Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Be Kind Rewind
by Mark Duhamel
(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 2
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 used here are courtesy of Netflix.

Sullivan's Travels 1942
90 minutes

Tired of churning out fluffy comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides to write a serious, socially responsible film about human suffering. When his producers point out that he knows nothing of hardship, he hits the road as a hobo. On his journey, Sullivan invites an out-of-work actress (Veronica Lake) to be his traveling companion, and the pair get into more trouble than they ever dreamed of.

Cast:Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Eric Blore, Esther Howard, Georges Renavent, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin, Jan Buckingham, Jimmie Dundee, Roscoe Ates, Billy Bletcher, Monte Blue, Chester Conklin, Edgar Dearing, Harry Hayden, Edward Hearn, Arthur Hoyt, Paul Jones, Elsa Lanchester, J. Farrell MacDonald, Paul Newlan, Emory Parnell, Willard Robertson, Dewey Robinson, Preston Sturges, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Julius Tannen, Harry Tyler, Pat West
Director:Preston Sturges

Okay, this is not noir. Maybe it has some noir elements to it, but it is definitely not noir. I watched it because I wanted more Veronica Lake. I wanted to watch her in “The Blue Dahlia” and “The Glass Key”, but these films are not currently available for rental or purchase.

Did you know she was 4’ 11 ½” and that she only made it to age 50, dying of hepatitis? She briefly dated Marlon Brando, whose Hollywood star was rising as her dazey days were fading. Brando later heard that Lake was cocktail waitressing and sent her a check for a $1000. She never cashed it but framed and kept it.

She is absolutely brilliant, funny, sexy, and radiant in this wonderful film that somehow pulls off making fun of Hollywood, social justice, fame and celebrity, greed and poverty, and itself with a non-stop barrage of witty dialogue, slapstick humor, and an impossible and implausible balance of hard-boiled cynicism and wide-eyed optimism. This is one of those rare films that get better and better as time passes.

The Turning Point 1952
81 minutes

Is John Conroy's police officer father, Matt (Tom Tully), on the wrong side of the law? John, a prosecutor trying to rid his town of crime, hopes not, but newsman Jerry McKibbon (William Holden) says Matt has been running around with mobster Harrigan (Ted de Corsia). But Jerry can't be fully trusted either, considering he's got a thing for John's gal pal, Amanda (Alexis Smith). William Dieterle directs this noirish drama.

Cast:William Holden, Edmond O'Brien, Alexis Smith, Tom Tully, Ed Begley, Danny Dayton,
Director:William Dieterle

A nice paean to principle and friendship conquering evil. The evil portrayed here is a truly absolute and venal evil, worthy of overcoming mundane romantic triangles and professional jealousies to find solidarity and true warrior spirit.
Featuring the Prince of Cynical All-Knowing; William Holden, who along with the rest of the cast turns in an admirable performance while noir morality morass swirls around them and we feel sympathy for the devil in all of us decent but poor cops who took a little on the side to put their smart sons through law school so they could eventually overcome our corruption. The bad guy is really bad; the small timers; really small, and the innocent victims: of course; exceptionally innocent in a harsh, bitter, and cruel postwar reality.

Pushover 1954
87 minutes

Police detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) is assigned the not-unpleasant task of striking up a friendship with Lona McLane (Kim Novak), the girlfriend of a man suspected of engineering a bank heist that netted more than $200,000 and cost a policeman his life. Immediately falling for the bombshell, the cop soon finds himself neck-deep in her scheme to betray her boyfriend and make off with the loot.

Cast:Fred MacMurray, Philip Carey, Kim Novak, Dorothy Malone, E.G. Marshall, Allen Nourse,Alan Dexter, Robert Forrest, Don Harvey, Paul Richards
Director: Richard Quine

Fred MacMurray was born to play these noir, doomed characters. His hangdog, “I’m so tired” face looks like he’s one cigarette away from killing everyone in the room and then, with a sigh, himself. This film “introduced” Kim Novak, who previously had only appeared in an uncredited role and just prior to doing this film, changed her name from Marilyn to Kim and took some acting lessons. She does fine and is well cast in this film, that strange noir femme fatale mix of sexual charisma, innocence, and chilling opportunism. Her best scene is not when she’s cooing and kissing but when she snarls curt rejoinders at a lusting bar patron trying to make her, violently spilling her drink on him when he won't lay off. The plot for this is a classic noir arc; predictable but still immensely enjoyable as the few moments of feral passion turn into oblivion for more than one of it’s characters.

Scarlet Street 1945
102 minutes

Unassuming cashier Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) falls hard when he meets Kitty (Joan Bennett). They become involved, but Kitty keeps a petty crook, Johnny (Dan Duryea), on the side as her real love interest. Hoping to impress Kitty, Cross embezzles funds from his employer. What he doesn't realize is that Kitty and Johnny are getting rich on Cross's paintings, which have become a huge success under Kitty's name.

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Rosalind Ivan, Jess Barker, Charles Kemper, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Samuel S. Hinds, Vladimir Sokoloff, Arthur Loft, Russell Hicks
Director: Fritz Lang

Classic Edward G. playing against type, masterful B&W photography and precision direction by none other than Fritz Lang. Joan Bennett, what a knockout! No kidding, just watch her slink around on her “lazy legs” and you’ll be glad you took the time. Dan Duryea establishes himself as one of the greatest weasel-eyed, rat-faced, snake voiced bad guys in what became a career of playing bad guys, especially in Westerns. The opening scene smartly establishes class consciousness in a post-war country where there are no classes. The working class nebbish clerk Edward G. is presented with a 25 years watch, which he clumsily and humbly acknowledges as beyond his means, while his banker boss shows camaraderie handing out dollar cigars until he has to leave for a rendezvous with a dame who’s not his wife easily 1/3 his age. This last circumstance plants the weed of discontent in our nebbish hero. The mise en scene reveals director Lang’s deep roots in the visual medium as several scenes could easily play without dialogue, effectively propelling the story and transmitting the lust, greed, jealousy, deception, love and hate that fester for 96 of the 102 minutes. It ends with one of the bleakest fates for our fallen hero, one far worse than the hanging he sadly desires and richly deserves.

Odd Man Out (Gang War) 1947
116 minutes

In this film noir from director Carol Reed, Johnny McQueen (James Mason), leader of a secret Irish rebel organization, plans a hold-up that will provide funds to keep his group going. During the crime, things go sour and Johnny is wounded. Unable to make it to the hideout, he disappears into the seedy underground of Belfast, Northern Ireland. A massive manhunt is launched by the police, whose chief is intent on capturing Johnny and his gang.

Cast:James Mason, Robert Newton, Kathleen Ryan, Cyril Cusack, F.J. McCormick, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, Denis O'Dea, W.G. Fay, Maureen Delaney, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Robert Beatty, Dan O'Herlihy, Kitty Kirwan, Beryl Measor
Director: Carol Reed

This is a beautifully photographed film, featuring the deep focus and complex lighting of the fabulous British studio era. I love the sharp edges and shiny halos created by the banks of key, fill, and rim lights, flags, gobos, scrims, and other arcana of the high craft of this age. Carol Reed deserves his reputation as a master of the medium. James Mason, Kathleen Ryan, Cyril Cusack, Dan O’Herlihy, and all performers down to the slightest bit players deliver the highest order of performance in a taut drama that shows a slice of Irish life and presents “the struggle” in a way that transcends the stereotypes employed in the service of story. Top notch exposition, visual virtuosity and a truly sad but satisfying emotional resolution.

Dead Reckoning 1947
104 minutes

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rip Murdock, a World War II veteran ensnared in a web of crime and conspiracy when his best friend, Johnny Drake (William Prince), disappears en route to Washington, D.C., to receive a war medal. Murdock follows the trail to Drake's hometown, where he finds his friend's body burned beyond recognition. His continuing investigation soon involves Drake's ex-girlfriend, femme fatale Cory Chandler (Lizabeth Scott).

