The First Twenty Minutes or so of ON DANGEROUS GROUND

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“I’m waiting for someone!”

ON DANGEROUS GROUND is another ‘troubled’ production.

Robert Ryan plays a cop who Doesn’t Go By the Book, in this case one who beats the hell out of anyone who won’t give him answers. This is tough stuff for 1950’s mainstream cinema, where upstanding Glenn Ford in THE BIG HEAT is pushed to be rough, but his wife was killed, give him a break! You just didn’t see many movies in which police brutality was questioned.

 

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After beating the crap out of a suspect, Ryan ends up getting sent out to the country to assist in a manhunt of a boy who killed a girl. I had no idea cops were just sent off to other towns so casually. Much of the second half of the movie is spent with Ryan and the angry father of the victim, and both of them hanging out with Ida Lupino as a blind lady. It’s like a whole new movie.

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Putting aside everything that happens after Ryan leaves the city, the first half hour or so is worth seeing all by itself. Director Nicholas Ray and photographed by George E. Diskant (who worked together on THEY LIVE BY NIGHT), the opening scenes are pure-heroin-strength film noir. Dark alleys! Dingy hallways! Crummy rooms! Whores on the make! Grinning, greasy pimps!

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After Ray finished with it, the movie was reworked. One scene in this first part–when a nympho who gives Ryan info is beat up and/or killed for talking–was meant for the end of the movie, after Ryan’s out of town adventure. One of his partners shouts at him about his behavior, and this was meant to send him back to Ida Lupino. Now it shows Ryan at the very end of his rope and precipitates his heading out.  In the original, it was a breakthrough moment, with Ryan realizing he has to change and taking a step toward being a nice guy. Here, it’s a sign this guy needs to get out of town.

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The photography, the pacing, the violence–it’s all here. In the second half, white (snow) dominates. In the first part, Ryan is a mean man in a mean, dark town.

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The standout scene in the movie shows Ryan alone with a guy who won’t talk.

Ryan’s response is one of the great noir moments:

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Briefly: BORDER INCIDENT

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BORDER INCIDENT has one of those scenes I point to when people talk about how all those Old Movies are so blah, they don’t have the exciting violence we love to see in these politically-correct times, when we all know how bad violence is and how it creates real pain–so we need to see more of it on the screen.

The U.S. and Mexico work to bust up an illegal immigrant smuggling ring. (Those were bad back then.) Working among farm workers, the American and Mexican agents see the horrors of use of illegal employees. At one point, two men watch a third crawling on the ground trying to escape from the villains, who slowly drive a harrow over him.

What’s most notable about the scene, aside from the horrible fate of the guy crawling in the dark, is that our heroes WATCH. They are powerless to do anything to stop it. It’s reminiscent of director Anthony Mann’s other film, T-MEN.

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Now no one talks about rich, Corinthian leather–just Shatner screaming…that Name.

Ricardo Montalban is remembered now mostly for T.V. and WRATH OF KHAN, but he did a number of B-flicks back in the day. MYSTERY STREET is the other noir he starred in; both are worth watching.

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John Alton’s cinematography is a fine example of his mastery of darkness. As some cinematographer said, it’s as much about what you don’t light as what you do.

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A terrific flick on a subject the movies barely touch. The only other such movie I can think of is THE BORDER with Jack Nicholson.

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HIS KIND OF WOMAN

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One of those movies that was clearly messed with in post-production, HIS KIND OF WOMAN was directed by John Farrow, but producer Howard Hughes had it recut, with additional material added by Richard Fleischer. This all comes from the DVD commentary by Vivian Sobchchak, which is a good one–these sorts of car-wreck productions give commentators something to talk about besides the movie stars. You don’t need commentary to see that this movie is one of those peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate goony bird movies. No one would’ve planned a movie to come out this way.

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Mitchum’s kind of woman? One who was breathing.

This starts off in film noir territory. Dan Milner (Mitchum) is a gambler who owes $$$, so of course he takes a job that will put his life in danger.

That’s when he heads into romance, intrigue and some wacky adventuring that puts this closer to BEAT THE DEVIL than THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Mitchum spends the first HOUR of the movie hanging out in a tourist spot without knowing WHY he’s been sent to Mexico. The noir promise of the first few scenes is long gone, and it never really returns. There are some moody moments with the father from ROBOT MONSTER as an evil Nazi-sounding doctor, but like Mitchum we spend our time wondering what the hell we’re doing here.

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“The last man who grabbed my arm ended up on an uncharted desert island. In an apron.”

Mitchum and Jane Russell have great screen chemistry, and why shouldn’t they? Russell was Mitchum’s female counterpart, doing her own thing, clearly into having a good time wink wink, and able to handle herself without calling on some man for help.

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Deleted scene from John Waters’s LITTLE MEN

When it turns out Russell’s boyfriend is played by Vincent Price, the modern viewer knows there’s clear sailing ahead for Mitchum and Russell. In Price’s favor he plays an unusual character, neither the campy villain of his future roles nor the sour stiff of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. He’s actually fun as a movie star who organizes a raid on the bad guy’s domain.

