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 Locket (1946)

Also known as: What Nancy Wanted (working title)
Release Date: December 20th, 1946
Directed by: Jason Brahm
Written by: Sheridan Gibney
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Laraine Day, Brian Aherne, Robert Mitchum, Gene Raymond

RKO Radio Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Okay… you be the dropper, I’ll be the deer!” – Nancy Monks Blair Patton

There are two things I really like: classic film-noir and Robert Mitchum. When you put these two things together and under the banner of RKO Radio Pictures, you can bet that I’ll be interested in seeing it.

However, while this is noir, it isn’t my cup of tea.

The story is about a woman who has been married multiple times, has a very checkered past and is just pretty damn shady, in general.

The film plays out showing her life’s story but primarily focusing on her many relationships and how she is a self-absorbed narcissist that doesn’t much care for the wreckage she causes. A real femme fatale but not as cool as most of the other femme fatales from her day. Although, Laraine Day is incredibly beautiful and her charm is effective. Her character just comes off as fairly generic and that’s probably got more to do with the writing and direction than Day’s skill as an actress.

This film is just fairly boring for its subject matter and these stories have been done much better.

The film’s style is noir-esque but lacking in style. There are some good shots and framing in the picture but nothing seems like it fits the great detail and noir aesthetic that was synonymous with RKO’s other pictures in the genre. Everything is just pretty standard and pedestrian and this looks more like a noir picture from Poverty Row than one from a major studio, let alone one that specializes in the style.

The Locket is still an okay watch. To the layman, it will probably be boring but to someone who has invested a lot of time in the film-noir style, it was worth my time and I enjoyed it regardless of what I felt it lacked.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: When Strangers Marry, The Racket, Undercurrent, Angel Face, The Big Steal and My Forbidden Past.

Film Review: The Strange Woman (1946)

Release Date: October 25th, 1946
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Hunt Stromberg, Edgar G. Ulmer, Herb Meadow
Based on: The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Alan Napier

Hunt Stromberg Productions, Mars Film Corporation, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“[Giving a sermon, quoting from Proverbs 5:3] The lips of a strange woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil… But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword!” – Lincoln Pittridge

I’ve really come to enjoy Edgar G. Ulmer as a director. As I’ve been watching a lot of film-noir, in recent months, I was thoroughly impressed with his film Detour and also really enjoyed his earlier pictures The Black Cat and People On Sunday, which was a collaboration with other German and Austrian born noir directors, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder. Also being a fan of Hedy Lamarr, as an actress and a person, I had to give this film a shot.

It also stars George Sanders and Alan Napier has a small role in it too.

While this does fall into the realm of film-noir, it is very much a character study that showcases the bizarre behavior and traits of Hedy Lamarr’s Jenny Hager, a conflicted and complex woman who at first seems mean, selfish and irrational but you see her portrayed in such an honest and intimate light that you get the feeling that she isn’t always in control of her actions, as if some uncontrollable force is driving her. Nowadays, we call this stuff “mental illness”.

The film and the character of Jenny work so well because of how damn good Hedy Lamarr was in this role. She humanized a person that could have easily just been a monster or a one-dimensional femme fatale. Despite her wickedness, you feel something for her and like George Sanders’ John Evered, you want to help her. It’s easy to see why the men in the film get so wrapped up in her despite her natural beauty. I really need to work my way through Lamarr’s work again but this is my favorite performance she ever gave us.

Ulmer had a talent for taking something as common as a noir picture and giving it a little something extra. Detour was a harsh and high octane noir that is unique and exceptional. This film sort of does the same thing but it is less “in your face” about it. It’s got this underlying darkness that you don’t quite understand until the narrative evolves into something more personal and complex. But where Detour is like a wrestler in a no holds barred cage match to the death, The Strange Woman is more like a pretty girl that gives you a kiss but you don’t know you’ve been poisoned by her until its too late. Both are rough and brutal but in very different ways. Regardless, the end result is still pretty effective and final.

The Strange Woman isn’t the best film-noir and I do like Ulmer’s Detour more but it is still an intimate experience and a wild ride through a crazy woman’s mind. It’s well shot, stupendously acted and offers up something more than a typical noir picture.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other Hedy Lamarr film-noirs, most notably Dishonored Lady.

Film Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Release Date: May 2nd, 1946
Directed by: Tay Garnett
Written by: Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch
Based on: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Music by: George Bassman, Erich Zeisl
Cast: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Audrey Totter

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 113 Minutes

Review:

“You know, there’s something about this that’s like, well it’s like you’re expecting a letter that you’re just crazy to get, and you’re hanging around the front door for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice…” – Frank Chambers

The Postman Always Rings Twice was the highest grossing film-noir picture of the classic era. Also, it was a departure from what MGM typically put into theaters, as crime thrillers weren’t really their cup of tea.

The film stars Lana Turner and John Garfield, both of whom are at the top of their game in this. While they had great careers, there was a real grittiness to them here, even if Turner’s Cora Smith carried herself as an opulent and gorgeous upper class type. Garfield came with a hard edge that was impossible to deny. But most importantly, their chemistry was quite spectacular and they are one of the best noir duos of all-time.

The film was directed by Tay Garnett. He wasn’t known for noir but he was still able to create a classic in the genre with this picture. But much of that can be attributed to a good script by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, as well as the crisp and smooth cinematography of Sidney Wagner, who kept things pretty straightforward but used the lighting to his advantage. Plus, the talent of the cast, not just the two main stars, was a big contributor to this film’s quality. I especially enjoyed Hume Cronyn in this but then again, when don’t I enjoy the guy?

The plot of the film follows a drifter, Frank Chambers, who takes a job at a roadside cafe. He quickly falls for the owner’s wife, Cora Smith. There is tension between the two but it quickly fades and we get in to a web of lies, deceit and murder. Like many film-noir pictures, the story is told to us by the main character in hindsight. While the overall narrative could be considered derivative, most noir movies were, it certainly stands tall in spite of it retreading very familiar territory.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an iconic picture and for good reason. It was even remade in the 1980s with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange playing the roles that Garfield and Turner gave life to. I like this version of the story best but I’ll probably have to revisit the ’80s take on it soon.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: The Killers (1946)

Also known as: Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, A Man Alone
Release Date: August 28th, 1946
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, John Huston (uncredited)
Based on: Scribners Magazine short story The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Garner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.” – Big Jim Colfax

In the 1940s, Robert Siodmak made some of the most memorable film-noir motion pictures. The Killers is considered to not just be one of Siodmak’s best but one of the best films of the noir style and of the decade.

The Killers is really high up on a lot of the noir lists I have looked at from top critics, blogs, books and magazines. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I wouldn’t say that it was my favorite Siodmak noir, as of now, that honor goes to Criss Cross. However, I still haven’t seen Phantom Lady or The Dark Mirror yet.

I have enjoyed Siodmak’s work for a long time but as a kid it was primarily in the form of Son of Dracula and The Crimson Pirate. I was much more into horror and swashbuckling back then but my experience with those films had me enthused when I realized that the guy who directed both of those films, had a handful of noir movies wedged between them.

This film stars Burt Lancaster, a regular of Siodmak. This was also his debut on the big screen and for a first time performance, Lancaster knocks it out of the park. He was teamed with film-noir regulars Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levene. However, it was his scenes with the elegant and fascinating Ava Gardner that helped to set this guy’s career on a long and fruitful career that saw four Academy Award nominations and a win for his part in Elmer Gantry.

The Killers is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. However, the Hemingway story only really comprises the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, which shows the contract killers arrive and murder Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” Anderson. Where the film begins to follow Edmond O’Brien’s Jim Reardon, as he investigates the murder, the plot is wholly original and works as an expansion on Hemingway’s story. It was said, by Hemingway’s biographer, that The Killers “was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.” John Huston, also an accomplished film-noir director, contributed to the script. He wasn’t originally credited for his contribution due to his contract with rival studio, Warner Bros.

With crime dramas running rampant in the 1940s, this is one that wasn’t a cliché on celluloid. While I love film-noir and I honestly have a hard time trying to find truly bad ones, sometimes the rehash of tropes, over and over and over again, can get mundane. The Killers, like Siodmak’s Criss Cross, is one of the films that lifts the cinematic style to a higher level. Plus, with a score composed by Miklós Rózsa, you can expect a lot of energy, excitement and a real soul within the film.

I love The Killers, it is hard to deny its greatness between the solid direction, iconic performances and its pristine look.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Also known as: Silence of Helen McCord (working title), Some Must Watch (working title)
Release Date: February 7th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Mel Dinelli
Based on: Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester

Vanguard Films, RKO Radio Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“The only thing that keeps me from cracking you in the jaw is the almost certain possibility that it would break your neck.” – Dr. Parry

The Spiral Staircase isn’t specifically categorized as horror. It is categorized as a thriller but it is definitely horror in its subject matter and in its ability to build suspense and give you a real sense of terror. Plus, the opening moments of a woman dressing, as the camera closes in on an eye watching her from a hidden position is chilling and nightmare inducing by 1940s standards.

The story follows a mute girl (Dorothy McGuire) who is targeted by a serial killer that picks off young women with disabilities. She lives in a mansion, taking care of a wealthy bedridden woman (Ethel Barrymore). The woman, as well as the girl’s doctor, urge her to leave the house. The doctor knows the cause of the girl’s muteness and wants to cure her.

The film really has similar notes to a slasher or giallo movie without the violence. It also predates giallo by several decades.

The film is dark and moody but it is just as beautiful as it is haunting. It has great cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who did amazing work in the horror/noir hybrids Cat People, The Curse of the Cat PeopleThe Seventh VictimBedlam and The Ghost Ship. He also did the beloved noir classic Out of the Past. With the direction of Robert Siodmak, this film was helmed by two artists who were masters of creating atmosphere and visual suspense.

This is a solid psychological thriller and an atmospheric gem. The acting is better than average and the music is also really good, adding to the slow build of dread in this film.

I actually find it surprising that this RKO horror/noir creation was not produced by Val Lewton, who was the mastermind behind most of these pictures for the studio. It was produced by Dore Schary, who would eventually go on to be the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: The Big Sleep (1946)

Release Date: August 23rd, 1946
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman
Based on: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Elisha Cook Jr.

Warner Bros., 114 Minutes, 116 Minutes (pre-release)

Review:

“And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.” – Philip Marlowe

There are few women that can match the presence of Humphrey Bogart on screen but I guess there is a reason why Lauren Bacall was in four pictures with Bogie and why they fell in love and got married, despite quite the age difference.

This is one of many Philip Marlowe stories put to celluloid in the 1940s. Strangely, a different actor played Marlowe in every movie as there wasn’t any sort of cohesiveness to the rights of the character. Different studios owned the rights to different books and some Marlowe movies even changed the character’s name to things like “The Falcon” and “Michael Shayne”. In The Big Sleep, we get to see Bogart become the character in what is arguably the best and most popular version of Marlowe.

Like typical film-noir and a Marlowe story, for that matter, this thing has a lot of solid twists and turns. You never really know where the roller coaster ride is going but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. In a nutshell, private dick Philip Marlowe is hired by a rich general with two beautiful daughters. One daughter has massive gambling debts, so Marlowe is brought in to help resolve this. The older sister, played by Lauren Bacall, assists Marlowe because she knows that the situation her little sister is in, is something bigger and deeper than what’s on the surface.

The Big Sleep is very complex and while it may, to a degree, work against it and make it hard to follow if you’re not completely tuned into it, it’s still well constructed and executed. I’m not sure how faithful of an adaptation it is to the book but it probably did its best in giving that story its life on screen. Complex stories are usually a bit easier to follow in a book than on screen, as there is a different sort of pacing and you have to be engaged by the book, giving it your full attention. But this isn’t too dissimilar to most film-noir films adapted from the crime novels of the day.

Bogart and Bacall always had fantastic chemistry. This is a great display of just how good each of them were and especially how good they were playing opposite of one another. Bogart is his typical cool self and Bacall has a serious sass that isn’t something most women can match.

Howard Hawks made one of the best Philip Marlowe pictures of all-time with The Big Sleep. It was probably easy directing the duo of Bogart and Bacall, however. Plus, he had the cinematography of Sidney Hickox at his disposal. Hickox being a real veteran with a lot of mileage under his belt at this point.

Rating: 9/10