Theatre Review: Helen Lawrence

wpid-1395370407290.jpgIn 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).

9609789The 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.

Photo - David Cooper

Photo – David Cooper

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.



ImageThe Chase begins much as this morning has gone for me. Chuck Scott (the ever-affable Robert Cummings), on a street, is in front of a cafe thinking about breakfast.

ImageChuck 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:

ImageDirectly 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.

ImageEddie 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.

ImageEverything 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.

ImageThe 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.

Vera, Detour

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: Let’s be twitter-friends, have a few laughs.

ImageNow 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.

ImageSavage 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.

ImageI’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!

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.

ImagePersonally, 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.