Friday, August 31, 2012

In Cold Blood

the Clutter house

Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith

Truman Capote

IN COLD BLOOD          A-               
USA  (134 mi)  1967  ‘Scope  d:  Richard Brooks

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
—Truman Capote, first paragraph from the opening chapter, The Last to See Them Alive, from In Cold Blood, 1966

Who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. 
Genesis 9:6 (mis-identified in the film as Genesis 9:12), spoken by the Prosecutor (Will Geer)

It all began with a brief piece in The New York Times, from Holcolmb, Kansas on November 16, 1959:  “A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged… There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.”  Author Truman Capote happened to take a special interest in the incident, enough for him to travel to Kansas to investigate the case, especially after the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested six weeks after the murders.  Capote eventually compiled 8000 pages of notes and spent six years working on the book through the trial, conviction, and long appeal process, but after they were executed by hanging in April, 1965, the story was initially released 5 months later in a four-part installment in The New Yorker magazine and was an instant success.  The true crime or “non-fiction” novel was released in January of the following year, considered a landmark work, one of the first of its kind (following by 9 years the publication of Argentinean journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s 1957 book Operación Masacre, an exposé on the military coup and ousting of Argentine President Juan Perón) and perhaps the most successful ever, where despite its claims of authenticity, being a true account of what happened, Capote admittedly took poetic license by adding scenes that never happened while also recreating dialogue.  Capote conducted interviews with both men after they were convicted, developing a particularly close relationship with Perry Smith, where rumors persist they may have developed a sexual bond together, developing a special fascination with the more tender and sensitive side of a brutal killer.  Capote reportedly remarked, “It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house.  And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” 

One of the more critical voices *against* the book was from fellow Southern author Tom Wolfe in a 1976 essay called Pornoviolence, calling it sadistic and sensational, where he attributes a growing trend in the media to glorify violence as a way of satiating the audience, citing Tobe Hooper’s film THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and Capote’s book In Cold Blood, arguing that in the absence of mystery, since we already know the outcome, Capote provides gruesome and salacious details, reducing the work to little more than lurid sensationalism.  Certainly violence in American movies rose to new heights with the release of Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), told sympathetically from the point of view of the outlaws, adding folksy humor with bullets and death, where despite the gratuitous violence, their murderous tendencies are secondary to the power of their performances which endear them to the public, becoming part of American folklore, much like the extraordinary performances seen throughout THE GODFATHER (1972).  Even James Cagney in White Heat (1949) is as entertaining as they come, and his sheer willpower dominates the picture, which is what endears him to audiences even as they know he’s a loathsome psychotic killer who probably deserves the electric chair.  BONNIE AND CLYDE was a sensation, however, where Time magazine called it the “Movie of the Decade,” nominated for 10 Academy Awards.  Nonetheless, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther’s response was to call it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick that treats the depredations of that sleazy pair as though they were full of fun and frolic.”  Crowley was asked to retire later that same year, as he was simply out of step with the radically changing expectations of new movie audiences that also adored the minimalist romanticism of THE GRADUATE (1967). 

In Cold Blood received more notoriety as a book than as a film, hailed as an acclaimed masterpiece prior to release, where the pre-publication earnings totaled something like 2 million dollars, which would suggest Capote was paid approximately $15 per word.  Possessed with a near inhuman power of recall, Capote’s skill always lay in his meticulously thorough detail, put to good use here displaying superb journalistic skills in an exhaustive account of the senseless murder of the entire Clutter family on their farm in Holcomb, Kansas (population 270), where Hickock (Scott Wilson) and Smith (Robert Blake) netted only $40 dollars for their efforts, substantially less than the $10,000 score they were expecting.   What captured the nation’s attention was how such a horribly gruesome crime could take place in America’s heartland with no hint of a comprehensible motive.  What Capote provided along with the criminal exposé was a piece of Americana, a time capsule landscape portrait of rural America, picking up every detail of life in a small community on what may as well be the far edge of the world.  Much like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, published in 1955, Capote’s highly subjective writing style unleashes his power of observation using flashbacks, fragmented memories, or psychologically traumatic moments to alter the sense of time, accentuating brief moments, slowing down the pace, drawing sympathy from scenes of a character’s childhood while also revealing the vast expanse of an empty landscape that seems to last forever.  At least in part a road movie, as the two men are constantly on the run, there is a neverending stream of motel rooms, endless night highways, wayside drive-ins, and nondescript towns with no names, where perhaps we’ll see a lone railway stop as these aimless drifters pass through without any sense of where they are.  Told out of sequence in a near documentary style, one of the most effective scenes comes on the vibrant streets of Kansas City, watching how easily Hickock blends into the locale using small town charm as he operates his check bouncing scheme collecting a quick buck during the height of the Eisenhower 50’s, where he plays upon the perceived security and good natured kindness of the store clerks and uses that against them, in much the same way as they simply walked into the unlocked door of the Clutter farmhouse.  

Devastatingly low-key, much of it shot on actual site locations, perhaps the best cinematic technique is how the director brilliantly structures the scenes detailing the crime itself, leading us up to the moment without actually showing the murders, then backtracking into the lives of the murderers, making them the focus of the movie, while the book spends more time developing the individual characters of the Clutter family.  Brooks returns later to what the audience doesn’t initially see, where the full graphic effect of the crime is horrifying.  Neighborly trust is something to exploit, much like Nabokov’s young siren, which raises a profoundly interesting moral dilemma, as throughout the film Hickock calls Smith honey or baby or sweetie, all with sexual connotations, suggesting from a jail perspective that Smith may exhibit gay or feminine characteristics.  While Hickock brags of his sexual exploits, Smith recoils in fear, recalling how his mother was beaten savagely by his father for being caught sleeping with another man, suggesting a possible lack of sexual prowess.  It is only when Hickock makes advances on Nancy Clutter (Brenda Currin), a teenage girl, that Smith becomes enraged at his despicable behavior, exerting “I despise people who can't control themselves,” which kick-starts his aggression against the otherwise helpless Clutter family.  There’s an interesting use of a police psychologist, Paul Stewart as Lee Jensen, who acts as a writer’s voice of conscience throughout, continually questioning the existence of moral reason and striving for psychological clarity even in seemingly senseless cases, “How can a perfectly sane man create an absolutely crazy act?”  By the end, there’s a melancholic cloud of doom that suggests a lack of closure or finality, where despite the riches and prosperity of the nation, all we’re left with is a pervasive sadness and emptiness filled with haunting, lingering thoughts about the senselessness of it all, where there’s no reason to believe capital punishment has any effect whatsoever on the criminal behavior of people hopped up on drugs or alcohol (linked to 80% of prison inmates, Drugs or Alcohol Linked to 80% of Inmates - New York Times), enraged by jealousy, or driven for whatever motives to carry out completely senseless acts of violence.  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Wrong Man

Christopher Emmanuel Manny Balestrero

THE WRONG MAN               B                     
USA  (105 mi)  1956  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock creates a full-blown film noir in what is easily his most seriously downbeat film, arguably the most depressing commercial film in American cinema, a Black and White, near documentary, psychological police procedural based on real events, though instead of the police, it’s seen exclusively through the eyes of a man arrested for something he didn’t do, Henry Fonda as Manny Balestrero, the only film where Fonda worked with Hitchcock.  This film is a predecessor to another horrific depiction of real life murders in Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood (1967), seen through the eyes of the murderers, which uses a similar near documentary style, where in each the reality of the circumstances is as powerful as any fictional dramatization.  The existential nature of the Kafkaesque perspective reveals a man charged for a crime he didn’t commit, feeling cut off and isolated from the world around him, as nothing that previously made sense in his world exists anymore, where he has to prove to himself, and those around him, that he couldn’t have committed the crimes even as the police amass a myriad of circumstantial evidence that suggest he did.  When he is positively identified as the armed robber in several incidents, by two women in an insurance agency and another liquor store clerk, he begins to question his own reality, as the old one no longer exists.  Shot in New York City using the actual locations where the true story occurred, such as the Stork Club where Manny plays bass in a jazz band, cinematographer Robert Burks accentuates darkness and light, which is especially vivid in a shot traveling across a bridge where it may as well be a metaphor for his guilt or innocence.  The unusually austere and restrained technique shows a completely understated style where Hitchcock has brilliantly reduced the film to pure cinema mechanics, at times resembling the construction of a Bresson film, in particular A MAN ESCAPED (1956) or PICKPOCKET (1959).  

Eschewing his typical anonymous film appearance, where he actually shot a scene of himself in the cafeteria counter with Fonda in the foreground while he can be viewed in the background, Hitchcock chose not to use that scene and instead opens the film as himself in a darkly shadowed appearance, the only time he spoke or appeared as himself during his feature film career, offering an introduction, telling the viewers “This is a true story, every word of it, and yet it contains elements that are stranger than all the fiction that has gone into many of the thrillers I've made before.”  Fonda is a completely understated everyman, married with two children, whose wife Rose (Vera Miles) relies upon him like clockwork, dependable in every way, where despite working late hours in an upscale nightclub, Manny doesn’t even drink.  But when he ventures to the insurance office in an attempt to take out a loan against his wife’s insurance policy, as she needs $300 dollars worth of dental work, he’s quickly recognized by the teller who calls the police.  Now why someone who’s supposedly robbed the place would walk in and freely offer his name and address apparently never occurred to anyone, neither the clerks nor the police, where the detectives simply accept the official line-up identification when they haul in Manny for questioning.  For awhile the film accentuates the meticulous detail of every procedural step, riding in police cars through the streets of New York to revisit the scenes of the crime, the overly polite interrogation itself (where interestingly the Miranda rights informing him of his right to counsel, mandated by the Supreme Court a decade later, were never explained at any time during his arrest), making statements, being officially charged, admitted to a small cell in lock-up, getting handcuffed, appearing before the court, being transferred to a different location, an endless series of coldly mechanical routines that have the effect of humiliating and dehumanizing the individual, where the process itself starts to make him feel guilty.  More importantly, unlike police procedurals, we never see the police investigate the alleged crime, because once Manny’s been charged, he’s completely left out of the process, which only furthers his sense of isolation. 

