Film Review: Family Plot (1976)

Also known as: Alfred Hitchcock’s 53rd Film, Deceit, Deception, Missing Heir (working titles)
Release Date: March 21st, 1976 (Filmex)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Based on: The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, William Devane, Ed Lauter

Universal Pictures, 121 Minutes

Review:

“[to Fran] We’re gonna have to kill these two ourselves.” – Arthur Adamson

Family Plot has the distinction of being Alfred Hitchcock’s last film. It also proves that even in old age, the director was a true auteur that never lost his mojo. This is an engaging and entertaining motion picture that while it isn’t Hitchcock’s best, probably deserves more recognition than it has gotten over the years.

The plot is about one giant misunderstanding. Unfortunately for the nice duo, it becomes a big mess, as the other duo locked in this cat and mouse game aren’t nice people and in fact are pretty evil and dangerous.

Barbara Harris plays a fake psychic that swindles rich old ladies out of their money. She partners up with a crafty cab driver played by Bruce Dern. The two of them are given a job that will reward them with $10,000 upon completion. That job is to find a long lost heir to a family fortune and return him to the fold. What they don’t know is that this heir is a career criminal and conman. The conman thinks that he is being pursued by the duo because of something heinous from his past. The heir is teamed up with a often times reluctant accomplice played by Karen Black. The film becomes a chase where the mostly good guys keep finding themselves in over their heads and the bad guys are running in fear of what these do-gooders may have on them.

The plot is well structured and executed marvelously for the most part. My only real complaint about the film is that it seems a bit too drawn out. Hitchcock loved a two hour-plus running time and frankly, this could have been 100 minutes and been just as good.

I loved seeing a younger Ed Lauter in the movie and with Bruce Dern and Karen Black, this just has a really cool cast. The fact that these actors also got to work with Hitchcock is kind of impressive. Not because they aren’t capable, they certainly are, but because it’s a teaming of great talents from different generations.

Speaking of which, it was also really neat that John Williams got to score a Hitchcock picture. Two different artists that defined two different generations in very different ways came together and made something that worked to benefit both parties. Williams score here isn’t anywhere as well known as those that he’d do for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg but it enhanced the overall experience of Hitchcock’s Family Plot and gave it some life it might not have had with a less capable composer.

I really enjoyed Family Plot. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it exceeded any expectations I could have had, even if I knew more about it before diving in.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s later work from the late ’60s into the ’70s.

Film Review: Suddenly (1954)

Release Date: October 7th, 1954
Directed by: Lewis Allen
Written by: Richard Sale
Based on: Active Duty by Richard Sale
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, Nancy Gates

Libra Productions, United Artists, 75 Minutes

Review:

“I’m not an actor, bustin’ my leg on a stage so I can yell ‘down with the tyrants’. If Booth wasn’t such a ham he might’ve made it.” – John Baron

This film was pretty heavy stuff for 1954. While there had been films about presidential assassinations before this one, never had their been one that took place in modern times. And on top of that, Frank Sinatra plays the man gunning for the President.

The film sees a widowed mother, her young son, her father-in-law and a cop that has the hots for her, held hostage in her home, as a gangster and his men are planning to use the home’s vantage point to stage a presidential assassination.

Sinatra plays a scumbag and there are no bones about it. I feel like it was probably hard to accept him in this role, given the time and for the fact that he was such a lovable icon. Still, his performance is solid and he carries himself well. He brought some gravitas and machismo to the screen and was unrelenting as this sinister killer.

Sterling Hayden plays the cop trapped with the mad man in the house. He is a good foil to Sinatra and their dialogue exchanges are engaging and serve to paint Sinatra’s John Baron as something darker than what you first assume. He’s a man with a screwed up history and a vendetta.

Nancy Gates plays the mother and she really is the heart and soul of the picture, even if she feels overshadowed and outnumbered by the men in the film. She has this likable sweetness and it is easy to understand her concerns, as the mother of a small child who has been threatened to be killed if any of the adults try to play hero.

Suddenly is well shot, well acted and has held up quite nicely.

