sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2013-09-01 04:00 pm

A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn't have said

Rabbit, rabbit. I just watched slightly over twelve hours of film noir. (Now I just have to write about it before I sleep so much I forget what I liked.)

I cannot decide whether The Big Combo (1955) suffers from its tendency to treat women as plot counters more than it benefits from its deep, shadowy, atmospheric cinematography or the performances of Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte as a hero it's difficult to root for and a heavy with a strange sympathetic streak, but I do appreciate how all of these elements come together in the finale: the merciless glare of headlights hunting a man who has dominated his lover past her limits, controlling even the music she listens to, the colors he prefers her to wear—half-blinded, staggering in the fog, whichever way he turns now she has the lights on him, as relentlessly trapped and exposed as he made her feel all those years. It's not complete repayment for how much of the rest of the film she spends crying, questioned and prodded by men who keep saying they love her, but I'll take it. The level of sexuality slipped under the radar is noteworthy, as is the director's evocatively synesthetic approach to violence. Dear scriptwriters: if you take a pair of inseparable hoods named Fante and Mingo who sleep in the same bedroom and make plans to run away together and then give them lines like "I can't swallow any more salami" and "The police'll be looking for us in every closet in town," I hope you were tweaking the Production Code deliberately, because a twenty-first-century audience can't take it with a straight face. The big-band brass of the title theme is great.

Force of Evil (1951)'s real stroke of genius isn't its dialogue, though it's full of cynical gems like "If I make you feel necessary, I'm making a mistake" or "All Cain did to Abel was murder him," or even its Naked City-style location photography, which makes pointed use of two different views of Wall Street, it's how subversively it resists drawing the obvious lines. The script throws around Biblical allusions—Cain and Abel, the Prodigal Son—but John Garfield's flashy, high-flying Joe Morse is not the wicked foil to his saintly elder Leo (Thomas Gomez, whom I kept almost thinking was Zero Mostel) with his nine-to-five job. His legal expertise was bought years ago by the gangster Ben Tucker, but he's not quite the Mephistopheles he likes to set himself up as; meanwhile Leo works the numbers racket, a small-time crook who'd rather stick to his nickel-and-dime bookmaking than get anyone hurt playing the big time. He scraped and saved to send his kid brother to university, stayed in the slums himself. Joe convinces himself he's repaying the favor by forcing his brother under Tucker's wing, after which things unravel as speedily and horrifically as everyone else could have told him. It's not, however, some clarion call for the integrity of the individual over the corrupt system. Individuals on the street are as morally smudged and bruised as the lackeys higher up, they just don't make as much from it (Leo in a perpetual flop sweat of ulcers and heart trouble, his collars crumpled, his hair wilting over his eyes). We know who to root for, we're just not sure it will do any good. That's true noir for you. Someone should just do the film a favor and surgically excise its voiceover—Garfield isn't the kind of actor who needs to narrate everything he's thinking. He knows how to show it. The last five minutes would have been immeasurably stronger in silence.

On the one hand, The Scarf (1951) falls apart as it goes with its presentation of trauma and insanity that's about two degrees of plausibility up from Spellbound (1945). On the other, it makes a point of not demonizing psychologists and it features the best female character I saw all night, Mercedes McCambridge's self-nicknamed "Cash-and-Carry Connie." A hitchhiker picked up by tense, quiet John Ireland as he tries to reclaim his memory from the blank that convicted him of his girlfriend's murder, she's tough without needing to be broken, smart without needing to be shown the error of her ways; she describes herself candidly as "no lily" and appears genuinely refreshed rather than passive-aggressively goading when John doesn't show an ounce of sexual interest in her. She's not conventionally attractive, with a skeptical, owlish profile and a voice that's both lighter and edgier than the viewer expects. Her delivery of the torch song "Summer Rains," however, is magnetic. (And not dubbed. I checked. That low, wry, throaty melody is hers as well. Just now I checked the internet and discovered Orson Welles once called her "the world's greatest living radio actress," so that explains that.) The film doesn't end with their romance. She doesn't need to be rescued from a life of waitressing and odd-jobbing on the windy side of the law. What they take away from their mutual harrowing is trust, friendship, and a return to their separate lives, working their ways through the world. I love Emlyn Williams even when I can spot his turn coming three-quarters of a film away, but I'm thinking I need to see more of McCambridge. Of course, if she was like most character actors I'm fond of, I've probably just seen her only genuine lead role.

I bounced off Sudden Fear (1952). I just completely bounced. It isn't even that I don't like Joan Crawford—I enjoyed quite a lot of the first half of the film, where she's allowed to be inspired, responsive, loving, and happy, even if the viewer isn't quite sure whether Jack Palance's angle-faced, intensely-spoken actor is really sweeping her off her feet for love of her brains and beauty or whether it's some complicated revenge for being dropped from the cast of her latest smash hit because he didn't fit her image of a romantic lead. ("He has to be the kind of charm boy that makes every woman in the audience go 'Mmm!' the instant he walks on that stage."—"Miss Hudson, in your own native city of San Francisco, there's an art gallery in the Legion of Honor in which there is an oil painting of Casanova. It's quite obvious that you have never seen this painting!") Then all of a sudden a Dictaphone recording turns up a murder plot and the red herrings fly like an evening with Lew Zealand and the plot flanges off into a bizarre mishmash of Suspicion (1941) and Sorry, Wrong Number that gives Crawford nothing to do but look agonized, toss in nightmares of echoing voiceover and camera zooms, and commit herself to a torturously idiotic course of irony that ends with a new dawn breaking over the streets of San Francisco like a very bad metaphor. Maybe there were script issues. A precipitous drop of steps to the sea is introduced significantly and never seen again. An old flame recurs and we never have any idea whether they were sent for or just blew into town on bad luck. I know that no one in a certain kind of thriller ever thinks of going to the police, but seriously, vigilante justice based on forged letters is never a good plan. I spent everything after one in the morning mentally screaming at the screen. At least when it ended there was a very cute cartoon called "Feed the Kitty," which I could stare at and not think of anything except tiny purring kittens with kneading paws.

(There were three shorts screened at intervals throughout the night: "Feed the Kitty," another Merrie Melodies called "Much Ado About Nutting" in which an inventive squirrel perseveres in its quest to crack an intractable and possibly indestructible coconut, and a five-minute trailer for The Birds (1963) framed as an introductory lecture by Hitchcock, his mellow imparting of natural history as straight-facedly self-destructing as a Stan Freberg commercial: "But man has not been unmindful of his debt to the bird . . . I suspect you never realized that if it weren't for birds, even some of our pastimes would suffer noticeably. Duck hunting, for example. Granted, bagging a fellow hunter can be diverting, but the supply is rather limited." Wonderful, slightly disconcerting ads from the days of all-night theaters throughout. "Chilly Dilly—A Delicious Pickle Treat!" Thanks, 1950's concessionaires. I'm good.)

The Naked City (1948) is still great. I've seen it three times now and it holds up. I am especially glad to have seen it on a big screen, where there's room for all the documentary details. I think it may have become the sort of movie I'll watch whenever it's on, even if I'm exhausted from moving all day.

By the time Split Second (1953) came on at four in the morning, I was at the stage where I was unable not to think of it as the Fifties' answer to The Petrified Forest (1936), only this time with more nuclear explosions. Stephen McNally's Sam Hurley is not quite as philosophical a gangster as Bogart's Duke Mantee, but he is pleasantly cynical about his violent career while not being cast as a cinematic psychopath—he's loyal to the wounded friend he broke out of prison with, he shoots two men in cold blood and regrets the second of them mostly because it dampens his rapport with Jan Sterling's flinty drifter, and he makes no excuses for having come back from war and turned to crime because it was the best thing on the books. He's a pessimist, not an opportunist, and he doesn't play head games. ("You don't think very much of people, do you?"—"I don't think very much of anything.") The film doesn't even seem to dislike him that much, reserving its contempt for the rich doctor's wife who throws herself into Hurley's arms out of terror at being left behind to die at dawn when the ghost town they're sheltering in becomes a mile off ground zero for a nuclear test site. The blast, for the record, is a doozy: a mix of historical footage and fiery destruction of the movie set. You are unsurprised, however, about who lives and who dies.

For the first half-hour of its runtime, Dark Passage (1947) is characterized by a fascinating formal conceit: it is shot almost entirely from the point of view of its protagonist, whose voice identifies him as Humphrey Bogart even though we never see more of him than his hands reaching in and out of the frame. No reflections, no descriptions. When he has to be seen in the third person, we don't get a look at his face. Eventually, when the subject of a face-change for a newly escaped convict is raised by a sympathetic cabbie who knows a guy, we realize the camera is holding off until it can put a familiar Bogie in front of the lens, but it's still striking that our first clear shot of Vincent Parry is mute and bandage-wrapped as something out of Universal, able to communicate only with posture, gesture, and his untouched, anxious eyes. He's got to be a silent character for a good fifteen minutes after that. (Most of the romantic courtship, in fact, takes place during this period of meals through a glass straw and writing his half of the conversation in notebooks. Echoes of Beauty and the Beast, only he's her guest.) Only at the halfway mark does Lauren Bacall cut the gauze off his new face and pronounce wryly that she thinks it's an improvement, at which the mirror resolves itself into Bogart with a week's stubble, Parry poking at his new chin and cheeks and dubiously guessing it'll do. After that the film becomes something more conventional, with Parry trying to solve the closed case of his wife's murder while avoiding new entanglements with the help of Bacall's Irene, an artist with a slight complex about wrongful convictions; it gives Agnes Moorehead a bravura spiteful role and Bogart a nice change of pace from automatic tough guys, as Parry isn't actually very good at bluffing wannabe blackmailers or not getting rattled with cops around. It slingshots the happy ending a bit; I'd have stopped sooner. Still a very fine way to finish up the night.

And then I got out of the theater and walked home through rain-wet deserted streets, as at the end of a film noir is only correct, and came home and fell into bed for two hours and woke with someone I love in the bed beside me, which puts me ahead of most characters in this genre. I wish the neighbors hadn't tried to grill in the rain, because the smell of damp lighter fluid drifting in through the windows for hours has given me a headache, but I can get dressed and take a walk and see if it will clear up now that the sun is out. I'm lightheaded tired. It's a new month. This was a good way to bring it in.
skygiants: Lauren Bacall on a red couch (lauren bacall says o rly)

[personal profile] skygiants 2013-09-02 10:22 pm (UTC)(link)
The opening of Dark Passage is one of my favorite film noir sequences -- because of course literary noir is always so often a world filtered through the cynical view of its first-person narrator, so it makes so much sense to literalize that on film.

[identity profile] 2013-09-01 10:52 pm (UTC)(link)
There was the best thunderclap I've ever heard at about (what?) nine this morning. Announcement of a new life.

I so want the Big Book of [ profile] sovay's Film Reviews.

gwynnega: (coffee poisoninjest)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2013-09-02 04:00 am (UTC)(link)
I so want the Big Book of [ profile] sovay's Film Reviews.


[identity profile] 2013-09-02 02:54 am (UTC)(link)
What they take away from mutual harrowing is trust, friendship, and a return to their separate lives, working their ways through the world.

Perfect. That one sounds excellent.

gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2013-09-02 04:02 am (UTC)(link)
I think the only one of these I've seen is Dark Passage (which I loved). You make me want to see all the rest!

[identity profile] 2013-09-02 04:55 am (UTC)(link)
Sudden Fear is pretty legendarily unconvincing, from what I've heard. It features in Bad Movies We Love, which should tell you something.

[identity profile] 2013-09-03 04:30 am (UTC)(link)
Well, Steve's staycation is almost over and Cal is almost back at school, so I hope to be able to blog about some of the films I've seen lately. For example, I picked up a copy of the Peter Lorre/Sydney Greenstreet Mask of Dimitrios, which was pretty amazing, and made me think of you. Have you ever seen it? (I think you'd also like The World's End, if you checked it out.)