Criterion Sunday 383: Brute Force (1947)

A classic prison break movie that aside from some largely perfunctory flashbacks is all set on an island prison as Burt Lancaster tries to sway people round to the idea of escaping. It helps that nobody likes the brutal Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), and though his power is nominally held in check by the warden, that’s a fragile balance at best. The film is most convincing dealing with the powerplay between inmates and guards, especially Munsey, and Cronyn commands the screen less with physical size as with small gestures and quiet commands which carry the weight of punishment behind them (and enforced by his burly goons). It’s a war film by any other name, in which the guards are the Nazis and the prisoners the captured PoWs, but repositioning it this way means there’s less patriotic heroism at stake and so things are free to go wrong for everyone. Looks great with the stark black-and-white and clearly influenced a number of other films in the same genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Richard Brooks and Robert Patterson; Cinematographer William H. Daniels; Starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Art Smith; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 27 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 380: The Naked City (1948)

There may be 8 million stories in the naked city (as famously narrated by its producer Mark Hellinger, who died just before its release), but this film is interested in one kind and does it in such a way as to pretty much define the rules for an entire genre (the police procedural detective drama), or so it sometimes feels. It also feels properly brutal in the way it presents its murders, even though we don’t actually see very much that’s particularly graphic, but that’s the noir edge to this gritty urban thriller about a young woman found murdered and the subsequent search for her murderer. Naturally it takes us down various alleys, and presents a few different suspects, but the Irish police lieutenant in charge of the case (a memorable Barry Fitzgerald) and a rookie kid (Don Taylor), who’s clearly new to the job, start to figure things out as they run down leads. It has a documentary feel to its photography, inspired by Weegee and filmed on New York’s streets rather than the customary backlots, which affords plenty of extra atmosphere and may be the defining aspect of the film, above even the writing and direction. It’s certainly a classic.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald; Cinematographer William H. Daniels; Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 274: Night and the City (1950)

A fun little number that’s set in London but made under the auspices of a Hollywood studio (with a number of big American names heading the cast) so it still sort of feels like a Hollywood pic. Richard Widmark plays a small-time conman and hood who’s looking for a break while doing some strictly small-time hustling, and finds it in wrestling. There’s a whole plotline featuring an old-school Greco-Roman wrestler who’s grumpy at his son (Herbert Lom) for taking up with a bunch of newer guys doing moves he doesn’t approve of at all. Well somehow Widmark gets in the middle of all this and it’s probably a bad idea, but he tries to make it work. Widmark doesn’t quite feel right for the role, or maybe I should say he’s not right for what the character needs to be to make it a success, so I guess you could make a case that he’s exactly right: he’s doomed. It’s a noir. Of course he’s doomed. (At least in the Hollywood ending; I haven’t yet seen the British cut.) There’s a real post-war sense of gloom to the capital that’s both true to the genre and also fits the era, and it’s all captured magnificently.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a British cut of this film with completely different music and a different ending, which I haven’t yet watched.
  • Historian Christopher Husted does a comparison of the scores for the British and American versions, and comes down in favour of the American score (preferred by Dassin himself), which does a better job of conveying the doomed noirish setting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer Jo Eisinger (based on the novel by Gerald Kersh); Cinematographer Max Greene; Starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 6 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 273: Thieves’ Highway (1949)

I like a noir, and I like a good American B-picture, because there’s an underlying desire to just get on with the story that’s almost refreshing. Here we get Nick (Richard Conte), back from the war to find his old man in a wheelchair thanks to some nefarious dealings with a San Francisco produce dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee Cobb). And so Nick gets on the road with his dad’s friend to haul apples to Frisco and settle some scores, which leads him to prostitute-with-a-heart Rica (Valentina Cortese, who died only earlier this year, as it happens). The pugnacious setup all feels fairly familiar, but the details about the fruit market and the bitter competition for prices is a nice twist that keeps things fresh, as we get a sense of the corruption and backstabbing that goes on to get to the top of the business world (I never knew such profits could be made on a Golden Delicious). There’s a straightforward charm to it, with the requisite pools of noirish darkness in the black-and-white lensing, some striking camera setups, and hard-nosed performances.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Director Jules Dassin speaks about the film over 50 years later (like Cortese, he lived into his 90s), fondly recalling details like the actor who zips up his jacket when he sees a man burned alive, or looking misty-eyed about Valentina Cortese.
  • There’s a four-minute snippet of the (at the time) under-production documentary about the life of screenwriter “Buzz” Bezzerides, of which further snippets are on the Criterion release of another Bezzerides script, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
  • The original trailer is included, and of course a classic American pulpy trailer can be a wonderful thing. It obviously makes everything sound so much more lascivious than it really is, but it has its charms.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on his novel Thieves’ Market); Cinematographer Norbert Brodine; Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Auguste Le Breton, Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton); Cinematographer Philippe Agostini; Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015.