Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Noir City 2018: I Walk Alone/Bodyguard

Tuesday was day five of Noir City 2018 and that night's double feature was exceptionally good.

I Walk Alone (1947)
While driving a truck full of hooch across the Canadian border, two bootleggers, Frankie and Noll (Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, respectively) are spotted by the police.  In the ensuing chase Noll gets away, Frankie doesn’t.  Fourteen years later Frankie is released from prison and Noll is now the owner of a successful nightclub.  Frankie wants his share, Noll doesn’t think so.  Mayhem ensues.

This is a fantastic punch of a movie.  It’s tight, fast-paced, and unrelenting.  It was originally a play but the adaptation has stripped out all that talkiness which you usually find in a play.  The dialogue is deliciously sharp and crisp.  Here's an example: Kristine Miller plays a glamorous, horny socialite and when she introduces herself to Lancaster with a stately “I’m Mrs. Alexis Richardson,” he replies “You say that like it was spelt in capital letters.”  Later on at dinner, a waiter shows Lancaster a bottle of champagne from 1933.  “That was a good year,” the waiter comments.  Lancaster barks back: “For who?”  This was Lancaster’s first film and it’s required viewing for any fan of his.  You’ve never seen him like this: angry, furious, chewing up the scenery (and his cast mates), punching at the slightest provocation, rage personified.  It’s great.  At times, I swear he’s baring his teeth primate-style while issuing threats.  In his introduction to the movie, Eddie Muller rightly observed that when Kirk Douglas is the calm one in a movie you’ve truly got something special. 

Douglas is also very good as the treacherous Noll.  He and Lancaster have a natural chemistry together that would sustain both men over the course of their careers.  In this film he knows exactly when to lay back and let Lancaster run wild and when to push forward to increase the tension.  Lizbeth Scott plays a nightclub singer (when does she not*) and is the source of the romantic intrigue in the story.  I realize that there’s a revival of interest and appreciation for Lizbeth Scott, but, frankly, I don’t share it.  To my mind she’s simply not a good actress.  Movie stars need to have a certain “It” quality, and that’s exactly what she lacks.  Her performance here is passable, but nothing special.  Wendell Corey, though, does an outstanding job playing one of Lancaster’s old gang whose only function now is to be Douglas’s crooked bookkeeper.  He’s like a lion or tiger in the zoo, passive, worn down, all quiet desperation, but look into his eyes and you know that if the cage doors ever opened he would revert to type.

In one of the best scenes in the film Lancaster gathers his gang together and they burst into Douglas’s office to extort their percentage out of him.  It turns out, though, that the nightclub (at least in the set of books which they show Lancaster) is owned by a jumble of corporations, holding companies, and pass through entities.  One corporation owns the silverware, another pays salaries, a third one covers alcohol, etc.  Every time Lancaster tries to get his cut some corporate by-law or charter clause stops him.  It’s Raymond Chandler meets Franz Kafka.  “Stop tryin’ to dizzy me up!” Lancaster yells in confused frustration.  But it’s useless.  He soon falls into a defeated, if smoldering, silence.  At least for the moment.

Bodyguard (1948)
Legendary Hollywood badass and hell-raiser Lawrence Tierney plays Mike Carter, a Los Angeles homicide detective who gets kicked off the force for engaging in the kind of rowdy behavior one would normally associate with people like legendary Hollywood badass and hell-raiser Lawrence Tierney.  Hired as a bodyguard for the elderly owner of a meat processing company, he soon finds himself trapped in a sordid world of bribery, corruption, and meat inspection.  Oh, and someone’s trying to frame him for murder, too. Directed by Richard Fleisher, this beaut has a story by, among others, a young Robert Altman.

Tierney is compelling on screen: tight-lipped, barrel chested, volatile, comfortable on either side of the law as long as there’s a head to break - even if it's his own.  And he likes to mouth off.  A lot.  He’s very much at home with verbal aggression.  And this well-made noir gives him the opportunity.  When an employee at the meat processing plant asks him what his job is there, he replies “I keep the meat warm.”  Helping him to clear his name is girlfriend Doris Brewster, played by Priscilla Lane.  She and Tierney make a winsome onscreen couple.  She’s chipper, friendly, and effusive - a perfect contrast to Tierney's overall abrasiveness.  She's a cold glass of lemonade to his jugful of vinegar.
*  No, really, it’s true.  No other Hollywood actress has ever played a nightclub singer more (four times).  We know this for a fact; this has actually been researched.

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