April 19, 2011

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“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Dwan’s career as a whole, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters. …there may be much more to be said…” -Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

My weakness was that I’d take anything. If it was a challenge to me, I’d take a bad story and try to make it good.” -Allan Dwan to Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It

Allan Dwan has one of the more intimidating IMDB pageswith 405 directorial credits listed, spanning the years 1911 -1961. As with my on-going infatuation with Raoul Walsh, my haphazard path to Allan Dwan began with a random repertory screening, this time at Anthology Film Archives. The French filmmaker and critic Serge Bozon (La France), programmed an evening of idiosyncratic Westerns that handle male friendship in starkly different terms: Dwan’s Tennessee’s Partner (1955) and Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946). The former is a tender and forthright charmer, while the latter is an opaque and elliptical mystery. As I’ve been frequently enraptured by Tourneur recently (see here), I was surprised to find I found myself more wrapped up in the laconic rhythms of the Dwan film (although both are equally worthy). I then quickly queued up his two other 1955 features, Pearl of the South Pacific and Escape to Burma – and so I begin another auteurist binge.

Tennessee’s Partner (’55) was part of a string of low-budget action films that producer Benedict Bogeaus was packaging together for RKO. Jacques Tourneur had already pitched in with Appointment in Honduras (1953), while Don Siegel kicked off the remarkable string with Count the Hours that same year. Dwan would direct ten of these cheapies (three in ’55 alone), almost all of which used the same proficient crew of old pros, including cinematographer John Alton, art director Van Nest Polglase, editor James Leicester and composer Louis Forbes. In his study of Tourneur, The Cinema of Nightfall, Chris Fujiwara notes that “According to Dwan, Bogeaus’ budgets were never more than around $800,000 to $850,000, and the schedules were about fifteen days.” As Dwan told Bogdanovich:

Ben Bogeaus had lost his shirt on a bunch of pictures that he produced, and for a long time he did nothing. But he had been friendly with a fellow who became the general manager for RKO studios under Howard Hughes, and when they decided to encourage independent producers to come in and make pictures, they also loet Bogeaus in because of the previous relationship with the studio manager. The president of the company was…my old friend Jim Grainger. Now Bogeaus was notoriously extravagant in the early days, and they weren’t too confident that he could safely handle the kind of budget he’d have to use, so to give himself some security, Grainger reached out for someone with experience to go in and work with Bogeaus.

The mandate was to finish under budget and on time, and Bogeaus, no longer extravagant, became rather notorious for cutting corners. On Dwan’s last film, Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), Bogeaus hired the crew on the lower wages of a two-part television pilot, even though it was intended as a theatrical feature all along.

This cheapness extends to the aspect ratio, for instead of paying for the CinemaScope process, RKO introduced the cut-rate SuperScope process, which essentially crops a 4×3 frame into 16×9. Glenn Kenny broke it down at MUBI:

Howard Hughes hired brothers Irving and Joseph S. Tushinsky to concoct a process. It is possibly one of the most ass-backward you will ever encounter. (My information derives from Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes’ invaluable book, Wide Screen Movies.) In SuperScope, the film is shot using standard 35mm cameras, lenses, film. Filmmakers were instructed that all action be framed “into a 2:1 aspect ratio with equal cropping from the top and bottom of the frame.” “The film was then cropped to 2:1; a 2:1 anamorphic squeeze was added, and the film was printed by Technicolor in ‘scope format with .715′ height and .715′ width. A narrow black strip appeared on the right side of release print frames to fill in the difference in the .715′ SuperScope width and the .839′ width of CinemaScope.”

Borne out of necessity as well as inclination, these films are sparse and economical, allowing the well-worn genre codes to fill in the blanks in the scripts and the open spaces in the sets. Escape to Burma and Pearl of the South Pacific are minor but diverting efforts, with characteristically impressive work by John Alton. Burma is the stronger of the two, introducing the latticework facade of Barbara Stanwyck’s Burma outpost in the opening, letting Alton’s shadows seep through it in the middle, and then ending with gun muzzles intruding into its intricate grille work. Pearl has some stunning location footage matched with awkwardly cheap studio shots, but still manages to wring dense, fully figured characters out of its pulp cut-outs.

Not much happens in Tennessee’s Partner, with most of the action taking place inside the emotions of John Payne and Ronald Reaganthe two eminently likable leads. Payne is Tennessee, the slick house cardsharp in a high-class brothel, or “Marriage Market”, run by Duchess (Rhonda Fleming). Duchess takes 10% of his winnings after he cleans out the rubes, but she’d like it more if he kissed her with passion. Instead, she gets the sloppy macho tongue slapping of a narcissist only after his own pleasure. Then Cowpoke (Ronald Reagan) totters into town, a mild mannered romantic who arrives to get married. Everyone is an archetype, identified only by a nickname. Howard Hawks certainly saw this movie before making Rio Bravo, another pared down Western heavy on nicknames and the vagaries of male friendship. It’s unnecessary to dwell on narrative-halting backstory when entire lives are present in a name. Whether Cowpoke or Tennessee, or Colorado, Feathers and Dude in Rio Bravo, you have a sense of these characters as soon as they step on-screen and introduce themselves. This allows Dwan and Hawks to focus on the inter-personal present.

One of Tennessee’s cleaned out poker mates tries to knock him off, and Cowpoke, just entering town, guns down the attacker instead. Tennessee and Cowpoke end up in jail on suspicion of murder. Instead of plotting escape, they sit in a tight two shot and talk, in a restful pace, about their lonely lives. Cowpoke laments his solitary life on the road, and Tennessee the constant pressure of having to maintain his perch, with young gunslingers always trying to take him down. It’s lonely at the top and the bottom, and the two men slowly bask in their mutual alienation.

The film progresses in this inverted manner – its heart on its sleeve and its story shunted to the background. Dwan said, “I’ve always preferred stories of intimacy. Spectacle is only useful commercially.” Tennesee’s Partner is a sweet distillation of this inclination. It’s a lovely, lulling experience to watch John Payne as his features soften the more he gets to know his pal. The cynical devil-may-care dash is replaced with nervous concern – as Cowpoke’s fiance turns out to be a gold-digger Tennessee knew back in San Francisco. The story moves on his inability to communicate his concernreflecting also his mulish refusal to admit his love of Duchess. It’s a movie about accepting and validating male emotionality. There is a moment when Payne lays his hand on Reagan’s shoulder, affirming their bond and their love, that stuns in its simplicity and grace.


February 8, 2011

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With little fanfare, MGM re-started its moribund DVD burn-on-demand service last month. MGM originally offered 27 titles through Amazon’s CreateSpace service in early 2010, only to encounter complaints about cropped aspect ratios. Then last November, it was quietly announced that they were switching to Allied Vaughn’s MOD technology, and making it available to a variety of retailers (now including Movies UnlimitedOldies.comScreen Classics, and Amazon). It’s unclear whether the original MOD titles released in non-anamorphic or cropped versions (like Cold Turkey), will receive updates, but to be safe, I’d stick to the new releases and check the Home Theater Forum for news. The initial release slate is 50, with “an expansion plan to release more than 400 new-to-DVD titles within the next 18 months” (press release here). The first batch of these were rolled out in January, so to get a sense of this promising new venture’s quality, I picked up director Phil Karlson’s caustic film noir, 99 River Street (1953).

(Note:  The For the Love of Film Noir Blog-a-thon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren, takes place Feb. 14th – 21st to raise money for the Film Noir Foundation‘s efforts to restore Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950). I’ll be contributing next week, so consider the following a teaser.  Donate here.)

Presented in a fine progressive transfer from a pristine inky black print, it’s clear MGM is taking their MOD program seriously this time around. [UPDATE: DVD Beaver found the transfer to be interlaced. I didn’t notice this in playback, but they’re always right about these things]. There are no extras. Amazon is offering it at a slight discount for $17.99, while the other sites have it pegged at $19.99.

Made a year after Karlson and lead actor John Payne teamed up for Kansas City Confidential (1952, where Payne’s ex-con is set up to take the fall for an armored car robbery), 99 River Street is a story of failure and provisional redemption. In this version Payne plays Eddie Driscoll, a washed up pug who ritualistically watches the highlights of his championship bout defeat, in which his eye was permanently damaged, hoping for a catharsis that never comes. Repeatedly shown in oblique angle close-ups, his right eye twitches like a maggot in a slab of beef. His wife Pauline, played with icy disdain by Peggie Castle, is a cinched-up former showgirl who yearns for the high life and sees an out in the machinations of  thief Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter).

Eddie’s meat-headed obsessiveness and Pauline’s extravagant boredom are set up in the opening sequence. It begins on the title bout, a barrage of low-angle jabs that ends with Eddie knocked bloody, his face caressing the bottom rope. Then Karlson cuts to a close-up of the TV, the announcers talking about “The Great Fights of Yesterday.” The camera then dollies back to get the full TV on-screen, then swiftly pans to left to Eddie. Now robbed of his physicality, this has-been still winces at every blow. Kalrson then cuts to a reverse angle, revealing the rest of the shabby room, with Pauline, ignored, seething at the dinner table. Their eyes don’t meet until she turns off the TV, finishing the announcer’s phrase, “Next week…Driscoll will be driving a taxi.” Her words drip with venom, and understandably so, but she ends up in the arms of Rawlins, a reptilian creep who seems to devour her whole with his eyes.

Enraptured with visions of escape from her working class life, Pauline falls for Rawlins’ sordid designs. His attraction to her becomes increasingly sadistic, which only become clear in rhyming images of her scarf, at the beginning and midpoint of the film.

The cuckolded Eddie does drive that cab, barely making ends meet, and hangs out at a diner with another failure, an out-of-work actress played by Evelyn Keyes with intentionally grating brilliance, whose whole life revolves around performance. Her overactive eyebrows eventually sucker Eddie in to be an unwitting co-star in an elaborate performance. It’s an incredible sequence that pivots on a long take, close-up monologue of Keyes re-enacting a murder she claims to have committed, which Driscoll believes to be real. Then the hoax is revealed – it was all an an audition to convince a play’s backers of her skill – and Driscoll’s subterranean rage bursts, knocking out the play’s director and a few of its producers. Keyes, staring at the camera, was acting out a murder for the audience, which is then revealed to be an act. She spends the rest of the film trying to make amends for this betrayal.

99 River Street is a tale of middling talents who can never catch a break, having to repress their natural skills just to get by. Without the physical outlet of boxing, Driscoll is a man in the process of mastering his rage and never quite getting there. In the final showdown, when Driscoll is facing up to the scummy Victor Rawlins, a voice-over intrudes for the first time in the film, as Payne, shot in the arm and fading fast, repeats the mantra, “I have to get him”. It’s the climax to all of those intrusive close-ups showing his decaying exterior,  a jarring device that peeks into the mind of a man who defines himself by his body.