Monday, April 25, 2011

Slander (1957)

“For Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free”:
Corporate Motto, Real Truth Magazine

For decades Hollywood kept a tidy grip on the public reputations of its stars. When the talent got reckless, the studios moved quickly and discreetly to douse any brush fires - often with outside assistance, be it from cops or columnists.

But in the early 1950’s, the stars suddenly found themselves having to duck-and-cover as Confidential magazine began its public carpet bombing of celebrity gossip and innuendo, making good on a questionable promise to ‘tell the facts and name the names’.

Confidential was the newest and most ambitious enterprise of Robert Harrison, a small-time smut-monger from New York. Harrison already published a stable of sleazy flesh magazines including Whisper, Flirt, Wink and Titter which headlined racy titles such as Night School for Love and Queens of Strip Alley.

By the early ‘50’s, the post-war market for low-rent titillation had waned. Hugh Hefner, a young copywriter for Esquire thought he saw a market for a more mainstream and ‘sophisticated’ brand of girlie magazine - one he initially called Stag Party. Harrison on the other hand was happiest doing business in the back alley. He was convinced that the biggest money still was to be made in catering to a public appetite for the salacious and the sensational. And Hollywood was the mother lode.

Confidential at its launch declared, ‘The Lid is Off!’ and soon after began to litter the landscape with inflammatory tidbits such as ‘Why Liberace’s Theme Song Should Be ‘Mad About the Boy’, ‘Gary Cooper’s Lost Weekend with Anita Ekberg’ and ‘Wife Beating Champ: Curt Jurgens, World’s Number One Heel’.

Hollywood went into panic mode with stars suddenly seeing their careers in jeopardy and studios, their bottom line. Attempts at damage control included some dirty deal-making with the magazine. When it got around that Rock Hudson was to be outed, the studio heads and Hudson’s manager pre-empted publication of the story by handing over Rory Calhoun who as a teen had been jailed for armed robbery.

However, as Confidential’s circulation exploded, Hollywood realized that the situation couldn’t be stage managed. Individual stars began to fight back by suing for defamation and libel (not slander) and the studios launched film projects portraying the tawdry tabloid tell-alls as a plague endangering the moral life of America.

First released was Slander Incorporated (1956), a B-title directed by Elmer Mann and starring Robert Hutton as a smarmy New York smear- sheet owner who in the end gets put away for his crimes and misdemeanours. An incoherent, cautionary tale remindful of Reefer Madness (Do not buy these magazines! Just say no!), the film had little audience reach.

A bigger-budget and more sober attempt to dramatize the damage that the movie and entertainment industries wanted the public to believe was being done by this new-styled gutter press was Slander, which recently had a first screening on TCM. The film itself was released in 1957 by MGM and starred a name cast - Steve Cochran, Van Johnson, Ann Blythe, Marjorie Rambeau and child-actor Richard Eyre.

Slander features Cochran as H.R Manley, the self-made millionaire owner of Real Truth, a trashy scandal sheet. Manley lives in a Manhattan apartment (New York, again) along with his alcoholic mother (Rambeau) who deplores her son’s magazine and his hypocrisy. On the other hand, Manley loves his mother and is anxious for her approval (the film seems to suggest probably too much so). He insists to her that his crusade for the truth is both real and legitimate.

Meanwhile, the real truth is that Real Truth’s sales are in decline and Manley has a gun to his head. He owes $100, 000 to his printer and desperately needs a blockbuster story to boost revenues. And Manley thinks he has that in Mary Sawyer, a Broadway star with some history.

The key to the story appears to lay with a childhood friend of Sawyer’s, Scott Martin (Van Johnson), a children’s puppeteer who after too long on the professional margins, finally has hit it big with a television show. Unfortunately, Real Truth also knows that Martin once served four years for an armed theft (though he’d done so only to provide for his poor and ailing mother).

Manley through Martin’s wife offers him a deal. ‘Tell me about Mary Sawyer or the front page story in Real Truth is all about you’. Martin is furious, his wife (Ann Blythe) distraught. She believes that for the sake of their family and their future together, her husband has no choice but to give Sawyer up. Martin refuses and tells Manley, ‘no deal’. When the publisher threatens further, Martin slugs him and walks out.

From here on, things do not go well for the Martins - nor in fact much better for the movie, which is a flagrant and overwrought melodrama. The moral and ethical precipices on which the characters in Slander are brought to stand are real enough but the insistent direness of it all leaves the film feeling fusty and nearly quaint.

Slander’s director is Roy Rowland, a famously reliable MGM mid-liner most admired for a trio of brisk and expressive film noirs - The Scene of the Crime (1949), Rogue Cop (1954) and Witness to Murder (1954). While Rowland manages to keep the pace brisk enough, Slander’s mis en scene is flat and dated and without much real emotional resonance. It’s of a style that belongs more to the 1930’s than the 1950’s. On the other hand, the studio may not have given Rowland much option but to reach back to the ‘30’s for the film’s visual and narrative constructions, given the melodramatic and sanctimonious temper of the script.

Slander’s crude single-mindedness also weighs on its cast. Steve Cochran when left to his own primitive devices magnificently energizes nearly every film he’s in with his power, intelligence, and physical appeal as an actor. However, here he’s left hobbled. The character of Manley is rendered so fabricated, his speech so mannered, it’s as if Cochran had been directed to do an impression instead of act a part (he sometimes sounds like he’s been dubbed).

It’s a brute-force attempt by the filmmakers to portray Manley not only a journalistic thug but a pretentious parvenu. While Americans may or may not find thuggery objectionable, something they really can’t stand is snobbery.

Van Johnson on the other hand is made far too wholesome and unmarked for someone who at an early age served years in jail and then has spent much of the rest of his life toughing it out. Ann Blythe, not the most empathetic of actresses, is just ill-cast. Blythe was better suited to play characters more privileged or socially practised - as opposed to a working class wife and mother who must endure. It’s too much of a temptation (and distraction) to keep re-imagining these parts played by less emphatic performers, e.g. Crime Wave’s Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk.

But then Slander would have to have been a very different kind of movie - one that could have benefitted hugely from a hard lean in the direction of film noir - something which it’s not (despite a listing in Andrew Spicer’s Historical Dictionary of Film Noir). Although Slander is framed as a tragedy, there’s none of the prevailing sense of the melancholy, alienation, betrayal, paranoia, obsession, despair, futility, dread, etc. that typically map the treacherous noir universe.

Even Slander’s bleak ending doesn’t make for an argument for the movie as noir. The fade-out only extends the cynical manipulation of events to the very end, the most shameless example of which involves the Martin’s son, Joey. A threat of harm to a child is permissible in film noir and may even be central to it e.g. The Window. However, if the harm actually takes place, it can result in a gross sentimentalization of narrative, something which film noir wants to reject. Slander embraces and exploits it.

Of course, MGM also was the major studio always least disposed towards the dark and unsentimental impulses of film noir, especially by late ‘50’s when classic noir’s post- war influence was in retreat (although Alexander Mackendrick’s more modernist noir, Sweet Smell of Success released in 1957 by United Artists brilliantly excavated some of the same thematic terrain as Slander).

Nevertheless, Slander remains of interest as an artefact of the period. It was a time in which seismic shifts in values and norms in American culture were beginning to be felt and it was Confidential and other magazines like it that were among the first to register the tremors and expose the fault lines.

Confidential was a double-edged sword. On one hand it was sensational and tawdry. On the other it made it impossible to view celebrities and other public icons in the same way again. The Emperor could be seen to have no clothes or at least caught with his pants down. And there were pictures and facts (in most cases) to prove it.

While there was nothing to admire per se about the manner in which Confidential went about its full frontal journalism, the magazine did in a perverse way force America further along in acknowledging and talking about important issues - personal, political, sexual, racial, social - that needed to be talked about.

If Sammy Davis Jr., a black man was 'having relations' with a succession of white actresses and Rock Hudson and others might be ‘queer’ and Joan Crawford really was a less-than-stellar parent, then perhaps those that audiences idealized really weren't that different from anyone else except for the fact of their celebrity. As culture critic Camille Paglia - who grew up reading Confidential - said, yes, the magazine may have been semi-fictionalized, but it functioned to tell the ‘pagan truth’ about life.

And life in America in the late ‘fifties, like the movies, didn’t look to be quite as black and white as it once had been. Not that one would ever guess from Slander.

Written by Night Editor

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Killer is Loose (1956)

Someday Wagner, I’m gonna settle with you for it. I’m certainly gonna settle with you for it.

The Killer is Loose has holes — blast it with a Tommy gun it has such holes. It’s a little movie with a story that churns single-mindedly forward until its title character sprawls dead on a well-kept suburban lawn and all is once again right with the world — you can get back to your TV dinner now. It asks us to swallow a lot: happenstance, strange motivations, coincidences and contrivances — maybe even a miracle or two. The story unfolds so rapidly that you’ve gotta wait until the end to pick your nits — stop to raise an eyebrow and it just moves on without you, scoffers be damned. Who cares what happened to the other bank robbers? So what if the bank has a house safe instead of a vault!

Anyone conversant in B crime movies will tell you to look elsewhere if you want perfect films with plot holes a mouse couldn’t shimmy through. Instead there’s something about these cheap little programmers that pulls at the gut, something so compelling it keeps prying questions at bay. We accept them for what they are, warts and all, and we grant concessions. More often than not it’s the endings. How many times have you seen a delightfully grim film noir wrecked by a “studio” wrap-up? Movies are diversionary, they aim to please — to sell tickets and popcorn — and Hollywood practically invented the focus group in order to ensure audience satisfaction. With that in mind it’s surprising that an such exciting group of original and subversive films were ever produced in the first place; who cares if a few of the endings are trumped up — it’s a price worth paying.

In spite of occasionally artificial endings, low budgets, plot holes, and sometimes less-than-stellar acting, the allure of classic noir is potent. Its world is at once far-off and concocted — a not-quite-true reflection of how things were, yet one that serves as a comforting surrogate for those of us too young to have lived through the war and the decade that followed. It’s a world that tantalizes, a powerfully nostalgic world that romanticizes crime and crooks, imbuing their acts with a palatable veneer. Although the fifties film noir is thankfully free of dead little boys in Penney’s boxes and killers with living room abattoirs, its milieu is one that ever so gradually began to resemble the world at large. Its subject matter became more in tune with social problems: the influence of organized crime, juvenile delinquency, and criminal psychosis — while its expressionistic vision began to give way to something more pedestrian, and the heart of noir crept inexorably out of the claustrophobic urban spaces, like the denizens of the city itself, into the daylight and … the suburbs.

At this awkward conflux of reality and movie-fantasy that happened at the end of the classic noir cycle we find The Killer is Loose: Leon “Foggy” Poole (Wendell Corey), the inside man on a bank job, is cornered by police in the walk up apartment he shares with his wife. During the standoff she is inadvertently shot and killed. Instead of accepting responsibility, Poole blames the police for her death and swears to pay back Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten), the dick who pulled the trigger, by killing his wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming). Poole gets transferred to the honor farm for good behavior, but escapes and sets out for revenge. The cops try to snare him, but he evades capture and eventually makes it to the Wagner home for a showdown with the waiting police.

The title itself, almost sounding more like that of a horror film, played on the fears and suspicions of a wary public. Earlier noir titles looked inward, referencing their own characters, fetishes, and narrative predicaments: Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Guilty, The Killers, Gun Crazy, and so forth. The locations and populace of The Killer is Loose, however, are meant to feel ordinary and familiar, and subsequently all the more terrifying. The message is that anyone could be a raving lunatic — the football coach, milkman, or the teller at the bank — and we’d never get wise. The movie spectacularly undermines the American Dream; it argues that you can’t feel safe anywhere, that the killing grounds are no longer the back alleys in the wee hours, but the suburban kitchen just after the five o'clock whistle blows. The boogeyman isn’t a leering gunsel in a fedora and trench coat, but a myopic banker with Coke-bottle glasses. Furthermore, The Killer is Loose doesn’t prop up the police as infallible pillar-of-the-community types — it needles them, makes fools of them, even emasculates them. The cops know a madman is on the prowl — they know his name, his face, and his intentions, yet with all their manpower and methodology they might as well go grab a bear claw or some scrambled eggs. In the end, it’s dumb luck more than anything else that brings the killer to his knees in an fevered hail of desperate gunfire. Audiences must have left the theaters with a gnawing suspicion: that in this brave new world the police couldn’t protect them, and that the man selling tickets or the usher with his flashlight might be secretly fantasizing of murder. In an era of rampant suspicion and mistrust, The Killer is Loose was like gasoline on an already burning fire.

With revenge as a central theme, Budd Boetticher made a lot of sense as director, and owing to the great deal of critical attention he’s received in recent years, it would be awfully easy (and terribly film blog-ish) to make this essay about him. Like almost every other film noir, The Killer is Loose is much more intriguing as a commentary on the cultural and social upheaval of its day than it is as simply a product of its director, in spite of the presence of thematic elements (revenge, alienation, murdered wives) that characterized the Boetticher’s later westerns with Randolph Scott. Though to the director’s credit he saves The Killer is Loose from becoming a cookie cutter affair, by making the revenge-seeker the most sympathetic character. Wendell Corey is hardly the performer one would expect as a psychopath — his performance must have been shocking to audiences. Corey was a professional wingman, most famously to James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. His career included a mix of prestige pictures, second features, and TV work. He was a first-rate character man and a hardcore alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at age 54. Although not a film for which he is remembered, The Killer is Loose was his best role. He and Boetticher understood that Poole was a new-type killer and they played the schmuck angle to the hilt. Those who would dismiss this as a routine programmer with a shaky story fail to recognize how important it is to the closing door of the noir cycle: Foggy Poole has a lot more in common with traditional noir heroes than most viewers give him credit for. In one of the most popular movies ever made, Paul Freeman says to Harrison Ford, “It would take just a nudge, to make you like me — to push you out of the light.” Foggy Poole is the noir protagonist — Lancaster, Ladd, Widmark — just nudged into the abyss.

Corey’s performance is heavy on pathos and light on motivation. He’s unglamorous, frightening, and pathetic — such killers have become all too familiar to contemporary audiences, and an American TV news cliché: cut to a million next-door neighbors staring into some camera plaintively reassuring a reporter how the maniac was “such a nice, quiet guy.” But it’s important to recognize that Poole, unlike Eddie Miller in 1952’s The Sniper, is an outwardly well-adjusted member of society, appearing quite normal to those around him. In fact, we never learn why he decides to knock over his place of employment — he’s happily married, gainfully employed, and judging by the passage of time and his interaction with his coworkers and customers, perfectly reasonable. There are a few clues early on, but they fail to provide anything more than circumstantial evidence: When Poole bumps into his old sergeant at the bank, the man gets a few cheap laughs from the other bank customers at his expense: Poole wasn’t a good soldier, and the nickname Foggy was meant to ridicule. Later, in what is undeniably the film’s most gut-wrenching (and best) scene, the two men meet again under different circumstances. The point is that Poole is a psychopath — his animus can’t be justified; his desire to get even is out of proportion and entirely unwarranted, and despite a calm exterior his behavior is consistently irrational. This is best exemplified by the fact that after being assured of an early parole, Poole decides to bolt the honor farm — committing multiple murders in the act — when if he had just waited he would have earned a legal release and could have sought revenge with a much better chance at success.

Corey’s pathos and Poole’s relentlessness, his alienation from society and his denial of its rules is what makes him, not Sam Wagner, the central noir persona here — even though the movie allows the less observant viewer to dismiss him as merely the “bad guy.” And while Cotten’s police detective isn’t in any way offensive, viewers will almost be rooting for Poole to get Lila Wagner in the sights of his .357 magnum — she’s a ball and chain of the first order, and one wonders if Poole wouldn’t be doing Wagner a favor by punching her ticket. In a movie that strives to shine a light on the impotence of authority, Wagner’s relationship with his wife demonstrates that unlike the police of forties film noir, postwar cops no longer wear the pants in the family. This ‘crisis of masculinity’ is a significant, yet seldom discussed, ingredient in the noirs of the fifties. The suggestion is extraordinarily provocative: that if Wagner were somehow free of Lila and the burdens of consumerism, conformity, and domesticity, he might then recapture the edge that once made him a good cop. Film noir often subverts the family, giving us married cops who exchanged their brutality for a new Frigidaire and some lace doilies, becoming soft and powerless in an increasing complex and criminal world. Bud White, that most violent of policemen, would have made mincemeat out of Poole — and look at what love nearly cost him.

In the end, the extermination of Leon Poole does little to assuage our fears. Instead, audiences would have left the theater troubled, because although this killer had been stopped, others were most assuredly still out there, every bit as invisible. Four years later, an even more vividly painted and equally unexpected psychopath would follow neatly in the footsteps of Foggy Poole, like a cinematic little brother, and his impact was so staggering that it snuffed out the dying embers of film noir, and knocked the crime thriller squarely on its ass for an entire decade — until a new group of seventies filmmakers, hell-bent on a realism, would reinvent the genre, and return it gloriously to the unglamorous, gritty streets of the American metropolis.

And they had enough sense to give us divorced cops.


Where Danger Lives

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Damned Don't Cry (1950)

It’s a Man’s World: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

“The only thing that counts is that stuff you take to the bank--that filthy buck that everybody sneers at but slugs to get.”

The Damsel-in-Distress is a familiar character in film noir. Most of these dames have husband problems (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) and the appeal for help includes an unexpected violent death, widowhood, and a pine box. But there’s another type of female role in noir--the Woman-in-Jeopardy. These women are under threat from forces they’ve usually invited into their lives. Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear (1952), threatened by a vengeful, money-hungry husband (Jack Palance) and his persistent girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), is the perfect example of a Woman-in-Jeopardy film. Joan Crawford delivers an earlier, equally exquisite performance of a Woman- in-Jeopardy in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)--the first of three films Crawford made with director & lover Vincent Sherman: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Harriet Craig (1950), and Goodbye My Fancy (1951).

The Damned Don’t Cry, a smash hit upon its release, is the story of Ethel Whitehead, a woman who following a family tragedy abandons her humble origins and climbs to the top of society … one man at a time. According to the DVD cover, Ethel Whitehead is “as tempting as a cupcake and as tough as a 75-cent steak.”

The film begins with a car careening on the dark, deserted roads outside of the remote resort town of Desert Springs. The car stops, the door opens, and a body is tossed out. When the stiff is discovered, the consensus from the local police is that it was a matter of time before cocky gangster Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), owner of the local gambling joint, the Hacienda Club, was murdered. Naturally they search his house and discover some interesting home movies which include footage of wealthy socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes. A trip to her rented home nearby leads to her abandoned and clueless companion, society dame Patricia Longworth (Selena Royle) and a patch of blood-soaked carpet. An APB goes out for the missing socialite, but as the news agencies pick up the story, they uncover conflicting stories about her past; she’s alternately a wealthy oil widow, a Denver socialite, or a Texas heiress depending on who you ask. Lorna’s background melts under scrutiny, and it becomes clear that Lorna is a fake name.

Then the mink-clad socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes, driving an expensive car, shows up at a joyless, poverty stricken town packed with shacks and oil rigs. One of those shacks is home. Strip away the mink, the jewels and the fancy name and Lorna is in fact … plain old Edith Whitehead (Joan Crawford).

When Lorna/Edith arrives at the home of her parents, she receives a chilly welcome from her father (Morris Ankrum) while her mother, worn by poverty and hard work, looks old enough to be her grandmother. When Edith’s father challenges her about her rich clothing and money, she breaks down in tears. Flashbacks give glimpses into the hardships of Edith’s earlier poverty stricken life. In the past, Edith and husband Roy (Richard Egan)--a man with the sensitivity of Attila the Hun, lived with their son in the shack they share with Edith’s parents. It’s a bad set-up with Edith’s father siding with his son-in-law and jumping in during an argument over money which takes place when Edith buys a bike for their son. The fight explodes into war and ends with the accidental death of the boy. After the funeral, Edith packs a battered suitcase and telling her family that she’s sick of waiting for life to ‘get better,’ she’s decided to go out into the world and grab what she wants while she still can.

While working as a shop assistant, an accidental meeting leads to a job for Edith as a floor model. In these days before sexual harassment, part of the job description includes entertaining out-of-town buyers who consider the models to be one of the perks. Edith isn’t comfortable with this part of the job at first, but she’s inducted into the finer points of selling clothes and wrestling male clients by fellow employee, Sandra (Jacqueline deWit), a wise cracking dame who leads those out-of-town suckers into card games at the back of Grady’s restaurant. The buyers, who place generous orders with Edith and Sandra’s boss, think this gives them license to grope the models. In return Sandra and eventually Edith view the buyers as suckers to be fleeced in the card room, and for every sucker they lead to Grady’s, the models get to split a 100 bucks.

One wonderful scene reveals Edith’s initial discomfort with the arrangement between Sandra and Grady (Hugh Sanders), but then the very next scene shows a gum-chewing Edith, hardened and very comfortable with the change as she deals payback on Sandra. While this causes enmity between the two models, the scene’s significance comes in Edith’s metamorphosis and her acceptance that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. In this scene, Edith’s ambition is now comfortably married to her lack-of-conscience. She’s going to get ahead and step on anyone who’s stupid enough to get in the way.

The next person to fall into Edith’s path is shy, middle-aged accountant Martin Blankford (Kent Smith). Edith spies him at the water fountain and hones in like a hunter on her prey. With dollar signs in her eyes, Edith follows Martin to his lowly office and sprawls across his desk in spite of the fact--or perhaps because--she’s dressed only in lingerie. Martin is easy pickings, and after hearing the letters CPA (and getting an explanation for what they stand for), she swoops him off to Grady’s thinking that she’s hooked another sucker. As fate would have it, mild-mannered Martin ends up doing an accounting favour for Grady, but Grady is just one piece in the criminal empire of the very nasty gangster George Castleman (David Brian).

Edith, who sees Marty as a prize she’s discovered, inserts herself as his pseudo business manager negotiating better deals and basically pimping him out in the mob empire. Poor Marty goes along for the ride leaving his moral scruples behind in his hopes of winning Edith with his impressive new salary. Unfortunately, Edith has bigger plans in mind, and in one wonderful scene she worms her way into Castleman’s office, and a heavy-breathing display of power vs. sex takes place. Perfumed, frilled and wearing what she thinks is a flattering hat, Edith obviously goes to Castleman’s office not to negotiate a better deal for Marty, but with seduction in mind. Like a couple of exotic caged animals, Castleman and Edith square off exchanging first insults and then sexual challenges as the sparks fly for this pre-mating display. He growls: “I admire a woman with brains, but a woman with brains and spirit excites me.”

Like many a gangster before him, Castleman is obsessed with leaving the appearance of his lowly beginnings behind, so just as he’s groomed himself into a gentlemen (complete with Etruscan vases), he expects Edith to make the switch to society dame….

The Damned Don’t Cry is a study is one woman’s difficult climb to the top of the heap, and up until the point Edith stiffs Marty, she is a sympathetic character. Obviously marrying Marty would have landed a good, comfortable life far from her humble beginnings, and not only does Edith lose our sympathy when she ditches Marty, but she also makes a strategic error. Edith may think that she wants the things that money can buy, but by the film’s conclusion it’s clear that what Edith really wanted was power and independence. Milquetoast Marty would have allowed Edith to run the show, and he would have been happy to labour under a mink-lined leash. Unfortunately Edith is fatally attracted to Castleman’s power--clearly an aphrodisiac, and she fails to understand that it won’t rub off on her; she’s still basically a tool--albeit a tool of a powerful gangster. Ultimately, she has as little control over her life as she did when she lived in a shack with Roy.

Following the blinding success of Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford once again enjoyed a renewed, successful film career. The role of Edith Whitehead fits Joan like a glove, and doubtless the film star identified with the role of a woman driven to flee poverty to seek the finer things in life. Like Edith, Crawford was born on ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and she never quite left her Southern roots behind in spite of her glamorous film star life. Crawford was known for starring in the so-called ‘woman’s picture,’ and while The Damned Don’t Cry is a woman-centered film, its core element of criminality lands this tale on the darker side.

Crawford preferred to have flattering full face shots, and photographers took slightly out-of-focus photos to soften her features which hardened dramatically with age. Those luminous shots are evident in the film and are particularly noteworthy when Edith first arrives back home and pleads for entry. Is it any coincidence that when Edith uses her siren charms to persuade Marty to join Castleman’s criminal empire, we see her full profile directed with all its terrifying power as she subdues Marty by sheer dominance? While the Castleman/Whitehead relationship ignites in a sort of sick power struggle, Crawford’s relationship with Steven Cochran doesn’t quite have the same impact. Cochran, a noir natural, at the height of his career stars here as loose-cannon gangster Nick Prenta. He’s clearly a younger man, and his attraction to Edith/Lorna never quite makes the grade. Nonetheless, The Damned Don’t Cry is a superb film with one of the greatest performances of Crawford’s magnificent career.

Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, April 03, 2011

White Heat (1949)

I told you to keep away from that radio. If that battery is dead it'll have company.

White Heat is directed by Raoul Walsh and adapted by Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts from a story suggested by Virginia Kellogg. It stars James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O'Brien, Steve Cochran & Margaret Wycherly. Music is by Max Steiner and photography by Sidney Hickox.

Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is the sadistic leader of a violent and ruthless gang of thieves. Unnervingly devoted to his mother (Wycherly) and afflicted by terrible headaches since childhood, Cody is one bad day away from being a full blown psychotic. That day is coming soon, and everyone in his way is sure to pay.

Around the time of White Heat being released, two things were evident as regards its star and its themes. One is that it had been a long time since a gangster, and a truly vicious one at that, had thrilled or frightened a cinema audience. The Production Code and a change in emotional value due to World War II had seen the genuine career gangster all but disappear. Second thing of note is that Cagney was stung by the disappointing performance of Cagney Productions. So after having left Warner Brothers in 1942, the diminutive star re-signed for the studio and returned to the genre he had almost made his own in the 30s. He of course had some say in proceedings, such as urging the makers to ensure a crime does not pay motif, but all told he needed a hit and the fit with Raoul Walsh and the psychotic Jarrett was perfect. It may not be his best acting performance, but it's certainly his most potent and arguably it's the cream of the gangster genre crop.

The inspiration for the film is mostly agreed to be the real life criminals: Ma Barker, Arthur "Doc" Barker and Francis Crowley. A point of worth being that they were all 30s criminals since White Heat very much looks and feels like a 30s movie. Cagney for sure is older (he was 50 at the time) and more rotund, but he and the film have the presence and vibrancy respectively to keep it suitably in period and in the process becoming the last of its kind. White Heat is that rare old beast that manages to have a conventional action story at its core, yet still be unique in structure and portrayal of the lead character. Neatly crafted by Walsh around four Cody Jarrett "moments" of importance, the Oedipal tones playing out between Cody and his Ma make for an uneasy experience, but even then Walsh and the team pull a rabbit out the hat by still garnering sympathy for the crazed protagonist. It sounds nutty, but it really is one of the big reasons why White Heat is the great film that it is. Another reason of course is "those" special scenes, two of which are folklore cinematic legends now. Note legend number 1 as Cody, incarcerated, receives bad news, the reaction is at once terrifying and pitiful (note the extras reaction here since they didn't know what was coming). Legend number 2 comes with "that" ending, forever quotable and as octane ignited finale's go it takes some beating.

As brilliant and memorable as Cagney is, it's not, however, a one man show. He's superbly directed by Walsh, with the great director maintaining a pace and rhythm to match Cody Jarrett's state of mind. And with Steiner (Angels With Dirty Faces/Casablanca/Key Largo) scoring with eerie strands and strains, and Hickox (The Big Sleep/To Have and Have Not) adding noir flourishes for realism and atmosphere, it's technically a very smart picture. The supporting cast in the face of Cagney's barnstorming come up with sterling work. Wycherly is glorious as the tough and tetchy Ma Jarrett and O'Brien is needed to be spot on in the film's second most important role; a role that calls for him to not only be the first man Cody has ever trusted, but also as some sort of weird surrogate mother! Mayo isn't called on to do much, but she's gorgeous and sexy and fatalistic in sheen. While Cochran holds his end up well as the right hand man getting ideas above his station.

White Heat is as tough as they come, a gritty pulsating psycho drama that has many visual delights and scenes that are still as powerful and as shocking some 60 odd years after it first hit the silver screen. What is often forgotten, when yet another clip of the brilliant ending is shown on TV, is that it's also a weird and snarky piece of film. All told, it is blisteringly hot and essential viewing for the classic movie fan.


Written by JohnChard

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