Easy Living (1937): Everybody fall down

When a an expensive fur coat falls on her head, Mary Smith’s life of scraping together enough for food and rent turns upside down. She suddenly finds herself in a world of wealth, as she’s mistakenly perceived of as the mistress of Wall Street banker and tycoon, J.B. Ball.

Easy living was never so hard — or muddled and funny.

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Four movies and a post

Over this holiday period, while I haven’t been posting on any of my sites, neither have I been sitting still.

Here on Piddleville, I actually have been adding reviews, though not highlighting them on the home page here.

I hope to rectify that today. So, recently seen …

Holiday Inn (1942)

The movie Holiday Inn is memorable for a number of things, some good, some not so good. To begin with, it brings together a trio made up of Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Not a bad place to start. The movie itself is a Hollywood soufflé, very light, very unlikely, and quite delightful…
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Unbreakable (2002)

Movies with surprise endings don’t often work well and, even when they do, it’s easy to tire of them quickly. In a sense, they are gimmicky. Done rarely, they’re riveting; done often, they’re tedious. I think M. Night Shyamalan knows this and feels the same way … You get the sense as you watch Unbreakable that he was trying to avoid the surprise ending. On the other hand, you also get the sense that stories of that kind are his natural inclination…
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The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

The Bells of St. Mary’s is movie that is very representative of a type of movie Hollywood made in its heyday, very much the way it’s predecessor was, Going My Way. On one hand, it is a type of film that Hollywood has continued to make (like certain Disney films) with varying degrees of success – family oriented and sentimental. On the other hand, it is anachronistic and, for some, nostalgic…
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Now, Voyager (1942)

Here’s a movie that caught me by surprise. It’s another one of those films I went into with little or no expectations. In fact, if anything, I expected it to be a dud. (I had seen a number of older, black and white turkeys recently.) Now, Voyager was wonderful. It’s also an unapologetic soap opera, the kind Hollywood once did so well…
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And now you are up to date. Sort of. More or less. My memory isn’t great; I may have have forgotten something …

Ava Gardner and housekeeping

Honestly, I just intended to write a review of The Barefoot Contessa (1954). I did, but it led to some housekeeping — on Piddleville, to the neglect of my actual house.

I felt the need to clean up the appearance of a movie I reviewed back in 2001, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). And that led me to …

I ended up thinking about Ava Gardner and why it was so difficult to  put her in a decent movie and let her act. One of the things both those movies have in common is using Gardner essentially as scenery. Even as a symbol. But not as a character, although she appears to do her damnedest to be one and, to the degree it was possible, successfully.

I haven’t seen every movie Gardner was in; in fact, I’ve seen relatively few though those I’ve seen appear to be her better known films. There is one big exception. Unbelievably, I haven’t seen The Killers (1946). Don’t ask why; I’ve no idea.

Here is what I have seen and written about:

And then there is this review of Lee Server’s biography of Gardner:

Of the movies, my two least favourites are Pandora and Contessa. It’s probably Night of the Iguana I like best, partly due to the story, partly due to Gardner’s performance. The other is Mogambo — which surprised me. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen that one great movie that starred Ava Gardner. In some ways, she reminds me of the singer Eva Cassidy who the music industry could never figure out how to box and package.

Gardner’s problem with the movie business was different. Movies don’t appear to have gotten past the idea that she was a beautiful woman.

Other matters — what’s with the ads, pal?

You’ve probably noticed I have a lot of Amazon links and ads. I even put up a Barnes & Noble ad. Even a Google ad. They’re cluttering up my sidebar and appearing here and there in some of my reviews. The reason is simple: I’m experimenting. So they will likely clutter things up for a bit longer till I see what works, what doesn’t, what is unobtrusive but helpful and what isn’t.

As for the “what works” business, it may well be that nothing works. But I figure if something I’ve written gets someone interested in a film or book, I can make it easy to buy it, assuming someone would want to.

And there is, of course, the matter of paying for what it costs to run the site. Piddleville has been kicking around since about 2000 and I’ve never made any money from it but I have forked out quite a bit in registration, hosting and other costs. So if I can create a small revenue stream, at least enough to pay for the site, that would be a good thing.

I’m not much of a huckster; I’ve never wanted to be. But if I can generate some revenue without being an annoyance, I think that’s okay. For the moment, I’m just testing a few things and once I figure out what, if anything, works and isn’t a pain in a visitor’s behind, I’ll strip things back.

For the moment, however, please be patient! :)

Shock isn’t scary; suspense is – The Sixth Sense

As October wraps up, it seems appropriate to talk about a movie from 1999 that was a genuinely good, suspense-filled ghost story. It’s one that caught most people off guard, especially with its ending. And it was so quiet!

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Directed by M. Night Shaymalan

It’s undoubtedly due to the time of year that I find I’ve been recently watching films of a supernatural nature. Not long ago I wrote about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and last week Ugetsu (1953). Those two movies tackled the subject of ghosts in very different ways. Last night I watched The Sixth Sense (1999), a movie that takes on the subject in a much more traditional way. It’s aspires to, and succeeds at, being a scary movie.

Most people I know have seen the movie but if you have not you should know that this entire review is likely to be a spoiler, so you’ve been warned. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend reading nothing about it anywhere until you have.

I’ve probably seen The Sixth Sense three or four times now and each time I feel a sense of melancholy – except for that first time. I feel that way because, once seen, you can never see it as you did that first time. Once seen, it becomes a completely new movie. (See, You can’t watch the same movie twice.)

However, make no mistake. This is a movie that should be seen at least twice. In a sense, you get two movies for the price of one: the movie where you didn’t know the ending and the one where you do know how it ends. That difference is a big deal with this movie.

Haley Joel Osment plays Cole, a very troubled boy. Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who tries to help him. It isn’t until roughly the movie’s mid-point that we (and Dr. Crowe) discover the nature of Cole’s trouble: “I see dead people.”

Yes, we’re in a ghost story. It’s one that ends with a big revelation for the audience (even more so for Dr. Crowe). All the tumblers fall into place then as we understand that what we’ve seen was not what we thought we were seeing.

Watching the movie again, you see how all the clues are there and most are remarkably simple, even obvious, and you wonder how you didn’t see them the first time. The answer is that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan understands how we watch movies, especially our expectations.

There is a scene in the movie where Dr. Crowe shows Cole a magic trick and it’s a nice analogy for how the movie works. His trick is no trick at all. The scene is about setting up a trick and how in setting it up we expect something. The trick (if you can call it that) is that what we expect doesn’t happen.

The movie also works because Shyamalan also understands that a scary movie is all about mood. You may notice how remarkably quiet the movie is. With the exception of a few short scenes, most of the movie is still, almost silent. When characters speak to one another it’s intimately, often whispered and hushed. Sound is used delicately and when it is loud it is usually brief and for punctuation, such as a scene where a quick, single chord is heard as a ghost passes by a door. Yes, we jump.

The performances are also very good and, because they are, help pull us into the movie’s mystery. Haley Joel Osment gives a performance you would expect from an old pro, complex and perfectly times, and Bruce Willis gives one of his best performances, understated and poignant in its restraint.

The Sixth Sense is one of those wonderfully entertaining spooky movies that understands atmosphere creates suspense and worry. Shock is a different kind of movie and that isn’t what this movie cares about. It cares about suspense and surprise.

And it delivers.

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Dark Passage: a waste of Bogie and Bacall?

I just did some housecleaning on Piddleville. I more or less cleaned up some code and design on a few reviews that were in a very old Piddleville format.

While doing so, I came across a few Bogie and Bacall movies, including 1947’s Dark Passage which, as it turns out, I apparently didn’t care for. Here’s the review:

Dark Passage

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.

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Robin and Marian: ‘Where did the day go?’

Here is the Robin Hood we don’t get to see enough. He’s old. As Marian notes,“You had the sweetest body when you left. Hard, and not a mark. And you were mine. When you left I thought I’d die. I even tried … No more scars, Robin. It’s too much to lose you twice.”

As movies go, this one is very odd. It is so flawed and yet so good.

Robin and Marian (1976)

Directed by Richard Lester

“’The day is ours, Robin,’ you used to say, and then it was tomorrow. But where did the day go?”

This 1976 take on the Robin Hood story, Robin and Marion, isn’t terribly interested in the standard “steal from the rich; give to the poor” tale. It’s interested in the pointlessness and vanity of violence. This Robin Hood (Sean Connery) may be a hero but he’s one with a tragic flaw: his pride.

The movie is also a love story. It’s about a love wasted because of that pride.

It’s directed by Richard Lester and fortunately suffers less from his chaotic excesses than other films he made, though they are there.

You know from the opening scenes that this story isn’t going to be about great battles and heroism.

It opens with two knights digging something up. Each knight is weighted down by heavy, shielding clothing and each has a helmet on. The helmets are like huge buckets on the knights’ heads and as they dig their heads bang together. It’s not a heroic image; it is comic. It’s satirical and slapstick.

This movie is about a Robin Hood twenty or more years down the road from the days of exploits in Sherwood Forest. It’s the latter half of the Robin Hood legend, the one not often told (at least in films).

Robin and many of his men have been off to the Holy Land and the Crusades fighting for King Richard the Lionheart (Richard Harris) who happens to be vain, violent and probably psychopathic (as far as the film sees him). Robin follows simply because “… he’s my King.” He’s actually  sickened by Richard’s ways.

Richard finally dies so a weary Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) decide to go home to Sherwood Forest.

They do but while on the surface much is still the same, much is very different. It isn’t the world they left. Like themselves, people are older. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is no longer the angry, frustrated man we remember; he’s reflective, even at peace in a way. In some ways, he seems more dangerous because he has learned patience.

When Robin comes across some of his old friends like Will and Friar Tuck, they are older and simply struggling to survive in Sherwood Forest as peasants. And then there is Marian (Audrey Hepburn).

Until she is introduced, Robin and Marian is an average film that satirizes and mocks violence and heroism. Once we meet Marian, the movie elevates itself into something more.

Years earlier when he left to join Richard, Robin left without a word. Robin gave himself to his king. Marian, despairing and after one suicide attempt, joined a convent and gave herself to God. Robin, with Richard dead, is free to come back to Marian and he does, thinking he can go back to how things were with only some minor patching up to do.

But Marian won’t have it. She does God’s work now; he’s her king.

The real story of Robin and Marian is how the relationship between Robin and Marian plays out.

Many reviews of this movie use the word “weird” and they are right to do so. It is weird. It’s a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to do. Or, rather, it does know but wants to do too many things and ends up muddled because of this.

On one hand, it is satirical and uses visual, even slapstick comedy. On the other, it is romantic in its love story. There is a mixing of tones and it puts the movie a bit off kilter. Both kinds of movie work; both tones work. They just don’t sit well with each other.

There is, however, a tone of romantic weariness that weaves its way through the movie from Robin to Richard to the Sheriff to Marian and this acts as a kind of anchor. The ship does get tossed from side to side quite a bit but it manages to stay in place.

There are really two Robins in this movie. The first one we meet is more or less a weary old man. He has lost the verve of youth and is tired of the pointlessness of fighting.

Once Richard’s death frees him and he returns to Sherwood Forest the other Robin emerges and this one is the real Robin Hood: a man who is still a boy.

This is where tragedy of the Robin and Marian love story is rooted. Robin has never grown up; Marian has.

What develops is a love story for grown ups. In its resolution, we find the last part of the Robin Hood legend, tweaked a little (in a good way) and a final scene that is touched with nostalgia and sentiment but not to the film’s detriment. It is simply beautiful.

This film definitely has its flaws but on the whole it is wonderful. The story is compelling and the performances of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn are exquisite. (This is my favourite Sean Connery performance.)

There is also Richard Harris as Richard the Lionheart. He’s wonderful though you can’t help wishing there had been more of him in the movie. Robert Shaw also gives a great interpretation of the Sheriff of Nottingham, a mix of world weariness, patience and guile.

There is battle scene near the film’s end that captures the core of the Robin Hood character in this version. It is between Robin and the Sheriff. Unlike what we usually see, the swashbuckling swordplay we might anticipate, is plodding and devoid of anything heroic. It is two boys, now old men, fighting what is really a schoolyard battle. They can barely lift their swords, much less wield them.

The Sheriff’s men watch, as do Robin’s. Everyone hopes to see their man win. But very quickly the various people watching begin to look on with sad, even horrified expressions. It is so clearly foolish. Even the Sheriff, as their battle nears its finish, fights with a tired, horrified expression. Robin won’t stop. The boy has to win.

When the fight ends, though seriously wounded Robin is invigorated and enthused. He’s alone in this though.

As far as Robin Hood movies go, Robin and Marian is right up there with 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. In fact, they make for a good pairing as they complement one another as well as contrast with each other. You could say Connery’s Robin is Flynn’s twenty years on.


Alec Guinness and Ealing Studios

I’ve just made some minor updates to a few reviews I wrote back in 2002. They’re all Alec Guinness movies (five of them), all done at Ealing Studios, and all come from an earlier part of the actor’s career. By the way, they’re all great.

The Alec Guinness Collection

Ealing Studios: 1949 – 1955

The Alec Guinness Collection - Anchor Bay (2002)
The Alec Guinness Collection - Anchor Bay (2002)

For some, Alec Guinness is the guy from Star Wars (Obi-Wan-Kenobi). For others, such as myself, he’s Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. But prior to these, and the many other dramatic roles he played brilliantly, Guinness was known as the comic genius of a series of British films made primarily in the 1950s at Ealing Studios. (They have their web site here.)

The Alec Guinness Collection from Anchor Bay brings together 5 of these films, all of them comic gems. (Update: This collection was brought out by Lion’s Gate in 2009 in the U.S. and Canada.)

What is interesting about these films is that Guinness’ performance isn’t that far removed from the kinds of performances he gave in dramatic roles. In other words, he knows that what makes these roles funny lies in playing them straight. It is the situation that makes the roles funny and the supporting casts, which are usually made up of character actors (often playing caricatures rather than characters).

The conceit informing most of the films is the secret life of a quiet, middle-class British man. Generally, the characters Guinness is playing are extremely British and a bit bookish perhaps. They are the sort of man no one would notice, for the most part, or, if noticed, be seen as very proper and respectable.

The Alec Guinness Collection - Lions' Gate (2009)
The Alec Guinness Collection - Lions' Gate (2009)

But each of these characters has a secret life they are living. Sometimes it’s criminal, like the caper in The Lavender Hill Mob; in the case of The Captain’s Paradise, it’s an adulterous relationship. Also in common is the secret life these small, quiet men dream of.

That is at the core of the films — the fantasies of the domesticated, perhaps even socially emasculated, male. The humour comes out of the collision between the reality and the fantasy. It develops out of the character’s attempts to hold on to his fantasy.

In most of the films, the Guinness character ends up facing a comeuppance, the triumph of reality over fantasy. However, this doesn’t always mean the character loses. In fact, even when he does lose there is something in the way the ending is handled that makes us feel he has somehow won.

Brevity and excellent pacing also characterize the films. This, combined with Guinness’ flawless performances, makes the movies work.

The Alec Guinness Collection:

  • Kind Hearts & Coronets
  • Lavender Hill Mob
  • The Man in the White Suit
  • The Captain’s Paradise
  • The Ladykillers


20 Movies: Kagemusha (1980)

This is a review I wrote a few years ago when I first picked up the DVD of Kagemusha and saw it for the second time, some twenty years after first seeing it. I think I might write something quite different today.

Somewhere on my computer I have a post about old black and white movies and “foreign” films and how, in certain ways, they involve cognitive barriers we have to get past to enjoy the movie. In the case of Kagemusha, it would be the language, Japanese (unless, of course, you speak Japanese). You don’t understand the language; you follow subtitles. That creates a barrier of sorts that you have to adjust to.

Kagemusha is one of the first movies of the subtitles kind that I saw and probably the first where the adjusting was almost non-existent. It was so visually brilliant I was enthralled from the start. Prior to Kagemusha, my movie experience was almost exclusively Hollywood. I’m still essentially a Hollywood formed viewer but it is probably Akira Kurosawa more than any other director that brought me into a world of film beyond the restrictive Hollywood definition.

Kagemusha (1980)
directed by Akira Kurosawa

I probably saw the movie Kagemusha first back in 1980 or 1981, when it was first released in North America with 20 minutes removed from the film Akira Kurosawa made. At the time, it knocked me for a loop.

It was the first Kurosawa movie I had seen. It was also the first samurai film I had seen. I don’t recall many other movies that so impressed me visually. Also, back then, my cinematic references were almost entirely western, as in Hollywood, with maybe a few Fellini films tossed in the mix.

So here was a colourful samurai movie in Japanese with English subtitles. Going in, I was a bit trepidatious. Going out, I was ga-ga.

That was more than twenty years ago. I’ve not seen Kagemusha since, not till last night when I watched the Criterion DVD – Kurosawa’s fully restored, 180 minute version in a transfer that is outstanding.

In those intervening twenty odd years I’ve seen many more kinds of film, many more samurai films and many more Akira Kurosawa films, including some of his non-samurai movies like Ikiru.

So the virgin quality of my first experience of Kagemusha is gone; it’s visual impact has been lessened in that sense. On the other hand, while no expert I’m still a bit more visually conversant than I was then, a bit more attentive and aware, not so impressed by something that looks “cool.” In that sense, the visual impact of the movie has been heightened.

The movie is about a thief, one condemned to die by crucifixion, but is spared because he looks so much like the leader of the Takeda clan, Shingen. It is Shingen’s brother who has discovered the thief’s resemblance, the same brother who has also been acting as Shingen’s double (a kagemusha) as a strategic tool in their conflict with other clans.

The thief does become a kagemusha for the Takeda leader but then Shingen is mortally wounded by a sniper. Before he dies, Shingen makes his final wish known – to not reveal the fact of his death until three years after he has died and to use that time to pull back and consolidate the Takeda position.

The thief then becomes a kagemusha for Shingen in earnest. He does it so well, he fools almost all and thus makes the other clans uncertain – fearful of Shingen and confused about his intentions.

As the film evolves, it becomes a meditation on the nature of power and of leaders while at the same time moving forward with a tragic, inexorable determination.

I’m struck by several things about Kagemusha (including how long the movie is). I suppose more than anything I’m taken by how controlled and deliberate it seems, how managed each shot is.

It begins with the very first scene. It’s a fairly lengthy one where the warrior Shingen and his brother (who has acted as Shingen’s double in the past) first meet the kagemusha (“double” or “shadow” – hence the film’s title sometimes being referred to as Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior).

The scene is a single, static shot – no cuts, no camera movement. The actors sit Japanese style on the floor and are exactingly positioned to compose the shot. They make a set of three elements placed deliberately in the foreground – two (the brothers) are centre and left. Of the two, one (Shingen, in the middle) is slightly above. The third characer or element, the kagemusha, is off to the right, also below the middle element, Shingen.

This composition of three, or variations of it, occurs over and over throughout the movie. (If I recall correctly, we also see it used in the opening of his next movie, Ran.)

Other than simply liking this kind of composition, I’m not sure what significance it has for Kurosawa. For me, however, it communicates order and a sense of control, or at least its illusion.

It contrasts starkly with where Kurosawa’s film ends up taking us – the disorder of the battlefield after the conflict, and perhaps even the movie’s final image of the kagemusha being carried off by a current in the sea, that image composed in such a way as to severe the “canvas” against which the compositions of three were placed. (Alright, that last bit may be a stretch.)

In his later samurai movies (Kagemusha and Ran), Kurosawa takes a very painterly approach, and also a very deliberate one. As mentioned, the film struck me by its length. This is partly because it is long – three hours – but also because it begins slowly and (to repeat myself) deliberately as the beginning goes through a lengthy exposition.

But it’s not simply story exposition. It’s visual exposition too, those brilliant compositions of order. Interestingly, contrasted against the structural order of the way each scene is composed is the content, or story itself, which is somewhat confusing as we have several people playing, to some degree, one character – Shingen, the brother and the kagemusha. In the first half hour, it’s not difficult to get these confused.

For me, Kagemusha is a wonderful, if somewhat difficult movie. I think Ran is the better film. Kagemusha, however, is a film Kurosawa needed to make in order to get to Ran. Many of the visual ideas about composition and colour are first explored here. The movie is also an initial iteration of the theme of chaos and order, their roots and the illusions that attend the ideas of power, control and position.

Finally, Kagemusha is well worth seeing if only to sit back and let absolutely stunning images wash over you. This is one of the best looking movies I’ve seen.

See: 20 Movies — The List

20 movies: The Big Heat (1953)

Depending on your age, you may remember seeing Glenn Ford in movies and on television. I’m thinking roughly of the 1970’s, perhaps late 60’s. He usually had an avuncular quality. He was a nice, friendly older man. He often played fatherly types. For example, in 1978’s Superman: The Movie he played kindly Pa Kent.

So for us, seeing his work from the 1950s comes as a bit of a shock. The actor we see in movies like The Big Heat is anything but Pa Kent.

It’s hard to know where to begin with The Big Heat. It is about as dark as movies get, and that sort of makes sense since it’s directed by Fritz Lang, a man Roger Ebert refers to as, “… one of the cinema’s great architects of evil.”

How does Pa Kent wind up in a Fritz Lang movie? If you see the domestic scenes in the movie, and the contrast between them and the rest of the film, you’ll see why. Lang explores evil, both its extremes and its subtleties. Ford plays his part perfectly, enunciating both sides convincingly and leaving us wondering just what kind of man this really is.

I’m not sure the review below is quite how I think about the movie today. I want to watch it again and possibly revise it. I’m wondering now if Glenn Ford’s Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion might not be the original Dirty Harry.

The Big Heat
directed by Fritz Lang

Now this is what a noir film should be. Good guys, bad guys, and a lot of dubious ground between them. (Mind you, it’s not a noir film in the strictest sense.)

Perspective is everything, I suppose, and perhaps that is why (for me) noir works best in black and white. It’s how I came to know them when I was younger. This doesn’t mean more recent, colour noir movies don’t work (just look at Chinatown and L.A. Confidential), but black and white just seems more appropriate.

Maybe it’s the sense of shadow and gray that comes across. It reflects the heart of these stories, an uncertain, dangerous world where it’s hard to tell who is on your side, or even what side you’re on.

As in Gilda, the casting of Glenn Ford is perfect. He plays these parts well. He’s the hero, but not so heroic as to be unbelievable. In fact, the type of hero he plays here is the same type Clint Eastwood got so much mileage out of for so long. He’s the ambiguous good guy.

Then there’s Gloria Grahame who gives a wonderful performance as Debby, the gangster’s girl.

But where The Big Heat really excells is in casting Lee Marvin, an actor who gives Robert Mitchum a run for his money as one of the meanest s.o.b.’s to appear on screen.

Marvin’s explosive and sadistic temper come across as so natural you would be afraid to meet him anywhere but on the screen.

In many ways, The Big Heat is a template for certain types of films (though it certainly wasn’t the first to use this pattern). This is a revenge story. But watching it from this point, over 50 years after it was made, it’s easy to forget that some of the set-ups and patterns were not established in the way they are now so, while in some ways they appear to have a certain stale, over-used quality, the truth is they were fresh and even alarming in 1953.

For example, there is the set-up scene where the domestic life of the Ford character is shattered. The scene becomes the catalyst for the character’s later actions. This pattern has been used over and over again since (again, particularly by Eastwood).

Regardless whether it’s perceived as new or cliche, it works. From start to finish The Big Heat holds you and carries you through its dark unwinding. To be perfectly true to the noir genre, Ford’s character is not as corrupt as he should be (though his revenge could be considered a form of corruption, I suppose). But this is quibbling. It certainly has the noir feel and that is far more important. Noir is really about atmosphere; it’s about tone.

This one is highly recommended.