For Reel

A Dangerous Profession (1949)
April 11, 2016, 5:26 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Ted Tetzlaff
1.5 Stars
A Dangerous ProfessionGeorge Raft and Pat O’Brien were in the twilight of their careers by the time A Dangerous Profession made it to movie screens, and it is clear that it was the sort of the project that quickly cashed in on their established screen personas without much thought. Raft plays a bail bondsman—he’s a morally dubious professional who slyly plays within his own code. His cool demeanor will be challenged when an old flame (Ella Raines) shows up to bring his world into complete disarray. The noir plot is a familiar one, but the world of bail bonds did have some potential. In a lively opening montage, a narrator discusses not just what bonds are, but how profitable the business is, and how susceptible it can be to corruption. From there on, however, the picture meanders through a murder plot that barely registers due to poorly-sketched, forgettable characters and a visual style that does nothing to set the tone (which becomes especially noticeable given that the picture is directed by Ted Tetzlaff, whose visuals created the atmosphere of some of the great thrillers of the 1940s). The increasingly convoluted plot offers none of the excitement of The Big Sleep, instead inviting viewers to check out long before the short running time is exhausted.

Madame Bovary (1949)
February 17, 2016, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Vincente Minnelli
3.5 Stars
Madame BovaryGustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary has been celebrated for the certain detachment with which it approaches the eponymous Emma Bovary. The effect of Flaubert’s style is fairly distancing and obscure–audiences read Emma’s fall from grace as an outsider, not entirely aligned with her decision-making because no attempt at that particular kind of identification is attempted. Vincente Minnelli, an enormously sensitive romantic, thus adapted the material as a means of probing deeper into Emma’s passion and shattered dreams. As Robin Wood articulates, “Flaubertian assumption of clinical objectivity gives way to an all-pervasive, precariously controlled hysteria.” The film’s central setpiece is its most rightly celebrated achievement–the finest and most daring of Minnelli’s parties, a “neurotic waltz” (the director’s words) in which Emma (Jennifer Jones) actualizes her ideal self-image before spinning in an out of control frenzy, the world whirling around her as drinking goblets are smashed and windows shattered. It plays as a romantic nightmare–when Minnelli utilizes a first-person point-of-view, the effect is disorienting, balancing precariously between pleasure and horror. What makes the scene even more memorable is Van Heflin’s Charles (much more sympathetic in the filmed version than in the novel), who drunkenly chases after his wife and calls desperately as she twirls around him on the dance floor. The framing device that follows Flaubert’s obscenity trial reeks of hypocrisy and doesn’t work dramatically, and the film is overlong by about twenty minutes (typical of MGM), but the ballroom sequence is sublime enough to make up for the shortcomings.

Le Silence de la Mer (1949)
December 14, 2015, 11:00 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: ,

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
5 Stars
La Silence de la MerUsing his host’s family room as his stage, German officer Werner (Howard Vernon) confesses his love for Beauty and the Beast, going into great lengths about Belle’s eventual understanding of the Beast’s true sensitivity. Through this conversation, Werner is more fully rounded as a cultured intellectual, but also reveals much about his own desire to announce his true soul to the man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane). Crucially, Le Silence de la Mer is not simply interested in humanizing the man and, in fact, this particular context suggests that he wishes that the niece find the very beastliness of his occupation justified. It’s a loaded scene psychologically, both for the complexities of Werner’s ongoing confessional and the body language of his audience. Few films better play with the face as a mask–the uncle and his niece spend the entire film with a fixed expression, with Werner’s relationship with them developed almost entirely by what he and the audience projects onto them. Later, a similar play with stillness will be used as director Jean-Pierre Melville closes in on a picture of Adolf Hitler as gas chambers are discussed. With the content of the narrative necessitating a certain lack of expression in the performances, as well as Melville’s steadfast dedication in adapting the book through the heavy use of voice-over (the visuals serve the words rather than the other way around), Melville’s debut feature is a radical aesthetic advancement, predicting Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest by two years.

The Woman on Pier 13 (1949)
July 26, 2015, 3:12 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Robert Stevenson
3 Stars
The Woman on Pier 13The eccentric Howard Hughes took control of RKO in 1948 and brought with him his obsessive fear of the “Red Menace”, firing much of the work force and investigating those who were still employed by the studio. The Woman on Pier 13 is a demonstration of the communist paranoia that plagued Hughes, a film that pre-dated the McCarthy trials and boasted the original title I Married a Communist. The communists in the film don’t exactly function as a political group, but rather as a sort of mafia–the film’s discourse revolves around the suggestion that once you’re a member of the party, you’ll never be allowed to leave. Robert Ryan plays the vice president of a shipping company who is exposed as a former member of the communist party when his ex-girlfriend (Janis Carter) resurfaces, destroying the new life he’s carved out for himself. A man being haunted and destroyed by his past is a fitting narrative device for a film noir picture, and indeed cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca revels in providing the expected long, deep shadows that paint a waterfront shipping dock. Despite the talents of those behind the scenes and on screen, however, the film is dated and forgettable, with Ryan’s character under wrought and his wife, played by the wasted Laraine Day, almost a nonentity. There’s a saving grace late in the film with the first screen appearance by William Talman, playing a carnival worker and hit man. Talman’s screen presence is as disquieting as any character actor of 1950s noir, and here he brings the same deranged, manic performance that he would later bring to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker.

Colorado Territory (1949)
May 13, 2015, 8:04 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Raoul Walsh
4 Stars
Colorado Territory High Sierra was an example of the type of noir that would become prevalent in the 1940s. It was marked by a certain brand of fatalism, focusing on a morally challenged hero who doesn’t seem likely to survive the next ninety minutes or so. Raoul Walsh remade his own picture as a western eight years later–a more than fitting genre shift considering that the hugely memorable climax took place in the very western setting of the Sierra Mountains. Whereas the earlier version was distinguished by a sentimental streak–Humphrey Bogart’s character was trying to make money to pay for the surgery of a clubfooted girl he takes an interest in–Colorado Territory strips the material of that easy play for empathy and leaves audiences with something more raw. In a telling line, one of the robbers that Joel McCrea finds himself working with teases that he’s, “Philosophizing about my favorite subject: doom. When it’s got you marked, you’re already dead.” Like Ride the High Country over a decade later, McCrea plays the hero as a man at the end of his rope. He’s made all of the wrong decisions in his life and try as he might to move past them, they’re about to catch up with him.

The Big Steal (1949)
July 16, 2012, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Don Siegel

Director Don Siegel would earn his reputation in Hollywood during the 1950s with a number of high quality B-pictures, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Baby Face Nelson. Before that, he was enlisted by RKO Pictures to direct Out of the Past stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in The Big Steal, a slight, but hugely satisfying chase thriller about a lieutenant and a girl racing across Mexico in pursuit of the $300,000 that has been stolen from army payroll. Again, the pairing have great sexual chemistry (though, really, could Mitchum look uninterested talking to any beautiful woman?), bouncing off of each other with quick-witted put downs and comebacks. Most memorably, they arrive at a closed road and Greer charms her way through by convincing the foreman that she and Mitchum are lovers on the run because her father wants her to marry another man. When she kisses Mitchum in an attempt to validate the farce, he perks up for the rest of the film as if he were a predator who has gotten a whiff of blood. With a supporting cast including reliable heavy William Bendix and the Mexican-born Ramón Novarro as an affable but sly Police Inspector, The Big Steal might not carry the intrigue of Out of the Past‘s iconic fatalism, but it is well-crafted and boundlessly entertaining all the same.

Knock on Any Door (1949)
February 10, 2012, 12:19 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Nicholas Ray

Before his debut feature, They Live by Night, had been released in theaters, Nicholas Ray was enlisted by Humphrey Bogart to direct a social problem picture for his newly-founded Santana Production company. Bogart himself was cast as a lawyer who must defend a delinquent, played by John Derek, in a murder trial. The film, Knock on Any Door, was based on a novel by Willard Motley, which argued that the slums of America are producing criminals, and that society at large should take responsibility for these cyclical patterns of the impoverished class. While the premise leads to a moving, humanist speech by Bogart in the third act, it is slightly mishandled given that Derek had many opportunities to succeed in his youth – Bogart’s fatherly companionship, his relationship with a social worker, a loving, supporting girlfriend –  and he blew each one. While the picture calls for social reform, it conversely suggests that, at a certain point, the damage has been done and that criminals are simply a lost cause. Despite the critical flaw, the picture is handsomely made – in the flashback sequences of Derek’s childhood, characters wear striped shirts that resemble prison garb, and there’s a number of vertical lines both within the set and constructed through shadows that suggest that Derek, like the rest of his friends and family, is literally trapped within his socioeconomic boundaries. Derek wasn’t much of an actor and, indeed, his “pretty boy” monicker in the film reveals just about all that he has going for him, however his scenes are often salvaged by the talented character players around him (a terribly-scarred George Macready as the district attorney is particularly memorable).

The Reckless Moment (1949)
January 27, 2012, 5:54 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Max Ophüls

Adapted from Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel The Blank Wall, which would also serve as the source material for a 2001 film entitled The Deep End with Tilda Swinton in the leading role, The Reckless Moment is the last picture that Max Ophüls made in Hollywood, and it is among the biggest deviations that he made from the romantic films that he built his reputation on. Joan Bennett plays a woman who attempts to cover up her daughter’s accidental murder of a callous, much older lover. After disposing of the body, James Mason shows up at her doorstep and blackmails Bennett, having found the love letters that the daughter had sent to the boyfriend prior to his death. In the way that Ophüls plays with morality and the shifting relationships between criminals and victims, the picture is familiar of Hitchcock. The scene in which Bennett is covering up the murder is shot with a number of long tracking shots, cutting intermittently to examine the eerily desolate landscape. Just as Hitchcock was fascinated by silence, Ophüls refrains from using any score in this sequence – all that is on the soundtrack is the sound of the boat’s motor as Bennett rides out into the sea. Besides the formal achievements, the picture is memorable due to Mason’s blackmailer, a predator who is nonetheless kind-hearted and wrecked with his own guilt. Watch how he defensively reiterates to Bennett that Nagle, the partner that he speaks of, is real. In the way that Mason delivers the line, the audience can come to any number of conclusions about the relationship between the two blackmailers, and how Mason himself is a victim of his accomplice.

Caught (1949)
January 26, 2012, 9:23 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Max Ophüls

The first of the two noirs that Max Ophüls directed in Hollywood, Caught is a scathing cultural critique sometimes undone by its tendency to overstate. Barbara Bel Geddes plays a young woman whose sole ambition is to marry rich. She succeeds in gaining the hand of the ultra-possessive Robert Ryan, who considers her as his wife to be an employee. Ophüls was always a feminist director, and in this picture he sympathizes with the expectations placed upon women by the media. It is significant that Bel Geddes is not solely criticized for her warped world view – the way that her arc plays out suggests that her attraction to the rich lifestyle is a sickness in the vein of alcoholism or drug addiction. The first images of the film are stills from fashion and modeling magazines, suggesting the dangerous allurement of celebrity and the way that women, in particular, are targeted by the fashion editors. The picture is well-acted and has moments of genuine suspense, however it begins to spin its wheels in the final act as the script bombards the audience with a multitude of speeches about how unimportant it is to be rich, a point that had been made clear an hour previous.

Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
June 25, 2011, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Edward Buzzell

An insufferable Esther Williams vehicle only notable for Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, Neptune’s Daughter is a poorly-aged debacle lazily directed by Edward Buzzell. Though I’ve only scratched the surface of her body of work, Williams appears to have little comic talent on screen – while she is formidable in dramatic roles such as Million Dollar Mermaid, here she is absolutely humorless in what is otherwise a live-action cartoon. The picture displays the studio system at it’s lousiest – it is hardly coherent, with a polo scene late in the film rife with stylistically unmotivated jump cuts. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is so helplessly out of context that the scene becomes funny for all of the wrong reasons (in the same scene, Montalban refers to the warmth of the room, not to mention the fact that swimming suits are the attire of choice throughout the bulk of the picture). Even with a lousy Williams vehicle you might expect a redeeming spectacle or two, however the lengthiest of which is entirely missable and occurs just before the end credits roll.