Film Review: The Big Heat (1953)

Release Date: October 14th, 1953
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Sydney Boehm
Based on: Saturday Evening Post serial and novel by William P. McGivern
Music by: Henry Vars
Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Lee Marvin

Columbia Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“Prisons are bulging with dummies who wonder how they got there.” – Mike Lagana

Fritz Lang has made several great movies that can be considered masterpieces or pretty close. The Big Heat is not his best but it is definitely one of his best. It also helped solidify Lang, in my mind, as one of the greatest directors that ever lived. Between this film, MMetropolisThe Woman In the WindowScarlet Street and those Dr. Mabuse movies, Fritz Lang has one of the greatest oeuvres of any director that ever lived. Plus there are roughly two dozen other pictures I didn’t mention.

The Big Heat has some pretty brutal moments, even for film-noir. For instance, at one point, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone throws a pot of boiling coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh, which scars her horribly. Grahame plays her last few scenes with half her face disfigured like a hot blonde female version of the Batman villain Two-Face. It’s a frightening sight, especially for a woman that exudes beauty in a time when movies were all pretty much PG.

The film’s plot is almost like a proto-Punisher story. The main character, Glenn Ford’s Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion, is trying to stop the mob stronghold on his city and its infiltration into his police force but his wife is murdered with a car bomb meant for him. Bannion sends his daughter off to the in-laws house, throws his badge away and becomes a one man revenge spree against the mob that stole his life from him. Needless to say, this movie is intense and man, is it damn good.

Lee Marvin is incredible as Vince Stone, a mob boss that is truly evil to his core. I’ve loved Marvin forever, but this has to be my favorite role of his now. The man is sadistic and Marvin plays the part to perfection with an air of darkness and a confidence that makes you wonder what dark places the actor has been to. Villains and heavies didn’t usually win acting awards back in the old days but Marvin put in a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Jocelyn Brando played Bannion’s wife and her scenes with Ford were really good. You felt a sense of chemistry that only magnified the impact of her horrible death. I think she was a more capable actress than the small and scant roles she usually got, mostly on television.

The Big Heat wasn’t high up on my radar when I started delving deep into noir to celebrate Noirvember. When I saw that it was directed by Lang, had an 8.0 on IMDb and was well regarded by critics, I had to squeeze it in before the month ran out. I’m glad I did, as this is one of the most memorable film-noirs that I have watched out of the hundred or so I’ve seen over the past month.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Release Date: March 27th, 1953 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Charles Hoffman
Based on: Gardenia a short story by Vera Caspary
Music by: Raoul Kraushaar
Cast: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr, Nat King Cole, George Reeves

Blue Gardenia Productions, Warner Bros., 88 Minutes

Review:

“How about you slip into something more comfortable, like a few drinks and some chinese food.” – Harry Prebble

Man, Raymond Burr is in so many noir pictures. I really enjoyed him in this one, even if he does meet a quick end, being the murdered victim that sets the story in motion. Regardless, it was nice seeing him not play the evil heavy for once.

The star here though, is Anne Baxter, an actress who I am really starting to appreciate more, as I discover a lot of her old films. When I was younger, I really only knew her as Egghead’s (Vincent Price) criminal girlfriend Olga, Queen of the Cossacks on the 1960s Batman television series.

She also shares a lot of time on screen with Richard Conte, a guy I like, who shows off his charisma in this. You also get a small part by Superman himself, George Reeves, and a musical cameo by Nat King Cole.

The film is directed by the magnificent Fritz Lang and even though it goes to serious and dark places, it isn’t a film devoid of lightheartedness and plays like a comedy, at times. The opening of the film is quirky, as we see the life of Anne Baxter’s Norah and her roommates.

In this film, Norah is dumped by her G.I. boyfriend through a letter. She then decides to go out with the flirtatious Harry Prebble. They have a good time, she ends up at his home and later wakes up hungover. However, during her blackout, Harry was murdered. Norah is the prime suspect as some of her personal effects were left behind in Harry’s apartment. She has no memory of what happened but we’re pretty sure she didn’t do it. The rest of the film follows her on the run, trying to get help from a media personality (Conte) and evading the police until everything is properly sorted out.

This isn’t a noir with a lot of twists but it has just enough to keep things interesting. Noir pictures could often times get over complicated and convoluted but this is almost like noir light.

The Blue Gardenia is a fun movie. Sure, it’s dark and it involves murder but it doesn’t become as dreary as the cinematic style typically suggests. And maybe, by 1953, Fritz Lang was tired of doom and gloom and wanted to craft something a little more upbeat and playful.

Rating: 7/10

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: M (1931)

Also known as: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, lit. M – A city looks for a murderer (Germany)
Release Date: May 11th, 1931 (Germany)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, Karl Vash
Based on: a newspaper article by Egon Jacobson
Music by: Edvard Grieg
Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Gründgens

Nero-Film A.G., Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH, Paramount Pictures, 111 Minutes

Review:

“Just you wait, it won’t be long, The man in black will soon be here, With his cleaver’s blade so true, He’ll make mincemeat out of you!” – nursery rhyme in the film (translated from German)

I had heard great things about Fritz Lang’s M for years. In fact, the director even stated that this was his best film. I thought Metropolis would be incredibly hard to top but Lang is right, M is his magnum opus.

As a person that has seen thousands of movies, it is very rare that I see something that is so chilling that it has a pretty profound effect on my senses. M is one of those very rare experiences.

I understood what M was, going into it, but it went into unforeseen territory and really peeks into urban Germany society, just a few years before the Nazis rose to power. Some of the things in this film unknowingly foreshadowed a looming darkness that was bigger than this picture. It is something that is hard to explain but the last ten minutes or so, show a German society on the brink of extreme anxiety, unrest and anarchy. While I don’t think that was Lang’s intention, as it would be hard to predict what would happen after 1931, he was a man in that country, affected by the societal issues and political narratives around him.

M is a German movie that came out a whole decade before film-noir became a cinematic style in the United States. However, M is very much noir in style and in its narrative.

Noir borrowed its lighting techniques and general cinematography style from German Expressionist films, an artistic movement that Fritz Lang was a key part of. Lang would also be a prominent director in the noir style after leaving Germany for Hollywood, in an effort to escape the Nazis. M is a perfect bridge between the two cinematic styles and is comparable to the missing link in human evolution.

The plot of the film is about a serial killer of children and the manhunt to catch him. Not only are the police trying to find the killer but the criminal underworld and the citizens of Berlin are looking for him too.

Peter Lorre plays the killer. I have been a massive Lorre fan since first seeing him alongside Vincent Price in several of those 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman. Lorre is a great actor, has a great range and has always delivered. However, never have I seen Lorre put in a better performance than what I saw here, in M. While this is a German film and has German dialogue, Lorre’s performance is not lost in translation or effected by the reading of subtitles. As horrible and as evil as his character is, he is still able to generate some form of empathy. His display of despair and panic is intense and transcends the picture. When you get to the powerful ending of the film, he shines like a supernova.

Fritz Lang was a true auteur with a skill set that was mostly unmatched in 1931. This was his first picture with sound and he made the transition as perfect as humanly possible. This is a film that was as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers in his prime, a few decades later. In fact, Lang was sort of the prototype to styles that would become synonymous with Hitchcock and film-noir in general. It is damn near impossible to question the director’s greatness after seeing M.

And while many might not consider it specifically film-noir, it is a grandfather to what was to come in motion pictures. It was a film ahead of its time and it is a lot darker than what American audiences were used to. Of course, World War II would change all of that.

M is a true time capsule that displays Germany’s societal paranoia just before Hitler was elected to power.

Rating: 10/10