Thursday, 28 April 2011

"Gun Crazy" Review

Thirty years before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would star in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), ther real life Bonnie and Clyde would inspire the film You Only Live Once (1937), directed by Fritz Lang. Another film also inspired by the legendary bank robbers was Gun Crazy (1950). Gun Crazy may in time become one of my favourite film noirs, it's a film that aches out to be seen again once its over. The performances, the camera work, the unexpected poignancy, they all work together to create an unpretentious and efficient little thriller about the power a beautiful and dangerous woman can have over a man. Even though I knew the narrative trajectory of the film before I watched it, I nevertheless was engaged throughout.

The film begins with Bart Tate (Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame) stealing a gun from a pawn shop. He is caught by the town sheriff and is sentenced to reform school. He spends several years there and in the army. After he gets out of the army, he comes back to town, now played by John Dall. The only other film I've seen Dall in is Alfred Hitchock's film Rope (1948), as one half of a murder plot along with Farley Granger. While Dall's name isn't as legendary as some of his contemporaries, seeing him play such an unsympathetic and cold blooded character in Rope, then seeing him play the Farley Granger role from Rope, dragged in to a life of crime that doesn't suit his straightlaced personality, I think he's a very fine actor. Bart and his friends Clyde and Dave go to the carnival to watch a shooting performance by Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). After participating in a shooting contest with her, Bart joins the carnival. His time there doesn't last long as the carnival manager Packett  becomes jealous of Bart for stealing away Laurie's affections. When Packett fires them both, Bart and Laurie run off together They get married and for a while they are happy. Ultimately they realize Bart's job is paying them enough money so Laurie convinces Bart to rob banks and other places with her.

Bart being pulled in to life of crime provides the film's most fascinating dilemma. Bart has always loved guns but after killing a little chicken when he was young, he can't bring himself to kill anything. Bart says later in the film that if one is going to rob a place, he or she has to be prepared to kill, has to know it may come to that This is what appealed to me most about the film, that  Bart is never portrayed as being an outright evil person At the beginning of the film, when Bart is sentenced, he is not portrayed as an evil kid who will always be that way but rather as boy who is a little strange. This makes his decent in to crime much more dramatic and tragic. As in many film noirs, you always say to yourself, "If only he hadn't..." It also makes the love story more complex and poignant. I believe that Bart and Laurie are genuinely in love, that they go together like guns and ammunitions as Bart says, but Laurie is still leading Bart to his doom, as well as her own. The film asks how far would you go to be with the one you love. Could you accept that person even if he or she was a killer?

Bart has to accept Laurie as she is. Like Bart, Laurie is never portrayed as being totally evil. While she does have psychopathic tendencies, there is still a vulnerability, brought to the character by Cummins, that suggests that Cummins is just as afraid and reluctant to kill anyone as Bart. Even when Laurie tries to convince Bart to use Bart's neice as a human  shield near the end of the film when she and Bart hide at his sister Ruby's house, it comes across a patheitic rather than evil. It's also darkly funny. Cummins is very good here, being both deadly and vulnerable, always making the audience question her true character. Also, just finding out she is English, she does a convincing American accent.

The director Joseph H. Lewis brings a real sense of excitement to the proceedings, putting the camera in the getaway car so that the audience feels like they are driving away with Bart and Laurie. There was an element of guerilla fillmaking involved in the making of the picture. A sequence in a parking lot where Bart and Laurie escape after a robbery, was done without permission. Phillip Martin says this type of filmmaking anticipates the work of Jean Luc Godard with films like Breathless (1960). Of course, Godard was influenced by American filmmakers and Gun Crazy was one of the inspirations for Breathless. Martin also seems to think that the film can only be taken as camp, and not as a serious piece of work. I disagree. I found the film poignant and was quite masterful in terms of its pacing and mood.

I love how the film comes full circle, returning to Bart's sister and his friends, who still love Bart despite what's he done. I think the real accomplishment of the film, and Dall's performance, is that we kind of come to love him too, and we love him with Laurie. They are a perfect embodiment of the tragic noir couple and Gun Crazy embodies what is great about film noir, all its tragedy, sexual tension, and the excitement of a loaded gun.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

"The Racket" Review

The Racket (1951) is a slightly disappointing affair. The film promises a faceoff between Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, two iconic actors, playing a honest cop and a gangster, respectfully. When these two actors do confront each other, the film is very powerful. Unfortunately, one feels that Mitchum and Ryan are sometimes sidelined due to the number of plotlines the film tries to handle. While it may take too long to summarize everything that goes on in The Racket, I'll give a basic summary of the plot. The film centers on the attempts of honest cop Captain Tom McQuigg (Mitchum) to bring down gangster Nick Scanlon (Ryan). This battle between cop and crook is set within the context of a crime comission investigation that is trying to stop DA Welsh (Ray Collins, Boss Jim Gettys in Citizen Kane) from being made a judge by "the old man," the leader of the crime syndicate.

The film is remake of a 1928 film of the same name, produced by Howard Hughes, who also produced this film. According to Eddie Mueller, who did a commentary track for the DVD, Hughes produced this remake because of the interest in real life crime commission investigations. Mueller also states that the first scene of the film establishing the crime commission as a part of  the story, was added in after the film was done. Nicholas Ray, director of They Live By Night and Rebel Without a Cause, directed this scene. He also directed a few others after credited director John Cromwell left the production. The film supposedly also had a few writers. I got the sense from this film that there is a number of intriguing characters and ideas that not fully developed. I think this has to do with the number of writers that were involved, as well as the different directors. I can see how all the parts of the film are supposed to fit together but, as I just said, at the same time I never felt they were fully developed enough to create the full picture.

This is not to say I wasn't involved with the plights of the characters though. I did care about rookie cop Bob Johnson (William Talman), and I was definitely invested in the relationship between McQuigg and Scanlon. The one thing that disappoints me most about the film is how, as Mueller also states, it's entirely about this conflict. Like Mueller, I wish it was. Mitchum and Ryan have great screen presences, even though Mitchum, as Mueller says, was perhaps a litte too laconic for this role, and there's real tensio when they face off. I think an extra half hour could have given all the plotlines room to breath and develop. At only 89 minutes, the film feels like something more expansive that was crammed in to a brisk hour and a half. I also wished we learned more about the past relationship between McQuigg and Scanlon.

While The Racket falls short of being a really great film noir, I still think it's a fine film due to Mitchum and Ryan's characterizations, along with the other strong performances in the film. The direction is subdued but visually pleasing due to the way Cromwell handles the composition of actors in front of the camera. The Racket is problematic but for fans of this genre and these actors, it's worth seeing. 

Friday, 15 April 2011

"The Narrow Margin" Review

Of all film genres or movements, film noir has produced possibly of most of the many underseen treasures in Hollywood history. The Narrow Margin, while not as iconic as the Bogie blockbusters The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, is nevertheless an entertaining and sharp noir thriller. Aside from being a film noir, it also belongs to the subgenre of the "train thriller," which includes, among others, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, which as a huge Hitchcock fan I'm ashamed to say I haven't seen yet, as well as Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich, and Narrow Margin, the 1990 remake of The Narrow Margin, starring Gene Hackman. You could also include the second James Bond film From Russia with Love, with its long section on board the Orient Express, which of course was the setting of what may be the ultimate train thriller, Agatha Christie's novel Murder on the Orient Express. The novel was adapted in 1974 by the late Sidney Lumet in to an all star film of the same name. Basically, the "train thriller" subgenre is mighty packed. There's actually a fight scene in The Narrow Margin that'll remind some viewers of the fight scene between James Bond and Red Grant fight in From Russia from With Love.

The plot of The Narrow Margin is relatively straight forward. Two cops, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) are assigned to encompany a murdered mobster's wife Mrs. Neal (Marie Windsor) on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles in order for her to testify against the mob. The film does a good job of raising the tension early on by (Mild Spoilers) killing off Forbes. This lays out that the mob are already trying to kill Mrs. Neal. The tension is heightened even more by the relationship between Brown and Neal. Unlike other film noir heroes Brown has no romantic interest in Neal. He makes it clear he doesn;'t like her. He's also surprisingly sensitive about Forbes' death. He's no Sam Spade, who couldn't care less about his partner's murder. These are two interesting twists on film noir achetypes, the femme fatale who casts no spell over the film noir hero and the sensitivity of the film noir hero, who usually prefers being a loner. Clearly Brown amired Forbes. It's the antagonistic relationship between Brown and Neal which heightens the tension even more after Forbes' death. It makes the audience question how Brown can protect a woman he dislikes so much as well as question how Neal can stay alive if she's at odds with Brown. Brown is offered a bribe by Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), a man who works for the mob but Brown refuses. For me, the fact that Brown doesn't like Neal makes his nobility regarding protecting all the more admirable.

While watching the film I thought how a train is a perfect metaphor for a thriller. A train is claustrophaubic and is constantly moving, only slowing down occasionally. The Narrow Margin may be too slow paced for some viewers but I though it had plenty of tension, just that it's vrey much underneath the surface, not always calling attention to itself. The slowest parts of the film involve Brown's relationship with fellow passenger Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy (Gordon Gelbert). What interested me the most about her charcter was if she was going to be similar to another charcter in the 1990 remake. His relationship with these characters were the only things that divided me about this film. I really liked the payoff with her character as well as the fact that the filmmakers didn't try too hard to make her a love interest, I wasn't as engaged with the Ann Sinclair character until near the end when she compares Brown to a train, everything around him is a blur, only when he slows down does he notice anything. I also thought the Tommy character took some of the edge off the film for me.

The Narrow Margin was a film I thought I had figured out pretty early on but there are some good twists which can make a repeat viewing an intrguing experience. This is the first film I've seen McGraw or Windsor in and they're both very good. McGraw epitomizes a stoic yet sensitive and noble cop who'll won't tarnish his honour by accepting bribes and Windsor, quite striking, is a great femme fatale, the first shot of her in the film encapsulating a sense of danger and mystery about this woman. The Narrow Margin is a very fine piece of old fashioned Hollywood entertainment and I highly recommend it.