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Noir Summer 2013 July 6, 2013

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Now that the three dozen boxes of books are unpacked & reshelved & mostly organized, I’ve found more time to kick back and drain the DVR of material to report about on here. I’m putting a new advanced film course together, and I’ll be kicking it off with a unit on hard boiled detective/noir films (yeah, another excuse to plug my novel).  While the stuff I plan on showing is material I’m pretty familiar with, I’m building lists of additional suggestions for people (Good God, did I just call my students “people?” I’d rather think of them as lower life forms) to pursue their own research and what not.

In the new Wagstaff digs, I’ve graduated from cable to DirectTV, who I’ll plug here for the simple reason that they were nice enough to give me a bunch of credits after screwing up my first bill (unlike AT&T, where the actual service is fine, but getting installed, billed, tech supported and whatever else has been easily the worst experience with corporate America-voicemail hell-incompetence that I’ve ever experienced). The local channel set-up means I’ve lost Antenna TV which I enjoyed, but the luck of the draw has given me MeTv, a different old-rerun channel. I’ve basically traded Barney Miller, WKRP, George Burns & Jack Benny for The Rifleman, Dick Van Dyke, The Odd Couple, Car 54 & Sgt. Bilko... not a bad trade, actually.

Oh, and movie channels galore. Oh, and a Youtube hookup through the TV, so now I actually enjoy sitting through the poor quality uploads of movies in their entirety that people have put up.

It’s how I got to watch DeForest Kelley’s film debut, Fear In The Night. Not a bad little B-movie, with what was then an innovative plot that has since become rather cliché – the hypnotized patsy. Kelley dreams of killing someone & wakes up finding bits of evidence that tell him that it might not have been a dream. His detective brother-in-law helps him figure it all out. Parts of it are shot interestingly, with the dream sequences and mirrored alcoves coming off as creepy enough. And since it’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story, it’s plotted pretty well.  And you can watch the entire thing right here!

Next up was a caper film – The Split, from 1968. It’s based on one of the “Parker” novels by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, and since I’ve liked the other movies from that era based on the same series, like Point Blank & The Outfit, I figured I’d like this one, despite it’s relatively low rating on IMDB. How can you resist the cast? Parker is changed to McLain and is played by Jim Brown. His squeeze is Dihann Caroll. The gang he puts together to rob the LA Colosseum during a Rams game consists of Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, Donald Sutherland & Ernest Borgnine, with Julie Harris as den mother. The cop who investigates ’em is Gene Hackman, and James Whitmore plays the creepy landlord.

If you’re someone I’d like, you’re wanting to see this thing RIGHT NOW.

It struck me that the main reason for the low rating on IMDB has mostly to do with the post-heist segment of the film, where a plot point out of nowhere sends the entire story in a different direction. Without making it too much of a spoiler, creepy landlord Whitmore attacks Carroll and screws up Brown’s plans. The problem in how this seemingly comes from nowhere, I think, must have resulted from the way it’s hinted at that Whitmore had been getting his rent from Carroll via sex & then blew a gasket when Jim Brown returned, but there’s no telegraphing of this at all, and in 1968 I guess they couldn’t go beyond hinting due to the interracial aspect of it. So, you either recast Whitmore with a black landlord, or go balls to the wall and make Whitmore a jealous guy, or have telekinetic aliens force the issue.  Once this happens, way too much stuff that affects the plot (especially involving the Hackman character) happens offscreen, but I still enjoyed the thing. Granted, if the same material had been given to Boorman the way The Hunter had been, the results might have been better. And if they had set up the Whitmore/Carroll sex better and then shown us the Hackman sleaziness in dealing wih Whitmore, we’d have a better movie and we’d also be close to Elmore Leonard territory as far as plotting goes.  Yup, a flawed effort to be sure,  but the cast alone makes this one worthwhile.

A couple of B-movies from wonderful character actor Charles McGraw: First, The Threat,  an RKO  effort from the late ’40s. McGraw’s the baddie this time, an escaped con who kidnaps the DA & the cop who sent him up, trying to discover who in his gang betrayed him as he makes his getaway. A tough little film with a fast moving plot, despite the enormous plot hole of having the crooks listen to police radio for updates on cop movements – and the cops know they’re doing this, yet never change their behavior or restrict what they say on the radio. Duh, indeed. But McGraw is terrific as the thug here, just as good as he was as the cop in Narrow Margin. Also on the docket was Armored Car Robbery, with the same team of director Richard Fleisher & star Charles McGraw that worked so well in The Narrow Margin. McGraw’s a growly cop again here, determined to get the gang who robbed the armored car at good ol’ Wrigley Field of Los Angeles in the pre-Dodger days of LA baseball. It took me a second to recognize the main bad guy here, William Tallman, until it hit me all at once how he was Hamilton Burger, the guy who always lost to Perry Mason. He clearly needed Jim Brown et. al. to rob a sports venue successfully.

And then I rewatched one I hadn’t seen in years & thought about showing in the class… and went with my original instinct. Get ready, sports fans, but I’m not enamored of The Maltese Falcon the way so many film buffs are. Yeah, I know… it’s the pure hard-boiled formula – the tough detective with his own morals, the secretary who loves/watches over him, the femme fatale, the smooth-talking elegant villain… and so on. But I remember my original reaction to the thing decades ago when I kept thinking “There are better Bogart movies than this” and “This is overly talky.” Watching it again this very day produced the exact same response.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a decent movie, certainly worth seeing. But the best of the genre? Sorry. It reminds me of all the hoopla over Vertigo when there are better Hitchcock films out there. I wonder what sorts of qualities in various films lead to the way they wind up getting totally overrated by film critics and film freaks.  In any event, I went back to my original instinct & swapped Maltese Falcon out for what I think is a superior private eye film of the same era, Murder, My Sweet. It’s got a lot of the same formula elements to illustrate the genre, but a better story. In the past I’ve shown The Big Sleep for a Bogart entry. Dark Passage would also work well. Maybe later in the year.

Yeah, I know…. rough work. But somebody’s gotta do it.

Next up on the blog, thanks to youtube uploads… I finally got to see some Olsen & Johnson! And there was much rejoicing.


Some Underrated Noirs May 5, 2013

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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The Wagstaff DVR remains an ongoing treadmill of sorts, of films I record at odd hours and plow through whenever I get the chance… never empty, never full, merely a constant stream of stuff to review in various ways. I’ve been making an extra effort to whittle it down, however, since I won’t be able to take it with me when I move and switch TV providers.

I guess the ultimate pan is never to mention the stuff I give up on after a reel’s worth or so… and the ultimate positve review is to put together a blog post. So, a few weeks worth of material boils down to a bunch of fairy solid crime/noir efforts from yesteryear that I can pass along for those of you with creative Netflix queues.

I watched a pair of Phil Karlson/John Payne efforts from the early ’50s, Kansas City Confidential & 99 River Street, and both are well worthwhile B movie fun. In both, Payne (who started his career in musicals before moving on to hard boiled drama, much like Dick Powell) plays a guy needing to prove his innocence by tracking down the actual gangsters or psycho killers,and in both cases, he’s given some great cracklin’ tough guy dialogue and the plots have enough twists & turns to keep things moving along. Both films have bad guys who are fun since they’re actors in early roles (Preston Foster, Lee Van Cleef, Brad Dexter), femme fatales/good-bad girls like Coleen Gray or Evelyn Keyes, and the postwar fatalism we’ve come to love.

Speaking of Powell, I also watched Cry Danger, where he plays an ex-con out to find the guys who framed him, all photographed in beautiful downtown Los Angelels circa 1951. And it has William Conrad as the bad guy. I always like Powell as wise-cracking tough guy. His version of Marlowe from Murder, My Sweet I think comes closest to the character as written. In hid segment of one of my all time favorite films, The Bad & The Beautiful, he plays the sardonic college prof turned cynical screenwriter (a role after my own heart) beautifully. He’s fun in those ’30s musicals, but he’s really at home  as the put upon tough guy in the noirs.

Finally, I caught the original version of a movie remade fairly well some years back, The Narrow Margin, where Charles McGraw’s tough cop has to escort the mob widow via train to testify while eluding her assassins. Pretty much the entire thing takes place within the confines of the train, where director Richard Fleisher in an early career effort shows off his resumé by zipping the camera up and down narrow corridors and keeping the tension super tight. The whole film is supertight at a mere 71 minutes – well acted, intricately staged, beautifully paced, and easily manages to overcome some of its hoker 1950s formula elements involving the damn kid. McGraw carries this picture throughout and made me wonder why he never became a bigger star – he’s flat out great in this.

So there you have it – 4 movies worth seeing, 5 maybe. I’ll save the comedies for another post.