Here are some films I’ve watched recently on DVD. If you can’t tell, I’ve been on a film noir/heist/gangster kick lately.
The Killing — This hardboiled 1956 film put legendary director Stanley Kubrick on the map, and it’s easy to see why. Running a lean, mean 84 minutes, “The Killing” tells the story of a career criminal (the excellent Sterling Hayden) who decides to engineer one last heist before retiring; in the movies, of course, this is easier said than done. Kubrick penned the script with pulp novelist Jim Thompson, and the film bristles with energy and a bleak world view that underscores the nastiness of the characters. The heist is set at a race track, and the film unfolds with a documentary precision, while also employing a Tarantino-like approach to storytelling by jumping around in time to fill in key details.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: “The Asphalt Jungle” This 1951 John Huston heist film isn’t quite as good as “The Killing,” but it’s still very, very good. It also features the excellent Sterling Hayden, who just can’t seem to catch a break.
The Public Enemy — This 1931 gangster movie features a star-making performance by James Cagney; on the DVD extras, Martin Scorsese describes his unforgettable performance as the birth of modern acting. Cagney makes everyone else look like amateurs, but the film is so good this isn’t really a problem.
The movie focuses on the ill-fated career of a gangster named Tom Powers (Cagney), who rises to power selling illegal hooch during Prohibition. Powers is as sociopathic as they come; scenes of Powers’ childhood suggest he was born bad and genetically predispositioned for a life of crime. The film is based on a novel called Beer and Blood, which pretty much describes what this film is about.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: In “The Public Enemy’s” most famous scene, Cagney smashes his girlfriend in the face with a grapefruit; in the 1953 film noir “The Big Heat,” a gangster throws a pot of hot coffee into a woman’s face. In both films, the villains express their despicable natures by brutally mistreating women.
Kiss Me Deadly — Well, this might be the craziest film noir of all. “Kiss Me Deadly” shows what happens after Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), the sleazy detective created by pulp novelist Mickey Spillane, picks up a female hitchhiker who has just escaped from some sort of asylum. Thugs capture them, kill the hitchhiker and force Hammer’s car off a cliff; Hammer survives and elects to pursue the case, because he believes the hitchhiker knew about a big score. What sets “Kiss Me Deadly” apart from the typical film noir is its violence, which was quite graphic for the time (1955), vicious leading man (it’s hard to come up with a reason to root for Hammer) and crazy final plot twist, which taps into the Cold War/Atomic Bomb anxieties of the time, and feels like it was imported from a low-budget science-fiction movie. Is this the only film noir to depict not just a crime or heist gone awry, but also perhaps the end of the world?
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: In “Pulp Fiction,” the contents of a mysterious, much-sought-after briefcase glow from within, but are never revealed; “Kiss Me Deadly” also features a mysterious, much-sought-after briefcase, but we learn a little bit more about the contents, which also happen to glow.
Key Largo — This 1948 John Huston film paired Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Bogart plays a soldier who served with Bacall’s dead husband and decides to visit Bacall and her father-in-law at their hotel in the Florida Keys. Some sketchy men are also staying at the hotel, and it soon becomes apparent that they are gangsters on the lam, led by exiled gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). A hurricane strikes, trapping Bogart, Bacall and the father-in-law (Lionel Barrymore) in the basement with the gangsters. Bogart and Bacall are excellent, as you’d expect, but the film really belongs to Robinson, who is unforgettable as a fearsome gangster pining for the glory days of Prohibition. The film has romance, action and suspense, and is benefits greatly from its humid Florida setting.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: Robinson was best known for playing gangsters, but he shines in Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir “Double Indemnity,” as an honest insurance claims adjuster who begins to suspect that a murder has been committed.
To Have and Have Not — Bogart and Bacall met and fell in love while making this 1944 action/romance movie, and their scenes together crackle with sexual tension. What distinguishes the film isn’t the plot or the gunplay so much as the chemistry between the leads and the witty repartee (written by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, and based on the Hemingway novel), which includes the famous “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” exchange between Bogart and Bacall.
Directed by Howard Hawks, “To Have and Have Not” also features some of the best cigarette lighting I’ve ever seen on film, and is perhaps the only movie I’ve ever watched that made me feel like taking up smoking, simply so I could carry around matches and offer handsome strangers a light, while also drinking cocktails and picking their pockets. The film is a little bit like “Casablanca,” but not quite as sentimental or serious.
ALSO WORTH WATCHING: “Casablanca,” of course.
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