Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Private Hell 36 (1954)

Maddy over at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films  is hosting the Ida Lupino Centenary Blogathon on May 12, 2018. Here's my entry. 

Private Hell 36 is an early directing effort by Don Siegel. It was produced by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by Ida Lupino - who also co-wrote the script for the movie - and husband No. 2 Collier Young. Lupino was one of the first female directors in American cinema who liked to direct socially conscious low-budget movies. The Filmakers were responsible for little gems such as The Hitch-Hiker, Outrage and The Bigamist. Young and Lupino had divorced by 1951, but were still working together professionally. In 1955 the company’s days were numbered and Private Hell was one of their last films.

Private Hell is a dirty cop Noir, the sub-genre that became so popular in the 50s. 
Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) and Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) investigate a robbery with the reluctant help of Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a nightclub singer who received a hot $50 bill as a tip from a customer. Lilli goes straight to Bruner’s head but it’s clear to him a cop’s salary can’t keep her in style. When Farnham and Bruner finally find their suspect, he tries to run but is killed in the ensuing car chase. Convenient for the cops, he had the stolen money with him and Bruner decides there and then to keep a good portion of it. Farnham is shocked but reluctantly looks the other way. The two stash the money in a trailer park, unit No. 36. 

From then it’s all downhill. Bruner wants to take the money and run to Mexico with Lilli. Farnham is tormented with self-disgust. Distrust starts to erode their relationship and the former friends and partners start circling each other like wild cats. On top of that their Captain is getting suspicious and it seems the thief’s partner wants his share of the dough too. It’s just a matter of time until they turn on each other.

The plot is barely more than routine and the picture has a bit of a ramshackle structure. The movie starts and ends with a bang - Bruner foiling a drug store burglary and a shootout in the trailer park respectively -  but it drags considerably in the middle, especially during the racetrack scenes when the cops and Lilli are looking for the robbery suspect. Private Hell could maybe be called negligible were it not for the sizzling chemistry between Lupino and Cochran that could easily set a house on fire. Lupino was actually married to co-star Howard Duff at the time. Not that you’d notice. Lupino’s and Cochran’s scenes together are electric and their verbal sparring makes the movie.

Ida Lupino was an actress who simply and naturally belonged to the world of Noir. Though an extremely versatile actress who played everything from emotionally fragile innocents, waifs, women in jeopardy and damsels in distress, it is her hard-luck dames I remember the most and she was never better than when she was playing bad girls. Sexy, sultry, world-weary, looking for a guy with money and a way out, Lilli is a tad shopworn. 

Her dialogue drips with tough-gal sarcasm. She works in a low-class gin joint where the veneer of class is thin at best. Neither Lilli nor the joint have any Vegas aspirations. There she sings for her supper, and maybe does something more. A cheap dame whose tastes run to the expensive and who likes her men to be big spenders. Lilli’s eyes become as big as saucers when she notices a shiny diamond bracelet on the arm of another woman. 
She’s good at separating men from their hard-earned money. She takes $50 tips from strangers and we wonder for what? So does Bruner. “I have a lovely voice. I sang Smoke Gets in Your Eyes five times. He was loaded”, says she. It’s as good an explanation as any. 

When Bruner can finally throw some money around, she doesn’t ask too many prying questions where this sudden windfall comes from. She really doesn’t want to know. To preserve the niceties she decides that it’s from a rich uncle who just died. 
Lilli changes her mind about her money-grasping ways in the end and has a few seconds of mushy remorse. She tells Bruner in their last scene together that she doesn't need the money to be happy, but it’s doubtful if she’s sincere or not. Her denial isn’t too convincing and Cochran doesn't seem to buy it either. So he goes to get the money.

I have to take a little detour here and talk about Lupino the singer. She played songbirds three times in her career and should have played them more often. 
With startling regularity nightclub singers pop up in Noir. There’s just something about them. Tough dames with bruised hearts and dearly paid-for wisdom who’ve seen and heard it all, but still hang on to their hopes. Something in their demeanor suggests a kindred spirit to the Noir hero. Not always a clear-headed assessment on the part of the guy. So often be loses is head…and sometimes his life.

Lilli - just like most of her sisters - isn’t the best singer and she knows it. Her voice is like a cheap shot of bourbon with another bourbon chaser. It tells of years of lonely nights, desire, regret, heartbreak…or maybe just three packs a day and the aforementioned cheap booze straight up on a nightly basis.
But that’s not what’s drawing the crowd anyway. She’s got something else that all the boys want. She sings for the lonely and sells dreams. And the boys can always fool themselves into believing that the shantoozy on the stage is singing just for them. 

Lupino’s rendition of One For My Baby in Road House is spectacular. In a haze of nicotine she mesmerizes everybody. It never ceases to amaze me how someone whose voice could charitably be describe as limited could be such an effective singer. "She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard", says Celeste Holm about her singing in Road House and it's true here too. She speaks her lines more than she sings them and it is quite astonishing what she could do with a strapless dress and a few shrugs of her bare shoulders. 
As Petey Brown in The Man I Love she was dubbed by Peg La Centra, but there’s no doubt - though Lupino doesn’t sing herself - she’s lived and breathed every line of her songs of heartbreak and late night regret.

Steve Cochran has enough screen presence for several actors. Bruner starts out as an honest cop, though he clearly always had a propensity for recklessness and callousness. When a fellow cop gets killed he just shrugs it off. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to believe that his entire life he’s been calculating the odds. Somehow it’s doubtful that he ever was a paragon of duty. 
Because of a dame he goes off the straight and narrow, and in the end  he wouldn’t even stick at shooting his partner. In true Noir fashion it is suggested that under the right or wrong circumstances anybody can cross the line and show himself to be capable of almost anything. I’d say Bruner’s dark alter ego was always his true character that up to then had simply never been explored.

Cochran was one of Noir’s sexiest actors and managed to make seedy, sleazy brutes utterly irresistible. With a rough and roguish charm, he leers at Lilly like a hungry wolf the second they meet. He may be a rotter, but he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sinking into the gutter with cause you know it would be a fun ride. Just the way he ties and unties the straps on Lilli’s halter dress is enough to drive a girl wild, I’m telling you. The temperature gets a lot hotter in the room every time he appears on the screen.

Cochran may have risen above B actor status, had it not been for his out-of-control private life which had "bad boy" written all over it. Apparently Siegel had a hard time keeping Cochran - and the rest of the crew - sober on the set.

Howard Duff has the most thankless role in the movie, the guilt-stricken good guy full of self-loathing. Farnham can’t bring himself to go against the blue wall of silence. I never considered Duff the most charismatic actor and his pained righteousness and weakness make him hard to like.

There’s some funny risqué banter in the movie hinting at the relationship between Cochran and Duff.
“Sometimes I wonder why we go steady,” Farnham says to Bruner, to which Bruner replies, “Because I’m irresistible.” Later, when the robbery tears them apart, Lupino wonders: “You two having a lovers’ spat?” A fellow cop refers to Farnham as Bruner’s boyfriend, and when Bruner has to leave Lilli to meet Farnham, she says: “This is the first time I’ve ever lost a man to another man.” 
In this movie it seems strangely out of place. Nothing in their relationship suggests lavender-tinted leanings, so why the hints? The only reason I can think of is that this kind of talk links the partners to countless Noir couples whose relationship turns sour turn when distrust enters the picture.

Private Hell juxtaposes Farnham’s suburban white picket fence life with the rotten little world of Lupino and Cochran. 
Domesticity is nothing Bruner or Lilli want. “Rice is for eating, not throwing,” Lilli notes. Bruner replies, “That’s how I feel. We’re a lot alike, Lilli.” The two worlds clash at a dinner party at Farnham’s house where Bruner and Lilli seem completely out of place. A wild party would be more up their alley.

Still, I don’t see the movie as another cynical meditation on the American Dream, a film criticism that so often is an utterly trite cliche in itself. Farnham and his wife Francey don’t live a suburban nightmare, they are happy in their lives, before Farnham lets himself get corrupted. And there’s a lot more to Francey than just being a housewife. She can accept Lilli for what she is and doesn’t pass judgment on her because her morals aren’t quite up to standard.

It's Farnham who wants nothing more to do with Bruner but their lives are inextricably linked. When Francey wants to show off their baby, he angrily refuses. He doesn’t want his child tainted with the presence of Bruner, the reminder of his own sin. So he guzzles down booze to anesthetize his guilty conscience. His silence eats him up inside. 

The symbolism of unit No. 36 is none too subtle of course. The stashed loot in the trailer and their shared guilt poisons both men's lives and their relationships, with each other and with their women, and so becomes their private hell.

Well...what am I supposed to think now?
The ending, as so often, is a copout and feels tacked-on. Bruner gets shot and the Police Captain simply seems to forget about about Farnham’s complicity in the crime and lets him off. It’s all tied up too neatly.

The real crime in the end is that we don’t find out what becomes of Lilli but it’s easy to guess. Another affair that went nowhere, another piece of hard-won wisdom, but she’ll just shrug her shoulders and go back to that gin joint to sing for her next supper without missing a beat. One For My Baby and One More For The Road. What’s the use of crying?

The picture has a lot to recommend it but it falls just short of little gem status.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Breaking Point (1950)

“A man alone ain't got no chance"
Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not has been filmed several times, most notably as eponymous movie with Bogart and Bacall. Howard Hawks had bought the film rights to the book and bet Hemingway that he could make a good movie out of his “bunch of junk” novel. He scrapped pretty much everything in the book except the title, a main character called Harry Morgan and a couple of fishing boats. The resulting movie had next to nothing to do with the source material. It was a patriotic rewrite and turned a Depression-era tale with strong Socialist undertones into a patriotic wartime thriller and a romantic glamorous adventure story. It’s mostly concerned with the sexual sparks between Bogart and Bacall. The tone of bitter disillusionment that fuels the novel is completely absent.

