Monday, December 29, 2008

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

The hierarchy and brutality of the animal kingdom is sometimes difficult to fully grasp as we humans are thoughtful creatures with characteristics exclusive to humanity such as empathy and pity. Conversely there is another side to man that may mirror the bestial ruthlessness of the animal kingdom. This side of man transcends beyond the animal’s savagery to a darker dimension of mercilessness. Where the hostile law of the jungle may seem harsh, it is instinctual genetic programming that’s essential for animal survival in such an environment. With humanity, the cruel and inhumane treatment of others are conscious choices made from dark recesses of the mind; often fueled by greed and malice. In Director Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, New York City is the jungle and success in the entertainment industry is game to be hunted and devoured by the kings of this food chain. Only predators with the sharpest teeth, the biggest roar and the greatest cunning will successfully catch and devour their prey and feed off its warm carcass till the next warm blooded meal comes along. Sweet Smell of Success follows two such carnivores, one of whom is trying to claw his way to the top, the other making sure he remains leader of the pack and nowhere in the landscape which they operate is empathy found or wanted.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a New York City based entertainment press agent whose success is marginal judging from the cheap sign “Sidney Falco - Publicity” crudely taped to his office door. When we first observe Sidney he’s anxiously awaiting the newest edition of the fictional “New York Globe” newspaper. Sidney’s bread and butter comes from his clients garnering favorable PR; the best kind in being a mention in J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) nationally syndicated newspaper column titled “The Eyes of Broadway.” It’s from this famous column that careers are either launched, sustained or destroyed due to Hunsecker’s potent influence. For someone in Sidney’s profession, having J.J. Hunsecker bestow some positive words in his column about a client will eventually garner fame, respect and money for publicist and client alike. At one point Sidney did have some favor with Hunsecker, but Sidney’s clients haven’t received one mention in J.J. column for nearly a week (practically years in publicist time.) Sidney had done his best to help out the newspaper columnist with some dirty work involving Hunsecker’s little sister Susan. The young Susan Hunsecker has fallen hard for a promising young jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas. Her controlling older brother J.J. wanted Sidney to break the nest of the two love birds in half. Unsuccessful first, Sidney manipulates a cast of people to keep the two apart by resorting to pandering, blackmail and character assassination.

Falco manages to get a competing columnist of Hunsecker to smear Dallas’s name (which also insulates J.J. Hunsecker from the appearance of having a hand in the deed) by insinuating in print that he’s a marijuana smoking, card carrying commie. The dirty rumor gets Dallas fired from his gig at a prominent night club, but Dallas sniffs the stench of Hunsecker’s lapdog Sidney Falco orchestrating the public sullying of his name. He confronts Sidney who denies any part in the smear, however Dallas is simply walking into the tiger trap Falco and Hunsecker have laid for him. Hunsecker confronts Susan about Dallas and she belays the truth to her brother that Dallas none of the things he is being accused of. In front of Susan, J.J. Hunsecker then calls the night club owner who fired Dallas and wields his influence to get him his job back and repair his reputation. This maneuver now puts Dallas in a position of owing Hunsecker, who he despises due to his creepy possessiveness and impossible standards for Susan. Hunsecker knows Dallas’s self-respect and ill feelings toward him will get the best of the young musician. A meeting arranged by Dallas’s agent between the two men goes poorly as Hunsecker’s integrity is questioned by Dallas in lieu of the obsequious gratitude he is used to receiving from everyone. Hunsecker forbids Susan to see Steve Dallas again and she breaks up with her paramour to protect him from inevitable retaliation by her brother.

Where the payoff of his devious manipulation could have endured for Hunsecker, his pride gets the best of him as he decides to ruin Dallas against the advice of Sidney Falco. The insult Hunsecker sustained from Dallas was too egregious for his ego to handle. He orders Sidney to plant marijuana on Dallas and tip off corrupt police detective and Hunsecker goon Harry Kello (Emile Meyer) to arrest Dallas. This subversion of Dallas destroys his reputation while simultaneously alienating Susan from her brother and leaving her in a state of utter despair. She gleans Sidney is somehow behind the plot to sully Dallas and she summons Falco to the Hunsecker penthouse where she attempts suicide. Sidney successfully stops her from killing herself, but the scene looks dubious to J.J. as he arrives home to see Sidney with the sobbing Susan sprawled on her bed in a revealing nightgown. J.J. Hunsecker believes Sidney has taken advantage of Susan and when Sidney begs her to tell J.J. what happened, she chooses spiteful silence instead. J.J. begins beating Falco who then blurts out to Susan it was her brother who ordered him to plant the pot on Dallas. Sidney flees the penthouse and Hunsecker calls Detective Harry Kello informing him it was Falco who planted the pot on Dallas and tells him to arrest Sidney. Susan has dressed and packed a bag while J.J. is making the call and decides to leave her brother for Steve Dallas. She tells her brother she pities him and walks out into the street where Sidney has just been roughed up by Kello and arrested.

The film is brutal in it’s depiction of main characters of Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker. Sidney is a creature that has an insatiable appetite for the type of fame and power that J.J. Hunsecker wields. Falco is like an animal (even his name sounds awful close to a particular bird of prey) whose eyes are always scanning its surroundings looking for opportunity and danger. “The best of everything is good enough for me” is the inexorable motive for Sidney’s seemingly instinctual drive and using others to achieve such is done without a trace of remorse or thought to others. His pandering of buxom cigarette girl/former prostitute Rita (Barbara Nichols), who owes him a favor, to the womanizing columnist that will smear the reputation of Dallas quid pro quo, is simply a means to advance his place in the food chain. He does so by reminding Rita of her 10 year old son in military school and this being an opportunity for her to indirectly help him. Rita reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, but not before telling Sidney, “You’re a snake Falco.” Sidney is a somewhat clever manipulator and his hunger for success stems from his younger years when he interpreted his confessed pool-hall lackey status as being a “mouse.” The film is rife with references to animals. From the “dog eat dog” entertainment business they live within, to Steve Dallas telling Sidney (who is sniffing around for information on the relationship status between Dallas and Susan Hunsecker) that if he wants to know he should just ask like a man and not, “scratch for it like a dog.” Even Susan tells Sidney that he resembles a, “trained poodle jumping through flaming hoops” for her older brother. Sidney is at one point assessed as having, “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.” Aside from the numerous inverted anthropomorphic allusions, the film visually captures Sidney as constantly on the prowl. The camera work (beautifully shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe) dexterously tracks him as he quickly moves from one nightclub hunting ground to the next. Never content to rest for a moment, Sidney seems to be constantly scanning his environment and figuring out where his next proverbial meal is coming from.

Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is a stoic and commanding presence. Loosely based on famed columnist and entertainment gossip pioneer Walter Winchell, Lancaster plays Hunsecker as an automaton with little indication of humane qualities. His only hint of humanity is his apparent affection for his sister Susan. Even so, this sentiment reads as more of a creepy obsession with her (Hunsecker keeps an unsuitable large framed picture of her on his desk). J.J. is devoted to protecting the insular world he has contained her within: not unlike a caged bird he wants at his side to look pretty, but never let fly. Hunsecker is the head lion of this show business Serengeti in which every creature respects his power as trumping all others. J.J. is incredibly shrewd in his assessment and dealings with others, yet he only surrounds himself with powerful people looking for scraps from the carcasses he devours. In a sense he has penned himself in with his seemingly omnipotent column as the people he has contact with only respect the power of the column and not necessarily the man behind it. J.J. seems okay with that however and he never lacks insight into the selfish and fame mongering motives of the players that clamor to be in his presence (or better yet his column.) Hunsecker reminds everyone he comes into contact with his position in the entertainment kingdom. From a fussing waiter whom he tells to, “Stop tinkering pal, that horseradish won’t jump a fence,” to a sycophantic U.S. Senator that may become President one day, “My big toe would make a better President” he tells Sidney, J.J. relishes his power and the environment in which he operates. The jungle of New York City is a harsh one and J.J. Hunsecker affectionately notes, while watching a drunk being kicked out of nightclub on to the street, “I love this dirty town.”

The characters considered weak in the context of this predatory terrain would be Dallas and Susan. Steve Dallas is possibly (and humorously) one of the least hip jazz musicians ever captured on film. While he has talent in spades, he can’t bring himself to respect the hierarchy of the pack and thereby facilitating his own exile via the influence of J.J. Hunsecker. Dallas has principles, but it smells of frailty and naiveté in the business for which he is trying mark a territory of his own. Susan Hunsecker is passive and weak, but like her brother she has a keen enough eye for assessing the motives and capabilities of others; especially J.J. and Sidney. What Susan doesn’t realize is the capacity her brother has for malevolence when his integrity is called into question by Dallas.

When J.J. could have let the confrontation with Dallas end at forbidding Susan to see him, she would have obeyed. Afterwards J.J. takes it a step farther and orders Sidney to frame Dallas with the help of crooked cop Harry Kello. This scene is a revealing apex in the film as both main characters show their first signs of vulnerability. J.J. lets the insult of his integrity being questioned by Dallas stick in his craw. His pride and ego are agitated due to this lowly Jazz musician inadvertently disrupting his power over Susan. More so, the perceived endangerment of what Steve’s defiance represents is dangerous opposition to all the others who bow before Hunsecker. The thought of anyone disrupting J.J.’s structure of power and respect is too much for him to bear. Sidney understands that going after Dallas further will drive Susan and him back together. He begs J.J. not to pursue crushing Dallas for this reason and caters to Hunsecker’s ego, “Why go after a mosquito with an elephant gun?” he asks J.J., but Hunsecker’s mind is made up and he orders Sidney to put the fix in for Dallas. The weakness Sidney shows is two fold at this crux in the story. Sidney refuses to go along with J.J.’s command of framing Dallas saying it’s going too far. While it may be the only glimmer of humanity we’ve seen from Falco up to this point in the film, it’s incongruous to the savage laws of Hunsecker’s jungle. More likely though, Sidney’s reluctance of doing this dark deed for Hunsecker is derived from fear that his own hide may be skinned if the truth ever got out, or as he tells Hunsecker, “It’s one thing to wear your dog collar J.J., when it turns into a noose I’d rather have my freedom.” Sidney swears up and down to J.J. that nothing would make him do this for him, “I swear on my mother’s life, not even if you gave me a column would I do it for you.” Hunsecker slowly cranes his head at Sidney and gives him a Cheshire grin at this revealing statement: Falco would in fact do anything for a column of his own like Hunsecker. Sensing this exposed soft spot in Sidney, Hunsecker tells him that he will be talking a three month steamship cruise with the distressed Susan and would need someone to write his column while he’s away. Such an enticing offer bears too much for Sidney to refuse and he gets back in line with the rest of the Hunsecker pack and frames Dallas. The alpha male Hunsecker has reestablished his position with Sidney and the pack, but it’s achieved at the price of exiling his sister and his one possible nook of humaneness.

Sweet Smell of Success is a beautifully photographed film integrating infamous landmarks like The 21 Club to many exterior scenes shot in the concrete jungle of New York City. From Flat Iron to 54th Street, Mackendrick and Howe shoot the characters surroundings by adroitly incorporating the energy and danger of the streets in which they dwell. Adding to the film’s pedigree is the fantastic score by Elmer Bernstein.Its jazz routed feel and occasional discordant mix of sounds is done without a heavy hand. Bernstein’s musical and aural choices provide the film with added energy, tension and distinct sense of its time and place. Another nice aspect for jazz aficionados is screen time with the wonderful Chico Hamilton and his quintet. The casting and performances are solid all around with the most notable belonging to Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Their malign symbiotic relationship is a dark and gripping pleasure to watch during every frame they share.

The screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman is wonderfully layered and complex. Ahead of it’s time, Sweet Smell of Success shows a revealing side to the manipulation of the public through the media and the unscrupulous people who control it by force feeding the flavor of the month to the public’s insatiable maws. It’s remarkable that this film and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd came out the same year with their many shared themes. The standout aspect of the script is the crackerjack dialogue that has more electricity coursing through it than all the lights in Times Square and as many teeth as the mouth of a great white shark. At its heart, the script is a dark study of the requisite ruthlessness needed for success in a savage business where the weak are simply sustenance for the strongest predators.

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

R.I.P. Ann Savage (1921-2008)

"I'd hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin' that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!" one of many great pulp lines snapped by Ann Savage in Detour.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Murder by Contract (1958)

I recently cracked open a copy of The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love.The book, which is excellent, has several brief but informative movie reviews. It with a series of articles about film noir and neo-noir including the classics Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, and Pickup on South Street. One film that stuck out amongst them is the ultra-cheap Murder by Contract. The 1958 B-film rarely gets mentioned alongside other films from that time period (noir from the same time --Touch of Evil and 1959's Odds Against Tomorrow-- are much more highly regarded today). Former Boston Globe film reviewer Jay Carr writes that film inspired Martin Scorsese. You can certainly see a bit of this film in Taxi Driver - the workout scene and the killer's methodical planning seem to be lifted from Murder. After doing some research for this article I see that the director was indeed influenced by this forgotten little film, a movie he calls a “guilty pleasure.”

Scorsese saw Murder by Contract when he was a teenager and it stuck with him. In 1993 the director commented to the New York Times, "It's an example of an American B movie that is 100 times better than the film it played with on a double bill," the director recalled... "The film it was playing with when I saw it was The Journey, by Anatole Litvak, with Yul Brynner. That film had nice color, but when Murder by Contract came on the screen, it was surprising and lean and purposeful, and not like anything my friends and I had seen. Afterward we talked about it on the street for days. When I saw it again years later, I was overwhelmed by the severity of the style, which was dictated by the budget. I even tried to put a clip of it in Mean Streets but had to take it out because it was too long."

Murder by Contract is a story about a grim professional assassin. Film noir has seen it's share of cool, calculating killers that keep their sangfroid during hits. However, Vince Edwards (The Killing) resembles future neo-noir killers Lee Marvin in The Killers (1964) or Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (1967) much more than the typical film noir hitmen like Alan Ladd's in This Gun for Hire (1942). However, it could be argued that all genre film hitmen are based on Ladd's Raven.

Film noir was at the end of it's classic era during 1958. Many noir released from then on seemed to be more like art films disguised as crime movies. Compare Murder by Contract with the previously mentioned Touch of Evil from the same year. Both films are brilliant, they look like they're years apart - worlds apart even. While Touch of Evil -with it's big budget and star-filled cast- was essentially a traditional crime movie, Murder by Contract seemed to be a first step towards lean neo-noir and crime films of the 60s.

The film features a small cast and a simple plot. Claude is a clean-cut, educated young man with one goal in life: he wants to buy a house he picked out along the Ohio River. He finds that the quickest way to get the money for the house is to become a hitman at 500-dollars a kill. The film begins with Claude interviewing for a job as a killer (parodying a corporate job interview). After a quick discussion, the interviewer tells him to go home and he'll call him. He may call in an hour, a day or maybe weeks. Claude goes back to his rented room and waits for the call back. He doesn't leave the room for days. He orders takeout, does pullups and reads waiting for the call that eventually comes. Claude is hired. He begins his career as a killer by taking out various local men for the mob. Never using a gun, Claude takes out each hit assigned to him with legal weapons - ropes, knives, and even killing a man with a straight razor while posing as a barber. Claude's reputation as an efficient killer grows. He is even tasked to kill the man that hired him in the first place which appears to elevate his status in the mob.


The tone of the movie changes when Claude is sent “3000 miles” to Los Angeles for a hit. He's hired to kill a night club performer that's set to testify against the mob's Mr. Big. The East-coaster is out of his element in the strangely empty streets of the City of Angels. Before he can complete his “contract” he wants to make sure that the job isn't a set up. He meets his handlers at the airport. For days, Claude hits golf balls, drives around in a convertible, swims in the ocean and goes to movies until he's sure that the two hoods working with him (played by Herschel Bernardi and Phillip Pine) aren't being followed by the law. George and Marc at first have a hard time getting used to his methodical way of working. Eventually, Claude decides to do the hit. To his surprise the target is a woman. Claude panics and asks for more money. The men think that he has a problem killing a woman but actually Claude doesn't like the fairer sex as targets because they're unpredictable.
“It’s not a matter of sex, it’s a matter of money. If I’d-a known it was a woman, I’d've asked double. I don’t like women. They don’t stand still. When they move, it’s hard to figure out why or wherefore. They’re not dependable. It’s tough to kill somebody who’s not dependable.”
He's proven right when his first clever attempt to kill his target fails when she uses a remote control on her ready-to-explode TV instead of touching it. Feeling jinxed, Claude comes up with another scheme. This time he uses a sniper rifle (Claude has stated several times he doesn't use guns) to hit his target after George (Bernardi) shoots off some flaming arrows as a distraction.

With the killing done -and confirmed by the local papers- Claude celebrates by hiring a local LA call girl to have dinner with him. His distaste for women is shown even more transparent now. Claude is taken by surprise by the moonlighting hooker when she tells him that the woman he was supposed to kill is alive. Not knowing that Claude is the killer, the girl tells him about how the police are keeping the woman's survival under raps at the DA's office until she can testify. Claude, no longer in a mood to celebrate, hustles the confused girl out of his room.

Claude now is convinced that the job is jinxed. He kills his handlers and then goes back to the woman hidden in the Hollywood Hills in an attempt to finish the job.

The film climaxes when Claude has a surprising crisis of conscience -- he can't finish off the killing when he finally has the chance. The police track him down easily and he's killed. The ending is very much open to interpretation. Spoilers: Why couldn't he do the killing? Was it because of the music she's playing? Is it because he's finally gotten a conscience? This is another example of Murder By Contract straying from traditional crime film formulas of the 50s. You'll find most thrillers end with all the loose ends tied up and the hero going off to marry his girl. This ending is more like a modern Von Trier or Lynch film where it's best not to puzzle over the details but marvel the film's impact. Murder by Contract really is an art film disguised as a genre movie.

Directed by Irving Lerner and lensed by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, Murder By Contract doesn't appear to even look like a film noir. Most of the Los Angeles scenes are shot during the bright daylight. Only the finale when Claude crawls through drain pipes to get to the Hollywood Hills house does the film show any shadowy night shots. Los Angeles looks almost completely empty- no one on the streets or at the beach -- giving the film a somewhat eerie feeling. Lerner's use of barren areas (including an empty movie set) makes the viewer feel like they're visiting an alien land with Claude. The simple repetitive soundtrack (by Perry Botkin) features a single guitar plucking that is reminiscent of The Third Man's zither adds to that mood. Scorsese apparently had Howard Shore mimic the guitar soundtrack for his thriller The Departed.

Besides the unconventional use of location shooting in Los Angeles, strong performances by the small cast make up for the lack of production values. Edwards is very good as Claude - a killer that gets more upset after finding lipstick on his coffee cup than with the killing he's doing. Edwards became a household name for a time playing Ben Casey on TV but he was also in several decent film noir including Rogue Cop, The Killing, and City of Fear (a bizarre film too. It's considered a follow up - but not a sequel - to Murder). TV actors usually suffer being remembered only for their TV personalities - causing their earlier film roles to lose some of their bite (Lucy in The Dark Corner, for example). Edwards fame has pretty much faded which is only a plus when looking at a movie like Murder By Contract.

Bernardi is probably best known as Lt. Jacoby on TV's Peter Gunn. He's convincing as George - a guy who's both fascinated and terrified of Claude at the same time. Katie Brown is effective as the confused party girl who doesn't know what to make of Claude.

If not for Scorsese's interest in the quickly-made film (it was shot in just seven days in the late 1950s) and an occasional airing of the movie on TCM this inventive and offbeat film would be forgotten today. And that would be a crime.

Written by Steve-O

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Paris Express (aka The Man Who Watched Trains Go By 1952)

Criminality and the Liberation of Desires

“The interesting thing about criminals, Mr. Popinga, is that they’re just like anybody else.”

Over the course of his long writing career, Belgium author Georges Simenon made a considerable contribution to noir. While this prolific writer who wrote nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas is best remembered for his Maigret books, Simenon also wrote novels called romans durs. A literal translation of this term is hard novels, and these are perfect material for film noir. A tremendous number of Simenon novels have been made into films. Just go over to the Internet Movie Database and type in Simenon. You’ll be impressed, and if you hadn’t heard of Simenon before, you’ll wonder why.

The film The Paris Express (AKA The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By), from director Harold French is based on one of Simenon’s greatest romans durs. It’s an incredible novel and contains one of Simenon’s favorite themes--a bourgeois mild-mannered protagonist who through some fluke, some twist of fate, derails from his respectable life. Once cast adrift from respectability and the treadmill of duty, responsibility and employment, Simenon’s characters typically escape into an entirely new life, usually in the grimy underbelly of the crime world. For these characters, criminality becomes a liberating event as they shed old habits and routines.

The Paris Express opens with a significant scene. It’s the beginning of a workday in the Dutch town of Groningen, and a group of bicyclists wait at a train crossing. The train passes by, and the bicyclists peddle off, but one man is left gazing after the train in awe. The man is Kees Popinga (Claude Rains), a man whose very name inspires mediocrity and meekness. The middle-aged Popinga is head clerk at the highly respectable de Koster Company, and he’s spent his entire working life slaving over the accounting books for the firm. He’s a creature of habit, a man devoted to routines, and you can set your watch by Popinga’s daily schedule. A railway employee teasingly asks Popinga about his interest in trains, and Popinga eagerly admits that it’s not the trains that interest him as much as their destinations, and then Popinga voices a list of those destinations: Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris, but when he speaks the word ‘Paris,’ there’s a special tone in his voice--a tone of reverence and wistfulness.

The Man Who Watched the Trains
View Photo Slideshow

Popinga’s employer, the dapper Julius de Koster Jr. (Herbert Lom) treats Popinga rather like an office boy, and Popinga responds in turn by being obsequious, parroting back responses to his boss, and shelving emotion in favor of functionality and efficiency. De Koster isn’t strictly speaking the head of the company; his senile father remains the firm’s figurehead, but he’s too addle-patted to even remove his hat by himself.

The first scenes of the film demonstrate Popinga’s position in the company and his relationship with his employer. A former head clerk from another, now bankrupt company, humbly begs for work from Popinga, and when Popinga dares support the man’s suit, de Koster diminishes both men with one swift display of his power. According to de Koster, the employment-seeker cannot possibly be hired as he carries the taint of bankruptcy. Even though the owner of the now defunct company embezzled the business’s funds, de Koster holds the former head clerk responsible for the actions of his employer. The judgmental, self-righteous de Koster maintains that his company has a reputation to uphold “integrity” and “morality.” De Koster’s stuffy speech may fool Popinga--a man who’s been trained to tow the line and follow the rules, but the pompous de Koster certainly doesn’t fool the viewer.

The humiliating scene involving the man who sought help and employment from Popinga is hardly over when a second unsettling and unusual incident takes place. Inspector Lucas (Marius Goring) arrives from Paris and announces that he is investigating a money-laundering operation and intends to inspect the company books. The sly de Koster plays a nimble game of evasion by drawing Popinga into the investigation, pointing the Inspector towards Popinga’s meticulous accounting books. Popinga, guileless and boringly respectable, asserts that he’s kept the books for 18 years and that nothing can possibly be amiss.

De Koster and Lucas play a game of cat-and-mouse with each other while Popinga is a largely oblivious observer. De Koster at one point craftily infers that Popinga may be responsible for embezzling from the company, and yet even as he proposes the idea, he acknowledges the absurdity of such a notion as Popinga as a desperate criminal, with the emasculating comment, “Mrs. Popinga would never allow it.”

While de Koster and Lucas agree to meet up at the town’s chess club later that evening, Popinga returns home and mulls over some of the inspector’s disturbing comments. This scene with his sturdy wife and children establishes him as the family pet. Popinga’s children view him with amusement, and his wife keeps a tight leash around his neck. Nevertheless despite these restrictions, Popinga breaks training, and much to the astonishment of his wife, he abandons his regular routine by insisting on going to the chess club. On the way, he spies de Koster clutched in a heated embrace with a beautiful young woman who then leaves on a train.

As de Koster plays a symbolic game of chess with Lucas, Popinga seems only confused by the subtleties of the conversation, and he’s still trying to absorb the fact that his respectable, upright employer is involved in a secret liaison with a beautiful stranger. Later that evening, fate intervenes in Popinga’s life, and he finds himself in Paris and on the run from the police….


Simenon’s point, in many of his romans durs, is that the most mild-mannered, respectable, mind-numbingly boring people can become criminals. Twenty years of upstanding bourgeois life can easily be flushed away in the blink of an eye by one small twist of fate. The implication is, therefore, that criminal and non-criminal behavior isn’t so much a choice as much as a matter of a lack of opportunity combined with years of conditioning. The film, with its screenplay written by the director, dilutes the book’s powerful, complex plot mainly through simplifying Popinga. The Paris Express chooses largely to ignore Simenon’s theme by reiterating Inspector Lucas’s belief that Popinga has committed only a crime of opportunity and that he basically ISN’T criminal material. However, Lucas also believes that if Popinga thinks the police are on his trail, he will be forced to take desperate measures that are essentially out-of-character.

The notion of criminality initiated by fate masquerading as opportunity is a theme played out with delectable frequency in noir film. A veritable rogues’ gallery
exists in this genre of those men and women who were trusted, respectable members of society until fate throws temptation into their laps and crime liberates their desires. Consider advice columnist turned housewife Kathy Ferguson Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck in Crime of Passion). In her case, she turns to crime to satiate ambition. And then there’s Walter Neff (Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity)--a man who turns to fraud and murder when lured by the right pair of legs. Walter Neff is exactly the kind of character Simenon dreamed up for his romans durs--a man whose respectable life spent on the treadmill is replaced by criminality so rapidly, he’s left spinning. Simenon’s protagonists typically discover that escape from a bourgeois life through criminality spurs the liberation of desires. Walter Neff certainly liberated his desires through crime, and he ultimately pays an enormous price for this liberation.

Simenon’s fictional Popinga turns to the criminal life with gusto. In The Paris Express, however, while Popinga’s boring, predictable life is derailed by fate, there’s only a partial liberation when he commits a crime of opportunity. Popinga is “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By,” and this has both literal and figurative meaning. All those years spent watching trains pass though his little town also represent years of his uneventful, submissive life slipping away, and fate offers him a chance to morph into a criminal, liberating him to pursue fantasies of glamorous, foreign cities. While he slips the domestic leash and runs off to Paris by train, he has no idea how to utilize his freedom, and instead he runs around Paris like a deranged hamster on the loose.

Clutching his briefcase close to his chest, he approaches the film’s two main female characters, prostitute Jeanne (Anouk Aimée) and de Koster’s lover Michele (Märta Torén) with timidity--allowing himself just the occasional groping touch. When Popinga meets Michele for the first time, she lounges in her boudoir, and at one point, she sits against the background of her silk covered bed while Popinga stands above her. The tantalizing invitation is clear, but Popinga waffles and blows his chance at a liaison with Michele. His longing and lust subvert only to frustration and violence.

The Paris Express is not a wonderful film. Mediocre at best, the film fails in the portrayal of Popinga. The film shows Popinga’s inner conflict as he vacillates between mild-mannered meekness, and crafty, violent self-preservation. Both Jeanne and Michele underestimate Popinga, and when they treat Popinga as an object of ridicule, he flips into a darker alter ego. In his relationships with these women, Popinga alternates between salivating adoration and sly calculation. The scenes illustrating Popinga’s dark side are largely unsuccessful and leave the impression that Popinga is an emotionally stunted pervert. While Popinga comes across as a hideously, creepy little man who’s overly attached to his briefcase, more than anything else, he seems wildly out of his depth in Paris, where he remains an ogling tourist, narcotized by loose women and the glamour of big city life. And like many a loose rodent, he’ll inevitably be squashed by forces much larger and much more dangerous than he ever imagined.

Written by Guy Savage

Monday, December 08, 2008

World for Ransom (1954)

Allied Artists 1954 offering World for Ransom tries hard being all things (noir, drama, adventure, war) and ends up being nothing more than a terrific waste of time. Perhaps a better name would have been “Viewers for Ransom,” for after 10 minutes I’d have paid some one a king’s ransom to turn off the TV so as to spend my time doing something more productive like arranging the can goods in the pantry.

While not lacking for talent, either on the screen or behind the camera, WOR stars Dandy Dan Duryea (Mike Callahan), Patrick Knowles (Julian March), and Gene Lockhart (Alexis Pederas). The first two pretty much reprise characters they’ve played in the past while Lockhart takes on the role of the evil mastermind in a plot to kidnap and ransom off a renowned nuclear physicist to the highest bidder. It makes no difference to him if the winning bid be from a democratic or communist country, thus, he holds The World for Ransom.

The femme fatale of Frennessey March is played adequately, if not spectacularly, by Marian Carr. The high point for her in my eyes was her actually bitch slapping Dandy Dan as opposed to his usual shtick which consists of him belting some dame around. During most of the story Dan appears to be coming off a bender and he must think those playing along side him are hard of hearing as he insists on using the Al Pacino School of Acting and shouts his lines.

Support is a riot of always welcomed treats; Reginald Denny, Nigel Bruce, Arthur Shields, Douglas Dumbrille (wearing shorts no less), Keye Luke,
Strother Martin, and the talent that is Lou Nova! Somehow this bunch of talented players, can’t believed I included Sweet Lou in that line, gets zero help from the convoluted story that starts with Julian’s wife, who happens to be Mike’s former lover, engaging Mike to shadow Julian.


Directorial screen credit is missing and probably for good reason. Robert Aldrich is shown as producer and is listed the uncredited director at IMBD. Who knew he’d go on to make one of noir’s most controversial films, Kiss Me Deadly, along with more conventional offerings in the genre; The Big Knife, Attack and The Garment Jungle.

The story introduces us to Mike Callahan who shows no visible means of income but is well known to the local authorities as a “soldier of fortune and beachcomber,” in other words, a bum. He marks his time by hanging around the shadowy bars and back alleys of Singapore and based on a comment for Julian spends a good amount of time playing fantan. Just so happens, Julian and Frennessey also live in Singapore and like Mike, Julian is somewhat of a ne’er-do-well and dependant upon the money earned by his misses as songbird in a local dive.

Knowing his love for the ladies, his constant lack of funding and his background as an officer in the Queen’s Army, Pederas see Julian as an easy pawn in his plan to kidnap the eminent H-Bomb scientist Sean O'Connor (Arthur Shields) upon his arrival at the Singapore airport. It bears noting when Julian meets with Pederas there’s a chess set prominently set up in front of him which serves as a not too subtle note of who’s moving the pieces around in this little game.

Once Mike gets wind of what’s at stake, and at the urging of Frennessey, he agrees to track down the kidnappers into the deepest part of the jungle and not only rescue Dr. O’Connor but Julian too. This in spite of the fact Julian had swept Frennessey off her feet while Mike was off winning WWII. It later comes out that Frennessey isn’t all apple pie and the sweet thing that Mike left behind. She confesses to Mike that once he left to fight the good fight she had no recourse but to take on the world’s oldest profession to make her way in life. Guess all the secretary and waitress jobs were taken. Even so, once she met Julian he loved her for who, in spite of what, she was. Of course Julian loves all the ladies and just loves Frennessey a little more because she provides him financing.

The move outside and away from the cheap cardboard sets must have been the magic elixir Dan needed. Once the story moves out of doors he seems to get some life breathed into him. This is really good, for no way could the tipsy, freeloading Mike be up to the tasks required; beating up guards, climbing up the side of buildings, dismantling a machine gun, dragging a dying comrade to safety and of course taking on single handedly four machine gun toting bad guys and rescuing a nuclear physicist!

Thankfully once this has all been taken care of we only have to sit through the obligatory final scene when Frennessey comes clean and lets Mike know what a sap he’s been pining for her all these years as she’ll never leave her beloved Julian. But now the last laugh’s on her since Julian just happened to be one of the aforementioned four bad guys Mike takes out. Upon hearing this she proceeds to wail the tar out of Mike, something the viewers wish they too could take part in for the suffering endured during the prior 81 minutes.

Written by Raven

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Editor's note: The Lost Weekend. A film noir. Before you go shooting me off an angry email about what “film noir is” a bit of history. In summer 1946, with the war ended and American films once again appearing on Paris movie screens, several French critics became immediately attracted to certain dark movies with arresting visuals and a focus on psychology. French writers figured out what to call them. Nino Frank, writing for a French film journal, dubbed the movies film noir. The term was deliberately analogous to roman noir used to describe American “hard boiled” fiction. (Série noire was the title of a popular series of “hard-boiled” books first put out in '45. The most popular were translations of English and American crime novels including James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and W. R. Burnett's Little Caesar) The five films mentioned in Frank's August 1946 article about “film noir” were The Maltese Falcon; Double Indemnity; Laura; Murder, My Sweet; and The Lost Weekend. Citizen Kane was also listed but was rightly put in a category by itself. American film noir was an immediate hit amongst film critics and movie goers in France. It would be years before the term was used in America.

The Lost Weekend today isn't categorized as a noir by most but I think it probably should be. The film fits nicely between Wilder's Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. Film historian Bill Hare writes this week's Film Noir of the Week.

By William Hare

Milland Chilling, Wilder Devastating

After a director turns in a film noir effort for the ages with the 1944 blockbuster Double Indemnity can one expect another chiller the following year?

If Billy Wilder is the extraordinary director then the answer is yes. As a matter of fact, in Hollywood recognition terms, The Lost Weekend netted the Austrian émigré director those elusive Academy Awards that Double Indemnity deserved but were not received.

The Lost Weekend swept the major category Oscars. Wilder himself secured two, one for “Best Director” and “Best Screenplay” honors along with his regular writing partner of that period, Charles Brackett.

The film also secured “Best Picture” honors while the film’s star, Ray Milland, took “Best Actor” honors for a chilling portrayal of an alcoholic whose ruthless preoccupation for consumption threatens not only to overwhelm him, but the two people who care for him most, loyal girlfriend Jane Wyman and Milland’s brother, played by Phillip Terry, who was at the time the real life husband of Joan Crawford.

Chillingly Believable Portrayal

Milland’s portrayal is chillingly believable in that he covers two spectrums closely identified with alcoholics, cunning imagination along with deeply rooted desperation to do anything it takes to sustain a habit that uncorrected leads to human destruction.

Viewers see Milland’s cunning imagination in the film’s opening scene. The camera’s eye of cinematographer John F. Seitz informs viewers, however, of Milland’s imagination at work. We see out of the open window of Milland’s Upper East Side apartment a rope that he has installed. Attached to it is, what else, a bottle of whiskey.

Accustomed to playing attentive detective to his brother, Terry snuffs out the plot and pours the contents of the liquor into the kitchen sink. His act is not enough to sink Milland’s resourcefulness.

Imagination gives way to ultimate desperation as Milland figures out a way to prevent the intended healthy weekend in the country with his brother replete with drinking well fresh water and buttermilk as substitutes for his raging quest for rye whiskey.

When he learns that girlfriend Wyman has tickets for a Carnegie Hall concert he uses his wiles to get her along with Terry out of his apartment, suggesting that they attend the concert together. He might be without funds to buy whiskey, but this is only a temporary situation.

Fate intervenes on Milland’s side when his cleaning lady arrives. She asks for the money that Terry has promised. It is there, but Milland lies to her that his brother apparently forgot to put it there, and that the situation will be remedied and she will be paid on Monday.


Off on a Lost Weekend

Milland departs from his apartment in a flash, albeit a thirsty one. The resulting “lost weekend” provides the title of the film, which was adapted from a bestselling novel written by Charles Jackson.

Why was such a sophisticated and elegant young woman as Jane Wyman attracted to Cornell University dropout and failed fiction writer Milland, whose instability and craving for alcohol make him a horrible long term prospect? For one thing her female nurturing instinct makes her believe that Milland is not a lost cause, and that ultimately she can help save him from his destructive side.

The second reason for Wyman’s love for Milland is that he is such a dapper, witty man. It is observable that after a few drinks he can be charmingly engaging as he discusses Shakespeare and philosophizes.

Prominent character actor Howard Da Silva provides a solid effort in his role as the bartender at the local watering hole that Milland frequents. Da Silva is open in his apprehension of a man who, while a regular customer, is so evocative of what can happen to a patron with too great a fondness for the establishment’s product.

“One’s too many and a thousand’s not enough,” Da Silva reveals with succinct sadness, summarizing Milland’s condition along with his refusal to drink with him.

Doris Dowling is memorable in a feature role as a dazzling but down on her luck prostitute who uses Da Silva’s bar as a meeting venue for salesman types “visiting from Albany.” She hopes to change her luck and Milland’s through romance, an effort destined to fail given his love for Jane Wyman.

At one point during Milland’s lost weekend, as he grows increasingly desperate for a drink and finds a succession of Upper East Side bars and liquor stores closed, he stops a man and asks him what has happened. The man explains that it is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. When Milland asks about Irish establishments he is told that a reciprocal agreement exists whereby Jewish businesses honor St. Patrick’s Day by closing down while the opposite holds true for Yom Kippur.

Haunting Preview of Milland’s Future?

Any such journey into the belly of hell as Milland has undertaken is destined to end in some form of calamity. His desperation almost lands him in jail at a nightclub, where he steals a woman’s purse and removes ten dollars. The decision is to physically remove him from the establishment rather than summon police.

From that point Milland plunges into even darker depths. He wakes up on a bed in an unfamiliar room inhabited by men who share his torment. The scene is the alcohol ward of Bellevue Hospital.

An expression of tormented fear grips Milland as he observes a trembling African American man in the bed next to his. Soon another man cries out and convulses under the influence of delirium tremens.

Character actor Frank Faylen, whose career accelerated after a brief but unforgettable interlude in the film, surfaces in Milland’s world as the ward’s nurse. Faylen makes a deep impression with his well-reasoned cynicism and foreboding prediction, rendered with confidence, that Milland is someone he will see again. The nurse points out to Milland other establishment regulars, increasing his fearful desperation.

Some of Milland’s most penetrating acting comes not from the way he delivers his words, as brilliantly rendered as they are, but from his expressions. He runs the gamut from a briefly on the top of the world delusional happiness achieved while in the high state preceding drunkenness to fearful desperation, particularly evidenced when cynical nurse Frank Faylen coolly explains the future that awaits him.

Compelling Musical Score

If viewers of The Lost Weekend detect similarity between the chilling orchestral sounds of Milland at his most desperate and those achieved during Gregory Peck’s amnesiac fearful uncertainty in another classic film released in 1945, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, it is understandable.

Hungarian born Miklós Rózsa wrote both scores. Rózsa was nominated for an Oscar for his The Lost Weekend score but did not win, achieving the statuette instead for Spellbound. It was a great year for Rózsa since he achieved a threesome with yet another nomination for Song to Remember.

Throughout this pulsating noir classic a relentless tug of war plays out with skillful dramatic clarity, that of Milland’s compelling urgency toward alcoholism contrasted with an equally determined conviction on the part of Jane Wyman to save him from self-destruction.

Just as he did one year earlier with Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder has led us on another spellbinding journey in The Lost Weekend where the forces of all-consuming destruction seek satisfying triumph.

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