Friday, August 28, 2009

Private Hell 36 (1954)

Editor's note: This week, hardboiled writer Megan Abbott takes on the criminally overlooked cop thriller Private Hell 36. Edgar-winning Abbott's latest page turner is Bury Me Deep

“A policeman, unlike most men, lives close to evil and violence. He can, like all men, make his own private hell. The good pass through it with minor burns. The evil stumble and fall. And die in strange places.”

Private Hell 36 is one of that special brand of B noir that just revels in the claustrophobic tawdriness of its characters. But it’s also one of those—like Crime Wave and Pushover—that is at least twice as smart and potent as its gears-turning plot first reveals. Shot through with the 50s-noir nihilism of Kiss Me Deadly, it’s also a film very much of its moment—that 50s midpoint that, arguably, summons up the world of standard love-gone-wrong big-city noir only to smash it against Eisenhower-era ideals: suburbia, security, family.

Directed with grim, artful efficiency by Don Siegel (with a young Sam Peckinpah as dialogue director), Private Hell 36 was one of the last films to come from The Filmmakers, the independent production company created by Ida Lupino and producer Collier Young, Lupino’s second husband. The couple coscripted Private Hell 36, but by 1954, the year it was released, the company was on its last legs and Lupino and Young had divorced. Completing the roundelay, the movie boasts Lupino’s new husband, Howard Duff, as one of the leads. Don Siegel reports a set suffused with alcohol and misery, which seems perfectly suited for a film drunk on its own darkness. It’s hard to watch the nightclub interview scene with Lupino, Duff and Steve Cochran talking in front of three enormous, novelty bottles of booze and beer and not wonder if Siegel is making a winking aside. (An equally great meta moment has Duff’s wife scold him for drinking too much, to which a guilt-ridden, sneering Duff replies, “It’s supposed to be a party, isn’t it?”)

Private Hell 36 is a tale of two Los Angeles cops, Farnham (Duff) and Bruner (Cochran) investigating a robbery with the reluctant help of Lilly, a nightclub singer (Lupino). Bruner falls hard for Lilly and, when the two cops uncover a portion of the stolen money, he suggests that he and Farnham split the money. Farnham reluctantly gives in and the two stash money in a trailer park, unit #36. The rest of the film witnesses the two men circling each other, Farnham tormented with self-disgust and Bruner turning more and more rancid—cop to criminal in a heartbeat.

On the surface, it’s just a nasty little movie ripe with noir pleasures, including Lupino singing “Didn’t You Know,” bare shoulders swaying, Dorothy Malone in full-on ’50s house wife mode, as Duff’s worried wife and magnificent location shooting at the famous Hollywood Park Racetrack—you half expect The Grifters’ Lilly Dillon to stroll by.

You can probably guess most of the plot turns, hear the gears clicking, but that’s part of its efficiency. It’s putting a group of characters through the noir iron-maiden. But what characters, and what a world they live in.

Among its greatest, grittiest pleasures is seeing Lupino and Cochran spark off each other. Has any actor ever so consistently made seedy cunning so seductive as Cochran, his eyes glittering with mayhem? (On a personal note, Cochran was the actor I could never stop picturing when creating my own version of the “homme fatal” in my novel Queenpin). Throughout the film, you find yourself begging for Cochran’s character to sink lower and lower just for the erotic kick he gives it. His scenes with Lupino crackle and buzz, dirty up the story. Their been-around slyness with each other—Cochran untying and tying the straps on her halter dress—and their frank shallowness feels like lost pages from a James Ellroy novel, rank with self-loathing, romantic in its view of love as shared irredeemability.

Seeing Cochran and Duff together is nearly as intriguing. The film delights in linking the two as opposites-attract lovers. “Sometimes I wonder why we go steady,” Duff jokes with Cochran early on, to which Cochran replies, “Because I’m irresistible.” (He is.) Later, when the robbery tears them apart, Lupino notes archly, “You two having a lovers’ spat?.” Another cop refers to Duff as Cochran’s boyfriend. The jokes are more than jokes. They cleverly link the pair to not just other cop partner movies but to countless noir lovers who turn against each other when money and guilt enter the picture (it’s important that, as much as Cochran desires Lupino, it never feels like she is his only, or even primary motive. The film is subtler than that. Cochran, unconsciously or otherwise, is looking for the rabbit hole from the very start. And he turns out far worse than you could guess.)

As for Duff, it’s easy to dismiss his whimper-faced, eyebrows-knitted expressions as simplistic—is this what self-loathing really looks like?—but it actually works perfectly with Cochran’s wheels-always-turning, slick-eyed cunning. “You’re sick, Cal,” Duff tells his partner, late in the film. “I should’ve known that a long time ago. You don’t care about anything or anybody. You’re sick.” It’s the kind of cop world partner dynamic Ellroy and others will both deepen and dissect in the years to follow, but that makes it no less compelling here.

As noted (see “Domesticity That Never Sleeps”), the movie offers very timely contrast between the urban noir sleaze of Lupino and Cochran’s scenes together, in nightclubs and in Lupino’s moderne L.A. apartment, and the rising suburban domesticity represented by Duff’s family, his sunny blonde wife, the care with which she keeps her home, her mother’s pride in her child. Cochran and Lupino are drawn to each other by a shared distaste for just this kind of world. “Rice is for eating, not throwing,” Lupino notes. Cochran replies, “That’s how I feel. We’re a lot alike, Lilly. We won’t settle for just anything. We want the best. And we’re going to get it.” Their dream is the big gold one—but the film asks how different that is from the one represented by Duff’s overstuffed faux-colonial home.

The two worlds are thrown together in a dinner party scene at the Duff household. Guilt-ridden Duff, who has been forced to straddle the line between the two worlds, stumbles through his own house, drunkenly knocking his own furniture around as if a stranger in his own home. When she wants to bring out her baby, Duff refuses angrily. He does not want to contaminate his child with the presence of Cochran, the grinning reminder of his own sin. Meanwhile Cochran and Lupino seem cool, relaxed—and equally out of place, Lupino kicking her shoes off and lifting her feet for Cochran to rub. It’s sexy and cheap and delicious and the movie’s all the better for having Malone not bat an eye. She doesn’t mind. And when Cochran, in a moment so slight it seems like it could have been ad-libbed, grabs Malone around the waist for a goodbye kiss, it’s jarring. He manhandles her like he does Lupino, or like he might a whore (late in the film we see him exchange silent greetings with a likely streetwalker as if he knows her quite well). But it’s a cunning move—lining up Duff and Cochran this way. Instead of hoisting Duff up as the noble do-gooder, it shows how both men are driven by the same longings. How is Cochran’s desire to live the good life with his diamond-hungry girl so different from Duff’s desire to keep his suburban family on the track to the American consumer dream?

Ultimately, Private Hell 36 is a film that refuses tidy answers. It’s comfortable in messiness, and slippery truths. The story is book ended by what first appears to be an authoritative, Dragnet or Naked City-style voiceover. But it’s Dragnet-Meets-Sartre, or Freud. While a kind of order is restored at the end, what kind of order is it? Whether in the balmy burbs or the gaudiest of nightclubs, the drive is there. The hunger. It’s inside us and it’s hoisted upon us by the Big Dream, the American one. Who are we to stop it?

Written by Megan Abbott


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Night Train (1999) part 1

A Journey to Hell in Night Train

“Good judgment is a hard thing to men like Joey Butcher. It doesn’t matter who they are and what they’ve done. Hard luck and bitter circumstance get in the way.”

Modern noir film has two things in its favor: improved film technique and different standards for censorship, so in theory, neo noir should look better and could potentially include more sex, more violence, blatant perversion and endings that don’t necessarily include the bad guys getting their just desserts delivered by the good guys. And Night Train from director Les Bernstien exemplifies just how far an updated noir film can go in terms of looks, presentation and plot.

First-time director Les Bernstien has an impressive back ground as a visual effects director of photography (Contact, Escape from L.A., Fight Club) and in Night Train, he appears to take everything he knows and uses it in this low-budget, low-life neo noir set in a sleazy corner of Tijuana. Mexico is a favorite setting for film noir. Classic noir icon Robert Mitchum often washed up south of the border. But in Night Train, tame Tijuana of the 40s and 50s is replaced and the film’s voice over narration explains:

“Down town Tijuana—a real nice place in its day. It catered to the best. Bullfighters, celebrities wanting a drink and a girl. Runaways wanting a new career.”

But this patina of respectable tourism has vanished and Bernstein’s Tijuana is the town where whores are cheap and people disappear in this no-holes barred playground for perversion. Bernstien doesn’t try to hide the fact that the story centres on the dregs of Tijuana society--in fact he seems to wallow in the gutter, opting to make the story as ugly as possible while simultaneously presenting that ugliness and converting it to beauty with exquisite camera shots, deep inky blacks and incredible use of light and shadow. The first shots of Tijuana include a bullfight in a packed arena and a shoeless woman stopping traffic as she humps an ambulance in meaningless, rhythmic motions. Whether a mystery key is retrieved from human excrement or a man vomits in the toilet, the camera captures it all--every horrifying shot and then delivers it with exquisite perfection.

Just as the plot embraces the tawdry and cheap side of life, the film’s presentation boldly embraces its low budget with a musical score that’s a cross between Ennio Morricone and the Ventures. In another brilliant stroke, dialogue was re-recorded against the original background noises in a process called “looping” and this replaced dialogue also serves to complement the film’s strange texture.

The plot is startling simple. Ex-con, Joey Butcher (John Voldstad) takes the night train to Tijuana to hook up with his brother Zach (also played by Voldstad). It may be “next stop, Tijuana,” but in reality it’s all aboard for a trip to hell. Joey received a telegram from Zach telling him to join him at the appropriately named Hotel Colon, “the center of the universe.” Once in Tijuana, Joey meets “resident American” the film’s narrator, Sam (Barry Cutler) a ferret-faced drifter who tells him that Zach is dead--killed as the result of a hit-and-run accident. Unable to return to America because he “did something bad,” Joey is committed to staying in Tijuana and discovering the truth about his brother’s death, and this brings him to the attention of a deviant dwarf, a homicidal stripper, and a snuff film ring.

As the days pass, Joey begins to undergo a physical transformation. Since everything from booze to women is “so damn cheap” he can lead a fairly unrestricted life. This results in constant drinking which leaves him with black ringed eyes and a stumbling gait as he careens from one trouble spot to another. Joey is on an endless roller coaster ride of alcoholic binges while women parade in and out of his room, and sweaty Joey, who packs a substantial gut, isn’t picky. Prostitutes, the vengeful stripper, Bobby (Nikoletta Skarlatos), and even Mary-Lou (Donna Pieroni), the hotel’s resident psycho all have sex with Joey and a few scenes show Joey laying in a half drunken stupor while he’s coyly teased, titillated and tweaked into performance by women grimly determined to ride him to the finish line. Forget love. Forget romance. Instead sex is an urge that’s met with a grubby encounter, a lackluster performance, and no illusions. As Bobby says, “We’re not married. I gave you a free fuck. Now go away.”

The film’s fantastic nightmarish hallucination sequences rival those of Stranger on the Third Floor, but in Night Train, the ghoulish nightmares take place in the whirl of toilet bowl water. Using bold phantasmagorical scenes reminiscent of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Night Train is a clear illustration of film noir’s debt to German Expressionism. From the film’s opening scene of a breathtaking, spectacular shot of a bridge, this extraordinary, stunning visual adventure shows us just how magical the camera can be. The film’s incredible nightmare sequences are packed with symbolism--train tracks cross, merge and graveyards beckon. In one nightmare scene Joey crawls through a shrunken room across a mismatched geometrically patterned floor while other scenes are transposed on top for a layering effect. The film subtly foreshadows Joey’s fate by comparing Joey to the confused and weary bull trapped in the arena. Scenes of the slaughtered bull being dragged from the ring are juxtaposed with flashes of the disoriented Joey as he crawls across the floor, grunting and groaning.

As the film continues, Joey’s life becomes as bad as his nightmares. The film’s juxtaposition of nightmares and nightmarish reality and the symbolic merging and crossing of train tracks emphasize the idea that in Tijuana, Joey’s already marginal life has merged into a hellish existence. The sense that Tijuana is devoid of traditional societal boundaries transfuses into the film’s bizarre fabric and effectively reinforces Night Train’s hypnotic circulus in which repulsiveness blends into beauty, nightmares merge into reality, and evil merges into good.

Night Train won’t appeal to all viewers. It’s an ugly tale, deliberately rough in spots and as cheap as the wasted lives it portrays. Bernstien doesn’t glamorize his characters or their environment, and neither does he glamorize their actions. There are no good guys in Night Train’s morally bankrupt universe, but by the time the film concludes, the thoroughly unpleasant Joey Butcher, who viciously tortures a man in the first scene, will begin to look like a boy scout in comparison to the other freaks, lowlifes, scumbags and murderers who surround him. Joey becomes a hero of sorts in a High-Plains-Drifter fucked-up way as he begins to grasp the horrifying truth about his brother’s Tijuana business interests. There are, after all, some depths that even low-life, violent career criminals won’t stoop to, and it’s down in Tijuana that Joey discovers a boundary even he won’t cross.

Night Train (1999) part 2

Guy Savage interview with Night Train director Les Bernstien:

GS: Please describe your background for our readers.

LB: I’ve been in the film business for over 30 years working as a Visual Effects Director of Photography and Supervisor. My background is in photography and cinematography. I began in New York, where I grew up and went to school, but moved to Los Angeles and worked on films dating back to Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice. More recently, I’ve worked on films like Apocalypto and The Unborn.

GS: What sort of budget did you have for Night Train and how did you get funding for the film?

LB: Night Train’s budget, I’ll just say, was way less than a million. It would easily be a “Poverty Row” picture if this were the ‘40’s. I think even Edgar Ulmer would be proud. Funding was by way of private investors and out-of-pocket.

GS: How long did it take you to make the film? What were the biggest hurdles?

LB: It took 5 years to make the film, the same length of time it took Lynch to make Eraserhead. Biggest hurdle was getting it finished. Always easy to start a film, near impossible to finish one on my budget.

GS: Did you use any unprofessional actors for the film and if so how did you find them?

LB: Except for the leads (the parts of Joe, Bobby, Sam and MaryLou), all the parts were locals found around Tijuana. We even hired a prostitute for one scene, who wanted to do porn. We had to tell her this was not porn. Another “actress” we saw when we were walking from one location to another - she stopped an ambulance in the middle of the road by holding onto its radiator and proceeded to pee in the middle of the street. I just had to turn on a camera and film her, it was so precious. I think she was a little drunk.

GS: Did any films act as an inspiration for Night Train?

LB: I could go on for hours citing films that inspired Night Train, beginning, of course, with the great German Expressionist films like Der Golem, Metropolis, Spione, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all the way through the many obscure noirs that I could get my hands on, from Strangers on the Third Floor, Detour, He Walked By Night, Kiss Me Deadly, etc, etc. There are also the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Sergio Leone, Russ Meyer and Michael Powell’s great Peeping Tom (obvious influence). From the noir canon, I must say that Kiss Me Deadly in particular, is one of my favorites and became a model for our sound design. Due to the budget restrictions, the “gun and run” method of shooting with a small, guerilla crew and lack of control over production sound, George Lockwood - a frequent collaborator and the editor/optical effects man/sound designer - wanted to experiment by completely looping EVERYTHING in the film. The surrealistic quality of Kiss Me Deadly’s bizarre sound design offered up the cacophonous answer and voila! Night Train was born. The result is very much like Tijuana: an aural assault on the senses. Not for everybody, though. I’ve gotten complaints.

GS: Night Train is an incredible looking film. How did you create the German Expressionist look but updated with clear, deep inky blacks?

LB: The look of Night Train took some experimenting. I found an (what was then) East German film stock from a company called ORWO, the parent of AGFA. I found out they were using a lot more silver in their B+W stock than anyone else (since 1917!) and my tests looked like no other stock. Also, it was cheap. I ordered a shitload of the stuff and pulled the trigger on starting the film. Later, I personally timed the film at DuArt Labs in New York and got incredible results. I kept pushing the timer to “go deeper” and richer with the blacks without clipping the highlights.

GS: What special challenge does neo noir present for a director and a director of photography?

LB: If you’re going to really do “noir” (I hate the term “neo” noir), you have to shoot B+W 35mm film stock and use hard light. There is no other way to do this. It is borne of the look and soul. Also, the term “Film Noir” as invented by the French does not really classify a genre. It is a feeling, like the “Feeling” movement in music. In film this is extended into the photography. The look of the film MUST have equal footing alongside the actors and screenplay. Not one element can overshadow the other. My experiment with Night Train failed because the look overshadowed my direction of the actors and the script, but hey, that’s part of a learning curve. If I were to do it again, I would keep everything the same; just work the actors harder, much harder. At the same time, I make no apologies any more than Ulmer would for Detour or Kubrick would for Killer's Kiss (although he disowned Fear and Desire). It’s all part of a curve and there’s no sense repeating yourself.

GS: In your experience how has the use of mechanical effects in film impacted optical effects?

LB: Optical Effects no longer exist; they are now all digital (Night Train used all Optical and “in-camera” effects). Mechanical effects work on the set and digital effects go hand-in-hand with these techniques for post-production. As we say in the film business, if you can “get it real” then do it real. I think Mechanical effects will never go away, and in fact, get more sophisticated.

GS: In the hallucination scenes, sequences appear to be layered on top of each other. How is this achieved?

LB: George Lockwood did all of the post Optical composite effects. The hallucination sequences, in particular, required many long hours of shooting one layer, backwinding the film on the printer and shooting another layer on top of the previous. Some of the shots I created with glass paintings, matte paintings, swirling water effects, and what we call “elements,” which are individual pieces of an effect shot against black, then exposed later on top of a scene. I did a lot of this shooting in a rented warehouse and in my garage. George then later took these pieces and after hours of the two of us sitting around and discussing in front of the film on a flatbed editor, composited the pieces on an optical printer. A lot of work.

GS: Would you explain the role of the lyrically beautiful Torch Song sequence?

LB: In Mexican cinema (even in Hong Kong cinema), the role of a “reflective song” creates a breathing space for the pacing of the film. The Torch Song sequence allows the main character to look back on his life up to that point and reflect on how he got there. It ends with him sitting in the pile of money everyone is looking for. Also, it helps bring the length of the film up to 80 minutes.

GS: How did it feel to make a film in which you had so much project control?

LB: Because the film was so low-budget and largely self-financed, I, like Mel Gibson (the only true independent filmmaker left), had to answer to no one. It felt great and frustrating at the same time because money was such a factor (unlike, say, Mel Gibson).

GS: How do you feel about noir and German Expressionism? How much do you think these genres have added to filmmaking?

LB: German Expressionism helped fuel what became film noir. If not for the economic/ post-war trauma of the time and the European émigrés in Hollywood, noir would not have had its “bite” and would probably be just like any other stupid period in American cinema (like right now). Its influence goes all the way to guys like Martin Scorcese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Francis Ford Coppola (Godfather, The Conversation), Paul Schrader, and writers like James Ellroy. Noir was the true period of originality in American cinema. Except maybe for MGM musicals. Just ask the French.

GS: What are you working on at the moment?

LB: Right now I am working on a couple of documentaries, one about jazz and urbanism in Tijuana and another about the collision of the US Mafia and the rebel forces during the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban film will also, hopefully, later be made into a narrative about the 2 men whose stories I am telling in the documentary, representing both sides of the conflict. I’m quite excited about that project because it shows a really ugly side of US crime and complicity in Cuban affairs. It’s never been done before. It was alluded to in Godfather II, however. Also, I’m working on some noir scripts, of course…

Friday, August 14, 2009

Try and Get Me! (1950)

Editor's note: Glenn Erickson AKA The DVD Savant recently wrote about one of the most neglected films from the fifties, Try and Get Me! This informative article is reprinted with Glenn's permission.

1950's Try and Get Me! has never been an easy film to see. Its only home video release is a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990. It's both a socially conscious tract against lynching, and one of the most pessimistic, frightening films noir from the classic period. It encourages examination from several angles. Its director was blacklisted. It was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. No official reason is given, but the title might have been uncomfortably similar to MGM's 1936 film Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident.

Not unlike Jules Dassin of Night and the City, versatile director Cyril (Cy) Endfield was just getting his career in motion when the blacklist made him unemployable in Hollywood. Endfield would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing tough minded pictures like Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn.

Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in the Phoenix area. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has one young boy. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious that he finds a job soon so she can see a doctor to deliver her second child. Demoralized by the bleak job prospects, Howard falls in with Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: "Getting any other offers lately?" Howard drives the getaway car for a series of robberies; he tells his wife that he's found a job and begins to drink heavily. Then Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local. The unstable Jerry murders the kidnapped man. Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Katherine's apartment. The secret gets out and the police close in. Howard is locked up with the now-deranged Jerry. Stirred up by alarmist newspaper headlines, a huge mob converges on the city jail. The sheriff (Cliff Clark) can't hold them back.

A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody -- its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets in gear. Howard Tyler's unemployment experience is sheer misery and humiliation, death in small doses. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. He can't possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. The neighbors' new television is just more evidence of Howard's failure.

Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in economic straits -- the Land of Riches doesn't give a damn if Howard's family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn't order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film's key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He's a criminal; he knows that he'll be caught sooner or later.

Howard Tyler loses what's left of his judgment and dignity, and the sordid trap becomes tighter. Unable to tell Judy the truth, he turns to the pathetic Hazel, a wallflower who thinks she's found the love of her life. Howard's personality disintegrates, as the story races to a finish devoid of redemption. Judy Tyler can only wail, "Oh Honey ... what have you done?" Tyler's son witnesses the arrest. He bolts upright in bed with a nightmare, traumatized like the kid from Invaders from Mars three years later.

Jo Pagano's second thesis is that law abiding, "decent" Americans are easily stampeded into savage acts. He based his story on a true incident from the Depression year 1933. Two suspects in a kidnap-murder were openly lynched before a huge mob, not somewhere in the South but in San Jose, California. The mob action was triggered by sensationalized newspaper coverage suggesting that the suspects were going to be set free on a technicality. Towns for miles around emptied out to attend the hanging. Despite an early warning, California's governor refused to reinforce the local police. He then praised the vigilantes in interviews. Unlike Fritz Lang's 1936 Fury, Endfield's Try and Get Me! closely follows the true incidents, including the fact that college students were key participants in the lynching violence. Nowhere is the horror of lawlessness so graphically represented: in full view of their neighbors and hundreds of strangers, citizens defy the civil authority: "There's no law against what's right!"

Try and Get Me! also contains a socially-conscious argument for civic responsibility. The secondary hero of the story is Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), a newspaper columnist set up as an obvious audience surrogate. At first unforgiving of Howard Tyler, Gil meets the despondent Judy and shifts his column to a more understanding tone. Everybody resents him except the Sheriff. Gil's publisher (Art Smith) takes over and continues to churn out provocative headlines, to keep his papers selling out three times a day. Velma and Hazel become the pawns of the publicity machine, and pose smiling for photos in the courthouse.

Injected into the screenplay is a character out of left field, an Italian mathematician-sociologist (Renzo Cesana) who appears at regular intervals to lecture Gil and others on social responsibility. His erudite but superfluous harangues are the epitome of weepy liberal pleading -- "environmental factors" are responsible for the "breakdown of social decency". It's understandable that conservatives would consider the speeches obvious propaganda, especially when delivered by a man who is both an intellectual and a (gasp) foreigner. Actually, Cesana's speeches contradict the film's true message. Howard Slocum isn't an underprivileged slum kid lacking a moral upbringing, he's a desperate man pushed aside by the economy. The body of the movie faults society's emphasis on material success and conspicuous consumption. Howard goes bad trying to keep up with a rat race he can never win.

This confusion hurts Try and Get Me!'s chances for classic status, the same way that a vague ending hurts the otherwise ferocious race-riot movie The Well. The question is, were these early 1950s pictures damaged by Production Code pre-censorship? It's difficult to tell. Although Lang's Fury and Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident remain the classic lynch law movies, Pagano and Endfield's film is much closer to historical reality.

There's no denying the power of Try and Get Me!, which begins with a blind street revivalist preaching at full pitch: "Why do you do the things you do? Why?!" The actual "Sound of Fury" is the roar of the mob, which transforms society into a savage animal. Howard Tyler and Jerry Slocum are dead-to-rights guilty yet wholly undeserving of their barbaric fate. Howard collapses into psychic agony, and Jerry fights back like a rabid dog. The onrushing mob overwhelms the few deputies and storms the jail. Forget movies where the Sheriff threatens to kill "the first man who steps forward". Doing that would probably result in multiple deaths, including most of the deputies. It's a scene of total horror. The implication is that citizens can be herded and bullied into doing terrible things -- by newspapers, by politicians, by television demagogues encouraging lawlessness: "There's no law against what's right!"

The scenes with the Italian busybody aside, Cy Endfield's direction of his actors is superb. 1 The shooting style evolves as the story progresses. Howard Tyler's long days trying to find work are shot in documentary style, but his alcoholic panic attack at the nightclub is highly expressionistic. Endfield was not the only participant to suffer a career interruption. Alleged Communist connections put Lloyd Bridges on bad terms with HUAC until he cleared himself by becoming a friendly witness. A veteran of many socially conscious dramas and films noir, Art Smith was blacklisted after being named by his old colleague Elia Kazan. Producer Robert Stillman's early credits include the hard-hitting Champion and Home of the Brave, but he went directly from Try and Get Me! into TV work with Queen for a Day. Talented Frank Lovejoy didn't get many more starring roles, but his very next one was in Warners' reactionary I Was a Communist for the FBI. The soulful Irish actress Kathleen Ryan may hold the record for appearances as the suffering woman of political victim-heroes: between 1947 and 1950 she appeared in Carol Reed's allegorical Odd Man Out, Edward Dmytryk's pro-Communist Christ in Concrete and Endfield's searing Try and Get Me!

To fully appreciate how unusual films like Try and Get Me! were, one must understand that America's screens in 1950 were flooded with fare promoting family values, military vigilance and the joys of peacetime prosperity. Movies even slightly pessimistic toward American life, even hits like The Asphalt Jungle were considered "unhealthy" by many in the industry. Although the HUAC witch hunters focused mainly on the past affiliations of Hollywood talent (mostly bread & butter creatives unable to fight back), the socially critical messages were present in several of their films, themes that conservatives would surely label subversive propaganda. Christ in Concrete and Salt of the Earth were barred from release or boycotted by ultra-conservative organizations. Joseph Losey's The Lawless and Leo Popkin's The Well are about vigilantism and racial/ethnic prejudice. Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway indicts business as a closed system of rackets; Abraham Polonsky's superb Force of Evil extends that logic to charge that our entire business culture is compromised by corruption.

Today's "free" movie screens approach political controversy almost exclusively in documentaries. Few current dramatic films seem as morally courageous or sophisticated as the above examples from the highly politicized postwar years. Dramas even tangentially critical of the war in Iraq haven't been particularly successful. If one can appreciate its political context, Try and Get Me! remains a searing revelation.

Savant has seen Try and Get Me! in a revival print and on the old, good-quality Republic VHS. It may have played once or twice on Turner Classic Movies, but not for many years. Although not considered a core noir title, it's surely more powerful than many of the noir classics, and well worth seeking out.

Written by Glenn Erickson from his column at DVD Talk: DVD Savant


Try and Get Me!
Not on Home Video
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 85 min. / The Sound of Fury
Starring Frank Lovejoy, Kathleen Ryan, Richard Carlson, Lloyd Bridges, Katherine Locke, Adele Jergens, Art Smith, Renzo Cesana, Irene Vernon, Cliff Clark, Donald Smelick.
Cinematography Guy Roe
Production Design Perry Ferguson
Film Editor George Amy
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Jo Pagano from his novel The Condemned
Produced by Robert Stillman
Directed by Cyril Endfield

1 Judging by the way they integrate with the rest of the movie, Renzo Cesana scenes were clearly not added as reshoots.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

99 River Street (1953)

“The harder you’re hit, the harder you have to hit.”

Imagine this: you’re a prizefighter in the heavyweight division — a real comer after more than sixty bouts, never once knocked down — and you finally get a shot at the greatest crown in sports. Going into the last round up on all cards, you get a deep cut from an accidental bump and the ringside doc declares you the loser. As if that weren’t enough, the state athletic commission bars you for life, claiming that another hard pop could dim your lights. Three years later you pay the rent driving a cab through the five boroughs, and not one of your fares gives you a second glance. Your nag of an ex-showgirl wife has been working too many late nights, and now she’s flashing jewelry that you didn’t buy her. You’re a nobody. A sucker. Just another schmuck in the big apple.

That’s how it is for ex-pug Ernie Driscoll at the beginning of 99 River Street — one of the most hardboiled, brutal, and inexplicably forgotten films of the noir cycle. Self-pity is the deadliest of emotions and it defines Driscoll. There’s a certain kind of guy who, having fought for the heavyweight crown and lost on an accidental cut, would strut through later life like a big shot. He’d hit the bars after his shift to tell fight stories and relive the good old days — jabbing and hooking to the applause of drunks and floozies. John Payne’s Driscoll isn’t that guy. Instead, after coming so close and having it all snatched away, he’s a bitter, brooding, short-tempered hulk who considers his ring years a waste. Yet he’s also like the schoolgirl who’s had her heart broken — not eager to stick his chin out again. So what’s a guy like Ernie Driscoll, stumbling through life in a daze and hating himself for it, choose for a dream? A gas station. Saving up his tips to buy one is an absurd an ambition for a man who recently stood toe to toe with the champ, but even Ernie knows he’ll probably never make it happen. Driscoll is a man who feels sorry for himself and can’t get over it. Payne’s performance sweats with pathos and verisimilitude.

The story is a knockout. Phil Karlson takes a complicated script and delivers a fast-paced and coherent movie that plows ahead with well-drawn, convincing characters. A plot summary would read like an unwieldy mishmash so I’ll omit it — and besides, some of the film’s best moments are meant to surprise. The picture opens with first-rate ring footage where a beefed-out Payne makes like a real fighter. Heads snap from believable punches that the foley artist gives the resounding crash of hammer blows. In one of the film’s numerous, clever directorial nuances, what at first appears to be a live event turns out to be a televised ‘classic fights’ rerun that Ernie is watching on the small set in his flat. Payne is thereby transformed from hero to hangdog with one simple camera movement. Wife Pauline, played by Peggie Castle, turns the set off in a bickering exchange that is pure Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo: “I’d have been a star if I hadn’t married you,” she says, and he fires back, “You were a showgirl — I could have been champion.” To which she smirks with venom and sarcasm, “Could have been.” Ernie then shuffles off to his cab for a night that will change his life forever. Before the sun rises again he’ll discover the truth about his marriage, and then scramble to steer clear of cops and crooks after Pauline turns up stiff in the back seat of his taxi.

The supporting cast is made up of a broad pastiche of downtown night dwellers — from hoodlums and hustlers to philanderers and insomniacs. Whether through lucky casting or plain good direction each role is strikingly realized. Evelyn Keyes, coffee shop habitué and Broadway wannabe, is Linda, the gal pal who makes a chump out of Ernie(in the film’s slickest and, possibly, most memorable scene) and then has to get square. Fighters and their trainers are never far apart in classic films, so it makes sense that Ernie’s best friend and former corner man is also his dispatcher at the cab company. Frank Faylen (who in a strange bit of movie serendipity played a cab driver named Ernie in It's A Wonderful Life) is Driscoll’s pal and confidant, though his part is the least colorful in the cast. Brad Dexter plays John Rawlins, the sleazy jewel thief who cuckolds Driscoll. He’s even more memorable here than he was three years earlier as a crooked investigator in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Both parts call for the same sort of viperous scumbag, but Dexter is better in this film if for no other reason than his role has more meat. The best support in the film is offered by Jay Adler as Christopher, pet shop owner by day and big time jewelry fence after dark. Adler, with his quiet demeanor and air of almost grandfatherly respectability, makes Christopher into the most coolly terrifying presence in the film. Even amongst such a strong cast Adler is the scene-stealer.

The film’s brutality is plentiful and vividly cinematic. Films of this period often age poorly due to the artificial quality of their violence. Not so here. From the beginning boxing match to the climactic sequence at the titular address, the punches, slaps, gunshots, and crashes are unusually authentic. Blood spreads across cheeks and foreheads with surprising regularity and loving care. The film embraces the spectacular physicality of criminal life, and lingers blithely on those moments. Jack Lambert plays in many of those scenes, his face instantly recognizable as one of the more grotesque hoodlums in film history. Here he’s Mickey, an ambitious young thug who works for Christopher. In once scene, Pauline and Rawlins visit the pet store that serves as Christopher’s front. As they enter Mickey feeds milk to a puppy from a baby’s bottle, but within minutes he’s slapping Pauline to the floor while holding Rawlins at bay with a .38. Later he gives Driscoll the third degree, punctuating each question with a heavy chop, Ernie’s head jarring from one side of the screen to the other. Yet Mickey takes the beating of his life when he discovers, the hard way, that Driscoll was just biding his time and waiting for an opening. Ernie makes the hoodlum pay for not remembering him as he unloads every ounce of pent up frustration onto poor Mickey’s face — and we get to see every punch. The closing set piece is potent and rewarding, and includes one of the best “deaths by car” in noir history, as well as an operatic climax where cruel fate finally rewards Driscoll: he’s shot, he’s exhausted, and he’s nearly broken, yet he’s given the chance to rise to his feet and answer that bell one final time.

Within the canon of film noir there are numerous fight films — from the famous Body and Soul and The Set-Up to the slightly less well known, yet equally brilliant, Champion with Kirk Douglas. 99 River Street isn’t a boxing film per se, but it is a story concerned with a boxer whose life and sense of self are defined by the events of one fateful night in the ring. In part what makes noir films so wonderful is their oppressively dark atmosphere of alienation and menace (99 River Street takes place entirely at night). However that atmosphere needn’t carry beyond the conclusion of the story — the film noir hero can occasionally live happily ever after. The doomed lovers from such archetypical examples as Criss-Cross, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past don’t survive their respective films, yet despite the extraordinary popularity of those pictures they represent a fairly small percentage of noirs where the protagonist doesn’t end up alive, kicking, and somehow redeemed through his ordeal. For every cocksure Walter Neff who deserves the hand fate deals him there’s an Ernie Driscoll who endures circumstances worthy of Job in order to claim his own fair share of redemption. 99 River Street screams “Look at this sap. Life gave him a kick in the teeth and he deserves better, but brother, he’s gotta pay for it.” Things are grim for Ernie in the beginning and they get worse as the reels unspool, but the same narrative convention that assures us Walter Neff will get his in the end also promises that Driscoll will come out on the other side, and that payoff is what keeps us watching. We ache for slobs like Ernie -- we want to see him get clear of his bad luck and find some sort of happiness. Despite its violence, cruelty, and capricious fates, in the end 99 River Street reveals itself to be a film that ultimately rewards our hopes.

Written by The Professor

Editor's note: The Professor has one of the best film noir sites on the web - Where Danger Lives.

Director: Phil Karlson
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Screenplay: Robert Smith
Story: George Zuckerman.
Starring: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes, Peggie Castle, and Brad Dexter.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 82 minutes

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Shield for Murder (1954)

Starring Edmond O'Brien (Barney Nolan), Marla English (Patty), John Agar (Mark), with Emile Meyer, Carolyn Jones, Claude Akins.

Bitter and burned out, veteran police detective Barney Nolan longs to distance his nightclub-worker girlfriend Patty and himself from the chilly realities of life on the street - and is willing to shatter the laws he's long upheld if they keep him from realizing his twisted dream of middle-class domestic bliss. Robbing and brazenly murdering a connected bookmaker for $25,000 - and then claiming the man's death was the result of a warning shot gone wild, Nolan's story immediately raises the eyebrows of his colleagues and captain, as his attitude and actions in recent years have reflected an alarming corrosion of spirit. Serving as a makeshift safe-deposit box, a hole behind the freshly-built tract house Nolan is securing for himself and Patty is fed the ill-gotten gains undercover of darkness...

Clearly suspicious, but reluctant to embrace the notion of Nolan's guilt are both his commanding officer (Meyer) and his longtime friend-on-the-force Mark (Agar), a younger cop who displays a not-so-brotherly protectiveness for Patty - who herself hints at a reciprocal attraction. While they reserve judgment, two shady private eyes hired by the dead man's boss immediately beleaguer the gruff, defensive Nolan - and introduce the other hostile, probing entity he must hoodwink if he is to successfully reach his suburban oasis. Nolan's plan is further disrupted by the emergence of an eyewitness - a deaf mute who knows the incident was no accident, but not that it was Nolan who pulled the trigger - until the desperate cop pays him a nocturnal visit, and irreversibly worsens the situation for both he and the do-gooder.

One of several 'dirty cop' noirs to hit silver screens in 1954 (the others being Rogue Cop, Private Hell 36, and the under appreciated Pushover), Shield For Murder holds no claim as the most stylish, poignant, or artfully produced. It's meat-and-potatoes noir for the masses - which is by no means a critique, as many of it's ilk are memorable, respect-worthy genre entries. It's just that Shield could've been far better than it turned out - more nuanced, stylized, and resonant - with a bit of structural tweaking here, and the odd infusion of sophistication there. Beginning the story proper after a tantalizing glimpse of it's downbeat conclusion would've added a welcome artsy spark, and been more in keeping with the genre's patented and favored storytelling style - the flashback structure. Nothing casts a gloom over a lead character quite like a brief fast-forward to his/her downfall or demise, and Shield would've benefited immeasurably from just such a stylistic device.

Normally, one can't find fault with an Edmond O'Brien performance, but in his role as the embittered cop on the verge of mortal meltdown - or Norman Rockwell-ness, the genre favorite skirts the edge of camp, delivering his laughably hard-boiled lines through gnashed teeth - spitting out dialogue more appropriate for a 30s pot-boiler (if it's use was meant as character development - to color Nolan as department dinosaur - it wasn't worth it). Rarely, if ever, are we shown the rogue cop in a moment of quiet contemplation, struggling with the tangled web he himself wove. It's damn near impossible to relate to him, or to sympathize with his plight, when he regularly alienates the viewer - unlike Fred MacMurray's conflicted cop in Pushover, who we actually want to see get away with murder (and Kim Novak).

As unimaginatively shot and directed (by first-timer O'Brien himself) as it is undeniably engrossing, 'Shield' feels like an early television morality tale - cast with actors and actresses of wildly varying ability. Merely passable, the film is like a short, forgettable crime story brought to black-and-white life.

Written by Dave


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