Archive for February, 2012

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“Murder, My Sweet” (1944)

IMDb

Detective, the epicenter

Chandler is a tricky guy, because he always builds his stories in a deceiving way. He creates a simple thread, which at first you can very easily follow. Something about looking for some girl missing, or some old coin, or find some blackmailer. This we start doing always with the detective, usually Marlowe, as our surrogate. We know what he knows, from the facts that get to him, to his thoughts – easily transpired in the books, but many times tawdry represented in films, as off voice. But every time, the unfolding of the initially simple investigation becomes filled with contradictory events, an incredible amount of new characters, and endless possibilities for explanation of the story. We get lost. So does Marlowe. And that’s the point. We find ourselves suddenly pushed around, by everybody, all our mental mechanisms of understanding the story betrayed at every moment. We fall into the black hole, like Marlowe when he gets hit in the head. As if we experienced the hallucinogenic effect of the drugs that take Marlowe’s notion of time and space away.

This is truly powerful writing, when you think of the concept. Not great literature in the specific qualities of literature as art, but very good narrative concept. These detective stories are never about exactly how everything happen. In the end the explanation is so complicated that it becomes impossible to make credible, or so simple that it lacks interest. This is no Agatha Christie, where the intellectual mechanics of the story is what drives you to go with it. Here what matters is the world in which the story takes place, the rules of the universe where the characters live. These are literary characters, living in a literary world of their own, with very specific rules.

When you bring this powerful concepts, and mix them with film, than you have something really worthy. That’s what happened when filmmakers working in Hollywood, supported by visual ideas developed in Germany 10 years before, started to use this otherwise minor literature. In 1941 we had the Maltese Falcon, the first truly developed noir film, in this narrative sense. This means that when we get to this film, 3 years later, the genre is still developing, but already totally in inscribed in the mind of the viewer.

This film understands what this is all about. It is competent in how it is able to cast us into the chaos of an unexplainable world. Marlowe is a pawn, from the beginning, when he finds Moose inside his office without being able to put him out or refuse his request. Actually I find it interesting how this Marlowe is much more vulnerable to the pushing around by every character than Bogart’s typical Marlowe. I suppose without Bogart on the boat, the writers were able to take liberties with the character. What we have here is not the character of Chandler’s books, but it’s interesting to see Marlowe as a poor manipulated fellow, permanently on the edge.

The problem is actually the actor. It is very rare for me to be put off by a poor performance, but in a film like this, with the central role of the detective as our surrogate in the narrative, if the actor fails so deeply as Powell failed here, the film is seriously damaged. Bogart was always limited as an actor, but at least he had enough self-awareness to project his own unique character and carry the film with it. Not Powell, all those facial gimmicks, denounced expressions. The director doesn’t help, the editing is not fair for the actors (specially the men), but that’s no excuse for all the distracting elements of Powell’s performance. And Anne Shirley shines much more brightly than Claire Trevor. Hard to believe the man would ignore the first one to become bewitched by the other one.

My opinion: 3/5

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Pickup on South Street (1953)

“Pickup on South Street” (1953)

IMDb

floating narrative

This is not groundbreaking and it will not change you in any fundamental way. But it is deeply noir, and that is something always worth seeing.

We have a story centered on a character who is, among every character, the one who knows less about what’s going on. He is the only one totally outside the juicy plot he gets sucked into, and yet the only one that everybody (police and communists) believe to be in control of everything. Everything happens to him, he fights to control the events, but ends up being swept by them.

Notice this: he literally gets into the story by randomly picking a girls’ pocket, and steeling some very important film. He doesn’t have a clue about the importance and value of what he has, and acts accordingly. In the meanwhile he tries to outplay both the police and the communists, using the girl as his arrow girl, as a shield. He ends up loosing control both of the story (but not quite), as he falls in love with the girl. So here we have a cute sense of chaos in the story, agitated narrative where we find ourselves lost, as much as our surrogate detective, in this case the pickpocket.

Fuller has a great sense of pace and mood, and this film has a very special extra thing: the floating shack where many of the fundamental twists in the narrative happen. That is one great set that I will have with me for a long time. As an explored space it is good enough, in studio context. As a metaphor for the unstable mood of the whole narrative it works fine. In the end, this space becomes the odd center of the bizarre noir world of the film, and to root a film so strongly in a place is something I always appreciate.

My opinion: 4/5

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