Wednesday, 3 December 2014

THE SCARLET HOUR (1956)




In trying to establish an end point for the classic film noir cycle, four films emerge as leading candidates: ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958) for its baroque inflations of character and style; ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ (1959) for its modernism and progressive tonal shifts; ‘Psycho’ (1960) for its narrative and generic dislocations; ‘Blast of Silence’ (1961) for its sense of moral desolation. Disagreement is inevitable, given that the definition of film noir is so fluid. However, what's clear is that each of these films represents some kind of distinct shift from what had gone before. 

On the other hand, the endpoint of the classic film noir cycle might be a later film which reflected a popular consensus of that which 'had gone before'. Which brings us to The ‘Scarlet Hour’. Despite its release date, ‘The Scarlet Hour’ is a film noir of the 1940’s and early '50's, displaying many of the familiar thematic, narrative and visual motifs of the period: a male protagonist obsessed with a sexually alluring woman; another female, good and dutiful, in love with the man; an urban setting where lives are lived out unhappily by day and by night; a lurid and convoluted plot conveyed with hard-boiled urgency; shadows, low angles and expressive, unsettling shots, etc.

‘The Scarlet Hour’ was produced and directed by none other than Michael Curtiz, with a solid backing by Paramount Studios. However, the cast was mostly new faces including Tom Tryon, Carol Ohmart, James Gregory and Jody Lawrance. When completed the film was released with little fanfare and quickly disappeared from screens. For more than fifty years it languished in obscurity.

Reviews at the time were lukewarm at best. ‘The Scarlet Hour’ also exhibited more in the UK than in the US and the British press, often harsh in its assessment of crime melodramas, was quick to find fault:

“It is a very drab hour and a half, in the company of actors who have not yet established their reputations and are unlikely to achieve them as a result of this movie. The story combines a rather unsavoury triangle with a jewel robbery and the director Mr. Curtiz has achieved a certain amount of suspense but little else.” (UK Times, May 1957)

To present-day eyes ‘The Scarlet Hour’ isn’t drab at all, just dense in its complications and saturated with character types that seem both contemporary and anachronistic at the same time. It’s a familiar tale of dark love, obsession, duplicity and murder.


Tryon is E.V. ‘Marsh’ Marshall, the protégé of land developer Ralph Nevins (Gregory). Marsh also is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Paulie (Ohmart). Paulie wants the life Ralph’s wealth affords her but she doesn’t want him. She seduces Marsh into hijacking a jewelry heist they overhear being planned while parked in a lovers’ lane. However Ralph is aware that Paulie has something going on the side. When he decides to do something about it, the plot both thickens and darkens.

That’s about as much as you should need or want to know going in. A lot of the pleasure to be had from these tales of triangulation and treachery is inevitably in the details. These were supplied by lead screenwriter Frank Tashlin, better known for his comedies including ‘The Lieutenant Wore Skirts’ (1956) and ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’ (1957). This is Tashlin’s sole association with noir but as noted by Dave Kehr a desperate undercurrent always was palpable in his comedies:

“More than most of his contemporaries, Tashlin was attuned to the ways in which our own desire betrays us.”

Unfortunately some of the potential in ‘The Scarlet Hour’ is compromised by Tom Tryon’s lack of range as a lead actor. Part of it stems from the script which leaves little leeway for his character to connect the dots between virtue and temptation. A more adroit actor might have found the connection but the most Tryon can manage is a hangdog haplessness.


But the rest of the cast pull their weight. Former model and beauty queen Carol Ohmart was a spot-on choice for Paulie who’s far more complex and sympathetic a character than the stereotypical femme fatale. While Paulie uses Marsh and is prepared to betray him, she does so out of jealousy not malice. Her actions and betrayals are never straightforward. 

There's a direct link to the kind of resignation behind the ruthlessness found in ‘Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Ohmart gives Paulie a similar duality. She's an unusually self-reflexive femme fatale. Like Walter Neff, she goads herself into a criminal act to tap into a strange nether region of self-worth. Paulie is Phyllis and Walter combined, wrapped up in one leggy, complicated package. With her cool, smoky voice, she harkens back to the ‘fire and ice’ sirens of the 40s but does it without seeming derivative.

Other talent on display: James Gregory as the vengeful husband; David Lewis as the jewel heist mastermind (who makes a memorable reappearance via the film’s bravura plot twist); and E. G. Marshall and Ed Binns as the investigating police officers. All had established their bona fides in television, and all would become fixtures on the small screen in the 60s.

Jody Lawrance, Nevins’ secretary Kathy Stevens (Lawrance) is the ‘good girl’ a la Virginia Huston in ‘Out of the Past’ who pines for Marsh. Lawrence was on the rebound from an aborted launch at Columbia earlier in the decade. She does what she can with her role but in her bottle-blonde incarnation she’s too reminiscent of the edgier and more distinctive Jan Sterling. Lawrance might have stood out more as a brunette but she faded from Hollywood in 1961.

Standing out with style is Elaine Stritch as Phyllis Rycker, friend and confidante to Paulie. Phyllis is a retired-but-not-quite-reformed B-girl who’s found true love in the arms of a blue-collar hedonist. She and Paulie have a long history and it’s through their intimate exchanges that we learn something more of who Paulie is and what motivates her. While she’s cunning and dressed to kill, we’re also allowed to know her as a woman damaged by life and sad with regret. When Phyllis toasts her ever solicitous and slightly sozzled husband, “Here’s to happy marriages made in heaven,” Paulie replies, “Here’s to happy marriages made anywhere.”

