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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: 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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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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Shutter Island, the Film, Is Shuddery Good

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You probably recognize American Film Noir when you see it. Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, the films explore morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male protagonist wears suits and is virtually always clean-shaven (or sporting day-old stubble, at most). Though he’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him morally ambiguous, he is almost always portrayed as the victim of a femme fatale, a woman of highly questionable moral virtue.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in 1947 Noir Classic, Out of the Past ©

Beautiful and duplicitous, the femme fatale ensnares the unwary male protagonist, 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 protagonists of Noir want the femme fatale’s love even more than they want her sexual fidelity.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca ©

Whether the male protagonist is a widower attempting to find happiness in his new marriage (Rebecca), a private investigator dealing with unscrupulous adventurers (The Maltese Falcon), or a drifter who gets involved in a murder conspiracy (The Postman Always Rings Twice), the male protagonist of Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex.

Neo-Noir pays homage to Noir classics, using “updated themes, content, style, visual elements, or media that were absent in film noir of the 1940s and 1950s.” Shutter Island, a 2010 neo-Noir film by Martin Scorsese, based on the 2003 bestseller by Dennis Lehane, is one of the more fascinatingly complex neo-noir films.

Mark Ruffalo (L) and Leonard DiCaprio (R) in Shutter Island ©

Though lacking the characteristic noir Voice-Over which limits the story to the male protagonist’s perspective, Shutter Island nevertheless keeps the audience focus firmly restricted to the story of US Marshal Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio). On assignment in 1954 with his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy is investigating the disappearance of a female inmate of Shutter Island: a psychiatric facility isolated in Boston Harbor and housing the most dangerous of the criminally insane.

Marshals Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, L) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, R) heading for Shutter Island ©

On Shutter Island, psychiatrists and nurses, led by the facility’s Director, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley), are ostensibly using revolutionary psychotropic drugs and intensive psychotherapy — along with “empathy” — to treat the dangerous inmates.

Director of Shutter Island, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) ©

All of the doctors and staff are extremely uncooperative with the law officers, however, leading Teddy to suspect that something nefarious is happening on the Island, especially at the Lighthouse, which guards refuse to let the Marshals enter.

The Lighthouse on Shutter Island ©

Haunted by his experiences as a soldier liberating the Nazi concentration camp Dachau,

American soldier liberate Dachau in Shutter Island ©

as well as by the death of his belovèd wife Dolores (Michelle Williams),

Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in Shutter Island ©

Teddy is determined not only to find the missing inmate, Rachel, who disappeared from a locked cell on a locked ward, but to unearth Shutter Island’s sinister — perhaps criminal — secrets.

Teddy and Chuck, attempting to reach the Shutter Island Lighthouse ©

Ultimately, like all neo-noir protagonists, Teddy becomes “trapped in a difficult situation” and is “forced to make choices out of desperation.”

Leonard DiCaprio as Teddy in Shutter Island ©

Suspenseful and gripping, Shutter Island ultimately becomes heartbreaking — even if you think you’ve guessed the ending about halfway through — mostly because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredibly powerful performance as the noble but flawed Teddy.

Rated R for mature subject matter, Shutter Island received mostly positive critical reviews and has become Scorsese’s second-highest grossing film worldwide, earning over $294M. It’s available for rent for $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from YouTube.

 

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