Spoiler-Free Review: “Decision to Leave” (2022) starring Park Hae-il & Tang Wei

From a mountain peak in South Korea, a man plummets to his death. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife Seo-rae. But as he digs deeper into the investigation, he finds himself trapped in a web of deception and desire. -Official Synopsis

If I cannot avoid it, then I embrace it.Park Chan-wook (director), when asked re: modern technology in this film

This film (streaming on MUBI) is the official submission of South Korea for the Best International Feature Film category of the 95th Academy Awards in 2023. I’d previously seen The Handmaiden, also directed by Park Chan-wook (who is in a league of his own); here we find a V different (yet also compelling) story. I was curious to see it, as I heard it was a blend of mystery, noir, and (slow burn) romance. The inspo for Decision to Leave was the Swedish crime novel series The Story of a Crime by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which is re: aging police detective Martin Beck and contains social critique. At first, Chan-wook didn’t like the idea of using text messages; he’d considered a period piece (where the characters send hand written letters). When he decided on a modern setting, he put in a smart watch, voice recordings, and translation apps. Chan-wook used cell phone POV shots to show that the characters are NOT only looking at the screens, BUT to give a sense that they’re looking at the other person.

I envisioned it to be slow and gradual, but the actor [Hae-il] held the look for a moment too long before asking for the pattern to unlock her cell phone. -Chan-wook, when asked re: the possible “love at first sight” element

Jan Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is an experienced cop in the big city of Busan; he’s in middle-age, wears custom-tailored suits, BUT can also run/fight better than some of the younger men. He’s a “dignified” man who is perhaps TOO invested in his work; one reviewer was reminded of Det. Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann’s Heat. Like many modern marrieds in South Korea (as my friend explained after her recent trip to Seoul), he and his wife (a scientist) live/work in separate cities, so see each other on weekends. The femme fatale is Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei, co-star of Lust, Caution), who reminded me of those beautiful/mysterious women of classic Hollywood. Both of the leads are able to portray vulnerability so well! It’s obvious that some of the authorities are suspicious of Seo-rae b/c she is Chinese (a foreigner) and much younger than her wealthy/powerful husband. There is a younger cop partnered w/ Hae-joon who provides comedy, as he has a LOT to learn and improve upon in his work.

This film is esp. well-edited and creatively shot, as many critics noted. There is much natural beauty to admire, going from city to mountains and- finally- the sea. There is no doubt that these filmmakers have an unique take, as they embrace, yet also subvert, the tropes of the crime drama. I esp. enjoyed the (gentle) romantic scenes in the 2nd act; Chan-wook said he was inspired by David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Many viewers were reminded of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, though the director said that wasn’t an influence.

Quick Reviews of Three Noir Films

Impact (1949) starring Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn, & Helen Walker

A unfaithful wife plots with her lover to kill her husband, but the lover is accidentally killed instead. The husband stays in hiding and lets his wife be charged with conspiracy.

This is a B-movie w/ a lead actor (Donlevy) who usually plays the 2nd lead. Walker is the cold-hearted femme fatale in the big city; Raines is the charming small-town widow/businesswoman (good girl). Raines is esp. lovely, even wearing overalls! As usual, Coburn does a fine job; here he plays a wise (yet also kindly) cop. There are a LOT of twists and turns that keep it interesting. I was reminded of Out of the Past in the country life scenes. If you want to take a deeper dive into noir, then check this out.

Niagara (1953) starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten, & Jean Peters

As two couples are visiting Niagara Falls, tensions between one wife and her husband reach the level of murder.

This is a rare (technicolor) noir which highlights Niagara Falls and Monroe- two gorgeous sights (no doubt)! Two V different types of marrieds staying at a mobile lodge in Canada get to know each other… and vacay drama ensues! There are many close-ups on Monroe’s face (always w/ glam makeup), her figure, and signature walk- the typical “male gaze” comes to mind. Monroe does a good job, as does Cotten as her troubled/PTSD-affected war vet husband. Peters is beautiful also, BUT she gets the “girl next door” role and some action scenes. Unfortunately, Casey Adams (more known for his light/TV roles) acts like he’s in a totally different movie! If you’re a fan of Monroe and like suspense/psychological dramas (such as Hitchcock), then I esp. recommend this movie.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) starring Jeanne Moreau & Maurice Ronet

A self-assured businessman murders his employer, the husband of his mistress, which unintentionally provokes an ill-fated chain of events.

This film ushered in the French new wave; it was directed by Louis Malle (who was ONLY 24 y.o.) I’m a fan of his 1992 erotic thriller- Damage (starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche). The music was composed by an American jazz great- Miles Davis. Malle shot Moreau (before fame) in close-up and natural light (often w/o make-up). The scene of Moreau walking down the Champs Elysees at night was shot using fast film in a camera mounted on a baby carriage; it used ONLY natural light from the street and store windows. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something different.

“Too Late for Tears” (1949) starring Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, Dan Duryea, & Arthur Kennedy

She Got What She Wanted… With Lies… With Kisses… With Murder! -A tagline for the movie

One night on an empty LA highway, a man in a speeding car tosses a bag into Jane (Lizabeth Scott) and Alan Palmer’s (Arthur Kennedy) convertible, as they’re heading down a mountain road to a party. When they open the satchel, they find $60,000 inside! Alan wants to turn it over to the police; Jane (w/ a life of luxury now w/in reach) persuades him to hang onto it “for a while.” Soon, the Palmers are tracked down by Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), a shady character who claims the money belongs to him. To hang on to the cash, Jane relies on her feminine wiles, even if it leads her to danger!

Alan: What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you! I’ve tried to give you everything you wanted, everything I could.

Jane: Yes, you’ve given me a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives.

This is a B-movie (w/ a small budget), BUT packs a big punch when it comes to entertainment. It was independently produced and released via United Artists, so it wasn’t a studio picture. The director is Byron Haskin and the screenwriter is Roy Huggins (perhaps more known for his TV work, incl. Maverick). I always liked the work of older James Garner, so have been watching some eps of this Western series in the pandemic. In this story, the femme fatale is a housewife (rare for noir) married to a decent man!

Scott and Duryea play up the melodrama (which suits this story), as opposed to the more naturalistic Kennedy (who took this role in order to play Biff on Broadway in Death of a Salesman). Kennedy also had many character roles in Westerns. Kathy Palmer (Kristine Miller) does a good job as Alan’s caring/working gal younger sis. Miller had a supporting role in I Walk Alone w/ Scott. The character played by Don DeFore brings mystery when he enters the story; this actor worked in the theater, small movies, and eventually found success in TV.

Danny [to Jane]: You know, tiger, I didn’t know they made ’em as beautiful as you are, and as smart. Or as hard.

This movie shows us (yet again) that you don’t need famous actors, elaborate sets, or glam locations to make something effective (and enjoyable). The “bad girl” here is SO bad that she even scares a career criminal- whoa! FYI: Adjusted for inflation, $60,000 would be equal to about $663,000 (2021). The Film Noir Foundation provided the funds to restore this movie; the process took 5 yrs (after the print was discovered in France). TCM aired the fully restored version in 2015; you can also see it free on YouTube.

#Noirvember: “House of Strangers” (1949) starring Edward G. Robinson, Susan Hayward, and Richard Conte

After serving 7 yrs in prison, NYC-raised lawyer Max Monetti (Richard Conte), goes to the bank run by his brothers Joe, Tony and Pietro. He promises to revenge them. Next, he visits his lover, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), who asks him to forget the past and start a new life in San Fran. In flashback, we see Max’s life in the early ’30s. He was the favorite son of his father, Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), who had a small bank in Little Italy on the Lower East Side (LES). Gino is an egotistical/self-made Italian immigrant who ruled over his family like a tyrant. Max was a competent lawyer engaged to a young woman, Maria Domenico (Debra Paget). Max meets Irene when she comes to him for legal help; they have a LOT of spark, but their love affair is troubled. The new Banking Act takes effect in 1933, and Gino is investigated by the feds for misapplication of funds. Max forms plan to help his father…

Max [to Irene]: Always looking for a new way to get hurt from a new man. Get smart, there hasn’t been a new man since Adam.

This is a film noir that is also a dysfunctional family drama (how appropriate for the holidays- LOL)! If you are an immigrant or a 1st gen American, you MAY esp. relate to this movie. It’s a BIT of a mixed bag, though it has some (timeless) themes and (mostly) good acting. The character of Gino Monetti is loosely based on Amadeo P. Giannini (1870-1949), founder of the Bank of Italy, which became the Bank of America. According to articles from the entertainment press in March of 1948, Victor Mature was to be cast as Max. This film reunites Conte, Paget, and Hope Emerson who appeared in Cry of the City (1948)- a V fine movie. Of course, MANY of you will know Robinson and Paget from The Ten Commandments (1956).

I like watching Conte (discovered by John Garfield and Elia Kazan); he has a challenging role here. No offense to the fans of Mature, BUT Conte is a stronger actor. Max (who sometimes operates in the “gray areas”) has to decided btwn the “good girl” (virgin) from his neighborhood and the mature/WASP “temptress” (experienced w/ men). Conte and Hayward play off each other well; they have a sort of combative energy. Now, are there some stereotypes in this story? Yes, though we classic movie fans are aware this can be the case sometimes. People of Italian heritage were considered “exotic” in the 1940s; Hollywood (for many decades) did NOT create subtle characters who were ethnic (or racial) minorities. Some (modern) viewers couldn’t get over the accent used by Robinson, his pencil-thin mustache, and mannerisms.

Max: Pa, have you read the new banking act?

Gino: I don’t even read the old one. Why?

There was also drama behind-the-scenes (BTS) of this movie. According to the biography of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (People Will Talk), the producer (Sol Siegel) hired Philip Yordan to adapt Joseph Weidman’s novel (I’ll Never Go Home Again) for the screen. After Yordan submitted 3/4 of the script, Siegel decided that it was unacceptable, fired him, and asked Mankiewicz to redo the script. Mankiewicz rewrote ALL of Yordan’s dialogue, reshaping the script. The Screen Writers Guild ruled that Yordan receive sole story credit and he and Mankiewicz share credit for the screenplay. Mankiewicz refused to share credit for a screenplay he had basically written, so received NO credit. The studio remade House of Strangers in 1954 as a western- Broken Lance (starring Spencer Tracy as the patriarch). Yordan was given credit for the story and won the Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Yordan was also front for many screenwriters blacklisted in the ’50s.

[1] The acting is this film is nothing short of fantastic. Robinson is perfect as the dictatorial, ruthless Gino. Conte is totally believable as the favorite son – efficient and slightly to the right of slimy. Luther Adler gives a brilliant performance as the henpecked Tony. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Susan Hayward plays Max’s love interest, a woman who gives as good as she gets. She looks sensational and does a terrific job in her role. Stardom is right around the corner for her, and it’s no surprise.

[2] …a great story of hatred and forgiveness. Edward G. Robinson has one of his best performances (if not the best) and wins the Best Actor award in the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. Richard Conte has one of his best roles (if not the best) in his well-succeeded career. Susan Hayward is very beautiful and elegant and performs a strong female character.

[3] I said it was an adult movie… The characters are ambiguous, as people in real life would be. In some ways, for instance, Pa is a lovable old patriarch, but he’s also monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. And the murderous resentment of the older kids is made understandable too. And Richard Conte’s character is aggressive and domineering at the beginning, just as a spoiled youngster might be, but he develops into a Mensch by the end of the tale. Hayward develops too…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “The Set-Up” (1949) starring Robert Ryan & Audrey Totter

An “over the hill” (35 y.o.) boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), pleads w/ him to quit (before he sustains a serious injury). His manager, Tiny (George Tobias), is so confident that he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from a gambler, Little Boy (Alan Baxter), w/o telling Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” 23 y.o. newcomer, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), unaware of what will happen to him if he wins.

Stoker: Yeah, top spot. And I’m just one punch away.

Julie: I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away.

This movie is based on a poem published in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, who gave up his job as the 1st managing editor of The New Yorker to focus on writing. He went to Hollywood for a dozen years and worked as a screenwriter. In 1948, he volunteered to work on this film, BUT was turned down! Moncure March was angered that his Black boxer (Pansy Jones) was changed into a white character for The Set-Up. In the original poem, Pansy is depicted as a bigamist. The main reason for the change of race was b/c RKO had no Black leading men on contract. James Edwards (who plays Luther Hawkins), could’ve fit the bill, BUT the studio decided that he wasn’t well-known enough to carry a movie. Director Robert Wise suggested Canada Lee (who’d played a boxer in Body and Soul); RKO didn’t think that would work either.

While he was a student at Dartmouth, Ryan was an undefeated boxing champion- V cool! Former boxing pro, John Indrisano, choreographed the match and is credited onscreen for “fighting sequences.” Fieberling was also an expert boxer. Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film; he was so impressed by the boxing that he had to deliberately avoid copying Wise’s camera moves when it came to Raging Bull (1980). Wise (who’d begun his illustrious career as an editor) used 3 cameras to capture the boxing scenes: one capable of seeing the entire ring, one focused on the fighters, and a handheld for quick shots and close-ups. This was Wise’s 9th film for RKO; after this, his contract obligations were complete and could work freelance.

Wise credited screenwriter Art Cohn (a former sportswriter) w/ much of the film’s realism. Cohn knew the boxing world; many of the script’s colorful supporting characters came from his own experiences. After attending several matches, Wise added other characters himself; he hung out in dressing rooms before and after fights. Scorsese (who 1st saw this film as a college student) considers it as an allegory for the chaos of life, populated by characters who are flat-out of luck.

The events occur in real-time (over the tight running time of 73 mins); this is unusual for a Hollywood movie. Ryan plays a good/straight-talking guy; you can’t see the acting (as he inhabits the role). I esp. liked the early scenes w/ Ryan and Totter; they make a believable married couple going through a rough patch. All the supporting characters have something to contribute; some of the boxers are jaded (after experiencing disappointment), while others remain hopeful. The crowd can be bloodthirsty, entertained by the (potentially dangerous) fighting.

It’s really a happy ending, in a truthful way. And maybe there’s a hope to that, a hope for the weaker ones in the world.

-Martin Scorsese

[1] I love Robert Ryan films. Whether playing a scum bag or a hero, his gritty and realistic performances have always impressed me.

[2] The end result is a film that is dark, low key and gripping throughout; it exists in the gutter, in the small time where all our characters seem destined to remain regardless of heart or talent. […]

The fight is realistic and tense throughout, I was genuinely unsure how it would go.

[3] What first struck me the most watching this was just how vile everyone- apart from the boxers- are. The fighters are actually the only ones with honesty and integrity running through their veins. These guys are the ones with the self respect being a chief issue for them, they are fighting not just for glory, but for a basic human trait.

[4] Although unnoticed at first, The Set-Up has slowly built a reputation as one of the great noir films out of RKO and one of the best boxing films ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews