I’d be just thrilled if you’d visit me at my new place:
I’ll still be writing about noir plus a bunch of other genres.
I’d be just thrilled if you’d visit me at my new place:
I’ll still be writing about noir plus a bunch of other genres.
HAPPY SUMMER! Hope your summer is going excellently even though it’s hard to sit at home and watch movies with the glare on the television. I really am trying to get in the habit of blogging with more frequency, I have some fun not-strictly-film related content that I’m hoping to get to, if only I could start spending less time on dames and horses. You know how it is. But hey, let’s talk Clash By Night, and take a look at this none-to-subtle poster.
First off, you should know that Barbara Stanwyck is probably my favorite actress of all time. I’d watch Barbara Stanwyck eat cereal. In her best films, she’s an absolute titan onscreen – completely fearless as an actor. She’s a perfect comedienne, she’s a dramatic force of nature. She’s even sexy in that horrific Double Indemnity wig. From her 30’s kept woman movies to her working girl movies to her Capra movies, to – of course, her noir movies, I’m all Stanwyck, all the way.
So, we’re really cooking with gas when Barbara Stanwyck is paired with the smouldering powderkeg that is Robert Ryan at his prime shoulder-to-waist ratio in Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT.
Depending on how loose your definition of noir is, Clash By Night may or may not qualify. But it isn’t just Fritz Lang’s inherently noir-y style – we’re also dealing with some serious post-war gender weirdness and repression, not to mention an atmosphere of exceptional doom.
Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her hometown to live with her brother Joe (Keith Andes), a dingy Californian fishing village so well-rendered that we can almost smell the pungent aroma of fish and small town failure. Joe’s not super thrilled to see her, but she gets on fine with his plucky girlfriend Peggy (an early-ish Marilyn Monroe.)
Mae’s disillusioned from her involvement with a married man – ( ain’t that always the way?) while Peggy’s fascinated by worldly Mae and has a kindred independent spirit. In fact, Peggy’s likely a proto-Mae, in ten years with the accompanying bad decisions, who knows, they’d probably be hitting the bottle together before their sexless, ineffectual husbands return home at 5, wanting dinner. BUT ANYWAY….
Mae agrees to go on a date with Jerry (Paul Douglas), a local fisherman and genuinely nice guy with whom she has a palatable lack of chemistry with. Utterly unaffected and guileless, he introduces Mae to his best friend, film projectionist Earl Pfeiffer (Ryan).
Which turns out to be a terrible idea, because Earl’s as rough and magnetic as Jerry is gentle and harmless. That he is drawn to Mae is undeniable, but Mae’s a little cold and quiet, even when Earl’s firing all of his charm cylinders with this little exchange:
Earl: Like the show?
Mae: She’s beautiful.
Earl: Who? That celluloid angel you just saw? They oughta cut her up a little bit – she’d look more interesting.
Jerry: Cut her up?
Earl: Didn’t you ever wanna cut up a beautiful dame?
Earl: Jeremiah, you’re a simple man.
So that happened. Turns on Earl has a pretty low opinion of women, and after an inebriated flirtation between Earl and Mae, Mae decides to marry Jerry, despite her best judgement and presumably in attempt to do the right thing, thereby avoiding (really just putting off) the queasy hate-fuck that’s certainly unavoidable between her and Earl. It’s an attraction, surely, but Mae’s more complicated than that, telling Peggy that she’s tired of looking after men, and that she wants to be looked after –
“Confidence! I want a man to give me confidence, somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods, somebody to beat off the world when it tries to swallow you up. Huh, me and my ideas. “
Mae and Jerry end of in a family way and soon enough. One evening, Earl shows up, fall down drunk, and Jerry lets him stay the night. In the morning, in a blistering kitchen sink confrontation, the inevitable happens. You can only keep two lions away from each other for so long.
In the end, Clifford Odets’ brooding rumination on gender relations brings Jerry down to Earl’s level, leaves Earl with his irreparable personality flaws, and magnifies the sobering truth that Mae will probably never get what she craves.
It’s an oversimplification to conclude that Mae is aroused by Earl’s misogyny and brutality. She is equally repulsed and attracted to Earl, attracted to his strength that sometimes resembles confidence, repulsed by his hatred of women and insecurity that manifests as barbarity. Earl recognizes Mae’s intelligence, her disillusionment, and thinks it matches his own. In the landscape of Clash by Night, Mae’s ideal of a man who isn’t emasculated by strong women or other men is an impossible archetype. She encourages Peggy to marry Joe because Joe “knows himself”, but Peggy’s frustrations with her options as a woman in a one-horse town are palpable.
It almost goes without saying that when you’re watching Fritz Lang, you’re in the presence of a master. Of course Clash is beautifully photographed and thoughtfully plotted, the evening when drunk Earl comes to call happens to be one of the hottest of the year. Under cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s lens, shadows fall over Mae and Jerry’s family home while the sheen of sweat glows off Barbara Stanwyck’s skin, it’s all scintillating-ly tawdry. But Clash By Night is really an actor’s picture – Stanwyck is at her world-weary best, and in the fictional celebrity death-match of brutal damaged guys, Ryan could probably take down Brando. (That was a pretty far-reaching metaphor, but you get my drift). Naturally, Monroe was typically difficult on set, but onscreen she’s a real treat – if you’re not someone who can feel the Monroe magic in her bombshell comedies, Clash By Night is one of the films that will change your mind.
Clash By Night is overwrought and theatrical, occasionally putting too fine a point on its thesis, but it captures the mood of early 50s repression like no other – Mae likens men to either “little, nervous sparrows” or “big, sick bears”. Earl on women: “Throw ’em up in the air. The one who sticks to the ceiling, I like.”
You’d think Clash by Night would eventually collapse in on itself – a heady mix of lust, vulnerability, threats, and feeble human ugliness and desperation, but indeed, it has a cautiously optimistic if rather ambiguous ending… the cracks in Jerry’s good nature may just endear him to Mae, and together they might just be able to forge some kind of healthy partnership, or perhaps, after several miles of bad road, they’ll live with their collective acceptance of their unfulfilled needs and lack of trust. Aside from being a hell of a good movie, Clash by Night is timeless, yet also a sobering early-50’s time capsule. And hey, that’s why your parents and grandparents are so screwed up.
‘Til next time, stay out of the projection booth.
By the way, my list of mysteries is on the marvelous Rupert Pupkin Speaks, along with a ton of other great lists, if you’re thinking mystery for tonight! Incidentally, my plan for night is my annual Spring Gone With The Wind night. Yeah, I watch Gone With The Wind basically every year. Vivien Leigh! Rhett Butler! 4 HOURS. Motherfucking 3-strip Technicolor!
Also, curse documentaries – as a child, I never realized how long in the tooth Leslie Howard is, and then special features ruined it for me as an adult. And, in the spirit of never going hungry again, I also order enough sushi that they give me multiple pairs of chopsticks. It’s all very ladylike.
Anyone else have exciting Saturday plans?
My oh my it’s been a long time! I don’t know what happened with the month – it simply got away from me and resulted in a deplorable absence. But blog, I thought of you daily (more or less), and hoped we’d be together again very soon. AND, it’s really come full circle because it’s another blogathon – SNOOPATHON hosted by the excellent Movies Silently, and another Richard Widmark joint, Fox’s notorious cold war noir Pickup On South Street.
Pickup on South Street doesn’t fuck around. If you’re looking for a noir with a slow build, melodrama, subplots, and intricate character back stories – you’d best look somewhere else. ‘Pickup’ out-Spillanes Mickey Spillane, and director Sam Fuller’s stark journalistic camera work and no-frills script assault the screen for a straight 80 minutes. It’s violent, it’s mean, it’s tawdry, it’s terrific, it’s some serious pulp and apparently the MPAA was asleep at the wheel because the knock-down drag-out between Jean Peters and Richard Kiley is crazy.
Richard Widmark gives a trade-mark square jawed, shifty-eyed performance as master pickpocket and “three time loser”, the excellently named Skip McCoy. We meet Skip on a train, glancing around furtively and fixing to empty the purse of Candy – fabulous Jean Peters in a fabulous white wiggle dress. Tres Monroe. Sure, having your pocket-picked by a canon (a pickpocket who targets women) is bad enough, but it’s certainly worse when you’re being followed by FBI agents and your purse is chock-full of stolen US government secrets.
Yes Ma’am, Skip’s picked the wrong purse. See, our girl Candy was meant to deliver that microfilm on behalf of her commie ex-boyfriend Joey to some shadowy Red higher-ups. Joey and the Communists and the FBI agents have one thing in common – they both desperately want to recover that microfilm.
Joey sends poor Candy to use her “connections” (read: Candy’s done some unsavory things for dress money) to track down the pickpocket. Meanwhile, on the side of the short arm of the law, police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) (also, seriously, he’s a police captain named DAN TIGER) and FBI Agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) put their heads together and pay local stoolie Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter, who should’ve won the Oscar) for a few likely suspects.
Candy tracks down Skip and uses more than a few feminine wiles and the promise of money to get the film back, but Skip, sensing the importance after viewing the microfilm, is holding out for a bigger score. Also, at some point Candy develops a crush on Skip – why? Well, it’s certainly not because he’s a gentle soul who treats her with the kindness she’s obviously never known. Probably because he’s familiarly caustic and they obviously want to nail each other. I’d sugar-coat that for you a bit if it were possible, but like I said – Pickup on South Street doesn’t care about your feelings.
There’s some back and forth, and with Joey feeling the heat from his Communist bosses, he pays Moe a visit to demand the address of the pickpocket. And here’s where Pickup slows down to one of its only emotional plateaus – if you only see one movie featuring the great character actress Thelma Ritter, this should be it. Moe will not surrender the address of Skip, even at gunpoint. It’s less of an act of patriotism than it is simply a person reaching the end of the road. It’s a heartbreaking, singular scene with Moe’s monologue about how she won’t ever have the fancy funeral she’s poured her life savings into. Oh, that? It’s nothing, I just have something in my eye. No, I get terrible hay-fever this time of year. (I CAN’T SEE MY KEYBOARD THROUGH THESE TEARS.)
Anyway, eventually Candy procures the film, but there’s a frame missing, which drives Joey to beat the living tar out of her. Skip, looking to settle the score, tracks Joey down at a subway, and ultimately, in kind of a film-noir-in-reverse move, does the right thing. Skip and Candy ride off into the uneasy and vaguely discouraging sunset.
As an ex-journalist, director Sam Fuller developed a very recognizable style which lends itself particularly well to noir, westerns, and war pictures. Pickup On South Street can certainly be broken down in terms of headlines – scene for scene, Fuller wastes no time in establishing who, what, when, where, and how. It’s the kind of pure cinema I’d liken to Hitchcock or Goddard – Joseph MacDonald’s camerawork is fluid and razor sharp as he effortlessly employs extreme close-ups, high angles, and shoots tightly choreographed fight scenes in long shots. Even the much-maligned push-in has its day in Pickup. In keeping with the journalistic style, the film doesn’t lean as much on arty shadows and contrast – instead, there’s a focus on gritty, physical details.
If you can track down a documentary or if you see any special features featuring Fuller – definitely do. He’s quite a character, barking out pearls of filmmaking and storytelling advice with his ever-present cigar. Dude’s an American master (and allegedly very proud that his cigars were a full two inches longer than Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck’s.)
And now, it is a Snoopathon, let’s take a moment for the spy stuff. Shhhh… come close. It’s a secret.
Many critics have read a deeper political agenda into Pickup on South Street, but I would think that any concrete conclusions Pickup draws on patriotism are arbitrary. There is certainly the suggestion that even the most marginal of characters, the stars of Pickup – the thief, the prostitute, and the stool pigeon – are not as bad as communists (nor will they, for the most part, do business with the Reds), but this is somewhat incidental. The characters are out for themselves, and though they do strike back at communism in some small way, it’s largely apolitical. Fuller has said alternately that the film is merely a thriller and made to poke a little fun at the paranoia of the Red Menace, when, as he claims, many Americans knew so little about it. (I am reminded Gary Cooper’s quote that he didn’t know too much about communism, but from what he heard, it’s not on the level. Oh, Gary. When you look that good in pants, it’s okay to say stuff like that.)
In the end, the microfilm is mostly a catalyst for a few monumental events in the lives of a few sad people. Who are the 39 Steps? Doesn’t matter. It is perhaps best summed up by Moe’s line “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I just know I don’t like them.”
‘Til next time – and I’ll see you real soon; for Chrissakes, don’t keep your stolen government secrets in your purse.
When I saw that there was a Great Villain Blogathon going down, as hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin, and Speakeasy, I quickly narrowed my short list of noir bad guys I wouldn’t want to fuck with down to the giggling maniac himself, Tommy Udo in Fox’s KISS OF DEATH.
As we know, film noir is full of bad guys. It’s full of bad girls. It’s full of good guys who are kind of bad and bad guys who are a little bit good, but likely none are as irretrievably, murderously insane as Mr. Udo, as played by Richard Widmark in his unforgettable film debut. See, we’re not talking about a provocative, powerful James Cagney type. We’re not talking about a guy who fell off the deep end due to social misfortune, a flawed villain grappling with some kind of deep-seated moral quandary. Tommy Udo, in his black suit, white tie, and oversized fedora is just the kind of absurd, cartoonish nutcase who’d set the bar for all kinds of loose cannon socipaths to follow. Widmark was nominated for 1947’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost to – get this – Edmund Gwenn as Kriss Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Yep, passed over for Santa Claus, but at least Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck knew a good thing when he saw it, and a good deal of the film’s advertising centered on Tommy Udo, with theatre owners putting up WANTED signs.
We are introduced to Tommy in the holding cell he’s sharing with our ever-so humble hero, Nick Bianco (an intense Victor Mature). Nick Bianco’s an ex-con and consequently unemployed – that’s why he’s been picked up for a jewel heist on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Nick’s also a family man, so, Merry Christmas, Bianco daughters – see you in therapy. Tommy’s watching the prison guard, then leans over to Bianco, “Lookit that cheap squirt, passing up and down,” he says in a high, nasal voice, “For a nickel I’d grab him, stick both thumbs right in his eyes…. and hang on till he drops dead.”
Yessir, that’s Tommy Udo, and by the end of the film, we’re left believing he’d do it for free. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Nick. Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo is prepared to offer Nick a plea deal – if he names his accomplices, he’s looking at a lighter sentence. But there is honor among thieves, and Nick declines, knowing that his partners in crime and his crooked attorney Earl Howser will look after the wife and kids.
Three years into Nick’s 20 year sentence, Mrs. Bianco Sylvia-Plaths her way into an early grave and Nick finds out from ex-babysitter Nettie Cavallo (Coleen Gray, always great as the love interest of the flawed hero, probably because hurting Coleen Gray is like stepping on a kitten) that his ex-accomplice Rizzo attacked his late wife. This motivates him to start all sorts of squealing, also telling slippery old Howser that Rizzo’s the rat to deflect any suspicion. Alas, Howser’s a closer and calls up Tommy Udo to dispose of Rizzo.
Unfortunately for Rizzo’s wheelchair-bound Mom, Rizzo’s not at home, and Tommy doesn’t cotton to disappointments. It isn’t enough for him to drop his cigarette butt on her floor. So then he does… that thing that he does. Yep, in one of the more shocking moments of violence from the 40s, Tommy rips the cord from the floor lamp, restrains Ma Rizzo, and then PUSHES HER DOWN THE STAIRS. Here, let’s watch together. Note Tommy’s skeezy mouth wipe and ever-present chuckle.
Indeed, he didn’t get a chance to kill Rizzo, but he certainly took those lemons and made lemonade, as he relates the story of ex-Ma Rizzo to Howser with palatable relish. (It’s a particularly good scene, incidentally. Taylor Holmes as Howser is so cold.)
A newly-paroled Nick is now free to marry Nettie and obligated to help D’Angelo by spending an evening out with Udo, mining information about his various crimes. Not that he has to mine too hard – Tommy is many things, but a criminal mastermind isn’t one of them. He alternates bragging about his crimes with urging boxers to tear each others eyes out, joking around with Nick at dinner, and being at once dismissive, insulting, and genuinely threatening to his lady friend. “Dames are no good if you wanna have some fun,” he chortles, after shoving his date in the hip.
Nick gleans enough valuable information to satisfy D’Angelo and when Udo’s trial comes up, Nick is called to testify. Reluctantly, he does, but it isn’t enough. Udo is then acquitted due to insufficient evidence (which is surprising, since he’s so obviously a ticking time bomb of crazy).
Certain that the police can’t protect him or his family and not the sort of man who’s going to spend the rest of his life looking over this shoulder, Nick orchestrates a showdown, and no one comes up as the clear winner.
While not the best of director Henry Hathaway’s noirs, Kiss of Death has a lot going for it. A title card at the beginning asserts that the film was shot all on location (notably at Sing Sing prison, where the inmates had to be cleared out as a law prohibited photographing real live criminals), and though some scenes do look like studio sets, Kiss of Death still has the docu-noir style that gives it a certain freshness. Further, Kiss of Death is not best work of writers Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, (who have a ton of monster hits between them), however, there’s certainly a lot of meat in the story. It was definitely enough to piss off Joe Breen at the MPAA, who disliked the suggestion that law enforcement is “utterly futile ” and requires the testimony of a stool pigeon to convict criminals and felt that the script undermined the justice system and portrayed the courts as being ineffective. You bet it does! Despite these issues, all of this remains in the finished film, Bianco even notes, “Your side of the fence is almost as dirty as mine.” To which D’Angelo answers dryly, “With one big difference… we hurt bad people, not good ones.” The line is a paltry excuse to eschew the virtue of law enforcement – in Nick’s hour of need, law enforcement is typically ineffectual – the legal system doesn’t come through for him, echoing early in the story when his criminal cohorts hang him out to dry.
The MPAA x’ed one scene from the film, even though traces of it remain in a blink-and-you’ll miss it line – after dinner, Tommy takes Nick to a shadowy old house. “What’s that smell?” asks Nick, “Perfume!” giggles Tommy. Why, I do declare – it’s a drug den, and the original script allegedly contained more references to Tommy as a drug user.
And speaking of Nick, Kiss of Death is often cited as one of Victor Mature’s best performances, and he’s marvelous – quietly believable as a hood and also as a loving, if misguided Father. However, despite the relatively low amount of screen time, Kiss of Death is Richard Widmark’s picture, and as good as Mature is, sometimes we’re just waiting for Tommy to show up, because shit gets real when a guy pushes an old lady down the stairs and all bets are pretty much off regarding what kind of mischief that crazy kid will get up to next.
Tommy Udo isn’t just Richard Widmark’s bravura debut performance. Udo is both a menace and a sadist, a cyclone of irritating habits, bleating obnoxiousness, and balls-out lunacy. He’s so over-the-top nuts that it all equals out to a kind of magnetism, and I’m not saying he’s the first berserk psycho that made audiences enjoy violence, but he’s certainly a front-runner. The early noirs brought murder into the home, made it acceptable to watch, but Tommy Udo made it fun which would prove an indelible influence on the crime dramas and horror films to follow.
‘Til next time, keep it on the safety brake.
Definitely do poke around the Blogathon for the silver screen’s best baddies, and if you’re not following me on Twitter, you should know that you’re missing out on shirtless Cary Grant beach running pictures.
I know I’m not alone in the opinion that Fox’s top grossing film of the 40’s, John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is one of the all time great Technicolor movies. Naturally, the supremely filmic, highly saturated Technicolor was avoided for the majority of Golden Age noir – it’s a little “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” for your average tale of morally questionable urban woe (though Paramount did attempt a Technicolor noir in the kind-of-nuts Desert Fury, which also features a homme fatale and the screen debut of Wendall Corey) , but Leave Her to Heaven manages to be chilling not in spite of the Technicolor, but because of it. Indeed, Leave Her to Heaven’s eerie signature scene takes place not in a shadowy alleyway or a police interrogation room, but on a sunny afternoon in a clear lake near a scenic cabin. Worst. Vacation. Ever.
Here’s the rundown. A writer, Richard Harlan (Cornel Wilde), accepts an invitation to his attorney’s New Mexico ranch. On the train, he meets Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and they’re mutually attracted to each other – Richard, because Ellen is gorgeous, and Ellen, because Richard is a dead ringer for her late Father. So there’s that.
As fate would have it, they’re heading to the same ranch, and Richard becomes acquainted with the rest of the Berent family, including Ellen’s charming cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain – she of wholesome beauty who makes plants grow) and Ellen’s Mother. Ellen and her Mother are clearly still sorting through Ellen’s extreme Electra complex, so there’s some pretty tangible weirdness there.
Not even Ellen’s existing fiancee, D.A. hopeful Russell Quintin (Vincent Price, y’all), can keep Richard and Ellen from each other, and they marry soon after, in spite of Richard’s misgivings. Ellen then accompanies Richard to Georgia to be reunited with his polio-stricken younger brother Danny. Ellen and Danny get on like a house on fire, and pretty soon Danny’s walking with crutches and accompanying them to their cabin in Maine, a tactical error on Ellen’s part. You see, Ellen has a pathological desire to do everything for Richard and have all of Richard’s love and attention, and Danny’s now a direct obstacle in the way of her single-minded goal. Bring the rowboat by – it’s time to take Danny swimming.
In a scene that has aged extremely well, Ellen, in a fabulous white overcoat and oversized sunglasses, coolly encourages Danny to swim out farther to impress Richard. So long, third wheel. The lack of score and cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s gorgeous and isolating wide shots clinch the scene and make it the bruiser it is – this is the one that’ll stay in your head, even years later.
Anyway, Ellen’s grand gesture has the opposite effect – consumed by grief, Richard is now more remote than ever. Ever resourceful, Ellen becomes pregnant, but finds this isn’t the perfect solution she’d hoped for. All the frothy blue peignoir sets and high heeled slippers in the world won’t change the fact that a baby would pull focus from Ellen, and besides, being pregnant allows Richard to pal around with Ruth. In one of noir’s more cold-blooded killings (and the screen’s first Production Code approved abortion!), Ellen is then no longer in a family way.
Predictably, this doesn’t help, so Ellen is driven to the ultimate sacrifice, but not before taking everyone else down with her. For the record, I felt very dramatic writing THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE. For the film’s third act, we’re treated to a somewhat expressionistic courtroom drama, led by Vincent Price’s particularly theatrical D.A. character. It’s a worthy denouement, and as ever, I’d watch Vincent Price eat cereal, but the real meat of Leave Her to Heaven is anytime Gene Tierney is onscreen.
Leave Her to Heaven may sound like a grand melodrama on paper, it certainly could be one of those trashy movies that W plays in the late afternoon, but it ends up being one of the most subversive studio films of the 40s. The deceptively slow start only solidifies the psychological horror to follow – in another life, a chance meeting on the train, a love affair in sun splashed New Mexico – we’re talking about a typical technicolor romantic comedy. Not the case – the promise of domesticity becomes a nightmare of manipulation and murder, in Richard and Ellen’s very own brightly-light and exquisitely photographed backyard.
Gene Tierney is at her best as Ellen with her icy, otherworldly beauty never used to greater effect. As the ideal wife, she’s charming, with disarming moments of genuine warmth, then instantly childish and withholding when the veneer slips and she fails to get what she wants. Her most shocking decisions are clinical and logic-based – if this obstacle was removed, I will get what I want. It’s a surprisingly modern and balanced portrayal of mental illness, even in her coldest moments, we never entirely dislike her; such is the pull of her sociopathic allure. Also, she wears immaculately tailored trousers and cute one-piece bathing suits and commands the screen like boss bitch. Gene was nominated for a what would have been a well-deserved academy award, but ultimately lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.
In a major coup for art over censorship, the MPAA ‘strongly cautioned’ Ellen’s ‘miscarriage’, which is certainly a touching euphemism for throwing yourself from a flight of stairs on the pretense that you slipped on a throw rug while wearing fabulous satin bedroom mules. You know how it is. The MPAA warned that it was necessary to establish that the fetus would have to go because it would be a competitor for Richard’s affection, and not because Ellen believed the child would be born imperfect or misshapen. (Yes, ‘misshapen.’) They believed that this way, it would not be considered an abortion. Oh, bless.
Leave Her to Heaven is a prime example 3-strip Technicolor used to the height of its dramatic promise. Photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, Leave Her to Heaven was one of his Oscar winners, and it’s not hard to see why – the hyper-real colours and intense saturation, the gorgeous sets and locations – they just don’t shoot ’em like this anymore, friends. So much of the film occupies a familiar dream world – the gorgeous homes, the beautiful cabin in the country, the attentive, perfect wife, and the loyal, loving husband – and never before have the noir shadows been quite so close.
Up next, I’ll be participating in the Great Villain Blogathon:
‘Til then, no high heels on the area rug. xo.
In 1948, we (being Canada), approved a deal with the MPAA, with the dubious name of The Canadian Cooperation Project. Basically, we agreed to let the American studios distribute their films tax free, and in return, the American studios promised to occasionally shoot in Canada, and “promote” Canada by mentioning their friendly neighbours of the North in passing. If it sounds like a raw deal, it’s because it was – predictably, there was no measurable tourism boom just because a main character had an Aunt from Vancouver, some visiting relatives from Regina, or that there was a bit part for a brave Mountie or French Canadian lumberjack. Characters dreamed of settling on ranches up in Alberta, or – my personal favorite – the villians escaped to Canada. Incidentally, if anything was going to foster tourism, it would be the beautiful documentaries the NFB was making at the time, and all the Canadian Cooperation Project did was hinder the growth of the Canadian feature film industry and, no doubt, turn it into the uphill battle it is today.
I couldn’t help but think of that, the ‘what happens after the bad guys get to Canada?’ question, while watching the wonderful noir-tinged play HELEN LAWRENCE at the Arts Club. I’ve been looking forward to it since it was announced – not only is it the debut of the first play co-created by visual artist Stan Douglas and writer Chris Haddock (Intelligence, Boardwalk Empire), not only is it set in Vancouver in 1948, but it isn’t just a play – it’s a multimedia experience. The actors perform the play’s action behind a skrim on a three-walled blue screen stage, with minimal props and sets. The actors are simultaneously being filmed and the action is projected in black and white on the screen, which now shows digitally created sets of long-gone historic locations, the Old Vancouver Hotel and Hogan’s Alley (now the Georgia Viaduct – so when you’re caught in traffic, know that it once was vice-central, the home of gambling and prostitution).
The titular character, Helen Lawrence is after the man who wronged her back in L.A. – some nasty business with a ladies hatpin, a rich husband, and a “heart attack.” She ends up in the Vancouver of 1948, a turbulent period of police corruption, changing landscapes, and hard-luck types just trying to get by. Particularly compelling is the relationship between two brothers – one a major player in the business of Hogan’s Alley, the other, back from the war and dealing with a what seems to a be widespread sense of displacement.
I really won’t give away too much, best to see it yourself. To say Helen Lawrence is ambitious is an understatement, and I doubt it would have come across so well if it weren’t for the careful staging and seamless integration between live action and digital sets, the filmic dialogue, and the caliber of the acting. Each of the actors (who split their time between stage and screen) have managed to nail the delicate balance between a performance that is fit for the stage but made for the screen.
Occasionally Helen Lawrence is the victim of its own technical and thematic grandiosity; the multiple plot lines aren’t fully realized in the lean 95 minute running time, so we’re left with a collection of well-rendered, well-acted, and well-shot scenes of characters in what could be a much larger story. The novelty of the staging is ultimately a great success – Helen Lawrence is at its best when the action onscreen and onstage are at odds with each other – a close up on a character’s face during a fight, or three characters, in separate locations on the stage, preparing for a showdown. There was a minor technical difficulty the evening I saw it (second night – will likely be ironed out soon!) – a slight delay in the sound onscreen, which caused a rather jarring echo.
Despite this, I’d be surprised if there was anything more vital and relentlessly innovative on Canadian stages this year.
Helen Lawrence is at the Arts Club until April 13, 2014, and then will be touring.
And P.S. At Large is a new category that I’ve been meaning to set up since the beginning of this blog’s short life – wherein I will write about local events of a vintage, historical, or noir flavour. Could be anything from big screen showings, tours, historical buildings, and the local bar where you’re most likely to meet someone who’ll compromise your morals and leave you for dead. The usual.
Chuck looks down and spots a wallet. He rifles through it, finding a fair bit of money, and takes himself to the most important meal of the day. When finished, and because he’s such a stand-up guy, he delivers the wallet to its owner at the fellow’s home address, which happens to be a hulking Miami mansion with a lot of ostentatious statues and fancy plants. Yep – our good friend Scotty’s steered himself straight into the home of a gangster.
The gangster in question is Eddie Roman – a marvelous Steve Cochran – who’s eerie in his politeness – he’s glamorous, he’s friendly, and he might be a total psycho. I mean, in our intro to him, he slaps his manicurist for doing a poor job:
Directly following that, he’s really quite genial to Scotty, recognizing Scotty to be an honest guy with a trustworthy face. And who’s that in the background? Why, it’s the great Peter Lorre, who wanted to take some non-bad guy roles at this point in his career, but allegedly took the part of Gino, Eddie’s right hand man, as a favor to producer Seymour Nebenzel who worked on Lorre’s breakout film, (and all-around masterpiece) M. Lorre’s a total hoot as an American – he’s got a tan, his shirt’s open, his hair’s slicked back, his unmistakable voice has been smoothed out and doesn’t really sound like it’s from anywhere. If you’re used to seeing Lorre in his urbane European weirdo roles, it’s a treat. Relaxed and American or not, he’s still one of the best villains around.
Eddie offers Scotty a job as a chauffeur, after a bizarre test-drive where he introduces Scotty to a device in his car which allows him to accelerate from the backseat while the driver steers from the front. As you can imagine, this is probably an ill-advised toy for a psycho gangster to have, and Eddie nearly accelerates them into an oncoming train.
Eddie also happens to have a beautiful wife, Lorna – gorgeous Michele Morgan and her perfect bone structure. It’s apparent that their relationship has degenerated to the point where he keeps her like an exotic bird, trapped in his flashy gangster house, and she’s perpetually sullen and wounded. Uh-oh. Gangster husband, unhappy wife, strapping good-guy ex-GI chauffeur? Looks like Scotty’s got himself in a whole pack of noir trouble.
Lorna’s in the habit of taking evening drives out to the beach in opulent evening wear, and on one of these occasions, she offers Scott $1000 to help her get to Havana and away from Eddie. Scotty agrees instantly because A. She’s totally irresistible and he definitely wants in her pants and B. He’s a white knight and C. He could use $1000. He buys them two tickets on the evening ship and they make plans to steal away during her routine evening beach drive.
In their stateroom on the boat, things get super-sexy after Lorna learns Scotty can play piano and stares out the window meaningfully at the life she’s leaving behind. Then, they stare at each other for an uncomfortably long time, a shadow falls, and Scotty walks to the window and very deliberately draws the curtains. But hey, it’s 1946, I’m sure he was just teaching her to play chopsticks.
Everything is going well for Scotty and Lorna until they’re in a bar – it’s the next evening, they’re in Havana, and we, the audience, have lost a day. Suffice to say, I’m not going too much further into the plot. Scotty is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and spends a period of time in a somewhat Lynch-ian Twilight Zone where he soon finds the events of the day didn’t happen to way he thought. He’s chased by the police through the shadowy night streets, and then… well, best watch Scotty’s multilayer, continuously spiraling nightmare for yourself.
Clocking in at a lean 86 minutes, The Chase spends just enough time on each of the three movements of the story, with enough clues for the audience so that the ending is rewarding and structurally sound. The Chase leans on Franz Planer’s expressionistic cinematography, as well as its curious visual motifs (a set of daggers with jade See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak of Evil monkeys, the device in the car that allows a madman to control the speed, a particularly odd moment where Scotty hides in the apartment of a local girl, who is face down on a table, sobbing, and, oh yeah , if you piss Eddie off, you may earn a trip to his special wine cellar. Until he sends his vicious, man-eating dog after you) to maintain a sense of claustrophobic strangeness.
Also of note – keep an ear to the ground for its subtle treatment of Scotty being ex-army. The screwed-up ex-solider in Blue Dahlia was more than enough to have the original ending sacked the the production code, but The Chase is able to calmly work in the idea that Scotty’s problems stem from (army) “shock”. Classy work, Philip Yordan.
Always a measure of quality, The Chase is based on the story “The Black Path of Fear” by noir mainstay Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich stories are the basis for a ton of fantastic films (Rear Window, Black Angel, Phantom Lady, Bride Wore Black), and The Chase is no exception – the story is full of so many distinctive, nightmarish images that it’s a natural fit for the screen.
The Chase is public domain, so by all means, check it out on YouTube, or if you’re in Vancouver, you can see it on glorious 35 mm at Pacific CInematheque today and tomorrow. It’s a part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation, along with Joseph’s Lewis hyper-sexual, murderous couple road movie GUN CRAZY.
‘Til next time, maybe it’s best to just keep the wallet.
Forgive my untimely absence – I was busy with a First Aid course… certainly useful, as I make it my business to know as much about life and death as I can. Another bit of housekeeping – now on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hardboiled_girl. Let’s be twitter-friends, have a few laughs.
Now back to the matter at hand, the incomparable Ann Savage as Vera in Detour. Ann Savage, born Bernice Lyon, screen-tested at Columbia, took a few minor roles, and ended up being paired with Detour co-star Tom Neal in 1943 for what appears to be the largely forgettable Klondike Kate – an early entry in the career of Mr. Gimmick himself, William Castle. (Who would, of course, go on to bring the world many great 50s-60s drive in horror classics and that Joan Crawford axe murder movie. Party on, William Castle.)
By the way, I feel it pertinent to mention, when Ann Savage wasn’t destroying the screen as Vera, she looked like this.
Savage and Neal would go on to share the screen several times, though never again matching the raw power of their anti-chemistry in Detour. Ann Savage would go on to dismiss many of her other roles as “mindless”, noting that actresses were often scenery in stories devoted to male characters. As Vera? She’s something else. When she shows up the in middle of the film, it’s pretty clear that if they lock horns, she’ll devour him.
In between spitting out some of the film’s best one-liners, getting piss-drunk and sexually agressive, chain-smoking and uttering clench-jawed threats, Vera’s femme fatale fashion is as sparse and as gritty as the story itself. So what does your typical hard boiled girl, after falling off the crummiest freight train in the world, wear for a day of hitchhiking? Black pencil skirt, nubby knit white sweater, collared blouse, envelope purse. Add your own gormless, ineffectual sap, and keep in mind that hitching rides won’t exactly help you keep your schoolgirl complexion.
Later in the film, Vera slaps on some warpaint and gets dolled up in this black evening dress. She asks Al if she rates a whistle. She sure does. The popularity of shoulder-pads in the 1940s was to be expected – as women entered the workforce and took on stronger roles in a male-dominated society, the soft bias-cut styles of the 30s gave way to the power silhouettes of the 40s – strong shoulders, nipped waists. The 40s look has always served the femme fatale well – and in Vera’s case, we’ve got the 40’s fatale trifecta – sharp shoulder pads, bat-wing sleeves, and a gigantic broach at the bust. It’s an awesomely intimidating look, so dress with care.
Personally, I favor the flouncy nightgown and peignoir sets of the 50s, but for an all-night, shacked-up-in-an apartment bender, you can’t beat a simple terrycloth robe and a hair scarf. Lubricate liberally with alcohol and innuendo.
‘Til next time, keep it cordless.
In the spirit of the day of love, I thought I’d share one of my personal favorites – DETOUR. And, guess what? It’s in the public domain, so if you have an hour and seven minutes and would like to feel worse, why don’t you pour yourself a drink (best make it a double) and spend some quality time:
Yep, Detour was certainly the premiere feel-bad movie of 1945 (unless you were a drinker on a downward spiral into melodrama and disappointment– in that case, The Lost Weekend probably hit you where you live… incidentally, beyond my girl Doris Dowling as Ray Miland’s doormat and noir veteran Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-laden score, I could take or leave it. I prefer my Billy Wilder a little more subtle or at least with a sense of humour.) (Or unless you’re a social-climbing, working woman bent on protecting the reputation of your murderous daughter who was unsuccessfully (the movie) or successfully (the book) knowing your husband in a biblical sense… then Mildred Pierce probably floated your sadness boat.) But, I digress (sorry – ’45 was a good year), and you’d be hard pressed to find a more sordid, grim, or utterly doom-laden story than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. Rife with technical errors and made for a song ($100,000 – cheap like borscht) Detour was nevertheless the first noir, and the first b-picture to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Oh yeah – it’s that good.
There were the big five and the little three, and then there were the Poverty Row studios. Poverty Row films were quick and dirty – made on shoestring budgets with minor stars, or possibly folks famous for other reasons (the 40’s equivalent of when you suddenly see one of the lesser known girls from The Hills pop up in a low-budget horror movie). Poverty Row films were typically the b-picture to the major releases, or sometimes the lead pictures in the second run theatres. Which basically means there was a lot of – but not exclusively – garbage. PRC, or Producers Releasing Corp. certainly lucked out with Austrian director Edgar G. Ulmer, who made three solid noirs for them, the most well-known being Detour.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal, before fighting with Franchot Tone and also pre – manslaughtering his wife) is having a bad night. He’s drinking coffee in a diner and being kind of a dick to everyone. See, they’re playing his song, the one that reminds him of his old life.
Al was a nightclub piano player with the love of a decent woman; Sue, the singer in his nightclub band. Sue heads to Hollywood to make it big, and Al thinks about their bright and happy Bon Jovi song future in this kind of terrifying daydream:
But she ends up working as a waitress. Penniless Al decides to hitch to Hollywood to meet her. Between a life spent watching horror films and Detour, I know what’s up with hitch-hiking. It’s either backwoods cannibal families or a slow descent into your own personal hell, and in this case, it ends up being the latter.
Al catches a ride with a Mr. Charles Haskell, a fairly well-to-do fellow with a nice car and scratches on his hands. The scratches are from a girl he picked up. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws.” Well said, Chuck. Only Haskell’s time for one liners is almost up, and as soon as you know it, he’s dead. Accidentally. In his sleep. Or so Al says.
Al does the sensible thing, and I mean sensible if morals weren’t really a big deal for you. He reasons that no one would believe he didn’t kill Haskell, therefore, he should hide the body and take the car. Naturally, he should take his money too, as Haskell certainly can’t take it with him. And then Al decides to take Haskell’s clothes, too; after all, no one would believe someone dressed as he is would have such a nice car. Turns out once you’ve entered the moral sludge pit, it’s hard to climb out of.
After successfully crossing the state line as Haskell, Al picks up fellow hitchhiker Vera – the incredible Ann Savage, who eats the role for breakfast with a performance that’s an easy 30 years ahead of her time. Vera will get her own post, but suffice to say, Ann Savage is the femme fatale of your worst nightmares. At 24, she’s a total powerhouse – Vera is a snarling, vitriolic hellcat, but Savage’s performance is nuanced enough that Vera’s few moments of vulnerability are enormously affecting.
Turns out, Vera recognizes the car and the clothes, but not Al. She’s the dame with claws, and now she’s got them in Al, as she orders him to fence the car and give the proceeds to her for her silence. They spend hours in a motel room, tolerating each other, while Vera gets drunk. She even propositions him in a rather (1940s) overt manner, which he rejects. Vera’s a bit of a wistful drunk, and she’s equally revolting and alluring. Shame boner.
They’re about to sell the car, when Vera realizes she has more to gain by forcing Al to impersonate Haskell long enough to collect an impending inheritance. For a moment, this looks like it might be the main plot of the film, a rather familiar identity theft ruse that genre fans can cozy up to. But, not so fast – an absurd twist of fate sees to it that spineless Al is freed from his situation, but only until he’s carted off to the big house. No mercy for wrong-doers.
Detour doesn’t work despite its technical limitations – it works because of them. With a narrative that’s clumsy more often than sharp, reversed driving shots and amateurish rear projection, we can’t even retreat into the glamour and technical accuracy of the big studio noirs. Detour is story about irredeemable bottom feeders, and the movie is a distilled version of that. It’s seedy and unsafe in a way that few other, if any, studio films can equal.
Typically noir is about the real locations, the real grit of the city in stark contrast to the theatrical sets of the studio backlot lovingly evoked in wonderous Technicolor in musicals or comedies. Detour’s ratty sets are used to great effect. The rear projection is strictly second-rate, which lends a bizarre, otherworldly quality. Al didn’t just take a detour to on the way to Hollywood, he set on another road entirely which leads to the great cosmic joke that his life becomes. The makeshift sets – the walk he takes with Sue on a ‘street’ which is only fog and a street sign, the police car which emerges from the darkness only adds a sense of impenetrable isolation to the already impossibly dire circumstances.
Otherworldly low budget-ness aside, also of note is Al as a narrator. He’s a slimy, simp of a man, and his version of events is questionable. He isn’t narrating the story we’re watching, only offering up pitiful excuse after pitiful excuse for his own behavior before lamenting what a victim of fate he is. And Vera? Well, Vera will get her own post, but until then, she’s a marvel – an absolutely vicious, castrating harpie. There hasn’t been another hard-boiled girl quite like her.
Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.
Yessir, the abyss stares back. So have a Happy Valentine’s day, kid, and stick to the main road.