#195 Shoot the Piano Player

Watched: August 26 2018

Director: François Truffaut

Starring: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, Albert Rémy

Year: 1960

Runtime: 1h 21min

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Charlie Kohler/Edouard Saroyan (Aznavour) is a piano player in a dive bar, but a former classical concert pianist. When his brother Chico (Rémy) seeks him out to shelter him from a couple of gangsters he’s pissed off, Charlie gets dragged back into the criminal family he’s avoided for years.

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“Just ran into the weirdest dude out there. Told me all about his marriage and his wife, completely unprompted. Oh, and also, I’m chased by some thugs and I need you to help me escape.”

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Simultaneously, the shy and slightly awkward musician strikes up a relationship with waitress Léna (Dubois), but the gangsters follow them one night and the couple are kidnapped. However, they get on surprisingly well with their kidnappers.

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Although not as well as Charlie gets on with his friendly neighbourhood prostitute next door

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They get out of that fix unharmed, but as the gangsters become more and more determined to use Chico’s family members to track him down, Charlie realises he must flee and leave his girlfriend behind. Lest she ends up like his first wife…

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“So, first there was the wife. That ended badly.” “How badly?” Well, she’s dead. Then there’s my neighbour Clarisse, but she’s more of a very good friend.” “How good?” “Oh, very, very good… But I swear I’m actually a good guy. Just very unlucky.”

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Shoot the Piano Player is very different from our last encounter with Truffaut, The 400 Blows. It’s a bit Noiry, with the flashbacks, the past the main character cannot escape, the general bleakness and the occasional voiceover narration.

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The trigger happy gangsters complete the picture (we loved them, although their casualness and easy conversation with their victims made them even scarier than your normal movie thugs)

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It’s often sad, dark and depressing, but there are some fantastic laugh-out-loud moments which help alleviate the whole affair somewhat. We’ve been missing the noirs a bit lately (there were so many of them for a while there!), so we really enjoyed this one. Worth watching for fans of French New Wave, Film Noir, thrillers, dramas, and Truffaut in general.

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Or fans of pianos. Or, indeed, people who hate piano players with a fiery vengeance.

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What we learned: Even super polite and likable kidnappers can be ruthless killers.

Next time: Spartacus (1960)

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#179 Odds Against Tomorrow

Watched: May 13 2018

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame, Ed Begley

Year: 1959

Runtime: 1h 36min

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Ex-cop Dave Burke (Begley) hires two men to carry out a robbery. Both Earle Slater (Ryan) and Johnny Ingram (Belafonte) are debt-ridden, and they are promised the neat sum of $50 000 each for the job.

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$50 000 may not seem much to risk your life for nowadays, but in 1959 it would buy you protection from several M*A*S*H cast members, which was a real threat at the time

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Slater is a big, stinking racist, and is not happy working with Ingram who is black. Ingram himself is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, but has a gambling problem and owes a baddie $7500. Burke, the sly mo-fo, pulls strings to pressure the men and make sure he gets the crew he wants. Soon the three are preparing to rob a small bank.

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The monetary loss was nothing compared to the humiliation of being held at gunpoint by three dentists, one of whom was clearly blind

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As with all (or at least most) daring capers, despite their prep work and good planning, things go awry. This time though, it’s not because of a Dame or unplanned events, but because of Slater’s racism.

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“Why does the black guy get the cool hat? He also got the sunglasses! It’s not faaaair!”

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Odds Against Tomorrow is a very good and suspenseful noir with intriguing characters  and a fantastic soundtrack. Johnny, though by no means perfect, is infinitely more likable than little bitch Slater, who is passive aggressive with his girlfriend Lorry (Winters) and plain aggressive with everyone else. That being said, he too shows vulnerability and humanity at times, and he is disillusioned and angry after a hard life.

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“Honey, even though I try really hard to bang the neighbour, you’re my everything!”

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It’s a caper movie, but it focuses a lot on the characters and what drives them, rather than the heist itself, though that too is tense and exciting.  The ending (which we won’t reveal completely) is heavily symbolic and reminiscent of (slight spoiler alert!) White Heat, and we absolutely loved it! A great, late film noir.

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If intriguing characters, great music, a tense heist and social commentary don’t do it for you, there’s also the glorious Gloria Grahame in a bra. You creep.

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What we learned: All men are evil. Also, racism has no place in a heist.

Next time: Rio Bravo (1959)

#166 Touch of Evil

Watched: January 7 2018

Director: Orson Welles

Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor

Year: 1958

Runtime: 1h 35min

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Mr & Mrs Vargas (Heston and Leigh, respectively) pass the border from Mexico to the USA only to have a car blow up in front of them. Mike Vargas, a Mexican agent, decides to look into it, while American-born Susan Vargas stupidly decides to follow a random dude back across the border.

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She might make stupid decisions, but she’s got spunk and is intimidated by no man!

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Vargas is joined by US police officers Hank Quinlan (Welles) and his partner Pete Menzies (Calleia) and gets to tag along on their investigation. However, when Vargas witnesses Quinlan planting evidence in the apartment of their main suspect, he accuses the veteran police captain and starts to suspect that he, perhaps with his partner, has been operating this way for years.

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“No, no, you silly Mexican police person! This dynamite was always on the premises. It’s just racist dynamite and will only show up if handled by an American.” “Then how did the Mexican suspect handle it?” “Uh, um, he must be half American or something…”

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Quinlan denies any wrongdoing and starts to work to discredit Vargas, or get rid of him altogether. Meanwhile “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Tamiroff) is also putting pressure on Quinlan since Vargas has been investigating Grandi’s brother. To keep her safe, Susan in moved to a remote motel where she finds herself the sole guest only joined by a very strange manager.

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Turns out the motel is anything but safe…

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Touch of Evil is really very tense, especially Susan’s storyline. We were genuinely worried about her, no matter how spunky and independent she was, and she had some really horrible scenes. We loved the film though – we loved Susan, the Mexican being the good-guy protagonist (even if it was Charlton Heston in brownface), the total corruptedness of Quinlan and the naïve hero worshiping of Menzies.

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Also, there’s a brothel run by the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, which in itself is reason enough to watch this movie.

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Welles’ version was reedited and released as a very different movie than the one he envisioned. Since its 1958 debut, two other cuts have been released. We’re pretty sure the one we watched was the 1998 version cut together based on Orson Welles’ notes (we base this on nothing other than runtime, as we didn’t check the DVD-case). Just so you know, in case some of you think this is very important to this informal review.

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Put down the gun, Orson! We’ll watch your (probably) preferred version! We swear!

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No matter which cut you go for, this is a great Noir with a fantastic opening shot (really – check it out!), a great ending, and some kind of a man. Great stuff!

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No caption here. We just liked this picture.

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What we learned: Border towns bring out the worst people.

Next time: Vertigo (1958)

#162 Elevator to the Gallows/Ascenseur pour l’échafaud

Watched: January 20 2018

Director: Louis Malle

Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Yori Bertin, Georges Poujouly, Jean Wall

Year: 1958

Runtime: 1h 31min

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Foreign Legion veteran Julien Tavernier (Ronet) and his lover Florence Carala (Moreau) have a diabolical plan: they will kill Florence’s husband, who just so happens to be Julien’s boss, and make it look like a suicide. The plan is good (you know, in an evil way) and goes smoothly until Julien forgets to get rid of a key piece of evidence.

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Strangely enough, considering his 74-a-day habit, it was not a DNA-riddled cigarette, but an innocent rope

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When Julien tries to retrieve the rope hanging from the murdered man’s window, his timing couldn’t be worse and he ends up stuck in the elevator for the night when the power is turned off.

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“Dammit! I shouldn’t have had that extra croissant for lunch. Now I won’t be able to squeeze out until I’ve worked it off.”

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Florist Véronique (Bertin), who works across the street, and her crook boyfriend Louis (Poujouly) take this opportunity to steal Julien’s car and go on their own spree, which also ends in murder. One in which Julien becomes the main suspect as Louis stole his identity as well as his sweet ride.

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“Fret not, my dear. It’s just a bad day. Who hasn’t had one of those days where they’ve stolen several cars and killed German tourists? It’ll all blow over soon.”

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Meanwhile, Florence wanders the streets of Paris searching for her now MIA lover she thinks she saw driving off in his car with another woman. Her internal dialogue is not happy about this.

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She’s in the ultimate sexy French depression

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We loved everything about this movie. It is visually stunning and fantastically scored with music by Miles Davis. Despite the fact that Julien committed his very own murder, we kept hoping that pretentious douchebag Louis would be arrested to clear Julien of killing the extremely happy German tourist, and the suspense kept us on the edges of our seats.

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That, and Jeanne Moreau’s various depressed faces

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All the characters are horrible people, and yet we were enthralled by the story and very invested in the ending. Definitely a must-watch!

