Hell in Color

July 24, 2011

Les film noir sort of implies by way of tradition and content that the images are black and white, but anyone who delves into the critical literature a bit will quickly find a raging debate about color, i.e, can films in color be noir?  I’m going to leave that one alone and just say that this flick, Hell’s Island, which doesn’t offer a lot, at least makes the beautiful femme fatale look good in Technicolor.

The story seems like a retread and recycling of quite a few films that came before, and it serves up the characters and twists with not too much vigor: a fat man in a wheelchair with a gun; a silent sidekick; a pond of bloodthirsty alligators;  fatal woman; life insurance; curio shop run by a crooked accomplice; a valuable carved ruby…you get the picture.  What I enjoyed about the movie was the leading lady (Mary Murphy) who is quite a looker, and who was so evil, but in an utterly clichéd manner.  At times, I felt I was watching a parody of The Maltese Falcon.  And with that, there was some unintentional humor to be had.

The fatal woman looks good in white, and she gets knocked around a lot by the male lead, John Payne.  She deserves it though.  Am I a misogynist..?

He falls for the lady’s song and dance about how her husband is unjustly imprisoned on Hell’s Island, and that if he helps him escape, she and he can run off together.  She doesn’t love her husband, but doesn’t want him to rot in jail for a murder that she actually committed.  Isn’t that nice?  I’d buy it, wouldn’t you?

When he gets to the island to spring the husband, he finds the man unwilling to leave.  I found this scene deliciously comic.  Here a guy is up to his neck in crime and confusion, and he is being enlightened by the husband of the woman he covets, a man whom he risked his life to reach in prison, and whom he intends to ditch as soon as they get out.  The husband realizes they will be both be shot trying to escape:  exactly her plan.  “Clever girl, ” he chuckles, and dumb dumb finally catches on.

Cut to a room with a view where Ms. Poison is shopping for clothes to buy with hubby’s life insurance policy while the two guys argue on Hell’s Island.


Asphalt Jungle – Kentucky Bluegrass

August 3, 2010

John Huston’s film, The Asphalt Jungle, is a noir-heist story about great plans gone awry through chance and greed – what else would you expect?  As the Encyclopedia of Film Noir remarks, the opening sequence establishes the supposed location of a mid-western city, while Dix moves through a De Chirico cityscape, avoiding the cops.  (A later scene shows the Los Angeles city hall partly visible in the background.)  This is the urban wilderness through which the predatory criminal beasts, large and small, prowl and seek their prey.


Doc, a German immigrant criminal mastermind, has just been released from serving jail time and he has a masterpiece of a plan to knock off a big jewelry emporium, but he needs operating funds.  He finds a backer in the plush quarters of the jungle, in Emmerich, a thoroughly corrupt lawyer who is broke, despite his opulent lifestyle.  He assembles a team from the available population of criminal inhabitants of their fair city.

The heist goes pretty well, but accident intervenes and one man is shot by a pistol that goes off in a tussle.  Blowing the safe sets off alarms all down the block.  Naturally, the lawyer has worked out his own angle on the take that will fix his cash-flow problems.  The interest of the film is in the interplay of the characters:  smooth, rotten Emmerich; quiet, philsophical Doc; tough, but inwardly vulnerable Dix; Doll, his devoted would-be moll; Gus, the hunchback driver who is intensely loyal to Dix; Cobby, the sweaty, smarmy, weak-kneed paymaster; and the ladies – Emmerich’s invalid wife and his gorgeous mistress, Angela, who calls him Uncle.  (Marilyn Monroe, stunning, in one of her first roles.)

The three principal males have intense and troubled relationships with women.  For two of them, it’s their undoing; for the third, it could have been salvation.

Alonzo Emmerich keeps Angela on the side, and she is a big part of what bankrupts him – just look at her!  Surely, she loves diamonds!  When the jig is up, she walks in, retracts her earlier statement of an alibi for Uncle, and then sits and spills her guts.  Uncle is very understanding; the force of The Law looks on stoically.


Doc seems like a nice old guy who is too mature for girlie stuff, but a stray moment finds him cooly perusing a cheescake calendar in their meeting room – clearly he has a weakness for young flesh too.  He tells Dix to come with him to Mexico after the caper; the young girls are very pretty!

During his getaway, he stops for a meal at a diner and sees some kids on a cheap night out.  The girl is mad because her friends don’t have any more  nickels for the jukebox, such no-class guys!  Doc dumps a pile of coins on her table and asks her to enjoy herself.  Salome and Herod take their places.

She dances for him, and Doc is very pleased.  But he isn’t the only one watching.



City and country:  Dix’s family lost their lovely farm in old Kentucky when times got hard, but he dreams about it at night, talks of it, and declines Doc’s invitation to Mexico saying he only wants to go home.  Doc warns him – going home’s not worth it.  “I’ve tried it.”  For Dix, the farm is his escape from the asphalt jungle. 

Emmerich is undone by a woman, Doc is undone by his fascination with young girls, but Dix thinks only of going home.  Doll wants to be his girl, but only hangs on, hoping Dix will get some sense and let her love him.  She can’t save him, so she witnesses his frenzied last dash down the home stretch while the police commissioner lectures the press corps, letting them listen in to the calls for help from the victims in the asphalt jungle.  Only one criminal from the gang is left to catch, Dix, “a hooligan without a trace of human emotion.” 

But Dix is human, all too human.  A thug, but inside, an innocent, vulnerable boy.  He has a bullet in his gut, but he has to make it back home!



Baby, I don’t care.

July 20, 2010

Out of the Past is often cited as one of the best noirs ever, and with good reason!  Jane Greer, gorgeous, slinky, and absolutely ruthless, and Robert Mitchum, droopy-eyed and victimized by fate, are fantastic.  The plot structure is classic:  a decent guy is destroyed by a fatal woman and a past which he tries to outrun, but which inevitably overtakes and devours him.  Marvelous dialog and Kirk Douglas as a cold-hearted mobster complete the inky tableau.

Jeff Bailey is a private eye retained by Whit, the mobster, to find and retrieve his moll, Kathy, who shot him in the belly a few times before decamping with $40,000.  Jeff finds her down Mexico way, a long, tall, cool drink of white in the afternoon sun, and, of course, he’s done for.

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end

How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out.


On the beach, Kathy tells all to Jeff, and he abandons himself to her and to his destruction:

But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?
Baby, I don’t care.

Ah, but later, the crosses, double-crosses, and various twists intervene, and Jeff sees that Kathy is not one to be trusted even as far as you can see her.

Can’t you even feel sorry for me?
I’m not going to try.
Just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.

Jeff eventually finds himself trapped in the web of this black widow, expostuating fatalistically, “Build my gallows high, baby.”  But he gets his wish:

Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.

She didn’t have to kill him, but it was so much easier that way.