Film Review: Border Incident (1949)

Also known as: Border Patrol, Wetbacks (working titles)
Release Date: October 28th, 1949
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: John C. Higgins, George Zuckerman
Music by: Andre Previn
Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Charles McGraw

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 94 Minutes

Review:

“What is cheaper than time, señor? Everybody has the same amount.” – Zopilote

This isn’t my favorite film-noir by Anthony Mann but it is still a quality film that rivals his other ones.

A very young Ricardo Montalban is the star here, and man, he shines like a supernova and really carries this badass movie on his shoulders.

What’s unique about this, is that it takes place on the Mexican border and was mostly filmed in the wilderness in the desert areas of Southern California and the northern portion of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The location shooting made this majestic and added some gravitas to the already heavy and serious proceedings.

The plot is about a gang that smuggles Mexican farm workers across the border into California. The gang ends up killing the immigrants, which leads to federal investigators going undercover to destroy the gang. With typical noir twists, the agents end up having to fight the gang leader for their own survival.

Montalban and George Murphy were both superb as the agents seeking justice, while Howard Da Silva was a perfect, sinister heavy, out for their blood.

The film is certainly intense and it has a gritty realism to it, even for its time, where many big studio motion pictures had a lot of visual luster and prestige. But Mann was perfect at achieving his vision in a time where his stylistic choices weren’t common.

Border Incident has stupendous cinematography and lighting. Mann was a master of mise-en-scène and this motion picture is just further proof of that. The use of natural lighting was especially impressive in the outdoor scenes. Mann knew how to manufacture doom and gloom, visually.

I really liked this film and I believe that is the last of Mann’s noir pictures for me to review. That’s kind of sad and I put this one off for awhile because of that.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Anthony Mann film-noir pictures: T-Men, Desperate, He Walked by Night, Raw Deal and Side Street.

Film Review: Lady In the Lake (1946)

Release Date: December 19th, 1946 (London)
Directed by: Robert Montgomery
Written by: Steve Fisher
Based on: The Lady In the Lake by Raymond Chandler
Music by: David Snell
Cast: Robert Montgomery, Audrey Totter, Lloyd Nolan, Tom Tully, Leon Ames, Jayne Meadows

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 105 Minutes

Review:

“Do you fall in love with all of your clients?” – Adrienne, “Only the ones in skirts.” – Marlowe

There were a lot of Philip Marlowe movies in the 1940s. This one was probably the most unique though, in that it was filmed in a first-person perspective, as we see the whole movie through the eyes of the famous private dick.

I don’t think that this is the first time that a movie was filmed entirely in first-person perspective but it’s the only film-noir that I’ve seen presented that way, at least in its entirety.

The technique was gimmicky but it helped to market the movie in a way that told the audience that they got to solve the case alongside Philip Marlowe: seeing and hearing everything the famous P.I. does.

If anything, the gimmick worked to hold your attention quite well, especially when you were being directly addressed by the beautiful Audrey Totter, as well as her personal assistant who shows up briefly. In any event, it was an interesting perspective to view a classic film-noir tale through.

Apart from that, the movie doesn’t offer up much flourish, stylistically. It’s a clean and well produced picture but it doesn’t have anything that really stands out in regards to its cinematography, lighting or overall visual aesthetic.

It is well acted, though, and the film is entertaining. There are the typical plot twists and noir tropes but I’d say that it is one of the weaker Marlowe movies of its day. It certainly isn’t on the level of Murder, My Sweet or The Big Sleep but its a fun movie for fans of Robert Montgomery and the Philip Marlowe character.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Philip Marlowe film adaptations from the 1940s: Time to Kill, The Falcon Takes Over, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, and The Brasher Doubloon.

Film Review: Dead Reckoning (1947)

Also known as: John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (complete title)
Release Date: January 18th, 1947 (San Francisco premiere)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Steve Fisher, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Gerald Drayson Adams, Sidney Biddell
Music by: Marlin Skiles
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott

Columbia Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“I hated every part of her but I couldn’t figure her out yet. I wanted to see her the way Johnny had. I wanted to hear that song of hers with Johnny’s ears. Maybe she was alright. And maybe Christmas comes in July. But I didn’t believe it.” – Captain Warren ‘Rip’ Murdock

I’ve wanted to see this motion picture for quite some time. It stars my favorite leading man, my favorite leading lady and it’s considered a film-noir classic.

