Sunday, January 31, 2010

Slattery’s Hurricane (1949)

Noir … or Not?

Although it was made at the height Richard Widmark’s run of noir classics, Slattery’s Hurricane, produced in 1949 at his home studio, 20th Century-Fox, is never discussed as noir. In fact, it’s rarely discussed at all; it is perhaps the most unjustly neglected film in the oeuvre of Hollywood’s most unjustly neglected director, André de Toth.

Maybe it’s the elemental title; catastrophic weather conditions rarely figure in film noir. Maybe it’s the blindingly bright Miami and Caribbean locations. Maybe it’s the involvement of author Herman Wouk, so closely associated with military dramas such as The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Winds of War (1983) (though he was also associated with such “civilian” works as Marjorie Morningstar [1958] and Youngblood Hawke [1964]), that makes people assume this will be yet another tale of men in uniform.

In fact, Slattery’s Hurricane fits snugly into the spate of postwar films, many of them noir, that focused on disillusioned veterans unable to adjust to civilian life. It may be the most provocative and challenging of the bunch. Like virtually all of de Toth’s films, it refuses to follow genre tropes. There are crimes and betrayals throughout, but no murderous conspiracies; the only death is from natural causes. But the characters, especially Widmark’s Will Slattery, are fully dimensional—tortured, tempted, ambitious, ambiguous, cowardly, and courageous. As de Toth might say, human.

Wouk’s 1947 novel Aurora Dawn, his first, earned immediate attention from 20th Century-Fox, who entertained the 32-year-old writer’s idea for a movie called Slattery’s Hurricane. He was asked to turn it into a treatment. Wouk came back with a complete novel (eventually published in 1956). Richard Murphy and an uncredited Buzz Bezzerides translated it to screenplay form.

Will Slattery is a hotshot fighter pilot reduced to inactive duty for defying orders in a crucial battle and recklessly engaging in a solo aerial dogfight. The stunt did help secure victory, and the brass has delayed a decision on whether he deserves the Medal of Honor . . . or a court-martial. In the meantime he’s taken a job piloting cargo flights in the Caribbean for a Miami-based “candy manufacturer,” a job arranged by his loyal girlfriend, Dolores (Veronica Lake).

It’s a mundane existence for the hot-blooded Slattery until the reappearance of old flame Aggie (Linda Darnell), who’s married to his war pal Hobbie (John Russell), who’s now assigned to the Navy weather squadron. When Slattery pursues Aggie, he sets off a chain reaction that ruins the lives of everyone, most tragically Dolores. Slattery seeks atonement—or suicide—by forcibly taking Hobbie’s place on a dangerous tracking flight into the eye of a hurricane bearing down on the Florida coast.

One suspects de Toth, a pilot himself, campaigned for this assignment. His flying sequences are superior to any other similar scenes from the era. The claustrophobic confines of the cockpit, its eggshell fragility in a storm, sudden shifts of light through the windshield—de Toth captures it all with stunning verisimilitude. His intercutting of stock flying footage with freshly shot sequences is seamless.

In true noir fashion, the story is recounted in flashback, with Slattery narrating his own bitter tale in a vituperative voice-over as his plane is battered by the fast-moving storm. It’s not exactly Double Indemnity (1944), but the device gives the narrative vital urgency. By opening with Slattery’s unexplained beating of his drunken friend and the theft of his plane, the story is given a suspenseful spine it wouldn’t otherwise have, despite subplots involving adultery and drug smuggling, two noir staples.

The writers and director had running battles with the Production Code office over these elements of the story. The war was fresh enough in the public’s mind for the censors to fear sullying the reputation of the armed forces with the suggestion that a navy officer would sleep with a colleague’s wife. De Toth manages to avoid any explicitness while maintaining all the steaminess and sordidness of an affair enacted under the noses of the betrayed spouses.

The drug smuggling is dealt with just as obliquely, until it becomes essential to the plot. De Toth, thumbing his nose at “the Code,” makes the drug runners a pair of homosexuals, which slipped right under the censors’ radar. The most intriguing—and frustrating—aspect of the drug subplot concerns the strangely vague fate of Dolores. De Toth was married to Veronica Lake at the time and her casting has deep implications. For one, Lake was eager to break out of her established femme fatale persona. De Toth obliged by shearing off her patented peekaboo hairstyle and casting her against type in a role typically played by Barbara Bel Geddes: the mousy, left-behind girlfriend.

