Wednesday 22 November 2017

Film Review: Sin City and the great noir thrillers

Green-eyed killer: Eva Green as Ava in Sin City 2
Green-eyed killer: Eva Green as Ava in Sin City 2
Lucy: Scarlett Johansson has got her mojo back
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep
Jane Greer

Paul Whitington

Sin City 2 arrives in your local cinema early next week, some nine years after the original, which has to be some kind of record.

Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller had a script ready as long ago as 2007, but that got tweaked and re-tweaked, there were problems apparently with Miramax and the Weinsteins, and a number of high profile stars came and went as the production lumbered slowly towards completion.

Here, in any case, it finally is, and Sin City 2 treads similar ground to its visually innovative predecessor. Based on the graphic crime novels of Frank Miller, both films tell grim stories of detectives, cops, hookers and ex-boxers who lead lives of unalloyed misery in a wet and dirty fictional American city. Miller and Rodriguez's movies place actors in digitally animated settings to create a kind of exaggerated hinterland midway between the imaginary and the real.

And very effective it is too, especially in the shockingly vivid 2005 original. But Sin City 1 & 2 are a lot less interesting than the original detective noirs that inspired them. They lack depth and subtlety and in the end are merely pastiches of the great noir thrillers that dominated the Hollywood mood throughout the 1940s.

Those films were primarily inspired by the 'hardboiled' crime novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane and James M Cain. These writers often based their stories on real crimes and were a kind of reaction to the prim conventions of British drawing room mystery writing. The work of Chandler and Hammett in particular was of literary quality, and leant the subsequent films a striking complexity and realistic edge.

Though there are endless arguments about what the first film noir was, the first real detective noir for me was The Maltese Falcon (1941). It was based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, and had to overcome the limitations of a first-time director and an unknown star.

John Huston had worked mainly as a screenwriter to this point and had grown tired of watching egotistical actors and producers messing up his work. So when Warner Brothers gave him a chance to adapt and direct Hammett's crime novel, he was determined to get everything right. Though it was not the custom at the time, Huston wrote copious notes and sketches for each scene and produced a screenplay that was exact to the last detail.

The studio had originally wanted George Raft for the part of San Francisco private detective Sam Spade, but Raft turned it down because he didn't fancy working with a rookie director. So Huston turned to Humphrey Bogart, a veteran supporting player at Warners who'd specialised in sidekicks and villains, and relished the chance of taking on a complex anti-hero like Spade.

Bogart was electrifyingly good as the cynical private eye, who becomes embroiled in the search for a jewel-encrusted statuette after a beautiful woman hires him on a bogus case.

There was something new and shocking about The Maltese Falcon's tone. Spade disliked policemen just as much as criminals, and didn't seem to believe anything anyone said. In the film's famous final scene, Spade refuses to "take the fall" for the beautiful Mary Astor. "If you're a good girl," he told her, "you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you." Sam Spade was an anti-hero alight.

The Maltese Falcon was the first of a long line of classic noir crime thrillers. And in many ways Spade became the archetype for the 1940s film detective: a sneering, streetwise operator who took a dim view of human nature, was hard to impress and impossible to shock. Noir detectives smoked and drank too much, were always unattached, and usually damaged in some way by the ugliness they encountered on a daily basis.

Raymond Chandler was perhaps the most influential of the hardboiled crime writers in Hollywood. His novels would provide the basis for dozens of movies and his most famous creation was the grizzled Los Angeles private investigator, Philip Marlowe.

The hard-drinking, world-weary detective made his screen debut in 1944 in Edward Dmytryk's RKO thriller Murder, My Sweet, which was based on Chandler's 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely.

Handsome Dick Powell, best known for musicals and comedies, seemed a surprising choice to play the jaded Marlowe. But he was very good in this tense and densely plotted thriller and Chandler later said Powell was his favourite screen Marlowe. He wasn't the most famous, though, because the Marlowe most people remember is Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep.

Howard Hawks' 1946 drama was based on a Chandler novel but was forced by the limitations of the Hayes Code to soften some of its themes. Most allusions to pornography and homosexuality were dropped and the sexual promiscuity of one of the Sternwood sisters was carefully diluted.

But there's no mistaking the authority of Bogart's self-assured performance as Marlowe, who gets involved with the search for a missing Irishman after being hired by the rich and mysterious General Sternwood. Lauren Bacall co-starred as the General's coquettish eldest daughter, Vivian, but although the film is now considered a classic, it was criticised at the time for its formidably convoluted plot.

Legend has it that at one point Howard Hawks and his screenwriters became so confused about who'd killed the Sternwoods' driver, Owen Taylor, that they contacted Chandler for clarification. "They sent me a wire, asking me," the writer commented dryly, "and dammit, I didn't know either."

A year later Robert Montgomery played Marlowe in Lady in the Lake, a rather plodding thriller he also directed, and in later years James Garner, Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum also gave it a go. But Bogart's remains the definitive screen Marlowe, and The Big Sleep is probably the best Chandler-inspired film.

Some of the classic detective noirs had surprisingly literary origins. Robert Siodmak's racy and violent 1946 drama The Killers was based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and John Huston was among the writers who adapted the story into a lean and stylish script. Burt Lancaster played a not-very-bright ex-boxer called Swede who falls foul of a mobster and is killed, while Edmond O'Brien co-starred as a painstaking insurance investigator who doggedly solves his murder. But the character most people remember from The Killers is Ava Gardner's gorgeous but treacherous Kitty Collins, a classic femme fatale.

Jane Greer played perhaps the most ruthless femme fatale of them all in Jacques Tourneur's beautifully photographed 1947 noir classic Out of the Past. The story was based on James M. Cain's crime novel Build My Gallows High, and cleverly told in flashback. Robert Mitchum starred as Jeff Bailey, a former private detective who makes the big mistake of falling for Kathie Moffat (Greer), a glamorous moll who lies, cheats and double-crosses with breathtaking ease.

As the 1940s drew to a close, the tone and mood of the detective noirs grew ever darker. Shot on location in New York, Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) was daringly gritty. In its opening scenes, an ex-model is attacked by hoodlums and drowned in a bathtub. Barry Fitzgerald played the melancholy police detective who solves the mystery of the her murder.

Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) was even more bleakly realistic and featured a memorable young Lee Marvin playing the vicious sidekick of a ruthless gangster called Mike Lagana.

Glenn Ford was Dave Bannion, a homicide detective whose investigations of a supposed suicide lead him to Laguna's gang. And he becomes determined to smash the gang after his wife and child are killed by a car bomb. In The Big Heat's most famous scene, Marvin throws boiling coffee in the face of hapless moll Gloria Grahame. This was a long way from Miss Marple.

Robert Aldrich's 1955 noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly was daringly uncompromising, and managed to incorporate the rising paranoia of the Cold War. It was based on the lurid pulp crime novels of Mickey Spillane and starred Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer, a tough LA private eye who's almost as corrupt as the criminals he hunts.

When he picks up a glamorous female hitchhiker on a lonely road, they're ambushed by thugs, she's killed and he's pushed off a cliff in his car. He survives and sets out to get to the bottom the woman's death. Aldrich's thriller was dark to the point of nihilism, and Mike Hammer was the kind of anti-hero it wasn't always easy to like.

By the mid-1950s, the classic noir era was drawing to a close and the thrillers of the late 1950s and 60s would always struggle to match them in terms of mood and style. The great detective noirs of that period have only grown in stature over time and any one of the films I've mentioned above will reward investigation far more than Sin City 2.

'Lucy' showcases Scarlett's renaissance

A few years back, Scarlett Johansson's movie career seemed ominously becalmed. After shooting to prominence at the age of 19 in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, she'd caught the eye in a couple of Woody Allen comedies before getting mixed up a string of dull period dramas and dodgy romcoms.

Her distracting beauty made her hard to cast, and for a while there she couldn't buy herself a box office hit. But since 2012, and her appearance in Avengers Assemble, she's hardly put a foot wrong.

She was electrifying as an alien seductress in Jonathan Glazer's 2013 horror Under the Skin and is at her very best in Luc Besson's high-concept action thriller Lucy, which opened here yesterday, playing a women whose mind becomes explosively powerful after she's injected with a synthetic drug. Until recently, critics doubted whether Scarlett was versatile enough, or able to carry a film alone. It would appear she can.

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