day, Kitty is caught wearing stolen jewelry. Anderson confesses to the crime and ends up in prison for three years.

When Anderson gets out, he is recruited into a payroll robbery. Making matters worse, Kitty has moved on to a new beau.I’ll leave the resolution of all these plot lines for you to discover when you see the film. There’s one twist after another as the film builds to its electrifying third act.

There are countless reasons why The Killers is held in such high regard decades later. Of course there’s the breakout debut by Burt Lancaster. He really makes The Swede’s downward spiral feel believable. There’s a vulnerability, especially towards the end when his world comes crashing down around him, that makes the performance stand out. And Ava Gardner fits perfectly into the role of the noir femme fatale. She’s sultry, dangerous, glamorous…everything you could want in a film noir dame. The film also benefits from its outstanding supporting cast, including noir veteran Charles McGraw, who I wrote about last week in my post on The Narrow Margin.

But it’s not just the cast that makes this movie. Credit must go to the film’s talented director, Robert Siodmak. He does a skillful job of hitting the audience right away with a powerful opening and then delicately weaving the protagonist’s story together through all the flashbacks. The story goes back and forth between past and present in a way that always has a great flow to it. And Siodmak was working from an Ernest Hemingway story. Anthony Veiller’s screenplay has some great, cynical dialogue.

I want to mention two other contributions. First there’s the score by Miklos Rozsa. It has this great feeling of menace throughout that helps to ratchet up the tension. And, bringing it all together by photographing it in a beautiful and haunting way is cinematographer Elwood Bredell. There are images in this film that are some of the most striking I have ever seen. One of my favorites is a shot of the diner from the outside at night. The way Bredell uses light and especially shadows in that one shot is simply masterful.

The Killers has a great story, a skilled cast, and was helmed by a great director. For me it ranks up there with Double IndemnityThe Maltese Falcon, and The Third Man as one of the best noirs ever made.

Noirvember: The Narrow Margin

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Greetings, readers! It’s the second week of Noirvember. So this week I’ll be writing about an essential film noir. This week I’ll be covering one of my favorite noir films set on a train. It’s Richard Fleischer’s 1952 mini masterpiece The Narrow Margin. It stars two of my favorite noir actors: Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. The two of them together make for some of the best noir scenes ever committed to film.

Charles McGraw plays Detective Sergeant Walter brown of the LAPD. He and his partner are assigned to protect the widow of a mob boss. The widow is Mrs. Frankie Neal (Marie Windsor) and she’s riding a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify before a grand jury. Mrs. Neall has with her a payoff list belonging to her murdered husband. When Brown and his partner go to pick Mrs. Neall up at her apartment, they are ambushed by a mob assassin. Brown manages to wound the assassin, but the assassin still escapes. And Forbes (Don Beddoe), Brown’s partner, is shot to death.

Brown and Mrs. Neall board the train and they clash pretty much from the word go. Even before they meet, Brown has a pretty jaded image of Mrs. Neall. It’s one of my favorite lines in all of noir. “She’s a 60-cent special. Cheap, flashy, and strictly poison under the gravy.” That’s a spot on description of Mrs. Neall, played to perfection by Marie Windsor. As their cross-country journey continues, Brown is offered a bribe by gangster Joseph Kemp (Clarke). And if that’s not enough intrigue for you, there’s a case of mistaken identity involving Marie Windsor and Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), a nice woman Brown befriends on the train. Now how this plays out and figures into the plot twist at the end I dare not reveal. But it makes for one heck of an ending.

The Narrow Margin is very efficient. It tells a story with many twists and turns in just one hour and eleven minutes. There’s not one minute of screen time that is wasted. Credit Richard Fleischer’s skilled direction, the sharp script by Earl Felton (working from Martin Goldsmith’s story), and the great chemistry between Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. They make for one of the best duos in noir history. Their tense relationship makes for some great dialogue exchanges. The film’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar for good reason.

