Nippon Noir: Celebrate #Noirvember with FilmStruck

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Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ Social Media Specialist Marya Gates (@oldfilmsflicker) November is now known as Noirvember among many classic film fans who enjoy watching Film Noir throughout the month and discussing it on social media sites using the hashtag #Noirvember. This month-long celebration of criminal activity, dangerous dames, desperate men and shadow-lined surfaces is coming to a close but before it does I thought I’d highlight a few of the interesting Japanese crime films currently streaming on FilmStruck. If you’re celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at home this year, it’s a great opportunity to play catch up with a genre I like to call Nippon Noir.

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Cutter’s Way: Into the Heart of Darkness

CUTTER'S WAY (1981)

Richard Bone is the ultimate passive protagonist.  He initiates almost nothing and, in the end, when given the chance to redeem his inaction, does so in a way that immediately casts doubt about that action and lets him off the hook. Alex Cutter is the ultimate active protagonist.  He acts insistently and consistently, to the point of alienation to all those around him. When he is stymied in his last shot at decisive action, he does so in a way that immediately puts the onus of Bone to complete it. They are two sides of the same coin. One cannot function without the another. They need each other as a check on each other and begrudgingly acknowledge they are joined together forever, whether they like it or not. Cutter’s Way (1981), adapted from the excellent novel Cutter and Bone, is their story and it’s less about a murder mystery than it is about two men travelling into the darkness, one reluctantly, one willingly, but both out of necessity.

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Truffaut’s Waltz into Darkness

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Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.

Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.

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Robert Mitchum as The Face of Film Noir

blogeddie5A tough week for America. After a long, bitter election year, the end game is a divided and angry country. Disillusioned with both sides, I find escape—and solace—in a pair of moody film noirs in which a cynical, jaded Robert Mitchum encapsulates how I feel.

In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time gunrunner who is barely making ends meet on the margins of the underworld. The last of his luck runs out when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.

TV writer Paul Monash adapted the screenplay from a novel by George V. Higgins, a real-life assistant DA. Higgins captured a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of street criminals. The corrupt, dog-eat-dog world of the novel easily translated to film noir. Gloomy, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum could so easily express in his baritone voice, somnolent expression and minimalist acting style.

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Angie Dickinson in Cry Terror! (1958)

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Angie Dickinson in 1958
Angie Dickinson takes center stage in TCM’s ongoing Summer Under the Stars programming today. The leggy mid-western beauty first achieved widespread general and critical attention for her role in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) airing 10 PM EST/7 PM PST. Hawks often referred to the actress as his “discovery” but in truth, Dickinson had appeared in a number of films and television dramas before making Rio Bravo. One of her most interesting early roles can be found in the low-budget crime thriller, Cry Terror! (1958) also airing early Friday morning at 4 AM EST/1 AM PST.

In Cry Terror! Dickinson plays the no nonsense Eileen Kelly, a dangerous dame who plants a bomb on a plane as part of a deadly extortion scheme mastermind by Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger). A weapon-wielding thug (Jack Klugman) and pill-popping rapist (Neville Brand) comprise the rest of this terror inflicting goon squad who frame an innocent man named Jim Molar (James Mason) for their crimes. When their plans start to unravel, they kidnap Molar’s young daughter (Terry Ann Ross) and wife (Inger Stevens), forcing them to take-part in their nefarious plans. Amid all the chaos, a crack team of FBI investigators (Kenneth Tobey, Barney Phillips & Jack Kruschen) is called in to help put the extortion gang behind bars.

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June 25, 2016
David Kalat
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Rififi

It’s a venerable cliché, the idea of “one last big score.” The hero, reluctantly recognizing his glory days are behind him, deciding to make one last play for glory.

And so we find “Le Stephanois,” an aging gangster released from prison to a world that has passed him by. He has scores to settle, and dreams of a legendary haul. What if he could assemble a crack team of experts, and deploy them on a meticulously planned heist to rob a jewelry store? What could possibly go wrong? (As it turns out, quite a lot)

And behind the cameras, we find an echo and an inversion. Here is Jules Dassin, an American expatriate director on the run from the Blacklist, increasingly desperate to get back into movies. It’s been years, and the long arm of the Blacklist has been stretching across the Atlantic to frustrate his every move. An offer is given, but it’s a poor one—only a fool would take this assignment. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the desperate man will do almost anything. Somehow, improbably, he turns straw into gold. His film is more than good, it is influential, and with it he changes the rules for everyone.

This is Rififi.

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KEYWORDS: Jules Dassin, Rififi, The Blacklist
COMMENTS: 6
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June 18, 2016
David Kalat
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Border Incident

There’s an old joke about a comedians’ convention. Comedians have come from around the world to gather in each others’ company, and they are such experienced veterans of the joke trade that instead of telling each other jokes, they just list them off by number. “7!” (polite applause); “122!” (respectful chuckles); and so on. Then one comic takes the mic and boldly declares “516!” and the house erupts in laughter. A journalist covering the event asked the comedian why that last one got such an outsized reaction. “Oh, they hadn’t heard that one before,” he replied.

I started obsessively watching movies because I fell in love with their magic. I fear turning into one of those jaded convention goers, content with hearing familiar numbers read aloud, and only occasionally surprised by the unfamiliar. But it happens—I’ve seen so many movies, their tricks do become routine, their contours become as familiar as old socks. I grow cynical and jaded. And then out of nowhere, when I least expect it, someone throws me a 516 and I have to boggle at the surprise.

I submit to you: Anthony Mann’s Border Incident. It is very nearly 70 years old, but it feels fresh and relevant. It is hard to classify (we’ll go with “film noir” for the lack of anything better). It is a taut B&W thriller from 1949, made on a stingy budget, and largely forgotten today. But this is one to seek out and treasure, and it is full of surprises.

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KEYWORDS: Andre Previn, Anthony Mann, Border Incident, Howard da Silva, Ricardo Montalban
COMMENTS: 26
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John Alton: Painting with Light in The Big Combo

blogmarqueeIf you like your noir lean and mean, catch The Big Combo on TCM this Thursday, June 9. The minimalist plot pits volatile police detective Leonard Diamond, played by Cornel Wilde, against a morally bankrupt racketeer known as Mr. Brown, played by a cold-hearted Richard Conte. Not surprisingly, the two have a corrosive history, and their long-standing animosity revolves around their interest in the same girl, Susan, played by Wilde’s real-life wife, Jean Wallace. Detective Diamond is as agitated and twitchy as Mr. Brown is cool and collected, their contrasting demeanors underscoring their positions on the opposite side of the law.

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Blood Money: Too Late for Tears (1949)

ct-too-late-for-tears-20140828 After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, complete with Alan K. Rode audio commentary and a highly informative essay by Brian Light. [...MORE]

Revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’

blogopener2TCM in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon on February 21 and February 24, exhibiting the film at participating theaters. John Huston’s masterpiece, which shows at 2:00pm and 7:00pm on both days, will be introduced by Ben Mankiewicz in a brief filmed commentary. Check the Fathom website for more details.

Last fall, I showed The Maltese Falcon as part of a course on film noir. Though it is considered one of the earliest examples of noir, and therefore important as a foundation, I struggled with whether to show a film I had seen so many times. I thought of showing the less-familiar Stranger on the Third Floor, because it would be more interesting to me. But, I knew that the majority of the students had not seen The Maltese Falcon. As I began to pull together the course material, I grew more excited at the implications of introducing them to such an iconic film. This was their introduction not only to The Maltese Falcon but also the genre of film noir. They would be seeing it with the freshness and excitement of first-time viewers, and I had a part to play in that.

Film noir developed in the studio system during the Golden Age, and yet it defied many of the norms and conventions of that era. It was the genre that broke the rules—a big deal considering how entrenched certain norms, conventions, and formulas were during the Golden Age. For young people unfamiliar with the systems and practices of the studio system, noir’s defiance of those systems and practices would not be readily apparent.

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