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.
Unfortunately, Gun Crazy was a flop upon its release and re-release and slipped through the cracks for years until its rediscovery decades later.

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. What we have here is the Noir version of the Road Movie.
Road Movies are always about a quest. A quest for escape from the daily grind, a quest to escape to a better future. The protagonist changes and grows over the course of his journey and more often than not there's a pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow. Of course Gun Crazy being Noir the quest can only be a warped one. Bart and Laurie no doubt chase rainbows but Noir is the world of last gambles, last chances and salvation that never comes.

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. Bart was simply "born dumb" about women.

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; it's a macabre comedy, full of stick-the-knife-in-and-twist-it-slowly humor; it's 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. He bayed for Wilder's blood and wanted him run out of town. 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 corpse. 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). Norma's been desperately 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. Norma is Hollywood incarnate.
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 script they want, just her exquisite vintage car which would make a great prop for another movie. Max aids him in his deception.

The moment Joe sets foot on the dilapidated estate he remarks on its rotting splendor. Though Norma has enough money for repairs on her mansion, 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 as well.
Sunset Blvd. is a horror movies that doesn'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 hating the mere sight of her, about the fan letters, her script and DeMille humoring 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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Scene of the Crime (1949)

Directed by Roy Rowland for MGM, Scene of the Crime is a Dragnet style police procedural/crime drama with occasional noirish touches. Rowland’s direction is solid and workman-like, he would later go on to direct Rogue Cop and Spillane’s The Girl Hunters.

The picture was the studio’s slightly belated attempt to jump on the Noir bandwagon, likely under the influence of MGM’s new head of production Dore Schary who wanted to bring a different, more realistic sensibility to the studio’s wholesome universe. The result was Scene of the Crime, Noir-lite, its hard-boiled edges considerably softened by star casting and the studio’s famous glamour touch. MGM simply couldn’t bring itself to go slumming and left the urban squalor to other studios, the likes of Warner Bros. or RKO.

MGM tried to plonk the crime drama into the gutter, but forgot to leave the glamour touch behind. The picture is too glossy to be called true gritty Noir. Broken dreams, shattered illusions, dingy run-down joints, crooked cops, alcoholic shantoozies, unfaithful spouses, shifty fences and private eyes who work for 20 bucks a day don’t mix well with glitz. 

The cinematography is very good though not very noirish, only a few scenes display the shadow of Venetian blinds and chiaroscuro lighting. The dialogue is snappy and suitably hard-boiled, but sometimes feels a bit off, as if MGM had watched a few Poverty Row productions and tried to copy them without quite understanding the pulpy heart that beat underneath them. On the plus side, the picture has a great opening credits sequence showing a bullet from a crime scene being processed. 

Van Johnson plays homicide detective Mike Conovan who investigates the shooting of fellow officer Monigan who may or may not have been on the take from the mob. He was gunned down in front of a bookie joint and nobody knows what he was doing there. Conovan is out for revenge and has to deal with many red herrings, blind alleys, crosses and double crosses before he gets to the bottom of things. 
To complicate matters even more, his wife Gloria (Arlene Dahl) has grown more and more resentful of his profession which seems to interrupt their home life at any turn. She doesn’t want a bullet-riddled stiff as a husband. Throw in sexy stripper and gangster moll Lili (Gloria DeHaven) who Conovan gets a little bit too cozy with, and we should have all the ingredients for a good Noir. 

It’s just that MGM’s high production values are detrimental to the gritty universe that Noir should inhabit, the studio’s gloss treatment tended to have a sterilizing effect on a movie that begged for a more daring approach. A Poverty Row production wouldn’t have shied away from a more ugly representation of police corruption and organized crime without a happy ending. As this was MGM, social commentary and content were left out of it. 

In many ways the movie could be called average, it relies a bit too much on domestic drama. But it’s saved from being by-the-numbers and routine by a very good cast with lots of star appeal. This was MGM after all. 

In a bit of stunt casting the producers hired Van Johnson to play the hard-boiled detective. This was Johnson’s only foray into Noir. His wholesome, well-mannered, all-American boy-next-door image made him the perfect choice for romantic comedies and musicals which were his bread and butter. 
In Scene of the Crime he can afford to go to a ritzy nightclub in a tuxedo and fit right in, with the type of wife that would be way above Philip Marlowe’s pay grade. Bogart wouldn’t be caught dead in a joint like that. But Conovan is no lone wolf who lives on cheap booze, in a dingy office that doubles as bedroom. 

If this all makes Van Johnson sound miscast, astonishingly enough he is not. He acquits himself amazingly well, though he is not quite hard-boiled enough, but he can throw a punch. Occasionally he does what he has to do to get results, but he is never in any danger to get corrupted. He cannot in all honesty be considered a real Noir protagonist. He’s a bit light weight, too youthful and not grizzled and ambiguous enough.

It's funny that when the cops talk about PIs, Bogarts name is mentioned once or twice. Even in 1949 his name was already inextricably linked to private eye characters and it is as if the producers wanted to get the audience in on the joke. 

Van Johnson was in the running to play Eliot Ness in The Untouchables 10 years later, a casting I always considered off. However, having watched Scene of the Crime it may have worked out, though personally I am relieved that Robert Stack was cast instead. 

Arlene Dahl, usually playing the temptress, is cast against type as the long-suffering wife who is miraculously enough not too fazed when she notices lipstick on her husband’s collar. Her husband is working stripper Lili, strictly professionally of course, and “romances” her to milk her for information on her ex. Nonetheless, his emotions come into play and had this been a different studio I believe there would have been more oomph to the scenes between Lili and Conovan. As it was, MGM's sanitation crew was working overtime.
I guess it also helps to have Dahl wait at home to resists DeHaven’s advances. 

Gloria DeHaven, often the ingenue, is the film’s femme fatale. She turns in a sharp performance as “specialty dancer” Lili and is quite the competition for Dahl. A different studio though wouldn’t have shied away from making her musical numbers a lot more risqué and less squeaky-clean. But she’s revealed to be the most hard-boiled character in the end who played Conovan like a fiddle.

All in all, a good crime movie, just without a heart of darkness.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Park Row (1952)

“In most countries, there is no freedom of the press. In the United States, there is. This freedom was born in 1734 in the libel trial of John Peter Zenger, printer and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. He was acquitted by jury.
When anyone threatens your freedom to print the truth, think of Zenger, Franklin, Bennett and Greeley. Think of them. Fight for what they fought for and died for. Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to print. Don’t take advantage of your free press. Use it judiciously for your profession and your country.”
Sam Fuller is a favorite of mine and looking through his filmography, I stumbled on Park Row by accident. It is one of his least-known films, a boisterous tale about New York’s newspaper row and the pioneering days of American journalism at the end of the 19th century. It is Fuller’s love letter to his roots, deeply and honestly felt and evident in every word. And he’s not shy about shouting his love from the rooftops.

Park Row is always neglected when praising Fuller’s films, simply because it’s a one-off. In general his sensibilities didn’t run to the sentimental. Park Row is an utterly charming feel-good movie. This is Fuller does Capra and that’s not what we’ve come to expect from the director who gave us such hard-hitting movies as Shock Corridor or Underworld USA. But that is what makes Park Row so intriguing. 
Fuller was an American patriot, but his love for his country was mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism and social criticism. In most his films, he liked his protagonists to challenge authority and accepted notions of honor and patriotism. Not so here.

Park Row is likely Fuller’s most personal film and the one closest to his heart. Starting at age 12 as a little copyboy, Fuller grew up in the newspaper business and worked as a fully-fledged crime reporter at age 17 for a tabloid. In the newsroom he sharpened his no-nonsense, unsentimental and hard-boiled style, and developed that feel for pulp and grit that would never leave him throughout his career. Not surprisingly, he also became a pulp novelist. 

In the early 50s, Fuller was working for Fox and had given the studio a few successful movies. Fuller put the idea for Park Row to Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck loved it—but envisioned it as a splashy Technicolor musical titled In Old New York. Fuller, like his hero Phineas Mitchell, was obstinate as a mule. He wanted full artistic control over his picture. “I wouldn’t compromise on this project because it was just too important to me. Goddamnit, Park Row was me!” he wrote in his biography A Third Face. So he made the movie on his own terms. 
He wrote, directed and produced himself. He sank every penny of his own money -  $200,000 -  into the production and was very proud of his faithful recreation of “Park Row”, which included a specially built four-block stage. He lost all his money too when the picture, though a critical success, was a box-office flop.

Budget-wise Park Row is a little picture. This must be the cheapest epic ever made. Occasionally the sets look slightly small-scale, artificial and flimsy. When Steve Brodie makes his famous jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, we don’t get to see real thing, only a backdrop. And when Mitchell gives a thug a good whopping against the statue of Ben Franklin (how’s that for overwrought symbolism?), it shakes a bit. Never mind.
Fuller could pack more dynamite into a cheap B movie than most other directors with money to burn into prestigious A productions. Fuller was the undisputed champion of low-budget greatness.
What the movie lacks in budget, it makes up for with ingenuity, enthusiastic direction, great dialogue and brilliant cinematography that turns it into a small masterpiece.
Numerous films have celebrated the profession of journalism, but none other has done so with more adoration than Park Row.

It’s a movie that seems to polarize the viewers. Love it or hate it. Some found it overly sentimental. To me it’s Americana at its best, a glowing tribute to the American Spirit in the face of seemingly unsurmountable adversity. And to the underdog who never gives up.

The picture’s opening shot is beautiful: a scroll listing the names of all 1,722 newspaper in the country. Park Row is dedicated to each and every one of them. Then we see a little placard reading: “Samuel Fuller Productions” in Gutenberg’s hand. A cheeky little touch.

There’s no slack time in the movie. Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) is fired from the successful but unprincipled rag The Star by its owner and publisher, the ironically named Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) for criticizing her work ethics. Her trial by media (sound familiar?) cost a man his life. Nursing his sorrows over a glass of beer, Mitchell dreams of starting his own paper. He’s overheard by printer Charles Leach (Forrest Taylor) who’s willing to front the operation for him. With the help of other unemployed drinkers and thinkers Mitchell sets to work. Publishing the first issue of the newly-minted Globe - just four pages on a short deadline - the new kids on the block become an overnight sensation. Mitchell’s publishing ethos is truth and serious news, not sensationalism and circulation numbers. This doesn’t sit well with Charity who won’t take her rival’s success laying down. The news world is cutthroat and highly competitive and so she starts a guerrilla war. But you can’t keep a good man down. 

The stars of the movie are relative unknowns. But do they deliver! 
Gene Evans, who Fuller had used to great success in The Steel Helmet, plays streetwise newshound Mitchell. It’s a two-fisted, gruff and virile performance. Usually a supporting player, Evans carries the film effortlessly. Idealistic, pugnacious and bursting with barely contained energy, the man is a mover and shaker. A larger-than-life hero with with a vision and integrity. He is the conscience of the newspaper profession.
He never loses sight of his mission.  He prints on butcher paper when he can't get newsprint. He comes up with new inventions, like wooden newsstands and a new faster-working printing press. He also starts a campaign to raise funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. And he has one thing that his competitor Charity is missing: a sense of right and wrong. 
Clearly Mitchell is Fuller’s thinly-veiled alter-ego.

There’s absolutely no subtlety in Evans’ performance but then, there’s absolutely no subtlety in this film. Neither Fuller nor his characters are understated. Fuller paints his characters with broad strokes. He could be heavy-handed at times, he wielded a fist with a mighty sledgehammer in it. But at least he knew how to use the sledgehammer and hit his mark without fail every time.

