Archive for June, 2009

“Thieves’ Highway” – Jules Dassin (1949)

June 28, 2009

Richard Conte drives a truckload of apples to “Frisco” and all hell breaks loose. Between its fond look back at They Drive By Night (the great A.I. Bezzerides was responsible for both stories), Lee J. Cobb playing Johnny Friendly’s mercifully toned down Doppelgänger, the pre-Interstate views of California highways, an unostentatious solidarity with the working stiff, and half the movie being shot at the corner of Washington and Davis, where S.F.’s chaotic old produce market has long given way to anonymous concrete nothingness, there’s a lot of texture and richness here. Also notable for the hero dumping his killjoy fiancee in favor of a streetwalker who sketches out a game of Tic-tac-toe on his bare chest with her fingernails—clearly the right choice. (Valentina Cortese handles a shot-glass with panache to spare.) Jack Oakie was stone-deaf by ’49 but he too is pitch-perfect when breaking the news that a friend’s been killed in a trucking mishap: “He broke down alright, but he didn’t send any word.” And bonus points for the pair of farmer’s kids who try to halt an avalanche of spilled apples—a financial disaster—by throwing throw their bodies onto the ground, as if covering live grenades. It’s a beautiful but futile effort, as so many efforts are.


Things We Won't Be Reading Today

June 26, 2009

Jackson dies, almost takes Internet with him
Would the Moonwalk Be Easier To Do on the Moon?
World’s tallest dog loses leg to cancer
What Is Jeff Goldblum Doing on Law & Order?
36 Hours in Cork, Ireland

on this day

June 25, 2009

“Criss Cross” (Siodmak 1949)

June 23, 2009

Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross opens with a young and almost absurdly handsome Burt Lancaster returning home to L.A., only to find that his ex-wife (a yummy Yvonne De Carlo) is keeping time with a gangster played by Dan Duryea. It’s a given that the lovers will begin seeing each other on the sly, leading to the perfectly staged moment when Duryea catches them together and Lancaster, seeking a move both face-saving (for Duryea) and life-saving (for himself), invites the mobster to join him in an armored truck robbery. What’d normally be a rickety turning point is something more here, mainly because it’s debatable whether Lancaster’s tactic is a spontaneous stall or a gambit he’s been planning all along.

Lancaster turns out to be, not one of those heroes who knows how to dig his way out of every jam, but a hero closer to Jake Gittes, who doesn’t notice the dirt piling up on top of him until it’s too late. Movies usually portray stupidity far too literally, via characters who talk in duhhh, slowed-down voices and who can’t tie their shoes without spilling pancake batter all over the floor. But stupidity’s more interesting than that. We’ve all known smart stupid people (either book-smart or street-smart, and sometimes even both), those experienced, articulate, and often very funny people who nevertheless make the worst decisions in the world, and who even in the ensuing shambles still can’t catch a clue. Lancaster’s Steve is one of those. He’s smooth and good-looking and he talks a great game, but the dumb SOB can’t even see where the corners are, much less what’s around them.

The scene in which the crooks plan out their caper is a gem, highlighted by the appearance of an old rummy mastermind (Alan Napier), who, with the right amount of liquor poured down his throat, can still conjure up a foolproof way of getting around the cops. The same scene includes a beautifully pensive shot of De Carlo, temporarily neglected by her suitors, and posed before a window as the Angel’s Flight trolley cranks its way up Bunker Hill in the twilight behind her. That sense of place and of specific times of day–whether it’s a stretch of eerily open highway or a mildewed bar in the late afternoon–is one of Criss Cross‘s great strengths, but it’s the unexpected wrinkles of character that make it a strangely touching affair.

Late in the film, after the robbery, with its double-crosses, clouds of tear-gas, and promiscuous sprays of automatic gunfire, has gone as smoothly as movie heists so often do, and the gangsters are either running for their lives or gunning for the other survivors, Lancaster–now confined to a hospital bed–pays growing heed to an inscrutable dweeb named “Mr. Nelson” who’s been hanging around outside his room. Unsure of the man’s intentions, Lancaster confronts him, making a point of wondering out loud about the suspicious bulge in Mr. Nelson’s coat pocket. Shyly, almost coquettishly, Mr. Nelson produces a  salesman’s order book–an act that settles nothing in anybody’s mind. This stammering, needle-nosed homunculus, who may or may not be a contract killer, in real life went by the name Robert Osterloh–a character actor who did a slew of TV work and who (often as not uncredited) appeared in a gallery of films ranging from White Heat to Rosemary’s Baby. That’s a pretty good run no matter which way you cut it, and his soft-spoken, nerve-jangling hesitation near the end of Criss Cross is one of the best reasons for seeing it.

this week’s download, part uno

June 22, 2009

Yea, some lessons abideth, not the least of which is this: Tyrone Power and Gary Cooper usually bore me unto tears. So naturally this week’s lines of inquiry flew me into a cloudbank of both men’s movies. I was only following up on some directors that interest me–Cromwell, Mamoulian, Aldrich–leading me to, respectively, Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, The Mark of Zorro, and Vera Cruz. All of ’em are duds, though Vera Cruz is probably the best of them. Like Sweet Smell of Success it’s a Hecht-Lancaster production, and again Lancaster gave himself the charismatic villain’s role, but it’s one of those Lancaster performances where he won’t stop grinning, and set against those pearly white choppers his deep Mexican tan makes you want to rush the man to a dermatologist. Son of Fury‘s supporting cast includes George Sanders lifting his nose at everyone, Roddy McDowall (still called “Master” in the credits), John Carradine, and Frances Farmer (in her last film before her mental problems took over her career) and a story which–on paper anyway–should’ve been thrilling in the hands of the studio system: a lad who’s been robbed of his inheritance by a scurrilous uncle seeks revenge after growing to manhood. But Power is at the movie’s center, and escaping Sanders’ clutches he sails to an island paradise where he falls in love with Gene Tierney–his perfect mate since she’s another beautiful cipher. (Their early scene together, when Tierney’s character can’t yet speak English and Power is cheerfully spelling out S-K-Y in the sand for her, is the kind of dramatic black hole that makes me yearn for a can of Colt .45 and Rush Limbaugh’s show.)

Mamoulian’s The Mark of Zorro‘s bland look and lack of crackle make it hard to believe it came from the same hand as Applause or Love Me Tonight, and its sense of character is none too strong either. Power’s transformation from colonial lounge-lizard to closet revolutionary takes place entirely between his ears: one moment he’s a social gadfly who looks down on the peon class, and in the next he’s a Mexican Abbie Hoffman who’s doing some serious fucking around with Basil Rathbone’s action. Perhaps living in an age when every other feature that’s released seems to be a superhero movie has made a masked hero’s origin story the most interesting thing about him, so it’s a drag when we don’t even get to see Don Diego putting together Zorro’s costume or  nom de guerre–suddenly he’s just out there poking Mexican lancers through the heart. The Mark of Zorro does offer a view of Eugene Pallette in tonsure and monk’s robes, though; with movies like this one, one has to take one pleasures where one can.

That’s also the situation with The Snake Pit, Anatole Litvak’s 1948 muckraking picture about insane asylums. The picture opens with Olivia de Havilland having already cracked up and now committed to a “state home,” one of those gloomy, Gothic institutions, built anywhere between 1880 and 1950, that were designed to warehouse ghastly heartbreaks. 90% of the movie is standard issue Freudian drama, grounded mostly by Olivia’s therapy sessions with the asylum’s one sensitive doctor, a man who encourages her to relive the crucial traumatic episodes of her life. To the movie’s credit no one flashback is allowed to stand in as  “the cause” of her madness; sadly, much of the story is delivered in a routine way, and the nurses and doctors are painted–over-painted–as insensitive, manipulative louts and near-monsters. (When de Havilland falls apart in a staff interview, no one seems to think it might have something to do with the doctor who’s been yelling questions at her and shaking his finger an inch from her nose.)

But the picture has a couple of things that got snagged in my memory. In two or three places de Havilland is surrounded by her fellow inmates, and the group of actresses recruited for these scenes simply act the shit out of their parts: it’s a dazzling collection of eccentric-to-utterly-insane miens and behavior. And very late in the picture, when the inmates are gathered in a long, narrow hall for a music assembly, one of the patients, a straw-haired woman with a Depression-era gauntness to her face, begins to sing “Goin’ Home,” the lyrics that William Arms Fisher wrote for the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”. The gorgeous, melancholy music, and the plaintive words–“Mother’s there expectin’ me/Father’s waitin’, too/Lots o’ folk gathered there/All the friends I knew”–that blend homecoming and peace of mind with thoughts of Death and Heaven, are juxtaposed against the inmates’ faces, now momentarily uplifted by song. In that moment, the whole idea of “mental health” becomes something more than a theme or social issue; it becomes something like a metaphysical metaphor for everyone’s struggle against the slings of fortune, outrageous and otherwise.

Four Eyes

June 18, 2009

The Short's Happy Life

June 10, 2009

Some nice news: a short (19-minute) film I wrote, The Hemingway Night, has been invited to the Palm Springs International Film Festival (June 23-29, 2009). It was directed by my good friend Gary Mairs, who teaches film at CalArts in Valencia, CA; it was also Gary’s idea that I turn this blog post into a script.

I can’t say I have much objectivity left about the script or the film, and I’ve even become removed from the underlying events by the mere passage of time. It was still a shock to hear that more than one person finds the characters “unpleasant,” especially since the one dubbed “Terry” is practically a hologram of myself in my twenties. Also, once an initial outburst of energy had passed through my system, it wasn’t at all an easy task to write the damn thing, to the point where I couldn’t find a satisfactory ending until, literally, the last day I had to work on it. (And even then it just came to me, was there in my head when I woke up that morning, and I had to scramble to the computer to get it down before it evaporated.) That’s not the best way of writing anything, but Gary and the actors, Jan Johnson and Dave Nordstrom, put the script through some intense rehearsals and did a great job of papering over its rough patches. Gary and Jan are also responsible for my favorite thing in the film: the two or three oh-shit closeups of Jan’s character, Leon, glowering from behind his glasses, and doing a long, slow boil over his broken marriage. Together they provide a pretty hairy view of a man who’s been stewing in his juices too long.

new pickin’s

June 10, 2009

Garden of Evil – 1954 Henry Hathaway Western that takes the Cinemascope-Technicolor combination and runs with it. Cooper, Widmark, and company agree to help stacked and starchy Susan Hayward rescue her husband from the gold mine he’s trapped in. Problem is, the mine’s located deep in an Apache-held section of the Mexican interior, and the pain-in-the-ass Hayward is keeping its exact location a secret. Naturally, the men do whatever they can to help, mostly by snapping at each other and growing evermore pussy- and gold-obsessed as they move along the trail. The inarticulate script blunders its way around the movie’s moral questions; it’s the kind of movie where even small talk is delivered contemptuously to convince us of the characters’ toughness, and everyone gets a turn to show off their explosiveness. (Except for Cameron Mitchell. When he starts acting the ass, Cooper throws him into the campfire—twice!—before falling in a third time on his own. That’s when he starts crying.) And yet it’s worth seeing. It’s a glory to look at, bearing comparison to Ballard’s work for Peckinpah, and Hathaway directs the action scenes like nobody’s business, rivaling the great Mann’s knack of actually using, instead of just photographing, his locations. The locations themselves are doozies: a cliffside trail that dwarfs, both in size and beauty, the one in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, and the main action takes place around a wall of black dried lava from Parícutin—a 40-foot tall ebony spine that runs out of both sides of the Cinemascope frame. Hayward may have been gorgeous but she could also be a terrible actor and an obnoxious presence; seeing this made me appreciate what Nick Ray got out of her in The Lusty Men.

Some other recent ones: Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen sports an unostentatious spiritual performance by Swedish actor Nils Asther, playing a Chinese warlord who develops a serious hook for the American missionary who turns up at his door. (The fact that’s she a 20-something Barbara Stanwyck might well have something to do with it.) Rather stiff in the early going, but once the film starts getting to where it wants to go, it has the most fully cinematic work I’ve ever seen by Capra (especially the stunning nighttime photography of fighting in what’s supposed to be the Chinese Civil War), and the psychological relationship between these terminally mismatched people is what Robert Frost would’ve called lovely, dark and deep. When Capra wanted to, he could make your blood run cold. He just didn’t want to often enough. Case in point: American Madness. Its completely bogus-ass ending doubles-down on the townspeople’s unbelievable rush to save George Bailey, but the bank run preceding it is something to see.

Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night opens with Stanwyck, playing a woman who’s seen some rotten luck and is now starting to feel her age, dispiritedly returning to the fishing town she fled as a youth—there’s a beautiful, perfect shot of a train coughing her up, dingy suitcase in hand, onto the corner of her old street. She’s barely gotten her legs back under her when she’s pressed into marriage by a well-meaning but paunchy and unexciting fisherman (Paul Douglas), and soon her main company consists of her new husband’s best friend, a two-bit cynic and sexual barracuda played by Robert Ryan. The odd thing about Clash by Night is that its focus slowly switches over, until the drippy husband has become its main character—it’s like experiencing The Postman Only Rings Twice from the Greek’s point of view. Still, the movie stirs up a lot of swirling emotions and has a lot of splendid moments. A sharply edited prologue shot at Monterey’s Cannery Row shows the fishing boats coming in from a night’s work, following their catch from net to sardine can—a more interesting, more visual, experience than you might imagine. Near the middle of the sequence we suddenly see a girl, presumably one of the locals, sit up in bed and let loose a yawn that stretches her jaw in an ungainly direction; a couple of minutes later and we spot her again, now at work, sorting fish on a conveyor belt. She looks like any good-looking girl working a crummy job, but it’s actually Marilyn Monroe, in her first above the title role.

Monroe’s not in the picture for long, and it’s said that she couldn’t remember her lines to save her life, but she gobbles up every scene she’s in, and it’s not just because she’s adorable in blue jeans that are a size too big for her. She has a couple of free and wholly unguarded moments—slurping up a candy-bar with one corner of her mouth, or roughhousing with her boyfriend and giving him a little sock that knocks a sloinking sound out of his jaw—that make Stanwyck and Ryan, with their squared-off postures and loaded recitations of Clifford Odets’ lines, look like the ones doing journeyman’s duty. The melodrama goes a little kudzu by the end of Clash by Night, but things like that shot of Stanwyck, and the deep sense of atmosphere in its roadhouse diners and weathered apartments, keep coming back, unbidden, to mind. They’re just the kind of things that American movies today are so sorely missing, and missing out on.

The Gay Desperado (Mamoulian 1936) has hoots both high and low. The notorious Mexican bandido Pablo Braganza, aka Leo Carrillo, is inspired by a night’s worth of American gangster flicks to reorganize his gang along the lines of the Mafia. This proves easier to say than do, of course, and his plan doesn’t really get much farther than his henchman finishing every sentence with “…or else!”, and even then they have wonder what the other alternative might be. Mischa Auer is on hand as a mute gang member who sits wrapped in his blanket, inscrutably studying the action around him; we find out what he’s thinking only with some five minutes left in the picture. The largely Anglo cast’s impersonation of Mexican bandits could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but Mamoulian had something more on his mind than a Bill Dana routine. The accents aren’t overcooked, the bandits don’t make any jokes about siesta time, and the movie is infused with a sublime (if staged) vision of Mexican deserts and haciendas. The Gay Desperado has ideas and images that beat out Sullivan’s Travels and The Wild Bunch by decades, and it’s marred only by the romantic subplot involving Ida Lupino (her British accent still in place) and Nino Martini, playing a tenor who’s recruited by the hapless brigands. By God, that Martini could sing, though.


Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951) – Follows the U.S. Army’s effort in late ’44 to recruit German POWs as spies and release them to the Fatherland to locate the Panzer divisions. It might’ve been ordinary if the studio hadn’t utilized the world’s biggest film set, and shot the film in Mannheim and other German cities that were still in ruins at the time. The movie spends most of its time mutely following Oskar Werner—a disillusioned Wehrmacht soldier who just wants the war to end so a decent Germany can get on its feet again—as he makes his way through a series of bombed-out cities. His various encounters are wisely cut off before they ossify into parables, and even his emotional reactions are often deliberately shrouded. This underplaying reaps huge dividends: after witnessing so much carnage as if from a cloud, we feel as disassociated as Werner by the movie’s end. There’s also a marvelous vignette involving Hildegarde Neff.

Murder, Inc. – This rather smelly little curio was co-directed by Burt Balaban (one of Bob’s cousins) and Stuart Rosenberg (who would go on to direct some of my least favorite films in the world), and though it’s set in the Thirties, its world looks an awful lot like 1960, which, as chance would have it, was the exact year the movie came out. It’s okay, though. Peter Falk, in his breakout role, gives a shaded portrait as Abe Reles, the notorious Mafia hitman who turned State’s evidence when it became expedient to do so, and who for his efforts was unceremoniously launched out of a seven-story Coney Island hotel window. Falk was nominated for an Oscar for this most un-Oscar-like piece of grubby storytelling. (The movie’s violence, though brief and rare, has a down and dirty twist when it does arrive—it’s scary, and it’s painful.) Falk’s Reles shares enough of Tony Soprano’s broodiness and tantrums to make one wonder whether David Chase tapped into this thing, and there’s also some decent work by May Britt when she was just short of marrying Sammy Davis, Jr. My favorite performance, though, doesn’t last more than two or three minutes, and comes courtesy of Morey Amsterdam, playing a third-string Borscht Belt comedian who’s fallen behind on his payments. A big man in his own mind, his last tangible emotion is confusion, as the pal who’s setting him up abandons him on a dusky street corner; even with his killers practically in his face, his instinct is to turn around and call out good-naturedly to his fast-disappearing friend. It’s a terrific little sketch of a born victim.

