Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Heist movies have a different internal energy than a lot of film noirs. Movies about sex and murder have a certain inner fire. They’re fueled by lust or bloodlust, and it’s up to the creators of those movies to get our adrenaline pumping, to tap into our inner adulterers, our inner murderers. Heist movies, on the other hand, are colder at the core because they’re not about passion but process. That’s the key to their delicious appeal. They tap into the part of us that wants to be a professional transgressor.
John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is maybe the best heist movie ever made. If it’s not the best, then it certainly set the template that most other great heist movies (Rififi, The Killing) would follow. It assembles a large cast of character actors, arms them with a master plan to knock over a huge score, and then sets the wheels turning toward an eventual unraveling.
Sam Jaffe stars as Doc Riedenschneider, a criminal mastermind with a foolproof plan for a jewel heist. He goes to see a sweaty, smalltime bookie (Marc Lawrence) who puts him in contact with a morally compromised lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Emmerich agrees to front the money for the heist, but we find out find out pretty quick that he has alternative plans for the jewels. The only person that Doc can really trust is a surly hood named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) who just wants enough money to get the hell out of the city.
The cast here is superb, and superbly utilized. Character actors often relegated to the back of the frame are suddenly up front and center, and everyone rises to the challenge. Jaffe manages to be both likable and creepy as Doc, a brilliant tactician who also happens to have a soft spot for teenaged girls. Louis Calhern gives an elegantly nuanced performance as Emmerich, the very model of self-deluding corruption, and Marc Lawrence—who was in approximately every B-movie ever made— shines as the little bookie with a bundle of nerves and a big mouth. Throw in a scene-stealing James Whitmore as a feisty, hunchbacked getaway driver; Marilyn Monroe as Calhern’s much younger mistress; and Jean Hagen playing a dim-but-sweet cocktail waitress, and you have an ensemble with no weak link.
Leading this gang of thieves and misfits is Sterling Hayden as Dix, Jaffe’s right hand hooligan. Like fellow noir stalwart Charles McGraw, Hayden is about as artless as a punch in the gut, but he has a quality that seems readymade for the smoky backrooms and cheaply furnished apartments of film noir. Hulking and gruff, he looks as if he’s been up all night, drinking, gambling, and stalking his way through a city he hates. With this film alone, Hayden established himself as an icon in the genre. (He made a lot of other noirs or varying quality, but starred in two other masterpieces Crime Wave and The Killing.)
All this great casting would be for nothing if there weren’t steady hands at the wheel, but the work behind the camera is as good as the work in front. Harold Rosson’s exquisite cinema-tography is a mixture of the realistic and the atmospheric. The opening scenes remind me of something out of neorealism, but Lawrence’s hole-in-the-wall gambling den is bathed in smoke and shadows. Meanwhile the topnotch script (co-written by John Huston and Ben Maddow, from the book by WR Burnett) is finely crafted, giving dimension and good lines to even the smallest character parts (hearing a police siren in the distance, a safecracker’s worried wife says, “it sounds just like a soul in hell”).
The main creative force behind the camera was, of course, John Huston, a director who could make any kind of movie, and did, though his prodigious output was wildly uneven. He made great movies, shitty movies, and every kind of movie in between. For every masterpiece (The Maltese Falcon), he made a piece of junk (Freud). And when he wanted to, he could even make a movie that seemed both great and shitty at the same time (Reflections in a Golden Eye).
With The Asphalt Jungle, Huston reached the peak of his game. One might object that The Maltese Falcon is better, but Huston’s direction here is snappier, more interesting. There’s a showdown late in the film between Hayden and Brad Dexter (playing Calhern’s henchman in another of the film’s fine performances), and the scene is a lesson in how to use the camera to build and then release suspense. Likewise, the jewel heist itself is a classic bit of cinema and a blueprint for all the heist flicks which followed it.
The entire movie feels way. Huston marshaled his cast and collaborators into telling a story that is ultimately rich with pathos but for the most part unfolds with the cold logic of an arrest report. These characters make their living out of crime (“just a left-handed form of human endeavor” Calhern observes), and for much of the movie Huston was content to sit back and let us watch them at their work because he instinctively understood that it was the work we wanted to see, the work of professional thieves. By making that the emphasis, he created a prototype. What The Maltese Falcon was to detective flicks and Double Indemnity was to the femme fatale movie, The Asphalt Jungle was to heist movies. It is classic, indispensible film noir.
For an interesting look at the career of John Huston, read here. I disagree with some of what it says--Falcon and Jungle are masterpieces, not simply casting coups--but it's a smart look at his body of work.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Here is a film ripe for rediscovery. I’m not sure how ROADBLOCK has escaped the attention of so many critics and historians, but it is a brilliant encapsulation of almost everything that we love in crime pictures from the fifties. It is hardcore noir.
ROADBLOCK tells the story of an insurance investigator named Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) who meets a beautiful young society climber named Diane (Joan Dixon) when she cons her way into a cheap plane ticket by pretending to be his wife. At first, he’s offended. He’s a straight-shooter, a hard-nosed insurance cop who takes an immediate disliking for this little “chiseler.” For reasons he can’t quite understand, though, he goes along with her. When a thunderstorm forces their plane to stop for the night in Kansas, “Mr. and Mrs. Peters” are forced to share a room. They flip a coin for the bed. He wins, but she gets the blanket. By the time they make it to Los Angles, he’s asking when he can see her again. Joe, against his better judgment, is already in love, but Diane blows him off. She likes him as much as he likes her, but she thinks he’s a sucker. She’s ready for good times, expensive meals, and nice fur coats. They part company, and soon Joe’s back at work. His first case, funny enough, is the theft of some pricey furs. His prime suspect is a high-class hood named Kendall Webb (Lowell Gilmore). Joe goes up to Webb’s penthouse to question him and finds Diane slinking around in new mink.
Soon Christmas rolls around, and when Webb heads home to enjoy the holidays with his family, Diane is left spending Christmas with her furs. She goes to find Joe. He’s spending Christmas with a bottle. They fall in each other’s arms, and Diane decides she’d rather have love than money. Joe’s not so sure she’ll keep feeling that way, so he approaches Webb with a plan to rob a mail train carrying over a million dollars. Webb’s a good sport about losing Diane. He agrees to finance the caper, and honest Joe starts down the path to destruction.
The movie is directed by Harold Daniels, a director of little distinction, and ROADBLOCK is a compelling counterargument to the auteur theory of filmmaking. It features a smart script (by George Bricker, Steve Fisher, Richard Landau, and the blacklisted Daniel Mainwaring writing as Geoffrey Holmes), a wonderful cast, and one of the genre’s iconic cinematographers (the great Nicholas Musuraca). It is an assembly of great talent, but it would be difficult to isolate one person to credit for the film’s artistic success.
Perhaps the lack of a notable director at the helm helps explain ROADBLOCK's obscurity among general film buffs, but noir fans should search this film out. For one thing, it features Charles McGraw’s best performance. Most fans know that McGraw can do steely toughness better than just about anyone, but they’ll be surprised how flawed and human he makes Joe Peters. ROADBLOCK is your chance to see McGraw—toughest of the tough guys—being a Mitchum-sized chump.
You can’t really blame him for being such a fool, though. In ROADBLOCK, Joan Dixon does what any great femme fatale should do, she makes a believable case for throwing your life away. Femmes come in all shapes and sizes of course, but Joan Dixon is a unique member of the pantheon of deadly women. She’s not an evil cipher in the mold of an Ava Gardner or a Barbara Stanwyck. She’s a bad girl who doesn’t quite know herself until she meets Joe Peters. Once they fall in love, she tries to go straight because he’s unlocked some latent good she’s kept stored away. The tragedy here is that she’s already unlocked the latent evil in Joe. This is a marriage made in a particularly ironic pit in hell.
Dixon is a virtual unknown today, even in the tiny world of film noir. Her career was brief, starting with a bland little programmer called BUNCO SQUAD about conmen posing as a religious cult. Most of her career was spent in low budget westerns and bit parts on television, followed by a career as a lounge singer. By the end of the fifties, she was mostly notable in Hollywood for her semi-regular appearances in the tabloids as the star in a series of messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992, just another forgotten old lady in Tinseltown who was an actress for five minutes in the fifties.
Like Ann Savage, Joan Dixon had a short, unremarkable movie career. However, they each make one great film before disappearing into history. DETOUR has been acknowledged as a noir masterpiece, and Savage has been given the credit due to her. I hope someday we can say the same thing about ROADBLOCK and Joan Dixon.
I've written before about Joan Dixon. Read here.
I've also written a little on Charles McGraw. Read here.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Reportedly a neighbor of Harry Houdini while growing up in the Bronx, American actor Edmond O'Brien decided to emulate Houdini by becoming a magician himself. The demonstrative skills gleaned from this experience enabled O'Brien to move into acting while attending high school. After majoring in drama at Columbia University, he made his first Broadway appearance at age 21 in Daughters of Atrus. O'Brien's mature features and deep, commanding voice allowed him to play characters far older than himself, and it looked as though he was going to become one of Broadway's premiere character actors. Yet when he was signed for film work by RKO in 1939, the studio somehow thought he was potential leading man material -- perhaps as a result of his powerful stage performance as young Marc Antony in Orson Welles' modern dress version of Julius Caesar. Read the rest here.