Greetings all and sundry!
Taking advantage of a sudden respite of lower temperatures and humidity. I’ve decided to take on the insurmountable tasks of cleaning out the attic. Trimming myriad low hanging and driveway draping limbs and branches. And leveling the height of various grasses in the front and back yard. I’ve taken solace in soothing strained muscles and delving back into favored B&W films laced with suspense, occasional terror in and out of the Noir genre.
Having started with a rather large number. I’ve managed to pare the number to something more manageable. And often iconic. With a couple of personal favorites thrown in to keep the discussion and intellectual juices flowing.
To that end. Allow me a few moments of your time and thoughts. While I introduce.
Five Old School Exercises In Shadow, Light And Its Absence
Countless directors, sound and light men and even more aficionados will argue that B&W really isn’t B&W. But white with varying shades of shadows and gray. From soft and diffused. As revealed in the last moments of Casablanca. To razor sharp. As in several scenes in The Sweet Smell of Success.
A viable tenet and topic, to be sure. That will be examined, tested and expounded upon with:
#5: In Cold Blood (1967)
One of the later and oddly lesser know and appreciated examples of the use of B&W to add depth and breadth to one of the then most notorious and vicious multiple murders of the early 1960s. Wrapped around to recent and aimless parolees and drifters. Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (Robert Blake) crossing paths in flat, wide open and expansive Kansas, Ready to act on an unproven rumor that a rich farm family, the Clutters of Holsomb have a cache of $10,000 hidden somewhere in a secret safe.
With Hickock as the scheming, cajoling Alpha in the lead (An intriguing turn for the usually benign Mr. Wilson). The two bum rides and hitchhike across vast expanses of flat grain fields and nothingness. Finding the parents, John and Bonnie (John McLiam and Ruth Stores). Tying them up and questioning them. And their kids, Nancy and Kenyon (Brenda Currin and Paul Hough) before finding a shotgun and butcher knives. Violently murdering the four, lest a witness is left behind. Leaving the scene richer by 43 dollars and change.And their dreams of fleeing and retiring in Mexico dashed.
One of the earliest and most sensationalized “crimes that shocked a nation!” brings John Forsythe and Paul Stewart to hunt down the fiends and bring them to justice. The arrests are swift. Interrogations are clever in splitting the suspects and trying to get one to roll on and betray the other. The trial, expeditious and hardly upbeat in a courtroom diffusely lit with no hope of redemption.
But it is the time spent with Hickock and Smith in dreary incarceration awaiting the Hangman’s Noose where the lack of light and its ingenious use comes to the fore. As Smith and Hickcok try to find something of value in their wasted lives.
The story, novel, screenplay and film that firmly cemented Truman Capote on the map. Aided by Richard Brooks, whose eye and sense sets the melancholy tone throughout the film. Telegraphing early on that there will be no happy ending amongst wide, sometimes barren and flat Post War surroundings.
Heightened by an original soundtrack by Quincy Jones. And Art and Set Direction by Robert Boyle and Jack Ahern. Whose crews were given access and use of parts of the Colorado Territorial Corrections Facility for the last parts of the film. A foreboding a place as you would likely to see. For its tall walls, cramped quarters and dour, near perpetual rainfall.
Which was used by Cinematographer Conrad Hall to great emotional effect. As Mr. Blake’s perpetual loser, Perry Smith recounts his life, his father as rain streaks down a pane of window glass. And are reflected back onto Smith’s cheeks as tears. Very serendipitous and heady stuff, indeed !
Which leads us to the next offering. One I had critiqued months ago. As part of a retrospective on the career of Robert Mitchum.Though this time around. More attention will be focused on the use of lighting and the implication of brutal violence ladled out in.
#4 Cape Fear (1962)
For all those with John D. MacDonald and his steamy Florida, Travis McGee novels. This tale is more off the beaten track. And much more attuned to suspense and slowly boiling terror moved a bit further north around Savannah, Georgia.
Where a rapist recently released from a Baltimore prison, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum at his most buff and broad chest, malevolent best!). Wants a heaping boatload of payback, mayhem and immeasurable revenge from the stoic and stalwart lawyer who had put Cady away in the first place. Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck). Comfortably ensconced pillar of the community and family man.
Who is about to experience a prolonged and agonizing Road Trip through Hell after tolerating an initial, basically unfriendly meeting. Where Mr. Cady only hints at what is to come under a blazing, humid, sharp and cloudless sunny sky.
Mr. Bowden doesn’t apply the proper amount of cautions to Cady’s perhaps, veiled threats. Approached obliquely through drunken bar hoping and accrual of loose women. Then brutally taking and punishing them for fun and their baser instincts. Cady is rousted. Dragged in and sweated by the local police (Always reliable Martin Balsam). Though Cady knows something of the law and has an acquired mouthpiece ready to pooh-pooh any charges. Which won’t be forthcoming. Due to lack of physical evidence. And victims/witnesses refusal to talk.
Cady is cut loose. Under enhanced surveillance as the ante is upped and the Cady family’s dog is poisoned. Mother, Peggy (Polly Bergen) and teenaged daughter, Nancy, (Lorie Martin) are equally distraught through the night. Before Nancy is stalked over sidewalks, through shops and the local library by Cady. And into afternoon traffic.
Nancy is injured. Taken to the hospital. Where Sam rails. Calls in some favors and has a few shady fishermen and leg breakers take Cady on under a pier. Cady wins, but not by much. And puts the final phase of his scheme into effect. With some devious sleight of hand. As the Bowdens head to a friend’s houseboat at Cape Fear. Cady follows at a distance and watches as Sam heads back South. Or not.
An ambush and showdown is to be had. And things don’t go Sam’s way to begin with. Especially when Cady reveals his plans in an early and frightening telephone call.
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake.
Lighting. Its use and progressive, gradual absence are nothing new to Director, Jack L. Thompson. Art Director, Robert F. Boyle, Cinematographer, Sam Leavitt and Oliver Emert. And their sensation and emotion inducing properties are used to maximum effect with a score and original orchestral music by Bernard Hermann throughout. With razor-sharp shadows slashing across Mr. Mitchum’s broad chest before turning to helpless, vulnerable woman before the room’s door closes. Keeping the fear and gore inside and away from prying eyes.
And the same musculature looked over in the diffuse sparse light of a police station’s Interrogation Room shortly thereafter. With nary a scratch, bruise or scar to be seen. To deep sporadic light under the pier as Mitchum’s Cady taking on three “persuaders”. Then coming out on top. Very high marks for Mr. Thompson and company to take a page from Murnau and Fritz Lang and letting those items to play and amplify in the brain. Instead of through the eyes.
Though the real meat of the film is reserved for the final fifteen minutes. As Cady swims out onto the Bowden’s houseboat and the real and final, one on one showdown begins. With cringing, skin crawling fright and terror heightening each second!
Which brings us to a classic by Elia Kazan. Dealing with corruption on the docks of New York and New Jersey. Focusing on the life of one time boxing lightweight turned on and off longshoreman, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando showing his unique chops early on!). His older brother, Charley (Rod Steiger, equally good!). And their bent as barbed wire boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Greedy evil, personified in.
#3: On The Waterfront (1954)
Which begins with life as usual. With slim pickings amongst those crowded seeking work on the wrong side of the dock’s fence. And what Mr. Friendly’s assistants and leg breakers can afford. Even with those allowed inside having to kick back a percentage of their wages back to Friendly.
Though a few workers aren’t sanguine with the business arrangement. and one in particular, Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning) is murdered. Sloppily and to send a message. The cargo net, hold and deck apes are to keep their mouths shut and keep working!
The police investigation goes nowhere and is watched by Father Barry (Karl Malden. Tailor made for this and any role!). Who wants to keep his congregation together and becomes a sub-rosa spokesperson for the dockworkers seeking an honest wage and a safer workplace.
