Monday, March 30, 2009

Brief Reviews: Film Noir, Americain et Francais

THE DARK CORNER (1946) * * *
If you've ever yearned to see Lucille Ball in a film noir, this movie, directed by Henry Hathaway, will give you the chance. Lucy plays Kathleen Stewart, secretary to a P.I. who has just opened an office in New York City, Brad Galt (Mark Stevens). In no time at all Galt tangles with a crew of weird, menacing characters. One is his former partner, Anthony Jardine, who had Galt framed in San Francisco and sent to prison. Jardine is now a lawyer and one of his clients is Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), the owner of a ritzy art gallery, whose much younger wife is having an affair with Jardine. We know this because in their first scene together the radio in the background is playing "The More I See You (the More I Want You)." In fact, the movie is filled with ambient sound—music from orchestras or juke boxes heard through open doorways of night clubs and bars or on radios and phonographs in rooms, and street noise of all kinds, including traffic and the rumble of subway trains, heard even through open windows when the action moves indoors. In a moment of bizarre contrast, a lovely version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" plays while a brutal murder is taking place.

Galt is framed for the murder of his former partner, and Lucy, who has fallen in love with Galt, must help him find the real killer before the police find him. I love Lucy, but she doesn't seem ideally cast here. She handles with aplomb the wisecracking banter with Galt as she deflects his sexual advances at the beginning of the movie, but after that her character becomes a bit bland and she doesn't really get the chance to shine. Stevens (who later perfected this type of role in television's Peter Gunn) doesn't yet have enough heft as an actor to put across his cynical lines, which sound like they come directly from a Raymond Chandler novel. They really need somebody more forceful, like Humphrey Bogart. Webb is delightful, spouting arch witticisms like "The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither illegal nor immoral" (actually a variation on a quip by Robert Benchley).

But the whole movie has an air of familiarity, from the predictable plot to the well-worn characters, including Webb, channeling his Waldo Lydecker from Laura, and William Bendix, playing a thuggish P.I., who seems to be reprising his role in The Glass Key. One element, though, dominates the movie: Joe MacDonald's astonishing cinematography, a perfect exemplar of the film noir look. I've seldom seen a movie shot with such high-contrast lighting. This is a black-and-white film in the most literal sense, a film with virtually no tonal gradation: the blacks and shadows are as dark, and the whites as bright, as imaginable, with few shades of gray in between. This extreme lighting, along with the use of mirrors and windows as recurring visual motifs, gives the film great visual appeal. One final note: the set decorators should be commended for their audacity in furnishing the Cathcart Gallery. It is as full of art treasures as the National Gallery in London or the Louvre, filled with Rembrandts, Gainsboroughs, Van Goghs, even Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

BORN TO KILL (1947) * * * ½
A few months ago, in his blog Maximum Strength Mick, San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle asked his readers what they would present as guest programmers on Turner Classic Movies. I chose four undervalued genre pictures from the studio era, and for my film noir I chose this movie. Directed by Robert Wise in a less genre-influenced style than his later near-classic The Set-Up (which I previously reviewed at The Movie Projector), it nonetheless has several effectively atmospheric sequences, especially one that takes place on a foggy night in a remote area of the dunes at the beach. Despite Wise's restrained direction, the movie's plot and characters unmistakably make it a noir.

It opens in Reno, where Helen Trent (Claire Trevor, in an atypically posh role) is just completing her divorce. On her last night in town, at a casino she encounters a man, Sam Wild (!) (Lawrence Tierney), whose good looks and sexual charisma spark her interest. Little does she know he is a paranoid psychopath dating another resident (Isabel Jewell) of the boarding house where she has been staying and that later that night he will savagely murder both Jewell and the man she has been two-timing him with. When Helen discovers the bodies in the kitchen of the boarding house, she calmly walks around to the front door, enters the house, and calls the train depot to reserve a seat on tomorrow's train to San Francisco, where she lives. Later she explains that she didn't call the police because "it's a lot of bother." Within ten minutes the tone of the movie has been established by the gory double murder, and the corrupt nature of its two main characters clearly revealed by their roles in it. When Wild boldly picks up Helen at the train station the next day and follows her back to San Francisco, we can see where the plot is heading: it is inevitable that these two forces—he all uncontrolled impulse and she all cold calculation—will collide like matter and anti-matter, creating an explosive reaction that after minor detonations along the way will end in mutual annihilation.

