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The Passing of Gordon Willis

A couple of months ago I awoke to see Gordon Willis trending on Twitter and knew immediately it was bad news. It’s become a weird way of finding out when we’ve lost those respected and admired, by seeing their names on the far left of the Twitter homepage. It’s unfortunate but the truth is that so many people would literally have to die in order to be there, and that was, I knew, the case with Willis.

He didn’t have a particularly long career, never won a competitive Oscar (more on that later), and extended into directing just once, on a pretty obscure feature, but Gordon Willis has long been my very favorite cinematographer. It probably started with his work on The Godfather films. Those are generally the attention-getters. He was given some attention a few years ago when the films were restored with his input and they took on a more orange-y tone. The Blu-ray transfers make them look easily the best I’ve seen. His penchant for contrasting slivers of light against darkness is most often talked about in the context of The Godfather. Indeed, one of the signature scenes in Willis’ career comes when we’re first introduced to Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone and his eyes are barely visible against the dark black of the room. It’s a bold choice which was entirely intentional by Willis. There’s a certain feeling – of mystery, intimidation and foreboding – which is immediately apparent here and it perfectly sets the tone for the film and series.

Willis’ career shows frequent collaborations with a small group of the same directors over and over. He was East Coast-based so that likely played a big part in which films he did, too. Besides shooting Coppola’s three Godfather pictures, Willis seemed particularly loyal to Alan J. Pakula, James Bridges, and, of course, Woody Allen. It’s the Scope ratio black and white image of Allen and Diane Keaton on a bench as they face the almost overwhelmingly enormous Queensboro Bridge which persists as perhaps the most famous single shot of Willis’ career. Allen’s too, for that matter. The eight films Willis shot for Allen established a style and artistry which helped to elevate him beyond the perceived limitations of comedy. This was the richest period of filmmaking for Allen and it would seem to be no coincidence that it came with the help of a collaborator like Willis.

Beyond Manhattan, he also used black and white to lens Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, which looked like nothing else coming out of the United States in the 1980s. Admirers of rich monochrome can’t help but adore him. It’s difficult to come up with many American films in black and white from the seventies onward which are more beautiful. The Allen-Willis combo also deftly switched gears to try out different things with both Zelig, which used a number of different looks across multiple time periods, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, which recreated a ’30s adventure for its film within the film.

AP DT

The Pakula collaborations include The Parallax View and Klute, both of which allow Willis’ work to add a decidedly paranoid and sinister layer to the viewing experience. The stand-out, though, is All the President’s Men, which made for great, enduring entertainment but also probably altered the perception of history. The dark, dingy lighting of a Washington, D.C. parking garage helped to create the mythical Deep Throat character, played on film by Hal Holbrook. Without Willis’ commitment to obscuring Holbrook would Deep Throat be thought of in the same mysterious way as he was for over a quarter of a century? The lighting and framing of the character introduced us to a specific way of perceiving him.

Even a less heralded effort like Robert Benton’s seventies western Bad Company contains some striking shots courtesy of Willis. The landscapes and such might not necessarily seem like the most natural material for him but more intimate opportunities also emerge. In particular, there’s a gorgeous scene when Jeff Bridges is sitting by a campfire. The flames from the fire are the only refuge from the dark of night. In the background is a void created by the blackness of the resting sun. It’s probably an underrated picture anyway but Willis’ work in Bad Company is especially notable for its unusual place in his career and for how well he nonetheless adapts to an unlikely genre.

Shifting gears, one absolutely has to consider the odd relationship Willis had with the Academy Awards. He’s perhaps the poster child for the relentless wrongness the Oscars can represent. There was an honorary award in 2010, richly deserved but still somewhat disrespected by being passed over for any significant airtime on the main ceremony’s telecast. Otherwise, Gordon Willis received just two nominations – one for Zelig and another for The Godfather Part III. He lost both. So, yes, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Annie Hall won Best Picture without Willis even being nominated. He was also snubbed for Klute, All the President’s Men, Manhattan, Interiors, etc. That registers on the scale somewhere between unbelievable and completely impossible to comprehend. Clearly, something strange was at work. (The most popular theory I’ve read was that Willis being an East Coast-based guy put him somewhat at odds with the members on the opposite side of the nation.)

Regardless of the Academy’s indefensible omissions, Willis was great. His knack for establishing mood as well as the necessary concerns of lighting and framing helped to make him a key contributor to any film on which he worked. Just a couple of nights ago the IFC Center in New York City had a lovely tribute screening followed a panel discussion with some of his assistants. I had to miss it due to personal commitments but it was encouraging to know that Willis’ legacy lives on and his contributions to cinema should remain almost impossible to disregard.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

The U.S. market for classic studio pictures on Blu-ray has largely been limited to a handful from the Criterion Collection and a nice, extras-less lot from Olive Films the last few years. The studios themselves have never played it safer, as evidenced by the fact that none of the three movies made by one of the most transcendent, celebrity figures in film history James Dean had seen a Blu release until late last year. It’s turned into an unpredictable mess, where little-known obscurities like Stranger on the Prowl, directed by Joseph Losey, and the Cagney vehicle Johnny Come Lately can be had on Blu-ray but The Philadelphia Story and It Happened One Night, just to name a couple, are nowhere to be found.