Scorsese had a hand in restoring Raoul Walsh’s 1947 Pursued, and it’s easy to see why he’d be drawn to it: it’s a florid Freudian Western/noir/psychological thriller/Gothic romance/Greek tragedy, with singing and lots of sister-kissing. Not as over the top as Johnny Guitar only because it doesn’t have a character named The Dancing Kid. Robert Mitchum is being hounded by a murderous clan for reasons we don’t understand, and he’s plagued by nightmares whose sources are shrouded in mystery, and his adopted relatives (Teresa Wright and Dame Judith Anderson) blow hot and cold towards him without rhyme or reason. (Example: Wright, his foster sister, agrees to marry him, just so she can murder him on their wedding night.) It was shot by James Wong Howe, in what looks like the Canyon de Chelly. Wherever it was shot, it looks absolutely magnificent—just like a florid Freudian Western/noir/etc. should. A marvelous moment occurs when Mitchum begins singing “Londonderry Air” and his foster kin lean forward to share in the chorus with him. Singing softly, their faces reflecting the lamplight, they seem to be basking in each other’s near presence, but if you look a little more closely you’ll see that this is a family that’s coming apart at the seams, and that they’re actually singing farewell to each other.

Crisis Counselors #1

June 4, 2009

Things We Won't Be Reading Today

June 2, 2009

Conan O’Brien takes over ‘Tonight Show’
Susan Boyle gets advice from the stars
Beatles make comeback in ‘Rock Band’
Family meets dead soldier’s dog
Is Jay McInerney a Great American Writer?
“Ocean” – A weekly poem, read by the author

Yesterday at the Roxie

June 1, 2009


It starts with a bang: an off-duty cop stumbles across two small-timers boosting a drugstore, and their confrontation doesn’t end until one robber is dead, and the other crook and the cop, kicking glass and splintered wood in every direction, have somersaulted through the front window and onto the street. (The fact that one man slams out of the window feet first, rather than via a clichéd shoulder, is the kind of touch that separates Don Siegel from the pack.) The film then settles into a nicely controlled lull, as the cop (Steve Cochran) and his partner (Howard Duff) team with a nightclub singer (Ida Lupino) to find a robber who’s been passing hot money; since their only clue is the suspect’s fondness for ponies, the three begin haunting the racetrack, hoping to trip over their prey. This gives the upright Cochran time to develop a nice, unhealthy obsession with Lupino, whose short-term sexual interest in him is constantly undercut by a long-term fondness for the pampered life. Private Hell 36 is mainly worth seeing for what occurs just after she glimpses their target speeding away from the track one day. The ensuing car chase–a breathless two minutes of tight screeching turns and increasing desperation–ends with the crook’s wrong-way plunge down a steep ravine, and when the two cops descend into the arroyo to retrieve his body, they’re greeted by a storm of paper currency blowing around their feet. The movie’s purest moment of beauty comes a second later when a phalanx of cops, caught in the late afternoon sun, alights at the crime scene.

Private Hell 36 is hardly a “good” picture, and it scarcely looks better on a screen than it does on a TV set, but it stubbornly resists giving us what we expect, and that’s a winning quality either today or any other day. Its best moments come when the low-rent moviemaking and the seamy lives of its characters strike sparks against each other, working like an under-the-table kick in the shins. When Cochran unties the strings holding up Lupino’s little sundress in order to rub her neck–his fumbling fingers juxtaposed against her bare shoulders and the cheap costume which probably represents the character’s favorite dress–the movie seems to be verging on the indecent or the calamitous. Will the top of Lupino’s dress fall down? Or–the hell with it–mightn’t the sex-crazy Cochran simply grab her breasts and knead them between his massive hairy hands? No matter how superior they seem, a Chinatown or L.A. Confidential will never pose a question like that one. Only a movie that consumes its own steam can make you wonder if it’s about to blow up in your face.


Which, apart from a joke involving the word “penchant”, is more or less a dud. (It was directed by Russell Rouse, that same auteur who gave us The Oscar.) Broderick Crawford sets the land-record for racing through dialogue (which is a good thing since he has so much of it) and Richard Conte is the hit-man making a name for himself. The film spends most of its time explaining the Syndicate’s inner mechanics for audiences which hadn’t been inundated by such info; in today’s culture, though, where some children can explain what a consigliere does, it’s strictly Mafia 101. We’re left with simpler pleasures: soaking up a yummy (if not truly ready for primetime) Anne Bancroft, playing a pre-Meadow Soprano, or enjoying the princely Conte. At one point Conte, his cigarette drooping elegantly from one hand, takes in from his armchair what’s going on around him with a watchfulness posing as deference; twenty years later, as Don Barzini, he’d employ an identical guise while measuring the Corleones.

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