Ruminations, Recommendations, and Restorations: TCM Film Festival, 2015

The full schedule is up and we are only a few days away.

Yes, THAT schedule. The one that we have been impatiently waiting for with bated breath since our teary goodbyes and final hugs of “see you next year” last spring.

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TCM FILM FESTIVAL IS ON LIKE TRON.

Last week, just before I left my house to join my colleagues and do some work for the Film Noir Foundation, I was alerted to the fact that the full schedule was up online and mine for the perusal. Getting that alert was Hell. On. Earth. There I was, rushing out the door, pushing my cats out of the way so that I could get on public transportation and make it to the lab on time, all the while knowing that the FULL LIST of films awaited me after my work was completed. But I love what I do and get completely entranced by it, whatever the particular job may be- print consultation, database research, repairing one of my own personal 16mm prints- so I almost forgot about it for that brief sliver of the day.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that film preservation isn’t an amazing gig. It’s the dream of a lifetime, especially working with the Film Noir Foundation. My gig with them is tops. So I got home and opened my computer. A multitude of Facebook “TCMFF 2015-what-I-am-seeing-lists” exploded after the schedule announcement. Some of them full of hard and fast absolutes, and others flexible but still completely booked-up in their calendars and planning their eating methods and what theaters they would be running back and forth from. All within less than 36 hours of the schedule being up online. My good pal (and excellent writer) Mr. Peel of Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liquor asked the reasonable question: “How can you all be so sure so fast?” The short answer for me was that I’m wasn’t. And, I’m still not. So this post, while a rumination on the schedule and a brainstorming, will also serve as a recommendation list. I am going to go through this year’s schedule selectively. I am only going to mention certain films. But I will likely mention more than I will be able to watch during the festival. And I’m going to look at them in a very particular manner. And here is why:

  • Along with several other worthy film fans and professionals, I have been asked by the TCM Film Festival to be part of a new program called the “Social Producers Team.” Each member of the team will be specializing in their own social media-thread or theme based on an aspect of the TCM Film Festival that they have proposed or that they are best at. For example: my theme/thread centers on film restorationpreservation, and rare films/discoveries. I made this my raison d’etre because (duh) I’m a film archivist and my aim (in life as well as at #TCMFF) is to raise more awareness, interest and understanding about film preservation. I hope to “stock up” those TCM social media channels with a better understanding and a great passion for this important part of the film world in addition to fun tidbits of specialized information that I can provide.
  • Due to my career specialization, my film interests and choices may seem a little “off,” even for a classic film fan. While many TCM-ites will jump at the chance to see a movie on its anniversary or a silent picture based upon a live orchestral arrangement (superfragalistically cool, no doubt), I feel that it’s actually my job to see the restorations that are programmed. And that is across the board- on every format, 35mm or DCP. And yes, sometimes that may include a more modern festival presentation like Apollo 13 (I haven’t decided on that though). This is one of the ways I am able to keep myself up to date on what my colleagues are doing, how technology is evolving and what works are being preserved and why. Watching a modern restoration and the work that has been done can assist an archivist’s work in any number of classic film preservations.
Eartha Kitten asks, "Why can't I go to the Film Festival tooooo?"

Eartha Kitten asks, “Why can’t I go to the Film Festival tooooo?”

  • My work as the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project Recipient at the Film Noir Foundation has allowed and given me special training and insight into the restoration and preservation processes of these films as well as a unique advantage as to the discussion of film noir and its cast of characters (both fiction and non-fiction) itself. So in the discussion of these films and recommendations, I will definitely use that training to guide (and suggest) audiences see these films. It is a huge chunk of my life.

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So now that we’ve gotten all of that out-of-the-way and you, my lovely reading public, know how I’m going to be recommending and dealing with these films, let’s get on with it, shall we? I’m gonna go by the TCM Festival Schedule if you wish to open that in a separate tab and follow along, and list day by day.

OH! Before I forget! I want to give a few shout-outs to my #TCMFF homies! So my TCMFF bestie is Dennis Cozzalio and if you don’t know him, well you should. His primary writing zone is Sergio Leone & The Infield-Fly Rule but he also has a fab new column called Fear of the Velvet Curtain over at one of my favorite sites ever invented, Trailers From Hell.  While he’s not part of the Social Producers Team, I always get super-stoked to get to go to the movies with him every year.

My pal Peter Avellino- mentioned in the very beginning? Check out Mr. Peel. You won’t be sorry.

Señor Dan Schindel. He makes amazing desserts, kicks ass at Cards Against Humanity, is one of the nicest & smartest humans, and I’m hoping that we can see some movies in the same vicinity. I know he writes for various publications. He tweets at @danschindel.

There’s more, but let’s get on to the movies, eh?

Thursday

3:00pm: The awesome and fantastic Bruce Goldstein from Film Forum in NYC is doing Trivia. If you are unaware, this man is really pretty rad. Guaranteed, he knows more than you do. I’ve seen him at my film archiving conferences and he’s a genuine badass. The time I got to hang out & chat with Norman Lloyd was when we were all at an event together. Am I gonna do trivia because I think I will win? OH HELL NO. I am positive that there are some of you out there who have memorized people’s entire filmographies much more thoroughly than I have. Do I wanna do it because it’s gonna be a hellovalotta fun? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT. Now accepting offers for teammates…..

5:00pm: TCM PARTY – schmooze! Wheeee!

6:45pm: TOO LATE FOR TEARS: even if I am not there seeing it, watch out for my thread- I will be posting allllll about it. The restoration and the story behind it is MINDBLOWING. If you like film noir and you miss this film, I will question your commitment to sparkle motion. I have seen it 5 times now, never get sick of it. The restoration was nothing short of a miracle and the film content itself is just thrilling. Even my MOM loved it. She said, “I wanna see more films like that!” when I took her to the LA Restoration premiere. DO NOT MISS. 

"Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart. "

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart. “

10:00pm: MY MAN GODFREY Pure and simple on this one, I’m a sucker for Powell and Lombard. I highly recommend BREAKER MORANT however, as Beresford is fantastic and seeing it on 35mm is going to be great. Plus, going with the historical theme, I don’t think you could get much better. So I may end up there. But for now, I’m thinking GODFREY.

Friday

First up- THE DAWN OF TECHNICOLOR David Pierce has done a great deal of writing on film preservation, silent film and archival topics. There is NO way I’m missing this. Technicolor is pretty much the coolest thing. You KNOW when you’re seeing Technicolor. This is one of the most thrilling things on the whole weekend for a n3rd like me. And in 35mm *and* HD? DUDE. I’m gonna be in a FRENZY when I get outta there…

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Alternative to g33k lecture of amazingness? THE SMILING LIEUTENANT  Ok, so if I wasn’t going to go do some Technicolor dorking out? I’d go and hang out with Ernst Lubitsch. I programmed this film in grad school as part of the film series I did at the New Beverly Cinema that celebrated archiving and 35mm. It played amazingly well and people loved it.  This falls under “rarities and discoveries” and is a fabulous way to start your day. Highly recommend!

Miriam Hopkins is a goddess.

Miriam Hopkins is a goddess.

The next section is a doozy:

Probably hitting THE PROUDEST REBELThis world-premiere restoration of a very rarely discussed Michael Curtiz film seems to hit a whole bunch of things I wanna check out. I’d like to see how Warner Bros did with this restoration and will be interested to hear David Ladd talk about his dad, Alan. For those of you not joining me there, I will make sure to set up a few notes to go out about REIGN OF TERROR because director Anthony Mann is The MAN. And you just can’t miss Norman Lloyd or John Alton’s cinematography. If you haven’t checked this out before…this is big screen French Revolution Noir. And yes- that *is* a thing.

I’m going to try to hit CHIMES AT MIDNIGHTalthough I feel it may be packed and difficult to get into. I have been wanting to see this since I was in my late teens-ish. So 20 years or so? The main draw for me, of course, aside from Welles, is to look at it critically and see what the visual quality is of this restoration is and perhaps look a little deeper into what elements were used to create this new digital version we are to see. If I do not get into CAM, I’ll go see THE CINCINNATI KID because I’ve never seen it and my grandma’s in it. No-brainer.

I will stomp Hollywood-Blvd-Superhero-people out of my way to make certain that I get to DON’T BET ON WOMENIt’s a restoration (points!!), it’s a rarity (major points!!) annnnnd it has Roland Young in it (OMGZ MAJOR POINTS!!!). It also has Anne Morra from MoMA in New York coming to talk and she’s a rock star curator. Great lady to hear. Edmund-Lowe-Jeanette-MacDonald-Roland-Young-Dont-Bet-On-Women-1931

Film Noir Alternative: RIFIFI – if you have not see this film, and you are looking for something to see during this time slot GO SEE RIFIFI. JUST TRUST ME. You will not be sorry. It needs to be seen on a big screen. It is delicious and exciting and everything that you could possibly want a film to be. It may be one of my very very very very favorite heist films of ever. And that’s saying….A LOT.

I’m going to see THE WAR GAMEI went to University in Kent, England and I would very much like to see how this banned doc looks at the place I went to school in, many years later. Also, my own personal work in 16mm educational films really made this one peak my curiosity as well, considering all the nominations and the subject matter. I think this film is going to be a “TCMFF Sleeper Success.”

And there ain’t NOTHING NO HOW that’s keeping me away from the midnight screening of BOOM!. I mean, come ON!!!

You can't keep me away from a film that has a hairpiece like this. NO WAY.

You can’t keep me away from a film that has a hairpiece like this. NO WAY.

Saturday

I am going to WHY BE GOOD? because I want to see the film of course but also because I *love* the Vitaphone Project and I want to see their restoration work on this! Can you imagine that this film, with Jean Harlow, Andy Devine and Colleen Moore may have never been found let alone restored? *shiver*

I highly recommend that folks go to the World Premiere of Warner Bros’ Restoration of 42ND STREETI love that film, Dick Powell & Ruby Keeler. But I will be likely trying to go for the rarity, SO DEAR TO MY HEART due to a love for Burl Ives, an obsession with Beulah Bondi and a serious interest in seeing what looks like it could be a very unusual work for Disney, even live-action/animation mixed.b70-64661

John Ford. AIR MAILThis was a rough choice due to the fact that I really wanted to go to MALCOLM X  in 35mm or what I believe will be an absolutely REMARKABLE restoration of 1776  done by Sony. I mean, they’re using unseen footage and the restoration is done from the original negative…I’ve always had such a great experience from Sony’s restorations. They really care about the FILM side of things even if it’s a 4K, so I’m a little bummed that the John Ford is up against 1776. But what can you do? Maybe I will change my mind.

You all need to go see THE PICTURE SHOW MAN.

Think of me like a doctor and that is my prescription. I have my own 16mm print of it and a poster of it from Hungary. It’s a GREAT movie. Those of you who do go, FIND ME DURING TCMFF and let me know what you think, okay?

It is at this point that I do a “wacky weird archivist thing” again- I highly advise that any/all/as many of you as possible go and check out the Hollywood Home Movies over at Club TCM at 6:00pm on Saturday. Lynne Kirste, one of the most amazing women that I’ve been lucky enough to get to know over the years in preservation, will be there showing you GREAT stuff. Ever thought about what Alfred Hitchcock did at home with the family? Ever considered what your fave stars might have been filming on vacation or when they had a BBQ? THIS AMAZING SESSION IS FOR YOU. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. And if you meet Lynne or Randy Haberkamp (also a SUPER rockstar!!) tell ’em I sent ya!!

During this next block on Saturday night, TCMFF decided to play three of my very favorite films right up against each other. And not just a teensy bit favorite, take-to-a-desert-island favorite.

So, what I’m saying is…if you wanna just go check out a movie, you can’t go wrong with FRENCH CONNECTION, ADAM’S RIB or THE LOVED ONE. But one a scale of 1 to rare? Go for THE LOVED ONEYou can just never see it enough and it’s goddamn brilliant. Gets more brilliant every time.

But you wanna get SUPER RARE? Like still moo-ing? Like ordering your steak blue??? Then I suggest where I’m going.

I will be smashing myself into a seat to watch hand-cranked films from the early 1900s. If you remember my writing series that I haven’t worked on in a while, I mentioned Lois Weber? They’re playing one of her films. I am SO excited about this one. The theme of history this year is just mind-blowing for me. Every year at #TCMFF has been good, but this one…wow. So yeah. I’ll be at the RETURN OF THE DREAM MACHINE: HAND-CRANKED FILMS FROM 1902-1913 if you need me.

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One of the most awesome people I know in archiving & preservation: Dino Everett, hand-cranking some film!!!

One of the most awesome people I know in archiving & preservation: Dino Everett, hand-cranking some film!!!

I’ve seen NOTHING LASTS FOREVER  on a big screen. But that’s exactly why Imna see it again. See y’all at midnight on Saturday, eh?

Sunday

So there’s a bunch of TBAs on here.

My basic plan is pretty stable. I have to see Patton because, well, 70mm and George C. Scott and I ain’t never seen the dang thing before and I’m a Scott-a-holic. Ever since FIRESTARTER. Yes, you read that correctly. The film I started loving him in was FIRESTARTER. Still like that film.d150-patton

I plan on providing PLENTY OF INFORMATION for everyone about NIGHTMARE ALLEYin my role as Social Producer. I’ve seen that film somewhere between 7-12 times in the theater and it’s one of my top 5 film noirs. If you have not seen it, but feel safe going into a movie blind, I highly recommend that. Tyrone Power has never been like that and the lady-love of my everything, Joan Blondell, is….well, you just gotta see it.

I’m an information specialist. If I don’t go see DESK SETI feel like the data management system gods will strike me dead the next time I try to call on them for help. Plus? I REALLY LOVE THAT FILM SO DAMN MUCH. Why are there no good movies about archivists or librarians anymore? Enough Said with James Gandolfini was pretty good but where are the rest? Representation, man!

Then its magic time. I’m a carnival and magic junkie. I’m hitting up the discovery, HOUDINI with Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh and then, the film I have been waiting for ever since it was announced, it’ll be time for THE GRIM GAME restoration. I am SUPREMELY excited about being able to report on the details, especially noting that this film’s restoration was a combined effort between a private collector and studio efforts. These are very interesting elements in any case but the fact that the film and its restoration became the thing of primary importance is fabulous.

See you in the seats! Check you on the Internetz!

Really excited to be going to TCMFF again this year and even more thrilled to be part of the Social Producers Team.

This is going to be a great year and I’m looking forward to celebrating film preservation, restoration and classic film with all you guys! Check you on the Blvd!

If you want to follow my TCMFF adventures and my Social Producer documentation, you can find me in the following places:

Twitter: @sinaphile

Tumblr: sinaphile.tumblr.com/

Instagram: @littletriggers

And I will have some public posts and pictures on my Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/sinaphile

The City of Dreadful Joy: NOIR CITY 16, Los Angeles – March 21st to April 6th, 2014

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Los Angeles, California: the landscape for a criminally high number of films noir and the premiere setting for an unwieldy number of hardboiled novels and crime fiction. Of this urban environment, Aldous Huxley once remarked, “Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy, and conversation is unknown.”

As a native Angelena, I quite like that my home has been labeled a “City of Dreadful Joy” and that any kind of exchange of words is somewhat mysterious. These elements (and other similarly toned descriptors) have always deeply connected me to crime fiction and its cinematic equivalent. Los Angeles has a long history with noir cinema. This film-based city and its highly urban-centered film genre/film cycle practically share genetic material. In other words, one thing would not be the same without the other.

Thusly, for a local such as me, it makes it even more exciting and appropriate when, once a year, Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation bring NOIR CITY to the City of the Angels and spend some time with us at the American Cinémathèque!

I’ve been going to this festival for YEARS. Some of my dearest and greatest film memories were created here. It was here where I decided that I wanted to be a film archivist. NOIR CITY Los Angeles is the location where I have seen the vast majority of the films that knocked me out to the point of me chatting about them for the remainder of the year, until the next fest came along! My genuine joy with the quality of the prints, the acting and the stories just overflows every year. And it has been a social/film community thing, too- NOIR CITY allows me to spend a healthy amount of time in one of my favorite LA theaters, getting to see people that only come out for this festival. The Film Noir Foundation has provided quite a bit up until this point in this manner- for me and all my friends and colleagues.

I’m also in a unique position this year. As many of you may be aware, I was honored by the Film Noir Foundation in January with an award that really only happens in a noir fan’s (and recently graduated archivist’s), greatest dreams: I became the first participant in the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project, meaning that I will be working with the FNF on their next restoration project. I don’t think I have to tell you how thrilled I am. It’s all I’ve ever wanted and more.

This brings a new layer to attending this year’s NOIR CITY Los Angeles for me. It’s my home festival! For those of you in Los Angeles who may have not had the chance to go to NOIR CITY before, or may not have considered it, I would ask you to join me. Not just because it truly is one of the best film festivals, but also so that you may see what it is that I am completely and totally head-over-heels in love with, and have dedicated my life to preserving. These are incredibly special and wonderful pieces of cinema. I would love to spend some time with you experiencing these films and reveling in the dark. Shall we do so?

Last thing I will say before I go into the films themselves: since I have been to the festival quite a bit before- I have to say that this year in particular is pretty spectacular. GREAT 35mm prints, wonderful international work, exquisite restorations. And these are all things that I would say even if I were not involved somehow with the FNF.  Seriously, the line-up is truly mind-blowing, and I am so excited! Hope to see you there! Oh and one last thing- I would highly suggest buying tickets for the shows ahead of time. They have been known to sell out. Your link to buy said tickets to get you into the marvelous dark mayhem of NOIR CITY can be found right here and if you want other info about the Egyptian theater itself (parking, etc), that may be found here.

NOW, AS THEY SAY, ON WITH THE SHOW!!!!

 

Friday – March 21, 7:30 pm

Introductions by Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation!

Too Late For Tears

Too Late For Tears

 

TOO LATE FOR TEARS – 1949, 99 min, USA, Dir: Byron Haskin – 35mm

Restored by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive, featuring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, this film is the film noir you didn’t know you were missing and the restoration you didn’t know could look this great! Unbelievably thrilling LA-footage and unforgettable characters!

LARCENY – 1948, Universal, 89 min, USA, Dir: George Sherman – 35mm

More Dan Duryea, and there’s nothing wrong with that! A rare one with Shelley Winters and the first film work of John Payne, the title may seem dishonest but the quality is straightforward good stuff!

Larceny

Larceny

Saturday – March 22, 7:30pm

Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation

Born to Be Bad

Born to Be Bad

BORN TO BE BAD – 1950, Warner Bros., 94 min, USA, Dir: Nicholas Ray – 35mm (print from the George Eastman House collection)

Two words: Nicholas Ray. Two more words: Joan Fontaine.  If those things mixed with a healthy slap of Robert Ryan doesn’t throw ya, I couldn’t imagine what would. This one’s going to be a doozie!

IVY– 1947, Universal, 99 min, USA, Dir: Sam Wood- 35mm

The second in this “Joan Fontaine double feature,” this film is not available on DVD so this is definitely not to be missed. Additional factoid: the role that Fontaine plays in this was originally supposed to go to her sister Olivia de Havilland! Oops!

Ivy

Ivy

Sunday – March 23, 7:30pm

Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation

Two Men In Manhattan

Two Men In Manhattan

TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (DEUX HOMMES DANS MANHATTAN) – 1959, Cohen Film, 84 min, France, Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville – DCP

Part of the monthly Cohen Film collection series, this Melville film is also part of NOIR CITY’s new focus this year on international noir works. This film is in French and English with English subtitles, and promises to be a real treasure!

RIFIFI – 1955, Rialto Pictures, 122 min, France, Dir: Jules Dassin – 35mm

A French heist picture directed by an American noir professional, this is globally considered to be one of the classics in crime cinema. French with English subtitles.

rififi

Rififi

Wednesday – March 26, 7:30pm

It Always Rains on Sunday

It Always Rains on Sunday

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY – 1947, Rialto, 92 min, UK, Dir: Robert Hamer – 35mm

Somewhere between kitchen sink drama and noir is this film. Googie Withers really brings it in this exciting British entry to NOIR CITY!

BRIGHTON ROCK – 1947, Rialto, 92 min, UK, Dir: John Boulting – 35mm

The baby-faced and ultra-young Richard Attenborough plays one of the most sinister and blood-curdling characters in all of film noir in this film: Pinkie. Every bit of this film is fulfilling in a way that is, once again, wholly British, reminding us of this year’s international theme.

Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock

Thursday – March 27, 7:30pm

Caged

Caged

 CAGED – 1950, Warner Bros., 96 min, USA, Dir: John Cromwell – 35mm

If ever there was a film that depicted women in prison, CAGED is one of the most star-studded and powerful. The first entry in the Eleanor Parker double feature, this film also showcases Agnes Moorehead, Jan Sterling and many others. Will not disappoint!

DETECTIVE STORY – 1951, Paramount, 103 min, USA, Dir: William Wyler- DCP

Another great performance from Eleanor Parker, matched only by the presence of one, Kirk Douglas, and directed by William Wyler. This film was nominated for several awards. Come and see why!

Detective Story

Detective Story

Friday – March 28, 7:30pm

Introduced by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation

Jenny LaMour

Jenny LaMour

JENNY LAMOUR (QUAI DES ORFÈVRES) – 1947, Rialto Pictures, 102 min, France, Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot- 35mm

A fantastic police procedural by the director of such gems as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, this film is another look into how film noir was explored in the country of the term’s birth. In French with English subtitles.

ANGELS OVER BROADWAY – 1940, Sony Repertory, 79 min, USA, Dir: Ben Hecht, Lee Garmes- 35mm

This incomparable Ben Hecht-penned & directed film features Rita Hayworth & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr in a film about cons, gambling and moral devastation. You know- noir standards! Hecht was nominated for this screenplay- come and see why!

Angels Over Broadway

Angels Over Broadway

Saturday- March 29, panel at 6:30pm, film at 7:30pm

6:30pm – Southern CA Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America meet for a discussion on Los Angeles in noir and literature. Featured panelists: novelists Eric Beetner (Dig Two Graves), P.G. Sturges (the Shortcut Man series), and Steph Cha (Follow Her Home). Book signing will occur in lobby, shortly after the panel.

Introduced by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation

Southside 1-1000

Southside 1-1000

 SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 – 1950, Warner Bros., 73 min, USA, Dir: Boris Ingster- 35mm

Watch a brand-new 35mm print that highlights the dangers of counterfeiting and criminality within many fantastic Los Angeles locations, from downtown to Hollywood itself! Exciting!

ROADBLOCK – 1951, Warner Bros., 73 min, USA, Dir: Harold Daniels- 35mm

In the world of noir tough guys, there is only one Charles McGraw and this film says that with a vengeance. Come see McGraw in a rare leading role, playing an insurance investigator, doing what he does best- steal that screen!

Roadblock

Roadblock

Sunday – March 30, 7:30pm

Introduced by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation

 

Tension

Tension

TENSION – 1949, Warner Bros., 95 min, USA, Dir: John Berry- 35mm

We lost a real gem when we lost Audrey Totter last year. This first film in the Audrey Totter double feature shows how smoldering hot and delicious this woman could be and just what an incredible medium noir could be for women and the expression of female sexuality at the time, regardless of the…outcome.

ALIAS NICK BEAL – 1949, Universal, 93 min, USA, Dir: John Farrow- 35mm

More Audrey Totter. That should just be a slogan in life. And in a Faustian work with Ray Milland in tow? HOW can you go wrong?? You just can’t. DO NOT miss this on the big screen. You will truly regret it. This is a great film with everything in its right place and everyONE in their right role.

Alias Nick Beal

Alias Nick Beal

Wednesday- April 2, 7:30pm

Ossessione

Ossessione

OSSESSIONE – 1943, 131 min, Italy, Dir: Luchino Visconti

The Italian version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Need any further coaxing? If so, let’s put it this way- this is a VERY hot film. So hot that it was banned by Italy’s fascist government and MGM confiscated and destroyed all the prints it could possibly find. This is a must-see. Italian with English subtitles.

Thursday- April 3, 7:30pm

Hardly A Criminal

Hardly A Criminal

HARDLY A CRIMINAL (APENAS UN DELINCUENTE) – 1949, Film Noir Foundation, 88 min, Argentina, Dir: Hugo Fregonese

Returning to our international theme, this is the first in our Hugo Fregonese double feature. A film that investigates Buenos Aires criminality, this Argentinian noir looks at prisons and “perfect crimes” in a very familiar manner, illustrating how film language may not change when it comes to noir- the darkness is universal.

