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Two Interesting Semi-Noir Movies
Bar Harbor
kestrell and I recently watched a pair of interesting movies, both of which fall roughly under the category of film noir, though each with its own interesting unique properties.

The Big Clock (1948) is a classic noir story of a man who, through a series of what seem like innocuous bad decisions, ends up in danger of losing his marriage, his job, and his life – not necessarily in that order. The tension builds beautifully, as the protagonist is forced to draw the net tighter and tighter on himself.

That tension is beautifully counter pointed by moments of screwball humor. Elsa Lanchester appears in a supporting role which initially appears to be one scene and one note, but her character keeps showing up, adding new layers and stealing scenes shamelessly and hilariously. She even gets the last line of the movie, indicating how, though things veered close to Shakespearean tragedy, we arrived finally at a happy ending.

Also of note in in the supporting cast is Harry Morgan, who normally plays such nice characters. Here, he scared the crap out of us, despite – or perhaps because of – not having any dialogue. He mostly just stands around being menacing, very effectively. It was quite some time, actually, before I figured out what his approximate role was; the other characters see him, but don’t talk about him. (The film overall does a fine job of avoiding “as you know, Bob”; there is – and needs to be – a goodly amount of exposition, but it is delivered very deftly.

The Big Clock also has strong elements of satire, specifically of the publishing industry. Kes thought that the heavy (Charles Laughton) was a thinly veiled William Randolph Hearst, but some post movie research showed that it was specifically targeting Henry Luce, publisher of Time Magazine.

Mystery Street (1950) was an interesting companion piece. It stars Ricardo Montalban as a Latino Police Lieutenant (!) working on a murder case. This may well be the first example of what we would now call a forensics police procedural – though apparently they haven’t yet invented the word “forensics”. Montalban and his partner spend an amusing scene wandering around Harvard University, looking for the department of “Legal Medicine”. Oh yes, this one is also set in Boston, so has some local interest.

The movie does an excellent job of indicating just how vast an amount of work goes into solving a murder, in both the traditional ways, and using the new “Harvard” methods – but does so in a way that doesn’t actually take much screen time, so the pacing zips along.

Coincidentally, Mystery Street *also* has Elsa Lanchester in a supporting role. Not quite as delightful a role as in The Big Clock, but still very good. She’s a great actress and always fun to watch.

Mystery Street has a lot of subtext (and sometimes outright text) about social divisions, and the effects of class, race, and gender on how people survive.