Film Review: Born to Kill (1947)

Also known as: Deadlier Than the Male (working title, Australia), Lady of Deceit (UK alternative title)
Release Date: April 30th, 1947 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Eve Greene, Richard Macaulay
Based on: Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook Jr.

RKO Radio Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, and the rottenest inside. I’ve seen plenty, too. I wouldn’t trade places with you if they sliced me into little pieces.” – Mrs. Kraft

Since I’m not posting enough to truly celebrate the month of Noirvember, my noir-centric reviews have been pretty nil, as of late. But I wanted to slip in one of the film’s I haven’t seen that’s been in my queue for far too long.

1947’s Born to Kill teams up Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor, which on paper seems like quite the duo. It also adds in the always entertaining Walter Slezak and superb character actor/cinematic weasel Elisha Cook Jr.

Needless to say, this has a well-rounded cast and it’s also directed by Robert Wise, who had a very long and successful career making pictures in just about every genre.

Weirdly, this one just didn’t hit the mark for me like I hoped it would.

Now there are some really good scenes, like the one linked below, which shows Elisha Cook Jr. being a total bastard, but ultimately, this story felt a bit clunky and I wasn’t that engaged by it.

Also, Tierney and Trevor didn’t seem to mesh together as well as I had hoped.

Still, Wise’s direction was generally good, at least from the visual side of things. The cinematography was great and Wise’s ability to capture visually appealing magic lived up to expectations but everything else kind of fell flat.

That being said, I mostly enjoyed this and didn’t find it to be a waste of time but sometimes, even with a lot of good pieces, things just don’t click in the right way.

A lot of noir lovers do like this film and my take on it may exist in contrast to most but this just didn’t give me what I needed.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir pictures of the time, especially those starring Lawrence Tierney.

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: The Body Snatcher (1945)

Release Date: February 16th, 1945 (St. Louis premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton
Based on: a story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater

RKO Radio Pictures, 77 Minutes

Review:

“He taught me the mathematics of anatomy but he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine.” – Donald Fettes

I’m a big fan of the horror films that Val Lewton produced while at RKO Radio Pictures in the 1940s. This one brings in Robert Wise, one of his top directors, as well as horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It’s kind of like a perfect storm of talent. Not to mention that this is also an adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The main plot has to deal with a doctor that is also a professor and how the corpses he uses to dissect in his classes are actually stolen from graves by Boris Karloff’s John Gray. Gray blackmails the doctor, named MacFarlane, into performing an operation on a young paraplegic girl that he initially refused to do.

Fettes, a young assistant to the doctor, asks Gray for another corpse to help with the preparation of the operation. When the corpse arrives, Fettes is surprised to see that the corpse looks just like a street singer he saw near Gray’s place.

One thing leads to another and bad things justifiably happen to bad people. But, at least the little paraplegic girl is able to walk again by the end of the movie.

Like all the other RKO horror pictures of the 1940s, this one was very strong on atmosphere. I really think that RKO had the best cinematographers and lighting staff under their employ. Between the Val Lewton produced horror films and their masterfully crafted film-noirs, RKO just had very pristine looking movies that understood ambiance and tone.

Now The Body Snatcher looks great, is well acted and Robert Wise did a good job of giving life to a Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation. But it’s not terribly exciting. It’d a bit dry and while it seems like a lot happens within the film, it felt like it was moving too slow while I watched it.

Additionally, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi only share two fairly quick scenes. One of them is very good but Bela felt like an after though in this and I assume he was just used because of his name value.

Still, for classic horror aficionados, this is worth a look.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Val Lewton produced horror films for RKO: Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie and The Seventh Victim, which is actually much more noir than horror but it is still dark.

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: The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Also known as: Amy and Her Friend (working title)
Release Date: March 3rd, 1944 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Val Lewton (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Ann Carter, Eve March

RKO Radio Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“Children love to dream things up.” – Miss Callahan

This motion picture has the strange distinction of being a non-horror sequel to a horror film.

The Curse of the Cat People is a followup to the 1942 film Cat People. Where the original was a story about a woman who was a werecat, this one is about her spirit becoming best friends with a little girl. This really has nothing to do with cats or werecats. Although, there is a black cat briefly in a scene.

This was one of the films produced by Val Lewton when he was making horror pictures for RKO in an effort to capitalize off of the low budget horror films that Universal had great success with. This could have been its own movie without the Cat People element even added in but I guess it served its marketing purpose, which was to piggyback off of the previous film’s success for RKO.

Simone Simon, the werecat from the first film, returns to play the ghost of her character. Her ex-husband, played by Kent Smith, is also in this. So there is an actual character link to the previous film.

Amy, a little girl, has a hard time connecting to other kids socially and is sort of an outcast. She also has a vivid imagination. When Simone Simon’s Irena appears to befriend the girl, no one wants to believe Amy.

Like other Lewton produced features for RKO, this one has beautiful cinematography and a sort of enchanting allure. It is a magical picture and you do get wrapped up in the proceedings, even though they are very simplistic and straightforward.

Ann Carter, who plays the young Amy, was very good in this and proved to be a child actor with much more skill than most of the kids of that era. She had to carry the picture and she did a fine job. She was lovable, sweet and sad. But she wasn’t chirpy, didn’t over-act and felt right at home alongside a cast of adults.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, who did several horror pictures for RKO, as well as the great boxing noir The Set-Up, the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and dozens of other movies.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Val Lewton produced films for RKO: Cat PeopleI Walked With a ZombieThe Leopard ManThe Seventh VictimThe Ghost ShipThe Body SnatcherIsle of the Dead and Bedlam.

Documentary Review: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2007
Directed by: Kent Jones
Narrated by: Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

I remember seeing this on television a decade ago and it is where I really discovered who Val Lewton is and why his contribution to the film industry was so important.

When I was a kid, I discovered classic film early, as my mother and grandmother were both avid watchers of AMC, which at the time still stood for American Movie Classics. I also watched a lot of TCM, or Turner Classic Movies, when that cable network debuted. I got pulled in to old school horror, as I loved the Universal Monsters movies, Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures and the movies put out by Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I didn’t quite experience Val Lewton’s body of work though, until years later.

My appreciation for all that other stuff, really gave me the foundation to appreciate and understand what Lewton was trying to do for RKO Radio Pictures. His mission was to run the B-movie unit for the studio, where he and the artists he brought in, would create films to rival what Universal was doing with all their successful Monster franchises.

I’m glad that I found this on television a decade ago and it was really fantastic revisiting it now, as it is streaming on FilmStruck.

It is produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese with Elias Koteas jumping in to narrate Val Lewton’s actual words.

It is a nice and quick documentary that covers a lot of ground and gives a good amount of time to each of Lewton’s pictures. It also gets into how his collaborations with Boris Karloff came to be and how Lewton initially didn’t want to work with Karloff but quickly grew to love the man’s work, as he helped contribute to these films, which were much more psychological and intelligent than the majority of Universal’s horror pictures.

Lewton created horror movies that had a noir style about them. In fact, his films sort of built a bridge between German Expressionist horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the film-noir movement of the 1940s.

If you love classic horror or film-noir and haven’t seen Lewton’s films, you need to. You should also check out this documentary, which is a great primer on the man and his work.

Rating: 8.75/10

Film Review: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Release Date: December 7th, 1979
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Alan Dean Foster, Harold Livingston
Based on: Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney, Mark Lenard, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Paramount Pictures, 132 Minutes

Review:

“Touch God…? V’Ger’s liable to be in for one hell of a disappointment.” – Commander Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, M.D.

I feel like this chapter in the Star Trek franchise gets a bad rap.

Here’s the thing, it does not play like the films that came after it. This plays a lot more like an episode of the original television series, which should have been okay, actually. But I guess after Star Wars, two years prior to this, people wanted more action heavy science fiction. The film series rectified that after this picture, however.

The thing is, the reason why I liked Star Trek, as a kid, was because it was more than just sci-fi action. It went deeper philosophically and it tried to find solutions to problems and conflict without resorting to violence. This movie is an incredible example of that. But I get why it didn’t excite general audiences in the same way as Star Wars.

The mission in this film sees the original show’s crew reunite on a very updated version of the original Enterprise. They are sent to investigate a massive nebula looking space oddity that is traveling towards Earth and destroying anyone that comes close to it. The plot is really a mystery in trying to figure out what this massive thing is and what it wants. I really like the big reveal at the end and thought it was an imaginative idea that was executed well on screen. Others seem to differ on this but to me, it’s really just classic Star Trek in the best way.

Plus, the special effects are stunning and they still hold up quite well by today’s standards. The interior of the alien vessel is incredible and Spock’s journey through it was reminiscent of the final sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is bizarre but it’s supposed to be. It all just adds more to the mystery and enriches the mythos as it develops on screen. It isn’t so bizarre though, that it is a hard film to follow. It doesn’t sacrifice narrative for style, it is a good marriage of both actually. It also has its own unique look when compared to the television series and the films that came later. This is a truly unique sci-fi epic that looks beautiful.

Now it can feel slow at times and that bizarre wormhole experience is a distraction but the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

I really like this film. It is not my favorite in the series but it certainly isn’t as bad as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Rating: 7.5/10