Friday, May 27, 2016

Night And The Country: A History of the Rural Noir


At its inception, film noir was a genre of cities. From the rain-slicked streets of Los Angeles to the midnight sidewalks of New York, the big city first defined classic noir’s visual style and provided inspiration for its stories of lust and greed. In the classic era, urban spaces were as pivotal to noir as wide-open spaces were to the Western. One could see this just in the titles: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, CITY OF FEAR, CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS, CHICAGO SYNDICATE, CRY OF THE CITY, DARK CITY, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, THE NAKED CITY, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. The primary components of the genre were perhaps best distilled in the title of a brilliant 1950 crime drama by the director Jules Dassin: NIGHT AND THE CITY

But what about noir’s country cousin, the rural noir? While the big city went to hell, what was happening in the heartland, down south, and out in the sticks?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. While most classic noir either ignored the countryside or presented it in an idealized form (something like Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 OUT OF THE PAST, for instance, is typical in this regard—it contrasts the peace of small town life to the innate corruption of the city), the rural noir sought to darken the picture. It wasn’t all Mom and apple pie out there in the woods.   

The rural noir had early progenitors in films like Fritz Lang’s 1936 FURY, which features Spencer Tracy as a city slicker terrorized by a small town lynch mob. Like FURY, many of these early films focused on city dwellers who, for one reason or another, trekked into the wilderness and found trouble waiting there for them. This storyline became a subgenre all by itself. Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) followed two buddies (Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien) on a fishing trip who give a ride to a third man (William Talman) only to discover that he’s a gun-wielding psychopath. Nicholas Ray’s films THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952) both featured troubled protagonists—respectively, a teen fugitive played by Farley Granger and a tormented cop played by Robert Ryan—who try to escape their problems by fleeing into the country. To one extent or another, however, these films were about how the  desire to transcend the complications of city life is thwarted when the simplicity offered by the country turns out to be a chimera.

As noir developed, some films began to present the country without its big-city contrast. These were rural noir in the truest sense. The first fully formed of these films was the haunting MOONRISE (1948). Directed by the legendary Frank Borzage (the first director to win a Best Director Oscar), it tells the story of Danny Hawkins, the disgraced son of a convicted murderer. Raised in shame, Danny grows up tormented by other kids—particularly Jerry Sykes, the spoiled son of the town’s banker. Years later, the adult Jerry Sykes (played by Lloyd Bridges) corners Danny (Dane Clark) in the shadowy woods behind a dance party and tells him to stay away from Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell) the pretty school teacher they both love. When Jerry makes one last crack about how Danny’s old man was a murderer, Danny lashes out. When he walks out of the woods a few moments later, he has more in common with his father than just a last name.



In MOONRISE we find the beginning of rural noir’s most resonant theme: the burden of kinship. More frequently than its urban counterpart, rural noir locates its stories in the tangled, and sometimes downright twisted, dynamics of family. For one thing, the protagonist in a rural noir is far more likely to have a family in the first place. Whereas the noir city is mostly made up of loners, in the noir countryside, characters are often bound to their families like prisoners on a chain gang. In Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), for instance, two young children are orphaned when their father goes to the gallows for murder and their mother is killed by their stepfather, a religious nutjob played with Satanic glee by Robert Mitchum. The film hews closely to the source novel by Davis Grubb not just in the plotting but in the simmering grotesquery of Grubb’s West Virginian vision. Familial obligation, as it so often is in the Southern Gothic literature that helped inspire rural noir, is largely a matter of children being made to pay for the sins of their parents.

Interestingly, this family theme only seems to have gained strength over the years. One of the best (and most underrated) noirs of the 1990s was 1993’s FLESH AND BONE, directed by Steve Kloves and starring Dennis Quaid as Arliss, a vending machine operator in Texas who lives a solitary life in an attempt to free himself from his oppressive father, a career criminal played by James Caan. When Arliss falls in love with the daughter (Meg Ryan) of a family that his father massacred years before, he is pulled into an almost biblical showdown with the old man. Past and present collide in a way that invokes the famous adage of William Faulkner (one of the guiding spirits of rural noir) that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The starkest expressions of this theme can be found in the two best rural noirs of recent years. Set in southern Arkansas, Jeff Nichols’s 2007 SHOTGUN STORIES stars Michael Shannon as Son Hayes, the bitter eldest brother of the Hayes clan, whose estranged father abandoned them long ago to begin another family. Uninvited to their father’s funeral, Hayes and his brothers crash the service and, in front of their father’s horrified second family, Son delivers a withering eulogy and incurs the wrath of his half-brothers. As petty slights steadily escalate to confrontations and then to violence, there are unmistakable echoes of Faulkner’s tortured families — particularly the brother versus brother drama of ABSALOM ABSALOM! — with the deeds of the (unseen) father echoing down through the years, condemning all his sons. We find another backwoods patriarch bequeathing misery to his children in Debra Granik’s adaptation of the brilliant Daniel Woodrell novel WINTER’S BONE. It tells the story of a pine knot-tough teenager named Ree Dolly (wonderfully played, in a star-making performance, by Jennifer Lawrence) trying to find her missing drug dealer father in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Masterfully adapting the Woodrell story, Granik deftly explores the crushing weight of poverty and, in the formidable figure of Ree Dolly, showcases the kind of marrow-deep grit required for a young woman to navigate a world of drugs and deception, a world founded on reflexive misogyny and trigger-quick violence.

Like any genre, of course, the rural noir can lapse into cliché. Just this winter, director Scott Cooper attempted a gritty look at rural poverty and drug abuse with his film OUT OF THE FURNACE. His story follows a steel worker (Christian Bale) in a dying Pennsylvania factory town who has to journey up into the Ramapo Mountains of northeastern New Jersey to look for his missing brother (Casey Affleck). Despite a strong cast, the script feels underdeveloped and the film itself lacks the lived-in quality of something like WINTER’S BONE or SHOTGUN STORIES. A character like Woody Harrelson’s vicious drug lord (the film’s villain), for instance, never expands past the point of being a vicious drug lord. Like so many rural noirs, OUT OF THE FURNACE wants to be a mediation on family, and on the causes and effects of violence, but the film ends up being a good example of how the genre can repeat itself to little lasting effect.

While something like OUT OF THE FURNACE may suffer from a comparison to its betters in the genre, it does further demonstrate how rural noir has become the de facto cinematic means of exploring the culture and conditions of America’s rural underclass. In today’s Hollywood, when fewer and fewer films can make it through the studio system and only slightly more can find financing through the ever-corporatized world of independent film, investigations of poverty and family hardship need something sexy to attract potential investors and, further down the line, audiences. The veneer of the crime film is that something sexy. Of course, given the news of rampant drug addiction and economic distress coming out of places like the Appalachians and the Ozarks, perhaps it’s not just a veneer after all. It was ever thus with film noir. Whether set in the city or the country, it’s always sought to tell the dark and disturbing truth.

  
Note: This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of MYSTERY SCENE.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Rebirth of TOO LATE FOR TEARS


The 1949 TOO LATE FOR TEARS was one of the first discoveries I made when I began my descent into the dark universe of film noir. I've written about the film several times: in my book THE BLIND ALLEY, in a tribute to Lizabeth Scott in the pages of MYSTERY SCENE magazine, and on this blog. The first conversation I ever had with film noir guru Eddie Muller was about this film. I have loved TOO LATE FOR TEARS for years.

All of which is to say that the resurrection of this long forgotten--and for all intents and purpose, this long lost--film noir is something that I regard as pretty close to a miracle.

The film itself is a bizarre creation. It was made by a producer (Hunt Stromberg) whose best--or at least most successful--days were behind him. It was a showcase for a star (Lizabeth Scott) whose career had never really taken off and would quickly come to an end. Its director (Byron Haskin) was talented but even today he remains widely unknown to all but the most hardcore movie geeks. The most successful person associated with the film was undoubtedly the writer Roy Huggins, who would go on to amass a legendary career in television. The most amazing thing about this list of talent is that all of these people, at one time or another, to one a degree or another, more or less disowned the film.

So how did an obscure cheapie come to be resurrected? Well, the easy answer is that the movie is a masterpiece that couldn't be denied. There are a few noirs that are as good as TOO LATE FOR TEARS but there aren't many that are better. The film is the finest moment not only of Lizabeth Scott, one of the greatest of all noir women, but also of her costar Dan Duryea, one of the greatest of all noir men. It is suspenseful, it is frequently laugh out loud funny, and it has depth and humanity. Scott and Duryea play a mismatched housewife and conman who attempt to get away with $60,000 in blackmail money, and their scenes together are some of the most entertaining moments you'll see in a film noir. I saw the film at Noir City Chicago a while back and it killed with the audience.

There is a more complicated answer to why this film has endured and it's a story that is well told on the brand new BluRay and DVD package that's just been released by Flicker Alley, in cooperation with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation. This package is a must have for any film noir fan. It contains a new digital version transferred from a new 35mm print of the film. For fans of the film who have made do with cheap digital versions based on scratched and faded prints, this package is a revelation. The set also includes new featurettes on the making of the film and on the story of its rescue and restoration. It contains interviews with folks like Eddie Muller, Kim Morgan, and Julie Kirgo, as well as feature commentary by Alan K. Rode, and an excellent essay by noir expert Brian Light.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about the future of cinema and the loss of film culture, but there are still miracles. The rebirth of TOO LATE FOR TEARS is one of those miracles.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

WARNING SHADOWS: HOME ALONE WITH CLASSIC CINEMA by Gary Giddins


I love a good collection of film essays. In particular, I like to curl up with the work of a single author, watching one mind as it travels through disparate works or genres or eras. As a kid, I was a Roger Ebert fanatic. I used to buy his huge Movie Annuals every year. (My mother: "Another one? Didn't you get one last year?" Me: "You don't understand.") As I got older, I discovered Pauline Kael and Peter Bogdanovich and Eddie Muller, revelations all.

My latest favorite is Gary Giddins' 2010 collection WARNING SHADOWS: HOME ALONE WITH CLASSIC CINEMA. The book has a brilliantly simple conceit. Giddins begins with an introduction that traces the development of cinema from the solitary experience of the earliest Edison nickelodeons to the Golden Age movie palaces to post-studio era multiplexes to the rise of home video and the DVD revolution. He stops just short of the latest earthquake in cinema distribution and exhibition, the era of digital streaming.

I'm glad that he stops at that point, because it allows the book that follows to focus almost exclusively on the act of watching classic cinema on DVD. As much as I think about film, I have to admit that I've never given much thought to the fact that I've seen more classics on DVD than any other format. Giddins--writing for outlets like The New York Sun, DGA Quarterly, and the Criterion Collection--is examining the films within their current context, as part of DVD packages like the Warner Bros. Signature Series which collects the work of a star like James Stewart or the Criterion Collection which assembles packages like THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN by Orson Welles. It's fascinating to consider these films not just as works of classic cinema (as if we were beaming ourselves into the past to watch them as part of a double feature at some long lost movie temple) but as works that exist largely as solitary home entertainments. Giddins has a particular insight into the way that this new context has affected the delicate charms of classic comedy. Chaplin and Keaton created movies to be seen by hundreds of people crammed together in the dark, their laughter a communal event. How haunting it is to see them play out in the relative silence of your living room.

The book itself covers a wide range of topics--from great directors (Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Bergman, ect.) to great stars (Crawford, Davis, Bogart, ect) to genres like the biopic, the musical, and the film noir. Giddins is a deft and daring guide down these well traveled roads. At a certain point, a reader needs a writer to reject the conventional views of artists and works. The way Giddins reframes something like the career of Alice Faye made me want to revisit her work. 

And really a reader couldn't ask for more from a collection of writing on film. Giddins writes about movies that are sixty, seventy, eighty years old and makes them fresh candidates for tonight's movie viewing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Introduction to KILL JOY/THE VIRGIN HUNTRESS


I'm extremely pleased to announce that I got to write the introduction for a new edition of two books by the godmother of noir Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Coming out on June 24th, the volume collects KILL JOY and THE VIRGIN HUNTRESS two excellent, if lesser known, Holding novels. For newcomers to Holding's work the book will be a nice intro to the two spheres--domestic noir and psycho noir--that she helped to shape in the forties and fifties. For readers who are already fans of her better known books like THE BLANK WALL and THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF it will be a welcome reminder of what makes her one of the greatest of all crime writers.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

ORSON WELLES VOLUME 3: ONE-MAN BAND by Simon Callow


This week I finished the third installment in Simon Callow's projected four volume biography of Orson Welles. If four books on one life seems like a lot, consider the life we're talking about. No matter one thinks about Welles or his work, one has to concede the point that the man packed a hell of a lot of living into his brief 70 years on earth.

Just consider this: Callow's new book covers the years 1948 to 1965. In that time, Welles worked on three continents (North America, Europe, and Africa), made five movies--three of which are masterpieces (TOUCH OF EVIL, THE TRIAL, FALSTAFF), mounted seven stage productions--two of which (MOBY DICK REHEARSED and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) are considered among the best work he did in the theater, and created five television productions--two of which (THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH and AROUND THE WORLD WITH ORSON WELLES) are thrilling experiments in the new medium. During this time he won the Palm d'Or (for his film of OTHELLO), the Peabody Award (for THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH) and the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in the movie COMPULSION. During this time he became the hero of critics and directors of the French New Wave, the living embodiment of the film director as artist. 

It was also during this period, unfortunately, that he became enshrined in America as a big fat has-been. One of the reasons Welles makes for an endlessly fascinating biographical figure is that his triumphs were often greeted as failures and his artistic prime was regarded by many at the time as a self-destructive freefall.

The disjunction between Welles's artistic accomplishments and his professional woes is covered thoroughly by Callow in ONE-MAN BAND. Callow is a critical biographer, and one can feel his exasperation at some of Welles's more self-defeating behavior. Yet he never loses sight of the man. For instance, I've read a couple dozen books on Welles, but I don't think I've ever read anyone who better captured Welles's insecurity around the topic of acting. Perhaps because Callow is an actor himself, he is particularly well-attuned to Welles's fear of performance. We think of Orson Welles as being almost supernaturally confident and self-possessed, but as Callow makes clear he fretted his time upon the stage as much as any actor ever did.

Every biography about Welles has to contend with one core question: Was he a self-destructive failure or a misunderstood genius? Callow avoids an easy answer, but taken in whole this book's answer to that question would be "Both."

Welles was his own worst enemy, a "prisoner of his own personality" as Callow once put it in an interview. He worked in art forms like film and theater that require a lot of capital, yet he loathed the money men and found it impossible to kowtow to them. He was a tireless worker, but no one ever accused him of self-discipline. He was always open to inspiration, but that same openness could mean that his attention was fickle. His list of credits is beyond impressive, it's staggering; yet that same prodigious output was often seen by unsympathetic observers as flailing.

Indeed, one thing that Callow's tour through these years makes clear is the way that Welles's triumphs must have all seemed fleeting to the man himself. His greatest accomplishment of this period (and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career) was FALSTAFF. It's his masterpiece, but in America it was dismissed out of hand. Welles, Callow reports, was nearly driven to despair by this failure, a failure that came in the wake of the failure of brilliant TOUCH OF EVIL to rekindle his Hollywood career.

Still, Callow ends this volume on the triumph itself. Welles once said that FALSTAFF was the film he would offer up if he were told that one of his films might get him accepted into paradise. Callow ends his book by reporting that the movie "proved not to be a harbinger of anything; Welles sailed off in other directions. But not before he had secured his place in heaven."

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Nice Write Up And Review in MetroNews


Here is a link to a nice piece on the French version of THE POSTHUMOUS MAN in MetroNews in France. The piece has a nice little intro to yours truly and the segues into an enthusiastic  review. Pretty cool.
 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Merle Haggard: Poet of Failure


When Merle Haggard died this week, I was saddened without being terribly shocked. His decline wasn't as long or as public as that of his friend Johnny Cash, but he had not been in great health for quite some time. Still, like many people who were lifelong fans of Hag, I've been thinking a lot about his legacy in the days since his death. For some reason, the passing of a great artist--and Haggard is one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced--brings their work into sharper focus.

This morning I was listening to "Mama Tried." Now here's the thing. I've heard this song roughly one million times. It's not just one of my favorite Haggard songs, it's one of my favorite songs, period. It's the tale of a man in prison, doing life without parole, looking back on the disaster of his life and grieving his beloved mother's failed attempts to turn him toward the light. The song has well-known elements of autobiography. Haggard himself did time in prison after rejecting the teachings of his pious, widowed mother. What leaped out at me about the song this time around, however, was the theme of failure that connects it to so much of Haggard's work.

Hag is celebrated for a lot of things: for being an authentic American troubadour, for being the voice of the working man, for being one of the true masters of Honky Tonk country blues. But we should look back at his work and consider that the deepest thematic strain running through it is failure."I'm Always on a Mountain When I Fall" "Sing Me Back Home" "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" "Reasons to Quit"-- the titles themselves capture the melancholy resignation of a man who has seen his best days disappear in the rear view mirror. 

Or consider two masterpieces from different eras of his career. He wrote and recorded "Hungry Eyes"in 1969. A heartbreaking reminiscence about the struggles of Depression era families, it begins:


A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor camp
Stand out in this memory I revive;
Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands
And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes.

He dreamed of something better, and my mama's faith was strong
And us kids were just too young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.

The tension in Haggard songs usually comes from the disjunction between the faith of hardworking people and the actual realities of their lives. This, more than anything else, is what separates the music of Merle Haggard from the new country of today. Country radio has codified can-do Americanism and obligatory optimism into a musical form that is largely a matter of accentuating the positive by denying the uglier realities of economic and social life. Later in "Hungry Eyes" Haggard sings "I remember Daddy praying for a better way of life, but I don't remember a change of any size." Think about that line and then ask yourself if it could make its way into a hit song today. Ask yourself what's changed in the culture to make that kind of acknowledgement of honest hard-scrabble defeat impossible to display in the public sphere. Haggard, the son of poor people who saw little come from their labors and prayers, knew all too well that most people, in the end, simply lose. His ability to put this realization into a distinctly American vernacular was a testament to his prowess as a songwriter.

Of course, his success as an artist owes no small debt to the power of his handsome, weary voice, one of the greatest voices in American music. Look at the late career masterpiece "In My Next Life," written by Max D. Barnes, in which Haggard recounts the story of an elderly farmer looking back on his life and finding little to see except his regrets:

The blood red sun beat down and baked the red clay ground
Dust kicked up around his John Deere wheels
No trace of rain in sight, again he'll lose the fight
And have to watch his crops die in the fields
They stood there both in tears, his wife of many years
Said "John, you know I hate to lose our farm"
He looked into her eyes then looked up at the skies
And told her as he held her in his arms
"In my next life, I want to be your hero
Somethin' better than I turned out to be
I've lived this life behind the plough and harrow
In my next life, I'll make you proud of me"

Haggard sings these verses with a voice so choked with emotion that the effect is shattering. No singer in country music did a more expert job of handling material that was fraught with sentimental pitfalls. Hag's voice was several layers of crust overlaying an emotional center so fragile it seemed on the verge of crumbling.
Of course, one can't talk about Haggard without talking about his jingoistic anthems "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fighting Side of Me." Back to back singles released in 1969-1970, and following the success of the anti-welfare barn-burner "Working Man Blues" the songs made Haggard pretty much THE voice of reactionary America in the late sixties. This is Nixonian resentment with a rhyme scheme. (His 1981 "Are the Good Times Really Over" was a Reagan-era twist on similar sentiments.) The songs were all hits-- and "Muskogee" was an epoch-defining monster smash of a hit--but Haggard later looked back on them with more than a little embarrassment, calling himself "dumb as a rock" at the time that he wrote them.
Whatever one makes of the political sentiments of the songs, one can't deny their musical power (Hag brought as much talent to their creation as he did to his other hits), and, more to the point, one can only appreciate their acuity in capturing the mindset of the American public that turned them into hits. They are cultural documents every bit as historically valuable as Sgt. Pepper.
Ultimately, Haggard's political reactionary period is an important part of the arc of his six-decade career, the angry expression of the same frustration that gave voice to deeply empathetic masterpieces like "If We Make It Through December," his 1974 Christmas lament about a family entering the holiday season on the verge of economic ruin. The breadth of his work, and the depth of his vision, make it impossible to sum him up. He wrote and recorded rowdy drinking songs, and heartbreaking torch songs, and sentimental paeans to momma and daddy and hearth and home. 
His greatest contribution to American music, though, is his consistent acknowledgement that human beings must contend with failure. Most people aren't winners. Most love doesn't last. Everyone dies. Haggard knew this, and he sang it true.