Most Hollywood films about musicians that were made during the studio era were usually biopics and focused on individual artists such as George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue, 1945) and Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954). It was rare to see a feature film that detailed the ups and downs of an entire band and, in the case of 1941’s Blues in the Night, the featured jazz sextet was entirely fictitious. Originally titled Hot Nocturne, the name was changed just prior to its theatrical release to capitalize on the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer hit song that became its signature tune.
What could make a reputable insurance instigator go bad? A beautiful woman? Lots of loot? A sense of empowerment? For Joe Peters (Charles McGraw), it’s all of these things but it’s definitely a femme fatale named Diane (Joan Dixon) who first ignites the copper’s lust and then his greed. Roadblock (1951) is a cleverly plotted, terse little film noir that has more twists and hairpin turns than a winding mountain road. What makes it stand out from other low-budget noirs produced at RKO is Charles McGraw’s compelling performance as an easily seduced sucker unlike his usual tough guy roles and Joan Dixon’s sultry presence. Continue reading
French director/screenwriter Edouard Molinaro may not be a household name in America but practically everyone knows his international breakout hit, La Cage aux Folles, from 1978. It spawned an equally successful sequel, La Cage aux Folles II (1980), but also became the basis for the smash Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles in 1984 and eventually was remade by director Mike Nichols as The Birdcage in 1996 with Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest. La Cage aux Folles was no fluke success and Molinaro was already renowned in France for his film comedies such as Male Hunt (1964) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Oscar (1967) featuring Louis de Funes and the black farce A Pain in the…(1973), which was remade by Billy Wilder as Buddy Buddy (1981). None of this would lead you to believe that Molinaro launched his feature film career with several film noir-influenced thrillers and Un temoin dans la ville (English title: Witness in the City, 1959) is a near masterpiece, deserving to stand alongside Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962). Continue reading
Zenong Zhou (Ge He) is a marked man on the run. He operates a motorcycle theft ring in a designated section of Wuhan but his rivals are itching to take over his turf. The conflict escalates into gang warfare and Zhou is forced to flee the city after accidentally killing a cop. Hunted by both underworld enemies and the police, the fugitive realizes his days are numbered but tries to arrange for his ex-wife Shujun (Regina Wan) to collect the large bounty on his head. Instead, a mysterious woman named Aiai (Lun-Mei Kwei) shows up as a go-between to help facilitate Zhou’s request but can he trust her? This uncertainty drives the narrative of The Wild Goose Lake, the fourth feature film from Chinese director Yi’nan Diao. Continue reading
Think of the teeming hub of humanity that is New York City and then imagine a person with a highly contagious and deadly disease wandering among the masses, spreading death and panic. Based on an actual case in 1946 – a smallpox scare in which millions of New Yorkers received free vaccinations – The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is a fictionalized dramatization of that incident. It stars Evelyn Keyes as Sheila Bennet, a modern day “Typhoid Mary” who contracts smallpox in Cuba while serving as a courier for Matt (Charles Korvin), her no-good musician boyfriend, in a stolen diamond smuggling scheme.
Voluptuous vixens, murderous golddiggers and greedy femme fatales were a familiar sight in B-movie melodramas of the fifties but Wicked Woman (1953) stands out from the rest of the pack. The look and feel of the movie captures the lurid quality of trashy pulp fiction covers from the same period like Tavern Girl, Passion Has Red Lips or Any Sex Will Do. Even the minimalistic, sparsely decorated sets, that represent a confined universe of dingy boarding house rooms and the neighborhood bar, exude a sleazy authenticity and sense of claustrophobia. And scheming her way through these lower depths is Beverly Michaels in the title role of Billie Nash. Blonde, statuesque and sullen, she is the quintessential hard luck tramp, moving from town to town in a futile search for a change in luck. Continue reading
A contemporary film noir set in an economically depressed backwoods town, A Single Shot comes with impressive credentials – cinematography by Eduard Grau (A Single Man, Buried), production design by David Brisbin (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and a superior ensemble cast of Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Kelly Reilly and Jason Isaacs. Nothing in the brief filmography of director David M. Rosenthal, however, suggested that he would follow such audience-friendly entertainments as See This Movie, Falling Up and Janie Jones with something so relentlessly dark. Based on the novel by Matthew F. Jones (who also adapted the screenplay), the film plunges you into a horrific situation from the start and then follows the terrible repercussions that fan out from there. Continue reading
Released in 1951 by Warner Bros. and often considered a film noir by some film buffs and critics, the little known TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY is a hard-to-peg but exceptional B-movie that proves to be something of a shape shifter in the genre department. The title is bland but also deceptive in the sense that it calls to mind a completely different and inappropriate reference – Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The movie is also not true noir because, by general consensus and tradition, a noir can’t have a happy ending yet the two main characters – a bitter ex-con and a gold digging taxi dancer – are archetypes from a noir universe who try to flee their circumstances and still find redemption in the end. Along the way, the film effortlessly morphs from one cinematic convention to another, starting with a social reform drama (shades of Heroes for Sale or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang) in the gritty Warner Bros. tradition before detouring into noir. Then the tone quickly changes as the movie moves from the city to the rural backroads, becoming first a road trip/pursuit thriller of the paranoid kind, then a romance of thwarted lovers and finally an ethnographic slice of Americana that introduces a migrant worker subculture and the socio-economic hardships that come with it a la The Grapes of Wrath. Continue reading
Rififi, Jules Dassin’s quintessential 1955 noir/heist thriller, had quite an impact on the European crime movie genre in its day, although most of its imitators or similarly inspired creations rarely found distribution in the U.S. except as English-dubbed second features in limited runs in a few major cities like New York. I have yet to read of any major film critics or movie buffs like Quentin Tarantino championing any of the Rififi knockoffs. But for anyone with a soft spot for heist films, you might enjoy sampling some of these lesser efforts, particularly RIFIFI IN TOKYO (1963). Continue reading