Monday, November 30, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number

Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number opens with invalid heiress Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) trying to get in contact with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster). She overhears a conversation between two men plotting a murder over the line. Panicked, she tries to find answers.

Based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher (she also wrote the screenplay), Sorry, Wrong Number isn't Stanwyck's usual fare. Yes, she's dabbled in her fair share of film noirs but she's far from her usual role of the femme fatale. Very far from it.

Also a familiar face to noir is Lancaster. Bear in mind Sorry, Wrong Number came only a few years after his debut in The Killers so Hollywood didn't particularly know what to do with him just yet. That said, however, it's clear early on that Lancaster knew how to make his presence known.

So what about the film itself? Set in almost exact time, Sorry, Wrong Number shows how a reduced production can be damn effective. (It's primarily set in Leona's bedroom.) Yes, some scenes stray away from the bedroom but does that lessen the film's quality? Not in the slightest.

Anyway, Sorry, Wrong Number is a damn fine film noir. Stanwyck is great throughout though that comes as no surprise if you're familiar with her work. (It's a shame that she was the bridesmaid four times and never the bride...unless you count that Honorary Oscar.) So make sure that Sorry, Wrong Number is on your to-watch list.

My Rating: ****1/2

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: *****

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Criterion Blogathon

So get this. Aaron of Criterion Blues, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings decided to team up and do a blogathon together. Basically the objective is to talk about any film or topic so long as the Criterion Collection is involved. Sounds simple, right? Feeling bored, I figured I'd throw my two cents in for a Criterion release. But which one? Titles were being claimed left and right, so I opted for this one:

(1985, dir. Nicholas Roeg)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Gene Tierney 95th Birthday Blogathon

Simoa of The Ellie Badge is hosting a blogathon where the subject is Academy Award-nominated actress Gene Tierney. Admittedly I'm not deeply familiar with her work (I've only seen two of her films) but I felt like chipping my two cents. My film of choice?

(1946, dir. Edmund Goulding)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Labyrinth of Lies

There have been many horrors throughout history. Many of said horrors were perpetrated by people who were the epitome of evil. And in many of these instances, these monsters looked like they could be next door to you.

This point becomes the driving force once Giulio Ricciarelli's Labyrinth of Lies takes off. Set in the years following the end of World War II, it chronicles the journey to bring those responsible for the atrocities the Nazi Party committed. A task easier said than done.

As proven throughout history, there are those ashamed of their past actions. As shown throughout Labyrinth of Lies, the Germans of an older generation would best like to forget the war they lost. This further complicates matters for our protagonist (a composite of three lawyers from the real-life trial) but it doesn't stop him. Even if it alienates him from those around him, he still wants justice for the innocents.

And as Labyrinth of Lies wears on, it takes on a more paranoid nature. Makes sense because for our protagonist, he only has a small group of allies. How many of them can he actually trust? Knowing the world he's a part of, it leaves you wondering.

Labyrinth of Lies focuses on a country's misdeeds in a (mostly) unflinching light. (Apart from testimony from those who survived, what happened to the many victims of the Holocaust isn't shown or mentioned.) Ricciarelli does prove that one's actions can come with consequences and while not on the same scale as Judgment at Nuremberg, the film does add a new perspective on a dark spot in history.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, November 14, 2015


We as a society are constantly changing. What was once taboo is now part of everyday life (and vice versa). Our opinions shift as the years pass but even then there are some things that remain unchanged.

When it comes to human psychology, we're always fascinated by various studies from the field whether it's because of the subject matter or the controversy that followed suit. Michael Almereyda's Experimenter focuses on the various studies conducted by Stanley Milgram. And all these years later, we're still fascinated by the results.

Much like how Kinsey and Masters of Sex highlighted how their respective researchers changed how the world viewed sexual behavior, Experimenter highlights how Milgram's infamous study still resonates decades later. It's a study that examines human behavior under the control of others, one that asks the question, what are the limits for a human?

Unlike your standard "based on real events" film, Experimenter plays with different formats of storytelling. The fourth wall is regularly broken, some set designs appear more like they're from a many means this was Almereyda's decision to experiment with his film (and he frequently does with his other work). It just adds to the film's nature.

Experimenter is a curious film in many regards. It neither celebrates nor condemns Milgram's actions, and it does mention the long-term effects of his work. Peter Sarsgaard's performance as Milgram also showcases that the actor is one of the best working today. And the film itself is most definitely one that you should seek out.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, November 9, 2015


You'd think by now as we approach the end of 2015 that we as a society would more equal. Alas, the steps towards total equality have been laden with pitfalls of varying degrees. Unfortunately the world we are a part of is still rampantly racist, sexist, homophobic and heavily bigoted.

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette shows how slow the progress  has been over the last century. (Towards the end of the film, there's an appallingly small list featuring when countries gave women the right to vote, the most recent year being 2015.) But even with the few results we get, they've been effective. (After all, this past summer the United States legalized same-sex marriage.)

Abi Morgan's script is one clearly brimming with anger. She writes about how unfair life as a woman was in the previous century, how they reduced to nothing more than servants or objects to men. Both she and Gavron show how women both then and now are not the dainty figures we appear to be.

And as proven by other works penned by Morgan, Suffragette features a strong roster of actors. Featuring the likes of Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai (even Meryl Streep in a lone scene), it shows how tantalizing a good script is to the right actors. (Though it would've been nice on both Gavron and Morgan's parts to have some actors of color amongst the cast.)

Suffragette is a very gripping film and it shows there was more to the story than what the history books tell you. Though the plot loses its way from time to time, the work from the various women involved proves that it's a film that should be acknowledged.

My Rating: ****1/2

Friday, November 6, 2015

Steve Jobs

Whenever a prominent name gets the biopic treatment, it usually involves the writer(s) cleaning up certain details of the subject's life to make the film a little more...presentable. (*cough* Saving Mr. Banks *cough*) Obviously this is a way to appease both moviegoers and the censors but sometimes the more appealing details of the subject's life are the ones omitted.

So how does Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs fare? It may sound cheap to focus on a subject who passed away recently (not to mention if the new biopic is one of several projects on the subject). But if said project is effective, the cheap feeling dwindles down to nothing. But does Steve Jobs manage to be effective?

It's Aaron Sorkin's script that makes Steve Jobs excel to the highest level. In contrast to his work for The Social Network, Sorkin has a more acerbic tone throughout. (In comparison to The Social Network, Sorkin depicts Jobs as a headstrong thinker who has more enemies than allies because of his demeanor.) It's also proof that Sorkin is one of the best writers working today.

And the performances in Steve Jobs make the film excel even further. The work from Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeff Daniels in particular are very well done but this show belongs to Michael Fassbender, who has certainly proven in recent years that he's one of the best actors working today. ("I'm poorly made.")

Steve Jobs is one of those films where you're half-expecting it to fall apart at some point but miraculously it never happens. Every element works wonders. (Warning for those with epilepsy: the last scene has a long sequence featuring various flashing lights.)

My Rating: *****

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon

Joey of Wolffian Classic Movies Digest is hosting a blogathon where the objective is to cover the films of either Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier or both of them. Being the easily bored blogger that I am, I decided to throw in my two cents on some of their films. I opted to focus on some less talked about performances from both of them. No Gone with the Wind, no A Streetcar Named Desire, no Wuthering Heights, no Rebecca. So what did I pick?

(1960, dir. Tony Richardson)
(1967, dir. Stanley Kramer)
Why these particular films? Well, I'm frequently fascinated with later works of prominent actors. (See also Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City and Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross.) And these are two performances that, if you watch carefully, you can see glimmers of their younger selves.

(More after the jump.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

BOOK VS MOVIE: Ship of Fools

All the lonely people, where do they all come from? / All the lonely people, where to they all belong? So the song goes. Many pieces of fiction revolve around the lonely people of this big, bad world. If done poorly, it could be nothing more than cheap melodrama. Done properly, and it can make for quality drama.

So where does Ship of Fools fall? Focusing on the first-class passengers on a ship from Mexico to Europe, it chronicles their stormy pasts and uncertain futures. Set in the years before the start of World War II, it foreshadows the chaos that would consume the world with hate and violence.

Katherine Anne Porter's novel also focuses on other matters like racial and religious differences. A number of characters voice their opinions on the various ethnicities on board (read: they're openly racist) but this was written during a time of social change so Porter gets an exception in this regard. (Hey, literature gets away with a lot of things.)

Being made during the last few years of the Hays Code's existence, Stanley Kramer's adaptation is decidedly more cleaned up in comparison to Porter's novel. (At least with race and religion; it focuses way more on sex.) Boasting an all-star cast (including Vivien Leigh in her last film role), it's sort of like Grand Hotel set at sea. (An odd combination, perhaps, but it's true.)

Which is better? On the one hand, Porter explores the various complex lives of the passengers. (She also writes about prejudice without getting preachy.) But on the other hand, Kramer's film is decidedly easier to follow. (It also has more happier resolves than what Porter wrote.) Both have their triumphs and flaws so it appears there's one possible solution.

What's worth checking out?: The movie.

Scarlet Street

It's clear early on in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street that Edward G. Robinson is in a different type of role than his usual tough guy fare. His character of Christopher Cross is decidedly more sensible than the likes of Rico or Johnny Rocco. Then he crosses paths with Kitty March (Joan Bennett).

Despite being married (albeit unhappily), Cross becomes smitten with Kitty. Unbeknownst to him, Kitty already has a beau: low-life Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). And it isn't long before Kitty starts playing Cross for all he's worth. (Rule of thumb for film noirs: never trust dames in tight dresses.)

Lang has contributed his fair share of films to the noir genre. (Other titles include M and The Big Heat.) So how does Scarlet Street compare to his more famous titles? Being a post-war noir, it explores more on the matters of sexual desire and moral ambiguity. It also shows how you shouldn't believe everything you're told.

And the performances from Robinson and Bennett are fantastic, providing a nice foil for each other. His meek to her brash, his feeble to her loud. (In fact, a later scene between them is reminiscent of a similar interaction from Of Human Bondage.) You see such foils frequently but seldom with the woman in the crasser role.

Scarlet Street is definitely one of the more underseen titles of both Lang's career and the film noir genre as a whole. Thanks to the work from Robinson and Bennett, it's the kind of film that's one hell of a character study. Also, the ending's one of the finer examples of cruel, cruel irony.

My Rating: *****

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Birds

Can anyone do suspense better than Alfred Hitchcock? (Answer: no.) Yes, there have been many imitators over the years (both during and after Hitchcock's time), but there can only be one master.

With The Birds, Hitchcock takes the work of an author he's adapted before (he had previously adapted Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn and Rebecca) and makes it into something of her own. Many noted trademarks of Hitchcock's are present (the looming mother figure, the blonde damsel in distress) but at the same time, it feels different from his usual fare.

It starts off with a plot more likely to be found in your average Douglas Sirk production. It's not until about an hour in that the blood-thirsty birds become the main focus. Does that hinder the film's quality? Absolutely not. (On a different note, it's amusing to re-watch Psycho and noting the bird motifs knowing that The Birds would be Hitchcock's next project.)

Also, for a film made back in 1963, the special effects are quite good. Sure, there's the occasional shot that shows its age but for a film over fifty years old, you don't normally see special effects this, well, effective. (Honestly, you try finding something from the same time period with special effects that don't look like they cost a grand total of fifteen dollars.)

Stiff acting and dialogue aside, The Birds has some damn good scares. (Again, it's Hitchcock. No surprise there.)  Also, the lack of music so helps with the creepiness. Not a bad follow-up from Psycho.

My Rating: ****