Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Be Kind Rewind

(My brother Mark and I grew up a year apart, and shared the same bedroom until we hit the big 18 and respectively hit the road. We were nurtured, educated, and exhilarated by much of the same popcult preoccupations and discoveries, and despite a fairly continual 37 year separation of geographical home bases we remain largely on the same page. He often sends me astute, pithy, extremely erudite movie-movie reactions after viewing some gem or cult classic during the twilight hours, and I’ve decided to post them on a semi-regular basis.)

Do the Noir Part 1
By Mark Duhamel

I thought I’d watch some Film Noir. That particularly cynical pre and post WWII genre of films often imitated and seldom equaled in it’s stark and sometimes unrelentingly bleak view of human nature in subsequent movie making eras. I am a big fan of the lighting, photography, and especially the sensibility of these mostly low budget, B&W films.

The synopses are courtesy of Netflix, which is also responsible for satisfying almost all movie whims. In order of viewing:

I started my foray onto the darkening past with a post-modern take on noir, 1975’s Night Moves, starring Gene Hackman and directed by Arthur Penn from an Alan Sharp script. My brother Scott cites the final scene featuring a seriously wounded Hackman in a small motorboat circling endlessly in a large expanse of ocean as the ultimate cinematic expression of uncertainty and futility. Or something like that.
It put me in the mood to dig deeper underground.

The Naked City (1948)
95 mins

When a model is found drowned in her bathtub, homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) are on the case. Their investigation, the inner workings of the police department and some of the "eight million stories in the Naked City" are explored. Filmed on location in New York City, this classic thriller won Oscars for cinematography and editing and was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar.
Cast:Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Frank Conroy, Ted de Corsia, House Jameson, Anne Sargent, Adelaide Klein, Tom Pedi
Director:Jules Dassin

My take: Difficult viewing. Takes real perseverance and commitment to the cause. It is an important film in it’s pioneering use of NYC location shooting and pseudo-documentary style, but in the end; pedestrian.

This Gun For Hire (1942)
81 mins

Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd) is an assassin whose latest murder assignment is paid for with counterfeit money by turncoat Willard Gates. Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), an entertainer and the girlfriend of the police lieutenant who's trying to bring Raven down, is recruited by the government to probe Gates's illegal activities. When Raven happens to meet Ellen on a train, they use their relationship to get what they want -- and exact revenge.
Cast:Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd, Tully Marshall, Marc Lawrence, Olin Howlin
Director:Frank Tuttle

The opening scene: Alan Ladd (billed as “Introducing Alan Ladd” after a ten year stint of un-credited, bit, and even student film parts) wakes up in a cheap hotel room and glances at his watch; 2:00 PM. He opens a note detailing that someone will be somewhere between 3:00 – 4:00 PM. Then, he checks his gun, an automatic, probably a 45. He gets up to leave but stops when a stray cat scratches at his window. He lets the cat in, gently handling it and opens a can of milk and pours it into a bowl, spilling some on his hand. He leaves the cat and goes to the washroom and just then the cleaning woman enters the room, sees the cat and viciously shoos it away. Alan Ladd returns and seeing the cat cruelty grabs the woman by the shoulder. She turns suddenly and her dress rips. “Get your hands off me you creep! You owe me a dress!” Ladd slaps her back and forth as only happens in films of this era, and orders her out. Next, Ladd enters a cheap apartment house, passing by a very young girl sitting on the steps, complete with polio leg braces, she smiles sweetly and greets him as he ascends the stairs. He summarily executes a man and a woman in an apartment and as he exits, once again encounters the girl who says demurely, “Mister, I dropped my ball.” Ladd sweetly obliges and recovers her ball. This is all within the first 6 minutes or so of film time. Laird Cregar is wonderfully creepy and cowardly, Robert Preston is not particularly memorable and of course Veronica Lake is radiant, smart, sassy and cast in an incredibly unbelievable fiction involving a US Senator, a night club owner, and a national security breach involving a decrepit chemical plant capitalist selling out the USofA. But who cares, she and Ladd pull it off and show that they are both world-class movie stars. It’s not about “acting” for either one, just about presence and shiny charisma.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
82 minutes
In this film noir classic, when model and aspiring actress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) turns up dead, the evidence points to her manager, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), who was recently dumped by his star client. Dogged by a tenacious detective (Laird Cregar), Frankie finds the noose tightening, but Vicky's distrustful sister (Betty Grable) -- whose relationship with Frankie is chilly -- may have information that will clear him.
Cast:Morris Ankrum, Carole Landis, May Beatty, Allyn Joslyn, Chick Chandler, Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Alan Mowbray, Elisha Cook, William Gargan, Laird Cregar
Director:H. Bruce Humberstone

Wow. I’ll say it again, Wow. This is what it’s all about. Substantial performances all around. Victor Mature shines, Laird Cregar is at his creepy, foreboding best, Carole Landis plays a 1940’s version of Paris Hilton to the tee, Betty Grable is believable and satisfying as the good, sensible sister and the lighting is incredibly textured and layered, casting shimmering shadows snaking around evocative light pools. This one represents the darkly illuminated best noir has to offer. Where the title comes from remains an impenetrable mystery.

The Big Clock (1948)
96 minutes
In director John Farrow's noir thriller, crime magazine publisher Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) tries to pin the murder of his own mistress on the magazine's editor, George Stroud (Ray Milland), after he discovers George coming out of the woman's apartment. Things fall into place as all the signs increasingly point to George as the killer, making it that much easier for Earl to set up the editor to take the fall.
Cast:Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester
Director:John Farrow

I remember this one from years ago, perhaps during film school. I’m almost sure I read about this in Manny Farber’s Farber on Film back in high school. I had seen it before many, many years ago. It is a good example of the noir moral dilemma; a basically good guy who does something not terribly but kinda wrong and from there his whole world slides towards utter disaster and disintegration. In this case, he has a drink with a beautiful woman who is not his wife and stands up to his boss who not so coincidently has a relationship with said beautiful woman. He ends up framed for something he didn’t do but they don’t know it's him. A nice snaky plot-boiler with some twists and admirable turns by Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, a spicy Rita Johnson and a very likably earnest Ray Milland.

Appointment with Danger (1951)
90 minutes
This hardboiled crime story stars stoic noir staple Alan Ladd as Al Goddard, a special investigator sent to Gary, Ind., to solve a postal detective's murder and track down the sole witness to the act: shy young nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert). With her reluctant aid, Goddard learns the identity of the culprits and soon uncovers their gang's plot to pull off a million-dollar mail heist. Jan Sterling is a standout as gun moll Dodie La Verne.
Cast:Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Steward, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Harry Morgan, David Wolfe, Dan Riss, Geraldine Wall, George J. Lewis
Director:Lewis Allen

A little strange noirish but squeaky clean copper caper except the cops are actually post office (??) cops, and there’s a nun, and yes, that’s right; Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as bad guy buddies. Alan Ladd goes “undercover” somehow convincing the bad guys he’s a bad guy. I didn’t buy it, but they did. And there’s a nun. Great title huh, they don't make ‘em like they used to.

Union Station (1950)
80 minutes
The same year they appeared together in Sunset Boulevard, William Holden and Nancy Olson co-starred in this classic film noir about a frightened passenger (Olson) who reports two suspicious men aboard a train bound for Chicago's Union Station. When the terminal's police squad learns that the men are armed and involved in a kidnapping scheme, the officer in charge (Holden) enlists the help of a veteran police inspector (Barry Fitzgerald).
Cast:William Holden, Nancy Olson, Barry Fitzgerald, Lyle Bettger, Jan Sterling, Allene Roberts, Herbert Heyes, Landon Dunning
Director:Rudolph Maté

This time it’s a copper caper with train station cops, with William Holden at his cynical, wisecracking, shoot me in the arm I don’t care best. It’s hard to beat William Holden for the noir leading man, no one comes close to his slacker, I don’t care but I really do nonchalance. Except for Robert Mitchum who transcends I don’t care with I don’t fucking care and I think I’m gonna hit you in the face soon.
This one is a kidnap caper. The victim is a sweet, blind, apparently rich girl. It succeeds because the “psychotic” kidnapper is actually pretty clever and stays a step ahead for most of the film. He is of course finally brought to justice by the combined efforts of the implacable William Holden and the plucky and courageous best friend portrayed by Nancy Olson. Barry Fitzgerald is in top form as always. The photography is nothing special, but the Union Station scenes are well staged.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Word According to Festus

Reprinted from PopKrazy

With the recent passing of that sublime and absolutely natural Westerner James Arness, who will live in perpetuity as the forever able and Zen-master-with-a -six-gun Matt Dillon in endless reels of Gunsmoke episodes ( all truly worth seeing), I thought of one of Matt’s few kindred spirits, Festus, played quite iconically by Ken Curtis.

In the Kitty-Doc-Festus triangle that serves the great independent spirit of the perpetual flinty and eternally taciturn Dillon, Doc (Milburn Stone) functioned as Matt’s most intellectual companion, an equal to ruefully discuss philosophy and occasionally plan strategy with, and of course, just like the Marshall, an ever astute judge of character.

Kitty (Amanda Blake), the red-haired proprietor of The Long Branch, the town’s saloon and elegant (and unsaid) whorehouse, was Matt’s only channel for overt emotion, passion, or sexuality, and she also exists as the foremost manifestation of burgeoning civilization, while she also coexisted as the triangle’s most emotive, hardened but still given to concrete measures of gentility, and—-as all bar owners are—-a quick interpreter of character.

Festus, who came to the show belatedly (after the show departures of Matt’s earlier two ids—Chester (Dennis Weaver)—-the rube that Matt once was, and Quint (Burt Reynolds)--the half-blood native American who was of true Indian heritage the way the symbiotic Matt could never be), was a pure hillbilly and part scoundrel and the embodiment of cornpone digression , yet Matt admired him for his uncompromising ways, his disregard for much of what counted as airs, his unwavering loyalty to those who did the right thing, his surprisingly cat-like ability to leap into action and mayhem, his sharpened gun battle tactics, his high lonesome love of the life’s simplicities, and deep-to-the-bone divining skills of sussing out potentially dangerous characters. Oh yeah, Festus had a helluva way with words, and somehow the Gunsmoke writing staff knew the only Ken Curtis could continually shoot that empty bottle off the fence post:

“ Let’s just cabbage on to them.”

“You’re nuthin’ but an ornery old scudder.”

“Just keep on blabberin’ alluva the time.”

“Righty thoughty of ya.”

“Mighty thoughty of ya.”

“I’ll be on you like ugly on an ape.”

“You better have a hollerin’ kinda of a voice, because he’s 45 miles away.”

“Just like two tumbleweeds, kinda bumpity-bumping across the prairie will directly hit a barbwire fence and just kinda hang up there till there ain’t nuthin left.”

“I’ll pay you back before you can say the rat ran over the roost with a piece of liver in his mouth.”

“What in the name of seventeen billygoats are you doing here?”

“You make me so damned mad I could smoke a pickle.”

“One thang about thinking, it aint like buttermilk…well, you can set it aside for a while and it won’t go bad.”

“It’s seems like some folks is born to lose, it’s the other’s that gotta work at it.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lights Off

The following column is reprinted from the April issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Alright, someone stop the bleeding. Well, most comic book heroes don’t actually bleed, but the movies that they are featured in seem largely to be dead on arrival, big punchy exercises in warmed-over mythos accompanied by predictable palette’s of shiny unitards, recycled plot threads, formulaic rock ‘em sock ‘em good vs. evil battles, and warmed over CGI effects. The failures are too numerous to count, the mediocre efforts seem to be mounting, yet comic book movies still seem to be eking out a decent box office life. Green Lantern, the newest, is more middle-of-the road swill, and hopefully another nail in the potential coffin of this out-of-control modern movie genre. In this humble observer’s opinion the genre needs to bite the dust, as soon as possible, before it might become plausible again, or at least watchable.

The Green Lantern character belongs to DC Comics, and after first seeing light in the 40’s he’s been revived and reinvented a few times most notably in 1959, most recently in 2005. He’s one Hal Jordan, a hot shot fighter pilot who becomes the first human selected by the so-called Guardians to be handed an emerald ring powered by a lantern that will allow him to be a sort of intergalactic super cop, with (of course) a motto all his own “Let those who worship Evil’s might, beware my power-Green Lantern’s Light”. Hickory-dickory-dock, right?

Green Lantern is embodied by Ryan Reynolds, he of the sculptured torso and continually sardonic but hypnotizing toothy smile. As bad as the movie is, one can’t really blame Reynolds, who might have been on target casting if the final product had some balls or verve or even went whole hog into the campiness it only hints at. Reynolds’s charm only goes so far, and it can’t bring a pulse to a basically lifeless exercise. Mark Strong, Angela Basset, and Tim Robbins are also wasted in perfunctory parts, although Peter Sarsgaard manages to punch his mortal-into-alien baddie role up with a bit of that ol’ Christopher Walken styled hamminess. Blake Lively, an actress of no discernable talent, fits is seamlessly with the overall tone of substandard hokiness.

When I mentioned that my assignment for this month’s column was Green Lantern, one of my fellow cinephile’s questioned the validity of 650 words or so devoted to such blatantly unfulfilling movie handiwork, offering me his own piquant summation: “Perhaps you could do The Year of the Shitty, Perfunctory, Blatantly Made to Cash In On a Potential Franchise That No One Asked For Comic Book Movie.” In the immortal words of Stan Lee, nuff said.

The ultimate irony for me personally, is that I grew up during the true golden age of comics, the mid 60’s through the mid 70’s and my brother and I were avid collectors and fastidious readers. During that fruitful period one of the biggest complaints among the fanboys (who hadn’t been tagged with the label yet) was how Hollywood just didn’t get it—comics were ripe for natural big screen adaptations, with their visual panache, social undercurrents, and strength of characters. As a pre-teen and then teen I firmly believed this also--the cinematic possibilities for comic book translations were virtually endless, a bold new cinematic form was possible if only the right filmmaker took hold. Alas, outside of the occasional Tim Burton, Richard Donner, Christopher Nolan, Jon Farveau, or Bryan Singer, the well has run dry. What’s next on the comic-into-movie to do list? As one of my long time heroes, Lou Reed once sang, “And me, I just don’t care at all.”