Sunday, October 31, 2010

House of Bamboo (1955)

Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo is not the greatest film noir ever made, but it is an interesting movie, which despite its flaws, I’ve found myself watching over again. All the elements associated with Fuller’s style are on display, his ambiguous politics, break-neck story telling style and pulp sensibility, overlayed on this occasion with an oriental aesthete that veers between homage and cliché.

Fuller throws the viewer straight into the action, a precision heist of a US supply train as it speeds through the Japanese countryside by a gang of men dressed in traditional peasant garb, the magnificent snow covered peak of Mount Fuji in the background. They dispatch the crew without hesitation and unload the cargo into a waiting truck. Because the train was carrying small arms and ammunition and because one of the guards killed was a Sergeant in the United States military, the heat is on the local police to doing something.

We move quickly to the aftermath of another robbery. One of the assailants, Webber, lies squirming on a hospital-operating table. Wounded by police, he was left for dead after one of his own crew pumped three bullets into him before they escaped, the same bullets used in the train robbery. As they try to sweat a confession out of him, the cops search Webber’s clothes, finding a wallet with a picture of a Japanese woman, his wife Mariko (Chinese born Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi), and a letter from a man called Eddie Spanier who wants to join Webber in Japan after his release from prison in America.

Fast-forward three weeks: a dishevelled Caucasian (Robert Stack) alights from a freighter from San Francisco. He hails a cab to Tokyo where barges his way through a Kabuki rehearsal and a female bath house until he tracks down Mariko in her apartment. She’s afraid he’s from the same gang who killed her husband. He tells her his name is Eddie Spanier and that he’s come from America to work with her husband.

Spanier walks the streets of Tokyo, entering the first pachinko parlour he finds and shakes down the owner for protection money. He repeats this until he comes to a parlour where Tokyo-based crime boss Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his crew are waiting.

Impressed with Spanier’s initiative and tough guy bravado, Dawson offers him a job in his gang, much to the jealousy of his other men - all ex-cons in the civilian life, ‘stockade hounds’ in the army - who are put out that their boss gets along so well with the new guy.

As soon as he leaves Dawson’s pad, the Japanese police detain Spanier on suspicion of stealing pearls. But it’s just a ruse, a way for the cops to contact Spanier, who is actually undercover American military policeman Eddie Kenner. Having infiltrated the gang, all he needs now is an alibi to deflect any suspicions and cover his movements. He shacks up with Mariko, making her his kimono girl.

The rest of House of Bamboo delivers few surprises. Dawson and Spanier become closer, so much so that when Spanier is wounded during a pay-roll heist at a local gravel works, Dawson breaks his own rule and stops one of his men from finishing him off.

Mariko falls for Spanier/Kenner, helping him by passing the details of a planned robbery to the police who foil the job. Eventually Dawson catches on to the fact that Spanier is a plant and tries to set him up to take the fall for another robbery. But that is bungled when the Japanese police arrive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between the two men.

Critics have spilt a lot of ink talking about the fact that the intense relationship of the film is not between Spanier and Mariko but Spanier and Dawson, no doubt encouraged by the fact that Mariko doesn’t put out for him and the only flesh on show is Stack’s while he’s in the bath or a wearing a kimono.

Whether this is evidence of homoerotic sub-text, or the fact that Fuller was limited in depicting an inter-racial relationship, is an open question. Certainly, as Mariko, Yamaguchi gets little to work with, having to utter lines like “In Japan a woman is taught how to please a man”. That’s when she’ not giving Spanier lessons in pigeon Japanese such as “Sayonara means good-bye”.

Dawson on the other hand positively seethes with pent up macho fury. He gets furious with Mariko when he thinks she might be two-timing Spanier and brutally kills his former ‘Ichiban’, or lieutenant, without hesitation when he thinks he’s ratted him out to the cops, rather than admit that Spanier might be the culprit.

Fuller knew how to tell a story, even when it wasn’t a very good one. The heist scenes are fantastic, as is the final confrontation between Spanier and Dawson in an amusement park when the two men shoot it out on a revolving platform that circles a giant globe over looking the city.

The film looks great. The United States occupation of Japan had been over for four years when Fuller arrived, and although the country was on its way to becoming an industrial super power, he filmed it as a bustling third world country, reportedly shooting a lot of it guerrilla style in the streets.

Fuller told one interviewer he “got a thrill” out of making the film, “shooting in Japan, having a major studio budget and enough money and working counter to stereo-types. In terms of style, I wanted the wide screen and the colour. I loathe this cliché version of the underworld. Dark alleys and wet streets. I’ve done it. Everybody’s done it. It becomes fake and I don’t like it.”

The other fascinating aspect of House of Bamboo is the way Westerners make absolutely no concession to the fact that they are in Japan. They sit around looking and talking like American hoods. They don’t even speak the language. Spanier’s first words getting off the boat from America are “Any body speak a little English?” and he moves from pachinko parlour to pachinko parlour roughly asking “Where’s the number one boy?”

Fuller juxtaposes these characters against Japanese interiors, lounging in furniture too small for them or prowling temples and teeming market streetscapes to accentuate their foreignness. In one of the film’s best scenes, Dawson’s gang are having a party to celebrate a successful robbery when the traditional female dancers in kimonos suddenly throw off their garb and start swing dancing.

It also allows Fuller to get away with portraying Dawson’s gang as untouchable. They pull violent, audacious heists and take protection money from half the pachinko parlous in Tokyo without anyone laying a glove on them.

But how smart is Dawson if he unsuspectingly takes Spanier under his wing then can’t even successfully frame him for a robbery? Given that the plot revolves around the supposed tension of Spanier being undercover as he tries to take Dawson down, it’s a major weakness.

Written by Andrew Nette
Pulp City

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Editor's note: This week's piece is from the Czar of Noir: Eddie Muller. Eddie generiously allowed us to reprint his thoughts on the noir-tinged Mulholland Dr. The article was written back when the film was just released (in 2001!) I'm happy to report both the film and Eddie's words hold up today.


Mulholland Drive is a triumph, both as a revelatory reimagining of traditional narrative cinema, and as personal vindication for its maker. Like a master magician, David Lynch has conjured a mature, evocative and emotionally satisfying experience from the wreckage of dispiriting failure. Critics are picking over the film like detectives combing a crime scene, sifting for the remains of the ill-fated television pilot that was its genesis, as if they suspect the finished work is a jerry-rigged parlor trick, rather than a fully-realized work of art. Lynch meanwhile remains a tight-lipped perpetrator, testifying only that his film is "A love story in the city of dreams."

No further explanation needed. For unlike other "Lynchian" projects, Mulholland Drive is not mystifyingly open-ended. Rather, it's scarily self-contained. It's a mystery, certainly, but by the time it reaches its crushing conclusion, it is specifically about one thing: the crumbling psyche of a young Hollywood dreamer. Trapped in a movie-inspired fever of desire and heartbreak, she's driven to commit murder. But Mulholland Drive is more than just a feminized version of Lynch's own Lost Highway. It's a worthy successor to such bleak Lotusland fables as Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust, Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, and perhaps most significantly, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, of which it's a rabid offspring.

Early in the film, as a wounded woman numbly descends into the lights of Hollywood after surviving a car wreck on Mulholland Drive, Lynch inserts signposts to map the terrain, literally, and in the case of "Sunset Blvd.," figuratively. This tale, after all, will turn into a fin de siecle bookend to Wilder's mordant midcentury take on the movie business's power to insidiously shape reality, to delight and destroy in equal measure.

Both films depict naive wannabes in the thrall of vainglorious femmes fatales. Both revolve around a contest of wills, in which lovers battle for dominance. Both spend ample time lampooning the hubris in the Dream Factory's machinations, as well as showing its cruel disdain for the neurotic foot soldiers chewed up in the gears. Both films reveal the Promised Land's dreadful undertow, which sucks down the weak-willed and gullible. Both stories are narratedby one of these drowning losers.

(During the five-year course of making Eraserhead, Lynch would screen Sunset Boulevard for his crew whenever filming resumed, to remind them of the feel he wanted in his film.)

The thematic conventions and visual iconography of film noir play a part in both films. For a good bit of their running times, both are detective stories, in which the protagonist, swept into the orbit of an alluring woman, tries to solve her mysteries despite obvious warning signs. Fatefully, a needy, consuming relationship develops before the "truth" is revealed. Menacing figures of vague origin circle like buzzards, either gangsters in a malevolent conspiracy or someone's paranoid delusions. The affair goes bad when one lover cashes out her stake in the shared delusion. Bullets follow. Lynch even throws in a bout of amnesia, a venerable device dating back to such L.A.-based noir classics as Somewhere in the Night (a phrase that leaps to mind as Robert Forster, in his minuscule appearance, ponders the glittering expanse of Los Angeles).

All these elements, familiar from many works of far lesser stature than Sunset Boulevard, are useful iconographic guides for navigating the convoluted course of Mulholland Drive. It gives viewers some bearings as Lynch twists traditional narrative structure, spinning an old plot in a new way. There is clearly a beginning, middle and end to Mulholland Drive; Lynch just doesn't travel the route in that order.