Along for the ride is a great supporting cast. Esther Howard, who had small roles in seven films directed by Preston Sturges, plays the blowsy, beer-guzzling landlady of the boarding house in Reno. Walter Slezak plays the sly P.I. she hires to track down the killer. Best of all, Elisha Cook, Jr. plays Wild's best friend, Marty, for five years his roommate and protector. After finding out about the double murder in Reno, he patiently tells Wild, "You can't just go around killin' people when the notion strikes you. It's not feasible" and explains exactly what must be done to avoid getting caught. To say that there is an implicitly homoerotic element to the relationship between these two would be an understatement.

We can predict how the movie will end but not the twists and turns it will take on its way there, and watching the scenario play out to its inevitable end—witnessing the thrust-and-parry relationship between Trevor and Tierney as she attempts to control an essentially anarchic force—provides an hour and a half of immensely satisfying entertainment, especially for lovers of the genre.

BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955) * * * *
Although nearly unknown in the U.S. until recently, the French director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) has long been recognized in Europe as a precursor of, and major influence on, the French New Wave. Traces of his style and sensibility are easily recognized in early works by Godard and Truffaut, especially Breathless (which incorporates references to the plot of Bob le Flambeur and even features a cameo by Melville) and Shoot the Piano Player. In fact, a convincing case could be made the Bob le Flambeur is actually the first movie of the New Wave.

This is a heist movie—a type of film considered by many a sub-genre of film noir—in the vein of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, but I would say that as good as those movies are, Bob le Flambeur is even better. Even though it is a heist movie—the object is the casino at Deauville—the plan for the heist isn't hatched until well into the movie, and the (naturally) unsuccessful heist never actually happens. The movie clearly occupies film noir territory with its almost exclusively nocturnal action; its cast of petty crooks, hustlers, gamblers, and gendarmes who keep tabs on them; and its settings in bars, night clubs, card rooms, race tracks, and casinos both legal and illegal. The whole movie has an aura of life lived on the edge, outside of conventional society and in an atmosphere of risk and unpredictability. Over all hangs an air of fatalism, of men and women driven by internal forces to behave in ways that will inevitably lead to their doom.

Movies of this type invariably have an ensemble cast of colorful characters, but here it is the main character, Bob Montagné, the flambeur or compulsive gambler of the title (he even keeps a one-armed bandit in a small closet in his living room just to amuse himself with), who lifts the story into the stratosphere. As portrayed by Roger Duchesne, Bob is a slick, sophisticated man, a middle-aged ex-con who enjoys the good things in life—a quality wardrobe, a snazzy American Plymouth convertible, and a cool bachelor pad with a loft and picture-window view of the Sacré-Coeur—and maintains his comfortable lifestyle through the tireless pursuit of all sorts of gambling coupled with an unshakable belief in his own good luck. For the first part of the movie, his good fortune always seems to hold. But around midway through, his luck turns and, broke, he is forced to devise the scheme to rob the casino. His plan, so complex and so intricately engineered down to the least detail, clearly indicates a formidable intelligence and organizational ability that channeled into legitimate pursuits would probably have made Bob a very rich businessman.

Melville directs with the flair and personal authority that would later come to be considered hallmarks of the New Wave directors. As well as the conventional flat cuts, dissolves, and fade-out/fade-ins, he revives transitional devices such as iris-ins, iris-outs, horizontal wipes, and at one point even a vertical wipe—just the kind of retro flourishes later used by Truffaut and Godard in their early films. He and his cinematographer, the great Henri Decaë, film the deserted early-morning streets of Paris and the dives frequented by his characters in a near-documentary way that makes the viewer feel like an observer of reality. Melville, who also co-wrote the movie, gives Bob a concisely revealed backstory and places him in situations—such as his avuncular interactions with both Paulo, his young protégé and the son of his former partner-in-crime and Anne, a foolish, uninhibited, but charming teenager living on the streets—that succinctly limn a fully developed, fascinating, and sympathetic character.

In typical noir fashion, the movie ends in irony: waiting for several hours in the casino for the robbery to begin, Bob whiles away the time gambling and manages to win a fortune. He doesn't really need the money any more and feels his self-confidence restored, yet he still carries through with the robbery even though he knows it is destined for failure. I can think of no other movie that so obviously acts as a transition between the American films noirs of the 1940's and early 50's and their offspring, the French New Wave films of the late 1950's and early 60's.

BREATHLESS (1959) * * *
After watching this movie—one of the seminal films of the French New Wave—with friends the other night, I asked one (not a cinephile, just an ordinary movie watcher) what he thought of it. His answer: "Merde." I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but I must say that afterward I felt a distinct sense of letdown, a sort of cinematic petite mort. I have to confess that I have never been that fond of Jean-Luc Godard, the film's director. Although I had never seen Breathless before, I have seen several of the movies that immediately followed it. In each of those movies I found some things to like, but with the exception of Weekend (1967) and possibly Contempt (1963), they never struck me as unified works of art or even film narrative. And I always felt that they were keeping me at arm's distance, almost as though Godard was daring the viewer to tolerate his idiosyncrasies.

In Breathless, Godard has an annoying way of taking a stylistic quirk and repeating it ad nauseam. A couple of examples: 1) Those vaunted jump cuts. Exactly what was their purpose? Just to show that he could defy the conventions of film storytelling if he wanted to, as if he could by the power of his ego turn a flaw into a virtue and exhibit his individualism by a refusal to stick to the rules, even when there is a perfectly good reason for the rules? I could understand the cuts that covered major ellipses in the narrative to speed things along, but I found all the small jump cuts (or maybe jumpy cuts would be more accurate), when just a second or so of action was missing, to be distracting. 2) Belmondo's tic of rubbing his lips. Those are magnificent lips—in a way they are the real star of the movie. Is Godard trying to show what a narcissist Michel (the character Belmondo plays) is? The time he did this in front of Patricia's (Jean Seberg) dressing table mirror, I actually thought he was putting on some of her lipstick. These examples beg the question: At what point does novelty become tedium, cleverness become self-indulgence, hommage become pretension? The answer provided by this movie is, around the tenth repetition. But don't worry, you'll get the chance to see this answer confirmed by another ten or so repetitions.

So why watch Breathless? I can offer three reasons (hence the *** rating): 1) The film is historically important. Breathless is—along with The 400 Blows and Hiroshima, Mon Amour—one of the three earliest full-blown examples of the French New Wave, a movement that had tremendous impact on the history of film. 2) Several dazzling extended tracking shots by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, including a 360-degree shot of Seberg circling the room that is repeated a second time, then repeated again with Belmondo circling in the opposite direction. 3) Jean-Paul Belmondo. His performance is as revolutionary as Marlon Brando's in A Streetcar Named Desire—unique, charismatic, and completely riveting. From little more than a sketchy case study of a self-absorbed young man with severe personality disorder, he creates a compelling character. If you can stay with this movie—considered by many Godard's most accessible work—to the end, you might want to seek out more of his films. But as Breathless attests, be prepared to accept the inevitable annoyances and excesses of Godard to enjoy his moments of inspiration.


Sam Juliano said...

A commanding, typically authoritative round-up of noir and neo-noir titles, all of which have modest or fervant devotees in the cinematic pantheon.

I read somewhere that Lucille Ball was never happy with her performance in Hathaway's B classic noir, THE DARK CORNER, but one can only be perplexed at her reaction, as she is both funny and airy, without exhibiting the ditziness that defined her later television work. (but I also understand why you make claim that she's not exactly ideal either) For sure THE DARK CORNER does boast some rapid-fire dialogue, dark lighting, smoky sets and a most interesting stoic detective. The story, as I recall was straightforward, but as you rightly celebrate, it's lighting design (and contrast) was simply stunning. I adored that lovely version of Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and yes, kudos to the set decorators as you so astutely point out.

I love the performances of Esther Howard and Elisha Cook Jr. in Robert Wise's BORN TO KILL (but WHO doesn't love both in anything--you rightly point to Esther's pre-eminence in Preston Sturges's films) but Ms. Howard is really the only character with integrity in the entire film. True, it doesn't match THE SET-UP, which may well be the greatest boxing themed film ever (let's not count RAGING BULL, a biopic in this discussion) and Wise's masterpiece until his late career big-budget period, but it is as Eddie Muller opines: "one of the finest examples of true hardcore film noir."
I especially love this excerpt from your excellent review of the film which says it all in a sense:

"it is inevitable that these two forces—he all uncontrolled impulse and she all cold calculation—will collide like matter and anti-matter, creating an explosive reaction that after minor detonations along the way will end in mutual annihilation."

As to the Melville, this is a great film indeed, although my three favorites of the directors's are LE CIRCLE ROUGE, LE SAMURAI and ARMY OF SHADOWS. But BOB, LA SILENCE DE LA MER and LE DOULOS would be up next for me. You are right, R.D. BOB LE FLAMBEUR may well be a greater "heist" movie than the Kubrick and Huston, although in this genre we would have to discuss THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and BONNIE AND CLYDE. the most recent adherents would mention RESERVOIR DOGS too. But BOB does contend for the top spot, no question about it.

R.D.'s argument here for BOB as a film noir is absolutely magnificent:

"The movie clearly occupies film noir territory with its almost exclusively nocturnal action; its cast of petty crooks, hustlers, gamblers, and gendarmes who keep tabs on them; and its settings in bars, night clubs, card rooms, race tracks, and casinos both legal and illegal. The whole movie has an aura of life lived on the edge, outside of conventional society and in an atmosphere of risk and unpredictability. Over all hangs an air of fatalism, of men and women driven by internal forces to behave in ways that will inevitably lead to their doom."

Kudos to you for your bracing treatment here of this truly great film by any standard of measurement.

Alas, R.D., like you I have always struggled with Godard, although I don't quite agree with your final statement:

"Breathless is in essence a litmus test for a viewer's tolerance of Godard. If you can put up with this movie, you can probalby take more Godard. If not, don't waste your time with anything else he directed."

I like BREATHLESS quite a bit, and I also like WEEKEND and a few others, but I find him an overrated director, at least in the sense that he's not a league with some of his vaunted contemporaries. Liking BREATHLESS, which is a major New wave work, doesn't insure liking Godard's subsequent philosophical works; neither does an aversion to it insure that the same reaction will occur with the others. For me BREATHLESS is a stand alone among his works, and it's important and accomplished for all sorts of reasons, methinks.

I agree 400 BLOWS is greater, I also am eternally dazzled by Belmondo, and yes, the tracking shots in this film are legendary.

The examination here of this (linked) quartet is simply spectacular, and it makes one want to put some of the films on the player right now.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, thank you so much for your, as usual, kind and perceptive comments. First of all, let me get Godard out of the way. (This is one of the films I watched to prepare for the WitD best of the 50's poll.) I was never completely satisfied with that last part. Your comments made me reconsider it, and after giving it more thought I have revised the ending. I dislike coming off sounding overly dogmatic or pontifical, and I really wasn't qualified to make such a sweeping pronouncement about Godard. I also have heard that "Breathless" is a stand-alone work, which is why I had high expectations for it. But I found that it is, like most of the Godard films I've seen, a mixed bag: I found things to like in it, while having to bear things that got on my nerves (one of which is the sense of an overbearing ego demanding that I surrender myself completely to his vision, unlike my favorite directors, who invite me in and make me feel welcome).

I'm glad you liked that sentence about "Born to Kill." I try to stick to functional writing, but every once in a while I can't resist a verbal fillip. I find they inject an element of excitement into writing. I also liked that observation about the E. Howard character. I hadn't though of her that way, but she is the only character with any moral integrity--and after being terrorized and nearly murdered, even she gives up the pursuit of justice. Talk about a "dark" vision! No wonder Muller called this movie "hardcore film noir."

Finally, thanks for introducing me to Melville. I'm certainly looking forward to watching many more movies by him.

Joe said...

I did not yet see the first two, but am interested in the Lucille Ball casting, which goes against type. The Melville is masterful, as you've conveyed here, and I believe Breathless to be teh best of the New Wave films. These are really outstanding reviews.

Allan Fish said...

We'll agree to disagree on the Renoir, Finchy, but Bob le Flambeur ****. High fives all rou8nd, though no mention of Isabelle Corey...shame on you. One thought of her lying on the bed, rolling over and giving us a glimpse if the subtitles didn't get in the way of the nipples. Paradise!

Sam Juliano said...

I think Allan meant Godard there, not Renoir.

R.D. I loved what you said there in the parenthesis about watching a Godard film:

(one of which is the sense of an overbearing ego demanding that I surrender myself completely to his vision, unlike my favorite directors, who invite me in and make me feel welcome).

LOL but true!

R. D. Finch said...

Allan, thanks for your comment. I know you don't often do this, and I appreciate it all the more. Isabelle Corey was adorable. Those shots of her on the bed seemed so natural--maybe it was because the character's sensuality seemed so natural--yet you would never have seen anything like that in an American film of the time. It's been a while since I've seen "Shoot the Piano Player" and "Jules and Jim," but I seem to recall that each of those movies has a charismatic young female character that somehow reminded me of Anne.

