Friday, July 7, 2017
Hey New York City,
I'll be at the Bryant Park Reading Room on Monday July 17th at 12:30 to discuss my book THE BLIND ALLEY. Author Scott Adlerberg, the host of the Reel Talks program , and I are going to talk all things noir, so if you can make it, I hope you'll come by and say hello.
Friday, June 30, 2017
This month The Gene Siskel Film Center, an adjunct of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been hosting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It's been a thrilling line up of classics from the greatest director of French film noir: BOB LE FLAMBEUR, LE SAMOURAI, LE CERCLE ROUGE, LE DOULOS, UN FLIC, and more. (My only regret is that they didn't show the Simenon adaptation MAGNET OF DOOM.) I've been to most showings, and the highlight for me has been a film that was new to me, LEON MORIN, PRETRE (sometimes called LEON THE PRIEST). I will write about this movie soon, because it was something of a revelation to me. I love Melville's gangster films, but this intense and deeply human look at the relationship between a communist and a priest during World War II instantly became my favorite of his films. I want to see LEON again before I write about it, though. It demands my extended contemplation.
Last night at the retrospective, I had a strikingly unique experience because the Siskel showed a Melville rarity, WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER (QUAND TU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE). Before the show, the programmer came out to tell us that there is no existing print of the film with English subtitles. Instead, they showed the film in French while an interpreter used a computer program to seamlessly project subtitles onscreen. I have to say that this gave the showing an interesting twist. The interpreter got a well-deserved round of applause at the end.
Given the relative obscurity of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER in English, I thought that I should make some notes on it for Melville fans who have not yet seen it.
The film tells the story of a postulate nun named Therese Voise (Juliette Greco) who is about to take her vows when she learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident. She leaves the convent to return home to care for her sister Denise (Irene Galter) and run the family bookstore and paper shop. At the same time, Denise meets a handsome boxer named Max Trivet (Philippe Lemarie). At first, Max appears to be a roguish charmer. When Denise isn't around, he hatches a scheme with a buddy, Biquet, who works as a bellboy at a fancy hotel, to angle for the attention (and money) of rich Mme. Faugeret. Then Max sneaks into Mme. Faugeret's room at night and seduces her--and I use the word "seduces" advisedly here because although Mme. Faugeret seems to retain her agency, their confrontation is disturbingly close to a sexual assault. After this, Mme. Faugeret sort of adopts Max as a pet, but his character only seems increasingly sinister.
The turning point in the film comes when Denise unexpectedly runs into Max at the hotel and he rapes her in Mme. Faugeret's room. Distraught, the young woman attempts suicide. After she has recovered enough to tell Therese what has the happened, the older sister forces Max at gunpoint to marry Denise.
Every viewer's take on the film will probably depend a lot on how they view Therese's actions following her sister's assault. Melville was a poet of moral ambiguity. The plot of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER might make it sound like a melodrama (and, indeed, in some ways it is), but the director rarely overplays things (one exception to this is a scene where Therese's dress catches on fire, a scene that clobbers us with its metaphors). For the most part, the tone set in the opening scenes in the convent predominates, even when the guns, sex, and twists of fate start coming into play. Max is the wild id of the film--violent, greedy, narcissistic. When he confesses his love for the tightly wound Therese, it seems like just another scheme. Therese, on on the other hand, is the film's ego (the film's superego is probably the Catholic church), and she is the one whose actions we're most interested in. She despises Max for what he's done, so her decision to force him to marry Denise is shocking. Does she do it out of some archaic sense of propriety? Does she do it because, despite everything, her sister claims to love Max? Melville and Jacques Deval let these questions hang in the air.
The cast is excellent. Galter is winsome as Denise without making her too doe-eyed, and as Max, Lemarie gives a demonically charismatic performance that manages to veer between brutality and a weird kind of innocence. When he confesses his love for Therese, it almost seems plausible that he could mean it, that she has a mysterious pull on him. What makes this work is that Max stays Max. It's not as if his attraction to Therese somehow redeems him or makes him a good guy. It's just another facet of his character. Is the film a noir? It wasn't billed as such, but I think that even if you didn't know that Melville was the director, the noir ethos of the thing comes through in Max's character and the amorality of Lemarie's performance.
As Therese, Juliette Greco is masterfully controlled. Greco is best known as an iconic singer in France, a former lover of Miles Davis and drinking buddy of people like Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sarte. In this film, however, she was 26 and just starting out in her career. What she carried with her into the film was the weight of WWII, during which she'd been put in jail by Nazis and lost her mother, a member of the French Resistance. Greco would become famous for her intensity, and, indeed, the defining attribute of her performance here is the feeling of passions contained. She can convey the sense of sublimated emotion without giving the impression of a lack of emotion. All the characters in this film are tortured by passions they can't really comprehend, but Greco hints at great depths and intelligence. The way she tells Max, "May God punish you for the rest of your life and forgive you at the hour of your death" perfectly captures the Catholic restraint that dominates even her rage. Later, after Max has physically attacked her with a rock, only to instantly repent of his violence, she rubs her aching shoulder with a look of fascinating ambiguity on her face. The curse of Max for her isn't some hothouse sexuality or the misplaced idea that she can redeem him. It's that, in his horrible way, he makes her feel alive.
WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER demands more viewings. Since it is such an obscurity, I can only hope that someone will bring it out on DVD or BluRay sometime soon. It's a haunting film.
Monday, June 26, 2017
I'm in the new summer issue of NOIR CITY with a couple of different articles. First up is a look at Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA, an album that was both inspired by neonoir (like Terrence Malick's BADLANDS) and which would itself go on to inspire neonoir (like Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER). The album itself is about as noir as any piece of music ever made.
Next up is a look at the different film versions of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's brilliant 1947 novel THE BLANK WALL. This masterpiece inspired two incredible adaptations, Max Ophuls's THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) and the 2001 THE DEEP END, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee.
As always, there's a lot of great stuff in this issue, including the launch of a new regular feature called "The Dark Page" exploring contemporary crime fiction, written by a wordslinger who knows what the hell he's talking about, the great Eric Beetner.
Get your issue today by becoming a contributor to NOIR CITY.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
(above: Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood in WORKING GIRLS)
Tonight I got a chance to see the 1931 Dorothy Arzner rarity WORKING GIRLS courtesy of the Chicago Film Society. I went to see it, frankly, because I have been interested in seeing a Dorothy Arzner picture for a while. Arzner is famous today for being the only woman who was a major director in Hollywood's early days (her directing career lasted from the 20s into the early 40s), and also being the first out lesbian to command such a role. Her life and career have been chronicled in several books, notably DIRECTED BY DOROTHY ARZNER by Judith Mayne and BEHIND THE SCREEN: HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS SHAPED HOLLYWOOD 1910-1969 by William J. Mann. I've read quite a bit about her, but what none of the books could really to me is what kind of director she was. In other words, sure she's important, but how good was she?
I'm happy to report that WORKING GIRLS is hilarious. (The showing tonight was a rollicking success.) The film is a light comedy about two sisters, May and Dorothy Thorpe (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood) who move from Indiana to New York to find jobs. They take residence in a hotel for women with a strict policy on gentlemen callers, but they soon get into a series of relationships with, among others, a rich playboy (Charles Rogers) and a professor (Paul Lukas).
The movie was written by Zoe Akins, from the play BLIND MICE by Vera Caspary (the author of LAURA) and Winifred Lenihan, and the dialog throughout is sharp and funny. May and June are classic opposites, with May being emotional and daffy while June is a world-weary wiseass, and most of the laughs in the picture come from their interplay. The biggest laugh in the movie comes when June tells May, "Aw, you're just jealous because I know how to tell a fella 'yes' and 'no' at the same time."
Azner's handling of her actors is smart and sensual. She lets both Hall and Wood have libidos, and she also lets each character have her own response to her sexuality. Hall's romance with the playboy played by Rogers has real sexual heat to it, while Wood's relationship with the professor played by Lukas is sweet without being sappy.
