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: 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.

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.

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: Mildred Pierce (1945)

Release Date: September 28th, 1945 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney (uncredited)
Based on: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth

Warner Bros., 111 Minutes

Review:

“If you take a swim, I’d have to take a swim. Is that fair? Because you feel like killing yourself, I gotta get pneumonia.” – Policeman on Pier

Mildred Pierce is one of the most critically acclaimed film-noir motion pictures of all-time. But when you put master director Michael Curtiz with acting legend Joan Crawford, a magical concoction is ensured. It was a fantastic pairing that lead to Crawford winning the Academy Award for her performance. Curtiz wasn’t nominated but he probably should have been.

Ann Blyth and Eve Arden both got nominations for Best Supporting Actress but lost out to Anne Revere for her role in National Velvet. The film also received nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

This is also considered one of Crawford’s best performances. Honestly, she has hit it out of the park with every single performance I have seen from this era. She was one of the most capable actresses of her time, or any time, and she elevated not just the picture but the other actors around her. She had to carry many scenes but she was able to pull some of the best work out of her co-stars that they have ever showcased. I can’t ignore Curtiz’s direction in this either but if you go back and watch Crawford, especially in the ’40s, you’ll see how she elevates the performances of those around her.

The story is mostly told through flashback. It focuses on Mildred Pierce, a mother that has been through some rocky relationships but is willing to give all she can to make her materialistic and ungrateful daughter whatever she wants. The film taps into this heavily and definitely makes you question Mildred’s character and her motivations. The reason being, her ex-husband has been murdered and Mildred is the focal point of the police investigation. But this is a noir and there must be twists and surprises. All I’ll say is that I never saw the ending coming.

That being said, this was a well orchestrated plot and the screenwriters and director did a fantastic job of moving this story along, dropping in little hints and some suggestive nuances. I won’t say whether they are red herrings or not but it’s pretty entertaining watching this all unfold.

I thought that the Max Steiner score was really good. I also loved the cinematography by Ernest Haller, who was involved in Gone with the Wind and also worked a lot with Crawford, as well as Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman.

This is just a really good story, plotted out wonderfully, well directed and superbly acted. Plus everything looks and sounds great. This is a motion picture comprised of nothing other than strong positives.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir pictures with Joan Crawford: Humoresque, Possessed and Sudden Fear.

Film Review: Conflict (1945)

Also known as: The Pentacle (working title)
Release Date: June 15th, 1945 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Curtis Bernhardt
Written by: Arthur T. Horman, Dwight Taylor
Based on: The Pentacle by Robert Siodmak, Alfred Neumann
Music by: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Alexis Smith, Sydney Greenstreet

Warner Bros., 86 Minutes

Review:

“It’s funny how virtuous a man can be when he’s helpless.” – Kathryn Mason

Humphrey Bogart is a bad guy. No, seriously. He is pure evil in this film and that alone is worth the price of admission. This rugged, usually lovely, manly man that wooed all the ladies and some of the guys is a complete and total bastard in this. And that is why I had to see this film.

Now the reasoning behind this is pretty interesting. Despite the success of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, the head of Warner Bros. refused to see Bogart as a sexy leading man. The women wanted him, the men wanted to be him but his boss just wasn’t buying into it. Luckily, this didn’t stop Bogart from being Bogart going forward.

This film was also very close to home for the actor, as he and his wife at the time were known around town as the “Battling Bogarts” for their very public spats. A lot of this film’s narrative lines up with things in Bogart’s personal life, except Bogart obviously didn’t murder his wife like his character in this film. But it was said that Bogie had a really hard time making this film and was miserable having to act out a role that was too close for his personal comfort at the time.

This film was originally supposed to come out in 1943, just before film-noir exploded and it could have been a trend setter for that style. However, a lawsuit delayed this film’s release until 1945, which was also better for Bogart, as by that time he had already gotten a divorce and was happily remarried.

