Thursday, 30 June 2016

NIGHTMARE IN CHICAGO (1964)



“I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire
Psycho Killer
Qu'est-ce que c'est
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better
Run run run run run run run away!” (Psycho Killer,
Talking Heads, 1977)



He was a shirt maker in a town full of pants makers. For four decades maverick director Robert Altman barely tolerated the Hollywood film industry, as it barely tolerated him. That said, he could play the game as needed and was as artful in getting his individual and idiosyncratic movies produced and to market as he was conceiving and creating them.

Altman got his start after WWII working on business and industrial films in his hometown Kansas City. He soon left for Hollywood, where his production skills were underappreciated and his stories were rejected – with the exception of Body Guard, filmed and released in 1948 starring Lawrence Tierney. Discouraged, Altman went back to Kansas City but returned to California later in the ‘50’s with an independently-financed picture, The Delinquents (The Hoods of Tomorrow! The Gun-Molls of the Future!) under his arm. Starring Tom Laughlin, the movie didn’t add anything new to the youth-gone-wild cycle but had the ring of truth to it and showed clearly enough that Altman could direct. 


Though none of the major film studios were ready to hire him on, Altman managed to find steady work in television, directing on M Squad, Hawaiian Eye, Peter Gunn, Route 66, and Combat!, a one-hour WWII drama on ABC. The latter’s trenchant writing and gritty realism won it multiple Emmy nominations and a committed audience. Unfortunately, after shooting ten episodes, Altman got turfed for ‘uncooperativeness’.  However, the work he did on the series revealed some of the elements of what would become a trademark style: an appreciation of ensemble performance, a restive mise-en-scène, a film noir-like use of light and shadow, and dissonant multi-track soundscapes and scoring.

Altman then went to NBC’s Kraft Suspense Theater, directing three episodes before getting himself fired, this time for telling a TV Guide interviewer that the Kraft-sponsored series was as “bland as cheese”.  However, one of his episodes, Once Upon a Savage Night based on a novella, Killer on the Turnpike, by William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Shield for Murder, Rogue Cop, Odds Against Tomorrow) was anything but. The high-voltage black-and-white crime drama was like nothing else seen on television – shot in cinéma vérité style in and around Chicago and featuring a jagged, expressionistic score by jazzman Benny Carter and a young ‘Johnny’ Williams, who’d go on to win more than forty Academy Award nominations.



Because of the higher costs involved in location shooting, the producing studio, Universal Pictures, had Altman take enough extra footage to be able to extend the episode to feature length for syndication and theatrical distribution. The eighty minute version, titled Nightmare in Chicago, later showed as a made-for-TV movie, then screened theatrically in Europe.

A taut, modernist post-noir fugue à la Blast of Silence (1961), Nightmare in Chicago tracks a killer known as ‘George-Porgie’ (“Kissed the girls and made them die!”). Georgie’s already murdered four women in other places by the time the film picks him up in Chicago’s desolate rural outskirts. Georgie (Philip Abbott), an ordinary-looking guy in a topcoat, has just strangled his fifth victim in bed in an old farm house and is heading back to the city. It takes a while for the Chicago police to realize that the killing is troublingly similar to the other four – all the women being “tall, blonde, and a little on the cheap side” according to, Harry, the lead detective on the case played by an irritable Charles McGraw.


Though physically non-descript and having to wear dark glasses because of a congenital eye condition, Georgie is a smooth-talker and has no trouble finding willing prey. Back in the city, he chats up his next victim and before long they’re having drinks in a packed burlesque joint in the Loop. Amid all the noise and on-stage distractions, he chokes her with her own scarf while they make out in a corner. 

However, one of the strippers sees what’s just happened and Georgie has to get out fast. Some customers and beat cops give chase but lose him when he hijacks a car. Later, the police realize he’s made it all the way onto the Illinois Tollway, which complicates the pursuit due to its restricted accesses. Worse is that the Tollway is about to be cleared by state police for an Army convoy that’s thundering through with a giant nuclear missile in tow.

If this specter of mass destruction sounds like more of a load than a small and restless character-driven narrative should have to bear, keep in mind the tale began with author McGivern, master of the drum-tight storyline. The plot does not suddenly go Tom Clancy on us. Events only render Georgie’s frantic attempt to escape that much more intense.


Shot on a tight schedule just days before Christmas and mostly at night, Nightmare in Chicago was Robert Altman’s first studio feature (the science fiction drama Countdown made in 1967 counts as his first big theatrical release – even if Jack Warner took him off the shoot and banned him from the lot out of exasperation with the way “everyone in the damn movie is talking at the same time!”). Nightmare also stands as one of Altman’s most reliably straightforward narratives, something he was deemed weak at constructing by critics who were as unreceptive to his triumphs such as The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993) as the missteps like Prêt-à-Porter (1994). As for his radical 1973 deconstruction of Raymond’s Chandler’s revered The Long Goodbye, it’s always going to depend on who you talk to. 



Altman’s main gift as a director was his ability to create a visceral sense of time and place and to reveal characters by immersing audiences in the often-fraught immediacy of their worlds. However, it sometimes felt as though he was content just to leave us there. Altman liked to say that he wanted his films “to seem as though they were just happening”.  In Nightmare, he makes certain that things really do. His scene-building and story-telling in the film are as deliberate as they would ever be. At the same time, Nightmare in Chicago feels loosely-scripted. Altman is patient where he feels he needs to be and allows the camera to linger. Often there’s a sense of time and space being stretched to be able to contain the actions of the characters, particularly in busy scenes shot within the moderne immensity of the Tollway’s ‘Oasis’ rest stops.

The film also is trusting of its actors. Their characters feel real, their lives small and routine, their stories largely undisclosed. Harry and his easier-going sergeant, Dan (Robert Ridgely) grind it out in hopes of capturing Georgie before he kills again, while having to deal with the self-serving interference of Police Commissioner (Ted Knight) who’s more concerned about delays to the convoy and his scheduled handball games downtown. 

Georgie and his victims are isolated and vulnerable souls, a familiar Altman type. A near-casualty is Bernie, a lonely-hearted waitress who serves Georgie in the rest stop’s massive Fred Harvey eatery. She’s endangered when she ends up being the only one who’s able to identify him. Bernie is played by Barbara Turner, married for a time to actor Vic Morrow with whom she had a child, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (Turner is now best known for her screenwriting, including the film Pollock (2000) which garnered Academy Awards nominations for Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden). 



Turner’s scenes in Nightmare are among the movie’s most openly improvised and affecting. They foreshadow some of what would become the director’s signature ‘urgency-to-no-clear-end’, an Altman-ism shaped by a conviction that straightforward resolutions or consolations should come no more easily in movies than they do in real life.

Meanwhile, Nightmare in Chicago drew critical fire with its bleak naturalism and family resemblance to the meaner exploitation films of the period, from sex-and-violence cheapies to no-grade horror movies. Georgie-Porgie is a banal but chilling noir embodiment of horror’s unpacified evil – a psychotic who’s driven to kill his mother again and again, tormented by the agony of her promiscuous childhood betrayals and the brute noises in the room next door that still throb in his brain. 



But even better-known and disruptive end-of-the line film noirs like Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) drew on some of the same dark impulses and dread sense of conviction as Nightmare in Chicago. The difference was that Nightmare in Chicago started out life as a television program with everyone in the living room watching.

However, as comfortless as the film may be, it does, like most of Robert Altman’s films, evince a moral understanding of how and why human beings behave as they do. Altman’s movies at their core always come from a place of empathy – something that all true film noirs, no matter how bleak, know something about. Count Nightmare in Chicago among them.


Note: Several sources, including IMDb, show Andrew Duggan, Carrol O’Connor, Michael Murphy and Mary Frann as starring in Nightmare in Chicago. Whether or not they were ever cast to appear, none did, in either television or film versions.


Gary Deane

Friday, 24 June 2016

LA STRADA BUIE AKA FUGITIVE LADY (1950)



“She’s the kind of woman for whom a man might even kill.” 

“We’re both selfish, dishonest, and rotten.”

Janis Paige, the veteran Hollywood trouper with over 150 screen credits to her name is alive and well in Beverly Hills. Though the 93 year old actress lost her Academy Awards voting rights this year, she still cherishes the Oscar statuette awarded to her late husband, Ray Gilbert, for the lyrics to ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ from Song of the South, a Disney title no longer in release because of its depiction of African-Americans. However, the song can still be heard and every time it is, Paige collects $350, a nice little annuity – should she ever need it.
        
Paige broke in films after being spotted by a Warner Studio’s talent scout who saw her perform in the Hollywood Canteen during the war. She was soon to feature in a series of musical comedies starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, Warner’s response to Paramount Studios’ hugely popular duo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But after too many smaller assignments in lesser productions, Paige headed for Broadway where her out-sized personality and joyous scene-stealing in plays such as The Pajama Game won her raves.

During this time Paige also went on the road with a ritzy cabaret act which confirmed her gift for musical comedy and which brought her back to Hollywood to feature in films such as Silk Stockings (1957) and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960). In the mid-fifties, Paige then tapped into television where she worked steadily on recurrent series such as General Hospital and Santa Barbara up until her retirement in 2001.  


But buried among her other credits was a rare leading performance in La Strada Buie aka Fugitive Lady (1950), a handsome classic film noir shot on location in Italy and in the Italian language (Paige later would be dubbed). Paige headlines as a pathologically self-seeking femme fatale and the role today stands among her most dramatically memorable, along with her part as an institutionalized prostitute in The Caretakers (1963).

