Category Archives: Classic Films

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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The Citizen Kane of Noir Film: The Killers

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Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane begins with the titular character, Charles Foster Kane, on his deathbed, whispering “Rosebud” just before he dies. A reporter then investigates Kane’s life in an attempt to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Though the reporter learns virtually everything about Kane’s life, which is revealed, in flashbacks, from the perspective of virtually everyone who knew Kane but never from Kane himself, the reporter never does learn the meaning of Kane’s last word. The alert viewing audience, however, does know it meaning: Rosebud is the name of Kane’s sled, from childhood, and represents the only time Kane was ever happy, the long-ago childhood time before his mother, who became wealthy after a goldmine was discovered on her property, sent Kane away to live with a stranger and be properly educated. Citizen Kane, shot in black-and-white with dramatic shadowing and lighting, has long been considered one of the best films ever made, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for its multi-perspective, flashback narrative. “Citizen Kane is particularly praised for its cinematography, music, editing and narrative structure, which have been considered innovative and precedent-setting.”

Burt Lancaster as Swede, The Killers © Universal

The 1946 Noir film The Killers, “a neglected screen classic from director Robert Siodmak, is an intense, hard-edged, stylish film noir of robbery, unrequited love, brutal betrayal, and double-cross.” It has been called the Citizen Kane of Noir because of the film’s
structure, “a fractured puzzle of multiple narrations,” which closely mimics that of Welles’ famed film. The protagonist of The Killers — The Swede — carefully played by Burt Lancaster in his film debut, is just as baffling and flawed as Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane, though the audience itself is left to determine the meaning of The Swede’s enigmatic final words: “I did something wrong… once.” Lancaster’s subtly nuanced performance is only one of the elements that elevates this film to its classic status.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad as the contract killers in The Killers © Universal

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive, idiosyncratic dialogue (which then disappears from the film: the remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original). Two professional killers walk into a diner just before 6p.m. and terrify everyone there by openly announcing that they’ve come to town to kill someone called “The Swede” and may just decide to kill everyone in the diner while they’re at it. Nick Adams, a recurring character in Hemingway’s stories, has a very minor role in the film. A coworker at the gas station where Swede pumps gas and repairs tires, Adams runs to Swede’s boarding house to warn him about the contract killers who are looking for him. Adams is stunned and confused by Swede’s resigned reaction.

Burt Lancaster as Swede, The Killers © Universal

Noir performances are always about the ways people cope with a bleak and violent universe, whether they arm themselves with [icy remoteness]… or with abraded cynicism, desperate defiance, or spellbound fatalism. This last response is distilled by Burt Lancaster in his screen debut, playing the killers’ target, The Swede. It is a surprising introduction for one of cinema’s most physically resplendent and powerful men: we first see his muscular body supine on a bed, his head blacked out by shadows. When Nick Adams comes to warn the Swede about the killers, the doomed man speaks out of the dark, his voice low and lifeless: “There’s nothing I can do.” When his face appears in the light, it is calm, frozen in a mixture of numbness and dazzled resignation—the same expression he wears at many points in the film.

Edmund O’Brien as Reardon, The Killers © Universal

Intrigued by the motive behind the contract hit and disconcerted by the fact that Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him, an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life. (By the time Reardon does seem to have a motive for investigating Swede’s death, he’s already spent a significant amount of time researching Swede’s life story, so the motive of recovering robbery money is insufficient to explain the insurance investigator’s initial interest in Swede.)

Edmund O’Brien as Investigator Reardon, The Killers © Universal

Investigator Reardon, who carries a gun and shoots at people with impunity, discovers that Swede, a former boxer, had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster as Swede, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster named Big Jim Colfax, Reardon is convinced that the girlfriend, Kitty, had something to do with Swede’s death.

Ava Gardener plays Kitty, the film’s “duplicitous, strikingly-beautiful, vixenish, and unsympathetic femme fatale, [and the role] made Gardner an overnight love goddess and star.” Kitty seems to be the stereotypical femme fatale, a gorgeous woman who is “giving a performance of a performance, enacting a charade of feminine sweetness and frailty that satisfies the expectations and desires of their marks,” in this case, the big, dumb brute, Swede.

Virginia Christine as abandoned Good Girl Lilly, Burt Lancaster as Swede, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

The Swede, as written, is truly a big dumb animal, deep enough to feel pain, no deeper. “She’s beautiful,” he states in open stupefaction at his first glimpse of Kitty. As she sings… he stands so close she likely feels his nostril steam on her neck. Later, he emerges from a bed­room and remarks with what seems goofy pride at basic bodily functions, “I fell asleep.” But Lancaster, built to defeat a white T-shirt as well as any man, imbues the animal with existential dimensions by the thwarted intelligence lighting his eyes.

Though no one ever relays Swede’s final words — “I did something wrong… once” — to Investigator Reardon, it becomes clear to the audience that Swede is not, in fact, as dumb or brutish as Big Jim and fellow criminals think. Further, Swede’s stoic acceptance of his fate when the contract killers arrive has more to do with his relationship with Kitty than with any crimes he ever committed, even if Swede never seems to regret the shabby way he treated archetypal Noir Good Girl Lilly (Virginia Christine).

Edmund O’Brien as Reardon, and Ava Gardner as Kitty, The Killers © Universal

And Kitty is even more calculating and vicious than anyone could imagine, even Investigator Reardon. The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The Killers was considered somewhat radical when first released because it departed from the traditional, chronological narrative format, using flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story, but was nominated for four Academy Awards and was a box-office success. Available for rent ($2-99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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I Hate You So Much, I Could Die from It:
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The Sweet Smell of Murder:
The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity</em

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The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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I Hate You So Much, I Could Die From It: The Classic Noir Film, Gilda

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The Big Combo ©

You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it: shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (and these are sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Many Film Noir of that early period were based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as these:

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce
Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely
Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to be Murder” (as Rear Window)
I Married a Dead Man (made into several film versions, all with titles different from the novel as well as from the previous films)
and
Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Popular with audiences, many Noir films were made by renowned directors, including,

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (a disputed title in the Film Noir canon)
Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend)
Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Rear Window)
and
Otto Preminger (Laura and Angel Face).

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity ©

Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Virtually every character is more bad than good, however, although they mostly justify their criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blame it on something (or someone) else. The story involves a Guy, who becomes entangled with a Dame, and the story is really theirs, though others, like the Good Girl or the Unsuspecting Husband, sometimes get crushed under the wheels of whatever is driving the Guy and the Dame to their own destruction.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, Out of the Past ©

The Guy

Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a convict (The Postman Always Rings Twice), an unwary insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), a government investigator (The Stranger), or an unfortunate victim of circumstance (D.O.A.), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. The male protagonist has had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the femme fatale, but the male is almost always portrayed as the victim of the femme. Since Film Noir features Voice-Over narration mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, the viewers are kept clearly on the side of that character: their worldview is limited to that of the doomed male.

Rita Hayworth in Lady from Shanghai ©

The Dame

The Dame of Noir films is the femme fatale, a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl,” the “girl next door,” or “the marrying type,” who loses the Guy to the dangerous femme fatale,

a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations… A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure… In social life, the femme fatale tortures her lover in an asymmetrical relationship, denying confirmation of her affection. She usually drives him to the point of obsession and exhaustion so that he is incapable of making rational decisions.

Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. While the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart. The femme fatale refuses to play expected societal roles.

She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.

One of the most striking Noir films of the 1940s is Gilda (1946), and “No film noir course would be complete without it, in part because it’s at once prototypical and highly unusual.” While gambling in back alleys in Buenos Aires, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) unexpectedly meets a stranger, who rescues Farrell from robbers, then invites Farrell to visit a high-stakes, though also illegal, casino. When Farrell goes to the casino and tries his usual thuggish con, he is brought before the gangster-owner: Ballin Mundson (George Macready), the stranger who saved Farrell in the alley.

George Macready as Ballin Mundson, and Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Mundson admires Johnny’s braggadocio and hires him as his right-hand man. Like any clever crook who wears formal clothes, Johnny quickly rises in the institution’s hierarchy and becomes close friends with the Boss. When Boss Mundson returns from a short trip, he announces that he has fallen in love and impetuously married a beautiful woman, Gilda (Rita Hayworth).

Rita Hayworth as Gilda in Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Gilda and Johnny seem to immediately dislike, even despise each other, though each denies any antipathy to Mundson. Gilda enjoys herself at her husband’s casino: gambling,

Rita Hayworth in Gilda © Columbia Pictures

drinking and dining,

Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and Glenn Ford as Johnny, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

singing,

Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and Stephen Geray as Uncle Pio, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

and dancing, once in a strapless black dress so iconic it has its own Wikipedia page.

Rita Hayworth as Gilda, in the iconic black dress, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

When she begins to enjoy herself a bit too much, dancing too closely to one of the attractive guests, Mundson orders Johnny to keep her in line. Johnny reluctantly becomes Gilda’s “keeper.”

George Macready (standing), Rita Hayworth, and Glenn Ford, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

That’s when it becomes clear that Gilda and Johnny have a previous relationship, and it obviously didn’t turn out well. Gilda is as angry at Johnny as he is at her: viewers don’t know exactly what happened between them, or who broke up with whom, but it’s clear that they really do hate each other.

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, that hate is exciting — more so to Gilda than to Johnny — and when she begins to have sexual relations with everyone but her husband, openly flaunting her infidelity, Johnny takes it upon himself to protect the Boss from the Dame by becoming her bodyguard, re-igniting “one of the most erotic and tortured relationships on film” [synopsis].

Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, Gilda © Columbia Pictures

Just when you think you know where the film’s story is going, it changes direction abruptly, which is no doubt one of the reasons it’s become a classic. Mundson disappears, and the relationship between Johnny and Gilda takes an unexpected turn. To this point, Gilda has been portrayed as a monster albeit a monster with really amazing hair, but we learn that her seemingly insatiable sexual appetite, is really a

layer of bravado that masks deep insecurity… [and] it’s strongly implied that Johnny’s behavior in their prior relationship is largely responsible for her twisted psyche.

After Mundson’s disappearance, Gilda’s vulnerability is revealed, as is Johnny’s innate ruthlessness and cruelty. In an unusual twist for Film Noir, Gilda, the femme fatale, becomes the sympathetic protagonist while Johnny, the supposedly doomed male, becomes the unrepentant and quite horrific villain. And then, when you think you know where this new storyline is heading, the story changes direction again, when an unexpected character arrives.

Noted for its frank portrayal of sexuality, complete with homoerotic hints from the Boss toward the Guy, Gilda is available for rent for $2.99-3.99 (SD/HD) from Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay, iTunes, and Vudu. Available for purchase from these sites as well as from TCM, where Gilda is free for subscribers.

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Horror and Suspense Films

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listed in alphabetical order by name of film

Scary Because It’s Possible:
The Bad Seed, the Film

To Make Cynics of Us All:
Devil, The Horror Film

The Tragedy Doomed to Repeat Itself:
The Devil’s Backbone: The Film

The First Award-Winning Horror Film:
The Exorcist

Setting the World on Fire:
The Girl with All The Gifts, the Film

The Demons Within:
The Innocents, the Film

The Plague that Cast the World Into Darkness:
Open Grave, the Film

When Children Scare You To Death:
Orphan, the Film

Not For Children:
The Horror Film The Orphanage

The World of the Living and The World of The Dead:
The Others, the Film

Slasher-Horror as Art Film:
Psycho, The Classic

Suspense via Edgar Allan Poe:
The Raven, the 2012 Film

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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

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Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in black & white, by a television crew, on a small budget, because Paramount had already rejected the project, claiming its subject matter was “too repulsive… and impossible” for film. Hitchcock, who had already optioned the novel, then financed the film himself. According to film critic Roger Ebert, Psycho (1960) “remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that … artistry [is] more important than graphic details.” Because Hitchcock was answerable to no one but himself, he succeeded in creating one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. At the same time, he created an art film classic.

Janet Leigh as Marion, and John Gavin as Sam, Psycho © Universal

The story begins as if it were a crime mystery. Marion (Janet Leigh) is having an affair with Sam (John Gavin), and she is distressed that they cannot marry because of his debts. Later that afternoon, when she returns to work, Marion is asked to take a substantial cash deposit of $40K to the bank. Instead, Marion absconds with the money, hoping to use it so she and Sam run away together.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho © Universal

That night, in a thunderstorm, Marion stays at an isolated and mostly unoccupied motel, managed by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Though handsome, Norman is gawky, and he has an odd hobby: taxidermy. The room where he serves Marion dinner is filled with dead and stuffed birds of prey.

From the spooky house overlooking the motel, Norman’s mentally ill mother can be heard berating him, and this elicits Marion’s sympathy for him. It also makes her re-evaluate her own crime, which would hurt not only her employer but his client as well. Marion takes a shower, symbolically cleansing herself of her evil intentions since she has apparently decided to return the stolen cash, when…

The famous shower scene, with Janet Leigh, Psycho © Universal

You may or may not know about the most famous shower scene in all of cinematic history, but the rest of the story becomes an intense murder mystery as the audience’s sympathy is shifted from impulsive criminal Marion to horrified son Norman as he desperately attempts to protect his dangerous mother.

Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

In a move that, even now, is considered outrageously audacious, Hitchcock directs the film’s viewing audience as much as he did its actors: about a third of the way into the film, he takes all the viewers’ attention away from the ostensible protagonist — played by the film’s star power, Janet Leigh — and focuses the story on the newly introduced Norman. “I was directing the viewers,” [Hitchcock] told [fellow director] Truffaut in their book-length interview. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”

Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast, Psycho © Universal

As Norman is feverishly working to protect his violent mother from discovery, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is desperately worried about Marion, who has disappeared. While asking Marion’s lover Sam about her whereabouts, the pair is approached by a detective (Martin Balsam), who has been hired to retrieve the stolen money. Sam and Lila encourage the detective to search for Marion, confident that some mistake has been made concerning the missing funds, which they assume Marion will be able to explain.

Vera Miles as Lila, John Gavin as Sam, and Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

When the detective fails to contact them as arranged, Sam and Lila decide that they must investigate the mysterious happenings surrounding the isolated motel themselves…

Vera Miles, Psycho © Universal

Even if that means they must break into the spooky old house where Norman’s mother is obviously keeping watch over everything that happens down at the motel.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, and Best Director for Hitchcock, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films. Marred only by the final scene with the psychiatrist — which appears before the classic finale with Norman and his mother — Psycho is a classic thriller, with enough realistic spookiness to keep you up at night.

Available for rent ($2.99/3.99 SD/HD) or purchase (about $6.99) from Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

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The World of the Dead and the World of the Living: The Others, the Film

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Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this film, which some say was inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, isn’t really like the book. In The Turn of the Screw, a governess at an isolated estate with two young children in her care claims that she sees ghosts. Further, the governess becomes convinced that the children already know about the ghosts even if they never admit to actually seeing them. Because the governess is completely psychologically unreliable, and because viewers’ perspective is limited to that of the emotionally vulnerable woman, we never know if there are actually any ghosts roaming about the old mansion or whether the governess is losing her mind.

The Innocents (C)

Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents to Alejandro Amenábar film The Others because they say the former is closer to James’ book, and The Innocents is a fantastic suspense film. But for a suspense film that I want to watch over and over, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in The Others (2001), written and directed by Amenábar, which is a combination ghost story and psychological suspense thriller. Like the governess in Turn of the Screw and The Innocents, Kidman’s character is alone in an isolated mansion with two young children, and strange things begin to happen. Strange things that make her character wonder if she’s losing her mind. But unlike either the novella or the earlier film, what’s really happening in The Others is even more horrifying than anything the isolated woman might imagine. You’ll have to watch the film several times to see all the clues you missed the first time, but you won’t mind because The Others is one of the best suspense films ever made.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, The Others © Lionsgate

In a secluded island mansion during World War II, a sad, lonely, and devoutly religious wife, Grace (Nicole Kidman), patiently cares for her home and two children, Anne (Alakina Mann)

Alikina Mann as Anne, The Others © Lionsgate

and Nicholas (James Bentley),

Nicole Kidman as Grace, and James Bentley as Nicholas, The Others © Lionsgate

while waiting for her husband (Christopher Eccelston) to return from the War.

Christopher Eccelston as Charles, The Others © Lionsgate

All the servants have deserted the house, without warning, so Grace and her little family are very anxious and alone. When three servants mysteriously appear, Grace somewhat reluctantly accepts their help. Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) assures Grace that, though they did not come specifically in answer to Grace’s advertisement, the trio has not only been in service, but that they have preciously worked in this very house.

Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills, The Others © Lionsgate

Mrs. Mills will be the housekeeper and cook, the mute Lydia (Elaine Cassidy) will clean,

Elaine Cassidy as Lydia, The Others © Lionsgate

and Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes) will take care of the grounds.

Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs Mills, Elaine Cassidy as Lydia, Eric Sykes as Mr Tuttle, The Others © Lionsgate

Besides the mysterious arrival of the servants, there are some other strange things going on in this lonely house. The children Anne and Nicholas suffer from Xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic disorder in which the body’s ability to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light is deficient. To protect the children, all the curtains have to be kept closed in any room through which the children might pass.

The Others © Lionsgate

To prevent the children from getting horrific burns caused by accidental exposure to sunlight, the doors to each room must be closed and locked before another door is opened. Mrs Mills is not the only one to think things are… well, odd in the house.

Because of the War, or the children’s “condition,” or both, Grace home-schools Anne and Nicholas, though she sometimes forces her own Catholic beliefs on them when they clearly have formed their own, contrary opinions about God, the afterlife, faith, and Bible stories.

Alakina Mann as Anne, James Bentley as Nicholas, and Nicole Kidman as Grace, The Others © Lionsgate

Besides the “returning” servants, the spooky fog that always surrounds the house, and the children’s “condition” which makes almost total darkness and locked doors a necessity, there’s something else really scary and nerve-jangling going on in the old house.

Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, and James Bentley, The Others © Lionsgate

Noises, knocks, bumps in the night, crying, voices, weeping… Grace thinks the children are playing pranks on her. Then she thinks the servants are just being downright unprofessional by making such a racket. But then, slowly, she begins to suspect that there is something even more frightening going on.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, and Christopher Eccelston as Charles, The Others © Lionsgate

More frightening than the behavior of her husband Charles, whom she discovers in the woods around the house, who seems to have returned from the War in body, though not in spirit.

Eric Sykes as Mr Tuttle, The Others © Lionsgate

More frightening than Mr Tuttle’s covering all those graves with dead leaves, which Grace doesn’t even know about yet.

When her daughter Anne begins to insist that she’s heard — and seen — other people in the house — a little boy named Victor, in particular — Grace gets terrified. She’s not afraid that she’s losing her mind, however: she’s more convinced that the house has somehow become haunted, and that, furthermore, the ghosts are determined to hurt her children.

Nicole Kidman as Grace, The Others © Lionsgate

And Grace will do anything to protect her children from harm. Anything at all. Even if it means arming herself to protect her family.

Winner of 8 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards), and the first English-language film to win the Goya for Best Picture without having a single word of Spanish in it, The Others has no special effects whatsoever, but it’s one of the best horror films ever made. Nicole Kidman, who “succeeds in convincing us that she is a normal person in a disturbing situation,” was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA (British Academy Awards) for Best Actress.

The Others is available for rent ($2.99/3.99 SD/HD) or purchase ($6.99) on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

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It’s October, and that means it’s time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As I’ve gotten older, I find movies where the events could actually happen even more frightening than those supernatural beings of my childhood horror films. One of the scariest is 1956’s The Bad Seed,  which was considered so potentially scary to viewing audiences that all the actors appeared to “take a bow” at the end of the film — much as they had in the stage play of the same name on which it was based — to remind everyone that it was fictional.

The Bad Seed may be fictional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. And the most terrifying part of the film is that it could actually happen. To anyone. So don’t let the fact that the actors “take a bow” at the end of the film keep you from watching this horror classic. Psychologically realistic and terrifying in the extreme, The Bad Seed contains not a single paranormal character or hint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.

Nancy Kelly as mother Christine (L) and Patty McCormack as daughter Rhoda (R), The Bad Seed ©

The film stars Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark, who begins to feel uneasy around her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) after a little boy who’s Rhoda’s school rival dies in an accident. As Christine begins to re-evaluate things about Rhoda’s character that make her uneasy, she is faced with opposition from neighbors and family, all of whom insist Christine herself is imagining things about her angelic little girl.

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Every time Christine manages to convince herself that she’s jumpy and unreasonably suspicious, however, Rhoda does something that’s less than angelic, throwing Christine into doubt all over again.

Nancy Kelly as Christine, The Bad Seed ©

Though the film is a little heavy-handed on the heredity vs. environment discussions, it’s worth watching. The supporting cast is excellent even when their parts are minor, and include Eileen Heckart as the grief-stricken mother of the dead boy,

Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed ©

Paul Fix as the doting crime-writer Grand-dad who thinks his beloved daughter is just worrying about nothing in particular,

and Henry Jones as LeRoy the suspicious handyman who just knows that something is not right with pretty little Rhoda.

Despite everyone’s assurances that Rhoda is a beautiful, sweet, highly intelligent little girl, Christine has her doubts and suspicions about Rhoda’s true nature and potential for violence. After all, not everyone gets to see Rhoda when she’s upset. Or annoyed. Or even angry.

Patty McCormack as Rhoda, The Bad Seed ©

The film’s content is so scary — and so very possible — that even the original trailer had to “remind” viewers that they were watching an advertisement for a film based on a play based on William March’s novel, just so, you know, people didn’t get too creeped out. Further, The Bad Seed was so unusual for its time that it had a notice at the end of the film, asking viewers not to reveal its ending to others.

The Bad Seed, 1956 ©

McCormack as the young girl Rhoda and Kelly as her mother Christine received Oscar nominations for their performances.  60 years later, the film and its exploration of evil remain pertinent.

 The Bad Seed is available to rent for a couple bucks on Amazon, on YouTube, and on Vudu.

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The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

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I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of what I loved about the book was what I still love: are there really ghosts or are they figments of troubled people’s imagination? Last year, I saw the original British film adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, and was completely spooked by the great performances and the cinematography. I don’t know how I missed the film before, given my obsession with scary movies and my complete worship of Deborah Kerr, who plays the spooked governess. With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, The Turn of the Screw has fantastic acting, and the performances are plenty scary without any special effects.

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Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents (C)

Deborah Kerr stars as the Governess, Miss Giddens, who comes to an isolated estate to care for two orphans, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens),

Pamela Franklin as Flora, and Martin Stephens as Miles, The Innocents ©

who are just too beautiful and too-too perfect to be believed.

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Still, Miss Giddens is happy enough with her lovely charges and with the gorgeous house, despite all its creakity-creaks and spookity-shadows and creepity closed-off rooms. She’s happy with the beautiful gardens and the beautiful lake and the outdoor picnics with the ever-so-beautiful children and… oh, all of it.

Even if she occasionally does think she sees something out of place and inexplicable…

The Innocents ©

Oh, it’s just her imagination, isn’t it, because she’s happy with the house, the garden, the lake, and she’s so incredibly happy with the sweet, innocent, beautiful, orphan children. Most of all, she’s happy with those sweet children.

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, The Innocents ©

Until she begins to be unhappy with them.

Why? Maybe they’re too beautiful. Maybe they’re too perfect. Maybe they’re too mature. Maybe…

Martin Stephens as Miles and Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, The Innocents ©

Well, it’s bad enough that Miss Giddens thinks the two siblings are keeping secrets from her and lying about it. Even worse when they two of them go off on the grounds by themselves without her permission or knowledge. And it’s really not very proper at all when she says “goodnight” to Miles and he kisses her in a totally inappropriate way.

The Ghost and Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), The Innocents ©

When Miss Giddens begins to see ghosts, she gets scared. When she begins to suspect that the children know all about the ghosts, who seem to be the ghosts of people that the children actually knew, she gets worried. But when Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the lovely orphan children may, in fact, be possessed by the ghosts’ evil spirits, well, that’s an entirely different story. Miss Giddens feels morally responsible for the children’s welfare, so she simply must do something drastic to protect them from physical, psychological, and spiritual danger.

The film stays close to the source material in never revealing whether or not the children can also see the ghosts, leading us to question the Governess’ sanity as she attempts to free her charges of the evil that she believes possesses them. Are the ghosts merely a figment of her imagination? Are the children possessed?   Is Miss Giddens dangerously crazy? You’ll have to decide those for yourself in this scary classic.

If you’ve read the Henry James novella, you’ll really appreciate the film’s subtlety. If you’ve seen the later remake of the same work, The Others, there’s no comparison: both films are great though they are completely different from each other.  The Others is one of my top 7 Wonders of the Horror World.

Whatever version of The Innocents you find — dated 1956 or 1961 — make sure you have the black & white film, not the colorized one: the stark cinematography helps create the scares in this completely non-CGI horror classic.  The Innocents is available for rent or purchase from Amazon.

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The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

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Though the word “horror” was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from fictional sources, began to be made as early as the 1890s. Between 1910-1920, quite a few European films featuring the supernatural, witchcraft, or superstitious beliefs were released. The German film Nosferatu, though an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was the earliest vampire-themed production. Many of the earliest American horror films, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — both based on novels — were considered dark melodrama rather than horror, if only because of their stock characters or romance elements.

In the 1930s, horror films began to do more than just startle or frighten audiences. Filmmakers inserted elements of Gothic fiction into their stories, giving audiences dangerous mysteries, ancestral curses, remote and crumbling castles, doomed Byronic heroes, and oft-fainting heroines. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau contributed elements that belonged more to science fiction than to Gothic horror, such as the “mad” scientist or doctor who, playing God, wants to re-animate corpses or manipulate human genetics to create some superior being but instead develops monsters. In 1933, the mad scientist appeared alongside Gothic elements in James Whale’s film The Invisible Man, known for its “clever and ground-breaking special effects,” and a new film genre was successfully underway.

In the 1950s-1960s, the subject matter of horror films began to include contemporaneous concerns along with the science fiction, supernatural, or Gothic elements. Alien invasions, deadly (atomic) mutations, demonic possession, post-apocalyptic worlds, and social alienation were prevalent in horror films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Godzilla (1954), The Innocents (1961), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The terror of demonic possession reached its apotheosis in 1973, when The Exorcist — the first horror film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture — demonstrated that a horror film could be as artistic as it was frightening.

Based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Exorcist tells the story of a young, innocent child possessed by demons. The novel was inspired by the 1949 story of a mentally ill boy, Roland Doe (psyeudonym), who was the last person to be subjected to a Catholic Church-santioned exorcism. According to the film’s director, William Friedkin, Blatty originally wanted to write a non-fiction account of the thirteen-year-old boy’s experiences in a psychiatric hospital but couldn’t get enough details: Blatty dramatized the story instead.

Linda Blair as Regan, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

Extremely faithful to the book, the film version of The Exorcist tells the story of 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair),

Ellen Burstyn as mother Chris MacNeil, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

who lives with her actress-mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).

Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

When Regan’s personality begins to change, and when she complains of strange events, such as her bed’s shaking, her mother initially seeks helps from the medical community. Examined by doctors and psychiatrists, Regan is initially misdiagnosed with personality disorders, rebellious attention-seeking behavior, and brain lesions. Subjected to tests that are as frightening as any demonic possession could be, Regan suffers but does not improve. In fact, her condition worsens.

Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant Kinderman, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

When one of Chris MacNeil’s colleagues and friends is murdered after having been alone with the severely ill Regan, Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins to investigate Regan, terrifying Chris that her young daughter will be accused of a crime she may have committed but of which she is not morally guilty.

Jason Miller as Father Karras, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

In desperation, Regan’s mother seeks help from a local Jesuit psychiatrist, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is experiencing his own crisis of faith after the death of his mother and his inability to successfully counsel his fellow priests.

Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

Although skeptical of demonic possession, Father Karras soon concludes that something supernatural and demonic is, in fact, happening to Regan. Karras does not have the experience to help her, however, and he decides that he needs the help of an expert exorcist: Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, known most recently for his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones).

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and winner of two — Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing — The Exorcist is still the highest-grossing horror film ever made (the earnings for the new version of Stephen King’s It have not yet been adjusted for inflation).

The film’s weaknesses are the same as those in its source material: its inability early in the story to decide if it is a murder mystery or a horror story, for example, and its extended scenes setting up the “innocence” of the major protagonists.

The Exorcist © Warner Bros

The film’s strengths outweigh any weaknesses, however, and its exploration of faith, maternal devotion, and possible psychological illness are still powerful more than 40 years after its release. The complex special effects are outstanding, as is the demon’s terrifying voice, which was supplied by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge.

Regan (Linda Blair) floats, watched by Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), The Exorcist (1973) © Warner Bros (Photograph Allstar: Cinetext Collection)

The Exorcist is available for rent ($2.99 SD / $3.99 HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial subscription to Cinemax), Cinemax (free for subscribers), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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