The Killer is Loose: He Walked By Night (1948)

March 14, 2017

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948)

He Walked By Night (1948) strips the police procedural to the bone. There are no backstories or love interests, just the case at hand, rigorously filmed by director of photography John Alton and directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann (FilmStruck is streaming five Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir collaborations: T-Men [1948], Raw Deal [1948], He Walked By NightBorder Incident [1949] and Devil’s Doorway [1950]). Inspired by the 1946 crime spree of former Army Lieutenant Erwin Walker, the movie is obsessed with process, of both the cops and the killer. The police methodically trudge through witness interviews and crowdsource a sketch of the suspect, while the equally conscientious criminal attempts to wipe his identity from public record. Made in the semi-documentary style popularized by The Naked City (1948), though on a lower budget, it can be no-frills to the point of abstraction, as both sides of the law disappear into the shadows of Los Angeles’ sewer system. In late 1945, after his discharge from the army, Erwin Walker began stealing electronic equipment. He pulled off over a dozen such jobs, but he didn’t get into the news until he shot two LAPD detectives when they tried to arrest him for selling stolen goods. He then became one of the most wanted men in Los Angeles, and during the manhunt killed a Highway Patrol officer. From the court transcripts it was revealed the reasons for Walker’s burglaries: “Defendant told his friend of an idea he had of inventing an electronic radar gun, which by shooting a beam would disintegrate metal into powder, and by which they could seize control of the government and enforce legislation which would increase the cost of war to a point where it could not profitably be waged, effecting this primarily by raising to a high level the salaries paid to soldiers.” He was convicted of murder in 1947 and let out on parole in 1974.

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The script by John C. Higgins, with original story by Crane Wilbur, uses the broad outlines of Walker’s case history, though changes around some details. The Erwin Walker character is named Roy (Richard Basehart), who is introduced trying to jimmy open the lock of a jewelry store, before a black and white cop car cruises by and Roy becomes a cop killer as well as a thief. The investigation of the crime is led by Police Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) and his team of surly hulking detectives. The movie goes to great lengths to emphasize the hard work put in by the police force, which is depicted as a finely tuned watch cycling through witnesses with precision, as the voice-of-god narration nails home over and over. But as Raymond Chandler notes in one of his published letters, the police’s activities in the movie seem to skim the boundaries of legality, as they seemingly arrest everybody in the city with a passing resemblance to Roy’s description, regardless of evidence. Chandler wrote, “to me the really shocking thing about the picture was the assumption that the gestapo methods of the police are natural and proper. By what authority do they mark off an area and bring everyone inside it for questioning? This is nothing but arrest without warrant…”

This aggressive dragnet dredged up plenty of shady characters, but no one connected to Roy’s crimes. So next they create a composite sketch of Roy from all the burglary and hold-up witnesses who glimpsed his face, using slides of different facial features to jog their memories. This is orchestrated by the forensics guy Lee, played with “just the facts” bluntness by Jack Webb, who would later produce and star in Dragnet (which lifts “only the names are changed – to protect the innocent” from the opening crawl). Webb’s work on He Walked By Night led directly to the TV show, as Webb got to talking with technical advisor Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn.  Those conversations turned into Dragnet, which took He Walked By Nights minimalist approach to television.

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The cops’ big break comes on a random interview with a milkman, who had seen a man of Roy’s appearance on one of his routes. So it is a combination of new technology (the sketch slides) and old fashioned shoe leather that finally encircle Roy. Richard Basehart has very little dialogue in the film – he’s mostly reacting to noises and other stimuli that might give away his identity. It is a performance of watchful intensity, seen in gruesome detail when he has to remove a bullet from his gut. John Alton trains his camera on Basehart’s face, beads of sweat coalescing on his brow, his lips set in a line of grim determination. What makes this one of the great bullet removal scenes is the fact that it plays against silence. There is no score blaring in the background manipulating the tone, the filmmakers force it all into Basehart’s face, and it is terrifying, no more so than the little flicker of a grin that flashes across his faces after he finishes.

There has always been a question as to the film’s authorship. The directing credit is given to Alfred Werker (Repeat Performance [1947]), though there have been numerous reports that Werner was removed (or had to step down) early in production, and that Mann directed the majority of the feature. Mann collaborated with John Alton throughout this period (twice before in 1948), and the brutal physicality of the bullet removal scene, unflinching as it stares into Roy’s face, is a hallmark of Mann’s unflinching kind of cinema. But it could also be at the suggestion of John Alton, one of those cinematographers whose signature is obvious a few frames into a movie, and He Walked By Night is filled with serrated shadows thrown by blinds in cheap offices. Max Alvarez, in The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, goes farthest in trying to assign credit for the feature. He interviewed dialogue director Stewart Stern, who said, “I don’t remember the reason Tony took over. I think Werker got sick. I think I got a call telling me that I would have to replace Werker the next day. Then Tony appeared and I’ve never been more relieved in my life! I don’t think Werker worked a day on that, but I’m not sure.” So while the timeline is unclear, and Werker may have had some influence for an early part of the shoot, it seems clear that Mann directed the majority of the film, and it is generally considered part of his filmography, part of his incredible 1948 that also includes Raw Deal and T-Men, two other crime docudramas that push the illusion of reality.

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For most of its running time He Walked By Night is relentlessly focused on process, on the next clue or the next interview. The remarkable closing sequence in the sewers, which precedes a similar scene in The Third Man by a year, finds Roy using the underground tunnels as his getaway, though the cops have been sealing off the exits. Alton streams in shafts of light offscreen that reflect off the pooled water but keep Roy in shadows. Roy keeps searching for a manhole cover to emerge out of but they are stopped up by the cops. This elusive cipher, who always had an alternate escape route, is now trapped and mortal. His death is framed not as a triumph but as the natural result of an effective police force. It is a clinical and menacing end to this brutally efficient noir.

BLOOD MONEY: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

May 10, 2016

ct-too-late-for-tears-20140828After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s source, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, complete with Alan K. Rode audio commentary and a highly informative essay by Brian Light. Too Late for Tears Poster (2)Too Late For Tears originated in a novel by Roy Huggins, which was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in April and May of 1947. The rights were snapped up by United States Pictures (who had an output deal with Warner Brothers), but were soon passed on to independent operator Hunt Stromberg, who planned it to be his follow up to his Douglas Sirk thriller Lured, which was opening that September. Stromberg had been one of MGM’s top producers in the 1930s, overseeing The Thin Man series, Best Picture Winner The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Cukor’s The Women. He started his career in the silents as an independent producer, and he returned to that role in 1943, starting Hunt Stromberg Productions with the Barbara Stanwyck hit Lady in Burlesque. But Lured failed to perform at the box office, and Stromberg struggled to find financing for Too Late For Tears. It took him two years to cobble together an “unusual” deal, per the New York Times, in which Republic Pictures would provide studio facilities and financing for a film that United Artists would distribute. Republic normally distributed their own product, but here would “participate heavily in the profits” instead – though none were in the offing. The desired cast of Joan Crawford and Kirk Douglas failed to materialize, so instead Stromberg brokered yet another deal, borrowing Lizabeth Scott, Don DeFore, and director Byron Haskin from Hal Wallis. Publicity_still_for_-Too_Late_for_Tears-_(1949)Roy Huggins was retained to adapt his book into the screenplay, and according to Brian Light’s essay the film hews closely to the novel. It is about Alan (Arthur Kennedy) and Jane (Lizabeth Scott) Parker, a bickering couple who can’t decide whether to attend a dinner party, so they turn around and go home instead. A blackmail victim mistakenly takes their veering as a signal, and drops a $60,000 payoff bag into their car. Jane is immediately smitten with the valise, her eyes flashing with desire, while buttoned-up Alan wants to turn the cash into the police. With no hesitation Jane starts her manipulations, asking him to keep the money only for a week, just to see if anyone comes looking. Someone does, in the form of Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea), a clumsy, violent chiseler who is determined to shake Jane down for the bag. But Jane plays them both for saps, stringing them along, giving them want they want to hear (and see). She preys on Alan’s insecurities, as in the withering exchange when he says,  “I’ve tried to give you everything you wanted, everything I could.” Jane replies, “Yes, you’ve given me a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives.” toolatefortears_1949_mbdtola_ec006_h_11145_While she plays the dissatisfied wife with Alan, she is going full hardened femme fatale with Danny, a cold, calculating criminal mind. He is instantly attracted to her, and he responds in the only way he knows how, with misogynistic violence, slapping her around. But Jane paws him away like a lion with its prey, and soon he becomes her errand boy, covering up Jane’s increasingly brazen crimes. She pushes him so hard he breaks, ending in a self-pitying puddle of boozy tears. Dan Duryea is the embodiment of hollow machismo, a fast-talker with no backbone to support it. It is a slangy and loose performance – at his most arrogant he pronounces “tedious” as “tee-jus”, bending words to his will. But few can hold up to Jane’s steely-eyed assault. Lizabeth Scott did not think kindly of Too Late For Tears, telling Alan K. Rode that it was her “least favorite film”, but she is truly terrifying in it. It is a cold, unrelenting, and entirely unsympathetic performance. At no point does she beg for the audience’s understanding, you can see the calculation in her eyes from the start. Once she opens that bag, Alan becomes an inconvenience to her, so every smile becomes a sneer the nanosecond he turns his back. Film Noir Poster - Too Late for Tears_01The only guy who can take her down is a doughy interloper who claims to be Alan’s old war buddy. Don (Don DeFore) is in fact a figure from Jane’s past who is seeking revenge for one of her previous trespasses upon the male sex. The supposed hero of the story is also the least interesting, a clean-cut Hardy Boy with no interior life who is present merely to nudge the story along. In the fallen world of the movie, it is jarring to see such a square. One wishes Duryea’s character could have been expanded and become Jane’s main foe – a duel to the death of two dead-enders. But the film was already getting harassed by the censors, so, as ever, we should be grateful for the perversities we are left with.

