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.

Film Review: Humoresque (1946)

Release Date: December 25th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jean Negulesco
Written by: Clifford Odets, Zachary Gold
Based on: Humoresque: A Laugh On Life with a Tear Behind It by Fannie Hurst
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant, J. Carrol Naish, Joan Chandler

Warner Bros., 125 Minutes

Review:

“Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?” – Sid Jeffers

I wasn’t sure what to think about this film going into it, as I didn’t know much about it. It pops up on a lot of film-noir lists but if I’m being honest, it’s barely film-noir.

At its core, Humoresque is a romantic drama with a nice musical touch to it, as John Garfield’s character is a well renowned violinist, whose musical career is central to the plot.

The film stars Joan Crawford as an alcoholic socialite mess that is enamored with Garfield’s violin skills to the point that she pretty much starts managing his career.

As the film rolls on, she falls in love with him and we get a bunch of turbulence that ultimately ends pretty darkly.

I think the noir aspects of the film are the cinematography and the twists and turns of the plot. Even though this is focused on romance and business instead of crime and murder, it does have strong similarities to the noir style.

Plus, Crawford dabbled in film-noir quite a bit and this fits better with her noir work than many of her other films.

The acting was absolutely stellar and Crawford was exceptional from your first glance at her up until that powerful final moment.

This isn’t really my cup of tea but I still enjoyed it for the performances, the music and the visual style. It’s certainly a very well made motion picture and I can understand why it’s beloved by some classic film aficionados.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Joan Crawford noir-esque pictures: The Damned Don’t Cry, Mildred Pierce and Possessed.

Film Review: The Threat (1949)

Also known as: Terror
Release Date: December 1st, 1949
Directed by: Felix E. Feist
Written by: Dick Irving Hyland, Hugh King
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Michael O’Shea, Virginia Grey, Charles McGraw

RKO Radio Pictures, 66 Minutes

Review:

“Remember, I have to live with my conscience.” – Detective Ray Williams

The Threat isn’t a well known film-noir but anything made by RKO in the noir style is always worth a look.

It’s a quick 66 minute film that moves at a rapid pace and is fairly high octane for the era. It really doesn’t relent, due to it’s scant running time and it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye.

The story is about a homicidal maniac who breaks out of prison and starts kidnapping those he deemed responsible for his imprisonment: a cop, a district attorney and a nightclub singer who is believed to be the rat.

The film has a lot of angles and the narrative plays out nicely even if it felt somewhat underwhelming by the end.

As far as the production, it is fairly pedestrian. The acting, directing and cinematography are all pretty average. And even though the setup was really good and got me hooked, that first act of the film is really the high point.

Now I did enjoy Paul Sawtell’s score. But he always provided good music for the films he worked on.

The Threat isn’t very memorable but it isn’t a bad way to spend 66 minutes.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: any crime thriller film-noir from RKO that feels more like a B-movie than a big studio production. That’s not a diss, as some of these films are great.

Trailer located here, as it’s only available on TCM and I can’t embed those videos here. You should fix that, TCM.

Film Review: Follow Me Quietly (1949)

Release Date: July 7th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Lillie Hayward, Anthony Mann, Francis Rosenwald
Music by: Leonid Raab, Paul Sawtell
Cast: William Lundigan, Dorothy Patrick, Jeff Corey, Nestor Paiva

RKO Radio Pictures, 60 Minutes

Review:

“I always wanted to throw something out of that window. Ha, I didn’t know it would be me. ” – J.C. McGill

Follow Me Quietly was put out by RKO Radio Pictures, a major studio in its heyday, but it feels more like a noir from one of the Poverty Row studios.

I think part of the reason is that this was definitely a B-movie, it had a very scant running time and didn’t have any big marquee players. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, however, and he was certainly a top director but maybe more so after this picture.

It’s an okay movie but there is nothing about it that sets it apart from the slew of late ’40s film-noir pictures. It’s pretty pedestrian, if I’m being honest, but it still has some interesting stuff within its slim 60 minute running time.

But I guess what captivated me most wasn’t the story or the characters but it was nuances within the film. While it’s a pretty standard police procedural for most of the film, the scenes where people try to identify suspects in the police lineup were really neat. Some of the characters posed with blank faces very similar to the character called The Blank from the 1990 Dick Tracy movie. Maybe that character was inspired by these moments in this film.

I enjoyed the police procedural shtick in this but it also felt ridiculous in how they came to conclusions in a few key spots.

In the end, this was an okay way to spend an hour but other than the strange police lineup proceedings, there’s not much to write home about.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures of the ’40s from RKO Radio Pictures or some of the stuff from Poverty Row studios.

Film Review: The Hunted (1948)

Release Date: April 7th, 1948
Directed by: Jack Bernhard
Written by: Steve Fisher
Music by: Edward J. Kay
Cast: Preston Foster, Belita, Pierre Watkin, Edna Holland

Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“You know something, Johnny? It’s been four years since I’ve been kissed.” – Laura Mead

The Hunted was not a major studio film-noir picture but it was still a pretty engaging story where even if the acting wasn’t the greatest, the characters still lured you in.

While Preston Foster gets top billing here, the most interesting cast member is Belita. For those unaware, she was a talented figure skater from the United Kingdom. She dabbled in acting for a bit and actually was cast in three film-noir pictures during her film career. While she didn’t have the typical Hollywood femme fatale look, she was still stunning in her own way and had more of an athletic build, which worked for her character here, as ice skating was a part of this story.

The film flows pretty quickly and it’s relatively short when compared to bigger budget noir pictures. Most of the B-movie noirs had scant running times, which is actually something I like about them. It allows them to move swiftly, cut out the frills and gives them a bit more grit and realism. This film is exactly what I just described. While the best noirs are like a fine wine, films like this are more like a shot of whiskey.

The Hunted feels dirty and organic when seen next to a film like Laura. With that, Belita feels more real, as well.

The plot follows a cop that discovers that his girlfriend may be involved in a jewelry robbery. He arrests her, even though she claims she was framed. She gets out years later but then gets mixed up in a murder. The detective believes that she may have been involved in the murder but as noir pictures go, he struggles between his own moral code and his dame.

Now the story isn’t all that complex or original but it doesn’t need to be. Noir films were a dime a dozen in the late 1940s and the cream of the crop often times rose to their heights because of atmosphere. This isn’t the cream of the crop but the atmosphere is still effective and elicits emotional investment into the film and its characters. This is no Laura or Double Indemnity but it is a much better movie than most of the Poverty Row studios’ attempts at high octane crime pictures. Plus, this even makes time for a Belita figure skating performance. Although, that does feel a bit out of place.

The Hunted is a nice way to kill 84 minutes. It isn’t a great example of film-noir but for fans of the style, it’s certainly worth a look.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: the other two film-noir pictures starring figure skater Belita: Suspense and The Gangster.

Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.