Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MOROCCO (1930)

If you want to understand the mystery of the movies, then you should take a long look at Josef von Sternberg's MOROCCO.

I use the term "take a long look" deliberately here because looking is, after all, the primary act of moviegoing. MOROCCO tells the story of a romance between a saloon singer played by Marlene Dietrich and a Legionnaire played by Gary Cooper. You don't really need to know more about the plot because the film isn't about the plot. It's about looking at these two people, particularly Dietrich.

There was a period there in the twenties and thirties where American moviegoers had a collective crush on exotic foreign beauties like Garbo and Dietrich. I hesitate to call it a fad--because Garbo and Dietrich were great stars--but it's fair to say that American audiences soon moved on to more wholesome American girls. (Ingrid Bergman was a great foreign beauty, of course, but she wasn't exotic. She was the girl next door by way of Stockholm. That explains why Americans turned on her after her sex scandal in the fifties. No one would have been scandalized to find out that Dietrich had gotten pregnant from an affair.) Dietrich fell out of fashion around about the time Americans as a whole became exhausted by events in Europe, especially from her native Germany.

But look at MOROCCO and you can see the cultural moment that made Dietrich a sensation. The movie itself watches her, lingers on her. 1930 was early into the era of talkies, and it's important to keep that in mind as you watch the film. Von Sternberg paces things slowly, deliberately. He expects you to look at pictures he gives you, almost as if you were staring at a photograph or a painting. There are many moments where the primary thing happening onscreen is the play of light and shadow, or a wisp of smoke, or a face.

The most famous scene in the movie is the musical number that Marlene sings while dressed in a tux and top hat. This is pure 1930 sexual androgyny, before the Production Code came in and sanitized everything. Marlene struts around and takes a flower from a pretty girl and gives her a kiss. And not a peck on the lips either. A kiss. The crowd roars its approval. Steamy stuff.

What's interesting, though, is that the strutting confident performer of the musical number is a contrast to the touchingly vulnerable woman Dietrich gives us in the rest of the movie. In her best roles, Dietrich always combined that hard, sexy exterior with a sense of the wounded soul underneath.

Gary Cooper gets less attention from his director than his costar does, but the camera loves him, nevertheless. Not yet thirty when he made this film, Cooper was in the glory of his youth and beauty. The older he got, he would take on outsized importance as an American symbol--and, of course, his best remembered role would come in HIGH NOON when he was 51--but as a young man Cooper cut a dashing, transcontinental figure. Always distinctly American, he was nevertheless a man of the world. His lithe body and fine-boned face were a perfect fit for the delicate mood play that is MOROCCO. He's already got that jittery aversion to words which would only deepen as he got older, but he's beautiful enough and inaccessible enough to be a perfect fit for Dietrich.

The mystery of the movies is the looking. Looking at human beings who don't look back, who let themselves be observed, who are projected tall and wide on a wall in the dark in shimmering silver light. The more I see MOROCCO the more I see this mystery at play.   

Thursday, September 18, 2014


The Coen brothers love to stake out little slices of American culture to explore. They've made a musical about Depression-era Mississippi, a dark comedy about Hollywood screenwriters, and an interpretation of Job set in Jewish suburbia in 1960s Minnesota. Their (collective) ear for regional inflection is flawless, and their appreciation for absurdity is equal parts funny and ruthless. What's also true of them is that, perhaps more than any other filmmaker alive, they love film noir. From BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, they have created many of the greatest neo-noirs of the last thirty years.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI is, in some way, their send-up of the genre. The cult sensation is a film that has transcended its status as a Coen Brothers movie. It's its own thing, but it is very much a piece of the larger Coen canvas. The brothers built A LOT of film noir subtext into the movie.

I complied as many classic noir references as I could in a new piece at Criminal Element called The Noir Geek's Guide to The Big Lebowski.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: KEY LARGO (1948)

The final installment in my series on the films of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is up over at Criminal Element. Their final film was, I think, in some ways their weakest, but it was still a lot of fun. It was, of course, John Huston's KEY LARGO

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: DARK PASSAGE (1947)

The newest installment of my series on the films of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is up at Criminal Element. This time around we look at DARK PASSAGE, an underrated noir by the great Delmer Daves. Check it out here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: THE BIG SLEEP (1945/6)

Criminal Element has the newest installment in my series on the movies of Bogart and Bacall. This time around is one of the 800 lb. gorillas of crime flicks, the Howard Hawks adaptation of Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP

Monday, September 8, 2014

Noir At The Bar: Ozarks Edition

People of Arkansas (and surrounding environs): I'm going to be reading at a Noir At The Bar event for the True Lit Festival in Fayetteville on Oct. 2nd at 8pm, alongside hardhitters Scott Phillips, Jed Ayres, and John Honor Jacobs. 

Profanity will be used. Feelings will be bruised. But we'll all learn something about ourselves.

Here are the details.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)

I have a new series starting over at Criminal Element on the films of Bogie and Bacall: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE, and KEY LARGO.

You know, I have no idea how many times I've seen these four movies. Dozens, probably. Bogart was my entry point into movie geekdom. After discovering THE MALTESE FALCON and CASABLANCA, I became hooked not just on Bogart but on movies themselves.

A huge part of this obsession is rooted in the movies Bogie made with Lauren Bacall. Against all odds (not the least of which was a yawning age gap), they were a perfect screen duo. She was a kid having a palpably amazing time pretending to be an adult, and she rejuvenated him just as he was entering middle age. 

Here's my first piece, on the glorious TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Noir City Chicago 6: CAGED and TENSION

Last night was another fantastic line up at Noir City Chicago 6. The Music Box Theater, in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation, showcased two indispensable noirs: CAGED (1950) and TENSION (1949). God, what a line up. I don't know how many times I've watched these two classics, but last night was my first time to see them on the big screen and they did not disappoint. CAGED is simply a masterpiece--an all-time, top ten, noir hall of fame masterpiece. Crime films really don't get any better. And while TENSION has less unity and formal perfection (at least at the screenplay level), it is a shimmering jewel--and an enduring testament to the glorious Audrey Totter.

I've written about both movies before. Here's more on CAGED. And here's something on TENSION.

The festival is going great. It kicked off with a magnificent restoration of TOO LATE FOR TEARS (for my money, the best thing the Film Noir Foundation has done is to restore this movie), with the wonderful ROADBLOCK as a second feature. I had to miss a couple of days, unfortunately, but Sunday night I caught Jean-Pierre Melville's rarely seen 1959 TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN. 

Alan Rode has been doing a crackerjack job introducing the films all week, and tonight the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, takes over. The remaining films all look terrific--including a double feature of Losey's 1951 M, followed by The BLACK VAMPIRE, an Argentinian feminist reworking of the M story. Here's the full schedule.