Friday, November 22, 2013

Executive Action (1973): A warmup for JFK

Executive Action is a sometimes compelling but often pedestrian film examining the possibility that a cabal of powerful businessmen planned the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Based somewhat loosely on the book, Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane and Donald Freed, Executive Action looks like something of a test run for JFK, Oliver Stone’s more ambitious examination of a similar thesis that arrived 18 years later. The filmmakers were certainly courageous in tackling such explosive material, and if not for the participation of Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan, it’s doubtful the film would have made it beyond the planning stages, but the results are somewhat flat.

Lancaster and Ryan are wealthy businessmen who see Kennedy as a threat to their interests. The president has opposed a merging of the oil companies, is supportive of civil rights for minorities, and has expressed a less than hawkish attitude toward war. With younger brothers Robert and Edward waiting in the wings, they fear the possibility that a Kennedy could occupy the White House through 1983. When we don’t see Lancaster and Ryan planning and plotting, and trying to convince Will Geer to go along with their assassination scheme, we see marksmen practicing the execution.

Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay strays a bit from the source material. Citing several factual errors made in the interest of drama, Lane disowned the film, but its thesis is worthy of consideration, more so than the discredited Warren Commission Report. Produced by Edward Lewis (Spartacus) and directed by David Miller (Lonely Are the Brave), Executive Action makes an interesting supplement to the more riveting JFK.

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bela Lugosi stalks the night as Dracula

When Universal’s Dracula premiered at New York’s Roxy Theater in February 1931, the critic for The New York Times wrote that it “can at least boast of being the best of the many mystery films.”

Today, no one would likely regard Dracula as a “mystery.” In 1931, however, “horror” had yet to take its place as a genre like the western, the comedy, the romance, and the drama. There had been “horror” films before Dracula, including Nosferatu, a silent, unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but they were few and far between. Dracula and the same year’s Frankenstein established “horror” with moviegoers who would be introduced to more vampires, monsters, and mad doctors, as well as mummies, ghouls, giant apes, and zombies in the years ahead.

Certainly, no mere “mystery” concerned itself with a character like the Count from Transylvania. Dracula is a vampire, Professor Van Helsing tells us, one of those curious undead creatures that can “take the form of wolves and bats. They leave their coffins at night and they feed on the blood of the living.”

If not for its historical significance and Bela Lugosi’s signature performance, it’s tempting to wonder how famous this film would be today.

In that initial review, the Times’ critic praised Tod Browning’s “imaginative direction,” but imaginative direction is one thing this now classic film lacks. The opening scenes at Dracula’s castle are memorably eerie, with Lugosi descending a cobwebbed staircase while a wolf howls in the distance. “Listen to them,” Dracula tells his visitor, “Children of the night. What music they make.” The Hungarian actor’s slow delivery, the effect of having to learn his dialogue phonetically due to a poor grasp of English, adds to Dracula’s otherworldly personality. He is a vampire, after all, who comes to life only after sunset.

Once the Count and the hapless fly-eating Renfield arrive in London, Dracula is as slow as Lugosi’s delivery. Although the film is never as good as those first 15 minutes, it has an almost hypnotic quality, due mainly to the star’s fascinating presence. Like most early talkies, there is no music score (the opening titles are accompanied by a snippet of “Swan Lake”), but that only contributes to the film’s deathly mood. All that silence gives the film the ambience of a tomb. When characters speak, it has the effect of a coffin lid being pried open. In the late ‘90s, Universal commissioned Philip Glass to compose a score for the film, but the Kronos Quartet’s music actually detracts from the film’s power.

Although it takes wolf bane, a crucifix, or a stake through the heart to keep a vampire at bay, Dracula was not immune to the 1929 stock market crash and the economic depression that followed. Universal abandoned plans for a big budget film that would have adhered more closely to Stoker’s novel, and filmed Hamilton Deane’s rather mundane play instead.

Though much about the film is disappointing, Dracula is a landmark in cinema. Everybody over the age of 10 probably knows of Bela Lugosi, or did in those bygone days when people were still culturally literate. For fans of classic horror, however, even such obscure performers as Edward Van Sloan, David Manners, and especially Dwight Frye are legends of a sort due to their participation in this and other now revered shockers. Frye, a tragic figure who found himself typecast as freaky deviants after playing the hysterical Renfield, was even the inspiration for a song by Alice Cooper (“The Ballad of Dwight Frye”).

But Dracula is Lugosi’s showcase. No matter how many actors have donned the Count’s flowing black cape and bared some sharp, blood-stained fangs (which Lugosi does not do), it’s a role he continues to own.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Flaming Star: Elvis at the crossroads

After his discharge from the Army, Elvis Presley was at a crossroads. Having served his country with honor, he was suddenly seen as a decent American kid by many of the same parents who condemned him earlier as a pied piper leading their children down the path to Hell. To appeal to these newly won fans, his hips now swayed more than they swiveled and the raucous rock and roll that brought him fame gave way to maudlin ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight?") and finger snapping pop songs ("Stuck on You").

Nothing reflected the change in his public image more than his movies, though. Whereas his first four films found him playing rebels both sweet (Loving You) and sullen (Jailhouse Rock), 1960's G.I. Blues put him back in the military uniform he was relieved to have been freed from, and had him singing to babies in a role that could have easily been played by Establishment god Bing Crosby two decades earlier. A monster hit, its acceptance by the public did not dampen his enthusiasm for a serious acting career, and his next film, Flaming Star, suggested that this goal was not beyond his reach.

Returning to the western genre in which he made his film debut, Presley is effectively cast as Pacer Burton, a half-breed torn between two peoples.

When the Kiowa Indians launch an attack on the neighboring white settlers, burning homes and savagely murdering the people, the Burton homestead is spared. Though the family is headed by a white man, his wife is a Kiowa. One son is white, but the youngest is a half-breed. Suddenly, the whites, who had accepted the family and welcomed them into their homes, turn against them, threatening to shoot the half-breed should he set foot on their property. Meanwhile, the Kiowas hope to enlist Pacer in their cause. "If a half-breed white leaves his father's people to fight for his mother's people, it will make the strongest magic I have," the chief tells the troubled lad, but he refuses to join their battle. When his mother is shot by a white man and dies after being refused treatment by the white doctor, Pacer's long held but hidden feelings that he never belonged in the white man's world suddenly surface. He abandons his home and joins his mother's people on the warpath. But he remains an outsider, painfully aware that as a half-breed, no matter whose side he takes, he is always fighting himself.

With a literate screenplay by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Huffaker, and the customarily tight direction of Don Siegel, Flaming Star is a meaningful drama potently performed by a strong cast. As Pacer's father and mother, there's the always excellent John McIntire and the lovely Dolores Del Rio. Steve Forrest capably plays Clint, the white son in the Burton clan, and there's a supporting cast that features Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckal, and L.Q. Jones. Though it's not a shoot ‘em up by any means, there's plenty of exciting action well staged by the masterful Siegel, who later went on to direct Clint Eastwood in such films as Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.

The role of Pacer Burton was originally intended for Marlon Brando. As an actor, Presley may not be Brando (just as Brando could never be Presley in the recording studio), but by 1960 Brando wasn't Brando much anymore, either, and Presley gives an excellent performance that even Mr. Method Actor could not improve on. Presley's performance may have even been inspired. The situation his character faces is not unlike the one he was facing at the time. Just as Pacer is torn between two divergent cultures, Presley, with the resumption of his career, stood uncomfortably between two different worlds: the rock and roll culture in which he had been the White Negro, the rebel king whose music terrified the guardians of middle class morality, and the whiter than white, white bread world of mainstream showbiz where, with his new more respectable image, he seemed to be headed. The modest reception given Flaming Star and the complete failure of the Clifford Odets scripted Wild in the Country may have sealed his fate more than any Faustian pact he had made with Colonel Tom Parker. Before long, Presley was exiled to another world all together - that strange Twilight Zone nightmare known as the "Elvis Presley movie."

Ah, but Flaming Star is not an "Elvis Presley movie." It's a thoughtful, intelligent western drama, and a good one, that happens to star an actor named Elvis Presley.

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


Far From Heaven

The 1950s were a transitional time in American society. The economic boom following World War II put a chicken in every pot, while the baby boom guaranteed there would be plenty of mouths to feed it to. Men wore hats. Women wore gloves. Children were seen but not heard. So were blacks. Homosexuals were neither. Conformity ruled, but there were rumblings of a seismic shift to come. Like a tour guide from Hell, Elvis Presley arrived at mid-decade to point the way to a less inhibited way of life. In Alabama, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white person. The boycott of the transit system that followed was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that though there was a chicken in every pot, too many blacks didn’t have a pot to put the chicken in.

Few films captured the tension in these repressed times better than those of director Douglas Sirk. Dismissed at the time as “soap operas” or “women’s pictures,” glossy melodramas like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind are now championed by the likes of Martin Scorsese for providing an emotional barometer of the period. Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is both an homage to Sirk’s canon, and an update that takes advantage of our more permissive climate to see his work in a new perspective.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a Connecticut housewife and mother married to straight-laced Frank (Dennis Quaid). But those laces are coming untied when he can no longer suppress his homosexual feelings. As he enters into an affair with another man, Cathy finds herself unable to resist the friendly attentions of her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).

These issues are discussed as they likely would have been at the time, reluctantly, with shock and disapproval. Haynes doesn’t cheat by filtering them through a modern perspective. He avoids sneaking in our more enlightened attitudes on homosexuality and interracial romance. To Frank, his homosexual urges are a sickness, an aberration that he intends to overcome with the help of psychiatry.

The filmmakers are aware that the provocative subject matter dealt with here was hinted at in Sirk’s films with less controversial “problems” like nymphomania and alcoholism substituting for the more taboo issue of homosexuality. In retrospect, the casting of Rock Hudson as the male lead in many of these films suggests the director clearly intended that this daring subtext be present in his work. Hudson’s closet door was opened to the public shortly before his 1985 death from AIDS related complications, but the matinee idol’s homosexuality was an “open secret” in Hollywood from the moment he achieved stardom. The more attentive viewers of Hudson’s early films can often swear they see clues to his orientation sprinkled throughout.

Far From Heaven recreates and pays homage to Sirk’s legacy with breathtaking results. The cinematography and art direction are a marvel. The autumn leaves that were never as colorful in nature as they were when photographed in the now defunct Technicolor process, could have been imported from the set of All That Heaven Allows, the Sirk film to which Haynes’ film owes its strongest debt. The film’s look is almost surreal, appropriate, since, for blacks, and particularly homosexuals, the quiet life of the 1950s must have been as twisted as a painting by Salvador Dali. Except for rock and roll, it is often considered an unremittingly dull era, so tightly buttoned-down that it cut off the circulation. For the more conspiracy minded, it was the real life equivalent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 science-fiction classic in which space aliens use sea-pods to overtake the earth, replacing the human population with non-thinking, unfeeling automations. It was the calm before the societal storm that was the 1960s, but in Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes, like Douglas Sirk before him, is aware that life was calm only because so much was hidden, including the yearnings for equality that led to both the civil rights movement and gay liberation.

© 2002 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cold Mountain: Civil War love story

Having found Anthony Minghella's Oscar winning The English Patient an interminably dull, exasperating experience, it was with some trepidation that I paid my admission to see his adaptation of Charles Frazier's best seller, Cold Mountain. Would this be something other than an opportunity to catch up on my sleep? I'm pleased to report that I remained awake and generally alert throughout much of the 155 minute film, but in the end, the adjective in the title comes close to describing how I felt about it.

Cold Mountain is a love story set against the turmoil of the Civil War. Nicole Kidman is Ada, the proper daughter of a reverend (Donald Sutherland) whose failing health makes the move to the title location necessary. Ada becomes smitten with Inman (Jude Law), a laborer working near the farm. Inman doesn't say much, is, in fact, teased by his co-workers for his silence, but all Ada and Inman need are a few moments of intense eye contact, and they're helplessly in love.

Their courtship is interrupted when war breaks out, and Inman joins the fighting on the side of the confederates. The lovers keep in touch through a series of romantic letters, and after one battle too many leaves the young soldier disillusioned with war and yearning all the more for the comfort of his true love's arms, he deserts his company and begins a long trek home, a destination Nicole is confident he'll reach after seeing a vision of him doing just that.

Except for some fine battle sequences, much of Cold Mountain is fairly tedious as it shifts from Inman's journey to Ada's patient wait for his return. Then two supporting characters are introduced and the movie springs to life.

The first is Ruby, a scraggly neighbor played by Renee Zellweger who materializes to help Ada with the farm chores. Pouty-lipped and ill-mannered, this girl has lots of gumption and handles things like twisting the neck off a chicken that the more ladylike Ada is loathe to do. At first, Zellweger's performance reeks of ham. She acts like Foghorn Leghorn from one of the old Warner Bros. cartoons. As the story progresses, Zellweger settles down, shakes off some of the more exaggerated mannerisms and delivers a fine performance, the best in the film.

If Zellweger provides the much needed life in Kidman's episodes, Philip Seymour Hoffman does the same for Jude Law. As a seedy man of the cloth whom Inman encounters just as the reverend is preparing to drown a black woman whom he has impregnated, Hoffman bursts off the screen with all the aggression Law lacks and provides some much needed amusement. He doesn't stay around long, but like Zellweger, he gives the film a burst of energy that the film thankfully retains from that point on.

There are many fine episodes, most memorably a heart wrenching interlude between Inman and a young mother widowed by the war. Kathy Baker is very affecting in her brief appearance here. But the movie's problem is that the supporting characters are far more interesting than the leads. Kidman and Law are fine, and there is something touching about Ada and Inman's devotion to each other, but since their great love is meant to be established in some brief, non-verbal scenes that fail to adequately do the trick, their relationship lacks the weight it needs to spark the desired emotional reaction. It leaves us feeling aloof from the pair, rather than deeply involved in their plight.

If Cold Mountain is not quite the epic it seemingly aspires to be, it still works well enough. It's beautiful to look at, the acting is all together fine, and the music is nice. But with a little more warmth at its center, it might have been a classic.

© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks


Fighting for his family: Cinderella Man

Cinderella Man is being labeled a “boxing movie,” but there are really only two kinds of films that warrant such classification: training films that offer instruction to those wishing to learn the sport, and filmed accounts of a particular fight. Cinderella Man is neither. It’s not a boxing movie, but the story of a man whose prowess in the ring saved his family from poverty and gave hope to a country when hope was in short supply.

In the late 1920s, James J. Braddock enjoyed a successful career as a professional boxer, winning fight after fight with his powerful right hook, but like millions of other Americans, he was left broke after the stock market crash of 1929. Ironically, his boxing skills also deserted him at this time. After injuring his right hand in one fight, Braddock seeks work on the docks where he develops a mean left hook that will serve him well several years later. But with little work available even for unskilled laborers, even that means of support is hard to come by. Unable to care for his wife and their three children, Braddock swallows his pride and applies for government relief.

“I have to believe that when things are bad, I can change them,” he says.

Braddock’s luck does change when he’s picked as a last minute substitute for a fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Defying all the odds, Braddock wins in a third round knockout, and goes on to win several more fights before challenging Max Baer for the title of heavyweight champion of the world. Baer is as prosperous as Braddock is poor, and as played by Craig Bierko, the champ carries himself with all the bravado one might expect from a fighter who killed two men in the ring.

Director Ron Howard stages some marvelous boxing sequences, and the final bout is a brilliantly edited, sometimes brutal affair, but Cinderella Man always emphasizes Braddock the family man more than the fighter. When his son steals a salami, it matters not to Braddock that the family is barely subsisting on meals consisting of little more than fried bologna. He takes the boy to the butcher so he can return the stolen meal and apologize for his theft. He doesn’t discipline his son, but does tell him that stealing is always wrong, no matter how desperate the need. And Braddock has desperate needs, indeed. When the press, who have labeled him the “Cinderella Man” because of his amazing comeback, asks him to explain the turnaround in his fortunes, he explains that he now knows what he’s fighting for: “Milk.”

It may not be his intent, but Braddock is also fighting for the people. For millions of souls battered by the depression, he’s a folk-hero, a man whose incredible rise gives them hope that they, too, can beat the odds.

Director Howard beats the odds, too, by making this story work without relying on overly sentimental touches. Thomas Newman’s lovely score provides just the right touch. It accompanies the action without attempting to force emotions from the audience that the story doesn’t summon itself. Howard’s team also recreates depression era America believably. The atmosphere is suitably grim, but it’s scenes of the Braddocks’ having to water down their milk and of Braddock, with hat in hand, asking for handouts from his more affluent acquaintances that really hit home, as does Braddock’s visible guilt at having to break a promise not to send his children away to live with relatives better able to provide for them.

The performances hit home, as well. As Braddock, it’s not surprising that Russell Crowe is utterly believable in the boxing ring, but he’s equally superb at portraying Braddock the husband and father. This is a thoroughly decent man, and Crowe never fails to make him likeable. Renee Zellweger is one of the few contemporary actresses who looks right at home in the era depicted, and she excels as Braddock’s wife, Mae, so worried that her husband may die in the ring at the hands of the fearsome Baer that she refuses to even listen to the fight on the radio. Zellweger shows, as she did in Chicago and Cold Mountain, that no other actress is as effective in period pieces. Paul Giamatti, most recently seen in Sideways, is well-suited to period pieces, too, and as Braddock’s loyal manager, brings to mind such beloved character actors of the ‘30s as Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins.

