Category: Film noir

The Batman (2022)

The Batman (2022)

Robert Pattinson presents a noirish Bat in Matt Reeves’ dark, moody vision

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Robert Pattinson (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Zoë Kravitz (Selina Kyle/Catwoman), Paul Dano (The Riddler), Jeffrey Wright (Lt James Gordon), John Turturro (Carmine Falcone), Peter Sarsgaard (DA Gil Colson), Andy Serkis (Alfred Pennyworth), Colin Farrell (Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin), Jayme Lawson Bella Réal) Rupert Penry-Jones (Mayor Don Mitchell Jnr), Barry Keoghan (Arkham Prisoner)

The rain pounds down on Gotham. In the shadows a masked man strikes terror into the hearts of wrong-doers. It could only be the start of a new Batman trilogy. At least that’s the intention, as DC Comics mines its strongest asset, in a dark, noirish version that positions Batman as a gumshoe pulp detective with fisticuffs. If Reeves film at times has more ambition than it knows what to do with, at least it is ambitious.

For two years Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) has been crusading on the streets of Gotham as Batman, trying to fix the city’s problems one criminal at a time. He’s formed an uneasy alliance with police Lt James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and is just about tolerated by the official force. That starts to change when unhinged serial killer The Riddler (Paul Dano) begins a campaign of terror targeting Gotham’s elites, who he accuses of corruption. How far will the Riddler go? How do crime boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and mysterious cat burglar Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) fit in?

Reeves’ film is a grimy film-noir Batman. Pretty much the entire film is set at night-time, in seedy bars and filthy streets with barely a frame unaccompanied by the pounding of rain on the soundtrack. Atmospherically shot by Grieg Fraser, the film has a rain-sodden canvas with deep blacks and splashes of red. It’s sound design – and Michael Giacchino’s music – uses deep bases and reverbative sounds that give the film an intimidating rumble.

Reeves’ takes Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac as key inspirations, mixed with the shadowy darkness of Pakula and other 1970s filmmakers. Gotham is the hellish noir of Seven, where light is a stranger. The Riddler is radically re-interpreted as an ingenious psychopath, covering his crimes with cryptic clues, cultivating an online audience with videos where he conceals his face behind a sort of gimp mask and prominent spectacles – in methods and style he’s very similar to the Zodiac killer.

Batman is a tech-assisted private eye, working alongside the official forces, doing things they can’t do. Few other Batman films have zeroed in on the detective element of the character as much, but it’s possibly his main skill here: searching for clues, deftly cracking the Riddler’s cryptic clues, chasing down leads, utilising top-of-the-line surveillance equipment (a set of contact lenses that records everything he sees) and making connections from crime to crime. He’s a sort of miserable Sam Spade who punches lots of people.

Setting the film very early in Batman’s crusade allows for a rough and raw quality to Batman’s gear and approach, helped by Pattinson’s age. The suit has a homespun practicality to it, a hulking suit of armour that bullets bounce of, with various useful attachments. The batmobile is essentially a normal car with a massively souped-up engine. Batman often travels on a normal but powerful motorbike, and stakes out witnesses with his armour disguised under a hoodie. At times Bruce misjudges things: a fall from a building that almost goes horribly wrong, the odd fight where he bites of more than he can chew.

With an eemo look inspired by Kurt Cobain, Bruce Wayne is a surly recluse with serious emotional difficulties. He has a tense relationship with surrogate father Alfred (an effective Andy Serkis), who disapproves of how Bruce spends his evenings. The Batman has far less Bruce Wayne in it than almost any other Batman movie. This Bruce only feels comfortable behind the mask and has worked hard to crush all fear and emotion to find security in anonymity. He has cut himself off not only from the city, but from humanity, idealising his lost parents – and is a stern, humourless judge who describes his mission as one of vengeance.

There is a lot of vengeance needed in Reeve’s corrupt Gotham. The film bites off a huge chunk of content around corruption, class conflict and injustice. The Riddler’s crimes are all connected to corruption, people whose hands are actually filthy with drug money. His fury extends to the Wayne family – Gotham’s venerated philanthropists – and the film is at its best with this character when he functions as a sort of avenging angel of class war.

But it doesn’t quite manage to nail down exploring the morality of a serial killer, eliminating pernicious public figures. There is no discussion of the misguided merit in the twisted motives of the killer. He’s always presented as wicked and insane, with no scope given to understand or acknowledge the legitimate social points he makes. A late act reveal of his deeper plot comes from nowhere and (with its indiscriminate destruction) feels inconsistent with any point the film was trying to make earlier. It seems instead to exist to give us a big action set-piece. The film strains towards a coherent message about institutional, systemic corruption, but doesn’t quite give it the depth and shade it needs.

It’s all part of a film that isn’t quite smart enough, or a script that isn’t deft enough. Take a look at those riddles. Darkly fascinating as they are, their never quite strong or enigmatic enough. The film offers no ‘light-bulb moment’ when a hidden message is suddenly made clear. Batman cracks them all quickly, apart from one. Most audience members will quickly suss out that one and you suspect the only reason Batman doesn’t is that if he did the film would end quickly.

Ending quickly is something The Batman isn’t concerned about. At nearly three hours, it is far too long – particularly as it never quite works out what it is trying to say. There are too many sub-plots: an unrecognisable Colin Farrell is good value as The Penguin, but his entire presence is to set up future movies. The film drags out its ending with a sudden twists, which don’t feel like a wider plan playing out behind the scenes rather than slightly jarring extensions.

The Batman covers a lot, but none of it in enough depth. Very good as Robert Pattinson is, I don’t feel we learn a lot about Wayne. The Batman adds a romance with Selina Kyle (a dynamic Zoë Kravitz) and gives her a sub-plot of her own which largely just crowds the film. None of these plots are complex in themselves, but they all play out at the same time, reducing the focus on each of them. It’s all too much for you get to a handle on what the film is trying to be about.

Essentially, you feel Reeves had hundreds of ideas about what he wanted his Batman film to be – and didn’t have the heart to leave any of them out. But, even when over-ambitious, he’s an impressive and exciting film-maker. The Batman is crammed with great scenes (from action to disturbing splashes of horror). When the sequel comes, a clearer overall theme will help a great deal. But, with this dark but beautifully made film – and an impressive Batman from Robert Pattinson – I’ll be excited to see what Reeves does next.

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

A mysterious drifter gets more than he bargained for in del Toro’ flashy but unsatisfying film

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart struggles with a dark capacity for rage In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Sergeant Brub Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Captain Lochner), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicholai), Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman)

Hollywood: it’s a dark town. When movie makers turn their lens on themselves you’ve just as likely to see the dark underside of showbusiness, as you have a celebration. In a Lonely Place was made in the same year as Sunset Boulevard, and it’s even darker and less hopeful than that movie. It focuses on a person with a certain level of kudos, that has led others to overlook his deep personal flaws. In a Lonely Place reveals itself as a quite ahead of its time in its unflinching look at why people find themselves drawn into potentially abusive, controlling relationships with people who talk endlessly about how much they love you even while they try and control every aspect of your life. Overlooked at the time, it’s seen more and more as a classic.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a successful screenwriter but has gone a few years since his list hit. Hired to adapt a plot-boiler he’s so contemptuous of the synopsis he invites a waitress at his favourite restaurant, Mildred (Martha Atkinson), to his flat one night to describe the story to him. Becoming as bored with her as he is with the cliched plot, he sends her home. When she is murdered later that night, Dixon is number 1 suspect. He’s alibied by his neighbour, aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) and the two start a relationship. But the pressure from the investigation and his writing assignments bring Dixon’s barely controlled rage more and more to the surface – with Laurel slowly fearing that he could be capable of anything if pushed to it.

It would be expected for a movie of this period – say something like Suspicion where of course Cary Grant is just misunderstood not a would-be killer – for all this to simmer and then resolve itself as a terrible series of errors (mostly of course from the woman). In a Lonely Place doesn’t do this. Instead, from the start we are given no reason to doubt Dixon’s capacity for near-murderous rage. Practically the first thing we see him do is assault a producer – albeit avenging an insult to an alcoholic actor friend. His first resort is violence. It’s something he’ll resort to time and time again, his capacity for anger joined with a self-pity that makes preemptive violence more likely.

It bleeds into the relationship with Laurel, which at first is all goodness and light. The two of them are well-suited, and an excellent tonic for each other: she’s a combination of muse and amanuensis, helping Dixon turn out his script; he opens doors in Hollywood she has spent years pushing against. But Dixon’s possessiveness, resentment and suspicion become clearer, accentuated by Laurel’s reserve and caution to emotional commitment. The relationship becomes tortured as Dixon resents any trace of suspicion against him, alternating with desperately possessive pleading for love. Any deviation from his idea of their relationship is seen by him as an act of betrayal.

Then there’s that temper. It’s there all the time, a sadistic streak that suggests a damaging lack of empathy. Dixon – while vaguely sorry for Martha’s death – is also perfectly happy discussing her demise with a clinical academic interest. He’s unphased by crime scene photos. He feels no guilt about not driving her home. Later, at the house of his friend (one of the detectives) he theorises how the crime was committed with an animation that turns into unsettling excitement. After a row with Laurel he drives a car (with both of them in it) with reckless fury and then nearly beats to death someone whose car he clips. Dixon follows these moments with futile half-apologies – anonymous flowers for Martha’s family, anonymous cheques to pay for car damages. But he never addresses his deep psychological problems.

This relationship becomes one ripe with the unspoken capacity for violence. Gloria Grahame is excellent as a careful, guarded woman who opens herself romantically, only to become terrified that the man in her life could just as easily kill her as kiss her. It’s a tension we feel too. Making breakfast, Dixon may talk about how they will be together always– but his vulnerable voice underlines his own doubts, and his furious insistence that they marry ASAP carries the capacity for fury if denied.

As Dixon, Humphrey Bogart gives one of (if not the) greatest performances of his career. Playing a character who, with his dark rages, allegedly had similarities with himself, his Dixon is a bleak figure. Capable of wit and charm, Bogart also makes him a cruel, seedy and sinister in his excitement at murder, while never preventing us finding him vulnerable and weak in his fear at being abandoned. But not sympathetic enough for us to worry he may end things by murdering Laurel. He’s never sympathetic – his late, motiveless, slapping around of his decent agent ends our chance of finding him that for good – but he’s understandable.

And he lives in a dysfunctional town. Where Hollywood intrudes on the action, Ray makes clear it is dark, unsettling, alien and unfriendly town – a truly lonely place. There are no confidantes or friends: only colleagues and potential rivals. You are only as good as your last credit: when your last few credits are poor, you’re no-one. On the other hand, rage and misbehaviour will be tolerated if you can produce the goods. It’s not a place for humanity or goodness.

Ray’s overlooked classic is a beautiful fusion of film noir and Hollywood insider movie. With superb performances from the two leads, it also feels way ahead of its time in looking at abusive relationships. Abusive partners don’t arrive twirling moustaches. They seem decent, loving and passionate – its only when you start to disappoint them they start to turn angry, controlling and abusive. By the time the film’s end come – and it’s a bleak one – you’ll be hard pressed to find some hope in it. But you will certainly find some great film-making.

The Killers (1946)

THe Killers
Ava Gardner draws Burt Lancaster into a world of crime in The Killers

Director: Robert Siodmark

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Pete Lund/”Swede” Anderson), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Rearden), Albert Dekker (“Big Jim” Colfax), Sam Levene (Lt Sam Lubinsky), Vince Barnett (Charleston), Virginia Christine (Lily Harmon Lubinsky), Charles D Brown (Packy Robinson), Jack Lambert (“Dum-Dum” Clarke), Donald MacBride (RS Kenyon), Charles McGraw (Al), William Conrad (Max)

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” is 3,000 words of tension and atmosphere, as a pair of hitmen turn up at a diner looking for a former Swedish boxer. They leave and a fellow diner runs to warn the Swede. He meets the news of his impending demise with a stoic acceptance that nothing can be done. That’s basically it. Siodmark’s film consumes the entire content of the source material in the first fifteen minutes. So the film basically expands and explores this set-up. The gripping opening is just our entrée into the film, that will explain to us why the killers are here, who the Swede was and why he needs to die. It makes for a tight, atmospheric and very well-done film noir.

Because there is no doubt that this is a classic film noir. The Swede’s backstory ticks all the boxes you would expect of the genre. Of course, all his troubles are rooted in a Femme Fatale (needless to say his former girlfriend is a saint). There’s a heist gone wrong, double crossing gangsters, a dedicated investigator and a range of locations from seedy nightclubs to rundown hotel rooms. The Swede (Burt Lancaster) is an easily-led handsome man, duped by a beautiful woman. Of course, it all finally leads to a series of shoot-outs, where the wicked are punished for their crimes. In many ways, the script (by Anthony Veillor, heavily polished by John Huston) simply turns the short-story into a familiar piece of genre work. What makes it work is the freshness with which it’s told.

Siodmark is not the biggest name director out there. But he’s a skilled professional and he elevates the material into something with deeper meaning. Perhaps it’s the Hemingway in its DNA, but this story plays like a Greek Tragedy. Fate intervenes at frequent moments, with chance and minor decisions circling back to reveal all. The Swede is a sympathetic heavy, out-of-his-depth, with the fateful flaw of being too trusting. Even the villains are vulnerable figures, while the femme fatale is only doing what she must to try and survive. It’s a neat structure.

And Siodmark shoots it with a beautiful, unobtrusive and pacey smoothness. Nothing in the film draws overt attention to itself, but every moment beautifully combines with those around it to create an absorbing whole. The pace works perfectly, and the film’s structure works very well. Throwing us essentially into the middle of the story increases the mystery – and also means that as we hear the story of each person who knew The Swede, we are constantly invited to rethink and reappraise events and characters we have already met.

It’s a film about the lasting impact of disappointment and disillusionment. Why doesn’t the Swede run a mile when he hears there are killers after him? Because its clear he died inside years ago – the bullet is just a formality. There is a rather touching romanticism to this. This strangely gentle boxer turned thug, who is so smitten by Kitty Collins that he can’t take his eyes off her during their first meeting. Who willing serves jail time for the stolen necklace she’s wearing. Who trashes his hotel and nearly flings himself out of a window when she leaves him. This is a shell of a man. And its not just him. Most of the crooks live out lives of disappointment and fear, while even our investigator seems to have very little in his life beyond chasing down insurance claims. If there is a message in this film, it’s that life is tough.

A lot of that impact comes from the sad-sack vulnerability in Burt Lancaster’s eyes. In his film debut here, Lancaster is at times a little raw. But what he conveys fantastically is the sense of a little boy lost. The Swede always looks out of his depth, dragged from pillar to post by other people, constantly unable to control the situations he finds himself in.

No wonder he’s so easily suckered by Ava Gardner’s gloriously savvy and fiercely determined Kitty – the character with the most drive and determination in the film. She’s smart enough to fool all the characters at least once – and ruthless enough to not give a damn about any of them. Gardner’s performance is spot-on here, with Kitty emerging as possible the most ruthless femme fatale this side of Double Indemnity – with Lancaster as much her gullible patsy as Fred MacMurray was. Gardner’s icy cool is so well done, that it adds even more weight to her performance of a last act switch to desperation, as events finally spiral out of her control.

Carrying most of the narrative is Edmond O’Brien in the slightly thankless role of the investigator piecing it all together. O’Brien however plays the role with a real savvy and drive, as well as with a growing sense of moral outrage – making his role much more than what it could have been (a feed for other characters). The rest of the cast is also very strong.

The Killers isn’t overtly flashy or eye-catching in the way of other films. But it carries with it a large degree of intrigue and more than a dash of hopeless tragedy. With sharp, efficient direction and some fine performances, it’s possibly one of the finest film noirs ever made.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Marlene Dietrich is on a train full of mystery and danger in Shanghai Express

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Lily/Madeline), Clive Brook (Captain Donald Harvey), Anna May Wong (Hui Fei), Warner Orland (Henry Chang), Lawrence Grant (Reverend Carmichael), Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Eric Baum), Louise Closser Hale (Mrs Haggerty), Emile Chautard (Major Leonard)

The fourth collaboration between von Sternberg and Dietrich, completed when they were in the middle of – was it an affair, an infatuation or something half-way between obsession and resentment? Who knows. Either way, Shanghai Express is one of the their finest collaborations, a triumph of von Sternberg’s mastery of style and Dietrich’s charisma and appeal, brilliantly shot with some iconic images. The biggest hit of 1932, it’s also a loopy part-thriller, part-romance but with a sort of eerie dream-like logic and that mixes peril and jaunt. It’s a fascinating picture.

Its 1931 and China is in the middle of a civil war. Boarding a train bound for – you guessed it – Shanghai, is a veritable smorgasbord of ex-pats and mysterious travellers. First among them – and reviled by all but one of the other passengers – is infamous “coaster” ‘Shanghai Lily’ (Marlene Dietrich), a woman who (as she says) needed to go through more than one man to get that nickname. The only person in first class who can stand her is Chinese “coaster” Hui Fri (Anna May Wong). The man who has the most cause to resent her though is army physician Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). The two of them were deeply in love, but misunderstandings came between them and he’s nursed a grudge ever since. The rest of the train carry their own petty prejudices – but all these are put in perspective when the train is hijacked by rebel leader General Chang (Warner Orland), who holds Donald hostage to get the release of his right-hand man from the Chinese. What will Shanghai Lili aka Madeline do to save the life of the love of her life?

Clocking in at a slim and efficient 82 minutes, Shanghai Express still manages to have a languid, patient pace to it, taking its time to establish places, relationships and stakes. Part of that also comes from the film being set in a sort of imaginarium idea of China, born entirely out of von Sternberg’s brain. With his long-standing disinterest in realism, von Sternberg’s film is a sort of fever-dream image of China. So it’s kind of fitting the film plays out like a dream, right down to its own pace. At times it rushes swiftly on, at others the stakes hardly seem to matter as the characters move freely around while in supposed captivity and barely consider their lives at risk. At the end of the film, the train arrives (despite the violence en route, the fact its late gets the most comment) and the characters simply get on with their lives.

Perhaps its all part of von Sternberg’s deconstruction of these Europeans and Yanks, whose only engagement with this foreign country is that it should be made as much like the West as possible. Most of the characters on board – with the exception of the women – are selfish, pompous, lecherous, prejudiced, greedy or some combination of all of the above. While they wear an air of respectability, it doesn’t take long to shake them from it. And their judgement of others is swift and irreversible. Even Donald, our nominal hero, fits this bill – he frequently rushes to judgement and pig-headedly sticks there, regardless of logic and experience.

In among this, it’s the women who emerge as the only characters who demonstrate pluck, loyalty, empathy and decency. Anna May Wong’s looked-down-on courtesan goes through a torrid time – demeaned on the train then assaulted by the lecherous Chang not once but twice (the second time an off-screen rape that none of the Western characters ever feel the need to comment on). Despite this, she’s one of the few who acts to defend someone other than herself, and her actions are (eventually) what brings liberation for the passengers (again not that they, or anyone else from the West, thanks her for it). It’s a neatly reserved performance from Wong (perhaps the best in the film), her eyes conveying an only thinly concealed contempt for those around her.

The closest thing she has to a confidante is of course Shanghai Lily herself. This is the perfect role for Marlene Dietrich, a woman who is both imperious and fragile, proud but willing to debase herself to save the man she loves, cold and knowing but also strangely naïve and romantic. As with much of her best work, what she does so brilliantly here is to bring together a host of contradictions that really shouldn’t make sense (except perhaps as some sort of sexual fantasy of von Sternberg’s?) and make it the most charismatic and arresting part of the film. Dietrich is not the most accomplished of actors – but she is an accomplished presence and undeniably charismatic.

Lily proves that she may be a hard-nosed player of the game, but that she’s more than capable of loyalty and faith to those she loves. She has no hesitation when asked to put herself in the way of danger for them. It’s a shame Dietrich doesn’t have a more charismatic scene partner than the rather bland Clive Brook (who ends up looking very forced as a romantic lead – you end up wondering what on earth this woman sees in him). But Dietrich’s movie-star magnetism holds much of the plot of the film together and provides much of its emotion.

She’s also of course beautifully filmed by von Sternberg – one late shot (with lighting pointing upwards in almost a spotlight triangle, creating a truly striking and erotic image of her smoking against a train door) has rightly become iconic, but the film is packed with them. Von Sternberg, working closely with photographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning) perfectly uses light and shadow to frame Dietrich with an alluring exoticism that compels the focus.

It’s all part of the film’s beauty and the skills behind its shooting. It starts with a series of flourishing tracking shots through busy train stations (something it returns to later on). Scenes that coat the film in smoke, with just backlighting, while soldiers and passengers move in front like a lantern show are extraordinary. The images make superb use of ultra-dark blacks to introduce frequently gorgeous images. With von Sternberg’s setting that only just touches realism in the faintest way possible, it makes for a wonderfully framed exotic fever dream – just as the film itself oscillates between action and languid romance in its pacing.

Shanghai Express is almost impossible to categorise. A romance with thrills in the middle, an action film where urgency is often off the table, a mystery that travels with an almost pre-ordained certainty towards its goal, it truly has a dream-like logic. And I guess if it’s all von Sternberg’s dream, it makes sense that it’s most striking scenes see Dietrich, perfectly lit, with smoke stroking itself around her. After all her charisma is at the film’s heart.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles changes film history as Citizen Kane

Director: Orson Welles

Cast: Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotton (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Ruth Warwick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Ray Collins (Jim W Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter), Everett Sloane (Mr Bernstein), William Alland (Jerry Thompson), Paul Stewart (Raymond), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Matiste), Harry Shannon (Kane’s father)

Writing about Citizen Kane is rather like writing about the Mona Lisa. Both are works of art so famous and influential that you are intimately familiar with them even if you’ve never seen them. But what makes them such constant delights is that, leaving everything else aside, the Mona Lisa is beautiful to look at – and Citizen Kane is hugely enjoyable to watch. Welles’ masterpiece – frequently hailed as the greatest film ever made – is about as close to perfection as you can get.

Entire books have been written about seemingly every aspect of the film’s creation. Welles’ original intention was to call the film American. It’s a fitting title. Citizen Kane is perhaps the finest film ever made on the corruption that ambition, money and power bring to the American spirit. Kane starts out as a pioneering idealist, but his fatal flaw his is need for power. That need to seize control of everything extends from buying all the art he can find in Europe to controlling the lives of all around him. It’s the mentality that will force his second wife into an opera career she is hopelessly unsuited for. It will eventually leave him sitting alone in his huge mansion, surrounded by wealth but bereft of friends. A large part of the American Dream is about “making it big” – and few make it bigger than Kane, and have so little to show for it at the end.

The film is a character study of ambition and power, using a framing device of the late Kane’s final word: “Rosebud”. What did he mean? Will finding out provide the key to understanding this powerful, elliptical man? A reporter (William Alland) aims to find out by interviewing key people from Kane’s life. From their recollections, the story of Kane’s life slowly comes together in a non-linear style. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as a young child inherits one of the world’s largest gold mines. Coming of age, Kane decides to use his wealth to become a press baron. He builds a news empire and runs for Governor – but the public revelation of his affair with amateur singer Susan (Dorothy Comingore) ruins his campaign. He builds a mansion on a man-made mountain, Xanadu, but is isolated and friendless in the echoing rooms of his own mausoleum.

You can argue the same thing happened to Welles himself. Citizen Kane is his own mausoleum, the only time in his life when everything went right. Also, probably the only time Welles’ attention stuck to something long enough to deliver. Welles memorably called working on a film set “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had”, and the entire film is saturated in his creative glee at trying so many new tricks. Citizen Kane bought to the forefront so many methods of film-making, its influence has been so pervasive on film today, that it’s hard to see how revolutionary it appeared at the time.

Welles worked with cameraman Gregg Toland to push the film into a whole new visual language, deeply influenced by German expressionistic film. It’s a beautiful film to look at, and each shot is covered with meaning, Welles’ eye for the theatrical image matched with Toland’s genius for visual language.

Citizen Kane is rarely thought of as a noir film, but it’s possibly the most noirish film you’ll ever see. Watching it again I was struck with how often shadows dominate the screen. Faces are frequently obscured, most famously in the projection room scene, where Thompson receives his instructions to find out what “Rosebud” means. But at key moments, faces disappear into black – while preparing his “Statement of principles” that will fill the front page of Kane’s first edition at the Inquirer, his face is lost in murky darkness. We hear what he is saying, but what is he thinking at this moment? It’s impossible to tell. Long shadows and inky black segments fill the frame frequently – it’s a film that gives a true feeling of darkness and unknowability at its heart.

This is mixed with the theatrical flourish of its constant deep focus. Almost unheard of at the time, every shot of Kane is in perfect focus. It makes for visual compositions inspired by theatre, and ripe with dramatic meaning. Kane’s parents and his guardian William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) organise the future of the young Kane in the foreground, while we see the child playing outside in the show through a window. The deep focus turns Xanadu into a museum of lost chances and dreams, and the Inquirer newspaper office into an increasingly dark corridor of ambition, with people’s fates decided in foreground while we see them trapped in the background.

If that wasn’t enough, Toland uses angles Hollywood films hadn’t dreamed of. For some scenes, trenches were dug into the set and the camera placed in it, allowing the camera to stare up, with the actors towering over us. Citizen Kane is often claimed to be the first film where ceilings needed to build for the sets, as Toland’s angles and camerawork frequently made them visible. It’s not completely true, but it speaks to the visual impact of the film. Nothing really like this had been widely seen before. And I’ve not even mentioned the soaring, swooping tracking shots that pass through signs and buildings, the sort of inspired movement of the camera so many directors before had avoided in favour of stationary recording of the story. It’s visionary stuff.

The same was true for the film’s sound and music. Welles used his experience from radio to turn the soundscape of the film into something truly different. In radio, all cuts are managed by sound, but film had traditionally used only visuals to mark edits. Here, sound is used as often as visuals. When Kane runs for Governor, the sound and vision cut seamlessly from Leland on the stump for Kane to Kane finishing the same speech at a cavernous rally. Early in the film, the words “Happy Christmas” are skilfully cut together to leap forward years. Bernard Herrmann’s spare but perfect score, rather than laid over every scene, only comes in (as on radio) where emotional or transitional change is needed.

But then this is a film that uses editing as a way to tell story that few films before had tried. The sequence showing the collapse of Kane’s marriage to President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick) is the perfect example. Over about two minutes of screen time we see several short scenes, all set at the breakfast table. Each scene shows a progressive step in their relationship collapsing, from loving exasperation to annoyance to anger to mute loathing. The scenes are no more than 20-30 seconds each, but the film perfectly moves from one to the other. The music slowly changes from a romantic waltz to a cold discordant rhythm. Transitions are marked by wipes. In each scene the actors move further apart at their breakfast table, the dialogue becomes harsher, sharper and more confrontational as the room they sit in becomes grander. In a few moments, an entire marriage story is told. It’s quite simply marvellous. The sequence is bookended by matching camera movements, gliding in and then out from the room.

You could speak for pages and pages (as indeed people have) about what a marvel Kane is. Welles’ vision and willingness to push the boundaries created an environment where all his collaborators worked to achieve their best, set free from the restrictions of more traditional moviemaking to stretch themselves as artists in a way rarely allowed. But it’s easy to forget what a marvellous story Citizen Kane is, what an entertaining and brilliantly constructed film it is and how every scene has something that delights and enthrals.

There’s controversy over who wrote the script. Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz are credited – although arguments have been made that each deserved the lion’s share. Whoever did create it, the script is quite simply superb. Economic, but packed with wonderful lines and some extraordinary speeches (Mr Bernstein’s speech about a powerful memory of a young woman he saw once from a distance is quite simply one of the best small-scale speeches you’ll see). Every scene is brilliantly assembled, and gives fabulous material to an extraordinary cast of actors.

It makes for a compelling character study, wrapped into a series of brilliantly done vignettes. Each set of recollections – from Thatcher, business manager Mr Bernstein (Everett Sloane), old friend Jedidah (Joseph Cotton) and ex-wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) – makes for a fabulous series of self-contained scenes, each gaining richer and deeper meaning with every subsequent reflection that follows. There are so many sensational scenes I hardly know where to begin: you could write an essay about each one. Thatcher’s serio-comic reflections of the roguishly cheeky Kane are wonderful. Bernstein’s memories of the chancer coming good – with a brilliantly playful celebration scene – wonderfully entertaining. Jedidah and Susan’s far more tainted reflections of the man’s flaws make for wonderfully constructed drama, presenting a corrupted and bullying Kane. In every scene there is a beautiful moment of dialogue or drama which sticks in the memory.

The acting is equally good. Cotton settles into the groove many of his finest roles would fit into – the never-quite-grew-up schoolboy, who slowly realises his hero has feet of clay. Comingore is wonderfully fragile and then increasingly bitter as Kane’s ill-used second wife, forced into a humiliating career because Kane won’t be married to a failure. Sloane is charmingly loyal, with beautiful moments of profound sadness, as Bernstein. Coulouris is brilliantly funny as the exasperated Thatcher. Ray Collins’ is smooth and unabashed as Kane’s political rival. Agnes Moorehead is tinged with sadness and ambition for her son as Kane‘s mother.

But at the heart of Citizen Kane – in every sense – is Welles. His handpicked crew was some of the best in the business – but it was Welles’ inspiration, his willingness to imagine techniques and approaches un-attempted before, that encouraged them to their finest work here. With the magnetic force of personality that was his hallmark, he inspired everyone to give their very best. And he led from the front. The film is a triumph of drama, tragedy and comedy, directed with sublime grace. Welles the actor is perfectly cast, the part almost a riff on his own cult of personality, the mix of pride and overweening ambition and little-boy cheek crossed with self-destructive laziness. Welles’ performance is faultless in the film, taking Kane from the smirking chap happy to lose a million dollars a year (“at the rate of a million dollars a year I’ll need to close this place…in 60 years”) to the bloated old man, trashing his wife’s room after she walks out. Perfect.

The only tragic note about Citizen Kane is that this wasn’t the first in a career of non-stop genius from Welles. Instead, flaws in his own personality, combined with his ability to make enemies and lack of ability to focus on the task in hand, increasingly consumed Welles, making him eventually a lost great, a man wandering from film set to film set, taking on small roles for cheques that might one day help him make a film. But he’ll always have Kane, the sort of film that is a marvel which can never, ever disappoint. With every scene a classic, every moment compelling, every beat in it perfectly judged, its influence stretching to almost every film made since the late 1940s – it deserves its place as the greatest film of all time.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

The immortal gang in legendary twist thriller The Usual Suspects

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Stephen Baldwin (Michael McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio del Toro (Fred Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Roger “Verbal” Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Agent Dave Kujan), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Suzy Amis (Edey Finneran), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer), Dan Hedaya (Sergeant Jeff Rabin)

SPOILERS: If you have been living in a cave since 1995, don’t read on as I discuss the twist at great length…

“Convince me”. That’s what Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) says as he begins his interrogation of limping, low-time crook “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). That’s certainly what Kint does – and it’s what the whole film is aiming to do in this, the most famous confidence trick in movies. The Usual Suspects is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon films where everything comes together perfectly. It’s also a sleight-of-hand movie that remains hugely engaging and entertaining even when (as surely most people now do!) you know exactly what the magician has up his sleeve. Its solid gold entertainment factor even survives today, despite the slightly queasy presence of both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer in its credits.

Told in flashback, the film follows the coming together of a bunch of regular criminals, pulled in for a line-up and deciding to team up. Along with Verbal, the others include McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benecio del Toro), Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and ex-cop turned criminal Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). After a successful series of heists, the gang are conscripted by suspicious lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) to take on a dangerous hijacking job for shadowy – possibly legendary – master criminal Keyser Soze, the bogeyman of the criminal classes. We know the job will go wrong – after all Verbal is banged up telling the whole story, the only survivor of the job – but how? And who is the shadowy Soze – or is he even real at all?

The Usual Suspects takes what you know about movies and then works double time to use it against you. With a structure inspired by classic noir crime films from the 1940s – the whole operation has a touch of The Asphalt Jungle while the interrogation has more than a hint of Double Indemnity – mixed in with a lot of Rashomon, it’s a movie that has you primed so much for a reveal and a twist that it skilfully misdirects you into expecting the wrong thing. Because how could you guess that perhaps the whole movie is a spun-out-of-the-moment invention by Verbal, and that possibly almost nothing we see during the course of its run time even happened. 

But how can we guess? From the very first scenes with Kujan and Verbal, Kujan is shot dominating the frame, always taller, always filling the screen. Verbal is sitting, meek, trapped by the frame, the camera frequently looking down at him. Every shot subliminally tells us that he is weak. The story has to be dragged out of him, with the investigation outside of the room forcing Verbal to expand on issues he doesn’t want to touch on. Like Kujan we invest in what we are finding out, because it looks like Verbal doesn’t want to tell it to us. That’s how they get you.

Because Verbal, in his story, is sprinkling in just the twist that Dave (and the audience) is probably expecting – that Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton, the guy who claimed to have gone good, who just wanted out, was bad the whole time and was the criminal mastermind this whole time. Christopher McQuarrie’s ingenious script primes us for this: Dave Kujan is casting doubt on Keaton’s “death” right from the start, and as the audience surrogate figure we want to be as smart as he is. So what does it matter that we ”see” Keaton shot in the opening sequence of the film? Surely that was an illusion, and we’re as clever as Kujan in seeing through it.

The film even gives us a brilliantly assembled “reveal” series of edited flashbacks, in which every small moment and hint that has existed in the film is replayed for us (John Ottman’s editing is flawless here – and he should also have credit for composing the film’s hauntingly classical score) to convince us, beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yup, poor simple Verbal was taken in all the time by dastardly Keaton, the guy who looks like a film star. Only of course it’s bollocks. That charred corpse that Singer jump cuts to at the start of the film as police investigate the boat massacre is indeed Keaton. And the clever twist we thought we were working out, turns out to be a mass distraction laid out for us by Verbal and the film.

So we get a second brilliantly edited reveal sequence as it hits Kujan while he studies that most famous notice board in film, that everything he thought he had worked out had been spun out of hints and clues off the board – from asides and anecdotes to entire locations and characters. And Kevin Spacey limps and then walks away, shrugging off the skin of timid, weak Verbal to transform into the chillingly amoral Soze. It’s a trick that worked especially well when Spacey was an almost unknown actor at the time (today it’s less of a surprise to find out that Spacey could be a creep). There is possibly no better reveal in Hollywood.

But the film continues to entertain even when you know it because Singer’s film is stuffed with richly layered characters, scintillating scenes and some rich and spicy dialogue from McQuarrie. It’s a brilliant combination and provides every scene with a clear and electric dynamism that makes it impossible to tear your eyes away. There are some truly striking scenes – not least the iconic line-up scene – and the film carries an improvisational energy (that line-up scene is a magic use of outtakes, as the actors couldn’t keep a straight face during the sequence).

Part of the magic of it comes from the brilliant clash of a group of vastly different actors bouncing off each other: the self-consciously method Baldwin, the edgy energy of Pollack, the chilly technique of Spacey and the classically trained professionalism of Byrne, who pulls off with aplomb a difficult job of playing a decoy protagonist and antagonist in one. And that’s not mentioning the wild card of Del Toro who, working out his character was a one-note plot device, throws in an eccentric chic and impenetrable mumbling accent that is part affectation (the sort of thing that made the actor more trying later in his career) and part jaw-dropping show of confidence. And backing them up is a collection of actors as eccentric as Palminteri channelling Law and Order with a smile and Postlethwaite as a sinister limey lawyer with an accent that sounds like it hails from the Raj.

Singer’s direction is flawlessly confident, creating a rich tapestry that you could lazily call Tarantinoesque, but actually reminds you of John Huston in its carefully framed mise-en-scene. It’s a very classical movie in its way, that loves clever wipes, slow build ups, brilliantly edited and surprisingly low key in much of its framing and shooting. Everything is perfectly placed to help build up the illusion. Singer never touched these heights of confidence and control again. It’s also superbly edited throughout by John Ottman, each beat landing perfectly, each transition perfectly judged. It wouldn’t seem out of pace to see Cagney playing Kint (with Bogart surely as Keaton). 

The devilish trickiness of the plot is kept largely under wraps until late on – Soze isn’t even mentioned until nearly halfway through the film – and the film’s confident misdirection suggests this might just be the gang aiming too high and getting burned rather than a shadowy mastermind manipulating it all. It’s a brilliantly judged change of pace, and all part of the impish delight of the film. It’s a clever game, but has more than enough force and invention in its story telling to keep you gripped time and time again. McQuarrie and Spacey won Oscars – and the film hinges so much on Spacey’s ability to both tell an anecdote and also not push his acting lame – and the film lives on forever in the memory as one of the finest twists. But it does so because the twist grows so organically from the film, and the film’s delight in tricking you is completely infectious.

The Third Man (1949)

Orson Welles is the dark heart of The Third Man

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Joseph Cotton (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Major Calloway), Paul Hörbiger (Karl the porter), Ernst Deustch (“Baron” Kurtz), Erich Ponto (Dr Winkel), Siegried Breuer (Anna), Bernard Lee (Sergeant Paine),Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin)

It’s regularly held up as one of the cornerstones of classic 1940s film-making – and it has frequently won polls of the Greatest British Films of all time. Does The Third Man live up to expectations? No it excels them. I doubt there has been a film more perfectly assembled than this, one where all the component parts click together to make one perfect whole. No matter how many times you see The Third Man, it weaves its spell every time.

In immediate post-war Vienna, the city is divided into four zones, each run by a different great power (the UK, US, France and USSR). The black market is rife between the zones. Into this city arrives pulp Western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), here to visit his old school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – only to find on arriving that Lime died in a traffic accident, with British policeman Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) insisting that he was a black marketeer. Holly can’t believe Harry was a crook, and decides to investigate himself – on the way falling in love with Harry’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and finding that nobody’s story on what happened to Harry matches up. Could the accident actually be a murder?

Carol Reed’s atmospheric film is beautifully, perhaps flawlessly directed – so well made that for years there were fevered efforts to assign its brilliance to Welles himself. Which was studiously unfair to Reed, a director at the top of his game in the 40s.  The Third Man was the crowning glory of a run of superbly stylish thrillers that matched thought provoking themes with striking film-making. The film is soaked in the atmosphere of post-war Vienna, a city half shelled out of existence. The film was shot on location, and Reed’s camera captures the “bombed about a bit” shambles of the city, its long shadows, cobbled streets and mysterious alleys.

The Third Man’s filming style also plays into this truly distinctive look. Working with (Oscar-winning) cinematographer Robert Krasker, the film is shot with a luscious almost German impressionistic style, with murky shadows and noirish lighting. Reed uses huge numbers of Dutch Angles to constantly present both this shattered city, and it mysterious story, from disconcerting angles. This visually represents the uncertainty and mystery that drip from every scene, making Vienna look like some sort of sinking ship, disappearing into a mire of crime and guilt. Reed’s camera fills the edges of the frames with tramps, beggars, the dispossessed and the plain scared – a brilliant snapshot of post-war Europe unsure about the future and ripe for exploitation.

The film looks simply stunning, with Reed’s visuals throwing up images that have stuck in film heritage, from fingers poking through a sewer grill, to the iconic entrance of Harry Lime itself (possibly the most famous entry ever). Shadows loom with gigantic proportions over the streets. A final sewer chase seems to take place in a nightmare world of water, false turns and foreboding architecture. And that final shot! Sublime cinema, the stillest shot in the film, and also a superb capturing of the film’s themes of loyalty, duty and betrayal.

The film was scripted by Graham Greene, and occupies a wonderful corner of Greene-land. His original concept was for Holly (or Rollo in the original script) and Harry to be British public schoolboys – a plan rejected when Hollywood co-funding came to call – but it did allow Holly to be transformed into a naïve American, lost in the cold realities of post-war Europe. Holly believes in the world of black and white, and writes stories where good triumphs over evil in the Wild West. He’s adrift in a Europe where everyone lies habitually, morality is flexible, and nothing is as it seems.

Holly is bound by old chains of loyalty to Harry – but how far does that loyalty stretch? What price personal loyalty when confronted with the impact of what a person has done? Joseph Cotton’s performance is pitch perfect, a middle-ranker who has orbited his whole life around brighter stars like Harry. How one-way was the relationship? Can Holly ever think for himself? 

And is the right thing to do to walk away or try and correct the wrongs done by another?This divide is shown in the relationship between Cotton’s Holly and Alidi Valli’s sensational turn as Harry’s ex-girlfriend. A woman who has seen the harshness of the world, and been through a war-torn life that Holly would struggle to even comprehend, she’s a woman to whom personal loyalty trumps all things. Should you be loyal to the man you know, your experience of him – or do you have a higher loyalty that trumps that? Anna is firmly of the belief that she knows all that she needs to know of Harry and she needs to learn no more. It’s the sort of European post-war compromise that Holly can’t adapt to, the ideas of morality becoming mired in shades of grey.

It’s a world he struggles to adapt to, but is a cold hard reality for Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway – a superb performance of cool reserve that hides a strong sense of justice. Howard’s wry half-smile and control is perfect for the film, and his disgust at the actions of black marketeers is subtly and brilliantly conveyed by both the actor and Reed’s restrained direction – a visit to a children’s ward full of victims of Lime’s penicillin, is notable for leaving everything to our imagination and communicating another loss by showing a Teddy bear being dropped into a box.

And the cause of all this suffering? Why it’s none other than Harry Lime himself. No film ever captured Orson Welles’ impish charm as well as this, his shy grin and air of an enfant terrible turned terrible are brilliantly captured in the boyishly young but demonic Harry. A Mephistopheles placed on earth to tempt men like Holly, Lime argues what do a few people (or dots) here and there really matter in the long run? After all governments sacrifice them all the time – look at Vienna! – why shouldn’t we? What’s the problem? Lime grins and casually outlines a demonic view of the world, casually uses a cheap historical justification or two, and then saunters off never suspecting that he could lose the argument. Like Welles himself, he has all the glamour and magnetism that we could never have, and to live a few moments in his shadow, as Holly and Anna do, is to live a lifetime.

So Holly has to make a choice – the friend he knew, or the strangers he has seen harmed. The film charts the slow passage to making this hard choice, presenting us with a man who refuses to believe his friend could be anything other than the victim of persecution, to the man who is destined to turn him in. With the framework of Carol Reed’s superb filmmaking, it’s still an absolute treat.

And finally, The Third Man is blessed with perhaps the most perfect film score of all time. Recorded by Anton Karas – literally discovered playing the zither on the streets of Vienna – the score is jaunty, lyrical, schoolboyish even but can switch subtly to something quite disconcerting. It perfectly captures the schoolboy bravado of Holly and the childish lack of morals of Lime. As a match with the bombed out Vienna and its rundown, cynical citizens, it’s perfect. Like all things with The Third Man, it just works better than you could ever have hoped.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A masterplan goes wrong in John Huston’s crime drama The Asphalt Jungle

Director: John Huston

Cast: Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley), Louis Calhern (Alonzo D Emmerich), Jean Hagen (“Doll” Conovan), James Whitmore (Gus Minissi), Sam Jaffe (“Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider), John McIntire (Police Commissioner Hardy), Marc Lawrence (Cobby), Barry Kelley (Lt. Ditrich), Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay), Brad Dexter (Bob Brannom)

“Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is out of the slammer after seven years, and the self-proclaimed “Professor” of criminal plans has a scheme for one final job. But rather than sell it to the highest bidder, Doc approaches crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to fund the crime and then split the proceeds with Doc. To carry out his robbery on a jewellery safe in a bank, he’ll need a gang including get-away driver Gus (James Whitmore) and Gus’ pal and “hooligan” Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). But even the best laid plans of criminals can fall foul of events and the basic untrustworthiness of criminals themselves.

John Huston surprised some by turning his attention – Oscar in hand from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – to noir cops and robber’s thrillers, but that was to forget he had made his name with his masterful adaptation of Dashell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. And in The Asphalt Jungle he created a small scale but almost perfect slice of criminalise noir, a brilliantly paced and acted film beautifully assembled that effortlessly chronicles the disastrous fall out of a robbery where it seemed everything was going perfectly.

Huston’s direction of the piece is, as nearly always, superlative. His painterly framing of scenes is dead on the money here, his framing of the actors within the scene absolutely without fault. Huston has an uncanny scene for arranging his actors in the minimum number of shots necessary, reducing dramatically the need for clumsy cut aways. Instead multiple actors are often artfully arranged in the frame, allowing the performers to react in the moment and the camera itself to capture the complete story in one smooth shot. It also allows for some great character intros, not least a shot of the Police commissioner in the background of the frame while foregrounded are the hands of his subordinate Dietrich, nervously fondling his hat. Straight away we get the mood of the scene.

This is all part of the brilliant noirish construction of a film that largely features sympathetic criminals – and it’s clear that the film’s sympathy is with the robbers here, the cops either incompetent, bureaucrats or corrupt themselves – either turning on each other, crumbling under pressure, making rudimentary errors that wind up getting them caught or failing into tragic fates that are left questioning what the point of it all was. This is all superbly caught in the moody darkness and shadows that soak over the picture, and highlighted further by the superb script, that packs some excellent lines and beautiful thematic points throughout the film.

It’s also helped by some great performances. Sam Jaffe (Oscar-nominated) is terrific as the cunning calm and businesslike “Doc” who seems unable to understand why things are not quite panning out as he planned, but is heartily sorry that it’s the case. He at least has honour among thieves, refusing to abandon his fellow criminals and quietly disappointed when betrayal raises its head. I love as well his screamish apology that the crime will involve one “hooligan” – or heavy – since he’s not the sort of guy who likes to resort to messy crimes (no matter that things quickly slide out of hand). He’s the sort of professional who expects everyone to play by the same rules, but that doesn’t stop him having his own private passions, particularly for the fairer sex, that will wind up catching him out.

He’s especially proved wrong since Sterling Hayden’s ‘hooligan’ Dix turns out to be the moral force of the gang, despite his down-on-his-luck scruffiness. Hitting crime as a way to finance his dream of buying back his family’s horse farm – and sadly losing most of that finance on the horses – Hayden is gloomy faced and gruff but has his own clear moral code in an affectingly gentle performance of vulnerability beneath the toughness. Debts and betrayal are anathema to him, and he winds up far more of the decent crook than any of the rest – he’s also the only one of the lot who can hold down a loving relationship, forging a genuinely sweet relationship with Jean Hagen’s Doll. Huston’s sympathies are clearly with the down-on-his-luck Dix, a decent guy who has just lost at life.

Of course the crook they can’t trust is the lawyer, a fine performance of snivelling weasliness under a veneer of culture from Louis Calhern. Puffed up, arrogant but desperate for the money and fundamentally weak and easily led, Calhern is excellent as the money man who only adds to the gang’s troubles, led on by Brad Dexter’s wonderfully impatient and ruthless hired gun. Calhern’s sad air of corrupted authority is only enhanced by his lecherous delight in his lusciously young mistress, a radiant early performance from Marilyn Monroe (shot like a classic painting by Huston).

Huston’s film throws this gang together flies together into a superbly detailed and gripping drama of the planning, execution and dreadful fall out of a robbery that clearly inspired the (perhaps even better) Rififi (so much so that it practically has the same story and structure), The Asphalt Jungle is a fabulously made and written pleasure, unpretentious but wonderful story telling marshalled expertly by a director at the top of his game.

Quai des Brumes (1938)

Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan are star-crossed lovers in Quai des Brumes

Director: Marcel Carné

Cast: Jean Gabin (Jean), Michel Simon (Zabel), Michèle Morgan (Nelly), Pierre Brasseur (Lucien), Édouard Delmont (Panama), Raymond Aimos (Quart Vittel), Robert Le Vigan (Le peintre), René Génin (Le docteur), Marcel Pérès (Le chauffeur), Léo Malet (Le soldat), Jenny Burnay (L’amie de Lucien)

It translates as “Port of Shadows” and it’s the shadows you are likely to remember in this noirish tinged classic of French cinema. A major success story when it was released in France, it also stands as some sort of milestone as being one of the few films condemned by both the pre-Vichy French government and Nazi Germany. More pleasingly, it’s also a firm testament to the brilliance and vibrancy of pre-War French cinema and the creative imagination of Marcel Carné.

Jean (Jean Gabin) is a soldier on the run, deserting his regiment to lead his own life in South America. Arriving in the port of Le Havre, he ends up in a run-down bar on the edge of the town where he meets the beautiful young Nelly (Michèle Morgan) a woman on the run herself from two unpleasant men. The first is local gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) a braggart with whom Jean has already had a few run-ins. The other, even more dangerous, is Zabel (Michel Simon) Nelly’s godfather, a ruthless man under a genial façade who is obsessed with Nelly. Jean and Nelly fall in love, but how far will Jean go to put his own hopes for the future in doubt to protect Nelly?

Shadows dominate Carné’s beautifully atmospheric film. Jean emerges as if from nowhere on the road to Le Havre – nearly run over by the truck driver who picks him up. The bar is buried in the mists of the town. Shadows loom from every building and throw most of the city into a mysterious half-light. The action largely takes place in backrooms and cellars. Every frame tells you from the start things will not turn out well, with every decision carrying an underplayed air of foreboding. You can just tell every moment is putting another nail in the coffin of Jean’s chances of escape to that new life. The film is a brilliant slice of noir, expertly assembled with an artist’s eye by Carné, one of the most overlooked genius directors of his era. 

This darkened, gloomy style of the picture echoes the intentions of Carné and his regular collaborator, scriptwriter Jacques Prévert. The focus on the picture is the individual – in this case Jean and Nelly –trying to escape the control of both the state (the army) and also the domineering bullies that hold the local power (Lucien and Zabel). It’s no coincidence that Jean is an army deserter, and there is no sense of guilt on his part or even a fraction of recrimination is aimed towards him from anyone he encounters. Jean himself talks despairingly of the grim reality of killing and his wish to make his own choices. Carné was originally to make the film in Germany, but Goebbels was not having any film made in Berlin where the hero was an army deserter. 

So instead the film was shifted – wisely – back to France, not the French government was that happy either. With Carné and Prévert’s vision of a listless, tired, corrupted France where people like Jean simply refuse (it seems) to do what they are told, and where the few representatives of local government we meet are trivial non-entities, it’s not a surprise that the film was soon being blamed for sapping French spirit. As a sop to the French criticism of the script (and many of the films backers were desperate for its downbeat nihilism to be replaced by a more conventional upbeat, romantic ending) Jean does at least show respect for his army uniform – despite everything it’s never dirty, and when he takes it off its neatly folded. Today it seems even more like an impressionistic touch.

It’s the nihilism that runs through the film. We know Jean is good guy – he encounters a dog on the road to Le Havre that follows him with a singular devotion, unable to bear being parted from him – but the film itself has a shadowy feeling of despair and destruction throughout. Jean feels like a doomed hero from the start, a passive figure despite his bravado, who impulsively drifts from event to event – it’s when he chooses to become engaged that he dooms himself. Nelly is seemingly at first a femme fatale – and her reveal is a masterstroke of cinema – but really she’s as much a victim as Jean, someone very vulnerable, lonely and scared who wants a way out but can’t see how to even begin to find one. But then even the nemesis that runs through the film is low-key and trivial – Lucien is a joke, while Zabel for all his creepiness is also little more than a novelty gift shop owner.

The power of the film comes from seeing these two trapped figures surrounded by a world of darkness, listless depression and emptiness. And of course from the performances. The film is a reminder again that at this time Jean Gabin may well have been the greatest actor in the world. With a cigarette dangling, raffish cool under a surly salt-of-the-earth taciturnity, he turns Jean into the sort of enigmatic noir-hero years before the term was evented. Dripping with charisma in every frame, he’s both a Bogartish cynic and a De Niroish slice of muscle, a working class martyr. Nearly as good is Michèle Morgan, vulnerable and yearning into a surface of sexy cool. The two make a winningly attractive pair, not just sexy but with a growing romantic feeling.

It’s no wonder Jean throws himself into threatening and roughing up the pathetically weasily Lucien (Pierre Brasseur very good as a weak-willed bully who can lash out with the viciousness of a child) and squaring up to domineering Zabel. Michel Simon is terrific as the grandfatherly shop owner whose own dark obsessions and possible perversions become harder and harder to ignore. These two very different threats stand at opposite ends of the film and both contribute to its bleak ending.

Because of course Jean isn’t going to make that boat. The act of violence the film finally unleashes – after all that foreboding warning that it’s coming – is suitably shocking in a 1930s way, while the eventual fall of Jean is both fitting and also tragic in its low-key abruptness (it was later echoed by Brian de Palma in Carlito’s Way). With its gloomy atmosphere, its grim foreboding but also passionate love story at its heart, Quai des Brumes is a classic of French poetic realism.