Some viewers will opt out, resenting such obtuse storytelling. Others will be invigorated, even exhilarated. This type of gamesmanship demands intellectual and emotional investment from the spectator. The reward is a more engrossing and provocative experience than one normally encounters at the multiplex. It can be frustrating and enervating, but both are valid emotions in Lynchland. Predictability, boredom and ennui are not.

When you get down to it (or, more appropriately, open up to it), Lynchland isn't all that impenetrable—despite the befuddlement his films supposedly generate. They're created from recognizable elements, common settings viewed askew. Unlike the computer-generated sci-fi fantasy worlds that pass for "visionary" with the younger generation, Lynch isn't interested in fashioning an alternate reality into which the emotionally stunted can escape. He's burrowing into a world we all recognize and share, and it's a vision anyone can comprehend, with an open and willing mind. Far from obscure, Lynch seems generous, providing an experience with more layers of meaning, and avenues of access, than other filmmakers even contemplate.

[Read no further if you haven't seen the movie.]

The surface level of the story is, by the end, very clear: Diane Selwyn was a bright-eyed ingenue, eager for a movie career, who lost her big break to glamorous Camilla Rhodes. Generous Camilla not only offers Diane a bit part in "The Sylvia North Story," she offers a place in her bed as well. If Diane can't be a star, at least she can love one.

But when Camilla dumps her for director Adam Kecher—who lords it over the movieland minions from his mansion way up on Mulholland—poor Diane snaps. She gives a scummy hitman a purseful of money and a headshot of her former lover: "This is the girl," she instructs him. Diane then retreats to a miserable bungalow, to lie low and wallow in her misery.

On the last night of her life, she dreams this very story, but her subconscious shapes it into the movie she wishes it had been—an exciting tale of how spunky "Betty" rescued and fell in love with ravishing "Rita," who adored her in return. But the dream ends, and Diane is left with a dismal reality that's spun out of control. When the police track her down, knocking on the door, she blows her brains out to silence the roiling pain and guilt.

What makes the movie so challenging is that two-thirds of the narrative is Diane's dream, which you don't realize until she wakes up and—cue the plummeting elevator—you understand that "Betty" is only a figment of Diane's subconscious. She gleaned "Betty" from a waitress's badge at the diner where she hired the assassin. The last third of the film flashes back from Diane's final waking hours, cataloging the indignities, real and imagined, that drove her to have Camilla killed. The only scenes that take place in "real time" are those in which Diane shambles around in a dirty bathrobe, paralyzed by remorse.

It's a thrilling revision of traditional narrative: the exciting "climax" is the wave of expository information that makes us rethink all that's gone before.

Several plot threads clearly intended for the more expansive framework of a TV series end up filtered through Diane's consciousness, showing her paranoid vision of Hollywood, both old and new: a room full of freeze-dried studio hacks are floored by her stunning audition, but still rule thumbs-down; a casting meeting between the callow Kecher and his menacing financiers is covertly observed by Mr. Roque, the anonymous puppetmaster who parcels out the "breaks." In Diane's mind, they're all conspiring against her. Even a biddy psychic (faded thespian, no doubt) gives Betty/Diane a disdainful competitive sniff, upon learning she's an actress.

There's always a "Mr. Big" in David Lynch's films, an incarnation of the energy that controls the course of human events. Here it's "The Cowboy." His mystical corral exists on a plane even higher than the Hollywood sign. He's overseen this terrain since the cameras first arrived, since William S. Hart ushered in the cinema of sensation by pointing a six-shooter at the audience and firing. The Cowboy is an ambivalent figure, neither benevolent or malevolent. When he dresses down the "smart aleck" director, he's like a ghostly messenger from the founding Jesse Lasky Feature Player Company, emerging from Hollywood's original ranchland to read the rules, in no uncertain terms, to this self-important newcomer.

Also appearing, in a regular alleyway engagement behind Winkie's diner, is another member of the Lynch stock company: the Force of Evil. As a visual artist, Lynch has always been compelled to represent "evil" in a single human symbol, providing a locus for the ambient dread that floats through his frames. That he's introduced through a peripheral character—who promptly dies in the face-to-face encounter—is one of the film's loosest threads.

Since Diane is in both subsequent diner scenes, a possible interpretation is that she is the terrified dreamer, incognito, trying to explain her anxieties to an agent or therapist. It doesn't really matter. Intuitively and emotionally, Lynch's gamble pays off. The first scene establishes Winkie's as a place where horror lurks, effectively coloring two pivotal scenes to come. One can infer from subtle suggestions that Diane actually worked at the diner, another reverberation on the classic "fledgling starlet" story [all waitresses in L.A. are really actresses]. And it's Winkie's, after all, where Diane will cross into darkness, even after she's warned that "there's no going back."

Equally confounding is the 2 A.M. trip to Club Silencio, another familiar stop on the Lynchland tour: the red curtains, the all-knowing emcee, the sense of paralytic entrapment, the Orbison. It's all on display, again, but now it serves multiple purposes: It allows "Betty" and "Rita" to bond in a mystical way-which gives the rest of the movie its emotional weight. It also explains the emotional heart of the story, but in peculiarly Lynchian terms. By having Rebekah del Rio sing "Crying" in Spanish, the director opts for further mystifying a large percentage of his audience. Of course, for those who speak Spanish, or know the lyrics, the song clearly explains the Diane/Camilla relationship.

This scene also represents the dream coming to its climax. Betty (significantly not Rita) convulses in her seat as she begins to "come out" of it. In this case, "it" is not only her dream-state, but the unconscious realization that she's invested so much in a hoax. As the emcee explains, you can't trust your eyes in this "theater." The magic of synchronized sound and image—cinema—is wonderful and deceptive, but it is not reality. Diane's willful desire to live a fantasy is the crux of her demise.

In Mulholland Drive, Lynch not only conjures his patented dreamscape of sensuous and unsettling imagery, by the end he's assembled the instinctual and disconnected threads into a tight and painful Gordian knot. That's something he never quite managed with other fractured narratives such as Fire Walk with Me, Wild at Heart, or Lost Highway. Despite flashes of poetic brilliance, and a free-floating mix of apprehension and black humor, those films are frustratingly elliptical. At their worst they're freak shows, especially when they're crammed with hipsters savoring their inclusion in Lynch's carnival.

Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive will come to be seen as virtually inseperable works, yin-yang versions of the same premise—a dream-state excavation of a mind that's committed murder. But Lost Highway was a repellent, not seductive journey, and once Bill Pullman went missing, so did the emotional anchor required to pull the audience fully into the depths of Lynchland.

In Mulholland Drive, Lynch has a pair of anchors, costars Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring. Their onscreen freshness heightens the revelatory quality Lynch is after in every scene (of every movie he makes). Perhaps he'd realized that well-known players can be a distracting disaster, like Nicolas Cage mugging through Wild at Heart. Here, when Nancy Drew leads Rita Hayworth to hell (or vice versa), the devastation is deeply felt. The actresses deserve as much credit as Lynch for being able to embody, by turns, such appealing and awful energy.

Watts and Harring bring palpable passion to Diane and Camilla's slowly emerging relationship. It's no less real because it's a dream, and it's achieved not through scripted backstories or rational exposition, but solely through their physical interaction. The fact that it works—without words—is another triumph for a director notoriously suspicious of attaching literal explanations to his visceral obsessions.

In the past, Lynch has taken grief in politically-correct quarters for his treatment of women, and in some cases, such as the cruel handling of Laura Dern and Patricia Arquette (in Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, respectively) the films' foundations are too shaky to provide a valid defense for the lurid debasement—even if those scenes are at the heart of Lynch's artistic preoccupation: the constant threat that purity, innocence and beauty face from corrupt, malignant forces. Lynch clearly understands the immense power of women's bodies, and in Mulholland Drive he finally channels that energy in a respectful way—without sacrificing any of the sensuality he relishes. Rethinking the story from inside Diane's psyche might account for the difference.

On initial viewing, the love between Diane and Camilla unfolds in a sequence unique in its intensity, tenderness and sincerity—both for Lynch and American movies in general. Usually nude love scenes are cringe-inducing, plagued by a combination of hackneyed direction, cynical exploitation, and the sacrifice of storytelling momentum to ticket-selling titillation. In this instance, however, the moment is electric. The combination of Lynch's sensitive direction (he shows enough to be erotic, but stops short of voyeurism), cinematographer Peter Deming's gorgeous half-light, and the breathless, bona fide heat of Watts and Harring, conjures lightning in a bottle—it's a scene of compelling sexuality.

Their second love scene, by comparison, comes off stark and tawdry—which cuts to the core. One is a ravishing fantasy of blissful intimacy, the other a final midday fuck-off to a dalliance gone cold. When Watts later takes to the same couch, tearfully masturbating as she tries to reclaim an image of her dream lover, she's in a lonely place few movies dare to go. These sex scenes aren't only crucial to the plot—in Lynch's cinematic shorthand they are the plot, and Naomi Watts is fearless and mesmerizing in the way she defines, and deepens, Lynch's themes. Minus these scenes (if Mulholland Drive existed only as the ill-fated pilot), Watts' performance would have been devalued, even denigrated, for its (seemingly) simplistic star-crossed goofiness. In the finished version, she's pure revelation.

A second viewing shows that Diane's infatuation with Camilla exists all along, bubbling beneath her guileless facade: in virtually every scene the women are only a breath apart, touching each other, gazing into each others' eyes, acting unconsciously like illicit lovers. Since these scenes existed in the (pre-lesbian) pilot, it's hard not to believe that Lynch meant "Betty" and "Rita" for each other all along-an embrace of noir archetypes, the dark sultry femme fatale, and the perky blonde commoner who secretly craves such sexiness: Janet Leigh takes Ava Gardner to bed.

Whether Diane wants Camilla, or wants to be Camilla, it's a moot point. Her desire literally opens Pandora's (blue) Box, and she doesn't have the strength of character to slam it shut before all hell breaks loose. By succumbing to her jealousy and opting for revenge, Diane gives in to the evil force represented by the dumpster dweller out back of Winkie's, a hulking, vaguely defined mass of bad gris gris. Unlike his comrade BOB up in Twin Peaks or the white-faced Mystery Man of Lost Highway, this guy doesn't move around much. He knows that in this city of spoiled dreams he'll have plenty of customers, and that they'll find him.

Written by Eddie Muller /

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bunco Squad (1950)

Bunco, n.: The use of dishonest methods to acquire something of value; a swindle.

They oughtta teach Bunco Squad in film school, it’s that good. A 1950 product of the famed RKO B unit, it’s a first-rate example of narrative economy and overall B picture-making. Now I’m no knucklehead, Bunco Squad isn’t The Narrow Margin. I’m not out to compare those two pictures, because beyond their B status and shared studio they have little in common. The Narrow Margin is an exemplary film noir with an iconic leading man in his greatest part. Bunco Squad doesn’t rate as a film noir and has a far less prestigious or able cast than Margin — the actors in Bunco Squad even mispronounce words, tough ones like occult and Los Angeles. Still, this is a little movie that crackles. It’s contrived, heavy on coincidence, and might even be a bit campy, but in spite of all this it still begs to be watched, and doesn’t disappoint those who do. It’s a gem of a mid-century crime picture; and although it’s not a film noir, it’s one that certainly rates a few days in the spotlight at Noir of the Week.

I included the definition above because “bunco” is hardly a household word; it never registered with me until Ellroy, even though Jack Webb devoted a section The Badge to the LAPD bunco squad way back in 1958. It’s that same unit that’s the subject of our movie, which beyond a rare television airing was nigh on impossible to see until it recently became available through the Warner Archive. The picture opens fast — at only 67 minutes it has to — with star Robert Sterling standing in front of a citizens’ group giving a lecture about all the ways that flimflam artists get over on the squares — he’s even got a home-movie screen with 8mm visual aids. The entire scene takes a mere two minutes, but it’s one of the many moments of narrative economy that sets Bunco Squad apart. Films such as Southside 1-1000, Code Two, Appointment with Danger and The Street with No Name (to name a very few) sport openings with a narrator speaking over some montage of stock footage, telling us about how the treasury boys, the motorbike unit, the postal cops or even the g-men are putting their asses on the line for the sake of law and order. Bunco Squad does the same thing: we get the footage, we get the narrator, we get the same results. But in this case the speaker happens to be our star, and by introducing him here it becomes unnecessary to have a scene establishing his character later. And embedding the sequence in the narrative allows for the interaction of other characters, which pays more dividends: As Sterling’s Detective Steve Johnson gives the skinny on the scammers, we get to see how his audience of concerned citizens reacts — when he mentions how the palm readers and tarot card shams contribute to the $200 million per year bunco haul, a old man in the crowd looks down his nose at his wife who turns away, red in the face. Yet when Johnson adds the wheel of fortune and roulette to the list, it gives the wife a chance to glower right back at the husband. Just as Johnson wraps up his speech his partner rushes up: the captain needs them downtown — a hot tip on a new racket. The scene runs just over two minutes, yet it packs a wallop of important information. We meet our star and his partner; get a fix on the bad guys, what they do, how they do it, and who they do it to.

Detective Johnson is so white bread he probably pisses whole milk. The cops here are one-dimensional, their moral certainty is absolute. At 67 minutes, time can’t be wasted agonizing over moral ambiguities or on overt character development — in fact there’s no character development at all, which is the most damning evidence against any case for Bunco Squad as a film noir. This is a movie that simply ignores the driving forces behind noir heroes and villains: alienation, obsession, and desperation. The characters aren’t characters but cardboard types: the cop, the partner, the victim, the girlfriend, etc. We have to take for granted why the police are compelled to uphold order and why the crooks would choose to do ill. Fate never takes a hand and irony must have been busy elsewhere. These points aren’t offered to disparage Bunco Squad, but to differentiate it from the film noir and show that such a picture can nevertheless succeed by other means. Lest we confuse this with a semi-doc or a procedural, there are few such moments, at least as far as the cops are concerned. If anything Bunco Squad shows us, exposé style, how the con artists organize and carry out their scams — and it does this quite well. The notion makes sense: audiences generally have a sense of how cops do business, but in a movie that deals with crooks who use brains instead of bullets, there’s big upside in showing how they pull the rabbit out of the hat — particularly when it’s a spooky séance scam.

Here are the details: con man Tony Weldon (Ricardo Cortez, Bunco’s lone name star) rolls into L.A. on the heels of Mrs. Royce’s secretary, knowing that if he can get close enough to the old bird he might pry loose her 2.5 million dollar nest egg. When Weldon discovers Mrs. Royce’s boy was killed at Normandy he knows exactly how to run his scam. He builds a crew of professional swindlers, including ex-con crystal ball gazer Princess Liane (Bernadene Hayes, not bad in a role tailor-made for Marie Windsor), professional shill Mrs. Cobb (Vivien Oakland), restaurant swami Drake (Bob Bice), and the smooth-talking Fred Reed (John Kellogg). They develop an elaborate shell game in order to convince Mrs. Royce to bequeath her money to the “Rama Society.” There’s a fine sequence that depicts each of them uncovering seemingly banal pieces of information about the dead son’s schoolboy days, that when sewn together and dressed up in an otherworldly séance, take on the look and feel true mysticism. The plan works, and Mrs. Royce amends her will. When the secretary gets suspicious of Weldon her car plummets into a canyon — no brakes! (Weldon cuts brake lines so often in this movie it’s surprising nobody calls him “Snips.”) Meanwhile, the cops are pounding the pavement trying to make a case — they know who’s involved, but aren’t able to prove a crime has been committed. In a spectacular B-movie coincidence, Steve shows up at Rama society headquarters just in time to see Mrs. Royce. When the cops brace her she scoffs and tells them to buzz off — which Detective Johnson does, and how: straight over a cliff with cut brake lines! He lives, barely, and enjoys one moviedom’s briefest convalescent periods. Finally, the cops contrive to beat Weldon at his own game, with the assistance of famous magician Dante (playing himself) and Johnson’s actress girlfriend, posing as a rival medium. When their scheme gains traction with Mrs. Royce, Weldon resorts to violence, setting the stage for Bunco’s finale — and another brakeless car careening through the hills above Malibu.

The fixation on murder by cutting brake lines, though admittedly jeopardizing the movie’s credibility, is another of those expeditious touches that allow a whole lot of story to get crammed into a few reels. In the first instance we are given plenty of detailed information: we see the killer approach and climb under the car, hear the sound of him cutting the lines, and then we see him resurface, brandishing and then stowing his cutters. This takes a modest thirty seconds of screen time, but by the final occurrence it takes only six. The narrative value of this kind of killing is significant. Bullets are difficult to dodge, but the brake line technique generates suspense — and a special sort of suspense at that, considering that the amount of time between the cutting of the lines and the car ride itself can be shortened or lengthened to suit the plot. The car ride itself can be drawn out, or not shown at all — we’re in the car with Detective Johnson, but we only learn of the secretary’s death through a newspaper headline, and we don’t get to see Weldon do the deed at all.

Most B pictures rely on contrivances stacked on top of one another and outrageous coincidences too. Bunco Squad is no different, yet it’s all done so smoothly you’ll hardly notice and surely won’t care. It borrows one of the quintessential devices of the caper picture to great effect: that of the criminal who builds a crew and executes a clever plan; except in this case it’s not a heist but a swindle the crooks have in mind. There’s nothing spectacular about the story or the cast, and its noir credentials are shaky at best — it's not even hard-boiled. But Bunco Squad is a crackerjack crime movie anyway. It’s polished, well constructed, features a ton of on-location L.A. exteriors and surprising special effects. It goes a long way towards reminding us that not all mid-century crimes movies were filmed in the noir style, and that such films shouldn’t be dismissed — or forgotten.


Written by The Professor
His blog is Where Danger Lives

Monday, October 11, 2010

Behind the High Wall (1956)

Classic film noir plots and locations are so similar from movie to movie that after a large consumption of noir it starts to feel like you’re having the same recurring nightmare - but with different faces. Femme fatale, con men, disillusioned war vets and over-the-hill pugilist populate the small towns, diners, dingy offices and wet city streets.

Prison is certainly a popular location in crime films from the 30’s to today. The grey walls and heavy shadows coming from the barred windows seem to be a natural location for noir. Some excellent noir have taken place in the big house: Brute Force, Caged (the best women’s prison film, for what that’s worth), and proto-noirs like Fury and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang help define noir.

Film historian Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir argues that prison - like the boxing ring-- may be too literal a location for “dramatizing stories of noir victims whose lives seem to be closing in on them.” He goes on to praise Dassin’s Brute Force.

When I sat down to watch Behind the High Wall last week I suspected that the B-movie was going to be cheap clone of Brute Force or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. When, early on, the warden began his speech about how good recreation and food is “key to keeping prisoners happy” I was hoping it wasn’t going to turn into a sappy “warden with a heart-of-gold helps a prisoner wrongly convicted” dud. (Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford in Convicted is the worst of that bunch. John Garfield in Castle on the Hudson being one of the best). Luckily, Behind the High Wall takes the story over the wall and tells the story of a warden who may not be as pure as he first seems to be.

Frank Carmichael, the interim prison warden with a crippled wife at home, is kidnapped by convicts during a breakout. A prison guard is killed and ex-con Johnny Hutchins - innocently arriving at the meet-up location in hopes that the garage owner would help finance his business -- is forced to go along with the escapees. The get-away car speeds into a ditch with Johnny at the wheel killing all but one prisoner, the warden and innocent Johnny. The warden shoots the remaining conscious prisoner as he runs from the crash spilling $100,000 in stolen bills over the hillside. The warden scoops up the cash and buries it to pick up later (in a scene that will remind film buffs of Private Hell 36). Johnny comes to just in time for the police to arrest him. Days later, Carmichael allows Johnny take the blame for the guards death - because proving him innocent would prove his own guilt. Carmichael - who was just about to be fired prior to the breakout - now gets made permanent warden because of his celebrity status after the escape. Johnny is not so lucky. He’s sentenced to be executed but escapes. Will Warden Carmichael take the money and dream job or will he try to clear Johnny’s name before he’s hunted down?

Like most B-movies, there are a few things you could nitpick about. The movie would have been much better if the warden’s wife (Sylvia Sydney) wanted her husband to keep the money and was wicked about hiding it from the law. Instead she plays the obvious role of her husband’s conscience. The film does play out to a fatal conclusion but it would have been more satisfying if there was no redemption.

The cast is interesting. Former sex symbol Sydney - years from her 30s film roles in movies helmed by Fritz Lang and Hitchcock - looks like every cigarette she smoked took a small slice of her beauty resulting in her being almost unrecognizable in Behind the High Wall. She was no stranger to prison films. In the 1930s she appeared in a handful of truly great crime films: Fury, You Only Live Once, Dead End and City Streets. After Behind the High Wall Sydney would focus on the stage and TV—not appearing on the big screen for another 17 years.

Tom Tully plays Warden Carmichael. Tully is probably best remembered for his Oscar-nominated role in The Caine Mutiny. Noir fans probably know him as Gene Tierney’s unlucky dad in Where the Sidewalk Ends. Tully rarely got a starring role and with his hair slicked back he kind of looks like Emile Meyer -- a look I would imagine no one would be going for in 1956.

Phil Karlson-regular John Larch is good as one of the cons.

Johnny is played by John Gavin. This was beefy Gavin’s first film role. He’d later be one of the stars of Psycho but is probably best remembered as the answer to a trivia question. Gavin was hired to play James Bond after George Lazenby left the role. At the last minute, Connery decided to don the tuxedo again for the first Bond in the 1970s: Diamonds are Forever. Gavin was paid but never got the part of 007. He was later the Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan.

I admit I’m a sucker for noir (or any movie for that matter) set in or around prisons. Behind the High Wall is a satisfying one of you can look past the short coming of cheap film making that dominated crime films in the 1950s.

Written by Steve-O


Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Gangster (1947)

In 1989 Daniel Fuchs wrote “In all my time at the studios, I managed to get my name on a little more than a dozen pictures, most unmemorable, one (Love Me or Leave Me) a major success.” Since then some of the “unmemorable” pictures have grown in stature: The Hard Way, Panic in the Streets, Storm Warning (all with co-writers) and his solo screenplays The Scar and, especially, the noir masterpiece Criss Cross. When he wasn’t writing screenplays he wrote short stories, another novel, and memoirs of his Hollywood days.

Fuchs published three novels in the late 1930s, all set in Brooklyn. The Gangster (1947) is Fuchs’ adaptation of the third of these novels, Low Company (1937). Fuchs boils down the sprawling opus to an 84-minute screenplay. The film and novel are set in Neptune Beach, a thinly disguised Brighton Beach/Coney Island in Brooklyn. The story centers on Shubunka, the gangster of the title. Over six years he has built up a business of “rotten little rackets, living off people, ... the numbers, floating gambling games, one or two other things even worse.” (In the novel, the business is prostitution.) His partner, Jammey, rents properties he owns to Shubunka. He also owns a soda/ice cream shop, the center for most of the film’s activities. Major characters who work or hang out at the shop are Shorty, a soda jerker, Dorothy, the store’s young cashier, and Karty, an accountant who now has a destructive gambling habit. All figure in the story’s unfolding.

Shubunka’s empire is threatened by a national syndicate that is moving in and buying off Shubunka’s locations and cronies. Jammey is squeezed to rat out Shubunka by the threatened destruction of his store’s $2000 ice cream machine. Shubunka’s response is inaction. Believing that the syndicate is blowing smoke, he advises Jammey not to worry. There is a reason for Shubunka’s lack of response: beneath the bravado and arrogance, he is trapped in a paranoid fatalism. Smitten with up-and-coming singer Nancy Starr (a character not in the novel), he spends large amounts of money for gifts, a luxury apartment, etc. Although Shubunka knows he is rotten, his hope to trust a woman has led him to crisis. He loathes society but cannot escape it. He is unable to behave as he would normally in a situation that calls for action. As Fuchs writes in Low Company, “Formerly Shubunka had handled the complaints in his cool, apathetic manner … He had been unruffled then, easy, enjoying his sense of importance and yet his indifference. He thought of the respect he had forced out of men ... in spite of their distaste for him.” When we meet Shubunka in The Gangster, this power is fading away. He still craves respect, but the craving leads to stasis. Although he returns to his old self and takes action, it is too late.

The film’s major characters are all schemers. Shubunka schemes to maintain his money and power after escaping from a youth of poverty. Jammey schemes to hold onto his money even though the cold, rainy summer is hurting business and his hypochondriac wife spends money on doctors. Karty schemes for money to satisfy his gambling fix and to return money he has embezzled. Even Shorty schemes for free sex. Only Dorothy has no agenda. She has an Old Testament view of good and evil.

Barry Sullivan, with a scar running down the left side of his face, is strong as Shubunka, if a little one-note. (Interestingly, Shubunka in the novel is fat, very fat. One can imagine the young Raymond Burr or William Conrad in the part. The ideal for the role would have been Laird Cregar.) Belita, an ice skater who could act, is fine as Nancy. Akim Tamiroff captures Jammey perfectly. John Ireland is appropriately nervous as Karty. Joan Lorring has big moments as Dorothy. Sheldon Leonard oozes strength as Cornell, the syndicate head. Harry Morgan, in his Henry Morgan days, is hilarious as Shorty in the film’s comic subplot (left over from the novel, perhaps unnecessary, but it serves a plot function). The syndicate’s muscle is played by familiar faces: Charles McGraw, Elisha Cook, Jr., and John Kellogg. If one blinks, one will miss Shelley Winters, Jeff Corey, and Peter Whitney.

The film, a Monogram/King Brothers follow-up to Suspense from the year before, reunited Sullivan and Belita. The Gangster was directed by Gordon Wiles, photographed by Paul Ivano and art direction was by F. Paul Sylos. The film was shot on a studio sound stage. There is deep focus photography (including a breathtaking shot in the soda shop with all the lead characters at work or sitting at tables) and luminous close-ups of Belita.

With the studio sets, the rain swept streets, the darkness and a daylight fraught with danger, I would say there is a heavy influence of 1930s French poetic realism, especially Carne’s Port of Shadows, on the look of The Gangster.

The effective musical score was written by Louis Gruenberg, a major figure in American classical music of the 1920s and 1930s.

Two questions to readers. The first shot in the film is a close up of a painting that strikes me as familiar. Is it? Or was it painted expressly for the film? Nowhere can I find a credit for the voiceover at the end of the film. It sounds as if it could be Martin Gabel or, possibly, James Whitmore. Any ideas?

The Gangster has just been released by Warner Archive on DVD.


Written by fosterg

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