Tag Archives: film noir

The Glass Key

The Glass Key

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 September 2016

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Stuart Heisler

Writer: Jonathan Latimer

Based on the novel by: Dashiell Hammett

Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy

USA 1942

86 mins

Masculinity is the true focus of Stuart Heisler’s noir tale of crime, power and lust.

Power, corruption and lies are at the burning heart of The Glass Key, with lust adding fuel to the fire. It’s election season, and local power broker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has unexpectedly decided to throw his weight behind the reform candidate Ralph Henry, turning his back on his own shady interests and his gangster cohorts. The reason: Henry’s beautiful, clever daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), who’s more than happy to take advantage of Madvig’s intentions to help her father’s campaign.

But events are complicated further when Janet’s gambling-addicted brother Taylor, in debt to Madvig’s former partner-in-crime Nick Varna (and also secretly involved with Madvig’s sister Opal), turns up dead, his body found by Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Madvig’s right-hand man. The death becomes a pivotal moment in the power struggle between Varna and Madvig, with Beaumont’s involvement, rather predictably, ensnaring Madvig, Janet and himself in a love triangle. It’s classic noir territory, although Stuart Heisler’s 1942 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel doesn’t quite sit as easily alongside some of the greats from the genre, due to its slow, muddy start.

Donlevy plays Madvig as something of a clown, his romantic volte-face derided by his opponents, while everyone seems to know that Janet is playing him for a fool. Veronica Lake is icy in her demeanour, all chiselled cheekbones and glossy, smooth hair, any feelings she has buried beneath her cynical exterior. But The Glass Key is really Alan Ladd’s picture (despite some good lines, Lake is criminally underused in the film). Beaumont comes into his own after Taylor’s death; though initially a suspect himself, he’s canny and connected enough to get himself off the hook, using guile and misdirection to figure out who is behind the murder. But Varna is clever too, sensing blood when Madvig emerges as the most likely suspect.

Everyone is in somebody’s pocket, including the local newspaper owner and the district attorney, with everyone looking after their own skin. It’s these sleazy back-room deals that make the film compelling, the tension increasing as Beaumont finds himself in increasing danger. The Glass Key really picks up after Varna decides to get to Madvig through Beaumont, taking a satisfyingly dark turn that leads to the film’s most explosive and powerful scenes. While Ladd fails in this as a romantic lead, with some wooden acting in his scenes with Lake, and, through no fault of his own, some laughable soft-focus close-ups, he excels as a man fighting for his life. In the end, the most compelling relationship in the film is the one that develops between Beaumont and one of Varna’s thugs, Jeff (William Bendix), who is full of admiration for his opponent’s fighting spirit.

In the end, it barely seems to matter who murdered Taylor, the film more concerned with the themes of honour, loyalty and masculinity. Despite its early failings, there are moments when The Glass Key really shines, with some classic cinematography, plenty of innuendo, and some standout performances, especially from the minor characters.

Sarah Cronin

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood

Format: Cinema

Release date:
11 September 2015

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Richard Brooks

Writer: Richard Brooks

Based on the novel by: Truman Capote

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsyth

USA 1967

134 mins

Released eight years after the event, Robert Brooks’s In Cold Blood is an adaptation of the infamous book by Truman Capote, about an unfathomable crime that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Acting on a tip-off, newly released convicts Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) decided to rob the home of the Cutter family, convinced they had a safe full of cash. Armed with rope, a knife and a shotgun, and full of confidence that their plan was foolproof, they drove across state lines to the remote farm, with little intention of leaving any witnesses behind. The result was four dead bodies, and Smith and Hickock on the run.

Brooks methodically divided the film into parts: the first cuts together scenes of the perpetrators and their victims. The Cutters, the teen children especially, are all wholesome, mid-west innocence, the slightly saccharine scenes overlaid with a sentimental score – as opposed to the cool 60s jazz that drives the scenes with Smith and Hickock, both ex-convicts looking for their next big score. Smith is a greaser in a leather jacket, his oily hair slicked back. Addicted to painkillers after his leg was torn up in an accident, he’s an almost-crippled figure, haunted by searing memories of his childhood (whether or not his past in any way justifies his actions is up to the audience to decide). Hickock, in a terrific performance from then-newcomer Wilson, is the charismatic one, the guy with the plan, who – though he talks the talk – is unable to kill people himself, and needs someone with muscle.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic as Smith and Hickock drive the hundreds of miles to the Cutters’ home, their journey across the barren plains brilliantly evoked by cinematographer Conrad Hall, who won an Oscar for the film. The camera is ever present in the car with the men throughout much of the film, dialogue, rather than action, propelling the story. Their conversations shine a light on their past and present lives, a means of exploring their motivation, and establishing them as deluded and strangely naive, rather than just cold-hearted killers.

After their arrival at the farm, the film skips ahead, leaving the audience initially in the dark (the murders themselves are later relived in cruel detail when Smith and Hickock are finally caught and forced to confess). As the focus shifts to the following day, and the discovery of the bodies, In Cold Blood becomes less of a film noir and more of a police procedural, with the manhunt led by Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe). The murders are shocking, senseless, and the police, the community, and of course, the film itself, struggle – in the words of a journalist, who follows the tragic story through to its conclusion – to understand how a ‘violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family’.

This attempt at understanding, unfortunately, becomes one of the film’s weaknesses. There are moments of brilliance, but the narrative, with the exception of some terrific flashbacks, feels relentlessly unswerving, from the introduction of the characters, to their arrest, imprisonment, and finally, their execution. Capote was famously opposed to the death penalty, and Brooks carries across that sentiment. Their deaths are presented in a documentary-like style, which, although chilling, again robs the film of cinematic tension. In Cold Blood is at its best, stylistically, when it indulges in its noir leanings, rather than when it works as a docudrama. But with Quincy Jones’s excellent soundtrack, the captivating black and white cinematography, and the dynamism between Smith and Hickok, it’s still a compelling watch.

Sarah Cronin

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 August 2015

Distributor: Altitude Film Entertainment

Director: Alberto Rodríguez

Writers: Alberto Rodríguez, Rafael Cobos

Cast:Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, Mar Rodría Varod

Spain 2014

105 mins

Spain, 1980. When teenage sisters go missing in the remote and barren Andaluz wetlands, two detectives from Madrid are sent to investigate. It’s immediately clear to them that the locals, even the girls’ own father, are virtually indifferent to their disappearance, believing that the sisters, with their ‘loose’ morals, have either run away or brought their fate upon themselves. Although the town’s residents remain stubborn in their refusal to help, the detectives soon discover that the girls are not the first who have gone missing from the area, and that a serial killer (or killers) is sexually exploiting the women before callously disposing of their bodies.

Juan (the excellent Javier Gutiérrez) is the experienced detective with a murky past under the Franco regime. Pragmatic, wily, manipulative, he’s better at needling out information over a few drinks, or, if that doesn’t work, using his fists. His new partner is the idealistic rookie, his future already in jeopardy after publicly criticising Franco’s still-powerful generals. Played by Raúl Arévalo, Pedro is the more earnest, less charismatic of the two, his integrity at odds with the casual way business is done in the marshlands.

Director Alberto Rodríguez’s atmospheric Marshland, (which swept the Goya awards on its release last year) can feel at times like a by-the-numbers police procedural, but it’s saved by its backdrop of social upheaval and unrest. The murders are used as a foil to delve into the legacy left behind by Franco, revealing a country struggling to find its way forward. The climate of fear that existed under his regime still permeates the small, impoverished town, where the police don’t ask too many questions (turning a blind eye to the drug running in the region’s swampy rivers), and where powerful business owners are still untouchable. But things are slowly changing, as men strike for better working conditions, and women are lured away to places like the Costa del Sol with promises of hotel work. But as the women become more independent, more sexually liberated, they are shunned by the community, and left vulnerable to the town’s dangerous predators.

Parallels have been drawn between the film and True Detective, but it’s also reminiscent of Arthur Penn’s excellent Florida-set Night Moves. Marshland is a terrifically well-crafted sunshine noir, with the genre’s usual shadows replaced by the searing bright light and heat of southern Spain. Rodríguez is clearly inspired by the atmospheric, treacherous bayous of the deep American south; the marshes are like fetid pockets of water, where bodies and secrets can lurk unfound just below the surface. The flat, open spaces are stunningly captured by cinematographer Alex Catalan, with some remarkable, abstract aerial shots of the land below, the rivers and tributaries, forming resonant motifs.

