Tag Archives: film noir

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 113 – Mildred Pierce

We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.

We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.

We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.

Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?

And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

La Diosa arrodillada/ The Kneeling Goddess (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1947)

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From the very beginning of La Diosa arrodillada, the viewer is plunged into a heightened world of dreams and desires, a world of feeling which the characters express through diaries, letters. They speak to each other in a heightened tone, with poetic language  and presented to the viewer through symbolic use of imagery. The films is, to borrow J. Hoberman’s words, ‘part film noir, part grand opera’.

La Diosa arrodillada opens with Raquel (María Félix) eagerly awaiting her lover Antonio (Arturo de Córdova) at the airport. She smiles with pleasure at his arrival, and before he sees her, thus conveying to us that her feelings for him are real. In the first few lines of dialogue, we know they’ve done this before, that their time together is fleeting and precious, snatched from other commitments and obligations. There’s then a dissolve. We first see a carafe of wine, smoke curling up the frame. We hear her voice, ‘to think I never ask you anything. I’ve never wanted to ask you anything’. The camera pulls back. ‘That’s the proof of our love’, he responds, ‘We must never interrogate the past if we value our love’.

‘But it’s so difficult to be strong when alone’, she says, ‘and we see so little of each other. Let’s never abandon each other. It would be like death.’

‘If so, let’s close our eyes and live that dream’.

Cut to an extraordinary close-up of Félix, as if in orgasm, saying: ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed to prevent my soul from escaping this dream. That is my promise Antonio’.

From the beginning we’re plunged into a world of feeling, dreams, a place where life is to be lived in the intense now without regard to the past and bracketed away from the future and from the society that intrudes on this world of feeling and may shatter it . But these wishes won’t come true; the promises won’t be kept. The world will intrude. They try to do what they think is right but are propelled by a force of desire they can’t control; he especially as despite the film’s title, this is not the story of a kneeling Goddess but of a fallen man.

 

Desire

What drives the narrative engine of The Kneeling Goddess, the motor of all noir, is desire. In this case, Antonio’s for Raquel. The film tells us this most directly. When he returns home to his office and his wife, Antonio looks outside, to a sign urging lovers to ‘Use Desire, the Perfume of Lovers’. The film doesn’t want us to miss this so the score urgently and loudly underlines its significance.

‘What do you understand by desire,’ Antonio asks his butler? ‘what one longs for, what one wants..’. ‘Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s a force that obliges you. That propels you to obtain what you want, and to keep it if you’ve already obtained it. Isn’t that right?’

‘Yes’

‘But that force can grow, take shape, take on a life of its own, become stronger than you, and could end up destroying you. And what’s worse destroy all those closest to you.’

Antonio looks of a picture of his wife, who’s been in ill in a sanatorium in Cincinnati, probably the reason he hooked up with Racquel in the first place. It’s at that moment that Antonio decides to stop seeing Raquel. Raquel, however,  has beat him to it, leaving a letter for him, saying she’s got a past, one she doesn’t want to divulge to him, and in spite of her promises, can’t continue seeing him. He never gets that letter because, reminded of how much he loves his wife and how much his wife needs him,  he ends up not going to Guadalajara to see her and thus does not receive her brush-off.

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But fate won’t let them be. When he returns home, his wife has been completing work on the garden. They’ve put a fountain. And she decides that the only thing missing, is a statue, something like the Venus de Milo. He goes to a gallery and finds the statue he’s looking for, a statue clearly modelled on Raquel, who he finds there, half-dressed after having posed for the sculptorp. It’s called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’, she informs him, ‘but it’s really just a woman on her knees, the way men like to see them be.’

In the clip below, you can see, how Gavaldón shows us the effect of that statue, of Raquel, on Antonio and his marriage. He becomes transfixed. His wife watches the statue take hold of him. There’s thunder, lightning, rain. Like Sirk, Gavaldón is not afraid to externalise feeling. But unlike Sirk, Gavaldón does not ironise, distance, or make strange. The obsession depicted comes from the heart and is meant to be understood as such. When he returns to his study, we hear him tell himself in voice-over:’ there’s nothing worse than fooling yourself. All my struggle has been for nought. I understand it’s stronger than I’. Reason and will recede, and he succumbs to desire and the unconscious.

 

Thus begins Antonio’s decline. Once he was a happily married man, a rich industrialist with his own chemical company. Soon he’ll be chasing through the tropics following a cabaret singer selling more than songs in cheap dives. His wife is surrounded by friends, chandeliers, formal paintings of herself, she plays classical music. Raquel in contrast is shown naked in marble, showing off her body in Panama’s Paradise singing popular song and embracing unknown sailors. The film is not afraid of over-emphasis and the contrasting ways in which each woman in Antonio’s life is symbolised is consistently and continually underlined.

Time is a persistent theme in the film. At the beginning, Raquel wants to deny the past and the future and live in a continual present. They have little time. Later on, Antonio’s wife dies. In an extraordinary scene, Gavaldón shows us the married couple, the wedding cake celebrating their anniversary in the foreground, the statue that threatens the marriage behind them in the background. In seconds, Antonio will put poison in a drink. His wife will see him put that poison in one of two drinks. Is the poison for her or for himself? We don’t know but in the  next shot an obit shows us the wife’s already a goner.

Raquel believes he may have done it out of love for her. This rather thrills her. It might be what made him go to Panama, to get drunk watching her sing of the treachery and uselessness of love and marriage and allowing herself, like Gilda, to be felt up by the men in the audience. When she asks him why he’s followed her to Panama, he, drunk on the floor with alcohol, and drunk in the head with desire for her, cups her breasts and then moves his hand up her throat and tries to strangle her. Time as feeling in the film stands still; time as narrative gallops along at an insatiable pace.

The question of time is uttered constantly in stylised language and shown to us through a symbol that encapsulates so many of the film’s themes. A lighter (see below), that is also a watch, and that has a secret compartment which can carry poison. Thus, a desire that sparks, that will burn, with an intensity that can only ever be delimited before it is extinguished, and that carries a poison through which one can kill oneself and possibly others. All encased in time. It’s brilliant.

 

Like in a musical, the songs in the Panama Paradise sequence are used to comment on the story. The first part of the number, starts with Raquel partner’s singing to us: ‘I just screwed up, I got married, and fell into the woman’s trap’. She in turn begins her song by saying how women have to act submissive and be smart to catch a man. ‘I confess I don’t know what love is’ ‘You have a heart of crystal,’ sings her partner.

Then the tone changes and Raquel goes onto perform her solo which begins in the talk-singing style later made famous by Rex Harrison and which begins the clip above. ‘I’ve known love. It’s very beautiful. Burt for me it was fleeting and traitorous. It made dishonest what was once glorious. My law is pleasure…for money,’ and then she begins the song proper. Love was her cross and her religion but love’s revenge was marriage, after which their love became only pretend, a farce they’re now condemned to keep on repeating.

The last bit of the number, a duet once more, sings of the glories of not getting married and that to be happy one must never listen to one’s heart and forget about love. Something that Antonio, in the audience, and having drunk his way to unconsciousness due to his feelings for her, is beginning to learn. But as the song ends, a coochie dancer appears, shakes her bum, and lets the audience in the scene and the audience watching the film know love’s got little to do with anything:  that it’s all about the sex.

 

David Melville notes the comparison to Von Sternberg in this sequence: ‘This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy’.

Raquel only begins to be sure of his love once she suspects he may have killed for her. This paves the way for  getting  married and the return to Mexico,. As you can see in the fantastic sequence above, the film turns quasi-Gothic, like a combination of Rebecca and Suspicion. She wears black, wonders around the house at night, finds his bedroom locked to her. She sees that the portrait of Antonio’s dead wife dominates the living room, that her reminder is everywhere in the house. He in turn spies her  contemplating his dead wife’s painting, which he then becomes obsessed with. This is dark, murky, territory, where the darker feelings that edge and constantly pull on desire — guilt, disgust, fear, jealousy — are symbolically visualised.

The picture of Raquel that drives Antonio so wild with desire, The Kneeling Goddess, is meant to be of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And María Félix is often adorned with feathers, beautiful, but a bird of prey (see examples above).

 

Raquel is also often associated with animals. The Giraffe print in the Schiaparelli-esque dress on the left, the mermaid or siren look in the picture on the second from the left, the spider web dress in the second from the right, and of course in fur on the right.

As Moviediva argues, ‘La diosa tackles one of Gavaldon’s recurring themes, death, in this case the death of a man’s spirit, as he is corrupted by his love for a femme fatale.  He loves the use of mirrors, used to demonstrate duality, and here, also the decay of the hero’s morality.  Because there was no Production Code in Mexico, this film is surprisingly sexy for a 1940s film’. Indeed as you can see in the images above, whereas the wife was always associated with high culture, refinement and respectability, Raquel is constantly associated with sex, a Circe who will drive men to ridicule and ruin. As J. Hoberman writes,  The Kneeling Goddess  ‘is the most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes …(and María Félix is) a femme fatale to rival any from 1940s Hollywood, Félix embodies a moral ambiguity beyond good and evil.’

Paco Ignacio Taibo has written that when the film came out in Mexico it was denounced as an ‘insult to the morality of the country’, an attack on Christian morality, There were demonstrations. Taibo is particularly harsh on the film’s wardrobe, which as you can see from my comments above, I heartily disagree with; and also with the film’s dialogue: ‘I’ve had to fight very hard to win your heart’; ‘I’ve tried to fight a fire with a sea of dynamite’; ‘You either give yourself to me or destroy me’.

I see the dialogue as one of the film’s strengths. It is like opera, it is meant to ‘sing’ a realm of feeling. External realism has very little place in film’s of this type. Like in many film noirs, melodramatic passion is what’s on visual display; how desire can drive a man to his doom, desire for whom, and how. As we can see in the final sequence, where Raquel runs to the jail to inform her husband that he’s been declared innocent, that the night is gone forever, all whilst images show her and then him and then them, imprisoned by their past, their desires, their actions: the dream they wanted to hold onto by closing their eyes turned into a nightmare, his fears regarding his desires, being proved all too true. And then the film, rather than ending on him ends on her, in the mansion that is now hers, looking at the statue that she posed for, and pondering that power of that which it represents. What is the significance of her look as the camera follows her gaze and tracks into a closer look at the stature? It’s a great sequence in a truly great movie (see below)

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies 76 – First Reformed

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We are joined by Celia Nicholls, film wiz extraordinaire, for a discussion of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a careful drama following a Protestant minster’s personal crises and relationships with his parishioners and community. Comparisons with Robert Bresson, informed by Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, are drawn; we consider how trite or meaningful we find the film’s moral questions; and we pick apart the film’s flat aesthetic and occasional flights of fancy.

 

 

Muerte de un ciclista/ Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem, Spain, 1955)

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 Muerte de un cliclista/Death of a Cyclist is a salutary reminder that even under the most totalitarian of regimes protest is possible. But Juan Antonio Bardem’s triumph is not only due to his making a Communist film at the height of the Franco regime: this film also has a remarkable way of framing the action, quite extraordinary compositions in 4:3 ratio (see below), an evocative use of space, original modes of cutting, and a way of building scenes to daringly extreme close-ups, rhythmically, in a way that conveys all the necessary story information whilst creating tension. It’s not only a landmark in Spanish cinema but a great film tout court.

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Stiking compositions: Maria José hanging from her car, occupying half the frame, whilst a cyclist looks down from the top right hand corner

In his autobiography, Y todavía sigue: Memorias de un hombre de cine,  Bardem insists the film is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection (p.204). But it bears more than passing similarities to Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which Bardem had by then seen and subsequently acknowledged as an influence: Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) were teenage sweethearts. She left him to marry a richer and more influential industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso) but they’re now once more involved. Returning to Madrid from one of their trysts in the country, they run over a cyclist. They get out of the car to see whether he’s alive and find out he is. But instead of getting help they flee, worried that if others are involved, their affair will be uncovered and their social position ruined.

Back at work, Juan reads in the paper that the cyclist has died. He’s so distraught that he inadvertently fails a female student when she should have passed, a mistake witnessed by great numbers of people in class. What was previously selfishness now becomes murder. At a party, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that he knows what’s happened and threatens blackmail. The rest of the film is a combination of tense Hitchcockian thriller, populated by characters suffering from Antonioni-esque ennui and framed in compositions very much influenced by the Italian modernist’s work, and peppered with sequences that owe a debt to Italian neo-realism, particularly in its Spanish variant such as in Surcos. Compare the sequence in Surcos (below) to the one that follows from Muerte de un ciclista.

 

 

The film is an indictment of the Franco regime. The culture depicted is one riddled with corruption. Juan’s brother-in-law is the reason he’s got his post at the University. And he could even be made Dean should he wish to on the basis of this connection. The brother-in-law is satirised giving one of those inflated, smug and florid speeches one so associates with the era. We see the mother who’s had everything in life categorised and measured and has problems understanding that which isn’t. She loves her son, but also understands he doesn’t share her values, not least  her pride in having two sons fallen in the war. We see newsreels as of yore of Maria José, dressing up and looking glam, ostensibly to give money to the poor, whilst we know she let someone die because he was an inconvenience. We’re also shown those in power, like Juan at the university, so careless of those in his charge, he fails his student even without looking at what she’s done and potentially ruins her life. There’s a line spoken by Juan’s sister, at one of those boring cocktail parties that seem to make-up their life, where she jokes that the bracelet Maria José’s husband has given her comes at the cost of a thousand impoverished workers.

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Juan reads the paper whilst his student does her exam

This viewing is the first one I’ve recognised the extent to which the Civil War permeates everything. It’s visible in the bombed out buildings by the tenement flats of the dead cyclist. It’s referred to in conversations with the mother. It’s what interrupted Juan’s love affair with Maria José and gave her the opportunity to marry a richer man. But more importantly, the trenches were Juan fought the war (on the Nationalist side), where he daydreamed of her, are visible from the very place he and Maria José let a poor cyclist die. The culture he fought for, the one his two brothers died to build, is the same one that allows him and his like to walk away from someone they’ve just run over with their car and let die.

It’s interesting that David Melville Wingrove, in an excellent piece for Senses of Cinema,  assumes Juan fought for the Republicans, whilst I assume he fought for the Nationalists. I based the assumption on the his social class, his mother valuing the ‘glory’ of their name and revelling in a particular Nationalist discourse, his ‘fallen’ brothers,  his position at the university, and the knowledge that such a representation of of an ex-Republican combatant would have been unlikely to be permitted representation. It’s worth saying that on his piece on the film in Antología crítica del cine Español, Casimiro Torreiro cites José María García Escudero, ex and future Director General of Spain’s Ministry of Film and Theatre, writing in the pages of Arriba, a Falangist paper, as naming Juan as ‘one of our ex-combattants (un ex-combatiente nuestro).’

Still, I don’t think the side Juan fought on, so important in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, is ever explicitely stated.The fact that he fought in the trenches on the outskirts of Madrid means nothing as the gun could have been facing in either direction. Upon reflection, it might have been left deliberately open: and whatever side one assumes Juan fought in brings interesting, if different, dimensions to his character, and to the story. Seeing him as a Republican would explain his being the ‘black sheep’ of the family; his needing to rely on the patronage of his brother-in-law; his ennui and immobility during much of the film; and his being fired up by the protests. What’s really important in the film is Juan’s acknowledgment that the war is something that affected everybody, that ‘you can blame everything on it’ and the film’s use of it as a context in which Juan must live his existential crisis and begin to take responsibility for his actions.

If in Death of a Cyclist the rich are lazy, bored, corrupt and careless. they’re also made alluring: the men by loving and having a conscience, Maria José by looking so exquisitely beautiful.  The poor are of course victims at the beginning and shown at the end to have the conscience and sense of responsibility the rich lack. The class that comes off worst here is the middle one, those with position, but who have to work for a living, like Rafa, the blackmailing art critic. What is it that the cinema of this period has against critics? They’re either bitchy (All About Eve) or murderous and perverse (Laura)  and why is evil and deviant sexuality so often associated with modern art as here and in Phantom Lady?

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Villainy and modern art: the film makes sure we see a close-up of the painting (which looks like a Miró) before adjusting so that Rafa can enter the frame.

Juan’s unjust and careless failing of Matilde (Bruna Corrà), the young student has resulted in the students protesting against the faculty (see below). This is shown to us through one of the many brilliant cuts in the film, where Rafa’s blackmail scheme has been foiled and in frustration he throws a bottle through the window of the restaurant where they’re all celebrating a wedding. Cut to a similar window being destroyed but this time at the faculty where Juan works as an assistant Professor of Analytic Geometry. The end of the threat of blackmail is thus inter-linked with the student protest. Certainly, Juan sees it as a way out of the ennui and hopelessness he’s been suffering from: ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ he says to Matilde of the protests against him, ‘This selflessness, this unity, this solidarity…your problem — my unfairness — has become their own…They’ve made me feel young and noble and selfless again’.

 

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The student protest, pointedly designated an ‘insurrection,’ is a turning point in the film. From, this point onward, the tragic denouement is set. But let me linger for a moment on the significance of the film’s representation of this uprising. It was of course illegal. And the sight of the students against the army in front of an institutional building (see above) must have been an extraordinary sight in the totalitarian Spain of 1955.  But the critique is built into the very fabric of the film. See for example, how Juan and Maria José’s secret meetings take place in either the circus or the Church, rendering with an equivalence clearly not noticeable to the censors of the time.

Above: We are shown Juan and Maria José (centre) discussing their murder at the circus (left) and with a mass at church in the background, right: both Circus and Church rendered as equivalent ritual distractions and ideal settings for discussions of crime and murder

Once Juan has his consciousness raised and found a purpose for living, the film returns to the noir structure it started with and denies the adulterous couple the happy ending that had in any case begun as an impossibility. The film returns us to the same setting, the place where Juan once fought for the repressive culture he now lives and in and where he dreamed of Maria José. As you can see below at the beginning (image on the left) Maria Jose is running towards Juan who is running after the cyclist. By the end (centre image), in the same setting, she is walking away from him. The distance between the couple is evident in both frames. By the image on the right however, in one of the many beautiful compositions that characterise this film, she’s descended from being the selfish and careless person who runs away from an accident to someone who actively plans to murder.

Rafa is the blackmailer. But as in so many noirs, Maria José is the femme fatale and the true villain of the story. She’s the one who’s driving when they run over the cyclist. The film often deploys unexpected cuts, through her, so as to show the lover when the husband is expected or vice-versa. She’s the one who married for money, avows her love to whichever man she’s with, and tries to hold on to her social position and worldly goods no matter the cost. If Juan changes from pointless ennui to self-liberation inspired by social protest, her trajectory is from that of careless selfishness to outright murder. It is interesting that we see her in newsreels collecting money for charity (see below left) but often, and throughout the film, pictured in, next to, or in font of a bed (see below right). In spite of the film’s left leanings it still hasn’t progressed to the point where it doesn’t blame the woman for everything.

As is shown in every frame visible in this post, the compositions are extraordinary. The other remarkable aspect of the film is the editing, constantly surprising and most effective. In the clip below, for example, note the associative cut, on smoke. Juan exhales the smoke in his bedroom, Maria José blows it away but then we notice that she is not with Juan but in her own bedroom at home, as she leans over, and we’re shown he husband entering the picture. It’s brilliant and one of many examples of unexpected and inventive cuts on action, on things, across people and spaces, even a liberal use of jump cuts.

 

The scene above deserves its own blog post. But I here simply want to show it to you as a way of bringing the discussion of framing, composition, and editing together in an extraordinary scene in which we are shown Rafa telling the husband of his suspicions. The flamenco blocks out the dialogue, the editing rhythmically raises tension. What is being said? How does it affect them? The camera goes from close-ups back to showing the guilty couple in a social setting, the tension builds through the increase in the close-ups, systematically, whilst occasionally returning them and us to the knowledge that their personal drama is being played out in public. It’s a great scene and characteristic of the cinematic brilliance evident throughout this great film.

 

The DVD is available on a great print through Criterion.

 

José Arroyo

Cronaca di un amore: A Investigation of a Woman Under Suspicion

 

The first image we see in Cronaca di un amore after the credits is that of a woman in a bathing suit, beautiful alluring (see above. The images are in the order they appear in the film). The first line we hear is ‘The usual story eh’ followed by ‘no, it’s not the usual story. It’s not suspicious. In this case, the lady is faithful’. We’re told of how these photos were taken when she was a student in college. How she had a middle-class upbringing — her father’s a professor– and how she’s now an elegant society woman married to Enrico Fontana (Ferdinando Sarmi), a rich industrialist who owns over twenty companies. Her name is Paola (Lucia Bosé). The husband found that cache of photographs and they made him jealous. He wants to know what kind of a woman he married.What did she do before? What kind of friends did she have? There’s a man in one of the pictures but the picture doesn’t reveal his face. The detectives are charged with finding out her secrets so that the husband may know without asking her.  The husband’s investigations start off the narrative, ironically drive his wife into the arms of that very man in the picture, and drive her to thoughts of murder that the investigation will reveal are not unknown to her. The narrative set-up, like so many investigations of women under suspicion in film, is that of noir, and Paola is the femme fatale.

