On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951)

“Cinema is Nicholas Ray,” Godard wrote. And he was absolutely right.

When one looks at Ray’s Noir output (In a lonely place, They Live by night,…), there is an undeniable quality that resonates within its texture: the solitude of its characters. Men and women are like isolated planets and moons, each following a predestined path, repeatedly tugged or slung away by the gravity of the adjoining bodies, but never sharing the same space as if destiny or nature itself precluded such possibility.

Case in point, in On dangerous ground, Robert Ryan’ plays a hard and withdrawn city cop who frequently uses excessive violence to resolve his cases and is sent to the countryside to help investigate the murder of a young girl. There he meets Ida Lupino, a blind woman whose brother is the chief suspect in the killing.

Jim Wilson (Ryan) has been shown in the beginning of the picture as living a solitary life devoid of anything but his work as a cop as opposed to his partners all of which have families that support and love them. Wilson is immediately drawn towards Mary (Lupino) a woman with whom she shares an isolated existence in the middle of nowhere and begins a process of humanization and redemption.

The film has therefore two distinct parts: the city and its mean streets where life for Jim Wilson is nothing but an exercise in futility and the countryside where the whiteness of the snow and Mary’s presence signify the possibility of finding meaningfulness and the ending of the isolation for both people.

After the case is resolved, Wilson decides to stay with Mary, so this bleak picture does seem to offer a ray of hope after all, but will it last? That’s up to us to decide.

Bernard Herrmann music is from another world, writing perhaps his quintessential score: furious chase music on the one hand, and heartfelt warmth on the other.

Superb.

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Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962)

Sam Bowden’s (Gregory Peck) family is stalked by a man named Max Cady (a terrific Robert Mitchum) he once helped put in jail.

Does the plot sound familiar? Yep. It does. It’s “Act of violence” (Fred Zinnemann, 1948) all over again. But where the former picture played in a more nuanced and gray areas (Van Heflin could be considered the real monster and Robert Ryan the victim of Heflin’s betrayal), Cape Fear is more black and white. Max Cady is an animal, a psychopath without any redeeming values. He deserved to suffer in jail and Bowden actions were morally justified. That’s why Martin Scorsese’s remake despite its excesses is probably more interesting since Bowden (Nick Nolte) hided some facts from the judge that would have prevented Cady’s (De Niro) imprisonment.

All the above notwithstanding 1962’s Cape Fear is a hell of a thriller in which Robert Mitchum plays one of the best villains the world of Noir has ever seen. His portrayal of evil incarnated is on par with the one he had previously played in “The night of the hunter” (Charles Laughton, 1955). Bernard Herrmann’s powerful and eerie score is the perfect embodiment of Cady’s rage (so much that Scorsese made Elmer Bernstein adapt and arrange it for his remake).

There are two scenes in which Mitchum’s interpretation sends chills down the spine: the two attacks on Bowden’s wife and daughter, respectively, both on board the family’s riverboat. The spectator feel as do the characters, trapped in a narrow space with a monster without reason or remorse and only lust for vengeance, hearing Herrmann’s menacing notes as chilly reminders of the predator’s moves on its terrified preys.

A nightmarish world where danger lurks at every corner. Pure Noir.

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Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino, 1985)

He’s a great cop, but he won’t stop! HE JUST WON’T STOP!“. That’s how a fellow cop (Raymond J. Barry) describes Stanley White (Mickey Rourke in a role which is without doubt the highlight of his career), a racist Vietnam vet who unleashes an all-out war against the Chinese mafia of New York’s Chinatown and its newly appointed boss, young and self-confidant Joey Tai (an equally impressive John Lone).

White embodies the Noir archetype to a T. He is a loner, who neglects his wife and endangers the friendship of his only friend and ally within the force, captain Louis Bukowski (Barry) by constantly acting without thinking of the consequences. Plus, his past as a war vet aligns him with countless examples of the classic-era Noir protagonists, but with a huge difference: he fought in the Vietnam war, a defeat that crippled the nation for years to come (the vet of WWII came back a hero). That’s why White sees the fight against the Triads as his second chance of winning the war against the Asian enemy that has made him a bitter man.

Chinatown is described as a place totally out of sync with the rest of America (Robert Towne and Roman Polanski had already shown that in the L.A. counterpart). A place where the cops look the other way since the law is seen as ineffective and unenforceable. White, on the other hand does not share this view (“I’m no Italian. I’m a Polack. And I can’t be bought.”)  and against all odds fights to overcome this situation with the help of Tracy Tzu (Ariane) a Chinese-American reporter who exposes the corruption and violence used by Tai and his thugs. He also falls in love with her which adds more gravitas to the relationship and becomes another source for his marital problems.

