The Non-Noir Files: The Witch (2015)

My palate for films is far more expansive than noir, and sometimes I want to get my thoughts down. Thus, rather than starting another blog, I welcome you to…

nonnoir.jpg (a.k.a. posts in which I review whatever I feel like reviewing)

24092

I’m not a fan of contemporary horror and so-called psychological thrillers. I don’t want to see people hacked apart, teens tortured, or sociopaths indulge in evil babble. If it’s classic horror, I’m usually game. I appreciate the creativity it took Hollywood production teams back in the day to bring evil to life within the boundaries of censorship. I also love German Expressionism as much as Universal monsters. And some dark contemporary films really wow me, even if they sometimes traumatize me. I didn’t know what to expect from Robert Eggers’ The VVitch, but what I got was neither contemporary horror or traumatic. It was dark fantasy, and a creepy delight.

In particular, I read the film as a “what if” kind of tale, as in “What if the witch tales of 1600s New England came to life?” With high emphasis on realistic detail, the film is on one level a bringing to period life in film of some poor girl’s testimony at a witchcraft trial or escapist fantasy written in her diary. I can definitely see the links to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the American Gothic tradition. Except the wild isn’t symbolically dangerous…it’s really dangerous.

That said, it’s not dangerous like Evil Dead or Dead Snow, for that matter. It’s a combination of self-delusion by overzealous Puritans and genuine darkness in the form of a witch.

Image result for the witch 2015
Anya Taylor-Joy as Tomasin

On another level of perhaps even greater pleasure, it’s ultimately a feminist triumph of sorts. With a father whose zealotry led to the dangers of isolation and ecophobia and a mother who can’t imagine a love greater than an imaginary encounter she had with Jesus when young, our young female protagonist Tomasin (the radiant Anya Taylor-Joy) has a lot of burdensome guilt on her head. Ultimately, she must decide whether to remain controlled by the incredibly narrow and self-loathing worldview of her parents even after they’re gone … or to fly off as a witch. In other words: will she accept Eve’s burden or follow the path of Lilith. I know which I’d pick.

Overall, the acting, directing, and cinematography are superb. The music is  heavy-handed, unnecessarily so for this type of movie. To me, the loud scratchy, dissonant violins alternating with an eerie, equally dissonant choir voices (that sound like 2001: A Space Odyssey every time the monolith heaves into view) fit the bill for dark fantasy but undercut the potential of greater nuance.

So, while it’s not the type of film I tend to watch, I did very much enjoy it. Definitely RECOMMENDED.

The Non-Noir Files: The Witch (2015)

The Scarlet Hour and Pushover: The Double Indemnity Knock-off Face-off

doubleindemnityDouble Indemnity (1944) is perhaps the best-known and most loved picture in the classic Hollywood A film noir cycle. Ask someone to name a great noir, and Double Indemnity is likely to be the film of choice — or in the top few at least. The hard-boiled dialogue, the femme fatale and sexualized violence, the criminal POV, the voiceover and flashback framing, the night-for-night filming, the low-key lighting, and big name stars who’d come to be associated with the genre (Stanwyck and Robinson): Double Indemnity has it all.

Because of the film’s popularity and its reliance on central noir and pulp fiction tropes, it’s not surprising that elements of Double Indemnity were echoed in many other films. However, as the original noir cycle began to run out of steam in the mid-to-late 1950s, using the picture as a template for copycat films became increasingly obvious…and sometimes downright cringeworthy. (Of course, the worst of all was the 1973 TV movie remake with Richard Krenna, Lee J. Cobb, and Samatha Eggar (4.7/10 on IMDb).

There are two pictures from the 1950s that I’d like to discuss in more comparative detail. Both share multiple (but different) elements with Double Indemnity, and neither is anywhere near as compelling as its source of inspiration. But if you’ve only got time for one Double Indemnity knock-off, which one should you see? This face-off is intended help you decide.

0000 faceoff

The contenders are, like Double Indemnity, about scheming blondes (played by actresses in their first major roles), men who easily fall prey to their charms, incisive sidekicks, and heaps of dangerous double-dealing! Here they are:

Pushover (1954) and The Scarlet Hour (1956)

Now let’s have a face-off!

