Film Review: The Set-Up (1949)

Also known as: Knock-Out (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)
Release Date: March 29th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Art Cohn
Based on: a poem by Joseph Moncure March
Music by: C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.” – Tiny

There is one film-noir that keeps coming up in almost every book I’ve read on the subject. Sure, all the really famous ones come up all the time but as far as little known ones that modern audiences have forgotten, this is one that is almost always mentioned and with a lot of adoration by the genre experts.

I finally got around to watching it, after I had tried for a few years but never found it streaming unless I wanted to buy it. You can rent it now on Prime but honestly, after seeing it, I’m probably going to break down and buy it on Blu-ray.

The Set-Up is not only a superb film-noir but it is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest boxing movies ever made.

There really isn’t anything negative to harp on. From the acting, the story, the direction and the cinematography, this is an incredible motion picture that transcends the screen and feels like something real, something lived in and it will connect with anyone who has ever faced adversity when it comes to one’s pride.

Robert Ryan is perfection as an aged boxer, on his last legs but still needing to fight for everything. He’s trapped by circumstance and his lack of being able to do anything other than fighting. While it’s a character trait that is pretty common in boxing stories, Ryan truly makes you believe it in a way no other actor has apart from Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

This story may also seem all too familiar, as well, in that it is about a boxer told to throw a fight but his pride and his purity won’t allow him to quit just because someone tells him to. It’s admirable and it’s stupid because we all know how these things tend to go. Especially for an honest guy that just wants to get home safely to the love of his life.

Apart from the compelling story, which is really a character study, the film employs some stupendous cinematography and knows how to tell its story visually.

The boxing scenes are well shot, well lit and the action looks authentic. Even the opening credits sequence, which just features the dancing feet of boxers locked in fisticuffs is a thing of absolute cinematic beauty.

What really grabbed my attention the most, however, was the alley scene at the end of the film. The boxer tries to evade the gangsters that mean to do him harm but he gets caught coming out of the back alley behind the arena and is then backed into a corner by several men that are determined to teach him a severe lesson.

This scene is so dynamic due to the high contrast chiaroscuro presentation, as well as its use of silhouettes and textures. Everything looks brooding and ominous, as it should in that moment. The real money shot is when you see Robert Ryan with his back against a closed garage door in one-point perspective. The use of lighting and shadows here is perfection. And it’s the moment when the dread Ryan is experiencing really grabs you.

The Set-Up is such a simple yet rich motion picture. It’s a story we’ve all seen before but from the perspective of visual storytelling, it’s never been done this well.

For film-noir fans that haven’t yet seen this picture, you probably should. It’s a scant 73 minutes but in that short time, it does more than most films double that length.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Champion, another film-noir that takes place in the boxing world and came out the same year as this.

Film Review: Phantom Lady (1944)

Also known as: Condemned to Hang (working title)
Release Date: January 28th, 1944
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Based on: Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Lester Horton, Hans J. Salter
Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Thomas Gomez, Fay Helm, Elisha Cook Jr.

Universal Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[to Carol, as he is led back to his prison cell] Oh, if you feel like a train ride, visit me sometime. I’m getting a new address tomorrow. A big country estate on the Hudson. On a clear day you can see New Jersey.” – Scott Henderson

I am a pretty big fan of Robert Siodmak’s film-noir pictures like Criss Cross, The Killers and Conflict. But up until this point, I hadn’t seen Phantom Lady, which I must say is his best noir picture of the bunch.

This was a breathtaking movie in several aspects.

To start, the cinematography was incredible and I don’t want to say that lightly. The sequence in the film where Kansas is following the bribed bartender through the dark city streets is mesmerizing and gritty. It’s frankly enchanting, especially to those who appreciate the noir visual style or what came before it in German Expressionist movies.

While Siodmak has a great eye, this may be his best looking and most visually refined motion picture. From a cinematography, lighting and shot framing standpoint, this stands above most other noir films, which is pretty impressive, as the genre’s look is typically well crafted and executed superbly, regardless of directors, cinematographers or studios.

Another way that this film is breathtaking is in its building of tension and suspense. Even though you find out who the real killer is well before the film’s conclusion, it’s the knowing who he is that makes you fear for the heroine’s life. Franchot Tone and Ella Raines really kill it in their scenes together and once you get to the point where Raines’ Kansas realizes the mortal danger she’s in, it’s almost soul crushing.

Additionally, Ella Raines, herself, was breathtaking. She isn’t the top billed star in the movie but she was absolutely the star of this picture. She carried the film on her back, showed how great her acting chops were and made you care for her and her objective.

She’s not a femme fatale, in fact, she was the polar opposite and that kind of made this movie work in a way that isn’t the noir standard. She’s a heroic but gentle character that only wants justice for the man she cares about and for the victims of the killer. Plus, she’s simply stunning. Ella Raines’ Kansas is what rappers call a “dime piece”.

This is a wonderful movie. It’s what I wish most film-noir pictures could live up to. It’s head and shoulders above the standard and being that it came out pretty early in the genre’s run, it helped set the stage for all the films after it. And while it doesn’t check off all the film-noir boxes, it represents the style well, especially in regards to the look of the picture and the visual flourish that Robert Siodmak employed.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Killers, This Gun for Hire, Criss Cross and Suspect.

Film Review: To Have and Have Not (1944)

Also known as: Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (complete title)
Release Date: October 11th, 1944 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman, William Faulkner
Based on: To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: William Lava, Franz Waxman
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan, Dolores Moran, Hoagy Carmichael

Warner Bros., 100 Minutes

Review:

“Drinking don’t bother my memory. If it did I wouldn’t drink. I couldn’t. You see, I’d forget how good it was, then where’d I be? Start drinkin’ water, again.” – Eddie

I don’t know what it was about the pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall but all four of their movies are absolute classics. This one is no different and it’s the last one for me to review.

But maybe their chemistry was just infectious. They ended up married in real life and their passion just comes through every time you see them together, even as just fictional characters.

However, a lot of the greatness of these films can just be because the star was Bogart and at this point in his career, he was on top of the world. His pictures got the best directors, the best scripts and usually a pretty strong budget. His films really encapsulate what Hollywood was in his era.

I really like the story in this one though and it has some strong similarities to the setting and tone of Key Largo.

This takes place on a different island, however. The film is set on Martinique but it has a similar ’40s tropical island ambiance that gives the picture a somewhat magical quality.

The story is about an American boat captain that helps transport a French Resistance leader and his wife. It’s set during World War II, which plays a lot into the plot and the film’s political climate. Also, between all of this, the boat captain tries to romance a lounge singer he meets while on the island.

Overall, the plot was really good but everything is greatly enhanced by the performances of Bogart and Bacall. But a lot of credit should also go to director Howard Hawks, who has made some real cinematic magic in his day, this just being just one of his many great pictures.

To Have and Have Not also boasts some stellar cinematography from Sidney Hickox, whose resume is longer than a cross country drive on a moped.

Everything just looks and feels majestic and wonderful in this picture. While not a pillar of perfection, it should definitely sit pretty high up on anyone’s list of best classic film-noir pictures.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: the other films that team up Bograt and Bacall, most notably Key Largo.

Film Review: This Gun for Hire (1942)

Release Date: April 24th, 1942 (Denver premiere)
Directed by: Frank Tuttle
Written by: Albert Maltz, W.R. Burnett
Based on: A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
Music by: David Buttolph
Cast: Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd

Paramount Pictures, 81 Minutes

Review:

“You are trying to make me go soft. Well, you can save it. I don’t go soft for anybody.” – Philip Raven

I feel like this picture doesn’t get the respect it deserves for establishing the noir genre and style. A lot of people don’t want to consider anything that came out before Double Indemnity as true film-noir but that’s bullshit. In fact, I consider Fritz Lang’s M from 1931 to be a part of the genre, even if it predates the era by a decade and was a movie made in Germany.

