Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mug Shots #8: Dana Andrews aka The Quiet Man

Dana Andrews-The Quiet Man.

He is the least flashy actor imaginable, but watch his films again and notice him constantly thinking. He was capable of romance and violence, but his main contribution to any film is the stillness he gives its center. While he is one of the best actors in noir, he’s never had the kind of cult following of a Bogart or a Mitchum. His best known noir performance is in the eternal Laura, as a cop haunted by the image of a beautiful murder victim, and he’s equally good as a down-on-his-luck conman turned spiritualist huckster in Fallen Angel. Perhaps his greatest performance is as a good cop gone bad in the underrated Where The Sidewalk Ends. All three of these films were directed by Otto Preminger, the director who best understood how to use his silences.

Geoffrey O’Brien wrote a brilliant essay about Andrews called “Dana Andrews, or The Male Mask” in his book Castaways Of The Image Planet.

Essential Andrews Noir:

Where The Sidewalk Ends

Fallen Angel


Best Of The Rest:

The Best Years Of Our Lives

While The City Sleeps


Edge Of Doom

Here's his obit from the Daily Telegraph December 19, 1992.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Directed By John Ford (1971/2006)

I want to begin this look at Peter Bogdanovich's excellent reworking of his 1971 documentary DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD with a grim observation followed by an even more despairing prediction. The observation: John Ford's reputation has been greatly diminished by the passage of time. The prediction: I don't think it's coming back.

One of the interesting oversights of Bogdanovich's fascinating documentary is its failure to deal with the reality that for new generations of filmmakers John Ford is more of a historical footnote than an inspiration. The Western genre--once the unquestionable champ of the box office--is all but washed up, replaced by science fiction. The myth of the American frontier has been replaced by the superhero narrative and the space opera. With the Western goes much of Ford's appeal to new audiences.

Watching DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD you wouldn't know that his reputation, and the future of his work, stands in such peril. Bogdanovich originally made the film in 1971 when a generation of up and coming directors (including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and, of course, Bogdanovich himself) considered Ford to be the grand master of American films. The new reworking of the film mixes new interviews with Scorsese, Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and Walter Hill along with older interviews with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart.

If that description makes the film sound like a glorified DVD extra (like the excruciatingly fawning "documentary" that accompanied the DVD of THE SEARCHERS) it shouldn't. Bogdanovich has made a real documentary, one of the best I've seen in fact, on the art of directing film. He avoids the usual talking head platitudes and focuses instead on the creation of scenes, such as a riverside dialog scene between Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark in TWO RODE TOGETHER. He includes Spielberg's funny anecdote of meeting Ford and receiving a gruff lesson in how to frame a shot. Ford's advice to the young director about where to put the horizon is unromantic, practical, and brilliant.

As good as the material on directing is, the material on Ford the man is just as interesting. Something about Ford that is easily overlooked given his stoic reputation is that he was, in many ways, a very weird guy. He dressed like a bum, walked around chewing a handkerchief, and picked out random people for vicious public humiliations. This film gives you a sense of the man's oddness. And while several Ford biographies over the years have reported an affair between the director and Katherine Hepburn, Bogdanovich provides a remarkable artifact: a piece of audio accidentally recorded between Ford and Hepburn in private during their last meeting. You almost feel wrong listening to something so obviously personal.

Bogdanovich has long been a personal favorite of mine. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT'S UP, DOC? and SAINT JACK are three tremendous films, and PAPER MOON is, frankly, one of great joys of my movie-watching life. It's comfort food, a film I can keep going back to, again and again, like TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, NOTORIOUS, THE TRIAL, or OUT OF THE PAST. Bogdanovich was right to go back and rework his earlier version of DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD--though I wish the two films would come packaged together. We can be happy we have this look at Ford's career.

Which of course brings us back to the man and his movies. One thing Bogdanovich's film makes clear is that Ford was a master of the movie visual. His images pop with vitality, even though he rarely moved his camera unnecessarily. I had always considered Ford a master craftsman, but I didn't really appreciate his direction until I saw STAGECOACH and THE SEARCHERS at the Film Forum in New York a few years ago. You simply have to see Ford's films on the big screen. He was thinking in terms far, far bigger than a television screen. Monument Valley looks pretty on TV, but on the big screen, in THE SEARCHERS, it becomes a barren landscape of mausoleums, the great emptiness swallowing the puny echo of gunshots. Human emotions, so hot and uncontrollable, are ultimately placed into a historical framework that renders them tragic in their uselessness.

So, yes, Ford was a great director, but he was a far more flawed director than Bogdanovich's documentary would seem to indicate. He was an unabashed militarist for one thing, and his films--with some notable exceptions--undeniably glorify combat and war. His treatment of Native peoples is, by and large, pretty terrible. Native Americans in Ford's films come in three varieties a) inhuman targets, b) comic simpletons, or c) noble savages. His one attempt to deal with them as people--CHEYENNE AUTUMN--is a few days late and quite a few dollars short. Moreover, Ford was a sentimentalist. Whitewashing violence and then doting on virginal mother figures, Ford can be, in the worst sense of the word, archaic. After all, it's a good thing that films seldom treat war like a knee-slappin good time anymore. And it's a good thing when films give women more to do than keep the homes fires burning while the boys go out and booze and bond. John Ford was a director of massive, undeniable skill. His eye for composition was impeccable. He gave us moments and movies that should be seen and treasured. But his work is aging, aging faster than the work of Welles or Hitchcock or Hawks, because it has a fidelity to a discredited myth. We've moved on in many ways, leaving much of Ford's life's labors to sit in the sun like the spires of Monument Valley.


Directed By John Ford is available on Netflix.


Here's a brief clip from the film. I don't know why there are subtitles in the clip. Subtitles don't appear on the DVD version.


I've written briefly about Ford and The Searchers before.


Here's an overview of Ford's career at Senses Of Cinema. They have have a nice career overview of Bogdanovich as well.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956)

What a goofy movie. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt is one of those high concept thrillers that makes for a good ad campaign. It has an easy pitch: a man frames himself for a murder in order to reveal the flaws in the application of death penalty. Then something goes terribly wrong and suddenly he’s unable to clear himself. Will he go to the electric chair or will he find his way out of this mess?

The man in question here is a newspaper reporter turned novelist named Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews). He’s engaged to be married to Susan Spencer (a surprisingly spunky Joan Fontaine) the daughter of the newspaper’s publisher. Tom and Susan are all set to be married when Susan’s father, Austin (Sidney Blackmer) proposes that Tom do an exposĂ© on the flawed criminal justice system. Austin is a fervent opponent of the death penalty, and he wants to show that an innocent man can be convicted of a murder and sentenced to die. He and Tom find a killing in the paper, the murder of a young stripper named Patti Gray, and set about framing Tom for the murder. They document their subterfuge in photographs—Tom posing with a current issue of the newspaper as he plants evidence to incriminate himself—and lock it away in a safe. They don’t even tell Susan what they’re doing—an odd way to treat your fiancĂ© or your daughter, I have to say. It all goes according to plan. Tom becomes the main suspect in the case, he’s put on trial, the trial goes against him, and the politically hungry district attorney (Philip Bourneuf) is itching to send this high profile killer to the chair. Now, all that needs to happen is for Austin to reveal his evidence proving Tom’s innocence…

Which, of course, is where things go wrong for our intrepid reporters. I won’t discuss further developments in the plot, but let’s take a look at its absurdity thus far. I can’t help but note the insanity of the scheme hatched by Austin and Tom. Let me get this straight: they plan to manufacture evidence, lie under oath on the witness stand, and trick the justice system into a wrongful prosecution. Yeah. Good plan, guys. Do they also plan to go to jail for interfering with the investigation of a murder? Don’t they think the cops have better things to do than chase the red herrings of a couple of politically motivated newspapermen?

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt was directed by Fritz Lang at the end of his career in Hollywood (the famously prickly director wasn’t sorry to leave the town, and no one was sorry to see him go). The film has a curiously detached quality you sometimes find in Lang’s American work. Of course, there’s no doubting that he was an influential director, with films like M, Metropolis, and Dr. Mabuse to his credit, and there’s no doubting that his contribution to noir is substantial: Ministry Of Fear, The Woman In The Window, Human Desire are all good films. While I don’t love The Big Heat like a lot people, I do consider the best of his American films, the brilliant Scarlet Street, to be a masterpiece. And yet, having said all that, Lang could be a cold, distant filmmaker. If he had the right material, his chilliness proved an asset. Other times, his just felt unengaged. If the material was silly—as it is here—the resulting film is a none-too-enticing combination of aloofness and absurdity. Lang—who could be a vivid, striking creator of images—here creates a visually flat film with curiously little forward momentum.

Some of this might have been saved by performances, but Lang had a problem in his leading man. Dana Andrews was a fine actor capable of great subtly and intelligence, but in 1956 he was deep in the throes of a brutal battle with alcoholism. Andrews would eventually quit drinking, but in this film he’s paunchy and ineffective as Tom. The character is never easy to understand. Why would he sign up for this goofy experiment in the first place? This is a question that only begs to asked more at the end of the movie when everything is supposed to make sense. In the final moments, the film has a couple of surprises in store, but after you watch the film ask yourself: did those plot twists make things clearer or muddier?


A remake of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt starring Michael Douglas has just been released. I probably won’t be seeing it any time soon, but I wouldn’t mind hearing from someone who does.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mug Shots #7: Gloria Grahame AKA The Fallen Woman

Gloria Grahame-The Fallen Woman.

She was rescued from a life of whoredom in Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, but her noir roles play out as if George Bailey hadn’t been born. She’s sexy as the bored, adulterous wife in Human Desire, feisty as the vengeful mob doll in The Big Heat, and sad as the girl with a shady past in husband Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place. Her brief turn as the girl down the hall in Odds Against Tomorrow is heartbreaking, a culmination of her noir essence: the goodtime gal who is just realizing that the good times are over and the rent is due.

Grahame had one of the weirder personal lives in the history of Hollywood, which is saying quite a hell of a lot. Read about it here.

Essential Grahame:

In A Lonely Place

The Big Heat

Odds Against Tomorrow

Human Desire

Best of the Rest:

Naked Alibi


Sudden Fear