#Noirvember: “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, & Don Cheadle

In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line. -A tagline for the film

In 1948 in LA, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington), a Black WWII vet, is looking for work. At his friend Joppy’s bar, he’s introduced to a white man, DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who is looking for someone to help him locating a missing white woman (perhaps hiding in the Black community). Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is the fiancée of a wealthy “blue blood,” Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), the fave to become mayor. Daphne is known to frequent Black jazz clubs and spend time w/ a gangster- Frank Green. Easy accepts Albright’s offer; however, he soon finds himself amidst murder, crooked cops, ruthless politicians, and brutal hoods.

Easy: A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?

I recently re-watched this movie (on Hulu). The source novel for this story is by Walter Mosely; the screenplay was written by Carl Franklin (who collaborated w/ Mosely). Jonathan Demme was the main producer of the the film; he’d directed Washington in Philadelphia (1993). At one point, Demme considered directing this film himself, but deferred to Franklin on the strength of his work on One False Move (1992). Washington also helped produce here; we fans know of his production company (Mundy Lane). The cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, also worked on Star Wars VI: A New Hope, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense. Elmer Bernstein (then in his 70s) composed the musical score- wow! Of course, the score is supplemented with jazz music from that era.

The 1st thing I noticed was the production design; it looks like we’re actually dropped into the late 1940s in the opening scene. We see period-accurate cars, humble/well-kept houses, and Black working-class people of all ages/shades/sizes. We learn (via a friend/neighbor) that Easy is one of the few Black men who owns a house and isn’t a private detective by training; I’d consider him a reluctant hero. Washington (in one of his rare “regular guy” roles) simply inhabits his (non-showy) character. Easy has charm and carries himself w/ dignity. Washington is also looking hot (and sometimes shirtless- wearing just a white tank, suspenders, and khaki dress pants).

Mouse: Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

Beals (5’8″) is NOT intimidated to go toe-to-toe (wearing heels- of course) w/ Washington. I thought she was dressed and made-up to look like Linda Darnell (an actress who appeared in several noir films). We can’t forget Easy’s friend- Mouse (Don Cheadle- in an early screen role)! The young actor (who trained in the theater) makes a great impression; Cheadle brings some (much needed) humor to the dark story. Sizemore creates an unapologetic/dangerous villain who enjoys causing fear and pain.

[1] Franklin’s greatest achievement here is the way he brings the period to life, albeit with a certain amount of nostalgic love for the idea.

Overall this is a solidly enjoyable detective story with all the twists and turns that you could expect from that genre. However, it also benefits from a great sense of place and time that is all through the film, not merely painted on with sets or soundtrack. A class act from Washington and others just adds to the feeling of quality.

[2] It can be argued that Beals as the titular femme fatale of the title is under written, but the character comes with an air of mystery that serves Franklin’s atmosphere very well. Tech credits are high, something of a given with Bernstein and Fujimoto on the list, while Washington turns in another classy show of subtlety and believability.

Lovers of film noir should get much rewards from Devil in a Blue Dress.

[3] The atmosphere is a major asset here; director Carl Franklin has done a magnificent job not only of recreating the Los Angeles of the late forties, but also of showing the story from the black perspective, a rarity in film. All the sights and sounds are there, and if you concentrate real hard you can even detect the smells, too. […] Fans of Washington should watch this, but really anyone who likes film noir will approve.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “One False Move” (1992) starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, & Michael Beach

There was no crime in Star City, Arkansas. No murder. And no fear. Until now. -A tagline for the movie

After a drug rip-off which involves 6 murders, the LAPD are on the hunt for a dangerous trio: a sadistic genius- Pluto (Michael Beach- best known for ER), his volatile former cellmate- Ray (Billy Bob Thornton- also co-wrote the screenplay)- and Ray’s 20ish gf- Fantasia (Cynda Williams). Evidence indicates that these fugitives are headed to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Detectives Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings) contact the local Chief of Police- Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton)- then head to Star City to continue their investigation. Dale, an energetic cop/family man, is excited by the chance to participate in a nationwide manhunt.

Can something from 1992 look fresh and unexpected (to modern/jaded eyes)? Every element is firing on ALL cylinders in this (lesser-known) indie film: acting, directing, editing, sound/music, sets/production design, costumes/hair, etc. I kept hearing about how great it was on movie podcasts, so decided to check it out (Amazon Prime). This is NOT a typical action/crime/drama, as it’s more interested in character development. None of the main ensemble is what he/she seems at 1st glance. I was a BIT surprised to see Paxton in a complicated role; he is perfectly cast and able to show his range. Thornton (sporting a few extra lbs. and rat-like ponytail) is an immature/sloppy/volatile villain; his trigger finger is itchy. Beach (pressed/polished) is a calm/calculated villain; he is more dangerous than his partner. Williams (who was married to Thornton: 1990-1992) is NOT the strongest of actors, BUT she does well here, being paired w/ seasoned actors. Like MANY women (incl. women of color), Williams didn’t have much of a career after her 20s. She is also known for her supporting role in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues (playing a singer/one of the love interests of Denzel Washington’s character).

The issue of race adds another layer to the story. The director Carl Franklin (a former actor) is a Black man; I 1st heard of him in 1995 (when I saw another great neo noir- Devil in a Blue Dress– starring Washington). The racism depicted in this movie is casual/subtle. The contrast between life/values of the city vs. the small town/country are shown also. For those who want danger, I admit that I was on my the edge of my seat during several scenes. The tension builds… and builds… until the (emotionally powerful) climax! This film was considered “too violent” when it premiered at Sundance; it was produced by a company that makes movies that go direct to video. Luckily, One False Move did get a (limited) big screen release, after critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spoke of its merits. Siskel put this movie as his fave of 1992; Ebert placed it in 2nd place- WOW! Some of you may recall that 1992 was an esp. strong year for movies; these are some titles: A Few Good Men, Damage, Howard’s End, Malcolm X, The Last of the Mohicans, and Unforgiven.

[2[ The film starts off quite violently, but once it gets going, the emphasis is on good old fashioned character study.

[1 Franklin has a wonderful way with his camera, only revealing enough for us to fill in the blanks, and often his camera is used as a character POV device, with close ups and cuts blending seamlessly with mood of the story.

[3] The script deals with the themes of the contrast between the country and the city, racism, and the mask that many people wear to hide the complexities of their lives and their past. Somehow, all these themes come together in the most seamless and nuanced manner to enhance the poignancy of the film.

[4] I have seen this movie twice. The first time, for the whole movie I was on the edge of my seat. This was an intense film. From the extremely brutal beginning to the climatic end, I couldn’t relax once.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Young Man with a Horn” (1950) starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, & Doris Day

Put down that horn, jazz man… I’m in the mood for love! -Tagline on the movie poster

A lonely/orphan boy in LA, Rick Martin, learns he has a gift for music and falls in love w/ the trumpet. A talented Black trumpeter, Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), takes the boy under his wing and teaches him ALL he knows. The issues of identity and race come up in this story, as it’s focus is on a white man playing (traditionally) Black music; the undercurrent of racism (against the Black artists) is present also. The adult Rick (Kirk Douglas) struggles for a time, as his volatile personality and desire to play jazz (rather than standard dance tunes) land him in trouble. Soon, he becomes a star trumpeter featured in a NYC band and makes good money. Rick meets a young socialite studying to be a psychiatrist, Amy North (Lauren Bacall). In the novel by Dorothy Baker (upon which this film is loosely based) the characters of piano player/Rick’s best pal, Willie “Smoke” Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael), and the singer, Jo Jordan (Doris Day), were African-American.

Rick: I don’t play for people. I play for myself!

Art: Look, boy, a man’s got a lot of living to do in this world. But, you, you’re kind of locked up inside yourself. You’re like a – like bird trying to fly on one wing. You’ll stay up for awhile. Then you’re going to fall.

Douglas’ trumpet licks were performed by Harry James, who also taught Douglas the correct fingering of the instrument. Carmichael was a friend of the real-life jazz musician, Bix Beiderbecke, and helped Douglas w/ his role. Carmichael received a thank-you letter from the director, Michael Curtiz, for his valuable input in several areas of production. Carmichael co-starred previously in Bacall’s 1st film, To Have and Have Not (1944). This was only the 4th film for Day; Curtiz was impressed enough w/ her work to recommend that Warner Bros. consider casting her in a dramatic role. Day gets to sing 3 popular standards, With A Song In My Heart, The Very Thought of You, and Too Marvelous for Words.

Amy: People try to find security in a lot of strange ways. You seem to have solved your problems – at least while you’re playing that trumpet.

Rick: I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but I love the sound of your voice. It’s got a wonderful rough spot in it.

Douglas and Bacall were close friends; they’d gone to drama school together (and have great onscreen chemistry). Bacall recommended Douglas to director Lewis Milestone; he got his first movie role in the noir classic- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). One viewer commented that this was the rare movie where Bacall played “a bad girl.” Rick is socially isolated, yet content w/ his life, as long as he has his horn/music. Jo is interested in him, though he is oblivious. Later, Jo introduces Rick to Amy; he doesn’t understand a LOT of what she’s saying, BUT is intrigued. Amy treats Rick V coldly after they’re married. The film contains a reference to homosexuality, although the Hays Code required any mention to be subtle. Amy is a lesbian; she leaves Rick to go to Europe w/ an artist (a woman). Decades later, Bacall told TCM that the reference was so subtle, and being was young/naive, she didn’t understand this until years later! If you like this story, you may want to check out Paris Blues and ‘Mo Better Blues.

[1] The directing from Michael Curtiz is as you would expect very tight to the drama, and the photography from Ted McCord captures the smoke filled nature of jazz clubs perfectly. The acting from the cast principals is never less than above average. […] The music of course is excellent, and as long as one is prepared for the melodramatic turn of events, this is a very rewarding piece.

[2] …the cinematography in this black & white film was amazing–very, very artistic and just beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Film Noir combined with the sensibilities of Ansel Adams.

[3] …film’s outstanding support performance comes from Juano Hernandez who runs the emotional gamut from confidante and advisor to dependent and admirer with his usual dignity and assurance.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“The World, the Flesh, & the Devil” (1959) & “Z for Zachariah” (2015)

Introduction

Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is set in a world/civilization after nuclear war, plague, or some type of disaster. I found a V long list of movies (on IMDB); here are ones I’ve seen so far: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Children of Men (2006), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Matrix (1999), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1990). While dystopian fiction usually explores social or political struggle, society has NOT yet collapsed (BUT might be on the brink). In apocalyptic fiction, the focus is more on the characters or on man vs. nature.

The World, the Flesh, & the Devil (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, & Mel Ferrer

Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is a miner trapped for several days after a cave-in somewhere in Pennsylvania. When he finally manages to dig himself out, it looks like civilization has been destroyed in a nuclear incident. He drives to NYC and finds it deserted. Making a life for himself in a luxury high-rise apt bldg, he’s shocked to eventually find another survivor, Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), a 21 y.o. blonde socialite. They start to rely on each other and form a close friendship. Some time later, they hear of another survivor who arrives via his small boat- Ben Thacker (Mel Ferrer). Ralph gives Ben an injection that saves his life; Sarah takes care of him while he recovers. In time, tensions start to rise as Ben and Ralph vie for Sarah.

Ben: I have nothing against negroes, Ralph.

Ralph: That’s white of you.

This unique/lesser-known movie showed up under recommendations on Amazon after I watched Z for Zachariah (see review below). The director here, Ranald McDougall, worked for Warner Bros. from 1944-50; he got an Oscar nom for his screenplay of the noir classic Mildred Pierce (1945) starring Joan Crawford. From the mid-’50s, he was primarily active in TV and worked on lower-budget films. Belafonte (who does sing a BIT here and looks gorgeous) was at the top of his career at this time. Though perhaps known more as a singer and civil rights activist, he acted in several V fine films and even had his own production company! So far, I’ve seen Belafonte in Carmen Jones (1954) w/ Dorothy Dandridge, Island in the Sun (1957)- which also contains a interracial love story, and the noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) w/ Robert Ryan.

The first 40 mins of the story is ALL about Ralph; we see a lonely (yet positive-minded) Belafonte navigate the empty/eerie streets of Manhattan. I hadn’t seen the acting of Stevens (a Swedish-American w/ a tragic life/early death) and Ferrer (Audrey Hepburn’s 1st husband; born to a Cuban father and American mother) before; they do fine in their roles. Race is a big issue here; a Black man and white woman wouldn’t be seen as equals or allowed be a romantic pair onscreen (in a segregated society). In one pivotal scene, we see the sexual frustration of both Ralph and Sarah as he gives her a haircut. Even on her birthday, Ralph doesn’t sit down to dinner w/ her, as Sarah wants, but provides the music and food. He acts like it’s OK when Ben and Sarah start to go out alone (on dates). The ending wasn’t quite what I expected, BUT it was intriguing! I think fans of classics will enjoy this movie.

[1] This movie will grab your interest and exercise your moral fiber. Race, prejudice and pride are but minor subplots in this excellent film. […] Black and white has never been so colorful.

[2] Belafonte is terrific especially in his early scenes and Miss Stevens registers quite strongly during their tense exchanges. Most of all, director Ranald MacDougall captures a barren, decimated-looking New York City to awesome, jaw-dropping effect.

[3] A very thought provoking movie that was not accepted at the time, but in retrospect, way way ahead of its time. In a racially charged world, it put forth the premise that race, in the final analysis, is superficial and meaningless. Once you strip away the layers of conditioning and socialization, you find, at the core, good and evil and the age old struggle as to which will prevail. A simple story, told directly and honestly.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

Z for Zachariah (2015) starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie, & Chris Pine

After the end of the world she thought she was alone. She was wrong. -A tagline for the movie

A woman in her early 20s, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie- an Aussie), lives w/ her dog (Faro) on a farm in the Appalachian Mtns, sheltered from radioactivity by rocky hills and a clean underground water supply. After about a year of being alone, Ann encounters John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor- a Brit), a research engineer who (aided by meds and a HAZMAT-type suit) walked from a govt bunker to her valley. Unknowingly, John bathes in a contaminated waterfall, so quickly gets V sick! He is nursed back to health by Ann in her house; she is a Christian and prays to God to save him (thinking he’s a good man). John regains his strength and starts to improve their lives w/ his ideas/skills. They become friends and- eventually- think of pursuing a romantic relationship. Before that can happen, about 42 mins in, Faro runs ahead of Ann to another survivor- Caleb (Chris Pine- an American)!

This movie is based on the sci-fi book Z for Zachariah (1974) by Robert C. O’Brien; after his death, his wife and daughter crafted it into a YA novel. The “love triangle” was added in by the screenwriter (Nissar Modi- a Brit); only Ann (a 16 y.o. farm girl) and Loomis (a middle-aged engineer) are protagonists in the novel. The books has many convos btwn the characters re: religion vs. science, as a few readers have noted. The director (Craig Zobel- an American) recently gained some attention for HBO’s Mare of Easttown (starring Kate Winslet). Tobey Maguire (who served as a producer) and Amanda Seyfried were originally cast in the lead roles, BUT both had to drop out. The title recalls a children’s book that John takes off a shelf: A is for Adam. As some viewers noted, Zachariah is the prophet murdered between the temple and the altar (the last of the prophets killed) in The Bible.

This movie was shot on location in New Zealand; the main set was about 40 mi. from the nearest town. Zobel commented that it “felt like a Summer camp” working w/ his small cast and crew. He and the 3 actors had a week of rehearsal; they did some improv while shooting (as I learned from watching a few interviews from Sundance film fest). Ejiofor (now in his mid-40s) is an actor I’ve admired since seeing his debut role in the indie Dirty Pretty Things (2002). He can express a LOT w/ little (or no) words; he has large/expressive eyes and was classically-trained (as many British actors). After Ejiofor was cast, one line was added in re: race (one of the funny moments). Speaking of great eyes… Pine (now in his early 40s) does quite well w/ his role here; Caleb knows how to use his sex appeal/charm on Ann. Robbie does well also: she (now just 31 y.o.) achieved a LOT of success at an early age. I learned that she just also started producing- V smart move. Check this movie out IF you’re looking for something thoughtful!

[1] Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a compelling performance. It was so real, I think the majority of us would understand what he’s going through. I was shocked by how outstanding Chris Pine was in this movie, just perfect. Margot Robbie was amazing as well, just a solid piece of acting by all.

It made for the perfect emotional love triangle. Even though only three people appear in this movie, it said so much about us as a society.

