Tuesday, February 27, 2018

His Kind of Woman (1951)

As already stated in my Narrow Margin review, in 1948 independent producer Howard Hughes purchased RKO and established himself as head of production. As studio boss his overpowering ego could never resist meddling in production matters and often demanding extensive changes to scripts. He routinely held up promising films for months and even years with re-writes and re-shoots, especially where one of his obsessions/mistresses was concerned. His egomaniacal nature didn’t allow him to let anybody else take the reins. During his 7-year tenure, the studio suffered massive financial losses due to his controlling and volatile management style. His irrational behavior took a heavy toll, many of his employees looked for work elsewhere. 

But despite this predilection for tampering RKO was able to churn out one good Noir after another, at least for a while. In the long run nothing though could stop the studio’s steady decline. Hughes was responsible for several expensive flops and as a consequence by the mid-50s RKO was in dire financial strains ceasing production in 1957.

His Kind of Woman was one of Hughes’ vanity projects. It had two of RKO’s biggest stars, Robert Mitchum and Jane Russel, plus the impressive supporting cast of Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr, Vincent Price. 
The movie was directed by John Farrow and an uncredited Richard Fleischer. The shoot suffered numerous production problems. Farrow had almost finished the film when he was fired and replaced by Fleischer. New screen writers were brought in and the film was re-shot and re-edited considerably. On Hughes’ orders, Fleischer had to redo a lot of the scenes, inflating the cost of the picture greatly. But backed by the large bankroll of a millionaire playboy it didn’t seem to matter.

With Hughes as producer and Jane Russel as star the movie was guaranteed to have Hughes’ paw prints all over it. He was chiefly concerned with showcasing Miss Russell’s considerable bosomy charms which are displayed to great advantage in an ever-changing fabulous wardrobe. He succeeded. Russell looks fantastic, wearing one sexy number after another.
As brassy, sassy and street-wise dame she’s hard to beat and one of the few women who could stand up to Mitchum. Their repartee is gold.

Mitchum plays Dan Milner, a down-on-his-luck, professional gambler who accepts a mysterious job by some shady types that will take him out of the country for a year but pays $50,000, tax-free. He’s supposed to go to the Mexican resort Morro's Lodge where he will receive further instructions. He does and on the way meets “millionaire” gold-digger and shantoozy Lenore Brent (Jane Russel) who’s looking for a rich husband, preferably in the shape of Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), ham actor extraordinaire with just one little flaw: a wife.
Turns out gangster Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr), who’s been deported from the States, needs a sucker and the sucker in question is Mitchum. Ferraro wants to sneak back into the country and for that he needs Mitchum’s face (!) and identity…

The picture was certainly an overly ambitious endeavor. You either love it or hate it. To me it’s charming, it’s the perfect antidote to all those depressing Noirs, but then who says Noir has to be doom and gloom all the time? It’s probably best to see it as tongue-in-cheek crime thriller. In the parameters of Noir the picture is a failure. It’s hokum plain and simple, but the best kind of hokum. An utterly original one-off.

Nevertheless the movie suffers numerous problems. To begin with, there’s too much going on here. At 2 hours the picture is over-long, the action is mired in too many unnecessary subplots. 
The story meanders. Along with Milner we try to unravel the reason he’s been invited to the resort, and it takes about an hour until we get an inkling of what’s going on. The plot starts down one road, then suddenly and sharply sidetracks into another, no matter if the viewer is ready for it or not. The pieces for a good film are all there. They just belong to about a half-dozen different movies, not one.

His Kind of Woman doesn’t know what it wants to be. Genre-wise, it’s all over the place. It’s positively schizophrenic. First act: Noir, second act: romance/battle of the sexes sparring/drawing room comedy, third act: slapstick mixed with action. Until we get to the Mexican resort, Woman is Noir all the way through. The audience has come to expect seediness from little Mexican border towns, but here we get a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish expensive retreat, a gorgeous Mid Century Modern dream, very sophisticated and fully-lit.
And then out of left field Vincent Price shows up. Now we’re in comedy territory.

Mitchum is his typical sleepy-eyed, sexy, laid back self. He barely bats an eyelid after several hoods beat him up. Oddly enough he only drinks milk.
The chemistry between him and Russell is electric. The sparks fly, their conversations are full of witty innuendo. They’re the glue that hold the movie together. Both stars are immensely likable, because neither of them seemed to take themselves seriously.

