Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Killer Double Feature

This weekend, I was faced with preparing for BookExpo America, for which I am traveling to Los Angeles this week (I'll be signing and giving away advanced reading copies of my book at the Mystery Writers of America booth). But I also had some fun on Saturday: I traveled to the East Bay, to see a double feature of The Killers (one of the all-time great noirs) and Eddie Muller's neo-noir short classic, The Grand Inquisitor.

To make the package even more irresistible, the movies were screened at a fantastic theater: the Cerrito, a restored 1937 deco masterpiece in downtown El Cerrito. Saved from the greedy, amoral hands of developers by the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, a grass-roots non-profit, and later purchased by the city itself, the Cerrito is a Speakeasy Theater ... and as anyone who knows me can attest, I can't resist anything calling itself a speakeasy.

What it means in this context is that film-goers have the option of lounging in comfortable couches and armchairs, snuggling and eating delicious pizza or salad or nachos with a big bowl of buttered popcorn. You can even get a bottle or glass of wine or beer, and make it date night--in fact, one of the best packages is "The Cheap Date," a $35 deal which includes two admissions, a medium pizza with three toppings (home-tossed and delicious!) a big bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine or two large beers. As they say in Kansas (or should, anyway) -- that ain't hay.

The Cerrito is a model of what can be done to make historic theaters viable business venues, whether for time-worn classics or today's (mostly forgettable) fare. Of course, it depends on the spirit of the community, and I take my hat off to the can-do citizens of El Cerrito.

Now, I reviewed The Grand Inquisitor back in January, the day after its debut at Noir City. And as great as it was on first showing, the film, like fine wine, only improves with another sip.

Eddie Muller is the most modest genius I know. And I don't use the word lightly. The man has just finished a run with the Thrillpeddlers' production of a lost Noel Coward play (also reviewed in Writing in the Dark), writes brilliant fiction (The Distance, Shadow Boxer), classic non-fiction (Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and knows more about film noir than anyone, with the possible exception of Bertrand Tavernier, though I'd still bet on Eddie for the Jeopardy championship.

In fact, Eddie has just returned from a trip to Paris, where he was feted by the French and where he screened The Grand Inquisitor (the audience included Tavernier). The Distance was recently published in France as Mister Boxe, and Lire magazine called it the Thriller of the Year. His film was also shown three times as part of the prestigious San Francisco International Film Festival. So yeah -- I don't speak lightly. Eddie is not just the Czar of Noir (founder and President of the Film Noir Foundation) ... he's its Leonardo da Vinci.

If you get a chance to see The Grand Inquisitor, don't miss it. Just to take one element of the twenty-minute film (other than the outstanding acting by screen goddess Marsha Hunt and newcomer Leah Dashe): the mise-en-scene and art direction (please forgive the lack of accents) is amazing. On my first viewing, I was so awestruck by Marsha's incredible performance (and Eddie's pacing and framing), that I hadn't realized subtle clues adding to the film's mystery and claustrophobic atmosphere ... notice the pill bottles here and there in the opening shot's of Lulu's bedroom. Notice the dense, smoke-filled, shut-in feeling of the house. Notice the stacks of newspapers, unread, that fill the space behind Marsha as she sits in her chair.

Small things can add up to greatness, and The Grand Inquisitor is one great movie. To make matters even more chilling, Eddie's short story (published in the sublime anthology A Hell of a Woman, edited by Megan Abbott) upon which the film is based, is, in turn, based on some actual non-fiction discoveries he made while prowling through bookstores. Names have been changed to protect the possibly guilty.

What would you do if you think you may have found the Zodiac killer's notebooks? See The Grand Inquisitor for a possible answer.

The second half of the evening was filled with magnificent views of a young Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), beautifully directed by Robert Siodmak. The flash back structure of this film makes it a detective story within a noir tale of greed and lust and amour fou.

Siodmak's camera lingers lovingly on the drop-dead beauty of his stars (and neither ever looked better) ... in a memorable shot from the first meeting of Lancaster (The Swede) and Gardner (Kitty) , a burning lamp filament juts phallically between them, glowing violently ... and it is the raw, animal charisma of these two that drives the film forward. It's almost like watching a nature show.

The casting of pudgy, middle-aged Albert Dekker (Big Jim) as Ava's other love interest makes their relationship feel physically and morally wrong, as if it's a crime against biology. Other careful casting enriches the minor roles:William Conrad and noir favorite Charles McGraw play the eponymous hired hitmen, Jack Lambert enlivens Dum-Dum, Vince Barnett portrays Charleston, the star-gazing thief, and Queenie Smith gives a touching, memorable turn as the maid. Sam Levene, so memorable in Brute Force, another Lancaster noir classic, and as the victim in Crossfire, makes a likable, believable cop. Virginia Christine, whom you may remember as Maxwell House's Mrs. Olsen, is the good girl. Even Edmund O'Brien, who often overacts, delivers the goods as the insurance investigator.

This is a film to be savored--like 70-year old Scotch. If you get a chance to see it on the big screen, do ... and Eddie reported the good news that the film has been restored by the studio, which bodes well for a future release.

Walking out of the theater--and the movies played to a full house--I overheard a group of people talk excitedly about how wonderful The Killers was.

So move over, Indiana. We love you, too, but when cinema can compel new generations of movie-goers to laugh, cry, bite their fingernails or applaud after sixty years, that's a real box-office winner.

Next: I'll be at BEA next weekend, and will attempt to blog if I don't get lost in all the hullabaloo!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Who Shot Liberty Valance?

Some people think of westerns as Clayton Moore in a skyblue jump suit, and Jay Silverheels suffering through endless "kemo sabe" lines.

But that's nonsense. Sure, there were a lot of "oaters" (as they were called), produced by low-budget hacks to cash in on the post WWII cowboy craze. But the genre--as plentiful on the new medium of television as cigarette commercials and Arthur Godfrey--also deepened and matured in the late '40s and '50s, following a course similar--and complementary to--the traditional "film noir cycle" you might hear a lot of critics talk about.

The country may have been in denial about the social, cultural and political upheavals caused by WWII and the aftermath of the Cold War (how else does one explain Pat Boone?) ... but noir, early on, tackled adult subjects, and even when the most courageous, outspoken (and in many cases, the most talented) directors were blacklisted, gleanings of self-exploration are evident in many genre films of the period--particularly westerns, like those directed by Anthony Mann (also a fine noir filmmaker) and starring Jimmy Stewart.

So I'm breaking away from the traditional urban setting for a week to talk about one western in particular--one of the best ever made, and one that boasts some noir characteristics (and actors).

Late in his career, John Ford--who by all accounts was not a kemo sabe to work with, but one of the most influential and brilliant directors of all time--revisited his favorite genre and his favorite actor, and filmed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

The film is actually a mystery--a story told in flashback, explaining why an aged, prominent politician and Senator--played by Jimmy Stewart--and his wife (Vera Miles, most famous for Psycho), return to Shinbone, a small town in the southwest, for the funeral of a man whom no one remembers except for his companion, friend and hired hand, Pompey (the always moving Woody Strode) ... and who will be buried as a pauper by the county.

The relationship of the elderly Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) and his wife Hallie seems uncomfortable ... and almost immediately, after a buggy ride out to a burned out house surrounded by cactus roses, we're led to believe that this couple had been, once a upon a time, a triangle: there had been another man, the dead man, Tom Doniphon.

Newspaper men coax the story--actually, demand the story--from Stewart, who also ensures that the miserly undertaker buries Tom with his boots and spurs.

The flashback begins with the fresh-from-law school Ransom (makeup helps the 53 year old Stewart and so does the black and white photography) getting hijacked on the stage coach by a sadistic psychopath named Liberty Valance (played brilliantly by Lee Marvin, and reminiscent of his turn in The Big Heat). (Trivia buffs will note that Lee Van Cleef, later to come to prominence as "Angel Eyes" in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, portrays one of Valance's two sidekicks.)

Rance (and his law books) are torn to shreds by Valance, and he's left to die. The first time we see Tom Doniphon (John Wayne, in one of his best roles), he's carting the wounded Rance to Shinbone and the arms of the pretty but illiterate girl who works in the only hash house in town. Cue the triangle.

The main theme revolves around the educated representative of the future and civilization (Rance), who refuses to carry a gun, and tries to fight for justice with law, versus the strong man who represents the past and keeps himself to himself (Tom), a man of action, but who--until now--has not done anything to halt Valance's crimes, even though he is the only person in the territory who is capable of it. And then there's Hallie, torn between what she knows and what she thinks she wants.

But the relationship is really not about these three people, nor is the movie. The film, like all great cinema, can be read on many levels. Ultimately, it's about sacrifice, and entrapment and force and civilization and what role force has in creating--and destroying civilization. And happiness. It's about that, too.

It's a mystery, it's a political commentary, it's philosophy wrapped up in a cowboy suit. Along with The Searchers, it's the best film Wayne made, and one of the best Ford (4 time Best Director Oscar winner) ever made. And keep in mind he directed films like The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man).

Co-starring some of the best character actors in the business--Andy Devine, Woody Strode, John Qualen, Jeanette Nolan (she's Gloria Graham's "sister under the mink" in The Big Heat), John Carradine--in addition to a really hammy Edmund O'Brien doing a Thomas Mitchell impression (see Stagecoach, also a Ford film and the one that catapulted John Wayne to fame, for how O'Brien's character should have registered), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demonstrates the same dark heart, irony and ambivalence--and questioning probe of society and its values--as many noirs. In a strange way, it reminds me of the Ursula LeGuin short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."

As the newspaper man responds, when finding the answer to the title question: "No, sir. This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Who shot Liberty Valance? The answer is: maybe we all did.

Monday, May 12, 2008

No Sudden Fear of Joan

My top ten noir countdown list changes with my mood, but last time I made it, Sudden Fear (1952) held the #9 spot like Joan Crawford clutching at Norma Shearer's off-screen husband in The Women (1939) ... which is not a noir, exactly, but kind of.

To me, Joan Crawford is one of the most underrated actresses from the classic era. This wasn't the case until Christina's nasty little book (and while I know Joan (aka Billie Cassin, aka Lucille LaSeur) was an abusive parent, that still doesn't excuse Christina from being an abusive--and profiteering--child). Unfortunately, people now relegate her to the caricature bin, thanks to Mommie Dearest and Faye Dunaway and wire-hangers and 80s excess.

This is patently unfair to Crawford's legacy as an actress. One of the most naturally gifted performers in Hollywood, she transcended the silent era, transitioning from a minor flapper in "youth" films of the twenties to plucky working girls in early talkies like the MGM classic Grand Hotel (1932) --where she not only held her own against stagy actors like two out of the three Barrymores (John and Lionel, for the record) -- but stole the spotlight.

Crawford, like the saucy Jean Harlow and the pert Ginger Rogers, epitomized the working class woman. Unlike Jean and Ginger, though, she often tapped into a dark side, portraying victims and sometimes villains (as in The Women ... in which, I would argue, she again dominated. By the end of the movie, she makes the gold-digging Crystal seem sympathetic, particularly with her delivery of the exit line: "There's a word for you ladies, but they don't use it in polite society ... outside of a kennel.")

By the '40s, Crawford had been written off by the studio with "more stars than there were in heaven" and found her true calling at the studio more akin to the real Lucille LaSeur--down and dirty Warner Brothers. Joan's reemergence as a genuine noir icon was prefigured by fare such as 1941's A Woman's Face, in which she plays a criminal and victim of disfigurement, transformed externally--but perhaps not internally--by plastic surgery. If you don't think Crawford was a great actress, seek out this film and see what she can do with just her voice and posture.

Joan was able to laugh in Louis B. Mayer's face when she won the Oscar for Warner's adaptation of Cain's Mildred Pierce in 1945. For the rest of the '40s and '50s she was able to rely on a steady stream of noir, some great, some not so great, but all worth seeing because of Crawford's abilities.

My favorite among her spate of noir films is Sudden Fear. Co-starring Jack Palance and the delectable and haunting Gloria Grahame--as well as Joan's co-star from Mildred Pierce, Bruce Bennett, and a young Mike Conners (billed as "Touch" Conners)--the movie is suspenseful and extraordinary.

Crawford plays another working woman, this time a well-to-do playwright, Myra Hudson. Myra lives in San Francisco, but while auditioning actors for a production in New York, she rejects Lester Blaine (Palance) because, well, he looks like Palance.

On her way back home on the train, Myra encounters Blaine again, and his virile personality and dominating, take-charge attitude soon convince her that she'd made a mistake ... professionally and personally. Myra marries the younger man, and soon discovers that Lester is not all that he seems.

Without giving anything away, check out the scene where Joan is listening to a record. Watch her performance, note the transitions, the hesitancy, the realization her character comes to. That's acting.

Sudden Fear is particularly noteworthy for the ending, which for 1952, is remarkably feminist. I almost expected to see Jill Clayburgh pop out of a San Francisco alleyway.

Crawford is credited as an uncredited executive producer for this film, which was released by RKO. It's available on DVD, so add it to your Netflix queue.

Joan Crawford was much more than the sum of Mommie Dearest and the schlock horror films she cranked out in the late '60s ... she was a consummate film actress, and a complete professional, giving every film--no matter how dreadful--her very best. Some were able to measure up to her ... and #9 on my top ten list, Sudden Fear, is one of them.


No history this week (except film history) ... but if you've got any questions or interest in ancient historical tidbits and trivia, leave a comment or question and I'll fit it in next week. My default topic is usually noir ... the stuff that dreams are made of. :)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Minor League Noir

The minors have their moments. If not for the fabled Pacific Coast League (and Lefty O'Doul's San Francisco Seals), the Yankees would never have had DiMaggio, one of the classiest men in baseball.

Now, Chicago Syndicate (1955) is not the B-movie equivalent to Joltin' Joe -- unlike the Yankee Clipper, it clearly belongs in the minor leagues, not in the same class as Out of the Past or Double Indemnity. It's a sometimes cheesy little noir, a police procedural enlivened by some terrific on-location cinematography in Chicago, good performances by Dennis O'Keefe and Paul Stewart, and some maraca shaking moments with Xavier Cugat and his then-wife, sultry singer Abbe Lane. But, like any good minor league game, you can glean some gold among the dropped balls and wild pitching.

The Windy City makes a grittily glamorous backdrop for any crime drama ... Al Capone cut his teeth here, after all, and Chicago Syndicate--while hardly a minor classic of Chicagoland setting like City That Never Sleeps (1953)--nevertheless manages some location shots that rank with the best.

The story revolves around the city's effort to stamp out "The Syndicate" -- a mob controlled to cool villainous perfection by character actor Paul Stewart. As Arnie Valent, one of the legions of gangsters who love good ol' Ma (Jimmy Cagney took this part to the next level in White Heat), he rubs out his accountant--a man named Kern--because Kern was about to turn over his books to the authorities ... reasonable procedure when you're a gangster.

Since it's 1955, and law and order, emphasis on order, was in vogue, the police department and IRS get together with Chicago's millionaire hotel-owners and hit them up for financing. Who knows? Maybe that scene was a coded protest against the military-industrial complex, but I kinda doubt it. Anyway, the boys with the dough come through, and the boys with the plan decide to find Dennis O'Keefe, because by this time they need some noir street cred to keep the movie going.

O'Keefe supplies it, with his two-fisted portrayal of an accountant and war hero who wants to make a lot of money -- another virtue in the '50s that strangely enough is still around today. So the authorities promise O'Keefe--as Barry Amsterdam (don't confuse him with Morey)--$60,000 smackers if he infiltrates Valent's gang, becomes his accountant, and gets the goods on him.

I guess $60,000 used to go a lot further.

Along the way, Barry gets involved with Kern's daughter (Allison Hayes), who is calling herself Sue Morton and apparently trying to sleep her way to the top of the gangster chain (in order to get revenge for her murdered father ... you figure it out). We also get treated to some sensationally fun Cugat material, particularly "One at a Time," the number sung by bad girl (and Valent's girlfriend) Connie Peters, played by Cugat's fourth wife (the one before Charo), Abbe Lane.

The best cinematography and direction is saved for the end: Valent chasing Barry through one of those gorgeously industrial noir landscapes of machinery and equipment, this time underground in Chicago. Director Fred Sears normally handled B-westerns, as did his cinematographer, Henry Freulich [though Freulich was Director of Photography of the gorgeously filmed Lost Horizon (1937)], and they reached a highpoint with this sequence. Reminiscent of similar locations in He Walked By Night (1948) and D.O.A. (1950)--the film is well-worth watching, if only for the climax.

But other pleasures abound, too ... lines like Allison Hayes snarling "All right. Let's stop playing footsie" to Dennis O'Keefe; Abbe Lane's drunken, histrionic bad girl (Valent: "You're drunk." Connie: "What have I got to be sober about?"); Paul Stewart's elegant bad guy/girlfriend-beater with the mama complex . Early on, he delivers a line with chilling misogyny: "Everything improves with age. Except women."

Stewart outclasses O'Keefe here; Dennis seemed to phone in the role, though he's able to tap some of that dual charisma that enabled him to play both heroes and villains so effectively, and makes him effective as a spy. But Stewart was a member of Welles' Mercury Theater--he's featured in the infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast, and Welles' magnum opus, Citizen Kane (1941). He also sports great noir credentials: one of the murderers in the now-restored (thanks to the Film Noir Foundation) The Window (1949) and one of the villains in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

And let's not forget Cugat. He entertainingly mopes around as Benny Chico while carrying a torch for Connie (played by Mrs. Cugat).

So this is a sample of minor league noir ... despite some errors and fumbled plays, a solid game of entertainment. You won't find it in books on the best -- you won't even find it on DVD! But if you can catch it on TCM or at a film festival, look out for Chicago Syndicate ... an honest little noir with not a steroid in sight.

And Happy Birthday to Orson Welles! Today is the Great Man's birthday ... celebrate and eat a ham. :)

Next week ... more Top Ten Noir, and some history thrown in ...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

It, I'm Tag!

So there are two of these tag things zooming around the ever-lovin' blog-o-sphere (which today looks remarkably like those Sea-Monkey ads you used to see in comic books ... but I digress).

And, thanks to the vagaries (and vagrancy) of Google Alerts and my own insane schedule, I didn't realize that my dear and witty pal Sophie Littlefield had tagged me with another one. So here goes ... this one's for Sophie, and the rules are as follows:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

OK. Well, the nearest book from my laptop is a copy of ... Nox Dormienda. I keep it around to remind me of why I'm getting a hunchback from sitting at the computer all day, emailing fellow eccentrics, plotting parties, blogging blatherings and swooning for signings. I'm attempting to send my child off to boarding school without it getting beat up too badly, so I slave away ... but enough of me.

So here's page 123:

"You will be called when it is time. And as always, find comfort in the redemption, the blood shed by our master and god. Ad astra in aeternum! Mors ianua vitae!"

Well, well, well. There's actually not a lot of Latin in the book, but good ol' 123 picked out a juicy bit. What that translates to is "To the stars for eternity! Death is the doorway to life!"

Just a bit of mithraism ... a fascinating ancient religion that was neck and neck with Christianity for a quite a while. Very popular with soldiers. And spooky-cool underground temples, one of which features in Nox.

So, who am I gonna call? Coming right back at Bill ... and Alexandra ... and Robert ... and Jason ... and Julie. Gee, that felt just like the magic mirror in Romper Room! :)

Have fun, all!