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Charles Cane, William Prince, Marvin Miller, Wallace Ford, James Bell, George Chandler
Director: John Cromwell

A smash-up of all the great Bogart noir films you’ve ever seen. In fact, I think some of the dialogue is verbatim from both “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep”. In any case, the opening shots of Bogie’s wounded face and his gravelly voice-over presage everything that is to come. There is no other actor possessing the irresistibly compelling visage, voice, and charisma of Humphrey Bogart. He is not a handsome man, yet it is totally believable that all women, and most men, find him an irresistible force. This film is the a-b-c of every subsequent noir and pseudo noir. The villain’s dialogue is the only challenge to suspension of disbelief, far too erudite and high-blown, but a small irritation in an otherwise tic-tac-toe postwar melodrama.

Hobo with a Shotgun 2011
86 minutes

This gory, gleefully over-the-top revenge fantasy stars Rutger Hauer as the Hobo, a bum who rolls into town hoping to start over, only to find his adopted city saturated in violence and ruled by a vicious crime lord known as the Drake (Brian Downey). The Hobo's answer? Pick up his handy pump-action scattergun and start laying waste to crooks, corrupt cops and every other lowlife who crosses his path.

Cast:RutgerHauer, Pasha Ebrahimi, Rob Wells, Brian Downey, Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman, Drew O'Hara, Molly Dunsworth, Jeremy Akerman, Mark A. Owen
Director: Jason Eisener

Okay, so this film has no place next to classic, carefully crafted works of noir filmic history. But I could not resist the title, nor the trailer which features a little bit of Rutger Hauer’s soliloquy to newborn babies at a hospital culminating in “… if you’re successful you’ll make money selling dope to crackheads, you won’t think twice about killing someone’s wife ‘cause you won’t even know what was wrong in the first place, or you’ll end up like me, a hobo with a shotgun…”.
I am not a fan of this gore-fest genre, and I am almost saddened to think of how and why Rutger Hauer ended up starring in this made in Nova Scotia drive-in movie, but I have to say in all sincerity; Hauer absolutely rocks in this. The soundtrack is all 1980’s electronica, there is plenty of classic bad movie poetry dialogue and over the top quotables; The Hobo: “You’re a fool, and a shitty father.” Drake: “Take him to the glory hole”. The digital photography is done with a camera called “Red Mysterium-X” which apparently means you have to shoot everything with a red filter in red light for your red digital super red sensor camera. If I still did drugs, I would take some and watch this again, tonight, and get no sleep and watch it yet again on my ipod for breakfast.

Dark Passage 1947
106 minutes

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall grace the screen in this classic 1947 thriller about a convict who escapes from San Quentin to hunt down his wife's true killer. To complete his mission, he must escape detection by the cops. So he undergoes plastic surgery and hides out in the home of a mysterious woman (Bacall) he's just met. The film uses a first-person point of view in its camera work, to put viewers into the shoes of the accused man.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Clifton Young, Douglas Kennedy, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson
Director: Delmer Daves

This is a class-A “noir”, with a top –notch cast, director, composer, and an unusual first person camera perspective for the first half of the film. It’s a “noir” in quotes, because it’s not really a noir, it features cynicism and darkness, but sports a happy ending which automatically disqualifies it as noir for the discerning viewer.
The most startling result of the first person point of view gimmick is that contemporary viewers should be able to watch as they may mistake much of it for a cool retro-B&W video game.
We don’t actually see Bogart himself until over 100 minutes have passed. His voice alone stars.
Bacall and Bogart had previously made great success out of their debut as a couple in “To Have and Have Not”, and then the truly classic follow up “The Big Sleep”. After “Dark Passage”, they scored another big hit with Edward G. Robinson in the great “Key Largo”.
The no-see-the Bogart is a great gimmick and apparently made the studio big-wigs very nervous and they may have been right as this was not a smashing financial success. Bogart gets “plastic surgery” in a San Francisco walk-up from a disgraced doctor recommended by a garrulous cabbie. A face-lift that leaves you looking exactly like Humphrey Bogart for $200.00. Ah, the “good old days”. Imagine a pre-surgery consultation delivered by your would-be surgeon that goes like this: ” We’re all cowards. There’s no such thing as courage, there’s only fear, Fear of getting hurt, and fear of dying, that’s why humans live so long.”
Note; a white male born in 1947, had a life expectancy of 66.8 years.
Great visuals, an atmospheric, moody sound, lustrous on location B&W photography, a beautifully malevolent performance by Agnes Moorehead, and Lauren Bacall is sonorous and sultry as ever, a truly persuasive argument for bringing back the “good old days”. Goodbye Irene.

The Mechanic (Killer of Killers) 1972
99 minutes

Charles Bronson (looking gnarled as ever) works alone as a hit man for "The Organization." But when willing acolyte Jan-Michael Vincent proves he has the stuff aspiring killers are made of, Bronson agrees to train him. Looks like it might be a case of the pupil overtaking the master, though, when Vincent begins to get some peculiar ideas of his own. Directed by Bronson perennial Michael Winner.

Cast: Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Frank DeKova, Linda Ridgeway
Director: Michael Winner

Okay another noir that’s not really noir, except it is, aka 1972. Charles Bronson and his true love, director Michael Winner team up to leave us a template for the future – fest of assassin as hero/anti-hero films. This dynamic duo delivered many Bronson classics including; “Chato’s Land”, and all three of the “Death Wish” extravaganzas. This film is another partnership devoted to death and emotionless mayhem, a paean to 1970’s nihilism and futility. The best ridiculously 70’s scene is Bronson with the whore in an apartment wonderfully appointed with classic and obscure movie posters, a nice tip ‘o the hat to filmic history. The early scenes wonderfully capture the truly seedy side of LA behind the glamorous façade. A movie-movie full of great murdering-101 bits, a classic tinkly-piano, strings and brass suspense score by Jerry Fielding, explosions, motorcycle chases, weapons lessons, and a reliably flat Bronson playing off a wretchedly inert Jan Michael Vincent. It seems better than I thought and probably is still a favorite among late-night-professional-killing is cool viewers.

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) 1977
125 minutes
Idealistic German art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is dying from a rare blood disease, so to earn money for the family he will be leaving behind, he accepts an offer from cunning American sociopath Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) to carry out a high-paying mob it. Zimmermann and Ripley forge an uneasy bond steeped in deceit, corruption and cold-blooded murder -- a partnership that could easily ruin what's left of Zimmerman's life.
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Lisa Kreuzer, Gérard Blain, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, Lou Castel
Director: Wim Wenders

A classic noir story featuring an ordinary schlub drawn into international art fraud and murder via a terrific plot device. All of the performances are memorable and iconic and of course Wenders has cast both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller in pivotal, if minor, roles as the ultimate homage to his “American Friend(s)”.
The cinematography is extraordinary, somehow referencing the best film noir from the 40’s and 50’s and demonstrating the state of the art low light film stock of the mid to late 1970’s.
Wenders ably proves his noir scholarship: the heavy score, the sharp dialogue, and the steadily spiraling descent into darkness is perfectly paced and deliciously drawn. Hopper’s marvelous depiction of quintessential American selflessness and self-obsession, Ganz’s moral then physical deconstruction, the violence that infects and grows, lushly and inexorably unraveling lives in a cityscape spread over Munich, Paris, and New York. “Road Movies” indeed, Mr. Wenders.
I first saw this film on it’s release and don’t think I’ve seen it since. There are many moments that have stuck with me over the years, particularly a scene wherein Ganz pulls a man’s legs out from under him over a drain around Hopper’s house and you can hear the crack of bone snapping as he hits the concrete below.
I have always remembered this as a moment of truly disturbing violence. Disturbing in it’s simple and quick resolution, in contrast to the usual gun and gore porn depicted in Hollywood’s blockbuster panoramas. All of the violence in “The American Friend” is unsettling and matter of fact, a true noir aesthetic.