Monday, March 26, 2012

Crime Wave (1954)

Noir 101. The Essentials. Crime Wave.


If this little policier from Warner Bros. (filmed in 1952, released in 1954) isn’t part of your vocabulary then it needs to be; and considering it was finally released on DVD a few years ago, there’s no excuse not to see it. Crime Wave doesn’t stand out from a narrative point of view (despite a bucket of writers); the plot is routine, like a million other second features cranked out during the fifties. Although the story and characters are heavily steeped in noir tropes, it’s André De Toth’s sharp direction that sets it apart from other low budget crime pictures and demands that it be seen by any enthusiast. It can be argued that no other film noir is as influential as it is unknown.

The story is old hat: Ex-con tries to go straight. His old crew breaks out of the Q and comes knocking. When he refuses to help, they hold his fresh new wife in order to force him to take part in one last caper. All the while, the cops are along for the ride, except they don’t believe for a second that our boy is on the up and up.

The cast here is special, and although Sterling Hayden isn’t (necessarily) the protagonist, he dominates the film. This is the sort of role the movie gods had in mind when they placed Hayden in front of a camera: LAPD Detective Lieutenant Sims, bigger and tougher than any hood in the mug book. For my money this is the role of Hayden’s career — not the meatiest or the most well known, but the one in which he leaves the impression of having been the part, rather than merely having played it. (Put it another way: during the DVD commentary, author James Ellroy asserts that Hayden in Crime Wave simply is Bud White.) There are those that prefer him in The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing, but Hayden has a distinct vibe as a cop that isn’t there when he’s playing a crook: you can cross to the other side of the street and dodge a hoodlum (and it isn’t like you won’t see Hayden coming from a mile away) but you can’t avoid the police. With the force of law behind him, the prospect of cop Hayden looking for you is scary as hell.

At a beefy six-and-a-half feet tall, Hayden towers over everyone else in the film. André De Toth and cameraman Burt Glennon keep the camera low, catching the big fellow from underneath but looking down on all of the other actors, as if from Hayden’s point of view. He has to slouch, unkempt, a toothpick in his mouth, scruffy hat, tie perpetually twisted backwards — almost too big to be allowed. The film has numerous stellar sequences, but for Hayden one in particular stands out; it begins at around the eleven-minute mark and finds the cop in his homicide division office, interviewing an eyewitness about the Quentin breakout suspects. The scene opens with him at his desk, then it follows him around the bureau, moving shark-like among a half-dozen routine interviews. Ostensibly the purpose is pure semi-documentary storytelling, providing audiences with an up-close look into the inner workings of the LAPD: A middle-aged broad is rambling on about how she and her guy (replete with bandaged head) don’t really fight — she didn’t mean to conk him, they were just kidding around. At another table, a hang dog B-girl dripping with mascara and dime store jewelry sobs about some chucklehead boyfriend from her past, while at yet another a career stool-pigeon chastises a junior cop about bracing him in front of his neighbors. What makes the whole thing work is the extraordinary authenticity: pay attention to what is going on in the frame away from subject, almost as if the extras forgot for a moment the cameras were rolling. And this ain’t no soundstage — most of the scenes in Crime Wave, interiors and exteriors alike, are filmed in real Los Angeles locations. And if Hayden wasn’t so utterly believable as a 1952 LAPD homicide detective, none of it would work — he’s the glue that holds the entire movie together. If part of the allure of these old films is seeing things as they actually were way back when, this is a scene (and a film) that will keep you in goose bumps.

Then there’s Gene Nelson, of nimble feet and Oklahoma! fame, who plays Steve Lacey, ex-con. Nelson rightly underplays his part. His performance doesn’t offer much beyond matinee good looks and rolled up shirtsleeves. Like I said, this is Hayden’s movie, and Nelson stays out of his way. Whether it was his idea or De Toth’s, Steve Lacey is Lieutenant Sims perfect foil. From a noir perspective, Lacey is a protagonist in the classic mold: trying to make good after doing some hard time: employed, married, permanent address. Crane Wilbur’s story puts him in the classic bind: when his old cellmates come looking for help, he knows that helping them puts everything he’s worked for at risk, yet failing to do so is even more dangerous. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and you can't outrun the mistakes of your past: the rock and the hard place of classic film noir, with only fate to decide whether or not a man comes out clean on the other side.

The wife is model-turned-actress Phyllis Kirk. Kirk did most of her work on television, but if you remember her at all it’s probably as the damsel in distress in De Toth’s most famous picture: House of Wax. Kirk and Nelson are well matched — and the mature depiction of their relationship is surprising for a film noir, and rather progressive when we consider typical gender depictions in similar crime films. Ellen Lacey wears the pants in the family; her assertiveness perfectly balances her husband’s diffidence — yet she’s neither a nag nor a shrew. Steve Lacey’s time behind bars has wrecked his ability to function outside the walls. He needs this strong woman to prop him up and constantly assure him that he has a future. That he had been, of all things, a fighter pilot during the war especially heightens the unusual nature of their relationship. Gone is the recklessness and bravado typically found in screen characterizations of such men, while the wife is equally surprising — a strong, modern woman who is neither a femme fatale nor perky a June Allyson. The film gives us an ideally matched couple, each offering what the other needs.

The crooks. Ted de Corsia: Eddie Muller says he looks like he was born in a boxing gym. James Ellroy: he “oozes Pomade.” Iconic in The Naked City, de Corsia shines reliably here as the brains behind the breakout. Crime Wave’s theatrical audience was familiar with him in heavy roles dating all the way back to The Lady from Shanghai. De Corsia’s screen persona was as hard-boiled as they come —*like an old-school Raymond Burr. His young partner is Charles Buchinsky, who also worked for De Toth in House of Wax. Of course Charles Bronson would go on to be one of the icons of seventies crime films, and one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but it’s always jarring to see him this young. His face is somewhat lined, but nowhere near as weather-beaten as it would become. Crime Wave offered the young actor one of his best early roles: he actually gets to act a little, and even has a few moments where his physicality is on display. The juxtaposition of a studio era character actor as traditional as de Corsia with someone as contemporary as Bronson gives the pair an unusual chemistry. Then there’s Tim Carey, the wild man of the American movie scene. There’s not enough room in any film review to dig into the strange case of Tim Carey, though on the strength of his appearance alone this one is worth the price of admission. His few brief moments of screen time are so bizarre — whether he’s at the center of the shot or mugging from the corner of the frame — that Crime Wave would be notable if for no other reason.

Enough about the cast, as good as they are, there are more worthwhile reasons to watch this, especially if you appreciate how a film looks, even more if you can feel a film. Usually when a noir essayist digs on cinematography, he’ll discuss the lighting and composition of individual shots — I’m not going to do that. From top to bottom, Crime Wave is a beautifully and thoughtfully staged movie, yet it’s not a one-trick-pony when it comes to visual style (check out Witness to Murder). Instead, it’s a movie that employs a variety of techniques depending on what individual scenes call for. The sunlit exteriors are pure documentary naturalism: showing LA locales (Burbank, Glendale, downtown) in a straightforward “this is the city” fashion. It’s difficult to follow the movie during these scenes; one’s inclination is to instead focus on signs and landmarks, trying to get a feel for the way the streets, the people, and the cars looked during those spectacular post-war years. At night, Glennon goes for drama, placing klieg lights in off kilter spots to create a chiaroscuro effect that seems as contrived as the day shots seem real; yet somehow it works, and the transitions barely register.

However the scenes are staged, the greatest thing about Crime Wave is where they are filmed: on location all the way through — and not just the exteriors. De Toth somehow swung access to city hall; the homicide bureau scenes are the real deal. Crime Wave is a superlative example of the way in which a low budget feature could be extraordinary: without money to build sets or dictate production values, De Toth was forced to find locations for the film, and it’s clear after just a single viewing that he had a peculiar talent for doing so: it’s is one the most attractive, even exhilarating, film noirs ever made. Pause on almost any frame and you’ll find something to linger on. De Toth successfully captured all of the content tropes and moviemaking techniques that had become germane to film noir in this tiny little film, and he did it with only half of his promised budget, and in a shoot of only thirteen days. The location work of The Naked City, the backseat point of view from Gun Crazy, the tones of John Alton, the jittery handheld cameras, semi-professional actors, and the quagmire of the ceaseless urban landscape. This a mean, unglamorous movie — populated with Dudley Smith cops ready to shoot a suspect in the back, hard-boiled killers, damaged goods, floozies, stool pigeons, strongarms, and professional losers. The good, the bad — even the insane — all trying to claw their way through a world that no longer gives a damn. It’s a cheap, but delicious buffet of everything noir buffs hunger for — and the final few frames make for one hell of a dessert. It should be on many of those ubiquitous top-ten lists, but the guy beside you probably still hasn’t seen it.

Crime Wave (1954, filmed 1952) Directed by André De Toth
Screenplay by Crane Wilbur
Adaptation by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser
Original Story by John and Ward Hawkins
Produced by Brian Foy
Cinematography by Burt Glennon
Art Direction by Stanley Fleischer
Starring Sterling Hayden, Gene Nelson, and Phyllis Kirk
Released by Warner Bros.
 Running time: 74 minutes

Written by The Professor 
This article originally appeared on The Professor's blog, Where Danger Lives!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

They Live by Night (1949)

The force that drives noir stories is the urge to escape: from the past, from the law, from the ordinary, from poverty and stifling relationships and personal failure. Noir found its fullest expression in America because the American psyche harbors a passion for freedom and autonomy, forever shadowed by a corresponding fear of loneliness and exile. Both find expression in the road story and its fiercest variant, the lam story. To be on the road is to be moving forward, released from all bonds. To be on the lam is to be hunted, running away from something that is always closing in, shutting off options one by one. The “key to the highway” has its B side, the haunted persecution of a “hellhound on my trail.” As they are powered by the need to escape, noir stories are structured by the impossibility of escape, so their fierce, thwarted energy turns inward on itself.

Film noir has no monopoly on man-on-the-run stories, but noir versions emphasize the isolation of fugitives, their vulnerability to betrayal and exploitation, the ruthless closing in of the law-enforcement dragnet, the physical and mental fraying of outcasts unable to settle anywhere in safety, and the way outlaws are driven further and further out of society, until they eventually become something less than human—something to be hunted down and slaughtered with overwhelming force, like rabid animals.

The lam story is as ritualistic and full of repeated motifs as the heist movie or the prison drama. Fugitives drive all night, sleep in back seats, abandon their cars as the license plates are reported over the radio, steal new cars; hop freight trains; stay in motels and tourist cabins; get married in quickie roadside ceremonies; work menial laboring jobs, hold up gas stations, wake doctors in the middle of the night to treat wounded companions; charge roadblocks, flee cops armed with machine guns, see Wanted posters trumpeting the prices on their heads; haggle with used-car dealers, pawnbrokers, immigrant smugglers and other carrion crows of the road. The claustrophobic city may be the quintessential noir setting, but the transient, banal, melancholy world of road travel is an essential noir locale too. The in-between realm created by postwar car culture, what James Kunstler called “the geography of nowhere,” embodies the essential alienation of the noir world, where no one is ever really at home. Film noir relentlessly mapped the false lure of the highway, which promises freedom and escape but leads only deeper into danger. All roads are blind, in both senses of the word: full of twists and corners concealing the dangers beyond, and leading ultimately to a dead end.

The title of Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us sums up its theme: banks, politicians and other institutions of authority are no better than the robbers who attack them. Nicholas Ray, who adapted the book into his first film, They Live By Night (1949), was less interested in this social commentary than in the personal relationships between the characters. The pre-credit prologue introduces his favorite theme of alienated youth (“This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in”), with a heart-melting image of Bowie and Keechie (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell) kissing in the flickering light before a fireplace. They are so fresh-faced and softly pretty that their outcast status implies the guilt of society—since they are so plainly innocent.


Like the outsiders in other Ray films, the young lovers on the run in They Live By Night briefly find a home, this time in a tourist cabin in the mountains. They ask for a cabin far away from the others, and the proprietor assumes they want privacy because they are newlyweds: “Married people like to be alone,” he tells his son. The mistake is at once ironic and apt: the couple’s romantic bond is indistinguishable from their fugitive status.

When Bowie and Keechie decide to take a chance and spend a day in public, “just like other people,” they and we are reminded how completely they are cut off from normal life. Bowie has been advised by an older criminal of the importance of blending in and looking like other people. But the pair look and feel out of place, stiffly dressed up and clutching a briefcase full of stolen money. They observe everyday activities like anthropologists among baffling natives, disparaging habits that are unfamiliar and out of reach. They keep asking each other for reassurance: “Are you having a good time?”

Bowie was sent to prison as a young teenager for a killing in which he was barely complicit, and he remains child-like and unformed, though determined to seem tough and ready for anything. The two older, experienced convicts who help him escape want him as their driver for a series of bank hold-ups. T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) is an old-school professional crook, steady and decent; he enlists his sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) to bankroll their operation with the promise that they will supply money for her to mount an appeal for her own jailed husband. The desire to “break out,” to get free of the net woven by crime and the law, hangs over almost everyone in the film. Only the one-eyed Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) wants not safety and a normal life but excitement and fame as an outlaw.

Chicamaw’s niece Keechie has a harder shell than Bowie, but her life—in a grimy, run-down service station owned by her drunken father—has been just as stunted and confined. The two approach each other warily, at first quarrelling and feigning indifference, but quickly giving way to their eagerness for love. When she comes to tend his wounds, her touch on his bare back evokes an intense yet delicate moment of adolescent awakening. Their relationship changes Keechie more than the terminally naïve Bowie, a malleable type who is easily led astray and just as easily redeemed. Keechie’s plain, grubby face—set throughout the early scenes in a look of defensiveness and disdain—becomes prettier and more feminine as she blossoms into a wife. She delivers a sentimental speech about how a good dog loves only its master, and a good woman is the same, but apart from this she manages to embody the film’s conscience without sanctimony. (One of the most significant differences in Robert Altman’s 1974 Thieves Like Us is its treatment of Keechie.)

The rich glow of the central love story is off-set by the portrait of a hard-scrabble world in which few people can be trusted. Ray recreated the rural areas he had explored during the Depression, when he traveled through the rural South with Alan Lomax, collecting folk music. Dingy motels and auto-courts and sleepy little towns like Zelton, where the men rob a bank on Main Street, look unchanged since earlier decades. Cars throw up trails of dust as they careen along dirt roads running through dry, empty fields. The overhead shots taken from a helicopter establish a raw, documentary look that contrasts sharply with the Rembrandt lighting of the close-ups in the scenes between Bowie and Keechie; their private world is very different from the world through which they move.

Ray’s film is truer to the Depression ambience of its source than most noir films based on thirties novels, but the Production Code required some changes in the story—the lovers had to marry, as they never do in the book. Ray’s staging of their marriage, however, is anything but reassuring. Bowie and Keechie are repelled by the seedy, neon-lit roadside wedding chapel, yet ominously drawn to it as well. The beady-eyed justice of the peace, stuffing a fresh carnation into his button hole as he greets them with forced cheer, pegs them as fugitives but marries them anyway. They take his cheapest wedding, and it’s all over in a minute, the pronouncement of “man and wife” immediately followed by the hint to tip the two glum, perfunctory witnesses a dollar each. The smarmy justice arranges the purchase of a stolen car, chiseling $500 for himself.

The car becomes their only permanent home as they travel aimlessly, their route traced on a black map. At first, just after their marriage, they look like any young newlywed couple, driving along in the sunshine with the wind in their hair, laughing as they struggle to drink cokes and eat sandwiches. The next time they’re in the car—after fighting bitterly over Bowie’s participation in another robbery, and being forced to flee their holiday cabin after he’s recognized—the vacation mood is gone. Rain streaks the windows; they sleep in the car or drive all night, wary of roadblocks, as the pregnant Keechie grows steadily weaker.

Their day of pretending to be ordinary people is their last happy interlude. They go to a nightclub where they’re entertained by “Your Red Wagon” (Ray’s working title for the film). It’s a song about minding your own business, and about being on your own. The lyrics are double-edged: to be left alone is what fugitives want most, but the tough-luck indifference expressed in the song (irresistibly performed by a beaming Marie Bryant) is reflected by the way no one in the film is willing to help the young couple. Bowie dreams of finding refuge in the anonymity of a big city, or in Mexico out of the reach of the law, but this fantasy is constantly punctured. In the men’s room of the nightclub, Bowie is recognized by a local crook who contemptuously gives him an hour to get out of town. There is no sense of loyalty in the underworld, or honor among thieves. Bowie is betrayed first by Keechie’s spiteful, greedy father and then by Mattie in exchange for the release of her own husband—who is so sickened by the deal that he can’t look at her. Sad, hungry-eyed Mattie is no stock villain; when a cop tries to reassure her that she has saved everyone a lot of trouble, she replies disconsolately, “I don’t think that will help me sleep nights.” The person who finally tells Bowie there’s no place he can run to is the crooked justice of the peace, who is decent enough not to con him with false hope.

The ending, in which Bowie is gunned down while Keechie sleeps inside their motel room, runs counter to the usual Bonnie-and-Clyde template where the couple is united in death. It is more tragic, since Keechie is left alone to grieve. For all the deaths and defeats, noir rarely breaks your heart: pessimism, fatalism and cynicism are, for one thing, a defense against heartbreak. But Nicholas Ray, with his bruised romantic temperament, created some of the most moving and wounding of all noir films, including his devastating masterpiece In a Lonely Place.

Ray’s first film fully expresses the concerns that would dominate his career: lonesome wandering, youthful alienation, the destruction of emotional bonds by misunderstanding and an uncaring world. Though he made only a few contributions to the noir canon, Ray added a new note to the heavily German-influenced style. It is often said that outsiders can see a society most clearly, and foreign directors like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang ruthlessly laid bare American illusions and dreams. Ray’s tone is not acid but saddened, not cold but tender. He has been called, by Geoff Andrew, “the first home-grown poet of American disillusionment.”


Written by Imogen Sara Smith  NOTE: This essay is adapted from her book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.

Imogen Sara Smith is an independent film scholar based in Brooklyn. Her most recent book was In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City (McFarland, 2011), and her writing appears regularly in Alt Screen, Noir City Magazine, The Chiseler, and other venues.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Tender Hook (2008)

AKA The Boxer and the Bombshell

The Tender Hook (The Boxer and the Bombshell), a 2008 neo-noir film from Australian writer/director Jonathan Ogilvie focuses on the classic love triangle. The Tender Hook is a much better and more subtle title for the story as the word Tender has multiple possible meanings: the obvious emotional reference, of course, but also the essential partnership and reliance between a pearl diver and the tender who holds the life line while the pearl diver in under water. Set in 1920s Sydney, the film’s gorgeous sets and bold colours are stunning, but for the most part, although this is a tale of desperate people trapped in their lives of subservience to a vicious underworld figure, the plot’s most heinous twists and turns take place off stage. With most of the violence and tension off screen, the hard-boiled, harsher elements are effectively censored. Perhaps this is why the film, made for $7 million dollars, was a box-office failure with earnings of just over $64,000. In spite of its failings, the film is well worth catching mainly for its fascinating look at Jazz-Age Sydney, beautiful cinematography, its well-drawn characterizations and the manner in which the plot explores some basic fundamentals of human nature.

The Tender Hook is a frame story, and the film begins on a rainy night with the camera focusing on a head-shot of the beautiful Iris (Rose Byrne) as she rides in the back seat of a car. Initially, not a word is spoken but her distress is evident. The car stops on a bridge, and two men alight and unload a trunk. A man, bound and taped is disgorged from the trunk by these two goons--one of whom prolongs the moment by using his foot to show the man the water which presumably indicates his imminent watery death. The bound man struggles and Iris tries to get out of the car. As she tries to unlock the door, a hand comes down on top of hers, pushing the lock down. That hand belongs to McHeath (Hugo Weaving).

Then it’s three months earlier, and we’re back to the events that led to the scene on the bridge….

The next scene opens at a boxing match, and McHeath appears to be a fairly talentless crooner as he entertains the boxing crowd, prematch as King Mac and the Subjects, and while this is the title of his band, it could very well serve to describe how McHeath runs both his shady business practices and his sterile personal life. Standing in the middle of the ring, complete with back up musicians, his song is directed towards the luminously lovely Iris who sits in the front row, eyes intent on McHeath. As it turns out, Iris’s attention isn’t so much adoration as much as it due to McHeath’s expectations that she will critique his performance--although more accurately she must critique the performance of the musicians against McHeath’s crooning. Although the scene isn’t overplayed, it sets the tone for McHeath’s relationship with Iris and also to his two goons, bespectacled Bolshevik Donnie (Tyler Coppin) and hefty Ronnie (John Batchelor). Are these their real names? It seems much more likely that the Bolshevik has been dubbed Donnie as his original Russian name was difficult to pronounce and also because McHeath, in his typical ownership fashion, would rename an employee. So that leaves us with Donnie and Ronnie--a mis-matched teaming of the diminutive, intelligent Russian with the gargantuan, crafty Australian.

When well-built boxer Art Taylor (Matthew Le Nevez) enters the ring, Iris can barely conceal her sexual interest from an ever-monitoring McHeath. Art’s performance indicates his tenacity and his endurance--traits that Iris, as it turns out, has every reason to appreciate. When Iris slips off to the bathroom for a sneaky drug sniff run, Ronnie is sent to follow Iris by a mere nod from the boss. He sits outside the bathroom like a massive human Rottweiler on guard/chaperone/spy duty. Into the bathroom slips Hatter (Kuni Hashimoto)--a man who’s in debt to McHeath and who is an old friend of Iris’s father. Hatter wants Iris’s help, and this relationship proves pivotal to the film’s central double-cross. A few minutes later, when Iris spots Ronnie waiting for her, with just a hint of defiance she slips into Art’s changing room, and the die is cast.

Almost as if he deliberately wants to invite trouble to his door in some sort of twisted experiment of loyalty, McHeath hires Art as a sparring partner for Alby (Luke Carroll), a promising Aborigine boxer. However, McHeath changes his mind after a trip to the cinema to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 film, The Ring (a film in which two boxers compete for the love of one woman). During the pre-film footage of the 1908 World Championship match which was won by Black American Johnson, the crowd boos, hisses and calls out racial slurs at the film clip of the World Champion. Later, McHeath tells Alby that the crowds “like their winners white,” and Art becomes the new contender with the Aborigine delegated to sparring partner. While McHeath’s decision appears to be made on a business basis tainted with racism, there may be a subtler reason to McHeath’s decision--he noted that Art and Alby had become friends. With Art’s promotion (and Alby’s demotion) that friendship (and any possible loyalty between employees) is replaced with bitterness.

McHeath, always well-dressed, and geared into a programme of self-improvement, fancies himself as a bit of a Renaissance man, yet this is a brutal underworld figure who has his finger in every conceivable human vice. McHeath is a thoroughly unappealing, but intelligent, well-groomed thug. Scenes show his self-improvement programme (golf, crooning, Shakespeare) interspersed with savagery in which he uses his favourite weapon--a straight razor. His relationship with Iris is grounded firmly in money (she constantly exceeds her allowance), and his possessiveness and veiled threats of violence leave little doubt as to what will happen to Iris if she strays. As for their negligible sex life, McHeath’s sneak attack lasts for all of two seconds--enough disruption for Iris to wake up just as he finishes.

Even though McHeath keeps Iris under his thumb and in view for most of the time, she still manages to squeeze a few freedoms from life under McHeath’s nose, but the problem with McHeath is you’re never quite sure how much he knows and how much rope he’s giving you to test your loyalty.

So this then is the love-triangle: a gorgeous, young, unhappy woman, a strapping young boxer, and a vicious, but loaded thug. Iris is obviously a woman of expensive habits, and it seems extremely doubtful that Art, who supports his WWI veteran brother who still suffers the after effects of mustard gas, could possibly support Iris in the manner to which she has grown accustomed. Iris organizes a money making venture under McHeath’s nose using Donnie and Ronnie as muscle. McHeath is a formidable adversary, but Donnie supports the action quoting Marx “All property is theft,” while Ronnie sees a connection between his actions to steal from McHeath and the overthrow of Empire or the natural demolishment of patriarchy. This is perhaps one of the film’s most interesting aspects--the way in which “King” McHeath and his “subjects” operate and how he keeps them paranoid and, at times, divisive with a winning “divide and conquer” strategy.

Another role of note is the effervescent Daisy (Pia Miranda), a good-natured loyal friend to Iris who’s desired by both Donnie and Ronnie. They sensibly toss a coin for her as though she has no choice in the matter. Although Daisy is an interesting character, she’s never fully utilized. While we may regret not seeing more of Daisy, her lack of appearance doesn’t hurt the film necessarily. However, Art’s character is never developed and he remains little beyond a muscular stud, and this serves to weaken the film overall.

The Tender Hook is a very stylish film which includes grainy archival footage, and at some points in the film, the current action is digitized and merged into the archival footage. For trivia nuts, some of the songs used in the film are not from the period. Also of note are the frequent stunning camera shots which show Iris through glass--a car window, a fish tank, the bottom of a glass, and these shots emphasize her remoteness and inaccessibility. This is a beautiful film with all the essential ingredients, but somehow the passion leaks out. Nonetheless, any Australian film deserves attention, and The Tender Hook, while flawed, is still well-worth catching.

Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Double Life (1947)

George Cukor's A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — "Tony" to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, "hail fellow well met" sort of chap who's as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It's no coincidence, however, that he's starring in Philip MacDonald's comedy A Gentleman's Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he's offered the lead in Shakespeare's Othello, Tony hesitates. He's always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he's not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O'Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it's clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. "When he's doing something gay like this it's wonderful to be with him, but ... when he gets going on one of those deep numbers," she says. "We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O'Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov."

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony's ear, it wouldn't be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it's a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he's new in town.

He's a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it's not a passionate reenactment of Othello's murder of Desdemona, it's a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There's much about A Double Life that's heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you're paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a "double life" might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa's score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and "showy," but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He's playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner's brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don't exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It's full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There's a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner's cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It's a film where everything comes together; Cukor's direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's script, Krasner's photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I'm looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you've never seen it.

Editor's note:  Spoilers in video

originally published on his blog, OCD Viewer

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