A corrupt police force intersects with the glamour of Hollywood in L.A. Confidential, the tightly-plotted neo-noir that won the Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress in a year dominated by Titanic, and established the status and careers of Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey. Over twenty years since its enormously successful release, does it hold up? We discuss its basis in the real history of L.A. and its sense of place, whether the screenplay deserves its plaudits, how it functions as a noir and more.
Our exploration of William Friedkin ends almost where it began, with his second collaboration with Tracy Letts, who, following the adaptation of his second play, Bug, adapts for the screen his first, Killer Joe. A key film in Matthew McConaughey’s career, one of the first in what would become known as the McConaissance, Killer Joe sees his seductive, charming romcom persona repurposed to threatening, chilling effect in the ugly world of trailer parks and contract killing.
We discuss THAT scene with the chicken leg, and compare and contrast it to THAT scene with the crucifix in The Exorcist, asking what might be outrageous about one but not the other. We ask what we’re missing in Letts’ screenplay that others see, and José argues that Friedkin has throughout his career been drawn to second-rate source material – material that here is unquestionably elevated by the cast, who are almost all excellent and believable, in particular Gina Gershon, of whom demanding things are asked, and Juno Temple, who carries with her an otherworldliness that lightens what is a very dark part in a very dark story.
And we take the opportunity to think over the set of Friedkin films that we’ve now seen, including his biggest hits, and consider what we’ve learned, what his achievements and strengths are, where he fails or what he lacks, and where he stands amongst his contemporaries and peers.
To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s 1985 neo-noir, is kinky, colourful, offbeat and as much a Los Angeles film as The French Connection is a New York one. A young and androgynous Willem Dafoe plays a notorious counterfeiter pursued by two Secret Service agents, one by the book, the other corrupted. We discuss the film’s style and tone, its subject matter and setting in L.A.’s liminal, casually confrontational criminal underworld, its sensuous cinematography, and how it reflects and contrasts with The French Connection, particularly in the context of the films’ morally cloudy protagonists.
José has a soft spot for To Live and Die in L.A. despite acknowledging several problematic facets to it; Mike can’t say he loves it, finding little satisfying to bite on other than the extraordinarily expressive imagery and Dafoe’s captivating presence. Still, it’s a bold, evocative work of very, very Eighties noir, and deviant enough to keep you on your toes.
Burt Lancaster got his contract with Hal B. Wallis at Paramount on the basis of a test directed by Byron Haskin with Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott for Desert Fury. Lucky for him, the film was not ready to shoot for another six months and he was able to fit in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers(1946) for producer Mark Hallinger at Universal beforehand. Desert Fury started shooting two weeks before the release of The Killers but there were already whisperings of Lancaster as a big new star, and the whisperings were so loud that Hallinger gave him first billing and a big publicity build-up rather than the little ‘and introducing….’ title at the end of the credits that was then typical, and is indeed the billing offered Wendell Corey in Desert Fury as you can see in the poster above. Before Desert Fury started shooting, Hal Wallis knew he had a big fat star on his hands and that his part had to be beefed up so as to capitalise on it.
By the time the film was released on September 24th, 1947,, Burt Lancaster was the biggest star in the film. The Killers hit screens on the 29th of August 1946. As Kate Buford writes, Ít was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise ¨faster than Gable´s, Garbo´s or Lana Turner,¨as Cosmopolitan said years later (Buford, loc 1260). In New York the movie, ‘played twenty-four hours a day at the Winter Garden theatre, ‘where over 120,000 picture-goers filled the 1,300 seat theatre in the first two weeks, figures Variety called “unbelievably sensational.”‘ Brute Force was the fourth film Lancaster made, after I Walk Alone, but it was the second to be released, on June 30th 1947. According to Kate Buford, it too ‘set set first-week records at movie houses across the country’ (loc 1412).
Lancaster’s status as a star is reflected in the lobby card and poster above, where in spite of being billed third, what´s being sold is what Burt Lancaster already represented, the publicity materials giving a false impression that he is much more central to the narrative than is in fact the case. His image dominates in both, and even the tag lines are attributed to him: ‘I got a memory for faces…killer´s faces…Get away from my girl…and get going’, is the tagline in the lobby card. The text on the poster reads, ´Two men wanted her love…the third wanted her life.
In the ad below, he´s billed second, as ´the sensation of The Killers, Dynamite with the fuse lit’
When trying to recapture a past moment in relation to cinema, it´s often useful to look at trailers and other paratextual publicity materials. Trailers hold and try to disseminate the film´s promise to viewers. Of course, its purpose is to sell, to dramatise its attractions so that viewers will go see it. And of course, they often lie, dramatising not what is but what they hope will sell. That said, those promises, lies and hopes are often very revealing.
As you can see above, the trailer is selling melodrama — violent passions — in a magnificent natural setting filmed in Technicolor. Burt Lancaster’s name is only mentioned 39 second into the 1.41 trailer, after Lizabeth Scott with her strangeness and her defiance of convention and after John Hodiak with his secrets and coiled snakeyness. And Lancaster’s introduced as ‘hammer fisted’ Tom Hanson, erroneously giving the impression that this will be an action film. But note too that by the end of the trailer, Lancaster is given top billing.
