Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Big Heat (1953): A Dissenting Opinion

It’s taken me a long time to figure out why I don’t love Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. It’s a good movie, and its noir bona fides are beyond question. Somehow, though, it has just never struck me as being quite the masterpiece it’s been made out to be by some people.

You can certainly see why the film is so highly regarded. It tells the story of an honest police sergeant named Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is investigating the suicide of another cop. The dead cop, it turns out, was mixed up with some highly placed criminals, including Mike Lagana (sleazy Alexander Scourby) and his psychotic henchman Vince Stone (hyper-sleazy Lee Marvin). When Bannion gets too close to their operation, they plant a bomb in his car that accidently kills Bannion’s wife (Jocelyn Brando). Bannion swears revenge and starts smashing his way up the criminal food chain until he finds the men who killed his wife. He’s helped along the way by Vince Stone’s disenchanted girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), but when Vince finds out about Debby’s betrayal he throws a scalding pot of coffee in her face. Vince will live to regret he did that.

Fritz Lang directed the film in high style, and many people consider it his noir masterpiece (though I've always been partial to Scarlet Street). Now, as a human being, Fritz Lang was pretty much a son of a bitch, and as an artist he pretty much presented a son of a bitch’s view of the world. His noir work—indeed, most of his work—is notable for its unforgiving, violent view of human nature. In Lang’s films, people are selfish, mean, and naturally given to violence. If the scenes of Bannion’s idyllic home life seem too good to be true, it might be because Lang thought they were. Of course, the real reason these scenes exist is to create a contrast with Bannion’s job, a job that requires him to leave his home in the middle of the night and go to a nightclub to meet a woman who claims she was the dead cop’s mistress. This contrast, however, only works up to a point because the scenes with Bannion and his wife and daughter are so forced and gooey. The film seems particularly at a loss as to how to deal with the daughter. Once her mother is dead, the little girl seems totally unfazed. To cover this, we’re told that she thinks her mother is “away on a trip.” Really? I mean, the family car exploded outside her bedroom window. Her father is anguished. They have to move out of their home and into a hotel. And she’s still jumping into his arms and asking for bedtime stories? Kids in noirs are generally stupid, but Bannion’s daughter is may well be their idiot queen.

If Lang seems uncomfortable in the domestic scenes, he hits his stride once Bannion sets out to get revenge on the crooks who killed his wife. Lang was a master of mood and action, and this film has all the atmosphere and ass-kicking you could want out of a classic film noir. It has a surprising sexuality, too. The scene where Bannion takes Debby up to his hotel room to talk has an unmistakable sexual pull. She kneels on the bed and more or less offers to sleep with him. He’s having none of it. All he wants is to mess up the crooks who killed his wife. The Big Heat has a brilliantly simple conceit at its center: a cop loses his wife and is left with nothing else but being a cop. The film’s abrupt final scene sets this theme down in stone. The film, as many people have noted, really set the standard for Dirty Harry and all the righteous renegade cop movies that came after it. Notice how Bannion addresses every criminal in the movie by the pejorative “thief”—as in “You’re outta business, thief.” Listen to how Ford spits out that word and you can hear the embryo of Eastwood’s “Well, do ya, punk?”

Ford, an underrated participant in so many noirs (including Human Desire, with Grahame and Lang again), is excellent here. His everyman face belied an intrinsically introspective quality as an actor, and here he seems to be imploding with rage. Likewise, Grahame is perfectly cast as the floozy girlfriend who doesn’t realize that her good luck and easy life have already come to an end. She spends the last third of the movie with her face half-concealed in bandages, and the scenes where she sets out to get her revenge—armed with a mink coat, a gun, and a boiling pot of coffee—are classic.

And yet, the last half of the movie always disappoints me. These scenes lack a payoff for Bannion’s hunt for the killers. I always forget exactly who killed his wife and what happens to the killer in the end (he’s just a punk who’s killed, off screen, by Stone and his thugs). Lagana, the crime lord, is busted off screen. That leaves Stone, the coffee-tossing psycho played by Marvin, to bear the brunt of the retribution. Yet, what leads up to this? The timing of the final confrontation seems arbitrary, and besides, Stone’s comeuppance comes at the hands of Debby. That’s as it should be considering what Debby’s been through, but what happened to Bannion’s obsessive quest to avenge his wife? The movie is over before it seems to finish.

I suspect that some people would argue that The Big Heat’s lack of closure is a strength rather than a weakness. To me, though, it feels more like an oversight. Because of the quality of the filmmaking, the final effect of the film is still quite strong. As I said at the outset, this is a good film, even a very good film. But I don’t think it’s a great one.


For a much more positive look at the film, here's a piece from Bright Lights Film Journal.

Finally, here's an excellent piece on Gloria Grahame. I wanted to concentrate on other aspects of The Big Heat, but she was one of the great women of noir. I always think of her as noir's archetypal fallen woman. This piece gets at that quality, I think.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Company She Keeps (1951)

One of the ways film noir rewards obsession is to keep providing new combinations of your favorite ingredients. Something like John Cromwell's The Company She Keeps wasn’t designed to reward obsessive fans of Lizabeth Scott and Jane Greer by pairing them together—it should be remembered that neither actress was ever really a star and both were having career trouble by 1951—and yet here they are, two of the great women of noir locked together in a dark drama. For good measure, the movie even throws in Dennis O’Keefe and the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca.

Alas, the resulting film is deeply flawed, if still enjoyable. Greer stars as Mildred Lynch, a parolee who relocates to a new town, becomes a nurse’s aide at a hospital, and sets out to steal Larry, the boyfriend of her parole officer, Joan Wilburn. She succeeds in whisking Larry away from Joan, but at the same time she gets caught up in a dragnet designed to catch her friend Tilly, a fellow parolee who has been stealing supplies from the hospital. Will she go to jail? Will Joan step in to help her?

This is all pretty low voltage stuff. Director John Cromwell could be an efficient enough craftsman—as he is here—but he never brought a lot to a movie. If he had a bad script (as with the execrable Dead Reckoning) he was helpless. Here the script is by Ketti Frings, a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright who occasionally slummed it in Hollywood (she also wrote Dark City and The Accused). While her specialty was writing pictures featuring female protagonists, she never really distinguished herself at the job, and interestingly, the main problem with The Company She Keeps is that the roles haven’t been developed enough. This is particularly a problem in regards to Joan, the parole officer played by Lizabeth Scott.

As written, directed, and acted, Joan is just really, really nice. She seems to want to be Mildred’s friend, to help her, to show her the way to a happy life. Hell, Joan’s not even particularly upset when Mildred steals Larry (O’Keefe, serviceable in an underwritten part). She’s not mad at Mildred, and she’s not mad at Larry. She doesn’t even get mad when they announce they’re getting married. By the end of the film, you half expect her to be Mildred’s maid of honor.

There are a couple of huge problems with this, not the least of which is that she is supposed to be a parole officer. Did it occur to no one during the making of this film that parole officers are a bunch of hardasses? Scott could have played the role that way, certainly, but as written, Joan is a lovely, nicely dressed, well-mannered lady. Scott plays her like a Sunday school teacher. Dramatically, this makes Joan the weak link. When she finds out she’s been betrayed, the ball is in her court, but because she doesn’t do much except wish Mildred luck, the plot has nowhere to go.

Which is a pity because as Mildred, Jane Greer seems to be chomping at the bit to do something. In the late forties, she had been essentially banished from films for rebuffing the advances of RKO studio head, and chief ladystalker, Howard Hughes. The Company She Keeps was something of a comeback for her. Of course, the role of the selfish, coldhearted Mildred was also something of a punishment, Hughes’ way of casting her to “type” as a woman without a soul. Luckily, Greer was a trooper and excelled at playing these roles. The part of Mildred is underwritten—we’re never really sure what she has against her angelic parole officer—but Greer tears into it, making the character a wounded animal who is doing all she can to survive. It is a performance in search of a better script.

So what appears at first glance to be a match made in heaven—Scott! Greer! O’Keefe!—instead fizzles to a close. That’s the flipside of a noir obsession (and, I guess, life itself): all the missed opportunities. Still, even though The Company She Keeps has uninspired direction and a limp script, the fiery performance by Greer and the moody lighting of the great Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, Roadblock) make it a movie worth seeing.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Notes On A Tough Guy's Legacy

I just finished Robert B Parker's new young adult novel Chasing The Bear. The book comes billed as a "Young Spenser" novel. For fans of Parker's perennial private eye series, the idea of a novel looking at Spenser's past will be hard to resist. Alas, the book isn't that great, even for the hardcore Spenser aficionados. It did get me thinking about Parker's legacy, however. Herewith are some thoughts:

1. Here's something obvious to even a causal observer:
Parker is insanely prolific. His first Spenser novel appeared in 1973. So far, there have been 36 novels. Chasing The Bear brings the total to 37, and a new Spenser adventure, The Professional, is due out in October. Since that time he's also written two other detective series, a western series, two sequels to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe series, a couple of young adult novels, and seven stand alone novels. All totalled, that's 64 pieces of long form fiction since 1973. And that tally doesn't include the four nonfiction books he's co-authored on subjects like weight-training and breast cancer, as well as a tour guide of Boston. That's an old school working writer, a man spinning out pop-pulp prose like a machine.

It ain't all good. One could make the argument that any author churning out that much prose is a hack. Parker is not a hack, but he's delivered more than one bad book. I tried the first Jesse Stone novel and gave up. I skimmed the odd Sunny Randall novel and never really gave them a chance. His Marlowe books are interesting but can't shake the smell of superfluousness. Even his thoroughbred, the Spenser series, has had a few stumbles. Am I incorrect to point out that his books that rely most heavily on Hawk aren't particularly very good? I'm thinking here of Double Deuce and Cold Service.

He's the great entertainer. One of the reasons Parker is a great writer is that for every half-assed book he's dashed off he's written two snappy pop-pulp masterpieces. The Spenser series is the most consistently reliable source of entertainment I've had in my life since I picked up Playmates when I was fifteen. I began devouring the books after that, and I've never lost my appetite for them. Parker's a formulaic author--no doubt about it--but it's a formula which keeps calling me back. To skim the surface of the formula: Spenser is a Boston private eye. He's hired in the first chapter or so to do a job (investigate a murder, provide protection, perform surveillance). Around chapter two or three he has dinner with his girlfriend Susan, a Boston shrink. In the ensuing chapters Spenser will begin his investigation, but the case will become unexpectedly complex. Normally, the crime will become bigger than it first appeared, usually with the appearance of numerous thugs, gangsters, or shady government operatives. Spenser will call in reinforcements, starting with Hawk, a hitman who has feelings only for Spenser and Susan. Parker's plots are never terribly important, so while he occasionally crafts a mystery, most of his plots are mere clotheslines for scenes. The scenes fall into a few well established types: Spenser and Susan flirting, Spenser and Susan psychoanalyzing the people they've encountered, action scenes (I've lost count of how many people Spenser's killed but it's well into the double digits), backtalk scenes in which Spenser insults cops, clients, gangsters, pompous businessmen, academics, or religious authorities. Parker writes great action, better dialog, and he drops the best quips in the business. We all wish we could talk to people this way. His books are often laugh out loud funny, but never get too cute.

He's something more than an entertainer. Parker took an idea that Chandler had--to use the private detective as a modern American heroic archetype--and burnished it into a shining suit of armor. Spenser is nothing less than Parker's conception of the perfect man. I have to say, he's pretty much my conception of the perfect man, as well. It's isn't that Spenser is a tough guy who cracks wise. Lots of authors have given us those kinds of characters. Parker's unique contribution to the field of private eye heroes is that Spenser is a complete man. He's sensitive without being wishy-washy. He's feminized without losing his masculinity. Spenser is tougher than Mike Hammer (Hammer's meaner, but Spenser would win a fight between the two), but he's also smarter and more knowledgeable about people. I'm not ashamed to say that I've learned as much about life from Parker's pop-pulp detective series as I have from any other author. Parker, a former boxer and weightlifter turned disgruntled PhD (the most consistently withering characterizations in his work are flaccid academics), married a shrink in real life and has two gay sons who are involved in the arts. He's the extremely rare crime writer who is as comfortable writing about femininity as he is writing about masculinity. He doesn't write about gender in terms of binaries; he judges men and women on the same scale of behavior. In Spenser's world, you either get it or you don't get it. Gender, race, position--none of it means much. Either you've kept your eyes opened and learned from what you've seen, or you've gotten drunk on lies and refused to think any further. Spenser doesn't seem politically correct, he just seems wise. You could never use that word to describe Mike Hammer.

Of course, perfection is a myth. One problem with
Chasing The Bear is that Spenser doesn't seem plausible as a fifteen year old boy. The book wants to show us how Spenser "became" Spenser, but he seems pretty much fully formed when we meet him. Worse, his back story involves a father and two uncles who themselves are examples of some kind of race of supermen. Parker can write human characters (see his overlooked 1994 family/cop saga All Our Yesterdays), but he's more interested in modeling his conception of virtue. As someone who has learned quite a bit about life from his example--namely Spenser's example--I don't think that's too much of a problem.


Where to start reading Parker?

The best place to begin is at the beginning, with Spenser's first adventure,
The Godwulf Manuscript. It's an interesting read because the Chandler influence is all over it. Parker's first few books are good and well worth reading, but I think he hit his stride on book seven with Early Autumn. Years later he wrote a sequel-of-sorts to Early Autumn in book eighteen, Pastime. Another good series within the series is the saga of Spenser's dealings with a prostitute named April Kyle. April first appears in Ceremony (book nine), then in Taming A Sea Horse (book 13), and finally in Hundred-Dollar Baby (book 34). Her story is a tragedy unfolding over a series of years, and the storyline brought out the best in Parker.

What about other media?

I used to watch
Spenser: For Hire when I was a kid but revisiting them has always been a letdown. The network never quite understood the character, I think. Robert Urich was good as Spenser without being great. And I'm not sure who thought pudgy Joe Mantenga--as fine an actor as he is--could play Spenser. Likewise, Spenser has received the Mantenga treatment on audiobooks and the result hasn't been great. Parker's quips fumble their way out of Mantenga's mouth and, curiously, he's even less convincing when he's reading the tough guy passages. Since Mantenga's been reading the books for about ten years now, Parker must like him, but I've yet to see or hear a Spenser production that lives up to the books. Maybe someday.

Ed Harris did Parker correctly in his adaptation of the author's western novel Appaloosa.


Here's a fun print interview with the author.

And finally, here's a grainy audio interview with him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Savage Luck

In an interesting piece of noir-related news, The University of Texas at Austin recently acquired the personal archives of Ann Savage. This is fascinating to me because a) I love Ann Savage, and b) it goes to show you the brutal, beautiful irony at the heart of the noir phenomenon.

In short: Ann Savage was a B movie actress for about five minutes back in the forties. Hell, for most of her career she was a Z movie actress. When she left Hollywood, the town didn't blink.

And then, years later, people started seeing Detour, a grimy little 68-minute crime flick she'd made at a bottom-of-the-barrel studio called PRC. The "studio" had been a shoestring operation run by a couple of brothers who usually churned out films that had all the life expectancy of toilet paper. Like most of their work, Detour was shot for about ten cents in about ten minutes. It might very well have been forgotten (like 95% of PRC's output) except that in the fifties and sixties television stations needed a cheap way to fill out their night schedules before they played the national anthem and signed off for the night. They plundered the vaults of the studios and drug out a lot of crap. They also pulled out Detour.

The rest is history. The film became a cult item among pasty nightcrawlers with good taste. Ann Savage became a goddess to these people. She'd gone to Hollywood like a million other pretty girls, armed with nothing but a nice body and a dream of being a big star. It never happened, but then somehow she woke up one day decades later and she was a star. Not just a star. She was an icon.

And now a university has collected her things to preserve. It's an odd bit of luck, to leapfrog over the part of fame where the whole world knows your name, to jump from being an obscure no-name actress in the boilerroom of the Dream Factory to being an object of worship by geeks and the subject of study by scholars. But there you go. Film noir can't save everyone; it didn't save the other million pretty girls with broken dreams. But it saved Ann Savage. We can all be thankful for that.


I've written before about Savage and Detour.

I've also written before on the peculiar life after death of certain noir goddesses.

And finally, I did a piece on Sam Newfield, the man behind PRC.

I've never done a piece on Edgar G. Ulmer, the director of Detour, though he's certainly an interesting director. Here's an excellent piece from Senses of Cinema.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Street Of No Return (made 1987, released 1989)

The idea of a David Goodis adaptation directed by Sam Fuller is enough to make a hardcore noir geek foam at the mouth. It’s a meeting of two giants of the genre: the tragic Goodis, author of booze-drenched nightmares like The Moon In The Gutter and Of Tender Sin; and the irascible Fuller, director of subversive masterworks like Pickup On South Street and The Naked Kiss. The only problem with this marriage of giants is that the resulting movie stinks.

Maybe the root of the problem is that it all happened too late. The film—which stars Keith Carradine as a washed-up rock star drawn into a scheme to instigate a race riot, a scheme that also ties back to a violent event in his own past—was filmed by Fuller in 1987 and, sadly, it looks every bit as dated as an Air Supply video. It doesn’t help that Fuller took the opportunity to actually film a soft rock video starring Carradine and a naked girl on a horse. But more on that later.

The script, by Jacques Bral and Fuller, hews rather closely to Goodis’ original novel. A bum is looking for a drink one night when he stumbles into a race riot under way. In the midst of the confusion, he sees a woman from his past. He follows her to a house where he finds other people from his past, including a beautiful woman he used to be in love with. He discovers that she’s still with a group of thugs, the same group of thugs who, years before, had given him a savage beating for trying to steal her away from them. The beating ended his singing career and sent him into a life of boozing. When he discovers that this crew is in cahoots with a local gang leader to start a race war in the city to drive down property rates, the bum rallies his wits and fortitude and brings their criminal enterprise crashing down. At the end of the book, however, his triumph is short-lived and he ends up back on the bottle. In a Goodis novel, triumph is something you pass on your way back to the gutter.

In some ways, Sam Fuller is the exact wrong director for this kind of material. He was a great director, of course, but his style was all about impact. His images leap off the screen, and in his best work (Pickup On South Street, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor) they’re ferocious. Subtly wasn’t Fuller’s thing. Neither was reality. “Reality,” he liked to say, “is a bunch of damn bullshit. There’s no such thing as reality.” Since reality could never be less than everything and everyone all at once, the representation of reality in art was impossible. Thus, the artist was better off embracing a heightened sense of things. That theory of art, and Fuller’s wild-ass practice of it, is out of synch with the quiet desperation at the heart of Goodis’ work.

Goodis liked to say that he didn’t write thrillers, he wrote melodramas with action. The funny thing is, the best part of his work was not the action, it was the melodrama. His plots never made a lot of sense, and that’s especially true of Street Of No Return. You don’t read the book for the outlandish race riot plot; you read it for the quality of the prose, for the overpowering sense of real disappointment at its core. Fuller seems to have missed this quality, and, indeed, he even rethinks Goodis' beautiful heartbreaker of an ending. That's his prerogative as a filmmaker, of course, but his new ending makes no sense on any level. He hustles past the brutal irony of the main character's doom in favor of a tacked-on bit of uplift.

Tellingly, the director said that what drew him to the script (he claimed not to have read the book, though he was friendly with Goodis) was, of all things, the chance to film a race riot.
While the riot scenes have a fierce energy, however, Fuller doesn’t see any further into the problems of race than Goodis did in his novel. The people of color here are all pawns of an unconvincing plot to make money by a few white crooks. There’s no sense of what actual racial problems might be at the root of the violence on the street.

The entire movie has a fierce energy, but much of that energy is expressed through overacting. Carradine avoids overacting by going the other way and giving a boring performance (even in his big concert scene, he seems slightly lethargic), but everyone else chews the scenery like ravenous dogs. Bill Duke has a good introductory scene as the embattled police chief, but Fuller has him spend the rest of the movie screaming curses and delivering preposterous speeches. It's sad to see an actor of Duke's quality wasted so thoroughly in a role he might have turned into something interesting.

The over-the-top quality of the film isn’t just expressed though the acting though. Fuller overdoes just about everything. The scene where Carradine turns a fire hose on a room full of cops and rioters isn’t just absurd and sloppily choreographed, it’s embarrassing. Likewise, Fuller’s rock video, with Carradine made up like some low rent Bowie while poor Valentia Vargas rides naked on a horse, is possibly the worst thing the director ever committed to celluloid. It pains me to say it, but the sequence has the mark of an old man trying to be hip. Not just hip, but1987 hip.

Here’s great idea: read the novel Street Of No Return, and watch The Naked Kiss. Let this little seen movie rest in relative obscurity.


I've written before on the difficulty Goodis poses for adaptation.

And here's a link to an interesting interview with Steve Seid, curator of the Pacific Film Archives, about a Goodis film retrospective.

Finally, the cult of Goodis maybe small but is serious and continues to grow. 2007 saw the first GoodisCon, a gathering of fans and scholars of the author's work. The conference--which I sadly could not attend--was a big success and has turned into NoirCon.