All things considered, Bogart’s scenes in this were superb and he didn’t show signs of his inner turmoil on screen. He was able to play this evil bastard yet still had scenes where he had to convincingly seem like a good guy.

While this film isn’t a horror movie, it had moments that felt like it was. The scenes that took place on the mountain road were chilling to the bone. When Bogart appears in the shadows and walks towards his wife, who is in her car, he does so in such a predatory way that is reminiscent of some of the greatest horror icons of all-time: Lugosi, Karloff, Rathbone, Price, Cushing and Lee.

Conflict is a marvelous film that may be a step below great but it is certainly effective and does a great job telling its story and churning up the right kind of emotions from scene to scene.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: The Two Mrs. CarrollsDead ReckoningThe Big Shot and Dark Passage.

Film Review: Scarlet Street (1945)

Release Date: December 28th, 1945
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Dudley Nichols
Based on: La Chienne the 1931 novel and play by Georges de La Fouchardière (novel) and André Mouézy-Éon (play)
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea

Walter Wanger Productions, Fritz Lang Productions, Diana Production Company, Universal Pictures, 102 Minutes

Review:

“If he were mean or vicious or if he’d bawl me out or something, I’d like him better.” – Kitty March

As I have been delving deep into the depths of film-noir, as of late, I had to give this film a shot. It stars three people I like, is directed by a real auteur and is pretty critically acclaimed and considered one of the best films in the film-noir style.

Edward G. Robinson plays Christopher Cross (Chris Cross… get it?), a nice and sensitive man that has been a cashier at a high profile store for twenty-five years. He is in a loveless marriage and is pretty depressed. He was once an aspiring artist but now only paints to fill his hours on Sunday afternoons.

Joan Bennett plays the femme fatale of the picture. She is in love with the criminal schemer, played by Dan Duryea. In fact, this film reunites its three stars and its director from the previous year’s film The Woman In the Window – another beloved film-noir.

Bennett’s Kitty March is seen presumably being mugged. Cross rescues her and the criminal runs off. Unbeknownst to Cross, the criminal is Kitty’s boyfriend, Duryea’s Johnny Prince. March and Prince decide to take advantage of the kind Cross. They discover his talent for painting and Prince steals some of his art, trying to sell them off. When the art community wants to know about the artist, Prince convinces Kitty to pose as the creator of the paintings. Kitty parrots all the things Cross told her about his art and she becomes a local art celebrity in Greenwich Village. All the while, Prince also has Kitty working towards seducing Cross, so they can extort him for money, due to his marriage.

Edward G. Robinson plays Cross as such a softy but it works. He is even seen in several scenes wearing a feminine apron as he prepares dinner. His wife is a shrewd and unlikable woman and Cross waits on her hand and foot while constantly being belittled and emasculated. Robinson’s Cross may be one of the saddest characters in all of film-noir.

Ultimately, Cross is pushed to the limit from all sides and something in him changes, leading to a dark side coming out. However, it is hard not relating to Cross and wanting him to snap back at those who have treated him like garbage.

Scarlet Street is a film with so many layers to it but it all works incredibly well like a perfectly prepared baklava. Plus, all the layers are important in understanding the weight that is coming down on the Cross character.

Fritz Lang told the story with perfection where many other directors would have left the picture a convoluted mess. A lot of credit has to go to the script by Dudley Nichols but it was Lang’s execution that brought everything to life, albeit with help from his talented cast.

Joan Bennett was incredibly alluring, even though you saw how treacherous she was. Duryea was an evil opportunist but still kind of likable, to where you could see how Kitty would fall for him. But the real star of the picture was Edward G. Robinson, who created such a sad and likable victim that you barely remember his work as dastardly characters from his gangster film days.

I loved Scarlet Street and I’m in agreement with the consensus of most critics. It is a stupendous film with an incredible amount of talent in front of and behind the camera.

Rating: 9/10