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    Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    Movie: Bigger Than Life (1956) 

    Talking about the latest Criterion DVD release has already landed me in a dustup, so I tread with caution. On Facebook I said the movie was a curio, not a lost classic. That prompted a critic whose work I regularly read to call me a ... well, the exact name was left vague but I’ll go with the most positive option and say philistine. The critic ultimately kicked me to the digital curb. Maybe Errol Morris is right when he suggests that social media is as bad as high school.

    Bigger Than Life generated an uncommon amount of publicity when it debuted on video last week. The majority of reviews were laudatory; the word “masterpiece” crops up repeatedly. It was hailed as a neglected landmark, an incisive social critique, a scathing exposé of the American Dream.

    All of which should have raised red flags. I don’t have many rules when it comes to movies, but here’s one: when every hosanna fawns over what a movie says but not what actually happens onscreen, odds are you’re in for a tough sit.

    Nicholas Ray directs. The movie is based on a New Yorker article and feels like it. James Mason plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who moonlights as a taxi dispatcher. He suffers from increasingly frequent bouts of pain which are diagnosed as a symptom of a fatal arterial disease. But there’s a new treatment, the miracle drug cortisone. It saves Mason’s life, but also triggers manic episodes that crescendo into full-blown psychosis with his abuse of the drug. He becomes a suburban Nietzsche, a household tyrant terrorizing his family.

    The lopsided script is so focused on Mason and his largely one note fugues that the behavior of the other characters is rendered incomprehensible. His doctors aren’t held to account. As for Mason’s wife (Barbara Rush), I had to keep stepping out of the movie to backtrack her motivations. “I suppose if she thinks X, it makes sense she’d do Y.” Many critics claim Bigger Than Life is fundamentally about issues of class – novelist Jonathan Lethem, a great admirer of the film, offers 27 minutes of cultural background on the DVD – but the movie treats money obliquely. In a key scene, Mason holds up medical bills shot in such a way that I couldn’t tell what they were until he’d already put them down. Here’s another of my rules: if your characters’ actions are essentially prompted by subtext, you’ve failed as a dramatist.

    I was interested enough in the story to track down the original article in the New Yorker’s archives. Berton Roueché’s “Ten Feet Tall,” published in September 1955, is an astonishing piece of reportage that answered every question raised by Bigger Than Life’s flawed script. To begin with, the schoolteacher’s wife has a far more substantial presence. During the period in question, she herself was incapacitated by sickness. Her husband’s adverse reaction to cortisone was compounded by his doctor’s refusal to discuss why he was altering the dosage. Here’s the teacher on his physician: “He believes in a minimum of explanation and a maximum of results. And, of course, I said nothing to my wife.” The bath scene that gives the movie its signature image – Mason’s reflection in a shattered mirror – comes from out of left field in the film. The incident in context is smaller and far more devastating.

    Roueché’s article is a case study. So is Bigger Than Life, in how not to adapt material.

    UPDATE: Jaime Weinman offers a terrific counterpoint to this post.

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    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    Related: Lonelyhearts, by Marion Meade (2010)/Five Came Back (1939) 

    They make an unlikely couple. Nathanael West, an author whose comic sensibility is so dark it can be difficult to find. And Eileen McKenney, a Midwestern girl whose big city adventures spawned a miniature empire.

    Theirs may not have been a “screwball world,” as author Meade subtitles her joint biography; West and McKenney both died too young in a car accident caused by West’s notoriously bad driving mere days before the debut of the play that would make Eileen’s exploits even more famous. But Meade’s telling has that tone. She writes with an informal, almost jaunty voice that suits what is ultimately a tale of kindred spirits finding each other, and prior to that a recounting of literary circles in 1920’s New York and ‘30s Hollywood. The most interesting material is about those orbiting the star-crossed twosome, like West’s overbearing mother and Ruth McKenney, the staunch Communist who gained her greatest fame chronicling her superficial sibling’s antics in My Sister Eileen (filmed twice, adapted into a play and later the musical Wonderful Town).

    It’s the rare biography that makes you think less of its subject – well, one of them – but it happens here with West, who comes across as pretentious and scheming. Amazingly, a stint in the Poverty Row salt mines matured him. The Day of the Locust, with its parade of grotesques and apocalyptic sense of alienation, is a book I respect without actually liking. Give me the realistically grim but more humane work of West’s Republic Pictures stablemate Horace McCoy.

    West’s greatest success as a screenwriter is, ironically, one of the first disaster movies. In Five Came Back he mixed disparate types – among them a gangster’s young son, his pistol-packing “uncle,” an anarchist and the lawman escorting him to his execution, plus Lucille Ball as a woman who’s been around the block with an EZ Pass – on a doomed airplane. Spoiler alert: five come back.

    The film plods in its early stages, serving as a better showcase for director John Farrow than West. But tropes become tropes for a reason. Once the plane crashes and the action moves to the jungle, the stock characters become more involving. West, expecting to receive sole credit, was dismayed to find himself sharing space with, among others, Dalton Trumbo, who transformed the anarchist villain into the voice of reason.

    Five Came Back was the sleeper hit of 1939, launching Farrow to the A-list. (ASIDE: Want to read about Farrow’s glory days? I wrote an article about them that’s in this book.) He would remake the film nearly 20 years later as Back From Eternity. Guess what else is on my DVR?

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    Tuesday, March 16, 2010

    Book: The Detective in Hollywood, by Jon Tuska (1978) 

    If I’ve learned one thing from the big dogs of the noir circuit, it’s the importance, nay, the necessity of documentation. Talk directly to the people who made the movies, get them on the record, create a body of knowledge. (Exhibit A, as I’ve said before: Eddie Muller’s one-of-a-kind Dark City Dames.)

    That’s what makes Jon Tuska’s overview of the private eye genre so vital. He did the legwork when there were still plenty of people around to interview, like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Montgomery.

    Even more impressive is that he committed to this undertaking in those dimly remember’d days before video and the internet, when research of this kind meant hard work. Tuska sat down with Lloyd Nolan, who played Michael Shayne, and Nolan brought along something a fan sent that might be helpful: a typewritten list of all of Nolan’s films. An asterisk by the title meant the fan owned a print of the movie.

    Tuska’s work is exhaustive but never tiring, guiding you through now-neglected series like the Crime Doctor and Mr. Wong, telling you which Charlie Chan films are worth your while. The chapter on The Thin Man movies also includes their many imitators. Tuska writes with wit and affection, but also a sharp critical eye. Some of his positions I agree with (dismissing all of Boston Blackie), some I don’t (no way is The Drowning Pool better than Harper). And the few stances he cheerily admits are heretical – such as claiming that Montgomery’s subjective camera Lady in the Lake is superior to both Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep – are so persuasively argued that I’m willing to give the movies in question another look. The book ends with an affectionate appraisal of the ‘70s troika of The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Late Show.

    I first learned about the book from Ed Gorman, who wonders why it never got its due. Having read it, I’m now asking the same question. Tuska updated it in 1988 as In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film. I’m going to need a copy of one version or the other to call my own. Any fan of The Whistler is welcome around here.

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    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Book: I Should Have Stayed Home, by Horace McCoy (1938) 

    One of the knocks on e-readers that baffles me is, “You lose that new book smell!” To which I say, “What about that old book smell?” A few years ago I picked up a paperback in an antique store containing two novels by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It was only when I got the book home that I realized it reeked, as if it had been used to prop up a leaky boiler in a basement that doubled as a hobo graveyard. Rosemarie, her eyes watering in the next room, announced, “Either you read that one outside or you don’t read it at all.” As I consigned the leathery pages to the flames, I heard them cry out in torment. (Actually, I just tossed the book in the trash. Several blocks away.)

    Since buying my Kindle, I’ve been primarily filling it up with older, somewhat hard to find books. Solomon’s Vineyard and Fast One did not disappoint. Nor did Horace McCoy’s brief and brutal I Should Have Stayed Home.

