Well, it’s taken me a while to watch these movies, mainly because I’ve been busy watching more recent ones! But now I’ve watched a bunch, so let’s discuss them!
The Lodger (1944). Laird Cregar, in his penultimate movie (he died in late 1944 of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 30), plays the title character, a man who moves into a flat in London and immediately raises suspicions among his landlady and landlord that he’s Jack the Ripper. When their niece, played with her usual dazzling joie de vivre by Merle Oberon, comes back from Paris to perform her “saucy” song-and-dance reviews (they are fairly saucy, especially for 1888), Cregar becomes a bit fixated on her and raises his already creepy factor to another level. George Sanders, who is literally the same character in every movie, plays the Scotland Yard inspector on the Ripper’s trail. This is a decent enough movie, given verve by Cregar’s fantastically weird performance, as he’s a “close talker” and says weird shit all the time, plus he towers over everyone, which is disconcerting. Oberon is terrific, of course, and it’s clever that they make her kind to Cregar, because it would seem that a young woman of her class would belittle such a strange dude as Cregar, but because she’s kind to him, it makes even him more sympathetic. I suppose it’s the times, but they change the Ripper’s victims from prostitutes to actresses, but maybe the long-standing implication that actresses were secret prostitutes was enough to wink at the audience of the era. It’s a bit too short for the romance between Oberon and Sanders to blossom, but that’s fine. It’s beautifully shot and occasionally quite creepy, and again, Cregar is superb. I’ve seen the silent Hitchcock version from 1927, so it was fun to see this!
Double Indemnity (1944). This is kind of the ur-noir – it wasn’t the first, certainly, but it was so commercially and critically successful that it made noir a financially viable genre. It’s a terrific movie, too, one of those rare movies that is better than the book (I read the book years ago, and remember the weird ending on an ocean liner, which the movie wisely dispenses with), and the performances are superb. Fred MacMurray, working against type, gives a wonderful performance as a relatively decent man who is way, way out of his depth, and Barbara Stanwyck (at that point the highest-paid woman in the country) does an amazing job also playing against type as the profoundly wicked but scathingly sexy femme fatale who draws MacMurray into her scheme. Edward G. Robinson anchors the film as its moral center, and the fascinating thing about the movie is it works much better if you think of it as a love story … between MacMurray and Robinson, in a kind of son-father dynamic. MacMurray doesn’t have much chemistry with either Stanwyck (the Whore) or Jean Heather (the Madonna; she’s Stanwyck’s step-daughter) – he’s not romancing Heather, just trying to keep her busy so she doesn’t get too nosy – but he does with Robinson, as he definitely looks up to the claims adjuster and strives to be like him. He doesn’t care all that much about Stanwyck – sure, he’ll bang her, but it’s clear he doesn’t really like her, and MacMurray’s struggles with the moral abyss are what drives the movie. His final scene with Stanwyck is a bit perfunctory, but his final scene with Robinson is the Oscar clip (the movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and didn’t win any; Stanwyck got the only acting nod, and if you’ll recall from one of my previous posts, she lost to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight). MacMurray has let his father figure down, and that’s his real tragedy, not the murder. The movie works because of MacMurray’s lack of chemistry with Stanwyck – both actors are excellent, but they have solo agendas, as it’s clear they’re each using the other to commit the crime, and then they’d rather be done with the other. MacMurray, playing a rather weak-willed dude, would much rather be hooking up with Lola (Heather), which is reflective of so many attitudes toward women that I can’t even get into it now (suffice to say that Stanwyck was almost a year older than MacMurray in real life, while Heather was almost 13 years younger, and let’s leave it at that). This holds up really well over 70 years later – it’s a tense movie, with a clever (but not clever enough!) criminal scheme, and excellent acting all around.
Murder, My Sweet (1944). The success of Double Indemnity meant that Murder, My Sweet could get fast-tracked, so it was (it was released five months later). Raymond Chandler had co-written the screenplay to the earlier movie, so why not use his novels themselves for inspiration? This is technically the first Philip Marlowe movie (Time to Kill and The Falcon Takes Over were Marlowe stories but the names of the detectives were changed), and Dick Powell might be the least appreciated actor to play the character, but he does a good job. He wanted the role because he was tired of doing song-and-dance movies, and he gives a very good performance. I’ve only seen Mitchum as Marlowe, and Powell is better – he’s tough, but not angry all the time, and he’s much more thoughtful than you might expect. He’s completely incorruptible, too, which does take some of the tension out because we know he’ll do the right thing, but I suppose we don’t necessarily know that going in. Powell gets knocked into unconsciousness far too often (he really ought to get a CT scan or something), but he’s dogged in his pursuit of the truth and he’s cleverer than most take him to be, which leads them to underestimate him. Claire Trevor also wanted to be taken seriously as an actor by this time, and she’s terrific, too (she won an Oscar a few years later for Key Largo, but she’s better here). She’s much warmer (to a degree) than Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, so you can almost believe that she’s caught up in terrible circumstances and she’s in love with Powell … almost. Of course she’s a femme fatale and the Whore in the Madonna/Whore complex so many of these movies throw up at us, with Anne Shirley playing the Madonna, with whom Powell eventually ends up. So many things going on with the women of noir – the blonde floozy/brunette good girl; the evil stepmother; the Madonna/Whore; the older woman desperate for sex on her own terms while the virginal girl will do what pleases the man – that I can’t even get into here, but it’s again worth pointing out that Powell was 40 when the movie was being made, Trevor was 34, and Shirley was 26. Heaven forfend that the dude end up with a woman almost his age! Meanwhile, the plot of the movie is fairly convoluted – you don’t see a Raymond Chandler movie for the plot – involving missing women, stolen jewels, murder … you know, all the good stuff. Mike Mazurki is great as Powell’s first client, Douglas Walton is coded so gay he might as well have minced around stereotypically (that’s not really a criticism; he does pretty well in a small role, it’s just that they couldn’t come out and say he was gay, so they had to very heavily imply it), and Otto Kruger is nice and villainous as the dope pusher to the stars (again, heavily implied). The plots do coalesce quite well, but it’s still convoluted. Mostly, we’re on board for the sparkling dialogue, the well-dressed dames, the stoic hero, Powell getting bashed on the head yet again (seriously, Marlowe, get it checked out!), and the gorgeous cinematography. It’s a neat movie.
Lady on a Train (1945). Deanna Durbin was a huge teenage star, banking a quarter of a million dollars when she was 18, and she was the highest-paid actress both in 1945 and 1946, when she was in her mid-20s. This was her first “grown-up” role, a noir story about a woman who, on arriving in New York, witnesses a murder from her train window and tries to find out what happened. It’s a decent enough movie – Durbin is the highlight, as she investigates the murder almost on a lark, and seems to have fun even as people get killed around her, but Durbin has a steely interior that allows her to stay alive and figure things out. She tries to get a murder mystery writer, played by David Bruce, involved, and eventually piques his interest, although their romance remains the weakest part of the book (until, hilariously, at the end, when on their honeymoon Durbin is more interested in reading his latest novel than banging her new husband). Durbin easily adopts a mistaken identity, although that means pretending to be a nightclub singer whom no one at said nightclub seems to realize isn’t the actual person. Durbin sings three songs in the movie, which stops it in its tracks, but it seems like the screenwriters (adapting a Leslie Charteris story) were trying to make it as crowd-pleasing as possible, so there are the songs and plenty of humor along with the murders. The cast is solid – Ralph Bellamy and Dan Duryea play the nephews of the murdered man, while Maria Palmer is good and cynical in her brief screen time as the nightclub singer Durbin pretends to be. It’s all a bit silly, but it’s a perfectly entertaining movie. A few years after this Durbin married the director (her third marriage before she was 30), and retired to Europe, where she lived until 2013, when she died at 91. Good for her!
The Asphalt Jungle (1950). John Huston’s flick set a new template for heist movies, as it was really the first to create naturalistic characters who stole because they were struggling on the margins. Most film noir prior to this focused on a couple – a man and a woman – killing and robbing because, honestly, they were bored and wanted a thrill in life. Huston’s thieves really need the money, and this makes the movie fascinating, even if Huston was bound by the Hays Code so the crooks had to pay, which makes the resolution less thrilling than it might have been and far more pro-cop than Huston probably wanted (man, the final speech by the police commissioner about how great cops are is something else, considering a good part of the movie hinges on a crooked cop). The performances are top-notch: Sterling Hayden plays the heavy, which is unfortunately Hayden’s lot in life (well, maybe he enjoyed it), as he was good-looking but not dazzling, so he could never really play a romantic or even heroic lead, and he was built like a brick shithouse, so he could easily play a thug; Sam Jaffe plays the man who comes up with the scheme as a nebbish-y kind of guy, which works well; and Louis Calhern plays the lawyer who fronts the cash for the heist. Huston gets into the lives of these people and shows us why they might do something like this. Hayden wants to leave the city and return to his Kentucky farm; Jaffe wants to live in Mexico and stare at pretty girls. Calhern, it turns out, is in great debt, so he’s not quite as respectable as he seems. He’s also supporting a mistress, played by Marilyn Monroe in her first meaty role. Monroe is only in a few scenes, but she does pretty well, and of course you can see why every middle-aged/elderly dude in Hollywood wanted to put her in a movie. Huston has to make the thieves pay, and so they do, but only Jaffe’s fate is really clever, because he could have escaped except for a easily avoided mistake. It’s a beautifully shot movie, and it’s gorgeously lit, with all the noir shadows coming into play. Watch it not only for itself, but to see how influential it was on the entire heist movie genre!
In A Lonely Place (1950). Nicholas Ray is probably more famous for directing Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar, but this movie, from a bit earlier in his career, is excellent, with stellar performances by Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Bogart plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who gets a break when a producer wants him to adapt a trashy novel that he doesn’t want to read. A pretty young hat-check girl at the restaurant he frequents has read it, so he pays her to come back to his apartment and tell him about it. After she leaves late that night, she ends up dead. The cops – one of whom his an old friend of Bogart’s – bring him in for questioning, but a new tenant at his apartment complex – Grahame – alibis him. He and Grahame start up a romance, and we see that the murder really is a MacGuffin, because Ray is interested in examining the nature of violence. The cops suspect Bogart because he has a violent past – he broke a woman’s nose once – and Grahame doesn’t know about it until she’s too in love with him to get out easily. Bogart also begins writing furiously again, so he believes that Grahame is some kind of good luck charm. He moves fast, and she becomes reticent, and he gets angrier. It’s fascinating, because Bogart is so good at playing men with violence simmering under the surface, and he’s trying so hard to suppress it. Grahame is terrific, too, as a sort-of ingenue swept up by the experienced writer (in time-honored tradition, Bogart was 50 and Grahame 26 during filming), but she also has hidden steel inside her that slowly comes out as Bogart becomes more manic. It’s a very tense drama, because of course the cops keep hovering around, and while we’re fairly certain Bogart didn’t actually kill the girl (Martha Stewart, who played her, is hilariously a year older than Grahame, but she’s playing someone much younger), we can’t really tell. So the end is tense, because we don’t know what Bogart is going to do. This is a nifty quasi-thriller, and it’s well worth a look. (Grahame and Bogart both died at 57, which is odd. Grahame and Ray were married but separated while the movie was being filmed, and a decade later, Grahame married Ray’s son from a different marriage – her stepson – which just proves that Hollywood has always been weird.)
Mystery Street (1950). Ricardo Montalban, looking super-suave as a Boston police detective (Montalban was 29 when the movie was made), tries to catch a killer while being one of the more slow-witted policemen around in this odd movie, which comes across almost as an advertisement for Harvard (my wife and I kept looking at each other and saying in a “television announcer” voice: “Come to Harvard! Learn to identify skeletons!” and other such goofy things, because we’re goofy). A woman in a boarding house is on the phone with someone with whom she is unhappy, and then she heads out to her job at a bar. She picks up a dude because she wants to use his car to drive out to Cape Cod (where the person she was speaking to on the phone is), and while she’s out there, she manages to ditch the dude (who’s quite drunk). Then she gets killed. Several months later, her skeleton is found (it’s totally clean, which seems unlikely given that it’s only been some months and not years) and Montalban catches the case. He takes the skeleton to a Harvard professor, who helps identify the victim and how she was killed. Montalban fixates on the dude with the car (we know he’s innocent, but of course he didn’t tell his wife about the girl, so he lies about what happened to the car, which makes him look guilty), and even after a good amount of doubt is introduced to that theory, he continues to cling to it, almost allowing the real killer to go free. Montalban is dreamy, though, and the cast is decent, although as usual, Elsa Lanchester as the conniving boarding-house owner steals every scene she’s in. It’s an interesting movie, but not something that you should run out and see. Director John Sturges was relatively early in his career (his first movie came out in 1946, but of course by 1950 this was his 10th feature, because they cranked them out in those days!), but he would later make Bad Day at Black Rock, The Old Man and the Sea, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ice Station Zebra, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others, so he knew what he was doing. The movie does look nice, and Sturges makes good use of Boston locations (not all of the movie was shot on set, which is nice). But besides Montalban in his last role before he was trampled by a horse and permanently injured and Lanchester having a grand old time, it’s just an okay movie.
King Solomon’s Mines (1950). I had seen a good amount of this movie before, but never the entire thing, so I figured I’d check it out, especially as I enjoyed the book. It’s a pretty good movie, even though they invented Deborah Kerr’s character so they could sell the dull romance between Kerr and Stewart Granger (who may have been banging off-screen, despite both being married, proving the cliché that if actors have no chemistry on-screen, they’re probably banging off-screen!). Both Kerr and Granger are fine, they just don’t have much chemistry. Anyway, this was filmed in Africa, and it’s a visual feast, from the elephant hunt in the beginning to the verdant countryside of the “hidden kingdom” at the end. The elephant in the beginning was actually killed, unfortunately, but the other elephants trying to help it get back up was something unprecedented – apparently nobody expected it and it hasn’t been caught on film since. The other wildlife scenes are amazing, too, with the stampede being a highlight. The movie ends far too abruptly – the group makes it to Umbopa’s homeland, where the diamond mine is, but they spend barely any time in the mine before Umbopa challenges the king to a battle, defeats him, and takes his rightful place on the throne. The entire sequence in Umbopa’s kingdom takes up the final 15 minutes, which is far too short. Getting there is interesting, and perhaps the fact that the Africans didn’t know English meant the filmmakers felt they had to cut it down, but the movie, which clocks in at about 100 minutes, could have easily been 10-15 minutes longer so the final parts could have had more impact. The other thing that’s fascinating about the movie is how not racist it is. In 1950 and in 1897 (when the movie is set), there would have been a paternalistic kind of racism even from the most sympathetic white people, but the Africans are just doing their thing, and nobody comments on how “primitive” they are or silly stuff like that. Yes, most of the porters run away at one point, but that’s just because they don’t want to head into enemy territory, not because they’re “primitive.” Both Khiva and Umbopa are simply presented as regular folk. Khiva works for Quatermain, sure, but Granger treats him like a friend, while Umbopa carries himself regally, as befits his status, and the three leads are impressed by his demeanor. It’s a more sexist movie than racist, as both Richard Carlson (as Kerr’s brother) and Granger constantly talk about how weak women are, and Kerr is constantly fainting and screaming when animals come anywhere near her. She gets better as the movie goes on, but the early parts are really condescending. It’s a fun movie, and it really is visually wonderful to watch.
Rashomon (1950). The only Akira Kurosawa movie I saw before this one was, inexplicably, Ran, which my parents, also inexplicably, rented in the mid-1980s and I watched with them. (“Inexplicable” because it’s the only Kurosawa I saw prior to this one, and I was a callow fellow in my mid-teens when I watched Ran, and my parents are not famous for their eclectic tastes.) Obviously, I know I should watch more Kurosawa movies, but there are a lot of movies in the world and not a lot of time, so give me a break, people! Anyway, this movie is so famous it’s become a style of movie – whenever there are different points of view of the same event in a piece of fiction, someone invariably calls it “Rashomon-esque” or some such thing. So this movie casts a long shadow, and it’s tough to watch now, after so many years of accretion of its legend. It’s an interesting movie, more enjoyable on a technical level than on a story level, as nothing really gets resolved and, come on, one of the storytellers is a ghost, which makes its realistic setting seem a bit wonky. Four different people tell their version of a crime, and we’re never sure who’s telling the truth, which causes consternation among one listener, whose faith in humanity is sorely tested. That’s the crux of the movie – can humanity be redeemed despite the fact that people lie without even breaking a sweat, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly satisfying getting there. It’s far more interesting to watch the way Kurosawa shoots the movie – the cinematography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) is spectacular, and the way Kurosawa layers the storytelling with the present-day and the scenes at the court are really well done and make me think that Christopher Nolan watched this movie a few too many times before making Inception. Kurosawa also makes interesting points about gender relations and the options for women in medieval Japan. The wife, in one story, tries fiercely to defend herself against rape, but when she is finally kissed, she just gives up. This is early enough that it makes it seem like she welcomes it, and while we never see the rape again, it gets colored by the way she reacts, from weeping to defiance to rage. She is always presented as fairly conniving, but her husband and Tajomaru, the outlaw, treat her as less than human, so it’s understandable why she acts the way she does. The wife knows that she has to play a role, which is why she presents herself as weak and helpless in her own story, even though the other stories show a different picture of her. All the characters tend to overact a bit, but the wife does a decent job of showing what kind of person she must be to the world, even though she doesn’t feel it.
The movie is definitely worth seeing, despite the story being the weakest part of it. Now I have to go see more Kurosawa movies!
Witness for the Prosecution (1957). A lot of people used to tell Alfred Hitchcock how much they liked this movie, which made him chuckle as it’s Billy Wilder’s film. Of course, it’s very Hitchcockian, so there’s that. It’s adapted from a play by Agatha Christie, so of course there are going to be all sorts of twists, but as usual, a large part of the twist relies on people who are very smart suddenly acting very stupidly. It’s annoying, but it happens, so whatever. Despite that, this is still a gripping movie, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s quite fun. Charles Laughton – sweaty, fat, and grumpy – gets a case the day he gets out of the hospital after suffering a massive heart attack, and his nurse, the always-superb Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Laughton), is always trying to get him to take care of himself, providing much of the comic relief in the movie. Tyrone Power, inexplicably cast as a Brit despite never making any attempt at a British accent, is on trial for the murder of a middle-aged widow he had befriended. She changed her will to leave him a ton of cash, which he claims he didn’t know about. His wife, the fierce Marlene Dietrich, ends up testifying against him, which throws a spanner in Laughton’s works. Why did Dietrich testify against her husband? Did Power kill the elderly lady? Who is the weird Cockney lady Laughton and his solicitor colleague meet at the train station? Will Laughton drop dead in the middle of the trial? So many questions! It’s a well-written, tightly-plotted story (not surprising, given that it’s Christie), and Wilder doesn’t have to do too much with it, although there are some nice shots throughout. Power is fine, Dietrich is icy (partly due, it seems, to having had plastic surgery, so she couldn’t move her face that much), Laughton is brilliant, and Lanchester is hilarious. It’s just a very good courtroom drama, despite the annoying ending (which, I should note, isn’t bad – it’s actually fairly clever – but the way it unspools is annoying). It’s interesting to consider who’s in this movie – Power was only 42/43 when he made this, and Dietrich was 55/56 or so, so the fact that they cast her and hooked her up with the younger and more matinee-idol type that Power was is pretty neat (she doesn’t look that old, and of course the subtle notion of the movie is that Power likes older women, but it’s still pretty neat). It was Power’s last completed movie – he died making Solomon and Sheba from a heart attack at the age of 44. Dietrich made Touch of Evil after this, but then basically retired, even though she lived until 1992. Laughton did some more work, including his turn in Spartacus, but died in 1962. This is Una O’Connor’s last movie – she was born in 1880, after all, and died in 1959. It’s just interesting that for several actors, this was close to their final work. Anyway, it’s a good movie. You should see it.
Cape Fear (1962). I’d never seen this, just the 1991 remake, and while that has its detractors, I … think I like it better? The black and white is great, Mitchum is great, Peck is pretty good, Lori Martin as Pecks’ daughter is … odd, Martin Balsam is good as a typical 1950s/1960s police chief (he seems to enjoy running vagrants out of town), Telly Savalas, sporting glorious hair, is good, and so is Barrie Chase as the woman Mitchum beats up. But because it’s the 1960s, the women scream far too much instead of using their brains, and Peck has far too much faith in the legal system at the end. Mitchum tells us he knows the law, and he does show knowledge of it, and while we know he’s committed murder, Peck really can’t prove too much against him by the end. I never liked Juliette Lewis in the 1991 movie, because she’s just way to into Bobby D, but I like it better, I think, because Nick Nolte isn’t a paragon of virtue, so we can believe why De Niro comes after him, unlike Mitchum here, who’s just a jerk. The showdown in the hurricane is also much cooler than the one here, despite the amazing shadows in the final showdown between Mitchum and Peck. Mitchum, as I mentioned, is a force of nature, and it’s fun to watch him stalk through this movie, and it’s a good thriller. But I still like Scorsese’s version!
The Boston Strangler (1968). This is a weird movie, as director Richard Fleischer (whose later works include Mandingo, Conan the Destroyer, and Red Sonja) seemingly wanted to make a jazz riff into a movie, so he used split screens a lot, different camera angles to film the same scene, zooms into extreme close-ups, a few distorted first-person views – there’s a lot of unusual techniques in a movie that’s essentially about the hunt for a serial killer. It’s a pretty good movie, despite the fact that George Kennedy (as the head detective) and Henry Fonda (as a lawyer appointed by the state to run the task force and who once again confirms that he is America’s most boring major star) don’t really do much good police work. They catch Tony Curtis, who plays the Strangler (Albert DeSalvo), pretty much by accident – he tries to break into what he thinks is a single woman’s apartment, but her husband chases him away and the cops pick him up for housebreaking, and only luck brings him into Kennedy and Fonda’s orbit. Curtis doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, but he’s pretty riveting as a man with multiple personalities (which the real DeSalvo was never diagnosed with) who can’t remember killing anyone but slowly comes to realize the horrors he’s committed. For 1968, the movie feels pretty bold – there’s a lesbian couple who aren’t portrayed terribly well but also aren’t called anything but lesbians, a scene at a gay bar that is remarkably progressive for the times, and frank discussion of sexual assault. It’s a pretty good movie, and it’s kind of nice to see it end ambiguously, because DeSalvo’s case remained ambiguous until he was killed in prison (for, it seems, selling amphetamines for less than the inmate-enforced syndicate price) and remains so today. Fleischer doesn’t wrap it up all neat and tidy, and that’s pretty keen.
All righty-o, that was fun. What do you think of these movies? Come on, we’re all old here – I know you’ve seen some of them!