Stritch, always a brash scene-stealer challenges Ohmart to stand up to her. Ohmart manages to do so and then some and their scenes together really juice the film. Stritch would later dismiss her role in the film as little more than a walk-on but she creates one of the great bit parts in all of noir and barely breaks a sweat.


Clearly ‘The Scarlet Hour’ doesn’t shy away from its indebtedness to ‘Double Indemnity'. Curtiz pays further respect explicitly in a scene where Marsh and Paulie furtively meet up across the aisle in a record store. Their troubled tryst could easily have taken place just down the street at Jerry’s Market on Melrose.

The script also has its share of well-turned one-liners, most of them handed to Paulie. Many of the lines function in the film the way Walter Neff’s voiceover frames ‘Double Indemnity’. They are not only memorably hard-boiled, they add character resonance:

“Don’t try to brush me off, Marsh—when I stick, I stick hard.” and “I never thought about the things I wanted, only the things I didn’t want.”


Despite these flourishes, the film suffers from an odd flatness. All the elements of a topnotch 40s noir are present, but the combination of a weaker lead actor (Tryon), overly glossy production values, and a lack of velocity in the final reel make things seem a bit stale. Even with such a kinetic script, the film is just not as emphatic in style and pacing as it needs to be. Too many shots and sequences aren’t as composed as one would expected in a Curtiz film and camera movement is less fluid.

Curtiz’ attempt to return to the more ornate noir style - one that he’d virtually invented in ‘Mildred Pierce’, embroidered in ‘The Unsuspected’ (a textbook example of Foster Hirsch’s notion of 'italicized visual moments') and finally synthesized in ‘The Breaking Point’- was derailed by a combination of factors he couldn't overcome. In those earlier films, the complicated choreography of plot, visuals, and actorly presence meshed into something greater than the sum of its many parts. In 'The Scarlet Hour', it doesn’t quite happen.

But what we do have is a case study on celluloid for how classic noir was supposed to operate: we can see that framework for a great and satisfying noir is there but also how the component parts manage to not quite fit.

But ‘The Scarlet Hour’ truly is the last honorable attempt to build a noir from the classic recipe. The icy sexual cunning of Carol Ohmart brings the arc of the noir cycle to a close - an arc that wouldn’t be reopened until ‘Body Heat’ (1981) a quarter-century later. 

The film also can be seen as a look into the ‘what if’ career of Carol Ohmart, a beautiful actress made for a style of film on the verge of extinction - just as she was offered the chance to be the very embodment of it.

(A version of this article appeared in 'Noir City' Magazine)

Friday, 21 November 2014

THE BIG CAPER (1957)




In the preface to her red-ripe tomato of an autobiography ‘Has Corrine Been a Good Girl?’ French actress Corrine Calvert writes of meeting Rory Calhoun: 

“I felt a towering shadow blocking the sun’s rays. I looked up as Rory Calhoun introduced himself. I tumbled into the dazzling whirlpool of his eyes. There was a fire in the depth of his glance that consumed all my resistance. It was too strong, too intoxicating. His hand was on my elbow. His touch had ignited me. Desire flowed through my body”.


Things move fast from there. However, Calhoun soon decides he’s had enough of Calvert.

“Move your car”, Rory ordered.

“I’ll go. Just kiss me, goodnight. Please Rory, just one kiss”.


Rory went back into the house. I went to my car and sat behind the wheel waiting. Rory reappeared and his hand grasped a small automatic pistol. He pointed at me directly.


“Move or I’ll shoot…You don’t believe me?" Rory challenged in a white rage. He shot a bullet across the hood of my car. 
  
I was paralyzed with terror. Rory was at the door of the car, the gun at my temple.    
   
“You’ll never get away with it, Rory”, I said. “Just kiss me and I’ll leave”.  

I decided to go back to France. 




That Rory Calhoun was born-to-wild there is no doubt. He’d spent most of his youth until age 21 in reformatories and prisons serving time for everything from car theft to armed robbery.  

Following release from San Quentin, Calhoun decided to go straight. After a series of laboring jobs, he got himself to Hollywood. He was noticed by actor Alan Ladd whose wife, agent Sue Carol got Calhoun a contract with Fox (under his real name Francis McCown). Fox later dropped Calhoun but Henry Willson, David O. Selznick’s chief talent scout persuaded the producer to add him to his contract list and renamed him 'Rory Calhoun' (Willson also famously coined the noms d’ecran Rock Hudson, Guy Madison, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Ty Hardin, Dack Rambo and Mike Connors and others). 

Calhoun’s first break came when cast as boxer Jim Corbett in ‘The Great John L’ (1945). Here he got to display the physique and athleticism that would win him parts in the countless (some would say endless) adventure movies and westerns with which he would become identified.     

In 1947 Calhoun was featured in Delmer Daves’ moody, rustic noir ‘The Red House’ sharing some torrid love scenes with Julie London. However, it would be ten years before the good-looking Calhoun appeared in another noir crime drama, ‘The Big Caper’, based on a book of the same title by Lionel White (also author of 'Clean Break’ filmed in 1955 as 'The Killing').

Calhoun stars as Frank Harper a small-time hood who’s buried under gambling debts. To get out from under he persuades his boss, Flood (James Gregory) to bankroll a big caper – knocking off a bank that handles the monthly payroll for a nearby army base. Harper buys a gas station across the street from the bank as a stakeout locale. He settles into the community (San Felipe, California) with Flood’s girlfriend, Kay (Mary Costa). They pretend to be man-and-wife and wait for the arrival of the other members of the crew. These include an alcoholic firebug (Robert H. Harris), a sinister sex-addled hipster (Corey Allen), and Flood’s loyal protector (Paul Picerni), any one of whom looks capable of screwing things up. 



Meanwhile, Harper and Kay, thrown together as they are, begin to enjoy each other’s company a little too much, as well as the square, small-town pleasures of card games with new friends and backyard barbeques. Flood begins to suspect and wonder what’s wrong with this picture. As it turns out he’s wise to do so and Flood is as dangerous as he is smart. 



‘The Big Caper’ is another of those more obscure late-period film noirs that either haven’t been seen or given enough credit by some who have seen them. The movies are stripped of much of the visual poetry and romantic narrative that qualified earlier noirs of the classic period. The lesser ones suffer for it but the better of them like 'The Big Caper' emerge as something else – more close-to-the-bone, more real, more modern. More Mickey Spillane than Raymond Chandler. 

Much of the credit goes to Robert Stevens’ very pacey, taut, hard-edged direction. Stevens had a long career in television prior to and after ‘The Big Caper’, notably as head director on both Alfred Hitchcock series for which he received an Emmy. Stevens also directed a quartet of provocative noir-stained psychological dramas: ‘Never Love a Stranger’ (1958) w/John Drew Barrymore; ‘I Thank a Fool’ (1962) w/Susan Hayward; ‘In the Cool of the Day’ (1963) w/ Jane Fonda; ‘Change of Mind’ (1969) w/ Raymond St. Jacques. Stevens clearly was secure with darker material and ‘The Big Caper’ is as one of his better films.



‘The Big Caper’ also would offer Rory Calhoun one his better roles. Though right enough for westerns, Calhoun by looks and temperament was born for film noir and was most interesting when playing roguishly handsome bad guys. And Calhoun was nothing if not cool. He was a natural actor - which set him apart from other Hollywood hunks like Ray Danton, Brad Dexter, Richard Egan, William Campbell, Jeffrey Hunter, Vince Edwards, John Russell, John Bromfield (to whom Corrine Calvert was married for as long as it lasted) and many others. 

Not enough has been made of Calhoun’s native talent and versatility on screen. While at Fox he’d been a reliable leading man to the studio’s female stars such as Betty Grable in a succession of musicals. Over a career that included eighty-plus films and a thousand television episodes Calhoun hit mostly high notes with the part of Frank Harper among the highest. 

Harper starts out as a hoodlum blind in his loyalty to Flood but then begins to consider (as Calhoun himself once had) that maybe a thug’s life wasn’t going to get him anywhere. But the decision to look differently at the world doesn’t come easily to the embittered Harper. He has his back to the wall and has to work through where he is with Kay and Flood both. The change-of-pace for Calhoun and his convincing performance in ‘The Big Caper’ shows how interesting a downbeat lead he could be.  



But everyone in the film steps up, especially James Gregory (‘The Scarlet Hour’ 1956, ‘Nightfall’ 1957) as the frightening and murderous gang boss, Flood. ‘The Big Caper’ is really about its characters and the workings of the gang as much as it is the plot - which admittedly is shaky in some elements, especially its abrupt and suspect 'studio' ending (suspect but not unexpected). However, it’s a small price to pay when the payoff is as substantial as it is with ‘The Big Caper’.      

Meantime, Rory Calhoun would carry on. In one of Hollywood most infamous divorce trials, actress Lita Baron, Calhoun’s wife of twenty-one years sued him for adultery naming seventy-nine women with whom the actor had had affairs while married, including Betty Grable. Calhoun’s response? “Heck, she didn’t even include half of ‘em”. Grable denied involvement. 


Thursday, 20 November 2014

THEY MADE ME A FUGITIVE (1947)


Sally: "What are you going to do about that lead in your back?" 

Clem: "Sell it for whatever it will fetch".



Some years back the British government of the day famously announced it was declaring war on the country’s ‘yob culture’ and the rampant anti-social behavior souring daily life. 

In truth the UK has always had its share of all-ages knaves: wide boys, bovver boys, teds, mods and rockers, punks, skins, lager louts and other scroats. But then 'lads’ll be lads, won't they?' 

This sideways affection for hooligans and crims has long shown up on screens big and small in Britain. In recent decades movies such as 'The Long Good Friday', 'Mona Lisa', 'The Krays', 'Gangster No.1',  'Sexy Beast', 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' and the nasty little confection ‘Layer Cake’ all got world-wide attention.

Small-bore felons also feature in just as many earlier UK productions. Among them was Alberto Cavalcanti’s unnerving ‘They Made Me a Fugitive’, one of a cycle of ‘spiv’ titles ('Brighton Rock' being the best known) about the black marketeers who prospered from shortages during and following the war. 

'They Made Me a Fugitive' has spivs both bad and worse. Clem Morgan (Trevor Howard) is an ex-RAF pilot and officer who's been on the bottle since being demobbed. Disillusioned and depressed, he's looking for a way to climb out of the hole into which he's dug himself. He hooks up with a gang headed by Narcy (Griffith Jones). When one of the gang asks him about Clem's 'specialty', he snaps, 'He’s got class. We need a bit of that in our business'. 



With those words, Narcy says just about everything there is to say about his petty motives and aspirations. Like most British gangster protagonists, Narcy’s origins are working-class poor. Obsessed with overcoming these, Narcy sees association with Clem as his way out.

It doesn’t take long for things to turn ugly between him and Clem when Clem realizes that the gang’s latest haul includes a cache of dope. He tells Narcy that he’s not playing along if drugs are part of the deal. Narcy turns on him and asks Clem if he thinks that they’re not ‘respectable enough’ for him while one of Narcy’s henchmen accuses Clem of being 'stuck up' and 'just an amateur muckin’ about for the fun of it'. Clem himself confides to his 'posh' girlfriend, Ellen (Eve Ashley), 'Look, we’re slumming here' and 'I may be a crook but I’m not that kind of crook'. 



Though Clem for whatever reason has turned his back on the class 'that made him' (or it's turned its back on him), he’s not ready to succumb to low-life thuggery. Narcy, on the other hand is pathological in his hunger to become ‘a gent’. Suspecting he’ll never achieve it, he begins to make Clem the target of his fear and loathing. Narcy clearly covets Clem's station in life (as well as his girlfriend) and also despises Clem for everything he otherwise represents. Clem on the other hand looks at Narcy and sees an uneducated hoodlum with delusions of becoming something he’ll never be. 

Their relationship is rendered even more twisted with the film's inspired counter-casting of the two main actors. Clem, as played by Howard is by far the more rugged and masculine of the two. On the other hand, Narcy (short for Narcissus) played by Griffith Jones is slighter, affected and a bit of a dandy. But while not that physically imposing, Narcy is still a very scary piece of work.

An uneasy truce is arrived at when Narcy tells Clem that they don’t plan to make dope a regular part of the trade. Unfortunately for Clem, when the next job comes off, Narcy sets him up for a fall - a big one. Clem ends up convicted of manslaughter and is sentenced to 15 years hard labor in Dartmoor Gaol. Months later, Clem gets a visit out of the blue from Sally (Sally Gray), the now-former girlfriend of Narcy who dumped her for Clem’s bird, Ellen. Clem had his suspicions but it’s still not welcome news. 



Sally also tells him that Soapy (Jack McNaughton), who was in on the frame is now in hiding from Narcy and might be persuaded to turn's King's evidence against him, thus clearing Clem - at least of the manslaughter charge. Clem listens but also has his doubts about Sally's motives and why she’s there. He blows up and tells her to get lost.

The prison scene highlights Trevor Howard's stormy command of the screen. While British filmgoers usually preferred their chaps to be stolid and affable (think Jack Hawkins, Richard Todd, Bernard Lee), that never much suited Howard. His forte was playing brittle mavericks and self-destructive cynics.  As Clem – an embittered noir protagonist struggling to get out of a situation not entirely of his making but still forced to reckon with some of the blame and all of the consequences – Howard’s performance in ‘Fugitive’ is definitive. 



Poor Sally Gray on the other hand seems to have wandered into the wrong movie. The actress, a favorite of British film audiences in the 30's and 40's is to-the-manor-born and forever sounds about to choke on the plum in her mouth. That Gray is supposed to be a chorus girl and a sadistic gangster's bit of fluff is more than a stretch. But she’s likable enough in a goofy, distracted way and eventually she manages to work into her character (or vice-versa).

Jones’ Narcy on the other hand is a textbook psychopath - charming, glib, selfish, promiscuous, and without remorse. He’s a misogynist who beats and tortures. Narcy goes to see Sally in her apartment after he learns that she's been to see Clem in prison. In a rage, he kicks her into unconsciousness. He later confronts Cora, wife of the would-be snitch, Soapy, wanting to know where he's hiding. He orders Big Jim, one of his louts to use his 'coaxer', a heavy leather belt studded with angled-edged medallions as big as horse brasses. Threatened with disfigurement and worse, Cora breaks down and spills (which comes as a relief). 

It was screen moments like these – well outside the experience of most British filmgoers - that also resulted in the film’s truncated release in the US as 'I Became a Criminal' (a cultural inversion to ponder) with a running time of only seventy-eight minutes instead of original British version’s ninety-six. 



That said, 'They Made Me a Fugitive' is given a deliberate and artful direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (or 'Cavalcanti' as he chose to be called) probably best known for his 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby' (1947). Cavalcanti began his career in his native Brazil, and then worked in several countries including France where he became part of both avant-garde and documentary movements that anticipated the French 'poetic realism' of the 1930’s.

There’s tension - though not friction - between realist and expressionist impulses that create unease within the frame. Cavalcanti often foregrounds and shoots around objects and sometimes through them for expressive effect. At one point Narcy's face is reflected in a mirror that casts an image as grotesque as seen in some carnival of horror. It leaves no doubt Narcy is completely deranged.

Behind the camera was Czech-born Otto Heller who too had been schooled in German Expressionism and arguably is as responsible for the film's intense affect as Cavalcanti. (Heller would later shoot Michael Powell’s infamous 'Peeping Tom' (1960). 'Fugitive' also is tightly edited by Margery Saunders who worked with Calvacanti on several more films before editing on a long list of low-budget crime titles - many of which are counted in as part of the British classic noir cycle.



'They Made Me a Fugitive' was based on a mystery thriller 'A Convict Has Escaped' by Jackson Budd. The book was adapted for the screen by playwright and screenwriter Noel Langley  who left to work abroad on less grievous projects such as the  'Wizard of Oz' and television's' Shirley Temple's  Storybook'. However 'Fugitive's script is bitter and corrosive in ways that distance it from even the darkest American movies of the period. 

Now nearly seventy years on Britain's seemingly intractable class system has weakened but remains a long way from going away - as do the acid resentments to which it gives rise. 

As for Britain's scurvy yobs - crude, obnoxious, stupid and violent - they still manage to infest daily life like cockroaches. Some things never change. 




Thursday, 30 October 2014

FOR YOU I DIE (1947)



Georgia (admiringly): ‘Maybe you’ve got something. (He’s) almost like having a wild animal for a pet’.

Hope: (disgustedly) ‘You make me sick’.