According to Kate Buford, in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Lancaster thought ‘Desert Fury would not have lunched anybody’, later ‘dismissing it as having ‘starred a station wagon’ (loc 1157). The film is really a series of triangles: Eddie (John Hodiak) and Tom (Burt Lancaster) are both in love with Paula (Lizabeth Scott), Fritzy (Mary Astor) has already had an affair with Tom who is currently pursuing an affair with her daughter Paula, Paula and Johnny (Wendell Corey) are both in love with Eddie etc. I have made a not-quite-video essay that nonetheless well illustrates the Johnny-Eddie-Paula triangle, surely one of the queerest of the classic period, which can be seen here:
Tom is really a fifth wheel in the narrative. But by the time the film started shooting, Burt Lancaster was already the biggest star in it. His part was beefed up to take his new status into account, scenes were added, According to Gary Fishgall, the film was based on a 1945 novel, Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, and ‘ Lancaster’s role was an amalgam of two of the novel’s characters: the embittered, sadistic deputy sheriff, Tom Hansen, and a likeable highway patrolman named Luke Sheridan. Neither character was romantically linked to Paula (p.55). But in the film, he ends up with Lizabeth Scott at the end. All these additions probably contributed to the film seeming so structurally disjointed.
In Desert Fury Tom, a former rodeo rider, just hangs around waiting for Paula to get wise to Eddie, leaving her enough rope to act freely, as he does with colts when taming them, but not enough so that she hangs herself, or so he thinks. Really, he’s extraneous. He gets to walk into the sunset with Paula at the end of the film but the film really ends once Paula and Fritzy kiss, on the lips. He certainly doesn’t get much to do during it, except for a couple of great scenes where Fritzy tries to buy him into marrying her daughter (above) and another bit of banter when she thinks he’s come to accept her offer (below). Mary Astor steals both scenes. In fact she steals everything. Every time she appears, her wit, weariness, intelligence, the intensity of her love for her daughter — she lifts the film to a level it probably doesn’t deserve to be in. But Lancaster is good. These are the only scenes in the film where he looks like he’s enjoying himself.
Tom is the closest the film has to a ´normal character’. Indeed, aside from the character he plays in All My Sons (1948) this is the closest Lancaster had come to such a type during the whole of his period in film noir in the late 40s and which includes all of his films up to The Flame and the Arrow in 1950. Even in Variety Girl, which is an all-star comedy where he and Lizabeth Scott spoof the hardboiled characters they’re associated with, the surprise is that they’ve already created personas to spoof in such a short time (see below).
According to Fishgall, ‘Lancaster –billed third before the film’s title — acquitted himself well in the essentially thankless other man’ role. Still, if Desert Fury had marked his screen debut as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have achieved stardom quite so quickly. Not only did the film lack the stylish impact of The Killers, but so did the actor. Without the smouldering intensity of the Swede and his first pictures’ moody black and white photography, he appeared to be more of a regular fellow, and guy-next-door types rarely become overnight sensations’ (p. 67).
In Desert Fury we’re told that unlike the drugstore cowboys who are now criticising him, Tom used to be the best rodeo rider there was but a while back, whilst wrestling a steer, he got thrown off and is now all busted up inside. Being ‘busted up inside’ is what all the characters Burt Lancaster plays in the late ’40s have in common. He thinks of returning to the rodeo all the time but knows he can never be as good. He used to be a champ, now all he can hope for is to be second best. He knows he ‘ain’t got what it takes anymore’. He’s in love with Paula and she knows it. But she doesn’t know what she wants. He think he does: ‘you’re looking for what I used to get when I rode in the rodeo. The kick of having people say “that’s a mighty special person” I’d like to get that kick again. Maybe I can get it with just one person saying it’. He will, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the movie.
But even in this, Lancaster doesn´t play entirely nicey-poo, true-blue, throughout, and his Tom is given moments of wanton bullying and cruelty where he gets to abuse Eddie just because he’s a cop and wants to. And it´s interesting that it´s that moment, which jives so well with the ´brute force´Lancaster was already known for, and which would attach itself to his persona for many a year, that is the one chosen for the trailer.
According to Robyn Karney, in Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man, ‘As the straightforward moral law officer in a small Arizona town who rescues the object of his affections from the dangerous clutches of a murderous professional gambler, Burt had little to do other than look strong, handsome and reliable. Despite Wallis’ much vaunted rewrites, the role of the Sheriff Tom Hanson remained stubbornly secondary and uninteresting, with the limelight focused on John Hodiak as the villain, fellow contract players Elizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey’ (p.31).
I mainly agree with Robyn Karney except for four points, two textual and stated above: the first is that even in this Lancaster is playing a failure, someone once a somebody that people talked about but now all busted up inside; the second is that that element of being ´busted up inside´leads to a longing that gets displaced onto Paula. If the rodeo is what made feel alive and gave him a reason to live before his accident, now it´s Paula, and the idea that she might also be an unobtainable goal leads to his outbursts of unprovoked violence towards the rival for his affections, Eddie (John Hodiak).
The other two points of interest are extra textual. Desert Fury is gloriously filmed by Charles Lang. A few years later, in Rope of Fury, Lang would film Lancaster as a beauty queen: eyelashes, shadows and smoke, lips and hair (see below):
Here, even with his pre-stardom teeth and his bird´s nest of a hairdo, Lancaster sets the prototype for the Malboro Man:
He looks good in technicolour, and Lang brings out the blue of his eyes:
More importantly, the film visualises him, for the first time, as Western Hero, a genre that would become a mainstay of his career from Vengeance Valley (1951) right through Ulzana´s Raid (1972) and even onto Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981):
Desert Fury was not well reviewed. According to the Daily Herald ‘The acting is first-class. But except for Mr. Lancaster as a speed cop, the characters in the Arizona town with their lavish clothes and luxury roadsters, are contemptible to the point of being more than slightly nauseating’ (cited in Hunter p. 27),
The Monthly Film Bulletin labelled the film a western melodrama, claiming, surprisingly, that ‘The vivid technicolor and grand stretches of burning Arizona desert give a certain air of reality to the film’. Hard for us to see this thrillingly melodramatic film, lurid, in every aspect, evaluated in the light of realism. The MFB continued with, ´This reality is however counteracted by the way in which the sharply defined, but extremely unnatural characters act. Everything is over dramatised, and the title is a mystery in that the desert is comparatively peaceful compared with the way the human beings behaved…Lizabeth Scott is suitably beautiful as Paula and Burt Lancaster suitably tough as Tom. (Jan 1, 1947, p. 139)
Thus, we can see that on the evidence above, the film was badly reviewed, Time magazine going so far as to call it, ‘impossible to take with a straight face’ (Buford, loc1293). But Burt Lancaster´s performance was either exempted from the criticism or its faults where attributed to the film rather than to himself. More importantly still, the film was a hit, Burt Lancaster´s third in a row. Finally, as I´ve discussed elsewhere, the film is now considered by many a kind of camp classic, a leading example of noir in technicolor as well as arguably the gayest film ever produced in the classic period.
