D.O.A was the first film noir I ever saw. I couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old when I stumbled across it in a videocassette bargain bin at Wal-Mart. I’m not sure why I bought it. I had no idea what “film noir” was, had never heard of Edmond O’Brien, and had not yet developed an affection for any movie that predated Star Wars. But the plot sounded interesting: an ordinary guy discovers he’s been incurably poisoned and has less than two days to track down his own killer.
Since D.O.A is the film that began my love affair with noir, I have to admit I’m pretty biased in its favor. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is an exceptionally entertaining piece of work. It stars Edmond O’Brien in his most famous role as Frank Bigelow, a small town accountant who’s starting to feel boxed in by his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton). Paula wants Frank to marry her; instead, Frank buys Paula a beer and tells her he’s going to San Francisco to do some sinning before he settles down with her. When he checks into his hotel in the big city, he finds plenty of opportunity for sin. His neighbors are a rowdy bunch of salesman who throw liquor (and their wives) at Bigelow and take him along to a jazz club called The Fisherman. After a blistering jazz number, Bigelow tries to pick up a sexy girl at the bar while an unknown man with a flipped up collar and turned-down hat sneaks him a drink spiked with poison. When Bigelow wakes up with a stomachache, he heads to the doctor. The prognosis: “You’ve been murdered.” With time running out, Bigelow darts around San Francisco and then down to LA in search of his killer.
The exact who and why of the murder aren’t really the point of a movie like this, and to be honest I’m rarely interested in the exact who and why of murder plots, anyway. As Raymond Chandler once noted, a good mystery is one where you don’t have to read the last page to be satisfied. A murder plot is just a puzzle, and D.O.A isn’t really a puzzle. As directed by former cinematographer Rudolph Mate` and written by the longtime screenwriting duo of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, D.O.A is more like a sprint through the dark environs of film noir.
It is a movie of surfaces, and it belongs to a genre of surfaces. Great noirs dig deep, of course, but the cosmetic elements are what we love about these movies. It was the elements of D.O.A that I fell in love with the first time I saw it: the ties and coats, the casual location shots of San Francisco, the constant pouring of alcohol and lighting of cigarettes, the intensity of the jazz scene and the way the music from that scene echoes into the next. The very artificiality of the thing—the beautiful harshness of the black and white cinematography, the hardboiled poetry of the language, O’Brien’s frenzy—all of it was like a smack needle for me. Once you become a noir junkie, only another dose will do.
Now as I said before, D.O.A has its flaws. Dmitri Tiomkin was a great composer, but the scenes of Bigelow ogling girls at the hotel are scored like a Pepe le Pew cartoon. These scenes are silly, but a bigger problem for the film is the awful performance of Pamela Britton as Paula. Britton’s specialty was light comedy, and she had a successful career on television in the early fifties. Here, though, she’s weepy and annoying. You can't fault Bigelow for wanting to get away from Paula. She’s a cipher, a soppy, clingy mess. When Bigelow declares his love for her at the end, we just have to figure it’s the poison talking.
Luckily, the rest of the cast is superb. Luther Adler is silk-smooth as Majak, the gangster at the center of the mystery. And as Majak’s psycho henchman, Chester, the great Neville Brand is simply my all-time favorite noir nutjob. Brand only has a few scenes, but his orgasmic you-don’t-like-it-in-the-belly-do-you-Bigelow sniveling just about steals the whole damn show. I say just about because at the end of the day the film still belongs to Edmond O’Brien. This guy was the King of the Downward Spiral (see his other great crack-up performance in Shield for Murder), and here he’s all sweaty urgency in the face of certain death.
It was that certainty which drew me to this movie in the first place and which continues to pull me deeper into the noir universe. Frank Bigelow dies at the end of D.O.A. By saying this, I’m not giving anything away; it’s the title of the movie. There’s never any doubt that he’s going to die, just like there’s no doubt that I’m going to die, yet D.O.A is about as fun as a movie has any right to be. And that’s the big trick of film noir, the magic. How can a movie—how can an entire genre—be predicated on making fatalism as fun as a night at a casino?
The new issue of the Noir City Sentinel is a superb piece of work, but the centerpiece of the issue is a terrific article by Alan K. Rode on John Cromwell's Caged. Long dismissed as just another women-in-prison movie, Caged is actually a top-flight piece of work--intense, smart, and fabulously acted by a cast headed by the exquisite Eleanor Parker. It also has one of the best endings in all of film noir.
You can check out Rode's typically smart and insightful piece here.
Caged is available on Netflix and elsewhere. Don't miss it.
Meanwhile, you can get the rest of the new Noir City Sentinel by joining the Film Noir Foundation and making a donation in any amount (hear that? any amount). You'll get a subscription to the Sentinel, the best source of film noir news, history, and criticism. The current issue also features my essay on the different functions of voiceovers in noir, Rode's interview with Caged star Eleanor Parker, Imogen Sara Smith and Don Malcolm on British Noir, Vince Keenan on the Whistler series, along with much more.
I wrote about Mel Gibson earlier this year ("Mel Gibson's Face"), but I never could have guessed what a sharp, ugly, turn his life and career would take. With the internet release of four taped phone calls to his ex-girlfriend Oksana--tapes on which Gibson screams abuse, uses racist language, admits to punching her while she held their nine month-old baby and threatens to kill her--the actor/director/producer has sunk to a low that may actually surpass any movie star in recent memory. And in this squalid age that is saying one hell of a lot.
Is his career over? In a sense. He'll never be the movie star he was in the late nineties and early 2000s. Remember that is not all that long ago when Gibson was one of the two or three biggest stars on the planet, with a reputation as a god-fearing family man, a shelf of Oscars and awards, unlimited industry heft and about a billion dollars in cash and assets. What makes his story fascinating is that he's lost so much due to his own warped sense of victimization. In between calling Oksana a "bitch" and a "cunt" Gibson tells her that he divorced his wife because they weren't "spiritually compatible" (a reference to the fact that his wife never joined the Catholic church and an echo of a earlier controversy from 2003 when he told reporters that he thought she was going to hell). If one thing is clear from the Oksana tapes--besides the fact that Gibson is a rich bully and a misogynist asshole--it's his shocking sense of self-pity. How could a millionaire who has spent most of his life as an international sex symbol be so pathetic? It's difficult to believe that the man on these tapes is as powerful as Mel Gibson. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it also can't purchase much self-respect either. It turns out that Mel Gibson the man is the kind of guy that Martin Riggs or William Wallace might kick the shit out of. With this self-inflicted gunshot to the career it's highly unlikely that Gibson could hoist the heroic banner again with any plausibility.
But most of us reach an easy accommodation with the disconnect between an artist's work and personal life. Most movie geeks still love Chinatown even though Roman Polanski is a child-rapist. Woody Allen is, at best, a scum bag, but I still love Manhattan. The partial list of great artists who were horrible human beings could include Ezra Pound, Richard Wagner, and John Phillips. John Lennon beat his first wife. Joan Crawford was a terrible mother. Bing Crosby was a terrible father. And on and on. Will there be a place for Gibson in films in the future? I'm sure there will be, though it's hard to know what it might be. No one in Hollywood can disgrace themselves out of a job anymore, so long as they're willing to shift what it is they want. His shot at being a respected elder statesman is gone, but he might find work as as a raging nutcase. He's now auditioned for that part in front of the entire world.
Vanity Fair has a smart piece about the Gibson meltdown by John Lopez.
Lou Ford likes to beat and kill women. He also seems to get a genuine kick out of beating and killing men, but his real passion is putting a hurt on women--preferably women who love and trust him. This makes him a terrifying vision of unchecked misogyny.
Can such a character be presented accurately and ethically in a work of fiction, much less a work of pulp fiction? When Jim Thompson created Lou Ford and placed him in the 1952 novelTHE KILLER INSIDE ME he seemed to invite this question, but like most of Thompson's work the book missed the attention of serious critics by mile. The casual perusal of a drugstore paperback spinner in the fifties would have summoned up an endless series of pulp novels featuring copious sex and violence. The male ego thrashed about in a lot of these books and took out much of its anger on the female body, so at first glance THE KILLER INSIDE ME seemed like just another book on the pulp rack. Yet even in this anything goes kind of atmosphere--an atmosphere in which the cover art and blurb advertised violence toward women-- THE KILLER INSIDE ME stood out over time. Its notoriety came from Thompson's mastery of two voices, the public Lou Ford and the private Lou Ford. To the citizens of Central City, Texas, Lou Ford is a Andy Griffith-type good ol' boy deputy sheriff, amiable and armed only with an unlimited supply of cornball cliches. This facade, however, is the real Lou Ford's satire of small town goodness. The man underneath is a bubbling cauldron of malice and resentment, but--and this is the key to the book's power--this private voice is devoid of passion. Ford narrates his secret career of assault and murder like a hardboiled detective narrating the process of an investigation. He isn't reflective or particularly preoccupied by his own psychology, but--then again--neither are most serial killers. Asked once how he could make a sport of killing women, the serial killer Ted Bundy told an interviewer, "Because I'm the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you'll ever meet." That's not much of an answer, of course, but it had the virtue of being true.
All of this leads us to Michael Winterbottom's new adaptation of Thompson's book. The movie stars Casey Affleck as Ford, Jessica Alba as a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland with whom Ford has a secret relationship, and Kate Hudson as Ford's girlfriend. The film also features a stellar supporting cast of excellent character actors like Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Ned Beatty, and Tom Bower. Good old Bill Pullman even drops by for a scene as a shrink (since his fifteen minutes as a leading man have passed, here's hoping that Pullman makes more such appearances). I've been talking off and on about this film since it was in preproduction. I'm a big Jim Thompson fan, and while I've never especially been a fan of Winterbottom, I am a happy admirer of star Casey Affleck. The film arrives, however, in a swirl of controversy. (To achieve actual controversy in the age of internet pornography and unending war is some kind of accomplishment.) Several critics have condemned the film's mix of sex and violence, and the theater where I saw the film refused to admit anyone under 17 even though the film is rated R.
This kind of publicity foregrounds an obvious question (how disturbing is it?) while pushing a far more important question to the background (what is it trying to do with the representation of life that it gives us?).
To the first question: it's quite disturbing. An air of menace hangs over everything. Violence and sex mingle again and again (to such an extent that eros and thanos seem like conjoined twins). And there are two separate scenes of a woman being pummeled until skin hangs from her face or her bladder bursts. This is a violent film, and not the kind of casual violence we're used to seeing in most movies. If you don't flinch in disgust at these scenes, there's something wrong with you.
So that's settled: the film is unsettling. But what about it? To what end is it attempting to unsettle us?
I'm not sure. In 1952, Thompson was shining a light into some very dark corners of the American psyche. In 2010, there's not much innocence left to loose. Most of us lock our doors out of fear. We hear stories everyday about brutality and rape and murder. Even the fecundity of Thompson's dark imagination would not have been able to keep pace with modern life. The news that some people are sick bastards ain't news, and calling the world a sick shithole is itself something of a cliche.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME is so well acted and produced that it nearly succeeds in obscuring the underlying reality that it's not saying much. Casey Affleck has become one of our best young actors, and his performance here is electric. At 35, he still looks like he's not too far out of high school, and his voice is one of the few distinctive voices left in movies: a squeaky I-just-hit-puberty mumble that seems perpetually positioned on the verge of an angry sob. He's an inspired choice for Lou Ford--not really jovial enough in his public presence, but simmering underneath with resentments. When he flashes his toothy grin to deflect attention from his true feelings, Affleck gets close to the heart of Lou Ford's double-persona. And yet...
One can't help looping back around to the question of the close ups. Why the close ups of Jessica Alba being punched repeatedly in the face? Why do they go on so long? The film needn't do this to horrify us. The first punch is horrifying. After that, it's just making the same point. (Violence is tricky. Less really is more.) A better question: why does she sit still for this beating instead of fighting back? Alba gives as good a performance as the part lets her, but Joyce Lakeland is little more than a body for Lou Ford to copulate with and kill. Is that how Lou sees her? I don't know, but it is how the film treats her.
Let's not dodge the main question, though: why does she sit still for her beating? The movie explains. After Lou has turned her face into a bloody gruel (all except for her lips, oddly), Joyce tells him she loves him. This is a departure from the novel, and it's a fatal one for the film. Firstly, it's a stupid addition. Joyce has just had her face hammered into little more than a sack of bone fragments. It's idiotic for her to tell her torturer that she loves him, even if she does. Abused women sometimes love the horrible men who abuse them, but people don't say "I love you" through broken teeth. It rings false. Yet the film plays this line straight because Winterbottom and his collaborators have made a fundamental mistake. The film takes the sadomasochistic relationship between Lou and Joyce and turns it into a kind of sick romance. He loves her. She loves him. He's insane, though, so he kills her.
In a weird way, this is actually something of a cop out. Thomspon's Ford is goofier, livelier, and finally colder than Winterbottom's interpretation. He has the essential component of every psychopath: a total lack of empathy. People aren't people to him. Yet in this film, Lou has real feelings for Joyce. They're sick, twisted, wound up with sex (and explained, sorta, in some slapdash Freudianisms toward the end), but they're real. Lou, in his way, loves Joyce. This addition only subtracts from the character. Instead of clarifying Lou, the film tries to apologize for him. He loves her but he's sick...
This leaves the audience with very little to hold onto. What are we to make of this unconvincing romance at the center of the film? And what, in the name of God, are we supposed to make of Joyce Lakeland? She's a sex object, a punching bag, and an all-forgiving victim--three variations on a fantasy. She's not a plausible human, though.
Thompson's book pulls off the same trick Hitchcock managed ten years later when he made PSYCHO: it puts you in the head of a killer. The thing about Lou Ford is that he doesn't really think he's all that complicated. He's wrong about this, of course, but he's got a clarity of purpose. He's got a scheme, and he goes about it with the vigor of a cheerful nihilist. For him, life is a sick joke that only he gets. Winterbottom and Affleck give us a Lou Ford who is, to a degree, tormented. He tries to console Joyce as he's pounding her face in ("It's almost over, baby"), and while this mix of cruelty and concern is genuinely upsetting to watch, it strikes a hollow note.
As it happens, over the weekend I re-read Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN about a pair of Mormon fundamentalist brothers who murdered a woman and her baby. The scene of the murder is chilling because the only witnesses are the murderers themselves, and their descriptions are told in flat monotones. They simply did not regard this woman and her baby as human beings. They reminded me, in some ways, of Thompson's Lou Ford.
The film's addition of the Lou/Joyce romance feels, in the end, like an attempt to humanize Ford. This only has the effect, however, of making him less human.
above: Lizabeth Scott in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Monday night, the great Lizabeth Scott showed up at a screening of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. After retiring from films, Scott has had little use for the limelight. One can certainly respect her desire for privacy—and in this age of media whoredom wherein so many people are willing to debase themselves just to be famous for a news cycle, her class and reserve is edifying. Still, she is such a hugely important figure in film noir that one wishes she could be prevailed upon to share memories and observations on her time in film. Here’s hoping that some silver-tongued interviewer will be able to convince the Queen of Noir to take a look back at one of the great careers in film noir.
For more on Scott's appearance at the screening, read here.
Now seems like a good time to mention that Silver Lode, the fine Allan Dwan Western that Scott made with fellow noir icons John Payne and Dan Duryea, is being released in a new special edition DVD. Read more about it here.