DEEPEST, DARKEST NIGHT…(Noir, Noir, Noir: Third Feature)

The Big Heat (1953)
D. Fritz Lang

(Warning: Potential spoilers)

Well, it’s the first Classic Era movie I’ve reviewed in this category. Might as well start at the top.

The Big Heat is Fritz Lang’s best American movie (for my money, his best movie period). It’s top drawer in Glenn Ford’s catalog, Lee Marvin’s catalog and those of a host of fine character actors (Jeannette Nolan, playing against type as a cold-blooded blackmailer, is a particular standout).

But Gloria Grahame, Nolan’s “sister under the mink,” owns it….and them. She smolders through noir‘s darkest night, a night only Lang could provide, invests it with her peculiar brand of laconic feline energy, and the hotter and brighter she burns–scarred face or no–the deeper the shadows around her fall.

These were Grahame’s salad days: Give her more than three lines and she would own any movie she was in, including In a Lonely Place, which is one of the ten greatest American movies. The Big Heat doesn’t fall much below that level and it might very well be the greatest Gloria Grahame movie, which is a whole other arrangement.

It’s easy to forget when you’re just thinking about her–and how she usually ends up–that she could bring a girlish quality, too, the same quality a kitten brings to a lion’s den. Glamourous kitten, but kitten just the same:

Even at first glance (and that screenshot is literally our first glance), there’s something more, something different. But you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a passing thing, that she’ll still end up being just another starlet playing a victim in a steamy thriller. You could be forgiven even more when she speaks and it’s a girl’s voice. A big girl, but still….a girl.

That’s just Nature calling. Human nature, sure–that old thing–but something more primal too. There’s a sense that she’s so attuned to the rhythms of the Jungle it can never consume her the way you already know it will consume everybody else. For starters, she’s picked the only natural path for a kitten among the lions….or the wolves. To keep just anybody–or everybody–from jumping her bones, with or without permission, she’s given her permission to the biggest, meanest wolf she can find, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone.

Marvin was known for playing thuggish characters early on and this was his definitive turn in the days before anybody knew he could act and he was all presence. Vince Stone’s a pure animal. You’re a little surprised to discover he can manage modern technology, like telephones.

You’re even more surprised he can form sentences when he speaks into them.

That’s the kind of playmate Grahame’s Debby Marsh has picked for herself. The biggest wolf in the pack….

…That’s true, even if Stone’s boss, MIke Lagano, (a quietly menacing Alexander Scourby), is the one with the polish to be CEO in the flat, urban setting that’s required to blur text and subtext, the better for modern minds to comprehend them.

The main story line involves Ford’s lock-jawed straight-cop-in-a-crooked-city going after Lagano and Stone (and the tentacles of their gang, which reach all the way to the Police Commissioner’s office) because they killed his wife. The moral danger Ford places himself in by turning vigilante might have made a good, albeit more conventional, movie in itself. Such is the quality of The Big Heat‘s script, its deft narrative and Lang’s mastery in fusing mood and method.

But Grahame easily subverts all that, and turns the film into something larger, something which yields, in turn, the hard, lethal kiss of tragedy so much of noir was content to flirt with. Debby Marsh could easily have been the conventional bad girl looking for an excuse to turn good. The Big Heat has its boundaries expanded, and inherent genre limitation turned on its head, by Grahame’s ability to suggest the two sides are not simply interchangeable, but in real, possibly irresolvable,  conflict. You believe her when she wonders if Ford’s Dave Bannion is the man she’s been looking for, the one man who can take her away from the wolf….or take the wolf down. The hero of any number of other noirs

But you believe her, too, when she says “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better!” You get a sense of how much it would take to make her really give up the danger if she has to give up the life she’s bought into along with it.

It would take a lot.

A lot happens.

 

And it’s Grahame who covers the transitions. Ford’s Bannion goes from decent stick to cold-blooded avenger and back again and he handles all the usual angles as well as you would expect. But Grahame’s Marsh takes a longer way around and ends up surrounding a story that was probably meant to surround her. Just for starters, this film has two of the most shocking sequences in American cinema. She and Vince Stone are the key players in both (the only players in the second). They would be. And they switch places. In the first Grahame is a not-quite-innocent victim, in the second an avenger who makes Bannion look like a conscience-stricken priest.

But it’s the same girl. And she’s been a few other girls in between–all human, all convincing. That’s the kind of walking over, under and around a plot that precious few actors can do (Ford did the same thing in 3:10 to Yuma, and one wonders if he learned a thing or two watching Grahame in this earlier film). There’s finally no pity, “self” or otherwise, in Grahame’s performance and no way out for her character.

You can understand why audiences, then and now, couldn’t quite make up their minds about her, whether she should be admired, pitied or feared.

Or was it her characters?

Or even just the pieces of those characters she was bound to invent or discover once somebody gave her a blueprint called a script and the script was even halfway good?

Who knows. You can have a lot of fun trying to figure it all out, none more than here, where she, more than anyone on film–the actress who had already been married and divorced from Nicholas Ray and had already slept with his thirteen-year-old son on the way to marrying him a decade later–never lets you forget that the dreams, American or otherwise..

are always kept next to the Nightmares…

…American or otherwise.

ROUGHSHOD (I Watch Westerns: Take Eight)

Roughshod (1949)
D. Mark Robson

Hectic week, but I found time for a second viewing of Roughshod,  a 1949 effort from Mark Robson that occupies a unique space among both westerns and the career of Gloria Grahame.

I originally sought it out because I want to see Gloria Grahame in anything and I especially wanted to see her in a western, where being ahead of her time (as she always was in the noirs that made her legend), would be more a challenge than an advantage.

Challenge it may have been, but she made it work. This was probably her first really strong multi-dimensional role, and it can be seen as a bridge between the hardcore sheen she had perfected in the likes of Crossfire (and even It’s a Wonderful Life), and the complex, truly unsettling performances she would give shortly after in In a Lonely Place, Man on a Tightrope and The Big Heat.

I wouldn’t say she’s quite as unsettling here, though she didn’t have it in her to be comforting. But the quality she brought to everything works beautifully in a western–at least in this western, which has a sharp, perceptive script that offers a far more nuanced, sensitive and realistic portrayal of  Old West prostitution than the “modern” takes seen in the likes of Unforgiven or Deadwood or even Lonesome Dove.

Grahame’s Mary Wells (there’s a prescient name for you!) is hardly the whole show in Roughshod. There’s the usual fine work by the period child actor Claude Jarman, Jr., a menacing, typically understated turn by John Ireland as the villain (a shot of his face replaces a scene where the last “showgirl” in Grahame’s little troupe is presumably raped and murdered and it’s a wordless forerunner of Johnny Cash’s offhanded line, delivered a few years hence, about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die). Robson–not known for being exactly actor friendly–gets good work all around here, and keeps a complicated story moving at a brisk pace, helped along by a sharp script that keeps on delivering, both visually and verbally. Robert Sterling is better than I thought on first viewing as the stoic lead, forever trapped by his classic westerner’s inability to convey any emotion not rooted in the mastery of violence and physical hardship it takes to survive in an untamed land.

I could go on. This is not a movie with any weaknesses. It’s the sort of movie where two people whose honor is suspect on every level, give up their lives trying to protect each other from men who don’t care about them one way or another except as a means to finding the man they really want to kill…and don’t much care that killing them will only make their own vengeance task more difficult.

Yes, I could certainly go on.

But Grahame is the center piece.

It’s her dilemma–her skepticism that any new life will really be better than the one she has, tempered by her fragile hope that the one she glimpses behind the Sterling character’s “roughshod” demeanor, just might be–that lifts the movie into something better than fine craftsmanship.

Turns out she didn’t need Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan or Fritz Lang after all. At least not any more than they needed her.

I wasn’t entirely sure of it on a first viewing, but this one’s going on my frequent watch list. It really does set the stage for the great theme of Grahame’s career–it’s her first three-dimensional character (at least the earliest I’ve encountered) and that character wants what all her great characters want: to be taken on her own terms.

And Mary Wells refuses what all Grahame’s great characters refuse.

To be taken any other way.

If the great western theme–that Civilization should not merely exist, but be worth something–happens to get reinforced along the way?

Well, you won’t hear me complaining about that, either.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Fourth Rumination)

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
D. Howard Hawks

(NOTE: Contains mild spoilers)

Hollywood has never known quite what to do with the feral versions of Siren Sex. No woman who has possessed it in sufficient abundance to make ignoring it impossible has ever sustained major stardom without cloaking it under a serviceable veneer, usually The Comedienne (see Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe) or The Actress (see Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie…Monroe died trying to make the leap).

Lately, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have been able to work a variation, Action Girl, where the Siren quality can be safely subsumed by Special Effects.

Pack enough CGI on the screen and the Sex can blend with the scenery.

Beside all that, you have the long history of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t shape themselves to fit what the world could handle. Hence a long list of actresses whose careers tend to be summed up by the crit-illuminati with some version of why do you suppose they didn’t amount to more, poor things.

Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor were partially saved from this ignominy by the happy accident of having their prime years coincide with those of film noir. But later shoulda beens–Karen Black, Rosanna Arquette, Ileana Douglas, Rebecca DeMornay, to name only a few of the more obvious–were left stranded in the Brief-Flirtation-With-Stardom-Inevitably-Reduced-to-Working-Actress category.

It’s always been a fine line to walk, but the hard parameters have remained the same from the days of the Hays Code to our current enlightened state of Free Unlimited Porn on the Internet.

Sex, yes.

But please don’t radiate it.

Which brings us to this:

That’s just the black and white version. Of Joan Collins in 1955.

It doesn’t matter if she’s not your type, or that it’s the only still I could find from this Technicolor extravaganza (which the illuminati are universally confident can be dismissed as “camp,” a word they often deploy to dismiss anything they find unsettling….they’re prudes before they’re anything else, no matter how much porn they brag about watching) that comes close to matching the flesh impact Collins has in the film, where, with nothing vulnerable or modern about her, she seems to have been cast as the antithesis of the Hawksian woman.

Of course, she’d have to be something other than modern or vulnerable, given she’s playing someone who had to survive in a time and place where feral sex was one of the few qualities present that is still recognizable (if barely) in our own.

Here’s an attempt to understand it all, from The Guardian, circa 2013:

Khufu has her flogged. “Education is sometimes painful, isn’t it?” he gloats to her afterwards. This is the kind of line that makes a character permanently irredeemable, and the screenwriters (who included Nobel laureate William Faulkner) clearly couldn’t work out how to fix it. So the voiceover just says: “In the succeeding weeks, she became the favourite of the pharaoh. They were married and she became his second wife.” What? How? Why?

It’s nice, of course, that, for now, we live comfortably ensconced in a world where flogging a girl before you marry her is “irredeemable.” But I’m always a little bemused when someone who fusses over Wronged History–dates, places, English accents on Egyptian Pharaohs–because it doesn’t allow the properly educated to either close the distance or keep it at arm’s length (I’m never sure which), can’t bring himself to acknowledge the part that rings true.

Anyone who is really confused about what Pharaoh sees in Joan Collins’ princess–why she might become his favorite once he thinks a good flogging has tamed her–is too stupid to be writing for publication. Anyone who lies about it is….well, you can make up your own mind about those who pretend not to comprehend the obvious, whatever the subject.

But it was Hollywood’s problem before it was The Guardian‘s, and mankind’s long before it was Pharaoh’s.

Yes, Jack Hawkins is badly miscast as an Egyptian. That’s a hole in the movie even Collins can’t quite fill, though she might have with a director who understood feral sex, or a world that ran on it, as something other than perversion (the only time Hawks got the concept across was with Ann Dvorak’s incestuous sister act in Scarface, which was a long way behind him by 1955).

Instead, he–or Hollywood, or Faulkner the Laureate–knew no better than to reduce Collins’ princess to a standard issue shamed harlot in the final scene, when, having been reunited with Pharaoh’s boundless treasure for eternity, she should be in her element and smiling triumph over the peons who think they’ve tricked her.

It’s not a surprise, though.

Failing to punish her for greed, lust and murder in an “unenlightened” world that thrived on all three, would have required real sophistication on someone’s part.

Faced with a character–and an actress–who was nobody’s idea of a Good Wife, Hawks lost his nerve. That, his relatively lackluster hand with crowd scenes (a rather important deficiency in a Sword and Sandals epic filmed on location with the proverbial cast of thousands), and the absence of Yul Brynner, broke his twenty-five year run of commercial and critical success.

Though it lost money, Land of the Pharaohs was hardly a disaster on the first count. And it has gained defenders over the years, including some, like Martin Scorcese and me, who agree on little else. Hawks’ gift for interior scenes and memorable sets is intact and Collins’ performance is a rejection of camp, ferocious enough that it took a quarter-century, middle-age, and the damp squab of real camp on television, for anyone to find any version of it, or her, the least bit acceptable.

I’ll always revisit Land of the Pharaohs.

I’ll always wish it was a little bit better.

I’ll always get at little restless, waiting for the jolt of energy Collins’ entrance gives it and I’ll always marvel at how she sustains it in every scene until the false ending lets her down.

And I’ll always reserve a smile for those who think mankind–and Hollywood–not knowing what to do about Vulgar Sex is the same as having left it all safely behind.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2016 Edition)

As before, in reverse order, excluding Manchester By the Sea, which I wrote about here (17 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: As before, “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

December 11–From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because it came to the multiplex and I hadn’t seen it on the big screen since the eighties. And because it still packs a punch no matter the screen size. Strong hints of the stretched-beyond-reason formalism that would mark the rest of Zinnemann’s career are already present. The movie has a de-lib-er-ate pace. It’s as if Zinnemann, an Austrian Jew who left Europe well before the rise of the Nazis and lost both his parents in the Holocaust, wanted to spend the rest of his career arresting time. No modern audience, bereft of memory, would sit still for it.

December 15–Valkyrie (2008, Bryan Singer, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the thrill of it. When I saw this in the theater, nobody in a packed house twitched. That’s despite the fact that at least some, like me, must have known the ending, since it’s a film which takes few liberties with the last known plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I never tire of it. Perhaps because the real life event it depicts has that thing writers of fiction often spend entire lives searching for: the Perfect Plot. Singer made a decision to strip that Plot to its bare, pulp thriller bones and it moves. Going by in the background–and sinking in more with each repeated visit–is a depiction of a fully functioning police state which has rarely been bettered. And, finally, for Tom Cruise’s Claus von Stauffenberg saying “No one will be spared” to a man whose execution date is printed across the final frame.

December 17–How to Steal a Million (1966, William Wyler, Umpteenth Viewing)

For those faces and who wouldn’t? Oh sure, it’s a lovely comedy caper about stealing that statue (and who wouldn’t?), which belongs to the face on the right. And, as she puts it so eloquently, “You don’t think I would steal something that didn’t belong to me?” But I’d watch those faces doing piano recitals or planting petunias. Who wouldn’t?

December 18–Fun With Dick and Jane (1977, Ted Kotcheff, Second Viewing)

Because I hadn’t seen it in a while and wanted to give it another shot. It’s still pretty good. It’s still not better than pretty good. It moves along okay and has some fun moments. Best bits are still when Jane’s “Jane” goes all feminist though–never stronger than in her two piece by the pool. That and trying to guess which Jane is striving to communicate with us across time and space.

December 19–In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray, Fourth Viewing)

To commend whatever higher power assured that the King and Queen of noir, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, made at least one film together, and that a director of Ray’s quality (he was then Grahame’s husband, though they were separated during the filming) was on hand to watch over things. It’s one of the few truly destabilizing films. There are no tricks–no surrealism, no funky dream sequences, no smoke dissolves, not even envelope-pushing sex or violence. The title is earned: by dialogue, performance, mood, setting, jagged rhythms. There’s interesting commentary in the new Criterion package which suggests both Bogart and Grahame were playing the screen characters closest to their real selves. Bogart’s real self would be dead in a few years. Grahame’s would end up sleeping with Ray’s son by another marriage when he was thirteen and marrying him when he was of age. None of that is in the plot here. All of it is in the air There’s a reason I’ve only seen it four times despite it being one of the ten best films I’ve seen once.

December 19–Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sidney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

Because who doesn’t want to relive 1975? Of course, everything 1975 dreaded, which this film does a fine job of conveying, has long since come and gone. Everything except one thing: the persistent metastasizing of the Security State. The movie slows down a bit too much in the middle but the beginning and end couldn’t be better, or more prescient.

December 23–Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Anthony Mann’s last great western and Gary Cooper’s last great performance. And for a thousand grace notes along the way, with Arthur O’Connell’s ability to wring tragedy from the fate of a cowardly fool touching me deepest this time around. Oh, and nobody could stage shootouts like Mann. Nor could anyone so deeply personalize violence….and never more deeply than here, where the set up is comic and the payoffs so indelibly brutal that the comedy goes clean out of my head and finds me utterly unprepared for it the next time around. Which might be why the have-done-with-it courage of Julie London’s rape victim (first spiritually, then physically, and it’s hard to say which is worse) never quite struck all the way home before.

December 25–Tiger Bay (1959, J. Lee Thompson, Umpteenth Viewing)

For one of the great thrillers; for the lively presence of working class, dockside Wales just before it was swept under by the tides of History; for the decency of John Mills “being himself” subverting what could have been a Javert-like role; for all sorts of other good reasons. But, of course, mostly for the startling, unprecedented, presence of twelve-year-old Hayley Mills, subsequently unrivaled, even by her. That presence is force multiplied by the film’s real plot–and real tragedy–which is a love story between star-crossed outsiders, separated not so much by the circumstance of a murder one of them has committed, but by a stitch in time that has left them man and girl instead of man and woman or even man and teenager. Perhaps Gloria Grahame would have known what to do. Horst Bucholz’s Bronislav Korchinsky does not. It is perhaps not coincidence that his best English-language work occurs here, opposite the only actress who could have loosened him up.

December 26–Eye of the Needle (1981, Richard Marquand, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the finely etched performances by Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan. Ken Follett’s good source novel made the forgivable mistake of portraying “The Needle”–a German super spy who has obtained knowledge certain of the Normandy invasion and is the only source an increasingly paranoid Hitler (see Valkyrie) trusts to give it to him straight–as a simple sociopath. More by the quality of his performance than anything obvious in the script, Sutherland conveys a man caught by a pang of conscience which cannot quite override his loyalty to a country he has not seen for years and must half-suspect he would no longer recognize. That allows Nelligan to become unhinged not so much by the presence of a monster, but the presence of this particular monster, who, only a minute before, seemed so much like a man she had dreamed into existence. That would frighten any woman into begging, “Stop. Please stop!” as she hunts him through the final scenes of one of the great modern thrillers. Marquand soon after got hung up in the universes of Star Wars and Bob Dylan and, coincidentally or not, died an early death. Who knows whether he had great things in him or this was just one of those lucky one-offs. I’ll continue to savor it, either way.

December 27–The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang, Umpteenth Viewing)

Forget Lee Marvin and Glenn Ford. This is the one where Gloria Grahame had chemistry with the carpet, not to mention the coffee pot. She looks like she could have sex with the air just by walking through it and leave the air begging for more. My favorite Lang and Lang is one of my Top Five directors. I have no idea why I can watch this truly disturbing movie over and over. I’m sure it does not speak well of me. But the way she says “And I did it!”  once the air and the coffee pots don’t want to have anything to do with her anymore is probably some sort of…influence.

Happy New Year!

THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)

littlebighorn1

This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)

rawhide1

Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)

lastofmohicans2

Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)

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A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)

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Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)

furyatshowdown1

This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)

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Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)

ROUGHSHOD1

Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)

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This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #6: Baby It’s You)

Baby It’s You
John Sayles, Director (1983)

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[Note: I shopped this briefly but, alas, no takers. Hence it wasn’t ultimately written with the usual screen grabs in mind and, except at the very end, I’m not up to inserting them. So let your imagination (or memory) run wild!]

The first time I saw Baby It’s You was on VHS, shortly after it’s 1983 general release and box-office death. I rented it a year or two later with appropriately modest expectations and it blew by me like a cool breeze.

The second time I saw Baby It’s You was on DVD in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and it ran over me like a truck.

Here with my nose pressed to the pavement, struggling mightily to rise, shaking my head to clear it, I can see how I sidestepped it earlier…or it sidestepped me.

At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready to let it get under my skin and if Baby It’s You isn’t under your skin it’s just a movie.

If, on the other hand, it is under your skin, its absolute lack of reassurance let’s it run around in the bloodstream, equal parts depression and liberation, intertwining mythic space and human space so deftly one becomes indistinguishable from the other.

Always a heady place to be, that.

I better write about it before I have time to reassemble my defenses, here in my own little human space.

It should be easy. I mean, John Sayles wrote and directed it. I haven’t seen a lot of Sayles’ movies but the few I have seen, including Eight Men Out, which is the only one before now that I’ve seen more than once, are enough to make me feel like I know what I’m getting when his name comes up under “Directed by.”

I know it will be tasteful. I know it will be meticulously crafted. I know it will be more readily admired than loved. I know it will be good for me.

What could be easier to digest, dissect, defend against than one of those?

Nothing, actually.

Except Baby It’s You is none of those. Not even meticulous. No movie that breaks free and runs down lost roads, trucking the unwary, like this one can be limited that way, even if everyone involved threw themselves into getting all the details associated with craft just right.

And, for all I can tell, they did just that. All of the minor characters–the nerdy high school professor, the bullying, “get-to-class-right-now-mister” principal figure, the clueless parents, the caring drama teacher, the various high school and college friends and acquaintances–are stock and played that way. Never with anything less than finely nuanced sensitivity mind you, but they aren’t running free down lost roads. They’re in a John Sayles movie, one and all.

I won’t say it doesn’t matter. All that craft doesn’t go to waste. It’s the woop and warf of the structure after all and a fine one at that.

But this movie is only about two people: Rosanna Arquette’s Jill Rosen and Vincent Spano’s Albert “The Sheik” Capadilupo. Everyone else is a shade. Any brief attempt to give them real-life dimension, as opposed to abstract force, now temporal, now ghostly, in the lives of the two principles, comes a held-breath cropper. The more any one of them tries to care about Jill or the Sheik–no one’s ever really concerned about both–or otherwise threatens to stand out, the sooner they fade to black.

