LawrenceA

Recently Watched Mystery/Crime/Noir/Etc.

56 posts in this topic

City Streets (1931) - Solid gangster movie from Paramount Pictures and director Rouben Mamoulian, from a story by Dashiell Hammett. Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney) is a decent girl with some bad connections, namely her racketeer stepfather Pop (Guy Kibbee). She's dating the Kid (Gary Cooper), a nice fella that runs a sharpshooter booth on the boardwalk, and who happens to be a crack shot himself. When Nan gets sent to jail, Pop convinces the Kid to come work for bootlegger beer baron Big Fellow Maskal (Paul Lukas). But Nan never wanted the Kid to get caught up in a life of crime, and so tries to get him out. Also featuring William "Stage" Boyd, Wynne Gibson, Betty Sinclair, Robert Homans, Barbara Leonard, Paulette Goddard, and Stanley Fields.

 

Sidney is very cute and very good as the girl from the rough side of town lookin' to get out, while Cooper does his laconic, wiry tough guy thing. It was odd seeing Kibbee as a violent gangster. Mamoulian frames some interesting shots, using shadows in unexpected ways, although most of this is more straightforward and traditional than his other directorial efforts that I've seen. The ending is in contrast to many other gangster pictures of the time.   7/10

 

Source: TCM by way of YouTube.

 

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The Criminal Code (1931) - Tough prison picture from Columbia and director Howard Hawks. Walter Huston gets top billing as Mark Brady, a tough-but-fair district attorney who gets named the warden of the state prison whose population he was largely responsible for convicting. One such prisoner is Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes), a sensitive young man who accidentally killed someone in a bar fight. His ten year sentence for manslaughter is getting the best of him, though, and he's starting to crack up. Brady makes the kid his chauffeur and shows him some kindness, as does Brady's daughter Mary (Constance Cummings). Graham seems to be making a recovery, but what will happen when a squealer who has broken the "criminal code" is marked for murder: will Graham squeal, or help his former cellmates? Also featuring Boris Karloff, DeWitt Jennings, Mary Doran, Ethel Wales, Clark Marshall, Arthur Hoyt, Paul Porcasi, Otto Hoffman,  and Andy Devine.

 

This is decent, if a little corny and simplistic in its thinking. The performances are good, with Huston rattling off torrents of dialogue at breakneck pace, and Karloff enjoying one of his best non-horror roles. Holmes was also well-cast as the troubled Graham. There's one extended sequence where the prison population tries to distract the guards by having everyone make a repeated short yell, over and over again at top volume, that's disconcerting and well edited. This earned an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Adaptation (Seton I. Miller, Fred Niblo Jr.).  7/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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Daughter of the Dragon (1931) - Campy fun in this third and final Fu Manchu film from Paramount, this time directed by Lloyd Corrigan. Set 20 years after the last film (1930's Return of Fu Manchu), the long presumed dead Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) appears once again in an effort to finally destroy the Petrie family in revenge for the death of his wife and son. Fu's plans go awry, though, and he is mortally wounded, so he makes his way to Ling Moy (Anna May Wong), revealing to her that she is his daughter and that she must continue his deadly crusade of vengeance. Ling Moy accepts the challenge, and sets out after the young Ronald Petrie (Bramwell Fletcher). She finds resistance, and possibly something more romantic, in dogged Scotland Yard inspector Ah Kee (Sessue Hayakawa). Also featuring Frances Dade, Holmes Herbert, Lawrence Grant, Harold Minjir, Nicholas Soussanin, and E. Alyn Warren.

 

This is ludicrous, sensationalist stuff, but it's a lot of fun. Fu uses various toxins on his victims, including one that makes the target a mindless zombie. Fletcher is hysterically over the top at times, and Minjir is a fey secretary. The most notable thing about the film, though, is the casting of Wong and Hayakawa in the romantic leading roles. How many Hollywood films of the 1930s can you name with two actual Asian performers getting to play the leads, and have a love affair? I can't think of another one. Wong and Hayakawa both look great, even if the latter struggles with his English, and as usual the scriptwriters make a jumble of Chinese, Japanese and even Korean names and culture. Despite Oland's relatively brief participation, I think this ended up being my favorite of the three films in the series.   7/10

 

Source: YouTube.

 

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The Drums of Jeopardy (1931) - Revenge tale from director George B. Seitz and Tiffany Productions. Warner Oland stars as Boris Karlov (!), a Russian scientist who vows revenge against the Petroffs, a family of Russian nobles after one of their number seduces and abandons Karlov's daughter, leading to her suicide. Karlov torments the Petroffs with a necklace called "the Drums of Jeopardy", which features small sculptures of drummers. A drummer is left nearby whenever a Petrov is killed. After the Russian Revolution, Prince Nicholas Petroff heads for NYC, where he meets up with socialite Kitty Conover (June Collyer). But Karlov, teamed with a gang of Bolsheviks, follows him to finalize his revenge. Also featuring Mischa Auer, Clara Blandick, Hale Hamilton, Wallace MacDonald, George Fawcett, Florence Lake, Ernest Hilliard, and Murdock MacQuarrie.

 

This is based on a book that pre-dates the actor Boris Karloff's stage name, but it is still odd hearing it used. Bearing more than a little resemblance to the Paramount Fu Manchu films, this has the same Saturday-morning-serial vibe of elaborate schemes and sped-up fight scenes. While this isn't likely to make anyone's favorites list, it's passable entertainment.   6/10

 

Source: YouTube.

 

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The Finger Points (1931) - Hybrid newspaper/gangster picture from First National and director John Francis Dillon. Richard Barthelmess stars as Breck Lee, a reporter fresh in the big city from his home town of Savannah, Georgia. He gets a job at the most prestigious newspaper in town, but when he writes his first story, exposing a mob-run casino, he ends up beaten and in the hospital. When the newspaper won't pony up any dough to help with the bills, Lee decides to go on the mobsters' payroll, much to the disappointment of Lee's girlfriend, fellow reporter Marcia (Fay Wray). Also featuring Clark Gable, Regis Toomey, Robert Elliott, Oscar Apfel, Robert Gleckler, and Mickey Bennett.

 

Barthelmess and Wray have been decent actors and pretty faces in plenty of films, but they don't show much talent here at all, and are often downright embarrassing to watch and listen to. Toomey, looking like a kid (but already in his 30's) is unbelievably child-like as a fellow reporter with a crush on Marcia. The most notable cast member is Gable, in one of 12 films he appeared in during 1931, here playing a mob enforcer. He's not bad, and the film perks up when he's onscreen, but that isn't often enough.   6/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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Gentleman's Fate (1931) - Solid gangster drama from MGM and director Mervyn LeRoy. John Gilbert stars as Jack Thomas, a wealthy, upper-crust bachelor who's deeply in love with socialite Marjorie Channing (Leila Hyams), with the two planning marriage in the near future. Jack gets a big surprise, though, when he's informed that his supposedly-dead father is in fact alive, and is also a notorious gangster. He's been shot and is in critical condition and wishes to see Jack one last time, and to introduce Jack to his older, bootlegger brother Frank (Louis Wolheim). Jack becomes entangled in his newly discovered family's criminal enterprises, and he may not be able to escape from it. Also featuring Anita Page, Marie Prevost, John Miljan, George Cooper, Ferike Boros, Ralph Ince, Frank Reicher, Tenen Holtz, and Paul Porcasi.