Howard Hughes’ involvement led to more Price scenes, and this seriously, almost fatally knocks the movie out of noir territory into light comedy adventure. Russell disappears from the movie for half an hour while The Men shoot and beat each other up. While Mitchum endures a maze of passageways in this yacht the size of a small U.S. state, we see Price in scenes that could have been disposed of in a sentence or two of dialogue. They’re fun, but they kill any sense of Mitchum being in real danger. Remove Price’s scenes and this could be an okay noir; with them, it’s just a romp.

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“What I’d really like to do, Vince, is act in crappy horror movies. That’s where the REAL money is.”

Howard Hughes’ involvement usually beat up, ripped up and defaced pictures. It’s too bad he couldn’t have gotten along with Howard Hawks–both seemed to share an attitude that movies should be romps, a good time. You can see in his meddling here that he was up for Hawks movies, but he just didn’t have Hawks’ ability to balance the serious and the humorous.

HIS KIND OF WOMAN is no classic, but it’s fun, with some snappy dialogue.

“Well, what did you think of the picture?”

“Oh, it was fine. It was just a little long – about an hour and a half.”

That’s Tarantino-level self-awareness for you!

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Noir Round-Up-O-Mat

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THE THIRD MAN is one of the great representations of the German influence on the noir look. All those blown-up buildings make for lots of cool shadows. Orson Welles’ reputation and fame would take a huge hit if not for his performance here as the vile Harry Lime. Too bad Orson took a lump sum and passed on taking a cut of the movie’s box office.

WHY SEE IT? The visuals are great, but it’s the cynicism that makes this one of the great noirs. Harry is a slime, but everyone likes him. He uses his girl, she knows it, and she’d STILL take him back while the nice wimp hero doesn’t even get a last look from her as she walks away.

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John Alton’s noir photography reached its acme in T-MEN and RAW DEAL. See them both if you want to know what noir’s supposed to look like.

WHY SEE IT? It’s a nifty story of a noir hero pulled by a good girl and a bad girl, though everyone knows who he should end up with, seeing how he’s no good. Raymond Burr in fine bad guy form.

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GILDA is a perverse film. A lot of critics like to read in certain ideas, but it’s not a case of revisionism–it really is a pervy love story about a guy torn between a girl and her husband.

WHY SEE IT? Rita Hayworth’s performance of “Put the Blame on Mame.”

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WHY SEE IT? After seeing it several times, I still can’t decide if I like FIGHT CLUB or just appreciate David Fincher’s visual storytelling. It’s his NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and like that it’s morally confused.

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I remain unconvinced of THE MALTESE FALCON’s noirishness, but I have a replica of the black bird on my desk, and have watched this as often as I have SUNSET BOULEVARD.

WHY SEE IT? It’s entertaining as hell watching Bogart wander among these characters. Peter Lorre’s “You bloated eeediot!” was the seed of Ren Hoek.

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WHY SEE IT? Ava Gardner was hot as hell in this.

Film Noir: The Beginning

Everyone else has their choices of the first noir flicks. Most go with THE MALTESE FALCON, and though I bow to the masses, weakling that I am, I’m only agreeing that that’s the movie everyone else thinks is the first noir. It’s not very noir, actually.

If film noir is an attitude, not a genre, then it stands to reason that that attitude must be expressed visually. Enter German Expressionism, flowing in from overseas.

There are other contenders for the roots of noir, but these are the ones you don’t have to be told look like what later became noir–these are the actual beginnings.

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)

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A man wrongly accused of murder, a stranger (a FOREIGN stranger!) who talks funny, and lighting and photography used to express the hero’s situation. It’s not about realism; it’s about expressing a point of view, TELLING the audience something, visually. Watching this for the first time after years of watching noir classics was a shocker.

CITIZEN KANE (1941)

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Laugh if you want, but how much darker can you get than a man wasting his whole life chasing something he never gets, in the shadows, haunted by his past? Gregg Toland, working under detailed instructions from Welles, used deep focus and hard light; Welles used all the special effects toys available to him at RKO (the movie has a lot of effects shots). All of it made a bible for how light and dark can be manipulated to express character, and how environment can tell the audience things they wouldn’t get through dialogue or performance–all useful in infusing deeper meaning into crime stories.

I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941)

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This sure looks a lot more like noir than the same year’s MALTESE FALCON. The movie’s prevented from being a hardcore noir because of the ‘rising starlet’ drama and the love story. Cut them to the minimum and this could’ve been better known. Other than the look there’s the creepy villain played by Laird Cregar, a stalker whose final revelation is a real surprise: he didn’t kill the victim, he just wanted to make sure the wrong guy hanged for it. How do you win when the cop who’s after you KNOWS you didn’t do it and is trying to hang you?

THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942)

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The genre’s getting some fine-tuning, thanks to a Grahame Greene script. The characterization is key here–fourth-billed Alan Ladd is Raven, the killer without a conscience. There’s a bit of 40’s social relevance here, as we see Raven likes a kitten and sees that even if Veronica Lake’s Ellen is not romantically into him, he still stands up and helps save her. The drive of the story, the characters–Lake, too, is more layered than just The Girl–and the visuals are all cohering.

MURDER MY SWEET (1944)

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My pick for the first real, through-and-through noir. Based on a Chandler novel, it’s a perfect example of why Chandler was different from Hammett–Chandler’s hero was still a hero, a good guy. Edward Dmytryk’s direction and Harry Wild’s cinematography create a noir night world into which this not-impervious hero goes.

Just see it.

PHANTOM LADY (1944)

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Contains two of the great scenes in film noir: The night walk, and the drum solo.

The last two are fine-tunings of the misunderstood gal, femme fatale, the detective, and the sap:

LAURA (1944)

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

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And here we are: noir has arrived.

Woody Bredell: SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942)

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The Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies made at Fox–HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES–were fine B flicks, with fine casting in Holmes and Watson. Fox decided against continuing the series (apparently due to the costs during wartime). Universal picked up the pair of actors and bought the rights, then made a pretty stupid move in setting the movies in then-contemporary times. I guess there’s logic to having Sherlock fight Nazis. But I still think it’s dumb.

…AND THE VOICE OF TERROR has a weak story, but in one area it really excels. British cinematographer Elwood “Woody” Bredell does some fine work. I just wish I could show you the best of it, but I can’t find a damned picture of either the finale in a crumbling, abandoned church, or the best scene, a real noir moment in an otherwise routine mystery.

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When a movie doesn’t give you much to go on, you start to notice details. For me, the art direction and photography in films noir have rescued me from more than a few dull stories.

In VOICE, Holmes and Watson descend–literally–to a dive that looks like it was assembled from chunks of Rick’s Cafe from Warner’s CASABLANCA. There they meet Evelyn Ankers, whose repeated claims that she’s British don’t convince us, since she sounds like she’s from the American midwest.

BUT…

Bredell uses some seriously hard lighting in this scene. Hang on, lemme see if I can find some better examples.

 

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Nope.

These two are the only shots that give you an idea of the level of care taken to create a really cool dive, mostly using LIGHTING. In the closeups we can see shadows on Ankers’ face from light coming through her hair, while her other cheek is in darkness.

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Maybe I’m making a big deal out of very little. But I don’t think so. For this scene and others, something plain and dull on the page was given a boost by someone giving a shit.

There are going to be a lot of blog posts upcoming that stray from the “here’s something I liked” routine. I can’t promise I’ll wrap it up in any cohesive way. But the photography in this cruddy little programmer really grabbed me. The bar scene is like a noir dream tucked inside something ordinary.

That’s gotta mean something good about people’s dedication to making something good.

THIS WORLD, THEN THE FIREWORKS

Maybe I’m a contrarian. Or maybe some people really don’t care what the masses think. (No one thinks they care what the masses think.)

I first came upon Jim Thompson’s “This World, Then the Fireworks” in the Thompson revival of the eighties, when everything he wrote was put back in print by Vintage, and anything else with his name on it was put between paperback and/or hardcovers for the first time.

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Actually, neither.

FIREWORKS: THE LOST WRITINGS received some critical attention when it came out in hardcover, before the mainstream stepped back and decided this guy was really not all that awesome as they’d been led to believe. I’ll go into the Thompson revival another time, but it was interesting to be around when all of his books came out with decent cover photography or acceptable artwork. (The paperback for FIREWORKS is too classy, and the hardcover is blah.)

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The gem of FIREWORKS was “This World, Then the Fireworks,” which was excerpted in The Boston Phoenix, where I found it. It’s the story of Carol and Marty, twins who see their father brutally murdered for screwing around with the wrong woman. They grow up, and Marty finds a way to screw a rich woman out of her money. Carol, a slut, plays along. Oh, and they’re screwing each other.

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Obvious joke about uncomfortable family gatherings HERE

TWTTF was not a box office hit, and until last year wasn’t available on DVD. It’s generally gotten bad reviews. Ye have been warned.

I think it’s a hoot. Zane and Gershon are vivid and horny, and totally believable as brother and sister who’re hot for each other. Tom Priestly, Jr.’s cinematography is overbaked in the right way–you can’t underplay this material. It’s kinky and fast, but it’s also gruesome, especially the scene involving an abortion.

 

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A man who loves his work.

Rue McClanahan, of The Golden Girls, is great as a bitter old lady. Sheryl Lee gets to be in something besides TWIN PEAKS and does a fine job as the woman in the middle of all this, not a dope, but overcome by Marty’s charm.

I like Gina Gershon. She a female counterpart to Billy Zane, both appearing in major movies and scrappy indies and TV shows, both working actors who everyone seems to kinda like without making them superstars. She always comes off as a woman who revels in her badness. A Jim Thompson woman if there ever was one.

I don’t want to oversell this, but it doesn’t deserve its lowly reputation. It gets in the gutter with Thompson, where many adaptations try to class him up (THE GETAWAY). It ranks with THE KILL OFF as one of my favorite Thompson adaptations, and that’s saying something coming from such a snob.

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