DIRECTOR

  • Richard Quine (P)
  • Michael Curtiz (SH)

Neither of these directors holds up to Billy Wilder, director of Double Indemnity and a host of other great flicks, but Michael Curtiz is by far the better known of the two, famous among noir lovers for Casablanca (1941, not a noir but pre-noirish) and Mildred Pierce (1945), not to mention my favorite Elvis pic, the noirish King Creole (1958). Richard Quine is less prolific and Pushover was his first noir. He may be best known to noir fans for Bell, Book and Candle (1958), also starring Novak. In these films, neither director shows himself to be a master craftsman, though Pushover is a simpler, tighter film than the somewhat wandering Scarlet Hour. Neither director brought his A game, let’s just say.

Winner: Tie

LEADING LADY

  • Kim Novak as Lona McLane
  • Carol Ohmart as Pauline “Paulie” Nevins

This is a tough call, mostly because I think others will disagree. Both Novak and Ohmart have their first starring roles in these pictures, and you will be easily forgiven for not even knowing who Ohmart is (unless you’re a fan of House on Haunted Hill, in which she plays Vincent Price’s murderous and ultimately murdered wife). Many male fans of classic film seem to go ga-ga for Kim Novak. She really doesn’t do it for me, especially not in Pushover. She is full of “come hither” gleam, but not much else. Ohmart is a stereotypical over-the-top femme fatale, but she pulls it off well.

Winner: Carol Ohmart, The Scarlet Hour

LEADING MAN

  • Fred MacMurray as Paul Sheridan
  • Tom Tryon as E.V. “Marsh” Marshall

Yes, that’s right, the protagonist of Pushover is Fred MacMurray, reprising the hard-boiled type (a cop this time) who falls for the femme fatale — hook, line, and sinker. He’s older and duller this time, as is his performance. Tom Tryon is the young guy desperately in lust with the boss’s wife, and he gives it a good, earnest go. The actor would later appear in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and soon after become a writer, achieving much greater success and happiness than he had in acting. Honestly, neither one of these men light up the screen in these iffy copycat films, so I’m calling it a tie.

Winner: Tie

THE PLOT

— SPOILER ALERT —

Pushover: Gangster’s moll Lona McLane needs attention and has a sudden and rather random affair with Paul Sheridan. When she learns he’s a cop, she suckers him into protecting her even though he’s the precinct’s choice to watch her so they can catch her criminal boyfriend. Soon, he’s in deep, and the film ends with a strange kind of earnestness as Paul is busted for being on the wrong side of the law.

The Scarlet Hour: “Paulie” Nevins has a possessive, jealous, abusive older husband. He’s also the boss of handsome young “Marsh,” who falls for Paulie in a big way. She makes clear, though, that she won’t leave her horrible hubby unless wage slave Marsh can come up with some real dough…which she discovers when the couple overhear some petty crooks planning to break into a home while its owners are away to claim tens of thousands in jewelry from their safe. Paulie demands Marsh wait outside the house and take the jewels after the thieves have gotten it, and though he protests at first, he does as Paulie says. But getting the loot causes more problems than it solves when Mr. Nevins shows up, having followed his wayward wife who is driving the getaway car. When he is killed accidentally by Paulie, problems begin to mount, and Marsh finally realizes Paulie is selfish and cruel. He wanders into the arms of Nevins’ sweet secretary Kathy (Jody Lawrance) and sees how it all might have been, had he not been thinking with his dick.

As you can see, The Scarlet Hour has that Double Indemnity vibe in the love/lust triangle, but it also has lots of noirish twists and turns. Both the plot and pacing are faster and simpler in Pushover. Both films have the feeling of genre exhaustion, and their endings are equally mediocre, given that Lona turns out to be sincere and Marsh gets the undeserved love of a good girl. Though I must ignore the denouement, I like the later film better for Ohmart’s wicked femme fatale and her ornate robbery plan.

Winner: The Scarlet Hour, just barely

BEST SUPPORTING CAST MEMBER

  • Phil Carey as Rick McAllister
  • Elaine Stritch as Phyllis Rycker

I love Philip Carey. He was Asa Buchanan as well as Philip Marlowe on TV and before that he was in several movies playing big hunky guys. In Pushover, he’s MacMurray’s partner, a cop that trusts his buddy longer than he deserves…at least in part because he’s chatting up Kim Novak’s neighbor (played with sass by Dorothy Malone — she of the pointy bra in the picture above). I can’t resist Carey’s dimples, though Elaine Stritch’s ability to handle comedy material is definitely a match. She is awesome as Ohmart’s best galpal, full of pizzazz and wit. Because Carey’s character spies on Malone’s — and it’s not just to look out for her safety! — I’m going to give this round to Stritch, even though it isn’t Carey’s fault that the writers were sexist. (Honestly, her part is much better than his.)

Winner: Stritch, The Scarlet Hour

THE VISUALS

  • Lester White, director of photography
  • Lionel Lindon, cinematography

As with the plot, the look of these films suffers from B budgets and noir exhaustion. There are some nice dark settings in Pushover, though, from the stakeout apartment to the street scenes. The Scarlet Hour doesn’t even seem to bother with caring about cinematography.

Winner: Pushover

In the end, I can envision watching The Scarlet Hour again when I’m in the mood for late B noir. I’ve seen Pushover twice, and I honestly don’t ever need to see it again. As my votes above show…

download

FACE-OFF WINNER: THE SCARLET HOUR

…though don’t take that as a serious recommendation…

The Scarlet Hour and Pushover: The Double Indemnity Knock-off Face-off

Weekly Screenings: Haunting

I spent a week watching films that have had a rather haunting effect on me, though none are outright horror. In the process, I deepened my appreciation for Conrad Veidt and Laika Studios.

The Man Who Laughs (1928): The more I silent films I watch directed by Germans, the more I realize film’s power to haunt long after the credits roll. Films by Lang, Murnau, and now Paul Leni move me with their Expressionistic cinematography and art direction. The acting in The Man Who Laughs is what we now would call “over the top,” but I cannot get the pitiful image of the boy and the man, played with wild emotional intensity, whose face was butchered. (Yes, I know the image inspired the Joker, but it’s Veidt who haunts me.) I’m grateful, however, that the film “butchered” the ending of Hugo’s novel. I needed the relatively happy ending to not end up in a puddle of tears. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935): A smooth-voiced Veidt stars in this British film about a boarding house full of desperately unhappy people. He is a mysterious unnamed stranger who moves in and works to bring peace and happiness. Rene Ray is Stasia, a young maid who suffers the most and “summons” the stranger, who acts as a sort of angelic father figure. Perhaps most interesting in this film adaptation of a successful play is that it’s 1935 and our angel has a distinct German accent. (And this is soon after Veidt fled Germany after declaring himself Jewish in sympathy with the Jewish wife he would not abandon.) RECOMMENDED.

Major Barbara (1941): I adore Wendy Hiller, and it did not surprise me to know she chose to play Major Barbara after her turn as Eliza in Pygmalion (1938) when offered another opportunity to film a Shaw play. Hiller is full of charismatic fire as a social reformer with the Salvation Army who must eventually face the fact that industrialism — even the war machine — will save more “souls” than than a bankrupt charity organization with good intentions. Young Rex Harrison is a wide-eyed delight, less bombastic than his turns in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) or My Fair Lady (1964). But it is Robert Morley as Barbara’s armament-making father, Andrew Undershaft (made up to look like playwright Shaw), who steals the picture with his hauntingly overwide gaze and the dryest of dry wit. Is he elf or devil? We don’t know until the end. This said, I can understand why the film was less successful than Pygmalion, especially in its strange pacing, emerging as a series of distinct scenes rather than a coherent narrative. Still, RECOMMENDED.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): I loved this film, full of haunting tragedy. It’s the story of the determination of a little boy with magical abilities and his powerful mother, who will go to any lengths to protect him. The stop-animation is stunning and beautiful — from the characters to the origami — and the tale is the textbook definition of bittersweet. It doesn’t surprise me that the company (Laika) that made this film also made Coraline (2009), which I also loved. My primary complaint here is the casting of white voice actors for  ALL the primary (Japanese) roles, making the film another aggravating example of racebending. Only the “other” characters in the cast are voiced by Japanese-American actors, including George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. That white folks wrote the story bothers me less for there seems love and respect for the material; the worst I would call the production team is Otaku. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

kubo_large

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Screenings: Haunting

laugh or else

Inspired by the wit and absurdity of Crusty Pie and its Past Imperfect series (“Big Pictures, Tiny Stories”), I’ve been toying with the idea of making fun of noir intensity by putting humorous captions with specific noir images. It may work or fall flat, but what the hell: let’s give it a go. I’m calling these posts (assuming I do more): LAUGH OR ELSE, and they will feature lovely lethal mascot Annie Laurie Starr:

laugh or else copy

***

#1

Bogey: Stop sulking, baby. How was I supposed to know she’d go for the same look?

***

#2

IMG_4109

Googie (in strapless dress, center): And now, ladies and gentlemen, our featured attraction! Watch as the lovely Ms. T turns this bunch of grapes to wine with only the power of her scorn at having to work in this dive!

***

#3

IMG_4106

Wifey (closing eyes to avoid reminder that she is married to a slimy monster): What a lovely gift, darling.

Hubs (closing eyes to avoid reminder that he is a slimy monster): I know, sweetheart.

***

So…funny? no? maybe?

laugh or else

Ingrid Bergman in Arch of Triumph

Poster 3I love Ingrid Bergman. I love her acting, her beauty, her charisma, her strength of personality on the screen. So of course I am joining in the 2nd annual Ingrid Bergman Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. And, of course, I am writing about noir.

Last year, my entry was on Gaslight (1944). This year, rather than choosing another obvious Bergman-noir picture, such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) or Notorious (1946), I’m opting to write on a film I recently stumbled onto (just looking around online): Arch of Triumph (1948), directed by Lewis Milestone, an Eastern European educated in Germany who immigrated to the US after WWI. He is perhaps best known for directing All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and to noir fans for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He was blacklisted for a year in 1949 for left-wing affiliations dating back to the 1930s. His rebelliousness shows well in an anecdote in which producer Carl Laemmle Jr. demanded a “happy ending” for All Quiet and Milestone replied, “I’ve got your happy ending. We’ll let the Germans win the war.”

 

000Arch of Triumph is a lesser-known Milestone picture. Released in 1948, it is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, which he wrote during his nine-year exile in the United States. Remarque also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), and most of his works emphasized the terror of war.

In brief, Arch of Triumph is a tale of illegal refugees leading dark lives in Paris on the brink of war. Under a false name, a doctor (Charles Boyer) practices medicine illegally. He rescues a suicidal refugee (Ingrid Bergman), also living under a false name, after the death of her lover. They develop an intimate relationship, but can it last in such circumstances? The doctor is deported and Bergman’s character survives the best she can, becoming the mistress of a wealthy man. Driving the doctor is not only a desire to return to the woman he loves but a need for revenge against a Nazi officer (poorly cast Charles Laughton) as war is eventually declared between France and Germany. His accomplices include a sympathetic Russian royal who has become a doorman (a delightful semi-comic role for Louis Calhern)

 

I was drawn to this tragic film from the first by its cast and subject matter. Living in hiding as refugees makes every moment sadly suspenseful. Romance is impossible in such circumstances, even as the lonely characters played by Boyer and Bergman fight for it. Bergman is riveting when she plays characters who are depleted yet somehow still determined, and even her “betrayal” of Boyer is understandable in its context. She lives differently, based on gender norms and options available, and she suffers just as much as the devoted doctor, played with engaging reserve by Boyer — who only a few years earlier had played her abusive and evil husband in the Victorian thriller Gaslight (1944).

0Arch2

I find the film poignant in its messages about life, death, war, and love and beautifully filmed in dark noir fashion by Russell Metty (director of photography for Touch of Evil [1958], among many others). For this and especially for Ingrid Bergman’s luminous performance, I am disheartened at the lukewarm reviews Arch of Triumph has received. Some claim it moves too slowly, others that Boyer and Bergman have too little chemistry. I disagree entirely, but see it and decide for yourself. (It’s free to screen with Amazon Prime.)

1406779078_2

Ingrid Bergman in Arch of Triumph

September is Jules Dassin Noir Month on #BNoirDetour

With a little luck and assistance from YouTube and Archive.org, September will be Jules Dassin noir month on #BNoirDetour, live tweets every Sunday at 9pm ET. Here’s a little preview reel set to the song “Rififi” from Rififi:

The Schedule:

September 4 (Labor Day Weekend)

  • Night and the City (1950)
  • Rififi (Du Rififi Chez les Hommes) (1955)

These two fantastic films are the only productions Dassin directed during his blacklist/exile years. Night and the City tells the story of a man who just wants to “be somebody,” but his methods are madness and end up destroying him and everyone around him. Stars Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Marlowe, Herbert Lom, Mike Mazurki, and wrestling champion Stanislaus Zbyszko. Rififi is Dassin’s first French-language film, a superlative Paris heist flick that became the standard for all heist pictures that have come after it — and it reinvigorated Dassin’s career. [We will watch it in French (with cc English subtitles we must turn on ourselves); this should create a unique challenge for riffers.]

