The Big Knife is a sensational depiction of the movie business along the lines of Sunset Boulevard. But while Nora Desmond delusionally vied to force her way back into the movie business that left her behind, The Big Knife‘s protagonist will do whatever it takes to be left alone by its ruthless power brokers. Based on Clifford Odets’ abrasive play and directed by Richard Aldrich, The Big Knife has a lot of great things going for it, including a terrific cast and wonderfully contrasting lead character, but ultimately it’s way over the top and meanders too much to really have the fatalistic impact it seems to be going for.
ROAD HOUSE (1948)
First off, I wanna say that the road house depicted in Road House is AWESOME. It’s low-ceilinged, built like a log cabin. There’s a bowling alley, a bar, a sporting goods store, and Ida Lupino playing piano. This is the coolest (fictional) joint west of Chicago. Now if it wasn’t for the tension between its manager and owner, Jefty’s Road House would be perfect.
After Richard Widmark struck it big with Kiss of Death and Street With No Name, Ida Lupino personally requested that he play in Road House, which was her star vehicle. He essentially plays a variation of Tommy Udo, with the psychotic tendencies clicked down a few notches. But ho boy does he resurrect that beautiful, unnerving laugh from hell. Road House, directed by Jean Negulesco (Mask of Dimitrios), has a simple story infused with brilliant dialogue and heaps of noir aesthetics. Man, I really love this sharp little movie.
PRIVATE HELL ’36 (1954)
So far on this journey through noir, the meanest crooked cops I’ve come across are featured in Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Prowler. Hell, the latter is going to be nearly impossible to beat. But here’s another bullet-proof example of noir’s police force with polished palms and bulging pockets, as well as the lengths they’ll go to saddle a dame. Co-written by the queen bee Ida Lupino, Private Hell 36 is a subtly smart film that mounts and screws the idealism of the mid-1950s. And looks good doing it.
ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)
Make up your mind to be a cop, not a gangster with a badge.
There’s a chilling moment in Nicolas Ray’s tough, contemplative noir On Dangerous Ground where detective Jim Wilson is beating the confession out of a suspect, connecting punch after punch, pleading with him, “Why do you make me do it?!” He’s internalized the brutality and depravity his job has exposed him to until it’s become second nature. It’s a violently tangible performance delivered by Robert Ryan (Act of Violence), and under the expressive direction of Ray, his character undergoes something like a spirit quest out in the mountains. On Dangerous Ground offers heaps of grit and haymakers, but also a flood of compassion towards its lineup of riff raff.