Monday, June 26, 2017


Originally written for as part of a review of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection.

Considered by Hitchcock to have been his first real movie, this silent chiller is based on a novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes. The book of The Lodger is an early entry in the extensive Jack the Ripper lore, and one of the very first pieces of fiction to try to offer a solution in the case. This movie version never mentions Jack, instead showing us a similarly styled killer calling himself "The Avenger." Every Tuesday night for several months, the Avenger has murdered a fair-haired woman and left behind a mysterious calling card featuring his moniker inside a triangle.

Thus, suspicions are high and nerves are on edge when an odd new tenant moves into a rooming house near where the latest killings have taken place. Jonathan Drew, played by early British film star Ivor Novello, keeps to himself and has several "queer" habits, such as demanding all the portraits of women be taken out of his room. (There seems to be some implication that he isn't just "queer" as in "weird," but the landlady also suspects he is gay.) If Drew is the Avenger, though, he's picked a rather bad place to set up shop. While the landlords' daughter, Daisy (Marie Ault), would make a perfect candidate for the next victim, her suitor (Arthur Chesney), is a police detective on the Avenger's trail. Naturally, Drew's odd behavior endears him to Marie while alienating everyone else, and the next Tuesday, the cop will make his move.

The Lodger has several telltale Hitchcock moves, from the innocent ingénue being drawn to dark forces and the resulting romance to the theme of a man being wrongfully accused. There are snooping neighbors, ostentatious settings (Marie is a clothes model), and several red herrings and deceptively tense sequences where all is not as it initially appears. The movie is an effective character piece, well constructed by the young director. He manages to draw convincing, demonstrative performances from his actors, and Hitchcock is also already experimenting with mis-en-scene and other conventions of film language. Of particular note are his creative title cards that mimic theatre marquees and announce characters in a visual equivalent to signature motifs we often hear in film scores.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


The first feature from director Nicholas Ray, 1948’s They Live By Night prefigures his iconic Rebel Without a Cause as a story about two doomed teenagers who fall in love despite the circumstances that put them on the wrong side of an adult world that either doesn't understand them or refuses to try. Adapted from the Edward Anderson novel Thieves Likes Us (also made into a later film by Robert Altman, reviewed here), They Live By Night stars Farley Granger (Rope) as Bowie, a kid who got into some trouble when he wasn't looking for it and now has broken out of jail with older bank robbers who also had life sentences for murder. On their backwoods crime spree, Bowie meets Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell, The Best Years of Our Lives), and their reaction to each other is romantic, hormonal, and strangely endearing and comforting. Keechie tries to find solutions to get Bowie out of his trouble, but the newspapers have seized on him as some kind of pretty boy highwayman, putting the lives of the two young lovers beyond their own grasp.

That kind of foreboding permeates They Live By Night. Ray harnesses the adolescent us-against-the-world feeling of doom and gloom and wraps the entire picture in it like a cloth. It doesn't matter what Bowie and Keechie try to do, they can't live in isolation. A water pipe might burst and the plumber will recognize the young thief, or a former ally might get an itch for some kind of reward and turn snitch. Even Ray's camera acts as an otherworldly force, with his pioneering helicopter shots careening over the fleeing couple, showing just how much larger their surroundings are than a pair of kids in love. They live by night because the daylight means exposure.

By the end of the film, the phrase "thieves likes us" has become a kind of mantra. Bowie has to accept that a thief is what he is now, there is no use struggling. It's a cold ending for the boy, because once he gives in, the shields come down, and the punishment that is meted out to such tragic figures arrives with swift ferocity.

For those who owned They Live By Night in its previous incarnation, as part of Warner Bros.’ Film Noir ClassicCollection, vol. 4--which is what I originally wrote this review for--will recognize most of the bonus features here as coming from that 2007 set. The upgrade here is in picture and sound, which have been newly restored and remastered, rescuing the finer details of Ray’s production and preserving them for new audiences.

You also get a new package design with art by MarkChiarello, a colleague of mine at DC Comics. Mark is a master of visual language, and his simple, evocative drawings bring the figures from the film to life in a way that captures their essential character while also transcending caricature.

Folks who enjoy They Live By Night might be curious to note that Granger and O’Donnell reunited two years later for director Anthony Mann in a movie called Side Street. Since the previous release presented the two films as double feature, here is a bonus review of Side Street:

They Live By Night opens with tight close-ups of the lovers clutching one another as words on the screen inform us that they have been stranded in a world that hasn't allowed them their right to grow up. In similar fashion, Anthony Mann's Side Street has an all-pervasive narrator whose almost wry tone suggests that here, too, there are elements of fate that extend beyond what we can choose for ourselves. In fact, as the ersatz hero of the story will learn, one false move ends up having reverberations, setting off a chain of events that could be impossible to undo.

Side Street reteams Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as another pair of young newlyweds. Joe and Ellen Norson aren't that different than Bowie and Keechie from Night, except they live in New York instead of the hills and they started out by trying to live right, only the payoff hasn't been very good. Ellen is pregnant, but after a stint in the army and a failed business venture, Joe can only find part-time work as a postal carrier. He dreams of buying his beloved wife a fur coat, but he can't even afford their own apartment. On his delivery route, he sees that a lawyer keeps cash stashed in his office. Thinking he'll be stealing only enough to get by, Joe returns to rob the place. Only, when he checks the stash, it's actually $30,000. Unbeknownst to Joe, the crooked lawyer and his heavy have blackmailed a rich pervert, and the girl that lured the patsy to his doom has ended up dead. Yup, poor Joe is in over his head.

Tough-guy director Mann, working from a script by Sydney Boem (The Big Heat), arranges his various plot points like pieces in a game, each character moving across the giant playing field, no less than New York City itself. Shooting on location, Mann takes us through the streets of Joe's troubles, mixing the semi-documentary style of Jules Dassin's The Naked City [review] with the nervous, feral atmosphere of the noir masters (something Dassin was also pretty good at, particularly in Night and the City [review]). There's nobody in this film that Joe and Ellen can trust, not even the police, who though righteous in their duties aren't necessarily compassionate. Friends will rob you, street-savvy children will sell you out for ice cream money, and life isn't worth very much at all. And yet, despite his brutal directing hand, Mann always has a weird 1950s innocence to him. As much as Joe flails about, there is a kind of safety in Mann's tone. It's like he's that smart little kid with the info, who even tries to school the police in how to resolve the situation. He knows how it's all gonna turn out, not to worry. It's also the comfort of genre: we have certain marks to hit, and Mann is going to get us there.

Portions of this review originally published on

Images here are taken from the 2007 standard-definition release of They Live by Night and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, June 19, 2017


This review originally published in 2010 on

Mike Leigh's new movie Another Year isn't a day-in-the-life movie, it's a 365-days-in-the-life movie. The drama follows a group of friends and family over four seasons, spring to winter, through their personal ups and downs, some small and maddeningly trivial, some large.

At the center of Another Year is one stalwart couple. Tom and Gerri, played with personality and heart by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, have been together since they were teenagers, and their marriage couldn't be better. He is a geologist who studies soil to determine the safety of different building projects around London; she is a counselor at a health clinic. Together, they work on a small patch of land in a community garden, growing their own vegetables, enjoying the shared work. These are people who we trust have made most of the right choices in life. Even their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a lawyer who takes on special hardship cases, seems to have turned out all right. Good spouses, good parents.

By contrast, their friends don't have it together. Gerri's workplace friend, Mary (Lesley Manville), is a bundle of nervous energy, a middle-aged woman with no one in her life. Her constant chatter will annoy you. It's supposed to. It annoys everyone else in the movie, too. She drinks too much, maybe has a crush on Tom, definitely has one on Joe. When Tom's old friend Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight, going-nowhere career man, visits, he expresses his own feelings for Mary. She rejects him, and is more than cruel in her judgment of this other lost soul. It just goes to show you, no one is so far down in life that they can't find someone else to judge as harshly as others judge them.

Leigh structures his movie to match the moods of the passing seasons. Spring is hopeful, summer is happy, fall brings disappointment, and winter delivers heartache. The cold climes also inspire the group to huddle together, to reconnoiter, and in a way, make peace--though honestly, we're not sure how well that will actually work. Another Year begins with an emotional gut punch--Gerri tries to help an older woman (Imelda Staunton) with her insomnia, but the woman is so resigned to her fate, there seems to be no way out for her. (Staunton is unforgettable in the short screen time she has; she is so bitter and angry, she looks like she will spontaneously turn to stone at any second.) The writer/director also ends on a note of brutal heartbreak, a question mark hanging in the silent air as the film fades to black.

Yet, to cast Another Year as a downer drama would do the film a disservice. Sure, it's tough going at times, and the grief it portrays will follow you around for some time to come, but it doesn't necessarily inspire the same sadness in the viewer. Rather, Leigh is provoking us to think about our own lives and how we deal with others. The writing in Another Year is amazing. Leigh has a true knack for small talk, arranging banalities like a sophisticated puzzle, finding more poetry in his characters' anxious utterances than he could ever wring out of a formal soliloquy. What a person says without meaning to say it is more illuminating than an intentional confession or revelation.

He's also quite good at making us feel sorry for characters who otherwise drive us up the wall. It's similar to how he handled Sally Hawkins' character in the marvelous Happy-Go-Lucky [review]: these chatterboxes are so achingly human, we can't help but be caught up in their struggles. Neither Ken nor Mary, or any of the other supporting players we meet, ever really intended to end up alone and broken. Leigh shows us how fragile they are, and presumably, this is what Tom and Gerri see in them, as well, and what keeps them from sending the friends away. Not that the couple are doormats. They take their stands when it counts. The subtlety of the performances cannot be praised enough. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen manage a real back and forth, finishing each other's sentences, often sharing secret reactions through a look or a gesture. These are mature actors who understand what a mature relationship entails. You can believe that Tom and Gerri have honestly spent all those years together.

They also give us much to laugh at. Another Year isn't just twelve months of tears. The banter can be funny, and even Mary's endless string of mishaps has some comedic value. We critics spend a lot of time bandying about terms like "realism," usually for cheaply filmed verité-style films with loosely crafted dialogue; it's a whole other accomplishment when a filmmaker harnesses the engine of true experiences and infuses his art with it. Another Year's construction is delicate, and outside of the signals of time passing, barely perceptible. The drama moves in small, evocative ways. Even the music works its magic subtly. Gary Yershon supplies Leigh with short, almost insubstantial cues, and Leigh peppers these tiny snippets of instrumentation throughout, leading us from moment to moment, at times preparing us for the shifts in feeling.

It's refreshing to see a movie that isn't afraid to be many things and is adept at being all of them. Too often, when filmmakers try to inject humor into a heavy situation, or when a moral is tacked onto a comedy, the efforts feel forced. Another Year comes by its many moods naturally and is all the more touching for it.