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: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Also known as: Amy and Her Friend (working title)
Release Date: March 3rd, 1944 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Val Lewton (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter, Eve March

RKO Radio Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“Children love to dream things up.” – Miss Callahan

This motion picture has the strange distinction of being a non-horror sequel to a horror film.

The Curse of the Cat People is a followup to the 1942 film Cat People. Where the original was a story about a woman who was a werecat, this one is about her spirit becoming best friends with a little girl. This really has nothing to do with cats or werecats. Although, there is a black cat briefly in a scene.

This was one of the films produced by Val Lewton when he was making horror pictures for RKO in an effort to capitalize off of the low budget horror films that Universal had great success with. This could have been its own movie without the Cat People element even added in but I guess it served its marketing purpose, which was to piggyback off of the previous film’s success for RKO.

Simone Simon, the werecat from the first film, returns to play the ghost of her character. Her ex-husband, played by Kent Smith, is also in this. So there is an actual character link to the previous film.

Amy, a little girl, has a hard time connecting to other kids socially and is sort of an outcast. She also has a vivid imagination. When Simone Simon’s Irena appears to befriend the girl, no one wants to believe Amy.

Like other Lewton produced features for RKO, this one has beautiful cinematography and a sort of enchanting allure. It is a magical picture and you do get wrapped up in the proceedings, even though they are very simplistic and straightforward.

Ann Carter, who plays the young Amy, was very good in this and proved to be a child actor with much more skill than most of the kids of that era. She had to carry the picture and she did a fine job. She was lovable, sweet and sad. But she wasn’t chirpy, didn’t over-act and felt right at home alongside a cast of adults.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, who did several horror pictures for RKO, as well as the great boxing noir The Set-Up, the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and dozens of other movies.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Val Lewton produced films for RKO: Cat PeopleI Walked With a ZombieThe Leopard ManThe Seventh VictimThe Ghost ShipThe Body SnatcherIsle of the Dead and Bedlam.

Film Review: Dark Waters (1944)

Release Date: November 21st, 1944
Directed by: Andre De Toth
Written by: Marian B. Cockrell, Joan Harrison, Arthur Horman
Based on: The Saturday Evening Post serial Dark Waters by Francis M. Cockrell, Marian B. Cockrell
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Merle Oberon, Franchot Tone, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter, Elisha Cook Jr.

Benedict Bogeaus Productions, United Artists, 90 Minutes

Review:

Dark Waters is a film that feels like it could have been touched by Val Lewton while he was producing a slew of B-movies over at RKO but this was put out by United Artists around the same time and falls below the quality of those great Lewton pictures. Still, if you like Lewton’s work at RKO, this has a similar tone and feel to it, which is why I decided to watch it after I stumbled upon it.

A woman survives a submarine attack and returns home to the bayous of Louisiana to recuperate. Her aunt and uncle are up to something strange though and thus, we get a story about gangsters in the swamp. It sounds intriguing but the film is fairly boring, at least until the finale, which is decent.

Growing up in Southwest Florida on the Gulf Coast and living in a very similar environment to the bayous of Louisiana, I have always felt a piece of home in pictures that take place there. Plus I had family around New Orleans, when I was a kid, and have always loved spending time there. So when something takes place in the bayou, I feel a sense of real familiarity, just like when something takes place in the Everglades.

The environment, while it looks good on film here, isn’t enough to carry the picture. Everything falls pretty flat and it doesn’t matter that the accomplished Andre De Toth is behind the camera or that the majestic melodies of Miklós Rózsa created a very good soundtrack.

Dark Waters isn’t a total waste of time, it’s an okay way to kill ninety minutes but then again, there are much better movies you could watch instead, especially in the noir style.

Rating: 6.5/10

Film Review: The Woman In the Window (1944)

Release Date: November 3rd, 1944
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Nunnally Johnson
Based on: Once Off Guard by Georges de La Fouchardière
Music by: Arthur Lange
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea

International Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“There are only three ways to deal with a blackmailer. You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you’re penniless. Or you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or you can kill him.” – Richard Wanley

Before the noir classic Scarlett Street, the same team made this movie just a year earlier. In fact, as much as I like Scarlett Street, I would actually have preferred this film to it if not for the lame ending it gave us. It certainly had my attention a lot more than Scarlett Street but due to the time it was made, the morality censors had to make this movie a stupid dream sequence, wiping away the really dark ending that should have capped off the picture without the goofy twist.

I don’t blame Fritz Lang or the stellar cast for the ending though and up until that bizarre moment, The Woman In the Window really is a fantastic film.

Edward G. Robinosn, who has grown to be one of my favorite actors of all-time, has a remarkable chemistry with Joan Bennett. Also, Bennett has great chemistry with Dan Duryea. She works really well with both men and is sort of the glue in these pictures that star all three.

Joan Bennett is also otherworldly alluring in this picture, which may be intentional as the story is a dream and she even plays the part kind of deadpan, like a beautiful specter in the night. She is somehow ghostly emotionless, even while displaying emotion. It is hard to peg her and her character’s motivations. Does she want Robinson to kill the violent man, to free her from him, or was she really just trying to help him survive the attack in her home? You never really understand her point-of-view, which is actually a good thing in this movie. Is she a true femme fatale, clever and manipulative, or is she just a victim of circumstance, a typical damsel in distress?

Getting to the plot itself, it follows Robinson, as he sends his wife and kids off to New York for the summer. Soon after, he meets Joan Bennett next to a painting of her. Robinson seems like a good guy, even though he does go to her apartment for a drink. Once there, he is attacked by an ex-lover and kills him in self-defense. Robinson and Bennett agree to do away with the body and go their separate ways, as they are practically strangers anyway. Robinson then gets pulled into the investigation of the murder, as his best friend is a district attorney. Bennett then gets blackmailed by Dan Duryea’s character, who knows that she has an association with the murdered man. It’s a well layered plot with good twists and turns.

The cinematography is handled by Milton Krasner, who also worked on Lang’s Scarlett Street the following year. There is a real visual and atmospheric consistency between the two pictures. Krasner also worked on other notable film-noir pictures and some of the films from the Universal Monsters franchise. A few of his many credits are: The House of Seven GablesThe Invisible Man ReturnsThe Ghost of FrankensteinThe Invisible Man’s RevengeThe Dark MirrorThe Set-Up and Rawhide.

The Woman In the Window is a fine picture. I hated the ending but I kind of just ignore it and enjoyed the ride up until that point.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Also known as: Farewell, My Lovely (UK)
Release Date: December 9th, 1944
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton
Based on: Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki

RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.” – Philip Marlowe

I watched this Philip Marlowe picture back-to-back with The Big Sleep in an effort to compare the two Marlowe pictures and the two Marlowes: Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart. Plus, both films had the distinction of being remade three decades later with Robert Mitchum playing Marlowe in both of those movies.

Murder, My Sweet is a really good motion picture. It isn’t quite as good as The Big Sleep, though. But this definitely fits in with the style and tone of an RKO noir movie. Some people prefer this to The Big Sleep but it’s hard to top Bogart for me, especially as a private detective. Although, Powell feels more like Philip Marlowe from a literary standpoint.

Claire Trevor is pretty good in this and I liked her chemistry with Powell, even if it pales in comparison to Bogart and Bacall. The acting was top notch and these two brought their best to the table and delivered. I really enjoyed Anne Shirley the most, however. She was cute and quirky and just a lot of fun on screen.

One really cool thing about this film were the visual effects every time Marlowe got knocked unconscious. A liquid black pool would come into the frame and wash away the scene. There was also a good amount of visual flair used in the hallucination sequences. I was surprised to see how trippy this movie was, especially for something from the 1940s. It predates yet reminds me of some of the trippy sequences from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s.

I also love the dialogue in this film. It is a quintessential film-noir in that regard. Powell and Trevor just trade quick witty jabs back and forth, in what is a true display of that savvy and savory noir conversational style.

Otto Kruger also makes a good villainous character. In my opinion, he steals the scenes he’s in. He just has a presence and an air about him that is pretty uncanny. Mike Mazurki plays Moose Malloy, the film’s heavy and the muscle of Kruger’s Amthor. The physical exchange between Powell, Mazurki and Kruger is one of the best of the classic noir era.

Murder, My Sweet is a solid and fun picture. Noir films aren’t typically fun, most are dark and brooding, but this injects a lightheartedness into the style. It isn’t as heavy as other films like it and since I’ve been watching a lot of noir, as of late, this was a nice break from the moodier tone that’s typical of the style.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Laura (1944)

Release Date: October 11th, 1944
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, Ring Lardner Jr. (uncredited)
Based on: Laura by Vera Caspary
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

20th Century Fox, 88 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” – Waldo Lydecker

I was talking to my mum about noir pictures and she told me that this was one of her favorites. We actually came to talk about it while also discussing Vincent Price, a favorite actor of mine. Wanting to work my way through Otto Preminger’s films, this has been in my queue on the Criterion Channel for a bit. So I decided to check it out and because I also like the rest of the cast, especially Dana Andrews.

The fact that I hadn’t seen this yet, is surprising. Granted, my mum may have had it on when I was a kid and I was too busy killing Optimus Prime with my Megatron figure for the 142nd time.

Also, all I knew of Otto Preminger, back then, was that he was one of the three actors to play Mr. Freeze on the 1960s Batman television show. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he was an accomplished director and a real auteur.

Laura is quite exceptional and a great example of Preminger’s style. It has alluring camerawork and amazing tracking shots. It also utilizes some quick edits, such as a sweeping tracking shot going from one subject to another and then cutting right back to the first subject. While this isn’t a big deal by today’s standards, it was a pretty unique and nontraditional approach to shooting, at the time. But film-noirs were very experimental and tried a lot of new things, Preminger being one of the directors that really led the charge.

Like a typical noir, the film uses a high contrast but the lavish interiors of most of the sets keeps things less dark and gritty than many other pictures in the genre. Granted, the narrative and tone are dark but it exists in contrast to the opulence and elegance that lives on the screen and captures the saucy New Yorkers that populate this mystery tale.

The film also employs a small cast and everyone plays their part to perfection. It was really cool seeing a young Vincent Price in this but the film was really carried by the strong performances from Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb.

Andrews was the debonair and clever detective and I think he would’ve made a perfect Batman in the 1940s. Tierney really owned her role as the title character and did a fine job of luring in the males of the picture. Webb, however, was the real meat and potatoes of the picture. I loved his character and he was a real cantankerous fussy pot, for lack of a more fitting description.

This was a great film-noir with a lot of layers to it. It has a major shocking twist that really flipped the film on its head in the best way possible. Preminger created a visual and narrative treasure, a film that is a great monument to the noir style, even if the picture takes some of its own liberties that propel it away from a few specific genre tropes.