February 9, 2010

raoul walsh

The top image is from High Sierra (1941), of Humphrey Bogart slugging Alan Curtis in the jaw with his pistol. The bottom image is from the same scene in its remake, Colorado Territory (1949), of Joel McCrea knocking out James Mitchell with a meaty right hand. Both films were directed by Raoul Walsh – the first a gangster movie, the second a Western. Historically speaking, High Sierra is more important for its crystallization of the Humphrey Bogart persona: mulish, bitter, doomed. His good-bad guy Roy Earle was originally slated to be played by both Paul Muni and George Raft, until their queasiness with the script paved Bogart’s way to stardom. And so, it receives a fine DVD transfer and continuous play on TV and at repertory theaters.  Colorado Territory has no such claim to history, except as a superior piece of genre filmmaking, so it receives a beat-up, fuzzy transfer in the Warner Archive. So it goes.

It’s fascinating to compare the two films in how they approach narrative, set-design, and performance. Let’s get the basic story out of the way (spoilers!) before I chart some of the divergences: a feared heist-artist gets out of jail, and is hired for one more big job by his aging, sickly boss. On the way to his target, he falls in love with a fresh-faced gamine, who eventually rejects him for a younger guy back home. Taking up with the salty dance-hall girl who loved him all along, he tries to escape with his latest haul, but gets chased into the mountains and gunned down from afar.

The shift in time-period (from contemporary to turn-of-the-century) completely changes Walsh’s visual palette. Most of High Sierra takes place in bland indoor spaces: a cabin hideaway, a grubby motel room, a swank hotel lobby. These are spaces of transit, areas that Earle can abandon at a moment’s notice. The only semi-permanent space is the suburban home where his club-footed teenage crush resides (played with sickly sweet naivete by Joan Leslie), where a rather unendurable stretch of doe-eyed sentiment lands, running completely counter to Bogart’s cynical demeanor in the rest of the film. It is not one of screenwriter John Huston’s finer moments, and drags down the film for me as a whole. The author of the novel, W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), was brought on for rewrites to satisfy Paul Muni, but I think most of the blame for the clunky structure can be placed on Huston. This section excepted, however, the sets emphasize impermanence, banality, and lassitude, which Bogart slides into with ashen brutality. It’s an incandescent performance, but the film doesn’t hold up around him.

Colorado Territory is the inverse. McCrea is a competent, but much less nuanced performer, so Walsh invests Bogart’s menace in the set design, compresses the storyline to emphasize his athleticism, and opens up the visual space for more propulsive action. He builds around him – and creates a much more complete work of art. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is truly defined by the landscape here, where in High Sierra Bogart is left adrift in a sea of John Huston’s exposition.

The main settings in Colorado Territory are a  decrepit Spanish mission town, a moving train, and a more extended stay in the mountains (shot in and around Gallup, New Mexico). The mission town is abandoned, just a complex latticework of collapsed roofs, beams and crosses (the art direction was by Ted Smith, the set decoration by Fred M. MacLean). It’s a far denser space than Earle’s cabin hideaway, and potently expresses the sense of imminent destruction that High Sierra mainly locates in Bogart’s brilliant broken down mutterings. And where Bogart’s heist takes place in static medium shots for a hotel safe-cracking, McCrea’s occurs in a thrilling moving train takedown – a hurtling sequence that pushes the pace forward through the end of the film. It telescopes Earle/McQueen’s crush on the young girl into a few sparkling scenes (moved along by Dorothy Malone’s more mature, flirtatious performance), introduces a melancholic backstory with a few well-placed lines (the memory of a lover’s face), and emphasizes his physicality with a gruesome bullet-plucking scene. Virginia Mayo rips it out with suspicious skill, a clever way to fill in her previous life with nary a word spoken. Her dance hall gal  is conflicted and fiery throughout, unlike High Sierra’s Ida Lupino, who switches from bad girl to agreeable wife material with one slice of the editor’s guillotine.

Wes McQueen is thoroughly subjugated to the nature around him, a speck on the locomotive at his successful heist and a dot in the valley before he’s gunned down. High Sierra pulls a similar comparison, but with less narrative compression. There are detours into a city park as he moonily stares at the sky, and to his old family farm where he talks catfish with a young boy – excess scenes that exist merely to fill in backstory. In Colorado Territory, Walsh finds a way to squeeze in these details in the midst of the action – making for a spring-loaded, densely told tale, crisply shot by Sid Hickox, who Walsh called “the best and fastest cameraman of them all.” (and who also shot White Heat the same year). Walsh valued speed above all, having directed near 140 films in his astonishingly varied career.

This post has been mainly about contrasts – but I’ll end with similarities. These films were shot 8 years apart, but Walsh uses some of the same setups to remarkable effect. First there is the introduction of the respective dance-hall girls – who are first shown obscured. Ida Lupino is hidden behind a tree, and then Walsh cuts to a shot of her feet before panning up to her suspicious face. Virginia Mayo is also introduced seated, her head down as she musses her hair, before another dramatic head-raiser, eyes blazing.

raoul walsh2

Then there is the final shoot-outs, which are both remarkable for their extreme long shots from the killer’s POV, emphasizing the distance and ease with which the deed is carried out. Their murder is impersonal, enacted by a stranger, almost as if the land was reclaiming them for itself. The top two are from High Sierra, the bottom two are from Colorado Territory:

raoul walsh3raoul walsh4


December 15, 2009


Twitter has its uses, including its function as cinephilic program guide. I follow an eccentric crew of film writers and scholars on the service, and often something like the following will pop up:   “DVR alert: TCM, 10:15 am Eastern, Men Are Such Fools”  rare Busby Berkeley, 1938, non-musical, w/Bogart; never seen it.” This was posted by The New Yorker’s film editor, Richard Brody, under his handle @tnyfrontrow (I go by @r_emmet). Noting that the film was starting in minutes, I dialed up my unnaturally understanding wife, who heroically hit the record button on this esoteric nugget with seconds to spare. If you read the right people, you’ll get a handful of idiosyncratic tips like this each day, a kind of TV Guide poetry to go along with links to their writing  and other pieces they admire. There’s also plenty of pointless chatter (dinner plans, puns, and hyperbolic opinionating), but those are easy enough to filter out with an impassive unfollow click. Some essential feeds to read: MoviesOnTCMThe Auteurs DailyDavid Lynch, and Indiewire. They’re a good place to start anyhow, and then you can radiate out out from there, depending on your tastes.

Men Are Such Fools is more of a curiosity than anything else – as Brody noted, it has a small Bogart appearance in one of Berkeley’s rare non-musical films. The central drama is dry and unconvincing. Warner Brothers was trying to push Priscilla Lane and Wayne Morris as romantic leads, having paired them earlier in the year in Love, Honor and Behave, in which Morris played a milquetoast husband tested by Lane’s more assertive wife. The Warner publicity team cooked up a romance between the two, filming them at nightspots to build any kind of buzz (this according to Daniel Bubbeo’s The Women of Warner Brothers). The two dated briefly, but the flirtation didn’t last long.

Wanting to push them quickly, they paired them with Berkeley in this adaptation of a Faith Baldwin story, who was eager to show off his skill set outside of the musical: “I wanted to prove,” he later said, “that I could handle a straight dramatic assignment…, and that is why I did films like Comet Over Broadway[1938], They Made Me a Criminal [1939], Fast and Furious [1939], and Men are Such Fools. I had done dramatic work during my period of working on the stage back east and knew that I could do a good job with dramatic or comedy films.” (Bob Pike and Dave Martin, The Genius of Busby Berkeley, quoted in Jeremy Arnold’s article for TCM) Motivated or not, Men Are Such Fools looks like a job for hire. It’s a blandly put together bit of drama that sings for seconds at a time due to a fine roster of supporting players.

Lane is an appealing performer, with flickers of aggression animating her bright eyes and sweet demeanor. She’s an ambitious secretary at an advertising agency, bucking for a promotion on the lucrative fruit extract deal while her suitor, Morris, is an overbearing goon with a monstrous inferiority complex. A fraternity dolt with too much time on his hands, Morris browbeats Lane into marriage with a charming combination of physical intimidation and boyish whining. There was not much appealing to the the character as written, but Morris’ plasticine features and gangly athlete’s body emphasize its most retrograde aspects, as he looms over her with goofy intimidation tactics that come damn near spousal abuse. But Lane convincingly grins her way through it – as if she was enduring it for a secret plan of her own. Not that she is innocent – for Lane clearly is a careerist, flirting her way to snag the extract account and into the upper echelon of the company. But how this aggressive, selfish, and likeable loner could fall for a mouth-breather like Morris’ character strains credulity.

But while this romance generally rankles, there are some side players that lifted it out of the normal run of B-movie fodder. First and foremost is Mona Barrie, who slinks her way into the role of Bea Harris, an acid-tongued copywriter who aids Lane on her way to the top. She looks at the world with her eyebrow askance and poison pen at the ready like a dimestore Dorothy Parker. She leans into her bon mots with delectation, savoring each insult like she was sucking on a Jacques Torres caramel. Before she tells Lane that “all men are polygamists”, she speaks of her past as a battered wife and then lonely divorcee with an offhand cynicism that is breathtaking. She built herself up from nothing into a management position and she dashes it off like another puff of her cigarette. It’s a lovely, layered performance that adds a whip-smart intelligence to the film, for the few minutes she’s in it.

The second sterling turn here is contributed by Bogart, who has the unforgiving role as the other man to the Morris-Lane couple. Tagged as a womanizing entertainment tycoon type, he swoops in with a disarming honesty, “I’m probably a cad. Are you by any chance a weak woman?”, and ends up winning the audience over, if not Lane, by tipping into love with his enigmatic employee. He’s intended to be a bit of a bastard, but he’s clearly a more interesting, and oddly warmhearted cad than Morris’ overgrown man-child. Bogart knew he deserved larger roles, and Berkeley concurred:

“Bogie was never any trouble to me at all,” recalled Berkeley. “He felt, and I agreed with him, that he should be working in better films, but whatever discontent he felt, he took out on the bosses, not on the people he was working with. As far as I know, he never refused to play a part. His credo was to keep working, and I agreed with him on that point, too.” (Tony Thomas, The Busby Berkeley Book, quoted by Arnold)


Without an impulsive tweet, I wouldn’t have been able to add these distinctive performances to my own character actor pantheon. Now I’ll be able to track Mona Barrie wherever she pops up on the TCM schedule. Let me know if any of you have further recommendations for films with Ms. Barrie, as I’m developing a furtive crush.


October 6, 2009

The Library of America has released a wriggling mass of Manny Farber’s prose, and now the world is a (slightly) better place. Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings of  Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito) is a maddening, insightful and frankly thrilling collection of his writing on movies (and a little on TV) from 1942 – 1977. It includes the work that made up his previous compilation, Negative Space, plus a massive trove of reviews from the The New Republic, The Nation, and lad mags like Cavalier (he requested that his capsules for Time be left out, feeling that the editors rendered them unrecognizable).

In his valuable introduction, Polito says “his writing can appear to be composed exclusively of digressions from an absent center.” To borrow his own term, Farber approaches his subjects termite-like, gnawing at the edges of the films, ignoring plot summary and character psychology to focus on movement and composition, informed by his long career as a painter. He does not treat a film as a monolith, a hunk to be labeled as good or bad and then forgotten. He engages with every aspect of a film, emphasizing its collaborative nature. He breaks down performances, compositions, and dialogue with equal vigor with his jagged, jumpy and allusive prose. It’s often impossible to tell whether he likes a film or not, as he builds up and tears down a production from every angle.

Reading his reviews is like witnessing an archaeological dig, nosing around his celluloid sites for objects of interest, or for banalities worth exposing. And when he digs in to something, his descriptions pop off the page. In a 1943 New Republic piece, he analyzes the Bogart species:

“[he] looks as though he had been knocked around daily and had spent his week-ends drinking himself unconscious in the back rooms of saloons. His favorite grimace is a hateful pulling back of the lips from his clenched teeth, and when his lips are together he seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.”

Or this Artforum piece on Howard Hawks from 1969 (one of my favorites):

His Girl Friday is one of the fastest of all movies, from line to line and gag to gag. Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty lapels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, out maneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.

This isn’t just pungent writing, although it’s certainly that (it’s impossible to see a Bogart film now without peeking for a trickle of red down his lip), but it also prescribes a way of seeing. This emphasis on a performative detail, his “pulling back of the lips”, reveals a sensibility that is specifically cinematic. He’s concerned about movement that reveals character, facial tics or otherwise, as well as its relationship to the frame it’s traipsing about in. He offers due respect to a well-turned phrase, but he rarely pays much notice to plot, which is often described as a cliched nuisance. He praises Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt because it “is an example of what the movies might do in breaking with the idea that the story is more important than the movie.”

He’s concerned with what is buzzing beneath the strained scenario, the people who imprint their signatures on a film regardless of pedigree. Cary Grant’s grace and Jean Arthur’s Arthurness (“she is both an ordinary girl with ordinary reactions and a scatterbrain who wears birds’ nests on her head and at normal times is out of breath from running or screaming or hitting someone on the chin”) transcend their roles. They are still just people in front of the camera. In this vein, Farber also has a fascinating series of articles on WWII documentaries, and in which he prophetically states, “the difference between the documentary and the story film in the final esthetic evaluation is unimportant”. International auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami and Jia Zhangke have been pursuing this line of thought for the last decade with astonishing results.

Then there are his hugely entertaining reflections on movie-going itself. There is his famous statement in “Underground Films” (1957) that:

The hard-bitten action film finds its natural home in caves: the murky, congested theaters, looking like glorified tattoo parlors on the outside and located near bus terminals in big cities. These theaters roll action films in what, at first, seems like a nightmarish atmosphere of shabby transience, prints that seem overgrown with jungle moss, sound tracks infected with hiccups. The spectator watches two or three action films go by and leaves feeling as though he were a pirate discharged from a giant sponge.

But he was a brave sociologist since 1943, when he complained: “Who builds movie theaters? If you seek the men’s room you vanish practically away from this world, always in a downward direction.” His roving eye was always searching for the errant telling detail, even when it was off the screen and down the stairs.

In a fascinating panel discussion upon the release of the book last week, Polito was joined by Greil Marcus, Kent Jones, and Geoffrey O’ Brien to discuss Farber’s life and work, which informed a lot of this piece. There are a few other stray items from their talk I wanted to bring out. First,  that Farber’s interests were circumscribed by the distribution patterns of the ’40s and ’50s. He discussed mostly Hollywood product because that’s all he could see at the time. Once foreign and experimental film became more readily available in the U.S., Farber expanded his taste likewise, becoming an articulate interpreter of Michael Snow, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. Kent Jones also discussed Farber’s teaching notes, which he was able to look at for a book he’s helping to publish with Farber’s wife and collaborator Patricia Patterson. Farber lectured on cinema at UCSD until the late 80s, after retiring from film criticism to focus on his painting. Jones divulged little as to their contents, only that they were “amazing” and further represented the constant re-evaluations Farber engaged in with the works he was intrigued by.

I’ll close by paraphrasing Kent Jones again: The publication of Farber on Film is not just a landmark for American film criticism, but for American literature as a whole.

For further info on Farber and the book, well, buy the book, but also read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article at the Moving Image Source, and Paul Schrader’s remembrances at the same site. For insight into his painting, the exhibition book About Face is a great introduction.