First, a note: If not for plot synopses, I might write twice as many film reviews. A synopsis is that desperate time when I have to actually remember (!) what I just saw in narrative terms and commit violence upon my mental understanding of visual storytelling by reducing it to words on paper (well, internet paper) about the “plot” of a film. I have to pretend as though a paragraph explanation of the “event” of a film is an accurate description of what can make a film good or bad. It is no secret that I am a firm believer that just about any plot description can amount to a terrible film as much as a great one, and that it is the storytelling and not the “plot” that a story makes. So this causes me great dysfunction.
Kiss Me Deadly, released in 1955, is one of the last great classic period film noirs, but it wasn’t often acknowledged as such originally. It was fought by politicians and “moral” figures at the time of its release, seen as the kind of film dangerous teenage types went to see in hopes of engendering social subversion. And this concern, about the danger it posed to accepted, conservative social mores, was valid: not only is this a lurid and exploitative film, but it has the gall to elevate these qualities to high art and use them to reflect on the luridness and exploitation perhaps intrinsic to human nature. Continue reading →
It’s perhaps fitting that The Killing, a film so predicated on control and careful positioning was brought to life by a director who lived and breathed control and precision. It is usually considered director Stanley Kubrick’s first “mature” film, something which has two meanings here. Firstly, it’s the film where we see aspects of the filmmaker’s form and style come to fruition, including perhaps his most ubiquitous care: his love of calculated, icy cold filmmaking, perniciously-formed and rigorous like clockwork mechanics, where humans don’t much matter at all except in their capacity to move event and process forward. The Killing is the kind of filmmaking which would define his later efforts and mark him as one of the great visual masters of contempt-ravaged cinema, and it is a particularly suited film, and film genre, the noir, for Kubrick to have cut his metallic teeth on. Continue reading →
This being the first in a month-long film noir review series.
A basic description of Otto Preminger’s Laura gives the impression of a typical film noir: a woman is murdered and a detective tries to figure out who did it. Technically that’s an apt description, but it misses the forest for the trees. When one thinks of film noir, one imagines dark, hard-edged characters, masculine cynics who deal in obsession, and a film with a suitably single-minded focus, a film suffocating on pure mortal fear and sin. This is not Laura. Where we expect focus, we find malaise. Where we expect single-mindedness, we have a lackadaisical atmosphere. Where we expect desperation, we get pomp and circumstance. And where we expect something ruthlessly efficient, we find something that quietly sneaks up on you, is generally amused with itself, and befuddles at every turn. Continue reading →
You’ ve probably heard the soul-sick story before. A no-nonsense hero distanced from society and searching for a job finds, instead, the diabolical underside of a grim society rendered like nightmare. Here, he’s played by Joseph Cotton and his name is Holly Martins, a pulp writer who’s been offered a job by his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in war-torn Vienna. When he gets there he finds that Lime is dead and he takes more interest in Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), who may or may not know more about Lime’s supposed death than she is letting on. Martins, almost on cue, begins to question anything and everything, only to wonder whether his questioning was best for anyone. Continue reading →
Released in 1957, Sweet Smell of Success, mocking, bitter title and all, was one of the last American film noirs. You’d be forgiven for thinking the genre would be sucked-dry by that point (after all, dozens of these movies were released every year in an era that saw rapidly-produced films like no other). Maybe it is the knowledge of this fact that allowed director Alexander Mackendrick, writer Clifford Odets, and cinematographer James Wong Howe (in a rare great film where the cinematographer is more famous than the writer or director, but then that’s film noir for you) the freedom to produce something which feels so rapturously alive. This isn’t a static film – it kicks and prods and runs at you every which way and threatens to overcome you with itself. It’s angry and enraged, teeth drawn, filled with passion, and it purrs like a noirish nightmare hopped up on a drug that hadn’t yet made its way stateside ten years earlier at the height of noir popularity, but was now infecting the waters. Infecting, and poisoning at that, but Sweet Smell of Success has venom to match. Continue reading →
Update 2018: Touch of Evil’s introduction is still genius, a blurring of perspectives and races as the camera recklessly unfurls itself across porous national and moral boundaries, ambivalently flaunting its ability to contest America’s certainty about racial and national borders even as it questions its own ability as cinema to escape those borders. When the bomb blows up, prematurely concluding and interrupting an interracial kiss, the film confronts the moral, legal, and visual limits of its time-period and quite literally explodes in attempting to find a way out. What a way for Welles to return to the nation that abandoned him, and that he abandoned.
Released in 1958 on the eve of the barren no man’s land that was Hollywood cinema during the first half of the ’60s (before the ’70s would give it the caustic, cynical kick it needed to revitalize itself), it’s fitting that Touch of Evil is usually considered the final classic-period film noir. As if sensing the decay of the Hollywood system and its inevitable decline for its conservative rigidity, Orson Welles must have sought to bring the house down by making the ultimate film in one of its premier genres (Welles, to be fair, had not only seen this coming but had initiated its eventual arrival twenty years before when he gave the studio system its definitive film and by definition made every passing year for Hollywood an unsuccessful attempt to surpass this benchmark). And “ultimate” film noir here doesn’t so much mean the greatest or best film noir, although it comes close. It implies instead that this film is the ultimate example of noir, or the most film noirish noir ever – it plays like Welles read the genre past itself, distilled it to its core, and expanded those elements to their extreme. Everything – from the caustic characters to the cavernous nightmarish despair to the eternal worthlessness of human nature to the implicit racial subtext to the concern over obsession, control, and power – that constructed the noir as a genre is on display here and rendered more nihilistic than perhaps ever before. Continue reading →
1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre saw the return of a pairing that had birthed two of the cinematic world’s greatest talents – John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Seven years earlier they had made film history with the (hard)-boiled-down-to-the-core film noir The Maltese Falcon, Huston’s first film and Bogart’s first star-making role. It seems like the seven years apart was enough to make them hungry enough to throw Hollywood for a loop. That they did, famously so when Warner Bros execs initially hated The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In creating the film, they had succeeded brilliantly with a narrative and mood never even really tried before: a noir Western, infused with the mythologizing and location-work of a Western but the stylish ironization and seedy, grimy exploration of human decay front and center in noir. Quite literally, it was a combination of the genre of American dreams and the genre of American nightmares. What they created not only gifted Huston two Oscars, for directing and writing, and re-cemented Bogart’s name (along with their other 1948 pairing in the also great Key Largo), but exceeded the then far grasp of both genres and served as a striking examination of human decay far more sinister than just about any film before or since. Continue reading →
Was there ever a better cinematic pairing than Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog? Well, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog, but here I sense a second coming. The H-man was always obsessed with something, anything, even obsession, and Cage also plays his roles with an unhinged, wild-man version of obsession, even if recently it’s been obsession for paychecks so he can go trampoline in a castle somewhere. And here they’ve produced the kind of film that wouldn’t be more appropriate anywhere than on a screen in front of said trampoline, ready to give you a splitting headache or cast you into the stratosphere. I’m not sure which.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a spiritual successor to the 1992 film of the same main title, is a film noir, but it’s the kind we haven’t seen in decades – the kind epitomized by eccentric ’50s films like Kiss Me Deadly. These films were gloriously weird and slyly subversive. They played by their own rules, created characters that fit types of their own creations, and took joy in a sort of playful anarchy of their own creation. They were like playgrounds for filmmakers interested in raw emotions taken to extremes that couldn’t exist in reality. They were fantasies, all the more ruthless because they masqueraded as reality. Nowadays, we get stoic, grim films with no sense of humor and a nagging desire to strive for reality. In doing so, they sacrifice unconscious affect. Continue reading →