May 22, 2012

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The post-WWII economic expansion exploded in 1950, as the GI Bill’s low mortgage rates stoked a housing boom and pent-up consumer demand propped up retail. Success was there for the taking, but not for all. Two early 50s films that are hitting home video in impressive transfers,  Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950, on DVD 5/29 from Olive Films) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953, now out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), documented some of the anxieties caused by this enormous upheaval in American life, what would be the start of the greatest stretch of economic growth in U.S. history. More money meant more crime, and The Big Heat is a nightmare rendering of the American Dream, as good cop  Glenn Ford loses his nuclear family and just goes nuclear. The Lawless is an earnest morality play about the plight of migrant fruit pickers in Southern California, doing the work Americans left for office gigs (by 1956 a majority of U.S. workers held white rather than blue collar jobs).

The Big Heat is premised on a divide, the one between Detective Dave Bannion’s middle class abode, a blandly utilitarian ranch house, and the glittering homes and hangouts of the criminal class, like hired muscle Vince Stone’s (Lee Marvin) plush penthouse apartment. As Tom Gunning wrote in his seminal Films of Fritz Lang, The Big Heat, “moves through this contradictory environment whose smooth surfaces mask the fissure  between the good life for the few and the cramped and hectic worlds of the mass of people”.

It was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Fritz Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Lang renders Boehm’s straightforward revenge tale with an abstracted intensity, the cold open suicide rendered in massive disembodied close-up of a hand on a revolver, followed by an off-screen gunshot. Lang does not use an establishing shot, breaking the film into pieces that Detective Bannion will struggle to re-connect.

Ford is unduly stressed throughout, on the perpetual edge of exhaustion, his speech clipped into little shotgun blasts of bile that anticipate Charles Bronson’s monotonal delivery a decade or so later. Even when in possession of his nuclear home, he seems uneasy, the jollity forced. His wife, played by Jocelyn Brando, emits a generic housewifely cheer, as if Bannion just wandered onto the set of the Donna Reed Show (which wouldn’t premiere until 1958, but please indulge me). When Bannion’s home is emptied out, it feels more like reality, and the middle-class fantasy the dream. Seeing the rage in Bannion’s eyes, an ex-partner on the force tells him, “you’re on a hate binge.” And so he is, blithely stampeding into Lagana’s nightclubs and mansion, more locales in which he doesn’t belong, with his old dark trenchcoat and faded fedora, suspicious of everyone and belonging nowhere. It is with the entry of Debby Marsh, that childishly erotic creation of Gloria Grahame, that Bannion finds another lost soul, uncomfortable in furs and then in her own skin, when Vince Stone famously scars her face with a pot of coffee (off-screen, like the suicide). Their bond is brief but intense, as each have been ripped away from their place in society. Debby tells a fellow female schemer that they are “sisters under the mink”, but she and Bannion are comrades in hate.

The Lawless was the second film Joseph Losey directed in Hollywood, and he would only be able to make three more before he was blacklisted and had to move overseas. He followed up the anti-war fable The Boy With Green Hair (1948) with this socially conscious drama, which he shot on location in Marysville and Grass Valley, CA in 18 days. He would continue to exploit real locations in his work, used to spectacular effect inThe Prowler (1951) and his remake of Lang’s (1951), in which Southern California becomes a tomb of broken American dreams.

The script was written by Daniel Mainwaring (using his  pseudonym as a mystery novelist, Geoffrey Homes), who would also come under some scrutiny by HUAC, although he was able to work sporadically during that period. Mainwaring’s script hearkens back to the social-realist films of the ’30s, like King Vidor’s ode to communal living, Our Daily Bread, within a completely different political landscape. Anything that smacked of Communism was suspect, so the film’s plea for racial tolerance, and unflattering portrayal of the local police force, came under scrutiny from the Production Code Administration’s Joseph Breen. Here is his amazing note to the film’s distributor, Paramount, as reproduced in the AFI Catalog:

The shocking manner in which the several gross injustices are heaped upon the head of the confused, but innocent young American of Mexican extraction, and the willingness of so many of the people in your story to be a part of, and to endorse, these injustices, is, we think, a damning portrayal of our American social system. The manner in which certain of the newspapers are portrayed in this story, with their eagerness to dishonestly present the news, and thus inflame their readers, is also, we think, a part of a pattern which is not good. The over-all effect of a story of this kind made into a motion picture would be, we think, a very definite disservice to this country of ours, and to its institutions and its ideals….This whole undertaking seems to us to be fraught with very great danger.

However great the danger, Paramount did not greatly alter the film, in which circulation-obsessed newspapermen rile up the public into a frenzy around the story of Mexican “fruit tramp” Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios), accused of killing a cop. Already convicted in the court of public opinion, only the stalwart editor Larry Wilder (MacDonald Carey) stands to defend the kid, inflaming the populace to ransack his office. It’s a scene of destructive power, one of the few instances where the theme is illustrated by action rather than static speechifying. This reckless, irrational demolition of a newspaper office, fueled by race hatred, dwarfs the liberal pieties of the rest of the film, which turns Wilder into the hero at the expense of Rodriguez. In plotting action, mostly in long takes, Losey proves he could express his social critique through more subtle means, which he would succeed at in the haunting machinations of The Prowler, one of the great films of 50s middle-class malaise, right alongside The Big Heat.

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