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Noir Monday: Shutter Island

Shutter Island

I'm preempting the promised Brick edition of Noir Monday because I managed to get to the theater to see Scorsese's Shutter Island. Proper noir it may not be, but it uses enough classic noir elements - and deliberately so - that it's worth talking about. Also, it just happens to be a good film.

First off, let's get the spoiler alerts out of the way. There's a significant plot twist at the end of this film, and I'm not going to take pains to avoid it. If you're allergic that type of thing, read no further. But I'm not going to go much into covering the plot anyway, because I can't really be bothered. In case it isn't desperately clear by this point, I don't do formal film criticism, folks - it's just me tossing out some thoughts. You're welcome to toss yours back in return.

On one level, Shutter Island is a throwback B-movie thriller made with A-list talent. On another level, it's a throwback B-movie thriller made with A-list talent. Which is a convoluted way of saying you can enjoy it just as a stylish and skillfully-made thriller or as a cinematic love letter to the classic genre film. It's no towering epic or profound statement. It's a thriller, in the full, movie-definition sense of the word. It could have used a bit more editing and/or restraint in places. But, of course, had it been more edited and restrained, it, and the audience, wouldn't be able to revel in those B-movie indulgences that made it such a fun theater experience in the first place.

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Noir Monday: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

When I started this series, there were two films I knew I couldn't avoid and which I was slightly anxious about covering because of their ubiquity and notoriety - the very things that made them unavoidable. They were Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Both foundational staples of film noir, both with powerful statements to make about women's societal roles, and both with so many years of accumulated baggage it's hard to say anything original about them anymore. But also both such genuinely great, continually rewarding films that it's worth a try to do so.

Double Indemnity began life as a James M. Cain novel, and, in the way I generally rank Cain novels and their movie versions (The Postman Always Rings Twice makes a better novel than movie, and Mildred Pierce is a pretty much a draw), Double Indemnity is a much better film than book. For my money, I have no reservations casting this in large part to the screenwriter Raymond Chandler. But Chandler is probably my favorite writer, so there you are.

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Noir Monday: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place

It's the triumphant (hopefully) return of Noir Monday! I intend to keep it going this time, ideally biweekly, but no promises. Feel free to suggest a future film.

The source material of In a Lonely Place is one of the most well-known pieces of hardboiled mid-century fiction written by a woman (Dorothy B. Hughes). I've never read it. I'm wary of doing so. I saw the film well before I was aware of the book, and it made such a profound, indelible impression on me that I wasn't ever sure I wanted to risk complicating it with other versions of the story.

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Noir Monday: The Ice Harvest

the ice harvest

John Cusack does comedy tinged with tragedy (or perhaps vice versa) really well. Generally, he seems to go for romantic tragedy rather than any other kind, but whenever he gets close to tongue-in-cheek noir, it seems, to me, to be a perfect fit.

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Noir Monday: The Trial

This is a deliberately unconventional pick. Orson Welles directed many other films that fit better into the noir canon - The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, and the film noir to end all films noir (literally), Touch of Evil - but The Trial is a newfound favorite of mine.

I'm not going go into too much detail with it, because discussing enough details to give the movie justice would quickly expand this post into book-length. But The Trial is a cinematic adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel, turned by Welles into a sharply stylistic, brutally beautiful dream of oppression and death. In a very loose sense, it's very noir-like in its themes (complete with some mysteriously dangerous dames). It's almost a meta-noir. It's also essential for any noir fan to watch, if only to compare to the other, more conventional offerings.

Noir Monday: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I picked up 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on a whim, and, after watching it, I was glad that my expectations hadn't been very high. It has some interesting twists on traditional film noir elements, as well as other general film elements, and some clever humor - but an enduring movie it is not.

The Plot. Robert Downey Jr. is a thief accidentally thrust into the movie world. Val Kilmer is a gay private detective. Michelle Monaghan is a struggling actress who just happens to be Downey's old high school friend. They get caught up in rich guy Corbin Bernsen's web of stuff that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The plot is hard to follow, and you have to be willing to go with the filmmakers on a most of the things they claim are important, or evident, or realistic.

The Noir. It has the basically good if flawed hero who gets into situations way over his head. It has the PI. It has the (basically) good girl sidekick. It has the big, bad city of LA. It has chapter titles taken from titles of novels and short stories by Raymond Chandler. It has sex, violence (it gets gorier as it moves along), and money. It's not the noir part that fails here. The atmosphere is perfectly done, right down to the lovely low-saturation cinematography and the bizarrely decadent party backgrounds.

The Dame. As dames go, Harmony is an okay one. She's pretty smart (she figures out a key plot point before any of the other characters do, even though I don't think the logic she uses is as indisputable as they make it sound). She's a little shrill at times, but willing to jump into the fight. Could have used a dangerous femme fatale as a counterpoint to her "dream girl" role, but the last thing this movie needed was more complications. It could barely handle the ones it already had.

The Fourth Wall. The only completely successful cinematic breaking of the fourth wall I can recall offhand is Groucho Marx's numerous audience asides in the early Marx Bros. movies. It's hard to pull off. Another attempt that comes to mind is the recent Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which also didn't quite work.* Kiss Kiss takes the meddling with conventions to a humorous, but ultimately just confusing extreme. It works better in book format, which is whence this particular story came. Here, the narration directly to the audience, and the constant reminders that the narrator knows he's in a movie, destroy the suspension of belief the audience needs to believe this convoluted plot and its characters are real enough to pay attention to. If the story were tighter, it would be easier to accept the asides. But it's not, and everything is just too messy to concentrate on.

The Bottom Line. It's fun, especially for neo noir fans who treasure old-noir-style wit and one-liners. Which I am. I enjoyed watching it. But it doesn't go down on my list of noir classics.

* Only a few days after I posted this, the Filmspotting team took on this very topic, movies that break the fourth wall, and come up with many more examples, including some I overlooked - High Fidelity, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Inside Man, and more than one Woody Allen film - but few play with these rules as fast and loose as Kiss Kiss does, and most do the fourth wall trick much, much better.

Noir Monday: Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a DoubtOne of the best noir themes is the peeling away of a pretty, false facade to reveal the hard, nasty truth underneath, and, in that theme, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the best examples.

It's early Hitchcock (my favorite Hitchcock film, in fact, probably only challenged by Notorious), and is rife with irony, subtext, and dark humor. The main character, Charlie, is a young girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman in a idyllic American small town. When her beloved uncle and namesake comes to visit, a series of events start to make her wonder exactly who her uncle is and what his connections to the "Merry Widow" murders might be.

What sets this apart in the world of film noir is the fact that it has at its center an entirely innocent heroine. Most of the women featured in noir are either the dangerous dames or the hard luck girls, and whether or not they're up or down, the thing they have in common is that they've all seen the dirty side of life. Charlie has not. She is sheltered in a good family in a small town, and while she longs to get out and see the world, she doesn't really know the first thing about it.

There's also the undeniable subtext of her sexual awakening, which is eerily prompted by her growing realization of her uncle and hero not only as a serial killer, but as a man - and Uncle Charlie's realization that his little niece is now a grown woman. The film may try to deflect the sexual tension mostly onto the relationship between young Charlie and the detective that is following her uncle, but with Hitchcock and his hyperactive sexual imagination at the helm, we should know better than to read that particular plotline as anything but a distraction. As Charlie is confronted with the realities of life beyond her family and childhood beliefs, her new adult understanding of violence, lies, and sex is all tangled up together and presumably leaves her a much different person at the film's close.

There a lot in this film to appreciate - I love young Charlie's younger, know-it-all sister, with her huge round glasses and ever-present stack of books, and her father's ongoing, darkly humorous debate with their geeky, pulp-reading neighbor about the best way to murder someone. Joseph Cotten - my favorite most underrated actor - is perfect as Uncle Charlie. The direction, obviously, is detailed and beautiful. This film is often named the thematic precursor to films like Blue Velvet - which it is, but somehow, a movie like this, which hints rather than explicitly states, is so much more powerful than any other that's tried to take on the same topic of investigating what lies beneath.

Noir Monday: Liebestraum

LibestraumI play fast and loose with the label of "noir," which is why Liebestraum is on the list.

I hate writing straight summaries, so I'm stealing this one verbatim from IMDB: "Two affairs, a generation apart. Nick, a professor of architecture in upstate New York, comes to an Illinois town to be with his birth mother in the final days of her illness; he was adopted and has never known her. On the first day, he runs into Paul, a college friend, whose construction company is demolishing an old, downtown department store where a murder-suicide happened 30 years' before. The building is of beautiful cast-iron construction, so Nick wants to study it before the demolition. Paul introduces Nick to his wife, Jane, and over the next four days, their attraction grows as Nick explores the old building, attends his mother's bedside, and unravels the past." (Thanks, unknown summary writer!)

