Friday, November 21, 2014

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

Orson Welles, 1948
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

Michael O’Hara, a sailor from Ireland, meets a beautiful blonde woman in Central Park. After he rescues her from potential robbers, she introduces herself as Elsa Bannister and offers to hire him as a sailor on her husband’s yacht when they travel from California to the Panama Canal. Her husband, the disabled Arthur Bannister, is the city’s best defense attorney and is very wealthy. Despite the fact that she’s married and has a colorful, possibly dark past, Michael falls for Elsa and signs on for the trip. During the journey, Bannister’s partner, George Grisby, attempts to hire Michael to help him fake his own death. Michael will appear to murder him, but will be found innocent by default due to the lack of a corpse. Grisby has Michael sign a confession and everything goes wrong from there – Grisby shoots a private detective on Elsa’s trail and, before Michael can put things right, Grisby is found dead along with Michael’s confession…

One of the greatest films noir and one of Orson Welles’ finest efforts, The Lady from Shanghai has a troubled, fascinating history. Welles made the film in exchange for the money to keep a theatrical production of Around the World in 80 Days afloat. Based on a novel by Sherwood King, If I Die Before I Wake, schlock-master William Castle owned the rights to the novel and intended to direct the adaptation himself – though Welles talked him into a role as only associate producer. The studio was troubled by Welles’ use of Brechtian techniques – certainly not geared toward everyday movie-goers – black comedy, unconventional editing, and strange camera-work reliant on long shots, rather than the close ups favored by all Hollywood studios.

Throughout his career, Welles struggled constantly with studio interference. The Lady from Shanghai is yet another example of this. He was devastated by the cuts to his film, particularly the ending, and the addition (in certain scenes) of a musical score. It was allegedly cut by an hour (the missing footage is considered destroyed or permanently lost) and close ups were added of Rita Hayworth. Speaking of Hayworth – Welles’ wife at the time – the studio was scandalized that Welles cut off her trademark long, red hair in exchange for a nearly white, bleached-blonde crop. He also transformed her into the ultimate femme fatale. Michael and Elsa discuss that she was born in the wickedest city in the world and it’s made clear later on that she stays with her husband because he is essentially blackmailing her to keep silent about some crime she has committed.

Elsa is the axis around which the film rotates. Welles and Hayworth were separated during production and were divorced not long after The Lady from Shanghai’s release. It’s easy to see this, in some ways, as a reflection of his feelings toward Hayworth and their marriage. Elsa – like Hayworth herself – is little more than a fantasy creature. She is statue-like, at time even apparitional, with her lovely profile and icy stare, determined inaction, and flat, unemotional register throughout the film. Elsa is presented with a past, but not a future and the exoticism of this past is part of her allure. Her connections with sex, danger, and Shanghai seem frozen in time, like Elsa herself.

Hayworth later said that men didn’t want to marry Rita, they wanted Gilda (her character from the film of the same name) or the fantasy image of her, the sexy pinup and the confident glamor girl. Tragically, she seemed to always marry men who wanted her for her image or, later, her money. Elsa is similar in some ways. Men desire her – and fall hopelessly in love – because of her glamorous image. But unlike the real-life Rita’s insecurities, Elsa is a wanton murderer, ready to seduce and frame Michael so that she can murder her husband and find emotional, physical, and financial freedom.

There are certain parallels with Double Indemnity. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, Elsa is a beautiful woman with questionable morals planning to murder her husband. And Welles’ Michael, like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, is the dope in love with her. Phyllis’ husband spends much of his screen time hobbling on crutches thanks to a broken leg, while Arthur Bannister is permanently disabled. It is likely that Welles was influenced by this highly influential noir, but he takes all of the characters several steps further – they are all more sinister, more depraved, and more surreal.

Aside from his controversial use of Hayworth, Welles cast a number of strong supporting actors from his Mercury Theater group in The Lady from Shanghai, many of whom are conduits for Welles’s sly use of black humor. Sloane (Citizen Kane) co-stars alongside Welles and Hayworth as the pathetic but devious Arthur Bannister, and William Alland (Citizen Kane), Erskine Sanford (Citizen Kane), and noir regular Ted de Corsia (The Big Combo, The Naked City) all have memorable side roles. It’s also worth mentioning that Welles cast a number of non-white actors in a time when Hollywood had some questionable racial politics. Elsa, though apparently Russian by birth, was at least for a time a Chinese citizen and is fluent in the language. When she’s in trouble, she heads to San Francisco’s Chinatown, rather than to white American friends. (There are also black maids and Mexican workers, so don’t think that the racial landscape is progressive, merely less sullied than other films of the era.)

Welles pushed to make The Lady from Shanghai one of the first major Hollywood productions shot mostly on location, including areas of Mexico and San Francisco. The Mexican shoot was apparently dangerous and the cast and crew were beset with interference from various critters, heat stroke, illnesses, and even one cameraman died of a heart attack. Welles, unusual in almost all things, also added two unnerving, dream-like sequences that are considered some of the some exemplary shots in all noir. The first is set in an aquarium, where Michael and Elsa have a love scene and kiss in the presence of school children. The fish behind them were shot to appear larger (and closer) than they really were, giving the scene a shadowy, menacing feel.

The final scene – thrilling, imaginative, and dreamlike – was Welles’ famous carnival set. He pushed the boundaries of how camerawork and editing techniques were typically used, going so far as to put a cameraman down the absurdly long slide. The funhouse was apparently inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – complete with strange angles, moving doors, the giant slide, and a room of mirrors. Welles apparently painted the entire set himself overnight. I wish the missing footage could be restored, but either way, the confrontation between Elsa, her husband, Michael, and a room of mirrors is both chilling and breathtaking.

The Lady from Shanghai remains relevant and exciting, and comes with the highest possible recommendation. It’s available on Blu-ray, though I’m hoping a superior release comes along soon. I haven’t bothered to mention Orson Welles’ performance here – or his role as writer, director, or producer – because it should be assumed that he is fantastic here, as always, and Michael might just be his most heartfelt, emotional role. Considered a failure in its time, The Lady from Shanghai is now considered a masterpiece. This revolutionary gem belongs at the top of any “to watch” list.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

THE STRANGER

Orson Welles, 1946
Starring: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young

Though often neglected alongside his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1942) or beloved film noir, Touch of Evil (1958), Orson Welles’ excellent, if understated thriller, The Stranger (1946), is a gripping look at post-war paranoia in small town America. 

A man from the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), follows Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a concentration camp commander allowed to leave prison in the hope that he will lead Wilson to Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a leading member of the Nazi party who has avoided detection and fled to the U.S. Kindler has moved to a small town in Connecticut and changed his name to Charles Rankin. Meinike finds his house, but meets his lovely, young fiancĂ©e Mary (Loretta Young) instead. She points him in Rankin’s direction and they meet secretly in the woods. Unfortunately for Meinike, Rankin is more interested in protecting his identity and he kills Meinike and hides his body in the woods. 

Charles and Mary are married, but strange events begin to occur around town, including the poisoning of Mary’s beloved dog and the discovery of Meinike’s body. Wilson figures out that Rankin is Kindler, but has little evidence and needs Mary’s testimony before he can make an arrest. Charles, meanwhile, has convinced Mary that he has to go on the run for a completely different reason and she swears her loyalty. When Wilson and her family show her concentration camp footage, her certainty begins to crack and she is pushed to the edge of hysteria. Will Charles kill her before she faces the truth?

Though Welles considered it one of his worst films, mostly a work for hire piece, The Stranger was a box office success and was nominated for an Academy Award for the script. It also convinced the studio that he could be a team player after his first two sprawling, expensive works, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Despite Hollywood interference in terms of script and editing, Welles’ directing is unmistakable and stylish with interesting framing, long shots, and detailed sets from designer Perry Ferguson. Welles is great at creating atmosphere and suspense, which he successfully maintains throughout the film. 

The script was written by Victor Trivas (Where the Sidewalk Ends) and reworked by Anthony Veiller (The Killers), Welles himself, and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). There are similarities between The Stranger and other films from the period, including Welles’ interest in small town American in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the clock references, secret identities, and thriller tone of The Third Man (1949), and the evil underbelly of small town American from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Though many other thrillers would go on to address the problem of Nazism, Welles’ Rankin/Kindler is an attractive, charismatic, and intelligent portrait of human evil. This was also the first film released after WWII to show real footage from concentration camps, especially powerful at a time when the world was struggling to believe the camps existed at all. Fascism was a major concern for Welles and was convinced it would find ways to rear its ugly head even after the war was over. 

Welles is excellent as the charismatic Rankin, a character that represents the generalized human evil Hitchcock portrayed in Shadow of a Doubt, but also gives that evil a name: Nazism. His speeches about fascism are truly chilling, but he is compelling enough that we follow him along until the inevitable conclusion. Edward G. Robinson is likable as the investigator in a role similar to the character he played in Double Indemnity, but Welles far overshadows him. It would have been interesting to see Welles’ original choice for the role, Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane). Loretta Young (The Accused) is decent as Rankin’s wife driven to the edge of hysteria and essentially provides the emotional core of the film. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of memorable side characters: Martha Wentworth (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll), Billy House (Bedlam), Konstantin Shayne (Vertigo) , and Richard Long (House on Haunted Hill) as Mary’s earnest brother. 

Though this isn’t technically a noir film, it has been sometimes labelled as such because of its beautiful noir-like visuals from cinematographer Russell Metty (Touch of Evil), which look phenomenal here. The other noir tropes -- a man on the run, secret identities and dark secrets, a detective, a final pursuit -- are shaped by Welles into something totally his own. Of course, Citizen Kane is one of the forerunners of noir style and the major plot point there, the quest to discover a man's true identity, is reshaped here.

In addition to the great transfer, the extras make this release well worth picking up. There is an informative commentary track from film historian, writer, and filmmaker Brett Wood that explores the making of the film and how the end result differed from Welles’ original vision. Also included is Death Mills, a roughly 20 minute short film from Billy Wilder made up of concentration camp footage. A major bonus is that four of Welles’ radio broadcasts were included: “Alameda,” “War Workers,” and “Brazil” from 1942 and “Bikini Atomic Test” from 1946, totaling about 90 minutes. There is also an image gallery and the original trailer for The Stranger

Though many may consider The Stranger to be one of Welles’ more average and accessible works, I have to say that even his most mediocre films that suffer from Hollywood meddling are more interesting than the best works of many other directors from the period. The Stranger is a compelling post-war thriller and comes highly recommended. The Kino Blu-ray is a must-have for Welles fans.

THE KILLING (1956)

Stanley Kubrick, 1956
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr

After he’s released from prison, smalltime criminal Johnny Clay plans to run one final heist before marrying his faithful girlfriend, Fay. His idea is to rob a local racetrack when they’re counting down the sizeable bets they receive during the day. His team includes two insiders, a teller at the racetrack, George, and a bartender, as well as a dirty cop, a sniper to shoot the winning horse and cause a distraction, and a wrestler to start a fight and cause a distraction near the counting room. Unfortunately George blabs a little to his wife, Sherry, who is greedy and hopes to steal the money with the assistance of her boyfriend, Val. Though the plan goes off with nary a hitch, Sherry’s betrayal could cause the ruin of all.

Though he made two features before this, namely noir-melodrama Killer’s Kiss, The Killing can be seen as director Stanley Kubrick’s first serious work. It was something of a breakthrough hit and has gained critical momentum over the years. This was also the beginning of the partnership between Kubrick and producer James Harris, who recognized Kubrick as a brilliant young talent and financed part of The Killing with his own money. They would go on to work together for the following decade and the success of The Killing allowed them to make Paths of Glory together. Based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break, the film was apparently initially intended by Hollywood to be a Frank Sinatra vehicle.

Kubrick and Harris made the brilliant decision to hire noir novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) for the script, which is excellent, particularly the dialogue. Overall, The Killing is a highly imaginative and influential heist film. Though it has much in common with John Huston’s earlier heist-noir, The Asphalt Jungle, including the presence of star Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar). I have to admit that I just don’t get Hayden’s appeal. I think he’s going for the sort of gruff aloofness that John Wayne pulled off so charismatically, but I find him to be flat, unemotional, and utterly boring in every film. He certainly doesn’t do The Killing any favors, though part of its charm is how roughly and coldly it treats the characters.

Like Killer’s Kiss, this shows a distinctly shabby side of life that exists amongst the city’s glitz and glamor. The characters are generally unlikable, although these men want the money not just out of greed, but to improve their lives (and often for the sake of a woman). Some are simply in it out of a sense of loyalty to Johnny Clay, such as my favorite character, wrestler Maurice (played by real-life wrestler Kola Kwariani, apparently a chess buddy of Kubrick’s). Aside from the dull Sterling Hayden, there are some great performances. Noir regulars Ted de Corsia, Timothy Carey, and Marie Windsor all shine. Windsor, as a femme fatale and unfaithful wife, is perhaps the most colorful character and is shown in various stages of dressing and undressing, applying makeup or removing it.

Noir staple Elisha Cook Jr is equally memorable as her runty, rundown husband, always trying to accomplish the Sisyphean task of pleasing a woman obsessed with wealth and glamor. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how they got together in the first place – though there is the suggestion that he promised her a lifestyle he hasn’t yet delivered on – and it is this greed that brings the whole enterprise crashing down around their heads. As with Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick uses noir tropes only where they advance the film, such as with frequent voice-over narration, and a non-linear plot structure (rather than the flashback sequences of Killer’s Kiss). The non-chronological tale often has the same events shown from different characters’ perspectives, resulting in a truly elegant film.

There is a lengthy, though genius heist scene where each character looms large in their individual tasks and everyone from the wrestler to the sharpshooter, as well as Sterling Hayden with his clown mask and shotgun, are unforgettable. Kubrick waits until the last possible moment to realize the explosive, sudden violence at the film’s conclusion, which sharply contrasts earlier scenes of heavy dialogue. The nihilism and hopelessness, such a staple of the noir genre, is contrasted with unexpected moments of black humor. The greedy, nagging wife’s parrot squawks loudly when she dies, and Johnny’s failure at the film’s conclusion is surprisingly (and somewhat uncomfortably) hilarious.

The Killing comes highly recommended. It’s the first Kubrick film where he really comes into his own. Check out the Criterion Blu-ray – certainly the best presentation of the film in the U.S. – which also includes Killer’s Kiss as a supplement. If you enjoy heist films or crime caper movies, this is an absolute must-see.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

KILLER'S KISS

Stanley Kubrick, 1955
Starring: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera

Davey, a washed up boxer, and Gloria, a struggling taxi dancer, are neighbors in an apartment complex. They can see into one another’s rooms across a courtyard and become attracted to one another. The night that Davey loses a fight, Gloria’s boss, Vincent Rapallo, follows her home and attacks her because she continually repels his advances. Davey rushes to save her, causing Rapallo to flee. Davey protectively stays the night and he and Gloria strike up a sudden, intense relationship. They decide to go out of town, but Rapallo is determined to keep her, even if it means murder and kidnapping.

This is director Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film (though he tried to hide and repress his first effort, Fear and Desire), which he also wrote and produced. It’s certainly an early American independent effort; he borrowed money from his uncle to make the film and the budget is noticeably very low. Due to its mainstream subject matter and noir stylings, Kubrick expected it to be mainstream enough to garner him some success. Though it was mostly ignored, he was able to sell the film to United Artists, though they insisted on a happy, romantic ending where Davey and Gloria are reunited at the last possible moment at the train station. Despite this minor setback in his vision, it allowed Kubrick to make a bigger budget follow up – The Killing – which was his first true cinematic success.

I’m not overly fond of Killer’s Kiss – and it has a lot of flaws – but it is a worthwhile look at the developing skills of an auteur director. The grungy, sleazy view of ‘50s New York definitely makes the film worth watching and the shots where Kubrick breaks up the plot to show New Yorkers in action are wonderful (keep an eye out for the people who refuse to ignore the camera). This gives it more than a hint of Cinema veritĂ© and a sense of realism found in later independent film. If you like Godard or, more appropriately, Cassavetes, this might be worth checking out for the visual similarities.

Killer’s Kiss isn’t quite film noir, but Kubrick includes plenty of noir tropes that are used well. The main characters are a boxer, a taxi dancer (loosely a sexless, in-club escort, a young woman who is paid per dance by men at a dance hall – an earlier, more wholesome counterpart to the strip club), and a gangster and his thugs. The story is told with flashbacks and voice overs, both Davey and Gloria have had rough lives with little hope for the future. People hang around in alleys and worn out buildings thick with shadows, where they smoke cigarettes and brood. I don’t think this is really a spoof of noir, but Kubrick either cleverly used the tropes to make a dark and violent melodrama, or he just really bumbled his way through this film.

Make no mistake – despite its interesting elements, Killer’s Kiss is deeply flawed. Probably the strongest element is an excellent chase/fight sequence, which takes Davey and Rapallo through the city, into a mannequin factory where they struggle (with an axe) against faceless, life-sized white dolls. Aside from this somewhat brilliant moment, the story is little more than a loosely sketched love triangle where an honorable, though struggling boxer and a successful, though sleazy nightclub owner fight for the ownership of a young dancer. The performances are incredibly basic. Frank Silerva (Viva Zapato) is a dead-ringer for Burt Lancaster, though he can’t quite muster the same brooding charm. Frank Silvera (from Kubrick’s Fear and Desire) often seems like little more than a cartoon villain. The beautiful if blank Chris Chase, billed here as Irene Kane, had a brief acting run (which included a role in All That Jazz), but became known for her career as a writer. She was also the sister of Kubrick’s then-wife, prominent New York ballet dancer Ruth Sobotka. Sobotka appears as the ballerina in Killer’s Kiss, Gloria’s dead sister, dancing in flashback.

I can’t say that the film comes recommended, but Kubrick fans will definitely want to check it out. Killer’s Kiss is available on DVD, but you should really pick up the Criterion release of The Killing – a must see film – which includes Killer’s Kiss as a special feature. Though I didn’t love the film, you certainly wouldn’t be wasting your time with it. It has a fairly short running time, moves at a good pace, and is full of some wonderful New York scenery.

Monday, November 17, 2014

KISS ME DEADLY

Robert Aldrich, 1955
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper

“Remember me.”

Mike Hammer, a private detective, nearly hits a woman one night while driving on a country road outside of LA. The woman, who eventually gives her name as Christina, is wearing only an overcoat and explains that she has escaped from a mental hospital, where she was held against her will. Hammer agrees to help her get to a bus station, but on the way they’re attacked. Christina is tortured to death and Hammer is nearly killed. He wakes up in a hospital alongside his voluptuous secretary, Velma, and is determined to take Christina’s case. He meets Christina’s roommate, Lily, who is looking for a mystery box. The box, which Velma dubs, the “great whatsit,” moves to the forefront of Hammer’s increasingly dangerous quest.

Director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Dirty Dozen, What’s the Matter with Baby Jane?) helmed this classic and unusual film noir effort. Based on Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly, a Mike Hammer novel, screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Thieves’ Highway) added several changes and twists to Spillane’s beloved novel. For starters, the novel’s original plot focused on drugs and organized crime. Bezzerides brilliantly shifted this to a mystery about nuclear power and the red terror. Hammer, originally a tough detective with a heart of gold who gets roped in by voluptuous dames, is transformed into a sadistic jerk with little to no morals. Though he remains a private detective in both stories, in the novel he takes on various clients, while in the film he specializes in divorce cases. He manipulates the outcome with the assistance of his beautiful secretary, Velma, who he essentially pimps out to seduce husbands.

Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, Paths of Glory) as perfectly cast as Hammer – a solidly built force of nature oozing violent sexuality. This Hammer is a far more cynical and sadistic detective, a postwar model for the beginning of the Cold War. Unlike Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, the detectives of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hammer is grim and nihilistic, taking a living and indulging in vice, rather than playing by a white-knight code of honor. Because of Hammer and the even worse villains he is up against, Kiss Me Deadly is an extremely subversive film, full of violence, sex, and torture. It’s amazing that several of the scenes made it past the censors, including the central mystery which involves a woman being tortured to death in a machine shop.

The women are a surprisingly large presence in this film, perhaps more so than most noir. First is Velma, played by sexy brunette Maxine Cooper (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) in her first film role. Velma is as immoral as Hammer, willing to entrap men with her sexuality. She also tries to seduce Hammer and, in one surprisingly sexual scene, rubs herself all over him as they almost kiss, but don’t quite. As in the novel, she obviously has feelings for him and is willing to put her life on the line. Another unforgettable woman is Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), also in her first role, as the enigmatic Christina. Her death is not only the central mystery, but she sets the stage for the rest of the film – a woman naked beneath an overcoat, stranded on the highway after an escape from a mental hospital, where she was held against her will. Christina is brave and humorous in the face of death and asserts awareness that the world is treacherous and brutal; despite this, she still wants a chance at life.

Christina and Velma are balanced out by buxom blonde B-movie actress Marian Carr (Indestructible Man) as Friday, all sex appeal and no brains. The film’s villainess, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers of The Big Break), is a femme fatale in a loose sense of the term. She doesn’t really desire wealth, power, or sex; she has an insatiable curiosity which, in a spin on the Pandora myth, requires her to open the suitcases, even if it means death and disaster.

The “great whatsit,” the glowing suitcase that both Hammer and Lily track through the film, is a symbol of Cold War paranoia and nuclear terror. Somewhat curiously, this takes a backseat to the scenes of sex and violence and, if it wasn’t for the film’s conclusion, it would feel like little more than a MacGuffin. But Kiss Me Deadly has an ending unlike any other — it is absolutely chilling and signals what seems to be the apocalypse. This portrayal of film noir blended with sci-fi and apocalyptic horror is certainly unique for the time period. It’s easy to see the film’s influence on everything from The Night Strangler to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.


Kiss Me Deadly comes with the highest recommendation and should be at the top of your list of film noir to watch immediately. In addition to its grim plot, brutal violence, and unique instances of sci-fi, it’s also a fascinating portrait of ‘50s LA with much of the film shot on location – some of which no longer exist. Check out the
Criterion Blu-ray
to learn more about this masterwork and its history, including the alternate ending — Aldrich’s original conclusion was removed and not restored until several decades later.

Friday, November 14, 2014

THE BIG KNIFE

Robert Aldrich, 1955
Starring: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters

A major Hollywood star, Charlie Castle, wants to retire in order to save his marriage with his wife Marion, but the studio boss, powerful and demanding Stanley Hoff, insists that Charlie renews his contract for another seven years. Though he initially refuses, Charlie soon gives in, much to the disgust of Marion, who can’t decide if she is going to stay or finally seek a divorce. Charlie can’t just walk away because he was involved in a drunk-driving accident where he killed a child. His friend, Buddy Bliss, took the rap and the jail time, but Charlie’s secret is also known by Dixie, a wannabe actress. When she can’t keep her mouth shut, Hoff wants to have her permanently silenced and expects a horrified Charlie to take part.

Director Robert Aldrich essentially made his career just before The Big Knife with a Mickey Spillane noir adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly, after years working with other controversial directors, such as Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Charlie Chaplin, and Abraham Polonsky. The Big Knife is a smaller, less grandiose film than Kiss Me Deadly. Based on a play by Clifford Odets, it primarily takes place on one set, in Charlie’s California home, and is far more dialogue-heavy than hard-hitting, fast-paced Kiss Me Deadly. There is much less sex and no on-screen violence, and yet The Big Knife is a deeply sleazy, filthy film with scene after scene of a crumbling marriage, affairs, seduction-for-hire, sex as manipulation, manslaughter, attempted murder, cruel fate, and more. Like the earlier Sunset Boulevard, it exposes the corruption inherent in the Hollywood system – and in turn, the American dream.

The film actually has much in common with Sunset Boulevard down to the extensive use of melodrama, the theatricality and over- stylization – in The Big Knife, even the character names are a bit silly – and the film centers on a weak protagonist who effectively digs his own grave. Jack Palance, chewing scenery with gusto as Charlie Castle, is the soul of victimization and inaction. He insists that everything happens to him and he is powerless to change events. In a sense, it is easy to be lulled and manipulated by this seeming passivity, but in reality Charlie killed a child while driving drunk and allowed his only real, loyal friend to go to prison on his account. And then, as the ultimate betrayal, he had an affair with his friend’s alcoholic wife.

Though Palance is enjoyable, he – and Charlie – are outshone by the ensemble cast, many of whom are actresses. The great Ida Lupino is underused as an unhappy woman who can’t make up her mind and feels more like a wife caricature than a developed character. Nonetheless, she still gives an excellent performance. Lupino was particularly busy during the period, not only acting (Women’s Prison, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps), but she got her start directing television at this time. The real star of the film is perhaps Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans, shining yet again as a lonely, desperately sexual woman (similar to her performances in The Night of the Hunter and Lolita). She manages to out-Palance Jack Palance in the key scene where she explains that her position with the film studio is as little more than a glorified prostitute. Also keep an eye out for Jean Hagen (The Asphalt Jungle) as the manipulative seductress who seduces Charlie, and Iika Chase (Now, Voyager) as a gossip columnist with a mean streak.

Wendell Corey (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Rear Window) is great here as the aptly named Smiley Coy, a black-hearted press agent able to change emotions at the drop of a hat. He is far more sinister than either Palance (known later for his villainous roles) or Stanley Hoff. It’s a shame his character wasn’t given more screen time. The scene where he casually discusses Dixie’s murder with Charlie – without directly putting anything into words – is downright creepy.

Finally, Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront) is absolutely wonderful as Stanley Hoff, a histrionic studio executive who also oddly resembles a Bond villain with his white-blonde hair, tan, dark suits and sunglasses, and inexplicable hearing aid. He’s apparently based on several real Hollywood personalities, particularly his need to out-acting and constantly manipulate the actors in his employ. He adds a surreal element to the film and it’s easy to see how maybe this went on to influence David Lynch.

I’m not really sure whether or not to recommend The Big Knife. It’s available on an out of print DVD and will certainly delight some viewers – I enjoyed it very much – but others will find it too talky, staged, and melodramatic. It’s a sleazy, uncomfortable work, like several of Aldrich’s films, but really packs a punch with the surprise ending. SPOILER: Charlie resigns himself to the facts that he will never leave the studio system and his wife will never divorce him but will always remain unhappy. Dixie is going to reveal that Charlie was responsible for the child’s death, just as his friend (the one who assumed guilt) learns that Charlie slept with his wife. In response, he locks himself in the bathroom and slashes his arms open, presumably with the titular “big knife.” Suicide was generally frowned upon by the Production Code, which is undoubtedly why Aldrich felt the need to include it here, as yet another middle finger pointed at a system he loathed and frequently did battle against.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

Charles Laughton, 1955
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

“It’s a hard world for little things.”

Ben Harper accidentally kills two people during a robbery. Before he is arrested, he hides the money inside his young daughter’s doll and swears his two children, John and Pearl, to silence. He is executed in prison, but not before deliriously revealing to his cell mate, Reverend Harry Powell, that the money is hidden somewhere near Ben’s home. Harper, a dangerous serial killer serving jail time for a minor offense, heads to Ben’s home in West Virginia and, convincing her that he is doing the Lord’s work, marries Ben’s widow Willa. Desperate and lonely, Willa falls in love with him, only to be coldly rebuked and then murdered when he realizes she doesn’t know about the hidden cash. Instead, he goes after John and Pearl, who flee in desperation down the river, into the wilderness with Harper hot on their heels.

Based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is one of the finest American films ever made. This cross between film noir, German expressionism, fantasy-horror, and Southern Gothic is the only film directed by the great actor Charles Laughton (The Private Lives of Henry VIII, This Land is Mine, The Paradine Case, The Big Clock, Witness for the Prosecution, and numerous other films), primarily due to the fact that both audiences and critics disliked the film or outright ignored it upon its release. It wasn’t recognized as a work of greatness until years later.

This nightmarish film, which has some truly frightening scenes and a sense of unbearable suspense that builds throughout, borrows heavily from the literary genre that would come to be known as Southern Gothic. Writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor penned novels about rural Southern culture – the heat, poverty, misery, racism, alcoholism, and inherent cruelty in day-to-day life. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, really only Southern Gothic tales explored the poverty and rural values that gripped so much of the country, despite the apparent period of wealth and bounty. Even film noir crossed over into Southern Gothic territory with works like Gun Crazy, Moonrise, They Live By Night, and the greatest in the subgenre, Night of the Hunter.

It combines many of the tropes found in Southern Gothic literature – a family living in poverty and a misguided father, driven to crime and executed for his misdeeds. The Reverend Harry Powell is the face of evil, a false preacher believing he is doing God’s work by murdering his way through the country, with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his knuckles. Powell is based on Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer executed by hanging in 1932 for the murders of several people, including a mother and her children. Powell’s journey – a ruthless quest for wealth -- touches upon the rotten core of the American dream. The desire for success at with little work, expansion, and personal freedom regardless of the cost to others inspires Powell to murder a desperate and lonely woman, and to hunt down her two children for a doll packed with stolen money.

Though Powell – as the corrupter and seducer hiding behind a handsome and charming visage -- is one half of this narrative, the other half belongs to the children, Pearl and John. While Night of the Hunter is a story about murder, theft, and terror, it is also a children’s fairytale. Both poetic and fantastical, the children’s flight down the river takes up much of the film. This lengthy sequence is full of fantasy, horror, and imagination. Laughton breaks free somewhat from the film’s narrative structure and instead provides snippets of the children’s terror as they float down the river, desperate to survive.

The children, Peter Graves and Sally Jane Bruce, give solid performances, which is particularly surprising given just how much time they’re on screen. One of the film’s many strengths is its excellent cast, including Robert Mitchum in what may be his best performance. Mitchum, known for his noir, crime, and war film roles as the assured tough guy with a deep, lazy voice and bedroom eyes, was cast against type here. He is truly incredible as Powell and this is certainly one of the most iconic performances in American cinema. Not to be outdone is silent film star Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper. Though I generally find Rachel’s involvement in the film to be overly saccharine, she provides a needed contrast to the Powell and the film’s clueless, self-centered other adults who are far removed from the world of children.

These other adults are best summarized in Shelley Winters’ wonderful performance as the children’s mother. She is so full of loneliness, longing, and a desperate, clinging sexuality that she gives off an innocent, childlike quality, one that prevents her from parenting. Like the town’s other adults, she is obsessed with appearances. She trusts in Powell’s supposed role as Reverend and is determined that he will provide her salvation from isolation, poverty, and despair. Of course, in one of the film’s most shocking and beautiful moments, he murders her and stashes her body at the bottom of the lake, where her hair mingles with the seaweed.

Available from Criterion, Night of the Hunter comes with the highest possible recommendation. Everything about it is perfect. The great writer and film critic James Agee (The African Queen) co-wrote the script with Laughton. Though there has been some debate about who was responsible for what, both men have left their stamp on the film’s complex and tragic story. The film also wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without the breathtaking, expressionistic cinematography from Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) and the haunting score from Walter Schumann, part classical, choral, and folk. He worked with Robert Mitchum on a rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which will surely send a chill down your spine.