Thursday, June 18, 2015

Taking Roger's Perfect London Walk

by Odienator


Happy Birthday, Roger!

Our beloved mentor and friend Roger Ebert would have been 73 today.  As always, he will be missed, but he lives on in our hearts and on our bookshelves.

In 1986, Roger teamed up with Daniel Curley to document the walk he always did whenever he was in London. It became a book filled with pictures by Jack Lane and colorful descriptions by Roger. He also serves as your GPS, guiding you along the walk as if he were right beside you leading the way.

Almost 30 years after The Perfect London Walk was published, a former RogerEbert.com Demander and a current Far-Flung Correspondent decided to follow in Roger's footsteps. Michał Oleszczyk and I were both in London, so we decided to make the trek 2 days before my birthday. We had a sunny day, though as often is the case in London, clouds and rain were always looming in the background.

On May 9, 2015, armed with a used copy of the book I procured from Amazon, comfortable shoes (as Roger suggests), a few bottles of water and our umbrellas, Michał and I set off on our journey.

Starting Out


"By Underground, take the Northern Line to Belsize Park stop," Roger tells us in the "Approaches to the Walk" section. We grabbed the Northern Line train from ABBA's favorite underground stop, Waterloo, where I once embarrassed some friends of mine by singing the station's theme song on the platform while I did the Carlton Banks dance. Since I needed to preserve my energy for the walk, Michał was spared such indignities. Here he is in front of our starting point.

As we turned right, we made our way to the first stop, The George Inn. It looked as the picture in our book depicted, except it had a new sign. I guess signs wear out after 3 decades, but the pub atmosphere remains the same forever.  Here I am outside the George, wanting a beer but realizing it's like 11 o'clock in the morning. The pub was, as Roger wrote, "delightfully deserted in the morning."


Right behind me was our next destination, the entrance to Hampstead Green. This would take us past the remains of St. Stephen's Church and the Royal Free Hospital, on whose site in the 19th century stood an insane asylum.


Down the cobblestone path we went, en route to our next stop, the Roebuck Hotel. I told Michał that Sears used to be known as Sears and Roebuck's, which led to my famous story about how my grandfather (Mom's Dad) took on Sears and Roebuck when they accused him of not paying his credit bill. I also mentioned that Pops Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers is also named Roebuck. This soul music detail led to me recounting that dream I had where Pops Staples beat my ass with his guitar for getting fresh with his daughter, Mavis.

"Keep a lookout in case Pops Staples is out here!"

Our next stop was the former residence of Sir Julian Huxley, brother of writer Aldous. Julian lived here until 1975. Julian made his fame as a biologist, and Aldous penned Brave New World, which they forced me to read in high school. Aldous also wrote the book that Ken Russell adapted for The Devils, a film Roger gave NO STARS to back in 1971. That movie was nasty.


Sir Julian's house.

What Pizza Parlor?!

Our next set of directions were to find a Pizza Parlor and turn left on South End Road. When we got to the corner in question, there was no pizza to be had. "What pizza parlor?" I asked out loud. Michał pointed out that our location matched the picture in our guide, but instead of a pizza parlor, there was something else. And no, I won't tell you what it was. You need to do this walk on your own!

Still standing, however, was the Hampstead Tea Rooms. "They will sell you a pastry from the window," Roger writes, and I think this still holds true as a guy saw us outside and started walking towards us. I pointed to my phone, indicating I was only being a shitty tourist and taking a picture. Maybe next time, for I do love some tea in the afternoons.



More High School English Class Nightmares

Next, we were to find the sign telling us how to get to Keats House. It too had been changed since 1986, but it was still pointing in the right direction. We soon stumbled upon Keats House and made our way toward a tree planted where John Keats heard the bird that inspired him to pen his version of When Doves Cry, Ode to a Nightingale


Roger was kind enough to include two stanzas in The Perfect London Walk, in case any poetry lovers wanted to read it on the spot. I graduated high school in 1986, so by the time Roger wrote our guidebook, I was through, through, THROUGH with poetry. Instead, I tried to listen for any nightingales, a futile attempt because  I wouldn't know what one sounded like. There are no nightingales in the 'hood.

"Do you know what they sound like?" I asked Michał before a freaky sounding bird began singing. "Maybe that's it," he said. The world may never know.

Waiting for the Nightingale.


St John's and the Freemasons


St. John's was built in 1818 and is the last proprietary chapel in London, which means the congregation owns it. Roger told us to go inside and climb the stairs for a great view, but the last time I was in a church, de Lawd said "GET OUT!!" So we bypassed the view and walked toward the Heath.

The Freemason Pub is the latest pub to inhabit its corner. There has been a pub on this spot since 1819, and this one was put there in 1934. Surprise, surprise! The sign was different than in Roger's picture, but everything else was the same. 


Onto Hampstead Heath

Our first stop in the Heath was the waterfowl pond, overlooked by houses on South Hill Park. We sat for a while, and just as in the picture in Roger's book, we saw two ducks. These are probably the same ducks--Dorian Gray ducks--who never age and are the only denizens of this pond. Of course, I forgot to take a picture of them, so here's a duck-less pond for your viewing pleasure.


