Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Every so often in film noir, a carnival passes through town. From the sharp-shooting sideshow in Gun Crazy to the jolly deathwatch in Ace in the Hole, the inhabitants of the City of Perpetual Night enjoy a fun diversion every now and then. But while they like a good carnival, they never seem to really embrace the carnies. Even in Loserville, carnies are outcasts.

The best movie about these travelling, fast-talking charlatans is Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it tells the story of Stan Carlisle, an ambitious young carnie who wants to set himself up as a mind reader with the help of an experienced performer named Zeena (Joan Blondell). Zeena knows all the ticks of the trade, having enjoyed a big career as a clairvoyant with her partner Pete (Ian Keith) before he began to hit the sauce too hard. Although Pete is clearly in the final rounds of a losing battle with alcoholism, Zeena is reluctant to abandon him. Besides, she intuits, correctly, that Stan has designs on a pretty young performer named Molly (Coleen Gray).

Then one night there is a mix up with bottles, and Pete has his fatal last drink. Stan feels responsible for Pete’s death, but he gets over that pretty quick when Zeena gives him the secrets to the mind reading act. He ditches Zeena, steals Molly away from her strongman boyfriend Bruno (played by everybody’s favorite dumb lug, Mike Mazurki) and sets off to find his fame and fortune.

The success Stan finds is huge and nearly instantaneous. As The Great Stanton, he reads minds in high society dinner clubs. One night this brings him into contact with a shady psychologist named Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). Stan’s immediately drawn to her, struck instantly by the irony of their overlapping magisteria. He suggests they join forces. Lilith has a lot of rich, emotionally scarred patients, Stan notes. If she were to feed him information about them, he could pretend to minister to their deepest desires. An old woman who misses her long-dead daughter can be told, for instance, that the daughter is contacting her from beyond the grave. A tycoon in love with a woman long since gone, can be told that she still loves him from the grave. It’s a great plan except for a couple of things: 1) Molly is a little too good to go along with such manipulations, and 2) Lilith is a lot smarter, and a lot more ruthless, than Stan suspects.

Nightmare Alley is an impressive critique of two strands of the American character: our obsession with overnight success, and our fixation on trendy spiritualism. With the first, the film paints a picture of a ruthless climb to the top. Stan starts at the bottom of the entertainment food chain and works his way up to the higher echelons of respectability. Of course, we have to see him fall. This is film noir, after all, but it’s interesting how often we like to see this play out. It’s the bifurcation of the American mind when it comes to success. We love to see people get rich quick, but just as often we love to see their hubris bring them down.

As to the second strand, Nightmare Alley observes how ready we seem to be to find new ways of contacting the Great Beyond. America is the land of new religion, of course, and beneath the calm Protestant face of officialdom, we have always harbored a bubbling sense of spiritual curiosity. From Mormonism to Scientology, America has always been fertile ground for new religious thinkers and/or charlatans, and Nightmare Alley demonstrates how easily parlor tricks and intuition can be passed off as the newest revelation from on high.

The film was adapted from Gresham’s novel by the great Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep) and directed by Edmund Goulding. It’s a deliberately paced film, almost sluggish at points, and employs a slow fadeout at the end of most scenes. This works to its advantage by the end, when Goulding wants the film to develop a mesmerizing spell on the viewer. For the most part, it has developed such a spell, and the final scenes have a hypnotic power. A lot of credit needs to go to veteran cinematographer Lee Garmes’ extraordinary lighting and to the impeccable art direction by J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler. This is one of the best looking film noirs you’ll find.

It’s also one of the best acted. As Stan, Tyrone Power manages the neat trick of being uncompromisingly flawed while still maintaining his appeal. Stan’s an attractive character because while he is ruthless, he’s not vindictive. Power is surrounded by an impeccable cast. Joan Blondell is earthy and believable as Zeena, while Coleen Gray is as perky and likable as always as Molly. Gray had a way of selling this kind of role without shortchanging the character’s intelligence (and, in the interest of thorough reporting, I should note that she looks drop-dead gorgeous here). Ian Keith carves out his own space in the movie as the drunken Pete. His performance, about as harrowing an image of alcoholism as you’ll see in a film noir, makes the act of drinking alcohol look grotesque. And the cast is rounded out with an extraordinary performance by underrated femme fatale Helen Walker as the manipulative shrink, Lilith. Walker had a tragic life offscreen, but in this, her best role, she’s an icy beauty exuding intelligence.

Nightmare Alley is a damn good piece of work. It’s a little slow, and the setup for the ending promises a little more than the actual ending delivers (Stan’s final degradation is so implied it’s hard to tell exactly what it consists of), but these are small concerns. This is an odd, darkly beautiful film.


The new issue of Crimefactory has an excellent article by Jimmy Callaway on the novel Nightmare Alley and its tormented author.

The story has also been turned into a stage musical of all things. It's playing right now at the Geffen Playhouse.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eight Minutes on a Sunday Afternoon: The Hearts of Age (1934)

In 1934, Orson Welles and a group of friends shot an eight-minute silent film called The Hearts of Age. The film--a surrealist comedy/nightmare/goof inspired by Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet--was intended as nothing more than a meaningless lark. Welles himself later called it "Absolutely nothing...a joke. We shot it in two hours, for fun, one Sunday afternoon."

Welles was right that the film had no meaning. It's a loose collection of images with only the thinnest wisp of a narrative (an old woman is chased by death) holding it together. The film, however, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in Welles. It shows that six years before he made Citizen Kane many of the elements of his style were already in beginning to take shape. As a surrealist movie, Hearts is negligible. As a document of a nineteen-year old Orson Welles at play with a 16mm movie camera, it's a gem.

Rather than a narrative, the film is a progression of images. A heavy chiming bell, a cross, tombstones, a skull, a spinning ornament. And faces--an old woman (Virginia Nicholson, Welles's wife, in thick makeup), a servant in blackface, and Death. Played by Welles himself with a cane and top hat, Death is the main focus of the piece. Spry and grinning, he descends a series of steps over and over in a loop, doffing his hat to the old woman, endlessly introducing himself. At the end of the film, alone, he plays piano by candlelight.

Attempts have been made over the years to analyze the film (much to Welles's annoyance, I might add), but there's not much to find. It is a rough sketch, co-directed with Welles's friend William Vance. What is interesting about it is that it gives us the first glimpses of Welles's visual imagination taking form. Slanted angles abound. There's an interest in shadows. The preoccupation of the piece is old age and death, two themes that would dominate Welles's feature films. There's a clear attraction to the grotesque in terms of mood and make-up. You can even get the hint of Welles and Vance attempting to create different plains of action in a shot--a flirtation, perhaps, with the idea of deep focus.

Welles always disowned the film as a trifle. And certainly it is a trifle, but he may have distanced himself from it for other reasons. Welles was every bit the wunderkind, but like many wunderkinds he liked the myth that he sprang from his mother's womb fully formed. Now the thing is--Welles damn near did enter the world quoting Shakespeare and sipping brandy, but there was some growing and learning. The film shows him thinking, learning, experimenting with film. It's thrilling to see, but Welles, like any great magician, wasn't in a hurry for people to see him still figuring out the trick.

(As an aside: the character in blackface is a jarring sight to see today, and I can't help but feel that the image hints at the somewhat ambiguous approach Welles would take to race in his films. As a human being, Welles was almost shockingly progressive in matters of race, but his films are either mute on the subject or are somewhat problematic. As far as this film goes, blackface was a common practice at the time, so some historical perspective is called for, but, of course, lots of things were common practice at the time which today shock our conscience. I suspect that Welles wasn't particularly proud of the image himself.)

What is most instructive about the film, however, is the image it paints of a young Orson Welles toying with a medium new to him. Simply put, who in 1934--much less today--decides to goof around by making a surrealist short film? Like the early sketches of painters or the germinal scribblings of budding writers, The Hearts of Age give us a glimpse of a future genius just beginning to discover the contours and joys of an art form that had piqued his interest.


The film is available online. It comes with a new soundtrack, but I recommend viewing it with the sound off. I was lucky enough to see the film projected, and the images work better in silence. Music imposes a mood, but Welles, Vance, and their cohort created it to work without sound.

Here's a nice short essay on the film from Senses of Cinema by a writer named Brian Frye.

The film is also available as part of Kino's collection Avant-Garde: Experiemental Cinema of the 1920's and 30's.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Controversy over The Killer Inside Me

I've been following the filming of director Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me for some time now. Most of the recent news has centered around a brewing backlash against the film's graphic misogynistic violence.

Until I see the film itself, obviously, I can't have an opinion of it. The trailer is pretty hard stuff to watch, but I'll simply have to wait to judge the complete work.

I have two preliminary thoughts about this controversy, though.

First, I come at this subject with a deep hatred of misogyny. I've known, and loved, too many people who have been victims of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. I won't abide a film that traffics in titillating images of misogyny. The root of half the world's problems, it seems to me, is to be found in the fragile male ego and its simultaneous attraction to and revulsion of the female ego (and the female body). I can't stand to watch scenes of rape and sexual humiliation, and I often avoid films with these elements. If I do end up in a movie with this kind of material, I usually have to stare at the floor in the theater. Depending on how it's done, male-on-female violence either sickens me or enrages me.

Second, I love Jim Thompson. And part of what I like about Thompson, frankly, is that he's really good at probing the minds of woman-hating nutjobs like Killer's Lou Ford. The book I consider his masterpiece, A Hell of a Woman, is about the bifurcation of just such a mind.

Which brings us to the essential underlying question: is the onscreen depiction of an act a de facto celebration of that act? To put it more pointedly, can you show violence onscreen without glamorizing, sexualizing, or celebrating that violence?

It's a good question. Truffaut famously said that there was no such thing as an anti-war movie because war invariably ends up looking exciting onscreen. There's something to this observation, at least about war movies. The essence of drama, Howard Hawks once noted, was the fight to stay alive. In a war movie, no matter how gruesome or gory you make it, it's exciting to see people fight to stay alive. It is, in a word, dramatic.

Sexualized violence is a different story, it seems to me. Here we're talking about sadism, which is not the fight to stay alive so much as the receiving of pleasure from the pain of other people. This can be presented in a way that frightens rather than titillates. Of course, it can, and often has, been presented as titillation as well.

Are we to suggest that images of such violence, even prolonged graphic images of such things, are in and of themselves harmful? I don't know, but I don't think so. Perhaps my chief example here would be the brutal rape scene in Boys Don't Cry. This is one of those scenes that I simply can't stand to watch, but I think it is in the film to elicit our rage against the act and our empathy for Hillary Swank's character. It's also there to shed light on the psyche of the two rapists (whose repressed homosexuality figures into their assault). It's a gut-wrenching scene, but it's supposed to be a gut-wrenching scene.

One could argue that the bloodless wholesale PG-13 slaughter that we see in big budget action and horror films does far more to desensitise us to violence than what we see in the hard R of something like Boys Don't Cry. Whether or not The Killer Inside Me is misogynist trash or a serious exploration of a sick man remains to be seen. Either way, I have no problem with calling it like I see it. I hope the film is a masterpiece, but if it's garbage I'll be willing to call it garbage.

I'm glad that there are forums like Jezebel out there that are providing commentary on such things. Movies matter. Images have power. And patriarchy in all its forms needs to be challenged.

But it's too early to tell about this film. Context matters. The novel is the story of a man who kills people, mostly women. If such a story doesn't disturb then the filmmakers have failed. We should not be able to sit passively and watch a woman be beaten to death without feeling horrifed. I'm ready to go through that expereince if Winterbottom and his cast and crew are taking me somewhere ultimately worth going. If they don't, or if they simply fail, then I'll certainly say as much.

At the end of the day, as with any movie, everything will come down to the movie itself, the juxtaposition of images and sound within the frames of the film.

Monday, March 8, 2010

New Releases

Some thoughts on current releases:

1. Shutter Island-Martin Scorsese has spent the better part of the last fifteen years in a lull. The Departed was a crackerjack entertainment and No Direction Home was a terrific documentary, but otherwise you have to go back to Casino to find a truly great Scorsese film. Shutter Island is an enjoyable potboiler starring, once again, Leonardo DiCaprio (it's starting to feel like the director is afraid to make a movie without Leo). It's a taut thriller with a trick ending, but every bit of it feels superfluous. Part of the problem is that Scorsese is always going full throttle. This quality gives his best work the feel of real urgency, but it makes his lesser films annoyingly insistent about nothing. The worst thing about Scorsese these days is the way the marketing boys have decided to use his past glory as a selling point for sub-par new movies. I'm happy that this great American artist--who made some of the finest films of the 20th century--is finally enjoying fame and fortune, but we shouldn't act as if he's making the kinds of films that made him such a legend in the first place. Watching a film like Shutter Island is like listening to one of those duet albums by an aging icon like BB King or George Jones where the old genius noodles away with some overawed younger artist. The old guy gets to make a buck, and the young guy gets to say he played with a master, but no one much cares about the result.

2. The White Ribbon-It's probably not good for my feelings about Shutter Island that I saw it on the same day I saw Michael Haneke's chilling and brilliant new film, The White Ribbon. It's about a series of odd occurrences in a small village in Germany in the years leading up to WWI, and it is as quiet and disturbing as Bergman's The Silence. Haneke's camera moves only when it needs to, seeming to pin us to images that unfold pitilessly in front of the camera. The director, working with cinematographer Christian Berger, shoots in a pristine black and white that reflects the sterile surface of this society. Underneath that veneer is an interwoven community choking on secrets and lies, all given shelter and power by the sanctions of class and religion. This is the kind of film that rarely raises its voice but still had my hands sweating--and people gasping throughout the theater. The theme of the film, ultimately, is the way in which children are always at the mercy of adults, regardless of the quality of those adults. After all, no matter how cruel, stupid, or untrustworthy they may be, everyone becomes an adult by virtue of living past the age of 18 or so. That disjunction has been the cause of untold misery since the world began, and it will never go away, yet we so rarely see it acknowledged in art. Haneke's film, brutal in emotion but never explicit in effect, is a masterpiece. If you can see it, you should.

3. Crazy Heart-Jeff Bridges has been underrated for so long it's somewhat surprising that he finally won an Oscar. The prize is beyond meaningless, but, hey, I'm happy for him. His performance as washed-up country singer Bad Blake is indeed the best reason to see Crazy Heart. The film's as a predictable as a one-night stand, but Bridges plays the role with a bone-weary charm. Craggy and whiskey-voiced, he strides through the film even as the plot puts him through the motions.

4. The Book of Eli-It's odd that Denzel Washington has waited until this point in his career to start making pure action films. This film is no one's idea of a work of art, and its last minute attempts at psuedo-religious profundity border on insulting. Still, it's fun while it lasts. Mila Kunis is pretty bad as his girlfriend--playing a woman raised after a nuclear devastation, she looks like she'd rather be shopping--but Gary Oldman chews on the scenery, which is always fun, and Denzel kills more people than cancer.

5. The Ghost Writer-In this thriller (and likely last film) from Roman Polanski, Ewan McGregor plays a British ghost writer hired to pen the memoirs of a controversial former Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous writer died in a mysterious ferry accident. He takes the job just as the PM is being indicted by the ICC for war crimes in his role as an enabler of American torture policy. The script by Robert Harris snakes through all manner of personal and international intrigue, and Polanski remains a potent filmmaker (I particularly love the shot that follows a folded note through a crowd until it arrives at its intended victim). Somehow, though, things here are a little dry. McGregor doesn't seem to have recovered from his incarceration in George Lucas's green screens--the wild charisma that he exuded in Trainspotting or Moulin Rouge seems, with each new role as a Hollywood leading man, more and more like a distant memory. And Pierce Brosnan is a handsome, bland engima. That quality should work for this role, but somehow it doesn't. The best performances in the film belong to Olivia Williams as Brosnan's wife and Kim Catrall as his assisstant/mistress. Neither is exactly what she seems, and the actresses, knowing that they represent the center of the drama, take their roles and run. A good film, though you can be forgiven if you don't feel like taking Roman Polanski's advice for what consitiutes good international law.

(Something curious: The Ghost Writer was clearly rated R before someone decided it needed to be a PG-13. Several variations on the expletive starting with the letter F--used alternatively as a noun, verb, and adjective--have been unconvincingly cleaned up and substituted variously with shit, screw, and freaking. Maybe once Polanski went to the slammer the studio panicked and decided to turn this decidedly middle-aged thriller into something more sixteen-year olds could get in to see--just in case Avatar was sold out, I guess.)

Lastly, I just saw the Red Riding trilogy. It's top-notch work, but I need to mull it over before I write about it. More on it sometime soon.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

What we tend to remember about the films of Frank Capra is the sentimentality of their belief in distinctly American values, what Orson Welles once called Capra's "sweet Saturday Evening Post" quality. What we often forget, however, is that at the center of most of his major work (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe) there is an ineradicable tension between those values and the darker forces of American society. In fact, that tension is the very subject of most of his best films.

This is certainly true of Capra's signature film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Starring Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a small town youth leader unexpectedly appointed to a vacant Senate seat by an opportunistic governor, the film is Capra's take on the Washington establishment. Smith comes to DC only to find it overrun with crooked political hacks like his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), and alcoholic reporters like the cynical Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell). His only real friend in town is his assistant, Ms. Saunders (Jean Arthur), and even she thinks he's a bowlegged doofus when he first shows up. Gradually, though, his good-natured honesty wins her over even while it's raising the ire of his state's main power broker, Mr. Taylor (Edward Arnold). With all of Washington's power leveled against him, Smith sets out to expose the corruption he's uncovered. The film ends in a justly famous sequence in which Smith takes to the floor of the Senate and, with the insider coaching of Ms. Saunders and some sympathetic gaveling from the Senate Majority Leader (Harry Carey), he essentially saves democracy.

To watch the film again is to be reminded once more what a powerful screen presence we had in Jimmy Stewart. There was something innately humorous about him, of course, but there was something fragile, as well. After the war, that fragility would grow dark and paranoid in films like Vertigo and The Naked Spur, but in either a comedy or a drama something about Stewart pulls you in. He seems normal--an odd quality, actually, for a movie star--and because of that he seems vulnerable to all the things which we the audience are vulnerable to. He's joined by the glorious Jean Arthur as the world weary Ms. Saunders. Capra's favorite actress, Arthur played a similar role opposite Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Blonde and beautiful, she nevertheless had a perfect just-us-boys quality, a kind of spunky, wised-up tomboyishness that stood in contrast to the wide-eyed virgin aura of her male leads.

The film is every inch a fable, and since it came out it's been co-opted by
Democrats and Republicans alike. Most American mythology surrounds great men doing great things--Washington defeating the British, Lincoln abolishing slavery, Roosevelt shepherding us through the Depression and WWII, Martin Luther King leading his people in the most successful civil protest in history--but we don't have many tales of Senators launching into heroic filibusters. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington creates a hero out of the procedural workings of Congress, not an easy feat, and it's clear why the film is a favorite of the very Washington establishment it skewers. Everyone likes to think he's the underdog outsider against the powers that be, and every politician tries to sell himself that way, no matter how absurd the claim may be.

If nothing else, this shows the limits, and even the inherent dangers, of democratic mythology. If everyone runs as an outsider, then who is on the inside? If every candidate for office claims the title of Mr. Smith, then how are we to know the real Mr. Smith when he shows up?

This is exactly the point, however, on which
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has something valuable to say, because if we think of Capra as a gullible sentimentalist then we overlook the very essence of his work. His sentimentality is always singing a counterpoint to a deep suspicion of American financial and political institutions. It's not simply that he gives us a behind-the-scenes power broker in the figure of Mr. Taylor, it's that Mr. Taylor is a wholly believable creation. This owes a lot to the flawless performance of Edward Arnold, one of the best actors in our cinema and a man who exuded cold intelligence. His performance here goes hand in hand with his work in what was perhaps Capra's darkest film, Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper. Arnold is joined by the invaluable Claude Rains as the corrupt Senator Paine. Together these two men head a vast and seemingly all-powerful combination of private wealth and political muscle. This film cannot be fully appreciated without acknowledging that it was created during rise of the fascist era--and it is always worth remembering that fascism at the time was a completely legitimized political option. Capra's portrait of a rich media tycoon bamboozling a credulous public into crucifying a well-meaning everyman remains a sobering image.

It was an image he had already mined in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and one he would return to, for its starkest expression, in Meet John Doe. It is Capra's vision of the American people, in fact, that remains the most potent aspect of his cinema. Yes, he enjoys our good humor and our love of family and faith. Yes, he paints an affectionate view of our culture. But more than any other director of his period--even more than Welles--Capra painted a scary picture of society. In a Capra film, a crowd is always a potentially dangerous entity, its enthusiastic support or violent opposition being wholly fungible. Capra's vision of the American people as simple, decent folks is nearly always balanced by an anxiety about their susceptibility to rhetoric and political grandstanding. Simplicity has a dark side, he seems to be telling us, and we should never forget it. (The current media landscape, in which information is controlled by bigger and bigger corporations while at the same time being more easily disseminated, probably would have scared Capra to death.)

So Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a fable, yes, but it's more in keeping with the fables of seventy years ago when parents didn't flinch from telling their children horror stories before bed. Just as fairy tells used to be violent and scary, Capra's fable has rough edges. It has a happy ending, but its big bad wolves are very big and very bad, indeed.


Here's an fascinating look at the film's impact in Washington since its controversial premier in 1939.

And you can watch the movie here.