Though attractive, Paige was big-boned and large-featured and not a typical Hollywood beauty of the period. However, she had a large presence and an impressive look that today would be viewed as more contemporary i.e. more Greta Gerwig than Gloria Grahame. That said, Paige was at her most interesting when portraying a woman who was sexually charged and aggressive – even in musicals like Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946) and The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1946) in which she up-stages the kittenishly provocative Martha Vickers.

In La Strada Buie Paige brings both glamour and sex to bear on wealthy industrialist, Raoul Clementi (Eduardo Ciannelli), who after seeing her perform on several evenings at a night club, woos and marries her, much to the displeasure of his step-sister, Esther (British actress Binnie Barnes). We learn this in flashback after Raoul, in the film’s opening sequence, drunkenly sends his car off a cliff into Lake Nemi, 30 kms south of Rome, and is killed. As it turns out, Clementi had taken out a life insurance policy for £100,000 and Barbara (Paige), his young widow, now wants to cash out as soon as possible.

However, the circumstances of his death arouse the suspicions of the insurance company and its investigating agent, Jack Di Marco (Antonio Centa). Di Marco is hesitant to jump to any obvious conclusions, determining that both Barbara and Esther might have had their reasons for wanting to see Raoul dead. Di Marco discovers that the Clementi’s marriage had broken down and that Barbara has a lover, Gene West (Massimo Serato), with whom she’d been involved for years. For her part, Esther has long been in love with Raoul and feels as much anger and resentment toward her step-brother for betraying her by marrying as she does for Barbara, whom she despises. All of this unspools in successive and lengthy flashbacks until the film’s end, a finish with a dramatic and profoundly ironic twist à la Postman Always Rings Twice

   
A fast-moving and savory film noir, La Strada Buie was based on a book, Dark Road, by popular U.S. mystery writer, Doris Miles Disney. The novel, published in 1946 and featuring investigator Jefferson DiMarco, was one of series of eight including Family Skeleton, later filmed as Stella (1950), a noir-hued and diverting black comedy. The film features Victor Mature as DiMarco and a smartly acerbic Ann Sheridan as a woman caught in the middle of a calamitous family plot, the doing of Sheridan’s two hapless brothers-in-law played by David Wayne and Frank Fontaine. Several other of Disney’s quintessentially American stories were adapted successfully for movies and television including: Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971), starring Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy and Vince Edwards; Betrayal (1974), featuring Amanda Blake, Tish Stering, and Dick Haymes; and Yestherday’s Child (1977), with Shirley Jones, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Claude Akins.

La Strada Buie was a co-production of Mike Frankovich, future Columbia Studios chief, and Italy’s Scalera Films. Frankovich was also the husband of Binnie Barnes, the couple living in Italy at the time. Scalera Films had come into existence in 1938 under the aegis of Benito Mussolini who had encouraged the Scalera brothers to invest in film production to support the regime and counteract the increasing importation of foreign films into Italy. The company undertook to try and replicate the Hollywood studio system with film-makers and actors signed to exclusive contract. However, after the war the studio suffered crippling operating losses and the brothers tried to leverage their productions by featuring American film stars such as Paige, similar to what had been done by British B-studios. However, in 1952, following the financing of Orson Wells’ Othello, Scalera Films defaulted and fell into bankruptcy.


Though done on a tight budget, La Strada Buie does not at all appear to be made on the cheap. Directed by American director Sidney Salkow, the film is very much in the Hollywood style, with the Italian settings and locations adding to the richness of atmosphere. Much of it is shot at night amid rain-soaked and heavily-shadowed exteriors and the camerawork throughout is expressive, giving no ground to post-war neo-realism. Behind the camera was Tonino Delli Colli , a cinematographer whose flamboyant lensing featured prominently in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, and Jean-Jacques Arnaud. Delli Colli sat on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1986, one of the first cinematographers to do so.  

However, La Strada Buie’s centerpiece is Janis Paige whose normally vivacious and breezy persona was transformed into that of a flesh-creeping femme fatale. But as Paige herself has said, she could be anything she was asked or told to be because that’s what you did if you wanted to survive in the business. In a 2015 interview she stated that she never saw her studio tenure as “indentured servitude”. She was forever grateful for the watchful eye and “pampering” that was afforded contract players during the studio system’s heyday. You paid attention, you worked hard, and you learned. “Today, most stars can’t overcome a bad script. The old stars could. There was so much we couldn’t do because of the code, we had to use our imaginations. Everyone had a work ethic. We didn’t bitch or complain. You just worked and appreciated being part of this fabulous industry.”

Today, thanks to the hard work of volunteer subtitling crews on various torrent sites, English-speakers now have access to films such as this largely unknown and unseen classic film noir, a singular US/ international hybrid that takes a backseat to none when it comes to ladling out requisite helpings of greed, lust, and betrayal. It may be ‘a bitter little world’ as Joan Bennett pronounces in Hollow Triumph (1948), but it’s a world of film noir increasingly much bigger than one might have ever imagined. 

Thanks to Garnet Barlow for his translation of the Italian resource material.


Gary Deane

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