Archive for the ‘Film Noir’ Category

Ace in the Hole

June 30, 2013


Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an ethically challenged reporter who has been fired from several big city newspapers. He has wound up broke in Alberquerqe, New Mexico, where he persuades a local newspaper to hire him. Tatum is looking for that one big story that will get him hired by a major newspaper. While on an assignment, he stops to get gas at a diner/souvenir store, where he learns that the owner, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), has just been trapped in a rock fall while exploring the nearby ruins of an Indian cave dwelling. Sensing that this could be a big story, Tatum inserts himself into the situation, becoming the one who brings food and water to the unfortunate Leo. Tatum writes a melodramatic account of this incident for his paper. He then teams up with the corrupt local sheriff, Kretzer (Ray Teal), who believes he can use this to guarantee his re-election, as well as with Leo’s callous wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who sees the publicity as a way to improve business. Tatum persuades Kretzer to pressure the rescuers into trying to reach Leo by drilling through the mountain, rather than going through the tunnel, which would take much less time. Tatum reasons that the longer the rescue takes, the more drama he can put into this news reports, thus making it into a bigger story. As the days go by, curiosity seekers begin showing up. Eventually a carnival arrives and sets up rides outside where Leo is trapped.

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was not well received by critics when it came out in 1951. They apparently thought that it was excessively cynical. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, called it “… nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” In recent years, however, critics have taken a much kinder view of the film. I think one reason for that is that in the age of CNN and Fox News, it’s hard for people to take the noble view of the “free press” that the Hollywood Reporter‘s critic took.

Bosley Crowther, however, did make a valid point when he wrote: “There isn’t any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible.” It is highly improbable that a single reporter could completely control events the way Chuck Tatum does in this film. However, a group of reporters can control the way people perceive a story. Consider, for example, how some reporters have turned the recent revelations about the N.S.A. from a story about government spying to a story about Edward Snowden’s “narcissism”.

In Ace in the Hole, we see people enjoying carnival rides, while only a few hundred yards away, Leo is suffering, his legs trapped under rocks. This film is also about our society’s tendency to turn events into spectacles. The public’s reaction to the recent Boston Marathon bombings (“Boston Strong!”) was a good example of that, but the classic case in my opinion was the O.J. Simpson trial. Remember the “Ito Dancers”? Is Wilder’s film really much of an exaggeration of how people behave?

Ace in the Hole has Wilder’s usual biting dialogue, and the underrated Kirk Douglas gives a powerful performance as Tatum.

Hangmen Also Die

March 9, 2013


Hangmen Also Die is an entirely fictionalized account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany. This 1943 film was directed by Fritz Lang, from a screenplay by John Wexley, based on a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang. This was the only Hollywood film that Brecht worked on for which he received an on-screen credit. Lang had originally intended to have Brecht write the screenplay, but he apparently changed his mind due to aesthetic, political, and personal differences between himself and Brecht that made it increasingly difficult for them to work together.

The film is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) has just assassinated Heydrich, and he is fleeing down a street. Mascha (Anna Lee) sees him. When the Gestapo ask her where he went, she points them in the opposite direction. Svoboda, who is hiding nearby, observes this. Desperate for a place to hide, he follows her to her home, where he manages to persuade her to take him in, even though he knows that by doing so, he is placing her and her family in danger of retaliation by the Gestapo.

Lang and Brecht did not get along well when they were working on the story for Hangmen Also Die. Brecht thought some of Lang’s story ideas were unbelievable. He complained, for example, of one scene in which Lang had the leader of the Czech resistance evade the Gestapo by hiding behind a curtain. (I found this hard to believe myself.) Yet Lang was right to reject Brecht’s idea that the mistakes of the underground “are corrected by the broad mass of the people”. Brecht’s, influence, however, can perhaps be seen in the fact that one of the film’s chief villains is a Czech collaborator who is also the wealthy owner of a beer brewery. And there is some dark Brechtian humor in the moment when, in the midst of interrogating someone, a Gestapo officer pauses to squeeze a pimple on his face. (That’s something you don”t often see in Hollywood movies.)

John Wexley and Hanns Eisler (who composed the music) were both later blacklisted. Eisler was eventually deported because of his left-wing political views. Brecht left the country after being questioned by the HUAC.

Despite its contrived and melodramatic moments, Hangmen Also Die does touch upon some complex moral and political questions, such as whether terror tactics, like assassinations, are ever a good idea. In the film, the Gestapo begin carrying out random executions in retaliation for the assassination. What happened in real life was even worse. The Nazis destroyed the Czech city of Lidice, killing most of its inhabitants or sending them to concentration camps.

Although it is not one of Lang’s best films, Hangmen Also Die is nonetheless one of the more interesting films to come out of World War II.

Dr. Mabuse

November 11, 2012

Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.

The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.

The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)

It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.

Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?

In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.

In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

Scarlet Street

July 4, 2012

Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang on the set of Scarlet Street

Fritz Lang’s 1945 film, Scarlet Street, from a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, is based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière. (Jean Renoir also made a film adaptation of this work. I saw it years ago, and I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think it is one of Renoir’s best films.)

Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) works as a bank cashier living in Brooklyn. He is trapped in a loveless marriage to Adele (Rosalind Ivan). His one pleasure in life is painting. One night while he is walking home from an office party, he sees a woman being attacked by a man. Cross hits the man with his umbrella and the latter runs away. Cross then offers to walk the woman home. Her name is Kitty (Joan Bennett). She doesn’t tell Cross that the man who hit her was actually her gambling-addicted boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea). Cross and Kitty stop at a bar and have drinks. When Kitty asks him what he does for a living, Cross, wanting to look good in her eyes, tells her that he is a painter. This impresses Kitty, who thinks that painters make a lot of money. The next day she tells Johnny about this. Johnny senses an opportunity here. He persuades a reluctant Kitty to continue seeing Cross, who is clearly attracted to her, so she can wheedle money out of him. Kitty then persuades Cross to pay for an expensive studio apartment for her. Cross has to steal the money from his wife’s savings. As part of his deal with Kitty, Cross gets to use the place to do his painting. He leaves some of his paintings there. When Johnny finds them, he takes a couple to a street vendor he knows, to see if he can sell them. When he comes back a few hours later, the vendor tells him that the famous art critic, Janeway (Jess Barker) has bought them, and that he wants to see more works by their creator. Johnny then pressures Kitty into taking credit for Cross’s paintings – without telling Cross.

Scarlet Street is a dark comedy that slowly builds to a tragic climax. It is a study in how small lies can spiral into violence, and how decent people can become monsters.

When Scarlet Street was first released, Bosley Crowther, who was then the film critic for the New York Times wrote:

    In the role of the love-blighted cashier Edward G. Robinson performs monotonously and with little illumination of an adventurous spirit seeking air. And, as the girl whom he loves, Joan Bennett is static and colorless, completely lacking the malevolence that should flash in her evil role. Only Dan Duryea as her boy friend hits a proper and credible stride, making a vicious and serpentine creature out of a cheap, chiseling tinhorn off the streets.

This is almost the opposite of what I saw in this film. I thought Duryea’s performance was too cartoonish; he seemed too much like the Hollywood stereotype of the “tough guy”. Exaggeration was, of course, part of Lang’s Expressionist aesthetic, so he may have wanted to Duryea to act this way, but he seemed to me to be too much like a supporting player from a Dead End Kids movie. I found Joan Bennett much more believable. She manages to convey a sense that her character feels conflicted about what she is doing. (I can only suppose that Crowther wanted her character to be more like the Wicked Witch of the West.) As for Robinson, in the early scenes he seems to be trying too hard to come across as mild-mannered. As his character gradually becomes corrupted, however, his performance starts to pick up energy. He is powerful in the final scenes.

Scarlet Street is perhaps Lang’s best American film.