The ponds, Roger reminds us, were the subject of Samuel Pickwick's paper "Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with Some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats" in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. It now appears that London enjoys torturing me by bringing up high school English again and again.


Parliament Hill

The highest place in London offers a gorgeous view of the city on a clear day. As luck would have it, it was a clear day, or at least, what passes for one out here. Babs Streisand once sang "On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever." We had to settle for London, which was just fine with me.

Sorry, I'm blocking the view here!


The next part of our trip was the most hazardous! We were going to walk across the Heath en route to our lunch stop, The Spaniards Inn. This included traveling into the woods (cue Sondheim!)  "[B]e warned that the odds are excellent you will get lost," Roger tells us, before guiding the reader for several pages through the place where, if memory serves, Griffin Dunne got chewed up in An American Werewolf In London.

This is definitely where someone got chewed up in An American Werewolf in London!

This leisurely walk through the Heath, which could take hours, was why we wore the aforementioned comfortable shoes.

OK, So We Cheated.

Here we are on the bus to the Spaniards Inn. Rather than risk werewolf chomping or anything else that can befall Black people in the woods, I asked Michał if we could just grab a nearby bus. He was cool with that. We discovered an exit from the Heath and found the same bus Roger would tell us to take later in the walk.

Here we are on the 210 bus, and if you look behind us, you'll see a woman giving us a shameful look. She is channeling Roger, who gently tsk-tsks us for not doing that Heath walk. Hey, you panned An American Werewolf in London, Roger!


Food, Glorious Food!

We arrived at The Spaniards Inn, which was situated on perhaps the most dangerous street I've ever crossed. The location used to be a toll bridge that (even today) caused a bottleneck because its one lane has two-directional traffic. According to Roger, this is where Dick Turpin used to hide, and when travellers least expected it, he would jump out and rob the shit out of them. We didn't have to worry about Dick Turpin; a car was going to kill us instead. After about 10 minutes, we got a break, crossed the street and went to lunch.

Surprise, surprise! The sign's different on this too!

The food was fantastic! The place was packed, and we sat outside to eat. Michał had the special and I had fish and chips and an ale (after all, this IS London). Dickens set some of The Pickwick Papers here, using the very place where Michał and I sat as the setting for the arrest of Mrs. Bardell. We avoided getting arrested, so nyaah, Charlie!

Just before the next step of our journey, we posed for a picture in the gardens of the inn.



Hey, Isn't that Gugu Mbatha-Raw?!!

Our penultimate stop on The Perfect London Walk was Kenwood House. The outside gate was nothing to write home about, but after a short walk through a wooded area, we were hit with this:

KA-BLAM! How ya like me now?

The current house was built in the 18th century. According to Roger, the most famous painting inside is a self-portrait of Rembrandt. At first, I swore we never saw it, but after looking up a picture of Rembrandt, I'm now sure we passed by it. There was a wedding going on, so some parts of the house were closed. Interestingly enough, a part of the house that had been closed to Roger was now open to us. 

Kenwood is also the house where scenes from the first of two 2014 Gugu Mbatha-Raw films, Belle, was shot. The film was Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray alongside her cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle. Of course, any picture of a brown person in 1779, especially one hung in a ritzy-ass house, should inspire a movie. It's a good movie, too.


Karl Marx, George Eliot and One Hell of a Hill

Our last stop on Roger's walk was Highgate Cemetary, located at the bottom of Swain's Lane. We took the 210 bus there (don't worry, Roger OK'ed this trip in the book!) Swain's Lane was one hell of a hill; it went on forever it seemed. Thankfully, we were going down it, not up it.


Inside the cemetary were several famous people, all of whom Roger mentions. We had to pay to get into the east side of the cemetary. The guy who took our money spent an extraordinarily long amount of time flirting with some women who just were not into him. As we waited, and closing time grew closer, I started to fidget. As usual, Michał was cool as a cucumber. The dead weren't going anywhere, but for a moment, it appeared we might not get to visit 'em.

Finally, the guy let us in, and off we were. Following the map, we found the final resting places of Karl Marx and George Eliot, the latter of which continued my reminders about high school English class. I dug Silas Marner, so it was all good. According to Roger, Eliot's husband, John Walter Cross' grave is on the map, but so far, nobody has ever found him. We looked on our maps, and Cross wasn't there! Poor Mr. George Eliot!

 Eliot's gravesite

Marx's grave was far more impressive and showy. It looked kind of like Zardoz.


The guy below wasn't here back in 1986, at least not in this format. RIP, dude!


After all that walking--hell, even without all that walking, there was no way we were going back up Swain's Lane. Thankfully, Roger's book pointed us to Waterlow Park (which we passed on the way down). It was named after a former mayor of London and, in 1889 when it opened, it was called "a garden for the gardenless." We were able to walk through it out to Dartmouth Park Street. As his last official act in his book, Roger directed us to the bus stop where we caught a bus to Archway Station and took the tube back to Waterloo Station.

All in all, a great--no, perfect walk. Thanks, Roger!

Love,
Odie and Michał



Friday, January 23, 2015

Noir City XIII: #5: Caught In a Crime Of Passion, Clashing By Night

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XIII pieces, go here)

The best thing about returning to Noir City is seeing familiar faces on screen and in the audience. Each year, I run into people I've seen countless years before, fans as rabidly in love with film noir as I am. All of these folks always recognize me by my hat. This would give me a complex if I weren't already resigned to the fact that the hat I've worn for four of the past seven Noir Cities has become my trademark. I'll be buried in that hat for sure. Just hopefully not tonight.

The famous hat, sans yours truly.

It is always great to catch up with my fellow denizens of Noir City. We visited the mezzanine of the Castro Theatre to buy books and sample whatever free booze was charitably flowing that evening. Light-headed from drink and conversation, we'd sit down for 35mm visits from our old friends on the screen. On Wednesday, we were entertained by repeat offenders Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan. You can't have a festival on noir without these two, and they were together on screen for Fritz Lang's Clash By Night.


In his introduction, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller noted that this was more of a kitchen-sink drama than an actual noir. It gets lumped into the genre by virtue of its director's other surrounding works. Fritz Lang was one of the engineers of the noir aesthetic. Regardless of whether it belongs in film noir, Clash By Night is shot with noir in mind: The fantastic cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is gloomily atmospheric. Scenes in the darkness, with fog drifting off the waters of the fishing town where the film is set, have more than a hint of the best visuals noir has to offer. If nothing else, Lang's style is injected into every gorgeous frame.

Loosely based on the play of the same name by Clifford Odets, Clash By Night has been refashioned by Paisan screenwriter Alfred Hayes into a Jerry Wald production full of heated melodramatic moments between its three principles. Stany is Mae Doyle, a woman returning to the fishing village she escaped from ages ago. Staying with her brother, Joe (Keith Andes) and his girlfriend Peggy (an excellent Marilyn Monroe), Mae is resigned to being stuck in her old hometown for good. 

"Home is where you come when you run out of places," she says.

Fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas, from the stage version of Born Yesterday) remembers Mae from the old days when he used to crush on her. The feelings are still there, reignited amidst his feelings of exasperation over his freeloading uncle and his dotty father. The uncle is one of the more hissable villains in Clash By Night, all of whom take advantage of gentle giant Jerry. He's an instigator of the worst type.

Mae warns Jerry of her toxic nature, but he marries her anyway. Meanwhile, Jerry's buddy, projectionist Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan) proves more Mae's speed. He's just as toxic as she is, and Mae falls for the bad boy sexiness that will doom more than one woman during Noir City XIII. Ryan is a real rotter here, even moreso than usual, and watching him and Mae do Jerry wrongly is a bit of an endurance test despite how great all three performances are. 

Jerry is such a doormat that you root for him to violate his gentle nature and pummel his no-good uncle and his worse than no-good buddy, Earl. The melodrama gets cranked up to 11 in some scenes, and I almost feel guilty for finding some of Clash by Night tedious. These are minor issues by comparison if one considers that Stanwyck, Douglas, Ryan and Monroe do some of their best work here. The ending also raises an interesting question about Mae's motivations behind the man she eventually chooses. Does she now want this man because his meekness gave way to outbursts of violence? There's a hint of latter-day Sam Peckinpah machismo lurking in the background of Clash By Night.


Stany's double feature concluded with Crime of Passion, where her newspaper journalist Kathy Ferguson has more than a hint of Mae Doyle in her. This is an odd movie: it looks like a TV-movie and plays like a dated cautionary tale about how a career woman's drive can only lead to madness. Leaving her job when she falls head-over-heels in love with cop Sterling Hayden, Kathy finds herself bored to tears by domestic life. So, in addition to swapping precious bodily fluids with her hubby, she channels her former ambition and drive into making sure he rises to the top of the police force by any means necessary.

Kathy's manipulations include seducing Raymond Burr's police commissioner and throwing shade and chicanery at her hubby's main competitor, Royal Dano. King Kong's main squeeze, Fay Wray shows up as Burr's cuckolded wife and the one woman Kathy cozies up to almost to the point of stalking. Of course, this being noir, it doesn't end well. Had Kathy paid more attention to her husband's skills, she might have noticed he was a damn good cop. A damn good, honest cop. At the end, one almost hopes Stany will utter the catchphrase of the old silent movie villains: "Curses! Foiled Again!"

Stany will be back next time, but Robert Ryan's still with us for one final go-round here in Noir City. Before Lola Montes and The Earrings of Madame de, director Max Ophüls put Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes through this Howard Hughes-inspired wringer. Ryan plays Smith Ohlrig, a thinly-veiled Hughes clone and billionaire industrialist. Rather than have a fit and try to stop production, Hughes instead had a spy on set bring him dailies. He was so enamored of his favorite actor playing him that he left the movie alone.

While Ryan gets his Hughes on, Bel Geddes plays innocent Leonora Earnes, soon to be the richest newlywed we'll encounter here in Noir City. After she becomes Mrs. Ohlrig, Leonora discovers that the only thing her husband loves is his money. On top of that, he's power-mad, occasionally certifiable and prone to angina attacks that may or may not be psychosomatic.

Leonora separates from Ohlrig by escaping Lawn Gyland and getting a job as a receptionist for Dr. Larry (James Mason, in his American movie debut). After she falls for the charming good doctor, her husband attempts a reconciliation for the wrong reasons. Leonora's second attempt at escape is thwarted by the fact she's pregnant (don't worry, it's her husband's). Ohlrig refuses a divorce and imprisons her, telling her she'll never escape so long as his heir is alive. Murder and pinball machine-related mayhem ensue.

Caught was written by screenwriter Arthur Laurents, the man behind the Broadway books for West Side Story, Gypsy and La Cage Aux Folles, not to mention the screenplays for Rope, The Turning Point and The Way We Were. He has a rather sick sense of humor: He solves Leonora's problems with the most nonchalantly cold execution of an innocent I've seen in a long time. One would expect Leonora to escape Ohlrig's clutches by using the old Studio System Cinematic Stand-in for abortion, throwing herself down a flight of stairs. Instead, Leonora goes into labor with the baby. The tone for Laurents' ending could best be described as "Hooray, the kid didn't make it!" 

As usual, even the most innocent creatures suffer here in Noir City.

Next time: A pair of noirs from not so Jolly Ol' England

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Noir City XIII #4: In Praise of Punch-Drunk Palookas and Piss-Elegant Drunks

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XIII pieces, go here)

In 1950, Claudette Colbert was all set to play Margo Channing in All About Eve, but an injury forced Joe Mankiewicz to cast Bette Davis instead. Mankiewicz was quoted as saying that Colbert's Margo would have beeen "a piss-elegant drunk." Perhaps he concluded this after seeing her great drunk scene in Sleep, My Love.


Colbert's comic drunkedness occurs at a wedding party with Robert Cummings, a man who has fallen in love with her under most unusual circumstances: She met him while taking an unexpected flight home. Seems Alison Courtland (Colbert) went to sleep in her own bed and awoke in a sleeping car on a train from NYC to Boston. With no idea how she got there, she panics and calls her husband, Richard (Don Ameche). He is unsurprised that she's confused; Alison has a history of doing things while sleepwalking, though this is a rather extreme example of somnambulistic activity. Before fleeing, she shot Richard in the arm. This explains the gun Alison finds in her handbag.

Richard arranges for Alison's unexpected flight home, where she is introduced by a mutual friend to Bruce (Cummings). He thinks Alison is available to pursue, but it turns out she's just a neglected, lonely wife with supposed neurotic tendencies. Her mental state is the concern of numerous shrinks, all hired by her husband. One shrink in particular, Dr. Rheinhart, keeps popping up out of nowhere to scare the hell out of Alison, forcing her to question her sanity.

Seeking a friend, Alison starts spending time with Bruce, who invites her to the aforementioned wedding party. Bruce is the only one who believes Alison isn't as crazy as she seems, and he'll drag his newlywed brother Keye Luke into helping him solve this mystery. And what a mystery it is: Alison is being gaslighted (gaslit?) by her husband so he can run off with a younger hottie!

My generation knows Don Ameche as Mortimer Duke, one-half of the evil team of rich manipulators in the classic films Trading Places and Coming to America. But in his heyday, Ameche was so popular that, when he played Alexander Graham Bell, folks started referring to Bell's invention as "the Ameche." Here, he's cast against type, using that gorgeous voice of his for all manner of evil purposes I'll leave you to discover. Hypnosis is involved, as are passport photography, Tiffany's, coke-bottle glasses and Raymond Burr's lawman.

Years before the 1950's melodramas that made him famous, director Douglas Sirk nimbly guided audiences through this film's absolutely insane story. One can see the origins of his penchant for working over-the-top material into polished pieces of effective believability. Never once do we stop to consider just how incredulous this all is because we're having way too much fun trying to figure out how it will end. Colbert is charming and funny, as is Luke. Ameche is villanous and Cummings is far more tolerable than he usually is. Every Noir City has a batshit crowd pleaser, and so far, this is it.

Monday night brought the most famous (and most boozy) married couple in noir to the Castro. William Powell and Myrna Loy made 11 features together, and six of them were in Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man series. Not only were we treated to a double feature of the first two films in the series, gin was available for all denizens of Noir City to imbibe. Only the most foolhardy would try to outdrink Nick and Nora Charles, but if I were a bigger fan of gin, I might have given it a shot.




Director W.S. van Dyke, with an assist from cin-togger James Wong Howe and screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, made the first (and best) two installments of this highly enjoyable series. The first installment takes time to introduce us to the titular Thin Man, Wynatt (Edward Ellis). He's working on some mysterious project, one that forces him to disappear from time to time. When he goes missing for longer than expected, his daughter fears the worst. After a murder gets pinned on him, things start looking even more dire.

Enter Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a former San Francisco detective now living in New York City with his perfectly matched wife of some years. Theirs is a marriage one can only dream of achieving: Loy and Powell ooze so much chemistry together that their effortless banter and camaraderie can only inspire unbridled envy. Not only do they keep this up throughout the picture (even a well-explained punch to Loy's jaw can't derail this couple's mutual appreciation society), Powell and Loy did it for 5 more Thin Man movies.

