Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)
This is one of those unsung American movies, the kind of thing that the AFI should have been highlighting on their Top 100 redux rather than figuring out ways to squeeze The Sixth Sense
onto the list. A stout, rich drama of fate and human frailty played against the backdrop of chance and athletic prowess. John Garfield is always a pleasure but he tops himself here, especially as the noose tightens around his neck. The real surprises though are the standout supporting roles. Lilli Palmer, Anne Revere and Canada Lee all bring a depth and honesty to their portrayals, while the roles were written with much more humanity than the stock tropes these characters might read as in a story synopsis. It is quite unusual to come to a movie like this and be really unsure how it will play out. It's easy to see that Scorsese got a lot of the building materials for Raging Bull
from this picture.
Boomerang! (Elia Kazan, 1947)
This is a bitter little pill most of the way through. More like an administrative noir rather than a straight police procedural, Kazan charts the civil proceedings and political posturing of a Connecticut town rocked by the grisly death of a local pastor by a random act of violence. It is an act of murder so random that there is very little the police have to go on besides some vague eyewitness testimony. Their hand is forced by a local government up for reelection and under scrutiny for some recent reforms. They must do something; justice must be expedited. The police sweat a confession out of a guy brought in from out of town, witnesses testify they saw him and even ballistics on his weapon come back positive. It should be open and shut. Though the evidence seems to fit, he doesn't talk like he's guilty.
State attorney Henry Harvey has his doubts too. Once part of the force pushing the police to get a confession, Harvey is now the sole force of reason and justice in town. Honestly weighing the evidence, he shocks everyone with his skepticism at the preliminary hearings. “Is one man’s wife worth more than the community?” he is later asked, his political allies telling him he's sacrificing everything, including his town. There is a frightening herd mentality that Boomerang!
is trying to expose; a crime that shakes a town can't go unsolved, they say.
Though it all wraps up a little too quickly and it feels like the stakes are eased before they really had a chance to set in, its depiction of city politics is overall pretty cynical. In the end, it is the difficulty of attaining clear justice in the midst of politics, public outrage and anxious news coverage. Not quite as biting as something like Ace in the Hole
but the fact that this case turns out alright begs the question of how many others didn't.
The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)
Here's one of the weirder ones from the era. Military veteran stumbles into the service of a millionaire gangster and ends up trying to steal his wife. That description is nothing special but there is such a delicate mystery at play all around this that it becomes something much greater than the sum of its parts.
Chuck Scott feels about as bland as they come. Even his name is utterly forgettable. But, he is a forgotten man. One of those decent guys who did his service and then finds a country that may pat him on the back for serving but that actually doesn't have much room for him. He happens to find a wallet and returns it to the owner after he buys himself a hot meal. When he meets Eddie Roman, he doesn't try to hide anything. Maybe he is looking for something; maybe he's just a standup guy. Either way, he ends up a chauffeur for Mr. Roman. But Eddie Roman is a gangster, sadist and paranoid micromanager of a frightening order, even going so far as to have an overriding pedal in the back of his car so he can control the speed at will (or torture his chauffeurs with games of chicken with on-coming trains). He likes to maintain psychological leverage over all those around him. Not surprisingly, Lorna Roman is ready to leave the heavy-handed rule of her husband and confides in her chauffeur to help hatch a plan. It all ends up in ethereal territory. This is one of those unheralded films that, had it been produced by Val Lewton, would probably be receiving much more praise now than it is. There are so many simple joys in watching this; I'll save them for those who venture out to discover this unheralded oddity.
Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949)
A much better flashback noir than Siodmak's overrated The Killers
, here he plants his film very deeply in the landscape of urban Los Angeles. Not so much its seediness as its busyness. From the helicopter flyover of City Hall in the opening titles continuing several blocks north to the parking lot of a nightclub, it was pretty evident that we were going to be given a different look at the city for this era. The story in itself has some interest as a fatalistic rendering of relationships (are some relationships literally doomed to failure?--two people somehow attracted despite their better judgment), but the most interesting thing going on in the movie is easily the location filming and the shot framing. That may sound like a mechanical praise, but there is a richness to Siodmak's frames here. Much of this movie had to have been filmed on location, even interiors. It is a masterwork of stylized staging within the real world.
My favorite shot is inside a drug store, presumably right around the block from Steve's apartment, where Steve is meeting his ex-wife. The two have a complicated relationship, the details of which we aren't particularly privy to but just seem to be basic issues of selfishness, irritation and incompatibility - not so much any specific backstory issue (which is, frankly, refreshingly honest). The drug store keeps its door open and just happens to have a perfectly framed view of the Los Angeles City Hall down the street. It is an uncommon angle on that much-photographed structure. At first it seemed like a clever touch by the designers who tried to give the outside matte a distinct visual centerpiece. But, when the end of the scene ends up at the door, it is evident that the outside is no mere matte painting but the actual city at dusk!