Finally, I want to acknowledge The Narrow Margin‘s cinematographer George E. Diskant. He also worked on the noir classic Kansas City Confidential. In The Narrow Margin he does some great work with the manipulation of light and shows on the train. He also gives us some hauntingly beautiful shots of people’s reflections through the train’s glass windows. Those sound like simple things. And they are. But Diskant’s contribution to the film’s moody atmosphere should not be overlooked.

The Narrow Margin is potently written, superbly acted, and gives you one heck of a ride in the film’s short running time. It’s a great film to introduce people to noir with.

Noirvember: Detour

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Well, October is sadly over. But as we bid farewell to our nights of watching horror movies, November doesn’t have to be a sad time. Because November is also Noirvember, the month where lovers of film noir embrace hard-boiled detectives and femme fatales. All month I’ll be writing about essential noir films. I’m kicking things off with a low-budget noir whose reputation has greatly improved since its release in 1945. Yes, I’m talking about Edgar Ulmer’s Detour. At a running time of just one hour and eight minutes, this B-movie packs in an awful lot of suspense and gives us one of the best femme fatales in the history of noir.

Detour follows the misadventures of Al Roberts (Tom Neal). The motion pictures have seen plenty of sad sack characters over the years. But Al Roberts takes the cake. He’s a nightclub piano player who falls from club vocalist Sue (Claudia Drake). The two have a pretty solid relationship going. But then Sue tires of working in the cheap club and takes her talents to Hollywood hoping to hit it big. Al sinks into a deep depression when Sue leaves. But then he decides to go to Hollywood to marry her. Trouble is he’s dirt poor and has to hitchhike there from New York City.

When Al makes it to Arizona, he is picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). Haskell happens to be driving cross-country to Los Angeles to place a bet on a horse. So everything seems to be falling into place. But in film noir there are seldom happy endings. As the drive continues, Al drives so Haskell can sleep. A rainstorm hits, forcing Al to pullover to the side of the road. When he’s unable to rouse Haskell and then Haskell falls out of the car when Al opens the passenger door, Al realizes the man is dead. Fearing the worst, Al ditches the body, takes the dead man’s money, clothing, and identification and presses on.

When Al crosses the border into California, he runs into even more trouble. He picks up hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage) at a gas station. At first Vera is quiet and the two get along fine. But as the journey continues, it’s revealed that Vera was picked up by Haskell in Louisiana. Vera got out of the car when Haskell tried to force himself on her. Vera blackmails Al into giving her the money that he stole from Haskell and also wants the money the two get from selling the car.

There have been plenty of toxic relationships in film noir history. But few have had the potency of Al and Vera’s. Once things go south, they really go south. The scenes of the two of them posing as husband and wife in a motel room are genuinely uncomfortable. Tom Neal and Ann Savage play off each other as opposites so perfectly that you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat throughout the third act of the film.

Detour was made for a budget so low that the car Al and Vera drove in was actually one belonging to director Edgar Ulmer. But what the film lacked in resources it made up for in rich performances and great cinematography. Reading up on the film’s production, I found out that Tom Neal and Ann Savage did not get along offscreen at all. Maybe that’s why the scenes between them feel so genuinely intense. While Tom Neal does a fine job of playing Al, it’s Anna Savage as Vera who absolutely steals the show. Every line that comes out of her mouth drips with venom. It’s a chilling performance, and one of the best you’ll ever see in a film noir.

I also want to give a shout out to Detour cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline. He creates some very effective imagery, especially at the beginning of the film when Al sits in a diner and starts to narrate his story in flashbacks. There’s a great closeup of Al’s despondent face cloaked in shadow that is just perfect and tells us so much about the character in that one scene. This is not a showy noir by any means, but it has moments like that which make it an enduring noir classic despite it’s B-movie budget.

Detour works because of the simplicity of its story and how Tom Neal and Ann Savage play off of one another. When the characters start to turn on each other it feels real, which just adds to the tension and suspense. Detour was the first B-movie selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Here’s hoping this small masterpiece gets the restoration and Criterion treatment deserving of a classic soon.