A new development involving the sometimes good, sometimes nicht sehr gut label Kino is reason for celebration. One of the key members of Olive’s team, Frank Tarzi, switched over and is now helping Kino introduce Kino Lorber Studio Classics. There are rumors of 70 licensed titles from MGM’s current library. Several have already been announced or hinted at on Twitter. These include:

Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder)

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder)

Marty (Delbert Mann)

Separate Tables (Delbert Mann)

Paris Blues (Martin Ritt)

The Scalphunters (Sydney Pollack)

The Party (Blake Edwards)

Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson)

Sabata (Gianfranco Parolini)

Breakheart Pass (Tom Gries)

Coming Home (Hal Ashby)

What’s New, Pussycat? (Clive Donner, Richard Talmage)

That’s a dozen, leaving a good 58 more hopefully. I know I can’t accurately predict/will the rest so how about putting down 40 more which would seem to be available and very much down my alley? Here goes:

1.) Avanti! (Wilder) 2.) The Barefoot Contessa (Mankiewicz) 3.) The Landlord (Ashby) 4.) Duel in the Sun (Vidor) 5.) The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak) 6.) The Best Man (Schaffner) 7.) Images (Altman) 8.) The Long Goodbye (Altman) 9.) Smile (Ritchie) 10.) 10:30 PM Summer (Dassin) 11.) Topkapi (Dassin) 12.) Man of the West (Mann) 13.) Attack! (Aldrich) 14.) Junior Bonner (Peckinpah) 15.) Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang) 16.) The Woman in the Window (Lang) 17.) Kansas City Confidential (Karlson) 18.) 99 River Street (Karlson) 19.) Man of Iron (Wajda) 20.) Park Row (Fuller) 21.) Lenny (Fosse) 22.) The Killing of Sister George (Aldrich) 23.) The Offence (Lumet) 24.) Birdman of Alcatraz (Frankenheimer) 25.) The Defiant Ones (Kramer) 26.) Eight Men Out (Sayles) 27.) Dodsworth (Wyler) 28.) The Bride Wore Black (Truffaut) 29.) Mississippi Mermaid (Truffaut) 30.) Small Change (Truffaut) 31.) The Hospital (Hiller) 32.) Kiss Me, Stupid (Wilder) 33.) To Live and Die in L.A. (Friedkin) 34.) Live Flesh (Almodovar) 35.) Women in Love (Russell) 36.) Portrait of Jennie (Dieterle) 37.) Cutter’s Way (Passer) 38.) The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen) 39.) Pauline at the Beach (Rohmer) 40.) Hell in the Pacific (Boorman)

Columbia Noir IV

As an enthusiastic supporter of Sony’s series of Columbia Noir releases (and I’ve reviewed all three of the previous editions – here, here and here), I nonetheless found myself a bit skeptical heading into this most recent installment. For starters, I suppose the promise of a 70-minute starless yarn set in France as the marquee title had me somewhat nervous about the quality of the included titles. After all, how much worthwhile noir did Columbia really make which hasn’t yet found a home on R1 DVD?

To be fair, that French-set picture referenced above was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, one of the key figures of the film noir style.  He made not only Gun Crazy and The Big Combo but also the underrated A Lady without Passport and his debut My Name Is Julia Ross, which is available in the previous volume of the series. So Dark the Night was the second feature to which Lewis attached his name, and while not only having one of the best titles in all of noir it has at least three major elements in its favor. One, obviously, is Lewis, who was brilliant at spinning stylistic gold from nearly nothing. He consistently seemed intent on making his films visually interesting. His accomplice here was Burnett Guffey, who had simply one of the greatest careers of any cinematographer in the history of Hollywood. Guffey was a guy whose CV burst at the seams with everything from In a Lonely Place and The Reckless Moment to From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde. He was also a noir hero, having been behind the lens for no less than eight of the films found in these Columbia sets. There are also several moments of note which come alive in the movie thanks to Hugo Friedhofer’s rambunctious score. As things turn darker, in both lighting and mood, in the second half, Friedhofer emphasizes the drama and tension that have replaced any sense of romantic whimsy.

There’s a major shift in plot here to which the viewer must, by necessity, become acclimated. Whereas initially we meet the respected, approachable detective Henri Cassin (played by Steven Geray) with some lightness in tone, a progressively more complicated and serious snag soon develops. Early on, he goes into the French countryside to escape Paris for his first vacation in eleven years. Cassin is highly regarded and even something of a minor celebrity it seems. The trouble comes when the unmarried detective quickly becomes acquainted with the much younger (and already taken) daughter of his innkeepers. -spoiler–spoiler–spoiler- The trouble understandably escalates when both she and her boyfriend are found dead. How lucky, then, that the country’s top detective just happens to be right there.

Lewis and Guffey contribute plenty of unusual camera angles and such to support what is actually a pretty nifty, if threadbare, plot in its own right. The twist at the end is less surprising in its reveal of whodunnit than the circumstances surrounding the acts. Blessed with no real stars and barely familiar faces, So Dark the Night coasts along partially because it still manages to feel like a higher level production than it probably was. It also gives off the hint of being quite different than your typical noir or even crime drama of the era. The psychological elements are less persuasive but Lewis does well in not overemphasizing them. In the end there is no malaise or angst or postwar struggle to blame for the crime in question. The culprit is a kind of inner turmoil and conflict, battled against and lost.

Meanwhile, the very familiar Dick Powell has never struck me as a particularly strong noir presence, a somewhat unfortunate reality given his frequent appearances in these kinds of films. He was most convincing in a picture called Cry Danger, which is out via Olive Films. His cynicism can be there but the tough guy nature often feels too forced. Still, he’s actually pretty good in Robert Rossen’s directorial debut Johnny O’Clock, released by Columbia in 1947. Much of that lies in the role fitting him for once rather than having Powell shoehorned into being, say, Philip Marlowe. Johnny O’Clock is a guy who dresses well, takes care of himself and has a sharp wit. He’s not “tough” so much as smart, acting as the brains behind a casino. For once, this is a role which allows for a natural progression of Powell’s strengths and screen persona. He was good at being cynical without coming off as hardboiled, and that’s the exact sort of impression we get from Johnny in the film. He’s someone you generally don’t want to harass – ironic considering that’s exactly what Lee J. Cobb spends the entire picture doing.

Cobb is a police inspector suspicious of Powell from the start. His cop is shaded in with a fair bit of grey. He’s not on the take, and wants to get to the bottom of a colleague’s murder, but he also has a streak of brutality in him. You don’t really like Cobb’s character, particularly in contrast to Powell’s charisma. One of the movie’s strengths is the odd dynamic that develops between the two, something akin to predator and prey. Cobb is such a strong actor yet someone we almost immediately want to distrust. It takes some time to accept that he’s actually not a bad guy. He’s a point of conflict here because he’s after our protagonist yet he’s only trying to do his job. This tension plays out on a higher plane than what we’d normally find in a picture of this sort. It’s done very well, and probably exemplifies the strength of the screenplay (also by Rossen, though based on a Milton Holmes story).

Certainly hit or miss at times, Robert Rossen was nonetheless a vastly interesting figure of his era and a deserved auteur. The writer-director had been credited for some significant screenplays like They Won’t Forget, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Out of the Fog prior to getting a shot at success here as a hyphenate. Rossen only directed ten films, most of which he also had a writing credit on, and his three-film start of this, Body and Soul and All the King’s Men should be recognized as a dark, noirish progression into flirtations of greatness. If not before, the promise of something extraordinary and classic materialized with 1961′s The Hustler. The common thread running through these films seems to be a pronounced sense of individual failure being masked by a facade of success. All of the men at the center of these four pictures occupy lives marked by exceptional moments that nonetheless ring hollow in the long term. They are, sadly, less than the sum of their parts.

The general ambiguity about Mr. O’Clock found in the film seems to infer an underlying loneliness and perhaps a damaged past. He’s done with the wife of his partner/boss (played with oily conviction by Thomas Gomez). He cared for the now-dead hat check girl (Nina Foch) but not in any clearly romantic way. When her sister (Evelyn Keyes) shows up, we see little different, ar least initially. The dramatic crux of the film comes with Powell needing to find a way out via Keyes while making sure to give her sister some form of justice and stave off Cobb in the process. It’s wound tightly, and that’s part of why Johnny O’Clock is easily the best film in the set. The filmmaking, including Burnett Guffey’s contribution, is top-notch and just glossy enough to satisfy (even if the ending is overly quick and watered down).

One of the more frequent backdrops in the crime dramas often now considered (however tenuously) as noir is the infiltration of the Communist Party in the America of the late ’40s and early to mid ’50s. This is also one of the subsections of noir which has aged the worst, with these movies so frequently coming across as difficult to relate to and panic-stricken messages to further a clear agenda. The hindsight of the blacklist doesn’t exactly help matters. Still, at its best we can find things like Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street while even some of the less admirable entries remain relentlessly entertaining as documentary-style procedurals.

It’s difficult to really expect a well-rounded or juicy portrait from something actually based on a J. Edgar Hoover writing, yet Walk East on Beacon! persists with its own disc and attention therefore must be paid. It’s kind of dry, starless and helmed by the director Alfred Werker, whose best and most known film (He Walked by Night) was actually made by someone else (Anthony Mann). So the fact that this particular movie isn’t half bad and retains some degree of procedural interest might be worth celebrating. It also has the only feature film appearance of George Roy Hill prior to his becoming an Oscar-winning director of such things as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.

The plot involves – surprise – communists trying to infiltrate the United States and work some magic of espionage. One thing of interest to take away is the commitment the film has to showing the pull of the movement as being all-encompassing and impossible to escape from regardless of whether you still hold those views. People who once, briefly, entertained thoughts of communism are branded. Resistance, then, is built on fear and pervasive insistence that these people want to do harm to the USA. If you can swallow the ideological aspect of the picture long enough to make it through, there are some actual dramatic bullets in the chamber. The spread-out tricks descend winningly from a mountain of stilted line readings and super serious narration.

Director Gordon Douglas, who also did well by James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (recently released on Blu by Olive) and went deep into Red Scare territory with I Was a Communist for the FBI, directed a pair of films included in this set, both involving partnered law enforcement officers. Walk a Crooked Mile has Dennis O’Keefe, during roughly the same time he was starring in Anthony Mann and John Alton’s dynamic twofer of T-Men and Raw Deal, as an FBI agent in California investigating stolen nuclear secrets. He’s joined by a Scotland Yard man played by Louis Hayward. The two join forces in order to catch a Communist ring of enemies who’ve somehow infiltrated a top secret research laboratory. Reed Hadley, who would soon appear as the title character in Sam Fuller’s directorial debut I Shot Jesse James, provides dramatic voiceover narration that makes the picture fit snugly among the documentary-style procedurals popular at the time, particularly at Fox.

A couple of things make Walk a Crooked Mile slightly better than its synopsis and talent might suggest. One is George Bruce’s rather good screenplay, which twists just enough to keep us interested in a story that at times can seem overly familiar. Everything here comes off as very businesslike and professional, with the heaviness of the red menace element kept in check as much as possible given the obvious ambitions of the film. If you’re looking for an anti-Communist noir that isn’t so terribly undone by its cautionary scares, this is a fair example. It’s not Pickup on South Street, to be sure, but the relative restraint is appreciated. The other real strong suit is the cinematography, specifically how the lighting is unafraid to shroud scenes in heavy darkness and shadows at times. George Robinson, a veteran cinematographer without a history of noir credits save for Blonde Ice from the same year, was teamed with camera operator Edward Colman. This was actually Colman’s first such credit and he too was a somewhat unlikely practitioner of this style. He’d later work with Jack Webb on both Dragnet and Webb’s feature films before settling into the Disney family, earning Oscar nominations for his work on The Absent-Minded Professor and Mary Poppins. But you’d never think these guys would be more at home in much lighter fare judging by their moody, tone-setting work here.

The Douglas-directed Between Midnight and Dawn (another great title and far better than its original name of Prowl Car) has Mark Stevens and Edmond O’Brien playing a pair of cops who work the night beat, driving around the city fighting off boredom as often as criminals. The two had been war buddies and share a solid rapport, with Stevens as the nice, easygoing one and O’Brien the tougher, more hardbitten officer. It’s an early example of the buddy cop movie, a subgenre which wouldn’t have really existed when this came out in 1950. Of course, both men are intrigued by the female voice they hear at the other end of the radio. Said voice belongs to Gale Storm, who has her reasons for resisting their advances but eventually falls for Stevens.

The plot kicks in with the pair’s apprehension of well-known local gangster Ritchie Garris, played by Donald Buka. He soon becomes a deadly thorn in their side, and the film strives to balance their dealings with him against their personal lives and romantic pursuit of Storm. It makes for a sometimes unusual, almost soapy shift in tone on occasion. As a supposed example of noir, it tends to fail at ticking those desired boxes. It’s still an enjoyable picture, but the all-important mix of dread and ambiguity needed to transform a crime drama into a noir is just not there. The fatalism we get is of a different sort. This is a solid cop drama with moments of humor and romance rather than a hard-boiled entry.

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Vol. IV set is available only from the TCM online store and its partner Movies Unlimited. It’s kind of a leap considering the price tag but nonetheless worthwhile for those noir aficionados always in need of a fix. The packaging differs from the other volumes, and not for the better. The same digipak style is in use here but the discs themselves are a pain to release from their trays. There’s no spindle for the two panels each containing a pair of DVDs. Little plastic hitches on the sides hold the top discs in place but it can be a real annoyance trying to remove them.

Video quality is fairly good. I saw no instances of damage across the whole set. Sharpness and detail are satisfactory.

No subtitles.

Extra features are still present but continue to drop off with each successive volume. A Martin Scorsese introduction seems a tad perfunctory. It’s on the So Dark the Night disc and briefly gets into a few of the films in the set. The remainder of the supplements consist of screens containing image galleries and such.

Ask clydefro! 4/14

Here at clydefro.com I get countless emails and messages, so many that I’ve decided to break in a new column answering as many as I can. If you don’t see your question listed here or have another issue of note, feel free to shoot me an email at clydefro@gmail.com (no spam, please). Without further adieu…

Q: Dear clydefro, what’s the deal with the site? - Jason from Wyoming

A: Dear Jason, I’m glad you asked! I’m no computer whiz and my time shrinks almost daily so there was an odd, purgatory-like period where I was unable to play admin. I think we’re back to normal now and hope to add new, exciting content in the near future.

Q: Hey clydefro, could you recommend an unheralded film noir on Blu-ray? - Calpurnia from Mass.

A: Dear Calpurnia, of course I can and will. If you’ve already seen the stone cold classics, only a few of which have even trickled out yet on Blu, then I’d say turn your attention to Olive Films. Olive has been doing stellar work on lesser-known yet excellent titles in barebones editions for a couple of years now. One I really liked was Plunder Road, directed by Hubert Cornfield. It’s a tight and tense story involving a heist and subsequent truck-driving escape attempt. Not to be missed!

Q: Why don’t you begin your name in uppercase? - Don from Oklahoma

A: Well Don, it’s merely personal preference. Perhaps I’m improper?

Q: Are we ever going to see The TCM Ten on here again clydefro!? - Betty from California

A: Settle down Betty. I don’t have any plans of reviving The TCM Ten at the moment but you never know…

Q: What, if anything, are you still waiting on to get released on DVD? - Nigel from Northampton

A: Thanks for asking Nigel. I think, more than anything else, I’d really like to see Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby come out in some form. Beyond that, I’d love a Blu-ray edition of King Vidor’s The Crowd, which might be the best American film still not available on disc yet.

Breathing Life into the Scarecrow

I think it’s possible to fall in and out of love with film while still maintaining a healthy relationship with it. That is, enthusiasm can wane but you always trust that the spark can be rekindled at any time. You simply de-prioritize certain things. You grow older. You get tired. When I started writing about movies I had more time to concentrate on such things than I do now, which allowed for a different level of reflection. There was also the constant discovery and rediscovery of pictures that wowed me. What’s a bit unfortunate, and something that will vary from person to person, is that those electric sort of films capable of inspiring me became harder to find. Most of my favorite directors can’t make any more movies. There’s a finite number of these things. Once you see the very best ones you’re left with scratching around in search of the lesser titles, hoping to occasionally hit upon a gem, or returning to the same films for another round.

That’s kind of where this is all going. I want to compile a list of 50 films using my own criteria but basically consisting of them being “favorites” and then re-watch each one by one. The plan is to then write a reaction based on that watch, without trying to provide anything like a proper review or definitive analysis. Some of these would be movies I’ve written about before but I would try to not repeat myself too much. There’s no time table and I won’t be going in sequence. When I feel like watching a certain movie on the list then I will, with writing to hopefully follow.

Too often I seem to get hung up on seeing things I’d not previously seen before, but sometimes there’s a very legitimate reason I’d not watched it sooner. And sometimes, more than anything, I find myself just wanting to see Humphrey Bogart play a private detective.

Reassessing the 1950s

A new, rejiggered list of where my heart currently is regarding the films of the 1950s:

1.) In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950)
2.) Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950)
3.) Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)
4.) Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
5.) Night and the City (Dassin, 1950)
6.) Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954)
7.) Ace in the Hole (Wilder, 1951)
8.) A Face in the Crowd (Kazan, 1957)
9.) Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson, 1951)
10.) Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)
11.) The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)
12.) Winchester ’73 (Mann, 1950)
13.) Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly & Donen, 1952)
14.) Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)
15.) Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
16.) Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
17.) Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)
18.) The Big Heat (Lang, 1953)
19.) Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
20.) The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
21.) Ordet (Dreyer, 1955)
22.) Mon Oncle (Tati, 1958)
23.) On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1952)
24.) Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1956)
25.) Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)
26.) Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959)
27.) Rififi (Dassin, 1955)
28.) 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)
29.) Diabolique (Clouzot, 1955)
30.) Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
31.) All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 1950)
32.) There’s Always Tomorrow (Sirk, 1956)
33.) The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)
34.) Stalag 17 (Wilder, 1953)
35.) Forty Guns (Fuller, 1957)
36.) North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)
37.) The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953)
38.) The Man from Laramie (Mann, 1955)
39.) The Tarnished Angels (Sirk, 1957)
40.) Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Tashlin, 1957)
41.) Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, 1954)
42.) Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa, 1959)
43.) Orpheus (Cocteau, 1950)
44.) Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953)
45.) Alice in Wonderland (1951)
46.) The Lusty Men (Ray, 1952)
47.) The Far Country (Mann, 1957)
48.) The Asphalt Jungle (Huston, 1950)
49.) The Killing (Kubrick, 1956)
50.) Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)

Tight Spot

Tight Spot, directed by genre craftsman Phil Karlson, doesn’t do a lot for me beneath the surface but it does manage to skip along nicely in the moment. It was adapted from a stage play, and the general reluctance to move beyond its hotel room setting save for a scene or two is clear evidence of that. The no-nonsense direction, typical of Karlson, goes far in keeping things fresh and moving. If there’s a meaningful complaint to be registered it might be how familiar the whole thing tends to feel. Tight Spot is the kind of picture you vaguely recall having already seen, regardless of whether you actually have. On the other hand, it’s also something you could find yourself enjoying and becoming involved with, no matter if it’s a first watch or a third.

The precarious position of the title likely refers to the delicacy involved in getting a potential government witness to testify against a mob boss. The first planned witness we see is shot down by a sniper rifle, putting district attorney Edward G. Robinson in a mad rush to suddenly fill the vacancy. Though not an ideal replacement, it’s a women’s prison convict played by Ginger Rogers who’s chosen and put up in a hotel on the government’s dime. She’s entirely reluctant to testify, and, considering the risk versus potential reward, who could blame her. Brian Keith rounds out the main trio of characters as a cynical cop acting as chaperone to Rogers. The big shot gangster is played by Lorne Greene, who’s not very Ben Cartwright-like at all here.

Because she’s somewhat fast-talking and wisecracking, Rogers’ role very much resembles the sort she played in the 1930s. Other blondes were fine being plucky while Ginger had a harder, knowing, if still pleasingly bubbly, edge to her. The spin put on her Tight Spot performance is that Rogers is no longer an ingenue but now a woman in her forties with some miles on her. The way she looks, fair or not, gives the character an element of underlying sadness. She’d been a model, someone who had men like Greene invite her on boats and probably hope for something in return. She’d charmed nice dresses and fancy meals out of people without the expectation of turning state’s witness. But now she’s past her prime, with still a year left on a hard luck prison sentence and the one thing obviously going for her – looks – fading fast. All of that informs the subtext of the film and Rogers’ character, but it also affects how we view a major actress in the twilight of her career, with just five more feature film roles remaining.