Hawks and his fun spin on the book notwithstanding, The Breaking Point is the better film. It's an almost straight adaptation of the novel. A few plot points have been changed, but the desperate core of Hemingway’s original is kept intact. Moved to present day (50s era) California, the film is now a story about post-war disillusionment, not Depression-era hardship. Point is about real people with real problems, living in a gritty desperate world. 
All the characters struggle with their lives. They’ve all taken heavy batterings. Their lives didn't live up to their dreams and they're desperate to make a change. 

Down-on-his-luck Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is a charter fishing boat captain who can barely keep his head above the water financially taking on fishing charters. He just about manages to make enough money to support his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two children, and has trouble keeping up the payments on his boat. Lucy continually begs him to give up the boat business and manage her father’s lettuce farm. 

Harry - together with his first mate Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) - gets a charter to carry aging playboy Hannagan and his sexy mistress Leona (Patricia Neal) to Mexico, but once there Hanagan gambles his money away, skips town and stiffs Harry who’s now stranded. On top of that Harry is saddled with Leona who’s taken a shine to him. Down to his last buck, he makes a deal with sleazy shyster lawyer F.R. Duncan (a brilliant Wallace Ford in a supporting role) to smuggle a bunch of Chinese illegal immigrants into California. The deal goes south and ends in the death of Mr. Sing, the human smuggler. When Harry comes back home, the Coast Guard has already got a whiff of his illegal shenanigans and impounds his boat. Duncan bails him out and - as he can’t keep up the payments on his boat - he then agrees to do an even dodgier job for him, being the “getaway driver” for a gang of race track robbers. Now he’s in way over his head. Wesley is callously gunned down by the gangsters before they force Harry to help them escape to a nearby island.

The great John Garfield is the classic anguished Noir hero whose life spirals down the drain when he’s caught in a web outside his control. Harry is as an essentially good man who wants to live an honest life but struggles with his job, his marriage and his financial responsibilities. He’s a hard worker but still doesn’t get ahead. In contrast to other Noir heroes, he doesn’t want to break free of his obligations though. He’s happily married and wants to do the right thing, it’s just that he’s forced by impending financial disaster into some dodgy business dealings. Out of devotion to his family - something seldom found in Noir -  he makes bad decisions. He’s hounded by creditors, cheated by a client and egged on into shady schemes by Duncan until he reaches his breaking Point and sees no way out. Fighting the good fight is wrought with futility.

Harry represents the millions of returning servicemen who didn't fit into the postwar prosperity bubble. “Ever since I took that uniform off, I’m not exactly great.” There’s a whole world of postwar disillusionment is in that one throwaway line.

After the War Harry’s plan had been to be the owner of a whole fleet of fishing boats. That was his American Dream. Like many servicemen, he came home from the War to pick up where he had left off but had to realize the country had moved on and all he got was a pat on the back and the thanks of a Grateful Nation. Now the former PT boat captain and war hero has to contend with harsh realities and dashed dreams. He can’t make a go of life and he’s not 8 feet tall as he once thought.
His wife reminds him that providing for his family is the greatest war he ever fought to which he replies: “It’s war all right and I’m scared.” He feels trapped, not because he doesn’t love his family but because he loves them so much. He doesn’t want to fail them.

Harry’s entire identity and sense of self-worth is inextricably linked with his fishing boat. Only out on the sea does he feel in control of his life and fate. 
“You know how it is, early in the morning, on the water? Everything’s quiet…a long way off. And you feel great. But then you come ashore, and it starts. In no time at all, you’re up to your ears in trouble, and you don’t know where it all began.”
This is every Noir sucker’s perpetual signature tune.

Lucy doesn’t understand that his sense of self-worth is the reason he can’t take the job on the lettuce farm. It would mean spiritual defeat. It would mean he doesn’t cut it as a man and provider. It would mean giving up on his American Dream.

So he morally compromises. And once he starts down that road we all know that he has got to ride that trolley all the way to the end of the line and the last stop is the cemetery. He doesn’t even realize he’s pushing himself to the point of no return until it is too late.

It’s interesting to note that Harry’s willingness to engage in criminal activities, even out of necessity and “just this once”, affects other areas of his life. Once the denial mechanism has been disabled the flood gates open, and he gives in to drink, anger and (almost) cheating. Thus is the nature of corruption. It can’t be compartmentalized.

But it must be stressed that it is not fate that trips Harry up but his own poor choices. Twice he lets Duncan lure him into shady deals although he knows what kind of guy he is. And more than that, twice he doesn’t insist on the payment from his clients beforehand. His trouble could easily have been avoided had Harry demanded his money especially from Hannagan right away instead of waiting a few days. 

