Black and White and Red All Over: Short movie reviews, mostly noir

Black and White and Red All Over: Short movie reviews, mostly noir November 3, 2015

So while everybody else was celebrating Scary Movie Season, I was mostly at AFI’s Noir City DC festival. This year the theme was “marriage” so you know that it was like they got chocolate in my peanut butter.

Let’s start before the festival, though, with 99 Homes. The plot here is that evil developer Richard Carver (Michael Shannon) personally supervises the foreclosure of beleaguered working-class single father Dennis (Andrew Garfield). Then the rapacious rich man, who is named Rich Carver because that’s how we roll here in 99 Homes (they call him “Rick” but that’s a thin veil), offers Dennis a job: Ride with me as I foreclose on your fellow workingman, and you can make enough money to buy back your house. The relationship between the two men goes from antagonism to grudging respect, and maybe some kind of personal connection, call it Stockholm Syndrome….

Yeah, so what I wanted from this film was maybe “Whiplash, but for the housing crisis,” or “Sweet Smell of Success meets Wall Street.” This movie never quite got there. Rich Carver (wocka wocka) has some intriguing shades, starting from very early on when he complains, “My world’s upside down”–he’s a man who thinks he never wanted to sell his conscience, but the market made him do it. But Dennis remains fairly one-note, without enough personality to stand up against Rich Carver (womp-womp). Also Tim Markatos points out that these are real Floridian housing-crisis victims playing many of the extra roles, and hey look, lots of them are black or Latino… so the fact that the only hard-luck stories we actually hear enough of to care about are the stories of white men feels pretty cheap.

There are some very effective images (the dad’s table covered with paperwork, you feel exhausted and terrified just looking at it) and sharp lines (“There’s plenty of homes in the sea”). The line, “Ma’am, please don’t escalate,” when a desperate woman starts to plead and sob. The poor man’s real cigarette vs. Rich Carver (“Rick”) with his e-cig. The fact that there is simply no findable line between the government and the bank. The exchange about Noah’s Ark. Now that I’m looking back over my notes I’m wishing the overall arc and the final confrontation had worked better for me. IDK, if you buy the dynamic between the two men this movie will work for you a lot better than it did for me, I think. But even then I think you’d find the back half lecture-y, and this is yet another movie that ends right when it gets interesting.

Night Has 1000 Eyes: Edward G. Robinson (yes!) as a lovelorn psychic (…eh). Lovely cinematography, awful music. The leading lady (Gail Russell) has huge sad eyes, and a lovely musical soft voice. The Dead Zone but with an overcomplicated puzzle-box ending, and too much explanation. Costumes by Edith Head! Why can’t I have a gauze gown with gigantic fur cuffs? I need one, for lounging.

This is the first of two films in this post where we see the Angel’s Flight funicular up Bunker Hill.

Crime of Passion: The intro for this film suggested that Barbara Stanwyck plays a proto-feminist. She is indeed an independent career woman who hates suburban married life. She’s also self-centered and entitled, and betrays or judges every single other woman in the film, so no thanks, Jack. Like, she gets her big career break via basically the opposite of that Susan Glaspell short story, “A Jury of Her Peers.”

None of these ’50s suburban housewives have children. Why? Children raise the stakes.

Raymond Burr and Barbara Stanwyck have good chemistry but her character is just so loathsome! She flat out Lady Macbeths, “I want you to be somebody! Not for my sake, but for yours!” Yeesh.

The Reckless Moment: I really enjoyed this. Joan Bennett plays a wife and mother who is genuinely content in that life, but then poor choices by her undergraduate daughter bring her into contact with criminal lowlife heartthrob James Mason. A tense, doomed romance blossoms as we learn how far a mother will go to protect her child. Mason is swoony, they kiss with their consciences, Bennett does a perfect noir stare-and-stalk. How can you be a noir heroine when you have children and aging parents constantly underfoot? This is ’50s duty vs passion done right, so satisfying.

The Underworld Story: This was restored by the Film Noir Foundation. The intro was all about the horrors of the blacklist, since many of the people associated with this film ended up on it. Ah Hollywood, churning out fifty self-comforting blacklist narratives for every one film about the experience of people in actual Communist countries. The intro did note that a black character is played by a white woman in order to make the story more palatable, even though so much of the character’s situation is about racial hatred.

Anyway the movie itself is a mixed bag. There’s an exposition opening: Our antihero is Dan Duryea as a sleazy reporter who broke a big story that allowed a gangster to knock off an informant. He gets banished to small-town New England–he’s blacklisted! for, you know, getting a man murdered by the Mob–but he is a charming little slimeball, and he wins the favor of the local press lady. I think this kind of character works because he’s honest about his sleaziness, and in fact we can guess that he’s a little better than he’d admit to himself, and because he is so shamelessly intent on impressing the woman. There’s a submissiveness in that. He wants to win her favor, not to cow or overwhelm her.

The villain is also very fun, Howard da Silva as a jolly killer. There’s some of that noir snap: “Times are tough all over. Soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.” Or the insult and shrugging comeback: “You’re a weathervane!” “Soooooo… the wind changed!” There’s a very contemporary “how the media covers the media” angle. There’s one truly classic noir scene, the one in which the white men discuss how they’ll get the framed black maid to plead guilty: under the barred window, in front of the gleaming radiator.

Don’t trouble your pretty little head too much about the plot, tbh, nobody detects anything or reports any news.

Kiss Me Deadly: THIS IS GLORIOUS. Holy cats. Made by the man who brought you Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and boy will you believe it.

So this same intro guy basically warned us not to expect this movie to have anything so bourgeois as a coherent plot, or to make what the philosophers call “sense.” And yeah, this is a phantasmagoria, a nightmare carnival. It opens with a genre horror scene: the naked woman, wrapped in a coat, running barefoot down the highway screaming. Mike Hammer, P.I. picks her up (sure why not) and hides her from the cops (roll with it) and they’re both captured by the people pursuing her. There’s some torture obscured by aggressive camera angles (more horror as a cruel man’s voice intones, “Do you know what ‘resurrection’ means?”) and somebody uses the word “woo-bait”! There’s a Greek chorus of cops and the whole movie is kind of a carousel of ethnic stereotypes. That one cop Pat Murphy (what other name could he have?) is fabulous, played by Wesley Addy, sardonic and a little bit slithery.

“Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from windows. Somebody might blow you a kiss.”

Intro Guy noted that the lady who plays Lily Carver never acted again and is mighty embarrassed by this film, and basically nobody considers her a “real actress.” I couldn’t care less. She has a weird, off-kilter resonance and conviction.

Ah the classic noir pleasure of seeing tough guys get beat up. (Here’s the second Angel’s Flight scene btw.)

And then the ending is just bananas. The whole thing just goes completely off the hook and I flew right off with it. A bizarre, careening movie, a perfect noir nightmare of glare and shadow, a must-see.

The Saragossa Manuscript: A three-hour epic filmed in Communist Poland, passing through all three stomachs of the censorship cow (concept, shooting script, final product). The introduction to this movie, with its talk of censors and defectors, was a welcome counterpoint to the blacklist hagiography at The Underworld Story.

Anyway this is an interweaving and nested, collapsing string of stories, with multiple narrators. I did get lost somewhere in the second or third hour, but there’s enough adventure and wigginess that it kept me interested the whole way through.

After the Surrealist credits, you get soldiers finding a manuscript in a ruined church. As the battle rages on outside, one of them becomes rapt in its pages… and we’re suddenly in a fearsome, bleached landscape of skeletal cows and men hung from gibbets. Trees claw up from the ground. This landscape recurs–it’s where men end up after an encounter with, and wait for this one, the lesbian Muslim incest sisters. Who may also be demons! Or maybe just practicing an unusually intense form of endogamy! The whole story revolves around whether the events which seem so blatantly supernatural are really the work of God and devils, or whether they are human plots and trickery. But also, the whole story is an excuse to spin scurrilous tales and show a hooded Inquisitor straight-up whacking a man upside the head with an image of the Holy Virgin.

Some of this was controversial for the Communist censors, and while “lesbian Muslim incest sisters” does sound like it might raise an eyebrow, my very vague memories of the National Gallery of Art’s introduction suggest that the discussion of science and mystery might actually have been the offender. One man argues that “the true scientist moves among mysteries”: that the more we learn about the world, the more astonishing and mysterious it seems to us, the less intelligible and manipulable.

The tone swings wildly and without warning from horror to farce and back. The theme seems to be, “I think, senor, that you don’t have much time”–an odd choice of theme for a three-hour picaresque!

I was worried this film would be too long and eggy for me, too baroque, but it just cantered right along. I don’t even know, this was great.

Browse Our Archives