Category Archives: Film noir

Touch of Evil-1958

Touch of Evil-1958

Director-Orson Welles

Starring-Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh

Scott’s Review #914

Reviewed July 2, 2019

Grade: A

Touch of Evil (1958) is a film noir directed by the legendary influential Hollywood director, Orson Welles. The film contains suspense, drama and mystery, but is to be praised largely for its use of visual treats to enhance the cinematic experience. The dark and foreboding thriller was revolutionary for the time of release and influenced many films of similar ilk in the years to come. Robust and fraught with tension, the experience is marvelous and worthy of study for its many nuances.

Welles not only directs the work but also stars in and writes the screenplay, so his entire being is invested in the production and execution. Known mostly for the legendary Citizen Kane (1940), a film that arguably changed the course of cinema with its direction and cinematography, Touch of Evil explores a different genre entirely but keeps the superlative aspects of Welles’s loftier film, including black and white, intact, resulting in a grand and dangerous crime infused classic. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson.

The tension is ample from the onset as the humidity-drenched Mexico-United States border is the focal point. A car driven by a young couple is laced with a bomb and detonates as soon as they cross the into U.S. territory. In a hint of irony, Newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot prior to the explosion. An investigation ensues with the introduction of other characters, including Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon), District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) and police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), with a prime suspect being Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim’s daughter.

Typical in the film noir genre, events are not what they seem as layers of plot slowly unravel. The heavyset and disheveled Captain nostalgically visits a brothel run by Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who barely recognizes him because he’s gained so much weight since their last meeting.  Vargas forsakes his bride to spearhead the investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Quinlan and the duo begin to feud. Could Quinlan or Vargas have something to do with the car bombing, or could other supporting characters be either behind or involved in the shenanigans. This is a great part of Touch of Evil as the film leaves the viewer guessing.

Heston and Leigh smolder as the lead couple and their chemistry is apparent from the first scene in which they appear together. Sexy and mysterious, she hunkers down in a dump fraught with peril, while he attempts to solve the crime and keep his girl safe. Outside factors play heavy roles in keeping the lovers apart and although Heston playing a Mexican man is quite the stretch, the audience will nestle comfortably into the events as they reveal deeper layers.

Wells, once a handsome man, is not afraid to let it all hang out as the fat and racist Quinlan becoming one of the great and most complicated screen villains as his true colors emerge. As the film’s title boldly suggests does his character contain complexities that make him evil and keep some sympathies or does he wreak havoc on all he touches with his devious nature only the tip of the iceberg? Viewers will need to await the final act to have several questions answered as motivations are finally revealed.

Touch of Evil (1958) gave delicious and pulsating material to film makers clever enough to study its intricacies, most notably Roman Polanski for Chinatown (1974). Nuggets were also thrown the way of Alfred Hitchcock who got the idea for Leigh to appear in Psycho (1960) two years later, catapulting her character’s alone in a hotel peril, mixing in a weird hotel clerk. The power the film had to hatch other great films from its ingenuity are the most fun parts of watching it again and again.

Sudden Fear-1952

Sudden Fear-1952

Director-David Miller

Starring-Joan Crawford, Jack Palance

Scott’s Review #873

Reviewed March 3, 2019

Grade: B+

Sudden Fear (1952) is a gripping film noir thriller, a genre that became common place for a time during the early 1950’s. The film is raised to lofty acclaim due in large part to the casting of legendary Hollywood star Joan Crawford in the lead role. Her performance led to an Oscar nomination and is the main draw of the film. Sudden Fear suffers from some cliches but is otherwise a solid watch although largely forgotten at present time.

Crawford stars as Myra Hudson, a successful Broadway playwright who rejects the suave and handsome Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) after he auditions for the lead role of her play. Later, they coincidentally meet on a train headed for San Francisco as Lester manages to sweep the mature woman off her feet. When Myra impulsively marries Lester his true intentions to manipulate and then kill her to inherit her money are revealed. The suave Myra uncovers the plot and instead plans to kill Lester and place the blame on his scheming former girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame).

