Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Museum of Orson Welles


The people over at Wellesnet.com have put together an amazing resource for Orson Welles fans. The Museum of Orson Welles is an enormous collection of audio works by Welles over the course of his career. Prior to coming to Hollywood in the late thirties, Welles had done a tremendous amount radio work, including adaptions of literary works by Shakespeare, Hugo, and Dickens (among many others) as well as news programs political commentary. TMOW gathers many of these productions, along with much of Welles' war years work and interviews that range over his career.

Of course, this is a paradise for devoted Wellesians, but it should also be of interest to lovers of classic film, as well as that peculiar and passionate cult of classic radio lovers.

TMOW is a treasure trove. Just a few things you'll find:

1. Excerpts from the interviews Welles conducted with Peter Bogdanovich from 1969 to 1975, hours of Welles talking about every phase of his life and career, pushed along by Bogdanovich's knowledgeable and probing questions.

2. The broadcasts of The Orson Welles Commentaries, Welles' progressive political show from 1946. Some people don't realize that Welles was a early (and angry) defender of civil rights, and many of his commentaries address the case of Issac Woodard, a black serviceman who was beaten to the point of blindness by cops in the deep South. Welles was a great artist, but he never did anything more admirable than these broadcasts. They got him in a lot of trouble (dropped sponsers, a film banned in retaliation, increased FBI scrutiny), and they are a fascinating bit of history.

3. Fifty-two episodes of Welles' fifties radio show, the mystery/adventure series The Lives of Harry Lime.

And much more. Check it out.

Friday, January 30, 2009

One More Word For Melissa Leo and Frozen River


In a previous post, I gave a shout out to a wonderful film called Frozen River. It's small production, shot on a shoestring budget, starring Melissa Leo as a poor woman who starts sneaking illegal immigrants across the US/Canada border in the trunk of her car. It's a tremendous film with a touching and heroic performance by Leo.

Now Melissa Leo has been nominated for an Oscar. My attitude toward the Oscars is an apathy for the award itself, soured by a contempt for the pomp surrounding it. Having said that, however, one good benefit of the publicity of the awards shows is the attention it brings to a movie like Frozen River.

Roger Ebert has a little write up on his website about Leo's nomination. In it, he says that the films will be rereleased in theaters. If it opens near you, I highly recommend you check it out. It's a moving and exciting piece of work.

***

Here's a link to Ebert's original review of the film.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Accused (1949)


Movies are time capsules. When we look at them, we don’t just see vanished hairstyles and clothing. We hear modes of speech—and detect modes of thinking—that are as antiquated as old furniture. This is true of all films, of course, but film noirs are different from the usual Hollywood fare from the forties and fifties. Unlike most movies from Hollywood’s classic age—which were concerned with creating glittering dreams for audiences to lose themselves in— noirs are about the cracking apart of façades, the falling apart of dreams. They are mementos of disintegration. A film noir makes for a weird time capsule.

Take a movie like The Accused. It tells the story of a spinsterish psychology professor named Dr. Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young) who takes a ride up to the ocean with a brilliant but troubled young student named Bill Perry (Douglas Dick). He’s bad news and out there alone on some cliffs overlooking wave-beaten rocks he tries to rape her. She kills him and then covers it up by pumping salt water into his lungs and tossing him over the bluffs. She makes her way back home and waits for Perry’s body to be found. Within a few days some fishermen find the dead boy, and soon Wilma has to contend with Perry’s legal guardian (Robert Cummings), as well as a smart cop (Wendell Corey), neither of whom believe Perry’s death was an accident.

The film is, for a while, surprisingly up front about its subject matter. The opening scenes with Wilma and Perry are the strongest parts of the picture dramatically. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of Loretta Young (there’s always something of a blank quality to her performances). Here, though, she’s quite good, giving Wilma both real intelligence and real fragility. You can feel, and believe, both her attraction to and revulsion from Perry. And Douglas Dick is excellent as her disturbed young student. Dick was one of those actors whose career never amounted to much (which you could say about most of the performers in film noirs), but in his brief time onscreen in this movie, he creates a scary portrait of arrogance, entitlement, and narcissism. It’s our loss that more opportunity didn’t materialize for this guy’s career.

Alas, The Accused is never quite as good after Wilma dumps him in the drink. It starts to throw a lot of psychobabble at us—a common failing in crime pictures at the time. While the cast is uniformly good (Wendell Corey is as dependable a performer as the sun), the film’s remaining suspense is Wilma’s attempt to outrun detection for her crime, and somehow director William Dieterle isn’t able turn up the heat enough. Dieterle was a competent journeyman director, but he wasn’t one to push more out of a script than was already there. His problem with The Accused is that the script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ketti Frings (based on June Truesdell’s 1947 novel Be Still, My Love) turns conventional just when it’s getting interesting. It’s good to see a film noir with a female protagonist, but the film’s female perspective seems constricted, perhaps because the film never fully deals with Perry’s attempted rape and Wilma’s self-defensive murder.

Most likely the culprit of this failure to engage with the dark side is producer Hal B. Wallis. Wallis was the man with the real control over the production and, just as importantly, he was a man interested in showmanship above art. Perhaps he felt a movie in 1949 time couldn’t deal head on with the realities of rape. The façade was still in place, I guess.

But the cracks were starting to show.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The New Noir: Transsiberian (2008)


Let’s talk neo-noir for a moment. Depending on how you date it, the classic period of film noir ended roughly around 1960 (noir historian Eddie Muller suggested that the classic period ended when Janet Leigh took her shower in the Bates Motel). Noir continued to exert an influence, however, and we can find traces of it in many subsequent films, all the way up to today.

I divide post-classic noir into two types:

Retro Noir-These are, essentially, noir period pieces. They are set in the forties and fifties and attempt to capture the look and feel of the classic film noirs. Superior examples include LA Confidential, Devil In A Blue Dress, and Hollywoodland. The greatest retro noir is, of course, Chinatown, a film that is a fascinating blend of a forties crime thriller and a gritty seventies drama.

Neo-Noir-These are films set in the time period in which they are made but carry on the themes and archetypes of noir. Superior examples include After Dark My Sweet, The Last Seduction, Match Point, and A Simple Plan.

Noir is alive and well in both its retro and neo forms, with new variations popping up all the time*. A recent example of neo-noir is Brad Anderson’s intense drama Transsiberian. It stars Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson as Jess and Roy, a young married couple taking a train ride through Russia. Jess and Roy are having problems in their marriage. Roy’s an affable goofball, and an essentially good man, but we get the sense that Jess married him in large part because he helped her kick an alcohol problem. Now, a few years into their marriage, she’s starting to feel restless. Then one day, Jess and Roy meet another young couple on the train, Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), an intense pair who seem a little too friendly. Carlos keeps making eyes at Jess and offering her drinks. Roy seems oblivious to how sketchy these new friends are, and then at one stop Roy and Carlos go for a walk in the snow. When the train pulls out, Carlos is aboard but no one can find Roy.

I’ll stop there because one of the pleasures of Transsiberian is the way it keeps you guessing. You’re never quite sure where the plot is going. What is interesting about the film is the way it works with two great noir themes: paranoia and guilt. It’s the kind of film that plays off of the most basic fear of travel: the fear that the outside world is a dangerous place we do not understand. Roy is in awe of the world out there, but Jess seems to know that it’s fraught with pitfalls.

She also knows about guilt. The film takes a turn at about the halfway mark, placing us firmly in Jess’ point of view, making us an accomplice to her actions and giving us a share in her fears. I’m dancing around plot point here, but I will say that the theme of guilt, and the way it builds until the very end of the movie is one of Transsiberian’s great strengths. In that way it reflects some of the same power that we saw in director Brad Anderson’s previous guilt-ridden neo-noir The Machinist.

Having said that, the film is flawed in some of the same ways as The Machinist. Anderson moves confidently through the set up and through the film’s middle passages, but he stumbles toward the end. Transsiberian’s final twenty minutes are a departure in tone from what’s proceeded it, and not in a good way. The moment the film gets off track (sorry) is easy to pinpoint. When Jess moves from one boxcar to another and finds that the last half of the train is missing, the movie swerves from an emphasis on psychological drama and towards over-the-top thriller touches. There are still good moments in the last twenty minutes, but they have to compete with moments which severely strain our incredulity.

Still, Transsiberian is a very good example of how noir continues to prosper in film. As Jess, Emily Mortimer is terrific. She’s a performer made for this kind of material, a woman with a natural undercurrent of worry. After this movie and her turn in Woody Allen’s Match Point, she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite current actresses. When Transsiberian focuses on Jess and her secrets (and their resultant anxieties), it comes close to being great.

***

A few variations on noir:

Comic Book Noir-The obvious example is Frank Miller’s Sin City (a movie I liked but didn’t love) and his new kind-of-crappy-looking The Spirit. The best of the best is The Dark Knight, a film that really is noir to its bones.

Western Noir-Prime examples would be Pursued (1947) starring Robert Mitchum, and The Furies (1950) directed by Anthony Mann. The darkest, bleakest Western ever made was probably Monte Hellman’s 1967 The Shooting starring Jack Nicholson. The best example of modern Western noir would have to be Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Blanc/Noir-Okay, I just made this one up, but I’ve noticed a lot of neo-noirs are set in the snow. Transsiberian is just the most recent. See also A Simple Plan (an underrated masterpiece, by the way), The Ice Harvest, Insomnia, and Fargo.

***

Finally, here's nice interview with Emily Mortimer about Transsiberian.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Psycho (1960)




Note: If you have somehow never seen Psycho, beware of the following. I discuss plot points—big, important plot points—freely. You’re a lucky devil if you have never seen this movie before. Go see it before you read this. Really. It’s great. Don’t ruin it.

When people write about Psycho they tend to focus on its place in movie history. It’s easy to understand why. Alfred Hitchcock’s low budget thriller marked a turning point in the history of film on numerous counts. Most obviously, the film reformulated the idea of what you could or could not show on screen. It gave birth to slasher flicks like Friday the Thirteenth, which in turn gave birth to torture porn like Hostel. This is a dubious legacy, but there you go. Psycho also interestingly represented one of the last great gasps of black & white cinematography. In 1960 when Hitchcock made Psycho, most mainstream American films had switched to color, and Hitchcock himself would never shoot another feature in b&w. Finally, Psycho’s marketing was a such a huge success (the film made the equivalent of 300 million dollars in America alone, on a shooting budget of less than a million dollars) it can been seen as one of the progenitors of modern blockbuster. In that way, Psycho gave birth to Jaws which set the stage for Star Wars.

That’s all very interesting, but when you see the film again, something odd happens. You realize what a peculiar movie this is. Psycho is a truly weird in a way that it’s violent offspring are not. It begins in a hotel room where a man and woman have just had some afternoon sex. They have a stilted conversation (which sounds as if it were dubbed through a bucket). She rushes back to her office in time to meet her nervous little boss’s rich new client. The client has clearly had a few drinks. He waves around some cash. $40,000 in hundred dollar bills. The woman steals the money and takes off on the road. A cop questions her. She sells her car and the salesman is suspicious. She drives on, not knowing for sure where she’s going. It begins to rain, and she accidently gets off the main highway and ends up in the middle of nowhere. Then she sees a sign for the Bates Motel.

Note: Do not read the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie. I ain’t gonna tell you again.

Up to this point (about the thirty minute mark) the film has been about the woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). We like her. Her story is interesting, but where is it going? As we all know, her story ends in the shower of Room #1 of the Bates Motel. She meets a sick man named Norman Bates who has a nice conversation with Marion when she checks in to the motel, fixes her dinner, watches her undress through a peephole, then puts on his dead mother’s old dress and stabs Marion to death in the shower with a butcher knife the size of sword. With Marion dead, we now transfer our sympathy to the only other person we know: Norman Bates.

After all these years, Psycho still has the power to shock. Most of us have seen more movie gore than Hitchcock’s fertile, violent mind probably ever imagined, but his film isn’t about gore. It’s about that shift in perspective (which owes a lot to Psycho’s screenwriter Joseph Stefano). We don’t want to identify with Norman Bates, but when Marion dies, we immediately begin to…well, I was going to write that we root for him, but that’s not quite right. We don’t want Norman to get away with his crimes. When a private detective (Martin Balsam) comes to the Bates Motel looking into Marion’s disappearance, we don’t want Norman to kill him. When Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) comes looking for her, we don’t want to see her hurt either. Yet, we identify with him because after Marion’s death, we see every scene through Norman’s eyes. We share his secret.

The most famous scene in the movie (perhaps the most famous scene in any movie) is, of course, the shower scene. But look at the scenes which follow it, the scenes of Norman discovering Marion’s body after his “mother” has killed her. These scenes, in which Norman cleans the room, disposes of the evidence, and sinks Marion and her car into a swamp, are some of the best of their kind ever filmed. We have just witnessed a horrible event, but with these scenes we are witnessing something almost as distressing. We’re seeing a madman go about his work, not the insane part but the boring old work that someone must do in order to be insane and not get caught. Yet you can’t stop watching these parts, the weird way in which the normal becomes the bizarre. We’re watching Norman Bates mop a floor, and it’s fascinating.

Norman was played by Anthony Perkins, a congenitally underrated actor, who became the poster child for typecasting after this movie. How could this guy ever play anyone else? In the minds of most people, Perkins pretty much became Norman Bates. Even when he starred in something great like Welles’ The Trial (a movie in which Perkins is excellent) most people can’t shake Norman Bates out of their minds. It’s not just the murders that Bates/Perkins commits; it’s the way he creeps out Marion when they talk over sandwiches and milk. He tells her about his insane mother. When Marion gently suggests that he might have to the old lady put away, Norman’s face darkens, his voice rising and getting faster as he talks about society’s intolerance and the way people look down their noses and “cluck their thick tongues.” Perkins is intense and scary in the part, but most of the time he’s likable and goofy, a childlike man who is sad and scary because he doesn’t know he’s a murderer.

That’s the real power of Psycho: the way in which it marks the crossroads between the old and the new, between what is known and not known, between what we fear and what we don’t even expect.

***

Hitchcock has been written about more than any other director in the history of film. Here's a link to a forum of scholars who study his work.

For even more on Hitchcock, check out this great page.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ricardo Montalban: A Groundbreaker in Dark City


Like most people my age, I grew up with two images of Ricardo Montalban (who died Wednesday at the age of 88). One, he was the old guy on Fantasy Island. Much more importantly, he was Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I don't have much to say about Fantasy Island because I only saw it a few times when I was a kid. Of Star Trek II, I can say this: his performance elevates the whole film. I'm not a Trekker, but perhaps that's my main qualification for recommending that movie. As a non-aficionado, I can testify that it's an exciting piece of science fiction and that Montalban is excellent in it. Take my word on that for what it's worth.

I know a lot more about film noir than I do science fiction, however, and on this subject I can highly recommend a couple of films you might be interested in. In the late forties and early fifties, Ricardo Montalban put in some time in the land of perpetual night, turning in good performances in two enjoyable noirs directed and shot by some of the genre's masters.

The first noir was Border Incident (1949), which was probably the best noir about illegal immigration (yes, there were others) made in during the classic period. It was directed by Anthony Mann and lensed by the incomparable John Alton. It's a good piece of work, with Montalban starring as Mexican agent who goes undercover to bust a gang of crooks who sneak migrant workers into the country and then double cross them once they get here. It's interesting to see this issue play out in a late-forties drama, and even more interesting to see Montalban's portrayal as the upright Mexican lawman.

His other film noir was the superior Mystery Street (1950) directed by John Sturges. Here Montalban is in Boston trying to track down a killer. The film (like Border Incident) is notable mainly for Alton's incredible lighting, but Mystery Street, in its way, also marks an interesting progression in the depiction of race in American films. Here's an American mystery story from 1950 where the hero is a Hispanic-American. It's not even part of the plot; he's just the good guy. Montalban might be best remembered as either an old dude in a white suit or as Captain Kirk's archnemisis, but fans of classic film would be well-served to check out his contributions to film noir.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

He Walked By Night (1948)

Like a lot of noirs, He Walked By Night begins as a quasi-documentary about the police force. It seems as if every third noir begins this way: bombastic, asinine narration about the brave men of the police department (or the FBI, or the border patrol, or whatever other government entity the production code required the filmmakers to suck up to), cheesy patriotic music, and boring footage of cops shuffling papers. This style—heavy handed and, well, square—represents probably the single greatest obstacle toward the enjoyment of many film noirs. But as you watch this process unfold in film after film, you begin to realize something deliciously wicked going on underneath. After the initial J. Edgar Hoover ass-kissing, many noirs get down to the business of subverting the hell out of everything the reassuring narration has told us. In a weird way, it’s as if the narration only works to establish the placid surface the movie seeks to disrupt.

This was never truer than with He Walked By Night. The movie begins as a police procedural, but we never get to know, much less empathize with, any of the cops. About halfway through the movie, there’s an interesting and unintentionally revealing scene (at least I assume it wasn’t intended) in which the filmmakers make a belated attempt to establish Scott Brady’s cop as a character. After this scene, however, the attempt is pretty much abandoned. In real life, Brady was the younger brother of noir icon Lawrence Tierney, but unlike his brother Brady never had much in the way of onscreen charisma. Here he is supposed to represent normal society, but—despite the opening narration—the film simply seems uninterested in normal society and Brady doesn’t have much to do.

The person we end up pulling for—because we spend time with him and because, in a perverse touch, he is by far the smartest person in the movie—is the cop-killing psycho played in a star-making turn by Richard Basehart. Basehart was a fine, underrated actor, whose specialty was playing unhinged characters (Fourteen Hours, The House on Telegraph Hill). Here he gets to play a full-fledged sociopath, the kind of character who we hadn’t seen much of prior to 1948 but who was beginning to gain a lot of traction in American films. The subversive touch of this film—whether intentional or not—is that this character is the center of the story.

If we never care about the police procedural stuff—all of which is written, shot and acted in monotones—then what we are thrilled by are the richly evocative night scenes of Basehart trying to avoid capture. Because we identify with Basehart and he seems to live at night, the film seems dead in the daytime, only to spring to life when the sun goes down. These scenes are photographed by the great John Alton as if he were documenting the wanderings of a vampire. Indeed, He Walked by Night contains some of Alton’s finest work in film noir. The movie’s final descent into the sewers, in particular, is shot brilliantly and is every inch as good as the far more famous sewer chase in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

These final scenes drive home our identification with Basehart. While his pursuers remain strangely anonymous, we stayed focused on him. He has outwitted them the entire movie, and he very nearly gets away. He is undone not by any mistake on his part, nor by the hardworking police that the narration praises, but by the sheer dumb luck of a car parked on a manhole cover. When the cops gun him down at the end (and surely I’m giving nothing away by telling you that) the movie slams to a close. That’s its final irony: once the psycho is dead there’s no one else in the movie we’d want to spend another minute with.




Sunday, January 11, 2009

Actors In Motion: The Art Of Movement and Meaning


This morning's Washington Post has an excellent essay on Cary Grant and the art of physical movement on screen. The author, Sarah Kaufman, posits that the defining difference between new movie stars and classic movie stars is they way they move across the screen. Kaufman argues that today's movie stars don't have the graceful flow of Grant (or, one could add, the rugged integrity of Gary Cooper or the pure sexual power of Marlene Dietrich).

One aspect that Kaufman underplays in her otherwise insightful essay is the way in which modern movies restrict actors. Classic filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Ford were interested in letting action play out in wide shots. Directors like Orson Welles, John Farrow, and Joseph H. Lewis were famous for shots that lasted five, eight, sometimes ten minutes. This allowed actors the chance to move around the space on screen, to use their entire body in performance. Today, mise en scene is largely a forgotten art. Filmmakers move their cameras in nearly every shot, they edit shots much quicker, and they rely heavily on the close-up. Watch something like The Dark Knight again and notice how short the average shot is. I don't know what to make of this exactly. I like the quick moving film if it's well done, but we lost something when filmmakers gave up on long, wide shots. For one thing, those kinds of set ups demand more out of the audience. We have more of a share in the action on screen, more responsibility to interpret meaning.

Look at an important scene from John Ford's The Searchers. After a long absence, John Wayne has come to his brother's ranch to visit. His brother's family gathers around the breakfast table to eat when a lawman played Ward Bond shows up to recruit men to investigate an Indian attack at another ranch. Wayne gets up to go. His brother's wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan) gets his coat, stroking it gently for just a moment. Bond, drinking a cup of coffee, sees her but barely reacts. He just takes a deeper pull off his coffee. Wayne gently kisses Martha on the forehead and leaves. This is done in just three shots. What is the relationship between John Wayne and his brother's wife? What does Ward Bond infer from what he's seen? This is a magnificent scene, subtle and rich with meaning (with deeper resonance as the film progresses). Moreover, Ford trusts the viewer to read the action and interpret it. The relationship between Wane and Dorothy Jordan is never underlined in a closeup. Nor is Ward Bond's respect for the intimate and probably unconsummated passion between these two people. Through Ford's blocking--and the exquisite body control of Wayne, Jordan and Bond--we have a three-way psychological exchange full of meaning and subtext.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Altars of Forgotten Women



Lizabeth Scott (top) and Joan Dixon

One of the sad ironies of film noir is that many of its icons were never stars in their lifetime. More than any other genre, stardom in noir is retroactive. Someone like Ann Savage had only the most fleeting taste of fame in her youth before Hollywood showed her the door. Yet, Savage was one the lucky people who lived to see her fame catch up to her. A cheap little sixty-seven minute crime picture called Detour—a picture Savage appears in for all of thirty minutes—somehow endured and prospered over the years. Savage was in her sixties and working as a secretary when she discovered that she was at the center of a cult.

Savage’s cult is just a faction of something larger called film noir, which is, among other things, largely a cult of forgotten women. Savage was not alone in finding herself as an object of worship. Within this convocation there are many different sects, sects with passionately devoted followers. Actresses like Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Janis Carter, and Lizabeth Scott all have legions of admirers. None of them were really stars in their day, but their movies have a life all their own. Long after their careers fizzled out, sometimes after their own deaths, some actresses finally became stars. That just about defines the word bittersweet.

Of course, major stars like Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland experience the same life after death effect, and a select few even seem to reach beyond mere stardom and become a part of the larger shared consciousness of society. You could argue, at this point in Western culture, that Marilyn Monroe is nearly as iconic as the Virgin Mary.

Yet film noir is a genre born out of B-movie obscurity. Lizabeth Scott will never be as famous as Marilyn Monroe, but she is the queen of her own dark little corner of Dreamtown. She starred in more film noirs than nearly anyone else—and she was also unique in that her filmography consists mostly of noirs. She only made a handful of movies that didn’t involve people betraying each other and ending up gutshot at the end. She played the entire range of characters available to actresses in the genre, from doe-eyed innocents (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Company She Keeps) to world-weary lounge singers (Dark City, I Walk Alone) to cold-blooded femme fatales (Too Late For Tears, Stolen Face). She starred in one of the genre’s real lowlights, the misogynistic Dead Reckoning. She starred in what maybe the campiest noir ever made, the hilarious Desert Fury. Perhaps most importantly, she starred in two of the finest noirs we have, Andre De Toth’s Pitfall and Byron Haskin’s Too Late For Tears.

To understand the appeal of Liz Scott, one only need to look at those last two films. In the first, she plays a woman named Mona Stevens who falls into an affair with a married man played by Dick Powell. Their affair is discovered by a psychotic private detective (played by Raymond Burr) who is obsessed with Mona and proceeds to make life hell for everyone involved. The cast here is superb, and at the center , in a performance of great sympathy, is Lizabeth Scott. She makes Mona a sexy woman (which must have been fairly easy since Scott herself was gorgeous, blonde, and had a voice that was equal parts cigarettes and silk), but she also makes Mona a sad woman. Loneliness is the undercurrent of Scott's voice, the thing that pulls you further down into her trap. Even when she’s happy, you can tell that Scott is afraid of the worst. In Pitfall, she pretty much gets the worst at the hands of thoughtless men.

In Too Late For Tears, she gets her revenge. As housewife turned criminal Jane Palmer, Scott creates a portrait of coolheaded evil. Jane and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving home one night when someone tosses a briefcase full of money into their car. Is the money a payment for a ransom? Perhaps a blackmail payoff? Alan doesn’t care, he just wants to turn the money over to the cops. His wife, ah, disagrees. She’s willing to do anything to keep the cash, even after slimy crook Dan Duryea shows up looking for it and slaps her around. Neither the crook nor the husband have any idea who they’re dealing with in Jane Palmer. These guys are toast. With her performance, Scott makes a pretty good grab for the most evil femme fatale on record, yet she also makes Jane Palmer curiously relatable. Again, there’s that sadness, that aching, unfulfilled need at the center of Lizabeth Scott that comes through in her performance. Jane Palmer is evil, yes, but she’s also smart, dogged, and utterly human.

It is, after all, humanity that is the great appeal of the forgotten women of film noir, our sense that we’re seeing a human being alive onscreen. Movies of the forties and fifties were made to be dreamlike, and all these years later they still seem like dreams. The dreams hook us; the humanity makes us obsessives, worshipers at the altar. Who was this woman? we ask. Not just Queen Liz (who, happily, is still alive), but so many others. We watch them laugh and cry and scheme and die and then we watch them do it all over again. It doesn’t take much to hook us.

Take Joan Dixon. In 1951 she starred in a vastly underrated film noir called Roadblock alongside Charles McGraw. She plays Diane, a sexy conwoman who marries a straight-laced insurance investigator name Joe Peters, a marriage that will have disastrous results. Joan Dixon strolls through this movie as if she’s one of the great femme fatales. It’s not just that she’s beautiful, it’s that she projects that essential combination of intoxicating sexual allure and an untouchable, unknowable center. Is Diane bad? It’s tough to say. Dixon might be criticized for giving a performance that's too laid back, but I would argue that very ambiguity is her greatest attribute. She doesn’t set out to ruin Joe Peters, but once she meets him, he’s a goner. It’s an interesting take on the femme fatale. Many femmes are man-eating monsters. Diane is different. She’s a catalyst who opens up all the insecurity and greed buried beneath honest Joe Peters’ upright façade. It takes quite a gal to destroy Charles McGraw. Joan Dixon does it without really trying.

One thing’s for sure: she never had much of a career in Hollywood. She started out at RKO under contract to Howard Hughes (which was not somewhere a fresh-faced twenty-year old from Norfolk, Virginia wanted to find herself). Hughes promised to build her career, but he was too busy running RKO into the ground. Dixon spent most of her time in low budget westerns and ended her acting career in the late fifties doing bit parts on television. By then, she’d become a lounge singer and was mostly notable in the newspapers for a string of quick marriages and messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992.

Yet she lives on in this little-seen masterpiece. Her fame hasn’t happened yet, unlike Ann Savage or Lizabeth Scott. Even in the insular world of film noir, Joan Dixon isn’t an icon—yet. I have faith, however, that her cult is coming. If there’s one thing that you can learn from the history of noir, it’s that there’s always time.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

SPECIAL: A Look Back At 2008


It should come as a surprise to no one that I prefer old movies to new movies. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, most of the time when you see an old movie it is because that film has managed to survive for x-number of years. Most movies are failures of one kind or another, so when you see something that’s fifty years old it is usually because only the best films withstand the slow death of history. Granted, not every old movie is as good as Out Of The Past, High Noon or Meet Me In St. Louis. Not every old movie is masterpiece, but the chances are pretty good that the film will be worth seeing. In contrast, when you see a new movie, it’s a virgin experiment. Maybe it will be worth seeing and maybe it won’t.

Having said that, movies—at least in my humble opinion—simply aren’t as good as they once were. In some respects filmmaking has improved, but I would submit that one area of filmmaking that has disintegrated is in the simple art of storytelling. Film, at least as most of us care to understand it, is a storyteller’s medium. Films from the classic period (the 30s, 40s and 50s) evolved out of literature, theater, art, and photography. Films today are often derived from television, comic books, video games, and other movies. I don’t mean to issue an across the board denigration of modern film when I point out that films used to be smarter than they are now. That’s a simple fact, as far as I’m concerned.

And yet, the movies continue. Every week sees new releases. New filmmakers emerge all the time, and great films, I’m thrilled to say, are made every year. Every years brings crap, too, of course. This year was no different. Here then is a look back at 2008, a year we must already confine to that ever-expanding library known as The Past.

Frozen River-This was probably the best new movie I saw this year. It starred Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, a poor woman living near the Mohawk reservation on the border between New York and Canada. She meets a poor Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) who convinces Ray to use her car to transport illegal immigrants across a frozen river that straddles the border. This film by first time director Courtney Hunt is a beautiful piece of work, by far the most suspenseful picture I saw in a theater this year. It’s also a compelling character study. Misty Upham is great as Lila, manipulative and sympathetic. And as Ray, Melissa Leo gives the year’s best performance (at least the best I saw). This is powerful screen acting of the highest caliber. That she will not win an Oscar in March tells you everything you need to know about what a bullshit façade the Oscars are.

The Dark Knight-A comic book movie that made a billion dollars would normally be a movie tailor-made for my contempt, but Christopher Nolan captured the Batman ethos in a way that no one else ever has (at least on film). This movie isn’t perfect (would it kill Nolan to actually film a decent fight scene?), but the good here far outweighs the bad. Christian Bale is the perfect Batman, a scarred but good man trying to walk an unwalkable line in a corrupt world rooting for his failure. The film belongs, as everyone, knows, to Heath Ledger who issues a performance as The Joker that has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s conception of centerless evil than it does with comic books. Ledger and Nolan created a character that transcended the movie, an image of evil that stays with you. They figured out early that The Joker isn’t funny; he’s scary.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull-This was the worst piece of shit I saw all year. I still maintain a great deal of fondness for the original Indy movies, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, but this was the most calculated, joyless, stupid, badly made marketing exercise imaginable. Spielberg and Ford should be ashamed of themselves, Lucas…god, what can you say him? George Lucas has devolved into a profoundly terrible filmmaker.

4 Months, 3Weeks and 2 Days-This was a Romanian film about two women trying to arrange for an abortion in Bucharest in 1987. It’s a deeply unsettling movie, superbly acted by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, and deftly directed by Cristian Mungui. The subject matter might sound either depressing or like the set-up to a sermon, but it’s neither. It’s edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, and it’s the kind of suspense that comes from characters and the way their decisions play out in the real world.

Cassandra’s Dream and Vicky Christina Barcelona-It was a good year for Woody Allen, still pumping out movies like a one-man studio. Cassandra’s Dream was a thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as brothers who agree to commit a murder to pay off their debts. The movie got terrible reviews and did crappy business at the box office (even by Allen’s usual standards), but it worked for me. Vicky Christina Barcelona got better reviews and did much better business, and I liked it. It marked Allen’s return to comedy after his dreadful 2007 career-nadir, Scoop. Neither of these movies were Allen at his best, but they show that he’s still in the game.

Stop-Loss-This was the year’s biggest disappointment for me. I’m a firm believer that director Kimberly Pierce made a masterpiece with her first film, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, and I’ve been waiting patiently for her follow-up. This Iraq drama, however, is—how else to put this—sophomoric. It’s too pretty, too contrived, and, worst of all, too conventional. It’s a bad film by any measure, but it was a serious letdown coming from such a talented filmmaker. I’m waiting to see what Pierce does next. Hope springs eternal.

The Fall-In a better world, this movie would have made a billion dollars. It’s the story of a man telling a little girl a fairy tale, a fairy tale we see brought to life in the richest, most gorgeous images I saw this year. This film is the best advertisement available for color cinematography. It’s also a pretty good advertisement for whimsy. Alas, here’s all you need to know about how much the world sucks: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull made 786 million dollars worldwide. The Fall made 3 million dollars. If you like the kind of movies normally referred to as “visual feasts”—The Wizard of Oz or Pan’s Labyrinth—then you will want to seek this movie out immediately. I’m sorry if you didn’t see it in the theater. It was a pretty damn good argument for the big screen, too.

Savage Grace-This was another long-awaited disappointment. I’m a big fan of Tom Kalin’s 1992 cult film Swoon, and I’ve hoped for a long time that he would get a chance to make another feature. This movie, however, is a long, depressing slog with some extremely unlikable people. I guess that was supposed to be the point. The film tells the story of the remarkably dysfunctional Baekeland family, a moneyed clan given to incest, betrayal and murder. The movie is well-acted by Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, but to what end? I have a cast-iron stomach for unlikable characters, but watching this movie was like being trapped in a country house with a group of narcissistic psychopaths.

My Winnipeg-The Return of Ann Savage. Noir geeks worship at the altars of forgotten women, women who never made it as movie stars and then receded into oblivion until they were rediscovered by weird guys (like yours truly). Ann Savage was the star of 1945’s Detour, a 68-minute B-movie masterpiece about a very, very mean woman. Here she is sixty-three years later in Guy Maddin’s wonderful homage to dreams, history, family, and a very, very mean old woman. Savage died a few days ago, on Christmas. As a tribute, check out this terrific little movie.

Burn After Reading-The Coen Brothers’ dark comedy is as nihilistic as No Country For Old Men. It is, in fact, their darkest comedy yet. That’s not to say it’s their best. It lacks the huge laughs of The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona, but in its uneven off-tone way, it’s a lot of fun. Kudos to the cast, particularly George Clooney as a Treasury agent obsessed with sex, cheese, and quality flooring, and Brad Pitt as a fitness obsessed goofball. John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton bring real rage to their roles of an unhappily married couple, so much rage, in fact, that it throws the movie off. Not a great movie—maybe even a failure—but interesting nevertheless.

Appaloosa-Ed Harris directed this adaptation of the Western novel by Robert B. Parker (one of the great underrated entertainers working in the printed word, by the way). This is a nice, old fashioned Western costarring Viggo Mortensen and Harris as a couple of hired guns who get involved with the proverbial evil rancher played with relish by Jeremy Irons. “Old fashioned” here means that the movie is about characters and their values in conflict with each other. It has a lot in common in Costner’s Open Range, though it lacks that film’s all-time great shoot-out at the end. That’s okay. The end here is based as much on character as it is on guns.

Religulous-Bill Maher is an asshole, there’s no way around it, but his comic-essay on the shortfalls of religion (directed by Larry Charles) is a very funny film that hopscotches around the world profaning the sacred. Maher talks to a dude playing Jesus at a Christian theme park, a guy running an “ex-gay” ministry, a Holocaust-denying rabbi, some dour Muslims, some happy ex-Mormons. It all plays like a cross between Borat and Christopher Hitchens.

Man On Wire-A documentary about Philippe Petit, the tightrope-walker who managed in 1974 to sneak into the World Trade Center and walk between the Twin Towers. The feat was amazing, and the story of his break-in with the help of a large number of accomplices plays like a heist film. It all doesn’t add up to much (like the act itself), but it’s a fun story.

Quantum Of Solace-I’ve already written about this, but just to recap: I liked it more than a lot of people.

Rachel Getting Married-I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Demme’s family drama. The acting here is superb, particularly by Rosemarie DeWitt as the much imposed-upon Rachel, Anne Hathaway as her drug-addict/train wreck of a sister Kim, Bill Irwin as their emotionally scarred father, and Tunde Adebimpe in a subtle performance as Rachel's understanding husband-to-be. Demme, working from Jenny Lumet’s script, does a good job of juggling all these characters and more, but I got sick of Kim, the narcissist drug-addict sister. The film does something smart, though, because while it makes her the main character, it also positions her inside a story that is not really about her. She's part of an ensemble (like we all are in life), but like a lot of drug addicts I’ve known, Kim can't quite figure out that other people have emotions and thoughts that are not focused on her. Some scenes go on too long, and Kim gets annoying, all of which—I believe—is intended. So here you have a film that is smart, funny, and moving but also gets long-winded and irritating on purpose. That’s why I say I have mixed feelings. I usually have mixed feeling about weddings, too.

Frost/Nixon-Here was a good movie, well-acted and well-directed that nevertheless left me a little cold. It tells the behind the scenes story of the famous television interview in which David Frost (Michael Sheen) managed to wiggle a pseudo-confession out of disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). I have a feeling this all worked better on stage. Part of the problem is that screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan has to work with Nixon’s actual words from the interview, and at the end of the day Nixon didn’t really cop to much. Ron Howard does a craftsmanlike job of cranking up the tension, but at the end, all it amounts to, really, is that a lying politician briefly expresses remorse for some vague wrongdoings connected to Watergate. It’s not like he said he was wrong for destroying Cambodia. Not a bad film, but it’s been overpraised by a lot of people.

Valkyrie-Here’s the thing: Germans didn’t speak English with German accents, so director Bryan Singer decided to forgo accents when he shot his thriller about an attempt to kill Hitler. Everyone speaks with their natural accents (American for star Tom Cruise, English for Kenneth Branagh and Tom Wilkinson)--Kubrick did the same thing in Paths of Glory. I bring this up because it curiously seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people. Too bad, because this is a tight little piece of work that fans of the director’s The Usual Suspects will want to see. Cruise—perhaps finally sensing that he has turned himself into a walking punch line—keeps his head down and gets the job done as a one-eyed, one-armed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The key to the movie’s appeal is two-fold: one, Stauffenberg’s plan to kill Hitler was ingenious (kill Hitler with a bomb, then frame the Gestapo and use the Fuhrer’s own anti-coup backup force—Operation Valkyrie—to take over the government). The second part of the film’s appeal is that we know the plan will fail. Knowing it will fail just makes the movie all the more suspenseful.

Gran Torino-Clint Eastwood is a great director, but he’s not a very deep thinker. You can see this dichotomy at work in a lot of his films (particularly in Million-Dollar Baby). He’s a skilled director of actors and he’s a meticulous storyteller (Unforgiven, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County) , but if a deep-seated complexity is not present in the script he doesn’t always manage to find it in the course of filming. His latest film is a good example of what I’m talking about. Here he plays a racist old Korean war veteran named Walt who begrudgingly befriends the Hmong family that moves in next door, particularly the teenage daughter (played by a luminous young actress named Ahney Her) and her younger brother (played by Bee Vang). The family is threatened by a gang of Asian toughs, so Walt sets out to protect them. Eastwood gets good performances from everyone (and Eastwood himself is excellent), and the movie has moments of real humor and pathos, but there’s a certain thinness to what’s going on here. The ending avoids the Dirty Harry payoff it seems to promise, but I’m not sure its substitute has much more to say to us than a conventional gunfight would. There are racial themes here worth thinking about, but Eastwood doesn’t grapple with the underlying problems of the character. Is this film a thriller or a drama? I’m not sure. It works as both for a while, but as a drama it falls short. I won’t give away plot points, but if you see the film ask yourself about the character played by Ahney Her. She’s the most likable character here, played by an actress of beauty and grace, but why does the movie lose track of her? When does it cease to find her interesting? Is she just there to set-up a plot point for the men to resolve violently? I don’t think this is intentional oversight on Eastwood’s part, but that’s just the point. This film opens a lot of issues, but it doesn’t handle them.

Doubt-A priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is suspected of molesting the only black student at a Catholic school in the Bronx in the winter of 1964. The person doing the suspecting is the nun (Meryl Streep) who runs the school. These two go at each other with teeth bared, while in the middle are the boy (Joseph Foster), his mother (Viola Davis) and a young nun (Amy Adams). Did Hoffman do it? Is Streep persecuting him for reasons of her own? What is the proper balance between certainty and doubt? Some people have found the movie either too bound to the stage play or too eager to break free from the stage (i.e. director/playwright John Patrick Shanley tilts his camera a lot), but I loved every minute. The cast is superb. Streep and Hoffman are both actors who are so good they’re often undervalued. That’s too bad. Streep is a living legend who always shows up to work. Her work here is terrific. And Hoffman is simply the best actor we have working in America today. Only he and Shanley know for sure whether or not his character is a child molester, and their refusal to tell us—thereby forcing us to wrestle with our own perceptions, fears, and convictions—is brave. A great movie.

Standard Operating Procedure-This was the toughest documentary I saw all year. Errol Morris’s unflinching look at the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib uses interviews with most of the major players involved (including torture poster girl Lynndie England). These people, from Generals to interrogators to disgraced Privates, paint a disturbing picture of what was going on under the banner of the American flag in Iraq. Morris pieces together what happened and the results are a harrowing look at war, group-think, and the policies of the Bush administration.

The Wrestler-I’ll admit it, I love movies about broken down old men. I’m not sure what it is about watching some past-his-prime old-timer grappling with his failing body—perhaps it’s a unconscious desire to face my own eventual decline with some measure of honesty. Maybe it’s deeper and darker, a latent desire for decline. Here’s what I know for sure: with The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky has made one of the great Broken Down Old Man movies. It’s not surprising since, if you look at his past credits, Aronofsky clearly likes tales of disintegration (Requiem for a Dream is two hours of people falling apart). Here he casts Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pro-wrestler about twenty years past his fame’s expiration date. He’s still wrestling at small, bloody, brutal venues. His life is a mess, and it’s getting worse, but The Ram keeps on going, doing the only thing he knows to do: shooting steroids and letting himself be bashed over the head with chairs. The Wrestler isn’t perfect (the subplot involving Randy’s resentful daughter feels rote), but it’s still pretty wonderful. I could not care less about wrestling, but the film’s depiction of that world has the feel of a great documentary. By the end of The Wrestler, The Ram’s story has real emotional kick. He’s just a washed up wrestler, true, but embodied magnificently by Mickey Rourke, he becomes a very relatable warrior: a broken down old man raging against the dying of the light.

I see more movies than most people, but man does not live on cinema alone (at least when he’s not getting paid for it). I mean, look at all I missed:

· The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

· Snow Angels

· Wall-E

· Transsiberian

· Milk

· Changeling

· Synecdoche, New York

· Slumdog Millionaire

· The Reader

· Che

· The Class

· Wendy and Lucy

There is still time, of course. January will be a good month for flicks if I can see any of the above.

And finally, just for fun, here’s a very incomplete list of stuff I didn’t see because I had no desire at all to see it:

· Iron Man

· The Incredible Hulk

· Punisher: War Zone

· Hancock

· The Spirit

· Yes Man

· Seven Pounds

· Australia

· Righteous Kill

· Body of Lies

· Swing Vote

You could add to the above list just about every other movie released this year. Ah, but what a year it’s been in the classics. That’s the thing with loving great old movies, they stay great. Every year is a good one.