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Film / Video Reviews
Film Noir

Darker than the norm and reviewed with a discerning eye.

Dead Again (1991)

Kenneth Branagh follows up his triumphant Henry V with this equally excellent homage to film noir. Dead Again is the story of Grace (Emma Thompson), the woman who has lost her memory; Mike (Branagh), the man hired to help her find out who she is; and Roman and Margaret (also Thompson and Branagh), a couple from the 1940's whose lives intertwine inextricably with Grace and Mike's. Also in attendance is Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), an antique dealer/hypnotist who may or may not know the answer, and Cosy Carlisle (Robin Williams, in a hilarious performance), an ex-psychiatrist who may be able to help.

From an original screenplay by Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight), Branagh slowly gives us the necessary information to solve this mystery of identity. Borrowing from the legacies of film noir and Hitchcock, Branagh and Frank have crafted a potboiler that updates the conventions while remaining true to them.

Fallen Angels (1993)

Beginning in 1993, Showtime presented a dozen half-hour film noir adaptations. Called Fallen Angels, it took stories from such masters as Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, James Ellroy, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and Jim Thompson and combined them with directors the likes of Stephen Soderbergh, Phil Joanou, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise (yes, that one), Jonathan Kaplan, and Alfonso Cuarón. This combination, along with great screenwriters (including Scott Frank), cinematographers, and actors like Peter Gallagher, Gary Oldman, Joe Mantegna, Bruno Kirby, Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, Gary Busey, James Woods (well, you get the idea--the thing has quite a pedigree) produced some of the finest noir films ever.

Unfortunately, after a bang-up first season, enthusiasm petered out near the end of the second season and no new shows were made. The series has amassed a cult following--and rightly so--and is at this point the only example of Cruise's work behind the camera.

Only the first season was released on video, and those are very hard to find. The picture above comes from the companion anthology released with the first series. The first six stories appear with their screen cousins and an introduction by James Ellroy. It seems to be the only remaining artifact of a wonderful idea, executed with passion that was simply not to be.

Fight Club (1999)

I came into this--having been told by several of my fellow young white male acquaintances that it was a life-changing film--expecting something on the magnitude of Citizen Kane, or at least Boogie Nights. I was sadly disappointed.

The usually magnificent Edward Norton is wasted here. Helena Bonham Carter shows range in a role that is the antithesis of her earlier career, and also that she can handle an American accent. Brad Pitt is merely a showpiece to spout pseudophilosophies based on freedom through testosterone flow. In fact, the whole movie is like that, and near the end, it completely loses control of itself. The "discovery" at the end was not earth-shattering or particularly surprising, given the clues throughout. It seemed to me simply a contrivance, trying to be something that changes your outlook on the film a la Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects.

Unfortunately, by that time, I was already bored.

And unlike my friends, I was not impressed by the revelation of "cigarette burns," (spots in the upper right corner of a film that tell the projectionist when to change reels) as I had worked in A/V in college and knew about them already. They spoke of these as if they were some deeply guarded secret instead of a way for a person to do the job more efficiently.

Nor was I entertained by the subliminal porn inserted into the children's film. Making a little girl cry is not my idea of humor. That said, the special effects used in the fight sequences were definitely gruesome enough to get the point. And David Fincher, as a director, knows where to put a camera to get the best angle on a scene.

But life-changing? Not on your life.

Hollywood Detective (1991)

The A&E Television Network, in a characteristic burst of daring, presented this short-lived series about, well, a private detective working in Hollywood. Tony Peck (son of Gregory) played Barkley Nunn, an out-of-work screenwriter who solves crimes to pay the bills in the meantime. Not surprisingly, he specializes in cases involving writers. Various character actors portrayed F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and the like, in a delightful homage to the noir of the 1930's, Prohibition era.

Peck has a real presence that makes you like him instantly, and his performance as Nunn--as well as the show--is a lost gem.

Liebestraum (1991)

Kevin Anderson (Sleeping with the Enemy) stars in this Mike Figgis "thriller" that treads along Dead Again lines but with nowhere near the same interest in entertaining its audience. (The strange title comes from the Franz Liszt piano work, played during several scenes.)

Anderson is Nick Kaminsky, an architectural journalist called to Elderstown to visit his dying biological mother (Kim Novak from Vertigo, completely wasted in this role)--he was adopted. Meanwhile, the old Ralston building is being demolished (because of a sordid backstory) by Nick college buddy Paul Kessel (Bill Pullman, the best thing in this movie, which isn't saying much). Nick saves Paul from death by a falling granite "N" and is invited to Paul's house for a birthday party for his wife Jane (Pamela Gidley, the only woman to cover her breasts for a shower scene--how does she bathe one-handed?).

To speed things along (something that Figgis neglects to do at every opportunity), Nick and Jane..."get jiggy with it." A lot. Of course, since this is an atmospheric art film, nothing is ever shown and they are always the victims of coitus interruptus, meaningful once you figure out the surprise plot revelation that served only to elicit a huge "That's it?!" from us. If only Figgis had given us the payoff expected after all the buildup. And if only the "meaningful pauses" during conversations weren't so plentiful, we wouldn't have felt that the time spent were so wasted.

(Apparently the Unrated Director's Cut--that leaves in an overtly sexual scene cut for release--is slightly less confounding. So, perhaps you'll have better luck than we did.)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Coen brothers do film noir is this fantastic picture featuring Billy Bob Thornton is his best-yet performance as Ed Crane, laconic barber. Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini also star, but all eyes are on Thornton, who has come a long way since his Arkansas hillbilly days in Carl Franklin's One False Move and the John Ritter / Markie Post television misfire, "Hearts Afire."

Ed Crane is stuck in a boring life, working as a barber for his brother-in-law, married to Doris (McDormand), who loves him only for his quietude and who is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (Gandolfini) whose wife Ann runs the hot spot of Petaluma in the 1940's, Nirdlinger's department store. So when he sees an opportunity in the form of Creighton Tolliver (Coen favorite Jon Polito) and his dry cleaning entrepreneurship, he wants to take it. Unfortunately, he needs $10,000 for the investment. Fortunately, he knows where he can get it.

So, he anonymously blackmails Big Dave, saying that he will tell Doris' husband if the money is not handed over. As this is film noir, however, this begins a chain of events that leads to two deaths and his arrest for the one he didn't commit.

Thornton plays Ed as the embodiment of the title. His Ed Crane barely says a word while on screen. Luckily, he also gives one of those detailed voice-over narrations so typical of the genre.

The Coens' version of film noir succeeds totally. They use the stock characters of the genre (the quiet schlub, the uncaring female, the big lug) but use actors that they know will endow them with heart. Gandolfini's Big Dave is a far cry from Tony Soprano, down to the crooked-toothed grin. McDormand (an Oscar-winner for the Coens' Fargo and wife of director Joel), however, has less to sink into as her Doris is merely used as a plot device. Also wasted is Scarlett Johannson--so wonderful in Ghost World--as Birdie, the ingenue that finally gives Thornton something to hope for, but then gives him the surprise of his life.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

This adaptation from director Edward Dmytryk of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely is the definitive Philip Marlowe film. (The Falcon Takes Over was the first to adapt the novel, but gave it a more comic spin.) Star Dick Powell was formerly known for being a song-and-dance man in musicals but his career was sliding and he was looking for a image change. (They changed the title because it was a little too musical-ish.)

The story is simple: ex-con boxer Moose Malloy (the eternal "big lug," Mike Mazurki) comes into Marlowe's office looking for his ex-girlfriend. Marlowe finds, however, that she is not as "cute" as Moose thought. She is, in fact, Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the prototype of the femme fatale. Marlowe falls for her--of course--and starts sticking his nose into other people's business in the seedy underworld of L.A. with lots of fog and very little light.

The acting is terrific and this was a groundbreaking film, setting in motion many of the characteristics that would become part of the genre. Powell went on from this to playing gumshoes on film (Cornered) and radio (Blake Edwards' Richard Diamond, Private Detective--in which he also sang, thereby combined his talents into one role).

(Murder, My Sweet won the very first Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture in 1946.)

Original Sin (2001)

(This is a review of the R-rated version, since that's the one I saw. An unrated version is also available, with extra footage and a commentary track.)

This is a perfect example of bad marketing. All the ads for Original Sin amplify the sexual chemistry between stars Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie. This is, in fact, a minor part of the story, at least in this, the R-rated version.

Original Sin is, in fact, an old-fashioned film noir, updated in mentality, but not in time. (The film takes place in the nineteenth century, but Jolie's character appears unaware of this except in her manner of dress.)

Luis Vargas (Banderas) sends away for a mail-order bride. Julia Russell (Jolie) arrives at the train station, looking much better than her photograph.

But new wife Julia has many secrets, not least of which is...ah, but that would be giving it away.

Based on the novel Waltz into Darkness (by Cornell Woolrich, author of Rear Window), writer/director Michael Cristofer (Gia) has fashioned a gripping narrative and wonderful acting opportunities for his stars, but he smothers it in overacting (of which Banderas is the only nonparticipant) and distracting editing techniques like using multiple cuts throughout dramatic scenes best left as one long shot and in useless slow-motion. The result is a mishmash of bad filmmaking, in which an interesting story is almost unrecognizable as such.

(This DVD contains no extras of any kind. If you are a fan of the film, I would recommend purchasing the unrated version, as it has extra footage and a director's commentary.)

Road to Perdition (2002)

Sam Mendes' followup to the highly acclaimed, Academy Award–winning American Beauty, is the epitome of "style over substance." This makes sense, given that Road to Perdition is based on a graphic novel, where the visuals are at least as important as the story, but it does not make for a very entertaining film.

Let me back up a bit. It was in fact a very entertaining film, it's just that when I think back on it, I don't remember anything but the visuals and a small bit of the intensity of Paul Newman's performance. Newman was himself nominated for an Oscar for this role, but I think that was because it is the best thing in the film, other than the cinematography--by the late Conrad L. Hall--which won.

Hall manages to make darkness pretty and, in turn, the light scenes are the most disturbing, as if he is throwing those in particular into sharp relief. How much Mendes was involved in these decisions (and how much came directly from Max Allan Collins' comic book) I do not know. All I know is that he fooled a lot of people into thinking that he had made a terrific film in Road to Perdition when all he did is make one that was better than anything playing in its vicinity.

The Third Man (1949)

Author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to post-World War II Vienna in order to accept a job from old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Unfortunately, upon arrival in Vienna, he finds that Lime has just been killed in an auto accident.

The longer Holly stays, the more he learns--from Lime's friends and associates--that Lime's death was not perhaps the "accident" it was purported to be. All of this comes together, when he sees a familiar face in a doorway...

Carol Reed's adaptation of Graham Greene's novel has been named the best British film ever by the British Film Institute. It was such a success upon release that it inspired a weekly radio series based on The Lives of Harry Lime, recounting Lime's activities before the film's time period. (The DVD includes a "Harry Lime" episode, "A Ticket to Tangiers"--written by Welles--and the Lux Radio Theatre presentation of The Third Man.)

This is an almost perfect film, most definitely a perfect film noir: atmospheric, with a haunting score (Anton Karas' zither theme is unforgettable) and career-peaking performances from Welles, Cotten, and Alida Valli. And let's not forget the story by Greene which takes us into the Austrian underworld.

Fine, fine work all around.

  • ...more to come...