There are certain movies I can make a reference to and people immediately know the film and usually recall it with a smile — if not outright laughter. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of those movies. It didn’t change the world of movie making when it came out and didn’t win any awards. It simply did what most movies hope to do: get seen, be appreciated and remembered.
Film noir doesn’t always mean good: Dark Passage
It’s Day 6 of For the Love of Film (Noir) — don’t forget to or use the button on the right. And if you are interested in boatloads of great links to musings on film noir and its films, scroll down this page at Self-Styled Siren or over at Ferdy on Films. This is wonderful material!
As much as I like movies in the film noir category, particularly those from the forties and fifties, the term is not a synonym for good. As with any type of movie — screwball, romance, western, drama — it has its clunkers.
Of course, everything is subjective. As you’ll read below, I don’t have a high opinion of Dark Passage. Maybe the problem isn’t the movie but me. To be fair, there is this review over at Noir of the Week. As for mine …
Dark Passage (1947)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Of the four movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, Dark Passage is easily the weakest. (Their other movies together were To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Key Largo.) It’s a film noir that has what it thinks is a neat idea — the first third of the movie uses a “first-person” camera, meaning the central character is the camera viewpoint.
But it falls flat.
In fact, the gimmick pretty much ruins the film because we don’t get to see (and therefore connect with) Humphrey Bogart’s character. In the first third, we don’t see him period. He is the camera viewpoint. In the second third, his head is bandaged (due to plastic surgery to alter his identity).
We don’t actually see Bogie till a large chunk of the movie is over. By the time we do, we’re bored.
Bogart plays a character wrongly accused and convicted of murder. The movie opens with his escape. On the run, he is rescued by Lauren Bacall’s character. (Everyone Bogart runs into in the movie conveniently has some connection to the story.)
A helpful cab driver later recommends a shady plastic surgeon to Bogart’s character. Bogart gets his face changed then goes off in search of the criminals who framed him so he can prove his innocence.
Despite trying, the movie never gets very interesting. For one thing, there is very little to relieve the darkness of the noir approach. There is also little chemistry between Bogart and Bacall and this is largely because they play so few scenes together, at least in the first two thirds.
The characters do have scenes, but since Bogart isn’t physically in them (because of the camera viewpoint or because his head is wrapped in bandages and he can’t talk), the Bogie-Bacall magic is absent.
The other problem are the improbable conveniences mentioned above — the helpful cab driver, a guy who picks up Bogart when he is hitchhiking, Bacall’s appearance. It’s all a little too improbable.
The only time we get a sense for an interesting story is at the very end when Bogart and Bacall have fled to South America. Suddenly the heavy handed noir atmosphere is relieved and we get something that has more of the atmosphere of Casablanca or To Have and Have Not.
It seems clear that the movie has misread what made Bogart and Bacall so interesting together. It certainly misreads Bogart.
Despite the success of movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, it wasn’t the noir genre that made Bogart popular. It was that he was playing a flawed romantic hero within them.
In Dark Passage he simply plays a schmuck floundering around trying to prove his innocence. He doesn’t play a strong character. If anything, the character is rather weak.
And so we end up with a tedious movie, one that relies on a gimmick rather than the power Bogart and Bacall could bring to the screen.
They are wasted in this movie.
- Dark Passage
- Bogie and Bacall – The Signature Collection (includes: The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo and To Have and Have Not)
Key Largo: truly an ensemble movie
After The Big Sleep, John Huston’s Key Largo is my favourite Bogie and Bacall movie. Another good one is To Have And Have Not and the fourth would be Dark Passage, the weakest of them all because it is so wrong-headed.
Key Largo is partly interesting because the famous Bogie-Bacall chemistry is pretty much irrelevant. It may be there, but so what? This movie is about the story, the drama and all the characters. I think we can thank John Huston for that.
Key Largo (1948)
Directed by John Huston
Of the four movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, Key Largo is the last. What strikes me as interesting about it is how, despite the romance suggested between the characters, Bacall is almost a minor character in the movie. But then, in a sense, so are all the characters.
This is truly an ensemble movie, perhaps because it began as a play. You might expect it to focus on Bogart and Bacall, especially given their fame as a couple, but it doesn’t.
Director (and co-writer) John Huston is more interested in the story.
As the movie plays out, the film seems to hand the lead role off from Bogart, then to Robinson, then to Barrymore, then to Trevor, and then back to Bogart again. At the same time, Huston emphasizes place – in this case, the Florida Keys – as a major character, as he does with the hurricane.
Having left the Army, ex-Major Frank McCloud goes to Key Largo to pay respects to the family of one of the soldiers under his command who was killed in action. McCloud seems a bit aimless having left the army; this obligation he feels to visit the family is about the only purpose he has at this stage in his life.
The family owns a hotel in Key Largo and when McCloud gets there both he (and we, the audience) sense something is up. Some shady characters are hanging around the hotel and they seem eager for McCloud to leave.
As the movie unfolds, it turns out they are criminals. They take over the hotel as they await other criminals to meet up with them in order to conclude a deal concerning counterfeit money. It also turns out they are led by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) who has returned to reclaim his life and position in the criminal world, from which he has been gone for eight years (likely in prison).
Unfortunately for the gang of thugs, this is Florida and it is hurricane season and one is blowing in.
What the movie does is to bring all these characters together in one place and confine them in close quarters. You feel the walls closing in, so to speak, as the winds get stronger and shutters are closed. They are all closed in; sunlight vanishes.
The movie’s true is star is arguably Edward G. Robinson. He’s mean and menacing and dominates everything around him. Once he appears in the movie (which is not immediate), he seldom leaves the frame.
There is a curious contrast between Robinson’s Johnny Rocco and the other characters. In many ways, they are all frozen in the moment, unsure what to do (except Rocco). Because of the death of Bacall’s husband, who is also Barrymore’s son, those two are stuck. McCloud, discharged from the Army, is unsure what to do with his life. They would all like to go forward; they’re just not sure how.
But Johnny Rocco has no interest in going forward. He wants to go back. He wants to reclaim and relive his former glory. He lives in, and dreams of, the past. Claire Trevor’s character, Gaye Dawn, is also stuck in the past because she is still connected with Rocco and she is an alcoholic. The relationship is abusive but she is dependent on Rocco, or so she feels. She is stuck and, because of her association with Rocco, it is the past she is stuck in.
Just as they are all confined within the hotel, so they are confined within this moment of uncertainty about their lives. They aren’t living in the present; they are confined within it.
Tension builds in the movie partly because of the storm, partly because Johnny Rocco gets increasingly anxious about completing his deal, but also because of the forward and backward pull between the characters: Johnny’s will to go back to the past; McCloud and the others’ desire to break free and go forward into the future.
Dramatic and suspenseful, Key Largo is a tremendous example not just of good filmmaking but of good drama, period. It’s a good story well told. I loved it.
- Key Largo (DVD) — Amazon.com (U.S.)
- Key Largo (DVD) — Amazon.ca (Canada)
Dirty Harry: should I like it as much as I do?
I’ve always found Dirty Harry a troubling movie. Well, almost all of the earlier, image making movies of Clint Eastwood have been troubling to me, but Dirty Harry tops my list. The reason is simple: from the first time I saw it, I’ve loved the movie but I felt that I shouldn’t.
The conflict is easy to explain. The movie is manipulated to have you cheering for Harry so when, as in a western, the final showdown happens, there’s a cathartic moment, like scoring the winning touchdown on the last play of the game. But then you do a kind of mental double take: this guy with the big gun is actually ignoring the law, being as bad as the bad guys, and feeling justified about it because, well, they’re bad guys and he’s fighting for the good guys.
Harry is essentially a vigilante and in the movie, by creating a perverted, killing bad guy (“Scorpio”), you inevitably root for him because the emotion carries you along and your thinking side is turned off, in a manner of speaking. In his review, Roger Ebert argues that it’s essentially a fascist film, and this may be true, although I think the final scene with Harry tossing his badge in the water could be construed as meaning he’s outside the law now, no different than the criminals he’s been hunting down. It may be the movie wants you to cheer for Harry so it can then say, “Now think seriously about what you’re really cheering for.”
There are lots of people who write about Harry’s appeal to the conservative right, at least of the time (1971), and a frustration with liberal approaches to crime – respecting individual rights, in this case the criminal’s, and abandoning victims. And this may be true, too, though it should be pointed out that operating beyond the law, ignoring victims, is not something to be found on the far right of things. Some, at the far left, have had no qualms about victims when they’ve initiated a violent act for their cause. It’s an attitude that occurs at the far end of things, at extremes, be they left or right.
But what about the movie? Dirty Harry always initiates discussion about the politics of the film and often the movie itself gets overlooked.
First off, I see it as an urban western, and loving westerns that may explain why I like it so much. Harry’s a loner, operating on his own (often to the exasperation of his superiors). He gets little help – some, but not a lot – and he’s after a really bad guy. So it’s framed like a moral tale, the way westerns are … but this leads us into the politics again. It is a moral tale but one a lot more subtle and ambiguous than the usual western because the good guy, well, there’s a reason they call Harry “Dirty.” (This comes up several times in the film, the question of why he’s “Dirty” Harry, with a number of possible reasons thrown out. I think that final scene with the badge is the film’s only suggestion of the real answer.)
Another aspect I like about the movie is how very, very seventies it looks. Of course there are the clothes, the hair, the cars … but I think even more so it’s the overall look of the film. With that look, today it would be called an indie film. Despite some restoration, it still feels gritty and grainy, even when it isn’t. Not only does the movie not look slick, it almost looks anti-slick, as if it’s trying to disassociate itself from Hollywood – a characteristic of a number of movies from that period, like Taxi Driver, for instance.
I was also struck by a nice difference between Dirty Harry and its progeny, more contemporary movies with heroes and really bad villains. Today, a character like Harry would be up against an almost superhuman bad guy. But in this movie, the character of Scorpio, while very bad, is almost something of a screw up. I’m thinking of one scene where he’s out to shoot another victim but gets spotted by the police in their helicopter. Scorpio is bad, he’s dangerous, he’s sick, but he’s not a brilliant criminal mind. He’s not nearly as clever as he would like to imagine himself, and nowhere near as clever as a character such as him would be in a contemporary movie. In other words, there’s a bit more realism to Harry and his bad guy. (And realism is one of the things movies of that period aspired to.)
Finally, I believe one of the reasons this movie is so satisfying is because it understands so well set up and payoff. Like the way good jokes work, with their structure and their rhythm, there are a number of scenes in Dirty Harry that deliver the same way (for example, the “Do you feel lucky, punk?” scenes).
An interesting comparison between Dirty Harry an one of its progeny is the recent revenge film, Man on Fire, with Denzel Washington in the lead role. Whereas in Harry, directing and cinematography are almost self-effacing, with most of the emphasis on story and performance, Man on Fire is very self-consciously directed and very obvious in its cinematography, almost the exact opposite of the Don Seigal film. And whereas Harry is consumed with his hatred for bad guys and indifferent to what he does to nail them (with the possible exception of the end with the badge), Denzel’s character in Man on Fire is almost morose with awareness of being lost to the dark side and, when he goes after the bad guys, is almost like a suicide bomber, willing to do whatever needs to be done and sacrificing himself willingly as a kind of redemption. (And Denzel’s bad guy is much more clever than the Scorpio killer.)
Despite being a film from 1971 and looking very much so, Dirty Harry still works and works brilliantly. It’s just a troubling with its ambiguous politics, and just as thrilling with its cop chasing a killer suspense. I loved it.
(Note: For some of Clint Eastwood’s views on Dirty Harry, have a look at the 1974 Playboy interview, Eastwood Talks Dirty Harry. Amongst other things, when the badge scene from the movie comes up and the reference to a similar scene in High Noon, Eastwood disagees with the comparison saying High Plains Drifter is much more along the lines of the Gary Cooper film.)