The clip above is our first sight of Paola in motion. The detective has been digging dirt in her home-town. A girl who we will later find out was Guido’s girlfriend fell in an alevator shaft whilst Guido and Paola were present. Did they do it? They were in love. Is Paola capable of murder? The detective’s digging has brought Guido back to Paola, to warn her. How do you picture a woman potentially capable of murder?  Note how we see her coming out of the opera, draped in white fur, dripping in jewels elegant, beautiful; in one fluid shot that pictures her first with her husband, then her elegant society friends. It’s her birthday she reminds him. Then her gaze wonders left and as the film cuts to show us what she sees, out of the past, framed against an industrial billboard, comes Guido (Massimo Girotti) her old love ,her accomplice; from her former world and from another class. Her whole mood changes. Already in the car she’s lying and manipulating. She’s a beautiful lady with a lot to lose. It’s a magnificent, expressive star entrance. A beautiful woman capable of killing for love and perhaps worth dying for.

 

José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Ten Films in Ten Days – Day Ten: In a Lonely Place

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In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1950)

I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?

In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).

Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful

In Conversation With Guy Bolton, author of The Pictures

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Guy Bolton, author of The Pictures, is the subject of our third ‘In Conversation With ….’ Podcast. The Pictures is a detective novel set in 1939, around MGM, during the making of The Wizard of Oz. It begins with two deaths: a young woman, Florence Lloyd, has been brutally murdered; and Herbert, Stanley, an MGM producer, married to MGM star Gale Goodwin, has hung himself.

Detective Jonathan Craine of the LAPD is called in ostensibly to ‘investigate’ but really to present whatever happened to the producer in the best light so that it doesn’t affect the box office of his wife’s new film. In doing so, he and his partner Patrick O’Neill begin to discover links between the murders that lead them to the mafia, Las Vegas, the corruption of the film unions, the availability of drugs in the studios, the uses of prostitution in Hollywood, how coverage in newspapers can be bought and the fine line dividing a studio ‘fixer’ from a hardened criminal.

It’s a tough, sexy, brilliantly textured whodunit that depicts a 1939 Hollywood in a rich and layered way, with characters as you like them in noir, and a plot that will keep you guessing. It’s been widely and excellently reviewed and we here get an opportunity to discuss it with its author: on the lure of pulp; the attractions of Hollywood as setting; what are the influences, both literary and filmic; what decisions were made as to structure and point-of-view; and when the next one is coming out. Enjoy.

 

The podcast can be listened above or by clicking here

 

José Arroyo

 

The Pictures is published by Oneworld and available in bookshops across the country and on kindle via Amazon

Lizabeth Scott’s intro in Dead Reckoning

I found it interesting that Dead Reckoning affords Lizabeth Scott a magnificent star entrance that begins with her voice. That gravelly huskyness is what rendered her unique amongst forties femme fatales. Here we hear her before we see her, and before we hear her, she’s already framed for us by Bogart’s troubled thoughts, by his dislike of the big lug calling him a friend. Then we hear her referred to as Mrs. Chandler by the barman, implicitly casting questions about why a married woman is a regular at the bar. We then see her through Bogart’s point-of-view: first the shapely gams, then a close-up on the cigarette, the jewelled evening gown, the neckline plunging into the dark fabric of the dress, then that beautiful face in profile, with cigarette as Bogart lights her up and she gives him that looks that seems a challenge born of a hurt. ‘Cinderella with a husky voice’ is how Bogart describes her to us. ‘Where have we met?’ ‘In another guy’s dreams’. A great star entrance, a great mise-en-scene of noir: darkness, desire and the unconscious beautifully twisted together to set the scene for the drama that will come.

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott on Film Noir

Lizabeth Scott, the beautiful blonde with the gravelly voice that graced so many forties noirs, gives her take on film noir. 

From a series of great interviews conducted by Carole Langer in Janet Leigh’s home in 1996. They can be seen in their entirety on you tube here.

José Arroyo

Live by Night (Ben Affleck, USA, 2016)

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There are so many good movies to see at the moment — great ones — that this has been overlooked. Maybe rightfully so as Ben is a big blank on screen and he doesn’t quite control the material as a director. But it’s a progressive film that tries to speak to our times through a noir vernacular and Affleck is as good at directing other actors as he’s bad at directing himself: Brenda Gleeson is great as his Dad, Elle Fanning plays an Aimee Semple McPherson-type tent-revival evangelist addicted to heroin and she’s really fine and Sienna Miller has never been better than here as a traitorous gangster’s moll. It’s a film that doesn’t quite work but that has stayed with me all of this week.

José Arroyo

Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967)

 

‘Alain Delon ne parle jamais si bien que quand il se tait’/ ‘Alain Delon never speaks so well as when he’s silent’, François Mauriac, Le Figaro littéraire.1

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Spanish poster outside the Cine Doré

Le Samouraī is all slate-grey sadness edged by Courrèges-like white modernist elements and encased in lazy jazz. Plus Alain Delon in his prime: Gorgeous. I had the luck to see it at the Cine Doré, the cinema where Benigno (Javier Camará) goes to see the silent ‘The Shrinking Man’ in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and which acts as a metaphor for a loving violation. It’s worth remarking that the Spanish title of Le Samouraï, El silencio de un hombre, which translates literally as ‘A Man’s Silence,’ here markets noir, whereas a woman’s silence, like the women in Talk to Her, women whom circumstance prevent their speaking their truth, would instantly connote melodrama. The connections between noir and melodrama interest me and Le Samourai, like Talk to Her, is mired in muteness.

Delon’s Jeff Costello appears to us as languid loneliness enveloped in puffs of smoke from the first shot and he remains – not autistic, not even impassive – rather recessive, detached throughout. Is it that he can’t speak his ills or that he simply doesn’t know them? No matter, Melville and the film do, and every frame and camera move speaks them. The world of Le Samourai is a dirty one for a professional hit-man who claims some honour. Delon’s Costello is focussed on doing but disconnected from being, yet wanting. He’s desired but unable to reciprocate such longings: desire would imply longing, wanting and indicate a rooted and fleshly existence that Costello seems detached from. It’s a glorious film. Lovely print too. My main visual memory is an image of Delon as Costello, filmed outside his car window, rendered out of focus by fog and rain. The most memorable scene is the last one, where his professionalism battles his honour and Being succumbs to Nothingness.

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Italian poster

José Arroyo

  1. Cited in Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, p. 188. Translation my own.

 

 

A favourite moment from Double Indemnity

There are innumerable reasons to value Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944): it’s not only one of the great works of cinema but possibly the ur-text of what started off as a cycle of films and eventually became a genre: film noir. It’s got dialogue that still snaps, a structure so tight nothing’s extraneous, lighting so expressive it’s led critics like Richard Schickel to see the film as, ‘a drama about light, about a man lured out of the sunshine and into the shadows’. I love the actors, the badinage between Edward G. Robinson and Fred Macmurray, the tough-guy voiceover, the way the film evokes a combination of cool cynicism and overheated desire. Its influence continues to be felt. As we can see in the cabezudos scene in Almodóvar’s La mala educación/Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2004), Double Indemnity’s images are instantly recognisable, regularly re-deployed, still very evident in the culture and still wielding power (see clip below).

My own favourite moment (see clip at the very top)  is a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck in the scene where Phyllis (Stanwyck) is driving her husband to the station whilst Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is hiding in the back seat waiting to off him. Her husband’s been haranguing her, ‘why do you turn here!’ She honks the horn. ‘What are you doing that for!’ Then, as if to answer him, the camera cuts to Walter crouched in the back and rising for the kill. The film then cuts back to a close-up of Stanwyck. ‘Why are you honking the horn!’ as we hear a thud. The camera remains on her face as her husband gets killed and it’s this moment that remains indelible to me.

What do we see on Stanwyck’s face? She bounces with apprehension at the blow that kills her husband, mouth a little open. Then, as lights ricochet past her face, what does Stanwyck convey about Phyllis’ thinking and feeling in that last close-up before the scene dissolves? Disquiet, a hardness, efficiency, a vengeful ‘he only got what he deserved’ look, the slightest glimmer of a smile; could it be glee? And could it be sexual? One feels it’s so without knowing quite why. It’s in that evocation of the precise and the evanescent, the material and that which reverberates just out of reach – it has so many associations it can’t quite be pinned down – that Stanwyck’s great artistry makes itself manifest. It’s a glorious moment, one of many, and part of the reason why, to quote Woody Allen, Double Indemnity is ‘Billy Wilder’s greatest film, practically anybody’s greatest film’.

PS In a wonderful conference on noir at the University of Warwick on 19th of May 2017 — Hardboiled History: A Noir Lens on America’s Past — Kulraj Pullar speaking on ‘Veronica Lake and L.A. Confidential: Nostalgia, anachronism and film history’ iterated a fascinating redeployment of Baldwin’s notion that the ‘negro’ is a white invention in relation to the femme fatale. I don’t identify, I didn’t create, I don’t need the negro says Baldwin: so how, when and why do white people need this term? Thus how, when and why do men need femme fatales like Stanwyck’s Phyllis?

 

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José Arroyo

 

 

 

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

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Robert Ryan had small sad eyes inset on a chiselled face atop a long lean frame. The body seemed a promise of America: large, agile, powerful – he often played cowboys (The Naked Spur, The Wild Bunch) and looked the part – but his eyes often contradicted his physique. There we often saw fear, hatred, suspicion, racism, cowardice, defeat, loneliness, want, despair. Ryan’s face is also one of the most memorable of post-war American film noir (Crossfire, Act of Violence, The Racket, Odds Against Tomorrow). It’s like his eyes were the beatniks to the Eisenhower America that was his body, one a critique of the other; a self ill at ease, in tension – often in contradiction with itself and certainly the ‘other’: Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, Odds Against Tomorrow.

Ryan’s career trod that fine line between being one of the most famous actors in America but not quite being a star — the kind of ‘name’ that often headlined low budget movies (Best of the Badmen, 1951) but was relegated to support in the big pictures — between playing villains and tough-guys, which, as embodied by him, became almost indistinguishable. In his heyday, when he was billed above the title in a big-budget movie, he often played the bad guy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955). In his fine new biography of the actor, The Lives of Robert Ryan,  J.R. Jones writes, ‘’Long after Ryan had grown frustrated with his sinister screen persona, he continued to play men twisted by hatred or bigotry if they promised great drama that would change minds’.

He had the good fortune to work with directors we continue to be interested in: Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach, 1947), Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, 1948), Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, 1948) Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951: On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night, 1952), Bud Boetticher (Horizon West, 1952), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953), Sam Fuller (The House of Bamboo, 1955) and many others..

act-of-violence-ryan

It was also luck that landed him at RKO at a time when the studio was in dire need of leading men due to the war; and at a time when — partly due to resources, partly to post-war malaise – RKO began to specialise in the kind of lower-budget mood films, ones where shadows articulated the distress and longings of a generation of men themselves struggling with –processing — a knowledge — sometimes a personal experience of — transgression, of the quasi- criminal, that men who’d lived through the war so often didn’t want to speak about; that’s what Ryan’s small, deep-set eyes, so full of sorrow and tenderness, so quickly prone to anger and violence, could so beautifully express. Jones’ book charts the extent to which ‘he invested the genre with a string of neurotic and troubling portrayals that still reverberate through popular culture’.

I learned a lot from reading J.R. Jones The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). The book is very good at delineating Ryan’s childhood. Ryan came from a well-to-do family, one well-established in the city’s Democratic machine, oiling it appropriately and getting well-greased in return by benefitting from the patronage the party, when in office, could offer. Ryan’s family ran a construction company, The Ryan Company, one that in the late twenties was worth $4 million. Whilst his background in sport in general and boxing in particular was heavily publicised by his home studio, there were other aspects that were seen as being less useful to his persona: his class background, his degree at Ivy-League Dartmouth, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was a fraternity brother at Psi Upsilon.

the naked spur

I was intrigued to read that Ryan had got a relatively late start as an actor, 28, and that he’d studied with Max Reinhardt. Ryan delighted in the acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and adored comediennes like Fanny Brice and showmen like George M. Cohen. But in terms of acting, the book highlights his admiration for Spencer Tracy (‘one of the great masters,’ loc 2937, Kindle), Henry Fonda (with whom he founded the Plumstead Playhouse, a regional theatre company) and Fredric March (‘Ryan’s hero’, loc 5317).

There’s a superb anecdote about the making of The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) where Jeff Bridges is cast but not sure he wants to do the film, as he’s then thinking of maybe pursuing a career in music, until Marvin calls him, yells ‘stupid ass!’ and hangs up. One could learn a lot from working with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan. ‘As an actor,’ says Bridges of Ryan, ‘he stood alone for me’. Of their scenes together, Jones writes, ‘Bridges is the one who looks nervous, giving the role his all but often giving too much; Ryan, ever the minimalist, pared his performance down to the bare essentials but made every reaction count. Spencer Tracy had upstaged Ryan in much the same fashion nearly twenty years earlier, in Bad Day at Black Rock’.

So much attention has been devoted to The Method that one forgets that there are other traditions of acting in American cinema, ones that come via the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, repertory theatre, television or even, as in Ryan’s case, Reinhardt. One can see a commonality and lineage amongst these groups of actors (Tracy, March, Fonda, Marvin, Ryan, Bridges) and that these traditions are also ones that deserve closer scrutiny.

Ryan was part of a rare handful of film stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Charlton Heston –that was truly passionate about acting and that kept trying to learn and expand their range by returning to the stage, often in classic roles. Ryan played Coriolanus on Broadway and was Anthony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra in rep; he did several Eugene O’Neill classics (Long Days Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and other more homegrown staples of the theatrical repertoire (Born Yesterday, The Time of Your Life, The Front Page, Our Town etc.). He even inaugurated a Berlin musical on Broadway in 1962 playing the title role, Mr. President.

Ryan was a lifelong liberal and, as a child of the Democratic machine in Chicago, he knew the power that comes from mucking in and getting involved in politics. J. R. Jones notes his involvement most of the famous liberal candidacies of his day: He supported Helen Gahagan Douglas’ run for an open Senate seat against Richard Nixon’s dirty smear tactics, and would later support Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K ; he got involved in the civil rights struggles through his friendship with Harry Belafonte; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy; in fact, he stumped for all the high profile left liberal causes of his day, like so many movie starts did. J.R. Jones interestingly points out, however, that unlike many of his peers, he was a political pragmatist. He did not, for example, vote for Henry Wallace. ‘Wallace wanted to give equal rights to women and racial minorities, abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, and dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, all attractive positions to Ryan.’ But he thought votes for Truman would throw the election to the Republicans and he lived the dogma he’d been raised on: ‘Vote the Party, not the Man’.

What is to me more interesting is Ryan’s political involvement at a grass roots level. Jones meticulously delineates the efforts of Ryan and his wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a free-thinker and novelist, with the launching of the Oakwood School, the various negotiations with neighbours, the conflicts with the Board of Governors, the ultimate success in getting the right head teacher. According to Jones, ‘Ryan often told people the school was the most important thing he’d ever done’.

Jones’ The Lives of Robert Ryan is richly researched and very illuminating. Jones got access to an undated twenty-page manuscript Ryan had written on his family and early life for his children. He also got access to manuscripts Ryan’s wife Jessica had left behind on Hollywood and the movie business. He charts Ryan’s career and is even able to give figures for the salary he got for most pictures.

ryan bobby soxerI finished reading the book wishing Jones had delved more deeply into the films themselves. For example, of my own favourite, The Set-Up, Jones tells us that according to his wife, Ryan ‘takes more pride in that movie than any other he ever made’. We’re shown how the film was based on a narrative poem that became a New York Times best-seller in 1928 and that Ryan had first read it in college; how the original protagonist was changed from black to white for the movies; how, like Hitchcock’s Rope, the duration of the narrative is the film’s running time, how the film influenced most other boxing films including Scorsese’s Raging Bull; how the film made Ryan a beefcake favourite with the bobby-soxers, and how after he saw it Cary Grant told Ryan, ‘My name’s Cary Grant. I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen’. Re-reading the section on The Set-up I realised that it’s very good on the film’s production, its style, its reception and conclude that if he’d devoted as much time to each film, the book would be impossibly long.

Jones tells us more than a lot, in a carefully annotated style that provides evidence for what he says. It is to his credit and that of Robert Ryan’s enduring fascination that we want to know more.

 

José Arroyo

The Iceman (Ariel Vromen, USA, 2012)

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Littered with spoilers so do not read if you don’t want to know the ending.

in a lonely place

From the first ten minutes of The Iceman we know that Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is ‘in a lonely place’, that he’s got ‘a touch of evil, that he’s got ‘no way out’: that he’s ‘D.O.A.’ Perhaps only in the period of post-war noir has American cinema been bleaker or better than it is at the moment: Blue Valentine (2010), Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011), Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011), Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) , Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik 2012), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012), Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012), to name but a few examples. Dystopian views now are not just limited to genres like science-fiction or horror but seem to have seeped right to the centre of the culture. However, although other films might have as bleak an outlook, none has a darker look than The Iceman.

 

 

Our Cultural Past as Mythos of a Fictional World

 

            The film spans the period of the early 60s to the early 80s but most of the action takes place in the 70s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra was born, and in the various boroughs of New York where he started his career. Atlantic City, in the middle of getting a gambling license that will enable it to try to compete with Vegas, is another Sinatra association and buying a condo there is Kuklinski’s dream. The film references the Gambinos, the Calleys, the Lucchese and other legendary Mafia families Sinatra’s name was often linked to. The places where Kuklinski lives and kills are ones John Travolta’s Tony Manero might have walked through on his way to the disco at this time, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Manero working for DeMeo (Ray Liotta), the gangster who’s got Kuklinski on hitman retainer,  or even in porn if his dancing career in Manhattan had fizzled out.

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The world of The Iceman is like the underbelly of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, USA, 1977), ethnic working men strutting in platform shoes, tight high-wasted flared trousers over printed shirts with pointy collars, on the fringes of society and trying to get out of their situation in different ways in the same streets and to a similar disco beat. The Iceman makes much of Kuklinki being of Polish origin and its mix of Poles, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and Jewish characters, probably because it’s an accurate historical reflection, but perhaps also because it enables the picture to makes claims about a world and not just one community within it (the way it seems in other mafia films and TV shows from The Godfather films to The Sopranos). The Iceman is telling the story of an individual and one within a very particular context but it’s also operating within and making use of a very potent American mythos – that of the urban gangster — and making use and a particular formal vernacular — that of film noir. I’ll return to the genre and cultural tradition through which the Iceman tell us its story later. But let’s first look at the beginning.

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Beginning Thesis:

‘Mr. Kuklinski, do you have any regrets for the things you’ve done?’ asks a nameless voice over a tight close-up of Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski, famed mafia hitman. We are shown Shannon’s head slightly to the side, half-hidden in darkness; a still, strong, tightly-coiled face with calm calculating eyes; a rough grit-and-granite face, all angles that simultaneously illuminate and enshadow. It’s a perfect question to start the narrative. The diegetic sound has already indicated he’s in jail, so what has he done? And what’s to regret? That play of light and shadow on the sharp planes of Shannon’s face constitutes an ideal image with which to start giving shape to Kuklinski and his world. The Iceman will return to the same scene at its end, when Kuklinski will give us his answer and the film its final nudge to the audience’s judgment of Kuklinski as a person and of Shannon as an actor.

The film then cuts to April 29, 1964 via a high wide shot of a dark urban setting at night; lampposts shine brightly but can barely pierce the darkness. We’re then shown the outside of a cheap diner in a dark street. As we go inside, however, the lens seems to soften and makes the people we see inside seem young, attractive, vulnerable. When I first saw Shannon in Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2007), his lanky frame, soft and measured way of speaking, his ability to be emotionally transparent and unquestionably masculine, reminded me of Henry Fonda. He brings a little of that to this scene: Richie, for that’s what Deborah (Winona Ryder), his date, calls Kuklinski, is soft-spoken, awkward, bashful. ‘You ask a girl for coffee, you should have something to say,’ she tells him.

When Kuklinski looks at Deborah, and this is a testament to Shannon’s achievement as an actor in this part, his face seems to melt and soften as if from metal to flesh. He’s got a neatly combed side-part and wears a mod polo with geometric white piping on the collar. He’s been after her a long time and wants to impress her but can barely get a word out. She’s also neatly dressed; hair bouffed up as was the style then, but not extravagantly so; she wears a neat blouse with a lacey collar — she’s a respectable girl. He likes that kind of good girl. Kuklinski finally finally mumbles that she reminds him of Natalie Wood, only prettier; she ‘aw shucks’ the compliment but she likes it; and as Natalie Wood’s Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1955) most certainly would, Deborah gets a little thrill from the kind of guy that’s got a grim reaper tattooed between thumb and forefinger. He offers a toast but it’s with water, and she pulls back, saying toasting with water is bad luck. ‘I don’t believe in bad luck,’ he tells her. In fact he doesn’t believe in anything except her.

Just as her aunt arrives to pick her up, he asks Deborah whether he can see her again and she says yes and pecks him quickly on the cheek, even if her aunt is looking: they’re in love. The film is so precise in telling us day, month, and year because it’s the day that changed Kuklinski’s life, brought meaning to it: Deborah’s love, and later that of his children, along with his own love for them, will enable him to latch onto whatever humanity he has left to him.

Second Scene: Anti-Thesis

The second scene shows us Kuklinski playing pool with his buddies. Here it’s all elegant, extreme wide-angle shots of frames within frames within frames, in light browns and muddy yellows. Kuklinski and his buddies hustle a guy who refuses to pay. Kuklinski’s cold stare makes him change his mind but the guy doesn’t know when to shut it and he can’t resist a final insult before leaving, one involving Deborah. In The Iceman, when someone pushes Kuklinsi to the point of no return, his face becomes still and hard. In this case, the first instance we see it, the camera moves in to one of the great images in this film, a key one, in another tight close-up. Kuklinski’s shown to us slightly from below, his face turns to his right, digesting what the fool’s just said, then to his left as he makes a decision. As he does so, his face and the camera come to a stop, the face lit so that exactly half of it is in darkness. The image could be that of Two-Face in the Batman comics with darkness replaces the scarring. Kuklinski’s scars, as we will soon find out, are all internal but this sense of being split into darkness and light in a consciousness that can barely contain that polarity and is always threatening to explode because of it is very important in the film.

I’ve taken some time over the first two scenes of the film not only because they’re crucial in the depiction of the fictional world we will be seeing and in introducing us to the main character but because they also set out the structure of the film and its main themes. First we get the questions. Then we get nice Richie in love followed by the ‘rise’ of Killer Kuklinski. This idea of the double or, perhaps better put, the dark half of a split whole is a structuring idea in the film. It not only enables the type of story already familiar to us from The Sopranos (David Chase, HBO, USA, 1999-2007), the Mafia hit man who’s leading a double-life as a happy family man in the suburbs, but goes deeper into more existential questions: Is evil inherited, is it shaped, why bother to be good at all in a world without God?

‘You gotta feel something for somebody’

When Richie first meets Deborah he tells her that his job is dubbing movies  (as in the making of copies rather than the lending of his voice) for Disney but really it’s dubbing porn for the mob. One day when they come to collect and he doesn’t have them ready (they have the wrong date), they rough him up. Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) is so impressed by Kuklinski’s cool, even with a gun on his face, that he puts him to a test. A few days later, Roy takes him for a ride, makes his sidekick Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer) give a homeless person some money, then points a gun to Kulinski.  ‘Look at that fucking guy, he’s cool as ice’ he tells Josh. Then turning to Kuklinski, ‘you gotta feel something for somebody’. ‘I’ve got a wife and children’. With that Demeo puts the gun away and offers him a deal: if he can kill the homeless man they’ve just given change to, he’s got a job working exclusively for him.

The moment when Kuklinski kills the helpless hobo is an early turning point in the film, one that propels the rest of the narrative until another turning point, on which more later. At this moment, however, the darkness enshrouds the image and half of Kuklinski becomes what the film tells us he might always have been, the ruthless unfeeling hit-man, steeped in a darkness so deep that the screen fades to black. This is then followed by an exciting montage –  thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline. A leap into the dark, an embrace of it, can quicken the pulse and carry its own excitement

 

A Visual Relationship to Noir

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The film looks like a combination of The French Connection (William Friedkin, USA, 1972) and a television documentary: the image is thin and underexposed; sometimes hand-held, sometimes with elegantly composed images, always with a loose feel that foregrounds character against lots of black, as if darkness is oozing into Kuklinski’s world and threatening to swamp it. The hand-held camera is usually used during a hit; the steadier but usually still-mobile shots characteristically showing Kuklinski with his family. Light levels are designed to communicate as well, darkness alternating with light but even the light within the home getting thinner and darker as the film progresses. There are moments where a scene fades completely to black (the murder of the homeless person for example); other moments were the characters turn and become two-dimensional, hard silhouettes momentarily disembodies of their humanity like in that moment in Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946, USA) where Ballen George Macready) subtly threatens Johnny (Glenn Ford). The Iceman is a tour de force of expressive cinematography (by Bobby Bukowski).

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Doubling, Halves, Structural Opposites

Ideas of doubling, of complementary halves, of equal but opposites seem to structure almost every aspect of The Iceman, from minor points to themes to structuring elements. For example, De Meo likes to meet at The Gemini Club; Deborah to Kuklinski is his better half and saving grace; the film asks us to compare Kuklinski to his brother Joey (Stephen Dorff) in Kuklinski’s favour (he’s not sadistic and doesn’t accept contracts on women and children) and the same later on, when Demeo puts a momentary halt on business and Kuklinski has to team up with a scarier, more brutal and sadistic hitman , Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), from whose practice of freezing bodies so police can’t trace the time of death Kuklinski is misnamed ‘The Iceman’. Kuklinski believes he’s better than them, more moral.

The film’s point-of-view and the spectator’s understanding are not always the same as Kuklinki’s. Winona Ryder’s sideways glances, and her hiss at him when their daughter gets run over, hints at her knowing more about what her husband does for a living than she lets on; that her ignorance is as much a feign as his currency dealings. Also, his brother is right when he says Kuklinski will end up right there in Trenton State Prison with him. Lastly, Mr. Freezy might be more sadistic than Kuklinski but Kuklinski has no problem adopting his methods when his condo in Atlantic City’s at stake.

From the moment that Kuklinski starts working for DeMeo until the film’s other turning point, when he’s hired to kill Marty Freeman (James Franco) but leaves loose end, we see first an exciting montage — thrilling in its editing, jolting in its content — of his hits in various New York/ New Jersey locations overlooking the Hudson and/or the Manhattan skyline; after this, such hits are alternated with a happy home sequences of suburban family life in Jersey, as if the dual sides of his nature are perfectly  balanced. He seems to be a happy commuter Dad (though I’m sure some of his hits must have taken place closer to home). But it’s interesting that the film’s second turning point, the beginning of his descent conjoins two ideas, both pertinent to American culture now, but not usually brought together: that of a loss of faith and that of a loss of job.

The Second Turning Point and Descent

Kuklinski, by his own terms, leads a balanced life; he manages to alternate the happy suburban home life and the urban killing very successfully until the film’s other important turning point. Plot-wise the context for it is that Josh Rosenthal, the local capo’s best friend and right hand man, has not only been waving Demeo’s name around without authority and at some risk, but has actually just gone and robbed large amounts of cocaine from two Hispanic dealers. However, those he thought were merely lowly Spics end up being connected to one of the ‘families’ and thus their death requires extracting traditional restitution from DeMeo: the body of the person that did it in a bag. Marty Freeman (James Franco) has been blabbing about that person maybe being Rosenthal. Earlier in the film, when Demeo caught wind that Rosenthal was using his name he told him: ‘You and I have a history together. It means something to me’. Because of that, Demeo, in order to protect Rosenthal and himself, puts out a hit on Freeman; and to make sure it gets done, and without Kuklinski’s knowledge, he puts another hitman on the case, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans).

Thematically, the turning point is set-up by a scene where Richie and Deborah are spending family time with their children. They’re in the bedroom, the television news is showing coverage of the Vietnam War, and Kuklinski’s eldest girl says that, according to one of the nun’s at school, it’s God’s will for people die in Vietnam. The family has a discussion about this with Deborah saying that God is so busy that he can’t take care of everyone and thus the family has to look after each other. But Kuklinski was an altar boy; ideas of Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, and the existence of God are what he was raised with. When he goes to kill Marty Freeman and Marty begs for his life, Kuklinski makes him an offer, he’ll give him thirty minutes to pray and if God stops him, he’ll spare his life and take the consequences.

One of the wonderful things about American cinema at the moment is that we see actors’ hunger to perform in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. They’re taking risky roles in small films, seemingly for the love of it. Here we get the opportunity to see an unrecognizable David Schwimmer as Rosenthal (the audience does giggle when they finally recognize him but only briefly. He’s superb); Chris Pines looking almost unattractive but more manly and dangerous than I’ve ever seen him on screen as Mr. Freezy; a magnificent Stephen Dorff, also completely unrecognizable and truly creepy, slimy, dangerous – I’ve loved him more in other films such as Somewhere   (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010) but I don’t remember him ever being better. We also get to see Robert Davi, whose very face is as Demeo tells him, an association with bad news, a reason he’s now been a joy to filmgoers for decades; and of course Ray Liotta, who must have recently hired the best script-reader in Hollywood because after years of working in dross, in the last year alone he’s appeared in Killing Them Softly and The Place Beyond the Pines, which is to say the very best of current American cinema. And not least, a much desired return of the glorious Winona Ryder to the screen in a leading role. One just sighs with pleasure at the sight of her; and she’s very good here – there’s a core of steel under that lace collar. But the greatest scene in the movie is almost ruined by James Franco.

Detour into Franco

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I love James Franco and think he’s been unjustly criticized for interests that should in fact be praised: an interest in art in general first; then for actually writing, painting, performing, directing; then for wanting to extend himself as an actor in a variety of parts. I loved him in Oz, The Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi, USA, 2012) and thought nobody else could have captured the shabby, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, gauche, sweet not-innocent Oz; the loveable, sexy but not dangerously so, two-bit conman: He’s just perfect in that role. But he’s not here. His performance as Marty is lazy, as if he’s just arrived from something more important on his way to something more important still, plopped himself on his knees and told Ariel Vromen to hurry up and get on with it.

This, in the most important scene in the film and playing with and against Michael Shannon, whose performance here must stake a claim to his being one of the very finest actors working in American cinema today. Star or not, if Franco, can’t deliver, particularly in a small but crucial role such as this one, he should have been re-cast; and I hold it against the production that such a crucial role should end up so amorphous and lifeless on screen. As if, instead of Rod Steiger, it was the winner of some hick high-school acting contest that ended up opposite Brando in the ‘I could have been a contender’ scene in On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, USA, 1954).

Existential Kuklinski

Kuklinki’s a walking existential question. Like Camus’ Merseault in The Stranger  (1942) he feels no connection to others, but he doesn’t particularly seek meaning, though his family gives him that. Yet in his offer of mercy to Marty he’s pushing his daughter’s question, ‘why does God let innocent people die?’ further: Does God exist at all? Whilst Franco’s busy being an inert blob, Shannon, filmed from below, like Satan himself challenging God, urges him to pray. ‘Go ahead’ he says quietly, ‘Our father….’. ‘I’m not feeling nothing,’ he warns Marty, ‘nothing at all’. ‘Pray harder’. ‘Your last chance,’ he warns .

Jean Paul-Sartre dramatized alienation in works like Nausea (1938)and more systematically explored the question of Being in a world without God in works of philosophy like Being and Nothingness (1943). But films, even not quite great ones like The Iceman, sometimes offer moments of better emotional understanding of such existential questions, of understanding and feeling, even if only briefly,  the void that opens up in the moment that Kuklinski tells Marty, ‘I think God’s busy’ and offs him.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, ‘“I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help.’ Arguably, Kuklinski has known this from the very beginning.  But it is from this moment that his sense of responsibility for his family supersedes, erases, justifies, a loss of taking responsibility for his own actions; it’s the moment where he stops to shape his world and it starts to shape him.

From then on, it’s a descent into the same place we first met his brother both physically and emotionally, though Kuklinki is perhaps more aware of this, and will feel it more acutely. First, Richie loses his job, and the loss of his job, leads to a lack of self-worth and a loss of status in the home. To recover some of that, he becomes ‘The Iceman’. But the stresses of doing this type of work, then means he loses his family (the one thing he regrets) when they start seeing him as Jekyll and Hyde figure (which he’s never been in his own mind).  Finally we’re made aware of the full extent of loss of self when his square face turns almost to the camera at the end to assert that hurting his family is the only thing he regrets.

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It seems that recently I’ve seen a whole series of films about men in America (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Killing them Softly) where the loss of a job is tied to crime, or the job is crime. What types of ways men are allowed to perform a  particular type of masculinity is tied to their having a job or not, to them being criminalized or not and when that happens. There’s a racial and ethnic dimension to this as well that The Iceman hints at through its ethic mix but doesn’t quite explore. James Baldwin has a wonderful passage in The Evidence of Things Not Seen where he quotes a black spiritual that goes ‘When a woman gets the blues Lord, she bows her head and cries/ When a man gets the blues lord, he takes the train and rides.’ But Baldwin reminds us that we should ask ‘Why does the black man take the train and ride, why does he flee from his responsibilities’. Baldwin’s answer is that America posits normative and idealised ways of being men in America and then doesn’t allow Black Men inhabit those norms or ideals, thus the ‘take the train and ride’. I think these films are raising very similar questions today. What is an ideal way of being a man in America today and does a normal working joe have to kill someone in order to be that guy.

The Iceman is not a great film but it’s a serious and satisfying one, with Shannon’s performance sure to become legendary. It has  a beautiful use of light and shadows from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, and memorable dialogue. Immediately after I saw it, my view was that Shannon was superb but the film itself no great shakes. I still think that to a degree; but it’s a rare film that inspires me to write at this length, rarer still in a film I don’t particularly like. It’s a film that but for the actors, and that of course is the biggest but, one can’t divorce them from the film, but if one could, The Iceman is almost more interesting to think about than to see. Maybe further viewings will bring out yet more. It’s a film to ponder, and in thinking about Shannon, to ponder with awe.

José Arroyo

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