Saturday, June 27, 2020

No Way Out (1950)

Joseph Mankiewicz (left), Linda Darnell, and Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier and Mildred Joanne Smith

NO WAY OUT                      A                    
USA  (106 mi)  1950  d:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Ain’t that a lot to ask of us — being better than them when we get killed proving we’re just as good?
—Lefty Jones (Dots Johnson)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz comes from a distinguished family, as his older brother Herman was a co-writer of CITIZEN KANE (1941) along with Orson Welles, while he is the great uncle to Ben, a regular host introducing films for TCM.  A prolific writer, director and producer, he was one of Hollywood’s most literate and intelligent filmmakers, winning Best Director Academy Awards two years in a row for A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), the second director to accomplish that following John Ford’s awards for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), though Mankiewicz is the one and only writer/director to win successive Academy Awards as both a screenwriter and director for the same films.  He built a successful career as a screenwriter in the 30’s and 40’s for Paramount and MGM before getting the opportunity to direct in the mid 40’s for 20th Century Fox under Darryl Zanuck, where his films developed a smart reputation for distinguished wordplay, where he had a lifelong affection for the New York theater scene.  By the time he made this film, Mankiewicz was also President of the Screen Director’s Guild during the rise of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist of 1947 when the industry was attempting to eradicate Communists from their ranks.  He opposed mandatory loyalty oaths for Guild members, which led to an attempted coup by Cecil B. DeMille to have him recalled from office (DGA Quarterly Magazine | Spring 2011 | Features - Loyalty Oath), but the bid failed.  Few members opposed the oath, which was eventually written into the by-laws the following year, but they resented the compulsory aspect of it.  Nonetheless, it played a significant role in Mankiewicz refusing a second term and deciding to leave Hollywood the following year.  For whatever reasons, in a career that spans from 1929 to 1972, his name is not usually included in the pantheon of great American directors, where he is heralded more in Europe than he is at home, honored with a lifetime achievement award and an accompanying film restrospective at the 1979 Venice Film Festival.  Made at the height of his success, career-wise, what distinguishes this picture is the direct assault on the invidious effects of racism, hiding nothing, as it’s not shrouded in subtlety, where the N-word and all variations of heinous racial slurs are brazenly on display, opening the floodgates for vicious race hatred, one of the few Hollywood films to deal so realistically on such a sensitive topic, especially since black filmmakers have been virtually absent from Hollywood after the 1940’s.  Richard Widmark gets top billing as an avowed white supremacist spewing racial vitriol throughout the film, most of it targeting a single black doctor at a hospital, where the horrendous verbal assault is so incredibly offensive that nothing like this could be made in films today.  Few other directors would ever attempt to do what Mankiewicz, to his credit, excels at, co-written by Lesser Samuels, who was also a co-writer on Billy Wilder’s equally devastating ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), basing the material on his son-in-law’s experience of being a lone black doctor at that time, mirroring Jackie Robinson’s experiences breaking the color barrier in baseball, having to endure a constant stream of vicious racial attacks.  Under Mankiewicz’ direction, Widmark isn’t viewed so much as a criminal sociopath, but an extreme reflection of a larger community, which makes the film more compelling.   While Hollywood had taken a few stabs at movies depicting racism, like Elia Kazan’s PINKY (1949) or Stanley Kramer’s HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949), both of which represent liberal attempts to sympathize with the black plight, but at the expense of realism, as these are clearly white views on the black experience that reveal much more about the white perception.  Mankiewicz’ film is far more complex, notable for being the screen debut for actor Sidney Poitier (who has an uncredited role in an earlier film), who lied about his age to get the part, claiming he was 27 when he was only 22, playing a black doctor fresh out of medical school, and the object of Widmark’s ire. 
Interestingly, the film also features a deaf character, whose limitations figure prominently into the storyline, requiring several actors to learn sign language in order to communicate.  Despite the care and precautions in shaping the story, the film was banned outright or scenes cut out in order to be shown in certain cities around the country, fearing racial unrest, playing well in big cities, but failing miserably in small towns, while most theaters in the South refused to screen the picture under any circumstances.  Wasting little time, the film gets right into it, with white doctors at the County Hospital led by chief medical resident Dr. Daniel Wharton (Stephen McNally) seen congratulating the first black doctor at the hospital and welcoming him to their ranks, Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier, who is really the lead character, but receives fourth billing), who just passed the state board examination to earn a license to practice, signing on as a junior resident for another year at the hospital where he trained.  Eager to work his first night shift in the hospital’s prison ward, two brothers are brought in after getting shot trying to rob a gas station, Johnny and Ray Biddle, Dick Paxton and Richard Widmark, both shot in the leg.  While Johnny is more gravely wounded, seemingly disoriented, unable to feel a lit cigarette lying on the palm of his hand, Ray is adamantly against treatment from a black doctor, immediately hurling startling racial epithets at him, the likes of which we rarely hear in movies.  First examining his eyes, thinking he may have a brain tumor, the patient dies on the table when Brooks attempts to administer a spinal tap, with Ray immediately blaming the black doctor for his brother’s death, calling it outright murder.  The ferocious tone of hatred and contempt is stark and to the point, so potently realistic that Brooks begins to question his own actions, wondering if perhaps the relentless assault to his character threw him off momentarily.  Wharton warns him not to second guess himself, reminding him that he acted professionally, but doesn’t go as far as saying he would have done the same thing, suggesting there may have been other factors.  Feeling slighted by the character assassination, Brooks wants to perform an autopsy to confirm his diagnosis, but Wharton indicates state law requires consent by the family.  When the two doctors approach Ray, he grows wildly agitated at the thought, claiming the doctors are in cahoots with one another, that they would mischaracterize the results just to get Brooks off the hook, reiterating he’s nothing more than a murderer.  Just a decade after the film was made, the theme of the 60’s was racial tolerance, with school integration a focal point in alleviating the vast economic disparities, but now since the election of Trump the sentiment has changed 180 degrees, where the theme of the modern era is back to racial intolerance.  It’s confounding how much a picture made 70 years ago brings to light a fresh perspective on a longstanding issue that still plagues us today, as Widmark’s ingrained white supremacist views, with a susceptibility to believe in unproven conspiracy theories, are perfectly in line with the most vociferous Trump supporters of today, especially those wielding automatic weapons while shouting anti-government slogans, mirroring Trump’s cry of “Fake News,” which is how the Ku Klux Klan has altered and resurrected their inflammatory fanaticism, shrouding their abominable racial views in anti-government rhetoric.  With the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Widmark’s voracious anti-black views are precisely what many of the most ardent Trump followers have in mind.  It’s impossible to watch this film today and not think of all the vile white supremacists who have crawled out from every rock and crevice in the past few years, where there has been a surge in white nationalist violence (White nationalist hate groups have grown 55% in Trump era ...).  For them, Widmark’s Ray Biddle is their proud spokesperson and role model. 

Seeking other family members who might  consent to an autopsy, Wharton and Brooks discover from police records that the deceased was married to Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), openly suspicious of the visitors, but their kindness towards her takes her by surprise.  Darnell actually steals the film, claiming this was the only role in her lifetime that she was proud of, also appearing in John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), but Darnell loathed Westerns, with unfortunate circumstances following her throughout her career, plagued by extortion letters, a fraudulent business manager that stole her money, her reputation tainted from ugly tabloid fodder provided by her own mother, largely exploited by the industry, living a sad life that included a longtime affair with the director, who never left his wife, so she never received the kind of appreciation and respect she was seeking, yet she is excellent in this film, carrying herself with a little attitude and swagger that no one else exhibits, and it’s apparent immediately.  Edie actually divorced Johnny over a year ago and has no love lost for the entire family, having grown up in a white slum neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks called Beaver Canal, feeling it never leaves you even after you escape, as it has a way of making people feel cheap.  Ironically, the music playing on the radio in her rented single room is the sophisticated black jazz of Duke Ellington.  She visits Ray to persuade him to order the autopsy, but his twisted mind brings her back to her old worthless life, including an ill-advised affair they had together under his brother’s nose, telling her the doctors played her for a “chump,” as they only want it to cover up their crime, that Johnny never would have died with a white doctor, instructing her to contact Rocky (Bert Freed) in Beaver Canal, who stirs up racial animosity, planning a race riot that evening in the black neighborhood they describe as “Niggertown.”  Brooks has a sympathetic wife Cora (Mildred Joanne Smith in her lone movie appearance), living with his mother (Maude Simmons), sister Connie (Ruby Dee) and brother-in-law John (Ossie Davis), married in real life, the first picture that they worked together.  When blacks get word of what’s in store that evening, they make their own plans to initiate an attack to catch the white rabble rousers off guard.  The confrontation leaves plenty injured, with Brooks tending to a white patient at the hospital until a white woman orders him to “Keep your black hands off my boy” before spitting in his face.  After a dramatic pause, a stunned Brooks exits the premises and disappears.  Edie, meanwhile, shows up at Wharton’s doorstep in a state of drunken dismay, tended to by Wharton’s black housekeeper Gladys (Amanda Randolph, superb in her role), angry that she’s black, but too drunk to do anything about it.  By morning they’re best of friends, as Gladys simply exudes personality and has a folksy way of putting anyone at ease.  This relationship is at the heart of the film, as it reveals quite simply that once fears and differences are set aside people from differing backgrounds have a lot more in common than they suspect, finding it easy to like each other, so Edie actually represents positive growth, exhibiting signs of hope.  The same can’t be said for Ray, whose venomous hate drives his every action, escaping from the police, then kidnapping Edie, beating her into submission to call Brooks and set him up at a place where Ray will be waiting.  While there are some contrivances, it’s important to realize how well this material was actually handled in an era when no one else displayed half the insight or artistic dexterity with such a provocative subject matter.  In the same year that Mankiewicz was showered with a record 14 Academy Award nominations for ALL ABOUT EVE, winning six awards, this little film fell under the radar and is rarely mentioned, yet it’s dramatic impact is stunning, with Widmark and Poitier, friends in real life, offering stellar performances that hold up over time, portraying the opposite ends of the spectrum, both angered and frustrated by their limited influence, with circumstances challenging their manhood and self-respect.  Poitier’s dignified performance shattered stereotypes, but he wasn’t playing that idealized black man so early in his career, instead remaining conflicted, filled with exposed insecurities and flaws that leave him more human, making this a rare film experience, told intelligently and with bold assurance from Mankiewicz, who is perhaps the only American writer/director who could do justice with this material, allowing multiple revelations at every turn.  Along with John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), and more recently Raoul Peck’s 2017 Top Ten List #3 I Am Not Your Negro, this belongs on a short list of the best films ever made about being black in America.   

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Night and the City

Director Jules Dassin

publicity photo with Gene Tierney (left) with Richard Widmark

NIGHT AND THE CITY        A                  
Great Britain  (96 mi)  1950  d:  Jules Dassin

Night and the city.  The night is tonight, tomorrow night... or any night.  The city is London.
—Jules Dassin’s opening narration

While the late 40’s is defined as the Hollywood blacklist era, or the Red Scare, when the witch hunt known as McCarthyism drove the leftist directors out of Hollywood, when fellow directors were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Jules Dassin was named as a Communist sympathizer by both Elia Kazan (working together in Yiddish theater in the 30’s) and Edward Dmytryk (once so close Dassin used to look after his children), two men who saved their own careers at the expense of others, as their testimony effectively ended Dassin’s employment in America.  This historical purge eradicated those voices with a social conscience, where the industry in the 50’s cleaned up their image while making the transition to television, thoroughly whitewashed and cleansed, paving the way for the white flight to the suburbs, where the American Dream became synonymous with manicured lawns and all-white school districts safely out of reach of the inner cities.  One of the unintended consequences of this change was an end to film noir in America, largely viewed as the period between John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), with its emphasis on squalid characters and shadowy underworld figures, where searing social realism and class differences make all the difference, and working class neighborhoods still produced people of interest that massive viewing audiences could identify with, faced with similar moral choices, where money was tight, circumstances bleak, and the criminal temptation for easy money was everpresent and always inviting, having grown up with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Robert Mitchum, or Robert Ryan as familiar faces.  Instead, 50’s television westerns picked up the slack, often accentuating these dubious moral choices in each weekly episode.  What happened to Jules Dassin is actually surprising, as he was given a heads up from Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, actually knocking on his door, aware that subpoenas were about to be handed out, sending Dassin to London to work on his next picture, “Start with the most expensive scenes and they won’t fire you, because it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make.”  While it’s a side of a studio executive that’s rarely seen, Zanuck also wanted him to write a part for actress Gene Tierney, after having received shock treatments for depression, hoping to save her career.  The film’s British version is five minutes longer, with an implausible, more upbeat ending, and features a completely different film score, with Dassin endorsing the American version as closer to his own vision.  Sitting at #1 of Top 50 Noirs on two lists at Noir Countdown from Wonders in the Dark, compiled by Maurizio Roca, and listed by Sam Juliano in the comments afterwards, April 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm, listed at #33 here The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Slant Magazine, #28 here The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time - Paste - Paste Magazine, listed at #13 from The Independent here 20 best film noirs: From Double Indemnity to Shadow of a ..., and listed at #8 by the founder of the Film Noir Foundation and co-programmer of the Noir City film festival here Top 25 Noir Films - Eddie Muller.  This first film in exile was Dassin’s last US-financed film before the blacklist made him “unemployable,” moving to France afterwards (and eventually Greece) where he couldn’t find work for another 5 years before working on the French heist caper RIFIFI (1955), featuring one of the most brilliant crime scenes in history, a near half-hour scene shot with meticulous detail in near silence, without dialogue or music.  

Dassin was among Hollywood’s more socially conscious artists, including Robert Rossen who directed Body and Soul (1947), Abraham Polonsky who directed Force of Evil (1948), and Joseph Losey who remade M (1951), condemning the meaninglessness and violence of everyday life, where ordinary guys are never given a fair shake, with some having all the luck and advantages that money can buy while others are fed to the sharks.  Showing a healthy skepticism about the American Dream, Dassin always felt sympathetic towards the criminal element, believing impoverished circumstances led them to make the wrong choices, where his films are characterized by moral ambiguity and greater social realism, accentuating the psychological disadvantages of the working class.  Brute Force (1947) is an anarchic prison rebellion against a sadistic warden that stands as a metaphor against fascism, while The Naked City (1948) about a police manhunt, largely influenced by German director Fritz Lang, shot on the streets of New York, with its emphasis on naturalism, accentuates a documentary style, displaying a visual style reminiscent with Italian neorealism, inspiring a television series of the same name that used the film’s infamous concluding line.  Dassin felt Universal re-cut the film, claiming his “humanist” vision and emphasis on class differences had been “ripped out of the film.”  Based on a 1938 novel (not published until 1946 due to the war) by British author Gerald Kersh (which Dassin admitted he never read until afterwards), it’s a film noir crime thriller where the intensity level is off the charts, set against a macabre backdrop of a Dickensian underworld of 1930’s London still struggling to overcome the devastating aftermath of the Great Depression, recalling the German Expressionist imagery of G. W. Pabst’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1931), using the burnt out ruins of the war to typify the subterranean world of black market activities and sinful retreats, where it’s hard to believe this was filmed four years before the end of postwar rationing.  Pitted against one another are forgers, petty thieves, smugglers, con men, beggars, and dance hall girls, all set against Soho’s labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, stairwells, bridges, construction sites, and claustrophobic space that allows no one to breathe, literally a breeding ground of greed and corruption, where everyone’s nerves are on edge, yet at the center of the picture is one perpetually desperate man, Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, all frenzied energy, like a cornered animal, a habitual liar, a small-time hustler with an obsession to make money, who pursues the dream of making it big, of “being somebody,” and “having it all,” filled with bluster and braggadocio, yet deluding himself at every turn, outmatched and outsmarted, always on the outside trying to claw his way into the limelight, a petty scam artist with million dollar ideas, none of which ever pan out, whose failed schemes have left him broke and downhearted, but he has the survival skills of a river rat.  Borrowing heavily from his girlfriend with a heart of gold, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), a nightclub songstress who provides a ready source of petty cash, Fabian is seen racing across the darkened, fog-drenched landscape in the opening, escaping through the alleyways, revealing the one constant in his life — he’s always on the run.  Filling the screen with few, if any, sympathetic characters, the film depicts a grim outlook, drawing parallels to Dassin’s own exiled status, offering an ever dour, despairingly pessimistic future. 

Described as “an artist without an art,” Harry moves from one con game to the next, befriending anyone in the know, hoping to capitalize on that one big score, yet his constant sense of desperation makes him appear to be a fallen anti-hero, literally clawing his way through the cracks.  While trying to con some sap at a wrestling event, he finds himself in the middle of a family squabble, where the elder Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko, former world champion wrestler), a veteran Greco-Roman wrestler denounces the unsavory, criminal showmanship associated with the evening’s main event, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki), managed by his own son Kristo (Herbert Lom), a ruthlessly powerful gangster.  Cynically befriending Gregorius, concurring with the tastelessness of the match, Fabian thinks he can control the wrestling business in London by bypassing Kristo, as he has the support of Gregorius, who is considered untouchable, as his son won’t interfere.  Yet this scheme depends upon another, using the investments of his employer to swing the deal, Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan in the Sydney Greenstreet role), who owns the Silver Fox Club, who has a precarious relationship with Harry, as he doesn’t trust him, and would quickly undermine him before being swindled himself.  Thinking Kristo would easily push him aside, he’s surprised when Harry remains a contender.  Like a house of cards, however, it all comes apart in the most surprising manner, and with it Harry’s dreams.  Reminiscent of the hunted down Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the criminal underworld casts its dragnet over the entire city looking for him, with a large irresistible price on his head, while the police are nowhere to be seen.  Like a city of the damned, Harry has no escape, though the camera captures infamous city landmarks in his epic night journey scrambling across the city, including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Hammersmith Bridge, finding no refuge in the storm, reduced to what he’s always been, a man on the run (not unlike Dassin himself).  Thwarted at every turn, frustrated at the futility of his defeat, realizing the end is near, Harry confesses near dawn that “I just wanted to be somebody,” predating Marlon Brando’s famous line from ON THE WATERFRONT (1954).  Derided at its release, likely the result of the political climate, it performed poorly at the box office both in America and Britain, despised by novelist Gerald Kersh, receiving mostly negative and hostile reviews from the British press, hating an American star while believing the film’s overly grim depiction of rampant crime “insults” London, (yet found nothing wrong with Carol Reed’s depiction of Vienna a year earlier in THE THIRD MAN), the film is now considered Dassin’s masterpiece.  Accentuating the photogenic postwar London landscape, with 54 different city locations used, including Soho, London Bridge, Waterloo, Petticoat Lane, Piccadilly, Mile End Arena, Strand and Regent Street, and the Festival of Britain construction site on the South Bank, German cinematographer Max Greene got his start during the Silent era, but here, as in Dassin’s earlier film shot in New York, his focus is on extensive location shooting in the city streets, much of it shot after midnight, setting the stage for the film’s rediscovery by the French New Wave directors in the 60’s, who copied his low-budget shooting style and doom-laden noir aesthetic, similarly taking their cameras to the streets, using non-professionals, while embracing his appreciation for gangsters and the down-and-out element living on the edge.  A bizarrely stylized thriller where Richard Widmark finds himself stalked by Dassin’s camera along with pursuing mobsters, the ruins of postwar London are transformed by warped angles and expressionistic lighting into a sinister tinderbox of villainy and terror.