The Noir File: Five greats include ‘M,’ ‘Repulsion,’ ‘D.O.A.’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

In one of the best film noir weeks ever, TCM offers five noir greats: “M,” “Diabolique,” “D. O. A.,” “The Big Heat” and “Repulsion.”

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK

Repulsion” (1965, Roman Polanski). Wednesday, Oct. 31, 11 a.m. (8 a.m.)

In Roman Polanski’s shiveringly erotic horror-suspense film “Repulsion,” the 22-year-old Catherine Deneuve plays Carol: a blonde French beauty, with a disarmingly lost-looking, childlike face – a girl who begins to go frighteningly mad when her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) leaves her alone a week or so. Soon, the beautiful, naïve and sexually skittish young Carol, the object of mostly unwanted desire from nearly every man in the neighborhood, starts sinking into alienation and insanity. When the outside world begins to intrude, Carol, repulsed, strikes back savagely, with a soon-bloody knife.

Catherine Deneuve’s nightmare becomes our own in “Repulsion” from 1965.

“Repulsion,” Polanski’s first English language movie and the first of his many collaborations with the reclusive, brilliant French screenwriter Gerard Brach (“Cul-de-Sac”), is one of the great ’60s black-and-white film noirs. It’s also one of the more frightening films ever made. Ultimately, “Repulsion” scares the hell out of us, because Polanski makes Carol’s nightmare so indelibly real, and so inescapably our own.

M” (1931, Fritz Lang) Sunday, Oct. 28, 2:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m.)

Fritz Lang’s great, hair-raising 1931 German crime thriller “M” is the masterpiece of his career, a landmark achievement of German cinema and a film that marks Lang as one of the most important cinematic fathers of film noir. “M” is a work of genius on every level.

Written by Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou (who also scripted “Metropolis”), and directed by Lang, “M” stars the amazing young Peter Lorre as the compulsive child-murderer Hans Beckert aka “M.” Beckert is a chubby little deviate who throws Berlin into turmoil with his string of slayings – a sweet-faced serial killer modeled on the real-life Dusseldorf Strangler. It is a role and a performance that plunges into the darkest nights of a lost soul.

Young Peter Lorre is unforgettable in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece.

Lang shows us both the murders and the social chaos triggered by the killer’s rampage. When M’s string of murders causes the police to clamp down on organized crime too, the outlaws strike back. Led by suave gentleman-thief Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens), they pursue the murderer relentlessly through the shadowy, mazelike world of Berlin at night. Just as relentlessly, the cops, with cynical detective Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in charge, pursue him by day.

“M,” in its own way, is as much a creative movie milestone as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” It’s one of the main progenitors of film noir and remains an all-time classic of suspense. (In German, with English subtitles.)

Saturday, Oct. 27

8 p.m. (5 p.m.) “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.) “Games” (1967, Curtis Harrington). An American semi-remake of Clouzot’s “Diabolique,” with Simone Signoret starring again here, as an enigmatic interloper who moves in on New York married couple James Caan and Katharine Ross, unleashing a string of increasingly deadly games.

Sunday, Oct. 28

6: 30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.) “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté).

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949, Robert Hamer). From Ealing Studio with love: One of the best of the high-style British dark comedies of manners and murder. Silken schemer Dennis Price is the vengeful climber trying to kill his way to the Dukedom of D’Ascoyne. Alec Guinness plays all eight of his aristocratic victims or victims-to-be. Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood are the fetching ladies whom the would-be Duke is torn between. The peerless cinematographer was Douglas Slocombe.

Tuesday, Oct. 30

In 1932′s “Freaks,” by Tod Browning, Olga Baclanova plays a trapeze artist.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Freaks” (1932, Tod Browning). Tod (“Dracula”) Browning’s macabre classic features a troupe of real-life circus freaks, all of them unforgettable camera subjects, in the bizarre story of a heartless trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) who seduces a lovelorn midget (Harry Earle), marries him, and has to face the consequences.

Wednesday, Oct. 31

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Body Snatcher” (1945, Robert Wise). Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell fight over corpses and medical experiments in this gripping adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson tale.

Thursday, Nov. 1

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang).

9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.); “Bullitt” (1968, Peter Yates). One of the more stylish cop-movie thrillers. With Steve McQueen at his coolest, Jacqueline Bisset at her loveliest, Robert Vaughn at his slimiest – plus the car chase to end all car chases.

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “The Racket” (1951, John Cromwell, plus Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer and Tay Garnett, the last three uncredited). A battle of two Bobs, both film noir giants: good cop Robert Mitchum vs. gangster Robert Ryan, with Lizabeth Scott watching. From Howard Hughes’ RKO studio-head tenure, “The Racket” is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1928 mobster movie, based on Bartlett Cormack’s play, and also produced by Hughes.

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McQueen paints harrowing portrait of addiction in ‘Shame’

Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender

“Shame” by London-born writer/director Steve McQueen is a searing study of a man, both buttoned-up and out of control, obsessively seeking oblivion and teetering on the edge of disaster. A sex addict perpetually on the outside looking in, he lives solely for his next physical encounter.

On the surface, the laconic, hauntingly good-looking Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seems very much together. His colleagues like and respect him, he lives in a stylish Manhattan apartment, women are easily drawn to him.

His sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling singer, is not faring as well and lands on his doorstep because she has nowhere else to live. Starting with Brandon finding Sissy in his shower, the two begin a tense co-existence. Brandon attempts to keep his porn, rooftop trysts and hotel hookups private, but we sense Sissy is completely up to speed on his compulsion; she tries half-heartedly to curb her own partying and sleeping around.

Whereas Brandon strips any feeling from his encounters (the one exception is a colleague he courts, the ethereally pretty and warm-hearted Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie), Sissy is the opposite, fiercely clinging to whoever will buy her champagne and share her bed for a night. Sissy’s mounting desperation eventually forces Brandon to confront his self-destructive compulsion.

With muted emotion and spare dialogue, McQueen, who wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan, implies more than he tells but we know with certainty that Brandon and Sissy’s history is rooted in pain and deep dysfunction. The scene in which Brandon and his boss (James Badge Dale) come to hear Sissy sing at a club – she performs a wrenchingly sad version of “New York, New York” – flawlessly conveys their baggage and buried guilt.

McQueen, an acclaimed artist and director of 2008’s prize-winning “Hunger,” which also starred Fassbender, heightens the mood of numb despair by using long takes, cool tones and stark lighting. Toward the end, in bed with two women, Brandon’s anguished face tinged with yellow brings to mind a tortured figure in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, expunging any hint of sexiness or erotic allure.

Nicole Beharie and Michael Fassbender

Noirish shots of Brandon prowling New York streets at night reveal the energy he expends to shroud his life in secrecy and keep his emotions at bay.

There are many graphically raw scenes that earned the film a NC-17 rating and many are harrowing to watch. Harrowing, to be sure, but also moving – Mulligan and Fassbender are marvelously compelling in these roles that let them express uncommon depth and a mighty struggle. Beharie and Dale strike us as real people as opposed to stock types, yet they neatly suggest the general pattern of Brandon and Sissy’s superficial relationships.

To some extent, “Shame” follows in the tradition of “The Lost Weekend” and “The Man with the Golden Arm,” as well as “Last Tango in Paris,” but McQueen’s work seems broader, more resonant in our instant-gratification, must-have-it-now culture. Says Fassbender, “It speaks to this constant drive we have for satisfaction and highs, one that is followed by feelings of shame and self-loathing.”

“Shame” also speaks, in tough language, to vulnerability, damage, connection and love.

Tilda Swinton plays a beaten-down mother.

Also opening today (in a limited release) and very highly recommended: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lynne Ramsay, a thriller in which neo noir meets New Age parenting. We witness, in jagged pieces that jump back and forth in time, the unthinkably brutal rupture of a dysfunctional but not entirely unhappy family.

