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



Thursday, 11 September 2014

THE GLASS ALIBI (1946)/ THE BIG BLUFF (1955)

Billy Wilder's brother W. Lee Wilder made the same film (based on a screenplay by Mindret Lord) twice. He tweaked some character and story elements the second time 'round but otherwise held close to the earlier production's basic storyline and actually-clever ending.

Both movies are plain-Janes but certainly engaging enough - exactly the kind of brisk hour-long suspensers which lovers of cheap-seats B-noirs take to like Lindsay Lohan to party drugs.


'The Big Bluff' is up at the Internet Archives. 'The Glass Alibi' is available otherwise.






THE RED MENACE (1949),POST OFFICE INVESTIGATOR (1949), FEDERAL AGENT AT LARGE (1950), WOMAN FROM HEADQUARTERS (1950), TRIAL WITHOUT JURY (1950), MISSING WOMAN (1951).

Here's four serviceable B-noirs from Republic Studios that are well worth watching. The bracing little programmers share the cinematography of John MacBurnie, a veteran lensman who was behind the camera on hundreds of movies and television episodes. They're low-rent masterclasses in intricate noir-at-night set-ups and tableaux that never fail to surprise. 'Trial Without Jury' probably is the least of them but even it has sequences that are startlingly well-composed.     






Wednesday, 10 September 2014

RETOUR DE MANIVELLE AKA THERE'S ALWAYS A PRICE TAG (1957)

Crimewriter James Hadley Chase was reviled by the English critical establishment for his tawdry, violent thrillers such as 'No Orchids for Miss Blandish' (a movie to be condemned upon its release in the British Parliament). 

The French had no such qualms and director Denys de La Patellière with screenwriter Michel Audiard took Chase's murderous novel and made it into one of the most stylishly disturbing Gallic film noirs of the classic period. 

Starring a glacial Michelle Morgan as the one of the deadliest of femme fatales...







THE MADONNA'S SECRET (1946)

A mid-line production directed by B-meister William Thiele, this noir-stained melodrama can be enjoyed both for its glamorous cast and the especially vibrant B&W cinematography by John Alton. 

This was the picture that really got Alton noticed, leading to his lensing of some of the most insistently expressive film noirs of the classic period.




MONEY AND THE WOMAN (1940)

Noir-flecked eyes may see 'Money and the Woman' as too flat and de-natured an example of the cycle - all the more so as it's based a James M. Cain story 'The Embezzler' which tells a much more lurid version of workaday folly and desperation.

Well, yes, the movie is guilty of some stodgy dramatics and the romantic fancifulness typical of many post-code/ pre-noir crime films of the mid and later ‘30’s.  However 'Money and the Woman' does zip along at a rate and as programmers go, is really not all that bad.  

Plus if you look hard enough you'll see that the essential schematics of film noir are there. So if nothing else you can re-imagine the movie as made at a later time when more of the right shots could have been called.

Your move, your movie...



CHAIR DE POULE AKA HIGHWAY PICK-UP (1963)

Based on a novel by James Hadley Chase, few if any films in the classic American noir canon are so bitter and twisted as the French-produced 'Chair de poule'. 

The film, directed by Julien Duvivier, stars Robert Hossein and Catherine Rouve as une femme fatale to die for. And many do...



 


STRANGE BARGAIN (1949)

Sam Wilson (Jeffrey Lynn) is a conscientious family man who can't make it through to the end of the month. But it seems neither can his boss who’s gone bankrupt and wants to end it all for the life insurance payout. 

Reluctantly Sam allows himself to be pulled into a plan that’ll make the suicide look like a murder. Sam’s supposed to get paid off in advance while the insurance company's expected to make good on the death claim. But of course in film noir things never go as expected.

This tense RKO programmer packs quite a bit into its one hour-eight minutes including a well thought-out story-line, a 'surprise ending' that's actually a surprise, and alert performances across the board. 

Jeffrey Lynn is real and affecting as a man at a moral crossroad, trying to negotiate the hopeless situation for which he's partly to blame. An under-rated actor, Lynn should have had a bigger-name career but unfortunately it never happened. 

Martha Scott, an actress who in time would be nominated for an Academy Award gives an impressively emphatic performance as Sam’s lovingly domesticated but take-charge spouse. 

Harry Morgan as the persistent investigating detective is as engaging to watch as always - likewise sturdy character actor Walt Sande as Morgan’s sergeant.

This modest B production is more than just put-together. Director Will Price made only three films in his short career, with ‘Strange Bargain’ being the first. It was a good start...



Sunday, 7 September 2014

JERICHOW (2008), WOMAN IN BERLIN (2008), BARBARA (2012)

The first is a modern but classically-established noir; the second, a noir war drama set during the Russian invasion of Berlin; the third, a noir-stained story of political repression in '70's East Germany. 

All films are superb and feature German actress and star Nina Hoss who - like Cherlize Theron - is ready forego glamour and actorly pretext in favor of exposed, fugitive performances...



DON MARTIN: SCREENWRITER IN THE SHADOWS

When queried on the whys and wherefores of film noir, the late Arthur Lyons, founder and patron saint of the Palm Springs Film Noir F...