 

Gilbert is very good here, ably portraying the conflicting emotions Jack has to deal with. Wolheim is also good in a morally dubious role. Although there are perhaps less scenes of gun-firing mayhem than in many contemporary gangster films, the scenes that are presented pack a wallop.   7/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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Graft (1931) - Minor crime flick from Universal and director Christy Cabanne. Regis Toomey stars as newspaper reporter Dustin Hotchkiss (I think he says his name about 30 times during the movie), a poor sap who never gets a story printed. He confronts the editor and demands a better story assignment, so the editor sends him to interview gang boss M.H. Thomas (William B. Davidson), and to inquire about graft and corruption in the upcoming mayoral race. Hotchkiss blunders into a plot to frame innocent girl Constance (Sue Carol) for a murder that will push Thomas's mayoral candidate into office. Hotchkiss sets out to prove the girl innocent. Also featuring Boris Karloff, Dorothy Revier, George Irving, Harold Goodwin, Richard Tucker, and Willard Robertson.

 

This 54 minute programmer is diverting if instantly forgettable. Toomey plays his character as a good-hearted doofus. I liked Karloff as a killer gangster. Toomey plays one scene while standing on the front bumper of a speeding car.   6/10

 

Source: YouTube.

 

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The Maltese Falcon (1931) - First film version of Dashiell Hammett's private eye novel, from Warner Brothers and director Roy Del Ruth. Ricardo Cortez stars as San Francisco P.I. Sam Spade, a slick talking ladies man who's more than a shade unscrupulous. When his partner gets killed, Sam knows it has something to do with new client Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), a seemingly vulnerable woman looking for her missing sister. But Sam learns that the truth is far different as he gets entangled in a search for a valuable statue, one which people are willing to kill for. Also featuring Una Merkel, Dudley Digges, Dwight Frye, Otto Matieson, Thelma Todd, Robert Elliott, J. Farrell MacDonald, and Walter Long.

 

While this lacks the cinematic style and the untouchable cast of the more well-known 1941 version, this isn't without its own merits. Cortez brings a different slant to the character of Spade, with his frequent grin and sleazier demeanor. Digges is a good Gutman, and Merkel is always welcome, in my opinion. Top-billed Daniels isn't nearly as effective as Mary Astor in the pivotal role of Wonderly, though. This is worth checking out at least once.   7/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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Murder By the Clock (1931) - Chintzy mystery/horror flick from Paramount Pictures and director Edward Sloman that manages to throw in enough odd characters to make it worthwhile. William "Stage" Boyd stars as police detective Valcour, on the case of a murdered rich old woman. The evidence points to her mentally unbalanced son Philip (Irving Pichel), but Valcour thinks that the woman's heir, nephew Herbert (Walter McGrail), looks the guilty party, especially considering his ultra-conniving wife Laura (Lilyan Tashman). The mystery grows even deeper when an alarm is heard signalling that the old victim was buried alive in her crypt across the street! Also featuring Regis Toomey, Blanche Friderici, Sally O'Neil, Lester Vail, Martha Maddox, and Frank Sheridan.

 

This looks cheap, particularly considering it comes from Paramount during their heyday. But the obvious outdoor sets have a campy, horror-show appeal, with the creepy cemetery across the street from the rich family's mansion. Pichel steals the show as the super-strong Philip. With the mind of a child, he often comments about his desire to kill people, either with knives or his bare hands, and with his messy hair he looks like Paul Muni. Tashman is also a camp treat as a femme fatale who knows no boundaries. Boyd is wooden, and the goofy side-story of beat cop Toomey romancing maid O'Neil does nothing but pad the time. But overall I liked this forgotten little mystery that is often listed as horror in reference books.   7/10

 

Source: YouTube.

 

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Strange...I didn't receive the email notifications for the last few reviews you wrote! Gotta love cyberworld sometimes... ha ha.

 

Anyhow, I enjoyed Murder by the Clock, although now I can't recall the film. 

 

I have tried to watch the 1931 and 1941 versions of The Maltese Falcon a couple of times. I've never been able to finish either film.

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The Phantom of Paris (1931) - Mystery-thriller from MGM and director John S. Robertson, from Gaston Leroux's novel Cheri-Bibi. John Gilbert stars as Cheri-Bibi, a Houdini-like Parisian escape artist and sleight-of-hand expert. When the father of the girl (Leila Hyams) he wants to marry ends up dead, stodgy detective Costaud (Lewis Stone) thinks Bibi is the culprit. To prove himself innocent and escape a date with the guillotine, Bibi must pull off his greatest trick ever. Also featuring Jean Hersholt, Natalie Moorhead, Ian Keith, Alfred Hickman, and C. Aubrey Smith.

 

Gilbert is very enjoyable here, playing his character as a suave entertainer with just a hint of believable menace. The lengths that his character resorts to are close to, if not over, the line of absurdity, but that's what makes this tale all the more memorable. My one real complaint would be with the ending, which seems to wrap things up too quickly. All told, though, this was an enjoyable romp.  7/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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The Speckled Band (1931) - Early British Sherlock Holmes movie, from director Jack Raymond. When a woman is mysteriously killed in a large mansion, attending physician Dr. Watson (Athole Stewart) offers to contact his friend, detective Sherlock Holmes (Raymond Massey in his debut). Holmes sets out to solve the case, and his investigation leads to revelations about the victim's sister (Angela Baddely) and their stepfather Dr. Rylott (Lyn Harding). Also featuring Nancy Price, Marie Ault, Franklyn Bellamy, Ivan Brandt, Joyce Moore, and Stanley Lathbury.

 

Massey makes for a fine Holmes, although Stewart as Watson is a non-entity. Harding, who gets top-billing, makes the most of his blustery, brutish role. The story was slightly modernized, although it will still be a period piece to new viewers. One oddity is that here, Holmes has a number of secretaries that use an automated filing card system, like an early computer set-up.   6/10

 

Source: YouTube, with many copies available of varying quality.

 

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The Star Witness (1931) - Enjoyable but uneven gangster movie from Warner Brothers and director William Wellman. When the Leeds, an average middle class family, happen to witness a brazen gangland murder committed by Maxey Campo (Ralph Ince), tough-talking D. A. Whitlock (Walter Huston) is determined to get them to testify in court and send Campo to the death house. But Campo's men are just as determined to intimidate the Leeds into silence. Starring Grant Mitchell and Frances Starr as Pa and Ma Leeds, Sally Blane as daughter Sue, Edward Nugent as eldest son Jackie, George Ernest and Dickie Moore as the two young Leeds boys, and Chic Sale as old grandpa Summerill. Also featuring Nat Pendleton, Russell Hopton, Robert Elliott, Noel Madison, and Tom Dugan.

 

This is an odd mesh of at-times schmaltzy family comedy and violent crime drama. A silly scene with Chic Sale doing his patented old hick routine will run up against a scene of Nat Pendleton brutally and repeatedly bashing a screaming man into a wall. Some of the stuff with the little kids gets to be too sappy, but some sharp dialogue and a quick pace make up for those missteps. This received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Original Story (Lucien Hubbard).    7/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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Arsene Lupin (1932) - MGM and director Jack Conway bring the French gentleman thief to the big screen yet again. Arsene Lupin has been responsible for a series of daring and ingenious thefts around Paris. Detective Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore) is determined to catch him, and when he suspects a local nobleman, the Duke of Charmerace (John Barrymore), of secretly being Lupin, he'll stop at nothing to capture him once and for all. However, Lupin may prove to be too clever for anyone to grab. Also featuring Karen Morley, Jon Miljan, Tully Marshall, Henry Armetta, George Davis, Joe Sawyer, John Davidson, Mary Jane Irving, and Mischa Auer.

 

The character of Arsene Lupin had already been the subject of 9 films by the time this one came around (many more have followed). The conceit of the gentleman thief, supremely clever, sophisticated and charming, is a morally ambiguous one. While one realizes that Hollywood versions such as this or the then-recent Raffles with Ronald Colman would ultimately be good guys at heart, there is still a notable dark streak running through them, such as when Lupin threatens to have Guerchard's young daughter turned out for prostitution unless Lupin is freed. Both Barrymores are good here, and I also liked Morley quite a bit. She and John have some really romantic scenes together, and they are the highlight of the movie.   7/10

 

Source: TCM.

 

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I'm finally finding the time to watch lots of films, and I'm starting with some adaptations of Mignon Eberhart novels.

Some of her stories have Nurse Sarah Keate as the narrator, and she works with detective Lance O'Leary to solve the crimes.

These are great films to watch if you like whodunits in isolated locations (mansion or hotel), and if you like features such as secret passages, hidden rooms, unusual characters, blackmailers, rich family matriarchs/patriarchs with a will, etc.

All of these films are from the thirties. The ones I like are:

The White Cockatoo

While the Patient Slept

Mystery House

Murder by an Aristocrat

The Murder of Dr. Harrigan

Personally, I think that Ms Eberhart is probably the most underrated female mystery author from the Golden Age of mysteries. I'll take her over Dorothy Sayers any day!

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Next couple of days I plan on watching three Philo Vance mysteries which I like:

The Greene Murder Case

The Kennel Murder Case

The Dragon Murder Case

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A few from the 30s and 40s which I've seen recently:

The Case of the Howling Dog: by far my favourite of the 1930s Perry Mason films. I love the storyline!

The Ninth Guest: probably the inspiration for Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. A bunch of guests (all connected to each other) are invited to a penthouse suite, and one by one, they are murdered. Definitely an unusual setting for such a story!

....and three films based on the same source material (there are four in total, with the original being a German film which I haven't seen unfortunately):

Secret of the Blue Room: the best of the three films. Terrifying film about three men (all in love with the same woman) who want to prove how brave they are by sleeping in a room in which three tragedies took place 20 years earlier.

The Missing Guest: the worst of the three films. It would have been much better if they had laid off the lousy humor. However, the main character in this movie is a reporter, and in the 1930s, it seems like any films revolving around reporters had to have that overdone humor/mood. It was just so out of place here.

Murder in the Blue Room: almost as good as Secret of the Blue Room. Despite the fact that this is a musical, it was much spookier than The Missing Guest.

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Before Dawn (1933) - Old dark house mystery from RKO, producer Merian C. Cooper, and director Irving Pichel. Stuart Erwin stars as a goofy police detective investigating a murder at a creepy old house where some bank robbers' loot is believed to be hidden. Among the suspects are pretty self-proclaimed clairvoyant Dorothy Wilson, her shady manager/father Dudley Digges, Viennese doctor Warner Oland, and the victim's roommate Gertrude Hoffman. Also featuring Oscar Apfel, Frank Reicher, and Jane Darwell as the victim.

This has many of the usual elements of the genre: dark corridors, hidden passages, deadly traps, and a masked culprit. The identity of said fiend shouldn't be too difficult to guess, but the short (1 hour) ride is enjoyable regardless.  (7/10)

Source: TCM.

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I love Before Dawn. I've seen it several times. Doesn't matter that the identity of the culprit is obvious as soon as the character is introduced. I see this film as more of a thriller than a whodunit.

This is a film which I'll watch sometime this winter and I'll review it here, for sure. :)

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From Headquarters (1933) - Police procedural from Warner Brothers and director William Dieterle. George Brent is the chief police detective on the case of a murdered playboy staged to look like an accident. He and his colleagues use old fashioned interrogations and cutting edge (for the time) forensics to find the culprit. Also featuring Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Pallette, Henry O'Neill, Hugh Herbert, Robert Barrat, Dorothy Burgess, Theodore Newton, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ken Murray, Murray Kinnell, Edward Ellis, and Kenneth Thomson.

Brent is pretty good here as a stoic good cop opposite the blowhard Pallette. Ellis nearly steals the movie as the chief police forensic scientist who's thrilled to have a murder to solve. He uses fingerprints, ballistics, and chemical hair and blood analysis in his investigation. The prime suspect switches quickly during the short 1-hour running time, but the filmmakers leave several heavy-handed clues for the viewer to pick up on. Still, I enjoyed this ahead-of-its-time programmer.  (7/10)

Source: TCM.

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Murder at the Vanities (1934):

I've lost track how many times I've seen this wonderful whodunit-musical.

While a show is going on (on stage), a couple of murders take place behind the scenes.

I admit that the mystery itself is a bit on the weak side, but combined with the excellent musical numbers, the mystery is just right. The mystery keeps the musical from getting too cheesy (as many musicals are, unfortunately).

Be on the lookout for:

-numerous pre-Code elements (example: nearly naked women in a couple of the early performances)

-a musical tribute to mark the end of Prohibition

-Duke Ellington and his orchestra in one of the musical numbers

Very highly recommended.

I've only seen a handful of musical-whodunits. If only more of them had been filmed.

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Ladies They Talk About (1933) - Tough, frequently funny pre-code prison/crime drama from Warner Brothers and directors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley. Barbara Stanwyck stars as Nan Taylor, a "bad girl from way back" who gets sent to San Quentin for being the accessory to a bank robbery. She'd fallen for crusading radio broadcaster David Slade (Preston Foster), but she thinks he was responsible for getting her sent to prison, so she decides to help her former gang buddies in the male prison ward next door try and escape. Also featuring Lyle Talbot, Dorothy Burgess, Lillian Roth, Maude Eburne, Ruth Donnelly, Harold Huber, Robert McWade, DeWitt Jennings, Helen Ware, Robert Warwick, and Madame Sul-Te-Wan. 

Stanwyck has one of her better "tough broad" roles, and even gets to knock another inmate out with a single punch. It was odd seeing Foster in a such a clean-cut, nice-guy role, as I'm used to him playing tough-guy cops and crooks. This proto "WIP" (Women In Prison) flick is worth a look, even for those who normally don't care for the genre.  (7/10)

Source: TCM.

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How can anyone not wish to see a Warner Bros. pre-code with Stanwyck named 'Ladies They Talk About'.   Well worth 69 minutes of one's life.   

 

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Wind River (2017) - Excellent modern western mystery from writer-director Taylor Sheridan. When a Native woman is found murdered on the snowy Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, novice FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) enlists the aid of local Fish & Wildlife agency tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to find her killer. The icy cold terrain and a society ravaged by poverty and drug addiction make their job a difficult one. Also featuring Graham Greene, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Tantoo Cardinal. Eric Lange, Hugh Dillon, James Jordan, and Jon Bernthal.

A tight script, good pacing, and impressive performances make this a highlight of this year's movie offerings. The location cinematography is also noteworthy. This features a stark look at reservation life without getting preachy or accusatory, showing it as it is without trying to assign blame. The mystery elements are well done, and there are a few exciting and suspenseful scenes. Sheridan, who also wrote last year's low-key crime drama stand-out Hell or High Water, firmly establishes himself as a filmmaker to watch. Recommended.   (8/10)

Source: Lionsgate Blu-Ray

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1 hour ago, LawrenceA said:

Wind River (2017) - Excellent modern western mystery from writer-director Taylor Sheridan. When a Native woman is found murdered on the snowy Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, novice FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) enlists the aid of local Fish & Wildlife agency tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to find her killer. The icy cold terrain and a society ravaged by poverty and drug addiction make their job a difficult one. Also featuring Graham Greene, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Tantoo Cardinal. Eric Lange, Hugh Dillon, James Jordan, and Jon Bernthal.

A tight script, good pacing, and impressive performances make this a highlight of this year's movie offerings. The location cinematography is also noteworthy. This features a stark look at reservation life without getting preachy or accusatory, showing it as it is without trying to assign blame. The mystery elements are well done, and there are a few exciting and suspenseful scenes. Sheridan, who also wrote last year's low-key crime drama stand-out Hell or High Water, firmly establishes himself as a filmmaker to watch. Recommended.   (8/10)

Source: Lionsgate Blu-Ray

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I just watched Hell Or High Water a few days ago, it was very good. 

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