Weekly Top Five: Joseph Lewis and the B movie swamp | Bleader

Weekly Top Five: Joseph Lewis and the B movie swamp

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The Big Combo
  • The Big Combo
Tomorrow night, the University of Chicago's Doc Films will screen the Joseph H. Lewis noir Gun Crazy, one of the major works of classic B cinema and one of the most radical and thoroughly entertaining movies in American film history, period. Prior to a renewed interest in expressionistic style during the 1970s, Lewis was considered a simple B movie director in the United States. (That wasn't the case elsewhere, of course—the staff of Cahiers du Cinema sang his praises while his career was still ongoing.) Known for their brazen style, his films often dealt with sensational themes, such as sexual obsession, ethical/moral dilemmas, and hereditary or otherwise inescapable criminal behavior. But beneath the surface, one can detect Lewis's deep curiosity of human behavior as well as a particular affinity for film form.

Gun Crazy is obviously his foremost masterwork—Dave Kehr eloquently called it "One of the most distinguished works of art to emerge from the B movie swamp"—but his filmography features many exuberant and highly personal films. You can catch my five favorite after the jump.

5. My Name is Julia Ross (1945) A lean and mean Gothic noir, this nifty thriller is a testament to Lewis's trademark resourcefulness and imagination. Clocking in at a meager 65 minutes and bearing all the marks (i.e. low production value) of a classic B movie, it's nevertheless an imaginative and evocative work, notable for its wealth of ideas packed within a relatively brief running time.

4. A Lady Without Passport (1950) Lewis's first film under contract of MGM. Despite the major-studio budget and support, this noir has the distinct look and feel of a B film, suggesting that not only was Lewis unencumbered by the restraints of low-budget filmmaking, but that he'd also incorporated its features into his own personal style.

3. Terror in a Texas Town (1958) One of the great last films of all time. Lewis's swan song is a stylistic, self-referential acid western that's as formally adept as anything he'd made previously. The much-lauded final sequence, in which the fabric of cinematic narratology is stretched to its absolute limit, must be seen to be believed.

2. The Big Combo (1955) A dreamlike noir noted for its moody chiaroscuro and a narrative abstracted to the point of near incomprehension. More than just a mere cult classic, it's a watermark for the classic era of B cinema, which proved to be the perfect production method to foster the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of a director like Lewis.

1. Gun Crazy (1949) Similar to The Big Combo, Gun Crazy is a genre film that seems entirely unconcerned with genre. Rather, this famous noir is more concerned with brushing against the boundaries of film form. Its tremendous and unparalleled use of long takes notwithstanding, the film is virtually peerless in its use of character identity to reorient the tenets of an entire style.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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