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.

MOVIES ON HULU: AN INVESTIGATION

August 4, 2009

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The fabulously popular streaming video site Hulu is useful for keeping abreast of contemporary pop-culture effluvia, sure, but if one peeks into their dusty old movies section, there’s an eclectic collection of auteur rarities, 50′s horror, Poverty Row Westerns, and public domain slapstick comedies to be unearthed. With only 3.77% of the titles listed on TCMDB available on home video, dutiful cinephiles need to devour repertory screenings, lobby intractable studios, and pluck the desirable titles out of what is available, and so Hulu is another prime portal to chip away at our film-historical ignorance. I had used it primarily to catch up with TV series I had fallen behind on (like the ubiquitous 30 Rock), but in researching my piece on Bruce Surtees last week, I discovered that Don Siegel’s The Beguiled was streaming for free on the site. Delving into their archives produced a fascinating hodgepodge of titles, some of which are quite hard to see otherwise. Below the fold is a list of titles ready to view on Hulu that I’m eager get to know, and others with which I’m already in committed relationships (with selected commentary, and each title links to its page on Hulu).

Blackmail, 1929

The 39 Steps, 1935

Secret Agent, 1936

Sabotage, 1937

The Lady Vanishes, 1938

Five Hitchcocks. No explanation necessary.

Anne of the Indies, 1951

This is a pirate swashbuckler starring Louis Jourdan and Jean Peters from director Jacques Tourneur, and rated highly by Chris Fujiwara in his definitive study of the director, Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. This is not on DVD, but occasionally pops up on the Fox Movie Channel, where it’s still sitting on my DVR. Fujiwara says that “Anne of the Indies often gives the impression of a perpetual-motion machine: characters appear and disappear in flurries of back-and-forth activity. [snip] Through these hesitations and shifts, the film suggests the avoidance of something inexpressible, acknowledging that the narrative is based on a lack that can be filled only be fantasy.” Intrigued? Yes. Yes you are.

Bachelor Flat, 1961

No less a personage than Andrew Sarris claimed that this CinemaScope comedy is Frank Tashlin’s best film. Better than Artists and Models and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Is that even possible? Apparently, yes, led by Tuesday Weld’s impossibly moon-shaped face and a wily dachsund’s dinosaur bone obsession.

The Beguiled, 1971

I briefly discussed Don Siegel’s libidinous masterpiece last week, but I’m eager to recommend it again. An autumnal American gothic set at a boarding school for girls during the Civil War, it unleashes the violent power of adolescent sexuality, against which Clint Eastwood has little hope.

Bigger Than Life, 1956

James Mason imprisoned in 1950s America, gets hooked on cortisone and becomes a macho gargoyle. A major work from Nicholas Ray.

Breezy, 1973

Underrated Eastwood. With his second feature, Clint detours into light comedy with dark undercurrents. William Holden’s decadent playboy falls for the whims of an 18 year old hippie (Kay Lenz). Holden’s cratered face and Lenz’ airy chatter fill the screen.

Cul-de-Sac, 1966

Roman Polanski’s black comedy follow-up to Repulsion.

Fixed Bayonets, 1951

Early Sam Fuller (right before the great Park Row (1952)), and his second Korean War film, after The Steel Helmet (1951). This one is set in the snowy climes of Heartbreak Ridge, and is highlighted by the pearls of sweat accumulating on the soldier’s faces as they cross an iced minefield. Extreme close-ups for extreme times.

His Girl Friday, 1940

Everything is at an angle, from Rosalind Russel’s wide-brimmed hats to Cary Grant’s smirk that almost tumbles to the floor. The dialogue burns through their defenses, until love is in the air. One of Howard Hawks’ greatest films, and so one of the greatest ever.

The Knack…and how to get it, 1965

Richard Lester perfects the mod film.

The Last Man on Earth, 1964

Vincent Price perfects the Richard Matheson story “I Am Legend”. Sorry Will Smith!

The Stranger, 1946

Mr. Arkadin, 1962

Two samplings of Orson Welles, the first his stab at commercial relevancy, the second a European co-production with echoes of Citizen Kane. Both suffering from studio/producer interference. I prefer the latter’s fake noses and tipsy cinematography to the former’s expressionist flourishes, but I won’t hold it against you if you disagree.

Night of the Living Dead, 1968

The series that won’t die. George Romero will debut his latest zombie-fest, Survival of the Dead, at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. See what all the fuss is about.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970

Before subjecting yourself to Guy Ritchie’s roided up version of the Holmes legend, sample Billy Wilder’s mellow, melancholy take on the natty inspector.

Rings on Her Fingers, 1942

In an attempt to cash in on the success of The Lady Eve, Fox tried their own con-artist romantic comedy, and signed on Henry Fonda to re-create the magic. Rouben Mamoulian was no Preston Sturges at this point in his career, although the results are sure to be diverting.

The Spikes Gang, 1974

Richard Fleischer’s light-hearted bank robbing movie finds fatherly outlaw Lee Marvin taking on three young kids (including Ron Howard) to form the least intimidating gang in the Wild West.

The Taking of Pelham, 1 2 3, 1974

White Lightning, 1973

Or, the curious case of Joseph Sargent. Sargent, a TV lifer, took some time out in the 70s to crank out a couple of genre whitelightningclassics. Then he moseyed on back to the small screen. White Lightning is a rousingly entertaining Southern revenge drama, starring Burt Reynolds at his aw shucks peak. Taking of Pelham is a no-nonsense police procedural recently remade by Tony Scott. His unfussy direction and his talent for working class argot shines in both features, with White Lightning taking the crown because of a stronger emotional pull, especially in an extraordinarily surreal sequence in an unwed mothers home. Also because of Ned Beatty, whose laid-back menace slithers out of every sweat-oozing pore.

Thunder Birds, 1942

A William Wellman pilot melodrama, with Gene Tierney. That’s enough for me.

Time Limit, 1957

The only film Karl Malden directed. Rest in peace.

The Train, 1965

John Frankenheimer’s sturdy actioner starring Burt Lancaster. He has to transport some fine art under the noses of Nazi scum. Frankenheimer knows how to handle pace and Lancaster’s torso.

Vigilante Force, 1976

Another Southern good-ole-boy action film, this one a cheap knockoff of Phil Karlson’s Walking Tall (1973), directed by George Armitage, who later went on to film Grosse Point Blank 20 odd years later. Instead of Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall though, the lead vigilante is Jan Michael Vincent. Not a good trade-off, although Kris Kristofferson is around to add some shirtless, mellow menace, a young Bernadette Peters belts out a few numbers on the periphery, and there is some jaw-dropping stunt falls in the final (ridiculous) shootout. It also musters a handful of memorable lines. The town in CA just opened an oil field, and two government employees talk shop: “Thank God for the energy crisis! Thank Allah!” And another on the influx of wildcatter oilmen: “If I wanted to live with degenerates I’d move to L.A.” Truer words have never been spoken.