Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.

Film Review: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Also known as: Hot Spot (working title)
Release Date: October 31st, 1941
Directed by: H. Bruce Humberstone
Written by: Dwight Taylor, Steve Fisher
Based on: I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar, Elisha Cook Jr.

20th Century Fox, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” – Ed Cornell

Coming out in 1941, this was a film slightly ahead of its time. Film-noir really hadn’t taken off yet but this certainly fits within the framework of the style in both the narrative and visual aspects.

There is a murder of a rising starlet. The situation pulls in her sister, her former manager and everyone else that floated within her orbit. There’s even a hulking cop that takes tremendous liberties with his job in an effort to try and pin the crime on the former manager.

This picture’s plot is well structured and it’s not an easy one to figure out. One line of dialogue tipped me off to who the killer was but I still wasn’t sure and even that was followed by a lot of twists.

The film was really carried by the acting talents of both Betty Grable and Victor Mature, a guy whose work I always want to see more of. I really loved both actors in this and Mature was superb at coming off as a bit sleazy in the beginning but slowly evolving into a lovable and romantic hero.

Carole Landis was also great as the sister who ends up murdered. While I think that Grable was definitely the show stealer, Landis held her own and to be frank, the two ladies are absolutely gorgeous in that old school Hollywood way that will just never exist again.

The film was directed by veteran H. Bruce Humberstone, who wouldn’t do much in the noir genre after this but certainly made his mark with this picture. He had a great eye for mise-en-scène and also had the help of cinematographer Edward Cronjager, who would go on to do the noir picture Desert Fury, as well as some notable westerns. But Cronjager also had dozens of pictures to his credit before this one. In fact, he was one of the more prolific directors of photography in his day with 117 credits.

The only thing that works against the film is the score, as a lot of the music is recycled from other films. There’s even different instrumental versions of “Over the Rainbow” sprinkled throughout the picture, which just felt strange and out of place. But that song predates The Wizard of Oz even.

I Wake Up Screaming definitely had an impact, even if it’s not so well known today. It was remade in 1953 as Vicki, which wasn’t as good as this but was still pretty solid.

This is an underrated film that probably should have a bigger light shown on it. Solid work by everyone working on it at every level, minus the score.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other noir pictures: The Glass KeyThe Blue Dahlia and This Gun for Hire.

Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

Release Date: August 16th, 1940
Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos, Nathanael West (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr.

RKO Radio Pictures, 62 Minutes, 67 Minutes (longer cut)

Review:

“I want a couple of hamburgers… and I’d like them raw.” – The Stranger

Stranger On the Third Floor is a film-noir released a year before the experts say that the genre/style began. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered the first, even though it isn’t. But like that film, this one also features the remarkable Peter Lorre.

Maybe Stranger On the Third Floor isn’t considered “the first” noir because it came and went without making much of a bang. It was a low budget, short, crime drama that didn’t boast any big stars. Lorre certainly wasn’t the legend he would become and even though it did have Elisha Cook Jr., who also appeared a year later in The Maltese Falcon, he was never more than a character actor that popped up in mostly limited roles.

Stranger On the Third Floor has come to garner some respect and admiration over the years, however. Once film-noir was sort of defined and the date of its genesis was given to 1941, many film aficionados wanted to go back and look for the films that influenced the style. Sort of proto-noir pictures, if you want to call them that. Funny that Lorre was at the forefront of two of these proto-noirs: this film and 1931’s German masterpiece M. I guess his film with Hitchcock, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also shares some similarities to the style.

There are two really strong things about this picture.

The first is Peter Lorre’s performance. Sure, it’s similar to his other early roles and almost the same as his character from M, well not the child killer part, but the killer part, along with the mannerisms, the predatory movements and his icy glare. Lorre isn’t an actor that needs to say much of anything, he conveys things through his eyes and his body language that is as expressive as the greatest silent film era stars. That moment where Lorre opens the apartment door and slithers out like a reptile is chilling to the bone, even 78 years later.

The second is the cinematography. The lighting and the camera work are both exceptional. The film uses a lot of shadow in the same vein as the look of darker German Expressionist films. Although, the rest of the visuals aren’t all that surreal. But the high contrast chiaroscuro look gives the picture a haunting quality and it seems to most come alive in the scenes surrounding Lorre’s character, as the rest of the film looks pretty standard where he isn’t present. Well, except for that execution dream sequence that is a combination of surrealism, Expressionism and minimalist set design: all used to great effect.

The finale of the film plays more like a horror picture in how Lorre carries himself, how the film builds tension and dread, as well as those final moments before the killer meets his demise and that last line he delivers. In a way, the film shows a sort of link between Expressionism, horror and noir.

Stranger On the Third Floor is a unique motion picture that was more trendsetting than its lack of initial success would have you believe. Even if it didn’t inspire most noir directors of the era, it featured a lot of people, behind the scenes, that would go on to create the worlds of more notable film-noirs.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir-esque movies with Peter Lorre: MThe Maltese FalconThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThree StrangersBlack Angel and Quicksand.

Film Review: Blacula (1972)

Release Date: August 25th, 1972
Directed by: William Crain
Written by: Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig
Music by: Gene Page
Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Thalmus Rasulala, Elisha Cook Jr.

American International Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You shall pay, black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be… Blacula! ” – Dracula

Most people don’t seem to know that William Marshall was a damn good opera singer. However, Blacula is still what he is most known for. That’s cool though, because Blacula is an awesome mashup of blaxploitation and classic horror.

In this film, we see an African prince and his bride go to Dracula’s castle to convince him to help in stopping slavery. Dracula laughs this off and makes jokes about enslaving the prince’s wife. Eventually a scuffle breaks out and Dracula turns the prince into a vampire. A few hundred years later, the prince’s casket is sold to this gay couple from Los Angeles. They bring it home and inadvertently unleash Blacula on the city. It doesn’t take long, however, for Blacula to discover a woman that is the spitting image of his long dead wife. He falls head over heels in love with her and after some time, she feels the same way.

Other than Marshall, the film stars Vonetta McGee as the apple of his eye. McGee was in a ton of blaxploitation films and has had a pretty good career because of how prominent she was in B-movies in the 1970s. There is also Thalmus Rasulala, who plays a doctor that suspects vampiric activity. Rasulala was in other blaxploitation films Cool BreezeWillie DynamiteBucktown and Friday Foster. He also starred alongside Dean Martin in his last leading film role, Mr. Ricco. Rasulala was also in RootsAbove the LawNew Jack City and a few other notable movies.

As a horror film, this fits well within the style of a typical American International offering from the early ’70s. Sure, it’s low budget but it’s the kind of low budget that has some style and substance to it. It’s a really good B-horror film with a decent cast and some hokey fun.

As a blaxploitation picture, the film is a little light. It has some political and social commentary but it is far from heavy handed and really just serves the purpose of setting up the film. After that, it just goes on to keep the film in a setting populated by mostly black characters. There are some club scenes and a hip urban ’70s vibe but ultimately, this falls more into being a horror film in the vein of AIP’s other offerings.

I really liked William Marshall in this role and Vonetta McGee is always great to see, as she knows how to hold her own and is just as tough as the men she used to share the screen with.

Blacula is just an enjoyable, cool, fun and entertaining film for its era.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Scream Blacula Scream, of course! I also like watching these paired with those two Count Yorga movies from the same era and also put out by American International.

Film Review: The Killing (1956)

Also known as: Bed of Fear, Clean Break, Day of Violence (working titles)
Release Date: May 19th, 1956 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson
Based on: Clean Break by Lionel White
Music by: Gerald Fried
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Joe Turkel

Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, United Artists, 85 Minutes

Review:

“You like money. You’ve got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.” – Johnny Clay

The Killing is one of the really early films in auteur director Stanley Kubrick’s long and storied oeuvre. It came out less than a year after his previous film and first attempt at film-noir, Killer’s Kiss. With similar titles and coming out around the same time, the two films may confuse people looking back into Kubrick’s filmography. Also, Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both noir pictures and presented in silvery black and white.

The Killing is the superior of the two pictures, however, and Killer’s Kiss feels like more of a practice run leading up to this damn fine motion picture, which boasts the star power of well known noir actors Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray and Elisha Cook Jr. Plus, Marie Windsor is perfection in her role.

The plot of this film is about a high stakes heist at a horse track. A team is assembled, a greedy femme fatale enters the mix and we get scheming, violence and chaos. And it is all capped off by the immense talent of Kubrick behind the camera and a stellar and more than capable cast in front of the camera.

The truth is, The Killing, as great as it is, has always been overshadowed by Kubrick’s more famous pictures: 2001: A Space OdysseyThe ShiningA Clockwork OrangeDr. StrangeloveLolitaFull Metal Jacket, etc. The Killing is a top notch crime thriller and true to the film-noir style, even coming out late in the style’s classic run through the 1940s and 1950s. It is one of the best heist pictures ever made and like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, it helped create a lot of tropes used in heist pictures since its time.

Being a fan of Elisha Cook Jr. for years, I especially love this film because he gets a really meaty and pivotal role. He is one of the top character actors of his day, was in more noir pictures than I can count and even went on to some well-known westerns and popped up in a few Vincent Price horror movies. He really gets to display his acting chops in this and it is nice to see the guy’s range, as he was a more capable actor than one being relegated to playing background characters and bit players.

The Killing was an incredibly important film in the career of Stanley Kubrick, as it lead to bigger things. He would go on to do Paths of Glory and Spartacus and eventually start making more artistic films that changed the filmmaking landscape forever. The Killing was a big part of Kubrick’s evolution and thus, the evolution of motion pictures in general.

Rating: 9/10

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

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Also known as: The Gent From Frisco, The Knight of Malta (both were working titles)
Release Date: October 3rd, 1941 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston
Based on: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” – Sam Spade

I remember seeing the poster for The Maltese Falcon in a Hardee’s fast food restaurant near my house when I was a young kid. It was on a wall that was also decorated with posters from The African QueenCasablanca, Key Largo, The Big Sleep and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Whoever the franchise owner was, they must have been a big Bogart fan. Something about that Maltese Falcon poster just grabbed me though. I wouldn’t see the film until years later but I always remember eating breakfast in a dining room surrounded by Bogart’s manly mug.

As I got older, I too became a big fan of Humphrey Bogart. In fact, he is my favorite big wig actor alongside Orson Welles. The Maltese Falcon was also a film that drew me in and lived up to the hype of this poster that had a profound effect on me, as a kid just discovering his love of motion pictures.

The film features another actor I am a huge fan of, Peter Lorre. Seeing Bogart and Lorre together was a treat. While I was a fan of Lorre due to his later horror pictures, where he was often times playing opposite of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff or Basil Rathbone, seeing his work when he was younger, is still a lot of fun and he holds his own among the heavyweights.

The acting in this is some of the best put to celluloid but that is just about every Bogart picture. The guy just had an uncanny and almost magical way in which he commanded the audience’s attention and transcended the screen. With Lorre, their scenes in particular are some of the best in Bogart’s legendary career. Mary Astor, Gladys George and Sydney Greenstreet also add a certain level of quality to the picture. Elisha Cook Jr. also showed up with his best foot forward.

Most film-noir experts credit this picture for giving birth to this genre that no one realized was a genre for a few decades. It is distinctly noir in its twists and turns and its femme fatale. It uses a high contrast visual style, similar to what was seen in German Expressionist pictures of the 1920s. But there is just something pristine about this movie’s visual presentation. It has a silvery and majestic allure.

At the time of The Maltese Falcon‘s release, quality mystery films were most associated with British directors like Alfred Hitchcok and Carol Reed. This proved that Hollywood could hang with the genre and as was stated in the last paragraph, this was a film that birthed a storytelling and stylistic movement in American motion pictures.

Coming out the same year as Citizen Kane, these two films redefined how filmmaking techniques could evolve. Pictures would become more artistic and less straightforward. John Huston, like Orson Welles, gave the world something unique and new.

The Maltese Falcon is a near perfect picture. It falls short of Citizen Kane when looking at the best pictures of 1941 but in any other year, this could easily be the best film. It boasts technical prowess, dynamite acting and as cool as Bogart was, he was never as cool as he was here, as Sam Spade.