The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

The Big Sleep (1946)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #11

The Violence-Screen’s
All-Time Rocker-Shocker!

(Yes, that is a real tagline.)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 114 minutes
BBFC: A (pre-release, 1945) | A (1946) | PG (1988)

Original Release: 31st August 1946 (USA)
UK Release: June 1946 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD (maybe), c.2004 (possibly)

Stars
Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, North West Frontier)
Martha Vickers (The Falcon in Mexico, The Big Bluff)
Dorothy Malone (The Fast and the Furious (not that one), Basic Instinct (yes, that one))

Director
Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Screenwriters
Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back)
Jules Furthman (The Outlaw, Nightmare Alley)
William Faulkner (To Have and Have Not, Land of the Pharaohs)

Based on
The Big Sleep, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

The Story
Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts his daughter, Carmen, owes to a man named Geiger. Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian, suspects Marlowe has actually been hired to find Sean Reagan, the General’s friend who has disappeared. Arriving at Geiger’s home, Marlowe hears a shot, and inside finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged, and a hidden camera with the film gone. So begins a complex web of blackmail and murder. Very complex. Very, very complex.

Our Hero
The archetypal downtrodden PI, Philip Marlowe makes up what he lacks in good fortune with a fast mouth and sharp mind. Has bad manners though, which he grieves over on long winter evenings.

Our Villain
It’s a mystery, let’s not give it away. The film certainly does its best not to.

Best Supporting Character
Lauren Bacall as headstrong Vivian Sternwood, a character who benefitted from the behind-the-scenes situation at the time: Bogie and Bacall’s chemistry in To Have and Have Not led the studio to want more of the same, and her agent was only too keen after the poor reviews of Confidential Agent threatened to sink her career before it had really begun. New sparky dialogue scenes took the place of exposition ones in the final cut, essentially creating the film’s reputation for confusion.

Memorable Quote
“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” — Philip Marlowe

Memorable Scene
Bogie and Bacall discuss horse racing.
— “I like to see them work out a little first… You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
Just horse racing.
— “I don’t know how far you can go.” “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Just horse racing.

Making of
Another part in the Bacall situation described above was supposedly played by original author Raymond Chandler. He reportedly observed that Martha Vickers was so good as Carmen that she overshadowed Bacall, and consequently much of Vickers’ material was removed.

Previously on…
The Big Sleep is the fourth screen adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, though only the second to star the detective: 1942’s Time to Kill adapted The High Window into the Michael Shayne series, and the same year Farewell My Lovely was filmed as The Falcon Takes Over. The same novel was adapted again in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet (though, famously, retained the novel’s title for its UK release), starring Dick Powell as Marlowe.

Next time…
Bogart never played Marlowe again, but multiple film, TV and radio adaptations of Chandler’s novels have followed, with the lead role being occupied by the likes of James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, Danny Glover, James Caan, and Toby Stephens. A remake of The Big Sleep, relocated to ’70s London and directed by Michael “calm down dear” Winner, was Marlowe’s final big screen outing to date.

Awards
Not a sausage.

What the Critics Said
“one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused. And, to make it more aggravating, the brilliant detective in the case is continuously making shrewd deductions which he stubbornly keeps to himself. What with two interlocking mysteries and a great many characters involved, the complex of blackmail and murder soon becomes a web of utter bafflement. Unfortunately, the cunning script-writers have done little to clear it at the end.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“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.” — Colin, Riding the High Country

Verdict

Famed for having a plot so complicated even author Raymond Chandler doesn’t know who committed at least one of its murders, I’ve always found The Big Sleep very followable if you pay attention… just don’t expect me to be able to explain it after its finished. The film’s popularity in spite of its impenetrability confirmed director Howard Hawks’ theory that audiences didn’t care if a plot made sense as long as they had a good time, and he’s kinda right — the joys here are Bogie and Bacall’s verbal sparring, the exposure of LA’s seedy underbelly (albeit in a Production Code-friendly way), and the film’s whole noir-ish atmosphere.

The Big Sleep is finally released on US Blu-ray on Tuesday 23rd February.

#12 will be… a Marvellous vampire.

The Big Knife (1955)

2015 #8
Robert Aldrich | 107 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Big KnifeJack Palance is an actor wanting out of his studio contract in this stagey film noir.

The entire film takes place in his house, with a parade of supporting characters coming and going to variously persuade him to stay, persuade him to quit, or persuade him to do other things (saucy!) It’s not just the limited location that makes it feel stagey, though, but also the style of dialogue and the performances. I’m never quite able to put my finger on it, but there’s a certain way playwrights seem to pen dialogue that just feels like it’s from theatre, and The Big Knife (which is adapted from a stage play) has it.

Palance is very good, playing against expectations as an actor who sold out his artistry and is now struggling to be brave enough to stand up to the overbearing studio execs, who have an additional hold over him. Rod Steiger is a bit OTT as the studio’s head, Stanley Hoff, but then the character’s meant to be a bit like that. Somewhat heavy-handed pillorying of a real studio boss? Perhaps. Also worth watching is Rear Window’s Wendell Corey as Hoff’s assistant, Smiley Coy. His is a more subtle performance, conveying his opinions and enacting his schemes mostly with looks. I suppose you don’t get much less stagey than that.

ShoutyPartially driven by a seeming twist that’s obvious from the outset (which, in fairness, the film reveals only 40 minutes in), the story never quite comes alive. Palance and Corey make parts worth watching, but at other times it’s a bit of a slog, not helped by an awful score that chimes in now and then, loudly. Expansive cinematography (so much headroom — was it shot to be cropped for widescreen? Perhaps it was) combats any feeling of claustrophobia the single location and oppressive moral situation might have leant it.

The Big Knife is not the finest film noir (certainly, if anyone’s looking for familiar genre tropes, you’ll find few here), nor the finest behind-the-sets view of moviemaking, but some sporadically strong performances prevent it being meritless for the patient viewer.

3 out of 5

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

2013 #91
Charles Laughton | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 12

The [box office] failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it

The Night of the HunterBox office gross is one of the methods most often used to summarise a film’s success and standing, and yet it’s one of the most useless markers of quality — and quotes like the above, from Terrence Rafferty in his article “Holy Terror” for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Night of the Hunter (and available online here), prove why. This is an exceptional film, by turns beautiful, funny, and not merely scary, but terrifying. If Hollywood movies can be art — and I think we know they can — then this is surely a foremost example.

Based on the 1953 Southern Gothic novel by Davis Grubb, The Night of the Hunter sees convict Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) attempt to find the hidden robbery haul of his former cellmate, by inveigling his way into the man’s family posing as a preacher. While the mother (Shelley Winters) falls for the lies, her young son John (Billy Chapin) is more suspicious, and tries to protect himself and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), while keeping the money hidden.

The story is largely told from John’s perspective. It’s a big tale to put on small shoulders, full of complex emotions and sometimes difficult themes (per Rafferty, “those venerable American subjects: fear, sex, money, and religion”), but Chapin bears it well. I guess this is one of the reasons why groups including the BFI recommend it as a must-see for kids. Although it’s dark and grim, it rarely wavers from the John’s point of view — it’s an induction into the harshness of the adult world for the two young siblings; a harshness the sweet, innocent community they come from does nothing to prepare them for.

Perceiving a knifeIn another piece in Criterion’s booklet, “Downriver and Heavenward with James Agee” (online here), Michael Sragow reckons the film is a “meshing of adult sensibilities with childhood perceptions”. I couldn’t have put it better myself (hence the quote). John is also the only one to see the truth of Powell — as, of course, do we — which completely ties in to how it can feel to be both a child and an older sibling: adults are dumb and don’t see the truth that children do; and younger siblings need protecting because they can be easily persuaded to the adults’ side (as Pearl almost is). Although it’s a tough film in many ways, this depiction of childhood, and at least one aspect, the loss of innocence that comes when you realise the world isn’t all fluffy and safe, is well captured.

Don’t think it’s too kid-friendly, though. Rafferty asserts that it’s “among the greatest horror movies ever made”, while Sragow thinks it’s the “intimate observations of the children’s psychology” we just discussed that “make the suspense almost unbearable.” Without once resorting to blatant horror techniques, the film builds a quiet and implacable sense of fear. The overall effect is one less of terror and more dread. It’s best described as chilling, which is so much scarier than the occasional jump.

Love-hate relationshipAnd yet, as Rafferty explains, “the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter… is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.” I wouldn’t say that humour is one of the film’s defining characteristics, to be honest, but it does undercut its villain. He’s not some unstoppable supernatural creature, but a man who can trip over while chasing you up the stairs, and so on. In some respects it’s this very ordinariness that makes him so scary: however much they creep you out during the film itself, you know there’s no such thing as vampires or werewolves or ghosts. There are Powells in the world, though; an everyday evil that you might not see coming, but can still get you. Brr.

It’s also stunningly shot — not just beautiful, but routinely incredible. It has imagery that instantly sears itself on your brain, with gorgeous lighting and perfect composition. Whatever else the film has to offer (and that’s a lot), it’s exceptional just to look at. That it’s the sole directorial effort from Charles Laughton may be a crying shame, because on this evidence — not just the pictures, of course, but the entire picture — we’ve missed out.

A long nightIn my 2013 top-ten, I described The Night of the Hunter as “darker than a long night of the soul”. That’s too good an expression to not repeat, partly because I think it sounds good, and partly because I can’t think of another way to succinctly summarise the film’s unique feel. I’m not convinced it’s a great film for children, not because they need protecting from the darkness of the world, but because it’s almost too good — it’s a great portrait of childhood, but perhaps one best appreciated in hindsight. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t seen it until adulthood. Whenever you catch it, this is a film of dread, fear, cruelty, and near-peerless beauty.

5 out of 5

The Night of the Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Union Station (1950)

2014 #19
Rudolph Maté | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

Union StationOften noted merely for being filmed in Los Angeles’ busy train station, there are some spirited defences of Union Station to be found. For my money, that’s nearer the truth: this isn’t some noir-era single-location-thriller, but a kidnap procedural with a significant role for trains and their locales. The best sequence isn’t even in the station: cops tail a suspect, get noticed, and the ensuing chase reaches a memorably grisly end.

Also in the mix are morally grey cops (“make it look like an accident”), one-step-ahead villains, and a blind girl in peril. The concoction produces an undervalued classic noir.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Backfire (1950)

2014 #43
Vincent Sherman | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

BackfireBefore he was the romantic male lead in musicals like Tea for Two, Oklahoma! and Carousel, Gordon MacRae starred as a war veteran out to prove his friend’s innocence in this underrated film noir.

MacRae is Bob Corey, our hero, whose hospital bed is visited by a woman (Viveca Lindfors) who tells him his army buddy Steve (Edmond O’Brien) has been in a horrible accident. The staff dismiss his story as an hallucination, but when he gets out, Bob and his new love, nurse Julie (Virginia Mayo), set out to find out what’s happened to Steve — who, it turns out, is wanted for murder — and find themselves negotiating a complex web of past events and future dangers….

Backfire doesn’t seem to be very well regarded on the whole (though, in spite of that, there’s a surprising amount of production detail on Wikipedia). This may be because at times it feels more like an Agatha Christie mystery than a film noir: a pair of clean-cut amateur sleuths bumble their way through a string of clues, learning more and more about the plot thanks to other characters’ flashbacks. I like a good Christie mystery though, so the pairing of styles isn’t a problem for me.

Friend or foe?Besides, even if the film seems to forgo the usual gritty noir trappings for a pleasant “English murder mystery”-type tale at first, it actually has its fair share of dark elements and noir-ish features, which only increase as it goes on: secretive gangsters, nightclub singers, revenge shootings… Then there’s the photography which, again, transitions from a fairly ‘regular’ (for want of a better word) style early on, to a world of rain-slicked streets and high-contrast lighting.

The story is reportedly “lifted from other, many times better, films”, which may well be true, but clearly I’ve not seen them. It all builds to a twist that I didn’t see coming, which is always good in my book; plus a final shoot-out featuring something that never seems to happen in films: the villain loses because he runs out of bullets! Along the way, the movie challenges the audience to keep up with which flashback is taking place when and how they’re connected to each other — indeed, the really attentive viewer might be able to use that to correctly guess the ultimate reveal.

MacRae is perfectly decent as the perfectly decent chap, who somehow manages to be a much better detective than any of the detectives. He’s aided by a sterling supporting cast, from the club singer’s tag-along roommate (Sheila Stephens — later Sheila MacRae) to the ex-army buddy mortician (Dane Clark), from the slightly creepy hotel desk clerk (who isn’t adequately credited) to the wisecracking police chief (Ed Begley).

That White Heat girl turning it on againIt’s in the latter’s case that the writing gets a chance to shine, too: the chief’s flashback is littered with snappy dialogue that feels kinda like he’s telling you the story himself, not just a matter-of-fact “here’s what happened earlier” objective account. Other flashbacks retain a degree of subjectivity — we only see events the characters could have witnessed, and in some cases the way they witnessed them (like the cleaning lady who only sees customers’ feet, before spying through a keyhole in a shot complete with keyhole matte) — but there’s an idea there, briefly glimpsed in that detective’s flashback, that would’ve made for an even more interesting film.

As it stands, Backfire isn’t all it could be, but I think it’s good for more than the consensus allows.

4 out of 5

Backfire is on TCM (UK) tomorrow, Saturday 15th November 2014, at 1:15pm.

Touch of Evil (1958)

1998 Reconstructed Version

2013 #58
Orson Welles | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Touch of EvilA bomb is stuck to the underside of a car. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera drifts up into the sky, and proceeds to follow the automobile through the streets of a small Mexican border town, until it crosses the border into the US… and explodes. It’s probably the most famous long take in film history, and probably the thing Touch of Evil is most widely known for; that, and it being one of the most commonly-cited points at which the classic film noir era comes to an end.

So who planted the bomb? Who was their target? And why? None of those questions matter. I’m sure they’re answered, but I don’t recall what those answers were, because they’re not what the film is about. What it’s about is Charlton Heston vs Orson Welles. The former is Vargas, a righteous Mexican drugs enforcement officer who witnesses the bombing while out walking with his new American wife. The latter is Quinlan, the policeman charged with finding the culprit — and he isn’t an honest copper. When Quinlan works out who he thinks is guilty, he makes sure there’s the evidence to back that up. And I don’t mean by doing thorough police work. Vargas catches him more-or-less in the act; Quinlan won’t allow himself to be exposed. It’s a game of cat and mouse; at stake, not just two men’s reputations, but justice and the law (not the same thing); and just waiting to get tangled in the middle, Vargas’ new wife — sweet, innocent Janet Leigh.

This is not film noir as many think they know it. Instead of a doggedly determined wisecracking PI solving a slightly seedy case, Touch of Evil is suffused with a sweaty and disquieting atmosphere. Vargas and his wifeIt’s like a terrible fever dream, with events and characters that sometimes seem disconnected, but nonetheless interweave through a dense plot. In this sense Welles puts us quite effectively in the shoes of Vargas and his wife — out of our depth, out of our comfort zone, out of control, struggling to keep up and keep afloat. It might be unpleasant if it wasn’t so engrossing.

Similarly uncomfortable are the film’s moral implications. Well, possibly. In the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release, French critics François Truffaut and André Bazin both assert that Welles’ Quinlan, while ostensibly the villain, is really a hero; that though he technically breaks the law, he’s morally right to do so. Essentially — or in Truffaut’s case, explicitly — they are defending policemen who fabricate evidence to ensure a conviction. Unfortunately for all their so-called intellectualising, Welles completely disagrees: “The personal element in the film is the hatred I feel for the way the police abuse their power… The things said by Vargas are what I would say myself… that’s the angle the film should be seen from; everything Vargas says, I say.”

Amusingly, Bazin is indeed forced to admit that “in the interviews which he gave me… Welles challenged this interpretation. He maintains that his moral position is unequivocal and he condemns [Quinlan] absolutely”. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s praise-filled essay asserts that, in the film’s ending, “[Vargas’] sneakiness and mediocrity have triumphed over [Quinlan’s] intuition and absolute justice.” Elsewhere, Welles summarises that “it’s a mistake to think I approve of QuinlanQuinlan at all… there is not the least spark of genius in him; if there does seem to be one, I’ve made a mistake.” You can get pretentious about it all you want, and bring to bear political views that the film doesn’t support (after all, within the film Quinlan is punished for his crimes and the “mediocre” (Truffaut’s word) moral hero triumphs), but sometimes a spade is a spade; sometimes a villain is a villain; sometimes your disgusting moral perspective isn’t being covertly supported by a film that seems to condemn it.

Welles:

What I want to say in the film is this: that in the modern world we have to choose between the law’s morality, and the morality of simple justice, that is to say between lynching someone and letting him go free. I prefer a murderer to go free, than to have the police arrest him by mistake. Quinlan doesn’t so much want to bring the guilty to justice, as to murder them in the name of the law, and that’s a fascist argument, a totalitarian argument contrary to the tradition of human law and justice such as I understand it.

