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: 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: 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

Film Review: The Stranger (1946)

Release Date: July 2nd, 1946 (Los Angeles, Salt Lake City)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Anthony Veiller, Decla Dunning, Victor Trivas, John Huston (uncredited), Orson Welles (uncredited)
Music by: Bronislaw Kaper
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles

International Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“The German sees himself as the innocent victim of world envy and hatred, conspired against, set upon by inferior peoples, inferior nations. He cannot admit to error, much less to wrongdoing, not the German. We chose to ignore Ethiopia and Spain, but we learned from our own casualty list the price of looking the other way. Men of truth everwhere have come to know for whom the bell tolled, but not the German. No! He still follows his warrior gods marching to Wagnerian strains, his eyes still fixed upon the firey sword of Siegfried, and he knows subterranean meeting places that you don’t believe in. The German’s dream world comes alive when he takes his place in shining armor beneath the banners of the Teutonic knights. Mankind is waiting for the Messiah, but for the German, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace. No, he’s… another Barbarossa… another Hitler.” – Professor Charles Rankin

While not Orson Welles best picture, The Stranger is still better than the vast majority of films throughout history. The thing is, Welles made a dozen or so pictures and they couldn’t all be perfect. The Stranger is not perfect but it is a magnificent work of art. Besides, if you were to rank the auteur’s films, something would have to be towards the bottom, no matter how great all his films are.

Plus, this movie puts Orson Welles together with the great Edward G. Robinson, two of my favorite actors from their era. Joining them is the beautiful and alluring Loretta Young, who seems overshadowed by her male counterparts but is able to hold her own alongside them. She has moments where she truly shines between two of the iconic faces of a film-noir Mount Rushmore.

In a nutshell, the film follows a war crimes investigator (Robinson) who is tracking a high-ranking Nazi fugitive (Welles). This hunt leads the investigator to a small New England town where these two are pitted against one another with Loretta Young’s character caught in the middle, as she is about to marry a prep school teacher, secretly the Nazi.

The film is notable as it was the first to feature documentary footage of the Holocaust. This was done in an effort to create realism and to add weight to the evil nature of the Nazi character. While it was a technique that shocked audiences and caused a stir, the film went on to be highly respected and was nominated for an Academy Award for Victor Trivas’ original story.

Despite being in the lower echelon of Welles’ directorial work, The Stranger was the only film that he made that was an immediate success upon its release. It more than doubled its production costs in six months and tripled them in about a year.

Today, the film is highly regarded by many modern critics and holds a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with a 7.4 on IMDb.

From a visual standpoint, the film utilizes the high contrast style of Welles and the film-noir genre. It has a very lived in feel and a strange majestic beauty with its dark colors and silvery highlights. The final sequence in the clock tower is one of my favorite finales to any film and the demise of the villain is brilliant and incredibly poetic. It was also a pretty ingenious turn, how he meets his doom.

The Stranger is a film that I truly love but it is hard not to love the work of Orson Welles if you are a real fan of motion pictures as art.

Film Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Release Date: April 24th, 1944
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
Based on: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, John Philliber

Paramount Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

Thanks to Flashback Cinema, I got to see this classic film noir Academy Award winner on the big screen. I had actually never seen it, so it was cool experiencing it in its intended format while viewing it for the first time.

The story sees an insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and a black widow femme fatale type Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) conspire to fraudulently take out an accident insurance policy on her husband and to then murder him, taking advantage of the double indemnity clause to double their money. There are a lot of twists and turns and if anything, this film builds a lot of suspense, as you never really know how it will pan out, even though Neff starts the film by recording his confession for his boss at the insurance company.

The film is told as a flashback, as Neff recalls, in full detail, all the events that led him to his confession. It goes through his sinister plan with a fine tooth comb and shows how he adapts to the changing situations. Eventually, we learn the true nature of both of our main characters, as they are seemingly pitted against one another. Paranoia and new conspiracies arise and, as can be expected with how the film starts, things go really south.

The plot was well written, well paced and executed on screen almost flawlessly. No stone was left unturned and it was intelligently crafted, leaving no room for any glaring plot holes.

The use of contrast and lighting in the film was stellar. It certainly had the standard noir look but the stylistic flourishes such as the Spanish style home of the Dietrichsons and the insurance office added a lot of depth and character to the picture.

The acting was absolutely fantastic across the board. MacMurray and Stanwyck had an uncanny chemistry. Jean Heather was sweet, innocent and lovable. Tom Powers, as Mr. Dietrichson, had the right balance of being a curmudgeon and a jerk but not so much so that, as a spectator, you couldn’t justify his murder. The show stealer however, was Edward G. Robinson as Neff’s boss Barton Keyes. Robinson was the brightest spot in this starlit motion picture.

Double Indemnity is a fine film in every regard. I’ve liked the work of Billy Wilder my whole life and this picture just adds more credibility to his massive and incredible oeuvre.