Posts Tagged film noir

D.O.A.

Year of Release: 1950     Directed by Rudolph Maté.         Starring Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, William Ching, Lynn Baggett, Luther Adler, and Neville Brand.

"I want to report a murder."
"Where was this murder committed?"
"San Francisco, last night."
"Who was murdered?"
"I was."

If that opening exchange is not one of the most engaging and fascinating premises for a murder mystery, then I don’t know what is.  After haphazardly walking down the corridor to the Los Angeles homicide headquarters, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) demands to see the officer in charge and tell him the details of his murder on the previous night.   The rest of the film is a flashback of the previous thirty-six hours, which are also the last hours of Bigelow’s life.

The flashback begins on the previous morning when Bigelow decided he needed some time away from his work and from his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton).  Consequently, he left for a weeklong vacation in San Francisco.  While there, he began flirting with other women at a bar.  The next morning he wakes up with a headache and stomachache.  Bigelow does not believe he drank enough to be hung-over, so he has a doctor examine him.  The news stuns him: within the last twenty-four hours he has received a lethal dose of luminous toxin.

A post credit note informs the viewer that luminous toxin does in fact exist, and all the events in the film are scientifically possible.  A simple Google search reveals otherwise, but a fictitious poison does not undermine the suspense or chilling power of the mystery in D.O.A.

The doctor further informs Bigelow that the quantity of poison that he received could not have been accidental; therefore, he is a homicide victim.  On hearing the news, Bigelow begins his own frantic investigation, which forms the remainder of the film.

Bigelow conducts his investigation with impressive efficiency, which makes sense given that he has no more than forty-eight hours or so to live.  He is alert and carefully reviews all the events that occurred the previous day.  He trusts no one and views everyone he meets as a potential suspect.  Whenever a character mentions something that they should have had no way of knowing, Bigelow instantly calls attention to it.

Unfortunately for Bigelow, every person that he interviews clearly has something to hide, and many of those secrets have nothing to do with his poisoning.  As a result, he is sent down several wrong trails, some of which become nearly as life threatening as the toxin.

There are a few early events in the film which are meant to send the viewer down the wrong trail as well.  Bigelow twice has his drink unknowingly switched on him while in a bar.  While it is obvious that one of these switches was used to poison him, whether the poisoning occurred from the subtle or blatant switch is a plausible mystery until the end.  Bigelow meets many people, and their secret connections are not revealed until the film’s climax.  Even if one correctly guesses the identity of one of the criminals, who else is involved and who is innocent will remain a mystery.

The only small misstep is the film’s ending where it becomes slightly clichéd.  After tenaciously searching for his murderer, Bigelow finally meets him by pure luck.  He solved the mystery through interrogation and deduction, but catching the person behind it was a timing coincidence.  That is a very minor flaw, but it does cause a very slight letdown towards the film’s end.

An aspect of the film that has no flaws at all is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, which is instrumental in setting the mood throughout the film.  The opening music utilizes a percussion heavy minor march underscoring Bigelow’s final walk to reveal the dark mystery.  The two scenes in the bars both contain live music that temporarily relieves the ominous atmosphere.  All the music matches the scenes and camera work, being perfectly synchronized with the film edits.  When a scene fades, it fades.  If a new scene begins, a new cue begins as well.

Director Rudolph Maté, who was originally a cinematographer, directs the camera very effectively.  He makes frequent use of tracking shots, which follow Bigelow without interruption as he investigates, and the tracking shots place the viewer with Bigelow throughout the movie.  The inherently longer nature of tracking shots adds to the suspense as well.

A murder victim solving his own killing is a clever and exciting idea for a film noir, one which maintains its intrigue throughout all of D.O.A.   The fast moving plot, many characters, and several possible outcomes keep the viewer guessing, and the skilled direction and scoring add to the thrilling nature of the film.

Content Advisory: Some violence and menace, including gunfights and beatings.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A

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Ministry of Fear

Year of Release: 1944     Directed by Fritz Lang.   Starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, and Hillary Brooke.

Fritz Lang crafted a remarkable atmosphere of suspense, tension, and mystery in his 1944 film noir, Ministry of Fear.  The opening of the film sets the mood as the camera focuses on the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, underscored by Victor Young’s ominous music.

Steven Neale (Ray Milland) has been patiently watching that grandfather clock as it approaches six o’clock.  Once the hour strikes, his psychiatrist enters and informs him that he is now free to leave the asylum in which he has been living for the past two years.  As Neale exits, his doctor gives him one piece of advice: avoid any entanglements with the police, because that would lead to an unfortunate re-arrest.

Neale clearly intends to take this advice seriously, which leads to classic mystery complications when he inadvertently becomes involved in a Nazi espionage conspiracy.  After winning a cake due to a mistaken identity at a fundraiser, he finds Nazi spies chasing and threatening him.  Since the whole story is very outlandish and would make him appear insane, instead of going to the police Neale hires a bumbling detective, who arrogantly insists he is not some fraud showman “like Sherlock Holmes.”  When the detective mysteriously disappears, the police suspect Neale of foul play.

Meanwhile, Neale has befriended the brother and sister (Carl Esmond and Marjorie Reynolds) who organized the fundraiser, both of whom are concerned that their charity organization is being used by the Nazis to mask a spy ring.  Since they are German, having fled to England to escape the Nazis, Neale is further afraid to alert the police, because he does not wish them to be indicted on account of some of their members who have been abusing the society.

Although Ministry of Fear hits all of the expected plot points for an espionage thriller, it does so with a surprising amount of wit and nail biting tension.  The identity of the Nazi mastermind remains unclear until the final climax, even if an alert viewer will narrow the identity down to one of two characters.  There may or may not be a femme fatale.  It is unclear whether the police can be trusted.  The villains learn damning evidence about Neale’s past, which they use to manipulate him and further complicate the mystery.

Neale’s past legally compromises him without morally compromising him.  The reason for his stint in the asylum and reticence to notify the police was that he was declared guilty of euthanizing his wife.  He was tempted to acquiesce her request for a painless death as she was dying of cancer, but after purchasing the lethal drug he chose not to give into the temptation and kill her.  However, she found the drug and administered it herself.  A woefully inaccurate summary of the events by another character is twisted by the villains as a rationale for their own actions.

There is an interesting parallel between the plight of the brother and sister whom help Neale along with Lang’s own journey as a filmmaker.  In 1934, Lang left Germany after running afoul of the Nazi party and emigrated to America.  It is not unreasonable to speculate that the tension and aura of fear are as poignant as they are, because Lang based them on some of his own experiences.

Throughout Ministry of Fear Lang plays the uncertainty and suspense masterfully, and he does not relent until the final scene.  Even the lead-up to the final confrontation is meant to deceive the viewer.  This level of suspense is the primary factor which makes Ministry of Fear an effective and memorable film noir.

 

Content Advisory: Intense atmosphere of suspense and menace, references to a contemplation of euthanasia.                               Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Gaslight

Year of Release: 1944     Directed by George Cukor.      Starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest, and Dame May Whitty.

Gaslight won Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar in 1944, one year after her performances in Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  And Bergman’s performance is well deserving of the award she won.  She captures a wide range of emotions very convincingly, running the gamut from uncertain fear to carefree delight to nervous mental instability and finally to strong willed resolution.

Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the niece of renowned opera singer Alice Alquist.  The opening scene shows the police unable to solve the mystery of her aunt’s murder and Paula’s consequent trauma.  She is sent away from London, and she studies abroad for several years and marries the charming Gregory Anton. (Charles Boyer)  In order to please him, she offers that they move into her aunt’s old home, which was bequeathed to her.

As soon as they arrive back in London, Gregory is no longer the charming devoted lover he once was.  He insists Paula is losing her mind, and he is hiding her things and deliberately misplacing objects to make her think so.  All of this begins when Paula discovers a letter from Sergis Bower among her aunt’s belongings.

From Gregory’s reaction on Paula’s discovery of the letter, it is fairly clear that Sergis Bower and Gergory Anton are the same person.  And it is no spoiler to say that he murdered Paula’s aunt, and he is trying to drive Paula out of her mind.  The real mystery is his motive for the murder and for deceiving his wife.  Additionally his method for making his wife lose her sanity, while partially hinted at, is kept hidden until the end of the movie.

There is nothing in Gaslight that most twenty-first century viewers will not have seen in countless other mysteries on television, on film, or in books.  The movie follows the standard rules and procedures for most mysteries.  I do not know whether or not it would have been considered groundbreaking in 1944.  Important clues are obvious as soon as they are introduced.  For instance, the detective picks up a note from Gregory and the viewer knows his handwriting will be identical to the note from Sergis Bower.  When the detective draws up a possible plan to explain Gregory’s plot, it is correct without any editing.  At the very beginning of the film, the camera focuses on the street gaslight after the murder.  The house gaslight, as the title suggests, also plays an important role in Gregory’s plot.

The film would have been even more suspenseful had more of Gregory’s plot been kept secret, and if he had seemed kinder and more genuine.  If there were a real possibility that Paula was losing her mind, the viewer would be as unsure as Paula and the mystery would have been much more successful, and much harder to solve.

Although the details are somewhat obvious, Cukor makes the most of the mystery and maintains a decent level of suspense.  The early hints all reoccur at the proper moment towards the end as the mystery is solved.  A friendly older lady on a train informs Paula of a murder mystery she is reading.  Naturally, there are many similarities between her story and the film.  There is also a nice twist when Gregory’s plot is twice used to undo him.

Despite the somewhat predictable elements, good performances from a cast headed by Ingrid Bergman and George Cukor’s sold directing create an atmosphere of suspense that makes a mostly successful mystery thriller.

Content Advisory: Some menace and suspense.                               Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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