A Simple Plan (1998)
Written by Scott B. Smith
Directed by Sam Raimi
The 1990s were an eclectic decade for Sam Raimi. Darkman was his entry into the 90s, which helped to get his third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness, greenlit through Universal Pictures. That was followed a few years later by the western The Quick and The Dead. Then came A Simple Plan (He would wrap up the decade with the Kevin Costner baseball movie For Love of the Game, so he wasn’t sticking to a single genre).
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The Long Goodbye (1973)
Written by Leigh Brackett
Directed by Robert Altman
“There’s a long goodbye/And it happens every day.”
So go the lyrics of a song you will hear many variations of while watching The Long Goodbye. To say this film upset many people, both critics & the general audience, would be an understatement. The character of Phillip Marlowe was a highly revered cultural icon to the adults of the 1970s. In tandem, Humphrey Bogart, forever connected to Marlowe, was seen as the epitome of the movie detective. You cannot watch any American detective film or television series without it being profoundly influenced by that ur-text. So when iconoclastic director Robert Altman released his adaptation of The Long Goodbye, it was not initially well-received. However, The Long Goodbye would be re-released in the same year with a new marketing campaign and find an audience that truly loved it.
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This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
Written by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman
Directed by John Sturges
The frenzy of war often brings the greatest evil out of people. Humans have a penchant for looking for an Other to blame for their ills and the sins of the world. We don’t have to go too far back in our history to find an endless parade of atrocities and hate crimes perpetrated on these Others. The murders and savagery never quell the sense of discontent in the perpetrators, instead planting a ball of guilt in their stomach that festers & boils. How foolishly we target individuals rather than the systems in the place that create war and strife. Easier to kill an innocent person who doesn’t look like you or speaks a different language than work for solidarity to overcome the wrong we all feel. Bad Day at Black Rock is a modern folktale about justice being visited on people guilty of such crimes.
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Mildred Pierce (1945)
Written by Ranald MacDougall
Directed by Michael Curtiz
I’ve come to realize Joan Crawford is a far more complicated person than pop culture has made her out to be. Most people think of “No wire hangers!” or some other element of Mommie Dearest. I wouldn’t doubt Crawford wasn’t a great mother, but she certainly feels like someone ahead of her time as an actress. The role of Mildred Pierce is not a glamorous one. She’s an older woman whose daughter steals the spotlight, but Pierce is also so complex and layered, making choices that can’t be seen as operating inside your standard binary thinking. It’s the rich nuance and texture you’d expect from a story written by James M. Cain, a predominately noir-leaning author.
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Nightmare Alley (2021)
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Having just watched the original Nightmare Alley a week ago, I was a little uncertain how I’d feel about this remake. Guillermo del Toro, like the Wachowskis, is a filmmaker I respect but don’t necessarily enjoy much of their work. It’s clear del Toro is presenting his vision without many studio-directed tweaks and cuts. I’ve begun to think of him as a more thoughtful Tim Burton, someone whose style is matched by the substance of his work. With Nightmare Alley, he comes to the table with a solid narrative to work with. He even manages to go with the novel’s original, bleaker conclusion than the 1947’s softened conclusion. However, the movie feels too sterile due to an over-reliance on modern digital cinematography.
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Nightmare Alley (1947)
Written by Jules Furthman
Directed by Edmund Goulding
When I sat down to watch the original Nightmare Alley, I wasn’t prepared to be hit with such a spectacular film. I expected it would be a decent, pulpy sort of tale but the performances, cinematography, and music were far beyond the bar I’d set in my head. I turned to Ariana during our viewing to make sure I didn’t imagine how amazing this movie is, and she confirmed that she, too, was blown away. For just two years post-WWII, this movie looks ahead of its time. The plot is incredibly complex and can’t simply be boiled down to a single sentence. There are so many supporting characters who are given the type of nuance and complexity we often associate with modern cinema. But here it is, punching far above the weight of most movies and delivering one of the darkest endings I’ve seen from a film of this era.
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The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston was born into entertainment. His father, Walter, got his start in vaudeville and then transitioned into movies. When John was born, his parent ended their earlier careers (his mother was a sports editor) to be more domestic. Walter became a civil engineer for a few years but eventually returned to acting. The couple divorced when John was six, and he spent much of his childhood at boarding schools, ferried between his two parents. Watching Walter act on stage profoundly affected John’s burgeoning love of storytelling and set him on his path to becoming a filmmaker.
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Blood Simple (1985)
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen
Nothing in Blood Simple feels unnecessary. Each frame, each character action, every twist in the plot feels like it clicks right into place to tell a classic neo-noir tale. The Coens direct with confidence that they know every character and the perfect flow of the story. The title comes from Dashiell Hammet’s novel Red Harvest to describe the mindset immersed in violence and how it becomes addled with fear & terror. That perfectly describes this quartet of souls as they make bad choices, communicate poorly, and allow paranoia to take over their psyche. The result is a movie dripping with noir, reminiscent of old classics but paving its own country-fried way.
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Ace in the Hole (1951)
Written by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Directed by Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was wildly prescient when it came to the worst of mankind. Long before 24-hour news cycles became a thing, Wilder was already foreseeing a time where a small incident could be exploited by the media into something more substantial. The forces of entertainment would find ways to prolong human suffering because it makes such a compelling narrative to the public. Wilder makes no bones about how he believes humans often succumb to their worst impulses and delivers a noir film that doesn’t need Los Angeles to give it atmosphere.
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Double Indemnity (1944)
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Directed by Billy Wilder
Damn, that was a good movie. You will, of course, feel like you’ve seen and heard this before, which speaks more to the profound influence this entry into the film noir genre has had on the culture. It’s said to be the movie that set the standard for all film noir to come after. A few months ago, I watched the pilot episode of Columbo and was reminded of how similar the murder plans are. You may recall The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn’t There, both obvious nods to this masterwork. I can’t express how satisfying it is to finally see a film held up as a significant part of the canon and see that it truly lives up to the hype.
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