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Stephen Bort

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  1. The Miles Davis score in the opening is pensive or even melancholic. It evokes, for me, two lovers sitting and sharing secrets in a small dive of a cafe or bar with the score as background music. The lovers, perhaps, are talking about their future, or their past--or murder. The first visuals are of the two lovers talking over a phone line. The shots are closeup for the most part, invasive to their secrecy. Then the shot pans farther away, to the man standing behind the window of a cold, corporate, concrete-looking construction containing a multitude of various kinds of workers. Finally, the conversation ends, and the man steps forward into their future plans. Film noir, largely, is about a lonely world or a world inhabited by lonely people--perhaps desperate people. The somber jazz of Miles Davis, or other musicians of his style, plays well as a accompanying background to this loneliness or desperateness. People listen to music for many reasons. The score for the opening of "Elevator To The Gallows," and reflective, thoughtful jazz in general, serves to fill in the overall mood of these two young lovers and their mysterious plan.
  2. I would describe the noir elements and substance as mostly realism--daylight and minimal shadows, although there are formalist touches--such as the odd camera angle through the clapping symbols and the final shot of Robert Ryan's face layered with the rushing train wheels and hydraulics along with a frontal shot of the train rushing forward, all as if culminating in Ryan's brain. There is also the horror-closeup of Mrs. Warren's dead face. There are the elements of closeups of Ryan's face when he discovers Warren's body and of Mrs. Warren's face. There are the aforementioned odd camera angles. There is the oddness of a marching band and parade along with a woman painting her fence all during December of 1918. We would expect those events in July, but here they are in the dead of winter. Finally, there are the criss-crossing rail tracks and the opression of industry with the expansive railyards. All of the above are expository elements that give the impression that Ryan is working an odd job for quick money; he discovers a dead body; and, he runs fast for the nearest train to hop, obviously not wanting to get caught anywhere near a murder. He has a past. We learn from the opening Salvation Army scene that it is Christmas time, yet, oddly, a band is playing and a lady is painting her fence. These seem to be activities from the summer, yet they are in the dead of winter. This tells us that the location must be in the south somewhere, where there is minimal or no snow and a warmer climate. Either that, or "Indian summer." Again, expository material. This is a typical noirish theme that could have been in the forties or fifties because there is an oddness about, a mysterious murder and a mysterious man with a past. There are expansive scenes of industry that press in on the man as if his brain is rattling.
  3. The film opens with a train moving towards us and the camera moving away, in the opposite direction. The background is industrial with the railyards, the steaming train and the cab on the street. Industry is almost oppressive in noir. We're at it's mercy, for example, at the mercy of the trains' schedules and the ability of the cabbie to get to a destination fast--trains, cars and traffic. The same feel is evident in "La Bete Humaine." These elements could be a burlesquing of previous noir elements. The dialogue between the two men in the cab is brisk and to the point. Sentences are short with edges of humor--the hard-boiled dialogue type. To me, there seems to be more noir elements than variations of the elements, but it may be that I'm just not seeing them. There's the familiar detective in a trenchcoat and fedora; there's nighttime; there's lots of shadows; there's would I would term the oppression of industry; and, there's dialogue of the hard-boiled type.
  4. People, for the most part, are oriented toward the clock. They arrive on time and depart on time. In the opening of "Kansas City Confidential," the unidentified man watches from his window as people queue up in line before the bank opens at 10am. He watches the florist arrive and depart, using a stopwatch to time the event. He notes in his book the arrivals and departures, including that of the armored car with fresh money. We assume from these elements of time and timing that the man is casing the bank and planning to rob it. The film opens with a more realist tone and less of a formalist one. The scene is in daylight as opposed to night. The streets are clean. People are well-lighted and come and go ordinarily in their ordinary world. The unidentified man makes notes with a pencil and map. Cars come and go like the people. I'm always struck by the use of technology and industry in film noir. In "Le Bete Humaine," the scene opens with the industry of railroad transportation--a train steaming toward its destination. In "Kansas City Confidential," the film opens with delivery trucks, cars of all kinds, money-exchanging, a stopwatch and the ritual of a bank opening its doors for the morning customers--all elements of industry and technology. A heist is an action of who we believe to be an "underworld" character. "Underworld" involves elements of hiding uncer the cover of a secret window, nighttime and shadows. A heist is, as we have come to accept, committed by a "criminal"--one who doesn't follow the rules of ordinary life. Even though this film begins in a realist way, without nighttime or shadows, the unidentified man, we assume, is a criminal, and we can expect his actions to lead us deeper into his underworld.
  5. In "Strangers On A Train," the characters are walking purposefully toward their train connections. Shoes are emphasized as shoes are made for walking. The characters mostly walk together, but the paths of the two men criss-cross so that there is a point of their actually meeting. Fate or coincidence? In "Kiss Me Deadly," the one character is running down the highway as opposed to walking. The other character is stationary in a car, but the car is speeding down the road. Their paths cross at the point when the woman steps in front of the car. In "The Hitch-hiker," The one character is stationary, thumbing a ride from the side of the highway. The other two men are stationary in a car that is moving down the highway. The car stops at the side of the road, and the hitch-hiker climbs in. At that point, the men's paths criss cross, and the story begins. The most prominent noir element in this opening is the odd camera angle. The camera is pointing down at people's feets and luggage as opposed to being pointed at their heads. We judge the characters not by their looks, but by their sense of fashion and manners. The one man has fanciful taste with his wing tip shoes and nice pants and personalized tie. The other man dresses ordinarily with standard-looking shoes and non-flashy suit. The one man is eager to strike up a conversation where the other man tends to want to stay quietly to himself. The train station is huge with massive arched doorways, perhaps with a nod to German expressionism. The POV of the train tracks show that we are on the move, crossing over to a second track, possibly with a nod to "La Bete Humaine." Hitchcock is known as "the master of suspense." His films demand a study all to their own. His camera angles and dream sequences and character portraits would be called "Hitchcockian" before being called noirish. I would say his contribution to film noir is, in fact, a special case. Hitchcock himself is a special case. I would say that he uses the film noir vehicle but creates his own style that is at once noirish but transcends to become Hitchcockian--a true master.
  6. One parallel between the three films is that a character in each of the films is suddenly presented with another character with a questionable past. In "Kiss Me, Deadly," the driver of the car picks up a hitchhiker who escaped from a mental institution. Her past and future is mysterious and immediately catches the audience. In "The Hitch-hiker," the two men in the car pick up a hitch-hiker who turns out to have a gun and a plan that may spell death for the two men. Again, the audience is hooked on wanting to know the hitch-hiker's past and future, as well as the future of the two men in the car. In "Caged," a women's prison receives a woman, obviously charged with a crime, whose past and future are enticing to the audience. Finally, in "D.O.A.," a man walks into the homicide department (after a long walk, compared to the running down the highway of Cloris Leachman, the journey down the road of the hitch-hiker and the journey down the city streets and into the women's prison of the woman in "Caged") and declares that he was murdered the day before. He, again, taps into our need for information on his character's past and future. Simply, the four films begin "in media res." The man walks down darkened hallways seemingly extending forever. It is if he is in hell and cannot find the door to exit. He is alone. No one else walks these same hallways, as he does with quick, firm steps. It is as if he has made a firm choice to walk these halls. Finally, he finds a door marked "Homicide." He enters and encounters police detectives. He claims that he was murdered the day before, indicating that he has a past with no future. He seems almost flippant about the declaration, existential in his acceptance of his choice to go to the police. As John Garfield states in "Body and Soul: "So what are you going to do kill me? Everybody dies." The man does not seem emotional or panicked about being dead. He simply chooses to state the fact to the police. In the opening of "D.O.A.," Frank pessimistically seems to have reconciled himself to the fact that he has been murdered. He hasn't come there to dispute that fact, but to tell his story to the police. There is, in his demeanor, hopelessness in his future. The style of the opening, with long hallways, many doors and dark lighting, evokes death and maybe even the hereafter.
  7. The film appropriately introduces us to the main character by beginning when the police van is still in the outside world. The van passes through the gate. We hear the gate open. The van moves into the prison world and the gate closes. A sign on the wall informs us that it is a women's prison. The main character is caged first in the van and secondly within the walls of the prison. We as the audience are transported along with her, into the series of cages. The lighting emphasizes first the small, barred hole of a window in the van--the main character's limited view, and then the view of the outside window through the expanded front gate of the prison yard. The outside world disappears and the character is alone in a new world populated by prisoners. We have the feeling, from the main character's expression when the van's door opens, that she is innocent and aware of a bleak future. I've watched all of the TCM Friday films so far, so I've seen many of the Warner Brothers films, among them Bogart's films, notably "Dark Passage," and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. I am not able to define a "house style" yet for Warner Brothers, but I suppose that they have a larger budget than most others since they are in the top tier of film producers at that time. The notes from Richard Edwards speak of "social realism" and the "urban-oriented house style" of Warner Brothers. "Dark Passage" begins with a prisoner thrown out into the free world. "Caged" begins with a prisoner thrown into the caged world of a prison. Prisons are a real part of our urban culture and landscape. Life behind bars imposes a world of aloneness within a world of prisoners. The prisoner is isolated with their own story of guilt or innocence. It is an existential world. It is a world in which Camus' Sysyphus is fated to roll the rock uphill only to have the rock roll down again--with no way out. I suppose, from the beginning of this film, that the woman's innocence ultimately will be revealed and her injustice exposed.
  8. The themes of helplessness and fear of impending death are introduced. The two men are at the mercy of Emmet Myers. Since he gives his name, expecting recognition, we are to believe the man is an escapee with a reputation. The idea of fate is hinted at. What are the fates of the three men, now that the hitch-hiker has entered the car. The lighting exposes only the two men's faces in the beginning, but soon identifies the face of the third man. The lighting continues to focus on the three men's faces as if they're faces alone in the world. The lighting emphasizes the film noir theme of aloneness in the world. The world outside the faces is non-existent in the shadows, and we are also alone with them. The trunk light offers a glimmer of hope in the form of a rifle, but the hitch-hiker spots it and warns not to reach for it. It's not looking good for the two men. In the first film, the outside world is populated by other drivers on the road and police at the roadblock. In this film, the outside world is non-existent and as black as night. In the first film, the hitch-hiker seems to have no plan other than catching a ride away from the side of the road. In this film, the hitch-hiker seems to be sharply developing a plan on the fly after catching the ride. Both films suggest the theme of fate. How will the characters' lives change now that the hitch-hikers are in the cars.
  9. The film opens with a rather obvious hint at a theme or idea of "the erotic and the neurotic." The soundtrack is filled with what could easily pass as the sounds of a female in the throes of sex, but as we learn later, she is an escapee from a mental institution. We learn that she is naked under her trenchcoat (the coat a symbol, perhaps, of a spy, a detective or a killer). On their surface, the sounds are from a woman running frantically and breathlessly down a highway at night. The credits run backwards, throwing the audience off from their familiar moviegoing experience and predicting themes and ideas regarding the unreeling of the past--the woman's past. We wonder who she is, what she is running from and why she is naked beneath the trenchcoat. We want to see the mysterious woman's past. From the opening, we learn, as noted above, that the woman is an escapee from a mental institution and that she is naked under a trenchcoat. She is frightened and disoriented but industrious enough to extemporaneously play-act as Hammer's wife in order to pass through the police barricade. Hammer most likely would not have stopped for her except that she placed herself directly in front of his moving car, perhaps as much a death wish for her as a wish for a ride. Hammer is forced to stop and is visibly perturbed because of it. Huffily, he offers the woman a ride. Hammer is cold-tempered and angry but takes the hint when the woman pretends to be his wife at the police stop. He enters her story as much or more than she has entered his. He comfortably deceives the police, lying to them that the woman is his wife and was merely sleeping in his arms. The film adds to the film noir style with its backward credits, its use of the soundtrack to evoke a strong undercurrent of "the erotic and the neurotic" and its Shakespearean beginning at the middle of the story which immediately supposes both a past and a future.
  10. Welles entrance into the scene is beautifully accidental. The cat squeals, alerting Cotton. The lady in the window shines light on Welles' face. He smiles wryly. The light goes out, and he escapes, becoming a running shadow against the buildings, lighted by streetlamps. He is gone as quickly as he appeared. The scene builds tension from Welles' smile and Cotton's recognition of the face. "Harry!" Cotton says. The audience naturally wonders who are these men? Why is Welles being pursued? Why is Cotton the pursuer? What is their past that allows Cotton to recognize Welles as "Harry." The zither music also ratchets up the tension, making the scene as odd as the camera angles and the running shadow on the walls. These are formalistic elements whereas realism comes from the cobbled streets, the ornate, arched doorways, the woman speaking in a foreign language and the tiny cat. The scene adds to the noir style with the presence of the zither music, which must be unique to this film. Also, the scene takes place at night, is minimally lighted by streetlamps and uses shadows to great effect with Welles' running shadow.