“Boxing movies” rarely fare well at the box-office, and Cinderella Man has not had the real life Braddock’s luck in America. But like I said, this is not a “boxing movie,” but a heartfelt account of one man’s struggle to beat overwhelming odds. He succeeds, and so does the movie. Cinderella Man is Ron Howard’s finest film to date, and one of the best films of the year.

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2005 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Movie history, like history in general, is often fiction. Take for instance, the case of Woody Allen. The auteur has benefited from the perception that his films are artistic, non-commercial works superior to the bilge filling the screens at mainstream theaters. Of course, that's not the way Allen’s work is perceived these days. Too many duds like his current film, Scoop, have tarnished his once pristine reputation as a filmmaker. But in the '70s and '80s, he was regarded as an artist whose films, generally inexpensive, made a tidy profit but were not geared for mass consumption.

This is fiction. Allen's films were actually quite lucrative in the '70s, and Allen himself was among the top 10 box-office draws in that decade.

One of his biggest hits was 1972's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), a hodgepodge of sketches supposedly based on the best-selling guide by Dr. David Reuben that provided its readers with more snickers than education about sexual matters.

Released in the dead of summer at the classy showcase cinemas in which Allen's films were usually booked, it was among the top ten grossing films of the year. In all other respects, however, it's a bomb: a mostly unfunny dud marked by humor of the most juvenile sort. Oh, there is a brief chuckle to be had from the episode featuring horror icon John Carradine as an insane sex researcher ("They called me mad at Masters and Johnsons"), and from a parody of a game show called What's My Perversion? featuring Jack Barry, Pamela Mason, Robert Q. Lewis, Regis Philbin, and other "personalities" who appeared on actual games shows of the time, but otherwise the film lays a major egg.

© 2006 Brian W. Fairbanks


Britney Spears in Crossroads

Remakes, sequels, imitative knock-offs of last year’s hits. If the movies can’t come up with some fresh ideas, they should at least come up with an original title. Since no one much remembers the 1987 movie titled Crossroads with Ralph Macchio (and who remembers Ralph Macchio?), why not drag the title out again until it finds itself attached to a hit?

A better title for Crossroads would have been The Britney Spears Movie, or maybe Crossover since that’s the word for what the current Queen of Pop is attempting to do: transfer her success as a singer into movie stardom. She’d have been better off waiting for a movie that can stand on more than her presence, but as a showcase for the star, it isn’t that bad.

The plot is strictly a connect the dots affair. What matters is Britney. Her part doesn’t require the talent of Meryl Streep, so she handles herself well. Of course, her greatest talent is to gyrate with such fervor that her clothes would fall off if they weren’t as tight as they are skimpy. This she does in a scene in which she dreams of pop stardom while singing in front of a mirror.

With her well-scrubbed, girl next door looks, Spears brings to mind the wholesome beauty of Olivia Newton John, but her extroverted performing style places her squarely in the world of Madonna, the decadent diva to whom she is most often compared. As one of her hits claims, she’s not a girl but not yet a woman. Crossroads has a similar problem. It’s not a music video, but it’s not really a movie. Britney’s legion of fans may like it. If so, it serves its purpose.

And Crossroads is still a title in search of a hit.

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2002 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Psycho still makes the cut

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, revived in a spectacular new print at the 1996 Cleveland International Film Festival with co-star Janet Leigh in attendance, is probably the esteemed director’s most famous film, but while it is now hailed as one of his best, the critics were not too enthused about Hitchcock’s low-budget excursion into the genre of horror at the time of its June 1960 release. Whether or not Psycho qualifies as a “horror” film is a matter open to debate, but the film’s macabre elements, and the violent way in which those elements were presented, was regarded as a step down for the portly English director who usually relied on subtlety and suggestion to convey the more unpleasant aspects of his films. While the justly famous “shower scene” is tasteful by today’s standards, in 1960, the amount of blood exposited by the victim was considered gratuitous. But Psycho still has as much to savor in 1996 as it did in 1960.

The most important characteristic of Psycho may be the superb black and white cinematography, the work of John L. Russell who handled the camera work on Hitchcock’s television anthology program. Brooding shadows are expertly captured by Russell’s lens, and his work was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. Although the scenes in which the protagonist, the notorious Norman Bates, dispenses death to his victims are strikingly photographed, Russell’s talents are also represented in less heralded moments, such as the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) drives along the road at night while the voices of her co-workers, as well as her victim, are heard questioning her whereabouts and wondering what fate has befallen both Crane and the money she was responsible for depositing. Perhaps the film’s eeriest moment, especially for those who have seen the film before, is when Crane reaches what will be her final destination on a dark, rain splattered night. The wipers clear the rain from the windshield of her car, and suddenly the neon sign bearing the legend, “Bates Motel - Vacancy,” becomes visible.

While the look of the film is important, equal attention must be paid to its sound, particularly the music score by Bernard Herrmann. From the opening moments when the titles (expertly designed by Saul Bass) are slashed away, the composer masterfully conveys the sense of a knife eagerly ripping into human flesh. The Psycho score is music to carve meat by, and the film would suffer as horribly as Norman’s victims without it.

The actors could almost get lost in such an atmosphere but the fine cast performs its chores admirably. Not surprisingly, top honors must go to the late Anthony Perkins. His portrayal of Norman Bates, a character as prone to nervous jitters as he is to severing the nerves of his customers, has been frequently imitated, including by Perkins himself, and invests the film with a neurotic, psychological tone that lifts the film into a class it might not otherwise inhabit. Although she is best remembered for spilling blood, Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is an effectively realized character, one who shares similarities with Norman. Both are on the run - she, literally, from her past, and Norman from the present and future - and both have secrets. Marion’s secret has to do with the contents of her purse which contains a stack of bills that don’t belong to her. Norman’s secret concerns the contents of his house, a spooky old hilltop mansion overlooking the Bates Motel in which Norman’s long dead mother continues to reside, barking orders and hurtling insults at her wayward son. The remaining cast is populated by some excellent performers: Vera Miles as Marion’s concerned sister, John McIntyre as the sheriff, and particularly Martin Balsam as the doomed private detective, all turn in impressive work, and even John Gavin, more mannequin than actor, is appropriately dull as Marion’s lover.

Hitchcock’s characteristic touches of black humor are very evident in Psycho, most notably in Norman’s hobby - taxidermy. Norman likes to stuff things. Birds. Mrs. Bates? Perhaps. The stuffed birds that adorn the walls of Norman’s office were prophetic, for the master of suspense would, in his next film, offer these members of the animal kingdom an opportunity to stuff themselves by snacking on human heads in 1963’s The Birds, Hitchcock’s last film of special merit. Birds have often been used by Hitchcock to symbolize good (In Foreign Correspondent, the kidnapped dignitary played by Albert Basserman, is extremely fond of birds, and, in one early scene, suggests that even on the eve of a world war, there is still hope for mankind when people still take time to feed them). In Psycho, those ever watchful yet dead eyes seem to represent Norman’s voyeurism, his only mode of sexual expression, not only before the murder of Marion Crane when he watches her undress through a peephole, but throughout the film. When not cutting loose with a kitchen knife, Norman is passive, watching, and seemingly waiting for the kill.

The film deteriorates a little at the end, not as badly as Mrs. Bates whose hollow-eyed corpse hogs a well deserved close-up at the film’s climax, but enough to prevent Psycho from achieving perfection. A lengthy denouement in which a psychologist (Simon Oakland) attempts to explain the motives behind Norman’s behavior is filled with a lot of sophomoric psychology that would be embarrassing if it wasn’t so dull. Rigor mortis sets in at this point, and the scene seems longer than the 108 minute running time of the entire picture. Fortunately, there is a payoff in the final moments when Anthony Perkins returns to the screen for a brief but brilliant moment as both mother and son.

Psycho is an important film, not only in Hitchcock’s filmography, but in film history. For Hitchcock, Psycho is unique and a source of controversy. After a string of big budget, colorful, and often glamorous films (To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest), Hitchcock opted to make Psycho on a minuscule budget, filming almost entirely on the back lot of Universal Studios, using the same crew that worked on his then current television series. (At one point, it is even rumored that the film, having shocked the original distributor, Paramount, almost became a two-part episode of that NBC program.)

Hitchcock was known to brag about his decision to film Psycho in black and white, but there have been those who maintain that Hitchcock had originally planned to shoot in color or, worse, film everything but the shower murder in black and white, then jar the audience with a Technicolor bloodbath, a tacky, unimaginative ploy unworthy of the great director. There is no evidence to support this long circulating rumor, and it is rarely considered except in passing. Not so the claim that Saul Bass, the gifted artist who frequently made contributions to Hitchcock’s films, including the design of the opening title sequences for Psycho and Vertigo, actually directed the much praised shower sequence for which Hitchcock has long taken bows. It continues to inspire denials from all but a small coterie of Bass friends and fans.

Psycho’s reverberations were felt throughout Hollywood. The film’s graphic, for 1960, depictions of violence broke a taboo or two, and after John Carpenter’s 1978 production of Halloween, which owed a debt to Hitchcock's style, Psycho was unjustly implicated in the wave of “splatter” films, such as the Friday the 13th series, that followed in the wake of Halloween’s box- office success. Earlier, in 1961, William Castle, often dubbed “the poor man’s Hitchcock,” offered a blatant rip-off of Psycho in the form of Homicidal, a creepy little thriller that was not bad of its kind, if not deserving of Time magazine’s ten best list, an honor denied Psycho one year earlier.

Finally, Psycho had a profound effect on the career of Anthony Perkins who never shook the image he acquired after portraying the king of cutlery in this legendary film. Perkins had played mentally unbalanced characters before (bipolar baseball star Jimmy Piersall in 1957’s Fear Strikes Out), but he rarely played anything but deranged characters afterward. In addition to reprising Norman in three sequels beginning in 1982, Perkins played many variations on the twitching, psychopathic Mr. Bates in unrelated films. His performance of a warped fashion photographer provided the primary entertainment value in Mahogany, a silly 1975 melodrama starring the insufferable Diana Ross. Perkins also hovered on the verge of hysteria as a demented man of the cloth stalking Kathleen Turner in Crimes of Passion, another of director Ken Russell’s cinematic eccentricities. Few of those films are likely to be singled out for a retrospective showing at the Cleveland International Film Festival, but the festival’s 1996 presentation of Psycho demonstrates that, thirty-six years after he first scared people out of the showers, there is still an appreciative audience for good ol’ Norman Bates.

© 1996 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Blue Hawaii: Elvis in shorts!

Tour Hawaii with Elvis Presley!!!

That should have been the tagline on the Blue Hawaii poster (instead of “Elvis Presley Rides the Crest of the Wave”). The 1961 musical is less a motion picture than a moving postcard, but it was the King’s biggest box-office hit, the eighth highest grossing film in the year of its release, and a still impressive number 14 the year after. Shockingly, the movie’s soundtrack, littered with the likes of “Ito Eats” and “Slicin’ Sand,” became his most popular album. The RCA Victor LP held down the number one spot on the Billboard chart for 20 weeks, a record that remained unbroken until Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors overtook it in 1977, the year of Presley’s death.

Like all of Presley’s films for Paramount, Blue Hawaii was produced by Hal Wallis. Unlike 1957’s Loving You and 1958’s King Creole which preserved if toned down his rebellious rocker image, Blue Hawaii gave us a tame Elvis that the whole family could safely see together. It would also provide the template for most of the Presley movies to come: a tropical location with lush scenery, bikini-clad cuties, and an LP’s worth of songs, some of them downright ghastly.

It may have represented the start of the downward spiral that Presley’s career would take in the mid-1960s, but Blue Hawaii has its supporters among the faithful. After all, this is the movie that introduced the lovely “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the song that closed his concerts after he returned to live performing in 1969. The other songs are coated in too much sugar to compete with “Jailhouse Rock,” but they are agreeable in the movie’s setting. There’s also a good cast with Angela Lansbury on hand as Elvis’ mother even though, at age 35, she was only ten years his senior. If Lansbury doesn’t incite lust in the male audience, there are several luscious babes that should do the trick. There’s Joan Blackman for those who like brunettes and Jenny Maxwell for the gentlemen who prefer blondes.

Blue Hawaii is attractive, alright, but it’s also the very definition of fluff. Elvis still had the opportunity to show he had the dramatic chops for a serious acting career (Flaming Star, Wild in the Country), but Blue Hawaii’s massive success, along with his complacent attitude toward Colonel Parker’s mismanagement of his career, guaranteed that the few gems in his filmography would be outnumbered by the likes of Girl Happy, Clambake, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style. If nothing else, Blue Hawaii is the best of that lot.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Richard Widmark: The Face of Film Noir

If Robert Mitchum "embodies the soul of film noir," as Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has observed, Richard Widmark provides the genre with its definitive face. Gaunt, almost skeletal, and with a smile that can never quite conceal a sneer, Widmark’s face was the perfect mask for Tommy Udo, the cold-blooded killer of his 1947 film debut, Kiss Of Death.

In that film, Widmark shocked audiences by tying an old woman in her wheelchair, then pushing her down a flight of stairs to her death. Such disrespect for an elderly woman would have been horrifying enough, but equally shocking was Widmark’s laugh: maniacal and gleefully sadistic, it provided a more ominous soundtrack for the moment than the composer of the score could have conceived.

It may have even unnerved John Wayne.

“Well, here’s that laughing sonofabitch,” the Duke purportedly sneered when introduced to the actor at a party several years later.

But if Wayne couldn’t warm to Widmark, the rest of Hollywood did. In addition to earning an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, Widmark was named "most promising newcomer" at the Golden Globe Awards, and, in 1949, less than two years after his film debut, he placed his hand and footprints in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Such recognition was a tribute to the impact of Widmark’s screen debut, but that impact proved both a blessing and a curse. Under contract to 20th Century Fox, Widmark successfully lobbied studio head Darryl F. Zanuck for more varied roles, but though he would remain an above the title star well into the ‘70s, the kind of recognition he received at the beginning of his career would not be repeated. He has been honored at Telluride and by the Museum of Modern Art, but has been passed over for the more highly coveted life achievement honors from the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center. He is also conspicuously absent from many of those mammoth coffee table books about The Movie Stars.

But Richard Widmark is a star, and a great one.

If his filmography contains few instantly recognizable titles, it does include its share of genuine classics. Even the most forgettable of his films are salvaged by his always intriguing presence. With the feistiness of Cagney, the cool of Bogart, and the authority of Tracy, he has carved out his own unique identity. Widmark has made himself very comfortably at home in almost every genre except the musical, but it is in that he made his mark. His work in the genre is so impressive, it has made his subsequent achievements less interesting in comparison.

The director of Kiss Of Death didn’t want Widmark for the role of Tommy Udo, believing the actor’s high forehead made him appear too intellectual for a hoodlum. Zanuck liked his screen test, however, and insisted the actor be cast. So, with a hairpiece that gave him the look of an ape, shaved eyebrows (a cosmetic touch that may cause modern audiences to confuse him with David Bowie), and a wardrobe inspired by George Raft (wide-brim hat, black shirt with white tie), Widmark stepped before the cameras feeling less than confident.

“The laugh partially came out of nervousness. When in doubt, I’d laugh. And since this was my my first picture and the mechanics of picture-making were new to me, I laughed a lot.”

When terrorizing stool-pigeon Victor Mature, or telling his prey’s invalid mother what he has planned for her son (“Do you know what I do to squealers? I let ‘em have it in the belly so that they can move around and think it over”), Widmark’s Udo exuded menace. Physically, he was not especially imposing. As Time reported in its review of the film, he was a "rather frail fellow," but they also noted his “maniacal eyes.” Like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas forty-three years later, Udo’s cockiness made him a BIG man. But while Pesci is short and stocky, Widmark was as lean as a stick of dynamite with a personality every bit as explosive. Even when standing perfectly still, he seemed to be in constant motion like a boxer pacing the ring and waiting to move in for the kill.

Crime does, indeed, pay, at least in the movies, and Widmark became an overnight sensation in a role that was as far removed from his own personality as Hollywood seemed from the town in which he was born, Sunrise, Minnesota.

A lover of dogs and milk who valued his privacy and craft more than stardom, Widmark was now the screen’s most notorious bad man, and the wheelchair scene a crueler, more sensational update of James Cagney’s squashing of a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy.

The success of the film and the reaction to Widmark’s portrayal may have said more unpleasant things about the relationship between men and women than anyone intended. Tommy Udo fan clubs sprang up on college campuses with the purpose of "putting women in their place," but misogyny was and would continue to be a trait associated with film noir. Widmark was simply the latest and most efficient practitioner.

In his next film, 1948’s The Street With No Name, Widmark’s gruesome giggle was more subdued, and his character, Alec Stiles, cooler and more intellectual in his ruthlessness. No longer a mere hit man, he was the leader of a gang infiltrated by FBI agent Mark Stevens. Less heralded than Kiss of Death, the William Keighley directed feature actually holds up better in modern times. Nicely atmospheric, the film was a descendent of 1946’s House On 92nd Street, the film that kicked off Fox’s series of dramas inspired by real stories from the files of the FBI.

Munching an apple, sniffing a nasal inhaler to fight a persistent cold, and expressing a fear of germs and fresh air, Widmark, though second billed to Stevens, thoroughly dominates the film the minute he makes his entrance. While Udo was out of control, a maverick killer whose thirst for blood overruled any intelligence he might possess, Stiles is more calculating and authoritative.

"I’m building an organization along scientific lines," he boasts of his gang, and he takes pride in appearances.

“I like my boys to look sharp,” he says after handing new recruit Stevens a wad of bills with instructions to upgrade his wardrobe.

Nonetheless, Stiles has an explosive temper. He administers a savage beating to Barbara Lawrence after learning she has tipped off the police to his next caper, and punches someone simply because they left a door open and exposed him to fresh air.

Of his performance, Bosely Crowther in The New York Times observed: “the timbre of his voice is that of filthy water going down a sewer.”

Having brutalized women in two successive films, it was time for Widmark the romantic to take center stage. Road House, directed by Jean Nugulesco, cast him as Jefty Roberts, the owner of a restaurant-bar managed by his best friend, played by Cornel Wilde.

Jefty falls in love with a singer played by Ida Lupino, but while he’s away on a hunting trip, she falls for Wilde. But even as a spurned lover, there was little time for Widmark to be tender. In this weird little drama, he frames his employee for theft, then, in an outwardly compassionate act, urges the judge to release Wilde in his custody. But his plan is to torture the poor guy for having stolen his true love.

After Road House Widmark took his villainy out west for William Wellman’s Yellow Sky, then turned good guy for Hathaway’s Down to the Sea in Ships before taking on the definitive noir anti-hero in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City.

The title itself almost defines the genre, and Widmark as Harry Fabian is one of its most memorable characters. A small time hustler with ambitions to become a big time fight promoter in London, Fabian is a loser destined to brush greatness, but never claim it for his own.

“You’re a dead man, Harry Fabian, a dead man.”

The words are spoken by his boss, a portly nightclub owner played by Francis L. Sullivan, and throughout the film, Fabian seems to be desperately eluding his damnation rather than pursuing his fortune.

If there is a definitive, Night and the City might just be it due primarily to Widmark whose Harry Fabian is the ultimate noir anti-hero, something Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton seemed to acknowledge when they put his gaunt, frightened face on the cover of Panorama du film American, the landmark study that was the first to treat the genre seriously.

Later in 1950, audiences had the opportunity to closely compare Widmark as hero and villain when Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out premiered simultaneously.

In Kazan’s film, Widmark was Dr. Clinton Reed of the Public Health Service who joins detective Paul Douglas in the perilous hunt for a killer and his cronies who unknowingly become infected with bubonic plague after they murder a suspected card cheat.

Beautifully shot on location in New Orleans, Panic in the Streets is often cited by both star and director as a favorite. For Kazan, it was “the first film I purely enjoyed making.”

As the good doctor who trades coarse but affectionate barbs with his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes), sneaks a quarter to his son so the boy can go to the movies, and is more often than not at odds with gruff copper Douglas, Widmark is fine, but it is Jack Palance whose creepy killer commands the screen in a role that Widmark could have played just as effectively.

There’s no better proof of that than No Way Out. Even though he’s romantically involved with his brother's wife, played by the luscious Linda Darnell, his character is as creepy as they come: a vile bigot who holds a black intern (Sidney Poitier) responsible for the death of his brother and instigates a race riot as revenge.

A powerful film even today, No Way Out was years ahead of its time in its depiction of racism, and it’s doubtful it would have been made if Mankiewicz had not had the clout that came with winning two Oscars (for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives) a year earlier.

Widmark’s farewell to the genre that brought him fame was 1953’s Pickup On South Street, a film whose reputation has grown along with the cult following of director Samuel Fuller. Somewhat overheated now in its anti-Communist propaganda, it’s a stunning film as tough and gritty as its maker.

As Skip McCoy, a pickpocket who lifts a roll of top secret microfilm from the purse of a hooker (Jean Peters) romantically involved with a spy, Widmark is at his arrogant best. A man whose lack of morality has placed him on the outskirts of society (he even lives on the waterfront), he plays by his own rules.

“Who cares?” he sneers when asked if he knows what Communism is. Only in a film by Fuller would such a character emerge as a "hero," and only Widmark could play such a role so well.

As film noir faded from the screen in the wide-screen, technicolored ‘50s, and Widmark left Twentieth Century Fox to freelance, he remained a top star and an always believable screen actor, but his unique personality was not always well served by the adventure films and westerns that dominated his credits in the decade to come. Only 1954’s Broken Lance, in which he played the scornful but sympathetic son of Spencer Tracy, took full advantage of his patented sneer. He was woefully miscast as the naive Dauphin opposite Jean Seberg in Otto Preminger’s notorious dud, Saint Joan, but properly humane in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg.

But only 1965’s The Bedford Incident with Widmark as the strict, slightly psycho captain of a destroyer confronting nuclear disaster, and Don Siegel’s 1968 Madigan took full advantage of his strengths. After Tommy Udo and Harry Fabian, Daniel Madigan is his signature role.

A precursor of sorts to Siegel’s Coogan's Bluff and Dirty Harry in its depiction of a maverick, sometimes brutal, lawman, Madigan tips its hat to noir with its griminess and location shooting in New York. As the tough cop who bends the rules if necessary to get his man, Widmark is superb. Even though Madigan goes out in a blaze of gunfire in the final reel, he was resurrected for a short-lived NBC-TV series during the 1972-73 season. In six 90-minute episodes, Widmark was a blast of fresh air in a TV landscape populated by polite, often bland, coppers.

Returning to the big screen, he joined other contemporaries like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in lending his iconic stature to supporting roles with special billing. No one else could have played Ratchet, the malevolent millionaire whose Murder on the Orient Express was one of 1974’s biggest box-office hits. He was equally effective as Dr. Harris, the evil surgeon of 1978’s Coma.

In 1989, he was still spry enough to romance Faye Dunaway in TNT’s Cold Sassy Tree.

But Widmark’s glory days were also the heyday of film noir. Robert Mitchum’s world-weary beefcake was the personification of the man already accepting defeat, but Widmark’s hyper, hard-boiled hustlers and killers were the losers who fought to the last to survive even when they knew their doom was inevitable.

The face of film noir belongs to Richard Widmark.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2000 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Shadows of Film Noir

Fleeing the mobsters he has double crossed, Harry Fabian runs through a virtual obstacle course of London’s back streets and alleys during a night in which the shadows seem to grow darker with his every footstep. The night itself seems to be his stalker; its shadows enveloping him like a closing coffin lid.

The scene is from Night and the City, the moody 1950 drama sometimes considered the definitive example of film noir, a genre that flourished in post W.W.II Hollywood, but named and first championed by French critics, most notably Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton whose 1955 book, Panorama du film americain, was the first major study devoted to the subject (Hirsch 9). Richard Widmark was pictured on the cover in a scene from the aforementioned film, and the choice was appropriate. With his gaunt face a mask of desperation, his lips wrapped around a cigarette as if it was a snorkel, and a lit match between the fingers that appear jittery even in a still photograph, Widmark’s Harry Fabian may be the archetypal noir “hero”: a man forever on the run, scheming for success, but, in the end, fighting simply to survive (128).

The film noir is, as critic Louis Giannetti points out, actually a subgenre, one that overlaps with other forms, especially gangster and private detective thrillers. The genre, named after a French word that literally means “black,” emphasizes the dark side of human existence. Its main characters are generally hard-boiled cynics who, if not living on the fringe of society, flirt with it, often with disastrous consequences. When innocence is present in film noir, it is rarely uncorrupted in this world of violence and despair. Greed, lust, murder, and sexual depravity are the principal themes in the genre, and the city, primarily at night, is the backdrop (91).

The visual style of noir is one of its most important and memorable attributes. Cinematographers have rarely been given the opportunity to be as creative in other genres as they have in this universe marked by anxiety and paranoia. Rain swept streets, menacing shadows, and faces lit, intermittently, by blinking neon signs, are common images, as are scenes photographed by a camera that seems to have been contaminated by the seedy milieus in which noir is often set.

“The visual compositions,” Giannetti writes, “are dynamic, jagged, off-balance” (92).

Film noir thrived in the 1940s but had its beginnings in the gangster films that the studios churned out in the wake of such box-office hits as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy in 1931. Those films, however, were more optimistic, presenting characters such as James Cagney’s Tom Powers of the latter film who were determined to succeed at all costs. Only the final, fatal bullets that brought their lives to an end could dissuade them from conquering the world. The typical noir anti-hero has, in many cases, already accepted defeat and counts himself lucky if he at least manages to survive (Hirsch 60).

Noir's visual style can be traced back to German Expressionism, an artistic movement that emphasized exaggerated, frequently grotesque, nightmarish images painted in high-contrast lights and darks. Many of the directors who would make vital contributions to noir, including Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), Fritz Lang (The Woman in the Window), and Otto Preminger (Laura), were associated with the movement before fleeing Europe upon Hitler’s rise to power. The style wasn’t introduced to the cinema by noir, however, having already been evident in the silent thriller The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Lang’s futuristic 1926 classic Metropolis (Walker 26).

Italian Neo-realism also left a mark on noir by influencing the location shooting, documentary style narration, and less colorful characterizations that became commonplace in films of the genre’s later cycle. Literature had a major impact on setting the tone of these films, and writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, whose stories about hard drinking, chain smoking private detectives whose investigations took them into an immoral world of psychotic killers and femme fatales, often had their work adapted by filmmakers (Hirsch 28).

Though there is disagreement concerning which film represents the first genuine noir, many point to John Huston’s 1941 remake of The Maltese Falcon as the progenitor of the form. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the film starred Humphrey Bogart who had only recently graduated to genuine star status after years of playing roles in support of Cagney, Robinson, and George Raft in Warner Brothers’ series of gangster films. Bogart played Sam Spade, a tough talking private detective whose investigation of his partner’s murder draws him into the hunt for the objet d’ art of the title. Huston’s mise en scene does not dwell on the odd angles and chiaroscuro that would be characteristic of later noirs, but instead focuses on the characters whose eccentricities would become standards in the genre. Brigid O’ Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), a calculating and ultimately deadly beauty who lies to and manipulates everyone, including Spade, to get what she wants; and a pair of sexually ambivalent crooks, Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) who are also on the trail of the falcon. The veiled but still obvious homosexuality of the latter characters, as well as that of Gutman’s “gunsel” (a slang expression denoting a young, homosexual killer) symbolized, in those days before Gay Liberation, decadent individuals whose lives were lived in the shadows, hidden from the disapproving eyes of society. Such outsiders were unique in other genres but were rarely unrepresented in noir where they stood for depravity and “the sickest of all noir villains” (Hirsch 159).

The deviant sexuality and/or neurotic and psychotic tendencies of many noir characters is an important substructure of the genre. Villains, and even, in some instances, the heroes of noir struggle to resist their darker, normally repressed impulses. Freudian psychology had a strong impact in this regard, having inspired the creation of characters whose actions are guided by internal forces as much as by external ones (Thomas 87).

In Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), Dana Andrews is a detective investigating the murder of a beautiful woman (Gene Tierney). The characters he encounters as he attempts to unravel the mystery are eccentrics of whom he does not approve: a disdainful, bitchy columnist (Clifton Webb), and a prissy playboy (Vincent Price) who is kept by an older woman (Judith Anderson) who seems more masculine than the two men combined. As Foster Hirsch writes, this trio “introduce homosexual traits on the sly” (121).

Yet even the seemingly “straight” detective reveals a disturbing inclination to necrophilia by becoming hopelessly infatuated with the dead Laura’s portrait.

In I Wake Up Screaming (1941), directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, a psychopathic detective (Laird Cregar) murders the woman whose love is denied him, and frames the man who has won her affections (Victor Mature) for the crime. The cop’s devotion to his victim is such that his home contains a shrine built in her honor.

When women are not being deified by men in noir, they are often brutalized. In 1947’s Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark made a sensational film debut as a more demented than usual psychotic named Tommy Udo, who cackled maniacally as he pushed an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death. In The Big Heat (1953), Lee Marvin disfigures Gloria Graham by throwing scalding coffee at her face, and in The Street with No Name (1949), a more subdued Widmark merely beats a woman after learning she has tipped off the police about his next robbery. The fact that so much of the violence in noir is committed against women has caused some critics to label the genre misogynistic (Giannetti 92).

There’s no need to weep for the women in noir, though, since they can be just as deadly, sometimes more so, than the men. Witness Barbara Stanwyck’s roles in Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, co-scripted by Raymond Chandler, and based on a novel by James M. Cain, opens with the silhouette of a man who proceeds toward the camera until the screen grows black. After the credits, the blackness dissolves into fog and we are soon introduced to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who, talking into a tape recorder, recounts the incidents that have brought him to his office at this time, bleeding, and slowly lurching toward death. Neff, an insurance salesman, had been lured by a bored, middle-class housewife into a plot to murder her husband with the intention of collecting the insurance money.

Throughout the plotting of the murder, and the subsequent attempts to stay one step ahead of Neff’s suspicious and persistent boss (Edward G. Robinson), it is the woman, played by Stanwyck, who is in control. As Foster Hirsch writes, Stanwyck’s role in Double Indemnity is “a grotesque in women’s clothing, a character conceived by men who hate and fear strong women” (152).

The homicidal lovers of Wilder’s classic shoot each other in the end, their scheme having failed due to their distrust of each other more than anything else.

A similar fate befalls the characters in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Lewis Milestone’s bizarre drama of a powerful woman (Stanwyck) and her weak-willed husband (Kirk Douglas in his film debut) who, as children, collaborated in the murder of her domineering grandmother. Now, as the most powerful couple in town, they find their position threatened when a childhood friend (Van Heflin), who they believe witnessed the murder, returns to his hometown. Paranoia has gotten the best of them, and their brutal efforts to silence a man who knows nothing of their crime leads to the very downfall their treatment of him was intended to prevent. The end echoes the climax of Double Indemnity with a perverse twist. Instead of husband and wife shooting each other, the wife pulls the trigger on the gun that her husband is pointing at her, killing herself before the man follows her lead and also commits suicide. Even more so than in Double Indemnity, the woman wields the power. The man is a mere puppet.

Even when playing the victim in noir, Stanwyck dominated her surroundings. In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), she is the bedridden wife of a man (Burt Lancaster) whose efforts to liberate himself from her control ultimately lead to her murder, and to his downfall.

Like Double Indemnity and many noirs, Sorry, Wrong Number is told in flashback to highlight the role that fate has played in the lives of the characters. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film heavily influenced by noir, describes the flashback technique as a way to establish “an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness”

Flashbacks do not play a role in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, but few film noirs convey a sense of desperation and hopelessness more effectively than this classic of the genre. Dassin, perhaps best known for his later, lighter films, Never on Sunday (1960) and Topkapi (1964), both starring his wife, the sultry Greek actress Melina Mercouri, began his career in noir, first helming the semi-documentary Naked City (1948), which later inspired a popular television series, then directing his masterpiece, Night and the City.

Highly Expressionistic in style, Night and the City’s vivid depiction of a hustler conniving his way through the London underworld is highlighted by Richard Widmark’s finest performance. As Harry Fabian, “an artist without an art,” Widmark, to quote Foster Hirsch, “palpably conveys his character’s mounting desperation, his struggle against impossible odds” (160). Despite enjoying one of Hollywood’s most durable careers which included roles as Jim Bowie opposite John Wayne’s Davy Crockett in The Alamo (1960) and as the Dauphin in Otto Preminger’s misguided adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1957), Widmark continues to be strongly identified with noir, a result of his having performed so effectively on its dark, desperate stage.

The influence of Italian Neo-Realism on noir was the result of producer Louis de Rochemont’s entry into the genre with 1945’s The House on 92nd Street. Shot on location, and featuring a narration the likes of which would later become a signature of Jack Webb’s Dragnet television series, the semi-documentary approach, memorably used in Naked City and The Street with No Name, often included detailed accounts of the way in which law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, operate, focusing on techniques and procedures, often to the accompaniment of stirring, patriotic music. These films, though often just as visually dark and sinister as the original, Expressionistic noir films, were, nonetheless, more upbeat, leading some critics to dismiss them outright as the polar opposite of the genre (Walker 37).

Although there are many examples of noir throughout the 1950s, including such exceptional films as Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), and Robert Aldrich’s highly regarded Mickey Spillane adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the genre’s heyday was, by that time, at its end. For Forest Hirsch, it was Orson Welles who provided the genre with its final blast of glory.

In Touch of Evil, writer-director Welles “offers an overheated summary of what were by 1958 the conventions of the noir style” (11) in a film that represents “the last brilliant flourishes of noir’s decadence” (12). Described by Welles’ biographer, David Thomson, as “macabre, perverse and unpleasant” (344), Thomson also suggests that Touch of Evil is “a kind of masterpiece, a terrific film” (343), an indication of the often contrary reactions one has to a genre that fascinates and repels at the same time. As an actor, Welles himself does both as a psychotic lawman in a Mexican border town as outwardly corrupt (the already portly Welles donned padding to give himself even greater bulk) as he is within, expressed in his willingness to plant evidence in order to bring about “justice.”

In the 1970s, noir would reemerge as a force in cinema by way of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (1975), films that attempted to recapture the style of the original films, and were set in the general period in which the genre flourished. Though critics have been known to slap the noir label on virtually any film that examines the seedier aspects of life, especially those that revolve around the criminal world, most of these films, such as Dirty Harry, Klute, and The French Connection (all 1971), bear no similarity to the original noirs in either their visual style or characterizations. Even Farewell, My Lovely, in which Robert Mitchum was cast as Raymond Chandler’s world weary Philip Marlowe, the same character played by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 noir classic The Big Sleep, is less a true noir than an homage to the genre. The same is true of Body Heat (1981), a virtual remake of Double Indemnity with Kathleen Turner expertly cast as a contemporary femme fatale.

The original noirs offered, as Foster Hirsch writes, “a symbolic and psychological profile of its era” (19).

Film noir began in a decade - the 1940s - when war clouds were gathering, threatening to make major changes in the lives of Americans. By the end of the decade, Communist witch hunts, as well as a war in Korea, were on the horizon. The intervening years were marked by uncertainty, especially for men and women whose traditionally established roles were being redefined when World War II necessitated the entry of women into the workplace to fill jobs that were customarily performed by men. Whether intentional or not, noir reflected the fears of those who were wary of the changes taking place by presenting women whose independence came at the expense of men who, in noir, were weak, fearful, and frequently the victims of strong, castrating femme fatales (20). In noir, the desperate, cynical, and often maladjusted men mirrored, in a wildly exaggerated way, the men who fought in W.W.II, then came home, finding it difficult to readjust to civilian life (20).

Regardless of what messages can be found lurking under all those shadows in the film noir, there’s no denying the genre’s impact on the films that followed. There are strong elements of noir to be found in Ridley Scott’s science-fiction thriller Blade Runner (1982), in which Harrison Ford appears as a weary, Bogart style detective who hunts androids rather than jewel encrusted birds (Grist 274).

It is in the genuine, original noir films that one can find a world not unlike our own, but darker, sexier, and, no matter how grim and violent, strangely appealing. It is a world where it is always night. It is the world of film noir.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Works Cited
Cameron, Ian. The Book of Film Noir. New York: Continuum, 1992.

Giannetti, Louis D. "Film Noir Festival: Images of Bogie." Cleveland Magazine. January 1974.

Grist, Leighton. "Moving Targets and Black Widows: Film Noir in Modern Hollywood." The Book of Film Noir, 267-85.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1981.

Tellotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark. Illinois: University Press, 1989.

Thomson, David. Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Walker, Michael. "Film Noir: an Introduction." The Book of Film Noir, 8-38

© 1995 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

You gotta have a gimmick. Hunter S. Thompson’s gimmick was “Gonzo” journalism. The word doesn’t require explanation in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Alex Gibney’s 2008 documentary. Its meaning more or less comes across. “Gonzo” means anti-Establishment and making the reporter as much a part of a story in which the facts are sometimes sacrificed for effect. It doesn’t hurt to take drugs and say “fuck” a lot.

Thompson adopted the word after receiving letters hailing his coverage of the Kentucky Derby, a piece he considers a “botched assignment,” as a breakthrough in journalism.

“If I made this breakthrough,” Thompson said, “I had to call it something, so I liked the word ‘Gonzo.’ It had a nice crazy zing.”

Thompson’s first taste of notoriety came with Hell’s Angels, a report on the infamous motorcycle gang (“60 percent cheap trash,” a gang member calls it when confronting the author on television). It didn’t make the bestseller lists, but it got him on What’s My Line, the popular TV show where a panel tried to determine which of the three mystery guests was the person they all claimed to be. “Will the real Hunter S. Thompson please stand up?”

The real Hunter S. Thompson stands up in this documentary, but too often he sits down, a figure as puzzling at the end as he was at the beginning.

It was his work for Rolling Stone, the voice of the counterculture in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that made Thompson and his “Gonzo” brand famous. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his most popular book, was first serialized in the magazine’s pages, and was followed by his coverage of the 1972 and 1976 presidential campaigns.

“There was no one quite like Hunter,” conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, then a member of the Nixon administration, remembers. “It was on the edge, and beyond the edge, and it was very funny.”

Radical though he was, Thompson did not genuflect and plant sloppy wet kisses on those revered by the left. “Hunter did some of his best work on liberals,” recalls Buchanan. Though he championed George McGovern and, later, Jimmy Carter, Thompson loathed liberal icon Hubert Humphrey. “There is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible, and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is,” Thompson wrote. If Humphrey was “treacherous, gutless,” Thompson reserved his most vitriolic attacks for Richard Nixon who “speaks to the werewolf in us on nights when the moon comes too close.”

Before his suicide in 2005, Thompson spent most of his final two decades trying to live up to, and possibly live down, his reputation which by then was based less on his literary achievements than his eccentricities, his fondness for drugs and guns. Gibney’s documentary fails to explain the demons that drove Thompson, a man who once told his friend, artist Ralph Steadman, that he would feel trapped if he couldn’t commit suicide at any moment.

Thompson committed suicide in 2005, and while his words survive (read throughout the film by Johnny Depp), the image of the shotgun-blasting madman is more accessible in this post-literate age. It looms large in this film, dwarfing his actual achievements.

The trouble with being a famous “anti-Establishment” figure is that it requires recognition from the very Establishment one is up against. Ultimately, they define you. Rolling Stone is now as much a part of the Establishment as Time and Newsweek, and like them, its days would seem to be numbered, hence its continued pandering to the baby boom generation with which it came of age (all those Dylan covers, and soft-cover books about the best of this and best of that). It still pushes a liberal, or “progressive,” agenda, but there are now those of us wise enough to see that the whole “right versus left” battle is an illusion, a show to deceive the masses and prevent them from noticing that the same puppeteer pulls the strings on both. Maybe Thompson got wise himself in the end, and that, as much as anything, may explain his decision to bow out.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson is worth seeing, but its subject remains a mystery.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): Better the second time around

Alfred Hitchcock once described 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, made six years before he left England to make his first American production, as the work of a gifted amateur while the 1956 remake was the work of a professional.

There are film buffs who insist that the original is superior and sneer at the glossy Hollywood version starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Some of them smugly point to Day and that song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be),” as the reason that the second film doesn’t measure up. So often dismissed as the epitome of bland, white-bread wholesomeness by those who claim to know more than they do (which is usually nothing), Day is a convenient and unfair target. The gifted actress is brilliant in the remake, more than equal to Stewart, and her touching recital of that charming (and Oscar winning) song is integral to the story.

Hitchcock knew better than his critics. The 1934 film has some brilliant moments, such as when a victim of assassination reacts very calmly after noticing the bullet wound in his breast before he collapses to the floor. The climax when the kidnapped child (a daughter in this case) eludes one of her captors on a rooftop, nervously stepping along the ledge, is another memorable scene.

Otherwise, The Man Who Knew Too Much, with a scant running time of 75 minutes (according to its IMDb listing), fails to achieve the dramatic impact of the remake. The assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall falls comparatively flat, as does the cast. Unlike Stewart and Day, Leslie Banks and Edna Best have little personality. I didn’t care about them at all, and it’s no surprise that Criterion put Peter Lorre, the chief villain, on the cover of their DVD release of the film.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, September 6, 2013

Kubrick's Odyssey: Did Stanley Have a Secret?

Kubrick’s Odyssey (officially subtitled Secrets Hidden in the Films of Stanley Kubrick: Part One: Kubrick and Apollo – whew!) is a rather crude but fascinating documentary. To accept its thesis may require opening your mind wide enough for a fleet of alien spacecraft to enter while performing acrobatic feats, but it’s not without interest to fans of the late director.

Weidner, the film’s writer and director, starts out by claiming that the Pentagon was so impressed with the way Kubrick imagined the interior of a B52 bomber in Dr. Strangelove, despite having been denied permission to see one, that they asked the director to fake the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“It was a deal with the devil in a way,” Weidner says, “or at least that’s how Stanley Kubrick came to view it.”

Once the offer was made, Kubrick really had no choice but to accept since to refuse after learning of NASA’s intent to deceive the world might be dangerous. Weidner believes that once Kubrick came on board, he became “privy to the main secrets of an occult society that rules the earth.”

In exchange for helping NASA fabricate the 1969 moon landing, Kubrick would become the artist that he wished to be, with complete freedom to do as he pleased.

This thesis, though rather dubious, is worth some brief consideration. After 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick enjoyed more freedom in dollar-driven Hollywood than the box-office performance of his films would warrant. It mattered not that 1975’s Barry Lyndon cost more than Warner Bros. could ever hope to recoup, or that none of his films were blockbusters on a par with the average Steven Spielberg offering. Kubrick operated with complete autonomy, even spending more than a year filming Eyes Wide Shut, in which he reconstructed New York City in England rather than travel to the U.S.

Unlike many conspiracy theorists, Weidner doesn’t claim that the moon landing was a total fraud. He believes it happened. However, he does not believe that we saw the real thing on TV or that rocket technology got us there. Weidner doesn’t say what kind of power he thinks fueled NASA’s trip to the moon or why the space agency would want to fabricate an alternate version for the public, only that what we saw was fiction created by Kubrick.

Using scenes from 2001, Weidner reveals how rear screen projection with a beaded screen made by 3M, helped create the illusion in the early “Dawn of Man” sequence that the apes were outdoors when, in fact, the entire segment was filmed on an indoor soundstage. He then compares it to NASA footage in which he finds evidence of the same trickery being used. Weidner uses a song, “Under the Masonic Moon,” on the soundtrack, but does not delve into the rumored influence of Freemasonry on Kubrick’s films, especially 2001 which some regard as Kubrick’s version of what Freemasons call “The Great Work.” (Weidner’s film is the first volume in a series and part one does not discuss the overt occult symbolism in Eyes Wide Shut, his final film, which Weidner believes cost the director his life.)

The most fascinating part is when Weidner moves on to 1980's The Shining, which he claims is Kubrick’s sly, symbolic confession that he faked the moon landing for NASA. The Overlook Hotel in the film represents America which, like the hotel, was built on the remains of dead Indians. Symbols of the space program are everywhere, from the Apollo 11 sweatshirt that the kid, Danny, is seen wearing, to the resemblance of actor Barry Nelson, as the manager of the Overlook, to JFK, the president of the U.S. at the time that the space program began.

I don’t believe any of it, but Weidner’s ideas are intriguing, comparable to all of those “clues” in Beatles albums of the late ‘60s that some fans were convinced provided evidence that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash (referenced in “A Day in the Life”) and was replaced by a cosmetically altered double. Like the best of the Beatles, Kubrick’s work is so fascinating, so multi-layered, that such theories, bizarre though they may be, are a tribute to his genius. And he did, indeed, seem to possess forbidden knowledge. Kubrick’s Odyssey is a perverse guilty pleasure for admirers of this late, lamented cinema giant.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Big Sleep (1978): A bigger yawn

I’ve always loved Candy Clark. With her straight red bangs and syrupy voice, she looks and sounds as sweet as her name, although the sugar is diluted with a bit of pepper for her role as sexy Carmila in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep. It’s a role played, less delightfully, by Martha Vickers in the 1946 version of the Raymond Chandler novel, but Clark is the only improvement in this otherwise dreary and misguided thriller.

What brain-deficient fool decided to update Chandler’s story to the 1970s, remove his private detective hero, Philip Marlowe, from his familiar Los Angeles stomping ground, and relocate him to gloomy old England?

Marlowe is now a snappily-dressed, rather affluent bloke who fits in only too well with the upper crust types he encounters. The plot is less convoluted than in Howard Hawks’ original (famously co-scripted by William Faulkner with Leigh Brackett), but no one is likely to care. Chandler’s strength as a writer was not in crafting plots, but in atmosphere, dialogue, and characterization, none of which survive in this hopeless remake.

The same producers responsible for 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely, which was set, and beautifully so, in the L.A. of the 1940s, were behind this film, and they brought back their just about perfect Marlowe, Robert Mitchum. They changed directors, though, and that was their mistake. Michael Winner did a decent job with Death Wish, but that Charles Bronson vigilante pic didn’t require more atmosphere than New York already provided. Marlowe needs smoky nightclubs, dimly-lit streets, and crumbling hotels with neon signs blinking through the blinds of the darkened rooms. Winner gives us none of that, and Mitchum is wasted.

The rest of the cast is competent at best. Joan Collins was starting to show her age as Agnes (played in the 1946 version by the younger and sexier Sonia Darrin), and Richard Boone, limping with the assistance of a cane, shouts his dialogue and looks gaunt, perhaps already suffering from the symptoms of the cancer that killed him a few years later. Sarah Miles is dull where Lauren Bacall was electric, and poor Jimmy Stewart looks as if he filmed his scenes during a commercial break during one of his then too frequent appearances on The Tonight Show. The whole shebang is a bust, only marginally redeemed by the always delightful Ms. Clark.

This time around, The Big Sleep is a big yawn.

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Storm Center: Everybody wants to censor something

Storm Center opens with some impressive Saul Bass designed titles showing a pair of eyes shifting nervously over the pages in a book. A book is at the center of the storm in this 1956 Columbia picture, co-written by Elick Moll with director Daniel Taradash.

Bette Davis plays a small town librarian who ruffles the citizens’ feathers by refusing to remove a book, The Communist Dream, from the shelf. No, no, no, she’s not a Commie. She is, as the character played by Kim Hunter tells Brian Keith, “set in her ideas – civil liberties, censorship, intellectual freedom.”

In her defense, Davis tells the City Council that she is being true to the American spirit by refusing to censor ideas to which she is opposed. She mentions one of the library’s holdings, a book that “made me sick to my stomach every time I checked it out: Mein Kampf. Maybe we ran the risk of spreading Hitlerism, but it didn’t work that way. People read it, it made them indignant, maybe it helped defeat him.”

She goes on: “Don’t you see that by keeping this book in the library, we attack the Communist dream? We say to the Communists, ‘we do not fear you, we are not afraid of what you have to say, but you fear us, you fear the truth. Tell me, would they dare keep a book praising democracy in a Russian library?”

After her stirring speech, Keith grinds out his cigarette in an ashtray. Remember, this is 1956, long before the Communist dream of dictating our personal habits took hold right here in the United States, before politicians thought they had any business telling us we can’t enjoy tobacco or get a super-sized refill of Mountain Dew at a fast food restaurant. Keith rattles off a list of organizations in which Davis was once a member. Prepare to gasp: The Council for Better Relations with the Soviet Union, the American Peace Mobilization, and the Voice of Freedom Committee.

Keith accepts Davis’ denial that she is not nor has she even been a Communist nor is or was she ever sympathetic to any red-tainted philosophy. Indeed, she resigned from those groups once she became aware that they were, as Keith calls them, “Communist fronts.”

Davis gives the councilmen no choice. She won’t remove The Communist Dream from the library shelf. If they want it removed, they must remove her.

She’s removed.

Some of the townsfolk are pleased. She was a bad influence all around. Why, do you know that she encouraged kids to read, and not necessarily subversive titles about Communism, but adventure stories like the one that left little Freddie so entranced that his father had to rip it from his hands at the dinner table? The father is delighted that the librarian is gone. “Maybe Freddie will spend some time with the kids now instead of at the library.”

Freddie doesn’t spend time playing with other kids, though. He broods and starts defacing the books he loves. He feels betrayed by the librarian. The father thinks she betrayed him, too. “She had 25 years to fill those shelves with poison,” he says. When a sympathetic councilman invites Davis to cut the ribbon at the opening of the library’s new children’s wing, Freddie goes berserk, calling her a Communist and pounding her with his fists. The incident becomes the talk of the town, but Keith stubbornly sticks to his guns.

“We happen to be in a war. Cold, hot, or lukewarm, that’s what it is, war, and we better win it. Sure, some innocent people are going to get hurt, but that’s too bad.” This little speech comes before Freddie sets fire to the library that was once his second home. The camera shows us the flames consuming Gulliver’s Travels, the collected works of Charles Dickens, and lingers on shelves marked “Philosophy,” “Psychology,” and “Religion.” The music swells to dramatic heights when we see The Story of Jesus reduced to ash.

The filmmakers deserve credit for not tacking on a phony warm-hearted ending in which all those intolerant folk suddenly become tolerant. Davis assigns some of the blame to herself. “I didn’t fight back,” she says, and now she vows to stay on and do so.

Storm Center might have been powerful stuff back in 1956 (though most critics of the time, and even Ms. Davis herself, expressed disappointment with the results). Today, we might marvel at how little times have changed. You can still check out any book you want from the library, but that book about Jesus is more likely to ignite controversy than one about Communism. Censorship is alive and thriving in the United States of 2013 with laws against “Hate Speech” that lawmakers pass by appealing to emotions rather than logic or the facts. In modern times, it’s not the conservative that wants to censor, but the supposedly open-minded liberal. It seems that everybody, regardless of their political stance, favors censorship. The only disagreement is on what to censor.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks