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.

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!

PAST AS NOT SO OBVIOUS PRELUDE (Noir, Noir, Noir: Second Feature)

All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan Pakula

allpresidentcover2I’m not sure how many people have viewed the straightforward screen adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of how they broke open the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon as noir (as opposed noir-ish, which can be stretched to include almost anything that isn’t an MGM musical). From that contemporary Czech poster above, I’d say the commies, at least, had a notion.

But if noir is defined by a film’s relationship to, as Edmund Wilson might have put it, the specifically American Jitters, then All the President’s Men isn’t just noir but near-definitive. If it happens to also be quite faithful to history, as no one has ever credibly denied, then it’s all the more remarkable.

It’s worth remembering that noir at its best is never invested in civilization. Most of the black-and-white killer-dillers from the classic period (Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle) are fundamentally pre-civilizational, man stripped bare, deprived of any but the basest aspirations (lust, greed, survival, revenge). That’s why the ones that worked at all worked extremely well, and also why even the very best of them tended to sell out at the end. They didn’t always, or often, end happily, but they nearly always ended romantically. How else to cut the darkness?

On that score, All the President’s Men has a seemingly insurmountable problem. The romance seems built in. Heroic journalists trying to bring down the king yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

But, given the source and the times that produced both the history and the movie, no amount of star power or studio gloss could keep it from being ultra-realistic, too. Somebody realized that and doubled down. Almost no film from the ultra-realistic seventies feels as much like a period documentary as this one, and that’s despite the presence of heavy duty stars and top flight character actors, the kind with personas attached, popping up throughout.

You could argue (I wouldn’t), that Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford or Jason Robards have been better elsewhere, but, despite the near-ubiquitous presence of their real-life counterparts (Bernstein, Woodward and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, respectively) in our lives for four decades running (even Bradlee’s death only slowed him down a little), the actors still seem more like those men than they’ve ever seemed liked themselves. I see Carl Bernstein on CNN, bloviating on yet another topic he clearly can’t be bothered to know anything about, and all I think is “Too bad he’s not really Dustin Hoffman.” I see Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and all I think is “too bad he not really Carl Bernstein.”

And that’s the easy one…the one who probably didn’t work for the CIA.

allpresident5

None of which makes ATPM either great or noir. It wasn’t really meant to be great, I don’t think, except maybe in the way earlier classy commercial properties like The Ten Commandments or My Fair Lady were. Great in the grand old Hollywood style of radiating a certain stiff-necked significance, a film the whole family should see.

And I certainly don’t think it was meant to be noir.

But put a bunch of talented people together with an indelible moment and you never know what might happen.

For one thing, it might actually work on the “significance'”level, as ATPM did and does.

But then it might also, over time, leap the trace.

As ATPM certainly is doing now, in this turbulent month when, on a hunch, I left Medium Cool and A Face in the Crowd to the liberal twitter crowd and pulled this off the shelf instead.

Dutifully or not, ATPM gives us a worm’s eye view of the process of catching rats in high places. Consciously or not, its obvious message is that the only people really qualified to do the job are other rats.

You don’t need to buy Ben Bradlee as a lifelong CIA asset–or someone who would have snuffed the story of the century in the cradle if it had been likely to bring down somebody he liked–to get that from the movie.

And that’s what makes it great.

And that’s what makes it noir.

Maybe just because the heroes involved were more transparent than they knew, even in the moment (forget the long aftermath), it’s possible to be grateful for what Woodward/Redford, Bernstein/Hoffman and Bradlee/Robards did without liking them even a little bit. Against all odds, the movie resists heroism. It just sets you down in soulless “news rooms,” shadowy parking garages, wet city streets, sunlit suburbs, some “ratfucker’s”  apartment….and then lets you work out the moral logistics for yourself.

Sure, Woodward/Redfern occasionally shows a touch of remorse or honesty or self-reflection–or at least seems to. But, real or faked, it never lasts. You can never be sure that these things, too, aren’t calculated as a price well worth what was then merely a potential payoff.

Brave? Prescient? Pure Fluke?

Who knows?

But as we enter our post-civilizational phase, where no secret is so dark it could ever possibly bring anybody down (what Donald Trump really meant when he said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make any difference)–a phase that surely began when the half of the “establishment” that had driven Nixon from office for the one truly unpardonable sin of attacking them, decided early retirement was punishment enough–it feels odd to watch a film that captured that moment a little too perfectly. It comes uncomfortably close to proving noir‘s unspoken pre- and post-civilizational premise: The darkness is all there is.

Ever.

dick2

(NOTE: As I  pretty much always do, I watched All the President’s Men in tandem with Dick, Andrew Fleming’s 1999 duck-and-cover satire of same. I was reminded, yet again, that even the most brilliant satire runs up against limits. I was also reminded, yet again, that those limits can be transcended if you manage to weave “You’re So Vain” into a realistic depiction (beautifully played by an up-until-that-very-moment-gloriously-over-the-top Dan Hedaya) of Nixon departing the White House while Betsy and Arlene cut up some American flags which they intend to put to very good use. I’ll probably have more to say about Dick, which also happens to be one of the two or three greatest movies about the seventies, a decade that arguably could only be understood satirically, some other time, but for those interested, this lovely reminiscence is highly recommended, not least because it reveals how disastrously close “You’re So Vain” came to being….something else!)