Though the violence that the women are subjected to, and its casual dismissal, is deeply disturbing, the victims themselves are never really fleshed out by the filmmaker. It’s the relationship between Juan and Pedro, between the past and future, justice and abuse of power, that is the film’s beating heart. Though the crime is solved, Rodríguez refuses to indulge in a neat resolution, either for the murderer, or the two detectives.

Sarah Cronin

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Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil 4
Touch of Evil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 July 2015

Distributor: BFI

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on Badge of Evil by: Whit Masterson

Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles

USA 1958

110 mins

Notoriety has long swirled around Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’s 1958 film noir, a box-office failure in the US that famously ended his Hollywood career. But it has since become much admired for its often emulated long take, which masterfully introduces us to the dusty town on the Mexican border in which the story is set.

In the dramatic opening scene, we see a bomb placed underneath a convertible, before the camera pulls away to soar over the streets of the town, following not only the movements of the car, but also the newlyweds whose lives are about to be derailed when the bomb explodes on the American side, killing a local construction magnate and a strip club dancer. The scene is beautifully orchestrated, with stunning sound design. Music pours out of the bars that the couple stroll past, the sound of guitars and jazz flowing into rock and roll, evoking the sultry, sweaty streets of the south, adding a risqué, decadent feel that is echoed throughout the film.

The murder pits two very different law enforcement officers against each other. Vargas (Charlton Heston) is the newly married, upstanding man who’s successfully targeted one of the biggest drug gangs in Mexico; Quinlan, overweight, dishevelled, puffy-eyed, is the revered cop who never fails to get his man, even if it means breaking the law, his convictions based ‘on intuition, rather than fact’. The murder victim is barely relevant to the unfolding plot; rather, the killing is the catalyst that turns the crime thriller into a dark, brooding meditation on good versus evil.

Caught in the middle is Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), who becomes a victim of both Quinlan and the Mexican gang, who are now on the same side in their war against Vargas. The crime family is led by the unassuming, overweight Joe Gardi (Akim Tamaroff), who has a gang of young thugs in black leather jackets to carry out his dirty work. Susan starts out as a tough broad in pearls and cashmere sweater, but when they hound her in a deserted motel she’s no match for them. In a twisted party scene, the threat of sexual violence, with its racial undertones, pulsates to the sound of the rockabilly music piped through the motel.

Touch of Evil deserves to be watched multiple times, not for the story, but to absorb its brilliance and audacity. The cinematography is a work of art, a virtuoso example of the noir aesthetic, using angles and lighting to heighten the tension. Quinlan looms above the camera, the sweat on his meaty face almost palpable. In one shot his menacing shadow, thrown up against a wall, stalks Vargas as he walks away down a dark road. When Gardi meets his fate, the camerawork and editing are dizzying, the tension and drama escalated by the screeching jazz horns.

There are some weaknesses in the performances by Heston (ignoring the fact that he is, of course, not Mexican) and Leigh, though Marlene Dietrich as the fortune teller who predicts Quinlan’s demise is seductive as always. Joseph Calleia also deserves mention as the tragic sergeant devoted to Quinlan, who will later pay a horrible price. While there is undoubtedly a hint of the B-movie at times, it’s a masterpiece of the noir genre, one of the last true great films of that era, and a fantastic turn by Welles.

Creative control of the film was taken away from the director by Universal, who released a botched version of the film; after seeing it, Welles penned a 58-page memo detailing his desired changes. In 1998, it was re-cut by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who tried to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible. It’s a thing of beauty.

Sarah Cronin

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The Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success
The Sweet Smell of Success

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 30 March 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Writers: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman, Alexander Mackendrick

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison

USA 1957

96 mins

***** out of *****

Directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis at the peak of their considerable powers as actors, The Sweet Smell of Success provides a stunning film noir portrait of the sleazy world of 50s press agents and gossip columnists in New York City. Written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, based on Lehman’s novella and featuring considerable uncredited rewrites by Mackendrick himself, the picture is blessed with one of the great screenplays of all time. In terms of story structure, characterization and dialogue, few American films can match it.

J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is a Walter Winchell-like newspaperman of unparalleled power and popularity. The signs and billboards splashed everywhere on the Isle of Manhattan are adorned with an image of his trademark heavy-framed spectacles, accompanied by copy that proclaims him to be ‘The Eyes of Broadway’. Nothing, as the film proves, escapes the God-like gaze of Hunsecker. He makes and breaks politicians and show business personalities with a few deft strokes of his vitriolic pen.

He is, of course, fed many of his laudatory and/or scurrilous items by the bottom feeders of the business, the press agents who charge their clients a pretty penny to keep their names in the papers and in the most positive manner possible. The king of them all, the sleaziest benthos in all of New York is none other than Sidney Falco (Curtis). He’s equal parts detritivore and carnivore – a sea cucumber when he needs to be, and a stingray, which he mostly wants to be. He values his ability to keep his clients happy, score new clients and to curry favour with Hunsecker in hopes he’ll achieve the same level of success.

When Hunsecker’s little sister Susie (Susan Harrison) is courted by Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), an up-and-coming jazz musician, the innate snobbery of the omnipotent scribe kicks in, but even more compelling is his foul, incestuous obsession with her. He charges Sidney with digging up enough dirt on the young fellow in order to keep his sister in his own clutches and no other man’s.

Sidney’s complex machinations take up much of the film’s running time and are so on the edge of a kind of insanity, that the entire world Mackendrick, Odets and Lehman etch borders on the surreal. What Hunsecker wants is no mere separation twixt his sister and her lover.

‘I want that boy taken apart,’ he intones so quietly and malevolently.

There is no doubt that dialogue seems to drive much of the film’s drama. There have to be more immortal lines in the picture than many of the rest all put together.

‘Match me, Sidney,’ Hunsecker demands, seeking Falco’s compliance with his request for a cigarette light.

‘I make no brief for my bilious private life,’ Sidney slimily ejaculates upon the sleazy rival columnist Otis Elwell (David White), in order to make him believe he’s through with Hunsecker, ‘but he’s got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster’.

Every line is a gem and Hunsecker gets the lion’s share of them. One of the best is his descriptive invective hurled in Sidney’s direction:

‘I wouldn’t like to take a bite of you; you’re a cookie full of arsenic.’

The simplest and most evocative line occurs when Hunsecker considers a woman’s caterwauling laughter and the sight of a drunk being tossed from a 52nd St. bar. He literally salutes the grime and filth of New York, which we see through the gloriously grimy lens of James Wong Howe’s immortal black and white cinematography, as Hunsecker happily declares:

‘I love this dirty town.’

Dirty, indeed.

And yet, in spite of the almost non-stop dialogue, one of the more astonishing achievements of the picture is just how visual the storytelling is. Many key set pieces of verbal chicanery and manipulations can be watched with the sound completely off, and by simply observing, one is able to easily ascertain the goals of the characters.

Try it sometime.

Put on the sequence where Sidney tries to blackmail one character, then, upon failing that, attempts to dupe another with an approach he borrows from the man he’s tried to blackmail. ALL the actions and even many underlying motivations can be noted by what is SEEN, but NOT heard. After this, play the scene with sound and thrill to how the dramatic beats are there visually, and of course, enhanced delectably by the dialogue. I’ve done this with my filmmaking students who – NOT SURPRISINGLY – had never seen the film before. It works! It’s also proof positive how superb the writing is and most importantly, how breathtaking Mackendrick’s direction proved to be.

The Sweet Smell of Success is simply and purely, one of the best movies ever made.

Greg Klymkiw

The Arrow Blu-Ray release is accompanied by a bevy of sumptuous features. The best of them include Michael Brooke’s magnificent, virtually definitive essay in the attractive booklet and the great Dermot McQuarrie TV documentary Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away. The following are not to be sneezed at either: a restored HD presentation of a 4K digital transfer from original 35mm camera negative, the original uncompressed mono, optional English subtitles for those of us who wish to obsessively study the dialogue as the film unspools, an appreciation and scene commentary by Philip Kemp, the theatrical trailer, a gorgeous reversible sleeve with an original poster and new artwork by Chris Walker, as well as the aforementioned booklet, which also comes with Mackendrick’s own analysis of various script drafts.

The Killing

The Killing 1
The Killing

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 9 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor

USA 1956

85 mins

In Stanley Kubrick’s thrilling heist movie The Killing, a charismatic ringleader, a brute of a man, an expert marksman, a crooked cop and three regular, ordinary guys, none of them natural criminals, are brought together for one reason: money. Fresh out of jail, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), with the help of his cohorts, decides, rather than reform his ways, to raise the stakes. Why go to jail for $500 when you can go to jail for a million? So he muses to his devoted childhood sweetheart, Fay (Colleen Gray), who has waited patiently for his return from five years in Alcatraz. His plan: to steal the takings at a racetrack on one of the biggest days of the season, a haul that could net the men a fortune.

Opening with an urgent, unsettling score, all beating drums and screaming horns, the film plunges the audience into the frantic atmosphere at the racetrack where the heist will take place, before introducing us to the ill-fated men and women caught up in the scheme. A narrator guides us through the unconventional chronology, his laconic delivery adding to the tension, as the intricacies of the plot are revealed in the lean, briskly paced film.

Johnny has devised a near-flawless robbery, but with one major weakness: George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the track’s cashier, a browbeaten shell of a man who landed a gorgeous wife with never-realised promises of wealth. Emotionally manipulative, Sherry is a hard-boiled vamp, who literally flutters her false eyelashes to bend George to her will, only to sell him out for a future with her equally cynical lover. Perfectly played by Marie Windsor, Sherry is a nasty, manipulative piece of work, who can’t wait to be ‘up to her curls in cash’. But any whiff of misogyny is dispelled by the strength and presence of her character; she also gets the best lines in the film, the pitch-perfect dialogue written by the pulp novelist Jim Thompson.

A classic noir, Kubrick’s third feature revels in the genre’s striking aesthetics, with masterful tracking shots and use of lighting. The characters, George in particular, often appear behind bars, with the shadows in some scenes cast by an iron bedstead – what should have been an object of domestic bliss now a stand-in for George’s unhappy fate. The motif is repeated in a fabulously grim scene, where our characters find themselves trapped, enclosed by bars of light and dark, their fate sealed. The allegories – they are all pieces of a puzzle, pawns on a chessboard – are not always subtle, but they are evocative.

Although Johnny’s meticulous planning pays off, Sherry’s intervention means that there is no chance of a ‘happy’ ending, only a senseless, violent outcome. The very human weaknesses of envy and ego play their part in everyone’s downfall, but, Johnny, in the end, is also a victim of sheer bad luck, the unpredictable and unforeseen. As Sherry says, in the moment when her own fate has been decided for her, it’s ‘a bad joke without a punchline’.

Sarah Cronin

The Killing is released in a double feature Blu-ray edition by Arrow Video, together with Kurbrick’s second feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955).

Black Coal, Thin Ice

Black Coal Thin Ice
Black Coal, Thin Ice

Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 June 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Diao Yinan

Writer: Diao Yinan

Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing

Original title: Bai ri yan huo

China 2014

106 mins

Diao Yinan’s disarming frozen noir begins in 1999 in northern China, where we follow the progress of a package mixed in with a coal delivery to a plant, where it is discovered to be a severed hand. Several other body parts are found in other coal shipments, and recently divorced mess-of-a-cop Zhang (Liao Fan) is part of a team called in to work the case. The investigation has barely started, however, before an attempted arrest at a beauty salon turns into an unholy clusterfuck that results in Zhang taking a bullet and losing his place on the force. In 2004 we find him a drunken wreck with a gig as security guard at a coal factory, when a chance encounter with an old colleague leads to his becoming entangled with the case again. With nothing else in his life to cling to, he quickly becomes obsessed, both with the investigation, and with the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) around whom it all seems to revolve…

While all the ingredients for a standard policer are present and correct, and plot wise, there’s nothing new here, Diao seems to take great delight in taking things apart and making them strange; it’s slow burning and snowbound and largely music-free. There’s an absence of Hollywood glamour, and everyone and everything looks a bit shabby and worn down. His femme fatale is skinny and passive and taciturn, unable to stop the unwelcome attentions of her boss at her unrewarding dry cleaning job. Our hero rides a crappy scooter after having his bike nicked. Following a police interview, a witness turns the corner of her residential block to find a horse in the corridor, in a typical scene that doesn’t advance the story much, but suggests a dysfunctional world of absurdity and neglect.

Visually, the film is extraordinary: the camera continually does unexpected things, the framing is unconventional, fights and shocking moments disappear off camera or appear in deadpan medium shots. The passage of time from 1999 to 2004 is accomplished in one majestic take, as we ride with Zhang’s car through a motorway tunnel to find him sprawled drunkenly on the other side. There’s a magically odd skating sequence where Zhang pursues the widow as she glides, impossibly smoothly, into the darkness, a Strauss waltz playing over Tannoy speakers. The days are harsh white, the nights taken over by yellow sodium and coloured neon.

All of this visual invention does not alter the conventional heart that beats at the centre of the narrative. There’s a hard-drinking cop, a woman who spells trouble, a killer to chase and a mystery to solve. But it does make Black Coal, Thin Ice engaging, and raises it a cut above the rest. There’s a mood of melancholy underlying the piece, a sense that justice may well be served, but love will be crushed along the way. Everybody seems to be lonely and lost and hurting, and this atmosphere, and the film’s off-kilter focus, make it linger in the memory.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

The Lady from Shanghai

The Lady from Shanghai 2
The Lady from Shanghai

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 July 2014

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on the novel: If I Die before I Wake by Sherwood King

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

USA 1947

87 mins

Orson Welles’s dazzling 1947 film noir has a plot so complex that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn famously offered a cash reward to the lucky person who could explain to him what the hell was going on. But really the storyline is almost incidental to the disorientating inventiveness of The Lady from Shanghai.

Welles plays Michael O’Hara, a poetical lunk of a mariner, who has a truly atrocious Irish accent, literary ambitions, and a hefty punch when the chips are down. He provides the lyrical voice-over, explaining how he found himself all at sea, enmeshed in the machinations, double dealings and conspiracies of an amoral bunch of well-to-do whose idea of a good time is sniping at each other and thinking murderous thoughts, some of which are put into action.

‘It’s a bright, guilty world,’ says Michael O’Hara as he’s spellbound by the beautiful Elsa Bannister, wife of the country’s leading criminal barrister and played in enigmatic siren mode by Rita Hayworth, Welles’s soon to be ex-wife. O’Hara meets her in the park, saves her from thugs, sees her home and turns down her offer of a job crewing their yacht (tellingly called the Circe). It’s too late though, the staunch seafarer has already run aground – ‘I did not use my head, except to think of her’ – and he sets sail on the kind of voyage that could get a man killed, or at the very least, wrongly accused of murder.

Hayward sizzled and sashayed her way through Gilda; here her trademark red hair is cropped and bleached, (much to the chagrin of Cohn, who was hoping to cash in on her pinup status) as, wreathed in cigarette smoke, basking on rocks or softly singing, she sets about luring men to their doom. There’s Michael, who’s entranced by her white hot, ice cold approach to his approaches; her husband, Arthur Bannister, played by radio actor Everett Sloane, who knows far too much about her disreputable past (‘you need more than luck in Shanghai’); while Glen Anders, filled with maniacal glee, takes on the role of Bannister’s business partner. Smitten by Elsa, but keener on disappearing, he persuades O’Hara to pretend to kill him. It is, of course, a set-up, but not in any of the ways you expect.

Welles keeps everything beautifully off-kilter. There are vertiginous shots from a costal keep, strangely disorientating views from the top of the boat’s mast, a claustrophobic jungle picnic, where O’Hara compares the languorously deadly picnickers to frenzied sharks (a speech cribbed from Moby Dick) and a haunting aquarium scene where Elsa and Michael meet, with strange, shadowy sea creatures ominously lurking behind as the couple chart their duplicitous romantic course.

But there’s no escape, as an absconding O’Hara runs through a funfair, plummets through the open mouth of a painted shark and slides, pell mell, into another nightmare. It is a brilliantly expressionist homage to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which the director made the cast watch before they began filming The Lady from Shanghai. Welles spent the dark hours of the night hand-painting this scenery, intended as the eerie backdrop for an extended exercise in the unhinged, only for most of it to end up on the cutting room floor; but even in its shortened version it’s deliciously sinister. And then there’s the iconic grand finale – a breathtaking shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, with guns, bullets, dizzying reflections, life and death and the kind of dialogue that just demands to be quoted: ‘Killing you is like killing myself. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of the both of us….’

A new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari will be released in UK cinemas by Eureka Entertainment on 29 August 2014, followed by a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 29 September 2014.

Eithne Farry

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Lift to the Scaffold

Lift to the Scaffold
Lift to the Scaffold

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 February 2014

Distributor: BFI

Director: Louis Malle

Writers: Roger Nimier, Louis Malle

Based on the novel by: No&#235l Calef

Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin

Original Title: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud

France 1958

92 mins

Louis Malle’s 1958 debut feature Lift to the Scaffold offered a number of notable firsts. The director introduced key themes such as duplicity, moral compromise, weakness and fatal attraction that would permeate his work over a subsequent 30-year career. Released under a number of guises, including Elevator to the Gallows, but best known under its original language title of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, it made an iconic star of Jeanne Moreau and featured the first film score composed by Miles Davis.

The film is adapted from a relatively minor roman noir by No&#235l Calef that was clearly indebted to Double Indemnity; it is also an early example of a European take on film noir with a nocturnal Paris standing in for the mean streets of Los Angeles. Retaining the bare bones of the novel and bringing the marginalised female character to the forefront, Malle and his script writer, the left-wing novelist Roger Nimier, up the existential ante in the tale of a handsome veteran of the Indo-China and Algerian wars, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), and his lover, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), who plan the murder of her husband, an arms manufacturer. Returning from the crime scene, Tavernier becomes trapped in an elevator and Florence is forced to wander the streets of Paris forlornly awaiting their assignation. Any final flickering hopes of escape are extinguished when a teenage couple steal Tavernier’s car and take it on a joyride.

Influenced by Bresson and Hitchcock, Lift to the Scaffold boasts two remarkable achievements alongside its pervasive mood of melancholy, ennui and amour fou. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white by Henri Deca&#235 and is striking to look at, with each frame resembling an intricately designed photograph; Deca&#235 went on to work for Chabrol and Truffaut and became one of the finest cinematographers in European cinema. The other trump card is the aforementioned score by Miles Davis.

Malle was a huge jazz fan and carried a particular torch for the music of Miles Davis. While the director was editing the film in 1957, Miles was visiting Paris to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks at the Club St Germain, and the pair were introduced via Juliette Greco. Malle plucked up the courage to ask Miles to compose a score. Initially reluctant because he was travelling without his usual recording band, Miles was finally convinced after being shown a rough cut of the film and given an explanation of the plot and main characters. As recounted in Malle on Malle, a series of interviews between the director and Philip French, the duo agreed on the moments in the film where music was required, and on a rare night off from his club residency Miles gathered together musicians Barney Wilen (tenor sax), Rene Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums). Renting a studio whose foreboding atmospherics matched the dark nature of the film, work continued from 10 at night until five in the morning with all the music, amounting to about 18 minutes in total in the film (a 2003 soundtrack reissue later compiled a further 40 minutes of out-takes), scored directly to screen. This was one of the first film scores recorded this way and improvised in its entirety. Malle found Miles’s efforts transformative, declaring that without the score the film would not have had the critical and public response it enjoyed.

The score is indeed remarkable, often acting as a counterpoint to what we see on screen rather than trying to simply reinforce it. The music is elegiac and detached, while the mood of the film is often one of anticipation and tension, contributing to the poignant sense of doom that shrouds the film from the first image to the very last. The score is particularly effective when we see Moreau’s character prowling the Paris streets at dawn, lending it a sense of abstract emotion. Jack Johnson aside, Miles Davis would go on to produce other feature film soundtracks, perhaps most notably the John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal triple whammy for The Hot Spot, one of those instances where the soundtrack is more memorable than the film it accompanies, but he never came close again to replicating what he did on Lift to the Scaffold.

The film also marked a major turning point in the career of Miles Davis, freeing the trumpeter from the conventional structures of modern jazz. The result was Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the bestselling album in the history of jazz.

Jason Wood

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Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill
Dressed to Kill

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 29 July 2013

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Brian De Palma

Writer: Brian De Palma

Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen

USA 1980

83 mins

The legendary New Hollywood director Brian De Palma has had a more erratic filmmaking career than most. Iconic classics (Carrie and Scarface) rub shoulders with legendary disasters (The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Black Dahlia – not coincidentally, two unwieldy adaptations of classic American authors). Impassioned, personal labours of love (Blow Out, Femme Fatale) vie with hire-a-hack studio gigs (The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible). His trajectory is an unpredictable swerve: De Palma has often seemed like an outsider in the fickle world of Hollywood, persecuted first by critics who decried his unoriginality and apparent bad taste, and then by censors balking at his films’ often transgressive content.

Dressed to Kill, newly reissued on Blu-ray for the first time in uncut form, and made at a convenient mid-point in De Palma’s now 50-year career, provides a timely opportunity to evaluate this uncommonly talented auteur. The film has aspects of the passionate, personal side of his directing, as well as his underrated commercial instinct: its box office success marks it as an early populariser of the modern erotic thriller. De Palma was enamoured with Hitchcock; a science whiz as a young man, he fell in love with film at college via Hitchcock, Welles and Godard, and spent his career crafting elaborate cinematic love letters to the three of them (Antonioni was also a favourite). Dressed to Kill is one of his most overt Hitchcock homages: it overflows with lush audience-baiting orchestral music cues, bravura wordless set-pieces, and erotic perversity.

De Palma was more compelled by the voyeuristic strands in Hitchcock’s films than by his studies of wronged-man innocence. So if Obsession cribs from Vertigo, and Blow Out from Rear Window, Dressed to Kill set its sights on Psycho; it lunges knife-in-hand at this overbearing predecessor, extracting the juiciest ideas and discarding the dated fat. Yet as De Palma retrofits and enhances Hitchcock with modernised sexuality and violence, the result only amounts to a blandification; it reduces the master’s fascination with human behaviour and rare empathy into something insincere and unfeeling. We leave Dressed to Kill staggered by De Palma’s technique and craftsmanship, while still unconvinced by the cold void imparted by the button-pushing plot.

Revealing too much of that plot would be cruel. Someone is offing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott’s (Michael Caine) patients; Elliott believes it might be ‘Bobbi’, an unseen and unknown transgender patient, who leaves him threatening, desperate answer-phone messages throughout the course of the film. A well-heeled, bored housewife patient, Kate (Angie Dickinson), and a hooker with a heart of gold, Liz (played by De Palma’s then-belle Nancy Allen) may be in danger. It’s then left up to Liz, and Kate’s teenage computer-boffin son (Keith Gordon) to unlock this taunting mystery.

Uncharacteristically, the film’s highlight sequence is ultimately tangential to the main thrust of the plot. After a meeting with Elliott where, in rather cheesy racy-thriller form, Kate confesses her sexual attraction to him, she then takes a lazy mid-morning detour into a modern art gallery. In a sequence reminiscent of the recent Spanish arthouse film In the City of Sylvia, we follow her as she alights upon a male admirer stalking the gallery for pick-ups. What ensues is a formidably choreographed cat-and-mouse chase of attraction through the white gallery hallways, the glances and reactions of the two conveyed first in split-screen, and then in one breath-catching long take.

Yet it’s a shame that De Palma instills most of his energy into the film’s most conspicuous ‘action’ scenes; as a result, the concluding twist’s lack of psychological credibility exposes this thriller as just another giddy ‘gotcha’ contraption, rather than peering into the heart of its characters with any genuine curiosity or insight.

David Katz

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