Category Archives: Crime Drama

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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When All Your Dreams Come True, But Your Heart Is Still Broken: Dearest, the Film

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Child trafficking is a huge problem in China: 20,000 to 200,000 children are sold every year. Sometimes, the biological parents sell their own children because they are unable to pay the fines for having 2 or more children. “Families ill equipped to pay penalties on top of the costs of raising a child—food, school tuition, etc.— sometimes opt to sell their offspring.” More often, however, children are stolen — snatched off the streets — and sold to orphanages or to wealthy childless families for adoption, sometimes for international adoption. The US State Department named China one of the world’s worst in child trafficking in 2017, and while the Chinese government acknowledges the problem, it refuses to release any statistics about its high abduction rates.

When children go missing, government officials often avoid investigating, or, worse, are complicit in aiding kidnappers by giving wealthy families who buy kidnapped children the appropriate legal documentation to explain the presence of multiple children in a country where the government has regulated births since 1980, and though the one-child-per-family law is now defunct, its legacy continues in high child trafficking rates. Worse, parents of kidnapped children are often persecuted as a “nuisance” and a “threat to social stability” for continuing to search for their children and for accusing the government of inaction and complicity in the kidnappings.

You wouldn’t imagine that a film about China’s child trafficking problem would be anything but grim, but director Peter Chan’s Dearest (Qin ai de, 2014), based on a true story of parents who are reunited with their kidnapped child several years later, turns the tables on viewers’ expectations by putting an ostensibly happy ending in the middle of the film. After the parents are reunited with their abducted child, the film becomes more gripping and powerful  as it explores the pain and heartbreak of everyone involved in child trafficking, from the grieving parents and the presumably guilty adoptive parents to the kidnapped children themselves. Though some of its subplot are irrelevant,  Dearest is one of the most scathing and brilliant stories of a painful and horrifying topic.

Huang Bo as Tian, Dearest ©

The first half of the film concentrates its story on the divorced parents. Father Tian (Huang Bo) runs a small internet cafe in Shenzhen and has many arguments with his ex-wife Lu (Hao Lei) over the best way to raise their three-year-old son Pengpeng (played by multiple child actors).

Hao Lei as Lu, Dearest ©

When Tian is distracted by a group of teen boys fighing in this store, he sends his son Pengpeng off to play with some neighboring children. The little boy gets distracted and tries to follow a car he thinks is his mother’s, and he gets snatched off the street (which is apparently a common way for kidnappers to abduct children in China).

Huang Bo as Tian, and Hao Lei as ex-wife Lu, Dearest ©

Somewhat reunited by their guilt and despair, parents Tian and Lu begin an initially fruitless search for their son. Since police and other officials are downright obstructive, the couple joins a support group for parents of missing children. Some of the most frightening scenes in the entire film deal with the way the group handles members’ grief, the violence that erupts in these grieving parents when they confront suspected kidnappers, and the terrifying “group-think” when these hopeless parents follow a truck they believe may carry kidnapped children wrapped in burlap bags in the back.

Zhao Wei as “adoptive” mother Li (kneeling), Dearest ©

About halfway through the film, Tian and Lu are told that their son has been located, and despite the fact that this seems as if it should be a happily-ever-after moment, Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy, who not only does not recognize them, but who fights to remain with his “mother,” Li (played by renowned Chinese actor Zhao Wei).

Zhao Wei as Li, Dearest ©

From that moment, the film becomes a more morally complex and painful examination of good and evil as it focuses more on the disingenuously naïve adoptive mother Li, who insists to officials that her now-deceased husband only brought home “abandoned children” whom he found, and as the film focuses on the children Li “adopted” and raised as her own.

Zhoa Wei as Li, Dearest ©

Even without my being fluent in Mandarin, it was obvious to me that the most powerful actor in the film was playing the mother who was accused of raising kidnapped children. After Li loses her son (who is, indeed, Tian and Lu’s son Pengpeng) and her daughter, whose parents cannot be identified, Li begins a legal battle to adopt the daughter rather than leave her to be raised in an orphanage with hundreds of other children.

two of the actors playing the kidnapped children in Dearest ©

The few sub-plots, such as that with the lawyer and his dementia-afflicted mother, distract slightly from overall narrative, but the film as a whole is gripping and intense. Knowing that the parents find and “rescue” their kidnapped son does not detract from the power of the film. Instead, the film becomes more gripping the instant it flips its protagonists and antagonists: when biological parents Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy Pengpeng themselves and run from villagers who are trying to rescue him for his screaming “mother,” Li.

Some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes involve not the parents but the two young children: neither remembers any mother but their “adoptive” one and neither can understand why they are no longer allowed to live together even though they are “brother” and “sister.”

Compelling and morally disturbing because it deals with both the victims and the offenders of child trafficking, Dearest won awards for Director Peter Chen and for Best Actress Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Dearest is available to rent ($1.99-2.99 SD/HD, free for Prime members) from Amazon.

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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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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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The Thief, the Liar, and the Lovers: Korea’s Complex Crime Film, The Handmaiden

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At first glance, Korea’s 2016 The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) seems to be a straight-forward imperialist drama. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and sumptuously directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the Japanese imperialists have become the ideal for the subjugated Koreans. Learn Japanese, dress in kimonos, and mimic the behavior of your oppressors, and you can escape the poverty and ostracism of Korean occupation.

The Handmaiden quickly shifts into a crime drama, however, as a group of Korean thieves, pickpockets, and con-men plan to infiltrate the home of a rich but secluded woman in order to steal her fortune. Just when you think you understand what is happening, however, The Handmaiden abruptly shifts its perspective, changing the focus of its storyline to become one of the most complex psychological thrillers ever made.

The story begins simply enough. A handsome Korean con-man who pretends to be a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo),

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

recruits a young, somewhat naïve pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri),

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of an isolated, reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-heea).

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

The heiress is betrothed to a strange, unimaginably wealthy Japanese-book collector, who is also her uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong, below R), and who also plans to steal the girl’s fortune himself.

Sook-hee’s job as handmaiden is to persuade the heiress Hideko to accept the Count’s marriage proposal and to elope since it is well known that the Uncle intends to marry his virtually captive niece himself. After consummating the illicit marriage, the faux Japanese Count plans to empty his new  bride’s bank account and have the heiress-bride Hideko committed to a lunatic asylum. In return for her help, the pickpocket Sook-hee can take whatever clothes and jewels she desires.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Given the wealth and personal obsessions of her Uncle, the heiress is continually isolated, but with her handmaiden as her chaperone, Hideko manages to have a bit more freedom with the Count, who is ostensibly giving her art lessons.

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

During the Count’s surreptitious courtship, Lady Hideko and Handmaiden Sook-hee find themselves drawn to each other — first as companions and friends, and then, tentatively and somewhat innocently, as lovers.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Just when you think you know how the film is going to develop, it suddenly seems to end, and not very pleasantly. It’s only Sook-hee’s perspective of the story that ends, though, because the film is not even half-way over.

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, and Cho Jin-woong as Uncle Kouzuki, The Handmaiden ©

Part Two continues the story, only now from Hideko’s perspective, where we learn that Lady Hideko is haunted by the suicide of her aunt, that her Uncle Kouzuki is a collector of rare Japanese books that are all pornography, and that he forces her to read said pornographic books to him as well as to his male guests, including the Korean-faux-Japanese Count. This isolation and abuse account greatly for Lady Hideko’s ennui and despair in the Part One, as well as for the Count’s interest in Lady Hideko: he wants the heiress’ fortune and the Uncle’s rare Japanese pornography collection.

Kim Tae-ri as Handmaiden Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Lest you now think that you have all of the characters figured out and that you are absolutely positive about the film’s final act, The Handmaiden “ends” again, with about 45 minutes remaining. You are now at Part Three, which shifts its storyline to the perspective of the faux Japanese Count, the Korean con-man whose world is about to be thrown into chaos by none other than Lady Hideko and her Handmaiden Sook-hee.

Because the film is clearly divided into three parts, with viewers being alerted to Parts One, Two, and Three with those words on-screen, this psychological thriller and crime drama is easy to follow despite its “fiendishly dense and complex” narrative. Intellectually challenging and satisfying, with a Hitchcockian seductiveness, The Handmaiden is a dramatic exploration not only of forbidden sexual desire but, more importantly, of the tyranny and potential cruelty of absolute power. Whether in imperialism, in male-dominated marriage, or in rigid socio-economic class distinctions, power can warp itself into persecution, injustice, and brutality, causing its victims to rebel and take their revenge.

Part neo-noir and historical drama, part “love story, revenge thriller, and puzzle film,” The Handmaiden is luscious and fascinating, marred only by its explicit lesbian sex scene in Part Two, which was handled much more artistically and tastefully in the first part of the film when much of the interaction was left to the viewers’ imagination, and which caused at least one critic to label the film as nothing more than a “male wet dream.”

The Handmaiden is in Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Available for rent from Amazon ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD, free for Prime Members), YouTube ($4.99), and iTunes ($14.99 purchase).

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Murder, Anyone? In A Lonely Place, the Film

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Even if you’re a fan of the great Humphrey Bogart, you might find it hard to believe that he “played juveniles or romantic second-leads in drawing room comedies [in the theatre], and is said to have been the first actor to ask “Tennis, anyone?” on stage.” As a pre-teen, I watched his films on Saturday afternoons when a local television channel aired classics. I loved Bogart’s characters: the wounded cynic who was tough yet vulnerable, powerful yet caring.

His most memorable films reinforced his “Loner with a Heart of Gold” role: the private investigator with a femme fatale client in The Maltese Falcon (1941), a Noir classic based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; the self-sacrificing expatriate in Casablanca (1942), which was Bogart’s first romantic lead in film; and private investigator Phillip Marlowe in the complex and somewhat convoluted Noir The Big Sleep, (1946), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.

Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, In a Lonely Place ©

Until last month, when I first learned of Dorothy B. Harris’ 1947 Noir serial killer novel, In a Lonely Place, however, written in Limited Point of View from the perspective of the killer himself, and its 1950 film adaptation, I never realized that Humphrey Bogart had played a man suspected of being not just a murderer, but a serial killer. Bogart’s angst-ridden and angry character Dixon Steele in the film adaptation of Harris’ novel, is one of his most “fascinatingly complex” roles, one that has earned the film a place in multiple the Top 100 lists.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place ©

Bogart plays once-successful screenwriter Dixon Steele, who is being urged by his agent and colleagues to adapt a trashy bestseller into a script to get his own career back on track, i.e., earning money. Annoyed by the book’s banal content, Steele feels oppressed by the assignment. He attempts a shortcut: instead of reading the entire “epic” novel himself, he asks a young coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) at one of his favorite restaurants to come back to his place to tell him the story. When the two arrive at his apartment complex late at night, Steele glimpses the woman of his dreams, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is a new neighbor.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place ©

From that point on, Steele’s life is a tumultuous roller coaster ride. As he tries to write a screenplay for the book he doesn’t even like, he finds himself irresistibly attracted to the mysterious and somewhat aloof Laurel. Worse, he’s under investigation for violent crimes, including a gruesome murder.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place ©

Though the film seems to start somewhat slowly and has some inappropriate comedic moments, especially those involving the drunken actor who’s a friend of Steele, and many scenes with Steele’s agent (Art Smith), it mostly concentrates on the disturbing story of Steele’s vivid (albeit scary) imagination and his even more frightening rage.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place ©

The isolation, moral ennui, and angst driving Steele to desperate acts of savagery that begin to terrify even his long-time agent, the beautiful but restless Laurel, and close friends Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell).

Jeff Donnell and Frank Lovejoy, In a Lonely Place ©

It’s not only the most intense performance Bogart ever gave, it’s considered by many to be his best: “revelatory, vulnerable,” and “unnerving.”

Because the film In a Lonely Place is only very loosely adapted from the novel, I wouldn’t recommend that you read the book beforehand, as the differences between novel and film will confuse you. Instead, watch the film — or read the novel — separately from each other. This film, called the “purest of Existential primers,” is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.

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You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

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You are now entering the cruel world
bridge sign near The Killing Fields

Since the 1970s, at least 30 young women and girls have been abducted, disappeared, or been found murdered in an isolated and spooky 50-mile area of Texas bayou country dubbed “The Killing Fields.” Based on the true and never solved serial killings in that area, the screenplay for the 2011 film Texas Killing Fields, (also known as The Fields), was written by federal agent Don Ferrone, who investigated the killings and missing girls. Texas Killing Fields, despite any writing and production flaws, is an intense and creepy film, with strong performances by its principals.

Based loosely on investigators Brian Goetschius and Michael Land, respectively, Detective Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Texas Killing Fields ©

and Detective Mike (Sam Worthington)

Sam Worthington in Texas Killing Fields ©

become deeply involved in the cases of the missing and murdered girls after Mike’s ex-wife Pam (Jessica Chastain),

Jessica Chastain, Texas Killing Fields ©

who is also an investigator, albeit in another county, contacts Brian for help when a missing girl’s car is discovered at the boundary of the desolate area known as “The Killing Fields.”

Detective Mike, short-tempered and alcoholic, is initially not interested in getting involved in these cases since it is not in their jurisdiction. Detective Brian, however, feels more morally obligated to investigate them, as evidenced by the map and photos of missing girls he has hanging in his office.

Chloë Grace Moretz, Texas Killing Fields ©

The story of the murder investigation is interwoven with the story of Little Anne (Chloë Grace Moretz), whose mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee) flirts with prostitution, and whose brother Eugene (James Hébert) works and parties with his spooky pal, Rhino (Stephen Graham).

Stephen Graham, Texas Killing Fields ©

Detective Brian is familiar with Little Anne since he has clearly been attempting to save her from sinking into the moral and criminal abyss already inhabited by her abusive family.

Chloë Grace Moretz & Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Texas Killing Fields ©

The detectives get more emotionally involved in the case when Little Anne disappears, causing them to plunge into the wilderness of The Killing Fields in a desperate attempt to save her and to stop the serial killer.

The Killing Fields, Texas, © CBS News

Though compelling and creepy, Texas Killing Fields isn’t perfect. It’s never clear why Jessica Chastain’s character is in the film in the first place, and her character, although she provides some very minor backstory for Detective Mike, could have been completely eliminated without the film’s suffering from her loss.

Worse, the film has some serious lighting issues. While it might be “atmospheric” to have much of a serial killer film taking place in the dark, at night, in a desolate area that has no lighting whatsoever, when an audience can’t see what’s happening onscreen, especially during one of the climactic scenes involving Detective Brian, that’s a problem. In fact, the lighting problem may be one of the things that earned the film some of its lower reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.

Sam Worthington & Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Texas Killing Fields ©

The real killings on which Texas Killing Fields was based were never actually solved. Though law enforcement had a strong suspect, authorities were never able to find any evidence definitively connecting their suspect to the disappearances or killings. The film deviates from this fact, as well as from the facts about what happened to the character on which Little Anne is modeled, but that’s Hollywood: even in a movie about serial killers, Hollywood wants an (almost) happily-ever-after ending.

Even with its flaws, Texas Killing Fields is intense and worth watching. The performances of the principal actors alone, including young Chloë Grace Moretz, are strong and well-done.

If you’ve seen season 1 of True Detective, you’ll wonder which came first: TKF or TD. No matter that some of the viewer-reviews compare the film to True Detective season 1, Texas Killing Fields predates the HBO series by quite a few years, and it gets credit for that, at the very least.

Available on Amazon ($4.99 or free with a 7-day trial subscription to Starz) and YouTube ($5.99). Free for Starz subscribers.

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When Murder Smells Like Honeysuckle: 3 Noir Film Classics

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How could I have known that murder
could smell like honeysuckle?
James M. Cain
Double Indemnity

No Spoilers

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Popular with audiences and often made by renowned directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger, the films were frequently based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the male protagonist is more bad than good, although he mostly justifies his criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blames it on something (or someone) else. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character since their worldview is usually limited to that of the doomed male.

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits or neatly pressed clothes, 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. Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a drifter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), or an unscrupulous insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. He’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the female protagonist: the femme fatale.

John Garfield & Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

The femme fatale is a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl” or the “girl next door” who loses the male to the dangerous femme. 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. When the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart.

The Film Noir classics Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on crime fiction novels written by James M. Cain. The Killers used Ernest Hemingway’s story of the same name to start the film, then supplied a gritty original screenplay with the characters’ back-story. Screenwriters, directors, and actors worked hard to keep the films as close to their literary inspiration as possible, giving audiences some of the best films ever made.

Double Indemnity
(1944)

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a confession, which becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film. Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, 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 & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

With Phyllis’ 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, Barbara Stanwyck, & Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity ©

When Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man) and the victim’s daughter Lola get suspicious about the husband’s “accident,” Walter’s and Phyllis’ adulterous relationship and their forbidden love are severely tested.

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity has all the hallmarks of the Noir genre: atmospheric lighting, a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous femme fatale.

The film was closely adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, which is itself a classic of crime fiction, and which the author based on the true story of Ruth Snyder’s notorious 1920’s murder trial. Available for rent ($3.99 for 24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
(1946)

When the unemployed, homeless drifter Frank (John Garfield) stops at a roadside diner, he’s immediately attracted to the owner’s curvaceous, long-legged, young wife Cora (Lana Turner, in her most famous role).

Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

Frank takes the job offered by diner-owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and begins pursuing Cora, who treats him with disdain. Soon, though, Cora, who married her older husband for security, begins to fall for Frank. The couple wants to be together for the rest of their lives, but Cora doesn’t want to run away and live a drifter’s life. She has ambitions “to be somebody.” Somebody who has an established home and income. Somebody who runs a successful diner. Somebody who is a widow rather than a penniless divorcée.

Lana Turner & John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

After an initial “accident” goes awry, the lovers realize that neither of them is the type who could commit murder. Their attempt at a “trial separation” and a platonic relationship prove frustrating, however, and the two decide that life without each other may not be worth living. When outside parties who suspect nefarious goings-on at the diner intentionally pit the lovers against each other, Cora’s and Frank’s love is strained and their trust in each other frays. What are they willing to do for love, and can that love survive murder and betrayal?

The title has nothing to do with the story itself, neither in the James M. Cain novel nor in the film, though the film unsuccessfully attempts to force the title to fit by pretending, at the conclusion, that the “postman” is God, who’s not present anywhere else in the film.

Cain himself claimed that he chose the non-sequitur title because he had always been nervous after submitting a manuscript for publication, and noticed that his postman always rang twice. The Postman Always Rings Twice is available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Killers
(1946)

After the murder of quiet, industrious, unassuming gas station attendant “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster, in his first role) by contract killers, fellow townspeople are confused and frightened. Furthermore, they’re disconcerted by the fact that The Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him.

Burt Lancaster, The Killers ©

Intrigued by the reason behind the contract hit, insurance investigator 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.

Reardon discovers that Swede had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster, Reardon is convinced that Kitty Conway (Ava Gardener, in the first role that brought her extensive attention) had something to do with Swede’s death.

The killers in The Killers ©

The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, however, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes, especially after he learns that Swede knew his killers personally. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

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 dialogue (which then disappears from the film). The remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original. The Killers was considered a somewhat radical film when first released because it departed from the then-traditional narrative format and used flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story. Available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

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When Movies Tell Great Stories: 5 Classics from the 1950s

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 No Spoilers

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond, Sunset Boulevard ©

In the 1950s Hollywood was losing its audience — and its earnings — to television. “Weekly movie attendance declined from 90 million in 1948 to 51 million in 1952… and thousands of cinemas closed.” To recoup financial losses and win back viewers, studios invested in films modeled after the industry’s former successes, but employing the latest technologies, such as EastmanColor, a single-strip film that made color movies less expensive, and Cinemascope, in which anamorphic lenses “stretched” a “distorted image” to fit a wide-screen format that was almost twice as wide as those of previous films. Grand-scale epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments appeared. Countless science fiction films, most based on the genre’s classic literature, created the genre’s Golden Age in Hollywood: War of the Worlds,  The Day the Earth Stood Still,  Forbidden Planet, and Them!

Character- and story-driven films resurged. Some were original, some were based on bestselling novels, and some were adapted from critically and financially successful stage plays, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Guys and Dolls, Sayonara, and Dial M for Murder. Most 1950s films featured powerful storylines, morally ambiguous characters, and memorable dialogue. Though the less expensive EastmanColor single-film technology was available, many directors chose to shoot their films in black-and-white, sometimes using unique or intriguing camera angles, perhaps imitating the classic Noir films from the 1940s. In many of these now-classic 1950s films, actors, screenwriters, and directors took huge artistic risks, creating some of the best films ever made. Here are five of the best 1950s classic films, presented in the order they were released, since they are all of outstanding quality.

Sunset Boulevard
(1950)


“Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Nora Desmond

One of the best films ever made, Sunset Boulevard stars a boyish William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling Hollywood screenwriter whose financial woes accidentally but serendipitously lead him to what he believes is an abandoned mansion. The neglected property is the home of silent-film star Nora Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who’s spent the last 20 years preparing for her great “comeback.” Intent on using Nora as a quick paycheck — by whipping her Salome into a feasible screenplay — Joe soon becomes ensnared in Nora’s celebrity world of wealth, possessions, and material comfort.

Gloria Swanson as Nora Desmond and William Holden as Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard ©

Though sexually involved with the older Nora, Joe casually and continually tugs the heartstrings on an ingenue (Nancy Olson) with whom he’s secretly writing another screenplay, and who knows nothing of his relationship with the jealous and emotionally unstable film star. Joe’s actions force all the characters to desperation, conflict, betrayal, and, ultimately, murder.

Gloria Swanson , William Holden, Erich Von Stroheim and Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard ©

A poignant hommage to Hollywood’s by-gone silent-film era, as well as an unflinching look at professional ambition, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three, including one for co-writer and director Billy Wilder. Holden shines as the heel-with-half-a-heart, but Swanson’s brilliant and creepily gothic performance as the melodramatically bad Nora is what makes this film such a classic.

Trivia: Gloria Swanson was a real silent-film star, though, unlike Nora, she successfully transitioned into Talkies: all the photographs of Nora on display in her mansion are from Swanson’s own silent films.

Sunset Boulevard is available for rent from Amazon for $3.99 (viewing time once started is 48 hours, and you can watch it more than once for the same cost).

All About Eve
(1950)

“Fasten your seat belts:
it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Margo Channing

Sometimes Hollywood is at its artistic best when it turns its unforgiving lens on itself, as it does in All About Eve, an intense and brutally honest examination of the Machiavellian ambition in the theatre and film worlds. Bette Davis is New York stage star Margo Channing, who allows a seemingly naïve fan, Eve (Anne Baxter) to “worship” the star while becoming her personal assistant.

Gary Merrill as Margo’s beau Bill, Anne Baxter as Eve, Bette Davis as Margo Channing, All About Eve ©

Soon, Eve is causing dissension among all the characters; Margo, Margo’s longtime companion Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s beau Bill (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), playwright’s wife (Celeste Holm), and theatre critic DeWitt (George Sanders). Everyone in the film is forced to re-evaluate their own personal lives, their morality, and their relationships after Eve infiltrates their lives.

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders, All About Eve ©

By the time a large number of the characters distrust Eve, however, she is already determined to conquer them all, and she doesn’t care how much damage she causes, as long as she herself becomes a star.

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis (foreground), George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe, and Hugh Marlowe (background), All About Eve ©

Filled with snappy lines and memorable performances, All About Eve was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 6, including Best Picture. It is the only film ever with 4 Academy Award nominations for women: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress, Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress.

Trivia: Marilyn Monroe’s first important film role.

All About Eve is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started). Note: The original film trailer was a faux interview with Bette Davis regarding the fictional Eve. This trailer is a modern one, since may be more interesting to viewers unfamiliar with the stars of the film.

A Streetcar Named Desire
(1951)

“I have always depended on
the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire came to Hollywood via Broadway. The production’s theater director, Elia Kazan, brought play to the big screen, using three of the stage show’s original stars: Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as his wife Stella, and Karl Malden as his best friend Mitch.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Blanche’s sister Stella, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

When Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella, Blanche immediately dislikes Stella’s husband Stanley. The feeling is mutual: Stanley and Blanche clash constantly, causing a rift between husband and wife, and making the marriage erupt in angry, sometimes violent scenes. It is only because Stella is pregnant with their first child that Stanley permits his irritating and condescending sister-in-law Blanche to stay.

Karl Malden as Mitch and Vivien Leigh as Blanche, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

After his buddy Mitch falls for Blanche, intending to ask her to marry him, Stanley begins to investigate Blanche’s implausible stories of her past. As the tensions among the characters mount, Blanche and Stanley are driven to a ferocious confrontation in which each fights desperately for his own survival.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Nominated for 4 Academy Awards — male and female Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor — A Streetcar Named Desire won three: Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter, and Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire ©

Brando, who was nominated for Best Actor but did not win, was relatively unknown to film audiences at the film’s release. The play A Streetcar Named Desire was originally written with only one protagonist: the tortured and delusional Blanche. Brando’s performance as the equally tortured and sympathetic Stanley, a role which he originally “modified” on-stage and subsequently re-created in the film, catapaulted Brando to worldwide attention and critical acclaim.

Trivia: To mimic and symbolize Blanche’s claustrophobia, paranoia, and increasing anxiety, the set of Stanley & Stella’s apartment literally became physically smaller as film progressed, crowding the actors together.

A Streetcar Named Desire is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

On the Waterfront
(1954)

“I coulda been a contender.”
Terry Malloy

In his first Oscar-winning role (second nomination), Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a former boxer who dreamt of becoming a champion, now working as a longshoreman. Terry exists on the fringes of organized crime since his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the right-hand man of dock gangster Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).

Eva Marie Saint as Edie and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

When one of Terry’s “favors” to Johnny gets a fellow longshoreman killed, Terry begins to feel the pricks of conscience — a commodity he would prefer to live without. After Terry meets Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the murdered longshoreman, Father Barry (Karl Malden) exploits Terry’s awakening moral principles in an attempt to get him to testify against the members of organized crime on the docks.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry and Marlon Brando as Terry, On the Waterfront ©

Torn between his growing love for Edie and his loyalty to his fellow workers (along with his devotion to his brother Charley), Terry must decide whether it is better to live as a criminal failure than to risk dying an honest man.

Karl Malden as Fr Barry, Marlon Brando as Terry, and Eva Marie Saint as Edie, On the Waterfront ©

Based on a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative articles (“Crime on the Waterfront”) as well as on an original story by Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay, On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning eight. In addition to Oscars for the co-stars, Brando and Saint, the film won Best Picture, and Best Director for Elia Kazan.

Trivia: Brando didn’t like his dialogue in iconic taxi scene, so he refused to say it. Director Kazan, tired of arguing with Brando, filmed him and co-star Steiger doing the scene improv, resulting in a classic.

On the Waterfront is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

Anatomy of a Murder
(1959)

“How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?”
“They can’t… They can’t.”

One of the first mainstream films to discuss sex and rape in graphic terms, Anatomy of a Murder caused outrage when it was released in 1959. Jimmy Stewart stars as former prosecutor-turned-defense-attorney Paul Biegler, who’s hired by Army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) after he shoots and kills a man accused of raping Manion’s wife (Lee Remick).

Lee Remick as Laura Manion, Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler, and Ben Gazzara as Lt Manion, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Despite the fact that it’s Manion who’s on trial for murder, pleading “irresistible impulse” — another term for “temporary insanity” — and PTSD-induced “dissociative crisis,” it’s Manion’s wife Laura who is really on trial, in the courtroom and in the small community where they live. What she wore, whether she was drunk, and if she was provocative to the victim on the night in question occupy more of the trial than does the professional testimony of the psychiatrists who examined the war and combat veteran, who claims he unconsciously reacted with violence to his wife’s attack.

Brooke Adams, George C Scott, and Jimmy Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Attorney Biegler responds with outrage whenever the Special Prosecuting Attorney (George C. Scott) attacks the character of Manion’s wife, but viewers are presented scenes in which the “bored” and “lonely” young wife, who is undeniably attractive and who flouts society’s conventions by not wearing a girdle under her form-fitting clothes, flirts inappropriately with her husband’s defense attorney. Viewers have even more questions about what actually occurred between Manion’s wife and victim than do the jurors.

Lee Remick and Jimmy Steward, Anatomy of a Murder ©

Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (under the pseudonym Robert Traver), which was based on a sensational 1952 murder trial, Anatomy of a Murder vividly examines society’s discomfort with sex and sexuality, as well as with victims of sexual violence. Concentrating on the tendency to blame the victim in sexual assault and rape cases while simultaneously exonerating the victim in murder cases, the film is powerful for its morally ambiguous characters, its strong performances, and its groundbreaking handling of the topic of sexual violence. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture, Anatomy of a Murder is considered among the Top 10 films in the category of Courtroom Drama.

Trivia: Films “explicit” language caused outrage, getting it banned in Chicago theatres. These words were considered especially offensive: bitch, slut, rape, contraception, penetration, sperm, and — believe it or not — panties.

Anatomy of a Murder is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (48 hours viewing period once started).

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