Sunday, March 31, 2013

Filming THE TRIAL

I'm a fanatic about Orson Welles's 1962 THE TRIAL--a movie that I keep going back to year after year. While it has never gotten as much attention as some of his other films it is, for my money, one of The Great One's great achievements.

Welles had planned to make a documentary about the production--akin to the doc FILMING OTHELLO--and while it's a shame that he never got to complete the project, he did film a long Q&A at the University of Southern California following a viewing of the film.

The talk is marvelous stuff, with the big man holding forth on a variety of topics. He's as brilliant and slippery and maddening and wonderful as always.

You can watch the footage of his talk on Youtube thanks to "Citizen Welles". Check it out

Saturday, March 23, 2013

NOIR CITY ANNUAL #5

The Best Of NOIR CITY Magazine 2012 is available now. It's another beauty--a lavishly illustrated collection of essays, interviews, profiles, reviews and more. Contributors include Eddie Muller, Imogen Sara Smith, Vince Keenan, Carl Steward and many, many more. All beautifully designed by the great Michael Kronenberg.

As usual I've made a few contributions. They include:

1. Women In Trouble: The Crisis Pregnancy in Film Noir

2. Children Of The Night: Noir and the Loss of Innocence

3. Tom Neal: The Broken Man

4. The Little Story of Right-Hand/Left-Hand: David Grubb, Charles Laughton, and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

5. The Resurrection of NATIVE SON: An Interview with Edgardo Krebs

I'm proud of all of these essays--I think the Tom Neal piece might be the best piece of film writing I've done. So go get yourself a copy of this great book. I mean this when I say it: this is a must have for fans of film noir.  

Added bonus: all proceeds go to the Film Noir Foundation and the rescue and restoration of classic noir movies.

Check it out here.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Felix E. Feist: The Factory Worker

I think I'm safe in saying that I'm the world's authority on the film noir career of Felix E. Feist. Frankly, I'm not really sure how this happened. Feist was a little known studio director in the classic era--one of many, many studio directors who never became a big name. Even a lot of noir geeks have never heard of him.

Quite by chance, though, I saw THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE around the time I made the conscious decision to start studying film noir as a form. It was good film with which to begin a serious interest in noir because it hits all the essential beats: it is dark, it is fast, and its message, ultimately, is the futility of human effort and intention.

Feist wrote and directed the film (adapted from the Robert Du Soe novel of the same name--not a particularly strong book, in my opinion). I tracked down more of his noir work: THE THREAT, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY. What I found was the work of a director who was a wonderfully efficient craftsman.

A few years later I happened to attend a screening of one of his films and heard a well-known noir scholar refer to Feist as "pretty much just a hack" which struck me as an invitation to do something about a director that I really admired. 

I've now written more about him than (I think) anyone else. I published a biographical overview of his life and work in the film journal NOIR CITY, and I wrote (I think) the first scholarly piece on his films for the book FILM NOIR: THE DIRECTORS.

Now I have a short introductory piece on his work over at Criminal Element. This will probably be my final word on ol' Felix. I hope it helps bring attention to his movies.       

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Godmother of Noir: Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

To really understand the development of noir as a distinct literary form (distinct, I mean, from the whodunit or the procedural) you need to go back to the career of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

Along with folks like Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain, Holding crafted tales of murder where the emphasis was on the perpetrators and the victims rather than on the heroic investigators. If most mystery fiction is about the reordering of chaos--setting right what has gone wrong, uncovering and punishing some aberrant evil--then Holding was far more interested in why people go wrong. Her characters are desperate or drunk or demented. Or all three.

In books like THE BLANK WALL, THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF, NET OF COBWEBS, or THE GIRL WHO HAD TO DIE, Holding kept the emphasis on the dark interior lives of her characters. As much as someone like David Goodis, Holding traps us in the narrow, obsessive minds of her characters.

I have a new essay on Holding over at Criminal Element. Check it out and let me know what you think.      

Saturday, March 9, 2013

God’s Murderous Men: The Film Noir Critique of American Religion



note: The following essay first appeared in the program of NOIRCON 2012. Illustration by Melissa Downing.

The brilliant 1950 noir THE SOUND OF FURY begins with a blind street preacher warning passersby that “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” This verse from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians could work as an epigraph for all of film noir. It certainly works to set up THE SOUND OF FURY, a film that tells the story of the downfall of a struggling family man named Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy). One day Howard meets a hood named Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges) who offers him a job as a getaway driver for a string of robberies. At first Howard says no, but when he thinks it over and finally accepts Jerry’s offer, you can smell the sulfur burning. After Jerry upgrades their criminal enterprise to kidnapping and murder, the film becomes a slow boiling nightmare fueled by Howard’s deepening guilt. “I keep thinking God is coming after me,” he tells his wife. THE SOUND OF FURY, inspired by true events, was written by novelist Jo Pagano as an indictment of lynch mobs and journalistic cravenness, but the power of its narrative comes from the way it marries Howard’s downfall to the street preacher’s warning about sin and its terrible consequences.

That theme reverberates throughout the genre called film noir. Noir City might be one godless little town, a place of perpetual night, populated by men and women bleary-eyed with booze and bad judgment, but underneath the tales of lust and larceny, there beats a moralistic heart. After all, most noir boils down to the preacher’s warning: you pay for your sins.

What makes this doubly interesting, however, is that noir rarely affords us a positive view of the clergy. The men of god we find in Noir City are of a piece with the town’s other denizens: they’re weak, wicked, or both. In noir, everybody’s a sinner, and everybody is going to hell. That includes god’s mouthpieces. In fact, they might be the biggest sinners of all.

(Note: Because classic noir unfolded in the culturally narrow milieu of Hollywood in the forties and fifties, virtually all the religion on display in these films is some variation on Christianity. One doesn't find many rabbis or imams in Noir City. On one hand, of course, that's an unfortunate oversight. On the other hand, given the motley crew of sinful saints discussed below, the rabbis and imams got off easy.)

Take Mark Robson’s little seen 1950 EDGE OF DOOM. It concerns a young man named Martin Lynn (Farley Granger) who develops a grudge against the church when his parish priest refuses to bury Lynn’s father after he’s committed suicide. Later, when Lynn’s mother dies, he confronts the elderly priest to demand a fancy funeral for her. The indignant priest refuses, and Lynn kills him in a rage.

The above description should come as a shock to anyone familiar with movies of the time. Mainstream Hollywood movies in 1950 simply did not feature unsympathetic clergymen. They did not show young men who were ever mad at the church for anything. Religion in those days was a protected institution, especially during the time of the Red Scare, and the sinful denizens of Hollywood were all too happy to portray any and all religious authorities as unquestionably good. In most Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, God existed and he was an American.

EDGE OF DOOM is a fascinating film because it shows the first strains in this façade. The movie still has to make several concessions to the production code (Dana Andrews plays a good priest trying to help Granger, and the church is, of course, ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing), but for most of its playing time it is a tough look at religion. The priest murdered by Granger may not be the pedophilic monster of today’s headlines, but he is dogmatic, unforgiving, and entitled. We’re shocked to see him murdered, but we’re more shocked to see him portrayed as a self-righteous old fool hiding behind his collar. While he does not deserve to die, his murder flows out of Granger’s understandable anger at him. In other words, we in the audience are asked to identify with the murderer of a priest. And, damn it all, we do.

Of course, the old Catholic priest can’t hold a church candle to the crazy Protestants. Lewis R. Foster's tough-as-nails 1955 jailbreak flick CRASHOUT gives us a motley group of escaped convicts on the run from the cops. Among their number is the always great William Talman (THE HITCH-HIKER), in one of his best parts, as a knife-throwing Jesus freak named Luther Remsen AKA “Reverend Remington” who is in jail for the “celebrated soul-saving murder” of a church organist.

CRASHOUT is no masterpiece—it starts to drift toward incomprehensibility in the closing scenes—but it is a deeply subversive piece of work. Star Arthur Kennedy is given a speech that pretty much sums up the noir ethos: “There’s no road back. There’re no yesterdays. There’s no tomorrow. There’s only today. Everyday you live is a day before you die.” With this in mind, how much sense could one make of the promise of life everlasting? Especially when the only preacher on hand is crazy Reverend Remington? The film seems to answer this question by giving us what might be the most grotesque religious ritual in all noir when Reverend Remington baptizes a wounded man in a muddy drainage pool and tries to drown the guy in the process. The moment is still shocking. CRASHOUT perverts Protestant Christianity’s most sacred ritual—the immersion baptism which symbolizes the believer’s death and resurrection in Christ—into a wickedly profane murder attempt.

In 1950, the character of Reverend Remington reflected a deep skepticism of new mass-media-mongering evangelists like Will Stidger and J. Frank Norris, Bible-thumpers given to greed, hedonism, or violence (Stidger inspired ELMER GANTRY, and Norris once shot a man dead in his own church). New technologies, and shifts in political fortunes, were pushing religious snakeoil salesmen into the media spotlight. Someone like Billy Graham—of whom Harry S Truman disdainfully said “All he’s interested in is getting his name in the paper”—might have matured into a statesman and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but to a great many people in the fifties the pulpit-pounders still seemed like charismatic phonies.

Of course, this suspicion found its clearest expression in the most notorious clergyman in all noir: the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), the woman-murdering preacher who occupies the center of Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. With HATE tattooed on one hand and LOVE on the other, the slick-talking Powell is like a Flannery O’Connor character wandering a weird landscape of bucolic Expressionism. His tattooed knuckles and his parable of the “story of good and evil” are symbols foreshadowing his ultimate showdown with a shotgun-and-Bible wielding old lady named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).

Though THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is a blistering portrayal of religious authority, it is certainly not a condemnation of belief itself. As the film’s producer Paul Gregory later told Preston Neal Jones, author of HEAVEN AND HELL TO PLAY WITH: THE FILMING OF THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Laughton felt that adapting Davis Grubb’s excellent novel “was a marvelous opportunity to show that God’s glory was really in the little old farm woman, and not in the Bible-totin’ son of a bitch.”

It says something about noir’s view of organized religion that Harry Powell is its most notable representative. Powered by Mitchum’s mesmerizing turn, Powell embodies every criticism ever leveled at American Christianity: greed, hypocrisy, misogyny, sexual repression, murderous self-righteousness. Of course, at the time of its release the film was controversial in some corners for its depiction of the killer preacher, but it was mostly shunned, disappearing from public view, kept alive only by cinephiles and crime fans. That it has survived and flourished to the point that it is now widely considered a classic, is a testament not only to Laughton and his cast and crew, but to the enduring power of film noir’s uniquely subversive critique of religion.












Sunday, March 3, 2013

"I bet you're a big Lee Marvin fan..."

I'm pleased as all hell to have a story in LEE, the new short story collection from those degenerates at The Crime Factory. The collection features sixteen tales of the great wild man of American cinema, Lee Marvin.

Remember I'M NOT THERE, the surreal Bob Dylan biopic from Todd Haynes? LEE is like the pulp version of that but with someone more interesting than Bob Dylan. (Yeah, I said that. Who would you rather get drunk with? Exactly. Lee Marvin was a war hero, he did movies with everyone from Ronnie Reagan to Jane Fonda, and he consumed more booze than Ireland. Lee Marvin was, in a word, fun.)

The collection has a fine roster of talent including Scott Phillips (and who's better than Scott f-ing Phillips?), Eric Beetner, Heath Lowrance, Johnny Shaw, Jenna Bass, Adrian McKinty, Ray Banks, Nigel Bird, James Hopwood, Erik Lundy, Luke Preston, Ryan K. Lindsey, Andrew Nette, Cameron Ashley, and Jimmy Callaway.

Check out LEE.