The Asphalt Jungle is often sited as being a staple of the classic noir era and with good reason. It ticks a whole host of boxes; everything from hard bitten criminals, crumpled detectives and glamorous women get a look in, all under the bleak monochrome direction of John Huston and set against the backdrop of an unnamed mid-west city.
But scratch the surface of what might immediately seem like a slick heist caper and you discover a far more layered and complicated set of characters and situations than you might expect. It's a remarkably uncool piece of cinema when you consider that others in the genre have been afforded such status, There are no immediate heroes or even anti heroes for that matter, instead those involved are plagued by unattractive motives, personalities that do little to endear themselves to each other or even the audience, and the film is fuelled not by a glamorous take on crime and intrigue but almost by a bleak mundaneness. What you get is gritty, bordering on realism, lacking in theatrics but instead relying on a low key poetry of human failing.
Essentially it is a character piece and a post war study of masculinity. Despite the appearance of an at the time unknown Marilyn Monroe, the women very much take a back seat in proceedings. There is no femme fatale driving the story forward, instead four distinct types of women are portrayed in relation to the men they are intertwined with, while the men themselves are explored in how they view themselves, and trust and estimate each other.
Stunningly depicted, it's filmed almost entirely in darkness, street or synthetic household light, resulting in a tense atmosphere that adheres to the hard boiled modernist notion of the city as character. Huston produced a definitive work that impresses in both it's stripped down tone, and set the standard for the caper movie, making it more than deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame.
Ever since seeing Twin Peaks at the age of 14, I have loved everything that David Lynch has done. Except for his recently released album Crazy Clown Time. That shit is so wrong on so many levels. But his films are mostly pretty fucking great, and Blue Velvet is no exception. It definitely ranks as my joint no. 1 favourite Lynch flick with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. And like Twin Peaks the story takes place in a picturesque American town with a hidden heart of darkness beating underneath its seemingly blemish free skin.
It all starts off with inquisitive college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finding a sliced-off ear in a field in the town of Lumberton. He proceeds to investigate the case of the disembodied ear with the assistance of sweet natured high school student, Sandy (Laura Dern), who provides him with information from her father, who works as Lumberton's chief of police. Beaumont's investigations draws him into Lumberton's dark and sordid underworld, and sees him forming a dangerous relationship with the alluring but damaged singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who is in the grip of crime boss, Frank Booth: a gas honking, foul mouthed psychopath who regularly subjects Dorothy to violent sexual acts.
Blue Velvet is essentially a film noir seen through Lynch's skewed perspective. As well as adding his trademark surrealism, Blue Velvet also contains many of the elements found in films of the film noir genre: the femme fatale, the slightly morally dubious sleuth and the seemingly unstoppable bad guy, as well as the film's use of dark, shadowy cinematography. The end result is 120 minutes of pure Lynchian brilliance.
Blue Velvet also contains some pretty brilliant turns from its cast. MacLachlan is great as Beaumont, as is Rossellini, but really its Dennis Hopper who walks with the entire film. Hopper seizes the role of Frank Booth with the ferocity and relish of a lion attacking a zebra. The man is simply astonishing and is arguably the most terrifying villain to tear up the screen.
Vote for films nominated by Rhubarb, Elab and Impqueen? Fuck that shit! BLUE VELVET! VOTE FOR IT!
Jeff Bridges plays Richard Bone, a bit of a playboy whose car breaks down in an alleyway late one rainy night. He sees another car and a mysterious man dumping something in the alley. The next day, the body of a young girl is found there. Bone spots someone the same day who he recognises from the alley the night before, the only trouble is it's a wealthy and respectable businessman, J.J. Cord. This sparks the interest of Bone's friend, Alex Cutter (John Heard), a bitter, one-eyed, loud-mouthed, disabled war veteran with a taste for alcohol and a desire to take down Cord.
Cutter's Way is one of the greatest and most overlooked crime/noir films of the 80s, a paranoid masterpiece that also works as a cry of rage for a generation destroyed by the Vietnam war. It's also about the injustice and social divides in American life that can lead to traumas like that war. Like the best noir, it's about world building as much as it is about characters, but while the classic noir lurks in shadows, this is bathed in sunlight and high society, but the underneath of this California paradise is as rotten as anything you find in the back alleys and dive bars of 40s noir. Cutter, Bone and Cutter's wife Mo (A heartbreaking Lisa Eichhorn) are interlopers in this rich kid's playground, and Cutter is intent on burning the whole thing to the ground. The most damning commentary on the world created is that it takes men like Cutter and Bone to stand up for what's right, in any other film, these guys would be the villains.
The characters feel lived in, you believe they've been pissing each other off for a long time. One review described Cutter as a character out of a Tom Waits song, and you can feel that boozy moral ambiguity coming from him in waves. Heard is astonishing as Cutter, how he could fall from the likes of Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter and this to nothing roles like Kevin's dad in Home Alone is a shocking display of the way talent can so easily be wasted. How Alex Cutter didn't become an icon of 80s cinema, especially when you consider some of the dull, cliched work that became celebrated, is astonishing. He's caustic, cynical, bitter, but with great humour, charm, and his own sense of justice. In fact, I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't come out of this film liking Cutter.
Heard dominates the film Cutter is a once in a lifetime role. He should have easily taken an Oscar for his performance. But as much praise as Heard often gets, Bridges is just as vital to the success of the film. Bridges has become so celebrated as an actor over the last few years that it's easy to forgot just how overlooked he was, and how unsung his work actually was, especially through the 70s were he perfected the sense of a man who should have had the world at his feet, but was actually lost and adrift. If anything his work here is the equal of Heard's, it's just that Bone is a more subtle role with less big moments. Eichhorn is also astonishing, more than holding her own as Mo, in fact she gives one of the great female performances of the decade.
The film is as fuck you in its stance as Cutter himself. There's no attempt to make these characters into loveable heroes, or to try and make anything easy on the audience. It's a melancholy, moody film, never giving in to the big crowd-pleasing moments that were demanded in the early 80s. You have to think that if the film had come out five years earlier it'd be held in the same esteem as a Taxi Driver or Network, dark films that also feature cracked characters on their own moral missions. It's an intricate, complex work, one that refuses to ever take the easy path or reach out for audience sympathy. No wonder it wasn't a hit.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance salesman, and a damn good one at that. He is someone who thinks he can spot a scam a mile away. On his latest job he falls for and starts and an affair with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Phyllis signs her husband up for insurance with Neff's company before coercing Neff into hatching a plan to kill her husband. Neff thinks he is the perfect man for the job and can make it look like an accident so that they can claim the double indemnity clause in the contract.
Its rare for any film to start at the end, with the protagonist dying, giving all of the details of his plan and talking the viewer through the murder case, but that is exactly what happens here. With any film noir, we know going in that there is going to be a bad outcome for at least most of the characters, and Wilder really didnt shy away from that. He takes the viewpoint of showing us that not even the best plans laid out by one of the few people who should be able to work a way around so that they get away with it will still fail.
Neff looks a tired man in this opening, and someone who just seems glad for the release which this is giving him. He has seen before how dogged and determined Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is when tracking down an insurance scam, and this time the chase has really taken its toll. You really get the impression that he was someone who just fell into this by accident. He was living a comfortable life and just got his head turned by a beautiful woman.
The introduction of Phyllis in one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. At the height of the Hayes Code, Stanwyck appears at the top of the stairs in nothing but a towel. For the shot, Wilder doesnt fall into the trap of keeping the camera too much on Stanwyck and instead just has Neff talking us through the effect this introduction had on him. This playful way around the Hayes Code is also shown later in the film while at Neff's apartment, as Plyllis clearly sleeps with Neff to convince him to take part in her plan. Wilder doesnt show a sex scene in the film, instead just cutting away to show that it is clearly a later time in the living room, with Neff looking a much happier man and having his views quickly changed. It is incredible to see just how much Wilder pushed the limits of the code within these couple of scenes.
There are numerous other scenes which also deserve to be analysed within this film. Double Indemnity really is about as dark as film noir as a genre manages to get with plenty of images which have become among the most iconic within the genre and managing to push to boundaries further than they had ever been before.
Blurb to follow on account of being a terrible human being.
Before Memento, before Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, before any other of these fractured time-line films, was The Killing, a fine heist film told with panache and style. Sterling Hayden is Johnny Clay, an ex-con who assembles a group of morally-questionable men along with easily convincible inside men for a $2million heist on a racecourse. The film follows the setup, execution, and fallout of the heist, along with a zing in the tale before the memorable finale. So far so ordinary. However, the at-the-time revolutionary storytelling technique makes this that much more impressive. With no seeming regularity the film flits from one point in a day, to a few hours earlier, to later that evening, to half an hour before that, to three days later, to a few hours earlier, and so forth. If one is not awake, it is easy to become lost in the constantly fluid timeline.
That aside however, the story is easy to follow, and reaps plentiful rewards. We are given a range of different characters: the confident leader, the nervous inside man with the manipulative, cheating wife; the hotshot rifleman; the hard man for a barroom brawl; the money. We follow these various characters in a way that allows us to see fully their involvement in the heist itself. In a master stroke of editing, we see the various constituent parts of the heist separately, returning back each time to see the different viewpoint in a technique that is repeated 41 years later in Tarantino's Jackie Brown (the shopping mall sequence). From there, the final revelation of how the money is removed from the scene of the crime is hidden until the last possibly moment that it can be revealed, allowing the already tense atmosphere to ratchet up even more.
The finale is excellent, and allows for the preservation of the moral code in films – criminals are punished, regardless of their position within a film. The film marks the first occasion that Kubrick uses pre-existent source material for his film. Before this, his films have had either no story (i.e., documentary) or have been an original script for the screen. With The Killing Kubrick begins his lifelong devotion to adapting material already in existence. It's also the first of his films that stands up to extended scrutiny by anyone other than devoted Kubrick fans.
Robert Downey Jr + Guy Who did Leathal Weapon = Awesome
Laura is a great example of classic noir-it’s dark, features a cop nobody trusts, delightful gallows humour abounds and at the centre of it all there’s a dead girl, because in noirs women are either dead, evil, or manipulative. The thing that makes it stand out amongst the classics from the period is the characters, who all have a motive for the crime and yet rise above just being dull stereotypes. The fiancé is obviously a suspect, but the film refuses to make him just the “Suspicious Boyfriend”, and the same is true of all the characters. The standout is Clifton Webb as Waldo, who is just so delightfully snarky, and refuses to take the investigation seriously, and yet there’s a surprising amount of depth and emotion that only occasionally bubbles to the surface.
The plot is constantly shifting and twisting, as noir plots must do, but here there’s always something that turns the film on its head around the corner. Very few films are brave enough to throw a curveball that literally changes everything just over halfway through the film, and yet Laura does it, pulls it off, and becomes even more compelling as a result. There’s a sense of not having a clue what happens next, and yet when it does it’s seen as the only logical result of all that’s gone before. It’s easily one of the best noirs ever written.
And, if nothing else, it has Vincent Price in it. What more do you need?
"I have two friends in the world. One is a cat. The other is a murderer."
Shambolic, unshaven, crumble suited cat owner and private dick Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) has no problem whisking his best and only friend Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton) from the sleazy streets of Los Angeles to the Californian/Mexican border at Tijuana. His friend seems in a bit of a tight spot but no questions are needed between comrades. Returning home Marlowe is greeted by a couple of cops and he is imprisoned for aiding and abetting a murderer. Obviously Marlowe doesn’t believe his mate killed his wife and that’s his ‘case’ trying to figure out what happened to Terry Lennox and there’s a blonde lady with a missing husband who may or may not be connected.
When I first sat down and watched The Long Goodbye I struggled for the first several minutes and turned the damn film off. I went and had a cup of tea and came back a few years later and realised I was an idiot and needed to get myself a cat. I tell you this riveting anecdote because for the first ten minutes Elliott Gould shambles around, mumbling to himself trying to purchase some cat food and though you might not agree with me at first you’ll soon realise it’s a brilliant opening.
I really don’t know what to say about The Long Goodbye purists are inclined to hate this interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s work and upon its initial release it was pretty much loathed and accused of being mean spirited and lacking in affection for its source and some even criticised the film for not understanding the genre it so richly and subtly undermined. I find it hard to believe that any filmmaker (let alone heyday Robert Altman) could produce such a unique, complex, visually exquisite piece of neo noir cinema without understanding its roots and not having any warmth for it. The shadows may have been replaced by moonlight and sun dried streets but they are just as dangerous and dirty as they were in the dark. The film and Altman may take Philip Marlowe and dump him in the sun-drenched, corrupt, me now of nineteen seventies America and though it may appear on the surface and a little under that Gould’s Marlowe is about as far as you can get from Bogart many things remain the same, they’re both outsiders, they both have the same ideals (Gould’s values just don’t fit anymore) and they both make for compelling leads. There is also a healthy dose of murder, blackmail, betrayal, girls and violence as well as several astonishing set pieces, explosive moments of viciousness that remind you that as laid back as everything and everyone appears, the world isn’t.
Is it a parody, a revisionist interpretation, a deconstruction, a subtle critic of the genre, of the man, of Hollywood, of America itself? Whatever you want to say The Long Goodbye is in my belief a stone cold, if lightly warmed by the sun classic.
While Chandler himself was getting a masterclass in screenwriting (down the road at Paramount with Billy Wilder), the greatest ever adaptation of his writing was being put together at the classic noir powerhouse, RKO. Both films (along with Laura) brought noir box office credibility and pump-primed the outpouring of film noir for the remainder of the decade. (In another connection Powell, desperate to extend his acting range, had lobbied hard for the lead in Double Indemnity).
Farewell My Lovely was rapidly re-titled to avoid any link to the star’s musical-comedy background. It’s the first official appearance of Philip Marlowe on the cinema screen (an honour Powell apparently also holds for both TV and radio), although the story had been used before. Set in LA it is as convoluted a tale as many in the Chandler cannon as Marlowe tries to find the former sweetheart of big dumb Moose Malloy as well a big McGuffin of a jade necklace. Although the ending is changed – this is Hollywood after all – Dmytryk and writer Paxton retain an astonishing amount of the jaded cynicism from the book and in the voice of Marlowe. This was noir beginning to challenge the Hollywood code.
Dick Powell is the best Philip Marlowe on screen. Gould is good but a tad too glib, Garner was near perfect. Bogart could do Spade but he wasn’t Marlowe. But Powell? There’s a rhythm to hard-boiled dialogue – it’s like Shakespearean language, but pulp. Perhaps it’s Powell’s background in music, perhaps he just discovered major reserves of serious acting talent (not that hard to believe if you see the likes of Cry Danger and Pitfall) – but he gets the music of the language absolutely bang-on perfect. Our femme fatale is the often underrated Claire Trevor – it’s not her best noir performance (for me that’d probably be Raw Deal), but her balancing act between the finely draped front and the lying, larcenous interior is beautifully handled. Also look out for a small role for Esther Howard as sad, scared old sot Jesse Florian (“she was a gal to take a drink – she’d knock you down to get the bottle”) and do remember Powell isn’t quite that small, he just spends most of his time standing beside man mountain Mike Mazurki.
With its cheap, dark sets noir was perfect for RKO (indeed the studio arguably produced the first, Stranger on the Third Floor), the poorest of the big five and one that, certainly at this part of the 40s, relied mainly on B movies. The studio regulars brought a skill set to the genre almost unrivalled in Hollywood – a fair chunk on the backroom staff on this had also spent time on, e.g., Citizen Kane, a film that straddles a fair few noir conventions without coming close to tipping over. These included cinematographer Harry Wild who’d worked under Toland on Kane and who does some striking work here – the full on expressionistic fever-dream sequence, the impressive introduction of Moose which helps introduce a technique that became common, using the flash of external neon lights (see also The Unsuspected and one of the greatest shots in noir).
Murder, My Sweet combines the classic noir characteristics from American pulp married to expressionist visuals and a cynicism that the French would be proud of. It is a box office hit and hugely influential on the flowering of film noir that followed. Relying on one of America’s greatest writers and creating a screen Marlowe to be proud of, it would be a worthy representative of Film Noir for any list.
By 1958 the films that were to be ever increasingly referred to as ‘film noir’ were less prolific than in the preceding 10-12 years. At that time this style of film was not new, nor was it the first time Orson Welles had made a noir film. Touch of Evil takes place in a US/ Mexico border town where newly wed couple, Miguel and Susie Vargas, starting to enjoy their honeymoon are interrupted by a car explosion. The car had just crossed the border from Mexico to the US at the same time the couple crossed over before it exploded; the ramifications of this could prove highly contentious amongst officals. Vargas himself being a drug enforcement officer becomes embroiled in the affair. At the same time his wife is escorted off to be ‘advised’ by the Grandi gang to tell her husband that he needs to lay off his brother in Mexico City.
What’s clear from the start is that we’ve entered a world where the stories have been running for some time. Not only is that in itself captivating in it’s authenticity but we’re treated to a marvellous 3 minute tracking shot to open the film, gliding through the streets and introducing the characters. After that the film still maintains its real-time feel. The events of the film probably only cover 2 days, time is taken to let the events unravel themselves rather than manipulating them.
While the couple are our heroes of the story it is Welles’ corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan that takes centre stage. His mumbling, unkempt and haggard appearance is just the tip of iceberg of his captivating performance. But it’s not a film the rides on Welles alone. The supporting cast are simply brilliant. Janet Leigh and Akim Tamiroff’s exchanges when they first meet matches any on the films best scenes both in writing and performance. Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s right hand man offers a superb performance in the way he shifts from brown nosing Quinlan to a nervous wreck in the face of a moral dilemma. Charlton Heston is the weak link and is thankfully given less screen time than a lead should have, however as far as Heston goes this isn’t bad. Welles and the other supporting cast do seem to carry him and he does have some moments that I really do like. Add to that Dennis Weaver as the very nervous and slightly mentally challenged Motel night-watchman and Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old flame and you have one of the finest supporting casts of any film noir.
It is perhaps Welles’ performance behind the camera that bind all these elements together so well. The editing and pacing of the film is extrordinary, I really think there are very few films that match such a relentless plot, there are no breathing points or story sags. But there’s also no time given for quick cheap thrills, the events wear the characters down by their own merits, which makes the ending all the more authentic.
Blurb to follow on account of a major sulk at his first choice not being widely available (aka legally available) and having to go with a kids film instead.