Showing posts with label Richard Widmark. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Widmark. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Widmark RIP

The last film noir giant is gone. Richard Widmark died earlier this week at the age of 93. Widmark had a long and varied career in Hollywood but is remembered by me for his roles in classic film noir. Widmark's first film role turned out to be a career defining moment. His Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death remains one of the great film performances. He not only stole the film from the stars (he was billed forth) but he created an iconic character that's still aped today.

"Hoods are good parts because they're always flashy and attract attention. If you've got any ability, you can use that as a stepping stone. " Richard Widmark

Who can ever forget that laugh of Tommy Udo's? If you watch the film today and you'll end up finding yourself fast forwarding past the Victor Mature stuff just to get to Widmark. I bet film audience back in the 40s both loved Widmark's performances in crime dramas but also hoped they wouldn't run into him in a dark alley leaving the theater.

Although he played tough-as-nails characters in film he was known as a smart gentle man in "real" life. In No Way Out Widmark spewed racial slurs at Sidney Poitier. Widmark the man didn't feel right doing it. During filming, Poitier ended up having to tell Widmark that he was cool with it because it was important to the film - the movie is way ahead of it's time when it comes to Hollywood dealing with race. Widmark is so convincing as the hateful criminal it's surprising to hear that he Poitier ended up as life long friends. Widmark said later, "I was playing this horrible part. I didn't want to play it because the character was an awful racist. But I'm glad I did it because I met Sidney Poitier. "

In film noir, Widmark is obviously remembered for his bad guy roles. He did get to be the hero now and then but it was never as interesting. Maybe the best roles after Kiss of Death were playing anti heroes in Night and the City and Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street.

Here's Widmark in a few lesser films: saving the world in Panic in the Streets and back on the street again in The Street With No Name. Most semi-documentaries like these didn't age well- but Widmark had a knack for giving timeless performances that elevated his film roles above the corny flag-waving stuff semi-documentaries were known for. He almost single-handedly lifted these preachy crime films from B-movie fluff to serious film noir.

Widmark wasn't always top banana in his films. Not to be forgotten are his costarring roles in Road House with Ida Lupino and Don't Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe. Road House is underrated and just a fantastic little noir. They need to re-release this one on DVD. And how can you not like the slightly sleazy trailer for Don't Bother to Knock?

Widmark is gone but he's a legend that won't be forgotten - thanks to his films being reissued on home video and airing on television. Obviously, he gave more than his roles in film noir (he was in some amazing Westerns too) but for many of us he was the tough guy in some very dark films.

The blond-haired maturely handsome Widmark aged well - at least I found his heavily-lined face to have even more character in 60s and 70s movies. Middle-aged Widmark found himself working in some excellent films later in life (including the star-filled Murder on the Orient Express.) He took another shot at noir too. Here's Madigan:

Share your thoughts on Richard Widmark at the message board.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Posted by Tim (Mappin & Webb Ltd.)

Skip McCoy is a sleazy, thieving, smart-ass. He has a gift for the grift and he’s not hesitant to use it on easy and innocent prey. If he has a middle name it may be “recidivism” as he’s been pinched by the police on many occasions for picking pockets and done jail time in three separate stints. Because of his three strikes, one more conviction for Skip and he’s going to the slammer for life. Candy on the other hand is a B-girl who has been “knocked around a lot” and seems to think its status quo for a girl like her. A svelte, good looking dame whose white dress she wares in the film looks so tight, she may need turpentine at the end of the night to peel it off. Candy gets these taut threads namely from guys with dough who want to see her in them. One could speculate that she most likely does more than simply bat her eyelashes at these same mooks to keep the duds they put her in. Lastly Moe Williams is a sub-contractor stool pigeon to the cops plain and simple. She resents the stoolie label however, stating that she “was brought up to report any injustice to the police authority.” Despite this rationalization, when the price was right she dropped a dime on Skip’s modus operandi and whereabouts to the cops when they were looking for his neck to hang a collar on. It may not seem too strange for a professional canary to sing about a lowly pickpocket, but unusual when one considers Moe has known Skip since he was a kid and genuinely professes to love him. While this triumvirate of two-bit hoods and hustlers may sound like the kind of scene you’d want to avoid at all costs, it’s these same characters you can’t afford to miss in director Sam Fuller’s masterpiece “Pickup on South Street.”

The film opens on a NYC subway car where Candy (Jean Peters) is carrying an envelope given to her by ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). As a last favor to him she is to deliver the envelope to a man at a rendezvous point and she’ll be done with Joey once and for all. Candy is unaware that the contents inside the envelope (we later learn) are strips of microfilm consisting of classified U.S. government secrets that the Russians are dying to get their pinko paws around. Joey is working for the commies and looking for a big pay day with the delivery of the film. Candy is his unknowing buffer and potential fall-gal in case the deal goes sour. The U.S. government is aware of the breach and G-Men have been following Joey and the people he associates with for six months hoping to land the big players above him. We observe J. Edgar’s agents tailing and keeping a close eye on Candy in the subway car. Unexpectedly, while the car is in motion, they witness a man position himself next to Candy in the crowded car and adroitly pluck the wallet from her purse right under her oblivious nose. Before they can react the thief is off the train at the next stop with Candy’s wallet containing the envelope and microfilm. One of the G-Men continues to tail Candy while the other visits NYC police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to try and find out who this “cannon” is that lifted the microfilm. To expedite the process of finding out whom the pickpocket’s identity, Captain Tiger calls in one of his informants; a little old lady named Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter). Moe looks like she’s as altruistic as Florence Nightingale, but in reality the only pulse Moe has her finger on is the seedy underbelly of the NYC grifter element. This inside knowledge, coupled with the cops hitting a dead end, allows her to drop a dime on the hoods to earn a dollar. She expertly identifies the pickpocket as Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) by the G-men’s eyewitness description of his uniquely individual thieving technique. Both the G-Men and Captain Tiger’s police force know he has the microfilm and they haul in Skip attempting to pry it out of him. Skip won’t cop to possessing it, as one more conviction, added to his three, will ensure they throw away the key on him. From here on out Candy tries to use Moe to get the microfilm back from Skip. Moe tries to milk Candy’s desperation to find Skip for her own financial gain. Skip discovers the microfilm and tries to grift Candy for a big payday from Joey and the commies. I’m just scratching the surface as the story has more wonderfully crazy angles and turns than an Escher drawing. Fortunately the tale never gets convoluted in its complexity and it continues to build toward a gripping third act that stands up to any noir history.

While the screenplay (written by Fuller from a story by Dwight Taylor) is rich in dialogue, narrative, and story, the cast elevates it to a plateau of excellence that few movies in film noir reach. Widmark is outstanding as the anti-hero and gives arguably his best performance from an impressive ‘cannon’ of work. Jean Peters gives a solid performance as the manipulated moll Candy. While she may not have the otherworldly chops of Widmark or Ritter, she sells the part well enough to keep up with her co-stars. Without a doubt though, Thelma Ritter is soul of this film. Her ability to convey the vulnerability, charm, and guile of a complex character like Moe is a feat I can picture no other actress accomplishing the way she did in “Pickup.” It’s a brilliant performance that belongs in the pantheon of film. Seriously.

Visually there is plenty to appreciate and enjoy with “Pickup on South Street” but Fuller’s use of the close-up is the visual element that resonates deepest with me. He judiciously uses the tight facial frame sparingly, but maximizes its effectiveness when he does. Each main character gets a notable close-up during points in the film where a significant aspect of their character is revealed and we get a better understanding of the people occupying Fuller’s world. During Thelma Ritter’s introductory scene in Captain Tiger’s office, the camera is kept at bay until Tiger asks Moe about the status of her “kitty” (her savings which is simply a big wad of cash). Moe has been saving up scratch from her legitimate business front of selling men’s neck-ties on the street and also her informant money so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral and all the trimmings. She tells Tiger that she’s almost has enough for the headstone and the exclusive plot on Long Island where you have to be screened before they “let you in there.” Tiger warns her that she better be careful about carrying around such a large wad of cash, especially with the ne’er-do-wells she associates with otherwise she’ll end up in Potter’s Field. Tiger’s words act as a vacuum to the feisty and energetic flame in Moe’s eyes. Her face drains only to be refilled quickly with a grave look of concern that comes over her as the camera gets to an intimate distance with her face. She confides to the police Captain, “Look Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter’s field… It’d just about kill me.” There are several moments in the film like this where such a small aspect reveals so much about the different character’s desires, fears and motivations.