On a very special Eavesdropping at the Movies requested by our listeners, José takes us through the career of Burt Lancaster, every one of whose films he has been watching during the lockdown. Lancaster is a star through whose career a whole history of movements and evolutions in Hollywood can be tracked, from the studio noirs of the 1940s right through to the anti-war allegories of the 1970s, taking in all of the social, political, stylistic, industrial and aesthetic shifts that would take place in a constantly changing America.
On screen, Lancaster was capable of moving fluidly between genres and styles, including noir, action-adventure and Westerns, won the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry, was regularly amongst the top box-office stars from 1950-1965, and worked with some of the great screenwriters and playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Off screen, he was one of the foremost independent producers of his day. He fought against McCarthyism during the height of the Red Scare, employing blacklisted screenwriters when nobody else would, later made a number of anti-racist revisionist Westerns, and championed progressive causes throughout his life. José argues that Lancaster conceived of the cinema as a national theatre of ideas, a place in which conversations could be had and arguments advanced, a conception that ties his entire, varied career together.
Mike, on the other hand, has barely seen anything of Burt Lancaster’s, and José has put him on a crash course of five or six films in order to get a sense of his work, style and persona. He’s left with questions to throw at José: Why Lancaster hasn’t lingered culturally as strongly as some of his contemporaries? Is it his politics? His acting ability? His style? Is his reputation for muscles, teeth, and little else, justified?
Burt Lancaster, José concludes, represents the best of America. His work is ripe for rediscovery, and offers rich insight on a constantly changing culture and industry.
A sad and melancholic noir, imbued with sadness, about all the grey areas of feeling, and set in the dark netherworld of LA crime, prostitution, go-go bars, stag flicks. A girl washes up on shore, the verdict is suicide, the father (Ben Johnson) doesn’t accept it and starts investigating on his own. Lt. Philip Gaynes (Burt Reynolds), the police investigator assigned to the case, is living with Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), who’s a hooker. Their relationship starts as playful and satisfying but Burt begins to have visions of her with other men and can’t stand it. But will he commit, does he love her? We only find out when it’s too late.
Hustle is fascinating film, a real Watergate film with the US seen as Guatemala with colour television, where somebodies get off scott-free with the worst crimes and nobodies can’t get their day in court. There are aspects of this film that resurface in better known 70s neo-noirs by younger directors like Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). An unjustly neglected film, by the director of some key films in the genre such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Big Knife (1955), with Burt Reynolds as his most charming and playful; Catherine Deneuve beautiful and with a languid common sense to the ugly realities of life; and Eileen Brennan, who in the movies always seemed bruised by life. Reynolds and Paul Winfield look smashing and have excellent chemistry, though in their shots together one does notice the technology blotting out Winfield’s presence with the light positively bouncing off Reynolds’ skin.
The film is a real noir in the classic vein: the shadows, the bars, the underworld, the complex feelings. Aldrich beautifully conveys all of this in a film where every colour and every angle seems purposeful; and yet the film lacks a central drive, a desire, unless one counts that for the past. It’s imbued with a nostalgia: for Italy, for film stars, for movies and music of the past, for the thirties, for the type of love that exists only in movies like Lelouche’s A Man and a Woman; for a sense of fair play that the film claims no longer exists, it’s like a cloud of feeling where happiness was once possible but no longer is. The film’s Spanish title, Destino Fatal/ Fatal Destiny better describes the film than Hustle. Everyone in the film is hustling, but against the odds and with a deck stacked against them.
Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review found it too pulpy and in its own way amoral, a liberal equivalent of Dirty Harry, with the added sin of wallowing in Weltschmerz, a feeling of deep sadness and world-wearyness that arises out of being too aware of evil, suffering and injustice and that one accepts as one’s portion in life. Kael damns the whole film as an excuse for ‘philosophy sweetened by sex’. She’s not wrong. But those elements are in fact what I most loved about the film.
The faults and virtues in each of those positions can be teased out of this scene:
which a propos of nothing reminded me of this ferocious version of the song by Lena Horne:
Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson watches his younger brother and his girlfriend and thinks this might be something like the relationship he has with Anna Dundee (Yvonne De Carlo). The extent to which he’s mistaken is part of the drama.
Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.
Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.
Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.
And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.
An assured debut feature from director Melina Matsoukas, Queen & Slim is a romantic, fugitive road movie with a state-of-the-nation feel. After an awkward first date, a traffic stop escalates out of hand, resulting in one dead police officer, shot in self defence, and two black civilians on the run. Their escape sees them take a tour through Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida, their public profile growing, their actions inspiring both admiration and dismay amongst those they encounter.
It’s a confidently made film, evocative of a bygone era though set in the modern day, slow and tonally adept, with two wonderful performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. We discuss whether it’s a noir and Turner-Smith’s unwitting femme fatale, the characters’ changes of costume, the way in which a variety of music expresses different elements of black culture with the effect of unifying them, the details and suggestions that build a holistic, believable world, what effect the reveal of the characters’ names has, and what significance faith might play.
Queen & Slim is a beautiful film that effortlessly expresses the struggles and oppressions of black Americans within a set of smoothly combined genres. It’s a true original, and a great experience.
José’s seen it once and returns to its depths for a second time, alongside Mike, who knows nothing about it. Chinese writer-director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, unrelated to Eugene O’Neill’s play, tells a story that flashes between memories of a love lost long ago and present day reality, culminating in an hour-long single take that moves through an entire mining village.
It’s a film that oozes feelings of loss and nostalgia, the protagonist’s return to his hometown seeing him wander through dereliction and abandonment, where his life was once vital and exciting. The noirish flashbacks are sumptuously composed and lit, romantic and evocative; one sinks into those gorgeous images.
The long take that comprises the film’s second half is less successful, an exercise in form that leaves longueurs and attracts too much attention to itself. But its relationship to the first half is intriguing, its symbolism readily apparent if difficult to interpret, and its technical accomplishment unquestioned. (We didn’t see this version of it, but it’s entirely in 3D, which we can only imagine heightens its fluid, magical tone.)
Despite José’s criticisms, it’s one of his films of the year, though for Mike its qualities don’t offer enough to counterbalance a second half with which he really struggled. But it’s certainly worth your time, and if it’s showing near you, you should catch it.
A Columbia quickie, on the Gothic end of the noir spectrum, directed with great flair by Joseph H. Lewis, director of Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955), and thus one of the most significant figures in noir. Nina Foch, pre An American in Paris is Julia Ross, a middle-class working girl on her uppers and desperate for a job. George Macready, pre-Gilda, is Ralph, quick to temper and overly interested in knives. His mother, Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty) is the only who can control her son and is overly protective. She has set up a whole personnel agency just to find the right live-in personal secretary. There’s a great point made about no family and no attachments and we’ll soon learn why.
Julia goes to work one night and wakes up a prisoner in a rand cliff-side house in Cornwall, with the staff told she’s Ralph’s wife and so nuts they must ignore what she says. Why are they doing this to her? How will she escape? The film bears a loose resemblance to Rebecca and is worth seeing today for the ingenious ways Lewis figures a woman imprisoned in a world of shadows (see images below).
The Arrow Academy release features a very good introductory essay by Adrian Martin and an intriguing discussion by Nora Fiore, of Nitrate Diva Fame, on the relationship between the film and the social context it was made and released in.
Emilio Fernández and Roberto Gavaldón are two of the great directors of Mexican Cinema´s Golden Age. Dolores Tierney is a Senior Lecturer in Media and Film at Sussex University and an internationally renown film scholar who has written an important book on the work of Fernández, Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins, and who has also written extensively on Gaváldon.
If Fernández´films are already well known, Gavaldón´s work is having an incredible and long over-due revival this year, with retrospectives in New York´s Lincoln Centre and the San Sebastian Film Festival, His work also featured heavily in the Salon Mexico: The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema retrospective at the BFI earlier in the year and the Cine Doré in Madrid, whose programme names him ´The King of Mexican Melodrama´, is currently showing a range of his films.
As Dolores writes in Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins (Manchester University Press, 2007):
For seven years, from 1943 until 1950, Emilio Fernández (1904-1986) was regarded as one of the foremost puveyors of Mexicanness,’ as one of the most important filmmakers of the Mexican film industry…, and as one of the most famous filmmakers in the Western world. His distinctive, ‘authentically Mexican´ visual style — developed over an extensive collaboration with photographer Gabriel Figueroa of thirteen years and twenty-two films — was praised for bringing international attention and prestige to the Mexican film industry…At the height of his career in the 1940s he was loved by audiences and critics alike, not only for bringing international attention and artistic glory to the Mexican motion-picture industry but also for defining a school of Mexican films. Indeed, he underscored and in some ways initiated this approach to his work by repeated claiming ´!El cine mexicano so yo¡/ I am Mexican cinema´
In his introduction to La fatalidad urbana: El cine de Roberto Gavaldón (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2007), Fernando Mino Gracia writes:
What would Mexican cinema be without the the sure look — distant, reflexive — of Roberto Gavaldón. We would have lost no less that the most rounded, audacious and finished oeuvre, one that explains a fundamental period of Twentieth Century Mexican cinema, that which covers the period of the end of the Second World War to the start of the 70s. Because Gavaldón is the the filmmaker who best diagnosed, over the entirety of his work, the pulse of a society in the process of consolidation. Nothing was the same by the end of the 1950s and Gavaldón was a privileged witness and chronicler. A mirror which re-works with complex subtlety the inequality of that society and which today, for better and worse, gives us sustenance (p. 19, trans my own).
The podcast below is a wide-ranging discussion on the films and careers of Fernández and Gavaldón with the hope of drawing attention to these immense works of world cinema and also to Dolores Tierney´s invaluable writing on both of these directors.
In the podcast, Dolores and I discuss the work of each director, their collaborations with leading stars such as Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores Del Rio, María Felix, Arturo de Cordova; Melodrama, Mexican Nationalism and its discourses, how the films, be they noirs or melodramas or even rural sagas, fit into a post-revolution political project whilst also being dialogue transnationally with classical Hollywood cinema.
My hope for the podcast is that Dolores´enthusiasm will lead you to the films and that my own will lead you to Dolores´invaluable work on them.
Those of you wishing to pursue further links might enjoy this video essay by Dolores Tierney and Catherine Grant on the ´cabaretera´films of the period.
I have also written on several Gavaldón films and you can pursue links here:
…and on a couple of Fernández films:
…and you can see the incredible clip from Fernández´Victimas del pecado (1951) here:
We pick at flaw after flaw in a film we sincerely enjoyed! Drew Goddard’s post-noir, post-Tarantino, post-Hitchcock thriller is an oddball, a delightfully playful collection of stories about secrets and regrets and temptations and damage. A fabulous ensemble cast is split up and paired off in all sorts of ways, histories are exposed, deception is currency, violence is brutal and shocking. And it all happens on one rainy night in a broken old motel in 1969.
We have few issues with Goddard’s screenplay, which, but for the exception of one or two characters who we reckon could have been given a little more flesh, is creative, clever, witty, and energetic. But as a director, we find him lacking – as José phrases it, he has no instinct for cinema. It’s a significant problem in a film that’s building upon and pastiching entire genres and movements of cinema.
We go back and forth on some of the performances, though they’re primarily good, and Jeff Bridges and Lewis Pullman in particular are just perfect. Mike appreciates that the film understands when to pull the rug out from under you and when not to. We agree that it’s destined to become a cult success, the type of film you want to know if your friends have seen. And we like trifle.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
“From the darker side of director Paul Feig”, as the ubiquitous advertising has it, and the film doesn’t disappoint. A Simple Favor pairs Anna Kendrick with Blake Lively as the least compatible friends you can imagine, friends with dark secrets and desires. We find Feig a complete master of tone, able to control the film’s descent into some very, very murky places without ever losing its ability to remain light and likeable. It’s a quite an achievement.
We discuss the way the film makes the female characters prominent and diminishes the role of men, eschewing the typical noir hero role for Kendrick’s Nancy Drew escapades, and the pleasure in seeing her character develop and assume control. The use of flashback is interesting and at some points quite brilliant, with important plot points being conveyed through subtle eyeline matches and just a few short shots recontextualising things we already know, or think we know. Mike finds the plot grows a little overcomplicated towards the end, and indeed predicted one or two developments – normally he prides himself on his gullibility – but these are nitpicks, at best, in a hugely entertaining film.
And it’s a film noir played for laughs! José can’t stress that enough.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The Long Goodbye is by now an acknowledged classic. It wasn’t always so. As Pauline Kael writes in her 1973 review, ‘It’s a knockout of a movie that has taken eight months to arrive in New York because after being badly reviewed in Los Angeles last March and after being badly received (perfect irony) it folded out of town. It’s probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York.’ Charles Champlin, one of the initial culprits, titled his review ‘A Private Eye’s Honour Blackened’. But as early as 1974, Stewart Garrett in Film Quarterly was already underlining its importance and influence: ‘‘the masterwork of America’s most interesting working director….In watching Chinatown, one can feel The Long Goodbye lurking behind it with the latent force of a foregone conclusion’. All I want to do here is add my praise, point to a couple of aspects of the film’s particular brilliance, and also indicate some problems with the film that its biggest fans have been too quick to gloss over.
The movie begins and ends with an extract from the song ‘Hooray for Hollywood’, a nod to dreamland and part of the film’s homage to noir and the detective genre. Elliot Gould is a different Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart, looser, gentler, even more addicted to tobacco, with cigarettes constantly dangling from his thick, sensuous lips. The car he drives, the apartment building he lives in, the bars he frequents, all conjure up the forties. But the LA he moves through, a character of its own in this film (the skyline, the highways, the all-night supermarkets, Malibu), with the women in the apartment next door making hash brownies, practicing yoga, and dancing topless, all point to the film’s present. And that interplay between past and present, figured through the casting of Elliot Gould as the central character, is one of joys of the film.
Gould’s Marlow, unkempt, seeming to offer a wry, disbelieving and humours look at everything he sees, is convincingly single, marginal, and over-reliant on his cat for company. He is the most unkempt and bedraggled of leading man: loose, irreverent but convincingly embodying someone who carries the night with him like a halo; a knight errant reeking of stale tobacco, too much booze and too little sleep. His friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouten) calls hims a born loser.
David Thomson writes of how Altman ‘spends the whole film concentrating on the way Elliott Gould moves, murmurs, sighs, and allows silence or stillness to prevail’. And this at a time when as Pauline Kael writes in her review of the film, by 1973 , ‘Audiences may have felt that they’d already had it with Elliot Gould; the young men who looked like him in 1971 have got cleaned up and barbered and turned into Mark Spitz. But it actually adds poignancy to the film that Gould himself is already an anachronism…Gould comes back with his best performance yet. It’s his movie.’ It certainly is. Next to M*A*S*H and Bob &Carol&Ted&Alice, it’s also become the one he’s most associated with.
The first few scenes in the film dazzle. The whole sequence with the cat at the beginning where Marlowe gets up to feed it, the cat jumping from counter, to fridge, and onto Marlowe’s shoulder is disarming and rather wondrous. Even those who don’t love cats will be charmed. But the scene also conveys quite a bit about who Marlowe is: someone lonely, who relies on cats for company; someone responsible and loving who cares that the cat is well fed and willing to go out in the middle of the night to buy the cat’s preferred brand; a good neighbour too, prepared to get the brownie mix the women next door ask for and unwilling to charge them for it: a gent or a chump? The choices Altman makes to show and tell us the story are constantly surprising, witty and wondrous on their own. See above, a minor example, that begins inside the apartment, showing us the city’s skyline, then the women, then the women in the city, before dollying down, something that looks like a peek at a little leg action before showing us, perfectly framed, Marlowe arriving in his vintage car.
