Monday, June 26, 2017
I'm in the new summer issue of NOIR CITY with a couple of different articles. First up is a look at Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA, an album that was both inspired by neonoir (like Terrence Malick's BADLANDS) and which would itself go on to inspire neonoir (like Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER). The album itself is about as noir as any piece of music ever made.
Next up is a look at the different film versions of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's brilliant 1947 novel THE BLANK WALL. This masterpiece inspired two incredible adaptations, Max Ophuls's THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) and the 2001 THE DEEP END, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee.
As always, there's a lot of great stuff in this issue, including the launch of a new regular feature called "The Dark Page" exploring contemporary crime fiction, written by a wordslinger who knows what the hell he's talking about, the great Eric Beetner.
Get your issue today by becoming a contributor to NOIR CITY.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
(above: Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood in WORKING GIRLS)
Tonight I got a chance to see the 1931 Dorothy Arzner rarity WORKING GIRLS courtesy of the Chicago Film Society. I went to see it, frankly, because I have been interested in seeing a Dorothy Arzner picture for a while. Arzner is famous today for being the only woman who was a major director in Hollywood's early days (her directing career lasted from the 20s into the early 40s), and also being the first out lesbian to command such a role. Her life and career have been chronicled in several books, notably DIRECTED BY DOROTHY ARZNER by Judith Mayne and BEHIND THE SCREEN: HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS SHAPED HOLLYWOOD 1910-1969 by William J. Mann. I've read quite a bit about her, but what none of the books could really to me is what kind of director she was. In other words, sure she's important, but how good was she?
I'm happy to report that WORKING GIRLS is hilarious. (The showing tonight was a rollicking success.) The film is a light comedy about two sisters, May and Dorothy Thorpe (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood) who move from Indiana to New York to find jobs. They take residence in a hotel for women with a strict policy on gentlemen callers, but they soon get into a series of relationships with, among others, a rich playboy (Charles Rogers) and a professor (Paul Lukas).
The movie was written by Zoe Akins, from the play BLIND MICE by Vera Caspary (the author of LAURA) and Winifred Lenihan, and the dialog throughout is sharp and funny. May and June are classic opposites, with May being emotional and daffy while June is a world-weary wiseass, and most of the laughs in the picture come from their interplay. The biggest laugh in the movie comes when June tells May, "Aw, you're just jealous because I know how to tell a fella 'yes' and 'no' at the same time."
Azner's handling of her actors is smart and sensual. She lets both Hall and Wood have libidos, and she also lets each character have her own response to her sexuality. Hall's romance with the playboy played by Rogers has real sexual heat to it, while Wood's relationship with the professor played by Lukas is sweet without being sappy.
This central cast is surrounded by a lot of snappy female characters. Dorothy Stickney as Loretta, the nosey doorkeeper at the women's hotel, is part busybody and part trusted confident to the Thorpe sisters, while the other girls at the hotel pop out in vivid character parts that are cheeky in a pre-Code kind of way. For instance, there's a running gag about one girl who's always spending the night with her "aunt" in Jersey. "You oughta meet a man like my aunt," she tells her friends.
There is, however, a serious subtext to all this frivolity, as these young women are forced to navigate a world with strictly prescribed gender roles. The scenes involving sex, including a scene late in the film that nods toward an unplanned pregnancy, are handled deftly, with sensitivity and nuance. While Azner and her editor, Jane Loring, never skimp on laughs, they're up to more than just good times here, and a lot of scenes do double duty as romantic comedy and social drama. Likewise, an early scene in which the ladies of the hotel throw a gender-bending dance party is both goofy fun and also a fascinating moment in the history of queer cinema, a secret hiding in plain sight.
Given Arzner's place in the history of early cinema there is a danger of entombing her in her own importance. Let WORKING GIRLS be a corrective to that inclination. Arzner deserves to be studied and researched, yes, but she also deserves to be watched. This movie is hell of a lot of fun.
(above: Dorothy Arzner)
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
In the new issue of MYSTERY SCENE, I interview Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller. We discuss his new show NOIR ALLEY on TCM, his work rescuing forgotten films, and the meaning of the word "classic."
On news stands now, check it out.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Director Tsai Ming-liang's 1997 feature THE RIVER took a few years to find its way to American audiences, only appearing in New York in mid-2001. It's kicked around on muddy home video ever since, but tonight I got to see a vibrant 35mm print of the film courtesy of the Chicago Film Society.
The film tells the story of a young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) who takes a quickie job on a film set, floating as a dead body in a filthy river for about a minute. Soon after that, he develops a mysterious pain in his neck. The pain gets progressively worse, until pain becomes the dominant force in his life.
We meet his parents. His father hangs out in bathhouses, seeking anonymous sex with young men. His mother is having an affair with a pornographer. They sleep in different rooms in their home. Tsai has an elliptical style that refuses to explain things to us. The isolation of these three people from one another is so complete that it takes us a while to link them to each other. I think it was nearly an hour into the film before I understood how the stories of these three people connected.
Many people read THE RIVER as an allegory about urban loneliness and isolation, or they read it as a political statement about environmental issues like pollution and public health. I don't disagree with these readings, and I think the film is smart enough and deep enough to support them.
For me, though, THE RIVER is about mostly about the body. We think of ourselves as distinct from our bodies when in fact we are not. (I say "my body" as if the implied "me" has some existence removed from the body which is thinking these words and typing them on a computer keyboard. I am nothing but a body.) THE RIVER is a film that unfolds with very little dialog. We are mostly watching bodies in motion, and those bodies, in one way or another are tending to their needs and desires. We see people eat, clean themselves, have sex, attempt to endure or alleviate pain. And we don't just see a bit of these things. These things are what the movie is about. (Tien Miao, as the father, gives a performance utterly devoid of self-consciousness: devouring bowels of food, pissing, masturbating. He surrenders his body to the director.)
When we meet Hsiao-Kang, he is young, healthy and handsome. He runs into a pretty girl he knows, and she's the one who takes him to the film set. After he's washed himself multiple times, complete with scrubbing his skin with a toothbrush, he and the girl have sex. Sex in this movie emerges suddenly, the body asserting itself without a connection to character or plot. The shocking sexual encounter that concludes the film has been read by some as a comment on character, and I suppose it must be, but I experienced it as a culmination of the film's emphasis on the body. Scene after scene has a physical manifestation. The characters debate no ideas, seem to have no thoughts. Life is reduced to the desires and needs of their bodies. The more Hsiao-Kang is consumed by pain, the less he seems connected to anything else. (It is fitting that his ailment is neck pain, which is as maddeningly indistinct as it is excruciatingly painful. If he was covered in sores, for instance, it would be grosser, but it would have less impact. This crippling pain in his neck seems to be inside of him. Which, indeed, it is.)
THE RIVER is the best film I've seen in a long time. It shows a director fully in command of his craft and fearless in the execution of his vision. Unsettling, terrifying, and even, at times, mordantly funny, it culminates in a perfectly ambiguous ending. It is a film to seek out.
Note: THE RIVER is something of a sequel to Tsai's first feature REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, which features Hsiao-Kang and his parents, though does not focus on them exclusively.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
I have to file a strong dissent on this one. While Nicholas Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is pretty much universally loved by critics and scholars of film noir, it’s a movie which has always left me cold.
The film starts strongly, with a much admired helicopter shot of three escaped convicts hightailing cross-country with a kidnapped motorist. They ditch their hostage and his car once it blows a tire, and they take off on foot. There are two older men — seasoned cons — and a much younger man, a kid named Bowie. The kid has a bum foot, so the older fugitives leave him behind a road sign and tell him they’ll send help. Once night has fallen, help arrives in the form of a girl named Keechie — the tomboy niece of one of the convicts. When the boy meets the girl it’s pretty much love at first sight.
These opening scenes all work. Bowie is played by Farley Granger — film noir’s resident misunderstood youth — and the convicts are played by Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen. That’s a killer trio by anyone’s estimation and all three are excellent — especially da Silva as a blustering, one-eyed mass of insecurity named Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley. One-Eye doesn’t much like that the papers use his nickname, which he resents. He likes it even less when they start referring to the kid as the leader of the gang.
If the movie had stayed with the conflicts between these three mismatched criminals, I probably would have enjoyed it. Alas, it doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the romance between Bowie and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and this is where it loses me. They fall for each other right away, have some discussions about their screwed-up childhoods — Bowie explaining how he wound up in jail for murder, Keechie expressing contempt for her degenerate drunk of a father — and then, in short order, they get married and take off for a honeymoon. Unfortunately for them, both the cops and Bowie’s convict buddies are hot on their trail.
Because the relationship between Granger and O’Donnell sits at the center of the story, how you feel about it determines how you feel about the film as a whole. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is essentially a juvenile delinquent romance utilizing the film language and tragic fatalism of noir to help it tell its story. There’s nothing wrong with that combination on paper, but the young lovers — Keechie in particular — have been softened considerably from Edward Anderson’s source novel, THEIVES LIKE US. The resulting romance is the same old soppy Hollywood melodrama full of soft-focused, dewy-eyed close-ups and page after page of yearning speechifying. And I’ll be honest, I just find O’Donnell to be a lot to handle. She’s a regular fixture in noir, but she’s usually cast as a dollop of creamy innocence. Her work here isn’t as syrupy as her turn in SIDE STREET, but it’s pretty bad. More than almost any other actor I can think of O’Donnell embodies the female-virgin ideal that one finds in a lot of movies from the forties and fifties. One of the great virtues of noir, however, is that you don’t usually have to spend much time with this kind of emotionally-stunted woman-child. One of the reasons that noir has emerged as the most durable genre of the classic era is that it doesn’t worship at the altar of sexless virtue, and Cathy O’Donnell always seemed to have wandered in from Louis B. Meyer’s imagination.
(The notable exception to the argument above is her work for William Wyler on dramas like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and DETECTIVE STORY, leading me to think that the fault rests with the writers and directors rather than O’Donnell herself.)
Stories of misunderstood youth were, of course, a specialty of Nicholas Ray. He directed KNOCK ON ANY DOOR in 1949 and then made the ultimate 50s teen rebellion flick, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in 1955. These films are interesting and important, but they’re also relics of their time in a way that Ray’s noirs of the same era (IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND) are not. His teen pictures are rendered campy by the movie conventions of their era, while the noir pictures still play for adults and still have an edge. The exception to this is THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (his debut film) which tries to have it both ways. There’s no denying that Ray broke ground in the area of onscreen youth angst with this material, and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is certainly an antecedent for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
But, god, is it soppy.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Chicago is a great town for cinephiles, and one of the most rewarding resources available to the local movie geek is the Chicago Film Society. Programmed and projected by Julian Antos, Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal, and Cameron Worden, the CFS is dedicated to showing movies on film, often in rare or vintage prints. When I first moved to town they were still showing movies at the old Patio Theater, but they made the switch a year or so ago to the auditorium of Northeastern Illinois University. While I miss the musty charms of the Patio, the great hall at NEIU gives the proceedings a college film society aura that adds to the sense of fun. Of course, the venue wouldn't matter if the films weren't interesting, and the CFS schedule is always an excitingly eclectic blend of genre films (westerns, musicals, noirs), rarities and obscurities (silents, overlooked classics, exploitation flicks), foreign films, and the occasional notorious flop presented for reconsideration.
The Chicago Film Society has, for my money (and more specifically for my $5 per screening), the most distinctive personality of any movie appreciation collective in town. Staff members are current or former projectionists at Doc Films, Block Cinema, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Music Box, which means that the CFS is what you get when a bunch of hardcore film junkies get together and decide that the city needs another weekly jolt of movie love. Hall and Westphal are the public faces of the CFS and their pre-show presentations of the films are good-humored, charmingly geeky, and deeply informed.
The CFS's new season schedule has just been released, and it's got me excited to spend some warm summer nights at the movies. Highlights include Robert Mitchum's 1958 hillbilly chase picture THUNDER ROAD, Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 man-out-of-prison yakuza flick PALE FLOWER, Andre de Toth's 1953 men-under-seige western LAST OF THE COMANCHES, and Claudia Weill's 1978 feminist comedy GIRLFRIENDS.
There's a lot more. Here's the complete schedule of events.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
I didn’t grow up in the forties or fifties, so I didn’t discover B-movies in their original form, as the second features stuck behind classier A-movies. Nor did I discover the world of film noir the way people did in the sixties and seventies, through the midnight movies on TV that transfixed the generation of noir geeks before me.
No, I was born in 1975, which means I came up in the eighties and nineties. Appropriately, then, I discovered noir in the distinct fashion of a Gen Xer: I found it at the video store. There’s more to this story, though, a personal twist.
I was brought up in a devout Southern Baptist house where certain movies were forbidden. It’s tempting to go for simplicity here and say that R-rated movies were forbidden, but that’s not exactly true. Only certain kinds of R-rated movies were forbidden. Anything with sex. Sex in movies was bad. Totally bad. Every time. No sex. (Even PG-rated sex scenes could change the climate in our family den. Once a bra slipped off, the air would get thin, and I would feel the sense of bodily danger you get when you know God’s wrath is about to fall.) Anything with a lot of cussing was also forbidden. You were allowed one F-word in a movie. Maybe two. After that, things got a little tense.
Violence was okay as long as it wasn’t overly gory. Dirty Harry laying waste to a bunch of punks? Cool. Slasher flicks (which, of course, might also run the risk of featuring nudity)? Not cool.
Dutiful son that I was, when I was sent to the video store to pick out a movie I tried to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls.
When I was home alone, however, I was a deceitful little sleaze. I would, on occasion, sneak out to the video store to pluck some forbidden fruit (fruit that I returned as soon as possible to avoid any late fees).
Enter AFTER DARK, MY SWEET. 1991. The poster for this film — and thus the cover for the video box — was a picture of Jason Patric and Rachel Ward engaged in sweaty physical congress. The title sounded like direct-to-video sleaze. I vaguely remembered Siskel and Ebert saying the movie was great, but greatness was not on my mind. The possibility of seeing Rachel Ward naked was on my mind.
I secreted the video into the house and watched it when no one was home.
I learned two things about AFTER DARK, MY SWEET that day.
1. You don’t really get to see Rachel Ward naked. I would love to act like that didn’t matter to me, but it did. I was disappointed. Simply as a consumer engaged in a capitalist enterprise, I felt I had not been well served. I had, after all, paid money for the expressed purpose of seeing Rachel Ward naked.
2. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is a masterpiece. It’s the best film noir of the 1990s, and one of the best films, period, of that entire decade. As a human being experiencing a work of art, I was transfixed.
Jason Patric (whose sweaty ass you do get to see, natch) and Rachel Ward are both beyond great. Patric’s character Kevin “Collie” Collins, disgraced former boxer and psyche ward escapee, was sort of my first anti-hero, or, at least, he was the first anti-hero I ever saw where I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was a man scraping up some last vestige of his willpower to do something that no one would understand. He tries to save Ward’s boozy widow from a goofy kidnapping scheme cooked up by a degenerate ex-cop named Uncle Bud (played with exquisite seediness by Bruce Dern). By the end, Collie dies face down in the dirt, gut shot by the woman he loves, but it’s all okay because he did it all for her.
And Rachel Ward taught me things about women that, at 17 years old, I didn’t know I needed to learn. She was lovely and leggy, but what made her fascinating was a sadness, a deep-seated knowledge that most dreams don’t come true. The moment she starts talking in the film, mocking Patric’s fumbling attempts at polite conversation — mocking, really, the whole idea of polite conversation — you can’t take your eyes off her. You get why Patric wants to save her, and also why he thinks she can save him. She’s the only person he’s ever met who understands his loneliness. In a way — in a beautifully noir way — they do save each other.
The film wasn’t arty, but I was aware of the director, James Foley. I was aware that I was watching a movie with a vision. Was it his?
Maybe, though it’s probably more correct to say that Foley brilliantly realized Jim Thompson’s vision. Ah, yes, I also discovered Jim Thompson that day in my family den. Who was the guy who wrote this story that was the saddest, most romantic, most thrilling thing I’d ever seen? Revisiting the film many times over the years as my love of Thompson’s novels grew, I realized that the scenes with Patric and the creepy psychologist played by George Dickerson are the most spot-on interpretations of Jim Thompson’s work that have ever been put onscreen. People think that Thompson’s novels are about psychos, or about violence. No, they’re about the last slender thread of decorum stretching and stretching until it turns translucent and you can see right though it to the terrible truth that will be unleashed the moment it snaps. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET gets that. It gets that beautifully.