Monday, November 26, 2007

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Skip McCoy is a sleazy, thieving, smart-ass. He has a gift for the grift and he’s not hesitant to use it on easy and innocent prey. If he has a middle name it may be “recidivism” as he’s been pinched by the police on many occasions for picking pockets and done jail time in three separate stints. Because of his three strikes, one more conviction for Skip and he’s going to the slammer for life. Candy on the other hand is a B-girl who has been “knocked around a lot” and seems to think its status quo for a girl like her. A svelte, good looking dame whose white dress she wares in the film looks so tight, she may need turpentine at the end of the night to peel it off. Candy gets these taut threads namely from guys with dough who want to see her in them. One could speculate that she most likely does more than simply bat her eyelashes at these same mooks to keep the duds they put her in. Lastly Moe Williams is a sub-contractor stool pigeon to the cops plain and simple. She resents the stoolie label however, stating that she “was brought up to report any injustice to the police authority.” Despite this rationalization, when the price was right she dropped a dime on Skip’s modus operandi and whereabouts to the cops when they were looking for his neck to hang a collar on. It may not seem too strange for a professional canary to sing about a lowly pickpocket, but unusual when one considers Moe has known Skip since he was a kid and genuinely professes to love him. While this triumvirate of two-bit hoods and hustlers may sound like the kind of scene you’d want to avoid at all costs, it’s these same characters you can’t afford to miss in director Sam Fuller’s masterpiece “Pickup on South Street.”

The film opens on a NYC subway car where Candy (Jean Peters) is carrying an envelope given to her by ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). As a last favor to him she is to deliver the envelope to a man at a rendezvous point and she’ll be done with Joey once and for all. Candy is unaware that the contents inside the envelope (we later learn) are strips of microfilm consisting of classified U.S. government secrets that the Russians are dying to get their pinko paws around. Joey is working for the commies and looking for a big pay day with the delivery of the film. Candy is his unknowing buffer and potential fall-gal in case the deal goes sour. The U.S. government is aware of the breach and G-Men have been following Joey and the people he associates with for six months hoping to land the big players above him. We observe J. Edgar’s agents tailing and keeping a close eye on Candy in the subway car. Unexpectedly, while the car is in motion, they witness a man position himself next to Candy in the crowded car and adroitly pluck the wallet from her purse right under her oblivious nose. Before they can react the thief is off the train at the next stop with Candy’s wallet containing the envelope and microfilm. One of the G-Men continues to tail Candy while the other visits NYC police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to try and find out who this “cannon” is that lifted the microfilm. To expedite the process of finding out whom the pickpocket’s identity, Captain Tiger calls in one of his informants; a little old lady named Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter). Moe looks like she’s as altruistic as Florence Nightingale, but in reality the only pulse Moe has her finger on is the seedy underbelly of the NYC grifter element. This inside knowledge, coupled with the cops hitting a dead end, allows her to drop a dime on the hoods to earn a dollar. She expertly identifies the pickpocket as Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) by the G-men’s eyewitness description of his uniquely individual thieving technique. Both the G-Men and Captain Tiger’s police force know he has the microfilm and they haul in Skip attempting to pry it out of him. Skip won’t cop to possessing it, as one more conviction, added to his three, will ensure they throw away the key on him. From here on out Candy tries to use Moe to get the microfilm back from Skip. Moe tries to milk Candy’s desperation to find Skip for her own financial gain. Skip discovers the microfilm and tries to grift Candy for a big payday from Joey and the commies. I’m just scratching the surface as the story has more wonderfully crazy angles and turns than an Escher drawing. Fortunately the tale never gets convoluted in its complexity and it continues to build toward a gripping third act that stands up to any noir history.

While the screenplay (written by Fuller from a story by Dwight Taylor) is rich in dialogue, narrative, and story, the cast elevates it to a plateau of excellence that few movies in film noir reach. Widmark is outstanding as the anti-hero and gives arguably his best performance from an impressive ‘cannon’ of work. Jean Peters gives a solid performance as the manipulated moll Candy. While she may not have the otherworldly chops of Widmark or Ritter, she sells the part well enough to keep up with her co-stars. Without a doubt though, Thelma Ritter is soul of this film. Her ability to convey the vulnerability, charm, and guile of a complex character like Moe is a feat I can picture no other actress accomplishing the way she did in “Pickup.” It’s a brilliant performance that belongs in the pantheon of film. Seriously.

Visually there is plenty to appreciate and enjoy with “Pickup on South Street” but Fuller’s use of the close-up is the visual element that resonates deepest with me. He judiciously uses the tight facial frame sparingly, but maximizes its effectiveness when he does. Each main character gets a notable close-up during points in the film where a significant aspect of their character is revealed and we get a better understanding of the people occupying Fuller’s world. During Thelma Ritter’s introductory scene in Captain Tiger’s office, the camera is kept at bay until Tiger asks Moe about the status of her “kitty” (her savings which is simply a big wad of cash). Moe has been saving up scratch from her legitimate business front of selling men’s neck-ties on the street and also her informant money so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral and all the trimmings. She tells Tiger that she’s almost has enough for the headstone and the exclusive plot on Long Island where you have to be screened before they “let you in there.” Tiger warns her that she better be careful about carrying around such a large wad of cash, especially with the ne’er-do-wells she associates with otherwise she’ll end up in Potter’s Field. Tiger’s words act as a vacuum to the feisty and energetic flame in Moe’s eyes. Her face drains only to be refilled quickly with a grave look of concern that comes over her as the camera gets to an intimate distance with her face. She confides to the police Captain, “Look Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter’s field… It’d just about kill me.” There are several moments in the film like this where such a small aspect reveals so much about the different character’s desires, fears and motivations.

As if the fantastic story isn’t enough, “Pickup” has many complex and fascinating themes permeating the film. One I discovered on a recent viewing is the interesting dichotomy between reliance on the male dominated world in which Moe and Candy operate to survive and their struggle with maintaining independence and autonomy. Moe needs men to buy her neck-ties and Captain Tiger to help feed her kitty. Candy needs men to earn a living by being the “eye” type of her namesake. The viewer gleans that Candy floats from the arm of one guy to the next but it’s not something she’s particularly proud of. When his tail is on the line and he needs a lead as to who lifted the microfilm from her purse, Joey asks Candy, “You’ve knocked around a lot. You know people who know people.” Candy’s face tenses up and Fuller gives the audience another telling close-up as she snarls, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” Due to the nature of their professions Moe and Candy can’t afford to get too close to anybody, yet simultaneously they have a pragmatic need for connecting with people. But beneath these same necessary connections of survival stirs an emotional longing to unite with others on a human level. Unexpectedly and briefly, Candy and Moe seem to find this commonality with each other via Skip acting as an inadvertent catalyst. It’s an interesting dynamic and brief exploration of such between these two women, especially for the patriarchal and straight-laced era in which the film was made.

