Friday, August 13, 2010

Films # 56 & 57: British Film Noir (Aug. 12)

Odd Man Out
1947, 116 min.
Directed by Carol Reed

Brighton Rock
1947, 92 min.
Directed by John Boulting

I must admit, prior to Thursday afternoon, I was pretty indifferent towards the British film noir double feature playing that night. I hadn't heard of either title before, so I looked them up on Wikipedia so I could read a synopsis and know what to expect. Imagine my surprise when I saw the leads of the two respective films. James Mason in Odd Man Out? O Rly??? I am a Mason fan, but most of his work I'm familiar with is from his later years (pretty much anything post-Lolita). And what do we have here? Richard Attenborough? In Brighton Rock? Playing a hood??? I was intrigued.

What really sealed the deal, though, were the film makers involved with each movie. You see, my favorite all-time film is The Third Man. My initial interest in the movie as a youth was my fandom towards Orson Welles, but as I revisited the film over the years my appreciation continued to grow. It is, in my head, a near flawless film. One where all the pieces come together and create something amazing. The director of that was Carol Reed, with a screenplay written by the renown author Graham Greene. So who do I see listed as the director of Odd Man Out? Carol Reed. And who wrote the screenplay to Brighton Rock? A mister Graham Greene. Ok, now I'm excited. I arrived at the theatre with greater expectations, and an appetite to devour today's cinematic offerings.

Odd Man Out is a bit of a fugitive film painted in the shadowy tones of film noir. Set in Belfast after World War II, it tells the story of a city hunting for an inportant man wounded during a robbery. The heist was a cash grab to replenish the funds of a wanted "organization," of which Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is a local leader. Although never stated, it is certainly implied that the organization is, in fact, the IRA. McQueen is shot in the midst of the daytime raid, and falls off of the getaway car during the escape. Left in the war torn bowels of Belfast, he stumbles into an empty bomb shelter and awaits capture, not knowing if it will be his allies or the police.

Mason is normally a dashing and soft spoken fellow in his roles, and I was looking forward to charm coming at me in spades. Alas, he spends most of the movie bleeding out and suffering hallucinations. In fact, it's safe to say that his 24 hours exposed in Belfast is an increasingly surreal experience. McQueen crosses paths with barking dogs, children, young lovers, good Samaritan old nurses, drunken revelers, a bird keeper and a crazed painter. That's a crazy night that wouldn't be matched until Martin Scorsese made After Hours in 1985.

What I also found fascinating was the supporting characters. Like satellites revolving around a planet, they all gravitate towards the plight of this man for different personal reasons. Some wish to save him, some incarcerate him, some to sell him, one to paint him, and one woman only wants to escape with his love. The performances across the board are mostly solid (the accents are all over, though), save for the crazed painter (Robert Newton, who for some reason was given second billing despite not showing up until about 70 minutes or so). My two favorite supporting characters were the kindly but sensible Father Tom (W.G. Fay) and the lead inspector, played by Denis O'Dea. The Inspector kept my attention because he was no fool. Smooth and intelligent, it's the type of role normally played by... well, James Mason.

Without a doubt, the strength of Odd Man Out is director Carol Reed. Here he displays a strong command of the moody atmosphere. It's a beautifully photographed and constructed film. Belfast is given such character, not just by way of locales and inhabitants, but by the shadows that provide a myriad of places to hide. So many techniques here would later be used in The Third Man: low angles, dark corridors, chases, wet streets, foggy and misty foregrounds, and foreign cities. Here, Reed even uses snowfall towards the end of the movie that adds a tenderness to the whole ordeal.

Where I think Odd Man Out lacks is the screenplay. I'm not saying that the direction is superb and the story is crap, but one clearly hides the flaws of the other. The plot is simple, and I appreciate that, but I feel the screenplay adds too many elements (not knowing that a proper director would make the leaner material work). I feel there are too many mini sub-plots, and some characters and scenes could have easily been cut. As a result, the second half feels much more tedious than the first. At a few different moments, I kept mentally wishing the movie would move along already. The entire movie is top heavy, and the narrative wears thin. The power of the story is driven by McQueen's journey and the key people pursuing him, so repetitive scenes of little boys fighting in the streets and unnecessary characters like the painter seem like a waste of screen time. There's about thirty minutes towards the end where the night feels more ridiculous than surreal. While the writer was likely going for a sense of catharsis at the conclusion; what I felt instead was relief.

I'm aware that I sound like I'm coming down hard on the screenplay, but it doesn't derail this otherwise very good film. Based on a book published two years prior, the missteps are likely from adapting the source material too closely. Sometimes it's ok to snip and trim, guys. Really, it is. All in all, I feel Carol Reed's direction here serves as a great primer to his masterpiece, The Third Man, to be released a few years later. Odd Man Out is still highly recommended, but alas isn't currently available on DVD or Blu. Wait for a late night screening on TCM or try to catch it on Netflix streaming.

I literally had no idea what to expect from Brighton Rock. I was completely thrown by the concept of Richard Attenborough as a hood. This guy? Really? He directed Gandhi, Cry Freedom and Shadowlands! He played John Hammond in Jurassic Park! He was Santa Claus in that crappy Miracle on 34th Street remake. Santa Claus!!

It was going to take a lot for me to look past the recent rosy career Attenborough has made. Every time I look at him, I always think, "He has a T-Rex."

Anyways... Brighton Rock is based on the novel by Graham Greene. The story centers around gangster Pinkie Brown, whose gang of thugs try to muscle their way around sunny Brighton. I had wondered why I hadn't heard of this film before, and when I researched further, I found out why. According to IMDB, it was released as "Young Scarface" here in the states. Seriously? That's a horrible title, and sounds like a prequel for the 1932 Paul Muni film. Pssh, movie marketers.

Brown is a sociopathic criminal who is presented as a ice-cold youth. Oddly, he kills a man early in the film but seems unwilling to keep committing crimes to cover it up. As a character, Pinkie is a strange sort of fellow, and the casting of Attenborough doesn't help make him a hardened character. He comes across as more of a dandy than a killer, with a tailored suit, a fedora tilted "just so," a soft voice, and fairly gentle eyes. Pinkie also often wears a vacant and inexpressive stare that made me question his intelligence rather than his morality. In addition, Pinkie's intimidation tactic to his allies and foes appears to be making cat's cradles. No I'm not joking. Some tough guys merely smoke cigarettes or flip coins, but not Pinkie. Why string? I couldn't tell you. Perhaps he thought using a yo-yo would look too ridiculous.

Even with the flaws in the character, I do acknowledge that he is the best thing in the film. He's also the only thug named "Pink" until Steve Buscemi comes along 45 years later. Overall, I found the movie uneven and overly long. This would have made for a fine short film or perhaps an episode of some TV anthology series (something like an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"). As a feature, it loses steam rather quickly. The opening is so well made and edited, where Pinkie and his crew stalk their prey like a predator. This hunt culminates in an intense and scary murder scene in an amusement park "house of horrors" type of ride. However, it's the aftermath of this crime (and the bulk of the entire film) that let me down.

Pinkie has to deal with two loose ends from his crime. One is a older woman who had just met the man who got whacked at the beginning of the film. When the police dismiss the death as a suicide, she makes it her personal mission to prove otherwise. Her apparent disregard for the dangers of investigating a murder annoyed me. Who does she think she is? I kept waiting for a confrontation with Pinkie where he offed her too, but I was disappointed. The other loose end was a waitress who could shatter an alibi. Pinkie finds out and solves this loose end by... marrying her. Whaaaa? Can we inject some logic into this screenplay?

As the movie dragged on, I came to the conclusion that Pinkie Brown is just not a very good criminal. There's an older woman hounding him, a new bride to deal with, and real gangsters moving in on his turf. WWSFD (What would Scarface Do)? I'll tell you what. The prescription for this is to kill more people. I mean come on. He's already a murderer, right? Take the plunge, go the full "Grand Theft Auto," and go nuts. Was he afraid to mess up his hat or get his suit dirty? I mean what kind of method of silencing a witness is it to marry them? Yeah, that'll teach her a lesson.

So yeah, Brighton Rock may have been moody and atmospheric at times, but I would not consider it a film noir classic. I know it's highly regarded, but perhaps it's endured more on reputation than on its merit. After all, who dares speak ill of Graham Greene? Heck, even I won't, but I'm willing to wager the book was better. I noticed that there is a remake in the works, and I'm curious to see what that offers. Perhaps it can iron out a few wrinkles in Pinkie's tailored suit this time. Just don't call it "Young Scarface" again. That will attract a whole different demographic, likely expecting more Al Pacino and his little friend.

Despite this, I was still pleased with the night's offerings at the end of the features. It's always nice to experience something new, and to be reminded that British cinema means more than Hitchcock, Merchant Ivory, James Bond or Harry Potter. Both films this evening paved the way for other works. Now that I think about it, perhaps Pinkie Brown had an influence on how Stanley Kubrick would later portray Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. Such things are up for debate. One thing is for sure. It did reaffirm that true collaborative brilliance is a rare thing and shouldn't be taken for granted. So I guess one could say that tonight turned out to be a lesson in curbing my enthusiasm. but you and I know that will only be temporary. Tomorrow I wake up hungry for more. More film, and more experiences.

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