Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Noir City 11 #2: The Wicked Worlds of Whale, Wyler and Wilder

by Odienator

Life lessons are never in short supply here at Noir City: You learn a lesson, and it usually costs you your life. Cautionary tales abound, and I’m surprised how timely they remain. Gun Crazy’s fixation on firearms felt ripped from the headlines, and the first of this installment’s films literally was.

The Hunky, Evil Side of Beau and Jeff's Dad

Based on a 1934 murder case in nearby San Jose, Try and Get Me treads some of the same ground as a prior adaptation of this true story, Fritz Lang’s Fury. Originally called The Sound of Fury, Try and Get Me depicts a town whipped to lynch-mob extremes by an overzealous reporter whose stories pander to the basest emotional instincts of his readership. In Fury, Spencer Tracy’s character is innocent, losing his humanity as a result of his treatment by the murderous mob. In this version, the doomed prisoners are guilty, either by association or intent, and the outcome skews closer to the actual events.

Frank Lovejoy plays an out of work husband with an understanding wife and an incredibly obnoxious little boy. (This kid drove me batty; I wanted my mother to show up onscreen to beat his ass.) Feeling less manly because he can’t provide, Lovejoy hooks up a job with flashy, well-to-do hunk Lloyd Bridges. Unbeknownst to Lovejoy, The Big Lebowski’s dad is loaded with dirty money. Bridges and Lovejoy’s initial meeting is more than a tad homoerotic, a hidden note not lost on the Castro Theatre audience. Bridges parades around shirtless, showing off a stunning physique that drew applause, then browbeats Lovejoy into being his criminal accomplice by attacking his masculinity. The duo start knocking off grocery stores and other easy monetary marks.

Lovejoy is happy with these payouts, which give his unsuspecting family material items and neighborly stature. Bridges is dissatisfied with the work-to-payout ratio, and convinces Lovejoy to try a harder crime. They’ll kidnap a rich family’s son, steal his car, and hold him for ransom. Or so Lovejoy thinks; Bridges has more murderous intentions. Lovejoy is terrified at first, but assists in the gruesome murder. Lovejoy’s stricken conscious leads him to misplace a crucial key to the crime, and that, plus his emotional breakdown, leads to his capture. Bridges is caught soon after, because he picked the wrong week to quit hiding from the law.

Running parallel to this story is a European physicist’s visit to a newspaper reporter in Lovejoy’s town. The physicist becomes an interesting delivery mechanism for the film’s message. Once the kidnapping killers are caught, the reporter goes all New York Post on them, writing a series of charged articles that try Lovejoy and Bridges in the court of public opinion. The physicist tries to reason with the reporter, as do the cops, but he’s got to sell papers. Enough of those sold papers lead to mob mentality and more murder.

Try and Get Me is the third Cy Endfield film at Noir City, and one of the last films he directed before being blacklisted. Endfield’s direction is masterful in the mob sequence, mixing the unsettling chaos and violence with shots of Bridges freaking out in his cell. Lovejoy and Bridges both give excellent, complimentary performances, but the one you’ll remember is given by the fine character actress Adele Jergens. Playing a mousy, unintended victim of Lovejoy’s criminality, she gives a haunting, complex performance. She elicits several emotions from the viewer, pity, concern, sorrow, rage and ultimately compassion. Compassion is eventually what Try and Get Me wants the viewer to feel, even if the target of said compassion is two murderous men.

A Thug Not Even a Mother Could Love

Compassion is the last thing to feel for Lawrence Tierney—and he’d probably belt you if you did. The quintessential tough guy actor stars in The Hoodlum, a movie so blisteringly nasty that it runs only 61 minutes—any longer would be intolerable cruelty. Tierney plays an unrepentant criminal who takes what he wants regardless of the outcome. He uses his good-hearted brother viciously by stealing his girl, using his legitimate business as the jumping off point for armed robbery, and eventually driving him to violence. The casting of the good brother adds an extra jolt of realism to the nastiness: He’s played by Tierney’s brother, Edward.

The film both begins and climaxes with speeches by Tierney’s ma. Her first speech begs the parole board to release her boy; her last is a dynamite maternal beatdown, with words as tough as any horrible physical action perpetrated by her bad seed of a son. Tierney is irredeemable, causing death and destruction in pursuit of sex and money. Ma’s realization of this, and her subsequent expulsion of the last vestiges of maternal love, give the audience the biggest reason to cheer. It’s a tour-de-force by actress Lisa Golm.