Second, it comes out that Dolores is a covert drug addict, and her response to Slattery’s infidelity is a dangerous abuse of her bosses’ product. Even though this is the crux of the story, the censors demanded that it be soft-pedaled. The only clue to Dolores’s problem is a hospital report Slattery peruses at her bedside, long enough for viewers to glimpse the words “Diagnosis: Pharmacopsychosis.”

De Toth was actually engaging in a form of shock therapy: Lake actually was a drug addict and alcoholic at the time. Slattery’s Hurricane would be the last Hollywood film she made. Her husband elicits a performance remarkably close to her true character, but it is a melancholy climax to her meteoric stardom.

Perhaps Slattery’s Hurricane would be better known—and considered more “noir”—if it had kept its original ending, in which Slattery relays the coordinates essential to saving Miami, but dies a martyr when he crashes into the sea. Dolores accepts his posthumous medal of honor, and only she and Aggie know that the “hero” was actually a selfish, drug-running rat bastard. Preview audiences hated the downer ending and Darryl Zanuck persuaded de Toth shoot a new one. (Imagine my excitement when earlier this year colleagues at the UCLA Film & Television Archive reported that they’d found “one extra reel” of Slattery’s Hurricane. Alas, it wasn’t the original ending, which sources at 20th Century-Fox say was probably not preserved.)

Although not as satisfyingly self-contained (nor as melodramatic) as the original, de Toth’s revised conclusion is wonderfully elliptical and open-ended, sharing the sad spirit of In a Lonely Place, made the following year.


written by Eddie Muller

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tread Softly Stranger (1958)

“You know how it is. Some women are merciless.”

Tread Softly Stranger (1958) from director Gordon Parry isn’t a great film. It’s even a stretch to call it a good film, but this B film is worth catching for two reasons: the gorgeous Diana Dors and a plot that illustrates how a femme fatale messes with the heads of two vastly dissimilar brothers. Tread Softly Stranger was released in 2008 as part of the 6-film, 3 disc set: British Cinema Classic B Film Collection, Volume 1. While it’s great to see some of these lesser known, B tier films finally making it to DVD, Tread Softly Stranger is going to be a disappointment if you approach the film with high expectations. Approach it as a curiosity and as an intro to (or reunion with) Diana Dors, and you’ll enjoy this B noir a great deal more.

The immensely popular and well-loved British celebrity, Diana Dors (real name Diana Mary Fluck) had a lot of fans during her lifetime, and the film’s producer, George Minter, must be part of that list as he insisted on using her for Tread Softly Stranger’s femme fatale--even though it meant that filming was delayed for several months until she was available. Diana Dors was known as the British Marilyn Monroe, and if you take a look of some of her early pin-up photos, it’s easy to see how she earned that title. Dors, who died from ovarian cancer in 1984 at the age of 52, had a career that largely limited her to cheesecake or sexpot roles, but while famous for her gorgeous looks and phenomenal body, she could act--a fact that’s sometimes rather sadly overlooked. Tread Softly Stranger shows Diana Dors at the peak of her beauty, and while she plays a femme fatale, her occasionally guileless manner is enough to make the men in her life believe every word she says.

In Tread Softly Stranger, Dors is marvelously cast as nightclub hostess, Calico. Interesting nickname--makes me think of a piece of cheap brightly coloured cotton, or alternately the colour of a cat. Either projection fits well with the character--a woman who seems wildly out-of-place in the damp, dank grimy Northern industrial town of Rawborough. Diana Dors makes the screen sizzle every time she appears, and she’s certainly the most interesting element in this otherwise patchy film.

The film begins in London at the bachelor pad of immaculately-groomed gambler, Johnny Mansell (George Baker) as he eagerly plumps up pillows on his couch and turns the lights down low. He even leaves the door to the bedroom open as part of a giant hint of what’s in store. He’s expecting a date with an exotic brunette, and while Johnny is rather obviously itching to get into the passion pit, the evening is interrupted by a phone call. He owes money, and the gambling debts are about to called in. Johnny puts down the phone, and while his date sits on the couch, he enters the bedroom behind her and begins smoothly and efficiently filling a suitcase. Johnny has decided to split town and stay away until things cool down.

This scene swiftly establishes Johnny’s character. Even though he has a willing brunette waiting, he won’t waste time dallying when his hide is threatened. Another man (James Bond, for example) might stay, have sex and then leave. But to Johnny, women are easy-come-easy-go. He prizes his hide more than the promise of sex, and he knows that there will always be more women.

Johnny travels to Rawborough, his old home town, the place he couldn’t wait to escape from ten years earlier. Rawborough is the type of town that people only come back to when they have hit rock-bottom or if they need a place to hide. There are no trees, no lawns, no gardens, just the bleakness of concrete, brick, and industry. The murky black and white print complements the film’s setting of a dreary town in which huge factory chimneys bilge filthy smoke and poisonous fumes into the gloomy sky.

Johnny’s been gone so long, he doesn’t even know his brother Dave’s address, so he pops into the Rawborough Working Mans’ Club to hit up the old crowd for information. Ten years may have passed but the old faces are the same, and childhood friend, Paddy Ryan (Patrick Allen) and his father night watchman Joe (Joseph Tomelty) are playing billiards. Johnny learns that Dave has a ‘regular’ girlfriend who works as a part-time hostess in a local club. Paddy’s enthusiasm about Dave’s girlfriend reveals that “she’s a looker,” while Joe declares that she’s “no good.” These disparate descriptions serve to set the scene for Johnny’s first meeting with Dave’s girlfriend, and when Johnny enters Dave’s meagerly furnished rented rooms, one of the first things he spies is a deliciously abandoned nylon stocking.

Diana Dors as Calico is unforgettable. She first appears from a rear view bending over for stretching exercises in shorts that might fit a twelve-year-old. The rear view is just the preliminary for what’s in store when Diana turns around and faces the camera, and this scene is set so that our reaction to finding this gorgeous girl in the dung heap of Rawborough is mirrored in Johnny.

It seems incongruous that Calico should be in such a drab little town as Rawborough. She landed there due to “romance” and now can’t wait to leave. Her ticket out appears to be Dave, Johnny’s nervous bookkeeping brother. As a bachelor, and an accountant at the town’s largest employer, he’s a good catch. A good catch, that is, if you plan on staying in Rawborough for the rest of your life, but Calico is the sort of girl who wants more. Dave showers Calico with expensive gifts he can’t afford, and in order to keep Calico interested, Dave’s been dipping into the payroll at work. With an audit coming up in a few days, he has to replace the money fast or face being imprisoned for embezzlement. Of course, Calico comes up with the brilliant idea of knocking off the payroll so that Dave doesn’t get caught and that the loot will fund their get-away to all the places she’s ever dreamed of.

Johnny sniffs out that Dave has money problems, and before long he uncovers the robbery plan. Johnny, who spent his childhood keeping Dave out of trouble, realizes that the plan is flawed, and he thinks he can replace the money his brother embezzled with just one lucky day at the track….

Calico, of course, by setting up Dave as a gun-toting robber, has bet on the wrong pony. Dave might be capable of sneaking his hands in the till, but he lacks the courage for anything bold or violent. Johnny, on the other hand, enjoys taking chances, but although he’s a brazen risk-taker, he’s not an idiot. Johnny has Calico’s number from the moment he hears about her. But is this just how he views women in general? While Johnny mildly threatens Calico to treat his brother well, at one point he wallops her, and of course, she melts in his arms. What follows is one of the most flagrantly and tackily suggestive symbolic scenes of sex. No details, because that would spoil the fun, and it really does have to be seen to be believed.

Tread Softly Stranger has all the elements to make a really great noir film, but it falls down along the way. The plot isn’t bad, and there’s a fatalistic irony to the idea that Calico has the persuasive skills to lead the weaker brother down the criminal path, but those same skills only get the stronger brother as far as bed. Johnny feels Calico’s powerful sexuality; he can’t deny it, but unlike Dave, he will never check his sanity at the bedroom door. Dave’s hysteria seems to be a substitution for tension, but instead of increasing tension, Dave’s hysterical outbursts call for a slap to knock some sense into him. The fickle hand of Fate plays a strong hand in the film, and this augments the film’s basic premise, but the film becomes mired in dull exchanges just when the plot needs to pick up the pace.

The film’s best scenes, naturally, include those with Diana Dors, and throughout the course of the film, her clothes appear to either be too small, glued on, or about to fall off. With full pouty lips long before silicone, she has a healthy, clean almost luminous presence in stark contrast to the film’s murky quality. Her character becomes more complex as the plot unfolds, and whether or not you think she’s a gold digger may depend on your level of cynicism. Those tears certainly look real enough. The idea of her character set in between these two vastly different brothers is intriguing; it’s just not intriguing enough to pull the rest of the film together. Thanks to Calico’s influence, she makes a seemingly good man go bad, and a former ne’er-do-well becomes decent. It’s a fascinating premise and flips the corrupting femme fatale influence to new levels.

Tread Softly Stranger is a Northern crime film--a sub-genre in itself, and if you haven’t checked out Britain’s recent addition to the genre: The Red Riding Trilogy, (editor's note: only available on R2 DVD) based on the Red Riding Quartet novels of David Peace, do yourself a favour and go get a copy. One phrase from the first film in the trilogy leaps to mind: “This is the North. We do what we want!” And this is an idea that underscores that the North of England has a very different set of rules and behaviour from the South. While Tread Softly Stranger doesn’t explicitly explore this North vs South divide, nonetheless it’s implicit through its depiction of the opportunities and expansive horizons of London in opposition to the narrow, claustrophobic hard-scrabble world of Rawborough.

Written by Guy Savage


Monday, January 18, 2010

The Pretender (1947)

We make allowances in our enjoyment of films that we withhold when considering other art forms — movies seem to operate by a different set of standards: so many disparate elements come together from so many different minds and sets of hands, not to mention competing agendas, that audiences can be incredibly forgiving if a film isn’t up to par — provided some aspect of it captivates them. It’s one of the reasons that movies are timeless — viewers can find something worthwhile in a film they would otherwise consider a failure. The Pretender, a second feature from Republic Pictures, is a good example of such a film. It offers the sort of half-baked film story that gets dreamt up in some writer’s bed during those hazy moments somewhere between awake and asleep. Its overly contrived and forces itself upon us, but it nevertheless piques our curiosity in some way that, despite the flaws, we still want to see how its particular gimmick plays out on-screen.

The Pretender stars Albert Dekker, a man whose name is familiar to film buffs but more or less forgotten by the general public. Dekker had a sturdy career in the movie business, finding his way west after making his bones on Broadway. Today he’s remembered mostly for the title role in the 1940 science fiction classic Dr. Cyclops though he did make a few crime pictures, including the essential 1946 film noir The Killers. He can also be found chewing scenery in the 1945 noir-on-ice, Suspense (essayed about here as well as at my site), and playing it mysterious in the fascinating 1941 proto-noir Among the Living. In spite of Dekker’s work in front of the camera he remains one of the unlucky souls for whom the Kenneth Anger-hyped speculation surrounding his grisly, sexualized death will forever overshadow anything he accomplished in life. It seems that whenever his name comes up writers feel obligated to rehash the details of his demise. Dekker’s corpse was discovered in the bathroom of his Hollywood apartment in 1968, hands shackled behind his back and body hanging limply from the shower curtain. For three decades conjecture involving robbery-murder, suicide, autoeroticism gone wrong, and things even more bizarre have made the rounds. The gossip is unfortunate, because it obscures the fact that Dekker was a pretty good actor — he had an intelligent and refined screen persona that was enhanced by sheer physical size. He was able to use that persona to affect either feelings of pathos or enmity from his audience. The guy had real range and he should have been a bigger star. His performance is the saving grace of The Pretender.

The movie finds Dekker in the role of Kenneth Holden, a Wall Street loser who likes to play the market but can’t pick a winner. He’s in the hole big-time, so he starts drafting five-figure “loan” checks from the accounts of one Claire Worthington (Catharine Craig), a pretty young woman — years his junior — whose sizable fortune he holds in trust. Dekker writes check after check in hopes that his luck will turn, but when it doesn’t he gets the idea to marry the girl and co-opt her funds the easy way. The problem is that Claire is already engaged to Dr. Leonard Koster (Chares Drake) — a good-looking psychiatrist she’s fallen head-over-heels for.

Holden refuses to let a little thing like love get in his way, so he arranges with local racketeer Victor Korrin (pudgy Alan Carney, scene-stealer par excellence) to have the boyfriend knocked off — which is exactly when The Pretender begins to sink under the weight of its own contrivances. It starts when Holden can’t pass along the name of Claire’s fiancé — she has conveniently kept his identity a secret. Korrin’s only option is to scan the metro society columns for her engagement announcement, and then kill the man she’s pictured with. And of course he doesn’t do the dirty work himself— he subcontracts the messy stuff, and refuses to reveal the hired killer’s identity to Holden. It’s in the scene where the killing is arranged that the filmmakers frustratingly fail to cash in on one of those moments of wicked irony that so often makes film noir a treat. Korrin wants twenty grand for the job, which obviously Holden can’t get his hands on unless he raids Claire’s accounts yet again — but the filmmakers fail to cash in on the irony of one man purchasing his rival’s death with the money of the woman they both desire. The addition of such a scene would have done much to elevate The Pretender as a film noir, yet Wilder let the moment pass. Nevertheless the scene is still the best in the film by a mile — the camera gets in tight on both actors, each cloaked in shadow. Carney, performing his ass off, does a bit with his cigar that makes the scene unforgettable.

No sooner than the Holden and Korrin seal their deal the film jumps across town to an equally critical scene, when Claire, ready to paint the town, meets Dr. Lenny at his hospital. Just as the young lovers head for the elevator he gets called to the operating room for a psychiatric consult that quickly turns into surgery, a ruined evening, and hurt feelings. In a startlingly forced 180, even for a B-movie, Claire decides she isn’t willing to share her man with the medical profession and stuffs her diamond into an envelope along with a hastily scribbled note that reads simply, “It won’t work.” She fumbles the envelope into a nurse’s hands, then slinks to a phone booth and dimes Holden: “Let’s get married…tonight!” In spite of the silliness of her character, I found Craig to be an actress with pluses. She looks like a cross between Norma Shearer and Kay Francis — classy without being aloof, sophisticated yet attainable. The camera seemed to like her, so it’s surprising she didn’t have a longer career in the movies — it lasted just ten years from start to finish, then a forty-year marriage to the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.

The story briskly shoves its way along, damn the credibility, until it gets what it wants: Claire ducks out of her engagement to the shrink and instead elopes with Holden. But before he can get in touch with Korrin to cancel the contract on her husband, the fat man’s past catches up to him and he gets bumped off, leaving a bewildered Holden with a big target on his back and looking over his shoulder for a man with a gun. The latter sequences of the film focus on Holden’s unraveling psyche as he scrambles to identify and try to stop the would-be killer. His fear of this unknown reaper causes him to come completely unglued — leaving him sequestered in his room, fittingly unable to exalt in the wealth he conspired to obtain. Holden’s paranoia overtakes him at a lightning pace, and it’s not particularly credible from a story standpoint, but Dekker is good enough to keep you intrigued. He changes his appearance, mistrusts and dismisses his servants, refuses to eat anything but canned goods, and fails utterly as a husband — next thing we know Dr. Leonard is back on the scene. The inevitable conclusion offers a fitting consequence of the noirish fatalism that permeates the movie, with an ironic, smirking postscript reminiscent of such films as Shockproof and Tomorrow is Another Day tacked on for good measure.

At 69 minutes The Pretender is so brief that it’s fair to suggest it doesn’t get made, even on Poverty Row, a few years further into the era of television. The gimmicky story, which feels more like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents than it does a feature film (or even a second feature), seems more suited to the smaller screen. It’s notable on the production side for two reasons. This is the moment in which famed cinematographer John Alton gets his first real crack at noir subject matter, and while his work is as uneven as the film itself, there are a few great moments — like the deal-making scene between Holden and Korrin. Also noteworthy is the use of theremin music in the soundtrack. The instrument that would give the science fiction films of the following decade their distinctive electronic sound is used with gusto in The Pretender, and while it seems somewhat foreign in a crime picture, the movie wouldn’t be the same without it.


Written by The Professor

Monday, January 11, 2010

Noir City

This week's Film Noir of the Week is The Stranger.

Speaking of strangers...

NOIR CITY from Film Noir Foundation on Vimeo.

The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger was Orson Welles' third film. He set out to prove that he could make a movie that could perform at the box office. His previous two directorial efforts - the absolute film classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons - were box office failures. His third was a more traditional film and, like one of it's movie poster predicted, was Welles' first box office successes.

Today the “programmer” is considered Welles' weakest. I don't buy it. The Stranger is an amazing looking film - and Welles first directed film noir. The most notable and memorable scene in The Stranger is an exciting chase in and on an elaborate clock tower. Foster Hirsch - in his book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen- writes:

Places in noir reveal character... Settings are chosen for thematic reinforcement. Cars and trains and boxing arenas figure prominently in noir stories because they provide visual metaphors of enclosure and entrapment.

The clock tower is a dark cramped place which can only be entered by climbing rickety ladders. The clock is referenced a number of times throughout the film and you just know the hero of the story is going to end up there. The editing during the clock sequence is just amazing. Welles and Edward G. Robinson - up until that point just toying with each other by playing cat and mouse - frantically rush through the giant cuckoo clock. The scene is edited in such a way that it seems like both men - going back and forth - are mimicking each others actions. All of it taking place in a dangerous enclosed environment.

But that's the end. The setup is excellent as well.

Edward G. Robinson plays Wilson - a Nazi hunter. He convinces authorities holding a former Nazi to release a low-level war criminal (twitchy Konrad Meinike played by Konstantin Shayne) in hopes that the German will lead them to his Nazi superior. Wilson breaks his pipe when he passionately pleads for them to release the man. The little man is let go - and it's made to look like a breakout. Robinson follows him to a small peaceful New England town. Wilson is an intellectual (like Robinson himself) and not a cop. He botches the tail job and is spotted quickly - thanks to the tape around his repaired pipe. In a handsomely shot scene in a gymnasium (Welles and photographer Russell Metty are in fine form during the opening scenes) the escapee bops Wilson in the head erasing the trail Wilson was following. Meinike - losing his tail - now feels free to visit his former superior.

Loretta Young
plays Mary Longstreet - the town's prep school headmaster's naive daughter that who's first seen hanging curtains on her wedding day.

Young plays “women teetering on the edge” in a few other good noirs. She's a frantic housewife in Cause for Alarm! and plays a spinster professor who tries to fulfill her sexual desires in The Accused - only to kill the man making advances on her in self defense.

In The Stranger, while waiting for her husband-to-be to come home, she is visited by Meinike. The strange man runs off when he finds her fiance Professor Charles Rankin isn't home.

Then we're introduced to Orson Welles as Professor Rankin. Welles - directing himself - is excellent. Rankin is revealed to be a former Nazi. He's approached walking down the street by Meinike and he quickly hustles him off into the woods. He kills the man while he prays. Rankin evil streak clearly hasn't stopped since the war ended. The shookup professor throws the body in a ditch just seconds before some student “paper chase” happens by. Later in the movie he kills his wife's beautiful golden retriever Red - after the dog uncovers the man Rankin killed in a shallow grave. Welles brilliantly and convincingly plays the part without a hint of a German accent.

After killing his old friend, Rankin returns home and the wedding goes as planned. Wilson suspects there may be something up with Rankin - who he finds out is new in town. Wilson - posing as an antique dealer - works his way over to the newlyweds house for dinner. It's only later in the night - popping out of bed - does he realize that Rankin is a Nazi when he remembers one of the professor's outrageous lines during dinner. Wilson reasons, “Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?”

Methodical and intelligent Wilson doggedly investigates Charles Rankin (the alias for Nazi Franz Kindler). Rankin/Kindler - always one step ahead of Wilson - convinces his wife and the townsfolk that he's innocent. The town's mood collectively goes from sunny to sullen under the pressure of the murder investigation. Hardest to convince of Rankin's guilt is Rankin/Kindler's loyal new wife Mary. Finally, she's exposed to the atrocities of war by Wilson (in a daring scene for 1946). Mary confronts her husband and he goes over the edge. Rankin (Welles goes appropriately over the top) attempts to kill her and then flees to the clock tower - and to a thrilling conclusion to The Stranger.

The clock reminds me of another Welles film. Carol Reed's The Third Man:

Welles as Harry Lime states,
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The Stranger movie has been in the public domain - meaning it's not owned but is public property- for years. Most DVD copies of the film are horrible. The best one I've viewed is the release from MGM a few years back. This movie - like another film that has fallen into the PD Scarlet Street - is probably best enjoyed when watching a clear, clean print if possible.

I suspect that The Stranger isn't considered great by film historians because it is lesser than say Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil. It also wobbles a bit in the middle too (and how could Wilson not guess he was a Nazi after that dinner conversation?) However, you couldn't make a better choice if you're looking for a conventional, fantastic looking film noir thriller.


Written by Steve-O

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Broken Embraces (2009)

Looking back at movies over the past decade I've come to the conclusion that film noir is no longer an American art form. Noir has been taken over. Hollywood noirs have become shallow glittery epics filled with wet city streets and fedoras. Comic book noir.

The best film noir of the last few years aren't American crime films... they were movies like Revanche, the Postman Always Rings Twice remake Jerichow, and Klopka - Guy Savage's Noir of the Week last week.

The film I want to feature this week is Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos). Almodóvar has been making movies in Spain for years and is no stranger to modern film noir. This one (unlike the darker Revanche and Jerichow and some of Almodóvar's other “noir” including Bad Education) has a light touch and humor too. Almodóvar uses muted colors mixed with bright red making it feel bold. The film - although in color - feels like noir without seeming like a tribute. That's a trick most modern American film makers apparently can't do. I've also noticed that foreign films have subplots concerning rampant unemployment, heartless heath-care coverage and ruthless bankers pretending to be “pillars of society” in their films while American movies steer wide of these subjects that are now a part of our daily lives. American movies are an escape from our problems while foreign noir seems to meditate on the issues of today.

More than anything, however, Broken Embraces is a pleasure to watch. It constantly references film noir, classic films and crime thrillers. This movie is a blast for film nuts. Clearly Almodóvar not only loves making movies he loves watching them.

There are many scenes in Broken Embraces that are reminiscent of other thrillers: Movie fans will notice when the film director (played by Lluís Homar) first meets Lena (Penélope Cruz) she turns and smiles. She looks stunning... her hair is full, dark and wavy. Her smile lights up the room... just like Rita Hayworth's entrance in Gilda (there's a bit of a comic payoff there too featuring a pest with a bowl haircut.) Then there's a squared staircase that looks just like the one in Elevator to the Gallows. Lena starts the movie as a secretary moonlighting as an “escort”. She uses the name Séverine which is clearly a nod to another film “lady of the evening” - Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. The director in the film is named Harry Caine. Harry Lime and Citizen Kane perhaps? When Lena is pushed down a staircase a character quips later, “that only happens in movies!” which is exactly what I thought when I saw the scene. There are too many of these references to mention and part of the fun is trying to catch them all.

This is a movie about making a movie so there's lots of film talk too. When the director - now a blind writer - has his screenwriter pupil put a DVD on he goes through his collection looking for Elevator to the Gallows. Just reading off the titles on the shelf is interesting

Even a blind guy knows that the Jules Dassin and Fritz Lang film noir should not be filed with French New Wave!

Two American blockbusters this summer also referenced classic movies. The best part of the ultimately boring Public Enemies is when Dillinger (Johnny Depp) - wide eyed - watches Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama. Quentin Tarantino nearly gives his audience a film lecture about The White Hell of Pitz Palu in Inglourious Basterds. I love all the hints and mentions of other films in Basterds. It's the only recent film I can think of that has more “movie” moments than Broken Embraces.

Then there's another 2009 Spain-based thriller, Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. About half way through a femme-fatale looking character is talking to the silent killer about the coffee switching in Hitchcock's Notorious and then goes onto say how Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai is a mess of a story but great to look at. My first thought was, “You could say the same for this film... but I'd rather be watching Lady From Shanghai.” You never think that way watching Broken Embraces. The twisty story - spaced out over 15 years via flashbacks and forwards - is mysterious and interesting from beginning to end.

Broken Embraces holds you with its story and look but what really sets it apart from other “foreign” films” is a movie star. Penélope Cruz is fantastic. The more I see of her the more impressed I am by her. Almodóvar has a lot of fun shooting her in different wigs and even shows off her Audrey Hepburn neck in the film-within-the-film. At one point in Broken Embraces she has an all-day sex romp with her elderly billionaire boyfriend. At the end he's lying on the bed looking like he just died. Cruz reacts by looking relieved and lights up a smoke. When he pops up alive Cruz shows surprise and disappointment in the same moment. Then she goes to the bathroom and puts on makeup and returns to bed with the man who owns her. Cruz is an actress playing an actress putting on a role for her sugar daddy. It's something to watch. An added bonus is she's absolutely beautiful to look at.

Most casual film goers will probably pass over Broken Embraces. It's probably too much of an art film for some - plus it has subtitles which is a deal breaker right there. But it's really not an art film. It's a smart, solid, and sometimes funny thriller. Some of the humor may be lost in translation (“I never knew I could be so emotional making gazpacho!” is probably a hilarious line in Spain.) but most of the jokes do translate well.

“I want to hear Jeanne Moreau.” says Harry Caine at one point. I'd settle for seeing Penélope Cruz in one of the best films of 2009.

Written by Steve-O
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