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Posts Tagged ‘film noir’

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Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is in bed with illness when she overhears a telephone conversation between two men planning a murder. Gradually she comes to believe that she is the person they are going to kill and that her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) is involved.

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Year of release: 1948

Director: Anatole Litvak

Writer: Lucille Fletcher (original radio play and screenplay)

Main cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Harold Vermilyea, Leif Erickson, Jimmy Hunt

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Genre: Mystery, thriller, film noir

Highlights: Barbara Stanwyck is fabulous in the main part. I liked the claustrophobic atmosphere of her confinement

Lowlights: The flashback story surrounding Henry is a bit convoluted. I preferred the relationship aspect to the criminal aspect

Overall: An enjoyable film noir, which was a bit convoluted in places, but Stanwyck’s performance is fantastic as always

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No…not the vampire love story with Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson. This film boasts an impressive cast – Paul Newman is the lead (and still looking great at 73), with Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner, Liev Schreiber, Reese Witherspoon and Stockard Channing. Newman plays Harry Ross, a slightly down-at-heel retired private detective, who lives with his friends Jack and Catherine Ames (Hackman and Sarandon). When Jack, who is dying of cancer, asks Harry to do him a favour, Harry finds himself entering a murky world of betrayal and deceit, and uncovering some unsavory aspects of his friends’ past.

This film reminded me very much of the film noirs which were so popular during the 1940s and 1950s – in fact, I could almost imagine it in smoky black and white, with Humphrey Bogart starring! That is no criticism on my part; I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It has a mature (and I do mean mature, not old) cast, and a mature storyline. The acting is, as you would expect from such a stellar cast, impressive throughout, and Newman is perfect as the narrator and hero – of sorts – of the picture. He combines his natural charm, with world-weary emotion. You get the feeling that Ross is just plain tired of the world he inhabits, and he is just one of many characters in this film who are unsatisfied wtih their lives. Susan Sarandon has a timeless beauty, and looks stunning here, and Hackman….well, he’s just always terrific.

The plot has twists and turns, but it doesn’t get too complicated, which is a good thing. I like films that encourage the audience to think, but not films that are just too convoluted and end up being just plain confusing.

I would say that this is not the best film that any of the stars ever made, but if you are a fan of any of the cast, it is certainly worth a watch.

Year of release: 1998

Director: Robert Benton

Producers: Michael Hausman, Arlene Donovan, Scott Rudin, Scott Ferguson, David McGiffert

Writers: Robert Benton, Richard Russo

Main cast: Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon, James Garner

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You know when occasionally you watch a film, and you think it sounds okay, but then it totally exceeds your expectations and you’re just blown away by it?  Well, Sunset Boulevard (aka Sunset Blvd.) was just such a film for me.

William Holden – who also narrates the film – plays Joe Gillis, a small-time screen writer, down on both money and luck; as we find out right at the beginning of the film, Gillis won’t be alive by the end of it.  He meets former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who cannot and will not accept the truth that her star has long since faded into obscurity and she has been all but forgotten by both the film industry, and movie-goers.  Determined to have another hit film, she hires Joe to help her edit her self-penned script, but she soon becomes obsessed with him, and Joe finds himself less a guest, more a prisoner, at her dilapidated home, with only Norma and her mysterious butler Max for company.

As you may have guessed, I loved this film.  The storyline is a caustic and witty dig at a fickle Hollywood.  The fact that viewers are informed by Joe’s voice-over right at the start of the film, that he will not survive to the end, fills the ensuing scenes with a bitter sense of doom, and the contrast between Joe the narrator, who knows his fate, and Joe the character who we see on camera, who is unaware of what will befall him, is very effective (A similar idea was used years later in American Beauty, also with excellent results, although Sunset Boulevard was, for me, a much better film.)

Gloria Swanson was excellent as Norma Desmond, and at times was difficult to watch.  I disliked her character, but couldn’t help feeling great sympathy for her.  Deserted by her fans and her colleagues, she is losing her grip on reality.  At times, she was manic and unpredictable; at other times, she showed tenderness and extreme vulnerability (the scene where she entertains Joe by dressing up as Charlie Chaplin is both sweet and disturbing, as her happy mood turns to anger).  Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance; the same year Bette Davis was nominated for her role in All About Eve – both lost out to Judy Holliday for her role in Born Yesterday, which also starred William Holden.  He was also nominated for Sunset Boulevard.

