The Killers (1946)

April 6, 2007

Even to a big noir fan like myself, some of the early films of the genre, killers1946dvd.gifeven the very good ones, tend to run together, particularly after you’ve seen as many as I have (it’s not until the 50s, when the plots got quite a bit more quirky and creative, that it gets somewhat easier to keep them all straight). On the surface, the 1946 version of The Killers appears to be one of those films that is destined to blend in with others from the time period. The story is more or less a fairly standard noir-style plot involving a double-cross. The acting is excellent from top to bottom but – other than Burt Lancaster in his breakout role – there’s nothing all that extraordinary about it. One can’t even say this is the most notable film noir involving an insurance investigator, since that “honor” would belong to Double Indemnity, with Edward G. Robinson starring as the insurance investigator par excellence. And yet, The Killers nonetheless does rise to the surface and seem to stand out as a very memorable, top-tier film noir. It’s fairly easy to see why. While it might not be exceptional in any single regard, it is certainly above average in many. It also embodies – and embodies well – many of the narrative and stylistic characteristics we associate with the noir genre. Indeed, if there is some ethereal, Platonic ideal of the classic noir film, The Killers doesn’t deviate far from it.

The film is based on a famous Ernest Hemingway story. Hemingway had a theory on fiction writing that, to be effective, it should be like the tip of the iceburg, presenting very little above the surface and leaving hidden the majority of the underlying bulk and foundation. Thus, his writing typically only hints at the complex motives and background of the characters involved and leaves much up to the imagination of the reader. Such is the case with “The Killers,” a short story that describes two men coming into a diner looking for the Swede – killers.jpgan area man they have been hired to kill. While the story gives clues as to why they wish to kill the Swede, it raises more questions than it answers. The film adaptation rather faithfully covers the narrative of Hemingway’s story in about the first 10 or 15 minutes. The remaining hour and a half tries via flashback to provide the background details missing in Hemingway’s take. This might seem like a rather dramatic departure from the original source material, but Hemingway apparently did not mind. In fact, he even advised John Huston – who drafted the script (uncredited due to his being under contract to another studio at the time) – on a few areas. The two became lifelong friends thereafter (this article had a bit more on their collaboration for the film). The presence of Huston certainly clues one in as to why the script is so good. One of the best with noir scripts, Huston had already written and directed such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and was only a few years away from doing one of my all-time favorite film noirs, The Asphalt Jungle. The fact that many of his noir scripts have a literary bent to them probably helped him in adapting and expanding the Hemingway story.

A good bit has already been written about this film, and I don’t probably have much new to add here. But if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Seriously, it’s a film noir involving the likes of Lancaster, Hemingway, and Huston (and we haven’t even mentioned the quality job Ava Gardner does as the femme fatale). What isn’t there to like?

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Across the Pacific (1942)

November 21, 2006

The landscape for classic DVDs has improved dramatically in the past couple of years, with many old films which I have never seen (but always wanted to) finally being released. This trend combined with mail-service DVD providers like Netflix (a lifesaver in a town where the local cable line-up inexplicably does not include Turner Classic Movies and the video stores have non-existent to negligible classics sections) means that older films that were hard or impossible to find mere years ago are now readily available. A case in point – the many lesser-known Bogart classics that have been released in the past year or two.  While I have seen all of the bonafide Bogart classics and even many of the not-so-classics, there always remained those elusive few films that I wanted to see but simply could not find anywhere. Admittedly, Humphrey Bogart made some bad films, which he was quick to admit himself, but some of his films that one never hears about are actually quite good (such is the case with Conflict, which I was pleased to discover a couple years back). At any rate, this is just a longwinded way of introducing the fact that this past weekend I finally got to see Across the Pacific, Bogart’s 1942 action piece which I never could find before on the shelves of my local video store.

pacific.jpgNot only did Across the Pacific come out the year following The Maltese Falcon, but it also reunited much of the cast, which probably somewhat appeased those Warner executives who were pushing at the time for a Falcon sequel. Like its predecessor, Across the Pacific was directed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet. Bogart plays Rick Leland, an artilleryman who, following his dishonorable discharge from the army, boards a boat heading to Asia to try his luck finding work with the military there. Also aboard the boat are Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet) and Alberta Marlow (Astor), both of whom seem to be harboring secret motives as to why they’re taking the voyage, as is the crew and even Leland himself. When the boat gets delayed at the Panama Canal, these secrets start coming out and a tale of international intrigue unfolds.

Across the Pacific is a fairly standard wartime action film. The story, while it keeps you guessing, is not overly complex, and there’s not a great deal of depth to the characters. All the same, it’s a fairly exciting, interesting story that takes you to exotic locales, and the acting, as would be expected from such a cast, is excellent. Astor and Bogart do well together, and the dialogue between the two has much more comedy than you find in a typical Bogie drama.

I was somewhat apprehensive going into the film about how it would portray Asian-Americans, considering that it was released so soon after Pearl Harbor. Indeed, one of the passengers, Joe Totsuiko, is a Japanese-American who has completely adapted and assimilated a western way of life, yet secretly is plotting against the U.S. and its allies. Such a characterization seems to reflect a wartime fear of an enemy hiding in our midst (it is interesting to note that Warner had to hire almost all Chinese-American actors to play the parts of the Japanese crew). However, besides this rather notable exception, the film shuns stereotypical portrayals and overall has a fairly balanced view of Asian Americans.

There is some interesting trivia surrounding this film, including how John Huston had to leave to join the Signal Corps before the end of filming had taken place. pac.jpgThe Hollywood legend has it that he abruptly left the studio at the point in the script where Bogie was being held seemingly helpless at gunpoint and told his replacement director, Vincent Herman, to figure out a way to get him out of the mess (most today agree this is likely just a myth). Even more interesting is the reason why they had to change a major plot point partway through filming (I don’t want to spoil parts of the film, but you can find it listed on the film’s IMDB trivia page).

I would not really call Across the Pacific a top-flight classic, but it’s a pretty solid film. I found this link to an original New York Times review of the film in 1942. It’s a positive review from a prominent publication, indicating that the film was likely somewhat well received, but for some reason, you hardly hear anything about this piece anymore. It just goes to show that old movies are so much more than just those few classics you always hear about. I’m excited that films like this are once again becoming readily available for a new generation to enjoy.

Key Largo (1948)

August 22, 2006

largo2.jpgOne thing that will become evident as this blog continues is that I am a big Humphrey Bogart fan. I was thus understandably excited the other week when I came across one of his more underrated films – Key Largo – on sale for a very good price. The film is the only one that pairs Bogie with both the costar (Lauren Bacall) and the director (John Huston) with whom he is most closely associated. Not only that, but the rest of the cast is stellar, with Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor. The basic story follows Frank McCloud (Bogart) a WWII veteran who travels to a hotel in Key Largo to visit Frank and Nora Temple (Barrymore and Bacall), the surviving father and widow of one of his deceased war buddies. The hotel, however, is overrun by a group of gangsters (led by Johnny Rocco – played by Robinson), and McCloud and the Temples must survive a night trapped in the building threatened by both the gangsters and an approaching hurricane.

Key Largo is one of those great films that makes me nostalgic for a previous era of filmmaking. I always seem to like classic films that are based on plays. Their reliance upon well-written, intelligent scripts usually ensures quality productions. And even though stage origins may limit such films geographically, they also typically give these films a strong sense of place that often seems lacking in today’s efforts. This is certainly the case with Key Largo. Not only does it have a quality script, but it has a top-notch ensemble capable of bringing it to life, with Claire Trevor actually stealing the show from her bigger-name costars. The bottom-line is that this is a well done classic film.

And yet, even having said this, I think there is something that keeps the film an ever-so-slight tier below the truly top-flight classics of the genre. This is odd, considering I can think of very little that is wrong with the film (besides some awkwardly dated Native American scenes). If anything, I would say that, good as it is, the script is thin in certain areas, particularly in that it doesn’t give Bogart ample opportunity to explore the ambiguities of McCloud’s character. Rather than exploring the subtle depths of these ambiguities, the script seems more content to simply note the changes in McCloud’s character and then use them as a way of conveniently moving the plot along. I’m not sure if the character was written this way in Maxwell Anderson’s play or if something was lost in the heavily-modified adaptation, but regardless, I feel Bogart ended up being shortchanged of a potentially rich role that he could have done well with. But I’m nitpicking. Even on a very bad day, John Huston directing a cast like this is worth checking out.

It’s interesting to note that many people view this film against the backdrop of Bogart, Robinson, Huston, and others speaking out against McCarthyism and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. In such an interepretation, Johnny Rocco represents a totalitarian bully who dictates how people should live, and Frank McCloud becomes a man who must overcome his fears and stand up to do what’s right. The hurricane adds another dimension to the drama, demonstrating that one man, no matter how powerful he thinks he is, is no match for the power of nature.