Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Good Man In A Bad Time: THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN


The 1951 crime flick THE RACKET is one of film noirs great misfires. Robert Mitchum stars as an honest cop trying to bring down vicious crime lord Robert Ryan, and with these two titans of noir squaring off against each other, the film should be a blast. Instead, its a disaster. Under the obsessive and erratic supervision of RKO studio chief Howard Hughes, the film was shot, reshot, and reshot again. The story changed every time Hughes changed his mind, which was almost daily. Burning through five directors and countless yards of film, Hughes managed to squeeze all the life out of what should have been a fun little gangster picture. The result, by pretty much any measure, is a mess.

Today, the only fun thing about THE RACKET is the opportunity to observe the interaction of the two stars who, together, define the opposite ends of film noirs emotional scale: Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. Mitchum was, of course, forever the king of cool, his breezy insouciance acquiring a kind of romantic sheen in classics like OUT OF THE PAST (1947). While Mitchums very lack of concern could occasionally curdle into a pathological absence of empathy (in films like THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER or CAPE FEAR), for the most part film noir positioned his detachment as something cool. When Lee Server wrote the definitive Mitchum biography, he snatched one of the actors great OUT OF THE PAST lines for his title: BABY, I DONT CARE

Robert Ryan, on the other hand, wasnt cool. He was hot. He rarely got to play the good guy, and he had even fewer chances to play romantic leads. He was noirs man on the edge. He specialized in playing desperation, bigotry, and psychosis (on one occasion he even played a vicious version of Howard Hughes himself). When he did get to portray the hero, in classics like THE SET-UP or ON DANGEROUS GROUND, he brought real fire and passion to his roles. Robert Ryan never played indifference onscreen. Detachment was never his thing. Good or bad, Robert Ryan always cared, baby.

In his wonderful new biography of the actor, THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones makes clear that Ryans onscreen passion was very much in keeping with his offscreen life. One of the most politically engaged actors of his era, Ryan charted his own course through some of Hollywoods darkest days, and along the way made himself into an enduring icon of film noir. With THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, we now have the kind of serious treatment which Ryan has always deserved.

Born into a well-to-do family in 1909, Robert Bushnell Ryan was raised on Chicagos north side. Jones reveals that Ryans father was a successful businessman who was deeply involved in the rough-and-tumble politics of the citys Democratic machine. Young Bob kept his eyes open, and although he would grow into a far more idealistic man than his father, he inherited a steel spine and a practical steak when it came to navigating choppy political waters.

Unfortunately, while he was still young, a series of tragedies struck his family that would shape his inner life for years to come. When he was still a child, his younger brother Jack died. His parents closed ranks around their surviving son, but Jones notes that they were Victorian people, reserved even with their own child; and as the years passed Bob learned to keep his own company. Even as an adult, even with those he loved the most, Jones reports, Ryan would remain a sealed envelope.

Bob had gone away to Dartmouth studying English in the hopes of being a playwright, and becoming a collegiate boxing champion in the meantime when tragedy struck again. First the stock market crashed, and the Ryan family fortune was wiped out. Not long after, a fire broke out on one of his fathers job sites, killing eleven men and delivering a blow the Ryan family business never recovered from. After graduating from school, Bob kicked around for a few years, scribbling away at his plays and working a variety of jobs, including a short stint as a male model and a failed attempt at gold prospecting in Montana. Out west he worked on a dude ranch and learned how to handle a horse (experience that would come in handy once he started making westerns). He was working as a sailor on the boat The City of New York, making runs between New York, and South Africa, when he learned that his father had died after being hit by a car. With this final family tragedy, Robert Ryan had to settle down and find a career.

He got into acting through the instigation of a friend. Jones quotes Ryan as saying, I never even thought of acting until I was twenty-eight. The first minute I got on the stage I thought, Bing! This is it.’” He quickly made his way to Hollywood and into the tutelage of the legendary acting coach Max Reinhart. Even more important for Ryan, at the Reinhardt School of the Theater he met an aspiring young actor named Jessica Cadwalader, who would shortly become his wife.

One of the main pleasures of THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN is the attention Jones pays to the fascinating figure of Jessica Ryan. The pacifist daughter of Quaker parents, Jessica was a serious and well-read woman who spurned the Hollywood social set in favor of political and intellectual pursuits. Soon after she married Ryan, she quit acting and devoted herself to writing mysteries (like THE MAN WHO ASKED WHY, 1945; and EXIT HARLEQUIN, 1947). After giving birth to two sons, she began to turn her attention to the field of childhood education. Around the time she gave birth to the Ryans third child, a daughter, she had already put plans into motion to open a progressive grade school in North Hollywood. The Oakwood School, as it would come to be called, became a passion for both Jessica and her husband.

Before that time came, however, the Ryans had to get through World War II. When the war broke out Bobs movie career was just taking off with a couple of roles that let him take off his shirt and show off his boxing skills. Jessica wasnt happy when he entered the Marine Corps as a drill instructor; although once the war ended and the Red Scare overtook Hollywood, Bobs military service would provide him with political cover from conservatives who didnt like his lefty politics.

The Red Scare, and the blacklist period that it birthed, features prominently in THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN for good reason. The book nicely situates Ryans film noir career in the rising turmoil of the postwar world. Ryan didnt make his first noir until 1947 the genres pivotal year when he starred in Jean Renoirs convoluted THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH opposite Joan Bennett. That same year he would make CROSSFIRE for Edward Dmytryk, opposite Robert Mitchum, and the following year he would star in the underrated Fred Zinnemann masterpiece ACT OF VIOLENCE. All three of these noir films cast Ryan as a violent (or potentially violent) ex-serviceman. By 1947, he was practically the onscreen face of what we now know as PTSD.

Of course, 1947 was also the same year the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to town. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization of Hollywood conservatives led by John Wayne, warned the committee against creeping communist influence in the movie industry. Congressional subpoenas were issued. A group of leftist filmmakers, dubbed the Hollywood Ten, refused to hand over names of other suspected communists and were sent to jail. When a group of liberals led by Humphrey Bogart flew to Washington to protest the congressional hearings, they faced a such a skewering in the press that they immediately backed down. A blacklist was instituted. Jack Warner went before the committee and boasted about firing a dozen suspected communist sympathizers at his studios. The other studios rushed to keep up.

For his part, Ryan had always made his political views clear. To coincide with the release of CROSSFIRE, hed already published articles in The Daily Worker denouncing anti-Semitism, and now that CROSSFIREs director (Edward Dmytryk) and producer (Adrian Scott) were serving time for refusing to testify before HUAC, Ryan appeared before the Jewish Labor Council, a group the government considered to have communist affiliations. He gave a speech at a Keep America Free rally organized by the Progressive Citizens of America and told the audience, We protest the threat to personal libertyrepresented by this police committee We demand, in the name of all Americans, that the House Committee on Un-American Activities be abolished, while there still remains the freedom to abolish it.

J.R. Jones nicely answers a question that has long perplexed astute observers of film noir. Namely, how did an outspoken liberal like Robert Ryan manage to keep from being blacklisted during the worst days of the Red Scare? Over the course of THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, Jones identifies three main factors in saving Ryans career. One, hed served in the military during the war, something that many of his outspoken political opposites (like John Wayne) couldnt claim. Two, he worked at RKO, which was run by Howard Hughes, and while Hughes was a rabid anticommunist, he was also a man utterly controlled by his own unfathomable whims. Hughes hung onto Robert Mitchum despite his infamous 1948 drug bust and Robert Ryan despite his lefty politics because, well, he liked them. Besides, as Jones also points out, Hughes had so sliced and diced the creative roster at RKO (while keeping a virtual harem of pretty starlets on the payroll) that Mitchum and Ryan were practically the only bankable male stars he had left.

The third factor that saved Ryans career is that he was willing to do some practical political maneuvering when the need arose. When Mitchum was serving a brief period in lockup after his marijuana bust, it was Ryan who took the starring role in Hughess litmus test project, I MARRIED A COMMUNIST (1949). A redbaiter that found Ryan duking it out with a gang of wicked commies, the movie flopped at the box office.

In later years Ryan could barely bring himself to mention the picture, Jones tells us, but while Ryan hated doing Hughess hammy propaganda piece, it helped save his job, and over the course of the late 1940s he managed to star in many of his best films. For director Fred Zinnemann he played a vengeful ex-serviceman stalking a fellow soldier in 1948s ACT OF VIOLENCE (a film which remains one of the greatest noirs that most people have never seen). For Max Ophüls, he played an insane misogynist millionaire (in the image of you know who) in the excellent 1949 noir CAUGHT.

And for Robert Wise, he made his greatest film, THE SET-UP (1949). Ryan stars as Stoker Thompson, a past-his-prime boxer heading into a bout with an up and coming fighter. The fight has been fixed, but Stokers managers dont tell him because they figure he cant win anyway. Brilliantly staged and shot, featuring the best fight sequence in classic film, THE SET-UP belongs in the upper echelon of noir films, and at its center, believable and human and tragic, is Robert Ryan giving the performance of his career.

He would give other terrific performances an obsessive cop in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951); a psycho in BEWARE MY LOVELY (1952); a millionaire double-crossed by his evil wife in INFERNO (1953) but Jones reveals that Ryans focus in the early 1950s turned more and more to the school that he had founded with Jessica. They launched the Oakwood School in 1951 as an integrated progressive grade school, and Jones quotes Jessica as saying that they made up their minds to call a spade a spade meaning calling progressive progressive, even though the word had lately become suspect. Jessica would be the driving force of the school, serving as president of the board and helping to write the curriculum. The Ryans sank their money and passion into the school (which is still operating today), and they considered its success their greatest professional accomplishment.

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Ryan stayed politically active. He gave speeches for the ACLU, the NAACP, and the United World Federalists. He co-founded the Hollywood chapter of the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1959, he co-starred in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, which starred and was produced by Harry Belafonte. It was one of Ryans finest films (and his last classic noir), and he and Belafonte would become lifelong friends. Through Belafonte, he would meet and become a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King.

In the late 1960s, Ryan had achieved the status of elder statesman in Hollywood but he didnt rest on his laurels. He stayed relevant in films like THE PROFESSIONALS (1966), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and THE WILD BUNCH (1969). In the early 1970s, filmmakers started tapping into his classic noir persona, and he starred in neo-noirs like René Clments David Goodis adaptation AND HOPE TO DIE (1972) and John Flynns Richard Stark adaptation THE OUTFIT (1973). Appearing on Broadway, he was a mentor to up-and-coming actors such as Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges, and his final triumph was on the stage, in a heralded production of THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973).

Jessica was diagnosed with cancer in 1972 and died only ten days later. Ryan was devastated, but he tried to carry on. He threw himself into working (and drinking), but he would die just a little over a year later, in July of 1973. Following his death, Pete Hamill would write a striking tribute to Ryan, calling him a good man in a bad time. By the time J.R. Jones closes out his masterful biography of the actor, the reader can only agree.


 Note: This piece originally appeared at THE LIFE SENTENCE

Thursday, June 30, 2016

THE STUDENT NURSES (1970)


I've always felt that there was a kinship between the film noir of the 40s and 50s and the exploitation movies of the 60s and 70s.  This is not to say that noir gave birth to exploitation--there were already exploitation movies in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, usually of the "hygiene movie" or "vice film" variety--that were the direct precursors of the 70s skin flicks. Still, in a lot of ways the low budget B-movie noir has a similar ethos to the exploitation movies that followed it. Both usually centered on crime, both trafficked in open appeals to sex and violence, and both were innately subversive.

The other night I got to see one of the real gems of 70s exploitation when the indispensable Northwest Chicago Film Society showed a rare print of Stephanie Rothman's THE STUDENT NURSES in their summer series. Produced by Roger Corman, the film follows four student nurses as they attempt to navigate various personal and professional crises on their way to graduation day. The film is famous today because of its unmistakable feminist and radical storylines. Here's a cheap would-be "sexy nurse" movie in which one of the heroines gets a still-illegal-at-the-time onscreen abortion while another gets involved with Mexican urban guerrillas. This is not just another skin flick. 

I have to admit that I straight-up loved this movie. It's a wonderfully weird hybrid of subversive art film and cheapie exploitation film. Rothman was required to meet certain quotas of nudity and violence, but she does this paying-the-bills grunt work in interesting ways. The violence (all viscerally well done) mostly revolves around the urban guerrillas and is portrayed from their point of view, a stark contrast to mainstream cinema of the time, which largely used urban guerrillas as clay pigeons in cop movies. Here, when one of our heroines decides to use her medical knowledge to help her revolutionary friends, the choice is presented as being as legitimate as any other choice. 

The director's handling of nudity is equally interesting. First, she includes as many naked male bodies as female bodies, which negates the typical imbalance in virtually all cinema in which men retain power positions as clothed (and hence in control) while women are naked (and hence exposed and vulnerable). This also means that everyone in the film is sexualized, not just the women. Secondly, Rothman finds interesting ways to incorporate the nudity into the story, including a LSD drug trip that is both a turning point in the plot and an important piece of character development. Another subplot in the story involves the relationship between one of the nurses and a patient. Given the fetish fixations of the sexy nurse subgenre of exploitation and porn, one would predict that this relationship will end in the nurse taking off her clothes, which, indeed, she does, but Rothman plays the scene for pathos rather than titillation. We know the patient is dying, and the scene is less about sex (they don't have sex, actually) and more about human connection.

I also should say a word about the abortion subplot, which is the element that makes the film the most transgressive to this day.  Most films dealing with "unwed" mothers--including the crisis pregnancy noirs I wrote about in my piece "Women In Trouble" for Noir City--resulted in the death of the young woman, a de facto way of punishing her for her transgression. (The unwed fathers in these cases, it almost goes without saying, rarely died.) Not only does the young woman here live, but chooses to have an illegal abortion (after first being unable to secure a legal procedure). The abortion is shown here (not graphically), at a time when even mentioning abortion was extremely rare onscreen. Thus, this goofy exploitation movie is one of the first films to deal with abortion from a feminist perspective in a way that doesn't punish the young woman.

I won't make the claim that THE STUDENT NURSES is great art. It's got its share of wooden performances and budgetary shortcuts, clunky lines and awkward staging. What I will say, however, is that it's far closer to great art than it is to a real bottom-barrel tits-and-ass exploitation movie like 1969's THE BABYSITTER. It's an inventive, fun, subversive time capsule from a director who was given the materials to make a film with themes that were important to her, exploring perspectives never would have been allowed in the mainstream, perspectives that still rarely make it to the screen today.

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.