Friday, November 27, 2015

Kiss of Death

Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death opens with a department store jeweler getting robbed. It's a quick operation for hoodlum Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) but he gets caught. He refuses to snitch in exchange for a lighter sentence but after his personal life starts to crumble, he reconsiders.

As a result, he gets paroled and a new lease on life. Then Bianco is recruited to get information on another hoodlum running loose in New York City. Unfortunately for Bianco, that hoodlum is Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a ruthless gangster with the grin of a killer. And Udo doesn't like snitches.

Kiss of Death, like several noirs in the years to come, shows domesticity amid the danger. It shows how Bianco mainly committed his various crimes for the sake of his family. (In fact, the opening robbery is one such example.) Not very often you see that.

Also, Bianco's portrayal as a family man is a nice foil to Udo's vicious attitude. The caring against the heartless, the sensible against the brutal. Foils are common throughout noir, but Kiss of Death has a prime example.

Kiss of Death is a very well done film noir, especially Widmark's performance. (That's one hell of a way to kickstart a career in Hollywood.) Being a post-war noir, it shows the discourse within the home front. And boy, what discourse it is.

My Rating: ****


Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour opens with piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) lamenting over the end of his relationship with singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), who left him for a shot at Hollywood. Now he's hitch-hiking to California but as he gets closer to being with Sue again, trouble crosses his path. And then Vera (Ann Savage) enters his life.

Indeed many elements of Detour just scream B-movie but does that matter in the long run? Not particularly because Ulmer manages to make a film that, despite its cheap appearance, is quite effective. (Hey, looks can be deceiving, you know.)

Speaking of which, that could easily describe Vera. She at first glance looks like a girl that you'd pass by on the street without a second thought. But the moment she locks eyes with and speaks to you, it's clear she's anything but. With her fiery glare and brassy voice, she's not someone you want to get on the bad side of. (And she's rarely in a pleasant mood.)

There's also a shift in gender roles between Al and Vera. Usually with noirs, men are the vicious ones while the women just stay in the background looking pretty. Not in Detour. Al just goes along with Vera's bossy attitude, even when his tolerance towards her starts to dwindle. (Just pointing this out, this was released the same year as Scarlet Street.)

Detour shows that an effective film noir can be possible with a small budget and a short production schedule. That said, there are some flaws within the final result. (The somewhat choppy editing, for starters.) Still, Detour is worth a look.

My Rating: ****

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Side Street

Anthony Mann's Side Street opens with the narration of police officer Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly), talking about the many lives within the confines of New York City. He muses how the vast city's inhabitants will pass each other by without a second thought, how they carry on with their routine lives. Then we're introduced to Joe Norson (Farley Granger).

With his wife expecting, Joe is tightly strapped for cash. (His part-time job as a mail carrier isn't helping much.) During one of his routes, he steals what he thinks is $200 from a lawyer's office. He then finds out he actually stole $30,000. What follows has Joe ensnared with criminals and murder.

Like any good film noir, the city plays just as big a part as any of the actors. And it's all crisply captured by Joseph Ruttenberg, who was certainly no slouch when it came to his job. (He didn't get four Oscars and six additional nominations for nothing.) The hustle and bustle of this restless town is keenly shot by his and Mann's watchful eyes. God, to live in that world...

Granger, far from an unfamiliar face to films of a criminal nature (Rope, They Live by Night, Strangers on a Train), is great here. With his frantic dark eyes, he captures Joe's tense disposition. Surely Granger must've known how others might see the film even if he didn't think much of it. (From his autobiography: "For its time, Side Street was a good-looking, well-made film that was not able to rise above the banality of its story.")

Side Street is a really, really damn good noir, one that for some reason hasn't earned the recognition it deserves. (Then again, this could apply to most of Granger's filmography outside of his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.) So be sure to find this and watch it.

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Glass Key

1942 saw the release of two film noirs starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. The first was This Gun for Hire, which firmly put Ladd and Lake amongst the greats of noir. (It's also the best-known of their seven-film collaboration.) The second one got lost amongst the other titles of 1942 but stands out on its own.

That film is Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key. Based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name. it's a tale of political corruption and murder. And like The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon (also adaptations of Hammett's work), it's a perplexing whodunnit.