What we learned: Divorce was invented for a reason, people. Use it!

Next time: Mon Oncle (1958)

#152 Sweet Smell of Success

Watched: December 16 2017

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols

Year: 1957

Runtime: 1h 36min

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Press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) is miffed that columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) is ignoring his clients, essentially withholding PR and success. Hunsecker’s reasoning is clear though: he asked Falco to break up his sister Susan (Harrison) and her jazz guitarist boyfriend Steve Dallas (Milner), and Falco failed to deliver.

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“I tried. I really did. But have you tried to make a girl fall out of love with a talented guitarist? It can’t be done, I tell you!”

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To get back on the good side of the powerful man, Falco agrees to try again, this time with feeling. He plants a story about the young musician being a dope-smoking communist and waits for the man to sabotage himself in his subsequent dealing with Hunsecker.

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“I just can’t believe it, Steve. You’ve been smoking dope this whole time and never once shared with me?”

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Sweet Smell of Success is horrible to watch, but in a brilliant way, with characters who are nightmare versions of real human beings. Tony Curtis’ Falco is entitled, sneaky, sleezy, and creepily ambitious – but ambitious in the sense that he feels the world owes him success rather than the sense that he will achieve it through hard work.

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“Listen sweetheart, I know I’m asking you to prostitute yourself to my friend, but it’s really for your own good. Trust me. You’ll love it!”

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Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker is proud, manipulative, and controlling, with a very unhealthy relationship with his baby sister. Susan in turn is young and sweet, but with absolutely no backbone – she let’s her brother control everything and just withdraws when he tries to completely destroy her life. (OK, she tries a bit more than that, but it’s not really proactive as much as insanely passive-aggressive.)

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“Keep ruining my boyfriend’s life like that and I’ll… I’ll… I’ll lock myself in my room! Hah! Deal with that!”

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Seriously, both these guys make Ace in the Hole‘s Chuck Tatum look like a damn saint, particularly in their treatment of the women in their lives (although they don’t go easy on the men either). Despite the extremely unlikable characters, the film is amazing and at least as relevant today as it was in 1957, if not more. What a way to celebrate Christmas, peace on Earth and good will toward men.

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But get the fuck out of there, girl!

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What we learned: Women should expect to be attacked if they are dumb enough to find themselves alone in the company of a man. Also, people are scum.

Next time: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

#142 The Killing

Watched: November 9 2017

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr, Vince Edwards, Joe Sawyer, Timothy Carey, Kola Kwariani

Year: 1956

Runtime: 1h 25min

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Five men, led by mastermind Johnny Clay (Hayden), are planning a heist on a race track with a potential earning of around $2 000 000. Apart from Johnny himself, there’s money man Marvin Unger (Flippen), corrupt cop Randy Kennan (de Corsia), and inside men George Peatty (Cook) and Mike O’Reilly (Sawyer).

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“So, if anyone has a manipulative, two-timing wife who’s sure to sell us all out, now’s the time to come forward. No..? No one..? George..? All right then, we go on as planned!”

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George, a small and nervous man, is easily manipulated by wife and residential Dame Sherry (Windsor), who guilts him into sharing parts of their plan with her. Interested in the money, and less so in her husband, she confides in her lover Val (Edwards – their relationship is the exact opposite of Sherry’s marriage in terms of power and manipulation) who teams up with some buddies to steal the money once the five men do the dirty work.

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“You’ll still love me if you’re rich, right Val?” “Sure thing! I’m definitely not sleeping with you because you’re married and therefore there are no obligations on me, and I won’t leave you for someone younger once I have loads of cash!”

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The plan is well thought out, but will the five men get away with it? Will Johnny manage to pull off one last job and retire from crime to marry his girl Fay (Gray)? Or will the deceitful Dame and her lover ruin it all?

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Also, is Nikki’s puppy real or stuffed..? We’re genuinely asking here.

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From the intense opening score to the climax at the airport, The Killing is full of suspense and intrigue. We loved the voice over which, unlike most Noir films, is not voiced by a character in the film but a narrator; we loved Mike and his sickly wife (we were rooting for them throughout); we loved the different takes on the same scene; and we absolutely loved the mask Johnny wears for the robbery.

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The stuff of which nightmares are made

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The first Kubrick film on the list was a new one for us, and it lived up to the expectations, although it is fairly different from his later works (he was quite young at this point). The female characters are not much to write home about, but otherwise this was a very entertaining thriller with some very cool details which we enjoyed.

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Also, great inspiration for a simple yet creepy Halloween costume!

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What we learned: Never share anything with Dames.

Next time: The Searchers (1956)

#133 The Big Combo

Watched: September 16 2017

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Starring: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Helen Walker

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 27min

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Leonard Diamond (Wilde) is a police lieutenant with a vendetta against crime lord Mr Brown (Conte). Despite warnings from his superiors and a distinct lack of evidence, he is hell-bent on bringing the gangster down and to save Mr Brown’s girl Susan Lowell (Wallace), with whom he is a bit obsessed.

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And who can blame him, with her face always being perfectly lit, even in shadows

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When Lowell tries to kill herself, Diamond finally has an opportunity to talk to her in her hospital bed. Not entirely conscious, she keeps muttering about someone named “Alicia,” but when she regains consciousness, she cannot say who Alicia is (or was).

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To the investigation-mobile!

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Mr Brown does not take kindly to Diamond’s interest in him, or his experiments with a lie-detector, so he kidnaps his nemesis, tortures him, and then pours him full of alcohol.

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Pictured: fun new ways of using a hearing aid!

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However, inventive torture devices do nothing to dissuade the investigator, who only increases his efforts to put the criminal behind bars. Following a hunch, Diamond goes out to prove that Brown is a killer, but what he finds is not quite what he expected.

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He does find time to snuggle with dancer Rita – an unlucky Dame with perfect make-up and low standards

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The Big Combo is dark and atmospheric, with great lighting and music. The characters are taken to the extreme; Diamond is exceedingly righteous and stubborn, while Brown is a sadistic psychopath with few redeeming features, apart from maybe his tongue, judging from the look on Susan’s face in one infamous scene.

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Her heart may regret getting involved with a gangster, but her body thinks otherwise…

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We loved the lighting, the smoke and the angles, the jazzy music and the use of sound around a pivotal moment in McClure’s life (which we will not spoil). The Big Combo is also surprisingly progressive sexually, with the aforementioned scene with Susan and Brown, as well as the heavily implied relationship between henchmen Fante and Mingo both being unusually explicit for the time.

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It’s (more than) guy love between two guuuuys

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Definitely worth watching, especially if you’re into noir films with lots of sexual undertones.

What we learned: Even gangster henchmen can find love in each other.

Next time: The Court Jester (1955)

#132 Rififi/Du rififi chez les hommes

Watched: September 3 2017

Director: Jules Dassin

Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Janine Darcey, Jules Dassin, Marie Sabouret, Marcel Lupovici, Magali Noël

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 58min

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Tony le Stéphanois (Servais) is a retired crook with health problems who just spent five years in prison after taking the fall for friend Jo (Möhner). The two meet mutual friend Mario (Manuel) for coffee and crime planning, although Tony is getting too old for this shit.

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Guess which one has expressed some doubt about the scheme

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Tony respectfully declines, but when he learns ex-girlfriend Mado (Sabouret) is back in town and smooching it up with gangster Grutter (Lupovici) he signs up, after giving her a savage beating.

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The first look at Tony’s dark side. And trust us – it’s dark!

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The trio bring in Italian safe cracker César (Dassin) and start planning the perfect heist – the nighttime robbery of a jewellery shop. The crime itself goes off (almost) without a hitch, until César can’t help himself but steal an extra piece of jewellery for his lover Viviane (Noël).

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After all that planning and suspense, a guy thinking with his dick screws it up. Men just aren’t cut out for this kind of work.

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Grutter figures out who’s behind the incredible heist and comes after them. As he threatens Jo’s family, Tony utilizes his dark side for good and goes after the ruthless gangster.

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Pictured: not a guy you want to mess with

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Rififi is basically the ultimate heist movie; it is stylish and cool with a great cast of characters and an extremely exciting robbery. We absolutely loved the song and dance routine with the silhouettes, as well as the planning phase. However, the long silent scene during the robbery, which is probably the longest silent part of a film that’s not a pre-talkie we’ve ever seen, was by far our favourite. So suspenseful!

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There’s just so much style in this film!

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Also, we were giddily happy to see that the decorative lampshade finally served a purpose. It’s like all the Noirs we’ve watched so far have been leading up to this moment. What a payoff.

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To the right: multi-purpose decorative lamp. Finally!

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What we learned: How much work actually goes into a perfect crime. Also, don’t stray from the plan and get greedy. Or think with your dick.