And man, can they DRINK!!! Powell is introduced giving a primer on the proper way to make a martini, which he then serves to himself (eat your heart out, James Bond!). When Loy joins him, she's five martinis behind. So she orders them all at once. "Just line them up here," she says to the waiter. Booze is on the screen so much it becomes another character in the film, a spinach to these two Popeyes. Malcolm Lowry probably wouldn't have been able to keep up with the Charles', plus he didn't have to solve any mysteries.

Nick Charles insists he's retired, but Nora keeps nudging him toward taking the Wynatt case. As the bodies pile up and Wynatt becomes wrongfully accused, Nick pulls a Hercule Poirot: He rounds up all the usual suspects in one room and proceeds to unmask the real murderer. It isn't who you think it is, and credit is due to the filmmakers. As many times as I've seen The Thin Man, I always temporarily forget whodunit. I get so wrapped up in the movie that this crucial detail slips my mind.



Supporting Nick and Nora in 1936's After the Thin Man are Jimmy Stewart and, more famously (at least back then), Asta the Dog. Stewart drops out after this one, but Asta stayed loyal for all six features. This time, to the approving cheers of the Castro Theatre audience, the Charles couple journey back to Nick's hometown of San Francisco. It's a place where everybody's his pal, even the people he sent up the river back in his private dick days.

The Charles' walk in on their own surprise party, going unnoticed by most of the guests for minutes on end. Nick and Nora literally waltz right over to the booze before finally being recognized by their maids and butlers. Of course, they also waltz right into another mystery, this one regarding the beau of Stewart's beloved girlfriend, Selma (Elissa Landi). She's dumped Stewart for this sleazeball, who bribes Stewart into paying to get rid of him. Stewart pays the bribe, then people start disappearing again. Once more, there will be a last reel "come to Nick Charles" meeting of all the usual suspects.

Noir City's theme of bad marriages doesn't apply to Nick and Nora, but After the Thin Man finds a way to work one into the story. "Asta and Mrs. Asta" are announced in the credits, and their relationship is enough to drive Asta to take up his masters' favorite pasttime. Not only is Mrs. Asta unfaithful, she's completely nonchalant about it, flaunting her extramarital puppy love (and resulting puppy) in the face of poor Asta! (She's got Jungle Fever too!) These antics provide a fun, comic counterpoint in a movie that lives up to the definition of sequel: It's bigger, louder and more convoluted, but still manages to be as fun as the original. 

Plus we get to see a side of Jimmy Stewart that precedes his crack-up for love in Vertigo. A good, drunken time was had by all!



I'm a sucker for boxing movies, so anything I say about them is worth taken with a grain of salt--except here. Robert Wise's The Set-Up is his best film and one of the best boxing movies ever made. Scorsese gleefully robbed from it for Raging Bull, and Wise has an actual boxer who can act in Robert Ryan. As a former boxer, I tap into that level of self-hatred every boxer seems to have; why else would one subject themselves to a voluntary beating? Ryan's tomato can is up for one last fight, a fight he doesn't know has been thrown by his good-for-nothing promoters, and his wife Audrey Totter can't deal with Ryan's ringside clobberings anymore.

I wrote about The Set-Up in the #5 entry of this Five for the Day at the House Next Door. In it, I said:

"This simple premise sustains The Set-Up for its short, 72-minute runtime. Wise uses clocks to remind us that we are watching the film in real time, which means the fight we see unfolds just as a real boxing match would. Ryan was a boxing champ at Dartmouth, which frees Wise's camera to roam anywhere it wants. Fans of Raging Bull will be surprised to find numerous shots from that film in this one, and The Set-Up's commentary listeners will hear Marty Scorsese point them out. The fight seems to go on forever, and it is attended by some truly bloodthirsty patrons. (One of the attendees is completely blind. "Go for the eyes!" he yells. Another is a woman screaming in extreme close-up for blood.) I was completely invested in the match because Stoker is such a decent guy. His decency is primarily why, despite the corruption plot, the setting and the violence, I wouldn't consider this a noir.

I've seen this film's influences in numerous others: The brutal, alley-way destruction of the tool of Stoker's trade has a companion piece in Bleek Gilliam's trumpet beatdown in Mo' Better Blues. (Wise even cuts to a wailing trumpet just as the violence is committed.) Both boxers go down, just like in Rocky (or was it Rocky II?). The boxer who refuses to throw the fight and faces down the wrath of a scorned bookie has been done to death, but here it made me think of Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction. Wise's lensing of the boxing match has been emulated in countless boxing pictures that followed, including the director's own Somebody Up There Likes Me. And Stoker's unflinching desire to be in the ring, no matter how thankless it may be for him, is the same fire that burns within The Wrestler's Randy The Ram."

I need to correct something in that quote: After seeing The Set-Up again, not only would I consider it a noir, I'd consider it one of the genre's best.

Next time: Stany returns, and When Douglas Sirk Met Sam Fuller.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Noir City XIII #3: The Unusual Suspects

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XIII pieces, go here)

Last time in Noir City, we booed and hissed Bad Joan Fontaine. Today, we'll look at those who were bad to Joan Fontaine. 


Alfred Hitchcock directed many variations on the "Man Wrongly Accused" plot. In Suspicion, his second consecutive film with Fontaine, Hitch plugs his favorite actor, Cary Grant, into the formula. Except Cary isn't wrongfully accused. He's guilty with a capital T. Grant's Johnnie knows it, Fontaine's character knows it, the director knows it and the audience knows it. Perhaps the only thing that doesn't know it is Suspicion itself. 

Therein lies the problem I've always had with this picture. The powers that be wouldn't allow Cary Grant to be depicted as a total asshole, so the ending was changed. Never mind that Grant gives a fantastic, villainous performance. He's fearless in allowing his seductive charms to suddenly mutate into sadism. Whether coldly watching his pal, Beaky (Nigel Bruce) go into anaphylactic shock from a brandy allergy, or verbally threatening his wife, Grant is always a believable, desperate heel.

As Lina, Fontaine makes a very good foil for Grant. She nimbly carries Hitch's suspenseful moments, making us feel equally suspicious about Johnnie. As Lina goes from spinster candidate, to luckiest newlywed in the world, to potential murder victim, Fontaine registers each change with subtle escalations of strength. This performance won her the Oscar at 23, a year after she teamed with Hitch on his sole Oscar winning Best Picture, Rebecca.

After all the work the actors put in, not to mention the ever-tightening screws of guilt the script puts to Grant's character, Suspicion arrives at a most unsatisfactory conclusion. It almost feels that the dairy industry protested the use of a glass of milk as a murder weapon. As much as I like everything else about it--to the point that I recommend seeing it--I still can't forgive it for selling me that lousy feel-good ending.



The Bigamist is more honest about its lead character, Edmond O'Brien: His crime is right there in the title. Joan Fontaine's in this one too, playing one of the two women O'Brien marries. The other is played by Ida Lupino, who also directs. Lupino doesn't get enough credit for her trailblazing path as a director; her legacy may be just how unflinchingly she looked at controversial topics. While one would expect a moralistic sermon, The Bigamist instead is surprisingly sympathetic to O'Brien's plight. This may have doomed it to bad reviews and box office failure.

O'Brien's world starts unravelling when, in an attempt to revitalize his marriage to Fontaine, he agrees to adopt a child. The adoption agent is Santa Claus himself, Edmund Gwynn. Several in-jokes are made about Gwynn's most famous role; after all, Santa Claus has now become the Stork in some regard, delivering babies as presents to good little parents. However, Gwynn pokes around at the details more obsessively than most agents would, and that attention to detail terrifies O'Brien. The audience gets as big a jolt as O'Brien does when Gwynn shows up at his other family's house.

Contemporary audiences may flinch a bit over O'Brien's rationale for running into Lupino's arms--he's depressed that Fontaine's a very successful businesswoman with as little time for him as his travelling salesman job makes for her. But Lupino's matter-of-fact presentation of this and other details keep us from dwelling too long on them. There's some really risky material (for 1953, that is) here--adultery, unplanned pregnancy, women in the workforce, adoption--but The Bigamist refuses to drop the full weight on us until the film's last scene. Since screenwriter Collier Young has written three leads to whom we feel some emotional ties, the villain's comeuppance is more tragic than evil.

Watch how Lupino frames each character in the film's last shot. Note her placement of herself, Fontaine and O'Brien, and the direction by which they exit the frame. It's a visual storytelling moment of breathtaking heft and sadness, packing a wallop that left the audience stunned.


One also feels sorry for Charles Laughton's murderous husband character in Robert Siodmak's The Suspect. He's married to the wife from Hell, played with unmistakable force by Rosalind Ivan. Ivan was last seen in Noir City as the subservient maid in Ivy, so this is a complete 180-degree turn. After watching her verbally berate the much larger though far meeker Laughton, you may be reminded of Chris Rock's line from Bring the Pain: "I'm not saying he should have killed her, but I understand!"

Now that Laughton and Ivan's kid is off to college, Charlie's tobacconist decides to stop keeping up marital appearances. Ivan never really loved Laughton, and the feeling is mutual. Now that they're alone, there's no sense in pretending anymore. Laughton moves into his son's room, much to Ivan's chagrin, and starts seeing a woman he met when she came looking for a job at his office. The woman is played by Ella Raines, an actress whose talent and beauty is sadly all-but-forgotten today. Though the encounters between Raines and Laughton start out friendly, a romantic charge soon accompanies them. Laughton is happier than he has been in the decades old farce of a marriage in which he has been trapped.

Ivan won't give Laughton a divorce, so she meets an untimely yet suspicious demise, falling down a staircase to her death. Of course, it's no spoiler to say that Laughton killed her, especially when he has to kill someone else later to cover his tracks. Dare I say that both victims deserved it, so the audience's sympathies are solidly with Laughton. Laughton keeps us on his side by shuffling off his usual (though always enjoyable) hamminess, presenting his character as a believably lovestruck mook in way over his head.

Despite being tailed by a ruthless inspector who knows Laughton did it, but can't prove that he did, The Suspect looks as if it will end the way we want it to, with Laughton getting away with murder(s). The brutal twist that ends the film and dooms Laughton provides a valuable lesson: Sometimes the most dangerous thing you can have in Noir City is a conscience.

Next time: Sirk du Soleil and Powell, Loy, booze and Asta.




Sunday, January 18, 2015

Noir City XIII #2: When She Was Bad, She Was Horrid

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XIII pieces, go here)

Saturday's crop of poison pen letters to matrimony could have been titled "Good Joan, Bad Joan." The Joan in question is Joan Fontaine, whose early career penchant for playing the dutiful wife gave way to two of the most searingly evil, self-serving heffas in noir: Christabel Caine and Ivy Lexton. Saturday's final tally stood at "Good Joan: 2, Evil Joan: 1," though one could cheat and call it a tie if we include Friday night's Born to Be Bad

Let's start with Bad Joan.





1950 was a damn good year for memorable women in film. In addition to Sunset Blvd.'s Norma, Born Yesterday's Billie and All About Eve's Margo, noir blessed us with Linda Darnell's Edie Biddle in No Way Out, Ann Sheridan's Eleanor in Woman on the Run and Fontaine's Christabel Caine in Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad. At the Castro's sold-out screening, I thought back to the woman who sat in front of me the first time I bore witness to the evils of Christabel Caine. "Oh, Curtis, WHY?!" she yelled at the screen as Fontaine wrapped clueless Zachary Scott's Curtis around her little finger. Ray is hilariously explicit in providing an answer: Ms. Caine is dropping the ill na na on the hapless men in her path. Not even Robert Ryan emerges unscathed, and this is the guy who once crawled for miles on a broken leg through the desert in Inferno.

Caine's manipulation is more than sexual: She's also a master psychological manipulator who somehow manages to cast herself as a harmless advocate for the well-being of others. Curtis is worried that his fiance, Donna (an excellent Joan Leslie) loves him solely for his money. Of course, Donna wants him for love, but Christabel, the true covetor of his dinero, starts pimping the notion of gold-digger insurance on Curtis. Donna fails the Christabel-inspired acid test, and Leslie gets to bare the claws we didn't think her character had. In the great Showdown of the Joans, screenwriter Edith R. Sommer gives Donna a boffo takedown line aimed at Christabel:

"You're helpless alright, about as helpless as a wildcat!"

Trust me, I'm harmless! 


Speaking of deceptively helpless creatures, Miguel Ferrer's Gabriel Broome (Gobby to his friends) threatens to upstage Fontaine every time he's on screen. Playing 1950's version of the gay BFF, Gobby can't wait to revel in (and profit from) the spectacle of scandal Christabel threatens to unleash on high society. His painting of Christabel will only go up in value the badder she is. Said painting is the subject of Born to Be Bad's original, unreleased ending, which ran after the film here at Noir City. Deemed "morally unfit" by the censors, the original ending evokes memories of Stanwyck's Baby Face and makes for a better ending than the one Ray was forced to tack on. Regardless of which ending you see, Fontaine's full-court bitch performance remains a high point in the stables of noir.



Three years prior, Fontaine reached an even higher noir point in Sam Wood's Ivy. "Pity the men in her life!" the poster screams. If that weren't enough warning, Ivy begins with a creepy title card featuring ivy growing through a skull. It's appropriate, because Ivy Lexton makes Christabel Caine look like Mother Teresa. For money, Christabel wasn't willing to kill anything but true love. Ivy isn't above using poison to extract herself from a penniless Edwardian era marriage.

Ivy opens with our femme fatale visiting Mrs. Thrawn, a psychic played by Stingaree's bootylicious maid, Una O'Connor. Mrs. Thrawn gives a very accurate reading, cut short by an awful vision of "misfortune." Ivy doesn't press for details on the misfortune part, despite it scaring Mrs. Thrawn so forcefully she abruptly ends the reading. Instead, Ivy focuses on the part about getting rid of the man she's having an affair with, so that another, richer man can take his place.

As the poorest of the three men Ivy juggles, hubby Jervis Lexton (Richard Ney) is so sweet and hopeful that he should have the word "DOOMED" tattooed on his forehead. Their marriage has been one of unwise spending, and now that the money is gone, Ivy looks elsewhere for thrills. While carrying on a barely concealed affair with the needy, dangerous surgeon Roger (Patric Knowles), Ivy meets uber-rich Miles (Herbert Marshall, who knows a thing or two about tangoing with evil women--see The Little Foxes). Miles is rumored to be attached to another society dame, a detail easily fixed by Ivy's scheming.

Miles finds himself drawn to Ivy, to the point of kissing her and feeling intense guilt over it because she's a married woman. "The worst thing a man can do is make love to another man's wife," Miles sadly states after pushing Ivy out of his embrace. No problem! Ivy will simply poison her husband. No hubby, no guilt!

There's another problem preventing Ivy from following Mrs. Thrawn's advice: Dr. Roger will NOT end their relationship. He's obsessed enough to threaten to go public with his love in order to force Ivy's hand. When Jervis takes ill courtesy of poison Ivy, his friend Dr. Roger is the last person to see him alive. Couple that with the fact that Jervis' method of death came from Dr. Roger's medicine cabinet, and Ivy just may get a two-for-one sale on lover disposal.

Sniffing around Ivy's door is the great Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Scotland Yard Insp. Orpington. Orpington knows Ivy is guilty as hell but can't prove it. As the pieces fall comfortably into place for Ivy's evil plans, Orpington tries to find the cracks that will lead to the "misfortune" Mrs. Thrawn foresaw in the first reel. 

Shot in gorgeous, atmospheric black and white by Russell Metty, and designed by veteran production designer William Cameron Menzies, Ivy is a lot more fun than many period pieces are allowed to be. Shenanigans with a gaudy, poison-filled purse, a grandfather clock and an elevator provide the perfect amount of WTF to go with Fontaine's breathtakingly evil English bitch. Her comeuppance, or should I say "go-down-ance," ranks among the best of noir's deserved demises.

Next time: After all that Bad Joan, can Good Joan redeem herself?

By the way, if my calling Una O'Connor "bootylicious" struck you as odd, you haven't seen Stingaree. Rectify that. It's one of the weirdest movies ever made.

Noir City XIII: One-Stop Shopping

Here are all the links to Noir City XIII's coverage.



Noir City XIII #1: That's No Lady, That's My Wife
Noir City XIII #2: When She Was Bad, She Was Horrid
Noir City XIII #3: The Unusual Suspects
Noir City XIII #4: In Praise of Punch-Drunk Palookas and Piss-Elegant Drunks 
Noir City XIII #5: Caught in a Crime of Passion, Clashing by Night

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Noir City XIII #1: That's No Lady, That's My Wife

by Odienator


To the superstitious, 13 is either a lucky number or a portent of doom. Here in San Francisco, 13 is also the age of our beloved Noir City Film Festival. Once again, the denizens of Noir City congregate to bear witness to tales of unlucky men and far luckier dames, all unspooling in large-screened glory at the famous Castro Theatre. As always, our host for 10 days of classic cinematic deviltry is the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller.

Though more associated with bar mitzvahs, the number 13 leaves its mark on another holy ritual here in Noir City: Matrimony. "Til Death Do Us Part," goes the oft-recited promise of those who check into the institution of marriage. For some people--fictional or otherwise--that mortal parting can't come swiftly enough. As a reminder, and a warning, the tagline for Noir City XIII appends a wicked coda to the familiar matrimonial vow:

"They said 'Til Death Do Us Part...and she MEANT it!"




This year's festival kicked off with a gorgeous restoration of 1950's Norman Foster vehicle, Woman on the Run. The underrated Ann Sheridan stars as the titular character, who isn't on the run so much as she is in pursuit. The real runner is her husband, Frank Johson (Ross Elliott), witness to a mob-sanctioned hit on a star witness. Frank is out walking the dog when the unlucky victim gets plugged by a mug he refers to as "Danny Boy." The pipes are definitely calling when Danny Boy shows up, and despite being shot at, Frank is able to avoid having them played at his wake.

Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) wants to bring Frank down to the precinct for protection, but the elusive Frank goes on the lam. While seeking assistance from Frank's wife, Eleanor (Sheridan), Ferris discovers that all is not rosy in the Johnson household. In fact, it appears that Eleanor would be happy to see Frank remain outside witness protection so the mob can help her invoke matrimony's death clause. 

As is the case in all great noir, all is not as it seems. Eleanor's anger at her husband may burn with the fire of a few thousand suns, but she doesn't want him six feet under. Instead, in the genre's grand cynical tradition, she thinks he has better odds evading Danny Boy without police intervention. This frustrates Ferris, who gets to mutter some amusing though familiar masculine thoughts about marriage. 

Eleanor is armed with even sharper quid-pro-quo commentary, much of it written by uncredited producer Ann Sheridan herself. Tart-tongued and self-assured, Sheridan makes an excellent foil for all the men in this picture, including Legget (Dennis O'Keefe), the obnoxious newspaper reporter who's drooling for the inside scoop on the murder Frank Johnson witnessed. Legget and Ferris spend much of their screentime chasing the elusive Eleanor. Though they always catch up with her, the interactions are clearly the result of Eleanor's charity. She's happier to see Legget than Ferris, a mistake the audience discovers when Legget reveals that his nickname is "Danny Boy."

Once we know this detail, Woman on the Run not only becomes a figurative rollercoaster ride, it also ends with a literal one. While we wait for the inevitable showdown between Frank and his assassin, we're treated to a refreshingly female-centric look at a marriage on the rocks. Sheridan's best scene is the moment when she realizes that her relationship has always been more salvageable than either party realized. Screenwriters Foster and Alan Campbell pull a clever switch on the cliched notion that men never remember important details of their romance; here it's Sheridan who is put to the test with a riddle whose answer requires her to remember a crucial, trivial detail of her courtship with Frank. 

Woman on the Run was shown at an earlier Noir City, but its print was lost in a fire at Universal. The Film Noir Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (yes, the Golden Globes people) are responsible for the gorgeous 35mm print rescued, restored and shown at Noir City XIII's opening night. 

Watching Sheridan slowly piece together the clues while emotionally reliving moments long since past packs an unexpectedly sweet wallop, but methinks darker days are ahead for the denizens of Noir City.

Next time: Revisiting Born to Be Bad, about which I wrote a randy, raunchy piece for the 2011 Nicholas Ray Blog-a-thon here. The Castro Theatre audience was a lot nicer to the main character than the folks at the Film Forum whom I describe in that link.