In most films noir with an L.A. setting, City Hall seems to serve primarily as a symbol of police authority or as a (in the case of Crime Wave
) geographic marker of proximity to the city's urban core. It serves more the purpose of the latter in Criss Cross, but more as a marker and centralizing point for most of the action. Steve's mother lives in Bunker Hill, just north of the City Hall and, as I mentioned, the action at the outset sets us there too. Much has been written about the use of Bunker Hill in film noir
, but let me just say that Siodmak seems to go one step further by putting us inside some of the buildings, looking out their doorways and windows into the city around them. All of this gives the film a vitality it would not have as a simple studio production.
There are weaknesses that keep it from masterpiece status. The drama of the central relationship doesn't always feel focused and Dan Duryea didn't make the most menacing villain. Slim would have been better served by an actor that was able to more eccentrically bring out the suave veneer and lurking menace that seemed to be what was intended with Slim, but Duryea never quite got the menace across.
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
I had forgotten that this is just great as people say it is, though it is easy to take for granted because it is all pulled off so effortlessly. The Coens have spent their careers basically remaking it.
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945)
Hard to call this subpar when you've got Preminger's beautifully baroque camerawork gliding all over the place, but the story for this one just falls a little flat for me on the rewatch. Down on his luck Dana Andrews ends up in a northern California town trying to hustle his way into the hearts of a couple of local ladies. The romances never really felt plausible (Linda Darnell is fine but Andrews' falling for her feels contrived, though he kind of admits to that in the end) and the movie is pretty slow going.
The emotional dead ends of lust and greed are major themes, sure, but the characters feel a little too thin for a movie that's basically supposed to be a character drama. The last 30 minutes have some interesting scenes once Andrews must come to terms with some of his decisions (and the commitment of Alice Faye is an interesting wrinkle); too bad the movie didn't start a little deeper into the story or streamline the telling of it in some way because it feels like there is a great film trapped in here among everything else.
The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964)
Sorry, I really just have no patience for this story at all, I guess. Even Siodmak's stylish original left me pretty cold except for the crackling opening scene in the diner. The great opening is done away with for something much more blunt and forceful. Even the elegance of the dialogue is done away with. We're met with just vicious, thorough murder. The fact that its in a school for the blind is only of passing interest. It doesn't really matter. Maybe its symbolic. Who cares? But it turns out they care - "they" being the contract killers. They start to care about who is behind this job, who is paying them double their standard rate. They get curious because "he just stood there and took it." There's a whole little plot about racing and a heist double-cross. It all feels very flat, painfully slow and dull.
The tension is deflated the moment they start backtracking. Siodmak's film at least had the device of the insurance man trying to work out the claim, here its just a couple of guys who shouldn't care but decide to. Don't get me wrong, Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are the film's only saving graces, but they spend most of the movie "listening" which puts most of the movie happening without them. And to think, all this snooping could have been avoided if Ronald Reagan had just paid the standard rate for knocking off John Cassavetes.
The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)
A strange, sinister and ultimately melancholy descent into urban loneliness and despair, The Seventh Victim
is really unlike any other movie from this era, even the other films in the Val Lewton cycle. Where movies like I Walked with a Zombie
or Cat People
were unsettling by the realization of the supernatural world invading the physical world, The Seventh Victim
actually slowly removes the supernatural altogether and finds a bunch of lonely, confused people wandering around grasping for answers. Some have found safety at a religious boarding school, some in science and psychology, some in romance, still others in a Satanic cult. Answers are hard to come by and, in many ways, reality is too depressing to take.
As unsatisfying as it is, everything I have tried to write about this comes up feeling utterly flat, as nothing seems to express the heart of what is going on in this very strange movie. I immediately feel like there are depths to this that I have only scratched the surface of and mysteries worth exploring in detail. I will simply defer to Cold Bishop's wonderful analysis from the first iteration of this project
The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949)
In addition to dealing with the grisly and the unseemly, film noir often took wrecking balls (in some measure) to the institutions we most often place our trust and comfort in as a society. Whether it be the legal system (Boomerang!
), the press (Ace in the Hole
), the police force (Kansas City Confidential
), religion (The Seventh Victim
) or even insurance salesmen (Double Indemnity
), it was only a matter of time before someone took a hammer to the nuclear family. While Tetzlaff's film isn't interested in totally deconstructing it, he is interested in examining it from up close, looking particularly at the natural distrust parents have of a child who is prone to lie and the complicated logistics of working class parenting. This film is deeply helped by some great New York location photography and a wonderful integration of the sets and real world. It is clear that Tetzlaff had a very steady hand when it came to storytelling and, while the film feels a bit slight overall, he keeps things moving at a brisk pace and really keeps Bobby Driscoll in check.