RSS

Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Dark Corner

The Dark Corner 

I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner….and I don’t know who’s hitting me.

Those words are uttered by desperate private eye Brad Galt (Mark Stevens). He’s talking about the one lead that he’d hoped would get him out of a frame-up for murder; the one lead that’s just turned out to be another dead end. But those same words also go a long way towards defining the essence of Film Noir. 

Contrary to popular belief, there weren’t all that many Noirs of the classic period that featured a private detective as the hero, however, Henry Hathaway’s 1946 movie does. Galt is a New York P.I. who was double-crossed by his ex-partner. When the partner turns up in town and the police call around to warn Galt not to cause any trouble, you can be sure just what’s coming. Or can you?

The slightly convoluted plot introduces us to a cast of characters who are rarely what they first appear to be. Clifton Webb is a wealthy gallery owner, reminiscent of his earlier Waldo Lydecker in Laura. Cathy Downs is his trophy wife. William Bendix (one of the screen’s most memorable heavies) is…a heavy. Kurt Kreuger is Galt’s ex-partner and Lucille Ball is his ever faithful secretary. By the end of the movie we get to see all these characters for what they really are, and the ride there is never a displeasing one. Hathaway directs tightly on location and keeps everything moving along like an old pro. The interiors are all well shot by Joe MacDonald – lots of inky black shadows, silhouettes, figures framed in windows and so on.

William Bendix & Mark Stevens

So, have I any criticisms to make? Well, there’s Lucy! I have to confess that I have never been a fan of Miss Ball. Even as a youngster her TV shows irritated the hell out of me, now that I’m all grown up I find her even less appealing. While I watched this film, I found myself thinking that almost any other actress would have preferable in the role of the resourceful girl friday.

Nevertheless, I consider this to be a highly entertaining entry in the Fox Noir line. The R1 transfer is very good (it’s also available in R2 and I assume the image should be the same) and well worth picking up if you’re a fan of vintage noir/crime/mystery movies. 

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 15, 2007 in 1940s, Film Noir, Henry Hathaway

 

The Last Hard Men

Sometimes the title of a movie is almost prophetic; James Coburn and Charlton Heston were probably among the last real tough guy actors. But everything must change and be replaced, and that’s the underlying theme of this 1976 end-of-the-trail western.

In the early years of the 20th century Zack Provo (Coburn), along with a half dozen others, escapes from a chain gang and goes on the run. News of the breakout reaches retired lawman Sam Burgade (Heston) who realises that Provo will come gunning for him. It was Burgade who ran Provo to ground and he knows that old scores will have to be settled. With the abduction of Burgade’s daughter (Barbara Hershey), the chase is on – ending only after an orgy of sub-Peckinpah slow motion violence.

James Coburn

The movie was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and, like most of his work, promises more than it ultimately delivers. McLaglen, an apprentice of John Ford, always knew how to film a landscape and offers some pleasing images here. The main problem is that he seems to be trying to remake Big Jake in the style of Peckinpah, and it never really comes off. However, we’ve seen all this before, and seen it done better. Heston tosses out some lines about how the times are changing, but it doesn’t feel like it has any real conviction. Jerry Goldsmith provides a rousing score but again there’s nothing original – it is the same one he produced for 100 Rifles a few years before. All in all, not a bad movie but not a great one either. If you’re a western fan, or a Heston or Coburn completist like me, you’ll want to check it out – just don’t expect too much. 

The film is widely available in continental Europe, though not in the UK yet, from Fox. The transfer is a solid one, with a sharp anamorphic scope image and strong, bright colours.

 
 

Garden of Evil

Look at her! Taking four men like us to a mountain of gold.

So says Richard Widmark’s Fisk, and in so doing he about sums up the plot of the movie. In a nutshell, a desperate woman (Susan Hayward) hires four men (Widmark, Gary Cooper, Cameron Mitchell and Victor Mendoza), who are all hanging around a dead-end Mexican town, to accompany her into the badlands on a mission of mercy; her husband is lying trapped in a mine deep in Apache country. What follows is an adventure tale that ties in some weighty themes such as, loyalty, greed, lust and infidelity. There are also some fairly explicit religious-moral allusions with the only features visible in a lava covered town being the church steeple and the entrance to the gold mine. Why, there’s even a crucifixion!

However, the film is never heavy-going and there is more than enough action to satisfy genre fans. The climactic chase and battle with the Apache is especially well-handled by veteran director Henry Hathaway. In fact, the whole thing moves along at a good pace and, at a little over an hour and a half, never outstays its welcome.

Gary Cooper

I love these early scope films from Fox, and this a great looking picture. Hathaway makes fine use of the widescreen process to show off the Mexican locations; some of the photography on the high mountain pass is simply stunning. The score is a bit of an unexpected one, by Bernard Herrmann no less. Herrmann, being Hitchcock’s composer of choice, is not a name you’d automatically associate with westerns. Nevertheless, the combination of soaring and ominous tones fits the mood of this movie perfectly.

There is, though, one very odd aspect to this film. Now, I won’t claim to be highly knowledgable of American Indians but the Apache we see here are the strangest looking bunch I’ve ever come across – surely the Apache never had Mohican haircuts!

That aside, I highly recommend this movie. How can you not love a western with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark. I think both men give excellent performances, although I may be a little biased since I’m a huge fan of Coop. He gets to deliver the last line of the film while squinting into the sunset -

The garden of evil – if the earth was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.

Great stuff!

 
 

The October Man

Poster 

British attempts at producing film noir have traditionally been regarded as a notch down from their Hollywood counterparts. There is, sometimes, that sense of the genteel that the harder-edged Hollywood movies don’t suffer from. However, when BritNoir is at its best it’s more than capable of competing with productions from across the pond. The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, It Always Rains on Sunday, Brighton Rock, for example, are all films that belong in the front rank of noir. The October Man (1947) may not be quite in the same league as those other titles but it’s not far off.

When you see a film boasting a script by Eric Ambler, you know you’re on fairly safe ground. Ambler was, first and foremost, a novelist and gave us some of the best espionage/mystery fiction of the last century. I would strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with his writing to seek it out, although I believe a good deal of it has shamefully fallen out of print. His script here contains those staples of any good noir, namely murder, guilt and psychological imbalance.

The story concerns Jim Ackalnd (John Mills) who we see in the opening scenes riding a bus and knotting his handkerchief into the shape of a rabbit for the amusement of the small girl seated next to him. The child – played by Mills’ own daughter Juliet – is the daughter of some friends, and Jim is accompanying her back home. As the bus makes its way along a  country road in torrential rain, a brake failure causes a fatal accident at a level crossing. This results in the death of the child and Mills spends a year in hospital with a fractured skull and brain damage. As Jim is released from hospital we learn that he remains racked with guilt and has already attempted suicide. He moves into a rundown boarding house peopled by an assortment of fine British character actors including a poisonous Joyce Carey, Catherine Lacey as the put upon manageress, and Edward Chapman (who should be recognizable as Mr Grimsdale from numerous Norman Wisdom movies). He also makes the acquaintance of model Kay Walsh, of which more later.

Jim’s life seems to be getting back on track and a romance with Joan Greenwood helps give him some renewed hope for the future. However, things are about to go pear-shaped – this is the world of noir after all. The model turns up dead in a park and a cheque from Jim is found close to the body; worse still he was out walking alone when the crime took place. This, combined with some malicious gossip from the other residents, leads the police to suspect Jim – and Jim to query his own sanity. With the psychological pressure mounting and distrust surrounding him, it falls to Jim to try to find the real killer before the net closes around him.

John Mills

Roy Ward Baker provides his usual solid, unfussy direction but the real star is the cinematography. Erwin Hillier lays the noir atmosphere on thick, with lots of smoke, fog, deep shadows and harsh white lighting to pin the focus on the hapless Jim. John Mills plays the role perfectly as the quiet and essentially decent man driven to the very limit. Mills was ideal casting for this kind of part and would reprise it a few years later in the similarily themed The Long Memory. In fact, the acting is uniformly strong throughout and the scenes in the boarding house are memorable.

So, where does the weakness lie? Perhaps surprisingly, the fault is with Amblers script. I always feel that this kind of movie benefits enormously from creating suspicions in the viewers mind about the hero. In this case, we are never really in any doubt that Mills is innocent, moreover, the identity of the real killer is fairly obvious right from the off. Personally, I also found the repeated use of the knotted handkerchief motif – used to point up the mental strain of Jim – a little tiresome towards the end.

Generally though, this is one of the better examples of BritNoir and I would certainly recommend it to any fan of suspense/noir. The film is currently unavailable on DVD anywhere, save grey market copies, as far as I know. I believe the rights may currently reside with Optimum/Network/ITV in R2, all of whom have released some little known gems in the past. I very much hope they get around to this one soon.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on December 2, 2007 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Mills

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 511 other followers