Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Summer of Darkness Extra Credit: British Noir

It's very hard to find an image for this phrase not from a vampire movie.
As anyone reading this probably knows, I've been taking part in TCM's Summer of Darkness online course, which is the impetus for all of the movie writing I've been doing lately. The suggested viewing list comprises 121 films which will be shown in rather large marathons every Friday this summer. I've seen many of these films previously, but the majority have been new to me. I'm doing my best to catch up with as many of them as possible, yet eventually it will be impossible to get to them all this summer. More of an impediment than time constraints(which is in short supply as I try to fit moving viewing, reading, and writing between shifts at work) is the fact that I no longer have cable, or access to TCM in order to watch these marathons. Various online sources, and the public library, have been very helpful in this regard, but even they only help out so much. In order to supplement this project, and expand my overall understanding of the subject matter, I've taken to watching films noir not on the list when the opportunity presents itself. Hence, today's extra credit films, The Slasher and Twilight Women, taken from a DVD set of British film noir.

Honestly, calling either of today's films 'noir' is a bit of a stretch, and most likely a marketing ploy on the part of distributors VCI Entertainment, seeking a marketable hook with which to combine two 'social problem' melodramas based on stage plays. In point of fact, neither film is accurately titled on the DVD case; Twilight Women is actually Women of Twilight, according to the opening credits, and The Slasher was originally titled Cosh Boy, information that would certainly help anyone confused as to why no one in the film is slashed. From here on in, I will be referring to both films by their original titles.

Women of Twilight opens like a standard noir film, albeit one with a more pronounced feminine focus. After a credits sequence showcasing closeups of the main female characters, the film centers in on Vivianne(Rene Ray) dozing in a livingroom chair when she's awakened by two mysterious men knocking on the door. We never see the men, but she's clearly expecting trouble, for she shuts off the lights and sneaks out the backdoor. Vivianne meets up with her boyfriend, a nightclub singer whose apartment she was residing in. He admits to having killed someone, and is promptly hauled off by the police.

At this point, I thought I had the film pretty much figured out; Vivianne would begin investigating the murder while her boyfriend inched closer and closer to being executed. She'd discover some outrageous coincidence that proves her boyfriend was somehow innocent, just in time for a happy reunion at the end of the film. I could not have been more wrong. Women of Twilight drops its noir trappings as Vivianne finds a new home in a crowded boarding house, a haven for unwed mothers and other disgraced women(which Vivianne now is, since the press has prominently focused on her as the murderers live-in lover) who can find nowhere else to go. We even get a new main character in Chris Ralston, an unwed recent mother whose fiancee is working abroad. She can afford better lodgings, but in London in the 50s, her options would have been rather limited. A shared room in a crowded flat is pretty much the only thing available to her.

The most positive thing I can say about Women of Twilight is that, following so much misogyny in American noirs, it was refreshing to encounter a film this pro-feminism. It's not so much that the female characters in this film are all strong and capable- in fact most of them are depicted in rather unflattering lights- but that the film seems critical of the patriarchal social rules that have places all of these women in such desperate circumstances. The human villain of Women of Twilight is Nellie Alistair, who hides behind her false compassion as she works to keep these women marginalized and reliant on what she assure them is her selfless charity. In actuality, the real villain of the movie is the puritanical view of women that keeps these characters desperate and miserable.

The worst thing I can say about Women of Twilight is that it wallows in the miserablism of its subject matter. It's bleak almost to the point of caricature, and a quick rundown of the tragedies both minor and major suffered in this film would lead to chuckles rather than gasps. Petty theft, domestic violence, physical assaults on pregnant women, and crib death, just to name a few. The unceasing onslaught of unpleasantness eventually becomes numbing, so that it becomes neither enjoyable to watch, nor emotionally affecting.

That same sense of bleakness, endemic to a lot of British post-war art, is also present in Cosh Boy(a cosh is a British term for a bludgeon, or a blackjack), though not to the same heightened levels. The noir elements, conversely, are more prevalent in this film, though they're still very minor. Cosh Boy is, actually, a juvenile delinquency picture, just this side of being labeled an exploitation flick. The film follows Roy, the leader of a teenage gang who regularly bludgeon old women for their pocket change. Sentenced to probation for one such crime early in the film, Roy and his gang merely work out how to use the youth center they must volunteer at as a cover for further criminal acts.

Cosh Boy shares with Women of Twilight a sense of civic duty. Roy, the human villain of the piece, is meant to be a totem for a perceived societal ill, albeit one almost directly at odds with that of Women of Twilight. In Cosh Boy the societal ill isn't patriarchal, puritanical moral codes, the societal ill is that we aren't following those codes closely enough. In every example the film gives, the cause of teenage delinquency is lack of a father figure. Every member of the gang comes from a broken home, where, in most cases, the father was killed in the war. In Cosh Boy, no matter how well-meaning the mothers are, they can't do the job themselves without the aid of a man. A major subplot of the film concerns Canadian Bob Stevens' desire  to marry Roy's mother, apparently out of a desire to fix Roy. His repeatedly stated goal is to wed Roy's mother so that he will be able to give Roy the physical beatings he should have been receiving daily like any upstanding member of society.

A young Joan Collins makes a very early film appearance as the sister of one of Roy's gang, back from boarding school. She's a very proper girl when we meet her, and Roy takes an instant liking to her. The film features one of those distasteful rape scenes from the 50s where the woman clearly doesn't want to have sex, but then at the last minute changes her mind. I think it's done in an effort to get past the censors(the stage play apparently was more explicit), but it's still a bit offputting. The film also features one of the most subtly vile visual metaphors for sex I've ever seen, as it cuts from a shot of the two embracing to a shot from within an alleyway where a sudden wind is blowing trash and detritus out into the streets. The sickness within Roy is spreading to proper, upstanding London society.

The deductive viewer will probably guess where this subplot is going, and sure enough, Rene becomes pregnant. When she reveals this to Roy, and informs him they must get married, he blows her off. Learning his mother has married Bob Stevens, Roy then plans and carries out a heist of the club that Bob works at, where he accidentally shoots a man in the course of the robbery. This is too much for the rest of his gang, who decide that they'll cut their losses and take whatever punishment is coming to them. Most of them are underage, anyway, and unlikely to face any serious penalty.

The end of the film finds Roy locked in his bedroom while an angry mob of women come for him after Rene attempts suicide, in which the baby is miscarried. Bob Stevens comes in, and removes his belt in order to 'thrash' Roy before the police come for him. This finale is a bit odd, as it attempts to add a humorous punchline to a film that has featured bludgeonings, rapes of underage girls, and subsequent miscarriages. As Bob is about to beat Roy, the police come in to arrest him. Seeing the belt, they announce they'll be back in ten minutes, and leave the apartment to the sound of Roy's screams as the crowd of women outside look on with approving smiles. The film attempts to convince us that regular abuse of children is enough to keep them on the straight and narrow, which doesn't ring true, as Roy's right hand man in the gang lived in a home where he was clearly beaten every day. Perhaps it has to be a man doing the beating, as a woman would simply send the wrong message.

In Women of Twilight the noir elements disappear from the film entirely after the opening scenes, and in Cosh Boy they pop up only occasionally. Both films have a nihilistic streak, and certainly many noir films have their share of bleakness. But in noir the bleakness is more baroque, the shadows heighten the theatricality of the scenes, while here they just pull everything down. In these two films the nihilism is earthier, more mundane and more terrible for it. Although the noir elements are muted, it's possible to see the smudged fingerprints of noir on the films, though I wouldn't make them required viewing for any but the most devoted acolytes of the genre.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Tension(1949)

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. At least a few of the films in this summer-long project had to be duds. It's not that Tension is a complete failure, or even without merit. The plot holds promise, the direction is competent, and there are some interesting moments throughout, but the film is just so remarkably ill-conceived in it' execution that I was never quite sure whether I should be laughing or rolling my eyes. The tone veers wildly from one extreme to another, and never seems to hit a comfortable note.

The film opens with Police Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel(Barry Sullivan) talking through his process on the job, how he gets criminals to crack during interrogations by carefully reading their body language and expertly applying various types of pressure. This prologue is all done with Lt. Bonnabel speaking directly to the audience, and to make the metaphor clear, he's pointedly fidgeting with a rubber band the entire time. As he reaches the climactic moment in his speech, Lt. Bonnabel snaps the rubber band, letting us know what always happens to criminals who happen to cross him. This scene is, to put it bluntly, ludicrously overwritten. The speech sounds like someone trying to come across as a two-fisted pulp hero when in actuality he's never been out from behind a desk. There's no authenticity here, and everything is incredibly on-the-nose. Then the prologue is over, and we enter the story proper, still with Lt. Bonnabel narrating. He pops up here and there to provide narration, which does little beyond describe what we see on the screen.

Richard Baseheart plays Warren Quimby, a pharmacist whose entire life is devoted to the idea of pleasing his wife, Claire(Audrey Totter). He works the graveyard shift for 12 hours a night to save up to buy a house, but his wife would rather spend the money on expensive perfumes while they live in the city where she can enjoy the nightlife. That Claire has a tendency to step out on Warren is no secret; Claire blatantly flirts with men she meets in the Pharmacy, and Lt. Bonnabel's narration relates the fear Warren faces every morning, never knowing if he'll return to find his wife in bed, or still out from the night before. Warren is comically milquetoast, in his pharmacist's smock, wearing glasses designed for optimal nerdiness. He can only whine at his wife as she pushes him around and propositions men in front of him.

Eventually Claire leaves him for a wealthier man named Barney Deager(Lloyd Gough), and Warren begins to fall apart. He goes to try and reclaim his wife, only to be beaten on the beach by his wife's lover, in a scene with all of the dramatic weight of a body-building ad from the back pages of a comic book. The jerk even steps on his glasses and kicks sand on him.

A trip to the optometrist, and the discovery of contact lenses, gives 'our hero' Warren the brilliant idea to concoct a new, secondary identity, one with perfect vision. A scapegoat for the police to pin the murder on once he kills his wife's lover. To this end, Warren rents an apartment in this new identity's name, makes himself visible to his neighbors in this new guise, and leaves threatening messages for Barney care of his new identity. All while also working 12 hour shifts at the pharmacy and maintaining his regular life, of course.

I'm discussing the nuts and bolts of the plot in much more detail than I normally do, and in my notes I still have another couple paragraphs to go, so I'm going to just cut right through it with some fastpaced recap. Warren meets a beautiful neighbor, and has second thoughts about murdering Barney, but still sets out to complete what he started. This is probably the best scene in the film. The writing and acting in this scene finally hit the same wavelength, and the lighting and staging capture the scene in striking shadow-filled images. It's a bright spot at odds with the rest of the movie. Warren never goes through with it, and he rushes out to excitedly propose marriage to his new girlfriend. But first: another complication! Barney ends up dead anyway, and now the police are seeking his alternate identity, the one that wants to get married. Enter Lt. Bonnabel, finally appearing on screen after narrating a ton of stuff he was not there for.

The plot doesn't really get any easier to swallow here. It takes the cops an incredibly long time to realize that Warren and their murder suspect are the same person, even though they have a rather large, clear photo of the suspect. The simple fact that he's not wearing glasses in the photo is enough to trip up the homicide detectives for a laughably long time. A lot of my problems with Tension arise from the character of Lt. Bonnabel, whose prologue gives the film an unintentionally cheesy vibe, like an Ed Wood film without the personality. His voiceover pops up randomly throughout the film, which is supposed to make this seem like notes from a casefile, but actually makes him seem like a voyeuristic outsider. It somehow gets worse once he actually enters the film as an actual character. His actions never seem professional or realistic, and he comes across as deeply, deeply creepy. He begins an affair with Warren's wife, and while it's later revealed that this was a ploy to get her to spill the beans, it never feels appropriate. The fact that he's apparently sleeping with Claire never actually plays into how she's caught, and feels like yet another chance for the film to humiliate Warren. This isn't Sam Spade allowing himself to be seduced to crack a case, this is like Joe Friday feeling up some hippy chicks before busting them for possession. It's uncomfortably sleazy.

As I've said, Tension is competently made, with flashes of what could have been a much better movie. If the movie had leaned harder into the cartoonish elements, it could have been a gonzo black comedy. Likewise if it had sustained the noir greatness of the scene where Warren decides not to kill Barney, it could have been an undiscovered classic of the genre. As it is, the film feels like a jumble of styles that never really mesh together.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Where Danger Lives(1950)

Where Danger Lives is another film noir fixated on travel, with the majority of scenes taking place in cars driving down lonesome south-wet highways, or in a variety of small towns that dot those roads. It also features one of my favorite types of noir protaganist; the addled hero who can no longer trust his own senses. It's a type that was there for La Bete Humaine, the very first film I wrote about for this project, where Jean Gabin would suddenly fall into lethal, misogynistic rages. Dick Powell played a variation on the theme for some parts of Murder, My Sweet, as his character was frequently being knocked unconscious and having to fight through the fog of being sedated. Powell will return to the well in an upcoming film I'll be covering shortly. I expect to see this character archetype again before the summer is over.

Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Cameron, a doctor so in love with his job that he has to be coerced into leaving the hospital after a fourteen hour shift. He works in the children's ward, and maintains a steady relationship with a nurse that appears to be heading towards marriage. His life seems perfect, but when he treats the beautiful Margo(Faith Domergue) who has attempted suicide, he finds himself falling in love with her. The two begin a fairly heated affair, which develops mostly offscreen as the film suddenly jumps to the point where Jeff is proposing marriage. Margo rebuffs him, saying her wealthy father would never allow it. After drinking and building up his courage, Jeff goes to confront Margo's father, Frederick Lannington, played by Claude Rains. An inebriated Jeff is barely able to process the shock at learning that Frederick is, in fact, Margo's husband. The scene that follows isn't quite what you'd expect, although it ends in the inevitable fight, leaving Jeff with a concussion and Frederick dead.

Margo convinces Jeff, in his confused state, to go on the run with her, setting the noir road trip in motion. At the airport the pair are spooked by a pair of cops who appear to be looking for them, but who are actually there on unrelated business. So the two head out on the road, believing the cops to be hot on their trail. They make stupid, desperate decisions that put them into tighter and tighter spots, so that by the time the cops are after them, their options have all been exhausted.

I'm going to revisit the tortured 'Body Horror' analogy I used when discussing Desperate, because I think it fits even better here. Both the film and Jeff undergo creeping, radical changes to their character as time passes. What begins as a light, hopeful drama full of kind and helpful characters becomes a grim and fatalistic story with hallucinatory touches. Jeff begins the film as a model citizen, liked by everyone and cool in tense situations, but slowly deteriorates both physically and mentally as the film goes along. He almost literally becomes a different person as the concussion impedes his cognitive reasoning, his memory, his personality, and finally his motor skills. In Where Danger Lives, murder is an act of self destruction, a cancer that infects the film and the characters, so that even things meant to be fun and friendly become nightmarish obstacles. Jeff, in his travels, frequently falls into unconsciousness, waking up in new towns full of strange, impenetrable customs.

The path of the film can be tracked through the interactions between Jeff and Margo, and in how the various characters see each other. When Jeff first lays eyes on Margo, she is on a hospital bed, unconscious. He is wearing a surgical mask, though the scenario does not appear to require one, that reveals only his eyes. We see Margo, placid, beautiful, and focus on Jeff's eyes as he takes this in. Through their courtship both Jeff and Margo frequently stare lovingly into each other's eyes, and they're almost always shown in the same frame. Once the nature of Margo's marriage is revealed to Jeff, there's an interesting show where Margo is centered, while flanked by Jeff and Frederick, who continue discussing her as if she's left the room. This is where the bond between Jeff and Margo breaks.

Throughout the rest of the film Margo and Jeff will not be in the same frame as often, will frequently be separated in the eyes of the audience. And speaking of eyes, they will almost never look directly at each other again. As if their combined scenes prove to great to acknowledge, Margo and Jeff spend the rest of the film looking into the distance as they talk, and when they do look into each other's eyes, it is only for a fleeting moment as their gaze is instantly pulled somewhere else.

After the murder, the two can't look at each other directly until the finale, when Margo's true nature has finally been revealed. At this moment, surrounded by cop, as both of their bodies fail them, the two can finally see each other. Jeff's mask is forgotten, and the invisible one worn by Margo has finally been removed. And yet, despite this newfound intimacy, the two are never in the same shot. Not even an over the shoulder shot while they speak to each other. They finally see each other clearly, but they're separated by the film's four walls, and the chainlink fence they've collapsed against.

What follows is an ending that might go a bit too far in closing on a happy note, but to end on the expected note of cynicism wouldn't feel right, either. The film's fever has broken, and now it's time to start recovering.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Summer of Darkness: The Maltese Falcons

Anyone who complains about the recent trend towards sequels and remakes as if it's proof of Hollywood's newfound lack of original ideas needs to bone up on their history. This is nothing new; films have been remade almost from the beginning, and often at a much faster pace than we have today. I mean, the Robocop remake at least waited nearly two decades before staining the world with its presence. It might surprise those critics I refer to above to learn that one of the most famous classic films of all times is, in fact, a remake. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart in the lead role, wasn't even the first remake of that story. It was the third filmed version within ten years.

The first film was made in 1931 and features a lot of the stuff you would expect in a pre-code picture. A bit more sexual innuendo, some direct references to Casper Gutman's homosexuality, and a stronger air of seediness. The biggest difference of all for fans of the 1941 version is in the character of Sam Spade himself. Ricardo Cortez plays Sam Spade as a grinning hyena of a man, laughing at the misery he inflicts on others and treating every murder and betrayal as a joke for his own personal amusement. He's a hard man to root for, and he's introduced to the film more as a gigolo than a private detective. The very first shot is of a woman exiting his office and straightening her stockings before leaving. Spade exits, with that douchey grin of his, and asks his secretary if there are any more clients visiting that day. He then returns to his office, where the sex must have been acrobatic. Furniture is toppled, pictures have been knocked from the walls, cushions have been flung from the couch. Our hero, everybody.

Spade in this film is much more manipulative and deceitful, as well. He's unbelievably callous about the death of his partner, a good-natured slob unaware that his wife has been carrying on an affair with Spade. He does many of the same things the character does in later versions of the film, but here it just feels cruel and douchey. By the end of the film, when Ruth Wonderly is pleading with Sam to not turn her in for murder, because she loves him, she's not lying. The actress play it as completely sincere, and she's destroyed by the fact that Sam turns her in. That's understandable, and maybe the one ethical thing Sam Spade does in the entire film, but it's ruined by the very next scene where he visit her in prison to gloat about the big promotion he got by sending her to jail, all with that shit-eating grin plastered on his face as he crows to a woman who loves him that he's just profited from her eventual death. We also get the reveal that Spade knew Wonderly had killed his partner, had actual proof that would have sent her to jail, from the very beginning. In retrospect it makes it look like he hid this information so that he could make some money off the woman, get her into bed, and make her fall in love with him before he could send her to prison. And since he very clearly did not care about his partner, nor Ruth, this just seems like needless cruelty. Ricardo Cortez's version of Sam Spade truck me like film noir version of one of the characters on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; completely uncaring about the damage he inflicts because hey, it always works out OK for him. A character who finds himself charming while he coasts through life inflicting horrible damage to everyone around him.

Don't you just want to punch him?

