Film Review: Dressed to Kill (1980)

Release Date: July 25th, 1980
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Brian De Palma
Music by: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Dennis Franz, William Finley (voice, uncredited)

Filmways Pictures, Cinema 77 Films, 104 Minutes

Review:

“Doctor, I am not paranoid. Bobbi was making threats over the phone. She said she’s going to hurt me. My patient was slashed to death. And now my razor is gone. Now you don’t have to be a detective to figure it out, do you?” – Doctor Robert Elliot

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this picture but if Brian De Palma’s early films are any indicator, I knew that this would be bizarre, artistic and intelligent.

And it was those three things but it was also damn compelling and honestly, damn impressive.

I loved this film and it’s a shame that I hadn’t seen it before this. It was intense, melodic, sweet, scary and most importantly, intriguing.

While this picture is very De Palma-esque, maybe the most De Palma-esque of the man’s work, it is also very Hitchcockian, as the narrative and the shot framing displays a young De Palma’s callback to Hitchcock’s style and tropes.

Still, this is very much De Palma’s composition and not a cheap attempt at trying to emulate one of the masters before him. Honestly, it comes off as a respectful homage that creates a familiar framework that De Palma could then artistically build off of.

This is also very much a noir story. It has twists, turns, mystery, secrets that evolve and a shocking reveal when all is said and done. It’s pretty damn impressive that they were able to do some of the stuff they did in the time that this was made.

What really solidifies this as a great movie, aside from the solid direction and story by De Palma, is the cast.

Nancy Allen really carries this movie once she becomes the focus. And honestly, I’ll always love Allen simply for being a huge part of RoboCop but I never really thought much of her as an actress. Not to say she’s bad, she’s perfectly fine. But in this film, she really got to do some daring things. Honestly, it has motivated me to check out De Palma’s Blow Out in the near future as it also features her under De Palma’s direction.

I was really impressed with Keith Gordon and Angie Dickinson as well.

Michael Caine also plays an very important role but it’s Michael Caine, so one should expect a damn fine performance because I don’t think I’ve ever seen the guy not deliver.

I’d love to go deeper into the story and analyze some of it but I don’t want to spoil this for anyone. It’s a film that needs to be seen without knowing much about the plot and a Google search will probably spoil some major details.

If you like De Palma, Hitchcock influenced cinema or neo-noir, than you’ll probably like this picture.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: other early Brian De Palma films, especially Blow Out and Body Double.

Comic Review: Scene of the Crime

Published: 1999
Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Michael Lark, Sean Phillips

Vertigo Comics, Image Comics (reprint), 132 Pages

Review:

I’ve been catching up on a lot of Ed Burbaker’s crime comics because I missed a lot of the old ones and because it is the month of Noirvember.

Scene of the Crime was the comic that put him on the map. It led to him working on Gotham Central and also paved the way for his future crime comics like Criminal, Kill Or Be Killed, The Fade Out and Fatale, just to name a few.

This one was highly regarded at the time that it came out and while it is pretty good, it isn’t my favorite of the Brubaker lot.

I can see how he developed his style here and it is a good, solid and competent story but it didn’t capture my attention like The Fade Out or Kill Or Be Killed did.

At its core, this is a noir tale set in contemporary times that sees a young private detective try to locate a girl that’s gone missing. However, he finds her fairly quickly, she’s then killed and we’re then treated to a pretty grandiose mystery story with lots of layers and twists.

This is a really dark tale but fans of Brubaker’s crime work shouldn’t expect anything different. I can’t go into more detail without feeling like I’d spoil too much but this is a pretty decent read with solid art by Brubaker’s top collaborators Michael Lark and Sean Phillips.

Despite this not being my favorite, it is still a good comic miniseries and a solid tale in the crime and noir genres.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Ed Brubaker’s other crime comics.

Film Review: Black Angel (1946)

Release Date: August 2nd, 1946
Directed by: Roy William Neill
Written by: Roy Chanslor
Based on: The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford, Constance Dowling

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes

Review:

“Now may I have the box and the letter? Remember Catherine… you promised me to be a good girl.” – Marko

This is a pretty highly regarded classic noir picture. I had never watched it until now and despite the fanfare for it, I still wasn’t prepared for how good this movie is.

