Category Archives: Film Noir

Film Noir: Film Noir

2007

Directed By: D. Jud Jones & Risto Topaloski

Written By: D Jud. Jones

Starring: Mark Keller, Bettina Devin, Roger Jackson (all voice artists)

This curious animated film is an homage to film noir and in many ways it ticks every classic noir box.

Private Detective Sam Ruben (replete with narration) regains consciousness next to a dead cop at the foot of the Hollywood sign and his predicament is further complicated by the amnesia with which he is suffering.  The story follows him as he tries to discover how he got himself into this mess.

Unfortunately for this film, the style of noir has since been surpassed in animated form in the excellent L.A. Noir video game.  So, this is like watching that game play out on a black and white television and no interaction.

The animation is pretty good though, but it let down by the clumsy storyline, one-dimensional characters and a very stilted line delivery from the voice actors.  This makes the whole package come across like a student film: a good student film, but nonetheless whilst it follows many of noir’s typical hallmarks it fails to capture the true essence of bleakness of noir.

There are some explicit scenes of sex and violence, but these seem to be thrown in for effect rather than to be pertinent to the story.

If anyone remembers the “Jane” animated TV series based upon the comic strip in the early 1980’s then this film is closer to that end of the noir animation quality spectrum with perhaps Sin City sitting pretty at the other end.

As far as a curiosity piece goes and to extend your exposure to film noir it is well worth finding and watching, but don’t expect to be blown away or wishing for a sequel.

Noir Cynicism 05/10: arched eyebrows and lingering looks suggest no one can be trusted, but its more pantomime than noir
Noir Femme Fatale 02/10: Pointless, one-dimensional and subjected to explicit nudity for no reason other than to perhaps create a talking point.
Noir Anti-Hero 06/10: Private Detective with his own narration, but he’s detached from the whole thing and you don’t identify with him.
Noir Crime 05/10: murder and all that good stuff, but none of it really matters..
Noir Dough None that I recollect
Noir Body Count 3
Noir Style 06/10: good effort, but doesn’t quite hack it.

 

Film Noir: The Yakuza

1974

Directed By: Sydney Pollack

Screenplay By: Paul Schrader & Robert Towne from a story by Leonard Schrader

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, Richard Jordan

Robert Mitchum as a Private Investigator?  It can only be film noir.  Well, not necessarily in this case.  The Yakuza is often cited as a neo-noir in that it utilises the main elements of film noir, but brings modern themes and visuals.

Here we have Private Detective Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) asked by old army buddy Tanner (Keith) to go to Japan and negotiate the safe release of his daughter who has been kidnapped by the Yakuza (essentially the Japanese mafia).

Why he asks Kilmer and why he so readily accepts is revealed as the film progresses.  Much of the film is exposition about the time that Kilmer spent in Japan following the end of WWII.  At times the pace suffers for that, but the violent action sequences that punctuate the film become much more gruesome and carry more impact because of that.

The film also spends a lot of time explaining the codes of conduct of the Yakuza and why a seemingly simple case becomes more and more complex and the violence escalates beyond all control.  It is surprisingly violent and treats the violence in the same cold blooded way it is handed out.

It’s not a “fish out of water” story like Black Rain or Rising Sun: Kilmer is possibly better adapted to life in Japan than the US, so Dusty (Richard Jordan) provides the dumb looks and questions to which all is explained.

But it is engrossing enough to involve the viewer and have a reasonable pay-off that may surprise first time viewers.  The exposition also sinks in, so that when you reach the end of the movie, you are as clued up as Kilmer and understand what must be done.

Mitchum is excellent and looks as world weary as ever and he is more than ably supported by Ken Takakura who is superb as “the one who doesn’t smile”.  Keith and Edelman are adequate, but although their characters go back as far as Mitchum’s and Takakura’s, they seem to lack the depth.  The film has also unfortunately dated quite badly and Pollack’s direction now seems a little leaden and amateurish with some sequences looking mishandled – this may be a sign of the times though and it is quite likely that Pollack’s use of handheld camera in 1974 was seen as cutting edge.

With Schrader and Towne combining to create the screenplay the script is not as tight and the dialogue not as snappy as you might expect.  But they have a hell of a lot of explaining to do throughout and its credit to them that the amount of information coming out of the screen does not seem too much like a lecture on Yakuza culture.

It’s a good film that treats its subject matter with the same reverence that permeates throughout the characters involved.

Noir Cynicism 02/10: although there is some double-crossing, the focus is more on honour and obligation.
Noir Femme Fatale 05/10: Keiko Kishi seems like no femme fatale, but powerful secrets make her not all that she seems.
Noir Anti-Hero 08/10: Mitchum was born for noir and his character here carries enough baggage to visibly weigh him down.
Noir Crime 06/10: kidnapping and gun running soon get pushed aside for something more precious to the Yakuza: honour and respect.  And a lot of violence!
Noir Dough The initial money for guns almost seems insignificant in the end.
Noir Body Count Easily over 30 – it’s almost impossible to keep count in the end
Noir Style 06/10: Neo-noir might be pushing it a bit, but there are some pure noir moments and Mitchum exudes noir style without even trying.

 

Film Noir: Odds Against Tomorrow

1959

Directed By: Robert Wise

Screenplay By: Abraham Polonsky (as John O. Killen) and Nelson Gidding – based upon the novel by:  William P. McGivern

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley

Probably now better known for his epic musicals (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), Robert Wise also directed some other hugely significant films during his illustrious career(Star Trek, The Haunting, The Day the Earth Stood Still).  This gem is from 1959 and is one of the first productions funded by Harry Belafonte’s imaginatively titled production company HarBel.

It is a tightly wound heist thriller that carries a bold political message about racism.

Disgraced ex-NYPD officer Dave Burke (Ed Begley), in the twilight of his years, hatches a plan to rob a bank in a quiet town in upstate New York.  The heist only needs two other men in on the job and will net them a cool $50,000 dollars each.

The small town bank holds large amounts of cash in preparation for payday and regularly receives a food order from the local deli.  With the bank staff being old and perhaps naive, Burke realises that by replacing the deli’s delivery guy, they can make their way into the bank and complete the robbery.  What makes him so confident that they can replace the delivery guy without the bank staff noticing is that the delivery guy is black.

The two men he recruits are poles apart.  Firstly, ex-con Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a self confessed bigot who initially backs out of the plan when he finds out so much hinges on a black accomplice, but goes along with it when he realises there is nothing else he can turn his hand to to make money.  Secondly, gambling addict and lounge singer Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) who reluctantly joins in order to prevent his estranged wife and his child from getting hurt by the gangster he owes money to.

Naturally, tensions run high between the two and Wise cranks up the tension as the film progresses.

Wise presents New York (superbly filmed on location) as other-worldly, depicting it as a rain-soaked, litter strewn and strangely deserted city which seems to increase the feeling of isolation the two hired men, Slater & Johnny seem to share.  They are a pretty helpless pair that have played themselves into the last chance saloon and seem, deep down, to know it.

Sure, Johnny spends the day with his daughter, but he spends much of that time calling Burke to accept the deal and dealing with mobsters than truly spending that quality time.  And Slater resents being a kept man by his lover (the much under used Shelley Winters) who clearly has a steady job and income.  They each seem to carry an air of self loathing and self-destruction.

The style of the film, from the opening Jazzy score and vibrantly hip titles through to the hip cat talk and the seemingly gorilla film making in the streets of New York, put me in mind more of the French New Wave style of A Bout de Soufflé and Cassavettes Faces (both made much later) than a film noir.  In fact, Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samurai, Le Cercle Rouge) has sited this film as a big influence on him.   But, there are enough elements to make this a good example of the heist film noir (in a similar vein to Kubrick’s The Killing) with plenty of use of shadows and stark silhouettes and angled views.

Belafonte is cool, but not so cool that he can’t seem desperate and he carries his side of the film well. Of course, he does have a musical number in it, but it doesn’t seem contrived or out of place.   Ryan rarely puts in a bad performance and he exudes menace in a fine performance here, particularly the scene involving his neighbour and also when he spits out the N-word when referring to Belafonte.  Only Ed Begley seems a little weak in his role, but then, aside from the first few minutes, little time is spent exploring his character.

It’s a superbly downbeat tale which only falls down when delivering its moral message in a hopelessly clumsy way at the end.

Noir Cynicism 08/10: bad men do bad things.  None of them have any particularly redeeming qualities.
Noir Femme Fatale 01/10: none to speak of, despite Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame appearing, they hold no true femme fatale power.
Noir Anti-Hero 10/10: How anti do you like your heroes.  These guys are a bad bunch alright, not so much as a chance of redemption amongst them.
Noir Crime 08/10: a bank robbery that is given a relatively short amount of screen time for a heist movie.
Noir Dough $50,000 each – enough to set them up for life.
Noir Body Count 3
Noir Style 10/10: if it influenced Melville it’s good enough for me!

 

Film Noir: After Dark, My Sweet

1990

Directed By: James Foley

Screenplay By: Robert Redlin & James Foley – based upon the novel by:  Jim Thompson

Starring: Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, Bruce Dern

Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, one of the cornerstones of hardboiled crime fiction, this is a contemporary take on film noir.

Last summer, I attended a lecture about Raymond Chandler and the lecturer commented that contemporary attempts at film noir rarely hit the mark because noir is much more suited to period pieces.  For example, Chinatown; made in the seventies and set in the thirties and, expanding the theory, Bladerunner; made in the eighties and set in 2019.

Whilst I still think that this is a sweeping generalisation to make; a film such as After Dark, My Sweet does support the theory.

  Jason Patric plays Kevin “Kid” Collins, an ex-pro boxer down on his luck drifting through California following his recent escape from a mental hospital.  In a small town he encounters the alluring Fay (Rachel Ward) and the creepy Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern) and, having been mistaken for being all brawn and no brain, he is drawn into a kidnap plot.

This film has little potential to make it a cracking film noir and it is severely lacking in a coherent plot and absorbing characters.  It also abandons any real attempt to produce a film noir style and instead opts for wide angle shots of blue sky and the desert locations; perfect for a film such as The Hitcher, where the illustration is how desolate and lonely the environment is, but for this movie it looks like an attempt to spruce up an un-dramatic scenario with dramatic locations.

Jason Patric sleepwalks his way through the movie.  Bruce Dern shows a distinct lack of menace or threat to anyone.  Rachel Ward is extremely disappointing; her monotone delivery lacks any hint of personality and her characterisation of Fay is charmless. 

Considering Foley’s pedigree (At Close Range & Glengarry Glen Ross), this effort seems to rest closer to his Madonna collaborations (Papa Don’t Preach and Who’s that Girl) in that the whole thing seems a bit too clean.  This is a story of the down and dirty, yet it looks like a clean cut TV movie. 

And the film’s score, by Maurice Jarre, sounds more suited to a twilight zone episode or the Stephen King “It!” mini-series.

Noir Cynicism 05/10: everyone is a bit shady, but strictly small time and a little idiotic.
Noir Femme Fatale 02/10: Fay should be the one that makes you feel like you want to save her from herself, but Ward’s performance leaves you more inclined to move on and forget about her.
Noir Anti-Hero 06/10: An ex-boxer, an ex-mental patient and a drifter; he pretty much ticks all the boxes, but loses points due to Patric’s inept performance.
Noir Crime 05/10: a kidnap plot that doesn’t quite work out.
Noir Dough ? It’s never mentioned explicitly, although Uncle Bud does mention to Kid Collins that it is enough money for him to never have to work again.
Noir Body Count 3
Noir Style 01/10: the point is for the title.

Film Noir: Sleep, My Love

1948

Directed By: Douglas Sirk

Screenplay By: St Clair Mckelway and Leo Rosten, from the novel by Leo Rosten

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Robert Cummings, Don Ameche, Raymond Burr

Douglas Sirk made his name in Hollywood directing epic melodramas, but before that he tried his hand at film noir with this distinctly average effort.

Let down by a plot that telegraphs itself way ahead, this movie offers no twists and turns to keep the viewer interested. 

In a promising beginning: Alison Courtland (Colbert) awakes on a sleeper train with no recollection of how she got there.  It transpires that her husband (Ameche) is drugging her in an effort to drive her to her death and inherit her high society family wealth.  Unfortunately, we then have to put up with Bruce (Cummings) working out what the rest of us already know.

The main actors seem unsuited to the bleak outlook; Colbert, Cummings and Ameche are all much more suited to wise cracking their way through much lighter material and Colbert, in particular looks extremely uncomfortable as the desperate housewife.  At least Ameche’s character has a good reason for wanting out of the marriage, his new love, a now unfashionably named Daphne is a knockout and sassy too.  I particularly enjoyed her constant reference to another of Ameche’s co-conspirators as 4-eyes.

Even a pre-Ironside and Perry Mason looks like he’s going through the motions as the cop who is on the fringes of the case.

The movie is patchily directed and stylised towards noir, with some excellent lighting and a particularly foreboding staircase, but that theme is not consistent throughout the movie and the whole thing comes across as disjointed.  

Noir Cynicism 06/10: The pursuit of the money and the girl is generally an aberration from the usual happy go lucky high society.
Noir Femme Fatale 08/10: Daphne is fantastic and sassy, but she doesn’t really manipulate convincingly.
Noir Anti-Hero 01/10: Like an extremely sub-standard Thin Man, Cummings jokes his way through the investigation that we are already 10 steps ahead of.  
Noir Crime 02/10: Drugging someone into hallucinating and then trying to cajole them into killing themselves is all a little too far fetched. 
Noir Dough an unspecified inheritance
Noir Body Count 2
Noir Style 07/10:  Some excellent examples, but no consistency of style.

Film Noir: Scarface

1932

Directed By: Howard Hawks

Screenplay By: Ben Hecht

Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff, George Raft

Perhaps not generally considered a film noir, this original version of Pacino’s seminal gangster movie, does have a lot in common with noir.

Although essentially a gangster biopic, the look and feel of the movie lends a lot to film noir.  It is an extremely violent movie, with a particularly violent subject matter, so I wonder if the use of silhouettes (a regular gimmick of noir) was down to the fact that the violence had to be implied rather than explicitly shown to get it past the censors.

The story follows Tony Comonte as he rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld; eventually usurping his boss and placing America in the grip of an all out gang war.

Muni is outstanding this film; he was on a short run of form as he also starred in the excellent “I am a fugitive from a chain gang” in the same year.  He is explosive in the role of Tony and it is easy to make comparisons with Pacino’s much more recognized portrayal.

Early showings of Raft and Karloff are also noteworthy and both show glimpses of the charisma that would make them stand out from the others…although perhaps Raft’s alleged real involvement with gangsters had something to do with his career.

I was surprised to see how much of this movie did make it into the Oliver Stone scripted version: “the world is yours” motif features frequently, as does Tony’s unhealthy obsession with his sister and her doomed relationship with Tony’s best friend.

For those that are fans of the 1983 Scarface, this is worth watching as a curiosity piece.  For fans of film noir, it’s worth watching to see some of the hallmarks and a view of the underworld in America during a turbulent time.

Noir Cynicism 08/10: Everybody is on the make and almost anyone can be bought, but ultimately crime does not pay.
Noir Femme Fatale 06/10: Poppy is the girl who Tony steals from his boss, but she does not drive him; his lust for power is much more prominent.  His sister is more of a fatale for Tony as she leads to his spectacular downfall.
Noir Anti-Hero 08/10: Very close to being the ultimate anti-hero, except in film noir circles; he brought all of this upon himself, whereas film noir anti-heroes are more often victims of happenstance.    
Noir Crime 09/10: All out gang warfare. 
Noir Dough $?? – the world is yours
Noir Body Count I lost count at 24
Noir Style 06/10:  Glimpses of film noir, in particular the lighting and use of silhouettes, but by no means the full package.

Film Noir: The Man Who Wasn’t There

2001

Directed By: Joel Coen

Screenplay By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johanson

The Coen brothers’ homage to film noir carries much of the stylistic qualities, but lacks in substance.

Apparently, the Coen brothers came up with this story while making another film; which figures because the story does come across as a little weak and not thoroughly thought out.  So it lacks the depth of other Coen movies.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Ed Crane, a small town barber who suspects his wife (McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (Gandolfini).  Following an encounter with an entrepreneur with a dry cleaning business plan in need of investment, Ed Crane sets out to blackmail Big Dave for the $10,000 investment needed.  In doing so, he sets off a chain of events that will lead to murder.

The Coen brothers obviously understand the source material for their homage; the movie looks great filmed in black and white and capturing the era.  Their mix of dark humour, coincidence and quirks of character are present throughout and it certainly has enough about it to hold your attention.

But, for me, it is a victory for style over substance and although the movie looks like a film noir, it doesn’t feel like a film noir.  It’s an homage that almost border on spoof.

Noir Cynicism 06/10: Although a fairly cynical view point is held throughout, it fails to deliver a really bleak view of the world.
Noir Femme Fatale 05/10: Doris Crane is no femme fatale; she’s just a woman caught up in an unhappy marriage.  Birdy (Johanson) is nearer the mark, but she is essentially a girl who Ed Crane places on a pedestal, only to find he’s mistaken.
Noir Anti-Hero 05/10: Ed Crane is a bit of no hero.  In fact he’s rather inadequate as a man: his wife cheats on him and he fails to confront her; he’s suckered into the dry cleaning scam and his blackmail plans don’t quite work out.   
Noir Crime 04/10: blackmail and murder, nothing spectacular. 
Noir Dough $10,000 is the price of blackmail…and a dry cleaning business.
Noir Body Count 4
Noir Style 08/10:  It comes across a little bit of a noir by numbers, but it hits the mark stylistically.