This Gun for Hire predates Double Indemnity by two years but it also came out a year after The Maltese Falcon and if you don’t consider that classic noir, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Plus, this movie stars Veronica Lake in her prime; that alone screams noir.

I really like the story in this too, as it puts Lake’s character between a rock and a hard place. She’s really just an innocent woman wrapped up with trying to reason with a killer that doesn’t have her in his sights but is hunting down the man who double-crossed him.

In part, the film is a character study of Alan Ladd’s Philip Raven, who confides in Lake’s Ellen about his past and how he fell into a very shady and violent life. Ellen wants to save Raven from himself but this is film-noir and it’s very rare that the bad guy ever gets off scott free.

There are typical noir twists and they make this a pretty layered and exciting film from start to finish. Things escalate quite a bit as the picture rolls on and it’s not entirely clear as to whether or not Ellen could also have a bad fate just for trying to save Raven from himself.

I think that the fact that this has a great plot is due to it being an adaptation of a Graham Greene story. Every film based off of his work that I’ve seen has always given me a pleasurable experience.

Additionally, this encompasses the noir vibe in its visual style. The credit for that goes to cinematographer John F. Seitz, a guy who won seven Academy Awards before he hung it up.

Sure, director Frank Tuttle also deserves credit, as he brought all the pieces together and really got superb performances out of Veronica Lake, Robert Preston and Alan Ladd. Not to say that these three aren’t always more than capable.

This Gun for Hire isn’t a film-noir that gets talked about as much as some of the more famous pictures but some of those better movies probably wouldn’t have existed in their same form if it wasn’t for this trendsetting motion picture that was just a few years ahead of its time.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key, Murder, My Sweet, Criss Cross and Phantom Lady.

Film Review: Nora Prentiss (1947)

Also known as: The Sentence (working title)
Release Date: February 7th, 1947 (Philadelphia premiere)
Directed by: Vincent Sherman
Written by: N. Richard Nash, Paul Webster, Jack Sobell
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Bruce Bennett, Robert Alda

Warner Bros., 111 Minutes

Review:

“I’m writing a paper on ailments of the heart.” – Doctor Richard Talbot, “A paper? I could write a book!” – Nora Prentiss

This is a classic film-noir that has been on my list for a long time. I had never seen it because it has never streamed anywhere that I’m aware of and I subscribe to a ton of these services. But it was finally featured on TCM’s Noir Alley, which seems long overdue, based off of all the great things I’ve heard about this movie from noir experts.

I’d have to say that it pretty much lived up to the hype. It’s not one of my all-time favorites but it was a well-crafted story with one of those really dark endings that sort of makes your heart sink.

Sure, the main guy, Kent Smith’s Talbot, is a bit of a shithead, as he fakes his own death to escape his wife and children so that he can run off with Nora, but by the end of the journey, you feel his remorse and his shame and when he makes the decision to be executed, to save his family from even more pain, it’s some pretty heavy stuff.

Additionally, all the emotion throughout this film is built up so well because of how convincing Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith were. They had solid chemistry, felt like genuine characters and this movie feels a bit ahead of its time, as these characters don’t come across as typical archetypes. Nora Prentiss may be a mistress but she’s not a femme fatale causing wreckage for her own personal gain. She’s a woman, caught up in emotion that ends up experiencing a great loss as the result of her and Talbot’s careless and selfish actions.

The film was directed by Vincent Sherman, who also directed other classic film-noirs: The Unfaithful, Backfire, The Damned Don’t Cry, Harriet Craig, Affair In Trinidad and The Garment Jungle. But he’s also the director of one of my favorite Errol Flynn swashbuckling pictures: Adventures of Don Juan.

If anything, this film has made me want to go down the rabbit hole of Sherman’s oeuvre. It was carefully crafted, well executed and had more dramatic flair and heart than a typical noir movie.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures like The Unfaithful, The Breaking Point and Backfire.

Film Review: So Dark the Night (1946)

Release Date: October 10th, 1946
Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
Written by: Dwight V. Babcock, Martin Berkeley, Aubrey Wisberg
Music by: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Steven Geray, Micheline Cheirel, Brother Theodore

Columbia Pictures, 71 Minutes

Review:

“I knew it was too good to be true. That much happiness just wasn’t meant for me.” – Henri Cassin

This was a film-noir that I didn’t know much about before going into it. I also wasn’t familiar with the majority of the cast, other than Brother Theodore, who has a pretty minor role.

I came across this on the Criterion Channel, as they have a collection devoted to Columbia Pictures film-noir movies. A cool collection because I haven’t seen a lot of the Columbia noir films, as they weren’t as prominent in the style as RKO or Warner Bros.

The story here takes place in France but it stars actors speaking in English with a bit of a French accent. The narrative itself is pretty shaky and while it does gets you invested into the plot, early on, it all falls apart when the big reveal comes towards the end.

This, like many noir pictures, has a twist. That twist falls flat though, as it doesn’t make a lot of sense and its sort of forced on you and throws some science-y, psychiatric nonsense at you that you just have to accept, as its not really based in any sort of actual fact and is just manufactured out of the writers’ shoddy assumptions.

Additionally, while this is noir and filmed and presented in that style, it’s very pedestrian looking and doesn’t offer much noir allure. It lacks in regards to its cinematography, with basic lighting, shot framing and camera work.

However, this is directed by Joseph H. Lewis who would go on to make one of the greatest film-noirs of all-time: Gun Crazy.

Rating: 5.75/10
Pairs well with: My Name Is Julia Ross, Drive a Crooked Road and Nightfall.

Film Review: My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)

Also known as: The Woman In Red (working title)
Release Date: November 8th, 1945 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Joseph H. Lewis
Written by: Muriel Roy Bolton
Based on: The Woman In Red by Anthony Gilbert
Music by: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Nina Foch, Dame May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Doris Lloyd, Joy Harington

Columbia Pictures, 65 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t huddle way over there in the corner. You should sit closer so that people can see what a handsome couple we are!” – Ralph Hughes

The Criterion Channel finally launched, which is great after the void left behind by FilmStruck being shut down last November. With that, they featured a collection of films called “Columbia Noir”. This got me excited, as I haven’t seen much of Columbia Pictures’ noir films. The first in that collection was this one, a film I hadn’t heard of before.

Overall, this is a b-picture with a scant running time. That was pretty typical of some noir features from the time, as the crime genre was at an all-time high and studios were throwing together as many films on the cheap as possible. Sometimes these became hits and sometimes they floundered but with lesser known stars and thin budgets, they were quick and easy to produce without much financial risk.

It’s pretty apparent from the opening bell that this film-noir is a cheapy but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It had pretty good production value, at least on the surface. The filmmakers got a solid bang for their buck in regards to how the film looks on screen.

Now the cinematography and lighting aren’t memorable but they are better than what was the standard for b-movie noirs.

The film stars Nina Foch, who isn’t known very well, but she did hold her own and came off as convincing. The acting was better than average, here, and the director did a fine job of making the players shine within this little picture.

This isn’t a very exciting noir, though. In fact, it’s pretty forgettable.

The story is about a young woman who gets hired by an employment agency run by a nosy, rich widow. The woman moves into the widow’s home but then wakes up in another house entirely. It’s an interesting setup and provides a good framework for a solid mystery but nothing really hits in the right way.

The film is probably most notable for being director Joseph H. Lewis’ first film-noir picture. He would go on to direct The Falcon In San Francisco, So Dark the Night, The Undercover Man, the incredible Gun Crazy, A Lady Without a Passport, Cry of the Hunted and The Big Combo.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures by Columbia: So Dark the Night, Nightfall and Pushover.