THE AMERICAN SOLDIER is not so much a pastiche of noir as a noirish dream incurred by watching American gangster films of the fifties and sixties.
The plot is basic: Ricky (Karl Scheydt), a German-American Vietnam Vet returns to Munich and is hired as a contract killer by three policemen. The whodunnit element is negligible. There is no suspense.
The psycho-sexual elements are heightened. It’s all songs and smoke, fedoras and phone booths, a romance of futility, of dark forbidden desires, laced with whiskey and ennui, that lead to death.
Your future’s all used up.
There are innumerable references to crime films, of which my favourite is the Dietrich ‘your future’s all used up’ scene from TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles, 1958). It’s full of personal references, not, I suspect, meant for a general audience: the prostitute who falls for Ricky played by Elga Sorbas is called Rosa von Praunheim, after the director who would soon release IT IS NOT THE HOMOSEXUAL WHO IS PERVERSE, BUT THE SOCIETY IN WHICH HE LIVES (1971). The film is self -referential. The nightclub the characters go to is the ‘Lola Montes’, just as in GODS OF THE PLAGUE(1970); Ricky goes to visit his old home, in front of which are railings exactly like the ones the characters of KATZLEMACHER sit on throughout much of that film.
Like in Almodóvar’s work, where a scene in one film is developed into the main plot of a later one, here we get a chambermaid (played by Margarethe von Trotta, the celebrated director) who comes into Ricky’s hotel room as he’s making love to Rosa, sits by the bed, and tells us the story of what will become ALI, FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) .
There’s luminous black and white cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann that adds to the incantatory quality in the film, and seen to advantage in this very beautiful restoration. The acting seems posey and theatrical, though that too adds a symbolic dream-like dimension to the drama. There are moments that seem awkward and amateurish. Some of the compositions seem well thought-through, others merely grabbed, but this too adds to the film’s dream logic. It’s less a pastiche than a dramatic rendering of personal fantasies and desires that are rendered vividly, sometimes even graphically, but remain inchoate. Murnau, Clark Gable and Batman are referenced. I loved it, though I don’t know if I would have had I not already been immersed in Fassbinder’s world.
A great noir, currently on MUBI, that brings to mind Crime & Punishment, Jean Valjean, Bresson’s Pickpocket and I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, among others. A petty thief and former pimp, now a banker, s forced back into a life of crime by the very police who are meant to uphold the law. The story is told in flashback, through voice-over; the setting is contemporary; the indictment of the culture in the final shot, brutal. Whilst a society of spectacle is obsessed with a football match our hero’s odds against tomorrow are nil. There’s no exit, he’s got no way out. He’s no good, but the structures of the culture are even worse. A great film.
The process of the video essay began with the film review for Rian Johnson’s film noir, Brick and was then furthered in the consecutive essay. The review attempted to convey the tones and narrative of the feature while bringing attention to various filmic elements such as cinematography and mise-en-scène. The essay builds upon this foundational text and conclusions on the main points of subjectivity and guilt take root. Despite, being devoid of literary sources, a fact rectified in the video essays development, the essay’s focus on the film allowed crucial understanding of Brick’s tactics and meanings. Moreover, the inclusion of close analysis marked the beginning of the structure to be seen within the final video essay itself as well as the identification of key elements such as music which go onto frame later arguments.
The video essay, as a combination of these past two texts with theory and close analysis to the film, attempts to convey the ways in which Johnson uses the genre of noir with the high school setting. Key to this is the way in which he utilises the idea of two worlds; the first being the surface banality of the ‘ordinary’ high school, and the second, highly stylised world of the noir. Assigned to these respective worlds are Brendan’s relationship with Emily, which uses the authentic tone of reality to garner empathy from the viewer, and ideas of immorality and crime. The video essay shows how Johnson uses conventions of the genre and camerawork to express Brendan’s feelings of guilt which allows the viewer to track the submeaning of his quest to “find the one who put her on the spot”, which, in this reading of the film, is Brendan himself.
The structure of the essay frames the points most important to the argument while allowing flow through film. Unlike words which have no corresponding signifiers, the video essay required words to be constructed around the visuals of the film. The introduction simply eases the viewer into the film, clarifying the features main ideas, styles and goals of the director. James Naremore’s summary of the iconography and devices of noir furthers the viewers knowledge as the essay mirrors examples on screen. A quote from ‘A Companion to Film Noir’ presents another side of the discourse on what noir is by noting the entity’s abstract nature that exists more in the discussion that in physical properties. The sequential opening analysis introduces the primary idea of the camera’s alignment to Brendan’s subjectivity while framing the secondary ‘noir world’ as the evil that killed Emily. The essay moves on to the idea of complementary worlds, something that was included to further Naremore’s examples, address reviews and to bring the argument neatly onto the topic of the Pin. Furthermore, an insert of a quote by Raymond Chandler, whose books massively influenced the noir genre, works nicely with Roger Ebert’s review of Brick as it displays how the tone has shifted from the urban city of the 40s, to a high school. The importance of addressing these reviews stems from the essay’s argument that Johnson is attempting to use the noir genre to his own ends, whereas the reviews allude to the notion that it is for that sake of gimmick and parody. The pin’s character, while not entirely to blame for Emily’s murder, comes to symbolise the noir world that certainly did play a part in said crime. As the part of the narrative concerned with the Pin climaxes, the noir style similarly increases, with a focus on the lighting in, and around the pin’s house. The essay uses this part in its narrative to again reinforce the ideas and effects of alignment within the film as well as Johnson’s use of it. Moreover, the character of the Pin takes the viewer to an example of Johnson’s portrayal of the idea that there are two worlds within Brick by showing the camera’s cut from the dark and stylised lighting of the basement to the light, playful setting of the kitchen with its entailing banality. Finishing the segment with a point on its world-oriented dialogue style, the essay begins upon the topic of lines and edges as an expansion on the idea of two worlds. The text, detailing the music used within the current point, is manipulated on the screen to exemplify the lines of which the narrator discusses. Shifting the essay’s focus from Brendan to Emily, the question of where does Emily belong in this system of worlds is brought to the foreground by the narrator. In this portion of the essay, the essay brings a focus to the main reason as to why a noir was set in a high school which was to utilise the familiar setting’s reserve of easily accessible empathy. While referencing, Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, the principle is displayed through the comparison in plots; rather than a political scheme or a jewelled bird, Brick’s focus is on the relationship between two schoolmates, something most people can relate to, and empathise with. The pronouncement of this empathy is then developed in the essay with the idea of guilt which is brought to the forefront through the analysis of Dode’s murder and the flashback. The quote by Paul Schrader is inserted here to strengthen the concept of Johnson’s manipulation of genre convention to the effect of generating emotion on and off the screen. The perspective of guilt is guided by the essay to its end with a summary of the place of the football pitch as a site that tracks Brendan’s story. The match shots that came before refresh the audience of his feelings of guilt. The final turn from Brendan conveys his acknowledgment of his complicity in Emily’s tragedy.
This work has three principle aims; to delineate a term in the canon of stereoscopic (3D) film studies which Spöhrer points out1 is a fledgling field and warrants investigation, secondly to link this term to the longstanding cinematic device of one point perspective, and finally to create an impression of how the director of Long Day’s Journey Into Night reveals an obsessive protagonist and how this ultimately links to the use of 3D.
The term is the Obsessive Perspective, which can be understood as Mulvey’s notion of the ‘gaze’2 and its potency when combined with an obsessed protagonist and one point perspective. Although this is not an essay on the male gaze, the notion of the male gaze is a fascinating pretext for this video essay which associates the way (often male) directors deploy one point perspective to channel an (often male) character’s psychological fixation on a singular goal into the audience’s viewpoint. I link this to the use of 3D in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
In Long Day’s Journey Into Night the philosophy of the sun, Buddhism, meshes with the genre of the night, film noir. It is intensely stylish and a beautiful modern restaging of the classical Hollywood noir, full of all the anxiety, eroticism, existential terror and rain-soaked nocturnal imagery that identifies the genre, applied to a new country, a new language and a new culture. But what makes Long Day exceptional is two things. A poetic wisdom to the way these elements combine to affect the audience. And a 59-minute shot stereo converted in post production to alluring 3D.
3D, which also creates artificial depth in a 2D medium as does perspective, creates the feeling of almost being able to touch the object in the frame3. I introduce this train of thought in the essay by invoking Jeong’s claim that 3D long takes are ‘not just a complete representation of reality, but a complete presentation of our being embedded in a represented reality’4. This chimes with the director’s intentions for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, being ‘the conjuration of fake three dimensional memories’5. The film clearly illustrates a psychological journey, full of intentional lapses in unities of space and time, that prevent any assumption we are watching a physical reality. For in this filmmaking intention, there is grounds to suggest that 3D in Long Day’s Journey Into Night activates a closer sense of viewing the perceived reality we live in than a by-standing Bazinian camera. A represented reality, as opposed to mere reality, is a subjective one, one which must by nature have a perspective, which in this case relates everything in the frame back to Wan Qiwen. Hence every texture and element of mise-en-scene which is heightened by 3D, an effect which mesmerised a mass audience in Avatar, is channelled back to that focal point of Wan Qiwen, at the centre of a psychological one point perspective even when the frame is not set up as a one point perspective with her in it.
Kogonada made clear the prevalence of one point perspective in the cinema of Stanley Kubrick, by cutting together over a hundred frames from his filmography6. But there is more than a filmmaking style to the way one point perspective has been used throughout cinematic history. This video essay draws upon the proclivity to use one point perspective in those moments where characters or their mental states are represented in a vortex. Spinning spirals, illusions and stereoscopic effects using vortexes that incur stereolepsis – seeing in 3D – were eventually omitted from the final cut of the video essay on the one hand because it drew time away from the important explanation of Luo’s psychological state but also because such effects are known to trigger seizures in some viewers. They are useful tools, however, to distort vision and make the same clip appear different afterwards, demonstrating the important point behind 3D’s significance in Long Day’s Journey Into Night that should you change the way you look at a thing, what you look at changes too.
This video essay ultimately left me with more questions as to the specific nature of watching a film in 3D. Since autostereograms and optical illusions possess such a capability to reshape the frame as your eyes perceive it7, those curious about 3D should look into its own inherent effects on the film experience. One of the more curious discoveries I made while researching for this video essay, for example, one of the central pieces of information that I find warrants an intrinsic investigation of 3D as a technology, was a neurological discovery made by Liuye Yao, not long after the release of the film, that indicates extended viewing of 3D movies triggers theta wave activity, which only ever appears elsewhere during REM sleep. The suggestion that 3D has a hypnotic nature here gains some credence. It shows there is some psychological utility to the technology beyond merely exciting our senses. And it reinforces this video essay’s presupposition that 3D was the right choice for invoking an obsessive man’s wandering odyssey into a dreamworld.
An insightful conversation on a film that’s difficult to grasp in terms of plot but which nonetheless offers us enough to have returned twice more to see it. In the podcast, we discuss the famous 59 minute tracking shot, how the film shifts gears narratively and stylistically; how the first half may deal with memory and the second with dreams; we talk of the film’s texture, how sound often works against image and how the images themselves are precise and controlled; we relate the film to noir (time, rain, vamps, fedoras, its evocation of BLADE RUNNER). We relate the film to the work of Jia Zhang Ke and Tsiai Ming Lang; and we talk of how it’s a film that may leave audiences initially puzzled but that seems to grow in their estimation as discussion unfolds. All this, and much, much more.
We continue to think aloud about Pedró Almodovar, this time focussing on Matador. Richard is ill so I am joined by Harry Russell to discuss the film. Some of the topics touched upon are the themes of sex and death, Spanish-ness and bullfighting, camp, masculinity, the classical structuring of the plot, the glossy production values, and why — whilst it is hugely entertaining — it might yet not be up to the heights of Almodóvar’s other work.
Whilst everyone’s wasting their breath over the various demerits of the new LORD OF THE RINGS or GAME OF THRONES TV shows, the best TV show I’ve seen this season is tucked away in Walter Presents on All 4: REDEMPTION (IO TE CERCHERÒ) is a noir/ crime thriller/ family melodrama about a disgraced cop, Valerio (Alessandro Gassman), fired from the force for corruption and cocaine possession, now pumping gas at a petrol station, who is told that his estranged son – a social rights activist working with migrants — has committed suicide. But, as his former lover tells him, things don’t add up. He’s finally convinced of foul play, and as he sets out to find out the truth about his son’s death, he finally gets to know his son as a human being and not just as an extension of himself. The more he digs, the more corruption he finds: African migrants cheated out of their council homes by gangs, drug enforcers in the service of ‘respectable’ serviceman laundering money through off-shore accounts, and a police force in the service of Big Business. Everyone’s implicated and his search finally leads him to his own family. A very moving thriller with lots of social commentary but fundamentally about families – biological and otherwise – father-son relationships…and the importance of justice. The setting is Rome, the look is noir, sometimes tinged with the duller hues of neon. What holds it all together is Gassman, in an extraordinary performance, mostly minimalist: a still face with eyes that don’t dare move much for fear of betraying what he really feels; a halo of sadness around his face; a tall, thin, wiry body, trained, moving fluidly and capable of quick bursts of violence; and an awkwardness and emotional restraint with the people he loves that also burst forth out of his isolation and into moments of great tenderness. Highly recommend.
Returning guest Celia joins us from Canada to discuss the 1970s Tyneside noir of Get Carter, a moody story of a man’s investigation into his brother’s death that’s today considered a classic of British cinema. We discuss its setting in Newcastle, Michael Caine’s stardom, the influence of its director, Mike Hodges, along with two other British directors, on Hollywood aethetics, its use of women, and more.
The latest in a long line of Batman reboots, The Batman claims the definite article for itself – and deserves to. Richly shot, dark, romantic expressiveness spilling from every frame, The Batman leans in hard on bringing the noir of the source material to the screen with unabashed sincerity. It’s the best Batman film of them all.
Deleted scene of Barry Keoghan’s character meeting Batman giving a clearer view of the Conrad Veidt makeup job
We explore 1947’s Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding, and compare it to Guillermo del Toro’s new adaptation of the material, which we find superior in almost every way. Mike in particular finds, in the reflection of Goulding’s version, useful ways to appreciate del Toro’s, which at first blush he found uninspiring. We discuss the portrayal and use of the geek, the differences in the introduction of the protagonist (played by Tyrone Power and Bradley Cooper in the old and new films respectively), del Toro’s greater focus on mood and scene setting, and how thoroughly Goulding’s film adheres to the noir genre. And we express our joy at seeing del Toro’s version at the grand reopening of the Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema, which we completely forgot to do in the last podcast.
We talk swoony visuals, alcoholism, a femme fatale pastiche, moral descent, Bradley Cooper’s sexual presence and more in our discussion of Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name.
We extend our thanks once more to the Taiwan Film & Audio-visual Institute for making these three Lin Tuan-Chiu films available. In this podcast we discuss Six Suspects, a 1965 mystery/noir that was never released. We discuss its peculiar flashback structure, the beauty of the imagery and composition in contrast to the other somewhat clunky aspects of narration, what the film tells us about the culture, its possible relation to Ozu in terms of compositions and to mid 60s Japanese Crime Drama in relation to look and style. A somewhat unsatisfying film that we nonetheless encourage people to see.
You Only Live Once is surely one of the great works of cinema. I had a discussion with a friend on Facebook about whether Fury was superior but I haven’t seen that for a decade. I remember I liked this more not for its sentimentality but for its sentiment. The thank you for loving me line is so beautiful, and frankly doesn’t seem excessive at all considering the circumstances.
Visually, it’s astonishing, with Lang’s typical control of camera and expressionist lighting that, particularly in the prison scenes, convey how Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is imprisoned not only physically but psychically. The play with sound and silence in last dinner scene in jail, so suspenseful and expressive. The frog scene is a superb instance of how editing functions with images and rhythm to allegorise feeling: that gorgeous bit with the water rippling and then concretising the moment as it stops, and then cutting at precise moments to evoke what the characters feel for each other. Gorgeous. And the performances by Silvia Sydney as Joan and Henry Fonda as Eddie are of great power and delicacy.
I wondered why with all its shadows, it’s darkness, the expressionist lighting etc. it isn’t counted amongst noir. My conclusion — apart from it being 30s –is that the couple here — surely two of the greatest performances in American cinema — are in love in an almost ideal way, no kink or deviancy — though theirs is clearly a relationship of the body as well as the mind. Heat of body as well as soul, but all in a socially-sanctified way. Also their ejection from the mainstream is a tragedy, not a chosen pathway due to confusion or trauma. Still as V.F. Perkins’ great piece on the film explains, even their relationship is more complex than evident at first glance:
I enclose the’ thank you for loving me ‘ scene here only because it’s so unusual an expression then and so current now. If I was only looking for great, I might have chosen the frog scene, or Fonda’s rejection of Sidney in jail. It’s a film of brilliant scenes, nothing is off. It’s a film I shall return to. In the meantime:
A pro-union, pulpy noir in 1957, not long after the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its height, is nothing to be sniffed at, even if its stance is to align union interests with business, and blame most of the bad things that happen on organised crime. The Garment Jungle dramatises the infiltration of the mob into New York’s Garment District with arguably surprising elegance, particularly considering its shaky production in which the first director, Robert Aldrich, was fired and replaced with Vincent Sherman. We discuss its significant use of location filming, implied – or otherwise – moral failings of its characters, Robert Loggia’s driven union organiser, the lack of quality of its dialogue and acting, and what appeal there is in it today, beyond an academic interest in the period. It has, after all, been lovingly restored as part of Columbia Noir #1, a six-film boxset – but we’re glad it has.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or on iTunes.
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 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 attitude to the ugly realities of life; and Eileen Brennan, who in the movies always seems 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: