Film Review: Pickup On South Street (1953)

Also known as: Pickpocket, Blaze of Glory (working titles)
Release Date: May 27th, 1953 (Boston and Philadelphia)
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Dwight Taylor
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

20th Century Fox, 80 Minutes

Review:

“I know you pinched me three times and got me convicted three times and made me a three time loser. And I know you took an oath to put me away for life. Well you’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eye-wash, but get this: I didn’t grift that film and you can’t prove I did! And if I said I did, you’d slap that fourth rap across my teeth no matter what promises you made!” – Skip McCoy

For those that don’t know, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had an interesting working relationship with 20th Century Fox. Hoover allowed the studio access to investigations and files and thought that allowing some “transparency” through a Hollywood lens would make the public more supportive of the FBI under Hoover.

However, this film is what ended that relationship, as Hoover wanted it changed due to what he felt wasn’t a complete condemnation of communism. The studio stuck by writer/director Samuel Fuller and this film was released, unaltered.

Hoover was upset because this has a plot that involves Richard Widmark’s character being involved with passing off a piece of secret film to those bastard Reds. Widmark’s character, regardless of the communist involvement in the plot, seemed unfazed as to who his employer was. And he never really shows any remorse for the communists’ plot that he was a part of and certainly doesn’t have a moment of reflection where he turns over a new leaf. Apparently, this infuriated Hoover but it does seem more genuine and leaving the story as is, was probably for the better, regardless of the political climate of the time. Plus, it makes for an interesting tale that is larger than the movie itself and has thus, elevated this motion picture’s importance in a time when film-noir movies were a dime a dozen and most have been forgotten.

But regardless of all that, this is still a superb noir, carried by the solid perfromance by Widmark, as well as Jean Peters, his gal, and the always stupendous Thelma Ritter.

For the time, Ritter has a death scene here that is really damn dark and makes your heart sink. While I’m a fan of just about everything in this picture, it’s this scene where you really see the great talent of Ritter, as well as the greatness of Samuel Fuller, who picked the music and shot the scene, using fabulous camera work, lighting and cinematography. Granted, he had help in the cinematography department by Joseph MacDonald, who also worked on Panic In the Streets, Niagara, Hell and High Water, The Young Lions, Pepe and The Sand Pebbles.

The story is also engaging and the threats in this feel genuine and real. Despite Hoover’s concerns, this certainly doesn’t paint the Reds in a positive light.

I also have to give props to Jean Peters for how physical she had to get with this role. I’m not sure if they used a double or not and I don’t think that they did, but when she literally gets the crap kicked out of her in her own apartment, it’s absolutely brutal for 1953 standards. Hell, it’s hard to watch for 2019 standards where movie audiences see some pretty violent stuff on a regular basis.

Pickup On South Street will probably always be a footnote in Hollywood history. However, it deserves its recognition in spite of its controversy. It’s a solid picture, lifted up by its players, its director and its cinematographer.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noirs: Night and the City, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Naked City.

Film Review: The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

Also known as: Search for a Shadow (script title)
Release Date: February 24th, 1960 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Jack Lewis
Music by: Darrell Calker
Cast: Marguerite Chapman, Douglas Kennedy, James Griffith, Ivan Triesault

Miller Consolidated Pictures (MCP), American International Pictures (re-release), 58 Minutes

Review:

“I must know the full potential of your invention because my aim is to make an entire army invisible. Do you understand that? An entire army.” – Major Paul Krenner

Edgar G. Ulmer isn’t a famous director but he is a fairly accomplished one in that he made a film-noir classic with Detour and also a pretty solid old school horror film called The Black Cat, which teamed up then horror superstars Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and John Carradine. He was also one of the German directors that worked on People On Sunday, as well as helming other noteworthy films: Bluebeard and The Man From Planet X.

Later in his career, he directed this film. And while many can call it a turkey, it does mash up two genres he was known for, crime pictures and sci-fi. Also, it was properly riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and has since become a bit of a cult classic because of that.

The Amazing Transparent Man is an incredibly short motion picture but it didn’t need to be longer and it plays more like an episode of a sci-fi anthology television series.

The plot is about a an invisibility machine that an Army major wants to use to create invisible soldiers in an effort to conquer the world. A prison break is orchestrated to free a notorious safe cracker who is tasked with stealing the nuclear material needed to perfect the machine. There are some noir twists, a femme fatale even and we get to see the invisible machine in all its glory, which actually works quite well considering the special effects of the time, as well as this production’s budgetary constraints.

Still, this is far from Ulmer’s best work and is a pretty hokey and slow paced film with wooden acting and not enough imagination considering the premise and how this could have gone in more interesting directions. Additionally, it looks cheap, it doesn’t have anything close to the great atmosphere of his better films and if I’m being honest, I don’t know if he even cared about this picture or if he just needed a paycheck.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: other low budget sci-fi pictures from the era, especially those that were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Film Review: Nora Prentiss (1947)

Also known as: The Sentence (working title)
Release Date: February 7th, 1947 (Philadelphia premiere)
Directed by: Vincent Sherman
Written by: N. Richard Nash, Paul Webster, Jack Sobell
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Bruce Bennett, Robert Alda

Warner Bros., 111 Minutes

Review:

“I’m writing a paper on ailments of the heart.” – Doctor Richard Talbot, “A paper? I could write a book!” – Nora Prentiss

This is a classic film-noir that has been on my list for a long time. I had never seen it because it has never streamed anywhere that I’m aware of and I subscribe to a ton of these services. But it was finally featured on TCM’s Noir Alley, which seems long overdue, based off of all the great things I’ve heard about this movie from noir experts.

I’d have to say that it pretty much lived up to the hype. It’s not one of my all-time favorites but it was a well-crafted story with one of those really dark endings that sort of makes your heart sink.

Sure, the main guy, Kent Smith’s Talbot, is a bit of a shithead, as he fakes his own death to escape his wife and children so that he can run off with Nora, but by the end of the journey, you feel his remorse and his shame and when he makes the decision to be executed, to save his family from even more pain, it’s some pretty heavy stuff.

Additionally, all the emotion throughout this film is built up so well because of how convincing Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith were. They had solid chemistry, felt like genuine characters and this movie feels a bit ahead of its time, as these characters don’t come across as typical archetypes. Nora Prentiss may be a mistress but she’s not a femme fatale causing wreckage for her own personal gain. She’s a woman, caught up in emotion that ends up experiencing a great loss as the result of her and Talbot’s careless and selfish actions.

The film was directed by Vincent Sherman, who also directed other classic film-noirs: The Unfaithful, Backfire, The Damned Don’t Cry, Harriet Craig, Affair In Trinidad and The Garment Jungle. But he’s also the director of one of my favorite Errol Flynn swashbuckling pictures: Adventures of Don Juan.

If anything, this film has made me want to go down the rabbit hole of Sherman’s oeuvre. It was carefully crafted, well executed and had more dramatic flair and heart than a typical noir movie.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other film-noir pictures like The Unfaithful, The Breaking Point and Backfire.

Film Review: Nightfall (1956)

Release Date: November 9th, 1956 (UK)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Stirling Silliphant
Based on: Nightfall by David Goodis
Music by: George Duning, Morris Stoloff
Cast: Aldo Ray, Brian Keith, Anne Bancroft, Jocelyn Brando

A Copa Production, Columbia Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“Anyway, I’m scared. You don’t know what it is to live with your back against the wall, Marie. Inside you change. You really change.” – James Vanning

Jacques Tourneur was always a solid director, so I definitely wanted to check out this film-noir picture of his, as I hadn’t yet seen it. Plus, it was part of the Criterion Channel’s Columbia Noir featured category and I’m trying to work through all of the films on that list that I haven’t yet seen.

I jumped on this one because I like Tourneur and I also wanted to see something with Anne Bancroft that came out much earlier than her most famous role as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate.

Tourneur had a great eye and a real understanding of cinematography, lighting and shot framing. He was a maestro of mise en scène, which is very apparent in his earlier horror films: Cat People, I Walk With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and his most famous noir: the Robert Mitchum starring Out of the Past.

Nightfall is no different and frankly, it’s a fabulous looking picture with a meticulous attention to detail in a visual sense. It looks crisp, pristine and the silvery hues are greatly accented by a mostly subdued but pretty apparent chiaroscuro presentation. The film uses contrast greatly, which is mostly done fairly subtly except for the wilderness scenes where the snowy landscape sort of works as a blank backdrop and pushes the characters to the forefront. The big fight at the end is the greatest example of this, as the two men fight in the snow, ending with the villain getting eaten alive by a snowplow truck. I kind of expected some black blood splatter but that was too graphic for 1956. Tourneur probably would’ve given it to us if this was one of his horror pictures though.

The film also benefits from the good chemistry between its leads: Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. Their relationship seemed natural and organic and in the early moment in the film where you feel that she set him up, your heart sinks a little bit.

Aldo Ray, who I haven’t seen in much, made me a fan with his performance here. He is a rugged man but he is able to convey a sort of gentle softness without sacrificing his masculinity. You feel for the guy and want to see him come away from this story unscathed but this is a noir picture and that’s something that rarely happens.

While you may feel a bit of frustration with Bancroft after her first encounter with Ray, she wins you back over rather quickly and even if you are waiting for that standard femme fatale double cross later in the film, she’s very easy to like. But does she turn against our hero? And does he have a happy ending? I’d rather not spoil it.

Nightfall is a much better film than I anticipated it being, even as a Tourneur fan. It’s a solid film-noir even if it doesn’t go as dark as the genre typically does. I’m kind of baffled that it isn’t more widely known and held up as one of the top noir pictures alongside Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Columbia Pictures noir films: Pushover, My Name Is Julia Ross and Drive a Crooked Road.

Comic Review: Spider-Man Noir

Published: September 16th, 2009
Written by: David Hine, Fabrice Sapolsky
Art by: Carmine Di Giandomenico

Marvel Comics, 96 Pages

Review:

I like Spider-Man, I like film-noir… but I didn’t like Spider-Man Noir.

I mean, I think the character is kind of cool and the idea of him and his world is a cool idea but the execution was pretty damn lackluster and also kind of predictable and derivative.

This book is just boring and I’m not sure how that was possible with the material. There is so much that could have been done with this story but it just tries to shoehorn in 1940s versions of already established characters in ways that just don’t fit them very well.

Why couldn’t this feature an actual 1940s Spider-Man with his own cast of characters instead of forcing Peter Parker, Aunt May, Black Cat, Norman Osborne, The Vulture, Kraven and J. Jonah Jameson on us? Does this take place in a dimension where everything is still like it was in the 1940s?

So Peter is an angry kid, Aunt May is basically the same, Black Cat is a cookie cutter femme fatale, Osborne is a gangster, The Vulture looks more like Count Orlok from Nosferatu than the Vulture and Kraven the Hunter is a guy in a flashy suit with a monkey on his shoulder.

I yawned so hard that I cracked my jaw.

But on the flip side of all that, I thought the art was pretty good. It was too vibrant and colorful to truly feel noir-esque but at least I had something nice to look at since the story was putting me to sleep.

Luckily, this was only 96 pages.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: Dan Slott’s mediocre run on Spider-Man titles.

Film Review: Body Heat (1981)

Release Date: August 28th, 1981
Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan
Music by: John Barry
Cast: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J. A. Preston, Mickey Rourke, Kim Zimmer, Jane Hallaren, Lanna Saunders

The Ladd Company, Warner Bros., 113 Minutes

Review:

“I’m really disappointed in you, Racine. I’ve been living vicariously off of you for years. You shut up on me now, all I have is my wife.” – Peter

Lawrence Kasdan is probably most known for being one of the writers that worked alongside George Lucas on the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But here, he not only writes but he directs. And it was his working relationship with Lucas that helped him get this film produced. In fact, Lucas put up some of the money himself, even though he’s not officially given a producer credit.

It’s interesting that Kasdan’s directorial debut was something so different than what audiences had known him for, which were primarily high adventure pictures. But Kasdan made a very true to form film-noir picture. But maybe it was too close and that worked against it; I’ll explain.

Kasdan’s story for Body Heat drew inspiration from the 1944 film-noir classic Double Indemnity. In fact, there are some pretty stark similarities but Body Heat is not a complete rehash and it certainly stands on its own, despite having very similar cues.

The film is really carried by the strong performance by William Hurt. Kathleen Turner stars alongside him as the typical femme fatale and while she’s pretty good, she comes off as more of a caricature of the femme fatale archetype than feeling like she is giving a genuine performance. But I don’t think that’s on her, as she’s proven how capable she is. I think it could be a combination of Kasdan’s direction and writing, as he was possibly trying to squeeze her into an image he had, as opposed to letting her put more of herself into the role.

Still, Hurt offsets the awkward clunkiness of Turner and the rest of the cast between Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke and everyone else, keeps the ship moving in the right direction.

The story is pretty good but it’s not anything new, especially if you’re a fan of the noir genre. Despite a few good twists and turns throughout this labyrinthine plot, nothing that happens is shocking and it is kind of predictable in retrospect. In fact, even though I enjoyed this, it didn’t give much of anything new to the genre it emulates.

In regards to it being a modernization of classic film-noir, it isn’t the first film to do that either. But if this is anything, it’s Lawrence Kasdan’s love letter to film-noir and for the most part, it’s a nice love letter that makes its point rather well.

Body Heat certainly isn’t forgettable but it’s a long way off from redefining what noir could be like Blood Simple and The American Friend did. But strangely, I did enjoy this a hair bit more than Blood Simple.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other neo-noir films of the era: Blood Simple, The American Friend and the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Book Review: ‘Ebert’s Essentials: 27 Movies From the Dark Side’ by Roger Ebert

It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by Roger Ebert but growing up in the ’80s, he was my favorite critic, right alongside Gene Siskel, who co-hosted Siskel & Ebert with him.

I recently bought an Amazon Fire Tablet, so while I was perusing the books they have on movies, I came across this title, which is Ebert discussing 27 of his favorite noir pictures, whether they be classic film-noir, more modern neo-noir or other pictures that were strongly influenced by the noir style.

Ultimately, this was a heck of a fun read. I love Ebert’s way with words and how he is able to describe a film, as well as the ins and outs of its development and overall execution.

Ebert loved movies and its incredibly apparent when reading books like this, which focuses on a specific style of film and its cultural impact on the film medium as a whole. But his passion really comes through and he’s a fabulous guide.

With this book, he goes through each of the 27 films featured with a fine tooth comb. He also presented me with several I didn’t know about or hadn’t seen, especially in regards to his foreign film selections that fit the noir template.

Film-noiristas should really dig this book, as should fans of Roger Ebert.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: any of Roger Ebert’s other books, especially his Essentials series.