Monday, June 20, 2016

Return to France


Very excited to announce I'm coming back to France this September as the guest of the departmental Media Landes. To all my friends, old and new, in France, I hope you'll drop by and say hi.

Here's where I'll be:
- September 15 at the bookstore Words and Things in Boulogne-Billancourt
- September 16 at Tramway Bookstore in Lyon
- On 17 and 18 September at the Polar Festival organized by the departmental Media Landes
- September 20 at the bookstore Hirigoyen Bayonne
- September 21 at the library Tonnet Pau
- September 22 at the bookstore Campus Dax
- September 23 at the library of characters Mont-de-Marsan
- 24 and 25 September at the Polar Festival cabins in Bordeaux

Monday, June 13, 2016

THE BLACK CAT (1934)


I'm not a big fan of horror movies--old or new--which is not to say that I don't like them. My interests have simply always leaned more toward crime and noir. I'm tempted to say that this preference has something to do with an inclination toward realism ("realism" being distinct, of course, from reality), but I don't know. Maybe a better explanation is that horror movies, especially of an older vintage, are baroque and mythological in a way that crime narratives (usually) are not. To use a musical analogy: if horror movies are dark operas, then noirs are cocktail lounge torch songs. I'm more of a torch song kind of guy.

To return to my original point, though, I do appreciate horror films. The very baroque nature that ultimately pushes me away from them also interests me, particularity the more Expressionist works of the 20s and 30s.

One of my favorite of these films (maybe even my favorite, period) is Edgar G. Ulmer's THE BLACK CAT. The movie is famous for a few reasons. For one thing, it pairs the two great movie ghouls of the classic era, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which was the 1934 version of Jason vs. Freddy. Secondly, THE BLACK CAT is the only A-film ever directed by Ulmer, the great hero of Poverty Row artists. Lastly, it is a masterpiece of its kind. If it's not scary by 2016 standards--or, for that matter, by 1960 standards--it has elements that are still pretty weird and creepy. Let's briefly look at these things one by one.

1. Boris vs. Bela- The popularity of the Universal horror monsters is fascinating for the many ways it presaged geek culture today. Karloff was so famous he is billed here simply by his last name. When we think of Golden Age Hollywood we tend to marginalize the horror stars in favor of matinee idols like Gable or Cooper, but it's worth remembering that Boris and Bela were gigantic stars, icons of a geek culture that didn't officially exist yet. It's also worth noting that the culture they helped to spawn and popularize has had a longer life than the mainstream Americanism and cowboy ethos represented by All-Americans like Gable and Cooper.

Of the two, Karloff is by far the more fascinating screen presence. There's something innately goofy about Lugosi, an instinct toward ham that is entertaining without being particularly compelling. In this story he is positioned as the creepy sorta-good guy, which seems fitting. Karloff, on the other hand, is an incredible screen presence. Part of it is that, frankly, he was just a freaky looking dude. With a lanky muscular frame, jutting forehead and mouth, deep-set eyes and low rumble of a voice, he's just interesting to look at. The other part, however, is that he was a fine actor, restrained to a remarkable degree (especially when set against Lugosi).This is how you underplay your way to greatness.

2. Edgar G. Ulmer is best remembered as the Poverty Row artist who made the noir masterpiece DETOUR, as well as notable films like STRANGE ILLUSION, RUTHLESS, and THE NAKED DAWN. Here, for once in his career, he was working with a real budget and an established cast and all the power of a major studio behind him. (He was driven out of the big studios after this movie because he "stole" the wife of a studio boss's nephew.) Everything here is incredible from the gorgeously evocative art design of Charles D. Hall and crisp camera work of John Mescall to the sharply escalating editing of Ray Curtiss. All of it is brilliantly orchestrated by Ulmer into one of the best movies Universal made during the Golden Era. I love much of his Poverty Row work, but it is unmistakably sad to watch this film and wonder what kind of movies Ulmer would have made in the majors. Poverty Row's great gain was the majors' great loss.

3. Of course, all this horror movie hokum is pretty dated now but there's an important point to be made about old movies and the way we watch them. Old movies are, in a sense, time capsules before they are anything else. In other words, they are valuable because they are dated rather than because of it. You might as well say that cave drawings are dated. Old horror movies like THE BLACK CAT aren't scary, but they are instructive about what kinds of things used to scare people--which in turns helps to to make connections to the present. If this movie is no longer scary the way it was for people in 1934, it's still creepy in ways that are interesting. Karloff has an underground lair in the film where he keeps the carefully preserved bodies of dead women suspended in clear glass cases, a gallery of sex and death that is still jarring to behold. Later in the film he presides over a Satanic ritual that, although it lacks the kind of graphic nature that would mark such a scene today, is still surprising to see. The climax of the film is also shocking: Lugosi straps Karloff to a torture rack, strips him to the waist and proceeds to skin him alive in front of the screaming heroine. Again, these scenes are shot in such a way to avoid nudity and blood and gore, but the intent of the scenes is intact. This is some evil sick shit, proof that even in the more reserved and conservative era that gave birth to it, human beings were fascinated by the dark forces of human nature and the unseen.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Night And The Country: A History of the Rural Noir


At its inception, film noir was a genre of cities. From the rain-slicked streets of Los Angeles to the midnight sidewalks of New York, the big city first defined classic noir’s visual style and provided inspiration for its stories of lust and greed. In the classic era, urban spaces were as pivotal to noir as wide-open spaces were to the Western. One could see this just in the titles: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, CITY OF FEAR, CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS, CHICAGO SYNDICATE, CRY OF THE CITY, DARK CITY, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK, THE NAKED CITY, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. The primary components of the genre were perhaps best distilled in the title of a brilliant 1950 crime drama by the director Jules Dassin: NIGHT AND THE CITY

But what about noir’s country cousin, the rural noir? While the big city went to hell, what was happening in the heartland, down south, and out in the sticks?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. While most classic noir either ignored the countryside or presented it in an idealized form (something like Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 OUT OF THE PAST, for instance, is typical in this regard—it contrasts the peace of small town life to the innate corruption of the city), the rural noir sought to darken the picture. It wasn’t all Mom and apple pie out there in the woods.   

The rural noir had early progenitors in films like Fritz Lang’s 1936 FURY, which features Spencer Tracy as a city slicker terrorized by a small town lynch mob. Like FURY, many of these early films focused on city dwellers who, for one reason or another, trekked into the wilderness and found trouble waiting there for them. This storyline became a subgenre all by itself. Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) followed two buddies (Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien) on a fishing trip who give a ride to a third man (William Talman) only to discover that he’s a gun-wielding psychopath. Nicholas Ray’s films THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952) both featured troubled protagonists—respectively, a teen fugitive played by Farley Granger and a tormented cop played by Robert Ryan—who try to escape their problems by fleeing into the country. To one extent or another, however, these films were about how the  desire to transcend the complications of city life is thwarted when the simplicity offered by the country turns out to be a chimera.

As noir developed, some films began to present the country without its big-city contrast. These were rural noir in the truest sense. The first fully formed of these films was the haunting MOONRISE (1948). Directed by the legendary Frank Borzage (the first director to win a Best Director Oscar), it tells the story of Danny Hawkins, the disgraced son of a convicted murderer. Raised in shame, Danny grows up tormented by other kids—particularly Jerry Sykes, the spoiled son of the town’s banker. Years later, the adult Jerry Sykes (played by Lloyd Bridges) corners Danny (Dane Clark) in the shadowy woods behind a dance party and tells him to stay away from Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell) the pretty school teacher they both love. When Jerry makes one last crack about how Danny’s old man was a murderer, Danny lashes out. When he walks out of the woods a few moments later, he has more in common with his father than just a last name.



In MOONRISE we find the beginning of rural noir’s most resonant theme: the burden of kinship. More frequently than its urban counterpart, rural noir locates its stories in the tangled, and sometimes downright twisted, dynamics of family. For one thing, the protagonist in a rural noir is far more likely to have a family in the first place. Whereas the noir city is mostly made up of loners, in the noir countryside, characters are often bound to their families like prisoners on a chain gang. In Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), for instance, two young children are orphaned when their father goes to the gallows for murder and their mother is killed by their stepfather, a religious nutjob played with Satanic glee by Robert Mitchum. The film hews closely to the source novel by Davis Grubb not just in the plotting but in the simmering grotesquery of Grubb’s West Virginian vision. Familial obligation, as it so often is in the Southern Gothic literature that helped inspire rural noir, is largely a matter of children being made to pay for the sins of their parents.

Interestingly, this family theme only seems to have gained strength over the years. One of the best (and most underrated) noirs of the 1990s was 1993’s FLESH AND BONE, directed by Steve Kloves and starring Dennis Quaid as Arliss, a vending machine operator in Texas who lives a solitary life in an attempt to free himself from his oppressive father, a career criminal played by James Caan. When Arliss falls in love with the daughter (Meg Ryan) of a family that his father massacred years before, he is pulled into an almost biblical showdown with the old man. Past and present collide in a way that invokes the famous adage of William Faulkner (one of the guiding spirits of rural noir) that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The starkest expressions of this theme can be found in the two best rural noirs of recent years. Set in southern Arkansas, Jeff Nichols’s 2007 SHOTGUN STORIES stars Michael Shannon as Son Hayes, the bitter eldest brother of the Hayes clan, whose estranged father abandoned them long ago to begin another family. Uninvited to their father’s funeral, Hayes and his brothers crash the service and, in front of their father’s horrified second family, Son delivers a withering eulogy and incurs the wrath of his half-brothers. As petty slights steadily escalate to confrontations and then to violence, there are unmistakable echoes of Faulkner’s tortured families — particularly the brother versus brother drama of ABSALOM ABSALOM! — with the deeds of the (unseen) father echoing down through the years, condemning all his sons. We find another backwoods patriarch bequeathing misery to his children in Debra Granik’s adaptation of the brilliant Daniel Woodrell novel WINTER’S BONE. It tells the story of a pine knot-tough teenager named Ree Dolly (wonderfully played, in a star-making performance, by Jennifer Lawrence) trying to find her missing drug dealer father in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Masterfully adapting the Woodrell story, Granik deftly explores the crushing weight of poverty and, in the formidable figure of Ree Dolly, showcases the kind of marrow-deep grit required for a young woman to navigate a world of drugs and deception, a world founded on reflexive misogyny and trigger-quick violence.

Like any genre, of course, the rural noir can lapse into cliché. Just this winter, director Scott Cooper attempted a gritty look at rural poverty and drug abuse with his film OUT OF THE FURNACE. His story follows a steel worker (Christian Bale) in a dying Pennsylvania factory town who has to journey up into the Ramapo Mountains of northeastern New Jersey to look for his missing brother (Casey Affleck). Despite a strong cast, the script feels underdeveloped and the film itself lacks the lived-in quality of something like WINTER’S BONE or SHOTGUN STORIES. A character like Woody Harrelson’s vicious drug lord (the film’s villain), for instance, never expands past the point of being a vicious drug lord. Like so many rural noirs, OUT OF THE FURNACE wants to be a mediation on family, and on the causes and effects of violence, but the film ends up being a good example of how the genre can repeat itself to little lasting effect.

While something like OUT OF THE FURNACE may suffer from a comparison to its betters in the genre, it does further demonstrate how rural noir has become the de facto cinematic means of exploring the culture and conditions of America’s rural underclass. In today’s Hollywood, when fewer and fewer films can make it through the studio system and only slightly more can find financing through the ever-corporatized world of independent film, investigations of poverty and family hardship need something sexy to attract potential investors and, further down the line, audiences. The veneer of the crime film is that something sexy. Of course, given the news of rampant drug addiction and economic distress coming out of places like the Appalachians and the Ozarks, perhaps it’s not just a veneer after all. It was ever thus with film noir. Whether set in the city or the country, it’s always sought to tell the dark and disturbing truth.

  
Note: This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of MYSTERY SCENE.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Rebirth of TOO LATE FOR TEARS


The 1949 TOO LATE FOR TEARS was one of the first discoveries I made when I began my descent into the dark universe of film noir. I've written about the film several times: in my book THE BLIND ALLEY, in a tribute to Lizabeth Scott in the pages of MYSTERY SCENE magazine, and on this blog. The first conversation I ever had with film noir guru Eddie Muller was about this film. I have loved TOO LATE FOR TEARS for years.

All of which is to say that the resurrection of this long forgotten--and for all intents and purpose, this long lost--film noir is something that I regard as pretty close to a miracle.

The film itself is a bizarre creation. It was made by a producer (Hunt Stromberg) whose best--or at least most successful--days were behind him. It was a showcase for a star (Lizabeth Scott) whose career had never really taken off and would quickly come to an end. Its director (Byron Haskin) was talented but even today he remains widely unknown to all but the most hardcore movie geeks. The most successful person associated with the film was undoubtedly the writer Roy Huggins, who would go on to amass a legendary career in television. The most amazing thing about this list of talent is that all of these people, at one time or another, to one a degree or another, more or less disowned the film.

So how did an obscure cheapie come to be resurrected? Well, the easy answer is that the movie is a masterpiece that couldn't be denied. There are a few noirs that are as good as TOO LATE FOR TEARS but there aren't many that are better. The film is the finest moment not only of Lizabeth Scott, one of the greatest of all noir women, but also of her costar Dan Duryea, one of the greatest of all noir men. It is suspenseful, it is frequently laugh out loud funny, and it has depth and humanity. Scott and Duryea play a mismatched housewife and conman who attempt to get away with $60,000 in blackmail money, and their scenes together are some of the most entertaining moments you'll see in a film noir. I saw the film at Noir City Chicago a while back and it killed with the audience.

There is a more complicated answer to why this film has endured and it's a story that is well told on the brand new BluRay and DVD package that's just been released by Flicker Alley, in cooperation with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation. This package is a must have for any film noir fan. It contains a new digital version transferred from a new 35mm print of the film. For fans of the film who have made do with cheap digital versions based on scratched and faded prints, this package is a revelation. The set also includes new featurettes on the making of the film and on the story of its rescue and restoration. It contains interviews with folks like Eddie Muller, Kim Morgan, and Julie Kirgo, as well as feature commentary by Alan K. Rode, and an excellent essay by noir expert Brian Light.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about the future of cinema and the loss of film culture, but there are still miracles. The rebirth of TOO LATE FOR TEARS is one of those miracles.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

WARNING SHADOWS: HOME ALONE WITH CLASSIC CINEMA by Gary Giddins


I love a good collection of film essays. In particular, I like to curl up with the work of a single author, watching one mind as it travels through disparate works or genres or eras. As a kid, I was a Roger Ebert fanatic. I used to buy his huge Movie Annuals every year. (My mother: "Another one? Didn't you get one last year?" Me: "You don't understand.") As I got older, I discovered Pauline Kael and Peter Bogdanovich and Eddie Muller, revelations all.

My latest favorite is Gary Giddins' 2010 collection WARNING SHADOWS: HOME ALONE WITH CLASSIC CINEMA. The book has a brilliantly simple conceit. Giddins begins with an introduction that traces the development of cinema from the solitary experience of the earliest Edison nickelodeons to the Golden Age movie palaces to post-studio era multiplexes to the rise of home video and the DVD revolution. He stops just short of the latest earthquake in cinema distribution and exhibition, the era of digital streaming.

I'm glad that he stops at that point, because it allows the book that follows to focus almost exclusively on the act of watching classic cinema on DVD. As much as I think about film, I have to admit that I've never given much thought to the fact that I've seen more classics on DVD than any other format. Giddins--writing for outlets like The New York Sun, DGA Quarterly, and the Criterion Collection--is examining the films within their current context, as part of DVD packages like the Warner Bros. Signature Series which collects the work of a star like James Stewart or the Criterion Collection which assembles packages like THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN by Orson Welles. It's fascinating to consider these films not just as works of classic cinema (as if we were beaming ourselves into the past to watch them as part of a double feature at some long lost movie temple) but as works that exist largely as solitary home entertainments. Giddins has a particular insight into the way that this new context has affected the delicate charms of classic comedy. Chaplin and Keaton created movies to be seen by hundreds of people crammed together in the dark, their laughter a communal event. How haunting it is to see them play out in the relative silence of your living room.

The book itself covers a wide range of topics--from great directors (Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Bergman, ect.) to great stars (Crawford, Davis, Bogart, ect) to genres like the biopic, the musical, and the film noir. Giddins is a deft and daring guide down these well traveled roads. At a certain point, a reader needs a writer to reject the conventional views of artists and works. The way Giddins reframes something like the career of Alice Faye made me want to revisit her work. 

