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Monday, March 28, 2022

Must They All Be Understood?


Around The World in Several Sittings

Again by way of exploring offshore offerings and how we greeted those that edged way to a crowded US marketplace, here's follow-up to “Take YourTitles of Dubbing Pick …,” GPS meditation on The Blue Angel and M as received outside country of origin (Germany). Thanks to a tip from Greenbriar reader Neely O’Hara circa 7/5/2021, I saw this week La Otra at You Tube, a Mexican-made melodrama starring Dolores Del Rio in a dual role as identical sisters, Dead Ringer two decades early, remade with Bette Davis the twins, one killing other for profit and to satisfy long-stand resentment. YT’s upload of La Otra was archive-restored, excellent in all ways, Spanish-spoken throughout with no English subtitles. I watched per Neely’s assure that knowing Dead Ringer would make La Otra easy to follow, which it did. As before, I wanted to test tolerance for viewing, and listening, sans familiar language. Can it be accepted, let alone enjoyed? I vote yes re La Otra, Del Rio the comfort zone among an otherwise unfamiliar cast. She gives a great “silent” performance inasmuch as all emotion is conveyed visually with little need of words, Del Rio an accomplished performer before movies even had sound. Hers is melodrama shorthand, a most universal of performing language. The actress for her range of expression was my gateway to enjoyment of a familiar story told on differing cultural terms. La Otra is modern-set, “Felis Navidad” a frequent greeting throughout, so we know early when it takes place, plus there are department stores and restaurants holiday bedecked, neat insight to mid-40's Christmas and how it was celebrated in Mexico.

La Otra
was Mexico’s equivalent of highly polished Hollywood output, and frankly good as any of them. It should have had a US release, but to my knowledge did not, other than perhaps Spanish-speaking venues. Story is understood better as narrative progresses, everyone speaking native language that I could grasp better than expected from non-English throughout, like being at a gathering where you realize a foreign language is not so foreign as you figured. I took Spanish in school and recall but one word: "paraguas" for umbrella, so imagine how pleasing it was to listen to and at least partway comprehend La Otra. One instance: Del Rio the poor sister makes her situation clear by longing looks at a neon-bright “loteria” sign facing her from everywhere (yes, lottery --- nothing gets past me!), plus she’s a salon/spa drudge preyed upon by lechers wanting more for their money than a manicure. No need for dialogue to divine that. Her sister living high and haughty makes the murder foregone within a first act, chillingly executed while kids outside do a Yule march with pinatas. I doubt I’ll be satisfied with Bette Davis rendition from here on, having seen Del Rio play it so capably. If La Otra did city shots on a backlot, it was one heck of a backlot, my guess being these were real streets and stores crowded to a hilt, location stuff vivid as we could ask from a show to beat Hollywood at its own heated up game.

Not to dwell unduly on Mexican titles, but there are horrors emerging from there largely unseen since most were new, one of them, The Phantom of the Monastery, lately released on Blu-Ray by Indicator, available also on You Tube under its original title, El Fantasma del Convento. I watched and was duly impressed, Fantasma/Phantom made in 1934, its visual elements to remind us of US and Euro chillers done prior, in many ways their equal, a rediscovered gem. There are English subtitles with both renditions. VCI also carries a number of Mexican chillers, but I’ve checked none out. Judging by Fantasma/Phantom, it may be time I did. One can go a lifetime ducking other-culture offerings for assumptions made early on. Famous Monsters magazine soured me on Latin chills, which to judge by stills printed there, looked anything but inviting. What did I want with Aztec mummies and vampires that part-time wrestled? Clincher was going to the Liberty in 1965 for a combo of Face of the Screaming Werewolf with Curse of the Stone Hand, both imports, dubbed grievously, redeemed only by Lon Chaney in one, John Carradine in the other (sources say Stone Hand was done in Chile). Upshot is I was ruined for below-border horrors from that day. Fifty-seven years is long wait for a closed mind to peep open, but thanks to Fantasma/Phantom, and others possibly as good, there is clearly much to mine from this untapped category.

So it has taken time, but I’ve made peace with foreign language and subtitles, for reasons not expected but rewarding. First is seldom getting what we are programmed to expect. Three act structure with all too familiar bumps are not rules observed by most foreign films. It was that non-adherence to US film policy from 1920 onward that made post-WWII features out of Europe so striking. People were tired of movies seen or heard with eyes or ears shut. This was why it wouldn’t matter when TV eventually cut features by as much as half for time slots at premium. Viewers numbed to narrative formula could decode a story already half over before sitting down to watch. Ann and I saw a thing recently where apparent finish saw everyone happy, issues evidently resolved. She was ready to switch for a next show when I warned that no, it wasn’t over, there was still a third act crisis to dispense with. The best American films disguised such rigid construction, but for most, it was transparent as tissue, and as disposable. With foreign stuff, we seldom know what they’ll do next, or if it will satisfy, but at least they won’t go paths so trod as most of domestic storytelling.

Thing is, Euros don’t necessarily care if we are satisfied. Maybe it is a cultural thing, but I’ve not observed cross-pond crowds clamoring for cheery endings, let alone to tie tales with pink ribbon. They never were so enslaved by Classical Narrative Homebrew. What then where the story itself is superfluous, as it often is with imports? There’s your fascination for many. When I went to Greensboro’s fabled Janus Theatre during the seventies, there was quietude in auditoria to make a dropped pin heard. These people were either fully immersed or catatonic. Art was art … they had not come to crunch corn and make of moviegoing a superficial experience. I thought I was alone in a tomb amidst still audience for Last Tango in Paris, yet more reason to rebel toward Euro that smacked of seriousness and demanded my fealty. Art films had a long-established congregation by this time. Approximately 600 out of 15,000 operational theatres in the United States were using imports by 1955, a number to increase when the French New Wave began sending over goods in 1958. Add to these the sensation that was And God Created Woman, which played art houses in a subtitled version, then widened to mainstream theatres with dubbed prints, four million in US rentals the best any Euro had earned to that time. There was sex for explanation, a same engine that drove offshore arties since postwar discovery of them. Genius showman and distributor of Euros Arthur Mayer said frankly that sex was what it was all about, anyone pretending otherwise just kidding themselves.

Greater license offshore product enjoyed was back of art success, but there was also prestige to be earned just for attending them, then pretending to grasp their point. Richard Schickel wrote longingly of college days he spent camped under marquees for a latest Euro dose: “Going to these movies was, in some sense, morally bracing, a complex pleasure rather than a simple one like seeing American films. Struggling to comprehend exotic cultures, coming to grips --- earnestly, soberly, talkatively --- with new ways of seeing and with new filmic rhythms, set us apart, gave us a sense of being an elite.” This may sum up an entire art audience’s basis for going, for it was challenge they wanted, plus reward in feeling superior to commonplace American movies and commonality that attended them. Schickel’s “struggling to comprehend” struck familiar note for me, though rather than seek that, I more-less rejected whole of arties, a stand endorsed by old-line Hollywood directors who heaped ridicule on upstart auteurs (Billy Wilder a most vocal and lacerating). I’d chew off ropes that would tie me down to an Ingmar Bergman, being provincial to point that nothing but native language would do. Closest I got to foreign in selecting campus movies was Black Sabbath.

Art as Above in Asheville, NC --- and Fayetteville, NC at Below Left

What soothed, but recently I admit, was at long last relax and letting art films, however remote and impenetrable, wash over me like oncoming sleep, Zen state assured by images I’ll permit to be obscure, language free to drift toward or away from comprehension or caring. Where subtitles tire, merely toggle off until you’re ready to confront them again, an option discs happily offer. What I see may be arresting enough to compensate for what I hear but cannot understand. Again, it calls for perception as acquired from silent cinema where faces tell whole of stories. What was needed, at least for me, was set aside of necessity that everything be clear as bells. Life grants no such gift, so why should movies? We swim daily in ambiguity, spoiled for being spoon-fed to where nothing less will do. American films admittedly got more foreign as New Waves spread influence, even if observers at the time said Euro accounted for paltry 7.5% of US boxoffice revenue (Peter Lev, The Euro-American Cinema).  The public may not have watched in mass numbers, but domestic filmmakers paid heed. I remember noting loopy style of shows I saw for reasons other than potential art --- Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank --- there were others, the more so as art was absorbed by a US mainstream. Hollywood had done it before, as note a late silent era co-opting what had been Euro-achieved, Germany pillaged perhaps the most. Would we even have had our glorious 30’s horror cycle without them?

Came the French in the fifties to be influenced by our old movies, which they held no brief against, for it was uniformity of their own country's cinema that became objects of protest. The New Wave was watched and admired on both sides of the Atlantic, even if ours remained a fringe audience, but here’s my query: Is New Wave still watched and admired? I notice Breathless at TCM from time to time. Did we have to be there in 1960, like Richard Schickel, to fully appreciate such films now? How many watch Breathless for curiosity and little else? English critic David Shipman said art films had “dated,” it being years ago that he said it. Even the guy who loosed so many of them on us, Jean-Luc Godard, admitted the concept of auteurism was “absurd,” that he and self-promoting pals cooked up the whole business to call attention to themselves. Could be Godard was just in a sour mood that day, as he was known to often be, but for wide influence they had, these boys surely did something right. Breathless when new looked like a puzzle with pieces out but fits comfortably now beside much of what US directors have done for several generations (lest we forget Breathless is over sixty years old). I drift less to as-defined “art” films than frisky genre fun the French and Italians did by cartloads. Sometimes too I’ll need home-cooked break from overkill of Euro stories told obscurely, one of late L’Eclisse (1962), by Michelangelo Antonioni. I didn’t fully get it, but never expected to, OK cause I at least saw confusion coming. There is much to like still, a French tour if nothing else without having to go there, plus glimpse of differences minus task of flight or boating across.

Following brace of foreigns, I seek tranquility that is generic US plotting by number. My antidote after L’Eclisse and handful of others was a 1949 George Raft called Red Light, where he tracks the killer of his priest brother. I had seen it before, but this time, relief of Raft was profound, emotion roused by Red Light surprising me, but given the circumstance, should not have. Never sell narrative continuity short, this one worth repeated sit just for bracing moment when GR, told he should put his brother’s death behind him, says with intense close-up, He was all I had to love! That line threw me a jolt not to be got from foreign language exposure, at least not so far, but maybe I still haven’t seen enough of them. Fact is most register cold for me, in spite of much to otherwise appreciate, the more so when they lighten up as with much that Kino has out with my French faves, Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, and Jean-Paul Belmondo. You may safely buy blind from this crew, as I haven’t seen a cluck with any of them yet. They may have made reputations with art films, but having to eat like all of us, did crime, cop, and sometimes far-out genre spoofing to make me a latter-day fan of the triage. A best director of them by the way is Euro-genre master Jean-Pierre Melville, so shop him too with confidence.

Looked at Belmondo in Le Marginal (1983), him as police detective versus kingpin Henry Silva, car-boat-etc. chases all over Paris maps. Then was Le Magnifique (1973), further adventuring along That Man in Rio line where Belmondo is teamed with Jacqueline Bisset for secret agent foolery. These must have had some sort of US release, though I never noticed either before Kino offered Blu-Rays of both. Same with tired cop or in-twilight crime boss that Jean Gabin invariably played in maturity. He has such authority as to not need to be understood, and like with Belmondo, and Delon for that matter, there are so many features to discover and enjoy, virtually all courtesy Kino, though good ones are also had from Criterion. I’m starting to think the best genre films overall for the last fifty years came from France, Italy, the UK, Far East and elsewhere other than us (remember those John Woo shootouts that had such a vogue?). Again, it’s getting used to subtitles, admittedly a hump, but then young people manage it admirably with Anime, Bollywood, other categories I’ll not discuss for having no familiarity with them. Too late I’ve come to these parties, but nice to think others embrace them.

But I was raised on foreign films. Fully a third of what I saw at the Liberty was British or elsewhere. Take away Hammer, peplums, Mario Bava, 007, Beatles movies, Spaghetti and German westerns (Old Shatterhand), Godzilla, co-produced weirdies like Psycho-Circus or Castle of Blood, and I would have been like peers playing kickball or hunting tadpoles. My go at Cockney accent at age eleven was as credible as Michael Ripper’s. Bet I saw more from offshore than Schickel and his mates, enjoying them better in the bargain. Threat to integrity of imports was Yank companies horning in with finance backing and distribution muscle. That’s how Blow-Up happened, MGM behind Antonioni vision with dollars he never dreamt of before. 1966-67 saw it sold as a dirty movie, what with nudity and sex frolic Metro left in despite PCA warning, Blow-Up further incidence of censorship’s cookie crumbling. I missed it then because the Liberty never played it, though ads out of Charlotte and a Piedmont triad promised the moon. Blow-Up sounded not unlike Hitchcock, sort of an outdoor Rear Window, and I wondered what audiences expecting that thought of what Antonioni gave them instead.

Such US-Euro handshakes could and did make money … look at La Dolce Vita, and Blow-Up took fantastic returns in a year where virtually all of MGM went into red, six million in domestic rentals, $3.7 million foreign (for territories where Metro distributed), eventual profit to Metro $3.6 million. Blow-Up was among last of high rides for foreign art, as poof went the PCA amidst dawn of a ratings system where anything went, leaving fewer rules for imports to violate. It needed redder meat to get Yank notice, Last Tango in Paris more explicit in 1972 than we’d dare, and rewarded handsome for the deed. Television was reluctant to walk plank that was subtitles but would chance foreign and art that was dubbed. Networks stayed shy, but our Channel 12 out of Winston-Salem ran La Dolce Vita, then The Pawnbroker, latter a homegrown art movie, for memorable primetime nights. We wondered if nudity would stay, watching entirety the price of finding out, beyond me at restless age.  Ponder now --- Have old US classics become art, that is, objects watched out of duty if at all? When was the last time anyone took Citizen Kane or Vertigo for entertainment? I’ve not seen either with subtitles, but increasingly suspect subtitles might belong. Do these and other of our icons play more foreign than American now?

Monday, March 21, 2022

Film Noir #4


Noir: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Any Number Can Play

Figured on getting finally into B’s till afterthought that was Adventures of Ford Fairlane demanded noir placement, maybe a most eccentric choice so far, though there are stranger ones to come. I’ll go further and name Ford Fairlane top among private detective stories told to me during the eighties-nineties; it pleads the case that much noir came of those decades and ones ahead. As for Any Number Can Play, the private life of a professional gambler seems inherently noir, especially where it is Clark Gable and his having had history with such parts prior to 1949. Was Any Number till now too MGM-polished to qualify? As with instances before, just personal-liking it buys membership. Next entry promises to graduate from A's.

THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE (1990) --- It is an unfair world where The Adventures of Ford Fairlane cannot be accessed for streaming. Blu-Rays are out of print too, offered only at stiff price ($84.95, $73.36, on eBay). What other discs are so precious? For me, few, having been a FFF (Ford Fairlane Fan) since initial release in 1990. Why not a sequel, in fact further adventures running to a present day? Because frankly it flopped, 1990 being early application of cancel culture to wit Andrew Dice Clay, his act declared too raw for then-sensibilities (imagine now!). We could wonder if Ford like other disreputable 80-90’s goods is not only discontinued but suppressed (a lot of discs representing that period are also resolutely out-of-print). Rape of art I calls it, but so long as my bearded DVD (dual full frame, “widescreen” format) will play, then content I’ll be, others free to marvel that anyone should embrace such unutterable sleaze as Ford Fairlane. Noir then? Very much yes, even to a framing device to tell the tale in flashback, Ford a “Rock and Roll detective” after cracked Chandler fashion. His mean streets run through sordid 80’s dawning upon 90’s L.A., and outlandish though it all is, I applaud AFF for lighting up a lost world of thirty years back. Being nutsy blend of old and more decadent new, Ford comments on a music scene that makers clearly feel had gone to ruin, the title character taking time off his investigation to show a simp singer how rock/roll should be performed. That Ford harks back to 50’s “pure” R&R shows how lots spat upon music as it evolved past punk, metal, boy bands, the lot skewered by this private eye who despite obnoxious habits, lives like Philip Marlowe by his own code.

Andrew Dice Clay with Director Renny Harlin

The Dice Man (his preferred moniker) is ragingly un-woke and a chatterbox of now forbidden quips, which may explain his expulsion from polite streams, all of which enhances my appreciation for him. Where are monuments for trashy pictures made back then? And pats upon backs of directors like Renny Harlin who supplied them? Has he apologized publicly for The Adventures of Ford Fairlane? (not at all … Harlin defends it bravely for interviews) I say give him a Life Achievement Award instead. Harlin’s latest is Class Reunion 3 (2021), “the first feature film shot in Finland in 35 years” (he hailed from there), which surely differs from any score of pics one could think of. Harlin hit a wall years back with Cutthroat Island (1995), which who knows, might be likeable as much as Ford Fairlane if I’d bother to watch. Die Hard 2 certainly has merit, and Cliffhanger stands tall among Stallones. Harlin also did a shark movie that was fun. Call my tastes corrupted by age thirty, and not improved since. If movies can’t be fine in Classic Era sense, then let them be violent and rude as a Harlin, Walter Hill, John Milius, Rowdy Harrington (perfect name for what he does), all my filmmaking heroes from a “Silver Age” of trash cinema. Long may banners fly for these!

ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY (1949) --- Had Gable's Blackie Gallagher ducked the chair in Manhattan Melodrama, he might have aged to the character presented here, but hold on, Blackie was never such a right guy as Charley Kyng, "A nut for human dignity" as straight-face described by one of Number's support cast. Kyng was husk of MGM's King as bled out by years of belling the cat per PCA enforcement (just compare A Free Soul or Red Dust's CG with anything he did after the war). Pleasure of Any Number Can Play won't be had, however, in quibble over this. We know going in that Gable is gelded, but who knew such effective drama would derive from mere witness to effect age had on this screen embodiment of he-manhood passing mid-years? There's no shrinking from the issue, Gable not vain where it came to expose of vulnerability that came with being 48. He seemed further along than that for intake of alcohol and nicotine, killers that would finish the actor in a decade and threaten his Charley Kyng here.

As good a scene as CG ever played is his Any Number intro. Doctor Leon Ames has come, in secret, to do a physical exam. He notes a weak heart and prescribes nitroglycerin tablets along with give-up of liquor and cigarettes (while lighting up himself to set a good example), wonderful evocation of what health care amounted to in the 40's, guys dedicated to habits that would kill them quickest. Ames' M.D. preaches moderation, but who/what lived by the word in 1949, when every ad and movie put cigarettes at forefront of upward mobility? We see in Any Number's Gable an early admission of what age and time had wrought, but how could that help boxoffice, especially with Metro still selling their star as cocksman in residence ("Gable's A Fighter ... Gable's A Lover" say tone-deaf ads).

Lush Set Where Much of Any Number Action Takes Place

The trailer spoke it (slightly) better, proposing Gable in Any Number Can Play as "A Robust Composite Of All His Great Roles," which it was, and wasn't, considering that, for a first time, they'd acknowledge soft clay beneath feet of an indestructible persona. Much of Gable after the war was composite, Metro finding it tougher to construct vehicles for him. Trouble was timidity, the safe route too often preferred as no one was eager to chance fresher approach. Publicity did not mind pointing out old sage that was Gable, an on-lot presence since silent days. CG muffed a scene where he goes through papers on a desk, these routinely taken from old production department files where such props were needed. Gable recognized call sheets for The Merry Widow (1925), and saw his name listed among $7.50 per day extras. A laugh was had by all, said Any Number Can Play’s pressbook. Gable expressed interest in The Fountainhead, but the property went to Warners and his old rival Gary Cooper. Briefly-at-Culver Preston Sturges floated Gable as lead for a new comedy that would cast him as a high-powered industrialist who recharges a rural town, and yes, that sounds ideal for postwar CG, but diminishing gross on his films would shrink spending on Gable films, not an option where high-priced Sturges was proposed.

Back with His Old Hell Divers Partner Marjorie Rambeau

Gable's postwar scorecard to 1949: Adventure, The Hucksters, and Homecoming all expensive, but profitable (Homecoming the best in that regard with a million gained). 1948's Command Decision lost money, and in hard parlance of dollar-cents, that meant belts tightened and neg costs cut from an average of two and a half million to less than half that for Any Number Can Play. Dore Schary had in meantime taken charge of production and the purse, his goal to trim waste wherever found, including star vehicles not pulling their weight. To this bloat he applied shears and pledged Any Number's finish for below a million, which he nearly achieved by virtue of producer Arthur Freed and director Mervyn LeRoy staging virtually all of action on two principal sets, a gambling casino and the Gable character's residence. Variety announced final tab at $750K, adjusted from earlier announced $1.1 million (actual cost was upwards of $1.4 million, still a comparative bargain). In a marketplace that was shrinking, pic companies took any opp to brag of economies, what with stockholders watching. To bring in a Clark Gable vehicle for so little seemed a step in right directions, but how did Gable view it?

Among Host of Character Greats Mary Astor, Here and Above Left, CG's Old Hearthrob from Red Dust

The King sat uneasily on his throne, as aware, if not more so, than a diminishing audience that his last three films were less than helpful. A star "unhappy" with work was news to trades, which reported Gable demand that he be permitted an outside project for each year left of Metro pact. He got the concession, but would not exercise it. Did the King prefer grumbling to pro-action? The Sturges project had died on a vine of studio apprehension, and now came budget cuts to remain policy on future Gables. Arthur Freed as assigned producer on Any Number Can Play might enhance its outcome, as Freed gave care to whatever venture his unit supervised. Richard Brooks, an up-and-comer, wrote the script, and a first-drawer support cast tied up what at times was diffuse narrative. MGM's one-sheet called their new Gable "His Most Exciting Picture in Years," which didn't flatter earlier ones, but those were spent bread, and what mattered now was fresh loaf paying. Any Number Can Play actually grossed the least of any Gable since the war, but as costs were held down, finish was profitable to tune of $770K. It's available on DVD and has been shown in HD on TCM.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

To Recognize March 17 ...


The Quiet Man For Me Better Than Ever

Watching a favorite again often means making peace with some aspect of it that was bothersome before. The Quiet Man is rich enough to register different each time I visit, like a hundred or more others we could name. Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate was a flag the last time (5/2014) wherein concern was anger re getting or not of her “fortune.” Here and for a first time her motivation made sense, even seemed reasonable given the character’s background and culture. A husband who would let a bully brother-in-law keep what was rightful the wife’s does sort of show a white feather, at least as locals saw it, so yes, the money was critical to marital harmony. To Mary Kate mind, holding out on cohabit access was reasoned response to Sean’s unwillingness to force a showdown with “Red” Will Danaher. Choice characters make in a movie must have sense, even if twisted, for the story to work. And bear too, Sean has his own reasons for action he will or will not take. Ford understood importance of these, as did writer Frank Nugent. Imagine how they labored over The Quiet Man to get beats so splendidly right.

I’ve heard people dump on The Quiet Man for being “too Irish,” which I guess means it is over-boisterous or taken with customs some of us find annoying or inaccessible. Again it comes to characters doing sensible, or irrational, things. Victor McLaglen’s Will seems overbearing for little cause, a barrier to any sort of local progress, including his sister’s marriage. But Will is tricked into approval of that, essentially made a fool of by all his friends and neighbors. His rage upon learning the truth is extreme but, given the circumstance, understandable. We take these people as we find them, even a John Wayne unwilling to raise a fist in defense of himself, until a belated confront with McLaglen. Wayne as Sean has more than persuasive reason to abhor fighting, as we see in a flashback beautifully staged by Ford, as powerful a succession of brief images as the director ever composed. Sean fears a fight because if one is forced upon him, there is chance he will seek to kill his opponent, so how to stage a brawl with Will minus fear of one or the other killed or seriously injured? This would imperil the essential spirit of The Quiet Man, a narrative till now told on genial and good-spirited terms.

Ford does his fix by resolving narrative issues before blows are exchanged, enabling Sean to enter the fight on temperate terms. Having no meaningful conflict left to resolve, nor animus toward Will, he can enjoy the contest for its sport and letting the community observe who is the “best man” in Innisfree. Neither of these are crucial matters to Sean, whose concern was winning Mary Kate back, the marriage having been consummated the night before, so it is really just a matter of getting the three hundred pounds to satisfy her that he is no coward, which they do before fists fly (though I’m still taken aback by so much cash being blithely tossed in a furnace, no matter what it signifies). That Sean and Will become friends after the fight is foregone conclusion toward a happy ending Ford-Nugent conceived, it not mattering who won the bout. As to that, we are not told and don't care. The Quiet Man exalts the splendor of a happy ending for a film done so well as to deserve it. How many others fail to earn their cheerful fade? The Quiet Man lets all its characters smile benignly and face on to the camera, as if waving goodbye to us until next time we watch. It is a flawless movie to mine eyes even if I can’t expect everyone else to agree. I will not let so much time pass before looking at it again. Here’s hope that the Fathom revival in theatres this week will be a success.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Film Noir #3

Noir: Absolute Power, Among the Living, Angel Face, and Another Man's Poison

What goes into a noir drawer where favorites qualify just because they please you? A sort-of horror film like Among the Living might, though it seems more southern gothic to me, plus I didn’t care much for it after years waiting to watch, while Another Man’s Poison, if thought of at all, is more in terms of star vehicle than noir, Bette Davis moor noir tipping into horror. Another Man’s Poison may have been undiscovered-as-noir because the picture was for years so difficult to see; having it now and clear at last makes the label easier to apply. I haven’t heard anyone refer to Absolute Power as noir, but it seems so to me, and for enjoying it lots besides, welcome even flimsy excuse to include the 1997 release.

ABSOLUTE POWER (1997) --- If Clint Eastwood is a loner ex-convict who steals jewels, would Absolute Power be classifiable as noir? I say yes, so here it is, if out of alphabetical order because a repeat view was recent and why not crowbar this one in for being such fun if little else? Eastwood did lots we might call noir, some may turn up later here, him always the loner which often qualifies for noir placement. He lives solo, comports poorly with others, has an alienated grown daughter, as in other Eastwoods. Absolute Power is a most satisfying application of the star's formula, a rug spread for other players to thrive and not just the star. I don’t know a lead man who also directs who is so generous to colleagues. They do marvelous group scenes with Eastwood nowhere around. Sometimes you forget he is even in the movie. Eastwood may be the most secure filmmaker presently working. He has a knack to hire actors I like: Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Judy Davis, Dennis Haysbert, Scott Glenn … plentiful more. There is a scene I recalled from the first time I saw Absolute Power (twenty-five years ago, doesn’t seem possible) where Clint and Ed Harris do cat-and-mouse as criminal v. cop in a museum coffee shop, so relaxed and good-humored I wanted it to last a rest of run time. I’m told all performers who work for Eastwood revere him. Absolute Power illustrates why. Dialogue was by William Goldman, so is sharp and forward driven. We forget particular Eastwoods because he has by now done so many. Absolute Power makes me want to pick through the lot and hopefully find more that are as good (plenty not yet viewed). Did not know Eastwood wrote much of music, the principal theme plus a waltz that Hackman and Judy Davis do for a midpoint set piece. I wish Hackman was still plying smooth villains, but how could we fairly expect a ninety-two-year-old man to keep clocking in for work? Yet Eastwood still does, ninety-one and doing leads. Has any star in the history of movies achieved this?

AMONG THE LIVING (1941) --- Twin brothers separated in childhood, one presumed dead thanks to a false certificate issued by Dr. Harry Carey. The black sheep is alive and insane and hid in the crumbling family manse. This plus other complications take 67 minutes to unfold, Among the Living misunderstood to be a horror film, at least sold as one, but not much seen after ’41 dates. We had Channel 8 to unspool pre-49 Paramounts during the 60’s, but they skipped this one. Albert Dekker is (are?) the twins and is good, but one need embrace Dekker more than I do for fullest satisfaction, plus there is Susan Hayward being wayward and Frances Farmer wasted in a nothing part. Setting is southern, or supposed to be I gather, and there are cemeteries and spooky ruins through which tormented sorts wander. A rowdy townsman says let’s send a union rep to the spooky house to straighten out affairs, and that raised a flag. Then presto comes a lynch mob to settle the crazy brother, later both brothers, which made me check writer credit to confirm suspicion --- yep, Lester Cole, among others. So Cole and likes never slipped in subversive content? Not much they didn’t. This mob makes the one in Fury look like park strollers, and plop goes a third act visually compelling at least for noirish effect, but way heavy lift for a thriller that need not have taken itself half so seriously. I’ve seen Among the Living listed in noir directories which is why I include it here. A Kino coaster, but I admire fact they are getting such obscurities out.

ANGEL FACE (1953) --- Was loserdom and death at the end a necessary corrective for men like Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster seeming to have it all? Minus bad luck (more bad judgment), Mitchum on screen might have had a most charmed postwar leading man life. He is the customary seen-it-all and magnet for women in Angel Face but forfeits the whole when Jean Simmons exerts her spell. Woman as messenger of ultimate death was a staple of so-called noir, and maybe Mitchum could cope with treachery, silken or not … at least might hope he’d survive Out of the Past, The Locket, others, but where insanity entered equations, as was case in Where Danger Lives and certainly Angel Face, he or no one had a chance, as madness won’t compromise or be overcome. Angel Face compels most because we know Mitchum is doomed from the moment he meets Simmons, latter being nuts as to be utterly unpredictable, Angel Face’s finish, while a shock, not really a surprise. I like that Mitchum acts as most men would where an irresistible, if unbalanced, woman comes his way. Warning signs just don’t matter where an offer is couched so alluringly, his not knowing long after he should have known, etc., staying and staying a weakness men viewing will understand. Someone sufficiently cracked, however beautiful, can doom partners forever so long as they stay beautiful. Happens lots in life. Cool Mitchum turns chump just as pug ugliest of us might. It took a Jane Greer or Simmons to close the compact, neither cast by chance, as it needed women irresistible to credibly drag a man like Mitchum down. Ultra-Cool works, is enviable, but we know it is a surface thing. Everyone has their cracking point below that. Mitchum worked well because his was slower to uncover, but nevertheless there.

ANOTHER MAN’S POISON (1951) --- Brit-based Bette uses horse medicine to poison men, first an offscreen husband, then a lover as essayed by then-Davis spouse Gary Merrill, Another Man’s Poison not so much noir as rural cottage gothic after nineteenth century example beloved of English readers. Sufficient reason to watch? Depends on curiosity for offbeat things even where they fail, but what does not disappoint is Blu-Ray capture of countryside and a star way out of element but rising to late application of Nobody Being So Good As Bette When She’s Bad. There would not be another so frisky for her until horrors for a jaded 60’s market. BD crossed to do Another Man’s Poison after Hollywood seemingly lost interest, this but two years after All About Eve, which you’d think would reboot the star for another decade at least, but fate was cruel to aging actresses, Davis realistic enough to take work where it could be got. The project was co-produced by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., her old Parachute Jumper mate, and one who could charm birds from trees where he had an idea and needed friends to implement it. Davis spoke ill of Another Man’s Poison in hindsight (“We had nothing but script trouble”), and US-distributing United Artists took mere $601K in domestic rentals, possibly the least money a Davis starring vehicle had ever seen. The director was Irving Rapper, who had given her/us Now Voyager in 1942, then surprised Bette years later by not being dead when she assumed he was.

Another Man’s Poison
remains for completists only, a little unfair for it has offbeat values you’d not expect of Davis from her down-hill. She’s good as ever at evil, or if one prefers, giving ammunition to parodists thereafter (does anyone --- anywhere --- mimic Davis anymore?). Watch however for Brit talent in support, heavy lift to credibility that is theirs, especially Anthony Steel, who must convince us he is all-over balmy for Bette, who had him by eleven years and looked all of them plus some. Davis saw a need to get more baroque as she got older. So did Crawford. Few name actresses escaped the clutch. Maybe K. Hepburn, but she thankfully did not need the money. Davis worked television like a hound, probably did unsold pilots her staunchest fans don’t know about, and should have had, deserved in fact, one hit series at least, but there was comeback the horrors supplied, and these kept her in profitable features through scorched earth that was the 60’s. Classier work after, for Disney, serious TV movies, plus life awards for every morning she got out of bed, escorted her to the end.
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