Sam, thanks for your mention in WitD. It was most appreciated; I had a record number of visitors on Monday. I have gone back and further revised the post on "Breathless" after a couple of factual errors were pointed out to me by a reader.

John said...


“The Dark Corner” is a nice little noir that originally attracted my attention because of Lucy. I believe you hit it right when you say she handles well the wisecracking banter with Stevens in the beginning and becomes rather bland for the rest of the film. The problem with most of Lucy’s film career was no one knew what to do with her. The film is visually appealing but again, like you say, you feel you seen it all before.

I agree with Sam on “The Set-Up”, if you exclude “Raging Bull”, it “may well be the greatest boxing themed film ever.” Robert Wise must be paid his due here for some great work, but so must Robert Ryan who is masterful in this film and one of the few films he plays a good guy. Audrey Totter is also excellent.

“Breathless” is the only Godard film I could ever sit through. Belmondo’s performance was fresh and exciting. As you mention, it was as revolutionary as Brando’s in “Streetcar.” The camerawork is extraordinary too. The film is a must for any serious film student but the rest of his work for me is just hard to sit through. I personally favor Truffaut over Godard, just my opinion.

Glad to see “Born to Kill” get some much needed recognition. I saw such a long time ago, it is hard to comment. Tierney was great.

bobby J said...

I'm intrigued by 'Bob' and will have to order a rental. 'Breathless' too, though I've not had too much luck with the French New Wave so far. Despite it's influence, it may be the most over-rated movement in film history (at least for me). Time will tell, though. Much appreciated.

R. D. Finch said...

John and Bobby, thanks for your comments--they are much appreciated. John, I felt I was going out on a limb with my mixed reaction to "Breathless." Godard is considered a cinematic demi-god by some, and I expected a lot of flak over my reaction to "Breathless." Because it's considered his least typical film and is so often highly praised (and the original story is by Truffaut), I sure expected to like it better. When I was in college, I made a point of trying to see all his early films, but as I said I never found one I totally liked (except "Weekend"). Too often he seemed to be trying to make a virtue of sloppy filmmaking, which soon began to strike me as just as contrived a style as the "cinema of quality" tradition he and his fellow New Wavers proclaimed they were rebelling against. You know how much I agree with you about "The Set-Up" (which you initially turned me on to). It had been quite a few years since I'd seen "Born to Kill," and I liked it even better this time. It has really held up well and nails the perversity inherent in the noir genre with precision, making for a really entertaining viewing experience.

Bobby, like John, I easily prefer Truffaut. In fact, he's in my personal pantheon of directors. Although he was one of the most strident early theorists of New Wavism, he seemed to abandon--or at least adapt--its dogma before too long. As a lifelong francophile, I can't help admiring the New Wave, and it certainly did have a liberating influence on a lot of young directors. But I think you may be right that there are few truly great pure-New Wave movies. I hope you respond positively to "Bob." It stuck me as pretty accessible even to New Wave skeptics, and I'm certainly curious to hear your reaction to "Breathless."

Sam, I don't know if you're still checking, but I forgot to ask you if, as a "Star Trek:TNG" fan, you remember the early episode with Lawrence Tierney. It's a film noir/P.I. takeoff with Tierney as a sadistic mobster. (It's called "The Big Goodbye"! I looked up the title on IMDb.)

Sam Juliano said...

R. D. Yes indeed, I do remember that episode! There are few I don't remember in this series, as I was once obsessed. That was an amusing show there, and one of two later career Tierney appearances I never forgot. The other of course was in RESERVOIR DOGS.

Sam Juliano said...


I just got word from our regular decades poll tabulator that 'Hitchcock Rules' in the results of the 50's polling.

I don't have the results in front of me, and they won't be sent out until tomorrow by e mail, and then at the site on Saturday, but I can tell you that these were teh films that led in order:

1. Rear Window
2. Vertigo
3. Singin in the Rain
4. The Searchers
5. Sunset Boulevard
6. Sansho the Bailiff
7. Tokyo Story
8. Seven Samurai
9. Madame De

I forget what No. 10 was, but of course we are presenting a Top 25 so the full list is forthcoming. I wanted to share this with you in advance of everyone else my good friend, as you have been there for the ride more enthusiastically than just about anyone else.