The Killers (1946)

Based on the 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is straight up film noir. Directed by Robert Siodmak, he film begins with two hit men entering a sleepy small town and terrorizing the staff at the dinner. When they find out where the “Old Swede” (Burt Lancaster) lives, they complete their job. The odd thing is the Old Swede expects and accepts his fate.”

Reardon, An insurance investigator, is called in to find the Swede’s beneficiary. As the investigation progresses we learn about the Swede’s life and how he went from a failing boxer, to a robber, and how his love for a femme fatal named Kitty (Ava Gardner) was his downfall.

The insurance company doesn’t see the worth of pursuing the Swede’s decline or the big heist of $250,000 as it will minimally impact the ledger balance, but Reardon persuades his boss for a few days leeway. The story mainly consists of flashbacks, which are taboo in Hollywood, at least according to most screenwriting books, but they work. Each old acquaintance or lady friend has insight into the Swede.

the killers 1946 5

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with bonus commentaries and I recommend watching the one with award winning master writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky who explains the birth of film noir, which was brought over to the US from German directors who emigrated here and how the films got darker and darker with time. Then the New Wave French became enamored of the style and coined the term Film Noir. Kaminsky offers his insights into the success of the story and both the 1946 and 1964 film versions. The DVD set has both of these versions and next I’ll watch the 1964 film with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.

Ministry of Fear

Poster

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) gets released from a mental institution where he’s lived since he was charged with euthanasia of his sickly wife. His train makes a stop in a country town and at the urging of a kind conductor he steps out and goes over to the nearby country fair. He sees a fortune teller and wins a cake. This leads him to getting in trouble with Nazi’s who chase him and frame him with murder. He can’t trust anyone as everyone he meets — even a pretty, warm-hearted woman who runs a charity for widows and orphans with her brother — seems ready to turn him in.

Set during WWII Franz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944) is brimming with tension and suspense. The plot moves quickly and takes Neal to one creepy, yet sophisticated experience after another. Nothing is what it seems. While I read that Lang wanted to make an overtly anti-Nazi movie, the script writer didn’t provide him with the sort of horrible Nazi he could rail against. Based on a Graham Green novel, I found the film compelling. Green wouldn’t agree, I’ve learned. He thought it was awful, but then Green’s a perfectionist and master.

Anatomy of a Murder

anatomy

I can’t think of a bad Jimmy Stewart movie. Director Otto Preminger’s <em>Anatomy of a Murder </em>continues Stewart’s winning streak as far as I’m concerned. With familiar old faces like Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara Orson Bean, George C. Scott, and Eve Arden, <em>Anatomy of a Murder </em> tells the story of a young soldier who’s on trial for murdering a man who allegedly raped his wife. The wife played by Remick is a saucy, flirtatious woman, who’s strangely upbeat for someone in her predicament. She calls Paul Biegler, the former D.A., who’s aimlessly spending his days fishing and doing routine legal work. She convinces him, rather easily to take the case. What follows is a game. Wherein neither Beigler nor the audience know whom to believe. While the movie’s long, and sometimes meanders like when Beigler plays piano with Duke Ellington at a roadhouse, it’s an entertaining, absorbing ride, that surprises at the very end.

I was left intrigued, as was Beigler, at the very end. The cast is strong and the story compelling.

Spies of Warsaw

spies warsaw It’s interesting seeing David Tennant in a role other than Doctor Who. He does a fine job as a French spy in Warsaw leading up to the outbreak of WWII. (Never mind that it would make more sense for a French spy to speak with a French accent, but I don’t blame Tennant for that.) Spies of Warsaw isn’t action packed, but it has its moments and kept me entertained. It’s got a bit of romance, betrayal, history and suspense. It’s not the greatest BBC production, but since it moves along and its set during an interesting time, I could forgive its flaws. Yeah, the romance didn’t seem to matter. None of the actors did anything spectacular, but the story wasn’t terrific, so they’re excused. Yeah, the last mission seemed rather out of the blue, but it was still better than a lot of what’s on the tube.

If a friend or relative really wanted to see this, it’s no big sacrifice to watch it with them.

Would I watch it again? Probably not. Do I regret watching it? No.

Lifeboat

Lifeboat-(1944)---Tallulah-Bankhead,-John-Hodiak,-Walter-Slezak-715067

I loved Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and am so glad I’ve embarked upon this challenge to watch one old movie a week. With Tallulah Bankhead and Hume Cronyn in an ensemble of survivors whose ship has been sunk during WWII, Lifeboat blends tension and morality. In Hitchcock’s hands, there’s ambiguity and sophistication in every scene.

The film opens with the high class Connie Porter, a self-absorbed, jaded newspaper columnist, sitting alone in a lifeboat. Not a hair out of place, she looks bored as if she’s waiting to board a first class flight to Paris. One by one, other survivors make it to the boat. In its 1944 review, the New York Times describe the cast as

Within their battered lifeboat are assembled an assortment of folks who typify various strata of a free, democratic society. There is, first, a parasitic woman, representative of the luxury fringe, who is opportunistic and cynical—a picturesque trifler in every respect. Then there is an American business tycoon, likewise opportunistic and cynical; two meek and pathetic women and four men of the torpedoed ship’s crew. These latter are two tough but aimless fellows, a Cockney dreamer and a pensive Negro—all of them clearly indicative of an inarticulate class.

While one character has a British accent, I wouldn’t call it cockney. The African American character doesn’t say much and is rather stereotyped, but I wouldn’t call his class inarticulate. He didn’t talk much and allegorically I suppose you could say his group has been silenced. Since the War’s over and won, viewers won’t share The New York Times’ concern about showing the German as more capable than the others. He was their prisoner in many ways and they chose to defer to him at times, but weren’t under his control exactly.

The last person to make it to the boat is a Nazi, from the U-Boat that torpedoed the other characters’ boat. Should he stay or not? Should he be trusted or not? While their survival matters, the Nazi issue adds great tension and is, where the most drama rests. At first just the working class guy wants to chuck the German overboard. The others outnumber him. Later the German proves both useful and deceptive. The plot isn’t predictable and the ending isn’t what they’d do today.

My DVD came with a scholarly commentary, which was of interest, but since the film itself was so compelling, I turned it off. Perhaps I’ll watch again with it. I did learn though that Hitchcock and Bankhead got along exchanging barbs as they worked. He called her Baghead and she “pronounced his name like it began with a B.” Also, while Steinbeck received credit for the film, he didn’t write the script they used. He sort of put together a short story and wasn’t able to transition from fiction to film.

I enjoyed Bankhead’s wit and strength and will look for more of her films.

References

Crowther. B. (1944). Lifeboat. The New York Times.

Related articles

Gill. B. (1972). Profile: Tallulah Bankhead. The New Yorker.

Spiral (a.k.a Engrenages)

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Formidable!

I’ve just discovered and gotten hooked on Spiral, a fast-paced, well written police/law show from France. Season One focuses on the murder of Elina, a beautiful, young Romanian woman who was a biology graduate student and a prostitute on the side. Her younger sister is missing and soon turns up dead.

Caroline Proust stars as the Laure Berthaud, the police captain, who leads a male staff with some gender bias. It’s clear that some fully accept her and others less so, but this isn’t the 1990s of Prime Suspect. Unkempt and down to earth, Laure is loyal to her men, protecting even the Coke addict troublemaker Gilou. She’s masculine in her attitude towards sex, very open and not looking for commitment. Yet despite, or because of her indifference to fashion, Laure is beautiful.

Grégory Fitoussi plays the Vice Prosecutor, Pierre Clément, a straight arrow lawyer. Pierre is recently separated from his wife, who could pass as a model. She’s the antithesis of Laure, polished, fashionable, willing to break inconvenient rules and annoyed when her husband isn’t.  Pierre’s childhood friend has a big role in season 1 as his name appears in a murder victim’s diary placing Pierre between the Scylla and Caribdis having to choose between loyalty to an old friend and professional ethics.

Clément often opposes Joséphine Karlsson, a gorgeous, intelligent defense attorney with no scruples whatsoever. In season 1, episode, Karlsson’s boss dies suddenly. She soon agrees to work for a disbarred attorney, who was convicted for raping his last colleague. Together they make the good guys work for every conviction. If the money’s good, and Karlsson will always ask for more, she’ll get any scumbag off.

The police are a varied lot. Tintin’s a dependable, astute detective, while another, Gilou, is a junkie with a hooker as a girlfriend. Soon the junkie turns as a informant to the underworld. Viewers are on pins and needles whether Gilou’s

At first the French legal system confused me. They call a man “judge” who seems to have the duties of the State’s Attorney in our system (i.e. he reminds me of the D.A. in Law and Order.) Yet he interviews suspects and victims in his office and someone else presides in the courtroom. Like the Brits, lawyers wear black robes and white neckwear, but no fake wigs are needed.

The plot gets more twisted and complex as time goes on. The suspense rises and rises. The story’s very Aristotelean in that the greatest threats are often characters near and dear to Clément or Berthaud. In each episode you don’t know what will happen till the very last second. Your stomach will turn as you get glimpses at the criminal’s depths.

Warning: The program’s got several gruesome scenes. I admit I had to look away and since my French is poor wasn’t sure when I could resume viewing.

The characters are complex and even perplexing psychologically. No one, except the criminal and the Elina, are completely good or bad, but rather intriguing. As a viewer I was never sure if good would win out. I was rarely sure of anything other than that there’d be a complete reversal by the end of each episode. If you like The Shield or The Wire, watch Spiral on Netflix.

Luther

Idris Elba (L) as Luther; Warren Brown (R) as his colleague

Nominated for 4 Emmy awards, the BBC’s Luther beckoned me from Netflix. I’ve just seen the first two episodes from season 1 and am hooked. Luther’s main character is a London detective who’s we see taunting a known pedophile cum murderer. Did John Luther allow the murder to fall to his death? His superiors, colleagues and ex wife all wonder.

Like Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, the two inspirations for the character, Luther is brilliant. He’s also troubled. His wife has moved on taking a new boyfriend, who’s a much safer, centered cardigan-wearing kind of guy. Luther’s still very much in love and his wife could be too, but she’s just done with the intensity.

Each episode takes viewers to the edge, Luther solves highly violent crimes though deduction and psychologically gets inside the heads of the criminals as no one on the force can. Yet by the end of the pilot episode the criminal, Alice, a genius who planned the perfect murder, starts stalking the cop as she becomes obsessed with Luther and his wife. The tables are turned and Alice pathologically enjoys toying with Luther throughout the series.

Sherlock, Season 2

Holmes and Watson on the Moor

I won’t spoil the fun for Sherlock fans, but I just finished watching season 2 and have been blown away. American viewers will see the new Irene Adler, though I’d keep the kiddies away from this R rated characterization. This time around Irene’s a dominatrix. But anyone with a yen for thrillers and suspense will love what Sherlock does with “The Hound of Baskerville” and Moriarty‘s return in “The Reichenbach Fall.” Fabulous television!

Sherlock and "The Woman"

Now why is CBS going forward with an updated Sherlock Holmes called Elementary with Lucy Liu of all people as Watson? She was fine in Ally McBeal, but the woman has so little range from what I’ve seen. She’s good at annoying the audience, but that’s not what I want from a Watson. Elementary will be set in New York City. How mundane. Seems half the genre’s set there. I hope they don’t blow too much money on this. No lover of Holmes would ever approve these choices.

Sherlock

This update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories gets it right. This BBC series earns a place along the best of Holmes films. Set in modern times, Holmes has the same genius for deduction with the addition of cutting edge tech savvy. The perfect Everyman, Watson here has just returned from the war in Afghanistan and is drawn to Sherlock’s intelligence, while often annoyed by his new friend’s social inadequacies.

The wit is supreme throughout. The suspenseful plotting is on par with MI-5. Even up to the last minute, the episode’s compelling. Too bad the makers of Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows hadn’t learned something from this production.

The trick is writing smart characters that compel, rather than mere kooks who repel.