[2] This is probably the quietest and most understated post-apocalyptic movies you’ll ever see, but deep down, it is truly fascinating. With great performances, impressive directing and an intriguing plot, this film is massively engrossing and surprisingly simple to understand from start to finish.

…a fascinating study of humans in their most basic state: survival and animalistic desires, relating itself almost to Adam and Eve and biblical theory.

[3] Some films make you cry, some films make you laugh and some films just amaze you. Well, this one will make you think and digest information that you will see. Z for Zachariah may not be the most romantic film nor may it be an adventure, but hours after watching it, I was still thinking about what this film represents.

-Excepts from IMDb reviews

Cast interview with Rolling Stone
Cast and director interview with The Wrap

Spoiler-Free Review: “West Side Story” (2021) starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Rita Moreno

I’m sure almost ALL of you know the plot, as West Side Story is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) set among gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The 2 gangs are the Jets (white ethnics/NYC-born) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). The 2 teen “star-crossed lovers”- Tony (former leader of the Jets) and Maria (newly arrived to NYC)- meet at a HS dance and fall in love at first sight. Of course, their relationship will have (deadly) consequences!

There are MANY problematic elements in the 1961 movie, though it is also much-loved by audiences of ALL ages all over the world. First of all, Natalie Wood was NOT a Latina or of Puerto Rican heritage. The Sharks were made-up w/ dark foundation, though people from PR have a wide variety of skin tones. This movie was released after lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He did see the final cut of the film and prefers this version to the original 1961 film (as he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story. -Steven Spielberg

The screenwriter is Tony Kushner; I think he did a fine job (aside from a couple of lines which came off as a BIT modern). The choreography (originally by Jerome Robbins) was updated by Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet. Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski (who often collabs w/ Spielberg), went to great lengths to replicate (as much as possible) the lighting/visual style of the1961 film. Look at the way that the camera is swinging around, even from the opening number from the Jets- wow! I liked the (more realistic) sets and (colorful) costumes here. John Williams was brought in as music consultant; he was piano soloist for the 1961 movie. As many critics/viewers have noted, West Side Story has some of the best (and well-known) songs of ALL time! I’m sure a LOT of you were tapping your feet and/or singing along. This film follows the original song order of the stage musical w/ 2 exceptions: “Gee, Officer Krupke” (really liked the choreography) is moved to earlier (as the 1961 movie also did) and “Cool” (NOT impressed by new version) is sung by Tony to Riff (not sung by Riff to the Jets).

Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides- not just territorial divides- more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957. -Spielberg on movie’s relevance today

When casting this version, Spielberg insisted that all Latino characters be portrayed by real Latino actors. Out of the 33 Latino characters onscreen, 20 are of Puerto Rican heritage. There is a good amount of Spanish used in this film; I was glad that I knew the language (though NOT fluent). You don’t need to know Spanish to get what’s up. Almost the entire cast is made up of musical theatre performers; veteran actress Rita Moreno (an EGOT winner; Maria in the 1961 movie) is the most famous. Except for Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler (cast straight out of HS), and Corey Stoll, ALL of the principals are Broadway alums.

Zegler has a V pure/powerful voice; she has received MANY rave reviews for her singing! Elgort (who shot this movie before revelation of SA allegations) is V tall, handsome (in a bland way), and moves gracefully (he studied ballet some). His voice is NOT remarkable in any way and holds little power; this makes “Tonight” NOT as impressive; it also puts a damper on “Maria.” Anita (Ariana DeBose), has the most interesting role; the actress has received a LOT of award season buzz! DeBose is Afro-Latina and worried that she had the “wrong look” for this role; Spielberg told her that she was “perfect.” DeBose and David Alvarez (Bernardo- older bro to Maria) also have good romantic chemistry. Of course, it’s tough to beat the (fiery) chemistry between Moreno and her Bernardo (George Chakiris- who was of Greek heritage). I was V impressed by Riff (Mike Faist); he commands the screen w/ his (amazing) dancing, but it also a fine actor. This Riff is hard-edged/volatile; this is a far cry from the (teddy bear-like) characterization from Russ Tamblyn (1961). You can now watch this movie on HBOMax!

“America” from “West Side Story” (2021) featuring Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez