Monday, February 23, 2015

Bezzerides, Faulkner, and Mysteries


I'm writing an introduction for the reissue of a couple of novels by the great AI Bezzerides and came across an interesting anecdote. In the early forties, he was the closest Hollywood friend of William Faulkner, who was slumming it at Warner Brothers for drinking money. After Faulkner left Hollywood, the two men rarely saw each other again, but Bezzerides did go spend a few weeks with Faulkner down in Mississippi in the early 50s. And with that set up, I'll let Bezzerides take it away:

"I remember one day walking with Faulkner over to the drugstore, where he was going to exchange a stack of mystery novels for a new stack. I asked him, 'Why do you read all these damn mysteries?' And he said, 'Bud, no matter what you write, it's a mystery of one kind or another.'"

A Quick Word about JUPITER ASCENDING

I went and saw JUPITER ASCENDING this weekend. It's a funny thing to go see a movie that is already a notorious flop because even as you're walking into the theater there seems to be an air of desperation about the whole affair. More on that in a second.

First, I guess I should address why I went and saw the movie at all. I'm one of those people who actually liked one of the other Wachowski flops, CLOUD ATLAS. I like how the Wachowskis are goofy and serious all at once. I like that they jumble up high and low ambitions at the same time. They haven't made a movie since the original MATRIX that wasn't messy in one way or another, but, to be honest, I've always been attracted to big ambitious messes. JUPITER ASCENDING has big ambitious mess written all over it--a space opera that lifts from CINDERELLA, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, SOYLENT GREEN, V: THE MINI-SERIES, and the story of Clytemnestra and her children. It's a movie that is as much about airborne battles among the skyscrapers of Chicago as it is about a hidden city in the red eye of Jupiter, as much about the costumes and set design as it is about the sprawling mythology of its back story. In short, it's the sort of bound-to-be-flawed-but-fun thing that I occasionally find myself in the mood for.

I like seeing flawed movies, too, because flaws can be instructional. For instance, both Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis are miscast in the movie. On the surface, this might be surprising. They're big good looking movie stars--so they should be right for a big good looking sci-fi epic. But Tatum is too light a performer to be an action star. His charisma is shallow--and I mean that in a good way, in the same way that someone like Gene Kelly had a shallow charisma. The problem is that action roles tend to dial down the surface charisma of an actor, and what has to take its place is whatever underlying gravitas the performer has. Action roles might be kinda dumb, in other words, but they're heavy. There is no heaviness to Channing Tatum. He's a light comedian at heart, a dancer who wants to charm the audience. When he dials down to action star mode, he disappears. Kunis has a similar problem. Her character has a classic fantasy arch--the poor girl who discovers one day that she's a princess (or, in this case, a domestic servant who discovers that she's the Queen of the Universe), but Kunis lacks the weight for either of these roles. She's too comfortable in her own skin--to comfortable in her relationship to the world around her--to be believable as an impoverished young woman who hates her life. Likewise, once she starts being thrown into incredible situations involving the possible inhalation of the entire human race, her temperature never seems to rise. Even when she's giving it all she's got in the big scenes here, the stakes just never seem that high to Mila Kunis. Again, the failure here is one of casting rather one of acting. Tatum and Kunis give workmanlike performances--they're just wrong for their parts. It's like asking a singer to hit a note out of their register.  

There's something I'd like to report about seeing JUPITER ASCENDING. As I said before, I saw it this weekend, which is well after it has proven to be a flop. (I saw it this weekend because I expect will disappear from theaters by next week.) I was surprised to find, however, a full and enthusiastic audience. Sitting through the screening of this movie as it played well to a full crowd on Saturday night, you would have had no idea that the movie was a bomb.

I was one of the people who enjoyed it. It was fun. It was beautiful to look at. Since it has lost a fortune at the box office, JUPITER ASCENDING will probably be the last time the Wachowskis are given 170 million dollars to make a space opera. I'm glad I got to see it on the big screen where the pageantry and action set pieces could take up a whole wall in the dark. It was worth my ten bucks.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Margaret Millar At 100: DO EVIL IN RETURN

This month marks the centennial of the great Margaret
Millar. At her peak, Millar was about as successful as a
mystery writer could be. She published 27 books, won the Edgar for best novel (twice), served as president of the Mystery Writers of America, and won the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement. Her fan base was so notoriously fervent it caused one critic to remark, “Millar doesn’t attract fans; she creates addicts.”

Check out my post over at Criminal Element on one of Millar's greatest works, the noir novel DO EVIL IN RETURN.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Lizabeth Scott: The Sad-Eyed Queen of Film Noir





(top: Liz Scott as sex siren in a publicity shot for Dead Reckoning; bottom: as the girl next door in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers)

Lizabeth Scott, the Queen of Film Noir, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 92.

As long as there are movie geeks, there will be a debate over who most deserves the title of Queen of Noir. Barbara Stanwyck is most often given the crown, followed by Marie Windsor, and occasionally Clare Trevor. I mean no disrespect when I say that as great as those women are, they are not the Queen. Neither is Audrey Totter, Ava Gardner, or Anne Savage. Each of these actors is invaluable. They are movie goddesses who will, in all likelihood, live on for years and years as silvery dreams projected in the dark. But there is only one Queen: Lizabeth Scott.


Why is she the Queen? Well, first of all, she starred in more noirs than nearly anyone. It depends on what you choose to label noir, but by my count Scott made at least twelve certifiable noirs. There are a handful of other films you might add to that count. Anyway you slice it, that’s a lot of time to spend in the City of Perpetual Darkness. Consider, too, the list of noir icons she worked with: Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Edmond O'Brien, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dick Powell, Raymond Burr, Van Heflin, Mary Astor, Jane Greer, Dennis O'Keeffe, and on and on. It seems like everyone who passed through Noirville stayed a night at Liz's house.

More important than the quantity of her work, however, is the quality of it. She could do everything--and did. Achingly lovely and unbelievably husky-voiced, most of the time there’s something wounded and likable about her. In her first noir (only her second film) THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS
 she’s the good girl to Stanwyck’s psycho femme fatale. She played the nice gal role well, and in films like DARK CITY and I WALK ALONE she soldiered on as sweet, brokenhearted nightclub singers. Occasionally, she was cast as a conniving vixen, as she was opposite Bogart in the awful DEAD RECKONING, but her best performances are marked by ambiguity. You can see this in STOLEN FACE where she gets to have it both ways, playing both the good girl and the bad girl.


To even better demonstrate this split, consider her two best films, both noir masterpieces: In TOO LATE FOR TEARS she plays a deeply human and deeply scary femme fatale who will stop at nothing to keep a bag full of money. In PITFALL she plays a good woman who gets involved with the wrong man and pays a heavy price.

The thing these roles had in common was Liz's weary humanity. Fragile, a little sad, and completely indestructible. That's Liz. That's the Queen.

Essential Queen Liz:
Too Late For Tears
Pitfall

Best of the Rest:
Stolen Face
Dark City
I Walk Alone
The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers


Other Scott Noirs:
Dead Reckoning
Two Of A Kind
The Racket
The Company She Keeps
Desert Fury
The Weapon

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Making of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

Cahiers du Cinema recently named THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER the number two movie of all time (behind CITIZEN KANE). The ranking, like all ranking of art, is beyond meaningless, but I am happy to see such a strange and beautiful film getting so much love and attention.

I wrote about the making of the film a few years ago for NOIR CITY. In particular, I focused on the often undervalued contributions of novelist Davis Grubb.

Here's a link to my essay "The Little Story of Right-Hand/Left-Hand." You'll be able to find this essay is my forthcoming essay collection THE BLIND ALLEY, set to drop March 11 2015 from Broken River Books.

Monday, January 26, 2015