SUNSHINE NOIR: CUTTER’S WAY (1981)

April 19, 2016

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“I have seen people after the war that came from concentration camps, they were violated in their bodies and their minds, and they were contaminated by the violence. They became violent themselves. This is what I wanted to show in Cutter’s Way.” – Ivan Passer

Cutter’s Way is a sickly film, its characters hungover or half in the bag. They have never recovered from the Vietnam War, either from the physical scars from fighting or the guilt from avoiding it. Cutter (John Heard) is the wounded veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, a ranting paranoiac lost in his own head. His wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) nurses the loss of her pre-war husband with drink. Cutter’s best friend is Bone (Jeff Bridges), a lithe golden god who makes a living as a gigolo and occasional boat salesman.  The trio’s blurred vision focuses upon the corpse of a young girl, who they suspect was murdered by local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cord begins to exert an outsized role in their personal mythology, a symbol of the system, the American way of life, that has left them on the periphery.

Their amateur investigation is a half-cocked mess, and twists around into a blackmail scheme. Their dream of justice is obscured by the thick haze of the Santa Barbara summer, but whether or not they have found the true killer, they have recovered a modicum belief, belief which ends in a defining act of violence. United Artists didn’t know what to do with this downbeat drama, and released it with little fanfare in 1981. It has had vocal supporters through the years, foremost among them J. Hoberman, and Twilight Time has released a handsome-looking Blu-ray that should expand its cult.

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The film is based on Newton Thornburg’s 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, originally to be adapted by Robert Mulligan, and with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter. After that fell apart it was packaged with Mark Rydell and Richard Dreyfuss, but that too failed to proceed. Eventually United Artists settled on the Czech emigre Ivan Passer to direct – whose most famous film was still his Czech New Wave comedy Intimate Lighting (1965). He had made four films in Hollywood since, including the hilarious and harrowing heroin film Born to Win (1971, with a great George Segal performance), but none had eclipsed the reputation of his debut. Passer was available and interested, and United Artists just wanted to get the project off their slate. They insisted that Jeff Bridges take the second lead, since he was in UA’s upcoming surefire hit of Heaven’s Gate. They preferred Richard Dreyfuss for the role of Cutter, but Passer was adamant on casting John Heard, after seeing him in a performance of Othello opposite Dreyfuss. Not wanting to lose a third director, UA let Heard have the title role (the title was changed from Cutter and Bone to Cutter’s Way after its initial NYC release). The memorable zither-heavy score is by Jack Nitzsche.

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Passer’s greatest coup was hiring DP Jordan Cronenweth, who veils Santa Barbara in a jaundiced palette – the city seems to expel Cutter and his cronies as a digestive system expels bile. The look of the film was described pungently by J. Hoberman in his Village Voice review: “Jordan Cronenweth’s accomplished cinematography conveys the essence of rot. Everything is orange-gold and subtly synthetic. The film has the burnished Naugahyde look of a sunset seen through the window of a House of Pancakes.” This “orange-gold” was by Passer’s design. He recalled the working process with Cronenweth to Olivier Père:

 The casting director showed me some TV movies and I was impressed by the work of Jordan. I was stunned when I met him because he was around 40 and he behaved like if he was 90 years old! The slowest person in the world! I learned that he was not able to do more than 6 set-ups a day, so I adjusted and did long shoots which I could intercut. It is always very difficult to control the color in a film. We couldn’t paint things like Antonioni. It was too expensive. So we took out one color, blue. There is no blue in the film, which is difficult in California because of the sky. That forced me to put the camera above the eye level, camera is always looking a little down, and you have the sense there is some aesthetic order in the film. Jordan was a real artist, always surprised by everything, like a child. He never made a shot that needed some reshoot or correction.

