Noir out of Time: “The Black Book” and “The Tall Target”

Anthony Mann established his A-list credentials with a string of edgy, psychologically driven 1950s westerns. But Hollywood’s Mann of the west paid his dues on a handful of B movies and honed his chops—and his eye for sharp composition—on a cycle of hard edged crime thrillers before springing his dark vision of the American west on Hollywood. Working with impoverished budgets but an extraordinary cinematographer (John Alton), he turned bland sets and anonymous backlots into lonely locations swallowed in fog or lost in the night, lit only by dim pools of illumination and slashes of light. He also had a tendency to take his criminal exploits out of the traditional urban settings and into unexpected settings without losing his distinctive mix of hard-edged style and grit. Here are a pair that traveled farther afield than most.

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great 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.

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DVDs for 11/3/09 – The Noir and The Dead

The Dead (Lionsgate) – John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. He began his directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been long forgotten. It’s only fitting that he ended his career with an adaptation just as perfect, and insulting that after such a long wait for a DVD release, we get such a shoddy presentation. Based on a James Joyce short story featured in The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of his most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and touchy relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in "The Dead"

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the rest of the guests but becomes obvious to us as Huston deftly brings us into the gathering, like an unseen guest, to witness privileged moments of intimacy. There’s a melancholy undercurrent to this happy occasion, as disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, but Huston’s hushed appreciation of the gathering and tender affection for the characters is sublime. Huston’s direction is pure grace, creating a world of relationships and a history of family in the rhythms and glances and comments (guarded and unguarded) of the guests. Donal McCann is particularly good as a tippling cousin who is always in danger of embarrassing himself and Dan O’Herlihy is fine as a patriarch who becomes increasingly red-faced and slurred throughout the evening. The disc quality of this long-awaited DVD debut, however, is appalling. The 1:85 aspect ratio has been shaved to fit the 16×9 widescreen format and the mastering is weak, with unstable, noisy colors and hazy resolution, adequate for a bargain-priced film but not worthy of the beauty of John Huston’s swan song. There’s no supplements, which is fine, but the film itself is cut by ten minutes (thanks to Tom Becker at DVD Verdict for identifying the missing footage, an entire sequence at the beginning of the film), for which there is no excuse. It’s still a beautiful film, but it’s not the movie that Huston released in 1987.

11/5/09 Update: Lionsgate has issued a recall for the DVD. Details here.

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