As a rabid fan of Ms. Crawford and her talents my opinion leans towards the film belonging exclusively to the star. With her expressive eyes and mannerisms, the role is tailor made for her talents and not too far from a role she would later play in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1966). As the strong yet beleaguered character Myra has been unsuccessful in the romance department and after a glimmer of hope is devastated when she realizes she is being played for a fool. Thanks to Crawford her pain and humiliation are palpable and her subsequent paranoia believable without overacting too much for effect.

Palance and Grahame are okay in their respective supporting roles but are either outshined by Crawford or written in a banal way- or both. Regardless, the roles are one note and not the best of either actor’s careers. The characters have little rooting value and we clearly know their motivations and shenanigans nearly from the start. The conclusion of the film produces a satisfying demise to each one as their comeuppance is in perfect form.

From a plot and pacing perspective the film is never boring and contains many twists and turns and surprises galore which will undoubtedly keep audiences engaged. The action moves along in stellar form and never tires as the viewer will undoubtedly anticipate a cool ending. The final chapter is fraught with chase scenes throughout the streets of San Francisco as a terrified Myra runs through the streets clad in a black coat and a white head shawl, wearing high-heels naturally, while being chased by a crazed Lester.

Sudden Fear adds some clever camera angles and cinematography mentions making it slightly left of center and creative looking with cool shadows throughout. Elements of Hitchcock emerge as a shaky hallway scene featuring a lumbering Lester approaches the camera. Closeups of the actors and the illuminating black and white lighting provide a glowing look to the film. Shots of a gun, a pendulum swinging representing a clock, or a bottle labeled “poison” add elements of tension.

For fans of the illustrious Joan Crawford, Sudden Fear (1952) is a recommended watch and will please those seeking a good helping of the star. She does not disappoint and is the main draw in an otherwise by-the-numbers genre film. The film’s conclusion is the high point and I wished for more layers and character development from Palance and Grahame, but Crawford shines in an otherwise forgotten offering.

Double Indemnity-1944

Double Indemnity-1944

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

Scott’s Review #847

Reviewed December 26, 2018

Grade: A

Double Indemnity (1944) epitomizes the classic film noir genre in perfect fashion. All the necessary elements exist, from intrigue, suspense and unpredictable thrills, to schemes and dastardly deeds by the major players. The on-screen chemistry between leads MacMurray and Stanwyck provide enough romantic flair and provocative moments to entertain all as developments progress when a smitten man meets a femme fatale and a devious plot is hatched.

Director Billy Wilder was one of the most influential directors of his day with this picture being his first effort resulting in fabulous critical acclaim. The accolades put him firmly on the map for years to come culminating in an Oscar win in 1950 for The Apartment. Wilder uses a clever insurance “double indemnity” clause as its title making it one of the best and most influential crime dramas of the 1940’s staking ground for other similarly themed films.

The story is told via flashbacks as a wounded Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) scrambles to record a confession to his colleague and best friend, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). The action rewinds to an average, ordinary day when Neff makes a routine stop to sell insurance and meets flirtatious Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). She brazenly inquires how she ought to go about taking out an insurance policy on her husband’s life without his knowledge. When Neff deduces Phyllis intends to kill her husband he declines any further help but cannot forget the ravishing beauty and her charms. He ultimately succumbs to her whims and aids her in a wicked crime.

The adventure that the audience is taken on is the most fun aspect of the film. We already deduce that Neff is involved in shenanigans but most of the fun occurs after the murder has been committed and Phyllis and Neff’s scheme begins to unravel. The added component of Neff’s colleague and close friend, Keyes, being in the mix as he starts to suspect foul play is equally compelling. Will he finally figure out that Neff is involved in the plot? Will Keyes cover for Neff if discovered? Will Phyllis’s past-history catch up with her and twist events in a different direction? These questions make the film a great picture.

