Narrated by a dead man (something we learn right upfront), this film is one of the most biting, harsh commentaries ever filmed. Attacking Hollywood (which for a Hollywood movie is a risk) had been done before this film and has been done since but nothing packs the same kind of punch as the decline of the old, washed-up silent movie star Norma Desmond, played perfectly by another washed-up silent star Gloria Swanson. William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who becomes Ms. Desmond’s personal screenwriter and “companion.” Director Billy Wilder uses the screen here to make a film as dark and dismal as the plot…and this only enhances the story. An example would be the house Norma lives in…Wilder shoots it like a funeral home. It’s always dark and shadowy, just like Norma and her dreams of a “comeback.” There are some things in this film that seem to be just added for “dark” comic effect…like the burial of the monkey. Yes—monkey. These little oddities add to Norma’s dark and foreboding feel…she’s not only a has-been but Wilder wants us to also know she’s mentally unstable. Holden does a great job as the “sane” character in the film. His performance is crucial since it has to be the glue that holds all of the insanity together. But, it also has to be strong since we know he’s a doomed man. After all…it is his character floating in the pool, dead, at the beginning of the film…
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Directed by Jules Dassin, this film is one of the best examples of film noir. Set in London, Richard Widmark plays a small-time hustler who is always too late for the big time grift. When he finally finds something that he feels might make his some serious cash, the plan backfires. Widmark is at his best here…he excels at playing lowlife losers and this is one of his best. Add Gene Tierney to the mix as Widmark’s love interest and it makes one exceptional film.
No Way Out is a hard film for me to watch. It is raw and unrelenting in its depiction of racism in the 1950s. The n-word is tossed around very casually and other derogatory words and stereotypes as well. So, wondering why I love this film so much? Well, just as it’s tough to watch, it is also essential to watch, especially for someone like myself who did not grow up with that level of intense racism. This film teaches tolerance and acceptance. It shows that the difference between black and white (or whichever color) are inconsequential and even non-existent. For its time, this must have been a much more shocking film that it even is today…I mean I was “shocked” at some of the racist language, etc. but in 1950, I’m assuming the level of shock was concerning different aspects of the film. Like the fact that Sidney Poitier plays a doctor. Black physicians are commonplace now, but in the early 50s, I’m sure they were not filling the halls of medical schools. The message of this film is essential, though, so matter what your shock value, try your best to put it aside. It’s a must-see example on how ignorance and intolerance can drive a person to ruin and about how a by-gone era and mentality (thankfully) viewed successful African Americans and the people who persecuted them.
Humphrey Bogart is downright scary in this one…directed by Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray. Like another Bogart film noir film, Dark Passage from 1947, this is another one that Hollywood didn’t like to make that often…no “happy” ending. Most film noirs don’t end conventionally happy, but they do find some sort of resolution. There is no resolution here…In a Lonely Place ends even darker than it begins. The story revolves around Bogart’s character, who is a struggling screenwriter trying to get back on his professional feet. He has no desire to read the book he’s been asked to adapt so when he meets a young lady who has read it, he asks her to tell him the story…at his apartment. Nothing “bad” seems to happen but the next morning when we find out the girl has been murdered, we really are not sure how innocent Bogart really is. I mean, this is a man out of control. Right from the beginning, we see he has a bad temper and it only gets worse. This is NOT a nice guy, but somehow, due to the director of Ray and mostly to the stellar acting of Bogart, we like him. We feel for him and we WANT him to be innocent, even though we’re not 100% sure he is. One of Bogart’s best performances!!!
The original 1950 version stars a befuddled Spencer Tracy and a sparkling and beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as the beloved daughter of Tracy’s character. The 1991 version with Steve Martin comes close to the original, but even though Martin is a very solid comedian, no one can master comic confusion like Tracy. He was good at it in the film he starred in with Katharine Hepburn, but in this role he seems more irritated and annoyed than ever, mostly because he can’t stand to see his “little girl” walk into the arms of any other man but his.
No, NOT the 1993 remake…but rather the 1950 original with William Holden and the incomparable Judy Holliday. This version is a screen classic…winning Holliday a Best actress Oscar and helping build a long career for William Holden. But, Holliday is the true star of this film…with her trademark naïve and squeaky voice, she steals the film…and audiences’ hearts. This is the story of a powerful, wealthy, yet highly unsophisticated man (played with just the right tones of comedy and anger by Broderick Crawford) who comes to Washington D.C. for some business dealings, bringing his not-so-bright girlfriend (Holliday) with him. Thinking she’s embarrassing him, he tries to get her “trained” by a journalist (Holden) on the finer things in life. Everyone in this film, directed by the famed George Cukor, is top-notch, including Crawford, who’s perfect as a rough, tough businessman who needs a lot more “training” than Holliday. But, Holliday is just perfect here as the simple, uneducated girl who falls for her tutor. After Holden begins his training, her pseudo-intellectual talk is some of the funniest dialogue in films. She’s bubbly when she needs to be and serious when that’s called for…never missing a beat. A must for all film comedy fans!
When I saw Angel Face in a Film Noir class in college, I was stunned. How could a movie be this dark, yet still so appealing? But, that, as I learned more about film, is what Film Noir is all about. Noir movies do not always have happy endings (most of them do not) and they most definitely do not have to have everything throughout the movie be idyllic and cheery. After all, Noir is about life post-WWII…it’s dark and brooding, just like war. So, getting back to Preminger’s masterpiece Angel Face…I mean, this is the man who directed one of my favorite Noir titles (and often referred to as one of the first big titles of the genre), Laura. That film ends with a somewhat uplifting ending. I mean – only the “bad guy” gets it. In Angel Face, forget trying to figure out who’s bad and who’s good and what’s going to happen next because you never will. And the ending…well, let’s just say you will be shocked. Mitchum plays the perfect Film Noir wanderer…he’s searching for something and just might have found it with Jean Simmons, a very spoiled, EXTREMELY troubled young lady with a lazy father and a rich stepmother. Enter Mitchum who Simmons sets her sights and her clutches on. It’s a timeless tale of love gone wrong…with several major roadblocks set up along the way.
Wait for a bumpy night and put this classic zinger on. This film revitalized Bette Davis’ ailing career and as soon as she speaks in this one, you will know it’s a performance she was born to play. Davis plays an acclaimed and long-standing Broadway actress who is the object of a wannabe starlet’s attention. At first, it seems the young upstart is just that…someone who is in awe at Davis’ mere presence. As the film goes on, we come to find out she’s much more than an impressionable, naive girl. The young girl, played by Anne Baxter, is great but Davis steals this movie right out from under her. Yes, this is the film that coined the phrase, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And one could say the same about Davis’ performance here…strap yourself in because you will be surprised.
Hitchcock delves into the genre of legal dramas with this one…with Gregory Peck as a British barrister who defends a woman he is convinced is innocence…mostly because he’s in love with her. Peck is miscast here, not even trying to fake an English accent. We know he can pull off a good “lawyer” act (as he does flawlessly in To Kill a Mockingbird), but he just doesn’t even seem to be trying here. Laughton and Barrymore are hardly used at all…I’m sure they were just cast for big name appeal…their roles are both minute, especially Barrymore’s. The one saving grace to this film is the plot. It’s a strong story that holds up through the years. Not packing as much of a “thriller” punch as most Hitchcock titles, this one is more about the drama and less about the suspense, though there is a crucial piece of plot that is revealed in the end. Compared to titles like Billy Wilder’s legal classic Witness for the Prosecution, the ending is not as intense, but the movie on a whole is a fine legal drama.
I remember how excited I was when I got to this one during my “in order” Hitchcock phase as a child. Coming right between Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and the same year as To Catch a Thief, this one would have to be great, right? Well, to a 10-year-old, it was…for lack of a better term, boring. Why? Because it is a dark comedy and the humor, I guess, was over my head. I was expecting another thriller like the ones before and after it. But, instead I got a sweetly innocent story about a small New England town and a newly widowed single mother. Harry, the title character, is/was her husband and the beginning of the film shows his dead corpse lying on the grass under some autumn trees. How, why, and by whom Harry died contributes to both the story and the humor of this tale. And, watching it again as an adult, I liked it quite a bit. It’s sharp and original and clever. But, it’s not Rear Window. Hitchcock didn’t take that many chances throughout his career. He discovered early on that he was good at and liked directing thrillers so he mainly stuck to that. This is one of the few times he deviated and not only does it showcase Hitchcock’s versatility, it also proves he can poke fun at thrillers…in The Trouble with Harry murder/death is pretty dang funny!