Back To The Future and Trapped In The Past

Sunset Blvd. made its 4K Digital Restoration debut at Noir City, proving once and for all what I’ve always said about Norma Desmond—she truly IS a femme fatale. The print looked gorgeous, too, with its silvery black and white John F. Seitz cin-tog casting a spell over all those people out there in the dark. I’ve written plenty about Ms. Desmond in the past, so try my conspiracy theory piece Norma Knew What She Was Doing.

Pairing with Norma was Repeat Performance, a film I originally saw at my first Noir City. That night, the film’s star, Joan Leslie, was in attendance. The original print of Repeat Performance obtained that year was in such bad shape that the screening was almost cancelled. Someone contributed their own private print of the film, and I got to see this amusing New Year’s Eve based noir with a Twilight Zone vibe. Like Bette Davis’ The Letter, Repeat Performance opens with Joan Leslie shooting her husband in cold blood. The flashback structure takes on an otherworldly tone; courtesy of a wish, Leslie suddenly starts living the previous year over. She has until midnight on New Year’s Eve to change the course of fate. Of course, fate has other ideas, and the screenplay’s numerous twists and tricks are fun to watch. Adding a note of batshit craziness to the proceedings is Richard Basehart, whose poet is just wacky enough to believe Leslie has gone Back to the Future. And why wouldn’t he? He’s in the loony bin.

This year’s print of Repeat Performance was newly restored, and looked great on the big screen. Also looking great was Ms. Leslie herself, who had an Aaron Spelling-era amount of wardrobe changes as she did her damndest to keep both her husband and Basehart from their eventual fates.  The outcome is familiar to anyone who’s ever read an O. Henry story or seen Rod Serling torment his characters on either of his anthology programs. The real treat is in the journey.

Ask for Babs: Three from Universal Studios' Pre-Code Era

Good ol’ Will Hays had nothin’ to say about Monday night’s triple feature of pre-Code features from Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios. Noir City denizens were treated to an early talkie by Willie Wyler, a suspenseful and funny courtroom drama helmed by James Whale, and a completely WTF Pat O’Brien on a chain gang feature called Laughter In Hell. I’ll go to Hell later; let’s start with the man whose last picture my mother saw before going into labor with me.

William Wyler directed more people to Oscar nominations than any other director. His 1931 feature, A House Divided, stars future Oscar winner Walter Huston in a role originally played by Lon Chaney. He’s the richest man on a South Pacific island, a violent drunk who holds the other residents both in thrall and in terror. His tumultuous relationship with his son boils over after the funeral of Huston’s wife. Disgusted by his father’s carousing and partying mere minutes after his wife’s interment, Sonny Boy challenges his Pa, who easily lays him out and carries  his unconscious body home.

Later, Sonny Boy helps his Pa write a  letter to a mail-order bride magazine. The woman in question, an older madam “lonely and willing,” doesn’t come C.O.D. Instead, a much younger model graces the Huston family doorstep. After first stating “she won’t do,” as she’s too pretty for housework and too weak-looking for chores, Pa decides to marry her anyway. Unfortunately, the much more age-appropriate Sonny Boy has eyes for his new Ma, which leads to him accidentally crippling his father.

A House Divided ends with a spectacular battle at sea, man (and woman) against an extremely angry Mother Nature. Wyler directs this sequence with the physical ferocity Huston brings to his now-crippled patriarch. Huston flings his body around recklessly once he’s been incapacitated, and Wyler juxtaposes the equally reckless sea against the bound legs of Huston as he is tied to a rowboat to attempt the rescue of his unfaithful wife. Fueled by his real son, John’s dialogue, Huston gives a memorably over-the-top performance. His last scene, where his presence is merely implied, is appropriately the last scene in A House Divided. The movie wouldn’t survive without Huston’s preternaturally intense life force.

Speaking of women on angry seas, Gloria Stuart appears in the second and third of our Universal triple feature, both times playing adulterous women. In the first of the Titanic star’s Noir City visitations, she’s directed by James Whale. Whale had his hands full in 1933 with The Bride of Frankenstein, but he had time to also do this picture of marital infidelity and murder. Pulled post-Hays Code for its nude scene, The Kiss Before the Mirror follows the trial of a man (Watch on the Rhine’s Paul Lukas) who murdered his adulterous wife (Stuart) in the first degree. Lukas is defended by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank Morgan. The Wiz is a lawyer married to Stuart’s best friend (Nancy Carroll). Lukas explains, with much emotion, how he discovered his wife’s affair simply by sneaking up on her and kissing her while she did her makeup. She freaked out, which made Lukas follow her, which led to her adulterous discovery, and Voila! Half-naked murder ensues.

Morgan freaks out when, in front of her mirror, Carroll reacts the way Stuart did before HER mirror. He gains a newfound appreciation for Lukas’ feelings just before his crime of passion. Since this is Noir City, Morgan also realizes that, if he can get Lukas off, he’ll have a perfect legal precedent for when he defends himself at his own trial. That’s right: If Morgan gets Lukas off, Morgan will know how he can kill his wife with impunity and ALSO get off.

I won’t be spoiling matters by telling you Morgan pulls a gun on his wife. The context of that is the spoiler. Instead, I’ll tell you about Hilda, Morgan’s awesome legal assistant played by Jean Dixon. She gets some great, hilarious lines (in a film where everybody seems to have a bitchy gay screenwriter feeding quips into hidden earpieces), and she has this butch lesbian vibe Whale gleefully refuses to hide. Whale also winks at his brethren with a blatantly gay sketch artist from Central Castro Casting. Hilda refers to herself with the Jodie Foster-friendly term “single,” and while every hetero person in this film has pistol pointing melodrama in their DNA, Hilda is as happy as that sketch artist is gay. Is this Whale’s hidden commentary on those pesky breeders? Who knows, and who cares? This movie is aces—funny, suspenseful, and emotionally satisfying.

Not satisfying at all is the last of the triple feature, Laughter in Hell. This Pat O’Brien picture feels like three films in one, none of which plays well with the others. The first part deals with the death of O’Brien’s mother. The second part deals with the death of his wife (Gloria Stuart--she gets around!) and her lover, a guy who tormented O’Brien’s character in the first part. The last part puts O’Brien’s escape from a chain gang, where he’s surrounded by singing, praying darky stereotypes. The Black stereotypes are especially itchy in scenes where several Black characters are hanged. Their lifeless bodies occupy way too many frames while their fellow Black chain gang members sing and pray. Even without these troublesome (though common) Black characters, the film would still have insurmountable problems. I wasn’t interested in O’Brien’s fate  at all, and the screenplay can’t find an appropriate means of linking the story elements together. Laughter in Hell’s ending is also puzzling, but at least I was glad it was over. I don’t think I’ve seen a film I’ve disliked more in any of my five Noir City attendances.

Next time: Noir Film Noir, I Left My Film Noir in San Francisco, and Bad Girls, Talkin’ Bout the Sad Girls.

Also: I should note that the great posters here are cribbed from the Noir City website. Let's hope Eddie Muller doens't beat me up for that.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Noir City 11 #1: A Strangely Merciful Life Taking Pity: Odienator in Noir City

by Odienator

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City celebrates its eleventh incarnation January 25-February 3 in San Francisco’s gorgeous Castro Theatre. For the fifth time, I have a front row seat to the mayhem, murder, madness and mystery promised by my favorite genre of film. There are 27 films on the slate, each lulling me into a state of dangerous, sweet surrender. But I must tread cautiously: From pretty dames to the pursuit of happiness, everything in Noir City has a price tag that can quickly become a toe tag. And while none of the big-screen shenanigans will drive me to murder, they will leave me with an unsettling identification with the characters I’ll encounter. I have to live with the knowledge that I understand why Noir City’s denizens always succumb to their hearts of darkness. Sometimes I wish I could succumb to mine.

Such wishes are the seeds of destruction, and I can’t afford the flower pot in which to plant them. As a worthy consolation, however, I have the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, to lead me and my Castro Theatre brethren through the fields of those who reaped the destruction they sowed. Festival nights are broken into themes, with this year offering an African-American Noir night alongside the recurring (and wildly popular) San Francisco Noir night. There’s also a 3-D Noir night, which I dread for the obvious, one-eyed reasons, and my favorite night of every Noir City: Bad Girls Night. Several films at the festival are not on DVD, while others are making their world premieres after being restored. Also on tap is a brand new 4K restoration of the film whose main character was the beneficiary of the strangely merciful life I alluded to in my title, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, Sunset Blvd.

Ms. Cummins in her heyday

My first dispatch from Noir City deals with the four D’s: Demons, Dames, Drivers and Desperation. The festival opened with Gun Crazy, Joseph Lewis’ influential lovers-on-the-run tale starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins. The latter appeared at Noir City, older than her three scheduled onscreen versions but still looking good. Ms. Cummins received multiple standing ovations before the film, and several more during the post-screening interview with Muller. She stole the show, and Muller wisely endorsed her grand larceny. 

The festival’s guest of honor also appeared in the Saturday matinee double feature of Curse of the Demon and Hell Drivers, neither of which is technically noir, but whose darkness and grittiness made them cousins worthy of inclusion.

Cummins spoke of her Hollywood origins: She was  brought to Tinseltown by Darryl Zanuck to star in Forever Amber. The book version of Forever Amber was apparently so popular that Fox’s casting call for the lead rivaled Selznick’s for Gone With the Wind. Cummins won the part, but it was a short-lived victory. “Someone at the studio said I wasn’t pretty enough,” Cummins informed an audience who’d just seen her looking absolutely fantastic onscreen. She was dropped, and Linda Darnell appears in the version preserved for posterity. As a result of the recasting, Cummins went from Forever Amber to Deadly Is the Female, or as noir lovers would come to know it, Gun Crazy.

While I prefer the film’s original title, Gun Crazy remains an apt description. Lewis’ film influenced Godard’s Breathless and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and its potent fetishizing of guns keeps it from being too dated. This is a firearms boner to rival the one wielded by the NRA. It’s a microcosm of America’s love of guns, and it was made 63 years ago. Here is the story of a man who loves to shoot his guns. It’s the only thing he’s good at, and it becomes an obsession of his. Lewis and company barely hide the sexual symbolism from the censor, substituting Dall’s mastery of shooting for both masturbatory satisfaction and perceived expert cocksmanship. The latter is even more subversively notarized when Dall meets Cummins’ equal marksmanship at a carnival. Their shooting battle is a fiery game of William Tell, with matches instead of apples, and as each takes turns firing dangerously close to the other’s head, sexual arousal runs down the screen like Niagara Falls. The female is not only on the same erotic mastery level as the male, she’s more cunning in her execution. Dall wins the shooting contest because I think Cummins purposely misses her final shot. She’s playing coy to make him feel masculine.

The mixture of sex and guns made flesh by Cummins drives Dall to do her bidding. Addicted to excitement the way Dall is hooked on triggers,  Cummins leads the duo into a life of increasingly violent crimes. She can kill but he cannot, and he knows she sees that as a weakness. Cummins is spectacular here, toying with Dall’s sexual insecurity like a film noir Lady Macbeth. When Dall finally seals the deal, putting a bullet into his beloved, it’s a short-lived form of consummation, an affirmation of his manhood. Muller called Cummins’ character in this film “the most ferocious female in noir,” and after revisiting Gun Crazy, I can’t argue.

A far less ferocious, though still fine and flirty Cummins appears in two other films at Noir City: Curse of the Demon and Hell Drivers. Both are  from 1957 and written by blacklisted writer-director Cyril Endfield. Demon made me long for the days when I was 9 years old and watching movies on WOR-TV in New York City. This would have scared me silly and giddy back then. Staring at the demon in the title on the big Castro Theatre screen, I felt compelled to reunite with that prior incarnation of myself. I had a great time, helped by the gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography by Edward Scaife.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Curse of the Demon is more horror picture than noir, but stars a staple of noir, Dana Andrews. Andrews imbues his role with more conviction and credibility than a film like this requires, and his performance keeps the film from descending too far into the ridiculous. Andrews’ shrink is in town to evaluate a member from a devil-worshipping cult. This is for research purposes, as Andrews is a pure skeptic when it comes to the supernatural. His point of contact has been murdered by the titular demon before Andrews’ arrival, and Andrews teams up with the victim’s niece (Cummins) to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, a deliciously evil Niall MacGinnis is cursing people (including Cummins’ uncle) with some kind of parchment paper covered in runes from Stonehenge (or something like that). You may never want to take anything handed to you again after you see what this guy’s modus operandi is. He even has the Lucifer beard, which should be enough to convince that disbelieving Mr. Andrews. But no, Andrews has to get cursed himself, and even then, he keeps applying science to whatever happens to him. This is an endearing characteristic of the film—it keeps trying to explain away all the great Val Lewton atmosphere Tourneur and Schaife provide.

Some of the creepy, shadowy images here are as stunning as the demon is goofy-looking. (The filmmakers hated that an actual demon was added post-filming by the producer. Its smoke-filled suggestion was more than enough.) Tourneur, who directed Lewton’s Cat People (as well as the noir classic Out of the Past), knows how to ratchet up suspense from things dropping into the corners of the frame. A sudden hand at the bottom right of the screen actually got me to jump, and the director’s sly nod to his former feline flick manifests itself as a scary yet hilarious attack on Andrews. Even when wrestling with an obviously fake panther, Andrews is committed. You gotta love movies like this, and without irony.

Hell Drivers is a suspenseful, gritty British drama about truckers who risk their lives for a corrupt trucking company. It’s The Wages of Fear with ballast instead of dynamite, featuring a “Who’s Who” of soon to be famous British stars. Led by the British Jack Palance, Stanley Baker, Hell Drivers also stars a pre-Bond Sean Connery and a pre-Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, who is superb as Baker’s rival for truck-driving superiority. Playing Baker’s rival for Cummins’ feisty, jeans-clad secretary is a pre-Pink Panther Herbert Lom. As an Italian immigrant who befriends Baker even when the other men turn on him, Lom provides Hell Drivers with its tragic, broken heart. Even after being betrayed, Lom still helps Baker in his quest to unseat McGoohan’s corrupt foreman.

Baker’s prize if he should best the cheating alpha-male McGoohan is a solid gold case. Like most things in Noir City, it’s a shiny, overpriced object of desire for whom payment is more than just monetary.

Next time: More Cyril Endfield, a dash of Laurence Tierney, pre-Code naughtiness and Ms. Desmond’s close-up.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

QT and Odie: Perfect Together

by Odienator

I've been gone from here a while, but I've actually not been sitting on my ass doing nothing.

There are two things I want to quickly pimp over here.

The first is my latest "Black Man Talk" with Steven Boone over at the other site I run, Big Media Vandalism. Our last Black Man Talk was right here at Tales of Odienary Madness, on Tyler Perry. Now we're riffing on Django Unchained, the controversial Quentin Tarantino Spaghetti Southern about slavery and revenge.

"Unlike the Nazism QT's heroes combat in Inglorious Basterds, slavery makes America the villain. The American way of life at the time is the bad guy here, and this creates a discomfort that I've seen reflected in several reviews: "Where's the morality in Django?" I acknowledge that Inglorious Basterds adds a morally ambiguous layer to its heroes, whereas Django Unchained is more a product of QT's love of Blaxploitation and the Sweet Sweetback notion of a "baadasssss nigger comin' back to collect some dues." Why is that wrong?

Yet, Tarantino knows that, as a White man, he processes his rage against the institution of slavery differently than Blacks. I can make this statement based on the mini-arc he crafts for Dr. King Schultz."

Read more here!

The other thing is my first "according to Hoyle" video essay. It's a two-parter over at Press Play. I wrote it and it is my melodious voice you hear on the soundtrack. In keeping with the Tarantino vein, it's on Jackie Brown. Both parts are available for viewing, and were both superbly edited by Jason Bellamy of The Cooler blog.

From part 1:

"Here, he lifts Foxy’s last name, her movie’s title font and her portrayer. Grier was the queen of Blaxploitation, wielding a shotgun, razors in her ‘fro and a take no prisoners attitude that was simultaneously terrifying and sensual. Jack Hill, who directed her in Foxy Brown, Coffy and two other films, said that Pam Grier had “that something special that only she has. She has ‘it’.” Hill could get a witness from any fan, for we knew: Not only did Pam Grier have “it,” she could whip your ass with “it” as well."

And part II:

"Quentin Tarantino relishes putting a gun in Pam Grier’s hands, throwing us back to the good old days of Nurse Coffy, Sheba Shayne and Friday Foster. Her genre reputation precedes her, and one can almost hear QT cackle as he merges Brian DePalma’s split-screen, Jack Hill’s dialogue and an overzealous sound man’s rendition of that “CLICK” that accompanies that gun aimed at Ordell Robbie’s favorite toy. But this commandeering of DePalma and Hill serves the drama—Elmore Leonard crafted the Ordell-Jackie pas de deux in his novel, Rum Punch, to get us here. It’s Max’s gun Jackie’s stolen, and its retrieval leads not only to Max’s seduction but also to some of the most poignant dialogue Tarantino has scripted. Notice how delicately the camera moves in on Grier’s profile. It’s almost as if we’re eavesdropping on Pam and Robert, not Jackie and Max."

I promise to be more diligent in writing here in 2013, It's been rough due to work, but I'm recommitted myself to at least showing up here once iin a while. Stick with me here, and of course, over at Big Media Vandalism.