Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Detour (1945) and Ann Savage

In 1945, a Z-list studio called Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) gave director Edgar G. Ulmer six days and thirty-thousand dollars to make a movie. PRC was just one of the many low rent outfits on Hollywood's "Poverty Row" churning out bargain basement movies to stick at the bottom of crappy double features around the country. The studio assigned Ulmer a little script, a no-name cast, and a deadline. The movie he delivered a week later was as hard and cheap as a bucket of nails. And it was a masterpiece.

Detour is sixty-seven minutes long. It stars actors whose careers were in the toilet (a toilet soon to be flushed), and its lack of a budget is apparent in every scene. Yet these constraints seem perfectly suited to the story Ulmer is telling. Detour, which is about as noir as a film has ever been, tells the brief story of the destruction of a penniless loser. He starts out as a penniless loser; that’s at the beginning, when things are good.

The movie stars Tom Neal as Al Roberts, a down-on-his luck piano player in love with a down-on-her-luck singer. The singer heads west for California, looking to hit it big. She doesn't hit it big, but after a while Roberts follows her out there anyway. His career is going nowhere, and he's broke, so he has to hitchhike. He accepts a ride from a traveling salesman. The guy talks too much, and he's kind of an asshole, but hey, a ride's a ride. It beats walking.

Then something terrible happens. The guy up and dies, and though it's not Al Robert's fault, it sort of ends up looking like it is. He makes a spilt decision to leave the body in the desert, take the man's car, money and clothes. It's not a good idea, but neither is giving a ride to a hitchhiker the next day.

Her name is Vera, and when Vera climbs into the car with Al Roberts, the movie goes from being a cheap, effective little thriller into being something darkly wonderful. Vera, played brilliantly by Ann Savage, may well be the meanest woman who ever stomped into a film noir. She's not a beautiful seductress like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, or a bored housewife like Audrey Totter in Tension. She's not pretty. She's not sexy. She's a drunk who hates everyone she meets. She's not smart either, but, then again, you don't exactly have to be smart to be smarter than Al Roberts. She sees through him the moment she meets him, and then she decides she owns him.

I won't write any more about the plot, but I don't have to really. One of the interesting things about Detour is the way it begins to set up a plot complication at about the forty-five minute mark (Vera hatches a scheme to make some big money) but then veers off. The movie doesn’t need anymore plot complications. Al and Vera aren’t made for plots. They're too small time for that. They spend the last fifteen or so minutes of the movie swilling liquor and arguing in a dank little motel room, just a couple of cockroaches scurrying across the grimy carpet until one of them dies.

With such a tight focus, a lot depends on the performers. While Tom Neal was never much of an actor (he’s a total nonentity in something like Blonde Alibi), he had a quality of innate insecurity that worked well for the character of Al Roberts. Ulmer uses Neal’s eyes and their intrinsic worry in a recurrent image in which he zooms close to the actor’s eyes and lets the rest of the screen, including the rest of his face, go dark. It’s a cheap effect, but it works in large part because Neal had interesting eyes. Presumably they got more interesting, but Neal eventually stopped acting and opened a lawn care business. He was just another washed-up actor who drank too much until 1965 when he shot his third wife in the back of the head with a .45. He was released from prison after serving seven years and died of a massive heart attack within a few months. It’s a hard life story but oddly fitting for an actor immortalized by Al Robert’s lamentation, “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out its foot to trip you.”

As good as Neal is here, however, the film really belongs to Ann Savage. She doesn’t appear until about the halfway mark, but that is merely a testament to the impact of her performance. With the character of Vera, Savage boils down the femme fatale to pure psychological grit. Vera’s not beautiful and she’s not brilliant, but she is tougher than Al Roberts. So she’s going to push him around, pure and simple. It is one of the great performances in film noir (hell, I think it’s one of the great performances in cinema), but it couldn’t save Savage’s career. Like Neal, she quit acting not long after this film and disappeared from the public view. For years, people assumed her life had ended as tragically as Neal’s, but in the eighties, she began to resurface in small parts in small films, and, happily, by the time Detour became regarded as a classic she was able to enjoy the delayed fruits of her success. Most recently, she appeared in Guy Maddin’s wonderful, surrealist My Winnipeg, playing a character who could have easily been related to Vera. Her career is a testament to the way a great film—even a cheap little monster like this one—can endure.

