Friday, 17 February 2012

two terrific noirs

Both dated 1950, both B&W as noirs should be, brilliantly photographed by Burnett Guffey and Hal Rosson respectively. Both are adapted from good, workmanlike pulp novels, by Dorothy B. Hughes and W.R.Burnett. (Who they? younger fans may ask, but even the minor genre names are easier to follow up now than they once were.) Anyway, both have superb casts of clearly defined, believable if not sympathetic, and of course flawed characters.

Nicholas Ray's In A Lonely Place (via Hughes) contains perhaps Bogart's and Gloria Grahame's finest performances, which in both their cases is saying something. John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle also has a topflight cast, though not of such starry names – Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen [see my Feb 12 blog], Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Louis Calhern. (But there's an unforgettable cameo by the young Marilyn Monroe!) While IALP, a psychological thriller, has very little explicit violence, TAJ has quite a lot: both, though, are equally affecting/involving. You care rather more about these people than the stock characters and cliche'd types in most genre movies. But then Ray was a near-great director. Andrew Sarris, one of the best ever US film critics, in his outstanding and provocative book The American Cinema (1968), lists Ray in the section 'The Far Side Of Paradise', concluding that "His films are the indisputable records of a very personal anguish that found artistic expression for little more than a decade". Ray's characters are imbued with "all the psychic ills of the Fifties", says Sarris shrewdly as ever; indeed, Bogart's sardonic paranoia and Grahame's bruised and spiky beauty, are a perfect match (in acting terms) and make a perfect mismatch in terms of the twisting, cunningly paced narrative.

Where Ray's vision was often appealingly raw, imaginative (or dare one say, re Hollywood, poetic?) and always highly emotional, Huston tended to be overblown and overrated [he's "Less than meets the eye", in another very apt Sarris category], too often cynical and calculating. In his latter years Huston turned increasingly to adapting, or in my view, ruining, some great and inspired works of literature by Melville, Crane, Lowry, Tennessee Williams, McCullers, and Joyce – works whose obsessive poetry totally eluded him. TAJ is probably Huston's last truly excellent movie. In terms of getting everything absolutely right, that is… But it was good to see these two terrific noirs once again: they've worn well since I first saw them, in the Sixties – the Ray one of the best and sourest dissections of Hollywood, the Huston one of the best heist movies. They've recently been reissued/restored in dvd form and no movie collection should be without them.

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