And really a reader couldn't ask for more from a collection of writing on film. Giddins writes about movies that are sixty, seventy, eighty years old and makes them fresh candidates for tonight's movie viewing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Introduction to KILL JOY/THE VIRGIN HUNTRESS


I'm extremely pleased to announce that I got to write the introduction for a new edition of two books by the godmother of noir Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Coming out on June 24th, the volume collects KILL JOY and THE VIRGIN HUNTRESS two excellent, if lesser known, Holding novels. For newcomers to Holding's work the book will be a nice intro to the two spheres--domestic noir and psycho noir--that she helped to shape in the forties and fifties. For readers who are already fans of her better known books like THE BLANK WALL and THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF it will be a welcome reminder of what makes her one of the greatest of all crime writers.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

ORSON WELLES VOLUME 3: ONE-MAN BAND by Simon Callow


This week I finished the third installment in Simon Callow's projected four volume biography of Orson Welles. If four books on one life seems like a lot, consider the life we're talking about. No matter one thinks about Welles or his work, one has to concede the point that the man packed a hell of a lot of living into his brief 70 years on earth.

Just consider this: Callow's new book covers the years 1948 to 1965. In that time, Welles worked on three continents (North America, Europe, and Africa), made five movies--three of which are masterpieces (TOUCH OF EVIL, THE TRIAL, FALSTAFF), mounted seven stage productions--two of which (MOBY DICK REHEARSED and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) are considered among the best work he did in the theater, and created five television productions--two of which (THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH and AROUND THE WORLD WITH ORSON WELLES) are thrilling experiments in the new medium. During this time he won the Palm d'Or (for his film of OTHELLO), the Peabody Award (for THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH) and the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance in the movie COMPULSION. During this time he became the hero of critics and directors of the French New Wave, the living embodiment of the film director as artist. 

It was also during this period, unfortunately, that he became enshrined in America as a big fat has-been. One of the reasons Welles makes for an endlessly fascinating biographical figure is that his triumphs were often greeted as failures and his artistic prime was regarded by many at the time as a self-destructive freefall.

The disjunction between Welles's artistic accomplishments and his professional woes is covered thoroughly by Callow in ONE-MAN BAND. Callow is a critical biographer, and one can feel his exasperation at some of Welles's more self-defeating behavior. Yet he never loses sight of the man. For instance, I've read a couple dozen books on Welles, but I don't think I've ever read anyone who better captured Welles's insecurity around the topic of acting. Perhaps because Callow is an actor himself, he is particularly well-attuned to Welles's fear of performance. We think of Orson Welles as being almost supernaturally confident and self-possessed, but as Callow makes clear he fretted his time upon the stage as much as any actor ever did.

Every biography about Welles has to contend with one core question: Was he a self-destructive failure or a misunderstood genius? Callow avoids an easy answer, but taken in whole this book's answer to that question would be "Both."

Welles was his own worst enemy, a "prisoner of his own personality" as Callow once put it in an interview. He worked in art forms like film and theater that require a lot of capital, yet he loathed the money men and found it impossible to kowtow to them. He was a tireless worker, but no one ever accused him of self-discipline. He was always open to inspiration, but that same openness could mean that his attention was fickle. His list of credits is beyond impressive, it's staggering; yet that same prodigious output was often seen by unsympathetic observers as flailing.

Indeed, one thing that Callow's tour through these years makes clear is the way that Welles's triumphs must have all seemed fleeting to the man himself. His greatest accomplishment of this period (and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of his career) was FALSTAFF. It's his masterpiece, but in America it was dismissed out of hand. Welles, Callow reports, was nearly driven to despair by this failure, a failure that came in the wake of the failure of brilliant TOUCH OF EVIL to rekindle his Hollywood career.

Still, Callow ends this volume on the triumph itself. Welles once said that FALSTAFF was the film he would offer up if he were told that one of his films might get him accepted into paradise. Callow ends his book by reporting that the movie "proved not to be a harbinger of anything; Welles sailed off in other directions. But not before he had secured his place in heaven."