You know something is wrong, right from the beginning.
When Louis meets his bride-to-be, fresh off the boat on a remote island, she doesn't look like the picture she sent. Julie says she sent a picture of her sister in case she changed her mind about getting married.
When he drives her to his stately home, he confesses he lied to her too. He doesn't work in a factory. He owns the factory. He didn't want her to marry him just for his money.
This is the opening of Waltz Into Darkness, the 1947 novel by Cornell Woolrich, published under his pseudonym, William Irish. It plays beautifully in Francois Truffaut's 1969 film adaptation, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.
With minimal changes to the novel's plot, the movie tells this classic noir tale of two people, doomed by their personal histories to play out a downward spiral of crime. The many lessons Truffaut learned from Alfred Hitchcock are on full display here.
The movie falls short of Woolrich's dark vision in only one way. Belmondo and Deneuve are just too attractive. In the novel, Louis is an aging bachelor, which helps justify his obsession with holding onto Julie. It's hard to imagine Belmondo being desperate to meet women.
In the novel, Julie falls in love with Louis, but cannot stop being the psychopath her circumstances in life have made her. It's hard to imagine Deneuve as anything but an angel.
No Man of Her Own (1950), directed by William Leisen, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a rare instance of a movie that is as good as the book its based on.
I enjoyed the book, I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich. The opening chapters set up a tall tale: a pregnant woman meets another pregnant woman on a train; the train crashes and one of them dies; the one who lives is mistaken for the one who died.
The rest of the book plays out this premise. The survivor reluctantly accepts the new identity thrust upon her because her own prospects as an unmarried mother are grim, whereas the other woman was a newlywed mother on her way to meet her husband's wealthy family.
Once past this unlikely premise, the suspense mounts steadily as the mother lives a lie for the sake of providing a better life for her child. It's a classic noir dilemma: doing a bad thing for a good reason.
The film makes the premise easier to believe thanks to Leisen's efficient visual style. The director's craft is evident throughout the rest of the film as well. He frequently lets Stanwyck's face tell the story in long close-ups.
If you go looking for this film, don't confuse it with another film of the same title made in 1932, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Also, don't be mislead by the film's credits, which say it is based on the book by William Irish. Woolrich originally published I Married a Dead Man under a pseudonym.
Underworld U. S. A., (1961), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, treats the subject of organized crime with a complexity and sophistication that rivals Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).
As a teenager, Tolly Devlin sees his father beaten to death in an alley by four men. Grown to manhood, he vows to find them and take revenge.
I’ll admit I expected the movie from here on to be repetitive: find one, gun him down, move on to the next. But Fuller accomplishes much more.
The process of finding each man becomes a psychological chess-game as he trades information to get the names of the murderers who are only shadowy figures in his memory.
Finding them exposes a criminal organization disguised as a legitimate business that supports benevolent social programs.
The process of killing each man involves uneasy partnerships with law enforcement
There is no romance about extended Italian families in this movie. Fuller’s take-down of organized crime is unsentimental. This movie reminds readers of Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, that he spent his early years as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in New York.
It was a special pleasure to see Underworld U. S. A. in the Castro Theater, as part of the Noir City festival.
Having recently read Samuel Fuller’s autobiography, I jumped at the chance to see one of his best films on the big screen at the Castro Theater.
Pickup on South Street (1953) starts with a scene worthy of Hitchcock. On a crowded subway train in New York City, a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) lifts a wallet from a woman’s (Jean Peters) purse.
Two men watch the theft unfold without interfering. Since they seem to have no interest in arresting the thief, why are they following his every move?
In the next few scenes, we learn that the wallet contains a formula stolen by a Communist cell bent on compromising America’s security. The men watching the pickpocket on the subway are FBI agents searching for “Commie” sympathizers.
Pickup on South Street was showing as part of Noir City, an annual ten-day festival. It is regularly cited as a classic film noir, as are some of Fuller’s other films.
And yet, I couldn’t see this film as noir.
The pickpocket and the “B-girl” ultimately give up selling the formula and work with law enforcement. Order is restored and all’s right with the world because two unlikely souls look past their own interests to serve their country. And their idealism is rewarded.
How can we reconcile this with Roger Ebert’s definition of film noir as "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending?"
Or with Otto Penzler's description: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Pickup on South Street has all the furnishings of film noir---fedoras, slang, street-wise characters, beautiful black-and-white photography---but it’s really a morality play. Good is rewarded and evil is punished.
As such, I really enjoyed it. Fuller’s storytelling craft is impeccable. And it’s always nice to have an excuse to go to the Castro Theater, San Francisco’s last art-deco movie palace.
When I read that Serenity is “a daringly original, sexy, stylized thriller,” starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey, I moved it to the top of my movie list.
Then I noticed its scores on Rotten Tomatoes: 22% critics; 31% audience. Ouch! But I’ve learned to read the quotations from top critics on RT.
It seems Serenity has a problem with its twist, which is a revelation of something previously only hinted at. This new information changes the meaning of everything you’ve seen so far.
Several critics say the twist which comes about halfway through Serenity only makes the movie more confusing. Others say the entire movie makes no sense.
And yet, the minority of critics who like the movie write for the L. A. Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Globe and Mail---credible sources.
And they say things like, “One of the most ambitious, one of the most challenging - and one of the most entertaining thrillers in recent years” (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times).
How could a few top critics think so highly of a film most others describe as nonsense?
To begin with, the craft in this film---acting, design, directing, writing---is all top notch. It’s a quality film.
If you accept the twist, it’s a brilliant film; if not, you’re disappointed. And, of course, as in all thrillers, I can’t discuss the twist without spoiling it for you.
But I will say this: if you go to see it, notice how little difference the twist makes. In a plot borrowed from Double Indemnity, it’s not surprising to hear characters talk about “what game we’re playing,” and how, “the rules have changed.”
The twist gives these metaphors a new meaning, but the original meanings still apply.
I agree with Katie Walsh, L. A. Times, “The off-kilter, colorful, cartoonish fantasy of "Serenity" is just so odd and appealing that you want to spend time with the characters . . . in this crazy, upside-down world.”
I’ve read some silly things about this movie. I saw it yesterday, enjoyed it, and wondered why some critics were disturbed.
For instance, Peter Rainer in the Christian Science Monitor writes, “This is one of those radical change-your-image performances that tries too hard to defy our expectations.”
Actually, I thought it was one of those performances in which an actor changes her appearance and changes the way she thinks, walks, and talks to fit the character. In other words, acting.
Peter Keough in the Boston Globe writes about the movie’s “confused, convoluted chronology.” Through most of the movie there are two parallel timelines: the present and fifteen years ago when the conflict began. It’s not that hard to follow. Her hair is longer in the past.
The ending surprises the viewer with a series of flashbacks to earlier scenes in the film. We realize these scenes did not mean what we thought they meant. The flashbacks are surprising, but we saw this done at the end of The Usual Suspects (1995).
Other reviewers wrote that Destroyer did nothing that hadn’t already been done in the rogue cop genre, which has been owned by male actors. Robert Horton in HeraldNet writes, “Switching the sex around doesn’t make it fresh.”
Actually, it does. Remember when Jodie Foster played the lead in a remake of Charles Bronson’s revenge thriller, The Brave One (2007)? I was much more enthusiastic about watching her take revenge on those who victimized her than I was watching Charles Bronson, and I wondered why.
I had a similar reaction to Destroyer. Director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi deserve credit for meeting viewers’ expectations of the genre while expanding it to work with a woman in the lead.
Most critics liked Destroyer It scored 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, but deserves better. Some praised it as a good neo-noir. Sure enough, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Plus, this one has that tragic dimension in which a character with noble ambitions never has a chance to realize them.
I went to Shoplifters expecting a crime-caper, a film full of ironic humor about a rag-tag bunch who survive through petty crime, but are good people underneath it all. I was not expecting noir, but I'm forced to the conclusion that's what I saw.
I doubt anyone thinks of noir when they see the trailer or advertising for this award-winning Japanese film. Most of it happens in broad daylight. The colors are pretty. The people are happy. Where is the darkness that gives noir its name?
Without wading into the quagmire of defining noir, I will recall that in noir films, novels, and stories, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. This is where Shoplifters throws us a curve. The tone is not grim. It is upbeat.
But the morality is ambiguous to say the least, and . . . well, you'll have to see it and decide for yourself whether the worldview is ultimately pessimistic. A case could be made for that.
At the beginning, it appears to be a crime-caper film. A man and a boy move skillfully through a grocery store plying their trade with hand signals and deft deceptions. It's hard not to celebrate with them when they go out for snacks afterward.
On the way home, they come to the aid of a little girl crying outside a house where adults are having a violent altercation. When they take her home with them, it seems obvious they are rescuing her. But soon the question arises: is this a kidnapping?
Throughout the film, we are accomplices in each of the survival schemes, and we cringe as we learn more about what is really going on beneath the pleasant exteriors.
It's noir enough for me.
As you can see in the "Noir" section of this blog, I've been happily commenting on various films as examples of film noir. In doing so, I've relied on Otto Penzler's definition.
Now I learn there's more to it than that---much more. In the table of contents for the Wikipedia article on film noir, the first item is "Problems of definition." It turns out there are so many problems, and they are so complicated, that, "There is no consensus on the matter."
Yet the article tells us that in film noir the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Penzler says essentially the same, and this article refers to Roger Ebert's description, "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending."
All this sounds depressing, yet film noir (and neo-noir such as Chinatown, Raging Bull, Basic Instinct, Body Heat, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Training Day and many more) remain popular for the same reason tragedy has always been popular (Oedipus the King, Hamlet, A Doll's House, Death of a Salesman).
We hope that Good conquers Evil and that Love is the answer, but we know those statements are are not always true. Too often in life a force greater than ourselves overwhelms our best efforts. The Greeks called it fate. The twentieth century called it socio-economic conditions.
We watch a play or a movie about an imperfect man or woman who struggles for happiness, knowing all the while they will lose. We suffer with them as they fight the good fight. When they lose, we experience a purgation of fear and pity, which Aristotle called catharsis. And we feel better.
Reviews of this fine film have focused on how well it handles its central issue, drug addiction, and how suspenseful it is. I found it compelling for the suspense alone.
Lee Child has written that creating suspense is simple: ask or imply a question, and postpone giving the answer. Writer-director Peter Hedges seems to have learned this lesson well.
From the beginning, the film methodically implies its questions. A young man runs around a house peeking in windows. When his mom and sister return from church, he says his sponsor suggested he spend a weekend at home, on leave from rehab. If so, we wonder, why weren't they expecting him? Wouldn't he have called?
His mom is thrilled to see him. His sister is not. Why aren't they on the same page? We find out soon enough, but not before several more questions have been raised. Throughout the movie, Hedges's screenplay keeps us waiting for the next revelation.
Some critics fault the film for being a drama about a social issue that mimics the conventions of thrillers. I see it as a thriller that involves addiction, the way Hitchcock's North by Northwest, for instance, involves espionage.
The problem of addiction gives the film an extra dimension for fans of noir. Though we're pulling for the main characters all the way through, we sense that their fate is sealed, no matter what they do.
In a recent article Manohla Dargis wrote, "I have a particular weakness for the kinds of dangerous, sometimes unhinged femmes fatales in film noirs like 'Gun Crazy' and 'Out of the Past.'" That put both movies on my watch list.
Gun Crazy certainly meets Otto Penzler's definition of noir, as well as my speculation that noir is related to the twentieth-century tendency to see people as defined by their circumstances.
Bart Tare (John Dall) is fascinated by guns, but a childhood trauma gives him a horror of killing. Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a sharp-shooter, is the star attraction at a carnival, but the boss says she belongs to him.
They bond over their expertise with firearms, and they set out to liberate her by running free and robbing banks (echoes of Bonnie and Clyde). They are doomed because she is willing to kill, but he cannot stand it.
The movie starts slow with scenes of Bart as a boy, a teenager, and a young man. But once he meets Annie at the carnival, it is a sharp, suspenseful thrill ride.
Excellent performances by the two stars made me wonder why they weren't household names like, for instance, James Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck.
John Dall came off two Broadway hits to win an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in The Corn is Green. He played the lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, but it flopped. He played the lead in Gun Crazy and it flopped. After that, he worked mostly in television at a time when TV was less prestigious and less lucrative than movies.
Peggy Cummins similarly came close to stardom. She had the title role in Forever Amber, but, when the production was halted for re-writing the script, she was replaced. She went on to have a steady career in British films, but no career in Hollywood.
Life ain't fair, on-screen or off.
In The Driver (1978), Ryan O’Neal, known for playing romantic roles, convinces us he has some ice water in his veins, playing a driver who hires out to help thieves make their getaways.
As the cop determined to arrest the driver, Bruce Dern proves once again he has the perfect touch for playing playing losers who haven’t yet noticed they’re losers. The script gives him plenty of invitations to overplay his part with lines like, “I’m very good at what I do,” but he keeps it light.
Dern is really the protagonist of this noir film, doomed by his vanity to fail. O’Neal makes a fine antagonist---sinister, inscrutable, evil for no particular reason.
The film is at its best when it focuses on their rivalry. There are sequences with other characters that get unnecessarily talky, but all is forgiven as the clockwork plot winds down and nobody gets what they signed up for.
It will come as no surprise this movie has car chases. When it hit theatres in 1978, audiences had already been wowed by the iconic car chases in Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). The Driver keeps it exciting by including techniques from demolition derbies.
Under Walter Hill’s direction, the storytelling couldn’t be any tighter.
It’s not the darkest of noir, but it’s entertaining.
Not to be confused with Driver (2011) or Baby Driver (2017) . . . but perhaps to be compared with them.
This is as fine a piece of noir as you are likely to see. Four people check in at a motel in the mountains near Reno, Nevada. They and the desk clerk are the only people around, and none of them seems to have a good reason to be there.
From the start one asks, "What is going on here?" and throughout the movie the answer comes back, "Not what you think." I won't say anything else about what happens because I hope you will enjoy every revelation, large and small.
This movie fits Otto Penzler's definition of noir as well as anything I know: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
I've written several times in the "Reading" and "Writing" categories of this blog about Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, giants of the noir tradition. Recently, I wrote about a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who, along with James M. Cain, invented American noir.
If you're not familiar with these earlier writers, you might know Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl exemplifies the tradition. As many have remarked, there's not a single likeable character in the book (or the movie version) .
It all sounds very grim, but for some reason I find this stuff entertaining, possibly because it is suspenseful and at its best includes humor. The Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries certainly are NOT noir. They have more in common with Agatha Christie. But I am working on a suspense novel that is noir. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
,I knew it would be fun to see Tea with the Dames (British title: Nothing Like a Dame), but I didn't know how much it would mean to me.
In this documentary film, four great actresses spend an afternoon talking about their lives and careers. They are: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
It was fun because they and the actors, directors, and playwrights they worked with were the artists I learned about when I took courses in British drama in college and grad school. They were the artists we saw on stage when we visited London.
So it was wonderful to hear them swap backstage gossip and reflect upon the roles they played. It was intriguing to hear them talk about their friendships, rivalries, and husbands.
But the part that mean the most to me began when Eileen Atkins recalled riding to a theater for a performance and feeling so afraid she wanted to die in a crash rather than go on stage. In the conversation that followed, all the others spoke of feeling terrified every time they went on stage, or in front of a camera for a scene in a film or TV show.
These are the greatest British actresses of their generation, trained in some of the greatest theater schools in the world. If they could feel insecure about their work, I thought, no wonder I've been skittish about putting my first two books out for the world to see.
By the way, it helped that we could see the film in the Clay Theater (1910), a lovely old neighborhood movie house.
SPOILER ALERT: this blog post gives a general indication of how the film ends.
I loved this movie, and I'm afraid it will be misunderstood.
It's a suspense flick with a story Alfred Hitchcock might have admired. A normal guy--actually gal, played by Anna Kendrick--crosses paths with the wrong person and gets in over her head. She has to investigate and ultimately do some double-crossing of her own to undo the villain and return to her good life.
We could be talking about Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest, only funnier.
It might be misunderstood because some critics are describing it as neo-noir, and it is not noir. It may have some things in common with classic noir novels and films, including a life-insurance scam. But the main character is not a loser ultimately done in by her own greed and stupidity.
So go and see it, and enjoy the chemistry between Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding.
And don't confuse it with another movie that has a similar title, A Simple Plan. That one really is noir.