William Holden shows his real talent for acting here.  A not altogether likeable character at the beginning of the film, he nevertheless gets the audience on side, as he and they come to realise the untenable situation in which he has found himself.  He imbues his character with passion, tenderness, ruthlessness, and resignation – oh, and he’s darkly funny too.

Eric von Stroheim is perfectly cast as Norma’s taciturn and mysterious butler – this role could easily have been a caricature in different hands, but he plays the part brilliantly.

The main cast is rounded out by Nancy Olsen as Betty Schaefer, a young writer who wants Joe’s help on a script; she is perfectly cast as a feisty but tender young woman who is dragged into Joe’s nightmare world.

In short, my opinion for what it’s worth, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this film.  It’s gripping – I felt unable to turn my eyes away from the screen; it’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s bleakly funny.  It was a real victory for director Billy Wilder, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.  Very highly recommended.

Year of release: 1950

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.

Main cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen

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This film noir is one of the four films that real life couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together.  It’s probably the least popular of the four, which seems fair. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but its mainly because of the quality of the cast – the storyline itself – while an interesting premise – builds coincidence upon coincidence, and is hard to take seriously.

The story revolves around Vincent Parry (Bogart), a man who has escaped from prison where he was sent after being convicted of killing his wife.  He intends to find the real killer, while evading the law.  He is helped by beautiful stranger Irene Jansen (Bacall).  However, Parry knows that his face is too familiar and has to undergo plastic surgery to change his appearance.

The first half of the film has Parry narrating things as they happen, and the audience sees things as he would see them.  This means that while Bogart’s familiar voice is present throughout, its not until after Parry has his surgery that we see his face, at which point the story is told from a third person point of view.  I’m guessing that this method of filming was used, rather than using a different actor to play the character before surgery, and then switching to Bogart afterwards – the result is more effective and worked well.

Of course, Bogart had such charisma and that charisma is a large part of what makes this film enjoyable, because truthfully the audience is asked to suspend a lot of disbelief.  Irene Jansen’s reasons for wanting to help Parry are flimsy, and he later takes a cab, the driver of which just happens to want to help Parry (who he has never met before).  The same driver just happens to know a plastic surgeon who can operate on Parry that night (!), and plastic surgery takes 20 minutes, after which Parry is able to walk a long distance back to Jansen’s home.  Irene just happens to have a friend who was a witness against Parry at his trial…and so on and so on.  There is a nice subplot involving a driver who initially picks up Parry after his escape, believing Parry to be a hitch-hiker, which added to the story.

Overall, the star quality in this film makes it worth watching, but the storyline leaves a lot to be required.  Still worth seeing though for fans of the lead actors.

Year of release: 1947

Director: Delmer Daves

Writers: David Goodis (book), Delmer Daves

Main cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead

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This 1948 gangster/film noir movie has Humphrey Bogart in fine form as Frank McCloud, a world weary ex-soldier who comes to visit the family of a dead comrade at their hotel, only to find that the establishment has been taken over  by a team of gangsters, led by Johny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).  Bogart’s real life wife, Lauren Bacall plays Nora Temple, the widow of Frank’s friend, and Lionel Barrymore is her father-in-law.  Tensions rise between the hotel owners and Frank, and the gangsters, until events must surely reach a climax…

This is not normally my favourite genre of movie, but the excellent cast make it compelling viewing.  Bogart is superb as Frank, who has already seen too much violence and doesn’t want to get involved in more. Bacall is sultry and sensual as Nora Temple, and Barrymore is just excellent as James Temple.  Edward G. Robinson is also suitably menacing as Johnny, and Claire Trevor as Johnny’s alcoholic girlfriend, deservedly won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her part.

The film is set almost entirely within the hotel, with just a few outdoor scenes, and this serves to crank up the tension.  Throughout most of the film, you can sense the atmosphere between the two parties.

Plotwise, it is actually quite thin – the gangsters want to escape to Cuba, the hotel owners just want to get out of the situation alive, but they don’t want the gangsters to get away with their crimes (which mount up as the film progresses).  The enjoyment of the film comes from the different characters and the dynamic between them.  Acting was generally less subtle and more theatrical when this film was made, but here the subtle nuances and fleeting looks between characters makes this film deeply layered and lends to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

There’s not much more you need to know about the plot – but this is definitely a film worth seeing, as much for the uniformly excellent cast as for the storyline itself.

Year of release: 1948

Director: John Huston

Writers: Maxwell Anderson (play), Richard Brooks, John Huston

Main cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore

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Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), a former tennis pro, discovers that his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) has had an affair with crime author Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Halliday is now back in London where the Wendices’ live, from his native New York.  Tony dreams up an ingenious plan to murder Margot in order that she can’t leave him, and so that he can will inherit her fortune.  He blackmails an old acquaintance into carrying out the murder, but things go wrong, and Tony has to come up with a Plan B very quickly…

I enjoyed this Alfred Hitchcock classic very much.  It wasn’t quite in the realm of To Catch A Thief, or North By Northwest, but there was a gripping storyline and plenty of tension.  The twists and turns were very clever, and I was never quite sure how things were going to turn out.

Grace Kelly looked stunning – as always – but I did think that at times her acting was a little unconvincing.  However, she was certainly good enough overall for this not to detract from the film.  Ray Milland was very convincing in his role, although his coldness and calculating nature meant that it was very hard to warm to his character, and I had no sympathy for him.  (Although Milland was excellent, I can’t help wondering if the character would have been more likeable if someone like Jimmy Stewart had played the part; but I suspect that the film may have suffered, had the character been more sympathetic.)  Cummings was fine as Halliday, although he was given little to do for much of the storyline.

Dial M For Murder is instantly recognisable as a Hitchcock movie – it has all the dramatic music and theatrical flourishes – possibly because the script was adapted from a successful play.  Most of the action takes place in the Wendices’ apartment, and there is a small cast, giving something of a claustrophobic atmosphere.  This is something that Hitchcock also did in Rear Window (also with Grace Kelly) and Rope, and it’s an effective trick.

This isn’t a murder mystery, as the viewer knows exactly what has happened from the outset – the mystery lies in whether or not Tony Wendice will get away with his plan.  I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who is yet to see it, but this is a gripping film, and any fans of Hitchcock or film noir should see it.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Frederick Knott (adapted from his own play)

Main cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings

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This 1944 tells the story of Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who is investigating the murder of a beautiful young woman, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney).  The film opens after the murder, and the audience follows Mark as he conducts his investigations, and Lydecker explains how he first met Laura (with retrospective scenes).  There are a few potential suspects – Laura’s errant fiance Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), her friend and mentor Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb, in a scene stealing performance) and her aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who is also in love with Shelby.  Mark finds himself becoming drawn into Laura’s life and falling under the spell which she cast over so many men.  However one night something happens which causes him to change the direction of his investigation…

I had heard so many good things about this film before I saw it – and maybe that’s why I was unfortunately slightly disappointed.  On the one hand, the acting was fine – as aforementioned, Clifton Webb provides the stand out performance as the acerbic newspaper columnist Lydercker, and Judith Anderson also made the most of her role as Ann Treadwell.  However, the story seemed slightly misjointed, almost as if some scenes had been cut out.  Although I knew it was part of the plot before I started watching, McPherson’s growing fascination with Laura seemed to come out of nowhere.  Also, McPherson did something near to the end of the film (I won’t say what for fear of revealing spoilers) which did  not seem to make sense and only seemed to work as an obvious plot device.

There were some good parts though – I genuinely did not guess who the guilty party was, and several people seemed likely at various points in the film.  There was plenty of tension and as a whodunnit, it worked well.  (In fact I felt that it would have played better as a straightforward crime drama, rather than with the aspect of the detective falling for the murder victim.)  So not brilliant then, but an enjoyable enough film with a big twist that I certainly did not see coming!

Year of release: 1944

Director: Otto Preminger

Writers: Vera Caspary (novel), Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt

Main cast: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

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