The League of Shadows. Set amid the devastation of post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a twisted take on the noir thriller — a black-and-white canvas for some very grey morality.
I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?
Apparently in Vienna.
Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time. Continue reading
Somebody’s always giving me guns. Humphrey Bogart stars as the iconic private eye Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, director Howard Hawks’ shadow-drenched adaptation of the classic detective novel of the same name.
In 1939, at the age of 51, former businessman Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, a dark, complex mystery following hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe as he wends his way through a series of murders and disappearances tied to a blackmail and pornography racket. Chandler is one of the great stylists in American literature and a giant in the genre of detective fiction, but there is no doubt that a solid measure of his fame stems from director Howard Hawks’ film noir adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946). The film capitalizes on the tough, anti-hero charisma of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Philip Marlowe and spices up the mix by pairing Bogie with Lauren Bacall. The two were then in the midst of a torrid affair and that chemistry is splashed all across the screen — in some ways it actually saved the movie from potential box office disaster (we’ll get into that below). In many respects The Big Sleep is a tangled mess of a film. It’s not really the best place to go for a coherent narrative or earned plot twists, but it is blessed with some of the best dialogue of any noir fiction. And while the film as whole might not make much sense, individual scenes sparkle with sexual tension or slang-ridden bravado. It’s the rare murder mystery where it doesn’t really matter a damn who done it. Being along for the ride is more than enough. (115 minutes) Continue reading
Pilgrims’ progress. Alison and Mr. Colpeper share a moment atop a hill overlooking Canterbury in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, a wartime homage to English tradition and a jovial examination of the ties between Britain and America.
Badly burned by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that is Meet Me in St. Louis, we had the pleasure of being promptly salved by the soothing and airy A Canterbury Tale (1944), the next Powell & Pressburger entry on the Sight & Sound list. We’ve already yammered about one Powell & Pressburger film (the excellent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but have said little of the famed filmmaking duo, who were known as “The Archers”. Though they share directing, writing, and producing credits on their films, the majority of the directing duties fell to Michael Powell, who had been working in the business since the silent film days. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian emigré to Britain who was the principal writer of the films and handled much of the production duties. Together they went on a critically acclaimed run in the 1940s like nobody else — landing six films on the Sight & Sound list in six consecutive years (1943-1948). Perhaps the gentlest and most modest of those six is A Canterbury Tale, which follows an American sergeant, a British sergeant, and a young woman in the Women’s Land Army as they try to unravel a mystery in the countryside of Kent, before all journeying to Canterbury. Though slight in scope and full of gentle (and genuinely funny) humor, the film manages to tackle a wide array of issues, from Anglo-American relations, the urban/rural divide, and faith in the face of adversity, to our connection to history and the extent to which good intentions can mitigate bad actions. It’s a pilgrimage well worth making. (124 min.) Continue reading
Driven ’round the bend. Madness, fear, and the looming spectre of Nazism drive the twisted criminality in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the last film Fritz Lang made in Germany before fleeing to the United States.
“Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes. Crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is fear and terror. Because the ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime.” So reads the scribbled ravings of Dr. Mabuse, a criminal mastermind driven insane before his arrest a decade earlier. In the aftermath of horrible events like the Boston marathon bombing it is a sobering (if not distressing) thought that director Fritz Lang was addressing the same sort of dreadful activity 80 years ago as the Nazis began their meteoric rise to power. This was the final film that Lang, whose mother was Jewish, made in Germany before fleeing the country. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933) is nominally a sequel to Lang’s very successful silent film Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), but it is also a semi-sequel to Lang’s previous movie, M (1931, we’ll get in to that below). Confined to a mental institution, the insane Mabuse endlessly pencils out complex criminal schemes which appear to be replicated in the real world by a criminal gang that uses terror and fierce loyalty to reach its destructive ends. Not just another crime film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse delves into strange realms of madness in a Germany that was itself on the verge of insanity. (122 min.) Continue reading
The damned condemning the damned. Good and bad alike feel the pressure as a child murderer terrorizes a German city in cinema’s first serial killer film.
This is a movie of firsts. M is widely considered to be the first serial killer film and the first police procedural; it is acclaimed German director Fritz Lang’s first sound movie and the first prominent role for future Hollywood star Peter Lorre; and it can in some ways be thought of as the first proper film noir movie, although that is a bit more debatable. The story unfolds in a German city whose populace are becoming increasingly fearful and discordant as a child murderer continues to commit terrible crimes with apparent impunity. With the public in an uproar, the exasperated police crack down heavily on the city’s criminal element. Their illegal businesses in disarray, the criminal underground decide to get the police off their backs by finding the killer themselves, and so a race begins between the cops and the crooks to catch the murderer. (110 min.) Continue reading