Pretty Poison

August 19, 2014

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I only heard about Pretty Poison (1968) from the NYTimes obituary for the director, Noel Black.  He spoke of it after it flopped and was pulled from the theatres, saying:

“Essentially, we saw it as a story with many comedic elements in a serious framework — a kind of black comedy or existential humor of which ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is a prototype,” he said. “We hoped people would take it on more than one level.”

Let’s just stay at one level, not sure if it’s high or low:  it has one of the strangest femme fatales I have ever seen in film.

Anthony Perkins plays a disturbed parolee named Dennis Pitt, a man who deals with his discomfort with the world by spinning outrageous fantasies, this time about his being a tip-top secret agent.  He spots Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) practicing with her high school marching band, goes to work on her.  She seems to be a sweet, impressionable young girl, and the whole thing seems unbelievably corny and silly for a while, as he flirts with, and then woos her with his dark persona of an international man of mystery.

He has a destructive bent, and he enlists her in his plot to sabotage a local factory.  Sue Ann knows her way around a wrench, big or small, pulls this one out of her blouse, and gets to work.

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They are discovered by a night watchman, and Sue Ann calmly bonks him on the head with her wrench.  He’s not dead, so she pushes him the water and then climbs onto him to drown him.  Ride ’em, cowgirl!

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She explains, it’s easier this way, isn’t it?

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From here on in, we’re in Gun Crazy, Bonnie & Clyde, and yes, Dr. Strangelove territory.  Those crazy kids, but which one is really crazy?  Maybe Anthony Perkins isn’t so typecast here as we thought?

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The blue Sunbeam roadster is a nice touch.  Sue Ann’s toy.

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Nothing for it but to shoot her mother, get married, and make off to Mexico, her idea.  He isn’t quite up to killing Mom, so she does it while he’s sick in the toilet.  Some heavy handed imagery here…

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“Oh Dennis, I feel like we’re already married.  What do people do when they’ve just been married, Dennis?”

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“Oh, uh…I don’t think I can right now…”  No problem, she says.  They’ll just get rid of the body and then skedaddle.

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“Dennis, I’m so hung up on you.  I’ll always love you.”

Yes, I’m quite impressed with your capacity for loving.”

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A Private Venus

May 25, 2014

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Melville House Publishing calls Giorgio Scerbanenco the “godfather of Italian noir,” in its blurb for A Private Venus, first published in 1966.  Well, could be – how would I know?  It’s part of The Milano Quartet, a look at the black, dirty underside of that city that seems to have a lot of  noir in its cultural history (Manzoni, Stendhal) if you stretch the term a bit.  And Duca Lamberti certainly is a classic noir male [anti]hero:

Then he took his Lisa Ussaro and drove her home.  At the front door, they even shook hands, they might as well have said, “Thanks for the company.”  He went back to the Cavour feeling completely nauseated with everything, starting with himself, but not with her.

And he doesn’t think to highly of the human species.  He’s babysitting his sisters infant:

“…at one she drinks two hundred grams of milk with her eyes closed, almost without waking up, has a pee at the same time, and then she’s out like a light until tomorrow morning at six or seven.  I’ve always thought that kind of vegetable life is the most civilized.  I think civilization ends, at least for the human race, as soon as brain activity starts.”

Surely he understands that non-humans don’t have civilization, but his crackling cynicism sure is entertaining!

Duca is a doctor who has been barred from practicing, and spent time in prison, for a misstep early in his career when he empathized too much with a very sick old patient.  His father was a policeman who was relegated to a desk job after his arm was mangled in an assassination attempt down south, where he was battling the Mafia.  He wanted, “my son, the doctor,” but the son is a bit too much like the father, and shares his tendency to move outside the rules.  That gets him in dangerous trouble.  But he’s quite good at the crime gig, after all:

But Signor A had not appeared.  They called him Signor A rather than Signor X, because the man wasn’t an unknown quantity:  he was something specific, the chief pimp.  Duca didn’t know his name or physical appearance, but he knew he existed.  It’s like when you say the fattest man in Milan:  you’ve never seen him, you don’t know if he’s a chemist or a restaurant owner, if he’s fair-haired or dark, but you know he exists, it’s just a matter of finding him and weighing him, and then you’ll immediately recognize him because he’s the one who weighs more than anyone else in Milan.

Very logical and systematic:  he gets results.  Faster than his friends, the police.

The plot is a bit haphazard at times, but the suspense propels it forward, and Duca’s character.  You want to know if he will destroy himself or not.  There’s an emotionally damaged young man he’s hired to wean off of drink, a job tossed to him by the police chief who is an old friend; the kid’s engineer-martinet father, a plot element that’s a bit of a red herring;  a couple of young women with an awful lot of nerve and a bit too much intellectual curiosity; and some very creepy types running an European sex-traffic operation.  The title isn’t mentioned in the text, but the racket uses a photo-album to allow customers to pick out the girls they want delivered:  Everyone gets his private Venus, I guess.

