Friday, March 13, 2020

Contagion Noir: THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950)




A brief note at the start: I wrote this little piece a few years ago because I was interested in film noirs about outbreaks. The best known “contagion noir” of the classic era is probably Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950). It’s a superior piece of craftsmanship, and it features a you-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it performance by Jack Palance as a psycho. Having said that, however, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (made that same year) is more paranoid and more obsessed with contagion itself. With its all too serious docu-noir feel, it’s actually the more disturbing piece of work, especially watched at this particular moment in time in 2020. Some people reading this will doubtless think, “Well, then, why would I want to watch it?” Others will want to watch it precisely because it is scary, its creepiness acting like an exorcism for a certain anxiety around the spread of the coronavirus. You know who you are.


THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK
One of the constant themes of film noir is anxiety. You find this theme expressed many different ways: anxiety about gender roles, anxiety about the cops, anxiety about Communist infiltration. You find this theme over and over in noir. What makes THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK such an interesting addition to this litany is that it’s about a different kind of anxiety: the fear of contagion.

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK concerns a diamond smuggler named Shelia Bennett (Evelyn Keyes) who, as the film begins, has just snuck some stones back into the country from Cuba for her no-good husband Matt (Charles Korvin). What she doesn’t know is that she’s also brought back a case of smallpox. In no time at all, she’s spread it around the city and people start dropping like flies. Meanwhile, Shelia’s husband runs out on her—taking the diamonds—and leaves her to deal with the cops and a growing epidemic. The plot runs on different tracks: the cops (led by noir stalwart Barry Kelley) are chasing a jewel smuggler, while the doctors (led by William Bishop, Dorothy Malone and Carl Benton Reid) are chasing the carrier of the plague. It’s fun watching these people run around—the doctors racing against time—until their twin investigations converge on poor Shelia Bennett.

Shelia’s got her own problems, of course. She knows the cops are after her, but she doesn’t yet know she has smallpox. Things only get worse when she finds out her no-good husband has been having an affair with her younger sister. When Shelia confronts her sister (Lola Albright), the confused girl—distraught that Matt has abandoned both of them—kills herself. Once Shelia finds out she’s carrying smallpox, her only goal becomes tracking down her husband so she can extract revenge before she dies.

This is a promising setup for a film, but as a drama it has one serious drawback: a pompous voiceover narration that intrudes over most of the first thirty minutes and then chimes in from time to time, coming in at the end to reassure us that the world didn’t end. Here’s an experiment: watch the first ten minutes of this film and imagine them without the voiceover. They not only would have worked, they would have worked better, with the audience discovering the plot in tandem with the characters.

Still, the film does work. It is directed proficiently by Earl McEvoy who juggles these different narratives without letting us get confused. He should have cut the voiceover—but what can you do? A lot of noirs have this device. It’s done often, if seldom done well. The cinematography by Joseph Biroc is a nice blend of location footage in New York and some atmospheric soundstage work such as Shelia’s final confrontation with her shiftless husband. Keyes is as good as usual as the vengeful Shelia, though because she’s unaware she’s carrying the disease for most of the film, she doesn’t have a whole lot to do.

To make up for this, the script by Harry Essex (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) does a particularly good job at building suspense around the emerging smallpox epidemic. These scenes are all business, especially with noir regular Carl Benton Reid barking orders and twisting arms, while doctor William Bishop and nurse Dorothy Malone confront a quickly mounting number of cases. One of the purposes of a movie like this is to function as a public service announcement, and I’ll be damned if this one didn’t work on me. Human beings are nasty creatures, so thank god for the Centers for Disease Control.

It probably worked even better at the time. In 1950, the world wasn’t too far away from the influenza pandemic of 1918 which had killed more people than WWI. Following WWII, where the world saw wartime carnage reach unthinkable proportions, Americans were fed a steady diet of propaganda about Communist infiltration and subversion. Even as we moved into the flattop fifties, with suburbia laid out on grids and a cheerful mother supposedly baking apple pies in every kitchen, it seemed as if contagion were everywhere. (A contagion that was often—as it is in THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK—associated with foreign elements.) The cleaner the surface became, the more we feared the filth inside. People began to fear obliteration, fearful it would arrive in a pestilence that would wipe out everything. By 1957, Ingmar Bergman could make THE SEVENTH SEAL, a film about the Black Plague that many people read as an allegory for the fear of nuclear annihilation.

