Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Noir City XVII #3: Requiem for a Pickpocket

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Part of the fun of Noir City is discovering whose progeny may be in the audience or on the stage. In the past, the children of Dana Andrews, Victor Mature and Glenn Ford have joined us for their parents' features, providing useful information along the way. On opening night of this year's festival, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller brought to the stage Richard Fleischer's son, Mark, who spoke about Trapped, The Narrow Margin and his Dad's friendship with writer Earl Fenton. Fenton wrote several of Richard Fleischer's pictures, including the aforementioned two films and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That may be my favorite of Fleischer's adventure pictures (sorry Conan the Destroyer--which I also like, mind you), if only because it features Kirk Douglas singing.

It's 1951 in Noir City and Michael's Da isn't singing in Detective Story; he's too busy making his criminal suspects hit the highest notes in their confessions. Kirk is fantastic as a rigid, jaded detective named McLeod whose notion of right and wrong is as binary as the machine language in UNIVAC I, which also made its debut in 1951. Detective McLeod has his sights on Karl Schneider (George Macready), a New Jersey doc whose medical specialty is dealt with quite frankly for the time. (He does abortions.) Since McLeod's reputation of roughing up his suspects precedes him, Schneider's lawyer Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson) negotiates a deal for Schneider to bypass McLeod and turn himself in at the 21st Precinct. This goes over as well as you'd expect, because the only thing McLeod hates worse than criminals are the lawyers who defend and "coddle" them.

But Sims is a dangerous adversary. He's the gust of wind that may knock McLeod off that tightrope of absolute righteousness he's been navigating. Both Sims and Schneider keep alluding that they're willing to turn stool pigeon over some devastating secret in McLeod's past. A hint of what that might be is cleverly hidden in an early scene between McLeod and his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). While making out in the backseat of a taxicab, the McLeods talk about doctors and future children and so on. Mary's the only person McLeod lets his guard down for, so when her husband turns his unflinching brand of judgment on her in the film's third act, Detective Story becomes one of noir's most emotionally violent productions.

As the anti-hero, Douglas really leans into his character's horrifying upbringing, using it as an entry point into McLeod's inability to see shades of gray. When the camera angles weren't reminding me how eerily young Kirk looks like young Michael, I wondered if Douglas were the most psychologically astute actor in Hollywood. He brings a complexity to the roles he plays, whether heels or heroes, as if he understands their motivations internally even when he can't fully explain them. Plus, he always allowed you to see the cracks of vulnerability running through his machismo. When he cries in Detective Story, his face looks like a statue whose marble has suddenly undergone a metamorphosis to clay.

Though adapted from a hit play by Sidney Kingsley, Detective Story never feels like a filmed stage performance. Director William Wyler and his screenwriters Philip Yordan and brother Robert Wyler run a tight yet busy schedule of events across the screen, carefully weaving in the storylines both comic and tragic. This thing moves like gangbusters, and Wyler's firm handle on the film's momentum is masterful. This is one of his best movies, earning him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for direction. The script also received an Oscar nod. And since Wyler is the director who has led more actors to Academy Award nominations than any other, both Eleanor Parker and Lee Grant snared nominations for their performances as well. 

Grant and Parker are the linchpins in their respective stories. Parker's tale is emotional and tragic, while Grant's tale is the comedy relief. Both make it seem effortless. Parker underplays against the volcanic Douglas, subtly hinting at the dynamics of their marriage--she's Sisyphus and he's the rock. Grant, in her stunning debut, gleefully swings for the fences, capturing every moment of her nameless kleptomaniac's wonder and awe as she awaits her night court hearing. Despite the difference in tone of their respective arcs, Detective Story sees these two women as kindred spirits: both of them impulsively grabbed something that looked great on the outside, only to discover that what was inside it wasn't worth the effort. For Grant, it was a purse whose monetary contents were less than the price of the purse; for Parker, it was a man whom she ultimately could not save from self-destruction. Such is the pricetag of shiny objects in the otherwise shadowy Noir City.

Maybe it's me, but almost every time I see William Holden onscreen, I want to punch him out. It's nothing personal, to be sure. He's just so damn good at playing people you want to slug (and kiss, preferably after you slug him). In The Turning Point, he's no different. Holden plays a cynical newspaperman constantly searching for the next big story. He may have that story when his childhood pal, attorney Edmond O'Brien returns to town to root out organized corruption on a task force. O'Brien's dad Ed Begley was a cop, so law and order is in his DNA, but Holden doesn't think his buddy's tough enough for the job. Holden thinks even less toughness exists in O'Brien's girlfriend, Alexis Smith, though she might have other more useful qualities.

We're never really sure whose side Holden is on, besides his own, that is, and it keeps The Turning Point intriguing. Is he undermining O'Brien or attempting to help him out by not revealing that O'Brien's dad Ed Begley is on the take from the criminal his son is trying to bring down. We certainly can deduce that he's operating as a villain when his bad boy bonafides lure Smith away from O'Brien. She and Holden have a great conversation that evokes the "let's talk killer to killer" scene in All About Eve, and director William Dieterle lets them smolder for a while before sealing the deal.

The Turning Point is as suspenseful as it is bleak. At times, it has a 70's paranoid thriller aspect to it, most notably in a sequence set at a boxing match, and there's a devastating price to pay for attempting to destroy well-structured evil at its root. The actors are all solid, especially Smith, and Holden's performance made me think of the story (possibly apocryphal) about him asking Billy Wilder to soften his very unlikable character in Stalag 17. Wilder told Holden to trust him and play the role as written because he's good at being a heel with whom the audience can identify.

Paramount made The Turning Point to capitalize on the public's hunger for the organized crime Congressional hearings that were all over the TV in 1952. So it seems ripe for a remake in today's political climate! But for now, we at least have this rarity, which Paramount provided on DCP for us to devour at the Castro Theatre. Eddie mentioned to us that while the studio refuses to print film anymore, they are at least digitizing their library of films. I'll use this good news to soothe the agita I get whenever I have to deal with getting critic screening information from them!

Finally, a few words on Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, featuring a career best performance by Thelma Ritter. It wouldn't be Noir City without at least one appearance by the guy who tormented Michael Douglas in Coma, Richard Widmark. While Widmark's Skip McCoy picks the wrong pocket and finds love in the midst of the Cold War, Ritter steals the movie right from under him. Her character, Moe, is memorably tough and heartbreaking; Ritter's usual no-nonsense persona, which made her unsusceptible to Eve Harrington's charm and pissed off enough to chew out the owner of Macy's, is supplemented by a world-weariness that's so potent and palpable you can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting over Sam Fuller's typerwriter as he wrote her scenes. Her final scene is so devastating that not even Fuller's camera can bear to watch it. He pans away, allowing Moe a rare modicum of grace.

For her trouble here, Ritter received an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress. The six-time nominee was so used to losing that she threw "come and watch me lose again" Oscar parties, according to the book Inside Oscar. Just because you lose doesn't mean you weren't great. Those are words we Noir City denizens can live by.

Next up:  A double shot of Dorothy Malone
Last time: Noir City XVII #2: The Monsters Are Still Due on Main Street

(Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)

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