ONE WAY STREET – 1950, Universal, 79 min, USA, Dir: Hugo Fregonese

More Fregonese. This time featuring the likes of James Mason and the illustrious Dan Duryea! See what these American noir figures are like in the hands of Argentinian direction.

One Way Street

One Way Street

Friday-April 4, 6:30pm for book signing, 7:30 for film

Philippe Garnier will sign copies of his NEWEST RELEASE, Goodis: A Life in Black and White*, at 6:30PM in the lobby.

* First American publication by Eddie Muller’s Black Pool Productions

Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation

Nightfall

Nightfall

NIGHTFALL – 1957, Sony Repertory, 79 min, USA, Dir: Jacques Tourneur

Rarely played and underappreciated, this Tourneur gem features the lovely Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray gritting out every bit of the darkness of this Goodis-penned work. Considering the cinematography on this, you will definitely want to see this on a big screen!

AND HOPE TO DIE (LA COURSE DU LIÈVRE À TRAVERS LES CHAMPS) – 1972, CCFC, 99 min, France, Dir: René Clement

1970s France, direction by Rene Clement, Robert Ryan and a French-speaking Aldo Ray and a David Goodis story to boot? Just say YES. Master heists and criminal undercurrents at every turn, this film promises nothing but satisfaction. It is a NOIR CITY essential. In French with English subtitles.

And Hope to Die

And Hope to Die

Saturday – April 5, 7:00 intro and screening, 9:00 dinner and party!

This is the BIG NIGHT!!!! There is dinner (provided by The Kitchen for Exploring Foods) and dancing and a bar and all sorts of exciting entertainment after the show! So get those tickets now and get those fancy outfits together! It’s going to be a BLAST!  Advance tix are highly recommended. This is going to be so much fun!

 

Detour

Detour

DETOUR – 1946, Wade Williams, 70 min, USA, Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer

If you are unfamiliar with this film, it is a MUST SEE, even more so in a theater and with an audience. It is the classic B-noir and illustrates the brilliance of cinematic economy and perfect storytelling, visually and otherwise. This is a tight picture on a tight budget and one that Hollywood could still learn a great deal from!

For complete details about the party and the ticket arrangements, please go here. It’s an event that, much like DETOUR, you will not want to miss!

Sunday – April 6, 7:30

Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Discussion between films with author Mary Ann Anderson (‘Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera‘ and ‘The Making of The Hitch-Hiker‘) and Alan K. Rode.

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M

M – 1951, Superior Pictures, 91 min, USA, Dir: Joseph Losey – 35mm

If the excitement of viewing a restored 35mm print wasn’t enough, the cast for this American version of Fritz Lang’s classic should make your hair stand on end. Norman Lloyd, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus, Howard DaSilva and more keep this piece loaded with brilliance, not to mention it’s done by one, Joseph Losey. Support restoration and great works! Check this piece out! Not on DVD!

THE HITCH-HIKER – 1953, RKO, 71 min, USA, Dir: Ida Lupino – 35mm

This breathtaking restoration by the Library of Congress will have you thinking that the film was printed yesterday. But that also could be due to the content, as well. Actress and filmmaker Ida Lupino was a stellar woman in filmmaking history and this is one of the most striking pieces in her oeuvre. Come see Mary Ann Anderson discuss her work and then see it large and in charge…and restored, care of NOIR CITY, and for the final film of NOIR CITY Los Angeles 2014!hitchhiker

Everything is Bitter in Texas: NOIR CITY Comes to Austin!

Alright, ladies and gents, here’s the rumble: after the yearly successful spin on the silver screen in Seattle, NOIR CITY thought it was high time to take it on the heel and toe and make it down to Austin, Texas for the first time and the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. So from February 28 to March 2, if you happen to be around that joint, I highly recommend you take a look-see. This is going to be a tremendous event!

NoirCityAustin

As documented in my earlier pieces, the experience of attending NOIR CITY is like no other. Carefully curated and meticulously planned, this festival presents collections of films, some of which have not been played in a theatrical context in years. These remarkable cinematic works are not only receiving a new life by the onslaught of fans attending NOIR CITY but they are also receiving new treatment in many cases, as a portion of the funds collected by the Film Noir Foundation (the non-profit organization behind NOIR CITY) go to future film preservation/restoration projects.

All attendees of NOIR CITY assist in the preservation of the films no matter where it is- San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Portland, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and now, Austin! Becoming part of this “bitter little world,” whether it is through buying a ticket or a t-shirt, assures the future survival of these films that are being shown. As someone who works in the world of preservation and restoration, just getting the chance to see excited audiences enter the theater and hear their remarks about recent restorations being shown is enough to make me know that I chose the right occupation. Some people like the rewards of teaching, other people enjoy the satisfaction received from selling a house- I enjoy the knowledge that someone has gotten intense joy out of watching a motion picture that has been worked on and “saved” from its own kind of death.

Bringing NOIR CITY to Austin and the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz is something that everyone involved is very pleased to see finally come to fruition. Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, notes, “I couldn’t be more thrilled that Austin is the latest addition to the NOIR CITY roadshow. I love the Alamo Drafthouse and am excited to be part of its mission: keeping creative and communal rep programming thriving. Since this is the first NOIR CITY at the Drafthouse, it’s a virtual ‘greatest hits’ of all the titles the Film Noir Foundation has restored or recovered from obscurity. It’ll be a fantastic weekend.”

With that, please enjoy the following posters and small bits of information about the films that will be shown over the next few days!

Friday, February 28

Too Late For Tears

Too Late For Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

Too Late For Tears (Byron Haskin,1949) Restored by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive, featuring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea.

Try and Get Me

Try and Get Me (Cy Endfield, 1951)

Try and Get Me aka The Sound of Fury (Cy Endfield, 1951) Rare film by a blacklisted director & recent Film Noir Foundation restoration, featuring Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy.

Saturday, March 1

Larceny

Larceny (George Sherman, 1948)

Larceny (George Sherman, 1948) rare not-on-DVD film featuring the great John Payne & Shelley Winters!

Crashout

Crashout (Lewis R. Foster, 1955)

Crashout (Lewis R. Foster, 1955) Fantastically exciting prison escape film featuring some of the best of the best: William Bendix, Gene Evans, William Talman and more!

Cry Danger

Cry Danger (Robert Parrish, 1951)

Cry Danger (Robert Parrish, 1951) breathtakingly beautiful restoration done by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive that makes you think this film came out or was shot YESTERDAY. Dick Powell just rips that screen apart.

The Breaking Point

The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz, 1950)

The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz, 1950) This picture has the swoon-worthy John Garfield alongside the truly great Patricia Neal in what is really one of the best Hemingway adaptations ever put to screen.

Sunday, March 2

Repeat Performance

Repeat Performance

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Repeat Performance (Alfred Werker, 1947)

Repeat Performance – (Alfred Werker, 1947) This 2012 35mm restoration, funded by the Film Noir Foundation and the Packard Humanities Institute, is not to be missed! ATwilight Zone-esque tale with dynamic performances from Richard Basehart and Joan Leslie, this film will knock your socks off, leaving you hungry for more.

Three Strangers

Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco, 1946)

Three Strangers – (Jean Negulesco, 1946) – Co-written by John Huston, this film stars three of the more persuasive figures in the film noir acting canon: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald. While the plot may seem simple at first, the actuality is that this film is one of the darker and more unique pieces of noir cinema produced.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949) – The chance to see this not-on-DVD film on a big screen is now yours! Experience the vibrant Audrey Totter and the oh-so-persuasive Ray Milland in a film noir that is like no other. Not to be missed!

The Chase

The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)

The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946) – End your visit to NOIR CITY Austin with one of the more unusual pieces put on film. Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, this film has been called everything from “dreamy” to “expressionistic” and showcases Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan and Peter Lorre. The Chase is a great way to end a great weekend! Hope you enjoy!

For more info and to buy tix, go here:

http://drafthouse.com/packages/noir-city-austin

Border Crossings and Restorations: Noir City, January 25th, 2014

Yesterday was a BIG day in a variety of ways. First of all, we started out in Mexico (cinematically, anyways), watching an absolutely gorgeous Anthony Mann film called BORDER INCIDENT (1949) that was shot by one of my very very favorite cinematographers, John Alton. It was amazing. So much so, that a woman behind me gasped and said, “This is rather gruesome, isn’t it?” Yes, a film from 1949 can be rather gruesome!

border incident

We then moved into a wonderfully unusual piece from Mexico called, IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND – EN LA PALMA DE TU MANO (Dir. Roberto Gavaldón, 1951) which was truly extraordinary. I had never seen a Mexican noir before so that was great!

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Then later on in the evening it was the restorations section.

One of the reasons I am up here (aside from my love/obsession for noir) is that I have been chosen to be the first recipient of the Nancy Mysel Legacy Grant, which is a huge honor and I am exceptionally thrilled and grateful. If you had told me, at the beginning of my film studies (approx. 15ish years ago) that I would be getting to the point where I would get to the point where I would get up on stage in front of a SOLD OUT audience of 1400+ people  and tell them what Nancy Mysel meant to me and how important film restoration was and how very honored I felt receiving this award….WITH EDDIE MULLER??????

I would’ve laughed in your face and thought you were teasing me. I would’ve said “No way. Not me.” But that’s what happened last night. And I promise to uphold Nancy’s legacy in the best way possible because she was one of the most exceptional women in the film preservation community and inspired me to join and is one of the primary reasons that I chose this path, much like film noir is one of the reasons I fell in love with the cinema.

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After the presentation, we watched two INCREDIBLE restorations that really were prime examples of what can be done if the right people, passions and resources are involved, even if you don’t have the original materials.

TOO LATE FOR TEARS (Byron Haskin, 1949) was just incredible looking. While Eddie said it was going to be a little rough going for a restoration due to the lack of original elements (great story about the retrieval, too!) it was nowhere near that! It looked fantastic- Liz Scott’s face, Dan Duryea’s suit, all the details were beautiful. My favorite thing about a noir restoration: make the desperation look gorgeous like cinema is supposed to. And TLFT certainly did. And…it was a wonderful film to boot with some really gritty real PURE noir lines. SO. MUCH. ENJOYMENT. Man, do I loooooove film noir.

"Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart. "

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart. “

Afterwards, of course, was a film that I bought recently on Blu-ray but was waiting to see on big screen before watching at home: the incomparable Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER (1953). All I know is that the folks at the LOC did a *smashing* job restoring this baby. The shine on the bumper on the car in the very beginning, the details of each separate leave and twig on the ground, each man’s five o’clock shadow…the details and the shadows were gorgeous! And this is all without losing any of the beauty of the film grain or the shadow and light of the film. What a movie.hitchhiker

 

Tonight we head to Japan and see the work of Akira Kurosawa! Pretty excited about that! Kurosawa does noir. Mmmmhmmm!

Noir City, man. Nothing like it.

It’s a Bitter (and Slightly Larger) World: NOIR CITY 12, San Francisco, CA – Jan. 24-Feb 2, 2014

Noir-City-Header-2014

So I’m taking a 2 week hiatus from Common Careers due to the fact that I am in San Francisco for the amazing and quite fantastic NOIR CITY…The 12th Annual Film Noir Film Festival! And really- if you knew what was good for ya- you’d be here too!

So each night I will either be posting the posters & links of the films I am going to see (just saw) so you can get a feel for what’s going on. While I’m not going to be here for the whole thing, I’m going to be here for a good chunk. Please stick around- these are some amazing flix!

The brilliant aspect of this year’s fest is that it’s INTERNATIONAL! As many people have discussed over the years, the Film Noir genre is a crucial part of American Cinema. However, it is not exclusive to the good old US of A. As this year’s trailer shows us, the temporal flexibility (from noir to neo-noir) that has been written about also extends to a multiplicity of countries:

With that in mind, I will invite you to see the wonderful films that we will be watching tonight. They are truly great features, and while American-tinged, they are certainly not entirely central to North American soil.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943, Norman Foster, Orson Welles-uncred.)

JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943, Norman Foster, Orson Welles-uncred.)

JOURNEY INTO FEAR7:30 pm

THE THIRD MAN (1949, CAROL REED)

THE THIRD MAN (1949, Carol Reed)

THE THIRD MAN – 9:00 PM

These films and the rest of the festival will be shown at the Castro Theater and all tickets for NOIR CITY 12 are available either at the box office the night (or day!) of or online via each individual event’s Brown Paper Ticket link

Hope to see you there…in the dark…and the shadows….

The Politics of Solitude: Oldboy and Korean Noir

This is my second entry for the Korean Blogathon. Enjoy!

When I asked a friend why he thought Southern Korean cinema seems to offer so many films based upon the theme of revenge, I got a much different answer than the one I was expecting. Most people I know simply chalked it up to the North/South Korea thing, which was fine. I get that. No big deal. Really, as one of my girlfriends stated, you’d want revenge too “when half of your extended family probably died of starvation or were put in a work camp making asbestos-covered paper flowers for French weddings.” But I was personally of the opinion that the revenge thing couldn’t entirely come from the schism. There had to be more. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t altogether wrong.

While I did think that the Northern/Southern Korean explanation was too much of an easy way out of explaining the severe proliferation of violent and vengeful films, I was unprepared for my friend’s other answer. It seems that Southern Korean filmmakers use revenge as a trope in a way that is similar to how US filmmakers have done in the past. He noted that the contemporary South Korean attitude is one of complete and total self-reliance due to massive distrust of authority figures. In essence, if something needs to get taken care of, the individual takes care of it themselves, as almost every professional agency is seen to be corrupt in some regard. Director Bong Joon-Ho corroborated my friend’s statement when interviewed about his film The Host. Bong states, “It would seem that only the little guy and his family have the best interests of Seoul at heart — the government could care less.” (1)

What struck me most about this was that, beyond these directors’ desire to align their main characters with a kind of  “everyman/little guy” mentality, their primary focus still remains in underscoring the fact that Joe Everyman is a very lonely place to be, existing more readily in a location of solitude and self-sufficiency than any kind of communal wealth. In doing so, they inadvertently have made it so that nearly every single one of their Revenge Films feature what is, essentially, the perfect noir protagonist (2). Like the noir guys of yesteryear, the male heroes of Korean cinema tend towards a violent methodology and don’t listen to anyone but their own inner voice. Of course, this may also have a lot to do with the fact that the outside world has seriously messed with their existence and thus their entirety is now dedicated to getting back at those that ruined their lives, but who knows?

Like Glenn Ford in The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) or Cliff Robertson in Underworld U.S.A (Sam Fuller, 1961), South Korean cinema is populated with characters whose main goal in life is to even the score with the figures who caused them the greatest pain without any help from a higher authority source. In the American and Korean films, the heroes chose to take matters into their own hands…with markedly different results. But they are also markedly different countries. That said, what should be noted is that both of these groups of films (American noir and what we will now call Korean noir) indicate a severe distrust of authority/authority figures. While films like Heat and Underworld were directly correlated to American political contingencies, revenge films within South Korea are a very specified and specialized kind of noir that is reflective of South Korean political culture and climate. In order to clearly see how South Korea looks at its own people and develops its own noir, looking at one film in particular may give us a more conclusive feel.

OLDBOY: Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone

Noir extends beyond a mood and beyond a time. It is not a genre and it is as complicated as a chess board made from a silken spider’s web…and just as sticky. Park Chan-wook’s film, Oldboy, was released in 2003 as part of his “Vengeance Trilogy.” I would argue that this film fits the category of Korean noir perfectly and that the political discourse being laid out could be seen as somewhat revolutionary and yet not extraordinarily unusual in that respect for the highly volatile country of South Korea. While Oldboy‘s sibling films also work for a discussion of Korean Noir, I feel that the overt visuals and meticulous aural planning make this the primary film of importance within the threesome.

In one of my favorite essays about the environment of film noir,”No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir,” the author describes the protagonist as never actually being able to fit the word “hero” due to the shape of his surroundings. He says that “his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.” (3) If that description doesn’t fit Oh Dae-Su’s world to a T, I don’t know what does. As the film begins, the poor guy is just drunk and in the police station, having been done for being drunk in public. His pal comes to get him, they make a tragic last phone call to Dae-Su’s family, and…the alcohol takes over, leading Dae-Su to take off from the phone booth. The next thing he knows? He is trapped in a hotel room for the next 15 years, and he has no idea who put him there or why.

While the meat of the film may take place outside of the hotel room, post Dae-Su’s “escape,” that 15 year period is not to be ignored. Within his room/cell, he is allowed a very essential piece of information: a television. This media object serves as his sole escort- historically, sexually, and socially. We watch as he communes with soccer games, dance shows, and intensely important world events. Time passes and we are privy to his attempts at escape, all the while the screen is split, and we get to see the political changes taking place or the death of Princess Diana on the right while Dae-Su is trying to dig his way out on the left.

As Henry Sheehan so deftly notes,

Dae-su’s imprisonment begins in 1988, the last year of the rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a brutal and murderous military dictator who ruled South Korea with the help of a secret police force, intimidation, indoctrination, and all the tools of a modern authoritarian state.  Dae-su has a television set in his cell, so he is able to watch political developments more or less as they occur.  But they come at him in the weird, leveling flood typical of TV images.  The return of political dissident (and future president) Kim Dae-jung, for example, is given no more (and no less) emphasis than the wedding and subsequence death of Princess Diana.  Dae-su’s greatest television fixation is reserved for a young singer he seems to regard as his lover, but most of the time he flicks from channel to channel.  Politics and sex, both a factor of imprisonment,  get all mixed up in the gently pulsating beam. (4)

While we recognize what is going on in these initial diegetic circumstances , it is also integral to recognize where Oldboy itself comes from. Not unlike The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Maltese Falcon, or other famous films noirs, Oldboy had literary beginnings. Oldboy was borne out of a comic book written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. If those names don’t sound Korean, it’s because they’re not. They’re Japanese. Started in 1997, this 8-volume manga was bought in 2005 by Dark Horse to translate and then distribute in English due to the immense popularity of Park Chan-wook’s film. Although widely considered to be a comic with a noir-like storyline, the Japanese version of Oldboy differs from the Korean film greatly. While one might say that this is due to simple translative book-to-film issues, I would argue that with this property, it goes deeper.

Historically, Korea became annexed by Japan in 1910, making it part of the Japanese Empire. It remained so until the end of World War II in 1945, when Korea became what it is today, divided into North and South. Those kinds of scars don’t easily heal. One possibility with Oldboy is that Park Chan-wook saw the manga, saw the capacity it had for expansion, and simply lifted it, just wishing to use the narrative elements in an artistic manner. However, there is far too much political content within his film to argue such a thing. While these political elements are indeed gracefully hidden, they are most certainly there, making them seem just as much part of the storyline as anything else. Park Chan-wook’s ability to mask politics with characterization, music, and plot is nothing if not masterful.

When asked about the politics in Oldboy, the director’s response was coy. He said simply, “That is not what I intended. I can understand why people think that, and I have no intention of blocking that line of thinking!”(5) While this response may seem like a denial of having placed political messages within his work, Park Chan-wook’s relaxed attitude towards other’s people’s interpretations and his unwillingness to “get in the way” may tell another story. The heart of Oldboy does lay in a noir-like narrative, but the politics set the stage.

As Dae-Su’s story continues out of his forced isolation, he meets Mi-do, a woman who accompanies him on his journey to try to find the individual(s) who robbed him of his life. His involvement with Mi-do only leads him to more complications, and in the final face-off with the villain he discovers more about things in his past and Mi-do’s past than he ever wanted to know. Dae-Su sacrifices a great deal in order to make sure that Mi-do’s past never has to effect her in the way that his has caught up with him.

In this final scene, we witness Dae-Su, the man who has massacred people wildly and exacted the most horrific torture and revenge, is shown to be down on his knees in front of Lee Woo-Jin, the man who had imprisoned him for 15 years. Is he begging for his life? Not even a little. Dae-Su has shown that he cares nothing for his own existence. His body has pumped almost nothing but pure revenge since being released from that tower. No. Dae-Su is begging for the existence of Mi-do. Within this exchange, Lee Woo-Jin has said the most essential thing of all. Aside from threatening, Mi-do’s life, he said, flat out, “You’re notorious for not protecting your women.”

When Japan conscripted over 5 million Korean men beginning in 1939 for labor and a couple hundred thousand for the war effort, they also decided that they needed some ladies for “comfort.” They established brothels for their military men, and 51.8% of these “comfort women,” as they were known, were Korean. Due to the fact that Korea was under Japanese control, there was nothing that the men could do to stop this from happening. Thus, this became part and parcel of Korean history.

Dae-Su’s relationship with Mi-do is problematic, to say the least. She wants to make him happy, no matter what the cost to her is, even if it is physical pain during sexual intercourse. However, he knows that the emotional pain is on an entirely different registry. He will prevent this at all costs. It is almost as though through by using a Japanese text, Park Chan-wook is attempting to reinscript a new history for Korean women, one without the Japanese annexation and sexual slavery. Within this Oldboy, a film that is rewriting the comic through filmic means, the story is still relentless and painful, but Mi-do maintains dignity even if Dae-Su does not. In his final interaction with the heavy, he plays it so that she will never know her past. She will only know a future. To an extent, this is also a rewriting of Korea, over what Japan had attempted to do.

Dae-su’s final showdown with the man who organized his capture is of great import. It deals with a multiplicity of issues, but more than anything, it deals with matters in and around speech, image and control. The history of Korea isn’t far off from that storyline. While the details aren’t quite the same, both Dae-Su and Korea spent a decent amount of time being locked away, under someone else’s control. Then, upon release, they had to readjust, which still didn’t guarantee a happy life! In fact, in both storylines, there was a reasonable amount of violence, paranoia, and isolation. And at the end of the day, both Dae-su and Korea end up having to be split up into separate entities, with an indeterminate ending; hoping for a good conclusion, but based upon the previous visuals…it’s not lookin’ so hot for anybody at the moment.

While politics provide a solid foundation for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, it is film noir that adds the ambiance and gives it the flavor. Park Chan-wook is a very meticulous filmmaker, from his casting right down to his costuming. The mood that was set for this film and the darkness of the piece, was not entirely due to the fact that much of it took place in what were supposed to be hidden or underground locations. To begin with, the entirety of the soundtrack was designed to play as much of a character in the film as each actor. Almost every track was named after a film noir. Whether it was In a Lonely Place, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Sleep, each track played a role in rooting the film in a kind of historical background where the protagonist of the film exists in a universe of alienation, solitude and nihilism. Additionally, many (if not all) of these tracks also had a literary background, similar to Oldboy itself. The soundtrack presents Oldboy as a fully formed and musically textured piece that asks you to look beneath the surface.  

Dae-Su, upon waking up in his confinement, begins to narrate the film via voiceover narrative. Now, if one were to take a survey of all the films noir that have voiceover narration…well, let’s just say it would take a long time to name them all. A voiceover is a very tricky thing. As an audience, you become automatically aligned with whomever is speaking to you and telling you the story. It is a fabulous way to curry favor for your main character, and especially if your main character is not so ethically or morally…favorable?

Oldboy does not begin with a voiceover, nor does it maintain as much of a strong presence throughout the film as it does in the beginning. As the film starts, we are simply watching Oh Dae-Su. But he is quite sympathetic. He’s just a drunk family man. Then we are drawn even closer to him through Park Chan-wook’s use of the voiceover after he has been captured and incarcerated. Indeed, it is at this point that some of the most basic notions of film noir become verbally expressed by Oh Dae-su  as he experiences 15 years of pure, unadulterated isolation.

Karen Hollinger notes that unlike other 1940’s genres, where the voice-over narrative is used primarily to “increase audience identification with the main character,” the narrative that is used in film noir is much less heroic. While there is certainly identification going on, the noir voice-over will “most often contain weak powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the events of their lives to their own design.” (6) While Dae-Su is able to express himself physically and seek out those who caused him harm, the continual voiceover seems to express how powerless he still seems to feel over the 15 years he lost (amidst other plot points). In truth, by the end of the film, the revenge that he has worked so hard to get falls more than a little flat.

Of the concept of revenge, Park Chan-wook said this:

The act of vengeance is a meaningless one. Killing the villain does not bring back the dead. Even the stupidest person knows that. But despite that, people are still captivated by a desire to avenge. And it’s not easy to walk away when the means are provided to “pay back.” [But on top of that,] vengeance requires a tremendous passion and energy. People have to abandon their other everyday activities in order to cling to that purpose only. Why do people want to devote their whole life to this meaningless, fruitless thing? Is this incomprehensible, dark passion the human characteristic, distinguishing us from other animals? (7)

Oldboy, like many films noir, is investigating what it is to be human while living within some kind of existential panic. Oh Dae-su’s solipsistic identity, caused primarily by the machinations of Woo-jin, the evil “puppetmaster,” created a humanity that was so far collapsed that it could only seek the kind of vengeance that Park Chan-wook is talking about. In the end, he truly does attempt to follow the film noir path. As Robert Porfirio writes, “set down in a violent and incoherent world, the film noir hero tries to deal with it in the best way he can, attempting to make some order out of chaos, to make some sense of the world.” (8)

 

(1) Interview w/Bong Joon-Ho, Rue Morgue Magazine #64, Jan./Feb. 2007.

(2) Noir scholars might insist that I refer to this as neo-noir based upon Oldboy‘s 2003 release date and noir’s temporal restrictions, but due to the fact that I see this film as referring to noir in its originating capacity and also due to the fact that it is existing within the confines of another culture and country entirely, I will continue to refer to it as “noir.”

(3) Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 77-93.

(4) Sheehan, Henry. “Oldboy.” Film Criticism & Commentary. Accessed 3/9/11. http://henrysheehan.com/reviews/mno/oldboy.html

(5) Interview w/Park Chan-Wook by Neil Young for Neil Young’s Film Lounge-Park Life. Conducted during the Edinburgh Film Festival, 8/22/2004. Accessed 3/10/2011. http://www.jigsawlounge.co.uk/film/reviews/neil-youngs-film-lounge-park-life/

(6) Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice Over, and the Female Narrative.” Film Noir Reader. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight, 1998.

(7) Interview w/Park Chan-wook by Carl Davis. “Oldboy Director Disses Vengeance, Looks Toward Upcoming Cyborg-Teen Comedy.” 8/22/2005. Accessed 3/11/2011. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1508066/oldboy-director-finds-revenge-meaningless-looks-toward-teen-comedy.jhtml

(8) Porfirio, ibid.

transcscript of an interview with Park Chan-Wook, writer-director of
OLDBOY
conducted at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, Lothian Rd, Edinburgh
during the Edinburgh International Film Festival
on Sunday, the 22nd of August, 2004
between 10.00-10.30am

by Neil Young

A Snake in the Grass: Escape From New York and Noir Fusion

I like a good film noir as much as the next gal. Truly I do. Nothing I like better than spending the afternoon or evening at the theater (if I’m lucky) being surrounded by unreliable narrators, gorgeous and manipulative femmes fatale, and guys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, I must admit that being a connoisseur, one of the other aspects that I also enjoy is watching the movies that film noir has spawned. I’m not talking about neo-noir (I would consider that to be still part of the “noir” arena, so to speak), nor am I thinking about films that just seem to have a bit of a noir “flavor” to them. I am particularly thinking about films that seem to have infused the noir sensibility and direct noir references into their text. I consider them to be in a category all to themselves- something I call Noir Fusion. Similar to the way that a fusion restaurant might pair up the foods of two different cultures on one plate, Noir Fusion does the same thing but with noir and “insert chosen film genre here.”

The film that I have chosen to illustrate this seemingly mutant category is John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.

As Raymond Durgnat first noted and Paul Schrader stated so succinctly, film noir is “not a genre…it is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” (1) Escape From New York is an odd piece in that it is a genre film meant to evoke that certain tone and mood through the use of familiar conventions.

At first glance, Escape is an post-apocalyptic/sci-fi film, with some great action thrown in for good measure. And, as he remarks on the commentary track, John Carpenter intended to make something of an action film when he set out. However, due to the fact that the film did not end up getting made when it was originally written, Carpenter had to ruminate on what he could do with it for a little while, and thus…we got Escape From New York. It was a script that was on the shelf for 6 years. In that time, Carpenter was able to go from a cynical piece on how the country felt about Watergate, partially inspired by Deathwish, to a fleshed out piece that involved noir conventions in order to underscore the existential crises that Carpenter still wished to convey within the political narrative and character explorations.

“The rules are simple. Once you go in, you don’t come out.” -Rules of Manhattan Island Prison

Escape opens with a map of the “new” Manhattan, and a voice-over telling the audience the rules. Basically, the city is now in a state of complete containment. It is a jail, and there is an authoritarian government in control.

Carpenter has established that it is the future, but he has also established one of the main tenets of film noir: the feeling of being trapped in a situation that an individual can not get free from. It is clear from this opening that this is where the film will take place, and if that is the case…well, it is a prison. In this we have Carpenter making the first of many dual statements. It is physically confining, but it is also meant to underscore the concept that this is also a time where things are ideologically confining, especially since the prison is being run by what we will learn is a morally bankrupt system.

This is not the first time that this kind of prison as the base of operations has been used within film noir-related merchandise. If one recalls the film, Brute Force (1947), it also was used to convey a level of authoritarian and fascistic government sentiment, and certainly involved ethically questionable individuals running the prison itself (albeit in a very different narrative manner).

The prison is merely the tip of the iceberg, really. But the dual meaning of the space in which his characters exist gives us a good concept of what he is doing by combining film noir and sci-fi/post-apocalyptic films. It expands and enriches the environment in which we have to think about the narrative, politically, socially, and intellectually. To trap your characters in any sense will give you pause, but to add the extra genre is a nice bit o’ sauce! Does it detract from the “noir-ness”? Absolutely not. The rest of the elements that Carpenter provides give you the meat that complete the meal.

Support Your Local Anti-Hero

Robert G. Porfirio wrote, “[t]he word ‘hero’ never seems to fit the noir protagonist, for his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.” (2)  If that does not describe Snake Plissken (played to the hilt by Kurt Russell), I don’t know what does. The first time we meet him, we are told he is incredibly dangerous, and yet we come to find out he is also incredibly decorated with medals from battles/warfare. Then, as the list of his many accomplishments goes on, we are told of his criminal act: he robbed the Federal Bank. Our “hero” is also a criminal. Or is he?

John Carpenter said, when the film came out, that “There are no good guys in it, yet it’s totally entertaining!” (3) One of the things that we know and love about noir is that moral ambiguity is the name of the game, and the more ambiguous usually the more entertaining. So we have a guy with a war past. Hey, that’s nothing new! I’ve seen Bogey do that one! And he’s a criminal that I’m supposed to dig? Oh, man. I loved Richard Widmark in Pick-Up on South Street! Lay it on me, Carpenter. Whadya got in Snake that I can’t handle? Nothing. And that’s the beauty of it. Snake Plissken is the violent futuristic love-child of all of these men put together, and that’s what makes him ideal.

To a certain extent, he has a Mike Hammer-sensibility about him. He has a goal, and he’s not going to let anything or anyone stop him, using excessive violence as that is the way he  “gets things done.” And truly, his concern is only for his own preservation and getting the mission accomplished. He walks through the debauched hallways under the theater seeing horrific things going on but he has a one-track mind: get in, get the president, get out. But not for the good of the president or to help end the war. As he so concisely stated in the police commissioner’s office, “I don’t give a fuck about your war or your president.”

As Porfirio has noted, Snake’s lone-wolf methodology is also very innate to the noir world. He notes, “to a large degree every noir hero is an alienated man…the noir hero is most often ‘a stranger in a hostile world,” (4) and Snake’s world could not be anymore hostile if it tried. As he says to Hauk, the police commissioner, as he’s getting into the plane to descend into Manhattan Island Prison, “You mean I can’t count on you? Good.” No beat. No waiting for Hauk to answer. Nothing. It wasn’t even a question. This is Snake, and this is how he rolls.

In Escape from New York, we find a wonderfully strong noir protagonist in Snake Plissken. He’s as tough and hard-boiled as they come. His criminal identity has been well-established but only by men who are essentially criminals themselves, just of a different kind. Snake’s moral code is just as strong as his ability to get out of the situations he is put into, once again underscoring the topsy-turvy world that he has been, without choice, thrown into. Placing a character like Snake into a sci-fi/post-apocalyptic film such as this gives it just the right anti-hero to show off the upside down and crazy world that surrounds him. It may not be the darkened alleys of Los Angeles or the docks of San Francisco in the ’40’s, but he’s the right character to play tourguide to a very analogous futuristic world.

“A man should remember his past.”- Snake Plissken

Within the entirety of Escape From New York, there is one scene that could have been lifted straight from a noir script. Snake goes to meet up with “The Brain” (Harry Dean Stanton) to find out where the president is, because, as Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) says, “The Brain would know!”

Upon entering his domain, Snake takes one look at him and calls him by his real name, Harold. As it turns out, “The Brain” is the reason that Snake is now in prison. He double-crossed him, left without him on the bank-job that they were doing, and Snake was the one that got caught while Harold got away. The speech in this scene is different from the speech used in any other scene in the film.

Not only does Snake continually refer to Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) as “baby” in the most tough guy way possible, he keeps using all the same old-timey speech that Cabbie was using. While Cabbie has informed us that he has been driving a cab for 30 years, and it would make sense for a man of his age to use that lingo, it is a little odd for Snake to be having this kind of conversation with the exception that it needed to stand out.  As Snake growls, “A man should remember his past,” a comment that, in this scene, has even more worth. He has a past with Brain; a criminal past. And Brain double-crossed him. He’s not going to let him forget it, or let his “squeeze” get in the way. This storyline sounds different from a film noir how?

This scene works in tandem with the other more technically referential aspects of Escape to give the film a sense of history. While the film may be set in the future, it is not a film that comes without a past. And it does not want you to forget that. The smaller aspects include the tapes playing old ’40’s music in Cabbie’s cab or the classic movie theater that Snake enters when he gets to town. However, the more direct references are pretty blatant.

Before Snake gets set out to go, they inject him with capsules in his neck and give him a clock to wear around his wrist. At first they tell him that the time reflected on that watch is how long he has to get the president back. But, being the guy he is, Snake bristles and snarls, “What did you inject me with?” At that point, Hauk informs him that, not only is that clock for the president, it is for him. If he does not return to the base point within that allotted span of time, those capsules will basically kill him. If we do our noir math, there’s another little film based on time called D.O.A (1950), in which Edmond O’Brien has been poisoned and has precious little time left to find his killer. Sure, the plot is different, but the idea is still present. It is another case of “you have limited time to do what you have to do.”  The reference is quite clear and emphasizes the initial idea of being trapped within someone else’s “game,” as it were, once again.

The other picture that is referenced is one that would make a great deal of sense in a post-apocalyptic film: Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In Escape, the president is carrying around a briefcase that he has handcuffed to his arm. One of the reasons that Snake has to go in there to get him is to get that briefcase and what is inside. What is inside? Very important information regarding nuclear fusion. In Kiss Me Deadly, the “great whatsit” ends up centering around a case as well, which ends up containing some very, um, interesting nuclear information.

While these referential bits may seem accidental or even inconsequential, they still amount to the same thing: a noir stylistic that was deeply braided into an otherwise post-apocalyptic diegesis. The fusion is there.

In a film where almost the entire thing takes place at night, with continually wet streets, and an urban landscape teeming with criminals, one would be hard-pressed to not find some comparison to film noir.  The fact that it is sci-fi/post-apocalyptic seems almost accidental in that sense.  But it is not.  Escape is simply a combination. It is a visual and narrative fusion of the properties and stylistics of film noir within the diegetic structure of a sci-fi/post-apocalypse film. The noir spice brought out the gloomy and sinister features of the film and made the story and the characters in it seems even more threatening. Snake would not have seemed as hardcore or as attractive if he didn’t have the pulp fiction persona he did. The area would not have seemed as frightening or awful if you weren’t ultimately aware that you were trapped inside it. Noir fusion has produced a multiplicity of films, I’m sure, but of the ones that I have seen, this is one of the most triumphant.

(1) Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 53-63.

(2) Porfirio, Robert G. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. Vol. 1. Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 1998. 77-93.

(3) ^ Maronie, Samuel J. (May 1981). “From Forbidden Planet to Escape from New York: A candid conversation with SFX & production designer Joe Alves”. Starlog. http://www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com/pages/press/starlog8105.html. Retrieved 2011-02-17.

(4) Porfirio, ibid.

 

Seeing Double: The Big Combo and Visual Kinetics

***PREFACE: THIS ENTRY DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS FILM, PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THERE ARE SPOILERS WITHIN. BUT, AS AN ADDITIONAL NOTE, KNOWING THE INFORMATION WILL NOT RUIN THE FILM. IT’S ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLY.***

The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.

Ezra Pound

Richard Sattin called it an “economy of style.”[1] Louis Black wrote that “the visual aspects of the film are much richer and more complex than the narrative they are wrapped around.”[2] In an interview with Peter Bogdonovich, director Joseph H. Lewis simply stated, “What interested me most was telling the story through the eyes of a camera. I didn’t like words- wherever I could, I cut words out, and told it silently through the camera…I think that’s what the camera is for and I think that’s what our medium is for.”[3] From these statements, it is safe to assume that, while many filmmakers concentrate on the integrity of plot points or the caliber of an individual actor’s performance, this was not as crucial to the filmmaking of Joseph Lewis. A man who had climbed up through the ranks of the studio system, and had done everything from sweeping the studio floors to directing his own feature films, Lewis understood what he wanted out of a story, and he used the camera and the narrative in tandem to generate the desired results.

While having already made quite a few films by this point, Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo came right at the latter end of the “Noir years.” Released in 1955, the film was labeled by Motion Picture Daily as “strictly adult trade,”[4] with Variety taking pause to note that it was “grim…and hard-hitting… The moronic fringe of sadists will enjoy this, and all the little kiddies will be sick to their stomachs.”[5] Clearly an example of the trend in post-war cinema, James Naremore states, “the postwar thrillers…seemed more downbeat and perverse, perhaps because the war and its aftermath created a vision of ontological evil and a growing appetite for sadism.”[6]

For all of its excessive violence and shockingly explicit sexual displays, the film actually deals more intrinsically with the power of the visual image, both narratively and stylistically. Within this tale that is summarily about a detective who is seeking to bring down a gangster’s syndicate, there is a strategic effort made to discuss the evolution of identity and the recouping of individual agency. Through the use of character doubling, as well as the development of the meaning of visual representation between characters, this film impresses upon the viewer the importance of trying to maintain agency, in an unstable world where it is easy to lose sight of who you are.

Seeing You Seeing Me, Being You Being Me

In her article, “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place writes that film noir’s visual style conveys a mood of total instability, shifting values, and constantly redefined identities through the “expressive use of darkness: both real, in predominantly underlit and night-time scenes, and psychologically through shadows…Characters (and we in the audience) are given little opportunity to orient themselves…Silhouettes, shadows, mirrors and reflections (generally darker than the reflected person) indicate his lack of both unity and control. They suggest a doppelganger…or distorted side of man’s personality which will emerge…and destroy him.”[7] Within the filmic text of The Big Combo, not only are the characters doubled through the shadowy visual style, but they are also given mirror images through the narrative. Each of the primary characters has a corresponding “doppelganger” that, like Place’s argument, seems to represent a darker, more destructive element that exists within them. As well, exacerbating the cracks in this already-fractured environment is the fact that these characters are doubled not once but twice, each with a different “other half.”

At the hospital, when Detective Diamond (Cornel Wilde) first meets Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the gangster, and McClure (Brian Donlevy), Mr. Brown’s flunky, we are given visual cues as to the relationships between all three characters. Mr. Brown and McClure are both representatives of different aspects of the otherwise lawful and “righteous” man, Lieutenant Diamond, as well as doppelgangers of each other. Shown in medium close-up, Brown deems Diamond not worthy of speaking to directly, thus he uses McClure as a go-between. He refuses to face Diamond, so he remains seated, back to the policeman. Not only are the shadows starkly present in this shot, but the physical positioning of the gangsters Brown and McClure put them back to back, almost as though they were a strange set of Siamese twins.

 

Noir is as noir does: Mr. Brown exists in the forefront of McClure's shadow.

McClure is explicitly referred to as Mr. Brown’s double. As Brown states so succinctly in the scene previous to this, while gesturing at McClure, “We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it, now it belongs to me. We eat the same steaks, drink the same bourbon. Look-same manicure, same cufflinks.” It is made visually apparent in this shot, however, that McClure’s shadow is hanging over Brown. This might seem strange as he is, in actuality, second string. This shadow, however, speaks to the fact that, besides being Brown’s double, McClure used to be Brown’s boss. However, Brown is now the top dog, and, as he says, hinting at McClure’s own denigrated position, “First is first and second is nobody.” Thus, although McClure’s shadow may be bigger than Brown’s, it is just that- a shadow. McClure’s shadow is bigger than his physical appearance, meaning, essentially, he really is “nobody.”

What brings all these men together is Jean Wallace’s character, Susan. But Susan is quite complicated. Not only is she Brown’s girl, but she has just attempted suicide by chugging down a bottle of pills. If that wasn’t complicated enough, due to hospital and legal issues, not only is Susan the suicidal gangster’s moll, but we have now found out that half the reason that Diamond is obsessed with this case is that he is in love with the girl too.

Narratively, the parallels between Brown and Diamond are clearly drawn. If we couldn’t figure it out from their relationship with Susan, we are given a sequence in which the girl is removed from her hospital room out on a gurney, half-conscious, saying the name “Alicia” (incidentally, one of her doubles). Both Brown and Diamond possess intense gazes as she is wheeled down the corridor. Looking at these men standing next to one another, it is all we can do not to make a joke about them shopping at the same stores. With the exception of Brown’s hat and pocket kerchief, the two men are almost identical visual replicas of one another. Lit similarly, and located right next to each other in an analogous stance, it appears as if Diamond is just a taller version of Brown. Aligning these figures in this fashion only serves to underscore the doppelganger effect between the two men.

As we watch Diamond, he watches Brown watch Susan go down the hall. While we would expect Diamond to be watching Susan as well, seeing that he has spent $18,000 of the taxpayer’s money (as the police captain none-too-gently reminds him earlier) chasing her, he is actually watching Brown. It is almost as though he recognizes his alter ego/mirror image, and sees what Janey Place called the “distorted image…that will destroy him.” It is this kind of recognition that does in fact effect change in the characters within the diegesis. While Diamond is already shown as being obsessed with Susan and the case, this “recognition” leads him to play a significant role in facilitating the other “doppelgangers” and doubles to reveal the clues that help him solve the case.

Brown and Diamond: the yin and yang/dark and light. Even within their names, there is a stark visual connection between the two men.

Susan Lowell, the girl in the hospital, is formerly what one might call a “society girl.” Cultured and beautiful, she was interested in classical music and trained in piano- before she met Mr. Brown. At the point where we encounter her, she has been with him for almost 4 years, and is far from that girl that she used to be. As she states to the old friend she encounters in the bar, just before passing out from the overdose of pills, she is now more skilled in “stud poker” than piano. Her alter ego, the name she was murmuring in the hospital, is Alicia, Mr. Brown’s estranged wife, described by one of the characters as a “good girl. Healthy, right off the farm. Brown married her…two years later she was a lush, drink anything.” Susan now not only occupies Alicia’s place by Brown’s side, she has also taken up her position as the “good-girl-gone-bad” resulting from Mr. Brown’s formidable powers of corruption. Later, when Alicia and Susan meet, it is made unequivocally clear that Alicia is simply an older version of Susan. Through their encounter, we are shown the catalytic effect that meeting your “other half” has.

What the audience sees places more insistence on the narrative. Alicia & Susan's "mirror stance" underscores the fact that they are being doubled as characters within the plot.

In that scene, Alicia is sitting in Diamond’s office. Susan enters the room, and Diamond pulls out a chair for her, facing Alicia. Alicia, smiles brightly, asking if Susan is a policewoman. The tone in her voice is the same slightly insane and child-like one that she used when Diamond found her tending her flowers at the sanitarium. Alicia, desiring to be someone else, someone younger and not scarred and tarnished by her past, is attempting to reclaim a child’s identity. Susan then identifies herself, telling Alicia that she is to be a witness against Mr. Brown, and that she has been Brown’s girl for four years. Alicia’s expression changes, “I’m not,” she says, and goes into complete denial, saying, “He met lots of girls, they were crazy about him.”

Susan admits her regret at being with Brown, to which Alicia’s entire attitude changes. “Then why did you stay with him for four years? Why’d you start?” To which Susan reacts with “I don’t know,” and tears. The way Alicia physically responds to Susan is with obvious identification, seeing her own innocence that is now gone.

The effect of the two-shot in which they appear, and the way the camera moves into a closer shot give it a certain degree of intimacy.

As we begin, the camera depicts a shot that is further away, visually involving the rest of the men in the room, Diamond, the police captain, and one other officer. As this scene slowly becomes about recognition of the self in the other, the camera moves in, focusing solely on the two women. The only time this is broken up is when Diamond butts in, making the comment, “Take a good look at her Alicia, take a good look. You can see yourself ten years ago. If you had only spoken up then, how different your life would have been.” As heavy-handed as this comment is, the shot of him, between the women, is fast, while his voice continues and we watch Alicia battle with the reality of “meeting herself” ten years earlier.

The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye

Beyond the doubling that has been shown, photographic evidence plays a huge role in the progression of the film and its emphasis on the visual image. By utilizing photographs as major catalysts for the revelation of secrets within the film’s narrative, The Big Combo exploits the visual image within the visual image. While the perspective vacillates between the character as privileged spectator and the audience as privileged spectator (or sometimes both), these seemingly innocuous “props” within the film point to the intrinsic value of visible representation. Whether it is through physical doubling or through a piece of photographic paper reflecting a certain likeness, it is that very visual insignia that serves to propel internal conflict within characters and an eventual revelation of truth.

At the point in the film when Susan leaves Mr. Brown, she comes to visit Diamond and brings him a photograph. Having not yet found her, Diamond is under the impression that Alicia is dead, having been murdered by Mr. Brown. The night before, Brown’s men had mistakenly killed Diamond’s on-again/off-again lover, the burlesque dancer, Rita, thinking it was Diamond, so this was not a far jump in logic. Susan hands him the photograph, telling Diamond that not only is Alicia alive, but according to Brown, she is well and living in Sicily. After a brief look at the photograph, Diamond realizes that not only is Alicia not in Sicily, but she may be closer than they think. He takes the photo to a lab to have it analyzed, and the results expose not only Alicia’s location, but also her personal evolution.

The first-person perspective shot of the photograph when given to Diamond, juxtaposed against the darkened room of the laboratory where they are doing a photographic comparison, lays bare the nature of what the photograph means within this context. Where we become aligned with Diamond’s perspective in his office in viewing the photograph, we then are welcomed into the police laboratory and are privy to their commentary on Alicia’s “changes” but through the machinery. We enter the lab, and see a projector, with its image the only light in the room.

This shot of the projector is just another reminder that our film text is about looking at things within a world of doubles and weird mirror vision. Indeed, like the scene in the police station, it is literally a kind of dual projection.

Now aligned with the actual image-making apparatus, the shot follows its line of projection to the two off-kilter and shadowy images of Alicia, in full view upon the wall. One is Alicia from the past, with Brown, and the other, more recent image is the one offered up by Susan. With this carefully constructed spectator view, we are reminded that visual images within the noir film text are volatile and changing, speaking to the very character points that are reinforced by the narrative. Even one of the technicians notes, “She sure changed since the other picture…”

When Diamond finds Alicia, she is at a sanitarium, and happily introduces herself as Anna Lee Jackson, denying any knowledge or affiliation with Mr. Brown.

As Diamond continues to question her, he confronts her with what we are led to assume is the photograph of her with Mr. Brown. However, we do not see the photograph. All we see is her expression change drastically upon taking it from Diamond’s hands, and her extreme emotional response as she tears it to shreds.  As Diamond tells her about Rita’s death at the hands of Brown’s men, Alicia screams in denial, covering her ears, closing her eyes, and repeating “I’m sick, can’t you see? I’m sick?” Diamond responds that she is not sick, just scared. Finally, as the camera closes in tight on her face, she reveals the truth.

As we are now given a more privileged and personal view, we learn why she is really in the sanitarium, information that would not have been revealed had the photograph not prompted a response. Alicia’s eyes still closed, she tells Diamond, “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane and dead.” It is the threat of Brown that has kept her away, in the sanitarium, feigning insanity.

The photograph acts as a truth serum in this circumstance. The “harsh truth” of the camera eye has lifted the mystery of Alicia’s disappearance, but by her own admission. Just as the uneven and shadowy projected images in the dark police lab led us to see that this is a “visually unstable environment in which… identities that pass in and out of shadow are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn,”[8] photographs serve as reminders of past and present identities and the passage between them, rarely in a positive way. Alicia’s revelation to Diamond comes with a steep price: she must reclaim her identity. She can no longer be Anna Lee Jackson, but must revert to the discarded and unwanted identity of “Alicia Brown,” all because of a likeness on a piece of paper.

Within the film text, we are witness to the mistaken homicide of Rita by Brown’s men. Rita, a physical representative of the underworld, is a stripper as well as possibly a prostitute. On the other hand, she is also one of the few genuinely sensitive characters in the film, making her death all the more tragic. However, her significance comes not necessarily from her life, but from her death. Rita’s image, both in underworld iconography and as photographed object helps to facilitate both character development as well as narrative progression.

In the meeting between Alicia and Susan, Diamond shows them the photograph of the dead girl. Diamond shows the women a photograph, growling that Brown had killed her, “Someone he didn’t know, never met, never saw.” Alicia stares at the picture in horror, as Susan begins to cry. “They took eleven bullets out of her body, and Miss Lowell had breakfast with him the next morning,” Diamond continues, shoving the photograph of dead Rita in Alicia’s face. Alicia stares at the photo, closes her eyes, and states, “I’ll tell whatever I know.”

Until this point, Alicia had continued to deny that she had any knowledge whatsoever about any of Brown’s wrongdoings. In the beginning of the scene, she strongly asserts that she is not testifying against Brown. When Diamond brings up Rita, she refutes any previous knowledge of her murder even though Diamond told her all about it at the sanitarium. As Diamond becomes more insistent, Alicia mirrors her previous behavior at the sanitarium, insisting she knows nothing. However, upon seeing the photograph, she calms down, realizing, once again, what she is looking at: another image of herself.

Rita is the double of both women. Both Susan and Alicia are good girls who have fallen, due to the advances of one, Mr. Brown. Thus, their identities are liminal ones: they are “good” yet they have partaken in the underworld, similar to the story of Persephone. Seeing Rita’s dead body is like seeing a reflection of themselves, which serves a dual purpose. This photograph, shown only to them, helps Susan and Alicia realize that this is their “out,” and that by revealing the truth, testifying against Brown, they can be resurrected from their liminal identity as “good-girl-gone-bad.”

Additionally, it propels them into the truth because they quickly realize that the image of the dead burlesque queen could just as easily been their image, 11 bullets in their body, while someone else eats breakfast with Mr. Brown. When Alicia was gone, he got Susan. What happens if Susan is gone? They are expendable. The lifeless double in the photograph reminds these women that in order to recuperate their personal identities, they must tell the truth, and put Brown away.  As the scene ends, the women look at each other as if in the mirror, recognizing each other as the “other,” and knowing that in order to regain personal agency they must keep these secrets no longer.

Taking Back the Light

Janey Place and Lowell Peterson note that, “in the most notable examples of film noir, as the narratives drift headlong into confusion and irrelevance, each character’s precarious relationship to the world, the people who inhabit it, and to himself and his own emotions, becomes a function of visual style.”[9] Strategically, at the end of the film, Lewis and cameraman John Alton make the most of noir visual style by showing what happens when a character decides to “take back the light.”

In the beginning of The Big Combo, we see Susan running through extremely dark, almost black, corridors, as though she is being chased. As the scene progresses, we see that she, in fact, is being chased by two men. They catch up with her, and grab her by the arms. The light shines brightly on her head and shoulders, but nowhere else, making her appear practically naked. The intention of this was to show her ultimate vulnerability, and increase the visual strength of the two men imprisoning her, as they are bathed in darkness and shadow. Not only does this set up Susan’s situation within the underworld, but the vulnerability that is an integral part of the character she starts out as.

Susan's capture

Because one of the primary thematic elements of this film is doubling, it is fitting that the film should end the way it began. However, due to the fact that this is film noir, it will not be an exact replica, by a long shot. As Janey Place has argued, and as is made apparent within the film text, a doppelganger is not necessarily an exact duplicate.

Foster Hirsch notes, “the ideal metaphor for the world view that prevails in noir is the maze-like, many mirrored fun house…”[10] In a place where nothing is as it seems, it would make sense that things as integral as power can change during the course of even one scene. Film noir, rife with its unstable personality, whether represented visually or developed narratively, causes the power structure that is ominously present in the beginning of this film to be flipped by the end.

By the finale, Mr. Brown realizes that he’s done for. He has nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He kidnaps Susan before she has a chance to rat him out, and goes to a private hanger where he waits impatiently for the plane that is supposed to arrive. Susan goes to light a cigarette, and he slaps it out of her hand, and then slaps her face, hard, warning her not to try that again. She looks directly at Mr. Brown and responds, “I want to be seen.” And she does. After meeting Alicia, and looking her own possible future straight in the eyes, she realizes what she has become, and wants to “out” her true self, the one that does not go along with everything that Mr. Brown says or wants.

Brown continues to pace, complaining about the pilot not arriving. “Everything’s falling apart. Can’t trust nobody, nothing,” he says, walking into the fog. As he completes this statement, he looks upward, just as a light hits him.

He looks towards the light, and realizes it’s a police car, and, like Susan’s sprint at the beginning of the film, he runs into the blackness of the hanger, knowing he’s trapped, trying to get away. From the deep fog, where his physical appearance cannot be seen, we hear Diamond’s footsteps coming closer and closer, and his voice telling Brown that it’s done, and to come on out. Brown starts to shoot, but he is shooting at nothing, as he can’t see his target. He can’t see anything, and is looking back and forth, panicked. At the same time, the camera returns to Susan, who is actively watching this exchange between Brown and the police. When Diamond says, “You can’t get away, Brown,” the camera returns to a shot of Susan, who turns around

and grabs a light on the car. Turning towards the camera, she flashes the light directly at the camera, and at the spectator, but is supposed to be at Brown. The scene continues and wherever Brown is, she finds him with the light. In this way, Brown is finally caught and taken away, a man on either side of him, small and vulnerable, a vision analogous to Susan’s in the beginning.

By trapping Brown with the light, Susan succeeds at retrieving personal agency. The main thrust of Brown’s intimidation factor was that Brown could not be caught because no one would speak out against him, for fear of personal injury or death. No one could touch Brown. Within the heavy fog and blackness, it seems that Brown is still untouchable. When the police fire back, they do not hit him. Susan wants them to know how vulnerable he truly is, thus she makes use of the light, and shows him in all his ensnared glory. Through the claustrophobic spotlight, Brown is now shown to be as vulnerable as Susan was, with the solid blacks and whites that cut across her body in the opening sequence.

Brown's capture

 

It is a mixture of revenge and empowerment. Although Susan is not a femme fatale in the archetypal way, and Brown is certainly no hero, she does use Brown’s trust to undo him, like many other great femme fatales before her. However, through the shining of the light directly at the spectator, we are made aware that she is not doing this out of vindictiveness or with malicious intent, but to look at the situation straight in the eye, as she does the camera, and reclaim the strength of the light for herself.

To See or Not to See…

From its inception, the term “film noir” has taken on a multiplicity of definitions. Ranging from a “series” of films[11] to “subtle qualities of tone and mood,”[12] this term has come to mean a variety of different things to different critics and film historians. Perspective is bounced back and forth like a ping-pong ball, and, for the most part, the end of each film is not necessarily a happy one. These labyrinthine plots involving detectives, policemen, and regular Joes (who have fallen into irregular circumstances), while interesting, never seem to matter as much as the journey itself. In fact, more often than not, the plot is rather forgettable. What is not forgettable, however, is the visual style of each film.

The Big Combo holds special significance in this respect because it is entirely predicated on visual presentation. From character doubling and significance of a photograph to the use of light within a darkened area as an expression of power, visual communication structures the very heart of this film. John Alton, the cinematographer of The Big Combo, wrote that the right visual stimulation “becomes a symphonic construction…with the aid of this visual concert we can actually hypnotize the audience.”[13] In this respect, Joseph Lewis and John Alton worked in collusion to create a film that not only underscored the integrity and the power of the visual image but actualized it in such a way that the spectator could participate in the journey as well.


[1] Sattin, Richard. “Joseph H. Lewis: Assessing an Occasionally Brilliant Career.” American Classic Screen Nov/Dec 1983: 51-55.

[2] Black, Louis. “The Big Combo.” Cinema Texas: Program Notes 14.3 (1978): 75-84.

[3] Bogdonovich, Peter. Interview with Joseph H. Lewis. Who the Devil Made it?: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997.

[4] “The Big Combo.” Motion Picture Daily 1 Feb 1955. The Big Combo Production Code Administration file. Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, 14 March, 2005.

[5] “The Big Combo.” Variety 16 Feb 1955. The Big Combo Production Code Administration file. Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, 14 March, 2005.

[6] Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[7] Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Women In Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

[8] Place, Janey and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[9] Place and Peterson, ibid.

[10] Hirsch, Foster. Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.

[11] Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[12] Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[13] Alton, John. Painting With Light. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Deader Than a .357 Magnum: Electra Glide in Blue and the Noir of the Road

When people think of noir and neo-noir, the name Robert Blake does get bandied about periodically. After all, he has either been the star of or a rather central figure of two very interesting films in the genre: In Cold Blood (1967) and Lost Highway (1997). However, I would like to posit that there is a third film in his repertoire that would fit the bill: James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973).

On the 15th of January, I originally had other plans. I waited around for a while, but when those appeared not to be happening, I hopped on my bike and raced down to LACMA for one of the double features that they were having as part of their “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies” series. Although I had missed nearly the whole series, I wasn’t that heartbroken as I had seen many of them on the big screen before. These two films, however, were different. It was Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and Scarecrow (1973).

My ticket for Electra Glide in Blue, the first film in the double feature that night

The first film, Electra Glide in Blue, was a film a friend had told me about ages ago, whilst jamming the cassette into her car stereo and chatting excitedly about how much she loved the film. Ever since then, I had always associated it with her. Looking back now, however, I realize that I had seen images of the film poster and ephemera previous to that, and always imagined it to be a great deal more fetishistic, due to the imagery surrounding it. In truth, I had always associated it with Cruising, and this was due, quite simply, to 2 things: both films being made in the 1970’s and having what seemed to be high leather content in the costumes.

And I am not completely deficient in noting that Electra Glide is a film about fetishes and fetishizing. Looking at the poster one can see the basic authoritarian visuals mixed with a flourish in the font and colors that make it less threatening and more sexually charged:

And the trailer…well, that just speaks for itself.

What I was incorrect about was the subject of the fetish. And how that was to play out. Even upon seeing the trailer the first time, I may not have caught the simple beauty that is this film’s nasty, biting reality. But I think that’s what I love about films in this time period. Biting, nasty things are often the most beautiful. Thus, Electra Glide.

Electra Glide is what I would also call a Weirdo Noir. It’s not Neo Noir, as it doesn’t necessarily play by the rules as set out by all the academics and scholars who have written about that part of the genre. But what I love about film noir is that, from its genesis, it involved politics, nihilism, sexuality, and violence. If Electra Glide in Blue isn’t based on all of those things, I’ll eat my heels.

In the first place, the production and cast is a big part of our Weirdo Noir argument. We have three major figures: Robert Blake, Conrad Hall, and Elisha Cook, Jr. All three of these men were well versed in the film noir world, and are well-known within the noir canon. Who could forget the infamous poisoned glass of water that Elisha Cook Jr drinks in The Big Sleep? Or his other various roles in things like The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, or The Killing? I sure can’t! And Blake’s role as Perry Smith, the cold killer that director Richard Brooks revealed to have at least a somewhat human side in In Cold Blood will forever give me chills.

Then there’s Conrad Hall. Hall and Blake had worked together once before on In Cold Blood, and getting Hall was quite a coup, since the man had just won an academy award for shooting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even more interesting than that, Electra Glide was a labor of love. As Joe Valdez states in his brilliant piece,  not only did the film have a small budget, and a first time director, but the shooting plans were non-union and incredibly bare bones . More importantly, even with all of those restrictions, Valdez notes, “Hall was intrigued enough to offer himself for the job. Guercio forfeited his entire director’s salary so he could afford to pay the renowned cinematographer.”

Electra Glide in Blue was a true noir chemical experiment. By adding each element into the “beaker,” the result was an explosion of epic proportions. One would have to assume that there would have been at least some familiarity with each of these characters past works. They hadn’t been that long ago. Therefore, they each brought with them a certain noir sensibility to a film which defies categorization. According to William “Bill” Blick, writing for Senses of Cinema, Electra Glide is not the conventional 70’s Easy Rider-type film, nor is it a simple cop drama. It almost seems to occupy an ambiguous area in-between. He writes, “Using the structure of a murder mystery, the film reveals more than just conventional mystery plot twists. Blue unpeels layer after layer of its complex characters. While primarily a character study, the film also deals with the struggle for understanding between the tune-in, turn-on, drop-out generation and the older established order represented by the police.”

One of the best things about noir is its elasticity and tendency towards the ambiguous, whether that is in morals, sexuality, or otherwise. People will argue until the cows come home about putting hard dates on when actual film noir starts and stops (“It ends with Touch of Evil, dammit!”), and when neo-noir begins, but what I enjoy is that these arguments exist. What this means is that there is room to discuss. Therefore, a film like Electra Glide, which has been projected in a road movies film fest, shelved in the “cult movies” section of a DVD shop, and otherwise discussed in 70’s film terminologies, can also be seen within the noir lens.

JOHNNY: Did you know that me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height? Right down to the quarter-inch? Did you know that?…Did you know that he was so short that they used to have to dig a ditch for the girl to stand in to kiss him? You didn’t know that, huh?

Johnny Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is more than slightly obsessed with Alan Ladd. He sees things in him that are the same and things that he would like to be. When we meet him, he is simply a Vietnam vet who is not only the shortest cop on his highway patrol team, but seems to be treated as though he is “small.” But Wintergreen does not see himself as small. He has ambition. Thus his interest in Ladd. To Wintergreen, Ladd is still relevant and sexy, therefore making him relevant and sexy. He approaches some girls at a sandwich bar, and uses his “Ladd lines” to flirt with them, only he takes it even further. He not only makes Ladd’s physicality specific to his own, he also references a particular film which, in a way, also mirrors his own life.

JOHNNY: I remember one time I heard somebody say “Do you know what was Alan Ladd and William Bendix’s first movie?” and just like that, I said The Blue Dahlia.

In Blue Dahlia, Alan Ladd plays a character who is an ex-navy man. The story itself is a peculiar one that also lends itself to Electra Glide and potentially Wintergreen’s own relationship with his partner, Zipper, and his relationship to the public. Although Raymond Chandler’s book was much more explicit about the details and the Breen Office essentially forced the film to be quite neutered (to Chandler’s great displeasure), the film focuses on war’s intense ability to turn human beings into killers past the point of being on the battlefield. In a sense, Blue Dahlia, like many other noirs, was about how the war came home. And this is different from Vietnam in what way, pray tell? There are several instances within the film where Wintergreen’s identity as a Vietnam vet exhibit themselves. And while it is not explicitly stated that Zipper was in Vietnam, it is clear that the way that the war has “come home” to their particular community (corruption-wise, economy-wise, politics-wise) makes him analogous to any of the other figures from Dahlia, even if it is only tangentially.

Wintergreen, however, wants more. He wants to be the heroic figure out of it, and not the one who ends up spiraling downwards. Thus his strong desire to align himself with Alan Ladd, the hero of Dahlia and, indeed, the unblemished symbol of tough-guy perfection. As Foster Hirsch noted about Alan Ladd, he looked “like what a mogul’s idea of what American movie stars should look like.” (Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, 147).

Johnny Wintergreen cannot stand being a highway cop. He wants to be a homicide detective. And he actually makes it…sort of.  But, as in any noir, things go awry. And, like in many noirs, it is actually partially over a woman. Then he is returned to his “small man” status, and must cope with that. However, this is not how it ends. Electra Glide in Blue aligns with the existentialism and nihilism that is so prevalent in film noir as a whole. Just when you think it might be ok, it’s really not. But there are reasons for that which have been meticulously lain out for you within the last few reels. As a kicker, Hall’s cinematography in the last 10 minutes certainly packs a solid one-two punch to the skull.

Robert G. Porfirio wrote,”what keeps the film noir alive for us today is something more than a spurious nostalgia. It is the underlying mood of pessimism which undercuts any attempted happy endings and prevents the films from being the typical Hollywood escapist fare many were intended to be.” (“No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the film noir,” Sight and Sound, Autumn, 1976, vol.45, no.4) While Porfirio was talking about what we generally refer to as “traditional” noir fare, this quote could not be more perfect than for the category of Weirdo Noir, and thus Electra Glide in Blue. beyond all of the connections and the references, the mood of the film is what drives it towards the categorization. You could show this with The Killers, and be set. In fact, that would be a great double.  At the end of the day, when you think about it, you can’t get much more pessimistic than Wintergreen’s line in the middle of the movie, “Did you know that loneliness will kill you deader than a .357 Magnum?” If your mood wasn’t already on its way by then, there was your one-way ticket.

Book ’em, Noir-o!: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key

On February 9, I traipsed down to my local movie theater, The New Beverly Cinema, notebook in hand, excitement in heart. There was a double feature of two films that I had never seen in my favorite genre: film noir. At first, I thought I had seen This Gun for Hire, but as the film opened, I realized that I hadn’t. The opening sequence is so very memorable that there is no way I could have forgotten that!

Double your pleasure, double your fun at the New Beverly!

The beginning, in a San Francisco flophouse, made me think it was going to be a San Francisco noir (always fun! Who doesn’t enjoy seeing shots of Fisherman’s Wharf in the ’40’s?). But I was dead wrong. After Alan Ladd has an entertaining and violent run-in with a maid, tender moments with a kitten and a handicapped child, and commits the crime that the narrative of the film is based, the plot, like Ladd’s fate, heads south to Los Angeles.

These geographic locations, while endemic and indeed fundamental to the film noir genre, were my first clues that there might have been some “work done” on the original material. The opening credits are superimposed upon a leather-bound edition of the book with the author’s name prominently featured: Graham Greene. My familiarity with Mr. Greene first came as it did with many other people who I know through the film The Third Man. Although the stars of that film were as American as apple pie, the film is as British as tea and crumpets. Knowing this, having Veronica Lake utter massive pieces of dialogue at Alan Ladd about being an American patriot struck me as more than a little bit odd.

So I did what I normally do in this case: a bit o’ research. What I found was that, indeed, it was just as I thought: the source material had been tampered with, but for quite fascinating reasons. I am someone who loves to look into adaptations. I have written and spoken about them, and think that finding out the “story behind the story” is always fun- it’s the olive in my martini. This film was greenlit, essentially, after two things occurred. Most importantly, crime fiction had become an excellent area for the studios to develop scripts from. They were striking gold left and right in that arena. In addition, Graham Greene’s position within the literary community had achieved some notoriety.  This Gun for Hire, purchased by Paramount in 1936, was only developed as a script in 1942, after Warner’s remake of The Maltese Falcon did quite well. It was clear that This Gun could be risked at this point. And it was a good risk.

The original title of Greene’s work was A Gun for Sale, but published in the US as This Gun for Hire. But the title was not the only thing that they changed. Alan Ladd’s villainous character, Raven, is supposed to be hare-lipped and quite disfigured according to the literature. Up on the big screen, however, it became a bad wrist due to some nasty child abuse, thus bringing up both Freudian issues and incurring more sympathy for Ladd’s anti-hero/villain.

However, none of this is quite as intriguing as the political alterations that were made. The writers of the film, as keenly noted by Rose Capp, “embellished Greene’s left-leaning political thriller with some definitively American elements, not the least of which was the incorporation of prevailing American propagandist sentiments…Tellingly, the American script also transforms Greene’s wealthy industrialist Sir Marcus into a monstrous figure of capitalist corruption.” Not that big of a deal, right? That happened fairly often. It was 1942. It was wartime. Pumping a bit more propaganda in there was no big deal.  What I noticed that was a big deal was the person who put all of this together: Albert Maltz. Maltz was one of the Hollywood Ten.

12 Dec 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Cited for Contempt. Los Angeles: Nine of Ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers cited for contempt of Congress, await fingerprinting in the U.S. Marshall's Office after they surrendered. They are (left to right), Robert Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Lawson, and Ring Lardner, Jr. Dalton Trumbo is scheduled to appear shortly. These are the men who refused to state whether or not they are Communists when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington recently. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

This Gun for Hire is the first thing on his list of credits, but…there is something unusual about the way that the material was translated. The “gung-ho spirit” was strange and forced. It seemed misplaced, even for a genre and a time that centered upon a certain amount of patriotic “umph.” When Veronica Lake makes her plea to Alan Ladd’s character to “do it for the cause” of America, it still seems that “the lady doth protest too much.” There is also something very significant in the main villain, Brewster. He is, as Capp points out, a figure of Capitalist corruption. Was Maltz still able to keep his (and Greene’s) voice within the material? As many of us know, the Hollywood Ten were not un-Patriotic. But they were critical of certain elements of the system that made it unlivable for the everyday man, much as Greene was. We may never know the answers to these questions, but watching the film, I did find this element fascinating.

The next film up was The Glass Key. Someone had tweeted on the New Beverly twitter feed that those who were going should look for similarities between this film and Miller’s Crossing. Being a HUGE fan of that film, I was even more excited to see The Glass Key than I had been in the first place. As the credits went up, the first thing I noticed was that, similar to This Gun for Hire, it was ALSO a film based on a book. So I was quite intrigued to see the transition from Dashiell Hammett to Coen Brothers and everything in between! To write that I was stunned is an understatement. There is more than a passing similarity.

When discussing Miller’s Crossing in his book, More Than Night, James Naremore notes that “the Coen brothers mix together ideas from The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and The Maltese Falcon, all the while carefully avoiding direct quotation from the novels. Although their film involves a certain amount of burlesque, it is in one sense deeply true to the imaginative world created by Hammett.” (Naremore, 214) Admittedly, I have not read all the originating source material, but I cannot help but feel that Naremore’s analysis is correct. When you watch Miller’s Crossing, it has elements of Falcon as well as Key but done in such a way that it falls into a category of films that I have dubbed Cinematic Cover Songs. The basic theory behind this holds that what we love about a good cover song is that it maintains the tune (thus we have recognition) but it spins it in an entirely new way so that we can enjoy it as though it were a new piece of media entirely. Thus Miller’s Crossing from the Dashiell Hammett literature as well as, I would argue, the films made from that material.

The Glass Key is a bit complicated, material-wise. The Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film from 1942 was not the first film adaptation. In fact, the first time this Hammett-penned story hit the silver screen was when Paramount filmed it in 1935. It was a property that had been owned since 1931, but due to the now heavily-enforced Production code, it had been going back and forth in order to deal with the more “unsavory” elements within the script; in particular, the corruption within government figures and authority figures.  This version of the film, was directed by Frank Tuttle (who also directed This Gun for Hire, by the way), starred George Raft and Edward Arnold, and didn’t seem to garner as much critical acclaim as its sibling film from 1942. James Naremore noted that it stayed closer to the Warner Gangster cycle of films, but made major alterations to the plot and characters in order to make nice with the Production Code Administration. (Naremore, 57)

The Glass Key, dir. Frank Tuttle, 1935

The Glass Key, dir. Stuart Heisler, 1942

The first Glass Key was left alone and would have probably stayed exactly how it was, a somewhat minor film, remembered only for being a Hammett adaptation and for having PCA issues. However, due to the same film/literature adaptation gold rush that gave This Gun for Hire a shot, Key was given another life. With the success of  1941’s Maltese Falcon (a piece that had two previous versions in its own right- the 1931 film of the same name and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady), Hollywood decided that perhaps Hammett’s writing had finally come of age, and they would try it again. Thus they remade Glass Key. Of course, Alan Ladd had just come off of This Gun for Hire. He had been remarkably successful in that breakout role as Raven, and his chemistry with Veronica Lake was undeniable, so they snatched him up, paired the two of them up again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

All in all, it was a great night at the movies, I would say. Two brilliant films with some fascinating connections. But noir is like that. Misty, murky and secretive. Gotta walk down that alley, talk to the detective, chat up the girl, do the research. Never know what you’ll find…