Next time: The Big Combo (1955)

#130 Kiss Me Deadly

Watched: August 27 2017

Director: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Maxine Cooper, Juano Hernandez, Cloris Leachman, Marian Carr, Nick Dennis

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 46min

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A barefooted girl in a trench coat is running along a road, desperately trying to flag down a car. When one finally stops, she is admonished for almost wrecking the car by driver Mike Hammer (Meeker) before he lets her in. The girl, Christina (Leachman), is unable to speak at first but accepts a ride and gets in the stranger’s car.

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You know you’re in trouble when getting into a car with a grumpy stranger whilst naked is the safest choice

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Mike is not exactly the nicest guy in the world, but he does get Christina past a police blockade looking for an escaped mental patient, which is more than you can usually ask of a total stranger. It turns out he is a somewhat dodgy P.I. with a history of two-timing his clients. However, luckily for the desperate Christina, he’s also the kind of man who doesn’t give up once he’s onto something.

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Even if he’s up against people who like to torture and kill helpless girls

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We say luckily, but for poor Christina there was no luck. The two are captured, tortured and dumped in their car over a cliff. Mike makes it, but his female companion does not. Offended by these events, the Private Dick starts to investigate with the help of his lover/assistant/secretary/bait Velma (Cooper) and various colourful characters. What was Christina running from? Who was after her? And what is important enough to kill for?

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What’s in the box? Spoiler alert: it’s not the soul of Marsellus Wallace.

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Kiss Me Deadly is a Noir, but there are clear influences from horror and sci-fi, with the runaway mental patient and the mysterious glowing box everybody’s after. We went in completely blind on this one and were drawn in from the beginning – the opening scene is great! We loved Nick and Friday, the Gothic and sci-fi elements, Mike’s extreme badassness (though he might be a bit of a sociopath), and the importance of Christina Rossetti.

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A thorough knowledge of classic poetry is as important as a leggy dame, an attitude, a quick wit and a gun when it comes to investigating

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Poetry is important.

What we learned: Don’t pick up hitchhikers. Or, actually, do. Add some spice to your life! Also, breaking records is a surprisingly effective interrogation technique.

Next time: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

#126 Bad Day at Black Rock

Watched: August 19 2017

Director: John Sturges

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, John Ericson

Year: 1955

Runtime: 1h 21min

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The tiny town of Black Rock is amazed to see the train actually stop for the first time in four years. Even more puzzled, and suspicious, are they to find a stranger getting off in search of a hotel room and a cab to take him to Adobe Flats.

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“I vote we just kill him now and get it over with. There’s no way we can share our one female resident with yet another man.”

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The stranger, John J. Macreedy (Tracy), is met with hostility from all sides, mainly led by Reno Smith (Ryan) who everyone seems to be afraid of. The hostility increases when Macreedy reveals he is looking for a Japanese-American farmer named Komoko, and he is served a story of Komoko being relocated in the wake of  Pearl Harbor.

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Pictured: tension. And not the homoerotic cowboy movie kind.

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As Macreedy is trapped in the town for the night and all lines of communication with the outside world are sabotaged by local followers of Smith, vet/undertaker Doc (Brennan) is the only one willing to help him. Doc reveals that Komoko is dead, although the details of his death are still unknown to our hero.

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Hint: there’s racism and bigotry at work. Thank God the world is not plagued by those kinds of outdated ideas anymore!

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Smith and his croonies, most notably Coley and Hector (Borgnine and Lee, respectively), no longer operate under any pretense of innocence, and the chances of Macreedy surviving the night grow smaller and smaller.

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It doesn’t help that our hero is a one-armed man trying to fight a pissed off Ernest Borgnine

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Bad Day at Black Rock is an exciting and tense murder-mystery-western with a crime at the centre of the plot which is strangely (and sadly) relevant to our own times and political climate. Macreedy is a stoic badass, yet you’re never sure things will go his way or who he can trust. The men in this one-woman-town must make some tough choices and decide whether or not to make up for the mistakes that were made four years ago.

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It’s hard to see how anything at all could happen in a town this small, let alone something horrible

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There’s nothing not to love about this film. It’s shot in Eastman Color and Cinemascope, and beautifully so. There are car chases, shoot-outs, bar fights, Dames (well – just the one dame, actually), murder, mystery, and mayhem, and we loved everything about it. Loved it!

What we learned: This is a local town for local people. There’s nothing for you here! Alternatively, they don’t take kindly to strangers round these there parts.

Next time: Blackboard Jungle (1955)