Monday, November 28, 2011

The Whip Hand (1951)

whip hand 
1. A dominating position; advantage. 2. The hand in which a whip is held.
William Cameron Menzies had one of the most unusual careers in the cinema. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Menzies studied at Yale and The University of Edinburgh, served in the Army during World War I, and then attended the Arts Students League in New York. Soon he was an accomplished draftsman. From there, he worked his way to Hollywood, and joined the Famous Players / Lasky Picture Company, and did the Art Direction for such films as The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Bat (1926), Sadie Thompson (1928), and Tempest (1928). This early work won him great critical notice. At the very first Academy Awards, held on May 16, 1929, Menzies won for Best Art Direction for both The Dove and Tempest.

Menzies at work on Gone With the Wind

Menzies also created an early series of short films somewhat like the Walt Disney Silly Symphonies cartoons, attempting to combine visual imagery with classical music, in Irish Fantasy (1929), Impressions of Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812 (1930), Hungarian Rhapsody (1930) and Paul Dukas' The Wizard's Apprentice (1930). This work led to more assignments, on such films as The Iron Mask (1929), Alibi (1929), Condemned (1929), Coquette (1929), Puttin' on the Ritz (1930), and Paramount’s bizarre version of Alice in Wonderland (1933), which featured Charlotte Henry as Alice, W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Edward Everett Horton as The Mad Hatter, and numerous other luminaries in other roles. The film’s curious use of ornate costumes, coupled with a lopsided and episodic screenplay by Menzies and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, made the film at once deeply unusual, and also a notable box office failure of the era; the film was simply too outré for mainstream audiences.

Around this time, Menzies also began to publish his drawings for the sets he designed in various journals, seeking to draw more attention to his work as a primary creative force behind the visual look of the films he worked on. Typically lavish and enormous in size and scope, with a strong stream of romanticism and his trademark forced-perspective framing, Menzies’ work soon attracted even more attention, and he was drafted to design and direct the ambitious British production Things to Come (1936), which H.G. Wells adapted from his own novel, and hampered the production seriously by giving Menzies a free hand visually, but insisting that his long-winded dialogue remain intact.

Thus, while Things to Come has justly gained fame as a prophetic science-fiction spectacle, and its sets and overall design are deeply impressive (the film predicts, among other things, enormous flat screen televisions and numerous other technological advances that are now commonplace), Menzies took the blame for the somewhat stilted acting style adopted by the film’s stars Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and others, when in fact he really had little say in the matter. As a result, no further “A” level work as a director was immediately forthcoming.

Thus, Menzies returned to the States, and worked on the 1938 production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and then received the assignment for which he is best known; production design of Gone With the Wind (1939). This was also the first film on which the term “production designer” was used, for Menzies did indeed design the entire film from start to finish, and though Gone With the Wind went through a number of directors, including George Cukor and Victor Fleming, who finished the film, it was Menzies’ overall vision that put the film over in terms of its lavish and extravagant texture and production values. From then on, Menzies was regularly employed as production designer on any number of films, but the films he directed were few and far between, and all are very, very unusual projects. Address Unknown (1944) is based on Kressmann Taylor (real name: Kathrine Kressmann Taylor)’s short story of the same name, and is in many ways a noir film; it tells the tale of two friends - Martin Schulz and Max Eisenstein -- who are art dealers. Both were born in Germany, and when Hitler rises to power, Martin Schulz returns to Germany and becomes an ardent Nazi, much to the dismay of his partner, Max, who is Jewish. When Max’s daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) is arrested as a Jew, Martin refuses to help her, and she is killed by the Gestapo. In retaliation, Max begins to send a series of increasingly cryptic messages to Martin, seeming to be in a code of some sort, which “implicates” Martin in a plot against the Reich. As Max sends more and more messages, Martin becomes frantic, and begs for Max to stop, but he will not relent, and finally, a message comes back stamped simply “Address Unknown,” signifying that Martin has been killed himself by Hitler’s minions.

In the film, however, it is Martin's son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck) who, still in American and in love with Griselle from afar, who sends the messages that seal his father’s fate, a significant twist on the original narrative. Menzies’ films of Address Unknown, unavailable for years, has recently been reissued on archival DVD, and displays Menzies’ usual bravura style, with extreme close-ups, exaggerated depth perspective, and empty, ominous sets that extend into infinity, accentuating the cold, empty world of the film’s protagonists. After this came much work as a production designed on numerous other films, and then Menzies’ peculiar Drums in the Deep South (1951), a Civil War film which can be viewed a sort of revisionist, downbeat Gone With the Wind, done for Howard Hughes’ RKO on a shoestring, and then The Whip Hand, which had one of the most curious production histories of any film, even a Howard Hughes production. As noted by the excellent TCM website,
“The working title of this film was The Man He Found. The film's release title, The Whip Hand is derived from horse-racing terminology, meaning someone who has the upper hand, or is in control. RKO production files, contained at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, and Hollywood Reporter, New York Times and Los Angeles Times news items add the following information about the production: RKO purchased Roy Hamilton's original screen story in July 1949. Curt Siodmak worked on a draft of the screenplay in 1949, but the extent of his contribution to the final film, if any, has not been determined. In January 1950, Stanley Rubin was assigned to write and produce the picture. Although Rubin was replaced as producer by Lewis J. Rachmil, [Rubin would later have his name taken off the film] his contribution to the final script has not been determined. Some scenes were filmed in Big Bear Lake in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains, and at the RKO ranch in Encino. The picture, which was shot in great secrecy, was first set in postwar New England. The original story line featured a plot to hide the still-alive Adolf Hitler [Bobby Watson, the perennial Hitler of 1940s movies]. In November 1950, after viewing a rough cut of the film, RKO head Howard Hughes ordered extensive retakes. Hughes demanded that the Hitler plot line be replaced with the Communist germ warfare story . . . [T]he film cost $376,000 to make and lost $225,000 at the box office.”
That’s the story of the film’s production in a nutshell, but in an interview with Tom Weaver, the film’s star Elliott Reid offered some additional details. An associate of Orson Welles and John Houseman, and primarily a radio and stage actor from New York, Reid got the job after a solid test reading at RKO, and was summarily cast as Matt Corbin, a reporter for the fictitious American View magazine. On a vacation fishing trip to Lake Winnoga, Wisconsin, Corbin stumbles on a plot by Communists to pollute the United States water supply with deadly poison, headed by mad scientist Dr. Wilhelm Bucholtz (Otto Waldis), an ex-Nazi now aligned with the Communists, aided by tough guy Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr) and his associates.

After numerous dead-ends and double-crosses, Reid gets word to his editor in New York, the FBI show up at Lake Winnoga, machine guns at the ready, and blast their way into Bucholtz’s laboratory, where the doctor has been experimenting with human guinea pigs to perfect his deadly virus. In the film’s conclusion, the deformed and deranged victims of Bucholtz’s experimentation turn on him, and beat him to death, while the FBI looks on with satisfaction, and the threat of germ warfare is averted, at least momentarily. As a repertory actor, Reid felt that he lacked the requisite toughness of someone like Robert Mitchum, who would be more obviously at home in the part, and most conventional wisdom supports this view; personally, I think his casting is one of the strong points of the film, as his character is essentially a man in over his head, trying as best he can to deal with an almost incomprehensible situation. In his interview with Weaver, Reid praised Nick Musuraca’s typically superb black and white cinematography, as well as Stanley Rubin’s script, but complained that “Menzies never directed me, ever. He was very involved with the set-ups and the look of it. I think his focus was more on the visual aspect of a film.”

Reid also thought the last minute switch from Nazis to Communists was a mistake, and deplored what Hughes did to the final cut of the film, as well as the reshoots, but predictably had little say in the matter. Reid recalled that Waldis, a cultured and educated man, despised himself for appearing in the role of Dr. Bucholtz, because he knew that The Whip Hand, in its final form, would now play directly into the hands of the anti-Communist witch hunt that was just starting to take definitive shape in Hollywood. Reid hated doing the remakes, and interestingly, never even saw Hughes once during the entire production, and told Weaver that during the retakes, all of the cast members, at least in his view, seem disgusted with what they were doing, even if they were all still on salary. This may all be so, but The Whip Hand, which has yet to be released on archival DVD or in any other format, is an authentic talisman of 1950s ultra-paranoid hysteria, and despite Reid’s reservations, one of Menzies’ most brutally nihilistic works. As always, Menzies thrusts his characters into the forefront of the frame for their most significant moments, and designs the entire production with a dreamlike, nightmare perspective, so that even the few genuine exterior sequences on the lake at night have the feeling of impending doom.

Menzies would do on to direct only two more films before his death in 1957: The Maze (in black and white 3-D), and the equally paranoid sci-fi classic Invaders from Mars, shot in lurid color (1953). The Maze is atmospheric, but fails to really engage the viewer due to its astoundingly implausible plot line (a gigantic, undying frog dominates the lives of all the inhabitants of a remote Scottish castle); but Invaders from Mars, though produced for a pittance, is one of the most frightening and alienated films about 1950s childhood to emerge from the era; you can read my essay on Invaders from Mars, which is really a sci-fi noir, here.

Ultimately, The Whip Hand is a work as curious and resonant as the reclusive lifestyle led by its true auteur, Howard Hughes; while Menzies designed and executed the film, paying as little attention as possible to the actors but lavishing enormous attention on the sets and mise en scene of the film, it was Hughes own obsessions and paranoid delusions that really inform the bulk of the film’s convoluted narrative. Elliott Reid may have hated the changes Hughes executed after the film wrapped, but Hughes typically reshot films after they were finished, and in his own mind, the Communist threat was not only more timely than the Nazi angle; it was also more real. What Menzies did was to give solidity to Hughes’ paranoid fantasies, and it is this, more than anything else, that makes The Whip Hand simultaneously preposterous, and yet all too real; this was the way Howard Hughes saw the world in the 1950s, and Menzies brought his vision to life.

Author’s Note: Sources used or cited for this essay include Tom Weaver’s excellent interview with Elliott Reid in his book Earth vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005), pages 313 - 334, as well as Weaver’s interview with the film’s scenarist, Stanley Rubin, in the same volume, pages 335-343; the TCM Website for The Whip Hand production information; Wikipedia and IMDB for production dates, titles, cast and technical credits for Menzies’ earlier work; and David Bordwell’s superb essay on Menzies’ work, William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea, here.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon


About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. His newest books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; reprinted 2011), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press /Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 5 times through 2011). His website, Frame by Frame, can be found here, and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller never met an idea he wasn't willing to explore on film.

That he rarely did so in a focused or coherent way hasn't stopped him from winning legions of fans. In fact, it might be one of his selling points.

Fuller's films exist in their own bizarre world. It's a pulpy, slangy, slapdash place where plot threads are picked up and abandoned willy-nilly, where stuntmen's faces are clearly visible during fight scenes, and where emotion trumps reason.

The Crimson Kimono was the first movie Fuller made after signing a four-film deal with Columbia Pictures. It wasn't exactly a box office smash — after its first three bookings, it ended up playing on the bottom half of a double bill with Battle of the Coral Sea (1959).

On the other hand, it wasn't enough of a failure to stop Columbia from giving Fuller bigger stars to work with in his next film, Underworld U.S.A. (1961), which, incidentally, starred Cliff Robertson, the star of Battle of the Coral Sea.

The poster for The Crimson Kimono trades heavily on its interracial romance angle, with titillating lines like
"YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" and "What was his strange appeal for American girls?"

That the poster does not accurately reflect the film's subject matter should come as no surprise, but we'll get to that in a bit.

The opening credits of The Crimson Kimono unfold over a static shot of a painting. Through a series of dissolves, the painting is fleshed out, becoming a woman in a kimono, holding a fan. As soon as we've learned that this film was written, produced, and directed by Samuel Fuller, the camera zooms in on the lower right-hand corner of the canvas, and a paintbrush signs it with the name "Chris."

Then we're hit with a blast of raunchy jazz music and an aerial shot of Los Angeles at night. An enormous image of a blond stripper rises up like a skyscraper over the marquee of a burlesque show that features "Sugar Torch and Nudie Dolls."

Sugar Torch is played by Gloria Pall, who previously played strippers in uncredited roles in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Jailhouse Rock (1957).

Fuller arrests the audience's attention early with the never-fail combo of sex and death. Pall's burlesque performance is almost unbearably sexy, but it's over quickly, and before long, Sugar Torch is fleeing barefoot down Main Street from an unseen assailant wielding a revolver.

She doesn't make it far.

Enter Detective Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and his partner, Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta). Bancroft and Kojaku are more than just partners. Bancroft was Kojaku's commanding officer in the Korean War, and the two men are best friends who live together in a swanky bachelor pad.

Sugar Torch's sleazy manager, Casale (Paul Dubov), describes an act she was working on with some mystery men involving a samurai lover, a brick-crushing karate master, and — of course — Sugar in a crimson kimono.

When the detectives throw a hard line of questioning Casale's way, he responds "Who said I had anything against her? She was shifty as smoke, but I liked her!" Kojaku and Bancroft track down Sugar's mystery men — the karate master she wanted to involve in her burlesque act, Willy Hidaka (George Yoshinaga), a hulking Korean named Shuto (played by the Japanese-American wrestler and stuntman Fuji), and a creepy dark-haired man known only as "Hansel" (Neyle Morrow).

With the help of an alcoholic, fun-loving, middle-aged painter named Mac (Anna Lee), Bancroft also identifies the artist who painted Sugar in her kimono. Much to Bancroft's surprise, "Chris" turns out to be a beautiful young woman named Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw).

Up until this point, Bancroft has had little interest in the case. "Nobody cares who killed that tramp" he tells Kojaku, and claims Kojaku is only taking the case seriously because he's bucking for promotion to sergeant. But Chris piques Bancroft's interest when she speaks fondly of Sugar. "You liked her?" he says, sounding incredulous.

It's not long before Bancroft is head over heels in love with Chris without realizing that she doesn't quite share his feelings, and is herself falling in love with his best friend, Kojaku.

For a long stretch of the film, the affaires du coeur dominate the proceedings, and the mystery is all but forgotten.

Fuller had a unique way of being heavy-handed without having a coherent message. It didn't always work in his favor, but it does in The Crimson Kimono. If the message of the film had been something simple like "racism is bad," then the Japanese-American Kojaku resisting Chris's advances by saying "Chris, let's not trigger off a bomb!" wouldn't sound nearly as weird and ironic as it does.

The Crimson Kimono is a classic example of Fuller's restless artistry. Unlike his previous foray into Japanese culture, House of Bamboo (1955), which was a colorful, beautifully lensed heist picture that was entirely filmed in Japan, The Crimson Kimono is a black and white picture shot on the cheap in Los Angeles. But while House of Bamboo was ultimately somewhat lifeless, The Crimson Kimono is bursting with half-finished ideas and stylistic flourishes. For instance, the scene in which a shadowy assailant prepares to shoot Chris in her sorority house features a creepy phone call and P.O.V. shots from the shooter's point of view that would be at home in a horror movie. Fuller's storytelling isn't always coherent, but his willingness to throw things at the audience until something sticks is a lot of fun to watch.

Another example of this is the homage Fuller pays to the 442nd Regiment Combat Team, the highly decorated World War II military unit that consisted entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent. He shows the plaques in their cemetery, but he doesn't spend much time explaining who the Nisei troops were or what they did.

He also has a lot of fun playing with images of duality in the film. Bancroft and Kojaku, despite being from different racial backgrounds, dress alike, talk alike, live together, and have the same kind of laid-back cool.

Neither Corbett nor Shigeta had ever appeared in a film before, but they both turn in excellent performances in The Crimson Kimono. Viewers today might not realize how revolutionary Shigeta's romantic scenes with Shaw were. There had been plenty of films about interracial romances before, but I can't recall seeing a film before this one that featured an Asian-American man and a white American woman together. Interestingly, Fuller paints a picture of Los Angeles in which Asian-Americans and white Americans freely intermingle, and the biggest stumbling block to Kojaku's relationship with Chris is Kojaku's loyalty to his friend and his own feelings of persecution.

I wouldn't call The Crimson Kimono a great film, but it's rarely boring. A lot of it comes off as half-baked, and the pieces of the puzzle don't always form a coherent whole, but that's pretty standard for a Samuel Fuller movie.

Written by Adam Lounsbery

Monday, November 14, 2011

Drive (2011)

New releases are rare at Noir of the Week, but it isn’t often that such a fully rendered yet unpretentious film noir hits theaters. Make no mistake: Drive is no period piece like L.A. Confidential or Chinatown; nor is it an homage to classic noir like Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver (though it certainly winks and winks at that film); and it isn’t any Tarantino-esque retread of drive-in pulp. Drive is an exhilarating crime picture — one that marks the maturation of an important young director and one that will inevitably increase the wattage of Ryan Gosling’s nearly incandescent star. And although much of its power owes to the refreshing filmmaking Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), who was named Best Director at Cannes, Drive is not an unconventional film, and it heartily embraces its ancestors. Perhaps it’s convenient at this moment to mention Quentin Tarantino once again, though only insofar as the experience of viewing Drive is like watching Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for the first time. The subject matter may be familiar, but the director’s voice is so enthralling that while you are at once engrossed in the storytelling and performances, another part of you is excited at the myriad ways in which the movie breaks with Hollywood banality. And while Drive isn’t perfect, it is positively captivating. It manages to situate the central character types of forties film noir in modern Los Angeles, while synthesizing the peculiar austerity of William Friedkin and the gloss of Michael Mann. All of this is bound up in an operatically violent, visually striking, and even more intensely sounding movie, that in spite of its intentional stylishness manages to avoid wallowing in postmodern hogwash.

This is neither a heist movie nor a muscle car film. Those elements are part of the allure, meant to sell tickets, as is the curious appearance of Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks. (The trendy actress with the retro figure is in and out so fast — albeit spectacularly — that if you take a breath you’ll miss her.) It is a polarizing movie — some viewers expecting a testosterone fueled The Fast and the Furious style action piece left disappointed, while those familiar with Refn indie-style high art thought Drive too mainstream. A convoy of professional critics, with seemingly brief cinematic memories, either praised or panned the film as a paean to the seventies and eighties, missing what it truly is at heart: a classic film noir — one that proves the enduring power of the character archetypes and narrative conventions established well over a half-century ago. Though unlike other films that have tried to revitalize noir tropes, Drive does so quietly — it uses them, but isn’t about them. It shows that well-worn conventions don’t have to be stale; and like the best classic noirs, it employs visuals to reinforce the narrative. (One scene in particular — the elevator — took my breath away.) Drive succeeds in this all-important visual brand of storytelling when countless other modern attempts have fallen short. Perhaps it is a result of its total commitment to classic noir construction that it doesn’t feel compelled to self-referentially poke at the audience.

Particularly noteworthy is how the script successfully integrates numerous classic character types. Drive gives us a pair of urban gangsters much more rooted in the noir canon than the wise guys of Scorsese or Coppola — not corporate icemen or immigrant superheroes, but insecure sociopaths more in reminiscent of Richard Widmark than Al Pacino. Ron Perlman delivers his usual high quality work, but Albert Brooks is simply astonishing — be on the lookout for an off-casting Oscar nomination. Brooks demonstrates that De Niro-like ability to vacillate between genial and terrifying while maintaining an affable, unruffled exterior. We know Brooks’s screen persona so well that his initial impression feels a bit like a gag, but by the final reel we’re convinced he missed his calling. More than a decade after a brief appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 Out of Sight, Brooks finally gets the opportunity to really show what he can do with a distasteful character. Gangsters are like Kryptonite in most contemporary crime films — so one dimensional that their mere presence thrusts most movies irrevocably into cliché. Drive delves into the noir canon to give us a pair of neurotic, frightened crooks who feel both refreshing and real.

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Malcolm in the Middle) is a scene-stealer as Shannon, a throwback to one of noir’s most beloved character types: The Loser. He owns the garage where the driver spends most of his days, serving as Gosling’s criminal pimp and ostensibly as his father figure. Cranston cheerfully limps in and out of scenes, always in a good mood but never firing on all cylinders — a sad, trusting soul lifted from the pages of Steinbeck. The pronounced hitch in his stride is a visible reminder of an unfortunate life, with luck so mythically bad that the Brooks character can’t seem to stop joking about it. To top off the irony, Shannon even sports a horseshoe tattoo under one ear. If Drive had actually been made during the late forties, Harry Morgan or Elisha Cook, Jr. would have played Cranston’s role —*his luck is that bad.

And then there’s the girl. This is where Drive takes convention and pulls a U-turn. Noir has always given us two kinds of women: the femme fatale or the sweetheart. Drive combines both into one girl: Carey Mulligan (An Education), whose form is all sweetheart, but who functions as a femme fatale. Mulligan’s Irene isn’t duplicitous — she’s so angelic that she belongs in a Teresa Wright picture — but her innocence is so overwhelming that it compels the driver makes the sort of reckless choices that are typically orchestrated by a femme fatale. He puts everything on the line to protect this girl and subsequently find some small measure of grace for himself, though in a classic, post-war noir his motivation would spring from lust, while here he seeks merely to save her. Nevertheless, what the driver sacrifices for a down-on-her-luck diner waitress draws a direct connection with the films of the past and, at the same time, puts a less misogynistic spin on typical crime film characterizations. It might also be fair to explore the similarities between Drive and the 1994 Luc Besson film Léon, at least in terms of redemption, innocence, and gender, though the latter film, as revered as it is, is more thoroughly rooted in stereotype and visual pizzazz than it is in the noir tradition.

Finally there’s Gosling, whose casting in a tough guy part such as this may seem questionable. In the real world, it would be difficult to believe such prettiness in a man possessed of the unusual skills, the toughness, and the latent ferocity of the unnamed (wink-wink, see Hill’s The Driver) character Gosling portrays here, yet the actor is credible and Refn embraces his physical beauty. The camera lingers in close-up after close-up, and because his character rarely speaks, Gosling uses his face to tell us everything we need to know. In him we discover an archetypical noir anti-hero: enigmatic, melancholy, alienated, and alone; yet also a man who lives by an abiding code. How he became like this is a mystery; whether he grew up on the streets, did time at Folsom, or a stretch in camouflage is unclear, but we learn early on that he can handle himself and doesn’t tumble easily. When he assures his potential “clients” that as long as they do their dirty work within a five-minute window he’ll stick with them “no matter what,” it is with sincerity. For him such things are simply a matter of honor. We also know that like other film noir protagonists (and as the title of the film suggests) the driver is moving irrevocably towards some hidden destiny — that the wayward strands of his Spartan, empty life are fated to tangle in some unknown but final way. The perceived control he exercises over his reality — metaphorically realized in the way he handles an automobile — is merely an illusion. The truth the audience comes to understand that remains hidden from our anonymous hero is that his prowess behind the wheel has little to do with skill and everything to do with art.

Go see Drive. It’s delightfully old and new.

Drive (2011) Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel Art Direction by Christopher Tandon Edited by Matthew Newman Released by FilmDistrict Running time: 100 minutes

Written by The Professor
His blog is "Where Danger Lives!"

Monday, November 07, 2011

Le Jour se Lève (1939)

A French Allegory of the Working Man’s Life

“He’s not a criminal. He’s just an ordinary man.”

Marcel Carné’s 1939 film Le Jour se Lève (Daybreak) is often considered the French director’s greatest work, and also one of the most significant films of the French Poetic Realism period. This psychological drama, based on a story written by Montmatre art dealer Jacques Voit, is one of several films made by the successful partnership of director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. While Le Jour se Lève is not an overtly political film, nonetheless it’s a film created and impacted by its times. The early 30s saw French Premiers using decree laws (and thus avoiding parliamentary debate) to cut wages and raise taxes which resulted in widespread demonstrations, riots and strikes across France. Léon Blum’s Popular Front government of 1936-7 heralded in a fresh optimism for workers through the Matignon Agreements--a series of new labor laws and improved working conditions (including the creation of a 40 hour work week, 2 weeks holiday a year, and the right to strike). By 1939, externally, the threat of impending war overshadowed France while internally, with the dissolution of the Popular Front (an alliance of the French Communist Party, the French Section of the Workers’ International, the Radical and Socialist Party and a few smaller antifascist parties), France saw a return to right-wing elements and of course eventually the collaborationist government led by Marshal Pétain. Under Pétain’s rule, Léon Blum was shipped off to a concentration camp, and The Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO) went into full operational mode with the result that an estimated 650,000 men and 44,000 women were sent from France to Germany as forced labour--a form of slavery that is perhaps the worst insult to a worker. In 1939, however, these horrors were yet to be realised, but to many French workers, men and women who had memories of working 14-17 hour days, the demise of the Popular Front signaled a return to the past. Significantly, Le Jour se Lève appears to be set earlier than the passage of the Matignon Agreements.

Le Jour se Lève can be seen as a simple tale of love which goes wrong when jealousy and rage enter the picture. The film, however, can also be seen an allegory for the times. Director Carné is not concerned with showing a general view of French society--instead the film offers a glimpse of the existence of an uncomplicated French factory worker, François (Jean Gabin in his thirtieth film)--a doomed Everyman, a member of the proletariat who wants very little from life.

The film begins with a murder which takes place within François’ small bleak, isolated room located at the very top of a narrow, six-story building. The sense of doomed fatalism is established immediately and grows menacingly until the film’s spectacular conclusion. François’s room is seen as an inescapable trap while internal shots of the building emphasize the maze-like layers of floors and stairs. In the very first scene, a shot rings out, a man tumbles down the stairs dying, and a blind man hearing the noise, is unable to grasp what has happened. At this point, François, in a state of siege and holed up in his room, does not try to escape. Instead he spends a sleepless night, chain-smoking and recalling the events--parceled into three distinct episodes--that led to the murder. The film’s structure alternates the three episodes of François’s memories with three increasingly aggressive attempts by the police to storm the room.

Each of the three episodes of memories follows the chain of events that led to the murder. In the first section of flashbacks, less than three months earlier, factory worker François is interrupted in his hazardous work as a sandblaster by the arrival of a lovely, fresh-faced young girl named Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent). She’s there to deliver flowers, and François and Françoise (back to that French Everyman/woman idea), both orphans, very quickly establish some common ground. An almost idyllic relationship begins, and the courtship is chaste and whimsical.

During a visit to Françoise’s lodgings, François notes that her mirror is covered by postcards from the Riviera. To François, the Riviera is a world of absurdities where one can pay 10 francs to “watch the English” walking along the promenade. Françoise, however, is not so dismissive of Nice, and when she describes the climate and vegetation of the place she’s never visited, her face is filled with distant longing. While François is not overtly suspicious of the postcards, Françoise’s reaction sets off alarms and when Françoise breaks a date to meet a friend, François acts on his suspicions by following her. The “friend” as it turns out is sleazy, ferrety showman Valentin (Jules Berry), a cruel dog trainer who also sidelines training the many women in his life to put up with his love-‘em-and-leave-‘em behaviour. As François sits at the bar in order to watch Françoise greet Valentin, he meets Valentin’s disgruntled partner, his attractive and sexually provocative assistant Clara (Arletty), and the two exchange words that hint of possible sexual encounters. Clara, after putting up with Valentin for three years, has decided to leave him, but Valentin doesn’t seem quite ready to let her go yet.

During François’ second phase of memories, it’s about two months later. François appears to have a relationship with both women, and although it’s not quite defined whether or not his relationship with Clara is sexual, it seems likely. According to Clara, François stops by “like a tourist, seeing the sights.” One scene shows her emerging from the shower obviously naked, but the possibility of sex is squashed when Valentin arrives. While it seems that he’s come to discuss Clara, she knows better. Familiar with Valentin’s womanizing ways, she knows that he’s there to discuss Françoise with François, and as it turns out Valentin questions François about his intentions towards Françoise. This is where Valentin, a manipulative, pathological liar who resents François’s relationships with both women, drops a bombshell.

The third section of François’s memories brings the story full circle with the arrival of Valentin in François’s shabby room earlier that day.

While it’s easy to see Le Jour se Lève as a story of jealousy, there are several threads embedded in the dialogue which hint that François’s crime of passion has a great deal to do with the pitiful lot of the average working stiff. In one scene, François and Françoise enter the florist greenhouse--a veritable Garden of Eden compared to the bleak dark concrete streets shown throughout the rest of the film. As Françoise reclines on her back, François confesses his love and agrees to no longer see Clara. In a moment of revelation, the usually laconic François leaks discontent, acceptance and finally weary defeat at his lot:

“Work. No work. Is there a job I haven’t done? All different, all the same. Spray painting, lead painting. Lead painting’s no good, just like the sand gun. When I couldn’t fight it anymore, I just gave in. Things went from bad to worse but I got used to it. You know, like waiting for a streetcar in the rain. You try to get on. Ding! It’s full. Second car, third car, ding, ding! You’re left standing in the rain like a sucker.”

The thread of the endless drudgery of François’s life also occurs in the bedroom scene which takes place between François and Clara. She complains about being alone at night, while he defends his absence stating that nights are for sleep:

“A night of love. You’re crazy. That stuff’s for books or for guys with nothing to do, and even then who knows? When you bust your back all day, the night’s for getting some sleep. Whereas daytime…that’s another matter.”

While Valentin’s life is one of irresponsibility, traveling around, picking up women, using, seducing and abandoning them, François has broken his back in various hazardous jobs with the result that he’s now suffering from lung congestion. When Valentin, a self-proclaimed “nomad,” goads François with his obvious ill-health, François is nettled enough to react violently. Later Valentin once again goads François by taunting him on the subject of “manual laborers” while sneering and simultaneously arguing that as a man of intelligence and education, “I can do exactly as I please.” Valentin, who’s described by Clara as “rotten like a piece of old fruit,” doesn’t seduce women by his looks; he seduces women by exploiting their dreams and capitalizing on his honey-tongued reminiscences of sunshine and mimosa. François, on the other hand, can only vaguely promise Françoise a day in the country picking lilacs sometime in the distant future. Doubtless Valentin’s seduction of Françoise and mistreatment of Clara contribute to the crime, but Valentin’s feckless behaviour is the antithesis of the sheer drudgery of François’s life and is inarguably a trigger point that provokes violence.

The allegory of the destruction of the working man is also evidenced by the appearance of the police who swoop down like proto-fascist storm troopers turning on the crowd in order to suppress their obvious popular support for François. The massive force of men who set out to contain and then systemically destroy François is strongly similar to the pursuit and annihilation of the various members of the Bonnot gang in 1912. As with the Bonnot gang, the police aren’t interested in surrender, and as far as François is concerned, he’s already dead, snuffed out by the forces in society which are beyond his control:

“A killer! Now there’s something to gossip about! Sure, I’m a killer, but killers are a dime a dozen! They’re everywhere! Everyone kills! They just do it quietly, so you don’t see. It’s like sand. It gets deep inside you.”

Murnau’s influence on Carné is evident throughout this beautifully structured film which manages to convey emotion through the merest flicker of the eye. The film’s final spectacular scene (Carné insisted on real bullets), complete with the irony of the alarm clock, is one of the most memorable endings in film history. 

(editor's note:  Although the trailer is in French, no translation is necessary)

Written by Guy Savage

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The Hitch-Hiker is a tense film that never lets up for a minute. Clocking in at only 71 minutes, the film is about three men. A crazy killer on the lam and the two men he's taken along for the ride.

The movie is an answer to a trivia question (“What's the only film noir directed by a woman?”) but it should be treasured because it's good cinema -- not just because Ida Lupino was the director (she made the weepy The Bigamist - a borderline noir - around the same time.) For the record, she stepped in to direct when the original director fell ill. Her husband/collaborator Collier Young were producing the film for their production company Filmways for RKO and she slid into the empty director's chair. Future projects for Lupino would have a much more feminist slant - hell, The Hitch-Hiker doesn't have a single woman in it!

Lupino uses two settings to tell this lean story: either in the claustrophobic confides of a car, or outside - on the hot, lost barren expanses of desert. Director of photography is Nicholas Musuraca. Musuraca captures the bleak, featureless desert as well as he photographed the shadowy noir worlds in Out of the Past, Cat People, Deadline at Dawn and Roadblock.

The location shooting plays almost as big of a part in the story as William Talman (as killer Emmett Myers), and Edmond O'Brien (Ray Collins) and Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Brown).

The Hitch-Hiker's pedigree is even more impressive when you find out Daniel Mainwaring - who's original story the film is based on (it was based on a true story). Mainwaring - persona non grata at RKO at the time- was uncredited. Mainwaring wrote the novel and screenplay for Out of the Past.

The Film Noir Encyclopedia's entry on The Hitch-Hiker credits the writing is what makes The Hitch-Hiker so noir:

“As with Vanning in Nightfall, the upheaval of the lives of Collins and Bowen is sudden, ill-chanced, and impersonal - a typical noir reflection o f the lack of security and stability in everyday living, no matter how commonplace.”

Finally, there's the three lead actors:

Talman as Emmett Myers. Wow. He's handicapped with a droopy right eye that never closes. When he kidnaps the two fishing buddies (after they pick him up hitchhiking) he watches them at night with “one eye open” all the time. The men are terrified not knowing if Myers is sleeping or if he's just toying with them waiting for them to make their move so he can unload his revolver into them.


Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O'Brien are the two friends. Key to the film is the fact that these two can never can escape or turn the tables on Myers because one of them could be killed. They bicker in hushed tones when Meyers is out of range about how to escape. Lovejoy is his stiff self (he's not one of my favorites) but O'Brien (part of the Noir Hall of Fame for starring in D.O.A.) is very good. He slowly unwinds as Myers constantly taunts him - finally ending with O'Brien going ape on his helpless tormentor at the end. The two actors are bland to look at and a bit soft in the middle. No doubt if the film was made today they'd cast actors 25 years younger with rock-hard abs in the parts. When they discuss a notorious woman from a border town they used to visit, Lovejoy comments, “She must be dead by now” as they drive on. How old are they, anyway?

Without resorting to cliché, The Hitch-Hiker is a gem that has some excellent performances and interesting location shooting. Some online have called the film exceedingly dull - I find it thrilling.

The Back Alley has a thread going now about some unloved, under-appreciated film noirs. This one would certainly be on my list. The movie is in the public domain - which usually means there are some horrible copies of the film out there. DVD buyer beware.

Another cool thing we do at Back Alley is try to pair noirs for double features. This one would go well with Detour or even the twisted 2009 horror-road movie Dark Country.

Written by Steve-O
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