Saturday, May 30, 2009

Body and Soul (1947)

“After all the assorted prizefight pictures that have been paraded across the screen—after all the pugs and muggs and chorus girls and double-crosses and last-round comebacks that we've seen—it hardly seemed likely that another could possibly come along with enough zing and character to it to captivate and excite us for two hours. Yet Body and Soul has up and done it...”

That's how Bosley Crowther begins his 1947 review of the first great boxing movie. There are plenty of boxing movies with similar structures before Body and Soul - including the now hopelessly dated Golden Boy and the wonderful but schmaltzy City for Conquest - but none have the taught and desperate feel of Robert Rossen's film.

Body and Soul was an independent film made by John Garfield's production group after he left Warner Bros. Garfield was the face of yet-to-be-defined film noir. The physiognomy of Garfield was a perfect fit for noir and he made the most of it in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice and He Ran All the Way. He played boxers before Body and Soul but this film was to remove any sentimental romances and light comedy that was prominent in previous movies.

The modest-budgeted film could not match similar slick big studio releases. Garfield had to make the movie on the cheap. He personally hired cinematographer James Wong Howe to lens the film. Howe uses slightly uncomfortable-looking tight shots in cramped spaces to tell the story instead of grand shots of screaming crowds usually seen in boxing epics.


“Since Garfield was working for his own company, he set his salary at a minimum. Garfield was the one who wanted me for Body and Soul. We made quite a number of pictures together, and in the course of them I came to understand how Johnny worked and how to photograph him. He liked the way I worked because I gave him a lot of freedom. I didn't put a lot of chalk marks on the floor for him to hit; I gave him a larger area to work in without being out of focus or how of his light. Worrying about things like that upset him, and he was afraid it would affect his performance.” James Wong Howe interview from Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period

Howe understood that being a bit out of focus even adds a bit of drama. It certainly worked during the fight scenes in Body and Soul. Howe famously shot some of the fight footage using a hand-held camera while on roller skates. Director Rossen and editors Francis D. Lyon and Robert Parrish smartly used the shots sparingly in the finished film. However, they're the most memorable shots in the fight scenes. Seeing Garfield sweaty and bloody from Howe's handheld camera view give the scenes a kind of news reel/documentary feel.

The film begins with boxing champ Charlie Davis (Garfield) waking up from a nightmare. The scar-faced Davis rushes to to see his mother and ex-girlfriend. His mother is shocked to see him and eventually kicks the man out of her house. Davis gets tanked and by 3 in them morning ends up in the arms of the trampy nightclub singer Alice (the leggy Hazel Brooks). The next day, hungover Davis prepares for the evening's main event. His gangster manager Roberts (blandly played by Lloyd Gough) reminds Davis he's being paid 60K to throw the fight. As Davis tapes up, he flashes back to the beginning of his boxing career and the events leading up to the match - and his broken relationships with his family and friends.

Things were tough in the old neighborhood. Davis sees his poor broken father killed after a mobster bombing of a neighboring speak easy collapses the family candy store. Davis has just decided to take up boxing against the wishes of his mother (Anne Revere - who made a career out of playing mothers in 40s films). His best friend Shorty becomes Davis' manager and he quickly convinces a boxing trainer to take a chance on the young Jewish street kid. After a series of successful bouts Quinn (William Conrad) gets Davis a shot at the title. For a price. He sells his boxer to a mobster that owns the current champ.

This is when it becomes every man and woman for themselves. Shorty protests Davis' new found connections with the mob. Davis - following the advice of his manager - cancels his wedding plans the same night he gets engaged. His girlfriend (Lili Palmer playing a sophisticated Greenwich Village artist) quits him and his mother disowns him and is left penniless. Meanwhile, Quinn is trying to make it with sexy tight-sweater-wearing Alice who in turn is trying to strike it rich with Davis.

None of this drama fazes the young pugilist. He has a shot at the champ and he's convinced himself that once he's champ he can take control of his career and straighten everything out. Davis is paid cash advances and given a swanky apartment with a rotating bar that conveniently hides a painting of his former fiancée when necessary. He pummels the champ who's left with permanent brain damage. Shorty is disgusted by it all. He's fired, beaten up and eventually killed. Davis convinces himself that Shorty's death is an accident - not the direct result of his own mob ties. He does, however, feel guilty about hurting Ben (played by former real-life welterweight Canada Lee) so he hires him to be in his corner.

After many fights Davis is put in the same spot Ben was years ago. He must defend his title against an up-and-coming fighter. Davis is told to take a dive; and to take his payoff money and bet against himself.

This is Rossen's second directing effort after the equally gritty (but somewhat muddled) Johnny O'Clock. Body and Soul was written by Abraham Polonsky who would go on to write and directed Garfield's Force of Evil. The film apparently set off alarm bells in some Washington circles due to it's supposed leftist “anti-capitalism” theme. In fact, the movie is a who's-who of future blacklisted talent. Polonsky, Garfield, Gough, Revere and even former boxer Canada Lee were eventually blacklisted. Director Rossen refused to testify at the HUAC hearings initially, but then named names and admitted to being a member of the Communist Party in the early 50s. Years later - with the ugliness of HUAC behind everyone - Rossen would top the tough mean-streets sports story when he helmed The Hustler.

Sports fans will probably see a lot of parallels to today's boxing world. Where would Mike Tyson be today if he had a circle of friends that looked out for him instead of a bunch of eerily similar hangers-on bleeding him of his fortune? Boxing has always been - and always will be - run by underworld types taking advantage of boxers in an attempt to cash in. That makes it the perfect sport for film noir.

Champion released a few years later in 1949 is even more vicious. The Set-Up (also from '49) is, I guess, considered a better movie than Body and Soul. I find it a bit heavy handed and even slightly phoney compared to Garfield's New York-based story. However, The Set-Up has a lot going for it. It just doesn't compare well with the tough Body and Soul.

Some of the then original but now overworked story lines probably makes the film seem tired when viewed by some checking it out for the first time today. I wonder if people recognize the film as being the boxing movie almost all that followed emulate? I'm convinced the Rocky franchise wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Body and Soul. Nearly all of Body and Soul's plot lines are used in the series.

(spoilers follow)

Champ Charlie Davis ultimately doesn't throw the fight - but it's not because he's rejecting money. He does it because he realizes -while sitting in his corner between rounds - that he's been a chump for the mob all along. Davis keeps telling himself once he's champ he'd be in control -- but even at the top other fighters are paid off to either throw fights or to make the fights look closer than they are. Even his loyal trainer is part of the schemes. When Davis realizes it mid-fight he snaps. “I'm going to kill him!” he spits out in his corner. Way behind in points in the last round, Davis - looking like a mad dog- chases his now-scared opponent who quickly becomes aware that Davis wants to take his head off.

“I've never seen anything like it before in my life. A great silence has descended over this crowd. They seem to sense the kill. There's fear in Marlowe's eyes as Davis looks for an opening.” the boxing radio announcer whispers during the finale.

The results are not unexpected but highly satisfying. When Davis leaves the ring he's threatened again by his mob handler.

“Get yourself a new boy. I retire.”
“What makes you think you can get away with this?”
“What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.”

Written by Steve-O

Friday, May 22, 2009

Naked Alibi (1954)

To the End of the Line

“They’ll get you copper. One of those trigger-happy bulls you used to boss around is going to blow your head off.”

I was watching a Guy Ritchie film when 15 minutes into the plot, I realized that I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going on. All those zoom in and zoom out shots, quick cuts and other gimmicky Ritchie maneuvers just confused me. I gave up, and it was with a sense of relief I turned to the 1954 noir, Naked Alibi from director Jerry Hopper.

Naked Alibi is not a first-tier noir. It’s a B movie. No argument from this fan, but at the same time, simply because it’s a B film, low budget, stripped down to its bare bones, and relying on camera, plot and the main characters, well some film makers could learn a few things from this B film. Subtract big budget, special effects and gimmicks, and let’s see what’s left, and in Naked Alibi, shot in just one month, we have a clean, simple, surprisingly good noir.

From the beginning of the credits, we know this is 50s noir as a police cruiser glides in front of a police station. It’s night and the music suits the mood, but then segues into shades of a tawdry stripper-Peyton-Place drift. This is the 50s giveaway. The action then moves to a police interrogation room. The cops have arrested a man for being drunk and disorderly. He has no ID. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a big deal on another day in another town, but in this town things are tense. There’s been a string of armed robberies and the pressure’s on to solve the crimes. But with no clues and no leads, the cops are getting jumpy, and tonight, they’ve jumped on a drunk.

The drunk in custody claims to be a baker. Funny, he doesn’t look like a baker. He looks like a tough guy. The drunk is belligerent but sticks to his story; he claims to be Al Willis--married man, father, and the owner of a bakery. This all sounds very respectable, but nervous and sweaty Al (Gene Barry) not only doesn’t look like a baker he doesn’t act like one either. When Chief Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) arrives, the questioning has become rough. Out of the blue, Al jumps the cops, whacking one over the head and tussling with all three. But it’s Al’s reaction that bears scrutiny. Like a caged tiger teased with a stick he snarls “stinking cops. Nobody socks me around like that.” He swears he’ll get even, and he looks as though he means it.

Al’s identity is proven correct, and he’s released. That night Lt Parks (Max Showalter), one of the three cops involved in the Al Willis brawl is gunned down, and Conroy remembers Al’s promise to get even. He arrests Al, but without a murder weapon, and with an alibi, nothing will stick. Then, the other two cops who brawled with Al Willis are blown up, and again Conroy is convinced that Al is to blame. Al is arrested but once more nothing sticks thanks to his cast-iron alibi. Conroy’s insistence that the local baker is a cop killer doesn’t sit well with either the Police Commissioner or Al’s councilman, and before long it looks as though Conroy is out to harass a “respectable citizen.” To be a cop killer, you have to be a cop hater, and while Al spews hate at some moments, he also knows how to play the meek victim. Although he’s warned off by his superiors, Conroy continues his relentless pursuit, and some compromising, misleading photos lead to Conroy being out of a job.

Just as Al swore to get even with the cops, Conroy swears to get even with Al, and Conroy seems to understand his quarry well. Reasoning that Al has an explosive temper (and he’s seen proof of it), Conroy decides to provoke Al into a confrontation. With the veneer of mental stability rapidly unraveling, Al wisely decides to take a trip. He tells his devoted, long-suffering little wife that he’s going away. He takes a bus south--across the border into Mexico and sallies into Border Town. Conroy decides to follow Al right into Border Town--a thinly disguised Tijuana. It’s a wild place as Conroy finds out about 5 minutes after hitting town. Approached by a kid who’s selling dirty postcards, Conroy then runs right into some local hoods.

It’s here in Border Town that things get hot, and most of the heat comes from gorgeous Gloria Grahame as Marianna. Employed to sing and dance in a tawdry little dive called El Perico, Marianna seems wildly out of place. But her mesmerized, drooling audience of hungry men don’t stop to ask questions, they just stare as Marianna performs a sexy number. Dressed in a revealing dress that looks more like something for the vamp boudoir, Gloria lip synchs as she sashays around the room. Gloria couldn’t, apparently, carry a tune, but that’s okay because she more than makes up for this in every other department. Her performance rivals that of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and as you watch her make her moves, the question of what such a gorgeous dame is doing in a dump in Border Town is answered when Al shows up. She’s his girl and she’s been waiting for him.

Once in Mexico, Al sheds his mild-mannered baker demeanor and reveals his true psychotic nature: giggling (think shades of Tommy Udo), violent and dangerously jealous, and all on a split second trigger….

Humans seethe with desire and lust while coveting every conceivable object not yet possessed--it’s all part of our nature, but one of the characteristics that differentiates noir characters from the mainstream is that they are prepared to do something about it. In fact noir characters have the determination to get what they want by going as far as it takes. Consider Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity. Neff is an ambitionless insurance salesman content to take the easy path in life until he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman he desires so much he’s ready to go all the way, abandoning his professional ethics and his loyalty to Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) on his careening path to murder. And then there’s Lt. Halliday (Robert Mitchum) in The Big Steal who meets up with Joan Graham (Jane Greer) in Mexico while they are both on a no-holds barred pursuit of Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles)--a character who ripped them both off. In true noir form Halliday and Joan don’t leave it up to others to pursue their quarry as Fiske slips deeper and deeper into Mexico. Faithful to the no-holds barred creed of noir behaviour, Halliday and Joan go for the jugular as they pursue Fiske to the end of the line, and it’s this sort of ruthless, relentless determination that marks noir characters from the herd--on both sides of the good and evil divide. They never give up.


Noir often focuses on the characters’ lemming-like drive to obtain the goal of a woman or cold hard cash and who then are paradoxically willing to destroy themselves in the process of securing their greatest desire. For these driven characters, desire dwarfs common sense and all moral considerations as they buy a one-way ticket to self-destruction. This self-destructive determination is clearly evident in Naked Alibi, and it’s a phenomenon that sets all three main characters--Al, Conroy and Marianna on a collision course. Cast in the middle of the explosive Al Willis and the calm steadiness of Conroy, Gloria acts as a perfect foil to both the male characters. Their violent 3-way relationship forms an echo chamber that very effectively amplifies and reinforces Conroy’s determination to get revenge, Al’s paranoia and desire to keep his double life, and Marianna’s desire to discover the truth. Each character has opportunities to walk away, but none of them can. They are committed to the final destination--whatever that may be. Marianna, the character who becomes swept up by the hunt and quest for vengeance has plenty of opportunity to walk away. But she doesn’t. Given the opportunity to stay outside of the destructive vortex created by this triangular-cyclone she steps back into the action, committed to the end of the line. Fate is irresistible and unavoidable and explodes into one of noir cinema’s greatest final scenes on the roof of a church.

One of the reasons Naked Alibi works so well is its excellent casting. Hayden, Barry and Gloria Grahame make the perfect noir cocktail. Even though Hayden’s career began as a model, he plays a true straight arrow. At 6’5” he always seemed to be too damn tall to be a criminal and made a much better cop, sheriff, government agent. Perhaps his days as an undercover agent in the CIO (Office of the Coordinator of information) left a mark. Hayden was married 5 times--three times to the same woman.

With previous credits such as The Atomic City (another Hopper film) and Those Redheads from Seattle to his name, Naked Alibi represented a big break for Gene Barry. In spite of the fact he’s uncomfortably convincing as the psychotic Al Willis, Barry’s Hollywood career never really made the big time, but he certainly made an enormous splash in television.

Gloria Grahame, one of my all-time favourite noir actresses, was at the peak of her Hollywood career in 1954 with a string of recent noir films to her credit--Sudden Fear & The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), The Big Heat & Human Desire (1953) when she made Naked Alibi. In her personal life, Gloria and her second husband, director Nicholas Ray were divorced in 1952, and she was dating soon-to-be third husband, Cy Howard during the making of Naked Alibi. The scandal over her relationship with her stepson, Tony (who later became her fourth husband) was in her past, but certainly not off-the-record. In Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahameauthor Vincent Curcio states that Gloria came on to Sterling Hayden so strongly that she frightened him off, and this shows in the scene when Conroy is in bed and Marianna makes a move. A million men would gladly change places with Hayden as he sprawls in bed and Gloria moves in for the kill, but Hayden doesn’t look comfortable and you can almost see him cringe. Gloria Grahame is at the height of her smoldering beauty for this picture, and the form-fitting dress worn for the El Perico scenes shows off her spectacular shoulders to perfection. Gloria was undergoing obsessive plastic surgery on her upper lip during this period, and again this shows in a few profile shots when you can spot her upper lip’s immobility. Gorgeous Gloria--one of the greatest and most enigmatic names in noir film never got over her image problems. But for fans, she left behind a legacy of riveting noir films, and Naked Alibi succeeds largely due to her presence.

Written by Guy Savage

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Criss Cross (1949)

Written by Steve-O

Note: This week I've double dipped taking a second look at Out of the Past and Criss Cross.