There are so many little touches to “Pickup on South Street” that help make it one of the finest film noirs I’ve ever seen. I love the way a streetwise character named Lightning Louie uses chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant to pocket cash on the table. I adore Moe as she’s working angles as an informer and simultaneously trying to sell her ties or as she calls them “a complete line of personality neck-ware.” I never tire of the scene where Moe deduces that Skip is the microfilm thief by the individual method in which he lifts Candy’s wallet because Moe knows each pickpocket’s methods are as distinct and unique as a fingerprint. I crack up over the way Skip keeps his beer cold in his unconventional hideout and offers a cop one by nearly hurling the bottle at him from across the room. I love it when Candy realizes her wallet has been lifted while she’s inside the lobby of a building and somewhere outside the sound of an alarm goes off. I love the existential acceptance shown by Skip when he realizes that Moe told Candy where he was hiding out and he embraces her being a stool-pigeon by quipping “Moe’s alright, she’s gotta eat.” These are just a few samples of many, many details and nuances in “Pickup” that make up an aggregate of mesmerizing and near flawless filmmaking. One viewing of “Pickup on South Street” is not enough to fully appreciate its genius, but one viewing will certainly whet the thirst of any true film-lover enough to continue going back and drink from this refreshing well, again and again.

Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Posted by A True Noiraholic

RKO Pictures, Inc Present, Original running time 64min.

The Film that Gave "Birth" to the Style called Film Noir

A young reporter name Michael Ward (John McGuire) is haunted by the the knowledge that he may have sent an innocent man to the electric chair for murder and that means the real maniac is still on the loose! Was the wrong man condemned? Then Michael's next door neighbor is also murdered, and in an ironic twist of fate, is Micheal the real maniac? And who is that bugged-eyed stranger on the third floor?

These are some of the questions that were waiting to be answered when the film that is considered the "first" film noir Stranger on the Third Floor was released in theatre(s) on August 16, 1940. Even though at the time of release this little "sleeper" wasn't considered the "first" film noir but just a "minor" low-budget "B" feature(s) film. Today it is often credited by most film critics, film historians, and film "buffs" as being the "first" film noir.

Directed by Boris Ingster (I'll Give a Million, Miracle on Main Street, Stranger on the Third Floor, The Judge Steps Out, and the noir Southside 1-1000)
Produced by Lee Marcus
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Musical Score by Roy Webb

Stranger on the Third Floor
View Photo Slideshow

The screenplay and story was written by Frank Partos (Guilty as Hell, Thirty Day Princess, She's No Lady, Rio (The last of which has been argued to be an even earlier noir than Stranger.) He was Oscar nominated for the film The Snake Pit and scripted two further noirs -- The House on Telegraph Hill and Night Without Sleep. (with uncredited script work by Nathanael West)

Stunning art direction by Van Nest Polgase (Whose next film project would be Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.)

The Cast: Peter Lorre (The Stranger), John McGuire (Micheal Ward), Margaret Tallichet (Jane), Elisha Cook Jr. ( Joe Briggs) (It seems as if a consensus has been reached among film noir buffs that if Elisha Cook Jr. is present in a film it has to be considered film noir...) Charles Waldon (District Attorney), Charles Halton (Albert Meng), Ethel Griffies (Mrs. Kane), Cliff Clark (Martin),Oscar O'Shea (The Judge), Alec Craig (Defense Attorney), Otto Hoffman (Police Surgeon).

In Stranger on the Third Floor a newspaper reporter Micheal Ward (John McGuire) get his "big" break when he happens upon a murder. Ward becomes the key witness at the murder trial of a petty criminal Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) who is accused of slashing the throat of a popular cafe owner name Nick Giuseppe. Briggs maintains his innocence and claims that he found the victim with his throat cut and "bleeding" inside his cash register. But Ward testimony convicts Briggs and he sentenced to the chair. With the "spotlight" now on Ward who acquired a $12.00 a month raise, a byline for his newspaper, and just enough money to consider marrying his girlfriend Jane (Margaret Tallichet) but she can't help feeling that Briggs is telling the truth and feels that their future will be "tainted" by Ward's testimony against Briggs. Unfortunately, Ward isn't too interested in her doubts about Briggs. As far as he is concerned Briggs is a petty criminal who made threats to Nick. Ward soon find out the hard way that threats and circumstantial evidence can convict an innocent man when an ironic "twist of fate" happens to him.

Stranger on the Third Floor also take a cynical look at the justice system and how people are indifferent to injustice. It also has one of the best dream sequences ever filmed. Taking place in Ward's boarding room, the protagonist dreams that he is arrested, tried, and executed for a murder he didn't commit~ is presented in a expressionist montage~thanks to strong character acting and to German expressionism cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca (1892-1975) who would go on to become arguably the definitive film noir cameraman through his work on The Fallen Sparrow, The Locket, Out of the Past (one of my favorite film noir flicks with Robert Mitchum), Clash By Night and The Hitch-Hiker. Musuraca's uses Germanic expressionism techniques to create the effects of high light and shadow effects, uses unique camera angles, and photographs the dark urban surrounding in a baroque style. His lighting was deliberately artificial emphasizing deep shadows and sharp contrast and were chosen to emphasize the fantastic and the grotesque. The actors seem to externalize his emotion to the extremes in the dream sequences in Stranger on the Third Floor.

Stranger was released in theaters on August 14, 1940 and was panned by film critics. "They have not done right by by Peter Lorre in this picture," wrote Variety on September 04, 1940. "He's so subordinated in the story that his character amount to a "bit." More accurately RKO hadn't done right by the audience who would be entitled to expect to see more of the ostensible star."

(Reviewer Note: RKO had Peter Lorre on a short contract when Stranger on the Third Floor entered production realizing that he was not booked to work on his last two final days, the studio assigned him to a minor role in the film. But as befitting his "star" standing, he received "top" billing.)


Today Stranger on the Third Floor is well received by film critics but, as a low budget "B" features it does not appear to have been reviewed anywhere in the press, and went largely unnoticed until film critics "rediscovered" it in 1970s and proclaimed it the first "true" noir even though there are some critics who disputed this. According to some film critics the films Blind Alley, Rio, and Let Us Live! predates Stranger on the Third Floor by a year. John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (in which both actors Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in after their appearance in Stranger on the Third Floor) is also often cited as the first film noir until the appraisal of Stranger on the Third Floor because, unlike Stranger, Huston's Maltese Falcon partly conforms when it come to having all the elements of noir. But it doesn't seems to tick off as many boxes as Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor. For instance, Huston preferred balanced low contrast lighting, eye level shots, subjective and low level (when he was framing Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) viewpoint to emphasize his bulk.) Ingster's "Stranger on the Third Floor" on the other hand, exhibited all the elements to qualify in the category of a film noir with it high contrast lighting, deep shadows, aural expression, voice-over narration, oblique camera angles, dreams and flashback. These are just a few reasons that Stranger on the Third Floor is considered the first film noir because it exhibits all the elements of the Germanic expressionist style. Even though some films critics didn't like the ending I think that the ending is very appropriate because it is like emerging from a perpetual "darkness" into the "light "or waking up from a "nightmare" that wouldn't end, but still the thought of the nightmare lingers.

Was the wrong man convicted? Then Micheal's next door neighbor is murdered? In an ironic twist of fate, is Michael the real maniac? And who is that little bugged-eyed stranger on the third floor? In order to find out the answer to these questions, I highly recommend that film noir fans whether you are a "novice" or a long time "collector" of film noir to watch Boris Ingster's hidden "gem" Stranger on the Third Floor because it is considered by many film critics to be the film that gave "birth" to films with that "noir style" which consist of making use of high lighting-and shadow effects, unique oblique camera angles, dreams and flashbacks which is also characterized by dark somber tones, protagonist, femme fatale, and a cynical pessimistic mood. What we film noir "purist' like to simply refer to as Film Noir.

Availability: According to author of the book Film Noir by Eddie Robson(published in 2005) "At the time of writing Stranger on the Third Floor is not commercially available anywhere in the world and has not been for quite some time, a 1980s VHS release having been deleted long ago."

Availability Update: The film "Stranger on the Third Floor" is out-of-print on VHS but, you can probably find RKO original copies of this film on and eBay websites. (Reviewer Note:I was "lucky" to find a nice copy on eBay website.) The price can range anywhere from $29.00 (used) to $129.00 (new). By the way, noir fans another interesting website to visit in order to purchase this hard-to-find title at a more affordable price is:

Editor's note: Spoilers in the video below!


Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Woman Chaser (1999)

Editor's note: Blogger Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun and MSN's Movies Filter) has written another Film Noir of the Week. This time she tackles neo-noir The Woman Chaser. If you've never heard of it you're not alone. The hard-to-find black-and-white film tips it's hat to classic noir (you can hear the music for Macao and The Asphalt Jungle if you listen carefully. Even the poster looks like The Killing) when actually it's much more closely related to the pulp novel that inspired it.

By Kim Morgan

You can’t quite get your hands around The Woman Chaser, and that’s all for the good.

It’s a heap of contradictions that absolutely refuses to be compartmentalized. You’ll either love this slice of humorous sociopathic angst (and yes, in The Woman Chaser, there is such a thing as sociopathic angst) or (as some critics did) attempt to corner it as something it’s not. What it is, is vintage Charles Willeford (who was also adapted in two other underrated classics— Monte Hellman’s Cockfigher and George Armitages’s Miami Blues) and so true to the author that his widow approved every frame of this underseen treasure.

Directed by Robinson Devor, whose only credit up to this point was a wonderfully weird 30 minute documentary about Hollywood billboard star Angelyne (he has since directed Police Beat and the infamous horse sex documentary, Zoo. You can’t say Devor isn’t multi-faceted) The Woman Chaser is something of a lost film. Released in 1999, the picture is still only available on out of print VHS (a small amount of DVDs were exclusive only to Hollywood Video which are sadly OP). For whatever reason the picture hasn’t been re-released, regrettable for all those viewers who missed the picture in theaters. It’s an unnerving, hilarious slice Los Angeles life and wildly unique on top.

Adapted from pulp novelist Willeford’s 1960 novel of the same name and filmed (gorgeously) in a black and white transfer (from a color print), The Woman Chaser is faithful to its beautifully seedy genre while feeling like an entirely unique experience. It’s serious, to a point, but never plays it straight, always aiming for a cockeyed joke that’s both reflexive and perfectly in tune with the picture. And yet, somehow it manages to refrain from something that’s especially annoying when it comes to film noir — tired ironic send-up. I can only imagine how tough it was to craft such an arch, subversive film that remains, to the very last frame, weirdly understated, but Devor is intelligent and talented enough to handle the task.

The story begins circa 1960 with grifter Richard Hudson (a brilliant Patrick Warburton, best known from Seinfeld and The Tick) fresh from San Francisco, purchasing a used car dealership in his hometown of Los Angeles. He’s a gifted, unscrupulous salesman (“anyone and everyone can be bought” he believes) who makes his dealers wear Santa Claus suits in the middle of summer. Richard preys on people’s vulnerabilities with a twisted logic that’s too complex to classify as mere evil—it's some personality quirk that’s all his own (for instance, he seduces an old woman collecting pennies for the church to prove that anyone can be bought. He also beds a teenager for a harsh lesson in sex-ed). With obvious Oedipal fixation, he moves back home with Mother (Lynette Bennett), an aging beauty living in a Sunset Blvd. style mansion with her washed up Hollywood director of a husband, the gentle milquetoast Leo Steinberg (a great Paul Malevitz).

After a delicate, then frenzied (and hilarious) session of ballet dancing with Mother (one of the picture’s highlights), Richard comes to the conclusion that his life is meaningless unless he creates something ("Isn't making money the reason for existence?"). More specifically if he creates a work of art. Since other arts take too much time and skill to learn, Richard reckons that writing and directing a movie is just the thing. Convincing Leo to back him, he concocts the very Detour-esque B-noir The Man Who Got Away, a grim, existential tale about a truck driver who flees his life, then accidentally kills a little girl and is chased down by a vigilante mob. You never get to see the entire picture, but what you witness looks like some soulful, gritty brilliance. I want to see this movie.

But releasing the picture proves difficult as it clocks in at 63 minutes (too short for theaters and too long for television) and Richard will not compromise—he will neither cut nor lengthen the thing and so, well, I won’t reveal what happens . The actions, philosophizing and points of Richard moving from conception to actual filmmaking are too intriguing to spoil, but one thing is for certain: Richard is a born auteur with serious principles regarding the integrity of his project. Damn the studios if they think they can meddle with his masterpiece. No way will they destroy the beats and flow and timing of his picture. Richard has become an artist. But he’s also a cold blooded narcissist (“To me!” he toasts while dipping in a pool) and yet, a sensitive lug in moments of stress—somehow when this son of a bitch cries, it’s endearingly believable.

But then that could be an act—you have no idea with this character. Thanks to the refreshingly barrel-chested Warburton and his bombastic, staccato yet wry and enigmatic performance, the picture delivers an off-kilter world where absurd, scummy and sublime intermingle right on the edge. His performance lives in a movie that reveals a fascinating, yet strangely familiar insanity true to the spirit of Los Angeles and the film business in general, a place where you can feel violated, entertained and inspired in the same twenty minutes.

Sophisticated and kookily innovative, Devor’s direction isn’t simply retro-nostalgia showing off its lovely mid century modern architecture and kitsch (though that is lovingly filmed). No, the City of Angels is a slick, rotting kingdom of scrubbed up close-ups, skewed angles—a twisted, cocky and wormy land that will fight your creativity and vision at any chance. With that, violently defending your work (which Richard does—and that’s all I will say) is the wicked solution but in the end, oddly inspirational.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Dark Pages: Books That Inspired Film Noir

I got my hands on a very cool film noir book this week. The Dark Page: Books That Inspired American Film Noir, 1940-1949is a book about books, but it's also an excellent film noir reference. The book subtitle describes it perfectly: Books That Inspired American Film Noir. What Mr. Johnson has done is done an exhaustive world-wide search for rare first edition book covers. Then in the text to go along with the book he gives a brief introduction to the writer and a little history of the book. Below the book and book collector info Johnson (using history found in many of favorite noir film writer's books) tells us some of the back story for the film that was eventually made of the book. It's packed with all kinds of interesting stories about the film makers and writers that combined to create what history eventually called film noir.

Obviously most of the books are very rare. What's a real treat for a film noir fan is that some of the movies based on the books are equally hard to find. (Who even knew a Z-grade film like Accomplice would even be based on a book? It was. Simon Lash, Private Detective written by Frank Gruber).

Most of the film history is taken from other film noir books (most notably Spencer Selby's Dark City, Lyon's Death on the Cheap and Silver and Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference). "Don't judge a book by the cover" they say, but these covers really make you want to buy them. The art is based on what was popular at the time: deco, dada, futurism are all represented. Some, like the cover of Phantom Lady or Martin Goldsmith's Detour, jump out as instantly recognizable to film noir fans. Others look like something Dali would have painted (the cover of Murray Forbes Hollow Triumph has a dream-like image of a mask suspended in mid air.) Others aren't so easily recognizable. Usually it's because the title and plot have been changed so much from the original book the dust jacket looks like something else all together. Who knew The Woman in the Window was based on a forgotten thriller - 1942's Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis? And why does the cover of They Won't Believe Me (the Robert Young/Susan Hayward/Jane Greer thriller) have an image of a man and a buffalo on the cover?

The books filled with interesting facts and some great and sometimes deceptively simple book covers. Flipping through it was like spending an hour in a great used old book store.

The books are listed in alphabetical order by writer so the best part for me was getting to the section on Cornell Woolrich - seeing the monkey knives used in The Black Path of Fear (film The Chase) and the bloody leopard from Black Alibi (film The Leopard Man) were a treat.

The weather's getting cold and there's nothing better than warming up to a good book by the fire. The Dark Page gives you hundreds to sample. Highly recommended.

Tucker's People eventually became the film noir classic Force of Evil starring John Garfield.

This unique hat was key in finding out the mystery of The Phantom Lady.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

John Huston Great Noir Director Part 1: The Maltese Falcon

Editor's note: This week's Film Noir of the Week is written by Bill Hare who has written some excellent film books including Hitchcock And the Methods of Suspense,L. A. Noir: Nine Dark Visions of the City of Angels,and Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style.

This week he tackles one of the greats: John Huston. Mr. Hare's pick Fat City is a bold choice for his Noir of the Week . This forgotten gritty boxing film is one of the great director's best latter films. The article is in three parts beginning with Mr. Hare's look at Huston's first noir The Maltese Falcon.

By William Hare

John Huston was one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters as the forties dawned. His colorful actor father Walter gave him some advice that, with a reputation as a top industry writer it was time for him to make a move to strike at the heart of the power of the film business. The elder Huston believed that this goal could be best achieved by moving into directing.

The younger Huston was barely able to convince studio boss Jack Warner to give him an opportunity to make that initial move by adapting noted detective Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon to the screen.

Warner provided a reluctant go ahead, but advised that Huston would be working on a tight budget and that he would be looking over his shoulder during the entire production. The studio boss knew that Huston was a talented writer but wondered about him in his new capacity. He was also fearful about The Maltese Falcon as a project since two earlier adaptations of Hammett’s novel were notably unsuccessful.

A strange twist of fate early on should have convinced Huston that he was on a roll. Huston instructed his secretary to break down Hammett’s novel into scenes, leaving everything unchanged. It was his intention to proceed with his screenplay adaptation of Hammett’s work from that point.

When Huston was away from the studio a curious Warner managed to smuggle a copy of what he believed to be a script in progress. When Huston returned Warner startled him by praising what he had seen, proclaiming that the production was ready to roll and the script was fine.

Huston had every reason to believe he was on a roll since not only was The Maltese Falcon a roaring commercial success that satisfied his studio boss; he actually won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for what was supposed to be a beginning outline.

An interesting element to film buffs is that one of the screen’s most influential directors made his debut in what cinema historians regard as the first film noir production. Huston’s solid knowledge derived from his screenplay days assisted in enabling him to draw up ideally structured stories that worked on screen. In fact, John Huston has three of the greatest film noir efforts ever on celluloid to his credit.

Let us take a look at the first, The Maltese Falcon, and observe the essential structure that provided the ingredients for success:

1) A lead character in San Francisco detective Sam Spade, played by Huston’s friend and the last movie he wrote prior to his directing debut, High Sierra. In the earlier film Bogart played a tough, no nonsense, individualist in career criminal Roy Earle.

In The Maltese Falcon Bogart as Sam Spade operated on the opposite side of the law. His credo is stated early in the film when, after his partner, someone he strongly dislikes, is waylaid and shot to death in the evening San Francisco fog, he states that when one’s partner is killed one is expected to do something about it.

2) An ensemble of offbeat criminals - The imaginative casting by Huston is a work of genius unto itself. Sydney Greenstreet at 61 was making his film debut after being seen by Huston on Broadway, where he had made his living for years playing butlers. Peter Lorre became one of the screen’s masters of a corrupt but fascinating character effortlessly displaying foreign intrigue with his swarthy appearance and unique accent. Elisha Cook Jr. would appear in numerous films over the years, many in the noir orbit, including another memorable casting with Bogart in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.

Unlike most noir films that feature criminals of a more sinister mode such as Neville Brand in D.O.A. or Mike Mazurki in Murder, My Sweet, the criminal trio pursuing the expensive and elusive Maltese Falcon is often comedic, particularly when Greenstreet attempts to be smoothly clever, thinking he can outsmart definitively street smart Bogart as Sam Space, while the crafty detective ruffles the egos and wounds the pride of Lorre and Cook. He takes particular delight in slapping Cook around, treating him like a naughty child, an element made all the more convincing by Cook’s baby face look.

The innate craftiness of Bogart as Spade is evidenced in a unique scene displaying the detective play acting for effect. While Greenstreet seeks to be smoothly effective as he delivers his repertoire, Bogart’s disarming response is to shriek loudly, alarming the perceived mastermind of the criminal trio to the point where he bewilderedly asks him what has made him so angry.

Bogart terminates the scene, one of the most memorable of the film, by darting out of the hotel suite occupied by the criminals and storming down the hall. A close-up tells the true story of how he really feels when he is seen grinning with satisfaction, knowing that his well timed tirade had accomplished its purpose of confounding Greenstreet.

3) A unique romance angle; turning the woman you love in to the police - The film ends with resolution of the story’s leading conflict. Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy comes to Bogart as a client. In the duration of the film he falls deeply in love with her.

The leading character conflict of The Maltese Falcon arises when Bogart displays through facial rather than verbal expression, a tougher way to display inner turmoil, in which he must turn in the woman he loves to the police for murder to be true to his personal morality code. The reason, as stated early in the film by a solemnly determined Sam Spade, is that when your partner is killed you are expected to do something about it.

warning: spoilers in the video


Nine years later John Huston ventured into the film noir terrain once more. On this occasion as well the result was stellar success. The basic skeletal thread pertaining to the story bore strong similarities to The Maltese Falcon.

John Huston Part 2 continues here

John Houston Part 2: The Asphalt Jungle

By William Hare

The Asphalt Jungle and Another Criminal Ensemble

One of the longest running debates in film noir is over definition. There will never be unanimity over what represents noir and what does not. Certain films such as The Asphalt Jungle will receive seemingly universal agreement due to the fact that essential definable ingredients are in place such as plenty of night photography with an assembly of nocturnal characters, social outsiders, acting out their lives.

The Asphalt Jungle can be broken down into several important story categories:

1) Once again Huston has provided a fascinating criminal ensemble, but the group that assembles in Cincinnati to pull off a jewel heist contains characters from the city’s nether world that are offbeat but in a non-comedic way as compared to those in The Maltese Falcon.

The film consists of two characters that constitute the brains of the enterprise, Sam Jaffe, a cerebral criminal con with a penchant for planning who has just been released from prison and believes he has devised a winning holdup formula to achieve great wealth. He interacts with Louis Calhern, a highly successful lawyer who has made his living defending criminals.

2) How women spell ultimate trouble for the main characters - The Asphalt Jungle provided one of the great early showcase opportunities for blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe. Two great films released in 1950, Huston’s noir epic and Joseph Mankiewicz’s tartly brilliant look at the rapacious world of the New York stage, All About Eve, launched Monroe into the sex symbol role she would craft later in the fifties as a star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire.

In the two later films Monroe portrayed a woman using her considerable sex appeal to secure a wealthy man. In The Asphalt Jungle Calhern takes the big risk of extending beyond the realm of defending shady people into the realm of interacting with them in a criminal enterprise. He does so because he needs more money to please his much younger mistress Monroe while he in his spare time plays cards with his bedridden wife, played by Dorothy Tree.

Jaffe has a penchant for young girls as well and it ultimately prevents him from escaping to Cleveland after police learn about his involvement in the heist and are looking for him. Jaffe, who has paid a cab driver to take him to Cleveland, loses precious escape time and is apprehended by police after he has become mesmerized looking at a young woman in her late teens jitterbugging in front of a restaurant jukebox.

3) The collapse of the enterprise and the fate of the participants - This category results in uniquely astonishing behavior that makes The Asphalt Jungle truly memorable. Viewers get a capsulized look into the worlds of struggling individuals seeking to achieve the same dream of wealth and its comforts while revealing their individual traits.

Anthony Caruso, the adroit safecracker, leads a completely different life away from crime as a devoted family man. Once that he is shot after blowing up the safe at the site of the heist driver James Whitmore asks if he wants to be taken to a hospital. Caruso insists on instead being driven home. The loyal family man dies in front of his sobbing family. When the police arrive following his death the local priest asks that the grieving widow be spared answering moments during such a delicate period, a request that is readily honored.

Mastermind Jaffe, known in local criminal circles as “the professor,” as aforementioned, is captured due to his desire to watch a young woman jitterbug. His goal of escaping to Mexico, where he could hopefully meet pretty young women, is dashed.

Jaffe, an experienced criminal, accepts his capture with a shrug. This is markedly different from Calhern, who, when the police arrive at his home, excuses himself momentarily.

Calhern walks into another room and promptly shoots himself fatally. When Jaffe hears about Calhern’s abrupt decision to end his life rather than face consequences for his actions, he declares with surprise that he would not have been sent away for anymore than two years for his involvement in the crime.

Hayden as Classic Loner


One of the most interesting leading men of film noir was tall, blonde Sterling Hayden, who conveyed the image of the definitive loner, a role he played as well in real life. He would appear after The Asphalt Jungle in Stanley Kubrick’s breakthrough film, the 1956 noir triumph The Killing, which used a similar story structure to that of Huston’s success.

In Kubrick’s film Hayden is the organizer as he leads a group of Los Angeles outsiders in an effort to steal the proceeds from a race track on the day of its biggest race. Hayden also appeared in Nicholas Ray’s interesting foray into western noir as noted gunslinger and Joan Crawford’s love interest in the 1954 release Johnny Guitar. His classic line as befitting a noir loner is “I’m a stranger myself here.”

In The Asphalt Jungle Hayden as a small time stickup artist looms as so hostilely anti-social that Sam Jaffe is warned about including him in the criminal enterprise. Hayden’s dream is to return to his Kentucky home with enough money to buy back the horse ranch that his father was compelled to sell.

