Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Arnelo Affair (1947)

John Hodiak is the kind of actor who grows on you. He was never a great thespian, nor was he possessed of a great movie star aura. He was always a decidedly second-string kind of leading man, and even in the relatively small world of film noirs (and Hodiak was in three film noirs in 1947 alone) he didn’t make much of an impact. Honestly, the guy was just a pretty bland actor.

Yet, somehow he grows on you. Take Arch Oboler’s The Arnelo Affiar. This is good little film, well shot and well acted. Hodiak plays Tony Arnelo, a shady nightclub owner who lures Anne Parkson, the wife of his lawyer, into a possible affair. The affair is never consummated, but Mrs. Parkson (Frances Gifford) soon finds herself implicated in a murder because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Arnelo has possession of a note Mrs. Parkson wrote to him in an angry moment, and this note makes it look as if she might have killed Arnelo’s girlfriend. Arnelo wants Mrs. Parkson to abandon her clueless husband (George Murphy) and their refreshingly not-annoying son (played by a ten year old Dean Stockwell, already a good actor). Now Mrs. Parkson is in trouble. The cops are closing in, Arnelo is threatening to frame her if she doesn’t leave her family, and even her husband is beginning to get suspicious.

The movie makes for an nice addition to the small collection of noirs centered around female protagonists, and, as such, it really belongs to lovely Frances Gifford as the beleaguered Mrs. Parkson. Gifford was a gifted actress, and she carries the kind of movie that is usually told from the point of view of a man (it’s extremely rare in classic noir that we see a woman lured away from her family by the promise of sex with another man). Gifford gives the character a real core—she’s not just a desperate housewife, but a genuinely conflicted woman. She’s drawn to Arnelo’s insistent gaze and his promise of even more attention, but she still loves her husband and son. It’s sad that this performance didn’t lead to better things for Gifford, but a year after this movie was made she was in a terrible car accident that left her severely impaired for the next twenty-five years. She eventually made a recovery and went to work for the California library system. She died in 1994.

John Hodiak was even more unlucky. He had been a replacement for the Hollywood stars who were off fighting World War II—kind of like a poor man’s Clark Gable, if you will. And one reason why he started appearing in so many noirs in the late forties is that the bigger roles were starting to dry up as the real Clark Gables of the world began showing up to reclaim them. Hodiak kept acting in films and started doing stage work in the fifties, but in 1955, at the age of 41, he died suddenly of a heart attack.

Hodiak had a minimal impact onscreen, but as I said before, the more you see him the more accepting you are of his limitations. His performance here isn’t stellar, but as he fixes Frances Gifford with his unblinking, unsmiling stare, you do start to worry a little for her. He’s playing an unscrupulous nightclub owner, which is as basic a noir archetype as the private eye. Nightclub owners, at least in forties and fifties crime dramas, are usually one rung up from child molesters, but writer-director Arch Oboler gives the role an added layer of complication—Arnelo isn’t just a simple hood. He actually does want Mrs. Parkson for himself, and for a brief moment he is better to her than her husband. Hodiak's good in the role without ever being great—which is not a bad way to describe his place in noir overall, really. He’s no Robert Ryan or Dana Andrews, but when you see that he’s in a movie, you know he’ll be okay. That pretty much sums up his entire career.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Do We Need A Remake of I Walked With A Zombie?

If you are part of the small but devoted cult who worships at the altar of Jacques Tourneur's 1943 I Walked With A Zombie you will probably be aghast to learn that RKO and Twisted Pictures (the people who gave the world the Saw movies) are planning a remake of the film to be directed by Adam Marcus, director of Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday. That's assuming, of course, that you're not a big Adam Marcus fan.

In all fairness to Mr. Marcus, I haven't seen his Jason movie because I assume it's a piece of shit. I could be wrong. I will freely admit that I do not know what I'm talking about when I talk about Friday 13th movies.

I am, however, a fan of I Walked With A Zombie. If you've never heard of this movie, the title will confuse you into thinking it's a conventional horror movie (which was, after all, the exact purpose of that title). In reality, the film is a reworking of the Jane Eyre story. A young woman (Frances Dee) is hired to travel by boat down to a Caribbean island to act as a nurse maid for the catatonic wife of a rich plantation owner. Once she gets there, she is drawn into two unfolding mysteries. The first is the family drama surrounding the plantation owner, his lush of a brother, his stern mother, and his catatonic wife. The wife is, of course, the second mystery--a frighteningly beautiful woman who never sleeps but never speaks or responds to anyone. What has happened to her? Do the people of the island know something about her? And what takes place off beyond the cane fields, where on windy nights the nurse can hear the faint sound of drums?

I Walked With A Zombie is a film about mystery, mystery in the deepest sense of the word. It's a film that is very much of its time--especially in its racial attitudes--but its presentation of ethnocentrism is part of what makes it fascinating. Here is a film from 1943 that postulates, however problematically, that white middle American culture might not have all the answers. It handles these issues with a great deal of atmosphere. I Walked With A Zombie was the second of three brilliant horror films Tourneur made for producer Val Lewton (the others were Cat People in 1942 and The Leopard Man). These were horror films that depended on mood and insinuation, that played with the contrasts between light and darkness, between sound and silence. In that sense, they are better thought of as Gothic dramas rather than straight horror films.

That is a distinction I fear will be lost in the remake. We'll have to wait and see, I suppose. In the meantime, I Walked With A Zombie is available on DVD, and it should be sought out. With this movie, Lewton and Tourneur made something that is tantalizingly close to being a horror noir.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Busting Heads: Film Noir’s Best Brawls

(note: an earlier version of this article appeared in the Noir City Sentinel, which you can subscribe to by becoming a member of the Film Noir Foundation. For more information of the FNF, click here)

Hollywood doesn’t make fight scenes like it used to, however odd that may sound in the age of CGI and advanced stunt work. Today’s blockbusters may spend millions on martial arts choreography and fiery set pieces, but often the action lapses into redundancy and mindlessness. The newest trend is to edit action scenes so quickly that watching them feels like staring into a strobe light.

There’s a lot to be said for a fight that takes place for a reason, between two guys (or three) messing up their suits and Brylcream, thrown together in cramped quarters in the sudden violence of a moment. When these slugfests occur in noir, there’s usually a motivation: one guy has loved another guy’s wife, or a criminal has decided a witness can be silenced, or a normal man finds himself eyeball to eyeball with a psychopath. Whatever the reason, the genre has had more than its share of notable brawls. Here’s a ringside seat to some of the most memorable:

10. Gene Nelson Vs. Timothy Carey in Crime Wave (1954)-This one’s short and sweet, but the sheer weirdness of Timothy Carey earns it a nod of recognition. Psycho Carey is trying to kill Phyllis Kirk when her husband Nelson busts in. The two men briefly tussle before taking a spill down a flight of stairs. The priceless part is watching perennial nutjob Carey leap into action. This guy even fights weird. (for my review of the movie click here)

9. Dana Andrews Vs. Craig Stevens inWhere The Sidewalk Ends (1950)-Another short brawl, but this one’s notable for a couple of reasons. For one, badass cop Dana Andrews gets to hand it to hood Stevens. Note to hoods: don’t sucker punch Dana Andrews. The other reason this tussle stands out is that it has repercussions. It’s after the fight goes bad that all hell breaks lose, so the outcome of this unexpected little altercation determines the course of the rest of the movie.

8. John Garfield Vs. Victor Sen Yung in The Breaking Point (1950)-Tough guy John Garfield was in more than his share of onscreen scraps, but the most desperate came aboard a fishing boat off the coast of Mexico in the middle of the night. Down on his luck, boat captain Garfield has decided to take a job sneaking some illegal immigrants across international waters under the nose of the Coast guard. When the gangster in charge of the operation, Victor Se Yung, tries to renegotiate the payment at the point of a gun, all hell breaks lose. Director Michael Curtiz was a master of action, and this was the most intimate fight he ever filmed.

7. Charlton Heston Vs. A Roomful of Punks in Touch Of Evil (1958)- Orson Welles was never a great physical actor himself, but the man could direct an action scene when he felt like it. He redefined battle scenes in Chimes At Midnight, and in Touch Of Evil he unleashed one of the great barroom brawls. Pissed off cop and worried husband Charlton Heston is franticly looking for his missing wife when his search leads him to a border town strip joint. He is unwilling to accept “We don’t know where she is” for an answer and proceeds to take the place apart in a storm of ass-kicking. It’s Heston versus a roomful of younger men. Guess who wins.

6. Steve Cochran Vs. King Donovan in Private Hell 36 (1954)-Director Don Siegel and writers/producers Ida Lupino and Collier Young kick off their 1954 bad cop drama with an almost comically destructive brawl in a drugstore. Still-honest policeman Cochran jumps a couple of punks trying to make a late night score. He shoots one and tussles with the other, in the process laying waste to the entire establishment. By the time they crash out into the street, there’s not much left to destroy. The proprietor of the drugstore might understandably wish he had just lost the night’s cash register receipts.

5. Dennis O’Keefe (with assistance from Marsha Hunt) Vs. John Ireland and Tom Fadden in Raw Deal (1948)-The seemingly messy three-man melee in the back of Grimshaw’s Taxidermy is another of Anthony Mann’s deftly choreographed and psychologically rich pieces of film violence. Once he had positioned his subtly moving camera under chairs or in closets, the director loved to slam the action around a room and then have it crash down as close as possible to the lens. You might dock the scene a point or two for having Marsha Hunt stand by too long as a frightened spectator, but she comes through at the end, delivering the coup de grace to Ireland and sealing her love for O’Keefe.

4. John Payne Vs. Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef in Kansas City Confidential (1952)- Here’s an irony: John Payne might have been a pretty boy singer early on in his career, but in film noir he became a human punching bag. His three-film collaboration with director Phil Karlson is an extended study in the fine art of thumping skulls. Payne’s cinematic pugilism got off to a good start in Kansas City Confidential. The film is packed with action, but for sheer sweaty intensity there’s no topping his three-way brawl with thug king Neville Brand and rat-faced Lee Van Cleef. Payne comes out on the losing end of this one, but he would live to fight another day.

3. John Payne Vs. Jack Lambert in 99 River Street (1953)- Payne’s second film with Karlson, 99 River Street, is their masterpiece of brutality, a veritable cornucopia of beatings, slappings and bare-knuckle fisticuffs. The best fight in the film is a down and dirty number in an apartment between boxer-turned cabbie Payne and a gun-wielding thug played by Jack Lambert. Payne takes a beating in the early rounds, but by the end he’s turned Lambert’s face into tenderized meat. A great fight in an underrated film. (for my review of the film click here)

2. Charles McGraw Vs. David Clarke in The Narrow Margin (1952)-Close quarters fisticuffs rarely got closer than this scrap between cop and crook in the men’s lavatory of a moving train. Director Richard Fleischer uses a handheld camera and no stunt doubles as McGraw and Clarke beat each other senseless. The most impressive thing about the scene is how much movement it packs into a room that’s no more than eight feet wide. Fleischer has his actors utilize every inch of the space, but most importantly he plunges his camera into the action until it’s almost a participant in the fight. The camera hurls itself forward, rolls around on the floor with the actors, and even takes a couple of licks. This might be the most famous fight in noir.

1. Robert Ryan Vs. Hal Baylor in The Set-Up (1949)-The best fight on record has to be the bout between aging, down-on-his-luck boxer Robert Ryan and the much younger Hal Baylor in Robert Wise’s masterpiece The Set-Up. The fight has been fixed, but no one’s told Ryan he’s supposed to take the fall. When he starts to win, we start to worry because there’s a gangster sitting in the audience who thinks he’s been double crossed. The tension pulls us two ways. We want this broken down boxer to redeem himself against the young upstart, but we also want him to lose, to spare himself the gangster’s wrath. The bout lasts much of the film—which famously unfolds in more or less real time—and it is an exquisite piece of work. Wise was always a strong director of action and here he was working with two real fighters: Ryan held a college championship and Baylor was the California Heavyweight Champion. Together, the three of them created what is probably the best fight scene of the classic period of film.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Framed (1947)

First things first: Janis Carter was unbelievably beautiful. Even among the breathtaking blondes who populate so many noirs, she was something special. Lustrous hair, high cheekbones, a great figure. She was a knockout. She was also one of the sickest dames who ever mixed up a dopey guy and sent him plummeting toward his doom.

In Framed, Carter plays a waitress named Paula. She’s having an affair with a married bank official named Steve Price (Barry Sullivan) and together they’ve cooked up a scheme to embezzle a quarter of a million dollars from his bank and then fake his death. The only thing they need is a fall guy, a warm body to stick in a burning car while they skip town under the cover of night. They get their fall guy when a broke mining engineer named Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford) shows up in town.

Working from a story by John Patrick, crackerjack screenwriter Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) lays on thick the twists and turns of the plot, so I won’t say much more about the way events play out. However, I will say that what is impressive about the screenplay is the way it proceeds through its complications without losing us. We know more than Mike knows, and we know more than Steve knows, but none of us know as much as Paula. Like any self-respecting femme fatale she’s pulling the strings on those around her and she’s pulling the strings on the audience as well. While Mike is struggling to find a job and make sense of the gorgeous waitress who seems to have too much disposable income, Steve is plotting embezzlement and murder with her. Paula, however, is operating out of a sense of selfishness that’s impenetrable and seemingly limitless.

The cast is great. Glenn Ford was always a good fit for the role of a seemingly normal guy with rage boiling inside. There’s something just a little off about him, a grumpy discontent that belies that decent, working man’s face. He’s contrasted nicely here with Barry Sullivan who exudes his normal smarminess and high self-regard as Price. This guy thinks he knows what’s going to happen next, but he doesn’t have Paula quite figured out.

That’s understandable, of course, given that she’s played by Janis Carter. Carter only had a short career in films before she retired to become a socialite in the mid-fifties, but during her brief time in the city of sin she etched out a notable place among the bad girls. While some femme fatales are misunderstood, even sympathetic, Carter excelled at playing women who seem twisted, maybe even perverted. Late in Framed, she commits a brutal murder, but watch her as she’s disposing of the body and you’ll notice there’s a little smile that creeps onto her face, a rush at being this bad. It can’t help but remind you of her brilliant turn as the deranged femme in Night Editor. Paula is a little more sane than that character—which isn’t difficult since that character was totally nuts—but she’s still a nasty piece of business. Carter can put this kind of unbalanced wacko across because she has charm to burn. She isn’t just good looking; she has a charisma that pulls you in—usually at your own peril.

In most films the script problems tend to occur in the last act, and it must be said that Framed makes some dubious moves in its final twenty minutes. A murder takes place and the suspicion falls on an old prospector (Edgar Buchanan, a man born to play old prospectors), but Mike knows the old guy didn’t do it and sets out to prove his innocence. At this point, the screenplay starts to panic a little and the implausibilities start piling up in order to bring the story to a conclusion (after you watch it, ask yourself how Ford managed to get into the bank at the end when every cop in town is looking for him). Just when the plot should be going into overdrive, it shifts gears and more or less coasts to a close.

So Framed isn’t perfect, but it is a terrific entertainment and a strong addition to the femme fatale roll call. Director Richard Wallace follows the strengths of the script and turns his cinematographer Burnett Guffey (In A Lonely Place, Human Desire) loose to do some typically excellent night shooting. Most of all, he lets Janis Carter do her thing.

That counts as a masterstroke.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Orson Welles and The Other Side Of The Wind

Are we ever going to see the last film of Orson Welles? In 1970, the Great One set out to direct a film called The Other Side Of The Wind. Principal shooting (if such a thing can be configured on a Welles picture) and much of the editing were completed in January of 1976. As with all of Welles' films, there's a long, fascinating story to tell about the making of the film. No great director was more interesting off the set than Welles, and most of his productions required Herculean feats to reach fruition. Part of Welles' problem was his sheer ambition (a good problem to have). He had the money, talent and resources to make small, intimate films in the Cassavetes mold. He simply lacked the desire. He dreamed big, and he made epics like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, and Chimes At Midnight. Even his noirs were larger in scope than the usual crime story. This wasn't a flaw. He simply wasn't a painter of miniatures; he needed a broad canvas.

The Other Side Of The Wind is the sprawling story of a past his prime movie director played by the late, great John Huston and his contentious relationship with a younger director played by Peter Bogdanovich. If this outline seems a little too meta--Welles the great director had, after all, a close but complicated relationship with Peter Bogdanovich, who was a huge star director at the time--well, it is pretty meta. Based on the script, which I've read, and various footage I've seen over the years, the film is meta as hell.

So why has this movie been held up for thirty-two years? To answer that would require us to dive into the deep end of the pool of Welles' business dealings, a harrowing task for anyone. In comparison to Welles' finances, AIG's accounting practices have an Amish-like simplicity. Just a taste: for a long time the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran asserted a financial claim to the film. When you consider that The Other Side Of The Wind also involves a decades-long standoff between Welles' daughter and his mistress, you can see what a Gordian's knot we're dealing with. A Gordian's knot inside a labyrinth in the Lost City of Z.

Will we ever see the whole thing, completed and released in the manner befitting one of the cinema's truly great talents? I suspect we will. We certainly seem to be getting closer, and Bogdanovich, who has overseen some of the work on the film, says it's getting closer and closer.

At the end of the day, I don't know how thrilled I am about it, though. Don't get me wrong, I'd watch anything directed by Welles, but I have a strong suspicion based on all I've read and seen that with this film Welles was attempting to push the rapid style editing he'd used on F For Fake to an almost dizzying affect. Add to that, his use of long dream sequences--part of the fight over the film was a disagreement between the editors about how long Welles wanted these sequences to be--and you have a film that might very well smack of late sixties art house.

My concern isn't really so much for the film itself. Welles made more great movies than most people and even his failures are fascinating. The Other Side Of The Wind might be great or it might be horrible. Neither outcome would change the fact that he was a great director. My concern, though, is for his reputation. No director I can think of has had such an avalanche of bullshit written about him. For this nearly forty year old movie to be released to a collective shrug from the critics wouldn't do Welles any favors.

Oh well. As the Great One himself once wrote, "What does it matter what you say about people?"


Here's a strong argument from Lawrence French at Wellesnet.com that I am in fact wrong to worry that the film won't be that great. There aren't many people alive who know more about Welles than French so hopefully he's right.

Here's a link to The Museum of Orson Welles. This amazing site has the audio of a series of interviews Peter Bogdanovich's did with Welles in preparation for their book This Is Orson Welles: 1969-1975 Peter Bogdanovich

Speaking of Bogdanovich, here's an interview he did with Movie Maker about the film.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Enforcer (1951)

The Enforcer was one of those movies I saw before I ever heard the term film noir. In junior high, I discovered Bogart the way I suspect most people do, via Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Then followed The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not, Key Largo and The Treasure Of Sierra Madre. Did anyone ever star in so many great movies? I haven’t even mentioned In A Lonely Place yet. You can dive pretty far into Bogart’s career without hitting anything short of a masterpiece. Sooner or later, though, you get to the second tier, but there awaits a nice surprise. Even Bogart’s second tier movies are pretty damn great.

The Enforcer maybe a second tier movie by Bogart’s standards, but for most other people it would be a career highlight. The film tells the story of a district attorney named Martin Ferguson (Bogart) who is quickly approaching a vital day in the trial of a man named Albert Mendoza. Mendoza’s accused of running an outfit called Murder Incorporated, a murder-for-hire service. Ferguson has a good case against Mendoza hinging on the testimony of a sweaty thug named Rico, one of Mendoza’s old lieutenants. Rico’s a nervous wreck, sure that he’s as good as dead. Meanwhile, Mendoza sits quietly in his cell, a confident smile on his face.

The film unfolds over a long night, with several flashbacks, as Ferguson tries to holds his case together. When Rico makes a clumsy attempt to escape and winds up splattered all over the sidewalk outside the courthouse, Ferguson makes a mad dash to shore up his case against Mendoza.

One of the most impressive things about The Enforcer is that although it’s billed as a star vehicle for Bogart, it’s really an ensemble piece about the murder for hire business. Mendoza is played by Everett Sloan, one of the great unsung character actors in classic Hollywood. Discovered by Orson Welles, he played the faithful Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane and the evil Mr. Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai, two roles which give some idea of the scope of the man’s talent. Here he’s a calm little killer whose confidence comes from the knowledge that he’s smarter than everyone else. Rico is played by the wonderful actor Ted de Corsia. In flashbacks we see him as cool killer, but by the end he’s coming apart at the seams. Sloan and de Corsia are joined by a parade of thugs: fat Zero Mostel, feral Michael Tolan, and cold-eyed Bob Steele. It’s a great cast, headed by Bogart at his hardass, no-nonsense best.

What most impressed me the first time I saw the movie, though, and what continues to impress me about it, is the feel of the thing. The film is dark and lean, with a cold surface. This really is a tough little crime picture with none of the usual Hollywood sweetener. Unfolding over a long night, full of murders and flashbacks to murders, with an endless supply of cigarettes smoked under hot overhead lamps, The Enforcer felt like noir to me long before I had any idea what the term meant. It’s no accident that the film has always been more highly regarded by the French than critics here in America (indeed, the film gets a great deal of attention in Borde and Chaumeton’s seminal work on noir, Panorama du Film Noir Amèricain).

The film was directed by an acclaimed Broadway director named Bretaigne Windust but also features substantial uncredited work by Raoul Walsh (who filled in when Windust fell ill during shooting). It’s difficult to say who the main creative force is here, but I’d point to producer Milton Sperling for assembling the cast and putting the focus on the hard-as-nails script by Martin Rackin. Due credit also has to be given to cinematographer Robert Burks, who gives us an evocative picture but never makes things pretty. Burks would go on to greatness as Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite director of photography, but this film shows him at ease in the hard world of noir.

The Enforcer is a tough little piece of work. It’s not a masterpiece, and no one won an Oscar here, but I’d rather watch it than The African Queen any day.