sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2016-03-16 03:23 am
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No law says you got to be happy

The Brattle showed its double feature in the wrong order on Monday night. Or maybe we just came in at the wrong point in the bill. Either way, the second film sent out us out cheerfully snarking, but the opener is the one I'm still thinking about more than twenty-four hours later. I appear to have spent 2600 words attempting to articulate why.

Crack-Up (1946) is fun, but it gets silly in the second half despite a promising start—Pat O'Brien as a former art historian with the MFAA, now a free lecturer at the Met Manhattan Museum, who suffers some kind of dissociative episode and believes he was in a train accident on a commuter line out of Grand Central when in fact he was smashing around the classical wing like a bull in a shop full of Samian ware; he realizes quickly enough that he was set up to be discredited, but why? What's going on at the museum that a man of his expertise shouldn't find out? Claire Trevor gets a break from molls and fatales playing O'Brien's elegant and independently employed girlfriend, Herbert Marshall has an urbane hand in the proceedings as a man of no apparent position who yet has the authority to get the police to back off; Wallace Ford as the police backs off and does a skeptical slow burn. The cinematography is decent except when it flashes back to O'Brien's perception of the crash and then it's great. If the film had played straight with its material, it would have been a solid entry in the disbelieved protagonist mystery genre—The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940), eventually Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)—but instead it decoys and red-herrings and ends up explaining itself with drugs and hypnosis, which is just dumb, while relegating the payoff of the legitimately compelling art/insurance fraud plot to the literal background. I was seeing the double feature with [personal profile] skygiants and we enjoyed Crack-Up all the way through, but it really is like watching two slightly grating halves of different movies and the second is a lot stupider. We walked out wanting the third option where the protagonist actually talks to the obviously trustworthy confidante halfway through.

Act of Violence (1948) has its clunky moments, but all together it's a knockout. Robert Ryan is simultaneously a horror-show monster and a sympathetic member of the walking wounded, Van Heflin's hollow hero is the best I've ever seen him, and Mary Astor slams her supporting part out of the park as an aging prostitute who draws the protagonist into a Dickensian underworld in the middle of Los Angeles. The picture opens with no credits, just an echt-noir sequence of a man in a trenchcoat and a fedora taking a gun from a dresser, packing a bag, catching a bus from shadow-spiked New York City to sun-drenched California while the title card comes up like a promise. This is Ryan, his face craggy and corrugated, expressionless except for its tightened eyes. He's six foot four and the camera shoots him like he's eight feet tall. He drags one leg with an audible rasp, a snakelike signature. Disembarking in idyllic Santa Lisa, he halts briefly at a crosswalk while a Memorial Day parade passes by, all proud brass and flags; he is the war's unwelcome shadow, cutting through the celebratory ranks at his own disruptive, disabled pace. We saw the name of his quarry in a phone book: "Enley, Frank R." Now we meet the man himself (Heflin), a successful building contractor with an adoring young wife and towheaded toddler being cheered by his community for his war record and his work on the new housing development, one of those pre-fab model layouts that mushroomed all over the country after World War II. He's liked and respected, competent and loving. He's able-bodied and he has a nice smile. He's about to take a fishing trip with his next door neighbor, for God's sake—what could be more ordinary and decent than that? Heflin has a boyish, densely angled face; it can look quite different from different angles, a trick of expression and asymmetry that the camera will exploit in scenes to come. It's all playful affection with his wife as he packs for the weekend, a teasing game over whether he'll take his old bomber jacket for the weather. It's all carefree holiday up at Redwood Lake, where the still-nameless gunman stalks him as silently and efficiently as a Terminator among fantastically sculpted granite boulders, the oarlocks of his boat creaking with the tell-tale rhythm of his lame step. It's all spoilers from here or I can't talk about anything that makes this film interesting.

While the audience watches from the gunman's perspective until his murder attempt is thwarted by chance, Frank doesn't realize his close call until he hears about the limping stranger who asked after him at the docks. He returns to Santa Lisa a changed man. Something has been skinned off him: the gleaming confidence of the future-bright '50's he seemed to embody, perhaps. He sweats. His smile is too tight. His eyes are too wide. Drawing the shades, switching out the lights, canceling dinner plans to eat at the kitchen table by a minimal third-degree glow, he plunges his house from shining postwar optimism into the cross-barred darkness of noir. He barks uncharacteristically at Edith (Janet Leigh in one of her earliest film roles, pleasantly strong-willed) when she rises to answer the phone. The doorbell rings and they both sit frozen. He tells her some distracted, fragmented details about his old army buddy, Joe Parkson, who blames his former C.O. for his mental troubles; overnight he lights out for a builders' convention in L.A., leaving his bewildered wife to answer the door to the terrifying stranger in the morning.1 What finally makes sense of this behavior is the secret to which the title partly refers, which Joe spilled bluntly—"He was a stool pigeon for the Nazis"—and Edith wouldn't believe until she heard it from her husband himself: in the POW camp where Frank was the senior officer, his men planned a tunnel escape and he betrayed them. He was assured of leniency by the commandant. His men came out of the tunnel to bayonets and dogs as starved as they were. No one buried the bodies afterward. Joe survived only because he was taken for dead. At the time, Frank told himself that the escape was doomed and he was preventing reprisals; looking back, he remembers only that the Nazis paid him for his information with food in a camp where men were hunger-mad. He doesn't know if he believed the commandant; he doesn't know if he cared. "They were dead and I was eating . . . There were six widows, there were ten men dead, and I couldn't even stop eating." He makes this confession to his wife in a shadowy, echoing stairwell, sitting on concrete steps, gripping the railing as if behind bars: still a prisoner, still in that camp, still the man so scared he would do anything to save his own skin, even leave the woman he loves defenseless against the nemesis he moved across the country to escape.

That's all we've been seeing, the degree to which fear removes Frank's ability to think beyond himself. He put a brave face on over it, built the American dream around himself like amnesia. But now that he has no choice but to remember, to acknowledge the truth of himself—a coward with a hellhound on his trail—Frank goes to pieces. I mean he just implodes. The latter half of the film takes place in Bunker Hill, the astonishing drop-out, dead-end, last-ditch neighborhood of Chicago Calling (1951) with its twisting alleys and funicular cars and stairs plunging endlessly down into shadow. Frank races through the urban decay like there are real Furies at his heels instead of a human man in his late thirties who can't even move that fast on his damaged leg. He might not be running from his old friend anymore. Outrunning yourself, though, is a famously impossible proposition. Mary Astor's Pat is the Mehitabel of L.A., a weathered alleycat of a former beauty in broken heels and chipped nail polish; she's seen it all, done it all or had it done to her, and her face is disdainful with preemptive disappointment, but the nervous generosity that flashes out of her is real, if not always well-aimed. "So you're unhappy," she consoles our fugitive protagonist. "Relax. No law says you got to be happy. Look at me—I'm not happy. But I get my kicks. Gee, how could anybody stand it if they didn't get their kicks?" She takes him home from the bar he reeled directionlessly into, so exhausted that he couldn't even touch the drink she cadged off the barman to entice him; he's an utterly useless pickup, shivering, almost speechless, but she recognizes him as a fellow traveler in the land of the down-and-out and tries to solve his problems the only way she knows, if not with love, then with money. Buying Joe off is out of the question,2 so she falls back on the services of a shady lawyer (Taylor Holmes) who holds court at a bookmaking joint: "They got all kinds of laws. They got laws to help people, too." Unfortunately, Gavery has a racket on with a local thug (Berry Kroeger) and soon the two of them, having coaxed Frank's shameful story out of him, play on his terror and the sunk cost of his own weakness until he's listening to a proposal to have his would-be assassin whacked. "You're the same man you were in Germany," Gavery tells him with brutal plausibility. "What do you care about one more man? You've sent ten along already." At this point I was already impressed with the film's willingness to resurrect Frank's moral dilemma directly in a civilian context rather than sectioning off wartime as another country and besides the men are dead; then we hit the PTSD flashback. Barely coherent, Frank stumbles out of Gavery's den into a streamlined traffic tunnel, a ring of pitiless white tile and electric light; it echoes with the voices of men in the German camp, Joe's, his own, the commandant's; the snarls and cries. His face cracks; it's the crumpled bawl of a child in a bad dream—on an adult it's almost too naked to be looked at. He cries again and again, "Don't do it, Joe!" In a railyard, he tries to face down a locomotive, planting himself unsteadily in the path of its shrieking headlights. At the last minute he dodges; collapses weeping beside the ties. He can't kill himself. He's too much the survivor for that.