An uphill battle, for certain. With Johnny Friendly holding the high ground with connections legitimate and illegitimate. A tale told mostly under leaden overcast clouds and rarely cast outdoor shadows. As Terry contemplates talking to the cops and testifying. While seeking surcease from his dead friend’s little sister, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint in her film premiere). Under continuing pressure from afar (the destruction of his rooftop pigeon coop and his birds). And surprisingly near. In the form of Charley. Who shares a ride with his kid brother and attempts to persuade him. In an iconic scene that placed Mr. Brando high in the downtrodden Anti-hero and cultural aerie. As Charley tries one final time, at gunpoint. And finally gives in. Aware that he is surrendering himself in Terry’s place.
Terry does not take Charley’s death, suspended from a meat hook well. terry storms into a bar and confronts Johnny before exiting. Finding Edie and looking for a way out through empty rain-slicked streets, sidewalks and alleyways with a car full of Johnny’s underlings pursue.
Terry and Edie throw up tall, exaggerated shadows. Hiding for the night until Terry returns to the dock for a final knock down, drag out confrontation with Johnny Friendly in front of his peers, staff and countless workers on Terry’s side.
I’ll leave it right there.
Elia Kazan has made a career of telling stories well. And with every tool at his disposal.
Perhaps developing an affinity for using God’s cloud diffused sunlight in this film. Adding a bit of downbeat and spread, shared misery. Save for an early clumsy encounter with Terry and Edie. Which winks with autumn sunlight as the two walk, talk and Terry tries on one of Edie’s smaller sized gloves.
Creating many memorable to iconic scenes indoors. With smoke hazed, low-wattage lighting in Johnny Friendly’s office. Opposite erratic shafts of light in a ship’s deep cargo hold. Used to excellent results by Terry, Father Barry and Johnny Friendly.
Nearly faded, natural and expected lighting in the ride’s back seat with Charley and Terry. Dully lit, crime scene lighting as Charley’s lifeless, suspended body is discovered. Then opening the horizon only slightly. With creepy, suspenseful backlit, silhouette and stretched shadows along the alleyways as Terry and Edie flee. To return back tom the damp overcast for the finale.
Cinematography by Boris Kaufman appears grainy on and near the docks. Razor sharp when the sun shines. Or when suspense and shadow are essential. Deftly aided by an Elmer Bernstein original score. While Art and Set Direction by Richard Day works magic in bars, offices and on the docks creating a bit shabby, lived in feel. Assembling specialties that create one of the great films of the 1950s!
Opening the door to a Post War blend of Culture Shock, mysterious characters, continuously changing situations in a bombed out, rubble filled environment with no set economy or language to speak of in the face of a burgeoning, sub-rosa Black Market covering all four sectors of Vienna. And beyond.
#2: The Third Man (1949)
Which begins with Western pulp novelist and perpetual sap, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) stepping off the train in the British Sector of Vienna. Anxious to see his friend from college days, Harry Lime (Orson Wells. Never so clever or conniving!) in the hopes of finding a job.
Only to have his dream smashed after finding residence in a rather ornate Gasthaus of faded splendor. And discovering that his friend had died in an accident. Whose funeral is later that afternoon. Arriving just a bit too late and noticing something is amiss. A “Third man”. Where there should be only two.
That fact fades into the background as Holly seeks solace in a bottle while trying to establish some sort of communication between various expatriates.German, French, Russian. A stranger in a strange world, Holly agrees to a function at a different location that requires a ride through narrow, rubble piled cobbled streets in a touring car, whose driver don’t know the meaning of “Stop!” or “Slow down!”.
The discussion of literature, books and their writers doesn’t go as well as desired. Though Holly notices Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). Lovely, aloof, dressed just a bit better than the others around her. Which piques Holly’s curiosity and a friendship of sorts is sought through subtle. sometimes not subtle questions after returning to the Gasthaus. Where Holly slowly discovers Anna is Holly’s woman. As is the rather pampered cat threading through Holly’s shoes, cuffs and pants’ legs.
The cat leaves through Anna’s boudoir window and Holly follows moments later, drunk and dejected. Wandering down narrow lanes. Thinking he’s being followed. Glancing the cat on the opposite side of the street. Holly calls out for whoever it is to reveal themselves. A German woman in the room above complains and a sudden beam of light reveals a smiling Harry Lime for only an instant. Only to have the shallow alcove come up barren as a truck passes by. Holly glances a running shadow and runs after it and fading footsteps.
Only to see a maintenance structure in the middle of a square. And no Harry! Holly circles the metal shack a few times and calls in the sector’s police and its Officer in Charge, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard. Never more patient, stiff upper lip and British!). Who sees the sewer entrance and staircase inside and begins connecting rumors, collected evidence and clues. Plus the sudden capability to travel through all four Occupied Sectors invisibly. And decides to finally fill naive Mr. Martins in on the story of his best friend, Harry Lime.
It seems that Harry Lime is a very corrupt, evil and malevolent man.Once the body once thought as Harry is exhumed. And identified as a recently missing medical orderly Col. Calloway had as a person if interest and confederate of Mr. Lime.
More evidence is complied and revealed regarding Harry’s ironically “floating” Black Market organization. Names, photographs and backgrounds are brought to light as Holly watches on. Topped off by a walking tour of the local Infirmary. Where dozens of children. Recipients of Mr. Lime’s tainted, watered Penicillin suffer through another day.
It’s enough to change Holly’s mind. Aware that a trap has to be laid. And a “dumb decoy duck” is required to draw Harry out. A message is sent through Anna (Who may or may not be a Russian agent) for a tete a tete at the carnival ground’s massive Ferris Wheel the next day.
The meet goes well. With hints of alliance with Calloway from Holly. And Harry countering with proposed future profits against innocent bystanders down below gazed upon by a sudden opened of the Ferris Wheel’s ancient, ornate car. Ending the meeting with the door open for another meeting. And a lovely bit of historic ad lib from Mr. Welles’ Harry Lime before he disappears in a crowd.
Later that night. Holly waits while sauntering a narrow strasse surrounded by sections of lamp-lit buildings and taller mounds of fallen dusty bricks and rubble. And a tall, gangly balloon seller (Shades of Fritz Lang’s ‘M’!) waiting for young customers nowhere to be seen. Holly is nervous where Calloway and Sgt. Paine (Bernard Lee) watch, wait. And the apple cart is upset. Harry, visible atop a pile of rubble senses something is amiss and bolts. Holly dashes after. With Colloway and Paine close behind as Harry disappears into the sewers.
And this is where the suspense, fear and claustrophobia kicks into overdrive. As Harry’s shoes echo in the damp flowing sewers. Followed by Holly and company. Plus the sudden appearance of German Poliezi with battery backpack lamps, rifles and pistols. Appearing from street entrances near and far. Herding and directing Harry as he fires and kills Paine.
Giving Holly the chance to commandeer Paine’s pistol and give chase. As Harry pushes a street grate that is stronger than Mr. Lime.
I’ll leave it right there.
Carol Reed knows his way around cameras, lenses, locales, sets and how to get the best from his cast and crew. The rustic, faraway open and closing country scenes seem a bit flat and washed out. Heightened by the Dulcimer of Anton Karas. Bookending a tale that plunges deep into lush late night intrigue. And leaves the leads exhausted as options disappear in the last reel.
Extremely high marks for Joseph Bato for finding and sometimes creating nooks and corners with shadows so deep one can be completely absorbed. And Sound Director, Jack Drake and Supervisor, John Cox for overlapping the dialogs of the expatriates and locals above ground. As well as echoing snippets and jumbled German words of Poleizei in subterranean pursuit.
The bombed out sections of Vienna look dismal and dangerous. Though not quite evenly split between sets. Matte paintings by W. Percy Day of the far off Ferris Wheel. And actual locations. Above and below ground. Courtesy of Art Director, Joseph Bato. And superb editing by Oswald Hafenrichter after initial Cinematography by Robert Krasker.
Leaving the top spot open for a film that is a nearly unknown masterpiece of varying shades of gray. A crime procedural and thriller that I had touched on long ago for Nostra of Myfilmviews.
One of dozens of pictures from the 1950s that danced around the idea and concept of Noir. Where this selection throws fate to the wind and does a Cannonball into the deep end of the off-putting, sometimes unsettling nightmarish glimpses of what Noir can truly be!
#1: The Big Combo (1955)
Directed by veteran, Joseph H. Lewis from a tale and screenplay by Philip Yordan. And set in “Anytown, U.S.A.”. It’s a classic battle of Good versus Evil. With Cornell Wilde as Detective Lt. Leonard Diamond in steadfast, sometimes rule bending pursuit of the elusive crime Kingpin, Mr. Brown (Richard Conte (Never better!). A man short in stature, but with an ego the size of Mt. Rushmore. Quietly content to be pulling the strings of his “Combo”
(Organization) taken from its previous owner, Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), who favored negotiation instead of action. Hence, his position as #2 and Mr. Brown’s personal verbal whipping boy.
With money and notoriety in the right circles, Mr. Brown can have anything and anyone he wants. Which includes “Poor little rich girl”, Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace)as perhaps not his “moll”, but certainly a trophy and adornment. The problem being that Susan has become frightened, if not bored with Mr. Brown. And seeks escape at every turn. Only to have Mr. Brown’s well dressed bodyguards and henchmen, Fante (Baby-faced Earl Holliman) and Mingo (Silent, scary, Lee Van Cleef) intercept her and bring her back. First, outside the seats of a prize-fight. Where they separate themselves from deep dark shadows. Letting the sounds of their ominous footsteps slow Susan down for an easy retrieval.
Lt. Diamond learns of Susan through an on and off again girlfriend and Burlesque dancer, Rita (Helene Stanton), who shares Diamond’s high heel fetish, And gets the ball rolling with interventions and rousts of Mr. Brown. A beat down and bound chair, hair tonic augmented slugfest. And a bit of sensory overload, courtesy of a transistor radio blaring a Gene Krupa drum medley into Diamond’s ear through Joe McClure’s borrowed hearing aid.
Just a few examples of cinema being far ahead of its time.
The second reel is where things get interesting. With Diamond arrested for Drunk and Disorderly, post interrogation. Susan finally breaking away while Fante and Mingo are called away from the same bed of a fleabag hotel room. To get busy using bombs and Tommy Guns to remove rowdy opposition. Finding refuge in a sunny, upscale asylum and rehab center. Where she, and later Diamond learn of “Mrs. Brown” (Alicia, played by Helen Walker). Who literally knows where all the bodies are buried. And offers Diamond a wonderful sledgehammer to pummel his nemesis.
In all the confusion, Joe McClure makes a run at unseating his boss at a fog swept warehouse and truck farm near a small municipal airport. Giving Mr. Brown “what for”. Until his supposed allies, Fante and Mingo point their Tommy guns at him. Mr. Brown takes Joe’s hearing aid and lets him run. Tracked relentlessly by the spotlight on one of the cars. Dealing an eerily silent death from Joe’s perspective. As Diamond, Susan and the police make themselves known…
I’ll leave it right here to maintain Spoiler Integrity.
This is the film that defines Noir for me. Shadowy, without a doubt. And willing to plumb the depths of those shadows. Moral and physical. Making the most of money-saving, minimal lighting. Courtesy of Harry Sundby. Opposite the sun-splashed opulence outside the seedy, sometimes grimy world Lt. Diamond and Mr. Brown call home.
Cinematography by John Alton is masterful in finding oblique angles to attain the just right twinge of suspense and maintain the creepily nightmarish feel of the inner workings between hero and heavy. Heightened by brassy original music by David Raskin and exquisitely timed editing by Robert S. Eisen. Set Direction from Jack McConaghy is seedily Post War, big city, second to none. Set Direction from Jack McConaghy is seedily Post War, big city, second to none.
Creating a tale with a decent number of rough-hewn future talent. No lags to waste time and dawdle over. What you see on the screen is there for a reason. Creating the most economical of films. At 84 minutes!