Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fear in the Night (1947)

By all accounts, Cornell Woolrich was a real son of a bitch. A self-hating gay man who once married a naïve young woman as a cruel joke, refused to sleep with her and then left her a written account of his sexual escapades with other men, he lived most of his life with an overbearing mother who said she would die if he ever left her. When she finally did die years later, Woolrich drank himself into a decade-long stupor, developed gangrene, and died weighing 89 pounds. It was a miserable end to a thoroughly rotten life.

Yet, by the estimation of most people—myself included—Woolrich was one of the twentieth century’s great writers of crime and suspense stories. He was a one man pulp factory in the forties, producing stories and novels that crackled with the noir style. People often point to the hardboiled boys—Hammett, Chandler, Cain—as the progenitors of noir, but no one was more responsible than Woolrich for the dark and neurotic turn crime fiction took in the forties. Hammett el al. wrote about tough guys. Woolrich wrote about existential doom.

Fear In The Night, made in 1947, is in some ways typical of Woolrich’s work. A man named Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley—yes, that DeForest Kelley) has a weird and terrible dream in which he walks into a room full of mirrors, fights with a man and a woman, and kills the man. When Grayson wakes up, he finds bruises on his neck and blood on his wrist. Did he really kill someone the night before? Plagued with visions of the murder, Grayson rushes to his brother-in-law Cliff (Paul Kelly) for some help. Cliff, a police detective, blows off Grayson’s story. It turns out Grayson has always been a little nervous, as they used to say. We get the feeling from the way his sister and brother-in-law treat him that Grayson’s never exactly been right, a feeling given weight by Kelley’s surprisingly effective performance as a neurotic. This odd dream seems like just another sign that he’s unhinged until one day when the three of them go for a drive with Grayson’s timid girlfriend Betty (Kay Scott). A rainstorm starts, and they come upon a house which Grayson says he knows. He leads them into it. Upstairs, sure enough, is a mirrored room with bloodstains.

The movie was directed by Maxwell Shane (who must have liked the story—he filmed it again in 1956 as Nightmare starring Edward G. Robinson). Shane and his collaborators have chosen to film the story in a deeply surrealist style. Grayson’s tortured dream at the beginning of the film looks like a drug trip, and that disturbed feeling stays intact throughout the rest of the film. In a way, it helps paper over some gaping plot holes. The scene in which Grayson leads his group into the house, for instance, is pure nonsense. They drive up to a house in the rain and go inside. It isn’t as if the house is deserted or abandoned. It’s full of furniture, with logs in the fireplace and food in the cabinets. Like your house or mine when we're not home. Imagine coming home and finding four strangers sitting in your living room, drinking your tea, who explain that they just wanted to stop driving and decided to crash at your pad for a while. The sheer oddity of this sequence would unravel most movies, but here it seems to mesh with the film’s overall weirdness. It makes no sense, but neither does anything else. In a way, that’s the point. If Fear In The Night has no logic, it’s because nightmares have no logic. As a result, this is the kind of movie that might actually scare small children.

That kind of nightmare logic was the way Woolrich saw the world. The fact is, he frequently skimped on the logic of his stories as if it simply didn’t matter. His genius was for the set-up, the creation of a emotional milieu where your entire life seemed like a cruel joke. No one ever had as many rich ideas for crime stories as Cornell Woolrich—it’s why he proved so adaptable. His fertile imagination churned out chilling nightmare scenarios as if he dreamed a new one every night. The poor son of a bitch probably did.

Friday, February 12, 2010


If you're a crime buff, you need to go check out the new zine Crimefactory. It started up last month and the first issue is terrific. It features an article by Gordon Harries on Hammet's Red Harvest, an excerpt from Ken Bruen's novel, Killer, Scott Phillips writing about the great Charles Willeford, new fiction from writers such as Frank Bill and Steve Weddle, and much more.

Go over there and give it a look.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A History of Black Cinema

There's a fascinating article up at The Root called 100 Years of Black Cinema. A terrific piece of historical writing, it traces the history of African American made cinema back to the notable figure of Oscar Micheaux, a pioneering writer/director/producer, and back even further to the often overlooked figure of William D. Foster, director of 1912's The Railroad Porter which was the Birth of a Nation of black cinema.

Written by Nsenga Burton, 100 Years of Black Cinema is essential reading for students of American film. Check it out. Good stuff.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mel Gibson's Face: Edge of Darkness (2010)

Mel Gibson has a movie star's face. When he was a young man, he was almost unnaturally handsome, but being physically attractive and having a good visage for the movies aren't the same thing. As I write this, there are literally thousands of gorgeous young men and women in Hollywood working as restaurant wait staff. They are toned, tanned, and beautiful. Perhaps someday they'll make it into a porno or maybe the television equivalent of porno, the reality show. More than likely, however, they'll keep waiting tables...because they do not have great faces.

A great face
can be attractive, but it must be interesting. Part of this is craft. A good actor knows how to convey thought and emotion. Part of it, though, is luck. A movie star simply has that kind of face. Watching movies is largely the process of watching human faces, so you better have a good one if you want to be a star.

But something has happened to Mel Gibson's face as he has aged--which, I suppose, is the same as saying that something has happened to Mel Gibson. When he burst onto the scene from Australia in the late seventies and early eighties, he was the first salvo in what would become an onslaught of movie stars from Down Under. The sixth of eleven children, Gibson was born in America but moved to Australia by a father who harbored dark conspiracy theories about the world and raised his children in a kind of fundamentalist Catholicism. No one knew any of this when Gibson became a movie star in the Mad Max series. All we knew was that he combined an agile natural beauty with a rugged outdoors quality better than anyone since Robert Redford (and you might go all the way back to Gary Cooper). Perhaps because he was physically attractive, or because he was in the distinctly unmasculine profession of acting, or maybe because he really is a hairy-knuckled he-man, Gibson tended toward action roles. Early on there were successful attempts to pair him with actresses in romances (The Year of Living Dangerously, the underrated Mrs. Soffel), but when Gibson made a late career foray into the romantic comedy genre (with the lame What Women Want) it was billed as "Gibson finally makes one for the ladies", an admission that he'd spent most of his film career bashing in other men's skulls. (In cinematic terms, Gibson has spent far more time in the arms of men than women.) One reason What Women Want stinks, though, is that Gibson was too old for the part. That boyish face had spent too many days squinting in the sun, too much time absorbing beatings--or fake beatings--and it had begun to crack.

Part of this was age, of course. Redford and Cooper both lost their sheen with time, but the collapse of Gibson's beauty has been accompanied by the collapse of his public image. First came The Passion of the Christ, Gibson's gory Jesus movie, which brought attention at long last to Gibson's religious beliefs. The film was a phenomenal hit due in part to Gibson's shrewd courting of the Christian right, but its success had more to do with being the perfect film for its intended audience. It was the first fundamentalist Christian movie ever made in Hollywood. Critics who slammed the film for reducing the message of Christ to a prolonged sadomasochistic representation of his execution missed the point. In Gibson's film, the message is the man, and this viewpoint mirrors a fundamentalist reading of the story of Christ.

Which is all well and good but charges of anti-Semitism hit closer to home, especially in light of Hutton Gibson's (Mel's father) anti-Jewish rantings in books and on the Internet. Then, of course, came the infamous night when Mel was picked up for drunk driving and puked up an anti-Semitic tirade at the officer who pulled him over. An admission of alcoholism followed, but how much can you really blame your bigotry on booze? Many people wondered at the time where Mel's wife and kids were in all of this. For years, he was a famous family man, married for twenty-plus years to the same woman, with more kids than an orphanage. Why was he out drinking at a nightclub in Malibu and spewing Jewish-cabal conspiracy theories at cops? Then came the revelation that Mel--the hardcore Catholic--was getting divorced and having a child with a younger woman.

All of which is to say that Mel Gibson is destined to be the subject of a great biography some day. Most movies stars are boring. I'm not sure that people like Clooney, Pitt, or Damon are interesting enough as human beings to sustain a book, but Gibson's slowly unfolding train wreck of a life, bound up in religion and family and gender, would make for some compelling reading.

At any rate, it's been a traumatic eight years for the actor, and some fascinating things have happened to his world famous visage. One suspects Gibson always hated being a pretty boy, which is one reason, perhaps, his films form an extended meditation on the mutilation of the male body. He's spent most of his career covered in fake blood and gore (and spent his entire directorial debut in a ghoulish facial prosthetic). Combined with some homophobic outbursts over the years, this seems to be evidence of a deep ambivalence about male beauty. As he enters the older statesman period of his career, Gibson looks haggard, older if not necessarily wiser.

In his new film, a thriller called Edge of Darkness Gibson plays a Boston detective named Tom Craven who goes on a violent spree of revenge after his daughter is murdered on his doorstep. His investigation leads him to the huge nuclear research facility where his daughter worked. Her boss is a creep named Bennett (played by that increasingly valuable character actor Danny Huston). Craven is joined in his mission by a shady government operative named Jedburgh, played by Ray Winstone.

This kind of thing is right in Gibson's wheelhouse. He's spent half of his film career cradling the dead bodies of loved ones, and the other half blowing off the heads of those responsible. Somehow though,
Edge of Darkness never catches fire. It's a strangely disjointed piece of work. It's not effective as a serious drama because it's not serious. The murder of Gibson's daughter, for instance, is filmed like an action scene--when she's shot she flies back through the door in a special effect flourish that would usually be intended to excite bloodlust of the audience. Yet, the film is too dour to work as a straight ahead action flick.

On that last point--although there is a lot of violence in the film it's not really the kind of violence that pits people in combat against each other. Most of the people killed in the film--whether they are good guys, bad guys, or morally ambiguous guys--are more or less murdered in cold blood. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Violence in action films usually works because it's situated as a life and death contest between two people. This movie mostly features unarmed people being shot to death.

At the center of it all is Gibson, back after nearly eight years away from the screen. He's gotten bulky--not it terms of fat but in terms of muscle. He seems more squat than before. His forehead is a map of deep creases and his eyes look heavy. And something weird is going on with his hair--did Mel get plugs?

I draw all this attention to Gibson's physical form because the body is the tool of the actor. His face has gone from being handsome to being something else. I'm disappointed by this movie mainly because I suspect Gibson is getting to an age where he could give the best performance of his career. Actors can get interesting as they age. Gary Cooper's beauty gave way to worry, as did Gable's. Bogart, never beautiful, became paranoid, as did Jimmy Stewart. John Wayne just became more John Wayne, so much so that it seemed like he was never young. Cary Grant aged like a fine wine. (I've purposefully avoided talking about actresses here because there are different issues involved--for most of Hollywood's history women have been robbed of the chance to age on screen--but I'll write on that at some future point.)

Who knows what the future holds for Mel Gibson?
Edge of Darkness is a failure as a film, but Gibson remains a potent screen presence. Life has put hard miles on his face and stooped his shoulders a bit; Mel's getting old. But if someone like George Clooney is hitting middle age with class and grace, Gibson is hitting it driving ninety miles an hour with a bottle of tequila in his lap. Get him in the right role, though, and that wild ass quality--that raging self-destructive mad man insanity--could be the essence of a hell of a performance.