Film Review: Key Largo (1948)

Also known as: Gangster In Key Largo (Austria, Germany), Huracán de pasiones (Spanish title)
Release Date: July 15th, 1948 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: Richard Brooks, John Huston
Based on: Key Largo by Maxwell Anderson
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor

Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“Hey Curly, what all happens in a hurricane?” – Ralphie, “The wind blows so hard the ocean gets up on its hind legs and walks right across the land.” – Curly

Contrary to popular belief, not all men are created equal. Reason being, there was once a man named Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart had a rare talent and that talent saw him transcend the screen. He was a superstar before anyone was even called that. He had charisma, a rugged charm and was a man’s man that many men tried to emulate and most women wanted to be with. And the best way to enjoy “Bogie” was in roles like this one.

The fact that Bogart is even in a movie, pretty much makes it a classic. Now add in his favorite leading lady, Lauren Bacall, one of the greatest on screen gangsters of all-time, Edward G. Robinson, and throw in veterans Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor (who won an Academy Award for this film) and you’ve got the star power of a supernova.

Did I mention that this was directed by John Huston, a true master behind the camera?

The plot is simple but it is an effective setup to one of the most tense Bogart movies of all-time.

Bogart plays Frank McCloud. He travels to a hotel in Key Largo to pay his respects to the family (Bacall and Barrymore) of a soldier that died while serving under him. Once there, he and the widow get a bit smitten with each other but at the same time, it is revealed that the other guests are gangsters. The head gangster is played by Edward G. Robinson. On top of that, a hurricane strikes Key Largo, trapping Bogart, Bacall, Barrymore and the gangsters in the hotel. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco was exiled to Cuba years earlier and is still very dangerous.

There are a lot of intense moments in the film and every time that Bogart and Robinson are opposite each other in a scene, it is bone chilling. There is one really tense moment where Robinson goes off for a few minutes while getting a shave at the same time. The added element of the shave just added more tension to the moment and this was one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever seen from the great Robinson.

A lot of this was shot on location in the Florida Keys and those scenes came off remarkably well, adding to the exotic allure of the picture. Add in the great cinematography by Karl Freund and you’ve got an otherworldly, majestic looking film.

John Huston shot this film meticulously and it shows. At the same time, he had the benefit of having one of the greatest casts ever assembled.

And despite the greatness of Bogart, Robinson, Bacall and Barrymore in this picture, Claire Trevor stole every scene that she was in. She was certainly worthy of her Academy Award for this picture.

Key Largo is a damn fine motion picture. It is one of the best film-noirs of all-time and one of the best films of its era. All the big stars here had long, storied careers but this is a highlight for all of them and director John Huston.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: The other films that pair Bogart and Bacall: To Have and to Have NotThe Big Sleep and Dark Passage. Also, The Maltese Falcon.

Film Review: Hollow Triumph (1948)

Also known as: The Scar (working title), The Man Who Murdered Himself (reissue title)
Release Date: August 18th, 1948 (Reading, PA premiere)
Directed by: Steve Sekely
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Hollow Triumph by Murray Forbes
Music by: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett

Bryan Foy Productions, Eagle-Lion Films, 83 Minutes

Review:

“It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” – Evelyn Hahn

Hollow Triumph came out at the height of film-noir but it wasn’t a major studio release. It came out form one of those Poverty Row film houses, the UK based Eagle-Lion Films.

Although, in regards to noir, Eagle-Lion had an incredible track record and made some of the best movies in the style: Raw DealHe Walked by Night and the semidocumentary styled T-Men.

Hollow Triumph, also known as Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself, had the benefit of casting Joan Bennett, who already starred in the Fritz Lang film-noir classics The Woman In the Window and Scarlet Street. This film also got John Alton to handle its cinematography, he would go on to handle the cinematography for Raw Deal, just after this, and that is a film that is highly regarded for its visual look. Even though this isn’t Raw Deal, the film still looks magnificent.

John Muller (Paul Henreid) is a medical school dropout but he is also a savvy criminal. He orchestrates a holdup but things go awry. Evil gambler Rocky Stansyck puts Muller in his crosshairs but Muller is able to take on a new identity as a psychiatrist that looks an awful lot like him. There are some typical film-noir swerves and a lot of irony thrown into the mix.

While the story plays out well and is decently constructed, there are a lot of things in the film that seem way too convenient. If you can get passed that, you’ll find the film enjoyable and entertaining.

This is a better than decent thriller. The acting is pretty good and I have always liked Joan Bennett but that could be due to my adoration of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, three decades after this. Regardless, Bennett always has a strong presence that sort of commands attention and draws you in. Her role here is no different.

I was glad that this was featured on TCM’s Noir Alley because it may have been quite some time until I discovered this on my own. There are a lot of film-noir pictures out there and even though I’ve seen well over a hundred of them, I still uncover ones worthy of more recognition than they have. This is one of those movies.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Other similar films from Eagle-Lion: T-MenRaw Deal and He Walked by Night.

Film Review: The Naked City (1948)

Also known as: Homicide (working title)
Release Date: March 4th, 1948
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald
Music by: Miklós Rózsa, Frank Skinner
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” – Narrator

The Naked City is a really important film in history for how it popularized the police procedural story in fiction. It’s not the first but it is the most popular of the procedural films at the time. The genre style was alive in the literature of the time but it hadn’t quite taken off in film before this picture. Plus, this sort of marries the police procedural drama with film-noir.

Directed by noir giant Jules Dassin, who was also behind the camera on Brute ForceThieves’ HighwayNight and the City and Rififi, this is probably his best known picture. In fact, it’s popularity spun off into a television series. It even went on to inspire some DLC content for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, seven decades later.

The movie is partially told in a semidocumentary style, similar to noir pictures like T-Men and He Walked by Night. This helped with the police procedural narrative and kept things feeling pretty authenitc and real, well as authentic and real as a Hollywood picture could be at that time.

In this film, we follow around a veteran cop and a young cop, as they try and solve the murder of a young model. We go through all their procedures and see how they use their intuition, science and detective skills to catch the killer.

While this is probably the most highly regarded of Dassin’s films, it’s not my favorite. I actually prefer Brute Force and Night and the City more. I also think that Thieves’ Highway is on par with this, if not slightly better because of how good the performances were. The Naked City is still darn good, however.

The cinematography is exceptional, especially in regards to how New York City was shot. I was really impressed with the scene where the two men ride the construction elevator up the side of a building, as the backdrop of the city behind them drops. There is a lot of energy just from how certain things in this film were captured when it would have been much easier for Dassin and his cinematographer, William H. Daniels, to have shot things much simpler or on closed sets. They really brought New York City alive, though. In the end, they won the Academy Award for Black and White Cinematography.

The Naked City is a pivotal film in history because it popularized a narrative style that might even be at its strongest now, in the 2010s. How many procedural cop shows are there now? Many of them have been on for over a decade and had spin-offs and spin-offs of their spin-offs.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Other Dassin film-noirs: Brute ForceNight and the City, Thieves’ Highway, etc. Also T-Men and He Walked by Night.

Film Review: He Walked by Night (1948)

Release Date: November 24th, 1948 (Los Angeles)
Directed by: Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Written by: John C. Higgins, Crane Wilbur
Music by: Leonid Raab
Cast: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb, Whit Bissell

Eagle-Lion FIlms, 79 Minutes

Review:

“And so the tedious quest went on. Sergeant Brennan wore out his shoes and his patience going from police station to police station, checking photos until his eyes were blurry. For police work is not all glamour and excitement and glory. There are days and days of routine, of tedious probing, of tireless searching. Fruitless days. Days when nothing goes right, when it seems as if no one could ever think his way through the maze of baffling trails a criminal leaves. But the answer to that is persistence and the hope that sooner or later something will turn up, some tiny lead that can grow into a warm trail and point to the cracking of a case.” – Narrator

This is a really gritty picture and it has a semidocumentary feel to it. For those who have seen T-Men, you probably can’t help making comparisons between the two. While Alfred L. Werker was billed as the director, this feels an awful lot like Anthony Mann’s T-Men. Strangely enough, he also directed this but wasn’t given credit for it. Honestly, it feels like it is wholly his film.

The film also benefits from the cinematography of John Alton, who worked on several pictures with Mann, most notably, the aforementioned T-Men, as well as his stupendous work in Raw Deal.

Also like T-Men, the story is based off of real life events. In the case of this picture, it is a fictional retelling of the story of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, a former cop and war veteran that started a crime spree in Los Angeles that included burglaries, robberies and shootouts. In this film, names have been changed and so have some of the details. The criminal is named Roy and he is most wanted fro being a cop killer.

Richard Basehart was believable as the criminal and he carried this picture on his back. The actors who played the cops were also good and so was the shop owner who had an association with Basehart’s Roy. Basehart just takes over the screen whenever he is present. He’s clever, ruthless and calculated. Basehart conveys these qualities with ease and his presence is like a dark and intimidating cloud over the proceedings, ready to rain down hell.

The action in this film is stupendous and displays more energy than what was the norm in the 1940s. The final chase scene through the Los Angeles sewers is beautiful and draws parallels to the finale of the 1949 film The Third Man. The moment where Roy slides on his belly across the asphalt, escaping into a storm drain is amazing and unlike anything I’ve seen before this picture’s time of release. The moment where the dying cop uses his car to smash into Roy’s, to prevent his escape, is another great action shot unlike anything from this era or before. This is a rather violent film for its time but nothing is really downplayed or understated.

He Walked by Night is one of the best classic film-noir movies ever made. It is short and quick but it doesn’t need to be anything more than what it was. It made its point, gave us something that truly felt real and was unapologetic about it in an era where censors had a tight grip on the film industry.

Film Review: Raw Deal (1948)

Release Date: May 26th, 1948
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Leopold Atlas, John C. Higgins, Arnold B. Armstrong, Audrey Ashley
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr

Edward Small Productions, Reliance Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“What do you know about anything? You probably had your bread buttered on both sides since the day you were born. Safe. Safe on first, second, third, and home.” – Joseph Emmett Sullivan

I checked out Raw Deal on TCM’s Noir Alley. However, I’ve known about it for a little while. It was covered and discussed in several books I’ve read about film-noir and every writer that mentioned it gave it a lot of praise. I was glad to see it in the Noir Alley lineup, as I wanted to check it out myself.

The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. The three find themselves in a love triangle, as the two women are on the lam with O’Keefe’s Joseph. Trevor plays Pat while Hunt plays Ann. Pat helps Sullivan escape prison. However, unbeknownst to her, at the time, he doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. Instead, his heart is with a social worker, Ann. Sullivan escapes in an effort to get revenge on the brutish mobster Rick Coyle (played by Raymond Burr). However, Coyle has his own plans for Sullivan.

Burr’s Coyle is exceptionally brutal, as the film’s heavy. In one scene, he throws a flaming bowl into the face of a woman. The scene was edited to show the flaming bowl flying into the face of the audience from a first-person point-of-view, which was quite savage for a 1940s picture. After seeing this movie, I have a newfound respect for Burr, as he can play an evil mob boss just as well as a nice, do-gooder lawyer.

O’Keefe and Trevor put in good performances but the sweet and innocent Hunt really pulls you in. When she has to commit an unspeakable act, your heart goes out to her, as she’s a good person pulled into a dark web and forced to participate in the proceedings that seem so much larger than her and more barbarous than anything she should have to experience.

The thing that really brings this motion picture to the next level is the cinematography by John Alton. The man did some superb work with this film and it is the best looking film-noir I have seen. I wouldn’t say that it surpasses Citizen Kane, which isn’t really a noir, but it gets close to that level. In fact, it surpasses The Third Man, which I never thought another film from this era could do, as that film is so visually satisfying.

The film has several spectacular looking scenes. The one, for me, that really stands out is when Joseph and Pat are on the ship, about to escape the country, when Pat finally confesses a dark secret. The scene shows a side profile of Pat’s face, close-up, as it is layered over the backdrop of a plain wall and a plain clock. It is how this moment is captured that truly shows the difference between a great cinematographer and an average one. The shadows, the stark contrast, the chiaroscuro effect pushed to the extreme – it creates a real sense of darkness, despair and a small glimmer of hope that Pat will overcome whatever wickedness is in her heart and do the right thing. It is one of the best looking scenes ever shot on celluloid. Not to take anything away from Claire Trevor but this is an example of great cinematography backing up an actor’s performance and making it grander than it would have otherwise been.

There are so many great scenes like the one I just described but that one stood out the most. The film makes great use of fog and environment to enhance the effect of the noir visual style. This is a near masterpiece, overall, but it is a true masterpiece in regards to the cinematography.

Raw Deal isn’t the best film-noir but it could very well be the best looking true noir. It is certainly the best looking out of all the films I have seen in the style. That doesn’t mean that I won’t delve deeper into the noir barrel and eventually pull out something better. But out of the few dozen of these pictures I’ve seen, this one takes the cinematography cake.

Film Review: Pitfall (1948)

Release Date: August 24th, 1948
Directed by: Andre DeToth
Written by: Karl Kamb, Andre DeToth (uncredited), William Bowers (uncredited)
Based on: The Pitfall by Jay Dratler
Music by: Louis Forbes (uncredited)
Cast: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr, Jane Wyatt, Ann Doran

Regal Films, United Artists, 86 Minutes

Review:

“She probably doesn’t appeal to you but for me, she’s just what I told the doctor to order.” – J.B. MacDonald

I have always liked Dick Powell in film-noir and Lizabeth Scott had my heart from the first moment I saw her. She is one of my favorite leading ladies of all-time, especially from her era. This picture also has Raymond Burr, a guy I’ve always been a fan of since discovering Godzilla at a young age and because of my mum’s love of Perry Mason reruns. Ann Doran also shows up in this movie.

Frankly, there are a lot of good pieces here but the film mostly falls flat. It is film-noir in style but it’s more about infidelity. Strangely, being that this was a 1940s film and that the Hollywood rules were strict on morals, Dick Powell’s character gets off really easy. The truth behind this, is that the film was actually in violation of the Hays Code but Andre DeToth, the director, went before two senior board members and pointed out that they both had mistresses. Needless to say, the film was released as DeToth envisioned it.

Dick Powell is solid in the movie but doesn’t have the presence he had when he was the first actor to play the famous Philip Marlowe character in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet or when he was his typical “tough guy” characters. Lizabeth Scott was as beautiful as ever and had charm and charisma but her character, overall, didn’t have the gravitas of some of her other roles. Raymond Burr, at this point, was just the standard heavy but that was really his role until he became Perry Mason on television.

The problem with this film, is that it starts out strong, moves at a brisk pace but then loses itself somewhere in the middle. While it tackles a provocative subject, for the time, it handles the situation with kid gloves and doesn’t really explore the underlying darkness of the characters’ indiscretions. And as much as I like the cast, I just don’t care enough about their characters.

Pitfall is not a bad film and most people seem to like it more than I did. It’s just one of those movies that pulls you in and then releases you well before the story is over.

Film Review: They Live by Night (1948)

Release Date: August, 1948 (London)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take steps a block long. Anyone gets in my way, I’ll stomp ’em!” – Chickamaw

While They Live by Night isn’t my favorite Nicholas Ray picture, it was the start of his career and was a much better film than most director’s first efforts.

The film is also a sort of prototype to Bonnie and Clyde, not officially, but it shares a very similar narrative about two lovers on the run from the law. However, the original novel could have been inspired by the real life Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in 1934, just three years before the novel Thieves Like Us was published.

The story starts with some prison escapees fleeing towards freedom in 1930s Mississippi. The men decided to rob a bank. One of them, a young man named Bowie, was wrongfully convicted of murder and feels that he can use the money from the bank heist to pay for a lawyer that can prove his innocence.

Things go sideways, Bowie is hurt and finds refuge with the daughter of a gas station owner. The two fall in love and plan to live an honest life away from all the crime and violence. Keechie, the girl, gets pregnant but at the same time, the two men from Bowie’s gang return, demanding his help. Of course, things go sideways again.

The film was well shot and very well directed and it even featured some innovations. For instance, the helicopter shot during the opening credits was pretty unique for 1948 and it kicked this film off with a lot of energy. Also, being a mostly noir picture, it leaves behind the genre’s typical tight interior sets and spends a good amount of time in the wide open spaces of the rural Mid-South, the same geographical region where Bonnie and Clyde committed their robbery spree. They Live by Night is a wide open picture compared to most of the films like it.

The starring duo of Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger were pretty much newcomers to the big screen but they held their own and their love for one another seemed genuine. O’Donnell was especially good and you feel nothing but sadness for her, as she is thrown into a heartbreaking and perilous situation.

They Live by Night is a very well made motion picture. There isn’t a whole lot that you can say about it that could be negative. It has a good director, nice cinematography, treads some original ground and has good acting. If you like Bonnie and Clyde, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Nicholas Ray would go on to make some better movies but this one still holds a special place.