It is Price though who walks away with the movie. He could never quite escape the scenery-chewing and camp, but that to me is what made him so endearing. In Woman he’s a ham playing a ham. You’ve got to love an actor who can mercilessly lampoon himself. He’s even told by one character: “You are not a pig. You are what a pig becomes. It is sometimes eaten between two pieces of bread.” 
As Mark Cardigan, he’s a ham with the penchant for quoting Shakespeare. The Bard may have made one or two rotations in his grave. Hughes didn’t want Price to keep his antics under wraps. Cardigan was Hughes’ favorite character and he beefed up the role considerably after Fleischer came on. The entire third part of the movie belongs to Price. There’s a wonderful scene where Cardigan - clearly enamored of himself - screens one of his own swashbuckling movies to a selected audience. It’s a film in a film, the producers are winking at us. Hollywood always liked to poke fun at itself, but only in a self-reverential way. 
In the end the ham actor - buckling swashes left and right - becomes a real hero and saves the day. He vacillates between farce and real heroics.

Raymond Burr, as a Lucky Luciano type of gangster, is at his evil and sadistic best. I always considered it a shame that he changed sides and became one of the good guys later. Hollywood lost one of its most memorable baddies.

Surprisingly the plot gets increasingly brutal as story unfolds, especially during the comic part. Price’s hijinks are intercut with sadistic torture scenes of Mitchum by Burr and his stooges. It’s a strange amalgam of comedy and brutality. Burr’s and Mitchum’s scenes together are disturbing and provocative and one wonders how they escaped the censors.

In the end the movie is not entirely successful, it’s maybe less than the sum of its parts. One of the greatest Noirs that never was.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Border Incident (1949)

"The shame of two nations”
Border Incident, a story about the migrant-worker trade between Mexico and California, was directed by Anthony Mann for MGM. Cinematographer was the great John Alton, a man whose work defines Noir. Mann and Alton were teamed up six times between 1947 and 1950 and to this day are one of the best director-cinematographer teams in movie history.

Due to wartime labor shortage, the American government initiated The Bracero Program on August 4, 1942, enabling Mexican laborers to cross the border for a short period of time to work in the US agricultural industry, guaranteeing them fair wages and decent living conditions.

The plot of Border Incident is based on several real-life cases that occurred in the late forties where federal agents from Mexico and the US tried to stop illegal border crossing activities.
Ricardo Montalban plays Captain Pablo Rodriguez of the Policia Judiciales Federales, the Mexican FBI, who teams up with G-Man Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) to infiltrate a gang of smugglers exploiting poor Mexicans by bringing them into the US illegally to work, and then robbing and murdering them on their way back home. Rodriguez goes undercover as illegal migrant worker to investigate. Bearnes, undercover as an ex-con, arranges to meet with the American ringleaders to sell them stolen work permits. Soon both are in mortal danger from big boss Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) and his muscle Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw) who run the lucrative racket.

Top-billed Ricardo Montalban is fantastic in his role. Not cashing in on his Latin Lover image, Montalban plays it straight and is a great leading man who can easily carry the movie by sheer charisma. Authoritative, self-possessed, impossibly handsome, charismatic, he is undoubtedly the star and hero of the movie, much more so than George Murphy. If you’re only familiar with Montalban from Fantasy Island, Star Trek and Esther Williams mermaid pictures you’re in for a nice surprise. There is not a bit of the hamminess evident he would develop later. 
Montalban was an exception in Hollywood. A Hispanic actor who actually plays a Hispanic hero.

Former song-and-dance man George Murphy does very well as appropriately hard-boiled agent. Unfortunately the movie did not do for him what Murder, My Sweet did for Powell. 

Further support comes from the great Howard Da Silva as the man at the top who lets others do the dirty work for him; and of course from everybody's worst (Noir) nightmare Charles McGraw who gives his boss a taste of his own medicine in the end.

Amazingly the movie was made for MGM, a studio that didn’t like to go slumming and favored glossy productions and glamour. MGM was struggling to adapt to a different post-war environment and their bottom-line figures weren’t looking too good for the first time ever. New production chef Dore Schary, who would later replace Louis B. Mayer as studio head, was brought on. He was a man with a different vision and wanted to bring realism to the studio. He and Mayer clashed almost right away.
Mann’s economical and lean style had been sharpened in Poverty Row productions, and he and Alton had already done fabulous work together on several previous Noirs for Eagle-Lion. It brought them to the attention of MGM and so Schary invited them over. The budget wasn’t much higher than at Eagle-Lion - Border Incident was shot as a B picture on location in Mexicali and Calexico - but both Mann and Alton knew how to work a tight budget. Economy was second nature for them and they exploited the barren border landscape and desolate geography to great success.

And with Mann at the helm the studio usually known for escapist fare finally got grittiness right. It also got a hefty dose of brutality, more than they were used to. Border Incident is as far removed from a typical MGM picture as possible.

The movie is action-packed, tense and suspenseful, especially the last 20 minutes. It doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to ugly violence. Violence is nasty, real and physical and nowhere more so than in Agent Bearnes’ long drawn-out death scene. To this day it still packs a punch. Bearnes is shot in a field near the border but isn’t quite dead yet. So the ever-imaginative McGraw, who got the order to make the murder look like an accident, drives a huge rotary plow tractor over him! Bearnes’ partner Rodriguez has to look on horrified while being unable to act. This being 1949 the audience doesn’t see any blood and gore splatter around, but it’s not necessary. We see the horror in Bearnes’ eyes as the tilting wheels come nearer and nearer while he can’t move. Then we see his silent scream and our imagination fills in the rest.
Audiences have long been preconditioned to believe that heroes don’t die. But in this new brutal universe, heroes don't necessarily win, and they sometimes die an agonizing death too.

Film historian Dana Polan suggest on his DVD commentary that Border Incident is less Noir than police procedural/Government Agency movie. He isn’t too far off. The movie adopted the semi-documentary style that alleged to tell “ripped from the headlines” stories which we get to see through the eyes of law enforcement. In general the semi-docs started off with a zingy boy-scout pep talk praising the forces of authority in their fearless struggle against enemies of society and the state, be they communists, spies or gangsters.
Law and Order in these pictures is always benevolent, there to protect and serve. The government agents - upright, incorruptible and symbolizing a well-ordered and safe world - have to step in to make a world right again that has been disrupted by crime. Just doing our jobs, ma’m.

Traditionally, the Noir narrative is saturated with irony, ambiguity and fatalism. But this is not classic Noir, the picture doesn’t deal in fate or gullible suckers who can be bought with money and sex. Ambiguity and temptation are as far removed from our Untouchables as a virgin from a whorehouse.
Border Incident relies instead on the Noir elements of bleakness, claustrophobic disorientation, desperation, disillusionment and corruption. It’s a very dark film, both metaphorically, and in its cinematography. The night is a time for terror and unflinching horror.

This was Mann’s second-to-last Noir before he switched to Westerns. But he could never quite let go of his love for the genre and so took Noir’s dark perspective, moral ambiguity and troubled protagonists out West with him. There is already a good bit of Western-style sensibility mixed into Border Incident, obvious in its setting, clothing, men on horseback riding in a phalanx, ambushes and shootouts in canyons. The movie is like a bridge between the two genres. 
Border Incident is a bit of docu-Noir, a bit of Western and a bit of social consciousness drama.

The movie goes out of its way to portray Mexico fairly and as an equal partner. Above all else the movie stresses collaboration between the two countries. The Mexican and American agents - mirror images of each other -  work hand in hand to bust the smuggling operation. In the final shot the American and Mexican flags can be seen hanging in equal balance as Mexican agent Rodriguez is decorated by his American counterparts.

Border Incident depicts Mexican migrant workers with real sympathy and understanding. Without exception the braceros are shown to be decent and hard-working people, not one of them is a thug. No blame is laid on the ones that come illegally to the US, because their actions arise from desperation. The have-nots of society can’t be too choosy in their methods.

Equally even-handed is the portrayal of the bad guys. Human traffickers and unscrupulous smugglers on the Mexican side who sell their own people for profit; American businessmen looking for cheap labor on the other side who are essentially dealing in the slave trade.
Border Incident is really less a movie about (illegal) immigration than human trafficking and exploitation.

Border Incident is an interesting amalgam of the conservative and the progressive. On the one hand we have the benign superior father figure of The Law, the white-hat hero from a (traditional) Western who sets things right in the end.
On the other hand we have a left-leaning message movie which pleads for tolerance, compassion, understanding and social reform. It would be hard to imagine Border Incident being re-made by a major studio today with anything resembling its unapologetically pro-Mexico stand.

There’s no doubt that in certain ways the movie is very naive and simplistic with its clear-cut black and white morality. The battle lines are drawn clearly in the sand. There are the good guys and the bad guys and the basic distinction between them is never in doubt.

That's my only gripe with the movie. The producers should have cut down on the sermonizing. Sometimes it’s best to leave messages to Western Union. But it’s easily forgivable. The movie has its heart in the right place.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Man Between (1953)

Directed by Carol Reed, The Man Between is a Cold War spy thriller/Noir with strong romantic undercurrents. After the groundbreaking success of The Third Man, critics and audience alike anxiously awaited Reed’s follow-up effort. Upon its release four years later, the picture received mostly mediocre reviews from critics bemoaning the fact that Reed had failed to produce another Third Man. To many The Man Between seemed an inferior effort, but it simply suffers unfair comparison to a masterpiece. The truth is that every movie is inferior to it. This is hardly an insult.

The Man Between stands perfectly fine by itself and doesn’t need to fear any comparison. The cinematography and the cast are marvelous, the love story is heartbreaking, and the music is perfectly suited to the bleak and hopeless atmosphere. The Man Between deserves much more credit than it's been given. Mason and Bloom are excellent together in this film.

With respect to the oft-noted parallels between them, the tone of The Man Between differs considerably from The Third Man. The former lacks Graham Greene's dry wit and his sharp and cynical observations about the complexities of East-West relationships. There’s no irony in The Man Between, and no humor to lighten it up.
The better comparison may actually be to Odd Man Out, another story of a man on the run, where Reed likewise employed his trademark chase sequence including the snowy finale. 

I’ve seen a few reviewers pointing out the rather pedestrian and uninspired cinematography of The Man Between. They couldn’t be more wrong. The photography is excellent which may not have been obvious in the unrestored version, but thankfully the film got a superb restoration from the BFI.

The plot centers on Susanne Mallison’s (Claire Bloom) trip to occupied Berlin to visit her army doctor brother and his new German wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). There she meets Ivo Kern (James Mason), a mysterious acquaintance of Bettina’s who does unsavory work for the East Germans. Kern is after a man named Olaf Kastner who has been rescuing people from the Russian Sector. To get to Kastner, Bettina is supposed to be kidnapped, but by mistake it is Susanne who gets taken. Now Kern must extract her and maybe into the bargain get on the good side of the Western authorities…

The film was (mostly) shot on location and is a fascinating snapshot of its time. The opening sequence, a sweeping aerial view of a ravaged Berlin, immerses the viewer right away into the grim reality of a city suffering from the fallout from a war.

To this day, it is sobering to see the ruins of a destroyed country. No studio set could ever convey the absolute devastation brought on by falling bombs. Seven years after the War Berlin was still mostly lying in ruins. At the dawn of a new age, the city was facing an uncertain future whose outcome nobody could yet foresee or even remotely guess. I’m sure it resonated deeply with contemporary viewers who lived through that period of complex post-war morality, poverty and questionable decisions.

The Cold War had come to stay. West Germany was on the eve of reconstruction and soon-to-come prosperity, East Germany found itself under another dictatorship. We see huge posters extolling the virtues of communism in the Russian sector, suffocating and threatening at the same time.

As he did with Belfast and Vienna, Reed again demonstrates his genius for exposing the dark underbelly of an iconic city. He perfectly captures the atmosphere of those eerie times in a divided city, which nobody who has seen will ever forget. The film is steeped in a mysterious, melancholy and tragic atmosphere. Ruins and dark shadows contrast with brightly illuminated construction sites. The stark winter coldness of snow-covered rubble-strewn streets full of debris convey an air of desolation, unease and hopelessness which is mirrored in the drabness and quiet desperation of the city’s inhabitants. The Man Between not only captures the atmosphere of a beleaguered city but also its psyche. Add to that the feeling of claustrophobia in a place walled in by enemy country, and you have yourself the perfect Noir setup.

The film is divided into two parts, the first part Cold War espionage intrigue, the second part, after Suzanne’s abduction, romance and ultimately redemption. In the beginning the audience is not at all sure who is friend and who is foe, whose side the players are on, who’s pulling the strings and who’s just a pawn in the game. And what is the game anyway? Everybody is keeping secrets, loyalties seem to shift constantly in an ever-changing pattern of uncertainty.

The second part is romance without sirupy sentimentality. The last 15 minutes of the film between Mason and Bloom have a lyrical quality to them, they’re heart-breaking and poignant, and display a subtle, tender and very understated eroticism. Mason tells Bloom of his life and crimes in the war. She doesn’t care. She’s fallen in love with him anyway. But the star-crossed lovers know they live on borrowed time. An impossible love in impossible times.

Mason is phenomenal here, as always in his European films. Hollywood, with a few exceptions, never seemed to know how best to utilize his persona, as opposed to British filmmakers who knew exactly how to exploit it.
At different times he is world-weary, charming, opportunistic, ruthless, tender and in the end heroic, in a word ambiguously noirish. He’s concealing many secrets and we’re never quite sure about his agenda.

It turns out he is no Harry Lime though, but a disillusioned idealist, a good man gone bad, who before the war believed in things like justice and the Rights of Man, until a very rude awakening. He lost his way, betrayed his ideals and did what he could to survive. But he hasn’t lost all his humanity, he still has a moral core. 

Mason also serves as a sort of father figure to a young boy who follows him around on a bike, even though Mason pretends not to care. Their scenes too are touching. The boy clearly adores him, and in a tragic twist it’s they boy’s devotion that inadvertently betrays Mason’s presence to the border authorities, just seconds before he almost makes it to the other side. 

The scene is a poignant piece of poetic injustice, a case of “so close”. It shows the absolute arbitrariness of life and death. 

The title’s meaning is quite obvious. Mason stands between two sides, good and bad, West and East. The ending is heart-wrenching, he dies in the no-man’s land between them, sacrificing his life for Bloom’s. He finds his redemption, if only in death.

Claire Bloom in only her second role displays genuine warmth and sensitivity as a young, naive and idealistic schoolteacher who is forced to grow up and learn that the world is not just black and white.

Also impressive, though a bit underused, is Hildegard Knef of the husky voice (always billed as Neff in her international films).There’s a wonderfully poised and enigmatic quality to her which is unfortunately not enough exploited in the film. As opposed to Bloom, she’s jaded and world-weary beyond her years because she’s seen too much. She too has her own secrets, Susanne fears Bettina is having a clandestine affair with Mason right under her husband’s nose, but the truth is much more complicated and sad. It isn’t only physical barriers that separate people, it is the often shameful secrets in their lives that keep them apart and from finding happiness.

Reed is one of my favorite directors and this film is an absolute must-see. It’s a snapshot of a world gone by, frozen in time.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Naked City (1948)

“And this is a story of a number of people, and also a story of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary. Barry Fitzgerald, our star, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted de Corsia, and the other actors, played out their roles in the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers of New York itself... and along with them, a great many thousand New Yorkers played out their roles as well. This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people, without make-up."
Directed by Jules Dassin for independent producer Mark Hellinger’s production company The Naked City was Dassin’s next-to-last American film - after Brute Force also for Hellinger -  before he left the country as a result of a HUAC investigation.

The film’s title was taken from NY tabloid reporter Weegee’s book The Naked City (1945), a collection of sensational photographs of crime scenes and bizarre street life. His gritty and unpolished snapshots formed the foundation for Hellinger's film. 

The Naked City is a film ahead of its time. Movies in the 40s were mostly shot in Hollywood studios and backlots. Reality was (re)-constructed and rigorously choreographed on sound stages with atmospheric emphasis on light and shadow.
But after the War filmmaking increasingly took to the streets of real cities, courtesy of improved sound technology and lighter camera equipment. Though to have a picture shot entirely on the streets of a city was an almost revolutionary idea at the time. On-location filming had been used earlier in Hollywood, but its use was infrequent and not indicative of a trend.

Two developments sparked an interest in this new approach to movie making. First the work of combat camera crews on battle fields and second the films of Italian Neo-Realist directors -  who favored on-location shooting and used the camera as a neutral recording device.
Location pictures gave (crime) stories a semblance of on-the-spot journalistic report. They emphasized a flow of life that a studio-based film couldn't convey and in fact often deliberately avoided.

Filmed entirely on location in New York, The Naked City bucked the studio-shot trend. Hellinger wanted life unscripted. His picture was filmed in real apartments, in real buildings, offices and shops, though a few times this claim has to be taken with a grain of salt. I’m fairly sure some inside shots were filmed in a studio though I have no proof of that. The "extras" were real unsuspecting bystanders walking the streets, not always knowing they were filmed. To make this work, some trickery had to be involved. Camera men had to be hidden inside a truck so as to avoid attracting crowds of curious onlookers. There was little official aid in filming on New York City streets at that time.  

At first glance Neo-realism would seem diametrically opposed to Noir, it sat at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum. But by blending the styles of neo-realism and classic Noir, a new type of filmmaking was born. Semi-documentary Noir that still respected its roots.

The Naked City ushered in a turning point for Noir. While Dassin’s Brute Force is one of the quintessential 40s Expressionist Noirs, full of desperation and claustrophobia behind impenetrable prison walls, Naked City portrays a vital city in summer. It's Day and The City. There’s no doom, despair and paranoia, at least not for its main characters. With his next film, Night and the City, Dassin would go back to intense Expressionism.

The opening scene is an aerial shot of New York, taken from a plane circling Manhattan. A short time later we see a truck spraying the day’s filth down the gutters.
This aerial shot is accompanied by a voice-over by Hellinger who’s acting as the voice of the City. No credits are seen on the screen. Hellinger expresses poignant and philosophical, though doubtlessly at times corny and overly verbose, thoughts about the inner life of the city and the fabric it is made of. Not everybody liked the narration, many found it too folksy and intrusive.

This is followed by a series of slice-of-life sketches on city life. The camera as Peeping Tom. We see gritty Manhattan streets, luncheonettes, Lower East Side food markets, ritzy apartments and shabby tenements; rich uptown doctors, soda jerks in the Bowery, newspaper boys, a woman getting her hair done, people on the subway to the outer boroughs. None of these vignettes bear any relation to the mystery, instead they give us the flavor of the city.
All of a sudden these everyday scenes are interrupted by a gruesome murder. Dassin is using this technique during the entire film, alternating between real city life and docu-drama, allowing us to see the case connected to the wider fabric of city life. 

