Sunday, January 30, 2011

He Ran All the Way (1951)

John Garfield's last film was He Ran All the Way. Less than a year after its release Garfield was dead at the age of 39 - due to a long-term heart condition. Garfield was one of the biggest movie stars of his time. His breakout role was in Four Daughters in 1939. The former street gang member earned a Academy Award nomination for the part and was now a movie star going into the new decade. Unable to serve in the military because of his heart, the frustrated actor instead often starred as war heroes in a number of Warner Bros. contract parts. Off screen Garfield was a founder (along with Bette Davis) of the Hollywood Canteen - a night spot offering food and shows for military members. Soldiers and sailors just needed to show up in uniform- everything inside was free to them. The 1940s was a wildly successful time for Garfield professionally - and I continue to be amazed by his roles in film noir. Always cast as a social outsider with stubborn ways, he didn't make a bad film his whole time with Warner Bros. (not to mention The Postman Always Rings Twice when he was lent out to MGM.)

In 1946, Garfield decided not to renew his contract with Warner Bros. and started his own production company (he was one of the first to do so). The strong-willed and seemingly belligerent actor made Body and Soul (boxer from the streets) and Force of Evil (a stylish Little Caesar) under his Enterprise Productions. The tone of these later works - plus his connections with liberal associates and his independence from big studios - brought him under suspicion as a possible Communist. Uncooperative with the HUAC, he began to find it hard to get movie work outside his production company in the late 40s despite his efforts to support the military during the war only a few years earlier.

After a few stinkers at major studios in the late 40s going into the 50s, his last two films are mostly forgotten but excellent. The Breaking Point is a remake of To Have and Have Not. An outstanding movie in every way. The Breaking Point manages to be superior to the original and closer to the Hemingway 30s radical novel both are based on. (As good as Garfield and Patricia Neal are as leads they couldn’t match the wattage of Bogart and whistlin' Bacall. However Breaking Point as a whole is better.)

Then there's the gritty He Ran All the Way. Like other noir that followed (The Desperate Hours is the most famous one), it's the story of a normal family trapped in their own home by a possibly lethal criminal element. The more conventional The Desperate Hours has Bogie and his gang taking over an upper-class families home. In He Ran All the Way, the hostaged family and the criminal share the same background. They're members of the same class and have the some of the same view on authority (police, newspapers and so on). The only reason Garfield's character (Nick Robey) holds them hostage is because the two-bit criminal is surrounded by police out to get him. Like a wild animal trapped in a corner he must make quick decisions with the only goal being his survival. As much as he likes (and would like to be a part of) the family he's holding hostage, Robey must survive by any means possible. The unrelenting pressure and Robey's ultimate demise almost mirror the stressful last couple of years of Garfield's life- though the actor wasn't actually guilty of anything. Knowing John Garfield's history makes understanding viewers feel like an old pugilist taking repeated shots to the gut when watching. As friend Abraham Polonsky (director of Force of Evil and writer of Body and Soul) once said, “He defended his street-boy's honor and they killed him for it.”

Let me get one my only negative criticism of the movie out of the way: Garfield was too old for the part. He was typecast as a “punk criminal from the streets” for almost ten years. The actor was pushing 40 by the time he made this one and I find it a bit jarring to see him as a small-time crook still living with his mother in 1950. His mother Gladys George (who admittedly looks horrible compared to Garfield) was only 13 years older than him. (North by Northwest has this beat. Cary Grant's “mother” is eight years older than the actor. In The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury is three years older than “son” Laurence Harvey.) A more age-appropriate movie for 38-year-old Garfield would have been in the film version of the Odets play The Big Knife (which he starred on Broadway when most of his film work dried up.) Then again, he played the “young boxer from the streets” in a late Broadway production of Golden Boy in 1952 the year he died. Clearly he was typecast as a “young street punk.” This doesn't take away from my enjoyment of He Ran All the Way. It just distracts from the beginning of an otherwise perfect start.

The opening of He Ran All the Way is 100-percent unfiltered noir. Waking up from a nightmare (“I was running...”) in a rat hole of an apartment, he's hassled by mother (30s glamor girl Gladys George looking like a dirty ash tray in a bathrobe.)

The dim-witted criminal - still shaken from a dream and running a fever -- meets crony Al who takes the reluctant thug on a payroll robbery that goes bust. Robey is only there to get Al a heater and be the muscle. The crime goes sour when Robey panics. With a security guard shot and his partner injured, Robey ducks police in a public pool. There he meets young Peggy Dobbs who is immediately charmed by him. Unfortunately for her and her family, her attraction to the dark, half-ugly mystery man will lead them all to a hostage standoff.

The cast is filled with familiar faces and all perform well. George as Garfield's mother, Shelley Winters seems to be a perfect fit as Peggy, and Wallace Ford is always a welcome sight.

The unrelenting menace of Franz Waxman's score delivers right from the first few frames. James Wong Howe's claustrophobic images and sweaty closeups makes a routine crime story standout from the rest. Dalton Trumbo - blacklisted for not testifying to the HUAC a few years before - and Hugo Butler both wrote under the name Guy Endure (edit: Endure was an actual writer but in this case a front for the two other writers). Trumbo - while blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10 - wrote over 30 movies under aliases. Some of the movies are known today for being the best noir of the classic era (Gun Crazy, The Gangster and the recently revived The Prowler.) His recognizable sharp dialog is here (“Get the dandruff out of your blood!”) Even for his last movie, Garfield hired from a small pool of friends and I'm sure he was responsible for getting Trumbo and other banned or soon-to-be blacklisted film makers onto the project.

The most iconic image from the film is actually a spoiler for the end of the movie (also used for the cover of Andrew Spicer's book Film Noir). The still is seen over and over again - whenever an article about film noir appears online or in newspapers or magazines today. But what an ending!

He Ran All the Way is Garfield's last film and the appropriate name for a biography about the actor (written by Robert Nott.) Garfield's last movie comes highly recommended but this independent film is not easily seen. It airs occasionally on TCM. The film is not on DVD in the US but the simple crime drama oozing film noir is available on a Region 2 DVD.

Written by Steve-O

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rolling Thunder (1977)

The latest Noir of the Week comes from the pen of Hard-boiled novelist Wallace Stroby

It would be easy to mistake John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder for just another ‘70s vigilante revenge drama. On one level it’s no mistake at all. It has all the trappings of the genre: When a Vietnam vet’s family is slaughtered by brutal criminals, he guns up and sets off on a bloody vengeance spree. But on another level, and in context, it now feels like one of the most significant films of the decade.

Directed by journeyman Flynn (The Outfit, Best Seller), Rolling Thunder was clearly riding the tide of violent revenge films that were filling American theaters in the mid-’70s. Three years earlier, Michael Winner’s Death Wish had become one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and ushered in a new cinema of vengeance. But Rolling Thunder also had a more artistic pedigree. Its original screenplay was by Hollywood enfant terrible Paul Schrader, then riding high on his scripts for The Yakuza, Obsession, and 1976’s Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. When Rolling Thunder was released, the posters proclaimed it “Another shattering experience from the author of Taxi Driver.”

The two films do have some shared themes, specifically a Vietnam vet who turns homicidal on return to the U.S. But Travis Bickle, the troubled loser of Taxi Driver, is a far cry from Rolling Thunder’s Maj. Charles Rane, an Air Force officer who’s spent seven years in a hellish POW camp after being shot down over North Vietnam (“Rolling Thunder” was the code name for U.S. air operations during the war).

As Rane, William Devane (Marathon Man, Family Plot) gives a measured and finely nuanced performance, one of the best of his career. Returning to his Texas hometown (the film is set in 1973), Rane finds a young son who doesn’t remember him, and a wife who’s fallen in love with another man. The only one who understands him is his fellow POW, Sgt. Johnny Vohden (a memorable early performance by Tommy Lee Jones). Vohden is so twitchy and lost he makes Rane seem well-adjusted. When the plane that’s brought them home touches down at the airport where Vohden’s wife and family are waiting, he confides, “Major, I sure do hate to face all them people.” “Then put your glasses on, John,” Rane tells him. Sunglasses in place, they take their first steps out onto the tarmac, and back into a world they hardly recognize.

As disciplined and stoic as he tries to be, Rane is also working through some major issues. After seven years in a cell, he can’t reacclimate to his old life. He sleeps in a backyard workshed because, as his wife tells their little boy, it’s “small and quiet out there.” In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Rane demonstrates how he was tortured by his captors, persuading his wife’s lover, a local policeman, to participate in the reenactment by painfully hoisting Rane’s bound arms behind him. "You learn to love the rope,” Rane tells him. “That’s how you beat them."

Things get worse. Honored as a hometown hero, Rane is given a new Cadillac convertible and 2,555 silver dollars, one for each day he spent in captivity. When they hear of this windfall, a quartet of depraved criminals, led by The Texan (James Best) and Automatic Slim (‘70s icon Luke Askew), invade Rane’s home and kill his wife and son. Refusing to give up the coins, Rane is brutalized and, in the film’s most exploitative scene, has his right hand fed into the kitchen garbage disposal.

Once out of the hospital, Rane “rearms” with a prosthetic hook he files to razor sharpness. Sawing down the barrels of the shotgun given him by his son, he starts to plot his revenge, reluctantly aided by the young waitress who wore his POW bracelet (a vibrant Linda Haynes). Eventually, he recruits the newly reupped Vohden, who’s happy to flee the stifling confines of civilian life. When Rane reveals he’s found the hideout of the men who killed his family, Vohden pauses only for a moment. “I’ll just get my gear,” he says. Armed to the teeth, the two head across the border, and into a bloodbath of Peckinpah-esque proportions at a Mexican brothel, in a scene that also echoes the finale of Taxi Driver.

But while the original story and first draft of Rolling Thunder were written by Schrader, much of the film’s character development was provided by then-first-time screenwriter Heywood Gould (Fort Apache, The Bronx), who was brought in to do a polish and rewrite. The scenes between Rane and his son, and the torture reenactment are all Gould’s (Schrader’s original draft is available on the web).

Its exploitative elements aside, there’s no denying the film’s primitive power. Rane’s alienation feels real. After his war experiences, the average Americans he meets - as Nick Nolte’s fellow Vietnam vet Ray Hicks pronounces in 1978’s Who'll Stop the Rain - are “Martians.” Rane is almost happy to cut loose from society and set out on the vengeance trail. The murder of his family leaves him feeling less traumatized than disrespected. His vendetta is as much about pride as justice.

Moodwise, Rolling Thunder echoes some of the “disaffected vet” noir films of the post-WWII era, such as George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1948). As shot by Jordan Cronenweth (Cutter's Way, Blade Runner), the border towns of Rolling Thunder are noirish hellholes full of neon lights and deep shadows. The villains, in particular Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), are truly frightening. Askew’s Automatic Slim is a tough, unrepentant career criminal and Vietnam vet himself, who looks quite up to the task of killing both the heroes. ”Now don’t give me any of that officer hard shit,” he tells Rane. “’Cause I was right there in ‘Nam with the rest, ‘cept I was lying face-down in the mud while you cats was flying over.”

Schrader’s original script ends with a mass slaughter that makes Taxi Driver seem restrained, with Rane and Vohden gunning down criminals and innocents alike. The ending of the film, reworked by Gould, is no less bloody, though slightly more conventional (Schrader’s original script also features a scene - perhaps tongue in cheek - in a Texas drive-in where Rane and Travis Bickle eye each other from their respective cars while slugging drinks and watching “Deep Throat.”)

Unlike most films of its type, Rolling Thunder is deliberately paced. It moves slowly at first, taking its time to show Rane’s attempts to readjust. “I had everything worked out,” he tells an Air Force psychologist (Dabney Coleman). “But nothing’s going the way I planned.” Anchored by Devane’s performance, the first half of the film is a compelling character study. Can this battered war hero reconnect with the world, and find a redemptive new love with the young woman who idolizes him? Can he rekindle the humanity he knows he’s lost? “It’s like my eyes are open and I’m looking at you,” he tells the girl. “But I’m dead. They pulled out whatever it was inside of me.”

Unfortunately, some of the film’s virtues - and most of its subtleties - are lost in the second half, as Rane gets down to business. As inevitable as it is, the final shootout - with both men in full uniform - is a bit of a letdown. We want to know more about these characters, their struggles, and the ramifications of the violent paths they’ve chosen. Instead, we get only shotgun blasts and blood-spattered walls.

During an appearance at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Bruce Springsteen cited Rolling Thunder as one of the films (along with Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter) that influenced the songwriting on his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Some of the imagery does seem to have made its way into a later Springsteen song, a “Born in the USA” outtake called “Shut Out the Light,” about a returning Vietnam vet. The opening lines almost mirror the beginning of the film:

The runway rushed up at him/ As he felt the wheels touch down/
He stood out on the blacktop/ And took a taxi into town

That connection is even stronger in an earlier, darker version of the song with alternate lyrics:

Now every evening/ Well, just after supper time/ He’d go into the back bedroom/ And he’d lock the door behind/ He’d lie awake, a telephone line stretched out across a chair/ Just him and a few bad habits/ He’d brought back from over there.

Schrader’s original script also begins with a song, Red Sovine’s angry “Go Hide John,” a returning vet’s dire warning to his wife about the draft dodger lover she’s taken in his absence. It’s a postcard from a divided America, and miles away from the sentimental trucker ballads the singer was best known for:

I wrote you how I felt from Cam Ranh Bay/ He burned his card then stole your love away. ... Hide him well and tell him Hell waits on an airplane/ I depart these California skies at dawn/ You thought the war and all its fire would kill me in the jungle/ But I’m alive/ It’s time to go hide John.

Rolling Thunder made Gene Siskel’s 10 Best of 1977 list, alongside Annie Hall, Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars. Quentin Tarantino took the title for his brief venture into rereleasing cult movies such as Switchblade Sisters and Detroit 9000, but the film that gave his company its name never made the cut. Released only on VHS home video in the ‘90s, it remains unavailable on domestic DVD. And that’s a shame. Despite its flaws, Rolling Thunder holds up as both a time capsule of ‘70s cinema, and a snapshot of post-Vietnam American madness.

Written by Wallace Stroby

Editor's note: Wallace has a new book out Cold Shot to the Heart

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bluebeard (1944)

Lucille, I want to tell you something no other living person knows...

I've heard of this happening on more than one occasion. A movie fan becomes a fan of film noir. They begin collecting and watching all the noir they can find. They start with films starring Bogart or Mitchum. Then they move on to the works of directors Wilder and Siodmak . They rent some DVDs and watch classic Bs like Gun Crazy.

Then they hit Z-grade poverty row film of Edgar G. Ulmer like a car hitting a brick wall at 70 MPH. Detour at first glance is so minimal and dark that a new viewer wouldn't be wrong to wonder how much contempt the director had for his audience. Some would stop their film noir obsession right there. The rest --hypnotized by the demented poetry of Ulmer movies constructed in the lower depths of Poverty Row-- will begin seeing out the cheapies before any gloss put out by Warner Bros or the modest crime thrillers churned out by RKO in the '40s. They'd probably find that most from PRC - dubbed Pretty Rotten Crap by Hollywood - and similar studios are indeed crap. Films directed by Ulmer - who worked for many of those studios - are the exception.

Born in Vienna, Ulmer worked as a designer and and assistant director for F. W. Murnau. He accompanied Murnau to America in the 1920s and worked with him on Sunrise (1927) among others. He stayed in America after Murnau's death - working as a set designer for MGM and the stage. He began directing in the late 1920s. Success as a film director was almost immediate when the best horror pairing of Lugosi and Karloff, The Black Cat, was released in 1934. The Black Cat dealt with the occult and Ulmer's set design and visuals are remarkable - they overshadow the rest of the film which can sometimes come across as just plain corny. This would be the Ulmer's trademark. Film critic Andrew Sarris commented once that most of Ulmer's films “are of interest only to unthinking audiences or specialists in mise-en-scène .”

For the rest of the 30's Ulmer would buck the system and become a specialist in smaller ethnic films.

By the 1940s Ulmer began making the movies he's most remembered for today. He wasn't a “gun-for-hire” director like so many in Poverty Row. He chose to make these films, frequently serving as producer, so he'd have total creative control. Unfortunately, once he was pegged as a Z-grade, subterranean movie maker he would never be able to return to Hollywood-budgeted films.

Ulmer's masterpiece is Detour. Other film noirs include the Hedy Lamarr vehicle The Strange Woman, Barbara Payton in Murder is My Beat, Zachary Scott carving his way to the top - like a mini Citizen Kane - in Ruthless and this week's selection Bluebeard. Released in 1944, this is the first of his films to be considered a noir (and, I know. Some may not consider this one noir just because of the setting.)

In 19th century Paris, part-time puppeteer (who's also a painter and possibly a pathological killer) Gaston Morrell's (John Carradine) models end up strangled when they don't match up with his standards of perfection. The pretty young victims are later found floating in the Seine. Gaston's latest model Lucille (Jean Parker) learns of his secret and becomes determined to bring him to justice. But is he the real killer?

This is one of Ulmer's more respectable (and therefore possibly less distinctive) films. Although the film plays out as a French period piece the film seems to mirror modern 1940s England. There are lots of strong woman characters and an absence of capable men (in the 40's they'd all be off to war). The film is wonderfully atmospheric and, although a bit stagy at times, it captures the Gothic mood required.

The talent of Carradine and strong visuals and set design from Ulmer beats out the budget handed to them by PRC. Bluebeard is a horror/noir that could be enjoyed by any noir fan willing to forgive its somewhat chintzy look.

As prolific as Ulmer was he couldn't compete with the number of films his lead actor John Carradine worked in. Saturnine Carradine showed his long face most often in schlock. Lots of schlock. IMDB lists 340 film appearances -- many with titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. The consumptive look of Carradine is always a welcome sight for this movie watcher, and he probably elevated many of the movies he was in just with his presence. It seemed like the actor never turned down a role. In film noir, Carradine's appearance seems to wake up Dana Andrews as they both give life to a pair of soothsayer con men in Fallen Angel. Carradine is credited second in the forgotten mystery Female Jungle with Laurence Tierney and Jayne Mansfield, and he's also wonderfully campy in the unfortunately titled C-Man. You can occasionally find Carradine in great movies like Johnny Guitar, The Grapes of Wrath, and Stagecoach. But that's not what I know him for. It's his presence in countless B-movies (and in this case a bit lower) and being the Shakespeare-spouting patriarch of the Carradine family that I remember him for.


On a side note, I originally was going to write about The Madonna's Secret this week. The Republic film is nearly unwatchable and clearly derived from Ulmer's Bluebeard. Republic films were mostly Z-grade as well. That's not a problem for me. It's the fact that the studio as a whole never seemed to get the tone right when they weren't doing westerns. Best to avoid this imitation when you can watch the real thing.

Written by Steve-O

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bitter Rice (Riso amaro 1949)

Giuseppe De Santis’s 1949 film Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) is powerful, exciting stuff. It’s a bewildering, multi-layered, and voyeuristic experience that borrows from so many different film styles, particularly American film noir, that it defies categorization. While it’s usually easy to red-flag films with multiple writers, this is a rare example where too many cooks did not spoil the broth: Bitter Rice credits a whopping eight different writers, and while this may account for the film’s slight case of schizophrenia, it nevertheless netted an Academy Award nomination for Best Story — and with or without accolades it’s still one hell of a movie. It also features a gloriously charismatic new actress who electrifies the film. There’s so much, on so many different levels, in Bitter Rice worth talking about that description becomes frustrating merely for the lack of a good starting place! One certainty is that this is a movie better seen than read about; so if it weren’t nearly impossible to find a copy I’d happily advise all to stop reading and just go watch.

On a water-cooler level Bitter Rice could be described as a romantic crime piece with undercurrents of Greek fatalism, and that if it has a flaw it’s an admirably pedestrian one: it tries too hard. Instead of the typical boy / girl story we get two of each, comprising a complex romantic quadrangle. Introductions are in order: Walter (Vittorio Gassman) is a thug and petty thief — as greasy as he is good-looking. His squeeze and sometimes-accomplice is Francesca (American actress Doris Dowling), a pretty but bitter thing who could be Ann Savage’s sister. Italian stud Raf Vallone is Marco, a cynical veteran about to drum out of the army after a decade’s service. Finally, there’s SilvanaBitter Rice’s ball of fire. In the late forties former beauty queen Silvana Mangano made the easy transition to film; this is the picture that made her a minor international sensation. Walter Winchell offered the understatement of the decade when he said, “Silvana Mangano is sexier than both Mae West and Jane Russell.” Winchell didn’t go very far out on a limb but his point is well taken; even with her unshaven arms (leading countless critics to describe her as “earthy”), Mangano has a positively spectacular screen presence: it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off her — she owns the film. Mangano keeps her real first name intact here: the Silvana of the movie is an “earthy” peasant girl, one fully aware of her own sexuality and the powerful affect she has on men and women alike.

The character types in Bitter Rice offer its most intentional parallel to film noir, though as we'll see later the movie channels the style in additional ways. Each of the four represent a noir archetype, though filtered through the prism of a different culture, and more importantly, a culture not dead set on aping American movies. Walter is the stiletto-wielding thug, a schemer always looking out for his next big score. Francesca is an old-fashioned moll, smarter than she lets on but devoted to Walter simply because she has nowhere else to go. (Doris Dowling has a lot more cheek than Keechie and Gassman is quite a few shades more nefarious than Bowie, but if this were an American product it’s very easy to imagine another Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger screen pairing.) Marco looks most familiar to us: the jaded, world-weary combat veteran — but unlike his counterparts from American movies he’s not the main character. In fact, of the four leads, Marco is the least important. This is unmistakably a women’s picture, and Silvana is the femme fatale. The universe of Bitter Rice has at its center this incredible eighteen-year-old beauty — in two key scenes she simply dances what she calls the “boogie-woogie” while a crowd of onlookers cheer her every move; the filmmakers take pause as well, giving viewers a chance simply bask in her. It’s the sort of raw moment that could never happen in a studio picture, unless somehow Margarita Cansino had magically been allowed to stand in for Rita Hayworth.

The story itself is novel, though it kicks off (and closes) by putting a fresh spin on the noir trope of voiceover narration. Opening to a black screen and a disembodied voice, in pure semi-documentary style, we are told that although few outsiders know it, rice is grown in the northern part of Italy. Each May trains shuttle women from the south to work in the rice fields. It’s strictly women’s work too — male hands are too large, too clumsy, and of no use. The pay isn’t much, but in a country still recovering from war any work is welcomed; and these women are happy to have it — there are plenty of those who would give their right arm for a chance to work the paddies. In time, the disembodied voice coalesces into a face, and we realize that the man speaking is in fact a radio announcer at the Rome station, doing a story on the women boarding the train for a season of wet toil under the hot sun of the Po Valley.

Meanwhile, Walter and Francesca are fleeing the cops, stolen diamond necklace in hand, when they wind up at the train station amongst the confused hubbub of the departing workers. Walter slips the jewelry to Francesca and shoves her towards the train — she’s to lie low up north until the heat dies down. She meets Silvana just after boarding, and the pair form an uneasy friendship after Silvana discovers the secret necklace. Instead of turning her in, Silvana is fascinated enough by the streetwise older girl to help her get a job alongside the other women. As the film carries us from Rome to the unending wetness of the rice paddies it takes on an entirely different tone. The men are momentarily forgotten as we enter a world that seems pulled directly from the social-realist propaganda posters of the Soviet Union. The large group of women bond through the (positive) experience of toil — hunched under the sun in headscarves and large straw hats — the overt Americanism of the film’s opening giving way to something far more in line with Marxism, and the universality of the film’s romantic melodramatics give way to the immediacy of neorealismo, of a singular time and a place. Throughout the second act the characters of Francesca and Silvana continue to develop while the powerhouse visuals actually get stronger, forsaking gritty social realism for something that at times approaches artfully rendered heroic realism. One scene in particular finds the women carrying on a dramatic conversation through song, the only form of communication permitted while they work. The effect is at once vividly operatic and quite moving. Another, expressionistic scene shows the terrible consequences when the women are forced to weed the paddies during a torrential rainstorm. Both scenes blend sound and image in a way that brings to mind the work of Terence Malick.

As Francesca and Silvana get to know each other better the bonds of their tenuous friendship are repeatedly tested, broken, and formed anew. This nature of this friendship provides the film’s most engrossing strand of dramatic tension — particularly when it is threatened by the burden of the necklace as well as the girls’ romances. As the story unfolds Francesca’s and Silvana’s personalities have a transformative affect on each other, and both come to covet what the other has. In the case of Francesca, work and camaraderie with the other woman have helped her grow up. She begins to appreciate the value of a day’s labor, while Silvana becomes something altogether more dangerous — her eyes opened to the possibility of an easier, sexier life with Walter and the necklace, far away from the rice.

Bitter Rice’s final act returns to the roots of its first, as Walter journeys north to brace Francesca and recover the necklace — though he comes bearing an important piece of information that will have a profound affect on the film’s denouement. By its final moments, it becomes practically indistinguishable from American noir. The romantic entanglements are reinvigorated by Walter’s presence, and he tries to manipulate each of the girls to his own ends while keeping Marco safely at bay. Walter dreams up a new scheme, and with the allure of the necklace and promises of love and a life together he convinces Silvana to help him — by betraying the community of rice workers. Before the end titles roll we’ll witness fisticuffs, a failed heist, a gun battle, and a symbolically gruesome four-way showdown amidst hanging beef carcasses in a cold meat locker — events all tragically shepherded by fate’s relentless determination to see justice done. In the end there is tragedy and there are victims, but not necessarily unforgivable ones.

One of the many reasons we are drawn to foreign film in general, and neo-realism in particular, is that such movies can offer a rejuvenating breather from the redundancy of Hollywood studio products and their comfortably predictable stories. Yet Bitter Rice utilizes a surprisingly familiar structure; anyone well versed in the studio-era film noir will easily identify the plot threads and how, in pure Hollywood fashion, they ultimately weave together — allowing no character to escape the crushing judgment of fate or the mistakes of their past. And through this conscientious fusion of American idiosyncrasy with Italian style — whether employed as criticism of American values or not — we are met with a film experience that is both viscerally exciting and strangely familiar.

Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice) (1949)
Directed by Giuseppe De Santis
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Written by Corrado Alvaro, Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Franco Monicelli, Mario Monicelli, Carlo Musso, Ivo Perilli, Gianni Puccini. (Holy smokes!)
Cinematography by Otello Martelli
Starring Vittoria Gassman, Doris Dowling, Silvana Mangano and Raf Vallone
Released by Lux Film
Running time: 108 minutes.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Strange Alibi (1941)

Even if one is familiar with the hyperkinetic work of the underappreciated noir director D. Ross Lederman, his films of the 1940s still have the power to shock the contemporary viewer with their violence, their breathless narrative speed, and the strange twists of fate that befall Lederman’s hapless protagonists. In Strange Alibi (1942), a very young Arthur Kennedy plays the role of Joe Geary, an honest cop who goes undercover to smash a police corruption ring that is crippling the city. Staging a “fight” with his superior, Chief Sprague (Jonathan Hale), Geary is ostensibly kicked off the force in disgrace, and soon hooks up with the hoodlum element in the city, as a formerly good cop who has “gotten wise” to himself. In short order, Geary discovers that Captain Reddick (Cliff Clark) and Lt. Pagle (Stanley Andrews) are behind the crime wave that plagues the city, and 63 minutes later, brings the miscreants to justice. But this brief synopsis gives no real sense of the frenzied, fatalistic pace Strange Alibi almost immediately adopts, so here, in brief, is a look at this remarkable film.

The opening shot of Strange Alibi shows a plane in midair, which lands a few moments later. The passengers rapidly deplane, including retired gambling boss King Carney (Herbert Rawlinson), who has been living in Florida after narrowly escaping execution at the hands of his underworld competitors. Carney has returned to the city to cooperate with Chief Sprague in cleaning up the rackets, and is set to testify before the Grand Jury the next morning. In a brief conversation with two reporters at the airport, Carney outlines his plan of action, and then catches a cab to the police station.

But in a typically Ledermanian touch, Carney is suddenly cut down in a hail of machine gun bullets from a passing car, and the reporters, who have witnessed his murder, immediately phone the story in to their papers. Less than twenty seconds after this, the identity of the killer, Louie Butler (Butler is never seen in the film, and makes his only “appearance” later as an off-screen, heavily shadowed, “uncredited” corpse) is discovered, and Lederman presents a frenzied montage of the police rounding up suspects, smashing into gambling clubs and bars, until they arrest the hapless Butler as one a mob of miscreants, through the judicious use of stock footage. Off-screen, Butler is taken into police custody, but then moved from the main jail to an off-site holding cell for the sake of “security.”

The next morning, Chief Sprague arrives at Police Headquarters to question Butler, only to discover that he has ostensibly committed suicide in his holding cell, using his belt to hang himself. Sprague immediately realizes that the supposed “suicide” is actually murder, and summons his entire staff to his office to reprimand them for allowing the murder to take place. It is at this juncture that Sprague and Geary stage their premeditated altercation, and Geary is supposedly thrown off the force. Lederman swiftly moves to the evening of the next day, as Geary and Sprague plot their campaign against the underworld in a secret hideaway. Geary agrees to keep his masquerade a secret, even from his fiancée Alice Devlin (Joan Perry).

Lederman then pushes the plot forward to the ironically named Safe Anchorage Café, a water front gambling joint of singular disrepute, owned and operated by Katie (the perennially hard-boiled Florence Bates, in real life a lawyer in Texas before turning to acting as a profession, and best remembered for her portrayal of the fortune-hunting Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca [1940]), an imposing matriarch who has nevertheless long ago decided to cooperate with the city’s criminal elite. Katie is sad to see Geary running around with the hoodlums who control the city, but realizes she can do nothing about it.

Geary swiftly insinuates himself into the gang as a “bag man,” making the rounds to collect the mob’s illicit payoffs from slot machines, the numbers game and various protection rackets. To further ingratiate himself with his new companions, Geary strong arms a minor underworld figure, “Fido” Durkin (Ben Weldon), into paying off a long-standing debt to the mob by wrecking his place of business. Impressed, Geary’s handlers take him straight to the top of the criminal pyramid, to meet the big bosses. Meanwhile, Geary’s fiancée, as well as his former friend and honest cop Captain Allen (Wade Boteler), watch Geary’s seeming descent into the world of crime with undisguised disgust.

The mysterious “A. E. Laughlin,” the supposed head of the syndicate, which operates under the nebulous name “Consolidated Enterprises,” turns out to be a “straw man” dreamed up by Lt. Pagle and Captain Reddick as a front for the illicit enterprises. In fact, Laughlin doesn’t even exist; he’s simply a name on a door, while Pagle and Reddick run the entire operation. Geary is shocked to discover that the city’s police force is so thoroughly corrupt, and under the pretext of finding a doctor for the gang’s obviously tubercular, perpetually coughing thug Benny McKaye (Joe Downing), races to Chief Sprague’s apartment to tell him the news. But, unsurprisingly, Pagle is still suspicious of Geary’s recent “conversion” to crime, and trails Geary and McKaye to Sprague’s clandestine rendezvous.

Overhearing their conversation, Pagle bursts in and fatally shoots Sprague, framing Geary for the murder. Benny McKaye, who has witnessed the murder, escapes through a window. With Sprague dead, Geary has no alibi, and Pagle and Reddick easily railroad him into prison, where the sadistic warden, Monson (Howard Da Silva, in a brutally convincing performance) torments Geary on a nonstop basis, throwing him into the “hole” for extended stretches of time on the vaguest of pretexts.

Gang members Big Dog (Dick Rich) and “Fido” Durkin are now inmates in the penitentiary along with Geary, and do their best to kill Geary at every possible opportunity, but Geary shrugs them off. At the same time, the repellent Monson is so universally hated by the cons that, one day on the rock pile, a group of inmates contrive to drop a boulder on Monson with a steam shovel. The attempt fails, but Monson is wounded. In the confusion, Geary and his one true friend in the prison, Tex Alexander (John Ridgely) escape in a waiting ambulance, which was to have taken Monson to the hospital, setting off a superbly designed chase sequence.

Big Dog is furious that Geary might escape before he can kill him, and jumps on the running board of the fleeing ambulance in a last ditch attempt to murder Geary. But Geary’s luck holds; Big Dog is cut down in yet another hail of machine gun bullets from the prison guards. After considerable violence and mayhem, Tex is killed, and Geary makes good his escape, but discovers that Benny McKaye, the one witness to the murder of Chief Sprague, has died of consumption. In a desperate, last ditch attempt to prove his innocence, Geary kidnaps no less than the Governor of the state, Phelps (Charles Trowbridge), and forces him to phone Captain Reddick and Lt. Pagle, telling them that Benny McKaye is alive, and has fingered Pagel for Chief Sprague’s murder.

Geary parks his car across the street from Governor Phelps’ apartment with Benny McKaye’s corpse in the driver’s seat, and watches with Phelps as Reddick and Pagle “murder” Benny in yet another spectacularly violent drive-by shooting. This is more than enough evidence for Phelps, who is now convinced of Geary’s innocence. The Governor quickly brings in the state police to arrest Reddick and Pagle, and clear Geary of Sprague’s murder. Geary, completely exhausted from the ordeal, falls asleep on the governor’s couch, utterly drained by his harrowing descent into crime.

Even this brief synopsis of the film’s convoluted and frenzied narrative does little to convey the ferocity with which Strange Alibi is directed, and leaves out, astonishingly, a number of subplots much too complex to detail here. Lederman’s camera coverage is always proactive, searching for the best possible angle for each sequence, each shot, moving with utter assurance in a series of fluid tracking shots through Consolidated Enterprise’s corrupt domain. “Cookies” (metal sheets with patterned holes cut in them, placed in front of the set’s lights, to project patterned shadows onto the sets and actors) are used liberally throughout the film to give each set-up added punch and atmosphere.

Whenever possible, Lederman uses a series of swiftly moving montage sequences to compress time and narrative exposition. Da Silva’s Monson is a memorably despicable creation, prowling through the prison yard, nightstick at the ready, a sneer firmly etched on his brutal visage, as he clubs into submission longtime prisoners who can no longer defend themselves from his viciousness with undisguised glee. Continually referring to Geary as “the defective detective,” Monson seizes upon any minor infraction of the prison rules to hurl Geary into solitary confinement. Lederman deftly conveys the depths of Geary’s desolation and anger in the “hole” in an economical nine-shot montage that begins with Geary being pushed into the darkened cell, then refusing food as the days pass by, at length accepting bread and water rather than starving, and ending with a haunting close up of Geary’s eyes, as he realizes that his plight is seemingly hopeless.

As another example of directorial economy, when Tex and Geary escape from prison in the ambulance, Lederman uses footage from Lloyd Bacon’s San Quentin (1937) to heighten the tempo of the chase sequence, and through resourceful editing, forces the getaway car to cross the tracks of a speeding locomotive not once, but twice. The second time, the car smashes into the speeding train and rolls into a ditch. Tex is killed, but Geary escapes by running after the train, and jumping on a boxcar. Here, Lederman is harking back to his days as a stuntman and 2nd assistant director with the Keystone Kops, where similar sequences were staged for comedy; here, the entire affair is conducted with absolutely earnestness.

Throughout Strange Alibi, all authority is shown as worthless, corrupt, or inefficient; no one believes Geary’s protestations of innocence at his trial for Sprague’s death, and the prosecutor is obviously much too anxious to convict Geary to entertain the possibility that anyone else might be responsible for the crime. Typically for Lederman, Geary’s fiancée, Alice Devlin, is an entirely one-dimensional character, who exists within the film merely to assure Geary that “I’ll be waiting” when he gets out of prison, which without any outside help isn’t likely. This is really a function of her character within the film’s narrative; Alice is essentially a “good” person, and Lederman thus doesn’t know what to do with her.

The only other female character of consequence, the café owner Katie, is an exquisitely corrupt member of the “Laughlin” mob, and though she eventually switches allegiances to help Geary in his fight to clear his name, she remains for sale to the highest bidder for most of the film’s brief running time. Shot with vibrant intensity by the gifted veteran Allen G. Siegler, and tightly edited by Frank Magee, Strange Alibi is a curiously compelling film, which resonates in the memory long after the last violent scene has faded from the screen. And all of this has happened in just 63 minutes.

Lederman’s films of the 1940s tell us more about the real circumstances of life in working class America than films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Leo McCarey’s Going My Way (1944) ever could. The film that displayed Leo McCarey’s bleak vision of humanity with the greatest accuracy is arguably his Cold War drama My Son John (1952), a “Red Scare” film that portrays a social universe of ignorance, fear, and claustrophobic paranoia. Like Lederman, McCarey saw the world as a dangerous place, beset with false ideals and imminent peril, but for most of his career, McCarey was content to make generic confections that reinforced the dominant order. But they didn’t really show the world as McCarey saw it. Not surprisingly, My Son John has been absolutely suppressed, is never run on television, and is unavailable on DVD, while Going My Way is screened repeatedly on television, and readily available in home video format.

The majority of Lederman’s best films from the 1940s - Bullet Scars (1942), I Was Framed (1942), The Gorilla Man (1943), The Last Ride (1944), Escape From Crime (1942) and Adventure in Iraq (1943) to name just a few - have assumed the same phantom status as My Son John; they pop up on TCM from time to time, but only a few of Lederman’s early westerns, and two Warners features from the 1940s, are available on DVD. We’re never going to get a box set of his films, that’s for sure. But then D. Ross Lederman never catered to his audiences in the first place; he made his films for a pittance, without studio interference, entirely for himself alone. It did not matter what script he was required to use, or what actors, or whether it was a western, a crime film, or an action film; D. Ross Lederman saw America as a dark, violent maelstrom, in which only the corrupt and the brutal survive.


Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

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.

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