When Hayden absorbs a bullet in a shootout at Calhern’s home, after the lawyer has performed a double cross on his criminal partners, he takes fellow loner, girlfriend Jean Hagen, on a determined final ride to Kentucky to visit his roots one last time. Hayden makes it, just barely, dying after getting a brief chance to pet his favorite horse.

Marc Lawrence is so perpetually worried that he sweats all the time. He proves to be the crime team’s weak link as a crooked cop, played by Berry Kelley, angered at not being cut into the action himself, beats him into revealing details of the enterprise including the names of its participants.

Lawrence delivers one of the classic lines of film noir when, after being asked why he perpetually perspires, answers, “Money makes me sweat.”

With two such brilliant noir gems under his belt, Huston as one of the industry’s celebrated veterans tackled the genre two decades later with Fat City.

John Huston Part 3 continued here

John Huston Part 3: Fat City (1972)

By William Hare

Fat City is a film involving the boxing game and as such it has been given that designation by many. It is undeniable that it falls into that category, but this should not exclude it from being classified as film noir as well. The film marked a return to familiar territory from Huston’s younger days, when he was an amateur lightweight boxing champion in Los Angeles.

Another boxing film that is frequently placed in the noir category is Robert Wise’s 1949 classic The Setup with Robert Ryan delivering his performance of a lifetime as a prideful veteran boxer nearing the end of his career who refuses to capitulate to the pressures of a mobster and throw a fight. When he refuses and wins the mobster sees to it that it is Ryan’s final bout, using the boxer he has defeated as one of a group that administers a career ending injury.

Fat City, unlike most noir entries, is in color, characteristic of the break away from black and white, which was used with noir epics of the forties and fifties. This brilliantly executed film should not be disqualified for that reason. In fact, the magnificent tapestry of the camera of skilled cinematographer Conrad Hall, who won Oscars 34 years apart for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and American Beauty (2003), provides the film with a rare look at noir by day in living color.

Hall lets us see the struggling down and outers of a mid-sized California city by zeroing in with microscopic precision. Some of the greatest impact is achieved with his stunning close-ups of townsfolk sitting and standing in a decaying downtown area, seemingly devoid of dreams, groping to survive.

With Hall’s telling camera shots of bedraggled citizens standing in front of liquor stores and sitting in bars and cheap restaurants, the paintings of Edward Hopper come to mind, along with the world of Raymond Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe.

Stockton in the Limelight

The city becomes one of the stars of the film. It is Stockton, located in northern California, a little less than two hour drive from San Francisco. Stockton is situated near Monterrey and the Salinas Valley, the area that became famous in memorable novels and films adapted from works of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. The Red Pony, East of Eden and Cannery Row are notable works of Steinbeck depicting Salinas and Monterrey that were adapted to film.

The rugged side of Stockton and its inhabitants was depicted graphically in the novel Fat City by Leonard Gardner,who adapted his book into a screenplay. Gardner had fought briefly as an amateur boxer in Stockton and his life on the rugged outer edges of society is clearly observable in the book with its terse, tough-edged prose as well as in the film, showcasing clip dialogue along with Hall’s timely camera shots revealing struggling elements of Stockton’s citizenry.

Anyone concluding that Fat City is anything but a memorable noir gem should closely observe the film’s opening sequence, which sets the mood for what will follow and what the movie unmistakably represents. The tough-edged part of the city is revealed through a panning camera along with the hard luck elements that inhabit it.

The song that opens the film sets the mood. Kris Kristofferson sings his hit tune, “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” Kristofferson’s pathos engenders struggle, battling against the ruthless forces of nature, the perfect choice to open the film. Kristofferson, like Johnny Cash, gives the impression from every word and intonation of someone who has experienced life in the rough.

We then see Stacy Keach, cast as ex-professional fighter and struggling roustabout Billy Tully, rising slowly in bed. It is a small room of a dingy downtown hotel. He is shown packing a gear bag and then taking a short walk to the nearby downtown YMCA for a workout.

While Stacy Keach limbers up by shadow boxing, resembling the ex-fighter he portrays, he observes a younger man, Jeff Bridges as Ernie Munger, going through similar paces. Keach eventually asks him if he would care to engage in some light sparring.

The meeting of the film’s two main characters sets into motion the story dynamics beginning with that brief sparring session. The characters reveal differences that make their interaction through the remainder of the film instructively meaningful and clearly divisible.

The major elements of the film and point of conflict set into motion in Gardner’s script and carried into motion through Huston’s direction and solid performances follow:

1) Interacting characters revealing basic differences - When Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges meet for the first time they are in actual terms just a little more than a decade apart, but in experience and appearance one looms as a testimony to tough living and appears older than time itself while the other possesses a fresh, vibrant youth that the older man will then admire and later envy.

The sparring session ends when 31-year-old Tully pulls a leg muscle, which he attributes to being out of shape. He assumes matter-of-factly that 19-year-old Munger is a professional boxer. When the innocent looking, youthful Munger explains that he has had no fights at all, amateur or professional, an astonished Tully advises him to see his former manager and begin fighting. He tells him not to squander his youth and to take advantage of it while he can.

2) Pursuit of love interests - Keach as Tully and Bridges as Munger develop love interests as disparate as their life experiences and mannerisms. Keach, who has a penchant for liquor, becomes friends with Susan Tyrrell, whose brilliant work resulted in the film’s lone Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Tyrrell plays a tormented alcoholic with supreme gusto. Initially Keach enjoys bantering with her at a downtown bar they both frequent, but when he becomes more intimately involved with her he becomes repelled and feels a need to get away from her. He telephones his manager at one point and tells him that Tyrrell is suffocating him.

A dramatic conflict emerges after the man with whom Tyrrell lives goes to jail after becoming involved in a fight. Her lover, played by former welterweight champion of the world Curtis Cokes, one of several fighters past and present appearing in the film, is an African American. Tyrrell explains that he is a quiet gentleman but became provoked over cracks made over his interracial romance with Tyrrell.

Just as Keach reflects the manner of someone who appears to be of such a high degree of experience on the hard edge of life to the point of seeming to emerge from the crib that way, Bridges represents his polar opposite. Whereas Keach appears destined to get knocked down repeatedly as he absorbs the hard blows of life, Bridges gives evidence of being someone who will appear as perpetually young while his counterpart will loom as old and hard-edged.
Bridges’ love life becomes serious when, after a series of sneaking sex romps in his car, his girlfriend Candy Clark, who sees him as marital material, asks if he would like to be with her all the time. She indicates that it would be a good idea to begin telephoning her every day as a means of keeping in close touch.

Soon Clark makes a stronger move and reveals that she is pregnant. Bridges looks as innocent as always, but with that innocence intact he possesses an unflappability that the volatile and combustible Keach will never possess. They marry and we see the new arrival in Clark’s arms attending a fight by film’s end.

3) Contrasting boxing careers - Bridges makes the move that Keach recommended during their first meeting. He goes to see Keach’s manager, played by Nick Colasanto, who would become famous later to television audiences as a regular on the long running series Cheers.

The evening of the day of Bridges’ first workout at his gym, Colasanto tells his wife as they lie in bed prior to turning out the lights that he now has a “good looking white kid” in his stable that shows promise and could make money since whites are in numerical decline in the fight game.

Before long Keach, after a chance meeting with Bridges, decides to go back into training and resume his once promising boxing career. He might as well since he has no available career options, having been fired recently from a job as a short order cook.

The contrasting personalities and demeanors of Keach and Bridges are evident in their contrasting boxing styles. Keach, who likes to boast of a long string of knockouts, is all thunder and lightning and will always be that way as long as his combative fires remain intact. Keach is a perennial slugger.

The calm, perfectly adjustable Bridges is predictably enough a different style as he begins his amateur career. He is a boxer, unruffled by temperament, seeking to use his long reach by jabbing his opponents with his left hand and remaining on the move. Keach, on the other hand, moves perpetually forward, accepting blows if necessary to land a knockout punch.

While Bridges gains experience and does not even allow a savagely quick one round knockout ruffle him, moving steadily toward the beginning of his professional career, Keach receives an opportunity to re-launch his career in a main event before the home folks in Stockton. One senses from the outset that this fight will be his make or break opportunity.

4) Billy Tully’s Crossroad - Colasanto contacts the local promoter, who doubles as operator of a local bowling establishment, doing his best to generate interest in a fight involving a Stockton veteran on the comeback trail. While Colasanto predictably tries the “popular local boy returns” ploy the promoter, every bit as predictable, indicates that Billy Tully has been away from boxing and it will be difficult to generate enough interest in him to headline a local fight card.

The promoter begins by suggesting that Tully make his comeback in a semi-main event. Colasanto balks, reminding him that his fighter has been a good draw in the past and holds name recognition. The promoter’s next suggestion causes Colasanto to balk anew, but not for long.
The name of a respected Mexican fighter named “Lucero” is mentioned. The promoter states that the problem of drawing a decent crowd will be resolved if Lucero fights Tully. Showing the protective side of a manager, Colasanto stammers that his fighter needs at least one or two tune-up bouts before facing someone of Lucero’s stature.

The promoter emphatically declares that if Tully is to fight a main event for him in Stockton that he must face Lucero. Colasanto then reluctantly agrees to put his fighter in the ring with the notable Mexican boxer.

We later get a quick look at Lucero in a revealing sequence where an all-intrusive camera provides silent insight into the fighter who will face the Stockton favorite. Lucero is initially seen exiting a bus. Tall and lithe, Lucero is played by another of the numerous boxing contingent appearing in Fat City. He is played by Sixto Rodriguez, a middleweight and light heavyweight headliner of the middle and late sixties in Northern California.

Lucero walks past a store window where a poster of the fight is displayed. After that he is seen inside a small room of a seamy hotel. Lucero takes some pills at one point. Then he is seen in the bathroom, a scene that understandably does not appear in regular television showings of the film.

The veteran boxer is shown passing blood. He has clearly fought recently and will be participating in a bout that he should not engage in at all before his wounds have healed. The message is that Lucero will do whatever it takes to survive in a brutal world. Harkening back to Kristofferson’s lyrics, “Help me make it through the night” must be applied to the day as well.

Win or Loss?

It started out as Billy Tully’s big opportunity, but the point that is ultimately made is that winning is neutralized by losing and things come out virtually the same at the end. Such is the culmination of Tully’s crossroad.

The fight takes place and Tully is knocked down by Lucero. The savage force of the Mexican boxer’s fists is sufficient to where, after Tully has worn him down with body shots and knocked him out, Keach asks Colasanto if he had been the losing fighter.

The omniscient audience knows what the principals do not; that Lucero walked into the ring with a handicap and its successful exploitation is what yielded Tully his hard-earned victory. The question that then needs to be resolved is just what precisely the returning ring veteran has achieved.

Stacy Keach provides excellent internal acting to demonstrate the inner frustration of someone who has returned to the ring in pursuit of his dream of success, but is then slapped in the face by the same brutal reality he seeks to leave behind.

When Keach learns from Colasanto how little he made from his fight after deductions he erupts, nearly being run over by a passing truck as he attempts to bolt across the street to the hotel room he occupies. The manager nervously explained that he had been taking care of the fighter after he called him drunk one night from a bar and explained that he could not stand living with the confused and embittered alcoholic Tyrrell.

The conversation with Colasanto reminds Keach once more of why he resents his manager. He tells him bitterly about the time that he had his big chance to go to Panama and fight the number 5 ranked contender. To cut down on expenses the manager did not accompany him to Panama and he lost the bout, his biggest chance to grab that seemingly elusive golden ring. He was cut over the eyes by razor blades by a corner man with tactical precision to make him bleed enough so that the fight would be stopped.

Giving Him the Shirt off His Back

In his frustrated state, still smoldering from his conversation with his manager and realizing how little money he made from his bloody toil, Keach puts his gear bag in his hotel room and sets out for Tyrrell’s residence. One senses that under the circumstances he will be at least temporarily glad to be with her again.

Instead of being greeted by Tyrrell, his knock instead summons Curtis Cokes, who was released during the interval between Keach’s unannounced departure from their joint masochistic union and fight night. Keach, plainly nervous over seeing Cokes back in Tyrrell’s life, explains that he has returned to pick up his belongings.

Cokes, on the other hand, exudes the kind of carefree nonchalance that Bridges displays as cool survivor Ernie Munger. He tells Keach that he is wearing his T-shirt and removes it immediately, despite Keach’s embarrassed reply that he can keep it. When Cokes hands the T-shirt back to Keach it is a symbolic gesture that all is complete between Keach’s association with the premises and his live in girlfriend.

If Keach believed that Tyrrell would display any feeling for him after his quick and unannounced departure he was correct. She displays emotion but for Keach it is the wrong kind as she hurls nasty, insult-ridden invective at him.

“Don’t pay her no mind,” Cokes tells him in his breezy, unflappable manner. “She’s a juice head so don’t pay her no mind.”

Cokes seeks to display a measure of communicative warmth toward Keach, but in doing so only reminds him of the sad dilemma life’s latest downturn has rendered to him. “Looks like you been in a fight,” Cokes says after noticing fresh marks of combat on Keach’s face.

After Keach acknowledges the statement to be true, Cokes smiles and tells him that he has seen Keach’s face on fight posters around town. The gleam reveals delight in conversing with a local celebrity.

The irony is that Cokes believes he is being sociable and that Keach should be pleased while in reality someone who earlier in the evening hoped he had his downward spiraling life back on the right track was feeling just the opposite. His former girlfriend hooted angry insults at him while her former live in boyfriend was back and closing off any prospect of Keach returning to the scene, to the point of handing him back his T-shirt that he had been wearing.

The parting comment from Cokes extends the irony further as he beams a smile and tells Keach that he likes to watch a fight occasionally, concluding with, “Maybe next time I’ll see you.”

On that note Keach leaves. With his current frame of mind given the small amount of money he has taken for being beaten savagely enough to where he did not know when the fight was stopped whether or not he had been the victim, another bout before the Stockton locals is something he does not wish to contemplate.

Given Keach’s downtrodden state of mind, what can we expect next? We need not wait long as we flash forward to the closing sequences of the film, when we learn the fates of the film’s two leading characters at Fadeout.

5) One Final Meeting - The film’s closing phase begins as Jeff Bridges arrives in downtown Stockton in his truck. He observes the staggering form of a disheveled, bedraggled Stacy Keach moving slowly toward him on the sidewalk.

Bridges is hopeful of getting away before his former boxing stable mate sees him, but is unsuccessful as Keach spots him. Keach smiles as if he has won the lottery. He straightens up and moves with a sudden jauntiness in his step toward Bridges, the young man he had persuaded to take up boxing.

After enthusiastically greeting Bridges, Keach suggests they have a drink together. Bridges declines. Eventually Keach talks him into having a cup of coffee with him. It is obvious that Bridges is relenting only out of sympathy for Keach, perhaps remembering that he was the catalyst that sparked a professional boxing career for him.

During the sequence while they stand on the sidewalk, before going into the restaurant for coffee, Keach displays his jealous resentment toward the younger man, someone with a family and steady, purposeful resolve, traits and circumstances he has reason to envy.

After asking Bridges if he is still a professional fighter, the younger man reveals that he had won his most recent bout. When he relates that he won by decision Keach sees an opening. The jealous Keach, by then reduced to bar fly status, boasts about the string of knockouts he had once achieved.

Keach then seizes an opening in the manner of a fighter. He asks Bridges if he can be frank without him taking offense. Bridges states that he will be offended. Keach then delivers a verbal low blow by telling Bridges that the first time that they met and sparred briefly at the local YMCA that he was a little soft in the heart, lacking the level of courage it took to become a top notch fighter.

How does Bridges react? In his customarily unflappable manner, Bridges does not reply, unperturbed by a man at the low end of Stockton society seeking to gain cheap delight by taking a verbal blow at a younger man who knows serenity and contentment that he fears he will never possess and can only envy from a distance.

Are We All Happy?

The final scene occurs in a crowded restaurant where the two men have coffee. Keach takes a long look at the ancient looking, slow moving man who served them.

“How would you like to wake up in the morning and be him?” Keach asks grimly. He clearly fears such a fate looming for him.

After having shuffled slowly back to the kitchen area the man looks at Keach and Bridges. He flashes a broad, happy smile of contentment.

“Maybe he’s happy,” the cool, unflappable Bridges says.

Keach then delivers the ideal closing line of the film:

“Maybe we’re all happy.”

Wily veteran Huston then proves his point through using the camera in an adroit and creatively unique fashion. It freezes the action momentarily while Keach looks out at the throngs of weather beaten men at tables, individuals who have experienced life in the rough, he takes note of them with a troubled expression.

The camera ultimately spoke the most powerful words of all through the faces of the men in the packed, brightly lit restaurant. The men of the night seek solace from its darkness in a well lighted place where they can commune with others of the same circumstance.

From there it is on to Fadeout and the voice of Kris Kristofferson and “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”

One can imagine that if Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus had been around to see Fat City together what might happen. At the film’s close one can see the lights flashing back on in a small theater on Paris’ arty Left Bank.

Sartre, the older man, looks at Camus and nods knowingly.

“That’s the way life is,” Sartre matter of factly observes.

“Absolutely,” Camus replies.

They slowly walk out of the theater as the lights begin to dim. The two most prominent author-philosophers in France move out onto a small, darkened street and walk toward a café next door where they will discuss Fat City in detail while they sip glasses of wine.

Sartre and Camus would certainly discuss the fascinating contrasts of lead characters Keach and Bridges. The younger, uncomplicated Bridges would continue to endure with seeming ease. As far as the troubled Keach is concerned he was 19 when he met him and would look 19 even 30 years later.

As for Keach, what could we expect? At the film’s close he had been able to concede, “Maybe we’re all happy.”

That constitutes a start!

Destined for Noir

One colorful figure from the boxing ranks that appeared in Fat City was a long time Los Angeles legend whose career ended in the late fifties, but who maintained a presence thereafter, getting his greatest film exposure in John Huston’s masterful work showcasing the fight game.

Art Aragon was known as “the Golden Boy” and generated packed audiences in L.A.’s fight arenas with cocky, pre-fight banter that prompted him to complain later that Muhammad Ali had stolen his act.

Aragon, who fought for the lightweight title against Jimmy Carter and appeared against former welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio outdoors in Wrigley Field in a memorable 1958 bout, generally played himself in bit parts of fight films. In Fat City Huston gave him an important feature role cast as Nick Colasanto’s faithful trainer.

After Aragon’s fight career he went into the bail bond business. His famous advertising line was “I’ll get you out if it takes 10 years.”

With such a unique demeanor and penchant for one-liners, John Huston made a great move in casting Aragon. The witty ex-boxer appeared destined for film noir. The director was also astute in developing a story centered around a tough sport whose participants operate around the tough edges of society and live to beat the odds by enduring.

Survival remains the key element in understanding Fat City. Survival within the confines of a boxing ring is magnified by the much larger world existing beyond its confines. How do we endure in this world?

The message to be ultimately derived from Fat City is of a complicated man in Keach who will perpetually ask “Why?” while Bridges coolly moves on, assuming life’s challenges without the necessity of seeking answers.


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