    McCoy, a journalist and Black Mask writer, moved to Los Angeles in 1930 with hopes of becoming an actor. He would instead become a screenwriter. But the cattle call experience marked his work, especially his best known novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, about Hollywood aspirants participating in a grueling dance marathon, and I Should Have Stayed Home.

    Georgia-born Ralph Carston headed west with dreams of stardom, but he finds himself short of cash, scuffling for extra work, and sharing a seedy bungalow with his Platonic roommate Mona Matthews. A friend of Mona’s is arrested for shoplifting. A chain of circumstance follows that brings Ralph in contact with an older woman who has designs on him, a disillusioned flack, and a host of other Tinseltown types.

    It’s a grim, powerful book. Ralph seethes with desperation and rage. He’s implied in his letters to his mother that he’s already made it in Hollywood, but he soon learns that his accent and his attitude may keep him from success. Scarier is the resentment boiling over into hatred that he feels toward those who have managed to grab the brass ring. (“It made me sore, sitting here looking at Robert Taylor, the biggest star in the pictures, trying to figure out what he had that put him where he was and that, goddam it, one of these days ...”) It’s an unsparing look at the dark reality of show business that deserves to be mentioned alongside Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

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    Saturday, March 06, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Your Weekend Recommendations 

    Now that Noir City has wrapped, it’s high time for me to get my head back in the twenty-first century. Here are some more contemporary picks.

    Wake Up Dead, by Roger Smith (2010). Roxy Palmer used to be an American model. Now she’s living in Cape Town, South Africa, trophy wife to an arms trafficker. When two street punks jack their car, Roxy takes advantage of the situation. Thus setting into motion a tortured Elmore-Leonard-meets-Robert-Altman chain of events embroiling Roxy, the carjackers, a mercenary known as Billy Afrika, a psychotic gang boss hell-bent on a reunion with his prison “wife,” and an honest bastard of a cop named Maggott forced to investigate with his son in tow.

    The bleakness of this book is, at times, suffocating; each character’s history is so grim that the miasma of misery threatens to become blackly comic. But there’s no denying that every one of Smith’s players pops off the page, and his pacing is relentless. It’s a prison shank of a novel: brutal and hard, driving in deep and leaving a hell of a mess.

    The Ghost Writer (2010). A review described Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel as a “town car thriller.” That how it seems for much of its running time, a well-appointed and smooth ride.

    Ewan McGregor is the title character, hired to punch up the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). As Lang is brought up on charges in The Hague for his role in abetting America’s rendition program, the ghost begins to wonder about the mysterious suicide of his predecessor.

    There are terrific performances throughout, including one from 94-year-old Eli Wallach. The movie’s final revelation is a doozy, delivered in an extended, largely wordless set piece that is a joy to behold. Sly, meticulously constructed, with a perfect visual capper. Days later, I’m still cackling at it.

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    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Sherman’s March 

    Vincent Sherman had a solid career as a director, making melodramas (Mr. Skeffington, The Hasty Heart) and films of a darker, noirish hue (The Hard Way, Nora Prentiss, The Damned Don’t Cry). But he should be remembered for his autobiography Studio Affairs, one of the most honest and therefore best books about Hollywood ever written.

    Let’s get the prurient stuff out of the way, shall we? Sherman slept with several of his leading ladies and details those relationships. The dalliances strangely parallel each actress’s films; Bette Davis’ is histrionic with a tragic ending, while Joan Crawford’s is brazen and tawdry. (His one night stand with Rita Hayworth is simply sad.) What emerges from the telling is an astonishing portrait of a lasting marriage; Sherman’s wife Hedda knew of his affairs and even became friends with Crawford.

    Sherman is every bit as meticulous when it comes to recounting his professional life. Studio Affairs lays bare how many compromises are necessary for a career in Hollywood, how frequently opportunities fade away. Sherman never forgot his training in the B-movie unit at Warner Brothers, where previous years’ prestige projects were repurposed into programmers. (The first half of The Mayor of Hell plus the end of San Quentin became Crime School, Sherman’s first writing credit.) When a projected adaptation of James M. Cain’s Serenade fell apart, he reworked The Letter into The Unfaithful.

    After reading the book, I caught up with a few Sherman films on DVD. All Through the Night (1941) was of particular interest; Humphrey Bogart in an anti-Nazi action comedy? He plays gambler Gloves Donahue, whose efforts to find out what happened to his favorite cheesecake – I am completely serious – lead him to a ring of fifth columnists. Bogart’s gang includes Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. And yet somehow, the movie is leaden from the jump. Honestly, it’s dreadful. I only kept watching because I was convinced it had to get funnier.

    Still, it does produce my favorite story in Sherman’s book. Peter Lorre, as one of the Nazi spies, has to shoot a lock off a door while Judith Anderson hollers in German behind him. When Sherman requested a second take, Lorre says, “That’s all, brother Vince. I can only do this kind of crap once a day. Besides, it’s six o’clock. Time to go home.” (Can’t you just hear Lorre saying that?) Sherman asks how, if that’s true, Lorre could have made all those Mr. Moto pictures. Lorre retorts, “I took dope!” Later, Sherman learns that Lorre wasn’t joking.

    Next up was the movie that cemented Sherman’s reputation. Underground (1941) was meant to be a B-picture, but a strong script and Sherman’s direction made it a surprise hit. A wounded Nazi soldier, loyal to the party, returns home, not realizing that his older brother is a leader of the resistance. They are quickly set on a collision course.

    Propaganda? You bet. Effective? And how, especially that ending. The idea that this movie was in theaters months before Pearl Harbor boggles the mind. First and foremost, though, Underground functions as a gripping thriller.

    Another good Sherman story: the role of an elderly man who aids the resistance was reconceived for the gorgeous Mona Maris because she was “friends” with the film’s producer – and if he didn’t cast her, she was going to cut up all of his suits. Maris is terrific in the movie, but Sherman never bought her in the part.

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    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) 

    This year’s festival came to a close with a salute to the man Eddie Muller called not a noir actor but a noir artist: Richard Widmark.

    I’d been itching to see Slattery’s Hurricane since reading Eddie’s article about it in the Noir City Sentinel, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. It’s the least known of Widmark’s films from this era, and is also the only original screenplay by novelist Herman Wouk.

    Here’s your slambang opening: Widmark’s Slattery coldcocks a guy, steals a plane, and flies directly into the titular windstorm. The ex-Navy pilot then reflects back on the life that brought him to this point. Think of it as a borderline psychotic version of The Spirit of St. Louis. The long chain of circumstance involves Slattery’s fragile girlfriend Veronica Lake; his ex-lover Linda Darnell, now married to an old pal; and a “candy” company that didn’t hire Slattery to fly to the Caribbean to pick up cocoa leaves.

    Very adult stuff, so naturally it ran head-on into opposition from the censors. Eddie correctly called this “a wounded film,” with much of the strongest material excised or heavily edited. Still, those phantom limbs are felt. You can see the movie that Slattery’s Hurricane was meant to be, even though it doesn’t play out onscreen. Widmark’s bristling performance holds the enterprise together, as do the harrowing flight sequences; director André De Toth was a pilot, even though he only had one eye. Lake, then married to De Toth, appears without her trademark hairstyle and is shockingly vulnerable. She would never star in a major studio film again.

    Next: Pickup on South Street, one of the best B movies ever made and one that lost its FBI seal of approval because of writer/director Samuel Fuller’s affection for characters scrabbling out an existence in the margins of society.

    We’ve seen Pickup several times, so we skipped the screening to have one last round (or two) of drinks with the Czar of Noir and settle up. Rosemarie and I sold hundreds of dollars worth of FNF merchandise during the run of the festival, and were down to the dregs by closing night. It may not be as impressive as the haul the Foundation takes down during Noir City San Francisco, but that festival is in the 1400-seat Castro Theater and has cigarette girls moving the merch in the aisles. Seattle had two people at a table, and that cigarette girl costume chafed something fierce.

    My thanks again to Eddie, the FNF, and SIFF Cinema for what has been the most successful Noir City Northwest yet. Great films and strong turnouts all week long. It’s an amazing feeling to watch rarities like Slattery’s Hurricane or Wednesday’s Fly-By-Night and realize that the only people in the world seeing that movie on that day are in the room with you.

    Noir City rolls into Los Angeles in April, and elsewhere later this year. Do yourselves a favor: watch The Endless Night, which received an encore screening yesterday, then go to the Film Noir Foundation website and kick in a few bucks. (UPDATE: Or buy the swag that Rosemarie and I were selling, including Annual #2 in which I appear.)

    Time for me to catch up on some more current movies.

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    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Deported (1950)/Fly-By-Night (1942) 

    Few names are more revered in the annals of film noir than that of Robert Siodmak. He directed some of the classics of the form: Phantom Lady, The Killers, Criss Cross. Last night Eddie Muller showed a pair of rarities that bookend the noir and Hollywood phases of Siodmak’s career. Neither one is exactly noir, but both are fascinating.

    The German expatriate was considering a return to Europe when he was offered Deported. One of the few studio films to be shot overseas at the time, it’s a fictional account of Lucky Luciano’s forced return to Italy following his cooperation with the U.S. government during World War II. From prison, Charley Lucky used his control of the waterfront rackets to shut down Axis spies, and his contacts in Italy provided intelligence during the run-up to the invasion.

    “Vic Smith,” aka Victor Sparducci, (Jeff Chandler) isn’t a player at Lucky’s level, but he did do his bit to help Uncle Sam during the war. Now he’s being sent back to the country he barely remembers, watched by the police and hounded by an ex-partner. As he falls for a beautiful contessa (the Swedish actress Märta Torén), he hatches a brilliant plan to bring the hundred grand he stashed in New York into the country.

    Deported is an authentic curio, and I liked it quite a bit. It feels like a European film, moving at a different rhythm. There are some striking scenes of Italy shot by William Daniels, and a sense of the deprivation there after the war. I must mention Marina Berti, bewitching as Gina. The apocryphal story is that Luciano, a die-hard movie fan, met with Siodmak during production to tell him how much he loved The Killers ... and that Siodmak used him as an extra in a movie based on his own life. I didn’t spot him, but then I wasn’t looking for him.

    Siodmak burst of the B movie ghetto with Fly-By-Night, a blatant attempt to cash in on Alfred Hitchcock’s success The 39 Steps. Here the innocent man caught up in espionage is played by Richard Carlson, who would go on to be a ‘50s sci-fi stalwart in It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Nancy Kelly, mother of The Bad Seed, is the gal along for the ride.

    The script, by one of my heroes Jay Dratler, manages to hit all the comic suspense notes in diabolically inventive ways. And Siodmak stages some impressive stunts on a limited budget. It’s easy to understand why he was earmarked for bigger things. Fly-By-Night is a treat, one of the best faux-Hitchcock films ever made.

    Alas, there is exactly one (1) print of the movie in existence. Last night, it unspooled in Seattle.

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    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Red Light (1949)/Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) 

    It was a hoarse Eddie Muller who took to the stage on Tuesday night. SIFF, working him like a government mule, has sent him out to preach the gospel of noir at area schools this week. During his visit to Reel Grrls, he showed The Endless Night. First question: “Why is everyone so angry?”

    And thus is the next generation of noirheads born.

    Eddie billed Red Light as biblical noir. He meant this in every sense. A copy of the Good Book is integral to the plot, and there is divine intervention. Trucking magnate George Raft goes on the warpath after his chaplain brother is murdered. It was tough for me to feel his pain because li’l bro is Arthur Franz, who played the title role in The Sniper.

    Red Light is a truly odd duck of a film, a tough melodrama shot through with schmaltz and religious undertones. It uses Ave Maria as its action theme. The Coen Brothers must have seen it because Stanley Clements, aka Mr. Gloria Grahame, plays a hotel bellhop who clearly influenced Buzz in The Hudsucker Proxy. There’s also a bizarre flashback featuring a blind veteran and a window washer with no sense of personal space. The script is something of a shaggy dog story; you know exactly how the bible business is going to pay off. But Raft is surprisingly effective within his limited range, and veteran studio hand Roy Del Ruth stages a vigorous ending.

    Walk a Crooked Mile was made semi-documentary style, and you know what that means: location shooting and stentorian voiceover. Dennis O’Keefe, joining Dick Powell and John Payne in the parade of song-and-dance men who remade themselves as hard cases, is an FBI agent investigating security leaks at a government energy facility. He teams up with Scotland Yard’s Louis Hayward to smash a red spy ring. A minor but solid suspense film. Director Gordon Douglas also made Frank Sinatra’s Tony Rome movies and Zombies on Broadway starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney, the utterly destitute man’s Abbott & Costello.

    Both of last night’s movies were partly filmed in San Francisco and feature Raymond Burr as a villain. Burr’s best known for playing heroic leads in Perry Mason and Ironside, but those TV shows were before my time. I’ve never seen an episode of either one. I’ll always think of Burr as an overweight, sweaty psychosexual lunatic from movies that are even more before my time.

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    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Inside Job (1946)/Human Desire (1954) 

    So about Sunday ... the double feature was devoted to John Garfield. I’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice a time or three, and I watched He Ran All the Way not all that long ago – and didn’t particularly care for it. (Great opening 20 minutes, but it gets very stagy very quickly.) Consequently, I chose to forego them both and dine with the czar instead. But I was on hand to sell merch and hear Eddie’s introduction, which touched on how the former Julius Garfinkle spearheaded the Group Theater-born school of naturalistic acting that prefigured Clift, Brando and Newman; Postman’s transformation from the definitive work of noir fiction to high-class women’s picture; and the blacklist’s effect on the careers of everyone involved with He Ran All the Way. When Eddie wrapped up by noting that he’s in regular contact with Garfield’s daughter and she asked him to tell the audience, “Julie sends his love,” I almost regretted my decision. I’ll revisit Postman again soon.

    Monday’s movies? Both brand new to me.

    The authentic B picture Inside Job was aptly described by Eddie as “67 minutes of craziness.” Ex-con Alan Curtis, coerced by his old boss into robbing the department store where he’s working a straight gig, opts to hit the joint himself with wife Ann Rutherford. Sounds noir, right? Well, it ain’t. I don’t know what to call Inside Job other than baffling. Featuring a photo of a Robert Benchley lookalike in a bathing suit and the most annoying child actor in screen history. Curtis is the target of a police dragnet, but when he goes out in broad daylight – to buy a radio, yet – he doesn’t bother to shave off his distinctive mustache. Which I can understand; without the ‘stache, even the camera wouldn’t notice him. The truly downbeat ending makes it the weirdest Christmas movie ever. Tod Browning is credited with the story, the last time the legendary horror director’s name appeared on a film.

    It was unfair of Eddie to show a Fritz Lang movie next. The opening sequence of Human Desire, showing train engineers at work, is more suspenseful than all of Inside Job ... and nothing is happening. The film is based on Émile Zola’s 1890 novel La Bête Humaine, previously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938. Glenn Ford, an actor Noir City has taught me to appreciate, is a Korean war vet returning to his railway job. He falls for the wife of colleague Broderick Crawford, unaware that her interest in him is spurred by the need to cover up a murder Crawford has committed.

    Human Desire is another showcase for Gloria Grahame and her stiletto vulnerability. The psychology of her character is so dark that the movie itself seems frightened of it. The beautiful quality of the print only emphasized the truncated scenes and abrupt ending. For its occasional skittishness, however, Human Desire has intensity and atmosphere to spare. From Fritz Lang, I would expect no less.

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    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Cry Danger (1951)/The Mob (1951) 

    It’s good to see your money at work.

    The Film Noir Foundation takes its mission seriously, funding restorations of movies that would otherwise be lost. Organization capo Eddie Muller explained the many hurdles in the process before the Northwest premiere of the Foundation’s latest effort, done in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Because Cry Danger was produced independently by star Dick Powell, it was at genuine risk of disappearing. The FNF’s intervention has given this underrated film – and VKDC favorite – a new lease on life.

    Powell’s Rocky Mulloy is released from prison after serving five years on a robbery charge when a witness resurfaces to back up Rocky’s claim of innocence. That the witness has never seen Mulloy before and alibis him only in the hope of making a few bucks is the first indication that Cry Danger isn’t going where you expect. Rocky looks up Rhonda Fleming, his ex-flame/current wife of his still-in-stir pal, and sets his sights on the man behind the frame, the “now 60% legit” Louie Castro (William Conrad).

    William Bowers’ script is a marvel of construction, especially as it was written with producer Powell looming over his shoulder. (“We just lost another fifty grand from the budget. Cut something.”) Cry Danger’s greatest asset is the character of Powell’s unlikely savior DeLong, a bibulous one-legged Marine and thinly-veiled self-portrait of Bowers. Richard Erdman gives what I rank as one of the greatest supporting performances of all time, abetted by classic dialogue. (“Occasionally, I always drink too much.”) Erdman is not only still acting, he has a recurring role on NBC’s Community as one of Greendale CC’s more mature students. Amazing considering his career began with Mr. Skeffington in 1944. Cry Danger is a terrific film well worth saving.

    Bowers and director Robert Parrish next collaborated on The Mob. I saw this film for the first time last year and was floored by it. Eddie explained why it’s not better known: when Columbia’s On The Waterfront became a hit, their earlier, lower-budgeted effort about corruption on the docks was forgotten.

    Time for some blasphemy: The Mob is better than On The Waterfront. It’s faster, funnier, more suspenseful and less ... psychological.

    Broderick Crawford is a cop sent undercover to investigate the rackets. (“I gotta go underground. You know, like gophers and Communists.”) On his way to identifying mysterious kingpin Blackie Clegg he’ll tussle with an authentic rogue’s gallery: Neville Brand, Ernest Borgnine, John Marley. A young Charles Bronson turns up for a scene. And Bowers’ treatment of Richard Kiley’s character, a too-friendly longshoreman, is an object lesson in screenwriting. A sensational double-bill.

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    Saturday, February 20, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Larceny (1948) 

    A capacity crowd was on hand for the opening night of the fourth Noir City Northwest. Master of ceremonies Eddie Muller gave the new converts the full spiel on the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, dedicated to “preserving America’s noir heritage” and rescuing films from the “poor stewardship” of the conglomerates that own them.

    This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny, and the kick-off double bill summed it up nicely. The first four films are also a mini-tribute to screenwriter William Bowers, a longtime VKDC favorite whom Eddie described as the Robert Towne of his day, brought in regularly to punch up scripts.

    Bowers’ work isn’t credited on Pitfall, but his fingerprints are all over it. Crackling dialogue, sharply-etched supporting players, tight plotting. Married insurance executive Dick Powell is no longer settled with being settled, chafing at his perfect life. A claim brings him in contact with Lizabeth Scott, a good-hearted girl who’s a magnet for men of poor character. Like shady shamus Raymond Burr, who found her for Powell and wants to make his connection with her permanent.

    I first saw Pitfall at Noir City several years ago and had a reservation or two about it. That’s because I went in with certain expectations. Revisiting it, I could appreciate Pitfall for the gem that it is. Burr’s character is a stalker plain and simple, played with a modern edge. Lizabeth Scott’s Mona, who does the right thing at every opportunity to no avail, breaks your heart. And Jane Wyatt as Powell’s pragmatic wife may be the hardest nut of them all.

    The more light-hearted Larceny is the movie Rosemarie was most interested in because it pairs up two of her favorite actors, John Payne and Dan Duryea. The twosome are part of a ring of con men who set out to fleece grieving war widow Joan Caulfield. There are only two problems: inside man Payne starts falling for Caulfield, and Duryea’s girl, who carries a torch for Payne, arrives to gum up the works. She’s played by Shelley Winters at her brassy best, delivering one Bowers zinger after another. Throw in noir favorite Percy Helton and a slew of lookers pining after Payne, and a good time is had by all.

    All that plus the FNF’s beautifully produced 2009 memorial reel and Serena Bramble’s extraordinary The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. For an amazing price of ten bucks, people. How can you go wrong?

    Rosemarie and I are selling FNF merch in the lobby before each show. (She’s the eye candy, I’m the numbers man.) We did land-office business yesterday. Our most popular item is the second edition of the Noir City Sentinel Annual, collecting the best of the pieces that appeared in the FNF’s subscriber newsletter. Eddie’s in there, as is Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott and other luminaries – plus several pieces by yours truly.

    Last night, I was asked to sign a copy of the book. That is a personal first that I won’t soon forget.

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    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Your Reminder 

    This post is basically an excuse to run that banner.

    It starts tonight. Here’s the program. You know where I’ll be. If you’re in Seattle, come on out and see two movies for ten bucks. Movies that in many cases aren’t available on video and rarely if ever air on television. Movies presented by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller. Movies brought to you courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation. Movies the way they were meant to be seen.

    And if you’re not in Seattle, I will, in spite of multiple deadlines and an abnormally high tree pollen count, endeavor to bring you the coverage that this website is known for.

    Into the shadows we go.

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    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Movies: The Red Riding Trilogy (U.S. 2010) 

    For several reasons, I will keep what had been planned as a lengthy post brief.

    See these movies.

    OK, not that brief.

    David Peace wrote a quartet of novels weaving together a decade’s worth of true crime in the north of England with his own fevered imaginings of corruption, guilt, and the merest glimmers of redemption. Those four books have been condensed into a remarkable trio of films. Each one scripted by Tony Grisoni but helmed by a different director. Characters drift between them, their roles transforming. Loose ends ravel. Mysteries resolve.

    You really should see these movies.

    1974 (Julian Jarrold) focuses on a hotshot young reporter who didn’t cut it in London and is back on his old stomping grounds. He’s convinced he’s onto the case of a serial murderer of young girls, and equally certain that this story will return him to the top. The poor sod has no idea he’s stumbled into a nest of tangled motives and vice that has pulled better men down.

    1980 (James Marsh) sees an outsider arrive, a straight arrow cop (the brilliant Paddy Considine) called on to determine why the local police haven’t apprehended the Yorkshire Ripper. He thinks his history in this neck of the woods will aid him in his endeavors. He is wrong.

    1983 (Anand Tucker) finds chickens coming home to roost, sinners struggling to the light, and Shakespeare being proven right: at the length, truth will out.

    The series, which aired on U.K. television last year, has been compared to Twin Peaks, The Wire, the collected works of James Ellroy, and Zodiac. All somewhat valid, none truly accurate.

    What Grisoni and company have crafted here is an epic vision of evil. Of the domestic variety, petty and insidious, dwelling in institutions, the hearts of men, the landscape itself. It’s a haunting, harrowing piece of work. It’s noir for the 21st century. Yes, you’ll like one film more than the others (I’d opt for 1980 myself). Granted, it’s not perfect. What is? But in its ambition, its execution, its belief in the power of the accretion of detail, its faith in the audience, its sheer fucking adultness, it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve watched in ages.

    The movies are being screened around the country, including at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, in the coming weeks, often back-to-back-to-back. I pity those who absorb them that way; priests and publicans should be on call. Right now the entire trilogy is available via IFC On Demand, which is how I watched them over the course of three days. It made it easier to weep for my fellow man and rage at an indifferent God. Plus, no parking problems!

    Clear your schedule. See these movies. Thank me later.

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    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Movies: Race Street (1948)/Scene of the Crime (1949) 

    Noir City Northwest kicks off this coming Friday – if you’re in Seattle, come on out and say hello to yours truly at the Film Noir Foundation table in the lobby – and the time has come to get into shape. I’ve been on a vigorous training regimen, running wind sprints, downing extra cocktails. I’ve also got to keep those blogging muscles limber, so here’s a practice post on a pair of films noir.

    You know you’re in trouble when William Bendix is the most charismatic member of your cast. That’s where we find ourselves in Race Street. The stolid George Raft is a bookie aiming to go legit in the nightclub business. But close pal Harry-then-Henry Morgan is bumped off when he refuses to pay protection money, and Raft decides to track down the killers himself. Bendix is his childhood friend turned police detective. The story’s no great shakes, and there are some odd directorial choices. Morgan’s potent death scene – a tumble down a brutally long flight of stairs – is ruined by a slow push-in at the end, and there’s a bizarre musical number featuring Raft’s torch singer sis filmed Spike Jonze style without explanation. I have higher hopes for another Raft noir, Red Light, scheduled for the festival.

    Sometimes actors can surprise you. Van Johnson gained fame as MGM’s all-American boy, but in Scene of the Crime he’s surprisingly plausible as big city cop Mike Conovan. When his former partner is gunned down under suspicious circumstances Mike sets out to clear his name, even if it means cozying up to former gangster’s moll Gloria DeHaven. All while long-suffering wife Arlene Dahl lobbies him to quit the force altogether, even conspiring with an old beau to land him a cushy private sector job.

    Charles Schnee’s script features pungent dialogue (DeHaven is described thusly: “Figure like champagne, heart like the cork”), still-shocking violence, and a nice mix of authentically shady characters, like Norman Lloyd’s stoolie Sleeper. Plus there’s a richness of detail at the margins. The killers are knocking over Syndicate joints, so the Outfit starts staging its own lineups. Moments like that lift Scene of the Crime a rung or two above the ordinary.

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    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    Movie: The Red Shoes (1948) 

    Patience, ladies and gentlemen, is rewarded.

    I had deliberately avoided the landmark Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes on TV because I knew it demanded to be seen on the big screen. Last night I not only watched a gloriously restored new print, but it was introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker, the widow of director Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese’s longtime (and multiple Academy Award-winning) editor. She cut Goodfellas, people.

    The film, about a ballet company and the dancer who becomes muse to two men, overwhelmed me. It’s unmatched in its depiction of a collaborative art form and the ways one individual can unite others in service of a vision. The boldness of its filmmaking still astounds. The CGI in, say, Avatar is about making a physical world seem real. The effects deployed in The Red Shoes are used to bring an emotional universe to life. They’re far riskier, and the rewards that much greater when they succeed.

    The evening began with a brief before-and-after comparison highlighting the work of the UCLA Film & Television Archive with the support of The Film Foundation. The restoration was an extraordinarily difficult one; The Red Shoes was shot in three-strip Technicolor on a camera so enormous Powell nicknamed it “the cottage.” Over the decades the individual strips shrank at different rates and were damaged by mold. The result is astonishing. Jack Cardiff’s photography contains colors I’d only previously seen on the insides of my eyelids. A single shot of several pairs of the title shoes presented for the approval of the company’s impresario features so many discernable shades of scarlet that it’s almost unseemly.

    Ms. Schoonmaker walked us through the film’s history. Powell’s determination to cast a ballet dancer (Moira Shearer) in the lead role, his willingness to replace technical personnel when they told him he was going too far. Producer J. Arthur Rank loathed the movie, finding it too “artistic,” and did everything he could to bury it. Only the efforts of a pair of New York exhibitors changed its fortunes. They converted a legitimate theater to screen it, and it wound up running for two straight years.

    Gene Kelly dragged studio executives to showings in order to make his case for the ballet at the end of An American in Paris. Ms. Schoonmaker talked about the many others who had been inspired to commit their lives to the arts after seeing The Red Shoes, including writer Nicholas Pileggi and painter Ron Kitaj. To say nothing of the legion of girls driven to join the ballet.

    She said that The Red Shoes was the one constant on Scorsese’s list of desert island films. “Every movie Marty has made was influenced by this one,” she said, going so far as to point out a specific homage that appears in the upcoming Shutter Island.

    The Red Shoes screens at the Northwest Film Forum beginning Friday, and next week it returns to New York’s Film Forum by popular demand. A DVD is due out later this year, but see it in a theater if you can. As Ms. Schoonmaker observed, Michael Powell didn’t make his movies to be watched by one person on a small screen. He meant for them to be shared by strangers in the dark.


    Sunday, February 07, 2010

    Book: Hardboiled Hollywood, by Max Décharné (U.S. 2010) 

    My first problem? This new reprint of a 2003 No Exit book is called Hardboiled Hollywood, yet two of the eleven movies in it – Hell is a City and Get Carter – are as English as Bobby Charlton eating crisps at a snooker match.

    The bigger problem? It’s subtitled The True Crime Stories Behind the Classic Noir Films. Which led me to believe that it would be about the true crime stories behind the classic noir films. Silly Vince. In truth not even half the movies covered have specific historical antecedents, and those are dispensed with in cursory fashion. Some prime candidates are overlooked; despite numerous references to James M. Cain there are no chapters on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, both inspired by an actual murder. Instead the focus is on the well-trod ground of the making of the films themselves.

    (ASIDE: In the interests of completeness I’ll also say that it’s appalling publisher W.W. Norton would release a book with jacket copy citing “Anthony Perkin’s” performance in Psycho. Here’s the rule: if you’re not sure where the apostrophe goes, leave it out. Better we think you forgot it.)

    That said ... misleading title aside I enjoyed Hardboiled Hollywood. Décharné knows the terrain, writes with passion, and consistently turns up overlooked perspectives. Here’s a great quote from the Spectator on Nicholas Ray and They Live By Night: “If the director had taken the trouble to be French, we would be licking his boots in ecstasy.” The Get Carter material is particularly strong, with Décharné rightly taking director Mike Hodges to task for his misinterpretation of the word “nails” in Ted Lewis’ source novel Jack’s Return Home. Décharné correctly points out that the Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter is smarter and more ruthless than Lee Marvin’s incarnation in Point Blank. And it’s good to be reminded that Bonnie and Clyde were not folk heroes but venal small-time killers.

    There’s some bait and switch involved, but Hardboiled Hollywood is worth reading.

    Miscellaneous: Golden Boot Link

    Author and noir historian Alan K. Rode attends the Golden Boot Award ceremony for legendary stuntman Bob Hoy.

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    Monday, February 01, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Weekend Roundup 

    Wallander. Don’t ask me to compare these BBC adaptations to Henning Mankell’s novels about Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. I’m woefully unschooled in Scandinavian crime fiction, a failing I will soon remedy thanks in part to these films. They have a striking look, the Swedish locales shot in part by last year’s Academy Award winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Kenneth Branagh is sensational as Wallander, a compassionate investigator who is never fully present in his own life. The ninety-minute running times allow the personal scenes room to breathe. Sometimes they overwhelm the mystery; I was more involved in Wallander’s reconciliation with his troubled artist father (David Warner in Old Testament prophet mode) than the main story in Sidetracked. The films improve as they go; the last, One Step Behind, is as good as television gets. All three are suffused with a weary, bone-deep sadness that’s haunting.

    Whatever Works (2009). Minor Woody Allen, but still entertaining. The movie’s notion that living in New York makes you a better person is naïve, but I happen to agree with it. Larry David’s inability to be anyone other than Larry David actually helps to put it over. A pleasant surprise.

    Girls on the Loose (1958). The lovely Mara Corday leads a distaff team of heisters in a payroll job. I don’t know why she turns to crime. She says something about needing to live on the edge, but I think it’s because she’s going broke booking her gamine sister’s Bohemian burlesque act in her nightclub. Mara assembles some crew: a nervous wreck, an alcoholic French beautician, and a truck-stop tough blonde (Joyce Barker, a true Gold Medal gorgon who only appeared in this movie). The whole enterprise is nicely sleazy – Joyce is a masseuse! – and not all that badly plotted. Amazingly it’s directed by Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, Paul Henreid. That this movie is not on DVD is a travesty. Here’s the trailer.

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    Friday, January 29, 2010

    On The Web: Lem Dobbs 

    Sorry I haven’t posted this week. So much time and so little to do.

    Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.

