May 22, 2012

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The post-WWII economic expansion exploded in 1950, as the GI Bill’s low mortgage rates stoked a housing boom and pent-up consumer demand propped up retail. Success was there for the taking, but not for all. Two early 50s films that are hitting home video in impressive transfers,  Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950, on DVD 5/29 from Olive Films) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953, now out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), documented some of the anxieties caused by this enormous upheaval in American life, what would be the start of the greatest stretch of economic growth in U.S. history. More money meant more crime, and The Big Heat is a nightmare rendering of the American Dream, as good cop  Glenn Ford loses his nuclear family and just goes nuclear. The Lawless is an earnest morality play about the plight of migrant fruit pickers in Southern California, doing the work Americans left for office gigs (by 1956 a majority of U.S. workers held white rather than blue collar jobs).

The Big Heat is premised on a divide, the one between Detective Dave Bannion’s middle class abode, a blandly utilitarian ranch house, and the glittering homes and hangouts of the criminal class, like hired muscle Vince Stone’s (Lee Marvin) plush penthouse apartment. As Tom Gunning wrote in his seminal Films of Fritz Lang, The Big Heat, “moves through this contradictory environment whose smooth surfaces mask the fissure  between the good life for the few and the cramped and hectic worlds of the mass of people”.

It was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Fritz Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Lang renders Boehm’s straightforward revenge tale with an abstracted intensity, the cold open suicide rendered in massive disembodied close-up of a hand on a revolver, followed by an off-screen gunshot. Lang does not use an establishing shot, breaking the film into pieces that Detective Bannion will struggle to re-connect.

Ford is unduly stressed throughout, on the perpetual edge of exhaustion, his speech clipped into little shotgun blasts of bile that anticipate Charles Bronson’s monotonal delivery a decade or so later. Even when in possession of his nuclear home, he seems uneasy, the jollity forced. His wife, played by Jocelyn Brando, emits a generic housewifely cheer, as if Bannion just wandered onto the set of the Donna Reed Show (which wouldn’t premiere until 1958, but please indulge me). When Bannion’s home is emptied out, it feels more like reality, and the middle-class fantasy the dream. Seeing the rage in Bannion’s eyes, an ex-partner on the force tells him, “you’re on a hate binge.” And so he is, blithely stampeding into Lagana’s nightclubs and mansion, more locales in which he doesn’t belong, with his old dark trenchcoat and faded fedora, suspicious of everyone and belonging nowhere. It is with the entry of Debby Marsh, that childishly erotic creation of Gloria Grahame, that Bannion finds another lost soul, uncomfortable in furs and then in her own skin, when Vince Stone famously scars her face with a pot of coffee (off-screen, like the suicide). Their bond is brief but intense, as each have been ripped away from their place in society. Debby tells a fellow female schemer that they are “sisters under the mink”, but she and Bannion are comrades in hate.

The Lawless was the second film Joseph Losey directed in Hollywood, and he would only be able to make three more before he was blacklisted and had to move overseas. He followed up the anti-war fable The Boy With Green Hair (1948) with this socially conscious drama, which he shot on location in Marysville and Grass Valley, CA in 18 days. He would continue to exploit real locations in his work, used to spectacular effect inThe Prowler (1951) and his remake of Lang’s (1951), in which Southern California becomes a tomb of broken American dreams.

The script was written by Daniel Mainwaring (using his  pseudonym as a mystery novelist, Geoffrey Homes), who would also come under some scrutiny by HUAC, although he was able to work sporadically during that period. Mainwaring’s script hearkens back to the social-realist films of the ’30s, like King Vidor’s ode to communal living, Our Daily Bread, within a completely different political landscape. Anything that smacked of Communism was suspect, so the film’s plea for racial tolerance, and unflattering portrayal of the local police force, came under scrutiny from the Production Code Administration’s Joseph Breen. Here is his amazing note to the film’s distributor, Paramount, as reproduced in the AFI Catalog:

The shocking manner in which the several gross injustices are heaped upon the head of the confused, but innocent young American of Mexican extraction, and the willingness of so many of the people in your story to be a part of, and to endorse, these injustices, is, we think, a damning portrayal of our American social system. The manner in which certain of the newspapers are portrayed in this story, with their eagerness to dishonestly present the news, and thus inflame their readers, is also, we think, a part of a pattern which is not good. The over-all effect of a story of this kind made into a motion picture would be, we think, a very definite disservice to this country of ours, and to its institutions and its ideals….This whole undertaking seems to us to be fraught with very great danger.

However great the danger, Paramount did not greatly alter the film, in which circulation-obsessed newspapermen rile up the public into a frenzy around the story of Mexican “fruit tramp” Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios), accused of killing a cop. Already convicted in the court of public opinion, only the stalwart editor Larry Wilder (MacDonald Carey) stands to defend the kid, inflaming the populace to ransack his office. It’s a scene of destructive power, one of the few instances where the theme is illustrated by action rather than static speechifying. This reckless, irrational demolition of a newspaper office, fueled by race hatred, dwarfs the liberal pieties of the rest of the film, which turns Wilder into the hero at the expense of Rodriguez. In plotting action, mostly in long takes, Losey proves he could express his social critique through more subtle means, which he would succeed at in the haunting machinations of The Prowler, one of the great films of 50s middle-class malaise, right alongside The Big Heat.


August 11, 2009


On March 19th, 1953, Gloria Grahame was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1953). Production on Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) began two days earlier, according to TCMDB. Little did she know during this string of dizzying successes that a couple of French cineastes were busy defining her image in perpetuity. In 1955, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir americain was published, a landmark study of a particular strain in American filmmaking that previous French critics had coined “film noir”. The term wouldn’t break into common parlance in the U.S. until the 1970s, but it would come to define Gloria Grahame’s career.

Borde and Chaumeton declared  her the ideal femme fatale, one who intimated “cold calculation and sensuality” in her performances (for more on this book’s impact, check out James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts). She wielded her sly, cheshire-cat grin, nasal sing-song voice and girlish vanity as canny masks for her character’s various vices and insecurities. Her exuberant energy, almost anarchic at times, threatens to overwhelm the subtlety of her characterizations, and her unselfconscious sexuality made even the most sophisticated writer adopt the violent romanticism of a noir protagonist: Francois Truffaut wrote, “…as is the case of most of the Cahiers writers, the beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love….”, while academic Tom Gunning, in his magisterial Films of Fritz Lang, can’t help but add an aside that Grahame’s ability to make a fur coat swish “is one of the few arguments against animal rights activists.”

Along with Crossfire (1947) and In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat is the defining film noir role of her career, and she delivers an astonishing performance. The Big Heat was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, the mistress to Lagana’s right-hand man, Vince Stone (a lip-trembling Lee Marvin).It’s a perfect scenario for Lang’s continued emphasis on systemic evils and unchangeable destiny (think Mabuse or You Only Live Once), and it results in one of his darkest, richest films (read the Gunning for an in-depth investigation of its formal and thematic strategies).

Lang’s perfectionist tendencies on set were notoriously difficult on actors, and there are very strong indications that he and Grahame did not get along. McGilligan says vaguely that there was “friction”, and in an interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg about the film, Lang says, “…and there’s a whole story about Gloria Grahame and the picture I’d rather not discuss.” Which says all that needs to be said. Grahame was reputedly a “spitfire”, and Lang probably spat back. Regardless of their working relationship, their mutual genius is up there on the screen, and Grahame’s Debby Marsh is a marvelous creation, a girlish exterior hiding a sardonic sense of humor as well as a weary cynicism. When Bannion self-righteously asks her where her money comes from, Marsh replies, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.” This depressing realist comes out later in the film.

Graham enters the story lolling on the couch, answering the phone for Stone with mock sincerity, telling him “His Highness” Lagana is on the line, before strolling over to the mirror to check on her makeup. She exudes teenage rebelliousness and vanity, except her wit has more sting than your normal brat. Her burlesque of Stone’s relationship with Lagana reaches an absurd pitch when she starts singing a little ditty comparing Lagana to a lion tamer as she shuffles off to mix cocktails, indicating how “whipped” Stone really is, despite all his bravado. Grahame’s perky subversiveness gives Marsh select moments of independence, even if Stone doesn’t always pay attention to her jokes: “When Vince talks business I get my legs waxed”. She takes refuge from her life in humor and her physical appearance, which is the only way she can gain power in this sexist society. It is only after Bannion stands up to Stone that Marsh dallies with escaping her kept lifestyle.

After following the scarily stoic Bannion to his hotel room, Marsh opens up about her transcendent unhappiness. Grahame’s sexual invitation, as she composes herself on the bed, all shaded eyes and perfect posture, is duly swatted away by the detective. It is this flirtatious crime that leads to the Marsh’s famous scarring – a close-up of a bubbling coffee pot and an off-screen scream is all it takes for that scene of improbable violence to be inflicted by Lee Marvin. As Gunning notes, after this scarring Marsh avoids mirrors and acts as Bannion’s id, committing the murder he’s unable to. Meeting up with the scheming widow who is extorting from Lagana, and who holds the evidence to the syndicate’s downfall, Grahame greets her with the wonderfully sarcastic line, “We’re sisters under the mink”, as they face each other in matching furs. Marsh’s decadence is now ironic, another punchline, but this time in service of her redemption – and she goes on to return the coffee (see right).

McGilligan notes that the box office returns were “average” and the reviews “fair”, but Columbia Pictures were satisfied enough with the result to sanction a re-teaming of Ford and Grahame in Human Desire the next year, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938 – Lang had already remade Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) as Scarlett Street (1945)). The Zola novel would have been rich material for Lang, with the central character a mentally unstable “sex killer” in a world self-destructing around him. This being 1953 Hollywood, however, this subject would never be approved for production. So, as Lang told Peter Bogdanovich:

“In an American movie, you cannot make the hero a sex killer. Impossible. So Glenn Ford has to play it, you know, like a Li’l Abner coming back from Korea-100 percent red-blooded American with very natural sex feelings-if such a thing exists.”

This project was totally a contract job, but Lang had held out hope that he could land Peter Lorre as the lead, and perhaps coax a darker performance out of the material. Unfortunately, Lorre declined, and Glenn Ford stepped in to an impossible task – to portray a straight-laced aw-shucks American in a story of sexual obsession and death. His performance is incongruous and jarring. Lang’s visual mastery is in full force, though, with a wordless opening consisting of the cold geometry of train tracks, indicating the web of fate he’ll soon be caught in. It’s a film to savor for it’s purely plastic virtues, as producer Jerry Wald drove the final stake into its narrative conception:

…one day he called us [Lang and Alfred Hayes] in and said, “You are both wrong.” I said, “What have we done this time, Jerry?” He said, “Look. This is called La Bete Humaine, the human beast. But everybody is bad in your picture. ” “Naturally, because Zola wanted to show that in every human being is a beast.” He said, “You both don’t understand it. The woman is the human beast.” What can you do against the producer?

Glenn Ford plays Jeff Warren, a clean-cut soldier returning from the Korean War. He’s seduced by Gloria Grahame’s Vicki, who is chained to her drunken, murderous husband Carl Buckley  (Broderick Crawford), who’s eager to pin a death on her. Vicki attempts to seduce Warren so he’ll knock off Buckley and end her virtual imprisonment.

Gloria Grahame does not add the electricity of her turn in The Big Heat, but opts for a more reserved and maudlin tone, emphasizing Vicki’s opacity and unreadability, perhaps in an attempt to undercut Wald’s misogynist reading of Zola’s book. She is an enigma to Warren and to the audience, her character’s perversity kept in check until the final reels, where her proof of love, and proof of sexual attraction, is to kill.

I don’t like to emphasize the ghoulish backstory of Grahame’s life, but at this point in her career  her obsession with plastic surgery started to affect her performances. Her upper lip, the subject of multiple rumored procedures, looks almost paralyzed, and it alters her speech. She still receives a grand introduction, though, lazing about the premises, and then showing off her new stockings to a preoccupied Crawford. Despite her physical incapacity and the limits of the material, Grahame delivers moments of subtle beauty, including her final, incantatory pitch for true love (which she equals with Crawford’s death). Even when Lang and Grahame are working with subpar material, their intelligence finds it’s way on-screen. It was received rapturously by Cahiers (which Lang was always surprised by), and it inspired one of Andrew Sarris’ finest pieces of writing:

Where Renoir’s The Human Beast is the tragedy of a doomed man caught up in the flow of life, Lang’s remake, Human Desire, is the nightmare of an innocent man enmeshed in the tangled strands of fate. What we remember in Renoir are the faces of Gabin, Simon, and Ledoux. What we remember in Lang are the geometrical patterns of trains, tracks and fateful camera angles. If Renoir is humanism, Lang is determinism. if Renor is concerned with the plight of his characters, Lang is obsessed with the structure of the trap.

In any case, viva Gloria Grahame, quintessential noir actress and so much more, an artist of whirring energy and sensuality, who was able to transform her girlish charm into characters dangerous, wounded, and majestically alive.