Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (dir. Michael Reeves, 1968).
The gifted and doomed young director Michael Reeves, inspired by American filmmakers like Don Siegel, shot this seventeenth-century sado-horror story in the style of a western, with plenty of horses and chases and barroom brawls. It looks fantastic, especially in its restored state with crisp, vibrant colors: the reds especially, which anticipate the gorgeous satellite-film hues of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Also restored is the Greensleeves-esque score by Paul Ferris, which was replaced by a shapelessly "trippy" electronic soundtrack for re-releases of the American version, titled The Conqueror Worm in an attempt to capitalize off of American International's recent spate of successful Poe adaptations.
This may be Vincent Price's most chilling performance ever, largely because Reeves, who was angry that he couldn't cast Donald Pleasance as the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, effectively bullied Price into not acting like the guy who talks spooky to little kids at Halloween while handing them candy. He's straightfacedly restrained throughout the film, but unable to conceal his simmering anger at Reeves, which of course makes him terrifying.
The inspiration for Dean Stockwell's make-up in Blue Velvet? Dead of Night (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, & Robert Hamer, 1945).
This British anthology thriller is politely creepy if not exactly bone-chilling for the first three quarters or so, and then comes the famous section with Michael Redgrave and the ventriloquist's dummy, directed by Cavalcanti. But, but, but, and then comes Basil Dearden's conclusion to the linking narrative, which contains some of the freakiest uncanny imagery ever put on film. When the little guy gets up and walks, we're talking permanent goosebumps--the kind you get as a kid when you see something like this on late-night TV and it messes you up for life.
Richard Widmark in Night and the City (dir. Jules Dassin, 1950).
Clash of titans: Stanislaus Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki.
Richard Widmark and Googie Withers.
I'll always watch anything with Richard Widmark in it, but this is truly his finest hour and a half. Cheap hustler Harry Fabian is a piece of human wreckage with far too much energy and drive for his own good or anyone else's. There's nothing evil about him really, but nothing redeemable either, unless it's that he has the power to elicit concern for his well-being from persons with otherwise unclouded judgment. He is, in the memorable line spoken by Hugh Marlowe, "an artist without an art." (Speaking of Marlowe, his character, Adam Dunne, is supposed to be romantically interested in Gene Tierney's character, Mary Bristol, but he is so obviously, obviously gay that I can't imagine any audience today watching them interacting without uniformly dropped jaws.) Fabian races frantically through the film looking for an angle, a break, a mark, a loan, a place to hide, a chance to "be somebody." He gets so excited at his own pitches that he nearly vibrates to pieces, especially when the pitch fails with its intended target--such as Mary or his nemesis, clubowner Phil Nosseross, played by Francis L. Sullivan: Fabian strings Nosseross's wife Helen (Googie Withers) along in order to get her help backing his big wrestling promotion scheme, but Nosseross believes he is pursuing her in earnest, and sabotages his already-shaky venture. Nosseross takes sadistic pleasure in making it clear to Fabian that he's scuttled his enterprise, supplementing the emotional blow with a satisfied crash of the cymbals on a drum kit in the darkened nightclub.
Fabian's other nemesis is gangster-businessman Kristo (Herbert Lom), whose father Gregorius (retired champion Stanislaus Zbyszko, whom Dassin took great pains to seek out for the role, in his only screen appearance) is Fabian's ace in the hole: he takes him as a partner as insurance against Kristo striking out at him for competing with him in the wrestling market. Zbyszko looks like he's carved out of granite. When he moves and speaks, he's like one of those big tree guys in Lord of the Rings, only not as silly. His climactic fight with Mike Mazurki as "The Strangler" is four minutes of elemental theater at its most violent and primal.
For more on the film and its background, see the excerpt from Geoff Mayer's Encyclopedia of Film Noir at Noir of the Week.
Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis (sort of) in King Kong (dir. Peter Jackson, 2005).
Peter Jackson gives the old classic a bit of a case of Titanicitis. He never passes up a chance for a breathtaking vista bathed in a golden Maxfield Parrish glow, and things are done with CGI that would have looked a lot better if they had just been done the old-fashioned way: like, people in a rowboat, for instance. I won't even get into the whole "degenerate race" native scene. And that brontosaurus pile-up--well, that almost pushes us into Stephen Sommers territory, as do the giant man-eating worms and evil-faced bats. And it really doesn't need to be three hours long.
