Film Review: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Release Date: December 25th, 1945 (New York City & Chicago)
Directed by: John M. Stahl
Written by: Jo Swerling
Based on: Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price

Twentieth Century Fox, 110 Minutes

Review:

“When I looked at you, exotic words drifted across the mirror of my mind like clouds across the summer sky.” – Richard Harland

Man, this movie started out fairly sweet and even though I knew it was a noir picture, I wasn’t quite expecting for the dark side of the story to be so, well… dark.

I guess it’s hard to think of Gene Tierney capable of anything evil, as she’s pretty much lovable in everything that I’ve seen. But I guess that’s the point, as her character goes from sweet beauty to psychotic bitch. And frankly, it’s unsettling and heartbreaking to watch it all unfold, especially in the modern era where we understand mental illness more than we did in the 1940s.

This great performance by Tierney led to her getting an Academy Award nomination. Granted, she lost to Joan Crawford’s performance in Mildred Pierce but that is fantastic company to keep.

It isn’t just Tierney that carries this picture, however, as Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price give some breathtaking performances as well.

Side note: Vincent Price and Gene Tierney actually worked together four times and played off of each other so well, that I wish they had more films together. Other than this picture, they were together in 1941’s Hudson’s Bay, 1944’s Laura and 1946’s Dragonwyck, which is a pretty underrated gem.

What’s really unique about this motion picture is that it is considered film-noir but it is presented in color. That was pretty unusual at the time and it’s kind of strange seeing a noir styled film outside of the typical high contrast, black and white, chiaroscuro presentation. At first, I thought that the version I was watching might be one of those bastardized Ted Turner prints but it wasn’t. In a way, it’s interesting in color and it makes the film standout amongst its contemporaries but I feel like it actually shines too much light and life into the actual darkness of the movie.

However, I understand that the term “film-noir” didn’t even exist at the time and this was probably just Twentieth Century Fox trying to make a beautiful movie with a beautiful starlet. And, honestly, despite my preference for black and white in the noir style, I can’t deny that this is actually a very beautiful film. Especially in the first half, where it shows Cornel Wilde meeting the love of his life and living a sort of fantastical happy ending lifestyle.

The plot sees Wilde meet Tierney, they fall in love, they live in a fairly opulent and attractive world and everything seems perfect. After they are married, however, Tierney’s jealousy and psychotic nature comes out. She lets Wilde’s handicapped brother drown when she could have saved him, she becomes jealous of the baby she’s carrying and throws herself down the stairs and the she eventually commits suicide but not before framing her sister for poisoning her.

Leave Her to Heaven goes into damn dark territory and while that’s typical of noir, this is a different, more intimate type of darkness that carries more emotional weight than a heist gone bad or a femme fatale stabbing the male lead in the back.

In the end, this was a compelling motion picture that grabs you almost immediately and doesn’t let go until the final frame. It features one of Tierney’s top performances and also shows how good Vincent Price could be with straight drama.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other movies starring Gene Tierney: Laura, Dragonwyck, Hudson’s Bay, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Night and the City.

Film Review: Behind Green Lights (1946)

Release Date: February 15th, 1946
Directed by: Otto Brower
Written by: Charles G. Booth, Scott Darling
Cast: Carole Landis, William Gargan

Twentieth Century Fox, 64 Minutes

Review:

“Gosh. I hope I don’t pull any boners.” – Johnny Williams

I wanted to show some love to some lesser known film-noir pictures here, in the month of Noirvember. What’s cool about these mostly forgotten noir flicks is that there are literally hundreds of them for free on YouTube.

The story starts when a police lieutenant finds a corpse with bullet holes in a car sitting in front of the police station. An investigation starts and we learn that there was some sort of political motivation to the killing.

The first few minutes of the film were intriguing and a decent setup. However, the rest of the movie was a slog to get through. Mostly, it was dull, kind of uneventful despite a decent paced plot progression and it lacked the panache of the classic film-noir style.

Even though this was made by Paramount, it felt cheap, rushed and it was obvious that it was made with the intention of slapping it on a double bill with a better picture.

Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that a movie has to be bad and this isn’t bad. It’s just sort of meh.

Often times, the B-pictures on the double bill actually exceed the A-pictures they are paired with. Now I’m not sure what this film was paired up with, as there surprisingly isn’t a lot of information on it.

I can’t quite call this a waste of time but there are probably two-hundred noir pictures I’d recommend before it.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: other lesser known noir pictures like Blonde Ice, Inner Sanctum, Please Murder Me! and The Pretender.

Film Review: The Big Clock (1948)

Release Date: March 18th, 1948 (Detroit premiere)
Directed by: John Farrow
Written by: Jonathan Latimer
Based on: The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
Music by: Victor Young
Cast: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester

Paramount Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“White clocks, yellow clocks, brown clocks, blue clocks. Oh, Miss York, where are the green clocks of yesteryear?” – George Stroud

This is one of those noir films that many consider to be one of the top. I hadn’t seen it until now but I’m using the month of Noirvember to work through a lot of the films I’ve missed in the noir style.

Being that this stars Ray Milland also made me bump this one up on my list.

For the most part, this was pretty standard fare as far as noir pictures go. Milland gave it a little extra flourish, as did Elsa Lanchester in the few bits she was in.

I also thought that the setting was unique, especially how they used the big clock within the film itself. But this also used clocks as a motif throughout the entire picture. Which makes sense, as it was a race against time and it featured big business where time is money.

The story was decent but there wasn’t much in it that I found surprising. In fact, there really isn’t a mystery to solve or any shocking plot twists. The audience knows what’s happening and it is really just a journey about a man trying to clear his name and finger the true villain.

I thought that most of the film was just okay. The minutes before the big finale is where it actually kind of picks up. The story’s villain does end up dying a pretty terrible but fitting death and I did find that satisfying.

The Big Clock was solid and quite competent on nearly every level. It just didn’t tap into that dark, noir part of my brain as much as I would’ve liked.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other classic noir pictures like Nocturne, This Gun for Hire, Thieves’ Highway, Criss Cross, Trapped and Clash by Night.

Film Review: Black Angel (1946)

Release Date: August 2nd, 1946
Directed by: Roy William Neill
Written by: Roy Chanslor
Based on: The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes

Review:

“Now may I have the box and the letter? Remember Catherine… you promised me to be a good girl.” – Marko

This is a pretty highly regarded classic noir picture. I had never watched it until now and despite the fanfare for it, I still wasn’t prepared for how good this movie is.

It stars a pair with great, great chemistry: Dan Duryea and June Vincent. They were perfect together in this and it was nice seeing Duryea not play an evil asshole.

The film also stars Peter Lorre in one of his best performances. In fact, this may be my favorite role he’s played after M.

Now the plot is complicated to explain but it all flows really well in the movie itself.

In a nutshell, Dan Duryea’s wife is murdered but the man wrongly arrested for it is June Vincent’s husband. Initially, Vincent suspects Duryea and confronts him in an effort to clear her husband. She discovers that he couldn’t have done it and the two pair up in an effort to find the real killer and to free Vincent’s husband before execution. The man they suspect is Peter Lorre, who owns a swanky nightclub where the pair get a gig as the house musicians.

What’s neat about the film is that it is one hundred percent noir but it has a lot of music in it and the performances by Vincent and Duryea’s characters are fantastic.

From the first frame to the last, the film looks perfect. The cinematography is top notch but the real life within the picture comes from the set design. The world feels real and genuine in a way that wasn’t typical with big studio films of the ’40s.

The shot framing is also really good. One moment that especially comes to mind is the scene where Lorre is opening his safe with Vincent just over his shoulder, watching him dial in his combination.

The opening sequence is also pretty well done in how it uses miniatures and shot transitions. While it’s not perfect, I don’t know how you could do it any better in the era when this film was made.

As good noir films go, this has a big twist and reveal at the end of the film. You don’t really see it coming and it is three parts heart-wrenching and two parts a punch to the gut. Basically, it was effective… damn effective.

I love this film and it’s a classic noir that I’m sure I will revisit again, much sooner than later.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other classic noir pictures like Fallen Angel, The Dark Corner, Phantom Lady, The Blue Dahlia, etc.

Film Review: The Glass Key (1942)

Release Date: September 8th, 1942 (Toronto premiere)
Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Jonathan Latimer
Based on: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Victor Young
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, William Bendix

Paramount Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Hey, Rusty, Little Rubber Ball is back. I told you he liked the way we bounced him around.” – Jeff

The Glass Key was film-noir before film-noir was a thing. A lot of people consider 1944 to be the year where noir took over but there were a few films that paved the way and this was one of them. Plus, it was based off of a Dashiell Hammett novel ala The Maltese Falcon.

This also pairs Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, who worked together in seven movies, four of which were noir pictures.

For the most part, this helped set the stylistic trends of cinema for two decades. It isn’t the best noir, far from it, honestly, but it boasts pretty good cinematography, shot framing and shot motion that would become the norm.

Also, from a plot standpoint, it showcases political corruption, gangsters and a look at American life at the end of World War II. These are all tropes that would be a big part of movies well into the ’50s.

But even with all that, it doesn’t resonate with me as greatly as some of the better noirs do. I can’t deny that this was doing some solid things from a filmmaking perspective before the rest of Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon but I found the film a bit dull.

The acting was good, the film looks nice and the story had some decent curveballs thrown in but it lacked the panache and energy that would come later, as the noir style really took hold.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: the other noir films featuring both Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Film Review: The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Release Date: April 16th, 1946 (Baltimore premiere)
Directed by: George Marshall
Written by: Raymond Chandler
Music by: Victor Young (uncredited)
Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling

Paramount Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Just don’t get too complicated, Eddie. When a man gets too complicated, he’s unhappy. And when he’s unhappy, his luck runs out.” – Leo

While not the first film to pair up Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, this is probably the most famous one and the one that is considered the best. Although, I’d say that I like This Gun For Hire quite a bit more. I still haven’t seen their earliest film, The Glass Key, but I plan to watch it within the week.

The plot of the film revolves around an ex-serviceman, Johnny, who is wanted for the murder of his wife, who he had a severe falling out with once returning home from World War II. He finds out that she killed their son while driving drunk and that she has been having an affair with the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub. During their argument, Johnny pulls a gun on his wife but doesn’t use it. However, a witness saw this so when she is killed after Johnny leaves, he is the prime suspect.

In typical noir fashion, the rest of the film follows Johnny trying to clear his name while also trying to discover who the killer is.

The film is written by Raymond Chandler, who is probably known more for the film adaptations of his crime novels than his actual screenwriting but the story here is on par with his others and the dialogue is pretty well written. But it’s the talents of Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, as well as the smaller parts of Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva that gave the script real life. But I also can’t discount George Marshall’s direction.

The cinematography is decent but nothing extraordinary. Paramount made good looking noir pictures but they lack the visual panache of the noirs put out by RKO. But no one knew what film-noir was when they were making these films and the cinematography feels more like the crew sticking to Paramount’s tightly controlled standard than actually trying to give this some artistic flourish.

The Blue Dahlia is a beloved film for most noir lovers. I definitely enjoyed it but I can’t really put it in the upper echelon of the style’s best pictures.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures pairing Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Film Review: The Lost Weekend (1945)

Release Date: October 5th, 1945 (London premiere)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Based on: The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson
Music by: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling

Paramount Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra.” – Don Birnam

I watched The Lost Weekend, as it has been highly praised by a lot of the books I’ve read on film-noir. It also won four Academy Awards including Best Picture. I think the thing that really sold it to me, though, was that it is a noir directed by Billy Wilder, the man behind Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. It also stars the great Ray Milland, who won an Academy Award for this role.

Now this isn’t a standard noir. It doesn’t feature criminals, innocent guys in over their head or a femme fatale. What it does feature is a remarkable actor playing a drunk writer, fighting his personal demons, trying to salvage his relationship with the love of his life and trying to get back to work without the demon bottle’s stranglehold over his very being.

The main reason why this film works so well is Milland’s performance. But I also have to give credit to some of the other players like Howard Da Silva and Phillip Terry. But it is Jane Wyman that really delights and who actually makes the romantic scenes flourish. She plays exceptionally well off of Milland and truly feels like his equal in the film.

I obviously can’t discount Billy Wilder’s direction. The man was a maestro behind the camera and he gave us a pretty fine tuned and fabulous looking motion picture.

While this is far from my favorite film-noir and it is only third on my list of Billy Wilder’s noir outings, it is still a solid movie that’s entertaining and a bit heartbreaking to watch at times, as Milland wears self-destruction so well.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures by Billy Wilder or starring Ray Milland.