Film Review: The Set-Up (1949)

Also known as: Knock-Out (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)
Release Date: March 29th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Art Cohn
Based on: a poem by Joseph Moncure March
Music by: C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.” – Tiny

There is one film-noir that keeps coming up in almost every book I’ve read on the subject. Sure, all the really famous ones come up all the time but as far as little known ones that modern audiences have forgotten, this is one that is almost always mentioned and with a lot of adoration by the genre experts.

I finally got around to watching it, after I had tried for a few years but never found it streaming unless I wanted to buy it. You can rent it now on Prime but honestly, after seeing it, I’m probably going to break down and buy it on Blu-ray.

The Set-Up is not only a superb film-noir but it is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest boxing movies ever made.

There really isn’t anything negative to harp on. From the acting, the story, the direction and the cinematography, this is an incredible motion picture that transcends the screen and feels like something real, something lived in and it will connect with anyone who has ever faced adversity when it comes to one’s pride.

Robert Ryan is perfection as an aged boxer, on his last legs but still needing to fight for everything. He’s trapped by circumstance and his lack of being able to do anything other than fighting. While it’s a character trait that is pretty common in boxing stories, Ryan truly makes you believe it in a way no other actor has apart from Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

This story may also seem all too familiar, as well, in that it is about a boxer told to throw a fight but his pride and his purity won’t allow him to quit just because someone tells him to. It’s admirable and it’s stupid because we all know how these things tend to go. Especially for an honest guy that just wants to get home safely to the love of his life.

Apart from the compelling story, which is really a character study, the film employs some stupendous cinematography and knows how to tell its story visually.

The boxing scenes are well shot, well lit and the action looks authentic. Even the opening credits sequence, which just features the dancing feet of boxers locked in fisticuffs is a thing of absolute cinematic beauty.

What really grabbed my attention the most, however, was the alley scene at the end of the film. The boxer tries to evade the gangsters that mean to do him harm but he gets caught coming out of the back alley behind the arena and is then backed into a corner by several men that are determined to teach him a severe lesson.

This scene is so dynamic due to the high contrast chiaroscuro presentation, as well as its use of silhouettes and textures. Everything looks brooding and ominous, as it should in that moment. The real money shot is when you see Robert Ryan with his back against a closed garage door in one-point perspective. The use of lighting and shadows here is perfection. And it’s the moment when the dread Ryan is experiencing really grabs you.

The Set-Up is such a simple yet rich motion picture. It’s a story we’ve all seen before but from the perspective of visual storytelling, it’s never been done this well.

For film-noir fans that haven’t yet seen this picture, you probably should. It’s a scant 73 minutes but in that short time, it does more than most films double that length.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Champion, another film-noir that takes place in the boxing world and came out the same year as this.

Film Review: Border Incident (1949)

Also known as: Border Patrol, Wetbacks (working titles)
Release Date: October 28th, 1949
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: John C. Higgins, George Zuckerman
Music by: Andre Previn
Cast: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Charles McGraw

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 94 Minutes

Review:

“What is cheaper than time, señor? Everybody has the same amount.” – Zopilote

This isn’t my favorite film-noir by Anthony Mann but it is still a quality film that rivals his other ones.

A very young Ricardo Montalban is the star here, and man, he shines like a supernova and really carries this badass movie on his shoulders.

What’s unique about this, is that it takes place on the Mexican border and was mostly filmed in the wilderness in the desert areas of Southern California and the northern portion of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. The location shooting made this majestic and added some gravitas to the already heavy and serious proceedings.

The plot is about a gang that smuggles Mexican farm workers across the border into California. The gang ends up killing the immigrants, which leads to federal investigators going undercover to destroy the gang. With typical noir twists, the agents end up having to fight the gang leader for their own survival.

Montalban and George Murphy were both superb as the agents seeking justice, while Howard Da Silva was a perfect, sinister heavy, out for their blood.

The film is certainly intense and it has a gritty realism to it, even for its time, where many big studio motion pictures had a lot of visual luster and prestige. But Mann was perfect at achieving his vision in a time where his stylistic choices weren’t common.

Border Incident has stupendous cinematography and lighting. Mann was a master of mise-en-scène and this motion picture is just further proof of that. The use of natural lighting was especially impressive in the outdoor scenes. Mann knew how to manufacture doom and gloom, visually.

I really liked this film and I believe that is the last of Mann’s noir pictures for me to review. That’s kind of sad and I put this one off for awhile because of that.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Anthony Mann film-noir pictures: T-Men, Desperate, He Walked by Night, Raw Deal and Side Street.

Film Review: Too Late for Tears (1949)

Also known as: Killer Bait (reissue title)
Release Date: July 17th, 1949 (Hollywood premiere)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Roy Huggins
Based on: Too Late for Tears by Roy Huggins
Music by: R. Dale Butts
Cast: Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy

Hunt Stromberg Productions, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.” – Danny Fuller

This was a film that was lost for decades but was recently restored by The Noir Foundation.

It stars two noir greats: Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea.

That being said, the performances are damn good. Lizabeth Scott is, by far, one of my favorite femme fatales and Dan Duryea is just a perfect noir heavy.

The story starts with a couple driving through the Hollywood Hills at night. They stop during an argument and a car speeding by literally throws a bag of money at them. They take the bag, just as another car approaches them, obviously on the hunt for the cash. They get away with the money but the greed overcomes the woman, who spends the rest of the film succumbing to her greed and destroying anything in the way of that greed.

It’s not a greatly conceived plot but it works for the heyday of film-noir.

