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The Big Sleep

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. (Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1950)

That quote from Chandler is a distillation of what he felt were the characteristics of the fictional private eye, and it’s a view that continues to endure. The reason for the popularity of this particular representation is understandable enough: not only does it portray the detective as the classical hero, it also allows the audience to identify with him, to see in him the kind of man they’d probably like to be themselves. Chandler’s knight errant Philip Marlowe has appeared on screen a number of times with varying degrees of success, but the incarnation that I, and I guess a lot of other people too, have the highest regard for is Humphrey Bogart’s take in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946).

Some aspects of the plotting of The Big Sleep are notoriously complicated – the story goes that screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, along with director Hawks, were so confused about who committed one of the murders that they contacted Chandler for clarification. Apparently, the author found himself similarly stumped. The thing is that the murders, motives and twists of the plot pile up so relentlessly that it does take a fair bit of concentration on the part of the viewer to keep up with it all. However, that’s not really the point of the movie and the basic thrust of the narrative is easy enough to follow in itself. Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is the private detective engaged by the ailing General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a blackmailer who is putting the squeeze on Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger and wilder of his two daughters. In the course of his investigation, which rapidly descends into a murder case, Marlowe finds that the elder sister, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), appears to be tangled up in things too. Vivian’s a cooler, more composed customer than her sister, yet her involvement with a shady gambler, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), indicates that she too is keeping dangerous company. I’m not going to go into the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot here, firstly to avoid spoilers, and secondly because it will likely serve to do nothing more than confuse readers. Suffice to say the stories of General Sternwood’s two girls eventually dovetail and all the various plot strands are drawn together satisfactorily. Yet, as I said before, you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.

Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

One of the great pleasures of The Big Sleep is the dialogue. Most of the memorable lines and passages, such as the little sample above, are lifted almost directly from the pages of Chandler’s novel. However, Brackett, Faulkner and Jules Furthman did have to make some alterations to turn in a workable script, both for storytelling reasons and to ensure the finished product was going to get past the Hays Office. Therefore, the more overt references to the unsavory nature of the blackmailer’s racket had to be toned down for example. The infamous production code is often criticized, and with good reason, for imposing draconian and logic-defying restrictions on what could be shown on the screen. The thing is though, a good deal could be implied if not directly stated, and clever writers could exploit this loophole. In a sort of perverse way, the very restrictiveness of the code meant that filmmakers were forced to be more creative in their efforts to circumvent it; I think The Big Sleep stands as an excellent example of this apparent paradox. The two houses in which much of the tale plays out are the Sternwood mansion and the home of Geiger, the blackmailer. Hawks and his crew succeed in bathing both locations in such an atmosphere of decadence and iniquity that it needs little imagination to appreciate the depravity lurking beneath the surface. Perhaps Hawks’ greatest triumph in the picture is the way he manages to ensure that style rises above substance throughout and he creates a crime story where the crimes and their resolution become secondary to our enjoyment of the ride through Chandler’s twilight world.

While The Big Sleep benefits enormously from a snappy script, strong source material and a first class director, what helps elevate it to true classic status is the casting. The second collaboration of Bogart and Bacall builds beautifully on the foundations already laid in To Have and Have Not. The movie took their on and off-screen courtship to new and more sophisticated levels, and the air fairly crackles whenever they share a scene. I think Bogart was born to play Marlowe, he perfectly encapsulates the weary nobility of Chandler’s creation like no other actor before or since. The part can be seen as an extension or refinement of Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, but there’s a greater sense of honour and less aggressive smugness this time. I already mentioned this in an earlier post, but Bogart’s delivery of his lines is perfect, so much so that it’s very hard to read the novel and not hear him saying the words. On the receiving end of much of Bogart’s wise-cracking, and pitching back every bit as good as she got, was Bacall. Watching her performance today, it’s hard to believe that Bacall wasn’t much past twenty years old when the movie was shot. There’s an air of assurance and worldliness about her that belies her years, the hard-boiled dialogue flowing smoothly as though from a woman who’d been around a long time and had seen all there was to see. In truth, the whole cast does excellent work, but the women in particular stand out. Martha Vickers is all coy treachery, and there are fine and memorable bit parts for Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin. Of the men, I feel Elisha Cook Jr deserves a mention for another of his characteristic turns as an unfortunate fall guy. I guess the only real weakness was John Ridgely, it’s not that he gives a poor performance but he never fully convinces as a dangerous mobster – having said that, he does get one fantastic send off.

