Friday, 26 October 2018

Four film noir masterpieces I've just watched for the first time: Odds Against Tomorrow, Crossfire, The Killers and Sudden Fear!

Odds Against Tomorrow is very late noir - 1959 - but, while it doesn't really cover any new territory (apart from visually) it's one of the best examples of the genre...

Sacked cop Ed Begley invites psychotic racist Robert Ryan and degenerate gambler Harry Belafonte to knock over a bank in a small town in upstate New York:
Ryan has never been scarier, Belafonte gives a great performance (he formed a company to produce the film and chose the screenwriter), and the failure and desperation in Begley's slimy, over-eager smile was never more poignant. Given the highly original, stylised look and feel of the film - the location work in New York City and upstate New York is breathtaking, the experimental use of infrared lenses for some sequences is as disconcerting as it's meant to be, and the lengthy section where the three robbers, isolated from each other, while away their time at various lonely locations on the outskirts of the town in which the bank is situated is a visual and psychological tour de force - it's not surprising that director Robert Wise's next assignment was West Side Story... but I'm not sure how he ended up directing The Sound of Music

Readers of a sensitive disposition should probably give this next clip - in which Robert Ryan demonstrates  his character's marked propensity for ultraviolence - a miss:
Perhaps because the film is so rivetting, I didn't even mind the soundtrack by the Modern Jazz Quartet: the only thing I found mildly disappointing was the ending, which was too reminiscent of White Heat, and the clunking obviousness of the message conveyed by the bodies of the black and white protagonists ending up so charred that it's impossible to tell them apart.

In real life, Robert Ryan was what Ronal Reagan described (referring to his younger self) as a haemophiliac liberal, who devoted his time, money and celebrity to any number of causes. The irony of his career, of course, was that he had the face of an absolute bastard who oozed menace and hatred from every pore.  Playing a racist in Odds Against Tomorrow was a return to familiar territory: twelve years' earlier, his breakthrough film, Crossfire - another noir classic released during the genre's late '40s heydaysaw him cast as yet another homicidal racist. This time, the object of his bigotry is Jews, but the script makes it clear that he basically hates everyone.

The book on which the film was based - The Brick Foxhole, written by a buddy of Ryan's in the Marines - was actually about homophobia, but that wasn't a subject Hollywood could tackle at the time and get past the censors. Pity, because anti-Semitism was also the theme of Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning Gentleman's Agreement, which also came out in 1947, and must have overshadowed Crossfire. The other problem with Crossfire is that story only really works if the man who befriends a confused soldier in Ryan's platoon is a homosexual hanging around bars trying to pick up young men - why the hell would a respectable, cultured, middle-aged heterosexual Jew end up with a bunch of rough, pissed-up soldiers in his classy apartment unless he wants to have sex with them? It makes no sense.
Nevertheless, Crossfire mostly works, thanks to a taut script, moody cinematography, great direction (by Edward Dmytryk), and some terrific acting, including Ryan's performance as a sort of manipulative demon, Robert Young as a weary, pipe-sucking police detective trying to make sense of the mess, an almost comatosely laconic Robert Mitchum as a sergeant trying to protect his men from the police (did any actor ever achieve so much by seemingly doing so little?), and Gloria Grahame doing her standard noir sex-bomb turn (she also had a small but memorable role in Odds Against Tomorrow, in which she threw herself at Robert Ryan - who, being married to Shelley Winters at her most annoying, took Gloria up on her offer).

I've been convinced for many years that, at some point, I had watched and enjoyed The Killers (1946), which marked Burt Lancaster's first onscreen appearance, fast-tracked Ava Gardner's career, and introduced the "dom-da-dom-dom" musical leitmotif  later made famous by the TV series Dragnet. Turns out I'd seen tons of clips of the film, but not the whole thing. The opening sequence, in which two hit-men turn up in a small town in order to kill The Swede (Lancaster) is an absolute ripper (one of them is tubby little William Conrad - who would later morph into TV detective Cannon - also making his big screen debut) - they make a genuinely scary duo as they menace the staff in the local diner where the Swede always has dinner.
While The Killers doesn't quite maintain the same level of intensity throughout - it could do with some trimming later on - it's brilliantly directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the triumvirate of directors, along with Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, most closely associated with the noir genre (I'll leave others to decide whether John Huston with The Maltese Falcon or Billy Wilder with Double Indemnity actually created the genre - but I reckon Wilder was the first and greatest noir director of the lot).  Apart from brief but effective turns by the two hitmen, Edmund O'Brien is solid as the dogged insurance investigator determined to figure out why The Swede was bumped off; Lancaster is a star from his first appearance as the big blond lunk who, instead of trying to save himself, lies passively on his bed awaiting the fate he evidently believes he deserves; and my erstwhile admirer Ava Gardner (it's a long story) is as steamy as a New Orleans basement jazz club on a sultry, bougainvillea-scented August night (I suggest you cut down on the meds - Ed.) If you don't mind Greek subtitles, a high-quality print of the whole film is available here.

I'm not a big fan of Joan Crawford, but I have to admit she gave some terrific performances over the years - Mildred Pierce, The Women, Baby Jane etc. Now I can add her starring role in Sudden Fear (1952) to the list. Based on a novel by Edna Sherry, the film is about a successful playwright (Crawford) who turns down an actor (Jack Palance) for the lead role in her latest Broadway play: despite the fact that everyone else involved in the production thinks he's perfect for it, she doesn't think he has the right looks. The recast play is a great success. Some time later, the playwright, heading home to San Francisco, finds herself on the same train as Palance. After she has apologised to Palance, and he has told her he thinks she made the right decision by firing him, a whirlwind romance commences, which ends in marriage.

Joan thinks everything is tickedyboo between them, but, after Jack discovers that she intends altering her will to leave the bulk of her considerable fortune to a foundation (inevitably, he's got it all wrong - this is noir, after all), he plots with former girlfriend Gloria Grahame (who else?) to bump his wife off before her planned meeting with her lawyer (who's deeply suspicious of Palance's motives) after the weekend. Sadly for Jack, the inbuilt recording device in his wife's workroom has picked up every word of the conversation in which he outlined his plan to kill wifey while making it look like an accident. At which point, the formerly credulous playwright turns into Joan Crawford and hatches her own plot to turn the tables on her would-be killers. Joan Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame are all on top form, and the the film is such a tense, exhilarating delight from start to finish, I have no hesitation in calling it a masterpiece. The whole thing is available on YouTube, here. Meanwhile, here's an appetite-whetting trailer:

If you're a noir fan, a revised and updated version of Foster Hirsch's classic 1983 study, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, is available on Amazon. Well worth a read.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Four of my favourite films noirs clustered together. In my book, if you added "Asphalt Jungle" [1950] -previous post - and Kubrick's "The Killing" [1956] that would make a perfect set.

    One of the great quotes from the "Killers" is when big Jim Colefax [Albert Dekker] says : "If there is one thing in this world I hate it is a double-crossing dame." How very true, Big Jim. When the Gipper took on the Dekker role in the 1964 re-make he struck Angie Dickinson forcefully across the face when she gave him some lip and Ronnie tried to get the film banned when he embarked on his political career.

    Dekker was the paymaster of the bounty hunters in "The Wild Bunch" who was responsible for shooting up the town at the beginning of the film. Great heavy. Talking of which, I had forgotten what a contribution Sterling Hayden made to this category. Great days.