Friday, May 10, 2019

The Nose of the Alligator

We drive to the French Embassy in a hired Daimler…The Churchills were the last to arrive and I was surprised to notice that when they enter, the whole room stands up as if they were reigning sovereigns.
Winston pays me lavish compliments on my speeches in the House and deplores my absence from it...He said that he had made friends with de Gaulle at last, whom he had found “much mellowed”.  He said that he had liked the Russians.  “The disadvantage of them is”, he says, “that one is not sure of their reactions.  One strokes the nose of the alligator and the ensuing gurgle may be a purr of affection, a grunt of stimulated appetite, or a snarl of enraged animosity.  One cannot tell.” 
      - Harold Nicolson, Diary, December 19, 1945

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Seattle Opera: Carmen

Saturday evening was opening night for the Seattle Opera’s excellent new production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.  Set in nineteenth century Seville, it tells the story of Don José, a soldier who falls in love with the hot-blooded and dangerous factory-girl of the title.  Once they’re together Carmen easily leads the boy astray.  Soon he abandons the army and they both join up with a group of bandits.  Along the way Carmen hooks up with Escamillo, a bullfighter, and it's with him that she finds true love.  José is soon out of the picture, but not out of the opera, where his murderous jealousy will play out in the finale.  Also in the mix is Micaëla, a sweet, innocent girl (she loves our hero, of course) sent by José’s mother to recall her wayward son to his duty.     

Carmen is often billed as a tale of passion and wild sexuality.  It is supposed to have an air of eroticism about it.  Now I don’t doubt that for some viewers the tale of this impudent cigarette-girl may set their libido ablaze.  But frankly the lass does nothing for me.  Perhaps if you were a normal bourgeois male who saw this in 1875 her insouciance and female misbehavior would have provided just the transgressive spark to blast your Victorian-era lust to new heights, but a century and a half later this is tame stuff.  The opera’s original sexual charge seems to be much more centered around issues of class and power than around anything which goes on between the sheets.  As for Carmen herself, her tale doesn’t strike me as especially dissolute: she sleeps around but then meets a guy who wins her heart.  As the pop-song puts it she “fooled around and fell in love.”  No biggie.  In fact our twenty-first century sensibilities are more likely to be offended by the fact that her boyfriend engages in the senseless slaughter of animals rather than in Carmen’s hussy past.  

Ginger Costa-Jackson and Rodion Pogossov (Photo Credit: Sunny Martini)

Part of this may be due to Bizet’s music: it’s lovely, memorable, a delight, the tunes are immediately hummable.  Listening to Carmen is the musical equivalent of walking into a candy store.  But the score hasn’t a trace of sensuality in it.  There are none of the vocal and/or orchestral surgings and climaxes that we find in Wagner or Puccini.  In fact Bizet’s music doesn’t even rise to the erotic level of the Barcarolle in Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann or the aria Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saën’s Samson et Delilah.  And perhaps that explains Carmen’s longevity; on the surface it seems risqué and naughty, but at its core - in other words, in its music - it’s clean-cut and unthreatening.  

And in the SO’s current staging it is also highly entertaining.  Director Paul Curran has wisely focused on the comic aspects of the opera.  The production is bright, colorful, at times even boisterous.  It is a lot of fun.  If there’s a children’s chorus in this opera - and there is - then it will be an adorable bunch of scamps singing and marching around the stage.  If some gypsy gals (or, “Bohemians,” if you prefer) sing a song at the beginning of Act II which has nothing to do with the story, then Curran sets them up before an old style microphone stand and turns the whole thing into a song and dance routine.  Although never camp, one senses that tongue was not unacquainted with cheek in much of this production.  Escamillo the toreador, for instance, enters on a motorcycle and is dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, and a leather jacket - in other words, he's the Fonz from Happy Days.  As the story turns darker in the second half the staging becomes more sedate but never fails to dazzle.  The sets by Production Designer Gary McCann are vivid and eye-catching, full of bold colors, multiple layers, and diagonals.  His Act III set, which simulates depth of field inside a warehouse, is breath-taking.  

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Photo Credit: Sunny Martini)
Scott Quinn was set to play Don José on opening night but came down with a cold, so instead his place was taken by Frederick Ballentine, who did a fine job in the lead.  Rodion Pogossov’s Escamillo is energetic and lively.  His clowning around during the “Toreador Song” - I believe he steals a move or two from Chuck Berry - fit in nicely with the production's light-hearted tone.  Vanessa Goikoetxea is magnificent in the role of Micaëla.  Her rendition of the Act III aria Je dis, sue rien ne m’épouvante - in which Micaëla admits to her own fears in attempting to save José - was deeply moving.  Its vulnerability and beauty really constituted the emotional heart of the drama.  And as for Carmen, Ginger Costa-Jackson is superb in the role.  She has played Carmen many times before and will no doubt continue to do so.  The role seems custom-made for her. Her dark and smokey, yet powerful, mezzo-soprano voice adds just the sultriness the part requires.  Decked out in red for much of the night she dominates the stage not only vocally but physically.  Carmen is only as alluring as the actress who portrays her and Costa-Jackson enchants.  

Carmen plays at the Seattle Opera until May 19.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

That Common Earthling

It is quite apparent that there is an aspect of Darwin’s discoveries which has never penetrated to the mind of the general public.  It is the fact that once undirected variation and natural selection are introduced as the mechanism controlling the development of plants and animals, the evolution of every world in space becomes a series of unique historical events.  The precise accidental duplication of a complex form of life is extremely unlikely to occur in even the same environment, let alone in the different background and atmosphere of a far-off world. 
In the modern literature on space travel I have read about cabbage men and bird men; I have investigated the loves of the lizard men and the tree men, but in each case I have labored under no illusion.  I have been reading about a man, Homo sapiens, that common earthling, clapped into an ill-fitting coat of feathers and retaining all his basic human attributes including an eye for the pretty girl who has just emerged from the space ship.  His lechery and miscegenating proclivities have an oddly human ring, and if this is all we are going to find on other planets I, for one, am going to be content to stay at home.  There is quite enough of that sort of thing down here, without encouraging it throughout the starry system.
      - Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1959) 

Monday, March 11, 2019

SIFF/MoPOP: Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival

Saturday afternoon was the 14th annual Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival at the Egyptian theater in Capitol Hill.  This is a joint venture of SIFF and MoPOP.  Now, it may sound like fun (after all, it sells out every year) but it is not.  In fact, it's brutal - sixteen films spread out over five hours, with a sixty minute intermission.  It's a marathon of mediocrity.  Only a handful of films are any good; the majority of them were dreadful.  And that hour intermission didn’t help.  It should have been fifteen minutes.  In fact, there shouldn’t have been an intermission.  There should only have been two hours of movies, not four.  And if we narrowed it down to the movies that weren't dreck, we would have been in and out in about forty minutes.  A handful of films were noteworthy.

In The Narrow World a gigantic alien craft lands in Los Angeles.  He hasn’t come to destroy us, or to warn us, or to even communicate with us.  In fact, he doesn’t do anything at all.  He’s a bit of a bum.  Immense and possessing insect-like wings, he goes to the beach in the mornings and then goes to watch the airplanes take off and land at LAX in the afternoon.  That’s it.  (Maybe he’s here for the weed?)  The cinematography of him wandering around LA county is magnificent.  The Narrow World is in the mock-documentary mode, and two scientists - a man and woman - separately appear on screen, each attempting to explain the alien to us.  Apparently his complete indifference to humanity has greatly demoralized the earth’s population - we just don’t matter to him, and that kind of hurts.  So far, so good - in fact, very good.  The fifteen-minute film should have ended there.  But it didn’t (here come the spoilers).  It turns out that the alien doesn’t really exist.  Those two scientists are actually lovers, and they’re going through a hard patch.  The alien is a metaphor for the man’s inability to communicate with his woman.  But the lady isn’t giving up.  She’s committed to break through and save the relationship.  End of film.  I sigh with disappointment.

From Norway comes The Restrictor.  In a society in which happiness is given out in monthly liquid doses, those who overuse it, or abuse the rules (no sharing of your allotment) are subject to punishment.  A nicely crafted film by Jade Aksnes.  Well-acted.  Good premise.  A bad guy you hate.  One may chuckle at the idea that a society in which people aren’t allowed to be too happy sounds like Norway today rather than in the future, but nonetheless this is a memorable and involving movie.

From Yves Paradis (wonderful name, let me add) comes the animated short M52, which was improvised over the course of a year, a new segment added each week.  There's not much of a story in it.  A figure pushes around a block in a strange landscape, another figure appears, they take some green pills, a tree grows, people have tea in the jungle with animals.  It all may be short on coherence, but you don’t care.  Paradis keeps you interested.  A strange but compelling ten minutes, as you can sense from the trailer above.  In all honesty I think it's best to watch this film when you’re stoned.

J. P. Chan's brief Cosmic Dental Associates of Clifton, NJ is as enjoyable as it sounds.  It’s a fake commercial about the fabulous astro-dental services available at this imaginary clinic.  If you have a comet flying around in your mouth, or remnants of the Crab Nebula are lighting up your teeth, then Cosmic Dental Associates can fix you up.  Doctors and patients give their testimonials ("We treat you like family.").  Very funny and clever.

But the best film in the festival was Brian and Charles.  Like The Narrow World, this is also a mock documentary.  Brian is a lonely sheep farmer living in Britain and one winter when he was feeling especially lonely he built his own robot, Charles.  Charles is the strangest, most shoddy-looking robot you've ever seen.  His head is not quite aligned with his torso, his arms seem to be on different planes, he's balding.  And his personality isn't particularly sparkling either.  He's a bit daft.  But none of this matters to Brian.  Charles is soon his best mate.  The friendship starts to break apart - over, of all things, cabbage - but the two are reconciled in the end.  As we all know, relationships, even with robots, take work.  This movie, directed by Jim Archer, is hilarious and yet weirdly poignant.  It's like Of Mice and Men but with a happy ending and a robot and set in England and with cabbages instead of rabbits (so in many ways, as you can see, it's much better than Of Mice and Men).  It stars David Earl as Brian and Chris Hayward as Charles.  The two men are also given the writing credits, which makes me think that this film was probably improvised by them.  It is inspiredly goofy.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Describing a Nation

Distrust the description of every nation when it can be easily described.  If a people can really be covered by an adjective, you may be certain that it is the wrong adjective. 
      - G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News
              December 5, 1908

Monday, March 04, 2019

NLFF: Woman at War

Friday evening was opening night of the 10th annual Nordic Lights Film Festival at SIFF Uptown - a weekend of the best films from Scandinavian countries and islands.  Appropriately, it is co-sponsored by Seattle’s Nordic Museum. 

The premiere film of the festival was Woman at War, a winsome and first-rate Icelandic comedy/drama about, of all things, eco-terrorism.  The woman of the title is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a forty-nine year old music teacher, who wages a one-person war against the industries disfiguring her country and destroying the global environment.  Pictures of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela hang on the wall at her home so her actions are about as non-violent as a terrorist’s actions could be.  The film opens with her out in the Icelandic countryside bringing down power lines using nothing more than a bow and arrow and some wire. Her courage, resourcefulness, and prowess with the bow make her a worthy descendant of her Viking forebearers.  But in the midst of leading this double life, she is notified by an adoption agency that an application she submitted four years earlier has now been processed and there is a young orphan girl, Nika (Margaryta Hilska), waiting for her in the Ukraine. 

One of the charms of this film is the effortless and skillful way it juxtaposes the personal and political, the small and the large, the present and the future.  Nika’s mother and father were both killed in the recent fighting in the Ukraine.  Nika went to stay with her Grandmother, but was found alone in the apartment with the grandmother dead.  She has no one.  Inclined to wriggle out of the adoption at first, Halla’s heart melts once she hears Nika’s story and sees a picture of her.  This is a good she can do now.  Halla has a twin sister, Åsa (also played by Geirharðsdóttir), a yoga instructor of deep, if occasionally silly, spirituality.  Her greatest ambition is to secluded herself in an Indian Ashram for a few years and meditate.  “Save one person and you save the world,” she tells her more aggressive twin when she learns about Nika.  We know this touches Halla to the core.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir

Director Benedikt Erlingsson, along with co-writer Ólafur Egilsson, has fashioned a thoughtful comedy about politics, responsibility, and sacrifice.  In its own way Woman at War even raises that fundamental Philosophy and Ethics 101 question - what course of life is best?  That it doesn’t answer that question definitively is to its credit.  And don’t think for a minute that Woman at War is ever preachy or self-righteous.  No, no, no.  Erlingsson is too smart a director for that.  He tells his tale and lets the viewer find any deeper meanings if they choose.  In fact, my one complaint with this film is Erlinsson's addiction to a goofy joke that, to my mind, soon wears thin.  The film’s music, composed by Davið þór Jónsson, is performed by a trio consisting of drum, piano, and tuba.  It plays in the opening scene when Halla brings down the power lines.  As she makes her getaway, the camera pans with her as she sprints through a field and we see the actual trio there in the background playing the music.  It’s a nice whimsical joke.  But Erlingsson doesn’t let it go.  The trio keep popping up throughout the film - in Halla’s home, standing on the roadside, etc. - every time the music plays.  I found this distracting and ultimately cloying, though, frankly, the rest of the audience never grew tired of it.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir and Margaryta Hilska

Geirharðsdóttir's beautiful leading performance is at the heart of this film.  It's not an easy task to make a terrorist sympathetic.  Most actors can do passion, but political passion, especially to the point of violence, is a whole other beast.  Believability is the issue; most actors are simply not convincing as terrorists, revolutionaries, etc.  (Some of them are scarcely believable as actors.)  But Geirharðsdóttir pulls it off.  We feel her commitment to her cause in every action. When Halla distributes her manifesto, literally throwing copies of it from a rooftop, the Icelandic government soon spins it to their own advantage.  Halla simply stares at the TV in shock, feeling completely powerless and even betrayed by the government's distortion of her message.  At the same time, Geirharðsdóttir manages to convey Halla's innocence in thinking they would do otherwise.  As Åsa, she has created an entirely separate character.  In that strange way of siblings, the sisters are totally different and yet very much the same.  In fact, this is as much a film about the bonds of family as it is about politics.  The beefy Jóhann Sigurðarson was also very good as Sveinbjörn, a farmer who shelters Halla when she's running from the authorities.  From their discussions we learn that they may have a common, and very randy, kinsman from the past; it turns out they may be cousins (or "alleged cousins" as Sveinbjörn puts it).  And, finally, there's the Woman at War's breathtaking cinematography by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.  Much of this film takes place in the Icelandic countryside, and Björgúlfsson's sweeping and majestic camerawork does for that landscape what Lucien Ballard did for the American West.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Seattle Opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

I saw The (R)evolution of Steven Jobs on Saturday night at the Seattle Opera.  It was bad.  Unfortunately, the main problem with it is the actual subject matter.  Steven Jobs’s life is simply not interesting enough to serve as good matter for an opera.  What did the man do?  He designed some nice products, had a tempestuous relationship with colleagues, was a total shit to his family, got cancer, died.  A worthy subject for biography?  Sure.  An important figure in American life?  No question.  But it's a life short on dramatic material.  And even the few sparks you could generate are either tedious (office politics) or banal (marital spats).  In addition, the box office failure of two biopics about Steve Jobs are evidence enough that the general public really doesn’t care about him, despite the fanboy adulation of him in some quarters.  There is much that is good in this production but, like matter being sucked into a black hole, it can’t escape the gravitational pull of the nullity at the center of it.  

John Moore and Emily Fons
(Photo Credit: Philip Newton)
With music by Mason Bates and a libretto by Mark Campbell, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is pure hagiography.  According to Bates’s comments in the program notes, Jobs was “a visionary of Jesus-like charisma.”  No.  Structured in seventeen scenes, with an additional Prologue and Epilogue, TRSJ jumps around in the life of its subject.  We get Jobs unveiling the iPhone in 2007, then Jobs taking a calligraphy class in 1974, then off to 1989 when he meets his future wife, then back to 1986 where he abuses his employees and is kicked out of his own company, etc.  Along the way he encounters the spirit of his deceased Buddhist mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, who offers him platitudes about simplicity and the importance of being present in the moment.  Jobs, in turns out, was a devout Buddhist.  (Why is it that Westerners who adopt Buddhism are usually the biggest assholes of them all?)  None of this is particularly gripping.  Imagine if instead of Steve Jobs we were dealing with an opera about, say, Thomas Edison.  We would watch him invent the light bulb, and then the phonograph, and then something else; he’d abuse the people in his workshop; he’d fight with colleagues; then he would find peace with God.  Yawn.   

But, as I said, there are some very good things in TRSJ.  Bates music is a delight.  It surges and swirls, moving always, a beautiful combination of the traditional orchestra with electronic music as well.  Jobs sings about the restlessness of his mind and Bates brings that fully to life.  Nicole Paiement, in her Seattle Opera debut, conducted with passion and command.  The singing is uniformly good.  In the title role baritone John Moore almost never leaves the stage during the opera's intermission-free 95-minute running time.  His Jobs, so unlike the real one, is a winning and at times endearing figure. The aria in which Jobs imagines the computer as "something we play" was a show-stopper.  There was good singing from Adam Lau as Kōbun and Madison Leonard as Jobs much abused girlfriend Chrisann.  Emily Fons played Jobs's wife Laurene with great sympathy and tenderness.  Because this is an electronic score, the singers need to have their voices amplified.  While purist may amplify their voices in objection, this allows the singers to lower their volume and hence increase their emotional range.  Large and hyperactive, Garrett Sorenson as Jobs's colleague Steve Wozniak was fetching.  The scene in which a young Jobs and Woz stick it to the phone company by inventing a device that allows them to make free phone calls is one of the best scenes in the opera. When Woz later denounces Jobs, Sorenson brings to it all the rage and bitterness of Alberich cursing the ring from Wagner's Das Rheingold.  And that's appropriate because the spirit of Wagner, or Wagnerism at any rate, hovers about Bates's score.
John Moore and Garrett Sorenson (Photo credit: Philip Newton)
But the most impressive performances in the show were by set designer Vita Tzykun, lighting designer Japhy Weideman, and video designers 59 Productions and Benjamin Pearcy. TRSJ is an audio-visual feast.  Six large panels move about the stage, setting up scenes and projecting images.  Sometimes they show tranquil images of mountains at sunrise, at other moments images of circuitry, sometimes the circular ēnso figure from Japanese calligraphy which so enchanted Jobs.  Surrounding the stage are bars of light. These, too, are used to great effect.  When Jobs is fired from Apple the bars of light begin to flicker wildly and the images on the panel go out of focus and seem to break up; the trauma is conveyed to us strictly using Bates's music and audio-visuals. And finally, director Kevin Newbury is to be commended for bringing together all the moving parts in this production so smoothly and effectively.  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will play at the Seattle Opera until March 9th.
Adam Lau (Photo Credit: Philip Newton)

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Noir City 2019: The Crimson Kimono/Odds Against Tomorrow

Thursday night was the end of Noir City 2019.  Sigh.  It’ll be another three hundred and fifty something days before Noir City 2020 begins.  Fortunately, there’s always Noir Alley on TCM to tide me over.  However, for those of you in Hollywood, Austin, Boston, and Chicago, Noir City 2019 is coming your way.  Go here for details, and check later in the year for updates about other cities being added to the list.  And since you’re in the Film Noir Foundation website, why not make a donation to support their efforts in film restoration, preservation, education, and appreciation.  After all, their efforts made my posts possible. Were you not entertained!?!  Of course you were.  So throw some bucks the FNF’s way in appreciation. 

And speaking of things to appreciate, before the night’s first movie, The Crimson Kimono, we were treated to a brief performance by Valtesse, a local women-owned and operated burlesque company here in Seattle.  Since The Crimson Kimono is a film about a stripper, it seemed apropos to feature some modern day practitioners of the art.  Now, I don’t know if Noir City 2019 will feature skin at its other venues throughout the country, but with its pre-show musical acts, audience members dressed in period clothes, and the nightly game of “Name that Noir” with Eddie Muller (note to contestants - "Oh, I saw that!" is not the name of a noir), these festivals are becoming a full evening’s entertainment. 

The Crimson Kimono (1959)
While investigating the murder of a stripper, two LAPD detectives (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) both wind up falling in love with the case’s key witness (Victoria Shaw).

Written, produced, and directed by Sam Fuller, this is a well-done crime thriller.  The actors are good and the plot moves along quickly.  What makes The Crimson Kimono unique, though, is the way it confronts issues of racism and, more specifically, racial intermarriage.  In fact, the murder plot winds up being mostly a frame upon which Fuller can display and deal with these social issues.  James Shigeta is Japanese-American and when he and Corbett, who’s caucasian, first meet up with Shaw, herself caucasian, a love affair between the two white folks blossoms.  Of course.  That’s what film-goers expect.  But about half-way through the film Shaw and Shigeta fall in love instead and it throws the latter into turmoil.  Issues of racial identity and self-image come to the fore.  This being a Sam Fuller movie they’re addressed much more directly than they would be in most other films of the era.

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta

Odds Against Tomorrow  (1959)
Race also takes center stage in Odds Against Tomorrow.  Dave Burke (Ed Begley), a former cop, wants to rob a bank in upstate New York.  To pull off the job he brings in Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a musician drowning in debt, and Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a racist Oklahoman with anger issues.  Things do not go as planned.

A magnificent movie.  Although Robert Wise was the director, this was Harry Belafonte’s project.  It was produced by the Harbel Company, his production company, and the only reason he was not officially listed as producer was because of concerns that certain theaters would not show a film produced by a black man.  Subterfuge also surrounded the screenplay.  The adaptation of William P. McGiverns’s novel is credited to one John O. Killens.  Killens, though, was actually a front for Abraham Polonsky, a blacklisted screenwriter.  According to festival host Eddie Muller, Belafonte handed Polonsky a copy of the novel and said “Fix it.”  What needed fixing was the relationship between Ingram and Slater in the novel once the action of the story moves to the actual heist.  The book (which I haven’t read) apparently shows Ingram and the racist Slater managing to overcome their differences, work together, and recognize each other’s common humanity.  This was also the comforting theme behind 1958’s The Defiant Ones.  Belafonte would have none of it. His vision of race relations was much more harsh and, frankly, realistic.

This is an expertly and intelligently made film.  Belafonte's Ingram is probably the best and most honest depiction of an African-American man in American film up to that time.  He's a successful musician; divorced; one kid.  He's a man of pride and character.  His fatal flaw: he gambles and he's in debt to some ugly characters.  Slater is another matter, and Ryan's performance is both scorching and moving.  The world is passing Earle Slater by.  He can't find work.  He's supported by his wife, played by Shelly Winters, who loves him.  Despite the occasional dalliance with a neighbor (Gloria Grahame), everything in the world seems to grind him down.  His response is usually violence, and if he signs on to the heist it's because, strangely, it's the most hopeful thing in his life.  It's a chance to prove himself.  This films shows how both the criminality and racial animosities of the characters emerges naturally out of the nature of their lives.  Looking down on a black man is one of the few good things Slater has left in his life.  And putting a bullet in Slater's head would be Ingram's happiest way of dealing with his own personal failures and frustrations.
Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley, and Robert Ryan
Odds Against Tomorrow is a fitting end to a film noir festival centered on the 1950s.  By 1959 the genre was effectively ending; you can feel other concerns, other visions, taking hold of the movies.  In the US, neo-noir wouldn’t surface as its own genre/style for another decade or so.  The classic era had passed.  Yet in a strange way the ending of Odds Against Tomorrow references the beginning, or a least a possible beginning, of the film noir/pulp fiction mentality, specifically the ending of Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep from 1939 (spoiler ahead).  The famous final paragraph of that book is one of transcendent, lyrical nihilism:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill?  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you.  You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
So, too, at the end of Odds Against Tomorrow, the heist has failed, our two heroes have unwisely faced off against each other atop gas tanks, which soon ignite.  The next morning the police recover their two bodies, but they're unrecognizable.  "Which is which?" a red cross attendant asks, looking at the corpses.  "Make your pick," a police replies indifferently. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Noir City 2019: Murder by Contract

Wednesday was day six of Noir City 2019.  I missed the first show, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), but I managed to attend the second film.

Murder by Contract (1958)
Claude (Vince Edwards) is a ruthless professional killer, but things go awry when he discovers that his next target is a woman.

Written by Ben Simcoe and directed by Irving Lerner, this is a fantastic movie.  It’s tough, brutal, and unrelenting.  Like most low-budget indies, it’s a little rough around the edges, but that doesn’t matter.  In fact, it helps.  It gives the film an energy and quirkiness which holds you better than more refined, and usually blander, fare.  The key word in this film’s title is really “contract”, not “murder”.  This is a film about the business of killing, or, maybe even killing as business.  Claude’s a hit-man because it’s a lucrative career choice.  He wants to buy a house (est. price $28,000), and he’ll never get that on a meager $74/week salary.  So he becomes a contract killer - it’s a rational career choice.  In fact, he’s capitalist rationality pushed to its extreme.  When he realizes that his target in LA is a woman (Caprice Toriel), he’s upset.  Woman are unpredictable, they’re “descended from monkeys”, as he puts it.  So his first thought, like a good businessman, is to double his fee from $5,000 to $10,000.  No doubt if his target was a child, he could raise it to $15,000 or $20,000.  Children are even more unpredictable (and they’re descended from monkeys, too). 

Herschel Bernardi, Vince Edwards, and Phillip Pine

Vince Edwards does a marvelous job in the lead.  He brings to Claude that one indispensable quality which most psychopaths in real life seem to have (at least to judge by American public life over the last twenty years): boundless self-confidence.  He’s the Mozart of murder, the best in the field.  When he arrives in Los Angeles on the job (this is before he knows his target’s gender), he lounges around for a couple of days - goes golfing, takes in the sights - just waiting for the right inspired moment to kill his target.  This drives his handlers in LA - Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Bernardi) - crazy.  “He’s fresh-fried out of the nut factory!” is how Marc describes Claude.  Still, both men are cowed by his confidence and menace.  Both of these qualities will collapse by the end of the film, and if in the end his professionalism fails, like a true film noir hero, Claude will go out memorably.

Eddie Muller, our Noir City 2019 host, mentioned in his introduction to Murder by Contract that this is one of the favorite films of Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese even borrowed from it - or rather paid homage to it - in Taxi Driver (1976).  One can understand the attraction.  The insight which drives the greatness of post-Vietnam American gangster films (many of them directed by Martin Scorsese) is the similarity they draw between crime and business.  From The Godfather (1971) to Breaking Bad (2008-2013) our criminal heroes are fundamentally businessmen.  If the lines between legitimate and illegitimate aren’t entirely blurred, they are certainly called into question by Jake Gittes, Henry Hill, Tony Soprano, and Stringer Bell.  And they are questioned in Murder by Contract, too.  At one point Claude asks Marc and George why he, who kills one person, is a criminal while someone who kills thousands with an atom bomb is a hero.  A satisfactory answer is not forthcoming. 

All in a day's work - Vince Edwards

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Noir City 2019: Nightfall/The Burglar

Tuesday was night five of Seattle’s Noir City 2019 film festival and it was entirely devoted to movies adapted from the works of David Goodis, one of the master’s of American crime fiction.

Nightfall (1956)
Frankly, the premise for this film is a bit of a muddle.  Here's the best I could do: Two campers (Aldo Ray and Frank Albertson) encounter a pair of bank robbers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) in the wilderness.  Aldo Ray’s pal is a doctor.  He's brought his doctor bag on the camping trip (sure, why not).  But the thieves' bag with the $350,000 looks just like the doctor's bag.  The thieves shoot the doctor dead, then they shoot Aldo Ray - but he fakes being dead.  In their hasty escape, the killers grab the wrong bag.  When they later realize that Aldo has their loot, they hunt him down, determined to get it back at any cost necessary.  Meanwhile Aldo meets a model (Anne Bancroft), and they start up a romance.

Brian Keith and Rudy Bond
A disappointment.  This film has all the right parts - directed by Jacques Tourner (who directed the 1947 classic Out of the Past) from an adaptation by Sterling Silliphant and Goodis himself - but when they come together the result is a little underwhelming.  Is it well-made?  Yes.  But a spark is missing from it.  It’s a can of soda gone flat.  And the story is a little implausible.  Aldo Ray is always getting out of jams due to amazing coincidences.  And I couldn’t help but find the initial killings and mix-up at the camp-ground unbelievable.  Aldo is shot and falls, but the bullet missed and piece of rock opens a bleeding wound on his head when he hits the ground.  The killers see this, think he’s dead, and leave.  Really?  Surely they would administer, as most professional criminals would, one in the head - just to make sure.  (By the way, One in the Head would make an excellent movie title.) 

Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray
Nevertheless, the best part of this movie - and it’s worth seeing for this - is the moment in the end when the two thieves turn on each other.  They’ve been getting on each other’s nerves, and our nerves, too, and when they reach their breaking point and aim their guns at each other it’s an electric moment.  It’s like a gigantic coil suddenly gets twisted and is ready to spring.  How good is it?  It’s sit up in your seat good.  It’s that moment in Das Boot (1981) when the sub is at the bottom, the pressure gauge is past the red, and bolts start to pop off good.  Also good in this movie?  The acting.  Aldo Ray was very sympathetic as the poor lug who got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Bancroft was cynical and fetching as his love interest.  Rudy Bond, sweaty and chortling nervously, creates a truly detestable bad guy.  I was never a big fan of Brian Keith (“Why is this high school wrestling coach in a movie?” I would always ask myself when I saw him), but after seeing Nightfall I’ll need to rethink my position on him.  I was clearly wrong about his abilities.  In the face-off between Rudy and him at the end, the former asks Keith “You don’t like me, do you?”  Keith’s response is a quiet, almost whispered, “No.”  Keith puts a lot into that “no” - it’s a confession, a regret, a death sentence, and so much more.  It was great.

The Burglar (1957)
Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) pulls off a jewel heist, but soon the police are on him.  Worse still, another gang is on his tail trying to grab his take.  And then there’s Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), a member of Nat’s crew whose beauty and hotness keep causing trouble with the gang.

This is an outstanding film.  It was an independent production and thus is a little technically rough around the edges, but director Paul Wendkos, working from Goodis's adapted screenplay, tells the story with assurance.  He borrows a little too obviously from Orson Welles (like Citizen Kane (1941) the film opens with a newsreel and there’s a chase through a funhouse at the end, a nod to 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai) but brings his own distinct voice to the material.  Wendkos has also been accused of stealing from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), but that claim isn’t true.  The Burglar was filmed in 1955, but it wasn't released until 1957 when Jayne Mansfield was a star.  In fact. the entire promotional push of the movie was centered on her.  So Wendkos wasn’t stealing from Kubrick, he was on the same page as him (which is always best).

Mansfield does a good job in this film, as do Peter Capell and Mickey Shaughnessy as the other gang members.  But the film belongs to Duryea.  Pensive, moody, old (he was in his late 40s when they shot this), world-weary - he’s probably the most sympathetic lead in the entire festival.  There’s something about an aging criminal which breaks the heart.  There’s a pathos to them that brings out our sympathy.  All those years but no big score.  Good enough to stay out of prison but not good enough to get out of the rackets.  A life of failure and puny accomplishments.  Duryea is perfect for this.  There was always something small-time about his thugs - that was a large part of their appeal.  They were tough enough to blackmail and threaten you, but they never had what it took to head up the syndicate.  They would never be the boss.  Duryea’s performance put me in mind of Jean Gabin’s performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954).  There too, a weary, aging, criminal takes center stage.  One of the most memorable scenes from Grisbi is the one in which the tired, worn-down Gabin sits quietly eating crackers from a box - there’s anger, regret, and exhaustion in his every move.  So, too, it’s in Duryea’s quieter moments during The Burglar that his character’s plight moves us so deeply. 

Dan Duryea and Martha Vickers

Martha Vickers plays Della, a woman who picks up Duryea at a bar.  She’s very good and their scene together at her place is the best in the film.  Like Nat, Della is one of life’s small-timers.  As she tells her life story, the two grow closer.  Literally.  With each dissolve Wendkos places them physically nearer, until in the end Duryea is holding her (above).  It was lovely.  In fact, I wanted that to be the movie.  When the film went back to its plot, I was disappointed.  I wanted to see what if these two damaged people could make a life together.  I wanted it to get all Anton Chekhov, but it was not to be…   

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Noir City 2019: The Scarlet Hour/A Kiss Before Dying

Monday was day four for Seattle’s Noir City 2019 film festival.  Kissing was the day’s theme, at least in the titles.  I was unable to attend the afternoon’s films - Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) - but I caught up with the evening’s double bill.

The Scarlet Hour (1956)
Pauline Nevins (Carol Ohmart) is having an affair with E.V. Marshall (Tom Tryon), a young man who works for her brutal husband, real-estate baron Ralph Nivens (James Gregory).  One evening while the lovers are parked in a deserted area of Los Angeles they overhear a trio of thieves discuss robbing a nearby mansion.  The take: $350,000 in jewels.  The lovers decided to rob the thieves themselves, take the money, and run off together.  But everything - brace yourself - goes wrong. 

According to Noir City host Eddie Muller, this is the most precious of all the rarities in this year’s festival.  Showing this film has been a project years in the making.  I wish I could say that The Scarlet Hour is an astonishingly good film, that it’s a hidden masterpiece come to light, a precious jewel from the archives.  Sadly, I can’t.  It’s not that this is a bad film, it’s just not a good one.  And the fault for that can be laid squarely on the two leads.  Tom Tryon is not much on screen.  He has no presence, no “it”, nothing.  In real life, he ultimately wound up working as a successful novelist, and I’m glad to see that he landed on his feet, just as long as those feet are not in front of the camera.  Carol Ohmart is a different matter.  She obviously photographs well (below), but if the picture is a moving one her magic begins to disappear.  The pretty face starts to look strange, the flaws in the features start to emerge (the mouth too small, the nose too thin in the middle).  Her eyes are her weakest facial feature, and for a would-be movie star, that’s fatal.  She tries her best but she just hasn’t got it.

Carol Ohmart

Who does have “it”, though, and has it in abundance, has it till she’s practically painting the whole screen with it, is Elaine Stritch, who plays Pauline’s best friend.  This was Stritch’s first movie and she steals every scene she’s in.  In fact, The Scarlet Hour is worth seeing for many of its lesser roles.  James Gregory is suitably loathsome as Pauline’s husband.  And E. G. Marshall is very funny and droll as one of the police officers handling the case.  Hollywood stalwart Michael Curtiz directed and his acute visual style manages to keep this film engaging.  This film also features a cameo of Nat "King" Cole singing "Never Let Me Go." 

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
When college boy Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) discovers that his girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) is pregnant he chooses to kill her rather than marry her.  That done, he soon sets his sights on marrying her sister (Virginia Leith).

If the weakness of the leading actors was the main problem with The Scarlet Hour, the strength of A Kiss Before Dying lies primarily in the magnificent performance by Robert Wagner as the murderous Corliss.  The young and handsome Wagner was playing wholesome, clean-cut roles in his career at that time and he leapt at the opportunity to muss things up a bit by playing a flaming psychopath.  Sixty years later his reptilian malignancy is still chilling.  The other performances by Woodward, Leith, and George Macready, as the girls’ father, are also outstanding.  Jeffrey Hunter, as the student who manages to uncover the murder, is also good.   A Kiss Before Dying is about as flawless as a crime film could be.  Director Gerd Oswald, working with a script by Lawrence Roman from the Ira Levin novel of the same name, has delivered a terse and compact masterpiece.  Once set in motion, the plot unfolds inexorably to its end.  Lucian Ballard’s cinematography, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is breathtaking, especially when the characters go out into the open.  You can feel the power and majesty of landscape which would later become a trademark of the work he did with Sam Peckinpah.  

Jeffrey Hunter, Joanne Woodward, and Robert Wagner