The film ended up being at the center of some major controversy, however. When JFK was assassinated in 1963, it was said that Lee Harvey Oswald was inspired by this film. While that wasn’t necessarily true, Frank Sinatra was deeply upset about it, as he was close friends to the real-life president. It’s said that Sinatra pleaded with the studio to pull the film from circulation and that he tried to buy up all the prints in an effort to destroy them. This also wasn’t true but Sinatra did have some regrets about playing a part in this movie. And regardless of the true story or not, this film has very strong similarities to that dark day in American history and sort of foreshadowed it.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: The Manchurian Candidate, another Sinatra film with similar themes.

Film Review: Branded to Kill (1967)

Also known as: Koroshi no rakuin (Japanese)
Release Date: June 15th, 1967 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Hachiro Guryu
Music by: Naozumi Yamamoto
Cast: Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara, Annu Mari, Mariko Ogawa, Hiroshi Minami

Nikkatsu, 98 Minutes

Review:

“This is how Number 1 works: first he exhausts you, and then he kills you.” – Number 1

While I have only seen a handful of Seijun Suzuki’s motion pictures, he has become one of my favorite directors of all-time. Between this and Tokyo Drifter alone, he has proven to me that he is a true auteur with an incredible eye, an enchanting style and impeccable craftsmanship.

I thought Tokyo Drifter was one of the coolest, if not the coolest, movies I have ever seen. Branded to Kill is nearly as cool and just as perfect as Tokyo Drifter.

Suzuki has a way of taking something pretty standard like a Yakuza picture and making it much more interesting than it needs to be. But that is also why his films are so unique and incredible and not just forgettable chapters in a massive genre of Japanese cinema.

The bizarreness of this film can’t be understated. The main character is an assassin for hire and is ranked Number 3. He is in a battle with the other ranked assassins throughout the film but is specifically being targeted by Number 1. He also has a fetish that sees him obsessively inhaling the aromas of freshly boiled rice.

The movie is mostly a series of assassin battles playing out, as these killers try to outwit and survive one another. The story also has strong film-noir elements in its visual style, use of a femme fatale and constant twists and turns. It is one of the most artistically sound Japanese neo-noirs of all-time, right alongside Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter.

It is easy to see where some other noteworthy auteur directors were influenced and inspired by Suzuki’s work here. The film almost has some David Lynch qualities too it, decades before Lynch really emerged and crafted his own interesting oeuvre. It would also influence John Woo, Chan-wook Park, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

Interestingly enough, this film made no money upon its release and Suzuki was fired for making films that “…make no sense and no money.” Suzuki successfully sued the studio and caused a major controversy within the Japanese film industry, which resulted in him being blacklisted. He didn’t make another film for ten years and became a sort of counterculture hero. Because of this, he became recognized as an artist with something more to say than just a standard director pumping out low budget gangster movies for a paycheck.

Nowadays, this film is heralded as an incredible body of work and even has its own Criterion Collection edition.

Over thirty years later, Suzuki filmed Pistol Opera for Nikkatsu, the studio he had the falling out with. That film was a loose sequel to this one.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, as well as some of his other films: Youth of the Beast, Pistol Opera and Gate of Flesh.

Comic Review: Fatale – Book One: Death Chases Me

Ed Brubaker is one of the most prolific creators in comic book history. His work has been everywhere but there is something extra special about his personal work. While he’s penned stories for DC and Marvel for years, whenever he puts something out on his own, it’s a real treat for comic book fans.

Being that I also love film-noir and Lovecraftian horror, seeing those two things come together in a Brubaker story is really exciting stuff for me. Now this series has been out for a little while but I didn’t get my hands on it till just recently when Comixology was having a sale on Brubaker stuff.

Man, I’m really glad I picked this up, as it was a cool experience and maybe my favorite indie series alongside B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick, which also took noir, supernatural elements and mixed in a Tiki vibe.

Fatale is almost standard noir but it has a dark, gritty horror twist with some H.P. Lovecraft flavor. This comic series goes places that others don’t and it’s uniqueness is refreshing.

This first story arc, there are five total, introduces us to this strange world. We meet Josephine, a seemingly standard femme fatale. However, we learn that she is apparently immortal and that there are some dark forces at work that she is involved in. It seems that every man she comes in contact with has their lives ruined in some way. She has this magical ability that hypnotizes men into obsessing over her, even if she wants them to or not. She is pursued by a violent cult that worships cosmic gods. Jo has some sort of relation to these gods.

This story arc takes place in the 1950s but other stories happen at different points in time.

The stories of Brubaker backed by artistic mastery of Sean Phillips is just such a great fit, especially with the visual and tonal aesthetic of this series. They collaborated on other projects, all of which were critically acclaimed: SleeperCriminal and Incognito. I’m sure I’ll read through them after I get through the five volumes of Fatale.

I really liked this book and I look forward to what’s next. This story served as a solid introduction to a world I had no idea I wanted until I jumped into it.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: The other volumes in the Fatale series. Also, B. Clay Moore’s Hawaiian Dick series, as both share a lot of similarities with noir and the supernatural.

Film Review: No Questions Asked (1951)

Release Date: June 15th, 1951
Directed by: Harold F. Kress
Written by: Sidney Sheldon, Berne Giler
Music by: Leith Stevens
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Arlene Dahl, George Murphy, Jean Hagen

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 80 Minutes

Review:

I caught this film on an episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. While I’m an avid fan of film-noir, this isn’t a film that I knew about until Eddie Muller featured it on his show.

The film follows Steve, a young lawyer for an insurance company. Steve asks his boss for a raise but isn’t able to persuade him. As he’s leaving his boss’ office, he hears that the boss is willing to pay a hefty sum for the return of some stolen property, “no questions asked” on how it’s done, because the large sum is still less than it would cost to pay the claim.

Steve convinces his boss to give him the task but he attracts the attention of gangsters, who think that they can use Steve for similar situations. Being that this is noir, things take a turn for the worse. What we end up getting is a film that examines insurance scams and fraud, told through a noir tale featuring doublecrosses and twists.

Unlike other film-noir pictures, that had a grit to them, No Questions Asked feels like it is more visually refined, which is probably due to it being produced by MGM. However, the more glossy and refined appearance of the film makes it feel less like a noir than it should. Granted, MGM did produce proper looking noir, several in fact.

Barry Sullivan was decent as Steve but it’s hard to care for him, as he pines over Arlene Dahl – a high maintenance gal that doesn’t really care about him, and doesn’t jump all over the chance to be with Jean Hagen, who is smitten with him. Plus, he’s looking to make an easy buck in a dishonest way; not because he needs the money to live but because he wants to wow the woman that rejected him and general greed takes over.

The film is decently acted but not well acted. It seemed as if some people were really into their roles while others dialed it in. Maybe the director was just dialing it in too, as he accepted the unbalanced performances.

This is mostly a forgettable noir. We’ve seen films about insurance fraud before and some that were done much better. Sure, this is a different type of scam than say the one in Double Indemnity but one can’t watch this and not make some comparisons to the narrative of both films. Double Indeminity is also a bonafide classic, though.

No Questions Asked is a decent time killer but if you need to get your noir fix, there are dozens of films superior to this one.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Loophole, also with Barry Sullivan.

Film Review: The Breaking Point (1950)

Release Date: September 30th, 1950
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Ranald MacDougall
Based on: To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: Howard Jackson, Max Steiner
Cast: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez

Warner Bros., 97 Minutes

Review:

“I ain’t got no choice. All I got left to peddle is guts. I’m not sure I got any. I have to find out.” – Harry Morgan

I haven’t seen John Garfield in a lot but I’m working my way through his noir-esque stuff. While this isn’t as good as The Postman Always Rings Twice, it is pretty close and an enjoyable experience, all its own. Plus, he looks pretty damn good in a captain’s hat.

This film was adapted from a Hemingway story, which made for a special kind of film-noir. This one had a nautical twist and much of the film took place on a boat bouncing around the coastline of California and Mexico.

The story sees a family man and boat captain get caught up in some criminal activity, as he’s trying to support his family and prevent losing his business due to the debt he has racked up on his boat. He has a black first mate and a femme fatale that tags along throughout the movie, although the femme fatale isn’t really all that dangerous and although Patricia Neal gives her some sass and a rough edge, she is mostly sweet. Really, she’s just there to create some sexual tension and to challenge Garfield’s wife, played by Phyllis Thaxter.

The contrast between Neal and Thaxter is really good and actually makes both characters look stronger, as both care about Garfield and the mess he’s dealing with.

The big finale, which sees Garfield take on some mobsters on his own boat is pretty exciting and while you don’t see any way that things will conclude smoothly, this is noir and to be true to the style, the shit has to hit the fan in a somewhat tragic way.

Garfield’s partner gets murdered by the mobsters and the final shot of the film is of a young black boy, standing on the dock, looking for his missing father. It’s a gloomy and sad ending, especially since Garfield’s partner was a nice guy just trying to help his friend and paid a price for Garfield’s secrets and criminal activity. All the white people run off with the injured Garfield, leaving behind this young black boy, as the camera fades out. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

One thing I like about the film is that a lot of it takes place in tropical bars with lots of bamboo and a Tiki aesthetic. It really transports you to the era and the location of where this was made and where it was set.

The Breaking Point isn’t noir at its best and it isn’t a strict noir. It does show how the style evolved in a different way and that a noir movie didn’t have to be set in the city or on a country road with a mad man.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Key Largo.

Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

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

RKO Radio Pictures, 62 Minutes, 67 Minutes (longer cut)

Review:

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

Stranger On the Third Floor is a film-noir released a year before the experts say that the genre/style began. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered the first, even though it isn’t. But like that film, this one also features the remarkable Peter Lorre.

Maybe Stranger On the Third Floor isn’t considered “the first” noir because it came and went without making much of a bang. It was a low budget, short, crime drama that didn’t boast any big stars. Lorre certainly wasn’t the legend he would become and even though it did have Elisha Cook Jr., who also appeared a year later in The Maltese Falcon, he was never more than a character actor that popped up in mostly limited roles.

Stranger On the Third Floor has come to garner some respect and admiration over the years, however. Once film-noir was sort of defined and the date of its genesis was given to 1941, many film aficionados wanted to go back and look for the films that influenced the style. Sort of proto-noir pictures, if you want to call them that. Funny that Lorre was at the forefront of two of these proto-noirs: this film and 1931’s German masterpiece M. I guess his film with Hitchcock, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also shares some similarities to the style.

There are two really strong things about this picture.

The first is Peter Lorre’s performance. Sure, it’s similar to his other early roles and almost the same as his character from M, well not the child killer part, but the killer part, along with the mannerisms, the predatory movements and his icy glare. Lorre isn’t an actor that needs to say much of anything, he conveys things through his eyes and his body language that is as expressive as the greatest silent film era stars. That moment where Lorre opens the apartment door and slithers out like a reptile is chilling to the bone, even 78 years later.

The second is the cinematography. The lighting and the camera work are both exceptional. The film uses a lot of shadow in the same vein as the look of darker German Expressionist films. Although, the rest of the visuals aren’t all that surreal. But the high contrast chiaroscuro look gives the picture a haunting quality and it seems to most come alive in the scenes surrounding Lorre’s character, as the rest of the film looks pretty standard where he isn’t present. Well, except for that execution dream sequence that is a combination of surrealism, Expressionism and minimalist set design: all used to great effect.

The finale of the film plays more like a horror picture in how Lorre carries himself, how the film builds tension and dread, as well as those final moments before the killer meets his demise and that last line he delivers. In a way, the film shows a sort of link between Expressionism, horror and noir.

Stranger On the Third Floor is a unique motion picture that was more trendsetting than its lack of initial success would have you believe. Even if it didn’t inspire most noir directors of the era, it featured a lot of people, behind the scenes, that would go on to create the worlds of more notable film-noirs.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir-esque movies with Peter Lorre: MThe Maltese FalconThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThree StrangersBlack Angel and Quicksand.