The Big Sleep (1946). 114 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Humphrey Bogart (as Philip Marlowe), Lauren Bacall (as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge), John Ridgely (as Eddie Mars), Martha Vickers (as Carmen Sternwood), Charles Waldron (as General Sternwood), Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Harry Jones), Louis Jean Heydt (as Joe Brody), Bob Steele (as Lash Canino), and Dorothy Malone (as Acme Bookstore proprietress). Screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
The Big Sleep is a befuddling but magical detective movie. Its plot points are overly complicated, much of the action does not make sense, and the audience is left with many unanswered questions when it ends. But The Big Sleep’s relentless use of cool attitudes, mystery-rich moodiness, and snappy, arch dialogue encourages us to enjoy the story’s stylish atmosphere and characterizations in lieu of the usual and more predictable pleasure that we might take in successfully unraveling a gumshoe’s investigation. The result is … Read the rest
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). 113 minutes. Directed by Tay Garnett. Starring Lana Turner (as Cora Smith), John Garfield (as Frank Chambers), Cecil Kellaway (as Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn (as Arthur Keats), Leon Ames (as Kyle Sackett), Audrey Totter (as Madge Gorland), Alan Reed (as Ezra Liam Kennedy), and Jeff York (as Blair).
Based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name, The Postman Always Rings Twice effectively channels the sinister aspects of the film noir mode: the temptation to commit crimes of violence, greed, and cynicism; the femme fatale with murder in her eyes; the morally compromised drifter who falls prey to beautiful women; and the adversarial courtroom scenes. It offers not one but two conspiratorial murder attempts (the second of which is successful), and it features a smoldering, doomed love story, in which the two leads sneak furtive glances and passionate looks while the woman’s husband hovers just out of view. The result is a … Read the rest
Nightmare Alley (1947). 110 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power (as Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (as Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (as Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (as Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (as Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (as Bruno), and Ian Keith (as Pete Krumbein).
Nightmare Alley is a wonderful, exceedingly suggestive, and excessively seedy film noir that follows its protagonist, a mesmerist, as he moves from small-time carnival barker to big-time con artist with legions of devotees. Its themes and atmosphere might quickly convince you that it belongs to the world of noir with its shadows, dark streets, con games, and untrustworthy strangers, but its budget might not. From the sprawling, ten-acre carnival set created for it on the 20th Century Fox backlot to other lush outdoor sets, and even the indulgent evening gowns worn by actress Coleen Gray, Nightmare Alley looks luxurious and expensive, unlike a typical film noir. In spite of its high-end look, the movie was … Read the rest
Mildred Pierce (1945). 111 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Joan Crawford (as Mildred Pierce Beragon), Jack Carson (as Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (as Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (as Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (as Veda Pierce Forrester), Butterfly McQueen (as Lottie), Bruce Bennett (as Bert Pierce), Lee Patrick (as Maggie Biederhof), Veda Ann Borg (as Miriam Ellis), Moroni Olsen (as Inspector Peterson), and Jo Ann Marlowe (as Kay Pierce). Music by Max Steiner.
Mildred Pierce is equal parts entrepreneurial narrative, film noir, and melodrama. In some regards, it is an earnestly liberal tale about a hard-working woman who divorces, establishes her own business, and becomes a restaurant mogul. But it is also a lurid and somewhat punishing soap opera about her downfall, which is intertwined with and inseparable from her devotion to her evil young daughter Veda. In the end, in order to get its point across, the movie relies on a fairly conservative understanding of rightful social order and … Read the rest
Journey into Fear (1943). 68 minutes. Directed by Norman Foster. Starring Joseph Cotten (as Howard Graham), Dolores del Río (as Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (as Stephanie Graham), Agnes Moorehead (as Mrs. Matthews), Jack Durant (as Gogo), Everett Sloane (as Kopeikin), Eustace Wyatt (as Professor Haller/Muller), Frank Readick (as Matthews), Edgar Barrier (as Kuvetli), Jack Moss (as Banat), Stefan Schnabel (as purser), Richard Bennett (as captain), and Orson Welles (as Colonel Haki). Screenplay by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.
Journey into Fear features Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre stock players in a story about a hapless American who gets caught up in a European espionage plot during World War Two. The rushed production required the actors to work in many uncredited capacities, and the movie was certainly not the artistic focus of Welles’s time at RKO in the early 1940s—a period that included Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and the ambitious and unfinished It’s All True. But Journey Into … Read the rest
Scarlet Street (1945). 102 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Edward G. Robinson (as Christopher Cross), Joan Bennett (as Katharine “Kitty” March), Dan Duryea (as Johnny Prince), Margaret Lindsay (as Millie Rae), Rosalind Ivan (as Adele Cross), Jess Barker (as David Janeway), Charles Kemper (as Patch-eye Higgins), and Russell Hicks (as J. J. Hogarth).
Scarlet Street is a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), but whereas La Chienne was made at the beginning of a decade that offered merely the seeds of film noir, Scarlet Street was made by Fritz Lang in the greatest period of this cinematic mode. The remake works splendidly, and Renoir’s story is right at home in a moody 1940s American nightscape replete with darkened streets, shadowy relationships, and moral turpitude. Above all I recommend it because it stars Edward G. Robinson, who is so often typecast as a tough guy or gangster, as a sensitive painter who is taken advantage of by two clever … Read the rest
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940). 64 minutes. Directed by Boris Ingster. Starring Peter Lorre (as the Stranger), John McGuire (as Michael Ward), Margaret Tallichet (as Jane), Charles Halton (as Albert Meng), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Joe Briggs).
Stranger on the Third Floor is a noir curiosity from 1940, cited by many as the first entry in the genre’s classic period, which spanned roughly from 1940 to 1959. I would say that it stars Peter Lorre, except that he barely appears or even talks in the movie until three quarters have elapsed—and yet Lorre was such an impressive actor at the time that he received top billing nevertheless.
Lorre is the reason to see this movie. He plays the weird and enigmatic Stranger, a curious fellow whom protagonist Michael Ward suspects of murdering a neighbor. Lorre’s early silent appearances as the Stranger—lurking on the front stoop of Ward’s building, peeking out of a door on Ward’s apartment landing, peering … Read the rest
The Lady from Shanghai (1947). 88 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Orson Welles (as Michael O’Hara), Rita Hayworth (as Elsa Bannister), Everett Sloane (as Arthur Bannister), and Glenn Anders (as George Grisby).
The Lady from Shanghai is a sophisticated film noir about the difference between reality and illusion, but one could also say that it is a movie about creepy people doing creepy things in creepy places. For the first-time viewer, it may seem most like a film that is struggling to be coherent in spite of its leaving the audience with many unanswered questions, such as: what does the husband know and when? What are we to make of the wife’s mysterious past in Shanghai, her smoldering glances, and her inexplicable moodiness? Did she marry her husband to protect a secret? Is she in danger? With dialogue such as “Everything’s bad. You can’t fight it” and “It’s a bright, guilty world,” we might wonder where the characters’ bleak … Read the rest
The Third Man (1949). 93 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Starring Joseph Cotten (as Holly Martins), Alida Valli (as Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (as Harry Lime), and Trevor Howard (as Major Calloway).
The Third Man is sometimes compared to Citizen Kane. Both films prominently feature Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, both concern male friendship and betrayal, and both examine the inherent difficulties of knowing great men, men who loom large either in the eyes of society (Citizen Kane) or in the eyes of their childhood chums (The Third Man). Both also have final shots of enormous and legendary significance. But despite these similarities, the courses of the two films run through very different territory, and so I shall have to leave off comparing the two so that I might focus on what makes The Third Man so unique, so powerful, and so devastatingly moving. I am hardly alone in this assessment: Roger Ebert observed in … Read the rest