As mentioned last week, November is henceforth dubbed "Noirvember" and as that nomenclature implies, I’ll be trying to watch as many film noirs as possible this month. Much like last month and my horror-movie viewing, not everything will fit into this category, but it's a good excuse to watch some things I might put off otherwise. This week, I caught five noirs (two classics and three Neo-noirs). I watched three of them on FilmStruck and I will once again lament the demise of that wonderful service. But before I have to pull out the tissues, let’s get on with it.
The Big Lebowski
Much like my beloved giallo genre, film noir is difficult to define. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to defining the genre and in fact, many of the films now considered classic noir were made by people who didn’t even know the term. Neo noir is even harder to pin down as its basically modern crime stories made by guys who grew up on classic noir.
The Coen Brothers certainly know their noir and the books that inspired them. The Big Lebowski isn’t really based on anything Raymond Chandler wrote but you could say it was inspired by all of his words in general and The Big Sleep in specific. It features a rambling, often confusing, at times incomprehensible plot with a large cast of wonderfully drawn characters and a lead detective who follows a very specific code. Chandler had Phillip Marlowe, a world-weary private eye with a wise-acre mouth. The Coens have Jeffrey Lebowski a generally stoned, always lazy, bowling enthusiast. That they turned a dark noir mystery into a ridiculously funny comedy is pure perfection. They recently released a new 4K scan of the film in an anniversary edtion and I reviewed it here.
Farewell, My Lovely
This third adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s second novel stars Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe. He seems like a perfect fit for the role, but something about his performance rubs me wrong. I like Mitchum, but he can’t seem to handle Chandler’s razor-sharp dialogue. It needs to be spit like tacks - sharp and fast. Mitchum chews on them laconically. It isn’t a great movie all around. It keeps the '40s setting but updates the violence, sex, and language to its 1970s audience. It is stylish with a hep jazz feel and some nice camera work, which makes it worth watching. Mitchum would would go on to play Marlowe again three years later in an adaptation of The Big Sleep. Strangely, it updates the setting to the '70s and transports the action to London.
Out of the Past
Now this is how I like my Robert Mitchum film noir. In this 1947 film directed by Jacques Tourneur, he plays Jeff, a seemingly small-town schmoe who runs the local gas station and has a mysterious past. When a gangster randomly passes through town and recognizes Jeff, he summons him back to the city to talk with the boss (a terrific, and terrifically young Kirk Douglas). The bulk of the movie is told in flashbacks as Jeff informs his girl of his past on the ride over to the boss. It seems he was hired to locate the boss’ dame who had just shot him and took off with a load of money. Jeff finds her, and because this is a film noir, he falls for her and is eventually double crossed by her. The script is credited to Daniel Mainwaring but they say James M. Cain punched it up. Whoever wrote it loaded it with one-liners that just crackle. Like all great noirs, it is filled with darkness, but unlike so many others, a great deal of the action takes place outside in the broad daylight. Even there, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca knows how to find the shadows. If only the rest of the noirs I’ll watch this month were as good.
Paul Newman plays Ross MacDonald’s classic gumshoe Lew Archer (here dubbed Lew Harper for various copyright reasons - mainly that they only had the rights to one book, but were hoping for sequels) in this mid-'60s neo-noir. William Goldman, in his first screenplay, adapted the book into a super-cool, totally hip little film that relies more on style than story. Harper is hired by Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall playing a character who more than resembles the General Sternwood character from The Big Sleep which she played in some 20 years prior), a crippled millionaire whose husband is missing and whom she wants Harper to find. Once again, there is a large cast of interesting characters including the seductive step-daughter (another Big Sleep homage); a fading and now overweight movie star (Shelley Winters), and Janet Leigh as the soon to be ex-Mrs. Harper. The plot gets a little convoluted but Paul Newman has never been cooler and it moves at such a quick pace, you’ll never get bored.
Orson Welles difficulties gaining the complete control he desired on his films is well documented. He was a true auteur and struggled his entire career to get the films he wanted to make produced and into theaters. In the early '50s, he fled the America for Europe where he felt he could find more creative freedom. But even there, he had difficulty securing the finances to make his films and often had to resort to taking acting gigs to finance those he wanted to direct. After making them, he continually struggled to get them released with his own final edits. Such is the case with Mr. Arkadin of which there are at least seven different versions floating around, none of which are exactly the way Welles wanted them to be.
The film stars Robert Arden as Garry Van Stratten, a small-time American smuggler working in Europe just after World War II. He sees a man murdered who gives him the names of two people he says will change his life forever. One of those names is Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles sporting a most excellent beard), a millionaire businessman with a mysterious past. Van Stratten sets off to meet Arkadin and is eventually hired by him to look into that mysterious past. Arkadin says he has amnesia from the early years of his life and wants to know where he came from. This sets Van Stratten off on a long adventure that takes him all over the globe, meeting all sorts of people, and finding more and more of them eventually murdered. Welles always loved to experiment with film technique and he uses a dizzying amount odd camera angles, strange focus, and peculiar lighting setups. It's almost too much as I found myself focussing on the movie making and not the movie. Criterion has released several versions of the film, including one they put together themselves that used Welles’s own notes to create what they think is the version closest to what he wanted. All of these versions are currently streaming on FilmStruck.
A Breaking Bad Movie
According to the Albuquerque Journal, a new movie from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan called Greenbrier is soon to begin shooting in their home state of New Mexico. Inside sources say this is going to be a Breaking Bad movie. Rumors suggest it will follow Jesse Pinkman after the events of the series finale. It is all just speculation behind at this point, but I’m all kinds of excited.