Archive for the ‘Film Noir’ Category
I’m really starting to dig the meek, outwardly-sheepish Edward G. Robinson of “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” and “The Whole Town’s Talking” over the confident and bombastic Robinson of of “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” and, well, “The Whole Town’s Talking” (even if his performance in “Double Indemnity” remains one of my all-time favorite performances), because while the ruthlessness of his Johnny Rocco in a film like “Key Largo” is as plain as day with no room for deeper interpretation, that sinister side is much more subtle and insidious in his more mellow roles; it’s a side that even his own character may not be aware is in him until he’s covering up a crime with no opportunity to turn back. It’s almost like he’s two different actors, if not for that obscure, dark instinct inherent in his characters. Here, that instinct is initially invisible as his Professor Richard Wanley enjoys teaching, sees off his loving, happy family as they head off on a vacation, and enjoys an evening with friends as they discuss the painting of the eponymous woman in the window next door to their little men’s club. It’s when that woman manifests herself in the form of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) while he admires her portrait that his world comes crashing down, as an initially innocent rendezvous in her apartment to admire her other portraits turns into a death by self-defense. In the moments that follow, Robinson is fascinating to watch, as Richard almost immediately shrugs off his first inclination to call the police and instead methodically works out, out loud, how to dispose of the body and evidence. It’s as if this previously-infallible academic was born for a forbidden moment like this, had the entire plan swimming around in the deepest recesses of his head for years and decades, and he’s just realizing it as it happens, remaining calm, collected and professional as he tells Alice what to do and when to do it – he might as well be teaching one of his classes, doing his job without a second thought. And yet, a sense of excitement, of having fun, of arousal, is barely concealed by that matter-of-factness; as he gives both himself and Alice explicit instructions and she struggles to control her nervous hysteria and then becomes as calm as he is, this might as well be their version of sex, as if committing this crime is his unique version of, and only way of justifying, being unfaithful with that Norman Rockwell-esque wife of his. It’s an interesting commentary on what must have been the people of that time’s natural mistrust towards authority, that any intrusion on a previously-unblemished lifestyle had to be dealt with personally lest you inevitable get blamed. But in the here and now, it raises very interesting questions about Richard; if he can so smoothly transition from soft-spoken, girl-shy professor into self-assured death cover-upper, what else is lurking in that id of his?
Unfortunately, at least until the very end, that question isn’t explored all that deeply. Richard may have a yen for covering up a (justifiable) death, but that yen certainly doesn’t translate to skill, as he and Alice leave behind a trail of evidence and witnesses as long as eternity. Granted, that’s about what you’d expect for first-time offenders such as these two, but that’s where this interesting character study collapses, as Richard is generally out of the picture and Alice must deal with a blackmailing snake who witnessed the crime. It’s standard, even boring, noir shadiness and backstabbing, and I quickly lost interest and was eager for a resolution, disappointed that a reflection on a macabre shift in a character’s psyche became standard, forgettable pulp noir. At least it led to a downright astonishing final shot in which the blaring sound of a ringing telephone gradually mutes and the camera pulls into a glass: an abrupt punctuation mark of irony as this sordid saga that never needed to happen reaches its (extremely convenient and tidy…) conclusion.
Except it wasn’t the final shot, as an additional Hays Code-mandated five minutes nearly ruins even the best parts of this film. At the very least, it off-handedly reminded me of “Mulholland Dr.,” of all films, but otherwise it’s unforgivable (other than perhaps adding a shred of analysis to Richard’s psyche, but that’s really stretching it given the jarring change of tone from the 100+ minutes that came before). Just pretend that the pull-out from the glass and all that comes after it never happens, and the pull-in will, as it should, seal Richard into his self-made fate of guilt-ridden eternity.
For much of this, Cliff Robertson’s Tolly is a lot like Lee Marvin’s Walker in “Point Blank,” never actually killing anyone, yet still causing the deaths of many men who’ve wronged him, the men who beat up and killed his father years before and have now risen to the top of the criminal underworld, making Tolly’s job of seeking revenge that much more difficult. Walker just wanted his 93 grand back, while Tolly wants to avenge his beloved father, so while Walker has this kind of ultra-cool aloofness as he stumbles his way through that criminal organization to avenge himself, Tolly tastes blood, and puts in a specific plan, not to kill these men himself, but to ingratiate himself with both the underworld and the law and then turn all sides against each other Red Harvest/Yojimbo-style, defying his outward appearance of a determined yet dumb hood with a rather ingenious plan where everything has to go right. As a result, Fuller’s film comes damn close to full-on glorifying the concept of revenge, as Tolly truly seems to live a charmed life as he implements his plan, as nothing goes wrong, and the girl/witness he rescues even falls for him despite his treating her like trash, and to this I objected while nevertheless having fun with what I was watching. But then, by the end, Tolly crosses the point of no return, learns that crime never pays, and all is right again with the world. But this is Samuel Fuller’s world, of tough-talking criminals, cigarette smoke, a fashionably scarred anti-protagonist, over-the-top jazzy musical scores, little girls getting run over to send a message to a potential witness, a corrupt police chief eating his gun in his own office in the middle of the day, and the drunk love interest looking right into the camera as she rants and rambles, so who the hell knows what’s right and what’s wrong in this world.
Edward G. Robinson was really, really good at acting. Two types of acting, really…over-the-top, confident, mile-a-minute talker, and shy, hunched-over, and soft-spoken. Polar opposites, and you literally got to see both of those types of Edward G. Robinson in Ford’s “The Whole Town’s Talking” as he played two totally different but lookalike characters. Here, he falls squarely into the latter category, as his unassuming bank cashier / wannabe painter Christopher Cross is painfully timid, completely emasculated by a loud monster of a wife, and desperate to be liked and/or loved. Enter Joan Bennett’s Kitty March, whom Chris believes he saved from a mugging (in an outstanding scene, by the way…all outside sound is drowned out by the soft, steady drone of a train. It’s probably the most single-minded and focused Chris has been on a particular task, and the most powerful he’s felt, in a very, very long time). In actuality, he saved her for a moment or two from her abusive rat of a boyfriend, and the couple then decide to con the poor sap when they figure he’s a well-to-do artist. Both sides are fooled by their misconceptions about the other based on their respective desires – Kitty and Johnny want money, Chris wants love, but it’s Chris’s fawning over Kitty that is the truly pathetic misconception at work here. In no time, he’s asking Kitty if she would marry him if he wasn’t already married, timidly knocking on the door of her apartment he’s putting up the money for like a dog scratching at the door to come inside, and even when she woefully screws up the con and he discovers that she’s profiting off of his paintings as if they’re her own, he’s happy for her. It reminded me of the unsuspecting dwarf Hans’s pathetic courting of the amused Cleopatra in “Freaks.” She has this poor sap Chris twisted around her finger. Kitty and Johnny as characters are utterly ridiculous and over-the-top, and frankly so is Chris, but there’s just something so pitiful in Edward G. Robinson’s performance that he stands out…a man so beaten down by his own insecurities, that even though we’re in on the secret he isn’t, that he’s headed towards inevitable heartbreak by being willfully ignorant enough to fawn over the deplorable Kitty, at least something is making him feel alive, pathetic as that ‘living’ may be. It’s all pretty standard fare, as Fritz Lang doesn’t really make his presence truly felt until one of the final Telltale Heart-esque scenes, when Chris finds himself alone in a shitty hotel room, the neon sign outside the window flashing on and off, as he confronts his own sense of guilt. Minus the imaginary voices, it’s something right out of silent expressionism, and in as memorable a way as possible, this film puts Chris right back where he started (and really, never left): alone. All you need is love…
Scorsese included this in this article/list he compiled of his favorite gangster/crime movies, saying that it was one of his primary influences for “Taxi Driver,” and from the opening minutes, that’s more than obvious. The protagonist, Claude, spends all day every day in his room, working out, pacing about, and every other solitary motion, much like Travis Bickle years later. In this case, Claude is waiting for a call from a prospective employer, that particular employ being assassin. No explanation is really given as to why Claude wants to kill people professionally, as we first see him requesting an unannounced audience with his potential, surprised employer, claiming this is just a new career direction he’d like to take and nothing more. I liked that about Claude. He’s introduced as a nice little blank slate, a loner with a tunnel-vision for self-betterment, whose only real difference from Travis Bickle is that he actually has a career ambition. As the film progresses, there’s less of a downright fetishistic focus on the protagonist’s daily, isolated routine than in the likes of “Taxi Driver” or Melville’s “Le Samourai”, making much more use of dialogue than those two films, or rather, monologue. Claude sure likes to talk a lot, and in that talk, he sure does like to project how highly he sees himself as a killer and as god’s gift to the human race, much to the chagrin of his two exasperated handlers / colleagues overseeing the particular job that takes up the bulk of the film. Moments like this drag the film’s pacing some – more often than not I just wanted to see Claude put his money where his mouth is – and overall there’s a weirdly comic tone to the whole proceedings, from the lively music to Claude’s two bumbling companions to Claude’s unexpected and darkly humorous failures in accomplishing this job, that’s sometimes compellingly satirical and sometimes just plain strange and off-putting and inappropriate. Nevertheless, Claude’s an interesting character to observe, even if we’re not directly observing the moment he’s getting paid for, as director Irving Lerner wisely – and innovatively – hints here and there at the fate of Claude’s victims, so that the killings themselves are either just off-screen or right after a scene cuts. It’s all about the preparation and the motions and the lonely lifestyle itself – an emphasis that in my opinion is put to better use in films like the aforementioned “Le Samourai”, for instance, but nevertheless raises “Murder for Contract” slightly higher than the B-exploitation film it could have been. Instead, I won’t say that it’s a character study since Claude remains so distant and mysterious – playful and mischievous one minute, terrifyingly serious the next – despite showing off his gift of gab, but rather a study of a day or two in a life. He says he objects to killing a woman because they’re too unpredictable, and thus demands double pay…is he really that callous and resentful of women, or is he trying to hide some kind of moralistic chivalry from his two partners to try to project the laid-back tough guy persona he seems to hold so dear? We’ll probably never know, he’s that attentive to concentrating on the job and his craft alone and emotionally divorcing himself from his victims for the sake of business, despite leading his partners on a days-long goose chase of fun ‘n sun throughout the city (for a very important reason, as we eventually discover), so maybe he did put his money where his mouth was after all.
It had potential to be, and often is, more than a typical one-last-heist story because of a particularly interesting sub-plot involving an old farmer and his crippled granddaughter that Bogart’s Roy “Mad Dog” Earle keeps going back to in the midst of planning that one last heist. Never mind the creepiness factor of the older Bogart wooing the obviously much younger girl through small talk, paying for her surgery without asking for a penny in return, etc., I’d say it was sweet if it wasn’t utterly bizarre…but it’s effective. Earle may say he wants to marry the girl and that he loves her, but that’s probably not true. He doesn’t want the innocent, naive girl, he just wants to get out of the fast, crime-ridden lifestyle he’s been drowning in. Ida Lupino’s wannabe-mob girl Marie won’t give him that ticket to the good, easy life, and he knows it, so the next best thing mustbe the young girl and her poor but honest family, by his logic. Marie, and Earle’s cohorts in the upcoming hotel heist, grow increasingly confused at Earle’s behavior as he keeps going back to that family, and indeed it sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the heist planning and mobbish threats as penned by John Huston (the scene where Earle tells the job’s inside man the story of the gun, punctuated by the ‘taptaptap’, is great, showing a terrifying side to Earle that we’ll learn may be little more than a mask of his true self). That family is the specter and the symbolic embodiment of a good life, of the good person that Earle is fascinated by the prospect of becoming, that may even want to be…but is not to be. It’s upsetting that that subplot is all but abandoned as it soon becomes little more than Ida Lupino crying in the passenger seat with the dog in her lap while Bogart acts all manly and shut up-y, but in a way it makes sense. In a surprisingly disappointing screenplay by Huston, complete with the token dog, token black indentured servant with the funny voice and lazy eye, and the farmer’s family coming right out of a Rockwell painting, at least it’s bleak when all is said and done. Earle, from a philosophical and psychological sense, is arguably one of Bogart’s more interesting characters – desirous of a good, crime-free life as seen by his seemingly inexplicable fascination with the granddaughter and her family, and even seen as a good man despite being a criminal, the way he defends a lady’s honor when he sees a black eye, or honors an agreement with his superior despite that superior lying dead on his side, or has an unremovable soft spot for that pesky dog (Bogart’s dog in real life…makes sense when you see how attached it is to the man). Chivalry lives, but crime never pays.
It’s interesting how from the outset, we’re put in Van Heflin’s shoes, a character who we will soon find out did something well-meaning but utterly terrible during the war, thus making him anything but the vulnerable, innocent family man and potential victim. It certainly doesn’t put us in the shoes of bad guys to the outstanding extent of, say, P&P’s “49th Parallel”, which is to its detriment, mainly to the extent that Robert Ryan’s character is woefully underdeveloped. In the beginning, his crippled war veteran hell-bent on revenge for an as-yet unspecified reason is certainly depicted effectively as a foreboding boogeyman, the way the sound of his boat’s rusty oar can be heard way off in the distance, gradually getting closer and closer right when Van Heflin learns exactly who’s stalking him on that lake, or how Ryan’s lame leg scraping across the ground goes from one side of the screen to the other as the man stalks outside Heflin’s house, while Heflin and wife Janet Leigh stand there in terrified silence. It’s a lazy, but effective, use of sound to evoke suspense, but once the film turns from a cheesy suspense churner into a wannabe-character study, it loses its focus. Granted, Heflin is great in the scene where he admits his terrible war deed to his wife, evoking genuine guilt that’s been stewing inside him for years, unexpectedly forcing us to remain sympathetic with him, rather than the deranged but genuinely wronged Ryan, but we could’ve really had something here if more of an effort was made to study Ryan’s character. He had to live with that terrible day in the prison camp just as much as Heflin’s character did, from an entirely different point of view, and a deeper look at his alleged madness and lust for vengeance would’ve done this film well. Instead, he barely rises above his initial characterization as that far-off boogeyman, which I’ll admit is an effective way to symbolize the far-off but tangible sense of guilt that’s been haunting Heflin’s character for years and is now all too real, but for sure, a character played by the great Robert Ryan deserved better.
It’s obvious why J.J. Hunsecker is such a famous film character, nearly as much because of when he isn’t on screen as when he is. He’s not officially introduced until forever into the film, spoken about until then like this sexually ambiguous/incestuous/nonexistent gossip columnist is a fucking god or something, and then when he is introduced there’s a severe hard-lighting on his face so that he’s like Two-Face or something, and then for every scene he’s in after that every word that comes out of his mouth is like shit-flavored candy…and Burt Lancaster has top billing even though Tony Curtis might have twice as much screen time. In fact, pretty much all of the screenplay was like shit-flavored candy: sounded awfully pretty, but completely and utterly ridiculous and like nothing you would ever hear in the real world, even in 1957, I’m presuming, which is why I just wasn’t buying J.J. Hunsecker, and this movie in general. I guess some of the dynamics between Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker and Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco were kind of interesting in a sense of dueling degrees of depravity – Hunsecker the ice-cold monster, the Lucifer who thinks he’s able to manipulate the world around him and everyone in it just by twitching his finger, and Falco as Hunsecker’s lapdog, willing to do anything to please the man, a step below William Holden’s full-on jigolo-ing for Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. But that relationship was pretty much the only interesting part here (that, and the lovely visuals of bustling New York at night) – otherwise Lancaster is so ice-cold and emotionally sterile that it defeats the purpose of having an ice-cold and emotionally sterile anti-hero / villain, Susan Harrison is worthless and boring as Hunsecker’s sister, in what pretty much amounts to a poor man’s Scarface-esque brother/sister relationship, as is whoever played her boy-toy who’s the victim of Hunsecker’s jealous mudslinging. Speaking of, that whole scheme that Hunsecker hatches and Falco puts into motion like a hyperactive yes-man is convoluted to the point of being boring when you just lose all interest in following what the hell’s going on. Hunsecker and Falco had the potential to be great movie characters, but the only semblance of that potential that I could see was a skeletal philosophical framework of their bizarre master/servant, greed/greed-lite relationship, buried in a disappointing narrative that had me awfully tempted to check my e-mail and shit while I was watching (I resisted the urge).
These two magnificently framed and lit shots are telling of “They Live By Night”’s two protagonists, Keechie and Bowie, at least from the outset. Bowie, an escaped convict whose youthful exuberance/optimism and good-naturedness puts him at odds with his more vicious fellow escapees Chicamaw and T-Dub, was imprisoned at 16 and thus has never been able to live and love as a normal young man can. Keechie, the daughter of Chicamaw’s brother, who takes the men in when they’re on the run, is a hardened tomboy when we meet her, and later admits to Bowie that she’s never been in a relationship, and indeed it’s rather apparent that she’s rarely, if ever, really opened herself up to anybody before. The first time we meet Keechie is in that outstanding shot, as she’s concealed by the shadows when she meets Bowie, and later we see Bowie’s obscured reflection in that store window as he ponders buying Keechie a present – while his accomplices are planning a bank robbery right next door. These images of the two, concealed by shadows or what-not, are indicative of how they see themselves, and each other. They’re enigmas, totally beguiling and mysterious, and made for each other.
Neither has had an opportunity to interact with or relate to the opposite sex, hence Keechie’s ambiguous and mysterious appearance at the outset, so that when the lightbulb goes on that they might just fit together like a glove, they’re of such a similar mindset that that lightbulb goes on in both their heads at once – it’s such a new experience for them that their romance feels that more genuine despite an otherwise outwardly fictitious crime tale. It not only works because the prospect of romance is so new for both of them that they’re both in the same boat, but because Nicholas Ray doesn’t treat it from beginning to end like they’re on cloud 9, doesn’t treat it like the ultimate allegory of true, limitless love. That would be shameless, unrealistic romantic drama. True, the actual implications of Bowie resorting to bank robberies and being on the lam with Keechie are rather glossed over from time to time – there are times when they’re living happily and comfortably off of stolen money, as if that’s completely well and good – but the entirety of their relationship is far from happy. There’s an incredible scene where one night they just up and decide to get married in a 24 hour chapel; as they slowly make their way across the street towards the chapel, arm in arm, there’s dead silence – maybe some of the most deafening silence I’ve heard in a film in some time. Suddenly, a wedding, what should be the happiest moment in the lives of two people, becomes SO ominous, like Keechie and Bowie are walking towards their doom. It reminded me of the scene in “My Darling Clementine” where Wyatt Earp and Clementine Carter are walking to the church service, slowly and arm in arm, while “Shall We Gather at the River?” is sung softly and slowly in the background like a funeral dirge, making this stroll between the kindly Clementine and the smitten Earp into something very eerie and foreboding. Keechie and Bowie are smitten with each other, and their romance is very, very endearing, but boy is that silent march a portent of their difficulties to come, and of the very, very impressive direction by Ray. I could’ve done without the abundance of helicopter shots following the convicts in their speeding getaway car or Bowie on the run – the first shots of action scenes of their kind, but relied on too heavily to the point of becoming a distraction – but moments like that wedding march in the dark, of the sultry nightclub singer regaling the happy couple in that cigarette smoke-filled lounge, of Keechie watching with a beaming smile of amusement as Bowie tries to quiet a screaming baby on the bus, of the two of them simply holding each other in their car, driving at night, make this a very moody, very atmospheric experience, and showed that even at the beginning of his directorial career, Ray was one of the best in the business.
By the time you figure out the ominously foreshadowing nature of that wedding scene, after all the strife and arguments they have due to the stress of being on the run from the law and from the alcoholic, one-eyed, and wildly unpredictable Chicamaw, a late scene shows Bowie, alone, walking out of that same wedding chapel after unsuccessfully lobbying the heavily-connected proprietor for passage to Mexico, this time with the organ and the “Here Comes the Bride” at full blast, as if mocking this sudden unfortunate situation he and his bride find themselves in. Powerful stuff. I criticized this film before for failing to take into account the full implications of Bowie being a full-blown criminal, and that for much of the duration he fails to appreciate the consequences of such, but really, that could also be a strength, that what begins as a heist caper a la Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” soon abandons that narrative frame to focus on a young man and a young woman discovering love for the first time, in most unusual circumstances, where outside influences like Chicamaw and the law feel like invading forces. As with the likes of “Johnny Guitar” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray subverts some gender roles in this, his first feature, at least from the outset as the tomboyish Keechie runs her father’s gas station and doesn’t glamorize herself in the least, and Farley Granger’s Bowie isn’t exactly, shall we say, the manliest of escaped convicts and bank robbers, and certainly not the hardened criminal the papers make him out to be. Despite that, though, the moment where Keechie lets her hair down and combs it and rubs all that grime off her face, seemingly for the first time, is so great, and Cathy O’Donnell’s smile conveys Keechie’s excited feeling of discovering a new world and a new purpose in life so magnificently – subdued, but bubbling just beneath the surface. Their courtship is hasty, filled with passion, and utterly charming and endearing, but it’s precisely that haste, in a rather dire on-the-run predicament, that causes all the worry and disagreement between the two – in other words, exactly what you’d expect from such a sudden courtship between two people who’ve known each other for so short a time. It all leads to a predictable but still somewhat poignant conclusion – Keechie and Bowie’s story, in this quasi-noir, crime-ridden world couldn’t end any other way than it does – that shows not that the problems of a not-well-thought-out marriage and life on the run won out, but that they always loved each other regardless, and that ‘s what really makes their relationship so endearing. A film that begins as an adventure for escaped convicts becomes a journey of romantic discovery for two sheltered youths, and maybe one of the most compelling depictions of a spur-of-the-moment lifestyle you’ll see, and their gradual discovery of what it means to devote yourself to another is the ultimate adventure. It’s rough around the edges, but boy, what a debut for Nicholas Ray.
It’s just not a very good movie, people! Why does everyone, critic and casual cinephile alike, so eagerly defend this movie while fully acknowledging and even embracing its flaws, all of which are as blatant and obvious as the birthmark on Mikhail Gorbachev’s head (“The Room” this is not. “Detour’s” most fatal flaw is that it’s actually a better film than Tommy Wiseau’s grand opus of ineptitude sixty years later, so “Detour’s” flaws actually do what flaws are supposed to do – detract)? Awful acting, no real sets to speak of other than a nondescript hotel room (an early scene that makes full-as-hell use of the fog machine, as if Ulmer had to return it a 9 the next morning so he felt like he had to use it ’til the cows come home to compensate, is just laughable), terribly hammy and even contradictory screenplay (seriously, Tom Neal’s narration just needs to stop. Its cheesiness knows no bounds)…I suppose the big defense is that the flaws give this movie its soul and its edge and surreal nature, but c’mon, even in the pulpiest of pulp fiction worlds nobody’s stupid enough to bury their dead car-mate and assume his identity because you think you’ll automatically be fingered for murder, and then proceed to be happily emasculated by the bitch from hell. What silliness, what over-the-top insanity once Ann Savage shows up and scrapes the proverbial nails across the chalkboard. Yeah, these screengrabs are pretty, but SO superfluous and window dressing-ish (the one with the light on Tom Neal’s eyes in particular just feels like poor man’s noir lighting, the kind a film student would make to stand out but just ends up looking like a desk lamp is being shined in the actor’s eyes. What a bizarre failed attempt at dynamic noir lighting, made even more bizarre by many viewers’ equating that failure with a strange kind of greatness. It’s shameless over-reliance on visual symbolism to express psychology, nothing more!). But, at least the climax involving a bizarre accident is very unexpected and particularly macabre and pulpy, which ties into an overall feeling of bleakness and despair that rides alongside this idiot Al throughout his cross-country journey, allegedly to reunite with his ne’er-do-wrong girl but really to quench his thirst for emotional masochism, apparently, what with how much verbal (and cheesy as hell, and not even in a so-bad-it’s-funny kind of way) diarrhea he takes from hitchhiker Vera – that overall bleak feeling I suppose being what “Detour’s” defenders are really talking about, so in a way I can understand their argument. This is one of the bleakest film worlds I’ve seen, starting with Al and Vera’s impossibly pessimistic worldviews and justifications for concocting idiotic schemes with no chance of success for personal gain, and made even bleaker with how shoddy it’s built by Ulmer, like there really is no way out of the misery when these cardboard imitations of human beings are surrounded on all sides by rear projection screens and fake fog and a haphazardly-built hotel room set (gah, look at me defending this like everyone else now! I fell into the trap! ). But that and the climax are really the only saving graces here. My god, fucking Ann Savage couldn’t grow old and give the performance she was born to play in an avant garde experimental essay film about the city of Winnipeg fast enough .
* I fully and shamelessly reserve the right to change this score to a much higher one at some point in the future
For the first 85 or so minutes of this film, I saw some great cinematography and captivating, eavesdropping-allowing sets (the prison-like bars in Bogart’s apartment, and then his and Gloria Grahame’s ability to spy each other from their respective windows across that wonderful courtyard, encapsulate this film’s themes in a nutshell), Bogart’s boozy failing screenwriter having testosterone pouring out of his ears and having a zinger for EVERYTHING (the Socratic Method was to answering a question with another question as the Bogartian Method was to answering a question with an impossibly clever comeback), the goofy little agent acting as the Gazoo to Bogart’s Fred Flinstone, a murder mystery, and Bogart striking up an unlikely romance with a beautiful woman amidst that mystery – the ingredients of a nice but not quite remarkable little noir that fit right with the others of its day. I wanted to be Dixon Steele.
And in the final 10-15 minutes, the veil was lifted. Even before this point, I was getting the sense that the murder mystery of the girl we think left Dix’s apartment before she was found dead the next morning was far from being at the forefront and was meant to be more of a psychological catalyst for the potential failure of Dix’s and Laurel’s romance and the return of Dix’s alcoholism and potentially violent nature, but not even that observation could prepare me for that agonizing and absolutely terrifying ending. Suddenly, that ending turned a typical noirish film of its day was into a film YEARS ahead of its time in its depiction of an abusive relationship, and all the ingredients of such that we take for granted today from the testimonies of battered women on the Maury show (but he’s so sweet most of the time…). The whole time it’s pretty obvious that Dix didn’t murder that girl, but despite all the evidence supporting his story, we still have that shred of doubt that Laurel has, and it’s all because behind that sudden zest to write again and the kisses and lovey-dovey words, he’s an insecure ticking time bomb, and any monkey can see that. He’s still a good, likable person, but just has a deep and inexcusable flaw that it seems not even he can control, which is why we can still sympathize with him despite that temper that gets him in trouble more often than not, and why we can somewhat demonize Laurel for willingly putting herself in harm’s way by choosing to stay with him, despite clearly being the victim in this flawed relationship. Both characters are sympathetic, and both are deplorable – don’t we all have our virtues and our vices.
By the end of this film, that murder mystery that would’ve been front and center in a lesser noir or lesser film altogether becomes completely irrelevant – Laurel even says so. Against all odds, especially given its harmless and damn near jolly beginning with the miserable yet very likable Dix, this turned into a deep character study and a deep study of gender roles five years before Ray would further analyze and even subvert those roles in “Rebel Without a Cause,” featuring what might be one of the most passionate romances I’ve seen in a film – so passionate, in conjunction with who these two people are and more importantly who they’re capable of becoming, that it’s doomed. And suddenly, I was sickened with myself for having wanted to be Dixon Steele. He fooled me the way he fooled Laurel, and himself.