Friday, November 12, 2021

Scott Adlerberg: Five Noirvember Films Absolutely Worth Watching

Cash on Demand - Quentin Robinson - During   their   heyday,   Hammer   Films   didn’t   only turn out horror movies. Cash   on Demand is one example, a black and white bank robbery film with a running time of 80 minutes. Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell, who played Sherlock Holmes and DoctorWatson in Hammer’s 1959 production of  The Hound of the Baskervilles, star in this taut gem,and they’re as sharp and effective here as they are in the many period films they each did.

We’re in a small British town, two days before Christmas. Morrell, posing as an insurance investigator, enters the bank Cushing manages and proceeds to calmly convince him that his cohorts are holding Cushing’s wife and son hostage at their home. He then walks Cushing through how the two of them will open the bank’s vault and take the money inside and how Cushing will help him get the loot out of the bank in suitcases Morrell has brought. The interesting thing is that Morrell’s professional thief, erudite and droll, a warm personality despite the menace he conveys, is more likable than Cushing’s manager.  From the moment we first see Cushing enter the bank in the morning, we know he’s a cold and unyielding man.  He’s obsessed with efficiency, mean to his conscientious head clerk, and aloof from the rest of his staff. In no time at all, with a few simple movements as he arranges things, we get the sense that he may be an obsessive-compulsive type. Everything has to be just so. Imagine how it must make his skin prickle, how it must upset his entire system, to have to subordinate himself to someone who has the upper hand on him.

In the numerous films I’ve seen Peter Cushing in, I can’t recall him giving a bad performance. He’s always so focused and believable, even when the script is weak. He always gives his characters layers. In Cash on Demand, he has a strong script to work with and a well-developed person to embody, and he makes the most of it. The movie unfolds in real time, on a few indoor sets, and it doesn’t take place during Christmas season for nothing. By its end, in a most unexpected way, the story has revealed itself as a variation on A Christmas Carol. It’s low budget film making quite well-done, the Hammer pros delivering the goods again.

Nobody Will Speak of Us When We’re Dead - Agustin Diaz Yanes - Though known here mainly for her Almodovar comedies (which are never not without darkness), Victoria Abril can put her resume of dark film roles up against anyone. In NobodyWill Speak of Us When We’re Dead, she plays an alcoholic prostitute named Gloria, and as the movie opens, she is in Mexico City doing a business deal with some gangsters when a violent confrontation occurs. The DEA is involved, and Gloria barely escapes. She has knowledge of the local mob’s money laundering procedures, and fearing for her life, she leaves Mexico and returns to her home city of Madrid. There, in a place where there seems to be a lot of unspoken history for her, her bullfighter husband is in a coma after a mishap in the arena, and her strong-willed mother in law, Pilar Bardem (Javier’s mother), does all she can to persuade Gloria to clean up her life and find a constructive direction for it. Gloria wants to get herself together and even starts taking adult education classes, but a hit man sent from Mexico, played with a chilling suavity by Federico Luppi, has come to Spain to find her because of the information she has that her old contacts in Mexico City want. 

Needless to say, once the hit man gets the information he’s after, if he gets it, he has no intention of leaving Gloria alive.This may be a hard film to find, but it’s so good, I felt compelled to list it here.

Gloria is a fascinating character, morally compromised in classic noir tradition and someone with all sorts of demons to battle, but she has an intelligence you can’t but respect and her determination to change her life makes you root for her hard. Here is someone who lived a wild life, for whatever that  was worth, but who now is doing her utmost to embrace normality, even  mundanity. Cooking a simple fish dinner for those who support her becomes a big deal for her. 

You’re never certain though whether she will be able to escape the hit man and her past, and  this constant tension in the film is sustained to the climax. Nobody Will Speak of Us When We’re Dead is a thriller, a film noir, and a great character study, and it’s a terrific example of a film that imbeds its themes (for one, it’s a serious critique of Spanish machismo) in its plot development.

War Hunt - Denis Sanders - Can a war movie be a film noir? Perhaps not in the classic sense when one thinks of what makes for a film noir. When the scale of death and damage is so large, how do you focus on the small scale but intense dysfunction that typifies noir? Still, one ingredient important in many film noirs is human pathology, the encounter with neurosis and obsession, even psychoses, that defines a central character or drives the plot. Considering this and taking into account its overall look and mood, the independently made black and white War Hunt definitely qualifies for me as noir. Robert Redford debuts as private Roy Loomis, who joins an infantry company at the front line during the waning days of the Korean War. The first shot we see after the opening credits is a dead soldier lying in a field. As he arrives at the front, narrator Loomis tells us of the poverty and starving Korean children that he sees. Then his commanding officer, on meeting him, describes where the war stands: “We’ve got a funny kind of a war here, a war that we can’t really win because it’s gotta be settled around a conference table. In the meantime, we’ve got to keep fighting and we’ve got to keep dying…”  Not exactly a rousing call to duty, and no one has any illusions this is a war fought for noble reasons. 

The troops in the company (who include Tom Skerrit in his first role and Gavin McLeod) are ordinary guys just hoping to get back home. All except one, an odd guy named Endore, who Loomis learns paints his face black at night and goes out alone behind enemy lines. The company’s captain allows him to do this because of the useful information he brings back. But it also turns out that on his excursions, Loomis slits the throats of enemy soldiers and does a weird ritual around their bodies. He seems to have a need to kill, a need he might want to satisfy after the war ends. Will he even want to leave Korea when the ceasefire comes? On top of all this, Loomis has taken an orphaned Korean boy under his wing, a kid of about 10, and is teaching him how to use a knife and kill. Based on how he beheads a bird, the boy seems to be  learning well. John Saxon plays Endore, and without overdoing the psychosis, he is very effective. This is one dark film. 

No doubt at the time it could only have been made on a miniscule budget, and in fact it was shot in 15 days for $250,000. It runs 82 minutes and looks austere. Most of the film was shot at night to hide the low budget, and all the nocturnal activity simply adds to the noir ambiance. So do all the shadows in the film and the stark lighting. 

Sydney Pollack is in the cast as a soldier and it’s during the shooting that he and Redford first met.  Even Francis Ford Coppola was involved; he drove a truck in the movie. Without moralizing or bombast, War Hunt paints quite a bleak picture of modern war, and it does it with a particular tone as well as a particular view of human beings and human interaction that make it a work you can describe as a war movie that is also, yes, a film noir.

Mike’s Murder - James Bridges - A total bomb when released in 1984, Mike’s Murder ranks among the best film noirs (or neo-noirs if you prefer that term) of the 1980s.  And there were a lot of noirs made in the 1980s. This is one (and it’s something I like about it a lot) that has nothing in it that smacks of pastiche. It doesn’t hearken back to Golden Age Hollywood noirs but tells a story of its own time, invested in contemporary characters who aren’t familiar film noir types viewers recognize from earlier eras. Debra Winger, in one of her finest performances, plays a Los Angeles bank teller named Betty Parrish. She has a one-night thing with her tennis instructor, Mike, and she then meets him casually on and off again over a period of months. He’s an occasional drug-dealer, as low-level as you can get, but when he and his friend Pete screw up big time by ripping cocaine off some rich people Mike and Pete are delivering to them, Mike gets murdered. Betty then cannot resist doing some poking around herself to find out more about Mike and why he may have been killed, and what she discovers just beneath the thin veneer of the slightly boring, everyday life she leads is a seamy criminal drug culture that is both lethal and terrifying and that permeates so many rungs of life in Los Angeles it is all but omnipresent. Evocatively shot in LA and Venice and environs, Mike’s Murder is both realistic and atmospheric. It’s a sunlit noir, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy than noirs that concentrate their action at night. There’s also something undeniably sad about the movie, and perhaps that’s because every character in it, rich or struggling or working for a lower middle class living like  Betty, seems lonely. 

That Betty is lonely is never stated, but it’s the best conclusion one can draw for why she’s so eager to reconnect with the unreliable Mike. That and the fact that he has a sweetness to him and clearly, as she states herself to a friend, delivered extremely well in bed. The film builds to a climax that is unsettling,  with one character’s frenzied menace the product of fear and a cocaine binge, and when the credits roll, you kind of uncoil to try to release your internal tension. I’ve seen Mike’s Murder three times over the years and still find it strong. And a final note: Paul Winfield is superb as a record producer who at times gave shelter to the troubled Mike and tells Winger’s character how much he loved Mike. This is a noir that doesn’t play with or minimize or get sardonic about emotion. 

Trance - Danny Boyle - A man involved in the theft of a painting gets hit on the head during the heist and suffers amnesia. He’s hidden the stolen Goya but can’t remember where he put it. With the backing of his confederates, he enlists a hypnotherapist to help unlock his mind so he can find the painting.That’s the gist of Trance’s plot, and more than that I won’t say because the less you know about the movie’s twists and turns going in, the better. Those obsessed with absolute plausibility in their films, noir or otherwise, might have a problem with Trance. But for everyone else, those able to go with a movie’s premise and suspend disbelief a little bit, this movie is loads of fun. It’s director Danny Boyle in complete command of what he’s doing, providing a mixture of humor,  suspense, passion, color, movement, and great use of music from the very first shot to the last. I especially think this film stands out as a great example of noir (or, again, neo-noir) that treads not so much in doom and fate and moral ambiguity – though it has those – but also in playfulness. 

And by playfulness, I don’t mean irony or parody or camp. I mean engaged entirely with noir but playful in how it uses the noir elements. Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai comes to my mind as maybe the greatest example of this type of film noir, a film that’s fatalistic and yet playful, building to a point of such discombobulation that the viewer, much like the central character, is trying to decipher what precisely has recently happened and what is presently going on. But all does become clear. Or most at least. So it is with Trance, which is indeed clear by the end, and on the way, the story has noir tropes galore. A treasured object is sought for, various illegal acts are committed, disloyalty and suspicion and double-crossing run rampant, and, of course, there is twisted love. And there’s genuine pain in that twisted love, something at stake. Memories, dreams, sex, art, frustration, hypnosis, manipulation, identities that are fluid –it all makes for a heady brew, and the twists don’t relent till the movie ends. It’s a noir film that doesn’t lead to a feeling of constriction, as so many do, but to a sense of something liberating. 

You’ve got a perfect James McAvoy as the man with the amnesiac brain, and you’ve got Vincent Cassell, an actor made for crime films and noir. And in Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist, the woman dealing with the two men, you have a most unusual, and modern, femme fatale. I suppose I’ve made my point: I enjoy this film immensely.

Scott Adlerberg is the author of four novels, including the psychological thriller Graveyard Love and the historical revenge tale Jack Waters. Every summer he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film series in Bryant Park. He lives in Brooklyn.

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