John Alton and Film Noir: Painting with Light and Shadow

RAW DEAL (1948)

To view Raw Deal click here.

A shadowy, expressive photography defines film noir. It creates the kind of heavy mood and atmosphere that the German Expressionists called stimmung. The genre seemed to bring out the best in cinematographers, but two have been singled out by scholars and historians—Nicholas Musuraca and John Alton.

Musuraca photographed noir favorites such as Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), while John Alton’s work in the genre was in B-movies for directors Steve Sekely (Hollow Triumph [1948]), Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo [1955]), and Anthony Mann. Alton shot six films for Mann; five of them are streaming on FilmStruck, including the noir Raw Deal (1948).

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Personal Moral Codes

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

To view My Night at Maud’s click here.

Éric Rohmer, “the most durable film-maker of the French New Wave”, according to his obituary in The Daily Telegraph, established international prominence when My Night at Maud’s (1969) was nominated for two Academy Awards. My Night at Maud’s is being screened on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck as part of a Blue Christmas theme that invites viewers to “Have a holly, jolly, melancholy, festive season.” With this in mind a black-and-white feature mulling religious and moral questions set in the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand certainly fits the bill. Rohmer was a champion for authenticity. This means if he was going to film a church mass, it would be a real church mass being delivered to the faithful. If music is heard, it had a diegetic source onscreen and reason to exist. If locations were alluded to, those actual locations were used. And if the story takes place on Christmas Eve, then the film itself had to be shot on Christmas Eve too. This last point is the reason the film was delayed for a year, and may have also contributed to the reason My Night at Maud’s is known for being the third within his Six Moral Tales series, albeit the fourth in order of release.

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A Look at David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

Brief_Encounter_1945_1a

To view Brief Encounterclick here.

It’s not often you come across a story centering around infidelity that is portrayed as sweet and innocent, deserving of the respect and empathy of its audience. In film, especially classics, adultery is typically met with some form of harsh punishment, particularly for the women involved. David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), based on playwright Noël Coward’s play Still Life (1936), offers a snapshot of the short-lived romance between two people stuck in the monotonous rut that life can occasionally works its way into. Lean’s film handles the delicate, complicated nature of infidelity with sensitivity and compassion. Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) are not careless in their affair, at least not at first. They know that any kind of a future together is impossible. They acknowledge their spouses and families back home. They understand the social implications of an affair. Both Laura and Alec are seeking something that was lost long ago in their marriages. Perhaps a sense of adventure or simply yearning for that exciting feeling that comes with a new romance, if only for a brief moment.

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Ridiculous Plot, Ham Acting, Sledgehammer Direction – Awesome Movie!

BOYS FROM BRAZIL, THE (1978)

To view The Boys from Brazil click here.

Alternate histories have always had a devoted following and have been around for years. Since World War II’s end, many alternative histories have focused on Nazis, with premises like “What if the Nazis had won?” or “What if the Nazis were victorious?” (Fatherland, The Man in the High Castle) or “What if the Americans had elected a Nazi sympathizer” (The Plot Against America) or some variation on those basic themes. But only one book/movie had the guts to ask, “What if the Nazis lost, like they actually did, but the party stayed alive in South America, like they actually did, and Josef Mengele, the notoriously cruel, sick and incompetent Nazi quack, cloned Adolph Hitler and then a group of Nazis spent years making sure each clone (all 94 of them) had the same exact upbringing as Hitler in order to reproduce him to lead the Fourth Reich?” No one else asked that question because, holy crap, what a stupid question! But Ira Levin asked it because that man knew how to take a premise no matter how ludicrous and turn it into entertainment gold. Anyway, the resulting book, and then movie, The Boys from Brazil (1978) is about exactly that because somehow, someone thought that if you recreated Hitler’s childhood, you would somehow also replicate the exact world conditions that brought Hitler to power in the first place. Oh wait, I don’t think they thought about that part.

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Losey Let Loose: The Criminal (1960)

CRIMINAL, THE (1960)

To view The Criminal click here.

Joseph Losey is one of my favorite directors so I was thrilled to discover that his work is currently being spotlighted at FilmStruck. While looking through the collection of films available to stream I was inspired to revisit The Criminal a.k.a. Concrete Jungle (1960), a low-budget British crime thriller about an underworld kingpin named Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) who organizes a high-stakes robbery that goes terribly wrong. When he finds himself behind bars a second time, Bannion has to rely on his brawn, brains, bravado and faith to survive.

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Going Out with a Bang: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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To view That Obscure Object of Desire click here.

Somehow it seems utterly appropriate that Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel released their cinematic swan songs only a year apart. That might sound strange on the surface, but these two men had earned reputations as the greatest of all cinematic manipulators who traded in subverting their audience’s expectations at every turn.

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The Killer is Loose: He Walked By Night (1948)

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948)

To view He Walked By Night click here.

He Walked By Night (1948) strips the police procedural to the bone. There are no backstories or love interests, just the case at hand, rigorously filmed by director of photography John Alton and directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann (FilmStruck is streaming five Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir collaborations: T-Men [1948], Raw Deal [1948], He Walked By NightBorder Incident [1949] and Devil’s Doorway [1950]). Inspired by the 1946 crime spree of former Army Lieutenant Erwin Walker, the movie is obsessed with process, of both the cops and the killer. The police methodically trudge through witness interviews and crowdsource a sketch of the suspect, while the equally conscientious criminal attempts to wipe his identity from public record. Made in the semi-documentary style popularized by The Naked City (1948), though on a lower budget, it can be no-frills to the point of abstraction, as both sides of the law disappear into the shadows of Los Angeles’ sewer system. [...MORE]

Walking The Thin Blue Line (1988) with Errol Morris

THIN BLUE LINE, THE (1988)

The Thin Blue Line (1988), which is available for streaming via FilmStruck as part of the series Documentaries by Errol Morris, is more than a documentary. It is an investigation into the case of Randall Adams, who was falsely convicted of the murder of Dallas policeman Robert Wood.

Randall Adams was one of the hundreds of rural poor eking out a meager living on the margins of working-class Texas. His (mis)fortunes turned from bad to worse when he met David Harris, a wild teenager with a penchant for violence. The two hung out for a brief time before parting ways after Adams declined to allow Harris to crash in his motel room. A short time later, Adams was arrested for killing Officer Wood during a routine traffic stop. The primary witness was Harris, who claimed he was in the passenger seat when Adams pulled out a gun and shot Wood. Intent on a quick conviction, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department “discovered” other witnesses in addition to Harris who swore that Adams was a dangerous murderer.

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What’s it all about, Monte? The Shooting (1966)

SHOOTING, THE (1967)

His horse rears up his head and looks around, as if something is amiss. The horse’s rider, Willet Gashade, looks around too and as the first notes of a flute make their way into the viewer’s ears, a wave of disquiet has already inundated the surroundings. Something’s not right. Things seem… off kilter. Uneasy. Unsure. The rider makes his way to his destination but soon enough will realize it’s only a starting point to a journey that may or may not end with any sense of meaning or purpose whatsoever. Thus begins Monte Hellman’s extraordinary 1966 film, The Shooting, one of the best films of the 1960s, or any decade, really.

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Remembering Robert Osborne

ESSENTIALS, THE

This week we bid farewell to the patron saint of classic film, the venerable Robert Osborne. News of his death hit hard amongst the classic film community and beyond. Although he had been dealing with health issues in recent years and had taken an extended leave of absence from his hosting duties on TCM, many fans, myself included, hoped Osborne would eventually return in some capacity. While TCM has done a marvelous job of bringing in excellent new hosts and programming, the network won’t be the same without him; we will never hear those beautiful words “Hi, I’m Robert Osborne” again. I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly happy about living in a world without Robert Osborne in it. His passing has left a giant hole in the heart of the classic film community. Fortunately, we have many beautiful stories of Osborne’s kindness and generosity in addition to interviews, books and articles featuring his knowledge and first-hand accounts of Hollywood legend and lore.

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