RSS

Tag Archives: Film Noir

My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)

my-name-is-julia-ross-movie-poster-1945-1020493690I’d read of the movie My Name Is Julia Ross described as the ultimate example of what a good B movie is. Only 65 minutes long and made on a small budget, the film has an excellent cast and crew and is quite a chilling little film. It was a breakthrough film for both the director, Joseph H. Lewis (who went on to more high profile film noirs like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) and Nina Foch (best remembered from An American in Paris, as Milo Roberts).

Described as a “gothic thriller,” My Name Is Julia Ross has a relatively simple plot. Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is out of work, alone, and apparently friendless in London. She answers an advertisement and is quickly hired to be secretary to Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty – about as harmless and aristocratic as a person can appear to be). Mrs. Hughes has a son, Ralph (George Mcready), who looks quite respectable…though he likes to play with knives. Julia doesn’t know that, however.

I don’t really want to spoil the entire plot, but the movie is so short that to discuss anything is to give something away. But it’s not really a mystery. The audience has a pretty good idea what’s going on ten minutes into the film. What is excellent is the suspense and overhanging claustrophobia of Julia’s situation, beautifully, and creepily, shot by Lewis and cinematographer Burnett Guffrey.

mnijr_stl_1_h

Nina Foch as Julia stands at the estate gates while Ralph and a gardener look on

Julia is supposed to be a live-in secretary, but when she goes to their home in London she is drugged and wakes up in a home in Cornwall, by the ocean. There is a ring on her finger, all her papers proving her previous identity have been destroyed and Mrs. Hughes and her son insist that her name is Marion, that she’s Ralph’s wife and that she’s been ill. She’s practically a prisoner in their home. Even the servants believe that she is really Marion Hughes, despite Julia’s frequent insistence on her identity.

The movie has been compared to Gaslight. It is a bit of a gaslight scenario, though different in that Julia never really doubts her sanity. She staunchly maintains her identity, never ceasing in her efforts to contrive a way out of the house, no matter how much people insist that she is Marion.

But her attempts at escape are frustrated by the fact that even the people in the village believe that she is suffering from a nervous breakdown. It is an interesting scheme that Mrs. Hughes has concocted. Very improbably, but brilliant, in a way. It hinges on the fact that people’s natural impulse is not to get involved in other people’s affairs. When Mrs. Hughes say that Marion is ill, they believe her, no matter how much Julia insists that she is really Julia Ross and begs them to remember her name and get help. They believe Mrs. Hughes because she is rich and respectable, because she told them her story before Julia had a chance to, and because she looks sane. Dame May Whitty does not project malevolent scheming.

Dame May Whitty - would you trust that woman?

Dame May Whitty – would you trust that woman?

Despite our general insistence that we have suspicious minds, most people do generally believe what they are told (what we don’t believe stands out to us, because it’s relatively uncommon). It’s an interesting idea. If someone told me that their daughter-in-law was ill and I met that daughter-in-law and she told me that she was being held against her will and that she was really another person, would I believe her? Probably not. And even if I did, would I know what to do, who to go to, or be afraid people would laugh at me? It’s a brilliant psychological calculation on the part of Mrs. Hughes, thinking that she can get away with such an extraordinary masquerade.

It’s quite well-acted, especially by Nina Foch as the desperate, though resolute, Julia, a normal working girl caught in a mind-boggling and frightening situation. And Dame May Whitty as Mrs. Hughes, never overplaying her villainy, though definitely able to project menace when she needs to. George Macready is also excellent, in contrast, as her psychotic son, Ralph. The script is the apotheosis of taut script writing, with every scene and every bit of dialogue important and weighted with meaning. Highly atmospheric, quite tense, it is definitely worth seeing.

My Name Is Julia Ross can be viewed here on youtube.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 24, 2015 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Alien (1979) – A Film Noir/Thriller in Space

220px-Alien_movie_posterI recently watched The Horror of Dracula (1958) with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I watched it with my cousin, who hasn’t been exposed to too many classic films, and he really enjoyed it. But afterwards, he said that if I liked that sort of thing, I should really watch Alien. I must confess I was skeptical. Alien is a science fiction film and I don’t generally like science fiction. However, I figured I might as well try it, especially since I had once been skeptical about classic horror films and now love the genre.

And Alien does have a touch of the classic horror about it. James Cameron, when he made the sequel, Aliens, said that he was going for more terror, whereas the original is more horror. And Alien, I discovered, is not a typical science fiction film. It’s more like a film noir/thriller that happens to be set in space. It is truly worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, though perhaps with a little more terror.

Alien doesn’t have a complex plot and what is there is pretty patchy, but that’s not really the point of the film. There are seven people on a cargo spaceship returning to earth. What it carries is not important. Who these people are or what their past is is not important. What kind of world has produced this ship is not important; the film feels both futuristic and contemporary. They are all anxious to get back to earth, but they pick up an unknown signal from a planet and protocol dictates that they investigate. They do so and while on the planet, an alien life form attaches itself to the face of one of the members. Against protocol, they bring him on board ship, with the alien still attached.

Alien attached to actor John Hurt's face

Alien attached to actor John Hurt’s face

The alien detaches itself from his face and the crew think they are in the clear. But it turns out that the alien has only used the man as an incubator and soon a new alien comes bursting out of his stomach in all its glory. It proceeds to terrorize and pick off the remaining crew while they try to hunt it through the ship’s dark, shadowy, claustrophobic corridors and air shafts.

The trouble is they are not soldiers (my sister called them glorified truck drivers, essentially) and the alien, instead of having blood, has corrosive acid flowing in its veins that can eat through layers of ship. It also grows much larger than when it originally pops out of the guys stomach.

The film is a masterpiece of suspense. From the moment the film begins, from the moment we first see the credits, and hear the music by Jerry Goldsmith, we are holding your breath, expecting something to happen at any time. As the credits continue the camera moves around the grimy ship, which looks deserted, and the audience is wondering if a catastrophe has already occurred.

The crew

John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm

It is not obvious, at the beginning of the film, who the main protagonist is going to be. All seven characters are introduced with roughly equal screen time and importance. There is the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the Science Officer, Ashe (Ian Holm), the Warrant Officer, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the two engineers, Brett and Parker (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto), and Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). But when the captain, Dallas, and the Science Officer, Ashe, make the decision to override Ripley’s warnings about bringing the alien on board, Ripley slowly emerges as the one we care most about.

There is also an adorable cat named Jones, or Jonesey. I was rooting for this cat to survive from the very beginning and was in a constant anxiety that we would lose him (for fellow cat lovers, the cats survives).

Much has been said about the screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, and the symbolism in the film regarding how the alien symbolically commits a form of rape (on a man) and impregnates him, with the alien bursting forth in violent birth. However, what really stood out to me was the characters’ isolation from each other. Here are people who have been on the same ship for months, perhaps years (they’ve been in stasis for much of the journey, though) and they don’t seem to particularly care for each other. There is no warmth in the film, no connection between them. The warmest relationship is between Ripley and the cat, Jones.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Jones

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Jones

There is a lot of tension, admittedly. Ripley is deeply distrustful of Ashe and his motivations and decisions. She also attempts to get Dallas to use his authority to override Ashe, but Dallas rather apathetically says that Ashe is in charge of science on this journey and he can’t do anything.

That apathy really struck me. Dallas, in particular, seems to suffer from it. These people just want to get home and even when the alien is running about their ship, there is still a sense of unreality, as if they cannot believe this is happening to them. Dallas seems an insouciant captain. Ashe wants to study the alien and is at odds with Ripley, the only person who demonstrates any mental sharpness (for those who don’t mind a few more spoilers, Ashe turns out to be an android who has been programmed by the nameless “The Company” they work for to bring home this kind of alien life form for study, even at the cost of the crew).

I have to believe that the director, Ridley Scott, meant for the crew to come off disconnectedly. It certainly makes for a great story, but is a disturbing representation of humanity. The story could be told thus: on the ship there is apathy, disunity. A threat comes and they can’t pull together to defeat it. Instead, they are picked off, pulled apart. In the end (more spoilers) it is only one individual who can survive. Only alone, does Ripley make it.

Ripley and the Alien

Ripley and the alien

There is a rather bleak moment after Kane has died, after the alien jumps out from his stomach. The crew is in shock, while Dallas is about to eject Kane’s wrapped body into space. He asks expressionlessly if anyone wants to say anything (usually it is a captain’s job to say something). No one says a word and Kane’s body is released from the ship. That’s it. It’s such a bleak moment because no one mourns him, there’s not even music to mourn him. You can see they’re still in shock, but you can also see they are thinking about what is going to happen to them. He’s just dead and that’s the end of him.

That sense of isolation is a very noirish element. The crew is made up of a bunch of misfits, which actually make sense. The only kind of person who would volunteer for a regular job where the journey is so long you stay in stasis for ten months is bound to be a bit of a misfit.

