12 Days of Alt Christmas Viewing — #1: Christmas Films Noir
Yeah yeah, ho ho, The Kranks, Bad Santa, National Lampoon, Elf, Home Alone, Love Actually — those are all fine, but you have seen those already. You don’t need me to list those. I prefer to entice you to watch the flicks you would otherwise overlook. (“Flicks” is old-timer speak for movies. It’s a derivative of “flickers” which also meant movies in some old dead language of the 1910s).
There are a lot of Christmas movies out there. Really, a lot. So I’ve broken my recommendations down into 12 convenient little sets based on themes. For instance today I have a set of Christmas Noirs — or is that Christmases Noir?
The Thin Man (1934)
(W.S. Van Dyke, MGM) All right, yes, you already caught me cheating. This film is not really a noir, it’s a noir precursor. But it is based on a novel by Dashiell Hammet (author of The Maltese Falcon), so, close enough.
The Thin Man is a detective comedy featuring husband-and-wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. Nick (William Powell) has given up hard-boiled detecting in favor of hard drinking and light living with his wealthy, wise-cracking wife Nora (Myrna Loy). This pair is unparalleled in cinema history. Their mix of sharp wit, glamour, grit, gusto and chemistry is in a league entirely its own.
The Charles’s are spending Christmas in New York when Nick gets dragged out of retirement and into a case involving a family whose members include an adulterer, a blackmailer, two gold diggers, a sociopath, and a gigolo.
When this film came out there was the matter of this little thing called The Production Code which was in place to keep movies from being too naughty and provoking the ire of church groups, parent groups, and state censors. So all of this unsavory business looks tame, at first glance, but it isn’t. Don’t let the fast-flying dialogue get past you.
And it’s a hoot from the get-go. Loy as Nora makes one of the greatest film entrances ever involving a dog (Asta!) and Christmas shopping parcels. Then there is the set piece drunken Christmas eve party of Nick’s old (criminal) pals, and a hung-over Christmas morning with a pop-gun.
And that’s Maureen O’Sullivan who had outraged sensors by swimming nearly nude with Tarzan two years earlier playing Dorothy here. You may know her from Hannah and Her Sisters in which she plays Mia Farrow’s mother. She’s a natural there because she is Mia Farrow’s mother.
Everyone’s heard of this film, but so few people have actually seen it. ‘Tis the season! There’s no Santa in sight, and the Christmas tree gets shot up, so cynics rejoice! [Readily available on DVD, not currently streaming, TCM showing on 12/31/15 at 8PM EST / 5PM PST]
Beware My Lovely (1952)
(Harry Horner, RKO) Marvelous Ida Lupino is a small town widow, Helen Gordon, decorating her tree, wrapping gifts, baking and in general preparing for Christmas. When drifter Howard Wilton (smoldering Robert Ryan) shows up looking for handyman work, she takes him in, in the spirit of the season. And, also in the spirit of the season, he turns out to be murderously, creepily, insane. [This is one of those RKO titles that isn’t on DVD or streaming. It was on VHS, and does sometimes turn up on TCM though it’s not currently on their schedule.]
The Lady in the Lake (1947)
(Robert Montgomery, MGM) This film marked actor Robert Montgomery’s first foray into directing, and in an incredibly bold move he decided to shoot the film in first person. In other words, the camera sees what the narrator/protagonist, detective Philip Marlowe sees. This means, among other things, the audience hears but rarely sees Marlowe (played by Montgomery). Point-of-view camera work was not unheard of, but an entire movie shot in this fashion is just… uncomfortable. Thus the film is not entirely successful, but it’s still a lot of fun. Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, it has sharp dialogue, duplicitous dames, and craven cops. Merriness! [$2.99 to rent via YouTube]
Night of the Hunter (1955)
(Charles Laughton, United Artists) Speaking of actors dabbling in directing, Night of the Hunter was the first and last film directed by acting legend Charles Laughton. The film wasn’t a hit when it first came out, but has since become a dark classic. It starts Robert Mitchum as convict-preacher Harry Powell whose cell mate tells him about money he’s hidden somewhere at home with his wife and kids. I don’t want to tell you too much more, but this leads to those kids going on the run from this murderous, bible-quoting monster. With stunning expressionistic compositions, Laughton creates a noir fable of lost children in the dark “forrest” of adult situations. Mitchum is inhumanly scary and then there’s Lilian Gish in one of the most brilliant casting moves in all motion picture history. [On Criterion Blu-Ray or DVD. Alas, not streaming.]
Blast of Silence (1961)
(Allen Baron, Universal) This was a late noir, shot on location in Manhattan, so an amazing a real trip into Christmas past (as Joe Dante explains above). A Cleveland hitman comes to New York on a job but runs into a girl from his past which complicates matters dangerously. Written, directed by and starring Baron. The voice-over was written by screenwriter Waldo Salt and narrated by Lionel Stander, both of whom had been blacklisted thanks to HUAC.
[On Criterion Blu-Ray or DVD. Alas, not streaming.]
Mr. Arkadin (1955)
(Orson Welles, Mercury Productions) Jason Guriel at New Republic just wrote a great piece on this, “Orson Welles’s Forgotten Christmas Classic.” I confess I hadn’t thought about this one as a Christmas film, but he’s right! I am re-watching it tonight, in keeping with the spirit.
As Mr. Dante explains in the clip: Welles lost final cut on this film. Criterion released a 3 disc version with 2 different release cuts and a compilation cut which they strove to realize Welles’s original vision for the film.
[The European release version, entitled The Confidential Report is streaming on HuluPlus. The 3-disc set is on Blu-Ray or DVD from Criterion.]