Mary Welch is perfectly cast as severe, aristocratic and occasionally saucy Charity Hackett. When Victorian heroines get saucy, they get saucy! She's a high-born beauty who likes to take the low road. As long as a story promises to be lucrative enough to sell papers, she’ll print it, truth be damned. She’s a great antagonist for Mitchell. Initially always clad in funereal black, she seems to be frigid in every way. Over time she begins to thaw though and feel ashamed of the dirty tactics she - or mostly her underlings - use to boost circulation. Over the course of the film her clothes lighten up and so does she…There is a heart beating under that icy veneer.
From the beginning there’s a simmering attraction between the Mitchell and her, though they barely touch. Their love/hate relationship sizzles but it’s twisted as they practically plot to destroy each other. Their romance is dark and adult and decidedly not disneyfied. If you like your romances wishy-washy, look elsewhere. Some found it clunky, I found it sexy.
Welch was a well-known theater actress and this was unfortunately her only movie role. She died at the young age of 36 in childbed.

There’s also a first-rate cast of wonderful supporting actors. A typesetter who can’t read; a little shoeshine boy who wants to be a newspaper man; a world-weary aged reporter who feels he’s outlived his time and usefulness, but gets a second chance at life. These people become Mitchell’s family, a tight-knit group who stand by each other. One for all and all for one.

There is just something incredibly romantic about old-fashioned newspaper stories. Fuller immerses us the in the milieu: we see the enormous roaring printing press and the frenetic rush to deadline; we pick up a little newspaper lingo; we learn technical details about sorting movable type and the invention of Ottmar Mergenthaler's revolutionary Linotype, a new and faster typesetting machine which was the first mechanical revolution in typesetting since Gutenberg's press. The real Mergenthaler worked for the New York Tribune but Fuller simply moves him and his invention to the fictional Globe as a matter of narrative convenience. And - as this is a story - of course the machine ear-piercingly comes to life just when it is needed most.

Interestingly enough, for someone so concerned with the truth, Fuller took a great deal of artistic license here. He did extensive research into the real life pioneers of modern print, but the picture is history mixed with folklore and fiction plus a lot of journalistic name-dropping. In reality there was no Mitchell, no Globe, and the fundraising for the Statue of Liberty was organized by Pulitzer.
Despite Fuller’s claims to the contrary, the film works best if we don’t take it as gospel. There’s truth behind the story, if not in it. The rest is simply great storytelling.

Other pictures about the newspaper business showed journalism to be a dirty and deeply cynical racket (Ace in the Hole, Sweet Smell of Success). There’s none of that Park Row. Idealism and exuberant optimism define the film. It’s a nostalgia piece which wears its sentimentality proudly on its sleeve, though the picture stays just this side of maudlin and evades the pitfalls of sappiness. The sentimentality is undercut frequently by the depiction of the extremely violent and dirty newspaper wars. Smear campaigns, ugly beatings and explosions that maim children were daily occurrences.

Park Row is a film full of noble ideals and starry-eyed reverence for its subject. It could all be laughable, but it is not.
When Mitchell waxes poetically about the beauty of Constitutional freedoms and the importance of a free press as guardian of Democracy - see quote above -  there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
Yes, the speeches are BIG, but then it’s about BIG issues. Everything about this movie is BIG, except for the budget. Fuller likes to spell things out in caps! In the opening credits he dedicates his film to AMERICAN JOURNALISM (in all caps!). 

Is it bombastic? Undoubtedly. Is the hamminess poured on rather thick? Occasionally. The movie no doubt has its flaws: flowery dialogue filled with hyperbole, obvious attempts at symbolism, protagonists that are a little too one-note… but every criticism that could be hurled at the movie Fuller just bulldozes right over with sheer enthusiasm.
It is testament to Fuller's storytelling ability that it all works. It may be unapologetically sentimental, but it’s also unapologetically sincere.

In general I give a wide berth to anything that could even remotely be called inspirational or uplifting. It always smacks of Hallmark card schmaltz to me and that makes me run for the hills. But Fuller’s passion is so infectious that it makes the movie virtually bullet-proof.
So there, you got me. I’m a sucker.

- 30 - (sorry, couldn't resist)