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: 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.

Film Review: Stray Dog (1949)

Also known as: Nora Inu (Japan)
Release Date: October 17th, 1949 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

Shintoho, Film Art Association, Toho, 122 Minutes

Review:

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you gonna let it destroy you? Depending how you take it, bad luck can be a big break.” – Police Inspector Nakajima

I really liked Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and it inspired me to look at more of his work that wasn’t specifically historical samurai films, also known as jidaigeki. I also picked this one, as it is essentially a Japanese film-noir. Plus, it stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, two of Kurosawa’s regulars.

In this tale, we are taken to post-WWII Tokyo during a summer heatwave. A rookie homicide detective named Murakami (Mifune) has his Colt pistol stolen while on a trolley ride. Not soon after, police forensics discovers that Murakami’s pistol was used in a crime. He then teams up with a veteran detective, Satō (Shimura), in an effort to track down his Colt and to stop the criminal responsible.

The story is pretty intriguing and it has been borrowed several times since it was first used here. At least, I have never seen an older version of this tale. Hell, an episode of Louis CK’s Louis was based off of this concept, when Louis’ idiot cop buddy (Michael Rappaport) loses his pistol and they have to try and track it down. Not to get sidetracked here, but I know a lot of people have probably seen that episode.

This film is an example of Kurosawa on the cusp of greatness. He already did the near perfect Drunken Angel but he hadn’t quite gotten into the high point of his oeuvre yet.

This is a gritty and real feeling film. It displays an era in Tokyo that most Western audiences haven’t really seen. It’s a genuine look into the blossoming of a modernized Japan. It even gives us a solid glimpse at old school Japanese baseball, which I just wish was featured in a lot more movies because I love the sport and have always loved the country.

What we also get with this film, is Mifune and Shimura kind of giving birth to the buddy cop formula. While it isn’t so much a comedy, it is a solid crime thriller, their camaraderie foreshadows a long lasting trope that would become a norm in police movies and television shows.

Additionally, this is also a precursor to the police procedural film. While this is a formula that started around the same time in film-noir, it didn’t truly become widespread in entertainment until police procedurals made their way onto television sets in the 1950s.

Stray Dog was a film that was just ahead of its time. Furthermore, it is well directed, well acted and has some great cinematography. The big finale is one of the best cop versus criminal showdowns in history. It almost has a western vibe to it, as both these men come face to face.

While this isn’t Kurosawa’s best, it is better than most directors can dream.

Film Review: Prince of Foxes (1949)

Release Date: December 23rd, 1949
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Milton Krims
Based on: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Orson Welles

20th Century Fox, 107 Minutes

Review:

“It is my belief that everything, even death, can be turned into profit.” – Cesare Borgia

Prince of Foxes re-teams director Henry King with his swashbuckling star Tyrone Power. It also adds Orson Welles to the mix as the famous tyrant Cesare Borgia. The fact that I get to see two of my favorite actors play off of each other, is the real treat of this film.

While the poster and the subject matter may make you think that this is a big swashbuckler (albeit in Renaissance Italy), there is very little swordplay and it is more of a historical war drama with a bit of romance and some swashbuckling elements just lightly sprinkled in.

Orson Welles is the perfect Cesare Borgia. While I didn’t live in 1500 and can’t compare the two men, Welles’ personification greatly embodies the spirit of what Borgia was, historically speaking. The power, the boldness, the heartlessness and the ability to conquer for the sake of ego and wealth. Orson Welles captures this and adds in his own cool and eloquent qualities. He also looks like a Renaissance era Sith lord.

Tyrone Power walks into the film with a smile and unrelenting charm but that is why he was a favorite to star in these sort of pictures. His acting chops and masculine presence are strong enough to stand in front of Welles’ Borgia and to hold his ground. While Welles typically outshines most, Power doesn’t lose his presence in the picture and it is still very much his movie.

The film, where possible, made use of accurate locations and historical structures in an effort to make Prince of Foxes as authentic as possible. The world truly feels real and lived in. It doesn’t feel as if these men are just on some Hollywood back lot or in a studio.

The cinematography is lush and lively, even for a black and white picture that came out in the film-noir 40s. The costumes are perfect, the sets are finely ornamented and the attention to detail is pretty astounding. The sound is also pristine, which must have been a challenge with the on location shooting.

Prince of Foxes is neither my favorite Tyrone Power or Orson Welles picture. However, it was still a film of high quality that brought these two giants together. It kind of holds a special place for me because of that. And I’ve always loved tales of the infamous Borgia family.

Film Review: Shockproof (1949)

Also known as: The Lovers (working title)
Release Date: January 19th, 1949
Directed by: Douglas Sirk
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Helen Deutsch
Music by: George Duning
Cast: Cornel Wilde, Patricia Knight

Columbia Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

Shockproof is a bit of a mixed and strange bag, as far as film noirs go. The first 90 percent of the picture is really damn good. However, the ending sort of pulls everything apart.

Douglas Sirk became quite the accomplished director over the course of his career. His greatness is also very apparent in this film and for the most part, Shockproof is a fine picture. Its negative aspects really had nothing to do with Sirk’s direction, style or the narrative he intended to put to celluloid.

