2019-03-04

sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Good morning! I come to you from a double feature of Communism. It was not exactly planned. The Oscar-nominated A-picture left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to watch some Poverty Row B-pulp to cheer up.

I don't want to use the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger line on Mark Robson's Trial (1955) because the fact is I'm still pretty angry at it—it throws away a legitimate and unusual social justice premise, not to mention a fine cast and a script smoothly adapted by Don Mankiewicz from his Harper Prize-winning novel of the same name, on just the kind of Red-baiting this country was supposed to have started to move past with the Army–McCarthy hearings and Joseph N. Welch's still-resounding "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" I feel like asking MGM the same. Trial starts off looking like your standard liberal message picture, courtroom drama edition. In a small California town where the beaches are still whites-only, seventeen-year-old Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos) is being charged with felony murder because during the annual festival of heavy petting known locally as "Bass Night," the girl with whom he was making out suddenly panicked, collapsed, and died. She was fifteen years old and white; the first of these factors permits their consensual fooling around to be prosecuted as statutory rape, the second explains the virulent desire to hang her partner for it. San Juno has a thriving Klan presence and it doesn't see much difference between brown and black when it comes to the color of hands on a white woman. Even her doctor's evidence that she had a bad heart from rheumatic fever is interpreted to mean that she was literally frightened to death in the course of an assault. Into this inflammatory atmosphere comes David Blake (Glenn Ford), a state law professor with a book-smart resume and a deficit of hands-on experience; instructed by his university to pick some up pronto if he wants to keep teaching, he has been directed toward the Chavez case by his funny, snaky, crusading boss, Barney Castle (Arthur Kennedy), who seems to see in Angel's plight an opportunity to blow the double standards of the American legal system wide open. He charms the boy's bewildered immigrant mother (Katy Jurado), assigns the inexperienced David the services of his own secretary (Dorothy McGuire), and cynically yet life-savingly talks a good ol' boy sheriff into discouraging the lynch mob that comes after Angel with assurances of a legal hanging. Outspoken bigots still manage to disrupt the girl's carefully private funeral with ugly grandstanding. It takes three weeks to select a jury because of tampering by racist cops. The stage is set for an explosive confrontation—a racebent re-run of the Scottsboro Boys, the still-raw recent outrage of Emmett Till. All the while it's drawing these familiar lines of heroes and villains, though, the film is introducing less reassuring notes of self-interest, shortsightedness, and doubt. Barney's slick, abrasive style lends itself well to fiery speechifying, but the audience may well wonder with David whether he's losing sight of their client's welfare in the optics of the trial, too easily eliding a frightened, marginalized kid into a poster-child prop. David himself has his own white liberal fault lines—he's distastefully quick to discount the agency of Judge Theodore Motley (the great Juano Hernández), actually accusing the older man of being played for a racial stooge: "I think you were selected so that after the conviction they'd be able to say, 'Of course the Mexican had a fair trial! Sure, he even had a Negro judge!'" The judge's response deservedly tears him a new one, but every time after that we see David raise a point of objection in the courtroom, we wonder whether he's acting on his academic instincts or just second-guessing a Black judge. I was fascinated to see a movie from the mid-'50's acknowledge that American racism isn't always a matter of slurs or jokes or violence; sometimes it just looks like a couple of sincere and progressive white guys to whom no one else is fully human or real. I couldn't predict the outcome of that. And then we hit the Communist rally and everything went to hell.

It's a beaut of a scene, if you can divorce it from any political context or conclusion. In a brass-band blast of paranoia worthy of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Barney Castle in his native habitat—New York, naturally—is revealed as a card-carrying amoral huckster, callously exploiting the high-profile inequality of the trial to sucker anyone with an ounce of social conscience into the Communist fold and their dough into the Party coffers. The rally to "Free Angel Chavez" is just a fundraiser for the so-called "All People's Party," a razzle-dazzle of left-wing gateway ideologies that end in faceless screaming crowds waving signs like "JOIN" and "STRUGGLE." Even when the shameless Castle rips off his audience with a theatrical hustle known as "the Sea of Green," they only applaud harder when he tells them the moral, his sharp face all one malevolent grin and his arms flung wide as a demagogue on campaign: "Don't trust anybody!" He hasn't gotten lost in his own idealism. He's sacrificing Angel, cruelly and deliberately, because a martyr stokes more liberal outrage than justice served. Sickened and betrayed, David flees the rally only to crash up against a case of Commie infiltration even closer to home: his now-beloved Abbe wasn't just Barney's secretary and lover, she was his fellow-traveler. Their lovers' quarrel is excruciatingly indistinguishable from a Senate subcommittee hearing. Ultimately the film will deem her a salvageable heroine because at heart she's a "hopeless bourgeois" whose tale of progressive disillusionment with American Communism just folds it even farther into Soviet totalitarianism ("They told you everything. Who to vote for, who to raise money for . . . I could never really accept the Party line, the way it kept changing. Monday's truth would be Tuesday's lie"), though that does not explain to me why it then requires its even less politically involved hero to recant even more self-flagellatingly. By now the racial complexities of the first act have been all but forgotten; an uncritical viewer could be forgiven for thinking that racism in America is largely an astroturf problem, disingenuously cried by two-faced virtue-signalers like Barney Castle. The trial itself has been sidelined just as damningly. Replicating the very sin it initially seemed to critique, Trial's emotional climax is not the life or death of Angel Chavez but the extraordinary confession made by our white protagonist at his client's sentencing, pleading as if he's the one on trial: "I was a fool and this boy suffered because of my foolishness . . . In my anxiety to help this boy, I permitted myself to be used as a Communist front." Dude, who called you before HUAC? Did Dore Schary ask you to fall on that sword? He's standing in an unnamed district courtroom in southern California, not the Cannon Building, but you start to feel that any second he's going to name names. Instead he leaves the courthouse with Abbe on his arm, having saved an innocent teen from "legal lynching" and had the satisfaction of seeing his double-crossing Red ex-boss hauled off for contempt of court when his habitual race-baiting presumed too much on the restraint of Judge Motley, and I suppose the movie epitomizes itself when I feel bait-and-switched by its politics, but I don't think it did it on purpose. I've been here before with The Quiet American (1958), okay? I paid my dues. It is actually more infuriating that Mankiewicz gestures faintly toward the real and hysterically fearful politics of the 1950's by having David threatened by subpoenas from a witch-hunting McCarthyist, since they come to nothing after his brave friendly testimony and in any case David himself defends the necessity of anti-Communist investigating committees, just not the particular one that's after him. At least it looks nice, thanks to noirish cinematography by Robert Surtees. I am bitterly disappointed that any film containing Whit Bissell and Elisha Cook Jr. could be such a waste of time.

I freely admit that I turned to Edward and Mildred Dein's Shack Out on 101 (1955) because I had heard of it years ago as the most nutbar of Red Scare B-movies; I thought it might serve as a kind of exorcism of its prestigiously insidious predecessor. That it turned out also to feature Bissell was just gravy. Produced by our old friend Allied Artists Productions and shot by Floyd Crosby as if it were an opened-out stage play, the film alternately meanders and rockets through such disparate sources of drama as nuclear espionage, unrequited love, deep-sea fishing, bodybuilding, seashells, and PTSD, almost all of it expressed with the screwball sigh of lines like "That's what I like about free enterprise. I got the enterprise and everybody's free to give me the business." The titular shack is a rickety diner on a remote loop of California coast, optimistically decorated with a welcome-sailor flotsam of fishing nets and glass floats and a wall-eyed stuffed marlin; it is the baby of cantankerous ex-GI George (Keenan Wynn) who runs the joint with the help of live-in waitress Kotty (Terry Moore) and short-order cook Leo (Lee Marvin), generally addressed as "Slob" for reasons of personality more than actual hygiene. One character accuses him of possessing "an eight-cylinder body and a two-cylinder mind." Another explains, "Even when you're clean, you look dirty," No argument from the viewer, seeing as this cut-rate Stanley Kowalski was introduced wrestling a sunbathing Kotty with the kind of sexual familiarity that blows right past horseplay and into workplace harassment. George at least has the decency to carry his middle-aged torch in grouchy silence, acknowledging to his old Army pal Eddie (Whit Bissell) that the pneumatic "tomato" only has eyes for Sam (Frank Lovejoy), the square-jawed nuclear physicist pursuing a top-secret project at the local research university when he could have been out at "Los Alamos with the rest of the atom-smashers." Rounding out this motley slow boil of a cast are a cocky fisherman (Len Lesser), a jumpy professor (Frank de Kova), and a couple of wolf-whistling truck drivers (Jess Barker and Donald Murphy), all of whom the viewer may eye with increasing suspicion as canisters of film change hands with the day's catch and a mutual interest in malacology conceals an even keener interest in "a new element that may obsolete the power of hydrogen force"—that's not just hormones and burnt hamburger flavoring the air at this greasy spoon, that's treason. Wasn't it an article of McCarthyist faith that Commies could be found lurking everywhere in American daily life, from the classroom to the silver screen to your own family? Well, if you want a cup of coffee, apple pie, don't spill any secrets of state while you're ordering it, because nowadays agents of a foreign power can sling hash with the best of them. Maybe you shouldn't trust those wisecracking deliverymen while you're at it. Or that shell-shocked traveling salesman, meek as he seems to be. Behind all this conspiracy stands the shadowy figure of "Mr. Gregory," at whose mere notice prominent scientists seem to disappear without a trace, and the possibilities for paranoia are endless. Also, don't shoot a stuffed marlin with a speargun. The sawdust gets absolutely everywhere.

I am reluctant to describe this movie as camp, but I am very comfortable rating it as gonzo. With only a few tweaks, the screenplay could have sufficed for a mainstream atomic noir—if not as apocalyptic as Split Second (1953) or Kiss Me Deadly (1955), then still serviceably twitchy about its characters' entangled allegiances and their intimations of a world behind the world. In practice it comes off more like a sitcom on ayahuasca. So we get clandestine meetings and late-night confessionals and tense confrontations with knife and gun, but we also get Slob and Perch staging a bizarre little holmgang in the kitchen, slugging the bare-knuckle bejeezus out of one another with their teeth clenched into opposing ends of the same dish towel. We get mysterious break-ins and tapped phone lines and then we get George and Slob making like Muscle Beach on their off-hour, pumping iron at the lunch counter while comparing calves and "pecs." We get the round-robin of misplaced love and we get George and Eddie flapping around like Z-movie spacemen in swim fins and scuba masks, getting in the mood for a snorkeling getaway to Acapulco. In a first for the aphrodisiac properties of the U.S. Constitution, Sam and Kotty make out while murmuring from the Bill of Rights. I don't want to call it a black comedy, either, but persons attempting to find a consistent tone in this narrative will be profoundly confused. Any serious-looking thread is just as likely to take a hard left into absurdity as vice versa. Eddie's PTSD is realistically presented; he got it on D-Day and it gives him enough trouble that his friends have been trying to get him to a therapist for years; but when the time comes for him to face his demons and defend the people he loves in perhaps the most classically masculine form of regeneration, I didn't ever expect to see Whit Bissell shoot a dude with a harpoon. (When I tried out the ayahuasca simile on [personal profile] spatch, he asked if it extended as far as vomiting. All I can tell you is that Bissell's exit line is "George, I'm going to be sick.") Blonde Kotty is so pert and breathy and reliably perved over by almost every man in the plot, it's a joy to discover she's also a tough smart cookie, initiating her own passive-aggressive brand of counter-espionage while the men around her are still futzing around with scuba gear and burgers. The indisputable king of the film's sliding weirdness, however, is shell-collecting, skirt-chasing Slob in his sweaty undershirt and his ratty windbreaker and his sexual sneer, and Marvin makes the most of his many-sided part—no spoilers that there's more to the short-order man than going full Neanderthal, but there's also a satisfyingly unknowable core beneath the blunt-force buffoonery, one of those lacunae of explanation where nationalities and even names run out. When another character spits at him, "The apes have taken over!" not even his voice rises to the bait, low and amused and deadly serious against the quintessentially American backdrop of the diner counter with its dried sea stars and its napkin dispensers and its signs reading "Pie 20¢" and "No Checks Cashed": "They are all apes, every last one of them. But you're so desperate for security that you'll take any promise that vaguely resembles it." I give the Deins credit for an enduring relevance there which is otherwise merrily missing from Shack Out on 101. The ending is as jaw-dropping in its own way as the opening scene.

Having pulled this double whammy on my brain, I am obviously considering why it is that the same narrative element which bit me so badly with the first film merely rendered the second such trash pulp fun: the concepts I keep coming back to are damage and belief. Whatever political convictions its makers individually held, Trial as a movie feels absolutely convinced of the realities of Communist conspiracies and their penetration into left-wing politics in ways that are still toxically hooked into our political landscape of 2019. Social reformers are all anti-American plants or dupes! Not railroading teenagers of color is the slippery slope to socialism! Racism wouldn't be a problem if people didn't keep pointing it out! I think so often of the current administration as fascist that it can be easy to overlook how much regular American conservatism loves its scapegoats and purges, too. I cannot warm to that kind of demonization, which destroyed so many lives and careers and still burns like radiation today, no matter how well Arthur Kennedy impersonates it onscreen. Shack Out on 101, by contrast, is so transparent and outrageous in its excuse for Cold War mayhem that not only do I have a hard time imagining that its makers really feared for the national security of audiences on their lunch break, its bargain-basement thrills almost serve as a satire of the Red Scare itself. I won't swear it was intended to go that far, but too much of this movie is legitimately, loosey-goosey funny (and on the character level as well as the strictly goofy: after a caring but slightly overdone pep talk from George, Eddie grumbles, "From your mouth into my ego") for me to rule the possibility out; in any case, I don't worry about its powers of persuasion. It has no pretensions to social importance. Its villains are written to come so far out of left field that they successfully conform to no particular stereotype of spies or subversives then or now. I wouldn't be shocked to be told it was an improv exercise accidentally captured on film, but you can watch it without moral injury, is where we end up, whereas Trial I don't recommend unless you are studying the Second Red Scare and/or in need of an emetic. The real problem is that now I want a milkshake and a Reuben and the only all-night diner in Boston is down by South Station, where I am not getting tonight in falling snow. This suspicion brought to you by my subversive backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
I am not having anything so organized or work-free as a vacation, but I have had a very nice couple of days. It is important for me to note them. Saturday after rehearsal I spent hanging out with some people who may become new friends; it was the most socializing I've done in months and it was great. Sunday I mostly curled up with cats and movies and wrote. I made the last of the kelp noodles for dinner with tomato sauce and sardines. Last night's gorgeous snowfull had mostly been shoveled aside into piles of overcast slush by the time I got up, but it drifted thickly onto the telephone wires and our neighbors' overeager motion-activated light did not go off once. I still feel not very present; I would like to be sleeping more and not having repetitive nightmares, but I like the color of the sky right now, dove-blue streaked under the clouds with grey and rose-gold. Last week was a lot of doctor's appointments. It is my intention that this week involve more variety.
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