Monday, April 30, 2012

Guilty Bystander (1950)

The no-budget B noir Guilty Bystander (1950) establishes its oppressively bleak tone as soon as the opening credits finish rolling. In the first scene, Georgia (played by Faye Emerson) shows up at a fleabag motel to see her ex-husband Max Thursday (Zachary Scott), an alcoholic ex-cop turned house detective. She needs to tell him that someone has kidnapped their two-year-old son. But before she can deliver the news, she has to kick her way through the empty beer bottles on the floor of his small, dingy room and rouse him from his attempt to sleep off a hangover. Max lets her know he’s not really in the mood to talk -- that is, until he gets the bad news. Georgia only has one clue for him -- a note from a neighbor in the boarding house where she lives, telling her that he took their son for a walk. He never came back.

This inciting incident kicks off a plot as convoluted as they come. Thursday stumbles around the seedy, sleazy parts of New York City, trying to put together the pieces and solve the puzzle of who kidnapped his son. Along the way, he bumps into some memorable characters, most notably Varkas (J. Edward Bromberg), an aging mobster who can’t speak above a whisper or do anything excitable because of a cardiac condition that requires him to constantly monitor his heart rate. Bromberg’s convincing performance makes Varkas menacing rather than weak; he plays him as a man struggling against an undercurrent of rage that constantly threatens to sweep both him and those around him out to sea.

As Thursday staggers and lurches his way through New York’s underworld, he also constantly battles his desire for a drink (or three). He knows he shouldn’t touch the stuff, and everyone around him knows it, too. But this doesn’t stop him from indulging from time to time. He loses a fight with his addiction immediately after he finds out about his missing son, getting blackout drunk while trying to interrogate his initial suspect and ending up in the slammer overnight, only to wake up to a lecture from his former police boss. It also doesn't help his case that the motel’s aging manager Smitty (Mary Boland) is all too willing to keep his throat from going dry. In his intermittently sober state, it’s a wonder that he can keep all of the connections and clues straight -- the viewer of the film's increasingly confusing plot has a hard enough time understanding what’s taking place without (presumably) being drunk.

Guilty Bystander was the second of two B noirs Joseph Lerner directed for the independent outfit Laurel Films (the first was the 1949 film C-Man). Both Lerner and Laurel had short careers on the dirt-cheap fringes of the film industry -- Lerner directed only six films in his entire career, and Laurel Films only produced a total of four films. The film’s main star, Zachary Scott, started off with a bang in the classic noir Mildred Pierce (1945) but spent most of the rest of his career in B films such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948), Ulmer's Poverty Row companion piece to Citizen Kane (1941).

So while Guilty Bystander clearly had a meager budget and no star power on either side of the camera, it doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t largely succeed in transcending its humble associations. The film embraces the squalor of its settings and its characters, and the frequently excellent cinematography turns seediness into a dark beauty. The performances are occasionally over-the-top (especially from Scott) and the film gets a bit talky at times, but this can be forgiven, as it is clear that everyone associated with the film was giving it everything they had. In keeping with the film's down-and-dirty aesthetic, it seems to have survived only in ratty, beat-up 16 mm prints. Watching a pristine copy of it just wouldn't seem right, anyway. If you like your noir cheap and dirty, Guilty Bystander is right down your alley.


Written by Nighthawk

Sunday, April 22, 2012

When The Clock Strikes (1961)

The Doomed and The Damned: When The Clock Strikes and the Films of Edward L. Cahn

“Sitting in his chair, waving his pipe, he came on like [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt with a cape. He was the first one who gave me a cold chill of what it must be like to be a has-been.”
--- Charles B. Griffith, screenwriter (as qtd. in McGee, 51)
“Eddie Cahn was the kind of a fella, especially on a small show, that wanted to show how fast he could go. So he’d start a scene and then step in front of the camera and yell ‘Cut!’ and then point to the next place where the next set-up was going.”
--- John Agar, actor (as qtd. in McGee, 51)
“It isn’t what I want -- it’s what I must do.”
Henry Daniell as Dr. Emil Zurich in Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

I’ve never met Dave Kehr, who writes a column on DVDs for The New York Times, regularly contributes to the journal Film Comment, and also maintains a blog on the web, or even corresponded with him, but it seems that we have similar tastes. I write on Josef von Steinberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), and so does he; I praise noir director Bernard Vorhaus in a post in my Frame by Frame blog, and in the pages of Film Comment, Kehr weighs in on Vorhaus’s career as well. I’m not implying any “cause and effect” pattern here -- it’s simply obvious that we both admire the same sorts of films. So I was pleased to read Kehr’s excellent essay, “Shadow World,” published in the November / December 2011 issue of Film Comment, on the maudit director Edward L. Cahn, one of the truly damned and doomed figures of the cinema. Not that many people appreciate Cahn’s work - he’s hardly a household name, for many reasons - and Kehr’s piece came as a welcome surprise. As Kehr wrote of Cahn,
With remarkable consistency for so prolific a filmmaker, he portrays a world of relentless cruelty and callousness, where even cowboy heroes kill without compunction and where betrayal within a couple is simply something to be anticipated and planned for. His characters move through a half-formed shadow world of flimsy surfaces and generic, impersonal objects; they lurch along seemingly sapped of all independent volition. At best, they are impelled by greed (the crime films are frequently centered on a treasure hunt), rage (Cahn’s Western heroes are almost always out to avenge the murder of a father or brother), or sheer, mindless destructiveness (embodied by the many different varieties of zombies that inhabit Cahn’s horror films). But in the end, all they know is that they must keep moving -- it’s that or cease to exist.

Yes, they didn’t call him “Fast Eddie” for nothing. Despite his considerable bulk, Cahn could move through a script at lightning speed, knocking off setups with an inspired, manic precision that only the truly gifted -- or cursed -- possess. In his lifetime, Cahn directed no fewer than 71 features and innumerable shorts before his death in 1963, and his distinctly detached visual signature, coupled with the unremitting bleakness of his personal vision, is present in nearly all his work. Born on February 12, 1899 in Brooklyn, NY, Cahn attended UCLA and broke into the film business in the mid 1920s as an editor at Universal, working at night to pay his college tuition. This apprenticeship served him well in his later career, as Cahn early on learned how to piece a scene together with minimal, yet efficient coverage, and by 1926, Cahn was head of the Editorial Department at Universal. So, for the moment, his career seemed on track.

The move to the director’s chair was thus all but inevitable, and in 1931, Cahn took the plunge with the brutal policier Homicide Squad (co-directed with George Melford). Law and Order, an exceptionally violent Western for the era, starring Walter Huston as Wyatt Earp, followed in 1932, along with the somewhat routine Radio Patrol and the superb study of big-city political corruption, Afraid to Talk (both also 1932). In Afraid to Talk, Eddie Martin, a naïve young bellhop (Eric Linden), is framed for a murder he didn’t commit, thanks to the efforts of mob leader Edward Arnold, as corpulent and slimy as ever, and the equally ruthless district attorney, portrayed with smooth duplicity by Louis Calhern, who many years later would appear in John Huston’s classic noir crime thriller The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Afraid to Talk was also shown under the rather ironic title Merry-Go-Round, an obvious reference to the runaround that Linden’s character endures from the authority figures in the film.

Afraid to Talk, for many years consigned to oblivion, has recently been resurrected, restored, and screened at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their “To Save and Project” series, curated by Joshua Siegel, to considerable public acclaim. Photographed by the gifted Karl Freund, Afraid to Talk already has the visual assurance of a master filmmaker, just two years into his directorial career. Cahn obligingly followed up with the equally cynical and ruthless proto-noir films Laughter in Hell and Emergency Call (both 1933), and the dark “numbers racket” crime thriller Confidential in 1935. But then something happened, and nobody seems to know exactly what that “something” was.

Cahn abandoned - or was forced out of - his career as a feature filmmaker, and summarily joined the MGM short subject department, a distinct demotion for a man who had made such an auspicious debut only a few years earlier. Why? No one really knows for sure, and a more noir fate one can hardly imagine for such a hardboiled director. For the next two decades, Cahn would be forced to helm the merest trivialities, films that he had no connection to, films that were made to order, for a price.

At MGM, Cahn toiled with the last gasp of the Our Gang series, long after Hal Roach had sold out his interest to MGM lock, stock, and barrel; Cahn also directed travelogues, novelty shorts, 10-minute musicals and other assorted junk until MGM finally gave him a shot at two low-budget crime films based on the studio’s “Crime Does Not Pay” two-reel shorts; the first was Main Street After Dark, a minor film starring noir icons Dan Duryea and Audrey Totter; the second was Dangerous Partners (both 1945), about a search for missing Nazi loot after the end of the war.

But these modest films did nothing to revitalize Cahn’s career, and by 1947, Cahn was directing the execrable Bowery Boys knockoff Gas House Kids in Hollywood (ironically featuring former Our Gang member Carl “Alfalfa” Schweitzer as one of the “Gas House” kids), made for PRC, or Producers Releasing Corporation, without a doubt the most marginal studio in Hollywood history. The next step after PRC was usually the gutter, but Cahn’s speed and reliability served him well in the low-budget indie crime films The Great Plane Robbery, Destination Murder and Experiment Alcatraz (all 1950), which were released on a negative pick up deal through RKO. Two Dollar Bettor (1951), an ultra-cheap independent production in which “B” veteran John Litel plays a poor chump who becomes hopelessly addicted to gambling, followed -- and then, nothing. Nothing at all.

Between 1951 and 1955, Cahn’s considerable talents were sidelined -- again, no one knows precisely why, or why he had walked away, or been pushed away, from his initial foray into features at Universal so many years earlier. Cahn directed one episode of the early, half-hour television series Martin Kane, Private Eye, “Trouble on Board,” in 1952, but for a man of Cahn’s talents, this was just a mere trifle; he also helmed the promisingly grim Betrayed Women (1955) from a script by pulp novelist Steve Fisher, which dealt with harsh conditions in the fictional but all too realistic Bayou Reformatory For Women.

But Betrayed Women didn’t really get Cahn’s career moving again; what he needed was a real break, a chance to turn out films almost endlessly, films that would deal with subject matter that appealed to him, one after the other. Finally, in late 1955, Cahn got his break, directing the astonishingly graphic and bizarre horror/crime/science-fiction thriller The Creature with the Atom Brain, in which the reanimated bodies of dead gangsters, remotely controlled by an unscrupulous criminal mastermind and his assistant, a renegade ex-Nazi scientist, wreak havoc by pulling casino robberies, committing murder, and thus amassing a “war chest” of stolen funds with which to take over the United States government.

Some measure of the sheer viciousness of The Creature with the Atom Brain can be gleaned from the film’s opening moments, in which one of the revived corpses, possessed of super human strength, breaks into a mob-run casino, lifts a mob leader over his head, and without a moment’s hesitation, snaps the hood’s body in two like so much firewood. Made for Columbia in a mere six days, under the notoriously penurious producer Sam Katzman, The Creature with the Atom Brain managed to do what all of Cahn’s other work had not -- it put him firmly on the map as a feature director, but with one qualification -- his films were now mostly 6-day affairs, with budgets in the $100,000 range, and he would never again have a shot at the true “A” feature.

But there was plenty of work, and suddenly Cahn was in demand. The then-fledgling American International Pictures grabbed Cahn and put him to work directing lurid teen exploitation films such as Girls in Prison, The She-Creature, Run Away Daughters, Shake, Rattle and Rock (all 1956), and then Voodoo Woman, Dragstrip Girl, Invasion of the Saucer Men and the bluntly named Motorcycle Gang (all 1957). By this time, Cahn had established himself firmly as a “speed artist,” someone who could bring in any picture, regardless of genre, in on time and on or under budget, but paradoxically, his work never betrayed the haste with which it was made. As Kehr accurately observes,
[. . .] Cahn seemed to embrace the aesthetic of speed with a passion and personal commitment not always apparent in the work of his more feverishly productive Poverty Row peers. On a level of production where simple coherence is rare, his work seldom if ever seems sloppy or indifferent. The framing is careful and varied, the lighting studied and expressive, the eyeline matches execute with classical precision -- all evidence of the extensive planning that Cahn (who began in the silent era as an editor) invested in his work, and which reportedly allowed him to film an astonishing 40 setups a day. (20)

Indeed, although their subject matter was very different, Cahn’s late films remind me inescapably of the work of Robert Bresson, the idiosyncratic French director known for his assured, measured style, in which each shot follows the one before it with almost mathematical precision. And, like Bresson - director of the noirish existential thriller Pickpocket (1959) and other equally dark films - Cahn seemed to identify with his protagonists; they’re society’s outcasts, the losers, the ones who can’t win. They’re Cahn’s people; he knows them, and they know him.

Then, in 1958, stepping way from AIP, Allied Artists and Columbia, Cahn found the perfect partner for his brutal, unrelenting, hyperdriven vision: Robert E. Kent, a producer and screenwriter so prolific that he scripted his films under not only his own name, but under a variety of pseudonyms as well. In Edward L. Cahn, Kent found a soulmate -- someone who wanted to make genre films quickly and efficiently, and at the same time, bring their own mordant worldview to the screen, in the guise of genre entertainment. Working under a variety of corporate banners, such as Vogue, Zenith, Harvard, Peerless and Premium, and releasing their films, astonishingly, through the rather upscale company United Artists, Kent and Cahn formed a team that would create a blistering barrage of films that form the bulk of the director’s true legacy. Cahn’s bleak worldview - fatalistic, stillborn, embracing nihilism as its guiding light, was at last allowed free reign.

Starting with It! -- The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), which famously served as the template for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) 21 years later, Cahn and Kent began knocking out a wild series of outré, violent noir/crime thrillers, of which the title usually tells all -- Curse of the Faceless Man (the dead return to life); King Kong Confidential (exoticist crime in Asia); Guns, Girls and Gangsters (is any explanation needed?), Jet Attack (got it?) and Suicide Battalion (again, a war picture with a pretty obvious narrative trajectory). Astonishingly, all these films were made in one year -- 1958.

In 1959, Cahn and Kent collaborated on Riot in Juvenile Prison, Invisible Invaders (more mayhem effected by the resurrected dead, this time controlled by forces from outer space), the crime thrillers Pier 5 - Havana, Inside the Mafia and Vice Raid, and my personal favorite of all of Cahn’s late work, the atmospheric Gothic horror film The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, in which an ancient curse is visited upon all the male members of the Drake family, as a result of their ancestors’ slaughter of a tribe of South American natives as “collateral damage” during a colonialist trading expedition.

Jonathan Drake, with its funereal and methodical approach to the ritual slaughter and beheading of all the men of the Drake clan, proceeds with a certain awful, deliberate grace towards its compellingly unexpected climax. In the personage of the chief malefactor, Dr. Emil Zurich (another member of the dead), we also get about as close to the essence of Cahn’s personal worldview as we are ever likely to, when Zurich intones the line quoted at the beginning of this essay - “it isn’t what I want -- it’s what I must do” - before dispatching another of his unfortunate victims.

By 1961, as Kehr notes, Cahn was directing 11 features a year, including the Western and crime thrillers You Have to Run Fast, Five Guns to Tombstone, Gun Fight, Gun Street, and the film that’s the centerpiece of this essay, the absolutely death obsessed and utterly individualistic When the Clock Strikes, which was partially shot in Cahn’s split-level Hollywood home, as were many of his late features. Why rent a studio when you can have the real thing, if all you need is a living room, or a hastily repropped hotel lobby, or a makeshift scientific laboratory? In the pressbooks for these twilight-world films, Cahn even boasted about this obvious economy. For When the Clock Strikes and other crime procedurals, it made more sense to bring the actors to Cahn’s home, set up the camera, and keep knocking out those 40 setups a day. Working from a script by the obscure genre artist Dallas Gaultois, Cahn, in this film, paints a convincing vision of the limbo of eternal waiting.

When the Clock Strikes opens on a stretch of desolate, rainswept road, as Sam Morgan (James Brown, a regular in many Cahn films) disconsolately drives to the state prison, where the hangman will execute Frank Pierce, whom Sam has identified as a murderer, at midnight. The storm knocks a tree down across the road, and Morgan can’t go on; neither can passing stranger Ellie (Merry Anders, another member of the Cahn “stock company”), whose car has broken down in the torrential downpour. Sam gives Ellie a ride to Cady’s Lodge, perhaps the most uninviting guesthouse imaginable. Cady, the proprietor (Henry Corden) takes obvious, morbid delight in the plight of the bedraggled pair, and informs Sam and Ellie that whenever there’s a hanging at the prison, which is located only a mile or so away, all the “specs” (as he calls them), or “spectators,” gather at the lodge to watch the clock mounted on the wall by the fireplace, which predicts with split-second accuracy the hour of every prisoner’s execution -- which is always at midnight.

With his ghoulish, obsequious manner, Cady is the last person anyone would want to have baiting them with lurid descriptions of a prisoner’s final death agonies, but since Sam and Ellie are stuck there, they have to endure Cady’s repellent presence. Sam grows more and more uneasy by the minute, and tells Ellie and Cady he’s tormented by the thought that he might have fingered the wrong man. The warden of the prison (played by Francis De Sales) stops by on his way to the prison to witness the execution, but tells Sam there’s nothing anyone can do about it at this late date -- Frank Pierce will die at midnight, and nothing can stop the execution.

The warden leaves, the clock strikes twelve, and Pierce is executed. We never see Pierce’s execution, and never even get to the prison gates; we, like Sam and Ellie, are trapped in Cady’s Lodge forever, and there’s no escape. Suddenly, a large man, Martinez (Jorge Moreno) rushes in out of the storm, covered in mud, and explains that he can’t bear his guilty conscience any longer -- he is the real killer, and Pierce is -- or was -- innocent. We’ve never seen Martinez before, and we have no idea what’s compelled him at length to confess, but here he is; the real killer. Ellie, who now reveals to Sam that she is Pierce’s wife, goes into shock, while Sam isn’t faring much better -- his faulty identification has just cost a man his life. And on this macabre scene, Cahn fades out, as Martinez is summarily hauled away by the sheriff (Roy Barcroft, best known for his portrayal of numerous villains in Republic serials of the 1940s, and now at the end of his career).

The next day, events become even more complicated when Ellie reveals to Sam that she isn’t Pierce’s wife after all, but rather a gold digger who wants to lay her hands on some $60,000 that Frank Pierce had stashed away from a bank robbery several years earlier. Almost immediately, and with complete amorality, Sam agrees to help Ellie find the stolen money. When the prison authorities deliver a box to Ellie the next day containing the last of her “husband’s” belongings, Sam and Ellie find a key to a post office box in New Mexico, where they surmise that Frank has hidden the stolen loot. Sam and Ellie contact the post office, and arrange to have the contents of the post office box sent to them at Cady’s Lodge.

But suddenly, fate lands another unexpected blow, as the real Ms. Pierce (Peggy Stewart) shows up, surprisingly uninterested in the money, but also with the news that although Frank Pierce wasn’t guilty of the murder for which he was executed, Pierce was guilty of the murder of the real Ms. Pierce’s father, something that she’s still trying to deal with. Trapped in the lodge, drinking too much alcohol from Cady’s well-stocked bar (“help yourself, and don’t forget to turn out the lights -- I’ll put it on your bill” Cady assures them), Sam and Ellie are becoming edgy, when the postman finally -- one of the lessons of Cahn’s world being that one must always wait, and wait, and then wait some more --arrives with the box. Sam and Ellie immediately open it, and discover that the $60,000 is indeed there.

But Cady, true to his unscrupulous nature, has found out about the cash, and tries to kill Sam and Ellie, and abscond with the funds himself. Ms. Pierce intervenes, and Cady, panicking, kills her instead. Holding Cady at gunpoint, Sam and Ellie at first openly contemplate fleeing to Mexico with the money for a life of leisure, but in the film’s final seconds, think better of it, and turn Cady and the money over to the sheriff. Now, Cady will stand trial for Ms. Pierce’s murder, and Sam and Ellie’s testimony will send Cady to the scaffold; the next time the clock strikes twelve at Cady’s Lodge on an execution night, it will be Cady who swings from the end of a rope.

The claustrophobic sets that comprise Cady’s Lodge, surely one of the most sinister mountain retreats ever depicted on film, coupled with Cady’s morbid pleasure in watching his “guests” squirm as he recites, in minute detail, the specifics of earlier executions, make the film an embrace of Hell, in which even the living are already dead. Although When the Clock Strikes seemingly ends on an upbeat note - Cady will pay for his crime, and Sam and Ellie resist the temptation to steal the cash - in the final analysis, it seems that there is really little choice for Sam and Ellie. As Cady tells them, if they flee to Mexico with the money, he’ll simply tell the authorities that Sam and Ellie killed the real Ms. Pierce, and then smile with smug satisfaction as both are convicted and executed on the “strength” of his perjured testimony. Sam and Ellie really don’t have a choice; they have to stay, forfeit the money, and testify against Cady. In short, it isn’t what they want - it’s what they must do.

This is one of the many things that makes When the Clock Strikes so compelling -- even when the characters make what seems to be a morally correct decision, they are in actuality forced into it, because to do otherwise would jeopardize their own existence. All in all, When the Clock Strikes is one of the bleakest and most personal of all of Edward L. Cahn’s films, and as with all of his late work, he handles both the cast, and the camera, with patient assurance. As the film unspools, the viewer feels almost as if she or he is also an unwilling “guest” at Cady’s Lodge, which certainly can stake a claim as one of the inner circles of Dante’s description of Hell. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” indeed. When the Clock Strikes depicts a world of unreleased fear, doubt, pessimism and greed, and despite its obviously commercial origins, is really more of a personal film than a standard genre entertainment.

As for Edward L. Cahn, he was nearly at the end of his career, and by 1962 had slowed down to just two films that year, Incident in an Alley (1962), and his last film, and Cahn’s only feature in color, a peculiarly somber version of the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast (1962), in which Cahn seems to be trying to move beyond the death mythos of his previous work and create a narrative aimed at a family audience. Of course, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version La belle et la bête remains the definitive screen adaptation of the classic tale, but Cahn’s mise en scene here seems almost entombed, as if he wants Beauty and the Beast, which perhaps he knew was his last film, to stand as some sort of final summation, as well as a significant and much more hopeful departure from his earlier work.

Beauty and the Beast was released on December 8, 1962, and Cahn’s career was complete. Cahn died on August 25, 1963, at the age of 64 in Hollywood, the city he had labored in for so long. As Kehr notes, between 1955 and 1962, just a seven-year span, Cahn cranked out an astonishing 48 feature films; now, it was time to rest. For Cahn, to live was to work; nothing more and nothing less. Why did Edward L. Cahn make so many films? Perhaps, as Kehr notes, it was because Cahn’s “work reflect[ed] a sensibility so deeply disaffected that perhaps only constant motion allowed him to outpace his demons . . .,” or perhaps, Cahn felt that as long as he was working, he simply couldn’t die; the film, whatever film he was working on, had to be finished. As Kehr sums up,

With the same actors (James Brown, Merry Anders, Cameron Mitchell, Mamie Van Doren, Jim Davis, Ron Foster), the same situations (most of the screenplays are the work of Orville H. Hampton but are shaped by Cahn’s obsessive themes), and the same minimal studio sets returning in film after film, Cahn seems to be staging the Poverty Row version of the eternal return. . . . Shadow people in a shadow world, enacting the same empty gestures again and again. If there is a hell, Edward L. Cahn has found it, and its address is Hollywood, USA. (21)

It’s reassuring to see Cahn’s work finally getting some small measure of the respect that it so clearly deserves; fortunately, many of his late films with Robert E. Kent are now available as streaming downloads on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. Initially relegated to the bottom half of the double bill at the moment of their inception, Cahn’s work is now available to millions at the click of a mouse, reaching many more viewers than he ever did in his lifetime. Perhaps that’s Edward L. Cahn’s final victory; his films, once the most obscure of the obscure, are now everywhere. That may be the final victory of Edward L. Cahn, the poet of the doomed and the damned.

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 the author of Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009), along with numerous other books.

Works Cited Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. Rev. Fred Klein and Ronald Dean Nolan. NY: Harper Resource, 2001. Kehr, Dave. “Further Research: Shadow World,” Film Comment November/December 2011: 20-21. McGee, Mark Thomas. Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures. McFarland: Jefferson, NC: 1996.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Wicked Woman (1953)

With the affect of a sleazy 1950s paperback novel’s cover, and all its lurid come-ons and empty promises, Russell Rouse’s Wicked Woman appears to be just another campy, trashy wallow in the lower depths of American life.

Behind that crude exterior is an admittedly tawdry but sobering slice of femme fatale film noir. Writer-director Rouse had three unusual films noir to his credit before Wicked Woman. His screenplay for 1950’s D.O.A. blends comedy and pitch-black drama. 1951’s The Well, Rouse’s directorial debut, tackled racism and myopic small-town attitudes. 1952’s The Thief ostentatiously tried to be wordless, during one of Hollywood’s gabbiest eras.

Neither of Rouse’s first two films entirely succeeds in their goals. Both are ambitious, unusual and distinctive. Wicked Woman was, perhaps, an attempt by Rouse to make a more conventional, crowd-pleasing picture. The creative team’s collective tongue may be slightly in cheek, but a grubby gravity rescues the movie from mere camp.

Over the film’s opening credits, ex-Duke Ellington vocalist Herb Jeffries moodily croons a title song. We follow the trail of a Trailways bus across desolate highway landscapes. “You know that what she’s doin’/is sure to cause you ruin,” Jeffries warns us in song. Seen in one bus window is Billie Nash, embodied by actress Beverly Michaels. A disillusioned drifter, Nash rolls into dismal Anywhere, USA., deceptively dressed in virginal white. A quick tip from a bus station clerk leads her to nearby Gary Street and a shabby rooming house.

As Billie approaches her new abode, she’s given the eye by Charlie Borg, a mole-like tailor, played to the hilt by Percy Helton. I believe this was Helton’s highest billing in a motion picture. His name appears third, after Michaels’ and co-star Richard Egan’s. Helton obviously relished this rare opportunity for plentiful screen time.

Wicked Woman is largely the story of Charlie Borg’s pathetic attempts to woo this B-girl, despite impossible odds. His possessive, manipulative and desperate courtship of Billie leads to misery and confusion for her more than for him. Despite the theme song’s warning siren, it’s Billie who gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop, constantly, throughout this film.

After some zesty banter with the flophouse’s owner, Mrs. Walters (Bernadene Hayes), Billie attempts to settle into her $6-a-week digs and find a job. Borg is like white on Rice, if you’ll pardon the pun. He wastes no time trying to worm his way into Billie’s life—and panties.

She understands that this marsupial manipulator might be useful to her, and she immediately strings him along in a fevered sexual fantasy that’s 100% projection on Borg’s part. After Billie talks her way into a waitress job in a neighborhood tavern, run by amicable alcoholic Dora Bannister (Evelyn Scott) and her brooding, hunky husband Matt (Richard Egan), Billie wheedles a sawbuck off of Borg to buy a new work outfit.

Bug-eyed with lust, Borg shells over the 20 and begs her to let him know when she has a night off.

At this point, Wicked Woman thumbs a ride from the works of James M. Cain. Billie and Matt Bannister take a shine to one another. Matt is the long-suffering spouse of a lush, and, like Billie, seems to barely contain his own personal trauma and dejection. These two lost souls bond, and soon hatch a scheme to pose as man and wife, sell the bar, and skedaddle to Mexico—the place of choice for noir desperados.

Billie is, in fact, obsessed by a recording called “One Night in Acupulco.” It appears to be the only record she owns, and she asks the bar’s jukebox service to put the platter in its machine. This cartoon dream of escape proves her downfall. Borg learns of her plans, and snares her in a web of sexual blackmail.

We see him sadly and noisily kissing her arms, cooing like a sick dove, as she withers with contempt. Worst of all, it’s made crystal clear that she spends the night with him, and that he has his way with her… brrr!

It’s tempting to laugh at this desperate display of helpless passion. But the scene is also quite sad. There’s no way Borg will find contentment or satisfaction with this set-up. These love-making scenes entrap us in an awful voyeuristic contract. We can’t look away… but it hurts to look; thus, to protect ourselves, we reflexively laugh.

The fraudulent scheme to sell the bar fails. (If this is a spoiler for you, you don’t know your film noir.) In a fit of pique, Billie breaks her treasured record of “One Night in Acupulco.” At film’s end Billie is disgraced, while Matt Bannister is rewarded with his own private hell: a lifetime chained to his verbally abusive alky spouse, who now has the permanent upper hand.

For his troubles, Borg is slapped by Billie (fuel for his future fantasies, I’m sure) and is out 20 bucks. Billie is booted from Walters’ seedy digs and back on the bus, en route to more of the same—sadder but probably not wiser for her troubles.

Wicked Woman is not a standard bad-girl B noir. Its characters are too busy being miserable to get what they want, and too resigned to their dreary fates to fight them.

Billie seems more down in the dumps than seductive throughout the movie. Her detachment from life seems profound. Her eyes are sad mirrors of her downtrodden life. She doesn’t seem to enjoy herself, even when she smiles.

The documentary-like attention to detail in the film’s surroundings enhances this glum air. Billie’s room, with its hotplate, battered fridge and time worn furniture, is a temple for the blues of a lifetime. The Bannisters’ tavern, while successful, is well-worn, with a potentially deadly stove in its kitchen. No one could really be happy in these shabby surroundings, regardless of their emotional or financial circumstances.

Michaels’ gloom permeates this and other films she’s in. I don’t suppose Dejected Dame would have done much box office, but that’s a far more apt title for this picture. As in Michaels’ contemporary noir roles (the Hugo Haas films Pickup and The Girl on the Bridge, both from 1951), the actress exudes a hard-bitten unhappiness that seems to speak of personal experience.

Noir themes would continue to dominate director-writer Rouse’s work. Following Wicked Woman were New York Confidential (1955) and the fascinating House of Numbers (1957), with twin Jack Palances enacting an eccentric story by novelist Jack Finney.

Percy Helton would find noir immortality via his brief bit role in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me, Deadly, and cult-level recognition from his countless television roles.

Wicked Woman is viewable, in its entirety, on YouTube, in six parts, starting here. Brace yourself for lowlife noir at its seamiest—and then go take a hot shower… you’ll need it!

Written by Frank M. Young Now available--Frank's new graphic novel (done with David Lasky) OREGON TRAIL: THE ROAD TO DESTINY!

Monday, April 09, 2012

No Country for Old Men (2007)

“…I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.’”
- Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

1980. A gas station somewhere in Texas. The station’s proprietor rings up a transaction and, taking a gander at the vast expanse of dry nothingness out the window, asks the customer in front of him if there’s any rain up his way - seeing as how he’s got Dallas plates on his vehicle. The customer’s expression is unreadable. He sighs as if there’s a job at hand and he withdraws a quarter from his pocket: “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” And slowly, through the course of a clumsy and dreadful conversation, the proprietor begins to realize every day in the gas station, with every customer walking through the door, in every attempt at small talk, he’s been gambling with his life.

In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen presented No Country for Old Men, which would earn the brothers their first Academy Award for best picture. (The Coens borrowed heavily and interfered little with their source material, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.) Though generally admired by critics, No Country would alienate viewers with its graphic violence, anger more than a few people with its abrupt ending, and forever baffle movie store employees trying to shelve it under a genre header. While Ethan Coen called it “the closest we’ll come to [making] an action movie,” action may be the last word that comes to mind when pondering the nature of No Country for Old Men. The film is a wink and nod to Sam Peckinpah with its blunt and joyful violence; the photography basks in the Southwest landscapes in a way that recalls John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley; fists will clench through the suspense; laughter is often, and often uncomfortable. Finally, a small, dark understanding from the viewer: this film is about me.

On the face of it, No Country for Old Men resembles the Coens’ earlier offerings of Fargo or Blood Simple. The brothers are deft manufacturers of the noirish kind of crime procedurals that center on the simple man caught up in vicious circumstances beyond his control. Here, our ordinary guy discovers two million dollars in a drug swap gone sideways. His decision to keep it and flee will set two men on his trail: a psychopath bent on recovering the stolen cash and an aging sheriff trying to make sense of the new type of crime creeping into his county. McCarthy’s novel offered the Coens a much more sobering and contemplative look at violence than previous films. Dark humor is present but does nothing to temper the grisly nature of the story the way it did in, say, Fargo. Violence is a silent partner in No Country, his capricious nature lending as much personality to the narrative as the three main actors.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a welder in the West Texas town of Sanderson when he stumbles across the leavings of a Mexican drug exchange while on a weekend hunting trip. Brolin plays Moss as a straight shooter; you get the feeling he’s the type of guy who does a job right the first time. Moss is no bumbler, but by the time the viewer meets him we’ve already seen two killings. Neither is he naïve: after all, he finds the money amongst shell casing and bloated bodies, so he’s seen firsthand the violence this business provokes. But like a lot of protagonists in the “everyman” noir genre, he’ll try to hedge his bets because he believes the possible payoff is worth the possible cost. He may reckon two tours in Vietnam and sturdy Texan genes will help him through the aftermath of poaching drug money, but we know he’s doomed the second he slaps eyes on the cash. Deep down, he might have the same inkling: “Things happen. I can’t take ‘em back,” he tells panicky wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald). Moss’s coin has been flipped. He’ll just have to decide how to call it.

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, more chigger than sugar) is tracking Moss, sent by a nebulous crime organization to retrieve the money before the Mexican cartel. We don’t learn Chigurh’s name until almost an hour into the film, but by then, we have all the information we need about him. Namely, he sports a chilling Prince Valiant haircut, doesn’t like to get his feet bloody, and prefers to kill folks by way of cattle bolt. One assumes he likes to keep things neat. In McCarthy’s work, he’s described in barest detail: his one defining characteristic is a lack of sense of humour. He’s a psychopath with warped ideas about fate, and the coin toss is a favourite trick of his. It’s a callous way to decide whether or not to take a man’s life, but Chigurh’s got a twisted code of honor. He believes the three separate paths of killer, victim, and coin have converged for a specific reason. Later in the film, Chigurh confronts a fixer named Wells (Woody Harrelson) who’s been sent to dispose of him - Chigurh’s body count is climbing and making his shadowy bosses uneasy. After he gets the drop on Wells, he mocks him, asking, “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?” Chigurh’s honest with himself in a way that most of the world around him is not - even the smallest actions of yourself and those around you can have the highest consequences. If you’re a part of society you must accept that.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is Terrell County’s venerable lawman, drawn into the chaos surrounding by the drug massacre that’s landed within his jurisdiction. Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors whose name and face should overshadow any role he plays, but there’s none of that here. Jones is a deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas native and his craggy face and homespun way of speaking inserts him seamlessly into the story. If the viewer identifies somewhat with Moss, and not-at-all with Chigurh, we are all in with Jones’ sheriff. He is the only character whose internal voice the viewer is privy to, in a plainspoken voice over at the beginning of the film. It’s Bell’s story really, more than it is Moss’s or Chigurh’s, and we sympathize with him by the end because it’s our story, too. Bell may be a participant in a cynical story about death and violence, but his feelings are shared by anyone who has ever felt left behind or overmatched by changing times. At the beginning of the film, Bell tells us that as a new deputy he knew police work was a job he had to be willing to die to do… but it is a sentiment he didn’t fully appreciate. It’s a decision he made as a young man, feeling indestructible and not having seen the things men are capable of. As an old man, he’s a parable: if you haven’t despaired of the world you live in, just wait.

By the end of the film, Moss is cornered by Chigurh. Having made no decision other than to keep the money for himself and his wife and run as long as he can, Chigurh calls it for him. He makes Moss a new proposition: give me the money and Carla Jean stays alive; keep it up and I’ll hold you both accountable for what you’ve done. Still, Moss refuses the two outcomes. His new plan to give Carla Jean the money and run is disastrous. He’s gunned down by the Mexican cartel men, a factor he hadn’t given much credence to since encountering Chigurh. Turns out another coin had been in the air all this time. Everyone is given an exit in the film, even if some are ambiguous (and since when has life provided resolution to all our outstanding questions?) Chigurh retrieves the drug money, and in a sweet irony (that reinforces his own beliefs about fate), is blindsided and grievously injured in a car accident, after killing Carla Jean. He walks away, perhaps to enter another small town the way he entered Bell’s, perhaps not. As for Bell, he has squared himself with his part in a violent world, and retired from the job to detach himself from at least part of it.

The Coens are fantastic world builders. As writers and directors they are masters at adding minute quirks that orient their characters. (The fact that Moss picks up his empty shell casings while hunting speaks volumes about his nature.) No Country for Old Men doesn’t feel like a period piece, probably because most of us are old enough to recognize the fashion and cars within the film, but the visual details in each scene are so suspiciously perfect, you wonder if the Coens used a time machine. The cinematographer was the Coens’ ace-in-the-hole Roger Deakins, an old hand when it comes to filmmaking. He makes the most of the location shooting (mostly dodgy motels and borderlands in Marfa, Texas and Las Vegas, New Mexico). The music and dialogue are sparsely used - long stretches of absolutely nothing, sometimes punctuated by carefully chosen words or a few music notes. The supporting cast is small, but strong, the standouts being Woody Harrelson and Garret Dillahunt, who plays Bell’s deputy, Wendell. Harrelson can’t quite get beyond his identity as well as Tommy Lee Jones is able to. He’s still Woody here, but that’s okay because his lines are few and the role calls for a certain cocksure quality Harrelson naturally provides. Dillahunt’s role is small, but important. Wendell is a reflection of Bell: he’s the young deputy Bell once was, more concerned with impressing “the old-timer” than with making sense of the violence around him.

When No Country for Old Men was released, critics were mostly positive, while audiences were mixed. For some, the film contained too much gore and violence. The contemplative tone was found boring and tedious. Others felt cheated when the criminal element of the film took back burner and didn’t answer the questions raised: Who took the drugs? Who does Chigurh work for? Where did the money really go? Perhaps, like the country its title alludes to, this film is not for everyone. Perhaps you have to have learned how raw a raw deal can be to appreciate the anguish of it. Most of those who had issues with the film were unsatisfied with the ending in which Sheriff Bell reveals a dream he’s had about his deceased father, also a lawman: “And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.” And if you can see yourself in Bell, I’m willing to guess you’ve lost a few wagers yourself.

Written by Nauga

Monday, April 02, 2012

Desert Fury (1947)

For me, Lewis Allen's Desert Fury is currently running neck and neck with Felix Feist's The Devil Thumbs a Ride for the honor of "wackiest movie of 1947."

But maybe I'm comparing apples to oranges. While The Devil Thumbs a Ride was a zany thrill ride with oddball characters and a lot of unexpected humor, Desert Fury is a ridiculously campy melodrama in which most of the humor seems unintentional.

Also, it has gay undertones that are strong enough to power a small city for a year.

The poster implies that Burt Lancaster and John Hodiak spend the movie fighting for Lizabeth Scott's love, but that's not the case. More accurate is the tagline: "Two men wanted her love ... The third wanted her life!"

Scott plays a beautiful 19-year-old girl who lives in a "cactus graveyard" in the middle of nowhere — Chuckawalla, Nevada. She lives with her mother, Fritzi, who's played by Mary Astor (an actress from Hollywood's Golden Age who was just 16 years older than Lizabeth Scott). Fritzi always calls Paula "baby." Not in a sweet, maternal way, but the way a barfly might say, "Hey, baby! C'mere!"

Fritzi wants Paula to go back to school, but Paula wants to help her mother run the Purple Sage Casino. (Paula's father was a bootlegger who was killed when Paula was very young.)

Burt Lancaster plays Tom Hanson, a former bronco buster who barnstormed around the country, but washed out of the rodeo and now works as a sheriff's deputy in Chuckawalla. Fritzi wants Tom to marry Paula and make an honest woman out of her. He'd like nothing more than to marry Paula, but he doesn't push, because he knows that her love for him is strictly platonic.

Into their lives comes runty, mustachioed gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his gunsel Johnny (Wendell Corey), and Paula — quite inexplicably — falls head over heels in love with Eddie.

The love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Tom is weak sauce compared with the love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Johnny.

Johnny is more than just Eddie's "muscle." He's his longtime companion, his best friend, and — just possibly — his lover.

Is he or isn't he? Let's look at the evidence. Eddie and Johnny form a tight unit, and seem to both know what really happened to Eddie's first wife, who died in a car accident. Johnny hates Paula, and seems insanely jealous of her relationship with Eddie.

And how does Eddie explain to Paula how he first hooked up with Johnny?

"I was your age, maybe a year older. I was in the automat off Times Square about two o'clock in the morning on a Saturday. I was broke, he had a couple of dollars, we got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs," he says, a note of shameful resignation creeping into his voice.

"And then?" Paula asks.

"I went home with him that night. I was locked out. Didn't have a place to stay. His old lady ran a boarding house in the Bronx. There were a couple of vacant rooms. We were together from then on."

The relationship between Eddie and Johnny isn't the only hint of a gay union. Paula and Fritzi are so close in age, and Fritzi's attitude toward her daughter lacking so much maternal warmth, that they seem more like a lesbian couple than anything else. Fritzi seems like the older, more dominant one, and Paula seems like the younger, more restive one, who might also be interested in men. (In further defense of this reading, Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster might walk off into the sunset at the end of the picture, but their lips never meet. The final — and most passionate — kiss of the film is the one Fritzi plants on Paula's lips.)

There's a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, but that only counts for so much. For instance, compare Miklós Rózsa's brilliant score for Brute Force (1947) with his score for Desert Fury. His score for Desert Fury is powerful, but without the dramatic underpinning of a great film, it just writhes and flails all over the place, seemingly in search of a better movie, or at least a more lively one.

The script by Robert Rossen (with uncredited assistance from A.I. Bezzerides), which is based on Ramona Stewart's novel Desert Town, has a lot of snappy dialogue, but the story just doesn't move with much intensity. Also, the Technicolor cinematography really undercuts some of the noir elements of the story and the situation.

Desert Fury is campy, and worth seeing if you're into camp, but that's about it. Also, if you're a connoisseur of face-slapping, there's plenty of that going around, too.

Written by Adam Lounsbery 
Originally published on his blog, OCD Viewer

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