Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. 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.

12 August 2022

Time to go to the movies again


It's fun to make lists. Here are some movies lists. What does this have to do with writing? Movies have scripts, don't they?

1. Movies I’ve watched many times and will watch again.

    Amadeus
  • AMADEUS (1984)
  • ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930)
  • BATTLEGROUND (1949)
  • BLOW-UP (1967)
  • BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
  • CASABLANCA (1943)
  • THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
  • Blow-up
  • DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID (1982)
  • THE DEPARTED (1984)
  • DR. ZHIVAGO (2006)
  • FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)
  • FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
  • FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1967)
  • THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)
  • Ghost and Mrs Muir
  • THE GODFATHER (1972)
  • THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
  • I MARRIED A WITCH (1942)
  • THE IPRESS FILE (1965)
  • JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)
  • LAURA (1944)
  • LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
  • The Godfather
  • THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
  • THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
  • MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982)
  • THE PRODUCERS (1967)
  • REBECCA (1940)
  • ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)
  • SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
  • Ipcress File
  • THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
  • SHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
  • THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965)
  • THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
  • THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)
  • VERTIGO (1958)
  • YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
  • This Gun for Hire
  • ZULU (1964)

This list is incomplete as I keep remembering good movies.

2. Movies I’ve seen once and will never watch again.

  • AUSTRALIA (2008)
  • AVATAR (2009)
  • THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
  • A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1972)
  • Laura
    Laura
  • CRASH (2004)
  • LOVE STORY (1970)
  • THE DEERHUNTER (1979)
  • FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)
  • GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
  • MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993)
  • SAW (2004)
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2008)
  • WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)
  • Every superhero movies I’ve seen except
    • THE PHANTOM 1996)

3. Movies I’ve fallen asleep while watching and won’t try again.

  • All of the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.
  • The HARRY POTTER movies my daughter was able to drag me to

4. Movies I’ve walked out of to get a cup of coffee and waited for my wife to finish watching and join me at the coffee shop

  • THE CONSTANT GARDENER (2005)
  • THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)
  • SOLARIS (2002)

That's all for now.



25 February 2022

Movie Titles as Mini-scenes


 Perusing Netflix and Amazon Prime and YouTube, I read through movie titles quickly and - wait – what was that? So I strung some together. The red lettered words are not in titles, they just keep the flow going.

I started with two movies: Waitress. Millie. And came up with this nonsense.

Waitress Mille had Something To Think About Lying Under The Tuscan Sun After Life in The Lillies Of The Field

Gilda Dressed To Kill Touched The Razor's Edge On Golden Pond and Dripped Water for Elephants Every Saturday as Maniacs Richard III The Great Gatsby The Great Waldo Pepper Took A Walk On The Wild Side

Marilyn In A Lonely Place gave A Naked Kiss to The Beast With Five Fingers Marty as The Voyeurs in The Rear Window of The House Across The Bay Saw What Just Happened so Marilyn Asked The Woman In The Window With The Ipcress File Can You Keep A Secret

The Hairy Ape from The Bride And The Beast Beat The Devil In From The Cold as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold The Two Popes and The Devil's Mistress went Under The Eiffel Tower at Midnight In Paris To Play Happy Go Lucky Words And Pictures

The Cool Of The Day A Boy And His Dog went Above And Beyond For Love Of Ivy Dr. Strangelove and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies To Live In L.A.

So This Is Love He Said, She Said Written In The Wind In The Heat Of The Night While The City Sleeps Between Heaven And Hell

The Man With The Screaming Brain Played Forbidden Games Felt Lust For Life with The Opposite Sex Under The Rainbow The Big Sky The Big Trees Big Daddy Big Fish Big Hero 6 Big Top Pee-Wee

Along Came Jones Too Late For Tears and Too Late The Hero to Go For Broke and Blow-Up Small Time Crime in Murderville

The Misfits had The Devil To Pay for The Missing Corpse Copying Beethoven with The Polka King Young Frankenstein The Wolfman Dracula and Mr. Peabody And The Mermaid

The Women Sing of Death Hang 'Em High How Sweet It Is! How To Save A Marriage And Ruin Your Life The Key To Rebecca 

The Right Stuff As Long As You've Got Your Health King Rat Love Has Many Faces Boy, Did I Get A Wrong Number How To Murder Your Wife

Baby The Rain Must Fall Inside Daisy Clover Carry On Doctor Even The Wind Is Frightened

The Lost Daughter and Our Idiot Brother took The Thirty-Nine Steps to Afternoon Delight as The Watcher Watched!

Dear Brigitte The Girl Can't Help It If A Man Answers In Search of the Castaways on Boy's Night Out Up From The Beach

The Game is Over Running The Art of Love Inside the Forbidden City The Two Of Us Violated Angels Welcome To Hard Times on The Planet Of The Apes

Daredevil Hunted Spider-Man Thor The Hulk The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms Godzilla In Bruges with Ivanhoe Mandy My Six Convicts My Three Angels The Dirty Dozen while Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Closely Watched Trains In Harm's Way The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Run, Appaloosa, Run To Sir, With Love

ONeilDeNoux.comHelp! Panic In The Year Zero Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You In The Closet And I'm Feelin' So Sad You Only Live Twice

Is Paris Burning? Carry On Cowboy Tonight For Sure It Happened In Athens Don't Make Waves Far From The Madding Crowd Playing Soldiers

The Counterfeit Stranger Follow That Camel Half A Sixpence It's A Bikini World Don't Raise The Bridge, Lower The Water I Am Curious (Yellow)

OK. Enough. I have to stop and get back to work.

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

16 December 2021

My Brain on Old Movies


Notes from my brain as I rewatched Otto Preminger's Laura:

My God, look how young Vincent Price was in 1944. This was nine years before he began his career in horror movies. Otherwise he'd never have gotten the 4 year gig on radio as The Saint.  But I have to say when I was young I read my way through a stack of Charteris' The Saint novels, and Price's was certainly not the voice I ever imagined for that British swash-buckler.  (You can listen to the episodes  HERE.)  Meanwhile, Price's Shelby is tall and soft and definitely a gigolo, which makes the idea that Gene Tierney's [breathtakingly beautiful] Laura would fall for him a real problem. Judith Anderson's Ann Treadwell (Laura's aunt) is more understandable, although I think they should have had Agnes Moorehead reprise her role as Emily Hawkins in Since You Went Away. She would have eaten Shelby alive, purring the whole time.

Musing: Agnes Moorehead is the main reason to watch Since You Went Away, because I find the movie pretty saccharine, not to mention trite, melodramatic, and I get tired of watching Claudette Colbert only being filmed from one angle. Oh, and I keep waiting for Jane to run into one of the posts as she runs after Bill's departing train. They spoofed that in some movie, but I can't remember which one.

BTW, Dana Andrews (Detective McPherson) and Gene Tierney had real chemistry.  I looked it up, and they ended up doing 5 movies together - Tobacco Road, Belle Starr, Laura, The Iron Curtain, and Where The Sidewalk Ends. BTW, my favorite Dana Andrews movie is The Best Years of Our Lives.

And my favorite comment about him comes from Radio Days, where all the kids are down at the Rockaway shore and talking about their favorite actresses:

Young Joe's Friend #1: My favorite is Rita Hayworth.

Young Joe's Friend #2: I like Betty Grable.

Young Joe's Friend #3: I like Dana Andrews.

Young Joe's Friend #2: Are you kidding? Dana Andrews is a man.

Young Joe's Friend #3: She is? (IMDB)

And I'm always happy to see Clifton Webb. 

He alternated between character actor and leads, nominated 3 times for an Academy Award - Laura, Sitting Pretty, and The Razor's Edge - and deservedly won it for The Razor's Edge (and if you've never seen it, watch it - Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney are the leads.)  He also played Frank Galbraith in Cheaper by the Dozen (with Myrna Loy as his wife), and his character, Mr. Belvedere (in Sitting Pretty and Mr. Belvedere Goes to College) was the model for Mr. Peabody in my favorite cartoon series of all time, Rocky & Bullwinkle.  

Excuse me while I wallow in nostalgia:  Mr. Peabody, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, Boris Badenov, Natasha & Fearless Leader, Fractured Fairytales, Aesop & Son, Bullwinkle's Corner & Mr. Know-It-All...  

And Myrna Loy was also Frederic March's loyal wife in The Best Years of Our Lives, which brings us back to Dana Andrews, and back to Gene Tierney:

Very beautiful, with great range. Watch Laura, and then watch her Oscar nominated performance in Leave Her to Heaven and The Razor's Edge. Great success, interrupted more than once by tragedy.  Manic-depressive before anyone knew what that really was, and the shock treatments made her lose much of her memory.  And of course, hers was the source of the tragedy in Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd:  her daughter, Daria, was born deaf and mentally disabled, because a fan broke a rubella quarantine and infected the pregnant Tierney while she volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen.

EDITORIAL INTRUSION:  GET YOUR DAMN VACCINATION OR STAY HOME!!!!

YOUR ACTIONS DO HAVE EFFING CONSEQUENCES!!!

Otto Preminger was a great director. Here are the ones (besides Laura) that I remember watching a long, long time ago:

The Man With the Golden Arm 
Bonjour Tristesse
Anatomy of a Murder
Exodus
Advise and Consent
Bunny Lake is Missing (this one will twist your head off)
Hurry Sundown (Michael Caine in one of his many appalling American accents, but otherwise, like all of these, very educational for a young girl/teen in the 1960s…)

Oh, and can anyone point me to where I can find a maid like Bessie Clary, Fidelia (Since You Went Away), Matilda (The Bishop's Wife), etc., etc., etc.?  

Oh, damn - the movie's over. What's up next?  
The Bishop's Wife, or The Man Who Came to Dinner?  
Monty Woolley's in both, 
        and Bette Davis is in The Man Who Came to Dinner
               and she starred with Humphrey Bogart in Dark Victory
                       and Bogart starred with Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray in We're No Angels...
                             and...

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!

30 October 2021

Movie Firsts



I am, and have always been, fascinated by movies. Al kinds of movies, although I mostly like mystery/crime and westerns--a result, probably, of growing up in the fifties and sixties, when you couldn't turn on a TV without seeing a detective or a cowboy. But I'll watch almost anything. The other night when one of our sons and his son were visiting, we ordered pizzas and watched an old DVD of Aliens (possibly the best sequel in movie history, along with Godfather II)--and I loved it as much as the first time I saw it, in a theater in Atlanta 35 years ago. And over the past month I've re-watched The Big Lebowski, Jaws, The Birds, Rudy, The Guns of Navarone, and The Princess Bride, all of which are in a galaxy far, far away from mysteries and westerns.

I also love facts about movies, some of them pretty obscure. We got to talking, during our kid-and-grandkid movie night last week, about which movies were the first to do this or the first to feature that, and I of course felt compelled to sit down later and try to put together a list. I mean, somebody has to, right? You can't just pass up a topic like that.

So . . . here are some cinematic "firsts."

NOTE: These are only those firsts that I found particularly interesting. For example, I don't much care what movie was the first to open in Saudi Arabia or to use IMAX 12-channel sound, but I do care what movie was the first to show a killer shark or time travel or a flushing toilet. Call this a low-tech, unsophisticated list.


First movie -- Roundhay Garden Scene, director Louis Le Prince, 1888

First U.S. movie -- Monkeyshines, William Kennedy Dickson and William Heise, 1889

First comedy -- The Waterer Watered, 1895

First horror movie -- House of the Devil, 1896 (a short silent film)

First Shakespeare adaptation -- King John, 1899

First Sherlock Holmes movie -- Sherlock Holmes Baffled, 1900 (produced to be viewed on coin-operated machines)

First science fiction movie -- A Trip to the Moon, 1902

First western -- The Great Train Robbery, 1903

First feature film -- The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906

First Hollywood movie -- In Old California, director D.W. Griffith, 1910

First big-budget Hollywood epic -- Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith, 1915

First sequel -- Fall of a Nation, Thomas Dixon, Jr., 1916

First remake -- The Squaw Man, Cecil B. DeMille, 1918 (the original was in 1914)

First movie with a twist ending -- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

First time-travel movie -- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, 1921

First movie to cost $ 1 million -- Foolish Wives, 1922

First Hitchcock movie -- Always Tell Your Wife, 1923

First "talkie" -- The Jazz Singer, 1927

First movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture -- Wings, William A. Wellman, 1927

First musical -- The Broadway Melody, 1929

First movie to show a television set -- Elstree Calling, Alfred Hitchcock, 1930

First western to win Best Picture -- Cimarron, 1930

First movie shown on TV -- The Crooked Circle, 1933

First romantic comedy to win Best Picture -- It Happened One Night, 1934 (also the first movie to show a bride leaving her fiancé at the altar)

First Disney movie -- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937

First movie to use the Wilhelm scream -- Distant Drums, 1941 (I'm thinking this might be a SleuthSayers post in the near future)

First 3-D feature film -- Robinson Crusoe, 1947

First movie to offer profit-sharing for its star -- Winchester '73, 1950 (James Stewart)

First to mention the word "pizza" -- The Band Wagon, 1953

First to use a rock song in a soundtrack -- Blackboard Jungle, 1955 ("Rock Around the Clock")

First to feature a man-eating shark -- The Sharkfighters, 1956

First to show an interracial kiss -- Island in the Sun, 1957

First to show a flushing toilet -- Psycho, 1960

First to use the fake phone prefix "555" -- Panic in the Year Zero, 1962

First to show a GPS device -- Goldfinger, 1964

First to show a karate fight scene -- The Manchurian Candidate, 1964

First to show a post-credit scene -- The Silencers. 1966

First to drop the F-bomb -- I'll Never Forget What's 'Is Name, 1967 (second bombing: M*A*S*H, 1970)

First G-rated movie to win Best Picture -- Oliver!, 1969

First (and only) X-rated movie to win Best Picture -- Midnight Cowboy, 1970 (this was of course an early rating system; MC would currently be a mild R)

First R-rated movie to win Best Picture -- The French Connection, 1971

First movie to show a condom -- Carnal Knowledge, 1971

First sequel to win Best Picture -- The Godfather Part II, 1974

First movie to make $ 100 million -- Jaws, 1975

First movie shot entirely by natural candlelight -- Barry Lyndon, 1975

First to be released on VHS -- The Young Teacher, 1976

First to list the entire crew in the closing credits -- Star Wars, 1977 (also the first to make $ 400 million) 

First big-budget superhero film -- Superman, 1978

First movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch -- The Blues Brothers, 1980

First movie made for a cable network -- The Terry Fox Story, 1983 (HBO)

First PG-13 movie -- Red Dawn, 1984

First movie to show a cell phone -- Lethal Weapon, 1987

First to sell a million copies on home video -- Dirty Dancing, 1887

First NC-17 movie -- Henry and June, 1990

First (and only) horror movie to win Best Picture -- The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 (this is what the record books say, but I don't agree that it's a horror movie)

First movie to show virtual reality -- The Lawnmower Man, 1992

First to cost $ 100 million -- True Lies, 1994

First feature film to be made entirely using CGI -- Toy Story, 1995

First movie to cost $ 200 million (and to make $ 1 billion) -- Titanic, 1997

First movie released on DVD -- Twister, 1997

First to make $ 100 million in its opening weekend -- Spider-Man, 2002

First to use motion capture for all actors -- The Polar Express, 2004

First to show on-screen texting -- Sex Drive, 2008

First to make $ 2 billion -- Avatar, 2009

First (and only) science fiction movie to win Best Picture -- The Shape of Water, 2017

First non-English-language movie to win Best Picture -- Parasite, 2019 (South Korean)

First movie to open nationwide since the start of the pandemic -- Unhinged, 2020

First to make $ 100 million since start of the pandemic -- A Quiet Place Part II, 2021

  


I learned a few things in coming up with this list, and found I was badly mistaken about a few. Can you think of some firsts that I missed? First Chuck Norris Shakespeare adaptation? First Whoopi Goldberg western? Seriously, let me know in the comments section.

Next time, back to mystery writing--thanks for indulging me.

See you in a week!


20 October 2021

Popcorn Proverbs #5



Are you heading back in the theatres yet?  Not me.  But as a reminder of the goodle days, here are quotes from 25 crime movies.  As before, they are in alphabetical order by titles.  Purely by coincidence, three actors get two quotes each.  The answers are below. Good luck!
 
1. Or maybe she didn't die. Maybe she just moved to the suburbs - I always confuse those two. 
 
2. Can I trust you?  Can I trust you?  Can I trust you? 
 
3. I loved Al Lipshitz more than I could possibly say. He was a real artistic guy, sensitive, a painter. But he was always trying to find himself. He'd go out every night looking for himself. And on the way, he found Ruth. Gladys. Rosemary. And Irving. I guess you could say we broke up because of artistic differences. He saw himself as alive. And I saw him dead.
 
4. One of us had to die. With me, it tends to be the other guy. 
 

5. -What are you going to do?
-I'm going to sit in the car and whistle "Rule Britannia".
 
6. Isn't it touching how a perfect murder has kept our friendship alive all these years? 
 
7. I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies. 
 
8. -The fellow whose job I'm taking, will he show me the ropes?
  -  Maybe - if you're in touch with the spirit world. 
 
9. I hear you paint houses.
 
10. It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.  
 
11. Who do men instinctively pull at loose threads on their parachutes? 
 

12. What can I tell you?  Don't piss off a motivated stripper. 
 
13. Has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room?
 
14. - Do you realize that because of you this city is being overrun by baboons?
-Well, isn't that the fault of the voters? 
 
15. -Can you be any more of a condescending ass?
-Yes. 
 
16. In my book "brave" rhymes with "stupid."
 
17. Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on living? Jump and it will all be over.
 
18. You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize. 
 

19. The funny thing is - on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook 
 
20. I studied on killing you. Studied on it quite a bit. But I reckon there ain't no need for it if all you're gonna do is sit there in that chair. You'll be dead soon enough and the world 'll be shut of ya. You ought not killed my little brother, he should've had a chance to grow up. He woulda had fun some time.  
 
21.Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that, they make the best patients.

22. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.


23. We're going to let 'em keep the goddamn subway train. Hell, we've got plenty of them; we'll never even miss it.

24. What I do for a living may not be very reputable... but I am. In this town I'm the leper with the most fingers. 
 
25. -Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
-  Yes.
-Good, 'cause you just took one.
 
THE ANSWERS LURK BELOW...
 

1. - Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) Can You Ever Forgive Me?


2.- Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) Casino

3. -Mona ( Mya ) Chicago

4. - Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) The Departed
 
5. -Edna (Rosemarie Dunham)/ Carter (Michael Caine) Get Carter

6. -Arthur Adamson (William Devane) Family Plot
 
7. -Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) The Godfather, Part Two
 

8. -Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) / Major Dalby (Nigel Green) The Ipcress File

9. -Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) The Irishman

10. - Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) Kind Hearts and Coronets

11. - Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer) Knives Out

12.  -Michael Clayton (George Clooney) Michael Clayton

13. -Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


14. -Commissioner Brumford (Jacqueline Brooks) / Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear
 
15. -Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) / Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) Now You See Me
 
16. - Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr.) Ocean's Eleven

17. - Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) Rebecca

18. -Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) Reservoir Dogs

19.  -Andy DuFresne (Tim Robbins) The Shawshank Redemption

20. - Karl Childers  (Billy Bob Thornton)  Sling Blade


21. - Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekhov) Spellbound

22.  - Harry Lime (Orson Welles) The Third Man

23.  -Mayor (Lee Wallace) The Taking of Pelham 123

24. -Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) The Two Jakes

25.  -Malone (Sean Connery) / Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) The Untouchables
 
 
 

14 August 2021

I've Watched The Long Goodbye 3 Times Now


It's a middle distance squint, and I get like that during every watch. Here's how it happened this round.

Recently, Killer Nashville asked me to review Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). The second-to-last Marlowe outing is Chandler's best, for my money. The detective story, truly elevated. No mean feat, given the high standards of his earlier novels. Doing the essay lured me to re-confront Robert Altman's 1973 film version starring Elliott Gould. I'd seen it twice before. I'd been left in that squint both times.

Wikipedia
Full disclosure: I'm no cinema expert. I do, however, understand a few things about the genre and this novel in particular. So, freshly inspired, I ventured again into Altman's film. 

Same squint. 

Advance critics in 1973 seemed to have a similar reaction. They were confused whether they'd just watched a detective movie or not. The hardboiled posters didn't match the semi-noir, semi-satire delivered. The Long Goodbye got pulled ahead of mixed reviews. In came the studio marketing folks, and several months later it was re-packaged more honestly, as a subversive take on Hollywood tropes. These reviews praised a nose-tweaking of the genre. Fifty years later, the film is now well-studied and the critical consensus ever-more favorable. 

Altman's take has much going for it. Casting faded star Sterling Haywood as alcoholic novelist Roger Wade is spot on. In the novel, Wade is Chandler himself stuffed into a part Michener, part Hemingway persona, but the film wisely cranks up the Papa factor. Nina Van Pallandt plays wife Eileen Wade with deftly-concealed femme fatality. The soundtrack is evocative and playful, mostly rearrangements of the same Johnny Mercer song to fit each scene. The cinematography is gorgeous. Altman's L.A. is up all hours but not doing much, a glossy pit of decay and casual violence. Malibu is just higher-end decadence with beach access. It's Chandler's noir SoCal– left twenty years to rot. Altman drops Marlowe smack into the cesspool. Above it, more precisely, observing L.A. from an improbably affordable top-floor apartment at Hollywood Heights' iconic High Tower enclave. 

Your essayist just down the beach, 2016
Which may be the initial squint-maker. 

Altman wants to make a point how L.A. vibe and P.I. stories were outdated. He does this by– beautifully– repainting the '50s Marlowe scene as a neo-noir, only-in-the-'70s moment. The style of it, like Chandler's, helps the work age pretty well (there is a violent moment that either wouldn't happen in a modern film or else would be answered on-screen later). Still, rebinding one tired era with what would surely become another? That message and its disconnect, though, comes off as part of the satire. But a story lost in time doesn't necessarily make for a timeless story.

Or maybe I get stuck on a half-reimagined Marlowe, one foot in both worlds. The task fell to Elliott Gould, attached to the project before Altman and the screenwriters came onboard. Gould is terrific, his characters never quite sure what the hell is going on but muddling through anyway. He does schlubs to perfection and plays Marlowe that way. There is a certain genius to this. Chandler's Marlowe is tough but not the toughest. He's forever outmuscled and often outsmarted. Gould takes this to another level. He's lost in a beyond rumpled state. He loses or avoids every fight. As for women, Gould's Marlowe is oblivious even to Eileen's flirtations. Early in the film, he's trapped in a disassociative mumble about L.A. passing him by. We get it. But Elliott Gould is funny. He can't help it, the schlub. His best Marlowe is when Gould eventually drops the sleepwalk and just does Gould. 

From your
essayist's collection
Next, there's that Edgar-winning masterpiece novel. Altman seizes on aspects of Chandler's world– the backdrop, Marlowe's sense of morality, the outsized characters against the smallness of their crimes– but abandons much of the actual story. Some of this is necessity.

Chandler's The Long Goodbye is intricate, often contemplative, and hefty– almost 400 pages. The inciting murder happens forty pages in, give or take your edition. A hyper-faithful film version is a marathon with too many moving parts. In trimming things, the screenwriters left Chandler's premise– Marlowe wants justice for a friend in a jam--but glossed over the motivations driving that premise. Marlowe doesn't make friends. Allies and lovers, yes. Never true friends.

So when in The Long Goodbye Marlowe and ruined socialite Terry Lennox strike up an odd friendship via drinks and loyalty tests, Marlowe is as surprised as anyone. Resolving this inner confusion is as much what Marlowe is after than justice for Lennox's suspicious death. Lennox never fit right, in any sense.

The film almost immediately finds Marlowe and Lennox chumming it up playing liar's poker. Sure, we've already seen Marlowe living alone but for a finnicky cat. His quick chumminess with Lennox suggests Marlowe has a wider circle of chums. Add in that the film's Lennox is stripped of complications. He's a common crook who married well, and it's pretty clear he committed what inevitably surfaces as the murder. In Chandler's world of rough justice, one murder must lead to a next. Altman doesn't need the same body count. Murders are cut or cleansed as suicides, clues are sparse, the solution a bit easy. The crime elements are, like Marlowe, scaffolding to Altman's larger statement. 

© Wikipedia
Look, no big-name director agrees to get lashed to a novel they can't re-envision. The screenwriter in Chandler would've gotten that better than anyone. Altman made the movie he wanted to make, and he made a sleek one. 

Altman reportedly said that Chandler fans would hate this take. I don't hate-watch a movie three times. There's plenty to admire in this film.

Altman reportedly also never read the novel cover-to-cover. If true, I wish he had. He might've found Chandler's novel had risen above the noir tropes in these crosshairs. With more study of his source material, Altman might've made one hell of a noir update or the best kind of crime comedy. He might've made a great movie, not just a weird one.

And at least I could stop squinting.