Detour is noir stripped to its bare essentials. It may not be the best noir ever made, but it's the purest. A man, a woman, a few bucks, a couple of nights, liquor, cigarettes, death. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it's bad character. The only thing for certain is that it doesn't matter.

That's the nihilistic heart of the genre.


I found out this afternoon that Ann Savage died in her sleep a few days ago, on Christmas. It's sad, and a real loss to movie fans, but one very happy thought is that Ms. Savage lived long enough to see herself remembered. I highly recommend Eddie Muller's excellent book Dark City Dames, which features a long section on Ann Savage. The story of how she discovered, after living for decades in absolute obscurity, that she was a cult figure--that without knowing it she was still a movie star--is a priceless bit of reading.

Here's a brief interview with Savage from a documentary on Ulmer. At the end of the interview there's a brief bit where someone says they shot "Detour" in fourteen days. Every single source I've read on the making of the film--including Muller, Bogdanovich, and both Ulmer and Savage--all say it was shot in six.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dishonored (1931)

The other night I went to the Smithsonian for the last installment of their series on the work of Josef von Sternberg. I’m disappointed I didn’t make it to any of the other films in the series, but I was lucky in one respect: the night I went they were showing an extremely rare print of von Sternberg’s wonderful romantic comedy Dishonored.

This was von Sternberg’s third film with Marlene Dietrich, and in some ways it’s the most fun. The Blue Angel (1930) was iconic and set the Marlene myth in place, and Morocco (1930) was a good follow up (with Marlene at her most androgynously beautiful in a tux and top hat), but with Dishonored von Sternberg created opulent goof, a film as silly as it is beautiful. The Scarlet Empress (1934) might be von Sternberg’s best—and most baroque—film, but Dishonored is his most entertaining.

The film begins with Marlene in the rain pulling up her stockings. She’s doing what she has to get by in WWI Austria, and we infer that what’s she doing involves befriending gentlemen for the night. She befriends just such a man (Gustav von Seyffertitz), but it turns out he’s not after sex. He wants to recruit her to spy on the Russians. Marlene figures “why not?” and starts befriending Russian spies for the night. Her assignment eventually involves her getting mixed up with Russia’s top spy, Col. Kranau (Victor McLaglen, in a fun performance). The two carry on an affair—stretching back and forth between their countries—while trying to have the other thrown into jail or shot of espionage. Ah, love.

Josef von Sternberg was an odd man, a control freak and famous misanthrope who alienated many of the people he worked with. His control of Dietrich was legendary, but Dietrich herself never seemed too disturbed by it. She knew that von Sternberg had molded her into an international star, and she further knew that having this brilliant director obsess over crafting sumptuous visual feasts with her at the center was a good thing. As von Sternberg once said, “The thing you have to understand is that Marlene is not Marlene. I’m Marlene. No one understands that better than her.”

This film is in love with her. The camera and light caress her—von Sternberg essentially worked as his own cinematographer—but the story allows her moments of unadorned goofiness. Watching Marlene get a Russian officer drunk is a joy to behold. Dishonored also keeps the tragic element of the Marlene persona in place—she will, of course, sacrifice all for her one true love—but this movie contains hands down the funniest execution ever put on film. How could anyone resist that?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I, The Jury (1953)

Legend has it that Mickey Spillane wrote his first Mike Hammer mystery I, the Jury in nineteen days. The novel immediately became a sensation, and Spillane churned out Hammer mysteries like a one-man pulp factory for the rest of the forties and fifties. The novels were graceless, violent and—by the standards of the time—borderline pornographic. Spillane sold over two hundred million copies around the world and made more money than the US Treasury. It didn’t take Hollywood long to come knocking on his door.

Of course, the most famous attempt to translate Spillane’s hardboiled vision to the screen was Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly. It’s a noir classic. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s by far the best adaption of anything Spillane ever wrote. Having said that, however, you might also want to take a look at Harry Essex’s 1953 I, the Jury, Hollywood’s first crack at Mike Hammer. It’s not great art, but neither was any book by Mickey Spillane. In many ways, in fact, Essex’s film has more of the cheap flavor of a Hammer novel than does Aldrich’s more ambitious approach. While Kiss Me Deadly takes Spillane’s work as a starting point, I, the Jury takes it as an end point.

The movie starts off with a murder, followed by some credits bursting onto the screen. Hammer appears in the next scene swearing revenge. That’s the setup for a lot of Mickey Spillane’s work. Someone dies, and Hammer sets out to find and execute the killer. The construction of the movie follows the construction of the book. It’s up the viewer to decide if they want to take the time to try and untangle the plot. Essentially the story is a series of interviews. Hammer goes from one place to the next and talks to potential suspects. The suspects alternate between men like George Kalecki (Alan Reed) and women like the sexy psychologist Charlotte Manning (Peggy Castle). The conversations with the men invariably end in violence. The conversations with women invariably end in sexual innuendo. At the end, Hammer suddenly figures out who the killer is and carries out the execution.

The irrecoverable problem of this film is at the center. In a fatal bit of casting, Hammer is played by relative newcomer Biff Elliot in a charmless performance constructed mainly of barks and punches. Someone like Charles McGraw might have pulled off Mike Hammer this way and still injected a little personality into the character, but Elliot’s performance has as much personality as a headache. Since he is at the center of nearly every scene, nearly every scene has a problem.

Nevertheless, despite this setback the film itself isn’t half bad. It’s directed by a screenwriter named Harry Essex who had a deep involvement with noir in the classic period (he wrote, among other things, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential). He does what he can with Elliot’s limitations and milks as much as possible out of the rest of the cast (including a brief turn by Elisha Cook Jr. in a Santa Claus suit). The real MVP here, however, is cinematographer John Alton. Alton was, of course, the king of noir cinematography and I, the Jury is a hell of a good looking picture. Halfway through the movie, there’s a scene set in the basement of a library. Hammer is talking to a cop. In the background, another cop is smoking a cigarette, his smoke curling up into a hot white light above him. It’s just one gorgeous noir visual, causally tossed off, but Alton has packed the film full of them.

The other major selling point of the film is the fine performance by Peggy Castle as the sexy shrink, Charlotte Manning. She has the exact combination of aloof beauty and devious intelligence that the role calls for, and one wonders what she might have done opposite a decent actor in the lead role. In any event, 1953 was a good year for Castle, in addition to this film she also appeared in Karlson’s masterpiece 99 River Street. Sadly, though, she didn’t have many good years left. She made some more noirs, usually as femme fatales (including another Spillane adaptation, the ode to misogyny The Long Wait), did some television and then retired from acting. After her Hollywood career, she fell on hard times and drank herself to death at the age of 45, another tragic story from the land of sunshine.

Postscript: I’ve always thought the natural actor to play Hammer would have been Robert Ryan. Hammer is essentially a sociopath, and Ryan could have done interesting things with this interpretation of the character. You could look at his performance in On Dangerous Ground (1952) and see what I mean.

Spillane wasn't my favorite writer, but he was a hell of a good interview. Check him out here talking about his work and the writing business in general.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Act of Violence (1948)

I know of no more underrated movie in the film noir canon than Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. It is a masterpiece of the highest order, a perfect encapsulation of the themes and style of noir, and while it is not as well known as movies like Out of the Past and The Maltese Falcon, it is every bit their equal. A reassessment of this film is in order.

The movie begins with a man in a hat and trench coat limping across a city street at night. He climbs the steps of a flophouse, goes to his room and retrieves a .45 from a drawer. He checks the clip and slams it back into the gun. The title “Act of Violence” bursts onto the screen and we’re off and running without any further credits. The man is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan). He’s on his way to find Frank Enley.

When we first meet Frank a few scenes later, he’s being congratulated by a civic gathering at the groundbreaking of a new housing division in his small California town of Santa Lisa. Frank’s a happy man, a war hero who has returned from overseas and made the best of the postwar American utopia. He’s got plenty of money and friends, a pretty young wife, and a healthy two-year old son. Things are going great, and then Joe Parkson gets to town.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, and I certainly don’t want to reveal much about Joe’s reasons for wanting to kill Frank. Their connection goes back to the war, but uncovering their shared history is pivotal to the viewer’s enjoyment of the film. Figuring out just how much of the darkness encroaching on this small town ideal is represented by Joe and how much of it is represented by Frank is just one of the film’s great surprises. Soon Frank is on the run. He runs up to Los Angeles with Joe quick on his heels. It is here in the LA section of the film that Act of Violence achieves greatness. It has been a compelling thriller up to this point, but in LA, as Frank’s history is revealed and he begins his descent into the seedy underworld in a desperate attempt to flee history's consequences, the film becomes a first rate drama.

Fred Zinnemann is an interesting director because while he was incredibly successful— with a shelf full of Oscars and a list of box office blockbusters to his credit—he is a guy who gets curiously little respect. The auteurist critics never gave him any love, with High Noon in particular coming under fire from partisans of Hawks and Ford who didn’t want to see anybody upstage Rio Bravo or The Searchers. Andrew Sarris, in his influential ranking of directors, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1928-1968, damned Zinnemann—along with John Huston and Billy Wilder—to a hell entitled “Chapter Five: Less Than Meets the Eye”.

While I’m in sympathy with the notion that popular success and industry approval are meaningless (my favorite director is Orson Welles, after all), I think Zinnemann has gotten a raw deal. A consistently intelligent and skillful filmmaker, he worked in many disparate genres and succeeded in most of them. With Act of Violence he pulls off the impressive feat of making a textbook film noir before any such textbook had been written. Most of the noir elements are here—the postwar moral ambiguity, the use of shadows and slanted angles, the daytime beginnings followed by the tumble into night, the guilt, the fatalism, Robert Ryan—and the film utilizes these elements to dramatize the essential noir theme of an ordinary man who must watch in horror as his sins catch up to him. Working with cinematographer Robert Surtees, Zinnemann employs the style of noir with such precision and maturity that Act of Violence almost feels like a conscious attempt to fulfill the promise of the genre. Many noirs have a still-evolving quality, bearing traces of studio convention or the vestigial elements of other genres, but Act of Violence is a completely realized noir from start to finish.

The story came from Collier Young, who had an instinctual feeling for the dark undercurrents of American society. He would later help his wife, director Ida Lupino, mine this territory, most notably in her masterpiece The Hitch-Hiker which, like this film, takes ordinary people and plunges them into moral chaos. Young, screenwriter Robert Richards, and Zinnemann all identified this plunge as the main thrust of Act of Violence. Frank Enley’s descent from sunny Santa Lisa to the dirty, dark streets of LA mirrors his fall from the protective façade of his current life back into the harsh realities of his past life.

Enley is played brilliantly by Van Heflin in a performance that requires him to hit just about every note you can ask an actor to hit: goodness, happiness, fear, sheer terror, despair, resignation. He’s given great support by Robert Ryan (as good as always), but Mary Astor just about steals the movie as a middle-aged prostitute who picks up a drunk and confused Frank and takes him back to her place. If you only know her as Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon, you are in for a surprise. This is the best performance she ever gave.

There aren’t many superlatives I have left to throw at Act of Violence, but I’ll give it one more: it is my favorite film noir.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

There are those who call The Magnificent Ambersons a great film. There are those who think it is one of the best films ever made. They are wrong. It is a bad film. It is, in its heartbreaking way, one of the worst movies ever made. That The Magnificent Ambersons for much of its running time shows the unquestionable marks of genius is beyond dispute. Even more than with Citizen Kane this film amazes us with the jaw-dropping self-assurance of its creator. Orson Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons like a man who never had a moment of doubt. The sweeping camera shots at the Amberson ball, the cinematography which manages to be realistic and expressionistic in equal doses without throwing off our eye, the cast of fine actors giving wonderful, nuanced performances—all of it works together with some of the best damn mise en scene anyone ever put in front of a camera to create a towering achievement…almost.

Because how can you talk about The Magnificent Ambersons without talking about the last ten minutes? The last ten minutes of this movie are some of the worst ten minutes on film. Placed into context with the rest of the film they may well be the worst ten minutes in the history of cinema.

Of course, that’s not Orson Welles’ fault because he didn’t direct them. Over the years we’ve read the original shooting script, we’ve seen the surviving stills of the missing footage, and with all we’ve read and seen there can be little doubt that the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons which Welles wrote and directed is as good as the rest of his film. There is even room for the speculation that with this footage restored and with Welles’ original editing scheme in place (his film was 148 minutes long and this one is, sigh, 88 minutes) that The Magnificent Ambersons would be his best film. I think it is very safe to say that. If you were feeling saucy you might even go so far as to assert that The Magnificent Ambersons, the one Welles made, might very well have been the best movie anyone ever made.

The problem is, of course, that The Magnificent Ambersons is gone. It was destroyed. It was literally chopped up and set on fire by the assholes who ran RKO pictures. The new ending, that brutally, heartbreakingly inept ten minutes, was shot by a studio flunky who would later go on to direct movies that were great. He would win Oscars and make millions.

Welles, however, slipped into exile. He went onto direct other masterpieces (Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake), but he never had full control of a Hollywood production again. After Ambersons, he was always suspect, and his films were regularly butchered by studio heads and fly-by-night independent producers. Ambersons was the end of the dream that began when Welles first signed his legendary Hollywood contract.

So what do we say about The Magnificent Ambersons, the only one we have left? At best you can call it a mangled masterpiece. Picture, if you will, someone painting a fat grin on the Mona Lisa the day after da Vinci finished it, so that no one living had ever seen the original. Could you still call it a great painting? Imagine a functioning illiterate rewriting the last act of Hamlet so that Claudius and Hamlet worked out their problems off stage and the play closed with Claudius and Gertrude strolling offstage arm-in-arm. What would you call that play?

Or to put it another way: if by some miracle we uncovered Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons tomorrow, then we could let RKO’s The Magnificent Ambersons fall into the sea (unless we wanted to keep it for a DVD extra). What does that say about the actual value of the film we have, this vile imposter posing as an Orson Welles movie? We would dismiss it in an instant, like we would ditch a boring date if the love of our life swept into the room.

We don’t do Welles any favors to act as if this is a good movie. We insult him by acting as if these 88 minutes are what he created for us. They are not. And, we should note, Welles himself could not bring himself to watch The Magnificent Ambersons as we have it. It reduced him to tears, like a man looking into the coffin of his child.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a complete movie only in our minds. It is the great lost film. With something like von Stroheim’s Greed we can say it would be interesting to see his original uncut nine-hour production, but can we say we really, deeply want to? With The Magnificent Ambersons we would jump at the chance. Once you see the imposter, your mind begins to wonder, what would the real one look like? How much better would the ending be, how much better would those long sweeping ballroom shots be? What would this story feel like if it were allowed to affect us? Watching the RKO version is like meeting the love of your life and watching them get run over by a beer truck.

That, really, is the final tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons, the way the real film calls out to us from its grave, enchanting us with the real promise of brilliance.

I bet it was a great movie.

For Welles Fans

Anyone with any interest in Welles must watch the amazing full length interview he gave to the BBC in 1982. It's an extraordinary piece of work. I've never seen anything in which the sheer complexity of the man came across so well. He was a brilliant artist, one the real jewels of our cinema, but he was also maddening and self-absorbed. Of course, he was also funny, charming and tragic. All of this comes across in this BBC documentary. Check it out.

And if I've stoked your interest in The Magnificent Ambersons, you may want to read an overview at what went down at RKO. Here's a piece from (the place to go, by the way, for all things Orson).

Finally, there are several excellent books about Welles. One best of the best is the newly released Orson Welles At Work, a magisterial overview of the director's entire career. It's huge, packed full of gorgeous photographs, and exhaustively researched. It's pricey, but it's worth every cent. The other must-have book, perfect for the beginning fan and far more affordable, is This Is Orson Welles, a book length interview between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Welles expert Jonathan Rosenbaum. The interview is wide-ranging, covering art, politics, religion and, of course, movies. Welles was a great raconteur and with Bogdanovich he has a knowledgeable, sympathetic listener. Bogdanovich and Rosenbaum have packed the book full of goodies: memos, sketches, photographs, a day-by-day timeline of Welles' career (it's shocking how much Welles worked) and a section detailing the mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons. Check it out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Second (or is it the Third?) Coming of Jim Thompson

For those of us who think that roman noir doesn't get much better than Jim Thompson, there is great news out there in Hollywood that Casey Affleck is going to be starring in an adaption of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. This great news for three reasons:

1. Jim Thompson was the greatest postwar crime novelist. No one was better at capturing the sick underbelly of American society during the Eisenhower years (and beyond). The Killer Inside Me is widely considered to be his best book, the archetypal serial killer story. Now, I have to admit that I've never been that big a fan of this particular book. I have other favorites. A Hell Of A Woman is, I think, his most complete novel--a brutal character study of a misogynist who gets what's coming to him. Savage Night, the story of the undoing of a hitman, is Thompson's most surreal trip (the last twenty pages are insane). After Dark, My Sweet is an oddly effecting Thompson romance of all things, a rare example of him writing about flawed but essentially good people. The Getaway is perhaps a little too consciously arty, but there are worse things you can say about a book. The Killer Inside Me is a fine novel, but JT told essentially the same story in Pop. 1280, a book I find more compelling. Still, I must say, the idea of an adaptation of Thompson's most highly praised novel is exciting. I'm totally open to a film that takes the story and interprets it into something great. Which has been done before...

2. It's been eighteen years since the great Thompson revival of 1990. By my count there were three great Thompson adaptations around that time.

  • After Dark, My Sweet (1990) starred Jason Patric, Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern, and was so damn good it left you thinking, incorrectly, that director James Foley was going to be a great artist. It is the best Thompson film, a superb film noir that perfectly captures the romantic nihilism (there's a phrase for you) of Thompson's most haunting story.
  • The Grifters (199o) starred John Cusack, Angelica Huston and Annette Benning and it's another top rate piece of work, a movie that goes all the way with the dark implications of the book's central relationship between a con man and his smarter, more ruthless, mother.
  • Bertrand Tavernier directed Coup de Torchon, a French adaptation of Thompson's Pop. 1280. It takes Thompson's story of a small town Texas lawman gone very, very bad and it moves the action to French colonial Africa. It's a fine piece of work, all the better for proving that Thompson's work can translate.
So, there are at least three great Thompson movies out there (I have not seen Maggie Greenwald's The Kill-Off, nor Serie Noir, Alain Corneau's French adaptation of A Hell of a Woman; I have seen both versions of The Getaway, about which the less said is better). Thompson's work has proven to be extremely adaptable.

3. It looks like he's got a good crew of adapters this time around, too. Casey Affleck is a potentially brilliant choice to play Lou Ford, the small town deputy sheriff who moonlights as a serial killer. Last year, Affleck turned in a strong performance in his brother's tight, smart neonoir Gone Baby Gone. Even more impressive was his performance in Andrew Dominik's vastly underrated revisionist western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (a film I recommended a couple of months ago). In his portrayal of Robert Ford you get a sense of the duality Affleck could bring to Thompson's most notorious two-faced killer. He'll be joined by Elias Koteas and Jessica Alba. The screenplay, encouragingly, is by Andrew Dominik and directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Filming begins in January. Keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime check out these cool ass sites:

The Killer Beside Me: The Jim Thompson Resource Page

Bleeker Books' Page On Thompson-Lots of good links on this one