The Counterfeiter: Trapped (1949)

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After Howard Hughes purchased RKO Pictures in 1948, the release slate was severely curtailed. Of the forty-nine features planned for 1949, only twelve were made, three of which were directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had started as a title writer at RKO’s Pathe News division, but had worked his way up to B-movie director, specializing in the dark crime tales later described as “film noir.” The influence of his brief reportorial experience is visible on the big screen, his thrillers notable for their detached, observational qualities, with the emphasis less on the individual cops and robbers but on the routines and processes that feed their institutions. His three RKO features in ’48 were The Clay Pigeon (an amnesiac mystery), Follow Me Quietly (a serial killer procedural) and Make Mine Laughs (a collection of filmed vaudeville bits co-directed with Hal Yates). His work evaded Hughes’ attention, with Fleischer receiving “no interference from anyone” that year, though his luck would run out soon. He completed his most famous noir, The Narrow Margin, in 1950, though Hughes would delay its release until ’52 (he was hoping to remake it with bigger stars). Witnessing the constricting impact Hughes was having on RKO, Fleischer rented out his services to Eagle-Lion, an even lower-budgeted concern that was originally a distribution arm for British productions. Trapped is the fourth Fleischer film from 1949, the story of an imprisoned counterfeiter (Lloyd Bridges) who pretends to turn informer to secure his freedom. It’s Eagle-Lion’s attempt to recreate the financial success of their own 1947 hit T-Men, directed by Anthony Mann. It screened last weekend at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, part of a Fleischer retrospective programmed by critics Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, part of their Overdue series on neglected films.

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Raft Noir: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949)

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George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.

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March 1, 2014
David Kalat
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While the City Sleeps: Hell, Yeah!

Last week’s post on Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal brought to light a pocket of fans of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps—and so in honor of that long-suffering cohort, this week I figured I’d properly pay tribute to one of Lang’s unsung classics.

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KEYWORDS: Dana Andrews, Fritz Lang, George Sanders, Ida Lupino, M, Vincent Price, While the City Sleeps
COMMENTS: 8
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December 14, 2013
David Kalat
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A girl and a gun

For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at the career of Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker who took pride in repeatedly remaking the same basic film endlessly.  We’re finally done with Chabrol—which means it’s time to skip back in time to one of Chabrol’s idols, Fritz Lang.

If you want to play along at home, TCM will be screening The Big Heat on Friday December 20th.  It’s as hard-hitting and bold as any American film noir—which is appropriate, for a film that found Lang updating his Dr. Mabuse franchise for American audiences.

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KEYWORDS: Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, The Big Heat (1953)
COMMENTS: 5
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November 30, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol: a primer

For many, the term Nouvelle Vague is virtually synonymous with its twin axes, its most famous practitioners, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But if Truffaut and Godard were destined to become the famous names of the lot, Claude Chabrol was there first.

It was his 1958 film Le Beau Serge that launched the movement, and it was he who financed much of the early New Wave productions.  But it was not quite as perfect an inauguration to Chabrol’s own career, for reasons that were not immediately clear.

What was immediately clear was that the earth had moved. Le Beau Serge took home a prize at the 1958 Locarno film festival, but it was the picture’s popular and commercial success that truly spelled the start of something big.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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November 23, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol – Beyond Criticism

A few years ago I made a poorly-thought-out attempt to pay tribute to Chabrol here in this blog, by (what was I thinking?) focusing on his worst film.  OK, so that didn’t work.  But I’m coming back to Chabrol, this week and for the next few as well, to try to give the man his due.  Tomorrow night, TCM is screening Chabrol’s first two features—and while both are terrific, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.

As far as I’m concerned, Claude Chabrol launched the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge—and then he went and ran off in a different direction away from the very movement he helped found.  For aficionados of the New Wave, here is a seminal work—for aficionados of Chabrol’s own unique brand of cinema, here is a frustratingly unfamiliar work.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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Crawford’s Fire of Unknown Origin

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What was it about the script for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) that caught Joan Crawford’s eye? And why does the finished product, a film that is a perfect fusion of film noir and melodrama, still resonate with us today? Go to any film school teaching a film noir or women and film course (or both), and you’ll probably find Mildred on the syllabus. The property was also recently brought back to life by director Todd Haynes in a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries released in 2011. The novel by James M. Cain (1892 – 1977), the author known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1943), ran afoul of so many restrictive provisions set forth by the Motion Picture Production Code that most of the sexual relations depicted in the novel had to be excised from the original film and replaced with something more acceptable: murder. [...MORE]

Too Smart Lucy

Once upon a time (1946), there was a movie (Two Smart People).  It was a modest, unassuming thing.  It was made on the cheap, and had no major stars (Lucille Ball and John Hodiak, supported by Elisha Cook Jr. and Lloyd Nolan).  It was greeted by dismissive critical drubbing (The New York Times called it a “dreadfully boring hodgepodge about love and the confidence racket” that “suffers from lack of competent direction.”  Ouch).  It dutifully sank into the purgatory reserved for forgotten cinema.  Subsequent surveys of film noir usually overlooked it, and even biographies of Lucy Ball felt no urge to linger over it.

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And then, many decades later, the Warner Archive Collection hit upon a movie distribution business model that encouraged the commercial release of absolutely everything without regard to any expected sales figures.  And so in 2013 it’s easy to sit down with a lovely DVD of Two Smart People and assess it with clear unjaundiced eyes—whereupon you will discover that OMG this thing rocks.  Why, yes, yes it does.

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Edgar Ulmer’s Ruthless, yes!

Once upon a time I saw a movie. It was called Ruthless and was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Edgar G. Ulmer. The experience was like watching a coin land on its side–it was thrilling, and also largely unrepeatable. I was watching the UCLA restored print of Ruthless, at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Theater, but knowing that the only available home video version was a crapola grunge-fest barely worth free.

For years I hunted this movie. Every time I logged into Amazon I ran a search, just in the off-chance the restored version had a commercial release. The years passed, and my hopes faded. I stopped checking. And then I discovered that Olive Films had released it on Blu-Ray. There was joy in Mudville.

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Do you love this movie, too? Or have you suffered in the darkness, without even knowing what joys await? Click below the fold, and let’s explore Edgar G. Ulmer’s masterpiece together.

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To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

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For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-Ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.

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