I always find the music in film noir interesting. Unlike self-conscious noirs like Farewell, My Lovely and Body Heat, most noir soundtracks are orchestral - not jazz. The slow wailing saxophone over a Robert Mitchum voice-over can be found in noir parodies like the Guy Noir segments of A Prairie Home Companion. Strangely enough, that kind of music track is never actually heard in classic film noir. With some exceptions (Odds Against Tomorrow, for example) jazz and other forms of popular American music is usually heard only when it's performed on screen and not in the background or over opening credits.

Music performed on screen in noir can be put into two categories. First, there's the tunes belted out by sexy femme fatales in glamorous night clubs. Often the songs, by the likes of Rita Hayworth and Liz Scott, are upbeat and don't have much to do with the film except that they reinforce the fact that the woman are sexy - the Jessica Rabbit effect. Then there's music played by bands in seedy night clubs and bars that are integrated into the context of the film. Instead of being somber and slow the music from the second category is pounding and disorientating - totally fitting the mood of the film. Watch D.O.A. for an example. The most effective music in the film (right behind the bombastic but wonderful score by Dimitri Tiomkin) is a performance in a San Francisco jazz club by the band the Fisherman - an all-black group that jams with so much force it’s exhausting to watch. Edmund O’Brien -after following partiers from his hotel to the club- is so annoyed by the music (and from a jealous husband’s evil eye) it causes him to leave his fellow drinkers and hit the bar alone. That opens up a golden opportunity for villains to then slip him a glow-in-the-dark Mickey Finn.

When Kansas goes undercover in Phantom Lady she’s eventually lead to a creepy drummer in a night club show. The music at the show is typical of a 1940s film. The Carmen-Miranda riff is stagy and bland. Things get better though. After the show drummer Cliff leads Kansas to a seedy jazz club to hear some real music. The scene that follows is both sexy and even a bit grotesque. The drum beats build like a sexual climax as “hep kitten” Kansas watches a sweaty Elisha Cook Jr. go all out on the drums. Director Robert Siodmak’s use of the music makes it clear that Kansas is putting herself in real danger. An assault or some sort of violence is almost expected later in the night after witnessing Cliff’s drum solo.

Siodmak’s best use of music, however, was in 1949’s Criss Cross when Steve and Anna reunite. More on that scene in a minute.

Criss Cross begins with a long aerial shot of Los Angeles over the chief composer of film noir Miklós Rózsa's noir score. The camera finally stops and focuses on two lovers in a parking lot startled after being caught in an embrace by passing headlights. Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and his ex-wife Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo) are planning to double cross her husband Gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) after a planned armored car heist the next day.

(About the casting: I feel Lancaster's performance as Steve "the prize sucker of all time" is a role only he could play although some will tell you he's miscast. Gary George's Noir of the Week on Criss Cross states, "Shelly Winters was also a strong contender for the (Anna) role... however, I will remain eternally grateful to the Gods of casting that Yvonne De Carlo landed the role." He both disses Winters and flatters De Carlo at the same time!)

The elaborate set up by the couple also involves pulling one over Steve’s cop friend (Stephen McNally) in addition to the gangsters. The complicated job looks like it will fail from the start. The next morning, as Steve (the inside man) drives the armored car to the heist location, he flashes back - remembering the events leading up to the crime in progress.

Steve has been away from his home in Los Angeles for a year. After his divorce from Anna - a short marriage of less than a year - Steve traveled around the country doing odd jobs by day and no doubt drinking heavily at night. After a year away he makes it home after hopping off the trolley car. Steve trots up the street on Bunker Hill to his mother's house right on the trolley line. He says hi to his dog (who doesn't seem all that interested in seeing him) and immediately goes to his and Anna's old hangout. Steve is full of contradictions. He'll tell anyone that will listen that he hasn't returned home to see Anna again. He says he wants nothing to do with her. Yet, the first thing he does is go to the old club to find her. Steve acts like this through the whole movie - always doing the opposite of what's expected of him. He's a danger to himself - even more than Anna - the film's possible femme fatale - and Slim.

Steve's old hangout is a local bar. It's narrow, dark and anchored by a local barfly and a rotund bartender (Percy Helton). The outer area opens up to a night club. It's not all that swanky - though certainly an upgrade to the bar area. For the neighborhood patrons it's a sophisticated and classy place to be seen in. That's where Steve sees Anna again. The scene that follows mixes music and image perfectly. It's electric.


With an impressive tune played by Esy Morales' Rumba Band, you see the world through Steve's eyes. And his world revolves around Anna. As she's dances to the pounding rumba you can see why Steve will do anything to get her (including robbing a bank). Sharp eyes will notice that she's dancing with the (mercifully silent) Tony Curtis. The scene is remarkable because the band is so good and the music syncs with Steve's reaction to Anna.

Siodmak shoots the film from Steve's perspective (like a Raymond Chandler novel). That element makes it unlike the other Siodmak/Lancaster collaboration The Killers which is told in a Citizen-Kane type flashback. This point of view makes it hard to see Anna's faults even after Steve finds out (in a heartbreaking scene) that she'd run off to marry Slim. Siodmak uses the first person perspective effectively throughout the film especially at the end of the movie when Steve's recovering from a bullet wound and broken arm. He - in pain and just waking in a hospital bed - must play a game of cat and mouse with a man that may or may not be one of Slim's henchmen. Steve -caught in his own twisted deception- tries to both evade the cops and Slim's suspicions while trapped in the bed. The suspense doesn't get any less intense when Steve's dragged from his bed to a boat house where he has a fatal final confrontation with Anna and Slim.

