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.

BORDER INCIDENTS: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947) AND THE HANGED MAN (1964)

March 10, 2015

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“He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled further across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t get out of. Because no matter how you tried, no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains. He didn’t like it at all when they moved into this town, his destination. Because this was the center of the trap; it was a long way back to civilization in any direction. The thing to do was get out quick.” – Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

 

Ride the Pink Horse is a grim procedural of hate. Published in 1946, it was Dorothy B. Hughes’ ninth novel, and second to be adapted into a film, following The Fallen Sparrow (1943). A cynical gunman named Sailor travels to a remote New Mexico town during their yearly “Fiesta”, a Southwestern Mardi Gras. He is tracking down his former mentor “The Sen”, a corrupt ex-Senator, for shakedown money. Sailor is a single-minded racist brute, circling the small town in ritualistic repetitions, until the map of the main square is in ingrained in your head (one of the early Dell paperback editions included a map on the back anyway). Sailor is an outsider, and no matter how often he treads the city’s streets, it continues to constrict slowly around him. Robert Montgomery’s 1947 movie adaptation for Universal-International alters many of the plot details, but captures the doomed fatalism of Hughes’ work. Typecast as a light romantic comedy lead, Montgomery took on greater risks as a director, starting with the POV experiments of Lady in the Lake (1947) and continuing through the elaborate crane shots orchestrated by DP Russell Metty in Ride the Pink Horse. It has been a certified cult film ever since Jean Cocteau programmed it at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz in 1949, but it has been hard to see until next week, March 17th, when the Criterion Collection releases it on DVD and Blu-ray.

But this was not the only adaptation of Ride the Pink Horse. In 1964 Don Siegel directed the telefilm The Hanged Man for NBC, after his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers was pulled from broadcast, deemed too “spicy, expensive and violent for TV screens.” This time he got his project on the air — the second made-for-TV movie ever shown. The setting is relocated to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, emphasizing the choked streets and vibrant colors that Robert Culp and Edmond O’Brien wander through with clenched determination.

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The 1947 Ride the Pink Horse would not have been made without the efforts of producer Joan Harrison. Harrison was an assistant and writer for Alfred Hitchcock from 1933 – 1942, but had been interested in the movie business long before. She earned degrees in philosophy, politics and economics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, but wrote film reviews for the student newspaper. After parting ways with Hitchcock she became a producer for Robert Siodmak thrillers at Universal, collaborating with the talented German on Phantom Lady (1944) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). There was a detour to RKO to make the George Raft noir Nocturne (1946, I wrote about it here), she returned to Universal for Ride the Pink Horse. The crew assembled by Harrison and Montgomery for the feature was an incredible array of talent. The script was written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, already legends for Scarface and His Girl Friday. Hecht had just worked with Hitchcock on Spellbound and Notorious, so it’s very possible he was introduced to Harrison through Hitchcock.

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Hecht and Lederer’s script compacts Hughes’ narrative, reducing the endless circling of the novel to a manageable few laps around town. They change Sailor’s name to “Lucky Gagin”, and give him a history as a WWII veteran. In the novel Sailor was a street kid raised by crooks. Montgomery was in the naval service during the war, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. For his first film back he gave a steely, dignified, and deeply moving performance in They Were Expendable, for which he had to direct a few scenes while John Ford broke his leg. The war still loomed large in his life and in the nation, so that becomes Gagin’s backstory – a disillusioned soldier disgusted by the decadence of the criminal/capitalist machine, while his friends-in-arms go down abroad and at home.  Gagin is going after mob boss Frank Hugo (Fred Clark), who was involved in the death of a friend. Hugo is a smiling monster with a hearing aid and huge chompers and the voice of a radio announcer. He’s a smooth operator – a new breed of criminal. Gagin is done with all of it, so has decided to go in business for himself — to cut ties with humanity. Montgomery gives a very controlled, mannered performance to convey this. As in the novel, Gagin keeps his right hand implanted in his breast pocket, tightly gripping his gun. This inner coil also shows up in Montgomery’s jaw, jutted out as if he’s continually grinding his teeth. Everything in an attempt to get smaller, more invisible.

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Gagin is introduced in a three-minute unbroken crane shot in which the world is displayed as nothing more than a tool for him to manipulate. It begins with him stepping off a bus into the station in San Pablo, in which he secures his gun, hides a canceled check, and uses a stick of gum as an adhesive for a secret key. He is a mechanical man. He becomes part of the machinery later on. While knocked unconscious, his newfound friends Pila (Wanda Hendrix) and Pancho (Thomas Gomez, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) hide him from Hugo’s thugs on the “Tio Vio” (an 1882 carousel imported from Taos). Gagin is covered by a blanket and spun around like an extension of the contraption’s pink horse. As it goes round and round, Hugo’s men start brutally beating Pancho at the controls. Metty mounts the camera on the carousel, setting at towards the children onboard, who keep staring back at the beating as it swings by. Then there is a cut to the hired muscle standing over Pancho, the shadow of the carousel flickering over theirs. Gagin has reduced himself all the way down, and his friends are paying the price.

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In this town Gagin is the minority, his white face a giveaway that he doesn’t belong. One of the main motifs in the book is how the Fiesta brings together victims and the conquered in an uneasy truce, though the economic inequality is stark: the Whites frequent the upscale hotel and bar La Fonda, while the Spanish get drunk inside an adobe dive called the Tres Violetas and the Native Americans sit outside selling trinkets. Gagin is one of the few who can traverse all of these spaces. He befriends the operator of the “Tio Vivo” carousel Pancho , as well as a young Native girl who latches on to him, Pila. It is only around them that Gagin unclenches, his posture sags, and looks like a normal human being. They are outside his sphere of betrayal.

Pancho and Pila are both reductive racial “types” give life with muti layered performances. Pancho is the gregarious Mexican drunkard gifted with Gomez’s overflowingly warm, and, to quote Michael Almereyda’s booklet essay, “Falstaffian” performance. His character has no need for material things, just a tarp over his head and a bottle of tequila. To Gagin this looks like freedom. Pila is the “unknowable” and “exotic” Native American who stares at Gagin (and Sailor) with off-putting intensity. But Wanda Hendrix plays Pila as not just a mystic, but also a young, preternaturally self-assured girl. She has the penetrating eyes of Renee Falconetti and the dogged curiosity of Nancy Drew. For the last third of the feature Gagin is near unconscious, and Pila has to drag him from bar to bar evading Hugo’s goons. But the final revelation is that she is still a child. As Gagin disappears over the horizon, the camera returns to Pila, reveling in the glory of being the center of attention. She is retelling the story of Ride the Pink Horse to a circle of her former bullies. It is her story now.

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Pila plays a much smaller part in Don Siegel’s 1964 telefilm, a fascinating companion piece to Hughes’ book and Montgomery’s feature. It hews closer to the Montgomery/Hecht/Lederer  version, with nods to Hugo’s hearing aid and the bravura bus station long take. An addled ticket taker has a hearing aid attached to his glasses so he “can’t hear without my glasses”. Once the Sailor character, here named “Harry Pace” (Robert Culp) gets to New Orleans to enact his revenge, he hides his canceled check inside of a Christian Science Reading room. Without the resources of even Montgomery’s modest production, Siegel still manages some effective shots, saved almost entirely for the final sequence at the Mardi Gras parade. He gets some kinetic handheld work pushing through the crowds as Pace tries to outrun his fate. While the Hughes novel and 1947 film are both very interiorized, the imagery filtered through Sailor/Gagin’s warped psyche, here there is no time for more elaborate visual planning. Instead it’s objective, straightforward pulp propulsion. Pila and Pancho pick him up hitchhiking and offer Pace a helping hand, but they aren’t the transformational forces as they are in the previous versions. Instead, it’s just another bit of revenge clumsily executed. For as focused as Sailor/Gagin/Pace is, he’s a bit of a dolt. And “the trap you couldn’t get out of” is the one inside his head.

NIGHT AND THE CITY: BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950)

January 6, 2015

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 “A brutal policeman is a terrible thing. He has too much power. Too many chances of taking his viciousness out on helpless people.” – Katherine Mallory (Gale Storm) in Between Midnight and Dawn

In the grim police procedural Between Midnight and Dawn, violence is a spigot that cannot be turned off. It begins with a thrill – a tense night time shootout in an auto-body shop with some generic young hoods. But for beat cop prowl car partners Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) and Daniel Purvis (Edmond O’Brien), it’s just one of their nightly spasms of gunfire. Rocky is able to retain his humanity, working off his nerves through a constant patter of jokes, but Purvis has worn out his concern for human life. Once it turns dark, all women are tramps, all men are thugs, and Purvis’ misanthropic disgust flows into his trigger finger. The movie strays into unconvincing romance — the brightness looking sallow and jaundiced against the sepulchral evening blacks of DP George Diskant (much shot on location in Los Angeles city streets) — but it retains a bitter aftertaste upon its close. Between Midnight and Dawn is available on the TCM Vault Collection’s “Columbia Film Noir Classics IV” DVD box set.

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It was director Gordon Douglas’ second harsh noir of 1950 — he made it immediately following Kiss Me Tomorrow, featuring James Cagney as an abusive, single-minded psychopath. The shadow of Cagney’s character appears in Purvis, peeking out from behind his sober on-duty face whenever he sees any adult carousing after dark. Then he spits out the insults and batters witnesses. He is, according to the film’s rights, and that of the world around him, a “good” cop. He and Barnes are ex-marines and best pals who room together and work together, and their relationship feels like a series of routines worked out over the decades. Purvis is the ungainly sober straight man who reacts to the jackrabbit energy of Barnes and his constant stream of humor. Barnes is always acting, which insulates him from the world outside, while Purvis is an open nerve, instantly pained by everything around him.

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The film was made for Columbia Pictures, and shot from February – March of 1950. It has the looks of a cheap production, using a few office sets and the rest shot on location in Los Angeles. Mark Stevens was positioned as a star for 20th Century Fox for a few years in the late ’40s (The Dark CornerThe Snake Pit), but he was released from his contract in 1950. Between Midnight and Dawn was his second film as a free agent, after he made the romantic comedy Please Believe Me for MGM. It is striking to compare his relative youthfulness in Between Midnight to the films he would write and direct a few years later (Cry Vengeance (’54) and Timetable (56)). In those latter, despairing noirs Stevens looks emaciated and burnt-out, the movies a monument to his disillusionment with the industry. In Between Midnight and Dawn he still has pep and vigor, and earned top billing over Edmond O’Brien.

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The screenplay by Eugene Ling (adapted from a story by Leo Katcher and Gerald Drayson Adams) nails together a hodgepodge of genres, though it would be called noir today. It is framed as a procedural, opening with a voice of God about the little guys who arrive on the scene before the more famous FBI attention hoggers show up – the radio patrolmen (the original title was Prowl Car). Barnes and Purvis then nab the young hoodlums in the auto-body shop after a low-light gunfight. There are other slices-of-life attempts at realism here, from breaking up a couple of brawling pre-teens to dealing with a stink bombed Italian grocers. But then it shifts into gangster movie mode, as the tough who is collared for the stink bomb turns out to be one of the heavies for local mob kingpin Ritchie Garris (a babyfaced Donald Buka). The routine gives way to their pursuit of the Garris gang, who get drawn into a mob war with a cross-town rival. While all this is going on, the movie manages to squeeze in some light rom-comedy, as both Barnes and Purvis become enamored with the young secretary to their lieutenant, Katherine Mallory (Gale Storm). They have an awkward three-person date, and then the two cops move in next door to her, for some strained farce.

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It’s one movie too many, but it’s held together by Douglas’ cold impassive tone and Diskant’s resourceful cinematography.  As Sean Axmaker noted in his article on the official TCM site, Diskant uses” chiaroscuro lighting of shadows and slashes of illumination in studio-set scenes, as in a shootout in a garage early in the film, [while] his location footage is defined by hard, single-source lighting, which gives the scenes a down-and-dirty immediacy.” There is an extraordinary car chase that zips through the Los Angeles bus depot and careens into a rural stretch of wood, the criminal jamming his rifle barrel through the back windshield, spraying death behind him. It is this chase that spells Barnes and Purvis’ doom. Their high-speed heroics initiate a whole cycle of vengeance that nearly immolates them all. And Purvis invites it. The quote at the top of the page, which seems painfully relevant in the light of recent events in Ferguson and NYC, is said by Katherine after Purvis slaps around an innocent nightclub singer. Desperate for a lead, Purvis finally crosses the line from silent to active hatred. There is an unconvincingly redemptive ending in which he makes peace with his demons by shooting them. Purvis walks out of the carnage smiling, flashbulbs popping. He is less an LAPD hero than a Travis Bickle in waiting.

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TO SAVE AND PROJECT: THE 12TH MOMA INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF FILM PRESERVATION

October 28, 2014

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Late last month, on the outrage machine known as Twitter, Variety tweeted the following: “Most films and TV shows are now available online legally, says a new study”. As with most provocative headlines, it turned out to be incredibly misleading. The “study” was commissioned by NBC Universal and performed by audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG. They only chose to track the most “popular and critically-acclaimed” films, which according to them comprises films with the “highest gross box office receipts” and those that won Oscar Best Picture awards. So this is a highly selective, entirely meaningless 808 film sample that overlooks the majority of film history. It’s not surprising then, that 94% of the films in their report were available on streaming platforms. Essentially it is saying that all the films you have already seen are available for you to watch again. 35mm is becoming an archival medium, more stable than digital in its constantly shifting technologies, but that makes archives more reluctant to ship prints to theaters, as Nick Pinkerton reported in his article on the DCP wars in Film Comment. A situation is growing where studios don’t want to ship prints of rare titles, but neither do they want to shell out the money for a decent HD transfer and clean-up, a very expensive proposition to enact on a large scale. Thus my dream of a 127-film 4K-scanned Edward L. Cahn retrospective will never come to pass.

That is why festivals like To Save and Project are so vital. In its twelfth year at the Museum of Modern Art, the series gathers recent restoration projects from around the world, and was organized by film curator Joshua Siegel, adjunct curator Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, and curatorial assistant Sophie Cavoulacos. For years a redoubt of celluloid, it has had to bow to the prevailing winds and present digital scans, including this year’s 4K restorations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and A Fistful of Dollars.  But there are also more heroic instances of digital rescue, like the South African blaxploitation soccer-rigging curiosity Joe Bullet (1971, screening 11/8 and 11/13), banned by the government soon after its release but rescued by the Gravel Road African Film Legacy (GRAFL) initiative. I’ve always treasured the festival more for its oddities than its classics, which would emerge elsewhere anyway. Another one is Miss Okichi (1935, screening 10/31 and 11/4), with Kenji Mizoguchi credited as “supervisor”, though elsewhere he is listed as a co-director. It’s a tragic tale of doomed love that feels like a missing piece in Mizoguchi’s filmography, even if more detective work needs to be done about its origins. Then there is the bizarre It’s a Wonderful Life noir Repeat Performance (1947, screening 11/12 and 11/14), in which a murderous dame gets to re-live the year leading up to the moment she kills her husband.

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Joe Bullet was one of the first South African films with an all-black cast, a no-budget Shaft that opened briefly in Soweto before being pulled from theaters by the Apartheid government. Though not explicitly political, the image of star Ken Gampu brandishing a gun and enforcing vigilante justice must have struck a nerve. The story revolves around the Eagles soccer team, whose star players are getting attacked by thugs from an opposing squad. When the feud turns violent, the Eagles call on Joe Bullet to even the score. The film has a rough, unfinished quality, with poorly post-dubbed dialogue that was seemingly made up on the spot. But the film has a schlocky energy and DIY vibe, especially in its inventive fight scenes. Mr. Bullet has a sweaty staredown with a King Cobra, opens a door with a bulldozer, and chases the villain up a steel girder in the honest-to-goodness nail-biting finale, complete with a weighted mannequin tossed off the side. Complete with catchy theme song that repeats the main characters name ad infinitum, Joe Bullet has midnight movie screenings in its future. It is also valuable as a document of its own making, capturing the styles, hangouts and cultural scene of black Africans in the early 70s. Gampu sports a checked sportcoat and beige turtleneck ensemble that is the epitome of 70s cool. Gampu was one of the first black African actors to break into Hollywood, he was a “warrior” in The Naked Prey (1965), and later appeared in Zulu Dawn (1979) and The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), again in stereotyped “native” roles. In Joe Bullet Gampu’s unflappable cool was shunted off into shabby locations. The big nightclub scene, with a hard-driving funk band, looks to be shot in a clapboard shack, and the soccer manager’s office looks like that of a custodian’s. There is no physical white presence in Joe Bullet, although their impact is palpable in the economic disadvantages that are etched into every frame.

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Miss Okichi (1935) is also about economic imbalance, and the criminal enterprises it encourages. Isuzu Yamada (Throne of Blood) stars as the ill-omened Okichi, whose parents are dead and whose brother is a wanted murderer. To keep her family’s hotel afloat she signs up with a gang in an arranged marriage scheme. The gang targets arranged marriages, and has the beautiful Okichi pretend to be the betrothed. Then they grab the dowry and disappear. Eventually Okichi gets disgusted with all of the deceptions and runs off with one of her marks. It is a dark, necrotic melodrama, steeped in darkness and death. These are the fatalistic  lyrics Okichi repeatedly sings to her beloved: “To meet is when parting begins.” The print of the film was housed at Shochiku and presented on Japanese television. David Bordwell writes that Mizoguchi “codirected it with Takashima Tatsunosuke for Dai Ichi Eiga, the production company he formed with Nagata Masaichi.” The MoMA notes list Mizoguchi as “supervisor”, so it’s unclear how much input he actually had in its production. But it features Mizoguchi settings and themes – female self-sacrifice in a patriarchal web, and, as Bordwell notes, scenes of “chiaroscuro melancholy”. Regardless of whether it can be labeled a Mizoguchi film or not, it’s a tough poison pill of a movie, filled with dark beauty.

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Repeat Performance is a noir that borrows the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life, though to different ends. George Bailey saw what life would be like without him. For noted actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) in Repeat Performance, she has to live her life over again, only to see that she while she can change the path of fate, she cannot alter its destination (it’s a film noir Final Destination). The film opens with Sheila murdering her husband, the camera pushing into the grisly scene through the flapping front door in a bravura shot. While mounting the staircase to her producer’s apartment, she wishes she could live the previous year over again. With nothing other than a cut – there is no angel to guide her – she is thrust back a year, and so she begins to try to change the adulterous path of her husband, the transgression that led to the crime. But nothing Sheila does can change her destiny. This rather ambitious project was the first big budget foray by the Poverty Row studio Eagle Lion. Director Alfred L. Werker (He Walked by Night) replaced Jules Dassin just before filming, and it’s a workmanlike job that can’t overcome the repetitious nature of the material. Though it retains a chill for its downbeat closing scenes, where nothing has materially changed – for all of Sheila’s effort and foresight. Everyone is either dead or alone, and nothing can be done about it. Repeat Performance will screen in a 35mm print restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from the Film Noir Foundation. To Save and Project runs through November 22nd at the Museum of Modern Art, so if you are in NYC make sure to attend and bear witness to some of the fascinating oddities of film history before they escape back into the vaults.