Saturday, March 23, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Noir New and Old

Imagine for a minute that Bill Cosby decided to do the movie Training Day, in which he played Denzel Washington's on-the-edge detetctive Alonzo Harris. Now ramp up Harris' violence about 20 times, and you have the reaction Japanese audiences had in 1989 when they saw beloved television comedian Takeshi Kitano slap, punch, kick and shoot his way through the unrelentingly bleak Violent Cop.

Kitano was originally supposed to play Azuma, the lead detective in the movie, but stepped in as director when the original director became ill. He also rewrote much of the movie, changing it from a comedy to a very dark look at a man who enforces laws he has no trouble breaking. A drug-dealer's murder leads back into the same police department where Azuma works, and as the results of the investigation come close to home, his hold on his sanity diminishes along with his scruples about what he'll do to bring down Yakuza kingpin Nito and his assassin Kiyohiro.

Azuma occupies the center of the movie -- his slumped shoulders, blank face and aggressive, stump-legged stomp give him an almost zombie-like appearance and Kitano the director holds shots of his face long enough that watchers might wonder if Azuma is a tough guy or really dead on the inside. At first it seems he does have a human side, as caretaker for his mentally challenged sister Ayaki, but even that relationship will drown in the violence to which Azuma resorts all too naturally.

Johnny Drake (William Prince) is returning from service in World War II with his friend and commanding officer Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart). When he finds that Rip nominated him for the Congressional Medal of Honor and it's about to be awarded at a ceremony with a lot of cameras, he slips out the back of the train they're on and disappears. This sets up the 1947 thriller Dead Reckoning, a movie by Of Human Bondage director John Cromwell (father of Babe Oscar-nominee James Cromwell).

Rip traces Johnny to the town of Gulf City, where he finds that there was a great deal more to his friend than he knew. Among the more is Johnny's lost love, Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott), who is defnitely a femme, but whose noir-standard fatale-ability remains an open question. How is Coral mixed up with the gangster Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky), and will the fact that Rip is falling for her keep him from learning the truth about her and about his friend?

Anyone watching Dead Reckoning unfold can't help but notice the similarities to The Maltese Falcon from six years earlier, and those similarities draw attention to where the newer movie falls short. Lizabeth Scott is just fine as Coral but doesn't hold a candle to Mary Astor, and Carnovksy and Marvin Miller as his lackey Krause come nowhere close to Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

On the other hand, Reckoning does a great job of holding viewer interest and Bogie is Bogie, whether Sam Spade or Rip Murdock. He's a man of honor among people of little, and as best as he can determine whatever the right thing is, he'll do it despite the risk.
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), though, isn't looking to do much of anything for anyone but himself. A pickpocket with three strikes against him, he finds himself with more than he bargained for when he lifts a woman's wallet on a New York City subway. The woman, Candy (Jean Peters), was making a delivery for her former boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). But what neither she nor Skip know is that Joey is a Communist agent and that the delivery was microfilm of secret government info.

Federal agents -- their organization unnamed because then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover didn't like director Samuel Fuller's work and complained too often to studio heads -- were trailing Candy to find out who's in Joey's organization, but the theft has stopped their investigation in its tracks. They lean on Skip and Candy in order to try to get hold of the microfilm, which Skip won't admit he has. Skip does admit possession to Candy, whom he makes a go-between for her ex-boyfriend as Skip blackmails them for the film.

Although willing to be violent when he figures he needs to, Widmark exchanges his frequent psychotic touches for tough-guy bluster. Candy quickly falls for him, but he doesn't let that keep him from using her to get his payday. Only when their mutual friend Moe (Thelma Ritter, in a performance that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar) also runs afoul of the enemy agents does Widmark start to act from something other than self-interest. He's not noble and he's not necessarily a patriot for anyone but himself, but he does have a loyalty to his friends and his relationship with Candy will spur him to work alongside authorities to a limited degree.

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