Tag Archives: Film Noir

Jigsaw – Film Review

Product DetailsOne of my Christmas presents was a DVD of the film Jigsaw. Somehow neither of us had come across this before and we both loved it. Released in 1962, the screenplay was written and directed by Val Guest. The plot is a murder mystery and manages to be a gripping police procedural and a fine example of British film noir. All the more interesting as Jigsaw is adapted from Sleep Long, My Love, a 1959 novel by American mystery writer Hillary Waugh (1920-2008).

Waugh became widely admired for his documentary-style procedurals, a style inspired by reading true-crime studies. Sleep Long, My Love was set in small-town Connecticut and its easy adaptation to an English seaside town illustrates how universal are the themes of deceit and murder.

Jack Warner stars as Detective Inspector Fred Fellows. I’ve always liked  Warner, having grown up with fond memories of Dixon of Dock Green on Saturday evenings – his character there was more or less lifted from a more famous British noir, The Blue Lamp (1950).  In Jigsaw, Warner plays his usual avuncular detective, yet with a harder, no nonsense edge. His Inspector Fellows is determined to find the murderer on his patch, assisted by his likeable sergeant, well-played by Ronald Lewis.

The plot is full of credible detective work, twists and turns, hence the title. There’s a classic beginning of a woman in a drably furnished bedroom – ashtray by the bed – soon to be murdered by her unseen lover. In some ways this reminded me of a Francis Durbridge drama – although not quite so convoluted – in part because Moira Redmond was cast as the murdered woman. She always seemed to have a strong screen presence and memorably played the title role in the 1972 TV drama re-make of Durbridge’s Melissa.

Jigsaw is largely filmed in and around Brighton and benefits from that atmospheric setting, chosen by generations of novelists and film-makers. A natural choice as the plot has similarities to the infamous Brighton trunk murders of the early thirties. The setting was one reason that attracted me as I’ve known the town well for many years and never walk those streets without thinking of its literary dark side.

I love black and white films and murder/mystery plots are enhanced by a world of monotones, contrasting sunlight and shadows. Brighton here is shown at an interesting transitional time. This is not the famous town (now city) of the Prince Regent’s Royal Pavilion roof-line or the lively Palace Pier. We glimpse the sea-front with the lovely old West Pier still intact but this is back-street Brighton of seedy, peeling stucco, corner shops and rooms to let. The surrounding bare hills are just beginning to be marked by footings for new houses.

The period motor-cars are an added pleasure along with some atmospheric shots of Brighton and Lewes railway stations in their steam hey-day. The cinematography is very effective. The murderer is seen in glimpses without the face. We don’t see the body but we watch the reaction shots of the detectives’ faces as they throw open a trunk lid. The camera dwells lovingly on wet streets by night, cigarette smoke, the Cutty Sark on a bright morning.

As so often in these films, another pleasure is seeing a turn-out of familiar character actors, here including Ray Barrett, John Barron, Michael Goodliffe, John Le Mesurier and Brian Oulton. American actress Yolande Donlan – Mrs Val Guest – does an immaculate British accent.

Hillary Waugh wrote eleven crime novels featuring Police Chief Fred Fellows. They’re going on my reading pile when I can track them down.

Warning – If you plan to buy the film, be aware that the blurb on the reverse of the DVD gives away the identity of the murderer! This is an appallingly careless thing to do and we’re indebted to a kind Amazon reviewer who pointed this out.

It was hard not to read the back before viewing but I’m so glad I managed. A highly recommended classic.

 

 

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Fritz Lang’s “Man Hunt”

I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for Geoffrey Household’s classic chase thriller Rogue Male (see blogs passim). Most recently I passed on the news that there is to be a new film version starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

However, it’s not the first time film-makers have tried to bring Household’s book to the screen. There was a television version on the BBC in the 1980s starring Peter O’Toole, which stuck very closely to the book.

But long before that, in 1941, just before the United States entered the War, Hollywood had a go, though it changed some elements of the original story. The producers and the director, Fritz Lang, had something of a battle to get the story passed by the censor who – with the USA not yet at war – was frightened of upsetting Nazi Germany.

The resulting film might have toned down some of Household’s original plot, but Man Hunt is quite stunning in its own way, particularly with Fritz Lang’s clever direction and the atmospheric black and white photography. There’s an edge of suspense that keeps the action rolling along. Hollywood studios seldom re-created London quite so well as here.

We never learn the name of Household’s hero in the book, but here he’s Captain Alan Thorndike, played with gusto by Walter Pidgeon. Following a failed “sporting stalk” – and the target in the gun-sight is Adolf Hitler – Thorndike is captured by the Gestapo.

We never see the scenes of interrogation, the torture and beatings are only hinted at, though very effectively. Thorndike escapes to London where he’s rescued by a beautiful street waif called Jerry (played with real poignancy by Joan Bennett). There is no such character in the novel, but she’s a great addition to the film.

They are chased across London by Gestapo officer Major Quive-Smith, played with considerable relish by George Sanders in one of his finest performances – a truly believable Nazi – and a tall cadaverous man with a walking stick (John Carradine at his most menacing).

These London scenes are particularly well done, particularly the chase through the London Underground, which is the first climax of the original novel. Gripping stuff! The photography, direction and editing, plus the seedy settings of dockland London and the Tube, give this part of the picture a film noir feel.

In Household’s novel, his hero constantly considers whether his attempt to kill Hitler was just a “sporting stalk”, just to see if, as a hunter of big game, he could get close enough to the Fuhrer. Or did he always intend to pull the trigger and end the Nazi tyranny?

This question, fundamental to the aim of the original story, isn’t ignored. Thorndike considers the answer until the end of the film, when the tragic consequences of his actions come to haunt him. The answer was very relevant to audiences in 1941, on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a relevancy today.

A few months after the film was made the USA was at war with Germany. Hollywood fully joined the propaganda battle against the Third Reich, with movies good and bad. But Fritz Lang and 20th Century Fox set a very high standard, months earlier, with Man Hunt.

 

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Francis Durbridge’s “The Teckman Mystery”

For anyone growing up in England during the middle years of the 20th century, the name of writer Francis Durbridge, in connection with mystery writing, was an indication of twists and turns, considerable cunning, and particularly fine writing.

Durbridge was very prolific and, although he wrote fiction, his greater reputation was as a scriptwriter for films and television. Throughout those decades, UK audiences would cancel appointments to make sure they were in when the latest Durbridge mystery was aired on our TV screens.

The Teckman Mystery, though, is a film, suggested by Durbidge’s original story The Teckman Biography. It features one of his regular characters the crime-writer Philip Chance, played in this 1954 production by John Justin.

As the film begins, we meet Chance flying back to England from his villa in the south of France. He is returning to London to meet his publisher, who wants him to write a biography of Martin Teckman, an airman who has died testing a new aircraft, though his body was never found.

By coincidence, on his journey to England, Chance meets Teckman’s sister Helen (Margaret Leighton), who seems puzzled by the death of her brother.

Now, I’m not going to give away much else of the plot, for Durbridge deserves to be seen with no spoilers.

Enough to say, that, as so often with Durbridge stories, nothing is quite what it seems to be. Which characters can be trusted, and who are your real allies as opposed to enemies.

A series of “accidents” beset the would-be biographer of Teckman, leading to attempted bribery, burglary and murder – but who wants his investigation into Teckman’s accident hushed up?

And just why are Scotland Yard and MI5 so interested in Philip Chance’s inquiries?

This Cold War thriller made in 1954, was directed by the excellent Wendy Toye, and features an superb cast, including – apart from Justin and Leighton – Roland Culver, Michael Medwin and Duncan Lamont. It’s shot, as are most good films in this genre, in crisp black and white. And how wonderful to see a 1950s London before the city was wrecked by tower-blocks…

Watching the Teckman Mystery is a very enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon.

To see links and versions please click on the link below:

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Night and the City

Some time ago I blogged on Gerald Kersh’s classic novel Night and the City, https://gaslightcrime.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/night-and-the-city-by-gerald-kersh/

One of the finest novels ever written about London’s Soho and its underworld. Product Details

But today I want to talk about director Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version, perhaps one of the finest examples of film noir ever made. And the first remark I would make is to forget the book entirely. Dassin’s film has only a slight resemblance to the book. Dassin never read it until after he’d made the picture, and Kersh was, perhaps understandably, rather peeved.

However, out of one masterpiece came another. The film, in so very many ways, equals the book in quality. Now a word of warning. There are at least two different cuts of Night and the City, both with different musical scores. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call them the American and British versions. And to complicate matters there are scenes in one that are missing from the other. The British version has a weaker romanticised ending. Personally, I favour the American version and its musical score; the latter seeming more apt for this excursion into noir.

In the novel, the hero, Harry Fabian, tries to pass himself off as an American hustler. In the film the part is played by an American, as an American. Richard Widmark is quite superb as this two-bit hustler, roaming the streets of Soho and the banks of the Thames, and never once seeming out of place. Desperate to take over control of the all-in wrestling scene, corrupt and crime-ridden at that time, Fabian hustles money from night-club owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan, in his greatest screen role) and his wife Helen (a menacing Googie Withers).

As the wrestling scene is run by gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom) this puts Fabian in considerable danger. Only the fact that Fabian has gone into partnership with Kristo’s father, an old champion wrestler known as Gregorious the Great, saves him. The old grappler is played by former world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko.  Zbyszko had never acted before, but he gives a wonderful performance, culminating in a graphic bout with the actor and former wrestler Mike Mazurki. Probably the best fictional wrestling bout on film.

It all, of course, goes badly for Harry Fabian, who soon finds himself on the run, with much of the London underworld appearing to be after him.

At one point, Fabian is described as a man for ever on the move, on the run. And Widmark gives a performance where his character is always in motion, hardly ever still, leading up to a terrific chase sequence at the end, through the monochrome streets and bomb sites of postwar London.

The photography is quite superb, depicting a London now lost for ever, beautiful to look at, this film, and benefitting from the stark contrasts of black and white, which adds to the feeling of menace. Monochrome should be used more often in film-making. Colour is not everything, as modern cinematographers should learn.

If there are weaknesses in the film, it is the under-use of film noir regular Gene Tierney, as Fabian’s love interest. She plays so little a part in the story the character might as well not be there. Hugh Marlowe – a grand actor who deserved better parts and more leads than he got – as her neighbour is totally wasted. But these are small flaws in Dassin’s masterpiece.

Dassin was sent to London by Daryl Zanuck to make this picture, to evade possible arrest due to alleged communist sympathies, in the paranoia that beset Hollywood at that time. The director was, rather like Fabian, almost on the run. Because of the political difficulties he was allowed very little hand in post-production editing, though his ideas were taken on board.

This all added up to the creation of a masterpiece, the real-location shooting giving the film a vibrancy and reality which is quite outstanding.

Different from the book? Yes, but the two complement each other is portraying London and its underworld at a most interesting time in history.

To order Night and the City just click on the link below:

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High Sierra

High Sierra (1941) was the film that finally cemented Humphrey Bogart’s reputation as a Hollywood lead actor, though he had to fight the movie establishment to even get the part, including persuading George Raft not to do it.

Directed by Raoul Walsh and based on the novel by W R Burnett, and with a fairly faithful screenplay of the book by Burnett and John Huston, High Sierra is a heist movie with elements of film noir. Bogart plays gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, got out of jail by a rather amiable gang leader called Big Mac (Donald MacBride) who wants Earle to lead a robbery at a fashionable resort hotel.

On his journey across country we are shown the compassionate side of Earle when he meets a farming family who have lost their farm and been obliged to travel to California to stay with relatives. The daughter of the family, Velma (Joan Leslie) has a club foot and Earle pays for her to have corrective surgery. Earle’s infatuation for Velma is rebuffed, sending him on a spiralling descent to destruction.

At a mountain resort hideout Earle meets the other members of the gang, all of them, in their differing ways, liabilities. Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) who works on the reception at the hotel, and Red (Arthur Kennedy), Babe (Alan Curtis), and Marie (Ida Lupino) who becomes Earle’s moll.

There’s a scene-stealing dog as well, Pard, played by Bogart’s own pet Zero. Surely one of the most talented pooches ever filmed. The dog attaches itself to Earle, though he has a reputation for only getting close to men who are doomed.

After the robbery goes wrong, Earle goes on the run, leading to a dramatic shoot-out – terrifically staged on location – on the slopes of Mount Whitney.

High Sierra scores not only because of the terrific acting performances, particularly Bogart and Lupino, but also with the sensational real location filming and a very literate script. There are moments of awkwardness for the modern audience. The black houseboy Algernon (played by the very talented Willie Best) is little more than a racist caricature, but then this was the Hollywood of 76 years ago.

Bogart is a triumph, tough one moment, genuinely motivated by real compassion the next. His portrayal of Roy Earle, a man who is really seeking a kind of freedom and an ordinary life, deservedly made him one of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood, leading directly to his casting as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick in Casablanca.

Interestingly, High Sierra was remade (again by Raoul Walsh) as a western, Colorado Territory, starring Joel McCrea, and then again as a heist movie with Jack Palance as Roy Earle, called I Died a Thousand Times. Both are entertaining, though very inferior to the original. High Sierra partly succeeds because it came along at the time it did. The postwar generation of movie-goers perhaps wanted something a little smoother and the great pre-war days of the gangster movie were at an end.

High Sierra is a real classic of the heist movie genre. Well worth seeking out and usually available with extra features in Humphrey Bogart box sets.

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Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

I have to admit it’s many years since I’ve read James M. Cain’s classic and very dark novel, “Double Indemnity” – and it deserves a re-read – but I did sit down to watch the classic 1944 film the other day. I’ve watched it many times over the years and it never loses its power. A great classic of film noir.

I’m not going to give away much of the plot in case you’ve never seen it. Briefly, though the film starts with insurance agent Walter Neff walking into his closed office and relating the narrative into a dictating machine.

Neff (Fred MacMurray) has visited the home of Mr Dietrichson to try and to get him to renew a motoring insurance policy. His client is out but Neff meets and becomes attracted by his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck at her femme fatale plus).

They get talking – as you do if you’re in insurance – about life insurance. And particularly about the provision in some policies about a double indemnity clause, where the pay-out on death is doubled if the subject of the policy dies in certain obscure ways.

The talk leads ultimately to fraud and murder and then disaster. Neff finds himself leading a double life as he tries mislead his company’s ferocious claims investigator Barton Keyes (a stunning performance by Edward G. Robinson).

The film departs somewhat from Cain’s original novel, mostly to satisfy the dreaded Hays Office censors, who baulked at a story which included a massive fraud, the planning of a murder and even suicide.

It took a considerable bit of screenwriting to get round these restrictions. Fortunately, the film managed to acquire two of the best in the business, in its director Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler. Not that it was an easy alliance. They fought like cat and dog over the script, though Wilder insisted later their disagreements led to the strong script.

Like all good film noir “Double Indemnity” is shot in black and white and is all the stronger for it.

Many leading Hollywood Stars turned down the role of Walter Neff, including Gregory Peck, James Cagney, George Raft, Fredric March, Spencer Tracey and Alan Ladd.

It went to Fred MacMurray in an inspired piece of casting, for MacMurray never looks like a film actor, just the kind of ordinary Joe you might see working for an insurance company. MacMurray up to the point was best known for light comedy roles, so this was a considerable departure for him. It is a terrific piece of acting. Totally believable.

“Double Indemnity” is a film that defines film noir, an example for many films to come.v

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Three Cases of Murder

As it’s the time of year when we all love a touch of the supernatural,  we thought we might draw your attention to this gem of British cinema.

“Three Cases of Murder” is a portmanteau British film of three stories released in 1955. It is curiously neglected, given the quality of the production, the unusual tales, and the fact that it stars such terrific actors as Orson Welles, Alan Badel and John Gregson.

As a film with ‘murder’ in the title it is very unusual in that two of the stories are supernatural – reminiscent of the Ealing classic (a great favourite of ours) “Dead of Night”. There are elements of the bizarre in two of the stories. A strange mixture of styles but it really works.

The stories are introduced by Eamonn Andrews, best known in this country as the presenter of “This is Your Life”. This in itself was a bizarre idea, but not an unusual device in portmanteau pictures of the period.

I’m not going to say too much about the plots, because this is a DVD you should seek out yourselves. But, very briefly:

In the first story “The Picture” – based on a story by Roderick Wilkinson – a museum gallery attendant is puzzled by the theft of pictures, and absorbed by a painting of a strange house. He is lured into the picture and encounters a murderous artist. It sounds a strange premise and it is, but it is extremely effective and well directed by Wendy Toye. The section features a wonderful performance by Alan Badel as the artist, the first of three different characters he plays in this film.

The second tale “You Killed Elizabeth” is a straightforward whodunit, about two friends who fall in love with the same woman with deadly consequences. The story was written by Sidney Carroll, of “The Hustler” fame. The two men are played by John Gregson, of Inspector Gideon fame, and Emrys Jones, and Elizabeth by Elizabeth Sellars. Alan Badel appears again, showing the great breadth of his acting talent, as a barman.

The third and concluding tale is Lord “Mountdrago”, starring Orson Welles as the title character. According to the actor Patrick Macnee, who had an uncredited bit-part in this segment, Welles more or less took over the direction from the first day.

Mountdrago is a hard-hearted foreign secretary in a Tory government. A great orator who destroys the political credibility of a Labour politician called Owen (a Welshman and probably suggested by Nye Bevan) in a cutting speech. Mountdrago’s words come back to haunt him in an increasingly bizarre series of nightmares (you’ll never think of the old music hall song “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do” again in quite the same way once you’ve seen it performed in this film!)

Welles’s descent into madness in wonderfully written and superbly performed and directed. Alan Badel appears again as Owen in a mesmerising performance that quite matches that of Welles. The original story was written by W. Somerset Maugham.

The DVD we have, in The Best of British Collection produced by Odeon Entertainment, also has an extra in the form of Orson Welles’s short ghost story “Return to Glennascaul”. I’ll say no more about this here but watch out for a Christmas blog next week when I’ll pay it proper attention.

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Night and the City by Gerald Kersh

Until recently, Night and the City was only known to me as a classic film noir set in London and starring Richard Widmark – one of the very best of that genre. I’ll return to the film version in a future blog. There is a later film version starring Robert De Niro, where the story is relocated to New York. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, though I know a lot of people feel it to be inferior to the Widmark version.

I had never read the novel by Gerald Kersh, though it’s well known that the screenwriter of the Widmark film abandoned most of the plot, lots of the characters, and that the film company more or less paid Kersh for the evocative title.

There is a splendid edition of the book now published by London Books with an excellent, atmospheric and very informative introduction by John King. I really recommend that this is the edition that you seek out – not least because it is beautifully produced.

It is one of the finest novels about London, and in particularly the Soho district in the 1930s I have ever read. It is not a crime novel per se, though many of the characters operate on the fringes of the underworld. It is a lowlife novel, with characters whose lives are hopeless and tragic. The anti-hero Harry Fabian is one of life’s losers. A cockney who wants to get on, who pretends very often to be an American, with a bad imitation of the accent, on the grounds that it might impress others. Harry is a ponce (a pimp in modern parlance), a blackmailer, an entrepreneur of the crooked Soho world, who simply cannot compete with real existence in that great depression of the 1930s – the book is set in the period immediately before the coronation of King George VI.

Harry tries to get on, but every enterprise seems doomed to failure. He takes up one thing after another, but fails because he gets bored too easily and can’t persist with anything. He seems destined for a tragic end and, in a way, gets one. But not the end you might expect.
Every aspect of lowlife Soho is covered. Characters run dubious night-clubs, women are lured into working as hostesses and worse just in order to survive. There is a wonderful demonstration of the growth of fixed all-in wrestling matches at the time, and one of the best fight scenes in literature.

But this is almost, as we would say today, a docudrama. Kersh is clearly writing from his own great personal knowledge of this world, with the same vividness for social observation that you get in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton.

Night and the City is not an easy read. It shows aspects of London life that we all know are there, but try not to think about, with an array of characters that make Kersh a kind of twentieth-century Dickens – Nosseros, the night-club owner, Helen the hostess, Zoe and Vi, working girls with a doubtful future, Bert the Costermonger, who is an object lesson on how to survive on the right side of the law, the Black Strangler, a wrestler with an uncertain temper.

If you ever want to know what lowlife London was really like in the 1930s then Night and the City is the book to read. I know Soho quite well. There are aspects of Kersh’s depiction that are still valid today.

I hadn’t discovered Gerald Kersh until I read Night and the City. Now I shall seek out more of his work. His own life was fascinating, as you’ll see if you look him up online. The characters and settings of this novel could never have been “mugged up” – only someone with first-hand knowledge could have produced a literary work of such distinction.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, with an introduction by John King. Published by London Books.

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