Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Of the crime films to come out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and the law.

And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky.

We first glimpse Coyle getting his coffee and slice of pie in an all night diner before sitting down to talk business with young Turk, Jackie Brown (Steven Keats), from who he gets his merchandise.

The punk gives him lip and Coyle has to set him straight with the story about how he got his nickname and an extra set of knuckles on one hand, courtesy of a gun deal gone wrong.

“You can’t trace these guns, I guarantee that,” whines Brown.

“You better, or neither of us will be able to shake hands,” deadpans Coyle.

Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information. What he has to figure out is how to parley it into a get out of jail free card without giving away everything he knows and turning into a full time snitch.

And he knows a lot.

In particular, he knows about the gang of professional bank robbers to whom he’s been supplying handguns sourced from Brown. We see the gang in the film’s opening (led by Alex Rocco - Moe Green in the first Godfather movie - a former Boston criminal underworld habitué), tailing the manager of one their intended targets as he leaves his plush suburban home.

Coyle has other friends, notably Dillon (Peter Boyle), who supplements his day job working in a bar by doing hits for the mob and snitching to a cop named Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), for 20 dollars a week.

When Coyle discovers Brown is planning to sell machine guns to a couple of criminally inclined hippies, he gives Foley the information in return for the policeman’s promise to talk to the judge about his upcoming sentence.

Foley arrests Brown with the machine guns, then tells Coyle that the judge wants him working on something else before he’ll consider letting him walk on his jail sentence, something to prove he’s rehabilitating himself.

“You telling me they want me to turn permanent fink,” says Coyle, realising the trap he’s fallen into. “Permanent god damn fink.”

“You go someplace and have yourself a glass of beer and a long talk with yourself,” replies Jordan unruffled. “The only one fucking Eddie Coyle is Eddie Coyle.”

“I should have known better than to have trusted a cop,” says Coyle. “My own god damn mother could have told me that.”

“Everyone should listen to their mother.”

In his essay for the Criterion Collection re-release of the film, critic Kent Jones describes it as “a succession of clandestine encounters conducted in the least picturesque parts of Greater Boston area during late fall going on winter”.

Connected to this is the way director Peter Yates (best known for the 1968 hit, Bullitt) makes virtually zero effort to explain to the viewer what is going on or who is connected to whom.

It’s a triumph of less-is-more filmmaking. Apart from a couple of quick bank heists and the scene when Brown is arrested in the car park of a large shopping mall, the film is about criminals talking about the process and mechanics of their work, delivering life lessons, sending a man to jail, ordering the killing of another with barely a raised voice between them.

With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle. He totally inhabits the persona of an anonymous low life, “a heavy set guy, looks like a Mick,” as Brown describes him.

Mitchum is supported by a fantastic group of character actors. Keats’ Jackie Brown is all twitchy paranoia and testosterone in a flash car and funky wardrobe.

Jordan is also excellent as the slick cop prepared to cut a few corners to make an arrest. Turning on the charm one minute, twisting the knife the next, he’s easily as ruthless as the criminals he’s up against.

Boyle displays not a shred of personality as Dillon. His barman cum mob hit man is a question mark, a blank slate. He gives Foley the details of the gang who’ve been robbing banks, lets Coyle get the blame, then agrees to kill him at the bequest of some nameless mafia operative, all without a flicker of emotion. His only qualm is whether he’ll be paid up front or not.

“You just get the envelope up here,” Dillon says into the phone as an unsuspecting Coyle sits only metres away at the bar. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The film’s other big draw is the dialogue. Sourced from the book of the same name by George V. Higgins, the script drips with jaded wisdom and criminal ennui.

“One of the first things I learned is never ask a man why he’s in a hurry,” Coyle tells Brown in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. “All you got to know is I told the man he could depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a big fat problem. Another thing I learned, if anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.”

“You finished?” says Brown impatiently.

“No, I am not finished. Look, I’m getting old. You hear? I spent most of my time hanging around crummy joints with a bunch of punks, drinking the beer, eating the hash and hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweating out how I’m gonna to pay the plumber. I’ve done time and I stood up but I can’t take any more chances.”

It’s clear from the very beginning of the film that with friends like his, Colye ran out of chances long ago.

Odd Man Out (1947)

"This story is told against the background of political unrest in a city in Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organization, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved."