As if the fantastic story isn’t enough, “Pickup” has many complex and fascinating themes permeating the film. One I discovered on a recent viewing is the interesting dichotomy between reliance on the male dominated world in which Moe and Candy operate to survive and their struggle with maintaining independence and autonomy. Moe needs men to buy her neck-ties and Captain Tiger to help feed her kitty. Candy needs men to earn a living by being the “eye” type of her namesake. The viewer gleans that Candy floats from the arm of one guy to the next but it’s not something she’s particularly proud of. When his tail is on the line and he needs a lead as to who lifted the microfilm from her purse, Joey asks Candy, “You’ve knocked around a lot. You know people who know people.” Candy’s face tenses up and Fuller gives the audience another telling close-up as she snarls, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” Due to the nature of their professions Moe and Candy can’t afford to get too close to anybody, yet simultaneously they have a pragmatic need for connecting with people. But beneath these same necessary connections of survival stirs an emotional longing to unite with others on a human level. Unexpectedly and briefly, Candy and Moe seem to find this commonality with each other via Skip acting as an inadvertent catalyst. It’s an interesting dynamic and brief exploration of such between these two women, especially for the patriarchal and straight-laced era in which the film was made.

There are so many little touches to “Pickup on South Street” that help make it one of the finest film noirs I’ve ever seen. I love the way a streetwise character named Lightning Louie uses chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant to pocket cash on the table. I adore Moe as she’s working angles as an informer and simultaneously trying to sell her ties or as she calls them “a complete line of personality neck-ware.” I never tire of the scene where Moe deduces that Skip is the microfilm thief by the individual method in which he lifts Candy’s wallet because Moe knows each pickpocket’s methods are as distinct and unique as a fingerprint. I crack up over the way Skip keeps his beer cold in his unconventional hideout and offers a cop one by nearly hurling the bottle at him from across the room. I love it when Candy realizes her wallet has been lifted while she’s inside the lobby of a building and somewhere outside the sound of an alarm goes off. I love the existential acceptance shown by Skip when he realizes that Moe told Candy where he was hiding out and he embraces her being a stool-pigeon by quipping “Moe’s alright, she’s gotta eat.” These are just a few samples of many, many details and nuances in “Pickup” that make up an aggregate of mesmerizing and near flawless filmmaking. One viewing of “Pickup on South Street” is not enough to fully appreciate its genius, but one viewing will certainly whet the thirst of any true film-lover enough to continue going back and drink from this refreshing well, again and again.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Night and the City (1950)

Editor's note: Things continue to be busy here at the blog. There are two Noir of the Week articles coming up in the next few days. This one's unique because I haven't read any of Dr. Mayer's writing and I've yet to get a copy of the book, Encyclopedia of Film Noir.It was co-written by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell and was just published last month.
I asked Dr. Mayer to tell us a little about the book:

"Part 1 contains five chapters which examine readings on film noir, including what is film noir, the Hard-Boiled Influence, Film Noir and the City, McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Film Noir Style. Part 2 incudes entries on more than 150 films, including ‘
Night and the City’, and 60 actors and directors. While most of the films selected are American, there is a sizable coverage of British Film Noir. Hence ‘Night and the City’ is an apt choice because it was produced by a Hollywood studio, Twentieth Century Fox, with American stars (Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe) and an American director (Jules Dassin), who was about to be blacklisted in Hollywood - but it was filmed in London in 1949. This confluence of influences resulted in one of the most powerful noir films ever produced - both stylistically and thematically."

The following is a excerpt from the book:

By Geoff Mayer

NIGHT AND THE CITY (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950)-Director: Jules Dassin; Script: Jo Eisinger, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh; Cinematography: Max Greene; Music: Franz Waxman; Cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Francis L. Sullivan (Phillip Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorious), Mike Mazurki (the Strangler), Edward Chapman (Hoskins), Maureen Delaney (Anna O’Leary), James Hayter (Figler).

This is a key noir film. Filmed in London in 1949, Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, sent director Jules Dassin to Britain as he was about to be expelled from the studio following orders from New York because of his left-wing political sympathies. Zanuck told Dassin to start filming Jo Eisinger’s script for Night and the City as soon as he could and he also told Dassin to film the most expensive scenes first so that it would be costly for the studio to remove him from the film. Zanuck also asked Dassin if he could develop a role for one of the studio’s most important female stars, Gene Tierney, as he wanted to get her away from Hollywood following a failed romance.

Dassin did not have time to read Gerald Kersh’s book, published in 1938, and his interest in the project was both formal and ideological. He wanted to present London as an urban nightmare with night for night shooting at a time when it was still difficult to generate sufficient light for extended night scenes, especially those filmed in long shot. Dassin, however, received the cooperation of many London businesses who agreed to leave their lights on at night so as to assist the filming. As a result, Night and the City is one of the strongest examples of film noir expressionism and it presents London as an urban hell - a world of dark shadows, desperate individuals and derelict buildings. Tourist landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, along with other parts of the city, were transformed into a consistent vision of urban hell, a perfect encapsulation of a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys and moral corruption.

Dassin was also attracted to the film’s overarching theme based on the destructive effect of money and ambition and Night and the City is one of the toughest, bleakest films ever produced by a major Hollywood studio. The film’s opening sequence was developed by Zanuck who jettisoned the more conventional, and softer, opening scenes in Eisinger’s script. Zanuck wanted to emphasise Fabian’s vulnerability from the start. The film begins with Harry Fabian, a cheap American-born scam artist, running through the desolate streets of London, and the film ends in the same way with Fabian running for his life through the same wasteland until he is executed by nemesis, The Strangler, with his body dumped into Thames at Hammersmith. In between these events the film traces the downward spiral of Fabian as he tries to live down failed investments and ‘be somebody’. In the past Fabian’s activities have caused suffering to his girlfriend Mary Bristol, Now he is doomed. He overreaches himself when he tries to compete with men such as Kristo when, striving to lift himself out of the world of small time crime, manipulates himself into the position of wrestling promoter when Kristo’s father, Gregorius, and his wrestling protégé Nikolas, become disenchanted by Kristo’s demeaning exploitation of the wrestling business. Fabian exploits this rift by promising Gregorius that he will promote classical Greco-Roman wrestling but, short of funds, Fabian gets caught between Helen Nosseross’s desire to leave her husband and start up her own night-club and Phil’s jealousy and sexual frustration. Fabian accepts money from both parties and this, eventually, leads to his downfall when, in financial desperation, he tries to provoke Gregorius into fighting The Strangler. Fabian loses control of the situation and when Gregorius dies after subduing The Strangler, Kristo sets the London underworld onto Fabian with the promise of a bounty for his head.

This sets up the film’s magnificent final act as Harry seeks refuge amongst the denizens of London’s underworld only to discover that, except for his surrogate mother, Anna, and Mary, nobody will help him. His unsentimental death lacks any sense of glamour. Fabian, as Dassin constantly reminds us with his mise-en-scene, is doomed from the start. He is a tragic figure who, as one character tells him, is ‘an artist without art’ who overreaches himself. Fabian grasp of an unstable world is shown to be untenable right from the start and, at the film’s conclusion, he runs through the nightmarish streets lamenting that he ‘was so close to being on top’. The film concludes with his death as his body is dumped into the Thames.

At times, the doomed protagonists of film noir assume some of the dramatic characteristics of tragedy, particularly when they over-stretch themselves. Richard Widmark’s Harry Fabian, at times, assumes this tragic persona. At other times he approximates his giggling psychopath persona from his trademark performance as Tommy Udo in his debut film Kiss of Death (1947). Overall, he is a spiv, a con man sent out to ‘The American Bar’ to persuade gullible American tourists to follow him back to Nosseross’s Silver Fox club where ‘hostesses’, trained and drilled by Helen Nosseross, can fleece their victims. He dies when he tries to move out of this limited sphere. In his attempt to ‘be somebody’ and raise money to promote a legitimate wrestling match, Fabian takes the audience on a tour of London’s underbelly as he visits, firstly, The Fiddler who runs a scam involving beggars with fake disabilities (The Fiddler, who eventually betrays Harry near the end of the film, offers to set Harry up with his own operation involving ‘a few good beggars’), then Googin who forges birth certificates, passports and medical licences and finally Anna O’Leary, who deals in stolen nylons and cigarettes. This is a world devoid of ‘normal people.

Night and the City was a startling production from a major Hollywood studio due largely to its almost total lack of sentimentality. American director Jules Dassin and actors Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, and Hugh Malowe joined talented British actors, such as Francis L. Sullivan as the love-stricken Phillip Nosseross and Googie Withers as his venal wife Helen, and German cinematographer Max Greene who gave Dassin the depth of field and unusual compositions he wanted. Greene and Dassin filmed many scenes just prior to sunrise so as to accentuate the film’s sense of fatalism.

When Dassin returned to the United States for post-production work on Night and the City he was, due to the fact that his left-wing past had become public, was prevented from entering the studio and had to convey his ideas with regard to the film’s post-production to editors Nick De Maggio and Sidney Stone and composer Franz Waxman by phone as they were too frightened to meet him in person due to possibility of any direct association with Dassin may have damaged their careers. The film received, mostly. Negative reviews in the United States and Britain, possibly affected by the political climate, and performed poorly at the box office. Dassin did not direct another film, the wonderful Rififi, for five years. Night and the City was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as the doomed protagonist, but the change of setting to New York, and a more sentimental perspective, weakened the film and it is an inferior version.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Posted by Mappin & Webb Ltd.

Dir. Henry Hathaway

As our film begins a narrator informs us over the opening shots of a bustling Manhattan that, “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings… for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) a former jail-bird, trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them because, “this is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” Nick gets caught at the end of this tense scene where he is seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. As he is about to escape their grasp, into the streets of New York, when a cop shoots him in the leg, dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. The narrator informs us that this event mirrors the fate of Nick’s father who died twenty years earlier with a policeman’s bullet in his back. He was escaping from a robbery he just committed when young Nick witnessed his father’s death and sadly enough it was one of his earliest memories. When the violins die down Nick is looking at plenty jail time but he has a way out.

Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) is a family man who tells Nick that if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to talk even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and tries to give him a way to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at the prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo, but Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his mouth shut.

Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of financial worries and her drinking too much. Upon hearing the news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray) a young woman who used to take care of his daughters and quit and moved away before Nick’s wife treated her melon like a bundt cake. Nettie and Nick have a connection and he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters.

Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick decides to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before when Nick was being sentenced and they wound up in the same cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here. Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo proves it later when he has to silence a potential informer and ends up lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and proceeds to push her tumbling down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.

Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick purposely bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married, he has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame they try to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.

This movie is entertaining overall but not much else in terms of the film as a whole. I don’t feel like director Henry Hathaway covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777.” The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending that nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some flair or panache leaving it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer who between them have written such gems as “Notorious” “Spellbound” “His Girl Friday” “Mutiny on the Bounty” “The Thing from Another World” and “Oceans Eleven” just to name a few (Even more impressive is Hecht’s uncredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his imdb page and be in awe). All that being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that make this movie stand out from the pack.

Victor Mature is truly effective in his role as Nick Bianco as he can balance a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.

If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching this film it’s definitely the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding, as he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Posted by Tim M.

Director: Elia Kazan

In the dark shadows above a dingy restaurant in the French quarter of New Orleans a card game is being played. One of the players is an illegal immigrant, fresh off the boat and riding a winning streak that’s netted him a nice little stack of bills at the table. Now he says he wants out of the game. His unlucky opponent Blackie (Jack Palance) craves a chance to win his money back and is not going to let him go so easily. Oddly enough the player anxious to call it quits doesn’t want to leave the game because he’s up in winnings and wants to walk away with a wad of cash. He is sweating profusely, looks like hell and is complaining of being very ill. He says he’s so sick, that he has to go home to lie down and then breaks away from the game under protest from the other players. Palance and his crony Raymond (Zero Mostel) and another cohort follow this man out into the streets, across a train yard and outside a warehouse, demanding his money (in an amazingly shot, single long-take). The card game winner starts to defend himself from Raymond and the other Blackie henchman but his hand is folded for good with a couple of slugs from the piece of Palance. As his money is pocketed by Blackie, the audience may think that the movie they’re about to watch involves a murder by some street hoods in the Big Easy. However, what is about to unfold is a crackling, unconventional noir set in the New Orleans underworld that touches on social and moral issues stemming from the possibility of a global disaster which has origins beginning at the microscopic level.

Cut to the next day and our card game winner is fished out of the harbor and brought to the morgue. The man performing the autopsy notices the incredible amount of white blood cells coming from this man’s bullet wounds. Something doesn’t look right and he notifies the Feds. Next we see a nice domestic scene with our lead man Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and his son played by Tommy Rettig (“Laaaaasie!”) doing some painting in the front yard. Barbara Bel Geddes is Widmark’s wife and she calls him in to the house to tell him that his boss called and he is needed downtown. Widmark begins to change and puts on his uniform as his professional identity is Lt. Commander/Dr. Clinton “Clint” Reed, U.S. Public Health Service and all the while Bel Geddes is gently prodding him that their tab at the local grocery store has become an astronomical 42 dollars. Reed says he’ll figure out a way to pay it and we are made aware that this man is not making a great living as a doctor for the government yet we will also find out he has responsibility for which no salary may be adequate.

Widmark shows up to the morgue and determines that while the bullets may have killed our unlucky card player, he was infected with pneumonic plague and whomever he had come into contact with will be dead within 48 hours without serum inoculation. While Dr. Reed does a fine job of inoculating everyone who has come into contact with the body including police, morgue workers and so forth, the one man likely carrying the plague they have not discovered is the murderer (Jack Palance) of the dead card player. The tricky part is they have to find the killer without letting anyone know that they are looking for him. The reason being that mentioning the plague could set off a panic in the population as generally the word “plague” seems to put people on edge and take sudden long unexpected vacations far from home. If that wasn’t difficult enough they have yet to identify the body itself. It’s much harder to find a killer when you don’t know who has been bumped-off. The mayor assigns New Orleans police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to help Widmark find their man to incarcerate a killer and more importantly, contain a pandemic.

From this point Widmark and Douglas set off in an unconventional type of investigation for the noir genre as it turns out many people have come into contact with the murdered, card playing, plague carrier. Instead of roughing up plague exposed uncooperative suspects, Widmark threatens to hold out inoculating them until they cough up pertinent information about their investigation (is it a Hippocratic suggestion or oath that doctors take?). Eventually they narrow down the investigation and what ensues is a fantastic cat and mouse game between Widmark and Palance to the very end of the film. Within this dynamic exist intriguing moral and social issues brought to the attention of the viewer by the director.

Panic in the Streets
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Elia Kazan was no stranger to making pictures with social messages and moral dilemmas (“Gentleman’s Agreement” “Pinky” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” just to name a few) and “Panic” was no exception. Widmark gives a great speech about this potential epidemic not just being about New Orleans, but the world and how we as humans are all interconnected. May not sound like much today but this type of progressive speech was uncommon for 1950 I’d wager. The issue of freedom of press vs. public safety is a theme also touched upon as a reporter character named Neff (“Double Indemnity” nod?) is thwarted by Widmark and Douglas from scooping the story. Their reasoning is they don’t want to cause a panic and also have the killer flee town, but does the public have a right to know about this potential plague to protect their families and themselves? This plague is also a metaphor for crime as a disease and how it poisons principles and may infect many who come into its contact regardless of their moral constitution.

The shining aspects of the film manifest in several areas and the casting and acting are certainly included. Paul Douglas is solid as the police captain who reins it in from his usual comedic relief parts and Barbara Bel Geddes is fine as Widmark’s wholesome wife. She works well in some key, unconventional love scenes with Widmark where they are both longing to be close to one another but she must keep at a physical distance because he may be contaminated. Zero Mostel is perfectly cast as Blackie’s sleazy and degenerate underling and Jack Palance (in his motion picture debut) is fantastic as the heavy. He has just the right balance of menace, and believability as an underworld player who may explode with violence at any moment. This young Palance has a very swarthy, gaunt and creepy look going for him, which adds to his presence as a nefarious element one wouldn’t want to cross. Richard Widmark earns serious kudos in my book for this film, as I believe it may be his finest role. He maintains a balance of controlled distress at the potential cataclysmic events that may unfold and passionate determination in his quest to stop both a human and microscopic killer alike. Dr. Clint Reed comes off in a believable and compelling fashion because Widmark brings so much to the table as an empathetic and tough leading man protagonist that when watching him in “Panic” one forgets all about Tommy Udo (“Kiss of Death”), Harry Fabian (“Night and the City”), Skip McCoy (“Pickup on South Street”) and his other villain or anti-hero roles for which he is associated.

The aspect of this film that shines the most is Kazan’s use of the camera. In many of the shots the characters are constantly moving about in the frame creating a edginess to the scenes but Kazan makes the dance between the actors and the camera seem effortless. He incorporates these amazing long takes that may begin on a group of characters and several minutes later we have moved about them and end on a close up. Many of these extended single takes are sans dialogue and remind me of some of the silent Fritz Lang films in their mastery of telling a story with only the camera. Kazan moves the films story along visually in a way that is so impressive it must be seen to be appreciated. This was all photographed under the masterful hand of Joseph McDonald who does a fantastic job of capturing the visual flavor of New Orleans with help from the gritty, authentic locations. He and Kazan also use real New Orleans people as extras and in small parts that give the film a neo-realist quality and genuine look that Hollywood couldn’t replicate.

Panic in the Streets” is a true gem that deserves more credit that perhaps it has received over the years. Apparently at the end of his career, Kazan felt it was one of his most well crafted and important films amongst his very impressive body of work. The script (Edward and Edna Anhalt of “The Sniper” and “The Young Lions”), filming, acting and direction that comprise “Panic in the Streets” are of the highest calibers across the board. The ending chase scene through the coffee warehouse is worth the price of admission alone; however, I practically guarantee one viewing will only make you concur with Kazan’s self-appraisal of his stellar film.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Street with No Name (1948)

This film is appropriate as an emergency fill and purely a coincidence with Jay’s post this morning on Widmark. I, too, viewed the film in recent days after failing on a couple of occasions to get through its early government propaganda and cheesy patriotic opening theme march. I bought it along with Nightmare Alley upon on its DVD releasebut it sat on my shelf for a good 1 ½ months before I finally forced my way through to the decent movie inside. While this isn’t a great film by any means, it’s well worth viewing for noir fans for myriad reasons.

I don’t know if J. Edgar Hoover had stock in 20th Century Fox but a number of films from that in the late 1940s lot begin with the hokey government rigmarole -- House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets, et al -- set this kind of staid official tempo. And of course, other studios utilized this format as well. Street With No Name might be the most insufferable at the outset, what with Hoover’s scary warning over a teletype that if gangsterism continued to go unchecked, 3 of 4 Americans would eventually be a victim of violent crime. We can only imagine how that must have played in Peoria in 1948. But the dramatic film itself might be one of the best.

Almost a full 10 minutes at the start of the film come off like a government training documentary with on-location scenes at FBI labs in Washington and agent training facilities in Quantico, Va. As stated, I had to turn it off a couple of times (I did the same thing with 92nd Street when I watched that film as well). I simply didn't believe it was going to shift gears the way it did but I kept returning to reviews that said hang in there. That's my best advice if you haven't seen it: Hang in there.

If you can stick out the opening, Street With No Name settles into a pretty entertaining little film with a great grimy urban look. It kicks in at the point Mark Stevens is finally selected by FBI honcho Lloyd Nolan to go undercover in Richard Widmark’s military-style gang of thieves and get enough info to tip off the FBI on a major heist.

Widmark drives the film as the central criminal Alec Stiles. He’s not the loony laughing creep of Kiss of Death but a more intellectually sinister character with a paranoia about germs and dirty air. He uses an inhaler. He beats his wife. He seems to have some sort of kooky relationship with one of his henchmen, who possesses the perfect thug nickname of Shivvy. He doesn’t trust anybody and has an intuitive sense when something isn’t quite right.

In short, in just his second film role, Widmark crafts a villain with fascinating and frightening depth. Stevens, on the other hand, is a little more one-dimensional as the undercover agent. Even when he’s chain-smoking and acting tough, he isn’t terribly convincing. Doesn’t matter. Widmark carries everybody along to the climax.

The plot is papier-mache. The FBI is trying to bust up Stiles’ gang and also pin a murder on him by matching bullets from his special luger, which he keeps in a dark cellar vault along with with gang’s arsenal of other weapons. When Stevens sees the luger upon his first visit to the vault and asks one of the henchman if he can use it, Shivvy immediately dissuades him and gives him another one. That sets up the best scene in the movie -- and the climactic one -- when Stevens goes to the vault alone to try and get a fired slug from the luger so the FBI can attempt to match it with some they have on file. Widmark smells a rat, goes to the location and sees a flashlight in the window and the final confrontation plays out.

This film convinced me I need to have every Widmark noir in my collection and maybe some more non-noirs as well. The man is simply a brilliant actor and it’s a shame he never won an Academy Award for any of his superbly played roles. His daughter has apparently pushed for an honorary statuette for several years but Widmark himself, who is now in his 90s, wants no part of the pursuit. Good for him. Oscar or no, he will forever be an icon on The Blackboard.

The movie itself? Ultimately, it’s a solid watch. The dark nighttime location street scenes, shot by in L.A. by cinematographer Joe MacDonald (Dark Corner, Panic in the Streets, Call Northside 777) are wonderful while the basement vault scenes, shot in almost pitch-black, are as effective as you’ll find in noir. It’s quite a contrast to the bright sunlight shots of Washington D.C. that open the film.

The movie also offers a few familiar noir character actors. John McIntyre, in a different kind of role for him, plays an undercover agent to decent effect (he’s a street bum). Nolan, as stated, is wasted as the FBI boss in charge of the case. Ed Begley is also in the film, as if anyone would ever notice. He has no real dramatic scenes as a police chief. He’s totally slumming. What a waste.

Barbara Lawrence had potential as Widmark’s abused bleach-blond moll, but her role is underdeveloped. Her best scene is when she walks past the gang’s card game and verbally exposes one of the player’s good hands, but that’s as feisty as she ever gets. The beating Widmark gives her in the film might as brutal as any act of spousal abuse in the 1940s or 1950s. It’s positively chilling. He’s not just slapping. He’s slamming.

One can only imagine director William Keighley’s marching orders from Fox about how to go about making this film, but once the opening FBI nonsense is dispensed with, the dramatic scenes are in expert hands. Keighley, if nothing else, knew how to direct a film with bad guys in it. In the 30’s, he was in the chair for such films as G Men, Bullets or Ballots, Each Dawn I Die and Brother Rat. This was one of his final films and probably his last good one.

If you can stomach the first 10 minutes and the corny conclusion, noirheads should enjoy this Street With No Name. I did, once I got to the meat of the drama and the first scene with the great Richard Widmark.