The City Under the City

The Asphalt Jungle details the seedy underbelly of a dirty crime-ridden city. Similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston chose to director an adaptation of another book about the morally corrupt. The Asphalt Jungle was inspired by films like White Heat, but it’s really the former that emphasized the heist genre. Though nominated for Best Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Cinematography – Black-and-White, The Asphalt Jungle didn’t win a single award. It lost almost every category to All About Eve. Ironically both movies have Marilyn Monroe in common.

Despite only appearing in two scenes before she was famous, Monroe made a big impression with her charm, beauty, and acting skills. Though the rest of the movie isn’t overshadowed by her memorable appearance. The Asphalt Jungle centers around a jewel heist perpetuated by small time hooligans, a safecracker, getaway driver, and other criminals. Sam Jaffe was nominated for his role as the aging Doc in charge of the heist. Sterling Hayden is the Southern hooligan Dix Handley who agrees to the job if it means returning to his family farm. Jean Hagen plays his ditzy chatterbox girlfriend Doll.

Though the safecracker Louis Ciavelli is the only one with a family to think about. James Whitmore plays his friend Gus who acts as the getaway driver. There’s also bookie Cobby, corrupt private detective Brannom, and lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich played by a morally ambiguous Louis Calhern. Emmerich is the one having an affair with Monroe’s character Angela. The heist is tense thanks to noir aesthetics and the fact that we got to know every character. Making the manhunt performed by John McIntire’s police commissioner feel justified. Much like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, none of the men can escape their inevitable fate. Each man is either arrested, shot dead, wounded, or commits suicide. The Asphalt Jungle captures crime without hesitation.

The Asphalt Jungle

Angela charms a cop

Top of the World, Ma!

White Heat is one of the greatest gangster movies I’ve ever seen. Yet it was only nominated for Best Story at the Academy Awards. Like so many other classics, I only knew White Heat for the famous and often misquoted closing line “Made it ma! Top of the world.” Ironically it was my own ma who strongly recommended I watch the movie. James Cagney broke typecast when he starred in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but returning to the tough guy roles that made him famous was his only option in the late 40’s. Cagney didn’t get along with Warner Bros, so it was an awkward reunion.

White Heat delves deep into the twisted mind of a gangster. Arthur “Cody” Jarrett is the remorseless head of a criminal gang. Though he seems heartless on the surface, Cody is a serious mama’s boy who tries to make her proud. Even though “Ma” is every bit the criminal mastermind he is. After a great train robbery, the Jarret gang hideout in Los Angeles till the heat dies down. The U.S. Treasury stays hot on their tail when Cody gives himself up. Most of the movie takes place in jail where undercover agent Hank Fallon is tasked with getting information out of Cody.

There’s betrayal and close calls around every corner. After playing a similar character in The Best Years of Our Lives, Virginia Mayo now plays Cody’s wife Verna who betrays her incarcerated husband for “Big Ed.” When Cody escapes to rob a chemical plant, it’s all over for him when Hank contacts the police. Not only does Cody suffer from debilitating headaches, but he goes completely insane with one last rampage. It costs him his life, but he’s finally on top of the world. Cagney made the role his own and should have been recognized for it, because White Heat goes out in a blaze of glory.

White Heat

“Made it Ma! Top of the World!”

The Bottle

The Lost Weekend is a brutally honest look at the dangers of alcoholism. Even a film as old as 1945 could depict addiction without fear of censorship. The Lost Weekend is so simple, yet so powerful. Quickly becoming one of my top favorite Best Picture winners. Legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder won his first of many Oscars for Best Director. The Lost Weekend also won Best Adapted Screenplay for a script based on the Charles R. Jackson book of the same name. Jackson himself was a struggling alcoholic who wrote from the heart.

It’s shockingly realistic, but the movie does cut out any gay subtext found in the book. Ray Milland gives an all time Best Actor winning performance as Don Birnam. Don is a failed writer with an overwhelming urge to drink. Milland’s desperation is believable, heartbreaking, and even terrifying. Wilder uses a noir aesthetic to play up the more horrific side effects of alcoholism. As Don battles his demons, the people in his life either stay by his side or give up on him.

As the title suggests, The Lost Weekend takes place over the course of one eventful weekend. Don uses his brother Wick to buy booze, urges bartender Nate to fill his glass, hides bottles around the house, leads on Gloria for drinking money, resorts to stealing, goes on a bender, and continually lies to his girlfriend Helen. Jane Wyman gives the second best performance as the only remaining person who believes Don can get better. When a rehab facility fails to treat him, Don even contemplates suicide. The Lost Weekend should be required viewing for anyone struggling with addiction.

The Lost Weekend

Don Birnam drinks

Power Corrupts

All the King’s Men is a brilliant portrayal of political corruption. One I may not have seen if not for its Best Picture win. In a way, All the King’s Men almost feels like redemption for Citizen Kane. I don’t always watch political movies, but All the King’s Men is very engrossing and surprisingly easy to follow. The somewhat fast paced editing helps a lot when certain complex issues are condensed. The movie depicts the rise and fall of politician Willie Stark. The title is of course a direct parallel to Humpty Dumpty. Stark was created for the 1946 book of the same name, but he was partially based on Huey Long. 

Stark begins his political campaign as an honest man from humble beginnings. He works to fight corruption until he himself becomes the very thing he sought to destroy. Stark truly changes with an impassioned speech to his fellow hicks that more than earned Broderick Crawford an Oscar for Best Actor. When Stark wins his second race for Governor, he ends up making dirty deals, drinking, being unfaithful to his wife, and dealing with potential career ending scandals. Jack Burden covers Stark’s campaign and is one of a few people who remain loyal to him no matter how bad he gets.

Stark’s own son is the one who nearly costs him his career. Jack’s lady love Anne Stanton betrays him by becoming the Governor’s mistress. Mercedes McCambridge also deserved her win for Best Supporting Actress. In her debut performance, McCambridge plays Stark’s no-nonsense campaign assistant with a jealous love for her boss. Although I’d label it a political thriller, noir is a good way to describe the inevitable fate of a power hungry politician. All the King’s Men is a victory of storytelling.

All the King's Men

Willie Stark’s campaign

The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of

The Maltese Falcon is noir at its finest. While not the first or the last, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon is the best. In it everything centers around a McGuffin. Something movie buffs will recognize as an object that motivates the characters and drives the plot. In this case that’s the titular Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart plays fast-talking hard boiled private detective Sam Spade. This is Bogart’s second best character that he’s played (Casablanca obviously being the first). Spade gets tangled up in a web of lies, love, and murder. His partner is murdered right after meeting a potential client.

The client is a lovely lady that feeds him lies that are only covering up the real job. People begin to tail Spade. Holding him at gunpoint and offering him money in exchange for the Maltese Falcon. It’s a rare priceless jewel encrusted falcon statue that everyone wants to get their hands. Even at the expense of their own lives. The Maltese Falcon keeps you invested until the very end with a subtle atmosphere that only black & white can accomplish. Fully deserving of its 100% rating. The statue is found, but let’s just say there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this. The Maltese Falcon truly is the stuff that dreams are made of.

TMF

Sam Spade (left) catches Wilmer (right)

What She Did

Mildred Pierce finally gave Joan Crawford some much needed recognition. Joan Crawford had been working in the film business for over three decades. Finally in the 40’s she won her first and only Oscar for Best Actress as the titular Mildred Pierce. Mildred Pierce is about a murder mystery. In the center of it is the wife of the murder victim. When taken in by the police, Mildred Pierce Beragon recounts her life story leading up to the events of the murder. How she was once a housewife living with her first husband and two daughters. Until financial problems cause them to divorce. Leading Mildred to work as a waitress and eventually open her own restaurant. While also marrying her second husband who was murdered. I guarantee that I probably wouldn’t have even known to watch Mildred Pierce if not for my mom suggesting it. My only knowledge of Joan Crawford came from the over-the-top biopic Mommie Dearest. Although some of what happens in Mildred Pierce is similar to what happened in real life. Particularly Mildred’s strained relationship with her bratty oldest daughter Veda. Making Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford’s best starring performance.

mildred-pierce

Mildred Pierce (left) has a word with her daughter (right)

Fear of Heights

Vertigo is sometimes considered to be the greatest film ever made. There are people that even put it above Citizen Kane. As an Alfred Hitchcock film, it’s truly one of his most masterfully crafted. Of the four Hitchcock classics I’ve seen (Rear Window, The Birds, and Psycho being the others), Vertigo stands out the most. Since it’s not exactly horror themed. Although it does feature a fear that just about every living person has. Acrophobia, also known as the fear of heights. Anytime we’re up high, we get a sudden feeling of dread. Like we’re gonna fall. I feel that way anytime I climb a flight of stairs with no railing or climb a latter with no one holding it steady. So you may think Vertigo is all about the fear, but this is an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Previous collaborator Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie. A former police officer who lost a fellow policeman in a rooftop chase. This causes his acrophobia and vertigo. When I was younger I always assumed vertigo meant a fear of heights, but it actually means a sensation that everything around you is spinning. Vertigo spends most of its time on a detective story. Where Scottie has to follow a man’s suicidal wife. Played by blonde actress Kim Novak. I wasn’t always sure what was going on, but it all reconnects with his vertigo by the end. Vertigo has only the best qualities of a great Alfred Hitchcock film. Making you want to stay as close to the ground as humanly possible.

Scottie’s nightmare

Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m Ready for My Close-Up

Sunset Boulevard is one of the greatest movies about movies ever made. Sunset Boulevard is also one of my mom’s favorite movies. She had always told my brother and I to watch it. So I finally watched it this year and I loved it. The best thing about the movie is how timeless it feels. It may have been released in 1950, but you could replace Norma Desmond with any aging actress and it would work. So here’s the story, a struggling screenwriter happens upon a silent era movie star in a secluded mansion. The actress is Norma Desmond. A woman who still believes herself to be a star. She even says: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” She lives alone with only her butler Max by her side. Joe the struggling screenwriter soon finds himself in a predicament between the loving generosity of Norma, his job as a screenwriter, and a fellow screenwriter he falls for, Betty. We get to see many aspects of filmmaking explored. Sunset Boulevard is also responsible for many firsts. Cecil B. DeMille is one of the first directors to play himself in a movie. It’s one of the first movies to be narrated by a dead character, one of the first to feature a cougar, and one of the first to portray mental illness. I’m so glad my mom told me to watch it. Sunset Boulevard is brilliant. Even managing to get nominated in all four acting categories. If you’ve ever loved movies, you’ve got to see Sunset Boulevard.

Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond loses touch with reality