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 plates.  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 no body 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 this 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. 

Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey (Now that's how you hold a woman.)

Thursday, February 07, 2019

On Becoming an Artist

Fortunately, very few children want to be artists or writers when they grow up.  That is something which - with the odd repellent exception - one simply ends up becoming or turns out to be.  Even though I enjoyed reading as a child, I think the last thing I would have said in response to the classic question was “a novelist.”  A pirate, a footballer, an archaeologist (yes, long before Indiana Jones), a bandit, a lion-tamer, even perhaps, in an attack of folly, a doctor…I’ve no idea what children nowadays would like to be when they grow up, but I’m sure they don’t aspire to devoting their lives to literature, painting or “serious” music.  Just as well, because, as I did fifty years ago, they would find it hard to identify with artists as they’re represented in films and, indeed, books, and they certainly wouldn’t want to emulate them.  The most worrying thing for those of us who have turned out to be novelists or poets or sculptors or painters or musicians is that not even as adults have we seen much reason to admire our predecessors as people.
     - Javier MarĂ­as, “Damned Artists!”  (2008)

Monday, February 04, 2019

ACT: Uncle Vanya

On Friday night I went to see Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at ACT in downtown Seattle.  What a magnificent production.  Director Jahn Langs and the cast and crew have given this play a vitality and emotional power you don’t often see on the Seattle stage.  Rarer still, this is an intelligent production, and the few liberties Langs has taken with the work add depth and dimension to Chekhov’s vision.

A few minutes into any Chekhov play and you realize that he is our contemporary.  His characters are the people we know in our own lives; what goes through their minds goes through ours as well.  Vanya, for instance, is a 47-year-old man living on a provincial estate.  He is very angry and disappointed with his life.  Most of it has been wasted and he knows it.  For years he idolized his sister’s husband, Serebryakov, a pompous professor.  He worked for Serebryakov, helped translate his works, committed whole passages of his essays to memory.  He believed in him.  But time has passed.  The sister has died, and Serebryakov remarried.  When the play opens the professor and his new young and beautiful wife, Yelena, have moved into the estate with Vanya.  Up close, Vanya can now see that Serebryakov is a talentless hack, a man twenty years behind the times, an idiot, a fool.  And the man for whom he has sacrificed his own life and any talent he may have had.  He seethes with regret, resentment, and depression.  And it doesn’t help matters that he’s also fallen madly in love with Yelena.  I think I know this guy.  Really, I do.  And if you’re honest with yourself you may be a little like him too. 

The other characters are also like the people who surround us.  There’s Astrov, a local doctor and friend of Vanya’s, who has a passion for saving the province’s dwindling forests.  Yet aside from his and Vanya’s long bull sessions he doesn’t ever actually do anything to preserve them.  Even as a doctor he performs his duties with great reluctance whenever someone in the village gets sick.  We like Astrov, but he’s all talk and no action.  And he, too, is madly in love with Yelena.
Mark Jenkins, Rob Burgess, Alexandra Tavares, and Amy Fleetwood (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)
And what of the lovely and beloved Yelena?  She’s unbearably unhappy.  She hates the provincial life, and whatever love she felt for her sick, elderly husband has long since evaporated.  Vanya amuses her - why wouldn't he, they’re both “victims” of the professor’s insidious mediocrity - but when Vanya confesses his love to her she groans with irritation.  Instead, she loves Astrov.  Yet we sense that even there it is a love born of boredom and discontent rather than any genuine affection for the man.  Her one desire by play’s end is simply to leave - and to leave immediately.  She has, as many of us do, the mistaken belief that geography is psychology, that we’ll be happy somewhere else, we just need to leave here first.

And then there’s Sonya, the professor’s daughter via his first wife.  In many ways it’s her play.  Vanya is, after all, her uncle.  She is shy, hard-working, a little nervous, and, most importantly, plain-looking.  She, unlike Yelena, genuinely loves Dr. Astrov but he doesn’t love her at all.  She cannot compete with Yelena’s beauty and charm.  If Uncle Vanya is a play about wasted potential her situation is the most moving and heart-felt.  She doesn’t have much talent, and the talents of the other characters are fundamentally narcissistic and selfish.  But Sonya’s one potential - and it’s a universal one - it to love someone else completely and selflessly.  And that, too, is frustrated.

The cast in this production is fantastic.  There’s not a weak performance in the whole ensemble.  In the minor roles, Amy Fleetwood was very good as Maria, Vanya’s mother.  Sharva Maynard made a warm and outstanding Nanny; when the elderly Serebrayakov throws a fit, she effortlessly leads him offstage, recognizing that he’s just a big baby underneath all those years.  In the role of Telegin (a.k.a “Waffles”), a local deputy and hanger-on at the estate, Rob Burgess brought not only an easy and irresistible appeal to the role but also a fully-rounded humanity.  As events go from bad to worse, an agitated Waffles tries to interject himself into the situation only to be shoved aside, at times literally, by the leads.  Burgess makes us wince for the character every time this happens.  And Kevin Lin in the most minor role of them all - “Yefim, a workman” - does a good, solid job at it, especially in the second act where he is called upon to drunkenly sing and carouse with Astrov and Waffles.  He is a wonderful boon companion.
Kevin Lin, Rob Burgess, and Sylvester Foday Kamara (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)

Peter Crook is an excellent Vanya, full of complaint and whining.  His Vanya is likable and entertaining but seems so small, and never more so than when on one of his self-pity jags.  His clothes are shabby and unkempt.  At one point he puts a tie on but it makes him look worse, like a Russian Willy Loman.  When he brings Yelena flowers, one simply cringes for him.  Langs treats Vanya in a very unique way in this production - specifically, Vanya doesn't leave the stage during the acts.  All the other characters come and go, but not him.  Every time he "exits" the lights change and Vanya merely stays in the darkened areas of the stage, watching the other characters interact.  It adds a haunting quality to the production, as if all these events were memories conjured up by Vanya at a later time.  Also, when left alone on stage some of the other characters will deliver mini-soliloquies about their feelings.  In this production, though, when left "alone" the lights shift again and the characters tend to address their feeling to the silent Vanya.  I found it very powerful.  It was as if Vanya could understand their thoughts even though he wasn't present.  At one point Vanya complains that he could have been another Dostoyevsky.  We seriously doubt that during most of the play, but during these spectral moments of Vanya's we wonder if in fact it shows that he does have the sensitivity to understand the people around him, that he really does have the great soul he imagines that he has. 

If, like me, you've always found Astrov a drab character - a bit of a bore actually - Sylvester Foday Kamara's performance will turn your opinion around.  His Astrov is full of charm and appeal; he's forthright and direct, a man's man.  You understand why all the women have a thing for him.  And you understand why all the men have a thing for Yelena the moment Alexandra Tavares walks onstage.  She's beautiful, lithe, confident -  with just enough aloofness to make her irresistible.  Tavares also endows Yelena with a lively intelligence.  She bitches about things with Vanya and eagerly listens to Astrov talk about the forests.  She doesn't wrap the men in this play around her finger, instead they leap on her fingers and happily form rings around them on their own.  For a play by Chekhov this production is not afraid to throw in a sexual charge.  At one point in the first act, for instance, Yelena leans back on a swing and the moment was electric; she looked like some Gil Elvgren pin-up magically come to life.  Later in the play when Astrov and Yelena kiss it is a hot and passionate embrace, not some restrained nineteenth-century affair.

Sunam Ellis (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)
Mark Jenkins's Serebryakov is all fool.  One despises him from the start.  He was great.  This is the kind of depiction Vanya would like to see (maybe that's why he's loitering on the stage).  Jenkin's is a wonderful comic performer.  When saying goodbye to the other characters at the end of the play his verbal inarticulateness brought down the house with laughter.  Sunam Ellis is a touching Sonya.  We sympathize with her but we never pity her.  There's a toughness underneath all her nervous energy.  The end of Uncle Vanya belongs to Sonya.  Her speech to her uncle is one of the most powerful and moving moments in the history of theater and Langs has chosen to treat along the lines of the many soliloquies we've already seen.  Only this time Sonya delivers it to us, the audience.  It was a bold move and Ellis pulled it off beautifully.

Kudos also need to go out to Robert Aguilar's lighting design and Robertson Witmer's music and sound design.  They both deepened and enriched the production in striking ways.  One example - in the third act Astrov shows Yelena maps he's made of the region which document the increasing deforestation.  As he goes on painting a dire picture we start to hear - softly, in background - the chirping of birds.

This production is a collaboration between ACTLab and The Seagull Project.  The latter is an endeavor started many years ago to perform the complete cycle of Chekhov's four major plays.  With this magnificent production, that project is now complete.  So let me get on my soap box for a moment and advocate for a new Herculean project for these highly talented people to take on - namely, the full cycle of Henrik Ibsen's major plays.  They've already done the works of one of the founders of modern drama, so why not do another one.  They can call it The Wild Duck Project.   

For now, though, we have an unforgettable Uncle Vanya to enjoy (that is, until February 17th).  It's true that it’s all a big, heaping dose of The Human Condition.  But what keeps it afloat is Chekhov’s ability to depict it all with compassion, humor, and a seemingly bottomless sympathy.  You don’t leave the theater depressed after seeing Uncle Vanya (especially in this production), you leave feeling exhilaration.   Like the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, O’Neill, and others, Chekhov’s works make us confront our lives and experiences with an honesty which may be bracing and even disturbing at times but is ultimately uplifting.  In great drama, as in the blues, we transcend our suffering through the telling of it. 
Sharva Maynard, Rob Burgess, Peter Crook, and Sunam Ellis (Photo Credit: Chris Bennion)