In Odd Man Out, producer and director Carol Reed blends film noir with poetic realism, while trying to remain apolitical. Based on the novel by F. L. Green, the film tells the story of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), who is a district chief of a rebel organization, and the people who exploit his fate.

The film won the British Film Academy's award for the Best British Motion Picture of 1947. Rich in allegory, the story counts the last eight hours of Johnny’s life; a tower clock rings away his hours, daylight fades to night, and rain turns to thick snow. Thematically, Odd Man Out is about reactions to suffering, fate, and faith.

In 1948, the film was nominated for an Oscar in Best Film Editing. The film opens with an aerial shot of a gray city of troubles, and focuses on a tower clock striking 4:00 PM. From the tower clock, the camera tilts down and pans to a man, who walks into a safe house, where we meet Johnny McQueen. Sitting in a windowsill, Johnny instructs his gang about their payroll heist which is scheduled for 5:00 PM at a textile mill. The opening sequence is smooth and continuous, introducing us to the city, the main character, his mission, his gang, and Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) who loves Johnny.

Reed quickly shows Johnny’s internal conflict. Although disillusioned with violence as a means to political ends, Johnny prepares to carry out his organization’s orders. He will lead the mill robbery. His existential choices are few and narrow. He is an organization man with limited freedom, flowing in a river of fate.

Next, Reed moves to Johnny’s external conflicts. Johnny is physically and mentally unfit for the heist. Having been confined to a prison for several years and a safe house for several months, Johnny is now out-of-touch with the reality of armed robbery. Kathleen begs Johnny not to lead the heist, but he ignores her plea. Sensing Johnny’s weakness, his gang doubts his ability to lead the robbery, stirring tension and foreshadowing trouble.

The payroll heist progresses smoothly until Johnny becomes disoriented during the escape. In Johnny’s moment of hesitation, shown through first person point of view, fate steps in and irrevocably alters his path.

Johnny and a mill guard exchange gunfire, wounding Johnny in the shoulder and collapsing the guard. Before Johnny can get into the getaway car, the driver pulls away, speeding down the road as Johnny clings to the car window. Panicking, the driver refuses to slow down, spilling Johnny onto the street. Indecisive, the driver does not return to pick him up.

Johnny McQueen is the odd man out. For the next seven hours, as he flees a squeezing police manhunt, Johnny struggles to find his way to a safe house, meeting a random array of people, who intertwine with his destiny. We witness citizens who exploit, sympathize, or avoid Johnny’s dilemma. He is a walking conflict for those who meet him - a wounded robber, who has shot a man, and who carries political repercussions. Johnny travels the antihero’s journey.

After falling from the car, Johnny hides in a dark air raid shelter. From this point on, Johnny will not see daylight again. Severely wounded, he hallucinates imaging he is in a prison, displayed in the first-person view. Throughout the film, Johnny’s hallucinations fuse with the vicious reality of his predicament.

In five different scenes in the film, Reed presents Johnny in the first person point of view. We see what Johnny sees, feeling his disorientation and pain. The first person scenes are brief, but effective. First person view transfers Johnny’s emotions to us.

In fact, Reed sculpts the character of Johnny McQueen by showing Johnny in several views: not only first person point of view, but third person omniscient close-up, medium, and long distances. In addition, Reed shows the conflicted reactions of supporting characters to Johnny’s anguish and status, augmenting the main character. We see Johnny through his eyes, the eyes of supporting characters, and our eyes, all of which flow from Reed’s eye.

Like the supporting characters, as viewers we react to Johnny too. Subtly, Reed binds us to Johnny’s plight, drawing on our compassionate, but conflicted emotions.

Bleeding, Johnny leaves the shelter for the city’s maze, stumbling through its dark, wet streets, alleys, and junkyards. He meets street children, a loyal gang member, and Good Samaritans. At film midpoint, he realizes he is doomed. From the Samaritans, Johnny learns he has killed the mill guard. When Johnny leaves their house, he says, “Close the door when I am gone, and forget me.”

Robert Krasker, the film’s photographer, composes striking expressionist shots in the code of classic film noir. Born in Australia, his photography rivals his expressionist contemporaries: John Alton, Nicholas Musuraca, and Gregg Toland. Connoisseurs of The Third Man (1949) will recognize Krasker’s photography in Odd Man Out.

As rain starts to fall, Johnny crawls into a taxi, collapsing in semi-consciousness. Not wanting trouble from the authorities nor the rebels, the taxi driver dumps Johnny in a junkyard with statues of angels. Immediately, a street peddler (F.J. McCormick) spots Johnny, and schemes to gain a reward for turning in Johnny, but doesn’t care whether the reward comes from the rebel organization, authorities, or church. Leaving Johnny behind, the peddler runs off to find Johnny’s priest.

While the peddler negotiates a reward from Father Tom (W.G. Fay) who wants to hear Johnny’s confession, Johnny regains consciousness and leaves the junkyard. Eventually, he staggers into a pub. But the publican doesn’t want trouble either and hides Johnny in a booth, where Johnny hallucinates, in first person view again. As Johnny shouts in delirium, a half-crazed artist (Robert Newton) discovers him; overjoyed, the artist wants to paint Johnny’s dying eyes.

As rain turns to snow, the artist takes Johnny to an abandoned mansion, where he, the peddler, and a quack doctor (Elwyn Brooks-Jones) live as squatters. In the decaying manor, the quack dresses Johnny’s wounds, while the artist paints Johnny. Again Johnny hallucinates, as the artist, peddler, and quack argue about Johnny, fate, and faith. In delirium, reciting First Corinthians 13, Johnny proclaims, “I am nothing.”

James Mason delivers a hypnotic performance, which he considered the best of his career. Reed, whose father was a renowned actor of the London stage, draws out the best in Mason’s acting. Although Johnny’s dialogue is sparse throughout the film, Mason’s facial expressions and gestures of suffering connect with our neurons, pulling up our sympathy. The film made Mason an international star. Punctuating Mason’s appearances, William Alwyn’s musical score weighs solemnly and heavily, coloring character and mood in slate-gray.

In the third act, as heavy snowflakes fall in scenes of abstract expressionism, Reed shifts into high gear of poetic realism. Learning about Johnny’s whereabouts from the peddler, Kathleen finds Johnny, who is half-blind by now, near the city’s tower clock. She expresses her love for him, realizing it is a love they cannot share in life. She wants to spare Johnny from prison and government execution, and keep him forever. Backed up against an iron fence as police close in, Kathleen holds Johnny and shoots at police. A police machine gun bursts. A ship’s horn blasts. The tower clock strikes midnight.

With a powerfully aesthetic story, Reed incites our subconscious emotions, while lifting our cognitive conscious to a metaphysical plane.

In the late 1940s, Reed performed at the peak of his craft, when in addition to Odd Man Out (1947), he directed Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949) - his triple crown. In 1953, Carol Reed was knighted for his contributions to British cinema.

Odd Man Out would probably have been Reed’s greatest work, had it not been overshadowed by The Third Man.


Written by Hard-Boiled Rick

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dial 1119 (1950)

The disturbed veteran, wracked with guilt or shell shock gets the treatment once again in this 1950 release from MGM with one small twist. The “veteran” here isn’t a vet after all, just some loony punk with a vet fixation. The punk in this case is played by the poor man’s Arthur Franz, Marshall Thompson. This in itself is rather ironic, in that Franz played a very similar character a couple years later in The Sniper. So is it just me or are Franz and Marshall interchangeable?

As for the story, riding the bus to Terminal City, which we’re informed via a radio announcer, is the “fastest growing commercial center in the Central Valley” is Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson). The twisted Gunther needs to speak face to face with a Dr. John Faron (Sam Levene) whose psychiatric practice is located in Terminal City.

In the past Dr. Faron was instrumental in getting poor Wyckoff out of the joint and back on the street. Now the pressure of being out is crushing Wyckoff and only the soothing words of Dr. Faron can ease his pain.

Back on the bus, as Wyckoff rides towards his and several others grim end, we see a sign above the windshield that notes “Smoking Prohibited.” The sign is posted right next to the bus drivers .45 automatic which is resting upon the sun visor. So while smoking’s not allowed on the bus, the carrying of loaded pistols apparently is. Of course Wyckoff lifts the pistol at a rest stop and upon reaching Terminal City a passenger points out the gun is missing. When the driver confronts Wyckoff his gut becomes the recipient of the first of several slugs Wyckoff will dole out during his brief but violent stay in Terminal City.

Exiting the bus depot Wyckoff makes a beeline for Dr. Faron’s office. Failing to find him in his office, he exits the building and his eyes fix upon the glowing neon sign of the nearest bar, The Oasis. Like the moth to the flame he, as under the spell of a voodoo curse is drawn to the bar even committing the heinous crime of jaywalking in the process.

The Oasis Bar, where schemes and dreams and neighbor infidelities all blend together with the smell of stale beer and the swish of Chuckles soggy rag. The “Chuckles” here is the proprietor of one of the grimiest bars even seen on film. As Chuckles (William Conrad) himself puts it “What have I got to be happy about? Maybe if I have place with some class, carpet on the floor, plush around instead of being stuck with a crumb joint.”

In a twist right out of Bizarro World, Conrad now finds himself on the extreme opposite side from his turn, along with Charles McGraw as hired gunmen on the receiving side of the counter in ‘46’s The Killers. Now he’s stuck on the serving side dispensing cheap drinks and the occasional “sherry flip” to his patrons, whom he refers to as “crumbs,” all the while switching the channels on possibly the first ever big screen TV.

To go along with the cheap linoleum floor, peeling wallpaper, filthy doors, pin-up photos and burnt out light bulbs, the Oasis sports a 3 foot by 4 foot TV that shows the obligatory westerns, wrestling and police bulletins.

So into this den of inequities walks our boy Wyckoff who takes up a seat at the far end of the bar. The other “crumbs” in the joint are: Freddy (Virginia Field), a 28 year old unhappy woman who’s meeting up with, Earl (Leon Ames) a 40 something married man looking for a weekend fling, Helen (Andrea King) the local “barfly,” Harrison D. Barnes (James Bell), a reporter on the local rag and Skip (Keefe Brasselle), Chuckles right hand man and an expectant father.

As noted, police bulletins are a regular feature on the Oasis TV and in due time Wyckoff’s mug, along with a message delivered by long time local Los Angeles newscaster Bill Welch, is on the screen. This warning falls on mainly deaf ears as the “crumbs” in the joint are immersed in their small talk and none of them pay the slightest notice to the TV. The only one who takes note of it is Chuckles who sadly chuckles no more after trying to tip the cops by dialing, you guessed it “1119.”

Now that the jig is up the remainder of the short running (75 minutes) film bores in on the interaction of the disturbed Wyckoff and the assorted nuts he’s trapped and holding at gun point inside the Oasis. This gives rise to an early example of the “hostage” film as Wyckoff informs the soon surrounding bevy of cops; under the command of Capt. Henry Keiver (Richard Rober) that if Dr. Faron doesn’t show up by nine o’clock as he tells Keiver “Twenty-five minutes or every one of them will have to die.”

It needs to be noted, time is an important element of the film and clocks are seen on a regular basis. The entire plot unfolds in “real” time, with the film running time matching that of the action on screen.

As fate would have it, Dr. Faron happens to be returning home when he encounters the crowd gathered near the Oasis. Soon he and Capt. Keiver are engaged in a tug of war, with Keiver refusing to let Faron become one more possible victim and Faron arguing he can bring the stand-off to a peaceful closure by speaking with Wyckoff.

By now a TV crew has arrived at the scene and the action, again a precursor to today’s “news broadcasting” is being shown live to all, including those within the Oasis. While they and others watch, Dr. Faron has disregarded Keiver’s orders and once the Captain’s back is turned, makes his way towards and into the bar and the last house call he’ll ever make.

With the good doctor now dead as Kelsey’s nutmeg, and the police officer who tried to sneak in via a A/C vent somewhat ventilated himself thanks to Wyckoff, it’s clear to Keiver his only option is to place explosives on the door, blow it off and rush the place. It’s surprising this action took all inside by surprise, what with the TV cameras rolling. Be that as it may, the blast does take Wyckoff by surprise with allows the “barfly” the chance to grab Chuckles .38 from behind the bar and give Wyckoff and dose of his own medicine. As he stumbles outside the police finish off the job in a hail of bullets. Final score; copper’s one, Wyckoff five and peace once again returns to Terminal City.

Dial 1119 is pretty violent for the time as blood from gunshot wounds is actually seen, as opposed to the simple grab oneself and fall down routine we’re used to at the time. In addition, Wyckoff goes “Duryea” on the “barfly” by bitch slapping her and completely knocking her to the floor once she makes a play for him.

One other scene bears mentioning. As the crowd continues to grow around the Oasis in one more example of society’s unquenchable appetite for the sensational, is the arrival of an enterprising ice cream truck. This serves up a small bit of comic relief to the building tension and is a bit counter protective to the overall feel of the film. Then again, it may serve as a reminder of the callous nature of society similar to the carnival that sprung up in Ace in the Hole.

While noting the major players above, there are a number of bit parts filled with the usual and some usual suspects. Some of those along for the ride are; Dick Simmons (Lady in the Lake), Hal Baylor (99 River Street), Robert Foulk (Where the Sidewalk Ends). Some others, while packing noir credits, are better known for their work on the small screen; Frank Cady (Ozzie & Harriett), Kirby Grant (Sky King) and Barbara Billingsley (Leave It to Beaver).

The writing credits are split with Don McGuire, who spent a good deal of time in front of the camera in films like The Threat, Sideshow, and Armored Car Robbery sharing story credits with Hugh King.

Direction was handled by Gerald Mayer, whose sole noir credit is this film. Mr. Mayer, the Nephew of MGM Studios chief Louis B. spent the majority of his time behind the camera working on TV directing everything from “The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars’ to “Have Gun Will Travel” to “Lou Grant.”


Written by Raven

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

Jean Renoir’s American masterpiece, Woman on the Beach (1947) is easily the best Hollywood film by the resolutely humanist director of such classic films as Rules of the Game (1939) and Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). When Renoir fled France with the advent of the Nazi onslaught, he initially landed at 20th Century Fox, where he directed the torrid melodrama Swamp Water (1941), shot on location in Georgia. The film failed to click at the box office, and Renoir left Fox for Universal, where he began work on a Deanna Durbin musical, but walked off the film after a few weeks, upset with Universal’s factory production methods. The film was eventually released as The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943), with writer/producer Bruce Manning taking sole directorial credit. Leaving Universal, Renoir landed at RKO, where he was able to direct the noirish French resistance drama This Land Is Mine (1943), starring Charles Laughton as a meek schoolmaster, through the film was marred by a stage bound, Hollywood “studio” look, in contrast to Renoir’s best, more naturalistic films.

Renoir then left RKO, and made a brief propaganda short, Salute to France (1944), before creating The Southerner (1945) and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), both independent productions with modest budgets and shooting schedules. Renoir’s American odyssey was coming to an end when he returned to RKO for his last Hollywood film, the brutally vicious Woman on the Beach, which effectively ended Renoir’s ties with the American film industry.

Joan Bennett, then at the height of her box-office fame after her memorable role as the duplicitous prostitute Kitty Marsh in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, heard of Renoir’s interest in making a film for RKO, and insisted that Renoir direct her new project, then titled Desirable Woman. However, as the film was being readied for production, RKO’s production chief, the gifted Charles Koerner, died on February 2, 1946 of leukemia 1, and Jack Gross took over as producer, much to Renoir’s chagrin. Koerner, said Renoir, was “. . . an understanding man, a man who knew the film market, who understood the workings of it very well, but who allowed for experimentation just the same” 1. Gross was much less given to individual nuance in his films as producer, but nevertheless Renoir found that with Joan Bennett as his star, he could afford a relatively luxurious production schedule.

Still, the scenario and production of Woman on the Beach bothered Renoir, if only because it was unlike any other film he had ever attempted. As he noted at the time, “I wanted to try and tell a love story based purely on physical attraction, a story in which emotions played no part . . . In all my previous films I had tied to depict the bonds uniting the individual to his background . . . I had proclaimed the consoling truth that the world is one; and now I was embarked on a study of persons whose sole idea was to close the door on the absolutely concrete phenomenon which we call life” 1. This, of course, is the very essence of noir, and whatever his misgivings, Renoir embraced this new emotional terrain with his customary skill and insight.

Woman on the Beach tells the tale of Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), an extremely successful American artist, whose career has been cut short by an accident, in which he was deprived of his eyesight. His wife, Peggy (Joan Bennett), loves and hates Tod in equal measure, but remains bound to him, because it was she who blinded Tod during a lover’s quarrel. The two live in a seaside cottage near a U.S. Coast Guard base, in a state of perpetual disharmony; Tod keeps his paintings locked up in a closet as his only link to the past, while Peggy wants to sell the paintings and move to New York, seeking the fast life the two once shared when Tod could see. Into this uneasy marriage comes Lieutenant Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan), a young officer who has recently survived a torpedo attack, and is now recovering from his physical wounds, but is still mentally unbalanced. Peggy immediately seduces Scott, much to the displeasure of Scott’s fiancé, Eve Geddes (Nan Leslie).

Scott becomes obsessed with “freeing” Peggy from Tod, whom he believes is not really blind, but rather manipulating Peggy so that she will stay with him out of guilt. Scott creates a series of cruel tests for Tod, in one instance standing by while Tod walks off a cliff, in an attempt to prove his theory. Convinced at last that Tod really is blind, but unable to free himself from Peggy’s grip, Tod and Scott battle for Peggy’s affections, culminating in an astounding final scene, in which Tod sets his house and paintings on fire, in a desperate attempt to free himself of his past life. As the house explodes in flames, Tod renounces his past ways, and tells Peggy to go with Scott. But Peggy chooses to stay with Tod, who now intends to pursue a career as a writer; Scott returns to Eve, and domestic tranquility.

While the shooting of the film went smoothly, the release of Woman on the Beach was fraught with difficulties. The film was given a “sneak preview” in Santa Barbara before a crowd of young students who greeted the film with derisive catcalls, and Renoir was forced by RKO to recut the film. Scenes with Joan Bennett were reshot, and the love scenes with Ryan and Bennett were also revised (Bergan 262)1. The final result pleased no one, and the film was released in May of 1947 to “general public indifference” 1. Renoir, sensing that the political landscape in the United States was about to change for the worse, with the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the horizon, left Hollywood shortly thereafter; his next project would be The River (1951), a Technicolor feature shot entirely on location in India. From The River, Renoir returned to postwar France, making the gently elegiac French Cancan (1955) and other films before his final retirement from the director’s chair. Summing up his Hollywood period, Renoir commented that “Although I don’t regret my American films, I know for a fact they don’t even come close to any ideal I have for my work . . . they represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes. And seven years of deceptions too . . .” 1.

But even if this is so, Woman on the Beach is still a remarkable film, the only true noir that Renoir ever made, and one of the most economical and relentless examinations of a marriage in collapse ever filmed, along with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 masterpiece Le Mépris (Contempt). As Tod Butler, Bickford gives the most nuanced performance of his career, at once tender and yet dangerous, while Robert Ryan brings an intensity to the role of Scott Burnett that is both haunting and achingly realistic. Joan Bennett’s foredoomed femme fatale is essentially a reprise of her role in Scarlet Street, but in Woman on the Beach, she seems more tragic and human than in Lang’s much colder moral universe. At 71 minutes, the film has little time to waste, and is harrowingly compact. Woman on the Beach is Renoir’s one true American masterpiece, unto which he distilled all his disdain for the Hollywood studio system and American culture.


Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.

1 Bergan, Ronald. Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise. New York: Overlook Press, 1995.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture, his last major picture, is characterized as a noir, but this is a film noir staggering through a cloud of opium smoke with fresh bruises on its hipbones. The film’s focus on an investigation into a nighttime world of corruption is one of the reasons for its noir status, not to mention the strong spider-woman in the lead, but in many respects the film eludes classification. Based on a play by John Colton, the script of The Shanghai Gesture was problematic from the start, and von Sternberg was forced to make extensive cuts. The brothel in the play was turned into a casino in the film, but remnants of the original still reverberate. The dirtiest thing in the movie is what happens in your head as you watch it. It is incredible what von Sternberg got away with here.

The casino, with its circular tiers of white balconies, and enormous chandeliers rising up and down in the center, is a dazzling masterpiece of set design, calling to mind Dante's circles of hell. Von Sternberg pulls his camera way back, so that you can see the space in its entirety, and it is dizzying, repetitive, an Escher drawing come to life. The clientele move and call and wave across the vast echoing space in the middle, blackjack tables and roulette wheels in the deep pit below. It is one of the most unforgettable interiors ever captured on film.

Through the casino strolls its owner, Mother Gin Sling (played with icy specificity by Ona Munson). She is a Chinese businesswoman, with her hands in every pocket that counts. The casino is now threatened with closure due to the property being sold to a British millionaire named Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). Sir Guy Charteris has ulterior motives. His daughter, with the splendidly evocative name Poppy, is now lost in Shanghai, and he has been trying to lure her back to the civilized world. Gene Tierney plays Poppy, and Tierney is at her most damaged and beautiful. She is clearly a drug addict (even her name attests to that), and over the course of the film her addiction to gambling spirals down. Victor Mature, loony and dead-eyed in his fez and white gown, plays Omar, Mother Gin Sling’s right-hand man, and he never lets Tierney out of his sight, making sure she is fed a steady stream of drink/drugs/money. For some reason, he recites portions of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to Poppy, in a bored drone that manages to be ridiculous and scary all at the same time.

Tierney is terrific here, bruised and wild. Von Sternberg’s camera eats her up greedily, ravishing her face, as though marveling at the contours of it with something approaching awe and despair. It is obvious that Poppy can never pay back her gambling debts and so Mother Gin Sling has Poppy just where she wants her. But why, Mother Gin Sling, why? Why do you want to destroy Poppy?

Not to fear. All will be revealed.

The pace of The Shanghai Gesture is glacial. Silence stretches around each bizarre moment in a way that is, at times, effective, and at other times obnoxious. Peter Bogdanovich tried to address the pace of The Shanghai Gesture in an interview with von Sternberg, but von Sternberg was dismissive in his reply. He used that slow pace because it was right for the story. The End. Von Sternberg’s camera moves almost lazily, taking in the faces, the places, the echoing public chambers, and the tension sometimes slackens because of too much dead air.

We meet other characters along the way, most notably Dixie, a showgirl stranded in Shanghai, adorable in her beret and ripped stockings. Dixie is picked up on the street by Omar and put to work by Mother Gin Sling (vestiges of the brothel-plot in the original play). Dixie is played by the kooky wisecracking Phyllis Brooks and she seems to have strolled out of another movie, a sister-in-spirit to the stranded showgirl Jean Arthur plays in Only Angels Have Wings. Phyllis Brooks had a short career, but she makes a wonderful impression here. She goofs off to keep herself amused, lolls about in armchairs waiting to be noticed, and treats everyone with an egalitarian humorous spirit, although it is obvious she is mainly thinking, “What is WITH all of these weird people?” If we had any doubt about how lost Gene Tierney’s Poppy really is, all we have to do is look at Dixie. Dixie comes from a recognizable world, a world she still remembers. At an uptight dinner at Mother Gin Sling’s, Dixie sits at her place at the table, playing with her spoon, putting it over one eye, then the other, making silly faces, hoping someone will laugh. No one does.

Sir Guy has been investigating Mother Gin Sling, and she has been investigating him. She is used to handling such men delicately, but the stakes are higher now, for reasons that remain murky until the very end. She ends up inviting Sir Guy to a Chinese New Year celebration at her home; it will be his entryway into the society of Shanghai. It will also be an emotional ambush. He, unaware of what he is walking into, sees it as his chance to talk some sense into his daughter.

The world depicted in the film is debauched and lawless and the pinnacle of that comes during the Chinese New Year celebration: Mother Gin Sling opens the curtains to her balcony, revealing to her guests what is happening outside. On the street below is a crowd of men, howling up into the sky. Hovering over the crowd is a series of suspended cages, and in each cage is a poorly clad beautiful young woman. The women are terrified. They have clearly been dragged from the street, drugged, probably raped, and then hung up for all to see in cages. You can see the terror in their faces, in the way they try to bring their dangling legs up into the cages for protection. It’s a scene worthy of Margaret Atwood’s creepiest futuristic fantasies, and, for me, it’s one of the takeaway scenes of the film. It comes into my mind often.

Ona Munson, a fascinating actress with a gleaming mask of a face, seems to chew off the ends of her lines with vicious precise little bites. Her gigantic hairpieces threaten to come alive at any moment, Medusa-style, yet she maintains an inner core of self-possession that makes this a riveting performance. It is a testament to Munson’s talent that the hair does not overpower her. It does not. She dominates it. The character has a secret, a secret that has riddled her soul with hatred and a desire for revenge. She is patient. She will wait for the perfect moment to get her pound of flesh. Mother Gin Sling, in her exotic way, is the classic femme fatale of film noir, worldly in her dealings with men, knowing in her manipulations of more conventional females, and canny in her ability to get what she needs, whatever the personal cost.

The descent into the underworld in The Shanghai Gesture is a literal one, with the casino seeming to be carved out of the belly of the earth. There is no comfortable sense that the norms will be righted at the end of the film because there were no norms to begin with. Civilization exists here merely as a dim echo, as though the entire city of Shanghai lives at the bottom of a deep well. Shanghai’s sadistic culture is not something you can observe from a safe distance and then walk away unscathed. It enters into you, marking you for all time.

Written by Sheila O'Malley
The Sheila Variations

Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley