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Old School Review: Orson Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947)

Written and directed by Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King, “The Lady From Shanghai” is the second noir film from Welles that not only showcases his strengths in production, set-pieces, and direction, but also his weaknesses at this point in his career in writing with some questionable performance choices. Out of all the films I’ve seen from Orson Welles, this one is definitely the film I am most mixed on. The first forty minutes are rough. If you’re into overly melodramatic and cheesy line delivery by both Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, then you’ll love it. I was not so entertained by this portion of the film. What may have contributed to the overly mushy and almost disgusting levels of romanticizing in this portion of the film is the fact that Welles was married to Hayworth during the shoot, even though they were heading towards divorce after the film’s release. The general story that the film is trying to tell is that of Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish Sailor with a penchent for talking a bit too much at times, who saves Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of thugs in Central Park New York while on a carriage ride. She informs him that she and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) had just arrived from Shanghai and intend to sail to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal, after which she offers him a job on their ship for saving her life earlier. He agrees against his better judgement (We learn through the character’s seemingly ever present narration), and they set off to sea.

As far as noirs go, this one has all of the right ingredients, it just takes its merry time setting up all of the pieces. The mysterious machinations of both Bannisters is toyed with as the journey goes along. However, Arthur eventually gets suspicious of the comfortable nature that Elsa and Michael exude and he hires Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), a divorce-themed detective to follow them and investigate. Then there’s Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby may be my favorite performance in the film because nearly ALL of his acting choices feel completely bonkers for the film he’s in, but hey, it was fun. Anyways, Grisby catches O’Hara in the act of courting Elsa and uses that information to force O’Hara to help him fake his own death so he can get the insurance money and live abroad in hiding. O’Hara blindly accepts, not knowing the true extent of Grisby’s plan, but the offer of $5,000 for faking a murder was enough for him to go along for the time being. Unfortunately for Grisby, Broome had been following along and digging into all of the principal characters motivations and backgrounds, which brought him to the truth. He figured out that Grisby had been planning on killing Arthur instead and pinning it on O’Hara. When confronting Grisby- Broome’s mortally wounded, but stays alive long enough to warn O’Hara and Elsa over the phone and in person of the truth. Everything comes undone when Grisby is found actually dead, not Arthur, of whom O’Hara had rushed to save- unfortunately with his confession written by Grisby on his person. There’s a courtroom scene where Arthur defends O’Hara, but also discovers the extent of O’Hara and Elsa’s affair. Eventually O’Hara makes a suicide attempt in a huge commotion in the court and escapes in the confusion. All three major characters end up in a house of mirrors, each armed with pistols, a will to survive, and an urge to kill.

I have yet to see the film that Welles’s made inbetween this film’s release and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger”, which was his first foray into the noir genre. Reportedly that film had several different writing contributers including an uncredited effort by John Huston. I have to say though that while this film is worth a watch, the deficiencies of the scriptwork suggests that the film “Mank”s titular argument of sole writing credit for “Citizen Kane” being mostly due to the talent of Herman J. Mankiewicz rings doubly true. The script and line delivery are curious at best. Orson Welles’ Irish accent goes in and out throughout the whole of the film, and when he seemingly remembers that he’s supposed to be playing an Irishman, the brogue is impeccably laughable. No, the writing is not what works here- it’s Orson’s set-pieces and technical imagery maneuvers in the back half of the film, but particularly in the last fifteen to twenty minutes that make this film worth watching. Once Grisby shows up dead and Orson’s O’Hara is on the run, the film’s spirit rises from floundering to fantastic.

Overall this is a decent noir and one with some truly impeccable imagery from Orson Welles behind the camera. It’s just too bad that the first half of the film takes its time with some truly cringe-inducing romance between real husband and wife Welles and Hayworth. If you really enjoyed the second half of this noir, I would implore you to check out Welles later effort in the genre in “Touch of Evil” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/11/07/old-school-review-touch-of-evil-1958/). That film is a far better example of what the infamous auteur is capable of. Though, to be fair, I can only recommend the “reconstructed” version of that film which was re-edited to Welles’ notes and specifications decades later.

Final Score: 1 Easy to Miss Background Cameo of Errol Flynn

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Old School Review: “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955)

Written for the screen by Millard Kaufman, and adapted by Don McGuire, from the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin, and directed by John Sturges, “Bad Day at Black Rock” has elements of both noir and western as an inquisitve one-armed man comes to the small desert town of Black Rock in search of answers. Admittedly, when hitting play on this movie, I had fully expected a nineteenth century western to appear before my eyes mostly due to the title alone. What I got was an unexpected delight, as those assumptions had eroded fairly quickly as the opening of the film was following a train that was far too modern to be of the old west. The first hint of something odd afoot is when the train station telegrapher, Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins) seems surprised, and maybe even a bit worried, that the Train is slowing down to stop, the first time it has done so in four years.

After watching the complex and daunting (yet very impressive) “Tenet” earlier in the week, I was left wanting something slower and simpler. Which is exactly what I got with this film. At an hour and twenty minutes, this film offered me both something old and something new. I was very engaged by the mystery that the film wraps you in almost immediately, but it also has just enough of that Noir flavor sprinkled in to really set this one aside as slightly elevated nostalgia genre fare. For me, this film was comfort food. For about a third to the first half of the story, we really don’t know the intentions of either the townsfolk or this stranger, John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). All we know is that he’s searching for a Japanese American farmer named Komoko, and that everyone in town is suspicious of him once he starts asking around. At first I thought that the townsfolk might actually be protecting Komoko as one of their own from this Macreedy, possibly a government stooge? He had the suit for it, but as it turns out I wasn’t even close on first impressions as it became evidently clear what the truth of the situation was. Everyone in town tries to stall Macreedy at every turn, from not offering him a hotel room, physically getting in his way, to curt and aggressive social tactics. After awhile a young woman in town, Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) allows Macreedy to borrow her jeep to the disdain of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the unofficial ruler of this small town. Macreedy makes his way out to Adobe Flats, where he finds the remains of a charred house, a well with water deep in the bottom, and strangely enough, wildflowers growing.

On his way back into town Macreedy’s assailed by one of Smith’s goons, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), as he rams the small jeep around the uneven dirt road and eventually smashes Macreedy off the road with a laugh and a glare before beating him back to town. Eventually Macreedy puts enough clues together to get a good idea of what happened to Komoko, but he goes out of his way to confirm that before he and several good townsfolk acknowledge the real danger that Macreedy’s gotten himself into. I was particularly entertained by the exasperated, but good natured, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) as he tries his best to help out Macreedy in his search for truth, and justice for Komoko. This was a quick delight of a film, and it’s wondrously anti-racist at it’s core. In fact the film almost didn’t get made as the subtle rebuke of Mccarthyism gave studio executives a myriad of problems on the matter, but it eventually got made in spite of this pushback. During my watch I was charmed by the old school mentality of an able-bodied actor with two working limbs trying to fake a lame one throughout the film production. They don’t make movies like that anymore, and while it could be a partial limb that the character was hiding, it’s pretty clear that Spencer Tracy’s just got his hand in his pocket the whole movie, but hey, it still gave the character more mystique initially. We eventually discover that he was a platoon leader in Italy during the war, which is fresh in everyone’s minds as this film is set in late 1945 after the war had just ended mere months ago. We eventually discover the humility and morality behind Macreedy’s reasoning in seeking out Komoko, but I’ll leave that one for you to discover on your own. There’s also a surprising and explosive scene in which Macreedy performs defensive judo moves on Coley Trimble under threat of intimidation tactics, and that alone would cover the price of admission for me. I found this one on the Criterion Channel, but it’s one that will be leaving at the end of the month, so check it out there while you can!

Final Score: 1 Molotov Cocktail

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What should Robert Downey Jr. do now that his time as Iron Man has come to an end?

After the fallout of “Avengers: Endgame” Robert Downey Jr. has one of the most unique opportunities in the film game, he can choose to do whatever he wants with his time at this point. Any feature that has his name attached will likely garner more attention than most, even though his “Dolittle” didn’t quite mesh with audiences and critics, it still made over two-hundred million. Though I wouldn’t recommend big budget, overly CGI reliant tentpoles anymore. I would, however, recommend several options that could flavor the third act of his career in performance with bold, daring, choices. Or simply just weird and abstract roles. I’d recommend a future similar to the path that Daniel Radcliffe has taken, who went out of his way to choose downright insane, wildly fun, character pieces since leaving Hogwarts behind (My favorite being “Swiss Army Man” https://spacecortezwrites.com/2016/07/11/review-swiss-army-man-or-undead-harry-potter-farts-a-lot-paul-dano-talks-to-him-about-it/). Downey is no stranger to abstract or somewhat bizarre films, just look at “The Singing Detective” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2017/12/16/review-the-singing-detective/) or “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” for a glance at some of his pre-Marvel Studios out-of-the-box roles. Below are just a couple of ideas I’ve been mulling lately.

Work with Mel Gibson

Okay, so we might as well get this one out of the way as some will outright reject any notion of Mel Gibson getting any work after his history of less than welcomed anti-semitic rants (obviously, not cool to say the least). However, it has been some time since then, and Gibson has apologized (http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1913028_1913030_1913025,00.html), and as far as I know he hasn’t had any further instances of hate speech, and I have to admit that I admire his skill as an actor and a filmmaker. Why then, you might be asking, should Robert Downey Jr. work with Mel Gibson specifically? Well, for starters, the two have been longtime friends who have helped each other out in times of strife. Gibson acutally helped to produce the earlier mentioned “Singing Detective” which was Downey’s first role after his bout with rehab (link below to article about said friendship). Personally, what I would want most from a film starring these two as leads, is either A) a modern Noir in the same vein as “Chinatown” with the two as detectives chasing down Macguffins in the rain with shootouts and gritty mystery afoot; or B) some sort of cop drama with the two as partners, but less in the stylized noir genre and more like Downey’s previous work in “Zodiac” for example. There’s a lot that could be done with either premise, but both sound like a roaring good time to me!

https://archive.jsonline.com/entertainment/newswatch/149496285.html/#:~:text=During%20a%202003%20interview%20at,he%20could%20return%20the%20favor.

A24?

As previously stated here on this blog many times before, my love for the film studio A24 is boundless. Regardless of whether or not each film they distribute will be a box office juggernaut or a penniless dud- they simply refuse to make normal, broad-based appeal films. They always choose fascinating and artistically divergent films from filmmakers with a voice and vision. Which is why I would love to see Downey star in a film distributed by A24. The possibilities are unlimited. Just look at fellow MCU star Scarlett Johansson’s abstract film “Under The Skin” (The sixth film in this link: https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/05/03/quarantine-2020-catch-up-rapid-fire-reviews-3-politics-and-or-absurdity/) for an idea at the potential. Could you imagine what Ari Aster or Robert Eggers would do with Robery Downey Jr in a starring role? I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it!

Horror? Action?

While I feel like this category is the least likely, it’s also possibly the most enthralling of all the possibilities for me personally. If Downey got involved with the genre hits that have been cropping up more and more in recent years, I think there could be some excellent material for him to work with, plus I legitimately think his presence in these suggestions would better the films overall. If Jordan Peele, for example, wanted to work with Downey in a starring or supporting role in whatever horror concept he’s been stewing on as of late, I feel safely assured in the quality of that possible outcome. I also think it would be a real treat if Downey popped up in the next “Conjuring” sequel (mainline, not the spinoffs) as a Catholic priest, or even as one of the ghosts, or spirits, with a more involved role. That just seems like a good time. There’s also the possibility of him getting involved with the last of the planned “Halloween” sequels, “Halloween Ends”. I don’t quite know how he could fit in there- but damn it, I’d be happy if he showed up. Horror aside, it just struck me- What if Robert Downey Jr was in one of the next “John Wick” movies? Can you imagine it? What if he was a power player at the High Table? He could be a ruthless suit, or a gritty ringleader of some other faction within New York City or even the head of another major international city’s Continental! Or maybe just an old acquaintance of Mr. Wick’s that can assist him in his time of need? Awe man… now I really want him to be involved in the “John Wick” series…

Indie! Indie! Indie!

Maybe, however, RDJ just wants something … quieter? Something smaller, that speaks to our times, or simply a powerful drama about the human condition? He’s been nominated twice for the Oscars, but he has yet to take home the gold, maybe pairing with a critically acclaimed director for a good old-fashioned drama would merit him a shiny golden statue for his mantlepiece. There are a TON of filmmakers out there that could work with Downey to craft something truly unique, but the ones that immediately come to mind are Chloé Zhao, Martin McDonagh, David Lowery, or even Taika Waititi if he reverted to smaller scale drama/comedies like “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” after his next Thor film. If he chose to go this route, I think we’d all be rewarded by the change in pace.

Well, there you have it! Those are just a few of my thoughts on the exciting future that awaits both audiences and Robert Downey Jr himself! Granted, this article is about a year and a half behind the crowd, but hey, I write ’em as they come to me. Whatever he chooses to do from here on out will be something to look forward to, that’s for sure! I’m still waiting on that third “Sherlock Holmes” movie if I’m being honest with you, but anyways, hope you had fun with all this RDJ speculation! Stay safe out there!

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Old School Review: “Touch of Evil” (1958)

Written and directed by Orson Welles, loosely based on the novel “The Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson, “Touch of Evil” is the last studio backed film that Orson Welles made in Hollywood, and it’s quite the noir! For the record, I watched the ‘Reconstructed’ version of the film that was re-edited according to Orson Welles’ wishes per the fifty-eight page memo he sent to the studio following their edit of the film. This resulted in an additional half hour of footage merged back into the original studio edit. “Touch of Evil” begins with an incredibly well staged and executed shot that follows a bomb being planted in the trunk of a car as we meet two of our principal characters, Miguel ‘Mike’ (Charlton Heston) and Susan (Janet Leigh) Vargas, walking alongside the car as it weaves in and out of a busy small road as they cross the Mexican-U.S. border. It’s a gripping scene of about three and a half minutes until the car with the bomb gets just far enough out of frame and explodes as Mike (a Narcotics Official for the Mexican Government) investigates the scene of the burning car. It’s not long before Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) arrives at the scene of the crime, looming ominously over the wreckage as he boasts about ‘intuitions’ and hunches that a local Mexican gang is to blame for the murders.

Once Vargas is involved in the case, it becomes more about the detective work that Vargas engages in as he uncovers Captain Quinlan’s years of planting evidence and a corrupt system of criminal activities. There’s also some fun world building on the side with “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a criminal that Vargas indicted back in Mexico. He’s out to make Vargas’ life a living hell as revenge for his brother’s predicament, though Uncle Joe is very careful to keep his underlings’ crimes just vague and muddled enough not to attract any real retribution from the U.S. cops. Uncle Joe Grandi’s boys are mostly utilized to keep Susan paranoid while Mike’s out there trying to pin Quinlan to the dirt he’s tried to keep buried for years. The film has all the trappings of a good Noir, and Welles fully embraced the genre while imbuing it with stylish cinematography choices, near perfect shading, and just damn good direction and blocking. It’s considerably noteworthy that Orson Welles could take a B-movie thriller on a border town, and transform it into something larger that feels equal parts Machiavellian and Shakespearean at times.

Now, we have to address the elephant in the room, Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas. On one hand, to have a Mexican character not only be the lead in a major motion picture in 1958, but that he was also the hero of the story as well as the most moral character- that’s something to consider given the time the film was made and released. It’s also worth mentioning that Vargas’ character actions seem doubly righteous when juxtaposed against Welles’ Quinlan, the walking emodiment of bigotry and corruption. However, it can be cringe inducing seeing Charlton Heston caked in make-up to be depicted as a Mexican narcotics officer, especially when Heston provided no vocal work for any authenticity when concerned with accents. It’s not particularly well hidden, thus the film asks you to suspend your disbelief as Heston, clearly, is not Mexican. Whether or not that works for you in the grander scheme of the film as a whole, well, that will be a personal choice for each viewer to decide for themselves. I think it’s a bit of a toss up for me personally, it’s a bit uncomfortable- but it seems there were good intentions from Welles. For example, in the book, the character of Vargas was a white cop named Mitch. So, Welles intentionally made the choice to make his lead character of Mexican descent, it’s just disappointing that the character couldn’t have been played by a Latino. Alas, it was what seems like a thousand years ago. Your enjoyment of the film will be up to you given the circumstances.

If you’re a student of film, I highly recommend giving this one a watch. There’s a lot of work here that feels revolutionary for the time. I’ve always thought that about Orson Welles, he was a man ahead of his time when it came to filmmaking. Whether on the set of “Citizen Kane”, “The Third Man”, or in the recently crafted/discovered documentary on Netflix called “The Other Side of The Wind” (Which I highly recommend), Welles was always willing to take huge risks, break new ground, and change cinema. Even with the brownface Heston situation, there is enough good stuff in the film to consider giving it a watch if this piques your interest. Definitely recommended.

Final Score: 2 Sticks of Dynamite

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Old School Review: “In a Lonely Place” (1950)

Written by Andrew Solt, based on a story by Dorothy B. Hughes, and directed by Nicholas Ray, “In a Lonely Place” is a mystery noir film that cleverly plays with audience expectations and goes against the grain when regarding Hollywood star Humphrey Bogart and his character, Dixon Steele. Having only just recently seen “Casablanca” for the first time this past summer (I know, I know..) paired with “The African Queen” and “The Maltese Falcon”, I had an image conjured up from these films of Bogart’s usual assets in acting. Namely, playing a man beaten down by the world or it’s expectations resulting in sarcasm, a dry wit, and usually with a drink in hand or nearby. He might play a cynic- but at his core the characters usually have good intentions. This film toys with that image and what we the audience may have come to expect from Bogart’s other hit films, granted, the film starts out in a very familiar place for Bogart as Steele, a washed up screenwriter with a chip on his shoulder and a drinking problem. After Steele throws a spiteful fist early on in the film however, we get an inkling that this incarnation of Bogey has more of a temper this time around. Steele is a far punchier lead than his roles in the previously mentioned films, and this only assists in the delightful second act flip, which I found to be particularly innovative for the time.

The film begins with Steele’s agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith), a longtime friend and confidant, whose just gotten Steele the opportunity to adapt a trashy pulp novel into a screenplay. Steele can’t bring himself to read the book even though he needs the work and instead hires a hat-check girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who he heard loves the book and had just finished reading it. She comes to his place that evening and ecstatically goes over the plot while he glances at a new neighbor across the way who had also noticed him earlier as well. After Steele gets the general idea of the story, which he seems to detest a bit internally, he sends Ms. Atkinson home for the night by a nearby cab station- which he pays for in addition to helping him with the pulp fiction. Early the next morning Steele’s met by L.A. Detective, Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who had served under him during the war. He brings Steele in for questioning, and while Steele believes it’s because he got into a fight with the son of the studio head the previous day, it’s actually because he’s the prime suspect in the murder of Mildren Atkinson found dead earlier in the dark hours of the morning.

Steele doesn’t do hiumself any favors when being questioned by the police. By his nature, he’s a macabre idealist with awful self-esteem, someone who’s intentionally vague and (as a writer does) likes to exaggerate from time to time. Luckily for him his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), did see Ms. Atkinson leave the previous night without Steele, providing him an alibi, as well as a flirtatious invitation. After awhile the two begin to fall in love, they begin to date and Steele gets back to writing after Laurel helps get him off the bottle for some time. Though Laurel and Dixon do seem to be mutually affectionate to each other, things begin to go awry when an evening at the beach turns sour and Dixon’s temper reemerges when he discovers that Laurel was brought in for further questioning by the police chief, which she didn’t tell him about as she didn’t want to interrupt his writing streak. That he’s still being followed amid uncertainty in the air of whether or not he actually did kill Ms. Atkinson sends him into a rage while on the road and he almost kills a man after a traffic altercation. This is when the film switches the perspective to that of Laurel, who’s paranoia about Dixon grows slowly at first before he starts displaying seriously questionable behavior. This is the film’s best trick, they took great effort in the first half to assuage any suspicions of Dixon as a murderer and slowly inserted moments and scenes that could be looked back on with the latter half of the film’s perspective that turn the audience against Dixon whose losing control in his life and begins to break down the closer we get to the finale. It’s a very clever notion, the film’s twisty perspective and illusory truth pair to make this one a memorable outing for both Bogart and Grahame.

While this film may not reach the heights of the other Bogart films mentioned above, it does a fine job with some fun creative twists thrown in for good measure. There are some particularly entertaining pieces of the film that I must mention before departing however. Firstly, I really enjoyed the sauced theatrics of Steele’s has-been actor buddy, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), who pops up throughout the film to espouse lyrical poetry and to support his screenwriter friend. Bogart also has a few really unexpectedly funny lines throughout as well, like when he jokingly suggests another suspect was the actual killer, not him, the man replies as Dixon shakes his hand on the way out: “What an imagination. That’s from writing movies.” And Dixon turns it around on the man in a split-second with: “What a grip. That’s from counting money.” There’s a lot of sly jabs like that throughout the film. As for the downsides, the film definitely feels its age. Those turned off by depictions of toxic masculinity will probably not find much to like about Dixon Steele. That and good lord there’s a lot of smoking cigarettes- which, is expected given the time period, but it’s still jarring at times and kind of fascinating to see the wheel of time rolling ever farther from cinema’s golden age of studio controlled dramas, musicals, and epics. If you’re looking for a decent black and white mystery noir, this should do just fine.

Final Score: A Few Weeks…

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Old School Review: “The Naked City” (1948)

Written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, based on a story by Wald, and directed by Jules Dassin, “The Naked City” is a police procedural that follows the NYPD Homicide department as they investigate the murder of a beautiful young woman who was drowned in her own bathtub. This dogged detective story was a delightful surprise, the film seems to have been ahead of its time in several departments, perhaps most notably with it’s depiction of darker content alongside a sort of docu-fictional representation of New York City and the many characters who populate it’s streets and buildings. Though the film has a huge cast of smaller roles that layer the story quite well, we chiefly follow Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) the head of the Homicide department, and the latest recruit in Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) who does most of the legwork on the case.

Mark Hellinger, producer of the film and former journalist, had a lot to do with the production. Not only did he conceive the idea of shooting the film on location instead of on a Hollywood set (revolutionary at the time), he’s even our omniscient narrator that pipes in throughout the film to give our heroes and villains prodding suggestions and commentary. While the narrator can be a bit dated and cheesy at times, the film does use narration in inventive ways that keeps the pace trotting along at an amicable pace. I was also surprised to hear the narrator give the villain words of encouragment in the third act after he’s been outed, which was an interesting touch- I wouldn’t have expected the narrator to care about the health of our murderer at all. Indeed, the film doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of criminality and that only makes the investigative work of the NYPD that much more dire as they put their feet and their minds to work in sniffing out the culprit. Inbetween shots of children playing in the open fire hydrant, women chatting while window shopping, and mothers tending to their crying babies, the film also shows us criminal partners offing each other in the east river and cleverly hides our villain in plain view several times. Muldoon’s gallows humor also supports this notion while subtely showcasing his years of experience in handling tragic cases such as this.

This film may have been the originator of many staples of the police procedural genre, so it’s worth a watch in that regard, but really it’s the character work that makes it noteworthy. Muldoon and Halloran make an excellent team but the ensemble work is where the film truly shines. The tiny flourishes of individuality given to all of the major players are something special, like the suspicous Frank Niles (Howard Duff) who’s brought in for questioning early on in the film- but is quickly found out to be a spectacular liar. You can find this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (the criterion channel) or in their shop if you’re looking to purchase a physical copy. At an hour and a half, this was a charming and enjoyable noir-lite Detective tale that I encourage you to check out!

Final Score: 8 Million Stories

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Old School Review: “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review*

Title translation: “Second Wind”

Written by José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Deuxième Souffle” is a crime thriller adapted from a novel also written by Giovanni. Of the three films I’ve seen from Melville at this point, this is my new favorite from him. While the cinematography isn’t as showy as previous films, the story and characters are far more engaging and rapturous. The story is mainly focused on recently escaped and infamous Parisian criminal Gustave Minda (Lino Ventura), or “Gu” for short, and the expert Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) who relentlessly pursues him. Now, the plot and story at hand may seem familiar, but it is Melville’s stage direction, camera framing, and restrained performances that he pulls from his actors that make this noir film stand out from the crowd. So, after “Gu” breaks out of prison with two others (one unfortunate prisoner missed his jump, the second was eventually chased off a cliff by the police), he heads to Paris to see his loyal sister Simone (Christine Fabréga), who goes by her nickname ‘Manouche’ throughout the film. She and her bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin), work various aspects of a bar called “Ricci’s”. Manouche and Alban get caught in the crossfire of an orchaestrated attack on the bar before “Gu” arrives in Paris, but Alban fends them off from behind the bar while Jacques (Raymond Loyer), Manouche’s admirer, is found to be the only casualty. When “Gu” does arrive back in town he takes his sister’s blackmail problems into his own hands. “Gu” catches two more men sent to Manouche’s house after the attack and kills them with his trademark technique. With the blackmail settled, the three of them, Manouche, Alban, and “Gu” plan to smuggle the infamous criminal to Italy by way of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Inspector Blot is all over every possible trace of evidence connected to the infamous Gustave Minda’s recent escape from prison, and in fact, he’s the first person on the scene of the attack at Ricci’s. Though no one there will give Blot any verifiable accounts of the attack, he knows their game all too well and makes his presence well known, for while the attack didn’t resemble “Gu”s handiwork- Blot knew the old gangster would be heavily invested in the safety of his sister. Blot, for his part, is a damn crafty Inspector and knows all the ins and outs of the criminal underworld- he calculates his risks seriously, and his deductive reasoning is unparalled in the world of this film. To fund the escape to Italy, “Gu” decides to join up with a crew for a heist with a gigantic payout, much to Manouche’s objection. “Gu” finds this opportunity through another old friend of his, Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), who was originally asked to be a part of the heist, but declined due to the risk associated. “Gu” finds himself in familiar company with the crew assembled as Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin), brother of Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) who owns the bar Ricci’s, is the lead organizer of the operation. Gustave doesn’t find out until later that it was Jo Ricci who blackmailed Manouche at the beginning of the film, though when he does, he lets Paul know that his brother ‘isn’t on the up and up‘ and decides to let it go due to their friendship. The heist is pretty simple as far as heists go, an armored truck carrying one million francs worth of platinum in its cargo has a long route out through the country with two armed police motorcyles escorting it. Once the armored truck and police motorcade enter the mountainous terrain where the gangsters lay in wait, the heist goes surprisingly well. The motorcade is dispatched effectively as planned and the truck drivers are stowed in a nearby shed. The only diversion is a passerby who stopped because he thought he heard shots- but “Gu” solves the issue and tosses the onlooker into the shed with the others. The crew returns and hides the platinum until they can find an approrpriate seller.

Unfortunately for “Gu”, he’s kidnapped in broad daylight and tricked into revealing that Paul Ricci was involved in the heist as Blot’s team impersonated local gangsters from Marseille with insider information. Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) of the Marseille Police department receives the two gangsters, they’re heavily tortured as they attempt to break both “Gu” and Paul, though eventually “Gu” escapes. Jo Ricci wants revenge for his jailed brother, and to get “Gu”s portion of the platinum’s revenue. Jo Ricci works the other two members of the crew in the heist and convinces them to side with him, fearing that “Gu” could give up their names to the cops as well. After escaping the Marseille Police Department, “Gu” tracks down Inspector Fardiano and kills him after obtaining a written confession that Gustave Minda did not inform on anyone, and the details of the torture techniques they used in their “information gathering”. The film comes down to a shootout between “Gu”, the two remaining heist members, and Jo Ricci as he takes Orloff’s place in a meeting and shows up with two pistols and a whole lot of righteous criminal honor to uphold. All are killed in the commotion, with Blot arriving just as “Gu” dies on the staircase. Blot heads out of the crime scene and into the crowd, as he does, he purposefully leaves Fardiano’s confession at the feet of a journalist- Blot played by the rules, and Fardiano was just another bad cop to be swept under the rug.

This was another really solid noir film from Melville and it only encourages me to seek out more from the Godfather of the French New Wave film movement. Classic genre tropes with tough guy gangsters, prison escapes, heists, shootouts, this film cleverly includes all the usual ingredients of a typical noir film, but the genius here is in the execution. Yes, the film is two-and-a-half hours, but for me at least, the pacing was very manageable and I was engaged for the whole film’s runtime. If you’re looking for a great rivalry between an unflappable Detective and an infamous Gangster then look no further, you’ve found it! Enjoy!

Final Score: 200 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “Le Doulos” (1962)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.

So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.

This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.

Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity

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Old School Review: “Bob le Flambeur” (1955)

Written by Auguste Le Breton, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed by Melville, “Bob le Flambeur” is a French noir film from the oft described Godfather of the infamous New Wave filmmakers who would burst onto the scene with radical new filmmaking techniques in just a few short years. Most of the French films I have seen at this point haven’t quite connected with me as much as I had expected, or even hoped for. That changes with this film however. Recently I noticed that a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville movies were set to leave the Criterion Collection’s streaming service at the end of February, and I had been meaning to check them out. There’s nothing like a fast approaching deadline to give you a sense of focus. I must say that I loved this film, and I cannot wait to run through more of Melville’s filmography. “Bob le Flambeur” follows Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a former Parisian gangster before the war, and now a well known gambler among the many nightclubs and bars of the night life in Paris. Even the cops know Bob, a man of honor and luck, he once saved the life of the local inspector (Guy Decomble) and they forged a long friendship. The owner of the corner bar, Yvonne (Simone Paris), bought the place with a loan from Bob, and with it her loyalty to him. And then there’s Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eager young man who hangs around, as his father was a great friend of Bob’s. We get most of our information about Bob by the way people greet and react to his presence and how they speak about Bob when he’s around and when he’s not.

We follow Bob as he moves from room to room throughout the latest hours of the night and the earliest of the morning, as the narration by Melville informs us “in those moments, between night and day … between heaven and hell.” He ends up losing most of his remaining funds, in fact throughout the whole first act Bob never seems to win at all. It isn’t until he hears about a potential heist with a score big enough to offset the risks that he begins to win at games of chance. It is here that a refresher on French vocabularly might be worthwhile; The word being “Flamber” (verb): To wager not only the money you have, but the money you don’t have. This is the epitome of who Bob is at his core. He is a gambler through and through, always rolling dice, flipping coins, and pulling the levers on a slot machine. Risk and chance are the fuel of his existence. Which is why the old gangster perks up when a friend mentions that the safe in the Casino in Deauville occasionally holds extraordinary amounts of money. They quickly begin to assess the situation and start gathering a crew of people with the essential skills and connections that could allow them to pull off this feat. It’s here that movies involving heists over the next fifty plus years have looked back upon for inspiration in the examination of a heist’s plan. Melville was aware enough of the conventions of the genre and chose to have his criminals forgo the usual charts and blueprints used to elaborate on the specifics of the plan. Instead, Melville had his crew go to detailed lengths to plan out their heist by spraying the outlines of the casino’s floorplans on an empty field and having his men walk through the steps. They also get some reconnaissance by driving around the Casino’s walls and having one of the crew accurately sketch the outlines and specific features of the building. They hire an expert safe cracker and acquire an exact replica of the safe they have to crack for practice. Which is all well and good, but I must direct your attention to the side characters who are all given adequate background information and motivations for their choices within the film. First, there’s Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman on the verge of falling into the clutches of the many pimps on the streets of Paris. Bob hates pimps, and he goes out of his way to make it known to Marc (Gérard Buhr), a down on his luck former gangster-turned-pimp early in the film. Unfortunately for Bob, Marc’s also dogged by the cops who will let him slide on smaller infractions if he gets them some good insider information from the criminal underworld of Paris. Anne floats around from Bob’s place (he allows her to stay if she has nowhere else to go), to several career paths, into and out of the lovesick arms of poor Paulo, and eventually back to Marc- who is denied her business as a prostitute, but given all too valuable information by accident.

In the end, Bob gets comepletely sidetracked by gambling at the casino. He almost forgets his schedule entirely, but runs out of the tables and into a gunfight. While he earned himself extraordinary wealth, he also missed the worst of the violence and gets there just in time to catch Paulo as he dies in his arms. Tragedy, sparked by an optimistic and oddly cynical note that by becoming so wealthy that he may avoid all jail time with the right lawyer for the right price. It’s one of those eternal ironies that comes through in the third act that adds just the right mix of cinematic magic to the whole affair, you see, Bob had promised his first partner in the scheme that he wouldn’t gamble until after the job had been done, but the allure of the casino was just too much for him. It’s just his nature, as the film likes to remind us. Beyond the plot, the cinematography caught me as something almost mythic in certain shots. That may seem strong, but the farther we get from the black and white films of the twentieth century, the closer that time feels to becoming as large and impenetrable in the cultural zeitgeist as say, the American West in the 1800’s. Maybe it’s just me, but I also love it when a film’s lead character travels through an environment and becomes dwarfed by the landscape, be it man-made skyscrapers or small towns, or natural like trees or mountains. Putting man on the scale of the world in your framing makes humanity seem small in comparison to the world around it- but it makes our acomplishments that much more powerful too.

If you’re looking for some good old school noir and are willing to read subtitles, I highly suggest checking this one out. For fun, try to spot all the people who aren’t smoking onscreen- once you notice it, it’s hard to miss the massive amount of people and time that smoking takes up onscreen. Otherwise, look forward to some more reviews on the films from Jean-Pierre Melville. ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: 800 Million Francs

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Old School Review: “Shoot The Piano Player” (1960)

*As this film is sixty years old, there will be spoilers.*

Written and directed by François Truffaut, “Shoot The Piano Player” is an adaption of the noir novel “Down There” by David Goodis. Ironically, this was Truffaut’s 2nd film after “The 400 Blows” and the second film of his I’ve seen (The first being “Breathless” which is also reviewed on this blog). This film has heartened me to the infamous French ‘New Wave’ filmmaker far more than “Breathless” did, which isn’t to say that I disliked that film, “Shoot The Piano Player” simply kept my attention far easier. Perhaps this is due to Truffaut wanting to showcase the influence American films had on his work, or because of it’s non-linear story structure that reveals character development and evolution through elaborate flashbacks. Either way, I rather enjoyed this film by Truffaut.

The film opens with a man in a trenchcoat being pursued for unknown reasons through the streets of Paris at night. We get a short conversation between the man and a stranger who’s helped him off his feet after a short tumble. They stride in a casual pace and ponder the intricacies of love and marriage before the stranger turns off another street and our focus rips back into a hurried flurry as our man enters a small, dingy, jazz bar filled with dancing patrons. There we discover that the man we’ve followed here is Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), brother of the pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), who is irked when Chico flippantly calls him Edouard in a teasing manner. Chico’s on the run from a couple of gangsters that he’d scammed out of their share of a heist, and they’re onto him. He pleads for Charlie’s help, but Charlie’s uninterested- he left his family behind awhile ago- but he still stalls the two thugs when they barge into the bar anyways. Eventually the two gangsters track down Charlie and the waitress Léna (Marie Dubois) from the bar, as they saw him with her later that night, and they nab both off the street at gunpoint. They escape with the help of an inquiring police officer and flee before the film takes a huge flashback that encompasses (what feels like) most of the second act. Léna then takes Charlie back to her apartment to hide out where she reveals that she always knew of his past as Edouard Saroyan, famous piano player that sold out concert halls all over Paris.

We’re then treated to a lengthy deep dive into Edouard’s past as he began practicing piano, courted a waitress, Thérèse (Nicole Berger), at a local diner and eventually married her before he got famous as a world class performer. Eventually they grow apart with the wealth and fame going to Edouard’s head as they continually fight over seemingly trivial issues that are actually clues to the much deeper issues growing between them. A few surprising reveals later and we discover the source of Edouard’s inner sadness and general melancholy towards the world around him before cutting back to the present. After they decide to quit the bar life Edouard and Léna work towards rescuing Fido (Richard Kanayan) the youngest Saroyan brother from the two gangsters. Unfortunately for them, Plyne (Serge Davri) the lummox tending the bar, has become enraged at Edouard’s advances toward Léna. A fight then breaks out between them that ends in the back alley with Edouard stabbing a knife into Plyne’s back! Though Edouard had tried to stop the fight, Plyne would not yield- the women had seen him take up such a cause and he was committed to finishing it, quite the bad luck. Thus, with blood on his hands, Edouard decides to head out to the old Saroyan farmhouse with Chico and Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), the eldest Saroyan brother. It’s not long before the two gangstera arrive with Fido in tow to confront Chico and retrieve their portion of the stolen money. There’s a shootout in the snow and everything essentially gets resolved with Léna informing Edouard that the police absolved him of his crimes as multiple neighbors had seen him try to stop Plyne in the fight. It was self defense after all. Unfortunately, Léna got caught in the ensuing crossfire and didn’t make it back to Paris. Fido was reunited with his brothers though. The film ends with Edouard returning to that same dingy dive bar and sitting back down at his crummy piano to play once more, while staring blankly into space as the film fades out.

This film had a more playful edge than “Breathless”, despite carrying heavier plot points overall, but I believe this helped to buoy the film more evenly as a whole. You can definitely see the influence of American Noir films here in Truffaut’s second film, but more specifically you can feel the presence of Alfred Hitchcock clearly and knowingly. So while this is most certainly a French film in the 1960s (Multiple instances of smoking in bed, sensations of nihilism sparking into poetic manifestos before swinging back into nonchalance, and a very loose and undefinable playfulness when concerned with intimacy and sexuality), you can rest assured that the film has a destination at the end, with a more focused narrative- which might just be preference- but it worked for me! Check this one out if you can.

Final Score: 2 Gangsters