Tag: Film noir

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.

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson struggles against the system – and loses – in Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jack Nicholson (JJ Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Cross Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lt Lou Escobar), John Hillerman (Russ Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roy Jenson (Claude Mulvihill), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Joe Mantell (Lawrence Walsh), Burt Young (Curly), James Hong (Kahn)

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” So says Noah Cross in the superlative Chinatown, the sort of the film you’ll want to start watching again the second it ends. Cross is of course a respectable businessman and an absolute monster. And his mantra applies just as much to Los Angeles as envisioned by Polanski and writer Robert Towne. It’s a corrupt, dirty place where terrible, appalling things are regularly allowed to happen but everyone pretends the place is fabulous. It’s such a sublime film, while also so bleakly, despairingly dark that you are surprised you fall in love with its excellence.

In 1937 private detective JJ “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired – or so he thinks – by the wife of Water Board director Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) to investigate his infidelity. When he does seem to uncover it, he founds not only was his client not Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), but that shortly after his pictures appeared in the press (without his knowledge), Hollis himself winds up dead, having drowned in a dry river bed. What does this all mean? And how does Evelyn’s father (and Hollis’ business partner) Noah Cross (John Huston) play into this all? Gittes investigates further, to uncover shady schemes to manipulate the cities water supply for profit, under-handed business deals and unspeakable family crimes that leave lives shattered.

Polanski’s film has such a timeless wonder about it, perhaps because it was filmed with such careful and beautifully designed classicism that it has never dated. Seen at the time as a film told in the style of the classic film noirs (although it is of course full of blazing LA sunshine), but crammed with a darkness and corruption classic Hollywood shied away from it now seems to take its place as the most masterful of Hollywood mysteries. It’s recreation of 1930s detail is perfect, while its film making is restrained, controlled, unflashy but creates an atmosphere of simmering mystery and tension behind every frame. It’s a masterfully restrained piece of film-making that deals with matters of shocking horror.

And tension there should be as this explores the darkest underbelly of America. With Jerry Goldsmith’s sublime music score under every beat – riffing on classic Hollywood tunes, but with a haunting faded grandeur that suggests a whole melancholic world going to the wall – the film looks like classic, beautiful America but uses that to counter-frame terrible, heartless acts. LA is corrupt from top to bottom. Businessmen are asset stripping the city and its surroundings to line their own pockets. Wealth brings total immunity from all sorts of crimes, regardless of how foul they are. Even family ties are polluted by terrible lusts and greed. And for Gittes, Chinatown is representative of this – a one word reference to his career as a cop, where his ability to do any good at all was forever compromised by corruption.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as Gittes is central to the film’s success. He’s in every scene and the story is told entirely from his point-of-view – so much so that when he is knocked out, Polanski slowly fades out sound and picture. Nicholson is best known for his flamboyance, but here he brilliantly underplays too present a complex picture of an idealist disguised as a cynic. Gittes tries his best to coolly accept the world is what it is, and even that he is just trying to get what he can out of it. But he’s in fact a decent and honourable man with a deep-rooted sense of morality, who struggles in the world because it’s ill-suited for a guy who just wants to do the right thing. He has a sort of outdated charm and nobility about him, an almost courtly gentleness at times, and only lashes out in anger when he feels is either being lied to or his sense of honour impugned. He has a natural sympathy for the little guy and for all he may try to spin the sort of cynical Marlowesque dialogue, you don’t feel his heart is really in it. He is a dreamer who wants to believe.

And he’s totally ill-suited to this world he ends up with. Gittes uncovers every inch of the mystery – but nothing he does has any positive impact. He completely fails to protect anyone, his attempts to ensure happy endings end in disaster, he’s regularly beaten to a pulp (most famously having his nose slit by a cameoing Polanski as a weasily little hoodlum) and he’s at sea when dealing with most of the characters of the film. Even his carefully built emotional armour breaks down, leaving him vulnerable to making even more mistakes. There are perhaps few characters so ineffective – and again it’s a credit to Jack Nicholson’s charisma that he makes this character feel like such a proactive figure.

Gittes senses at all times that there is some dark secret underpinning all these events he encounters. But he’s too innocent to begin to suspect the horrors that Evelyn has put up with at the hands of her abusive father. Faye Dunaway brings a marvellous fragility and vulnerability to a character who transcends the traditional femme fatale. (Dunaway famously hated both Polanski and working on the movie). At first seeming imperious and even suspicious, the film slowly breaks her character down into a wounded and vulnerable woman putting on a front, determined to try and protect herself but doomed to forever be the victim.

And Noah Cross is the dark heart of this. Played with a sensational sense of gentility masking supreme corruption and greed by John Huston, Cross is genteel and polite while being ruthless and grasping. He also reveals himself capable of huge, destructive acts, indifferent to the pain this causes and utterly implacable in his vileness. Huston’s performance – he’s only in three scenes – embodies the terrible dark heart of America, where money and power it seems can let you get away with anything you want, no matter who knows. (And I love the way he persistently mispronounces Gittes name, turning it into a growling Anglo-saxon “Gits”.)

Robert Towne’s superb screenplay is perfectly paced and pieces together an intricate and fascinating plot where every small detail mounts together into a devastating whole. It’s a film that demands careful watching, and that revels in small details and character beats that gain greater impact the more you see the film. Brilliantly, the macguffin here is water – the control of a substance that should be a right for every man, becoming a superb metaphor for the theft from ordinary Americans of justice and their country. 

The film culminates – as you feel it must when watching it – in a nihilistic ending where evil triumphs and good loses out. “Forget it Jake – it’s Chinatown”, goes the famous closing line. It works so superbly, because in Towne’s and Polanski’s vision of America here, there is no chance of the right thing winning out if the powers that be would have otherwise. With Jake’s Chinatown career in the police force becoming emblematic of everything that’s wrong in American justice, sure it makes sense that his return there as a private eye would see the same outcome. Towne pushed for a more upbeat ending, but Polanski knew – correctly – that only the shock of murder could end this tale, especially a murder that would have no repercussions.

Polanski’s direction is faultless, cool, calm, wonderfully observant with a superb sense of the 1930s – the film looks beautiful – and using the sunlight and brightness of LA to stress that just because we can see clearly, doesn’t mean we understand what we are looking at. With one of the greatest scripts ever – and a superb performance by Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles – this is one of the best mysteries in Hollywood history, a timeless classic.

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.

White Heat (1949)

Top of the World Ma! Cagney excels in his final and greatest Gangster role White Heat

Director: Raoul Walsh

Cast: James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Edmond O’Brien (Hank Fallon/Vic Prado), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett), Steve Cochan (“Big Ed” Somers), John Archer (Philip Evans), Wally Cassell (“Cotton” Valletti), Fred Clark (Daniel “The Trader” Winston)

After winning an Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney left Warner Brothers to form his own production company. When that folded, he swallowed his pride and re-entered the Warners’ fold. Money was driving the relationship: and it was the pay cheque that got Cagney to return one last time to the role of a psychotic gangster in White Heat. And if he had to go back, why not make that gangster the most psychotic of the lot? After all who else could make it to “the top of the world”?

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is the leader of a gang of criminals, to whom no act of larceny, violence or murder is taboo. A botched train hijack – during which Jarrett shoots two unarmed train drivers – attracts the full attention of the law, but Jarrett dodges justice by having himself sent down for a minor crime that happened at the same time as the train hijack. Not fooled, the Feds send an undercover operative, Hank (Edmond O’Brien), into the prison as Cody’s cellmate “Vic Prado”, tasked with getting the details of the train job and locating the mysterious fixer who set up the job. But such schemes didn’t take into account Jarrett’s psychological disturbance – powered above all by his obsessive, overwhelming love for his mother (Margaret Wycherly), the one dominant influence over his life.

Raoul Walsh’s film is a brutally efficient gangster flick which may be a little too long (the mechanisms of tracing and tracking a car are covered in far too great a depth…), but ticks all the boxes of the genre with exceptional skill and dexterity. It’s shoot-from-the-hip (literally) melodrama, and has all the internal logic of a schoolground game of cops and robbers, but Walsh’s direction is pin-point perfect, and the film is based around a series of stunning and effective set-pieces and crammed with a sort of deep (even disturbing) psychological insight that puts it miles ahead of many of films of the genre. Walsh also throws in some of the finest stylistic touches of film noir, with Virginia Mayo’s femme fatale, darkened frames, dubious morals among even our heroes (one of whom is a practised deceiver and liar) and a whirlwind monster at the centre.

But the film soars and flies because of Cagney, and the no-holds barred sharpness of Jarrett. The film revolves above all around the deep emotional emptiness and need in Jarrett, which sees him lean on O’Brien’s Falon (“like my kid brother!”) and, most famously, fixate like a toddler on his mother. Freud would have had a field day with Jarrett’s obsessive love for his mother, with Cagney turning him into the little boy lost. Consumed with headaches, he literally climbs into her lap so she can comfort him. The slightest criticism of her leads to instant reaction (not least knocking his wife off her chair – how can the poor woman compete with this beatified mother figure?)

This culminates in one of the film’s most famous sequences, as Jarrett digests in prison the news that his mother has died. Sitting in a crowded dining room, he passes word down to a new inmate for an update on his mother. Slowly the question is passed down the line of prisoners – and with trepidation the news of her death is passed back. And here is the Cagney magic. He seems too stunned at first to take it in then a series of low moans explodes into a titanic screaming fit, matched only by the violence he takes out on all who stand in his way. Walsh and Cagney kept the response secret from the entire room of 300 extras, all of whom seem as stunned as us by Jarrett’s total lack of control, his complete consumption in grief.

Cagney’s performance is just about perfect, a simmering mummy’s boy who is also a charismatic leader of men. A dangerous psycho who seems aware that he is not quite normal. A lonely man desperate for love. And Cagney has so many beautiful touches that could only be him – the quip as he plugs with bullets a car boot with a luckless gang member in it, the sly kick away at Virginia Mayo, that screaming sequence. It’s a performance of complete power and charisma, the gangster psychoanalysed and reduced to his bare essentials for a personality barely functional and obsessed with his mother.

Margaret Wycherly is similarly excellent as that mother, as sly and self-confident as her son and clearly as accomplished at leading a gang as him (I love the smug half smile she gives herself after evading the FBI tail she picks up). Edmond O’Brien does sterling work in the “straight man” role of the undercover cop, walking a line between judging and even perhaps sorta liking Jarrett a bit (even if he does get saddled with the mandatory “that’s the moral of the story” final line). Virginia Mayo is a wonderful mix of sex appeal and needling cheapness as Jarrett’s two-faced wife.

The film culminates in one of the most famous endings of all time – one you’ll know even if you haven’t seen the film – as the law catches up with Jarrett at last in a shoot-out at a gas plant. Finally driven mad by betrayal and abandonment – although lord Cagney’s performance makes clear that only a tenuous grip on sanity has been present in Jarrett from the start, fractured beyond repair by the loss of his mother – Jarrett insanely shoots at the police from atop a burning gas plant, before immolating himself (and most of the factory) with the cry “Made it Ma! Top of the world!”. As Jarrett heads down to a firey hell, so Cagney signed off on the gangster flick with perhaps the most dangerous, disturbed and also intriguing gangster on film. It’s such a mighty performance that the Hays-Code mandated final line of tutting disapproval at the criminal life from O’Brien feels even more forced and unnecessary than ever.

The Big Heat (1953)

Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford feel The Big Heat coming on

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Glenn Ford (Det Sgt Dave Bannion), Gloria Grahame (Debby Marsh), Lee Marvin (Vince Stone), Jeanette Nolan (Bertha Duncan), Alexander Scourby (Mike Lagana), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion), Adam Williams (Larry Gordon), Kathyn Eames (Marge), Willis Bouchey (Lt Ted Wilks)

Films like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat were generally seen at the time as easy-to-overlook pulp thrillers. Today however, they are seen as classics and few look as ahead of their time as The Big Heat, a skilfully constructed, almost nihilistic, revenge thriller that turns its view of America into that of a land big, grim and full of corruption.

Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in when a senior policeman is found to have committed suicide. All is not what it seems though: the wife Bertha (Jeanette Duncan) doesn’t seem as sad as she should, there are conflicting reports that the death might be suicide and the dead man’s possible lover is found brutally killed shortly after Bannion talks to her. Bannion is a stubborn, bull-in-a-China-shop type, so he quickly assumes smooth local gangster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is connected up in all this, not least after his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) receives a threatening phone call. But Bannion’s methods lead to tragedy, and he soon finds himself going rogue to find justice, with the eventual help of Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), gangster’s moll of brutal sadist and Langana lieutenant Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).

Lang’s film is a strikingly un-rose tinted view of America. The very first shot of the movie is a gun, and violence is endemic in this corrupt world, where justice is for sale. We barely see a character who doesn’t have some whiff of corruption. Bannion finds cops doing guard duty outside Lagana’s home while he throws a party and half the higher-ups in the department are either in the pocket of the gangsters, or determined to do as little as possible to rock the boat. The lives of the families of those causing trouble for this system don’t account for much either, with any unpalatable truths brushed firmly under the carpet.

Thown into the middle of this is Glenn Ford’s Detective Bannion. At first glance Bannion looks like exactly the hero we would want – a straight-down-the-line type who says what he thinks, and determined to let nothing stand in the way of, or water down, his investigation. Better known for comedies, Glenn Ford is very good as this bullish man, who very clearly thinks of himself as “the only good cop in town”, and whose determination to stop at nothing very soon tips over into recklessness. Because reckless is what he is: Bannion is fixated on revenge after a tragic attack on his family, and he has no compunction – or even it seems moral awareness – that this path causes danger and consequences for other people around him.

Bannion’s situation is largely self-inflicted – is it sensible going straight to the house of a leading local gangster and threatening and humiliating him? – and Bannion turns out to be largely a destructive force for those who meet him. Most affected are the four female characters he interacts with in the film. A mixture of innocent, corrupt, in denial and cruel, all four of these women find themselves thrown into often mortal danger, with Bannion barely stopping to consider the risks to them. Bannion, it becomes clear, is the ultimate ends-justify-the-means kind of guy, willing to accept collateral damage of almost any kind if it means he can take down the bad guys who have done him wrong. It makes for an intriguing anti-hero at the film’s centre, with Bannion increasingly resembling a sort of proto-type Dirty Harry, the hard-boiled cop who’ll do things his way and damn the consequences.

Mind you, it doesn’t mean he isn’t right about the corruption in this damn dirty town. Preening gangster Mike Lagana (played with a wispy arrogance by Alexander Scourby) has everyone in his pocket, and couldn’t give tuppence for any small fry causing him problems. First introduced lazily in bed setting in chain events that will cover up the reason for the suicide of a leading policeman, he has fingers in every pie. He’s also – the film economically suggests – sexually indiscriminate and a bit of a mummy’s boy to boot, sure signs of cadism in any 1950s detective story. His decadent home and personal cowardice (for all his speed in ordering deaths) make his corruption probably even more galling for straight-shooter Bannion.

In fact, I’m not sure Bannion can even accept Lagana as a “worthy foe” and he increasingly zeroes in on Lagana’s number two, the brutish Vince Stone as the man he intends to take down. Played with a star-making swagger by Lee Marvin, Stone is a force of nature, an act-first-think-next-week kind of guy, who terrorises people around him and will resort to anything from fists to pots of boiling coffee to exact obedience. Marvin scowls and prowls his way through the film like a caged bear, constantly on the verge of violence. It’s a brilliant performance.

It also makes clear why he’s pushed Debby – played with a wonderful fragility behind all her femme fatale looks by Gloria Grahame – so far under his thumb. As she says, why intercede against anything he does when she could be next to take a beating. Grahame is excellent as a woman who has suppressed her conscience about what is going on around her, and learned to use her sexuality as a tool for getting what she wants. Watching her slowly begin to come to life as a moral force provides one of the film’s finest stories – her desire to do the right thing and get revenge, a firm contrast with Bannion’s more hardline goals.

All of this is packaged neatly and without fuss by Lang into a superb indictment of America. Every official is at least shady, if not outright bent. Every scene bubbles with the possibility of violence and danger. The innocent are swiftly trampled and the heroes need to bring themselves down to the same brutal, intimidating rough and tumble as the villains to have any chance of cracking the crime. Bodies pile up, lives are ruined, but at the end you still wonder if any of it will have any lasting impact. For Lang it feels like America is a constant spiral of danger and corruption that begins and end with a gun. Either way The Big Heat is a true classic.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

James Mason and Joan Bennett feel Reckless Moment pulls them toward temptation

Director: Max Ophüls

Cast: James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), Geraldine Brooks (Bea Harper), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby), David Bair (David Harper), Roy Roberts (Nagel), Frances E Williams (Sybil)

It’s a situation anyone could find themselves in: your daughter is infatuated with someone totally unsuitable, and despite all your efforts you can’t get her to shake him off. What’s perhaps more unusual is when the man turns up dead after an accident – but in such a way it looks like your daughter has bumped him off. What lengths will you go to, to save her from prison? That’s the problem faced by Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) – and it’s made even more complex by the fact that the truth is out there and she’s being blackmailed by surprisingly sensitive small-time crook Martin Donnelly (James Mason), who finds himself developing feelings for Lucia.

Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment is an enjoyable enough noir-thriller, that mixes a wonderful sense of its locations with a perverted romanticism that first expresses itself through the daughter’s infatuation with a pathetic bent art dealer and then through the love blackmailer Martin Donnelly feels for his victim (and she for him). But it’s also a film about women, and how alone they can be when dealing with problems. Lucia’s husband is a never-seen presence on the end of a phone (busy building a bridge in Germany), her father-in-law is charming but useless and the two other men are criminals intruding into her life.

In fact this is quite ahead of its time with its thinking around women. Far from the usual tropes of a femme fatale, instead Mason takes on that role, while the mother turns out to be practical, brave and dedicated to keeping her family safe – while still more than a little open to illicit feelings of attraction. Lucia still has to balance all this with putting up a front of domestic business-as-usual with her family, not letting them see even a trace of the problems (including her daughter who is blissfully unaware of the situation she has landed her mother in). 

Ophüls’ directs this with a moody intensity, with a wonderful use of the LA backgrounds, particularly of the boat landing where much of the crucial action takes place. His camera placement is impeccable, and he finds a number of interesting and striking angles to throw events into a sharp relief. It’s a beautifully shot film, with wonderful use of black and white, and hints of Ophüls’ background in German expressionist cinema. His camera constantly manages to put us in the shoes of Lucia with tracking shots (another Ophüls’ trademark) loyally following her actions and placing the viewers into her perspective of events to help build out bonds with her. 

It’s a bond that obviously Donnelly ends up feeling very strongly tied to. James Mason enters the picture surprisingly late, and the film’s short length (less than 80 minutes) means many of the developments around the blackmail end up feeling rather rushed. Perhaps the plot didn’t even need the blackmail angle – there could have been more than enough tension of Lucia dodging the police case that surely should have built around her. Instead, the blackmail plot often feels rather forced, not least due to the build of a romantic subplot between the two characters.

It’s a romance that never quite rings true, partly because we never get the time for it to breathe. It seems forced and bolted onto the film because it is expected, rather than something that grows organically. It leads to sudden plot leaps, with Donnelly moving swiftly from business like to buying gifts and even offering to pay part of the blackmail for her to his shady boss. I’m not sure that the film ever earns this leap with its rushed runtime. It never pulls together into a romance that we can really believe in – and Lucia is such a carefully restrained and standoffish character that we don’t always get a sense of the emotions that she is carrying below the surface. 

Despite this Joan Bennett does a decent job as the heroine, an intriguing and rather admirable character who gets caught up in wild and crazy events but never lets them overwhelm her. Indeed, Ophüls’ stresses her calmness and practicality at several points, never shaken by demands of events and responding with ingenuity and calm to a range of circumstances. Bennett might not be the most charismatic actress, but she does a very good job here. James Mason struggles slightly with his slightly incoherent character arc, but as a reluctant heavy he does a marvellous job here, while mastering the sense of ruffled, shabby charm Donnelly has. It does help believe that he might contribute to a reckless moment of attraction from Lucia.

The Reckless Moment is a well-made B movie, that Ophüls’ adds a great deal to with his empathy for Lucia and stylishly smooth film-making. It makes for a very polished film, which on its actual character and plot beats doesn’t really always make a great deal of sense – rushing us into relationships and feelings that it doesn’t always feel the film justifies. But despite that there is just enough style here, even if this is always a film destined for the second tier of classics.

Minority Report (2002)

Tom Cruise messes with fate and the future in Minority Report

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise (Chief John Anderton), Max von Sydow (Director Lamar Burgess), Samantha Morton (Agatha), Colin Farrell (Danny Witwer), Neal McDonough (Detective Fletcher), Steve Harris (Jad), Patrick Kilpatrick (Knott), Jessica Capshaw (Evanna), Lois Smith (Dr Iris Hineman), Kathryn Morris (Lara Anderton), Peter Stormare (Dr Solomon P Eddie), Tim Blake Nelson (Gideon)

If you could see what lies ahead for you in your future would you change it? Or would you accept what fate has clearly already decided? It’s one of many questions that Minority Report, Spielberg’s bulky, brainy sci-fi chase movie slash film noir, tackles. And the answer it suggests is: everybody runs.

It’s the year 2054, and murder in the District of Columbia is a thing of the past thanks to the Pre-Crime Division. Using three psychics, known as “pre-cogs”, permanently hooked-up to a machine that can visualise their visions of violent deaths and murders that will occur, the Pre-Crime team led by Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) arrest and imprison murderers hours, minutes and seconds before they even commit their crimes. Anderton believes passionately in the system – but his belief is shaken when the next murderer to be identified is none other than himself. Anderton is due to kill in a complete stranger in 36 hours – and immediately goes on the run to work out who this man is, why he would wish to kill him, and if there is any truth in the rumour that the pre-cogs don’t always agree, and that the most powerful pre-cog Agatha (Samantha Morton) can produce a “minority report”: an alternative vision that shows a different future.

Spielberg’s film is one that mixes searching discussion on fate, choice and destiny with the pumping, fast-moving action of a chase movie and the gritty, hard-boiled cynicism and intrigue of a classic film-noir. He frames all this in a brilliantly constructed, dystopian future where adverts and government surveillance can read our eyes wherever we go and identify us immediately (throwing personalised ads in the faces of people everywhere they step) and, in the interests of safety, people who have technically not done anything yet are imprisoned for life on the basis of things it has been determined they will do.

It makes for a pretty heady cocktail, and one which will have you questioning how much of what we decide is our choice and how much is destiny. If Anderton knows his destiny, can he change his fate? Will he have the willpower or the ability to avert his destiny? Or does knowing what will happen and where it will take place only drive him towards his fate? Put simply, does knowing the future in advance give you a chance to change or it or does it make that future even more likely (or perhaps even inevitable)? Spielberg’s film delves intelligently into these questions, throwing paradoxes and causality loops at the viewer with a genuine lightness of touch.

This works because the film balances these more philosophical questions with plenty of adventure and excitement. Several chase sequences – which make imaginative use of various pieces of future tech like driverless cars and jet packs – keep you on the edge of your seat. Spielberg tentpoles the film throughout with some brilliant set pieces, from Alderton’s race against the clock to stop a killer at the start to his own escape from the clutches of his former colleagues. 

These set pieces also differ in styles. These more conventional action sequences are sandwiched between others that are a mix of darkness, comedy, horror and slapstick. In one sequence, Alderton must attempt to hide in a bath of icy water (Cruise holding his breath of course for a prolonged period on camera) to evade a series of body-heat seeking metallic spiders, with Alderton desperate to protect his freshly replaced eyes from being exposed too soon to daylight. Later, Alderton will evade the cops thanks to the advice of pre-cog Agatha whose simple instructions (Grab an umbrella! Stand still for five seconds behind the balloons! Drop coins for the tramp!) wittily use her fore-knowledge of events to guide Alderton through a gauntlet of perils.

The horror is in there as well from those creepy spiders, not to mention the ickyness of Cruise carrying out an operation to replace his eyes to evade that all-intrusive retinal scanning. The sequence – with Peter Storemare as a sinister doctor who delights in leaving unpleasant tricks for the temporarily blinded Alderton (rotten food and sour milk being the most gross) – is a brilliantly vile, uncomfortable piece of kooky surrealism in the middle of a wild chase. And also tees up the bizarre dark comedy of Cruise – attempting to use his old eyes to break back into his former office – dropping his eyes and desperately chasing them as they roll down a corridor towards a drain. 

There are also darker themes in Alderton’s tragic background. Saddled with a drug addiction and a broken home, we learn Alderton is still struggling with the grief of losing a son to kidnappers – a loss he clearly holds himself personally responsible for. Getting tanked up at home and interacting with old home movies of his lost son, Alderton carries within a deep sadness and grief. It’s a challenge that Cruise rises to really well, his ability to bring commitment and depth to pulpy characters perfect for making Alderton a character you really invest in.

It also gives Alderton the tragic backstory and self-destructive problems so beloved of grimy, gumshoe cops of old noir films. That’s certainly also the inspiration for the drained out, greying look of the film that Spielberg shoots, with colours bleached and the future looking a confusing mix of clean, sleek machines and dirty, rain sodden streets. Alderton’s hunting down of his future victim has all the shoe leather and bitterness of classic Chandler. Meanwhile Federal Agent Witwer (a decent performance from Colin Farrell) chases him down with the determination of an obsessed cop, while also showing more than a few of the quirks of the maverick PI himself.

Minority Report is so good in so many places, it’s a shame that the final act so flies off the rails from the tone of what we have seen before, eventually stapling a happy ending onto a film that tonally has been building towards something very different. On a re-watch, there is just enough in the film to allow you to interpret this ending as a sort of fantasy or dream, but you’ll want the film to end the first time it crashes to black (you’ll know the point I mean). I prefer to believe the ending is a sort of dream – although Spielberg drops no hints to this effect in the film visually at all, in the way something like Inception does so well, to leave you questioning reality – because with that thought that final act betrays everything you have seen before in its simplicity and embracing of binary rights and wrongs.

But with that massive caveat, Minority Report is a very impressive film – and for at least the first hour and fifty minutes probably one of Spielberg’s best. It gets lost in the final act – and I know I said this but please let that be a fantasy – but until then this is a brilliant mix of genres and intelligence and Hollywood thrills with Cruise at his best. It’s exciting and its emotionally involving. Ignore that ending and it’s great. When you re-watch it, pretend you can’t see that future.