Slightly Scarlet

Arlene Dahl in Slightly Scarlet (dir. Allan Dwan, 1956).

Rhonda Fleming.

Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl.

John Payne.

John Payne's wrist.

Has there been any noticeable correction to the gross underratedness of this film since the release of the 2002 VCI DVD, with its excellent commentary by Max Allan Collins? I hope so. It's almost unthinkable to compete with the great triumvirate of James M. Cain adaptations: Wilder's Double Indemnity, Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Curtiz's Mildred Pierce. Allan Dwan's Slightly Scarlet is not quite up to their level--not, at any rate, as an organically realized, unified work of cinema. Taken as a collection of parts that never quite add up to an intelligible sum, however, it's dazzling.

There are fine performances from the three leads and Ted de Corsia, but the real star is John Alton's widescreen technicolor cinematography. I don't know if there's another movie anything like this in the period: it's as if Douglas Sirk had directed a noir. (After I typed that, I thought, wait--did he ever direct a noir? and on IMDB I find the 1949 title Shockproof, with Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight, sadly unavailable on DVD as yet.)

Collins wonders in the commentary why they chose the title Slightly Scarlet (Cain's novel was called Love's Lovely Counterfeit). Duh. Just look at that chromatic palette! Red hair, red lips, red blood, red clothes, red air. The real question is, why "slightly"?


The Asphalt Jungle

Sterling Hayden and some horses in The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1950).

Marilyn Monroe and Louis Calhern.

What The Asphalt Jungle shares with the two other greatest heist films of the fifties, Dassin's Rififi and Kubrick's The Killing, is its refusal to flatten its criminals out into thugs or caricatures, even the supporting criminals. The characters are sometimes treated comically--for example, Sam Jaffe as Doc Riedenschneider flipping through a girlie calendar and stopping guiltily as he realizes Sterling Hayden is in the room--but every single one of them is permitted some private core of self-respect. Even Marc Lawrence's "Cobby" Cobbs, for all his weakness, is presented sympathetically when he must face an overwhelming ethical decision. The least likeable of them is Louis Calhern as Alonzo Emmerich, a floundering industrialist driven to double-crossing, but he too emerges finally as a little more than the sum of his venalities.

Sterling Hayden's performance as Dix Handley is almost purely physical: he's a lump of human granite who occasionally flutters into a preconscious state of agitation brought on either by anger or affection and looking not much different in either case. He speaks in a slow drawl, like a punchy boxer, and he has a bad betting habit. And yet he is the center of dignity in the film. He's not as dumb as he looks (though he's no genius either), and finding this out is part of what allows the movie to maintain a powerful hold on the viewer. Jean Hagen as Doll Conovan is his perfect complement, all barely restrained emotion and empathy, a nervous bundle of unconditional love.

And then there's Marilyn Monroe, in her small part as Emmerich's young mistress Angela. Say, did anyone ever notice that this woman was sexy? She acts with her whole upper torso. Brilliantly. It's like watching a unicorn giving birth.


Out of the Past

Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1947).

Every once in a while I see comments to the effect that Jacques Tourneur had no distinctive directorial style of his own, that his talent lay in adapting to the needs of the material at hand. I don't understand this. For me, Tourneur's handprint is impossible to miss: the sense of shroudedness and immersion in languor, of a world slipping just into or out of a poisonous amnesia. Certainly this quality is most pronounced in the wonderful horror films he did for Val Lewton--Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man--but it's evident as well in his dreamlike Oregon western Canyon Passage, and most definitely in Out of the Past, which many place at the top of their greatest noir list. It's near the top of mine, at any rate, though it almost jumps categories into Casablanca-style romantic melodrama. From another perspective, however, one could as easily argue that Casablanca is an imperfect noir: that precisely what it lacks is noir's impassive dispensation of fatalistic wit, of sympathetic but merciless irony. Tourneur takes these elements and filters them through a layer of elegaic gauze, occasionally letting jarringly realistic stripes of daylight burst through rips in the fabric. There is also a sense in his films that atmospheric incidentals carry more weight than they have any right to: lush mountainous terrain, eerie beachscapes, the momentary gothic strangeness of an iron gate. If this is formalist excess, it's driving me wild.



Noah Fleiss and Lukas Haas in Brick (dir. Rian Johnson, 2005).

High-school noir. Yeah, I know.

Worthy of note for having the most difficult-to-follow plot since The Big Sleep (no, I take it back, it's even more confusing), and, in all seriousness, a striking performance from Noah Fleiss (Heidi's nephew) as "Tug," a thug. His chronic inability to contain his rage escapes becoming tiresome because Fleiss plays it like classical violin, releasing lightning bolts of tension with precision timing. Comparisons to a young Sean Penn are inevitable.


I Shot Jesse James

Reed Hadley (straightening the picture) and John Ireland (firing the gun and remembering firing the gun) in I Shot Jesse James (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1949).

Sam Fuller's directorial debut, shot in ten days. John Ireland's portrayal of "the coward Robert Ford" is nicely modulated, so that it's never too obvious how we're supposed to feel about him. (Fuller went on record as saying that he wanted to puncture the myth of James as a hero, but this seems odd considering Reed Hadley's performance of the famous outlaw: he comes off as almost saintly in his Abraham-Lincoln-style beard and his quiet, generous demeanor as a family man.) The love triangle plot with Ireland, Preston Foster, and Barbara Britton is slight in itself, but provides an affectingly lyric counterpoint to the balladistic thrust of the main narrative, and the shifting of the action halfway through from Missouri to the silver mines of Colorado feels like a graceful structural stroke. The true hight point of the film, however, must be when Ford enters a saloon and encounters a wandering troubadour (Robin Short) who unknowingly begins singing "The Ballad of Jesse James" to him. When the singer realizes his gaffe but Ford insists that he go on singing, the tension of embarrassment and fear is excruciating.


The Mist

The Mist (dir. Frank Darabont, 2007).

As Jane points out, The Mist is pretty confused in its foggy gropings toward allegory. That may be part of what makes it as interesting as it is: its B-movie banalities are constantly crashing into the plate glass window of its political unconscious, sending large sacks of semiotic dog food spraying in all directions. I mentioned in my notes on No Country for Old Men that I appreciated its ability to ward off any ideological analysis until some time after the viewing experience has ended. In The Mist, the opposite is the case: the cinematic experience must be reconstructed after the barrage of symptomology has subsided. This too makes for an interesting, if somewhat emotionally draining, time at the movies. It is very hard not to come away from the final scene, however, without feeling that the filmmakers have unintentionally (I hope) directed all the movie's signifying energies toward one stentorian subliminal message: Don't ever lose faith in your government, or you'll be really fucking sorry.


No Country for Old Men

Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2007).

One of the things I like about No Country for Old Men is that, unlike with the majority of major studio releases, my first response is not to think about what its ideological unconscious is. I mean, I'm sure that it has one--that it, like all entertainment, signifies meaningfully as a symptom--but there is so much going on with narrative, character, framing, and so on that my mind is still not through with it just at that level. It sustains its appeal for the part of me that continues to be fascinated with classical filmic craft.

And yet, even acknowledging that the film affected me this strongly, I still have reservations. I'm surprised by how much I really just want a crime story to behave like a conventional machine. I'm surprised by how much I want narrative closure. The movie works beautifully up to the last few minutes in large part because of how it keeps making you readjust your expectations. Expectations, that is, with regard to plot. Then, however (as many reviewers have remarked approvingly), at the very last second, it makes you readjust your expectations with regard to what kind of story it is. And in a way, it's stunning how successfully the Coens pull this off. The problem is that I may finally prefer the story I thought it was at first.

The story it first seems to be is a well-oiled genre vehicle: a series of discoveries, murders, thefts, pursuits, close calls, confrontations, turnabouts, fakeouts. The story it turns out to be is a "probing psychological drama" or something. It's at the point that this story emerges that the full weight of the title manifests itself. And that's too bad, because I pretty much think Yeats is insufferably ponderous. From what I've read (which I'll admit isn't much) I've generally had the same impression of Cormac McCarthy, to whose novel I understand the film is exceedingly faithful. So I'm finally torn between being impressed that McCarthy had all this fine pulp action in his imagination, and disappointed that he finally succumbed to his more "literary" pretensions. I wish he had given up around the last chapter or so and let Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake finish it.

Part of the reason it's so pleasing to be thrown for so many narrative curves is that it increases your anticipation of that final curve: the twist that will bring the entire fictive mechanism in for a landing. Some landing, any landing. When it is suddenly announced at the last moment that hey, we're not playing that game after all, we're playing this other game, all that built-up suspense feels like a haughty charade. It's as if you are being set up by the storytellers, made to look like a philistine for being invested in the genre you were led to believe you were enjoying.

The bulk of the movie is so good, however, that I can't help but recommend it enthusiastically.


Fingerprints Don't Lie

Sid Melton doing something very, very weird with a painting in Fingerprints Don't Lie (dir. Sam Newfield, 1951).

Another of those Luppert B-movies with people like Margia Dean, Tom Neal, and--heavens preserve us--Sid Melton. Sid Melton raises second-rate "comic relief" to the level of an art form. A degraded art form, yes.

Flimsy story involving a murdered mayor and faked fingerprints is fun to watch with drunk people. Look for Syra Marty as a blonde German (I think) model with an accent so unintelligible you can't even tell it's supposed to be an accent at first; she just sounds like one of the parents on a Charlie Brown TV special.


I'll Get You

Clifford Evans and George Raft in I'll Get You [orig. UK title: Escape Route] (dir. Seymour Friedman, 1952).

"I'll Get You"? What kind of title is that? Ooh, you better watch out--I'm gonna get you!

Dull British thriller starring George Raft past his prime as an American agent on the trail of a man who's kidnapped an atomic scientist. Some OK compositions.


Death Race 2000

David Carradine and Simone Griffeth in Death Race 2000 (dir. Paul Bartel, 1975).

I remember the video game--one of the first ones--inspired by this. You got points for killing pedestrians, just like in the movie. Each time you hit one, there was a little scream, and a digital headstone rose up in its badly animated place. Think Pong with rudimentary arms and legs.

"Visionary" may be too strong a word to use for producer Roger Corman and director Paul Bartel, but there is some delicious, if very broad, satire here. In the America of the "future," a band of rebels led by one "Thomasina Paine" tries to put a stop to the murderous Transcontinental Road Race by setting up one of their own (Thomasina's granddaughter, played by Simone Griffeth) as the navigator for the race's number one star, "Frankenstein" (David Carradine). Other drivers include a young Sylvester Stallone and Mary Woronov of Warhol fame. As is always the case with these things, most of the ridiculously dystopian political prophecies of the story are now well-known fact. My favorite part is when the rebels start bumping off the drivers and the government orders the media to blame it on the French.


A Man Escaped

François Leterrier in A Man Escaped (dir. Robert Bresson, 1956).

If it sometimes feels a little too much like an academic exercise in minimalist technique, it's nevertheless gripping. Leterrier's bloodied white shirt gets grimier and grimier as the film goes on, bringing home to the viewer the physical purgatory of his situation. This sense of soul-smothering limbo is further heightened by the near-absence of music, an absence occasionally interrupted by inexplicable bursts of Mozart. There is some talk of scripture and the church among the prisoners, but unlike some viewers, it's hard for me to see the film as "spiritual" in its focus; it is too insistent upon its exploration of material process and suppression of personal emotion. I suppose that is one way of conceptualizing prayer.



Rachel Nichols in P2 (dir. Franck Khalfoun, 2007).

Woman gets chased around a parking garage by a maniacal security guard and his vicious dog. And they say there are no good stories anymore!

Seriously, I thought it was pretty good, although it's strictly TV-movie material, and by all means, please wait for the rental, even assuming it's still playing anywhere. Wes Bentley is hilariously convincing as that overly earnest type who goes much too far out of his way to prove that he's a sensitive, likeable guy. We all know at least ten of those, and chances are every single one actually is a psychotic killer.


Tough Assignment

Don "Red" Barry and Marjorie Steele in Tough Assignment (dir. William Beaudine, 1949).

The Bureau of Livestock Identification.

Intrepid reporter and his plucky photographer wife uncover and infiltrate a gang of modern-day cattle rustlers. Sid Melton yucks it up as a mentally deficient outlaw. As good as it sounds? That would be telling!


FBI Girl

Raymond Burr and Audrey Totter in FBI Girl (dir. William A. Berke, 1951).

Reasons to see this movie:

* Audrey Totter
* Raymond Burr
* Audrey Totter's two ditzy blonde roommates, who somehow are allowed by the Production Code to share a big double bed while clad in flimsy nightgowns
* storyline that entails connections between federal government and organized crime
* bizarre extended sequence where the action completely stops while we watch a TV comedy routine featuring Peter Marshall (yes, the Hollywood Squares guy) and Tommy Noonan
* Alexander Pope (no, not the poet, silly) as a frightening thug named "Georgia" who dons priest's garb to make a hit in a hospital
* Cesar Romero firing a machine gun out of a helicopter at Raymond Burr in a speedboat

I can't think of any other reasons offhand, but those should be enough.



Ralph Meeker and Barbara Stanwyck in Jeopardy (dir. John Sturges, 1953).

Clean-cut all-American family Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and Lee Aaker (Rusty from the Rin Tin Tin TV series) drive down to a secluded Mexican beach for a relaxing fishing vacation. Sullivan gets trapped under a fallen piling from the dilapidated pier, and Stanwyck must drive off to seek help getting him out before the tide comes in. ("Cuerdo is Mexican for rope!" he tells her as she rushes off.) The only help she can find is Ralph Meeker, a sociopath who has recently escaped from prison. He has no altruistic tendencies whatsoever, and at first is interested only in using her as a hostage and driver. Even once she manages to convince him that rescuing her husband would benefit him (new clothes, equipment, etc.), he makes it a hard bargain for her--and that, as you would expect, is where the Production Code imposes an almost annihilating vagueness on what should be the most psychologically intense part of the film. It's still an engaging thriller in a vein that anticipates Cape Fear, and anyone looking for old under-realized material to remake could do worse than to choose this.


To Please a Lady

"What are you wearing?" Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in To Please a Lady (dir. Clarence Brown, 1950).

The trailer contains almost all the memorable parts, including the scene where racecar driver Gable whacks gossip columnist Stanwyck across the chops and says to her, "It's time somebody roughed you up a little. I can handle you, baby. You're just another dame to me." Then they kiss, naturally.


A Blueprint for Murder

Painkiller or poison? A Blueprint for Murder (dir. Andrew L. Stone, 1953).

I saw this a little over a week ago, and I barely remember it.

I remember the shoulders on Joseph Cotten's suit.

I remember thinking, hey, there's Gary Merrill, he was great in Where the Sidewalk Ends.

I remember several close-ups of drugs and poison.

I remember Jean Peters playing the piano.

I remember the climactic confrontation, aboard a cruise ship, was pretty well done.



Barry Sullivan in Tension (dir. John Berry, 1950).

Lloyd Gough and Audrey Totter.

Richard Basehart.

William Conrad with coffee and doughnuts.

Cyd Charisse and Audrey Totter.

There are some films where all the right ingredients--actors, crew, dialogue, etc.--are in place, and yet the cake fails to rise. This is not one of those films. This is one of those films where a bunch of the right ingredients are in place, plus some that are just adequate, and then some that have no business going into the recipe in the first place, and they all wind up baking into something that might not be a proper cake, but you still eat it and you're glad you did.

Wimp pharmacist Richard Basehart has a hot wife (Audrey Totter, about whom I would say that I hope eventually to meet her in the afterlife, but it would be a little weird to say that, as she's still alive, last I heard). The wife is bad. Wife dumps wimp for rude furry burly rich guy who lives on beach and kicks sand in wimp's face. Wimp gets fitted for contact lenses and assumes double life as part of his elaborate plan to murder hairy competitor. Along the way, wimp meets the beautiful and good Cyd Charisse. Things get complicated.

There are innumerable gaps in logic and taste, and it's all totally wonderful. I feel like I could watch this movie over and over. Almost every frame contains some trivial miracle: the drug store where Basehart works, the equipment and advertisements at the optometrist's office, the barbecue fork that Lloyd Gough wields like Neptune's trident, the decor in Basehart's alter ego's apartment, William Conrad as a coffee-and-doughnut snarfing cop, and every move that Audrey Totter makes.


Where Danger Lives

Robert Mitchum in Where Danger Lives (dir. John Farrow, 1950).

Faith Domergue.

Another flawed but entertaining B-noir vehicle for Mitchum from the RKO mill. The line between greatness and mediocrity in these films is so maddeningly thin that it confuses all my aesthetic standards, which are confused to begin with. Mitchum as a kindly surgeon who rescues the mentally unstable woman from her suicide attempt and then gets a concussion during a confrontation with her rich husband (Claude Rains, in fine form) and is swept up with her in a desperate dash for the Mexican border: brilliance or inanity? One feels finally that, as is so often the case, the deciding factor relegating the movie to "minor" status is in the little moral details, and that these details are to such a great extent determined by things like the Production Code that finally one just learns to make the appropriate little adjustments, to "translate" what is on the screen mentally into what it "would" have been if these strictures were not in place. And yet the best examples of the genre find ways to work around these strictures, even taking advantage of them as generative constraints. When the film simply goes along with them in what seems like utter apathetic compliance, it's disheartening.



Melina Mercouri in Topkapi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1964).

Jules Dassin transplants the riveting heist mechanics of Rififi into this frothy Turkish confection. Melina Mercouri, Dassin's real-life wife, is a creature from another planet: a brassy, seductive jokestress with an insatiable desire for emeralds and every man in sight. One of those men is Peter Ustinov, chosen by Mercouri's gang of thieves as the "schmoe" who will help them get their equipment across the border into Turkey, and eventually drafted into their scheme in a fuller capacity. His bumbling charm complements Mercouri's batty confidence nicely, with Maximilian Schell acting as a sort of bland buffer. As much as the emerald heist tries to be the film's main set piece, that distinction must actually go to the huge wrestling bout that precedes it: about a hundred greased-up hairy guys trying to rip each other's faces off in a big muddy field, amidst great politeness and ceremony. Strange little film.


The Big Clock

Charles Laughton in The Big Clock (dir. John Farrow, 1948)

From the novel by Kenneth Fearing, which was remade by Roger Donaldson in 1987 as No Way Out with Kevin Costner and Sean Young. The remake is just okay, but John Farrow's almost-whimsical treatment, with its high modern corporate interiors and droves of grey-flannel sharks, shows some real sensitivity to Fearing's stylistic vision. Ray Milland is perfect as the suit-who's-had-enough, the gifted company man who is just waiting for an excuse to reject the entire system, but finds himself professionally and personally stuck like a fly on flypaper--especially when he's implicated in a murder. Charles Laughton, as publishing magnate Earl Janoth, twirls his hint of a mustache and makes his employees dance like puppets. Elsa Lanchester has a charming small part as a dotty artist, and Harry Morgan plays the most menacing role of his career with no lines.



Jake Gyllenhaal and Chloë Sevigny in Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007).

Ever since Alien³, I've had a problem with David Fincher: in retrospect, the problem was that his slick brand of grittiness was the wave of the future for suspense films. It's only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that he definitively established the dominant look of nineties mainstream cinema in its most craven bid for "edginess," a look that is still holding ground. Se7en was the gravest offense: an utterly hollow and lurid cheapening of the noir aesthetic. The Game was similarly childish. Fight Club showed some gains in wit and satirical scope, though it was still too flashy for my taste, and Panic Room was simply a run-of-the-mill domestic thriller.

Zodiac, however, gives some evidence that Fincher has matured as a director. The challenge presented by the material is one that he and screenwriter James Vanderbilt, adapting Robert Graysmith's book, take on with considerable energy: how to take a story without a real conclusion and give it a dramatic arc, creating a compelling logic of interrelation between the three main characters--or for that matter, justifying the decision to present them as the three main characters. It doesn't completely succeed: after about the ninth dead-end lead in the case, the viewer starts to lose faith in the narrative. In fact, that's where the old Fincher rears his head, the Fincher that takes too much delight in gratuitous swerves and fake-outs played out ad infinitum (the Fincher that's most out of control in The Game). This may be what drew him to the material in the first place. That and all the grisly murder. But to tell the truth, the grisly murder mostly drops off before the first hour is out, and from then on it's just a hair away from being dull. There is one scene, however, where Gyllenhaal, playing Graysmith, is suddenly convinced that he's about to be the killer's next victim, and I found myself clutching the sofa fabric pretty hard, even though, for obvious reasons, there shouldn't be any suspense!


The Sopranos

Edie Falco and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos (dir. David Chase et al., 1999-2007).

I've now seen all eighty-six episodes of The Sopranos. I found the final stretch of the sixth season emotionally exhausting--not because of the suspense as to who would bite it and when, which was frankly by this time rather irrelevant, as the series had so effectively hammered home its point that life is pointless, especially for ruthless Machiavels who long ago sold away any soul they might have had, but because of its hyper-realistic grasp of the American and global now. If the show can be said to have a politics, it is a politics of horror too intense ever to curdle into mere apathy, but too impotent ever to admit the possibility of spurring anyone to transform their sensibility. Blind catastrophe is a given. At some point one has to wonder, not only "how is this entertainment?" but "what in the way of contemporary drama could possibly be entertaining ever anymore?"

That anything at all besides cynicism and nausea can come out of this blighted vision is a tribute to the cast and crew, whose determination to make their fictional world one we can care about despite its clear hopelessness is all the more powerful for being at odds with the message contained in each frame: everything is so totally beyond fucked.


American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster (dir. Ridley Scott, 2007).

This is the most satisfied I've been by a Ridley Scott film since Blade Runner. He's not obtrusive with mythic staginess and layers of forced allusion as he can often be; he just lets the actors and the situations present themselves with a measured clarity. The flip-side of this is that sometimes the level of dramatic tension is not as high as it could be: Washington is generally superb as druglord Frank Lucas, but you feel at times as though you are watching an episode of A&E's Biography about some guy who revolutionized the textile trade. When he does cut loose with a bit of the old ultraviolence and pop one in a rival gangster or smash some joker's face into a piano, you definitely feel the payoff for all those languid stretches. Crowe is good too as Detective Richie Roberts, an affable slob who gradually figures out Lucas' role in the sudden emergence of "Blue Magic," the new purer--and cheaper--strain of heroin that changes the face of junkiedom in New York. Again, when he and Lucas finally come together after two and a half hours, you might expect a little more in the way of fireworks, but the movie is tethered in this regard as in others to what Sir Philip Sidney called the "bare was" of history, dealing more or less with the facts as they occurred.