Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hoodlum (1951)

By 1951, Lawrence Tierney's career was on the skids, and he knew it.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Breaking into films in the early 1940s after a career as a catalogue model and theater actor with bit parts at RKO Radio in such films as Gordon Douglas’ Gildersleeve on Broadway, Dudley Nichols’ Government Girl, Mark Robson’s The Ghost Ship (all 1943), and then William Clemens’ The Falcon Out West, John Auer’s Seven Days Ashore, and Robson’s Youth Runs Wild (all 1944), Tierney learned the ropes playing everything from cab drivers to orchestra leaders to FBI agents , until he got his big break at the ultra-cheap studio Monogram Pictures, in Max Nosseck’s Dillinger (1945). It was his first role of any consequence, but it was the lead role of Dillinger himself, and the film made a splash with both the critics and the public, even if was made very cheaply and quickly.

Produced for Monogram by The King Brothers, Frank, Maurice and Herman (tough customers themselves, who made their initial fortune in slot machines), Dillinger was shot for a total of $193,000, and raked in more than $4,000,000 in rentals - an astonishing figure for a Monogram production, where profits were usually paper-thin. Even more amazingly, Philip Yordan’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the 1946 Oscars, and though it didn’t win, this was another first for Monogram.

Noir director Fritz Lang heard all the commotion about Dillinger, and asked to see a copy, which was run off for him in a screening room. As Lang’s biographer Lotte Eisner reports, Lang ”was astonished to find that [the bank robbery sequence in Dillinger] was in fact some 200 meters of the bank raid from [Lang’s own film] You Only Live Once [1937], which fitted quite easily into the new film . . . “ since all the protagonists in the sequence wore gas masks (182). But no one else noticed this obvious economy at the time, and the film cleaned up at the box-office.

Overnight, Tierney became a star, epitomizing the hardboiled tough guy whom society can’t control. Back at RKO, Tierney was rewarded with slightly bigger roles, usually as a convict or strong-arm man, and not given much chance to extend his range as an actor. Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947), in which Tierney plays cold blooded killer Steve Morgan, hitching a ride after committing murder, is a sort of forerunner to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953), but runs only 62 minutes, and was designed and distributed as a second feature.

Tierney got his first real leading role in an “A” film in Robert Wise’s memorably vicious Born to Kill (1947), where Tierney’s character, the appropriately named San Wild, is a homicidal maniac who kills on a whim, and tries to scheme his way into a wealthy marriage. With Wise’s sharp direction, and excellent support from Claire Trevor, Elisha Cook Jr. and Walter Slezak, to name just a few of the many superb cast members, Born to Kill was a critical but not commercial hit; the film was simply too bleak for mainstream audiences, and Tierney’s character was so violent and brutal that it was impossible to feel any empathy for him.

Born to Kill is a masterpiece, but it would be Tierney’s last uncompromised vision of hell; from here it was back to B territory with Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948), which was dumped as a second feature. Convinced that Tierney would never become a major star, even in a sympathetic role (as he was as private eye Mike Carter in Bodyguard), RKO cut Tierney loose, and he began to bounce around from studio to studio; the big chance had eluded him.

Two years passed. After Joseph Pevney’s Shakedown (1950) at Universal, where he supported Howard Duff, rather than taking the lead role himself, Tierney found that his drinking, brawling, and off-screen misbehavior had made him virtually unemployable.

As Tom Vallance noted, “Tierney was noted for living a life almost as tough and unruly as that of his screen characters. He was frequently in the headlines for drunken brawls and was arrested several times, including an occasion on which a woman apparently committed suicide by leaping from her New York apartment . . . accounts of bar-room brawls, drunken driving and scrapes with the law gave newspapers such headlines as ‘Film Dillinger Booked on Drunk Charge,’ ‘Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor’ and ‘Tierney Goes to Jail Again’”. The result was that Tierney found himself persona non grata with the majors, and even the minors, and so in 1951 he found himself working for the very low budget Jack Schwarz Productions, cranking out yet another violent, nihilistic, low budget film - with Max Nosseck, his director from Dillinger, again at the helm.

But this time, everything was different.

By 1951, Max Nosseck's career was also on the skids, and he knew it.

One of the most maudit directors of the sound era, Nosseck began his career in Germany, but as a Jew, he was forced to leave with Hitler’s ascent to power, and wandered first through Europe, making a film in France - Le roi des Champs-Élysées (The King of the Champs-Élysées) in 1934 with no less a personage than Buster Keaton in the leading role. But sensing that France would eventually fall to the Nazis, Nosseck wisely kept going, making films in Spain and even Holland, until he finally realized that America offered the only safe haven.

Arriving in the US in the late 1930s, Nosseck made the Yiddish language film Overture to Glory (1940) - a sort of variation on The Jazz Singer - in Astoria, Queens, New York, on a shoestring, and then gravitated to Hollywood. His first US film was the Columbia noir Girls Under 21 (1940), but then Nosseck found himself at PRC cranking out the anemic mystery Gambling Daughters (1941) with a young Gale Storm, before, after much negotiation and hard effort, he got the assignment to direct Dillinger. As with Tierney, Dillinger should have made Nosseck a major player, and vaulted him into the majors. But it didn’t happen.

Nosseck did turn out the effectively dark, violent murder mystery The Brighton Strangler for RKO in 1945, but then left RKO, and was inexplicably handed a low budget independent “family film,” Black Beauty (1946), which, although about a young girl and her beloved horse, has nothing to do with the Anna Sewell novel, and is thus something of a rip-off, although it does feature real life husband and wife Richard Denning and Evelyn Ankers in the leads.

The downward spiral continued with the ultra cheap Return of Rin-Tin-Tin (1947), again trying to get a little less-than-authorized mileage out of a famous character (the film stars a dog christened Rin Tin Tin III, along with a very young Robert Blake), and then Korea Patrol (1951), Nosseck’s initial outing with producer Jack Schwarz, one of the most cost-conscious of all the Hollywood bottom feeders.

What had gone wrong? How had he sunk so low? This was worse than working for PRC or Monogram; much worse, because now he had been to the top, and the only place he could go was down.

Nosseck himself could never explain it, and after another low-budget film with Tierney, Kill or Be Killed (1952); the sleazy soft-core mystery The Body Beautiful (1953); and the even seamier nudist camp film Garden of Eden (1954), Nosseck saw the writing on the wall, and returned to what was then West Germany, where he spent the rest of his career - until 1962 - making trifling romances and adventure films, with one return trip to the US for Singing in the Dark (1956), which merits attention as one of the first films to deal directly with the Holocaust. Nosseck clearly had much more to offer than he was ever allowed to give, and his death on September 29, 1972 at the age of 70 brought an end to a career of largely unfulfilled promise.

But in 1951, Tierney was virtually unemployable, and Nosseck available for a mere pittance, only six years after Dillinger had made its producers and studio $4,000,000 in 1945 dollars, which, adjusted for inflation, is (astoundingly) worth $49,253,707.87 in 2011 dollars.

And so Nosseck and Tierney set about cranking out The Hoodlum, starring Tierney alongside his second-real life brother, Edward Tierney. Lawrence’s other brother was tough guy actor Scott Brady, born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, who was far more successful in managing his career than Lawrence Tierney ever was; Brady died on April 16, 1985 age at 60. Edward Tierney went on to a few more roles in cheap American films, then supporting work in German films as “Edward Tracy,” and on the US TV series Combat!; he died at the age of 55 on December 18, 1983. Despite his hellion lifestyle, Lawrence Tierney beat them both out in terms of longevity, dying at the ripe old age 82 on February 26, 2002.

The Hoodlum is a damned film, a doomed film, a cheap and rotten film about a cheap and rotten world, which begins with a rear-projection trip to the dark, forbidding city dump in a dilapidated jalopy, with career criminal Vincent Lubeck (Lawrence Tierney) looking dazed in the front seat as his brother Johnny (Edward Tierney) does the driving.

A large sign tells the viewer to “dump here,” and one can hardly imagine a more depressing opening. The Hoodlum is a flat, hermetically sealed embrace of death, with Lawrence Tierney obviously resigned, though none too happily, to his real life and cinematic fate.

The film flashes back to the parole hearing that got Vincent out of jail. The parole board is about to rule against his release, after a long string of increasingly violent crimes have put Vince behind bars - we get a brief taste of his past in a rapid recital of his crimes, complete with increasingly harsh punishments - until Vince’s mother (Lisa Golm) tearfully intercedes on his behalf.

Released against the better judgment of the authorities, Vince walks out of the prison a free man, but not before the warden (an uncredited Gene Roth) gives him an up-close look at the prison’s electric chair, predicting that Vince will soon be sitting in it, reminding him that “there are no paroles once you pass though this door.” Vince is shaken up, but only mildly; not even the threat of death can stop him from a life of crime.

Discovering that his brother has purchased a gas station with money left from the death of his father, Vincent immediately starts scheming to get his hands on the business, and betray both his brother and mother. His mother, for some unfathomable reason, still has faith in Vincent, and at the family home, reminds him that it’s much nicer now that they don’t live next to the city dump - the one we saw in film’s opening. “You can breath the air now” she tells him, to which Vince replies:

“Stop it, Ma! Keep the windows closed? What was the use? The stink came through them anyhow into all the corners of your lungs, your skin! Even if you took a bath every day, the stink would still stink! Our playground, where we picked up a few pieces of junk to get spending money. A rotten stink! Even now we're not too far away from it! Yeah, but you wait! I've got ideas. I'll get plenty of money! Yeah, dough! That's the only thing that'll ever cover up the stink of the city dump!”

It seems that Vince hasn’t learned anything from his life of crime, his many imprisonments, and the compassion of his family. Almost immediately, he starts making the moves on his brother’s girlfriend, Rosa (Allene Roberts), and downplays his brother’s offer to work in the gas station. Soon Vince is romancing bank secretary Eileen (Marjorie Riordan) - there’s a bank right conveniently located right across the street from his brother’s gas station - eyeing an armored car as a potential robbery target, and antagonizing his parole officer Lt. Burdick (Stuart Randall), who accurately observes that Vince is a “cheap hood - always looking for a fall guy, and never realizing that you’re it.”

At the gas station, Vince is a less than ideal employee. When a customer asks for a dollar’s worth of gas, Vince doesn’t like his tone of voice, and sprays the man with gasoline. When his brother objects, there’s a blow-up, which Vince compounds by sexually assaulting Rosa on the rooftop of their building, seemingly without consequences. During his weekly meeting with his parole officer, Vince meets his now- paroled former cellmate Marty Connell (John De Simone), and the two start to plan an armored car robbery, while Vince continues to force himself on Rosa, and romance Eileen for her connections at the bank.

But Rosa has become pregnant, and can’t stand her betrayal of Johnny anymore; abruptly, she jumps off the roof of the tenement they live in, killing herself. Johnny is understandably anguished, but Vince couldn’t care less. “Why did she do it?” Johnny asks rhetorically at the dinner table, and Vince unconcernedly tucks into his dinner. “Because she was nuts,” Vince reflexively replies. “Any dame who would jump off a roof must be nuts.” Johnny moves to slug him, but Vince brushes him off; as far as he’s concerned, Johnny is just a chump to love a woman like Rosa.

When Rosa’s body is taken to the mortuary, Vince hits on a scheme to pull off the armored car robbery; they’ll stash the proceeds in a hearse, which, according to Mr. Breckenridge, head of the Breckenridge Mortuary (O.Z. Whitehead, in one of the film’s best performances), is always waved through by the police as a “courtesy of the road.”

Vince reads about an unclaimed body in the city morgue, and members of his gang pose as relatives of the dead man, now named “Uncle John,” and use the corpse as a pretext to hire a hearse. The robbery goes off as scheduled - though two gang members are killed in the process - and Vince has to slug his brother Johnny with a revolver to stop him from calling the cops.

Despite a few tense moments, the hearse ruse works, and Vince and the gang escape with their ill-gotten gains. But Lt. Burdick is on the case, and soon figures out the scheme, and takes off in hot pursuit. Predictably, the gang falls out, and Vince is slugged and left for the police, as the other members of his gang make off with the loot.

Vince takes the fall for the entire affair in the press, and though penniless, finds himself on the run from the law. For all of his plans, he has nothing to show for his efforts; interestingly, we never see or hear from the rest of the gang again, for whom apparently crime does pay.

With nowhere else to turn, Vince goes home to his long suffering mother, but she’s finally had more than enough, saying; “it’s too late, Vincent, too late. What can your mama do? Go to the electric chair for you?” Aghast, Vincent breaks down and cries for mercy, “when it is too late for tears,” as his mother puts it. Hopelessly, she caresses Vincent’s head, and then succumbs to a heart attack; as Vince exits her bedroom, his brother Johnny suddenly appears, revolver in hand.

“Johnny, Mama’s dead” Vince stammers.

“Yeah, she’s dead” Johnny responds. “Nothing could stop her from loving you but death. Well, now she’s dead, and you killed her. Just like you killed Papa and Rosa. Well, we’re going on a little ride, to the city dump. I’m gonna finish all this where it started.”

And so we flash back to the beginning of the film, as Johnny grimly drives Vince to his final destination. Pulling up at an ash heap, Johnny is about to shoot Vince in cold blooded execution style, but can’t bring himself to do it; Lt. Burdick, however, has been trailing them, and has no such compunctions. Vince is shot to death in the dump, and dies in a heap of garbage, old tires, and industrial refuse.

It’s hard to imagine a more bleak, depressing, or unrelenting film than The Hoodlum.
The film shocks even the contemporary viewer not only in its relentlessly downbeat story structure, but also in the cheapness of its execution, the complete absence of any directorial flourishes, and its utter absence of any sort of hope of redemption. Vincent Lubeck destroys everything and everyone he touches, and the film simply documents his downward spiral into the gutter, as he takes everyone who cares for him with him.

One can only wonder how Nosseck and Tierney felt making The Hoodlum, a 60 minute programmer with a non-existent budget only six years after their smash hit with Dillinger, when it seemed both were headed for the “A” league. In life, as in the film, neither man had escaped the gutter, and they were doomed to repeat the past without variation, telling the same story over and over again; the death spiral of the damned, the doomed, the hopeless and helpless in a world of pain, betrayal, and death. It’s the only story they knew, the only story they could tell, the only story the public wanted to see. For Lawrence Tierney, as for Vincent Lubeck, the only way out was death.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly film journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include the 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; forthcoming, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; second printing 2011), 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; five printings through 2011). 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.

Works Cited

Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. New York: Da Capo, 1986:182.

Vallance, Tom. “Lawrence Tierney: Obituary,” The Independent March 1, 2002. Web.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Time Table (1956)

“Yeah, I know what Joe says. And patience is fine for a guy like Joe, it goes with his two pants suit, his washable necktie, and his ’49 car! For me patience is poison!”

Despite a five-decade career in film and television, Mark Stevens was most visible in the years immediately after the war. He made his first big splash with Lucille Ball and Bill Bendix in 1946’s The Dark Corner, followed by a pair of notable 1948 films: the FBI-noir The Street with No Name and the Academy heavyweight The Snake Pit. Stevens is of less interest for those projects (to me, at least) than he is for his 1950s work, after he struck out on his own. He was the force behind his own film production and music publishing companies (he could sing), as well as the star and occasional director of Big Town, a popular weekly television series in which he played a crime-busting newsman. Although Stevens failed to carve out a lasting place for himself as filmmaker, his earliest efforts, Cry Vengeance (1954) and Time Table (1956), both surprisingly good noirs, beg for increased attention in contemporary film circles, and make one wish the fledgling director had framed more crime movies.

Unfortunately for anyone who hasn’t seen Time Table, it’s impossible to discuss without spoiling its big twist — so let’s get it out of the way right now (and don’t worry, the reveal occurs in the first half of the film): Stevens plays an insurance investigator who — here it comes — turns out to be the brains behind the very robbery he’s asked to solve. Although it’s a rather old saw and may bring to mind Double Indemnity, Time Table more closely resembles titles like Roadblock, Private Hell 36, and The Man Who Cheated Himself. It draws its conventions from a myriad of noir films rather than those of any one in particular. This much is certain: in spite of being a cinematic mutt, Time Table is an intriguing movie that deserves to be seen. However, if your taste prohibits enjoyment of a “derivative” film, then it probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you can still connect with a noir picture that utilizes familiar genre tropes and still manages to captivate, keep reading. Or better yet, go track this down. It will surprise you.

The movie opens with a ten-minute-long heist sequence, cleverly staged on a train speeding west through the Arizona night. A polished crook posing as a doctor manages to crack the train’s safe and snatch all the money inside. The job is perfectly planned and calmly executed, using high-tech explosives, a precisely detailed timetable, and a cagey scheme involving a “sick” passenger and his “wife” — both in on the caper. The trio of bandits exit the train in a scrubby desert town, and abscond in an ambulance with half a million dollars. The railroad’s insurers will have to make good on the policy unless the money is recovered, so they assign the case to Charlie Norman (Stevens), their best man, forcing him and his wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart) to delay their long-planned Mexican vacation. Charlie is partnered with railroad detective and best friend (yeah, yeah) Joe Armstrong (King Calder).

The second act contains a healthy dose of cop procedure. Charlie and Joe chase leads, pal around with the yokel cops, and generally marvel at the efficiency and brains of their quarry — all while Charlie becomes more preoccupied and nervous. We're convinced his frustration owes to the lost vacation, until the twist occurs and we discover otherwise: Charlie masterminded the entire robbery in the first place, and he’s torn up because what he believed to be a perfect crime is unravelling all around him. He dreamt up the caper, recruited the players, and worked out the all-important timetable. Why? For some unknown reason Charlie is fed up — with his job, with his home, and with his marriage. He intended to pull off the heist, then use his Mexican holiday as a means to skip out on his old life and rendezvous with his accomplices south of the border. There he intends to cut up the money and start fresh in Argentina with Linda (Felicia Farr), with whom he has fallen in love. Yet fate, as it so often does in film noir, has a different agenda: one of Charlie’s crew is accidentally shot and killed, throwing off the timetable and forcing his partners to hole up. In the meantime, Joe’s dogged police work gains more and more momentum, while Charlie grows ever more desperate. He is finally forced to commit a murder in order to protect himself, scaring his remaining co-conspirators into making a run for it. Just as Joe finally gets wise to the whole scheme, Charlie heads for Tijuana in a last-ditch effort to meet up with Linda. With the Federales riding shotgun, Joe corners the lovers in TJ and guns are drawn…

Whether explored deeply or viewed as pure escapism, Time Table scores. Aben Kandel’s (City for Conquest) accomplished script surpasses typical B movie fare, with an airtight plot and plenty of tough, pithy dialog. Kandel also has a gift for subtle double-entendres that reinforce the story’s central theme and reward attentive viewers. For example, early on when Ruth replaces the blanket on a dozing Charlie, he mumbles, “What’re you trying to do, smother me?” All of Kandel’s characters, in one way or another and regardless of their gender, are struggling to overcome the emptiness of a world in which they’ve discovered, all too late, that the fairy tale assurances of their younger years are simply not meant to be. Charlie finds no comfort in his bleak, middle class existence. Fulfilling the role of the perfect wife brings Ruth little but disappointment. Linda trades her alcoholic, disgraced husband for the promise of a better life with Charlie, but instead leaps from the frying pan into an altogether deadlier fire. Even Joe runs himself into the ground living up to the image of a dead cop father who taught him there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. In Time Table, perfection is as ethereal as the cloud of cigarette smoke that perpetually hangs over Charlie and Joe.

Stevens’ direction might be described as workmanlike, but he understands where to linger, when to move quickly, and how to get a lot out of his actors — Time Table has a great cast. Wesley Addy (Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) is fantastic as the drunken ex-M.D. who holds it together just long enough to rob the train, while King Calder, who worked previously with Stevens during his run as television’s private detective Martin Kane, excels as the relentlessly driven railroad cop. Calder’s face and body language are so hang-dog it’s hard to imagine him in roles outside of the crime genre. However two of the most memorable performances come from actors in small parts. Jack Klugman, appearing in his first film role after having met Stevens on an episode of Big Town, plays a chain-smoking wheelman who squirms under the lights like nobody’s business. Klugman has just one scene, but he steals it cleanly away from Stevens and Calder. The second standout is Alan Reed, whose name and face may not be incredibly familiar, though his unforgettable and iconic voice certainly is — even thirty-five years after his death. Reed’s stocky build, unique look, and instant pathos made him a natural for this stuff — it’s surprising he didn’t make more crime pictures. Reed vividly brings to life the helicopter pilot most responsible for Charlie’s plans going down the tube. He burns the candle from both ends and pays a steep price for turning stool pigeon — it’s one of the film’s best moments.

At a quick 79 minutes, Time Table is a second feature — it plows ahead, sacrificing much at the altar of brevity. Yet while similar films are repudiated as rote exercises in “what happened next?” moviemaking, they frequently provide an instructive lens through which we can examine the cultural values of their era. Time Table in such a film. At its core is the question of Charlie’s motivation to self-destruct, and he offers no clues beyond a vaguely expressed desire for a change. At a critical point in the final reel, Ruth confronts him:
“Charlie, why’d you do it? Why?”
“Why? What does it matter?”

And later in the same scene:
“We had so much Charlie. Why, why?”
“The house becomes a prison, the job a trap.”
“What did you want?”
“A new kind of life.”

Yet the film doesn't explain why Charlie so desperately wants this new life. Personally and professionally he has everything a man could reasonably ask for — his situation is even admirable. Ruth is a kind and attractive woman for whom he has genuine affection, and his tough-guy job as an insurance cop makes him a bona fide man’s man. The most telling aspect of Time Table is how it takes for granted that viewers will embrace Charlie’s compulsion to escape his circumstances without being given a reason.

Look closely at the absurdity of Charlie’s actions: he trades his job and his honor for a satchel of easy money; a fine suburban home for assuredly more squalid digs in Argentina; and a caring spouse another woman, albeit younger and a little prettier, who nevertheless seems to be cut from the same beige piece of cloth as his wife. It’s also worth pointing out that Linda is a Mexican — another way in which the film drives home the point that Charlie’s all-American situation somehow isn’t adequate. And he knows his trades are for keeps — permanently sanctified through blood and betrayal. After all, Charlie’s a law enforcement man who, like Walter Neff, understands the risks but believes his knowledge of the game provides an edge. At the same time, he is aware of the looming possibility of the little green room at Quentin, where one’s final black moments are strained listening for the plop-plop-fizz-fizz of everlasting relief.

Unlike in other noir pictures, the protagonist’s downfall can’t be attributed to a femme fatale. Time Table doesn’t have one. Sure, there’s a girl, but Charlie’s inamorata is hardly an upgrade on his wife. Here’s a guy who is winning the rat race and still wants out — he hates everything about his situation. The answer to his motivation lies in the movie’s unrelenting cynicism. Time Table consciously subverts the post-war American dream of happiness through national prosperity and material achievement. It thumbs its nose at the white bread promises of the Eisenhower era: the steady jobs, home-sweet-homes, and June Allyson wives that saturated mainstream media offerings. It gives us a protagonist who has achieved these material things and more, yet remains unfulfilled. In many ways, Charlie’s case is even more compelling than that of the pill-popping Ed Avery in another 1956 film, Nicholas Ray’s brilliant Bigger Than Life — if only because Time Table is neither a character study nor a message picture. For the men of film noir, the ones who fought the war and returned to a changing country, the idea of a dutiful and submissive wife, a white collar, and a white picket fence just couldn’t cut it — and heaven knows our noir heroes tried to fit back in. They squirm in their suits, tugging at those tight collars, chewing their nails, always on the make for that thing that might break the monotony and remind them of what it feels like to be alive. Pour another drink, Don Draper.

What makes Time Table so enthralling (as well as numerous other film noirs), is that while modern audiences might find Charlie Norman’s gambit unfathomable or absurd, some of the 1956 crowd undoubtedly recognized themselves in him — feeling every bit as suffocated while having to acquiesce to the vanilla model of happiness offered up on countless roadside billboards, magazine advertisements, and sponsor-centric TV programs. Consequently, Charlie becomes a poster child for those who felt trapped in that uncanny era of prosperous conformity — and an authentic film noir anti-hero. In recognizing and understanding the daring of filmmakers who so openly questioned the fleeting promises of the American Dream, we further appreciate the enduring allure of film noir.

Written by The Professor

Editor's note: Check out more from The Professor Where Danger Lives!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Blood Simple (1984)

“The world is full of complainers. The fact is nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or man of the year. Something can all go wrong. Go ahead, you know: complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help and watch him fly. Now, in Russia they got it mapped out so everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own.” - Loren Visser, Blood Simple

So begins the voice-over introducing us to Joel and Ethan Coen’s somewhere-in-Texas world of Blood Simple. On the face of it, Blood Simple is your basic homage to films noir in the grand tradition of Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. What the Coens deliver is a darkly humorous neo-noir so full of suspense, it would be at home on a shelf next to Hitchcock’s best. Everything you’d expect to see in a noir is here, as if the Coens were using a recipe to craft the film: an adulterous woman, seedy bars and motel rooms, frame-ups, and double-crossers. The Coens took their film’s title from Dashiell Hammett’s story “Red Harvest”: a term that describes the frame of mind a person is in after being exposed to murder or intense violence. The film itself explores the characters as circumstances turn them all blood simple, and is as neatly crafted as any Hammett or James M. Cain story.

Dan Hedaya plays Julian Marty, a dyspeptic Greek bar owner, who is having his faithless wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and his employee, Ray, (John Getz) tailed by sleazy private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh). Marty’s scheme is simple, but about as sturdily built as a house of cards. Visser double-crosses Marty, frames Abby, and plans to take the money and run, but crime is never that neat. What ensues is like watching Abbott and Costello play a round of Russian roulette while doing “Who’s On First?” A series of miscommunications, suspicions, and fatal assumptions have Abby and Ray eyeing each other warily while a predatory Visser circles on the outskirts of the plot. The viewer is left in a unique position for this type of film - most directors would leave out key bits of information for cheap thrills and plot twists, but the Coens show their hand: we know who murders who, and how the deed was done. The characters flounder and struggle while we look on, smug and full of dread.

The film’s small cast all fit comfortably into their roles, with Hedaya and Walsh being the standouts. Hedaya plays Marty as noir’s typical impotent, cuckolded husband, his rage over Abby’s infidelity steadily simmering just below the surface. He’s got a big house, a shiny car, a beautiful wife and absolutely no control over anything in his life, especially the rogue private investigator he’s just hired. Hedaya’s character is an obvious parallel to Nick Smith’s (Cecil Kellaway) Greek diner owner in Postman, but he’s not the poor, sad sap Smith could be. Marty is at all times smarmy and unlikable, unable to evoke any sympathy from the viewer.

As Abby, Coen brothers’ muse Frances McDormand is a modern noir female. She’s an appealing crossbreed of both ingénue and femme fatale. With her sweet, open face and big, guileless eyes we can see Abby may have once been naïve and idealistic, but a few years of marriage to Marty has distilled her Texan pragmatism. She carries a snub-nose in her pocketbook with a vague notion of using it on Marty, should the situation present itself.

John Getz is arguably the weakest actor here, but that’s not saying much. He’s not supposed to be the hero; he’s just trying to keep his head above water. Ray is a simple man with not much to like or dislike about him, and through the course of the film we see his nerves stretch taut and begin to fray as he desperately tries to make sense of the violence surrounding him. If inexperience keeps Getz and McDormand from fully evoking their characters’ emotions, the exceptional plot excuses them. Ray and Abby spend a lot of the film looking bewildered, but who wouldn’t, trying to untangle this mess of murder?

The knockout performance of the film hails from its villain, a role written specifically for the actor. Had the Coens produced Blood Simple on the heels of Fargo, it’s likely M. Emmet Walsh would have been given an Oscar nod. Watching Walsh settle in as the husky, dissipated Visser is a real treat for the viewer. With his high-crowned woven cowboy hat, chunky turquoise ring, and pastel yellow leisure suit, Visser borders on the comical but his calculating reptilian eyes veer him into the grotesque. At separate points in the film a beetle and a fly land on Visser’s face and explore the terrain. Whether it’s a bit of movie-making luck or orchestrated by the Coens, the viewer understands: here is a bottom-feeder; insects can smell the death on him. Walsh is so good at being bad that by the end of the film you may be rooting for him, or at least hoping he’ll go out in a blaze of glory. You will not be disappointed.

Fifteen years later the Coens would go on to write and direct The Man Who Wasn’t There, a send-up to noir so self-aware and referential that, in comparison, Blood Simple almost reads truer as a film noir. Instead of being constrained by color here, the Coens play with it in between scenes of drab Texas landscape: Visser is half-bathed in shadow, half-lit in buttery Texas sunlight, or harshly lit crimson billboards rising out of a dark desert. The cinematographer for the film was a young Barry Sonnenfeld, but the Coens meticulously storyboarded the story themselves. The result is a style that doesn’t speak particularly to Sonnenfeld, but one that is visible later Coen films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Stretches of highway and vaguely familiar landscapes make the film feel like a docudrama… this could have happened! After all, truth is stranger - and funnier - than fiction, and it’s the funny parts of the film that keep it relatable. At one point, as Ray struggles to clean up a bloody crime scene behind a two-way mirror, potential witnesses enter the bar and fire up The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.” It’s a dark, absurdist humor commonplace in Coen films, making the audience chuckle in dismay while they wait for the other shoe to drop. In a later interview Joel Coen would say Ray’s infamous burial scene would take just as much inspiration from Chuck Jones (creator of the coyote and roadrunner cartoons) as it did from Hitchcock suspense movies (one can almost see poor bungling Ray captioned in Jones’ pseudo-Latin: homicidius botchus.)

Like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Blood Simple is one of those films that movie-goers would revisit after the Coens’ commercial successes of later films like Fargo and O, Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s sometimes judged harshly when standing alongside the Coen canon of work, but small filming mistakes due to lack of budget, time and experience do not detract from the film’s overall impact. Once the credits roll, the viewer will sit back and wonder at the richness of plot the Coens were able to build using only a handful of characters. Here is a film revolving around murder and not once do we see a police officer! Blood Simple opened in 1985, and though it took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year, it enjoyed most of its success much later amongst viewers willing to devote the time. Make no mistake: this film is dense and plods along fairly leisurely, but it packs a wallop of a sucker punch at the end. Put your feet up, nurse a drink and pay attention to the dialogue and small details… this film is worth the investment.

Blood Simple will be released on Blu-ray August 30, 2011.


Written by Nauga

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Unholy Wife (1957)

“I know in your book, there’s no such thing as the perfect crime.”

Diana Dors also known as the “British Marilyn Monroe” was fresh from the success of the 1956 film Yield to the Night (Blonde Sinner)--arguably the performance of her career when she made Unholy Wife (1957), possibly the worst film of her career. Yield to the Night gave Diana Dors a marvelous, sensitive and appealing role as condemned woman, Mary Price Hilton. Due to the film’s timely, uncanny resemblance to a controversial murder case (Ruth Ellis’s murder of David Blakely) and the fact that it became part of the argument for ending the death penalty in Britain, the film had, and continues to have, great social significance.

The first film Dors made in Hollywood was I Married a Woman, a comedy directed by Hal Kanter. Although the filming concluded in late August 1956, the film was held for release until 1958. As a result, Unholy Wife was Diana Dors’ first Hollywood release, and while the film was supposed to be the beginning of Dors’ glorious Hollywood career, the film finished up more as an embarrassment than anything else.

Director John Farrow (father of Mia Farrow) was almost at the end of his career when he made Unholy Wife, and he’d already made a respectable number of noirs including Alias Nick Beal (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), and His Kind of Woman (1951). Farrow was to make just one more full-length feature, John Paul Jones (1959) before his death in 1963 at age 58. Unholy Wife is based on a story by William Durkee and adapted to the screen by cult crime writer Jonathan Latimer (Lady in the Morgue). Latimer and Farrow had worked together several times before, and with a cast including Diana Dors and Rod Steiger, this noir tale should have been successful. Instead Unholy Wife is a limp, listless drama in which inflamed passions don’t reach boiling point but remain merely tepid. So what went wrong?

The film is set in California’s wine country of Napa Valley, and the plot follows a very familiar pattern: a young sexy wife, with a lover on the side, married to an older man of means. In the case of Unholy Wife, the adulterous woman is Phyllis Hoochen, played by a luscious, ripe Diana Dors at the height of her potent beauty. She’s married to stodgy Paul (Rod Steiger), a man who’s deeply locked into his family traditions. Paul and Phyllis live in the Hoochen family mansion along with Paul’s ailing mother, Emma (Beulah Bondi) and Phyllis’s young son, Michael (Gary Hunley). Phyllis isn’t interested in motherhood, and doesn’t bother pretending. When she’s not trying to ship the kid off to boarding school, she’s busy banishing him to his room. Even to the casual observer, Michael is a boy who’s destined to grow up with ‘mummy issues.’ While Phyllis isn’t much of a mother, neither is she much of a wife, and for most of the film, she prowls around the Hoochen family mansion pacing restlessly like a caged panther.

The film begins with a scrubbed-face, brunette Phyllis telling the story of her past to a man. We don’t see the man’s face--only his shoulder, and Phyllis goes back in time to the recent past to explain a seemingly “perfect crime.” From this point, we see a very different Phyllis--bleached blonde, sexily dressed, and bored out of her mind at home with her decrepit mother-in-law who insists she’s heard a prowler. The prowler is none other than sweaty young rodeo stud, San Sanders (Tom Tryon). It’s not clear exactly how San and Phyllis met or how long they’ve been having an affair, but it is clear that San is the restless sort. Phyllis concocts a plan to get rid of Paul but the plan goes wrong. Since Phyllis is a girl who thinks on her feet, she turns the mistake to her advantage.

Scenes narrated by Phyllis also go back even further in time, to the year before when Phyllis first met Paul in Los Angeles. She was hanging around in a bar with a gal pal waiting for promising, affluent looking men to show up, and the film’s a bit fuzzy about exactly what she was hoping to achieve. There are hints that she’s a prostitute or at least in the market for wheedling expensive gifts from suckers (later, there’s a scene in which Paul gives Phyllis an expensive bracelet she just happened to admire in a jeweler’s window). Paul, who’s in L.A. for a convention, is a prominent Napa Valley vintner. Phyllis explains to Paul that she came to America with an American serviceman, and that she has a 6-year-old son, Michael, she rather brutally describes as “a souvenir from the Air Force.” She sees her lack of parental interest as part of her overall moral failing. At one point she tells Paul:

“I’m no good. Take Michael. Maybe it’s because I hate his father or maybe it’s because I just don’t like kids.”

Unfortunately Paul isn’t listening. He idealistically compares Phyllis to a vineyard that needs tender care. A double date on the beach seals the relationship, and Paul carries Phyllis off to his Napa Valley home.

Unholy Wife has all the ingredients for success but fails. It shares the same basic story as Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Human Desire (1954), and Marilyn (1954), yet Unholy Wife fails where those films succeed. One of the big differences between Unholy Wife and these other films (apart from quality), is that the films portray wives who need the brawn of their lovers to off their nuisance hubbies. Unholy Wife is an exception; Phyllis is more than capable of scheming and killing simultaneously.

While Unholy Wife is supposed to be a tale of torrid passion, there is zero screen chemistry between either Phyllis and Paul, or Phyllis and San. And this is in spite of the fact that Phyllis appears in a series of stunning outfits that appear to have been spray painted on her hourglass figure. No florals or patterns for Diana Dors--instead her clothes are solid colours: black, white, liquid silver, electric blue, and hot pink. The three characters, Paul, Phyllis and San are supposed to be in the throes of passion, but instead these three mull around like disconnected passengers on a cheap package holiday who’d like to pretend they’re not together.

Perhaps some of the film’s failure can be explained by the fact that the viewer is not privy to the initial meeting between Phyllis and San. There’s no screen presentation of the passionate attraction of these two characters who then slide into an illicit affair, and the few scenes that place San and Phyllis in the same room show San’s growing boredom and restlessness. The sex scenes are not the only manifestation of wooden emotion. In one scene, someone close to Paul is killed, and when he looks at the corpse, there’s no emotional impact, no breakdown, nothing. He might as well be looking at a leftover casserole. In addition, the numerous scenes are too short and choppy, have very little continuity, and are patched together by the explanatory narrative. When Diana Dors later saw the completed film, she stated that it was so badly edited, she barely recognized it.

The New York Times review called the film a “dull, unholy mess,” while noting that Dors’ “real forte” is comedy. The review also stated that Steiger delivered a “curious performance.”

The behind-the-scenes story of the film is far more interesting than the film itself. Diana Dors (real name Diana Mary Fluck--no wonder she changed it), was married to flamboyant playboy Dennis Hamilton, who also acted as her manager, when the film was made. The couple left for America and sailed for Hollywood together in June 1956. While Diana stated that she had “no intention of staying in America indefinitely,” and that she hoped to enjoy a split transatlantic career, husband Dennis stated just the opposite. He was expecting a lucrative RKO contract and declared that the couple would “become American.” Diana Dors’ shot at Hollywood proved that the actress, while fully capable of handling herself in Britain, was ill-prepared for Hollywood and its publicity machine.

Problems began in August soon after Dennis bought a mansion in the Coldwater Canyon area of Beverly Hills, and on the night a lavish party was thrown, somehow Diana, Dennis, and two other people posing by the pool, were pushed in. Hot-tempered Dennis attacked a photographer who ended up in the hospital. Bad press resulted for the British couple, and already RKO were seeking ways to renege on the contract.

Unholy Wife--also known as The Lady and the Prowler was initially set to star Ernest Borgnine as Paul Hoochen, but he was unavailable, so Steiger, who was estranged from his wife at the time, was cast in the role. Rumours of a relationship between Steiger and Diana began, and at one point, Dennis drove to the studio to confront Steiger. Some sources claim that Dennis drove to the set with a shotgun, but other sources state that the gun was an embellishment to an already juicy story. Reporters for the notorious Confidential Magazine even broke into Diana’s home looking for evidence of the affair. According to the book Diana Dors: Just a Whisper Away by Joan Flory and Damien Walne, Steiger and Dors were separated to “damp down rumours”:

“Steiger was sent away to a hideaway in Malibu, while Diana stayed in Beverly Hills. When they were eventually allowed back on the set, there was no question of a tête-à-tête between shots. They were made to wait in separate caravans.”

In Unholy Wife, perhaps all the acting effort went into bolstering the myth for the public that nothing was going on between its two stars.

After the filming of Unholy Wife concluded, Steiger dumped Diana via telephone and returned home to his wife. In November Diana returned to Britain. Although Diane and Dennis Hamilton managed to patch up their volatile marriage, the truce was just temporary. They were both chronically unfaithful, and while the relationship with Steiger went nowhere, when Diana made The Long Haul (1957) she had an affair with Victor Mature’s body double, Tommy Yeardye, and shortly afterwards the marriage was over. Hamilton took Diana to the cleaners for the divorce, and Diana rather passively agreed to all his financial demands. He died in January 1959, and the cause of death, according to some sources, was tertiary syphilis.

Diana Dors and Treasure Productions (one of Hamilton’s companies) sued RKO for $1,275,000 for its failure to meet its contractual obligations for three films, but the suit ended in a settlement of $200,000. RKO pictures argued that Diana had cancelled her contract and that “she had become an object of disgrace, obloquy, ill-will and ridicule” and had “an international reputation for insobriety, unchasity, intemperance and exhibitionism” (Come by Sunday: The Fabulous Ruined Life of Diana Dors by Damon Wise). Never again was there any promise, hint or sign of international super-stardom, and Diana’s later career was firmly entrenched in British television. She died in 1984 of uterine cancer at age 52, and she remains a much loved British star who never really reached her potential.

Written by Guy Savage

Monday, August 01, 2011

Bodyguard (1948)

Lawrence Tierney (whose brother was the equally tough actor Scott Brady) pushes his way through Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard (1948) with the same brutal assurance he brought to such films as Max Nosseck’s Dillinger (1945), in which he played the title role of the notorious gangster with eerie intensity, and his finest film, Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947). But then again, in all his roles, Tierney was really channeling his real life persona of a rabble rousing hellion, who seemed absolutely incapable of staying out of trouble. Tierney is one of the cinema’s unique characters, indelibly identified with violent roles, and in real life, just as much of a loose cannon as he was on the screen.

Bodyguard is a distinctly down-market affair, with a running time of a mere 62 minutes, and was produced by RKO’s B unit, but it still packs a punch; in many ways, the noirs that Fleischer directed for RKO in the first days of his career, such as Follow Me Quietly (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), and The Narrow Margin (1952) are his best work, certainly worthy of more attention than Fantastic Voyage (1966) or Doctor Dolittle (1967), which typified the big budget films that dominated the bulk of Fleischer’s career.

Here, working from a script by Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, from a story by George W. George and Robert Altman (yes, that Robert Altman), Fleischer tells the tale of tough guy cop Mike Carter (Tierney), who is pushed off the force for cutting corners with little things like search warrants and beating up suspects to get a confession out of them, much to the delight of his immediate superior Lieutenant Borden (Frank Fenton). Fleischer stages the confrontation between Carter and Borden in a series of increasingly tight close-ups, in which each man gradually walks towards the camera, cutting back and forth, until both faces dominate the frame with overpowering intensity. The literal faceoff ends when Carter abrupt punches Borden in the nose, and is kicked off the force for good.

In his spare time, Mike looks after (in an odd sort of way) a group of young toughs as a sort of Big Brother, and the film quickly moves to a baseball game, where Mike has treated the kids to a doubleheader in the company of his girlfriend, Doris Brewster (Priscilla Lane, in her final screen performance). No sooner does Mike take his seat, however, than the slimy Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed at his most disagreeable) skips in beside him, and offers him a job as bodyguard to one “Gene” Dysen, the owner of a meatpacking plant who has been receiving death threats. Despite a generous retainer, Mike turns the job down, but Freddie persists, and when Mike discovers that “Gene” Dysen is in reality Eugenia Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon, coolly professional as always), and there is another attempt on Eugenia’s life, Mike reluctantly accepts the position.

What follows is a typically violent 1940s noir, with Tierney walking through the role with his customary forthright arrogance - “one side, Dracula” he barks at Eugenia’s startled butler when first entering the Dysen mansion - and Lane offering capable support as his long suffering girlfriend. Naturally, there’s a murder, and Mike is implicated, and just as predictably, has to clear himself despite police interference. I don’t want to give the plot away, except to note that lurking behind the entire affair is the profit motive - capitalism turned to murder - and Fleischer effectively limns the dark side of post war Los Angeles with deft assurance, ably assisted by the cinematography of Robert De Grasse, and Elmo Williams’ editing.

Bodyguard is a straightforward, direct, no frills affair, designed to make Tierney an even more bankable star. But as any reader of Noir of the Week knows, Tierney had his own share of scrapes with the law in real life, and his career after the 1940s was severely curtailed, until it was resurrected late in life by Quentin Tarantino in his debut feature film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), which improbably led to a recurring role on the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" as Elaine Benes’ (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) father.

A 1955 newspaper article commented that Tierney had been arrested 16 times, more time than Dillinger himself, but Tierney always felt that, despite his gruff persona, he was perpetually miscast. As he told a interviewer Rick McKay towards the end of his life, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn't do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture” (as cited in Vallance). And yet trouble seemed to follow Tierney around wherever he went, and he spent the rest of his life living up, or living down, to his on-screen persona.

Bodyguard is one of Tierney’s more sympathetic roles; for once, he gets to play the good guy. And he does a creditable job of it, pushing his way through the film’s convoluted narrative with a matter-of-fact violence that effectively renders all efforts to stop him useless. The film is just the right length at 62 minutes, and features memorable supporting performances not only from Risdon and Reed, but also the always reliable noir heavy Steve Brodie, in for a brief turn as one of Freddie Dysen’s corrupt associates, up to no good as usual. It’s a short, brutal film, but it holds up well, and has finally come out on DVD in an immaculate transfer that really does the film justice. In short, highly recommended.


Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly film journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include the 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; forthcoming, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; second printing 2011), 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; five printings through 2011). 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.

Reference: Vallance, Tom. “Laurence Tierney, Obituary,” The Independent March 1, 2002. Web.

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