Sunday, June 26, 2011

Alias Nick Beal (1949)

The first time I read a synopsis of ALIAS NICK BEAL think I groaned a little. I like my noir down to earth, and this movie concerns a politician who gets involved with the devil. As in, the Prince of Darkness. Pass, I thought.

But...the movie is directed by the great John Farrow. It stars Ray Milland, Thomas Mitchell, Fred Clark and George Macready. And it has Audrey Totter in her prime. That’s reason enough to see any movie. So I saw it.

I had no idea this movie was going to be so good. Yes, it does indeed tell the story of a politician named Joseph Foster (Mitchell) who makes a deal with a mysterious stranger named Nick Beal (Milland). Beal guarantees Foster’s swift ascent up the rungs of power, much to the surprise and mounting horror of Foster’s wife (Geraldine Wall) and his best friend, the Reverend Garfield (Macready—cast, to put it mildly, against type). The only people who seem happy about Foster’s rise are the head of the state political machine (Fred Clark) and a prostitute named Donna Allen (Totter). Beal has set Donna up in high style and placed her near Foster to tempt him toward the abyss. (I guess because I’m not greedy the thought selling my soul to the devil in order to be governor doesn’t make much sense. But selling your soul for Audrey Totter…now that's a deal worth thinking about.)

If the plot sounds cheesy, it’s because the plot is cheesy. Yet ALIAS NICK BEAL is a fine example of how style can effect the rough materials of a film, transform them into something quite interesting. This material could have been taken and turned into something awful. As it is ALIAS NICK BEAL plays like a cross between IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and DOCTOR FAUSTUS. If Mephistopheles had answered George Bailey’s prayer, the result might have looked something like this movie.

The key component here is the great John Farrow. One of the masters of noir, Farrow was also a devout Catholic who wrote a book about the popes and was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre by Pious XI. This was a man who was serious about his religion, and ALIAS NICK BEAL for all its Hollywoodized elements, has a serious undercurrent. Joseph Foster isn’t a mere dupe. He’s an essentially good man with essentially good motives, but he has certain weaknesses. While still a district attorney, he’s willing to break the law a little in order to put a crook behind bars. He’s willing to make a deal with the corrupt political machine in his state in order to get elected, but once he gets to the statehouse he plans to be an honest governor. Even his relationship with Donna is more about emotional comfort and support than sex. Farrow foregrounds the flawed character of his poor antihero. Played by the always dependable Thomas Mitchell, Foster seems like a plausible human being.

The same is true of Donna, the prostitute-turned-lady played by Audrey Totter. The film contains an extraordinary scene in which Nick picks up Donna outside a bar. She tries to flirt with him, but he’s cold to her. She’s just a pawn—and you get the sense she’s used to playing the role of pawn for men. Donna, like Foster, isn’t a “bad” person, she’s just a woman with certain weaknesses. Later in the film, there’s a sequence in Donna’s swank new apartment in which Nick coaches her on how to seduce Foster, followed by Foster’s arrival and the actual seduction. This entire sequence—from Nick and Donna to Donna and Foster is an exquisite piece of work. Totter—one of the true goddesses of film noir—was rarely better than she is here. She’s sexy, sad, and touching. (Another reason you should see this film: Totter’s apartment is an amazing set, one of the best/weirdest you’ll ever see in a film noir. It looks like Salvador Dali was her decorator.)

Of course, the real trick here is how you handle Nick Beal himself. Here the film commits a couple of sins. There are a few too many scenes of Nick appearing from out of nowhere and then disappearing. There’s a faintly ominous musical cue. Yet even in these moments, Farrow doesn’t really lay it on too thick. The scene in which Foster and Reverend Garfield discuss the possibility that Beal is Lucifer is as good as such a scene could be:

Foster: We’re in the twentieth century, Tom. No one’s believe in such things since the Salem witch burnings. Besides...where’s the tail and the horns…and where’s the contract signed in blood and promising the delivery of one slightly used soul?

Rev. Garfield: Maybe the devil knows it’s the twentieth century too, Joseph.

Most importantly, Farrow has Ray Milland portray Nick as smooth, charming, and, most importantly, smart. He reminds me in some ways of CS Lewis’s Screwtape. Nick knows people, he knows what they want and why they want it. His business is human weakness, and business is good.

One might legitimately ask if a supernatural thriller like this qualifies as film noir. I would say yes to that question by citing three things: One, it’s directed by John Farrow and stars Ray Milland, Fred Clark, George Macready, and Audrey Totter (it’s even got a bit part for Percy Helton). That’s not enough by itself to qualify as noir, but it’s a hell of a good start. Two, the film is gorgeously shot by Lionel Linden and just about every scene fits the noir aesthetic. Three, the supernatural element of the film is just a more Christianized version of an essential noir tension: individual choice versus the vicissitudes of fate (another way to put that would be as existentialism versus nihilism). The ending of the film finds a way to reconfirm Farrow’s belief in forgiveness and redemption (as well as the studio’s belief in happy endings), but it doesn’t feel cheap. It gives Nick Beal some parting words that sound like catechism in the Church of Noir: “You saved yourself just in time, didn’t you? But there’ll be others who won’t. A lot of others. And I’ll tell you why. In everyone there’s a seed of destruction, a fatal weakness. You know that now, Foster. You’re lucky. Luckier than I was when I fell. But that was a long time ago.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Too Late For Tears Restoration

Some exciting news in the new issue of Noir City is the announcement that the Film Noir Foundation will be restoring TOO LATE FOR TEARS. This is thrilling news for three reasons:

1. TOO LATE FOR TEARS is one of the real forgotten masterpieces of film noir. I'd put it among the handful of truly great films in the genre. It features a career-best performance from Lizabeth Scott and stellar work from Dan Duryea. For more on the film itself, read here.

2. It's in rough shape. This is one of those films that's been kicked around the public domain for decades and treated like a piece of trash. It's in desperate need of rescue and restoration.

3. We've been close before. Rescue and restoration is a tedious business. Finding all the proper elements to snatch this film from the jaws of oblivion is hard work. America should give an award to Eddie Muller and the folks at the Film Noir Foundation for staying true to their mission. It's exciting to think that this film could be rescued while Ms. Scott is still with us to enjoy it.

More on this as we go along.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Maltese Falcon at 70

I have a new essay up over at Criminal Element commemorating the 70th anniversary of John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON. It's difficult to believe that this film is seventy years old--it's one of the few movies that I can show to classrooms of 18-year old kids and stay secure in the knowledge that it'll keep their attention. For an examination of this timeless masterpiece you can read my essay here.

Then come back here for more on Bogart.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick has more in common with poets than he does with most filmmakers. He's not a storyteller in the sense that we've come to expect from American directors, especially in Hollywood. I point this out neither to praise nor diminish him. Going into one of Malick's films, it's just important to know what you are going to see.

Most movies--great movies, good movies, terrible movies--tell stories. It has been thus since the early days of film. Whether we realize it or not, when we go to the movies we expect to see a sequence of events about a set of characters. We expect rising action, complications, a climax, and perhaps a resolution. This is true of both artistic masterpieces and commercial dreck.

There is a whole other school of filmmaking, however, that is non-narrative, that is more abstract in nature. It is about movement and sound. Images are created not to further a plot but to invoke mood and feeling, and the juxtaposition of these images create meaning to be interpreted. You must sort through these films to decide what they mean (if, indeed, they mean anything). You can trace this type of "experimental film" back to European surrealists like Bunuel (whose 1929 UN CHIEN ANDALOU is still as fresh and scary as the day it was made) and American avant-gardists like Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, co-directors of the indispensable 1943 film MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON. (Besides being trippy and entertaining, the film is
indispensable because it is such a jarring time capsule. It's hard to believe MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON was made the same year CASABLANCA won Best Picture at the Oscars). The great modern experimental filmmaker was doubtless Stan Brakhage who died in 2002 and left behind some 370-something films.

What makes Terrence Malick such an oddity is the way he straddles the two worlds of narrative and non-narrative filmmaking. His film THE TREE OF LIFE has narrative
passages, but it's not really a story. It's more of a memory album. We see a man played by Sean Penn, a successful architect who works in a high rise building. He seems to be reflecting on his childhood in Texas. His memories make up the main part of the film. His father (played by a laconic Brad Pitt) and mother (played by the ethereal newcomer Jessica Chastain) create a home together that is full of love and tension and violence and wonder. There are incidents involving these characters I could recount, but there's a far more important point to make instead.

In our own lives, we all create a narrative for ourselves. I have one: about a childhood in Arkansas, about my parents, about my two brothers, about leaving home and moving out of state, about my education and relationships along the way. It's the story of my life, but it is only a story I tell. I've shaved away 99.9% of my actual life, reduced it down to some bullet points about my existence. My actual memories, though, are a collection of a million images and impressions: the heat of summer, the sound of my brothers' laughter, my father's calloused hands, the softness of my mother's skin.

That physical sense of memory is what Malick is after in THE TREE OF LIFE, and in this he succeeds gloriously. This is an art film, a film about images and memory. That's not really the odd part about it, though. Many art films get made and go unseen by the general public every year. What makes THE TREE OF LIFE an oddity is that it was made in Hollywood, has incredible special effects and a high production value, and features a major movie star in Sean Penn and an international superstar in Brad Pitt. It's because of the desire of these two stars, and particularly Pitt, to be in a Terrence Malick film that THE TREE OF LIFE even got made, much less released to the public. (I saw this quiet, contemplative tone poem at a theater that was also showing THOR in 3D.)

I have yet to discuss two major sections of the film: a twenty-minute sequence near the beginning in which we see the universe come into being, and the end of the film, an almost surrealist sequence, in which we seem to be seeing either a) heaven, b) the end of the world, or c) something else.

I love the beginning sequence, in part because it's such a vindication for the art of special effects. Like many movie geeks, I sometimes tire of watching shit blow up real good in movies. To watch Malick and his special effects team create the beginning of the world is to be swept into a realm of wonder that movies so rarely even attempt to touch.

As for the end...I don't know. Malick paints a distinctly Christianity-inspired vision of forgiveness, of restitution and spiritual resolution on the peaceful banks of an ocean after a long walk through a desert. Is he doing our thinking for us here, telling us that heaven is our final destination? Or is it a vision of the way all the people and events in our life seem to converge in our consciousness? Or is it the end of the world? Having seen the film only once, I can't say for sure what the poet is trying to tell us here.

There you have it. THE TREE OF LIFE is certainly unlike any other film playing in theaters right now. It's a film full of the inarticulate sadness and wonder of life. If that sounds too arty, then maybe you should steer clear.

But it is a beautiful work of art. I'll close with a final word about poetry. In its recreation of the beginning of the universe, the film hearkens back to The Book of Job, from which the film takes its epigraph: "where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Yaweh's rhetorical question to Job is famously evasive. After all, he never gives Job the "reason" for human suffering, but what his answer does make clear is that the suffering of humanity is built into the foundation of existence. We live, we suffer, we die. "The Lord giveth," as Job tells us, "and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." In other words: that's life.

Finally, in its memory sequences involving the family--particularly the hard father and his sensitive son--I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden and the final haunting line:

What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?