Saturday, November 28, 2009

Color Noir Part Two

One thing I should have done in talking about color noirs in the last post was to point out a few great films that were overlooked. Herewith, I will remedy that oversight:

1. Party Girl-This tough 1958 gangster flick was directed by Nicolas Ray (In A Lonely Place) and stars Cyd Charisse as a nightclub dancer who gets involved with a lawyer for the mob. Shot in wide cinemascope, bursting with color, and hard as nails. It looks like a musical, but it is a gritty piece of business.

2. Bigger Than Life-Speaking of Nicholas Ray, don't miss his 1956 melodrama starring James Mason as a normal husband and father going crazy with a drug addiction. It's over the top (not uncommon for a Ray film), but Mason is terrific.

3. Point Blank-Lee Marvin is great in The Killers, but the best color noir he made was this mean little John Boorman flick from 1967. Based on the Westlake "Richard Stark" novel The Hunter, it's Marvin at his brutal best. It was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson with mixed results (the director's cut of Payback, released a year or so ago, is a radical reconstruction of the film and is frankly much better than the original version. Read more on that here.)

4. The Friends of Eddie Coyle- In my last post, I slammed the remake of Farewell, My Lovely with Robert Mitchum. Instead, see Mitchum's great 1973 Peter Yates crime drama. It puts the grit in gritty--and the cinematography has the washed out look of the period--but Mitch is beyond superlatives as a past-his-prime crook trying not to go back to jail. The title is ironic. The film is dark and moving, and Mitch--the King of Noir--gives his last great noir performance.

5. Devil In a Blue Dress-Walter Mosley's novels featuring investigator Easy Rawlins are the best thing anyone's done in the private eye genre since Lew Archer was walking the mean streets. Carl Franklin's 1995 film version of Mosley's first novel stars Denzel Washington as Rawlins and Don Cheadle as his psychotic sidekick, Mouse. This film often gets lost in the shuffle between Chinatown and LA Confidential, and while its not a perfect film, it is swinging in their weight class.

5. A Simple Plan-This unduly overlooked drama from 1999 gets my vote as the most underrated of all neo-noirs. It stars Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as two brothers who find four million dollars in the cockpit of a crashed plane. Their descent into hell is made all the more chilling by taking place in a small rural town in winter. Proof that Sam Raimi can do more than direct comic books. A masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Color Noir

Mike Harvkey over at True/Slant has compiled a list of the fifteen best "color noirs." Of course, this brings us back to the matter of definition--can a color film be a film noir, or is noir defined by sharply delineated chiaroscuro cinematography? I come down on the side that says film noir is more about attitude, plot, and characterization than cinematography--but I'll also admit that part of my laxity when it comes to definition is that I'm a big softy who wants to include color films that I like.

I should add that black and white cinematography is the most beautiful art form I have ever encountered. While I love many color movies, I worship at the altar of Alton.

Still, Harvkey's list is an interesting one. Herewith are some thoughts on a few of his choices:

1. Desert Fury- One of the all time great bad movies. Total camp, totally over the top, but a lot of fun. Added bonus: it stars Lizabeth Scott in one of her few color films. She looks breathtaking.

2. Farewell My Lovely- (Harvkey misidentifies the name of the novel) This one is an odd choice since it's not that great a movie, and it's got some particularly muddy cinematography. Stars a too-old-for-the-part Robert Mitchum. Mediocre retro-noir. You're better off reading the book or watching Murder My Sweet, the 1944 b&w version with Dick Powell.

3. The Grifters-One of the great neo-noirs, a perfect adaptation of a superb Jim Thompson novel. If you haven't seen it, then get cracking. It's a sheer delight.

4. Leave Her To Heaven- I'd rate this as the great color noir. Gene Tierney stars as the worst obsessive girlfriend ever. And I mean, Ever. She looks amazing in color, though. Gotta give her that. Here's a clip of Martin Scrosese introducing the film in front of a live audience.

5. Chinatown-What can you say? A full-on masterpiece. One of the greatest films of all time. I could heap more superlatives on it, but I'll just say that not even my contempt for the director nor my exasperation with the star has dented my love of this film. Would it have been better in b&w? Maybe...

6. The Killers (1964)- Don Siegel's film is more of a remake of the Siodmak film than an adaptation of the Hemingway short story. It's got some terrific parts--namely the brutal performances of Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager as a couple of hitmen (is it me or did Tarantino clearly pattern Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent on Marvin and Gulager?). The movie also features Cassavettes being grumpy--always fun--and Ronald Reagan as a bad guy with a head full of pomade. Still, this is decidedly not a great movie. It's clunky in too many places, and it has way too much cheap back projection. It's good remake of a masterpiece. See the masterpiece first.

7. The Long Goodbye-I'll say it: I hate this movie. Maybe it's because I love Raymond Chandler's novel, and this film is a deconstruction of the book and the character of Philip Marlowe. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you'll like. I mostly find it boring. (One added gripe: because Elliot Gloud stars as Marlowe here, someone picked him to read all of Chandler's novels on audiobook, and he does an awful job. Someone please record new versions of the books. My pick for an audio Marlowe? Campbell Scott.)

8. Vertigo-I don't know if I'd call Vertigo a film noir. I don't know what it is--except for, possibly, the best movie I've ever seen.

9. Le Samourai- I really like this stylish Jean-Pierre Melville hitman classic, but I have the same criticism of it that I have of many older hitman movies: the assassins don't seem particularly good at doing their jobs. Here, the hitman's plan is basically to stroll into a crowded club and commit a murder. Surely there's a smarter way to do this.

10. After Dark, My Sweet- Another brilliant Jim Thompson adaptation. Stars Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, and Bruce Dern. It's romantic, suspenseful, inventive, and tragic. After seeing it, you'll wonder why Jason Patric never became a huge movie star. Rachel Ward is sexy and sad at the same time, and Bruce Dern--well just remember the Bruce Dern Rule: any movie with Bruce Dern is automatically worth seeing. After Dark is a massively underrated film that no crime geek has any excuse to miss.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Underworld USA Trilogy

In September, James Ellroy published Blood's A Rover, the third volume in his Underworld USA Trilogy. With it he closes out his huge--and hugely ambitious--epic of American crime in the years between 1958 and 1972.

Together the books comprise a nearly 2,000 page labyrinth of violence, duplicity, racism, drugs, and full tilt political insanity. The first volume, American Tabloid, follows the careers of three shadowy figures: Pete Bondurant, Kemper Boyd, and Ward Littell. The book culminates with the assassination of JFK, ending about a minute before the shots are fired in Dealey Plaza. The second book, The Cold Six Thousand, picks up about five minutes after the murder and introduces the character of Wayne Tedrow Jr. The book encompasses the bulk of the Vietnam War and the FBI's undeclared war against the Civil Rights Movement. It climaxes with the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Blood's A Rover picks up in 1968 just before the election of Dick Nixon and ends just before the Watergate break in. Blood's A Rover is a nice cap to the trilogy, but I'll have to admit that I find it somewhat inferior to the previous books.

American Tabloid was heralded upon its release as a crime fiction masterpiece, a reputation it deserves. It's a relentless book, written in Ellroy's rapid fire, clipped sentence style. The three main characters form a nice three-way counterpoint to one another, and Ellroy's use of real life figures like JFK, RFK, and J. Edgar Hoover is convincing and unsentimental. The book is by turns exciting, funny, and strangely effecting (strange because the book shoots along like a bullet...or a series of bullets).

In contrast to Tabloid's hero's welcome, The Cold Six Thousand got mixed reviews. Ellroy took his style to the limit of his audience's endurance. The book is an avalanche of simple sentences (the average length is probably five or six words). It contains more racist language than a KKK picnic. It is extraordinarily violent. And it is over six hundred pages long. Still, I have to say, I find it in some ways to be the most compelling book of the trilogy. In particular, I think the character of Ward Littell--a religiously tortured FBI agent turned mob lawyer turned Howard Hughes flunky turned secret MLK supporter--emerges as the most involving character in any of the books. TCST is a dark, fascinating novel.

By contrast, Blood's A Rover seeks to scale back Ellroy's stylistic excesses. He's loosened up the language a little and has inserted lengthy pages from the diaries of two articulate characters. He's expanded his range of perspectives as well. The first two books are told from the alternating third-person perspectives of three different characters. In Blood's A Rover, we get the story from seven different characters--two diarists and five alternating third-person perspectives. This has the effect of giving the narrative some breathing room, and Ellroy's inclusion of the povs of two women and one gay black man are a nice way to break up the white male hegemony that usually dominates his books.

All of this is well and good, but something about this novel feels decidedly less urgent than the first two books. For one thing, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand were set against the back drops of huge events. We watched our protagonists--heroes isn't the right word--as they helped to set into motion the invasion of Cuba, the murder of JFK, Howard Hughes attempted takeover of Las Vegas, and the hits on RFK and MLK. Oh, and Vietnam. The historical narrative of the third book is less compelling, and in some ways Ellroy's personal life has overtaken his interest in history.

This brings us to Joan.

The Red Goddess Joan.

On his current book tour, Ellroy has made no secret that the last few years have been tumultuous times for him. After the break up of his second marriage, Ellroy became involved with a woman named Joan. Their's was an improbable relationship--she is apparently a strongly opinionated left-wing Jewish atheist, a contrast in every way to Ellroy--but it was clearly intense. (On the new DVD of The Line-Up, Ellroy spends half the commentary track talking about Joan, interrupting Eddie Muller on a couple of occasions to turn the conversation away from Muller's explications of San Francisco history and back to Joan.) The author wrote Blood's A Rover as a tribute to Joan (the book is dedicated to her), and she fairly well takes over the narrative in the form of a left wing extremist named Joan Rosen Klein. The question is, does this work?

In a roundabout way, the answer is...kinda. Ellroy has also created a new character named Don Crutchfield, a window-peeping private eye who emerges as the book's main character. Crutchfield's obsession with Joan Rosen Klein forms the emotional core of the book, and in places this synergy works.

What I can't stop wondering, however, is what this book would have been had Ellroy never met Joan. I'm in an interesting position because I've just read the three books in succession. I started volume one over the summer, went on to volume two, and finished it in time to buy the third volume the day it dropped. And honestly, the headlong rush of American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand doesn't seem like it was meant to crescendo with "the Red Goddess Joan" and her attempt to shape world events. The end of the book is a strange kind of letdown. I can feel Ellroy--an author I'm crazy about--bearing his soul, but I feel like it's getting in the way of the narrative.

Still, anyone who reads the first two magnificent books will want to see how the author brings things to a close. Blood's a Rover packs enough classic Ellroy punches--from brilliantly wrought violent set pieces to laugh-out-loud lines--to keep the reader pulled along. J. Edgar Hoover, the only major character to make it through all three books, emerges as the grand villain of the piece. Ellroy's portrayal of him as a vicious and brilliant master manipulator is one of his great creations. The book also features another Ellrovian touch that I have come to see as the defining element of his work: the way in which the interior mental life can swallow someone up. Ellroy's characters are all locked away from each other, locked into their own mental worlds. His characters spend more time thinking--daydreaming, planning, fuming, obsessing--than the characters of any other crime author I can recall. That Ellroy can blend this kind of interior life with such a ferocious narrative style is a testament to his talents. The same could be said of the entire Underworld USA trilogy. It is a great achievement.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

He Ran All The Way and the Hollywood Blacklist

One of the most sordid episodes of the 1950s was the House Un-American Activities Committee's investigation into "communist subversion" in Hollywood. This was the Red Scare in full swing. The Committee drug private citizens in front of Congress to give testimony about their political beliefs--and the political beliefs of their friends. Failure to testify landed you on a blacklist that prohibited you from working in films at the major studios. Careers went down in flames. Friends sold out friends. Interestingly, the communist witch hunts had a particularly deep impact on the community of writers, directors and stars who worked in film noir. Perhaps no other single film is more emblematic of this ugly bit of history than John Berry's He Ran All The Way, nearly all the major talents on which were affected directly or indirectly by the blacklist. Most notably, the blacklist marked the end of the career, and life, of star John Garfield, one of noir's great icons.

You can check out my essay on the repercussions of the Hollywood blacklist on the cast and crew of He Ran All The Way at the Film Noir Foundation.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Grisly Sneak Peek at The Killer Inside Me

An extended six-minute trailer is out for Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, and it's already getting people talking.

The novel--which follows the career of Lou Ford, a jovial deputy sheriff and secret psychopath--has a cult following of creepy intensity. It's a twisted piece of work, even by the considerably nasty standards of the author. A first person look into the mind of a murderer, it's uncompromisingly sexualized and violent, but the most shocking thing about it is the way it traps you in the pov of an abject nihilist. Of course, fashionable nihilism is everywhere today (from franchised torture-porn like Hostel and Saw to the glut of serial killer/hit man/assassin stories and novels), but Thompson went deeper with it than any of his many imitators have done since. His novels--and The Killer Inside Me, in particular--are about nihilism rather than a simplistic wallowing in its more tawdry forms. (In the interest of intellectual honesty, I should note that there are more than a few people who would disagree with that last sentence.)

Now comes British director Michael Winterbottom and stars Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson, and it looks like they are going to go all the way with Thompson's story. Check out the preview here, but be warned that this six minutes is a hard R. Send the kids outside to play.

There's already a backlash brewing against the movie. It'll be interesting to see the finished film and just as interesting to observe the conversation it engenders upon release.

I first wrote about this movie when it was still little more than a rumor.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Sniper (1952)

It was Goddard who said that the history of cinema was the history of boys photographing girls. He had something there. The first hundred years of cinema were dominated by men—directors, cinematographers, studio heads—and many of those men liked to take pretty pictures of pretty girls. Film noir is no exception to this rule, which is why people like Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame are icons. We in the audience—male and female alike—are entranced by their beauty, grace, fragility, and, ultimately, by their humanity. The camera is an awesome liturgical instrument; it worships certain faces like a believer bearing witness to his or her savior’s divinity.

And yet, the history of cinema is also full of corners darkened with misogyny. Film noir has been attacked occasionally for being misogynist. Sometimes those charges will stick. The camera can capture resentment as well as love.

One of the first films to turn the camera around to take a look at the specter of misogyny itself was Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper. It tells the intense story of a gun-toting psycho named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) who terrorizes San Francisco by shooting women from different rooftops around the city. His first victim is a piano player he knows named Jean Darr (Marie Windsor). Her murder—quick, hard, merciless—comes as a shock even today. Windsor, of course, is just about as iconic an actress can get in this genre, and that gives her killing nearly as much of a jolt as Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho eight years later.

In fact, it’s difficult to watch Eddie Miller run around San Francisco shooting innocent women without thinking of all the woman-murdering nutjobs (from Norman Bates to Buffalo Bill and beyond) who would follow him onto the silver screen in the decades to come. Are films like The Sniper, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs examinations of misogyny, or are they expressions of it? Are they any better than slasher flicks and torture porn?

I think so. The Sniper is very much about Eddie Miller’s contorted view of women and the psychosis it engenders. If anything, the film is heavy-handed in this respect. Every single scene of Miller with a woman ends with his face twisted into spasms of anger. What is the root of this hatred of women? The film doesn’t come out and tell us, but there is a scene where, seeing a mother slap her son, Miller reflexively lifts his hand to his own face. This implication of past abuse is simplistic, of course, but is there an answer the movie could provide to us which wouldn’t be simplistic? The mystery of Eddie Miller is the same mystery surrounding real life serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway. Why would these men—who outwardly seemed like normal, productive members of society—do what they did? Where does this hatred come from?

One cannot explain the unexplainable, but one can regard it and recoil from it. In doing so, this film fits into the larger tradition within noir of documenting the violent implosion of the postwar American man. While The Sniper is not perfect, it is perhaps the collapsing male ego’s starkest filmic expression in the 1950s.


The film has been newly released on DVD.

One reason, perhaps, that this film has remained largely unseen for the past fifty-odd years is the complicated story of its director. Edward Dmytryk was considered a great filmmaker in his day but when he was fingered as a Communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities he panicked and named names. It wasn't exactly a profile in courage, but Dmytryk was hardly alone in that respect. At any rate, it's unfair to degrade his work for his lack of moral courage. The two things are not connected, and while it's true that some of his films (I'm thinking The Caine Mutiny) have not aged well, some of his work--like Murder, My Sweet; Crossfire; and The Sniper--still holds up and deserves to be seen. Read more about Edward Dmytryk here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics

While your faithful correspondent has been suffering with what appears to be either the H1N1 flu or whatever disease Evelyn Keyes had in The Killer That Stalked New York, the world has kept spinning by. The second annual Noir City DC festival rolled on while I lay hacking in bed. Happily, before I was sidelined, I was able to catch The Big Combo and Wicked As They Come on the big screen. I'd seen Combo before, years ago, but I'll admit that I somehow missed how incredibly good it is. That movie is amazing. More on that in the future. Wicked As They Come was new to me, and it was a terrific personal discovery. Beautifully shot, it has one of the most most complicated and interesting takes on gender I've seen in a film noir. There will also be more on that to come.

Now here's a terribly exciting piece of news: Columbia Pictures has finally releasing its first film noir box set. The set includes

The Big Heat-a damn good, if overrated, cop thriller. With two featurettes, one with Martin Scorsese, the other with Michael Mann

The Sniper-This disturbing and disturbingly groundbreaking film was directed by Edward Dmytryk and costars noir icon Marie Windsor. Has commentary by Eddie Muller. Also has a featurette with Scorsese.

The Lineup-Hard-ass Don Seigel directed this dope smuggling flick starring Eli Wallach. Featuring commentary by Muller and James Ellroy, this is the one to pop in first. Plus, as I've discussed elsewhere a commentary track with Muller&Ellroy is like a whole other movie. Muller gets a beat going and Ellory starts improvising. Also has a featurette with Christopher Nolan. Not a great film, but it's entertaining.

Murder By Contract-This might be the most philosophical hitman flick ever made. Expertly directed by Irving Lerner (Edge of Fury) and starring film noir pretty boy Vince Edwards at his best. Has a featurette with Scorsese.

5 Against the House-This one's the low man on the totem pole. It's a casino heist flick directed by the great Phil Karlson (99 River Street) and starring Kim Novak--though it's nowhere near as good as that description would suggest. As near as I can discern from press materials floating around, there's no added bonus features.