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A BLOODY BAGFUL OF FILM NOIR

year: 1958 rating: ***
Be careful, cautious and very, very afraid when reviewing Film Noir… it’s a beloved cinematic religion that exceeds even horror and creature-features when it comes to fans that will not take criticism lightly…

That being said, the following movies are judged solely on entertainment and not any specific adherence to a specific, rule-laden genre, one that Colleen Gray described in a Cult Film Freak interview as being known as, before the term Film Noir was invented, b-movies...

An addictive mesh combining sensitive criminals and burdened cops lurking in nighttime shadows, caught in a mazy, nightmarish underworld where wrongfully accused men and sexy femme fatalles exist in a pitiless purgatory, often of their own volition… 

City of Fear pulpy artwork
CITY OF FEAR: An escaped convict, played by Vince Edwards, steals a metal container of what he thinks is uncut heroin, but is really radioactive cobalt. As he ventures through the city, slowly dying, the cops are after him.

The edgy, underlined brilliance of this film... trumping the somewhat sluggish pace when our ailing anti-hero, not on screen, gets discussed by other cast members, especially the cops... is the symbolic comparison to the cobalt and the criminal...

One character warns Edwards that he can't show his face for fear of exposure: which means being seen, but can also mean contagious. And the container itself is liken to a fugitive criminal: the police, not wanting to cause citywide panic, warns anyone involved about how dangerous he is... And only we know what they're really talking about.

1946 rating: ***1/2
THE STRANGER: Orson Welles plays an intense and, on the surface, friendly school teacher about to marry the beautiful daughter of a renown judge in a small town epitomizing post-war America.

He's the perfect man: brilliant, handsome, and determined, with only one drawback... he's a former Nazi. On top of which he still believes in "the cause." But he keeps this secret from everyone including Edward G. Robinson (a role originally planned for Agnes Moorehead), an FBI agent posing as an antique collector who soon discovers the real identity but needs proof to move in.

There's a lot of melodrama and unrealistic situations, but the camerawork, especially Welle's use of shadows and the climax involving a clock tower, makes this, if anything else, a visual masterpiece: and one of the few box-office successes in the maverick auteur's artistically brilliant but financially unsuccessful directorial career.

1953 rating: ****
99 RIVER STREET: Excellent Film Noir bookended by two boxing matches: one in the ring, one in a shipyard. In-between is a mazy tale of defeated slugger/cabbie

John Payne is troubled by his beautiful cheating wife and then tricked by another beautiful "dame," a would-be actress proving her worth on stage in a clever scene with a big twist.

But Payne's got more than women trouble with niche heavies Brad Dexter and Jack Lambert on his trail: not to mention the law, seeking him for both a murder he didn't commit and a perfectly-landed punch wherein the pace doesn't falter and the camerawork's topnotch. And the finale fist fight at a murky shipyard, as Payne flashes back to his fighting days, is a standout.

year: 1950 rating: *****
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE: Every word spoken in this John Huston Film Noir involving a group of thugs, from the classy to the brassy, planning a diamond heist, is written, and then delivered, to absolute perfection.

Louis Calhern as the "broke millionaire" feigning to back the scheme is on one side, and Sterling Hayden as the strong-arm hooligan bookend the other nifty criminals including a timid middle-man (Mark Lawrence), a crooked cop, a family oriented safe cracker, a stout getaway driver (James Whitmore), and Sam Jaffe as the brilliant ex-con behind everything: A perfect film without any distractions, except perhaps Marilyn Monroe and especially the curtain-closing juke dance of Helene Stanley... but these are distractions that work.

year: 1945 rating: **1/2
FORCE OF EVIL: A one man show for revved-up John Garfield: proving how fun it is to be bad. He's a crooked lawyer trying to get his banker brother (head of a small-time numbers racket) to think like a criminal to make real dough.

Soon enough the mob, and the heat, moves in and Garfield, while falling in love with a sweet-natured girl, must decide between good and evil. Unfortunately he chooses good and instead of a no-nonsense criminal flick we get a moral-driven melodrama that, after shedding all things sinister, limps to a dull conclusion.

year: 1952 rating: **1/2
CLASH BY NIGHT: Another naive big lug dumb enough to not only allow his wife (or in this case, girlfriend turned wife) to hang out with a younger, better looking man, but suggests it (POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE ring a bell?).

Despite the gorgeous cinematography of the Monterrey fishing community, and yet another fine performance by Robert Ryan (especially his Chinese imitation), this is a melodrama that goes in one ear, out the other. And Marilyn Monroe is nice to look at as a sexy tomboy, and Barbara Stanwyk is convincingly tough and assertive but eventually melts to Ryan's roguish charm in this utterly predictable but decent time-waster.

year: 1948 rating: ****
ROAD HOUSE: Deep-voiced entertainer Ida Lupino is hired by Richard Widmark, owner of a Road House joint, to sing. While she doesn't have much of a voice, there's something there that intoxicates the audience: and Widmark. But none doing for muscular Cornel Wilde as Widmark's employee who, at first, is wary of Lupino yet eventually falls in love. And it's mutual.

The only problem is, Widmark feels the same way for Ida but that love isn't mutual. Richard Widmark's sinister trademark is exchanged for a jerky spoiled brat's bravado, as he jealously frames Wilde, who Ida loves, for stealing funds. But he turns full-blown evil soon enough, leading to a climax in the woods, with dark, shadowy suspense epitomizing the Film Noir genre in this subtle, brilliant triangle/melodrama, especially intense when, like in KISS OF DEATH, the menace lurks off-screen.
year: 1957 rating: **1/2

NIGHTFALL: Unrealistic circumstances are often endearing in fifties crime melodramas aka Film Noir, but sometimes it can be stretched too far...

Like this often engaging film about a friendly big lug (Aldo Ray) stalked by a couple killers in the city who, by means of flashbacks, are connected by a lethal situation involving stolen money in the mountains.

Why would the bank robbers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond, cast perfectly) let our hero live? And why, for the love of God, would they take the wrong bag of loot? But oh well, despite the flaws there are some nicely suspenseful moments mostly thanks to Aldo Ray, the kind of non-acting actor fun to watch: seeming the genuine man's man and not just playing one.

year: 1952 rating: ***1/2
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL: Wrong-man/Film Noir involving John Payne trying to redeem himself after being blamed for a successful armored car knockoff.

Featuring famous heavies Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef, it's Preston Foster's character, as the mysterious leader of the thugs (gathered together in South America to retrieve the loot and, since they wore masks during the robbery don't know each other) adds dimension as he keeps the truth from beloved lovely daughter Colleen Gray, a law student who (along with Payne) figures things out... Except her father's involvement. Although at times it's a bit sluggish and overly contained, this is a minor classic for the incredible cast alone.

year: 1950 rating: ***
BACKFIRE: A little too many flashbacks drive a somewhat dull yet still entertaining tale of an injured war vet, fresh out of the hospital, seeking out a buddy who's disappeared, while also searching for a mysterious woman everyone thinks he hallucinated while under heavy medication, adding a nifty dreamlike aspect to a mazy, sometimes confusing plot.

Then again the plot is the confusion of the main character, and that works fine enough, adding to that Virginia Mayo as a faithful nurse and Vivika Lindfors (for horror fans: years later she played Aunt Bedelia in CREEPSHOW) as the gorgeous mystery lady. And the twist (who the real killer is) is a nice surprise.

year: 1962 rating: ***
CAPE FEAR: Robert Mitchum, as a Panama hat-wearing sleazeball fresh outta jail, rules both the film and the man he's pestering for revenge, Gregory Peck, the lawyer who put him away for eight long years.

Any time Mithum's on screen, things are great. He plays a baddie with vindictive power and serpentine charm. But scenes centering on Peck, his wife and petrified daughter, aware of the unseen menace lurking near their house, things drag: as does the seemingly eternal climax in the titular river boat location.

For Robert Mitchum fans, and anyone who despises the horrendous Scorsese remake starring Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte... turning the subtle yet dangerous antagonist "Max Cady" into a redneck Freddy Kruger... the original is a must-see.

year: 1950 rating: ***
ARMORED CAR ROBBERY: One of those films where the title says it all. There's not much more than the quick set-up and then slightly flawed execution of... and because of that the repercussions of the titular theft...

But what makes this stand out is the relationship between William Wellman (known as the always-unlucky lawyer on PERRY MASON and the idealist cop in THE RACKET) and his sexy stripper moll girlfriend Adele Jergens, putting the Noir in this lean melodrama with tight direction by Richard Fleischer and a cool cop performance by the always watchable Charles McGraw.
...although you can find more Bloody Bagfuls of Film Noir by clicking this link
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