Sunday, June 30, 2013

TWO-GUN LADY (1955)

If the movie TWO-GUN LADY were as good as its poster I'd love it. Sadly, it's not even half as good as the poster.

The film was just another dashed off ten cent oater that came and went without anyone taking notice. It's mostly notable today because it stars Peggie (spelled with a Y here) Castle, Marie Windsor, and William Talman--all excellent film noir stars. Its notable qualities end there, however, because none of these charismatic and capable actors get to do much.

Castle is the lady of the title, a sharp-shooter whose trying to track down her father's killer. Windsor plays the harpy who's in her way, and Talman plays the lawman Castle eventually falls in love with.

When William Talman is your romantic leading man you're in trouble. Talman is most famous today for playing Perry Mason's hapless legal opponent, the DA Hamilton Burger, but he's better known to noir fans as the deranged pyscho of a half dozen fifties thrillers, most memorably in Ida Lupino's THE HITCH-HIKER. He was a fine actor and a striking screen presence, but watching him suck in his gut and try to play a love scene with beautiful Peggie Castle is just painful. (Maybe it was painful for him as well. He looks miserable.)

For me the biggest sin here is that the film is so flaccid and uninspired. Look at the that poster again. It promises a firecracker leading lady kicking ass and looking good doing it. Peggie Castle was a wonderful actress, but she's miscast as a woman of passion. She was a cool screen presence rather than a hot one. Of course, she could have been excellent a killer coldly seeking revenge, but the film doesn't even consider that possibility. Instead, what we get is one boring expository scene after another, with a poorly done action sequence thrown in occasionally.



     

Friday, June 28, 2013

Rave Review for THE POSTHUMOUS MAN





In the latest issue of Crime Factory, Eva Dolan gives THE POSTHUMOUS MAN a rave review.

A bit of what she has to say:

THE POSTHUMOUS MAN is a lesson in the art of the novella, with spare prose, striking set-pieces and big themes distilled down into a few perfectly conceived moments, it is the kind of book you will find yourself thinking about for days after you finish it.

To read the first chapter of the THE POSTHUMOUS MAN click here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some Thoughts On SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE In The Wake OF MAN OF STEEL


I saw MAN OF STEEL the other day, and I liked it. I didn't love it, as some people seem to. And I didn't hate it, as an equal amount of people seem to. It hit me right down the middle--I liked it more than GREEN LANTERN or THOR but not as much as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER or THE DARK KNIGHT.

It did put me in the mind to rewatch Richard Donner's SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, a movie I loved as a child but haven't watched in a while. 

Here are some observations from my viewing last night [Note, I'm assuming readers will have seen both films]:

1. SUPERMAN was probably the last charming superhero movie. Despite the grandeur of the opening Krypton scenes and the big action set pieces later on, the spirit of the thing is gentle and fun. It takes its source material seriously (at times, too seriously--Exhibit A: Marlon Brando's plagiarism of John 3:16), but overall it's got a light touch. It is, in a word, charming.

2. It owes a great deal of its charm to Christopher Reeve. He's beautiful here--part sly comedian, part stalwart hero. What's interesting, though, is the way Reeve occupies a delightful middle ground between those two poles most of the time. His Superman has a sense of humor, a wit that appreciates the absurdity of his situation--both in and out of his cape. Contrast this with, say, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and you'll see the difference. Downey's Stark has charisma--as an actor, Downey exudes charisma like a pheromone--which is what makes the Iron Man movies so much fun. But charisma is different than charm. Tony Stark is a playboy, a badass, a jester who stands aloof from the world and mocks its absurdities. Reeve's Clark Kent is a gentle spirit--he winks rather than sneers. One approach is not innately better than the other, but it is evidence that we live in a harder climate superhero-wise. I can't think of the last charming performance in a superhero role.

3. Henry Cavil is playing a different character than Reeve. His Clark Kent is more neurotic, harder around the edges, less of a boy scout. He's closer to Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne than Reeve's Clark Kent.

4. The Krypton in SUPERMAN is a really original idea for an alien planet. I don't know enough to say whether or not it adheres to the Krypton of the comic books pre-John Byrne (Byrne's 1980s run on Superman is really all I know of the books), but it doesn't look like anything else in the movies. The block-ice surface of the planet, the giant dome, the weird crystal technology--it all stays fresh. The Krypton in MAN OF STEEL, in contrast, looks a lot like a planet that would have been in one of the STAR WARS prequels.

5. The first ten minutes or so of MAN OF STEEL are, all on their own, pretty bad. A lot of exposition, a lot of derivative sets, and a lot of action that's standard action movie fisticuffs. And Michael Shannon screams a lot. In short, it's a lot.

6. SUPERMAN has Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Superman's adoptive parents. (Two film noir icons, btw.) Both are excellent and create, in just a couple of brief scenes, the sense of middle-American groundness that Clark takes with him the rest of the movie. Brando got paid a heap of cash to play Jor-El, but less of him is more. (The expanded director's cut of the film has way too much Brando. It starts to feel like he's popping up just to justify his huge payday rather than to serve any story purpose.) Glenn Ford, on the other hand, is in the movie for about five minutes and has more emotional impact.

7. In MAN OF STEEL, Kevin Costner pretty much does to Russell Crowe what Ford did to Brando. Then again, maybe I'm just more partial to Kansas farmers than Kryptonian scientists. That's a distinct possibility.

8. Margot Kidder gets criticized by certain folks because she's not hot enough to be Lois Lane. Which misses the point. She's spunky and quirky--like a girl reporter in a 30s newspaper movie. Another actress might have disappeared in that role. Kidder gives it a nice screwball twist. [Amy Adams in MAN OF STEEL is good in a more conventionally written role. She plays the role straight, and the filmmakers make the brilliantly simple choice to have Lois discover Clark is Supes before he even attempts the whole Clark Kent charade. Doing this deftly sidesteps one of the biggest obstacles in accepting their romance.)

9. Gene Hackman pretty much invented the way you play a super villain. Part funny, part scary. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Tom Hiddleston owes him a debt. [Michael Shannon's Zod gets better as MAN OF STEEL goes on, mostly because he gets to stop and take the occasional breath. The opening scenes have him at full pitch--and Shannon hits a high pitch--but the actor is better when he ramps up to fury. He's the master of the slow burn that explodes in rage. I love Michael Shannon. He's one of my favorite actors and he does a good job with this role, but as a character Zod is pretty much a one dimensional would-be dictator. I hope that in the sequel we get a character with a little more nuance.]

10. The debate over MAN OF STEEL's ending is overblown. Yes, Superman isn't a killer, but he's a warrior and sometimes people die. Remember that Zod dies in SUPERMAN II as well. Though, just to be clear, in MAN OF STEEL I don't know why Superman didn't either sweep Zod's legs or throw up his hand to block Zod's heat vision. [Wow. I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.] For that matter, here's one last word on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: when Lois dies at the end and Superman turns back time to save her (never been sure exactly how he did that, by the way) wouldn't he also have turned back everything else? Wouldn't some of the people he saved in the previous scenes now perish? That ending never made any damn sense.      

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Robert Mitchum: The King Of Noir

All hail Robert Mitchum! With all due love and respect to Bogart, Ryan, Hayden, and McGraw there really can only be one King Of Noir--that sleepy-eyed devil with the I-Don't-Care attitude.

I argue my case for King Bob over at Criminal Element. In the first of two parts, I track his early years as a teenage drifter to his rise as a Hollywood leading man. In the second part, I follow his later years, his work in neo-noir, and the end of his life.

An observation that I didn't make in the essay but that I wanted to make here: one of the main reasons that Mitchum starred in so many good noirs is that he was the biggest star at RKO, which was the leading producer of noirs during the classic era of the genre (film historian Eddie Muller calls RKO "the house of noir"). While there, he was a personal favorite of RKO president Howard Hughes, who not only excused the actor after his potentially career-ending drug bust (had he been another studio he might well have been fired) but also cast him in some of his best noirs (WHERE DANGER LIVES and ANGEL FACE). Hughes singlehandedly destroyed RKO through bizarre mismanagement, but in at least in this one instance his obsessions paid off.

To read The King Of Noir: Part I click here.
To read The King of Noir: Part II click here.   


Friday, June 7, 2013

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

Director Sam Fuller's masterpiece PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is now sixty years old, but it's lost none of its punch. In some ways, this cynical story of a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) and a prostitute (Jean Peters) who try to navigate a maze of cops and Commies is more pungent and thrilling than ever. Two of noir's greatest antiheroes in one of the best movies of the 1950s--but given the current headlines about domestic spying, Fuller's cynicism seems uniquely fitted for our times.

Check out my new essay on the film over at Criminal Element.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)

I don't know of a better film from the silent era than Victor Sjostrom's masterpiece THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. Of course, that's just another way of saying that I don't know of one that I like better. I suppose plenty of people would nominate Lang's METROPOLIS or Griffith's INTOLERANCE or von Stroheim's GREED--and while those are great films, all three of them seem to groan under the weight of their own ambition. They were all conceived as epics of one kind or another, as proof of the greatness of their makers.

I'm not knocking ego, and I'm not suggesting that Sjostrom was immune to ego, but I am saying that THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is a film that is as ambitious as any film of its time without drawing attention to how ambitious it is. There are no grand sets or outlandish shooting locales, just a sprawling story of life and death, of sin and redemption.

The movie stars Sjostrom himself as David Holm, a drunk who has abandoned his long suffering wife and two small children. He's drinking away New Year's Eve with a couple of friends, recalling how his deceased friend Georges once told him a legend that the last soul to die on New Year's Eve was forced to drive Death's carriage for the next year, collecting the souls of the recently departed, and bearing witness to unrelenting suffering.

I hesitate to disclose much more of the plot--and I recommend that would-be viewers stay clear of such details--because one of the pleasures of the film is the way it unfolds information through an intricate series of flashbacks that keep pulling us into the past while adding drama to the present. For people who think Welles (or, hell, Tarantino) invented the backtracking narrative, this film should come as a shock. Here's a story that is as densely packed as a great novel (it was based on the novel KORKARLEN by Selma Lagerlof), that respects our ability to keep up and follow along. This pays off toward the end, as the story builds to some of the most intense moments in silent cinema. (Without giving anything away: there's a moment toward the end of this movie that is as suspenseful as anything in NOSFERATU.)

At the time, the film was famous for its central special effect: the sophisticated use of double exposures that gives Death's carriage and the souls of the departed the apparitional quality of ghosts. While this effect, on a technological level, has today been rendered little more than a camera trick, its aesthetic impact in the film itself is undeniable. These images, over 90 years old as I write this, have a haunted quality that's only been compounded over time. David Holm's dark odyssey with death is as powerful now as it's ever been. Maybe more.

Having said all that, the film does have a decidedly disappointing ending. It's difficult to say whether or not the ending disappoints because it adheres to outdated notions of redemption--and I mean "outdated" only in the sense that the type of modern audience likely to see the film today has probably already rejected the idea of spiritual redemption. (The type of movie geeks who watch silent Swedish masterpieces are a pretty agnostic lot.) But perhaps the ending here disappoints because it adheres to melodramatic convention as a way to tie up a story that has otherwise been richly textured and brutally fatalistic. 

So is the ending a reflection of the glory of spiritual redemption, or is glorious spiritual redemption itself just a story some people like to tell themselves, a kind of tacked-on happy ending to life's preordained bummer of an ending? I guess it depends on your religion.

The most famous fan of the film was Ingmar Bergman, a disciple of Sjostrom who would later cast the great director as the old professor in WILD STRAWBERRIES. Watching Bergman's films, you can see the director wrestling with THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE-- most clearly in THE SEVENTH SEAL, in which the characters face the spectral figure of death without the benefit of either melodramatic or spiritual redemption; but also in something like WINTER LIGHT, in which a priest who loses his faith manages to find a redemption of sorts.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is available in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection, which is available for streaming on HuluPlus.