Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Then there’s Gene Nelson, of nimble feet and Oklahoma! fame, who plays Steve Lacey, ex-con. Nelson rightly underplays his part. His performance doesn’t offer much beyond matinee good looks and rolled up shirtsleeves. Like I said, this is Hayden’s movie, and Nelson stays out of his way. Whether it was his idea or De Toth’s, Steve Lacey is Lieutenant Sims perfect foil. From a noir perspective, Lacey is a protagonist in the classic mold: trying to make good after doing some hard time: employed, married, permanent address. Crane Wilbur’s story puts him in the classic bind: when his old cellmates come looking for help, he knows that helping them puts everything he’s worked for at risk, yet failing to do so is even more dangerous. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and you can't outrun the mistakes of your past: the rock and the hard place of classic film noir, with only fate to decide whether or not a man comes out clean on the other side.
The wife is model-turned-actress Phyllis Kirk. Kirk did most of her work on television, but if you remember her at all it’s probably as the damsel in distress in De Toth’s most famous picture: House of Wax. Kirk and Nelson are well matched — and the mature depiction of their relationship is surprising for a film noir, and rather progressive when we consider typical gender depictions in similar crime films. Ellen Lacey wears the pants in the family; her assertiveness perfectly balances her husband’s diffidence — yet she’s neither a nag nor a shrew. Steve Lacey’s time behind bars has wrecked his ability to function outside the walls. He needs this strong woman to prop him up and constantly assure him that he has a future. That he had been, of all things, a fighter pilot during the war especially heightens the unusual nature of their relationship. Gone is the recklessness and bravado typically found in screen characterizations of such men, while the wife is equally surprising — a strong, modern woman who is neither a femme fatale nor perky a June Allyson. The film gives us an ideally matched couple, each offering what the other needs.
The crooks. Ted de Corsia: Eddie Muller says he looks like he was born in a boxing gym. James Ellroy: he “oozes Pomade.” Iconic in The Naked City, de Corsia shines reliably here as the brains behind the breakout. Crime Wave’s theatrical audience was familiar with him in heavy roles dating all the way back to The Lady from Shanghai. De Corsia’s screen persona was as hard-boiled as they come —*like an old-school Raymond Burr. His young partner is Charles Buchinsky, who also worked for De Toth in House of Wax. Of course Charles Bronson would go on to be one of the icons of seventies crime films, and one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but it’s always jarring to see him this young. His face is somewhat lined, but nowhere near as weather-beaten as it would become. Crime Wave offered the young actor one of his best early roles: he actually gets to act a little, and even has a few moments where his physicality is on display. The juxtaposition of a studio era character actor as traditional as de Corsia with someone as contemporary as Bronson gives the pair an unusual chemistry. Then there’s Tim Carey, the wild man of the American movie scene. There’s not enough room in any film review to dig into the strange case of Tim Carey, though on the strength of his appearance alone this one is worth the price of admission. His few brief moments of screen time are so bizarre — whether he’s at the center of the shot or mugging from the corner of the frame — that Crime Wave would be notable if for no other reason.
Enough about the cast, as good as they are, there are more worthwhile reasons to watch this, especially if you appreciate how a film looks, even more if you can feel a film. Usually when a noir essayist digs on cinematography, he’ll discuss the lighting and composition of individual shots — I’m not going to do that. From top to bottom, Crime Wave is a beautifully and thoughtfully staged movie, yet it’s not a one-trick-pony when it comes to visual style (check out Witness to Murder). Instead, it’s a movie that employs a variety of techniques depending on what individual scenes call for. The sunlit exteriors are pure documentary naturalism: showing LA locales (Burbank, Glendale, downtown) in a straightforward “this is the city” fashion. It’s difficult to follow the movie during these scenes; one’s inclination is to instead focus on signs and landmarks, trying to get a feel for the way the streets, the people, and the cars looked during those spectacular post-war years. At night, Glennon goes for drama, placing klieg lights in off kilter spots to create a chiaroscuro effect that seems as contrived as the day shots seem real; yet somehow it works, and the transitions barely register.
However the scenes are staged, the greatest thing about Crime Wave is where they are filmed: on location all the way through — and not just the exteriors. De Toth somehow swung access to city hall; the homicide bureau scenes are the real deal. Crime Wave is a superlative example of the way in which a low budget feature could be extraordinary: without money to build sets or dictate production values, De Toth was forced to find locations for the film, and it’s clear after just a single viewing that he had a peculiar talent for doing so: it’s is one the most attractive, even exhilarating, film noirs ever made. Pause on almost any frame and you’ll find something to linger on. De Toth successfully captured all of the content tropes and moviemaking techniques that had become germane to film noir in this tiny little film, and he did it with only half of his promised budget, and in a shoot of only thirteen days. The location work of The Naked City, the backseat point of view from Gun Crazy, the tones of John Alton, the jittery handheld cameras, semi-professional actors, and the quagmire of the ceaseless urban landscape. This a mean, unglamorous movie — populated with Dudley Smith cops ready to shoot a suspect in the back, hard-boiled killers, damaged goods, floozies, stool pigeons, strongarms, and professional losers. The good, the bad — even the insane — all trying to claw their way through a world that no longer gives a damn. It’s a cheap, but delicious buffet of everything noir buffs hunger for — and the final few frames make for one hell of a dessert. It should be on many of those ubiquitous top-ten lists, but the guy beside you probably still hasn’t seen it.
Crime Wave (1954, filmed 1952) Directed by André De Toth
Screenplay by Crane Wilbur
Adaptation by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser
Original Story by John and Ward Hawkins
Produced by Brian Foy
Cinematography by Burt Glennon
Art Direction by Stanley Fleischer
Starring Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, and Phyllis Kirk
Released by Warner Bros.
Running time: 74 minutes
“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” – Aristotle
“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” – Aristotle
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly a decade after defense attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) acts as Good Samaritan by intervening in an attempted rape, perpetrator Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) tracks him to Savannah, Georgia and begins to deal out long-awaited retribution on Bowden’s family. As Cady carefully navigates the ever-thinning line between licit and illicit, Bowden becomes increasingly vulnerable to crossing criminal boundaries in order to protect his wife and daughter. The threat of the stable family unit by outside forces is a common motif in the noir genre, but never did the threat feel as tangible as it did in Cape Fear. An unpretentious film, it was received as coarse and vulgar in its time, yet it provokes a visceral reaction from the viewer as it questions the supposed usefulness of societal law.
The making of Cape Fear was put into motion by Gregory Peck, who also acted as producer through his motion picture company, Melville Productions. While his production house may have been named after a respectable author, Cape Fear’s origin was pulp – the touchstone of film noir screenplays. Though author John D. MacDonald was a graduate of Syracuse and Harvard universities, the Second World War derailed his life, and once discharged he found himself penning short stories for even shorter stacks of cash. Thanks to a booming crime novel market MacDonald was well-known by the time he wrote The Executioners, which eventually fell into the hands of Peck. Under the impression that films with geographical titles did well at the box office, Peck ran his finger down the Eastern Seaboard until he hit the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In short order, Peck assigned himself the role of Sam Bowden and handed Cady’s reigns over to drinking partner Robert Mitchum.
Peck looked no further than his last director, J. Lee Thompson who had earned himself an Academy Award nomination with The Guns of Navarone. Cape Fear would be Thompson’s sole expedition into noir territory, but he was enthusiastic about conveying the film’s sense of threat and carnal undertones. Director of Photography Samuel Leavitt had little more experience with the genre. When all was said and done, his offerings were slightly dubious noirs like Johnny Cool, Crime in the Streets, and The Crimson Kimono. Yet Leavitt absolutely understood how to film chiaroscuro; after all, he took home the Oscar for black and white cinematography for Anatomy of a Murder and The Defiant Ones. Leavitt elevates Cape Fear from thriller to noir with his careful attention to shadows and light: he and Thompson shoot Mitchum behind a blur of black wrought-iron, with shadows of bar glasses gleaming on his naked back, and the sheen of sweat and black blood glistening on his skin.
“Hello, Counselor. Remember me?” – Max Cady
Max Cady has spent the last eight years, four months and thirteen days (roughly) with one thing on his mind: revenge against the man whose interference put him behind bars. Or, more accurately, Cady has spent his incarceration learning the loopholes in criminal law so he may legally terrorize Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen), and teenaged daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). The film follows Cady as he plagues the Bowden family unit, but always outside the long arm of the law. There are no witnesses when he poisons the family dog. And if he’s outside Nancy’s school or leering at her on a boat dock? Well, a man has a right to be in public places, does he not? Not without resources, Bowden pulls a few strings and asks police chief Dutton (Martin Balsam) to roust Cady or dig up some warrants – but he’s clean. “You show me a law that prevents crime. All we can do is act after the fact,” Dutton complains. When the chief somewhat scornfully suggests a private detective, Bowden hires Charlie Sievers (played by a positively hirsute Telly Savalas) and Bowden is finally given something he can work with. Sievers follows Cady and finds that he has picked up and brutally beaten a young woman named Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase.) However, it is Cady who is sending a message to the counselor: he’s hurt and scared the young woman so badly she refuses to press charges or make a statement. Cady’s threat to her looms so large that she flees the city in the middle of the night. Bowden and his wife, Peggy, understand now that this is what Cady means to do to Nancy. It’s not the act that is important to Cady; he wants Bowden to think about an attack on his daughter for the rest of his life.
The denouement of the film is particularly tense and almost wordless, and Bowden’s indecision about his own capabilities and the practicality of law are neatly tied up. After a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse through swampland, Bowden has Cady lined up in the sights of his revolver but does not pull the trigger. He dooms him to spend the rest of his life in jail and restores his own faith (if not so much the audience’s) in justice.
“You just put the law in my hands and I’m going to break your heart with it.” – Max Cady
Although the ending of Cape Fear stops short of the anticipated slaughter of Max Cady, the film goes beyond B-grade horror by doing an effective job of exploring the uneasy introspection of the its hero. While Cady patiently bides his time in the murky grey waters of the law, Bowden becomes positively mired in it. He’s a man who has built the foundations of his life in the black and white world of right and wrong only to discover that a he cannot use logic to solve an illogical problem. The core struggle in the film is not whether Bowden will stop Cady’s reprisal, but whether he will give up the known truths in his life to operate outside societal rules. Sam Bowden never quite makes the transition into full-fledged noir anti-hero. Though he constantly questions the law’s ability to protect upright citizens, he only dips his toes into the criminal cesspool when he hires thugs to rough up Cady after Diane Taylor’s assault. After the thugs are neatly dispatched by Cady, Bowden waits for imminent threat to his wife and daughter before he takes personal responsibility; he’s only willing to bloody his knuckles within the confines of the laws he stubbornly clings to.
“Max Cady, what I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I don’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” – Diane Taylor
Draw a line in the sand, because the debate for Mitchum’s best villainous role is about to begin. Watch these Cape Fear scenes back to back: Cady’s soliloquy on the reckoning of his ex-wife, the aroused phone call he makes after he’s worked over by a chain, and the treatment he gives Peggy Bowden on the houseboat. Mitchum’s accolades for his work in Charles Laughton’s delirious The Night of the Hunter are deserved, but his character is not as authentically depraved as Cady. Yes, preacher Harry Powell surely is a devil of a man, but his performance there is somewhat tempered (through no fault of his own) in the dreamlike mise-en-scène. Powell’s ruse of posing as a preacher renders Mitchum’s performance just the tiniest bit hammy – though no less fun to watch. However, Powell is like a character in a nightmare the audience can wake up from. Max Cady’s foundation is realism; you find him not in your nightmares, but in your local tavern.
such a great noir baddie caused great concern for the censors: he stares unabashedly at a scantily clad adolescent and slowly smears raw egg across a woman’s décolletage. Mitchum doesn’t walk in this film, he oozes. During the climax he slithers into the swamp like a cottonmouth. Any perceived slight gives Cady the motivation for savagery, and he wallows in the fun of it. Though censors had grown more lenient since the inception of the Hays Code, they were still vigilant with respect to two issues. Gone was Max Cady’s past as American Government Issue. In the past, noir films had gotten away with the unstable soldier issue by giving characters a good case of shell shock or amnesia, but Cady goes through life as a psychotic rapist, unchallenged by the Army or prison. Gone too, is the real reason Cady focuses on Bowden’s daughter. The original attack the good counselor tried to prevent was not on a woman, but a fourteen year-old girl. Cady finds a certain humor and justice in despoiling Bowden’s adolescent daughter. While British censor John Trevelyan lopped six minutes of Cady’s degenerate behaviour off the UK version, American censors gave Thompson a little more leeway with his film. Good thing, too: his portrayal of Bowden’s antagonist is the driving force behind the film and Cape Fear would fall flat with a tamer villain.
Cape Fear is a transitional film, one of the last that can claim noir roots. If its predecessors were thoughtful noir films like Act of Violence, then Cape Fear ushered in the era of psychological horror along with Psycho. It was not well-received by audiences despite the release of Hitchcock’s film two years prior. It came up about one million dollars short of production costs. “What on earth is Gregory Peck doing in such a movie?” The New Yorker wondered, calling it “A repellent attempt to make a great deal of money… out of sexual pathology.” Indeed, Cape Fear would be the last film put out by Peck’s Melville Productions. But in Hollywood everything old becomes new again, and when Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear as an homage to Thompson’s film, Peck received a rather late return on his investment and a new audience was introduced to Max Cady. While Robert DeNiro’s Cady is fun to watch, it is Mitchum’s performance that has stood the test of time. Cape Fear is ageless: still unapologetic, still chilling, still raising relevant questions. Watch this one at night with the lights turned low and raise the volume for Bernard Herrmann’s disconcerting hymn to depravity.
Sunday, March 04, 2012
THE BELOW ALLUDED TO ESSAY I MUST SAY IS AMONG THE BEST I HAVE READ GETTING RIGHT TO THE CORE OF NOIR -AN AFTER THOUGHT OF THE DISMAL AFTERMATH OF WWII IN VICHY FRANCE AND HOPELESS EXISTENTIALIST REACTIONS PHILOSOPHICALLY IN A EUROPE OF RUBBLE AND A FORLORN GRAVEYARD AS EXPRESSED BY STEIGER IN THE PAWNBROKER.
The force that drives noir stories is the urge to escape: from the past, from the law, from the ordinary, from poverty and stifling relationships and personal failure. Noir found its fullest expression in America because the American psyche harbors a passion for freedom and autonomy, forever shadowed by a corresponding fear of loneliness and exile. Both find expression in the road story and its fiercest variant, the lam story. To be on the road is to be moving forward, released from all bonds. To be on the lam is to be hunted, running away from something that is always closing in, shutting off options one by one. The “key to the highway” has its B side, the haunted persecution of a “hellhound on my trail.” As they are powered by the need to escape, noir stories are structured by the impossibility of escape, so their fierce, thwarted energy turns inward on itself.
Film noir has no monopoly on man-on-the-run stories, but noir versions emphasize the isolation of fugitives, their vulnerability to betrayal and exploitation, the ruthless closing in of the law-enforcement dragnet, the physical and mental fraying of outcasts unable to settle anywhere in safety, and the way outlaws are driven further and further out of society, until they eventually become something less than human—something to be hunted down and slaughtered with overwhelming force, like rabid animals.
The lam story is as ritualistic and full of repeated motifs as the heist movie or the prison drama. Fugitives drive all night, sleep in back seats, abandon their cars as the license plates are reported over the radio, steal new cars; hop freight trains; stay in motels and tourist cabins; get married in quickie roadside ceremonies; work menial laboring jobs, hold up gas stations, wake doctors in the middle of the night to treat wounded companions; charge roadblocks, flee cops armed with machine guns, see Wanted posters trumpeting the prices on their heads; haggle with used-car dealers, pawnbrokers, immigrant smugglers and other carrion crows of the road. The claustrophobic city may be the quintessential noir setting, but the transient, banal, melancholy world of road travel is an essential noir locale too. The in-between realm created by postwar car culture, what James Kunstler called “the geography of nowhere,” embodies the essential alienation of the noir world, where no one is ever really at home. Film noir relentlessly mapped the false lure of the highway, which promises freedom and escape but leads only deeper into danger. All roads are blind, in both senses of the word: full of twists and corners concealing the dangers beyond, and leading ultimately to a dead end.
A Double Life (1947)
George Cukor's A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — "Tony" to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.
When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, "hail fellow well met" sort of chap who's as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It's no coincidence, however, that he's starring in Philip MacDonald's comedy A Gentleman's Gentleman.
When the run comes to an end and he's offered the lead in Shakespeare's Othello, Tony hesitates. He's always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.
But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.
And he's not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O'Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it's clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. "When he's doing something gay like this it's wonderful to be with him, but ... when he gets going on one of those deep numbers," she says. "We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O'Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov."
Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.
If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony's ear, it wouldn't be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.
Instead, it's a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he's new in town.
He's a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)
When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it's not a passionate reenactment of Othello's murder of Desdemona, it's a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.
There's much about A Double Life that's heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you're paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a "double life" might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.
The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)
Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa's score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and "showy," but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He's playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.
Milton R. Krasner's brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don't exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It's full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There's a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner's cinematography is largely responsible for it.
I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It's a film where everything comes together; Cukor's direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's script, Krasner's photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I'm looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you've never seen it.