The color blue is not entirely eliminated — there is some unavoidable sky when Bone takes the murder victim’s sister out for a sail boat ride — but it is conscientiously avoided. Having to point the film slightly downward makes Cutter’s world ever so slightly more enclosed, a path of escape eliminated. Not that he would be capable of going anywhere.

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Cutter is missing an arm, a leg, and an eye, literally half a man. John Heard seems to be channeling some of Iago in his performance, a mercurial manipulator who has both Mo and Bone bend to his will. But he can only bend them so far before they snap, and the cooly self-regarding Bone, played with lizard-slick vanity by Bridges, briefly abandons the cause to to seduce Mo. Mo is in a severe depression throughout the film. She is married to a man she no longer recognizes, in a home that is a memorial to the life she thought she once had. Lisa Eichhorn gives a performance of subdued melancholy, her personality muted and masked by vast quantities of whiskey. She is seeking obliteration and finds it.

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Passer was not fond of the original ending of Thornburg’s novel, considering death-by-redneck too similar to that of Easy Rider, so with screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin they created a hallucinatory closer in which Cutter madly crashes Cord’s garden party on horseback, and presumed justice is served. It is almost a burlesque of a happy ending, with its last minute rescue and vanquishing of a sunglasses-clad villain. But by this point “justice” has lost all meaning, what with Cutter’s clumsy blackmail attempts and brutal treatment of Mo, while Bone only shows concern for his moustache. As the final credits roll, Cutter’s violent victory feels very much like a loss.

BLU-RAY BLUES: I CONFESS and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS

March 8, 2016

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Blu-ray is dead. Long live Blu-ray. Last month a new home video format was released to replace it: Ultra HD Blu-ray, which offers quadruple the resolution of regular old BD. Compatible only with 4K televisions and UHD players, the new format is likely fated to become the niche of a niche. The original Blu-ray was never ensconced in most Americans’ living rooms, instead becoming the choice of collectors, cinephiles, and home theater geeks. DVDs were still too new and cheap, and the rapidly expanding accessibility of streaming video made the relatively expensive Blu-ray an afterthought.  Today Blu-ray and DVD are considered as interchangeable formats, lumped together in narratives of physical media’s decline (according to DEG combined sales dropped by 12% in 2015 – though it is still a six billion dollar business). Anecdotally, it is remarkable how few of my film friends own a BD player, even though their prices have dropped to DVD levels these last few years. As audiences seemed to shrug at BD, Hollywood studios became wary of investing too much in the format. They were nearly twice as expensive to author, so new releases made it to Blu-ray, but library titles would have to wait. It has taken a few years, but the Blu-ray dam is leaking a bit, if not yet broken. Take for instance, the recent releases of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (via the Twilight Time label, only available for purchase through Screen Archives), and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, released courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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Twilight Time was founded by Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, two studio employees  who used their connections to license classic movies and start their own label. Redman works as a consultant for Fox restoring film music, and Jamieson was the Senior VP of Marketing for WB Home Video International for 30 years. They release their films in limited edition Blu-ray runs of 3,000 units, with some of their titles selling out within minutes of release. They only sell their Blu-rays through Screen Archives or their own site, so they never receive the discounts of a big chain like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. This causes some grumbling from the buying populace, but if you can get your hands on it,  Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) is a gorgeous B&W transfer, filmic and detailed. Director Otto Preminger made it right after his hypnotism noir Whirlpool, and it maintains that film’s somnambulant dread, and returning star Gene Tierney. She is paired with Dana Andrews, reuniting the haunted duo from Preminger’s Laura. Here Andrews plays disgusted police detective Mark Dixon, a proto-Taxi Driver who wishes he could wash the scum off the streets. Except unlike Bickle, he has legal backing to do so, so he takes his inner violence out on the beat.

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Dixon is repeatedly accused of abuse and harassment, and these violent outbursts keep him from being promoted. While interviewing a dopey witness to a mob murder conducted by Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), Dixon pops the witness in the mouth and accidentally kills him. The victim is the estranged husband of Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney), a department store model who thinks she can soften Dixon’s hard edges. This is a cold and hard movie in which Dixon, the purported hero, is a rageaholic killer who is coming apart at the seams. Dixon has to cover up his murder, so he investigates as normal and tries to pin it on Scalise – a supercilious gangster who worked in the mob with Dixon’s late father. The film uses a series of repeated low-angle camera set-ups to emphasize the how fate is slowly sneaking up behind Dixon. The crime has to be walked through by the investigators, so he sees everything again, pushing in his own lies when necessary. But in this movie the camera doesn’t lie, and Preminger uses looming close-ups of Andrews’ gradually tightening face of a man imploding in on himself. Twilight Time has also released Preminger’s devastatingly decadent drama Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and the paranoid child kidnapping thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

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Warner Brothers has been reluctant to license their films to third party distributors, and though they have released a ton of their library onto their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, they had not done a ton with their back catalog for Blu-ray. That is starting to change, as their releases of The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and The Wrong Man would attest. Another of their recent Blu-ray releases is Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), which I watched for the first time this past weekend. Hitchcock considered it one of his weaker films, calling it “rather heavy-handed…lacking in humor and subtlety.” It is a resolutely Spartan production shot in Quebec City about a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears the confession of his handyman Otto (O.E. Hasse), who admits to the killing of a local lawyer. The priest must abide by his vows and remain silent, but the circumstantial evidence gathered by the police points to him as the main suspect. The priest acts as if he has absorbed and taken on Otto’s guilt for him. The style is as pared down and restrained as Clift’s performance, in which he barely emotes. One has to imagine the thoughts dancing around in his head, of how much anger and anxiety is suppurating in there. But Clift, and Hitchcock, give nothing away. The priest remains an impenetrable cipher throughout. Whether you find this enervating or transfixing depends on your opinion of Montgomery Clift’s eyes. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote that: “In this story, in which the lips of the hero are voluntarily sealed, only these looks give us access to the mysteries of his thought. They are the most worthy and faithful messengers of the soul. We are not to be blamed if the tone of our commentary is somewhat inflated. The majesty of this film invites as much, and leaves little room for humor.” iconfess04

Where the Sidewalk Ends and I Confess were released rather late in DVD’s lifespan (2004 and 2005, respectively), and it took Blu-ray equally as long to get there (I would place the UHD ETA for these in 2046). But with studios like 20th Century Fox and Paramount licensing to boutique distributors like Twilight Time, and Warner Brothers continuing to mine their library through their “Archive”, we are entering a secret golden age of Blu-ray releases. In this fallen age of physical media, I will take what I can get.

WAY DOWN EAST: HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955)

August 18, 2015

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For his last film under contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, Sam Fuller directed House of Bamboo (1955), a film noir relocated to Japan. Daryl Zanuck took Harry Kleiner’s screenplay for The Street With No Name (’48) and dropped it in Fuller’s lap, inviting him to remake it on location in Tokyo. Shot in CinemaScope and Deluxe color, it is Fuller’s most beautiful film, and the new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available for purchase at Screen Archives) looks flawless. Clearly inspired by his surroundings, and backed by an A-picture budget, Fuller works variations on the slashing lines of slatted bamboo curtains, sliding doors, and the increasingly vertical Tokyo cityscape, ending in a justifiably famous rooftop amusement park ride, a deadly trip around Saturn’s rings.

Fox promoted House of Bamboo as the first Hollywood feature shot in Japan, but that was all just ballyhoo. In 1951 RKO produced their anti-commie drama Tokyo File 212 on location, complete with approval from Douglas MacArthur, who was then Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Four years later the pressure to produce propaganda was lessened, and Fuller sneaks some subversive elements into the film’s double-agent drama. The film follows a military cop (Robert Stack) who goes undercover, using the identity of the dishonorably discharged Eddie Spanier. As Spanier, he worms his way into a growing Tokyo gang led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who use a string of pachinko parlors as a front. Spanier gets close with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), whose husband was a member of Dawson’s crew until he was killed in a heist-gone-wrong. Together they help destabilize Dawson’s group from within, with assists handed out by the Japanese police’s Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian star in Hollywood – he starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915) and the American Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter).

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Fuller describes his additions to the script: “I moved the entire shebang to Tokyo, added stuff about Japanese contemporary life, threw in some sexual exploitation and interracial romance, and then, for some unexpected pizzazz, wrote a violent love scene between two hardened criminals.” The Dawson character is in a veiled relationship with his top lieutenant Griff, whom he calls “Ichiban”. Their bond is destroyed by the arrival of the cute Spanier, who Dawson begins to favor. At a post-heist party, Dawson seats Spanier next to him, which causes Griff to to have a drunken blow-up at his descending rank. Essentially Griff is upset at where Dawson positions him in the film’s mise-en-scene. This leads to the “violent love scene” to which Fuller refers, a brilliantly designed assassination in which a bathtub is plugged full of holes, life draining out along with the water. It plays as a scorned lover revenge killing, filled with rage and tenderness.

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The pecking order of Dawson’s gang is established introductory scene in the movie. While trying to prove his underworld bona fides, Spanier attempts to shakedown Tokyo pachinko parlors for protection money. On his second attempt he is coldcocked by Griff (Cameron Mitchell), crashes through a sliding door and into a backroom where Dawson’s crew is arranged in a semicircle around him, with Robert Ryan seated king-like on a riser in the center. This sequence not only establishes the power structure of Dawson’s crew – the farther you radiate out from the center, the weaker the hold – but it establishes Japan as a kind of Russian nesting doll of facades. As each character is hiding secret identities and desires, so the city itself has rooms within rooms, frames within frames.

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One thing Fuller hid from view was the resentment the Japanese people had towards the continuing American presence in their country, and the wide latitude granted to them in the Security Treaty signed in 1951. The relationship between the Japanese and U.S. military police is depicted as open and honest, as Inspector Kito and Captain Hanson exchange information freely in their investigation into Dawson’s gang. But while Fuller was filming, protesters would gather and “chanted anti-American slogans, trying to ruin the scene as best they could.” Fuller intended to use them as background footage – but once DP Joe MacDonald turned the camera on them, they dispersed, likely not wanting to have their faces caught on film.

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Traversing these labyrinthine spaces are Robert Stack and Robert Ryan. Fuller claims he wanted Gary Cooper for the Spanier role, but realized that location shooting would be impossible with such a huge star – any street shooting would be immediately mobbed by fans. So instead he went with Stack, who was recommended to him by his friend Budd Boetticher, for whom Stack starred in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). Stack brings a wiry, wary quality to the role, a hopped up paranoia that works well in this film of double and triple crosses. Robert Ryan was recommended by producer Buddy Adler, and his lank, louche performance is as relaxed as Stack’s is wound up. They are matched opposites who end up chasing each other through the modernizing Tokyo streets. What starts at a luxe pearl dealership ends at the elaborate rooftop playground at the Matsuma department store. Fuller and MacDonald have fun with the possibilities, at one point sticking the camera on a children’s train ride, following Dawson as he stumbles through the crowd. All the dissembling and hiding in cataracts of secret rooms ends on an amusement park ride, a replica of Saturn with rotating rings. Dawson is chased up there like a treed cat, though with the advantage of having a gun and knowing how to use it. The ride looks rusty and is set at an angle, so the camera takes a canted look at the final movement, and it seems Stack, Ryan and the cameraman are in as much danger as Dawson and Spanier. But they complete the precipitous sequence, and Dawson is left dangling, having run out of hiding places.

POSTWAR AMNESIAC BLUES: THE CLAY PIGEON (1949)

June 23, 2015

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After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.

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Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) awakens from a coma in a San Diego hospital to feel a blind man’s hands around his throat. “I just want to find out what a dirty traitor looks like”, the man says, and Jim is thrust into the mystery of his life. He remembers nothing after his internment in a Japanese prison, nor why the staff of the military hospital treats him with disdain. He asks his nurse, “Is the war over?” She responds, “For some people it’ll never be over.” Fletcher is set to be court-martialed for the the torture killing of his friend and fellow-soldier Mark Gregory. Unaware of his own guilt, Fletcher stumbles into an escape, and searches for the truth to his past, dragging along Gregory’s widow Martha (Barbara Hale) and his army buddy Jim Niles (future director Richard Quine). In San Francisco he spots his Japanese prison guard, who seems to be connected to a larger conspiracy fronted by a U.S. business.

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Richard Fleischer and Carl Foreman had first collaborated on So This is New York (1948) , the debut film for Stanley Kramer Productions, in which Foreman was a partner. Fleischer was under contract to RKO, having only made two Sharyn Moffett cute-kid moppet movies up until that point. But Kramer had admired the first of those, Child of Divorce (1946), and one of the co-screenwriters, Hubert Baker, was a school friend from Yale. The head of RKO’s B unit, Sid Rogell, had nothing for Fleischer to do after the second Moffett film, Banjo (1947), bombed at the box office. So he lent Fleischer to Kramer to direct their Ring Lardner adaptation, So This is New York. Fleischer describes his relationship with Foreman in his autobiography, Just Tell Me When to Cry:

When So This is New York was finished and I had returned to RKO serfdom, there was a long hiatus for the Kramer Company, and Carl needed a job. He had an idea for an original story called The Clay Pigeon, and I convinced Rogell to hire him to develop it into a screenplay. Carl and I both lived in the San Fernando Valley at that time, so we drove to and from work together every day. It was on one of those drives that Carl came up with an interesting suggestion. He said, “Look, since we have to spend almost two hours a day in the car, why don’t we use that time to develop a story idea I’ve got in mind?” …So over the next eight weeks, Carl and I developed the story and characters for High Noon. When the script of The Clay Pigeon was finished, Rogell called me into his office. “This is pretty poor stuff,” he said…”I don’t think your friend is going to amount to much as a writer.” He then proceeded to replace the future author of such screenplays as High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone with Lilly Hayward, the author of Banjo. My RKO contract eventually kept me from directing High Noon, although I did get to do The Clay Pigeon. It was not what could be called a good trade-off.

Just Tell Me When to Cry is one of the more self-deprecating director autobiographies you’ll read, as he’s always quick to run down his own career. So though he contextualizes The Clay Pigeon as a stepping stone of Foreman’s way to High Noon, it’s a worthy film in its own right.

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Fleischer disorients us from the beginning, opening with a shot of a blind man’s hands ready to grasp Fletcher’s throat. Foreman’s script keeps the audience as equally in the dark as Fletcher – where even a sainted figure as the army nurse is antagonistic. Star Bill Williams still has the baby fat good-boy look of an approved American hero, so it’s jarring to see him as an accused war criminal, shown early on throwing Martha around in an attempt to stifle her screams. He is only trying to quiet her to beg his innocence, but in these early scenes there still exists an edge of danger, proof that extremes of violence do hide inside of him. Bill Williams was an athlete and performer from a young age, a professional swimmer and later an exhibition diver and Vaudeville adagio dancer. He enlisted in the Army and was discharged for medical reasons. He seems unusually stiff in his movements here, betraying his hoofer past, but he had been recovering from a back injury and had not acted in a year (his most enduring role was as the title character of the tv series The Adventures of Kit Carson).

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The turning point in Fletcher’s investigation is the appearance of Ken Tokoyama (Richard Loo) in San Francisco, who was the most vicious guard at the prison camp Fletcher and his unit were kept in. His presence triggers Fletcher’s memory and solves the mystery of his own guilt. This could easily have devolved into a racist narrative justifying the internment of Asian-Americans during WWII, but Foreman was a political progressive, at one time a card carrying Communist who would later refuse to testify in front of HUAC, and undercuts it with a moving scene of Japanese-American integrity. As Fletcher is running from both a criminal syndicate and the police, he rushes inside a city apartment, and begs the woman there to hide him. Helen Minoto (Marya Marco) is a Japanese-American war widow, with her decorated late husband’s photo displayed prominently on the mantelpiece. She speaks without the insulting accent of most Asians in Hollywood films, and chooses to hide him because she can tell the thugs outside are not cops. When Fletcher tells her he cannot thank her enough, she simply says, “then don’t try”, and escorts him out. It is a scene that movingly depicts the contributions of Japanese-Americans to the US war effort at the same time they were being persecuted at home.

Fleischer and Foreman might prefer you forget this relatively unknown programmer from 1949, which does indeed end by putting Fletcher together again and thrusting him back into the expected narrative of postwar American life (wife and expected child), but The Clay Pigeon is worth remembering for the steely look on Marya Marco’s face as she directs Bill Williams out the door, a secret smile crawling across her face, treating the tragedies that surround her as one grand, private joke.

ORGANIZATION MAN: ODD MAN OUT (1947)

April 21, 2015

4082_odd_man_out_(1947)movie_Odd Man Out has an absence at its center. It stars James Mason as a revolutionary in Northern Ireland, but he is either missing or comatose for the majority of its running time. A scattered group of fringe players search for his body, from IRA fellow travelers to middle-class families to eccentric bird merchants. What emerges is a portrait of a stunned post-WWII Belfast, tired of violence but in no hurry to pass Mason off to the cops. It is either sympathy or indolence that keeps him alive, as his husk is passed from alley to bar and finally, to the docks. The city’s cavernous, emptied out streets are the setting for Mason’s absolution. For though he is a murderer, Mason’s beatific, radiant performance gives his character a saintly aura, as if taking on the sins of the post-war world. Though it has overshadowed the lower-budgeted Brit-noirs of this period (which are in need of reclamation), Odd Man Out is more than worthy of its reputation. Earlier this month it received the Criterion treatment, released in a new HD restoration on DVD and Blu-ray, with their usual array of copious extras, including a new essay by Imogen Sara Smith.

Odd Man Out was produced by Filippo Del Giudice, a pivotal figure in postwar British cinema. Raised in Rome and educated as a lawyer, he fled Fascist Italy for London in 1933. He founded the Two Cities Films production company with his partner Mario Zampi four years later, the name reflecting his journey. He received monetary backing from Ludovico Toeplitz de Grand Ry, the scion of an Italian banking family living in London.  Their first films were the musical Stepping Toes (1938) and the war drama 13 Men and a Gun (’38, directed by Zampi), which netted them enough respect to hire director Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion (’38)) and star Ray Milland to adapt the Terence Rattigan play French Without Tears in 1940. But Italy would enter the war in June of 1940, whereupon both Giudice and Zampi were arrested and interned on the Isle of Man for possible Fascist sympathies. The duo was released after four months after proving their bona fides – and Giudice bore no ill will towards his adopted country. He would go on to produce the most popular British war movie of the era with In Which We Serve (’42), written, directed and starring Noel Coward.

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Giudice didn’t consider himself an artist, and was known to give his filmmakers free reign over their projects. David Lean recalled that “He used to call himself ‘The Butler’, meaning, ‘I am your butler.’ …He really was a producer. He produced the money, he ironed out all sorts of troubles.” In 1944, in an attempt to raise capital for Laurence Olivier’s expensive Henry V, Giudice sold a controlling interest in Two Cities to the Rank Organisation. Two Cities would become production unit under their umbrella. It was this arrangement under which Odd Man Out was made. Giudice was the point man, officially credited as “in charge of production”, while Carol Reed received a “producer credit”. Reed, as with most Giudice films, received a free hand. He hired Robert Krasker as his DP, the man who had just shot Henry V and David Lean’s Brief Encounter. He had his regular composer William Alwyn write the score in advance (each character granted their own leitmotif), so his actors could adapt their performances to the grandly mournful music. Reed wanted F.L. Green to adopt his own novel for the screenplay, and hired veteran scribe R.C. Sherriff (most famously the author of the play “Journey’s End”) to assist him, as Green had never before written for the movies.

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The film takes place over one doomed evening in Belfast following the fate of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), leader of a revolutionary group mentioned only as “The Organisation”, though it is very obviously a stand-in for the IRA. In an effort to raise money, the group robs a bank. The early sections of the film unfurl as a heist film set a sleepwalkers pace. The men stroll through the bank with studied nonchalance, and get out at the same slow lope. There is no one left who would try to be a hero, except one nosy guard on the bank steps, who accosts Johnny and gets a bullet in the gut instead. Dumbstruck at his own act of violence, and having taken a bullet through the shoulder himself, the getaway car gets away from Johnny as well, who is left wandering the streets. These early sequences are strange in their affectlessness, and their refusal to engage with McQueen’s politics. His wound is immediately worked as a symbol of humanity at large, and the specifics of the IRA’s struggle are a casualty of this symbolism. James Agee thought the film buckled under the ponderousness of its symbolism in his 1947 review in The Nation:  “As an image and allegory, the whole film loses much of its possible force: it is not a tragic poem but a series of passive elegiac tableaux with a certain suggested relationship, generally inferior, to the Stations of the Cross. The tone of pity for man is much too close to self-pity.”

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The passivity of McQueen after the robbery is striking – he stumbles from place to place with seemingly no will of his own. He is completely at the mercy of strangers. The local children ignore him as he cowers in an alley — he isn’t part of their game. A comfy middle-class home is shocked to discover that the injured man they are aiding is the wanted criminal McQueen. But instead of calling the cops, they simply let him loose, wanting him gone without the guilt of the informer hanging over their heads. John Ford’s The Informer (’35) hangs heavy over this film, as it is another atmospheric story about a political outcast wandering the streets of Ireland, seeking absolution. Where Victor McLaglen is despised for his naming names in The Informer, McQueen is regarded with wary respect as a man of principle. The few citizens most willing to exploit him are a painter-on-the-skids (Robert Newton) eager to paint a portrait of the dying rebel, and an eccentric bird collector (F.J. McCormick), who is eager to deliver McQueen to the local priest for a modest fee.

McQueen survives somehow, being passed along as a hot potato from kind to not-so-kind strangers. The film turns more and more abstract as it goes along, those “passive elegiac tableaux” gaining in resonance as McQueen’s survival becomes more and more pointless. This is a city that has continually expelled him from its hearth and onto the unforgiving streets. Though unwieldy and obvious in its themes at times, it remains a painfully melancholy film about nighttime in the city, with Krasker bouncing a few rays of light off the cobblestones to illuminate McQueen’s perambulations to nowhere.