And the more it’s possible for us to care.

I can’t say the caring is imperative. I’m not forgetting this barely ruffled my hair when I was close enough in age to fall for Jill myself and spare a sneer for pretty-boy Sheik, so clearly going about it all wrong!

So, no, not imperative. But possible.

Twenty-something or fifty-something, that isn’t a chance many movies offer.

And there’s where time has come around and run me down from behind.

I stuck a movie in the DVD player and now, suddenly, at what was supposed to be a safe distance, I find myself caring about Jill and the Sheik. Two characters in a movie. Two characters I have next to nothing in common with, as it happens, but that’s not the sticky wicket here.

The part that won’t go down is, I care about them….and I have no idea what happened to them.

Disorienting to say the least.

Caring and then knowing are the fuel movies–or maybe just narrative art–run on. Knowing who they are. Knowing why you care. Knowing they have arrived on some safe shore, even if it isn’t the shore you wanted them to reach, or that, if they went down, they went down with a purpose even if the purpose was purely cautionary, a life lesson for those watching from the cheap seats or the beach.

I mean, if you’re not going to tip the balance toward the comforts of assurance–Jill will be fine even if she really sheds the Sheik and the acting thing doesn’t work out, the Sheik won’t steal any more cars, knock over any more liquor stores, stage any more fake kidnappings, get himself thrown in jail finally–then at least give me some of the usual convention of false ambivalence. That’s well enough established as a narrative trope that it carries its own assurance.

So okay, I’m in an art movie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not entirely immune to art for srt’s sake.

But it doesn’t get under my skin.

Normally, no one is better at pandering to my near immunities than your average indie film-maker in general unless it’s John Sayles in particular. I mean, when he bitched about having the editing taken away from him on this one because it had a Hollywood budget, I sort of assumed he found the final product insufficiently ponderous.

Oh, maybe his preferred cut was even more of what Baby It’s You ended up being: maybe it was even looser, bolder, freer to associate, freer to not associate, more prone to run right off the rails and then be set straight back on by the particular way the Sheik (or is it his partner, the Rat?) throws down on the owner of the store he’s robbing when he should have been taking Jill to the prom and then refuses to shoot him, or the pregnant pause when Jill asks the “I-wasn’t-blonde-then” girl who used to be in her gym class if she’s “been going out with…Rat, long?”

Those little half-pauses are everything.

This movie runs on beats. Sharp, quick rhythms that eventually turn into elongated rhythms that reach the breaking point without quite snapping. Rock and roll into rock into a lost country. Sam the Sham into Procol Harum into the Velvet Underground, with the Shirelles on the title track joining the Supremes and Dusty Springfield and whoever else could be properly licensed (the Toys in the original movie credits, the Chiffons on the present soundtrack and it’s all perfect) providing continuity and a constant, gentle-but-firm push-back against those consummate invaders of the movie’s intimate girl talk space. That would be Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, each, of course, completely incongruous in a movie that’s not only set in the sixties but very specifically about the sixties. and, oh-by-the-way, each as completely, absurdly, perfect as the Shirelles.

And that’s just the soundtrack, cruising along underneath dialogue that sounds like the kind songwriters make songs out of. Did “Everything’s fine Ma, go back to bed,” come out of “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” or was it the other way around? Did the school guidance counselor intoning “Every year we have one or two tragedies,” make “Leader of the Pack” inevitable or merely imaginable?

Baby It’s You doesn’t bother to answer those kind of questions. But it keeps asking them. Then it let’s us ponder the possibilities. And keep right on pondering.

Me, of course, while I’m trying to recover from being trucked. Easing up on my elbows, ever so gently.

The central question, of course, as in all Beauty and the Beast stories, is what exactly they see in each other? Oh, we know generally what every Beauty sees in every Beast and vice versa. But what about this particular scenario. What does Jill Rosen, sixties-era Jewish American Princess swept up in her times, see in Albert Capidilupo, fifties-era Italian Sheik, caught out of time?

And vice versa.

The movie doesn’t give answers. It gives clues.

We know their worlds don’t collide (and not just because they never meet each other’s parents…heck, I didn’t even register that little detail until the movie made me actually think about it, slow it down, hit the pause button so I could write down the dialogue I just quoted).

Jill dreams of being an actress and The Sheik isn’t going to acting class. Not unless he barges in on rehearsal, unannounced, uninvited and unwanted, just because Jill’s there.

His father isn’t a doctor.

He isn’t applying for college.

The movie tells us these things, eventually, but they’re all knowable right off, long before any given scene codifies them. It’s there in the way he carries himself. A loser trying to be a winner just by acting like one, knowing all along that she’s his way up, if only he can make her believe he’s her way out.

What the movie does reveal, what isn’t available in the first scene, where the Sheik stares at Jill like she’s from a dream he’s been having and she hurries off, surrounded by smart-ass girlfriends who act like a shield against everything the boy staring at her is likely to stand for, is whether the Sheik is bound to keep on losing.

He is as it turns out.

And it’s possible Jill not only knows it but knows it before we do.

After all, everybody in her world is telling her it’s so, telling her to be sure and stay on track, to not let this loser (nobody uses the word, not the girlfriends or the parents or the acting teacher, but they don’t have to and they know they don’t have to because Jill is one of them and the loser is a loser in part because he isn’t one of them and never can be) derail her!

But she’s drawn anyway. Resistant to the beats at first, then…not.

So how does she relate anyway?

Maybe because she senses what he sees in her, the part nobody in any group she already belongs to really gets:

“The object isn’t to have the biggest part,” Jill’s mom says.

“Yes it is,” Jill says, the day before she gets the biggest part and finds the Sheik in the parking lot, standing next to his hot rod (the Rat has the pink slip, it’s not even the Sheik’s style, but it’s his anyway, in the moment, because, like him, we don’t yet know how deep his losing streak will run), saying it’s too bad she didn’t get the lead.

“Kitty is the lead,” Jill says.

Five minutes later she’s handing her car keys to one of her waiting girlfriends, saying “You better drive,” because she and the Sheik have taken the first step on their journey, a whirl in the Ratmobile, and the air’s already getting thin.

But the way Rosanna Arquette says “Kitty is the lead,” is the key in the lock. There’s no hint of arrogance or dismissal of the Sheik’s ignorance. Jill senses instantly that the boy who spotted her in the hallway and stalked her in the lunchroom gets how important “the lead” is, in a way that her mother–and by extension, her mother’s world–doesn’t. She knows you can’t reach a dream by settling for second best and the boy who doesn’t know Kitty from catnip is becoming interesting because she’s starting to realize he wants her the way she wanted Kitty.

So it’s not “Kitty is the lead” you moron or “Kitty is the lead” how could you not know that. It’s “Kitty is the lead”….how did you know how much it would matter if she wasn’t?

It wasn’t an accident that plenty of smart people assumed Arquette would be the Actress of the Age based on this performance and neither she nor they can be faulted for not realizing, in 1983, that there would be no Age, that the new boss would simply go on being the old boss and the Eighties would never be allowed to either breathe or end. To see her here isn’t so much to cry for the career she might have had (a pretty good one actually) as for the world we might have had if we hadn’t been frozen and debilitated by a series of events which Baby It’s You implies does not necessarily preclude those common versions of “The Sixties” so often romanticized.

Unlike a lot of look-back movies made before and since. including Sayles’ own The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You isn’t nostalgic for lost idealism or even lost youth. It can’t be, because its characters not only don’t yet have a past to lose (that was true of American Graffiti, among others) they aren’t even certain the future will have a shape (as Graffiti’s did, even if that shape included real tragedy).

Upshot?

That future is all they can lose.

This being the case, nostalgia loses its appeal and even its considerable, if dangerously seductive, worth.

Baby It’s You isn’t merely alive to memory. It’s alive, period.

Given all that, I don’t know if there’s a certain irony in Arquette, a child of the sixties who literally played in the mud at Woodstock, embodying someone who is struggling to keep pace with a culture that’s changing at light speed, who senses how stunted and unfulfilled her world will be if she doesn’t manage to hold what the times have brought within her grasp.

It might be that having Woodstock in her memory bank was the key in her own lock. Baby It’s You takes place in 1966 and ’67, the last moment before the world Jill Rosen grew up in divided itself into a past that was closing in on itself and a future that never quite arrived, a division that was already clearly irreconcilable when Baby It’s You was being made and has only sharpened in the decades since.

Watching the movie now, it’s hard to miss the sense that this division was unavoidable. That the dreams Jill and the Sheik were nurtured on were unsustainable at any speed, let alone the headlong rush with which the culture Jill wants to join and the Sheik is determined to reject is not merely changing but falling apart.

Certainly the film does not let the sixties off the hook. By putting its finger on that precise Summer of Love moment when the first wave of era-defining Proper Nouns had passed (March on Washington, JFK Assassinated, Beatles on Sullivan, Dylan at Newport) and the cataclysm (Tet Offensive, RFK and MLK Assassinated, Chicago ’68, Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont) was still a held breath away, Baby It’s You let’s us in on the decade’s secret. There were a whole lot of Jills and not a few Sheiks, who lived their lives being hit by those events and whose own lives, liberated and betrayed in equal measure, were defined by their inability to hit back.

Just how remote that Official History could be is evident from none of these events being mentioned in a movie that defines the sixties like no other–as something not merely experienced or remembered but deeply felt and impossible to shake off, in either the individual or collective sense. Just how close by that History can still be is evident from our awareness of what the movie feels no need to mention.

To that end, the most poignant moment may not be the ending, when all of us, Jill, Sheik and anyone who’s been trucked in the watching, have to accept that dancing to a bad bar band’s version of “Strangers in the Night” at the Sarah Lawrence Spring Mixer with the crazy guy who was into Sinatra in high school and definitely going places until he realized he couldn’t even cut it lip-synching for the blue hairs in the Miami Beach resorts Jill’s parents once vacationed in, might be the best memory either one of them will ever have.

That scene is lovely and mysterious and open-ended, as fine as any not-quite-ending you’ll ever see. But once I started treating the movie like a favorite album, keeping it next to the DVD player for quick reference when the playback in my head started to skip or blur, it’s another scene, the one that’s most purely joyous on first contact, that soon becomes the saddest.

It’s just after Jill and Sheik’s first date. She’s driving those smart-ass girlfriends around and they start teasing her about the new guy, the hot guy, the mysterious guy, the guy who’s not part of their world (who, I should mention here, Spano plays with a verve and heart that guarantee Arquette will always have something to play against, no matter how deep she goes). Finally, they get around to chanting “Go-ing to the chap-el and we’re gon-na get ma-a-a-a-ried.” After a chorus, Jill joins in and the look on Arquette’s face goes every place. “Ridiculous!” that face says. “Not in a Million Years!” that face says. “As if!” that face says.

“Maybe…” that face says.

Maybe what?

Maybe a moll? Maybe somebody who can ditch high school and make the big bad world her oyster? Maybe somebody who could let her girlfriends in on the dizzying whirl from the metronomic haze of high school geometry to “Oh, come on, what am I supposed to be afraid of?” to “You are such a dope!” to “Come on, Rat’s waitin’ on us,” to “You hardly said two words to me all night,” to “You never been out with anybody like me, huh?” to first kiss to “See you in school then?”

Maybe somebody who won’t be a virgin too much longer if she can figure out how to keep the adults out of the equation?

Turns out that last part takes a year and not just any year but the one where you start out accepting that if you don’t find your dreams in high school there’s always college, and then discover that if you don’t find your dreams in college the world might turn out to be a whole lot bigger and badder than a place where the worst that ever happened was your girlfriend, who looked like a Shangri-La, tried to slash her wrists on prom night before confessing she slept with your boyfriend the night you played Kitty-the-lead.

Yeah, she finally makes it with the Sheik in Miami, by which time the beats–her life’s and the movie’s–have begun slowing down. And, instead of quickening, they begin to falter. Soon after, and not by coincidence, Jill’s back at college, getting high and banging frat boys she knows in her heart can’t hold the lip-syncher’s coat and banging even harder on him (“He’s such an asshole!”), using him for motivation in the therapy sessions led by her acting class’s Visiting Director (“one of the people who is reshaping American theater!”), who could care less if she makes it or gets the biggest part, just as long as she forgets everything she learned in high school before he cashes the semester’s last check.

Having seen the movie more than twice, that moment when the “maybes” are still in the air now lingers over everything. The limited dreams of going to the chapel, once deemed within every girl’s reach, have been replaced by the unlimited dreams which are bound to be reached by only a few and are no less enticing for that because, just like the small dreams, the big ones are kept right next to the nightmares, even if the sixties aren’t going on all around you.

And, as all of us, boy, girl or country, have discovered in the long night since, anything you survive, fades to gray with time.

Baby It’s You is definitely in my head.

I think I’ll try to get up now.

Maybe get back to watching old westerns and Gloria Grahame movies and reassembling my defenses.

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DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG PLEASE…THOUGHTS ON CITIZEN KANE BEING DETHRONED

The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.

Studying the top 50, we find that the real news, as usual, is that nothing has changed.

Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.

Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.

A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.

But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)

Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.

So at least they got that part half-right.