In The Long Goodbye much is filmed through windows, which sometimes look onto something else, allowing action to happen on at least two planes. However the dominant use of this is to show the play of what’s happening between foreground and background, with the pane of glass, allowing partial sight of what’s beyond the glass and the reflection itself only partially showing what’s in front of it; and both together still only adding up to two partial views that don’t make a whole but which suggest there’s a background to things, and things themselves are but pale reflections of a greater underlying reality. You can see an example of this in the still above, from the the interrogation scene at the police station with the two way mirror. It’s a beautiful, expressive composition. According to Richard K. Ferncase, ‘the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is unlike the heavy chiaroscuro of traditional noir’. However, as evident in the still above, whilst it might be unlike, it certainly nods to and references it. In fact it’s part of a series of references: the gatekeeper who does imitations of James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Barbara Stanwyck etc; the way Marlowe lights matches a la Walter Neff, the hospital scene where it seems like the Invisible Man or Bogart before his plastic surgery in Dark Passage, etc.
This must be one of Vilmos Zsigmond’s greatest achievements as a cinematographer. Garret writes of how, ‘Altman accentuated the smog-drenched haze of his landscape by slightly overexposing, or ‘fogging’ the entire print.’ Ferncase admires the ‘diaphanous ozone of pastel hues, blue shadowns, and highlights of shimmering gossamer’ Zsigmond created by post-flashing the film. Zsigmond himself attributes this to a low budget: ‘We…flashed the film heavily, even more than we flashed it on McCabe. And the reason was basically because we didn’t have a big budget there for big lights and all that. So we were really very creative about how, with the little amount of equipment that we had, how we are going to do a movie in a professional way. A couple of things we invented on that movie — like flashing fifty per cent, which is way over the top. But by doing that we didn’t have to hardly use any lights when go from outside or inside and go outside again.’.
Robert Reed Altman notes how, ‘On Long Goodbye the camera never stopped moving. The minute the dolly stopped the camera started zooming. At the end of the zoom it would dolly and then it would zoom again, and it just kept moving. Why did he do it? Just to give the story a felling, a mood, to keep the audience an an edge’. Zsigmond describes how this came to be, ”On Images, when we wanted to have something strange going on, because the woman is crazy, we decided to do this thing — zooming and moving sideways. And zooming, and dollying sideways. Or zooming forward. What is missing? Up and down! So we had to be able to go up and down, dolly sideways, back and forth, and zoom in and out. Then we made The Long Goodbye and Robert said, ‘Remember that scene we shot in Images? Let’s shoot this movie all that way’.
They did. But it’s worth remarking that whilst Altman was happy to let actors improvise and to grab and use anything useful or interesting that happened to pass by the camera’s path (the funeral procession, the dogs fucking in Mexico, etc.), the use of the camera seems to me to be highly conscious and controlled. See the scene below when Marlowe brings Roger Wade (a magnificent Sterling Hayden, like wounded lion on its last legs) home to his wife.
In the scene above Marlowe has just brought Wade back home to his wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), who’d hired Marlowe to do just that. As Marlowe heads to the beach, note how they’re both filmed outside a window, Wade cornered into the left side of the frame, his wife on the right; the palm trees reflected on the glass but outside. Inside the house is dark, the conversation pointed. In the next shot we get closer to Wade but stil framed within frames, encased in his situation, with window shades acting like bars behind him. In the third shot, we get closer to where the first shot was but Wade seems even murkier, hidden. When Eileen says ‘milk, is that what you really want,’ The camera zooms in, first on him, then her, then him, and as he walks over to her, we see Marlow behind a second window in the back. So we are seeing a domestic scene through a window, sunny California reflected in the palms in front, in the surf behind, something dark happening inside the house, and Marlow, pondering outside, for the moment their plaything, and playing on the surf behind, seen through two sets of glass. Much of the scene will be played like that until Wade goes to join Marlowe outside. Brilliantly evocative images, vey expressive of the characters, their situation and their dynamic, and they seem to me to be perfectly controlled to express just that. In fact that series of images evoke what the film’s about (see below)
The scene where the Wades and Marlowe are gathered together for the first time, rhymes with their last one. This time it’s Marlowe and Eileen who talk, and the discussion is about the husband, who as the camera zooms past Eileen and Marlowe’s conversation, and through the window, we see heading, fully dressed, into the ocean. The camera cuts to them from the outside, once more seeing through a window, but the darkness is on the outside now, and we don’t hear what they’re saying. What we hear now is the sounds of night on the beach — the waves, the surf — , and what we see, clearly and without mediation is Wade letting the surf engulf him. It’s a perfect riposte to the first scene, taking elements of the same style, but accentuating different ones — analogous to the way the film uses ‘The Long Goodbye’ song but in completely different arrangements as the film unfolds –, and creating a series of images that remain beautiful and startling in themselves but beautifully express what’s going on, what’s led to this. Had I extended the scene longer, you’d be able to see Eileen and Marlow also engulfed by the sea, the Doberman prancing by the shore, and that indelible image of the dog returning only with Wade’s walking stick. It’s great.
Schwarzenegger makes an uncredited appearance in The Long Goodbye, screaming for attention by flexing his tits, and looking considerably shorter than Elliot Gould. An interesting contrast between a characteristic leading man of the 70s and how what that represents gave way to Schwarzenegger’s dominance in the 80s and 90s, and what that in turn came to represent. But though this is a fun moment in the film, its also what I liked least about it: i.e. the stunt casting. Nina van Pallandt is beautiful and she’s ok. But think of what Faye Dunaway might have brought to the role. Director Mark Rydell as gangster Marty Augustine is also ok but imagine Joe Pesci. As to Jim Bouton, a former ballplayer and TV presenter as Terry Lennox, to say that he’s wooden is to praise too highly. There’s a place in in cinema for this type of casting– and a history of much success — but see what a talented pro like David Carradine brings to the prison scene — not to mention Sterling Hayden and Elliot Gould both so great — and imagine the dimensions skilled and talented actors might have brought to the movie The Long Goodbye is great in spite of, not because of, the casting of these small but important roles.
*The Vilmos Zsigmond and Robert Reed Altman quotes are taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s great book on Altman, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, New York, Knopg, 2009.
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.
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.
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?
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’.
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.
An atmospheric Western, almost a noir. Whilst watching it, I asked myself ‘is it still possible to watch Westerns today’? Here, ‘Indians’ are treated with more sympathy than usual. Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), with his lack of ethics and rampant desires, is the real villain of the piece. But we still see the natives as barbaric, anonymous, and vengefully mowing down beautiful blonde women with adorable babies. If one can put that to the side, and the film is unusual in giving the natives cause — this is a retaliation — or abstract it into symbolism that can stand for something else, Canyon Passage offers deep pleasures of composition and lighting, a world where the sublime natural beauty of Oregon’s mountains, forests and rivers is at the same time a shadowy backdrop to all-too human failings: doubt, desire, greed, want, weakness. Dana Andrews, looking like a sourer version of Mel Gibson in his youth, plays the hero, Logan Stuart. Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) is who he ends up with. Brian Donlevy plays George Camrose, the genial but morally weak friend who keeps getting the hero in trouble. I’d never seen Hoagy Carmichael in colour before and he looks unusually handsome warbling his tunes. A very blond Lloyd Bridges is surprisingly lithe and sexy as a moral anchor of dubious reliability. Patricia Roc is Susan Haward’s rival for Dana’s affections. They all play a game of ‘want vs should’ in beautiful world so wild and densely forested that even the light that manages to seep through is itself the source of a shadows. It’s a world filled with danger, death, and in which moral dilemmas get played out in turn by each of the protagonists in ways that shape their fate. ‘. This can now be seen in a glisteningly gorgeous print on MUBI.
In an incisive introduction to Chris Fujiwarara´s excellent Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (London: McFarlane and Compnay, 1998), Martin Scorcese writes,
Tourneur was an artist of atmospheres. For many directors, an atmosphere is something that is ‘established´, setting the stage for the action to follow. For Tourneur it is the movie, and each of his films boasts a distinctive atmosphere, with a profound sensitivity to light and shadows, and a very unusual relationship between characters and environment — the way people move through space in Tourneur movies, the way they simply handle objects, is always special, different from other films….Canyon Passage (is) an example of the short-lived but very interesting sub-genre of the ´noir western´and a picture that´s very special to me. It´s one of the most mysterious and exquisite examples of the the western genre ever made. When you think of ´westerns´you immediately picture the plains or the desert , vast spaces that stretch on and for miles. But this film, Tourneur´s first in color, is set in a small town in the mountains of Oregon, and it is lush, green, muted, and rainy (one of the first scenes in the movie shows the cramped main street of Portland turned into a muddy bog by a downpour). Even the open spaces in this movie are just small clearings. If you study Canyon Passage carefully you´ll see that Tourneur constantly composes diagonally into small spaces, showing people walking up or down inclines, and it gives you the feeling that this is a real settler´s town….There are some beautiful set pieces in Canyon Passage like the Indian attack and the barnraising, but the overall tone is so carefully controlled that every small variation or nuance has an impact. That´s what makes Tourneur´s films so unsettling, this strange undercurrent that runs through every scene but that somehow enhances the dramatic impact of the whole film.
A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.
The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film, to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.
In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.
The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’
To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.
Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating? Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.
Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.
There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance. Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).
In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’
Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.
The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).
First meeting with Gloria
Earl’s a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.
In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.
Second Meeting with Gloria
One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.
There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky, my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.
In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.
The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:
Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.
The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”
It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.
I stumbled across Ray Donovan recently and quickly got hooked for many reasons. A key one was a reminder that one of the joys of such long form television is seeing great actors or stars from the past in real parts, parts that remind us of what they can do, why they became celebrated in the first place: I’d not seen Steven Bauer since Scarface. But here he is – a striking presence — as Avi, a former Israeli Mossad and part of Ray’s team. And then there’s also Jon Voight, in his mid-70s, getting one of the best roles of his life as the Donovan patriarch who ruins everything, for everybody, always. But with enough humour and zest to keep everyone from giving up on him entirely. Elliott Gould brings an aura of The Last Goodbye to the work. James Woods, showing the same charismatic life-force — a kind of gangsterism as sexual appetite — that he conveyed in so many films, but perhaps most famously in Once Upon a Time in America opposite De Niro.
Roseanna Arquette is one of the many tough but bruised blondes that grace this film. When Ann-Margret came on I didn’t quite recognise her. I thought who *is* this great actress, can it be? Yes, it is!; Grace Zabriskie’s also fab as an Armenian Godmother. It’s a showstopping performance, a number. She’s constantly drawing attention to what she’s doing, But she looks so fab and is so charismatic doing it that she makes you forget she’s playing really a clichéd and underwritten part. Then there’s also the many femme fatales who appear, of which perhaps the most striking is Katie Holmes, seemingly so recently from Dawson’s Creek.
Hank Azaria also appears in a recurring role, with that humorous sense of danger he displayed even as Robin William’s houseboy and maid of all things in Birdcage, as an FBI hot-shot who quickly slides down the ladder of success. It’s good to see Sherilyn Fenn, even if briefly, as Azaria’s wife. Whoever is the casting director for the show should get a prize. It’s like the show draws on the best of the 70s and 80s without ever stooping to evoking nostalgia for those decades.
What stops the casting from seeming a little like a Murder, She Wrote stuntcast nostalgiafest for a new generation is the themes, the tone, the care with which it’s all done. Ray Donovan — as the fixer who loves his wife, is close to his family — is not necessarily a new archetype. But as embodied by Liev Schreiber, tall, lean, silent, with the pointy nose and the chipmunk cheeks, completely recessive in speech but ready for violence. He’s first of all a marvellous image. But he’s also a great actor and the scenes between he and Paula Malcomson as his wife are so variegated and full of feeling that it hits at something real amidst all the stylishness.
Ray Donovan is a noir, and the wonderful thing about chiaroscuro is that it shows everything in half-light; things are complicated, there are nuances, there are exceptions, the light is a tendency that doesn’t cover or explain everything. Darkness can obscure the light just as light can make darkness recede. Also, that time between dusk and dawn offers a cover in which everyone from all walks of life, races and classes, can meet in the shadows, partake of the unacceptable, the shameful, the sordid, that also makes up part of life. But night is not necessary when that half-light can be created in rooms, by blinds, shades, shutters, confessionals.
At the heart of the series is sexual abuse, primarily, but not only by the Catholic church. Eddie Marson as Terry has had his hand deformed by it, Dash Mihok’s Bunchy Donovan has had his self-esteem destroyed. And Ray? Well the series goes on to tell us.
If I’m giving the impression of too much testosterone, let me qualify. The show was created by Ann Biderman, who was also show-runner for the first two seasons. It has one of the most intriguing lesbian characters I’ve yet seen: Katherine Moennig’s Lena, cool and sexy, prone to violence — particularly against women — loyal, ready for anything and capable of carrying it through. It’s a terrific character.
Last but not least amongst the enticements is that it has a terrific list of directors, including Michael Apted, but most enticing for me is the name of John Dahl, the director of all those memorable noirs (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) from the late 80s and early 90s. It’s an amazing combination of talents in really good material. I highly recommend.
A narratively crude but visually elegant French cop flick, Le tueur is a fatalist noir that doesn’t psychologise and doesn’t explain. It’s told very leanly through a series of chases and shootings, often filmed on location, and well evoking the seedy underbelly of the Pigalle of the period, with its porn films, sex shops, shady cons. It’s got one musical motif, very effectively deployed throughout the film (and not to be confused with the dreary theme song at the end that sings out the themes of the film to us), and perhaps over-uses the zoom so characteristic of the period. Change is one of its themes, and we see it not only in the narrative conflict between old and new styles of policing but also in the film’s use of landscape and location. Le tueur is a document of Paris in the process of change, with the building sites that would become the Tour Montparnasse and the Forum des Halles used prominently and effectively.
Commissaire Le Guen (Jean Gabin) has spent seven years of his life catching ruthless killer Georges Gassot (Fabio Testi) only to find him judged mentally imbalanced and locked up in relative comfort. As the film begins Gassot, fakes his way through several tests and fights his way out of captivity. His brother François (Jacques Richard)is waiting for him outside and drives him away to the relative safety of Marseilles. However, Gassot can’t keep himself from going out of his hideout and into the city’s red light area, where he hooks up with Gerda (Uschi Glas), a prostitute from Hamburg but also gets spotted and returns to Paris with Gerda. François Tellier (Bernard Blier) puts pressure on Le Guen to catch him as quickly as possible and Le Guen, after seeing several of his ploys fail and only three months from retirement, places Fredédo Babasch (Gérard Depardieu) in jail so as to befriend François, who’s been caught, and help capture Georges.
Almost a century of cinema greatness in twenty seconds: Gabin and Depardieu share a shot.
What’s unusual about Le tueur is that, as the title suggest, the protagonist is the killer. He’s not crazy but he’s ruthless. As the film begins we’re told that he’s fated to have bad luck. He knows it; even attempts to cut the bad luck line out of his hand with a knife; all he dreams of, dreams he shares with Gerda, is to get a bit of money and run off to a hot country. But it is not to be.
Fabio Testi, is very handsome, very athletic, and very inexpressive. I found him perfect for the part. The film has Gabin, with watery grey/blue eyes that have seen everything and can hide as much as they reveal. His Le Guen is an old school strategist, not above trying to orchestrate events to get the justice he believes Gassot deserves and that the courts won’t grant him. There’s also Bertrand Blier as Le Guen’s boss, with his crushed hound dog face, every look an expression of disappointment and evocation that nothing good in the world will happen ever. In the last quarter of the film, Gérard Depardieu appears in one of his first roles, a live-wire whose every movement is energy, humour and hope. And in the middle, what they’re looking for, who they’re all chasing after is….a blank.
The world that this cypher, this bearer of bad luck, this dreamer who’s every attempt to realise that dream makes life more of a nightmare, is beautifully framed and lit for us by the great Claude Renoir in the Eastman colour that so vividly brings out certain blues and yellows and reds. Here, as is right, blue predominates. I’ve put a considerable selection of stills from the film, in chronological order, so you can appreciate, the compositions, the use of colour, the artful creation of this dark, blue, world that the film presents so well.
In spite of its cast and it’s look, the film has been accused of offering the same satisfactions as episodic television; a judgment I find harsh but understandable; how one appreciates this might depend on whether and how much one values lean spare storytelling and a relative lack of psychologising.