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Monday, May 20, 2024

Film Noir #28


Noir: Charley Varrick, The Clouded Yellow, Collateral, and Confidence Girl

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973) --- I’m indifferent to Walter Matthau in comedy but will take him all day in something like Charley Varrick, a sunlit noir directed by Don Siegel that came/went largely unnoticed (1973), in part because, as Siegel recalled, Matthau chatting with columnists knocked the film and said the script was never any good. Siegel took this hard and blamed Matthau for commercial failure of the film. I wonder if Matthau realized how effective he was in crime/chase/police thrillers (even The Laughing Policeman, a least of them, still good because of him). Charley Varrick is terse after programmers Siegel directed when being quicker on/off screens didn’t matter so much for less expectation attached to them. 1973 could not afford such indulgence as lower budget action had to be really lower budget in order to pay. I’m thinking Peter Fonda or Warren Oates as Charley Varrick might have gotten by, but then you’d need to call the movie something like "Heist Highway" or "Money to Burn." Don Siegel’s book goes into practical problems of action staging, days wasted, location locals trying to hustle more Universal money than initially bargained for, Siegel having to get tough with them plus members of the crew that slacked or misbehaved. So what was directing, even auteur directing, but plain hard labor? Siegel used familiar and welcome faces --- I spotted Bob Steele, Tom Tully, among others. Joe Don Baker is a memorable heavy, enforcing for the Mafia, and yes, it’s referred to as the Mafia (suppose wired-into-Mob Wasserman got permission?). There is a story that Charley Varrick was conceived as hard R exploitation but was toned down when Radio City Music Hall indicated willingness to play it for Easter holidays. True or mere rumor? Excellent in all ways, and much like an R in attitude if not execution, Charley Varrick should be better known, though still there is a cult and members are enthusiastic, enough so to inspire a Region Two Blu-Ray with oodles of extras, a documentary near as long as the feature. Kino also released Charley Varrick stateside.

THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1950) --- Title refers to a species of butterfly, no help in knowing what content amounts to otherwise, and it was British besides. Columbia imported The Clouded Yellow for 1952 dates, generally on back end of duallers, and there was faint help from Variety's glowing review when they caught the suspense thriller at a London screening in November 1950. “Tense manhunt murder drama … is a solid proposition for exhibitors in any situation here. It’s big prospects in America are well above average, and the pic need not be confined to the art house trade.” Marquee strength, if any, was supplied by Jean Simmons and Trevor Howard, The Clouded Yellow sold as worthy successor to Hitchcock from long back, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, both of which it does evoke. There is pastoral setting, much chasing across locations plus Liverpool cityscape. Villainy is committed and dangerous, and there are welcome Brit faces in support, Andre Morrell, Kenneth More, others. But the show would please only if patronage could be tempted inside, and Columbia wasn’t pulling stops to make that happen. Result was mere $193K in domestic rentals. Part of trouble was UK product festooning early television, including many from the Rank Corporation, which was responsible also for The Clouded Yellow. Where it can be found on DVD, generally import discs priced rather high, The Clouded Yellow both surprises and delights, nicely up there with sleepers off the Isles that have stayed asleep too long.

COLLATERAL (2004) --- I’m for giving Michael Mann possessory credit because his films are unmistakably his own. Collateral, Heat, most of others, seem to me the work of a forever forty or so year old director with another twenty years at least in him. A surprise then to find that Mann has passed eighty, so how many more lie ahead for this highest energy talent? He spoke of how a studio system would never have worked for him as it did for “guys like Howard Hawks,” this based on fact that Mann could never do a movie and “simply walk away.” Price of this posture is too few Michael Mann movies, a misfortune visited upon his acknowledged influence, Stanley Kubrick. I’m selfish enough to regret there weren’t two or three Michael Mann pictures per each of fifty years he has worked, that after fashion of … guys like Howard Hawks. It must surely be hell to organize a project these days, “these days” gone back to before a Michael Mann got started. There tends to be a couple annums at least between each of his, like was case for Kubrick. Mann features are something like events. I assume actors consent to working with him without looking at scripts. Most were never better than with him. Tom Cruise as a cold-eyed killer seems unlikely, but Mann makes it work in Collateral. The film not film was shot digital and has a look no noir street-set had to that time (2004). Mann embraced digital early and knew he could achieve effects with the format undreamed of before. Collateral on projected 4K makes L.A. a dreamscape of streets empty when you need help, crowded when you are given chase. Mann has said the look of Collateral was ruined when 35mm prints were made from his work and botched in the doing, 2004 still in transition from celluloid to pixels. Keep in mind the resistance theatres made to 86’ing of film. Now it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to it. Collateral for me is as modern as something shot yesterday, but look, the show is twenty years past and counting. It mesmerizes for what Mann has done with elements. Again as with Kubrick, I figure no one interferes with him, because as also with Kubrick, Mann’s films have shown profit, being boxoffice as to content and execution. I’m just sorry we can’t have two dozen more from him, but wait, might I have said a same thing about Clint Eastwood two decades back?, and look at him since.

CONFIDENCE GIRL (1952) --- Get this: Confidence Girl earned only $150K in domestic rentals for releasing United Artists in 1952. That’s like being invisible for whatever time it was supposed to play theatres/drive-ins. Similarity of title to others may have been to blame, or Tom Conway yet again. Writing and direction was by Andrew L. Stone, his wife in close collaboration. The Stones could tell a yarn and seldom let down their audience. Confidence Girl has bunco artists leading cops a merry chase with schemes to make The Sting seem prosaic, trickery up to and including fake mind-reads by Whitney Brooke in a stolen fur and Tom starting off in pursuit of her but turning out to be her crook confederate. Enough twists to open a champagne bottle and much of it works provided we give clemency to 80 minutes of puzzle with some pieces missing plus a “conscience” end to better do without. Conway still had suavity to spare at early fifties juncture and I believed him as a Raffles always three steps ahead of law. Stone shot cheaply against 100% real-thing backdrops. Interiors play in front of windows that overlook urban streets and that’s credible plus. Always prefer these to built stages and cheap flats the bane of most independent work. Stone used department stores, precincts, nighteries … you can take Confidence Girl for documentary and have your time if not money’s worth. Amazon plays it as part of Prime reward and I rolled a seven for watching --- much better than obscurity and bare budget would suggest. The stuff you find streaming, much of which is fresh as in never knew such existed. Noir really is a bottomless well. No wonder I’ve done these so long and am still barely into the alphabet. Must say it is the obscurest ones affording the most pleasure, perhaps because they do so unexpectedly.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff considers CHARLEY VARRICK and Walter Matthau's attitude toward it:

Dear John:

Walter Matthau was, I guess, in many ways a smart, intuitive actor. Great talent. Certainly few performers manage to rise from character roles, to comic leads, to full-blown above-the-title motion picture stardom. A difficult climb. Well done.

But I can never forgive his frequent bad-mouthing of CHARLEY VARRICK to columnists and film journalists before the movie opened in 1973. What an idiot. Walter, you didn't make a better movie in the 1970s than this one! You wound up winning the BAFTA for it! If you couldn't get behind the picture, why knock it?

I don't know just how much damage Matthau did to the film's prospects -- I remember reading some of his grumpy, scabrous remarks about it quoted in Earl Wilson's column back in the day, and thinking, "Oh, boy, this can't be good for the movie..." -- but I tend to side with Siegel that it had to have hurt the picture.

This now -- Christ, who knows where the time goes? -- half-a-century old movie looks better and better every year. A sunlit noir, indeed. A favorite.

I hadn't heard that story about a possible Radio City booking. I was surprised when Siegel's subsequent movie, THE BLACK WINDMILL, did play the Music Hall in the spring of 1974.


11:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From our continuing conversation regarding Walter Matthau, Griff supplies more interesting data:


The curious thing about some of Matthau's 1973 remarks was that he would openly praise (albeit perhaps a little backhandedly) Siegel at the same time that he was criticizing the movie. I seem to recall him using the phrase "prince of a fellow," to at least one reporter. [I want to say he even said something nice about Siegel's mother!]

I think Matthau, who had gamely taken his agents' advisements to take a wider variety of starring roles -- now that he was a bona-fide movie star, it was time to explore leads in films other than comedies -- was getting fed up with the crime films he had accepted. I don't believe he was very happy with THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, which opened a couple of months after CHARLEY VARRICK; it is a rare Matthau film with very little humor, though the movie is taut and suspenseful. [Bruce Dern has said that Matthau was unexpectedly generous in allowing Dern to share above-the-title billing with him.] He was reportedly more pleased with THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, in which his sardonic NY transit cop character fit the actor like a glove, but afterwards Matthau told his agents, no more of this nonsense!


12:24 PM  
Blogger Jorge Finkielman said...

I loved CHARLEY VARRICK, finding it accidentally on a cable channel and glued to it. I also loved THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN. But most of his other roles in comedies from this period are not so good.

I can say about COLLATERAL that is one of very few Tom Cruise's films that I have seen in a theater, and probably his very best one. As an actor, I always disliked his films and his performances but here he is actually great by going against his usual movie persona.

6:27 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Another fun read, John. Thanks for touting CONFIDENCE GIRL, I'll add it to my Prime list. Between Prime and Tubi, I'm filling in my noir gaps!

For me, Walter Matthau was the William Holden of the 70s. Much like Holden in the 50s, it seemed every third movie had Matthau in it. Haven't seen CHARLIE VARRICK yet, but I have fond memories of PELHAM. I saw it at my local nabe (with Spanish subtitles, yet!) as a high school sophomore with some friends. I was coming down with a whopping case of the flu, so I was groggy but very entertained.

Lastly, the "free" channel services, such as Pluto, Tubi, and Cinevault Western (or as I call it, the Randolph Scott Channel), are proving to be a godsend for finding forgotten, or at best, seldom-revived gems.

Tubi has TELEPHONE TIME, hosted by storyteller (in my opinion, the most apt job title) John Nesbitt. I've been hoping for a PASSING PARADE collection from Warner Archives; there's a certain poignancy in watching this series, though, as Nesbitt was to pass away at a young age shortly after its run.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

I like Charley Varrick, too. It's smart and suspenseful with great performances from Matthau and Don Joe Baker. I like it so much that I can even forgive it for its "who the heck is going to believe this?" moment when classy Felcia Farr suddenly hops into bed with a crook/stranger with a basset hound face. (Maybe it was an inside joke between "share and share alike" friends Matthau and Lemmon).

9:14 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Forgive me for taking the low route, but the tagline for Confidence Girl -- "She'll give you a hard time!" -- seems to be a double-entendre. Oh, and Charley Varrick knocked me out when I saw it on cable some years ago. Nice to see Matthau as a bad guy.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I rather like Walter Matthau; I remember I first saw him back when I was still a kid on Johnny Carson's old late-night TV show, and I remember him as being quite funny; and the first movie role I ever saw him play was in "Earthquake". He'll always be a comic actor for me.

He is very good in both 'Charley Varrick' and 'The Taking of Pelham 123' and both are also very good movies outside of just his performance; but, thinking about all this now, I suppose I just see him as being "funny-looking", and maybe that's why he's generally underestimated as an dramatic actor by the general public, and why he kept getting comedy roles offered to him.

It seems film actors can't get away from how they look.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Tommy G. said...

It's sad that Matthau didn't choose his words carefully, CHARLEY VARRICK is a roller coaster ride of epic proportions. Don Siegel received another "back-of-the-hand" from the infamous Bette Midler on the set of JINXED less than ten years later. The Winnipeg Free Press quoted Don after the dust settled:

"Film director Don Siegel is really glad he’s finished with his film Jinxed and its star, Bette Midler. Getting the movie in the can, he says, was murder.

'I’d let my wife, children and animals starve before I’d subject myself to something like that again,' says the 70-year-old Academy Award-winning director. He says working with the somewhat demanding and off-color Divine Miss M was 'the worst experience' in his life. 'It was absolute torture! I had to shoot some scenes three different ways. It wasn’t so much that Bette wanted changes. It was that she didn’t know what she wanted! And to a feisty veteran like me, it’s most annoying for someone like her – after making only two pictures –to think she knows everything about editing, directing and acting.' He says Midler became an enormous headache for everyone on the set."

I am a retired commercial film director, with at least a 1,000 commercials under my belt (and one feature), and in the days when film stock was costly and multi-camera rental just as expensive, divas on the set were a headache. Midler and Matthau set mouthy precedents that stone-walled Don from attempting another feature. Why put yourself though it. He lived nine more years, but this great director didn't make another feature film...


10:20 AM  
Blogger PalaceTheatre said...

CONFIDENCE GIRL was on TCM over 10 years ago! I recorded it off-air and
enjoyed the "amateur" feel and its use of real interiors and exteriors.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

THE CLOUDED YELLOW was one of many films sponsored by J. Arthur Rank that played on ABC's "Famous Film Festival,'' making its US TV debut on 10/2/55. It was chopped to fit a 90-minute time slot with commercials.

5:32 PM  

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