Convict Johnny Coulter (Paul Langton), nearing the end of a prison sentence, is forced to take part in a prison break organized by gangster and thug Matt Gruber (Don Harvey). Coulter is told to hide out in a backwoods holiday camp. There he’s to make contact with Gruber’s woman, an ex-chorus girl Hope Novak (Cathy Downs) and let her know that Gruber will be along to fetch her as soon as things cool down. 

Coulter locates the camp, makes the meet, and keeps his head down. However Novak is not at all the hard-bitten hoofer that he’d been expecting. And it turns out she no longer wants anything to do with Gruber. Hope also believes she sees some good in Coulter, a guy who’s taken every kind of beating and is on the ropes. He sees her as someone he might trust. Maybe there's some Hope for Coulter. Meantime Gruber is out there and nothing‘s changed for him – which presents a serious problem for everyone.



'For You I Die' seems to be a film noir with good bones. However the black magic soon gives way to lame conjuring remindful of the foolishness of 'His Kind of Woman'. The movie gets handed off to a group of theatrical inanities who hang around the motor camp’s café in some unexplainable effort at 'comic relief'. Among the misfits: Alex Shaw (Misha Auer), a manic Russian artist and spiritualist; Smitty, an alcoholic hash-slinger who’s sweet on Hope; Mac and Jerry, cartoon cops who live at the lunch counter and repeatedly challenge Coulter with, ‘You know, you sure do look familiar’ or ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere’ (the 'joke' being that Coulter’s wanted poster is sitting large in their black-and-white). 

Thankfully after a time 'For You I Die’s better instincts show themselves and the film again begins to threaten. Johnny Coulter is straight out of the film noir workbook. Paul Langton a journeyman character player doesn’t take at first as featured lead but eventually comes into focus bringing together something of the unaffected brashness of Dennis O’Keefe and Richard Basehart’s sinister calculation. 

Maggie Dillion (Marian Kerby), the resort owner, is a toughened Ma Joad with a bible in one hand and deep-fryer in the other. She’s a sentimental character but she’s okay, our Maggie. 

Georgia (Jane Weeks) is a blonde tramp in the tradition of all great blonde film noir tramps. She slinks around the cafe and comes on to every guy who walks in the door including Coulter. It'd be a good bet she's listed on the menu as ‘Apple Strumpet’. But Georgia’s no fool and proves to be more dangerous than Coulter suspects. 



However it’s Hope Novak, Gruber’s once-girlfriend who takes charge of the movie. Novak is a girl who’s had a life but wants another. She has no illusions about where she’s been and is resolute about never going back. Intially Hope seems a bit too much of a goody two-shoes for someone who’s had such a hard start. It’s also a stretch to think that she’d hook up with another felon. But the under-rated Downs is able to convince us that Hope knows what she’s about and what she’s doing. 

Director John Reinhardt (The Guilty, Open Secret, Chicago Calling) and Cinematography William Clothier (Confidence Girl, Track of the Cat, Gangbusters) do a reasonable job of things given the fractured script. The film, a poverty row cheapie, has a contained and theatrical construction but framing and lighting of the stage-like sets frequently is evocative and haunting. 

But as much as one wants to root for 'For You I Die', it's a disappointment. It’s obvious where and how the movie could have been made better but all that and ten cents will only get you a 'Camp Cafe' cuppa joe and a big plate of regret. 






Saturday, 27 September 2014

JACKIE BROWN (1997)



Hollywood never got Elmore Leonard. Of the thirty-odd crime novels written by Leonard, most were optioned and went to production but little of Leonard’s unique voice and great potency as a writer ever managed to find its way to the screen. While that can be said of more than one author it seems that Leonard’s particular stylistic intonations have been hard ones for film-makers to get a handle on – if they’ve bothered to really try.

Writer/teacher Barry Hannah called Leonard a ‘dry comic noirist’, an apt-enough description but one which would kill the pitch before the elevator closed. Hollywood mostly took a brain-dead approach to Leonard, seeing in him only what’s most obvious - foremost a stock of script-ready characters including a dude with a questionable résumé but good motives and moves; a righteous woman as cool as he is (and often smarter); a monkey-house of bad guys who force the play or threaten to ruin it.

Around these, Leonard plotted like a bandit holding tightly to a schematic that at first has us puzzling over how the characters relate to each other and what they’re up to. Then just as we think we’ve got it figured, there's some dizzying lift of events and all bets come off. 

Admittedly Leonard looks to be film-ready with his books structured like treatments. However, that plus millions of studio dollars apparently gets you a dry cappuccino and a pile of stink like ‘The Big Bounce’ (1969)  an ineffectual melodrama and then also ‘The Big Bounce’ (2004), a crudely-struck ‘crime comedy’. That two such abject failures would be been born of same book suggests that Leonard was never meant to be the smartest choice in a high-concept world. This isn’t to say that every film based on a Leonard title has been a waste of time - just most of them with almost none able to negotiate Leonard’s tight straddle between mayhem and drollery, never overplaying his hand in either direction.

Of the better ones, John Frankenheimer’s '52 Pick-Up' (1986) a grim neo-noir adapted from an earlier Leonard book, didn’t even attempt that negotiation, offering a hard-edged reading that backed right away from any irony. 'Out of Sight' (1998) directed by Steven Soderbergh was moody and romantic and settled for quirky charm. While it wasn’t lame, it still was a bit limp.

On the other hand, ‘Jackie Brown’, released in 1997 was the real deal and the only film that can lay claim to having captured Elmore Leonard where he lived and breathed.

Based on Leonard’s book Rum Punch,  it’s the story of an airline stewardess (Pam Grier) who’s picked up by Federal agents at LAX with cash and drugs intended to go to Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Knowing Ordell isn’t going believe her even if she doesn’t inform, she decides to set him up along with his ex-cellmate/sidekick Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Ordell’s stoner girl friend (Bridget Fonda). However, Jackie wants to come out of it better than she came in (not all that great) and enlists the help of Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman Ordell initially had hired to get her out following the bust.



The film was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who took his own kind of liberties with the story. The novel’s ‘Jackie Burke’ becomes ‘Jackie Brown’ - no longer a trim blonde 30-ish cougar but an older black fox with ample curves. Tarantino relocates the story from West Palm Beach to Los Angeles and messes with countless details. However, what emerges is a film and iteration of Leonard that is near-perfect. Tarantino wisely cools his jets and settles for straighter story-telling and slightly more cautiously interesting characters than he normally likes to do.

It’s often been an authentic sense of character absent in movies adapted from Leonard’s crime list (the westerns have done better). Films such as the popular ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘Be Cool’  jettisoned Leonard’s smart, nervy characterizations in favor of dumbed-down caricatures. Tarantino clearly better understands the complexity of the folks that inhabit Leonard’s world. In ‘Jackie Brown’ it's straight-shooter Max who’s prepared to dirty himself in order to right a few wrongs for Jackie and perhaps to again find romance. Or criminals like Ordell, a stone killer both mesmerizing and terrifying.

Taratino has his actors command the screen without showiness - just as Leonard’s characters effortlessly command the page. But Tarantino actually does the author one better by making Jackie more resonant and memorable with the casting of Pam Grier. Grier has appeared in movies since the blaxploitation days (‘Foxy Brown’, ‘Coffy’). However, she’s never been the actress (and the star) she is in ‘Jackie Brown’ as she realizes the poignancy of a middle-aged woman who’s managed to get by on her looks and now has to trade on her wits in order to get out of her dead-end life.



Apart from racial identity, there’s nothing black and white about these characters or the situations in which they find themselves - though it’s important to note that questions of identity always were central to Leonard.  He put race up front from the time of his early westerns and also wrote more authentic female heroines into his crime books than just about anyone else in any genre. The writer’s’s affinities to popular culture and music always were those of generations half his age. It’s not hard to see why Tarantino would be preternaturally drawn to Leonard, starting with the director’s own obsession with the idioms of genre and pop artifacts.

To his credit, Tarantino also avoids any uncomfortable displays of violence in ‘Jackie Brown’ even to the point of taking what there is in the book down a notch. Little is seen and not much dwelt on. When Ordell takes care of his ‘associate’, Beaumont Livingstone (Chris Tucker) whom he suspects of snitching, it’s off at a distance. When Louis suddenly shoots Melanie for getting on his case one too many times, she goes down off-screen in another of those superb ‘drop-dead’ moments that Tarantino owns. When Ordell in turn kills Louis for shooting Melanie, it all happens inside a vehicle and again, way off. The violence itself (though not its threat) is almost incidental, similar to how Leonard writes it.

While’ Jackie Brown’ has a shambling feel to it which doesn’t hold to the book’s tight construction, Tarantino nails the essentials – not only the hustle and flow of the narrative but also Leonard’s smart dialog (one of Leonard’s ‘10 Rules of Writing’ was to leave out the parts that no one ever reads including exposition or undue description).

Though he’s always insisted he doesn’t ‘do neo-noir’, Tarantino obviously recognized ‘Rum Punch’s story for what it was - not just some screwball, comedic affectation but something real and raw and human that also was funny. Which was comfort to those who long had been believers in Leonard - recognizing there were some who tended to regard him as a formulist and, for purposes here, not enough a ‘noirist’. However Leonard from the beginning transcended formula to create a genre category unto itself, case-hardened pulp noir thrillers graced with both dark humor and the heartbeat of real human beings. ‘Jackie Brown’ is that and more.





Wednesday, 24 September 2014

CAST A DARK SHADOW (1955)


A dark and stormy Brit-noir from the late-classic period, ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ stars Dirk Bogarde, once referred to as the screen’s ‘quintessential gentleman’s pervert’. Decadents and the morally suspect certainly were well within Bogarde’s range. He’s best remembered for his roles as someone in thrall to the possibilities of money, power, or sex in films such as ‘The Servant’, ‘Accident’, ‘The Damned’, ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘The Night Porter’.

In ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ - based on a play ‘Murder Mistaken’ by Janet Green – it’s easy solvency and the mean assurances of social standing he after. Bogarde plays the aptly-named Edward or “Teddy” Bare, a handsome but louche charmer married to a wealthy widow, played by Mona Washbourne (a consummate character actress who appeared in vivid supporting roles and cameos in dozens of movies including ‘Billy Liar’, ‘The Collector’ and ‘Stevie’.

Although Bare appears to dote on his Monica, we don’t believe it for a minute. Beneath the surface affection, there’s only impatience and contempt (working the sub-text was what Bogarde did best and why he was so startlingly wonderful an actor).


Believing he is to inherit his wife’s fortunes, Bare’s real intentions are made clear soon enough. He murders her and stages the death to appear as an accident. The family lawyer (Robert Flemyng) suspects foul play but the coroner’s inquest rules otherwise. As it turns out, Monica has willed her loving husband only the house they shared. Other than that, he’s been left skint.


Bare quickly regroups and reverts to form. As he says, “I tripped up that time. But one thing’s for sure, somebody’s going to have pay my passage”. Bare goes about looking for that somebody in a sea-side resort town and it doesn’t take him long to find her - a Mrs. Jeffries - a brazenly griefless widow played by Margaret Lockwood, once called ‘the next Joan Bennett’. 


Lockwood’s Freda Jeffries is as tough as an old steak. She’s a blowsy, ex-barmaid who ‘married the guv’nor’ and is now well-off and ready to get on with it. There had been one or two gents she’d thought about settling down with - until she figured out that “it was just the moneybags, they were after, not the old bag herself”.

She also has Bare figured out but is prepared to marry him if he can show her the money and is ready to come to the marriage “pound for pound”. Bare manages to convince her that he has wealth by borrowing from a friend just as smarmy and dubious as he is. While he’s is able to keep up the pretense for a while, eventually Bare is forced to confess to Freda that he doesn’t have ten shillings to rub together. Despite it all, she decides to stick with him because she knows that they’re both as ‘common as dirt’ and she’ll likely do no better.

English class consciousness and social distinctions fester near the heart of ‘Cast a Dark Shadow”. It’s apparent that much of lawyer Phillip Mortimer’s dislike of Bare is due to Bare’s obvious lack of breeding. Bare, for his part, deliberately provokes those he resents as his betters, confronting them with slouching insolence. Washbourne, resigned to the social strictures manages still to mock them. Coming out of the beauty parlour, she says dryly to Bogarde, “I was going to go blonde but I thought that it might make me look common”.



It’s a brilliantly-realized and telling moment, both within the narrative and as a marker of realism’s ascent in British noir. There’s increasingly less room left for melodrama, anticipating the gritty and unsparing social realism soon to qualify the British New Wave and so-called ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas.

As one suspects he will, Bare soon begins to plot an untimely demise for Freda. However, complications arise. Both the situation and Bare start to unravel. Yet Bogarde manages to evoke sympathy and evince a vindicating dignity nearly up until the end. As criminally venal as he is – unlike ‘Night and the City’s Harry Fabian who is merely a pathetic scammer– Bogard is still able to make something more of Bare.

‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ is a movie layered with sharply-observed characters filmed by a director who frequently brought insight in to the lives of ordinary people as lived under extraordinary circumstances. In a career that has spanned more than six decades and over 40 films, Louis Gilbert (born in 1920) transported audiences to more and different dreamlands than almost anyone else in the history of film: from the post-war cycle of stirring WW II dramas ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’, ‘Reach for the Sky’, ‘Carve Her Name with Pride’, and 'Sink the Bismarck’; to ‘Alfie’, a film that helped change censorship laws; the James Bond trilogy ‘You Only Live Twice’, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’,and ‘Moonraker’; and popular celebrations of female spiritedness, ‘Educating Rita’and ‘Shirley Valentine’.

Working on low-budget programmers to big international co-productions, Gilbert was long recognized for his professionalism and efficient craftsmanship. He has done nearly everything and most of it well (leaving aside the fiasco, "The Adventurers"). His raison d’etre was primarily to entertain and is the kind of director who defies auteurist attention. With ‘Cast a Dark Shadow,’ however, Gilbert made a memorable contribution to British film noir assisted by cinematographer Jack Asher (Asher would later be lauded for his phtography in many of the films of the late ‘50’s/ early ‘60’s British horror cycle).

That said, ‘Cast a Dark Shadow’ remains a underestimated film, receiving less attention and credit than it ought despite a compelling story, a taut construction broken loose of its theatrical origins and a showcase of pitch-perfect performances.





Tuesday, 16 September 2014

SLANDER (1956)


 A failed film still fascinating for reasons outside of itself…

“For Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free”: 
Corporate Motto, Real Truth Magazine

From the start Hollywood had to work hard to keep a close grip on the reputations of its stars. When the talent got reckless the studios moved quickly and discreetly to keep things quiet, often with the willing cooperation of the police and journalists. 

But in the early ‘50’s Confidential magazine began its public carpet bombing of celebrity gossip and innuendo, making good on its promise to ‘tell the facts and name the names’. At its launch Confidential had declared, ‘The Lid is Off!’ and soon after began to litter the landscape with stories headlined ‘Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be ‘Mad About the Boy’, ‘Gary Cooper’s Lost Weekend with Anita Ekberg’ and ‘Wife Beating Champ: Curt Jurgens, World’s Number One Heel’. It was duck-and-cover time for a lot of famous people.

Confidential was the newest and most ambitious enterprise of Robert Harrison, a small-time smut-monger from New York publishing a stable of sleazy flesh magazines including Whisper, Flirt, Wink and Titter which headlined racy titles such as ‘Night School for Love’ and ‘Queens of Strip Alley’. 

But the post-war market for low-rent titillation had waned and something different was needed to sell copy. Hugh Hefner, a young copywriter for Esquire thought he saw a market for a more mainstream and ‘sophisticated’ brand of girlie magazine initially to be called Stag Party. Harrison on the other hand was happiest doing business from the gutter. He was convinced that the biggest money was to be made in catering to a public appetite for the salacious and the sensational. And Hollywood was the mother lode. 

Movieland panicked as stars suddenly saw their careers at risk and studios, their bottom line. First attempts at damage control included cutting deals with the magazine. When it got around that Rock Hudson was to be outed, the studio heads and Hudson’s manager got the story pulled by giving over Rory Calhoun who’d served time for armed robbery. 

However as Confidential’s circulation exploded Hollywood realized that the game was up and it was too late to play nice. Individual stars began to fight back by suing Confidential and its copycats for defamation and libel (not slander) and the studios launched a flurry of film projects portraying the tawdry tabloid tell-alls as a plague endangering the moral life of America. 

First released was Slander Incorporated (1956). This was a B-title directed by Elmer Mann and starring Robert Hutton as a smarmy New York smear-sheet owner who ends up put away for his crimes and misdemeanors. An incoherent, cautionary tale remindful of Reefer Madness (Do not buy these magazines! Just say no!), the film got the audience it deserved. 

A bigger-budget and more sober attempt to dramatize the damage that the entertainment industries wanted the public to believe was being done by this new-styled gutter press was Slander. The film was released with fanfare in 1957 by MGM and starred a name cast - Steve Cochran, Van Johnson, Ann Blythe, Marjorie Rambeau and child-actor Richard Eyre. 

Slander featured Cochran as H.R Manley, the self-made millionaire owner of Real Truth, a trashy scandal sheet. Manley lives in a Manhattan apartment along with his alcoholic mother (Rambeau) who deplores both her son’s magazine and his hypocrisy. For his part Manley loves his mother and is anxious for her approval (the film seems to suggest maybe too much). He wants her to believe that his crusade for the 'truth' is real and legitimate. 

Meanwhile, the truth is that Real Truth’s sales are in the toilet. Manley has a gun to his head. He owes $100,000 to his printer and desperately needs a blockbuster story to boost revenues. And he thinks he has one in Mary Sawyer, a big Broadway star but one with a history.  

Real Truth knows that the key to unlocking the story is a childhood friend of Sawyer’s, Scott Martin (Van Johnson). Martin's a once-struggling children’s puppeteer who has hit it big with a television show. But the magazine also knows that Martin did four years for armed robbery (though he’d pulled the job only to provide for his ailing mother). 

Manley via Martin’s wife offers him a deal i.e. Tell me about Mary Sawyer or the front page story in Real Truth is going to be all about you

Martin is furious, his wife (Ann Blythe) distraught. She believes that for the sake of their family and their future together, her husband has to give Sawyer up. Martin refuses and tells Manley, ‘no deal’. When the publisher threatens further, Martin slugs him and walks out. 

From here on things do not go well for the Martins - nor much better for the movie which develops into an overwrought melodrama. The moral and ethical precipices on which the characters stand are real enough. But the direness of it all makes Slander seem fusty and quaint. 

The movie's director was Roy Rowland, a famously reliable MGM mid-liner most admired for a trio of brisk and expressive film noirs - The Scene of the Crime (1949), Rogue Cop (1954) and Witness to Murder (1954). While he manages to keep the pace brisk enough, Slander’s mis en scene is flat and without much emotional resonance. It's a dated style more of the 1930’s than the 1950’s. On the other hand Rowland may have had no option but to reach back for the film’s visual and narrative conventions given the sanctimonious script. 

Slander’s single-mindedness also weighs on its cast. Steve Cochran energizes every film he’s in with his physical presence and intelligence. His character here is so fabricated it’s as if he'd been asked to do an impression instead of act a part.



It’s a brute-force attempt by the filmmakers to portray Manley not only a journalistic thug but a pretentious parvenu. While American audiences can deal with thuggery, one thing they can't stand is snobbery.  

For his part Van Johnson's Scott Martin is made too wholesome and unmarked for someone who's spent time in jail and most of the rest of his life on the margins. Ann Blythe, not the most empathetic of actresses, is plainly ill-cast. Blythe was better playing more privileged or socially practiced types. She just not believable as a working class wife and mother who has to put up. Similar parts were better handled by Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk in Crime Wave.

Despite its listing in Andrew Spicer’s Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, Slander would have benefitted hugely from a much harder lean in the direction of film noir - something which it’s not . The film qualifies as tragedy but there’s little presence of the kinds and levels of melancholy, alienation, despair, futility, dread, etc. that go to map out the noir universe. 

Even the bleakness of its ending doesn’t make an argument for Slander as noir. The film's fade-out only extends what is a cynical manipulation of events, the most shameless example involving the Martin’s son, Joey. Threat of harm to a child is possible in film noir and may be central to it as in The Window. However real harm in thse films usually results in sentimentalization - something Slander both shamefully embraces and exploits. 

Of course, MGM also was the major studio always least disposed towards film noir, especially by late ‘50’s when classic noir’s earlier influences were ever less in evidence (although Alexander Mackendrick’s modernist noir, Sweet Smell of Success released in 1957 by United Artists brilliantly excavates some of the same thematic terrain as Slander). 

Nonetheless, Slander is a fascinating artefact of the period and it's worth watching for that reason. It was a time when seismic shifts in values and norms in American culture were starting to be felt and it was Confidential and other magazines that were among the first to register the tremors and expose the fault lines. 

Confidential was a double-edged sword. On one hand it was sensational and tawdry. On the other it made it impossible to view celebrities and other public icons in the same idealized way again. The Emperor could be seen to have no clothes or at least caught with his pants down. And there often were pictures and facts to prove it. 

While there was nothing to admire per se about the manner in which Confidential went about its full-frontal journalism, the magazine in a perverse way did force America further along in acknowledging and talking about important issues - personal, political, sexual, racial, social - that needed to be talked about. 

If Sammy Davis Jr., a black man was 'having relations' with a succession of white actresses and Rock Hudson and others might be ‘queer’ and Joan Crawford really was a less-than-stellar parent, then perhaps those that audiences idealized really weren't that different from anyone else except for the fact of their celebrity. As culture critic Camille Paglia - who grew up reading Confidential - said, yes, the magazine may have been semi-fictionalized, but it functioned to tell the ‘pagan truth’ about life. 

And life in America in the late ‘fifties, like the movies, suddenly didn’t look to be as black and white as it once had been. Not that one might take that away from a literal viewing of Slander



SUSAN SHAW: BRIT NOIR’S TRAGIC SWEETHEART

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