Special mention should be made about the bad guys in Criss Cross. Duryea is a perfect contrast to Lancaster. He's not just “slim” to Lancaster's beefiness. When Slim catches Steve with Anna in a key scene leading up to the heist Duryea's sporting an all black suit with a white tie while Lancaster is wearing a white t-shirt over light colored pants creating a perfect contrast. A suit - no matter how sharp - doesn't make a performance however. Duryea - the ultimate noir pimp and small-time criminal -is a key element in this unique love triangle. He fits the suit well and gives an appropriately slimy performance.

Praise for the cast and almost universal acclaim for the film can be found by reading criticism of film noir. Tom Flinn in his article in Kings of the Bs applauds the character portrayals including “Percy Helton... with a voice like wood rasp; Tom Pedi, Slim's henchman Vincent, who delivers his dialogue with a greedy verve (“That's the ticket”); John Doucette, another of the gang, with a dour voice to match his somber personality; and Alan Napier, Finchley, the alcoholic mastermind of the big heist.”

In A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953)Criss Cross is called the summit of Siodmak's American career stating, “ To be sure, it never attains the unalloyed ferocity of certain scenes in The Killers, but the work is much smoother, more profound, more truly distressing.”

Unlike Siodmak's Phantom Lady, Criss Cross avoids the dreaded “happy ending.” We're never sure if Anna - who not only marries Steve's rival but also takes the robbery money - is shallow minded, a victim or just a conniving classic femme fatale. Criss Cross doesn't answer the question. Instead the ending bluntly snuffs all three lives before anything can be resolved. Like Esy Morales' Rumba Band's performance earlier in the film - it rocks you.

Out of the Past (1947)

Written by Steve-O

Out of the Past is the masterpiece of film noir. Combining actors, writer, director, composer and cinematographer at their peaks makes what could have easily been a forgotten B movie a great film.

The cast is just about perfect. The trifecta of Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas isn't just a winning combination but one necessary for the film's success. Replace any of the three and the film becomes just another thriller. Mitchum as the private detective shows a slouched-over vulnerability behind an indifferent exterior that's both believable and tragic. Jane Greer is beautiful and charming. She spends most of the time looking up at Mitchum with her doe eyes - transforming the cool and laconic PI into a love sick sucker with just a bat of her eyelashes. Douglas - not yet a movie star- is rigidly confident, young enough to be Mitchum's rival and so sure of himself that it's scary.

Casting rumors had Dick Powell in the lead role at one time. I just can't see him pulling off the rugged outdoorsman by the lake Mitchum does. Also, I find Mitchum to be more like Bogart. He's cool and confident until he meets up with the woman that will be his demise. Bogart would have approached Kathie Moffat with caution, however. Mitchum is heads-over-heels for her the second she makes that angelic-like walk into the Acapulco bar out of the bright sunlight. When he utters, “Baby, I just don't care.” after their romance gets hot and sticky in Mexico you know it's the truth. He really doesn't care if she's manipulating him. As long as he can be with her he's fine. Whenever there's backstabbing or dumping to do it's done by femme fatale Kathie. And Jeff (Mitchum) knows it.

Explaining the plot of Out of the Past would be a chore and frankly the film's plot isn't meant to be clear. It's a dream-like puzzle that Mitchum is walking through. It's the journey from present, past and present again all the way to the fatalistic ending is what makes the film so interesting. It's not about the mystery. The same could be said for The Big Sleep. A brilliant movie that both writer and director had no idea who the killer was. That wasn't the point.

Out of the Past is a collection of great scenes at different locations with a number of different sub plots. Determined to understand the plot, I took notes watching the DVD a few years ago and was surprised to see that the movie becomes a totally different film just about a third of the way through. Try to explain that to a screenwriting class.

Most of the film doesn't even look film noir. The uncloudy High Sierra country and summery Mexico seem too bright for noir. Later the story does drift into the familiar rain soaked streets of the city - with cigarette-sharing cabbies and seedy night clubs. Markham noted in his previous article on Out of the Past the contrast “between the bright and sunny world of Bridgeport and the dark, corrupt streets of San Francisco.” Nicholas Musuraca uses that over and over again in the film.

Daniel Mainwaring's dialog - like half-learned foreign language - makes the film sound noir even when the locations do not. Everyone - from the small time Bridgeport residents to Kirk Douglas's cronies - speak noir. They're always ready with a quick, witty comeback. No ones ever left speechless. Not even Mitchum when he finds Kathie back in Whit's (Douglas) arms.

One of the finest scenes in the film - and the most “noir” looking - takes place in a cabin in the woods. It's also the second best entrance in the film, after Kathie walking out of the sun into Jeff's life. Noir vet Steve Brodie plays Fisher - Jeff's former PI partner who's now following him. After Mitchum drives around for days knowing that Fisher is on his trail finally convinces himself that he has lost his tail. He goes to the couple's rendezvous spot confident he's shaken his former partner. You see Fisher in the shadows slowly walk up to Kathie and Jeff's cabin in the woods his identity revealed by a low-angle light. Jeff -via voice over- explains what's happening, “We had played it smart and forgotten nothing. Forgotten nothing except one thing... He had followed her.” The music stings. Then comes the fist fight between Fisher and Jeff inside the cabin. Kathie watches the fight. She looks both aroused and at the same time seems to be calculating out the odds in her head. Finally, she comes up with the best possible solution for her. A bullet in Fisher's gut. Mitchum is shocked. Before he can even ask what the hell she was thinking she's taken off. Jeff finds out that she was lying to him all along. He leaves her and the sorted business in the past. But he can't run from it.

This scene is a real showcase for Musuraca's camerawork - inside of the cabin is lit low and sideways with only a fireplace's flickery lighting the dark space. Add to that Roy Webb's dramatic score and you have one of the most memorable film noir moments ever.

Of course director Jacques Tourneur should get credit for putting this film together. Horror/noir Cat People and the superior western Canyon Passage were made before this but Out of the Past is unequaled.

Want to see how this story could fail under lesser talent? Check out the remake Against All Odds. The scene described above is reshot with Alex Karras taking over for Steve Brodie. Instead of being a private eye, he's a football athletic trainer shot to death in a Mayan pyramid. I'm not kidding. The isn't even a flashback in the movie! The only thing making the remake worth watching is seeing Richard Widmark and Jane Greer. Both look strong and dominate every scene they're in.

Friday, May 08, 2009

China Moon (1994)

Written by Alexander Coleman (Coleman’s Corner in Cinema)

The 1991 (finally released theatrically by Orion Pictures in 1994) romantic neo-noir thriller China Moon establishes early its central character's most palpable traits and attributes, which deceptively foretell his eventual unraveling and undoing. Ed Harris plays cagey, intuitive (fictional) Brayton, Florida (filmed in Lakeland, Florida and the surrounding area) detective Kyle Bodine, whose observant attention to detail allows him to read murder scenes like road signs, knowing within minutes who the perpetrator is. Because he is good at his job, he rarely considers why he is doing it; when questioned by his somewhat green, and in Bodine's words, “okay,” partner, Lamar Dickey (Benicio Del Toro) why he is a cop, Bodine replies that he knew there was a reason. He will think about it sometime.

Bodine's intelligence and awareness prove to be indirect vulnerabilities when placed alongside his ostensible lack of greater motivation. When he discovers a beautiful, mysterious woman named Rachel Munro—played with almost vampiric luminescence by Madeleine Stowe—he falls head over heels for her. Unfortunately she happens to be married to an equally powerful and abusive local banking kingpin, Rupert Munro (a one-note Charles Dance). Gradually, the film's tone shifts from the fairly sumptuous tale of passion between Bodine and Rachel to a serpentine murder mystery.

China Moon is longtime cinematographer John Bailey's (whose credits include American Gigolo, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) directorial debut. The lighting the seasoned director of photography utilizes allows for some mesmerizing visualizations which enhance what is fundamentally a routine potboiler. The screenplay, by Roy Carlson, is sufficiently serviceable when it must be, providing just enough in the way of narrative glue for the picture's subtly dyspeptic yarn to give impetus to the ocular pleasures China Moon offers to the viewer. Bailey and Belgian cinematographer Willy Kurant ably conspire to create a visually rich canvas of coolly colored nighttime vistas and interiors. One particularly memorable setting is the lushly romantic setting of a lake. The reflection of the “china moon”—Bodine tells Rachel that his mother used the term for a full moon, under which people would “do strange things,” he states—is captured against the smooth, seemingly tranquil surface of the body of water in delicately composed shots.

When finding himself in the unenviable position of covering up a murder, Bodine's mercurial gifts are turned against him, and as the cliché goes, the hunter becomes the hunted. Bailey and Kurant's occasionally delicious visages figuratively brighten and literally dim the picture as Harris' detective becomes not only wholly entangled in the mystery but the most suspected figure in the film by his fellow officers, including his partner. Following the time-honored noir template, the protagonist's apparent strengths prove to be strangely debilitating, as Bodine's certainty and sharpness leave hints of hubris. Those seeds are indeed immediately sown in the film's prologue, during which Bodine surveys the scene of a homicide with all of the clinical precision of a genuine expert. “Sooner or later,” he says derisively of murderers, “they all fuck up.” Little does he know his tumultuous future when he makes this comment to his colleagues.

China Moon's most sound component of all, however, is the lead performance by Ed Harris. Harris is dynamic and subtle, forceful and equable all at once. He gives a compelling, convincing performance that keeps the film humming even when too many coincidences and plot holes needlessly distract from the vastly more important emotional through-line with which Harris endows the humble film. Harris' eyes are especially captivating in a film peopled with indelible pools of light as eyes, most notably his costar, Stowe's, which accurately belie her truer nature. Harris makes every little movement of his eyes matter, and it fits wonderfully with his character's chief gift of observation. There is a doom in his eyes, and it is matched, if not with straightforward and engrossing presence, then with a complementary sense of intrigue by Stowe, working off of the guilelessness and fierceness Harris supplies.

Where Stowe comes up short is in the range of her performance; the screenplay and Bailey's uneven handling of his actors contrive to limit her. Whereas many noirs allow for the female presence to display greater shades of character, China Moon is actually the opposite. Stowe's Rachel is if anything too nebulous and murky a figure, and the fact that the very ending hinges on her true motivations leaves a peculiar aftertaste as there has been minimal buttressing of her emotional state beyond common, hoary and hackneyed abused-wife syndrome scenes. As with other conventional neo-noirs that follow similar storylines, the husband, here played by Dance, is completely one-dimensional and totally unsympathetic; if and when such a character meets a violent end, the ramifications of his demise are almost always only of interest insomuch as they relate to the other characters' fates.

Nevertheless, Harris' carefully calibrated turn excellently draws the viewer in with great, meticulous thoughtfulness. When Bodine finally reaches his breaking point and lashes out, the viewer is caught up with him; it's not an entirely different sensation than relishing the confused, furious righteousness of James Stewart's John “Scottie” Ferguson confronting the inscrutable Kim Novak in the closing moments of Vertigo when Harris' Bodine points the finger of indignation at the untrustworthy Rachel. The sophistication that is missing in other parts of the film is evident whenever Harris makes his presence profoundly felt. In a landscape of noir, marked by countless dupes, sometimes what matters is simply trying to get the last word in. Bodine tries his best, and this flawed film is better for it.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Night Moves (1975)

Editor’s note: This week’s article is written by David N. Meyer. David is the author of Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music.He is the Film Editor and lead critic for the fine-arts monthly BROOKLYN RAIL. Film Noir fans know him as the writer of one of the coolest noir books: A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video


David N. Meyer

Even by the standards of gritty, mid-1970s, mid-budget, street-noir, Night Moves is ugly. It's shot like serial television; Director Arthur Penn possesses no discernable visual language. Most frames are functional, set up to deliver information. There's no noir shadowing - the whole bleak tale takes place in merciless blinding sunshine - no metaphorical frame composition, just basic prose presentation. The willfully cheap mid-'70s interiors feature that mid-'70s glaring overhead key light halo-ing everybody's relentlessly mid-'70s hair. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees' first jobs (Play Misty For Me, Dirty Harry) were for the one-take-and-print-it master, Clint Eastwood, who worked fast, thought literal and wouldn't know a visual metaphor if one shot at him from horseback. The model here seems to be the brutal realism of Surtees' prosaic frames on John Flynn's The Outfit (1973). Yet between The Outfit and Night Moves,Surtees DP'd the expressionist, black & white, Lenny. So the aggressive simplicity of his work on Night Moves apparently derived from money limitations. And/or directorial indifference.

Dotting the film like truffles in an omelet are three dynamic tracking shots and three mind-blowing, visually sophisticated stunt sequences. These suggest that with more money, maybe Penn would have made an expressive, more visually noir noir. Or maybe not. Only when he showcases violence does Penn's visual grammar rise above the pedestrian. Like the bullet-spattered finale of Bonnie & Clyde, the orgasmic blood-letting climactic stunt of Night Moves features a bravura that doesn't manifest anywhere else. Penn keeps the quotidian moments exactly that, and the fulcrum moments get the full heavenly choir. Night Moves lurches about, but the crucial moments linger. Despite the Starsky & Hutch framing, you cannot take your eyes off the screen. And that's because Gene Hackman is in pretty much every shot. And Gene Hackman is in pain.

Parsing Gene Hackman's singular gifts is a sucker's game. He just is. Hackman doesn't look, speak, dress or move like a movie star. He has little grace and sports the gnarliest mid-'70s hair/mustache combo in the history of gnarly mid-'70s hair/mustache combos. Yet he commands every moment. His character - Harry Moseby - a pro football player turned second-rate private eye, lives out his self-loathing the same way he lived out its only escape - through his body. The more Harry Moseby's lied to, or the more his feelings are hurt - and they're hurt easily -- the more slumped, crushed and childlike his posture becomes. When Moseby channels all his self-directed psychic violence outward - as he did on the football field - he's ecstatic. It's not Penn who communicates the depths of Harry's indifference to the outcome; it's Hackman. Harry doesn't care if he wins or loses, if he beats or is beaten. He wants only the release of the moment, regardless of consequences. He wants only to escape himself.

And so he immerses in the private eye life, following clues into the lives of others to avoid seeing himself. Harry takes control by remaining invisible. His dilemma is unique in noir. In The Conversation, Hackman's Harry Caul spied because without the Other, Harry Caul did not exist; he filled his empty shell with the conversations he stole. Harry Moseby suffers the opposite problem. Harry Moseby's interior existence is full to overflowing. And his exterior existence is turning to shit.

Even after he catches his wife fucking around (Susan Clark - who logged 150 episodes of Webster, God help her - rocking a seriously mid-'70s post-Jane Fonda shag mullet ), Harry has to endure a New Age lecture from her on all his poorly evolved aspects. The trouble is, she's right on every point. Her being in the wrong but absolutely right enrages him. Harry's all too human; his self-righteous anger drives away the connection that might save him. His wounded eyes ask: how dare his cheatin' wife give him such a drubbing? The simple answer: he deserves it.

Night Moves grapples with the most profound themes of noir: trust (betrayed), love (denied), greed (indulged), violence (solving/creating problems) and good old existential dread (by the truckload in Harry's case). The characters - no matter how extreme or contradictory their behavior -- remain complex, naturalist and recognizable. None are the walking plot-devices or living metaphors who appear in classical-period noir with quote marks around their heads (The Noble Negro, The Born Sucker, The Sidekick Doomed To Die, The Slut). Of course there's a femme fatale (Jennifer Warren in an unapologetic frenzy of neurotic self-knowledge, self-disgust and determination - did she radiate too much intelligence to become a star? ), and Harry, sap that he is, falls big. He doesn't realize that her trait he finds most annoying is exactly what makes him fall. Just like Harry, she's incapable of a straight answer.

This leads to a classic exchange:

She: Where were you when Kennedy got shot?
He: Which Kennedy?
She: Any Kennedy.
Harry pours out his sensitive memories, thinking she'll respond to the emotional openness he could never grant his wife. When he's done, believing a moment of true soul-connection has taken place, he queries hopefully: Why do you ask?
She: Oh, I dunno; it's the one question everybody knows the answer to.

Snap! The answer's a slap, and Harry retreats like an abused cur. For a noir hero groping after his own destruction with both hands, such treatment is catnip. Warren seduces Harry with a perfectly mid-'70s technique; first she confides her painful childhood memories, then she peels off her clothes as he watches. For a guy who craves intimacy and needs to spy, it's foolproof.

These delicious, poisonous moments - these cookies full of arsenic - come courtesy of Alan Sharp's venomous, entrapping, perfectly circular screenplay. It's hard not to regard him - rather than Penn - as the engine of Night Moves' enduring power. Sharp had an unbroken forty year career writing features and television. Of course he's responsible for a ton of crap: Damnation Alley's at the top of the pile. But prior to Night Moves, Sharpe wrote three eccentric, quixotic, bittersweet screenplays that could have been produced only in the 1970s: The Last Run (1971), a depressive road movie featuring George C. Scott as a double-crossed small-timer fleeing for his life; The Hired Hand (1971), Peter Fonda's dream-like, ultra-violent, psychedelic Western and Ulzana's Raid (1972), a Vietnam allegory revisionist Western (wait - is that redundant?) starring Burt Lancaster. All are marked by Sharpe's mordant Scottish wit and tough, spare language. Sharpe's not afraid to get his Harold Pinter on, as in this exchange between Harry and his wife, with whom he's come to a bruised rapprochement:

He: I didn't mean just you.
She: I know perfectly well what you didn't mean!

She begs him not to leave. But Harry, like all the abused children before him, refuses to face his own problems. He'd much rather solve someone else's, even if it, uh, kills him. So back he goes to the most accurate representation of the down and out Florida Keys ever set on film. Moseby was there before, rescuing the barely post-pubescent but definitely post-coital sixteen year old Melanie Griffith. Her incandescent energy, unaffected vulnerability and constant, guileless nudity suggest the career she might have had.

Penn seems indifferent to location, but he brings Harry to this grubby backwater for a reason. Harry's ping-ponging between two realities: the relatively polite social murder of LA and the straightforward primordial brutality of the swamp. Whether drowning someone in a dolphin pond, screwing a stranger while her boyfriend sleeps yards away or bashing a guy in the face using a ridged conch shell as brass knuckles, folks in the sticks exercise a lot less internal censorship. As dolphins cavort over a floating corpse, Harry's hosts unleash the Id.

Harry's not an Id dude, however. His rampant Superego makes him vulnerable to the machinations of those with excess will. It's not that the beachcombers pretend to be someone else; everyone's so straightforwardly corrupt they turn Harry neurotic (or, neurotic-er). He's deeply confused, and so are we. The sequence of narrative incident, that is, the plot, doesn't make a lot of sense, but so what? That's a hallmark of only the finest noir. (I have no idea what actually quote happens close quote in Out of the Past and it's one of my favorite pictures. And let's not even talk about Lady From Shanghai or The Maltese Falcon.) The casting of two down-and-outers who look a lot alike - one a villain, one an ally -- does not clarify several murky plot points.

But it does clarity the psychological reality. John Crawford, a B character actor with a lifetime of TV credits, incarnates a specific sea-side heartiness: slovenly, drunk, casual with no visible means of support, murderous. The history of his failure is written in his saggy body and Crawford plays him without vanity. Ditto Janet Ward as one of the worst mothers in all film noir - and that's saying something. Like Crawford, Ward's understated commitment to her selfish, soulless character speaks volumes about Penn's skill with actors. Several over-amped performances - James Woods and Kenneth Mars foremost - are counterbalanced by the realist nuances of Harris Yulin and Ed Binns. They portray semi-aware, world-weary, middle-aged men whom Sharpe's script pities but has no mercy for.

Would the film be improved if it were less low-rent? If Hackman got a better hairdresser or Penn a budget that permitted him to properly light a set? It might be more engrossing; the crude visuals push one away from the story. And nothing pushes harder than the unspeakable mid-'70s score from hack composer Michael Small. The story screams for Bernard Herrmann, but Small gives us wanna-be Lalo Schifrin, all watery Fender Rhodes and pointlessly sustained bass notes. It takes great concentration to stay with the portrayed emotions when the music swells. No other film would be more improved by re-scoring.
No other film.

What sustains fascination is that Hackman's performance and Sharpe's words are driven by the steady, remorseless pulse-beat of editor's Dede Allen's rhythm. Allen cut all of Penn's pictures. Here her relentless momentum brings to mind - of all things - the apocalyptic, unwavering drums in the Beach Boys' Wouldn't It Be Nice? Up top, the Boys sing happy fantasies; below the pulse of life, the march of mortality, the ticking tock of time. Fantasize all you like, the drum says, but when you're done, I'll be waiting. Each of Allen's metronomic edits say to Harry (and to us): one step at a time, boy, one step toward that grave at a time. Each cut metaphorasizes the incidents that brings Harry nearer to his reckoning.

Allen's rhythm sharpens the action, and raises the harsh awareness of consequence that fuels film noir. When evil rises from the ocean depths, and the dying sink reluctantly in a fog of rising bubbles, Harry discovers a problem that cannot be observed; it must be lived. From that, and from himself, there is no escape.


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