Film Review: The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Release Date: April 16th, 1946 (Baltimore premiere)
Directed by: George Marshall
Written by: Raymond Chandler
Music by: Victor Young (uncredited)
Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling

Paramount Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Just don’t get too complicated, Eddie. When a man gets too complicated, he’s unhappy. And when he’s unhappy, his luck runs out.” – Leo

While not the first film to pair up Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, this is probably the most famous one and the one that is considered the best. Although, I’d say that I like This Gun For Hire quite a bit more. I still haven’t seen their earliest film, The Glass Key, but I plan to watch it within the week.

The plot of the film revolves around an ex-serviceman, Johnny, who is wanted for the murder of his wife, who he had a severe falling out with once returning home from World War II. He finds out that she killed their son while driving drunk and that she has been having an affair with the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub. During their argument, Johnny pulls a gun on his wife but doesn’t use it. However, a witness saw this so when she is killed after Johnny leaves, he is the prime suspect.

In typical noir fashion, the rest of the film follows Johnny trying to clear his name while also trying to discover who the killer is.

The film is written by Raymond Chandler, who is probably known more for the film adaptations of his crime novels than his actual screenwriting but the story here is on par with his others and the dialogue is pretty well written. But it’s the talents of Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, as well as the smaller parts of Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva that gave the script real life. But I also can’t discount George Marshall’s direction.

The cinematography is decent but nothing extraordinary. Paramount made good looking noir pictures but they lack the visual panache of the noirs put out by RKO. But no one knew what film-noir was when they were making these films and the cinematography feels more like the crew sticking to Paramount’s tightly controlled standard than actually trying to give this some artistic flourish.

The Blue Dahlia is a beloved film for most noir lovers. I definitely enjoyed it but I can’t really put it in the upper echelon of the style’s best pictures.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures pairing Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Film Review: The Lost Weekend (1945)

Release Date: October 5th, 1945 (London premiere)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Based on: The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson
Music by: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling

Paramount Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does it do to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. Extremely competent! I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile, Nat. The Nile and down into the barge of Cleopatra.” – Don Birnam

I watched The Lost Weekend, as it has been highly praised by a lot of the books I’ve read on film-noir. It also won four Academy Awards including Best Picture. I think the thing that really sold it to me, though, was that it is a noir directed by Billy Wilder, the man behind Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. It also stars the great Ray Milland, who won an Academy Award for this role.

Now this isn’t a standard noir. It doesn’t feature criminals, innocent guys in over their head or a femme fatale. What it does feature is a remarkable actor playing a drunk writer, fighting his personal demons, trying to salvage his relationship with the love of his life and trying to get back to work without the demon bottle’s stranglehold over his very being.

The main reason why this film works so well is Milland’s performance. But I also have to give credit to some of the other players like Howard Da Silva and Phillip Terry. But it is Jane Wyman that really delights and who actually makes the romantic scenes flourish. She plays exceptionally well off of Milland and truly feels like his equal in the film.

I obviously can’t discount Billy Wilder’s direction. The man was a maestro behind the camera and he gave us a pretty fine tuned and fabulous looking motion picture.

While this is far from my favorite film-noir and it is only third on my list of Billy Wilder’s noir outings, it is still a solid movie that’s entertaining and a bit heartbreaking to watch at times, as Milland wears self-destruction so well.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures by Billy Wilder or starring Ray Milland.

Film Review: M (1951)

Release Date: March, 1951
Directed by: Joseph Losey
Written by: Norman Reilly Raine, Leo Katcher, Waldo Salt (additional dialogue)
Music by: Michel Michelet
Cast: David Wayne, Howard Da Silva, Luther Adler, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus

Superior Pictures, Columbia Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Ordinarily you look for a dame or a bankbook, get a victim with known enemies, what do we got? Some missing shoes. What’re we looking for? A man with a twisted mind. Could be anybody.” – Inspector Carney

M is a film that never needed a remake. Fritz Lang’s 1931 original is a perfect film and even though it pre-dates film-noir by a decade, it is one of the absolute best films in that style. In fact, it’s a stylistic bridge between German Expressionism and the classic film-noir look of 1940s Hollywood.

However, the original M was a German film and its dialogue was in the German language. So with Hollywood being Hollywood, it was only a matter of time before there had to be an American adaptation.

This certainly pales in comparison to its German counterpart but it is still a very, very good classic film-noir.

One thing that gives this some real merit is in the cinematography and the shot framing. There are incredible shots in this film. The use of the City of Los Angeles, primarily the Bunker Hill neighborhood, is superb. Many of the shots have lots of depth and texture. The shot where the child killer and the little girl are running down the stairs is haunting and then there’s this other great shot of a guy sitting on a crooked bench on a hill with the city behind him, as the camera is positioned to shoot directly down the street in the background. Props to whoever scouted out some of these locations, as the city really is a character in this film. It’s also a real time capsule to a bygone era because Bunker Hill no longer exists and it was well represented in this picture.

Additionally, the shots within the Bradbury Building, which was used in a lot of movies, probably most famously Blade Runner, look fantastic. The Bradbury Building is almost always the star whenever it’s used and even though it is used sparingly in this film, man, does it really feel alive in this.

The acting is also great. The evil child killer in the film is played by David Wayne, who I mostly know as the Mad Hatter from the ’60s Batman TV show. Now his performance is nowhere near the level of Peter Lorre’s, who played the same role in the original German version, but he is convincing as hell and pretty damn stellar in this. His speech at the end is incredible and emotional. I also really enjoyed Howard Da Silva, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus.

To be frank, this is not a movie that probably needed to be made but it justifies its own existence and is still a superb motion picture. That being said, the original M is, in my opinion, impossible to top. But this finds a way to stand on its own two feet and it was well crafted and better than it deserved to be.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: the original, superior 1931 Fritz Lang version of M, The Prowler and Footsteps In the Night.

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: 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.