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Misleading as I find its advertisements ("Loving her once is once too often!" its poster warns), 1947's "Nora Prentiss" is a "women's noir" to be favorably compared to "The Letter" (1940) or "Mildred Pierce" (1945), vehicles after which it was clearly molded. The film stars Ann Sheridan as the titular "deadly" female, who is, of course, a torch singer and who is, of course, beautiful in ways that can only spell trouble for the most exasperated of a man.
But in a twist that cements why I find that aforementioned tagline so deceitful, Prentiss isn't actually the poor man's Gilda. She's not a man-eater nor a black widow on the prowl but a deeply vulnerable thirtysomething increasingly bothered by how long domesticity has slipped from her grasp. She wants nothing more than to be happy and to be loved, but because of her face and her occupation, she's more often attracted douchebags than she has winners who want to do more than just get in her pants.
Unfortunately, the film finds her making a romantic mistake that she's likely made before: she falls in love with family man and physician Richard Talbot (Kent Smith). He's been married for years, has two stereotypically square kids, has undoubtedly stuck to the same boring routine for decades, and thinks he's content.
But when Talbot meets Prentiss (after she gets hit by a car, marking for a memorably operatic entrance), all goes downhill. What starts as a friendship hindered by Talbot's obvious attraction turns into a passionate romance so ardent that Talbot, against his better judgment, contemplates leaving his comfortable life behind for the alluring woman who broke him free from the chains of suburban life. Prentiss, against her better judgment, allows for it to happen. And Talbot, stupidly, takes drastic measures to ensure their being together.
In an unprecedented slant from the norm usually worn by a women's noir, though - typically a leading lady is more Jean Gillie than "Sudden Fear" (1952) era Joan Crawford - "Nora Prentiss" is clothed in terrific writing that decides early on that we're watching a character study fit with multifaceted characters and not noir archetypes.
Talbot is hardly a typically cynical, morally corrupted loon with a weakness for attractive women who give him attention (I'm looking at you, Walter Neff) but a classic good guy who finds himself just as surprised as us that he's transformed from a dependable, kind breadwinner to a philandering husband within a matter of months. His love for Prentiss simply stems from his self-hatred: as soon as he meets her, he comes to realize just how monotonous his life has become and how little he can do to spice up his life. His adoration of the singer is almost accidental.
But Prentiss is the film's most compelling character, though not in the ways we'd expect in the pre-stages of viewing. She's not a femme fatale but rather a susceptible woman hyperaware of the scrutiny that comes when you're over 30 who's never married. When we first meet her, we get a glimpse of the lady she readily presents herself as - tough-talking, sardonic, flirtatious ("Did I leave anything on the street? An arm or a leg?" she purrs just moments after getting hit by a car).
But the more she lets Talbot into her heart the more we begin to notice how much she's hurting. This romance is one she'd like to keep, but, per usual in the landscape of her romantic excursions, it's doomed and she knows it. Since Sheridan was 32, having a harder time finding work at the time the film was released, and nearing the end of her tenure as a major box-office draw for Warner Bros. (though "Nora Prentiss," along with "The Unfaithful," which was also released that year, gave her a huge hit), autobiographical shades unavoidably seep into her portrayal.
Bent with sad eyes and a thinly-veiled sensitive disposition, we want nothing more than for her life to finally be illuminated by even the smallest of a glimmer of hope. The warning that "loving her once is once too often" stings by the time we're done with the film - that's what a jilted lover would want us to think. All Prentiss desires is to be loved, to have a life cloaked in something other than disappointment. Sheridan is effective, but much of her performative brilliance is incidental. In no doubt would Prentiss not be as much a moving creation if Sheridan's real-life weren't also underlined in fear of lost relevance.
The feature is definitively too long - too much time is spent in the aftermath of Talbot's misguided decision to leave everything behind for the lounge singer who stole his heart - but "Nora Prentiss" is otherwise a shimmering exemplification of the wonders that come with competently made studio fodder. N. Richard Nash's screenplay tugs as many heartstrings as it does provide its characters with three-dimensionality, and Vincent Sherman's direction is profoundly nightmarish. James Wong Howe's innovative cinematography is as rich as it is distinctly claustrophobic. And Sheridan and Smith make for an uneven coupling that oddly complements the story "Nora Prentiss" is trying to tell. It's something of a forgotten classic. Let's call it a find for now.
In the aftermath of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), it's mostly been decided that the rose-colored tint of a World War II thriller is something to do away with. Gone are the intrigue-filled days of "Saboteur" (1942) and "Ministry of Fear" (1944). We now have the gritty "Fury" (2014) and the visceral "Unbroken" (2014) to contend with. Even Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" (2009), arguably as brutal as it is fantastically fun, seems to prefer callous carnage over eye-catching, treacherous artifice.
It's not so much that I want movies circling around WWII to be flirty and fun. It's more that it's a rarity to see something akin to "To Have and Have Not" (1944) in our cynical modern times, and sometimes one can yearn for the era wherein being an anti-hero or a femme fatale weren't always backed by the karmas of real life. Oftentimes missing from our cinematic landscape is a sense of razzly dazzly escapism. Realism is good and fine, sure, but every now and then is it preferable to sit in the company of a feature that exists within an otherworldly galaxy in which it's clear that we're watching appealing reverie rather than knockabout verisimilitude.
So "Allied" (2016), written by Steven Knight ("Eastern Promises," "Pawn Sacrifice") and directed by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Cast Away"), is invigorating in that it sees the beauty in the romanticized, propaganda-bent war thrillers of the Hollywood Golden Age. Devised is not just a sumptuously made popcorn flick but also a smartly executed pastiche, reflecting the textures and colors of Warner Bros. during the 1940s without losing sight of the modern-day attributes that disallow it from completely standing as an homage.
Set in 1942, "Allied" follows Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), an intelligence officer en route to Casablanca, Morocco to assassinate Germany's bloodthirsty ambassador. To ensure convincing insinuation into the life of the man he's tasked with killing, Vatan is partnered with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a French resistance fighter reeling from the recent compromising of her beloved team of revolutionaries. Posing as a married couple, they transform themselves quickly and easily. So much so that the twosome eventually give into their looming physical attraction to one another and fall passionately in love.
The mission inevitably proves to be successful, and not long after its completion does Vatan ask for his partner's hand in marriage. The wedding comes swiftly and the duo moves to London, England, settles down, and quickly become parents to a baby girl named Anna. All should be blissful.
But Vatan's euphoria turns into high anxiety when his superiors inform him that the Marianne Beauséjour he knows and loves might not be Marianne Beauséjour at all. The woman in question was killed in France not long before the couple met. The person sleeping next to him night after night could be, in fact, a German officer with sinister intent.
Vatan is ordered to write out a misleading piece of intel and leave it out somewhere obvious in the home. If the false information being written comes up in German transmissions, then it will be known that Beauséjour is really the dangerous spy she's suspected of being. If nothing shows up, Vatan will be able to continue enjoying the routine of happy domesticity. No matter the outcome, though, Vatan is forced to live with severe conjecture for much too long a period - and with the knowledge that he'll be the one to execute his wife if she's actually the slippery monster she's purported to be.
While "Allied" never stops being a hoot throughout its run - it's as old-fashionedly pleasuresome as it is tautly designed - I like it best before the storyline centered around the potential for betrayal sets in.
Throughout the first hour or so, when Vatan and Beauséjour are still getting to know one another and when the sexual tension runs high, I found myself reminded of the opulent deception of Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" (1946), with everything stinking of expensive elegance all the while maintaining an undercurrent of deafening jeopardy.
It's delightful watching Pitt and Cotillard trade barbs in an atmosphere of luxurious intrigue, dressed to the nines and attempting not to overthrow the platonic professionality resting between them. When the enemy of the first act is gunned down, it's not hard to imagine the film ending there and naming itself a brilliant short. What Knight, Zemeckis, and his actors have done is astounding: they harken back to the days where Bogie and Bergman were king and queen without ever losing the movie's individuality among its contemporary peers.
"Allied" still maintains its momentum when its main plot makes way and smoothly transitions from state-of-the-art spy caper to "Suspicion" (1941) imitator. Anxiety runs rampant and our interests are groomed, even after the mostly predictable finale introduces itself and we're left reeling. Pitt and Cotillard, of course, are key, splendid even: Pitt has enough classic masculinity within him to fuel the fires of five more action movie heavyweights, and Cotillard, even better, is the competent, sexy femme not seen nearly enough within the classic Hollywood that produced so many dramas of "Allied's" kind.
In being so archaically stylized, though, there's always a risk that artistry and performative aptitude might conquer story-based urgency. And that's one of "Allied's" few flaws - it's suspenseful and it's beautifully mounted, but because it's decently familiar, there's an underlying feeling of seen-it-all-before comfort that prevents it from achieving total vitality. But it's a joy all the same. A star-driven epic of its caliber is a deviation from the norm, and jubilee proliferates when in its company.
Melanie Lynskey has more appeal in her left thumb than, say, Jennifer Lawrence post 2016 Golden Globe win because her everywoman charms are so easygoing. Whereas JLaw is movie star beautiful, an earner of $46 million per year, and, arguably, the most famous actress in the world, Lynskey, who looks like your favorite middle school teacher, doesn't have to assure us that she's as stereotypically "normal" as a friendly neighbor. Naturalism comes easy for an actress of her stature because she's all acting muscle and no done-up flash - never for a second do we feel as though we're watching a superstar pretending to be as real as you or me. In many of her performances, Lynskey is so convincing as an average Josephine that we sometimes forget that she's one of the most talented character actresses working today.
While most of the parts she's undertaken in her long career have usually required her to be a colorful supporting character (and sometimes even the best thing in a subpar film), 2017's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," an off-kilter, comedic crime thriller, allows her to lead the way as an ordinary woman forced to be extraordinary after her life goes from mundane to dangerous in an unpredicted snap.
The film, serving as the writing and directing debut of Macon Blair, is sometimes slight and is maybe even too tonally unwieldy to work soundly. But Lynskey is ceaselessly amiable, and there's an undeniable joy in seeing her channel Charlie Bronson like it's no big deal.
In "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," Lynskey is Ruth Kimke, a mild-mannered nursing assistant who loses all sight of herself after her home is robbed. Though only her laptop and her grandmother's priceless collection of silver have been stolen, Kimke finds herself inching toward a complete breakdown. The police are useless in helping her retrieve the items, and she starts to feel pangs of existential despair the more she thinks about how easily pieces of someone's identity can be taken. Worst of all, the burglary pushes her to break free of her prison of reticence, and having to overcome comfortable anonymity doesn't suit her well.
Initially, the movie seems to be headed in the direction of the commonplace character study that sees a seemingly stable character psychologically spiral out of control after something traumatic happens to them. But "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" genuinely surprises the more it develops, the banality of it all suddenly turning explosive after Kimke decides to take matters into her own hands and track down her stolen items for herself. Teaming up with an oddball neighbor named Tony (Elijah Wood), who seems straight out of a Chuck Norris vehicle, she transforms herself into a quasi vigilante but unknowingly gets herself into a shitstorm of trouble when it turns out that the perpetrators are much more dangerous than your usual small-time crooks.
Because it's a commixture of different genres - social satire, black comedy, revenge flick, action thriller, and crime drama - "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" is uneven and varies in its capability to compel (though its off-the-wall humor generally prospers, particularly in the constructing of secondary characters). But Lynskey and co-star Wood are faithfully uninhibited, and one of the film's pleasures is watching them portray fairly normal characters who have to wear their best action hero costumes in order to stay alive in the midst of the potentially lethal situation they run into.
Many critics are touting "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" as an understated exploration of gender dynamics in the U.S. and maybe even a commentary regarding the societal angers to have come along in the face of the recent election. Perhaps Blair is going for some sort of cinematic reflection of the times. So maybe I'm shallow in my viewing of the feature - even in the aftermath of its 96 minutes, I continue to see it merely as an unhinged, curious take on the revenge movie. And it's likely that you'll best enjoy it filtered through that lens, too.
Offensive as I find it that there was a time in which smoking joints and shooting up heroin weren't much differentiated and in which movie studios figured that producing films featuring characters who speak like people starring in a Diablo Cody penned pulp novel was a good idea, I like 1958's "High School Confidential." I like the way it amplifies the dangers of teenage rebellion first touched upon in 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause" and intermixes them with the delusions of "Reefer Madness" (1936-39). The way bad boys and bad girls don't look all rough and tough but instead pass by like Tab Hunter and Sandra Dee wearing black eyes and carrying around switchblades. The way sexy aunties, shapely teachers, and juvenile kittens exist with the offhandedness of freshly-baked tabloid fodder.
Indeed "High School Confidential" is one of the worst movies ever made, but it's inferior not in an Ed Wood kind of way but in a way that embodies the cons which come along with severe datedness. This movie only could have been made in the late 1950s, could only have been distributed by a flagging major movie studio thinking they had a game-changer on their hands, and could only have starred Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren and seemed appealing. It looks and feels like a feature created by crusty old men who thought they knew a thing or two about the youths of their day but actually didn't. It wears the aesthetic of a fed-up Hollywood tired of figuring out how to pander to the kiddies.
And yet in its nearly six decades of existing in the public sphere, "High School Confidential's" allure has broadened, if not in the ways it originally intended. Now among the 100 films listed in John Wilson's "The Official Razzie Movie Guide," chosen as a result of its undeniably being so bad that it's good, it's a howler best enjoyed when viewed with a large group. It's crucial that there be someone to turn to when a one-liner is thrown out into the open and we're forced to process what we've just heard.
In the film, we find our protagonist in Tony Baker (Tamblyn), a young punk who's been in high school so long he no longer has to worry about getting in trouble with the fuzz for drinking underage. After the film's intro gratuitously sees Jerry Lee Lewis, as himself, with a backing band rolling out ballsy tunes in the back of a pickup truck, the picture transitions into Baker's arrival at the high school wherein much of the movie's action takes place.
Though a transfer student - apparently his former school couldn't handle his restlessness - that doesn't stop him from deciding that he's immediately going to present himself as the high's top dog. With a smirk frozen on his face, he sasses administration, challenges the status quo, and openly flirts with his homeroom teacher (Jan Sterling). By the end of the day, he's the new kid on the block who all students without much personal individuality immediately gravitate toward.
This causes problems with nearly everyone, especially J.I. (John Drew Barrymore), another tenacious lionheart threatened both by Baker's insistence on being the premier wild child around and also by Baker's interest in his girlfriend, the pot addicted Joan (Diane Jergens).
By the film's end is it revealed that Baker's intentions are much more complicated than we initially believe, but I think "High School Confidential" is at its most entertaining when it takes on the stance many youth-fearing elders wore thin during the period during which the movie was made. This is predominantly a piece that exaggeratedly warns of the dangers of rock 'n' roll, beatniks, pot, heroin (deservedly, I guess), and, to some extent, breaking free of the comforts of trite suburbia. And that preachiness is delightful to behold. The ways the movie's resident "squares" overanalyze the direction in which they believe teenagers are headed (the scene gliding over a staff meeting is especially funny) are absurd but humorously stoic, and the way the film ultimately decides that peace can be restored if a joint is traded for a cigarette and if a nympho is provided with a steady man is playful.
But "High School Confidential" works so well as camp because everyone involved seems to be having fun with the material. Van Doren is a hoot as Baker's randy "aunt" who's always trying to seduce her nephew since her traveling husband is unable to "please" her. Barrymore is able to see the ludicrousness of his character and plays with the conventions of teen movie villainy. (He even delivers one of the strangest monologues in cinematic history with a grin, and that's something to cherish). But Tamblyn is the movie's greatest asset - despite not much looking like a troublemaking, skirt-chasing, pot-smoking agitator, he delivers his lines with his tongue firmly in cheek, and that subtle knowingness helps define "High School Confidential" as a film you'd be wiser to laugh with.
I feel faced with generational disparity when prompted with boring film noir like the Raymond Chandler penned "The Blue Dahlia" (1946). I'm too young to be among the latter-day film scholars who decided that the writer was the best thing to ever happen to the crime drama since Claire Trevor, but I'm also too old and weary to stop myself from comparing the film itself to more apt Chandler screenplays, like 1944's "Double Indemnity" or 1951's "Strangers on a Train." All I can do for now is throw my hands up in surrender, citing flat artistry, phoned-in performances (aside from affable lug William Bendix), and an overly complicated script as the reasons for "The Blue Dahlia's" standing as the noir classic which tried to be but never was.
No surprise, since the conditions under which it was made were hardly dreamy. Thumb through the depths of the godsend that is Wikipedia and it's clear that the product in front of us is a result of a myriad of studio stresses. Consider that the film started shooting before Chandler was even finished with the screenplay (with the man's heavy drinking wasting additional time in wrapping things up), that the studio had to deal with the stresses of leading man Alan Ladd possibly getting drafted, and that Chandler himself developed an intense, unfounded dislike for heroine Veronica Lake which ensured bountiful on-set tension.
In the end, "The Blue Dahlia" was a hit, a box-office bonanza which briefly revitalized Lake's flagging career and brought Chandler an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. But 70 plus years later and the movie feels like a noir dazzler that forgets what it means to sizzle. It has the blueprint in place to help itself work up toward the dizzying heights set by the aforementioned masterpieces but doesn't have the passion to get there. It feels like exactly what it is: a movie made with high anxiety by severely talented people.
The feature, plodding if competently made, is headlined by Ladd, here playing a discharged United States Navy officer readjusting to civilian life with cohorts Buzz (Bendix) and George (Hugh Beaumont). Named Johnny Morrison and hoping his life will return to its comfortable predictability after he settles back into domesticity, he's surprised to arrive home and find that his spouse, Helen (Doris Dowling), is having an affair with Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva), the owner of local Blue Dahlia nightclub.
Enraged, Morrison walks out, gets drenched by the evening rain, and is coincidentally picked up by Harwood's wife, Joyce (Lake), with whom he exchanges flirtations and eventually rooms with in a Malibu hotel later that night (in separate quarters, no less). Come the next morning, Morrison decides that he might as well give his marriage a chance - not necessarily his wife's fault that she got lonely in his absence.
But blasting radios announce that such is no longer an option for the former army man: Helen has been found murdered in their home, a handful of bullets having penetrated her heart. Morrison, of course, is the prime suspect. Helen's widespread extramarital activity was well-known to most, and it would make sense that he retaliate in such a callous manner. Forced to go on the run, with Joyce by his side, Morrison must clear his name, clever amateur detective work getting him far.
But we've seen this all before - "The Blue Dahlia" is a run-of-the-mill wrong-man story which isn't helped by Ladd's decidedly unsympathetic exterior (he seems relatively inclined to beat up his wife, even if she is venomous) and by the lack of urgency clearly a result of the movie's slapped together middle and final acts. The ending is particularly a let down - the reveal is scarcely juicy and the manner in which it's delivered is straight-faced rather than gasping.
I wish, then, that "The Blue Dahlia" had flavors of melodrama. This story should be told with Hitchcockian flair, and yet it always seems to be at a standstill. For a better Ladd/Lake pairing, look in the direction of their first collaboration, "This Gun for Hire" (1942). That film knew how to use them. "The Blue Dahlia" doesn't.