  11. Garfield enters by vehicle after hitchhiking a ride to a roadhouse. He saunters from the car to the building, and learns on the way, from a highway patrolman, that the man who gave him a ride was the local DA. As Garfield continues to walk calmly to the building, the owner comes running excitedly out of the door. He seems intent about talking Garfield into the position of mechanic for the roadhouse. After they both enter the building, the owner runs out to attend to a customer. A lipstick container falls and rolls toward Garfield. He looks over at two gorgeous legs and then follows the view up to a very seductive-looking Lana Turner. She enters the light from a back room, suggesting that she's the owners wife. The lighting, from the sun, is in the foreground. When the action moves to the inside of the roadhouse, shadows are cast in criss-cross fashion across the walls and floor from the window light. The camera angle, at one point, is low and follows Lana Turner's legs up her body to her face. The camera features a closeup of Garfield as he takes in the sight. Moments later, there is a closeup of Turner as she realizes that Garfield is not going to walk toward her but instead expects her to walk to him. She does, then turns and walks away from the camera, offering a seductive view of her rear end, as Garfield must be enjoying. I'm not familiar enough with other MGM movies of this period to comment on this third observation.
  12. Lorre enters by normal means, through a series of two doorways, ultimately unlocking a door and entering uncautiously. Greenstreet enters surreptitiously from hiding, pointing a gun at a surprised Lorre. At first, Lorre is bewildered and taken aback but gradually relaxes as if he knows that Greenstreet has no intention of pulling the trigger. Greenstreet continues to hold the gun as if there's still a glimmer of intent to use the gun if needed. This raises tension in the scene. The scenes are lighted in the background which creates shadows in the foreground. The camera angles are low, looking up at the characters, at one point following Greenstreet up his body and to his face as if the viewer is made to lay on the floor and then rise before Greenstreet's face. The dialogue is snappy and witty, even humorous at times. I've not seen "Nobody Lives Forever" yet, and I'd have to watch "The Maltese Falcon" again to compare and contrast with "The Mask of Dimitrios."
  13. The beginning is shot in the hot sun, in somewhat of a documentary style except with the internal monologue of the main character as opposed to a separate narrator. The scene moves in and out of the coolness of the shadows with Jane Greer ultimately moving out of the sun and into the shadowy cantina. Somewhat mysteriously, Greer is handed a drink, but she leaves before drinking it. We learn that Mitchum has been offered $40,000 to find Greer. He has frequented the cantina each day until she finally walked in. Greer informs Mitchum of another cantina where she sometimes frequents, and apparantly she would be more comfortable talking to Mitchum there. She mentions 58th street, implying that she's familiar with New York City, perhaps her past, and also that Mitchum would be familiar with 58th street, perhaps his past. With the scene of Greer walking over the threshold from the sun and into the shadows, the film literalizes the films noir element of action taking place among the shadows. There is mystery as to why Greer is hiding out and why Mitchum has been called upon to stalk her, as well as to why Greer, apparantly, is willing to meet and talk with Mitchum instead of running from him.
  14. The beginning is shot in the hot sun, in somewhat of a documentary style except with the internal monologue of the main character as opposed to a separate narrator. The scene moves in and out of the coolness of the shadows with Jane Greer ultimately moving out of the sun and into the shadowy cantina. Somewhat mysteriously, Greer is handed a drink, but she leaves before drinking it. We learn that Mitchum has been offered $40,000 to find Greer. He has frequented the cantina each day until she finally walked in. Greer informs Mitchum of another cantina where she sometimes frequents, and apparantly she would be more comfortable talking to Mitchum there. She mentions 58th street, implying that she's familiar with New York City, perhaps her past, and also that Mitchum would be familiar with 58th street, perhaps his past. With the scene of Greer walking over the threshold from the sun and into the shadows, the film literalizes the films noir element of action taking place among the shadows. There is mystery as to why Greer is hiding out and why Mitchum has been called upon to stalk her, as well as to why Greer, apparantly, is willing to meet and talk with Mitchum instead of running from him.
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