Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Get thee to a newsstand to pick up the Fall issue of MYSTERY SCENE magazine, and check out my article on OUT OF THE PAST. The film is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, a good reason to explore how and why it has become perhaps the most beloved noir of them all.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
And here we have Suffering Saint Joan once more being led to the gallows. Joan Crawford spent most of her time in film noir enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In the thirties, she’d be a glamorous figure—a romantic icon on par (and often paired) with Gable. But by the late forties and early fifties when she made her transition into film noir, she was no longer anyone that the audience was supposed to want to emulate. She was there to suffer—either because of her own sins or because of fate itself. Either way, you knew things weren’t going to end well.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is an entry in the Tramp Sleeps Her Way To The Top subgenre of film noir. On paper, it might seem like this would be the most sexist of femme fatale offshoots. And, to be sure, there are sexist undertones to the whole affair. This movie tells the story of an unhappily married working-class woman named Ethel Whitehead. After she loses her child in an accident, Ethel leaves her husband and strikes out on her own. She gets a job modeling clothes at one of those places where a rich married man buys an outfit for the wife and tries to rent the model for himself. Ethel starts running through these guys, picking up dinner and some cash, until she can position herself to come into some real money. Eventually, this leads her into a relationship with some shady characters like George Castleman (David Brian) and Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Both of these guys have feelings for her, but she’s always working an angle. Soon enough, though, she underestimates one of them, and then pretty much everything goes to hell.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY and films like it have a structure that is one part cliché and one part Production Code mandate. Throughout the classic period of noir, ambition was treated with a mixture of admiration and distain, and ambitious women got it especially rough. A movie like this has a simple message: a woman is not supposed to leave her husband, no matter what, and certainly not because she wants a better life. She will invariably find that no such life exists, that only heartache and pain await her in the end.
These hoary old clichés went back to the earliest days of film, and by 1950 the Production Code had long since turned them into law. The woman who would use sex to get what she wants from men is a woman who must be punished.
What makes THE DAMNED DON’T CRY interesting is the way it does due diligence to the mandate for moral comeuppance while at the same time placing us in the corner of the beleaguered protagonist. This film would make a good companion piece to the 1956 WICKED AS THEY COME starring Arlene Dahl in a similar role. Both movies situate their damned and wicked women in dire economic circumstances and then watch as they try to fight their way out with the only weapon they have: sex. There’s a subversive element to both movies. Though both have obligatory punishment at the end, there’s no doubt whose side we’re on. It’s strange, really, how these films work. By the end, they’ve become tragedies of a certain noir hue.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is powered by Crawford’s performance. Here was a movie star. She can play it halting and sweet—as in the early scenes with her young son. And she can play it mean and dirty. The movie gives her a lot of lines that crackle, as when she sets one hapless suitor straight on his world view:
I know how you feel. You're a nice guy. But the world isn't for nice guys. You've got to kick and punch and belt your way up because nobody's going to give you a lift. You've got to do it yourself, because nobody cares about us except ourselves.
Crawford sells these lines with the combined weight of twenty years of playing scrappy working girls. Of course, she herself had lived a similar life. When she says this, you’re hearing the weight of her own life behind the words. Crawford helped, uncredited, on the script by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman, from the story by Gertrude Walker.
After this film there was more suffering to be done—in film noirs like SUDDEN FEAR or melodramas like AUTUMN LEAVES or Nicholas Ray’s gonzo western JOHNNY GUITAR—and beyond that lay the indignities of her late career horror movie roles. Here, though, you have her in something of her noir prime. We’re not supposed to like her, but we do. That was Suffering Saint Joan’s genius.
Monday, August 21, 2017
It’s easy to get in over your head when you’re only five foot two. Mickey Rooney found that out the hard way in the fifties. For much of the preceding decade he had been the chipper face of American optimism—the fast-talking little guy with the can do attitude. But Hollywood started to go dark around the time that Rooney’s star persona began to decline in public favor. Of course, the public would always like Mickey Rooney, but the postwar years coincided with the end of Rooney’s unnaturally long adolescence (only as he neared thirty years old did he age out of spunky teenager roles). He began taking on adult roles, and that meant occasional forays into Noir City. He made the excellent QUICKSAND in 1950, and then in 1954 he hit the jackpot with DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.
In the film, Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic and part-time race car driver. Without knowing it, Eddie’s caught the attention of a group of bank robbers led by Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). Norris needs a wheel man for a job he’s planning, a job which will require a driver of great skill. He dispatches his sexy girlfriend Barbara (Diane Foster) to seduce the little guy and talk him into helping them pull the job. Eddie balks at first, but he’s simply too in love with Barbara. He joins the gang for the bank heist.
What happens next is interesting. We might expect the bank job to go badly, or for Norris and his gang to stiff Eddie on the money, but the film makes a rather unexpected detour. The money, oddly enough for a film noir, isn’t really the sticking point here. The fallout and the violence that follows it are really over matters of love.
In QUICKSAND, Rooney played another mechanic who meets the wrong woman and ends up suffering for it, but in that film, he’s still got some spring in his step. Here, though, we find him playing a very different kind of role. Eddie Shannon is an odd little guy. The film uses none of the usual tricks to disguise the actor’s height. Everyone in the film, including Foster, towers over him. But the film uses his diminutive stature as a physical representation of his essential character. Shannon is quiet, even around his buddies at work, and Rooney is surprisingly effective as an introvert. Eddie Shannon is a lonely man, and the gang picks him out because he’s a lonely man.
This makes his relationship with Barbara all the more tense. What ratchets up the emotional stakes, though, are Barbra’s conflicted feelings about her assignment. She seduces the sad little mechanic, but it’s a seduction of the heart. The two don’t even share a kiss. They talk, and she invites Shannon to dream big dreams for the first time in his life. He falls in love, not lust. We get the sense this job would be easier on her if it was only physical. Dianne Foster didn’t make much of an impact in films before being relegated to television and then retiring in the mid-sixties, but make no mistake about it: she was a hell of an actress. Her performance here is topnotch.
The entire film is topnotch. The bank robbery, for instance, gains tension by staying in the car with the getaway driver. And the mad dash that follows the robbery, as Shannon and the robbers race down a twisted back road in order to get to the highway before roadblocks can be set up, is a nail-biting blend of back projection and stunt driving. This kind of thing was often done badly in older films (indeed, the first shots of this movie are a pretty poor display of sloppy back projection), but Shannon’s race through the desert is a fine piece of action direction.
The film was directed by Richard Quine and written by Quine and his frequent collaborator Blake Edwards (James Benson Nablo). Both Quine and Edwards started out as actors, and both usually specialized in comedy. This might explain the wealth of snappy lines in DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, as when Norris tells a drunk girl at a party, “Dear love, why don’t you go somewhere and pass out like a lady?” It doesn’t explain, though, the aura of heartbreak that hovers over the film. This is one of the saddest of noirs — the story of lonely man who’s taken for a sucker by a gang of sharks. Throughout, Quine directs with intelligence and restraint. The final scenes here, as Shannon confronts the woman he loves and finds out the awful truth about her and the handsome bank robber, are both exciting and tragic.
Richard Quine was himself a tragic case. A gifted director, his life was beset by misfortune. In 1945, his wife, actress Susan Peters, accidently shot and crippled herself in a hunting accident. As Peters fell into a deep depression, their marriage faltered and after they divorced in 1948, Peters got worse and in 1952 starved herself to death. Quine struggled to find his equilibrium. Working at Columbia he was confined mostly to comedies, though in 1954 he made both DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD and the excellent Fred McMurray/Kim Novak film PUSHOVER. During PUSHOVER, he had a brief but intense affair with Novak that ended with her leaving him at the altar. Quine eventually married actress Fran Jeffries, and directed a string of successful comedies, but he remained a fundamentally sad, troubled man. In 1989, he shot and killed himself in his home in Beverly Hills.
Rooney’s career continued its decline after this film, of course, and he never came close to reclaiming his box office mantle. Perhaps more importantly, he never really reclaimed his place in the culture. As the years have gone on, the Andy Hardy movies that made him an American symbol are more and more relics of the past. They have historical importance, of course, but I don’t get the sense that Mickey Rooney has had anything like the longevity of Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. A lot of kids still watch Temple. And every kid I know still loves the THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is just lucky that he got teamed so many times with Garland before she outgrew him.
All of which is to say that as Rooney’s big hits dim in the distance, there is more room to evaluate some of his later work. And his work in noir — particularly QUICKSAND and the 1951 musical noir THE STRIP — are very good. And one film, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD — might be the best thing he ever did.
Note: DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD will be showing next week at Noir City Chicago.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
I was pleased to be a recent guest on the podcast NOIR TALK. Host Haggai Elitzur and I discussed my profiles of Tom Neal and Peggie Castle, my adventures on book tours in France, what it's like to attended Noir City Chicago, and much more. Check it out here.
Friday, August 4, 2017
The website Book Scrolling has placed my novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET on its list of the Best Noir Novels of all time. While I'm dubious of lists of the all time greatest anything, I am absolutely gratified to be be included on any list that includes the likes of Cain, Hughes, Simenon, and Thompson. So a big thanks to the folks at Book Scrolling.
It's a funny thing to have HOCS included on this list when the book is currently out of print. As some people may know, the last publisher of HOCS, 280 Steps, went out of business not long ago. I could have immediately placed the book elsewhere, but I want to shop it around. I'm slow about these things, and I'm going to finish the current novel I'm working on so I can sell them as a pair, making the process even slower. I'm satisfied in my own mind that this is the smart way to go about the process of placing HOCS in its next home.
So I said all of that to say that I'm especially grateful to Book Scrolling for reminding people of my little book. HELL ON CHURCH STREET changed my life. It gave me a career in writing, it took me to France, and it has introduced me to many wonderful people. So I want to right by it. I'm glad it's still out there in the world making a little noise.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR is an amazing piece of art made all the more amazing by the fact that it doesn't really work. Of all of Chaplin's major films, it is the most disjointed, the one that least holds together as a unified production. Tellingly, after this film, he would struggle to find his footing in a world and an industry that kept changing.
And yet, paradoxically, few people would argue against the supposition that THE GREAT DICTATOR is one of Chaplin's most important works.
The film, of course, was Chaplin's courageous stand against Hitler and Nazism. Context is everything in appreciating the film today, so it is important to begin any discussion of THE GREAT DICTATOR by pointing out that when Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and financed the film, Hitler was at his zenith. America was officially neutral in the matter of the "war in Europe" and many Americans (more than we like to remember) supported Hitler's racist vision of the world, or, at the very least, thought that the Nazis should be of minimal concern to the US. When Chaplin released his film, then, he wasn't satirizing the biggest ghoul in our history books, the monster who has come to personify evil in the modern world. He was satirizing the Chancellor of Germany, a seemingly ridiculous little man, albeit a man whose ambitions were growing by the day and whose murderous rampage against the people of Europe had only just begun.
All of this makes THE GREAT DICTATOR a source of immense fascination today. Even more than most films, it is an historical document. It was never, ever, just a movie. This was the most famous movie star alive making a desperate plea to stop a rapidly unfolding tragedy.
Yet it is also, of course, just a movie. And as a movie, it is flawed. By this point, Chaplin had been directing movies for three decades and had done the bulk of his work in the teens and '20s. In the '30s, he had directed only two films: CITY LIGHTS (1931) and MODERN TIMES (1936). Now, those films are arguably his best works as a director, but by 1940 he was a long way from the time when he had dominated American film (or, really, world film). At his peak, he might well have been the biggest star that the movies ever produced, and he was as respected a director as any filmmaker alive, but he was also, in 1940, a middle-aged man who had become a star when movies themselves were just being formed, a director from a different era.
THE GREAT DICTATOR shows signs of his age. It is a curious mix of tones and styles, a fractured artistic statement. The comedy that we remember the film for is the broad satire of Hitler, with Chaplin playing "Adenoid Hynkel" as a preening buffoon spewing hate while he pours water down his pants. Much of the humor is big and simple, with the little dictator doing pratfalls or bumping his head. This tepid take on Hitler is, if you will forgive the comparison, somewhat akin to making fun of Donald Trump's hair. It has no bite, and it's not satirizing anything of consequence. At other times, however, the film's humor is darkly pointed, as in the scene where Nazi-like stormtroopers attempt to lynch a Jewish barber also played by Chaplin. Doing a lynching scene as slapstick is, to put it mildly, a tricky business. Yes, it's making fun of the hateful idiots with the rope, but the underlying reality of the scene is disturbing. Atrocities like this, as Chaplin well knew, were actually happening in countries across Europe and they had their analogue in the rampant racial violence in America.
All of this points to an uneasy balance of concerns for the filmmaker to juggle throughout THE GREAT DICTATOR. Chaplin, in his heart, was a vaudeville performer hustling for laughs (and, in a larger sense, for love). There's a scene where the little barber, in the midst of an anti-Semitic attack, gets bopped on the head and does a little wobbly shuffle up and down the sidewalk. This is the kind of gag that we've seen in Chaplin shorts, the enjoyment of which is based on our delight in the performer's fleet-footed dexterity. But that delight is impossible to reconcile with the actual setting of the action. It's as if Chaplin is stopping his dark satire of Nazism to say, "Aren't I still the cutest thing you ever saw?"
The most famous comic bit in the film is dictator's ballet with a bouncing inflated globe of the world. If some of the movie's slapstick is flatfooted (the sluggish opening scenes set in WWI seem to drag on), this scene showed that the old master was still able to create indelible images. There's something sweetly ridiculous in the mad little monster playing with the world, only to have it pop in his face when he gets too excited.
By the end, however, "sweetly ridiculous" isn't a tone Chaplin could bring himself to conclude with. Of course, the filmmaker didn't know the extent of Hitler's madness, nor could he have even conceived of the horrifying complicity of Hitler's people. But enough had transpired already that Chaplin chose to end his film by abandoning comedy altogether and giving the Jewish barber a lengthy speech of striking prescience and power.
He tells the Nuremberg-like rally:
"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed."
This passionate speech, deadly serious and delivered with blistering intensity by the actor, has no organic reason to be in the same movie with goofy pratfalls and old "he doesn't realize he's hanging upside down" gags, but it is, of course, the most important part of the film. This isn't Chaplin making fun of Hitler's mustache or overblown rhetorical style. This is Chaplin calling out Hilter for being a violent hatemonger. This is Chaplin begging the world not to tear itself apart.
THE GREAT DICTATOR, then, is the kind of movie that never really coheres into a unified whole. It's a collection of disparate elements: sight gags, social comedy, drama, and political commentary. It's also a statement by an aging star-director who still had some spring in his step and saw that he had a responsibility to speak out against the rapidly growing influence of an ideology that was marching the world toward disaster. It's not a perfect movie, but it is, in all the ways that really matter, a great film.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Noir City Chicago returns to the Music Box Theatre August 25th to August 31st. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode will be on hand to introduce an eclectic group of films that will center around this year's theme of "The Big Knockover." I love caper films so I'm especially excited by this year's selections which include classics like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, as well as lesser known (but equally excellent) heist flicks like PLUNDER ROAD and DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD. The latter film, in my opinion, is one of the great underrated noirs. Maybe I'll run a piece on it before it shows.
Here's a link to the Noir City Chicago 2017 schedule.