Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice has one of the most famous character introductions in the history of film.

John Garfield, playing the drifter Frank, arrives at a roadside diner on a hot summer day and orders a burger. The owner of the diner, Nick, runs out to pump some gas leaving Frank alone in the diner. Suddenly a lipstick roll across the floor towards him. Frank (and the camera) looks back to see where it came from. All you see is a bare set of woman's legs. The camera cuts back to Frank who literally looks like the breath has been knocked out of him. Then there's a full shot of the leg's owner - Lana Turner. She all dressed in white and looks like a million dollars. She teases and flirts with Frank but at the same time pretends like she has no interest in him. Moments later you see Frank outside putting a “Man Wanted” sign into a fire. The sign clearly has a double meaning at this point - it's both an ad for help wanted and "man" wanted. When he finds out that the woman is Nick's wife he quickly retrieves it. But one more glance at Cora (Turner) in the diner changes his mind again and he puts the sign back into the fire.

Those few moments begin the twisted tale of infidelity and murder told in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Although I think it's a great film, the rest of the movie could not live up to the opening. I won't go into the film's plot in detail because I assume most have seen it. If you haven't - stop reading and watch it!

The sexual chemistry and star power of the two actors were undeniable and those first few minutes are unforgettable.

Lana Turner began her film career in 1937 but that one scene almost ten years later made her a huge star. MGM made the film (surprising to me. Up until I started to write this review I assumed it was a Warner Bros. production) and they weren't known for making crime or suspense films. But they were star makers and they had a plan to make Turner the next Jean Harlow. Unfortunately, studios couldn't make the kind of films they made in the early 1930s due to censorship so they had to rely on the suggestion of sex rather than have characters talk about it or even show it. Turner with her platinum blond hair and perfect figure was up to the task. Unfortunately, she was maybe too "perfect" looking for the part. She comes across too glamorous for most of the film. Jessica Lange, who played the part again years later in the boring 1980s remake, could play sexy but trashy much better.

Garfield - who was borrowed from WB - was already a veteran of these type of films. In fact, his casting is pretty much a no-brainer. Who else but Garfield could play the rebellious Frank better than him? Like Turner, Garfield - who could play scruffy - was here a little too clean cut for the part. An unofficial film version of the story (based on the novel by James M. Cain)from three years earlier, Ossessione,had equally handsome Massimo Girotti play the male lead. But Girotti wore a worn out suit and shoes with holes in them. When Garfield arrives at the diner (driven there but the always-in-the-way district attorney) he's clean shaved, wearing a black suit and a crisp white shirt. He looks like George Clooney when he gets out of prison in Ocean's 11. He doesn't look like a bum who just jumped off the back of a truck like Girotti.

Also, watching it again I found some big problems with the script. The story flaws were no doubt in an attempt to keep the censors happy but they still bothered me.

Some spoilers:

The district attorney (Leon Ames) was aways around - from driving Frank to the diner all the way to the two deaths at the end. Wasn't he a little too personally involved in the case? Why was he so suspicious of Frank when Nick first goes to the hospital? Why was he called to the hospital in the first place? (When Frank and the D.A. give each other sideways glances at the hospital I had to laugh)

Cara pleads to manslaughter and gets probation? I'm not a lawyer but I would assume she'd get some jail time.

Even if Frank is considered a suspect in Nick's death clearly the death of Cara is an accident and they wouldn't have a case against him.

End of spoilers

My re-watch did remind me of some of the things I'd forgotten about and enjoyed. The two lawyers, Ames and Hume Cronyn (who almost steals the whole film), battling it out to a point where they forget about right and wrong is smart and well written regardless of the questionable legal mumbo jumbo. Also, Garfield recites the line “With my brains and your looks we could go places.” The line is even more clever when you realize that Frank Chambers is a dope and Cora has pretty much tricked him in to doing everything. He's so “whipped” at the end he talks to a priest and wonders if Cora still loves him!

The roadside killing of Nick is also fantastic. Seeing poor Nick singing away when Frank raises the bottle to kill him is great. (Ossessine, by the way, doesn't show the killing! What's the old movie rule? “Show it don't tell it.”)

The middle of Postman sags quite a bit after the suspenseful killing. Even the appearance of Audrey Totter doesn't liven it up much. Ossessione handles the middle parts and end much better.

But, even with my nitpicking, I have to say The Postman Always Rings Twice is still one of my favorite films thanks to the famous first few minutes that are burned into my memory.

Written by Steve-O

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jackie Brown (1997)

Written by Gary Deane, ‘Night Editor’

Where movies and Elmore Leonard are concerned, all you can do is pray for the best and then expect the worst. Of the thirty-odd crime novels written by Leonard, most have been optioned and gone on to production. Unfortunately, little of Leonard’s ‘voice’ and potency as a writer has managed to find its way to the screen.

That can be said of more than one author but it seems that Leonard’s particular stylistic intonations have been hard ones for film-makers to get a grip on - if they’ve bothered to really try.

Writer/teacher Barry Hannah has called Leonard a ‘dry comic noirist’, an apt-enough description but one likely to kill the pitch before the door closes on the elevator. Hollywood has preferred to take a brain-simple approach to Leonard, seeing in him only what’s most obvious.

This could include a stock of script-ready characters - most often an easy guy with a questionable résumé but the right motives and moves, a righteous woman along the way who’s as cool as he is and often smarter, and a monkey-house of bad guys who force the play or threaten to ruin it.

Around these types Leonard plots like a bandit holding tightly to a schematic that at first has us puzzling over how the characters relate to each other and what they’re up to. Then just as we think we’ve got it figured, bets come off. Leonard belts us in and away we go again, hanging on hard to keep up with the dizzying lift of events.

Admittedly Leonard looks to be film-ready, with his books a bit structured like treatments. However, that notion alone plus millions of big studio bucks apparently buys you a dry cappuccino and a whole pile of movies that stink, ranging from ‘The Big Bounce’ (1969), an ineffectual melodrama to ‘The Big Bounce’ (2004), a crudely-struck ‘crime comedy’.

That two such failures would be been born of same book suggests in fact that Leonard may not be the smartest choice in a high-concept world and that he isn’t as apparent as he appears to be. This isn’t to say that every film based on a Leonard title has been a waste of time. Just most of them - with almost none able to negotiate Leonard’s tight straddle between mayhem and drollery without overplaying the hand either way.

John Frankenheimer’s '52 Pick-Up' (1986), a grim neo-noir adapted from an earlier Leonard book, didn’t even attempt that negotiation, offering a hard-edged reading that backed away from as much as irony. 'Out of Sight' (1998) directed by Steven Soderbergh was moody and romantic and settled a lot for quirky charm. It was good enough on its own terms - although that said, while it wasn’t lame, it was limp.

Jackie Brown’, on the other hand, released in 1997 is the real deal and the only film to date that can lay claim to have grabbed Elmore Leonard where he lives and breathes.

Based on Leonard’s book Rum Punch,it’s the story of an airline stewardess (Pam Grier) who’s picked up by Federal agents at LAX with cash and drugs intended to go to Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson).

Knowing Ordell isn’t going believe her even if she doesn’t inform, she decides to set him up - along with his ex-cellmate/ sidekick Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Ordell’s stoner girl friend (Bridget Fonda). However, Jackie wants to come out of it better than she came in (which wasn’t all that great) and enlists the help of Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman Ordell hired to get her out following the bust.

The film was directed by flash-master Quentin Tarantino, who took his own turns with the story. The novel’s ‘Jackie Burke’ becomes ‘Jackie Brown’ - no longer a trim blonde 30-ish cougar but an older black fox with ample curves. Tarantino also relocates the story from West Palm Beach to Los Angeles and messes with countless small details.

However, what emerges both as a film and as an iteration of Leonard is golden. With ‘Jackie Brown’, Tarantino wisely cools his jets and foregoes his usual eclecticism and sensationalism in favor of a more linear narrative and carefully drawn and realized characters.

Sadly, it’s most often been an authentic sense of character absent in movies taken from titles on Leonard’s crime list (the westerns have done better). Films such as the popular Get Shorty and Be Cool egregiously jettisoned Leonard’s smart, nervy characterizations in favor of dumbed-down caricatures.

Tarantino clearly understands and acknowledges the complexity of the characters that inhabit the world of Elmore Leonard and especially that of ‘Jackie Brown’ - like the otherwise straight-shooter Max who’s prepared to dirty himself in order to right a few wrongs for Jackie and realize the possibility of heavenly romance. Or criminals like Ordell, a stone-cold killer who is as fascinating as he is frightening.

He also manages to have all his actors including Forster and Jackson command the screen without showiness - just as Leonard’s characters effortlessly command the page.

On the other hand, Tarantino actually does the author one better by making Jackie more resonant and memorable with the casting of Pam Grier. Grier has appeared in movies since the blaxploitation days (Foxy Brown, Coffy). However, she’s never been the actress (and the star) she is in ‘Jackie Brown’ as she realizes the poignancy of a middle-aged woman who’s held onto her looks but knows she now has to trade on her brains to get out of her dead-end life.

Apart from racial identity, there’s nothing black and white about these characters or the situations in which they find themselves and/ or act to create - though it also doesn’t hurt to note that questions of identity have been central to Leonard who’s written more authentic female heroines in his crime books than just about anyone else in any genre.

He’s also put race up front since the days of his early westerns and his affinities to popular culture and music long have been those of generations half-or-less his age or less. It’s not hard to see why Tarantino would be preternaturally drawn to Leonard, starting with the director’s own obsession with the artifacts of modern pop and the idioms of genre.

To his credit, Tarantino also avoids any uncomfortable displays of violence in ‘Jackie Brown’, even to the point of taking what there is in the book down a notch. Little is seen and not much dwelt on. When Ordell takes care of his ‘associate’, Beaumont Livingstone (Chris Tucker) whom he suspects of snitching, it’s off at a distance. When Louis suddenly shoots Melanie getting on his case once too many times, she goes down off-screen in another of those superb ‘drop-dead’ moments that Tarantino owns. When Ordell, in turn, kills Louis for shooting Melanie, it all happens inside a vehicle and again, way off. The violence itself (thought not its threat) is almost incidental, similar to how Leonard writes it.

While’ Jackie Brown’ has a shambling, trashy feel to it which doesn’t hold to the book’s tight construction, Tarantino nails the essentials - not only the hustle and flow of the narrative but also Leonard’s brace of smart dialog and talk (one of Leonard’s ‘10 Rules of Writing’ is to leave out the parts that no one ever reads, like exposition or undue description).

Tarantino reportedly has had three other Leonard titles under option to date, none of which he’s followed- through on as director. On the other hand, there are others who appear to think they’re up to the job. ‘Tishomingo Blues’, until recently at least, was in pre-production with Don Cheadle as director, John Mangold currently is filming a remake of 3:10 to Yuma with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe and ‘Kill Shot’ helmed by John Madden and starring Mickey Rourke and Diane Lane is in post-production.

So let us all pray, especially for ‘Killshot’ a film based on one of Leonard’s toughest stories and with a terrifyingly good cast. By rights, it should be the one for all time.

In the meantime, we have ‘Jackie Brown’ for which we all should kneel and give thanks to Quentin Tarantino. Though he’s always insisted he doesn’t ‘do neo-noir’, he obviously recognized ‘Rum Punch’s story for what it was - not just some screwball, comedic affectation but something real and raw and human that also was funny.

Which is comfort to those who have long been believers in Leonard - recognizing there are some who tend to regard him as a formulist and, for purposes here, not enough a ‘noirist’. This fan’s view is that Leonard long ago transcended formula to create a genre category unto itself, case-hardened pulp noir thrillers graced not only with dark humor but with the conscience and heart of real characters.

Jackie Brown’ is that and more.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Posted by Curt

This neo-noir horror film impresses me as a final taste of Val Lewton. Made back in the spring of 1962 in Lawrence, Kansas, and written by John Clifford and produced and directed by Herk Harvey, this movie shared the destiny of so many naively conceived first films; profitless distribution for the makers of the picture. But in all the decades since the meager release of this film, it has withstood the test of time and survived on late night t.v., in various film classes and in the world of video and dvd.

Carnival of Soulsis an outstanding example of low budget style, and also one of the better made neo-noir horror pictures from the sound era. The main character of Mary Henry, played in an eerie manner by Candace Hilligoss, is the only survivor of a car plunge into the Kaw River. After this occurs, her touch with reality rapidly declines. She becomes completely anti-social and experiences moments of total disorientation, loss of time and sound and contact with those around her. She also experiences haunting episodes of a cadaverous male figure that shows up from time to time, played disquietingly by the director of the film, Herk Harvey.

It's hard to believe that this film was done in 35mm for the tiny sum of only $30,000, but director Harvey was able to make the most of it by taking wild gambles with some of his scenes. One scene in particular has Mary Henry fading away from reality, as the soundtrack goes completely dead; a huge savings on the set and in the mix as well. What could have been a negative element in the film is put to effective use to relate the totality of her trauma. I also wanted to point out, that Candace Hilligoss's love interest in the story was played by Sidney Berger, who comes off as portraying the best nerd-in-heat that I've ever seen done in ANY film imho. The final scenes in the movie were filmed at the abandoned Saltair Pavilion outside Salt Lake City, where Mary Henry finally gets to confront her demons head-on in a frightening climax to this unforgettable horror movie. This was the only feature film ever done by Herk Harvey. That's really unfortunate, because one can only wonder how far his talents would have gone had he kept pursuing a career in the film industry. Let's be glad we have this one at least, because what a statement he made with this low budget masterpiece!


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Devil's Doorway (1950)

written by Haggai

Just how "noir" can a western really be? How's this for a start: a movie that was helmed by the director most commonly associated with the influence of noir on '50s westerns, having made the transition himself from noir in the late '40s to westerns in the '50s. And this same movie marked the last of the multiple collaborations between that director and one of the most legendary noir cinematographers, in the only western they ever made together.

Devil's Doorway was the first western directed by Anthony Mann, according to Jeff Stafford's TCM article about the film. Apparently it was held back from release until the success of Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow convinced MGM's executives that their Mann-helmed western might not be sunk by its sympathetic portrayal of a Native American as the protagonist. Mann had already achieved some strikingly dark outdoor imagery in his penultimate collaboration with John Alton, Border Incident, and Devil's Doorway is marked by their application of many of those techniques to the rocky landscapes and naturally lit interiors of the Old West.

Here's a plot summary, from the TCM article:

Robert Taylor plays Lance Poole, a Shoshone Indian who has just returned to his people in Wyoming from fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Despite having won a Congressional Medal of Honor, his reception back home from the white community is less than welcoming. His dying father warns him that the acreage that they have tended and farmed for years will be taken from them by the government but Poole remains optimistic until he gets a taste of the white man's law. He quickly learns that an Indian is not a legal citizen of the United States and has no land-owning rights. Soon a corrupt, racist lawyer (Louis Calhern) stirs up hostile feelings toward the Shoshone tribe in town and encourages homesteaders to come and stake claims on Poole's land. At first Poole attempts to use legal means to protect his rights by hiring the only other lawyer in town - O. Masters (Paula Raymond), who turns out to be a woman to his great surprise. Despite the best intentions, Masters' case for Poole is undermined and rendered ineffective by the white establishment lawmakers and Poole is left to take matters into his own hands with violence and senseless slaughter the end result.

Aside from the now-awkward casting of a white actor as a Native American (though Taylor is pretty good in the role), Devil's Doorway still holds up as a great movie today. The psychological depth and complexity of the leading character that marked so many of Mann's films, noted so frequently in many of his westerns, is front and center in this story. Lance Poole, aka Broken Lance, has to deal with an obviously unjust situation in which he can't exercise any rights as a citizen of the U.S., in spite of having received the highest battlefield decorations possible in service to that very country. But as the young woman who legally represents him (having inherited the law practice from her late father) argues, the law itself is unambiguous, and the only way to fight it is through the courts and the government. If he can't reach a compromise with some of the more fair-minded settlers, one of whom is sympathetically played by Marshall Thompson, then there won't be any other option left but violence. Lance clearly has justice on his side, especially in contrast with the underhanded villain played with devious charm by Calhern, but as the pressure grows and the stakes get higher, Lance becomes hardened in his views and rejects compromise at every turn. His own single-mindedness eventually gives way to a fanaticism that plays a large part in threatening the lives of numerous innocents, including many of his own people.

I wouldn't exactly describe this as a "noir" storyline--the law itself, though not a just one, is pretty clearly on the side of the villains. But the moral ambiguity of Lance's actions and the shades of gray that emerge in what first seems like a black-and-white situation are clearly reminiscent of many a noir script structure of that time in Hollywood, though perhaps not yet common in the western genre.

Mann and Alton provide plenty of their typically intense visual flair to enhance the story. This is the establishing shot for a vicious bar room brawl, prompted by the boasts of the extremist settlers about how they're going to take Lance's land for homesteading. The main villain (Calhern) and another heavy taunt the natives, visible in the background, building the tension before it explodes into violence:

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Intense light-dark contrasts somtimes appear even in log cabins during the daytime, as in this moment during the final showdown at the end of the movie:

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I can't fail to mention one stunningly intense scene between Lance and his female lawyer, who are prevented by circumstance and societal norms of the time from acting on any possible emotional bond there might be between them. There's no romance in this movie, but the moment where Lance pulls her close to demonstrate what couldn't be is unbelievably powerful. More so in the film itself than can be captured in any one screenshot, but this might give you a taste of the conflicting anguish and desire that they both experience at that point:

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In summary, whether Devil's Doorway qualifies as a "noir western" is not something I'm sure I'd claim, but it does represent an interesting combination of the western with some elements of noir and many elements of the "problem pictures" that, by the time the late '40s and '50s rolled around, were starting to deal head-on with racism in American society (often with noir undertones as well). I think it's at least as good as any of the previous Mann/Alton collaborations, and maybe even better, elevated in large part by a top-notch script. According to TCM, Mann felt it was the best script he had ever read. It stands out as a great achievement in the careers of two masters of noir, which is certainly reason enough to talk about it around here!

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