Tilda Swinton plays a mother struggling to love her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) who comes into the world seething with anger. John C. Reilly plays her denial-prone husband. Though the script isn’t fully there and I just couldn’t buy Swinton and Reilly as a couple, this is nonetheless tour de force direction from Ramsay. I hope her vision and style are recognized during awards season.

Rich with visual metaphor, bold use of color and captivating performances, this is destined to be a neo-noir classic.

Emily Browning

In writer/director Julia Leigh’s erotic reworking of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” we meet Lucy (Emily Browning), a perverse college student using her stunning looks to make a living in the sex industry.

Though I admired Browning’s performance, the movie was disappointingly sluggish and dull.

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Totally exciting, wildly preposterous: French police thriller ‘Point Blank’ knocks us out, then keeps right on going

Point Blank/2010/Magnolia Pictures/90 min.

French police thrillers, especially the classics by Clouzot, Chabrol and Melville, used to be a bit more plausible and psychologically acute than their American counterparts – explosive action shoot-’em-ups that have mostly tried to knock us on our asses. Not so these days. The French cops-and-robbers hit movie “Point Blank” out-Yanks the Yanks by knocking us on our derrieres in the first few minutes – and then keeps it up, racing like hell on wheels for the next 80.

That’s the good news: It’s an exciting movie. The bad news is that, like many of its U.S. counterparts, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. The other good news is that writer/director Fred Cavayé’s movie is so well-gunned and goes by so damned fast, you barely notice the holes as you bounce over them.

Gilles Lellouche as Samuel is caught between the crooks and the cops.

The plot, jam-packed into the movie’s screamingly fast running time, has to do with a hit man named Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem, the somberly magnetic actor of “Days of Glory”) who’s been betrayed and nearly killed. He winds up in the hospital in the custody of the police and the care of a low-key male nurse, Samuel Pierret (the amiable and wonderfully nervous Gilles Lellouche).

Samuel saves Hugo from more would-be assassins and then, to his horror, finds himself trapped between the crooks and the cops – and the crooks who are cops (quite a lot of them, as it turns out). Under the evil command of the Teutonic-looking Commandant Patrick Werner (Gerard Lanvin), who’s actually conducting the investigation of his own crimes, those rogue police start chasing Hugo and Samuel all around Paris.

And, for insurance, they kidnap Samuel‘s beautiful wife Nadia (Elena Anaya), who’s eight months pregnant – threatening her death unless Samuel helps them. Soon Samuel and Hugo have become friends, of a sort, and a large section of Paris has become a bloody battleground.

I told you it didn’t make much sense. And, as I said, it doesn’t really matter. Cavayé, an ex-fashion photographer with a good eye and a blistering sense of pace, also made the big French neo-noir hit “Pour Elle,” which was translated and Americanized into the savagely improbable Russell Crowe thriller “The Next Three Days.” (Hollywood copied it so fast that Cavayé’s French original wasn’t imported and may still pop up here.)

Like Luc Besson and his disciples, Cavayé can do certain high-tech American tricks better than a lot of Americans. How does he get any suspension of disbelief, besides pure speed and kinetic rush? The leads, Zem, Lellouche and Anaya, are all excellent actors (Zem has a great glare) and they bring emotional conviction to a story you can barely believe for a minute.

The title “Point Blank,” by the way, has nothing to do with Cavayé’s original title “A Bout Portant” and nothing to do with the 1967 Lee Marvin-John Boorman noir classic “Point Blank,” which in turn was adapted from the 1962 Richard Stark-Donald Westlake novel “The Hunter,” which has nothing to do with the 1980 Steve McQueen crime thriller of the same name.

But whether you call it “Point Blank” or “A Bout Portant” or “The French Reconnection” or “Paris Goes Kaboom,” this is still one totally exciting if often wildly preposterous movie.

– Michael Wilmington

“Point Blank” opens July 29. (In French with English subtitles.)

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