Feb 10, 2012

Noir x 5

That’s Glenn Ford with Gloria Grahame (Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a scene from The Big Heat up above.

A number of noir pictures have been released recently, and I got a number of them for Christmas. Sony/Columbia has released several sets, and this is the first of three volumes that have come out so far.

The Big Heat. Glenn Ford plays a cop investigating the suicide of another cop. Gloria Grahame, an attractive and talented actress who never made it into the top ranks of female stars, or at least never made it into the superstar stratosphere of a Rogers, Grable, Hepburn, or Monroe, plays a slightly ditzy gangster’s moll. Lee Marvin plays a brutal gangster, and Gloria’s nasty boyfriend. The suicide is a suicide, but the reasons behind it lead to tragedy for Ford and his family, and to what is usually termed “a web of violence, conspiracy, and corruption.” In short your usual noir motifs. A favorite line from the movie comes towards the end when Grahame tells the dead cop’s widow, “We’re sisters under the mink.”

An interesting reflection here is that both Ford and Marvin served in the Marines during WW II, and that actors of that era, such as Ford, Marvin, Gable, Stewart, Robert Montgomery, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and even Bob Keeshan (Clarabelle the Clown and Captain Kangaroo) served in the military whether in combat or at home. So they had a genuine toughness about them which is lacking in our current crop of action heroes.

The Sniper. This is a story about a psychopath who starts murdering women. It has a score by George Antheil, who, along with Hedy Lamarr is credited as the inventor of spread spectrum, or frequency hopping, technology. Antheil’s film music, as opposed to his avant garde productions, is lush, romantic, and approachable. The story, however, is spoiled by preaching about how the laws concerning insanity and the treatment of the criminally insane need to be rewritten.

The Lineup. An interesting story involving smuggling and murder. More of a police procedural than anything else.

5 Against The House. This is graced by the presence of Kim Novak, one of my favorite blondes from the 50s, and the only one still with us. The plot revolves around 4 college boys who visit Harold’s casino in Reno. The rich kid, a reputed brainiac, has come up with a system to break the bank. Now anyone with an ounce of brains knows that systems don’t work, and that the house percentage will always grind the sucker down so that they can’t win. Bright boy, however, doesn’t know this, and college and law school haven’t attempted to teach it to him. A robbery takes place, and a cop says that Harold’s can’t be robbed. Bright boy gets to thinking, and comes up with the perfect plan. Now this is where I have a problem, and its the problem that I see with the people who drank Kool-Aid at Jonestown, or blow themselves up at Tel Aviv pizzarias. If it’s such a great idea, why doesn’t the bozo fixing the Kool-Aid, or handing out the explosives do it himself.** None of the other bright boys says, “Hey, your system to break the bank didn’t work, why should we believe that your plan to rob it will work?” The plot, naturally, involves split second timing. For some reason a key element involves, believe it or not, public transportation. I’ve got no experience to work with here, but do real criminals ever plan things in as much detail as they do in caper movies?

Murder by Contract. Martin Scorsese loves this film, so if your taste is the same as his, you might too. It has some good points. Vince Edwards gives a convincing performance as a cold blooded killer. His portrayal of the character’s gradual breakup is good. I would have preferred a different ending though, one that would be even bleaker.

The films are to some extent marred by our current expectations with regard to criminal procedure, CSI, and all of that sort of thing. I’ve gotten so used to using my cell phone that it seems strange when characters have to look for pay phones while on the road. If you can get past the datedness of some of the flicks they’re worth seeing at least once. The Big Heat is worth repeat viewings.

*Yes, I know about John Wayne, and the fact that he didn’t serve. I’ve discussed this elsewhere. Most of the vets apparently didn’t mind that he didn’t serve. Gary Wills holds it against him, but then Gary Wills never served either.
** Just for the record, I know that Jim Jones drank the Kool-Aid, but if suicide bombing is such a great idea, why didn’t Arafat, or Osama blow themselves up rather than seducing others into doing so.