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Square Eyes; Bullets, Broads…and BBC 4 August 17, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film General, Crime / Noir / Thriller, Square Eyes , 8 comments

The redoubtable BBC 4 is running a short film noir season this coming weekend with six movies shown Saturday and Sunday and no less than five screenings of a new hour long documentary presented by Matthew Sweet, The Rules of Film Noir.

All the offerings on display are from the genre’s golden period, all from Hollywood studios and featuring some of film noir’s finest…

Saturday August 22

19:30; Farewell My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet - 1944). Two years before Bogie’s indelible impersonation of Raymond Chandler’s crumpled detective in The Big Sleep, former crooner Dick Powell made a courageous career leap into the murky world of noir with his rather more battered and bruised version of Philip Marlowe. Private eye Marlowe is hired by ex-con Moose Malloy to find his girlfriend, embroiling the hard-boiled gumshoe in a plot which involves blackmail, murder, drugs, double cross… and delicious dollops of voice-over dialogue. Perhaps the most filmed of all Chandler’s stories (though sometimes heavily disguised; parts of the plot were even borrowed for a Bob Hope comedy vehicle), Powell and director Edward Dmytryk’s Farewell My Lovely boasts a grittiness only bettered by Dick Richards and Robert Mitchum 30 years later. Available on a rather nice R1 Warner DVD and a less impressive Universal disc in the UK.

21:00; The Rules of Film Noir. First showing of the new Elaine Pieper directed documentary. Also shown Sunday at 00.50, 0.3:35, 22:35, and Monday at 03:05. Through the lavish use of film archive and stylised graphics as punctuation, BBC Four’s one-hour documentary presents:“…an essential guide to one of the most influential movements in cinema history: dark, cynical Film Noir.” Let’s all hope it amounts to more than a little fluff.

22:00; The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Compelling and highly stylised (what else from director/writer Orson Welles?) tale of an Irish sailor who accompanies a beautiful woman and her husband on a sea cruise, and becomes a pawn in a game of murder. Includes labyrinthine plot twists and some breathtaking cinematography - particularly in the famous Hall of Mirrors scene. The cast includes Welles, as the sap Michael O’Hara, his then wife (but not for long) Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale, the wholly dependable Everett Sloane and William Alland is again uncredited as a reporter. Some read Welles own marital difficulties into a tale of deceptions and lies; it’s not impossible. Available in both R1 and R2 from Sony.

23:25; The Big Combo (1955). Stylish film noir about a police lieutenant (Cornel Wilde) who comes under pressure from a gang headed by a vicious thug (Richard Conte). He is helped by the gangster’s wife, jealous at her husband’s affair with another woman, who supplies him with information to help him close the net on his foe. Director Joseph H. Lewis hoped the Production Code would take less interest in a minor studio making Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef, as a pair of trigger men, not so obliquely gay.  He guessed right. I think I’m right in saying the only DVD incarnations available have been chucked on to DVD by slapdash PD merchants now that the R1 Image version is OOP.

Sunday August 23

01:50; Force of Evil (1948). Dark, brooding and cerebral drama from writer/director Abraham Polonsky about two brothers caught up in crime and corruption. An ambitious lawyer (the superb, doomed John Garfield) in search of materialistic gain begins work for a New York criminal mastermind, who plans to take over New York’s illegal lottery. The attorney serves his boss faithfully until he realises his own brother will fall victim to the plan. But it seems he may now be too involved to escape the gangster’s violent ends. Martin Scorsese hails this as one of noir’s forgotten masterpieces, but certainly it’s not under-appreciated by film fans. Beautifully written, acted and directed with a fine David Raskin score, R1 and R2 have to make do with slightly underpar transfers from Lionsgate and Metrodome respectively.

21:00; Build My Gallows High (aka Out Of The Past - 1947). Quintessential American noir which tells a grim, complex tale of love and betrayal. A failed detective (Robert Mitchum) falls for the mistress (Jane Greer) of a mobster to whom he is heavily in debt. When she double-crosses him and returns to the mobster, the detective changes his identity and drops out of sight. But the gangster still wants his money back, and he and the woman plot to lure the detective into a vengeful scenario. Daniel Mainwaring wrote and literate and intelligent script from his own novel, Jacques Tourneur directs with aplomb, both Mitchum and Greer are on top form; also features Kirk Douglas and Rhonda Fleming. Warner delivered the DVD goods in R1, Universal, once again, had to make do with sloppy seconds in R2.

23:30; Stranger on The Third Floor (1940). Rarely screened Boris Ingster helmed psychological drama (for RKO) and touted by some as the first noir. The testimony of an ambitious reporter (John McGuire) helps to convict a young man (Elisha Cook Jr.) of murder, but the newspaper man has second thoughts about his contribution when he finds himself in the dock while a homicidal maniac is on the loose. Peter Lorre is top billed but while he has little to do, he does so effectively in this short (64 minutes) proto-noir. The only DVD out there appears to be a Spanish offering from Manga, but not having seen it, I can’t vouch for it.

Reed All About It… August 6, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Crime / Noir / Thriller , 3 comments

A Kid For Two Farthings (1955) 

Carol Reed’s A Kid For Two Farthings tends to divide opinion. There are those that see it as a frankly soppy piece of contemporary nostalgia, filled with stereotypical characters, who inhabit a mythical, rose-tinted cityscape. And there are others who see a film with a great big heart, an extraordinary evocation, from Wolf Mankowitz’s novel and screenplay, of the post-war East End of London. I’m a cynic by nature, but, gentle reader, I fall unashamedly into the camp of the latter.

As if it wasn’t already obvious from Odd Man Out, The Third Man, Oliver! and The Fallen Idol, A Kid For Two Farthings is further evidence that Reed is a wonderful director of children, and in the lead as ‘Joe’, Jonathan Ashmore gives a stupendous performance - his only film performance - a boy who believes utterly in the magical powers of his pet ‘unicorn’, the eponymous pocket money purchased one-horned animal of the title.

A Kid For Two Farhtings

Living above an impoverished tailor’s shop with his careworn mother, Joanna (Celia Johnson), Joe spends his days weaving between market stalls, chatting amiably with the spivs and the hawkers, beguiling kindly shop owners or staring wide-eyed at the wrestlers who bounce off each others bloated muscles in the gym. As in The Fallen Idol, we see the film unfold mostly from this innocent’s perspective, our perceptions tuned to his; the sights and incredible cacophony of the East End markets, the vivid colours that stand out midst the grimy, slum-like, post-war surroundings, the larger than life, almost Runyon-esque, characters. And a life-affirming belief, not only in magic - or the merest possibility that it exists - but that things can only get better.

Joe is told by the benign Jewish tailor Mr Kandinsky (David Kossoff - who else?), that unicorns exist and grant their owners wishes. When Joe buys a sickly goat with a single twisted horn, his childish innocence convinces him that his ‘unicorn’ will change life for the better not only for himself but also for those around him.

Woven into this tale we have body-builder Sam (Joe Robinson) and Sonia (the truly gorgeous Diana Dors), seemingly doomed never to name the day, ‘Ice’ Berg (Sid James), purveyor of dodgy diamond rings, ‘Python’ Macklin (played with impressive relish by former World Heavyweight Champ Primo Carnera), the bad-guy wrestler determind to get Sonia into his patented ‘Python grip’.

Home Vision’s US R1 DVD is open matte (it was most likely projected at 1.66:1), but the Technicolor cinematography of A.S. Bates is, if not perfectly presented, sometimes eye wateringly beautiful. Benjemin Frankel’s score is quite spare, most of the ‘music’ provided by the location, the occasional radio or record playing in the background, but the main theme wafts in and out played on an old gramophone wheeled around the East End on a pram by a wandering tramp (Joseph - father of Frances - Tomelty), another touch of whimsy, one of many in this wholly whimsical film.

It’s just one, I think, of the interesting aspects of a fascinating production that’s packed with familiar faces; as well as the aforementioned, the cast boasts such familiar faces as Brenda De Banzie, Irene Handel, Danny Green and Sid Tafler.

Where there is life, there is hope; it’s not an unwelcome message even in this most determinedly optimistic tale (especially in these determinedly pessimistic times). And while not everyone ends with their wishes fulfilled, A Kid For Two Farthings, tells us, while there is a glimmer of hope, to hang on tight to our dreams.

There are no extras on the R1 disc, but it’s available quite cheaply. A Kid For Two Farthings is also available in the UK, but from public domain specialists Orbit Media so I cannot vouch for the quality. However, it will be part of what looks like to be a super Diana Dors Collection from ITV DVD released this month in the UK, which also includes Good Time Girl (1948), The Calendar (1948), Oliver Twist (1948), It’s Not Cricket (1949), Diamond City (1949), A Boy, A Girl and a Bike (1949), As Long as They’re Happy (1955), and Three for All (1975). The set is completed by a couple of documentaries from the Granada Ventures catalogue: The Blonde Bombshell, and Who Got Diana Dors’ Millions?

The Man Between (1953)

If you’re searching for a theme that connects Carol Reed’s sublime Odd Man Out, The Third Man and The Man Between, then, I suppose, ‘men on the run’ is the most obvious. But while James Mason’s Johnny McQueen is a doomed idealist, crucified by accident and circumstance, and Orson Welles Harry Lime is an utterly charming, yet chilling moral vacuum, in The Man Between Mason’s Ivo Kern is the post-conflict everyman for whom the start of the war brought an abrupt end to everything he held dear. Though Ivo is German, his fate was mirrored by millions of others round the globe - the war brought an end to the former lawyer’s life of easy rationality and social order; it shattered his belief in basic justice and humanity. Ivo is, simply, a hybrid of the first two characters. And all of them are ultimately doomed by love.

Critics saw The Man Between as a somehow failed The Third Man, the two sharing blasted post-war backdrops and a protagonist who ghosts between the West and the netherworld of a Soviet controlled sector. Here it’s Berlin rather than Vienna, but the similarities do the film a disservice; Ivo is no Harry, he’s no serial user of friends and lovers, a criminal from cradle to grave. Ivo is damaged goods, a man who served his country at huge personal cost, who cannot accept that even broken by an overwhelming burden of guilt, he is still capable of an altruistic act. As Kerns Mason is, of course, typically brilliant.

Claire Bloom is also superb as the resourceful Susanne Mallinson, the girl who gets unwittingly caught up in Ivo’s world of gangsters and political thugs when she visits her Army medico brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone) and his wife Bettina (Hidegard Knef). When Susanne suspects Bettina of an affair with the charming Ivo, she can’t imagine that she’ll become the kidnapped pawn in a plan to capture allied spy Olaf Kastner (Ernst Schröder). With the pieces moving swiftly around the board in Soviet East Berlin, can Ivo get Susanne safely back to the West?

The Man Between

Having earlier mentioned Reed and children, it would be remiss of me not to spotlight Dieter Krause as the young look-out, ‘Horst’ (kitted out, deliberately, to resemble the all-American ’kid down the block’), and, ironically, it is this child’s love for Ivo as much as the blossoming relationship between Susanne and the German, that precipitates tragedy.

The Man Between is beautifully scripted by Harry Kurnitz and an uncredited Eric Linklater from Walter Ebert’s story, with Mason given some delightfully spry one-liners - ‘The Germans always had to learn languages - the army never knew where it would be going next’. It might not be quite as sharp as Greene (but then who is?), and it suffers the tricky problem of having a multi-lingual cast of characters. Reed solves the problem of Germans speaking to Germans by first having them speak in their mother tongue then switching abruptly to English, a solution I never find satisfying. I missed Robert Krasker’s signature stark cinematography, but that doesn’t mean to say Desmond Dickinson doesn’t do a fine, if workmanlike, job, and he’s given lots of opportunity as Ivo and Susanne dodge through Berlin’s pock-marked nightime landscape. There’s an atypical John Addison score, a decadent clarinet sounding out the theme for a Berlin, the ‘city between’, that is caught in a tug-of-war - the acceptable face of capitalism pulling harder than granite hearted communism.

The Man Between is part of Optimum’s excellent UK R2 James Mason: Screen Icon Collection. There’s an oddity inasmuch as it’s presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, and I’m almost certain this 1953 film was framed for Academy; the German R2, I am told, is presented full frame. Wide, The Man Between is a little tight and there are too many shots that leave tops of the actors heads out of the top of the frame. It may be that it’s one of those films that was indeed shown wide, as the widescreen boom took hold, but I’m not entirely convinced it was shot that way. In fact, I’m nigh on certain it wasn’t. The good news is that it’s decent transfer with nice contrast and very few marks or blemishes. The only audio track is English mono, which is good, and there are no subtitles or extras of any kind.

The third link, I suppose, between the three Reed films mentioned in this review, is the sense of despair and futility as the end credits roll, a sharp contrast to the reaction to A Kid For Two Farthings, but strangely, somehow, not a million miles from it. It might be something in the English psyche that I can see even that as a positive reaction, and I ache to put myself through it again, and again.


Just a quick word on the rest of the titles that make up Optimum’s James Mason: Screen Icon Collection which is in the usual space saving folding digipack arragement typical of this series. I’ve had a quick look at the rest of the titles and it’s interesting to note that three of the discs precisely replicate - transfers, extras, disc art and all - the extant versions; 5 Fingers, currently available from Optimum, plus Network’s The Man in Grey and the sublime, the spectacular (I do like it…) Odd Man Out. Only Network’s rather nicely put together booket, Soldier in The Snow, from that title is missing.

Ealing’s The Bells Go Down is a fair transfer, a little grainy, some flecking here and there, and like The Man Between, no extras whatsoever. There’s a bigger budget at play, and a recognisable cast of star names, but, as a visceral document of London’s Firefighters during the Blitz it can’t hold a candle (no pun intended) to the same year’s I Was A Fireman (aka Fires Were Started) from Humphrey Jennings. More on that some other time, hopefully.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of October 30, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Humphrey Bogart, Crime / Noir / Thriller , add a comment

‘When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s…it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.’
Sam Spade

It’s quite rare that writing, acting, editing and directing collide at the very same intersection in time and space, producing a piece of work that could be said to be perfect, but 1941’s The Maltese Falcon is such a movie.

Quite simply, it is a scintillating, head spinning, exhilarating directorial debut by screenwriter John Huston, a maverick talent who is somewhat undervalued today (but not by you, gentle reader).

One of the reasons Huston, who had long been lobbying to direct, was given the job was because Warners were anxious to grab some of the limelight away from RKO and their wunderkind, a certain Mr Welles - ‘See? We got one here too!’

That they did, earning the plaudits of critics and setting the cash registers ringing, a combination that warmed the coal black heart of Jack Warner. But in making a commercial and critical success, Huston and his team also set the trend for a whole new genre. The influence of German expressionist cinema gave the film a look that no other detective movie had hitherto enjoyed; cinematographer Arthur Edeson had a whale of a time playing with unusual camera angles and a brilliantly imaginative use of light and shadow that would become a staple of what became known as Film Noir.

While Warners wanted a Welles spin for the film, they hedged their bets by giving their own ‘boy wonder’ a tight shooting schedule and a miniscule budget, (Jack being the big spending studio head everyone wanted to work for…) the kind of artistic straitjacket that bounding free from sometimes stimulates, as in this case (and in the case of Halloween, to make a topical reference), a film crew to give of their finest work.

Huston also faced the problem of ‘The Code’. The Hays Office had no such hold over the 1931 version, but even so, for all that film’s shots of disheveled couches and rolls of bills tucked down stockinged legs, it hasn’t half the electricity of this film made a decade later. There’s no ambiguity, Code or not, about the sexuality of ‘Cairo’, ‘Gutman’ or ‘Wilmer’, no coyness over the lusty affair of ‘Sam’ (the first really great anti-hero, others vying for the crown being on the side of ‘bad’ rather than ‘good’) and ‘Brigid’, or even over Sam and ‘Miles’s’ bed-hopping activities.

Warners, watching every last cent, gave Huston a cast on the cheap; Bogart, a contract player, had spent years being the villainous fall guy for a role call of the studio’s stars. After finally impressing as a lead in High Sierra, Bogie would at last make it into the big time as ‘Sam Spade’. Mary Astor’s career was on the slide after revelations about her private life, but those same lurid stories would prove the spur for a lifetime best performance as her screen alter ego ‘Brigid O’Shaughnessy’. A 61-year-old man of Kent and the theatre, who had never before acted on screen, Sydney Greenstreet would make as stunning a debut as his young director - by God, sir, he would - and the marvellous Peter Lorre would complete a quartet who would go down in cinema history.

When Warners told Huston to crack the whip and quicken the pace, or face overshooting his schedule, the young debutant, whose mentor was Howard Hawks, reacted by urging his actors to deliver their lines in quickfire ‘Hawksian’ manner. From the opening scene to the closing credits, The Maltese Falcon never lets up. There’s not a spare moment, not an ounce of padding. Huston even manages to cram more of Dashiell Hamett’s novel into the action by a simple narrative trick; the telephone call. There are a number throughout the film, no need to cut to another set, no useless exposition between characters to deaden the pace. Beautifully done. What might be otherwise considered ‘talkie’ is riveting, the dialogue zinging about the screen like hand grenades tossed between opposing trenches.

Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, wrote about what he knew, the underbelly of San Francisco, the knife in the back alley, the blurring of the lines of good guys and bad. His ‘Sam Spade’ is almost an emotional vacuum, but it was the young director and Bogart who, together, really breathed life into him. Huston brought these real people to the screen, and we can believe in each and every one of them, from the moral ambiguity of Spade (’Here’s to crime…’), who ends the film having had, as another Bogart character famously would, his insides kicked out, to the prissy, orally fixated ’Joel Cairo’ (’Gardenias? Shoo him in Effie darling…’), the driven fat man ’Kasper Gutman’ (’I'll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk…’) and even Elisha Cook Jr.’s beautifully sketched ‘Wilmer’, tears welling in his puppy dog eyes as Spade goads the inept gunsel into one last rash act.

Bogart himself is at last given a role to stretch his acting chops; his Spade couldn’t give a damn when Miles (Jerome Cowan) is found dead, after all, he’s been cuckolding him for a while now. But whatever else happens, whoever else gets in the way, he has to bring his killer to justice. He’s as cold as a cadaver with ‘Iva’ (Gladys George), at first amused then aroused by Brigid, he impresses Gutman (Greenstreet) with his sharp wit and resourcefulness, and the look of pure evil - genuine relish - on his face when he first disarms then cracks Cairo (Lorre) on the chin is worth the price of the film alone (well, either that or Brigid booting poor Joel with a stinging right stiletto…)

But the more I watch The Maltese Falcon, the more impressed I am with Mary Astor’s performance as the deadly Brigid. She has to match Bogie scene for scene, but at the same time, like Ginger Rogers, who famously had to do everything Fred did but in high heels and backwards, she is playing the role of a woman who is playing many roles. Ms O’Shaughnessy is an accomplished liar and sexual predator who ensnares men then disposes of them like last night’s pizza. Or like a goldfish down the toilet. She’s the quintessential femme fatale, which for Sam, is half the attraction. ‘Now you are dangerous…’ laughs Spade, licking his lips in anticipation.

There’s a tangible electricity between Astor and Bogart that gives their screen relationship a verité that makes the denouement all the more tragic. This isn’t just Bogie’s film, as much as it wouldn’t be the absolute classic it is without him, it’s very much an ensemble piece, a piece about greed, acquisitiveness and the dangers of getting what you wish for.

And having said that the ‘Falcon’ represents movie nirvana, from the whole of the cast to Adolph Deutsch’s magnificent score, Robert Haas’s sets and Perc Westmore’s makeup, there is one thing I’m curious about. There’s an obvious edit when Iva Archer visits Sam at his office (and I think I’m right in saying another right at the end, with maybe a line or two snipped); they clinch, Sam attempts to calm Iva down, then - cut, and she’s out the door. I’d love to see the footage that originally existed there and know why it was cut, if indeed it was; I haven’t listened yet to the DVD commentary, maybe the answer is there.

Warners R1 Special Edition DVD is (pack issues aside, see my previous post) almost as perfect as the film itself. The latest transfer is quite beautiful; my old R2 was excellent, but there was evidence of some marks and a couple of dupey sections, wrongs which have now been righted. The extras are pretty good, though the ‘talking heads’ documentary is a little superfluous I expect it might be useful for those who are unfamiliar with the film or its stars.

Watching the 1931 version only served to show just how far the art form of film had come since the introduction of sound just over a decade earlier, just what an enormous talent John Huston was, and an early chance to explore the difference between a film that is ’explicit’ and one that is ’grown-up’. I’m filled with trepidation over the second version of the film in this set, Dieterle’s Satan Met a Lady, which looks dreadful.

Of Huston’s early work, I’m pushed to decide which is better; The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the The Sierra Madre or The Asphalt Jungle. The cowards way out is to go for the draw, so that’s what I’ll do.

Dead End (1937) September 15, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Humphrey Bogart, Crime / Noir / Thriller , add a comment

First published in another form at The DVD Forums.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be Humphrey Bogart, possibly the only thing Woody Allen and I have in common. That and the specs (plus the neuroses).

Who wouldn’t want to be the hard-bitten Rick Blaine, the resourceful Philip Marlowe or the quintessential noir detective Sam Spade? Who wouldn’t want to sweep Ilsa Lund off her feet, slap Joel Cairo around, or trade zingers with Vivian Sternwood Rutledge?

Well, ‘nobody wouldn’t’ is the simple, if clumsy, answer; these are characters as strong as, in reality, we are weak. They are desirable to women, unbeatable, implacable, always carrying a sharp wit and a loaded gat - and they are all, most definitely, Humphrey Bogart. Even in my pre-teens, I quoted him, practiced the famous lisp, pulled an imaginary snap-brimmed Fedora over my eye, his picture on my bedroom wall, next to la Dietrich, Karloff, Cagney and George Best. Here’s looking at you kids…

For Bogie, the road to stardom was a marathon, not a sprint; from his first screen bit part to the breakthrough of The Petrified Forest - a role he won only because of the stubborn intransigence of Leslie Howard, for which Bogart was forever grateful - took 16 years, time he spent playing ‘anyone for tennis’ types on stage, scratching around. Even then, Duke Mantee seemed to have typecast him as the heavy, sneering and catching bullets for the next few years in the final reel, usually from Jimmy Cagney or Eddie Robinson.

It wasn’t until Bogart took the part of Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle in High Sierra, made the public weep for a doomed criminal, and got rave reviews, that audiences - and more importantly Jack Warner - at last began to see Bogart as something other than the guy they always booed. The following year came the wonderfully cynical Sam Spade, the chase for the black bird, and a film that made this intelligent middle-class New Yorker one of the biggest stars in the Hollywood firmament - at nearly 42 years old.

At the heart of Bogie’s ‘bad guy’ period, came the 1937 Samuel Goldwyn production of Dead End, but Bogart wasn’t just on show here as mere cannon fodder; he was beginning to flex his quite considerable acting muscles (the apogee of which is arguably seen in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Nicholas Ray’s sublime In a Lonely Place) and Hugh ’Baby Face’ Martin gave him the opportunity to do just that.

Made the year before Angels With Dirty Faces, the film spawned the ‘Dead End’ kids (aka the ‘Bowery Boys’) and there are indeed some similarities between the two movies. We have a group of no-hope kids, living dirt poor, stealing, thumbing their noses at authority, who respect and emulate those that came from the same environment and who are now full blown hoodlums. But in ‘Angels’ Cagney - even while he blazing away at the forces of law and order - was always the hero figure; he wasn’t evil, just, well, just ‘a kid who couldn’t run fast enough.’ Obviously Warner, never one to miss the main chance, spotted the potential in simply tweaking the story for his studio’s massively successful gangster series, while knocking off some of its harder edges.

If Rocky Sullivan was just a good kid who took a wrong turn (and who shoots the occasional cop), Bogart’s ‘Baby Face’ Martin is scum; a cold-hearted stiletto wielding killer in a $150 hand made suit, who, with some relish, advises kids to use broken bottles, rocks and knives in a street fight.

Ostensibly, director William Wyler’s film stars lovers Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea and their attempts at finding happiness in the hell’s kitchen of New York’s Lower East Side. But there is little doubt that while Bogart, rapidly climbing the ladder to real stardom, is on screen, he’s the real focal point. He is little short of brilliant; and this is another part (the others being the aforementioned High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon) that Bogart won after George Raft turned it down. Raft thought the part was unsympathetic and was shocked at the scene where Martin’s mother cracks him in the chops. There’s even a Warners memo, by the way, considering Raft for Casablanca, though, in truth, the role of Rick was always going to be Bogie’s; who else could have brought that part to such vivid life? I’d love to have been a fly on the wall, however, when Raft visited his agent…

The story; Martin (Bogart) has returned to his old haunt to look up his aging ma (Marjorie Main, who specialised in such) and an old flame, tart with a heart Francey (Claire Trevor - she too rather cornered the market here didn’t she). Gangster Martin, a killer of eight men, is on the run, having just had plastic surgery. He thinks he’ll find some kind of valediction by returning home, but he’s rejected by his horrified mother and disgusted that his one time girl is now a disease ridden prostitute.

He bumps into the next generation of hoodlums, the local tenement street gang, gives them advice on street warfare but is warned off by one of his dockside contemporaries, Dave (McCrea), local guy trying to make good, who can’t make his mind up between Drina (Sidney), sister of the gang leader Tommy (Billy Halop), or the upmarket Kay Burton (Wendy Barrie).

The deeply disappointed Martin comes up with a ’slash and burn’ scheme to kidnap Kay’s younger brother, and Dave, who knows that mixing it with the gangster could mean a knife in the belly, determines to stop him. Meanwhile Tommy seems to be on the inexorable slide towards Reform School; can anyone save him?

Based on Sidney Kingsley’s successful stage play (he also wrote the play Detective Story that Wyler filmed so memorably in 1951) and adapted for the screen by the redoubtable Lillian Hellman, Dead End is a raw slice of social realism, that must have shocked Broadway theatre-goers. With it’s crowded, cockroach infested, tenements filled with rotting garbage, abusive and drunken parents and lawless, filthy children in rags, it pulls no punches.

There’s no doubt about the film’s political sympathies - in the ’30s it was still possible for those on stage and screen to hold liberal views without being tagged a ‘Red’, or, at least, not find yourself on someone’s blacklist - when Drina displays a handsome bruise given to her by a policeman while she was on a strike picket line. Meanwhile, literally looking down on this squalor are the newly built waterfront apartment blocks, filled with dance music from the party going rich, that seem to belong to another world. It’s no fun, need I make the point, being poor.

Nominated for four Oscars, there’s plenty to admire in Wyler’s film; fine acting all round, a sharp script, a quite ferocious Bogart, who, it must be admitted, saves the movie from at times from slipping into mere melodrama, and a noble McCrea (a part, in lesser hands, that could quite easily have slipped into ‘pompous’). There’s an admirable set design from Richard Day and Julia Heron, and some super cinematography by the legendary Gregg Toland, who bookends the film with trademark shots that descend from the skies above New York into the greasy tenements, and back again. At times, it might seem a little stagebound, betraying its roots, but it adds, rather than detracts, to the charm of the piece.

A word too, for some of the more minor cast members - you’ll catch Ford punch-bag Ward Bond as a doorman, Thomas E. Jackson from Public Enemy and Allen Jenkins (the voice of ‘Officer Dibble’) as Martin’s hang dog sidekick Hunk. It’s a taut 92 minute movie; exciting (there is a gun battle of extraordinary viciousness), intelligent, funny and entertaining.

MGM’s transfer of the film on R1 DVD (it’s also available quite cheaply in R2) is quite excellent. There’s hardly a mark or blemish to be seen and it’s beautifully clear; the original elements must be in remarkable condition. If I were to be picky I’d ask for a little more contrast, but, honestly, this is jaw-dropping, top-drawer stuff for a film coming up for 68-years-old. Of course, there are no extras, and subtitles are available in English, Spanish or French. Highly recommend.

Odd Man Out August 27, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, British Film, Crime / Noir / Thriller , 12 comments

Spoilers within…
A veteran fighter for ‘The Cause’, this was going to be one of Johnny McQueen’s last jobs with a gun. He has a vision of replacing the bullet with the ballot box, but he’ll never see the day. Stumbling through a snow filled landscape, life is ebbing out of him drip by bloody drip onto the cobbled streets of Belfast…

Odd Man Out is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen; literate, achingly beautiful, a haunting score, wonderfully acted and deftly directed. It is probably Carol Reed’s masterpiece, but , in general, today is largely forgotten other than by film fans, and even amongst that community, it’s certainly overshadowed by Reed’s The Third Man (which the briefly seen Orson Welles dominates so completely, that many - not you, gentle reader - credit him with the film’s success).

Reed’s dark tale of greed and love lost in post-war Vienna is indeed a scintillating piece of work by any standards. But it’s the story of the I.R.A. (although his affiliation is never made clear, McQueen’s ‘chief’ must surely be so) man on the run that resonates so much more deeply, with this viewer at least.

Despite the highly charged political backdrop, Reed’s 1947 film largely skirts those issues, as a pre-action title card makes plain. This is a film not about the ‘Troubles’ per se, but about the human heart; well, that’s the claim. The camera swoops in from above Belfast’s dockland taking us - the ones that live outside the province at least - into a city and a conflict of which we know little.

Johnny, just escaped after eight months in jail doing a 17-year stretch for gun-running and still not fully recovered, is first seen in the upstairs room of a small terraced house in Belfast’s town centre. The cell is planning a fund raising raid on a local mill; of course, they’re going armed, but Johnny urges no gun play. In fact, the three men who lift the cash - McQueen, Nolan (a very young Dan O’Herlihy) and Dennis (the excellent Robert Beatty) - do so in an affable fashion, smiling, nodding and winking at those they surprise in the mill office, bundling notes from the safe into bags.

As they make their getaway, Johnny is taken ill and is grappled to the ground by a gun-toting Mill worker. Two shots ring out, Johnny taking a horrific wound to the shoulder, the mill worker dead where he lies. As he races their car from the scene, nervous and excitable driver Pat (Cyril Cusack, fine tuning his brogue for north of the border) allows Johnny to fall from the running board. It’s a mess; the alarm bringing the authorities, the gang on the run without their wounded chief.

Reed paints a picture of a divided Belfast full of traps for those engaged in the struggle; informers after cash, police everywhere. Denis O’Dea’s intractable Inspector is determined that his man will face justice, and if his portrayal is in danger of being perceived as fascist - clad in black, with a swagger stick he uses to lift faces up to his - Reed weighs this against the incompetent gun happy Pat, who is desperate to use his gat. And with fatal consequences, while full of spine-stiffening whiskey, he does so.

James Mason turns in a remarkable performance as the charismatic Johnny; his weight as an actor is to spend most of the film dying, with little in the way of dialogue, but he dominates the proceedings effortlessly. In truth, McQueen’s dead from the moment the bullet was fired - he first escapes to an air raid shelter, where he makes a couple of spectral appearances, to a child, then to a courting couple who don’t even notice at first that this human wraith is in there with them. Later, as he leaves the home of an English woman who attempts to patch him up - then shrivels away when she realises who he is - the wind howls as if it is his spirit and not the corporeal being that is about to walk the freezing cold Belfast air. His travels across the city take him to a monumental mason’s yard, where he slumps, surrounded by headstones, statues of angels, the detritus of the dead.