All the same, there are rousing moments and nice touches. The recreated depression-era New York is as gloriously fake and gaudy as Skull Island. More so. Jack Black renders Carl Denham in broad strokes (surprise), but he works the self-reflexive moviemaking trope in entertaining ways. Naomi Watts is good when she's hanging out with Kong and doesn't have to read the flat dialogue. Adrien Brody is generally pretty useless as far as I'm concerned, but he recreates a certain kind of early-talkie ineffective-leading-man type quite effectively. And Kong himself has a lot of personality, even if at least half that personality is Tony Soprano. When he breaks loose in the city, he picks up four blondes in close succession, realizes they're not the one he wants, and throws them aside like candy wrappers. We all know guys like that.
Danny Huston in 30 Days of Night (dir. David Slade, 2007).
Let's see ... pipeline ... "blood for oil"? Something about isolationism, frontier ideology? Alaska ... cold ... but town set on fire ... global warming? Metaphor for colonization and violation of Inuit people? Phantasmal return of repressed Soviet anxieties?
Nope, I got nothing. It's just a B-movie about vampires that speak Klingon.
Richard Conte and Valentina Cortese in Thieves' Highway (dir. Jules Dassin, 1949).
Conte and Cortese in the noir-drenched streets of San Francisco.
Millard Mitchell, Jack Oakie, and Joseph Pevney.
I heart Jules Dassin. Thieves' Highway is the simplest of stories, adapted for the screen by A. I. "Buzz" Bezzerides from his novel Thieves' Market: gritty working folk race from the orchards of Fresno to the San Francisco produce markets with the year's first crop of golden delicious apples (never mind that in the parallel-dimension California of the story, this trip takes thirty-six hours). Crooked fruit merchant Lee J. Cobb makes life tough for Richard Conte and his fellow truckers, alternately aided and defied by whore-with-a-heart-of-you-know-what Valentina Cortese (one of the loves of Dassin's life). When Cortese plays tic-tac-toe on Conte's bare chest with her fingertips, it's as sensually frank as anything in European cinema of the period: she's like a minor carnal deity, and she blows Conte's stuck-up little priss of a fiancee (Barbara Lawrence) out of the water without even trying. All this creates the problem of how eventually to justify her relationship with Conte in a way that will satisfy the Breen Code, and the solution is naturally ridiculous: she's not actually a hooker, she's just a fortune teller. Right. This and the film's other brief concession to Breen--a scene where a policeman mildly admonishes Conte for taking the law into his own hands--were both tacked on by Fox producer Darryl Zanuck behind Dassin's back.
Millard Mitchell plays Conte's partner, and he's an absolutely compelling character, at once plain and complex, neither strong nor weak--just a man. There's nothing to him but realism. His truck goes out of control on the Altamont, and in the aftermath, hundreds of golden delicious apples cascade down the hill in the distance toward the foreground, little white specks of chaos. Jack Oakie and Joseph Pevney stand by as witnesses, bewildered by the destructiveness of the universe and their own lives. During the shooting of this scene, Dassin told Pevney to zip up his jacket against the cold--a small, spontaneous moment that is essential to the mood of the moment, just as it is when Oakie looks at the apple that has somehow ended up in his hand, blinks in confusion, and throws it aside.
Michael C. Hall in Dexter (dir. Michael Cuesta et al., 2006-present).
A Showtime series, which means it's just like regular TV with some extra gore, partial nudity, and F-words. Still, with its premise, this could have been a great show: Dexter Morgan is a blood spatter expert for the Miami PD--and a serial killer himself. He has a sweet girlfriend with two small children and an adoptive sister who works on the homicide squad for his department. He was adopted by a cop who figured out early on that little Dex was a hollow killing machine and somehow managed to instill him with a code of honor whereby he only offs bad people. So it starts getting hard to swallow right there. The big problem is you know right away that Dexter is not at all scary if you're not a murderer yourself. You wouldn't hesitate to have him watch your kids while you go out to dinner--even if you knew his secret. It's built into the show that he's no threat. The real challenge would have been to sustain our identification with him while making us nervous the entire time that he might do away with someone we care about. Patricia Highsmith pulls this off with her sophisticated sociopath Tom Ripley, as does Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake) with his amoral thief Parker. And Michael C. Hall is definitely good enough to have played the role successfully in this way.
Despite these flaws (and despite the constant annoying voiceover in which Dexter tells us things like "If I did have feelings, I would feel x," etc.), I couldn't help but get caught up in the first season, which I devoured in four nights of DVD-watching. The cast is engaging, and there is real suspense at times. I just wish the writers weren't so anxious at all times to reassure us that Dex is a good guy at heart, or whatever he has.
Charles Laughton floats up the senate steps in Advise & Consent (dir. Otto Preminger, 1962).
Otto Preminger's swooping, on-location, black-and-white elegancies play over the marbled surfaces of Washington, DC. The story is all big powerful men snarling and sniffing ever so articulately at each other, in that early sixties not quite subversive but mildly socially satirical in a purely structural way way. All the same, the fiction of national politicians speaking in full, eloquent paragraphs like ancient Romans is beguilingly attractive.
Lee Bowman in House by the River (dir. Fritz Lang, 1950).
Louis Hayward plays Stephen Byrne, a dissolute writer who accidentally kills his attractive young maid Emily (Dorothy Patrick) in the act of trying to rape her, and must enlist the aid of his (usually) morally upstanding but wooden-legged brother John (Lee Bowman) in hiding the evidence. To complicate things, Stephen's wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and John are secretly in love with each other. What lifts this out of the trough of garden-variety gothic melodrama, besides George Antheil's score and Edward Cronjager's cinematography, is Hayward's creepy performance as Stephen, who is all the more menacing for his simpering weakness: as his desperation and paranoia grows, his front of humanity steadily drops away, leaving a loathsome trapped animal. Not that he's a prize moral specimen to begin with, of course. When he stalks Emily on the stairs before squeezing the life out of her, his grinning, predatory face is a chilling mask of evil.
Bowman is not as engaging a performer as Hayward (and to be fair, his part calls for him not to be), but his character is interesting in other ways. As his brother's keeper, he is torn between his own ethics and his desire to protect Marjorie from the trauma that would ensue if the crime were discovered (Stephen lies and tells him Marjorie is pregnant). When we first meet John, he is trying to get into Stephen's house, an action that has obvious symbolic overtones in light of his feelings for Marjorie. He appears first as a shadowy pair of eyes only partly visible behind the little window on the door, sending Stephen into a panic: he is thus clearly set up as the conscience of the film, but a conscience that itself becomes complicit. This is indicative of the tortured morality of Lang's films: even those figures who represent surveillance and ideological monitoring are caught up in the complex of existential entrapment that, here as in other films, is manifested by claustrophobic corridors, cul de sacs, and dead ends. A typical device of Lang's is a long shot of the subject at the end of a hall, often closing a door against the observing world (cf. Edward G. Robinson at the end of The Woman in the Window). Throughout House by the River, Stephen and John are shown in positions of this sort, sometimes in relation to each other, as in the scene mentioned previously. Additionally, John's physical disability can be seen as a figural analogue to Stephen's crippled soul--a device that does not so much diminish our identification with John as qualify our impression of Stephen, who in this way comes off as just one more casualty. Another way of saying this: Lang tends not to have heroes or villains in the usual sense, but victims ... all victims all the time.
Michael Whalen and Leslie Brooks (doing that crazy eyes thing) in Blonde Ice (dir. Jack Bernhard, 1948).
Leslie Brooks and David Leonard.
Jack Bernhard, the man who brought you Decoy, the story of a beautiful but cold-blooded she-devil who bumps off three men, brings you Blonde Ice, the story of a beautiful but cold-blooded she-devil who bumps off three men. Think this guy had issues with women? Or maybe just trouble thinking up new story ideas? Actually, legend has it that Edgar Ulmer played some part in writing this one, though there's nothing in the records to substantiate it. Blonde Ice doesn't fly off the rails with quite as much homicidal abandon as Decoy, but it's still a pretty wild ride. Check out this dialogue:
Robert Paige to Leslie Brooks: "You're not a normal woman. You're not warm. You're cold, like ice. Yeah, ice--blonde ice!"
Paige to Brooks again: "'Claire Cummings Hanneman Mason' ... if this keeps up you won't be able to get your initials on your silverware!"
Brooks to David Leonard (playing a psychoanalyst): "You and your slimy scientific snooping!"
Some of it is totally bargain basement. At one point, Brooks actually delivers the line (for no apparent reason), "They say the female of the species is deadlier than the male." But she does frosty quite well. In fact, just about nobody in the cast phones it in; everyone is pretty memorable, even the basically exchangeable husbands and jilted lovers. Especially cool is Emory Parnell as a smirking police captain: an inspiration, I'm conjecturing, for the character played by M. Emmet Walsh in the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple.
Casey Affleck in Gone Baby Gone (dir. Ben Affleck, 2007).
It's so surprising that Ben Affleck is as good a director and writer as he turns out to be on Gone Baby Gone that one wants to overlook the film's flaws. But they're there, and they're fairly serious. I haven't read Dennis Lehane's novel, so I don't know if this defect originates with it, but that's neither here nor there. The fact is that what starts as an engrossing mystery suffers at midpoint from clumsy plot development and never recovers. Halfway through, the missing-child story seems to be resolved, but of course very soon something is revealed that suggests there is more to the picture. The problem: the way in which this something is revealed is that the main character (Patrick Kenzie, played by Casey Affleck) simply announces it. We do see the moment in which the clue is dropped, just as he does, but there is nothing dramatic about the transition from clue to revelation. It's just, one scene: clue is dropped; next scene: Kenzie says, hey, that was a clue. And sure enough, it was, and from then on, it's just a bunch of flashbacks and confessions. There is another twist that is supposed to catch us by surprise, but by then all the tension has dissipated and it just feels like you should have seen it coming. Which maybe you did.
There's also a subplot that plays out midway through, about another missing child, a subplot whose function is much too transparently to present Kenzie with a psychic and ethical burden he must measure against the burdens borne by others. Again, I wonder how much of this is Lehane's fault: Mystic River too (the movie at least--I didn't read that one either) was similarly laden with forced primal-sin Catholic psychodrama. It reveals my bias as a viewer, of course, that my ideal is the lean, well-oiled crime narrative rather than the symbolic urban tragedy.
It's still worth seeing, largely for Casey Affleck. When he's making the rounds in his scuzzy Boston neighborhood, interviewing the locals and looking for leads, the movie comes alive. Affleck's Kenzie looks and sounds like a teenager, and it's a neat hook. You feel his vulnerability, and when he responds to provocation as a tough guy, it feels like a bluff--which it must be in part, which makes his courage seem all the more impressive, as even he doesn't seem convinced it will work. Despite his movie-star good looks, he's very believable as the city kid who grew up with all the dealers and gangbangers, and who can still pull off being one of them even as he is separated from them by his alignment with law enforcement.
The other outstanding performance comes from Amy Ryan as the coke-whore mother of the missing girl. She makes what could have been a standard "white trash" stereotype into a fully-formed character. She's so out of it that she forgets herself in the middle of the crisis and makes gay jokes. In fact, she seems to spend more time smiling than not--it's like she knows something about life's sick joke and has just decided to roll with it, a kind of strength.
Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (dir. Fritz Lang, 1937).
Compared to a lot of other Fritz Lang films, this is a little pedestrian at times, but it's definitely got that nice "everything is hopeless and everyone is doomed" vibe one expects from him. Sylvia Sidney is such a chirpy little beam of sunshine that it's truly painful to watch her get sucked inexorably into Henry Fonda's vortex of shit luck.
Carl Möhner as Jo le Suedois and Jean Servais as Tony le Stéphanois in Rififi [Du rififi chez les hommes] (dir. Jules Dassin, 1955).
Dominique Maurin as Tonio le Suedois and Jean Servais as Tony le Stéphanois.
Perlo Vita (Jules Dassin) as Cesar le Milanais.
Magali Noël as Viviane.
Jules Dassin, in exile from Hollywood during the McCarthy years, made Rififi in France on a shoestring budget. He couldn't understand the dense argot of Auguste Le Breton's novel, so he had to have someone read it to him in order to adapt it for the screen. Le Breton was so upset at how much his book had been changed (for one thing, the necrophilia had been removed) that he pulled a gun on Dassin during their first meeting. They nevertheless became good friends.
I haven't read the book, but it's difficult to imagine that it could be any more of a masterpiece than the film. Its bleakness is a different kind from that of American noir, playing out as it does against an almost light-hearted background of camaraderie and daily life. Perhaps the major difference is in the portrayal of sexuality, which is not just franker, but less contaminated with gynephobic dread, more related to actual pleasure. And yet Dassin's American background distinguishes it from most French films in the genre as well: he's more in touch with the gestural and rhythmic specificity of US crime tropes, and he manages to transmit this sensibility to his actors. Dassin himself, under the pseudonym Perlo Vita, plays the suave safecracker Cesar le Milanais. It's a beautifully understated performance that is about as humbly enacted as you can imagine a semi-central role played by the director being. The anti-Orson-Welles.
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007).
Sydney Pollack acts in and is one of the producers of Michael Clayton, and director Tony Gilroy has essentially made a Sydney Pollack film: the best one, in fact, since at least The Firm. Better than The Interpreter, and definitely better than the execrable Random Hearts. I'll admit to a high tolerance for Pollack's particular flavor of bland, which I often find soothing in the way TV shows about lawyers are soothing. And in the seventies, at least, he was making genuinely distinguished dramas and comedies for adults. Michael Clayton has some of that quality, and if it's finally not as satisfying as a Three Days of the Condor or an Absence of Malice, it's probably only because the filmic rhetoric of those pictures has run its historical course, and certainly cannot survive beneath the icy technical surface of today's standard thriller template: hi-res crispnesses of color and agitated motion that can only resonate in a post-digital consciousness. When Clayton (George Clooney) walks out on a hill to connect with some horses, it feels like it might be an allusion to The Asphalt Jungle; any similarity, however, dissolves in a blast of Dolby sound and CGI-enhanced flame. More generally, like every other dramatic feature being made these days in Hollywood, the whole thing just looks too much like a BMW ad.
On the level of "message" as well, the movie can't quite sustain the weight it imposes on itself. It's not just that Clayton's ethical transformation is too clean and sudden, but that it can't really be the point. What's interesting about his character is the way he tries to solve the specific problems he is paid to solve. Once he rejects the grounds for his engagement with those problems, he deserts his own story and becomes another, much more comfortable and less interesting figure. If Gilroy had followed through on the logic of who Clayton appears to be at the start of the film, the long close-up shot at the end would be a lot more meaningful. It might have more in common, for example, with the scene it superficially resembles: the end of The Long Good Friday. In that scene, Bob Hoskins' face is a window into the most excruciating weighing of every past action in his life and every consequence yet to come. George Clooney's face is only a window into a set of consequences that have effectively already played out, and that cannot possibly be of any further interest to the audience.
Another way of looking at the problem with Clayton as the main character: that character really ought to be Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). She's ambitious, vulnerable, desperate, cunning, panicked, utterly corrupt: noir on a stick. If we got to concentrate on her for the duration of the narrative, it would be properly excruciating. Clayton, in a less central capacity, could be a good foil to her. But apparently the filmmakers decided that a predictable, "sensitive" character study of a rotten corporate tool who finally sees the light would be more saleable than a harrowing, focused anatomy of irredeemable moral error.
See also Jodi Dean at I Cite, and Kim Dot Dammit.
Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, and Herbert Rudley in Decoy (dir. Jack Bernhard, 1946).
Director's credit w/grimy sink.
Robert Armstrong (check out the "filler" headline below his picture, and for that matter, all the text in small print that has nothing to do with anything: obviously midcentury filmmakers never anticipated viewers with the ability to freeze the frame).
Director Jack Bernhard made a small handful of films for Monogram (one of the "Poverty Row" B-studios) in the late forties, and then as far as I can tell, nothing is known about him. He married Jean Gillie, the star of Decoy, shortly before filming, and they were divorced soon after. About three years later, she died of pneumonia. This pall of foreshortened potential that hangs over Decoy doubtless has added to the air of mystique and cult status it has generated in recent years. Not that it's not, on its own merits, a true hard-boiled classic: despite some embarrassing production values and overplayed moments, it's right up there with Edgar Ulmer's Detour as one of the strangest and darkest noirs ever made.
Jean Gillie's Margot Shelby is, as has often been noted, about as fatale as a femme can get. She toys with her male suckers like a cat with a finch, and just as bloodily. There are two scenes in particular that epitomize her inhuman audacity: one in which she runs over a guy in a car (supposedly, in a since-edited version, she backs up and does it a second time), and another in which she simply laughs in a guy's face. What's so bad about laughing in a guy's face? You just have to watch it.
As I mentioned in my last post, this is part of a twofer DVD with Crime Wave. In retrospect, I probably should have watched Decoy first, because after Crime Wave's richly realized mise en scene and flawless ensemble of players, Decoy felt a bit one-dimensional. In any other context, however, I'm sure I would have come away raving just as strongly as I did about Crime Wave. Fortunately, they are on the same disc, so you can check them both out yourself.
See another viewer's report (with spoilers), and a clip of the first five minutes, at Noir of the Week.
Let it ring: the hands of Phyllis Kirk and Gene Nelson in Crime Wave (dir. André De Toth, 1954).
Jim Hayward, the maniacal Timothy Carey, and Charles Buzinsky (Charles Bronson).
It may be all you need to know about Crime Wave that noirologist and (apparently) full-time DVD commentator Eddie Muller is joined in the commentary track by James Ellroy, and that Ellroy just about has kittens. Yes, it does hurt his credibility a bit that he's such a complete spaz (he pants excitedly when he sees locations he likes, and growls so loudly at the mere mention of attractive actresses that he hurts Muller's ears). The same might be said for his off-the-cuff declaration mid-viewing that De Toth's film is not only better than Kubrick's The Killing (which was inspired in part by it), but better than Chinatown. It might be said, except that part of me agrees with him. Yes, it's the impetuous part. I would give anything to have been at the dinner Ellroy promised to buy Muller after the commentary, at which, he said, he would defend his provocative claim at length.
All right, it's just a low-budget heist flick shot in thirteen days. But everything in it clicks. Sterling Hayden as toothpick-chewing monster cop Det. Lt. Sims (Ellroy takes one look at him and says, "Fuck Russell Crowe in LA Confidential; that's Bud White!"). Phyllis Kirk, who plays the devoted wife of ex-con Gene Nelson as though she were a three-dimensional character, despite all attempts by the script to sabotage her. Gene Nelson's souped-up Deuce Coup. Ted de Corsia (the rabbit-punching Willie the Harmonica from Naked City) as a bullying gangleader (though his bullying comes in second to Hayden's). The young Charles Bronson, going by Charles Buzinsky, as a scary punk. And the even scarier Timothy Carey (who, along with Hayden and de Corsia, was drafted by Kubrick for the aforementioned The Killing).
Then there's the location shooting in Los Angeles and environs. The opening sequence of the gas station hold-up alone is a work of art. (During the titles, you see the gangsters' car pull up to the station window as the attendant raises his head to greet them--then, after the director's credit, the last ten or so seconds of film runs all over again, the attendant raising his head for a second time! And immediately following this, there is a severe change of camera angle that almost gives the effect of a jump cut. I don't know if this was an intentional stab at artsiness by De Toth and/or veteran John Ford cameraman Bert Glennon, but I can just see Godard watching it and flipping his lid.) Just about every frame in the film is composed as though it were being made for the Academy's consideration, and the settings are used to full advantage, from the actual interior of the LA Police Department to a grimy lunchroom to a little animal hospital to a big barn of a bank in Glendale. There's one scene that begins in total darkness, and suddenly a door at the right of the frame bursts open like a rectangular lightning bolt as the police bust in, throwing their shadows around in dramatic ways. I had to replay it three times.
I watched this a couple of nights ago, and I'm still high on it. It's on a double-bill DVD with Jack Bernhard's Decoy, which I'll talk about in my next post.
Robert Carlyle in 28 Weeks Later (dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007).
Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots.
Scary as hell, just like the first one. The big helicopter set piece in the middle of the film hits and misses at the same time, just like the blades: it's realistic enough to evoke the real horrors of war and terrorism, but hyperbolically silly enough to undermine itself. The really freaky moments are the quieter ones that take place in dark, claustrophobic spaces strewn with harmless but unnerving corpses. Some reviewers have made a lot of the role played by the American military in the story, trying to find a commentary on current events (Iraq? New Orleans?), but it's hard to distill a coherent critique from a fictional situation in which the abuse and the proper use of power end up indistinguishable from each other and equally inadequate. Oh, wait.
Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941).
Lee Phelps, Dana Andrews ("How's about some benzedrine?"), and Addison Richards.
Regulation screwball antics from Howard Hawks, with a fine cast. Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, and Ralph Peters play gangsters Joe Lilac, Duke Pastrami, and Asthma Andrews, respectively. Duryea answers a phone call from Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea: "Hello Sugie ... sure it's Pastrami." The title refers to Stanwyck, and she lives up to it. Feigning a sore throat, Sugarpuss complains to Gary Cooper as Prof. Bertram Potts: "It's as red as the Daily Worker, and twice as sore."
Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao (dir. Josef von Sternberg, 1952).
Another Howard Hughes production for RKO with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, all very enjoyable. Sternberg goes nuts with the location and its attending atmosphere, simultaneously exoticizing and de-exoticizing the Asian and Portuguese characters (some are "inscrutable," for example, but speak perfect English). Mitchum and Russell play beautifully together, and William Bendix is solid and affable as always. Gloria Grahame is handed a scrawny turkey of a role as the lead gangster's disgruntled moll, but invests it with enough graceful toughness to make it seem more than it is. Nice line from Russell: "Everybody's lonely and worried and sorry."
FBI personnel at work in The House on 92nd Street (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1945).
Detainment and internment montage.
The Naked City was the first film shot entirely on location in New York City, but The House on 92nd Street, which preceded it by three years, lays the groundwork for it. The films also share the device of the newsreel-style voiceover, which in House's case is so rooted in documentary materials that it was clearly designed in part to fool viewers into thinking they were watching a reenactment of historical fact. In truth, the story is a combination of two actual FBI cases, with the added fiction that the nazis almost had their hands on the plans for the atomic bomb. There's an interesting gender-related twist to the embellishments as well, which I won't say too much about. The good guys are earnest slabs of plywood, and the villains are reasonably colorful ogres (Signe Hasso is striking as stylish blonde she-wolf Elsa Gebhardt). The most engaging character appears for less than five minutes: George Shelton as a Vaudeville promoter, who delivers his lines naturally and gregariously ("Chess? Boy, there is a lousy game.").
Nail-biting extra in The Naked City (dir. Jules Dassin, 1948).
Boy finds body floating in the East River.
Filmed entirely on location in New York City, Jules Dassin's big, hearty procedural borrows as much from newsreels and state-sponsored documentaries as from Italian neorealism. Producer Mark Hellinger's insistent voiceover is corny, but also an integral part of the movie's poignant tone of detached conviviality. Dassin has a knack for this effect, a mixture of generous sympathy for his characters and near-ironic fascination with the minutiae of incidental inflections and gestures that reduce subjects to caricatures: a heel on a bus whistles at a newspaper photo of the murdered model, and the woman standing behind him adopts a blankly bemused smirk; a pair of wrestlers pause in mid-embrace to answer police questions, their muscles frozen with stress throughout. It's obvious who the good guys and bad guys are, and which ones we're supposed to root for, but there is nevertheless a sense that none of the "eight million stories in the naked city" outweigh any of the others. We learn, for example, that shopkeepers and neighborhood children are fond of the murderous hoodlum Willie "the Harmonica" Garzah (Ted de Corsia), who looks down at the off-camera form of Don Taylor after knocking him out and chuckles, his face drenched with sweat, "That was a rabbit punch, copper--and it's strictly illegal."
Title frame for Killer Bait [a.k.a. Too Late for Tears] (dir. Byron Haskin, 1949).
Arthur Kennedy and Lizabeth Scott.
Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea.
Much of this film looks like it was shot in a cardboard box. This has more to do with Byron Haskin's just-adequate direction and the general low budget, I think, than with William Mellor's cinematographic skill, which is considerable (the degraded quality of the print doesn't help). But you know what? It doesn't even matter, because you've got Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea as two of the noiriest characters you've ever seen, and they play it for all it's worth. In fact, the overall crappiness of production values and lack of compositional gloss adds to the squalor of the story. A bag of money accidentally gets thrown into a married couple's car, and though the husband (Arthur Kennedy) wants to do the right thing and turn it in, he's a weak sap, and the wife (Scott) takes charge. Then the guy the money was really meant for (Duryea) shows up, and things get really ugly. Don DeFore enters the mix as a questionable man from the past and keeps everyone on their toes. There are all kinds of loose plot ends and half-baked motivations: it's hard to figure out how Scott gets Duryea to the point where he's going out and buying poison for her, but that's part of the beauty of it. These people are just going off half-cocked all over the place.