Groovers and Mobsters Present: Detective Noir

(Groovers and Mobsters Present, a column tackling the best each genre has to offer, is back! This time a number of bloggers — including this one — have made our picks for the best of detective noir. To read the entire list, visit this post on the Movie Mobsters’ website, or click the graphic above.)

“Out of the Past” (1947)

“Build my gallows high, baby.”
~~Jeff Bailey

Wherever there lurks a femme fatale with a hidden agenda and a dynamite pair of getaway sticks, a cynical gumshoe is never far behind. Think of it as The Law of Detective Noir; one cannot exist without the other. They feed each other – the femme fatale delights in escaping, and the detective cannot resist the chase. Somewhere in the chase, genuine emotions get involved. And emotions, in detective noir, are the great undoing. They have a way of making sure the past doesn’t stay where it should.

In “Out of the Past,” private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) sees this coming. “How big a chump can you get to be?” he muses, finding himself besotted with Kathie (Jane Greer), the woman he was hired to find. “I was finding out.” Jeff purposely botched the job, hoodwinked his client Whit (Kirk Douglas), Kathie’s spurned ex-lover, and fell hard for the doe-eyed dame. But that’s not where Jacques Tourneur’s film begins. Actually, it’s the dirty past that blindsides Jeff, now the unassuming owner of a small Bridgeport gas station who’s engaged to a pretty local girl (Virginia Huston) completely unaware of his history. This intermingling, and then brutal collision, of past and present – told in flashbacks narrated laconically by Mitchum – marks “Out of the Past” as one of the standouts of detective noir.

There is more to “Out of the Past” than flashbacks and wisecracks, though. Noir doesn’t come more classic than Tourneur’s iconic film, which boasts shadowy cinematography that’s by turns romantic and sinister, revealing and furtive. There’s a protagonist who is not at all what he seems, who is deeply conflicted and frozen, who can’t go back but can’t quite move forward, either. There’s a woman of many faces, all of them bewitching. Most important, there’s a pervading sense of resignation, the ultimate acceptance of fate’s cruel inevitability. Jeff, in the end, accepts that his past has decided his future. But his decision to go down doing what’s right is something of an inspiration. For that’s what the best detective noir does: shows us that even if our fate is sealed, that does not mean we cannot rage against it.

Halloween Special — Groovers and Mobsters Present: Horror

(As part of a Groovers and Mobsters Halloween special presentation, some horror-crazed bloggers — including me — have taken on our picks for the best horror films ever made. Here’s my take on “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. To read the entire list, visit this post on Heather the Original Movie Mobster’s blog or click the graphic above.)

 

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986)

If you strangle one, stab another, and one you cut up, and one you don’t, then the police don’t know what to do. They think you’re four different people.” ~~Henry

Evil lives in our world, and it rarely wears an obvious or garish mask of villainy. That’s a truth human beings prefer not to confront. It’s simpler to imagine that true evil is recognizable somehow, that it cannot hide beneath a pleasant-looking surface. John McNaughton, who shot “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” on a paltry $110,000, understands this elemental human need … and he ignores it. His film is a crumpled snapshot of evil in its basic, most mundane form – a grim reality that can’t be shaken easily.

Talented as he is, McNaughton couldn’t create such a disturbing film without the right actor to play the killer, who must seem harmless enough to function in everyday life but be viciously single-minded in his goals. Michael Rooker, then a relative nobody, plays the part so monstrously well that it’s difficult now, 24 years later, to see him as anyone other than an emotionless murderer. Rooker is Henry, a polite, even-tempered drifter/serial killer who moves into the Chicago apartment of Otis (Tom Towles), newly paroled and not the least bit rehabilitated. When Otis discovers Henry’s secret, he wants to join in, and Henry obliges – but not before schooling Otis on the importance of never developing a traceable pattern. The arrival of Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) causes friction between Otis, who lusts openly after his sister, and Henry, who treats this lost soul with kindness and is flattered by her interest in him. But love and companionship, Becky will learn, mean nothing to Henry.

McNaughton based “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (very) loosely on the story of Virginia-born serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, which lends a feeling of authenticity to the film. More important than that, though, is the director’s pointedly unromanticized direction. He forces us to see through the killer’s eyes – as Henry sizes up potential victims, as Henry and Otis slaughter an entire family, videotape the massacre and watch it again for their own sick pleasure. McNaughton forces us to become voyeurs, and it’s the removal of that protective distance that makes “Henry” so frightening.

