Monday, July 29, 2013

Alias Nick Beal (1949)

'Alias Nick Beal' from 1949 is the film noir version of 'Faust'. In this case, Mephistopheles, the Devil's servant, is Nick Beal (Ray Milland) and Faust is Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell). The movie was directed by John Farrow ('The Big Clock' also starring Ray Milland, 'Night Has A Thousand Eyes'), with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer ('The Glass Key', 'The Big Clock') after a story by Mindret Lord. The music was done by the great Franz Waxman ('Sunset Blvd.', 'Sorry, Wrong Number') and cinematography was handled by Lionel Lindon ('The Blue Dahlia', 'Quicksand').

Joseph Foster is a successful and honest District Attorney who is working on a big and highly publicized case against a local mobster, Hanson. Unfortunately the main incriminating piece of evidence that he's about to lay claim to, Hanson's financial books, ends up burned to crisps. Without it he doesn't have a case. In desperation he cries out 'I'd give my soul to nail him!', at which point he receives a message that someone named Nick Beal can help him. Nick Beal miraculously knows where Foster can get the evidence he needs, a copy of the books, albeit in an illegal manner. But Foster goes for it, convicting Hanson is more important to him than a little case of theft. And from that moment on, he's firmly stuck in Beal's clutches, but Foster doesn't realize it yet. In fact, his career skyrockets, and he gets asked to run for governor after the successful trial. Beal begins to meddle with Foster's run for governor and closes a few deals that Foster would not have made himself including a deal with another criminal, Faulkner (Fred Clark), to buy votes. Foster doesn't like it at first, but the deals are beneficial to the election, so he accepts them. This does alienate Foster from his closest friends however, including Reverend Thomas Garfield (George Macready) who thinks he's seen Beal's face before. But as Foster finds out after he's become governor, when you sell your soul to the devil, you really do sell your soul, and the devil intends to collect.

There are various ways in which Beal manipulates Foster, some more obvious than others. Beal picks up a prostitute, Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), and puts her up in a modern-looking apartment, complete with impressionistic art painted on the walls. He gives her expensive clothes and jewelry encrusted with sapphires. Even the maid's name is Opal. He sets her up with a central position in Foster's campaign, instructs her how to behave around Foster, and before he knows it, he's fallen for her, and neglecting his marriage to Martha (Geraldine Wall). Another way is setting up Foster as the prime suspect for the murder of Hanson's bookkeeper, who burned the original books that Foster needed, and then making sure Foster is cleared, right after explaining to him how he has become the main suspect. Foster does realize he's being blackmailed by Beal at various points in the movie, but he's unable to do anything about it and unwilling because his career is still moving towards the sky, because of Beal. But the biggest manipulation happens when Beal has Foster sign a contract that he will give Beal a meaningless post in his governor's administration, with an innocent-sounding clause should he fail to do so. And of course Foster fails to do so, because lo and behold, he finally realizes all he's done and let happen around him to reach the position of governor, and so he resigns... What a fool.

Ray Milland is outstanding as the icy cold, sinister, calculating and suave Nick Beal who is seemingly one step ahead of everybody else. There's a running gag throughout the movie where Beal appears in a scene seemingly out of nowhere. In one scene Foster is pacing a room, stands still and when he moves again Beal is standing behind Foster. In others, he appears from behind a curtain or just happens to stand in a corner of a room, unnoticed by everybody else in the room and unseen until the camera shifts position slightly. Or Foster entering an empty room with Beal rising out of a lazy chair all of a sudden. It adds to the creepiness surrounding Nick Beal. In that particular scene Foster is looking for ice for some drinks he's fixing and Beal casually mentions 'There isn't any ice my friend', hinting at the place he intends to take Foster to.

Audrey Totter shines here as well with her great facial expressions. Totter was an actress with a unique look, she had a very expressive face, her eyes especially speak volumes, and she makes good use of it here. At one point in her/Beal's apartment Beal instructs Donna on how she should sway a conversation she's about to have with Foster in a certain direction. Beal gives her a word-by-word play of the upcoming conversation, and Donna pays attention, half-heartedly. But during the actual conversation she realizes Foster is saying verbatim what Beal said he would, and her face and eyes are full of amazement but also fear for Beal, who's eavesdropping from the next room. Another fine example is when she's sitting half-drunk at a bar and constantly asks the bartender what time it is, in what is a quite funny scene until Nick Beal makes his eery entrance. It is done beautifully, both visually and Totter's acting.

The rest of the cast are solid throughout, playing parts that they have seemingly played dozens of times before, Mitchell as the good and somewhat naive guy, Clark as the slimy criminal. Macready is cast against type, his noir roles were usually as a villain, but he does a good job as the reverend who eventually comes to believe that Beal is the devil.

Visually the movie's best parts are in and surrounding Beal's favorite hangout, which is a shoddy bar at a bay, which seems perpetually covered in a thick fog, making for some very noir shots. The way Beal first enters the movie, appearing through the fog while whistling a tune, sets the mood perfectly. In a similar fashion he appears before Donna after she's been kicked out of the bar, sudden and out of the fog. The ending sequence of the movie also happens there, in the thick fog, as he's about to lead Foster away to his final destination, but not before the reverend and Foster's wife Martha catch up with them. It's a bit of a letdown to be honest (altho it is to be expected), with Beal of course leaving empty-handed. But it doesn't take away from an otherwise fun and good movie with great performances by Ray Milland and Audrey Totter. Don't pass up on this one!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nightfall (1957)

Jacques Tourneur is mostly known in film noir circles because of his classic movie 'Out Of The Past' from 1947, and rightfully so. But that's not his only contribution to film noir. One of his other contributions is 1957's 'Nightfall', which while very much a film noir, could very well be called a 'film blanc' or a 'film neige' as key parts of the movie take place during the daytime in the snow-covered mountains of Wyoming. 'Nightfall' was adapted into a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant after the novel by David Goodis. Burnett Guffey ('In A Lonely Place', 'Johnny O'Clock' and a ton more noirs) was the cinematographer and George Duning scored the music. The title song, a rather boring laidback crooner sung by Al Hibbler, makes it sound like the city scenes take place in Las Vegas, but it's Los Angeles.

The story is a take on the oft-used 'innocent man on the run' story. Aldo Ray plays Jim Vanning, this story's man on the run. His real name is Art Rayburn but he's changed his identity and whereabouts several times after a hunting trip he made with his best friend, Doc Gurston (Frank Albertson). During that trip, in the mountains of Wyoming, and right before snowfall is expected to render the area they're in inaccessible, they see a car skid off the road. They go over to help out, but it turns out the men in the car are 2 bankrobbers, John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond), who are on the run with a bag filled with $350,000. They kill Gurston and leave Vanning for dead, making it appear like Vanning shot Gurston, and take off in Vanning's car, but with Gurston's medical bag instead of the bag with the money. Vanning comes to and takes off with the bag before John and Red discover their mistake and return to the campsite. During his flee Vanning loses the bag but afterwards has no idea where exactly that happened. He manages, through a few odd jobs, to make his way to Los Angeles where he works as a commercial painter for ads and such. There he waits for the day that the snow is cleared from the Wyoming mountain area so he can go back and try and find the bag of money. Of course John and Red are trying to find him, to tell them the location of the money, as well as insurance agent Ben Fraser (James Gregory) who has been assigned to the case by the bank's insurancy agency to retrieve the money. The night before the snow is supposed to be cleared Vanning meets model Marie Gardner (Ann Bancroft) in a bar/restaurant and they hit it off. But as they are leaving John and Red have finally caught up with Vanning, setting off a chain of events that ends up with Vanning, Marie, Red, John and Fraser all travelling to Wyoming in search of the bag of money.

There's a suggestion of a possible affair between Vanning and Doc Gurston's wife Eva, who's 20 years younger than him. During a heart-to-heart conversation at the campsite (well, Gurston's heart to Vanning's 'meh') Gurston thanks Vanning for not treating the age difference between him and his wife any different than had it been 1 year and respecting their marriage. Vanning doesn't really answer it and walks away, suggesting things are maybe not as innocent as Gurston thinks. This possible affair is again hinted at later on as Vanning explains to Marie that Gurston's wife had written him some indiscreet letters, which he kept in his apartment rather than threw away, which the police found after Gurston was found murdered and searched his apartment, making him at the very least a man of interest to the police. Add that to the way Gurston's murder was set up, with Vanning's fingerprints the only ones on the gun that killed Gurston, and there you have your typical innocent man on the run.

What sets this movie apart from most other noirs is obviously the outdoors setting. The snow-covered mountains give it a distinctive and different look to the usual shadow-filled darkness of film noir (much like Tourneur's 'Out Of The Past'). Even so, this movie still feels like a film noir. Besides the landscape, the real stars of this movies are Jacques Tourneur and Burnett Guffey, their visual direction and cinematography are outstanding. Not flashy or elaborate, but highly effective, beautiful and clever, and much slicker and more stylish than the movie's low budget would suggest. Around the 20 minute mark where Vanning is roughed up and interrogated by Red and John there is a clever transition to Ban Fraser and his wife having a nighttime conversation about Vanning, and then another clever transition back to Vanning and the robbers, both transitions happening so smooth and seamlessly, you don't really take notice of them until you realize you're in a completely different scene again. It's small things like that that make this movie so great to watch.

Aldo Ray gives a bit of a weird performance as Vanning. He shows hardly any emotion and while he has the perfect gruff husky voice and physical build for a great noir protagonist, he's simply not very believable to me here. Rudy Bond as Red also didn't do much for me, he tries to give his character a crazy and maniacal edge but it's not done very well in my opinion, an actor like Timothy Carey could have done this far better. There's also a lack of sparkle and electricity between Jim Vanning/Aldo Ray and Marie Gardner/Ann Bancroft, who is pretty good here however like most of the cast. Bancroft is beautiful here, in an understated, almost serene, way. Apart from Ray and Bond's not-so-impressive performances, the rest of the cast are solid here, I particularly like Brian Keith as the obvious leader and brains of the bank robbery, he has a great menace-filled aura around him.

The dialogue should be addressed too. When Vanning first meets Marie Gardner and they strike up a conversation, there's a perfect description of a noir protagonist:
Gardner: You sound like a man with a problem.
Vanning: [..] Yeah, I got problems. Who hasn't?
He doesn't say it in a hard-boiled, tough manner but more so in a matter-of-factly, almost defeatist, way. Gardner later on has some more great lines that touch on the building blocks of film noir:
Things that really happen are always difficult to explain.
I'm always meeting the wrong man. It's a talent, forming what the psychiatrists call "doomed relationships". 
Having said that, the dialogue does come off as staged and fabricated at times. I didn't mind it, but it did strike me as such a few times, which is never a sign of greatness.

But don't let that keep you from watching this movie. Overall, it's a pretty good and entertaining movie which is beautiful visually. It's got its flaws but in my opinion they're outweighed by the good parts, so it is still a recommended noir in my book.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Johnny O'Clock (1947)

As I noted in  my review for Dick Powell's first noir, 'Murder, My Sweet', he attempted to switch up his career by taking up less light-hearted roles compared to his musicals and romantic movies that made him a household name. 'Johnny O'Clock' from 1947 was his third noir (after 'Murder, My Sweet' and 'Cornered') and as in 'Murder, My Sweet', he succeeds remarkably well. The movie was directed by first-time director Robert Rossen ('Body And Soul', 'The Hustler'), who also wrote the screenplay after a story by Milton Holmes. Rossen was known already for his screenplays, including 'Marked Woman' and 'The Roaring Twenties' which are both considered proto-noirs, and he also wrote the screenplay for noir 'The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers' right before 'Johnny O'Clock'. The cinematography was handled by Burnett Guffey ('In A Lonely Place', 'Private Hell 36', 'Nightfall') and the music was done by George Duning ('Scandal Sheet', 'Nightfall').

The plot of the movie is pretty twisty and convoluted but revolves around essentially 2 storylines, which are of course connected in various ways.
The first storyline revolves around Johnny O'Clock (Dick Powell) who runs an illegal gambling joint together with Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez). Marchettis is married to borderline alcoholic Nelle (Ellen Drew), O'Clock's ex-girl who still wants O'Clock but married Marchettis because he can provide her with the lavish lifestyle she wants. Nelle gives O'Clock a watch with an engraving as a gift, but he doesn't want things to get any more complicated than they already are. He drops off the watch with hat-check girl Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch) to return to Nelle. But the next morning Harriet is found dead, she apparently killed herself. The connection to the second storyline is Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon), who's Harriet's boyfriend and wants to replace Johnny as Marchettis' partner in the gambling outfit.
The second storyline revolves around inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb) and his search for Blayden, who is a crooked cop and wanted for several murders (which are suspected to be ordered by Marchettis). In his search for Blayden he finds the dead body of Harriet. Harriet's sister Nancy Hobson (Evely Keyes) flies into town to deal with her sister's death, and ends up falling for Johnny, who took a liking to Harriet. Blayden however turns up dead and Koch is convinced O'Clock knows more than he's willing to share.

Dick Powell is great as Johnny O'Clock with an arrogant, cocky and self-assured demeanor. He keeps everybody at bay with hard-boiled retorts, veiled insults and sarcastic quips while keeping a very suave air around him. He's not gritty and tough like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer however, which gives his hard-boiled talk a smoother and different edge. But he does also have his soft side as well, he seems fond of Harriet, and he's taken in a former delinquent as a roommate. This roommate, Charlie (John Kellogg), and him have a weird mentor/pupil-like relationship going on which might be meant to suggest a homosexual side to O'Clock', who does play it real cool, ice-cold even, around the ladies... Until Nancy enters his life, and even then he cannot help but build a brick wall around himself, despite falling for her. Evelyn Keyes ('The Prowler', '99 River Street') does a solid job with her portrayal of Nancy, the only downside is that they don't seem to really connect, there aren't any real sparkles between her and Powell/O'Clock.

In that respect, Ellen Drew is better, she gives a great performance as Nelle, who flirts a lot with Johnny, and seems to take even more pleasure in it when Guido is around, and their innuendos seem real. Lee J. Cobb ('Thieves' Highway', 'Call Northside 777') plays his usual type of role, that of a smudgy trenchcoat-wearing detective/cop with a cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth and the tenacity of a bulldog. He's solid but at the same time, it's almost a caricature part, the second you see him, you know his entire character. Not that I mind, Cobb was great at playing these types of characters. Thomas Gomez ('Key Largo', 'Macao') is pretty slimey and sleazy as Marchettis, he's fun to watch in this movie.

The movie looks beautiful, there are some great shots and the play with shadows, (cigarette) smoke, staging and lighting is impressive. At times it even looks like the visuals and atmosphere of the scene are more important than the actual story, which does make the movie hard to follow at times. But it doesn't mean the movie is slow, it's well-paced and moves along rapidly. It's highly enjoyable and I'm surprised/disappointed that this movie hasn't had a proper DVD release yet. It certainly deserves it.