This film takes an interesting psychological tone, where the shattered interior world is perfectly expressed by Bernard Herrmann’s pensive musical score, feeling very much like late night, 3 o’clock in the morning jazz music, with a walking bass line and a few lone instruments joining in for a chillingly effective feel of loneliness.  What’s curious, especially after decades of police procedurals on American television, is watching the accused have to do their own investigating, trying to run down potential alibi witnesses, interviewing neighbors nearby when they can’t be found, trying to find someone who can prove Manny was somewhere else at the time of the robberies.  This entire process, having to prove you’re innocent when all evidence suggests otherwise, has a way of weighing heavily on one’s subconscious, where as friends or family you start to believe, at least on some level, that it might be true.  In the case of Rose, it all becomes too much for her and she becomes overwhelmed with guilt, thinking it’s all her fault, that she’s bringing all this tragedy to other people’s lives.  Rose ultimately has a mental breakdown, where her only protection against it all is to build a wall of indifference, shut off from reality, believing the situation is hopeless, fatalistically stuck in a permanent state of failure.  Clearly this has severe ramifications with the family, as the story just grows more depressing and downbeat.  What’s missing in this film is the trademark build up of suspense and tension from Hitchcock, so prominent in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), for instance, another procedural film that was way ahead of its time in its methodical, perfectly synchronized, psychological storytelling.  Part of Hitchcock’s intention was to make the audience experience just how easily this could happen to them, where in an instant they’re suddenly powerless and alone, literally consumed by a false reality that’s not your own, where all the evidentiary conclusions turn out to be false, where you remain stuck in this nightmarish parallel world hoping to find a way out.  Despite the supposed hint of optimism at the end of the picture, in stark contrast from the unrelenting hopelessness of the rest of the picture, according to Balestrero's son Gregory, Rose died thirty years later having never fully recovered from the trauma.    

Note – A 13-year old Tuesday Weld acts in just her second film with this early performance as one of the two giggly girls who answers the door when Manny and Rose are searching for witnesses, while Harry Dean Stanton is one of the uncredited Department of Corrections employees.    

According to the Innocence Project, The Innocence Project - Know the Cases, founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, by 2010, there were 297 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history, including 35 different states so far, where 17 people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release, where the average sentence served has been 13 years, about 70 percent of those exonerated are members of minority groups, 99 percent male, and in almost 40 percent of exonerated cases the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing.  Almost half of those exonerated have been financially compensated for their time in prison, while 22 percent of the cases being investigated were dropped due to lack of evidence, as the original DNA was lost or destroyed.  More than 75 percent of wrongful convictions are overturned due to false eyewitness identification.  About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project annually, and at any given time the Innocence Project is evaluating 6,000 to 8,000 potential cases.  James Bain is the longest-incarcerated victim of a wrongful conviction to be freed through DNA evidence, after having served 35 years for a kidnapping, burglary, and rape he did not commit.  Bain's appeal had previously been denied four separate times until he was exonerated December 2009.  The common theme running through all these cases include poverty and racial issues to eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors, and inept defense counsel, all issues that continue to plague our criminal justice system today. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Glass Key (1942)

THE GLASS KEY       C                    
USA  (85 mi)  1942  d:  Stuart Heisler

You’re built well, got a pretty face, nice manners, but I wouldn’t trust you outside of this room.      —Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd)

Not to be confused with the earlier version of this film The Glass Key (1935) starring George Raft and Edward Arnold, adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel, considered one of his best, this remake stars Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, the second of four films together, adding a love interest that was not in the earlier version.  Made immediately after THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), but prior to the release, where Paramount saw how well the diminutive pair worked together, as Ladd was all of 5 feet and 5 inches tall, while Lake was just under 5 feet, making them perfect screen partners.  The secret to their screen chemistry, however, is the dialogue, as it’s smart and sassy, giving Lake a chance to exert a fierce independent streak, making her an ideal femme fatale, quite demure and emotionally distant in her calculatingly cold and indifferent way.  Directed by Stuart Heisler, who also directed the politically subversive Among the Living (1941), this remake is often thought to be the superior of the two versions, where the crisp dialogue might be sharper and quick-witted, and the extension of Lake’s role in the story doesn’t hurt, but George Raft is better as the slick and street smart Ed Beaumont, a man of dubious character, whose conversion from gambler to political handler is more believable.  Ladd appears kind of wooden for much of the film, especially when he’s working the right side of the law, as he’s more animated playing a tough, wise guy who knows how to talk to and handle small time hoods.  He’s at home in their seedy element, where some of the best scenes in the film are shared with William Bendix as Jeff, a near psychotic hit man who loves to smash people’s faces for a living, used as a bodyguard for gambling operator Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia).  No one can beat the largesse of Edward Arnold’s earlier performance either as Paul Madvig, a corrupt political boss trying to go straight.  He and Raft were excellent partners who seemed to be speaking the same language, as if they came out of the gutter together.  Ladd as Beaumont and Brian Donlevy as Madvig, who actually had top billing in the picture, act like they barely know each other, as Madvig exerts much less influence, so one wonders why Beaumont would be so loyal.

Perhaps more faithful to the book, it’s a complex story of political corruption and murder, where Madvig and Beaumont come from a crooked past supporting prostitution and gambling interests.  So when party boss Madvig comes out in support of a reform candidate for Governor, society millionaire Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), believing he’ll be rewarded with a key to the Governor’s mansion, his fashion-minded daughter Janet (Lake) is the real object of his desire, making her his fiancé, so he starts shutting down gangster run gambling houses, like Nick Varna’s, which turns heads, and infuriorates Varna who vows revenge.  When Henry’s troubled son is murdered, Madvig is quickly implicated, fueled by rumors fed to the newspaper by Varna.  But when Madvig doesn’t seem very concerned, Beaumont is initially puzzled, as he doesn’t trust Henry and thinks Janet is playing his boss for a chump, thinking both will be dumped after the election.  Pretending to get in a fight with Madvig and leave town, Beaumont has another reason to stick around, as Veronica Lake captures his interest as well The Glass Key Film Noir Veronica Lake 1942 YouTube (2:33).  When he starts sticking his nose in Varna’s affairs, Beaumont runs into Jeff, who’s just waiting to get his mitts on him, giving him one of the more brutal beatings that’s still painful to watch more than a half century later, especially when one learns afterwards that Bendix accidentally knocked Ladd out, catching him with a haymaker to the jaw, which is the take used in the film.  Bendix was so remorseful afterwards that he and Ladd became excellent friends, working together again in The Blue Dahlia (1946), another tour-de-force performance from Bendix.  Wally Westmore’s makeup department deserves special recognition, as Ladd really looked like he was on the wrong end of a crudely savage beating, yet he cleverly manages to escape.

After a hospital recovery, Beaumont engineers what is perhaps the most morally despicable scene in the film, but it starts out like one of those Inspector Hercule Poirot scenes in an Agatha Christie novel, where he gathers all the usual suspects in a room and figures it all out.  Beaumont reveals that Varda owns the mortgage to the newspaper, so the publisher, Arthur Loft as Clyde Matthews, is forced to print all the rumor and gossip as actual news, which the publisher’s wife Eloise (Margaret Hayes) finds a detestable development, especially the realization that they’re broke.  When she and Beaumont cozy up to one another in plain view of the husband, brazenly kissing on the sofa, Beaumont literally shames the publisher into taking his own life.  Beaumont’s actions here are pretty disgusting, where his heartless and amoral reaction may be suitable for film noir, but hardly befitting anyone’s idea of a hero, which is how he’s projected in the film.  Again, George Raft projects having lived among sewer rats so much better than Ladd who always looks like he’s afraid to get his shoes scuffed, as he just doesn’t exhibit the needed range of believability.  There’s a fascinating appearance by Lillian Randolph, Annie the housekeeper in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946, whose daughter Barbara sang with the Platters and was initially considered as a replacement member of the Supremes), seen here as a Bessie Smith style nightclub blues singer where the publisher’s widow is seen drowning her sorrows.  Bendix, though, steals the movie when Ladd comes to get revenge, shown here with his mouth flapping and his hair flying, continually calling Beaumont a heel, He's A Heel - The Glass Key (1942) YouTube (3:34).  Ladd doesn’t stop there, urging the spineless District Attorney to bring charges against Janet Henry, a woman he supposedly loves, to root out the real killer.  The film barely touches on the corrupt political angle, using it instead as background information for the budding romance between the two leads, where each projects an unscrupulous nature that all but defines them as untrustworthy.  By the end, do we really believe that they’re going to go straight?  She’s accustomed to the finer things in life, having been spoiled and raised with servants in an immense mansion.  Beaumont’s going to need plenty of bucks to keep her happy, where life on the shady side of the street is often more financially rewarding.   

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kiss Me Deadly

KISS ME DEADLY                A-                   
USA  (104 mi)  1955  d:  Robert Aldrich

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

A low down and dirty apocalyptic film noir, filmed during the end of the noir era, set in the atomic age of the 50’s, where screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, whose novel Long Haul was used for Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), while also co-writing Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) and William Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT (1954), alters the focus of the original Mickey Spillane novel, a book he despised, where instead of a mafia drug conspiracy, he adds a new twist of international weapons smugglers who are actually trafficking nuclear weapons.  Conceived out of trashy pulp material, it’s a low-budget B-movie with few emotional attachments that cynically exploits America’s Cold War fear and a 1950’s rising paranoia about the atom bomb, a time when people were urged to build bomb shelters in their back yards.  This film opens with a barefoot woman running down the road at night in a state of panic, flagging down a car wearing only a trenchcoat, which nearly causes a crash, but the driver is none other than Los Angeles private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), whose concern isn’t about the lady in distress, Cloris Leachman in her first feature role as Christina, but the potential damage to his always spotless and buffed convertible Jaguar sports car.  Driving her back into Los Angeles, she cryptically mentions that people are after her, having her institutionalized, and should they not make it back into LA, somehow sensing her death is imminent, she mysteriously urges him to “Remember me.”  Hammer’s car is immediately run off the side of the road where he and the girl are left barely conscious.  They kidnap the girl while Hammer and his car are dropped off a cliff, but he somehow manages to survive.  The girl is not so fortunate, as we hear the distressing sounds of her terrifying screams (and see only her dangling feet) while she is being tortured with a pair of pliers in a place that shall not be named, a prolonged sequence taking place offscreen until she is finally silenced.  This scream typifies the atmospheric mood of horror, but also the degree of sadistic exhibitionism on display.     

The film was not reviewed by the New York Times when it came out, calling it too revolting and utter trash, and it was banned in Great Britain, where the prevalent use of violence is way over the top, made worse by the lead character’s sadistic enjoyment of inflicting pain, where he’s forever slapping people in the face to get information out of them.  Only one guy avoids the inevitable by quickly taking a mouthful of sleeping pills, tipped off by the sounds that Hammer was quickly approaching, so when he got punched and slapped around, it made no difference, as he couldn’t talk because he was completely passed out already.  Transplanted from New York to LA, Hammer’s apartment is spacious and modern, with a tape recording answering device built right into the wall, where strange literary and/or artistic references run throughout the film.  His Girl Friday secretary (Maxine Cooper) has modern ideas about sharing work with pleasure, where Hammer actually pimps out her services, specializing in adulterous divorce cases, his sleazy methods repeated to his face by a police investigator, where he often sleeps with the wife while his secretary Velda seduces the husband, then they extort each one to keep this information from coming out in the court proceedings, where Hammer is forced to admit sarcastically, “All right, you've got me convinced. I'm a real stinker.”  But after a warning from both thugs and cops, Hammer doesn’t scare off this case so easily, thinking the panicked girl must have had something valuable that both the police and the criminal underworld want.  His destroyed car is quickly replaced with another one just as snazzy, but he’s smart enough to find the bomb attached to the ignition, while another explosive device is later found by his over-revved mechanic Nick, Nick Dennis from John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1961), a guy who speaks free form the way he envisions sports cars running, “Va-va-voom!”  When Nick gets snuffed out, Hammer has reason to feel the blues, where a lingering theme throughout is Nat King Cole’s version of  “I’d Rather Have the Blues” KISS ME DEADLY - "I'd Rather Have the Blues" - YouTube (2:54), heard first over a car radio as the opening credits roll backwards, and a second time by a black nightclub singer, Mady Comfort. 

Aldrich wreaks havoc with Hammer’s avenging angel character, already one of the darkest anti-heroes in the film noir genre, turning him into an existential narcissist whose livelihood is exploiting (or blackmailing) others to benefit his own plush lifestyle, where his exaggerated sense of masculinity and individualism, so fascinated with women and fast cars, also having the perfect Hollywood bachelor pad, is in stark contrast to the conservative conformity of the times.  Much of the film is set in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, beautifully shot by Ernst Laszlo in contrasting Black and White, accentuating darkness and shadow throughout, shading the moral line.  While the movie is laced with brutality and corruption, filled with bizarre characters, no one is a more intriguing character than Christina’s frightened roommate, Gaby Rogers as Lily Carver, a television actress appearing in only one other feature film, Joseph Strick’s THE BIG BREAK (1953), eventually marrying the very successful American pop songwriter Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  Compared to other femme fatales, Carver is initially the most vulnerable character onscreen, appearing sweet and soft and in need of protection from Hammer, fearful and perhaps a bit touched in the head, as if her facilities may not all be there.  But by the end, she’s a changed or transformed woman where her body has literally been inhabited (or killed) by somebody else, becoming someone who is perhaps the most devious character in the entire film, where the personality fissure and apocalyptic finale may remind some viewers of David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997).  Aldrich delights in confusing compositions, odd or oblique camera angles, views down staircases, creating a bleakly disorienting atmosphere of hopelessness and despair, where some nearly always faceless criminal underworld characters involved in international espionage have got their hands on what amounts to THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), where “the bundle,” or “the box” in this case, may be a miniature H-bomb in a suitcase at an oceanfront beach house.  In what is one of the bleakest endings ever, Aldrich may be going to every expressionistic extreme to remind viewers of what’s at stake, where much like Hitchcock in The Birds (1963), he may be targeting the complacency of the populace, as the director uses a somewhat surreal and apocalyptic wake up call to strike back at foolish humans who continue to believe they are exempt from life’s tragedies.

Monday, August 27, 2012

White Heat

WHITE HEAT           B                       
USA  (113 mi)  1949  d:  Raoul Walsh

They think they got Cody Jarrett…they haven’t got Cody Jarrett.
—Cody Jarrett (James Cagney), just before his inevitable demise                     

By the late 1940’s, James Cagney was sick of making gangster movies like THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), films that made him a star, but also typecast him as a tough guy, where he begged Warner Brothers to offer him more variety in his roles, the most successful of which was, of course, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), where his range as a song and dance man and American composer was utterly remarkable.  But his career floundered after that, making only four films between 1943 and 1948, so by 1949 he had a new contract at Warners and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie, but this time he hadn’t played a gangster in over a decade and he was 50 years old.  With that in mind, they created an iconic role in WHITE HEAT that will forever be associated with him, Cody Jarrett, an outlaw every bit as ruthless as the characters he portrayed earlier, but also energetic and humorous, perhaps a bit savvier, though he’s more of a savage brute here, a seriously disturbed criminal, a deranged psychopath with a mother complex and debilitating fits from migraine headaches, the predecessor to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in PSYCHO (1960).  While poverty was the driving force behind criminal behavior during the Depression of the 1930’s, with gangleader Cody Jarrett it’s a massive ego and a feeling of invincibility.  He’s indifferent to the needs of anybody else except himself and his mother, Ma Jarrett, Margaret Wycherly, who played Gary Cooper’s saintly mother in SERGEANT YORK (1941), the only person Cody can rely upon and trust.  Loosely based on the life of Ma Barker and her boys, another outlaw gang that gripped the American public during the 30’s, Ma is hard as nails, but overly protective of her boy, basically running the gang during Cody’s absences, handling the money and giving out orders.  

WHITE HEAT is designed to be the last of the gangster pictures, the end of an era when career criminals could generate any public sympathy, where instead they are seen as disturbed, antisocial sociopaths living on the fringe of society, where policework was becoming more in vogue with the public, showing signs of more modern and sophisticated methods that were highly popular with the public, especially with the advent of the television series Dragnet (1951 – 59).  While the late 40’s is the height of film noir, this film is often mis-categorized as noir due to the blatant criminality on display.  Despite the eccentric psychological implications, which are never explored, and the over-the-top performance from Cagney, this is really just a formula gangster picture, where Cody Jarrett is an apocalyptic character already out of step with the times, the last of his era.  Cagney indicated he never told Margaret Wycherly how he intended to play his migraine fits, where even in the film the audience is not sure whether to laugh or cower in fear, as his onscreen behavior was just so unexpected to 1949 audiences.  A childhood friend of John Barrymore in New York City, director Raoul Walsh was probably the most competent craftsman under contract with Warner Brothers, a director who knew how to utilize outdoor locations and drive the action with an unrelentingly fast pace through editing sequences, an example of classical Hollywood filmmaking, including the musical scoring by Max Steiner that never stands out, but matches the mood onscreen.  Even the impressive opening train robbery sequence is a skilled example of setting up the tension by matching the speed of the arriving car (carrying outlaws) with the approaching train (carrying money), where the outlaws, especially Jarrett, are trigger happy, leaving no witnesses.     

The film spends an inordinate amount of time and effort attempting to highlight modern police methods, especially radio tracking technology, not so interesting today as it slows down the pace and removes some of the built-up tension.  Admittedly, some of the side characters never rise above type, including Virginia Mayo as Jarrett’s well dressed but perpetually complaining wife Verna, or Steve Cochrane as Big Ed, the slick haired man supposedly making a bid to take over the gang, or Edmond O’Brien, an undercover cop named Vic Pardo who becomes chummy with fellow inmate Cody Jarrett while in the slammer, trying to get him to reveal information to help build a case against him.  Next to Cagney, O’Brien is really bland and boring, of questionable moral character himself, though there are tense moments when his true police identity might be discovered, but the prison sequences really drag after Jarrett cunningly turns himself in for a lesser crime with the knowledge he’d be out in a year or so.  While there are a few moments, such as an attempt on his life and a memorable prison visit from Ma, who’s intense stubbornness seems to run in the family, it’s her later demise (happening offscreen, discovered by Jarrett through a line of convicts whispering what happened into the ear of the convict sitting next to them at dinner) that leads to a major scene of Cagney having a manic fit on the floor of the prison, taking out half a dozen guards in the process, leading to a departure from the originally planned jailbreak.  Once Jarrett is out, he has to set matters straight, especially with Big Ed and a guy that nearly kills him in prison, an inmate Cody makes sure comes along during the breakout.  As the equilibrium among criminals is being restored, the police obtain the upper hand through Pardo’s ability to tip off the cops and then place a homemade electronic honing device on the truck being used in their next big heist.  What makes this film iconic is the legendary finale, expressed with a kind of psychotic glee rarely seen elsewhere, as Cagney simply operates on another level as everyone else.  When the cops surprise his gang with numbers and chase him up the steps of a fuel refinery storage tank, hopelessly surrounded and wounded but not out of it, it’s his refusal to go out quietly that we all remember.  With flames shooting up all around him before the self-inflicted final blast that has atomic age written all over it, Cagney shouts out to the ghost of his dead mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”—a fitting epitaph for Cody Jarrett.

This film may suffer from star power, much like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956), where the audience tends to over-identify with Cagney, despite his murderous, psychopathic tendencies, as they do with John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a known Indian hater, where it seems hard to believe that when the film was made, Warner Brothers, who produced both films, felt audiences would identify with Edmond O’Brien’s Vic Pardo, thinking he was the hero of the film.  But Pardo’s character is too morally conflicted, as the mere concept of a jailhouse spy is not anyone’s idea of a hero.  Pardo was treated well by Jarrett, and was privy to a more human side of him, as Jarrett actually opened up to him, which makes his double cross all the more demoralizing, especially his escape, where the police actually use excessive force, never even attempting to bring in any of the outlaws alive.  Instead they were all killed, the entire gang, except one fellow inmate who surrenders near the end.  This may be a case of writers and studios thinking so highly of themselves that they actually believe they know better than the public, but audiences loved Cagney and Wayne, where they have become American icons with a longstanding public adulation, where despite their association with violence in pictures, they are beloved family idols where kids at an early age actually look up to them as role models.  This is not to suggest either Cody Jarrett or Ethan Edwards are role models, but kids, especially at an early age, are conflicted over this issue, as onscreen they appear to be the heroes.  They’re the strongest characters onscreen and they always carry the action.  So for kids, if there’s any movie character to emulate, it’s the Cagney or Wayne figure.  Their hateful or murderous tendencies are secondary to the power of their performances, where even for adults, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer manic energy of Cagney’s Jarrett as he eats a chicken drumstick in one hand while shooting the rat who finked on him in prison with the other.  He’s as entertaining as they come, and his sheer willpower dominates the picture, which is what endears him to audiences even as they know he’s a loathsome psychotic killer who probably deserves the electric chair. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On Dangerous Ground

ON DANGEROUS GROUND           A-                   
aka:  Dark Highway
USA  (82 mi)  1952  d:  Nicholas Ray

Guy Maddin, transcribed from a 2009 introduction of the film at the IFC Center:
Has there ever been a face—rugged and manfully handsome yet fragile with inner agonies promising to explode into volcanic rage—like Robert Ryan’s? Nick Ray harnesses the violent force of this face as Ryan pounds his beat, and every face on it, to Bernard Hermann’s greatest score. Ward Bond has never been more precipitous or more startling—his grief and stupidity as powerful and natural as a mountain cataract.

Actually filmed before his previous film FLYING LEATHERNECKS (1951), this feels like a natural extension of an earlier character, Humphrey Bogart’s Dix Steele at the end of IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), an outsider with a penchant for violence who can’t conform to the rules of society, perhaps the template for John Ford’s Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) character in THE SEARCHERS (1956) or even Scorsese’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) character in TAXI DRIVER (1975).  While the arc of their lives is decidedly different, when we are introduced to all these characters, their propensity for violence is key to understanding their pent up, out of control inner rage, where these men are defined by the jagged edges of their soul, always irritable and dissatisfied, railing at the world around them, but usually it’s a personal disgust with themselves, how ineffectual they are at preventing the sick and twisted perverts of the world from ruining so many people’s lives.  The opening half hour of this film is textbook film noir, On Dangerous Ground -- (Movie Clip) Cop Killers YouTube (3:32), introducing Robert Ryan as a New York City cop Jim Wilson, a guy living alone in a depressingly tiny tenement apartment, who’s been on the force 11 years and seen it all, growing sick of continually dealing with the lowlifes and scum of the earth, “garbage, that’s all we handle,” always having to see the worst side of human nature, growing increasingly rough and physical when making arrests, perhaps crossing the line of police brutality, which he justifies by making the collar, but he’s turned into a loose cannon where his partners think he’s losing it and may crack under the pressure.  Nonetheless, he always starts out cool and collected before something drives him over the edge, as we see in two interrogation scenes here On Dangerous Ground (1952) - Video Dailymotion (5:42). 

Adapted by Ray and A.I. Bezzerides from Gerald Butler’s novel Mad With Much Heart, this is not as well known as other Ray films (though believed to be his favorite), partly because the release was delayed for a year while Howard Hughes tinkered with the editing, adding a new scene condemning police brutality, dropping a posse subplot in the snow, and adding a lushly romantic ending that Ray and film noir devotees disavowed.  By the time it was released, it followed William Wyler’s DETECTIVE STORY (1951), making this feel like a copycat movie.  Structurally, it’s also quite unique, as it breaks formula, starting out as a straight film noir, good cops doing the city’s dirty business but at a psychological price, but in the second half of the film they get out of the city into the snowy expanse of the mountain country, where it feels more like an Anthony Mann western that certainly had its influence on the Coen brother’s FARGO (1996).  Bezzerides’ novel Long Haul was used for Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), while also co-writing William Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), all highly influential projects.  Bezzerides is actually seen early in the film as a corrupt bar owner attempting to bribe Ryan while he’s making the rounds attempting to collect information about a local cop killer on the loose.  When the police chief (Ed Begley) informs Wilson that the police force is being sued for his excessive use of brutality, the chief decides to send him upstate, to get him out into the country where he’ll have a new start and perhaps a fresh attitude.  Little did he know that’s exactly what happens, making this actually feel like two entirely different films.  Perhaps the film’s biggest influence is the outstanding Bernard Herrmann music, very pronounced from the opening credits, then all but disappears as the cops make their rounds in searing realism, before becoming perfectly integrated into the film again, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays a brief excerpt ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) - Death Hunt ... (2:26) and Herrmann himself can be heard in brief audio clips of highly demanding rehearsal sessions On Dangerous Ground - Scoring Outtakes - YouTube (2:21). 
As soon as Wilson arrives upstate and hears the particulars, we hear a young girl’s been killed, where her father, Ward Bond at his angry best, is on a vigilante rampage, shotgun in hand and ready to shoot at the first thing that looks like the killer.  Bond drives this second half with his near psychotic rage, which tempers Wilson, seeing himself in the old man, becoming a more restrained police investigator instead of utilizing the heavy handed brute techniques of vigilantism.  Interestingly, Bond was politically to the right of John Wayne and likely Attila the Hun, where he led the Red Scare witch hunt to publicly identify and castigate communists from under every rock in America, where here he plays someone very close to his real character, as much like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, he’s driven to mercilessly track down and find the killer.  This psychological shift from one psychopath to another can be heard in Hermann’s remarkable score which pulsates with mad energy in wordless sequences as they follow the footprints in the snow, Bond leading at a brisk pace, stomping through the snow, rifle in hand, one following right behind the other until they come upon a cabin in an open meadow On Dangerous Ground -- (Movie Clip) Scared People  (4:13, followed by the trailer).  Entering carefully, they discover a quietly polite blind woman inside, Ida Lupino, playing against type, becoming the calming voice of a gentle woman who is largely dependent on others, due to her condition, changing the tone of the film from wrath to reason On Dangerous Ground : The Blind And The Cop ... (3:22).  But Bond is hell bent and will not be dissuaded until the killer is caught, where the struggle is as much Ryan against Bond as the two of them trying to find the killer.  An interior melancholic mood established through the quiet of a wintry night turns into a psychologically riveting chase scene during the light of day, as by morning, the escapee leads them on a hunt through an open expanse into the rocky cliffs nearby, very similar to the ending in Mann’s Winchester '73 (1950), where a tense struggle leads to an enduring tragedy, where a film noir turns into a film blanc due to the heavy cover of snow.  The music really makes this film, as there are rapidly changing moods that are only accentuated by the score, adding interior depth to what turns into a glorified depiction of fullblown romanticism by the end, as Wilson finally discovers his humanity, where the earlier violence and anger shifts to forgiveness and love, where the close-up image of the embrace of hands is a transcendent Bressonian moment.      