The problem with the film is its ending.

The script was originally written with the male lead, a parole officer, getting gunned down in a shootout with police. An act of defiance against everything he once stood for because he felt forced to fight back against a system that was driving a wedge between himself and the woman he loved, his parolee.

The studio forced a rewrite of the last few scenes and this film gets a happy ending, where there are no consequences to the actions of the main characters. What this did was discount the entire point of the story, which saw a “by the book” officer of the law fall for an ex-con that wanted to better her life. Her ex-boyfriend, a gambler with mob ties, tries to keep her on the crooked path and eventually she shoots him to protect herself and her new love. This causes the parole officer to swerve off of the straight and narrow path and to become a criminal himself.

There should have been grave and serious consequences but what we get is some bullshit happy ending where everyone gets to live out there lives like nothing bad happened. Douglas Sirk was outraged by the changes and went on to disown the film and justifiably so.

Still, this picture is solid and Sirk should have been proud of the work he did up until the studio tied his hands and imposed their power over his art.

The film is well acted by both Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight, who were actually married when this was made. I was especially impressed with Knight and am somewhat surprised that she didn’t have a big career after this. Then again, Hollywood politics were wonky back then and maybe her divorce from Wilde two years later had something to do with that.

Shockproof is certainly worth a view. It is really short too. But the positives far outweigh the negatives. Just keep in mind the ending that was originally intended, which would have possibly made this a noir classic.

Film Review: The Third Man (1949)

Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (UK)
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: Graham Greene
Music by: Anton Karas
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli (credited as Valli), Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee

London Films, British Lion Film Corporation, Selznick Releasing Organization, 108 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.” – Harry Lime

It is sad to say that I really didn’t know much about The Third Man until a friend recently told me about it. Having now watched it, I remember seeing a trailer for it long ago and I had the intention of seeing it but never did. I clearly remembered the visual of the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna’s famous giant Ferris wheel.

That being said, the visuals throughout the entire film are captivating and mesmerizing. The picture captures the film-noir aesthetic and emphasizes a high contrast. Between the streets of post-War Vienna, the famous landmarks and the cavernous and ominous sewer system, the director and cinematographer turned Vienna into the main character of the picture. There is just a mysterious allure that draws you in and doesn’t release you until the film fades to black after 108 minutes.

The film re-teams the duo of Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, who first worked together on CBS Radio’s The American School of the Air and would be most known for staring together in Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. The two would go on to have a great working relationship in several films. Both men are studious actors who have both reached legendary status and for good reason. Their ability to play off of one another is magnificent and each brings out the best in the other. This film showcases what the duo can do when put together. Not to say that both men weren’t great on their own.

The cast also features Alida Valli (credited as just Valli). She was a great Italian actress who was in more than a hundred films. I grew to appreciate her work in films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. She was also featured in a lot of giallo pictures by Mario Bava and Argento, as well as Italian horror films throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

There is also the appearance of Bernard Lee as a British police sergeant. He is probably best known as the original version of M in the James Bond franchise.

The Third Man is written by accomplished novelist Graham Greene and directed by auteur Carol Reed, who would later win an Oscar for Oliver! and who also directed the classics Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol. This is probably Reed’s best work however, even though it didn’t capture the Academy Award for Best Director. It did win for Best Cinematography, however, which went to Robert Krasker, whose work can also be seen in Odd Man Out, as well as Brief Encounter and Another Man’s Poison.

As the story beings, we learn that the main character, a novelist named Holly Martins (Cotton), has arrived in Vienna at the invitation of his dear friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, we soon discover that Lime has died. As the plot rolls on, Martins comes to learn that Lime may be alive, probably faked his own death and there is a big mystery that needs to be solved.

The film’s plot is very layered but it plays out like a standard noir plot structure, even though it doesn’t follow the traditional subject matter of a noir and is missing some key elements. While Valli is quite the beautiful accompaniment to the men in the film, she isn’t a traditional femme fatale and the film breaks from the noir norm in other aspects too. However, The Third Man still encompasses the noir style and spirit but it is the product of a natural evolution within the genre and thus, isn’t a stale or derivative picture by any means. It is very much its own thing while giving a proper nod to its inspirations.

From a musical standpoint, the picture utilizes zither music. It really sets the narrative in the proper time and place and gives the movie a sense of authenticity and a sort of exotic charm.

The Third Man is a masterpiece. While not quite Citizen Kane, it is just about perfect in every way. Being a Welles fan, I wish he was in it a bit more but the scenes we get are of the highest quality. Plus, the big crescendo, as Welles’ Harry Lime runs through the labyrinth of Vienna’s sewers in an effort to escape a massive police force, is probably my favorite motion picture moment that involves Welles. It is a stupendous climax that has great suspense and looks stunning on the screen.

Films don’t get much better than this and The Third Man completely encapsulates the term “movie magic”. It isn’t often that a film feels like a living, breathing intelligent being of its own. The Third Man is one of these motion pictures. It is truly exceptional and may be in my personal top twenty of all-time.