A debate among viewers can ensue as to whether Neff is sympathetic or not as this point continues to cross my mind with each viewing. One can safely say that he is seduced by the charms of an eager and aggressive woman, but if he is to blame for the crimes is she not even more to blame? As events unfold sides can be drawn and defenses of character’s can be more focused particularly after Double Indemnity’s startling conclusion.

Neff is not a strong, heroic character and is rather weak, easily being manipulated by the cagey Phyllis. Interesting is how little time it takes for him to succumb to her plot and willingly do the crime for her. In the final act Neff does show some needed muscle, but this is only because his “goose is cooked” and he finally realizes the dire nature of Phyllis’s character, but shouldn’t he have discovered this sooner?

MacMurray and Stanwyck have smoldering chemistry and this is a major success of the film keeping the audience invested in the plot. The added measure of the murder victim being rather unknown to the audience adds a macabre rooting value to the pair. Wilder never presents the plot as a romantic triangle or Neff and Phyllis having any other romantic entanglements, so the only roadblock is the insurance company and their suspicions surrounding Phyllis.

Wilder adapted the screenplay from James M. Cain’s novella of the same name and spins a potent film noir from these pages. Double Indemnity (1944) is intelligent, sexy, and mysterious mixing in as much sultry poise as witty dialogue. Thanks to the allure of fine actors and a stunning adventure on a train, the film is a measured success and a highly influential cinematic story.

The Long Goodbye-1973

The Long Goodbye-1973

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Elliott Gould

Scott’s Review #830

Reviewed November 14, 2018

Grade: A

Nearly a full-fledged character study of one man’s moral fiber, The Long Goodbye (1973) is an edgy piece of direction by famous mastermind Robert Altman. The setting of the Los Angeles underbelly is fabulous and effective as is dim lighting and excellent camera work prevalent throughout. The film is not cheery and rather bleak which suits me just fine given the smart locale. Perhaps a more obscure Altman offering, but the film sizzles with zest and authenticity.

The film is based on a story written by Raymond Chandler in 1953. Altman, however, opts to change the setting from 1950 to present times- 1970’s Los Angeles and present a film noir experience involving deceit and shenanigans where all is not as it seems. I think this is a wise move and I could not help but draw many comparisons (mainly the overall story) to Chinatown (1974), released the year after The Long Goodbye, but a film much better remembered.

Elliott Gould is wonderful as Phillip Marlowe, a struggling private investigator and insomniac. He is asked by a friend, Terry Lennox, for a ride to the Mexico border one night and agrees to do the favor. This leads to a mystery involving police, gangsters, and Eileen and Roger Wade, after Phillip is questioned regarding his connection to Terry, who is accused of murdering his wife Sylvia. The seedy side and complexities to several characters are revealed as the story unfolds and the plot gradually thickens.

My favorite aspects of The Long Goodbye are not necessarily the primary storytelling, though the writing is filled with tension. As the film opens an extended sequence featuring a “conversation” between Phillip and his cat is both odd and humorous. The finicky feline refuses to eat anything other than one brand of cat food. As Phillip tries reasoning with the cat through talking and meows, he is forced to venture out in the middle of the night to an all-night grocery store. Altman, known to allow his actor’s free-reign for improvised dialogue, appears to allow Gould to experiment during this scene.

Phillip’s neighbors, a bundle of gorgeous twenty-something females, seems to do nothing except exercise on their balcony, get high and request he buy them brownie mix for a “special occasion”. As they stretch topless, usually in the background and almost out of camera range, they are a prime example of an interesting nuance of the film. The girls are mysterious but have nothing to do with the actual plot adding even more intrigue to the film.

In one of the most frightening scenes in cinematic history and one that could be straight from The Godfather (1972), crazed gangster, Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell), slices the beautiful face of his girlfriend to prove a point to Marlowe. In a famous line he utters, “That’s someone I love. You, I don’t even like.” The violent act is quick, unexpected and fraught with insanity.

Finally, the film’s conclusion contains a good old-fashioned twist worthy of any good film noir. In the end, the big reveal makes sense and begs to raise the question “why did we trust this character?” In addition to the viewer being satisfied, Marlowe also gets a deserved finale and proves that he cannot be messed with nor taken for a fool.

The Long Goodbye is undoubtedly the best film of Gould’s career. With a charismatic, wise-cracking persona, the chain-smoking cynic is deemed by most as a loser. He is an unhappy man and down on humanity, but still wants to do what is right. He lives a depressed life with few friends and the company of only his cat. While he is marginally entertained by his neighbors, he goes about his days only barely getting by emotionally. Gould is brilliant at relaying all these qualities within his performance.

The addition of the title theme song in numerous renditions is a major win for the film and something noticed more and more with each repeated viewing. The ill-fated gangster’s girlfriend hums along to the song playing on the radio at one point, and a jazz pianist plays a rendition in a smoky bar. This is an ingenious approach by Altman and gives the film a greater sense of mystery and style.

There is no question among cinema lovers that Robert Altman is one of the best directors of all time. In his lengthy catalog filled with rich and experimental films, The Long Goodbye (1973) is not the best remembered nor the most recognizable. I implore film fans, especially fans of plodding mystery and intrigue to check this great steak dinner of a film out.

The Grifters-1990

The Grifters-1990

Director-Stephen Frears

Starring-John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening

Scott’s Review #597

Reviewed January 9, 2017

Grade: B-

The Grifters is a film that has witty writing and has an overall appeal to it- the film is very unique and quirky and is in the style of a charismatic film noir from one of the golden ages of film, the 1930’s and the 1940’s. Additionally, the film has a very sharp, clean look to it.

The performances, especially Anjelica Houston, are excellent. In fact, all three principles, (John Cusack and Annette Bening) give fantastic performances and furthermore, feed off each other so well that the chemistry works quite well.

Cusack plays a small time crook named Roy Dillon, inept in ways, and estranged from his mother (Huston). When she returns to town, she along with his girlfriend (Bening), all attempt to con and outmaneuver each other for their own personal gain. The film is set in sunny Los Angeles.

As compelling as the film sounds on paper, I did not find myself completely captured by it. It took me awhile to get into the film and by the time I finally did, it had ended. Overall, well made, and respectable, and I can see how some people would love it, but for me there remained something missing.

Kiss Me Deadly-1955

Kiss Me Deadly-1955

Director-Robert Aldrich

Starring-Ralph Meeker

Scott’s Review #391

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Reviewed April 2, 2016

Grade: A-

Kiss Me Deadly is a 1955 film noir drama which heavily influenced many films that followed it. On my “to see” list for years, I finally got around to viewing this influential gem and now realize the power of the film. At times confusing and perplexing, and certainly requiring additional watches, I rate it a grade of A-, however, can see its grade rising to a solid A upon subsequent viewings. Still, Kiss Me Deadly has much respect from me as a lover and appreciator of good film.

The mysterious plot goes something like this- Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a tough Los Angeles private eye. One evening, driving along a lonely country road, he picks up a hitchhiker named Christina (the film debut of Cloris Leachman) clad only in a trench coat. He quickly realizes she has escaped from a mental institution, but is compelled by her desperation.  When thugs catch up to them, this sets off the crux of the film as Mike spends his days investigating the strange turn of events. The plot twists and turns in innumerable ways and becomes quite complex, but always fascinates. A peculiar glowing box, which everybody seems to want, comes into play as the film progresses.

Wonderfully directed by Robert Aldrich, Kiss Me Deadly features unique and creative uses of lighting, camera angles, and moody shadows to great effect, and is one of the first aspects that I noticed. Shot in highly effective black and white, it allows Kiss Me Deadly a murky, suspicious look- as if danger and doom might be around every corner.

Meeker and Maxine Cooper as Velda, Mike’s secretary/lover make a nice pair, as they are a good-looking, but a rather B-movie type couple, in contrast to say, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, two gorgeous upper echelon Hollywood stars of the day. Casting those stars might have changed the tone of the film.  Meeker and Cooper bring, perhaps, a blue-collar look to the film. Nevertheless, the chemistry works.

An interpretive film, Kiss Me Deadly undoubtedly influenced such later film noir classics as Chinatown, L.A. Confidential,  and Pulp Fiction, not to mention science-fiction films and, arguably even Raiders of the Lost Ark. The list could go on and on as Kiss Me Deadly really crosses into numerous genres.

The ending of the film is highly complex, spooky, and downright weird. It is one of the craziest endings I have ever experienced.  Once the mysterious box is opened, the film transforms into a strange Twilight Zone episode, containing screeching sounds, and the explosion is open to complete interpretation, and changes the dynamic of the film. I had the enormous good fortune to be able to view the alternate ending, not released in theaters.  Needless to say, Mike and Velda’s fates were vastly different from one ending to another. My preference was the alternate ending. Sometimes the studios play things too safe.

What does it all mean? Nuclear weapons, the apocalypse,  the Cold War, glowing boxes, detectives- so many elements in one film. A conversation about Kiss Me Deadly could certainly be enjoyed and, in the end, that speaks volumes for the high quality of the film. I look forward to seeing this revolutionary film again for further appreciation.

Sunset Boulevard-1950

Sunset Boulevard-1950

Director-Billy Wilder

Starring-Gloria Swanson, William Holden

Top 100 Films-#42

Scott’s Review #330

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Reviewed January 8, 2016

Grade: A

I adore films about Hollywood (good ones, that is), and Sunset Boulevard is an absolute treasure. Directed by classic film director, Billy Wilder, the film is a film noir about a legendary silent film star, Norma Desmond, unable to cope with the modern films involving sound, and living a life of instability and mental illness, as her career has long ended. Handsome Joe, innocently stumbles upon her mansion and the two form an eerie relationship ending in tragedy.

Sunset Blvd., is a famous street that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, California, and is immediately featured in the film as Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, drives down the street, an unsuccessful screenwriter, whose car is about to be repossessed. Joe narrates the film and we see a man lying dead in a vast swimming pool. Ironically, this is the end of the film and Wilder interestingly then works backwards so that the audience knows tragedy will eventually ensue.

To avoid men chasing him, Joe pulls into a driveway and hides his car in a garage near a vast yet run-down mansion. He is mistaken for a coffin salesman and meets the infamous and creepy Norma and her servant, Max. The coffin is for Norma’s pet chimpanzee, who has died. Intrigued, and broke, Joe hatches a plot to re-write Norma’s terrible screenplay- and make some money from the aging Hollywood star. Norma needs companionship. The two, along with Max, embark on a weird relationship based on jealousy, passion, and rage.

The black and white style works extremely well in the film. The lighting gives off a mystique of intrigue and film noir. Sunset Boulevard combines the noir with a rich character study of Norma and we feel her pain and isolation at being cast aside as a result of the times.

I love how Wilder focuses both on the gloomy nature of Norma’s vast mansion- especially when she throws a New Year’s Eve party- isolated with just she and Joe and a hired band- interspersed with a lively party in Hollywood- filed with young, energetic, up and coming talents. The scenes mix perfectly and show the two differing worlds and perspectives.

Sunset Boulevard is a brilliant depiction of old Hollywood at its best (and worst). A study in ambition, struggle, and high hopes (Joe), and of faded success and dreams shattered in reality, where delusion is the only defense (Norma).

Chinatown-1974

Chinatown-1974

Director-Roman Polanski

Starring-Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway

Top 100 Films-#30

Scott’s Review #321

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Reviewed January 3, 2016

Grade: A

Chinatown is like a perfectly aged fine red wine- with each passing year or viewing, it becomes more and more spectacular. A thinking man’s film, if you will, Chinatown is a complex puzzle, just waiting to unravel in a layered, complicated fashion. However, this is to its credit, as it is a fantastic, rich, film noir, and as good as cinematic writing gets. Set in the 1930’s the set pieces and art direction are flawless- as great a film in look as in story.

Director Roman Polanski and star Jack Nicholson are largely responsible for the success of the film. The direction is a marvel as the cinematography, flow, and pacing are astounding. A slow build, the film takes off at just the perfect point as the mystery gets deeper and deeper, building to a crescendo.

Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a handsome Los Angeles private investigator hired by a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray. Evelyn desires to have her husband followed, as she suspects him of an affair with another woman. Jake begins tailing the woman’s husband, only to uncover an intriguing mystery involving the Los Angeles water supply. Soon, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) turns up and the film segues into a masterful web of complications and turns of events. You will not see the ending coming.

Certainly, Nicholson leads the film as only he can. With his charismatic, aww shucks attitude, mixed with humor, he is eye candy for the camera, as he takes the case and becomes more and more immersed in the action. This film was a pivotal point for him as he began a slew of worthwhile and abundant performances in pictures.

Let us not forget to mention the acting performance of Dunaway, Smoldering, sexy, classy, intelligent, and vulnerable, she plays almost every emotion in a flawless manor. Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde, and Mommie Dearest (yes, Mommie Dearest!) are her best works in a career that spanned well of a decade in successes.

Chinatown is an entity unto itself in film noir. It is incredibly well written, nuanced, and flawless.  This film simply must be seen. The final thirty minutes- in addition to the “great reveal” is also violent, shocking, and extraordinary. A blueprint of what great filmmaking truly is.

This Gun For Hire-1942

This Gun For Hire-1942

Director-Frank Tuttle

Starring-Veronica Lake, Robert Preston

Scott’s Review #285

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Reviewed November 3, 2015

Grade: B

This Gun for Hire is an early film noir that clearly influenced later films of a similar genre. Starring marque headliners of their day, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, this film is a surprisingly violent experience for its time period. Shot in black and white, the film is wonderfully lit, adding style as well as substance to it.

The film begins with a bang…literally, as hit-man Philip Raven (Ladd) murders a chemist and blackmailer in exchange for a hefty sum of loot. His wealthy boss double-crosses him and reports him to the Los Angeles Police department. Detective Michael Crane takes the case aided by his sexy girlfriend and nightclub singer Ellen Graham (Lake). Adding a wrench to the story is the tangled love affair that ensues between Ellen and Raven, who are the films main draw.

I loved the black and white shooting of this film, as many were in 1942, and found this only enhances the tone of the picture given that it is of crime/hit-man variety. The chemistry between Lake and Ladd smolders and Lake is great as a femme fatale with her long blonde locks and sultry pout. In fact, she was the inspiration for the character conceived for L.A. Confidential as Kim Basinger portrays a Veronica Lake look-alike. Ladd is brooding in his intensity as the hit-man with the damaged childhood and ultimately sympathetic personality.

The setting of San Francisco and L.A. is wonderfully perfect and adds depth as the warm and sunny locales are mixed in with murder, corruption, and shenanigans. Who wouldn’t make comparisons to Chinatown??

A flaw I found in the film and in which I found difficult to buy into is the implausibility of Ellen falling in love with Raven as he clearly tries to murder her-unsuccessfully so. This point seems  plot-driven and  a way to incorporate a mainstream love story amid the thrilling film noir. Surely, she would find satisfaction in a romantic sense with her detective boyfriend and since the duo has no conspicuous problems, the love between she and Raven is all the more inexplicable. Still- sparks do indeed fly on-screen.

An action packed crime affair, This Gun for Hire laid a crisp blueprint for film noir and hitmen, action types films for decades to come and I admire it for this reason.