The plot itself isn’t much. A young woman, model Jean Dexter, is found murdered in an apartment in New York City. Seasoned homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and wet behind the ears pup Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) take up the investigation and find a whole slew of shifty and unsavory characters with more or less good reasons to kill Dexter, above all of them habitual liar and crook Frank Nils (Howard Duff).
What we see from then on is CSI: New York circa 1940. The cops hit the streets following up one lead after another, talking to friends, relations and shopkeepers at the places Dexter worked and frequented, “asking a thousand questions to get one answer”. What they don’t know is that they’re being watched and followed by the murderer.

No hard-boiled gumshoes and deadly dames can be found here, the detectives are not impossibly handsome men who solve the mystery while guzzling down shots of bourbon and getting lucky with the ladies, they’re flatfoots doing an unglamorous job and solving the crime by old-fashioned leg work. They don’t have dark secrets either. Halloran's happy home life reveals itself to be a happy home life.

Barry Fitzgerald is Barry Fitzgerald, hammy as always and wearing his Oirish leprechaun charm proudly on his sleeve. He’s nevertheless good as Lt. Muldoon and doesn’t try to come off as overly hard-nosed.

One of the saddest and most haunting scenes in the film is when Jean Dexter’s parents come to the city to identify the body of their daughter. Both are crushed by the blow, her father stoically and on the surface unemotionally accepting his daughter’s death, her mother literally spitting out her hurt for how the daughter treated them, changing her name and being ashamed of her lowly and “ethnic” background. She literally seethes with hate. But it all melts away once she has to look at Jean on a concrete slab in the morgue. "Why wasn't she born ugly?” she later asks full of despair.

The finest scene of the movie is the manhunt sequence through NY, ending on the steel ladders of the Williamsburg Bridge against the skyline, where the murderer makes his last stand. One almost sympathizes with him then as one of the hunted and lonely, looking down onto a city with hundreds of people who are oblivious to his plight.

Some viewers found the plot unremarkable. As a police procedural the movie is barely routine, but this is not the focal point of the film.
The movie is a cinematic love letter to New York, showcased in all its glory and ugliness. Why else would the killer’s brother be interviewed on a skyscraper construction site? Because we get a fabulous view of the city.
The star of the film is New York itself and it has rarely been captured so vividly and alive. It is a wonderful time capsule. Hellinger called it his celluloid monument to New York. 
What the audience gets is a real sense of place, something not too often seen in classic movies.

In the end life goes on in the irrepressible city. Jean Dexter was just a six-day wonder. Once her murder is solved, the soggy newspapers in the gutter move on to the next big case. She was just another statistic. This is city poetry at its finest. It’s a brief reflection on the fleeting nature of sensational news, even more relevant today with 24-hour disposable news cycles.

The closing line to the picture reminds us that cities are made of people who encounter love, hate, joy, despair and tragedy. Each of them make their lives in the city, day-in and day-out. But ultimately their struggles don’t count for much.

The picture is a wonderful nostalgic homage and that’s why it works so well still today. Even if you haven’t lived through those times.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

My Gun is Quick (1957)

"I just crawled out of a sewer, not a decent person left in the world"
My Gun is Quick is a pretty bland Spillane offering that doesn't live up to either the nice quote nor to other Spillane movies like I, The Jury (minus Biff Elliot) and Kiss Me Deadly. If the audience hopes to see the hero wallow in the cesspool of humanity, we’re gonna be disappointed. Needlessly the novel’s plot was changed, to the point of being completely unrecognizable.

Mike Hammer (Robert Bray) meets tired and disillusioned young hooker Red at a greasy spoon. Hours later she turns up dead and the valuable ring she was wearing, from an Italian treasure stolen during the War, is gone. Hammer is out to avenge her death trying to unravel a convoluted conspiracy involving sexy divorcee Nancy, several other available dames and lots of unsavory characters. 

Mickey Spillane was a comic book writer before he began to write pulp fiction and his books clearly reflect that. Hammer is written as a cartoon character. Raymond Chandler loathed Spillane’s writing and protagonist intensely though he shouldn’t have. Hammer is simply the darker alter ego of Marlowe, Spade or Archer. While Chandler had the critics on his side, Spillane was loved by the audience. Mike Hammer was firmly entrenched in the gutter, and he liked it there. 

Mickey Spillane’s Hammer was fueled by a rage against violent crime, but at the same time considered the legal system a big hindrance to mete out justice. Hammer doesn’t just bend the law, he holds it in contempt. For him law and justice aren’t the same thing and for that reason he often decides to enforce the law himself by acting as judge, jury and executioner. He is an avenger, in a way a precursor to The Punisher or Judge Dredd.  
Hammer has often been called misogynistic but it’s simply not right. He’s not so much misogynistic as misanthropic. Hammer hates everybody.

Spillane’s creation was a crude, violent, sadistic, unethical commie-hating thug with a badge who gleefully beat the snot out of people just for the fun of it, and other film versions didn’t bother to pretty him up. Ralph Meeker nailed the character in Kiss Me Deadly, though obviously this being the 50s, his portrayal had to be toned down too. Bray is really not Spillane’s Hammer, he may still have the macho appeal but whitewashes Hammer’s key traits considerably. He’s a boy scout, much closer to Chandler’s knight in dirty armor. Hard-boiled, morally ambivalent maybe but with a heart of gold. He is simply too timid! Hammer’s brutality should be raw and unapologetic. The brutality here consists mainly of grabbing a guy by the shirt and a few punches.

When Red’s pimp starts harassing her, Bray beats him up and gives the hooker enough money to buy herself new shoes and a bus ticket back home. This is Hammer the savior of humanity. He takes pity on Red and even gives her a fatherly (!) good-bye kiss. This guy actually gives a damn and it’s simply out-of-character.

And that’s the problem with My Gun is Quick. To ignore all that Mike Hammer is invalidates the specialness of Spillane’s writing. Spillane’s Hammer was a breed apart, he was unique. Bray’s Hammer is just another PI, indistinguishable from other 50s PI characters. He’s generic, and Spillane’s Hammer was never that. 

This movie just doesn’t capture the feel of Spillane’s novels, everything that makes Spillane Spillane is missing, so why name the main character Mike Hammer? Robert Bray had the looks to play Hammer, but he felt neutered. Many late 50s movies were a lot more brutal and gritty than this one. It would not have been impossible to film Spillane right even back then. And if the producers hadn’t hampered Bray with a lame script, he could have been perfect.

Another issue is the uneven pace of the movie, it was filmed by two different directors which showed, though it picks up in the second half. 

The outside locations are interesting. The 50s featured a lot more on-location shooting, but this is not a glamorous LA we get to see. Instead we have big freeways, oil derricks and stark industrial sights which convey a sense of desolation and bleakness.

On the plus side there’s some good dialogue and lots of duplicitous, scantily-clad and occasionally lethal babes. 

But unfortunately, the greasy spoons, run-down hotel rooms and strip clubs that are Hammer’s natural habitat are not exploited enough and don’t quite capture the seedy ambience of Spillane.

The movie is definitively worth a watch though I'd call it a failed effort. It looks as if - even now -  we still have to wait for the ultimate Mike Hammer being brought to the screen. I’m afraid it's gonna be a long wait.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)

Promises, promises
No Orchids for Miss Blandish is a tawdry tale penned by prolific British novelist James Hadley Chase, an author now mostly forgotten but in his time very successful. The film was based on the eponymous book from 1939, also published under the more salacious alternative title of The Villain and the Virgin

Chase was an interesting phenomenon, a British writer of American pulp who had become fascinated by the hard-boiled crime fiction that made its way across the Pond. He began writing in the 1930s at a time when Prohibition in America gave rise to the gangster culture. Hollywood knew a good thing when it saw it and churned out one gangster movie after another. The British public fell in love with it too. So Chase decided to jump on the bandwagon and capitalize on the trend. Though he only made two brief visits to the US in his lifetime, most of his books were set in America. Chase got himself a slang dictionary, maps, newspapers and books about gangsters and set to work. The result was No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a book full of murder, drugs, rape, torture and sadism. It was a publishing sensation and gained notoriety very quickly. The critics jumped on it and deemed it vile, sick and disgusting. Always a good thing for circulation numbers.

No Orchids is an utterly unsentimental and matter-of-fact depiction of sex and violence which is without a doubt still quite astonishing today. Miss Blandish, kidnapped by mad-dog utterly depraved gangster Slim Grisson, is kept in a near-constant drug-induced stupor for months by Ma Grisson so her mentally unstable and impotent psychotic son can find out the differences between boys and girls. Miss B’s own father believes in tough love and doesn’t want his kidnapped “soiled” daughter back. “Better dead than deflowered” is his charming estimation of the whole situation.
The book is positively unsavory, exploitative and crude and as such a highly entertaining pulpy shocker.

For the film the story obviously had to be toned down tremendously. The film’s plot has Miss Blandish (Linden Travers) as the virginal and posh heiress to a vast fortune who is engaged to a bland but eminently suitable young man, of course approved by the family. Her fiancĂ© considers her frigid and cold because she doesn’t return his kisses. On a way to a hot date, crooks hold up their car to steal Miss Blandish’s expensive necklace but botch the heist and kill the fiancĂ©. They take Miss B with them for some fun. A rival group of gangsters, led by Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue), moves in and Grisson takes Miss B to his nightclub and keeps her prisoner. But of course she falls in love with him and turns her back on her family and her upbringing.

On the poster, the movie promises to be as "shocking as the book", but unfortunately the producers didn't deliver on that promise. The film is decidedly tame in comparison to the novel. Yes, there is quite a bit of pervasive violence throughout, people get knocked about constantly. There are lots of half-naked dames, suggestive situations and the barely more than mildly shocking subject matter of Miss B falling in love with the gangster who kidnaps her, which would now be filed under Stockholm Syndrome. But it is very hard to see what all the fuss was about. All the controversial aspects of the book were taken out. Grisson’s and Miss B’s whole relationship was transformed. They may have been off to a weird start, but in the movie Grisson never forces himself on Miss B, no drugs are involved and she clearly doesn’t leave when she has the chance. 

What the changes leave us with is simply a story about a doomed and tragic romance where both parties are victims of circumstance. One wonders why the censors had their knickers in a twist. The only explanation can be that Miss B is sexually awakened by someone socially and morally completely unsuitable, and likes it.

Pulpy cover at its best
Nevertheless the picture caused a huge public outcry and drew criticism from all corners. After the War much harder crime films about “spivs” had already become popular in Britain. It wasn’t all tea and crumpets anymore. Brighton Rock (1947) was one of the first films to spark the censors’ outrage due to its depiction of violence and crime. 
When the notorious No Orchids came along, British censors went haywire. Reactions went from “A wicked disgrace to the British film industry” to "It has all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer” and "the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen”. A tempest in a teapot surely but a brilliant way to orchestrate a sensation. The filmmakers got exactly what they wanted. Clearly this kind of high praise was enough to practically guarantee the movie’s overwhelming success. Who can resist this kind of advertisement? Low moral tone? Sold.

But underneath all this vehement condemnation lay a different fear: that British culture was becoming Americanized. British theaters showed a vast amount of Hollywood imports, loved by the audience but not by the critics and British filmmakers who saw themselves as defenders of British culture which they didn’t like to see “corrupted”. The most damning insult came from The Guardian. It labeled the film ”thoroughly un-British”.

But the movie’s problems lie in completely different areas. Not only has the pulpy heart of the source material been snuffed out, but from the moment Miss B and Grisson meet they behave like two silly star-crossed lovers in a mawkish melodrama on their road to doom. This isn't exactly The Story of Temple Drake. The trash factor is gone. And what’s the use of pulp without that?
It’s Beauty and the Beast with all the beastliness taken out. What we get is a bittersweet love story. Grisson and Miss B act like moon calfs.
The only good thing is the downbeat and tragic ending. After Grisson is killed by the police, Miss B throws herself from her balcony over the loss of her lover. Well, that's at least something.

A much more tantalizing title
Another issue is Jack La Rue, a minor leading man of the 30s. He’s the only American in the cast and trying to impersonate George Raft (who had been tapped to play Grisson but bowed out), but simply can’t quite carry it off. I’m not much of a Raft fan, but he has La Rue beat by a long shot. La Rue doesn’t have much charisma and the supposed feverish chemistry between him and Linden Travers is more tepid than sizzling. Both parties are supposed to be in constant ecstasy, but it doesn’t quite translate to the screen.

The best and most genuinely sexy scene is not between LaRue and Travers, but between investigative reporter Dave Fenner, who’s been trying to free Travers from her ordeal, and nightclub singer Margo when she’s undressing for bed. He whips the drawstring from her pajamas. Those two generate more heat than the main couple. She invites him to stay.

Lily Molnar as Ma Grisson though is very good, a tough-talking and repulsive Ma Barker clone.

But what gives the audience a real headache is that No Orchids takes place in some alternate gangland universe. Made in England and starring a mostly English cast, the filmmakers clearly have an outsider’s view of America and can’t quite nail it. It’s gangland USA through English eyes. It’s all very genteel. It plays more like a parody of a gangster movie. The American slang never feels right. Accents are all over the place, one imdb reviewer called them appropriately “a mixed bag of crumpets and hot dogs”. The actors don’t quite fit their roles. For the most part it’s simply awkward. You can’t take a thing out of its natural habitat and expect it to survive untouched. 

The film’s an oddity. There are no orchids for Miss Blandish and no hotdogs either.

What it comes down to is this: The Brits make absolutely fantastic Brit Noir and crime dramas, but not American Noir. This of course goes the other way around too, Hollywood has a long and bad track record of meddling in things it shouldn’t.