Seven Days in Noirvember #6: The Big Sleep

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

The Big Sleep (1946) – Directed by Howard Hawks

I’m never 100% certain what’s going on in the plot (adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, scripted in part by William Faulkner), but what’s important is the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and (recently late but eternally great) Lauren Bacall. How they interact onscreen is all that matters. Also get a kick out of Martha Vickers as Bacall’s kid sister who tries to seduce Bogie at every turn, Dorothy Malone as a bespectacled bookshop proprietress who transforms after removing her eyewear and Elisha Cook, Jr. in one of his typical roles as a fellow in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Seven Days in Noirvember #5: Deadline at Dawn

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

Deadline at Dawn (1946) – Directed by Harold Clurman

You can’t get more “film noir” than to be based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich and to have cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (who shot Out of the Past the following year). In this frantic film set during one sweaty summer night Susan Hayward makes a lovely leading lady for Bill Williams, playing a dancehall girl and a sailor respectively, while excellent support is provided by Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Lola Lane, Jerome Cowan and Marvin Miller. This was renowned theater director and critic Clurman’s only film; he was much better known for having cofounded the Group Theatre in 1931.

Seven Days in Noirvember #4: The Killing

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

The Killing (1956) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Q: Who would ever attempt to rob a racetrack? A: Sterling Hayden. He’s the architect of a scheme that, like all great film noir plans, is doomed to fail. Acting plaudits go to Elisha Cook, Jr. in perhaps his finest performance ever as one of Hayden’s partners and Marie Windsor – the ultimate B-movie bad girl – as Cook’s devious wife, plotting his downfall (and her payday) from the get-go. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is a master class in black-and-white and most of the screenplay comes courtesy of Jim Thompson, famous for authoring hardboiled novels like The Killer Inside Me and The Grifters.

Seven Days in Noirvember #3: This Gun for Hire

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

This Gun for Hire (1942) – Directed by Frank Tuttle

How can lovely Veronica Lake choose between her clean-cut detective boyfriend Robert Preston (twenty years before The Music Man) and an enigmatic hired killer named “Raven” (Alan Ladd in the role that made him a star)? Good – and tough – question; Lake and Ladd have chemistry to burn. In addition to the three young leads the cast is brimming with great character actors, including Laird Cregar, Tully Marshall, Marc Lawrence, Frank Ferguson, Victor Kilian and Patricia Farr. Take note of striking black-and-white cinematography by John F. Seitz too, who photographed the Billy Wilder classics Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Blvd. (1950).

Seven Days in Noirvember #2: On Dangerous Ground

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

On Dangerous Ground (1951) – Directed by Nicholas Ray

A cynical NYC cop prone to roughing up his suspects (Robert Ryan, never better) goes to the countryside to track down a perpetrator, falling in love along the way with the wanted man’s blind sister (Ida Lupino, who also sat in the director’s chair, uncredited). Ryan didn’t often get a chance to play romantic leads, but this drama gave him a wonderful showcase as his character slowly warms to Lupino and relearns gentle kindness. Making the atmosphere even more beautiful is Bernard Herrmann’s score, in which you can hear themes that reappear in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

Seven Days in Noirvember #1: The Big Heat

(This seven-part series focusing on film noir during what’s known as “Noirvember” will consist of 100-word pieces intended to be as punchy as any good noir screenplay.)

The Big Heat (1953) – Directed by Fritz Lang

Cop Glenn Ford is forced to play dirty when another detective’s suicide shows connections to sordid crimes happening further up the police chain. Lee Marvin portrays a nasty heavy, though Gloria Grahame as his moll gets vicious too; this couple sure knows their way around a scalding pot of coffee, the preferred weapon of choice in two scenes. Fritz Lang specialized in film noir during his Hollywood career and especially here, working with cinematographer Charles Lang and crackerjack dialogue from Sydney Boehm (Grahame to Ford about his apartment’s décor: “Hey, I like this – early nothing”), old Fritz hits a homer.

The Actor’s Actor: Gunnar Björnstrand

Today marks what would have been the 105th birthday of the Swedish actor Gunnar Björnstrand (1909-1986), who had the distinction of having appeared in more of Ingmar Bergman’s films than any of the director’s other stock players. From It Rains on Our Love (1946) to Fanny and Alexander (1982), Björnstrand proved he could tackle a wide range of character types in both dramas and comedies. He was actually known primarily as a comic actor in both theater and film until Bergman’s work gave him roles – often starring ones – that showed the depths of Björnstrand’s abilities. At times he could project a warm and wonderful kindness, but he was also able to portray loathsomeness through chilling cruelty. I shall highlight a few of those special performances, though I regret that I cannot accurately offer an opinion on Björnstrand’s work in The Seventh Seal (1957) since it has been close to a decade since I last saw the film. I also have not yet seen some of Bergman’s “lesser” romantic comedies and dramas starring Björnstrand, including Secrets of Women (1952), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), A Lesson in Love (1954) and Dreams (1955). Even so, I have seen enough to have the beginnings of a real appreciation. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) – In one of Bergman’s most successful comedies, famously reworked into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, Björnstrand plays a husband whose marriage is complicated by his ongoing feelings for a past paramour (Eva Dahlbeck, pictured). Björnstrand’s Fredrik Egerman character is often confused or clueless as to how to handle delicate matters of love and relationships, but he is not malicious and it is easy for the viewer to sympathize with many of the characters besides Fredrik, regardless of the infidelities that are committed on the path to true happiness.

The Magician (1958) – Science and skepticism meet the mystical forces of the supernatural and tricks of the mind when a traveling magic/medicine show comes to town and Dr. Vergerus (Björnstrand’s character) is convinced that the whole thing is a charade. The film’s climax features a tense and disturbing standoff between Vergerus and Vogler (Max von Sydow as the enigmatic and mute leader of the troupe), despite the fact that Vogler is supposed to have died in an earlier scene. As Vergerus attempts to write the autopsy report in a big, empty attic, Vogler’s image keeps appearing in mirror reflections and in the corner of Vergerus’s eye. It is an unsettling and extremely effective scene, particularly when Vergerus is on the brink of admitting that something unexplainable (involving an intangible being) may be occurring.

The Devil’s Eye (1960) – Björnstrand plays “The Actor,” the nameless narrator in the film’s framing device, drolly speaking directly to the camera about the tale that he is there to tell. He’s not a god or God, exactly, but as a storyteller he has certain qualities of an all-knowing deity and a definite sense of humor (Bergmanesque, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean unfunny). Although Björnstrand doesn’t have much time onscreen, he has a memorably delightful presence.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) – About as intimate as an intimate drama can be, this look at a father, his two children and son-in-law is an examination made through a grime-covered window. It is dreamlike in parts, sometimes inscrutable, often challenging and yet consistently interesting to watch for both the visuals and the acting styles. Björnstrand portrays the father, the novelist David, with an acute awareness of his insecurities. For me the performance has some key scenes: when David removes himself from dinner at the outdoor picnic table to go inside and secretly weep with what can only be described as muffled shrieking, his fragility unable to be contained by normal social actions; when David’s son-in-law Martin (Max von Sydow) accuses him of a lack of understanding about his family and David replies with his memory of a suicide attempt that led to realizing that he loves his children; the scene in which daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson) admits to a silent David a serious offense that she has committed; perhaps most of all, the final scene in which David and his teenage son Minus (Lars Passgård) have a discussion on the same intellectual level for the first time in the film. If any viewer had not considered Björnstrand a serious actor before, they certainly would acknowledge it with this performance.

Winter Light (1963) – Probably the most highly acclaimed of Björnstrand’s lead roles in Bergman’s dramas, here the main character is a priest whose personal and professional capabilities have disintegrated to the point of collapse. He no longer has any romantic bond with his former lover (Ingrid Thulin) and his attempts to save a suicidal churchgoer (Max von Sydow) also fail. In the end the only thing he can still do is the same old routine that he has always done: delivering a sermon for the appointed 3:00 pm service. It is a bitter and unforgiving film, but it is necessary viewing for stark, uncompromising writing and acting. Human drama is unflinchingly real here and I’m not sure if any other actor could have accomplished the tragedy and the simplicity of Gunnar Björnstrand’s painfully imperfect Pastor Tomas Ericsson.