Sunday, April 14, 2019


Film noir has long been a passion of mine, and regular readers of my reviews will know I can be rather pedantic over what qualifies a particular movie as part of the genre. As the years have passed, I’ve watched lots of critics and festivals and marketing men bend the term to fit anything that has some kind of crime element in its narrative, disregarding style, tone, and theme in the process.

So it is with the newly opened Criterion Channel’s special collection of “Columbia Noir,” bringing together an unlucky thirteen from the Columbia studio vaults. Upon first entering the new site, I was particularly excited, because out of that baker’s dozen, I had only seen one: Fritz Lang’s bonafide classic The Big Heat.

Sadly, from my initial sampling, the curation here is lacking in rigor. Picking movies from both sides of the set in terms of chronology, at least to start, I have found the selection to be a mixed bag of solid flicks of varied stripes, but not really film noir.

Take, for instance, My Name is Julia Ross, the earliest release offered, dated 1945. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to make the noir perennial Gun Crazy, My Name is Julia Ross is more an amalgamation of early Hitchcock than traditional noir. It’s like a mash-up of The Lady Vanishes [review] and Rebecca [review], a little bit of mystery and a little bit of gothic atmosphere.

Nina Foch (An American in Paris [review]) stars as the titular Julia, a London career girl excited to gain regular employment as secretary to a rich widower and his mother. Only, as Julia quickly discovers, this gig is not on the up-and-up. The day after she moves into her new quarters, she wakes up at the seaside in an unfamiliar house where everyone refers to her as Mrs. Hughes and treats her like a hothouse flower. What she quickly realizes is that her employers, played by George Macready (Paths of Glory [review]) and May Whitty (coincidentally, Mrs. Foy in The Lady Vanishes), are trying to use her to replace the man’s dead wife, gaslighting Julia in an attempt to cover up the murder.

It’s a good concept, and could be quite captivating in more adept hands, but Lewis and screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton (The Amazing Mr. X) give the game away too quickly. They never let the audience spend any time in Julia’s shoes, and so there is no suspense. We are privy to the plot she’s been drawn into and never once led to believe she’ll have any trouble getting out of it.

In terms of storytelling, My Name is Julia Ross is equally flat. There is no apparent aesthetic here, no dark shadows or misty moors, nothing to tie the film to any particular cinematic movement. My Name is Julia Ross is a perfunctory B-picture, little more. The screenplay skirts the edges of intriguing issues--the compulsion to kill that drives Julia’s would-be husband, the perception of single women in the city, etc.--but stops short of really giving any of these topics genuine heft.

Lewis followed this film a year later with 1946’s So Dark the Night, a noir tile in search of a matching script. What that moniker finds instead is an Agatha Christie-type whodunit, complete with a genial, yet world-weary detective. In this case, it’s Henri Cassin (Steven Geray, In a Lonely Place [review]), a Parisian police inspector going on holiday. Geray is so likeable and so assured, I thought there must be more adventures of Cassin, that this was part of a series, or at the very least lifted from a pre-existing literary franchise

No such series exists. Cassin was created by a writer named Aubrey Wisberg (Hercules in New York) for the story adapted here. So Dark the Night follows the middle-aged Inspector Cassin on a much needed vacation to the countryside. In the small town, his reputation precedes him, and his presence shakes up the norm. He attracts the attention of Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), the innkeeper’s daughter, and when Nanette turns up dead, her jealous fiancé (Paul Marion) is the obvious first suspect. Only, someone has killed him, too, leaving the normally unflappable Cassin with nothing to go on.

So Dark the Night is an enjoyable little mystery, taking advantage of its rural setting and maintaining an upbeat manner that is antithetical to the usual urban existentialism we associate with noir. Inspector Cassin is a genuine good guy who wants nothing but happiness for his fellow man, and so also far from our expected noir protagonist. In fact, his demeanor should make the mystery’s resolution even more implausible. The climax of So Dark the Night would normally be a textbook example of something you just can’t do in a murder mystery, withholding clues and offering a resolution the audience couldn’t possibly puzzle out on their own, but Lewis--and more significantly, the ever likable Steven Geray--makes it work. Even so, this is more PBS territory than it is noir, more conservative flirting between decent folk than overheated passion amidst desperate degenerates.

On the opposite end of the timeline here is Blake Edwards’ 1962 thriller Experiment in Terror. A stylish psychological potboiler, Experiment in Terror is closer to noir territory, but it’s more indicative of a post-Psycho box office landscape than post-War anxiety.

Lee Remick stars as Kelly, a single woman raising her younger sister all on her own in Twin Peaks, Washington. (Yes, that Twin Peaks.) At the start of the movie, she thinks she is coming home just like every other night, only she is jumped by a man in her garage who knows a little too much about the minutia of her life. He threatens her and her sister if she doesn’t rob the bank where she works and deliver the cash to him. It’s a tense, unsettling scene, made all the more scary by the violent attack Kelly suffers when she tries to call the FBI, believing her assailant to have already gone.

Luckily for her, the call got through anyway, and Agent Ripley (Glenn Ford, Gilda [review]) is ready to help out. Believing this is not the first time this crook has pulled such a trick, Ripley attempts to make it his last by stringing the bad guy along, hoping to figure out who he is before he forces Kelly to carry through on his demand or otherwise has to make good on his own threats.

Edwards is, of course, better known for comedies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s [review] and The Party [review], but he proves no slouch in the suspense department. Experiment in Terror is tense and mostly intriguing, only falling short by maybe being a little long. Edwards draws a sharp divide between his good guys and his bad guys, presenting Ford’s Ripley as the last good man standing guard against a demented criminal future--a trope dating back to Chandler’s The Big Sleep [review] and essential to many a noir antihero. There is a certain inevitability to how the world is changing, suggesting that somehow a destructive fate is unavoidable. And yet, Experiment in Terror lacks the cynicism of a good noir. Ripley is a true believer, and Kelly a shining beacon leading the way, suggesting that civilization should win because it’s good, rather than survive in spite of itself.

And, of course, since it’s Blake Edwards, we get a striking Henry Mancini score, showing as much facility for dramatic tension as he normally does with light melody and irresistible rhythm. It’s the sort of thing Orson Welles rejected from the composer in Touch of Evil [review], a decision I’ve never entirely agreed with--so I’ll give that point to Edwards.

Even as I take some away from the Criterion Channel. Of the three films reviewed, I’d only give Experiment in Terror a full recommendation, noir or no. Let’s hope some of the movies in the center of this virtual collection fit the mold a little better.

Monday, April 8, 2019


The Criterion Channel re-opens today, now independent of any other service (Filmstruck R.I.P.), and offering movies that extend beyond the physical Criterion Collection. In honor of that, here is a reprint of a review I wrote for DVDTalk back in 2013 for one of the films exclusive to the Channel.

I remember joking in high school about organizing an anarchy club, because of course the last thing anarchists should be doing is organizing. I am sure every teen who gets into punk rock and philosophy stumbles upon a similar gag. I bet you Ben Wheatley would find it hilarious.

Wheatley is the British director responsible for Down Terrace and Kill List. His most current offering, Sightseers, makes pretensions of chaos. It's a black comedy about a vacationing couple whose holiday on the road turns into a killing spree. For Chris (Steve Oram) it begins accidentally (perhaps), but once the impulse is indulged, he keeps indulging it, murdering people who offend his delicate sensibilities in some manner. A dead litterbug is equal to a snobby author driving a better camper. Thinking she needs to join in the fun in order to maintain the relationship, Tina (Alice Lowe) starts killing as well. When Chris disapproves of her choices, she escalates rather than backs down. To his mind, she is acting randomly, he is acting righteously.

Except there are no random acts in film, and so when a filmmaker like Wheatley attempts to get around engaging in meaningful subtext when making a violent comedy like Sightseers, the result tends to come off as shallow and adolescent as a "card-carrying-anarchist" punchline. Sightseers actually joins a spate of recent movies, including James Gunn's Super [review] and Bobcat Goldthwaite's God Bless America, that puts misanthropic men on a violent path that begins with them enacting a justifiable retaliation against some supposed offense, only to acquire a taste for blood and keep acting out for increasingly petty reasons. All the while, a woman cheers him on and, quite often, takes it even farther. All these films maybe begin with a thin veneer of satire before devolving into empty action. Is Chris waging a kind of class war when he kills the man with the new model vehicle or the guy who went to private school and wants to order him around like a serf? There is a point where Wheatley and his actors, who are credited with the screenplay, seem as if they'd have us believe as such, but it's not a defense that would hold up in court.

Wheatley and crew are more intent on making the audience cringe, either from gore or uncomfortable laughter, than saying anything about why they are going after such a response. The gore is more effective than the jokes. The audience I was with consistently cringed on cue, but the laughs were few and far between. In essence, Sightseers is 90 empty minutes of two boring, unlikable people doing terrible things to other unlikable people with no repercussion or reflection. The only time Sightseers really worked were the scenes where the relationship between the lovers begins to fall apart. The pair argue over homicide the way other bored couples would argue over bills and what they might have for dinner. Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" plays over Sightseers' title card, and the film would have been better off had Wheatley kept this theme in mind throughout. (Another music cue, a cover of Donovan's "Season of the Witch," takes on vaguely misogynist overtones, after Chris actually accuses Tina of being a witch who has enchanted him and incited him to evil.) Every action should be a love reaction, thus keeping the motives from being confused. This feeling of dangerous romance resurfaces at the end of Sightseers. The last scene goes a little bit of the way to keeping the movie from being a complete waste of time. But only a little bit, and also a little bit too late.