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.

DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: THE SQUEAKER (1937)

April 15, 2014

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The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets.  As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.

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Howard was born in St. Mary’s, Ohio in 1899, went on to serve in Europe during WWI, and graduated from Ohio State University with an engineering law degree. He gave up a possible lawyering career to enter the disreputable movie business, where he took a job as sales manager at Vitagraph. He jumped to the creative side in 1921 when he co-directed his first movie, the Buck Jones Western Get Your Man (1921), at the age of 22. Gaining a reputation as an innovative stylist, Everson described Howard’s best work as, “strong gutsy thrillers with a penchant for German-style lighting and camerawork.” Influenced, like everyone of the period, by F.W. Murnau, he utilized a constantly roving camera and stark chiaroscuro lighting, which captures, according to Kehr, a “sense of lost happiness linked with an irrecoverable past and a present fraught with fear and regret…[with an] insistence on mercy and forgiveness as the highest human values”.

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He’s most famous for the nesting flashbacks of The Power and the Glory (1933), which were an acknowledged influence on the structure of Citizen Kane. But Howard had been playing with shifting time gimmicks in the previous year’s courtroom thriller The Trials of Vivienne Ware (1932), and Kehr found flashbacks in his films as early as 1922′s Deserted at the Altar. His narrative and formal experiments encountered studio resistance, which came to a head on the set of The Princess Comes Across (1936), when he banned Paramount suits from the set. Though he had a right to a closed set as negotiated by the Screen Directors Guild, that brash act led him to seek work outside the country. He would go on to make two films for Alexander Korda in the U.K., the Spanish Armada swashbuckler Fire Over England (1937) and The Squeaker (1937).

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The Squeaker was based on mystery writer Edgar Wallace’s hit play of 1928. The Variety review claims that Howard, with his writers Edward O. Berkman and Bryan Wallace, eliminated the play’s dialogue, retaining only the outline of the original production. This act of compression is budget-conscious, reducing the film’s length to a svelte seventy-four minutes (four minutes were cut for the American release under the title Murder on Diamond Row), but it also allows Howard to express exposition visually, and skips all the theatrical extemporizing necessary on the stage. Through a series of dipping crane shots and dissolves, Howard introduces the actions and personalities of the whole drama:  jewel robbers, beat cops, the Inspector (Allan Jeayes) and the presciently barmy Scottish reporter (Alistair Sim) who encourages them to “follow those diamonds.” Those diamonds will lead to “The Squeaker”, a prominent fence who buys all the hot goods and then implicates the thieves, keeping his hands clean and keeping prices low through lack of competition. He maintains anonymity by remaining silent, communicating only through words doodled on his car’s fogged-up window (it’s a ruse only possible in dreary London weather).

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Hiding becomes a major theme in the film, as the protagonist is an alcoholic ex-cop named Barrabal (Edmund Lowe) who had disappeared down the bottle years ago, ditching his home town for Canada, where he ended up serving time for buying stolen goods. He’s a man who made a serious effort to hide from himself. He washes back into London as part of a perp lineup, where the Inspector recognizes his once prized pupil. Desperate for a break, he hires Barrabal to go undercover and sniff out The Squeaker’s true identity. Through his old underworld contacts he insinuates himself into the world of an upper-class twit who turns out to be the notorious fence. Now he only has to find incriminating evidence without getting killed (and woo the Squeaker’s earnest assistant while he’s at it).

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The Squeaker is a furtive, secretive film, with Howard even hiding the big action set-pieces. When a key witness is murdered, Howard stages it behind a tree, the frame emptied out of human figures, the only indication of violence is a gun blast on the soundtrack. And again when the dead witness’ torch-singing girlfriend positively IDs the body, it is done in shadow behind a scrim. This is all building up to the dramatically unbelievable but stylistically thrilling ending when Barrabal uses expressionist lighting effects to browbeat The Squeaker into squealing on himself. It’s absurd to think that a criminal mastermind would crack for no reason other than there are shadows on the wall and a dead man on a slab, but Howard gives it a macabre internal logic of its own, turning The Squeaker’s anonymity into a visual prison that he becomes desperate to escape, even though it will mean a life sentence.