The Big Combo (1955)

Film noir is a strange and wonderful thing. It is a genre that is more packed with clichés than most, many of which are effects to increase suspense and drama. One film which offers its share of such effects is The Big Combo.

Lee Van Cleef, Jean Wallace and Earl Holliman in The Big Combo (1955)

Here we can see a beautiful showcase of especially lighting effects that were often used in Noirs from around this time. There are contrasts between light and shadow, for example, as well as long shadows cast on background walls, and even ceilings. You can choose to admire the craftsmanship that lies behind these beautiful effects, so typical of this time and genre. Or you can laugh at the exaggerated melodrama that they help to produce. Both reactions are valid, and neither needs detract from enjoying this very neat and well executed Noir.

The Big Combo is well worth watching and well worth remembering, and perhaps not mainly because of its nice lighting, but at least as much for its many well developed characters, such as Cornel Wilde as the tough and stubborn cop or Jean Wallace as the girlfriend of the crime boss. These are also cliché, but they are so well played that if you love Noir, you will love the characters.

The version mostly linked to from this post has a slight synch problem, which can be easily fixed with many viewing programs, such as VLC. If you need better synch another copy is available, but the images are less crisp and clear in that one.

This film is best enjoyed if you like Film noir, or if you want to explore this wonderful and fascinating genre.

Cornel Wilde and Robert Middleton in The Big Combo (1955)

The Big Combo
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Year: 1955
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Joseph Lewis
Stars: Cornel Wilde
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (679 M)

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Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929)

It is easy today to dismiss silent film as “sound film without sound”, but that is a mistake based on our preconceived notions. Silent film is, for a fact, a different medium, and when it works at its very best, that medium is not inferior to sound film. Just different.

In the late 1920s, just before the break-through of sound film, the silent film had its artistic peak. At that point, some directors were experimenting with silence as an added dimension to the film, putting the images and their inherent story-telling abilities more in focus. One of them was Russian Dziga Vertov with his Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera).

The cameraman in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

It is relevant to ask whether Chelovek s kino-apparatom is documentary or propaganda. Well, in a sense it is neither. And both. Less and more. To the extent that the film has a story, it is the story of a man who goes around with a movie camera, filming whatever he chances to find. An onrushing train. People in a car. Even a woman giving birth (which is one of the film’s most powerful scenes, incidentally). But this thematic thread is so thin that we, the viewers, tend to forget all about it in the fascination over the fantastic imagery and visual playfulness that holds the film together. Since the film contains practically no title cards, the film’s messages are conveyed solely by means of the images.

To state that Chelovek s kino-apparatom should be watched without a soundtrack is, of course, to stretch things a bit too far. Vertov intended the film to be viewed with instrumental accompaniment. But at the same time it must be remembered that each of the many soundtracks that have been produced for this film gives it a different flavour, and in effect creates a different film. Therefore, in a sense, it may not be altogether a bad thing that the version available at the Internet Archive is without a soundtrack. It creates an incentive to watch the film bare-bones, and will perhaps allow the viewer to see the scenes from a fresh perspective. One that would not be possible with a recently written soundtrack, one which carries with it the composer’s interpretation of the images.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to explore some of silent cinema’s greatest moments.

A childbirth in Chelovek s kino-apparatom, aka Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom
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Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (620×418; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page was originally a Broadway play, which has been adapted for movies and television at least eight times (according to IMDb). The most famous version today is probably the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), but the first adaptation, and also one of the best, was The Front Page from 1931. Some also claim that this first adaptation was the first screwball comedy in the movies.

Mary Brian, Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page (1931)

The story, briefly, is that the reporter Hildy Johnson is going to quit his job, get married to the girl he loves and move to a different city. But Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, wants to stop him and avoid losing his best reporter. He therefore tries to involve Hildy in covering one last story, the case of a man who is going to hang in the morning. But is the man guilty in the first place? As the story progresses, the two originally separate plots of Hildy’s resignation and the condemned man become increasingly entangled in a movie with many interesting twists.

The Front Page has, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed by the remake His Girl Friday, perhaps because of the latter’s fantastic chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a chemistry that cannot be reached in the same way in The Front Page, where the story follows the original and has Hildy played by a man (Pat O’Brien, to be specific).

To let Russel play the originally male role was a stroke of genius, and allowed for some new plot twists in the remake, but it is a mistake to believe that this automatically makes the original into an inferior movie. It does not. It is just very different. And not only because of the sex change. The variations in the dialogue, the differences in photography and directing, and the equally impressive but very different actors make these two very different movies. Both are well worth watching and I would be hard pressed if I had to pick a favourite.

The Front Page was made when sound film was a fairly new invention. Fortunately, it uses many dolly track shots and other techniques that became rarer in the early 1930s for economic and technical reasons.

This film is best enjoyed when compared with its many remakes, and it shines quite brightly in that comparison.

Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian and Pat O'Brien in The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

Won in the Clouds (1928)

Aviation film has a long history. One of the first films to use an aeroplane as an integrated part of the story was Dash Through the Clouds (1912), a trivial comedy which today is only worth remembering for the amazing Wright aeroplane which is its real main character. A long range of films, today mostly forgotten, followed during the rest of the silent era.

Almost the only one of the silent aviation films that is still remembered today is Wings (1927), but that classic (the first to win the Academy Award for best picture) is not available at the Internet Archive. Fortunately, there is another typical (though considerably less lavish) representative of the genre in the form of Won in the Clouds.

Al Wilson and his Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in Won in the Clouds (1928)

I have previously stated that the late 1920s was a period of very high film-making standards. But of course, not every film can be innovative and ground-breaking. Won in the Clouds is not one of those films that will leave you deeply touched and perhaps even with a changed perspective on some aspect of life, such as Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927) or La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

Fortunately, it has other qualities. Won in the Clouds is a good example of light entertainment of the kind that Hollywood has always done best. The story is a bit silly, but not as silly as many other films, both new and old. The acting is typical of the silent era. But most importantly, some of the stunts made in this film are absolutely spectactular. Not that they cannot be reproduced and improved upon with modern film-making techniques. It is just that when you see these stunts, you know that it has to be the real thing. There is little opportunity for trick filming, and no room for extreme safety measures. And there are definitely no stunt men.

The story is a fast-moving one involving diamonds, a crooked mine manager, cars, jungle animals, sick natives, romance, and, of course, aeroplanes. Unless you place too high demands on credibility, this is good entertainment.

With its African setting, Won in the Clouds definitely does contain some racial stereotyping. Racism can never be excused by the passage of time, but racism in popular culture is one source that can help us analyze the time and the culture that it mirrors. As such, it can perhaps also help us understand our own time and help avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations did.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful aeroplanes and neat stunts.

Grace James and Percy Hogan in Won in the Clouds (1928)

Won in the Clouds
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Year: 1928
Running time: 52 min
Director: Bruce M Mitchell
Stars: Al Wilson
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (2.0 G)

The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom is a classic newspaper comic strip in the adventure genre. It was created in 1936 by writer Lee Falk, and soon became very popular. Even after its creator’s death in 1999, it continues running with new creative teams. While past its peak, it remains very popular, not least as a comic book in Scandinavia and Australia. The character is partly a synthesis of Zorro and Tarzan, but with some very unique and original elements thrown into the mix.

As a hero in the movies, The Phantom’s career has been considerably less stellar than in the newspapers. There have been several attempts, mostly very awkward, to recreate The Phantom either for TV or for the big screen. In fact, the best screen Phantom is still the very first, The Phantom from 1943. The adventure serials were at that time at their peak regarding budgets and production values, and The Phantom is not lacking in terms of entertaining adventure.

Tom Tyler with Devil by the skull throne in The Phantom (1943)

The plot is standard serial fare. Professor Davidson needs help to find a lost city. The Phantom comes to his aid, but a number of bad guys try to thwart them. Since this was made in 1943, one of them is a Nazi agent. And then there is the professor’s beautiful daughter, Diana. Why, of course. There has to be a romantic interest for the hero. After the early 1930s, female characters in serials became increasingly more passive and objectified, mostly acting as baits for the crooks to go after and the heroes to rescue. These gender roles became so cemented that they can still to some extent be seen in popular media, and I believe that the serials had a large part in that development. In early serials from the 1920s, the women were much more active, sometimes actually acting as the heroes themselves.

In spite of his appearance, The Phantom is not really a superhero, neither in terms of powers nor in terms of the themes covered in the comics (special thematic rules apply in the serials). Like many superheroes, however, The Phantom is dressed in a tight suit and a mask. Just like Superman, his costume was inspired by the strongmen of the early 20th century, which explains why he has his underpants outside his trousers. This would be fair enough, except according to the background detailed in the strip, the costume was invented by the first person to hide behind The Phantom’s mask in the 16th century.

Yes, there are many corny things about The Phantom, but that is part of the character’s charm. You cannot watch this serial, or read the comic, unless you accept it for what it is, and allow yourself to be immersed in a different world, one where the good guys always win and the bad ones get punched on the nose.

This film is best enjoyed if you are disappointed with some of the other The Phantom films and want to enjoy what is probably closest to the real thing in motion. As an added bonus, Kenneth MacDonald makes a very memorable interpretation as the evil genius.

Tom Tyler fighting a ferocious lion in The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom
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Year: 1943
Running time: 4 h 20 min
Directors: B. Reeves Eason
Stars: Tom Tyler
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack