Sunday, July 31, 2011

Blackout (aka Murder by Proxy) (1954)

In the late fifties, the small, British-based film production company Hammer Films shot to fame and fortune with a series of low-budget horror flicks. The director at the helm of most of these groundbreaking gorefests (THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE MUMMY) was a talented workhorse named Terence Fisher, Hammer Films’ own resident Michael Curtiz. Churning out horror flicks quickly and efficiently made Fisher’s name in the business, but often overlooked are the impressive series of film noirs he made upon first arriving at Hammer in 1952—a few years before the company went fulltime into the monster business.

The best of these Hammer/Fisher noirs is probably the little seen BLACKOUT. The film stars Hammer-noir regular Dane Clark as Casey Morrow, an American ex-serviceman living in London after the war. When the film opens, Morrow is spending his last few pounds getting sloshed in a nightclub. He’s on the verge of passing out when he’s approached by a beautiful young woman named Phyllis Brunner (Belinda Lee) who makes this barely conscious drunk a pretty attractive deal: she’ll give him 500 pounds if he’ll marry her immediately. Morrow accepts her offer, and the next thing he knows he’s waking up in a strange apartment with blood on his coat. Phyllis is gone, but the morning papers report that her father has been murdered.

This is a wonderful setup for a noir, and the whole thing is rendered with great style. Walter “Jimmy” Harvey—the cinematographer for most of Hammer’s crime pictures—shoots the film in a hard black and white that manages to be starkly realistic in some scenes (like the opening in the bar) and Expressionistic in others (such as a later scene between Clark and Belinda on a rooftop). Meanwhile, Terence Fisher keeps his film moving even as his plot begins to make less and less sense. By the end, the plot makes basically no sense whatsoever, and BLACKOUT emerges as the kind of movie that feels like it was written during a real life blackout.

So, okay, the movie is an exercise in style over substance (another way in which Fisher’s work during this period resembles the snappy, sometimes shallow, efficiency of Michael Curtiz), but there are far graver crimes for which a director can be guilty. BLACKOUT is fast, atmospheric and like most Hammer productions it’s stocked with good actors. Dane Clark brings his likable everyguy quality to Morrow; the impossibly beautiful Belinda Lee is great as the maybe-she-is-maybe-she-ain’t femme fatale; and they’re backed by an uniformly top-rate supporting cast headed by Eleanor Summerfield.

The Hammer noirs of the fifties are a British cousin to the American noirs of the same period. While they did not produce a masterpiece on the level of an OUT OF THE PAST or an ACT OF VIOLENCE, as BLACKOUT makes clear, they are a hell of a lot of fun.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Tale Of Two Heroes: Captain America and Green Lantern

I grew up reading comic books. At one time or another, I collected Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern, and The Punisher. Somewhere along the way, though, I put away most of my comic books when I became obsessed with movies and literature. Once I discovered Orson Welles and Flannery O'Connor, well comic books started to seem a little boring.

While I still feel that way, I've never lost my affection for the crime fighters in tights. I don't rush out to see most comic book movies (I haven't seen IRON MAN 2 yet, nor THOR), but I'm not opposed to seeing them. A movie based on a comic book is, to my mind anyway, as legitimate as a movie based on a science fiction or western novel.

Let's consider that last point. Those thin, colorful little "books" (actually they were usually only eight or nine pieces of paper folded double with a couple of staples holding them together) have replaced the pulp novels that preceded them as the popular driving force of low culture. The Western, god love it, is all but dead--unless it involves aliens, apparently (though, COWBOYS & ALIENS is itself based on a comic book). Somewhere along the way, the comic book movie crawled its way to the top of the money pile. While the superhero flick goes back to the forties (the first Captain America movie came out in 1944), it had to wait until the seventies rolled around before STAR WARS, special effects, and the charm of Christopher Reeve could make it a respectable bet at the box office.

Now look where we are: every week brings another damn costumed do-gooder flick. The latest, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, is one of the best. It's an old-fashioned entertainment that clearly wants to be RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which is a stellar aspiration for a summertime adventure movie to possess. (The movie, set in WWII, even has a couple of winking references to "Hitler digging for trinkets out in the deserts." One gets the idea that if Captain America got on a plane and flew out to the Middle East, he'd find Dr. Jones there punching out Nazis.) Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a 98-pound asthmatic, who is chosen to take a Super
Solider Serum. After he takes it he turns into...well, a superhero.

The movie is tremendous fun, enlivened with good humor and exciting action sequences. It has an excellent supporting cast, with Hugo Weaving as the super-Nazi villain, Hayley Atwell as the beautiful and plucky love interest, and Tommy Lee Jones as the crusty old-timer (in the old days this role would have been played by Millard Mitchell). Best of all, Chris Evans gives a star-making performance as Steve Rogers, a good man given the chance to become a great man.

Like most good superhero movies (SUPERMAN, Nolan's Batman movies), CAPTAIN AMERICA understands the character at its center. Now, that implies that there is a character to understand. (For instance, IRON MAN was a good movie because it understood the appeal of star Robert Downy Jr. The Tony Stark of the comic books was pretty thin soup). To really set itself apart, a comic movie needs an intriguing central character and a story to support him (this is a pretty male-centric world, at least so far). The makers of CAPTAIN AMERICA understand that Steve Rogers is a man defined by a bigness of spirit and a basic goodness. He represents what is, to
borrow a phrase, right about America. The film is empowered by Evan's charismatic performance as Steve. I don't think I can top Slate's Dana Stevens in her description: "He's wholesome but not goody-goody, masculine but not macho, and likable without begging for the audience's love." The key to this performance is that Evans creates a consistent character, a through line from Skinny Steve to Super Steve. In both incarnations, Steve is defined by a gentleness of spirit and a sense of moral responsibility. Square? Sure, but Captain America was always square. That's the point. He doesn't need to wink at you to let you know he's not really that guy. He really IS that guy.

Contrast this with GREEN LANTERN, which stars Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, a callow test pilot who is chosen by an intergalactic alien police force to wield a green power ring which can do pretty much anything the bearer can imagine. In a sense, Jordan's journey mirrors that of Steve Rogers. Both are chosen to become heroes by forces beyond their understanding. Both rise to the challenge and defeat evil enemies.

The differences between the two are important, though. GREEN LANTERN is hampered by the fact that its main character is something of a blank slate. Ryan Reynolds gives it a good try, but he can't seem to find any real spark in the character. This might not be his fault. As a kid, I collected both CAPTAIN AMERICA and GREEN LANTERN. The difference between the two was this: with Cap, you daydreamed about being Steve Rogers; with GL, you daydreamed about what you'd do with the ring. No one dreams of being Hal Jordan.

GREEN LANTERN has been criticized for being a lumbering, effects-driven, corporate concoction designed only to be a big tent-pole summer blockbuster. I won't fight too hard against that description (except to say that, in all honesty, none of these movies are Cassavettian labors of love). In a way, though, it's really more of a fanboy movie. As I watched it, I wasn't angered by its machinations--I was reminded of the geeky joy of the comic. GREEN LANTERN is a triumph for the Comic-Con crowd, whose influence is perhaps disproportionate to their store of original ideas. Watching this movie I was reminded of something Roger Ebert wrote about the 2003 Civil War flick GODS AND GENERALS: "(It) is the kind of movie beloved by people who never go to the movies, because they are primarily interested in something else." GREEN LANTERN is a movie for people who love comic books, not cinema.

One can, of course, love both. I hope I've been clear in my admiration for comic books. (If not, please read this.) Despite some similarities, however, comics and movies are different mediums. CAPTAIN AMERICA plays like a real movie, bridging the gap between its pulpy roots and its Indiana Jones aspirations. GREEN LANTERN plays like a 200 million dollar comic book.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Phil Karlson and the Cinema of Ass-Kicking

Who directed the kind of classic noir flicks that hit with bullet force and blackjack fury?

Who put pugilistic John Payne through the paces?

Who directed Walking Tall when he was seventy?

Go go read my new essay at Criminal Element or I'll send Phil Karlson to kick your ass.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Noir Classics Get the Criterion Treatment

Noir geeks rejoice. Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (by far the best adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel) has just been released in a handsome new edition by The Criterion collection. A prime example of hardcore noir, the movie comes with the usual CC load of extras including documentaries on Spillane and screenwriter AI Bezzerides, an alternate ending, and commentary by the guys behind the Film Noir Reader series--Alain Silver and James Ursini.

And next month (Aug. 16th), CC will release a new edition of Kubrick's THE KILLING. My admiration for this movie is nearly limitless. Working with Jim Thompson, Kubrick adapted Lionel White's heist novel of the same name. With a cast that includes Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook, Marie Windsor, and Coleen Gray, the director forged one of the great heist movies. The CC edition will come with an interview with Thompson biographer Robert Polito (whose book SAVAGE ART: A BIOGRAPHY OF JIM THOMPSON is essential reading for pulp fans, btw). The movie also comes with Kubrick's first noir film KILLER'S KISS--a flawed but fascinating film where you see the director experimenting with the noir aesthetic that he would master in THE KILLING.

For more on THE KILLING and its place among heist films, check out my essay "Classic Heist Flicks: The Art of the Steal."

The Criterion Collection:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ida Lupino: Noir's Indispensable Dame

Ida Lupino: actor, writer, producer, director, all-around noir bad ass.

Check out my essay Ida Lupino: Noir's Indispensable Dame over at Criminal Element. Not only was Ida one of noir's great leading ladies, she was also one of the rare performers (male or female) to exert as much power behind the scenes as she did in front of the camera.