Film Review: Pushover (1954)

Release Date: July 30th, 1954
Directed by: Richard Quine
Written by: Roy Huggins
Based on: stories by Thomas Walsh and William S. Ballinger
Music by: Arthur Morton
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Phil Carey, Kim Novak, Dorothy Malone, E. G. Marshall

Columbia Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“I can’t spot it, but something’s wrong somewhere!” – Rock McAllister

This is the only film-noir, other than Double Indemnity, that I have seen Fred MacMurray in. I like the guy, especially in these roles. He was pretty damn good in this and really helped give birth to Kim Novak’s career, as this was her debut and he gave her a very capable opposite to play off of and learn from.

This came out as the noir style was sort of dwindling away, even though a few great noir pictures followed this.

It is an enjoyable film due to the work of MacMurray and Novak but there isn’t much else here to make it stand out from the pack. It’s a good and entertaining movie but it’s nowhere near the level of MacMurrat’s Double Indemnity or the films Novak would do later on in her career.

Still, I was engaged for 88 minutes and that’s a positive.

The cinematography is decent but really just average. The direction of Richard Quine was good but like his stars, he’d move on to bigger and better things outside of film-noir.

Pushover isn’t bad but to be frank, there are dozens of better noir pictures out there to check out before this one.

Film Review: The Killing (1956)

Also known as: Bed of Fear, Clean Break, Day of Violence (working titles)
Release Date: May 19th, 1956 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson
Based on: Clean Break by Lionel White
Music by: Gerald Fried
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Joe Turkel

Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, United Artists, 85 Minutes

Review:

“You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.” – Johnny Clay

The Killing is one of the really early films in auteur director Stanley Kubrick’s long and storied oeuvre. It came out less than a year after his previous film and first attempt at film-noir, Killer’s Kiss. With similar titles and coming out around the same time, the two films may confuse people looking back into Kubrick’s filmography. Also, Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both noir pictures and presented in silvery black and white.

The Killing is the superior of the two pictures, however, and Killer’s Kiss feels like more of a practice run leading up to this damn fine motion picture, which boasts the star power of well known noir actors Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Elisha Cook Jr. Plus, Marie Windsor is perfection in her role.

The plot of this film is about a high stakes heist at a horse track. A team is assembled, a greedy femme fatale enters the mix and we get scheming, violence and chaos. And it is all capped off by the immense talent of Kubrick behind the camera and a stellar and more than capable cast in front of the camera.

The truth is, The Killing, as great as it is, has always been overshadowed by Kubrick’s more famous pictures: 2001: A Space OdysseyThe ShiningA Clockwork OrangeDr. StrangeloveLolitaFull Metal Jacket, etc. The Killing is a top notch crime thriller and true to the film-noir style, even coming out late in the style’s classic run through the 1940s and 1950s. It is one of the best heist pictures ever made and like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, it helped create a lot of tropes used in heist pictures since its time.

Being a fan of Elisha Cook Jr. for years, I especially love this film because he gets a really meaty and pivotal role. He is one of the top character actors of his day, was in more noir pictures than I can count and even went on to some well-known westerns and popped up in a few Vincent Price horror movies. He really gets to display his acting chops in this and it is nice to see the guy’s range, as he was a more capable actor than one being relegated to playing background characters and bit players.

The Killing was an incredibly important film in the career of Stanley Kubrick, as it lead to bigger things. He would go on to do Paths of Glory and Spartacus and eventually start making more artistic films that changed the filmmaking landscape forever. The Killing was a big part of Kubrick’s evolution and thus, the evolution of motion pictures in general.

Film Review: Strangers On a Train (1951)

Release Date: June 30th, 1951
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Ormonde
Based on: Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Patricia Hitchcock

Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law.” – Guy Haines

Alfred Hitchcock was a bit derailed before the release of Strangers On a Train. While he had had an incredibly successful career up until this point, his previous two films were box office duds. Those pictures were Under Capricorn and Stage FrightStrangers On a Train got the auteur director back on track, however, and it really set the stage for what was to come with a string of incredible pictures throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.

This is also a Hitchcock picture that falls into the film-noir style. It even stars Farley Granger, a guy who worked in several notable noir movies: They Live by NightSide StreetEdge of Doom and Hitchcock’s own Rope.

Alongside Granger are Robert Walker and Ruth Roman, a woman who does not fit the typical Hitchcock female lead archetype, which were almost always stunning blonde women. Hitchcock had reservations about using Roman and he also didn’t feel like Granger was believable as the type of man another man would become infatuated with.

Speaking of which, this is a film with very well hidden gay undertones in it. Robert Walker’s psychotic Bruno Antony was infatuated with Granger’s Guy Haines. While it isn’t explicitly stated, when you understand that this was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story, it makes that aspect of the men’s relationship much more apparent. She was known for writing about gay characters and obsessive infatuation in her novels, even if they did come out in a time when the subject was incredibly taboo. It is very clear though when you see later adaptations of her work like The Talented Mr. RipleyCarolRipley’s GameRipley Under Ground and The American Friend.

The story starts with Guy, on a train, as he is approached by Bruno, a complete stranger. Bruno has a weird obsession with the young man and it doesn’t take long to realize that the guy is off his rocker. Bruno suggests that he kills Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and in exchange Guy kills Bruno’s father. It will be a perfect set of murders as neither man has a real motive to kill their victims or any personal association with them. Guy continues to try and dismiss Bruno but Bruno follows though and murders Guy’s wife. He then becomes enraged when Guy doesn’t seem like he wants to return the favor and thus, begins to blackmail Guy and try to pin the murder on him.

Strangers On a Train is a dark and twisted movie that showcases the great and intelligent Highsmith story with respect and care. It is a film that has a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera. Superb direction, stellar photography and believable actors that pull you along for this wild and intense ride. Hitchcock was the “Master of Suspense” and this movie is a perfect example of how the director earned that moniker.

There are some incredible shots in this movie. Most notably, the scene where Guy’s wife is being strangled to death and you see it from the perspective of a reflection in the lens of her glasses, lying on the ground. The special effects shot of the carousel spinning wildly out of control is another great shot and in fact, that whole big finale is a visual delight.

Strangers On a Train is not my favorite Hitchock motion picture but it is really high up on my list of his best.

Film Review: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Release Date: June 27th, 1957
Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
Written by: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Based on: Sweet Smell of Success by Ernest Lehmen
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene

Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” – Sidney Falco

Sweet Smell of Success teamed up Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, who also served as one of the film’s producers. We also get powerful performances from the sweet Susan Harrison and the cool Martin Milner, who is believable as a jazz guitarist.

The film revolves around an older brother (Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, a well respected newspaper columnist) that disapproves of his sister’s boyfriend and puts in motion a very complicated and layered scheme just to try and break the couple up. He bullies Manhattan press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) into planting a false rumor about the jazz guitarist boyfriend that paints him as a dope-smoking Communist. Hunsecker would then try to rescue the boyfriend’s reputation and assuming that his help would be rejected by the jazz man, his sister would then see the guitarist as a loser and leave him. Of course, this is film-noir and things never play out well for the schemers.

One thing that really stands out with this film is the dialogue. It is a well written script that is witty and feels authentic. When the characters speak, they don’t just sound like classic silver screen archetypes of some bygone era of overly dramatic Hollywood gum flappers. Characters are written as characters that come off as extensions of the actors themselves and not just cookie cutter lines that could be spoken by any handsome star available. It feels as if there was some real method acting on the part of the cast, as well as on set rewrites or ad libbing.

Expanding off of that, the acting is absolutely superb and this should be a primer on how to carry scenes. The stuff with Curtis and Lancaster is amazing. Harrison also impresses, especially in the scenes where she plays alongside the two male leads. The film’s finale is so well acted and plays out magnificently. Your heart breaks for Harrison’s Susan, as the consequences of the two men’s actions ruin her life and push her towards suicidal thoughts.

Serious props have to go to Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, the writers, for giving these great actors something exceptional to work with. The directorial work of Alexander Mackendrick, also can’t go unmentioned. He was an accomplished man behind the camera and this may be his best work, even though he boasts some well known pictures in his filmography: The LadykillersWhisky Galore! and The Man In the White Suit, just to name a few.

With all the talent in front of the camera, behind it and on the typewriter, there was also a great man in charge of the picture’s cinematography: James Wong Howe. He is an artist that received ten Academy Awards nominations for his cinematography work. He specialized in deep-focus cinematography and was a real artist with his use of shadows and a chiaroscuro style. He actually went on to win two Oscars for his work on The Rose Tattoo and Hud.

At its core, this is both a film about amoral people and the wreckage they cause, as well as being an artistic dissection of fame and the power of the media. It was a film ahead of its time and its message still rings true today. The film has aged well and fame hungry weirdos should probably learn the lessons that are taught here. However, morality lessons would probably be over the heads of most of those people.

Film Review: The Big Heat (1953)

Release Date: October 14th, 1953
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Sydney Boehm
Based on: Saturday Evening Post serial and novel by William P. McGivern
Music by: Henry Vars
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin

Columbia Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.” – Mike Lagana

Fritz Lang has made several great movies that can be considered masterpieces or pretty close. The Big Heat is not his best but it is definitely one of his best. It also helped solidify Lang, in my mind, as one of the greatest directors that ever lived. Between this film, MMetropolisThe Woman In the WindowScarlet Street and those Dr. Mabuse movies, Fritz Lang has one of the greatest oeuvres of any director that ever lived. Plus there are roughly two dozen other pictures I didn’t mention.

The Big Heat has some pretty brutal moments, even for film-noir. For instance, at one point, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone throws a pot of boiling coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh, which scars her horribly. Grahame plays her last few scenes with half her face disfigured like a hot blonde female version of the Batman villain Two-Face. It’s a frightening sight, especially for a woman that exudes beauty in a time when movies were all pretty much PG.

The film’s plot is almost like a proto-Punisher story. The main character, Glenn Ford’s Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, is trying to stop the mob stronghold on his city and its infiltration into his police force but his wife is murdered with a car bomb meant for him. Bannion sends his daughter off to the in-laws house, throws his badge away and becomes a one man revenge spree against the mob that stole his life from him. Needless to say, this movie is intense and man, is it damn good.

Lee Marvin is incredible as Vince Stone, a mob boss that is truly evil to his core. I’ve loved Marvin forever, but this has to be my favorite role of his now. The man is sadistic and Marvin plays the part to perfection with an air of darkness and a confidence that makes you wonder what dark places the actor has been to. Villains and heavies didn’t usually win acting awards back in the old days but Marvin put in a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Jocelyn Brando played Bannion’s wife and her scenes with Ford were really good. You felt a sense of chemistry that only magnified the impact of her horrible death. I think she was a more capable actress than the small and scant roles she usually got, mostly on television.

The Big Heat wasn’t high up on my radar when I started delving deep into noir to celebrate Noirvember. When I saw that it was directed by Lang, had an 8.0 on IMDb and was well regarded by critics, I had to squeeze it in before the month ran out. I’m glad I did, as this is one of the most memorable film-noirs that I have watched out of the hundred or so I’ve seen over the past month.

Film Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

Also known as: Deadly Is the Female (UK)
Release Date: January 20th, 1950
Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, MacKinlay Kantor
Based on: Saturday Evening Post story Gun Crazy by MacKinlay Kantor
Music by: Victor Young
Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Russ Tamblyn

King Brothers Productions, United Artists, 87 Minutes

Review:

“We go together, Annie. I don’t know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together.” – Bart

As I have been looking at older noir and crime pictures, I have come across a few films that are sort of prototypes to Bonnie and Clyde. This may be the best example of a proto-B&C movie though. In fact, I like it more than Bonnie and Clyde.

To put it bluntly, this film is absolutely amazing! While it doesn’t top out on most critics’ top film-noir lists, this is one of the best movies I have seen in the style and I actually watched it twice over the course of a night, once with friends having a noir marathon and again, by myself, to give it my full attention. This may actually be the coolest film-noir that I have seen but then again, I’ve always had a sweet spot for a good Bonnie and Clyde type story.

The thing that really makes this work for me is the utter realism of everything that is happening on the screen. Instead of posting a trailer, I had to post a sequence of the film at the bottom of this review. Reason being, I wanted to showcase how great the action and the cinematography is. There are great long takes that are captured in real time, adding a level of gritty authenticity to the major heist in the picture, as well as some other key scenes.

Gun Crazy is a sexy movie in a time when sexiness on celluloid was something very different. Peggy Cummins was not a typical femme fatale, she was a femme fatale that was a gun toting badass of the highest caliber. Sure, she murdered people because fear was a trigger that made her shoot but she was just damn good at it and truly felt unstable and dangerous in the hottest way. The way she gets out of the car and handles the cop during the big heist is great. Plus, she wears pants because doing dirt and robbing a meat packing plant’s payroll isn’t as easy to do in a dress. Nowadays, women wearing pants to work is normal but the movie made a point to have her boss make a stink about it in the film.

The unique thing about this picture, is that the male lead, John Dall’s Bart, is an amazing marksman but he’s a pacifist that abhors violence and killing. He just has an obsession with guns because it is the only thing that makes him feel whole. Shooting is his talent and when he meets Peggy Cummins’ Annie Laurie Starr, a carnival sharpshooter, he can’t help but fall head over heels in love with her. It’s hard for the male audience of this film to not be pulled in by her majestic allure and badass style.

With the title of the film and with the opening sequence, which follows adolescent Bart breaking into a hardware store to steal a pistol, you’d probably assume that this was an anti-gun movie. It really isn’t. Back in the 1940s, people weren’t so freaked out by firearms and it was an accepted part of American culture. It is more about the unhealthiness of mania and obsession. Bart obsesses over guns, not to hurt people or to commit crimes but because they make him comfortable. It is that mania and obsession that leads him down a bad path and not the gun itself. Granted, you could also direct blame at the femme fatale and her trigger happy ways.

This film has uncanny cinematography and not just in the long take sequences but in the attention to small detail with lighting and shadow. The closing shot of the film is pretty breathtaking, as is the opening sequence of young Bart staring into the storefront window, eyeing a pistol while the rain pours down between the window and the dark buildings in the background.

Maybe the extra gravitas that this film has is due to it being written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the most accomplished writers of his day, who was unfortunately blacklisted in Hollywood due to the insanity of McCarthyism and the unconstitutional witch hunts it birthed.

Gun Crazy is exceptional; it is a masterpiece of the highest caliber. It is a perfect storm of everything going right in front of and behind the camera. I didn’t expect to be blown away by it but I was hooked from the film’s opening scene to that tragic ending that one would expect from a true noir.

Film Review: Night and the City (1950)

Release Date: June 9th, 1950 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Based on: Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Harry. Harry. You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains… ambition. You worked harder than any 10 men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things… ” – Mary Bristol

I was glad that I got to catch this on a recent episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. I wasn’t really familiar with Jules Dassin’s work until recently, while delving deep into the vast ocean that is film-noir.

This film, among the seemingly endless noir-scape, stands out, stands strong and hell, it’s got professional wrestling in it: giving Mike Mazurki a character close to who he actually was and providing a great role for wrestling legend (and former world champion) Stanislaus Zbyszko of the famous Zbyszko wrestling family.

The film primarily stars Richard Widmark and man is he a friggin’ entertaining weasel in this. He is also accompanied by one of the queens of film-noir, Gene Tierney. Unfortunately, she isn’t in this film as much as I would have liked because she is truly an enchantress of the silver screen.

Night and the City follows Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a hustling con man type that is always looking for a way to get to the top, regardless of who he has to screw over in the process. Obviously, he’s a man in over his head, barking up all the wrong trees while digging his own eventual grave. When he starts a scheme involving professional wrestlers, he is in deeper water than he can even fathom.

The film takes place in London and was filmed there due to director Jules Dassin moving to the UK after being blacklisted over communist fears. His career still flourished, even if he had to escape Hollywood and Night and the City is a great example of how the director didn’t miss a beat, despite his misfortune during the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Widmark’s performance is tremendous as he traverses through all the twists and turns in the film’s plot. He has a charm and an insane enthusiasm that almost feels like the gangster version of the comic book Joker before he fell into that vat of acid. Hell, he could have been a great Jack Napier and Joker had they made a Batman film in the 1950s with a serious tone.

The highlight of this film for me was seeing the two wrestling legends square off: Mazurki and Zbyszko. Their physical fight in the film was pretty damn realistic and grueling as hell to witness. It was well shot, well executed and certainly effective.

The cinematography was handled by Max Greene, who had a lot of experience with his work on dozens of films before this. His visuals were accompanied by the great music of Franz Waxman. With Dassin’s direction, we had a Holy Trinity of cinematic masters combining their best efforts on a film that should probably be better remembered than it is, at least outside of film-noir fan circles.