In the morning, he wakes in his clothes on Pat's couch; she is packing to leave, bitter and jumpy, angry at him for yielding to the temptation she didn't intend to provide. Now that the deal is done, the question is very simple: will Frank consent once more to sacrifice another person for his own safety, not to mention his reputation as an upstanding citizen who came through the war with all his limbs and marbles and national honor intact?3 Will he stop the hit, and if so, at what cost? How much courage is enough? The film refuses to answer for much longer than I thought it would.

I don't know if I have managed to convey how good this movie is. It's not a two-hander,4 but it would not work if Ryan and Heflin were not equally willing to play for nuance as well as intensity; in order for the film to achieve its intended effect, the audience has to find both men simultaneously sympathetic and wrong. Joe's trauma, survival, and subsequent marginalization render him a much more identifiable figure than his former commanding officer who lied his way into a cushy ideal of postwar prosperity, but the act of memory that is his revenge-quest is preventing him from healing or moving forward in any sense but the geographical. His assassin's efficiency in his first scenes is nothing more than his military training applied to a context that extends the war past victory and demobilization, setting the home fires burning again. "They're both sick with it," his girlfriend retorts in response to Edith's defense that her husband is "sick" with what he's done. "And I want Joe to be well." Any sympathy Frank can draw from the audience is messier, partly contingent on his position as the figure being implacably hunted—it works even with Nazis—and on the collateral damage to his family. His love for his wife and child is genuine, but it's hard to see it as a mitigating factor when he rabbits on them the first night his past comes to town. His most redeeming feature is his awareness of his own actions and his refusal to excuse himself with the exigencies of war or what he thought was right at the time: "Do I have to spell it out for you? Do I have to draw you a picture? I was an informer!" Even his lacerating self-knowledge is undercut, however, by his failure not to fall into the exact same pattern as soon as he's threatened again. That the audience roots against Joe's vengeance for any reason other than the danger to Joe, I credit heavily to Van Heflin, who melts down more helplessly on camera than any actor I've seen since Peter Cushing; he manages the sense that Frank is struggling between his panicked self-preservation and fatalistic self-loathing, but in the downbeat world of film noir that guarantees nothing. Even when he finally makes a decision, there is no single, simple motive that explains it. Having seen him only in The Three Musketeers (1948), Shane (1953), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), I had no idea.

The more movies I see from the postwar period, the more I know I don't have a complete picture of the era, but Act of Violence feels very early for its themes. Prisoner-of-war films are not yet a genre unto themselves; the cynical moral ambiguity of Stalag 17 (1953) is still several years away, as is Cloudburst's (1951) blurring of wartime experience into civilian vengeance. I can think of earlier American films that dealt with the subject of collaboration, but either they presented their fifth columnists as pure irredeemable traitors or they had European settings like This Land Is Mine (1943) or The Seventh Cross (1944). I know the damaged veteran was as staple a character of noir at this time as the private eye became in later iterations, but this particular doubling—Frank who has built his entire life on erasing the atrocity he was involved in, Joe who has kept himself alive by remembering it—is striking to me. The film is a ghost story, too, of course. Neither of them ever really got past the wires of that starvation camp. Joe may have a chance at the end, but it's impossible not to notice that Frank is still lying in his last scene with his wife, still pretending to the dream of the heroic past and the confident future. Putting his face back on. But we've seen what he looks like without it, and he's always known.

1. Edith's encounter with Joe is one of the better scenes of daylight horror I've run across recently. His incongruity makes him nightmarish: he hulks like a hitman among the flowering bushes, looms in Edith's scrubbed, light-filled kitchen like a one-man return of the repressed. The story he tells is even more narratively fractured than her husband's, but its brutality is more believable than Frank's sensitive evasions: "I kept remembering. I kept thinking back to that prison camp. One of them lasted till morning. By then you couldn't tell his voice belonged to a man. He sounded like a dog that got hit by a truck and left in the street." She doubles over in tears and he leaves as though part of his job is done.

2. He only laughs at the offer of $20,000, the total worth of Frank's construction business. Pat is flabbergasted by the thought of anyone who could laugh off money.

3. The reason he hasn't gone to the police all along: he'd have to tell them exactly what it is his former bombardier wants to kill him for. "And have it in every paper in the country? We can save the clippings for Georgie when he's old enough to read!"

4. Although it has less effect on the plot than I might have liked, Act of Violence distinguishes itself from most war trauma stories by not just allowing Frank's wife and Joe's girlfriend (Phyllis Thaxter) to exist in the narrative as counterbalancing forces to the driven reenactments of their men, but actually having them meet and collaborate. They do not join forces for more than a scene, but they exchange relevant information, agree that Ann's boyfriend should not kill Edith's husband, and view one another explicitly as allies rather than competition. If not as central a display of female agency as I've found in Phantom Lady (1944), Black Angel (1946), The Reckless Moment (1949), or Too Late for Tears (1949), it was still unexpected and fun. I didn't realize until this past year that the handling of female characters is a criterion by which I judge my noir, but apparently it is.

As of this post, Act of Violence appears to be available on DVD only as part of a collection, backed with the worthy, Boston-shot Mystery Street (1950). If you run into Crack-Up some late night on TV, you won't lose too many IQ points by it. What else can I say? I saw both of these movies with a half-blinding headache and I regret nothing. My immediate plans involve sleep. This haunting brought to you by my complicated backers at Patreon.


[identity profile] 2016-03-17 12:30 am (UTC)(link)
Whew! The skull beneath 50s skin.


[identity profile] 2016-03-17 01:28 pm (UTC)(link)
This statement of human weakness and complexity in itself makes me get a lump in my throat. What you say here is true.

[identity profile] 2016-03-17 01:23 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, Sovay. I just can't thank you enough. I turn to you for film reviews the way people used to turn to the one literate person in their circle to write letters to the folks in the old country--only it's not really in your capacity as a reviewer but as a storyteller. Honestly, when I read your reviews, I'm listening to you tell me the story of the movies, and it's just so, so good. Your telling of Act of Violence had me at the edge of my seat. It's because you do it so completely--it's not just the story, it's the camera angles, the sense of the actors, the place in history, and your own moral judgments and speculations. I just love it so much. I feel like I've **seen** the movie now (but I also want to actually see it), and what's more, I've seen it in your company and we've been remarking as we watched. Mary Astor's lines, which you quoted--yes.

Even his lacerating self-knowledge is undercut, however, by his failure not to fall into the exact same pattern as soon as he's threatened again. --I think this must be especially powerful because it's a pattern most of us (... I'm not speaking just for myself here, surely, right?) recognize so well.

in order for the film to achieve its intended effect, the audience has to find both men simultaneously sympathetic and wrong. --This is a real feat. I really, really would love to see it.

[identity profile] 2016-03-18 01:38 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm going to try to get ahold of the DVD.