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That’s not to say that Tight Spot ever becomes simply a dissection of Ginger Rogers vis-à-vis the aging process. It’s a lean enough drama, however stagebound, with a nifty late twist. The viewer grows to care more about Rogers and her safety than if Robinson can make his deportation case against Greene. This is mainly due to the sharp performance from Rogers, who massages the role beyond its most basic intentions. Her persistence really stands out, both as a way for the character to manipulate the situation as best she can and as a means of teasing the tragic underpinnings in the story. Rogers fits in some strong moments with Keith where she’s pretty much worn him down over time with her enthusiasm and good nature. Anyone who’s a fan of the actress certainly owes it to himself or herself to watch the film. It’s probably the definitive instance of having Ginger implicitly come to terms with Hollywood passing her by, not because of ability but perception.

Credit Phil Karlson with recognizing the potential in having an older Rogers dominate his supposed film noir. As with the Karlson contributions found in the two previous Columbia noir sets, I’m most skeptical of including this title as something worth classifying as a film noir. Karlson was a good, solid director but he wasn’t one for letting mood dominate. He seemed far more interested in narrative pacing, and, as such, was a fine storyteller. I tend to enjoy Phil Karlson pictures well enough but I think their noir attributes are rather malleable. He was no Joseph H. Lewis or Anthony Mann, filmmakers whose forays into other genres still retained the strong feel of noir. From a noir perspective, I’ll give Karlson the great Kansas City Confidential and maybe 99 River Street but probably nothing else. He made above average crime dramas, like Tight Spot, but they almost always lacked the creative flair and existential angst craved from noir.

(Tight Spot can now be found in the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set, along with four other very good, easily recommended films new to R1 DVD. Sony probably could have sold several more copies had the release been made available to retailers other than the TCM shop and its partner Movies Unlimited.)

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The Burglar

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A couple of years ago I ducked into Film Forum for a showing of The Burglar, a 1957 feature that was the fiction debut of director Paul Wendkos and the only time David Goodis adapted one of his novels for the big screen. My expectations were neither high nor low. I was just keen to see something involving Goodis which was relatively obscure. The more invested in film noir that I’ve become the more I’ve grown to appreciate Goodis’ contribution and inspiration. If there’s any single entity who best captured the mood of film noir in his words, and I’m adamant that mood is the most importantly pervasive element of noir, it was probably David Goodis. He perfected existential malaise on the page. He made his stories drip with hard depression and deep, stubborn hopelessness. There’s a reason, clearly, that Goodis has inspired about as many screenplay adaptations of his work as novels he produced.

Production of The Burglar would have come at an interesting time for Goodis. He’d already settled back in his native Philadelphia (at his parents’ house) after a stint in Hollywood which saw Delmer Daves adapt Dark Passage for Warner Bros. and Goodis write a version of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter (filmed twice already, with Jeanne Eagels and Bette Davis) for the same studio called The Unfaithful. His novel of The Burglar was published in 1953, and it took two more years for Paul Wendkos, a fellow Philadelphian and friend of Goodis, to make the film version as an independent production starring Dan Duryea. Columbia would buy the distribution rights but sit on the picture another couple of years, until cast member Jayne Mansfield developed into a movie star at Fox. Another Goodis adaptation, Nightfall directed by Jacques Tourneur, also came out from Columbia in 1957.

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Both pictures retain Goodis’ downbeat voice, but they aren’t entirely similar. For one, they seem to have distinctively different intentions. Nightfall makes strong use of the typical male Tourneur protagonist – laconic, pursued, struggling with the past. Aldo Ray in that film seems cast against type yet generally effective. That said, he shows only situational angst rather than something habitual and tortured. By contrast, Duryea in The Burglar is weathered. He’s supposed to be just 35 years old but the actor was actually about 48 during filming, as evidenced by his watery eyes and each of the lines on his face. The extra years add nuance to what is, like many Goodis stories, a character study rather than simply a plot-driven tale of cops and robbers. Duryea’s Nat is a guy we learn about in a slow, patient fashion. The ties come together with ease, bound not by narrative obligation but through gradual moments of observation.

Though Duryea is sometimes thought of first for his less sympathetic roles, in things like Scarlet Street, Criss Cross, and Winchester ’73, among many others, he was quite capable of playing the other side too. Black Angel, for example, finds him as a guy who’s neither obviously good nor bad. The beauty of his performance in The Burglar lies in the unexpected restraint Duryea shows. There are ample silences, and gone is the usual jumpiness or friction. Nat is a tortured soul in the Goodis mold who’s sacrificed his life seemingly for two things, both of which involve the man who more or less raised him. That man was a thief who taught Nat how to steal professionally and only asked in return that he look out for his daughter Gladden (Mansfield) if anything ever happened to him. The complications here are mighty. For one, Gladden is, though not outwardly as bombshell sexy as her portrayer might imply, a young, attractive blonde who’s always looked up to Nat. Beyond that, the pair work in a group of four, one of which is a brutish, sweaty man who is constantly throwing unwanted stares at Gladden.

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Their current haul is an expensive emerald necklace which the fourth member of the group estimates to be worth $150,000 or so, with a fence perhaps giving them $85,000 for it. It was taken from the Philadelphia home of a spiritualist. The tense heist is shown by Wendkos in sweaty detail, with Nat having to work on a safe in two parts after a couple of cops stop to check out his parked car on the street and he temporarily abandons the job to feed them a story about it having broken down. It’s a testament to the film’s brash confidence that Wendkos stages this essential set piece so early in the picture. This also lets us know that The Burglar is less concerned with crime in general than those individuals perpetrating it here.

Shot on location in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the movie earns its mood honestly. The choices Wendkos makes are frequently daring and most often succeed at establishing a dingy, rundown atmosphere. These characters are holed up in sweaty little apartments and shacks. They struggle. Nat broods. Nothing ever seems to be as close to paying off as they try to fool themselves. It’s easy to get behind Nat but it’s unfortunately just as natural to expect an outcome which will be destructive in some way. The noir elements, particularly the more mature and developed themes found in the best efforts from the fifties, are on full display. Interesting compositions marked by an affinity for shadows and inky darkness would seem to have announced Wendkos as a major filmmaker. Indeed, in a time period when noir was coming to a close and far too many crime dramas were settling for an unimaginative television aesthetic, The Burglar is a beautiful alternative. It looks and feels deeply, darkly unsettling. The final sequence through AC’s Steel Pier amusement park is as enormously thrilling to watch as it is painful to digest.

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The postscript for The Burglar, if there was any justice, should be a positive one. Alas, Goodis kept descending into whatever fugue state he was destined for, despite a brief renewed interest after François Truffaut adapted a book by the author for his second film, and died far too young at the age of 49 in early 1967. Wendkos had a weird career. He directed Gidget and a pair of sequels soon after making The Burglar, and then later worked steadily in television. Without having seen every movie and episode of television Wendkos did, it seems unfair to just provide a flat dismissal but I do think one would have difficulty in painting his career as living up to the promise shown by this picture, considering how terrific it is. While Mansfield’s Broadway success with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? immediately followed filming, and that then segued into her screen career, the delay in releasing The Burglar probably did it few favors. Having Mansfield’s sexy image as the focal point of the poster campaign seems both misleading and certain to disappoint filmgoers looking for a bubbly blonde rather than the troubled, more even character seen here.

The film’s reputation, for whatever reason, has never really matched its potential impact. This is one of the darker, more downbeat and adult noirs made in the mid-fifties, and I’m inclined to say it’s also one of the best. Back on that first viewing, aided by a memorably bold opening, The Burglar knocked me out and left me wondering why more people didn’t speak or write of it highly. It’s now, sort of, available on DVD, in limited release from the TCM online store and Movies Unlimited as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set. This might be too minor of a release to really impact general opinion, I’m afraid, or maybe the picture is mostly just for those already in the cult of Goodis. But at least it’s actually available through official channels (and not stricken with a purple underbelly). It’s a soothing development, particularly if you already love the film.

My Name Is Julia Ross

The director’s name was Joseph H. Lewis. Sniff around film noir long enough and you’ll soon find reference to him. Lewis is often written about with reverence and admiration for elevating the material he was given into something far more interesting, more cinematic. Behind the camera, which he tended to place in such unique locations as to earn the nickname “Wagon-Wheel Joe,” Lewis had the gift of making his less than modest budgets seem like no hindrance to stylish filmmaking. His cinematographers probably helped, with John Alton’s work on The Big Combo deserving of some kind of beautifully dark and shadowed trophy ceremony all on its own, but perhaps it was Lewis who equally inspired talented men like Burnett Guffey and Russell Harlan to match his own flair for composition. Certainly the merits of the much-loved Gun Crazy, with its extended, point of view sequence from a getaway car and overall Nouvelle Vague feel (about a decade before the fact), are deservedly associated with Lewis first and foremost.

He learned how to make pictures on the cheap from the very beginning of his directing career. He did a series of westerns for Universal which one feels generous even in declaring them as B-movies. They remain almost entirely unknown even today. The odd Bela Lugosi horror picture, Bowery Boys flick or entry in the Falcon series followed. In short, though, Lewis was toiling away in near-obscurity. The turning point, by most all accounts, was his 1945 film My Name Is Julia Ross, made for Columbia and deemed impressive by no less than studio boss Harry Cohn. Lewis had only been given ten days and less than $150,000 to make the picture. He went over on both, but Cohn was apparently so taken with his work that Lewis was given even more freedom on subsequent Columbia projects. My Name Is Julia Ross was also a hit at the box office, surely helping the director’s cause.

Based on a novel (entitled The Woman in Red and written by Anthony Gilbert, a pen name for Lucy Malleson), the film concerns the highly unusual circumstances in which a woman looking for work in London finds herself. Julia Ross has lived in London for two months and, as we see, thinks she’s finally found a job as secretary to a fussy older woman. She’d answered a newspaper posting, gone to the employment agency and, after confirming that she had no familial or other ties which might distract from her duties, met with her potential employer. It all went well enough until she suddenly found herself no longer at the London residence where she was supposedly to work and instead at a large estate in Cornwall, with Friday having completely vanished in favor of Saturday. And why does everyone insist on calling her Marian Hughes?

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As the title character, Nina Foch is impressive in the strength she gives Julia. What’s essentially happening, and not to give away too much for those who’ve not yet seen the movie, is that she’s been kidnapped and made to seem like the mentally unstable wife/daughter-in-law of her captors, played by George Macready and Dame May Whitty. Their intentions are revealed gradually but we know right away that they most likely are not honorable. A pair of other accomplices complete the conspiracy against Julia. Only potential beau Dennis (Roland Varno) provides hope of somehow alerting officials as to Julia’s disappearance or whereabouts. The frequent, dangling near-misses for escape, even in the film’s brisk 64 minutes of running time, are utilized skillfully in both giving the viewer hope that she might get away and then upping the suspense when she does not.

The thrill of My Name Is Julia Ross might hinge as much on its keen awareness as a taut Gothic thriller as it does the directorial flourishes from Lewis. Both are essential. Lewis had, finally, a strong plot to work with but he also made it better through his formal gifts. Seeing Julia literally behind bars of this massive country estate overlooking the water is an indelible image which perfectly shows her dilemma. The viewer can get a feel for her state of mind through Foch’s performance and the circumstances, but having that shot of her looking out while encaged makes for a striking and essential summation.

Though the film feels believably British (at least from this non-Brit), it’s intriguing to realize that none of it was shot outside of the United States. (This could be chalked up to Lewis’ impressive ability to spin straw into gold since nothing on screen really indicates just how cheaply it was made.) Furthermore, Foch, of course, was Dutch-born and grew up in New York while Macready was an American. The presence of a Dame, in this instance May Whitty, perhaps goes quite a long way toward establishing an overall British feel. Though it can sometimes feel like a merging between Gothic thriller, because of the setting, and film noir, owing mostly to the heightened atmosphere of suspense present nearly throughout, My Name Is Julia Ross also resists strict categorization. Credit Lewis for this, as he tended to make his best pictures very much his own and largely unlike what expectations might suggest.

(My Name Is Julia Ross is the first disc in the TCM Vault Collection release of Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set. The digipak consists of five pressed discs and comes highly recommended.)

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The Mob

The Mob is a deeply satisfying crime drama – and I’m okay with considering it a film noir actually – heightened by a fine lead performance from Broderick Crawford. It features a nifty cast of familiar faces, including Richard Kiley, Ernest Borgnine, and, in a bit role with one line, Charles Bronson. There are ample twists and developments which manage to generally establish a heightened, suspenseful atmosphere befitting what we expect from noir. Director Robert Parrish, here making his second feature after the even stronger (and not yet available) Cry Danger, offers little stylistic flourish but he and cinematographer Joseph Walker each do their part in creating the right mood, despite the obvious lack of shooting on location and other budgetary restrictions.

The film opens in that most noir of climates – dark and rainy. Crawford is an off-duty cop in a pawn shop, trying to buy his girl a nice ring at a discount. He exits and comes upon a fresh shooting in the street. The man with the gun identifies himself as a police lieutenant who’s just brought down a cop killer. Crawford’s character Damico gets a look at his badge and sends him into a diner to call for a squad car. Trouble is, the man goes in the front door and out the back because he’s not really a cop. Instead, he’s Blackie Clegg, the guy who killed both the man in the street and the dead police officer, and Damico has just let him go free. The punishment, officially, is a suspension. The reality is that Damico is assigned to work undercover at the docks in order to get closer to Clegg, who’s known to run things from afar. Hardly anyone, including Damico’s girlfriend, can know about the assignment.

Officer John Damico becomes Tim Flynn, a dock worker from New Orleans who’s had to come up north while some details from his past cool down. He meets all sorts of characters in his new locale. A fellow laborer named Clancy (Richard Kiley) befriends Flynn, but it’s the higher-ups like Castro (Ernest Borgnine), and his lackey Gunner (played by Neville Brand), who end up coloring his experience the most. The twists this film takes are entirely effective and compelling, so much so that plot descriptions become increasingly less valuable than usual. The whole thing churns along so very nicely, and it’s great to see Crawford essentially playing both his usual gruff exterior in the form of Flynn and a more subdued and quick cat in Damico. The role would have been a reward of sorts from Columbia for his Oscar-winning turn in the studio’s All the King’s Men a couple of years earlier. Crawford was always more versatile than he was allowed to show on screen, and this is a shining example of his ability to carry, forcefully so, a film pretty much on his own.

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The director of The Mob, Robert Parrish, might not have achieved great distinction for the dozen and a half or so films he was credited with making, but both this feature and his only previous one Cry Danger are deserving of favorable recognition. Oddly enough, both films find a singular protagonist who is an outsider trying to coalesce in an ostensibly foreign environment. The set-up is a noir staple but the pictures, both with screenplays credited to William Bowers, make good use of being on the fringe. Dick Powell in Cry Danger and Crawford here are both guys made to be on the outside looking in, with a task of sorts to accomplish in order to find some kind of normal existence in their lives. Indeed, the two films are surprisingly similar when considered in tandem and both are in need of some fair re-evaluation.

The title of The Mob might be holding it back a little. I’d resisted the movie for a little while, assuming (wrongly) that it was more heavily built around organized crime, like so many middling pictures with a docudrama intensity were during this decade. These films tend to get bogged down in the gangsterism element, to the detriment of the overall narrative. To my pleasant surprise, The Mob is a genuinely focused effort that uses Crawford’s undercover cop routine as a bridge between exposing the unfair corruption facing the dock workers, later to be part of On the Waterfront, and the more general dangers that befall the guys on the police force who are clean. Had The Mob been made twenty or thirty years later you could easily picture Sidney Lumet behind the camera. That version might not have been half bad either, but it seems doubtful that any latter incarnation would have been quite this tight and to the point.

(The Mob has been released on DVD as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set, which itself was issued under the TCM Vault Collection banner. The 1.33:1 transfer, even coming from a single-layered disc, is nigh-on impeccable for this title.)

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