Category Archives: Film Noir

The Burglar and unbearable anxiety of late film noir

burglarlc8What I love about the canon of cinema known as film noir is just when you think you’ve seen the all important films, along comes something and blows you away.

Thus was the case recently when I watched the 1957 film The Burglar, based on the book by one of the doyens of classic noir fiction, David Goodis, who also wrote the screenplay.

It begins with a cinema newsreel story titled “Estate sold to spiritualist cult in strange bargain”. The breathless voiceover tells cinemagoers how a millionaire called Bartram Jonesworth has died and left his estate, including a mansion and an emerald necklace, to an aging spiritualist called Sister Sarah.

In the cinema audience is career burglar Nat Harbin (long time TV and movie actor, Dan Duryea). So keen is he to get to work on what could be the score of a lifetime, he doesn’t stay for the feature, he bolts outside and starts thinking about how they can steal the necklace.

He gets his stepsister, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) to case the mansion under the pretences of visiting to make a donation to Sister Sarah’s work. Gladden informs Harbin and his associates, Baylock and Dohmer, the necklace is kept in a safe in Sister Sarah’s bedroom. The best time to make a move is the fifteen-minute window at eleven o’clock each night during which the spiritualist always watches her favourite news show.… Read more

In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely placeOne of my favourite classic film noirs, without doubt, is Nicholas Ray’s 1950 masterpiece In A Lonely Place.

It’s a taunt, claustrophobic film that works on a very emotional level for me, much more so than most classic noirs I can think of, a devastating story about the artistic process of writing and one of the few period noirs that casts a critical eye on male violence. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I always end up with a knot in my stomach from on-screen tension.

Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical screenwriter on the verge of being washed up. He also has a very violent streak to his personality that’s obviously got him into trouble many times. His agent gives him a chance for a comeback, a gig adapting a novel into a screenplay for a director well known for his popular mainstream fare. Exactly the type of film Dix hates.

His self-sabotaging distain for the job is evident when he discovers the hatcheck girl at the nightclub he’s spent the evening in has read the book he’s been asked to adapt. He invites her back to his apartment for her take about the tome. His worst suspicions about the job confirmed, he sends the girls on her way with taxi fare and goes to bed.… Read more

M Emmet Walsh and Blood Simple

Walsh“Well Ma’am if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” 

The late Roger Ebert called it the “Stanton-Walsh Rule”. Any movie “featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M.Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can’t be altogether bad”.

I’ve always liked Walsh as a character actor. But it was only when I recently re-watched the Cohen Bother’s Blood Simple after many year, that I realised just how on the money Ebert was.

Walsh plays a seedy PI called Loren Visser. Visser hired by a rich Texan bar owner, Julian (Dan Hedaya), to kill his wife, Abby (a very young Francis McDormand), who is cheating with one of Julian’s employees, Ray (John Getz).

If you haven’t seen Blood Simple, it won’t spoil your viewing pleasure too much if I tell you Visser kills Julian, tries to frame Abbey for the murder, and all manner of hell is unleashed.

On one level, Blood Simple comes across as a fairly standard small town film noir. Characters chase their own shadows and do very bad things in an effort to extract themselves from an increasingly fraught and dangerous situation.

What really raises it about the pack of similar films is the Cohen brother’s signature brand of dark weirdness, which managers to be both restrained and shocking. … Read more

Warren Oates, Gloria Grahame & other subjects for fiction anthologies

OatesThe recent release of Crime Factory’s LEE, an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the life of iconic actor Lee Marvin, has got me thinking about who else would be a good subject for similar treatment.

There’s already been a bit of chatter on Twitter about other actors people would like to see as the subject of their own fictional anthology, and several authors have contacted me with ideas.

There are only two criteria involved I can think of in choosing a subject.

First, the subject concerned has got to be deceased, preferably passed a while ago. It’s just too complex, legally and other ways to do an anthology based on someone living.

Second, there’s got to be something about them. Not just an interesting body of cinematic work and an interesting life, but an ongoing cultural resonance or zeitgeist that sets them apart from other actors and allows crime writers discuss broader issues.

Here are my picks for actors I think would be good subjects. And I should stress, these are just my musings and in no way reflect what Crime Factory will do in the future.

That said, you never know….

Warren Oates

There’s already been a bit of social media chatter about the possibility of a Warren Oates inspired anthology.… Read more

The heist always goes wrong, part 2: reader picks and other favourite heist movies

ST 2My recent post The heist always goes wrong – ten of the best heist movies ever made, generated some great reader feedback. The best thing about the response was that it pointed me in the direction of a number heist films I hadn’t seen or that I need to revisit.

Based on your comments and the thoughts I’ve had on the subject since the original post, here are follow up list of other films that could be included in a best of heist films list (and my shameless editorialising regarding what I think about the merits of not of them).

Straight Time (1978)

A huge thanks to West Australian crime writer David Whish Wilson for alerting me to Straight Time, which I’d seen previously but forgotten. Dustin Hoffman plays a career criminal just out of prison, trying to stay on the right side of his ball breaking parole officer, masterfully played by one of my screen heroes, M. Emmet Walsh, and avoid the temptation of re-offending.

Straight Time is based on the book No Best So Fierce, by real life con Edward Bunker (who has a small role in the film). Everything about this film works, the script, the down at heel late seventies feel, the cast, which includes Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates and Harry Dean Stanton.… Read more