    One thing I have made room for in recent days is this Cosmoetica interview with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, whose credits include Dark City, The Limey, and The Limey’s commentary track, which is so good it deserves to be treated as a separate project. The interview is truly epic – 53,000 words, 90 pages – wide-ranging, and brutally honest. It’s also one of the best things I’ve read in years. Some excerpts:

    Books are published now – crime novels, for example, which is a field I still follow – that are so horrible, it’s mind-boggling. Covered in laudatory review quotes and blurbs, listing all the awards they’ve won – you can’t believe it. It’s quite often impossible to find a bad review of a book, that’s how much of a racket it’s become.

    I agree with him. Which kills me, because when I read a lousy crime novel – and lately I’ve read a few, all blurbed by writers I respect and touted elsewhere – I hold my tongue. Bill Crider recently summed up my feelings on the subject of reviews perfectly. I don’t see myself as a critic. I like to use my tiny corner of the internet to call attention to the good stuff. But every once in a while, when for reasons of my own I finish a book that’s a dud, I question that approach.

    Dobbs on Hollywood now:

    They’d much rather hear what they think is a “cool take.” But not knowing what’s old, they have no idea what’s new. So the whole phony, broken system is an exercise in futility and another reason movies are much more uniform in their awfulness. There’s absolutely no patience for, or respect or appreciation for, ideas outside the airless dome of a very limited frame of reference. If you engage in a discussion of who the “villain” is, for instance, you’d better do it in an excited and animated way (this is why it’s helpful to have a writing partner who’s also wearing big ol’ baggy shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and a turned-round baseball cap and chortling) – because to roll your eyes and sigh and question whether there even has to be a villain would be to challenge the whole current paradigm. And the “villain,” of course, once established, has to be motivated by nothing less than destroying the entire world – and so on – from cliché to cliché. If you’re unwilling to – sincerely – play this game, you might as well stay home ... Who was the “villain” in THE GREAT ESCAPE, or THE DIRTY DOZEN? Remade now – and don’t think they’re not trying – there would have to be an evil, evil, evil, evil Nazi in alternating scenes, constantly snarling, “I want them caught, I want them stopped, I want them dead!”

    Bookmark it. Go back to it in stages. It’s worth the effort.

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    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Movie: Big Fan (2009) 

    The directorial debut by former Onion editor and screenwriter of The Wrestler Robert Siegel received only a token theatrical release. Now on DVD and streaming via Netflix, this unsettling, darkly hilarious film can find the audience it deserves.

    Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a 36-year-old parking garage attendant who still lives with his mother. Two things get him out of bed every day: the New York football Giants and the few minutes each week when he gets to be “Paul from Staten Island” on a sports radio call-in show. One night he has a chance encounter with his favorite member of the team’s starting line. Only his dream moment ends up going wrong. Badly wrong. Several days in the hospital wrong. What do you do when your one true passion in life literally and figuratively kicks your ass?

    Big Fan is either the funniest drama of the year or the grimmest comedy. Siegel readily acknowledges the film’s debt to Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (not to mention Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie), but he makes the terrain his own and has a genuine feel for life in the outer boroughs. The movie is even better if you’re familiar with the charnel house that is NFC East football.

    Co-star Kevin Corrigan tells a great story in the DVD extras about his own Big Fan-style meeting with Robert DeNiro. In a Q&A on the disc, Siegel says Paul had to be a Giants fan because he couldn’t imagine people being unable to get Jets tickets. Not after yesterday’s San Diego game. For the record, Siegel is right about Philadelphia Eagles fans.

    Here’s Patton Oswalt deconstructing the hellish song ‘Christmas Shoes’ – now animated! And Roger Ebert on how Netflix streaming video may change the Academy Awards.

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    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Movie: Best Seller (1987) 

    Time again for a question that’s a hobbyhorse around here: whatever happened to sleaze? Where’s a guy gotta go to get served up a cocktail of sex, violence and cynicism? Oh, right. Videogames. If I want the cinematic variety, I have to return to the cable staples of my youth.

    In Best Seller, Brian Dennehy plays Joseph Wambaugh Dennis Meechum, L.A. cop and successful author. He’s suffering from writer’s block when the perfect story saunters into his life in the form of Cleve (James Woods). Cleve claims to be the in-house assassin for a huge conglomerate and its pillar of the community founder. (“Corporations deal in two things, assets and liabilities. I eliminated the liabilities, and I provided some of the assets.”) As aggrieved as a top salesman passed over for promotion, Cleve has decided to bring the entire enterprise down by collaborating with Meechum on a book – whether Meechum wants to or not.

    Best Seller was directed by John Flynn, who brought astonishing fidelity to Richard Stark’s Parker in the tragically still-not-on-video The Outfit. The script is by personal hero Larry Cohen, which means it moves with ferocious energy while still having time for crackpot diversions. Like Woods singing in French and a visit to the hit man’s parents. Cohen wrote the film for Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster but Larry, bless his B-movie heart, can only work in fast-and-cheap mode. The result is the most underpopulated conspiracy movie ever. It’s basically just two guys.

    But what guys. Dennehy and Woods are the Hope and Crosby of mayhem. Woods has never been better, playing a true sociopath who is utterly ruthless yet has kind words for the little people and praise for the American dream. Watch his reaction, both deeply hurt and enraged, when Dennehy refuses a gift. This strange hybrid of thriller and jet-black buddy comedy also ventures into meta terrain thanks to Cleve’s obsession with coming across as a sympathetic character.

    There are movies with more sleaze, but what’s here – like Cleve’s pickup of a woman in a bar – is cherce. And for a jaundiced view of how the world works, it can’t be beat.

    Dennehy is still going strong at age 71, currently onstage in Chicago doing O’Neill and Beckett. I’d like to see him return as the head of the show-within-the-show’s Teamster crew on 30 Rock. Here’s a recent interview in which he demonstrates that good ol’ Irish Catholic fatalism that’s like mother’s milk to me.

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    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Upcoming: Noir City 8 

    San Francisco at the end of this month, Seattle in February. First warning: yours truly will be working the SIFF Cinema lobby. Also, I’ll be selling FNF goodies.

    Here’s the promo, featuring 2009’s Miss Noir City Alycia Tumlin and the man himself, Eddie Muller.

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    Monday, January 04, 2010

    Movie: District 13: Ultimatum (U.S. 2010) 

    Typically it’s several weeks into January before I see my first film released in that calendar year. 2008: Cloverfield, January 26. 2009: Taken, January 31.

    But we are out of the dark ages, brothers and sisters. Let it be known that, through the miracle of On Demand, in 2010 I saw a 2010 release on January 1. I know it’s not exactly a flying car or a sassy robot maid. But I’m still kind of impressed.

    In Luc Besson’s District 13: Ultimatum, there’s another conspiracy to annihilate one of Paris’s lesser, more polyglot precincts. Once again supercop Damien must team up with neighborhood hero Leito to save the day. There’s not as much parkour as in the original, I missed the grittiness of the first film, and the third act – in which District 13’s many ethnic gangs unite to raid a French seat of power guarded by soldiers who don’t use their guns – is completely ridiculous. Not bad, mind you, just ridiculous. On the plus side there’s a fight using a Van Gogh, and I am now in love with Elodie Yung of the razors in her ponytail. I have also been informed by a party who shall remain Rosemarie nameless that the sight of Cyril Raffaelli in go-go dancer drag not only justified the expense but may warrant a second look on the big screen.

    At one point Raffaelli mentions that he’s about to be thrown into “a local Guantanamo,” and the bad guys are crooked cops allied with a military contractor called, I kid you not, Harriburton. America, the new global shorthand for movie villainy. Technology’s not the only thing that’s changed.


    Thursday, December 31, 2009

    The Good Stuff: Films of 2009 

    No, I haven’t seen Avatar yet. I haven’t seen Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, either, so this whole endeavor could be a fool’s errand. Still, onward. Favorite films of the year, listed in order seen.

    The Hurt Locker
    In the Loop
    Inglourious Basterds
    District 9
    The Informant!
    A Serious Man
    Anvil!: The Story of Anvil
    The Damned United

    Two exclamation points. That’s a record.

    Cinematic highlight of the year: same as always, baby. Noir City. 2010’s installment is coming up fast.

    And a holdover from last year’s list, Thrillers More People Should Have Seen. All currently available on video.

    Just Another Love Story. Classic noir elements repurposed and updated in a twisty film from Denmark.

    The Limits of Control. Calling Jim Jarmusch’s movie a thriller may be something of a stretch. I’m not sure what happens in it. I’m not sure anything happens in it. Simply allow its beauty to wash over you, though, and you’ll be alright.

    The Merry Gentleman. I’m a fan of Michael Keaton’s directorial debut. But it will now always have a special place in my heart. Why? Because it made me big in Canada.

    A Perfect Getaway. David Twohy is the last of the old-school genre storytellers (Pitch Black, Below). The slow build-up and the lead character being a screenwriter only add to the meta-fun. If this movie were French, it would be a cult classic praised to the rafters by hipster critics. But because it was filmed in Hawaii and stars recognizable actors like Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant, it’s fated to be the best movie nobody saw this year.


    Wednesday, December 23, 2009

    Miscellaneous: It’s A Shane Black Christmas (Redux) 

    There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

    First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

    Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

    So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year.

    Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

    Twelve cars exploding
    Eleven extras running
    Ten tankers skidding
    Nine strippers pole-ing
    Eight Uzis firing
    Seven henchmen scowling
    Six choppers crashing

    Five silver Glocks

    Four ticking bombs
    Three hand grenades
    Two mortar shells
    And a suitcase full of C-4

    God bless us, everyone. Or else.


    Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    Book: Alone, by Loren D. Estleman (2009) 

    Third consecutive book about Hollywood in one form or another. I don’t plan these things, people. They simply happen.

    Any list of crime fiction’s premier stylists would have to include Loren Estleman. His insouciant prose has brightened up many a dark book, but it fizzes like champagne in his lighter tales about Valentino, the UCLA archivist whose business cards read “film detective.”

    A rare treasure is dangled before Valentino by a university donor: the only extant print of How Not to Dress, the brief promotional film marking the first screen appearance of Greta Garbo. But before light strikes frame one, Valentino finds himself amidst blackmail and murder. He’s got other problems. A crooked building inspector has rousted him from the movie palace he’s attempting to restore to its former glory, leaving him at the house and the throat of his closest friend and colleague. And there’s his budding romance with an LAPD forensics expert.

    Alone is a confection, and a good one. Estleman has struck upon an ingenious method for writing about classic Hollywood in a contemporary setting. I will say that the jabs at current films are out of character and occasionally wrong; Brian De Palma’s name is spelled incorrectly, and Pulp Fiction is misquoted in the author’s afterword. It’s important for curmudgeons to get the details right. Still, it’s a minor quibble. Go. Buy. Read.

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    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Movie: He Ran All The Way (1951)

    The last John Garfield post started an interesting exchange with fine novelist/friend of the site Ed Gorman. Ed suggested that Garfield’s persona might not have worn as well as other noir stars because it can’t be easily reduced. Think of Robert Ryan and you think of that peculiar combination of rage and sorrow. Dana Andrews is melancholy. Bogart is coolness under pressure. Lee Marvin is menace.

    As usual, Ed’s onto something. Garfield’s mercurial presence was used well in a number of strong films – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil – but not one that you could point to and say, “That is John Garfield.” Plus there’s something boyish about him. Ryan, Bogart, Marvin – these are men, fully grown and set in their ways. Garfield still seemed malleable. I meant it when I said Garfield cast a long shadow, because in an era with far too few men onscreen, Garfield is the best model we’ve got.

    His youthful energy allowed him to play a role he was too old for in what would be his final film, He Ran All The Way. He’s a smalltime, slow-witted criminal still living with his mother (the pitiless Gladys George). After panicking during a payroll heist and killing a police officer, he picks up Shelley Winters, goes home with her, and takes her family hostage.

    The movie is a forerunner of the home invasion genre that took root during the post-war suburban boom. Like other films of the type, there are moments that strain credulity. (“Rush him now! Take the gun!”) But it’s also charged with an uncommon mood of paranoia, even doom. Director John Berry and cinematographer James Wong Howe keep the camera uncomfortably close to Garfield’s desperate face, using scenery to trap him in the frame. The actor takes care of the rest, right up to the closing shot. It’s our last image of John Garfield. He died of a heart attack at age 39, haunted by charges of being a Communist sympathizer.

    The latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Sentinel includes a terrific article by Jake Hinkson that looks at He Ran All The Way as a blacklist case study. You can read it online now.

    Upcoming: Noir City Northwest

    Looks like I’ll be seeing He Ran All The Way again shortly, the way it was meant to be seen. The schedule for 2010’s Noir City Northwest is up. Eddie Muller’s dark carnival hits SIFF Cinema after its run in San Francisco.

    This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny. It’s a doozy of a line-up. I’ve seen six of the fourteen films before, only one of them (Pitfall) on the big screen. I’m eager to catch the newly restored print of the crackling Cry Danger, while Rosemarie can’t wait for the aptly titled Larceny, starring John Payne and Dan Duryea as dandy grifters. Come that week in February you know where I’ll be, endeavoring to bring you the coverage you’ve come to expect.

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    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    On The Web: Crimespree Cinema

    The gang over at Crimespree Cinema has asked some big names to contribute 5 favorites for 2009 – film, TV or DVD. Somehow I slipped through their defenses. My picks are up now.

    Sort Of Related: The Fallen Sparrow (1943)/Nobody Lives Forever (1946)

    John Garfield may not have the same level of recognition as noir icons like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, and the rediscovery of other names from the era like Richard Conte has allowed him to get lost in the cracks. But Garfield’s shadow may extend the furthest. The type of character he often portrayed – streetwise but fundamentally decent, a boyish tough guy who could be tamed – is a standard today. Put it this way: alone among his contemporaries, Garfield could have played either Matt Damon’s role or Leonardo DiCaprio’s in The Departed, and been brought back to read for Mark Wahlberg’s into the bargain. Watching two lesser known Garfield films with serious crime fiction pedigrees brought home the potency of that persona.

    In The Fallen Sparrow, based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (Ride the Pink Horse, In a Lonely Place), Garfield plays a veteran of the Spanish Civil War held prisoner by the Nazis. He’s freed in 1940 and returns to New York only to discover the Germans are still shadowing him while he delves into the murder of the childhood friend who delivered him from harm. The first third of the movie is rough sledding, a muddle with too many characters in a convoluted backstory. And may the gods of cinema take pity on you if you can’t figure out who the villain of the piece is. (Hint: The person it couldn’t be, because that’d be too obvious? Yeah, that’s who it is.)

    But Sparrow fascinates for several reasons. There’s a troika of interesting women, foremost among them Maureen O’Hara as an ice princess who only begrudgingly thaws. But it’s Garfield’s work as a proto-Manchurian Candidate, still suffering the effects of torture at the hands of his captors, that compels. The film’s MacGuffin is also just right, a mixture of nobility and stubbornness that suits Garfield to a T.

    By comparison, Nobody Lives Forever is light entertainment. W.R. Burnett is credited as writing the original screenplay, but it’s adapted from a story serialized in Collier’s in 1943. Garfield is Nick Blake, recovered from his WWII service and ready to resume his grifting career. He lights out for the coast and sets his sights on a rich widow, but when he falls for her for real he has to deal his partners out.

    Nothing in Nobody is even remotely surprising, but the machinery is so finely assembled by Burnett and director Jean Negulesco that you’re happy to take a ride to a familiar destination if only to enjoy the scenery. George Coulouris chafes nicely as an aging con man who can’t accept that he’s no longer a pretty boy. Retro crush Faye Emerson is on hand as a bad girl, matched forehead for lovely forehead by Geraldine Fitzgerald as the pigeon who becomes a swan. But Garfield gives the enterprise life, charming as hell in rogue mode, touching when he goes soft on his mark. I’ve got some other Garfield films kicking around. It may be time to dig them out.

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    Saturday, December 05, 2009

    Book: Losers Live Longer, by Russell Atwood (2009)

    Exhibit A: The rare horizontal cover.

    Like I’m not gonna read that.

    Exhibit B is the setting in Manhattan’s East Village, specifically a few blocks where I’ve spent my share of time. But what cinched it for me was this review by James Reasoner. When he called this Hard Case Crime book “one of the best private eye novels of recent years,” I stopped in at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and picked it up that day.

    Payton Sherwood is the P.I. in question. Down-at-heel (for a few chapters literally), he’s happy to be asked by a legendary retired operative to pitch in for a few hours on a case. When the senior shamus turns up dead on his doorstep, Payton decides to follow through on the job – even though he has no idea what it is. Before his long day is through, he’ll tangle with porn kingpins, indie filmmakers, and, of course, beautiful women. It’s old school pulp served up with a sharp contemporary sensibility. Fast, ferocious and authentically funny. Don’t miss it.

    DVD: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Offscreen

    Cult director Ulmer was the king of Poverty Row, a man who could stretch a budget to the breaking point and, with 1945’s Detour, created true dark magic. This 2004 documentary reveals that the man who made something out of nothing in his work did the same with his own life story. Stylishly shot, featuring comments from collaborators (Ann Savage, William Schallert) and admirers (Wim Wenders, Joe Dante, John Landis). The best stuff comes late as John Saxon and Peter Marshall, costars of Ulmer’s last film The Cavern, bicker in the back of a convertible before a rear-projection screen.

    As an extra you get an entire Ulmer movie, 1943’s Isle of Forgotten Sins. It’s the South Seas by way of North Hollywood, the ocean-going scenes shot with models and the deep sea diving done by marionettes. Not good by any stretch, but strangely compelling and, as always with Ulmer, done with ingenuity.

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    Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    Movies: A Phil Karlson Thanksgiving

    The Phil Karlson Thanksgiving Weekend wasn’t planned. It was an act of necessity.

    The problem is I’d become obsessed with that clip of John Payne and others performing “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish” in Garden of the Moon. (Have you watched it yet? Go ahead. I’ll wait.) After repeated viewings of an impossibly young John Payne deftly tossing off Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, I needed to restore to my memory the older version. His face collapsed yet even more magnetic. In trouble and sinking deeper. The noir John Payne. That actor’s best collaborator was ex-prop man turned director Karlson. Time to revisit their finest hour.

    In Kansas City Confidential (1952), Payne plays an ex-con whose efforts to go straight mean nothing when he becomes the unintentional fall guy in a daring robbery. The simmering fury when he’s sprung from jail knowing that no one legit will ever trust him again is scorching. That bone-deep sense of betrayal, of hard work going for naught, charges the rest of the film, which despite the title is set mostly south of the border. Karlson as always keeps the action taut, and there’s the added bonus of what has to be the most badass crew in the annals of noir: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand.

    Appetite whetted, I craved more. And had it on hand, thanks to the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection. I’d wanted to see 5 Against the House (1955) for years, and not just for Karlson. It’s based on a Jack Finney story, adapted by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) and William Bowers (Cry Danger, The Mob). Imagine my surprise to discover it’s the rare Karlson film that’s a total misfire.

    5ATH begins as a tiresome college comedy then becomes a heavy-handed survey of the problems faced by returning Korean War vets taking advantage of the G.I. Bill before settling into a heist groove. The “perfect plan” posited by these aging students would be ridiculous under any circumstances, but on the heels of the ingenious scheme cooked up in Kansas City Confidential it’s downright embarrassing. There’s nice work by Brian Keith as the most damaged vet and a good climax set in an automated parking garage in Reno, but little else.

    ASIDE: Also in the Columbia collection is a superior Silliphant-scripted drama, 1958’s The Lineup (reviewed here), that features one of the greatest recent commentary tracks. My friend Eddie Muller and novelist James Ellroy tag-team on this one, Eddie providing a native San Franciscan’s view while Ellroy gives full vent to his obsessions. Eddie gave me a heads up after they recorded the track, saying, “It’s a wild one.” It lives up to that billing.

    In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, you can’t go this far and not go further. On to the Karlson films parked on the DVR.

    I’d seen 1955’s The Phenix City Story, but never with the reportorial prologue including interviews with several of the people involved in this true story. This segment made it easier to get scenes of still-shocking violence past the censors. Without it the movie opens with a haggard roadhouse number, ‘The Phenix City Blues,’ that swiftly presents the low-rent reality of life in an Alabama town choking on the vice aimed at soldiers in neighboring Fort Benning. Karlson and Georges Simenon make a natural match in The Brothers Rico (1957), with Richard Conte as an erstwhile Mafia accountant who thinks he’s made a clean break to become a cleaner, only to find himself doing the Organization’s bidding when his siblings go astray. With a dandy performance by Harry Bellaver as a local kingpin who orders hits and dinner in the same breath. They’re both tough-minded movies with a view of mobsters similar to the one articulated in Josh Bazell’s novel Beat the Reaper:

    Proudly ignorant, personally repellent, absolutely convinced that their willingness to hire someone to beat money out of someone who worked for a living constitutes some kind of genius and an adherence to a proud tradition.

    99 River Street, a John Payne/Phil Karlson film that screened at Noir City 2007, is currently available on Hulu and Fancast. You could be watching it right now! Here’s Ivan’s take at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. I look at Karlson’s final film Framed here.

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    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Movies: The Quality of Mercer

    Amidst multiple deadlines I’ve been making my way through some of the films in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long salute to the centenary of the birth of Johnny Mercer, singer and songwriter extraordinaire.

    1937’s Ready, Willing and Able introduced “Too Marvelous for Words,” as well as some lesser tunes. (“Handy With Your Feet,” anyone?) “Marvelous” is featured several times, most memorably in the stupendous closing number. When it was excerpted in TCM’s Mercer documentary, Rosemarie began waving her hands in front of her face like a giddy six year old. Ruby Keeler and Lee Dixon, a second-rate Cagney impersonator trapped in Conan O’Brien’s body, dance on a gigantic typewriter with the legs of a bevy of chorines serving as typebars. Based on the words that appear on the equally enormous sheet of paper behind them, it’s a non-QWERTY keyboard.

    I just looked down to spell QWERTY. How sad is that?

    Hollywood Hotel (1937) gave the world “Hooray for Hollywood,” the tongue-in-cheek anthem that Tinseltown took at face value, belted out by Johnnie ‘Scat’ Davis. The real reason to watch is the Benny Goodman Orchestra performing “Sing, Sing, Sing,” followed by a tight session with Benny, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

    Garden of the Moon (1938) is the least regarded of the three films that we saw, so naturally I liked it the most. Lots of novelty songs here performed by a band that includes Davis, John Payne and Jerry Colonna, among them “The Lady on the Two-Cent Stamp.” The closest thing to a standard on the soundtrack is “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” and when I heard it I got a touch giddy myself. Whenever Warner Brothers needed a hint of Arabian Nights mystery in a cartoon, they’d play an instrumental version of this song. Which is unfortunate, because the lyrics show off Mercer’s wordplay at its best.

    She’s got her nervish
    Throwing him a curvish
    Which, of course, he doesn’t deservish

    Astute readers will have noticed I haven’t bothered with plot synopses. All three movies are trifles, showbiz farces with mistaken or bogus identities. There’s just enough story to keep things humming ‘til the next tune starts. Warner Brothers’ musicals owe something to the studio’s signature crime dramas; they’re earthy and sharp, with a kick of bourbon in the meringue. It’s worth noting that these three films, in addition to the handiwork of Johnny Mercer, also share writing by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. They would later pen They Drive by Night and Manpower together, while as a producer Wald would make Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage and one of my favorite backstage dramas, The Hard Way.

    TCM has one more night of Johnny Mercer fare airing on Wednesday – after their showing of The Money Trap at 4:15PM EST, 1:15PM PST. I told you there’d be other reminders.

    UPDATE: Here’s “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” which grows progressively unhinged. It’s still odd to see John Payne singing, considering that I think of him as the lead in noirs like Kansas City Confidential and Slightly Scarlet. Oddly the original choice to star in Garden of the Moon was Dick Powell, who preceded Payne down the boy-singer-to-tough-guy path.

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