Alright for now*

Ever have one of those days so good you want to wake up the next day and relive it? That was my yesterday … though Lee Pace and Colin Hanks weren’t waiting on the stoop to battle for a spot in my heart (and, OK, other areas). So it came damn close to being perfect.

Since my blogging machine is on the fritz, this is a brief post to say “thanks” for all the votes, readers and friends, that helped me win the LAMMY for Best Blog and tie for Best New LAMB and Best Movie Reviewer. The competition was fierce, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Kudos to all the fellow bloggers out there, many of whom took home awards of their own, including Heather at Movie Mobsters, Aiden R. at Cut the Crap Reviews, Ryan at The Dark of the Matinee (who cleaned house) and Andy at Fandango Groovers — just to name a few.

For everyone who supports these movie scribbles … you rock. You really do. And you make my heart of hearts very full.

*The fabulous album closer on Tom Petty’s “Live Anthology”

It’s almost time to cringe with laughter

Once again Andy, the Fandango Groover, and Mrs. Movie Mobster herself, Heather, have invited me to participate in the next Groovers and Mobsters blog event. The themed event — this month on (yippee!) dark comedies — goes live on Saturday, June 12. So get out your Dayplanner (er, whatever technological phone device you own that may or may not have the capacity to cut your meat for you) and make a reminder to visit and see what movies me, Heather and obliging fellow bloggers will be reviewing.

Since I’m terrible at keeping secrets, I’ll give you ONE HINT. Does anyone remember what killed the dinosaurs? I heard a rumor it was chaos.

Groovers and Mobsters Present: Gangster Movies

This review of “Miller’s Crossing” is part of a new monthly blog series created by Fandango Groovers and Movie Mobsters. Each entry will focus on top-notch films in different genres. For a complete list of this month’s entries, click on the graphic above or click here.

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

“Runnin’ things — It ain’t all gravy.”
~~Johnny Caspar

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen subscribe to the Just Enough Rope Theory — that is, they give their first-time viewers just enough rope to hang themselves and their seasoned-pro viewers just enough rope to get creative with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Miller’s Crossing,” the brothers’ stylish foray into the world of gangster films. This classic sometimes ends up lumped with the Coens’ noir canon — no shabby place to be, but not exactly accurate in this case. With its focus on mob mores and gang hierarchy, “Miller’s Crossing” is more a gangster film than anything else.  

Gangs are about two things: power and control. Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) believes he’s lousy with* both; Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suspects otherwise. He knows Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with Bernie (John Turturro), the crooked bookie giving Johnny trouble, and he knows Johnny will start a gang war just to kill “the schmatte.” Tom also knows that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s dame, may be using his boss to keep Bernie — her brother — safe. So Tom, not about to let all this intel go to waste, sets about weaving a twisted web of deception that threatens to overtake “The Maltese Falcon” in complexity.

People tend to peg “Miller’s Crossing” as noir, and that is warranted — the film has characters molded from those in Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.” But the movie should be recognized as a doozer of a gangster film. Most obvious is the hierarchical structure we observe in gangster films. When Johnny shows up to jaw about Bernie, Leo assumes his competition’s shown up as a courtesy. Wrong. Boss Johnny absorbs that as an insult to his status; so begins the battle. Then there’s the matter of “heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” suggested by Johnny’s remark about “runnin’ things.” This is an undercurrent in gangster films, and “Miller’s Crossing” thrusts it out like a credo. Helming a gangland empire is dirty business because no man can know another’s real motivations (or, as Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well”). “Miller’s Crossing” also shines a spotlight on the father/son dynamic within this world (like “Goodfellas”), with Leo acting as Tom’s father figure. Yes, “Miller’s Crossing” is firmly rooted in gangster movie traditions. The only difference is that it classes them up with symbolism and irresistible ’30s slang. Dig?

 *To learn how to talk like these birds, skirts and yeggs, click here.

 

Leave gun, take cannoli, read reviews

Blogeratti Andy at Fandango Groovers and Heather at Movie Mobsters have knocked their noggins together (in a “let’s brainstorm” way, not a “we’re getting whacked” way) and come up with yet another brill idea for a multi-blog posting event. It’s coming your way on May 15, and M. Carter has been invited to participate. Tune in on Saturday to see which gangster classics get made and which ones don’t. You, discerning readers, don’t have to do a thing.

Because we’ve taken care of that thing for ya.

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