Film Review: High Sierra (1941)

Release Date: January 23rd, 1941 (Los Angeles, Louisville and Providence)
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Written by: John Huston, W.R. Burnett
Based on: High Sierra by W.R. Burnett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Willie Best

Warner Bros., 100 Minutes

Review:

“Of all the 14 karat saps… starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.” – Roy Earle

High Sierra came out just before The Maltese Falcon, which is one of the films from 1941 credited with the birth of the film-noir style. However, like a few other Humphrey Bogart crime pictures before it, High Sierra is very much film-noir.

The story sees an aged criminal named Roy Earle get out of prison, only to plan one big retirement job so that he can give himself a big nest egg before he hangs up his criminal ways for good. Along the way, he meets the young Velma and her family. Velma needs a surgery to give her back her mobility. Earle, falling for the young girl, has plans to do the job, pay for the girl’s surgery and then ride off together in the sunset. But a lot of curveballs are thrown and Ida Lupino’s Marie has her eye on Earle.

Even though Bogart plays a criminal, planning a big heist, he is a likable and charismatic character, often times acting with his hearty instead of his head. Watching the film, there is a part of me that felt that he was a character that could redeem himself by film’s end. But being that this is noir, bad things happen to people that don’t walk the straight and narrow.

The performances from all the main players were really good in this movie. Bogart and Lupino had fantastic chemistry and I feel as if the world should have seen them play off of each other more than what we got. I loved Lupino in this and Bogart was typical badass Bogart.

I also liked the dog that always tried to save the day and Willie Best’s character Algernon was a delight.

The movie has a sadness to it because you are pulling for Earle to make it out of this thing unscathed but you also know that it’s not possible.

The big standoff in the Sierras was really well shot and executed. Raoul Walsh was a fine director and his work here was no different. Also, he was working off of a script form John Huston, who would become a great filmmaker in his own right.

High Sierra is a very layered film with a lot of emotional depth from it’s two top players.

All in all, a great early film-noir with powerful leads and a good amount of energy and emotion in the big finale.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart noir and crime pictures: The Maltese FalconKey Largo, Dark Passage, etc.

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 Killers (1946)

Also known as: Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, A Man Alone
Release Date: August 28th, 1946
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, John Huston (uncredited)
Based on: Scribners Magazine short story The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Garner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.” – Big Jim Colfax

In the 1940s, Robert Siodmak made some of the most memorable film-noir motion pictures. The Killers is considered to not just be one of Siodmak’s best but one of the best films of the noir style and of the decade.

The Killers is really high up on a lot of the noir lists I have looked at from top critics, blogs, books and magazines. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I wouldn’t say that it was my favorite Siodmak noir, as of now, that honor goes to Criss Cross. However, I still haven’t seen Phantom Lady or The Dark Mirror yet.

I have enjoyed Siodmak’s work for a long time but as a kid it was primarily in the form of Son of Dracula and The Crimson Pirate. I was much more into horror and swashbuckling back then but my experience with those films had me enthused when I realized that the guy who directed both of those films, had a handful of noir movies wedged between them.

This film stars Burt Lancaster, a regular of Siodmak. This was also his debut on the big screen and for a first time performance, Lancaster knocks it out of the park. He was teamed with film-noir regulars Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levene. However, it was his scenes with the elegant and fascinating Ava Gardner that helped to set this guy’s career on a long and fruitful career that saw four Academy Award nominations and a win for his part in Elmer Gantry.

The Killers is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. However, the Hemingway story only really comprises the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, which shows the contract killers arrive and murder Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” Anderson. Where the film begins to follow Edmond O’Brien’s Jim Reardon, as he investigates the murder, the plot is wholly original and works as an expansion on Hemingway’s story. It was said, by Hemingway’s biographer, that The Killers “was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.” John Huston, also an accomplished film-noir director, contributed to the script. He wasn’t originally credited for his contribution due to his contract with rival studio, Warner Bros.

With crime dramas running rampant in the 1940s, this is one that wasn’t a cliché on celluloid. While I love film-noir and I honestly have a hard time trying to find truly bad ones, sometimes the rehash of tropes, over and over and over again, can get mundane. The Killers, like Siodmak’s Criss Cross, is one of the films that lifts the cinematic style to a higher level. Plus, with a score composed by Miklós Rózsa, you can expect a lot of energy, excitement and a real soul within the film.

I love The Killers, it is hard to deny its greatness between the solid direction, iconic performances and its pristine look.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Release Date: June 1st, 1950
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: Ben Maddow, John Huston
Based on: The Asphalt Jungle by W. R. Burnett
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Caruso, Strother Martin (uncredited)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 112 Minutes

Review:

“One way or another, we all work for our vice.” – Doc Riedenschneider

John Huston was a true maestro of film-noir. Sure, he made some other great films but there was just something special about his work on The Maltese FalconKey Largo and this, the grittiest and ballsiest of his noir pictures.

The Asphalt Jungle is a heist movie but it is so much more than that. However, the heist itself is a stellar sequence that probably went on to inspire just about every good cinematic heist after it. It takes its time, builds suspense and created a lot of the tropes associated with the heist genre.

The film also makes an immediate impact, thanks to the powerful opening theme by Miklós Rózsa, who really knew how to set the tone with all the film-noir movies he scored. The music is great throughout the entire picture and creates the type of mood needed to audibly enhance this gritty and tense film.

The cinematography was handled by Harold Rosson and was done in great contrast to his opulent and colorful fantasy world seen in The Wizard of Oz. And like Oz, this film got Rosson an Academy Award nomination. However, he was no stranger to nominations, as he also received the same honors for Boom TownThirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Bad Seed. Before all those nominations, however, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his color cinematography in 1936’s The Garden of Allah, which was only the fifth film in history to be photographed in Three-strip Technicolor.

Needless to say, Rosson was an accomplished cinematographer, ahead of his time, and he captured things on this film, along with Huston’s direction, that showcased a real technical prowess and an ability to create more dynamic scenes with less shots and more natural and fluid motion between characters and their environments.

Sterling Hayden has a strong presence and we get to spend some time with Jean Hagen and a young Marilyn Monroe, who was on the verge of superstardom. Character actor Strother Martin even pops up in this.

This is an incredible film-noir to look at. It takes risks but it really is art in the highest sense in how it all comes together: a perfect storm and an amazingly woven tapestry. There are a lot of interesting characters, twist and turns and there aren’t any real faults to pick apart.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: Chinatown (1974)

Release Date: June 20th, 1974
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Robert Towne
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston, Diane Ladd, Bruce Glover, James Hong

Paramount-Penthouse, Long Road Productions, Robert Evans Company, Paramount Pictures, 131 Minutes

Review:

“What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.” – Jake Gittes

Chinatown could very well be the best noir film that didn’t come out in the genre’s heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. It really embraces the style at its core but it is also a much harsher film than those older classics. In fact, it has a violent ending on par with Bonnie and Clyde, which is ironic, as Faye Dunaway is the female lead in both films.

This is my favorite Roman Polanski picture, although I need to rewatch several of them. But ultimately, the auteur director created a mesmerizing and well paced neo-noir that boasted stupendous acting from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, as well as creating an environment that felt authentic and lived in but also alien. But as noir pictures go, you really never know who anyone is and what their real motivations are. Chinatown is a well crafted tapestry of amazement and discomfort for the viewer, especially for a fan of film-noir or general crime thrillers.

The film takes place in 1930s Los Angeles, a decade before noir was born, but it feels truly at home in the style. Jack Nicholson plays private eye Jake Gittes, who traverses through the film as a rugged hero who is quick witted and always ready to deliver a killer one-liner. He is initially pulled into the story by a woman posing as someone she’s not. He takes the case but soon learns that all is not as it seems. In comes Faye Dunaway, the real woman who Gittes thought he was working for. There’s murder, political conspiracy and some dark secrets that come out, effecting the lives of all the key players. Although, Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is not your typical femme fatale.

Chinatown paints most of its characters as being guilty of something but also being victims. It makes you uncertain of all the characters and wary of the twists and turns that happen. This is a film with layers upon layers but everything just flows well and even if you’ve seen the film and you know what happens, the picture is still emotionally effective. The suspense is like a thick cloud that continues to grow from scene to scene.

John A. Alonzo handled the cinematography and this is probably the film he is most known for, even though he also did a stellar job with 1983’s Scarface. Before this picture, he worked on Harold and Maude and Vanishing Point. This film alone should have really made Alonzo’s career and even though he worked in Hollywood until his death in 2001, later in his career he worked on straightforward comedies like The Meteor ManHousesitter and Overboard. At least he went out with a good last effort with Deuces Wild, which wasn’t a great movie but it was a period film that captured 1950s Brooklyn quite well.

Roman Polanski would go on to be embroiled in controversy due to allegedly drugging and raping a thirteen year-old girl. He fled to France, where he has lived since the 1970s, never returning to the United States. He continued to make films, a dozen or so in fact, but there are only two of them that I found to be good, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist, both of which came out over twenty-five years after Chinatown. Polanski was never quite the auteur that he was, after fleeing the States and leaving behind the Hollywood system.

Chinatown is a true classic, though. In my opinion, it is Polanski’s best work. Jack Nicholson would try to replicate the film with a sequel that he directed in 1990 called The Two Jakes. It’s pretty good but it’s no Chinatown.

Rating: 9.75/10

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.