Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: film noir

What to watch while you’re safely isolated

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Part 3 – final installment

Classic noir and mysteries make a great alternative to repetitious bad news

Mystery fans holed up at home and searching for a distraction from the ugly news today could do what I’m doing: bake chocolate chip cookies as a mood booster (see part 1) then dive into a contemporary or classic mystery novel (see part 2). But if you’re eager to watch something on the flat screen besides recitation of the daily toll, you don’t have to watch Tiger King (Donald Jr. watched the entire season in two sittings) or sit through all 24 seasons of The Bachelor.

Robert Mitchum, as Philip Marlowe, tackles gangsters, murderers, and frisky heiresses in the 1978 version of the The Big Sleep available without extra charge to Amazon Prime members.  The movie is not Mitchum’s best, nor the best version of the Raymond Chandler novel, but it’s eminently more engaging and worthy of your time than the parade of reality shows and sitcoms the streaming services offer at the top of their program lists. 

But if you scroll down farther, or do careful Internet searches, you’ll find Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Barbara Stanwyck, and a host of other noir film stars awaiting your streaming request.  I spent an enjoyable afternoon recently trying to make sense of The Big Sleep, having not seen this version in so long I’d even forgotten the nude scenes.

Mitchum and Candy Clark at target practice

Lamentably, director Michael Winner made a few changes in the Chandler classic.  First, it takes place in London, not Los Angeles, and Winner transplants a handful of American actors in addition to British standbys like John Mills and Edward Fox. Second, Marlowe is an ex-pat American who has lived in England since the war.  Third, the film takes place in the present day, not Chandler’s 1940s.

Like the Bogart version or the novel, Marlowe is summoned by wealthy General Sternwood to investigate blackmail involving one of his two fast and loose daughters played by Candy Clark and Sarah Miles.  The story makes several twists and turns as each daughter tries to seduce Marlowe in her own way, Clark in the nude, Miles slightly more reserved.  Multiple plot detours, a disappearance, many bodies and subtopics including pornography and blackmail make for a convoluted plot.

But that’s the way Chandler wrote it.  One of the characters who don’t make it to the end of the story is Sternwood’s chauffer. When Howard Hawks was directing the 1946 film version of the book, he too reportedly had trouble with all the loose ends, and he called Chandler asking who killed the chauffeur.  Chandler is supposed to have told him that he didn’t know.

Apparently director Winner did.  His film shows the chauffeur driving a fancy Sternwood car off the end of a pier.  Mills, as Scotland Yard Inspector Carson, decides it was suicide almost before the body is removed from the sunken auto.  A motive for the plunge might have been helpful.

Sarah Miles or Gilda Radner?

The film has other issues.  Richard Boone as one of the bad guys seems hopelessly out of place in the British countryside.  A fine villain, Boone is more convincing in the old west when he’s menacing Paul Newman (Hombre, 1967) or John Wayne (The Shootist, 1976).  Miles’ frizzy hair makes her look like Gilda Radner playing Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live, and Oliver Reed as gangster Eddie Mars just isn’t intimidating.

Roger Ebert reviewed the film at the time saying it felt embalmed because Marlowe didn’t belong in the 1970s, but what carries the film, as Ebert concluded, is Mitchum’s definitive screen presence.  The film succeeds, but not nearly as much as Mitchum’s first go at playing Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely in 1975. 

I’ve seen that film several times recently and it’s filled with so many memorable lines, so many good supporting performances and enough noir atmosphere to fill your family room with an eerie fog.  Look for a young a Sylvester Stallone in the background when Marlowe takes on a pugnacious brothel madam in one of the film’s classic scenes.

So where do you find these master mystery movies? Certainly not on Netflix.  The service that used to offer nearly every classic film you could name, regardless of genre, now focuses on its own video productions and relatively recent B movies.  When you search for “classic film noir” on Netflix it offers Blade Runner and Dirty Harry.

Humphrey Bogart in the original The Big Sleep

Amazon Prime is different.  While they often charge a little for the best noir flicks, they are available now.  Here are a few of the classics on Amazon Prime and the cost of rental:

Double Indemnity, $3.99
Farewell, My Lovely, $3.99
Out of the Past, $2.99
The Maltese Falcon, $2.99
The Thin Man, $2.99
Key Largo, $3.99
The Third Man, $3.99
The Big Sleep (Bogart version), $2.99

It’s interesting to note that Amazon doesn’t charge extra for the Mitchum The Big Sleep, but Farewell, My Lovely is $3.99.  Is that based on quality or customer demand?

YouTube has for years been a reliable source for free noir and classic mysteries. Today hundreds of noir films—not all gems—are available free and many of the best now carry a small fee. The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example,  is just $1.99. See links below for listed films. 

I hope my suggested diversions will please your taste buds, challenge your deductive powers, entertain and help you muddle through.

Links:

You Tube: hundreds of noir films, many B movies. Top classics can be rented for a few dollars.
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLajqNV0-qkKdGiFNzmK5BA16MujBJ0bvv

List of 100 noir movies available for free on YouTube (check availability)
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbm4HpSnC9E1sovy9Ikx2H_gVRcrpdSFe

 

“Detour” – Worst noir film ever?

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“Did you ever want to forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory and black it out?”

That’s what nightclub piano player Al Roberts asks viewers in the 1945 film, Detour.  And it’s what you may say after you’ve seen this low-budget noir movie filmed in a week or so with cheap sets, cheesy dialog and shortcuts in staging that make it treasure trove of cinema bloopers.

It’s not quite bad enough to be unintentionally funny—like some campy 1950s sci fi flick—but close. I’ve written about many of the superb noir pictures from the 1930s and ’40s and thought it would be interesting to look an example at the other end of the genre’s quality spectrum.  Is Detour the worst of the worst?  Some critics say no, even praise the film.  Roger Ebert, however, was not one of them.

Detour is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school,” Ebert wrote.  “This movie from Hollywood’s poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released.”

But it hasn’t.

Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, the piano player.  He and his singer girlfriend, Sue, work in the same New York club.  He wants to get married but Sue tells him she wants to go to Hollywood to become a star.  They discuss the future as they stroll down a fog shrouded street. 

A location shot in New York must have been too expensive, so a fog machine clouds the Hollywood back lot so heavily that the scene could be New York. Or Bakersfield. There  aren’t even any establishing shots of Time’s Square or the Empire State Building.

Regardless, Sue heads for California and Roberts stays behind long enough to get lonely and decides to hitch hike across the country to see his girl.

To show Robert’s route, scenes of him thumbing a ride are interspersed with shots of a US roadmap.  The camera naturally pans along the map from right to left—east to west.  And when we see Roberts getting lifts, the cars are traveling right to left too—a cinematic convention to show westward travel.   

The problem, however, is that the vehicles all appear to be right-hand drive, traveling on the left side of the road—English fashion.  Ebert theorized that director Edgar Ulmer flipped the negative when he realized that conventional film grammar would call for right to left travel when moving west.  As a result, in one scene when a truck stops to pick up Roberts, he jumps in on the driver’s side.

Eventually the direction of travel straightens out when Roberts is picked up by a guy named Haskell who tells him he’s a bookie on his way to California to make money so he can make a triumphant return to Florida where he lost everything on one race.

 “One race.  Thirty eight grand. They cleaned out my book,” Haskell tells Roberts.  “How do you like that?”

 “That was tough luck.”

“Yeah and I’m supposed to be the smart guy. You just wait. I’m going back to Florida next season with all kinds of jack.  You watch those stinkers run for cover.”

Ann Savage and Tom Neal on the way to California pouting and sneering.

Roberts doesn’t seem to know what to make of the snappy repartee, but he sticks with Haskell who has been gulping some sort of pills that he keeps in the glove box.  When Roberts spells Haskell at the wheel, he’s forced to pull over during a rain storm to put up the car’s convertible top.  He gets out of the car and goes to the passenger side where Haskell is apparently sleeping.  But when Roberts opens the door, Haskell’s unconscious body falls out, his head hitting a rock. He’s dead.

What is Roberts to do?  Drive the body to the next town and call police?  Flag down another motorist for help?  Wish that cell phones had been invented in 1945?

Inexplicably, he feels trapped and reasons that asking for help and telling the story to police, is a bad idea. “They’d laugh at the truth and I’d have my head in a noose,” he says to himself in the self-pitying tone of his narration that runs throughout the movie.  So what else was there to do except hide the body, steal the man’s money, car and clothes and take over his identity.

Later in his journey Roberts is reluctantly mixed up with Vera (Ann Savage), a scheming young woman with a taste for alcohol and a penchant for tantrums. Nothing good—or interesting—happens to anyone through the second half of the picture.

Poor acting, clichéd writing and threadbare sets aside, Detour has a following. Fans laud the film’s overarching, non-stop bleakness as perfect noir.  But the plot’s wretched, dead-end future is only because Roberts is unbelievably foolish, taking the wrong turn at every crossroads. 

At least one critic—and fan of Detour—deconstructs the plot and theorizes that Roberts is not telling us the truth. In literary terms he’s an unreliable narrator.  Thus when he decides to dump Haskell’s body because the cops will surely blame him for a death that was likely of natural causes, he’s really misleading us.  His motive is strictly greed, but he gives viewers a more sympathetic, less selfish (albeit farfetched) excuse. 

 Whether Roberts is stupid or greedy is immaterial.  He’s still a sap—a name Vera uses on him later—in a plot that has nowhere to go. Deconstruction is not a tool to be applied to Detour.  That would be like analyzing the existential subtext of Gilligan’s Island.

But it’s not all bad.  One scene in Detour introduces a plot twist that’s so ingenious, so unexpected, it belongs in a different movie.  Hitchcock could have built an entire film around this twist.  In Detour, it’s quickly swamped by Vera’s hysterics, Roberts’ bad choices and the film’s general sloppiness.

Late in the movie Vera tells Roberts, “Your philosophy stinks pal. We all know we’re going to kick off some day. It’s only a question of when.”

And a question of whether or not you will have spent 67 minutes of your life on Detour.

Ride the Pink Horse for an intimate profile and emotional journey

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Ride the Pink Horse
Dorothy B. Hughes
208 pages
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road   June 18, 2013
Originally published,  1946
$1.99 Kindle

A drunken, overweight, apparently homeless man who sleeps on the ground under a dirty serape and rarely washes is the moral authority in Sailor’s life.   Referred to only by his nickname, Sailor arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a bus from Chicago.  He’s tailing his boss, corrupt former Illinois Senator Willis Douglas who has gone west with a beautiful young woman and a retinue to escape turmoil generated by his wife’s murder.

Sailor’s packing a gun along with a load of prejudice and delusion.

Hot and dirty Santa Fe is filled with hayseeds and yokels.  A hick town. Sailor is repelled by the populace.  Mexicans and Indians mostly, who he refers to in vile, insulting terms.   Not out loud of course, “this wasn’t the time or place.”

He’s come to town to have a showdown with his boss who he refers to simply as the Sen.  The Sen owes him money.  The murder of Mrs. Douglas was bungled.  She died, but not according to plan.  Other members of Sailor’s Chicago gang have high-tailed it out of town, Ziggy down to Mexico where Sailor plans to meet up with him.  With cash from the senator, Sailor and Ziggy can start some business, some scam in Mexico and live high.

In Ride the Pink Horse, a 1946 crime novel by noir writer Dorothy B. Hughes, the New Mexico environs play a strong role.  The multi-ethnic culture and the small dusty western town that vexes Sailor contributes to Hughes’ heavy themes.

Before Sailor can track down the senator, he has to find a place to stay for the night in this “God-forsaken town.”  He discovers that Santa Fe—never identified by name in the book—is crowded with people in town to celebrate the Fiesta weekend.  No hotel rooms are available anywhere.  Sailor becomes frustrated, angry and disdainful but at the same time disoriented and fearful.  His suitcase becomes a heavy burden.  He’s haunted by the eyes of the Indians he passes in the street. Continue Reading →

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