The Burglar (1957), a sweaty, tawdry pulp crime thriller set in the seedy lower depths of low-rent crooks and raw passions, was released as the classic studio system — and the era of prime film noir — was coming to an end. It both looks back to the tales of down-and-out criminals in a world of shifting loyalties and betrayals and forward to the more lurid suggestions of sixties movies and the stark imagery and striking location shooting more common to independently-made films.
Novelist David Goodis, author of such classics as Dark Passage (which was turned into a 1947 classic with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall) and Down There (transformed by Francois Truffaut into the nouvelle vague masterpiece of doom Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), adapted his own novel for the screen, and Paul Wendkos, a documentary filmmaker and a fellow Philadelphian, made his feature debut directing the film. Bringing it even closer to home, Wendkos shot the film largely in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 (Wendkos captures the sweltering atmosphere of the city in summer) and even used the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra to perform the score.
The great character actor Dan Duryea centers the film with an easy, almost world-weary confidence as Nat Harbin, a career criminal and veteran safecracker who steals a priceless necklace and then holes up in a dump of a safe house in a seedy part of the city with his not-altogether-trustworthy gang.
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Plays on Friday, June 14 on Turner Classic Movies
The fugitive couple on the run is a classic film noir trope, a situation steeped in romance and desperation and dreams and doom, from Fritz Lang’s tormented lovers in the proto-noir You Only Live Once (1937) to the innocence trampled in They Live by Night (1948) to the l’amour fou detonated in Gun Crazy (1950).
Tomorrow Is Another Day is a low-key take on the situation starring Steve Cochran as Bill Clark, a 34-year-old man who leaves prison after serving more than half his life behind bars, and Ruth Roman as Cay, a hard-shell dame at a dime-a-dance joint mixed up with a corrupt cop. A bad bounce of fate sends both of them on the road, two strangers tossed together on the run from a murder rap as. The story could have easily slipped into the cliche of the innocent corrupted by the predatory femme fatale, but there’s much more to both characters in this unassuming thriller directed by Felix Feist.
Ex-con and social naif Bill is a lamb in an urban culture of wolves (“I guess I’m the patsy this time,” he mumbles, resigned to getting the short end of every situation) and Cay has been hardened by years of getting knocked around and making a living off her looks. Both are slow to trust, but once they start, it softens both of their shells and inspires both of them to tough out a hard life of manual labor rather than turn back to their previous lives. For a film in the bleak culture of noir, it’s one of the more hopeful portraits of love among the damned.
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Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, January 17
“I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!”
Sunset Boulevard (Paramount), the blackest of Hollywood’s self portraits, is an old dark house of a ghost story inhabited by the living shadows of its discarded stars.
Gloria Swanson is magnificent as Norma Desmond, the former silent movie queen living in her memories while plotting a fantasy of a comeback, and she understands both the monstrous and pathetic dimensions of her demented diva. William Holden is the failed screenwriter with a mercenary streak who plays the gigolo to hide from creditors. Director/co-writer Billy Wilder makes his scabrous and acidic expose of Hollywood’s living graveyards both ghoulish and tragic, thanks in part to the quiet devotion of Erich von Stroheim’s performance as her butler and, once upon a time, her director. It was a biting in-joke for tinseltown historians at the time, as von Stroheim’s directorial career was destroyed by “Queen Kelly,” where he directed Gloria Swanson. Wilder even fit some of that footage into the “home movie” scene.
The long-awaited Blu-ray debut comes from a new digital master from the best surviving elements. Not only does it look rich with detail and texture, but Home Theater Forum restoration guru Robert Harris remarks that he’s “thrilled” with what he’s seen based on the materials at hand.
New for this disc is the never-before-released deleted scene: “The Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues,” a party sing-along scene with Jack Webb and, in the final frames, William Holden’s entrance. Nothing revelatory but it’s a fun piece of ephemera.
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Ida Lupino gets top billing in Private Hell 36 (Olive), and for good reason. In addition to starring in this low-budget film noir as a nightclub singer drafted into the police search for a counterfeiter, she so-wrote the script and co-produced through her company The Filmmakers, with partner Collier Young. The story revolves around the loyalties and temptations in a police partnership between the impulsive, younger cop Steve Cochran and family man Howard Duff, stretched thin on his salary. Temptation comes when Cochran pockets a portion of the recovered counterfeit stash after the crook is killed in a high-speed car chase and Duff’s conscience eats away as he keeps quiet and accepts his share (to come when they sell the phony bills in Mexico). The title refers to the address of their stash house.
Lupino had directed her share of films as well, many of them exploring similar moral quandaries, but she passed directorial reigns over to Don Siegel, who at the time was making his name with a series of tight, stylish little low-budget pictures. This is more about tension than action, with plenty of surveillance and scenes of police procedural detail, but he opens with a quiet street scene of a realist crime drama with an ominous sense of anticipation that explodes in a crime scene shoot-out and bookends it with a gut-punch of an ambush that ricochets with some dynamic twists. In between, greed and guilt divide the once devoted partners. Dean Jagger and Dorothy Malone co-star.
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John Garfield was at the height of his fame and his talent when he made Body and Soul (Olive), one of the great boxing dramas and arguably the definitive boxing noir of talent and drive corrupted, and Force of Evil (Olive), a more quietly subversive and corrosive film noir of family, business, and brutal competition. Both films have been on DVD before but are now available on Blu-ray as well as in newly-remastered DVD editions from Olive.
Body and Soul (1947), directed by Robert Rossen, stars John Garfield as scrappy Brooklyn boy Charley Davis, an ambitious street kid who fights his way to the top of the fight game. Charley, who watched his father die by a stray bullet after working himself to a husk in a two-bit candy store in a Brooklyn slum, is determined to be a success at all costs. “Every man for himself,” is his motto, and the compromises he makes in the name of fame and fortune alienates his friends, family, and loyal girlfriend (Lilli Palmer), who plays an interesting role: a cultured, continental young woman who has lived all over Europe yet is, like, Charley, a poor but plucky girl with no money. The difference between them is that she works her way through art school, determined to make her own way in the world, while Charlie hasn’t any patience for that kind of sucker’s game.
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They Made Me a Fugitive (Kino), the 1947 crime thriller from director Alberto Cavalcanti, is probably the closest the British cinema ever came to creating a true film noir. Trevor Howard, most famous for much more civilized turns in films like “Brief Encounter” and “The Third Man,” delivers one of his most dynamic performances as an ex-serviceman who, bored with civilian life, joins a gang of black marketeers for excitement and money. An edge of desperation and doom sinks into the film as the once jovial heist man is framed for murder and sent up the river, where he becomes bitter and vengeful and breaks prison to take revenge.
Cavalcanti’s British underworld is a suitably seedy atmosphere of shadowy alleys, foggy waterfront dives, and claustrophobic underground clubs, and he matches the dark urban underworld setting with taut direction and tight editing. Underneath this stark style bubbles the true psychosis of noir, characters driven by anger, fear, opportunism, and just plain sadism. The hard edged and unexpectedly violent thriller is one of the most impressive and understated British crime films.
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On Monday, January 23, Turner Classic Movies is showing all four films made by Max Ophuls, the great German director, during his brief tenure in America (when he dropped the “h” and signed his films “Max Opuls”).
The evening of “Max Ophuls in Hollywood” is followed by two of his greatest French films, La Ronde (1950) and The Earrings of Madame de… (1954), but while they are well represented in superb DVD editions stateside, the four American films showing Monday night—Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Caught (1949) and the rarity The Exile (1947), his Hollywood debut—have still not been released on DVD in the U.S.
The films of Ophuls haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. His fluid, elegantly choreographed camerawork and intimate yet observant directorial presence have resulted in some of the most delicate and beautiful films made on either side of the Atlantic, but his American films have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films (Ophuls left Germany in the early 1930s for the same reason so many fellow artists did).
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Seijun Suzuki isn’t necessarily a familiar name to many fans of foreign cinema — he was practically unknown outside of Japan for decades — but in the early 1990s, his “rediscovery” stateside made him an instant cult hero to fans of genre cinema with maverick visions. Suzuki was nothing if not a maverick, a prolific filmmaker who cranked out one assignment after another in the low-budget end of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1960s — war movies, youth dramas, roman porno and especially yakuza thrillers — on tight shooting schedules, and managed to inject them with madcap energy, inventive style and wicked wit.
Tokyo Drifter (1966) is one of Suzuki’s greatest, and by that I mean one of his wildest, weirdest and most unpredictable. Ostensibly a gangster thriller about a rival mobs locked in a war over a business venture after one outfit tries to go legit, it plays like a mix of spaghetti western and samurai melodrama relocated to the pop-art splendor of 1960s Japan, a world of swinging discotheques and sleekly austere nightclubs on the one hand, and grimy waterfronts and seedy hideouts on the other. Suzuki opens the film on the latter: a gangland beating on the docks in overexposed black and white.
It’s a rough and ready introduction. As a trumpet brays a tune that sounds like a nightclub version of a Morricone theme from a lost Sergio Leone film, the object of the abuse refuses to lift a finger while. But as the thugs leave he looks down at a toy gun, jumping out of the image as single drop of red into the monochrome landscape, and mutters “Don’t get me mad.” Suddenly Suzuki blasts the screen with comic book color and pop-art hues. The grit just turned groovy.
Matinee idol Tetsuya Watari is the Tetsu, aka Phoenix, the Tokyo drifter of the title. Looking like the young, Japanese pop-star incarnation of Alain Delon in his dark glasses and sporty suits, Tetsu is the unfailingly loyal right hand to Kurata (Ryûji Kita), a one-time yakuza godfather gone straight. Thus his refusal to fight, proof of the honor of his vow to steer clear of the rackets. It only encourages ambitious rival Otsuko (Eimei Esumi), a fast-rising thug headquartered in back of a discotheque perpetually filled with gyrating kids, to move in on Kurata.
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Despite the efforts of such fans as Clint Eastwood, who produced two documentaries on the director, and Martin Scorsese, Budd Boetticher is still a name known mainly to film historians and fans of classic westerns. Boetticher made some of the greatest, purest, most austere westerns of all time: Seven Men From Now (available from Paramount), The Tall T, Comanche Station and Ride Lonesome (the latter three in a box set from Sony and Scorsese’s The Film Foundation). But like any successful director of the era, Boetticher made a lot more than just westerns. Yes, he did direct three bullfighting dramas (talk about a specialized niche), but he made war pictures, adventures, youth dramas, mysteries and crime pictures. Two of his best crime films arrived almost simultaneously via MOD earlier this.
Between his big studio breakthrough at Universal (where he made nine pictures in two years, most of them westerns) and his first of seven pictures with Randolph Scott, Boetticher directed The Killer Is Loose (MGM Limited), a 1956 crime drama starring Joseph Cotten as a police detective whose wife (Rhonda Fleming) is targeted by an escaped criminal looking for payback. Wendell Corey is superb as the soft-spoken bank teller turned robber who becomes twisted by revenge and pretty much slips over the edge of sanity. Boetticher’s biggest strength is efficiency and restraint, creating a camaraderie in the police squad room and a sense history between Cotten and his partner (Michael Pate), and he’s at his best building tension through dialogue and stillness that builds to a sudden burst of action. When Corey takes his former sergeant (John Larch) hostage, he never looses that quiet, deliberate composure, calmly reasoning his way to murder and executing his sacrifice without hesitation. Boetticher punctuates the gunshot with one of the great images of explosive violence: a shattered milk bottle. The sudden explosion shatters the tension of the deliberately measured scene and the burst of white milk against Larch’s black suit gives the sound a striking visual dimension.
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Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion)
Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir apocalypse Kiss Me Deadly is unlike any other noir ever made. From the opening scene, where Cloris Leachman (naked under a trenchcoat) runs barefoot down a coastal highway flagging down cars, to the Pandora’s Box scream of destruction unleashed in the finale, it pushes the conventions past the breaking point.
Ostensibly based on Mickey Spillane’s hugely successful pulp novel, Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides turned the story inside, transforming it into a white-hot blast of tawdry pulp and film noir cynicism for the atomic age. Aldrich had just come off of Vera Cruz, a mercenary western that looks forward to the cynical opportunism of the spaghetti westerns, and that tone carries over to Kiss Me Deadly. Mike Hammer is turned into a blithely amoral opportunist, a corrupt private detective who specializes in divorce cases (a “bedroom dick,” in the parlance) and stumbles into a conspiracy that he thinks he can parlay into a payoff, and Ralph Meeker plays him with a perpetual sneer of a smile and an arrogance that is rarely justified. This is a guy who pimps out it secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) between smooches and makes a play for almost every beauty who crosses his path.
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Taxi Driver (Sony)
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.
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