But what really makes the movie so thrilling is the suspense. Crew members walk down dark, shadowy corridors looking for the alien, while the audience waits, heart pounding, knowing the alien is going to get them, but not sure when or how. Some people have commented that it’s a bit like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

The Alien

The alien

But despite the isolation in Alien, you do still root for Ripley (though I was completely expecting everyone else to die and probably would have been disappointed if they hadn’t – thus Alien feeds our more ghoulish nature). Her character is warmed up by her affection for Jones and because she is the only one who is not either insouciant or in blind terror. She’s a survivor who consistently makes smart decisions…and she goes out of her way to save the cat.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on January 5, 2015 in Horror, Science Fiction, Suspense

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon – parody of film noirs and detective stories

The_Band_Wagon_posterOne of my favorite movie musicals is The Band Wagon from 1953, with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. It is one of those marvelous backstage dramas where the cast must overcome a variety of difficulties to put on their musical.

It shows you how narcissistic Hollywood is that their two greatest musicals are about entertainment: Singing In the Rain is about the transition from silent films to talkies and The Band Wagon is about the travails of putting on a musical play, as well as being a bit of a satire about entertainment folks. I suppose there’s nothing like doing what you know best and musicals are particularly suited to plots about entertainment, anyway.

The songs in the movie are a collection of songs written in the 1920s and ’30s by the songwriting team Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, who also wrote the songs for the 1931 revue “The Band Wagon” that starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Some of the songs in the revue were recycled for the movie, though the movie has nothing to do with the original revue.

bandwagon22

Fred Astaire did so many excellent movies, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but this is definitely one of them. It’s a little different – he does less actual tap dancing in this one then he does in his earlier films, especially those done at RKO with Ginger Rogers during the 30s. There is more ballet in The Band Wagon and Astaire said he was uncomfortable with ballet, but he is still nothing short of elegant, a supreme dancer unlike anyone else. There is one beautiful scene, in the middle of the movie, where he and Cyd Charisse dance in the moonlight. The characters are trying to find out if the two of them can work together and dance together (her character was a ballerina and his was a hoofer, which sounds like art imitating life), blending her style with his. The song is called “Dancing in the Dark” and is one of the most lovely, romantic, elegant dances seen in the movies.

“Dancing in the Dark” is an easily accessible dance – there’s nothing to do but watch and enjoy. The last dance in the movie is a little different, because it’s actually a parody as well as a dance and I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. I wasn’t well aware of the source material they were parodying.

The dance is called “Girl Hunt Ballet.” It is around 12 minutes long and is a mini-mystery dance. Fred Astaire plays Rod Reilly, a private detective and he is narrating his story, which is unfolding in the dance, with Cyd Charisse playing both the innocent blonde and the brunette siren.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953When I went back, however, and watched movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and read some hard-boiled detective fiction, suddenly it clicked and I got it. From then on, it’s been my favorite part in the movie. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. It’s hilarious and I love it – a highly stylish parody.

I could now see all the little clichés of the genre that the dance was playing on. For example, the plot. “Girl Hunt Ballet” makes no sense; things happen in the most random way, but that’s no problem because books and movies like The Big Sleep are known for making no sense. It’s about atmosphere, something Girl Hunt Ballet has in abundance. I do not, to this day, understand what is going on. There’s something about a trumpet, an emerald, some random clues like a bone, and various women dancing about, trying to get the emerald.

Cyd Charisse is the femme fatale, slinking around trying to seduce the hero. Actually, she is two femme fatales, managing to cover both variations that are found in detective stories: the innocent who is not really innocent but plays on the hero’s desire to protect her and the siren who merely plays to lower desires. Fred Astaire is the cool, cynical, hard-bitten detective who saunters around, getting into punch fights, following his instincts and looking cool and in control no matter what.

The voice-over that he provides is likewise hilarious. He gets to say stuff like “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic highway. She was bad, she was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling hard, but I wasn’t buying.” It’s exactly the kind of stuff they say in those movies – the kind of picturesque dialogue that film noirs are known for; the kind of dialogue that always sounds so good but unlike anything real people say.

PhotoCharisseAstaireBandWagonGirlHuntI just about expire with laughter during the moment when he is having his romantic dance with the innocent femme fatale Charisse while gunman are fighting each other in the background, their guns going off, and falling down dead while Astaire and Charisse share a kiss.

Apparently it was meant to be a spoof of Mickey Spillane, a popular and slightly pulpy detective writer. There seems to be some confusion about who actually wrote the story for the ballet. Vincente Minnelli, the director, took credit, but so also did Alan Jay Lerner (of eventual My Fair Lady fame), without credit, as a favor. Even Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters for the whole movie, are given some credit.

Whoever it was, it’s absolutely brilliant. Not only is it a great dance, but it is very funny. I’ve known some people who didn’t care for it because it seemed just a little odd, but it has to be approached with tongue definitely in cheek.

I cannot show “Girl Hunt Ballet” on this site, but click here to see the entire dance on youtube. Below is the trailer for the entire movie.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: