2017-04-03

sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Earlier in the week I was talking to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel about definitions of film noir: how the hallmark of the genre for me really is not guns or girls or rain-wet city streets but the sense of destabilization I've mentioned before, the shape-shifting of the known and secure world into something much less predictable, much less safe, perhaps even much less real. It's the reason so many good noirs have the feel of a nightmare, where familiar objects take on new and terrible meanings; it's what makes noir such a good genre for social issues, where the American dream can undergo the same skeptical collapse as a happy marriage or the sunniness of suburbia. Everything from your faith in the system to your sense of self can drop out from underneath you in a film noir and all things being equal it probably will. It can be horrifying; it can be liberating; it can even pull out the occasional happy ending without feeling like a cheat precisely because a totally grimdark, crapsack world would be missing that element of uncertainty—nothing is really in question when everything ends in tears. Without that ability to estrange, to leave characters and audience unable to guess which way the cards will fall, a movie might be any number of genres, but increasingly I feel it's not noir. So it was very satisfying for me this past snowy Saturday to open up TCM and discover a movie which put this theme front and center and is definitely a film noir: Tension (1949), directed by John Berry and starring Richard Basehart in a nearly double role as an unassuming pharmacist with a cheating wife and the confident alter ego he adopts to establish his alibi for the murder of his wife's lover, which is where his troubles begin.

If you're feeling kindly toward Warren Quimby, night manager of the 24-hour Coast-to-Coast drugstore on the corner of St. Anne's and 13th Street, you might refer to him as mild-mannered. If you want to be accurate, he's a nebbish. He's nice enough looking, with a soft-mouthed, boyish face once you get past his Coke-bottle glasses and his rounded shoulders, but his tiny tough cookie of a wife (Audrey Totter, bright and harsh as peroxide) has been running around on him for years and all he can do is watch her walk out of the store all but on the arm of a different man every night, older men, generally, with fast cars and money to burn, while Warren stays dutifully behind the prescription counter, twelve hours a night and five nights a week so he can save up for the good life they must have promised each other once. If he can just give her what she wants, if he doesn't rock the boat, maybe it'll be enough to put things back the way they were. He can't imagine life without Claire, coming home every morning not knowing whether she'll be in their bed or just the blond-wigged, china-headed doll she leaves around their one-bedroom apartment like a sympathetic object of herself. Inevitably, one morning she's not. She and her china calling card have moved in with Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough, hirsute), a rugged, cigar-chewing liquor salesman with a big car to chauffeur her around in and a big bankroll to peel bills off and a big house to lounge around on the beach in Malibu, not the suburban development Warren was so painfully proud of getting a loan for and Claire wouldn't even get out of the car to survey. "It was different in San Diego," she snarls, stuffing clothes into a suitcase as if she were punching dough or her husband's face. "You were cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you're all laughed out now!"—though she'll get a last, nasty one at her husband's expense when he comes to win her back, a ridiculous Quixote sweating in his suit and hat and glasses, stumbling with the sand in his shoes as his lady in her neat black swimsuit curls her lip in disgust and her hero in Hawaiian-print swim trunks rises to his suntanned full six feet to whale the tar out of his shrimpy challenger as effortlessly as the "before" half of a Charles Atlas ad, complete with territorial bluster of "And don't come back, you four-eyed punk!" as Warren picks himself stiffly out of the sand, his nose bleeding, one lens of his glasses splintered like a star. So the thought of murder; so the idea of creating someone else, some dangerous stranger who might have a well-documented animus against Deager while there are witnesses that funny little Quimby, like a damn-fool knight-errant, actually shook the hand of the man who beat him up in front of his wife and wished them both well. "The trouble with you, Mr. Quimby," his friend and counterman Freddie (Tom D'Andrea) declares, "you keep turning that other cheek till you're dizzy." And indeed, the more time Warren spends planning his revenge, the more he realizes he doesn't need to go through with it. It helps that his roleplaying shows him there are other ways to live; it doesn't hurt that big-shot, he-man lover-boy is freaked the fuck out to wake up and find the "four-eyed punk" standing over him smiling like a hit man. But when Deager turns up dead anyway, the beautiful, obvious trail Warren has been laying to lead the police to the door of a man who doesn't exist starts to burn right back toward him—and it's on a quick fuse.

This is the substance of the first act; Rob pointed out when I described it to him that it could have furnished an entire movie and I love that for Tension it's just the starting point, the floundering collision of reality and fantasy that for all the strong California sunlight locates the story firmly in the world of noir. "Paul Sothern" may have been made up out of thin air and the cover of an issue of Screen Digest, but he's everything Warren Quimby would love to be. Where Warren switches dowdily between his druggist's coat for the customers and his drab suit for going home in, sharp-dressed Paul doesn't shrink from bold ties and assertively checked jackets; instead of mechanically filling prescriptions from a covert of aspirin, liniment, and Vicks, he hits the road each week as a commercial traveler for a cosmetics company. He strolls around in the sun while Warren toils away on the night shift. Thanks to the new miracle of contact lenses, he doesn't even wear glasses.1 Perhaps best of all, he has a girl interested in him—not a sulky, contemptuous wife who punishes her husband for his material failures without lifting a finger to help earn the money she longs to spend, but a hardworking neighbor who admits she's got a boring job and practices photography in her spare time, whose idea of a good date isn't cruising the city's hot spots in a flashy car but making a telescope out of a pipe cleaner box and building a shared fantasy about life on a desert island, which is closer to the truth than she knows. "It can be real, Paul," she tells him softly. "It can be real." With no strings attached, this is the life Warren would slip into for good, leaving the shed skin of his failed self behind as quick as shaving and packing a bag. But it's a dream, and any dream can turn on a dime to nightmare. Paul Sothern was created to murder a man and, rather golem-like, without Warren's desire or knowledge, he appears to have. Or at least there's no other clear suspect in view. And because this is California in 1949, because the homicide detective narrating the movie (in a fine pulp style: "You know, these stores have everything—raisins and radios, paregoric and phonographs, vitamin capsules and cap pistols. They'll serve you a cup of coffee, sell you a pack of cigarettes or a postage stamp—and in a pinch, they'll even fill a prescription for you") may be as corrupt as any other cop in the genre, because Warren is such a five-star shlimazl and this is a film noir, you can't tell if he's going to fry for something he only dreamed of doing. The horror of the mask is that it won't come off your face, no matter how hard you pull or what starts to tear away with it. The dream had a death built into it from the start.

I can't help seeing a kind of Superman echo in the role Warren's glasses play in his double life. His entire attitude changes when he's Paul, not just the self-confidence with which he squares his shoulders and tells a lot of trustworthy lies. He meets cute with Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse, whom apparently I don't recognize when she's not dancing) when he accidentally crashes one of her photographs—and for his next trick, with his arms full of a suitcase and groceries, knocks over all her gear while trying to make amends—a first impression that would have reduced Warren to cringing embarrassment but which Paul meets with good humor, sincere apologies, and a willingness to talk shop as a fellow amateur photographer which leads first to friendly hanging-out and presently to dates by the nighttime sea. That's only on the weekends, of course; the rest of the time Paul's traveling for La Femme Beauty Preparations. The rest of the time Warren's working the Coast-to-Coast, the same polite but unimpressive person his staff and his customers are used to. Glasses on, shlemiel. Glasses off, regular guy. It is therefore both poignant and hilarious when it turns out that Warren is in point of fact one hundred percent recognizable to people who know him whether he's wearing his glasses or not. (Possibly Superman is not the best model for a secret identity after all.) I do not think it's an accident that only in the last scenes of the film, when Warren has a chance of integrating his real life with his dream one, do we see him wearing his ordinary clothes and his contact lenses. The regular shlemiel.

So it's an unstable world full of fantasies and anxieties threatening to break into three-dimensional form, but it's one real people live in, which makes it worse when it goes so badly off the rails. I like that the Los Angeles of Tension is casually multicultural: there are Black regular customers at the lunch counter and the pharmacy, Deager's Latino houseboy later turns up working as a ringside doctor at a boxing club, and when Warren earnestly checks with an East Asian-looking kid that his mother will be able to read the prescription directions in English, the kid scoffs all-Americanly, "You kidding?" I like the way the postwar setting plays into the story, with Claire disappointed in the kind of civilian her cute soldier turned out to be and Freddie reading the daily news with a kind of fatalism: "They're still at it, trying to find out who owns Germany, who owns the A-bombs—floods, cyclones, earthquakes, riots—they're loaded." I like that we don't know if we can trust Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) from his opening, pre-credits monologue because what he's talking about is the way to break people, not whether the people he breaks really committed the crimes. I love that I may finally have discovered a specimen of the elusive noir saxophone in the wild. I didn't think it existed—I believed it was an invention of neo-noir, which did much more than original flavor noir to associate jazz with the genre—but Claire's entrances are accompanied by a sinuous, sauntering theme that sure sounds like the swinging slide of an alto sax, as lazily and seamily sexual as the points of her breasts flaunting through her tight white sweater. And while I have technically enjoyed Richard Basehart in noir before, he's better here than anywhere I've seen that isn't La strada (1954), which may only mean that I need to see him in more noir.2 This was the sunlit kind. I like those. You only think the daylight makes things safe. This reinvention brought to you by my dreamy backers at Patreon.

1. I did not realize until I looked it up after the movie that corneal lenses—as opposed to the much larger, scleral kind—were newly introduced and expensive in 1949, cutting-edge technology on which the film hangs an important point of its plot. I always enjoy that sort of thing.

2. There is one place where his character lost me and I feel I should mention it because it is the scene in which Warren strikes his wife. Once across the face, at the conclusion of an argument, and she looks more startled than hurt—turning instantly to seething hostility as she realizes it means she won't be able to soft-soap him into being her doormat anymore—while he shoves his hands deep in his pockets, hunches his shoulders and turns his face away as though he's ashamed of himself, but it was only that last physical business that kept the character from losing my sympathy on the spot. The viewer is very clearly not intended to condemn Warren for it; this is not how the script signals that he's a bad guy. He was pushed too far, we're meant to interpret. He lost his temper. He crossed a line and he realized it. Perhaps we are even supposed to worry for him, knocked even farther out of himself by domestic frustration than he was by his murder plans: as much as he fantasized about killing Deager, all those weeks he was Paul Sothern, he never imagined harming his wife. Nonetheless, I watch that scene and think that it doesn't matter if your partner just lied to the police and entangled you in their alibi in such a way that you couldn't contradict them without incriminating yourself, if they followed up their cheating by berating you for spinelessness and stupidity, if their sudden reappearance in your life feels like some evil albatross you'll never escape, you still don't get to hit them. You just don't. It was a place where I could see suddenly how much some social norms have shifted since the '40's and I was glad of it.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Happy birthday, Leslie Howard! A hundred and twenty-four years ago you were born Leslie Howard Steiner and I am so very grateful you did not stay a bank clerk. You were one of my formative actors and one of the great hot intellectuals of the screen and you punched Nazis with art and I am glad you are in the zeitgeist for it lately, because that thing where for decades you were remembered mostly for Gone with the Wind (1939) was awkward. You inspired H.P. Lovecraft and Raoul Wallenberg and I wrote a poem out of one of your characters once. I seem to have have written about a highly random assortment of your movies over the years (and I want credit for not compulsively rewriting the post about Pygmalion on the spot, even though it really needs it):

Berkeley Square (1933), dir. Frank Lloyd
Captured! (1933), dir. Roy Del Ruth
The Petrified Forest (1936), dir. Archie Mayo
Stand-In (1937), dir. Tay Garnett
Pygmalion (1938), dir. Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard & David Lean
49th Parallel (1941), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Pimpernel Smith (1941), dir. Leslie Howard
The First of the Few (1942), dir. Leslie Howard
The Gentle Sex (1943), dir. Leslie Howard

This is not a numerically significant anniversary, so I'm not going to try for some sort of summing-up essay of your influence on my life or my interest in film, although neither is negligible; I am going to post this gif of you eating a banana because I continue to think it's one of the funniest things Tumblr has ever turned up and point out that I think your weird cat-face was beautiful in portraits where you were shot like a romantic hero and in candids where you looked like a terrific nerd and pretty frequently, if you ask me, you counted as both at once. The fact that generations of fans—and not a few lovers—agreed with me will never cease to delight me. You should have played Peter Wimsey. I will fancast that till I die. I have no idea what happened here.

Your memory for a blessing. If you'd never appeared in a film, I'd never have known.

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