But in the Noir world, the hero or antihero is doomed from the start on his quest to bring order, and even though White ends Joey Tai’s reign of terror, his methods are considered too harsh and extreme by the establishment, which results in White’s removal from his one man crusade. Ultimately the status quo is reestablished and Chinatown is left on the same path towards perdition. An exchange between Bukowski and White may hold the key to the problem (Bukowski: You care too much, Stanley. White: How can anybody care too much?).

The movie was written by none other than Oliver Stone and directed with a sure hand by Michael Cimino the helmer of The deer hunter. It is also worth adding that the film was released along another exceptional cop movie, William Friedkin’s To live and die in L.A.

Truly great.

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Point Blank (John Boorman,1967)

The world of Noir is characterized among other things by betrayal. There’s no honor among thieves. It’s survival of the fittest.

So when you are double-crossed by your own wife and your best pal and left for dead, what would you like to do if you are a tough son of a gun with the features of Lee Marvin? You would single-mindedly try by all means to retrieve the rather inconsequential sum of money that was stolen from you. That’s what you would do!!

Director John Boorman adds a touch of the French New Wave aesthetics for what is essentially a revenge fantasy taking place in Marvin’s mind as he lays on a cell in Alcatraz after being shot (just recall the credit sequence when a clearly dying Marvin whispers “..a dream, a dream”).

This movie would later be paid homage by Steve Soderbergh with the equally great “The Limey (1999) in which Terence Stamp would channel Marvin’s unrelenting force.

One of the earliest and better examples of Neo-Noir.

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The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston,1950)

The grandaddy of caper films (Stanley Kubrick even went on to borrow Sterling Hayden for his own “The Killing”).

The film shows for the first time in the classic era, that the small-time crooks are as human as the coppers they try to escape from.

Huston, adapting a novel from author W.R. Burnett, centers the action and drama on the criminals behind the heist, practically ignoring the police.

The movie tells how Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (a criminal mastermind played to perfection by the great Sam Jaffe) puts together a small gang of specialists for a heist of jewels. Introduced into the mix is corrupt lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (a sleazy Louis Calhern) that offers not only to finance the caper but also to buy the gems after the burglary. Among the ensemble the figure that stands out is hit man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a country boy who longs to collect a good sum and retire to his home farmland.

The plan seems to work like gangbusters but as the Noir world dictates, a combination of bad luck, betrayals and destiny compromise the steps after the heist and the crooks wind up beaten or destroyed. We wouldn’t accept it any other way!

Marilyn Monroe mad her big impact on the silver screen on this very same movie playing the bimbo the world over would bow to.

Essential.

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The Seven-Ups (Philip D’Antoni,1973)

Another great 70’s cop movie. There was never a better decade for these!.

Directed by the producer of Bullitt and The French Connection, it also shares with the other two a memorable car chase sequence performed again by stunt coordinator Bill Hickman.

Its ties to the previous films do not end here for Buddy Manucci, played by Roy Scheider, is a character reminiscent of Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, the role he played in The French Connection, also based on Sonny Grosso, a real life cop. Not a French, but a connection nonetheless!

Manucci is a rogue cop and leader of The Seven-Ups, a squad whose modus operandi is the use  of dirty, unorthodox tactics to catch their prey on charges leading to prison sentences of seven years or more upon prosecution, hence the name of the team. These cops went to the same school as Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle. No doubt about it.

The team uncover a plot to kidnap mobsters for money, which leads to many plot twists in which Manucci tries to figure out the puzzle, with a little help from a long time neighborhood pal turned stoolie extraordinaire (played by Tony Lo Bianco, another French Connection alumni) who also happens to be an untrustworthy and sleazy double-crosser!. Yes, this is the Noir world, what else could we expect?

Wait, did you think there were no more ties to The French Connection? Then you were wrong pal! Composer Don Ellis provided another eerie and dissonant score to the proceedings and we are grateful for that.

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Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise,1959)

It is said that this outstanding movie was the favorite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French filmmaker, who reportedly saw it 120 times (no kidding!) before directing his own Noir opus “Le deuxième soufflé”. With a powerful script by Abraham Polonsky and with the always reliable Robert Wise at the helm, its most important characteristic that sets it aside from other Noirs is its portrayal of racial prejudice and the destructive side of hate.

An ex-cop (Ed Begley) plans a heist that will secure his golden retirement, and he enlists the aid of two desperate men to carry out the task. One is a young black jazz musician (Harry Belafonte) and the other is and old white ex-convict (Robert Ryan) who can’t stand being supported by a woman (Shelley Winters) and is painfully aware of going nowhere. He also happens to be a racist. This set-up lays the groundwork for the tensions in the gang to rapidly mount and with explosive results. Literally!

It also boasts a great use of documentary style photography of upstate New York and a great jazzy score to boot. And Gloria Grahame makes an appearance. No Film Noir should be without her!

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