Film Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Release Date: April 24th, 1947 (London premiere)
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Based on: Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden
Music by: Brian Easdale
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Sabu, Jean Simmons

General Film Distributors, Universal-International, 100 Minutes

Review:

“Remember, the superior of all is the servant of all.” – Mother Dorothea

I’ve heard about Black Narcissus throughout the years, as it was a milestone film in cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s career. He won an Academy Award for this film, as did Art Director Alfred Junge, who was another guy at the top of his game when this was made.

The film is a magnificent piece of moving and living art. Cardiff’s cinematography is absolutely incredible in this film but it goes hand in hand with Junge’s attention to detail, style and the world he helped craft in order for Cardiff to capture real magic. From a visual standpoint, this movie is a prefect example of how two artists, deeply and genuinely on the same page, occupying the same space, can plant a seed that blossoms into a mesmerizing and perfect flower.

Black Narcissus, is hands down, one of the best looking films I have ever seen.

The rest of the film is pretty good but the look of this world that everyone is acting in, overshadows the rest of the picture. Not to say that the acting or the story were bad, they were much better than decent and the subject matter was very interesting but I just couldn’t stop myself from getting lost in the enticing and magnetic allure of the glamorous environment.

The story deals with a group of young Anglican nuns who open up a school and hospital in the Himalayas, close to Darjeeling. They are confronted with an unfamiliar culture and have to deal with the feeling of extreme isolation. This isolation leads to major challenges and tests for the nuns. One nun succumbs to the sexual sensuality she feels for a local British man, which then leads to a severe nervous breakdown.

The highlight of the film from an acting standpoint, at least for me, was seeing Indian actor Sabu in a role where he is older than what I’m familiar with. Growing up, I was a fan of his childhood films Jungle BookElephant BoyArabian Nights and The Thief of Bagdad. All old school classics that my grandma always had in rotation on her television when I was young.

Black Narcissus is a film that fans of art direction and cinematography have to at least see once in their lives. I’m sure it is something I will revisit again, just because the visuals are one of my favorite things about motion pictures. The matte paintings alone are incredible. It is amazing what top craftsman could accomplish, more than half a century before CGI became the norm.

Film Review: The Strange Woman (1946)

Release Date: October 25th, 1946
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Hunt Stromberg, Edgar G. Ulmer, Herb Meadow
Based on: The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Alan Napier

Hunt Stromberg Productions, Mars Film Corporation, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“[Giving a sermon, quoting from Proverbs 5:3] The lips of a strange woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil… But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword!” – Lincoln Pittridge

I’ve really come to enjoy Edgar G. Ulmer as a director. As I’ve been watching a lot of film-noir, in recent months, I was thoroughly impressed with his film Detour and also really enjoyed his earlier pictures The Black Cat and People On Sunday, which was a collaboration with other German and Austrian born noir directors, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder. Also being a fan of Hedy Lamarr, as an actress and a person, I had to give this film a shot.

It also stars George Sanders and Alan Napier has a small role in it too.

While this does fall into the realm of film-noir, it is very much a character study that showcases the bizarre behavior and traits of Hedy Lamarr’s Jenny Hager, a conflicted and complex woman who at first seems mean, selfish and irrational but you see her portrayed in such an honest and intimate light that you get the feeling that she isn’t always in control of her actions, as if some uncontrollable force is driving her. Nowadays, we call this stuff “mental illness”.

The film and the character of Jenny work so well because of how damn good Hedy Lamarr was in this role. She humanized a person that could have easily just been a monster or a one-dimensional femme fatale. Despite her wickedness, you feel something for her and like George Sanders’ John Evered, you want to help her. It’s easy to see why the men in the film get so wrapped up in her despite her natural beauty. I really need to work my way through Lamarr’s work again but this is my favorite performance she ever gave us.

Ulmer had a talent for taking something as common as a noir picture and giving it a little something extra. Detour was a harsh and high octane noir that is unique and exceptional. This film sort of does the same thing but it is less “in your face” about it. It’s got this underlying darkness that you don’t quite understand until the narrative evolves into something more personal and complex. But where Detour is like a wrestler in a no holds barred cage match to the death, The Strange Woman is more like a pretty girl that gives you a kiss but you don’t know you’ve been poisoned by her until its too late. Both are rough and brutal but in very different ways. Regardless, the end result is still pretty effective and final.

The Strange Woman isn’t the best film-noir and I do like Ulmer’s Detour more but it is still an intimate experience and a wild ride through a crazy woman’s mind. It’s well shot, stupendously acted and offers up something more than a typical noir picture.

Film Review: Act of Violence (1949)

Release Date: January 22nd, 1949 (New York City)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Written by: Collier Young, Robert L. Richards
Music by: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter

Loew’s Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 82 Minutes

Review:

“Sure, I was in the hospital, but I didn’t go crazy. I kept myself sane. You know how? I kept saying to myself: Joe, you’re the only one alive that knows what he did. You’re the one that’s got to find him, Joe. I kept remembering. I kept thinking back to that prison camp. One of them lasted to the morning. By then, you couldn’t tell his voice belonged to a man. He sounded like a dog that got hit by a truck and left him in the street.” – Joe Parkson

The more I watch of Van Heflin, the more he becomes one of my all-time favorite actors. The first few times I saw him, I wasn’t too keen on the roles he had. He always seemed to be a sort of scuzzy character. But since my first few experiences, I’ve seen him play a whole myriad of character types and he just lures me in. Act of Violence is one of my favorite performances I’ve seen of his. And really, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh here, as well.

In this noir tale, we see ex-POW Frank Enley (Heflin) being honored as a war hero. At home, he is just a young family man just trying to live a normal life. However, a strange character (Ryan) starts showing up and pursuing him. The mysterious man even tries to murder Enley while he is fishing on a lake. Enley gets wind of something awry and is pretty sure he’s in trouble. A car starts stalking Enley and his wife (Leigh) by parking in front of their house. As the tale progresses, we learn that there is something dark that Enley is hiding and maybe this mysterious stranger isn’t actually the bad guy.

This is a simple and straightforward noir without a lot of extra twists and turns. The story has some layers to it but not so much that it is difficult to recall all the details as more present themselves. Some classic noir pictures got bogged down in swerves and overly elaborate details, Act of Violence is actually refreshing in that it does not.

Ultimately, this is a film about a cowardly man redeeming himself through a last act of heroism. You think its a basic revenge story but it isn’t, it’s deeper and more genuine than that.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan were great opposites in this and both men also had great exchanges with Janet Leigh. The acting is very good for all the main parties involved.

Act of Violence is a better movie than I expected it to be. The scene on the lake was suspenseful and actually pretty breathtaking from a visual standpoint. It is a good mixture of nice cinematography, a good story and talented actors.

Film Review: Red Light (1949)

Also known as: Mr. Gideon (working title)
Release Date: September 30th, 1949
Directed by: Roy Del Ruth
Written by: George Callahan, Charles Grayson
Based on: This Guy Gideon by Don ‘Red’ Barry
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: George Raft, Virginia Mayo, Raymond Burr, Harry Morgan

Roy Del Ruth Productions, United Artists, 83 Minutes

Review:

“You know, Johnny, when you play solitaire you can only beat yourself.” – Strecker

There is just something about seeing Raymond Burr play an evil man. Sure, he was exceptional as the heroic lawyer on Perry Mason but slightly earlier in his career, Burr was typically a heavy in film-noir. This is one of those films and really, Burr is once again great as a villainous rogue.

The film also stars George Raft and Virginia Mayo, right on the heels of her iconic performance opposite of James Cagney in White Heat. In fact, the film was marketed using her image in a way that channels her character from White Heat, even though her character here is nothing like the poster implies.

The story sees a bookkeeper named Nick Cherney (Burr) sent to prison for embezzling from Torno’s (Raft) trucking company. Four years later, Cherney hires another inmate to murder Torno’s brother Jess, giving Cherney an alibi in his quest for revenge, as he isn’t yet released from prison. Being that this is a film-noir, things obviously go sideways, backwards and every which way but forward.

Overall, Red Light is a pretty enjoyable movie. The plot is good and the cinematography is pretty well done. The dark scene in the apartment where a man is shot is well captured. The highlight however, is the sequence in the truck yard at night, where one of the characters ends up crushed to death by a trailer. It’s a pretty cold and gruesome moment, even though the censors wouldn’t allow for gore at the time.

I liked Red Light a lot. While it isn’t in the upper echelon of classic film-noir, it is certainly a better than average picture with solid execution from all parties involved.

Film Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Release Date: May 2nd, 1946
Directed by: Tay Garnett
Written by: Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch
Based on: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Music by: George Bassman, Erich Zeisl
Cast: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 113 Minutes

Review:

“You know, there’s something about this that’s like, well it’s like you’re expecting a letter that you’re just crazy to get, and you’re hanging around the front door for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice…” – Frank Chambers

The Postman Always Rings Twice was the highest grossing film-noir picture of the classic era. Also, it was a departure from what MGM typically put into theaters, as crime thrillers weren’t really their cup of tea.

The film stars Lana Turner and John Garfield, both of whom are at the top of their game in this. While they had great careers, there was a real grittiness to them here, even if Turner’s Cora Smith carried herself as an opulent and gorgeous upper class type. Garfield came with a hard edge that was impossible to deny. But most importantly, their chemistry was quite spectacular and they are one of the best noir duos of all-time.

The film was directed by Tay Garnett. He wasn’t known for noir but he was still able to create a classic in the genre with this picture. But much of that can be attributed to a good script by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, as well as the crisp and smooth cinematography of Sidney Wagner, who kept things pretty straightforward but used the lighting to his advantage. Plus, the talent of the cast, not just the two main stars, was a big contributor to this film’s quality. I especially enjoyed Hume Cronyn in this but then again, when don’t I enjoy the guy?

The plot of the film follows a drifter, Frank Chambers, who takes a job at a roadside cafe. He quickly falls for the owner’s wife, Cora Smith. There is tension between the two but it quickly fades and we get in to a web of lies, deceit and murder. Like many film-noir pictures, the story is told to us by the main character in hindsight. While the overall narrative could be considered derivative, most noir movies were, it certainly stands tall in spite of it retreading very familiar territory.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an iconic picture and for good reason. It was even remade in the 1980s with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange playing the roles that Garfield and Turner gave life to. I like this version of the story best but I’ll probably have to revisit the ’80s take on it soon.

Film Review: Crossfire (1947)

Release Date: July 22nd, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton
Based on: The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Sam Levene

RKO Radio Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties.” – Police Captain Finlay

Crossfire is a pretty unique film-noir, as it is a very socially progressive movie for its time. The main crime in the film surrounds the murder of a Jewish man and it is discovered that the murder was inspired by bigotry and hatred. This was pretty heavy stuff for 1947 but kudos to RKO Pictures, Edward Dmytryk and John Paxton for putting this picture together. No, not the John Paxton that helped lead the Chicago Bulls to many NBA championships in the 1990s, he spelled his name “Paxson”. This John Paxton was a screenwriter that breathed life into film-noirs like Cornered and Murder, My Sweet.

This film also stars the three Roberts of film-noir: Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Okay, Young wasn’t in a lot of noir but Mitchum and Ryan lived in the genre. Plus, you also have Gloria Grahame, one of the queens of noir. Sam Levene also pops up in this but I feel like he is in almost every noir picture of the 1940s and 1950s. Then again, Elisha Cook Jr. probably has him beat.

Crossfire, despite its star power and its interesting premise, isn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. It’s not a bad movie but it just sort of exists and plays out without a lot of real suspense or tension.

The Academy thought it was pretty damn good though, as it was nominated for five Oscars. Plus, it won the award for Best Social Film at Cannes that year. But awards are typically political statements, even in the 1940s, and the people who hand out awards have always had a bias towards socially conscious cinema. From an accolades perspective, Crossfire greatly benefited from its subject matter.

I don’t mean to sound like I am in any way bashing the picture. It just wasn’t Oscar worthy, in my opinion. Especially in a year where we had Kiss of DeathThe Lady From ShanghaiNightmare AlleyBrute Force and Out of the Past. And those are just some of the film-noirs that I would rank higher not to mention all the other great films from other genres.

The three Roberts all put in solid performances though, as did Grahame. Edward Dmytryk is also a very good director. This is a very good film but when one has to compare it to what else was coming out at the time, it just isn’t on the same level as the films I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

If you love film-noir and any of the actors in this movie, it is still worth your time. I liked the picture and I would certainly watch it again but probably as part of a double feature or marathon.

Film Review: The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

Also known as: The High Window (UK)
Release Date: February 6th, 1947
Directed by: John Brahm
Written by: Dorothy Bennett, Leonard Praskins
Based on: The High Window by Raymond Chandler
Music by: David Buttolph
Cast: George Montgomery, Nancy Guild, Conrad Janis

20th Century Fox, 72 Minutes

Review:

“[narrating] I was sore at myself for coming all the way out to Pasadena on a day like that just to see about a case. And how I hate summer winds – they come in suddenly off the Mojave Desert and you can taste sand for a week. I knew it was the voice of the girl on the phone that had got me and I was reminding myself how often your ears play a dirty trick on your eyes – but this time there was no let down…” – Philip Marlowe

It’s no secret that I love private dick movies, especially those featuring the character of Philip Marlowe, the James Bond of P.I.s. The Brasher Doubloon is the weakest of any of the Marlowe pictures I have ever seen though.

This came out in the heyday of film-noir and with other classic noir versions of Marlowe stories: The Big SleepLady In the Lake and Murder, My Sweet, I expected more from this picture.

It is far from an awful experience but it just doesn’t have the heart of Marlowe or the gravitas that one should expect. It is also really friggin’ short and doesn’t have all the twist, turns and tension that the other Marlowe pictures had. Honestly, the narrative feels rushed and this is the most predictable out of all the Marlowe movies I’ve seen.

George Montgomery was a decent Philip Marlowe but he didn’t have the presence of Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell or Robert Montgomery. Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlowe from the 1970s also stands on a higher pedestal.

The weird thing about this film, is that I really liked the premise and the setup, which sees Marlowe trying to track down a missing coin from a rich woman’s collection. You feel as if a strong tapestry has been woven but immediately, it’s like someone pulled on a thread and the thing came crumbling down.

If you are a Marlowe fan and a completest, then definitely check this film out. Even if you don’t like it, the film is only 72 minutes.