The film really is carried by the performances of Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea. In fact, it suffers a bit once Duryea is killed off.

Still, the cinematography was good and the direction was solid.

This wasn’t the best outing for either star but it was fun seeing them together and their chemistry worked.

Also, it is great seeing films like this restored, after being missing or incomplete for years. I always look forward to seeing films resurrected for modern audiences, whether they are good, bad or somewhere in between.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures with Lizabeth Scott: Pitfall, Dead Reckoning, Desert Fury, Dark City, The Racket and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

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: White Heat (1949)

Release Date: September 2nd, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts
Based on: White Heat by Virginia Kellogg
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran

Warner Bros., 114 Minutes

Review:

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” – Cody Jarrett

White Heat takes the gangster genre that made James Cagney famous and marries it to the film-noir style of the 1940s with absolute perfection. Sure, there are a lot of noir movies with gangsters in them but none quite hit the perfect note like this motion picture, a true triumph for all parties involved in its creation and execution.

Having just revisited this after several years, I can’t think of any other actors that could have captured their characters as well as the top three billed stars here.

James Cagney, as great as he was before this, has never been better as a sadistic gangster. It’s as if everything before this movie was training, prepping him for the role of a lifetime and while this might not be his most famous picture, it is my personal favorite and it also comes with the most famous line he ever spoke. He was scary, calculating and had this sort of reptilian body language that kept you on edge, not knowing what and how he was going to react to anything.

Virginia Mayo was an incredible femme fatale in this and while she may at first seem pretty text book, she just has this extra edge to her that pushes her to the forefront of the noir style, as one of the absolute best women to ever exude evilness on the silver screen.

Edmond O’Brien hit all the right notes as the undercover cop sent into prison to infiltrate the gang of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. He was convincing on both sides of the coin, as a noble cop and a loyal gangster, winning over Jarrett’s trust.

While Raoul Walsh is a stupendous director, he had great help from the script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. While I haven’t read the original Virginia Kellogg novel, the duo of Goff and Roberts really crafted a script that moved at a great pace and had several layers worked in, adding more luster and depth to the narrative, as well as fantastic dialogue and intense action scenes that were better than what was the Hollywood norm in the late ’40s. I love the whole sequence towards the end with the police radio cars and the cops using the big map to pinpoint Jarrett’s location before the big finale.

Walsh also benefited for having the right people for the right job in regards to the cinematography. He had Sidney Hickox at his side, who by 1949 already boasted over three decades worth of cinematography experience. Coming into White Heat, he already had some solid credits to his name with his work on To Have and Have NotThe Big SleepAll Through the Night and Dark Passage. Being one of the top visual architects of the noir style, Hickox’s work here was no different. The scenes in Jarrett’s jail cell, the prison factory and the big finale all look majestic and are clear examples of how visually magical Hollywood was at the time.

I also can’t ignore the score of Max Steiner, one of the heavyweights of the era. He worked in mellow and melodic tunes in the lighter scenes but went with some real intensity with the bigger action sequences. Steiner could generate a lot of musical flare and his work here added more tension to the biggest scenes in the movie.

White Heat is pretty much a perfect film that has aged incredibly well and is fast paced enough that it will probably resonate with the attention deficit audiences of today, assuming they can put their phones down for more than fifteen seconds. This comes in at just under two hours but it uses that time well and is actually a great character study of Cagney’s Jarrett character, his ticks and his skewed world view.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Cagney’s original claim to fame Public Enemy, as well as Angels With Dirty Faces, ‘G’ MenThe Asphalt JungleThe Big Heat and Smart Money.

Film Review: Scene of the Crime (1949)

Release Date: July 28th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Roy Rowland
Written by: Charles Schnee
Based on: the article Smashing the Bookie Gang Marauders by John Barltow Martin
Music by: Andre Previn
Cast: Van Johnson, Arlene Dahl, Gloria DeHaven, Tom Drake

Loew’s Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 94 Minutes

Review:

“I’m no Humphrey Bogart. He gets slugged and he’s ready for action; I get slugged and I’m ready for pickling.” – P.J. Pontiac

I like Van Johnson. Seeing him in a film-noir is a treat. Although, this was his only one, as MGM put him back into comedies and musicals because they didn’t feel that the public could buy Johnson as a harder, more serious character. Honestly, I don’t think that he’s unconvincing here but this really isn’t his normal forte.

Additionally, being that this was put out by MGM, was a rare thing, as they didn’t really care about making crime pictures like a lot of the other studios. However, in 1949, after a change of the guard, MGM went crime heavy and thus, created some memorable films that embody the noir style.

While this fits within the stlye, it is less noir and more like a simple police crime drama. It lacks the gravitas of most noir pictures and the ride isn’t as turbulent or shocking. But it was still a good attempt at MGM trying to contribute to a trend that they tried to work around for the majority of the ’40s.

This film deals with a detective investigating the death of a fellow detective, who was apparently working security for a bookie on the side. He uncovers that something larger is afoot, as all the bookies in town are being robbed. He must traverse through the noir styled twists and turns of the criminal underworld while trying to balance his personal life.

I thought that the film was pretty average overall. It’s far from incredible and hardly memorable in a vast sea of 1940s film-noir and crime dramas but it was still entertaining and engaging.

The acting was mostly good, the direction was above par but the cinematography and look of the film were pretty standard.

Still, it was cool seeing a great talent like Van Johnson get to stretch his legs and do something else for 94 minutes.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: He Walked by NightRaw DealSide Street and T-Men.