In 1950, you can see the beginnings of the fear in something THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, the title itself conjuring the image of a serial-murderer on the loose. The fear of mass death is legitimate of course, and this film captures that dread, that sinking feeling that something could be happening right now that could mean the end of us all.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Note on SUSPICION (1941)


I'm continuing my big Cary Grant rewatch, and tonight I caught up with SUSPICION. Something occurred to me as I watched it that I wanted to make note of.

Before I get to that, it's important to say that one of the reasons that Grant has come to pretty much embody the idea of Movie Star for a lot of people is that he managed to play a range of roles while always staying Cary Grant.

For instance: look at him in THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), HOLIDAY (1938), and BRINGING UP BABY (1938). Three romantic comedies released within the space of two years, and yet Grant is playing very different characters--a blithe ladies man in the first, a guileless idealist in the second, and a befuddled professor in the third--and yet two things are true. 1) He plays each role differently, and 2) Each performance fits within the persona we understand to be "Cary Grant." He could play many different variations on that persona.

Which brings us back to SUSPICION. This film is famous for being a 'nearly great' movie that was sabotaged when the studio made Hitchcock change the ending. The film concerns a shy young woman (played by everyone's shy young woman Joan Fontaine) who meets and marries a handsome rake, played, of course, by Cary Grant. As the film progresses, Fontaine and the audience start to suspect that Grant is more than just irresponsible and loose with money. We start to worry that he might be dangerous. We start to worry that he might even want to murder his wife. 1941 Spoiler Alert: in the original conception of the film, Grant was indeed the killer, and Hitchcock devised a wickedly smart finale in which the lovesick Fontaine lets Grant murder her but tricks him into mailing a letter to the police in which she fingers him for the killing. (You can see this idea being set up in the movie's opening moments when there is much ado about Grant borrowing some stamps from Fontaine.) In the revised ending, however, Grant turns out NOT to be the dangerous man that the rest of the film has painstakiningly prepared us for him to be. 

Opinions differ as to how much the new ending was the result of studio interference and how much was Hitchcock. Either way, Hitch would openly lament the revised ending, and just about everyone who sees the movie agrees. Grant should have been the bad guy. My feeling is that if Hitchcock had gone ahead and kept the original ending (it was never filmed), SUSPICION would certainly rank as one of Cary Grant's finest performances, and might even be considered his pinnacle. 

He's charming but cold, smooth but scary. He's a villain, but he's still somehow Cary Grant. What's interesting is that the ending was rewritten because, the thinking went, "Cary Grant can't be the bad guy." In other words, Cary Grant can be dashing, heroic, comic, goofy, innocent, or sophisticated, but he can't be evil. The great loss of SUSPICION is that the movie itself shows the opposite. His performance here is sheer Cary Grant. You see what she sees in him. Of course you can. After all, he's Cary Grant. And yet as the film goes on, you start to dread him, first because he's such a liar and a sneak, and then as the film progresses, because he seems like he's hiding even darker secrets.

In the fifties, stars like Wayne, Bogart, Stewart, and Cooper all played darker variations on their basic screen personas. Grant really didn't. And, tellingly, he was a marquee romantic leading man longer than anyone else. People just seemed to want him to keep being Cary Grant. So he did. It was good business and a legendary career.

But SUSPICION shows that, if he'd wanted, he could have played a much darker variation on that same persona. This a flawed film, but it contains fascinating hints of what might have been.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The HOLIDAY Handspring: A Lesson in Grace from Cary Grant


I'm in the middle of a big Cary Grant rewatch right now, and last night I caught up with HOLIDAY (1938). I first saw this movie about twenty years ago, and while I liked it well enough back then, I think I was vaguely disappointed that it didn't reach the never to be reached heights of insanity in BRINGING UP BABY (released that same year). With age sometimes comes wisdom, though, and watching this film again I'm floored by its gentle sweetness and light comic touch. (That's George Cukor finding the perfect pitch for everything, I think.)

There's so much to praise here, from the deft comic turns of Grant and Hepburn and the wonderful supporting performances of Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, and Lew Ayres. What I really wanted to talk about with this little post, though, is Cary Grant's flipping.

In this movie he does some impressive gymnastics. Now, while some bits like the final backflip at the film's climax have been edited in such a way to make me think that it's someone else performing the stunt, other stunts like the handspring shown above, are clearly Grant himself.

Grant honed these skills while performing with an acrobatic troop in his youth. His handspring is all the more impressive for the fact that he uses one hand to keep his hat on as he goes over and then plants the landing with a wink and a flourish of charm. Charm, of course, is what we so often talk about when we talk about Cary Grant.

But what we should also talk about is his grace, and this movie gives us a perfect example of his grace to discuss. I don't mean the flip itself. I mean the fact that he didn't do this all the time. Most actors, if they could have done these kinds of gymnastics, would have done them in every movie. They would have turned this acrobatic skill set into a gimmick and then run it into the ground. After all, turning inspiration into gimmickry and then depleting its power through repetition is what Hollywood has always done. 

But Grant knew better than to run his acrobatic prowess into the ground. He saved it like a special gift for his audience, something he could break out once he found a perfect showcase for it. Since I haven't seen the entirety of his filmography I can't say for sure if he ever did these kind of gymnastics in another film. Perhaps he did. What I can say for sure is that he doesn't do it in any of the dozens of films of his that I've seen, which includes all the films for which he's best known. Which means that for all intents and purposes, HOLIDAY is the one film where you can see Grant doing his flips. He saved this trick for the right role in the right film. Then, he retired it, and glided away to the next role.

That's grace.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

MARY MAGDALENE and the Jesus Movie


I was on Twitter pontificating about Joaquin Phoenix's probable Oscar win tonight for his performance as Joker. I argued that the actor's best performance last year was as Jesus in Garth Davis's MARY MAGDALENE. (The film was released first overseas in 2018 and then had a brief limited run in the US last year.) Someone asked me if the movie itself was any good. In trying to answer that question, I started to reflect on the genre it belongs to, that subgenre of the biblical epic, the Jesus movie.

MARY MAGDALENE is an interesting addition to the corpus of Jesus movies. All Jesus movies have a different theological focus. This reflects (probably unintentionally) the way we receive the original story of Christ in the New Testament.

A digression: If you read the Christian Bible as a unified work, the break between the old and new testaments is a shocking transition. After the OT collection of myth, poetry, law, and history, we suddenly transition into four different takes on one story. Why the different perspectives? Even among the three synoptic Gospels there's a striking difference in style (the critic Harold Bloom once said that with its emphasis on demonic possession and dark forebodings the Gospel of Mark read like something written by Edgar Allan Poe), and that's before you even get to the epic Gospel of John, which takes things in radically different cosmological and Christological directions. 

All of which is a way of saying that the story of Jesus has been open to varied interpretation from the beginning. On film, his story has been told regularly since the earliest days of silent film, starting with George Melies's short CHRIST WALKING ON WATER in 1899. In fact, the first MARY MAGDALENE film (at least I think it was the first) was released as far back as 1914.

Making a film about Christ isn't simply a matter of assembling a collection of his greatest hits (of both the rhetorical and miraculous variety) and topping it off with the death and resurrection. A film about Christ has to stake out its own distinct theological point of view. What is the story the filmmaker wants to tell about Jesus? What's important about this story? What's less important? What's the final message of this story?

Something like Mel Gibson's PASSION OF THE CHRIST is a good example of what I mean. Gibson made the first fundamentalist Christian movie about Christ. He stripped the story down to one message: Christ took our much deserved punishment upon himself. Gibson hammers this message relentlessly for two hours. Christ suffered and died for us, and that is why we owe him our allegiance. Nothing else he said or did--the other 90% of the story of the Gospels--is important. And this message perfectly captures a fundamentalist understanding of the story of Christ. As a Southern Baptist, I heard this message preached three times a week every week, 52 weeks a year.

There are other good examples of what I mean. Pier Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW casts Jesus as proto-Marxist, focusing on the way his message is directed toward the poor and downtrodden living under imperial rule. Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST uses the Gospel story as a meditation on the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Because it gives itself wide leeway in telling this story, the result is probably the most psychologically dense Jesus movie ever made.

MARY MAGDALENE is unique in that it focuses on Christ's relationship with Mary Magdalene. It decenters the story, making Jesus the object rather than the subject of the film. This decentering has been done before, of course, most famously in BEN-HUR, where Jesus isn't much more than a Very Special Guest Star. (The Coen brothers' brilliant and generally underrated HAIL CESAR! has a lot of fun lampooning BEN-HUR'S hamfisted attempts at big budget piety.) What makes MARY MAGDALENE unique is the way it shifts the focus to Mary Magdalene, arguing that she was Christ's primary disciple, the holy woman to his holy man, and that their message was rooted in a sense of liberation that might best be described as feminist.

There are so many ways this could go wrong, and doubtless some viewers will reject the film outright just on the basis of that description, just on the basis of the word feminist itself. And yet, it must be said that the film's primary strength is that it is a serious, even pious work, one that actually tries to wrestle with the notion that the core of Christ's message was a shattering of traditional hierarchies. It deals with one element that every serious consideration of Christ must deal with, the fact that his message was never fully understood by his disciples and followers, that according to the Gospels themselves, this was by design, that Christ kept his own counsel. In this film, Mary is the one who wrestles with it the most, who comes the best understanding of Christ's earthly mission.

As Mary, Rooney Mara is quite good, emotional but contained. She anchors the movie. But every Jesus movie, even the ones that decenter him, are about their Jesus, which brings us back around to Joaquin Phoenix.

I didn't love or hate JOKER. I thought it was okay. I thought Phoenix, fearless performer that he is, did what he had to do, but I also don't think there was anything terribly surprising about his performance. To hear that Joaquin Phoenix is playing a guy with mental health issues who descends into madness and becomes the Joker is to pretty much have already seen his performance. He plays crazy. He plays it with absolute commitment, but he's kind of just playing crazy.* 

As Jesus, however, Phoenix is offbeat. Not in a showy way. He plays Christ as a mystic, not tortured like Willem Defoe in LAST TEMPTATION but similarly haunted and unsure of himself. He's not the smug know-it-all that we sometimes get from the onscreen Jesus, the guy who already knows the answer and is just making the rest of us guess. Phoenix's Christ is a man coming to the dawning realization that he is also god, that he is communing with the spirit world in a way that no one else ever has. His relationship with Mara's Mary is chaste in large part because they've both transcended the body, with him showing her the way to a larger understanding of human existence and with her taking that message and trying apply it to the real world.

If Phoenix wins the Oscar tonight, good for him. He's one of the best actors we have, so I'll be happy for him. But his best performance last year wasn't as the Clown Prince of Crime but as the King of Kings.

*I can't remember the episode but the podcast Keep It recently did a good job articulating this same idea about JOKER and Phoenix's performance.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Year at the Movies 2019

above: Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

I saw 102 movies on the big screen in 2019. That's a quite a dip from my all-time high of 126 movies in 2018. Not that it's about numbers, of course. (Though to be honest keeping count of my moviegoing is as close as I get to playing sports.) 

I began the year with a bang, seeing BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938) in Paris. For a Gary Cooper fan, to see one of my favorites among his comedies on the big screen in Paris was a joyful experience. The last film I saw this year was Terence Malick's beautiful A HIDDEN LIFE (2019), a profound work of Christian humanism, and his best film in years.

My favorite new films this year, aside from A HIDDEN LIFE, were (in no particular order) the hilarious and horrifying PARASITE, the empathetic divorce drama MARRIAGE STORY, the loving documentary tribute THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES, the loving biopic tribute JUDY, the irresistible HUSTLERS, and the darkly elegiac THE IRISHMAN. My favorite blockbuster was ENDGAME, which did the big bloated blockbuster thing about as well as it can be done. My favorite overlooked movie of the year was MARY MAGDALENE,  a feminist retelling of the gospel story featuring compelling performances from Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix (whose turn as Jesus was far more nuanced than his work as Joker). 

As is always the case, I've seen a lot more old movies than new ones this year. (The benefits of living in Chicago, a town that loves its repertory movie programming.) Highlights included a retrospective of all four of Bogart/Bacall vehicles, an all-night program of four Dolly Parton movies (9 to 5, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, RHINESTONE, and STRAIGHT TALK), Chabrol's shocking LES BONNES FEMMES, and three Judy Garland films (EASTER PARADE, THE CLOCK, and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS). I also got to see a lot of noir, including IN A LONELY PLACE, SUDDEN FEAR, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, PUSHOVER, THE RED HOUSE, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and both versions of THE KILLERS.

All in all, it was a hell of a year at the movies. Hope to match it this year...and maybe get those numbers up.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

DRY COUNTY on Audiobook


I'm super excited to announce that DRY COUNTY is now available on audiobook. Because the book is told through alternating narrators, there are five different actors (Cassandra Campbell, Charles Constant, Pete Cross, Joel Froomkin, Devon Sorvari) reading. You can get it on Audible or wherever you get your talkin' books.

Friday, November 22, 2019

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)


I fear that we will never look upon the likes of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME again. Remember that this fourth entry in the venerable franchise was a radical departure from what came before it. Where STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was a bloated attempt to turn Trek into a Kubrickian LSD trip, and WRATH OF KHAN was a submarine picture, and SEARCH FOR SPOCK was a heist movie crossed with a religious epic, THE VOYAGE HOME is, of all things, a gentle comedy.

Curiously, of all the Start Trek feature films, it is the one that most closely resembles the original series. People remember it as "the one with the whales" because the plot centers around a return to the past (ie. the then present, 1986) to retrieve a couple of humpback whales in the hopes that the extinct leviathans can communicate with a probe that is destroying the earth. The time travel plot (and its twin sibling, the "let's go to a planet that resembles an era in Earth's past" plot) was a mainstay of the original series. But so was the comedy episode. Something like "A Piece of the Action," in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet that has patterned itself after the gangsterism of 1920s Chicago, combines both the time travel plot and the comedy approach. STAR TREK IV, in some ways, owes more to those kinds of episodes than it does to TREKs 1, 2, and 3. 

(This is where I should point out that THE VOYAGE HOME does complete the Genesis Trilogy, that trilogy within the series that begins with the introduction of the Genesis device and the death of Spock in WRATH, follows Spock's resurrection on the Genesis planet in SEARCH, and culminates with the return to Earth in VOYAGE.)

Because THE VOYAGE HOME was the most successful film in the franchise until the 2009 reboot, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the initial decision to make the film a comedy was a potentially disastrous decision. Parts 2 and 3 had blacked-hatted villains, disgusting desert slugs oozing out of people's ears, battles in space,  exploding planets. Part 4 features word play and fish-out-of-water (no pun intended) slapstick. It all could have gone so wrong.

(Another aside: it almost all did go wrong. An early idea for the movie featured Eddie Murphy as a whale expert who gets involved with the crew. This version of the story was given very real consideration, and Murphy was briefly attached to the project, before the idea was abandoned and the character was changed to a love interest for Kirk. One can respect Eddie Murphy was as a comedy legend while still suspecting that stunt casting him in a Star Trek movie in 1986 would have been bad for everyone involved.)

Instead, what the filmmakers gave us was a perfect kind of Star Trek episode, one that relies on sharply drawn personalities and witty dialogue for its effects. Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley were always a great comedy team, but here the rest of the cast get to flex their comedy muscles as well. 

It's all kind of perfect. Yes, THE WRATH OF KHAN is a pop sci-fi masterpiece and the best of the Trek films. It's the one that will have the longest life. Just recently a theater here in Chicago played KHAN as part of their "Nerdy November" late night movie series. When I saw that (which is what prompted this little blog post), I thought. "That's wrong. If you want to be nerdy, show THE VOYAGE HOME." In a way, it's the most Trek of the Trek movies.

Which brings me back around to my original point. We'll probably never see another Trek movie like this again. It's too big of a risk today. VOYAGE cost 21 million dollars to make. The last reboot film, STAR TREK BEYOND, cost a whopping 186 million. The new films use humor, but the idea of giving an entire installment in the series over to characters, conversation, and laughter (with the requite sci-fi bookends, of course) would never fly today. Today Trek has to, in theory at least, compete with Star Wars installments and Marvel movies. It has to be big. VOYAGE, by contrast, had scope when it needed it, but was mostly content to be intimate.

Even more radical, VOYAGE doesn't have an enemy. Think about that for a moment. There's no violence, just suspense and comedy. One of my bones of contention with the direction that Star Trek has taken since the original cast retired is its slavish devotion to the revenge plot. This is an unfortunate legacy of KHAN. The main driver of the last four (!) Trek films--starting with the series nadir NEMESIS in 2002 and extending through all three of the reboot films--has been the revenge plot. Someone returns from the past to get revenge. One wants to tell the filmmakers, for god's sake stop trying to remake KHAN. Is is beyond tiresome at this point. It's malpractice. One can only hope that Noah Hawley will watch STAR TREK IV again. I don't expect the next Trek film to be a comedy about whales, nor would I want it to be. I'm not asking for another rehash. What I am suggesting is that Star Trek has durable characters and a tradition of being open to risky ideas. Trying boldly going in that direction?