Reed films him, semi-conscious, delirious, in agony, trying just to get somewhere, anywhere, where he can die in peace. And all the time, the constabulary is closing in, picking up his comrades, cutting him off from safety. If Reed eschews the political angle, he doesn’t shy away from the spiritual. Johnny’s girl, Kathleen (the gorgeous Kathleen Ryan), who is plotting an escape route, seeks help from the wise Father Tom (W.G. Fay) who taught Johnny as a child. Father Tom wants to save Johnny’s immortal soul, and gently lectures the fey Shell (F.J. McCormack), seeking the reward the police are offering, that there are rewards worth having greater than mere money. Shell can’t quite grasp it…

Father Tom’s simple reflections on the basic tenents of Christianity - the basic necessities of humanity - have been falling on deaf ears for years; ‘They can’t hear you Father!’ says a hallucinatory Johnny. But the words spoken by his vision to the child long ago finally break through. From Corinthians, Johnny, standing on legs that will barely support him, yells a memory of a lesson he can just remember: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I reasoned as a child…’ If there is a religious message - underscored by a Christ-like vision of McQueen, arms outstretched against bare railings - it is surely that 2,000 years in, none of us, of any faith or creed, is listening. Despite the protestations of that title card, maybe William Hartnell’s English publican, who spots Johnny but wants nothing to do with him or his business, is indeed intended to send a political message; but a film such as this? How could it not? Belfast is filled with conspirital shawl-clad republicans; the forces of the Crown, the enemy - to part of the populace at least - for generations.

All this gloom is relieved by a couple of scenes that, I think, Reed handles beautifully. Firstly, as The Third Man demonstrated amply, he’s a superb director of children. Robert Beatty quizzes a Belfast street gang, one of whom simply asks over and over ‘…’ave you got a ciggie? Give us a cigarette…’ and another who answers him with great dollops of cheeky insolence, that only a child who’s aware has the upper hand can dole out to an adult. It’s a lovely vignette. The second, which tends to divide opinion, involves Robert Newton, that old soak, who plays artist Lukey (who is, by coincidence, an old soak). Lukey is searching for the meaning of life and, grotesquely, thinks he can find it in Johnny’s dying eyes. Playing off a cynical failed medical student, Tober (a world weary Elwyn Brook-Jones), their dialogue could almost be described as Pinteresque, though the combination of low comedy and utter tragedy is Fordian, or Shakespearian, depending on your view.

The ending is inevitable, and shattering. Changed from the novel because of the demands of the American censor, it’s possibly more fitting and more satisfying. I’m left in pieces.

Network’s new Special Edition R2 DVD of Odd Man Out is quite, quite gorgeous. The previous R2 disc from Carlton was okay, but suffered from a large amount of telecine wobble, dirt and scratches. This transfer, the sleeve notes tell us, was made by Granada from the best available safety element, after being compared to the BFI held original nitrate fine grain master and found to be in better condition. Digitally restored in high-definition, it’s a peach, showing off Robert Krasker’s absolutely masterful, simply stunning, high contrast cinematography to best possible effect. With much of the action taking place at night on stark snow filled streets - beautifully lit sets and Belfast locations - it’s finely detailed, barely a mark on it. The restored print is, by the way, just about to start a limited theatrical run in the U.K.

The soundtrack too, has had a wash a brush up and William Alwyn’s spare and wonderful score, played on set so that Mason walks in agony in time to the music, is rendered perfectly. There’s a deathly calm, by the way, about the whole production, the blanket of snow that covers Belfast transfigured into a shroud for the dead, the wind eerily becomes part of Alwyn’s overall palette. That’s echoed in Reed’s hit two years later, as Harry Lime’s fingers (actually Reed’s own) probe the night air of Vienna through the sewer grating.

The disc has a handful of very useful extras; the 1972 documentary from Yorkshire Television, Home James, in which Mason returns to his native Huddersfield, is marvellously nostalgic stuff, while there are some fascinating snippets from another 1972 interview, which is basically a collection of unedited rushes. Also worthy of note is the 24-page booklet, Soldier in the Snow, well researched and written by Steve Rogers, and containing lots of useful and interesting information - about the Abbey Players, Mason and Reed’s careers, Krasker’s immense influence, the original novel and much more. At the back of the booklet is a reproduction of the original press book.

There are also 165 images in a rolling gallery, plus the script, in PDF format.

Superb - more of this standard Network please!

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