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

Monday, February 18, 2019

Noir City 2019: City That Never Sleeps/Private Hell 36

Sunday was day three for Noir City 2019 here in the Emerald City.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see two of the day’s classics - Pickup on South Street (1953) and Pushover (1954).  However I did manage to make it to two other films. 

City That Never Sleeps (1952)
Chicago.  Over the course of a single night the fates of a diverse group of people - a stripper, a cop, a business man, a con artist, even a human mannikin - play out.   

I loved this movie.  In fact, hidden gems like these are one of the main reasons that one goes to Noir City.  The cast in this ensemble are fantastic.  Gig Young plays a married cop ready to leave the force and run away with his stripper girlfriend, Angel Face, played by Mala Powers.  Edward Arnold is a shady businessman looking to settle scores with a former protegé played by the bug-eyed William Talman.  Since Arnold’s wife is played by Marie Windsor (yes!), you know that things will not end well.  And then there’s the Mechanical Man - dressed in a tuxedo, his face painted in silver, he stands in a show window and moves robotically.  As passersby gawk at him a barker’s voice asks them to consider whether he is a man or a machine.  In truth, this poor bastard, played by Wally Cassell, is married to the stripper.  He loves her and doesn’t want her to leave him.  And to top everything off, the voice-over narration is from no other source than the city of Chicago itself.   

Wally Cassell and Mala Powers
This is a weird and wonderful movie.  Director John Auer has a unique and surreal vision which perfectly suits the nocturnal tone of the film.  Steve Fisher’s script is full of desperate characters at their wits’ end.  The Mechanical Man alone is a brilliant and haunting creation.  The language of the characters is tough, with the punchiness we expect from film noir.  At one point, for instance, Angel Face the stripper comments: “When I first came to this town I was gonna be - oh, there were a lot of things I was gonna do.  Become famous.  But Chicago’s the big melting pot, and I got melted, but good.”  Delicious.

Edward Arnold, Marie Windsor, and William Talman

Private Hell 36 (1954)
There's $300,000 in stolen money on the loose, and when the marked bills show up in Los Angeles, detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) are put on the case to find it.  Their leads take them to Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a night-club singer with whom Cal promptly falls in love.  Soon they’re a pair.  But when Cal and Jack finally come upon the case full of loot, Cal breaks bad and starts to pocket the money. Jack doesn't like that at all, but he doesn't stop him.  

This is a very well-made “cop-gone-bad” thriller, and it has a wonderful plot twist at the end.  It’s tight, brisk.  I’ll watch anything with Ida Lupino, then throw Howard Duff into the mix and you can’t go wrong.  Although at times it feels like this film is about to go very wrong.  It has an odd and unfocused feel to the performances.  This is probably due to the fact that, according to director Don Siegel (as relayed to us by festival host Eddie Muller), the cast was drunk during the entire shoot of this film.  The screenplay was written by Ida Lupino and Collier Young (who also co-produced the film with Robert Eggenweiler).  Young and Lupino were married when they wrote Private Hell 36.  But by the time production began they had divorced and she had married Howard Duff.  So everyone dealt with their emotional distress the way people did in those days.  They got stinking drunk.  Nonetheless, Lupino, Duff, and Cochran were professionals and they all put in solid, if somewhat distant and numbed, performances.  Cochran was technically the lead but Duff’s depiction of a good man trapped in doing bad was riveting.  He's a volcano ready to explode.  Lupino essentially reprises her role from 1948’s Roadhouse but I don’t mind; I’ve always been mesmerized by her combination of fragile beauty, hard-core toughness, and intelligence.  Leaving the movie I couldn’t help but think that there aren’t any contemporary actors who so embody the visions of masculinity and femininity as these three do.  These may be damaged people - on the screen and in real life - but there was something refreshingly genuine about them (although you might not think that to judge by the poster below).    

Steve Cochran, Ida Lupino, and Howard Duff  (FYI-This scene is not actually in the film.)

And what a great movie title!  It’s not quite my favorite, but it’s definitely top ten.  For now that top spot is held by Seijun Suzuki’s 1963 crime film Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!  One final note on Private Hell 36 - the Dialogue Director is listed as being one David Peckinpah, who would later work in Hollywood under the name of Sam Peckinpah.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Noir City 2019: The Well/Detective Story/The Turning Point

Yesterday was day two of Noir City 2019 here in Seattle.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to see the evening’s final feature, Angel Face (1953), but I managed to catch its predecessors

The Well (1951)
A 5-year-old black girl walks through a field.  She approaches a section of brush and suddenly drops out of sight.  She has fallen into a well.  It’s out of this inciting incident that director and writer Russell Rouse, along with his co-writer Clarence Greene, have fashioned a powerful and gripping tale about race relations in the US.  The young girl, it turns out, was seen talking to a white man before her disappearance.  Soon rumors begin to fly around in the small racially-mixed town where The Well is set (we don’t learn the state).  Racial tensions mount and soon start to explode.  Within hours the town is about to be torn apart by race riots.

Wow, Hollywood dealing honestly and openly about race.  How did that happen?  It didn’t.  The Well is an independently produced film and its non-studio status gave it a freedom which a studio production wouldn’t have.  As an indie film some of the production values (sets, costumes, etc.) are on the low side but the ones that matter (writing, direction, acting, etc.) aren’t.  The only “name” actor in it is Richard Rober, who plays the town’s beleaguered white police chief.  (Rober also played the sleazy Italian-American in the previous night’s The File on Thelma Jordan.)  Harry Morgan, of Dragnet and MASH fame, plays the man who consorted with the black girl before her disappearance.  Back in the 1940s and 50s Morgan had a solid career in movies as a heavy.  As with Fred McMurray, TV made him anodyne and lovable.  Many of the other actors were local people in the northern California town where the film was shot.  Under good direction non-actors can perform as well as professionals.  

This film is exceptionally good.  That’s it’s still relevant to us in 2019 is evident.  White gangs attack blacks.  Black gangs attack whites.  Some of the police target blacks for persecution.  Many of the blacks turn on the police and the entire system.  Demagogues whip up the crowds.  Small acts of inter-racial decency are swallowed up in the hatestorm.  Sound familiar?  In the US we call this situation “normal”, and, sadly, The Well will probably be relevant in 2051, and 2151, etc.  


In the last third of this film the tone changes.  It becomes a “rescue the kid from the well” story.  Many of the issues raised in the first two-thirds are dropped or left unresolved (just like in reality).  As a story about a well rescue, though, it’s still exceptionally good.  Rouse and editor Chester Schaeffer grab us, pull us in, and don’t let go to the end.  Not surprisingly, this film received Oscar nominations in the categories of film editing and for the screenplay.

Detective Story (1951)
Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas) of New York City’s 21st precinct is one tough, hard-boiled, unrelenting son of a bitch.  His main target is one Dr. Schneider (George Macready), an abortionist working out of New Jersey whose patients tend to wind up at the morgue.  McLeod’s on a one-man crusade to lock him up.  But when he discovers that his own wife (Eleanor Parker) was one of the doctor’s patients his world falls apart. 

Not good.  A mediocre play transformed into a mediocre movie.  It was originally written for the stage by Sidney Kingsley and like most poorly written plays it’s full of colorful side characters and lots of sub-plots and exciting incidents that don’t happen in real life.  Director William Wyler, though, was fascinated by the lead character and chose to adapt it.  Festival host Eddie Muller pointed out that the 1950s was a time full of authority figures, such as McLeod, whose narcissism and cruelty masqueraded as self-righteousness.  Wyler hated those types, as do most of us, and saw Detective Story as a way to criticize them.  Abortion is, of course, never referred to directly in the film and since today it’s considered, at least by most of us, as an acceptable medical procedure for a woman to choose, Detective Story’s misogynistic, shaming, and self-righteous tone on the topic has not aged well.  

Kirk Douglas
But if you like Kirk Douglas’s performances when he’s “over the top,” then Detective Story is for you.  He doesn’t just chew the scenery, he chews the costumes, the hair and make-up, the lighting, the camera.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he even broke into the editing room and gnawed on the Moviola for awhile.  On the other hand, Lee Grant plays one of the “colorful” minor characters in this film - she’s a shoplifter - and is a delight to watch.  This was her first film and she pulled it off with charm and style.  

The Turning Point (1952)
John Conroy (Edmund O’Brien) is a special prosecutor called in to set up a commission to crack down on the crime syndicate in an unnamed mid-western city.  Helping him in this task is Alexis Smith (Amanda Waycross), his girl friend and the commision’s secretary.  Also tagging along is Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), a cynical, wise-cracking reporter who just happens to be a childhood friend of Conroy’s.  Their task is not an easy one.  The tentacles of the syndicate run deep - even into Conroy’s own family - and there is much mayhem before the good guys prevail. 

This is a solid and entertaining noir directed by William Dieterle from a script by Warren Duff (who produced the noir gem Out of the Past) and based on a story by Horace McCoy.  Crime commissions were big in the 1950s.  The granddaddy of them all was the Kefauver Committee (1950-51) which turned its lights on organized crime.  The Kefauver Committee was wildly popular; its live TV broadcasts attracted tens of millions of viewers.  Eddie Muller even showed us the one signature move that it introduced into pop culture - hand over mic, and then lean over to whisper to your lawyer.  When that actually happens in The Turning Point the audience burst into laughter.  

William Holden and Edmund O'Brien
I liked this film.  The cast, which also includes Ed Begley as the head of the syndicate, were all very good, and its depiction of urban crime and corruption will thrill the heart of any noirista.  However, I did have one problem with The Turning Point.  Edith Head did the costumes for it and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wonderfully dressed cast.  Those suits!  Those skirts!  It was very distracting.  This city may be overrun with corruption, murder, and extortion but its tailors are knocking it out of the ballpark every day.  This is one of those movies where the characters can just stand there and they emit beauty and cool like the sun emits light. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Noir City 2019: Trapped/The File on Thelma Jordan

It’s February in Seattle and after two weeks of crippling snowstorms temperatures have returned to normal (mid-40s), streets are clearing, and everyone has gone back to their usual routine.  And on Friday night (also as per the usual routine of a Seattle February) Noir City - a week-long festival of classic, rare, and restored film noirs - has arrived.  This year’s theme is “Film Noir in the 1950s.”  Under the calm exterior of the Eisenhower era boiled the raging murderous and criminal passions which made America great (or at least made American movies great).  

Opening nights at Noir City feel like a party.  There was live music from the Casey MacGill Trio, the bar was crowded, and folks dressed up in vintage finery or its nearest equivalent.  In attendance was Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation (who organized the festival held under the auspices of SIFF).  Eddie is also the host of Turner Classic Movies’s Noir Alley.  Is there anything about film noir which he doesn’t know?  I think not.    

Trapped (1949)
Lloyd Bridges plays Tris Stewart, a counterfeiter behind bars for creating fake currency plates of impeccable quality.  The Treasury Department wants to spring him from jail so he can go undercover to break up a counterfeiting ring who have his handiwork.  Tris agrees.  But he has other plans.  Once free he turns on the Feds and decides to go after the plates himself.  

This is a tough, grimy docu-noir.  The first few minutes are taken up with extolling the virtues of the US Treasury Department in its many capacities.  Directed by Richard Fleischer from a script by Earl Felton and George Zuckerman, Trapped never entirely loses its documentary feel.  What makes it effective as a story, though, are the ongoing betrayals which drive the narrative.  No one is quite who they seem.  Once he goes rogue, Tris immediately sets off to see his gal, Meg (Barbara Payton).  She’s a cigarette girl at a nightclub.  One of the patrons there is a flirtatious low-level grifter played by John Hoyt.  He seems harmless enough - except that he turns out to be an undercover Treasury agent sent to entrap Tris and Meg.  It’s all one big hall of mirrors.  
Lloyd Bridges and John Hoyt

The leads are all very good.  Lloyd Bridges is very convincing as a criminal.  As he corners various associates of his you believe that he’ll do them harm, and he does.  He has just enough crazy behind those eyes.  Barbara Payton is lovely and cynical as Meg.  But to me it’s John Hoyt’s film.  That granite face!  Those steely blue eyes!  Hoyt usually played the bad guy but he’s equally good as the hero in Trapped.  The moment his real character is revealed we start pulling for him.  Another appealing aspect of Trapped (strictly in a noir sense, let me add) is its complete callousness.  This film has no compassion for its victims.  When Tris slaps around his former parter, who’s now turned into a drunken bum, there no sympathy for the poor bastard whatsoever.  And when one of the main characters is shot dead at the end of the film nobody expresses any concern for them.  The body falls and we all move on.

Looks like he picked the wrong week to quit smoking...Lloyd Bridges and Barbara Payton
Trapped is also an excellent instance of the good work done by the Film Noir Foundation and why it deserves the support of film-lovers everywhere.  The only copies available of this film were poor reproductions of a 16-mm version.  It was believed that all the 35-mm prints were lost.  But after years of looking, the FNF finally found one in a private collection from upstate New York which had been donated to the Harvard Film Archive.  The FNF, in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, have been able to strike a new negative from it and thus put this tasty little treat back into circulation. 

The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)
When assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey) first lays eyes on Thelma Jordan (Barbara Stanwyck) he falls for her head over heels.  She’s come to see him about a prowler who’s attempting to steal her old, rich aunt’s jewels, but instead Cleve and Thelma start up a torrid affair and soon the assistant DA’s marriage begins to fall apart.  Then one night old Aunt Moneybags winds up murdered (don’t they always) and the truth about Thelma starts to emerge.

This film is clearly a re-do of Double Indemnity (1944), complete with Barbara Stanwyck as the femme fatale (though without the ridiculous wig) and Corey as the beguiled official caught in her snares.  Both films even feature seedy Italian-Americans lurking in the background.  I tried hard to like Thelma Jordan, but to no avail.  Directed by Robert Siodmak, its 100 minute running time felt much longer.  Certain scenes are drawn out for no purpose and it seemed as though multiple different endings had been crammed together for this film’s conclusion.  If only Robert Wise had been the editor…  Also, I like Wendell Corey, but his performance in this film is weak, there’s no depth to it.  He looks too much like an actual assistant DA from 1950 - and they were an unexciting lot.  Unlike, say, Fred MacMurray or Charles McGraw, Corey doesn’t seem to have that dark underside which the enterprising female can use to her advantage and his ruin.  But no matter.  Tthis is Barbara Stanwyck's movie.  Is she, as Eddie asserted, the greatest actress in the history of movies?  Perhaps.  But there's no doubt that Thelma Jordan is a magnificent showcase for her.  She's bewitching, elegant, tough, and sympathetic.  This film made Wendell Corey a star, but to my mind he was merely riding Stanwyck's coattails.  Then add in the fact that all her outfits (with or without coattails) were designed by Edith Head and you've got a film to delight any Stanwyck aficionado, or to turn the viewer into one. 

Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey