Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Reflections on STREETS OF LAREDO (1993)

I wrote an appreciation of Larry McMurtry's LONESOME DOVE a few years back for Criminal Element. One of the points I made was that the success of that book and its sequel, prequels, and film adaptations have long since become a kind of cross for the author to bear. McMurtry did not set out to write the kind of blockbuster that would eclipse all his previous (and subsequent) successes, but that's pretty much what happened. For better or for worse, Larry McMurtry is known for being the guy who wrote LONESOME DOVE.

Since that book is a masterpiece, we will have to temper our sympathy for McMurtry by observing that most authors would kill to have written a book half as good as LONESOME DOVE. It's a brilliant work--sad, exciting, deeply realized, and ultimately haunting.

Allow me to suggest, however, that its sequel, STREETS OF LAREDO is a fascinating novel in its own right. It's a dark book--outside of Cormac McCarthy it is perhaps the darkest novel of the American west that I've ever read. And it does McCarthy one better by being far sadder than any book that notorious downer ever wrote.

I hasten to add that part of the brilliance of STREETS OF LAREDO is that, despite the sadness of its story, it is a hypnotic pager turner. McMurtry is a master at assembling and moving a giant cast of characters with action, grace, and humor. 

The novel concerns the final mission of Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Ranger turned bounty hunter. At the novel's start he sets off after a psychotic young Mexican killer named Joey Garza. He's joined by an eastern banker named Brookshire, a hapless local deputy named Plunkert, and his old Ranger associate Pea Eye Parker.

To understand the original LONESOME DOVE, one must understand that McMurtry never wanted to write a proper saddles-and-spurs shoot 'em up Western. He set out to write a novel about the west. Of course, he was too good at making it move, too good at capturing the ethos of physical bravery and personal loyalty. For all the darkness of the book, it gave us characters whom we could admire. STREETS OF LAREDO does the same thing.  Half the novel concerns the women whose lives are directly impacted by Captain Call's mission. Joey Garza's mother Maria Garza is locked in a twisted Oedipal battle with her son. And Pea Eye's wife Lorena is, in her way, as strong and decisive as Call. Maria and Lorena are both frontier women--brutalized by life (which means, mostly, being brutalized by men) but unbroken and unbowed. Of course, this being a McMurtry novel no one is purely a hero, but between them Maria and Lorena manage to hold civilization together.

Ultimately, however, the novel is about loss and age, about moral and physical failure. This is not the last sterling adventure of Woodrow Call, this is the story of his undoing. He is, as Lorena observes, just a tired old killer. The novel finds him in the twilight of his powers, as he slips from being the man he was (or considered himself to be) to being a crippled shadow of that man. It is a brutal portrait, really--a way for McMurtry to drive home the point he wants to make about the myth of the West--that it was based on violence and racism and greed and all the unquestioned assumptions that make such evils possible. It is also, one suspects, the author's way of clarifying the meaning of LONESOME DOVE, which he felt got lost in the hoopla of its success: that bravery and cruelty were found on all sides in the story of Texas. The clash of cultures brought out the best and worst of men and women. And that's why STREETS OF LAREDO--Call's last ride--takes its title from the famous cowboy lament about death and the futility of human striving. McMurtry quotes the song in the novel's epigraph: "We all loved our comrade, although he'd done wrong..."  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wendell Corey

Today marks the 100th birthday of the great character actor Wendell Corey. Corey, who passed away in 1968, was an indispensable part of the classic crime film. With his sad eyes and world-weary delivery, he helped ground movies like Byron Haskins's I WALK ALONE (with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Liz Scott), William Dieterle's THE ACCUSED (with Loretta Young), Budd Boetticher's THE KILLER IS LOOSE (with Joseph Cotton and Rhonda Fleming), and Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW (with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly).  In every case, Corey gave the proceedings an air of reality. He also costarred alongside Liz Scott, John Hodiak, and Burt Lancaster in one of the most hilariously bad movies ever made, Lewis Allen's masterpiece of awfulness DESERT FURY. It was Corey's first film. After that, everything must have seemed like an improvement.

The son of a minister, Corey worked in films until the end of his life, but he also dabbled in conservative politics. He ran for Congress in 1966, but lost the primary. When he died two years later, he was only 54 years old, but apparently a lifetime of drinking caught up to him early. You sometimes read that he was drunk onscreen, but--at least for me--whatever private demons he wrestled with only made his work more interesting. I'm always happy to see his name in the credits.

One of his best (and most underrated) noirs was the excellent HELL'S HALF ACRE with Evelyn Keyes and Marie Windsor. I did a write up of the film over at Criminal Element a couple of years back. Check that out here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Crime Without Passion (1934)

One of the great unheralded organizations of Chicago is the Northwest Chicago Film Society which works in conjunction with the Patio Theater to program a series of rare and interesting films. Tonight they showed the rarely seen 1934 proto-noir CRIME WITHOUT PASSION.

This is one hell of a movie. It's famous in film geek circles as the first film that was co-directed by the famed screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the cinematographer Lee Garmes, but I have to admit that I wasn't prepared for how good it would be.

It tells the story of an attorney named Lee Gentry (Claude Raines) the self-style "Champion of the Damned" who is infamous for getting his clearly-guilty clients off the hook for all manner of awful crimes. But Gentry has one weakness: women. He's caught between two women as the story begins--an earthy dancer named Carmen Brown (Margo) and a society blonde named Katy Costello (Whitney Bourne). He tortures Brown, unsure if he wants to string her along or crush her for loving him too much. The opposite power balance seems to be in place with Costello--he loves her precisely because she seems unsure if she loves him.

Without giving too much away, I'll say that after an argument with one of these women, Gentry finds himself in trouble. His analytic lawyer side takes over, quite literally, in a special effect in which Gentry's ghostly image is superimposed onto scenes to give him advice.

The film is fantastically entertaining. There's a freaky opening sequence by the brilliant montage expert Slavko Vorkapic in which we see the birth of the Three Furies that will bedevil mankind. It's a surreal sequence, all the more effective for being inserted without any overt connection to the plot. The rest of the film is gorgeous--a testament to the enormous talent of cinematographer/co-director Lee Garmes (probably best known to noir fans for his work on NIGHTMARE ALLEY). It's full of askew angles and moody effects. In the broadest outlines of its plot it's just another story of a cocky bastard who gets his ironic comeuppance, but visually it's noir with a surreal bent.

The cast is a mixed bag. Claude Raines was as good an actor who ever worked in movies. Here we find him in only his second starring role, and he's already got the charisma that would make him famous in pictures like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and CASABLANCA. Smart and self-satisfied, he makes a perfect foil for the Furies. As the objects of his affection, however, neither Margo nor Whitney Bourne manage to burn up the screen. Making matters worse, neither have particularly rich roles. Hecht and MacArthur fail to inject as much personality or consistency into either of these parts as they do into the lead role.

Still, CRIME WITHOUT PASSION is a real achievement, an odd and ambitious film that was a harbinger of the dark noir tide that would overtake crime films in the forties.

For more on the making of the film, check out this excellent piece by Kyle Westphal, a film historian who works with the NCFS.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Voice From The Dark: Frank Lovejoy's Journey Into Radio Noir

Note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of the film journal NOIR CITY.

Before he got drafted into the movies (particularly film noir) in the fifties, Frank Lovejoy had a successful decade-long career in radio. He was a workhorse, appearing in thousands of broadcasts across a range of shows, and by the time Hollywood came calling he was already a star on the east coast.
He’d started out in the radio business as an announcer for the popular station WLW in Cincinnati, sometimes known as the “cradle of the stars” for all the on-air talent (Rod Serling, Red Barber, Doris Day, and Rosemary Clooney among them) who started there before springing into the big time. Like many others, Lovejoy made a name for himself in the Midwest and used it as a way to get to the larger stations in New York.

Once there, he quickly became a sought after voice man. Distinctive without being overly mannered, his work began getting noticed on crime shows like GANG BUSTERS, MR. DISTIRCT ATTORNEY, and THE SHADOW. He originated the title role on the superhero show THE BLUE BEETLE, portraying a young cop turned masked crime fighter. After 13 episodes (with titles like “The Opium Ring” and “Smashing the Restaurant Racket”), he passed on the mantle of the Blue Beetle to another, uncredited and anonymous, actor.

He stayed busy on the radio all through the 1940s. His weathered baritone made him a particularly good fit for crime shows: MR. AND MRS. NORTH with Alice Frost and Joseph Curtin, BOSTON BLACKIE with Chester Morris and Mel Blanc, THE MOLLE MYSTERY THEATER with Richard Widmark, MURDER AND MR. MALONE with Jack Webb. In 1945, he narrated the series THIS IS YOUR FBI and like virtually everyone else in radio he did work on the hit mystery series THE WHISTLER. When he wasn’t bringing his talents to bear on crime stories he did everything else on the dial from soap operas like BRIGHT HORIZON, MODERN ROMANCES, and BRAVE TOMORROW to war dramas like WORLDS AT WAR and westerns like DESTINY TRAILS.

The golden age of radio came to a close about the time Lovejoy packed up and moved out to California to go into the movie business. In the fifties, radio was hit even harder than movies by the rise of television. The days of the family gathering around the living room console to listen to stories was coming to an end. The smart money, everyone knew, was on the little box with the talking pictures.

Still, radio didn’t die overnight (though it declined steadily through the fifties) and, at least for a while, the practice of film-to-radio adaptation remained a lucrative business. Lovejoy already had practice at bringing movies to the air. He and Everett Sloane had starred in a 1941 adaptation of “Angels with Dirty Faces” for the PHILLIP MORRIS PLAYHOUSE, and after he became a bona fide movie star he was in even higher demand to do big name programs on the air. He starred in “The Deeper Shadow” with Ray Milland for THE FAMILY HOUR OF STARS in 1948. And for the LUX RADIO THEATER he did “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” with Bogart and Walter Huston in 1949, and “Strangers On A Train” opposite Milland and Ruth Roman in 1951.

From 1950 to 1952, he starred in his best series, the highly entertaining radio noir NIGHT BEAT. He played a reporter named Randy Stone who roamed Chicago at night looking for stories. In every episode (with titles like “Slasher” “Pay Up Or Die” and “Flight From Fear”), Stone met some new cast of characters, usually desperate souls in need of help. Sometimes Stone helped them. Sometimes he couldn’t.

What makes NIGHT BEAT such a treasure today is that it is a full on noir radio series. For one thing, it takes place in urban spaces devoid of daylight. In terms of style, the overall sound design is geared toward the insinuation of darkness. This means a strong emphasis on, of all things, silences. Odd moments play out in the dark when neither we nor Stone are quite sure what is happening. The show also makes inspired use of footfall, the clack of shoes conjuring the emptiness of city streets at two in the morning.

Perhaps even more importantly, NIGHT BEAT has a noir heart. Stone isn’t a hero or even a tough guy. He’s like a slightly more warm-hearted version of Weegee, the famous real life crime scene photographer who lived at night and chased his police scanner all over New York’s Lower East Side. In narration that Lovejoy reels off like a bleary-eyed David Goodis character, he recounts his “wanderings” through the city. And because Stone, even more than most noir protagonists, is a citizen of the night, his world of shadowy alleyways and late-night bars and all-night diners is inhabited exclusively by the distressed and the disturbed and the criminally inclined. 

There’s real pulp poetry here. In an excellent episode titled “Julie the Jukebox Girl” Stone begins by telling his listeners, “I cover the night, and my beat is eight square miles of darkness. Every evening I start walking into it and let it swirl around me and let it swallow me up. Part of me relaxes and part of me becomes tense and weary.”

Summing up the people he meets on his nighttime sojourns he says, “The night is filled with its own brand of people—the lonely, lost, mixed-up, screwy people of the night, drifting out of the darkness like fragments of a nightmare.”

Tying it all together is the wonderful voice of Frank Lovejoy, slipping effortlessly from narrating his adventures to being in scenes with a supporting cast that included, at various points in the show’s run, his wife Joan Banks, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, and Parley Baer. His style is emotive yet restrained, demonstrating that he was almost as subtle an actor on the radio as he was in film. As early as the second episode of the series—“The Night Is A Weapon” from February 1950—Lovejoy had created a voice for Stone that was crisp and authoritative when it needed to be but which also gave the character a certain thoughtfulness and gruff compassion.

After the show ended in 1952, Lovejoy played Randy Stone on television in an episode of FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE entitled “Search In The Night.” The character didn’t get his own series (instead, Lovejoy starred in MEET MCGRAW, a series which had also grown out of an episode of FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE). Fans of the character were probably disappointed that Stone didn’t get his own show, but since NIGHT BEAT lives on in various formats on the internet, Lovejoy can still be found out there in the dark, looking for a story and getting into trouble.