So that’s the end of that.

Welles’ beliefs about filmmaking were similarly forthright, stating that “all of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room” — the images were important, but the real art was in how they were placed together in the edit. It must have been especially hard for him, then, that so many of his films were “violently torn from [his] hands”: as of 1965, he says only Citizen Kane, Othello and Don Quixote were movies he’d been allowed to edit to his own specification (and that last one barely counts).

a 58-page memo?Notably and obviously absent from that list is Touch of Evil. It was taken away from Welles during the editing process, and though he submitted an infamous 58-page memo of suggestions after seeing a later rough cut, only some were followed in the version ultimately released. Time has brought change, however, and there are now multiple versions of Touch of Evil for the viewer to choose from; but whereas history often resolves one version of a film to be the definitive article, it’s hard to know which that is in this case. Indeed, it’s so contentious that Masters of Cinema went so far as to include five versions on their 2011 Blu-ray (it would’ve been six, but Universal couldn’t/wouldn’t supply the final one in HD.) The version I chose to watch, dubbed the “Reconstructed Version”, tries to recreate Welles’ vision, using footage from the theatrical cut and a preview version discovered in the ’70s to follow his notes. Despite the best intentions of its creators, this can only ever be an attempt at restoring what Welles wanted. Equally, although it was the version originally released, the theatrical cut ignores many of the director’s wishes — so as neither version was finished by Welles, surely the one created by people trying to enact his wishes is preferable to the one assembled by people who only took his ideas on advisement?

But that’s not all, poor viewer! There’s also the issue of the film’s aspect ratio: Welles was forced to shoot the film for projection at 1.85:1, but he did so on the understanding that an open matte 1.37:1 version would be shown on TV. He penned an article the same year as Touch of Evil’s release, called “Ribbon of Dreams”, in which he firmly advocates the Academy ratio and shows a strong distaste for widescreen (reading it today, it’s reminiscent of and comparable to Christopher Nolan’s comments on the film vs digital debate). With that considered, the full screen version would seem the preferable choice. It's enough to drive you to drinkTo quote from Master of Cinema’s booklet, “the familiar Wellesian framing appears in 1.37:1: indeed, the “world” of the film setting emerges with little or no empty space at the top and bottom of the frame, almost certainly beyond mere coincidence.” There are things to recommend the widescreen experience (“a more tightly-wound, claustrophobic atmosphere”), and undoubtedly the debate will continue… and such is the wonders of the modern film fan that, rather than having to make do with someone else’s decision on what to put out, all the alternatives are at our fingertips.

Obviously I can’t speak for all the different cuts of Touch of Evil, but considering its constituent elements, it’s hard to imagine a version that isn’t complex, thought-provoking, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, and all-round an impressive work of cinema.

5 out of 5

Touch of Evil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

Journey into Fear (1943)

2014 #51
Norman Foster | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG*

Journey into FearRemembered largely thanks to the involvement of Orson Welles (he has a supporting role, produced it, co-wrote it, and reportedly directed a fair bit too, though he denied that), Journey into Fear is an adequate if unsuspenseful World War 2 espionage thriller, redeemed by a strikingly-shot climax. The latter — a rain-drenched shoot-out between opponents edging their way around the outside of a hotel’s upper storey — was surely conducted by Welles; so too several striking compositions earlier in the movie.

Sadly there’s little else to commend the film, which takes a leisurely approach to its hero’s escape from Istanbul by a boat aboard which, unbeknownst to him until it’s too late, are assassins. Sounds tense and exciting? It isn’t; or, at least, nothing like as much as it could be. It doesn’t help that it was buggered about with by the studio, leaving subplots alluded to but deleted — the original version reportedly ran 91 minutes, a fair chunk longer than what we’re left with. (There’s also a version with opening and closing voiceovers and a pre-titles sequence, Fearful outfitall added by Welles after the studio had their way, which seems to be the one US viewers know. The version without those seems to be the only one shown on UK TV, however.)

On the bright side, it has a brisk running time, and as 70-minute ’40s thrillers go it’s at the upper end of their quality. And in spite of the mere adequacy of the rest, that climax honestly makes it a recommendable watch.

3 out of 5

* Having rated it U in 1986 and 1998, come 2010 the BBFC decided it needed to be a PG. ^

The Falcon’s Alibi (1946)

2013 #99
Ray McCarey | 60 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English | PG*

The Falcon's AlibiOnce again smitten by a pretty lady, the Falcon finds himself co-opted into guarding a wealthy woman’s jewellery. But when said jewels are promptly stolen, and murders ensue, our charming hero is implicated. Who would do such a dastardly thing? And what’s going on with the DJ in the roof of the hotel?

The jewels are almost an aside as the twelfth Falcon film gets stuck into a main plot about secret lovers and betrayal. It’s darker than usual fare for the series, bordering on the noir-ish. There’s still the usual Falcon charm and comedic antics of Goldie to lighten the mood, but they feel bolted on to the core of a slightly grimmer tale — everyone’s a crook; half of them die. Some elements are woefully underdeveloped, in that churn-’em-out B-movie way: we never see the conductor’s reaction to his lover being murdered by her secret husband, for instance; or the explanation for the jewel theft, stuck on the end in a throwaway moment — that was what drew the Falcon in, therefore ostensibly the main case! And what instead turns out to be the primary plot would have played out the same way even if the Falcon hadn’t become involved. Oh dear.

From all this, the film is somewhat rescued by Elisha Cook Jr.’s performance. He’s great as ever, a remarkably dependable character actor. (Though it does come with the slightly odd sight of Cook Jr. and Esther Howard being all best-chums-y after recently seeing him try to kill her in Lady of Deceit. I guess that kind of encounter probably happened a lot in those studio contract days.)

Elisha Cook Jr, great as everAmong the rest of the cast, Vince Barnett becomes the fourth actor to play the Falcon’s sidekick, Goldie; and Jean Brooks and Rita Corday each appear in their fifth Falcon films! Brooks was previously in Strikes Back, in Danger, the Co-eds and in Hollywood, while Corday was in Strikes Back, the Co-eds, in Hollywood and in San Francisco (making this three in a row). Can you imagine anyone doing that today? (And Brooks is in literally one shot, I think. Considering she was a leading lady in at least two previous Falcons, that’s a tad weird to boot.)

I’m not sure Alibi is that good as a Falcon film, but the storyline featuring Cook Jr.’s performance make it watchable in spite of the other problems.

2 out of 5

* As with the vast majority of the Falcon series, The Falcon’s Alibi hasn’t been passed by the BBFC since its original release. Nonetheless, it’s available on DVD, rated PG. ^

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

2013 #57
Ida Lupino | 71 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English & Spanish | 12

The Hitch-HikerBased on a true story, this film noir sees two chums on the way home from a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker. As you can tell from the title, he turns out to be rather significant: he’s a murderer on the run, and pulls a gun on the men so they’ll do his bidding, which is take him to Mexico so he can escape justice. Oh dear.

What follows is, at barely more than an hour, a lean thriller. Is the killer a man of his word who’ll let the friends go when they reach his destination? Can the two unfortunates escape his grasp before they have to find out? The aim of the game is tension and suspense, unencumbered with little else besides glimpses of the faltering manhunt for the kidnapping hitchhiker. Excellent use is made of a barren landscape to heighten the sense of hopelessness — there’s few signs of other living souls; though even if there were, surely the hitchhiker wouldn’t hesitate to kill ’em all.

Of particular note is that The Hitch-Hiker is directed by a woman, the first noir to be so. We live in an age where a woman has only recently managed to win the Best Director Oscar, and female directors are still a rare beast in Hollywood, so I can only assume they were even fewer and farther between back in the ’50s. Katherine Bigelow received additional praise in some quarters for taking said award while playing in the “men’s world” of the action/war movie (thereby negating any potential sense of “well done little woman, you made a nice little Women’s Movie”), but that’s also what Lupino did here.

The female perspective is from the passenger seat, am I right?But does her gender add any different perspective? I think perhaps it does. If you read the review at Films on the Box (which you should, it’s a fantastic overview and analysis), Mike notes that “the two fishermen take on the film’s ‘female’ roles, out of both control and their depth and steered by the stronger man.” While I’m sure a male director could tell this story, perhaps it’s that little bit more effective when helmed from a female perspective, especially in an era when they were even more socially and professionally confined than today.

The Hitch-Hiker may support an even deeper reading along those lines; but if you have no desire to engage in that kind of thing, it remains an effectively tight and tense experience. A lesser-known noir, I think, but one not to be forgotten.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.