In 1936 the studio wanted to rerelease the film to theatres, but was stopped by the production code censors who balked at the sexuality and violence of the film. And so a remake was mounted, one that would be approved by the stricter censors, and one that would stray immensely from the source material in both content and tone, Many major plot details were changed, and the film was retitled Satan Met a Lady(a reference to the book's description of Sam Spade as looking like 'a blonde Satan'), but the story remains largely the same. It's still about a private detective(who here becomes Ted Shane) whose partner is killed, leading him to become embroiled in a hunt for a mythical object(which in this film is a Ram's Horn filled with jewels) involving three distinct parties scheming against each other. The Casper Gutman character is now played by a woman, which removes the homosexual subtext from the character in favor of a more oedipal reading.

The most important change, though, is one of tone. Satan Met a Lady is more of a screwball romantic comedy than a proper film noir, and the characters frequently engage in ridiculous scenes of wacky comedy. The scene where Ted Shane comes home to find his apartment ransacked by one of the treasure hunters is played for laughs, as the two trade droll witticisms while sharing a drink and casually destroying more of the apartment. Warren William turns the hardboiled detective in a dashing, witty gadabout. More Nick Charles than Sam Spade. He handles everything with unruffled, deadpan humor, a smile always playing on his lips. And surprisingly, this all works. Satan Met a Lady is light on its feet and humorous throughout, despite including all of the betrayals and murders familiar to the story. It may not be a classic destined to survive through the ages, but it's a surprisingly fun little movie that probably deserves more attention.

Bette Davis is there, too.

And then we come to the version everyone thinks of when they think of The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, 'the stuff that dreams are made of.' This is the film all the previous version had been leading up to, the movie that nailed it completely and made the prospect of any future remakes unnecessary.  This version was so successful that if you were to read a Sam Spade story, you'd probably picture Humphrey Bogart even though the text explicitly describes him as someone who looks nothing like Bogart. It saved Bogart from the B pictures and dramas he had been making, inspired a working partnership between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet that would last over 9 films, and announced John Huston as a major name in American film, despite this being his directorial debut.

This version of The Maltese Falcon brings back some of the meanness of the Sam Spade character, though Bogart's charisma is able to soften the blow a little bit. He's a little more laid back, a little more understanding of human nature, and his smile isn't quite so irritating. He still sends a woman who loves him to jail, but in this film he does so for moral reasons, not selfish ones. His actions- playing along with the femme fatale, playing the various groups against each other, even lying to the police and others- all come from his attempt to avenge the murder of his partner at the beginning of the film. A man he didn't like, a man whose wife he was having an affair with, but a man he owed a debt to. He's not a great guy, but we get the impression that he has a moral code and lives accordingly. The earlier pre-code version, who committed many of the same sins, did not seem to have any sort of code or care for anyone else.

Everything in this film is on point. Every member of the cast is perfect, every camera angle and bit of dialogue hits exactly the right note. Take Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, and effemanite(in the novel he was gay) man who hires Sam Spade at gunpoint. He is frequently the butt of Spade's abuse both verbal and physical, and while he occassionally rises to anger, he treats much of this with exasperated acceptance. Such as when Spade knocks him out, and Cairo comes to and simply walks to a mirror to clean himself up. Or Sydney Greenstreet, who had a hypnotic manner of speaking, low and confidential but also with a rapid machine gun rate. It might take a few listens to truly grasp what he's saying at times. But that's true of the plot as well; it may not make complete sense on an initial viewing, but that isn't a problem. The joy of the film is in how it's presented, how it moves along, how it's acted.

Volumes of critical writing have been devoted to this film, and I find I don't have a whole lot to add. It's a great film, hands down, and deserves it's reputation among film buffs. Every viewing is as fresh as the first.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Desperate(1947)

Desperate provides a great counterpoint to Hollow Triumph, a film I wrote about not too long ago for this project. Both films feature a plethora of illogical character decisions and ridiculous scenarios, but Desperate offers an example of how to keep that from becoming an insurmountable problem. Both Desperate and Hollow Triumph center around characters who make needlessly complicated and ill advised decisions throughout, but with several dramatic difference. First, the issue of pacing. Hollow Triumph is leisurely at times, and Desperate rushes along at a brisk 73 minutes(sometimes, I must admit, this is to the film's detriment; one segment that seems to span several days is revealed to have spanned 6 months). The second major difference is that of motivation.

John Muller in Hollow Triumph made stupid decisions under the guise of intelligence; we the audience were expected to believe he was an intelligent man taken down by karmic retribution, when really he led himself to that end one idiotic step at a time. He was an egotistical, selfish man who made his own bed. Steve Randall(Steve Brodie) in Desperate is an innocent, sucked into an awful situation without the luxury of planning or experience. He makes the wrong decision again and again, and yet he does it all out of a desire to protect his wife. A simple change in motivation ends up making all the difference, as Randall is immediately more sympathetic and identifiable.

The film begins with Steve coming home to celebrate his 4 month anniversary with his wife, who is making a cake for the occasion. A corny situation that sets this couple firmly in the idealistic, sunny world you often find in post-war romantic melodramas. Their celebration is postponed when Steve gets a call offering him a job hauling merchandise for $50. That's not the stupid decision, actually; Steve is a freelance trucker/delivery driver, and does jobs like this all the time. The first stupid decision belongs to gang leader Walt Radak, who knows Steve from their childhood, and somehow believes it would be a good idea to hire an outside agent to be his getaway driver from a big heist and not tell him about it.

Steve's first stupid decision, pretty much the one he keeps making throughout the movie, is to not go to the police when he has the chance. After escaping the gang's clutches for a second time, after a botched first attempt leaves him bruised and bloodied, Steve should have gone directly to the cops. However, Walt had threatened to kill Steve's wife Anne(Audrey Long) if he didn't take the fall for the murder of a cop killed in the heist, so his focus was entirely on Anne's safety. Seems to me that the cops would have been able to provide more protection than Steve's 'lets run to the country' plan, but he was caught off guard and scared. I'm willing to cut him some slack for not thinking entirely rationally at this point.

Much less forgivable are some of Steve's other stupid decisions while on the road. After being swindled out of $90 by a used car salesman, Steve steals the car he has, to his credit, actually paid for. When a cop picks him up and begins to take him back Steve takes advantage of a small wreck to steal the cop car and go on the run. It's easy to justify these thefts, and Steve isn't anywhere close to being a bad guy, but it should be clear to any audience member that he's behaving foolishly. My heart sank a bit each time he stole a car, as it lowered his stature in my eyes a little bit.

Steve and Ann eventually make their way to the farm of Anne's parents, where they are welcomed with open arm into a rustic life of warmth, happiness, and post-war wholesomeness that rivals even the domestic bliss they felt at the beginning of the film. Steve goes to the police and comes clean about his involvement in the heist, and is told he's completely in the clear on that score. But that turns out to not be the case when Walt Radak shows up in town, no longer looking to force Steve into taking the fall, but looking for revenge for his brother being sent to the chair. Time for another move.

You see what I mean about Steve making the same stupid decision over and over again? He even tries to run again later in the film, hoping to make it all the way to California. If that hadn't been far enough I'm sure he would have been on his way to Mexico in an instant.

I've been using the idea of noir films existing as a sort of purgatory quite a bit, but a new metaphor came to mind during this film. In Desperate the film noir elements felt more like the threat in a Japanese horror film, a curse that could be passed on to an innocent person on contact. A curse that you could never outsmart or outrun, that would find you no matter where you ran, that could only be stopped by means of a violent bloodletting. Every time Steve and Anne made it to a new place, the film would become bright and sunny, but eventually the shadows would creep in, and the gangsters would show up, and Steve and Anne would be forced to try and run yet again.

Steve and Anne begin the film in a state of domestic bliss, living in a picture perfect ideal of marriage. The film is brightly lit, comedic even, and there's one instantaneous edit that changes everything. Steve gets the note telling him to call a potential client, and heads to the hallway phone to make the call. The phone is in a clean, bright hallway, and the film cuts on Steve's hopeful face as the phone rings to a shot of the phone on the other end of the line. It hang on a dirty grey wall in a room filled with inky black shadows, and from that transmission from Noir Country Steve and Anne's lives are changed forever. When we cut back, the scene looks the same, but something has changed. There are notes of concern, and the threat of menace hangs over everything.

This is a repeating motif in the film; Steve keeps escaping to places that seem perfect, but the shadows always creep in. They go to work on Steve as well, as he turns to car theft and compromises his morals to keep his wife safe. Noir in Desperate is like a physical disease, a body horror where the body is the movie itself.

OK, maybe that's stretching things a bit, but my point is clear. Noir leaves a stain that isn't so easy to get rid of.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer of Darkness: M(1931)

M. is not a film noir, but it stands as one of the great precedents of the noir movement, helmed by a director who would go on to direct many influential noir films, and an actor who would become an icon of noir himself. It's a film that bridges the gap between noir and German Expressionism, grounding the formalist styles of Expressionism with a more realist, gritty approach. M., despite its sometimes whimsical inventions(an odd phrase for a movie about the hunt for a child killer, but I hope to make my use of it clear) is recognizably set in the real and the day to day. It's clear that Lang had an understanding of his subjects, but also no real sympathy, making this a view on society that looks ugly, dirty, and always on the brink of chaos.

The opening scene sets the stage for M.'s mix of the mundane, the menacing, and the theatrical in perhaps the most straightforward manner possible. The film opens on a group of children, circled around a girl standing in the center. The girls is repeating a sing-songy chant about a child killer, and pointing at each of the children in turn. As the girl gets to a certain refrain, anyone she's pointing at is 'out' of the game. This strikes many as a morbid, foreboding scene, yet as a parent, and one who remembers his own childhood, I had a different reaction to it. Consider it from the children's point of view; they are playing a game. To the children the song and its connotations hold no sense of danger, death in this sense only means being out of the game until the next round. To children death is not the same as it is for adults, and many children's games center around the idea death either metaphorically or literally. This view of death being intertwined with child's play will come up again and again in the film.

The first sign of actual trouble is when one of the children's mothers leans out over a balcony and shouts down for them to stop singing that awful song. Something about her alarm spreads to the audience; any parent would, under normal circumstances, see this as typical playground behavior. What has changed here?

There's an interesting visual interlude here, When the mother retreats back into the apartment, Lang holds the shot for 10 seconds. After a few moments the children begin singing again, and their insubordination is presented in such a manner as to make it humorous, and yet we remain on the empty balcony. Lang cuts next to an empty stairway, and it's another 6 seconds before the mother reappears, carrying a load of laundry. 16 seconds is an eternity for a film to be without any visible focal point or activity, and it stirs an anticipation, a dread for what is about to happen.

Let's skip ahead in this analysis a couple minutes, before I stop making this a scene-by-scene description of  a film more knowledgeable people than I have dissected. The first introduction we get to the child murderer, Franz Becker, we get to it through the act of a child playing. We watch a young girl leave school, and she's so distracted with her play that she wanders into the street and is almost hit by a car. A policeman shouts for her to be careful, but he stops paying attention once she's on her way, straight to her actual doom with Becker, as it turns out. Becker first appears only as a shadow, imposed over a poster describing his crimes as the little girl bounces a ball off of it. We are made aware of the girl's eventual demise by a series of heartbreaking shots. An empty spot at the dinner table, a mother shouting down a stairway, a balloon bought for the girl now tangled in electrical wires, and the girl's ball rolling out of a bush. M. combines the playful and the tragic in a dark perversion of whimsy.

Other notes of playfulness pop up throughout the film. Becker's red pencil he uses to write to the police, the tune from Peer Gynt that he whistles until it's jauntiness becomes a stand-in for the murders, in much the same way John William's score for Jaws would become a stand-in for the actual shark. The Brechtian concept of a beggar's union, where the homeless can buy props to improve their panhandling successes, sell goods and foods they've scavenged, and are assigned streetcorners to work in the same way many office workers get their daily projects. Lang gets a few good sardonic laughs out of how similarly the cops and criminals operate.

It's interesting to watch M. with an idea of historical context and try to decode what all of the various institutions represent. M. was co-written by Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and the film's symbolic meaning seems such a loaded topic when you realize this film came out in 1931, when the nazi party was on the rise(though not yet completely in power). In a few years Hitler would be in power, Fritz Lang would have escaped from Germany to Hollywood, and Thea von Harbou would have joined the nazi party. It seems unlikely that M. could seem so metaphorically rich while not signifying anything, and yet the differing political viewpoints of its authors make that meaning difficult to parse.

Breaking it down a bit, M. has four major groups that almost every character falls into. We have The Law; the cops and detectives who hunt desperately for Becker. We have The Criminals, whose search for Becker is a means to an end, as it will get the cop to stop hassling them so much. There's The Public, who live in fear and descend into mob mentality at the merest hint of suspicious behavior. Finally there are The Beggars, who have formed their own shadow society largely unseen and unnoticed by the other three groups. They have no stake in the search, but The Criminals use their societal invisibility to make them the perfect eyes and ears in their search for Becker. Taken together, the four groups hang in almost perfect symmetry, with Becker, the only distinct character not belonging to any other group, occupying the center everyone else revolves around.

So, who does Becker represent? What is he a stand-in for? The outsider? The other? The very idea of a society led astray? Certainly he seem monstrous beyond belief, but he's also given more moments of sympathy than many other characters. He's seen early in the film prodding his face in a mirror, pulling skin to make hideous faces as if he's just gotten around to noticing he has one. Or, as Roger Ebert puts it, is he trying to see the monster inside that others see? Becker has a speech at the end of the film, as he faces a crowd of accusers, where he expounds on his impossible to ignore compulsion that he neither controls nor understands. Certainly this strikes a chord with the lifelong criminals who are slave to their own uncontrollable compulsions.

Becker is a virus in this film, or perhaps more accurately, a cancer. A threat that grows within the carefully structured organism, unnoticed until it's too late. But he had to have the opportunity to grow. It takes a blinded society to allow a man like Becker to not only develop, but flourish. If there were any real justice in the film's world, Becker would have been treated or helped long before his first murder occurred.

It can be hard to tell who the film expects us to sympathize with. At certain points everyone on screen will become sympathetic, but often that is due only to their station. We sympathize with the parents because they have lost their children, but the film points out that they would not have lost their children had they been paying attention to them. We root for the cops because we want Becker stopped, but they behave thuggishly and with an entitled snobbery that is continually offputting. Our sympathies grow for the criminals, as we see how the cops mistreat them in their search for Becker, but the film never shies away from letting us know these are not good men. The only ones to really escape any sort of blame are the beggars, who have made their abandonment from society a mutual affair, with their own separate society and their own governmental systems.

In my initial conception, I believe that the scenes concerning the plans of the cops, and the plans of the criminals, with their symmetrically framed smoke-filled rooms and speeches that echo each other, represent the shadowy forces that conspire to focus on a highly visible threat so that they may pursue their true ambitions without public scrutiny. The Public, with their tendency to fire-and-pitchfork witch hunts and mob mentality, represents a population eager to allow that subterfuge in exchange for a sense of security. That's a notion that would have seemed powerful in the early thirties, and it's surprising that the nazi censors let it pass. It's also an idea that should seem pretty powerful to modern audiences.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Nightmare Alley(1947)

Here we are, folks, Nightmare Alley. The noirest of the noir, one of the darkest films to ever come out of the classic studio system, featuring one of the ballsiest cases of career self-immolation I can think of. This film is proof that the Hayes Code was great at keeping explicit sex and violence off of theatre screens, but completely ineffectual at protecting audiences from the depths of human depravity and degradation.

Nightmare Alley opens with the question 'What makes a geek?' The Geek, the lowest rung of any travelling carnival. The almost subhuman creature who decapitates live chickens with his teeth. The geek is looked down on with derision and disgust, and would never be found in any reputable carnival. The question of what makes a geek is one the film will circle back around to at the end, but for now it's mostly deployed as background flavor. It sets the tone of desperation that permeates the film.

Tyrone Power plays Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, a carnie who helps Madame Zeena(Joan Blondell) with her mentalist act, largely taking the place of her husband Pete, who lives in a drunken stupor and is too consistently wasted to do much more than menial behind-the-scenes work. Pete and Zeena once had a big time show, based around a complicated verbal code that allowed Pete to convey information about certain audience members to Zeena. Pete's alcoholism renders him useless for that function, however, so they joined the travelling circus and perform a less complicated, less impressive act. The code is apparently enough of a secret that Zeena refuses to teach it to Stan, planning instead to sell it off at some future date to provide for her retirement.

Once Stan hears about the code, he can't get the idea of performing in a big time show out of his head, and begs Zeena to teach it to him. She refuses, at least Stan accidentally kills Pete by handing him a bottle of grain alcohol by mistake while Pete's on one of his drunken benders. Now, this death is clearly an accident, but also not out of the realm of possibility that Stan would subconsciously try to kill Pete. He's clearly shocked by what he's done, but he also quickly removes any evidence of his involvement, and he's more than happy to benefit from the man's death. Stan and Zeena revive the old act, and Stan proves remarkably adept at it, causing them to quickly become the biggest act in the circus. Of course, that isn't enough for Stan, who we're beginning to see is driven completely by ambition. Soon his drive finds him forced into a shotgun wedding with Molly(Colleen Gray), and exiled from the circus.

That's what makes Stanton such a vile character; he's not evil. He has the capacity for love, friendship, even kindness, yet he ignores those tendencies in order to further his own ambition. He's aware enough to know that what he does in this film is wrong, but zealous enough to not care. Stan never seeks to hurt anyone, but he's more than happy to do it so long as it benefits him in some way. His downfall comes when he finally comes across someone with more brains, and somehow fewer morals. Stan finds himself separated from Molly- the only person who cares about him at all- broke, and wanted by the police for murder. If the film had ended there, it would be impressively bleak, but shockingly there's further for Stan to fall.

Stan becomes a drunk himself, living in a tiny motel room subsisting entirely on alcohol and room service. And then the money runs out, and he finds himself as a hobo, drinking cheap wine around campfires and reminiscing about his glory days and fighting for the last drop of alcohol. Stan's descent into destitution and alcoholism is presented via a brisk montage of sequences, each scene a lower rung Stan is climbing down. This stops when Stan wanders into a carnival seeking a job, a prospect the carnival owner clearly views skeptically, as by this point Stan is severely marked by his fall from grace. His face is lined, his eyes are dark, and his clothes are stained and torn. But the man invites Stan into his office, sits him down, and begins to talk about an available job. Not a glamorous job, but a job. A ground floor job that would give Stan a place to sleep and a bottle a day. And anyway, it's only temporary, only until they find a real geek. Stan looks up, smiles, and repeats his oft-stated phrase: "Mister, I was made for it."

"Mister, I was made for it."

Nightmare Alley seems to have found the bleakest note possible to end on, but then it still has one more scene to go. It's easy to see this scene, where Stan and Molly are reunited and Molly promises to take care of Stan, as a cop out happy ending. A studio or censor mandated relief from the grime and soul sickness that has come before. But look a little closer, and you'll see the happiness is false, an ironic mirroring of the relationship between Pete and Zeena earlier in the film. Stan may have avoided rock bottom as a geek, but he's found a level just above that, one that will keep him comparatively comfortable, but one that also lacks the ability to rise. Stan has sunk as far as he can without the capacity for hope.