March 30, 2009

0 Brief Reviews: Film Noir, Américain et Français

THE DARK CORNER (1946) ***
If you've ever yearned to see Lucille Ball in a film noir, this movie, directed by Henry Hathaway, will give you the chance. Lucy plays Kathleen Stewart, secretary to a P.I. who has just opened an office in New York City, Brad Galt (Mark Stevens). In no time at all Galt tangles with a crew of weird, menacing characters. One is his former partner, Anthony Jardine, who had Galt framed in San Francisco and sent to prison. Jardine is now a lawyer and one of his clients is Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), the owner of a ritzy art gallery, whose much younger wife is having an affair with Jardine. We know this because in their first scene together the radio in the background is playing "The More I See You (the More I Want You)." In fact, the movie is filled with ambient sound—music from orchestras or juke boxes heard through open doorways of night clubs and bars or on radios and phonographs in rooms, and street noise of all kinds, including traffic and the rumble of subway trains, heard even through open windows when the action moves indoors. In a moment of bizarre contrast, a lovely version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" plays while a brutal murder is taking place.

Galt is framed for the murder of his former partner, and Lucy, who has fallen in love with Galt, must help him find the real killer before the police find him. I love Lucy, but she doesn't seem ideally cast here. She handles with aplomb the wisecracking banter with Galt as she deflects his sexual advances at the beginning of the movie, but after that her character becomes a bit bland and she doesn't really get the chance to shine. Stevens doesn't have enough heft as an actor to put across his cynical lines, which sound like they come directly from a Raymond Chandler novel. They really need somebody more forceful, like Humphrey Bogart. Webb is delightful, spouting arch witticisms like "The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither illegal nor immoral" (actually a variation on a quip by Robert Benchley).

But the whole movie has an air of familiarity, from the predictable plot to the well-worn characters, including Webb, channeling his Waldo Lydecker from Laura, and William Bendix, playing a thuggish P.I., who seems to be reprising his role in The Glass Key. One element, though, dominates the movie: Joe MacDonald's astonishing cinematography, a perfect exemplar of the film noir look. I've seldom seen a movie shot with such high-contrast lighting. This is a black-and-white film in the most literal sense, a film with virtually no tonal gradation: the blacks and shadows are as dark, and the whites as bright, as imaginable, with few shades of gray in between. This extreme lighting, along with the use of mirrors and windows as recurring visual motifs, gives the film great visual appeal. One final note: the set decorators should be commended for their audacity in furnishing the Cathcart Gallery. It is as full of art treasures as the National Gallery in London or the Louvre, filled with Rembrandts, Gainsboroughs, Van Goghs, even Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

BORN TO KILL (1947) ***½
A few months ago, in his blog Maximum Strength Mick, San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle asked his readers what they would present as guest programmers on Turner Classic Movies. I chose four undervalued genre pictures from the studio era, and for my film noir I chose this movie. Directed by Robert Wise in a less genre-influenced style than his later near-classic The Set-Up (which I previously reviewed at The Movie Projector), it nonetheless has several effectively atmospheric sequences, especially one that takes place on a foggy night in a remote area of the dunes at the beach. Despite Wise's restrained direction, the movie's plot and characters unmistakably make it a noir.

It opens in Reno, where Helen Trent (Claire Trevor, in an atypically posh role) is just completing her divorce. On her last night in town, at a casino she encounters a man, Sam Wild (!) (Lawrence Tierney), whose good looks and sexual charisma spark her interest. Little does she know he is a paranoid psychopath dating another resident (Isabel Jewell) of the boarding house where she has been staying and that later that night he will savagely murder both Jewell and the man she has been two-timing him with. When Helen discovers the bodies in the kitchen of the boarding house, she calmly walks around to the front door, enters the house, and calls the train depot to reserve a seat on tomorrow's train to San Francisco, where she lives. Later she explains that she didn't call the police because "it's a lot of bother." Within ten minutes the tone of the movie has been established by the gory double murder, and the corrupt nature of its two main characters clearly revealed by their roles in it. When Wild boldly picks up Helen at the train station the next day and follows her back to San Francisco, we can see where the plot is heading: it is inevitable that these two forces—he all uncontrolled impulse and she all cold calculation—will collide like matter and anti-matter, creating an explosive reaction that after minor detonations along the way will end in mutual annihilation.

Along for the ride is a great supporting cast. Esther Howard, who had small roles in seven films directed by Preston Sturges, plays the blowsy, beer-guzzling landlady of the boarding house in Reno. Walter Slezak plays the sly P.I. she hires to track down the killer. Best of all, Elisha Cook, Jr. plays Wild's best friend, Marty, for five years his roommate and protector. After finding out about the double murder in Reno, he patiently tells Wild, "You can't just go around killin' people when the notion strikes you. It's not feasible" and explains exactly what must be done to avoid getting caught. To say that there is an implicitly homoerotic element to the relationship between these two would be an understatement.

We can predict how the movie will end but not the twists and turns it will take on its way there, and watching the scenario play out to its inevitable end—witnessing the thrust-and-parry relationship between Trevor and Tierney as she attempts to control an essentially anarchic force—provides an hour and a half of immensely satisfying entertainment, especially for lovers of the genre.

BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955) ****
Although nearly unknown in the U.S. until recently, the French director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) has long been recognized in Europe as a precursor of, and major influence on, the French New Wave. Traces of his style and sensibility are easily recognized in early works by Godard and Truffaut, especially Breathless (which incorporates references to the plot of Bob le Flambeur and even features a cameo by Melville) and Shoot the Piano Player. In fact, a convincing case could be made the Bob le Flambeur is actually the first movie of the New Wave.

This is a heist movie—a type of film considered by many a sub-genre of film noir—in the vein of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, but I would say that as good as those movies are, Bob le Flambeur is even better. Even though it is a heist movie—the object is the casino at Deauville—the plan for the heist isn't hatched until well into the movie, and the (naturally) unsuccessful heist never actually happens. The movie clearly occupies film noir territory with its almost exclusively nocturnal action; its cast of petty crooks, hustlers, gamblers, and gendarmes who keep tabs on them; and its settings in bars, night clubs, card rooms, race tracks, and casinos both legal and illegal. The whole movie has an aura of life lived on the edge, outside of conventional society and in an atmosphere of risk and unpredictability. Over all hangs an air of fatalism, of men and women driven by internal forces to behave in ways that will inevitably lead to their doom.

Movies of this type invariably have an ensemble cast of colorful characters, but here it is the main character, Bob Montagné, the flambeur or compulsive gambler of the title (he even keeps a one-armed bandit in a small closet in his living room just to amuse himself with), who lifts the story into the stratosphere. As portrayed by Roger Duchesne, Bob is a slick, sophisticated man, a middle-aged ex-con who enjoys the good things in life—a quality wardrobe, a snazzy American Plymouth convertible, and a cool bachelor pad with a loft and picture-window view of the Sacré-Coeur—and maintains his comfortable lifestyle through the tireless pursuit of all sorts of gambling coupled with an unshakable belief in his own good luck. For the first part of the movie, his good fortune always seems to hold. But around midway through, his luck turns and, broke, he is forced to devise the scheme to rob the casino. His plan, so complex and so intricately engineered down to the least detail, clearly indicates a formidable intelligence and organizational ability that channeled into legitimate pursuits would probably have made Bob a very rich businessman.

Melville directs with the flair and personal authority that would later come to be considered hallmarks of the New Wave directors. As well as the conventional flat cuts, dissolves, and fade-out/fade-ins, he revives transitional devices such as iris-ins, iris-outs, horizontal wipes, and at one point even a vertical wipe—just the kind of retro flourishes later used by Truffaut and Godard in their early films. He and his cinematographer, the great Henri Decaë, film the deserted early-morning streets of Paris and the dives frequented by his characters in a near-documentary way that makes the viewer feel like an observer of reality. Melville, who also co-wrote the movie, gives Bob a concisely revealed backstory and places him in situations—such as his avuncular interactions with both Paulo, his young protégé and the son of his former partner-in-crime and Anne, a foolish, uninhibited, but charming teenager living on the streets—that succinctly limn a fully developed, fascinating, and sympathetic character.

In typical noir fashion, the movie ends in irony: waiting for several hours in the casino for the robbery to begin, Bob whiles away the time gambling and manages to win a fortune. He doesn't really need the money any more and feels his self-confidence restored, yet he still carries through with the robbery even though he knows it is destined for failure. I can think of no other movie that so obviously acts as a transition between the American films noirs of the 1940's and early 50's and their offspring, the French New Wave films of the late 1950's and early 60's.

BREATHLESS (1959) ***
After watching this movie—one of the seminal films of the French New Wave—with friends the other night, I asked one (not a cinephile, just an ordinary movie watcher) what he thought of it. His answer: "Merde." I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but I must say that afterward I felt a distinct sense of letdown, a sort of cinematic petite mort. I have to confess that I have never been that fond of Jean-Luc Godard, the film's director. Although I had never seen Breathless before, I have seen several of the movies that immediately followed it. In each of those movies I found some things to like, but with the exception of Weekend (1967) and possibly Contempt (1963), they never struck me as unified works of art or even film narrative. And I always felt that they were keeping me at arm's distance, almost as though Godard was daring the viewer to tolerate his idiosyncrasies.

In Breathless, Godard has an annoying way of taking a stylistic quirk and repeating it ad nauseam. A couple of examples: 1) Those vaunted jump cuts. Exactly what was their purpose? Just to show that he could defy the conventions of film storytelling if he wanted to, as if he could by the power of his ego turn a flaw into a virtue and exhibit his individualism by a refusal to stick to the rules, even when there is a perfectly good reason for the rules? I could understand the cuts that covered major ellipses in the narrative to speed things along, but I found all the small jump cuts (or maybe jumpy cuts would be more accurate), when just a second or so of action was missing, to be distracting. 2) Belmondo's tic of rubbing his lips. Those are magnificent lips—in a way they are the real star of the movie. Is Godard trying to show what a narcissist Michel (the character Belmondo plays) is? The time he did this in front of Patricia's (Jean Seberg) dressing table mirror, I actually thought he was putting on some of her lipstick. These examples beg the question: At what point does novelty become tedium, cleverness become self-indulgence, hommage become pretension? The answer provided by this movie is, around the tenth repetition. But don't worry, you'll get the chance to see this answer confirmed by another ten or so repetitions.

So why watch Breathless? I can offer three reasons (hence the *** rating): 1) The film is historically important. Breathless is—along with The 400 Blows and Hiroshima, Mon Amour—one of the three earliest full-blown examples of the French New Wave, a movement that had tremendous impact on the history of film. 2) Several dazzling extended tracking shots by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, including a 360-degree shot of Seberg circling the room that is repeated a second time, then repeated again with Belmondo circling in the opposite direction. 3) Jean-Paul Belmondo. His performance is as revolutionary as Marlon Brando's in A Streetcar Named Desire—unique, charismatic, and completely riveting. From little more than a sketchy case study of a self-absorbed young man with severe personality disorder, he creates a compelling character. If you can stay with this movie—considered by many Godard's most accessible work—to the end, you might want to seek out more of his films. But as Breathless attests, be prepared to accept the inevitable annoyances and excesses of Godard to enjoy his moments of inspiration.


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