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.

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