Dead Reckoning was also directed by John Cromwell, who only did a handful of noir pictures but still had quite a lengthy career behind the camera.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit but if I’m being completely honest, it was a bit underwhelming. Sure, Bogart and Scott were both absolutely dynamite and had a great, dynamic chemistry but the film was just lacking in energy.

It’s not boring, it’s just a bit slow and it takes awhile to get moving. It features a decent scheme but nothing quite as remarkable as some of the top tier film-noirs of the day.

Had this film starred some other actors, it would be pretty forgettable. It’s kept afloat because of the charisma of its two leads.

There’s nothing special about the cinematography, the lighting, the set design or the camera work. Everything looks and feels pretty standard for the day. As I said, noir wasn’t a big chunk of the director’s lengthy filmography and everything here just felt like a clean, crisp, major studio production. I love RKO Radio Pictures because they were a master of the style, where Columbia, the studio that made this film, spent more time making larger, more publicly accessible spectacles for general audiences.

Bogart was a Warner Bros. guy and that was a studio that had a better grasp on the film-noir style, which is why his other noir pictures are much better, in my opinion. Scott was actually borrowed from Paramount for this film, where she was in some solid noir movies. Columbia originally intended for their biggest star, Rita Heyworth, to be in this but she was tied up working on The Lady From Shanghai with husband Orson Welles. Good thing for Columbia, that noir film was a true classic.

I really don’t want to sound like I’m bashing this film or Columbia, it just noticeably lacks when compared to the other films featuring its stars.

Dead Reckoning is still worth watching if you are a fan of Bogart, Scott, Cromwell or film-noir in general. It’s certainly a better than the average film in the style, even if it doesn’t live up to the hype I built up in my mind.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott.

Film Review: Crack-Up (1946)

Also known as: Galveston (working title)
Release Date: September 6th, 1946
Directed by: Irving Reis, James Anderson (assistant)
Written by: John Paxton, Ben Bengal, Ray Spencer
Based on: Madman’s Holiday by Frederic Brown
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall, Ray Collins

RKO Radio Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Wouldn’t it be smarter to go to Cochrane and get this thing out in the open?” – Terry Cordell, “About as smart as cutting my throat to get some fresh air.” – George Steele

I had never heard of Crack-Up until it was featured on TCM’s Noir Alley.

While not a great noir, it was certainly intense and it kept you glued to your seat, as things escalated and layers of this mystery started to be peeled back.

It stars Pat O’Brien and Claire Trevor, both of whom did quite good in this. I’ve always liked Trevor’s work, especially in noir.

The film was directed by Irving Reis, who wasn’t usually behind the camera on noir pictures and was more famous for directing films like The Bachelor and the Bobby-SoxerThe Gay Falcon, The Big Street and The Four Poster. He also didn’t have a terribly long career when compared to other well-known directors of his day but he did have a real knack for framing shots superbly and for utilizing the tools around him.

While this film does grab you quickly, it starts to taper off a bit towards the end, as it inches towards its climax. It wasn’t a big issue for me but it lost some momentum and probably could have been more effective at around 75 minutes with the final act fine tuned more.

For the time, the lighting effects were solid and I love the scene where O’Brien is watching another approaching train that he fears is going to collide with the one he’s riding on.

I loved the use of trains in the film, as well as setting some scenes in a museum while also critiquing art critics. I’m not sure if that was done in defense of art that challenges tradition or if this film wasn’t that smart. Regardless, it was interesting to see.

With lots of suspense, this is a better than average thriller that is maybe a bit too unknown and probably underrated.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other RKO Radio Pictures film-noirs of the era.

Film Review: Too Late for Tears (1949)

Also known as: Killer Bait (reissue title)
Release Date: July 17th, 1949 (Hollywood premiere)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Roy Huggins
Based on: Too Late for Tears by Roy Huggins
Music by: R. Dale Butts
Cast: Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy

Hunt Stromberg Productions, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.” – Danny Fuller

This was a film that was lost for decades but was recently restored by The Noir Foundation.

It stars two noir greats: Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea.

That being said, the performances are damn good. Lizabeth Scott is, by far, one of my favorite femme fatales and Dan Duryea is just a perfect noir heavy.

The story starts with a couple driving through the Hollywood Hills at night. They stop during an argument and a car speeding by literally throws a bag of money at them. They take the bag, just as another car approaches them, obviously on the hunt for the cash. They get away with the money but the greed overcomes the woman, who spends the rest of the film succumbing to her greed and destroying anything in the way of that greed.

It’s not a greatly conceived plot but it works for the heyday of film-noir.

The film really is carried by the performances of Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. In fact, it suffers a bit once Duryea is killed off.

Still, the cinematography was good and the direction was solid.

This wasn’t the best outing for either star but it was fun seeing them together and their chemistry worked.

Also, it is great seeing films like this restored, after being missing or incomplete for years. I always look forward to seeing films resurrected for modern audiences, whether they are good, bad or somewhere in between.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures with Lizabeth Scott: Pitfall, Dead Reckoning, Desert Fury, Dark City, The Racket and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Film Review: The Body Snatcher (1945)

Release Date: February 16th, 1945 (St. Louis premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton
Based on: a story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater

RKO Radio Pictures, 77 Minutes

Review:

“He taught me the mathematics of anatomy but he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine.” – Donald Fettes

I’m a big fan of the horror films that Val Lewton produced while at RKO Radio Pictures in the 1940s. This one brings in Robert Wise, one of his top directors, as well as horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s kind of like a perfect storm of talent. Not to mention that this is also an adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The main plot has to deal with a doctor that is also a professor and how the corpses he uses to dissect in his classes are actually stolen from graves by Boris Karloff’s John Gray. Gray blackmails the doctor, named MacFarlane, into performing an operation on a young paraplegic girl that he initially refused to do.

Fettes, a young assistant to the doctor, asks Gray for another corpse to help with the preparation of the operation. When the corpse arrives, Fettes is surprised to see that the corpse looks just like a street singer he saw near Gray’s place.

One thing leads to another and bad things justifiably happen to bad people. But, at least the little paraplegic girl is able to walk again by the end of the movie.

Like all the other RKO horror pictures of the 1940s, this one was very strong on atmosphere. I really think that RKO had the best cinematographers and lighting staff under their employ. Between the Val Lewton produced horror films and their masterfully crafted film-noirs, RKO just had very pristine looking movies that understood ambiance and tone.

Now The Body Snatcher looks great, is well acted and Robert Wise did a good job of giving life to a Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation. But it’s not terribly exciting. It’d a bit dry and while it seems like a lot happens within the film, it felt like it was moving too slow while I watched it.

Additionally, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi only share two fairly quick scenes. One of them is very good but Bela felt like an after though in this and I assume he was just used because of his name value.

Still, for classic horror aficionados, this is worth a look.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Val Lewton produced horror films for RKO: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim, which is actually much more noir than horror but it is still dark.

Film Review: High Sierra (1941)

Release Date: January 23rd, 1941 (Los Angeles, Louisville and Providence)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: John Huston, W.R. Burnett
Based on: High Sierra by W.R. Burnett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Willie Best

Warner Bros., 100 Minutes

Review:

“Of all the 14 karat saps… starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.” – Roy Earle

High Sierra came out just before The Maltese Falcon, which is one of the films from 1941 credited with the birth of the film-noir style. However, like a few other Humphrey Bogart crime pictures before it, High Sierra is very much film-noir.

The story sees an aged criminal named Roy Earle get out of prison, only to plan one big retirement job so that he can give himself a big nest egg before he hangs up his criminal ways for good. Along the way, he meets the young Velma and her family. Velma needs a surgery to give her back her mobility. Earle, falling for the young girl, has plans to do the job, pay for the girl’s surgery and then ride off together in the sunset. But a lot of curveballs are thrown and Ida Lupino’s Marie has her eye on Earle.

Even though Bogart plays a criminal, planning a big heist, he is a likable and charismatic character, often times acting with his hearty instead of his head. Watching the film, there is a part of me that felt that he was a character that could redeem himself by film’s end. But being that this is noir, bad things happen to people that don’t walk the straight and narrow.

The performances from all the main players were really good in this movie. Bogart and Lupino had fantastic chemistry and I feel as if the world should have seen them play off of each other more than what we got. I loved Lupino in this and Bogart was typical badass Bogart.

I also liked the dog that always tried to save the day and Willie Best’s character Algernon was a delight.

The movie has a sadness to it because you are pulling for Earle to make it out of this thing unscathed but you also know that it’s not possible.

The big standoff in the Sierras was really well shot and executed. Raoul Walsh was a fine director and his work here was no different. Also, he was working off of a script form John Huston, who would become a great filmmaker in his own right.

High Sierra is a very layered film with a lot of emotional depth from it’s two top players.

All in all, a great early film-noir with powerful leads and a good amount of energy and emotion in the big finale.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart noir and crime pictures: The Maltese FalconKey Largo, Dark Passage, etc.