Film Review: Clash by Night (1952)

Release Date: May 30th, 1952 (limited)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Alfred Hayes
Based on: Clash by Night by Clifford Odets
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe, Keith Andes, Silvio Minciotti, J. Carrol Naish

Wald/Krasna Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.” – Mae Doyle

While I love the hell out of Fritz Lang movies, especially his noir films, as well as just about anything that Barbara Stanwyck has done, this film mostly missed the mark for me.

This also has Marilyn Monroe and Robert Ryan in it too but regardless of the film’s star power, I found it mostly dull and sort of wrecked by Paul Douglas, who had me wanting to kill him by the third act of the picture.

Now I haven’t seen much with Paul Douglas in it, except for the original Angels In the Outfield, but he really started grating on my nerves due to how overly intense he was once he lost his shit due to his wife running around with Robert Ryan behind his back.

Sure, I understand the guy would be pissed but he wrecks the scenes he’s in by acting like a bull in a china shop. That might not be Douglas’ fault though, as Lang probably thought that it was effective, as he was sitting behind the camera directing these scenes. I guess my biggest issue with it is that it pulls you out of the picture and diminishes the great performance by Stanwyck, who felt like she was whispering her lines next to a madman with a bullhorn.

Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with Douglas’ character and maybe that’s just the magic of it all and Fritz Lang got the performance that he wanted out of him. And maybe I didn’t see how effective it was until that final scene that closed out the film, which had a surprisingly pleasant conclusion and made my heart warm for the two leads.

This isn’t the type of noir I fancy the most, however, as I like gritty crime stories. This one is more about a woman that creates human wreckage in her wake but starts to realize that she’s found something she didn’t even know she needed. Unfortunately for her, at least at first, she learns this way too late, after her selfish impulses have caused a lot of damage.

For those who prefer noir pictures that focus more on human romance, this will most assuredly be your cup of tea. It’s hard to deny how great Stanwyck, Ryan, Monroe and J. Carrol Naish are in this. And while this isn’t close to Fritz Lang’s best, you leave the film fairly satisfied with how it all turns out, which is kind of odd and unique for the noir genre.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir pictures of the era, especially those featuring Barbara Stanwyck or Robert Ryan or directed by Fritz Lang.

Film Review: The Set-Up (1949)

Also known as: Knock-Out (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)
Release Date: March 29th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Art Cohn
Based on: a poem by Joseph Moncure March
Music by: C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.” – Tiny

There is one film-noir that keeps coming up in almost every book I’ve read on the subject. Sure, all the really famous ones come up all the time but as far as little known ones that modern audiences have forgotten, this is one that is almost always mentioned and with a lot of adoration by the genre experts.

I finally got around to watching it, after I had tried for a few years but never found it streaming unless I wanted to buy it. You can rent it now on Prime but honestly, after seeing it, I’m probably going to break down and buy it on Blu-ray.

The Set-Up is not only a superb film-noir but it is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest boxing movies ever made.

There really isn’t anything negative to harp on. From the acting, the story, the direction and the cinematography, this is an incredible motion picture that transcends the screen and feels like something real, something lived in and it will connect with anyone who has ever faced adversity when it comes to one’s pride.

Robert Ryan is perfection as an aged boxer, on his last legs but still needing to fight for everything. He’s trapped by circumstance and his lack of being able to do anything other than fighting. While it’s a character trait that is pretty common in boxing stories, Ryan truly makes you believe it in a way no other actor has apart from Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

This story may also seem all too familiar, as well, in that it is about a boxer told to throw a fight but his pride and his purity won’t allow him to quit just because someone tells him to. It’s admirable and it’s stupid because we all know how these things tend to go. Especially for an honest guy that just wants to get home safely to the love of his life.

Apart from the compelling story, which is really a character study, the film employs some stupendous cinematography and knows how to tell its story visually.

The boxing scenes are well shot, well lit and the action looks authentic. Even the opening credits sequence, which just features the dancing feet of boxers locked in fisticuffs is a thing of absolute cinematic beauty.

What really grabbed my attention the most, however, was the alley scene at the end of the film. The boxer tries to evade the gangsters that mean to do him harm but he gets caught coming out of the back alley behind the arena and is then backed into a corner by several men that are determined to teach him a severe lesson.

This scene is so dynamic due to the high contrast chiaroscuro presentation, as well as its use of silhouettes and textures. Everything looks brooding and ominous, as it should in that moment. The real money shot is when you see Robert Ryan with his back against a closed garage door in one-point perspective. The use of lighting and shadows here is perfection. And it’s the moment when the dread Ryan is experiencing really grabs you.

The Set-Up is such a simple yet rich motion picture. It’s a story we’ve all seen before but from the perspective of visual storytelling, it’s never been done this well.

For film-noir fans that haven’t yet seen this picture, you probably should. It’s a scant 73 minutes but in that short time, it does more than most films double that length.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Champion, another film-noir that takes place in the boxing world and came out the same year as this.

Film Review: Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Also known as: Attention, mon amour (Belgium), Day Without End (script title), The Man, The Ragged Edge, One False Move (working titles)
Release Date: August 29th, 1952
Directed by: Harry Horner
Written by: Mel Dinelli
Based on: The Man by Mel Dinelli
Music by: Leith Stevens
Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Taylor Holmes

The Filmakers, RKO Radio Pictures, 77 Minutes

Review:

“Well, aren’t you the bundle of nerves! Listen, you. I don’t see many men around polishing floors. It’s a woman’s job. Who do you think you are? Seems to me there’s better ways for a man to make a living.” – Ruth Williams

Beware, My Lovely isn’t really a Christmas movie but it does take place around Christmas and was featured on TCM’s Noir Alley the day before Christmas Eve.

It’s a short and very confined film-noir starring two noir heavyweights: Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan.

The story is pretty simple. Ryan plays a man that is dealing from a form of multiple personality disorder. He killed his former boss but doesn’t even remember that. He starts to work for Ida Lupino’s character and lives in her home. Another tenant leaves the house for a short trip and Ryan and Lupino are left alone in this confined space. Ryan starts to slip into his darker personality and holds Lupino hostage within her own home. The majority of the film is Ryan and Lupino playing off of each other and really, this is the strongest element of the film.

This movie works because the performances from Lupino and Ryan are damn good. The chemistry is perfect between the two and even though you want Lupino to escape, you also kind of hope that she can help Ryan, despite his despicable actions throughout the story.

One thing that may rub some viewers the wrong way, is that the ending is very abrupt and there is no definitive resolution. You can assume what will happen next but it is left somewhat open ended.

The direction was decent, the cinematography was fairly average and the score wasn’t very strong but none of that seemed to matter once the film was completely focused on Lupino and Ryan and their tense situation.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other noir pictures featuring Ida Lupino or Robert Ryan.

Film Review: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Release Date: October 14th, 1959 (Chicago premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Abraham Polonsky, Nelson Gidding
Based on: Odds Against Tomorrow by William P. McGivern
Music by: John Lewis
Cast: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr., Gloria Grahame, Shelley Winters, Robert Earl Jones (uncredited)

HarBel Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll kill you and everything you own!” – Bocco

Wow. I’m probably going to have to adjust my Top 100 Film-Noir list after seeing this picture for the first time in a really long time. It’s pretty damn incredible and much better than the majority of what you’ll find in this great genre or style or whatever you want to classify noir as.

I guess the thing that I love most about this movie is its tone. Unlike most film-noir pictures, it doesn’t have the pristine look of the style. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on manufactured sets with studio lighting. This film gets outside and has a real urban grittiness to it. Even some of the shots of streets look different and almost have this sort of haze, as opposed to the typical crispness you see in a noir picture. However, they did use infrared film in some scenes, which was a deliberate attempt at making this have its own unique visual pizzazz.

The cast in this film is also pretty stacked. You have Harry Belafonte, noir legend Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr. and two superstar female leads in Gloria Grahame and Shelley Winters.

This film is a heist picture but it’s the story leading up to the heist that is the most compelling. Especially in regards to Belafonte’s character. He also has to deal with a lot of racial hatred in the movie and it served as a good historical look into the social climate in America at the time, as this was just a few years away from the large Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

This is well written, well acted, looks great and doesn’t have any real down time or dull moments. I was engaged by this picture from the start all the way to the big, sudden finish. And sure, the finish takes its cue from a better known film-noir picture but man, it was a perfect exclamation point to cap off this intense and emotional ride.

I also want to point out that the musical bits in the film were awesome. That brief moment where Belafonte fears for the life of his wife and children and loses it to the music in the club was emotional and narrative perfection.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Touch of EvilThe Third ManWhite HeatHe Walked by NightThe Killing, Naked City and Night and the City.

Film Review: Act of Violence (1949)

Release Date: January 22nd, 1949 (New York City)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Written by: Collier Young, Robert L. Richards
Music by: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter

Loew’s Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 82 Minutes

Review:

“Sure, I was in the hospital, but I didn’t go crazy. I kept myself sane. You know how? I kept saying to myself: Joe, you’re the only one alive that knows what he did. You’re the one that’s got to find him, Joe. I kept remembering. I kept thinking back to that prison camp. One of them lasted to the morning. By then, you couldn’t tell his voice belonged to a man. He sounded like a dog that got hit by a truck and left him in the street.” – Joe Parkson

The more I watch of Van Heflin, the more he becomes one of my all-time favorite actors. The first few times I saw him, I wasn’t too keen on the roles he had. He always seemed to be a sort of scuzzy character. But since my first few experiences, I’ve seen him play a whole myriad of character types and he just lures me in. Act of Violence is one of my favorite performances I’ve seen of his. And really, I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh here, as well.

In this noir tale, we see ex-POW Frank Enley (Heflin) being honored as a war hero. At home, he is just a young family man just trying to live a normal life. However, a strange character (Ryan) starts showing up and pursuing him. The mysterious man even tries to murder Enley while he is fishing on a lake. Enley gets wind of something awry and is pretty sure he’s in trouble. A car starts stalking Enley and his wife (Leigh) by parking in front of their house. As the tale progresses, we learn that there is something dark that Enley is hiding and maybe this mysterious stranger isn’t actually the bad guy.

This is a simple and straightforward noir without a lot of extra twists and turns. The story has some layers to it but not so much that it is difficult to recall all the details as more present themselves. Some classic noir pictures got bogged down in swerves and overly elaborate details, Act of Violence is actually refreshing in that it does not.

Ultimately, this is a film about a cowardly man redeeming himself through a last act of heroism. You think its a basic revenge story but it isn’t, it’s deeper and more genuine than that.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan were great opposites in this and both men also had great exchanges with Janet Leigh. The acting is very good for all the main parties involved.

Act of Violence is a better movie than I expected it to be. The scene on the lake was suspenseful and actually pretty breathtaking from a visual standpoint. It is a good mixture of nice cinematography, a good story and talented actors.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Crossfire (1947)

Release Date: July 22nd, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton
Based on: The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Sam Levene, Jacqueline White

RKO Radio Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties.” – Police Captain Finlay

Crossfire is a pretty unique film-noir, as it is a very socially progressive movie for its time. The main crime in the film surrounds the murder of a Jewish man and it is discovered that the murder was inspired by bigotry and hatred. This was pretty heavy stuff for 1947 but kudos to RKO Pictures, Edward Dmytryk and John Paxton for putting this picture together. No, not the John Paxton that helped lead the Chicago Bulls to many NBA championships in the 1990s, he spelled his name “Paxson”. This John Paxton was a screenwriter that breathed life into film-noirs like Cornered and Murder, My Sweet.

This film also stars the three Roberts of film-noir: Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Okay, Young wasn’t in a lot of noir but Mitchum and Ryan lived in the genre. Plus, you also have Gloria Grahame, one of the queens of noir. Sam Levene also pops up in this but I feel like he is in almost every noir picture of the 1940s and 1950s. Then again, Elisha Cook Jr. probably has him beat.

Crossfire, despite its star power and its interesting premise, isn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. It’s not a bad movie but it just sort of exists and plays out without a lot of real suspense or tension.

The Academy thought it was pretty damn good though, as it was nominated for five Oscars. Plus, it won the award for Best Social Film at Cannes that year. But awards are typically political statements, even in the 1940s, and the people who hand out awards have always had a bias towards socially conscious cinema. From an accolades perspective, Crossfire greatly benefited from its subject matter.

I don’t mean to sound like I am in any way bashing the picture. It just wasn’t Oscar worthy, in my opinion. Especially in a year where we had Kiss of DeathThe Lady From ShanghaiNightmare AlleyBrute Force and Out of the Past. And those are just some of the film-noirs that I would rank higher not to mention all the other great films from other genres.

The three Roberts all put in solid performances though, as did Grahame. Edward Dmytryk is also a very good director. This is a very good film but when one has to compare it to what else was coming out at the time, it just isn’t on the same level as the films I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

If you love film-noir and any of the actors in this movie, it is still worth your time. I liked the picture and I would certainly watch it again but probably as part of a double feature or marathon.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Release Date: December 17th, 1951
Directed by: Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Written by: A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Ed Begley

RKO Radio Pictures, 82 Minutes

Review:

“Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?” – Jim Wilson

What an opening score! The theme by Bernard Hermann over the opening credits really gets the energy in this film flowing from the get-go. And to be honest, this is one of my favorite scores he’s done alongside Psycho and Citizen Kane. The rest of the film lives up to the great score but the music has a lot to do with the energetic pulse that this classic film-noir has. In fact, part of this score was used as the opening theme to the hit television show Have Gun Will Travel in 1957.

This was directed by Nicholas Ray whose work I really loved in the pictures In A Lonely Place and They Live by Night. Like those films, this noir has a lot of spirit and a talented cast that gives it real gravitas.

It is also been said that Ida Lupino directed some of this picture, which is probably true as she went on the be very good behind the camera when she wasn’t stealing men’s hearts on the silver screen.

Along with Ida Lupino, the film stars Robert Ryan and Ward Bond. Ed Begley Sr. even has a brief role, as a police chief.

Ryan plays a mean New York City cop, Jim Wilson. After hurting a man he was questioning and having a history of losing his cool on the job, his chief sends him upstate to catch a murderer in a small town. He is sent to cool off, literally, as the place is covered in snow and even referred to condescendingly as “Siberia”.

While there, Wilson teams up with Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the victim who was murdered. The two quickly find the killer but he runs off towards a house. When the two men get there, they meet the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). It is revealed that she is the sister of the murderer and we also learn that her brother, the killer, is a young boy that is mentally challenged. Wilson feels for the boy and he develops romantic feelings for Mary. He is pitted against Brent, who is bloodthirsty and on the hunt for justice.

The dark and brooding New York City and the snowy countryside have a very strong contrast to one another and it is in that bright countryside where Wilson finds himself and becomes a changed man.

The outdoor scenes are majestic and well shot. Visually, this falls into the noir style while also giving a fresh spin on it with the snowy environment. It looks familiar but it also looks fresh.

One thing that makes this picture stand above most film-noir is just how emotionally touching it is. Ray also accomplished this in his other noirs, most specifically In A Lonely Place. Initially, you don’t like Jim Wilson but as the film rolls on, you connect with him and alongside him, fall for the sweet and soft Mary. You begin rooting for Jim and you want to see Mary find real piece of mind and to feel safe.

On Dangerous Ground was a nice surprise. I didn’t expect anything exceptional but I should’ve known better with Ray behind the camera, as I haven’t seen a film of his that has disappointed me yet.

Rating: 8/10