Saturday, August 25, 2012


CAUGHT            C               
USA  (88 mi)  1949  d:  Max Ophüls

A somewhat downbeat and dreary take on the American Dream, filled with a nightmarish pessimism about the corrupting influence of money, and considering when this was made, it’s a prescient comment on the otherwise sunny decade of the 50’s in America, a decade of supposed optimism and promise, an era when Americans pulled themselves out of the doldrums of the post-war trauma of the 40’s and moved to the suburbs, building new lives for themselves and their Baby Boomer children.  Clashes between Communism and Capitalism were just beginning, and German director Max Ophüls was driven out of Europe by the Nazi’s, emigrating to the United States where he was fired from his first job by Howard Hughes.  This film may be the director’s revenge, taking aim at the huge ego and tyrannical style of Hughes who surrounded himself with Yes men, throwing around directives and always telling others what to do, but leaving himself isolated and alone in the process, much like Charles Foster Kane living alone in his massive estate of Xanadu at the end of CITIZEN KANE (1941).  After Kirk Douglas and Ginger Rogers dropped out for what were considered script differences, Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes were borrowed from RKO to make this picture, where Ryan as international business tycoon Smith Ohlrig (modeled after Hughes) is a ruthlessly impatient man used to getting his way, but also subject to heart ailments when he doesn’t, momentarily turning him into a panicked weakling in desperate need of his life saving emergency medicine.  But this is a starring vehicle for Bel Geddes as Leonora, who is seen initially in her cramped apartment paging through magazines, picking out extravagant jewels and minks that in her eyes define success.  Saving her money to attend a charm school learning manners and etiquette, her idea of femininity is modeling fur coats in a department store, hoping to catch the eye of a rich millionaire who will sweep her off her feet at the perfume counter.  For many women in the 50’s this aptly describes the American Dream, as going to college and choosing a career was never the first option, which always remained finding a wealthy husband. 

Despite receiving an invitation to an exclusive party on Ohlrig’s yacht, Leonora spends most of the day pouting instead of primping, ending up going at the last minute where she misses the ride, left alone at the pier waiting in the darkness for someone to pick her up.  When a man arrives from the yacht, she asks for a ride, but he has important business to take care of, but brings her along, eventually driving her to his mammoth estate on Long Island, but she refuses to come inside.  Bel Geddes is a nice girl, perhaps overly sweet and naïve, and a bit mousy, always second guessing and questioning herself, while Ryan is bluntly direct and to the point, icy cold, never mincing words, refusing to ever let anyone, even his doctors, make decisions affecting his life, where on the spot he decides to get married just to prove his psychiatrist wrong.  When he picks Bel Geddes, you’d think she’d be the picture of happiness and bliss after their marriage, but instead she mopes around in a gloom of self-doubt, rationalizing that it was never about the money, when it was obviously about the money, then convincing herself  “he wasn’t like that before we were married,” when in fact he was exactly like that from the moment she met him, a dictatorial control freak who always has to have it his way.  Adapted from the Libbie Block novel by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948), the problem is a weak script, as all the characters, including the leads, come off as too one-dimensional, where none of them are that interesting, where Curt Bois (who calls everyone “darling”) as Ohlrig’s assistant, was apparently hired to play the piano 24 hours a day, so everytime Ohlrig arrives home, he reminds Leonora that it’s time for them to go to work, playing the same tune over and over again to the point of near madness.  They fall into predictable patterns, become mired in their own delusional traps, where all Ohlrig wants is some eye candy on his arm who waits on his beck and call, like a hired employee, but when he discovers he can’t order her around like the rest of the staff, she bolts the first chance she gets.

Making a new life for herself, she finds another small, cramped room and a job as a receptionist for a pair of young doctors serving mostly poor kids, which is where she meets James Mason (in his first American picture) as Dr. Larry Quinada, who hires her, though after a few weeks he questions her disorganization, as her desk is a mess, and she continues to hold onto her idealistic views on marriage, advising women patients in the waiting room on the art of marrying a rich husband, even after discovering what a sham her own life has become.  But instead of motivating her to improve her skills and make better choices, Leonora ends up running away in shame, where Ohlrig sweet talks her back to the mansion, but she quickly discovers ulterior motives behind his actions, as he’s already orchestrating her life again as if nothing’s changed.  Running back to the good doctor, things improve momentarily, expressed in a dizzyingly choreographed dinner sequence between the two of them as they end up doing the waltz on a crowded dance floor, where Lee Garmes’ camera swoops around walls peering in and out of the rooms, creating an idyllic moment when he asks her to marry him.  Complications ensue, however, as she’s already married and pregnant, and neither one to the good doctor, so rather than tell him, she again drops out of sight until the doctor tracks her down, where Mason and Ryan have a mano a mano talk, as Ryan lowers the hammer and sadistically reveals the facts of life.  Despite the conservative nature of the times, being cooped up in the mansion of a man who has no interest in her, who in fact openly despises her, does not seem to be the right environment to live or have a baby, especially when she’s met someone who actually cares about her.  But in this film, that’s not an option, where instead there’s a contrived ending, where Mason gives a long involved speech to Bel Geddes in the back of an ambulance, an ominous picture of melodramatic destiny and gloom, where one finds freedom and hope in the ultimate tragedy of their lives, pulling success out of failure, which may as well be an answered prayer to “lead us not into temptation (money), but deliver us from evil (corrupted power).”