Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog on TCM

Akira Kurosawa’s early police drama Stray Dog (1949), a kind of urban noir starring Toshiro Mifune as a young police detective who loses his gun in the volatile years of post-war Tokyo and Takashi Shimura as the veteran detective who tries to mentor the rookie as he tracks the stolen handgun, plays in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long tribute to Kurosawa.

The urban noir sensibility of post-war Tokyo in Stray Dog

The young Mifune projects a marvelous dichotomy as Murakami, his restless energy checked by a veneer of surface calm: the composed social face masking fierce turmoil underneath. Shimura is a complete contrast as his older, wiser mentor: warm and patient, he calms down the anxious, emotionally impulsive rookie cop and channels his efforts to methodically follow the leads.

Kurosawa sets it in the sweltering heat wave of a Tokyo summer and the atmosphere pervades the entire film. The faces on screen are constantly beaded with sweat, the cops mopping their brows and the streets crowded with listless pedestrians brought to a shuffling crawl by the oppressive temperatures. Kurosawa matches the atmosphere to the rising tension and the heat wave breaks in dramatic fashion with the climactic action. The atmosphere only exacerbates Murakami’s anxiety and impulsiveness. He’s driven by a mixture of shame and duty, afraid he’ll be fired and feeling responsible for every crime committed with the gun. (“Was it my gun?” is his first response to every shooting report.) But the gun is also part of his identity as a detective and Murakami, conversely, starts to identify with the criminal he’s tracking, who like himself, is a former soldier, driven to desperate measures. Both are, in effect, stray dogs, and as Sato warns Murakami, a stray dog can become a mad dog out of desperation. “There is even a saying about them,” Sato muses. “Mad dogs can only see what they are after.” Murakami’s single-minded pursuit of his gun is in danger of overwhelming his judgment.

Read the complete feature on the TCM website here. The film plays on March 23 and is also available on Criterion DVD.

DVD Odds and Ends and Late Arrivals – Forgotten Noirs and Cult Oddities

There are few no lost masterpieces in Forgotten Noir Vol. 13 (VCI), the latest installment in the DVD series from VCI featuring orphaned crime films from the forties and fifties, and it’s a stretch to even call the films in this double feature “film noir,” but they are intriguing finds. Eye Witness (1950) is a moderately classy and somewhat sluggish murder mystery that has no real film noir credentials. Robert Montgomery directs and stars as a smart-talking American lawyer turned amateur detective in a rural British village, where his Yankee savvy and urban bluntness collides with British restraint and manners. It does have fun with the slang barrier, however, which recalls a classic quote about the American-British relationship: “Two great countries separated by a common language.” Longtime Hitchcock collaborator Joan Harrison produces and you can spot a young Stanley Baker in a bit part as a policeman on the witness stand. The disc is mastered from the “uncut British version” and features the British title on the opening credits: Your Witness.

Breakdown (1952), the sole screen effort by stage director Edmond Angelo, is a low budget and very American quasi-noir boxing drama set against a culture of political corruption and the brutal arena where young boxers are destroyed by greedy managers. The charismatically anemic William Bishop is a hot young boxer sprung from prison by a shady ward boss (Sheldon Leonard, who also narrates) to help out his kid brother, an aspiring boxing manager (Wally Cassell), only to be pressured into fighting the champ in a match he isn’t ready for. Though running a brief 76 minutes and shot on the cheap, it’s more of a low budget indie than an actual B movie. There isn’t much style to this stage adaptation but it moves along at a good clip and leaves more casualties than you might expect. The print quality is unexceptional but fine for both, with a softness to the image, minor print damage and hiss on the soundtracks.

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Noir City – A preview at The Stranger

Screw This Happily Ever After Stuff. I can’t take credit for the great title. It came from my interview with Eddie Muller which I put in the feature (who wouldn’t use such a great quote?) and the editors at The Stranger pulled it out as the headline. But I’ll take all the reflected glory. The piece is part preview, part introduction, part portrait of programmer Eddie Muller, and it was a pleasure to write.

The cracked mirror of film noir morality and desperation: He Ran All The Way

Here’s an excerpt from the feature:

What I appreciate most about Noir City is that it favors rarities and rediscoveries over the canonized classics. Muller pairs The Postman Rings Twice, easily the glossiest studio noir ever made, with He Ran All the Way. Both feature John Garfield, but where he smolders with restrained lust for platinum blond siren Lana Turner in the former, he’s all jittery paranoia as a small-time hood who shoots a cop and takes a working-class family hostage in the latter. In He Ran All the Way, director John Berry scuffs up the emotions until they’re raw and frayed and then closes in, creating a pressure cooker that pushes everyone to the edge of unraveling. And like most of the films in the series, it’s not on video.

Read the complete feature here.

The Noir City Seattle series begins Friday, February 19 and plays for a week of double feature presentations. I’m going to see as many as I can.

Blu-ray for the Week – To Live and Die in L.A.

Revisiting To Live and Die in L.A. (Fox) twenty-five after its original release turned out to be a treat and an eye-opener. While on the one hand you can hold it up as the quintessential expression of the era’s music video aesthetics and sleek, slick style, it’s also a distinctively singular, perfectly pitched action thriller from William Friedkin, a director in full command of his tools, including the high-octane style of neon surfaces, rapid editing and driving music.

Outrunning the train

William L. Petersen was poised to make the leap from respected stage actor to intense screen star when he was cast as Secret Service agent Richard Chance, a rising star working in the Treasury Department who thrives on the adrenaline of the job. When his mentor, partner and best friend is murdered while following up a lead on counterfeiter Rick Masters (a feral Willem Dafoe in his breakthrough performance), he goes rogue and drags his new partner, the smart but still green John Vukovich (John Pankow), into his increasingly reckless stunts. The film’s defining scene is the ingenious, nerve racking car chase that sends Chance and Vukovich up an off-ramp the wrong direction on the L.A. freeway, swerving and skidding around oncoming traffic. But that scene is actually the climactic punch of a much longer, brilliantly composed car chase that begins in the no man’s land under the freeway (where they have just ripped off a smuggler), carries us into traffic with a perfectly executed traveling crane that reveals the chase car closing in and sends us winding through the freight-strewn alleys of this warehouse district and into the empty L.A. basin, where suddenly a small army of cars join in and up the stakes. There’s more to the little smuggling operation that they hijacked than meets the eye and they’ve got no idea just how badly they f****d up.

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DVD for the Week: Bad Girls of Film Noir

The leading ladies of the two-disc, four-film collection Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume One (Sony)—Lizabeth Scott, Evelyn Keyes and Gloria Grahame—are indeed some of the great bad girls of film noir. It’s just that the films don’t show these femmes off at their most fatale and it’s a stretch to call some of them “noir.” Such as Bad For Each Other (1953), starring Charlton Heston a military surgeon who returns home (a mining town outside of Pittsburg) and falls for a flighty spoiled society dame (Lizabeth Scott) with a history of bad marriages and broken husbands. Which sounds more sinister than it is: she’s less femme fatale simply a bad influence, sucking the ambition and integrity of the men she pulls into her little world of money and distraction. Written by Irving Wallace and Horace McCoy (from a story by McCoy), it’s not a crime drama or even a portrait of social malaise or corruption, and whole chunks of the front-loaded narrative (Heston’s social-climbing brother died under suspicious circumstances and in a cloud of criminal suspicion) are left hanging as Heston learns how painless it is to trade his integrity for financial success as doctor to the neurotic and bored socialites of Pittsburg, and is jolted back out by the actions of a good girl (Dianne Foster) and an idealistic young doctor (Arthur Franz). Heston is quite watchable in a fairly lazy performance and but Lizabeth Scott doesn’t have much to do and the film get lost in distracting subplots that go nowhere, and director Irving Rapper can’t even feign a sense of urgency or gravity to any of it.

Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott in "Two of a Kind"
Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott in "Two of a Kind"

Two of a Kind (1951), also starring Scott and directed by Henry Levin with a better feeling for the world of scoundrels, is more satisfying, a minor noir with a fun performance by Edmond O’Brien as a career bad boy, an orphan who scams his way through life until he’s drafted by Scott and her lawyer partner (Alexander Knox) in an inheritance scam involving an rich couple and a missing child from decades back. Yep, he’s posing as the long lost son, snatched away and left to grow up in a series of orphanages and juvenile detention centers until kismet (and a carefully plotted scheme) sweeps him back into their lives. O’Brien isn’t so much charming as intriguingly confident and cool as a former carny who knows how to play a situation and is willing to lose a finger (a great scene) in a gamble for a bigger score, but has been knocked around enough to know when to play and where to draw the line. And, of course, he kind of likes the old man. It’s a soft-boiled noir with lots of tough-guy attitude from O’Brien (who delivers in spades) and an entertaining twist involving his unconventional romance with the niece of the old couple (Terry Moore), a sweetheart of a social activist who decides to make reforming O’Brien her new cause.

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Road House on TCM

Ida Lupino
Ida Lupino: Dressed to Bowl

My essay on Road House (the 1948 film with Ida Lupino, not the Patrick Swayze bar-bouncer classic) in up on the Turner Classic Movies website.

A minor classic of forties film noir with major pleasures, Road House (1948) is an unusual, and unusually fascinating, variation on the genre. Instead of the usual urban jungle, this road house is decidedly rural, a bar and bowling alley in the thick forest outside of a small town near the Canadian border. Ida Lupino is Lily, the big city chanteuse who sashays into the joint, all scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude. She’s the new “discovery” of the hopelessly smitten owner Jefty (Richard Widmark), who has discarded a string of similar sexy discoveries over the years. Cornel Wilde, at his most brawny beefcake and stolid, is the tree trunk of a manager Pete, who instantly clashes with this sassy dame. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the explosively jealous and possessive Jefty inevitable, but the method of his madness (and it does indeed turn into full blown madness) is genuinely pathological. Even in the realm of film noir, a genre rife with unstable personalities and violent reactions to emotional betrayals, Jefty’s obsessively plotted vengeance is unusual to say the least.

Road House may sound tawdry, with a title that evokes a rowdy juke joint (the design suggests a rural nightclub bar with an aggressively rustic design), a romantic triangle that turns pathological and a performance from Widmark that evolves from immature hothead to dangerously erratic sadist. But for all its urban toughness in a back country town setting, it’s a handsomely made film with adult banter and a tough cookie with a tender center in British-born but thoroughly Americanized and streetwise Ida Lupino.

Read the complete feature here. The film is also on DVD, featuring commentary by film noir expert Eddie Muller and my friend and fellow MSN contributor Kim Morgan.

New on DVD – Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I

Film noir was the term that the French gave to a particular strain of American crime movies in the forties and fifties, defined by its shadowy style, largely urban settings and mood of doom and corruption. But another strain of film noir also flourished in the fifties, films shot on location with an almost documentary quality, where psychopathic gangsters walked the city streets in broad daylight like a virus. These styles intermingled as more films embraced the expressionistic qualities of locations, but Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (Sony), the fourth collaboration between Sony and Martin Scorsese’s non-profit film preservation organization, The Film Foundation, spotlights three films that embraced the docu-noir style of daylight thrillers with darkly psychotic characters.

Arthur Franz is "The Sniper"
Arthur Franz is "The Sniper"

The Sniper (1952), produced by Stanley Kramer and directed on location in San Francisco by Edward Dmytryk, has a much edgier atmosphere and modern feel. Adolphe Menjou’s police detective has seen everything, but the spree of a woman-hating psychopath troubles him because (police psychiatrist aside) he can’t understand the motivation. The direction straddles the studio model of storytelling and the immediacy of low-budget location shooting and Dmytryk punctuates the violence with vivid explosions of brutal force without showing a drop of blood. Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958), also shot on location in San Francisco, stars Eli Wallach as a killer on the trail of smuggled heroine shipments ready to kill anyone in his way. It’s low budget theatrical version of a TV series, but Siegel makes it all about the killers and gives the film a matter-of-fact violence that gives the film a life of its own. Murder by Contract (1958), by contrast, is almost laconic it its story of a self-made assassin-for-hire (Vince Edwards), an almost existential figure who is happy to share his philosophy while on a job to silence an inconvenient witness. Irving Lerner’s direction is almost hypnotic as he matches the deliberation of his killer with meticulous direction: every murder is so carefully set up that we never need to see the follow through. All three of these films take place mostly in the daylight and all have a crispness to them that the shadowy studio noirs don’t.

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New on DVD: The Samuel Fuller Collection

Sam Fuller is Hollywood’s great tabloid director, a former newspaperman, pulp novelist and soldier who worked his way up from screenwriting to directing films, sometimes for the studios and sometimes independently, and brought all of his experiences and attitudes to his filmmaking. Only two of the films in The Samuel Fuller Collection (The Collector’s Choice) (Sony), co-produced by The Film Foundation (a project guided in part by Martin Scorsese), are actually directed by Fuller. The rest are either written by him or based on his novels and are of decidedly uneven quality. It Happened In Hollywood (1937), Fuller’s first script, is an indifferent B-movie about a stalwart silent film cowboy hero (Richard Dix) lost in the transition to sound. The simple (you might say simplistic) story plays out with none of Fuller’s attitude and is defined largely by Dix’s laconic warmth and stolid presence. Power of the Press (1943) is a newspaper drama based on a Fuller story with a lazily-directed murder mystery and breaks for wartime propaganda, and Adventure in the Sahara (1938) is a basic Foreign Legion B-picture adventure from a Fuller story.

Underworld U.S.A.
Underworld U.S.A.

Fuller had just become a director in his own right the same year that Shockproof (1949), a studio crime melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk, was released. Cornel Wilde, never the most expressive of leading men, is a cynical parole officer who falls for ex-con Patricia Knight and throws his future and hers away to run off. This handsome lovers-on-the-run thriller is a minor noir with Fuller’s tabloid sensibility and Sirk’s romantic gloss, directed with an economy that makes the most of its modest budget. What Sirk brings is a romanticism that softens the shadows of the noir atmosphere. More classically Fuller is the newspaper murder mystery Scandal Sheet (1952), a low-budget spin on The Big Clock based on the Fuller novel The Dark Page and directed by Phil Karlson with a suitably sleazy atmosphere of journalistic cynicism. John Derek is perfectly cast as a callow reporter who doesn’t blanch at anything to get a story and Broderick Crawford as his editor who kills an “old maid” and is torn between covering up a murder and encouraging his star reporter to play up the story of “the Lonelyhearts Murder” into a tabloid sensation: just the kind of contradiction that Fuller can embrace.

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The Third Man – Sardonic, Savage and oh-so-Continental

[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]

The Third Man, Carol Reed’s Continental noir masterpiece set in the bombed-out ruins of a post-World War II Vienna carved up by occupying Allied forces, is more than half over when Harry Lime makes his memorable entrance. He’s just a dark presence in a doorway off a cobblestone street, noticed only by a stray cat, until the sudden spill of light from a nearby apartment sweeps away the shadows and catches him like a fugitive in the spotlight, revealing the chagrined look on the face of … Orson Welles! He simply flashes an impish smile to Joseph Cotten and skitters down the alley, his long shadow stretched across the walls behind him.

It’s more than just a getaway. Welles makes off with the entire movie in that moment — we just don’t realize it yet. His Harry Lime is a charmer, a lover, a scamp, a baby-faced crook carving out his place in the rubble-strewn underworld of postwar Vienna, and he dominates The Third Man with barely 10 minutes of screen time.

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles
Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles

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Reign of Terror – Anthony Mann’s cult noir on DVD

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

Robert Cummings and Arnold Moss trapped in a French Revolution film noir
Robert Cummings and Arnold Moss trapped in a French Revolution film noir

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

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‘The Man Between’ for TCM

I wrote about Carol Reed’s The Third Man for Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago and more recently wrote on The Fallen Idol. Now they are screening his rarely-see The Man Between, which returns Reed to the post-war European theater, this time with the focus on cold war tensions.

James Mason weighs his options
James Mason weighs his options

The cold war proved such a hot setting for Carol Reed’s brilliant continental thriller The Third Man (1949) that he made a return visit to the territory in The Man Between (1953). Instead of a Vienna carved up by the Allies, this film takes us to Berlin of the early fifties, a city divided into West and Soviet-controlled East Berlin with checkpoints and security stations. Our introduction to this post-World War II Berlin is much like that of our heroine, Susanne (Claire Bloom), a decisive young British woman who flies to Germany to visit her brother, Martin (Geoffrey Toone), and his German wife, Bettina (Bettina Mallison). Susanne is whisked from the international modernity of the airport to the quaint beauty of old Berlin, a tourist vision of Bavarian charm that Susanne finds enchanting. It’s Bettina’s way of showing this impressionable young woman the best of her home before taking her to the reality of the rest of the war-ravaged city.

From the opening scenes, Reed establishes a tension: strangers ominously eye their movements through the airport and a young boy on a bicycle, an otherwise unobtrusive figure of innocence playing in the streets, tails their taxi and makes lazy figure-eights outside their home, a lone building jutting out of the rubble and ruins of their sector of the city. Bettina is nervous and agitated and a night on the town does nothing to ease her disposition; she slips out for a surreptitious meeting that only jangles her nerves more. Susanne finally sees the mystery man on a day trip to East Berlin. As they settle in for tea at a café, the figure (guided by the boy on a bicycle, keeping up his dogged surveillance) steps into the room and over to their table like an old friend. James Mason is the smoothly shady and romantically sinister Ivo Kern, an acquaintance – and surely much more – of Bettina. Susanne is instantly fascinated and an odd kind of courtship begins between the impressionable but headstrong young woman and the older man with an ulterior motive, one that inevitably draws her into the political intrigue of citizens fleeing the East for the West and the espionage by agents no better than mercenary thugs attempting to staunch the flow. “He’s not the government and neither am I,” the weary skeptic Ivo confesses to Bettina after she’s snatched from the streets of West Berlin by an East German agent. “He’s just a gangster trying to get what he can.”

Read the entire piece here. The film, which is not on home video in any form (at least in the U.S.), plays on TCM on January 24.

‘The Maltese Falcon’ – The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

If there is a cooler, tougher, more shrewd and self-sufficient private detective in the movies than Humphrey Bogart’s incarnation of Sam Spade in John Huston’s note-perfect adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, I’ve yet to meet him.

The classic 1941 movie wasn’t the first screen version of Hammett’s iconic novel, but it was the first one to get the hard-boiled toughness of the story and the utterly amoral universe of double-crossing characters right. Huston, who made his directorial debut with this production, reportedly blocked passages of the book directly into script form, but getting Hammett’s dialogue and attitude right was only part of the challenge. He had to cast an actor who could back up those words.

Enter Humphrey Bogart, a veteran character actor who was just breaking out of a career playing villains and supporting parts. His lisp, the result of an injury to his lip, added a distinctive edge to his gravelly voice, and his weathered gravitas gave Spade the look and feel of a man schooled in hard knocks.

This Spade is no stranger to the guile of shady clients and colorful suspects, and there isn’t a more iconic cast of characters in the movies than the rogues’ gallery he encounters here. And I do mean characters. This cast of unusual suspects is distinctive and quirky, and brought to life by actors who fill out those eccentricities and mannerisms with gusto.

One-time Hollywood nice girl Mary Astor goes blonde, brazen and absolutely ruthless as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a soulless siren and the first great femme fatale of film noir. Peter Lorre makes the quietly mannered and impeccably attired Joel Cairo a mercenary dandy. Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman, aka “the Fat Man,” rumbles with charming menace as he spews a stream of pulp philosophy (“I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk”). And don’t forget Elisha Cook Jr.’s rat-faced gunsel Wilmer.

They make for a vivid vipers’ nest of double-dealing thugs and con artists on the trail of a treasure. What they get is the sour twist of a cosmic joke, and Spade is the only one smiling. One of the greatest creations of the Hollywood dream factory, “The Maltese Falcon” really is the stuff dreams are made of.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.