Movies work in mysterious ways. I was watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle last night, completely absorbed in the narrative, admiring the way Peter Yates slowly sketches in that corrupt world of small-time hoods tied to the local Irish mafia in Boston. A hard life of two bit gun runners and small time bank robbers who risk time in jail but for dough that can’t stretch to the plumber. As I watched, I wondered if the bank robberies in this film were the inspiration for those in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break.
There are beautiful things in the film, the scenes with Eddie (Robert Mitchum) and his wife Sheila (Helena Carrol) are superb and an example of how great stars can convey a whole other person and way of life through and not in spite of what their star personas already represent. When the wife says, ‘have you ever heard me complain?’ and his face crumples into her shoulder, one understand all there is to know about that relationship: they’ve been together a long time, there’s understanding and desire, still. This bond is about the only thing that’s right in his life, and he’s grateful. Mitchum is absolutely magnificent in what must be one of his greatest roles, paunchy now, weary, he’d done time and knows the score; he’s got the knuckles to prove it. But resigned too: it’s the life he’s chosen. Mitchum conveys all of this and more with that deep bored drawl of his and with minimal gestures. A deeply affecting performance.
…and yet. When we arrive at the moment that should be one of the most important in the film, the moment I’ve excerpted above, the film touched on an element of my childhood and my mind exploded into a series of memory madeleines. The scene is supposed to be about Mitchum admiring Bobby Orr, so young, already a great player and with all his future ahead of him. Whereas we know this hockey game is a pretext for his murder. Dillon (Peter Boyle) , who seems to be his best friend, the person who seems to really understand him, has invited him to this game so that he and his young friend can kill him on the way home.
It’s a pivotal scene in the film. And yet, as soon as I heard the name Bobby Orr, I was back to my childhood in Montreal, trading hockey cards, trying to get Bobby Orr’s. Names I haven’t remembered in thirty years came flooding back: Phil and Tony Esposito, Guy Lafleur. In the scene the Bruins are playing the Blackhawks, and the names of all those teams suddenly came to mind as well: the Leafs, the Rangers, the Red Wings. It sparked thoughts of winter and cozyness, street games and the Mt. Royal hockey rink; and even of spring, skipping school to attend the parade on St. Catherine street when the Canadiens won the Stanley cup, which in memory they seemed to do annually. It’s a series of nostalgic remembrances, very well evoked by the paintings of Carole Spandau (above), that seemed to rush to the fore and completely took me out of what seemed a great film, one with only moments left to go
A landmark noir with a superb opening sequence (see below): we see some men through their shadows reflected on a wall. They’re fighting. The only light source seems to be from a lamp and the light gets extinguished as it falls on the floor. For a moment we only hear sounds. Then the lamp gets turned on again but we only see a person below the waist. We follow that person’s feet and they reveal a body on the floor. The man searches its pockets. The first man grabs the other man, clearly drunk, and we see only their legs as they leave through the door. The camera then pans back to allow us to gaze on the body on the floor. There’s a dissolve and the body gets turned over to show us it’s now clearly a corpse with a man we will come to know as Captain Finley asking a woman, ‘Was Samuels drunk when you left him at the bar’?
It’s a great opening, all shadows, mystery, half-seen moments of violence. Who are these two men? What were they doing there? Which one is the killer? Why did he kill? These are questions the film sets up. They’ll be answered progressively and only fully at the end. In the meantime the world of the film is dramatically conveyed: darkness, violence, murder, mystery, murkyness. And it´s got a particular and particularly resonant context. These are all returning soldiers who have been demobbed but have yet to find their way home, in a liminal, transitory space, with many of them not yet adapted to a civilian context and some still processing trauma. The world created is a vivid one.
Crossfire is based on novel by Richard Brooks, The Brick Foxhole. In the novel the cause of the murder was homophobia. The film changes it to anti-Semitism, newly unacceptable after Auschwitz, and denunciations of which were then in vogue: Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, made the same year, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
According to Thomas Schatz in Boom or Bust:’ In 1947, Hollywood’s film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. Crossfire, for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject element of both the message picture and the police procedural:the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book (p.379)’.
What anti-semitism brings as motive and cause to a crime film and police procedural like Crossfire is that it´s particularly difficult to prove. Robert Young, nice, steady Robert Young — to my generation forever Marcus Welby MD– is top-billed but burdened with the thankless task of delivering the film´s message, offered in the most cringey and condescending way possible. According to Pauline Kael, ‘There are condescending little messages on the evils of race prejudice that make you squirm; this is the patina of 40s melodrama’. It´s difficult to disagree with the former but I´m not sure about the latter.
In many ways, the film is an archetypal noir: flashbacks that offer different perspectives on the action; unreliable narration, subjective camera on scenes evoking drunkenness that are all canted angles out of focus, and marvellous to see,;low-key lighting often deploying one source (see above). It´s got a great look from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt; and Dmytrik is wonderful at creating interesting compositions (see below):
…and at choosing just the right angles for maximum expressiveness, such as the way the film suggests the very real threat and power that Montgomery (Robert Ryan) represents (see below):
According to J.R. Jones in The Lives of Robert Ryan:´Dmytryk also chose his lenses to make Monty look increasingly crazed: at first his close-ups were shot with a fifty-millimeter lens, but this was reduced to forty, thirty-five, and ultimately twnty-five millimeter. ¨When the 25mm lens was used, Ryan´s face was also greased with cocoa butter,¨Dmytryk recalled, ¨the shiny skin, with every pore delineated, gave him a truly menacing appearance¨(p.59).
Crossfire is exciting to watch. But it´s also blunt and capable of great crudity — not just thematically, as in the homilies offered by Robert Young´s Finlay but also through it´s mise-en-scène. Note below how Ginny, the hooker marvellously played by Gloria Grahame is introduced via a dissolve of a trash can (see gif below)
Robert Ryan nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Gloria Grahame won for Best Supporting Actress. Sam Levene is the victim. George Cooper is Mitchell, the fall-guy. Robert Mitchum was clearly used just for box-office and is completely wasted.
The film was a B produced by Adrian Scott, later one of the Hollywood Ten. It´s box office success would launch Dore Schary from producing B´s at RKO into his running of MGM, still for while, the ‘Tiffany´s’ of the studio. It´s the product of progressive filmmakers then at RKO who wanted to make a difference (Schary, Scott, Dmytryk) and was praised for it´s worthyness. But it was also , one of a series of films that led to the famous saying, ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union.’
To say that it´s a landmark is not to say that it´s great.
I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?
In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).
Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations reads the way a gulp of smoke must feel like to a nicotine addict: a sensuous rush of sheer delight. Gardner sashays out of the pages of the book and into our consciousness like the Ava of our dreams: as cool and ravishing as her Kitty Collins in The Killers, a ‘sister under the mink’ to Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat; but with the weary sadness, good conscience, conflicted morality and dashed dreams usually attributed to the male heroes of noir. Peter Evans’ achievement is to give us the impression that we are hearing her at night — with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other — just before bed or in bed when she couldn’t sleep; as unguarded as she ever was to the closest of her friends who didn’t quite make the inner circle with whom she shared her heart: her sister and her maid.
The book tells two stories: Evans’ attempt to get a book out of Ava; and Ava’s own struggle to tell her story honestly but without revealing much or compromising anybody. As she tells Evans, ‘I’m broke baby. I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels’ (p.20). .
Part of the joy of the book is in hearing forties lingo from one of its savviest practitioners. “I’m a gal who likes to buy her own drinks’, she says, evoking a lost world of smoke and nightclubs with live bands, dashing millionaires and glamorous b-girls hovering by to hoover in some of that cash whilst underlining that she wasn’t one of them (p.12). Sinatra doesn’t drink, he ‘kisses the bottle’ (p.224). Ava doesn’t offer refreshments, she offers ‘Tea – or something else? I’m a something else kind of woman myself ’ (p.21). She makes it clear she’s only doing the book because she’s had a stroke, can no longer act, and, ‘if our book don’t replenish the larder, honey, dying’s going to be my only hope’ (p.22).
We get the bare outlines of her biography. She sums up her upbringing in the Depression with, ‘If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say’ with the last clause summoning up all those smart career girls of ‘30s films who were at the bottom of the economic ladder but knew their views were as informed and accurate as anybody’s: a sharp cookie with a hard past, a democrat’s outlook, and a moralist’s code of honour, however particular. They had a right to their say. And so does Ava, even if she doesn’t say as much as we want to hear.
Her career, making the cover of Time when it really meant something, all are lightly touched on, maybe because she saw herself as someone who had nothing to offer movies but her looks. In a way, it’s a pity that the book overvalues who she knew and who she slept with over what she did as any cinephile will appreciate how much her presence in movies meant for so long. But that’s been covered in other books and can be covered better still by future scholars. This is another kind of book.
What the conversations recounted here focus on is a particular definition of life: ‘Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are fucking up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face’ (p. 9). Luckily, Ava’s not afraid of telling us how she got at least some of her wrinkles; and most of the people she talks about come out looking better than they usually do in this type of book.
Of Mickey Rooney, her first husband, she remembers his energy, his sunny disposition and his ability to bounce back: ‘He always believed he had a sure thing for tomorrow… His relationship with his bookies was built on eternal optimism. He had a kind of cartoon resilience (p.160)’. She liked him enough to keep having sex with him even after they separated, ‘After all, we were still married and the sex was legal – and still pretty good, thank God’ (p.169). But ‘it’s a lonely business fucking someone you no longer love. Especially a husband,’ (p. 160). Nonetheless, after their divorce, she told him ‘You were the perfect first husband, Mick Rooney’ (p.245).
She then had an affair with Howard Hughes, one which lasted off and on for about twenty years. ‘It was a strange relationship. I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex – or to stop me from hitting him’ (p.252). She almost killed him once, ‘I hit him with an ashtray. I think it was onyx. Anyway, it was heavy. I practically had him laid out on a slab. We fought all the time but I nearly put a lily in his hand that night.’ (p. 235).
Her second husband was Artie Shaw, one of the most successful bandleaders of his day, a lefty who fought for Billy Holiday to sing with his band and a musician extraordinaire. He was also a bit of a bully. ‘He was always putting me down…(but) I owe Artie plenty. He made me get an education. We must say that in the book. Give the guy credit where credit’s due’ (p. 203). She was crazy about him; his intelligence, his success and most of all his music. ‘Artie played the clarinet the way Frank sang. They both knew how to bend a note, stretch a phrase. The could do that stuff better than anyone alive’ (p. 208). He was the only one of her husbands who left her: ‘He didn’t waste any time doing it either – that marriage had lasted just about a year when he called the cab on me’ (p. 245). The marriages to Mickey and Artie were easy come, easy go. ‘I called them my ‘starter husbands’! You only had to sneeze and you’d have missed both of them’ (p.31).
She didn’t sleep with everyone she had a crush on. Of John Huston, she remembers, ‘‘I fell for him at once…But he made a pass at me first. I was twenty-four, I had divorced Mickey Rooney after only a year, I’d had an affair with Howard Hughes, and I was in a mad marriage to Artie Shaw. I couldn’t blame him for thinking I’d be a pushover. He chased me around the bushes. I was as stewed as he was but I didn’t sleep with him …I don’t think many women said no to Johnny. He was a spoiled son of a bitch’ (p. 55).
But Huston is remembered with fondness, as is Robert Mitchum: ‘I was crazy about him. I know he was pretty gone on me, too. But the truth was – it still is—he was committed to his wife, Dorothy. She was a saint. She was devoted to him. I once proposed to him, kind of kidding on the square. He said, “It’s okay with me, baby. But you’ll have to clear it with Dorothy first”’ (226).
She’s got a soft spot for pirates, rascals, outsiders – those who get it on, get high and give authority the finger. She remembers Onassis as ‘a primitive with a yacht…For some ladies that’s an irresistible combination’ (p. 12) but ‘If he hadn’t had a dollar he could have snapped a lady’s garter anytime he liked’. She has affection even for ‘Mr. Limp Dick Brando’ (p.20), who got her mad for lying about sleeping with her. “I told him that if he really believed I’d ever jumped into the feathers with him, his brain had gone soft. He apologized. He said that his brain wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. He said, ‘Ithn’t that punithment enouth baby?’ she lisped, mocking Brando’s speech impediment. ‘That’s a funny line, isn’t it? How can you stay pissed with a guy who comes up with a line like that?’
Not everyone comes off well in the book. On George Raft ‘I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line’ (p. 207). On Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, ‘There was a lot of Iago in Peter,’ (p. 168). As to George C. Scott, ‘When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying – he’d beat the shit out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done. I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing,’ (p. 202).
The book comes to an end when she starts to speak about Sinatra. She remembers her first meeting with him, ‘‘I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table – Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex’ (p. 223). But even though she can’t act any more because she’s had a stroke, and even though the book is needed to make up the income she can no longer get from her acting, she can’t bring herself to say much more about Sinatra. And thus the book starts its end; thus why it was never published during the lifetimes of Gardner, Sinatra or indeed Peter Evans.She’d promised. ‘Bad’ girls sometimes have the best principles.
There’s a wonderful anecdote near the beginning where Ava asks Evans, who’d previously written a book on Aristotle Onassis, ‘‘Did Ari ever tell you his views on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – about the morality of broads who bargain with their pussies? He might have said ‘cunts’ I don’t remember. He probably said ‘cunts’,” (p.9). Ava was never one to go in for that kind of bargaining. She took what she wanted and paid the price: ‘‘The fucking you get for the fucking you got’ (p. 145).
In the end, and in her own words: ‘You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam’ (p.2).
A slim volume but one that packs in more phrases you’ll like to remember than much weightier tomes. A quick read but an essential one for all those interested in Ava, in noir films, in Classic Hollywood, in movies. Best experienced when listening to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP.