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

26 February 2024

Room of Ice


I have a new story, Room of Ice, and it appears in the new SleuthSayers' anthology Murder, Neat. The alcohol reference in the anthology's title is on purpose. All the stories in the book have a finger, or other, in a drinking establishment. A glass or two of my story is set in a London pub.

Story settings aside, drinking establishments are excellent places to tell a story. The social atmosphere, comfortable seats, warmth, and alcohol invites (nay, demands) story telling. When the wine comes in, the wit comes out. I mean, if you're sitting there with a group of friends, you've got to do something while you're drinking. And pretty soon, someone will be off and running with a tale, tall or otherwise.

Our desire to gather with friends somewhere warm and convivial, and tell a story, is innate. And it predates drinking. Many thousands of years ago, our caveman ancestors sat around the fire on dark winter evenings. The whole clan. The extended family. They'd spent the day hunting and gathering, they'd eaten. They sat there sated and sleepy, nothing else to do – drawing pictures on the cave wall was so last era. Someone said, "You know, a funny thing happened to me today. There was this woolly mammoth…" And off he or she went, running with a tale, tall or otherwise.

The invention of alcohol meant there was now something to do while the stories were being told. And that swiftly led to the creation of places to do all of this in: pubs, inns, bars, taverns, and so on. The public living room.

I digress.

So, what's my story (Room of Ice) about? Well, no spoilers, it's about two things: Hammer Films and perception.

Hammer Film Productions is a British film production company that had its heyday from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. They specialised in horror films with a Gothic flavour (e.g., vampires, mummies, Frankenstein). Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were probably the studio's two biggest stars. According to Wikipedia, the studio made 295 films (between 1934-2019). In addition to horror, Hammer also produced science fiction, thrillers, noir, and comedies. I grew up watching Hammer Horrors (along with their American counterparts, the Vincent Price Edgar Allen Poe movies).

In my story, I imagine Hammer made a horror film in 1959 called Room of Ice.

My story is from the point of view of a middle-aged man – "Tim" – who, as a child, was an extra in that movie. Tim tracks down the movie's now elderly star, because he has, in later life, remembered something about the filming – something he saw. It isn't a spoiler to say that Tim is a blackmailer.

This is a story about perception. Something witnessed as a five-year-old, and then remembered at 45, with a now adult's perspective of the world (my story is set in 1999).

Room of Ice is about movies (I'm film mad, don't you know?). Making them, remembering them, worshipping them. And, as such, I made a trailer for the story to help promote it. And rather than do my usual, I made a "movie trailer" for an imagined re-release of the movie Room of Ice. You can watch the trailer here:


Well, I'm off to read all the other stories in the anthology. Should be a treat!


03 December 2023

The Spy Who Shunned Me


I was glancing at a not-so-recent Stacker.com ‘Best 100 Spy Movies of All Time’, thinking it was right up the dark alley of our spymaster, David Edgerley Gates. If you did something extremely stupid, he could make you disappear.

male spy in trenchcoat carrying smoking gun

And then I noticed something stupid.

Where was Ipcress File? And Day of the Jackal? Manchurian Candidate? Riddle of the Sands? Casablanca? And where the hell was 39 Steps? And why the Hail Freedonia was Duck Soup in the list? Hey, I love the Marx Brothers but it bears as much resemblance to a spy movie as Margaret Dumont does to John le Carré.

I had to stop because so many possibilities flooded my mind. The article should be retitled ‘100 Pretty Good kinda-Spy Movies of Small Time, Give or Take.’ I bet David could name many more.

So here is the core of Stacker’s list followed by a few unranked suggestions of my own.

100Body of Lies2008Ridley Scott 50Clear and Present Danger1994Phillip Noyce
99Salt2010Phillip Noyce 49Rogue One: A Star Wars Story2016Gareth Edwards
98Moonraker1979Lewis Gilbert 48Breach2007Billy Ray
97Never Say Never Again1983Irvin Kershner 47Spy2015Paul Feig
96Shadow Dancer2012James Marsh 46Eye in the Sky2015Gavin Hood
95Octopussy1983John Glen 45Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol2011Brad Bird
94The Man from U.N.C.L.E.2015Guy Ritchie 44The Bourne Identity2002Doug Liman
93The Informant!2009Steven Soderbergh 43Red Cliff2008John Woo
92The Eagle Has Landed1976John Sturges 42Emperor and the Assassin1998Kaige Chen
91Atomic Blonde2017David Leitch 41Flame & Citron2008Ole Christian Madsen
90Until the End of the World1991Wim Wenders 40Inherent Vice2014Paul Thomas Anderson
89You Only Live Twice1967Lewis Gilbert 39No Way Out1987Roger Donaldson
88Cloak & Dagger1984Richard Franklin 38Black Book2006Paul Verhoeven
87The Fourth Protocol1987John Mackenzie 37The Age of Shadows2016Kim Jee-woon
86RED2010Robert Schwentke 36Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation2015Christopher McQuarrie
85Mission: Impossible1996Brian De Palma 35The Bourne Supremacy2004Paul Greengrass
84Snowden2016Oliver Stone 34Europa Europa1990Agnieszka Holland
83Allied2016Robert Zemeckis 33Lady Vengeance2005Park Chan-wook
82The Matador2005Richard Shepard 32Dr No1962Terence Young
81Michael Collins1996Neil Jordan 31Inglourious Basterds2009Quentin Tarantino
80Eye of the Needle1981Richard Marquand 30The Imitation Game2014Morten Tyldum
79Horror Express1972Eugenio Martín 29The Man Who Knew Too Much1956Alfred Hitchcock
78Patriot Games1992Phillip Noyce 28The Quiet American2002Phillip Noyce
77OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies2006Michel Hazanavicius 27A Beautiful Mind2001Ron Howard
76The Front Line2011Jang Hoon 26Infernal Affairs2002Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
75Thunderball1965Terence Young 25Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy2011Tomas Alfredson
74The Hunt for Red October1990John McTiernan 24Ghost in the Shell1995Mamoru Oshii
73Spy Game2001Tony Scott 23The Constant Gardener2005Fernando Meirelles
72Mission: Impossible III2006J.J. 22Bridge of Spies2015Steven Spielberg
71Despicable Me 22013Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud 21Skyfall2012Sam Mendes
70True Lies1994James Cameron 20From Russia with Love1963Terence Young
69Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid1982Carl Reiner 19Casino Royale2006Martin Campbell
68The Falcon and the Snowman1985John Schlesinger 18Enter the Dragon1973Robert Clouse
67The East2013Zal Batmanglij 17The English Patient1996Anthony Minghella
66Official Secrets2019Gavin Hood 16Mission: Impossible: Fallout2018Christopher McQuarrie
65Lust, Caution2007Ang Lee 15The Conversation1974Francis Ford Coppola
64Sneakers1992Phil Alden Robinson 14House of Flying Daggers2004Yimou Zhang
63Fair Game2010Doug Liman 13Stalag 171953Billy Wilder
62Confessions of a Dangerous Mind2002George Clooney 12Goldfinger1964Guy Hamilton
61Charlie Wilson's War2007Mike Nichols 11The Bourne Ultimatum2007Paul Greengrass
60Kingsman: The Secret Service2014Matthew Vaughn 10Letters from Iwo Jima2006Clint Eastwood
59Three Days of the Condor1975Sydney Pollack 9Zero Dark Thirty2012Kathryn Bigelow
58GoldenEye1995Martin Campbell 8Le Petit Soldat1963Jean-Luc Godard
57Walk on Water2004Eytan Fox 7Barry Lyndon1975Stanley Kubrick
56Marcel Proust's Time Regained1999Raoul Ruiz 6The Departed2006Martin Scorsese
55Where Eagles Dare1968Brian G. 5Duck Soup1933Leo McCarey
54Top Secret!1984Jim Abrahams, Zucker Bros. 4The Lives of Others2006Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
53A Most Wanted Man2014Anton Corbijn 3Notorious1946Alfred Hitchcock
52The Spy Gone North2018Yoon Jong-bin 2Pan's Labyrinth2006Guillermo del Toro
51X-Men: First Class2011Matthew Vaughn 1North by Northwest1959Alfred Hitchcock
The 39 Steps1935Alfred Hitchcock Topaz1969Alfred Hitchcock
Day of the Jackal1973Fred Zinnemann Riddle of the Sands1979ony Maylam
The Ipcress File1965Sidney J Furie Casablanca1842Michael Curtiz
The Manchurian Candidate1962John Frankenheimer Dark of the Sun1968Jack Cardiff

male spy in trenchcoat carrying smoking gun

For worst movie, I seem to recall Our Man Flint (1966), directed by Daniel Mann, was embarrassingly awful.

What is your take? Enquiring spies want to know.




Check out Prohibition Peepers, a Michael Bracken anthology.

21 June 2023

This Film Rolls


 

 I'd like to tell you about a movie I saw recently, one which I suspect you have never heard of.

A funny thing about movies: Some of the best ones don't become immediate hits in part because the studio can't figure out how to market them.  And I'm not really blaming the studio. (Not for that, anyway. I'm happy to blame for a lot of other things.)

Consider three of my favorite flicks: Galaxy Quest, The Princess Bride, and A Christmas Story.  If you have seen them, ask yourself how to sum them up in one sentence (the so-called "logline") in a way that makes them sound irresistable or even appealing.  Well, a grandfather reads a sick child an old novel about a girl who falls in love with a farmboy, and there's a giant, and a Spanish swordsman, and Rodents of Unusual Size...

Eventually each of those movies became a cult classic, because of word of mouth.

I doubt if the  movie I'm about to describe is destined for cult status, but it is one that is hard to summarize in a helpful way.  Please don't reject it immediately when I describe it. One thing is for certain: the title doesn't help.

Kills on Wheels (2016) is a Hungarian movie (with subtitles) written and directed by Attila Till. The protagonist is Zoli, a young man who suffers from a birth defect which will kill him unless he has an operation.  He is tired of thinking about that and only wants to create graphic novels.  “Why am I always the cripple?  It’s someone else’s turn now.”

His roommate, Barba, suffers from a serious palsy condition.

Into their life comes Janos, who was a fireman until an on-the-job accident made him a paraplegic.  To say he is not adjusting well is a gross understatement.

Assassin and Boss

But now Janos is making serious money as a hit man for a Yugoslavian crime boss.  You may be saying: A disabled assassin? That's hard to believe.

And that's exactly what Janos' victims die thinking.

By this point you may be thinking this is a dumb exploitation flick: Supercrip shoots 'em up!  It isn't. There is a heck of a lot more going on than it may appear.  

The acting is very good but I especially want to take note of two actors who come to the field in unusual ways.  Zoltan Fenyvesi plays Zoli.  This is his first acting gig, after the director discovered him through his Instagram account, wheelchairguy.  And Dusan Vitanovics plays the sinister crime lord.  The actor's day job?  He's a neurosurgeon.

I saw the film on Kanopy.  I recommend it. 

23 March 2023

Associations of a TV / Movie Addict


An upstate friend of mine and I were talking, and she said, "Do you feel like we're living in a black and white 50s horror movie?  The Winter That Would Not Die?"  Oh, hell yes. This winter is like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction - just when you think you've drowned it, it comes back, with a knife in its hand.  And it's turning us all into pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wandering around with vacant eyes and devoid of human emotion except an intense hatred of the weather forecasts.  

Movies & TV. You can't help but use them as analogies for almost everything. And the lessons we've learned from them!  

First of all, thanks to Stephen Leather for posting this GREAT list:


And I'd like to add a few more observations:

No matter how long someone is held tied up in a chair, room, or cellar, they never soil themselves and, when rescued, never mention that they need to go pee.  

When an assassin / spy / amnesiac and the woman who's helping him have sex, they do it standing up in a bathroom or hallway.  (see Maximum Risk.)

The star of the movie can always find a parking place, even in Manhattan.  (Referred to by Jerry Seinfeld as "the Jack Lemmon parking place".) 

After a month on a deserted island, men will have an advanced beard, but women will have neatly shaved armpits. - Judy Mudrick Colbert in comments section  

A car chase will always knock over a fruit stand, but if there's two car chases that knock over two fruit stands - and a comedian is not involved - it's a stinker of a movie.  (see Maximum Risk.)

A woman going to bed with full make-up on will wake up with same full make-up on, and there will be nary a trace of mascara or lipstick anywhere on the pillow, when in fact it should look like it was used for "Bloodfeast." 

Women can run for miles in high heels with no trouble - unless, of course, it's mandatory for the villain to catch them.  Also, from comments on the internet, "If necessary, a woman can break off her stilettos and have a perfectly comfortable pair of flats."  

A pair of horn-rimmed glasses is a perfect disguise for everyone from Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep) to Clark Kent.  No one will recognize you.

No matter how drunk a woman gets, when her lover calls, she will be instantly sober and ready to go out on the town with him. (Female on the Beach

It's easy to gun a car to ramming speed and jump out of it without anyone seeing you (and hide) before it actually goes over the cliff and explodes - unless you're Thelma and Louise.  

That leads straight to Soapland, which has its own set of amazing things:

You thought Glenn Close's character was never going to die? Well, NOBODY ever dies forever on a soap (unless they completely pissed off the producer / money people). It doesn't matter how many people saw them fall off a cliff, explode in a car, get shot, laid out on a slab or attended their funeral complete with open casket:  Sooner or later, they're going to come back from the dead.  

Also, plastic surgery.  And I'm not talking about the Botox school of acting (nothing moves above the eyebrows) which is ubiquitous.  I'm talking about villains who get plastic surgery to look EXACTLY like somebody else, and the surgeon can do it without leaving any scars anywhere.  And - this is the really amazing bit - somehow they ALSO now have the same voice as the other person!  Not to mention body scent and mannerisms!  No one can tell the difference!     

Whenever two people discuss something incredibly intimate or secret in a public place, they are always overheard by either their worst enemy or the snitch who goes straight to their worst enemy. 

Even at home, all women wear full make-up, designer clothes and high heels all the time.  What I'd give to just once see the heroine come home from work, reach under her top, and strip off her bra the way the rest of us do...  And go off and come back in a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt while she pours that glass of red wine.  

Slow learners all:  Nobody is EVER over their ex, no matter what kind of lying, cheating, etc., they were.  Indeed, they generally remarry their exes - multiple times.  

Oh, and those of us who have read pulp fiction, etc., know that all of these apply the detective and spy and thriller stories and novels as well.  

Meanwhile, exploding houses and an update from an old case here in South Dakota!

We've had a hell of a winter (remember land sharks?), and to cap it all off, two houses exploded in the Lake County area.  I always thought there were only two reasons why houses [unmaliciously] explode up here, (1) meth labs and (2) smoking while making ammunition in the basement (more common than you might think). 

But there's a third! Buried gas meters! "Officials are urging homeowners to check to see if their gas meters are free of snow. The City of Madison Fire Department says that in both home explosions, there was 10 plus feet or more of snow on the gas meter."  (KELO)  SO GO CHECK YOUR GAS METER, RIGHT NOW!!!!  And from henceforth and forever more!

And, remember Joel Koskan, former Republican candidate for the South Dakota Senate, who thankfully was not elected?  Now last year it emerged that he'd been arrested for "exposing a minor to sexual grooming behaviors," a class four felony. And it turned out that the minor was his adopted daughter, and that he'd groomed and then molested her for years.  Somehow, he got a plea deal (do not EVEN get me started on the old boy network), in which he agreed to "accept some responsibility for his actions, but ultimately would deny any sexual intercourse had occurred throughout the alleged abuse" and would not have to serve any time or register as a sex offender, or be separated from his other 4 children (who are still living with him).  (All the Cockroaches Coming Out)

Well, huzzah!  The circuit judge rejected his plea deal.  With any luck, there'll be a trial, and Mr. Koskan might actually have to face some REAL consequences for his actions.  (Argus)  

That's all for now.  More later, when hopefully I can find my lawn again.  At least I found my gas meter.

11 March 2023

25 Years Later: Decoding The Big Lebowski


What makes a crime story? A crime, sure, but that can infer a creative box, as if the crime might ultimately confine the story. Not so. A crime story can do anything, given the ambition. 

Consider The Big Lebowski (1998), released 25 years ago this month. Even if you've never seen the oddball classic, you know the main character: The Dude (Jeff Bridges). And if the movie confounded you, you're not alone. Nobody confounds like the Coen brothers.

DOWN THOSE MEAN LANES

Actually, nobody else could've made The Big Lebowski. No Hollywood newbie could've sold a script this indulgent in directorial conceits and character asides. By 1998, though notches on the Coens' belt included Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and the Oscar-winning Fargo.

The Big Lebowski comes disguised as subverted L.A. noir. That's not clear in the opening scenes, with the Dude sniffing milk and the voiceover narration. But resketch Acts One and Two to include the off-camera action, and themes will sound familiar:

  1. Jeffrey "Big" Lebowksi is a philanthropist statesman of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce set. In reality, he married well and stinks at business. His daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), controls the wealth through a family trust. Big's trophy wife, Bunny, is causing him epic grief by sleeping around and piling up gambling debts to pornographer Jackie Treehorn.
  2. Treehorn sends goons to collect from Big, but the goons mistakenly barge in on unemployed stoner Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. A rug is soiled. 
  3. Bunny disappears.
  4. Uli, an ex-Europop nihilist and Bunny's co-star in a Treehorn low-budget production, senses opportunity. Uli and his crew send Big a ransom note for $1,000,000, despite having no idea where Bunny actually went.
  5. Big senses a similar opportunity. Bunny has disappeared before, after all. She might be playing him for another payout. Big finagles a $1,000,000 withdrawal from the Lebowski trust to fund the ransom--which he pockets instead. He prepares a drop bag loaded with old papers.
  6. Big needs a fall guy for cash sure to be missed. Stealing a replacement rug from his mansion is the perfect mark: The Dude. Suspicion of double-cross and kidnapper retribution would fall squarely on the wayward but pliable Dude. Sure enough, the Dude is guilt-tripped into making a ransom drop he believes is real. 
  7. The drop goes disastrously, thanks to the Dude's bowling pal, Walter (John Goodman). The Dude is left thinking he has someone else's million, no explanation, and the sudden need to find Bunny.

Corruption, extortion, vice, adultery, mystery, questions of personal honor. It's a Marlowe riff, though you can almost hear Chandler grouse over the liberties taken.

Marlowe was in the trouble business. The Dude isn't in any business, let alone walking mean streets. His 60s-era sense of justice has devolved to jaded memories and bathtub tokes to whale cries on his headphones. He's forced to turn detective when what he thinks is the loot gets stolen along with his car. His looking for his ride or Bunny or both is a laid-back search, with ample time for bowling. Clues stumble over him from over-the-top characters who'd be at home in any Marlowe story. The Dude gets threatened, followed, drugged, lured to bed, and beat up by the Malibu cops--if any of that sounds familiar.

Subversion or not, The Big Lebowski wears its crime story clothes with clean lines. The confounding parts come with the added layers, and they're ambitious.

SOCIAL CONTEXT

Big is the Korean vet become titan of industry. The Dude and Walter are yin and yang of the Vietnapm years. The backdrop is Iraqi War America. Three wars mark the eternal cycles of time in thinly-veiled allegory. The elder, conservative elite– Big, for example– are empty suits engaged in a money grab. Wars get arranged to protect their interests, and the liberals among the younger set, say like a hippie burnout, get blamed for war's downstream social issues. Attempts to break the cycle can't work unless someone deals with the systemic greed. Probably, no one will.

Take Big's daughter. In a prior age, Maude would've femme fatale-d across the screen. These days, she is too liberated and too busy as an artistic whirlwind. She is by some margin the smartest character in the film, even seeing through Big's shenanigans. Not that she cares much. She's after securing the balance of power for the future generation. She takes more care to retrieve the family rug than to address her dad's fraud. 

A STRANGER FROM THE WEST

Scene One opens with a dadgum tumblin' tumbleweed and a Sons of Pioneers tune and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) in full drawl voiceover.  The Stranger rambles on how he's seen some things but this tale here might top them all, this tale how the Dude would become the man for his times. Weird, but not accidental. A man rising up right wrongs is a western trope.

As for the Stranger, maybe he's a keeper of time. Maybe he's God. He appears bodily twice, both at the Star Lanes bar, both after the Dude approaches. The first is mid-film, and over a sarsaparilla the Stranger imparts a meaningful cipher: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. The second manifestation is at the end, where the Stranger laments the movie's sole death. 

Star Lanes is no average bowling alley. Outside it, wars and aggression rage. L.A. crime laps right to the alley's door. The Dude's car is stolen in their lot. Inside Star Lanes, time passes differently. The fluorescent lights hum, the bowlers can live their best lives, and the pins get racked again and again by mechanical magic. Star Lanes isn't heaven, but it's a higher plane. 

AT LEAST IT'S AN ETHOS

Or if Star Lanes is a Garden of Eden, Walter is the serpent. Everyone else is trying to relax over a few frames, but Walter steps all over the mood with his thirst to impose his personal code on league and non-league play. A practice game infraction escalates immediately to Walter's gunpoint demand the roll gets marked zero. 

Walter represents order. More precisely, the folly of seeking order. Walter insists on his solution for everything, except his problem-solving instincts are disastrous. He turns Big's fake drop into chaos by substituting a second fake bag stuffed with underwear. Walter screws up the Dude's attempts to recover his car. Walter's real problem is understanding this universe. Cosmic and random forces work vastly outside human control. We mortals just need to roll with it. The Dude would, if Walter let him.

LET US ABIDE

For The Big Lebowski's first hour or so, we're fed outrageous characters and Marlowe-ish flourishes. It's a set-up. Likely as not, you hadn't the pivotal guy in plain sight: the Dude's and Walter's third wheel, Donny (Steve Buscemi). 

Donny is a happy, in-the-moment guy. He just wants to bowl. He can't ever understand what the Dude and Walter are wrangling over. Missing money? Kidnapped porn queen? Rugs that pull a room together? It's all over Donny's head.  The one time he cares enough to ride along on the case, it's because the trip goes by the North Hollywood In-N-Out Burger. 

Not long after, the ransom plot has fallen apart. The Dude confronts Big j'accuse-style about the switcheroo scam, and Bunny returns from partying in Palm Springs. It's wrapped up--and it's been about nothing. The Dude is back where he started. Worse, even. No compensation for the rug or his trashed car.

It's wrapped but not over. No one yet has gotten the bear or been gotten. That happens when Uli and his nihilist buddies confront the Dude, Walter and Donny outside Star Lanes. A hilariously weird scuffle follows. In the aftermath, poor Donny, who never wanted anything but to roll with his buds, keels over from a shock heart attack. 

Donny passes young and pointlessly. In the funeral home, while the Dude and Walter haggle over cremains urn pricing, the Coens make plain what this crime caper has been about. The funeral home wall displays a verse from the King James Bible:

Banter, eccentric character turns, absurd scenes, a kidnap that wasn't a kidnap, ransom money never at risk. These things are as flowers in the field. The film says nothing much really changes in the grand play of the cosmos. We live in a disorderly universe, we deal with events of the day, and we die. Unlike true noir, though, the Coens offer hope. The now matters. The now is all we'll ever have.

The story ambition hasn't been about crime or death, which quite literally hits the Dude in the face. The Big Lebowski is about finding harmony in life. After his hippie years and jaded downslide, he can release that baggage and just go bowling. In the closing scene, the Stranger tells the Dude to take it easy, and only then the Dude gives his pop culture line, delivered in shadow: "The Dude abides." Finally, he can. 

25 December 2022

Murder in Wackyland: "The Frozen Ghost"


 My friend Michael Mallory is the author of 30 books, fiction and nonfiction (including Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror), and 160 short stories, mostly mystery. His most recent mystery novel is Dig That Crazy Sphinx!, part of his Dave Beauchamp Hollywood mystery series. A former actor, he works as an L.A.-based entertainment journalist, and as such has written more than 650 magazine, newspaper, and online articles.  -Robert Lopresti

MURDER IN WACKYLAND: “THE FROZEN GHOST”

by Michael Mallory

With the possible exception of the Western, there was no more plentiful motion picture genre in the 1940s than the murder mystery. Literally countless mysteries, crime thrillers, and whodunits were churned out during the decade, ranging from the breezy, and pseudo-romcom puzzlers of the decade’s early years to the hard-hitting noir crime dramas that came to prominence after the war.

Of them all, none was as wild, wacky, and brazenly loony as 1945’s The Frozen Ghost…at least none that was not intended as a vehicle for a comedian. A delirious, almost surreal convolution of a B-movie,

Lon Chaney, Evelyn Ankers, Martin Kosleck, and Elena Verdugo.

The Frozen Ghost was released by Universal Pictures as part of its low-low budget “Inner Sanctum” series, which was inspired by both the eponymous Simon & Schuster book imprint and the then-popular radio show. Their primary purpose was to promote Lon Chaney, Jr., who was usually encrusted in monster make-up, as a romantic leading man.

While most of the Inner Sanctum films tend to be a bit dull, that criticism cannot be leveled at The Frozen Ghost, which speedily blasts through enough plot for three movies in as many genres. Fronting the picture is the series’ trademark opening, a shot of a creepy séance room containing a crystal ball, inside which a disembodied head (played by cadaverous David Hoffman) who lectures us about how anyone can commit murder. For the next hour, the filmmakers try to get away with it.

The story centers on Alex Gregor, a.k.a. “Gregor the Great” (Chaney), a wealthy radio hypnotist whose act consists of placing The Amazing Maura (scream queen Evelyn Ankers) in a state of “telepathic receptivity” from which she reads the minds of the studio audience members. Since neither Gregor nor Maura speak into a microphone, their every move is described by an announcer. Somehow, this less than riveting presentation is judged one of the hottest acts on radio. 

During one fateful broadcast a belligerent drunk from the audience disrupts the act, provoking Gregor to mutter (off mic): “I could kill him!” He then turns his hypnotic gaze on the heckler…and the man falls over dead! 

Gregor confess to murder, but Homicide Inspector Brant (Douglass Dumbrille) isn’t buying it since the coroner ruled the death a heart attack. But Gregor’s overwhelming guilt cannot be assuaged. Unable to face Maura, who is also his girlfriend, or anyone else, he goes into hiding. His business manager George Keane (Milburn Stone) recommends the perfect sanctuary for one with a troubled, guilty mind: a dark, cold, creepy old wax museum!

Gregor promptly seeks asylum (in all senses of the world) there and is accepted with open, hungry arms by the proprietress of the place, Madame Valerie Monet (Viennese actress Tala Birrell). Also living at the place are Valerie’s virginal, teenage niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) and a person no wax museum should ever be without, a wild-eyed, lunatic sculptor named Rudi (German actor Martin Kosleck). When he’s not slavering after Nina, Rudi talks to the figures as though they are alive and throws knives at everyone else.

While ostensibly good for business, having Gregor serve as the museum’s tour guide (so much for hiding) wreaks havoc on the personal lives of the museum staff. Both Valerie and Nina have fallen madly in love with him and when the jilted Maura suddenly shows up to reclaim him for herself, she and Valerie have it out. On top of that, Rudi maliciously lies to Valerie that Gregor has the hots for Nina, which causes her to angrily confront the oblivious mentalist, who in turn levels his “murder gaze” on her. She immediately falls down dead! At least she looks dead. Returning home, guiltier than ever, Gregor tells his manager Keane that he has killed yet another person with his eyes, but Keane scoffs at the idea, going so far as to tell Gregor that he never believed in his abilities (but thanks for the 10%). Returning to the wax museum, the two learn that Valerie Monet has vanished without a trace, and now Inspector Brant does suspect Gregor.

Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, and Lon Chaney 

Things really start rolling at this point. 

Rudi, it turns out, is not just your average artistic, blade-lobbing whack job; he’s a former plastic surgeon who changed careers after making a society matron look like Quasimodo. But his talents don’t stop there: he is also an expert at putting people into a state of suspended animation, making them…frozen ghosts. What’s more, Valerie has not disappeared at all; she’s now a figure in the museum, plainly visible to the audience if not the police. 

There are plenty more plot machinations before The Frozen Ghost’s sixty-one minutes run out, and without spoiling the mystery, the upshot is that it’s all a plot to gaslight Gregor. However, by the time the culprit is finally revealed, any presumption of logic has gone through the shredder (particularly how one goes about staging death-by-staring murders on cue).  

Somehow the cast of The Frozen Ghost gets through it all with straight faces, even though most are playing the wrong roles. Urbane Douglass Dumbrille is better suited for the manager part, while Milburn Stone should have played the detective. A decade before Stone took on the role of crusty Doc Adams on TV’s Gunsmoke, he looked like a detective. Similarly, the roles played by Elena Verdugo and Evelyn Ankers would have made more sense if switched, with the teenager the lovesick assistant and Ankers a more mature niece to the matronly Birrell. As for Lon Chaney (who was stripped of the designation “Jr.” by the studio a couple years earlier), he achieved his goal of proving he could function without being covered in yak hair or mummy wrappings, or incessantly asking about rabbits. But the idea that all women from 15-to-50 take one glance at his craggy face and burly frame and start fighting over him like they might Errol Flynn is simply too much to swallow.   

None of the above should be construed to imply that The Frozen Ghost is unwatchable. On the contrary, it is a howling hoot of a whodunnit/horror film/wax museum thriller whose sheer nonsense makes for fine entertainment. Perhaps not in the way Universal intended, but fine nonetheless.

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.