With Garfield, so often the story of his life and the story of his movie intertwine. Garfield was an inwardly sensitive man, full of inner turmoil. A precursor to the angry young men of the 50s and 60s, he was rebellious and alienated and his life spiraled out of control until he too reached his breaking point. Garfield was a real-life Noir hero. 
Garfield had been a big star in the early 40s, but his career was basically over in 1950. HUAC had opened hearings concerning Communist infiltration of the entertainment industry and Garfield had been named in the publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television as a Communist sympathizer. It was actually his wife who had ties to the Communist Party at some time, but it didn’t matter. He was in hot water with HUAC anyway. He supported liberal causes, had shown his support for the Hollywood Ten and refused to name names before the Committee. When the smoke had finally cleared, his career was effectively ended. Garfield was blacklisted and Warner Bros. was now reluctant to advertise The Breaking Point with his name attached. The movie was quietly buried and fell into undeserved obscurity for 50 years. 
Without his art Garfield was nothing and - most likely due to a combination of stress and a weak heart -  died of a heart attack at age 39.

The picture has an incredibly strong cast of actors down to the smallest role.
Phyllis Thaxter is perfect as Lucy, Morgan’s plain long-suffering and faithful wife who’s fighting to keep their marriage together. If this sounds like a thankless and cliched role, it isn’t at all. In Point we get to see something that goes against what we usually see in Noir: a happy home life. Harry’s and Lucy’s marriage is portrayed with real warmth, they truly care about each other. She is his anchor. There is a genuine love and respect between husband and wife. And there’s something more: a tremendous sexual attraction. They are passionate lovers and friends. Lucy is not a prudish, frigid and shrewish wife that’s just waiting to be cheated on. She fights for her man and does everything to emotionally support him. When Harry can’t find work, she takes a job sewing during all hours of the night to earn some extra dollars.

It was Garfield who insisted that the relationship of husband and wife was a strong focus in the story, as it mirrored very closely Garfield’s own marriage to his wife Robbe.
Morgan is nevertheless tempted by Leona, and of course Lucy gets jealous. Out of sheer desperation, she dyes her hair blonde and gets it cut in the same style as Leona, so she can lure her husband back from the glamorous temptress. It’s a heart-breaking scene that’s hard to watch. She’s insecure but Harry really doesn’t want her to be like Leona. He wants her to be Lucy.

In sharp contrast with Lucy there’s drifter and world-weary good-time girl Leona Charles. Neal - sporting an unfortunate hairstyle - comes perilously close to parody, she comes on so strong. She’s outrageously playful, sultry, provocative and bold. She’s one determined dame who does everything to lure Morgan into an affair and nearly succeeds. She survives solely on sex appeal, and she’s quite aware of it. She isn’t quite as cynical as she wants the world to believe. When Harry rejects her advances in the end she’s crushed because her desirability is in doubt. Which is all she has to offer and at some time it will fade.
But for all that there is an underlying emotional bond between the two because they’re kindred spirits. Neither is in control of their lives. It's not her though who brings about Harry's downfall, that is entirely of his own making.

Then we have memorable shyster, hustler and small-time crook Duncan. Popping up like a bad penny and oozing slime from every pore, he continually tempts Morgan with criminal "opportunities" to get himself in the clear. He’s always eager to compromise Harry for his own profit, exploiting him in his weakest moments and dishing out really bad advice about criminal activities: “Don’t fight it! Relax, let it happen!” 
But in the end he can’t take his own advice, he becomes “all unglued”. He understands the race track heist is way out of the league of a little crook like him, and he panics. He simply can’t relax and let it happen and catches a couple of bullets for his efforts.

And last, but certainly not least, there is Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez), Morgan’s trusted and faithful side-kick, helper and friend, a man of natural dignity who just happens to be black. He is the heart of the film and the conscience of the story. He never asks any questions and would go to hell and back for Harry. Their friendship is a very rare and matter-of-fact treatment of race for the era, simply because race is never an issue -- not even a subtext. The fact that Wesley is black is never emphasized. 
He’s a man with a functioning moral compass and understands the consequences of getting mixed up in a shady deals much better than Harry does. He stoically and stubbornly tries to steer Harry back on the path of righteousness, but his voice is a voice in the wilderness. For his loyalty he has to pay the ultimate price in the end. His utterly callous and casually dismissive murder by the gangsters is one of the most shocking scenes in the film.

In revenge Harry kills all four gangsters but gets seriously wounded himself. The Coast Guard comes to the rescue and a big crowd gathers when his boat comes back into the harbor.

In the end Harry barely survives and must have an arm amputated. He’d rather die than live without his arm, but Lucy convinces him to live, for himself and his family. His survival could be called a copout, a studio-imposed happy ending that blows to bits the relentlessly downward tone of the pictures. It isn’t that though as it simply affirms Harry’s occasional ramblings during the film: "A man alone ain't got no chance”. He needs friends and family. Accepting help brings him closer to spiritual healing. It’s an admission and acceptance that he can’t solve his problems alone. His carelessness already cost Wesley his life, there’s no use in him dying too.

For most films this scene would have been the ending. Not so here. The picture has just one last devastating surprise in store for the viewer. It hits the audience like an extra-heavy ton of bricks and is one of the bleakest images I’ve seen in any classic film.

Wesley’s little son Joseph comes to the pier to wait for his father who we know will never come back. He stands completely alone there, separated from the crowds, thoroughly ignored, despairing, while everyone gathers around Lucy and her children. No one offers to tell him what has happened. He’s left to discover the fate of his father alone.
It’s an utterly haunting final image. This is the only statement about race in the movie and for a 1950s film it is quite a bold one. It seems as if Wesley’s death was of no consequence to anybody and is just simply callously ignored. 

