Friday, December 8, 2017
We need to cycle the cliche "one of the greatest ___ of all time" out of our language. Of all time is a long time. It's a long ass time. It's forever. It is literally forever.
I am guilty of this myself. I'm just a sinner who's seen the light. For instance, in the past I have referred to the odd film as "one the greatest movies of all time" as if the movies themselves were ancient pillars of culture rather than an art form that came along at basically the same time as the toaster oven. (I've seen certain comic book flicks referred to as "one of the greatest superhero movies of all time" which makes the point even more strongly, since, historically speaking, the superhero movie is still teething.)
Like all cliches, the greatest whatever of all time cliche is just a dumbing down of language, an empty superlative in place of an actual opinion. This kind of inflation of language serves different functions. For one thing, it imbues the speaker with a sense of superiority. After all, if I declare some novel one of the greatest novels of all time, then I am claiming for myself the authority not just to declare a novel good or great, but to declare its virtues to be eternal.
This appeal to the eternal is revealing. Our language so often reveals us to ourselves. For instance, I've rarely seen the "all time" cliche bandied about in praise of the works of art that have an actual legitimate claim to antiquity. Homer's ODYSSEY has as good a claim to the mantle of "the greatest work of literature of all time" as anything (if we shrink the eternity implicit in the phrase "of all time" to mean the few thousand years of human life on earth), but we rarely see it referenced that way. Instead, the "greatest of all time" mantle is usually trotted out for rock bands and quarterbacks. And the relative newness of rock bands and football players is, I think, a key to the cliche's appeal. A lot of people love THE ODYSSEY but even its most fervent fans probably don't feel that the epic poem is evocative of their youth. The kind of people most likely to declare The Beatles the greatest band of all time are the kind of people most likely to feel an personal emotional connection to The Beatles. Ditto Joe Montana (or your quarterback of choice).
The inclination to declare something a part of the canon is an inclination to declare your own feelings part of the process by which we decide the canon. I love the Beatles, too. Will their music really hold the same beloved status in another thousand years? I doubt it. I really do. I suspect music, language, and culture will change so immeasurably that the Beatles will be a historical fragment of a bygone society. It's entirely likely that the feelings roused in me by a great Beatles song will no longer rouse feelings in people a thousand years from now. (The opposite is true. There's no reason to think ancient people would have liked the Beatles anymore than old people did in 1965.) Which is another way of saying that our feelings aren't eternal. It's more than possible that the things I've loved will fade in their impact over time.
Perhaps this is why the things that have lasted the longest (in both duration and impact) are the very works of art that claimed actual divine authorship. John Lennon once said that people tried to make a religion out of the Beatles, and he was right. People are still trying.
We say "nothing lasts forever" but we don't really believe it. We're constantly grasping after the eternal. And these things we declare eternal--books, songs, movies, sports figures--are fragments of an ever scattering past, fragments of our own dissipating lives.
Monday, November 13, 2017
Friday, October 27, 2017
Between the period that he became a groundbreaking theater director and the period when he became a groundbreaking film director, Orson Welles was a groundbreaking radio director. Actually, these periods all overlapped in the mad days of the 1930s when Welles seemed to be everywhere, doing just about everything. His film work has, of course, seized the attention of the most people, if for no other reason than it is the work that's been most readily available to the public. His theater works, as all theater works, live on mostly in reports and stories and legends. (God, I'm pining for someone to put out a new exhaustive exploration of his theater work spanning from the 30s to the 60s.) For those interested in his radio work, however, there is wonderful news from Indiana University.
The Lily Library in Bloomington, the guardian of the largest collection of Welles's papers and archival materials, has a magnificent new resource available to the public.
Orson Welles On The Air collects much of Welles's prolific radio work as a director, actor, political commentator, and master of ceremonies. Included are the series' FIRST PERSON SINGULAR, MERCURY THEATER ON THE AIR, CAMPBELL PLAYHOUSE, THE ORSON WELLES SHOW, HELLO AMERICANS, ORSON WELLES COMMENTARIES, and more. Much more. It's fascinating to see Welles alternate between his roles as an entertainer (mounting a thrilling version of "Dracula" or his famous panic-inducing take on "War of the Worlds") to his work as a social critic (including his five episode campaign on ORSON WELLES COMMENTARIES calling for an investigation into the 1945 beating and blinding of an African American serviceman named Issac Woodard in South Carolina).
Welles is back on the air where he belongs. Go check it out.
Monday, October 16, 2017
I'm really proud to be associated with the Film Noir Foundation and its journal NOIR CITY. Published and edited by FNF honcho and host of TCM's NOIR ALLEY Eddie Muller, it's one of the best movie journals around. The new issue is out and it's pretty damn great. There two pieces by Imogen Sara Smith, who's certainly my favorite writer on film working today. She's got a piece on Jean-Pierre Melville and another on the 1929 silent noir A STRONG MAN. Alan K. Rode writes about the great, if not widely known, screenwriter Frank Fenton. And there's a lot more.
Oh yeah, there's me. I have a couple pieces in this issue. One is a epic overview of the massive influence of Georges Simenon on European film noir. Adaptations of his novels started with Jean Renoir in the early days of sound and have extended to the present, so there's A LOT of territory to cover. It was a blast to write.
The other piece is a look at the film version of ALL THE KING'S MEN, the film about a blowhard populist politician who sweeps to power by inflaming his white rural base. Total fantasy stuff.
You can learn about about the magazine and the Film Noir Foundation here.
Friday, October 13, 2017
above: Joan Bennett in a publicity still for THE RECKLESS MOMENT
Holding's book was made into the brilliant 1949 Joan Bennett noir THE RECKLESS MOMENT, and was then adapted fifty years later into the excellent 2001 Tilda Swinton neo-noir THE DEEP END. Three very different works of high quality. That's an incredible feat.
I wrote about the book and its cinematic legacy in a recent piece for the Book vs Film column for the magazine Noir City. Here's a link to the article. Check it out.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
When director John Reinhardt returned from his military service after World War II, he began making films that were different in tone from the kind of movies he’d specialized in before the war. In his early days in Hollywood, Reinhardt had worked in the rather obscure world of foreign film production at big studios like Fox and Paramount, mostly making small Spanish-language comedies and musicals. During the war, Reinhardt had worked for the OSS under the command of John Ford. When he returned to movie making in 1947, however, Reinhardt began toiling in the world of low budget independent productions. His work from that time forward would be darker, suffused with a sense of paranoia, overhung by a deep pessimism.
His 1948 thriller OPEN SECRET is an underrated entry in the run of films dealing with anti-Semitism that were released after the war (and following the revelations of the Nuremberg Trials). Studio pictures like CROSSFIRE and GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT had already brought the subject into American movie theaters, but OPEN SECRET, in its low rent way, is a more honest handling of the topic.
The story follows newlyweds Paul and Nancy Lester (John Ireland and Jane Randolph) who have arrived in an unnamed town to visit Ed, Paul’s old Army buddy. When Ed goes missing, Paul and Nancy start poking around. Turns out Ed has some pretty unsavory connections to a gang of white supremacists who operate out of a nearby dive bar called The 19th Hole. Did Ed really fall for neo-Nazi claptrap? How does a local Jewish storeowner named Strauss (George Tyne) figure into this?
Like many of Reinhardt’s independent productions, OPEN SECRET has a quick running time (67 minutes), a notably small budget, and limited sets. Reinhardt uses the constraints to great effect, though, to create a mood of near constant oppression and claustrophobia. The very smallness of the film becomes a reflection of the smallness of the lives of the characters. Consider The 19th Hole. Strauss sarcastically calls it the “local country club.” What it actually is, though, is a dank, dimly lit box where a group of haggard-looking men sit around drinking and blaming the waste of their lives on “foreigners.” Beneath plumes of cigarette smoke they stare into shot glasses and grumble about their shrinking prospects.
If the film demonstrates the best qualities of Reinhardt’s work, it also bears some of his flaws as well. As is almost always the case, his female characters are weak and underdeveloped. Nancy Lester is a watery leading lady who is on hand mostly to wait around for her husband. The character actress Anne O’Neal lurks around corners as Ed’s landlady, but while her presence adds to the claustrophobia of the piece, there’s really nothing to her character besides her lurking. The one moment with a female character that rings true is an effective speech by Helena Dare as the abused wife of one of the gang members wherein she explains that he knocks her around to make himself feel big — tying his domestic abuse to the white male supremacy line his crew promulgates.
In a sense, of course, a film like OPEN SECRET was several years too late. Had this same film been released in 1940 it likely would have been so controversial it would have been the subject of Congressional hearings. After the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, however, any statement against anti-Semitism and Nazism was rendered rather toothless. You don’t get many points for being right after the fact.
And yet, what makes OPEN SECRET an interesting film is the very fact that it follows the defeat of the Nazis but exists in a world where racism and bigotry are ongoing plagues. (In 2017, it must be said, the film feels uncomfortably relevant.) Among Reinhardt’s noirs, this is perhaps his darkest film — quite literally, since cinematographer George Robinson blankets the picture in shadows. The film begins on the street at night, and it ends the same way. In between those points there probably aren’t ten minutes of daylight in the whole picture. In John Reinhardt’s noirs, it’s always midnight in America.
Postscript: A quick word about George Tyne. In this film, he plays the plucky storeowner who helps Ireland bring down the gang. A few years after making this film, however, he was himself brought down by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was named as a Communist by actor Lee J. Cobb, and when he was called before Congress he refused to name names. He was cited for contempt of Congress and indicted by a federal grand jury in New York City. After being blacklisted he didn’t make another film for thirteen years.
NOTE: The film has recently been restored and preserved by UCLA and will be showing on Oct. 14th and 16th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of its UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Get thee to a newsstand to pick up the Fall issue of MYSTERY SCENE magazine, and check out my article on OUT OF THE PAST. The film is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, a good reason to explore how and why it has become perhaps the most beloved noir of them all.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
And here we have Suffering Saint Joan once more being led to the gallows. Joan Crawford spent most of her time in film noir enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In the thirties, she’d be a glamorous figure—a romantic icon on par (and often paired) with Gable. But by the late forties and early fifties when she made her transition into film noir, she was no longer anyone that the audience was supposed to want to emulate. She was there to suffer—either because of her own sins or because of fate itself. Either way, you knew things weren’t going to end well.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is an entry in the Tramp Sleeps Her Way To The Top subgenre of film noir. On paper, it might seem like this would be the most sexist of femme fatale offshoots. And, to be sure, there are sexist undertones to the whole affair. This movie tells the story of an unhappily married working-class woman named Ethel Whitehead. After she loses her child in an accident, Ethel leaves her husband and strikes out on her own. She gets a job modeling clothes at one of those places where a rich married man buys an outfit for the wife and tries to rent the model for himself. Ethel starts running through these guys, picking up dinner and some cash, until she can position herself to come into some real money. Eventually, this leads her into a relationship with some shady characters like George Castleman (David Brian) and Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Both of these guys have feelings for her, but she’s always working an angle. Soon enough, though, she underestimates one of them, and then pretty much everything goes to hell.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY and films like it have a structure that is one part cliché and one part Production Code mandate. Throughout the classic period of noir, ambition was treated with a mixture of admiration and distain, and ambitious women got it especially rough. A movie like this has a simple message: a woman is not supposed to leave her husband, no matter what, and certainly not because she wants a better life. She will invariably find that no such life exists, that only heartache and pain await her in the end.
These hoary old clichés went back to the earliest days of film, and by 1950 the Production Code had long since turned them into law. The woman who would use sex to get what she wants from men is a woman who must be punished.
What makes THE DAMNED DON’T CRY interesting is the way it does due diligence to the mandate for moral comeuppance while at the same time placing us in the corner of the beleaguered protagonist. This film would make a good companion piece to the 1956 WICKED AS THEY COME starring Arlene Dahl in a similar role. Both movies situate their damned and wicked women in dire economic circumstances and then watch as they try to fight their way out with the only weapon they have: sex. There’s a subversive element to both movies. Though both have obligatory punishment at the end, there’s no doubt whose side we’re on. It’s strange, really, how these films work. By the end, they’ve become tragedies of a certain noir hue.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is powered by Crawford’s performance. Here was a movie star. She can play it halting and sweet—as in the early scenes with her young son. And she can play it mean and dirty. The movie gives her a lot of lines that crackle, as when she sets one hapless suitor straight on his world view:
I know how you feel. You're a nice guy. But the world isn't for nice guys. You've got to kick and punch and belt your way up because nobody's going to give you a lift. You've got to do it yourself, because nobody cares about us except ourselves.
Crawford sells these lines with the combined weight of twenty years of playing scrappy working girls. Of course, she herself had lived a similar life. When she says this, you’re hearing the weight of her own life behind the words. Crawford helped, uncredited, on the script by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman, from the story by Gertrude Walker.
After this film there was more suffering to be done—in film noirs like SUDDEN FEAR or melodramas like AUTUMN LEAVES or Nicholas Ray’s gonzo western JOHNNY GUITAR—and beyond that lay the indignities of her late career horror movie roles. Here, though, you have her in something of her noir prime. We’re not supposed to like her, but we do. That was Suffering Saint Joan’s genius.
Monday, August 21, 2017
It’s easy to get in over your head when you’re only five foot two. Mickey Rooney found that out the hard way in the fifties. For much of the preceding decade he had been the chipper face of American optimism—the fast-talking little guy with the can do attitude. But Hollywood started to go dark around the time that Rooney’s star persona began to decline in public favor. Of course, the public would always like Mickey Rooney, but the postwar years coincided with the end of Rooney’s unnaturally long adolescence (only as he neared thirty years old did he age out of spunky teenager roles). He began taking on adult roles, and that meant occasional forays into Noir City. He made the excellent QUICKSAND in 1950, and then in 1954 he hit the jackpot with DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.
In the film, Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic and part-time race car driver. Without knowing it, Eddie’s caught the attention of a group of bank robbers led by Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). Norris needs a wheel man for a job he’s planning, a job which will require a driver of great skill. He dispatches his sexy girlfriend Barbara (Diane Foster) to seduce the little guy and talk him into helping them pull the job. Eddie balks at first, but he’s simply too in love with Barbara. He joins the gang for the bank heist.
What happens next is interesting. We might expect the bank job to go badly, or for Norris and his gang to stiff Eddie on the money, but the film makes a rather unexpected detour. The money, oddly enough for a film noir, isn’t really the sticking point here. The fallout and the violence that follows it are really over matters of love.
In QUICKSAND, Rooney played another mechanic who meets the wrong woman and ends up suffering for it, but in that film, he’s still got some spring in his step. Here, though, we find him playing a very different kind of role. Eddie Shannon is an odd little guy. The film uses none of the usual tricks to disguise the actor’s height. Everyone in the film, including Foster, towers over him. But the film uses his diminutive stature as a physical representation of his essential character. Shannon is quiet, even around his buddies at work, and Rooney is surprisingly effective as an introvert. Eddie Shannon is a lonely man, and the gang picks him out because he’s a lonely man.
This makes his relationship with Barbara all the more tense. What ratchets up the emotional stakes, though, are Barbra’s conflicted feelings about her assignment. She seduces the sad little mechanic, but it’s a seduction of the heart. The two don’t even share a kiss. They talk, and she invites Shannon to dream big dreams for the first time in his life. He falls in love, not lust. We get the sense this job would be easier on her if it was only physical. Dianne Foster didn’t make much of an impact in films before being relegated to television and then retiring in the mid-sixties, but make no mistake about it: she was a hell of an actress. Her performance here is topnotch.
The entire film is topnotch. The bank robbery, for instance, gains tension by staying in the car with the getaway driver. And the mad dash that follows the robbery, as Shannon and the robbers race down a twisted back road in order to get to the highway before roadblocks can be set up, is a nail-biting blend of back projection and stunt driving. This kind of thing was often done badly in older films (indeed, the first shots of this movie are a pretty poor display of sloppy back projection), but Shannon’s race through the desert is a fine piece of action direction.
The film was directed by Richard Quine and written by Quine and his frequent collaborator Blake Edwards (James Benson Nablo). Both Quine and Edwards started out as actors, and both usually specialized in comedy. This might explain the wealth of snappy lines in DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, as when Norris tells a drunk girl at a party, “Dear love, why don’t you go somewhere and pass out like a lady?” It doesn’t explain, though, the aura of heartbreak that hovers over the film. This is one of the saddest of noirs — the story of lonely man who’s taken for a sucker by a gang of sharks. Throughout, Quine directs with intelligence and restraint. The final scenes here, as Shannon confronts the woman he loves and finds out the awful truth about her and the handsome bank robber, are both exciting and tragic.
Richard Quine was himself a tragic case. A gifted director, his life was beset by misfortune. In 1945, his wife, actress Susan Peters, accidently shot and crippled herself in a hunting accident. As Peters fell into a deep depression, their marriage faltered and after they divorced in 1948, Peters got worse and in 1952 starved herself to death. Quine struggled to find his equilibrium. Working at Columbia he was confined mostly to comedies, though in 1954 he made both DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD and the excellent Fred McMurray/Kim Novak film PUSHOVER. During PUSHOVER, he had a brief but intense affair with Novak that ended with her leaving him at the altar. Quine eventually married actress Fran Jeffries, and directed a string of successful comedies, but he remained a fundamentally sad, troubled man. In 1989, he shot and killed himself in his home in Beverly Hills.
Rooney’s career continued its decline after this film, of course, and he never came close to reclaiming his box office mantle. Perhaps more importantly, he never really reclaimed his place in the culture. As the years have gone on, the Andy Hardy movies that made him an American symbol are more and more relics of the past. They have historical importance, of course, but I don’t get the sense that Mickey Rooney has had anything like the longevity of Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. A lot of kids still watch Temple. And every kid I know still loves the THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is just lucky that he got teamed so many times with Garland before she outgrew him.
All of which is to say that as Rooney’s big hits dim in the distance, there is more room to evaluate some of his later work. And his work in noir — particularly QUICKSAND and the 1951 musical noir THE STRIP — are very good. And one film, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD — might be the best thing he ever did.
Note: DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD will be showing next week at Noir City Chicago.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
I was pleased to be a recent guest on the podcast NOIR TALK. Host Haggai Elitzur and I discussed my profiles of Tom Neal and Peggie Castle, my adventures on book tours in France, what it's like to attended Noir City Chicago, and much more. Check it out here.
Friday, August 4, 2017
The website Book Scrolling has placed my novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET on its list of the Best Noir Novels of all time. While I'm dubious of lists of the all time greatest anything, I am absolutely gratified to be be included on any list that includes the likes of Cain, Hughes, Simenon, and Thompson. So a big thanks to the folks at Book Scrolling.
It's a funny thing to have HOCS included on this list when the book is currently out of print. As some people may know, the last publisher of HOCS, 280 Steps, went out of business not long ago. I could have immediately placed the book elsewhere, but I want to shop it around. I'm slow about these things, and I'm going to finish the current novel I'm working on so I can sell them as a pair, making the process even slower. I'm satisfied in my own mind that this is the smart way to go about the process of placing HOCS in its next home.
So I said all of that to say that I'm especially grateful to Book Scrolling for reminding people of my little book. HELL ON CHURCH STREET changed my life. It gave me a career in writing, it took me to France, and it has introduced me to many wonderful people. So I want to right by it. I'm glad it's still out there in the world making a little noise.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR is an amazing piece of art made all the more amazing by the fact that it doesn't really work. Of all of Chaplin's major films, it is the most disjointed, the one that least holds together as a unified production. Tellingly, after this film, he would struggle to find his footing in a world and an industry that kept changing.
And yet, paradoxically, few people would argue against the supposition that THE GREAT DICTATOR is one of Chaplin's most important works.
The film, of course, was Chaplin's courageous stand against Hitler and Nazism. Context is everything in appreciating the film today, so it is important to begin any discussion of THE GREAT DICTATOR by pointing out that when Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and financed the film, Hitler was at his zenith. America was officially neutral in the matter of the "war in Europe" and many Americans (more than we like to remember) supported Hitler's racist vision of the world, or, at the very least, thought that the Nazis should be of minimal concern to the US. When Chaplin released his film, then, he wasn't satirizing the biggest ghoul in our history books, the monster who has come to personify evil in the modern world. He was satirizing the Chancellor of Germany, a seemingly ridiculous little man, albeit a man whose ambitions were growing by the day and whose murderous rampage against the people of Europe had only just begun.
All of this makes THE GREAT DICTATOR a source of immense fascination today. Even more than most films, it is an historical document. It was never, ever, just a movie. This was the most famous movie star alive making a desperate plea to stop a rapidly unfolding tragedy.
Yet it is also, of course, just a movie. And as a movie, it is flawed. By this point, Chaplin had been directing movies for three decades and had done the bulk of his work in the teens and '20s. In the '30s, he had directed only two films: CITY LIGHTS (1931) and MODERN TIMES (1936). Now, those films are arguably his best works as a director, but by 1940 he was a long way from the time when he had dominated American film (or, really, world film). At his peak, he might well have been the biggest star that the movies ever produced, and he was as respected a director as any filmmaker alive, but he was also, in 1940, a middle-aged man who had become a star when movies themselves were just being formed, a director from a different era.
THE GREAT DICTATOR shows signs of his age. It is a curious mix of tones and styles, a fractured artistic statement. The comedy that we remember the film for is the broad satire of Hitler, with Chaplin playing "Adenoid Hynkel" as a preening buffoon spewing hate while he pours water down his pants. Much of the humor is big and simple, with the little dictator doing pratfalls or bumping his head. This tepid take on Hitler is, if you will forgive the comparison, somewhat akin to making fun of Donald Trump's hair. It has no bite, and it's not satirizing anything of consequence. At other times, however, the film's humor is darkly pointed, as in the scene where Nazi-like stormtroopers attempt to lynch a Jewish barber also played by Chaplin. Doing a lynching scene as slapstick is, to put it mildly, a tricky business. Yes, it's making fun of the hateful idiots with the rope, but the underlying reality of the scene is disturbing. Atrocities like this, as Chaplin well knew, were actually happening in countries across Europe and they had their analogue in the rampant racial violence in America.
All of this points to an uneasy balance of concerns for the filmmaker to juggle throughout THE GREAT DICTATOR. Chaplin, in his heart, was a vaudeville performer hustling for laughs (and, in a larger sense, for love). There's a scene where the little barber, in the midst of an anti-Semitic attack, gets bopped on the head and does a little wobbly shuffle up and down the sidewalk. This is the kind of gag that we've seen in Chaplin shorts, the enjoyment of which is based on our delight in the performer's fleet-footed dexterity. But that delight is impossible to reconcile with the actual setting of the action. It's as if Chaplin is stopping his dark satire of Nazism to say, "Aren't I still the cutest thing you ever saw?"
The most famous comic bit in the film is dictator's ballet with a bouncing inflated globe of the world. If some of the movie's slapstick is flatfooted (the sluggish opening scenes set in WWI seem to drag on), this scene showed that the old master was still able to create indelible images. There's something sweetly ridiculous in the mad little monster playing with the world, only to have it pop in his face when he gets too excited.
By the end, however, "sweetly ridiculous" isn't a tone Chaplin could bring himself to conclude with. Of course, the filmmaker didn't know the extent of Hitler's madness, nor could he have even conceived of the horrifying complicity of Hitler's people. But enough had transpired already that Chaplin chose to end his film by abandoning comedy altogether and giving the Jewish barber a lengthy speech of striking prescience and power.
He tells the Nuremberg-like rally:
"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed."
This passionate speech, deadly serious and delivered with blistering intensity by the actor, has no organic reason to be in the same movie with goofy pratfalls and old "he doesn't realize he's hanging upside down" gags, but it is, of course, the most important part of the film. This isn't Chaplin making fun of Hitler's mustache or overblown rhetorical style. This is Chaplin calling out Hilter for being a violent hatemonger. This is Chaplin begging the world not to tear itself apart.
THE GREAT DICTATOR, then, is the kind of movie that never really coheres into a unified whole. It's a collection of disparate elements: sight gags, social comedy, drama, and political commentary. It's also a statement by an aging star-director who still had some spring in his step and saw that he had a responsibility to speak out against the rapidly growing influence of an ideology that was marching the world toward disaster. It's not a perfect movie, but it is, in all the ways that really matter, a great film.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Noir City Chicago returns to the Music Box Theatre August 25th to August 31st. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode will be on hand to introduce an eclectic group of films that will center around this year's theme of "The Big Knockover." I love caper films so I'm especially excited by this year's selections which include classics like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, as well as lesser known (but equally excellent) heist flicks like PLUNDER ROAD and DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD. The latter film, in my opinion, is one of the great underrated noirs. Maybe I'll run a piece on it before it shows.
Here's a link to the Noir City Chicago 2017 schedule.
Friday, July 7, 2017
Hey New York City,
I'll be at the Bryant Park Reading Room on Monday July 17th at 12:30 to discuss my book THE BLIND ALLEY. Author Scott Adlerberg, the host of the Reel Talks program , and I are going to talk all things noir, so if you can make it, I hope you'll come by and say hello.
Friday, June 30, 2017
This month The Gene Siskel Film Center, an adjunct of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been hosting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It's been a thrilling line up of classics from the greatest director of French film noir: BOB LE FLAMBEUR, LE SAMOURAI, LE CERCLE ROUGE, LE DOULOS, UN FLIC, and more. (My only regret is that they didn't show the Simenon adaptation MAGNET OF DOOM.) I've been to most showings, and the highlight for me has been a film that was new to me, LEON MORIN, PRETRE (sometimes called LEON THE PRIEST). I will write about this movie soon, because it was something of a revelation to me. I love Melville's gangster films, but this intense and deeply human look at the relationship between a communist and a priest during World War II instantly became my favorite of his films. I want to see LEON again before I write about it, though. It demands my extended contemplation.
Last night at the retrospective, I had a strikingly unique experience because the Siskel showed a Melville rarity, WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER (QUAND TU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE). Before the show, the programmer came out to tell us that there is no existing print of the film with English subtitles. Instead, they showed the film in French while an interpreter used a computer program to seamlessly project subtitles onscreen. I have to say that this gave the showing an interesting twist. The interpreter got a well-deserved round of applause at the end.
Given the relative obscurity of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER in English, I thought that I should make some notes on it for Melville fans who have not yet seen it.
The film tells the story of a postulate nun named Therese Voise (Juliette Greco) who is about to take her vows when she learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident. She leaves the convent to return home to care for her sister Denise (Irene Galter) and run the family bookstore and paper shop. At the same time, Denise meets a handsome boxer named Max Trivet (Philippe Lemarie). At first, Max appears to be a roguish charmer. When Denise isn't around, he hatches a scheme with a buddy, Biquet, who works as a bellboy at a fancy hotel, to angle for the attention (and money) of rich Mme. Faugeret. Then Max sneaks into Mme. Faugeret's room at night and seduces her--and I use the word "seduces" advisedly here because although Mme. Faugeret seems to retain her agency, their confrontation is disturbingly close to a sexual assault. After this, Mme. Faugeret sort of adopts Max as a pet, but his character only seems increasingly sinister.
The turning point in the film comes when Denise unexpectedly runs into Max at the hotel and he rapes her in Mme. Faugeret's room. Distraught, the young woman attempts suicide. After she has recovered enough to tell Therese what has the happened, the older sister forces Max at gunpoint to marry Denise.
Every viewer's take on the film will probably depend a lot on how they view Therese's actions following her sister's assault. Melville was a poet of moral ambiguity. The plot of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER might make it sound like a melodrama (and, indeed, in some ways it is), but the director rarely overplays things (one exception to this is a scene where Therese's dress catches on fire, a scene that clobbers us with its metaphors). For the most part, the tone set in the opening scenes in the convent predominates, even when the guns, sex, and twists of fate start coming into play. Max is the wild id of the film--violent, greedy, narcissistic. When he confesses his love for the tightly wound Therese, it seems like just another scheme. Therese, on on the other hand, is the film's ego (the film's superego is probably the Catholic church), and she is the one whose actions we're most interested in. She despises Max for what he's done, so her decision to force him to marry Denise is shocking. Does she do it out of some archaic sense of propriety? Does she do it because, despite everything, her sister claims to love Max? Melville and Jacques Deval let these questions hang in the air.
The cast is excellent. Galter is winsome as Denise without making her too doe-eyed, and as Max, Lemarie gives a demonically charismatic performance that manages to veer between brutality and a weird kind of innocence. When he confesses his love for Therese, it almost seems plausible that he could mean it, that she has a mysterious pull on him. What makes this work is that Max stays Max. It's not as if his attraction to Therese somehow redeems him or makes him a good guy. It's just another facet of his character. Is the film a noir? It wasn't billed as such, but I think that even if you didn't know that Melville was the director, the noir ethos of the thing comes through in Max's character and the amorality of Lemarie's performance.
As Therese, Juliette Greco is masterfully controlled. Greco is best known as an iconic singer in France, a former lover of Miles Davis and drinking buddy of people like Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sarte. In this film, however, she was 26 and just starting out in her career. What she carried with her into the film was the weight of WWII, during which she'd been put in jail by Nazis and lost her mother, a member of the French Resistance. Greco would become famous for her intensity, and, indeed, the defining attribute of her performance here is the feeling of passions contained. She can convey the sense of sublimated emotion without giving the impression of a lack of emotion. All the characters in this film are tortured by passions they can't really comprehend, but Greco hints at great depths and intelligence. The way she tells Max, "May God punish you for the rest of your life and forgive you at the hour of your death" perfectly captures the Catholic restraint that dominates even her rage. Later, after Max has physically attacked her with a rock, only to instantly repent of his violence, she rubs her aching shoulder with a look of fascinating ambiguity on her face. The curse of Max for her isn't some hothouse sexuality or the misplaced idea that she can redeem him. It's that, in his horrible way, he makes her feel alive.
WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER demands more viewings. Since it is such an obscurity, I can only hope that someone will bring it out on DVD or BluRay sometime soon. It's a haunting film.
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 tell 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 up 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.