Sunday, August 14, 2016

Noir City Chicago 8


The biggest thing that happens for me moviewise every year is the annual Noir City Chicago put on by the Film Noir Foundation at the Music Box Theater. It's a can't-miss festival of classics and oddities, and this year's line up (starting this Friday) looks amazing. Stand outs include the Charles McGraw flicks ARMORED CAR ROBBERY and THE NARROW MARGIN, the Ida Lupino rarity DEEP VALLEY, the Martin Goldsmith penned SHAKEDOWN with Howard Duff, and Bogart's last film, the boxing flick THE HARDER THEY FALL.

Here's the complete schedule of movies and showtimes.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

MISCHIEF by Charlotte Armstrong


Note: This piece originally appeared at The Life Sentence.

All literary genres tempt their authors toward certain shortcuts — not just clichés of plot or characterization but clichés of meaning. Whereas the western often basks in white male triumphalism, and the romance leans on selective notions of destiny, the roman noir slouches toward a simplistic form of pessimism. Another way of saying this is that all genre fiction can be guilty of telling us what we want to hear, and this is no less true of a gloomy genre like noir than it is of a sunny genre like the romance. Pointing this out is not to indict noir, just to acknowledge the nature of the beast. The laziest purveyors of noir truck in a kind of reflexive cynicism that is every bit as false as a tacked-on happy ending. What great noir writers do, in contrast, is to explore the tension between order and chaos, revealing the danger and doom they see lurking beneath society’s reassurances about law and order. They reveal the darkness at the edge of the light without denying the light or turning the darkness into a gimmick.

Take Charlotte Armstrong, a writer whose books are a mixture of light and darkness, hope and hopelessness. In her best work, people grapple for meaning and stability in a world that seems to be flying apart. Her books seldom end in utter despair, though. Instead, Armstrong was the master of lingering dread. Even when her plots resolved themselves in reassuring ways, her characters were left with a hard won knowledge of life’s precariousness.

Armstrong’s mastery of these different tones has its roots in her previous writing life. Although she was eventually heralded as one of the genre’s greatest writers, she actually came to crime fiction rather late. Before she published her first novel, she’d written journalism, poetry, and plays. By all accounts —and this is no surprise — she was good at every literary endeavor she put her hand to, but it was the need to make a living that finally steered her toward the potentially lucrative field of mysteries. She was 37 when she published her debut novel LAY ON, MACDUFF! in 1942. In her early novels, fairly conventional whodunits featuring an historian-turned-detective named MacDougal Duff, one can see Armstrong getting her footing in the mystery genre. While the Duff books are entertaining, if she had stayed with them it’s doubtful she would be remembered as fondly as she is today. She soon abandoned the whodunit in favor of more complex suspense stories, and once she began writing books that we now define as noir, Armstrong hit her artistic stride.

She was an immediate hit, and Hollywood came courting early when director Michael Curtiz adapted her novel THE UNSUSPECTED in 1947. Although Armstrong got enough work in movies and television that she moved to California to be closer the business (where she wrote for Alfred Hitchcock and Ida Lupino, among others), she never stopped writing novels. In 1963 alone she published four books. Even more striking than her prolificacy, however, was the consistent quality of her work. In 1968, for example, two of her books were nominated for the Edgar for Best Novel. By the time she died of cancer in 1969 — finishing her final novel quite literally on her deathbed — she was a legend.

It is fitting, then, that Armstrong is among the writers being honored by the Library of America in the excellent new collection, Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50s. Edited by Sarah Weinman, the boxed set includes a murderer’s row of noir greats represented by some of their best works: Vera Caspary (LAURA), Helen Eustis (THE HORIZONTAL MAN), Patricia Highsmith (THE BLUNDERER), Dolores Hitchens (FOOL’S GOLD), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (THE BLANK WALL), Dorothy B. Hughes (IN A LONELY PLACE), and Margret Millar (BEAST IN VIEW).

Armstrong’s addition to the collection is her slim masterpiece MISCHIEF. While she was never afraid of a convoluted plot (her 1946 novel THE UNSUSPECTED has a plot so labyrinthine it could have been designed by Daedalus), here she keeps things deceptively simple.

Ruth and Peter Jones are from the small town of Brennerton, where Peter is the editor and publisher of the local paper. They’re visiting New York so Peter can give a speech at a convention of newspapermen. When the babysitter for their young daughter Bunny cancels at the last minute, the hotel’s friendly elevator operator, Eddie, offers his niece, Nell, for the job. But Nell is not what she seems…

As Jeffrey Marks writes in his book ATOMIC RENAISSANCE: WOMEN MYSTERY WRITERS OF THE 1940s AND 1950s, “MISCHIEF would do for babysitters what PSYCHO did for the shower.” Nell seems to have been born inside every parent’s worst nightmare. She starts out slow: banishing Bunny to bed, rifling through the Jones’ things, trying on Ruth’s negligee and perfume, prank calling random housewives by asking to speak to their husbands. Then things escalate. When she spies a handsome stranger through the window, she invites him in for a nightcap.

The man’s name is Jed Towers, and he’s in for the worst night of his life. He’s just had a fight with his girlfriend, Lyn, and he’s all too happy to be invited up to a pretty woman’s room for a couple of drinks. As soon as he’s in the hotel room and the booze starts flowing, however, things spiral from strange to crazy to outright terrifying. The woman is younger than he thought, weirder than he thought. When little Bunny wanders in on their little scene, Nell flies into a rage that turns Jed’s odd night into an outright nightmare. Jed thinks he’s a freewheeling man of independence until he meets someone who truly doesn’t care about anyone but herself.

The most striking element of the book is its expert construction. Armstrong has an unerring instinct for the right place to break a scene, the right time to shift perspective. Either dramatically or subtly, every scene adds to the rising tension. The book also shows off Armstrong’s ability to perfectly capture characters in a line or two. She writes that the would-be ladies man Jed is “one of those young men who had come out of the late war with that drive, that cutting quality, as if they had shucked off human uncertainties and were aimed and hurtling toward something in the future about which they seemed very sure.” In contrast to this macho self-assurance she describes the elevator operator Eddie as an “anxious little man, the kind who keeps explaining himself though nobody cares.”

MISCHIEF moves with such expert precision that it’s easy to miss how much it’s doing. The book in some ways is a study of the way people carry themselves and the way anxiety bubbles beneath every façade. Everyone is anxious: Peter is nervous about his speech, Ruth is nervous about her daughter, Lyn is nervous about Jed, Eddie is nervous about Nell. Even the smooth Jed spends the entire book thrown off his game, first by Lyn’s insistence that he’s “cheap cynic” and then by Nell’s nihilistic instability.

The only person who doesn’t spend the book choking with tension is Nell. When we first meet her, she’s a strange, quiet girl, 19 or 20, with hair “the color of a lion’s hide.” Peter is too distracted by his upcoming speech to pay much attention to her, but Ruth is immediately unsettled by Nell’s complete lack of affect. “Eddie’s interposing chatter was nervous, as if it covered something lumpish and obstinate in the girl, who was not helping.” Peter is able to convince his wife to leave, but Armstrong tells us, “Not all of Ruth went through the door […] A part of Ruth lay, in advance of time, in the strange dark.”

Nell isn’t simply a psychopath who terrorizes a little girl and threatens to ruin the life of a hapless man. She is a trigger for the fears of everyone around her; her very lack of concern throws everyone else into chaos. The thing that makes Ruth suspicious of Nell to begin with is her lack of underlying anxiety, a complete absence of a need to please. This oddness might be written off as mere rudeness, or even a sign of deep self assurance. Later when Jed is trapped inside the hotel room with her, however, he has a subconscious realization of what exactly is missing in her, the ability to connect her actions with their consequences:
[T]here is something wild about total immersion in the present tense. What if the restraint of the future didn’t exist? What if you never said to yourself, “I’d better not. I’ll be in trouble if I do?”
Not subject to any underlying middle-class fears, and oblivious to the possible repercussions of her actions, Nell is pure id, a vision of teenaged recklessness raised to a nightmare boiling point. To understand the anxiety of a decade that would produce the juvenile delinquent movie to compliment a trend in increasingly authoritarian crime films, look at the terror represented in this emotionally unhinged babysitter.

MISCHIEF was a hit when it was first released in 1951, and it earned raves from the critics, including a reviewer for the New York Times who called it “One of the finest pure terror-suspense stories ever written.” Hollywood snapped up the book, and the following year Marilyn Monroe had her first starring role as Nell in an adaptation of the book called DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.


In the decades after her death, Armstrong, along with writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Margaret Millar, never fully disappeared from public view, though their posthumous fame dimmed quite a bit when compared to someone like Patricia Highsmith, whose fame has only grown since her passing. Happily, with the release of the Library of America’s Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50s, Charlotte Armstrong and MISCHIEF are poised to gain a new generation of fans.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

HUMAN DESIRE (1954)


In the forties and fifties, Fritz Lang had a nice little sideline remaking Jean Renoir movies. In 1945, he remade Renoir’s LA CHIENNE as SCARLET STREET with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, and the result was one of the finest films in the noir canon. In 1954, he remade LA BETE HUMAINE as HUMAN DESIRE with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. The results, if not a masterpiece like SCARLET STREET, are still quite impressive.

HUMAN DESIRE centers around the marriage of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford)—a big lug of a guy with a quick laugh and a hot temper—and his sexy young wife, Vicki (Grahame). Things are okay between Carl and Vicki. He works hard and unhappily at the railroad while she sits around the house looking sexy and waiting for him to come home. Then one day, in a tantrum, he quits his job. By the time he gets to the house, he’s already in a panic and desperate to get his job back. Specifically, he wants Vicki to get it back for him.

Reluctantly, she agrees. She goes to see Carl’s boss, sleeps with him, and gets her husband his job back. But that, it turns out, wasn’t quite what Carl had in mind. In a cold, controlled rage, he forces Vicki to help him murder the guy.

From there, their marriage spirals into a nightmare. Carl drinks all day, beats Vicki at night, and then begs her forgiveness. She only takes this so long before she sets her sights on Jeff (Glenn Ford), one of Carl’s coworkers. Jeff’s a nice guy who’s just back from Korea, but when he meets Vicki you can almost see the steam rise off his face. Before long, Vicki is crying on his shoulder and pulling him toward the bedroom. Once Jeff has seen the promised land, Vicki more or less orders him to kill Carl.

This movie reunited Fritz Lang with Ford and Grahame a year after the three of them had made THE BIG HEAT. Most noir aficionados prefer THE BIG HEAT, and HUMAN DESIRE also suffers from constant comparisons to Renoir’s original LA BETE HUMAINE. The comparisons between the three movies is understandable, but they obscure the fact that, by itself, HUMAN DESIRE is a brutal little triangle of lust and murder. Ford, Broderick, and Grahame are quite good, with Gloria in particular really digging deep. She’s a femme fatale here (a switch from the usual whore-with-the-heart-of-gold role she was confined to for much of her career), but she makes the character a believable combination of sexiness, cowardice and cold-blooded calculation. Vicki’s not a bad person, not exactly. She’s just bad news. If her husband hadn’t lost his job, they might have gone on happily for a long time, but when things do go wrong, she goes wrong with them. In showing how a femme fatale is born from circumstance and bad character, Grahame gives one of her great performances.

The chief criticism to level against the film is that it bails out at the end. Whereas in films like SCARLET STREET and, earlier, in M, Lang was able to see his dark vision though to the end, here he pulls back a little. The ending, though dark and gritty, still has the tease of Hollywood uplift.

Still, there is a lot here to appreciate. Lang could be an uneven director, but there is no doubting his enormous gifts. From the murder in the darkened train car, to Grahame’s post-coital seduction of Ford—turning him from an illicit lover to a would be murderer—Lang’s management of scenes is always brutally effective. This may not be the best film he made, but it is an underrated piece of work.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Good Man In A Bad Time: THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN


The 1951 crime flick THE RACKET is one of film noirs great misfires. Robert Mitchum stars as an honest cop trying to bring down vicious crime lord Robert Ryan, and with these two titans of noir squaring off against each other, the film should be a blast. Instead, its a disaster. Under the obsessive and erratic supervision of RKO studio chief Howard Hughes, the film was shot, reshot, and reshot again. The story changed every time Hughes changed his mind, which was almost daily. Burning through five directors and countless yards of film, Hughes managed to squeeze all the life out of what should have been a fun little gangster picture. The result, by pretty much any measure, is a mess.

Today, the only fun thing about THE RACKET is the opportunity to observe the interaction of the two stars who, together, define the opposite ends of film noirs emotional scale: Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. Mitchum was, of course, forever the king of cool, his breezy insouciance acquiring a kind of romantic sheen in classics like OUT OF THE PAST (1947). While Mitchums very lack of concern could occasionally curdle into a pathological absence of empathy (in films like THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER or CAPE FEAR), for the most part film noir positioned his detachment as something cool. When Lee Server wrote the definitive Mitchum biography, he snatched one of the actors great OUT OF THE PAST lines for his title: BABY, I DONT CARE

Robert Ryan, on the other hand, wasnt cool. He was hot. He rarely got to play the good guy, and he had even fewer chances to play romantic leads. He was noirs man on the edge. He specialized in playing desperation, bigotry, and psychosis (on one occasion he even played a vicious version of Howard Hughes himself). When he did get to portray the hero, in classics like THE SET-UP or ON DANGEROUS GROUND, he brought real fire and passion to his roles. Robert Ryan never played indifference onscreen. Detachment was never his thing. Good or bad, Robert Ryan always cared, baby.

In his wonderful new biography of the actor, THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones makes clear that Ryans onscreen passion was very much in keeping with his offscreen life. One of the most politically engaged actors of his era, Ryan charted his own course through some of Hollywoods darkest days, and along the way made himself into an enduring icon of film noir. With THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, we now have the kind of serious treatment which Ryan has always deserved.

Born into a well-to-do family in 1909, Robert Bushnell Ryan was raised on Chicagos north side. Jones reveals that Ryans father was a successful businessman who was deeply involved in the rough-and-tumble politics of the citys Democratic machine. Young Bob kept his eyes open, and although he would grow into a far more idealistic man than his father, he inherited a steel spine and a practical steak when it came to navigating choppy political waters.

Unfortunately, while he was still young, a series of tragedies struck his family that would shape his inner life for years to come. When he was still a child, his younger brother Jack died. His parents closed ranks around their surviving son, but Jones notes that they were Victorian people, reserved even with their own child; and as the years passed Bob learned to keep his own company. Even as an adult, even with those he loved the most, Jones reports, Ryan would remain a sealed envelope.

Bob had gone away to Dartmouth studying English in the hopes of being a playwright, and becoming a collegiate boxing champion in the meantime when tragedy struck again. First the stock market crashed, and the Ryan family fortune was wiped out. Not long after, a fire broke out on one of his fathers job sites, killing eleven men and delivering a blow the Ryan family business never recovered from. After graduating from school, Bob kicked around for a few years, scribbling away at his plays and working a variety of jobs, including a short stint as a male model and a failed attempt at gold prospecting in Montana. Out west he worked on a dude ranch and learned how to handle a horse (experience that would come in handy once he started making westerns). He was working as a sailor on the boat The City of New York, making runs between New York, and South Africa, when he learned that his father had died after being hit by a car. With this final family tragedy, Robert Ryan had to settle down and find a career.

He got into acting through the instigation of a friend. Jones quotes Ryan as saying, I never even thought of acting until I was twenty-eight. The first minute I got on the stage I thought, Bing! This is it.’” He quickly made his way to Hollywood and into the tutelage of the legendary acting coach Max Reinhart. Even more important for Ryan, at the Reinhardt School of the Theater he met an aspiring young actor named Jessica Cadwalader, who would shortly become his wife.

One of the main pleasures of THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN is the attention Jones pays to the fascinating figure of Jessica Ryan. The pacifist daughter of Quaker parents, Jessica was a serious and well-read woman who spurned the Hollywood social set in favor of political and intellectual pursuits. Soon after she married Ryan, she quit acting and devoted herself to writing mysteries (like THE MAN WHO ASKED WHY, 1945; and EXIT HARLEQUIN, 1947). After giving birth to two sons, she began to turn her attention to the field of childhood education. Around the time she gave birth to the Ryans third child, a daughter, she had already put plans into motion to open a progressive grade school in North Hollywood. The Oakwood School, as it would come to be called, became a passion for both Jessica and her husband.

Before that time came, however, the Ryans had to get through World War II. When the war broke out Bobs movie career was just taking off with a couple of roles that let him take off his shirt and show off his boxing skills. Jessica wasnt happy when he entered the Marine Corps as a drill instructor; although once the war ended and the Red Scare overtook Hollywood, Bobs military service would provide him with political cover from conservatives who didnt like his lefty politics.

The Red Scare, and the blacklist period that it birthed, features prominently in THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN for good reason. The book nicely situates Ryans film noir career in the rising turmoil of the postwar world. Ryan didnt make his first noir until 1947 the genres pivotal year when he starred in Jean Renoirs convoluted THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH opposite Joan Bennett. That same year he would make CROSSFIRE for Edward Dmytryk, opposite Robert Mitchum, and the following year he would star in the underrated Fred Zinnemann masterpiece ACT OF VIOLENCE. All three of these noir films cast Ryan as a violent (or potentially violent) ex-serviceman. By 1947, he was practically the onscreen face of what we now know as PTSD.

Of course, 1947 was also the same year the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to town. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization of Hollywood conservatives led by John Wayne, warned the committee against creeping communist influence in the movie industry. Congressional subpoenas were issued. A group of leftist filmmakers, dubbed the Hollywood Ten, refused to hand over names of other suspected communists and were sent to jail. When a group of liberals led by Humphrey Bogart flew to Washington to protest the congressional hearings, they faced a such a skewering in the press that they immediately backed down. A blacklist was instituted. Jack Warner went before the committee and boasted about firing a dozen suspected communist sympathizers at his studios. The other studios rushed to keep up.

For his part, Ryan had always made his political views clear. To coincide with the release of CROSSFIRE, hed already published articles in The Daily Worker denouncing anti-Semitism, and now that CROSSFIREs director (Edward Dmytryk) and producer (Adrian Scott) were serving time for refusing to testify before HUAC, Ryan appeared before the Jewish Labor Council, a group the government considered to have communist affiliations. He gave a speech at a Keep America Free rally organized by the Progressive Citizens of America and told the audience, We protest the threat to personal libertyrepresented by this police committee We demand, in the name of all Americans, that the House Committee on Un-American Activities be abolished, while there still remains the freedom to abolish it.

J.R. Jones nicely answers a question that has long perplexed astute observers of film noir. Namely, how did an outspoken liberal like Robert Ryan manage to keep from being blacklisted during the worst days of the Red Scare? Over the course of THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, Jones identifies three main factors in saving Ryans career. One, hed served in the military during the war, something that many of his outspoken political opposites (like John Wayne) couldnt claim. Two, he worked at RKO, which was run by Howard Hughes, and while Hughes was a rabid anticommunist, he was also a man utterly controlled by his own unfathomable whims. Hughes hung onto Robert Mitchum despite his infamous 1948 drug bust and Robert Ryan despite his lefty politics because, well, he liked them. Besides, as Jones also points out, Hughes had so sliced and diced the creative roster at RKO (while keeping a virtual harem of pretty starlets on the payroll) that Mitchum and Ryan were practically the only bankable male stars he had left.

The third factor that saved Ryans career is that he was willing to do some practical political maneuvering when the need arose. When Mitchum was serving a brief period in lockup after his marijuana bust, it was Ryan who took the starring role in Hughess litmus test project, I MARRIED A COMMUNIST (1949). A redbaiter that found Ryan duking it out with a gang of wicked commies, the movie flopped at the box office.

In later years Ryan could barely bring himself to mention the picture, Jones tells us, but while Ryan hated doing Hughess hammy propaganda piece, it helped save his job, and over the course of the late 1940s he managed to star in many of his best films. For director Fred Zinnemann he played a vengeful ex-serviceman stalking a fellow soldier in 1948s ACT OF VIOLENCE (a film which remains one of the greatest noirs that most people have never seen). For Max Ophüls, he played an insane misogynist millionaire (in the image of you know who) in the excellent 1949 noir CAUGHT.

And for Robert Wise, he made his greatest film, THE SET-UP (1949). Ryan stars as Stoker Thompson, a past-his-prime boxer heading into a bout with an up and coming fighter. The fight has been fixed, but Stokers managers dont tell him because they figure he cant win anyway. Brilliantly staged and shot, featuring the best fight sequence in classic film, THE SET-UP belongs in the upper echelon of noir films, and at its center, believable and human and tragic, is Robert Ryan giving the performance of his career.

He would give other terrific performances an obsessive cop in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951); a psycho in BEWARE MY LOVELY (1952); a millionaire double-crossed by his evil wife in INFERNO (1953) but Jones reveals that Ryans focus in the early 1950s turned more and more to the school that he had founded with Jessica. They launched the Oakwood School in 1951 as an integrated progressive grade school, and Jones quotes Jessica as saying that they made up their minds to call a spade a spade meaning calling progressive progressive, even though the word had lately become suspect. Jessica would be the driving force of the school, serving as president of the board and helping to write the curriculum. The Ryans sank their money and passion into the school (which is still operating today), and they considered its success their greatest professional accomplishment.

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Ryan stayed politically active. He gave speeches for the ACLU, the NAACP, and the United World Federalists. He co-founded the Hollywood chapter of the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1959, he co-starred in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, which starred and was produced by Harry Belafonte. It was one of Ryans finest films (and his last classic noir), and he and Belafonte would become lifelong friends. Through Belafonte, he would meet and become a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King.

In the late 1960s, Ryan had achieved the status of elder statesman in Hollywood but he didnt rest on his laurels. He stayed relevant in films like THE PROFESSIONALS (1966), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and THE WILD BUNCH (1969). In the early 1970s, filmmakers started tapping into his classic noir persona, and he starred in neo-noirs like René Clments David Goodis adaptation AND HOPE TO DIE (1972) and John Flynns Richard Stark adaptation THE OUTFIT (1973). Appearing on Broadway, he was a mentor to up-and-coming actors such as Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges, and his final triumph was on the stage, in a heralded production of THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973).

Jessica was diagnosed with cancer in 1972 and died only ten days later. Ryan was devastated, but he tried to carry on. He threw himself into working (and drinking), but he would die just a little over a year later, in July of 1973. Following his death, Pete Hamill would write a striking tribute to Ryan, calling him a good man in a bad time. By the time J.R. Jones closes out his masterful biography of the actor, the reader can only agree.


 Note: This piece originally appeared at THE LIFE SENTENCE

Thursday, June 30, 2016

THE STUDENT NURSES (1970)


I've always felt that there was a kinship between the film noir of the 40s and 50s and the exploitation movies of the 60s and 70s.  This is not to say that noir gave birth to exploitation--there were already exploitation movies in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, usually of the "hygiene movie" or "vice film" variety--that were the direct precursors of the 70s skin flicks. Still, in a lot of ways the low budget B-movie noir has a similar ethos to the exploitation movies that followed it. Both usually centered on crime, both trafficked in open appeals to sex and violence, and both were innately subversive.

The other night I got to see one of the real gems of 70s exploitation when the indispensable Northwest Chicago Film Society showed a rare print of Stephanie Rothman's THE STUDENT NURSES in their summer series. Produced by Roger Corman, the film follows four student nurses as they attempt to navigate various personal and professional crises on their way to graduation day. The film is famous today because of its unmistakable feminist and radical storylines. Here's a cheap would-be "sexy nurse" movie in which one of the heroines gets a still-illegal-at-the-time onscreen abortion while another gets involved with Mexican urban guerrillas. This is not just another skin flick. 

I have to admit that I straight-up loved this movie. It's a wonderfully weird hybrid of subversive art film and cheapie exploitation film. Rothman was required to meet certain quotas of nudity and violence, but she does this paying-the-bills grunt work in interesting ways. The violence (all viscerally well done) mostly revolves around the urban guerrillas and is portrayed from their point of view, a stark contrast to mainstream cinema of the time, which largely used urban guerrillas as clay pigeons in cop movies. Here, when one of our heroines decides to use her medical knowledge to help her revolutionary friends, the choice is presented as being as legitimate as any other choice. 

The director's handling of nudity is equally interesting. First, she includes as many naked male bodies as female bodies, which negates the typical imbalance in virtually all cinema in which men retain power positions as clothed (and hence in control) while women are naked (and hence exposed and vulnerable). This also means that everyone in the film is sexualized, not just the women. Secondly, Rothman finds interesting ways to incorporate the nudity into the story, including a LSD drug trip that is both a turning point in the plot and an important piece of character development. Another subplot in the story involves the relationship between one of the nurses and a patient. Given the fetish fixations of the sexy nurse subgenre of exploitation and porn, one would predict that this relationship will end in the nurse taking off her clothes, which, indeed, she does, but Rothman plays the scene for pathos rather than titillation. We know the patient is dying, and the scene is less about sex (they don't have sex, actually) and more about human connection.

I also should say a word about the abortion subplot, which is the element that makes the film the most transgressive to this day.  Most films dealing with "unwed" mothers--including the crisis pregnancy noirs I wrote about in my piece "Women In Trouble" for Noir City--resulted in the death of the young woman, a de facto way of punishing her for her transgression. (The unwed fathers in these cases, it almost goes without saying, rarely died.) Not only does the young woman here live, but chooses to have an illegal abortion (after first being unable to secure a legal procedure). The abortion is shown here (not graphically), at a time when even mentioning abortion was extremely rare onscreen. Thus, this goofy exploitation movie is one of the first films to deal with abortion from a feminist perspective in a way that doesn't punish the young woman.

I won't make the claim that THE STUDENT NURSES is great art. It's got its share of wooden performances and budgetary shortcuts, clunky lines and awkward staging. What I will say, however, is that it's far closer to great art than it is to a real bottom-barrel tits-and-ass exploitation movie like 1969's THE BABYSITTER. It's an inventive, fun, subversive time capsule from a director who was given the materials to make a film with themes that were important to her, exploring perspectives never would have been allowed in the mainstream, perspectives that still rarely make it to the screen today.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Return to France


Very excited to announce I'm coming back to France this September as the guest of the departmental Media Landes. To all my friends, old and new, in France, I hope you'll drop by and say hi.

Here's where I'll be:
- September 15 at the bookstore Words and Things in Boulogne-Billancourt
- September 16 at Tramway Bookstore in Lyon
- On 17 and 18 September at the Polar Festival organized by the departmental Media Landes
- September 20 at the bookstore Hirigoyen Bayonne
- September 21 at the library Tonnet Pau
- September 22 at the bookstore Campus Dax
- September 23 at the library of characters Mont-de-Marsan
- 24 and 25 September at the Polar Festival cabins in Bordeaux

Monday, June 13, 2016

THE BLACK CAT (1934)


I'm not a big fan of horror movies--old or new--which is not to say that I don't like them. My interests have simply always leaned more toward crime and noir. I'm tempted to say that this preference has something to do with an inclination toward realism ("realism" being distinct, of course, from reality), but I don't know. Maybe a better explanation is that horror movies, especially of an older vintage, are baroque and mythological in a way that crime narratives (usually) are not. To use a musical analogy: if horror movies are dark operas, then noirs are cocktail lounge torch songs. I'm more of a torch song kind of guy.

To return to my original point, though, I do appreciate horror films. The very baroque nature that ultimately pushes me away from them also interests me, particularity the more Expressionist works of the 20s and 30s.

One of my favorite of these films (maybe even my favorite, period) is Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT. The movie is famous for a few reasons. For one thing, it pairs the two great movie ghouls of the classic era, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which was the 1934 version of Jason vs. Freddy. Secondly, THE BLACK CAT is the only A-film ever directed by Ulmer, the great hero of Poverty Row artists. Lastly, it is a masterpiece of its kind. If it's not scary by 2016 standards--or, for that matter, by 1960 standards--it has elements that are still pretty weird and creepy. Let's briefly look at these things one by one.

1. Boris vs. Bela- The popularity of the Universal horror monsters is fascinating for the many ways it presaged geek culture today. Karloff was so famous he is billed here simply by his last name. When we think of Golden Age Hollywood we tend to marginalize the horror stars in favor of matinee idols like Gable or Cooper, but it's worth remembering that Boris and Bela were gigantic stars, icons of a geek culture that didn't officially exist yet. It's also worth noting that the culture they helped to spawn and popularize has had a longer life than the mainstream Americanism and cowboy ethos represented by All-Americans like Gable and Cooper.

Of the two, Karloff is by far the more fascinating screen presence. There's something innately goofy about Lugosi, an instinct toward ham that is entertaining without being particularly compelling. In this story he is positioned as the creepy sorta-good guy, which seems fitting. Karloff, on the other hand, is an incredible screen presence. Part of it is that, frankly, he was just a freaky looking dude. With a lanky muscular frame, jutting forehead and mouth, deep-set eyes and low rumble of a voice, he's just interesting to look at. The other part, however, is that he was a fine actor, restrained to a remarkable degree (especially when set against Lugosi).This is how you underplay your way to greatness.

2. Edgar G. Ulmer is best remembered as the Poverty Row artist who made the noir masterpiece DETOUR, as well as notable films like STRANGE ILLUSION, RUTHLESS, and THE NAKED DAWN. Here, for once in his career, he was working with a real budget and an established cast and all the power of a major studio behind him. (He was driven out of the big studios after this movie because he "stole" the wife of a studio boss's nephew.) Everything here is incredible from the gorgeously evocative art design of Charles D. Hall and crisp camera work of John Mescall to the sharply escalating editing of Ray Curtiss. All of it is brilliantly orchestrated by Ulmer into one of the best movies Universal made during the Golden Era. I love much of his Poverty Row work, but it is unmistakably sad to watch this film and wonder what kind of movies Ulmer would have made in the majors. Poverty Row's great gain was the majors' great loss.

3. Of course, all this horror movie hokum is pretty dated now but there's an important point to be made about old movies and the way we watch them. Old movies are, in a sense, time capsules before they are anything else. In other words, they are valuable because they are dated rather than because of it. You might as well say that cave drawings are dated. Old horror movies like THE BLACK CAT aren't scary, but they are instructive about what kinds of things used to scare people--which in turns helps to to make connections to the present. If this movie is no longer scary the way it was for people in 1934, it's still creepy in ways that are interesting. Karloff has an underground lair in the film where he keeps the carefully preserved bodies of dead women suspended in clear glass cases, a gallery of sex and death that is still jarring to behold. Later in the film he presides over a Satanic ritual that, although it lacks the kind of graphic nature that would mark such a scene today, is still surprising to see. The climax of the film is also shocking: Lugosi straps Karloff to a torture rack, strips him to the waist and proceeds to skin him alive in front of the screaming heroine. Again, these scenes are shot in such a way to avoid nudity and blood and gore, but the intent of the scenes is intact. This is some evil sick shit, proof that even in the more reserved and conservative era that gave birth to it, human beings were fascinated by the dark forces of human nature and the unseen.