Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Killer Inside Me stirs more debate

As the already controversial The Killer Inside Me makes its bloody way toward a wide release sometime later this year, conversation about it has been building. Here's an interesting overview of the debate, including input from the stars of the film, by Salon writer Andrew O'Hehir.

And, of course, I've been writing about this movie for a while now: I talked about it last month, and before that in November of 2009. I started way back in December of 2008. I'd like to claim prescience on this topic, but anyone who'd read Jim Thompson's novel could have told you that a movie version would be tough stuff.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Too Late For Tears restoration hits a snag

Bad news for fans of the little-seen film noir masterpiece Too Late For Tears. As I've talked about before, plans have been underway for the Film Noir Foundation to attempt a restoration--really a rescue/resurrection-- of this thriller starring noir goddess Lizabeth Scott. In the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, however, FNF president Eddie Muller breaks the bad news that plans to rescue the film have ground to a halt because of a lack of suitable source materials. The search for these materials goes on.

What's so disappointing about this, of course, is that Too Late For Tears is a first rate film which exists right now in abhorrent condition. Cheap DVDs abound and you can watch the film on line, but the print looks like it's been run through a cement mixer. There are few people alive today who have ever seen this great movie in anything approaching decent condition.

So we won't be getting a clean, fresh print of the film this year like we had hoped. Having said that, though, while the hunt for an original nitrate print of the film goes on, now is as good a time as any to consider donating some cash to the Film Noir Foundation. Aside from helping to rescue and restore wonderful, and vulnerable, films from possible extinction, you'll also get a free subscription to the Noir City Sentinel, a quarterly electronic magazine featuring articles on films, stars, directors, writers, and more. The current issue features my piece on the director Felix Feist, as well as articles on the film The Scarlet Hour, a book to film comparison of To Have and Have Not, a review of the Red Riding Trilogy, The Manchurian Candidate, and a lot more. So head over there, give 'em some money (they'll take any amount; they ain't picky), get a great magazine mailed to you four times a year, and maybe you'll help save Too Late For Tears. There is no downside here, people. Go do it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Among the great directors of film noir, Sam Fuller might be the one who most resembles a pulp novelist. His characters are stereotypes raised to flash point and his images pop off the screen like crisp, lurid prose. That’s nowhere more true than in his The Naked Kiss, a film with one of the all-time great movie openings. Without warning the movie starts: a woman is striking the camera as violent, jazz music boils away underneath. We realize she’s slapping a man around. He begs her to stop. They wrestle, and he grabs at her hair and a wig slips off her bald head. Now she’s really pissed off. After she’s beaten him senseless, she rolls him for seventy-five bucks. Then she picks up her wig, goes to a mirror and puts herself together. Then we get the credits.

It’s a hell of a beginning. The woman is a prostitute named Kelly. After she rolls the guy—who we later learn is her pimp—she skips town and winds up in a quiet little place called Grantville. It apparently has one cop, a plainclothes Captain named Griff. By all appearances, he hangs out at the bus station waiting for hookers to pull into town. He and Kelly have a twenty dollar fling (she talks him up from ten dollars), and then he tells her to get out of town. Nice guy.

Kelly doesn’t leave, though. Deciding to stick around and make a new life for herself, she takes a job at the hospital where she works in the sick ward for kids. She also meets the richest guy in town, JL Grant, a scion of old money who’s lucky enough to live in town that bears his family name. They fall in love—much to the resentment of Grant’s best friend, Griff the cop.

The film packs some big surprises in its last thirty minutes or so, and you are strongly urged not to find out anymore about the plot if you can avoid it. Fuller—who wrote, directed and produced the low budget film—takes his film into areas that are still shocking to viewers today. The last time I watched this film, I saw it with three friends who had never seen it before and during the scenes of revelation at the end, people actually gasped.

Fuller is film geek’s director—a man of uncontrollable passions and bedrock integrity. He made some fine films inside the studio system (Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo), but he was simply too much of a loose canon and he spent much of his career trying to scrape up money for his low budget productions (like the amazing Shock Corridor).

The Naked Kiss was shot for about ten cents and looks like it, but Fuller works within these limitations like the pulp novelists he so closely resembled. Fast and efficient, he also had the good fortune not to be a perfectionist. His independent films are messy, but they’re not sloppy. He loved jarring visuals, and The Naked Kiss, with its ubiquitous shadows and slanted cameras, is noir down to its bones. Working without money or sets or stars, he nevertheless created a film that is, in its wild ass way, the visual superior of bigger budgeted and more politely directed movies.

He didn’t have stars, but he did have actors. The film is grounded by the fierce performance of Constance Towers as Kelly. This maybe the toughest broad who ever stalked through a film noir. With a soft spot for kids and old people, she is otherwise a block steel—with nice curves, of course. She kicks a lot of ass in this film—more perhaps than any female heroine who preceded her in American movies. Check out the scene where she goes to a brothel to slap around a madam who has been trying to recruit one of her friends. Kelly pounces on her and makes her eat twenty-five bucks in wadded up bribe money.

Fuller was after more than just cheap thrills, though. An iconoclast with a revulsion for hypocrisy, he casts his pitiless eye on small town America and consciously exposes the disconnect between reality and polite society’s view of itself.

Which is not to suggest that Fuller was a realist. Far from it. He liked grittiness for its own sake, and loved art’s ability to translate emotion and struggle from the shifting currents of life to a more manageable form. “Reality,” he liked to say “is a bunch of damn bullshit.” His theory, as least as I interpret it, was that since reality could never be less than everything and everyone all at once, the representation of reality in art was impossible. Thus an artist was not in business to put real life on screen; he was in business to recreate it in a way that made it interesting or insightful for the viewer.

This led to a style that is not for everyone. Fuller’s emotions are huge. Subtly is not a concept he understands or finds the least bit interesting. It’s not surprising to learn that The Naked Kiss—a film I admire and enjoy and which is highly thought of by many critics and directors—is in the book The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made. Fuller doesn’t go over the top from time to time in this film. He blasts over the top in a rocket in the first scene and never looks back. The Naked Kiss is a thoroughly bizarre movie. Whether or not the viewer finds it great or terrible depends on the viewer, I suppose. But you should see it, either way. Fuller, love him or hate him, deserves to be confronted.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lost Boy: The Sad End of Bobby Driscoll

I'm in the process of writing an essay for the Noir City Sentinel about the peculiar role of children in film noir, and as a result, I've spent the last week or so revisiting some notable performances. I knew going into this project that I'd need to look at Bobby Driscoll, one of the most popular child stars of the 1940s. The star of Treasure Island and the voice of Peter Pan for the classic Disney film, he also starred in a very good film noir called The Window. A thriller about a little boy who can't convince the adults around him that he's witnessed a murder, the film was based on a Cornell Woolrich story and directed by the veteran cinematographer Ted Tezlaff. It's a well-oiled crime picture, and it's grounded by a spot-on performance by the 12-year old Driscoll. He pulls off the feat of being engaging and sympathetic without being cute or coy.

Unfortunately, the talented young actor was soon to become the very model of the screwed-up child star. His story--a harrowing testimony to viscous indifference of the Hollywood star machine--has been told several places, but my research led me to a blog by a writer named Don Brockway called Isn't Life Terrible. His piece, Bobby Driscoll 1937-1968, is largely a reprint of an article by Florence Epstein which first appeared in Movie Digest in 1972. Give it a look. The tragedy of this forgotten actor makes for compelling--if heartbreaking--reading.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5

Raymond Burr in Desperate, one of eight films on Warner Bros. new Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5

On July 13, Warner Brothers will release the fifth volume of its teriffic series of film noir classics. The series kicked off with a bang back in 2004: volume one contained Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, The Set-Up and Murder, My Sweet. By my reckoning, the first four are masterpieces and the fifth is damn good.

The series never quite managed that kind of ratio again. Volume 2 had The Narrow Margin, Crossfire, and Born to Kill, but it padded out the set with Clash by Night and Dillinger--not bad movies but not exactly film noirs either. Volume three was the thinnest of the series. His Kind of Woman is an inessential comedy, and while On Dangerous Ground has a lot of good stuff in it, it doesn't hang together particualrly well. The Racket is a dud, and The Lady in the Lake is a disaster. The best film in the set is Mann's tough Border Incident, mainly notable for John Alton's exquisite cinematography.

The series came roaring back with volume four though. Ten films, including masterpieces Crime Wave and Act of Violence; superior noirs Tension, Side Street, Mystery Street, and Where Dager Lives; the overrated They Live By Night; and padding like The Big Steal, Illegal, and Decoy.

Volumes one and four are essential for any noir geek--and they're also an excellent place to start if you're a virgin to Noirville. Netflix the other two sets. I should mention that most of these films feature short documetaries and engaging commentaries by scholars and fans.

Alas, the forthcoming volume five looks a tad underwelming. It'll have eight films: Armored Car Robbery, a great little cops and robbers flick starring Charles McGraw and William Talman; Desperate, a highly entertaining Anthony Mann flick featuring Raymond Burr at his craziest; The Phenix City Story, a superior Phil Karlson picture about coruption in Alabama; and Cornered, a somewhat disappointing Dick Powell revenge film. It also features Deadline at Dawn, a dull Cornell Woolrich thriller directed by none other than Harold Clurman, the co-founder of the Group Theater. It's a real disappointment. The set also features three films I haven't yet seen: Crime in the Streets, Backfire, and Dial 1119.

Even if volume five doesn't achive instant must-have status, it's still worth checking out. Cheers to Warner Brothers.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Orson Welles and the AFI Silver

I am an uncommonly lucky movie geek in that I live five minutes away from the best movie theater in the world. The American Film Institutes's Silver Theater is located on Colesville road in Silver Spring, Maryland--a bustling de facto suburb of Washington, DC. It's a gorgeous theater--originally built as a movie palace in 1938, it was lovingly renovated and expanded in 2003--and, more to the point, it is dedicated to showing classics.

It's rare to find a revival house these days, but it is a distinct honor to live by a state-of-the-art theater with three screens and a seemingly unlimited access to old and important films. I've been living in DC three years and in that time AFI has mounted retrospectives on film noir (in 2008 and 2009, both in conjunction with the FNF), Truffaut, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, the Thin Man series, Jean Arthur, David Lean, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, and much more. I've seen Detour, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Big Combo, Only Angels Have Wings, A Foreign Affair, The Maltese Falcon, The Bride Wore Black, The Asphalt Jungle...the list goes on and on.

I say all of this in a kind of bittersweet appreciation because I'll soon by moving up the coast to New Jersey (where, I am happy to say, I'll be within commuting distance of NYC and the glorious Film Forum). As if to send me on my way with a smile on my face, however, the fine folks at the AFI have mounted an amazing Orson Welles retrospective for April and May.

It kicked off this week with showings of Oja Kodar's documentary, Orson Welles: The One Man Band, Linklater's Me & Orson Welles, and Reed's The Third Man (which also closed out a retrospective on British Noir). Now the real fun begins: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Lady From Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake.

I mean, where the hell else can you go to watch F for Fake in a movie theater? A big movie theater, at that.

The series also includes Journey Into Fear, which I'm not too wild about and which, unlike some of my fellow Wellesians, I do not attribute to the Great One himself. Instead of JIF, I wish the theater would have been able to show The Immortal Story, Welles's haunting Isak Dinesen adaption and his least seen film. But I'm not complaining. This retrospective is an embarrassment of riches, eleven films by my favorite filmmaker, shown in the best theater I've ever seen. What a gift.

You can read more about the retrospective, Larger Than Life: Orson Welles at the AFI website.

To read more about the history of the AFI click here.