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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Two Sets Of Killers

There’s plenty of good scholarship on Mark Hellinger and The Killers. His papers went to USC and numerous writers have dug in and thoroughly covered this Citizen Kane of film noir. Would that as much documentation was available on all classic films! We’d remember Hellinger lots better had he lived longer. As it is, there were but four independent productions completed prior to his death in 1947 at age 44 (that's him below boarding the train with Edmond O'Brien and the premiere print of The Killers). All give testimony of promise vast but cut short. Was any filmmaker more ideally suited to thrive in a postwar market dominated by crime subjects and darkish tone? Hellinger was tattling on Broadway in the twenties and covering a rat-tatting underworld besides. His stuff was good enough to be syndicated beyond NYC papers. Fifteen million readers nationwide were engaged by MH reportage, so this was no Joe Franklin unknown beyond city limits. Hellinger went Hollywood and naturally ended up at Warner Bros. His first meet with production chief Hal Wallis must have gone badly because they disliked each other right off. Rudy Behlmer’s collection of studio memos, Inside Warner Bros., reveals harsh words as posted by an independent-minded Hellinger, who’d not march studio chalk lines. He was proof that often it is the most talented who get abused most thoroughly. Things became so bad with Wallis that Hellinger finally quit. The Killers was initiated after a war corresponding hitch and was among first of winner-take-all independent set-ups wherein men bet farms against success of one movie and borrowed themselves into hock so as to get work done their way. Hellinger’s name and reputation got him $875,000 from the Bank Of America to produce The Killers. Universal floated the rest and agreed to release it. Failure would have translated to a negative repossessed by the bank, a state of affairs others came to know when poverty deprived them of rights to the very films they had bled to create. None of Hellinger’s four (including Brute Force and The Naked City to come) entered those jaws (and for sure, Bank Of America built up a stout library of its own through the late forties and profited nicely selling seized pics to TV well before major studios let go their backlogs). The Killers, or rather Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, was marketed on proven names of both that author and Mark Hellinger. You could do such in 1946 with writers prominent enough, plus audiences that actually read books and followed columnists. 1944’s To Have and Have Not owed a measure of its success to its link, though tenuous, with Hemingway, while Hellinger’s fame was sufficient to place him on-camera in a trailer for 1939’s The Roaring Twenties, which he had co-written at Warners. Both Hellinger and Hemingway were tough guys with battlefield experience, real ones as opposed to soundstage mock-up. Scripting participants on The Killers had recently looked down gun barrels as well. John Huston was among these. He penned on the quiet so as not to reveal violation of his WB pact. The Killers was only a short story so far as Hemingway took it. The first eight or so minutes disposed of his part. Huston and Anthony Veiller, with assist from Richard Brooks, followed EH’s lead to fill out a remaining hour-and-a-half. Coming in behind Hemingway’s opener was literary equivalent of following Jolson at the Winter Garden. No wonder The Killers emerged so studied and efficient (too much so? Some say yes).

Universal got its licks in before crime sagas went stale. Flash-backing had already become a familiar device. I wonder how long it took for patrons to get sick of it. Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce paved that structure’s way for The Killers. What sold Hellinger’s package was sex and a how-to on planning, executing, and bungling The Big Caper. Unknowns (in her case relative) Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner lent allure to posters and stills. The fact they delivered on that promise led The Killers to a mighty gross. Lancaster’s screen test had been leaked to gossipers and they were atwitter over Hollywood’s unveiling of its newest caveman. He was what saved an otherwise problematic title for women, and ads such as one shown here were careful to target that select (and selecting) group. Similarities with Citizen Kane might have been better noted had more people gone to see Orson Welles’ 1941 inspiration for much of how The Killers spun its narrative. Certainly others down the line pinched ideas off Hellinger’s (and director Robert Siodmak’s) film. How many would experience déjà vu watching Out Of The Past the following year, with Robert Mitchum recognized at his end-of-the-line gas station much as Lancaster was in The Killers? Indeed, this newcomer would make repeated stops behind eight balls in pursuit of noirish schemes gone wrong, a chump you’d vote most likely to be fall guy at your next armored car robbery. Ironic that Mark Hellinger would share his contract for Lancaster’s services with old Warner nemesis Hal Wallis, now producing independently as well, and releasing through Paramount. The Killers was photographed by Woody Bredell, a Universal ace who lent distinction to visuals in their horror films as well as Deanna Durbin vehicles in which she looked by far her best for his camera. 16mm prints of The Killers from years back could be, often were, astounding, depending on which New York lab reels were heisted from. Woody Bredell’s name in collecting days generally meant liquid whites and rich blacks. A lab’s effort to capture these made all the difference. I had Reel One of The Killers from a poorly timed print and the remaining two reels from an exquisite source that got every bit of value from one of the most spectacularly photographed of all noirs. 

I read with great interest Don Siegel’s account of directing (and largely writing) 1964's redo of The Killers. To have started out as a movie for television, the project merited unusually close supervision by Universal chief Lew Wasserman. Since The Killers was planned to be the first feature film for vid premiering, it’s likely Wasserman focused on delivering a quality product so as to secure an ongoing commitment from NBC. The plan was for The Killers to lead off a series of movies for the network. A director with feature experience, who could also shoot quickly and for a price, was needed. Siegel took much of the project’s burden upon himself, his assigned writer tired and bored by the hacking game, but eager withal that his credit be maintained. Gene L. Coon was the journeyman in question, his a name branded into memories of those who abided 60's programming. Coon was all over Wagon Train, Star Trek, The Wild, Wild West, dozens more. Cheap sets, process screens, and Gene L. Coon seem to go hand in hand --- all are among Universal truths of that era. So then is The Killers, which abounds in these, plus offbeat casting and crisp Siegel handling way beyond standards of TV movies to come from this company. Remember Fame Is The Name Of The Game, The Longest Hundred Miles, The Borgia Stick? So many made and virtually all disposable. NBC wanted fresh product for Saturday night’s primetime slot, thus the deluge. To advertise these as "movies" was something akin to false advertising. NBC allotted $250,000 toward production of The Killers, an unrealistically skinflint figure for anyone expected to deliver decent product. Universal was said to have actually spent past $900,000. A theatrical release might have been necessary to recover overruns, never mind that The Killers was rejected by NBC on grounds it was too spicy, expensive (?), and violent for TV screens. NBC vice-president Mort Werner was circumspect about this initial (and in his mind, failed) effort. We've learned to control the budget. Two new 'movies' will get started soon, and the series (of movies for the network) probably will show up on television in 1965. Maybe Universal recognized sales potential to theatres and decided The Killers was simply too good for NBC (Siegel’s film would in fact never run on that network). It was certainly no worse than a lot of what they did put on paying screens. Universal merchandising cared at least enough to supply exhibitors with a set of attractive door panels (above) in addition to other accessories, so it wasn’t a matter of The Killers being tossed to wolves.

Theatrical release pin-pointed selling for various territories and action crowds they catered to (any attempt to lure a discerning audience with the Hemingway credentials is apt to be aborted and ineffectual, said Variety). New York’s July 7, 1964 premiere was saturated among neighborhood theatres with The Private Lives Of Adam and Eve as co-feature (ad above), while our own Starlight Drive-In first-ran The Killers with Universal’s The Lively Set and a direct appeal on behalf of both film’s Hot Cars, Hot Thrills, and Wild Women (also above). You’ll note shifting emphasis in these ads. Selling points were plentiful as pitched to a minor league of nabes and ozoners. Urbanites got Lee Marvin aiming his piece with further emphasis on Angie Dickinson (violence and sex as enticement), while we of the South were drawn to racing art and its accent on speed (plus the sex). Did The Killers give satisfaction then? Probably so, even if grossing potential in such markets was limited. $949,260 was Universal’s take in domestic rentals. There might have been as much in foreign (such themes traveled well), though I don’t have figures for that. Violence in The Killers is said to be tame now, which may be if one is inured to Lee Marvin’s particular line in menace. On the other (persuasive) hand, he's as chilling as ever (more so?) amidst metro-sexed and sensitized leading men presuming to carry his banner today. As to matters of bloodletting, The Killers reflects Hollywood in transition, John Cassavetes spilling not a drop in his first reel death scene, despite being shot multiple times, while Lee Marvin is fairly drenched for a gory finish that no doubt gave NBC the vapors and forecast explicitness to come in features. The stock car race is Siegel’s centerpiece. He talks about it a lot in his book. They went out and shot an actual event with multiple cameras, hoping to catch something exciting, plus get production value from bleachers filled with onlookers. Had things changed so much since 1914 when Mack Sennett took Charlie Chaplin along to perform against the similar background of Kid Auto Races At Venice? There is too the matter of Ronald Reagan in his last acting role. He’s at least as capable, and lots more interesting, than anyone else they could have gotten for his price. Did a reluctant Reagan do The Killers as a personal favor to his agent as some claim? He smiles but fleetingly before twirling Angie Dickinson with a deathless-moment slap. Reagan doing this in the forties was one thing ... seeing a soon-to-be California governor land such a blow (and looking like Reagan of the White House in the bargain) gives real power to an otherwise unremarkable scene. It’s loaded all the more for nowaday viewers hauling their own social and political baggage to screenings. Siegel and crew would never have seen it coming, but  Reagan is the lightning rod for crowd reaction to The Killers, his mere presence a cue for cheers or jeers. How many slaps delivered forty plus years ago resonate so loudly still?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Halloween Harvest For 2008

It’s October again and time for accounting another year of horror film releases on DVD. The crop’s been down, owing partly to diminished disc sales overall, and known quantity chillers having been offered up in past seasons. We’ve pretty nearly dredged the lake. Universal sat out 2008 and so failed to deliver on Lionel Atwill "B’s" and more Paula the Ape-Girl pics some had hoped for, while Warners restricts its monsters to Best Buy shelves (but never those within driving distance of me). Sony/Columbia meanwhile secured eternal gratitude of fans by rejuvenating Hammer films I’d have sworn we’d never see. Two sets emerged this year, not all horror titles per se, but each as hotly anticipated, maybe more so, than fabled classics we’d previously digested and had easier access to all along. Sony’s offered pirates, Tong terrors, and psycho thrillers so long buried that some of us wondered if they’d ever really existed at all. Some were so obscure as to be hardly represented in monster magazines back in the day. A (The) burning question with any Hammer film is whether it’s truly complete. There’s so often footage someone claims to have seen among archive holdings or on some Euro TV broadcast. I came to The Stranglers Of Bombay with head abuzz over a snake and a mongoose, which sounds like an Aesop Fable but is actually a scene frequently missing from that 1959 release. Columbia distributed Stranglers as they had Hammer’s previous The Revenge Of Frankenstein, with advance ads, such as a color one above, closer in spirit to the film itself than jokey teasers that followed (also above) when The Stranglers Of Bombay went into theatres on a double with The Electronic Monster. Would thirteen-year-olds, surely the targeted audience, be intrigued by British colonialist management problems and rivalry among ranks as depicted in this black-and-white scope feature? I wonder what those few Moms and Dads venturing inside with youngsters thought. Not to worry, as most patrons were probable drop-offs for an afternoon’s distraction while parents engaged bridge games and/or golf matching. I was five and not yet a Liberty habitué, thus The Stranglers Of Bombay came my way but these forty-nine years later and was most satisfactory for all the wait, its snake and mongoose fulfilling hopes I’d harbored for at least half that long.

The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll is another coveted rarity. It was nowhere for decades, other than horridly cropped and dreadfully cut, these being adjectives I’d not lightly apply as Two Faces, known alternately as House Of Fright and Jekyll’s Inferno, fell victim to censor assault and distributor mayhem that made Von Stroheim’s mutilations look by comparison like objects they’d hung in the Louvre. Hammer saw potential with Jekyll’s beginnings. It was 1959 and the little company reeling from international successes The Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula felt emboldened toward greater prestige for its horror subjects, thus better writers courted and bigger stars induced. Their aim was good, but targets were invariably missed. Laurence Harvey was said to have considered Jekyll, but like Cary Grant’s supposed flirtation with Hammer’s later Phantom Of The Opera, it came to naught. Insensitive stateside handler Columbia took a look at the finished Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll and found it unsuitable for kiddies they catered to with horror films resolutely on mild setting. Hammer showed real boldness with this one, however. The finally complete (or nearly so … who knows?) Two Faces is several jumps randier than any of their stuff up to then, its language and near-nudity a welcome and thought-lost treat for Hammer cultists. As with most of their horrors I’m rediscovering, expectations are more than met. Sets no doubt smaller than they look (Chris Lee might better duck when he enters these rooms) are candy-boxes where background doorways exit into red or green pools of light and period frou-frou always engages the eye. Has any producer ever done as much with so little? I liked the long middle section more than a sluggish open and awkward end. My policy dictates that whatever is good in Hammer mitigates all that isn’t. Once done separating, you’ll generally have far more wheat than chaff. There are some who are less charitable, of course. They’d call me an apologist for hackneyed rubbish, an indiscriminate Hammer-head, if you will. Whatever merit lies in either argument, I’d submit The Two Faces Of Dr. Jekyll deserved not the beating it took. Columbia shunned a US release. American-International ended up with distribution and chopped off nearly a reel so as to head off censorial intervention here. They called the result House Of Fright and dumped it into a late Spring and Summer 1961 market dominated by Universal’s stronger Hammer offering Curse Of The Werewolf, AIP’s own larger efforts focused on hit-making Black Sunday and forthcoming Pit and The Pendulum. There were only 6,743 bookings for House Of Fright as compared with more than twice that (13,627) for Roger Corman’s Poe special. Domestic rentals tapped out at $261,000, way below averages AIP maintained on horror/sci-fi product that year.

Hammer wisely varied its program and got a hand in on flourishing genres other than horror. Somehow they’d manage tying it all with a gothic ribbon so that recognition of their name, whatever the content, assured fans of rougher play even in movies figured to be kid-friendly. Hammer tendered pirates minus sailing and the sea, but with cruelties to more than compensate. The Pirates Of Blood River and Devil-Ship Pirates seem to me in hindsight the same show I sat through twice. Both have Christopher Lee. He’s back-and-forth with a beard, eye-patch, and French accent. People who annoy him are likely to have their tongues cut out. I never knew a company so fascinated with cutting out tongues as Hammer. I still wonder at Christopher Lee being so taken for granted in his prime. Was it because only children were going to see him? That probably accounts for his roaring comeback in old age. The little ones who appreciated Chris grew up, overtook the industry, and cast him in their big pictures, a just and rightful third-act for a fine actor I never tire of. But as to Hammer pirates compared with rivals, how did chips (or doubloons) fall? Devil-Ship Pirates under-performed in the US upon Columbia’s 1964 release. There was only $120,000 in domestic rentals. That’s not a patch on what MGM realized selling Guy Williams in Captain Sindbad the previous year. That one did $1.7 million domestic. Business was generated then as now with saturation openings and drum beating on television. Columbia devoted greater energy to Jason and The Argonauts, also 1963,but seems to have done little for Hammer pirates other than cast them adrift on exhibition waters crowded with similar product. As to grown-up fare, particularly that spun off Psycho, Hammer was nothing if not prolific. I’m still not straight on the many they did or which is what. There’s buckets of these and all are twistier than a corkscrew. Consider the following titles and try sorting them out: Maniac, Paranoiac, Fanatic, Hysteria, Nightmare … let’s call the whole thing off! The one just released on DVD is Scream Of Fear. I separate it from others now because I won’t remember enough to do so next week. This has wheelchair-bound Susan Strasberg traversing patios and seashores to investigate possible murders, itself a device that can’t help slowing action. Scream Of Fear is also black-and-white. Bless Hammer, but they need color. Splashes of blood red might have contrasted better against seeming twin suspensers other British concerns turned out in the previous decade (Scream Of Fear is particularly akin to one I looked at recently, Chase A Crooked Shadow, with Richard Todd). Did Hammer favor monochrome for its thrillers in deference to Psycho?

One more horror on DVD needs mentioning, even if not strictly a Hammer. I say strictly because a civilian could easily mistake The Skull for one of theirs. It was actually a sincerest form of flattery on the part of a British firm called Amicus that figured enough money to be in gothic wells for imitators to draw upon. Gothic is the operative word for chillers as sedate in comparison with horrors today. It really was about atmosphere in lieu of violence and sex, even as companies like Amicus and Hammer appeared to push boundaries then in place. As with old Universals, creepy rooms and hallways were most of what you needed to get the job done. Actors like Lee and Peter Cushing supplied the rest. I’ll take The Skull as meditation upon excesses of collecting (in this case crime related artifacts) and how that obsession pushes Cushing to a brink, preferring to watch (and listen to) he and Lee shoot billiards and assess the problem than be faced with that titular relic biting heads off victims. You only get shocked (or repelled) once by any horror film. I went back primarily to enjoy Cushing lolling about his beautifully appointed library and bartering for that coveted skull. It was as much that way when I was twelve. What actors said and against what backgrounds they said it mattered most, not their dexterity with chopping instruments. Chillers seemed to me more congenial, and easier to digest, before they became so explicit. Certainly showmen found it so. One veteran told me of parental confidence withdrawn when things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came through his doors. Drop-offs dropped off, even if teenaged (and driving licensed) thrill-seekers made up the shortfall. Consider this 1965 mob above waiting to see The Skull, then note tender age of most and the managing couple standing amongst them. He’s wearing shirt with tie, and I don’t doubt there’s a suit jacket hanging just inside the entrance to be donned as youngsters are seated. The self-same exhibitor who spoke of trust also maintained dress codes strictly enforced among theatre employees (Colonel Forehand required coat and tie for ushers at the Liberty. It drew lines of demarcation between them and shirt-sleeved rowdies in the audience). So what happened when pictures like The Skull morphed into Night Of The Living Dead, Hammer’s own (R-rated) The Vampire Lovers, and finally The Exorcist? Such (demographic) lines as this for horror movies would go away and not come back again.

There was a Classic Monster Movie Con in Kingsport, Tennessee last weekend. I was intent on going even as guests dropped out and travelers changed minds and stayed home. A bad economy and folks skittish to attend and spend suddenly jinxed an enterprise so promising three months before. I drove the two hours on Friday knowing all this and still I went. How many horror fests venture so close to these mountains of North Carolina? Ann wouldn’t join me because she had a gimp knee (her excuse anyway) and didn’t relish the prospect of middle-aged men walking around in Frankenstein masks. She says I ignore household matters but am vitally interested in what Boris Karloff might have said on some street corner back in August 1933, to which I reply, Well, what did he say? Anyhow, I drove past the Tennessee line and saw changing Autumn leaves we take for granted, plus a wide azure lake. The hotel in Kingsport was vast. There was a group in their twenties gathered out front, but I didn’t bother asking if they were there for the show, as they looked too healthy to be monster fans and were probably getting ready to go climb rocks somewhere. You needed a compass to navigate that lobby so I had to ask directions. Various captains of industry were doing the same for a conference also being held, so who could blame the front desk girl for regarding me askance when I inquired as to location of The Classic Monster Movie Con? It was noon or so upon entering the hall, and there I stood alone with a handful of dealers and dialogue from The Body Snatcher echoing from behind a curtain hung nearby. Sara Karloff’s was the first face I recognized. She was set up with merchandise from her Karloff Enterprises. I was pleased to spend the next several hours talking with her. Meager attendance at the show now worked to my selfish advantage as I asked and got answers to all my questions about Boris Karloff from his daughter. Turns out she never cared for his (or anyone else’s) horror movies. That much I knew from published interviews. Being a movie star just happened to be what her father did for a living. Beyond that, she made little inquiry growing up. How many of us followed Dad to work in the mornings after all? Sara did go see The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Unconquered, both in 1947, as neither were monster roles and thus more palatable to her. The one time her father recommended she catch his act was the night before CBS ran How The Grinch Stole Christmas in December 1966. He knew that was something special and called to make sure she’d tune in. At one point in our conversation, I spoke of having recently watched Die, Monster, Die!, to which she simply asked Why? Not an unreasonable question if you grew up at any time other than the sixties. Sara must find fandom a baffling thing. Indeed, my spirited defense of Die, Monster, Die! only made me seem foolish. I tried to convey the miracle of Boris Karloff as I experienced him. Here was a man nearing eighty with emphysema who could barely walk, and he’s playing above-the-title leads in horror movies where he’s the scary guy. When was such a thing ever done before or since? Alas, I had to leave The Classic Monster Movie Con later that afternoon and so missed Son Of Frankenstein’s Donnie Dunagan the following day. More people came on Saturday and online discussion groups said the show was an overall success. The impressive poster for The Classic Monster Movie Con was designed by George Chastain, whose site, E-Gor's Chamber Of TV Horror Hosts, is an absolute must-see..)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Revisiting A Face In The Crowd

So many writers condescend to the fifties. There’s talk of naiveté and that more innocent time prior to worldliness we’re supposed to have attained in a crucible that was the sixties. Was A Face In The Crowd another of those films they just couldn’t handle on first-run (along with Ace In The Hole, Vertigo, Touch Of Evil, and others) or are historians selling us a bill of goods that folks were too dumb then to get it the way we do now? Latter meditations on A Face In The Crowd are all about its chilling prophecy and our dark world of media and politics it foregrounded. Never mind which elected official embodies Lonesome Rhodes. They all have (or still do) depending on who you read. Maybe we need reminding that director Elia Kazan himself regarded A Face In The Crowd as satire. He lived long enough to see his japery do service for agendas with shorter life spans than a black-and-white flop made fifty (one) years ago and, not surprisingly, giving audiences a better time now than it did when playing new. Were they indeed too willfully ignorant (another modern critic’s description of 50’s viewers) to get the joke he was telling? Kazan’s memoir confessed of the film's "exaggeration" falling to earth at the end, but he thought it great fun up to that point. So do I, and I’m even okay with its overwrought finish. A Face In the Crowd is a blast of an outrageous comedy for those willing to give obvious modern parallels a rest (sure it’s loaded with them, but why keep hammering it?). F.I.T.C. may be the fastest 125 minutes on record (for me, repeated viewings go like lightning). Bad guys are right-wingers, natch, part (most!) of why film journalists have loved it since. What was old is new again, especially when it conforms to politics agreeable to cinéastes. Trouble is agenda driven hectoring (Kazan saw Reagan coming!) that sucks out laughter the director and writer intended. Entertainment once sat a row ahead of social posturing in films. You could still accommodate both as late as 1957, hard to believe in the face of weekly screeds opening (and dying) nowadays from filmmakers inspired by what Kazan and Budd Schulberg did so much better with A Face In The Crowd. Besides, what do such young pups really know about the fifties? I don’t pretend a firm understanding of television five decades back, as I was just getting a grip on Ruff n’ Ready at the time. We can only guess as to how well-aimed Kazan and Schulberg’s skewering was, for how much comparative research can anyone do vis-à-vis Lonesome Rhodes and presumed models Arthur Godfrey, Tennessee Ernie Ford (those names primarily evoked), and others as barely represented on kinescope today?

Crass TV and crude commercialization were familiar movie targets to those (few) seeing A Face In the Crowd first-run. Whenever big-screen characters passed through family rooms, there’d be ancient cowboys and/or noxious pitchmen on the tube (or no set at all, if a Warner pic). Television was the enemy and Hollywood maintained a scorched earth policy when portraying it. Jack Warner probably slapped knees laughing at A Face In the Crowd (at least until he saw earning receipts). Lonesome Rhodes was cinema’s offspring of merry fools whose participation in TV was prima facie evidence of their idiocy. Clifton Webb’s one-time silent era Dreamboat was a character who’d been revived for tele-idiots willing to watch anything, with Howard Keel’s Calloway (Went Thataway) an imbecilic cowboy put over by sharpers Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire, who found it easy pulling wool over home audience’s eyes. Hollywood didn’t mind insulting those gullible enough to abandon its feature output for junk served free at home. Part of what sends A Face In the Crowd over the top is its absolute conviction that television watchers are saps for all its devices, even off-the-chart boisterous Lonesome, who surely would have exhausted real-life viewers long before Patricia Neal pulled the switch and exposed him. If television’s such a "cool" medium, how does a loudmouth like Lonesome pull sixty-five million viewers a week, as the film proposes? That’s a conceit that proves Kazan was exaggerating, for I know not of any on-air personality up to 1957 that managed numbers so great. We had a daily program out of Charlotte, Carolina Calling, that featured much beloved Arthur Smith, a name you’d know had your residence been within WBTV’s signal coverage. He was homespun, low-key, and performed for umpteen years to folks who loved him (and still do). If Lonesome had a real-life (good guy) counterpart, it might have been Arthur, though I doubt Kazan and Schulberg were ever specifically aware of him or other video performers singing and philosophizing throughout the South. Audience disbelief of Lonesome (after all, could patrons imagine being taken in like cretins depicted in the movie?) might have helped sink Kazan’s ship among exhibitors and their public. Some took it out on Andy Griffith, derailing a dramatic career promised in the trailer. I don’t know what to think of this picture except in my opinion it has too much of Andy Griffith, said showman Wayne Goodwin of Butler, Indiana. He got very tiring before the picture was over. Griffith obviously did his job too well, with comedy the actor's avenue of retreat from then on. Exhibitors also took A Face In the Crowd to task for not using color --- The picture didn’t draw, reported Harold Muir of Davision, Michigan’s Midway Theatre. Too long and no star power, to which he added the unkindest cut of all … Just another big flop in black-and-white, which is no better than TV (and did it help that he chose The Bowery Boy’s Spook Chasers as his co-feature?).

Wishful modern thinkers say A Face In The Crowd touched a nerve in 1957. My indication is that it simply tanked, but not from lack of trying. Those pill-popping Madison Avenuers in Kazan’s film were not unlike Warner sales personnel handed such impossible goods. Andy Griffith was unknown outside of Broadway’s No Time For Sergeants and a humor LP about hicks watching football. Kazan hadn’t tasted red ink since 1953’s Man On A Tightrope, his last three pictures being major hits. Interviews at F.I.T.C’s May 1957 opening found him nose-thumbing at WB backers. Jack Warner has no veto power, said Kazan. Warners cannot cut "A Face In The Crowd", he added. They cannot touch it. The director boasted that his Newtown Company works out of a three and a half-room office in a Broadway building, and doesn’t need a big goddamned lot. He’d cast with input from nobody (promising a "refurbished" Patricia Neal, a blurb she might not have appreciated) and saw a fast approaching day when independents would finance their own productions and not depend upon major studios. LIFE magazine had suggested he cut A Face In The Crowd from its intended three-hour length down to two plus five minutes, and Kazan complied. He was watching out for his money at stake, after all. Thirty-seven and one half percent of Baby Doll had belonged to him, and that earned profits of $1.1 million. A Face In The Crowd would lose $756,000 and break Kazan’s winning streak. Warners was heroic in efforts to promote it. There was a major tie-in at Brooklyn Dodgers games the week of opening, and Andy Griffith started a seventeen-city tour on May 13. Disc jockeys interviewed Kazan and Schulberg and spun a Capital record album spotlighting Mama Guitar, Free Man In The Morning, and other would-be song hits from the film. Domestic rentals were a sobering $873,000, with foreign a worse $450,000. Ownership of A Face In The Crowd was split evenly between Kazan and Warners, with the negative reverting to Newtown after general release. Part of why the film became so obscure for years afterward was uneven distribution and hard-to-locate prints. Its television availability was via Kazan’s syndication handler, Charlou Productions, which offered A Face In The Crowd with Baby Doll and nothing else, a decidedly awkward sell to broadcasters more inclined to buy features in bunches. I recall a nearby university renting A Face In The Crowd from a small 16mm distributor during the mid-nineties and receiving the awfulest banged-up print I’ve ever walked out on (its first five minutes missing altogether). Warner’s DVD is welcome (and widescreen) relief from such atrocities, A Face In The Crowd being but recently accessible to deserved acclaim after years of neglect.

Kazan had shot most of A Face In The Crowd’s interiors at NYC’s renovated Biograph building, which had dated from the silent era. Now it was the Gold Medal Studios, its environs providing ready access to Gotham talent Kazan preferred and avoidance of twenty to forty percent overhead tacked on at Burbank. A Face In the Crowd was said to have trimmed nearly five hundred thousand off its budget by virtue of shooting at Gold Medal, a negative cost of $1.7 million, with eighty sets built in NYC, according to Kazan. F.I.T.C. has the look of something carrying twice that price tag. There would also be a month of location filming in Piggot, Arkansas, a town of 2500 that never dreamed movie people would be using their courthouse, train depot, and football field for backdrops. Visiting city press had fun with local misunderstandings when a call went out for kids to bring their dogs to be "shot", and teen baton twirlers were starry-eyed when asked to perform, at length, for a key sequence. Kazan donated $8700 to complete a swimming pool started by the WPA in 1935. Piggot’s 609 seat Carolyn Theatre got A Face In the Crowd just three days behind its Broadway premiere on May 31, 1957, an event they’ve celebrated on several anniversaries since. What small town ever forgets a movie made on its streets? This one had a fiftieth commemoration last year. Two hundred and fifty people showed up at the Community Center for a banquet and screening. Patricia Neal attended. Many citizens who had appeared as extras in A Face In the Crowd were there. Those baton twirlers now approaching their seventies reminisced. My youth has returned, said one of them. It could have been yesterday when we did that. The local high school reunion’s theme was Not a Face In The Crowd. Whatever this picture means to the rest of us, it can’t hope to live and breathe with the intensity it does for the people of Piggot. How many such rural locales can claim proprietary interest in such a classic film?

Photo Captions:
Andy Griffith --- The Next Big Thing In Dramatic Stars
Elia Kazan Directs Griffith and Patricia Neal
Kazan and Griffith Receive Warner Sales Force Visitors on New York Set
Winners and Losers: A Face In The Crowd and Forthcoming Monster Hit No Time For Sergeants
Our Own Liberty Theatre Plays Up NC's Own Andy Griffith For a Summer 1957 Run
A Little Of How A Face In The Crowd Was Sold
Charity Premiere at New York's Globe Theatre
Kazan Points At Nothing In Particular For Griffith and Budd Schulberg At The Opening
Song Sheets: Where Are They Now?
Andy Drops In On a Washington, DC Record Hop TV Show To Promote F.I.T.C.
Kazan and Team Receive Arkansas Key To The State From Governor Orval Faubus
When All Else Fails, Sell It With Batons!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Is Yours A Captive City?

The Captive City isn’t a picture many people care about. It’s never been one noirists levitated over, possibly due to uncertain fit within that category. Besides, there were numerous cheapies (Captive City’s tag was $250,000) taking off on excitement generated by the Kefauver hearings beginning in 1951. Estes Kefauver headed senate investigations into organized crime and racketeering, which he said infected virtually every town in America. Televised grilling of Mafia figures became an unexpected sensation, with Kefauver a folk hero and author (within a year) of two books, plus articles in The Saturday Evening Post. His message was clear even as it went unheeded. We were all complicit in the fait accompli of a Mob takeover. Anytown, USA had opened its doors to body snatchers now firmly in control of municipalities nationwide. It was a chilling message and largely true. Small-time bookmaking = Organized Crime = Communities Invaded. The Captive City’s aliens arrive in black sedans with plates out of Florida. Friends and neighbors taking two-dollar bets are among those possessed by them. You can’t trust the police or your friends at the Country Club. Robert Wise’s film is structured much like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, only The Captive City came four years earlier. The hero in terrorized flight from his small town narrates in flashback how the nightmare began. Wise’s film is modestly tense and believable in ways that showier attacks on human nature and its support systems, such as Ace In the Hole, could never be, for unlike Billy Wilder’s broadside, The Captive City presents corruption as something we’ve accepted and learned to live with, a far more disturbing proposition than Wilder’s seeming fresh discovery of society’s rotted foundation. John Forsythe is Wise’s regular guy waking up to realities everyone else is long since hep to. Every town’s got a larceny streak in it, he’s told, everybody’s gonna bet once in a while. Well, did they? Do they still? Of course they do, you’re all thinking, and probably with the sons of barbers and merchants who were making book in 1952 when Kefauver and The Captive City made it all seem like news. I watched this little picture and felt hometown nerve-ends touched in ways ordinary crime thrillers don’t get near (you used to could bet on ball games at our theatre’s concession stand, among many other places). Did law enforcement and movies eventually give up trying to warn us about gambling and it’s corrosive effects, surrendering much as they did in the twenties with its unenforceable Prohibition Act? I begin to wonder if bookmaking is even (still) illegal in most states. Turns out yes, but you’d not know from the ease of online gaming and access to wagers on every street corner yet. Exposés like The Captive City after five decades are really about a battle waged and lost, for here is crime that paid and keeps on paying.

Was that little something on a horse or the weekend’s gridiron contest such a big deal? Kefauver knew we thought not, so he tied in gambling with inevitable mob rule and killings in communities otherwise friendly and bucolic. Big cities were figured long lost to thuggery, thus said emphasis. Robert Wise latched onto the killers next door theme and made his "Kennsington" setting (no state indicated) the sort of place where any of us might live (population 36,000), his payoff all the more frightful when a clearly indicated Mafia muscles in. Things like that just don’t happen, says one character, --- not here, but Wise shows us it can and probably will unless we purge compromised local governments. The Picture That Tosses A Hot Stick Of Dynamite Into The Laps Of 1000 City Administrations was what posters said, and the director effectively uses scare devices he learned as apprentice for Val Lewton back at RKO in the forties. Onetime crusading reporter Alvin Josephy, Jr. wrote the story. He’d been with papers around Hollywood that tried lifting lids off the rackets and was said to have barely escaped with his life. Wise himself remembered sinister phone calls during production of The Captive City. The invisible army seemingly leaned on anyone sniffing too close. Writers covering fifties paranoia take note --- this was where the action was. Movies crawled all over it, even if there were already five television series by 1952 feeding off revelations from the hearings. The bigger the city under studio microscopes, the bigger the star busting rackets therein. Humphrey Bogart proved equal to gang perfidy in large burgs fought over in The Enforcer and The Captive City’s deluxe model counterpart, Deadline USA (these from Warners and Fox, respectively), while Glenn Ford tamed a town (and corrupt officialdom) only slightly less populous in Columbia’s The Big Heat. The thing that makes The Captive City work is a hero in John Forsythe whose end run against Kennsington’s takeover remains uncertain to the last, as Forsythe had not the tough-guy authority of sure-to-win-out Bogart and Ford. It also helped that Wise shot everything on Reno, Nevada locations, using offices, libraries, public buildings, and Laundromats to heighten authenticity. Ultra-wide angle shooting (with then-new Hoge lenses) makes everything pin sharp, especially in High Definition, the format in which The Captive City happily plays on MGM’s HD network.

Aspen Productions was the independent company formed by Robert Wise, Mark Robson and former RKO producer Theron Warth in 1949. The Captive City was their first project. Val Lewton had been promised a spot in the venture, but was aced out early. Maybe the two directors, earlier mentored by Lewton, figured Warth to be a safer bet to produce for them. He had successfully overseen Wise’s Blood On the Moon at RKO in 1948, and that made $235,000 in profits. The Captive City seemed ideal to exploit a subject everyone with newspapers or a television would be talking about. It wrapped in February 1952 and was released the following month. Writer Josephy graduated to TIME magazine on the strength of his journalistic investigations and Wise was able to induce Estes Kefauver to appear in an added epilogue after screening Captive City for the senator in Washington. There is no such thing as a little harmless vice, Kefauver warned on screen. Cut off the crime dollar at its source, in your own town, and the syndicate will shrivel and die. The script gave ample explanation, via Forsythe’s monologues, of what we were up against. He’d supply what amounted to the screen’s first definition of a modern day Mafia. You don’t hear much about them, unless you get in their way, precedes lectures (with charts) delineating inroads made by the Mob. Florida is mentioned among points of origin. Towns were still insular enough in the fifties for any out-of-state tag to credibly attract notice and arouse dread. A distinctly Italian name like Dominick Fabretti confirms membership in Mafia circles. That character’s presence in Kennsington can only lead to townfolk’s blood being spilled. To separate The Captive City from earlier racket pictures meant emphasizing It Could Happen To You!. A showman’s success with this kind of show was based entirely on individual initiative. In those days before nationwide saturation, and certainly in the case of a low-budget programmer out of United Artists, everything rode on ballyhoo theatres generated at local levels. The promotional outlay as illustrated here (imagine costs of manning a "Chump’s Carnival" display like this in any small-town lobby) was beyond resources of venues running The Captive City on two day bookings, and probably in support of another feature at that. There just wasn’t time or money to push such minor product in accordance with suggestions made in pressbooks. Low earning expectation restricted ad budgets for The Captive City and its kin. Sleepers among these were rare. The Captive City managed just $310,000 in domestic rentals, despite generally positive reviews. Maybe they didn’t get it out fast enough. Similar exposés continued through the fifties, few as good as The Captive City for lack of its novelty value if nothing else. One in 1955, The Phenix City Story, topped Wise’s film for sheer viciousness and set the bar higher (or was it lower) before the cycle wore itself out. By the sixties, mistrust and paranoia with regards the national government made illicit horse parlors in small towns seem quaint indeed. Current trends, ongoing for decades, mandate that all corruption begin at the very top. One-sheets for Leonardo DeCaprio’s newest saves us the trouble of identifying villains by simply reading … Trust No One.
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