Saturday, May 29, 2010

Framed (1975)

Editor's note: this week's article is from novelist Wallace Stroby. His latest thriller (and it's a good one) is Gone 'til November

Framed is an easy film to respect, but a hard one to like. It’s an iconic ‘70s revenge drama, with a hard-boiled script that would have been the envy of any ‘50s noir. And it’s the final film from director Phil Karlson, who, in a four-decade career, brought Kansas City Confidential, The Phenix City Story, The Brothers Rico, 5 Against the House and other noteworthy crime dramas to the screen. It’s also one of the ugliest and most sadistic films to ever come from a major - if essentially journeyman - director.

Released in 1975, Framed was a follow-up to Karlson’s previous film, the surprise hit Walking Tall, and reunited him with its star, Joe Don Baker. Made for $500,000 and filmed on location in rural Tennessee, Walking Tall was the true-life story of Sheriff Buford Pusser, who was the victim - and perpetrator - of much mayhem while trying to clean up his crime-ridden county. In some ways, it recalled Karlson’s earlier Alabama-set Phenix City (in fact, many of the career criminals in Pusser’s real-life McNairy County had relocated there after being driven out of Phenix City by reform efforts a decade earlier). Walking Tall, of which Karlson reportedly owned a substantial percentage, went on to earn $23 million in the U.S. alone.

No surprise then that Karlson again teamed with Baker - and WT producer/screenwriter Mort Briskin - for a second backwoods revenge drama shot in Tennessee. Sporting one of the worst haircuts in movie history, Baker plays Ron Lewis, a nightclub owner and professional card player. He’s a careful gambler, but quick-tempered away from the tables. He’s doted on by his faithful girlfriend Susan, played by country singer - and one-time Motown artist - Conny Van Dyke (Van Dyke was just coming off Burt Reynolds’ W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. In 1974, Karlson told a syndicated Hollywood columnist that she “handles the heavy drama like a young Bette Davis.” You can be the judge of that.)

After returning from a lucrative Dallas poker trip, Ron stumbles onto a shooting on a lonely country road, and narrowly avoids taking a bullet himself. He escapes, but is then targeted, without explanation, by a sinister sheriff’s deputy (veteran Hollywood heavy Roy Jenson), sparking an intensely brutal and prolonged fight in the close confines of Ron’s garage. Eyes are gouged, groins slammed, heads butted and knees broken, until Lewis finally hammers the deputy’s skull to paste on the concrete floor.

Despite his claims of self defense, the battered Lewis is arrested, charged, and convicted in short order. The entire justice system - including his own defense lawyer - collude to put him away (after arriving at the scene of the fatal fight, the first thing the Sheriff does is steal Lewis’ poker winnings). In the meantime, Susan is attacked and raped by two hired thugs (“They used me”), in a scene that’s sparse on detail, but heavy on suggestion. They warn her off helping Lewis with his defense, a warning she takes to heart.

Lewis gets two-to-10 in the state pen, and almost as soon as he’s processed, he’s in trouble, roughing up an abusive guard and using a broken mop handle as a weapon. In the exercise yard, his card skills catch the notice of Sal Viccarrone, the mob boss who runs the prison, played by a post-Godfather, post-Love Story John Marley. “You got fast fingers, no mouth,” Sal says. “My kind of people.” Lewis is also befriended by imprisoned hitman Vince Greeson, played by former Bowery Boy Gabe Dell. Lewis wins new respect inside the walls, but still burns for revenge against those who put him there. Sal warns him to take it easy and stop bucking the system. “Don’t be a schmuck,” he says. “Play the odds.” In Framed, all the honorable men are behind bars. Everyone outside is corrupt.

Paroled after four years, Lewis goes home to try unravel the conspiracy that got him sent away, an echo of the quest John Payne’s character undertakes in 1952’s Kansas City Confidential. Lewis is joined in his efforts by the newly released Vince, who’s been given a contract to kill him, but sides with his old prison buddy instead. Armed with information from the town’s sole black deputy (Brock Peters), Ron and Vince gleefully dispense rough justice to a long list of malefactors, including the Sheriff - now the town’s mayor - and a state senator. However, that conspiracy is so labyrinthine, it almost defies explanation. Even by the film’s end, it’s hard to parse the exact details, especially since much of the explanatory dialogue is tearfully - and sometimes inaudibly - delivered by people being beaten, tortured or drowned (the recent bare-bones Legend Films DVD release has no subtitles).

During this third act, Framed gets truly ugly. Ron shoots off a man’s ear, then shoves an auto spark plug wire into his good one and revs the engine (and that’s after he's dragged him through an open car window by his nostrils). When the mayor refuses to give up the combination to his office safe, a grinning Ron uses a combat knife to pin his hand to a desk, then threatens him with castration. Vince stabs a guard dog to death, and another character is ripped to pieces - albeit mostly offscreen - by Dobermans. There’s also an impressive train/car collision that features some amazing stunt work. Baker’s double barely leaps clear of the car before impact. As he rolls away, he’s visibly engulfed - in slow motion - by the resulting fireball.

Despite these boundary-pushing set pieces, Framed is often hobbled by sub-TV-movie production values. One scene in a hospital room is so badly miked the dialogue is almost unintelligible. Wherever the money from Walking Tall went, it didn’t end up here.

Baker, an Actors Studio graduate who often found himself in sub-par drive-in fare (Mitchell, Speedtrap, Golden Needles and many others), is convincing as always, even if his character is underwritten (it’s implied Lewis is a Vietnam vet, but we know little about him besides that). Though he began his career with some notable Broadway appearances, Baker never really got the film roles he deserved. Despite the success of Walking Tall, he seemed to struggle as he moved from character actor to leading man. Prior to Framed, two of his best performances had come in supporting roles in which he had much less screen time, John Flynn’s The Outfit and Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, both in 1973 (he’s also excellent in the 1971 TV movie Mongo’s Back in Town, based on the novel by prison writer E. Richard Johnson). Burly, bulky and often disheveled on screen, Baker would hardly fit anyone’s image of an action hero today.

With a few exceptions, the rest of the Framed cast acquit themselves well, and Dell is surprisingly good as the sardonic hitman. Still, the film feels like an unapologetic programmer, made quickly and cheaply to capitalize on a previous success, and feed the continuing appetite for rural action films that Walking Tall had helped create.

But roughhewn as it is, Framed is a fitting signature conclusion to Phil Karlson’s directing career, a hard-edged revenge drama from a director who made them his own.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Touch of Evil (1958)

By David N. Meyer
Maybe Charlton Heston got suckered. Maybe when he insisted that Welles be hired to direct Touch of Evil, Heston believed that he was still the star. After all, Heston’s character’s name appears on the first page of the script. Heston should have read the last page, too; Welles’ character, the immortal corrupt police Captain Hank Quinlan, grows like a tumor as the film progresses. By the end, Heston’s barely a side-show.

Paul Schrader was right - as usual- when he described Touch as the apotheosis of the hysterical period of noir. For Schrader, and here we disagree, it’s also the end of noir, period. Touch brought all noir themes to such a fever peak, and took noir visual style to such a self-referential decadent climax, that nothing could be built on the ashes of noir after Touch scorched the earth. Touch plays like the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of noir, so amped up, so baroque, so dominated by its visual/auditory decoration that the only possible next step is retrenchment, a willful return to simplicity. And, sure enough, nine years later up pops Point Blank, an aggressive exercise in the absence of rococo.

Touch, as the apotheosis of late noir must, spins the wheel of good and evil, hero and villain, so fast there’s no telling them apart. And when there is, the villain’s much more compelling and worthy of compassion. Heston, the ostensive hero, proves a whining complainer who never commits a heroic act. He runs around the whole picture in ridiculous brown-face (he’s supposed to be Mexican, but nobody else rocks all that pancake) asking after his wife, ignoring her obvious peril, and carrying a bugging device while somebody else does the dirty work. Heston’s character watches the whole film happen, and vanishes, unlamented, before the coda. Like Roger Daltrey or Greg Allman (when Duane and Berry Oakley were still alive), Heston’s a journeyman surrounded by genius. Unlike those two, he never figures out how to hold his own. Seminal rock scholar Greil Marcus described early Howling Wolf records as “war”, and details how Wolf’s fiendishly talented sidemen battled for every molecule of space while always respecting the structure of the song. Welles’ coterie of over the hill, underappreciated character actors battle as strenuously for their screen time, for their awkward niches in Welles’ highly composed, disordered frames, and well they better. Their dialogue whooshes by as fast as one of DP Russell Metty’s whip-pans, and only the strong survive. Heston seems dazed when he shares an overcrowded shot with these craggy, determined troopers. He draws a deep breath to declaim all Moses-like and bam! The scene’s over and four other guys - each spitting half a sentence of linguistic shrapnel - have advanced the plot before Heston got a word in edgewise.

Meanwhile, Welles’ Quinlan - obese, waddling, grumbling half to himself, peering myopically through not world-weary but world-defeated eyes - commits murder with his hands right in front of us, and he’s the most sympathetic character in the picture! Welles paints a brutal self-portrait. The wreckage of his youth and handsomeness he presents as the wages of Quinlan’s and his own life of corruption. Though Welles’ always possessed a dancer’s grace, here he wallows in a fat man’s clumsiness, stumbling over his own feet with a precisely honed expression of befuddled humiliation. Is this me, he sputters - as he falls, as a former lover dismisses him, as those who cringed for years now face up to him - powerless before my own ruin, my jowly, sweaty, defeated face hanging out for all to see? Can this be me?

It’s a courageous embrace of the horrors of middle age and physical degradation, even more committed and shameless than Gloria Swanson’s in Sunset Boulevard. (Or maybe I should say: more than Buster Keaton’s in Sunset Boulevard.) How it serves Welles, beyond immersion in character, is to suggest that the unrelenting presentation of self-loathing will somehow bring catharsis from it. The moral wreckage onscreen belongs to Captain Quinlan; the physical wreckage is Welles’ alone. He flickers back and forth between these identities. The Sheriff’s rue and ruin generate compassion; Welles’ willingness to showcase his physical damnation provides the horror.

And so, hysterical period noir-style, Heston’s a hapless do-gooder, who gapes in outrage like a maiden aunt in Jane Austen, and gets elbowed aside for Welles’ walking lesson in reaping what one sows. Welles, as ever, must have known what he was doing. His picture starred two of the least convincing or sympathetic actors of that time. Neither Heston nor Leigh ever became anyone or anything other than themselves on screen. Janet Leigh is simply never believable. Even in the famed opening shot (there, I mentioned it; are you happy now?), she indicates left and right, never in the moment for a moment. It’s tough to care about her jeopardy; are we supposed to regard her as a spoiled brat whom it’s fun to torture? Welles seems to. His pan up her lingerie-clad body is so the opposite of sexy it’s positively creepy. With Leigh’s layers of makeup and blank face, those long legs and white-lace honeymoon outfit hold no more allure than Marie Windsor’s in Kubrick’s The Killing. At least Windsor was predatory. Leigh’s nothing at all, just someone on the set waiting for the director to tell her what to do next so she can half-pretend to do it.

Unlike any other woman in any Welles’ picture, Leigh gets acted upon. She has no will to impose on anybody. Welles torments her pretty good, too. She’s the essence of middle-class propriety thrust into the world of lower-class kicks and machinations, and everyone finds her pretensions to civilization equally irritating. There’s one odd, quite relenting note amidst all the unrelenting corruption. In the aftermath, characters inform us - in a nearly indecipherable mumble-mouthed sound bite - that Leigh never inhaled any of the marijuana around her, and that the injection forced upon her contained not the dread heroin, but the “harmless truth stuff”: sodium pentothal. That comes as a real letdown, given that two scary leather-dykes told the hopped-up Pachuco hopheads who kidnapped Leigh that they “wanted to watch.” Then someone says “Hold her legs,” and Leigh is borne up into what we assume, with our prurient little minds, to be a maelstrom of rapine and narcotics. Later we are told it was all for show. What a gyp!

Not that things would be more fun if she’d been shot full of scag and repeatedly violated. It’s that after showing Leigh kidnapped, mauled, molested, hypo’d against her will, transported unknowingly to a flea-bag hotel, awakening face to face with a recently strangled person, arrested for drug and murder charges and tossed into a border-town cell, Welles attempts to dismiss any possible damage to her with a one-sentence ‘Whew, glad that worked out okay!’ explanation. Seems very un-Dude of the director not to showcase more misery; Rita Hayworth didn’t get off so easy in Lady From Shanghai, that’s for sure. While the cheery brush-off might be s sop to the censors, it plays as Welles’ genuine lack of interest in Leigh’s character.

Welles demonstrates even less interest in what some might refer to as ‘plot.’ Events do unfold in a sequence, some drawn way out beyond the time they require and some whizzing by too fast to register. And there is some vague connection between events early in the picture and later. Story is secondary. Primary is Welles moving through the film like an ever-approaching elephant, thompsaurus footsteps sounding louder and louder as he increasingly dominates every frame. Welles give us tiny glimpses into Quinlan’s past, his excessively mourned dead wife whom maybe he murdered, all the dull injustice of all the innocents he framed, all the dues that he paid in service of…what? Heston’s crusading horseshit gets on Quinlan’s nerves, and Quinlan stops caring about pretending not be evil or that his evil made one bit of difference. There’s no kicks in it anymore, and when Marlene Dietrich gives him the bad news, Quinlan doesn’t bother to argue.

“Never mind the story,” Godard said wisely, “What’s the film about?” There, Touch of Evil puzzles. Pauline Kael said, presciently, of Godard, that his gifts did not run to making masterpieces. But Welles’ gifts did, and Touch is undoubtedly one, but a masterpiece of what? The bravura framing, camera-movement and composition astonishes frame after frame after frame. The performances that matter could hardly be better, in a similarly bravura style, half naturalism, half theatrical grandstanding - the usual mode of acting in a Welles’ picture. There are unforgettable tableaux, shots that have kept film students (and film professors) in rapture class after class for fifty two years, perfectly synchronized editing between insane camera-moves that remains the finest such editing attempted (and that pre-figures similar moves/edits, shockingly similar moves, in Fellini’s 8 ½.) and yet…

This masterpiece plays at a distance, a hard shiny object that never embraces, or maybe never shows an embraceable flaw. After his well-chronicled ruination(s), Welles is left with skill --tons of it-- but not what he really wanted, whatever that might have been: eternal youth, Rita Hayworth, stardom, freedom from his own demons, the chance to make the pictures he really wanted to make. Is that why Touch of Evil seems somehow empty? Welles lost hope in some fundamental way and what remains is only technique. The perfection of all those whip-pans, off-angle tilts, close-ups packed with Breugel-like faces and machine-gun dialogue is just plain exhausting. Every scene, every moment of dialogue requires instant translation in the brain, an instant deconstruct to understand what happened and how one half-sentence informs what comes next. The ways in which Leigh gets tortured torture the viewer too, and the ominous swinging lights and oppressive music oppress not only the characters.

Every possible binary of supposedly opposing forces - good/evil, hero/villain, justice/injustice, truth/lies, love/hate -is thoroughly muddled. Almost no middle ground exists. How could it? This is the apotheosis of hysterical-period late noir. The only clearly demarcated empty space stands between old age and youth. Heston and Leigh are the only young adults in the film, and they’re utterly ineffectual, caught between the entrenched aged order and the anarchy of youth. Everyone else is burnt out, compromised and corroded with regret or young, dumb and full of Maryjane. There’s physical degradation or physical perfection; ten year out-of-date baggy-ass suits with dumb-ass fedoras or skin-tight leather jackets with duck’s-ass haircuts.

What is Welles presenting? His own epitaph, it feels like, his own bottomless vault of regret. He might ache, looking out of his own ruined carcass, to reclaim the promise of his future. But he already knows that it’s all used up.

David N Meyer is the author of Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Night of the Hunter (1955) part 1 of 2

Although my book, Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror, was published before my book, Mitchum, it was actually written later. The book on Robert Mitchum was commissioned in the mid-1980s and had reached galley proof stage when the publisher went into liquidation. Another publisher expressed interest but it took a few years of hassling before I could convince the top man that the rights belonged to me. Meanwhile, the book on film noir had appeared. I mention all this because a full chapter in Mitchum is devoted to The Night of the Hunter, the only film so treated in the book, and despite the strong noir elements the film I was not thinking or writing about it in noir terms. Obviously, Mitchum was a book about Robert Mitchum and, equally obvious, it was written for a (possibly) different readership. This different thinking doubtless affected, perhaps diluted, my view of the film’s noir qualities. Nevertheless, my very high regard for the film is apparent and in this chapter I touch on most if not all of the noir-ish elements it contains.
This chapter from Mitchum now appears here. I have resisted the temptation to revise it although I have tinkered a little: changing a reference to dates, correcting a couple of typos, and tossing in and throwing out commas here and there but I have not attempted to update the style in which it is written, nor have I changed any British-English spelling into American-English spelling. So, what follows, for good or ill, is Chapter 5 of Mitchum: The Film Career of Robert Mitchum.

The Night of the Hunter
Bruce Crowther

'Charles loathed those children. He made me direct them." (Robert Mitchum)

Given the kind of film popular amongst audiences for Hollywood’s products at the time, it is not surprising that on its release in 1955 The Night of the Hunter mystified many. The film met with only cautious critical response and failed to find an adequate popular audience. Drawing heavily upon German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, with all the elements implied by that genre’s gothic morbidity, it did not fit into preconceived notions of what Hollywood movies of its own era should be.

With the always comforting benefit of hindsight it is possible to see The Night of the Hunter as one of the finest examples of film-making, not just of the 1950s, but in the entire history of popular cinema.

The principal quality of Davis Grubb’s novel, upon which The Night of the Hunter is based, is its well-planned, strongly constructed story. It is a fable of sexual alienation within a family, religious hypocrisy, fear and greed. This powerful core formed a clean-limbed frame for the screenplay upon which it was possible for the director to build a haunting film. Although screenplay credits are given exclusively to James Agee, who was one of the outstanding film critics of his day, much was changed after his draft of the screenplay was submitted and clearly Davis Grubb contributed many suggestions.

Ultimately, however, the film stands as a testimony to the fine performances in all its central roles, to its superior design, brilliant cinematography, and inspired musical score. Most of all, however, the film brings enormous credit to the visual imagination and artistic integrity of its director, and in so doing goes a long way to giving credence to the often misguided and frequently improbable ‘auteur’ theory of film-making.

When all this is allied to that original storyline, with its universal and timeless appeal, it is not surprising that The Night of the Hunter is as vital today as when it was made more than fifty years ago.

The director was Charles Laughton, at the time noted as a stage and screen actor, who had never before directed a motion picture.

Born into a hotel-keeping family in Scarborough, England, in 1899, Laughton went on to the London stage shortly after the end of World War One. He made his first films in 1928 with Elsa Lanchester whom he married the following year. The couple appeared on the New York stage in 1931 and then went to Hollywood. There, Laughton made The Old Dark House (1932), which was directed by James Whale who was fresh from his success with Frankenstein (1931). Laughton and Whale had previously acted together on the stage in England and it is highly probable that the Expressionistic vision Laughton brought to The Night of the Hunter was influenced by his fellow-countryman who displayed similar preoccupations in some of his work.

From 1931 to the end of his film career Laughton moved back and forth between Hollywood and England playing an astonishing variety of roles. His most memorable performances show the infinite range of his talent: Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty (both 1935), Rembrandt (1936), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Advise and Consent (1962). The manner in which Laughton immersed himself completely in his roles, and the flamboyant relish with which he tackled them, concealed a tortured private life. Unable to accept certain realities, especially his physical appearance and his sexual proclivities, he fought against them. A side-effect of this consuming if misdirected effort was that Laughton could seldom enjoy the fame and reward his professional life justly brought him.

A positive effect of his deep-seated psychological unrest was that he was able to bring to some of his projects a measure of understanding few others could command. This is especially true of The Night of the Hunter with its complex psychology and undercurrents of hidden impulses, which drive men and women to acts that appear outwardly to be beyond all reason.

James Agee’s version of the screenplay for The Night of the Hunter emphasized the Depression setting of the novel, concentrating on conditions of the unemployed and hungry and taking up political issues implicit in the novel’s background. Given the emotional depth of Agee’s journalistic writing on the Depression, this slanting of the screenplay is thoroughly understandable even if it took the tale away from its true heart. Laughton, aware that the screenplay was neither the true core of the novel nor of the film he wanted to make, set about a massive editing job in which he was aided by Davis Grubb whose visual image of how the finished film should look fitted in well with the director’s preconceptions. The end result owed much to their collaboration and, aware of this, Agee asked that he should not be credited. His wishes were overruled by producer Paul Gregory who knew the value of having Agee’s name on the credits. George Eells, in his biography of Robert Mitchum, quotes Gregory as remarking that Agee ‘was rolling around on the floor drunk most of the time’, and that Laughton sought help from Dennis and Terry Saunders but, ultimately, ‘Charles ended up doing most of it.’

Laughton’s vision eschewed reality in favour of deliberate non-naturalistic stylization. Where Agee opted for an accurate visual comment upon Depression life, Laughton chose artistic devices which contrive simultaneously to be astonishingly simplistic. Laughton also made use of unfashionable technical devices. Wipes and iris-outs, for example, had long-since ceased to be normal Hollywood practice.

The setting for The Night of the Hunter is Cresap’s Landing, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River, which has recently been shocked by a killing during a robbery carried out by Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who now awaits execution, meanwhile sharing a cell with Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum).

After the execution the Preacher arrives in Cresap’s Landing where he ingratiates himself with the townspeople and attempts to charm his way into the Harper family. The intrusion of the Preacher into the emotionally distraught Harper household generates powerful sexual impulses. The newly widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) is still sexually vibrant and is attracted by the dominating figure of the Preacher whose pseudo-religious words and actions barely conceal a twisted psychotic who has already murdered several women in his personal, heaven-sent campaign to rid the world of sexual undesirables. To the Preacher’s deranged mind this includes any woman possessing natural sexual needs and following his marriage to Willa he cruelly rejects her tentatively loving approaches. As a result of the Preacher’s behavior towards her Willa begins to retreat into a private fantasy world in which Biblical stories mix uneasily with the reality of hunger and deprivation in Depression-hit America.

Willa’s children, John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), are less sure of the Preacher’s intentions. John especially mistrusts him, sensing his innate evil.

The $10,000 stolen by the children’s father is hidden in Pearl’s doll, but before he was arrested their father swore them to secrecy, even from their mother. The Preacher however intuitively guesses that they hold the secret he seeks. He attempts to persuade John and Pearl to tell him where their father hid the money but they resist him. Willa, who has turned to fundamentalist religion in her fear and frustration, overhears the Preacher’s efforts and becomes a danger to him. He murders her, disposing of the body in the river. With no one to defend them against the Preacher, the children are helpless and young John tries to make him believe that the money is hidden in the cellar but his trick is soon discovered. The Preacher’s anger is diverted only when Pearl tells him the truth. Before the Preacher can seize the doll the children manage to make their escape and take to the river.

Sheltering with an old woman, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who is already caring for a number of homeless waifs, John and Pearl experience an interval of security and happiness but this is dispelled when the Preacher tracks them down. Old Miss Cooper recognizes his true nature and defends the children against him when he desperately tries to enter her house and take the money. In the course of a night of psychological harassment Miss Cooper shoots and injures the Preacher and next day he is arrested. For a brief moment John experiences the hallucination that it is his father’s arrest all over again and in a sudden, hysterical outburst he throws himself on the Preacher, belabouring him with the doll until dollar bills float all around. ‘I can’t stand it, Dad,’ he yells. ‘It’s too much, Dad. I don’t want it.’

Later, at the trial, John refuses to testify against the Preacher and as a lynch mob gathers Miss Cooper scurries home with her brood while the police smuggle the murderer away to another town where he may expect a fair trial. With the threat to their happiness and their lives removed, John and Pearl are able to settle down with Miss Cooper.

It was Charles Laughton’s preoccupation with the films of D.W. Griffith (he and James Agee screened several of them at New York’s Museum of Modern Art while preparing The Night of the Hunter) that led him to cast Lillian Gish, the First Lady of the Silent Screen. In her autobiography, Mr Griffith the Movies and Me, Miss Gish comments only briefly about her role in The Night of the Hunter. She suggests that the film’s theme, which she describes as a 'battle between good and evil', was undercut by Laughton’s decision not to risk ruining ‘Robert Mitchum’s image by having him play a thoroughly wicked man. In the earlier days of film it would have been considered a triumph to play evil convincingly.’ This description of the theme of the film seems to be oversimplified, and her implication that Mitchum made the Preacher anything less than wholly wicked does not sit easily with most perceptions of his performance.
In the event, Lillian Gish’s own performance, by contemporary standards a too good, almost sugary interpretation, fits the overtly simplistic tone of the central struggle.

As Willa Harper, who misguidedly marries the Preacher, Shelley Winters has a part which perfectly matches her ability to project characters possessing an intriguingly balanced mixture of warmth and redolent sexuality. Here, with the fearful sexual repression inflicted upon the character through her association with the malignant psychopath, she has a role which allowed her fully to exploit her talent. Only rarely in later years did she have opportunities like this, often being reduced to caricaturing the person moviemakers seem to think she is.
In deciding to cast Robert Mitchum in the central role of Preacher Harry Powell, Laughton raised a few eyebrows. On his record up to this time Mitchum had certainly shown enough signs of his ability, given an adequate script, to turn in an excellent textured performance. This, however, was something well outside any role he had tackled so far. In some respects it could be seen as a risk to his career but it was also a challenge and one to which he rose magnificently. His decision to play the role may be seen as a practical example of an assertion he once made in an interview with Hedda Hopper: ‘If you want my interest, interest me. If you just want my presence, pay me.’ Undoubtedly, the role of the Preacher interested him.

Mitchum’s first appearance in the film, as he drives along a country road, immediately establishes the psychotic Preacher’s character. He is talking to God; it is a friendly conversation in which the tone of voice contrasts sharply and uneasily with the words being spoken. Words, spoken softly with alarming matter-of-factness, which acknowledge the fact that the Preacher is a multiple-murderer:

‘Well, now. What’s it to be, Lord, another widow? How many’s it been, six? Twelve? I disremember. Lord, I am tired. Sometimes I wonder if You really understand. Not that You mind the killings.’
But then the evil shows through, building in a speech which ends on a note of lip-curling, disgusted viciousness:
‘But there are things You do hate, Lord: perfume-smelling things - lacy things - things with curly hair.’

Later, the Preacher is in a burlesque theater watching a stripper performing in the spotlight. Now, without words, the vengeful maniacal hatred of the man spills out on to his face. A hand, with the letters H-A-T-E tattooed on the fingers, clenches in anger before sliding into a pocket. A second later, with orgasmic violence, the blade of a switchknife cuts through the cloth of his parson-black coat. Head angled upwards, the Preacher pleads that ‘there are jes’ too) many of ’em, Lord. I can’t kill ’em all.’

When the Preacher is briefly incarcerated for car theft, he shares a cell with Ben Harper and in a melodramatic moment his reptilian head appears upside down at the top of the screen as he stares from the top bunk at his cellmate who lies sleeping below. It is in these moments, talking in his sleep, that Ben reveals the existence of the money and sets in chain the grim events that follow.

James Agee’s concern for the millions of Depression-hit Americans had formed the impulse for his best-known literary work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which movingly chronicles their plight. It appears probable that he saw the film in terms akin to the photographs taken by Walker Evans, which hauntingly illustrate this book. Although Laughton’s vision removed almost all such images, a speech by Ben Harper as he lies on his bunk talking more to himself than to the Preacher, ably expresses Agee’s preoccupation:

‘That’s right, Preacher. I robbed that bank because I got tired of seeing children roaming the woodlands without food, children roaming the highways in this year of Depression; children sleeping in old abandoned car bodies on junk heaps; and I promised myself I’d never see the day when my younguns’d want.’

The religious motif of the film’s many threads makes its first strong appearance as Ben Harper dies on the scaffold at the end of the hangman’s rope. A bell tolls and the prison tower is silhouetted like a church against the sky. The Preacher stands at his cell window, hands clasped around his switchknife as if holding a crucifix as he prays:

‘Lord, You sure knowed what You was doing when You put me in this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewheres, and a widow in the

Mitchum’s ability to convey great depths of meaning with nothing more than a flicker of the eyes is very well in evidence on several occasions. Most telling, perhaps, are the moments when the Preacher engages the boy John in a battle of the will. When they first meet and John tries to discover if his father told the Preacher the truth about the money, his mere questions reveal his knowledge to the Preacher who lets the boy know he is on to him with a sardonically amused glance. Again, on the river bank at the town picnic, when the Preacher sets out to charm the vulnerable Willa, he and the boy battle for possession of the secret. The Preacher announces that the children’s father told him where the money is, all the time watching the boy’s face:

‘That money’s at the bottom of the river, wrapped around a twelve-pound cobblestone.’

As John inadvertently reacts to this statement, which only he among the listeners knows to be false, the Preacher’s eye gleams with the fact that now he, too, knows.

Perhaps the strongest and most telling scenes in the film are those which depict the Preacher and Willa on their wedding night. After looking at herself in the mirror, her expression full of love and warmth for the man she has married, Willa goes into the next room to where her new husband lies waiting in bed. On the way she disturbs his coat and hears a thud as something in the pocket knocks against the door. She takes out the switchknife, looks at it in surprise, then affectionately murmurs, ‘Men’. Moments later she is the horrified recipient of a merciless harangue from the Preacher who forces her to look again at herself. This time Willa sees a different reflection in the mirror; she and the nightgown she wears are shabby and the love and warmth of her expression have fled to be replaced by the first stirrings of despair as she listens to the Preacher:

‘What do you see, girl? You see the body of a woman. The temple of creation and motherhood. You see the flesh of Eve that Man since Adam has profaned. That body was meant for begetting children. It was not meant for the lust of men.’

Later, when Willa has learned too much to be allowed to live, the Preacher prepares to kill her. They are in the bedroom of the Harper home and the shot is angled so that the rafters of the room form a Gothic arch over Willa as she lies on the bed, arms crossed on her chest as she awaits her fate with saint-like acceptance. At this moment, the Preacher’s head turns in a gesture already becoming familiar. He is listening to God’s words. The awkward angle of the head and the accompanying raised arm creates exactly the right impression of externally controlled psychosis. A similar angle of the head accompanies the moment when, after disposing of Willa’s body by sinking her and her car in the river (an act which foreshadows that in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho still five years away from being made), he tells her friends that she has run away from him. One of them is confident of Willa’s return:

‘She’ll come dragging her tail back home.’ The Preacher’s head angles and the eyes glitter: ‘She’ll not be back. I reckon I’d be safe in promising you that.’

(Click here for part 2)

Night of the Hunter (1955) part 2 of 2

By Bruce Crowther
part 2 -- click here for part 1

Mitchum exercises firm control over the difficult scenes he plays with John and Pearl. The dangerous game they play in the cellar, when the children escape from him and run for the stairs, is pure farce but there is a powerful undercurrent of tension created by awareness that evil lies close beneath the surface. This evil breaks out as the children trap him in the cellar and Mitchum emits a primitive moan. The moan later becomes an atavistic shriek of rage as the current carries the children and their boat beyond his reach.

Startlingly, the director then contrasts the evil animality of this moment by the use of real but unthreatening animals to display the children’s relatively tranquil passage along the river. As they drift along the river, close up to the camera is a spider’s web from which they appear to be escaping as Pearl sings:

‘Once upon a time there was a pretty fly,
He had a pretty wife this pretty fly,
But one day she flew away, flew away.
She had two pretty children
But one night these two pretty children flew away,
Into the sky, into the moon.’

This scene, and subsequent moments, which show a bullfrog, rabbits and sheep, underlines the traditional peacefulness of nature. The imagery is strong, almost childlike in its boldness. Yet, because this and later passages depict the world through the eyes of John and Pearl, the imagery is exactly right.

Although off-screen, Mitchum’s presence menacingly overhangs these scenes and others that trace the children's progress along the river. Even when he is on-screen it is usually in long­shot, often photographed from a helicopter (by no means as commonplace in 1955 as it was to become). And there is a famous moment when the silhouetted image of a man on a horse is framed in the opening of a barn in which John and Pearl are hiding. For this scene a midget on a pony was used to achieve the correct perspective within the confines of the studio but the camera trickery in no way diminishes the dramatic visual effect.

Thus, whether playing emotionally powerful scenes with Shelley Winters as the doomed widow, or a comic yet dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with either Billy Chapin as the boy or Lillian Gish as the sugar-coated old lady, Mitchum dominates the film. This dominance is such that when he is not on-screen, when his presence is merely suggested, no one can be unaware of his impact and his importance to the artistic whole.

Good as the other performances are, and Shelley Winters is exceptionally fine in the role of the repressed and doomed widow, no one succeeds in diminishing Mitchum’s powerful presence. That he is able to dominate the screen in the setting of Laughton’s uniquely personal film, in which haunting visual images abound, is a remarkable testimony to his ability as an actor.