This central cast is surrounded by a lot of snappy female characters. Dorothy Stickney as Loretta, the nosey doorkeeper at the women's hotel, is part busybody and part trusted confident to the Thorpe sisters, while the other girls at the hotel pop out in vivid character parts that are cheeky in a pre-Code kind of way. For instance, there's a running gag about one girl who's always spending the night with her "aunt" in Jersey. "You oughta meet a man like my aunt," she tells her friends.
There is, however, a serious subtext to all this frivolity, as these young women are forced to navigate a world with strictly prescribed gender roles. The scenes involving sex, including a scene late in the film that nods toward an unplanned pregnancy, are handled deftly, with sensitivity and nuance. While Azner and her editor, Jane Loring, never skimp on laughs, they're up to more than just good times here, and a lot of scenes do double duty as romantic comedy and social drama. Likewise, an early scene in which the ladies of the hotel throw a gender-bending dance party is both goofy fun and also a fascinating moment in the history of queer cinema, a secret hiding in plain sight.
Given Arzner's place in the history of early cinema there is a danger of entombing her in her own importance. Let WORKING GIRLS be a corrective to that inclination. Arzner deserves to be studied and researched, yes, but she also deserves to be watched. This movie is hell of a lot of fun.
(above: Dorothy Arzner)
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
In the new issue of MYSTERY SCENE, I interview Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller. We discuss his new show NOIR ALLEY on TCM, his work rescuing forgotten films, and the meaning of the word "classic."
On news stands now, check it out.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Director Tsai Ming-liang's 1997 feature THE RIVER took a few years to find its way to American audiences, only appearing in New York in mid-2001. It's kicked around on muddy home video ever since, but tonight I got to see a vibrant 35mm print of the film courtesy of the Chicago Film Society.
The film tells the story of a young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) who takes a quickie job on a film set, floating as a dead body in a filthy river for about a minute. Soon after that, he develops a mysterious pain in his neck. The pain gets progressively worse, until pain becomes the dominant force in his life.
We meet his parents. His father hangs out in bathhouses, seeking anonymous sex with young men. His mother is having an affair with a pornographer. They sleep in different rooms in their home. Tsai has an elliptical style that refuses to explain things to us. The isolation of these three people from one another is so complete that it takes us a while to link them to each other. I think it was nearly an hour into the film before I understood how the stories of these three people connected.
Many people read THE RIVER as an allegory about urban loneliness and isolation, or they read it as a political statement about environmental issues like pollution and public health. I don't disagree with these readings, and I think the film is smart enough and deep enough to support them.
For me, though, THE RIVER is about mostly about the body. We think of ourselves as distinct from our bodies when in fact we are not. (I say "my body" as if the implied "me" has some existence removed from the body which is thinking these words and typing them on a computer keyboard. I am nothing but a body.) THE RIVER is a film that unfolds with very little dialog. We are mostly watching bodies in motion, and those bodies, in one way or another are tending to their needs and desires. We see people eat, clean themselves, have sex, attempt to endure or alleviate pain. And we don't just see a bit of these things. These things are what the movie is about. (Tien Miao, as the father, gives a performance utterly devoid of self-consciousness: devouring bowels of food, pissing, masturbating. He surrenders his body to the director.)
When we meet Hsiao-Kang, he is young, healthy and handsome. He runs into a pretty girl he knows, and she's the one who takes him to the film set. After he's washed himself multiple times, complete with scrubbing his skin with a toothbrush, he and the girl have sex. Sex in this movie emerges suddenly, the body asserting itself without a connection to character or plot. The shocking sexual encounter that concludes the film has been read by some as a comment on character, and I suppose it must be, but I experienced it as a culmination of the film's emphasis on the body. Scene after scene has a physical manifestation. The characters debate no ideas, seem to have no thoughts. Life is reduced to the desires and needs of their bodies. The more Hsiao-Kang is consumed by pain, the less he seems connected to anything else. (It is fitting that his ailment is neck pain, which is as maddeningly indistinct as it is excruciatingly painful. If he was covered in sores, for instance, it would be grosser, but it would have less impact. This crippling pain in his neck seems to be inside of him. Which, indeed, it is.)
THE RIVER is the best film I've seen in a long time. It shows a director fully in command of his craft and fearless in the execution of his vision. Unsettling, terrifying, and even, at times, mordantly funny, it culminates in a perfectly ambiguous ending. It is a film to seek out.
Note: THE RIVER is something of a sequel to Tsai's first feature REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, which features Hsiao-Kang and his parents, though does not focus on them exclusively.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
I have to file a strong dissent on this one. While Nicholas Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is pretty much universally loved by critics and scholars of film noir, it’s a movie which has always left me cold.
The film starts strongly, with a much admired helicopter shot of three escaped convicts hightailing cross-country with a kidnapped motorist. They ditch their hostage and his car once it blows a tire, and they take off on foot. There are two older men — seasoned cons — and a much younger man, a kid named Bowie. The kid has a bum foot, so the older fugitives leave him behind a road sign and tell him they’ll send help. Once night has fallen, help arrives in the form of a girl named Keechie — the tomboy niece of one of the convicts. When the boy meets the girl it’s pretty much love at first sight.
These opening scenes all work. Bowie is played by Farley Granger — film noir’s resident misunderstood youth — and the convicts are played by Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen. That’s a killer trio by anyone’s estimation and all three are excellent — especially da Silva as a blustering, one-eyed mass of insecurity named Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley. One-Eye doesn’t much like that the papers use his nickname, which he resents. He likes it even less when they start referring to the kid as the leader of the gang.
If the movie had stayed with the conflicts between these three mismatched criminals, I probably would have enjoyed it. Alas, it doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the romance between Bowie and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and this is where it loses me. They fall for each other right away, have some discussions about their screwed-up childhoods — Bowie explaining how he wound up in jail for murder, Keechie expressing contempt for her degenerate drunk of a father — and then, in short order, they get married and take off for a honeymoon. Unfortunately for them, both the cops and Bowie’s convict buddies are hot on their trail.
Because the relationship between Granger and O’Donnell sits at the center of the story, how you feel about it determines how you feel about the film as a whole. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is essentially a juvenile delinquent romance utilizing the film language and tragic fatalism of noir to help it tell its story. There’s nothing wrong with that combination on paper, but the young lovers — Keechie in particular — have been softened considerably from Edward Anderson’s source novel, THEIVES LIKE US. The resulting romance is the same old soppy Hollywood melodrama full of soft-focused, dewy-eyed close-ups and page after page of yearning speechifying. And I’ll be honest, I just find O’Donnell to be a lot to handle. She’s a regular fixture in noir, but she’s usually cast as a dollop of creamy innocence. Her work here isn’t as syrupy as her turn in SIDE STREET, but it’s pretty bad. More than almost any other actor I can think of O’Donnell embodies the female-virgin ideal that one finds in a lot of movies from the forties and fifties. One of the great virtues of noir, however, is that you don’t usually have to spend much time with this kind of emotionally-stunted woman-child. One of the reasons that noir has emerged as the most durable genre of the classic era is that it doesn’t worship at the altar of sexless virtue, and Cathy O’Donnell always seemed to have wandered in from Louis B. Meyer’s imagination.
(The notable exception to the argument above is her work for William Wyler on dramas like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and DETECTIVE STORY, leading me to think that the fault rests with the writers and directors rather than O’Donnell herself.)
Stories of misunderstood youth were, of course, a specialty of Nicholas Ray. He directed KNOCK ON ANY DOOR in 1949 and then made the ultimate 50s teen rebellion flick, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in 1955. These films are interesting and important, but they’re also relics of their time in a way that Ray’s noirs of the same era (IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND) are not. His teen pictures are rendered campy by the movie conventions of their era, while the noir pictures still play for adults and still have an edge. The exception to this is THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (his debut film) which tries to have it both ways. There’s no denying that Ray broke ground in the area of onscreen youth angst with this material, and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is certainly an antecedent for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
But, god, is it soppy.