When commies get their hooks into you it's forever.
The Woman on Pier 13, for which you see a very nice promo poster above, had a pre-release title that tells you everything you need to know about it. That title was I Married a Communist. What you get here is a melodrama about Laraine Day, whirlwind married to successful San Francisco industrialist Robert Ryan, an exemplar of American free enterprise, but who was once a member of the communist party back in New Jersey. Uh oh.
Long before meeting and marrying Day, he exited the party without even thanking his hosts for the snacks, moved to Frisco, and changed his name. Married life is going wonderfully until the commies track him down and threaten to expose him if he doesn't give over two fifths of his salary each month and sabotage labor negotiations between San Fran shipping magnates and striking dockworkers. They kill a guy in front of him, just so he knows they mean business. The sneaky, thieving, blackmailing, murdering rats. They're cruel squared. All they needed to be worse were monocles and riding crops. And maybe a handy tray of stainless steel dental hooks. And speaking of hooks, wait until you see what what Ryan can do with one. The Woman on Pier 13 is well made and pretty fun, but it's less useful as cinema than as a time capsule of anti-commie propaganda. It premiered today in 1949.
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
Long review short—Act of Violence, which premiered today in 1949 and starred Van Heflin and Robert Ryan, is as solid as film noir gets. You have a comfortable middle class protagonist whose good life will be screwed if he doesn't take drastic action to deal with the repercussions of a past decision. You have characters whose motivations, as they are revealed to the audience, shift those characters' positions on the spectrum of good and evil. You have three female co-stars who each nudge the plot in different directions. And you have top notch film noir stylings brought to life by director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Robert Surtees.
The plot involves a terrible event from the war to which Heflin and Ryan are the only surviving witnesses. They're pitted against each other because of this event, and while one hopes to let the past die, the other is driven to force a reckoning. We'll leave the plot description there. Acting-wise, Heflin is good, Ryan is solid as always, and you get to see Janet Leigh near the start of her film career and Mary Astor near the end of hers, legends passing in the noir. We haven't seen Act of Violence ranked among the top films in the genre, but for our money it's up there with some of the best. See it.
Let me feel your neck for a second. Don't worry, I've gotten over your devastating betrayal.
The beach is always fun and games until someone gets burned.
What a coincidence. We were just talking about Joan Bennett a couple of days ago. You remember the story. Her husband tried to shoot her lover in the balls. Or unit. Or really anywhere in the vicinity of his reproductive organs. And he succeeded in hitting the vicinity, but missed all the crucial plumbing. It was a Hollywood love triangle that ended in blood and violence. Woman on the Beach stars Bennett, Robert Ryan, and Charles Bickford, and is also a love triangle that causes violence. The plot concerns a Coast Guard officer who becomes infatuated with a married woman. The woman's husband is an artist who lost his sight in an accident, but the Coast Guard officer becomes convinced the artist isn't really blind, but rather is using it as an excuse to hang onto his wife. Under the careful direction of French auteur Jean Renoir, Woman on the Beach makes for a decent ninety minutes of entertainment. We don't consider it a film noir, by the way, as some crowdsourced sites and blogs suggest. It just doesn't meet the requirements, in our view. AFI.com agrees, and calls it drama. It premiered in New York City today in 1947.
Shit. I knew moving up to the behemoth division was a bad idea.
Above is a promo image made of Robert Ryan when he was starring in the gritty boxing noir The Set-Up. There's good news and bad news for Ryan here. The bad news is he's losing. The good news is he'll survive because his opponent only kills to eat. The film premiered today in 1949, and you can read what we wrote about it and see more promo images here.
Gangsters try to steal Robert Ryan's boxing future.
In film noir there are procedural cop movies. The Set-Up is a procedural boxing movie. It tries to take viewers behind the scenes of the violence, bloodlust, and money to focus on the nuts and bolts of the fight game. Starring Robert Ryan as an aging heavyweight and Audrey Totter as his fretful girlfriend, most of the first half of the film takes place in a claustrophobic locker room as boxer after boxer goes out for subsequent bouts of a six card program like gladiators in Rome's Coliseum. Ryan is the main event, and when his name is called the action shifts to the ring for his fight, which is shown in something close to real time.
Ryan is hoping a win over an up and coming young fighter will earn him one last shot at fortune and glory, but he has no idea the fix is in. Somebody should have told him, because if he wins the bout he'll be in heaps of trouble. This is a good flick. It was helmed by Robert Wise, has some fantastic directorial extravagances, and looks spectacular in general, like the gritty documentary photos of Arthur Weegee Fellig, which is no small feat for a film shot entirely on an RKO backlot (Weegee, incidentally, has a cameo as a timekeeper). In the realm of boxing movies The Set-Up stands toe to toe with most. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
They'll have to choose what they hate more—their circumstances or each other.
The Noir City Film Festival rolls on with Robert Wise's 1959 thriller Odds Against Tomorrow. Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan star in a heist story that brings a touch of underground jazz and an edge of racial tension to the narrative mix. It would play nicely on a double bill with In the Heat of the Night, but fits at Noir City too. In fact it might be the darkest film noir on the bill. Belafonte is in debt to mobsters and Ryan is broke and feels emasculated being supported by his girlfriend. When ex-cop Ed Begley brings the two together for a lucrative robbery both see it as the only answer. The robbery has the same problems associated with any heist, with the added complication of Ryan's racism.
Some reviews of this film try to suggest equivalence between these two characters. Uh, no. Belafonte's separatist leanings and distrust of whites in a society that is unfair toward him is a precaution; Ryan's separatist leanings and distrust of blacks in a society that favors him is oppression. This is a basic sociological truth as it relates to power in any society, and it's irksome that some reviewers miss this. Belafonte respondsto aggressive hate with reactive hate. The expectation that he possess superhuman forbearance while his oppressor can be merely human removes context and wrongly demands that everybody behave identically despite their different circumstances and different locations within the spectrum of power.
Much of the movie examines Belafonte's and Ryan's respective attitudes along these lines, with the heist coming in a flurry of action at the end. The robbery is basically foolproof, but only if the powder keg of racial resentment doesn't blow it sky high. The points Wise is making here, which originate with William P. McGivern's novel, are simply these: cooperate and succeed, or fight and fail. All Ryan needs to do extend the hand of respect, but because of his prejudice he fails again and again, which hardens Belafonte's already suspicious attitudes. Who do these two hate more—their circumstances or each other? That's what Odds Against Tomorrow asks, about its characters, and the U.S. Festivalgoers will leave the cinema talking about this one.
Food and water may sustain a man, but it's revenge that really fills the belly.
In Inferno, a boorish millionaire played by Robert Ryan breaks his leg falling off a horse during a desert vacation and is left to die by his two-timing wife and her boy toy. While the lovers cover their tracks and try to confuse the police and search parties, Ryan has to figure out a way to escape the desert. We were surprised a movie like this was made back in 1953. There have been a lot of nature horror and survival thrillers in recent years and we had no idea the genre had roots so far back. The movie is solid, though we thought Robert Ryan's voiceover was often unneeded—maybe he should have had a volleyball to talk to like Tom Hanks in Castaway. But it's a minor issue. We gather that this had a 3-D release, which of course we didn't see, but it's obvious, especially during a truly tremendous fight scene where assorted and sundry items fly at the camera. But even watching in two dimensions you still get a nice piece of entertainment, shot in crisp Technicolor, well-paced and acted, as the desert provides assorted challenges and Ryan must come up with the needed answers or die. Inferno premiered in the U.S. today in 1953.
Robert Young tries to solve a murder that seems to have no motive.
Above is a Swedish poster for Edward Dmytryk’s Hämnden är rättvis, aka Crossfire, a really interesting film noir about an ex-soldier who is murdered, and his fellow ex-soldiers who are suspects. Police detective Robert Young tries to get to the bottom of the crime, but is increasingly baffled as he realizes the killing did not occur for any of the usual reasons—money, lust, revenge, etc. Different character recollections provide different information about the victim’s last hours, but only serve to underscore the apparent senselesslness of the crime. We can’t reveal the direction Young’s investigation turns without giving away the ending*, but we’ll mention that the movie won an award at Cannes—the Prix du meilleur film social, or Best Social Film.
Though technically and visually brilliant, as a whole we don’t think Crossfire has weathered as well as other noirs (for casual movie watchers it may be too static and talky). But it does have a bravura performance from Robert Ryan, and solid work from both Gloria Grahame and the always excellent Robert Mitchum. As far as the art is concerned, note the strong contrast between the Swedish version and the riotously colorful American ones, which we have below. Swedish film noir posters often de-emphasized color and used long lines to apportion space into several distinct boxes (as seen here, here, here, and here), but the above is one of the most severe examples we’ve found. Crossfire premiered in the U.S. in July 1947, and first played in Stockholm as Hämnden är rättvis today the same year.
*We’ve never worried about giving away endings before. Our capsule reviews are really just excuses to show the poster art and joke around. However, a few recent emails have revealed that some readers actually visit Pulp Intl. for viewing ideas, which just goes to show that after five years online you receive credibility whether you were looking for it or not. So even though recent scientific research shows that people enjoy stories more if they know the endings in advance, we’re going to be better about spoilers in the future. Promise.
Note to self: Next time I hire a handyman, ask for references.
We have a nice poster here for Beware, My Lovely, starring Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan. Lupino hires Ryan to do some work around her house but doesn’t know he’s a seriously deranged mental case subject to violent mood swings. Interesting as the film is, we can’t fully recommend it because of its somewhat improbable confinement scenario. Or put another way, even though reasons are presented for why the heroine can’t simply escape by running out of the house, they aren’t very convincing. But on the plus side, the movie does have the ultra-talented Lupino, who was one of Hollywood’s top quadruple threats (writer, director, actress, producer). In fact, her contributions to film noir are extensive and important. So it’s an enthusiastic yes on Lupino, but a qualified maybe on Beware, My Lovely. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1952.
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