In comparison to The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key is noticeably more violent in nature.At one point in the film, Ladd's face is beaten to a pulpy mess (well, as pulpy as the Hays Code can allow) by a goon. Even for a film released during the height of World War II, it's pretty vicious.

Plot-wise, you have to pay close attention to what's unfolding. Much like The Big Sleep in the years to come, there's a menagerie of characters ranging from those that lurk in the background to those only around for a handful of scenes. (A list of who's who might be necessary.)

Though not on the same level of greatness as The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key holds its own. Thanks to Ladd's natural charisma, he has a comfortable mood as he faces off against tough guys and even tougher dames (Lake included). It's a lesser-known title amongst the numerous film noirs but that doesn't mean it's one you should ignore.

My Rating: ****

Monday, November 23, 2015

Leave Her to Heaven

John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven appears to be your usual run of the mill melodrama from Hollywood's Golden Age, complete with Technicolor-drenched cinematography from Leon Shamroy. (Eat your heart out, Douglas Sirk.) But as the viewer gets to know Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) more, it's clear that something's not right about her.

How so? When she first lays eyes on Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), she remarks how much he resembles her recently deceased father. (For several scenes afterwards, she talks about her father in an almost obsessive manner.) They get married soon afterwards but Richard soon finds out that his wife's obsessions have shifted to him.

By this time, Hollywood was regularly churning out film noirs. But Leave Her to Heaven was one of the first noirs to be shot in Technicolor, and the results can be stunning. (No surprise how Shamroy got an Oscar for his work.) From Tierney's wardrobe to the sky at dusk, it adds a sort of dissonance to the film's story.

And as is the case with film noir, the performances are solid. The main draw is clearly Tierney, who earned her only Oscar nomination for her work in this. Her porcelain features are mystifying, distracting enough make one not notice her unbalanced behavior.

Leave Her to Heaven is frequently among the ranks of the greats though certain elements make the film show its age. That said, Tierney's performance and Shamroy's cinematography are stunning and timeless. (In all honesty, these are the main and only draws for Leave Her to Heaven.)

My Rating: ****

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Human perseverance is an amazing thing. The willpower to survive is something unlike anything else. It's what separates us from other creatures in the animal kingdom.

There have been numerous stories throughout the media about such cases, many of them perpetrated by the monsters that walk among us. What happened to the victims is something that no one should either endure or inflict. But seldom do we hear about the survivors once the media frenzy calms down. (Then again, it's also respecting their privacy.)

Emma Donoghue's novel Room chronicles such a story. Told through the perspective of a five-year-old boy, it focuses on his and his mother's lives as they're sheltered in the titular room. With the story being told from his point of view, the novel takes on a dark tone as Jack watches the world he knows drastically change. (It's heartbreaking to read as he witnesses the abuse his mother endures from their captor.)

Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation maintains the dark ambiance of Donoghue's novel to the fullest. (Not to mention it's a stark contrast from Abrahamson's previous film.) The work from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay is fantastic (not often you see a child performance this effective), and Donoghue's script is as well. And despite its bleak mood, the film has some moments that'll leave a smile on your face.

So which of the two is better? Donoghue's novel is deeply haunting while Abrahamson's film perks up the mood as it wears on. Though the general feel for both of them is different, they both are resilient pieces of work in their own rights.

What's worth checking out?: Both.


All the President's Men. The Insider. Almost Famous. These are a few of the prominent films that focus on the world of journalism. Between and since their releases, there have been other films of a similar nature with varying degrees of success. Though there have been a few that managed to stand out.

So where does Tom McCarthy's Spotlight rank? Chronicling the coverage of a vast sex abuse scandal in Boston, the film strays away from being gentle about the subject matter. (If it did, you could easily see the film's quality dwindle.)

There's a certain detail throughout Spotlight that adds to the film's impact. Being about a scandal through the Catholic Church, its presence is known within various scenes. How so? Throughout various exterior shots, a church can be seen within the background. A nice touch from McCarthy.

And the actors McCarthy got for his film...good God. Every single one of them never waste a single moment when they're on screen whether it's one of the stars or an actor with one scene. It's not that often you see a film use all of its actors effectively.

Spotlight is one of those rare well-crafted films where all of its elements sing like a symphony. Every note of it works wonders, something that has to be done with fine precision. And everyone involved is at the top of their game here.

My Rating: *****