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Larry Henry

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Everything posted by Larry Henry

  1. As has been discussed in this course, many films noir are set in Los Angeles and New York City, arguably the crime capitals of the world, hotbeds of corruption, misfortune, and scandal. But other settings come with their own dark allure. Like other mobbed-up Midwestern cities (Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland), just the mere mention of the city's name -- "Kansas City" -- can convey criminality. Mafia families for decades ruled Kansas City, snagging headlines with extortions, assassinations, and bombings. As depicted in the movie "Casino," those families also directed the illegal skim at s
  2. Hemingway. A.J. Liebling. Joyce Carol Oates. They and many other journalists and authors have made effective use of boxing as a framework for stories. The fight inside the ring (with its cheaters and brawlers and unfair judges) serves as a story-within-a-story to help readers understand the larger drama at play. The same framework is effective for filmmakers, as is clear in this clip from "99 River Street." The "pug" in the movie who lost in the ring is also losing in life, but is he down for the count? I can't wait to see.
  3. A district attorney who's up for re-election shares an early morning drink in his office with a professional gambler who wants a favor in getting a woman out of a legal jam and then openly flirts with the D.A.'s wife? I'm in.
  4. A bag of money falls from one car into another, or is tossed. A contrivance? Yes, but it's a mild annoyance, not a roadblock, because when you see a car headed your way moments later, its headlights blinking, your pulse quickens, and you know a great ride has just begun -- with the woman behind the wheel taking charge, skillfully eluding danger. Without question, more twists and frightening turns are yet to come.
  5. Some of the narrative and visual devices that movie directors once used to set the scene and to place characters on a collision course aren't that familiar with today's viewers -- passenger trains, hitchhiking, phone booths. Many younger viewers have never been on a passenger train, picked up a hitchhiker or used a phone booth. Yet those devices aren't problematic even today if the thematic thread works, as it does in "Strangers on a Train." A parallel example from literature might be Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." Have most readers who encounter the novel been to a bullfight? Maybe
  6. You want to get my attention? Show a solitary figure walking down a dark hallway at the police station to the Homicide Division. Even the word "homicide" on the door at Room 44 is unnerving. If that weren't enough, the man who made the long walk is rumpled and says he was murdered the night before in San Francisco. I'm along for the ride on this one. With an opening like that, how could I not be?
  7. If I'm not hooked by the first sentence or two of a book or the opening sequence of a movie, I'm not going to stay with it. All the opening scenes in this week's Daily Doses so far -- the out-of-breath hitchhiker fleeing an asylum, the hitchhiker with a pistol, the women inmates -- grab you by the jugular and don't let go. With openings like those, I'll watch all three of these movies through until the end.
  8. Hitchhiking has always been a useful story-telling device in that it is an effective way to create an immediate atmosphere of fear and foreboding. In movies and books it seems that nothing good ever comes from picking up a hitchhiker. Every time a thumb goes up and a car pulls over, you know trouble is going to start - and that's why you keep watching.
  9. Novelist Elmore Leonard's advice to writers to leave out the boring parts that readers tend to skip is good advice for filmmakers, too. That is evident in the opening to "Kiss Me Deadly." There is nothing at all boring about an opening scene that shows an out-of-breath woman sprinting down a highway in an escape from an asylum wearing nothing but a trench coat -- and wanting to be dropped off at the first bus station in Los Angeles. Something tells me they won't get there. I'll keep watching to find out what happens next, though. I'm intrigued, and definitely not bored.
  10. In addition to the noir elements in this clip (urban landscape at night, characters in shadow, diagonal framing), the revelations that gradually unfold also make the scene work -- the character at first unseen in the doorway, the passageway in the town square probably used as an escape route. This is a true cat-and-mouse game (pun intended). Don't you want to follow them on the chase? I do.
  11. Sometimes in 1940s Hollywood movies the action can seem painfully contrived. That is true in this scene. For instance, it is a bit too convenient that a motorcycle cop rolls up on the district attorney right as Frank is standing there watching -- and then the cop admits to some hitchhiker with a suitcase that he let the D.A. go because of who he is. Would that really happen? It's doubtful. Still, the compelling elements in the scene, capped by the entrance of Cora Smith, overcome these credibility issues and keep viewers hooked.