September 11

  • Brute Force (1947)
  • The Tell-tale Heart (short) (1941)

Our second Sunday will feature prison break noir Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines, and Sam Levene. We’ll also watch The Tell-tale Heart, a short feature based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, that was Dassin’s first film as a director.

September 18

  • Thieves’ Highway (1949)

In Thieves’ Highway, a war vet returns home to start a trucking business with his fiancee’s father and live happily ever after, until he becomes bent on revenge when he finds his father was crippled by a robber. Stars Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, and Jack Oakie.

September 25

  • The Naked City (1948)

We end the month with a New York City noir about two detectives investigating the death of an attractive young woman. Is the suicide actually a murder, and did her nogoodnik boyfriend do it? Stars Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Dorothy Hart.

Join us!

jules-dassin-3 copy

 

September is Jules Dassin Noir Month on #BNoirDetour

Many Home Screenings: the headcold edition

The misery of a summer cold can best be dealt with by staying home, taking meds to ease the symptoms, hot toddy-drinking, and a film festival in bed. That’s how I’ve spent my week, anyhow. Here are the cinematic results:

danger5-poster

And here are the briefest of reviews plus recommendations:

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950): Poor oil town woman leaves home and claws her way to the top — but can she find happiness among gangsters? David Brian impresses as a truly nasty villain, while Joan Crawford chews scenery but never fully earns my sympathy. RECOMMENDED.

I Confess (1953): A Hitchcock film I’d long wanted to see, with beautiful Montgomery Clift keeping the secrets of the confessional even when it threatens his life. Rather simplistic plot, but Anne Baxter helps make it worthwhile. MILDLY RECOMMENDED

Johnny Eager (1941): Early noir with handsome Robert Taylor as a sociopathic criminal whose conscience exists solely within his longtime friend, an alcoholic played in Oscar-winning fashion by Van Heflin. Lana Turner suffices as the rich gal our anti-hero finally falls for, but the bromance is far more interesting. RECOMMENDED.

I Walk Alone (1948): While we’re on the subject of bromances, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas are brilliant together in this flick about criminal competitors. Lizabeth Scott plays a singer (dubbed as usual), who turns from femme fatale to good girl so fast your head spins. Come for the threesome, stay for the bromance turned sour. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941): Walter Huston is so superb as Mr. Scratch that the heavy-handed tale of a farmer who sells his soul is entertaining rather than dull. Edward Arnold steals the show at the end, however. MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

Ladies in Retirement (1941): Gothic melodrama featuring Ida Lupino as a woman burdened with two mad sisters (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett). Murder and mayhem ensue, with the help of Louis Hayward as “Cousin” Albert and Evelyn Keyes as easily seduced maid Lucy. Delightfully dark. RECOMMENDED.

The Bat (1959): Serial killer “The Bat” is on the loose, and no one is safe, especially not the mystery writer (Agnes Moorehead) who lives in the murder victims’ former home! Moorehead and supporting stars Lenita Lane and Vincent Price are entertaining, but the mystery is weak. NOT REALLY RECOMMENDED unless you need more Agnes Moorehead in your life.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) (1958): Louis Malle’s first film is a noirish crime film that made Jeanne Moreau a star. A wonderfully quiet film, we follow Moreau’s interior monologue and watch silently confident leading man Maurice Ronet as their plan to murder Moreau’s husband goes awry in complex and unpredictable fashion. The ending is a bit too French for me, but it’s a gripping MUST-SEE for film noir lovers.

Danger 5, Season 2 (2015): This Australian series alone makes Netflix worth the monthly fee. Bizarre and hilarious spy adventure comedy. The team’s mission is to Kill Hitler, whether we’re in the 60s or, for season 2, the 80s. Multilingual, multispecies, and full of shout-outs and homages. Brief description: Team America on acid. MUST-SEE.

weeklyroundup

 

Many Home Screenings: the headcold edition