The US R1 DVD of The Big Sleep contains two versions of the movie (as far as I know the R2 doesn’t offer this choice) – the preview version and the theatrical cut. I mention this mainly because there are some notable differences in the two cuts. I’m not going to laboriously list all the changes here, that information is readily available elsewhere online, but I will say that they change the feel of the movie significantly. In short, the preview cut is an altogether blander affair, although it helps to make the plot more comprehensible. The theatrical version is much more stylish, placing more emphasis on the Bogart/Bacall dynamic while sacrificing some of the narrative coherence. Personally, I far prefer the theatrical cut, and not just because it’s the more familiar of the two. While the preview version does offer more exposition, it throws the pacing off balance and fails to fully capitalize on the chemistry of the star pairing. It’s nice to have it available for comparison purposes but that’s about it for me. The transfer is reasonable enough, maybe not up there with the best that Warner Brothers have done in the past but it’s certainly not poor. The disc also offers a short feature on the differences between the versions of the movie, and is useful in giving an overview if you don’t feel inclined to watch both cuts all the way through. This movie and The Maltese Falcon helped cement Bogart’s image as the archetypical private eye. Others have played the part of Marlowe, and others have taken on the role of various private detectives, but Bogart nailed it. The film as a whole, can be viewed as a film noir (although of the lighter variety), a crime/detective story, or simply as an outstandingly well-crafted piece of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It comes most highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2013 in 1940s, Film Noir, Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart

 

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Ten of the Best – Noir Stars

Seeing as 2012 is drawing to a rapid close, this is likely going to be my last article of the year. It’s been the first full year blogging on the new site and I have to say it’s all turned out far better than I could have anticipated. I consider myself very fortunate to have built up a loyal little band of followers and the feedback that I’ve been consistently receiving is both gratifying and informative. My last entry, on western stars, offers ample evidence of that, turning out to be the most popular piece I’ve posted by some considerable margin. I’d mentioned that I was intending to do something similar on my other great cinematic passion, film noir, and so it’s time to make good on that. Again, I’ve deliberately restricted myself to ten stars who made an impact on cinema’s shadowlands. Film noir isn’t a genre like the western; it’s a more nebulous form where the convergence of melodrama, crime and fate all become bound up in the creation of a cinematic demimonde that defies definition yet is immediately recognizable. To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on only ten men and women who portrayed so many memorable cops and private eyes, grifters and chiselers, dames on the make and hoods. Anyway, here’s my selection.

Robert Mitchum

Mitchum’s omission from my western list sparked a good deal of comment. He started out playing cowboys, and there’s a case to be made that his western roles are by and large superior to his noir ones. A number of his noirs are weak or flawed productions, particularly those made when Howard Hughes was running the show. However, even when a film was less than successful, it would be difficult to single Mitchum’s performance out for criticism. Besides that, he took the lead in two of the finest noirs: as the classic dupe in Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and as the evil killer in the oneiric The Night of the Hunter.

Burt Lancaster

Lancaster made his debut in what I reckon is one of the top three film noirs, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. This flashback reconstruction of what led one man to lie in a darkened room, calmly awaiting those who have come to murder him showed that Lancaster had the kind of soulfulness and sensitivity that can be used to such great effect in film noir. He would return to the dark cinema frequently, producing fine work in the likes of Criss Cross and Sweet Smell of Success.

Barbara Stanwyck

One of the best known features of film noir is the figure of the femme fatale. Not every picture has one, but if you asked the average film fan to list the characteristics of noir you’d likely hear the name. Barbara Stanwyck has the distinction of playing arguably the greatest deadly woman of them all in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. She did a lot of work in noir, and I’m very fond of her turn as the panicked and bedridden heiress in Sorry, Wrong Number, Anatole Litvak’s study in mounting paranoia.

Edward G Robinson

This mild and cultured man made his name in the early 1930s in Warner Brothers gangster pictures, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar. He worked successfully in a variety of genres throughout that decade but really hit his stride in the 40s with two films for Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) and one for Wilder (Double Indemnity). While those three roles are quite different, they do share one common feature – Robinson was playing men who, in one way or another, are trying to close off their minds to unpleasant realities, and all of them are ultimately tragic figures. This actor was among the best Hollywood ever produced, and his efforts in the world of noir are highly significant.

Robert Ryan

With some actors, it’s fairly easy to pick their best work. When it comes to Robert Ryan though, I find myself so spoiled for choice that it’s nearly impossible. His 40s and 50s output is peppered with excellent performances in noir pictures made for Dmytryk, Renoir, Wise and Ray. Even a piece of flummery like Beware, My Lovely benefits from Ryan’s intense presence. However, I’m going to single out Robert Wise’s tight and economical The Set-Up for attention. Ryan’s portrayal of a washed up fighter (he was once a boxer himself) determined to bow out with dignity, even if it kills him, gave him a break from playing the heavies he’s so often remembered for.

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite with noir fans, her unique brand of sexuality managing to blend quirkiness and vulnerability with a hint of inner steel. Perhaps her part as the good time girl deformed by an enraged Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat sums up that aspect of the actress best. She also brought something special to her role in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, opposite a fiery and abusive Humphrey Bogart – I’ve heard it said that the relationship depicted had parallels with her marriage to Ray at the time.

Glenn Ford

Another guy who had strong claims for inclusion on my recent western list, Glenn Ford started out strong in film noir playing off Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Ford had that everyman quality and, as I’ve remarked when discussing some of his roles on other occasions, a vague sense of discomfort with himself that was ideal for noir pictures. I think Lang brought out the best in him in The Big Heat; his avenging cop is almost a force of nature and his barely contained rage is something to behold in a film that’s got a real mean streak running through it.

Dana Andrews

A little like Ford, Dana Andrews was another actor with whom you could almost see the wheels going round just below the surface. He too seemed to exude some of that inner dissatisfaction that translated into fatalism and disillusionment on the screen. His series of movies with Otto Preminger in the 1940s represent his noir work best. Laura may well be the best known, but Where the Sidewalk Ends offered him a meatier part and stretched him more as an actor. That movie, along with The Big Heat and On Dangerous Ground would make an interesting triple bill on violently unstable lawmen.

Marie Windsor

The queen of the B noirs, Marie Windsor had good roles in both Force of Evil and The Narrow Margin. She had a real knack for playing the cheap schemer better than anyone else I’ve seen, and her role in Kubrick’s The Killing was a perfect fit. As Sherry, the wife of everybody’s favorite sap and loser Elisha Cook Jr, her greed sees her trying to play everybody off against each other and is instrumental in bringing a tragic end to the heist.

Humphrey Bogart

And so I come to the last, but by no means the least, of this brief selection. After a long apprenticeship in supporting roles, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon saw Bogart define the noir lead for the next decade and a half. Tough, chain-smoking and moody, he seemed to encapsulate all the weary cynicism that the war and its aftermath ushered in. His portrayal of Sam Spade was, and remains, hugely influential, and then he went one further and truly nailed the essence of the private detective in The Big Sleep. In fact, I find it impossible to read Chandler’s text now without hearing Bogart’s distinctive delivery in my mind.

So there we have it. When I made that western list I made the point that I wasn’t claiming it as any kind of definitive one. I’ll say the same again here – these are just the ten names that I feel offered something of worth and value to film noir over the short span of its classic period. In their different ways, I think these people helped sum up what noir was all about and shaped its development. I’ll admit I struggled to decide on ten actors for westerns, and this was actually tougher. The fact that I included both actors and actresses meant that my options were increased while the overall parameters remained the same. Of course I could easily have split this into two sections, or expanded it to twenty. However, in the end, I decided to stick to ten as it forced me to apply a more ruthless approach, and give it all a lot more consideration, than I might otherwise have done. Once again, all comments, arguments and protests are most welcome.

 

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Dead Reckoning

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I guess when you watch enough films it’s almost inevitable that a certain degree of familiarity with plot and characters creeps in. Leaving aside the matter of remakes and such, this is often simply a false perception on the viewers part. However, every once in a while, a movie like Dead Reckoning (1947) comes along where familiarity is not just a case of perceived similarity but a clear rehash of characters, themes and even dialogue from earlier works. This picture borrows heavily from two previous Bogart vehicles – The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, the latter being the most obvious with lines of dialogue getting recycled by the very man who made them iconic in the first place. Although Dead Reckoning never manages to attain the heights of its source of inspiration, it remains an entertaining (if slightly cheesy) film noir.

It opens strongly with a battered and desperate Captain Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) dodging the cops along the dark, rain slicked pavements of Gulf City. Symbolically seeking sanctuary, he slips into a Catholic church and melts into the protective shadows. Recognising the returning priest as a former army padre, he takes the opportunity to unburden himself and tell his tale in an improvised confession. This introduces the flashback structure that dominates the bulk of the film’s running time. In brief, Murdock is now running scared in Gulf City as a result of his attempt to locate an old army pal who decided to take a powder rather than face exposure as a wanted man when he learns that he is to be awarded the Medal of Honor. The plot follows Murdock’s efforts to clear the name of his friend for a murder that he believes was out of character. The friend in question ends up burnt to a crisp in a car wreck before Murdock even has a chance to contact him, so he must feel his way in the dark in a strange town and among an assortment of shady figures. The closest link to his friend, and the person most likely to hold the key to his fate, is a husky voiced cabaret singer by the name of Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott). Murdock’s innate distrust of women means he starts off sceptical of the sincerity of this lady, and her apparent closeness to the smoothly repellent night club owner and gambler Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) merely serves to heighten his suspicions. Throughout the movie Murdock blows hot and cold in relation to Coral, his attitude varying from doubt to acceptance and back again, even as he finds himself increasingly attracted to her. It’s only after Murdock turns Martinelli’s office into a raging inferno that the truth behind his friend’s demise finally comes to light.

Lizabeth Scott & Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning.

Bogart’s character in Dead Reckoning is a detective in the Spade/Marlowe mold in all but name; he frequents the same kind of places, mixes it with the same mobsters and duplicitous types and speaks in the same hard-boiled idiom. He even brings matters to a head in a way we’ve seen before – as he tosses the deadly incendiary grenades around Martinelli’s office to loosen tongues you almost expect to hear him snarl “That’s one, Eddie…”, and the climactic scene with Lizabeth Scott borders on a pastiche of the payoff in The Maltese Falcon. Despite the lack of originality in the script (I’ve also read that the movie was initially planned as a kind of follow-up to Gilda) it still stands up as a medium grade noir. A lot of this is due, I think, to Bogart’s strong performance, his cynicism and toughness papering over the weaknesses in other aspects of the movie. The short scene in the morgue – the one cool place in town – highlights this through its combination of smart-ass dialogue and implied violence. In fact, there’s a good deal of violence in the movie, although much of it takes place off screen. The savage beating Murdock receives from Marvin Miller’s sadistic thug, all carried out to the accompaniment of dance time music, is never shown but the damage to the hero’s face makes it clear enough what’s been going on. Morris Carnovsky’s Martinelli makes for an interesting villain, reminiscent of George Macready’s Ballin Mundson in the aforementioned Gilda, as a lowlife with a veneer of sophistication and mock delicacy. The weakest link in the whole chain is ironically the one person who’s presence ties all the strands together – Lizabeth Scott. She was clearly supposed to act as a kind of surrogate Bacall, a sultry foil for Bogart’s two-fisted protagonist. She looks the part and pitches her voice low enough to promise heaven and honey, but her overall performance is a poor one. At one point she spins Bogart one of those hard luck yarns so beloved of femme fatales and then, not reading the result she wanted in his features, asks if he doesn’t believe her. And that’s the problem; there’s a lack of conviction and credibility when she delivers some of the most crucial lines in the movie. Leaving aside the performers, John Cromwell’s direction is mostly effective and there are some darkly moody scenes. The tense opening and the subsequent flashback power things along, but the return to “normal” time lets the momentum slow a little, and a little too early, before the final reveal.

The R2 DVD from Sony/Columbia is reasonably good but not without some faults. The transfer is generally clean, but there are moments of softness and a few occasions when scratches and light damage prove mildly distracting. The only extra feature offered is a gallery consisting of a few posters. Generally, this is a pretty respectable noir, though not quite top flight material. The script is too much by the numbers and unquestionably derivative of other pictures. Still, it does hold one’s interest and has rewatch value if only to enjoy again some fine, snappy lines. That, and a typically gritty Bogart performance, earns it a recommendation.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Humphrey Bogart

 

Key Largo

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It’s hard to watch a film like Key Largo (1948) without being reminded of endings; it represented the final screen collaboration of Humphrey Bogart with both Lauren Bacall and Edward G Robinson, and it was one of the last movies he would make for Warner Brothers. Not only that, but it was also one of the last hurrahs for the old style gangster picture – but more about that later. It’s also a production that can be viewed from a number of angles: as a character driven drama, a gangster/noir mash-up, a commentary on the situation facing returning veterans, or as an allegory on fascism. Now this kind of multi-faceted approach can either lead to an unfocused piece or add to the rewatch value. I think the latter wins out here.

If the title and written prologue weren’t enough then the opening helicopter shot establishes the fact that the action takes place along the Florida Keys. As the camera zooms in on a bus making its way along the linking causeway we get our first glimpse of Frank McCloud (Bogart), a WWII veteran paying a visit to the relatives of a fallen comrade. McCloud’s destination is a hotel that, owing to the fact it’s the off-season, is virtually closed down. There is, however, one group of guests in residence when he gets there. None of these people seem especially friendly or anxious to welcome another visitor, and one of thier number, a Mr Brown, is conspicuous by remaining closed in his room. By and by, it emerges that McCloud’s companions are actually criminals, although that fact was unknown to the hotel owner, Temple (Lionel Barrymore), and his daughter-in-law Nora (Bacall). If McCloud had any suspicions, they are confirmed by the appearance of Mr Brown. Mr Brown isn’t his real name of course – he is one Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a one-time mob kingpin bent on rebuilding his criminal empire. At this point the already oppressive atmosphere grows heavier, both figuratively and literally, as an approaching hurricane threatens to tear up everything in its path. In the midst of all this, a duel develops between Rocco and McCloud – one that will finally be resolved on a motor launch bound for Cuba.

Reunited for one last time - Bogart and Robinson in Key Largo.

Key Largo was made at what was arguably the height of John Huston’s career, and its success is due to a combination of top class scripting (with Richard Brooks), photography, and acting. Bogart and Robinson occupy centre stage and their war of wills is what drives the whole thing forward. Eddie G’s Rocco is a devious and bullish creation, yearning for past glories that he must surely know in his heart are unattainable. Rocco and his cohorts are seen cowering before nature’s primal force and attempting to brass it out with a show of transparent bravado, pronouncing with unconvincing confidence that prohibition must surely come back and how things will be different this time. But these men are aware that they’re living out of time and it’s interesting to note that Al Capone, on whom Rocco was clearly based, was dead a year at that point. Bogart’s weary vet is one of his more complex characters, and could be compared to his Rick from Casablanca. Both men are initially reluctant to get involved or “stick their neck out” but do so eventually for the right reasons. The difference, however, is that Rick’s passivity was motivated by considerations of profitability whereas McCloud’s was the result of a deep disillusionment. That should have struck a chord with contemporary audiences: a whole generation of young men had marched off and risked their lives (and seen others lose theirs) in order to rid the world of oppression and fascism, only to return home and be confronted by a domestic version.

There are two key scenes that help define McCloud’s character. The first is a wonderfully photographed series of close-ups that show Rocco whispering suggestively into Nora’s ear (not a word is heard, but the inference is clear enough) before she spits contemptuously into his outraged face. With an unspoken dignity, McCloud moves across and quietly puts an arm around her shoulder before gently leading her away. I remember hearing Richard Brooks refer to this scene in a documentary as a moment of simple decency that everyone would like to emulate, and that’s hard to argue with. A similar situation takes place when Rocco humiliates his woman (Claire Trevor) by forcing her to sing unaccompanied as the price for the drink she craves. When he then goes back on his word, McCloud again does the right thing by pouring a whisky for the devastated woman despite the danger to himself. This is not a man who avoids confrontation due to cowardice or fear of personal injury but one who has grown apathetic and merely needs a prod to show his true colours. The aforementioned Claire Trevor deservedly won an Oscar for her role as the faded, alcoholic singer whose pride and self respect have been pushed into the background. That scene where she degrades herself in front of strangers through desperation is toe-curlingly effective and probably clinched the award for her. Lauren Bacall, in the only other significant female role, is much more subdued and is called on to do little more than gaze soulfully at Bogart. Of the four films Bogart and Bacall made together, this one is markedly different. The two Howard Hawks pictures had that director’s breezy playfulness about them, while Dark Passage was almost a study in bizarre coincidence. Key Largo has a grim, downbeat tone throughout that may surprise, or even disappoint, those hoping for a rerun of the couple’s previous work together.

Key Largo has been out on DVD for a long time now but the transfer still holds up well enough. I have the Warner UK version and the image is hard to fault, being pretty crisp all the way. I thought the dialogue levels were a little low but that’s probably just a feature of the film as there are a number of hushed conversations, and anyway Max Steiner’s atmospheric scoring doesn’t suffer. Extras are almost non-existent and are limited to the film’s trailer. The movie itself is a good example of how well Bogart and Huston worked together (it may come up wanting for those seekng out another Bogart/Bacall pairing though) and is the kind of picture that rewards multiple viewings. It gets the thumbs up from me.

 

Virginia City

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When Errol Flynn’s first stab at a western, Dodge City, proved to be a financial hit Warners wasted no time in casting him in another. They reassembled as many of the cast and crew from the previous movie as possible and threw in a few more stars for good measure. The result was Virginia City (1940), and although this one wasn’t in technicolor the sweep of the narrative was every bit as epic as its predecessor. It’s not quite the movie of Dodge City but it does come close, only let down by a couple of questionable casting decisions which I’ll look at later.

The story of Virginia City takes place towards the end of the Civil War, and deals primarily with a last ditch attempt by the Confederacy to secure a bullion shipment which would allow them to fight on. Four years of warfare, and the accompanying blockade, have left the South on the verge of bankruptcy and staring defeat in the face. Their one chance of survival hangs on obtaining the necessary funds to keep them afloat. Virginia City was the site of some of the richest mines in the country and provided the Union with untold wealth. Of course some of those same mines were owned by Confederate sympathisers who had managed to raise $5 million to aid the cause. The difficulty for the South was to get that money out of Nevada and safely into their own territory. Enter Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), a Confederate officer who has the requisite knowledge of the territory to head up an expedition to bring the contraband through. In the film’s opening scenes Irby is in charge of a military prison which counts a certain Captain Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) among its inmates. When Irby foils Bradford’s attempt to escape it sets up a personal rivalry between the two men that is added to later on when they meet again in Nevada and find themselves competing for the attentions of saloon singer Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins). Although both Bradford and Irby find themselves on opposing sides in the war they have a good deal in common, and indeed end up fighting shoulder to shoulder against a mutual threat in the closing stages. Since both of the leads were cast in essentially heroic roles it meant that another, more obvious, villain was needed. That’s where Humphrey Bogart comes in, playing the mustachioed Mexican bandit John Murrell.

Randolph Scott & Errol Flynn going toe to toe in Virginia City

Flynn and Scott both play their parts well and it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for both. However, it has to be said that Scott comes off the best. He was the better actor but that’s not the only reason; his mission was also more romantic, and the fact you know it’s doomed from the outset lends more pathos to his character. In fact, the northerners of the film (with the exception of Flynn and perennial sidekicks Hale and Williams) are generally an unpleasant bunch who are difficult to sympathise with. Douglass Dumbrille’s Major is a straight-backed martinet and other pro-Union characters are shown in a highly unfavorable light. It’s notable that many films of this period tended to side with the Confederacy and painted the Yankees as the villains. Only in the closing moments, when Lincoln (appearing as no more than a shadow cast on a document) makes an appeal for national reconciliation, does the film show the Union in a positive way. If Flynn and Scott give a good account of themselves the same cannot be said for Bogart and Miss Hopkins. Bogie just didn’t belong in westerns; he was too eastern and urban, and he gives a stiff and unconvincing performance that borders on pantomime. Miriam Hopkins also looks all at sea belting out old standards in a can-can dress in a rough saloon. There is a bit of back-story for her character to show that she came from an altogether higher class of family, but it still fails to hide the fact that she was a poor choice for the part. Most of the time she appears uncomfortable and too old for her role. It’s a pity Olivia De Havilland couldn’t have been given the part for, although she wasn’t exactly the saloon girl type either, she at least had chemistry on the screen with Flynn.

Michael Curtiz did another fine job of directing and every shot is professional and well framed. The movie benefits a lot from the extended use of locations that are especially important for westerns. He created plenty of excitement in the action scenes, in particular the sequence where Bogart escapes from the runaway stagecoach. That scene also features a repeat of master stuntman Yakima Canutt’s patented under-a-moving-vehicle manouevre that he first used in John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s also worth mentioning that Max Steiner provided another thundering score to match the on-screen action, and it adds a great deal to the film’s atmosphere.

Virginia City is available on DVD from Warners in R1 in their set of Flynn westerns. The transfer is excellent and Sol Polito’s black & white photography positively glows. There’s the usual array of extra features, including a commentary track by Frank Thompson that provides plenty of detail on the film’s production. Warners have also released a set of Flynn’s westerns in the UK, but omitted this title. I’m not sure why this happened but I have to wonder if it may not have something to do with some of the horsefalls; there’s one particularly brutal shot that would surely cause a problem with the BBFC. I would rate this film at just a notch below Dodge City, but it’s still pretty good. The plot is strong and Flynn and Scott’s characters have enough depth to keep you watching, but the miscasting of Hopkins and Bogart does damage the picture. Coming next, Santa Fe Trail.

 

Sirocco

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Just think of the concept: Humphrey Bogart, an exotic location, gun-runners, freedom fighters, black marketeers, a love triangle, and a beautiful femme fatale. Sounds like a sure fire winner, right? I mean, it should be a given that throwing all these elements into the mix would produce a memorable movie, maybe even a bona fide classic. Superficially, it may seem like I’m referring to Casablanca; unfortunately, I’m not. No, what I’m talking about is Sirocco (1951), a poor, distant relation of Michael Curtiz’s much loved film. Now I count myself a big fan of Bogart, I even like those one dimensional thugs and heavies he played during the late 1930s, but Sirocco is a movie I really struggle to take anything positive from.

The story takes place in Damascus in 1925, during the period of French control. The end of WWI saw the carving up of the old Ottoman Empire, with modern day Syria being governed by France under a mandate from the League of Nations. But these are troubled times, and the nights are filled with the sounds of sporadic small arms fire as the Syrians launch periodic attacks against the occupying army. In the wake of one such attack, which has wiped out yet another patrol, the French military commander decides to crack down hard on the insurrection. Despite a tight blockade, shipments of weapons are making their way into the rebels’ hands. It is the task of Intelligence chief Colonel Feroud (Lee J Cobb) to halt this traffic, and this means rounding up the top black marketeers. Harry Smith (Bogart) is an American with a chequered past who uses his food imports as a cover for the more lucrative business of running guns into Damascus. While Feroud stalks Smith through the serpentine passages and subterranean catacombs of the ancient city, the relationship between the two men becomes further complicated by the fact that both have fallen under the spell of the beautiful, yet shallow and self-obsessed, Violette (Marta Toren). With the French troops hot on his heels, Smith finds himself a fugitive in a city of curfews and hastily organized ambushes. Just when escape to Egypt and safety seems within his grasp, Harry Smith finds that fate has one more twist to serve up. 

Humphrey Bogart is snared in a shadowy net.

Throughout the ’40s Bogie was the very epitome of weary cynicism, the poster boy of film noir. Those hangdog features and his lisping delivery were perfect for expressing the pessimism and disillusionment of the time. However, his portrayal of Harry Smith is almost too weary and cynical for its own good. For the first hour or so we see a man without a shred of decency, a man who would sell out anybody or anything as long as the price was right. In itself, that’s not a problem, although there is only the vaguest hint given of what led him to this. The bigger problem is that in the final twenty minutes the viewer is expected to buy the notion of this self-serving profiteer undergoing a change of heart, and laying everything on the line in order to save the life of the man who has hounded him. In short, it doesn’t work; the character shift is too great and too abrupt to be believable. Lee J Cobb does better as the soldier whose conscience drives him to place his life in danger, and whose honor and bravery contrasts sharply with the venal amorality of Harry Smith. Marta Toren certainly looks good as the faithless Violette, but her character is a deeply unattractive one; after a horrendous bombing incident in a crowded bar, her only concern is for the damage inflicted on her dress and stockings. In truth, her role doesn’t serve any particular purpose except to add an edge to the rivalry between Smith and Feroud. In supporting parts, there’s some good work done by Everett Sloane, Zero Mostel and Nick Dennis. Curtis Bernhardt directs competently enough but the story plods in places and is only lifted by the camerawork of Burnett Guffey, who creates some atmospheric shots in the shadowy alleys and catcombs. It’s in these scenes that the film is most effective and they save it from being a complete failure.

 Sirocco is available on DVD from Columbia in an excellent transfer. The print used doesn’t seem to have any damage and there’s a healthy, but not excessive, amount of natural looking film grain. Extras are limited to galleries of promotional material. The film was made for Bogie’s own production company Santana, which he set up after leaving Warners. The company made only a handful of pictures and, with the exception of In a Lonely Place, none of them set the world alight. Sirocco isn’t so much a bad film as a run of the mill one, a formula piece that’s never especially involving. One for real Bogart fans, and even they will likely endure it rather than enjoy it.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2009 in 1950s, Film Noir, Humphrey Bogart

 

The Desperate Hours

Poster

Humphrey Bogart’s penultimate film offered him the chance to have one final crack at the kind of role that had catapulted him into the public consciousness two decades earlier. The Petrified Forest (1936) gave Bogie his big break, but it also led to his being typecast as the one dimensional heavy. For the next five years he wasn’t called on to do much more than sneer at the camera and get shot by James Cagney. Playing Roy Earle in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra would be the turning point for him – sure it was another doomed gangster part but at least this one had a human face. With one exception, he avoided any more underworld roles until we come to 1955 and The Desperate Hours.

The story concerns Glenn Griffin (Bogart) who, in the company of kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin) and lumbering sociopath Kobish (Robert Middleton), has just broken out of prison. Needing somewhere to lay up until Glenn’s girl can reach them and deliver their money, the trio take over the suburban home of Dan Hilliard (Fredric March) and hold the family hostage. There is also a side matter of Griffin holding a grudge against a local cop (Arthur Kennedy), but this is never really developed as the movie chooses to focus on the clash of those cinematic titans Bogart and March. What we get is a war of will and wits between Bogart’s career criminal, struggling to maintain control over both his companions and the family, and the steadfast and respectable March. The film was adapted from a stage play and much of the drama is played out within the confines of the family home. This both points up the contrast between the snug domesticity of the Hilliards and the violent Griffin gang, and helps highlight the claustrophobic sense of entrapment felt by all the principals. As the balance of power seesaws back and forth, the atmosphere of tension never lets up until the film reaches its satisfying climax.

Humphrey Bogart & Fredric March

Films which are adapted from plays almost always give actors a chance to show what they’ve got. Such is the case with The Desperate Hours, where two of the heavyweights of classic era Hollywood get to slug it out and ultimately share the spoils. By this stage in his career Bogart could play this type of role in his sleep. Glenn Griffin is a man on the edge, battling to maintain control over those around him and his own personal demons. It is his failure to control either his cohorts or his own thirst for vengeance that finally bring him down. In contrast, March’s Dan Hilliard is the epitome of middle American stoicism, never allowing any overt signs of weakness or doubt to be witnessed by his family. Where Griffin’s dependence on violence and threats leads to fatal blunders, Hilliard’s self discipline and decency allow him to coolly wait for his chance. Of the support cast, the parts of Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young are thanklessly underwritten; the former having little to do except show his dogged professionalism and the latter his devotion to the Hilliard’s daughter. Robert Middleton fares best as the stupid and dangerous Kobish. He brings a genuine sense of menace to the film as his character literally crashes around like a bull in a china shop. There are also small yet welcome parts for character specialists Whit Bissell and Ray Teal. 

The Desperate Hours is available on DVD in both R1 and R2 from Paramount. The disc is a totally barebones affair but the widescreen anamorphic transfer is fantastic and, at the time of writing, can be picked up for less than a fiver. All in all, it’s a worthwhile and recommended movie.

 
 
 
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