Philosophyguru's journey through the world of classic movies

Flim Noir GangsterPhilosophyguru's journey through the world of classic movies is not meant to be a guide to any specific genre, but to reflect upon some classic movies and provoke some thought.

As Walt Disney is quoted as saying, "I'd rather entertain and hope that people learn, than teach and hope that people are entertained."

Let us start by taking a look at some of our favorite film genres that will be discussed here.

Film-Noir is French for "black film"

Scholars debate on the definition of the genre. The primary literary influence on film noir was the hard-boiled school of American detective and crime fiction, and is generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.  A common formula for a Film-Noir is a cynical male lead and the interesting femme fatale. While not all are cut in the mold of the classic gangster flick, most are melodramas with some interaction between a strong male lead and a female, with one, if not both, of the characters having some type of social dysfunction. I can see why I like them so!

Classic Science Fiction:  the interaction of science with society, for better or worse.

Classic film noir of the 1940s and 1950s deals with the American social landscape of the era often with a sense of heightened anxiety that is said to have followed World War II.  The classic sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and 1960s were influenced by a similar sense of heightened anxiety of due to the the cold war.

Science Fiction by its very nature is philosophical, it speculates on how science and technology interact with society, for better or worse, and delves into social dilemmas posed by science and technology. While not all good sci-fi films are dystopian (society gone bad), the classics reflect the ideas and dreams of their time period, and usually deliver a message.

Living in a parallel universe to Film-Noir is the Science fiction noir.

A hybrid form of film noir and science fiction films is the Science fiction noir. Sometimes referred to as Future noir films, the Science fiction noir films are often set in a post-apocalyptic world  with storylines in the aftermath of a disaster such as a nuclear holocaust, war, plague, that justifies a civilization's turn towards dystopian like behaviors.

A typical dystopia paints a picture of government or society attempting to exert control over free thought, authority, energy, freedom of information. There are also corporate based dystopias where the repressing power is a private company rather than a government.

Modern dystopian films function as a warning against some element of contemporary society.  Similiar to the Film-Noir, the common thread is melodrama with a message.

Welcome to Philosophyguru's journey through the world of classic movies.


Favorite classic movies genres film noir defined

 Edward G. Robinson (right) in a cropped screenshot from the trailer for the 1931 film Little CaesarThere is a debate by movie scholars as to the definition of Film noir. Film Noir literally means "black film" in French, was coined by French film critics who noticed the trend of how 'dark', downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many  American crime and detective films released in France to theaters following the war.  Movies such as "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Murder, My Sweet" (1944),  "Double Indemnity" (1944), The "Woman in the Window" (1944), and "Laura" (1944).  The 1940s and 1950s are generally regarded as the "classic period" of American film noir.

Dark style or dark mindset?

Some equate Film Noir to a cinematic style of an ominous atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and foreboding background. Film noir films were marked visually by expressionistic lighting, interiors with low-key lighting, and dark gloomy appearances. Story locations were often in murky and dark streets with deep shadows.

The primary moods of classic film noir were disenchantment, desperation and paranoia, with cynical malevolent characters in a sleazy setting. The Femme fatale was a key element in many films. The disillusioned or somehow dysfunctional male character encountered a beautiful but mysterious and potentially double crossing female character.  Femme fatale literally means "killer woman."

The plots and themes taken from American literary works, from best selling pulp and crime fiction novels from authors such as Dashiell Hammett, the creator of Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, were used in many crime drama films.

Art Imitates Life: The American Gangster.

The 1930s were an interesting and violent time in American history. The economy was at its worst, reeling from the great depression. Crime was also at new heights as an epidemic of bank robberies in the Midwest  was orchestrated by colorful criminal gangs who took advantage of superior firepower and fast getaway cars to avoid arrest.

Criminals such as John Dillinger "Baby Face" Nelson, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, were making news, and to some, becoming American Folk heroes.

John Dillinger became famous for leaping over bank cages and his repeated escapes from jails and police traps), Dillinger's crimes were sensationalized across the nation, and his numerous escapes and robberies fed many urban legends in the United States.

On July 22, 1934, the ultimate crossover of art and reality, Dillinger had gone to see a gangster movie, Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable. Tipped off by Anna Sage, the so-called "woman in red", the Bureau of Investigation were waiting as Dillinger left the movie theater, and gunned him down in the streets of Chicago.

The "War on Crime" of the 1930s, led to the Bureau of Investigation's powers being broadened and it was re-named the Federal Bureau of Investigation becoming an independent service within the Department of Justice in 1935.  J. Edgar Hoover made a name for himself as well as the first FBI Director, and would serve in that position until his death in 1972.

Some believe Film noir was derived from the earlier gangster movies of the 1930s such as "Little Caesar" (1930),  "Public Enemy" (1931), and "Scarface" (1932).

Example of film noir

Perhaps film noir can be seen as a reference point for follow up discussions rather than a cut and dried type of movie genre. Here's the Guru's rating of some popular film noir.

Key Largo  (1948)

"Key Largo" is as close to perfect as a Film Noir gets. This was the fourth and final film pairing of married actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the movie a Key Largo hotel run by James Temple played by Lionel Barrymore is taken over by a gang of mobsters. Veteran actor Edward G. Robinson plays the classic gangster to perfect as Johnny Rocco. Humphrey Bogart as World War II hero Frank McCloud saves the day, and gets the girl Nora Temple played by Lauren Bacall.

TheGuru's Rating 9.0 /10

His Kind of Woman (1951)

Released the same year as "The Racket" while this movie stars Robert Mitchum in his typical tough guy with an attitude role, the lead character Dan Milner, is a bit more interesting.  The lead character is not a cop, or government official, but a drifter, gambler, looking to make a buck. While you know Milner is being set up by the mob, the story is fuzzy enough from the beginning to keep you wondering a bit as to where it will take you.

Set in a Baja Mexico resort, with a bit of mystery about the other characters in the mix, there is enough going on to keep the story interesting.

A lot of familiar faces in the cast.  Jane Russell plays the mysterious Lenore Brent, like the lead character, you know there is more to her that what appears on the surface. Vincent Price, known to many for horror flicks, has a major supporting role.

Raymond Burr (Ironside, Perry Mason) as the mobster and Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo, Giligans Island) as one of the guests at the resort add to the interesting cast of characters.

Enough mystery with a fine cast of characters to keep it interesting, with a classic guy get girl ending.  Pretty good Noir. 

TheGuru's Rating 8/10

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

The first half of the movie is set in a big city, super tough cop with an extreme attitude Jim Wilson, played by Robert Ryan, beats his suspects to a pulp. Way too angry with the world, Jim is sent upstate on a murder case in order to get away from the city for awhile.  The actual area portrayed in the film is not made clear, the city scenes look like a tough downtown Chicago, but when Jim goes upstate, it looks more the the Rocky Mountains that any mountains I have seen in the eastern US.

As a genre Film-noir movies are full of extremes and stark contrasts, as compared to other movies, but this one takes some of the extremes to the point of absurdity. Jim is sent to the mountains to help track a murderer.  All the law enforcement officers are dressed in hunting gear, with rifles. Jim is in his big city trench coat, with a hand gun. The series of events where Jim gets separated from the posse of law enforcement officers, and ends up with the crazed father of the murder victum, who is armed with a shotgun, in tracking down the killer, was just a bit too much.  From there our leading man Jim Wilson goes from the worlds most angry cop, to a sentimental sap over night.

Some Film-noir's work better than others, I've watched quite a few, this one just did not work for me.  

TheGuru's Rating 6/10

The Racket (1951) 

Maybe just a bit too typical, not much of a plot beyond the straight forward gangsters behaving badly and cops trying to arrest gansters.

Stars Robert Mitchum as the police captain in one of his typical tough guy with an attitude roles.

Familiar faces include William Conrad as a detective, (go figure). For those not familiar with William Conrad, he starred in the 1970's tv series "Cannon" as a private eye and the 1980's tv series "Jake and the Fatman" as a crime solving district attorney. 

It is not so much as there is nothing to like about this movies, as just that it is a Very typical cops versus mobsters Film-Noir. 

TheGuru's Rating 6/10


Graphic: Edward G. Robinson (left) in a cropped screenshot from the trailer for the 1931 film Little Caesar








The History of the Planet of the Apes

As the 2011 movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" tops the box office charts let us take a look at the interesting history of the Planet of the Apes theme.

Origin of Planet of the Apes

The original theme of Planet of the Apes is alive and well in the large body of work it has inspired.The original story of Planet of the Apes is loosely based on the 1963 novel "La Plan¨te des singes" by French author Pierre Boulle.

The original "Planet of the Apes" movie released in 1968, starred Charlton Heston as NASA astronaut Colonel George Taylor stranded on a strange planet where apes are masters and humans are slaves. The movie did well at the box office and the prosthetic ape makeup won the the praise of critics and audiences alike.

The final scene of the 1968 movie is one of one of the most unforgettable scenes in science fiction movie history. Colonel Taylor is riding along the beach on horseback when he discovers a fractured Statue of Liberty on the shoreline. The movie ends with the revelation that this future world is earth.

The original Planet of the Apes movie would inspire four sequels. The first sequel was much lower budget, and it showed. In "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970) , the apes battle human mutants in the subterranean ruins of New York City. The storyline is about survivors of a nuclear blast that continues the original movie's distant future scenario.

While Charlton Heston was clearly the star of the original Planet of the Apes movie, it would be the character of Cornelius played by Roddy McDowall that would dominate the sequels. In "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971) , simian scientists Cornelius played by Roddy McDowall, and Zira played by Kim Hunter travel back through time to 20th Century Los Angeles. The plot followed the events in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" and took the series in a new direction setting the stage for more sequels. Once again a lower budget movie that the original, that did not do all the well at the box office.

Roddy McDowall would return in "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972), as Caesar, the son of Cornelius. Surfacing after twenty years of hiding, Caesar would lead an ape revolution against humanity. With each film the production budget got smaller, as it shows in this film. Perhaps the least interesting and exciting movie of the series.

The series of films would end with "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973). Roddy McDowall would once again star as the chimpanzee leader Caesar trying to bring order to the planet.

Planet of the Apes: The next generation

The next generation version, "Planet of the Apes" (2001), would rewrite the storyline while keeping the general theme intact. The movie was much less philosophical that the original, and played more like an action adventure film that a science fiction flick. At times when the remake made references to the original movie it seemed to be a parody of the original rather than a remake or reboot.

Director Tim Burton known for quirky themed movies such as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Edward Scissorhands" directed the 2001 version of "Planet of the Apes". While the 2001 version of "Planet of the Apes" was a commercial success, it is not as well regarded as the original by science fiction fans. Burton declined to do a sequel.

Reboot 2011

The term reboot is the new buzzword in movies and media in the new millennium. It deals with taking familiar fictional themes and discarding much of the previous continuity in the series to start over. The 2011 movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" claims to be the reboot of the Planet of the Apes theme.

The 1963 novel by French author Pierre Boulle has been adapted to a series of movies from 1968 through 1973, which also lead to a short lived television series and cartoon series. It was reborn in 2001.

Time will tell how well the 2011 reboot will do, but the original theme of Planet of the Apes is alive and well in the large body of work it has inspired.

Science Fiction Classic Forbidden Planet

Leslie Nielsen as Star Ship Commander John J. AdamsAs movie lovers remember Leslie Nielsen for all his great comedies such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun film series, I have fond memories of Leslie Nielsen as Star Ship Commander John J. Adams in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet.

Ten years before Captain Kirk boldly searched for alien life forms in Star Trek, Leslie Nielsen played the handsome star ship commander in deep space on rescue mission to an alien world.

What would an adventure film be without the damsel in distress that catches the commanders eye? In this case the sexy Anne Francis stars as Altaira Morbius who falls in love with the commander in defiance of her mad scientist father's wishes.

Rounding out our story is the mystery of the planet and the alien life form that killed off the expedition of human explorers who had come to establish a colony on the planet.

Besides the comparisons to Star Trek, Forbidden Planet would also influence another 1960s science fiction adventure with the introduction of Robby the Robot who would later become part of the TV Series Lost in Space.

With a production budget of $1.9 million, Forbidden Planet was the first science fiction movie with a major motion picture budget. When you put into perspective this movie made in 1956, the story and the effects are easy to appreciate. While today's movie audience may not be overly excited by a black and white classic science fiction movie, Forbidden Planet is a must see movie for any science fiction fan.

Enjoy Forbidden planet for all it represents, the mystery, the adventure, the love story, the standard for future science fiction. Even if you are not a science fiction fan, but someone who loves classic movies, what more could you ask for?

The Day the Earth Stood Still: movies where aliens save the earth

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)  stands out as one of the all time great science fiction flicks.

In 1951 the fear of a nuclear world war was something on the minds of many americans.  While the movie dealt with an alien invasion, the heaver theme was that the aliens tell the people of Earth that they must live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets. We really can't be trusted with all those nuclear weapons!

The movie begins with a space ship landing in Washington, DC. The alien Klaatu emerges from the ship announcing that he has come from outer space on a goodwill mission. As Klaatu explains his mission he takes out and opens a small device.  An uptight trigger happy soldier with his gun pointed at Klaatu takes a shot and wounds him. 

In response to the shooting a large humanoid robot emerges from the ship and begins disintegrating the weapons surrounding them. Klaatu orders the robot Gort to stop.Klaatu explains to the soldiers that the object they destroyed was a gift for the President.

Klaatu is taken into custody as the robot Gort stand guard on the alien ship.

In a mantra that I repeat often, good science fiction is about good characters, not good special effects. The movie is not over the top sci-fi in terms of alien make up and effects. Other than the robot and the space ship there is not much here in terms of special effects.  The alien Klaatu is in human form. The plot is wrapped around human nature, and human paranoia.  The drama here is between the characters. 

Klaatu barada nikto

The alien Klaatu tells his human friend in that movie that should anything to happen to him, she must say the phrase to the robot Gort, "Klaatu barada nikto."

Since the release of the movie, the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" has appeared repeatedly in fiction and in popular culture. The Robot Hall of Fame described it as "one of the most famous commands in science fiction."

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) is as opposite in everyway as it could be from the original.

The major change in plot from TDTESS 1951 and 2008 is what we are about to do to destroy the earth.  In 1951 it was nuclear war, in 2008 it is global warming.

In the The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951 version, the characters play well together, they feel real, there is real drama in the dialogue. 

In both versions, the main human character is Helen Benson, a widow with a young son. In the 2008 version the young single mother has a very bitter and angry step son who is mad at the world for loosing his father in the war. The son's constant attitude issues distract more from the original story than add to it. Maybe the added social commentary this movie is trying to teach us is that children of deceased war veterans are selfish, self-centered brats?

Another interesting change, in the 1951 movie the aliens land in Washington, DC.  In the 2008 version, as it seems to be the case in most modern movies, the aliens now seem to target New York City.

It is a popular Hollywood fad, the franchise reboot, where a new team of writers and producers develop new material using well known themes and characters, without regard for the existing fictional world or timeline already established in previous movies.

It amazed me how you could take essentially the same plot as the 1951 movie, and make such an incredibly dull movie.


Photo from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Public Domain






Nuclear Meltdown Movie: The China Syndrome

Nuclear Power PlantJapan Faces Potential Nuclear Disaster

The events of May 2011 in Japan, an earthquake and tsunami, followed by a nuclear power plant disaster sounds like a very extreme series of events from a Hollywood disaster movie.

With talk of a potential nuclear meltdown in Japan, I recalled the nuclear meltdown movie of the late 1970s, The China Syndrome, and the real world events of Three Mile Island.

The China Syndrome Movie

The 1979 movie The China Syndrome tells the story of the fictional Ventana nuclear power plant in California.  The movie stars some big names of the day such as Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon. 

Fonda plays the part of television news reporter Kimberly Wells and Douglas is her cameraman Richard Adams.  During a visit to the fictional Ventana nuclear power plant while filming a routine feature they witness an emergency shutdown.  The cameraman secretly films the events and has the incident analyzed by nuclear scientists who conclude the plant was on the verge of a meltdown. The reporter and the cameraman try to get the truth out, but are hampered by powerful folks in the media. 

The storyline also revolves around Shift Supervisor Jack Godell, played by Jack Lemmon. Based on some unusual vibrations and faulty meter readings Godell believes that the plant is unsafe.  Godell also uncovers evidence of X-rays used to check key welds have been falsified. Godell is on a mission to bring the evidence to the attention of the public, and prove that bad deeds are being covered up.

The term China Syndrome describes a fictitious result of a severe nuclear meltdown in which molten reactor core components penetrate their containment vessel and building and melt through the crust of the earth and reach China.

The Events of Three Mile Island

Three Mile Island PennsylvaniaThe China Syndrome was realeased in March of 1979. In an very odd case of fiction foreshadowing reality, the movie was released just 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Central Pennsylvania not far from the state capital of Harrisburg. 

I was living in Western Pennsylvania and saw the movie at at theatre during a time when Three Mile Island was a topic of the nightly news. 

I can very vividly remember one line from the movie where one of the scientists in the film says that the China Syndrome would render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.  While the line from the movie was meant to be serious, due to the odd circumstances of day it drew a bit of nervous laughter from the crowd.

The accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania is the most famous incident in United States history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries. The Three Mile Island number 2 reactor has since been permanently shut down and defueled.

Potential Dangers of Nuclear Power. 

While it was indeed quite a coincidence that the events of Three Mile Island seemed to coincide with the release of the movie, the first draft of the screenplay in 1974 was actually based on a real event at the Dresden II reactor near Chicago in 1970. Screenwriter Mike Gray understood the technology and used realistic jargon in his script.

The Events of Three Mile Island as well as the movie The China Syndrome solidified anti-nuclear safety concerns resulting in new regulations for the nuclear industry. Even with the odd timing of being released just before a potential nuclear meltdown, the movie was only moderately successful in 1979, finishing the year as the 14th highest movie in box office revenues.

The China Syndrome is a political thriller appealing to feelings of public distrust of large corporations and fears of the potential dangers of nuclear power. Whether or not you buy into all the conspiracy theories and cover ups is a matter of constant debate.  But conspiracy theories make for interesting movies.