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 of 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 described 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?

In Noir, even if you survive you never really win.

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. 

The driving force of Noir stories is often the urge to escape. From the past, from the law, from social constraints, from poverty or from oneself. We don't find that here. In contrast to other Noir heroes, Harry doesn’t want to break free of his obligations. 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 thousands 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 between 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.