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.

Film Review: The Killers (1946)

Also known as: Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, A Man Alone
Release Date: August 28th, 1946
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, John Huston (uncredited)
Based on: Scribners Magazine short story The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Garner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.” – Big Jim Colfax

In the 1940s, Robert Siodmak made some of the most memorable film-noir motion pictures. The Killers is considered to not just be one of Siodmak’s best but one of the best films of the noir style and of the decade.

The Killers is really high up on a lot of the noir lists I have looked at from top critics, blogs, books and magazines. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I wouldn’t say that it was my favorite Siodmak noir, as of now, that honor goes to Criss Cross. However, I still haven’t seen Phantom Lady or The Dark Mirror yet.

I have enjoyed Siodmak’s work for a long time but as a kid it was primarily in the form of Son of Dracula and The Crimson Pirate. I was much more into horror and swashbuckling back then but my experience with those films had me enthused when I realized that the guy who directed both of those films, had a handful of noir movies wedged between them.

This film stars Burt Lancaster, a regular of Siodmak. This was also his debut on the big screen and for a first time performance, Lancaster knocks it out of the park. He was teamed with film-noir regulars Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levene. However, it was his scenes with the elegant and fascinating Ava Gardner that helped to set this guy’s career on a long and fruitful career that saw four Academy Award nominations and a win for his part in Elmer Gantry.

The Killers is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. However, the Hemingway story only really comprises the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, which shows the contract killers arrive and murder Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” Anderson. Where the film begins to follow Edmond O’Brien’s Jim Reardon, as he investigates the murder, the plot is wholly original and works as an expansion on Hemingway’s story. It was said, by Hemingway’s biographer, that The Killers “was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.” John Huston, also an accomplished film-noir director, contributed to the script. He wasn’t originally credited for his contribution due to his contract with rival studio, Warner Bros.

With crime dramas running rampant in the 1940s, this is one that wasn’t a cliché on celluloid. While I love film-noir and I honestly have a hard time trying to find truly bad ones, sometimes the rehash of tropes, over and over and over again, can get mundane. The Killers, like Siodmak’s Criss Cross, is one of the films that lifts the cinematic style to a higher level. Plus, with a score composed by Miklós Rózsa, you can expect a lot of energy, excitement and a real soul within the film.

I love The Killers, it is hard to deny its greatness between the solid direction, iconic performances and its pristine look.

Film Review: Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Release Date: October 10th, 1949
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: A. I. Bezzerides
Based on: Thieves’ Market by A. I. Bezzerides
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence

20th Century Fox, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out…” – Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos

Who knew that a film-noir about apples could be so entertaining?

Okay, the film has more going on than just apples but they play a big part, as an angry war veteran wants revenge for what a gangster-like produce tyrant did to his father: robbing him and crippling him.

Jules Dassin is becoming a director whose work I really appreciate after seeing this, as well as Brute ForceNaked City and Night and the City, all film-noir pictures that could be considered classics. I still haven’t seen Rififi but it’s high on my list.

The film stars Richard Conte, an actor I have enjoyed in several films. You also get a solid performance by Lee J. Cobb, who plays the evil and amoral produce king.

All in all, this is a pretty good picture and it had me engaged from start to finish. I didn’t know what to expect but it was a film that was high up on a lot of people’s top film-noir lists. Would it crack my top twenty? Probably not and I’d say that it’s my least favorite of the Dassin noirs I’ve seen but Dassin is still quite accomplished behind the camera and delivered a one-of-a-kind noir tale.

Apparently, Dana Andrews and Victor Mature were both announced as the film’s lead during different points of pre-production. Ultimately, Conte got the role, which I feel was the best choice, even though I like those other guys. Conte made this his role and it’s hard to see the character of Garcos performed differently. The character was very much Conte and while the man has a charismatic coolness and toughness like those other guys, his is a unique kind of cool.

Thieves’ Highway is solid, through and through. There’s nothing here to really disappoint a film-noir aficionado.

Film Review: Criss Cross (1949)

Release Date: January 19th, 1949 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Criss Cross by Don Tracy
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Alan Napier

Universal Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“I should have been a better friend. I shoulda stopped you. I shoulda grabbed you by the neck, I shoulda kicked your teeth in. I’m sorry Steve.” – Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez

Working my way through a lot of film-noir for the month of Noirvember, this is one of the ones that really stands out. In fact, Criss Cross could be a top five noir for me.

Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson. He is perfectly cast for this film, as he literally lives in every scene where he is on screen. He’s handsome, he’s tough, he’s clever and there is just an air about the guy that glows through the celluloid.

Then you have Dan Duryea, who is just so good at playing stylish slime balls. While I enjoyed Duryea’s work in Fritz Lang’s Woman In the Window and Scarlet Street, both opposite of Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson, his villainous Slim Dundee, in this film, takes the cake. He’s an awful bastard in this and he’s spectacular.

Yvonne De Carlo is enchanting and viscous as Steve’s ex-wife and forced lover of Slim. She plays a hardened woman yet still a damsel in distress… or is that just her angle? While she had to compete with two powerful and charismatic men in this film, she held her own and felt at home in this picture.

The film starts with a powerful theme, as soon as the credits roll. You immediately get dragged in and watching the behind-the-scenes machinations of how the armored truck driver job works, is fascinating. The director, the great Robert Siodmak, and the cinematographer, the veteran Franz Planer, did a fantastic job showing this world in a visual sense. Plus, there are just some great shots in this film, particularly when the armored truck arrives at the plant for the big setup and we get a nice bird’s eye tracking shot of the truck traversing between the buildings.

Criss Cross is a true film-noir in every sense. It’s got the lead that falls for a textbook femme fatale, gets in over his head because of the girl, does some dirt and despite his unfortunate circumstances, has to face the music for his actions.

This isn’t a great film because it has a perfect noir narrative, many noir pictures hit the right narrative notes. In the case of Criss Cross, it has a great cast, a great director and cinematographer with great eyes, it’s great technically and everything just sort of comes together like magic.

Criss Cross is one of the best film-noirs of the classic era.

Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

Release Date: August 16th, 1940
Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos, Nathanael West
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Waldron

RKO Radio Pictures, 64 Minutes

Review:

“I want a couple of hamburgers… and I’d like them raw.” – The Stranger

This very early film-noir is a really short movie but man, it makes a solid impact at just 64 minutes and it really didn’t need more than that.

Stranger On the Third Floor plays more like an episode of some anthology crime television series but could feel completely at home as an hour long episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilght Zone, as it really feels like horror, with as dark and scary as it is. It’s a very atmospheric film and it’s creepy subtlety is more effective than just having monsters and violence pop up on screen.

Peter Lorre is tremendous in this as “The Stranger”. His role here is really a call back to his amazing part in Fritz Lang’s 1931 German masterpiece M. While Lorre isn’t a child killer in this film, he is a cold blooded evil killer, nonetheless. Lorre was always perfect as evil, chilling, reptilian characters. While he could be soft, loving and sweet he could just as easily twist that quality about himself into something really friggin’ terrifying.

The film also has Elisha Cook Jr. in it, as a man accused of murder who is innocent. “The Stranger” is the real killer but how all this plays out is great. Cook and Lorre would work together again, a year later, on the bonafide film-noir classic, The Maltese Falcon. Both men would go on to be big stars in the noir style and both would also go on into the 1960s to star alongside Vincent Price for some of his Edgar Allan Poe movies.

There are few films that completely hide their limitations with a great use of atmosphere. Stranger On the Third Floor is a good, early example of this. Sure, there were lots of horror movies that couldn’t afford great monsters but as was seen, back then, that didn’t stop most movies from throwing bad looking monsters on screen. Stranger On the Third Floor, while not exactly horror, shows how to build dread, terror and suspense with subtle reveals and great cinematography and lighting. However, it might not have worked as effectively if this film was drawn out to ninety minutes.

In this day and age, this film isn’t as known as it probably should be. That’s okay though, because it was a nice surprise, as I’m working my way through a lot of film-noir and the filmography of one of my favorite actors, Peter Lorre.

And really, between this and 1931’s M, was Peter Lorre cinema’s first “slasher”?

Film Review: The Window (1949)

Also known as: The Boy Cried Murder (working title)
Release Date: May 17th, 1949 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Ted Tetzlaff, Fred Fleck (assistant)
Written by: Mel Dinelli, Cornell Woolrich
Based on: The Boy Cried Murder by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman, Bobby Driscoll

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Pop? If you see a thing with your own eyes, it can’t be a dream, can it?” – Tommy Woodry

I can’t believe that guy punched a kid in the face in the back of that taxi! But then again, he was planning to murder the boy anyway.

The Window is a film that I have never heard of until I saw it being featured on TCM’s Noir Alley. I decided to read up on it before seeing it. It didn’t immediately get me excited, as it was a film-noir primarily starring a young boy. Kids typically can’t carry the weight of a picture on their back but the young Bobby Driscoll was absolute magic in this. Truthfully, The Window exceeded my lack of expectations and proved to be a damn fine film.

This is essentially the noir version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In fact, the book it was based on was called The Boy Cried Murder.

In this tale, a young boy named Tommy likes to tell tall tales and always finds himself in trouble because of it. Early in the film, the landlord comes to the family’s apartment to show it to prospective tenants, as Tommy told a lie about the family moving and it got back to the landlord. So when Tommy actually witnesses a real murder, while camping out on the fire escape due to a heatwave, his parents don’t believe him. He tells the police, they also don’t believe him. Tommy’s mother then makes Tommy go to the murderers’ apartment to apologize. This tips off the killers to Tommy’s knowledge of their crime and thus, makes Tommy their next target.

This is a film that builds suspense so strong that it is hard to turn away. The film is well constructed and the narrative execution is close to perfection. The stellar performance by the young Bobby Driscoll is the glue that holds this together. Paul Stewart’s evil Joe Kellerson is absolutely chilling and the scene where he breaks into Tommy’s house, when the boy is all alone, is legitimately scary. Kids in the 1940s had to be terrified.

Man, this movie is fantastic. It has shot up my list of favorite film-noir pictures. It is just so different from the norm, took a real risk by putting a child in the forefront but that risk paid off tremendously.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll only had one more hit after this, 1950’s Treasure Island, but his performance here lead to the Academy giving him a miniature Oscar to recognize his great acting skill.