I should make clear that I don't think this is a great film - it definitely has its faults. But it is artful, almost hypnotic. It has some Lynchian touches (the very strange brothel scene reeks of it), and a lot more distinctly noir touches, including twisted affairs of both past and present, and deadly jealousies. The entire effect of the film is an unsettling one. Chances are you won't wholly like it (although you may wholly dislike it), but it will attract you against your will. And, really, what's more noir than that?

Extras: the lead character is played by Kevin Anderson, a rather fine actor who also starred in one of my personal favorites, Eye of God - although you may remember him better with Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy. Plus - if unsettling movies are your cup of tea, Liebestraum's director Mike Figgis also directed 1999's The Loss of Sexual Innocence, which is a thoroughly continental, arthouse type of film that I can describe no better than "unsettling." In fact, if you have any sexual hangups whatsoever, you should probably avoid Figgis's films, including Liebestraum, altogether. They will not help.

Noir Monday: Scarlet Street

Scarlet StreetIf someone new to film noir wants to learn about it through a single film, Scarlet Street is the one of the ones I would possibly hand her. It's pretty much perfect.

The great, often unsung Edward G. Robinson is Christopher Cross, a quiet, creative man with a mind-numbing bank job and a nagging shrew of a wife. He falls for Kitty, a young, pretty (not to mention loose, foul-mouthed and not particularly bright) woman who mistakes him for a famous artist. Kitty's abusive, domineering boyfriend Johnny sees Cross as a sugar daddy, and pushes Kitty to push Cross for money, which Cross, unaware of Johnny, starts stealing from the bank so that he can keep Kitty happy. It doesn't take much to make him happy - when Kitty and Johnny start passing off Cross's paintings as her own, to their own profit, Cross is so pleased that his work is appreciated he lets her continue to do it. And when Cross's wife's deceased husband suddenly turns up alive, he sees an out of his unhappy marriage and goes to convince Kitty to marry him. Kitty, however, laughs in his face, enraging Cross to the point that he snaps and murders her with an ice pick. Johnny is executed for the murder, but Cross loses his job due to his theft, and tries to kill himself. Unsuccessful, he ends up penniless and alone wandering the streets with Kitty's voice echoing in his head.

Scarlet Street illustrates most clearly the lesson all film noir whispers from the shadows: what you desire can destroy you. Every character in this film wants something desperately: Kitty wants the love of her boyfriend (who is really not much more than a thinly-disguised pimp) so that she'll do anything to keep him, but her game with Cross ends in her death; Johnny wants the money that Kitty can get him, but his involvement results in his murder conviction; Cross's wife wants her deceased husband back, but when he does come back, he's revealed to be crooked and corrupt. And Cross - he wants a lot. He wants freedom from his wife, he wants to be appreciated as a painter, and he wants the love of a beautiful young woman. He gets it all. He even escapes conviction for a murder he committed. But once he's lost everything he gained, he is a great deal worse off than he ever was before, and the loss drives him literally insane.

The film benefits greatly from having a master at its helm - director Fritz Lang, to put it succinctly, knows what he's doing. Every shot, every movement, every line, is deliberate, and carefully builds the characters and story. The performances are brilliant, too.

Scarlet Street is in the pubic domain, and is all over the internet - unfortunately, it's also very poor quality. I've embedded a clip below, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to seek out the 2005 remastered DVD to get the full effect.

Noir Monday: Brick

BrickIn noir terms, neither the storyline or characters of Brick are revolutionary. In fact, both are as noir as it gets. That's the point. But when they're set among teenagers at a high school, it becomes a decidedly different type of film. Meta-noir, I suppose?

Frankly, I just love this film. It's slick and well-done, and full of both dark plots and sly humor. It's possible, though that noir fans get more out of it than others do. As long as you can stretch your ideas of noir, that is. I think Brick is a good example of how film noir isn't so much about the light coming in through the blinds or puffs of cigarette smoke - all in shades of black and white - as it is about that hard, unlucky, and dirty side of human society. That's why I like it - that's the interesting stuff.

Next week: Scarlet Street.

Noir Monday: Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven Three weeks into this, I almost forgot it was Noir Monday. See, this is why I can't be trusted with an ongoing series.

But anyway. There's been quite a few movies made in the noir tradition since the advent of color, but Leave Her to Heaven, in all its Technicolor glory, is the classic example.

Like the other noirs I've discussed (The Dark Corner and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), Leave Her to Heaven revolves primarily around a woman character - unlike the others, though, Gene Tierney as Ellen is all-around pretty reprehensible. She's beautiful, yes (one of the most unmentioned beauties of all time), but as Ellen she's also insecure, demanding, and literally insanely jealous. She breaks off her engagement with a strangely normal Vincent Price to marry novelist Cornell Wilde, then systematically "gets rid of" every one who threatens to come between her and her husband, including members of her own family, and is willing to destroy herself to do so. Even though Ellen might spring from a typical noir stereotype of the scheming femme fatale, she's portrayed with much more delicacy. Unlike the stereotypical noir women, who are evil without much explanation as to why, little clues about Ellen drop throughout the film about her psychological background (including hints at a disturbingly intense relationship with her late father) and how it developed her into who she is, and, by extension, why she's driven to do what she does.

While it stretches the traditional definition of noir, Heaven makes up for by being a genuinely twisted little drama, and, frankly, what seems to me a greatly underrated one - although Martin Scorsese, in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies also waxes poetically about it. There is a recent remastered DVD release out there now, so go forth and rent/buy away.

Noir Monday: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Despite having one of the most ponderous and misleading names in movie history, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a great film noir. I first came across it as a less-than-high-quality VHS tape of it, which I picked up because it was super cheap and I enjoy Barbara Stanwyck. It was a pretty good buy, since it's remained a favorite of mine.

The strongest part of this film is its cast: the aforementioned, wonderful Stanwyck, Van Heflin as the hero, Lizbeth Scott as the hard-luck girl, and Kirk Douglas in his very first role as Stanwyck's overpowered husband. (As a side note, I just learned from Wikipedia that Kirk Douglas's real name is Issur Demsky. I had no idea.)

As with The Dark Corner, one of the things that interests me the most about Ivers is the female characters. They're both rooted in traditional noir figures, but with some progressive touches. Lizbeth Scott is Toni, a tough, been-around-the-block type of girl who tends to get mixed up with the wrong guys - but, of course, she's got a heart of gold. The film is kind to her without covering up her faults, and gives her a second chance by letting her get the good guy - Heflin - at the end.

Babs is much more interesting. She plays the stronger femme fatale angle as the wealthy heiress, industry owner, and wife to Douglas's DA character. She definitely doesn't pull any punches by seducing Sam (Heflin), putting down Toni, or (SPOILER ALERT) eventually revealing her own part in her aunt's long ago death. She also obviously despises her husband and controls him almost completely.

But she also shows pride in her worthier accomplishments. She boasts to Sam about how she took ownership of the tiny factory her father once worked for and more than tripled it in size, providing jobs to most of the town. Her influence in the town, including her support of its businesses and charities, is large. It's rare in noir to find a woman, even a bad one, with so much power and clear advantages, both in materials and attitude, over the significant male characters. When she walks in on Sam and Toni in their adjoining hotel rooms and Sam asks why the front desk let her just walk in, she coolly replies, "I have special privileges in this hotel, Sam. I own it."

The male characters are strong as well, and the story, while a little contrived and overblown in places, overall moves well. The score is lovely, and the ending is happy (unless, like me, you wanted evil Barbara to triumph).

I was almost certain this film was in the public domain, considering the cheapo brand-new copy of it I once bought - and it may very well be, but I can't turn up an online version. You can, however, listen to the excellent Out of the Past podcast episode where they explore the film even more thoroughly.

Noir Monday: The Dark Corner

The Dark Corner

Is this a new weekly feature? Maybe. I don't want to jinx it by putting too much pressure on it. Let's just leave it at that I love noir, watch a lot of noir, and sometimes feel compelled to talk about it. If it continues, it continues. So enjoy it while it lasts.

Over the weekend, I watched The Dark Corner from 1946, which has the interesting distinction of being a tried-and-true, hard-knuckled film noir that stars comedienne Lucille Ball. It's a respectable, even good, noir, but, ironically, she is by far the best part of it.

In fact, her character is the reason this noir stood out for me. Traditional women's roles in film noir are pretty much limited to the gorgeous, scheming femme fatale. Which is fun, but, well, limited, to say the least. Sometimes there's a trusted girl ally, like Spade's secretary Effie in The Maltese Falcon, but she's strictly second stage. Even though Lucille's character is also a secretary, she's tough, smart, and stands up for herself against anyone, including the police and the man she works for. She also has a vibrancy that overshadows every other character in the film. It's a refreshing change for a noir, to see a female lead like her.

Best part? You can watch it online. Well, you could until TVLinks went kaput. I can't find the video anymore, but you can watch the original trailer.