Laughton’s regard for Mitchum was clear from remarks he made, among them the declaration, to journalist Helen Lawrenson, that ‘Bob is one of the best actors in the world.’ Laughton was not only deeply impressed with the actor but also with the man himself: ‘All his hip talk is a blind. He’s a very fine man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully when he wants to. He won’t thank you for destroying the tough image lie’s built up as a defense. In fact, he’s a very tender man and a very great gentleman.’

Undoubtedly, this was one of those rare occasions when a truly imaginative director was able to develop his source material, which was in this case already strong in imagery and psychological content, by going back to the roots of the original and recreating it in his own terms. There is much that is pure Laughton: his decision to include farcical moments was potentially dangerous but in the event they work beautifully and create an entirely justifiable variation upon the book. Laughton’s touch remains sure throughout the film and, contrary to Lillian Gish’s assertion, the humor is not allowed to deplete the overall menace. Even when there is something to laugh at on the screen, there is never any suggestion that the children find what is happening to them anything less than terrifying. At the same time, however, Laughton does not see the need for the audience to be terrified as well. It is better that the onlooker should be afraid for the characters on the screen.

Similarly, Laughton has adjusted Davis Grubb’s sometimes uneasy attitude towards the sexual content of the novel. Central to the novel’s theme is the implicit undesirability in society of ‘clean’ sexual responses. Any suggestion of enjoyment emerging in sexual relationships is artificially repressed by labeling such sexuality as ‘dirty’. Unfortunately, through Grubb’s stylistic devices, much of the purity of purpose disappears. By eschewing certain elements of the novel, which unsatisfactorily attempt to draw Freudian parallels, the film improves on some moments by giving them a wider range of implications. Notable among these is John’s refusal to testily against the Preacher. In the novel he docs this because he refuses to look at the man and thus cannot identify him. In the film, without this underlying motivation, John’s action becomes positive and can be taken as a practical assertion of a Biblical text quoted at the beginning: ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’ By acting in this way John has behaved in a truly Christian manner thus counterpointing the falsity of the Preacher’s use of the Bible. It is not accidental that John simultaneously uses this moment to show that he has a truer sense of right and wrong than the mob, which will later try to lynch the Preacher.

Further touches of originality from the director include his introduction of recurring visual and verbal imagery of fruit, especially apples, which serve the purpose of linking the essentially sin­free quality of nature with the harbinger of evil (the apple in the Garden of Evil).

The overall impression of the film’s making is one of superb command. Laughton is constantly in control of his actors and his visual effects. The use of studio sets for some of the river scenes and the occasional deliberately unconcealed artifice never detract from the forward sweep of the narrative. The pace varies but only when the director chooses to allow it to do so. The ­fast-paced struggle in the cellar and the urgent chase to the river are followed by moments of apparent tranquility as the children’s boat drifts away from the menacing Preacher. Yet these moments of calm are effectively undermined as Laughton cross-cuts to the pursuer. As suggested earlier, although the children might think they are safe the audience knows that they are not, The audience’s concern for the safety of the children is thus redoubled.

Stanley Cortez’s cinematography and Hilyard Brown’s production design make full use of the director’s decision to illustrate his story in a manner which derives directly from German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Dramatic angling of shots, the use of tilt pans, bold use of shadow in moments of tension, elegant chiaroscuro in the more tranquil moments, all enhance the director’s intentions. Although Cortez was much praised for his work on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), on no other film was he allowed such free rein to his considerable technical expertise as on The Night of the Hunter.

Walter Schumann’s score similarly adds immeasurably to the film especially through the incorporation of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, which occurs at moments almost exactly matching those in the novel. Other songs are incorporated: at the picnic the townspeople and the Preacher sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’; there is the children’s nursery rhyme sung by Pearl in the boat drifting down the river; as the children take refuge in a barn an off-screen voice sings a lullaby, ‘Hush, Little One, Hush’.

Schumann’s original themes for Willa and the Preacher are highly effective, especially in the scene in which Willa is murdered. There, the two motifs blend together, one gentle, the other starkly dramatic and is and eventually overpowering. The major chords with which the movie begins and which recur on each of the Preacher’s appearances also make the final aural comment on the film, thus hinting that the peace and tranquility with which the story ends might not be the real last chapter; after all, the Preacher is still alive. In its effectiveness, and to a certain extent in its construction within the context of the film, Schumann’s score foreshadows Bernard Herrmann’s later score for Hitchcock’s Psycho.

The importance of Walter Schumann’s score for the film is underlined by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, reported by Paul Mayersberg in his book, Hollywood the Haunted House. While Cortez was preparing the lighting for the scene in which the Preacher murders Willa, Laughton asked him what was in his mind at the time. Cortez told him that he was thinking of a piece of music, Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’. Laughton was immediately inspired to convey the scene in rhythms reflecting the waltz. He sent for Schumann, told Cortez to explain to the composer what was in his mind, and as a result the music for this scene was scored in waltz time. This musical motif was developed by Schumann in the scene in which Willa’s body is shown in the river, the light striking through from the surface of the water, as her hair floats eerily to and fro as if in time to the music.

For all such important contributions, however, The Night of the Hunter is Charles Laughton’s work. Indeed, the manner in which he encouraged the involvement of cameraman and composer in the creative process enhances rather than detracts from his superb command. His vision is a powerful and unifying presence, which lifts the finished product far above the norm for the period in which it was made. The attendant quirkiness and his insistence on using wipes and other techniques many thought to be outmoded helped fuel adverse criticism at the time of its release. Effects such as, for example, the use of a right to left wipe as the Preacher slashes Willa’s throat, can now be seen as the hallmarks of an authentic, if eccentrically off-beat genius.

For Robert Mitchum, the part of the malevolent Preacher was an opportunity to plunge wholeheartedly into a compelling bravura performance. In the light of the manner in which Charles Laughton played so many of his own film roles there is little doubt that Mitchum was encouraged in this by his director. Adverse criticism of Mitchum’s portrayal of Preacher Harry Powell, while not widespread, leveled accusations of an absence of subtlety, the performance most commonly being described as two-dimensional. Yet, as Robin Wood points out, Mitchum’s ‘technically brilliant two-dimensional performance is exactly what is required - a detailed psychological portrait would surely have burdened the film unnecessarily’.

One thing can be stated without reservation: Mitchum’s performance in The Night of the Hunter overflows with instances of under­statement and subtle awareness of the needs of the part.

However, as a result of the poor initial public response, the film was not widely seen and thus barely affected Mitchum’s screen career. Hindsight allows the conclusion to be drawn that this was unfortunate. Perhaps a more enlightened response to The Night of the Hunter by the public, and especially by the film industry’s moguls, might have allowed different decisions to be taken, which could have directed his career away from the arid patch through which it was to pass during the 1960s.

For all the general lack of interest in the film some critics of the day offered favorable comments. Hollis Alpert, in Saturday Review, felt this was ‘by far [Mitchum’s] best role to date’. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, stated that he ‘plays the murderous minister with an icy unctuousness that gives you the chills. There is more than malevolence in his character. There is a strong trace of Freudian aberration, fanaticism and iniquity’.

Gordon Gow, writing in Films and Filming in 1975, suggests that Mitchum’s portrayal of Preacher Harry Powell was ‘arguably the best of his career to date’. Even with some of the remarkable performances that were to come after Gow wrote this, it is hard to completely contradict this opinion.

The status of The Night of the Hunter has grown steadily in recent years, earning lavish praise during revivals in the 1980s in the Los Angeles Reader, The New Yorker and The Village Voice, all of which is no more than its just due.

But such praise as this camp too late to be of benefit to the participants in the movie’s making in 1955.

Perhaps the worst after-effect of the poor initial response to the film was the fact that Charles Laughton was never again allowed to direct. Today, long after Laughton’s death in 1962, this can be seen as nothing short of a major loss to motion pictures.

Occasionally films are made which fall outside any known Hollywood genre. On some of these occasions unlikely bedfellows come together largely through accident or improbable design and are helped out by good luck, with the result that a work of unique chemistry is created. It is often such creations which afford filmgoers of many generations most enjoyment. The results of these moments of genius transcend period tastes and sensibilities; they are an aspect of the film-maker’s art which cannot be confined by the calendar. The Night of the Hunter is such a work.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Drunken Angel (1948)

“Don’t you use any pain killers?” Yakuza gangster Matsunaga (Toshirō Mifune).

“Not for hoodlums like you.” Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), as he pulls a bullet out of Matsunaga hand.

In Drunken Angel (Yoidori tenshi), director Akira Kurosawa takes aim at yakuza hoods in postwar Japan, examining individual moral choice in the face of harsh circumstances. The film pits alcoholic Doc Sanada against the feudal gangsters. His task is to cure sick patients and society from disease and yakuza. He sees the Japanese mobsters as a systemic affliction plaguing society.

The film opens with a night shot of three hookers sitting next to a typhoid cesspool, with a gloomy guitar playing ‘The Killers Anthem’ in background. The film cuts into Doc Sanada’s ramshackle clinic, which sits on the edge of the cesspool. Inside, we see Doc working on Matsunaga. During their encounter, the Doc diagnoses the thug with tuberculosis.

On learning about his TB, the hoodlum insults and ruffs up the Doc. Weakness is a liability for a yakuza, and a potential loss of face and identity. But the Doc doesn’t take any crap from the hooligan. Gruff and blunt, he wrestles with the hood, warning him to lay off the booze, smoking, and carousing.

Matsunaga storms out of the clinic. Ignoring Doc’s advice, he continues to drink, smoke, and hang-out with his dance hall ladies.

Thirsty for real whiskey instead of medical-alcohol highballs, Doc tracks down Matsunaga in the bars on the other side of the cesspool. The hooligan and drunken angel drink, argue, and fight. Life is raw on the edge of the cesspool.

Matsunaga is a lower-rung, yakuza territory boss of the Happy Market, a black market, and several bars including the Number One Cabaret Club. Shopkeepers, street vendors, pedestrians, and bargirls bow to him, as he struts around his turf.

But his reign is temporary. At story midpoint, his status is disrupted when Matsunaga’s former boss, Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto) gets out of jail and returns to the turf. Evil is back, and darker conflict poises ready to strike.

While drinking together, Okada notices Matsunaga’s sickly cough and cadaver-like face. Exploiting Matsunaga’s weakness, Okada and his big yakuza boss decide to get rid of the feverish thug. Matsunaga loses his turf, money, and girlfriends to Okada; power transfers.

Identity dented and TB eating a hole the size of a baseball in his lung, Matsunaga’s health slips. In a delirious fever, he dreams ominously. Two Matsunagas - his good and evil selves - fight each other on a beach. The scene reminds of UFA silent horror films. Meanwhile, the Doc houses the fading gangster in his clinic and dispenses medicine and tough talk.

Complications arise. While Okada was serving three years in jail, Okada’s girlfriend, a reformed floozy, moved into Doc Sanada’s place as a live-in nurse. On learning she’s Doc’s nurse, Okada confronts and threatens Doc in his clinic. Okada wants her back. Power demands obedience. But upright and stubborn Doc refuses. Matsunaga overhears the threats and tells Okada to back off.

Existential moral choice and expressionist camera-work arrive on the set. Indebted to Doc, and with territory, face and health lost, Matsunaga decides to knock off Okada to save Doc and his nurse. Breaking the honor bound code of loyalty to his yakuza clan, Matsunaga tries to disinfect the neighborhood of Okada. The final confrontation is expressionistic - Dutch angles, low shots, extreme close-ups, crowded frames, distorted faces, and shadows highlight reformed bad fighting evil. The off-frame action is as intense as the in-frame action.

Near the end, not fully aware of Matsunaga’s principled choice, Doc says, “Everything is so screwed up, it makes me want to throw up.”

Several Firsts

In 1949, Kinema Junpo, the distinguished Japanese film magazine, awarded Drunken Angel first place in the category of best film.

The film marks the first appearance of fiery actor Toshirō Mifune in a Kurosawa movie. Kurosawa spotted Mifune at a Toho Company audition and brought him into Toho, against initial objections from the audition committee. Mifune had previously played character gangster roles in a couple of films. Mifune appears in 16 Kurosawa films.

Mifune and Shimura deliver potent performances in Drunken Angel, painting complex characters. They appear together in several Kurosawa films, including acclaimed Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), and Seven Samurai (1954). A forceful duo, Mifune - Shimura characters play off each other often in mentor-student, elder-younger, or superior-subordinate roles, a favorite device of Kurosawa’s to enlarge characters and inspect theme. The elder-younger association is prominent in Stray Dog and somewhat less so in Drunken Angel.

The film also marks the first time Kurosawa worked with composer Fumio Hayasaka. Together, they perfected musical and visual counterpoint, another typical Kurosawa device, magnifying scene mood and tension. Hayasaka worked on all of Kurosawa’s films from 1948 to 1954, until the composer passed away in 1955 from tuberculosis.

The film is Kurosawa’s first scrutiny of yakuza culture in the style of film noir. Drunken Angel is a germinating seed that influenced a prolific crop of Japanese film noir, neo noir and new wave that followed. It is also an example of film noir sprouting outside of Hollywood. Due to wartime and postwar censorship in Japan, it is unlikely Kurosawa saw Hollywood film noirs of the 1940s, when he made Drunken Angel.

In the film, diseases are metaphors for the aliments of 1945 - 48 postwar Japan... the typhoid cesspool, the gangster’s TB, and the Doc’s alcoholism. Yakuza infected black markets were widespread after the war. For many displaced citizens in postwar Japan, the corrupted markets were a means of daily survival. Against this backdrop, Kurosawa snaps a captivating picture of history, with a unique story of despair and hope, memorable characters, presenting a theme of moral choice. He shows viewers the crossroads, illustrating good and evil back alleys.

Although his seventh film, it is the first in which Kurosawa had complete directorial control, even in the face of American Military censors which operated from 1945 to 1952 in Japan. Despite his first script of Drunken Angel being rejected by the foreign censors, Kurosawa felt as though he made the film the way he wanted to do it. “In this picture, I finally discovered myself. It was my picture,” said Kurosawa.

In Drunken Angel, we see the early formations of Kurosawa’s cinematic style. The film is a foretaste of Akira Kurosawa as auteur.

Written by Hard-Boiled Rick

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Night Editor (1946)

Henry Levin never met an American film genre that he didn’t like or - maybe more accurately - that didn’t like him.

Levin was a genial extrovert who though he took the craft of directing films seriously showed no inclination at all towards making ones that were self-important or portentous. To him a successful movie was a good-story-well-told and told in a lively and entertaining way. He wanted most to please audiences and to give good box office.

For nearly four decades this quintessential Hollywood director cheerfully marshalled a very long parade of popcorn projects which included westerns, adventure stories, musicals, comedies, family dramas, crime pictures, spy thrillers, and nearer the end of his career, action flicks.

Night Editor, a tightly-wound little crime chiller released in 1946, was one of Levin’s earliest assignments. Even then, Levin showed that he had the ability to deliver the goods and with panache. The film clearly describes the brisk yet personable directorial style that would mark his work until the end.

Though the low-budget Columbia programmer was never intended by the studio to have a long working life, the film has stubbornly refused since its release to turn in its badge and continues to slap pleasure ‘cuffs on most who’ve see it.

Fortunately, getting to view this demented little chiller - other than at festival screenings or via some murky video iteration - recently became easier with Columbia’s inclusion of the film in a DVD box set with the summarily provocative title of Bad Girls of Film Noir.

And aren’t we glad, because Night Editor is as about as solid a hard-boiled artifact of early classic B-noir as can be found, outshadowing even The Devil Thumbs a Ride when it comes to dishing out low-rent seediness.

The movie had its origins amid the darkened universe of pulp fiction and was based upon an earlier weekly radio series in which a newspaper editor gives the ‘inside’ on some tawdry crime. In Night Editor, the tale is specifically cautionary, recounted for the benefit of a young reporter who’s been boozing, dogging it at work and neglecting his family.

The story unwinds in flashback and centers on a cop named Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), a dour, charmless cop and faithless husband who’s got it bad for a high-class society babe, Jill Merrill (Janice Carter) who’s also married.

While parked in a lovers’ lane one night, the two witness a woman being beaten to death with a tire iron. Cochrane goes to respond but Merrill holds him back. He ends up neither pursuing the killer nor reporting the murder. This reckless inaction leaves him in a bad situation which only gets worse when the body is found and Cochrane is assigned to the case as the investigating detective.

Compromised from the outset, he now has to work hard to cover his tracks both figuratively and literally (his car’s tire tracks have been found at the crime scene and now are what his boss Ole Strom (Paul E. Burns) believes to be the most important clue).

Eventually what little that’s left still up propping up Cochrane’s whole pretense gets kicked out from under him when a man whom the detective knows for certain is not the killer is arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

However, Cochrane’s troubles on the job fall away in comparison to the personal torment delivered to him by Jill Merrill, one of the iciest, most treacherous, morally unhinged femme fatales in all of film noir.

It has to be said that it’s not at all clear why the likes of Merrill would ever bother with a lumpen character like Cochrane, unless he’s got a gorilla in his pants. The glamor doll does seem to have a thing for sex, though of what kind we’re not sure. In the film’s most notorious scene, she’s about to launch like a rocket, shouting, ‘I want to see the body’!’ Cochrane reacts by getting out of there as fast as he can, unsettled as much by Merrill’s voyeuristic frenzy as by the murder itself.

It’s also never been clear - at least to modern audiences - why Janis Carter, a strikingly beautiful, vivacious and not untalented actress, did not have a bigger career than she did. Carter featured in thirty-odd films but never came close to achieving lasting stardom. If it were not for her (in)famous turns in a number of more minor noirish crime dramas such as Framed, I Love Trouble, The Missing Juror, The Woman on Pier 13, as well several titles of The Whistler series, Carter would be all but forgotten. Karen Burroughs Hannsberry’s ambitiously inclusive biographical dictionary, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film (1998) even fails to reference her contribution to film noir.

Arguably, Carter’s recognition problem stems from the fact that in the overall she presented a rather bifurcated screen persona. On one hand, she was the personification of a 1940’s calendar pin-up as painted by Edward Runci or T.N. Thompson - a tantalizing mix of both movie star beauty and sophistication and idealized girl-next-door exuberance and playfulness. As defined by those attributes, Carter might reasonably have been expected to have found sure footing in comedies and musicals (her background had been in opera and theater).

On the other, she just as much could play it aloof, willful, calculating, and wicked - probably too easily and too well. By default or by choice, her career path would seem to have been one of least resistance, a path which took Janis Carter down some of B-noir’s seediest side streets to places where she would often and shamelessly act out her inner bad-girl. If conventional stardom eluded her, certainly status as cherished cult-actress has not.

And Carter’s Jill Merrill is bad. But even as obsessed with her as Tony Cochrane is, he knows what she’s about and early on tries to rid himself of her in an exchange that’s as ripe as good pulp noir gets:

Him: ‘You’re no good for me. We both add up to zero. I’m sick of the whole crazy mess. I’m sick of playing games. You’re worse than blood poisoning. You’re rotten-rick through and through. Like something that’s served at the Ritz that’s been laying out in the sun too long’

Her: ‘To hear you talk you’d think I was crawling after you. I don’t need you and I can buy and sell you. That’s right, Tony, you’re not my kind. But your little tootsie-wootsie loves her great big stupid peasant’.

While ‘Night Editor’s exterior framing device - that of a troubled young reporter - is unapologetically sentimental and dopey, the movie’s interior narrative, the story of Tony and Jill, is unapologetically unsentimental, tough, and sleazy.

The film also is strikingly well-constructed and fluid both in the direction and camerawork - the latter thanks to the work of cinematographer Burnett Guffey who became one of the film noir’s most subtle and emotionally attuned visual stylists e.g. In a Lonely Place, Nightfall, The Brothers Rico, Scandal Street, Tightspot, The Harder They Fall, Knock on Any Door, The Reckless Moment, Human Desire, The Sniper.

Levin’s Night Editor initially was intended as a pilot for a series of like films to follow, with stories further told by veteran police beat reporters. The series never happened but at least Night Editor did.

And thank heaven for that. Without it and similar small mercies with some of the same deranged impulses, film noir would hardly be as compelling - or as much fun.

Written by Night Editor

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