Monday, August 20, 2018


Byron Haskin started out in movies as a cinematographer and a special effects man—working his way up to head of the Special Effects department  at Warner Brothers in the mid-forties—but when producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in the forties to start his own production company, Haskin followed his old boss and started a directing career (or restart, I should say; Haskin had made a handful of short films back in the silent days). His first film post-Warner was I WALK ALONE. It should have led to much better things.

I WALK ALONE tells the story of Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster), a hood who has just been released from jail after fourteen years. He’s back in town to look up his old partner, Dink Turner (Kirk Douglas), a shifty bastard who has spent the last fourteen years getting rich. Frankie wants his cut of the prosperity, and Dink is loathe to give it to him. Caught between these two raging alpha males are mild-mannered accountant, Dave (Wendell Corey), and sexy nightclub singer, Kay (Lizabeth Scott).

The script is by Charles Schnee, one of the best screenwriters of the era (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, THE FURIES) from Theodore Reeves’ play “Beggars are Coming to Town”, and it is unusually intelligent and perceptive. One of the interesting angles of the story is the way Frankie finds that he is an anachronism in the new world of crime. Dink is a businessman now, and Frankie’s two-fisted approach is hopelessly outdated. When Frankie hires a bunch of thugs to help him storm into Dink’s office and demand his cut, he discovers that Dink’s empire is really an amalgam of three different corporations. The best Frankie can hope for is eight percent—maybe, even that will depend on a vote by the stockholders.

Lancaster and Douglas, in their first film together, are excellent. Both men are energetic, hypermasculine performers, but what makes their pairing interesting is the different effect each of them creates. Lancaster, even playing a goon, is an honest, sympathetic protagonist. Douglas, on the other hand, is one of the screen’s great bastards. His air of ruthless self-confidence is completely mesmerizing, and somehow his self-satisfaction never gets in the way of his appeal. Here these two actors already play together with the natural chemistry that would sustain their repeated collaborations for decades to come.

Their support, both in front of and behind the camera, is top rate. Wendell Corey, one of the most dependable of supporting actors, finds a nice wounded dignity in his character, and Lizabeth Scott, once again the morally questionable lounge singer (she must have played this role a hundred times in the forties and fifties) is as sad and beautiful as always. The film’s cinematographer is Leo Tover (who had just photographed Scott in DEAD RECKONING the year before) and his work here is evocative, classic noir photography. A sequence late in the film in which Corey is chased down abandoned streets by one of Douglas’ thugs is just about perfect.

If the film has a serious flaw it is that it resolves its story a little too neatly at the end (a common failing among films of the period, of course). Lancaster’s character takes a swerve in the last few minutes that feels false. But this is a minor quibble for a film firing on so many cylinders.

The following year, Haskin would direct Scott in the noir masterpiece, TOO LATE FOR TEARS, followed a few years later by an excellent John Payne picture called THE BOSS. While for most of his career, he focused on adventure stories and science fiction, his brief excursions into crime stories in the forties and fifties are enough to make his name notable in the genre. After you see I WALK ALONE, and after you see TOO LATE FOR TEARS and THE BOSS, you will find yourself wishing Haskin had dabbled in crime pictures a little longer.

PS. I'd only seen this film on the small screen until the showing last night at NOIR CITY CHICAGO, the film noir festival (now in its tenth year!) put on by the Film Noir Foundation and Music Box Theater. If you love film noir, do yourself a favor and make your way to one of the annual NOIR CITY festivals in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, DC, and more.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


I can't remember the first time I saw Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT. It was probably in the mid-90s, when I was fresh out of high school and found myself living in Little Rock just down the street from a particularly well-stocked Hollywood Video. I was watching everything in those days, and it was certainly during this time that I discovered Bergman. Yet I don't remember first discovering WINTER LIGHT, perhaps because I was so immediately floored by other Bergman films like THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING. Those films are rich in allegory and daring imagery. They grabbed me.

By contrast, WINTER LIGHT is small, tight, modest. It tells the story of Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a vicar in moral crisis. He's lost his faith and when a suicidal member (Max von Sydow) of his tiny congregation comes to him for some kind of help, Tomas has none to give. The man almost immediately kills himself.

Over the years, WINTER LIGHT became my favorite Bergman film. Again, it's hard for me to say just when and how this happened, except that the story of the lost priest has taken on greater resonance for me the older I get. The ending is fascinating. Tomas lashes out at his sometimes girlfriend, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), and returns to his work at the church. Algot, the crippled church sexton, asks Tomas about the suffering of Christ on the cross, speculating that God's silence at that moment was the worst of Christ's torments. Then the tiny church holds its service. Is there hope here? Any kind of redemption?

I've reacted to the ending differently over the years. Sometimes I read it as hopeful, with the hope resting not in a silent watchful god, but in the connection, however flawed, between people. Other times, I'm not so sure. By the time you get to Bergman's next film, THE SILENCE, it seems that all hope of human connection has been abandoned, along with God himself.

I was thinking of WINTER LIGHT a few months ago when Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED was released in theaters. In some respects, the film is Schrader's retelling of WINTER LIGHT. Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The church barely functions as a congregation anymore, and Toller is little more than a tour guide for visitors interested in the building as a historical landmark. Despite outward appearances, Toller is a man in crisis. His son, encouraged by Toller to enlist for military duty, was recently killed in Iraq. Toller's marriage collapsed and now the minister goes through the motions at work while quietly drinking too much at night.

Then, as in WINTER LIGHT, he is approached by a pregnant young woman (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). The disturbed young man is consumed by fears about environmental collapse and even contemplates committing an act of terrorism against a rich industrialist polluter. Like von Sydow in Bergman's film, Michael seeks some kind of help and when he finds that the priest has none to give, he kills himself.

Here Schrader's film pivots away from Bergman's. Toller takes up Michael's lost environmental cause as his own and begins to fixate on carrying out Michael's suicide bombing. The film's ending is ambiguous, a last minute reprieve that might simply be the fantasy of a dying man.

For much of FIRST REFORMED, Schrader embraces the austere style of WINTER LIGHT. The camera work favors meticulously composed static shots, and the performances, especially Hawke's, are quietly measured. As the film enters its final act, which owes more than a little to Schrader's own TAXI DRIVER, the tone becomes more frantic. By this point in the film, the tightly wound pastor is operating at a state of near hysteria. 

WINTER LIGHT and FIRST REFORMED are very different films, though their points of connection are interesting. For instance, in both films there is an emphasis on the weakness of the body. In Bergman's film, Tomas is sick with the flu, while Marta has a bad rash and the sexton is disabled. In FIRST REFORMED, Toller is suffering from an aliment that might well be stomach cancer, evidenced by blood in his urine, and at the end of the film he tortures his own flesh by lashing his torso in rusty barbed wire. In both films, the body is a humiliating trap of disease and pain. Faith offers only fleeting reprieve from the problems of the flesh.

Each film is a work of its time. In WINTER LIGHT, the characters fear nuclear annihilation. In FIRST REFORMED, it is climate change. In each case, the danger is poised by the weaponized irrationality of humanity, and, again, faith, offers little in the way of hope against such forces. Indeed, in Schrader's the film, the church is financially underwritten by the same rich polluter who is poisoning the environment.

Schrader's film is more manic, less tightly controlled in its final act, yet the passion and fury in Bergman are simply encased under more Scandinavian ice. Both films are about existential fury turned inward. In Schrader's film, perhaps reflective of an America plagued by domestic terrorism and spree killings, the rage takes the form of suicidal ideation and the contemplation of mass murder.

What both films begrudgingly agree upon is that the only thing with the potential to save us is a connection to other people. Of course, that connection is fraught and fragile. But no one ever accused Bergman or Schrader of being purveyors of easy answers. Both of their desperate ministers have placed themselves above their congregations, only to discover, perhaps too late, that they need people as much as people need them.