  12. The theory advanced by Anton Chekhov that if a gun is introduced early in a drama it ultimately must go off seems somewhat turned on its head in this scene. Given that the assailant lazily hold the gun while seated and the victim casually lights a cigarette and leans back in a relaxed posture apparently on the edge of a bed, the gun's presence is less than ominous. Yet a threat exists, made clear by the foreboding tight shot of the assailant's face, the accusatory statements, the existence of a "hidden" document. All these things, including the gun, point to one thing: Something bad is
  13. When two characters who seem out of place in an interesting setting cross paths -- with one literally walking out of the light and into darkness -- the intrigue rises to a heightened level. It is obvious that there is more to come from these two (romance? misdeed? betrayal?) than just witty dialogue and cheap earrings. For viewers, following them down their now-shared path is an irresistible journey.
  14. In novels and in movies, the most effective way to reveal character is through good dialogue like that in the opening scene of "The Big Sleep." In the span of only a few minutes, viewers learn a lot about Marlowe and the other characters by how they speak to each other and interact. Many fans of crime fiction count writers who are excellent with dialogue - George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Richard Lange - among their favorite novelists. Good dialogue always makes a story memorable.
  15. When you watch the early noir movies and compare them to the neo-noir films that came later you get a sense of how the advent of realism in movies, like the journalistic approach in the opening of "Border Incident," helped usher in a style of movie-making in general that seems less contrived, more urgent.
  16. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize winner, said that everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life. Hemingway, who came before Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a master at exploring secret lives. This movie clip from "The Killers" has inherent drama in the killers' hunt for the Swede, but it is the Swede's secret life -- that he did something wrong, once -- that gives the scene a dark nuance, making it irresistible.
  17. Elmore Leonard, a later crime writer than those who influenced the early noir filmmakers, admonished fiction writers to leave out the boring parts, the parts that readers skip over. One of the powerful effects of film noir is that the interaction between characters often cuts to the heart of human conduct, leaving out the boring parts. This scene from "Gilda" exemplifies that. The Hayworth character's performance on stage is interesting and intriguing as a stand-alone moment, but it's what happens after the song that makes viewers keep watching -- the violent interaction leading to a p
  18. In some movies from that era the dialogue can be stilted, melodramatic, divorced from reality. The interaction between the characters can be wooden and space-limited. Some of those movies are really nothing more than a tightly controlled Broadway play shot on a movie set. In the scene from "Mildred Pierce," though, the dialogue is pointed, ominous, confrontational. The harsh things the mother and daughter say to each other -- and even their facial expressions and jousting movements -- make it clear that there is more tension to come, more warring.
  19. An opening scene that shows a man seated in a bedroom, wearing a suit and watching a clock, is gripping in itself, but all the other revelations packed into those first 3 1/2 minutes -- the knowledge that the character watching the clock has been in trouble with the law and is at an asylum -- compels the viewer to keep watching. As a viewer, you want to follow that man down the street to see what happens next.
  20. Any character who isn't a one-dimensional stereotype is always more interesting. Both of the characters in this clip from "Murder, My Sweet" defy expectations, making viewers wonder how their interaction will play out over the course of the movie. If this clip is any indication, we can expect more deceit, more tension, more intrigue.
  21. For people like me it's always better (in movies and books) when the director or author shows rather than tells. That's why I've never been a huge fan of having to follow what a narrator says. I'd rather just see the characters interact. And I'm definitely not a fan of gimmicks, like the narrator at the beginning of "Laura," Waldo Lydecker, suddenly interacting in real time with the detective. I noticed that the music stopped when the narration ended, a not-too-subtle signal that we now were in the present. It made you wonder whether there would be a Mel Brooks-eque orchestra in the bathr
  22. The dialogue was a bit stilted, but it's hard to beat an opening in which a driver picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be an escaped convicted killer who assaults him. Now I want to know what happens to these characters. And isn't that what an effective opening is supposed to do -- make you want to keep watching?
  23. Nothing shatters a quiet night like a gunshot -- and a killing that literally plunges the scene into shadowy darkness. The introspective look on the shooter's face speaks volumes about what is to come. This is an opening that makes the movie impossible to turn away from.
  24. Everything about the opening of "La Bete Humane" has you on edge: the high rate of speed at which the train is traveling, the screeching sounds, the gritty, untalkative engineers, the way the train plunges in and out of darkness. You literally feel like a collision is coming or that the train is going to derail -- a true foreshadowing of things to come.
  25. The shock of children singing a horrible song like that, while defying an adult, is an attention-getter by any measurement. The ticking clock, the continued singing -- those elements and more heighten the tension. And then the school girl bouncing the ball off the poster about a murderer is confronted by a shadowy figure in silhouette -- presumably the child killer himself. After that opening, it is impossible not to keep watching.
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