It stars a pair with great, great chemistry: Dan Duryea and June Vincent. They were perfect together in this and it was nice seeing Duryea not play an evil asshole.

The film also stars Peter Lorre in one of his best performances. In fact, this may be my favorite role he’s played after M.

Now the plot is complicated to explain but it all flows really well in the movie itself.

In a nutshell, Dan Duryea’s wife is murdered but the man wrongly arrested for it is June Vincent’s husband. Initially, Vincent suspects Duryea and confronts him in an effort to clear her husband. She discovers that he couldn’t have done it and the two pair up in an effort to find the real killer and to free Vincent’s husband before execution. The man they suspect is Peter Lorre, who owns a swanky nightclub where the pair get a gig as the house musicians.

What’s neat about the film is that it is one hundred percent noir but it has a lot of music in it and the performances by Vincent and Duryea’s characters are fantastic.

From the first frame to the last, the film looks perfect. The cinematography is top notch but the real life within the picture comes from the set design. The world feels real and genuine in a way that wasn’t typical with big studio films of the ’40s.

The shot framing is also really good. One moment that especially comes to mind is the scene where Lorre is opening his safe with Vincent just over his shoulder, watching him dial in his combination.

The opening sequence is also pretty well done in how it uses miniatures and shot transitions. While it’s not perfect, I don’t know how you could do it any better in the era when this film was made.

As good noir films go, this has a big twist and reveal at the end of the film. You don’t really see it coming and it is three parts heart-wrenching and two parts a punch to the gut. Basically, it was effective… damn effective.

I love this film and it’s a classic noir that I’m sure I will revisit again, much sooner than later.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other classic noir pictures like Fallen Angel, The Dark Corner, Phantom Lady, The Blue Dahlia, etc.

Comic Review: Frank Miller’s Sin City, Vol. 1: The Hard Goodbye

Published: 1991-1992
Written by: Frank Miller
Art by: Frank Miller

Dark Horse, 210 Pages

Review:

My first experience with Sin City was seeing the 2005 movie when it hit theaters.

At the time that the original comic was coming out, I was aware of it but I was still a pre-teen obsessing over bright, colorful, ’90s superhero comics.

It wasn’t until I got older that I started to get more into film-noir and crime fiction.

Still, I never actually picked up Sin City until now.

I’ve got to say though, the film, at least the Marv stuff, was a beat for beat retelling of this story. That’s not a bad thing, as I loved that the Watchmen movie was very close to the source material.

If you have seen the film already but haven’t read this, there isn’t much in the comic that isn’t in the film. But if you appreciate Frank Miller’s Sin City world, you really should experience it in its original form and in the medium it was designed for.

That being said, I like the comic, at least this first volume, more than I like the movie.

Miller wrote a solid, compelling mystery and his art style is really unique. This feels more like it is pure noir than a lot of the other neo-noir comics of the last quarter century or so.

While I’m not a die hard Miller fan, this is one of his best pieces of work. This was created when the guy was just making magic on a regular basis.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: the other collected volumes of Sin City.

Film Review: The Glass Key (1942)

Release Date: September 8th, 1942 (Toronto premiere)
Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Jonathan Latimer
Based on: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Victor Young
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, William Bendix

Paramount Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Hey, Rusty, Little Rubber Ball is back. I told you he liked the way we bounced him around.” – Jeff

The Glass Key was film-noir before film-noir was a thing. A lot of people consider 1944 to be the year where noir took over but there were a few films that paved the way and this was one of them. Plus, it was based off of a Dashiell Hammett novel ala The Maltese Falcon.

This also pairs Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, who worked together in seven movies, four of which were noir pictures.

For the most part, this helped set the stylistic trends of cinema for two decades. It isn’t the best noir, far from it, honestly, but it boasts pretty good cinematography, shot framing and shot motion that would become the norm.

Also, from a plot standpoint, it showcases political corruption, gangsters and a look at American life at the end of World War II. These are all tropes that would be a big part of movies well into the ’50s.

But even with all that, it doesn’t resonate with me as greatly as some of the better noirs do. I can’t deny that this was doing some solid things from a filmmaking perspective before the rest of Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon but I found the film a bit dull.

The acting was good, the film looks nice and the story had some decent curveballs thrown in but it lacked the panache and energy that would come later, as the noir style really took hold.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: the other noir films featuring both Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Comic Review: Stumptown, Vol. 1

Published: April 5th, 2011
Written by: Greg Rucka
Art by: Matthew Southworth, Lee Loughridge

Oni Press, 156 Pages

Review:

With Stumptown being adapted for television, I figured I’d also give the first graphic novel a read for comparison’s sake. I haven’t watched the show yet but I’ll probably binge the first half dozen episodes or so, once they’re available.

The comic series is a pretty good neo-noir in a similar vein to Ed Brubaker’s crime comics. In fact, Greg Rucka and Brubaker both worked on DC’s Gotham Central, which was a very noir-esque crime series featuring the cops of Gotham as the focal point.

This story follows a private investigator, as she is in debt over her head and more or less forced to find the missing granddaughter of a casino owner.

Stumpland takes place in and around Portland, Oregon, which gives it a cool setting that isn’t really a normal town for noir stories. In fact, I don’t really think about crime or Mexican cartels when I think of Portland but this actually takes you into that realm.

The main character, Dex, kind of reminds me of Jessica Jones or at least the television version of the character. Which, honestly, makes me wonder if they re-worked Jessica in the Netflix show to be more like this character?

I liked this tale but I also thought it was pretty predictable and more straightforward than a typical noir plot. There are the twists and turns, as one would expect, but none of them are really outside of the box or all that surprising.

What really made this work for me was the art. It’s pretty raw but the use of colors was superb. I guess the artists have changed over the course of the different Stumptown stories but I hope that the style is similar when I get to the later volumes.

Stumptown didn’t wow my socks off like Brubaker’s crime comics but it was still a cool and pretty refreshing story. And I plan on reading the volumes that come after this one.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: the later Stumptown series, as well as Gotham CentralKill Or Be Killed, The Fade Out and Sin City.

Film Review: L.A. Confidential (1997)

Release Date: May 14th, 1997 (Cannes)
Directed by: Curtis Hanson
Written by: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson
Based on: L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Ron Rifkin, Graham Beckel, Matt McCoy, Simon Baker

Regency Enterprises, The Wolper Organization, Warner Bros., 138 Minutes

Review:

“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.” – Capt. Dudley Smith

I’ve seen parts of L.A. Confidential over the years and I knew enough about the story before even watching it but yes, this is my first viewing of the film in its entirety.

While that may seem odd for a fan of film-noir, I didn’t become a true lover of noir fiction until I got past my teen years. Sure, I always liked crime movies but the noir aesthetic didn’t truly penetrate my psyche until my late 20s and really didn’t make me do a deep dive into the cinematic style until my mid-30s.

Now L.A. Confidential is a modern neo-noir that takes its narrative and stylistic cues from classic film-noir but it has this pristine razzle dazzle about it and that’s not simply because of the star power. It’s visual allure is just breathtaking and while other films in the ’90s tried to encapsulate the noir look, albeit in color, there is just something fantastical about how this comes off on screen.

On one hand, the movie feels like a dark fairytale of a time long gone and a world that doesn’t exist in the same way. On the other hand, there is a gritty realness to it that makes the darker parts of humanity come across as genuine and frightening.

That being said, this is still great because of its star power on top of the film’s visual look. You really have a solid cast between Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito. Everyone does a perfect job with the script and the story.

However, I think the glue that holds everything together so well is director Curtis Hanson. While not having a prolific name like Scorsese, Coppola or De Palma, he takes the crime fiction material and makes it work, incredibly well. He got the most out of his cast while having a great eye for mise-en-scène. The film boasts stupendous cinematography and shot framing.

The score by Jerry Goldsmith is also pretty close to perfect.

My only real complaint about the film comes in regards to its pacing. While mostly energetic, there are a few points in the film that drag a bit more than they need to. I didn’t find it to wreck the movie or even be much of a distraction, though.

The ’90s produced a lot of neo-noir motion pictures but L.A. Confidential certainly deserves its place in the upper echelon.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other ’90s neo-noir films: Heat, The Two Jakes, The Usual Suspects, Mulholland Falls, Seven, Red Rock West, Devil In a Blue Dress, Dick Tracy, etc.