Most of all, the closing shot is a poignant reminder that the actions of one person have drastic consequences for others. Wesley’s death is Harry’s fault. Somebody else -  who deserves none of the suffering - has to pay the price for his stupidity. Joseph has to grow up without a father. 

The scene completely drowns out the “happy ending” between Harry and Lucy and is true Noir.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Gun Crazy (1950)

This ultra low-budget lovers-on-the-lam picture - very loosely based on the Bonnie and Clyde saga - is the real deal. Produced outside the mainstream studio system, it it utterly unexpected and subversive.

Gun Crazy was directed by Joseph H. Lewis who never rose to A-list status. His output was strictly B. Unheralded in his time, his movies have long gained a cult following due to his ability of elevating el cheapo Poverty Row flicks to cinematic art. His sense of style was impeccable.
The movie was produced by The King Brothers who had been responsible for the 1945 runaway hit Dillinger. They were a fleabag outfit even by Poverty Row standards. According to Eddie Muller other studios considered them bottom feeders. Reviled by rivals, they were former bootleggers and hustlers who saw the movie making business as just another get-rich-quick racket. Maybe so, but they were able to score one (modest) hit after another and into the bargain produce a few minor classics.

Working for Poverty Row meant shoestring budgets but also artistic freedom. Stylistic choices that turned out to be brilliant were often born out of the necessity of stretching a non-existent budget. In fact Gun Crazy is a marvel of economic filmmaking.
It contains one of movie history’s most celebrated robbery sequences that is documentary realism at its finest. Director Lewis removed everything except the front seats out of the getaway car, put the camera equipment in the back and shot the entire scene all in one long take with ad-libbed dialogue. We as audience are right there with him in the backseat. 

Unbeknownst to even Lewis, Gun Crazy was written by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous Hollywood 10. Trumbo had already been blacklisted - the King Brothers hired him just before he was shipped off to prison - and credited Millard Kaufman functioned as his front writer. Trumbo’s credit was only restored after his death.

The plot of Gun Crazy is quite simple. Boy meets gun meets girl with gun. From his earliest childhood days Bart Tare (John Dall) has been obsessed with guns. After a stint in reform school for trying to steal one as an adolescent, Bart comes home, his obsession intact. His friends take him to a traveling carnival show - the natural habitat of freaks and geeks. There he meets Miss Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), dressed in a sexy cowgirl outfit, and shooting cigarettes out of her assistant’s mouth with a six-shooter. Bart’s got it bad. They get married, hit the road, money runs out and now what? They drift into a career as bank robbers. The cops catch on to them pretty fast and soon they can add murder to their rap sheet. They’re wanted in several states and so they decide to pull one last big heist before retiring to Mexico. Guess how this is going to end.

The movie starts off slowly and suffers from the lengthy prologue delving deep into Bart’s past. I understand it’s necessary for the audience to get an insight into Bart’s mental state, but the backstory is a bit on the corny side, clunky and preachy, there to play up sympathy, most notably in the trial sequence. But it’s a minor gripe.
As a little boy Bart mistakenly killed a tiny baby chick with his BB gun and it traumatized him. This is not what he wanted to do. The movie makes it abundantly clear that Bart likes to shoot, but cannot take the life of a living being, human or animal. He just likes to fire off rounds. It’s the only thing he’s ever been good at. Later, as a criminal, he still can’t bring himself to kill, even if his life might depend on it. There is a moral core to Bart. Understanding the dichotomy in his strange fixation is the key to his character.

When Laurie enters the scene guns a-blazing, the movie finally takes off. Bart has found a kindred spirit. She’s a rather proletarian femme fatale, not too glamorous, a bit rough around the edges and so just right for him. Bart has always been a fish out of water, he’s socially awkward and it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe he’s never had a girl-friend before. The second he lays eyes on her showing off her figure and her shooting skills no power on earth can keep him from her.
Laurie challenges him to a duel and rarely ever did the 50s see such a blatant display of eroticism on screen, fully clothed though. They shoot it out and it’s like striking a match in a gunpowder factory. There’s even a scene where Laurie shoots between her legs. Director Lewis gave his actors a rather crude but effective instruction to do the scene: 
”I told John, 'Your cock's never been so hard,' and I told Peggy, 'You're a female dog in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.' That's exactly how I talked to them and I turned them loose. I didn't have to give them more directions”. 
Lewis got what he wanted. This is not just a shooting contest, it’s foreplay, or maybe more than that.

Noir has always been a genre of transgressive subtexts and perverted psychology. In Gun Crazy not only is crime presented as glamorous, but violence is eroticized. The movie relates shooting and later crime to the thrill of sex, thus flaunting the Production Code mightily. Oh, the joys of pulpy Freudianism.

Poverty Row could get away with this as they were flying somewhat under the commercial radar. They were much less under the microscope of the guardians of morality than the big studios. Besides that, Trumbo - like any good writer - had a knack for writing around the Code while technically working within its constraints.

A short time later, Bart and Laurie leave the carnival. Bart wants to take a regular job for $40 a week but the straight life has no allure for Laurie. She wants to live a little and living doesn’t mean a tenement with peeling plaster and a hot plate in the corner. “I want things…big things… I want a guy with spirit and guts… a guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.” 
She also gives Bart the obligatory “I’m no good” speech - known from so many other Noirs - and tells him that she’s killed a man before. But in Noir red flags go unheeded. Like any other Noir hero, when trouble comes knocking on the door, he embraces it whole-heartedly.

Laurie knows exactly how to work her man, black stockings, bedroom eyes and all. She wrote the book on that. She used sex to get her man and now uses her man to get her what she wants. Faced with the possibility of losing Laurie, Bart gives in. He’s transferred his obsession from guns to a woman who has one. She’s all he ever wanted and any kind of good sense he ever had goes out of the window. He’ll follow her straight to the gates of hell. “We go together Laurie, I don’t know why, like guns and ammunition go together.” Another nice guy sucker who can’t keep his libido under control. 

Laurie wants to go straight, really she does, but it’s no good. Her love for thrills gets in the way and it’s something she can’t help. Deep down this is who she is. Cool as a cucumber she suggests armed robbery. The road to Easy Street is paved with bad intentions.

And so the ballad of Laurie and Bart begins. Their cross-country crime spree plays like an extended honeymoon thrill ride.
But the moment Bart makes his decision to stay with Laurie, it’s clear that they’re doomed. With each job they pull they come closer to catastrophe, no matter how much they try to even the odds. There’s no way out for the star-crossed lovers.

It takes Bart quite a while to figure out just how far Laurie is willing to go to get what she wants. When he finally gets the full picture, he doesn’t care anymore. He knows she’s going to be his ruin. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even though John Dall was far from being Hollywood’s greatest actor, the role of Bart fits him perfectly. Hitchcock supposedly chose him for Rope because of his inherently weak quality. Hitch was on to something. Bart is a simple guy, lanky, awkward, with a big goofy grin. He’s a drifter, diffident and indecisive… until he meets his guiding star. Dall conveys Bart’s aimlessness very well.
UK import Peggy Cummins is dynamite. After a few Hollywood disappointments she was back on her way to the UK and unfortunately Gun Crazy was to be her Hollywood swan song. Clearly that was Hollywood’s loss.

As opposed to Bart, we never find out what makes Laurie tick. We never get to know the root of her obsession with guns, we only see the manifestations of it. There simply is a kink in her character. She’s hot-tempered, amoral and slightly unhinged. Like a child she must have what she sees. 
The single worst thing in the world for a girl like her is boredom. The robberies are really not so much about money, they provide a rush for her. On top of that, she has an itchy trigger finger. She has what Bart is lacking: a true killer instinct. She not only has no compunction about killing, she likes to kill. This is how she gets her kicks. For Bart’s benefit she plays a little comedy to justify her killings, whimpering she only killed because she was frightened and lost her nerve, but one look at her face after she pulled the trigger belies that statement. There was nothing but cold purpose in her eyes, and something more…a positively feral look. Crime and killing are sexual gratification.

Their relationship is another destructive amour fou. Do they love each other? Bart no doubt loves Laurie. Does Laurie love him? She’s willing to leave him if he doesn’t want to follow her into a life of crime. But it turns out they can’t be without the other. Laurie is not a dame who milks gullible suckers for all they’re worth, she’s not looking for a chump to take the fall for her crimes. Her love for Bart is genuine which sets her apart from other femmes fatales. 
After one holdup they mean to split up for a while because the cops are looking for a couple. They simply can’t. Magically they’re pulled back together and turn their respective getaway cars around. It’s a wonderful scene, sad, poignant, tragic and romantic at the same time.

Both Laurie and Bart are misfits who have never belonged anywhere. But only Bart understands that being an outlaw means being an outcast. 
The traditional postwar dream of a happy home life, stable job and a picket fence is not for them, especially not for Laurie. We just have to look at the contempt in her eyes when she meets Bart’s sister, now a domestic drudge, and her three little children. It’s Lewis’ little stab at matrimony. Ruby is not a glowing recommendation for married life. The reward for living a decent life is near poverty.

Laurie believes that one last big score will get them the money to retire to Mexico to buy a farm and, Bart suggests, raise some kids. They stick up the payroll department at a meat-packing plant, but Laurie’s itchy trigger finger leaves two people dead. Bart should have known that his Laurie is not the domestic type. The carny clown warned him.

As fugitives they return to Bart’s hometown where they encounter his childhood friends again. The story arc now comes full circle. Bart and Laurie have come to the end of the road and make their last stand out in a swamp. Laurie is hysterical and out for blood when the cops and Bart’s friends arrive: “I'll KILL YOU! I'll KILL YOU!” Laurie can’t stop herself. Bart knows he has to protect others from her. She would go on killing. As a child he killed the baby chick against his better nature and now tragically he has to shoot the only thing he ever loved. She is his first and only kill. Seconds later the cops shoot him dead. The lovers are united in death.

The movie has a trashy yet wonderfully romantic allure to it. There’s glamour in being young and wild and bad. B-pictures show the true spirit of Noir: made on a dime and boldly going where no-one else would go, these tawdry little gems get it exactly right. They get down and dirty and make no excuse for it.

Of course the transgressors have to pay for their sins in the end as a concession to the Production Code, but it’s a small price to pay for a wild ride.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sunset Blvd (1950)

"I AM big. It's the pictures that got small."
Sunset Blvd was written and directed by the great Billy Wilder for Paramount. The picture is a scathing indictment of Hollywood and the monsters it produces; a macabre comedy, full of stick-the-knife-in-and-twist-it-slowly humor; sordid melodrama and Noir, from which it borrows the flashback structure, fatalism, the sucker and a different kind of femme fatale who lures with money, not sex. As far as Noir goes, this is one of the bleakest. Nothing here is candy-coated for easy consumption.
The movie also has more quotable dialogue than any other film I can think of.

It’s a Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie as brutal as any to ever come out of Tinseltown. I think only The Player (1992) can match it in cynicism. Sunset Blvd ruffled the feathers of a lot of Hollywood luminaries. Nobody likes to have his soul laid bare quite so savagely. Louis B. Mayer wanted to have the movie destroyed in the interest of industry honor. Lucky for Wilder his home studio Paramount held him in high esteem. He had given them a few box office successes.

The movie isn’t quite a hate letter to Tinseltown, for that there’s too much compassion and nostalgia in it. It stays just this side of outright condemnation, because the audience can feel Wilder’s love for the Silent Age and the studio system which was coming apart at the seams in the 50s. There’s also some positive portrayals in movie. Cecil B. DeMille for example, playing himself, is shown in quite a favorable light.

The film opens with the spectacularly audacious shot - now considered one of the most iconic opening shots in movie history - of Joe Gillis’ dead body floating face down in a swimming pool. He then proceeds to tell the audience how he ended up there. The picture’s sardonic voice-over narration is provided by a talking corps. Now that’s creative.

Two-bit screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down to his last buck and on the run from the repo men. By accident he ends up at the crumbling estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), former Silent movie star and now a recluse, who lives there with her strange and creepy butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). She’s desperately been trying to resuscitate her career and has been writing on a script for Salomé for years, impatiently waiting for that one coveted phone call from Cecil B. DeMille inviting her back to Paramount. Unfortunately the script is melodramatic tripe that nobody wants to read. Joe sees the prospect of some impressive money looming in the future. He knows Norma’s script is useless but makes her believe he can do a patch-up job on it and so accepts an invitation to stay at her house. But things get weird quickly. Norma turns out to be the original cougar. She pays off his bills and he becomes her boy toy. His life gets even more complicated when he falls in love with fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). But Norma’s possessiveness and jealousy know no bounds. Joe should have paid a little more attention to the fate of John the Baptist.

An icon of the Silent era, Swanson - like so many others - came close to being reduced to nothing when sound arrived. She continued to make movies, but her kind of films had simply fallen out of favor with the public. Thankfully she proved to be a shrewd and successful business woman so her life didn’t go off the rails. 

Norma Desmond is a reminder that Tinseltown habitually treats its stars as disposable commodities, quickly kicking them to the curb to let them rot in obscurity if they don’t fill the studio’s coffers. When she was a star people worshipped the ground Norma walked on. “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”, says DeMille of Norma. It’s hard to weather such unmitigated awe and adoration with any kind of cool aplomb. Fame is addictive. As a result, Norma has an ego the size of a small planet and it needs feeding constantly. Like a black hole, she consumes all light and life around her.
In a stroke of genius Wilder often photographs Norma’s hands like the greedy talons of a bird of prey, desperately clawing at life but grasping nothing.

Norma used to be the brightest star of them all but now she’s been living in her decaying mansion in self-imposed exile for over 20 years. She barely sees anybody and has cut herself off completely from the real world while turning her mansion into a shrine to her lost fame and glory days, reliving them over and over again. She surrounds herself only with other fallen idols long past their expiry date who Joe calls disrespectfully “the waxworks”.

Her delusions aren’t helped by Max who’s enabling her. He’s forging countless fan letters to keep her happy. One day Norma makes the decision to visit DeMille on the Paramount lot. A few old-timers still recognize her and just for a few minutes Norma is in heaven. Though someone from Paramount has been calling her house numerous times - seemingly about her script that she mailed to them - DeMille can't bring himself to tell Norma that it’s not her they want, just her exquisite vintage car. And Max aids him in his deception.

The moment Joe sets foot on the dilapidated estate he remarks on its rotting splendor. The outside of her house is neglected simply because Norma's entire life takes place within her walls. She never ventures out. Norma’s mansion is a mausoleum where time stands still. “The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis - out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion”. He’ll soon find out that everything is rotten on the estate. The decay has seeped deep down into the foundations. 

Many viewers likened Norma to a vampire. She feeds on other people and sucks them dry. In her clinging need to be loved, she even goes so far as attempting suicide to blackmail Joe into staying.
In fact Sunset Blvd. plays very much like a horror movie. We have a haunted house complete with big pipe organ where a strange butler plays eerie music at night. There are the ghosts of Hollywood past, the undead - Norma, Max and the “waxworks” - forever damned to walk the earth in search of something long vanished.
And weirdest of all there’s the midnight funeral for Norma’s feverishly beloved pet monkey that’s right out of a freak show. That alone would have been most people’s cue to leave, but Joe doesn’t heed the warning signs. He stays and so becomes Norma’s replacement chimp. The poisonous spirit of the mansion will possess him too. 
Horror movies don’t need blood and gore. Monsters come in many different shapes and sizes.

Swanson is phenomenal in her role. She gives a gutsy performance which could easily be dismissed as campy and close to parody.  But she plays it exactly right. It’s a performance within a performance. Norma is always in front of an audience, always posing for the cameras. She cannot let go. A theatrical acting style was part of the Silent Age and Norma never made it out. Holden’s natural acting contrasts sharply with hers.

Von Stroheim’s story in Sunset Blvd. is actually the one that comes closest to reality, lending the movie an air of uncanny authenticity. A once-great Silent director, he had a reputation for extravagance and a fanatical insistence on perfection regardless of costs. He and Swanson had a history. He had directed her in Queen Kelly in 1929, but was dismissed from the set after a disagreement with her. The movie was never finished and lost an astronomical sum. It is Queen Kelly that Norma screens nightly at her house. The film ruined von Stroheim’s career and Swanson’s suffered too. He made only two more talkies, and was then reduced to playing self-parodies in other directors’ movies. It was a spectacular fall from grace.  
When Max says to Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” we’re supposed to substitute von Stroheim for von Mayerling. That is how famous he was in the 1920s.

Von Stroheim brings great pathos to his role. Max, as it turns out, is not only Norma’s butler but her former director and former husband too. He was the man who made her, and is now reduced to lackey status because he still loves her. It is enough for him to devote his life to her. The man’s a masochist. He thinks he’s helping her, but no doubt he’s partly to blame for Norma’s mental state, letting her live in a phantasy world, feeding her delusions, her denials and ultimately her illness.

Joe Gillis is a stand-in for all those wide-eyed hopefuls coming to Hollywood, just to be chewed up and spit out again. At the time William Holden was a bit like his character. After he had exploded onto the Hollywood scene in 1939 with Golden Boy, his career was going nowhere for the next 10 years. Holden was bored with his roles and he literally leapt at the chance of playing Gillis. He made the right choice. Sunset Blvd made him one of Hollywood's greatest and revitalized his career for the next 15 years.

Joe thinks he’s found himself a cushy setup, but he gets a lot more than he bargained for.  In true Noir fashion, he's doomed the second he sets foot on Norma's estate. She has her own ideas about their future. Joe is a chump who fatally underestimates Norma’s combustible mix of neurosis, fear and insecurity. He despises himself for being a gigolo, but still can’t bring himself to leave. Every once in a while he ponders going back to Ohio where he came from but that would mean admitting defeat. The question is does he really want to leave? He likes the lifestyle despite his claims to the contrary. Such is the corrupting nature of easy living. A gold cigarette case, expensive suits, shoes and watches are better than the poor house even if it means prostituting more than just his art. Roger Ebert suggested that he is content being a prisoner and I’m inclined to agree. 

It all changes when he falls in love with Betty. She’s all good, sweet and pure and may have been his redemption. But Norma finds out and tries to disclose Joe’s dirty secret to Betty. It doesn’t work. Joe’s finally had enough and invites Betty out to the mansion to see the situation for herself. Unwisely Joe then throws the brutal truth in Norma’s face. About the fan letters, her script, DeMille humoring her and hating the mere sight of her. But Norma can’t handle the truth. She has been teetering on the brink of madness for years and this is the last straw. Her world comes crashing down. She sends Joe on his way…with a few parting shots. No one ever leaves a star. That's what makes one a star.

The final scene shows true cinematic genius, an image that sears itself into the brain. It is truly disturbing and a master class on brilliant acting. 
The homicide squad has arrived to take Norma away but she has slipped into complete insanity. Her big day, her big return, has finally come. Max tells her that she’s filming Salomé’s climactic scene, convinces her to come down the stairs as if it’s a grand entrance, not a descend into police custody. It is his last act of love for her. Joe comments: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” She graciously addresses “the crew” - assuring them that they’ll make many more movies together -  and the big man who’s finally come to see her. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” The cameras keep rolling in her alternate reality, she’s back on top again where she belongs. Then mercifully the shot fades into hazy oblivion. She'll make the morning edition for sure.

Madness can be a blessing. All is best in the best of all possible worlds. Norma got her comeback with Mr. DeMille, Max could direct her one last time, Joe got the pool he always wanted. 

Sunset Boulevard, the boulevard of broken dreams. Only the chimp got off easy. He’s the only one who didn’t get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.