Showing posts with label William Burton McCormick. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Burton McCormick. Show all posts

16 October 2022

The Top Fifteen Crime Films of the 1940’s.


by William Burton McCormick

As I said in my listing of my favorite crime films of the 1930’s, lists are silly.  Making lists, however, can be a useful exercise for authors studying a genre. At best, it forces serious analysis on what works and what doesn’t, allowing an author better perspective on the elements of a successful thriller or mystery. At worst, it is a wonderful excuse for watching and re-watching countless old films, re-appreciating classics and unearthing obscure gems. 

So, here I am again with a new decade to discuss, the era of the Second World War, film noir’s first Golden Age, when authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett held sway and English director Alfred Hitchcock burst onto the American scene (his previous films, including my 30’s top film The 39 Steps (1935) were made in England. Now Hitch had Hollywood budgets and stars at his disposal. Look out!).  Warning! Spoilers are ahead.

The number of outstanding crime films in this decade was exponentially greater than the preceding one and reducing it to fifteen was a painful affair. A list of honorable mentions reads like a collection of classics and near-classics: The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Key Largo (1948), Song of the Thin Man (1947), Mildred Pierce (1945), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Laura (1944), They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), The Naked City (1948), High Sierra (1941), Gaslight (1944), The Dark Corner (1946), I See A Dark Stranger (1946), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Out of the Past (1947), and The Postman Always Rings Twice(1944).

Several legendary directors had multiple films I was forced to omit: Fritz Lang (whose (1931) nearly topped my earlier list) had the excellent pictures The Woman in the Window (1944), Hangman Also Die! (1946) and Scarlet Street (1945) left off. Akira Kurosawa wrote and directed two fantastic crime films Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) but they were unseen outside of Japan, and I use this as the flimsiest excuse to omit them. (For a discussion on Kurosawa’s crime films go here.) 

Alfred Hitchcock, well-represented on this list, was productive enough to have several excellent films not make the cut: Saboteur (1942), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rebecca (1940, his only career Best Picture winner), and Suspicion (1941, often called his ‘flawed masterpiece’ as producer David O. Selznick forced Hitch to change the ending and make Cary Grant’s character innocent, much to Grant’s chagrin who wanted to play a villain). 

Carol Reed, who has a film high on this list, also produced two excellent thrillers I’d recommend: Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948). Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946) was probably the most painful cut from this list, while his The Lady from Shanghai (1947) has scenes of absolute genius tempered by Welles’s typical money problems and egregious studio interference. (And Welles insisted his wife and costar Rita Hayworth cut her luxurious hair and bleach it blonde, a sin against humanity that must be penalized).

Lastly, several great films with crime elements but ultimately residing in other genres are excluded: Casablanca (1942, a romance), Arsenic and Old Lace (1945, a farce), To Be or Not to Be (1942, a war comedy), His Girl Friday (1940, a screwball comedy), Rebecca (1940, a gothic romance), and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948, a Western). 

All these films I watched or re-watched before composing this list. So, enough about what’s not here. On to our main event:

15. Gilda (1946)
American gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is hired by Ballin Mundson (George Maceady) to run his Buenos Aires casino and watch over Mundson’s rebellious wife Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who often cavorts with other very dangerous men. When two German mobsters seek control of the casino, Mundson fakes his own death leaving Johnny and Gilda to contend with each other and the mob. Hayworth’s Gilda is the very visual definition of a femme fatale. Her entrance in the film is legendary, as is her singing “Put the Blame on Mame” in a hormone-popping strapless black dress designed by Jean Louis, a performance still bewitching seventy-six years later.  An Esquire photograph of Hayworth in that dress with “Gilda” stenciled above decorated the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tested in July, 1946. The 23-kiloton bomb was the most powerful exploded up to that point and the decoration meant to honor Hayworth “as the world’s ultimate bombshell.” When Hayworth found out she was highly offended. 


14. The Glass Key (1942)
The second of four films pairing Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, The Glass Key edges out This Gun for Hire from the same year and The Blue Dahlia (1946) as the finest picture to feature both stars.  Based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, The Glass Key tells the story of Ed Beaumont (Ladd), the “problem solver” for corrupt political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy).  Madvig has fallen in love with Janet Henry (Lake), and is determined to get Janet’s father, Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), elected governor despite the objections of mob kingpin Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia). A tale of temptation in many forms, Ladd’s Beaumont stays loyal to Madvig despite sexual advances from Janet and bribes, threats and torture from Varna. As election day approaches the bodies pile up, including Ralph’s son Taylor (Richard Denning). Despite Ladd being third-billed, Beaumont is the film’s central character. The Glass Key was rushed through production to capitalize on the chemistry between Ladd and Lake in This Gun for Hire and Hammett’s name after The Maltese Falcon (1941) and the successful Thin Man series. The timing was right, and it paid off handsomely at the box office.

 
13. Rope (1948)
Inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murders, director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope tells the story of two roommates Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who kill a friend (Dick Hogan) for the sheer intellectual thrill of it. They then host a party using an unlocked chest housing the body as a serving table. Among the guests are the victim’s father (Cedrick Hardwicke), fiancée (Joan Chandler) and their old prep school professor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), whose gallows humor and promotion of Nietzschean superman theories greatly affected the killers in their youth. By the end of the night, Phillip is coming apart, Brandon is making threats and Rupert regrets his irresponsible teachings.  

A modern BBC review called Rope “technically and socially bold.” This is certainly true. The characters of Brandon and Phillip are a homosexual couple which the film hints at often. In reality, Dall was gay, Farley bisexual, and Hitchcock hired openly gay writer Arthur Laurents to craft a screenplay with appropriate subtext (Laurents and Farley would begin an 18-month relationship soon after production). The character of Rupert was also supposed to be gay, though the hints more subtle. (There is no evidence Stewart knew he was playing a gay man.)  A film in 1948 with three homosexual characters, two villains and the hero, was daring even if the Hays Code prevented mentioning homosexuality explicitly.  

Technically, Hitchcock was also pushing the envelope. In his first color picture, he shot long, continuous scenes only limited by the amount of film that could be placed in camera. Hitch disguises the ends of these eleven-minute “long takes” by panning or tracking into objects and then starting again from the same position. Some of these seams are clumsy (especially when you know the trick) but it allowed the film to appear to play out in real time. This was influential on director Fred Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer, who would use the illusion of a real time story to great effect in High Noon (1952). Except for one exterior establishing shot, the entire movie takes place in Brandon’s and Phillip’s Manhattan apartment. Hitchcock’s experiments on how to tell a gripping thriller in static limited space in Rope and the equally confined Lifeboat (1944) would pave the way for a masterpiece of the form in 1954’s Rear Window.


12. Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
The fourth Thin Man film keeps the winning streak alive. In San Francisco, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) head to the races only to find a jockey who has thrown a race was murdered. (“My, they’re strict at this track,” says Nora.) With the day at the races ruined, they head to a wrestling match where Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson) is framed for killing a reporter and Clarke’s girlfriend Molly (Donna Reed) pleads for help. Are the two murders connected? The trail leads to Claire Porter (Stella Adler, future founder of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting) who, failing to seduce Nick, tries to outsmart him and steal evidence. Twists, turns and much laughter ensue. 

The best scenes include a brawl in a restaurant and a recurring joke where Nick’s underworld contacts mock Nora’s hat. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Ava Gardner as an uncredited extra in one scene, her debut in film. (We’ll see more of Ava on this list soon.) The first Thin Man film not based on a Dashiell Hammett story or treatment and without a screenplay from the husband-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who claimed they had exhausted every witticism they knew in the first three films) new writers Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher stepped in without missing a beat. It is also the first film after canine actor Skippy was retired and the role of Asta given to a descendent. More changes were ahead. Pearl Harbor was attacked two weeks after the film’s release and Loy would forgo acting to serve in the Red Cross as Director of Military and Naval Welfare, while Powell would be devastated by the death of his ex-wife Carol Lombard in a plane crash two months later. But never mind those grim future troubles. Put on your best screwy hat, order the seabass, and enjoy because “Baby, you’ve arrived.”
 

11. Green for Danger (1946)
Based on the Christianna Brand novel of the same name, Green for Danger is a classic “closed environment” mystery set in an English countryside war hospital during the German bombings of 1944. In the first scene, we are witness to an operation performed by a staff of six people: surgeon Eden (Leo Genn), anesthetist Barnes (Trevor Howard), Sister Bates (Judy Campbell) and nurses Linley (Sally Gray), Woods (Megs Jenkins), and Sanson (Rosamund John).  A voiceover tells us within five days “two of these people will be dead and one of them a murderer.” What follows is a tense mystery where duties and bombings force suspects together and ratchet up the anxiety to deliciously tortuous levels. This tension is nicely counter-balanced by humorous-but-clever Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim), who arrives to catch the murderer. Great fun.


10. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
After leaving London for Hollywood in 1939, director Alfred Hitchcock burst onto the American cinema scene with two films released in 1940 that would receive Academy Award Best Picture nominations: Rebecca (the winner) and Foreign Correspondent. 

 The latter is a cracking good thriller of Europe teetering towards war.  American journalist John Jones (Joel McCrea) is sent to Europe to interview a Dutch diplomat (Albert Basserman) only to witness his assassination. Or was it faked? And if so, for what purposes? Adventure, international intrigue and a surprising amount of comedy follow. 

This film has a plethora of memorable Hitchcockian visuals: the chase in the rain through an umbrella-packed square, the mysterious windmill that turns opposite direction of others, the assassination on the steps mimicked by Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather and Hitch’s first great set piece for American audiences, a plane shot down in the stormy Atlantic where the survivors cling to the wings as the waves wash over them. 

After filming was complete, Hitch visited England and found the German blitz was soon to come. Back in Hollywood, he hired Ben Hecht to write a new closing scene where McCrea’s reporter broadcasts a warning to the world. It impressed even the enemy. German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels called Foreign Correspondent "A masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries". Hitch was fighting Nazi propaganda fire with a fire of his own. Rebecca may have taken home the Oscar, but for my money Foreign Correspondent is the better film. It’s certainly more reflective of what was on Hitchcock’s mind in 1940.

9.  White Heat (1949)
Possibly James Cagney’s greatest film, each act of White Heat explores a different crime subgenre – gangster, prison, heist.  Cagney plays mobster Cody Jarrett, a psychotic Mama’s boy worthy of the later Bruno Antony or ;[;[Norman Bates. After killing four men in a train robbery, Jarrett confesses to a lesser crime committed elsewhere to give him a false alibi for the murders.  While serving a year in prison, members of his gang plot against him and the group is infiltrated by an undercover agent (Edmund O’Brian). After Jarrett’s release, they undertake a payroll robbery at a chemical plant unaware of the traitors and lawman in their midst.  A perennial entry on all-time great films lists, White Heat is one of the darkest masterpieces to come out of the ‘40’s.  And that ending. Wow! Say it all together: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”  Boom!


8. The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)
Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy, as if you didn’t know by now) leave Nicky Jr behind and visit Nick’s parents (Harry Davenport and Lucile Watson) in rural New England.  Word quickly circulates that the famous detective is on a case, rumors fanned by Nora to impress Nick’s father, who thinks little of sleuthing and wanted his son to be a doctor like he is. Then a man is shot dead on the Charles’ doorstep and the fictious case becomes real. One of the best in the series, the cast of colorful small-town suspects makes it the most engaging mystery since the 1934 original. 

The fifth film, it was the first entry without series director W.S. Van Dyke who died in 1943. With Loy off supporting the war effort, MGM announced in pre-production that Irene Dunne would be cast as Nora. Horrified fans started a mail campaign demanding Loy. As Powell said: “The fans wanted Myrna, and they didn't want anyone else...And I wanted Myrna, too…I've never seen a girl so popular with so many people.” When Loy did return (her only film of the war years) she donated her salary to the war effort.  The Thin Man Goes Home would be followed by a final sequel in Song of the Thin Man (1947) a darker, noirish picture which could have made this list too. Is there any mystery series (or comedy or romance series) that is this good, this long? If you can think of one put it in the comments below. 

7. The Killers (1946)
Expanded from an Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name The Killers starts out in tense and riveting fashion. Two hitmen (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) arrive in Brentwood, New Jersey and murder a gas station attendant nicknamed “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster).  Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) looking for a motive for the killings, delves into the Swede’s past, unearthing a rogue’s galleries of suspects including gangster-gone-straight “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker) and old flame Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner).  

As Reardon moves closer to the truth, the Swede’s story is told in Citizen Kane-style flashbacks. Lancaster, terrific in his film debut, and Gardner, given a chance to shine after years of bit parts, both deservedly became stars. The music written to accompany the hitmen at every appearance would later become the Dragnet theme. 

With a screenplay by Anthony Veiller (and an uncredited rewrite by John Huston), The Killers would go on to beat out such other classics as Notorious and The Big Sleep for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Picture.  But the truest praise came from Hemingway himself who called The Killers “The only good picture ever made of a story of mine.”
 

6. The Big Sleep (1945)
“Ah ha!” you say, you’ve caught an error. Every cinephile knows The Big Sleep (based on the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel, with a screenplay by William Faulkner and starring Humphrey Bogart as detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as widow Vivian Rutledge) came out in 1946, not 1945. Well, have faith true believers, this requires an explanation. When director Howard Hawks filmed The Big Sleep, World War II was coming to a close. Warner Bros. Pictures had a backlog of war films the studio wanted to release before the fighting ceased. So, with the film in the can, The Big Sleep’s theater distribution was pushed back. Warner Bros. did, however, play it to Allied servicemen fighting in the South Pacific in early 1945. 

Then a funny thing happened. Thanks To Have and Have Not, Bogie and Bacall became Hollywood’s hottest couple on and off screen. Bacall’s agent asked if Hawks and the studio would be willing to film new scenes to capitalize on their chemistry and increase the role for Bacall’s character. Twenty minutes of new footage were shot, mostly featuring the couple exchanging sexually charged banter. Scenes were re-ordered, others removed, and two key characters dropped to accommodate the new footage. 

This version, released in 1946, was the classic we’ve all come to know. A terrific film, but even its most fanatic admirers will admit the plot is confusing. (When Jack Warner cabled Chandler asking if a character was murdered or had killed himself, the author replied “Dammit, I don’t know either!”).  

In the 1990’s, a copy of the original 1945 cut was found in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Hugh Hefner, a fan of Chandler’s work, paid for a restoration and theater distribution of the 1945 print. Since then, the debate has raged: ’45 or ’46?  Roger Ebert preferred ’46, caring more for “feel” than story. The Washington Post thought them both masterpieces but very different films. Me? I watched both versions again for this article. I’ll side with Hef and the servicemen. There is enough interplay between Bogie and Bacall in the ‘45 cut for my taste and with the scenes in proper order and those two other characters present, the plot makes much more sense. Have you seen both versions? If so, which do you prefer? Please tell me in the comments.

5. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
One of Hitchcock’s finest films of any decade, Shadow of a Doubt is the story of Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) and her visiting uncle Charles “Charlie” Oakley (Joseph Cotten). The two Charlies share a special bond, one that is tested by the terrible secrets Uncle Charlie brings with him when he arrives at the family home in Santa Rosa, California.  

Wright’s Charlie is easily my favorite Hitchcock heroine, and the actress is a joy to watch in the role. No icy blonde bound for humiliation, the character is a plucky, warm, and highly intelligent brunette who follows the clues to discover what her uncle really has been up to on the East Coast with all those “merry widows” who seem to be dying off. When the secrets are revealed, she matches wits with her uncle and ultimately defeats him while sheltering her family from the horrible truth. 

That family is excellently portrayed and I’m particularly fond of Henry Travers as her father, a bored banker and mystery fan who plots murderous scenarios with family friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn) over the dinner table. Their humorously imagined killings are a perfect balance to the real threat Uncle Charlie has brought into their home. Cotten is flawless in the role, charming enough to fool everyone, but his niece, and chillingly sinister when cornered.  Hitchcock would say for the rest of his life this was his favorite of all his films. Who can argue with the Master? Well, maybe I’d dare to argue (a little) as I have another Hitchcock film at number four.  


4. Notorious (1946)    
Poor Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman). She loves American agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) but he wants her to sleep with and ultimately marry another man, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), so she can spy on Sebastian and his circle of German conspirators in Rio de Janeiro.  

Alicia obeys partially because she is a patriot and wants to stop the Nazis from restarting the German war machine, partly because her German-American father was a spy and traitor and she wants to atone for his actions, but mostly because she loves Devlin and he asks her to do this. Devlin, while directing her actions, resents her obeying his carnal orders and treats her in a jealous and passive aggressive manner. How dark and twisted is that? But it’s for national security, right? 

Sebastian, despite being implicitly a Nazi (the word is never used), is portrayed as a sympathetic character for a villain. He truly loves Alicia, and she is using that love to destroy him. What it amounts to his one of the blackest and most suspenseful love triangles ever put to screen.  

Notorious marks a major development in Hitchcock’s career. Midway through pre-production, he finally jettisoned producer David O. Selznick. From here on out, Hitch would produce his own films (as well as direct and develop the stories with his writers).  With this freedom, starting with Notorious his movies would become more psychological in focus, an aspect that has given his best work a true timeliness. There is always something uncomfortable going on underneath the surface now. 

Not that the magic is all subtext, visual storytelling remained a strength. For example, the legendary tracking shot from the top of a high staircase down to a key in Alicia’s hand far below. (A prop Bergman would keep as a memento).  Or one of the most famous MacGuffin’s in history, the uranium ore that Sebastian is storing in the wine cellar, implying his team is working on an atomic bomb. (Notorious was filmed shortly before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the American government was very leery about uranium references in the media.) Hitchcock claimed he and his screenwriter Ben Hecht were followed by the FBI during shooting.) 

How good is Hitchcock at pulling the strings in Notorious? Consider this. It has no gunfights, no chase scenes, no onscreen murders, not a punch thrown or shot fired, yet it undoubtedly a superb example of the thriller genre. How? It’s all psychology and suspense. The Master playing the audience like a violin.  Critic Roger Ebert regarded Notorious as Hitchcock’s best work and one of the ten best films of all time. 


3. Double Indemnity (1944)
I’m glad I doubled down on Double Indemnity. The first time I viewed Billy Wilder’s film, years ago, it would have not made this list.  Having grown up watching reruns of My Three Sons, and Disney live action fair like Follow Me Boys! and The Absent-Minded Professor, Fred MacMurray to me was a gentle, fatherly everyman not a murderous heel spouting risqué dialogue as he is here. This really threw me. 

And Barbara Stanwyck in a cheap wig was not as dangerously beguiling as femme fatale sirens like Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner or Ava Gardner. I didn’t understand why MacMurray’s insurance salesman would destroy his life for her. (Wilder would say that the phoniness of the wig was meant to hint at the phoniness of the character beneath it.) 

On a second viewing, those biases fell aside. This is one great film, rocketing up to its current position. The best of a noir sub-subgenre featuring evil women seducing weak men to gain help murdering husbands or sugar daddies, this trope is found in The Woman in the Window (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and countless other films to this day. (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings once told me this plotline is the most frequently submitted to her magazine. One wonders how many are influenced by Double Indemnity?)  

The difference is in the high quality of the performances by MacMurray and Stanwyck (once all biases and wigs are ignored), a fantastic screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name), and perfect direction by Wilder, with suspenseful sequences that may equal anything Hitchcock did in the 1940’s. (Not an easy admission for a Hitchcock devotee like me.)  Among these are a sequence on a train where MacMurray cannot find privacy to fake a suicide, or the moment after dumping the body when Barbara’s car refuses to start, or when a character places a gun under a pillow that you know will be used later, or the extended tension when MacMurray’s friend and colleague, insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, never better), recruits him to help solve the murder MacMurray himself committed. I could go on forever. Even a conversation in a grocery store is fraught with danger and suspense. For many, this film is the apex of film noir’s Golden Age. I can see why.

The last two films, flipped back and forth for the top position a half-dozen times during the drafting of this list. Oh, the agony, we arbitrary list makers go through! But the piece has to be finished, so the positions must be set. He takes a breath.  So… 


2.  The Third Man (1949)
“The dead are happier dead,” remarks a character in The Third Man. The statement reflects not only the speaker’s sociopathic views, but the exhaustion of a war weary Europe in the late ;40s. Director Carol Reed made two excellent thrillers in the years preceding this film, Odd Man Out (1947, Roman Polanski’s favorite film), and Fallen Idol (1948), but The Third Man is his masterpiece.  

Written by the great Graham Greene (who drafted both screenplay and novella), The Third Man tells the story of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a naïve American Western author who arrives in post-WWII Vienna to work for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover that Lime was killed by a passing car days before Holly’s arrival. 

Martins finds the accident suspicious and seeks to discuss it with two witnesses (Ernst Deutch and Siegfried Breuer) who carried Lime’s body away and a mysterious “third man” who was also at the scene. His search for this third man brings him into contact with Lime’s girlfriend, actress Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a German-speaking Czech who lives in dread of being deported to the Soviet Zone, and British military police officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) who tells Martins that Lime was an unscrupulous raconteur operating in all zones of divided Vienna.  

In an era when most filming was done on sets and studio backlots, The Third Man was filmed primarily onsite in still-rebuilding Vienna, giving it greater realism and vibrancy than other pictures of the time. Indeed, the divided city has an authentic character as strong as any flesh and blood actor. It is a beautiful film for the eyes and ears with harsh lighting and Dutch angles from expressionist cinematographer Robert Krasker and a distinctive score by local zither player Anton Karas (whom Reed discovered playing one night in a Vienna wine-garden and invited him to score his film.)  

Despite rumors, Welles did not direct any of the second unit filming, though he did provide the famous “cuckoo clock” line. The actor performances are starling modern, and Greene’s dialogue is imbibed with depth, ironic humor and a real despair.  A speech by a villain looking down from the heights of the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel, the people below resembling mere dots, is one of the most memorable and chilling ever given. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax.” 

The rare thriller to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Third Man was voted by the British Film Institute as the greatest British film of all time (of any genre or era). They aren’t wrong. I love this film and can’t believe The Third Man is second to anything.

 But there is another film I love as much, and it defines crime cinema in the ‘40’s like no other.

1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Ah, that black bird. The greatest MacGuffin of all. John Huston’s directorial debut was the third filming of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, but this is definitive. Those other films took liberties with the story and were of mixed success, so Huston decided “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” and writing the screenplay himself, followed the book scene-for-scene, dialogue-for-dialogue. 

It was an enormous hit launching Huston’s career as both director and screenwriter and turning B-list gangster actor Humphrey Bogart into a major star. (Coupled with Casablanca released the next year Bogart was on a fast track to becoming a Hollywood icon.) More than any other film, it ushered in the era of the film noir and Sam Spade (Bogart) became the archetype for a hardboiled detective. The Maltese Falcon tells, in essence, two interlocking stories: one is a mystery about who killed Spade’s detective partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), the other is a game of wits with a quartet of crooks seeking a statue of a falcon which is supposedly encrusted with priceless jewels beneath its enameled skin. 

With one of history’s most sublime casts, each of those actors perfectly defines their crooked characters: the duplicitous femme fatale Miss Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), the over-dressed, treacherous fop Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the gluttonous, talkative criminal leader Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and the unhinged youthful gunman Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.). 

To watch the five main characters, try to outmaneuver each other for the priceless bird, each spouting Hammett’s snappy dialogue, is one of the great joys of cinema. At the center of the storm is Spade juggling crooks, police and Miles' widow Iva (Gladys George) who is infatuated with Sam. He trusts nobody and plays it straight with no one except his secretary/side kick Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick).

 Bogart’s other great film detective, Philip Marlowe, may have gone down the “mean streets”, but Sam Spade is plenty mean himself. As in the book, Sam keeps his thoughts private from other characters and audience alike, and much of the tension comes from wondering if Spade will fall in with the crooks and become one of them. He is on the edge of being an antihero. It’s a corrupt world, but is our hero corrupt? 

At the denouncement, Spade steps back from the abyss at last revealing his cards and telling O'Shaughnessy: “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, brining high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” 

In a sentimental age, when the male and female leads were supposed to go off together hand-in-hand (even Notorious, as black as it is, ends with Grant and Bergman together), The Maltese Falcon throws a curve. When O'Shaughnessy admits to killing Miles, Spade tells his lover: “Yes, Angel, I’m gonna send you over. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”  It begins a speech many can recite from memory. Some film historians think Psycho (1960) is the great severing point between the Age of Sentimentality and the Age of Sensation in cinema. I’ll maintain that The Maltese Falcon did that nineteen year earlier.
Why is The Maltese Falcon number one? I’ll quote the film’s last line, one improvised by Huston from Shakespeare on the set.

“It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

Any films I missed either on the list or Honorable Mentions? Give me your own favorites from the 40’s.

Now’s the time when the blog author normally plugs some work. I like to keep my shameless promotions relevant to the article. Fortunately, I had a thriller short story set in 1943 published this year. “Locked-In” was in the January/February 2022 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. If you liked this article, please revisit my story in a back issue or Magzter or wherever you read AHMM and tell me if it fits in with the era. You can read Rob Lopresti’s review of “Locked-In” here.

11 July 2022

The Top Fifteen Crime Films of the 1930s


The Top Fifteen Crime Films of the 1930s

by William Burton McCormick

Lists are silly. After all, these things are highly subjective.

But, as a writer, the process of making lists can be useful. Analyzing why you like something in narrative form, why it works, and why it does not work, can clarify your understanding of storytelling techniques. At least, that’s my excuse for doing it.

My other excuses? Well, I’m a classic film fan for one and enjoy digging into this old stuff. Lastly, I have a story called “Myrna Loy Versus the Third Reich” in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. That story is set in 1938 and includes references to the motion pictures of that era. So, I thought it might be enjoyable to review some of the crime films of the 1930’s. And having watched them, (many for the tenth time or so), why not list them based on my personal preference? It’s more fun (for me at least) than giving you a list in alphabetical or chronological order.

So, here in reverse order are my top fifteen crime films from the decade of the 1930’s. Why fifteen? Well, narrowing it down to ten was too hard and twenty would make this essay too long. Also, inside the crime genre I include mystery, detective, police, espionage, gangster films and even the odd adventure or dramatic film if a crime is central to the plot. Also, there are spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen a film on the list, you might decide if you want to skip that entry. Here we go!

15. Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
Childhood buddies, Jim Wade (William Powell) and Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) remain true friends, despite being professionally and romantically at odds. Jim is an incorruptible district attorney; Blackie is a mob owner of speakeasies and gambling dens throughout Manhattan. Both love dancer Eleanor Packer (Myrna Loy). When Blackie does Jim an unsolicited favor and rubs out a man who could ruin Jim, it is Jim himself who indicts Blackie and sends him to the chair. Despite the criminal conviction, and losing Eleanor to Jim, Blackie’s gangster is glad to see his friend for a tearful goodbye moments before his execution.

Manhattan Melodrama was the second of seven pairings between Loy and Gable and the first of fourteen pairings between Loy and Powell (released only three weeks before The Thin Man, both films were smash hits ensuring future collaborations.) Manhattan Melodrama was the picture Loy-fan John Dillinger was attending when ambushed and shot down by police in Chicago, July 22, 1934. Loy criticized her studio, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, for capitalizing on publicity from the killing.

14. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
A
lfred Hitchcock’s first classic of the sound era (he’d already produced a silent standout in The Lodger in 1927), The Man Who Knew Too Much tells the story of British couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) in Switzerland whose child is kidnapped by hostile agents.

Remade by Hitch himself in 1956 starring James Stewart and Doris Day, I prefer the original with its brisker pace, deadeye-with-a-rifle leading lady Jill and more memorable villain, Peter Lorre is his first English-speaking role.

13. Little Caesar (1931)
Edward G. Robinson became a star in his role as Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, who climbs his way to the top of the mob only to come crashing down in fiery fashion. Along the way he drags his reluctant friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) in with him.

The film’s last line “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” is a cultural touchstone among gangster film fanatics to this day. Immensely influential on Scarface and countless other gangster films, one can definitely say Little Caesar’s finale was not the end of Rico.

12. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Fay Wray’s other landmark film was filmed simultaneously with King Kong on the same jungle sets. Wray and Bruce Armstrong filmed the Kong scenes in the day and The Most Dangerous Game scenes at night for what must have been exhausting parallel shoots.

Based on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story of the same name, the plot hinges on a big game hunter Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) who decides to track and kill human prey as the ultimate test. Eve Towbridge (Wray) and Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea) must survive unarmed on a jungle island while a rifle-carrying Zaroff pursues them. Imitated countless times but seldom surpassed.

11. The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
Before Nick Charles, William Powell played detective Philo Vance in four films from 1929 to 1933. The best of these is The Kennel Murder Case, an excellent locked room mystery about the killing of Archer Coe (Robert Barrat), the owner of a dog show champion who had bested Vance’s own pooch the day before.

Powell plays detective Vance so similar to his later Thin Man role, one could almost imagine these are the adventures of Nick Charles before he met Nora. The studios were so concerned that audiences would confuse Powell’s two detective roles that the first Thin Man film made a special trailer where Philo and Nick converse to set the record straight.

10. Sabotage (1936)
Alfred Hitchcock kicked the suspense into another gear with this tale of a foreign saboteur (Oscar Homolka) in London planning to blow up Piccadilly Circus. The saboteur’s wife (Sylvia Sydney), ignorant of his plot, begins to suspect more and more, especially when confronted by a British agent (John Loder) who also has romantic interest in her.

At one point, an innocent boy unknowingly carries a ticking bomb across London. Only Hitchcock could get away with what happens next.

9. Another Thin Man (1939)
William Powell and Myrna Loy return as Nick and Nora Charles in Another Thin Man, the third in the series. Colonel Burr MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), who manages Nora’s family industries, is murdered in his Long Island mansion and the police think Nick is the culprit. Humor and adventure ensue.

Watch for the scene at a Latin nightclub where an amorous dancer won’t let Nora off the floor while a gregarious drunk interrupts Nick’s attempts at interviewing a suspect. Asta, baby Nick Jr., “fourth” Stooge Shemp Howard, and future television producer Sheldon Leonard complete the cast.

Hound of the Baskervilles movie poster

8. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
The first and best of the fourteen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, the story keeps reasonably close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original (save for a séance scene, the change of relationship between a few characters, and a third act action twist).

20th Century Fox surpassed rival Universal with their use of atmosphere, the eerie landscape on the moors, the sense of creeping dread all around and the ability to recreate the chilling howls of a demonic hound out there somewhere… A perfect fusion of Gothic horror and British manor house mystery.

7. The Public Enemy (1931)
James Cagney forever defined himself as tough guy with The Public Enemy. His Irish-American gangster Tom Powers is an enforcer for the bootlegging industry with a thirst for vengeance against any man or beast who crosses him. An early sound picture, director William A Wellman put the new medium to maximum effect.

The film reverberates with haunting sounds: the gurgling last line of a singer killed mid chorus, the terrified whinnies of other horses when a race stallion is executed (yes, ‘executed’, not ‘put down’), the pulsating popping of beer barrels burst by machinegun bullets. In one darkly funny scene, Cagney uses a gun merchant’s own wares to rob him, a motif used again by Sergio Leone in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The denouement is a kicker like few others, nearly as memorable as White Heat years later. Jean Harlow is second billed here as Cagney’s love interest but has little screen time. It doesn’t matter, this was the most powerful gangster film Hollywood had yet made, one that still stirs ninety years later.

6. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Possibly Alfred Hitchcock’s funniest film, The Lady Vanishes is the story of an elderly English governess Miss Foy (May Whitty) who vanishes on a moving train somewhere in central Europe.

British travelers Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) search for her, exchanging put-downs and romantic-tinged barbs worthy of the best screwball comedies, while indifferent cricket-obsessed passengers Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) were hilarious enough to earn their own spinoff series (directed by others).

An enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic, The Lady Vanishes paved the way for Hitchcock to leave London for Hollywood two years later. The rest is cinematic history.

5. After the Thin Man (1936)
Probably the best mystery sequel ever filmed, many hardcore Thin Man fans consider this the finest in the series. And what’s not to love? Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy again) return to San Francisco to find a New Year’s party raging in their house! Soon, Nora’s aristocratic family drags Nick into a mystery that devolves from a missing person to blackmail to murder.

With more time focused on Nick, Nora and Asta than the original, the humor and playful romance runs unabated throughout. My favorite scene is when Asta absconds with a clue and must be chased down by his hilariously frustrated owners. A young James Stewart costars. On a personal note, three reels of After the Thin Man play a key role in my aforementioned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine story “Myrna Loy Versus the Third Reich.” So, this picture is something of an inspiration for me.

4. The Thin Man (1934)
But how can you surpass the original? When The Thin Man came out in 1934 it was something of a revolution. There had been comedic detective movies before, but none so witty. Bumbling sort of mystery comedies with clownish detectives and bungling thieves were the norm. Think Keystone Cops. The Thin Man, inspired by author Dashiell Hammett’s relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, was as much a comedy of manners as a mystery.

Clever, teasing dialogue and the immense chemistry between Loy and Powell captured the minds of Depression-era movie goers. Before The Thin Man flirting and romance (on film) were trappings of courtship ending at the altar. Married couples were meant to be dignified and private with their affections – if they had them at all. But – shock! - Nick and Nora proved romance wasn’t dead after marriage. That married life could be sexy and adventurous, and maybe fun and funny.

The Charles’ relationship became the ideal to which many couples aspired. Once known for playing vamps and mob molls, Loy would be voted “The perfect wife” for years afterwards in national magazines. And, of course, with Prohibition ending only five months before, Nick and Nora were free to drink for an entire nation marooned on the wagon for fourteen years. Nominated for Best Picture and a runaway hit, The Thin Man was a release of pent-up frustrations in the mid-1930s. You can see its influence in every romantic sleuth couple since from Hart to Hart, Moonlighting, and countless sexually-entwined literary detective teams. Very close plot wise to Hammett’s original novel, the first film has the strongest mystery element of the series. Much screen time is spent developing the suspects, a rogues’ gallery of colorful oddballs, sycophants and weirdos. As Nora said at the climatic party: “Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”

3. Scarface (1932)
“The World is Yours,” folks. Directed by Howard Hawks, produced by Hawks and Howard Hughes, and with a screenplay by Ben Hecht, Scarface reigned for forty years as the undisputed greatest gangster movie ever made (until The Godfather arrived in ’72.) Taking the story of a ruthless mobster’s ascent similar to Little Caesar a year earlier, Hawks ratcheted up the violence to unprecedented levels and infused it with an operatic finale worthy of Greek tragedy.

At the heart of Scarface is Paul Muni’s electric performance as Tony Camonte, charismatic yet thoroughly terrifying in his pursuit of his twisted version of the American dream. Even Tony’s would-be-redeeming qualities, loyalty to his friend Guino (George Raft) and love of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), turn to vengeful jealousy and incestuous control respectively by the end. A few of the comedy bits among Tony’s underlings are dated, but even those increase the movie’s effectiveness when those loveable buffoons are murdered in the third act thanks to Tony’s monomania. Watch too for Boris Karloff as a rival gang leader gunned down in a bowling alley. Brian de Palma’s 1983 remake with Al Pacino is good, but the original is the greater film. Not to be missed.

2. M (1931)
With all due respect to Metropolis and the wonderful film noirs Fritz Lang made for Hollywood in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, this is the Austrian director’s greatest picture. And one of the finest films ever made. The story of the manhunt for a child killer in Berlin, it melds unforgettable imagery and brilliant use of the then-new dimension of sound with social commentary. As the underworld and police both seek the killer, Lang hints that differences on either side of the law are not as distinct as some might like. And Peter Lorre’s performance as the murderer remains his greatest triumph, terrifying, unknowable, yet almost sympathetic during his speech before a kangaroo court of thugs who profess to try him. (He asserts essentially that these mobsters choose to be killers, while he is forced by sickness to kill. That their free will makes them – and by extension society – unfit to judge him.).

M’s influence is everywhere including my own novella A Stranger From the Storm. On weight of theme and sheer artistic merit, this is the greatest film on this list, but I can’t quite place it number one…

1. The 39 Steps (1935)
The definitive Hitchcock film (if not the best, though close to it.) Much like a British version of the later North by Northwest, our Canadian protagonist Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is chased from London to the Scottish Highlands and back in the best “innocent man accused” story Hitch ever did. At a time when British films were inert and cerebral, The 39 Steps was lively, funny and swiftly-paced with a perfect twist ending. (No one will forget Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), pun intended.) The British Film Institute named this the fourth greatest British film of all time, behind only The Third Man, Brief Encounter and Lawrence of Arabia. And none of those have the humor or breathtaking pace. Hitchcock took very little from the source novel by John Buchan, instead choosing to tell his own tale.

His success heralded the age where directors were no longer beholden to the novelist, but storytellers and artists in their own rights who could take what they wanted from a work and discard the rest. On a personal note, it galvanized me to visit the Scottish Highlands, write a story about the location “The House in Glamaig’s Shadow”, and in many ways inspired me to be a thriller novelist. One of a handful of movies, I could watch on endless loop into happy oblivion, The 39 Steps can’t be anything but number one on this list.

So, that was my Top 15 Crime Films of the 1930’s? What would be yours? Any major films or favorites I missed? Have you seen any of these? All of these? Please let me know in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this, I may make it a series (though a very intermittent one). Next would be the 1940’s, the era of the film noir. Can’t wait!

17 November 2021

John Lennon's Sherlock Holmes Pastiche


featuring William Burton McCormick

Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a cottage industry. New adventures or parodies of the world’s most famous literary detective by authors other than his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have existed since the nineteenth century and include such well-known scribes as Mark Twain, Stephen King, John Dickson Carr, Jeffrey Deaver, Loren D. Estlemen, Anne Perry, Michael Kurland, Nicholas Meyer, Edward D. Hoch, Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, Conan Doyle’s son Adrian and several SleuthSayers members among the thousands of other writers worldwide. One name that may not immediately come to mind is John Lennon.

Yes, that John Lennon.

A little background. From his boyhood to his time at the Liverpool College of Art to the early days of the Beatles, Lennon kept a scrapbook where he’d scribble poetry, cartoons, and nonsensical stories in the Lewis Carroll “Jabberwocky” tradition. The best of these were collected for the book In His Own Write, published in March,1964.

With the advent of Beatlemania, In His Own Write was assured commercial success selling 300,000 copies in England alone. More surprising, given the hostility towards the Beatles as a “teenage fad” at the time, was the effusive praise it received from establishment critics. Many compared the best passages to Carroll and James Joyce. 

In the wake of its critical and commercial success, other musical artists began to write and publish their own poetry, most notably rival Bob Dylan. (Inspired by In His Own Write, Dylan began working on poems in 1965 that would be collected in Tarantula (1971).) But Lennon did not have the option to wait as long as Dylan. A follow up was demanded to In His Own Write. One to be published the next year.

This was no easy task for Lennon. The Beatles were in the midst of a world tour, required to record two albums and numerous singles in ‘64, film A Hard Day’s Night and heavily promote everything. What’s more, Lennon had used up his backlog of poems and stories for In His Own Write. Everything for the next volume would have to be from scratch.

He carved out time do some (non-song) writing, when vacationing in Tahiti with his wife Cynthia, bandmate George Harrison, and Harrison’s then girlfriend Pattie Boyd in May,1964. Their private boat was stocked with a few English-language books including a Sherlock Holmes omnibus.  After reading the collection, Lennon reasoned that all Holmes stories were essentially the same and decided to include a parody in his next book. That book was A Spaniard in the Works (June,1965) and the parody was "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” written by Lennon with the aid of Cynthia, George and Pattie over several bottles of Johnnie Walker while at sea.

As can be guessed from the title "The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield” is a nonsense-language story. At just under two thousand words, it is the longest piece of prose Lennon ever published. (He jokingly called it his novel). If you’re looking for the vivid imagery found in such Lennon songs as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Across the Universe” you won’t find it here. Instead, this is a tongue-in-cheek Liverpudiian pun-fest that owes more to The Goon Show and the gobbledygook language “Unwinese” created by British comic Stanley Unwin than any nineteenth century Lewis Carroll “Jabberwocky."

The opening lines are:

I find it recornered in my nosebook that it was a dokey and winnie cave towart the end of Marge in the ear of our Loaf 1892 in Much Bladder, a city off the North Wold. Shamrock Womlbs had receeded a telephart whilst we sat at our lunch eating.

This can be loosely translated in a more Arthur Conan Doyle way as:

I find it recorded in my notebook it was a dark and winter day towards the end of March in the year of our Lord 1892 in Manchester, a city of the north world. Sherlock Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch eating.

The fun is in deciphering the heaps of puns piled atop each other and the way Lennon apes Holmes story conventions. If you enjoy word play, 1960’s British in-jokes and groan-inducing puns, then this may be the Holmes pastiche for you. If not, or you find it “all a bit silly” (as Harrison’s friend Eric Idle might say) you may prefer to encounter Lennon’s wit on Abbey Road rather than Baker Street.

The plot (as much as there is one) sets Shamrock Womlb and his friend Doctored Whopper against a Jack the Ripper doppelganger Jack the Nipple who is “a sex meany of the lowest orgy.” (Did he invade Pepperland later?) When challenged Jack admits “‘I'm demented’ he said checking his dictionary, ‘I should bean at home on a knife like these.’”

Groan you might, but Lennon is the one writer to reveal the true source of the great detective’s amazing deductive powers in a dash of metafiction. Wolmbs, it turns out, knows all because he’s “seen the film” while Doctored Whopper remains at a disadvantage having “only read the comic.” So now we know.

There are titular jokes afoot too. While the story is filled with many characters including a prostitute Mary Atkins, her pimp boyfriend Sydnees, an escaped prisoner Oxo Whitney (who terrifies Whopper’s imagination) and the Lestrade stand in Inspectre Basil, there is no appearance or mention of a character named Miss Anne Duffield despite being in the title. This mirthful twist is the penultimate red herring (Yes, penultimate… wait and see). You thought this was about Anne Duffield? Well, think again.

A recurring gag throughout the piece is Lennon’s lampooning of the famous refrain “Elementary my dear Watson.”  (Holmes aficionados well know that this phrase is not found in any of Conan Doyle’s stories but appears to have been first recorded by P.G. Wodehouse in 1909 and became familiar with the greater public as a result of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films of the 1930’s and 1940’s).

In Lennon’s work, the phrase becomes:

“Ellifitzgerrald my dear Whopper,”

and “Eliphantitus my deaf Whopper,”

and “Alibabba my dead Whopper,” 

and “Alecguiness my deep Whopper,” etc., etc.

“Elementary, my dear Watson” never appears in canonical Conan Doyle. It never appears in noncanonical Lennon either. Some purity in that.

I must now talk about the ending. The vast majority of the original Holmes stories are told from the point-of-view of Dr. John Watson, supposedly recalling cases from years earlier with startling detail. Every clue, every movement and emotion are remembered by Watson’s vault of a mind in his chronicling of Holmes’s adventures for posterity. Some have commented on Watson’s amazing clarity.

Additionally, in many stories, Holmes leaves Watson’s presence, only to return with new information and miraculously solve the case. Well, in Lennon’s pastiche these tropes appear as well.  Shamrock Womlb leaves without explanation, causing Doctored Whopper to curse his friend: “‘Blast the wicker basket yer grannie sleeps in.’ I thought ‘Only kidding Shamrock’ I said remembering his habit of hiding in the cupboard.” When Shamrock returns [SPOILERS] he apparently reveals the solution to Whopper but then Whopper says… “I poked the fire and warmed his kippers, when he had minicoopered he told me a story which to this day I can't remember.”

Yes, whole story is a red herring. The good Doctored didn’t record the ending…

The joke is on us. The solution is lost to Whopper’s fading memory.

Or Johnnie Walker.

On a boat off Tahiti.

Maybe that’s where Miss Anne Duffield went.


William Burton McCormick is a Shamus, Derringer and Claymore awards finalist. His two latest releases are the historical thriller novella A STRANGER FROM THE STORM and the modern espionage thriller KGB BANKER (the latter co-written with whistleblower John Christmas).

20 May 2019

Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa, Part 2


by William Burton McCormick

In Part One, I talked about how legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, known to many for his dramas, Shakespearean adaptions and samurai films, also made significant contributions to the broadly-defined crime film genre. I highlighted and provided links to two excellent films from the late 1940’s:
Drunken Angel (1948), the first Yakuza (gangster) film after World War II, and Stray Dog (1949), an early police procedural and the ancestor of the buddy cop film. Both films paired Kurosawa’s favorite actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, showcased the director’s emerging talent and explored the gritty underworld of postwar Tokyo from a Japanese point-of-view.

We continue now into the 50’s and 60’s, Kurosawa’s prime, for three more crime films featuring Mifune and Shumara. Our first is a doozy.

Rashomon
Rashomon (1950)

And then there was Rashomon.

While it was considered too Western for many in Kurosawa’s homeland, Rashomon is arguably the most influential Japanese film worldwide of any genre. It is inarguably one of the most revolutionary crime films ever made.

Based on the 1922 Ryūnosuke Akutagawa short story “In a Grove,” Rashoman features a samurai among its principle characters but this is no samurai film. Instead, Rashoman is a period piece psychological thriller set in eighth-century Japan.

In a framing story, several people take shelter from a rainstorm beneath a ruined city gate in Kyoto. (The famous gate is called “Rashomon”, hence the title.) One of the stranded people, a woodcutter played by Shimura, tells the others via a flashback how he discovered the dead body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods. Shimura then details the ensuing trial he attended where the three persons involved in the murder give testimonies: the samurai’s self-admitted killer (the bandit Tajōmaru played by Mifune); the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō), who was raped by the bandit but what she did afterwards remains open to question; and lastly the dead samurai himself, who speaks channeled through a medium. All three give conflicting accounts of events in that wooded grove and the actions that lead to murder. In addition to the killing, there is a question of shifting motivations and loyalties by all parties as result of the rape. And the mystery of a missing jeweled dagger.

As the bandit, wife, and the samurai all give their sides to the story, Kurosawa reenacts each version for the audience to see. We are challenged to find reality within incompatible vignettes and ask if such a thing as truth exists. We ponder each speaker’s motivations, wondering at lies and self-delusions told to an unseen judge (indeed, the audience is the surrogate judge). We weigh evidence and probabilities and strain to reach a definitive conclusion. Is there one? And only one? That is the mystery, art and source of enjoyment in Rashomon.

Kurosawa adds fine touches throughout the film. The wife, dressed in a white veiled gown and bathed in radiant forest sunbeams, is one of the most beautiful images put to film. When the bandit sees her, we feel his lust, even as we are abhorred by his actions. In one flashback, told by the victor, two combatants engage in a swashbuckling sword fight worthy of an Errol Flynn film. When an impartial party describes the same scene, Kurosawa shows the combatants as terrified cowards, clumsily hacking at each other, the winner victorious through sheer luck rather than skill. One account is fantastic, the other realistic, but which is true? Or perhaps neither are?

Towards the end, a witness comes forward to present a fourth account of events. But will the witness solve the puzzle for the audience or only muddle the truth further?

In a Grove
So influential was this film that it has entered the English-language lexicon. “A Rashomon” or the “Rashomon Effect” is creative jargon (particularly in film or television) for a story told multiple times from various points of view. Even if you have not seen the original film, it is likely you’ve seen or read a work that uses this device. Maybe the writers reading this have knowingly or unknowingly used the “Rashomon Effect” in their own work? If so, please mention it in the comments below.

Historically-speaking, the release of Rashomon was a watershed event for Japanese cinema. Prior to and during World War II, there was little exposure to Japanese film outside their country. After Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Vienna Film Festival, it was released with subtitles throughout America and Europe, going on to win Best Foreign Language film at the 1952 Academy Awards (a first for any Asian film), Best Director for Kurosawa from the National Board of Review and numerous other awards. In its wake came other Japanese films, including Kursoawa’s own masterpieces like Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1958). Directors as varied as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, and Francis Ford Coppola all count Rashomon among their favorite films.

As was much of Kurosawa’s work, Rashomon was remade as Western. 1964’s The Outrage stared Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom, William Shatner and Edward G. Robinson. The original is better.

All Japanese films published before 1953 are in the public domain, so Rashomon can be viewed for free here. (This free link is not a particularly clear print and I would recommend to those genuinely interested to stream a pristine version of this beautiful film from Amazon for less than $4.00 here.)

You can also download an English-language translation of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” for free here.

If you’ve seen Rashomon, please use the comments to tell us which of the four accounts you believe and what you think really happened in those woods.

The Bad Sleep Well
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

We return to the then-present day for a film noir with a plot that is both complex and difficult to discuss without spoiling things. Speaking simply, it is the story of Koichi Nishi (Mifune), a man who marries the boss’s daughter, Yoshiko (Kyōko Kagawa), at a large Japanese land development company in order to expose corruption and murder (and more – but that would be telling) there. Shimura plays Moriyama, one of the executives who comes into conflict with Nishi’s would-be whistleblower. Nishi has an especially difficult challenge getting confessions, as anyone who is even partially exposed has a penchant for rather suspicious suicides (One man tries to jump into an active volcano!)

Like all true noir, no one is completely good. Nishi may be determined to expose the truth, but he’s all too willing to use his bride’s affection as a tool to get access to whom and what he wants. This is doubly tragic for Yoshiko, as she not only loves Nishi, but is physically handicapped, and it is implied she had a difficult time finding a husband. Now, the one she has wants to use her to destroy her father and his company. Layered characters abound.

Kurosawa’s visual touches are as ever strong with sound and shadow used to chilling effect hinting at horrors just off screen. While considered one of his finest films, The Bad Sleep Well is perhaps not Kurosawa’s most accessible. The twenty-minute wedding reception that begins the film is deliberately paced and gives no indication of the thriller that follows. And the ending is very dark. Noir aficionados are known to love it, but general audiences are more divided.

As it was released after 1953, The Bad Sleep Well is not in public domain, so I have no link. You can, of course, stream it or purchase a DVD with English subtitles at Amazon or similar venders

High and Low (1963)

High and Low
Loosely based on the Ed McBain novel King’s Ransom, Mifune stars as a shoe-manufacturing executive named Gondo. Gondo has personally borrowed millions to prevent a hostile takeover of the company by rival executives who wish to oust him. Minutes before he is to purchase the stock that would secure his position, he receives a phone call by someone claiming to have kidnapped his son and demanding the borrowed money and more as ransom. It is soon discovered the kidnappers have errored. Gondo’s son is safe but the boy’s playmate was taken by mistake. Undeterred, the criminals insist on the money from Gondo or they’ll kill their young captive. What ensues is a gripping drama where Gondo wrestles with his conscious. Pay the ransom, and he’ll lose company, position, home, and find himself jobless while millions in debt, the very existence of his family in jeopardy. Refuse to pay and an innocent boy dies, a young life extinguished because someone held a grudge against Gondo. What would you do?

While this crisis of conscience plays out in Gondo’s manor on a hill (the “high” of the title), Inspector Tokura (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai) attempts to track down the criminals, his investigation taking him into the “low” of Tokyo’s slums and drug dens. The investigation is riveting, a surprisingly modern police procedural where the inspector uses both forensic evidence and mind-games against the kidnappers planted in the media to entrap his targets. Shimura returns in a minor role as Inspector Tokura’s superior.

Kurosawa’s visual flourishes remain ever-strong in High and Low. A black-and-white film, he inserts a touch of color at a key moment to great effect. And a scene in a claustrophobic alley overrun by zombie-like heroin addicts is as chilling as anything George Romero would put to film years later.

One of my personal favorites.

Afterword.

As sixties waned, Kurosawa began to lose popularity in his native land. Japanese audiences found his style too Western for their tastes. From a Japanese point-of-view there is merit to this. Once asked from whom he learned his craft, Kurosawa replied: “John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Those same tastes that had made him the leader in breaking Japanese cinema worldwide, now took him out of fashion at home. By the late 70’s Kurosawa had difficulty finding funding – until a new generation of filmmakers who worshiped his work – George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg – helped get the necessary backing.

An emergence of a world media culture rehabilitated Kurosawa’s reputation in Japan. By the time he died in 1998 at age 88, his reputation in the East matched his renown in the West. AsianWeek named Kurosaw “Asian of the Century” for the Arts, Literature and Culture. CNN called him one of the five people of the twentieth century who most prominently improved life in Asia.

In the end, Mifune, whose expressiveness revolutionized Japanese acting much the way Marlon Brando did in America and had occasion to work with directors from Japan and abroad over a hundred-and-fifty-film career, summed up Kurosawa’s achievement best:
"I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him."
William Burton McCormick
William Burton McCormick