The Mafia is a major presence in the book, but only as background, and as the unseen masters of the sex-ring.  Like the book Takedown, and the Italian films,  Mafioso and Gomorrah, its take on the mob is totally unsentimental and unromantic:  they are a bunch of brutal, murderous, gangsters, a cancer on the body of society.  It’s hard for me to imagine an Italian claiming, as people have for The Godfather, that the mob, even in fiction, is somehow a critical representation of capitalism…


Black Angel

March 5, 2014

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With time, it gets harder to locate those old noir films that are really good:  there are a lot of mediocre ones!  So, it’s always a pleasure to stumble on a real find – Black Angel (1946) is one.  The title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story – the angels are all blonde – but don’t let that bother you.  And it starts with a fantastic shot that takes us up off the street and through the window of luxury apartment way up in the sky, but still down in the dirt, of course.

A beautiful singer is murdered; a man, her ex-lover, is seen leaving the apartment.  He is caught and convicted, destined to fry in the chair, but he didn’t do it.  Catherine (June Vincent), his beautiful wife, stands by him, even though she knows he was cheating on her.  She is the model of middle-class suburban virtue.

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Mavis Marlowe, the dead woman, was quite a dish (Constance Dowling), and a real piece of work too.  She was blackmailing a few guys, including the one who is fingered for her death.  He didn’t want his sweetie to know he had been philandering.

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Martin (Dan Duryea), is her husband, obviously estranged.  She won’t give him the time of day.  They used to be a hit singer/songwriter/piano player team.  Catherine enlists Martin in her quest to free her husband, and they present themselves as a nightclub act (she used to sing) to Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre) who might have something to do with Mavis’ death.

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Marko is a sleazy guy, and he was being blackmailed by Mavis too.  With that face, he must have done it.

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He’s no fool, and very suspicious too, but he likes Catherine.  Likes her act, which does great, and likes her, a lot.  He even saves some champagne to share with her for a “special occasion”.  She doesn’t look pleased at what’s coming, but a girl has to do what she can for her hubby on death row, and it might allow her to get into that safe in Marko’s office for some clues.  She’s made quite a transformation from Mrs. Homemaker…

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There are many plot twists in the story, and the ending is a bit contrived, depending on a convenient alcoholic blackout, but it is tremendously entertaining.  All the actors are great.  (Once Catherine gets more interesting so does Vincent’s performance).  They all have things to hide, and the only one who is a straight-shooter turns out to be the criminal.


Phantom Lady – Nebbish Engineer

January 11, 2014

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Another installment in my highlighting of engineers as characters in cinema:

Phantom Lady (1944), directed by  Robert Siodmak, doesn’t seem to be available anywhere but Youtube, so there I watched it, fortunately, on a large screen.  The image above shows the phantom lady with the male lead, Alan Curtis as Scott Henderson.  He’s just been dumped by his rich wife, who was also carrying on with his best friend.

His wife is found murdered, and Scott is fingered for the crime.  He is remarkably passive about it all, but he is saved by his chipper secretary, “Kansas”, played by Ella Raines.  (I read her voice was dubbed – couldn’t she do Kansas?)  The scene where he throws in the towel after losing his appeal is pure Expressionism.
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As noted, Kansas is of stronger stuff, and she tracks down everyone associated with the events of the fatal night, eventually finding the killer in a scene that surely inspired the finale of Jagged Edge many years later.  Would you mess with Kansas?  She has a remarkable clean, strong look to her.
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The reliable Elisha Cook, Jr. came down from his Sierra hideaway to do his bit in the film as a hop-head drummer with the hots for Kansas, all tarted up to gain his confidence.  Her legs incite his drumming to an orgasmic crescendo, but she keeps her cool.
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Scott Henderson is a civil engineer, with dreams of building cities, dreams that excite the love and admiration of Kansas.  (He’s too dull to notice her crush on him.)  He wants playgrounds and sunlight everywhere.  There we have the civil engineer as hero motif, still with some life in it in the 1940s.

Scott’s nemesis and friend, played by Franchot Tone, is an artist, an artist a bit too preoccupied with the power of his hands to create…and destroy.  In a moment of candor, he derides the ambitions of his friend as paltry concerns with sewers and pipes, and whatnot.

Engineer as nebbish:  a far cry from the protagonist of transatlantic tunnel.


Shack Out on 101

November 2, 2013

Are you a traitor?

Thanks to the savage guy, I have another cinema oddity to savor and comment on – Shack Out on 101 from 1955.  Everyone who comments on this film, including me, agrees that it is bizarre.  And strangely entertaining, despite the incredible stuff it contains.  Most call it a red-scare noir, but I don’t quite see the noir aspects of it, except in a very watered-down state.  I can say, however, I know of nothing else like it!

Nearly the entire action takes place in a run down diner on Highway 101 – once again I find myself thinking of the classical dramatic unities!  Anything on the beach of southern California gives me a nostalgic tug, but there are precious few outside shots in this film:  just a few scenes on the beach, including the opening which is much talked about.

We see a woman in a bathing suit lying in the sun at the surf’s edge; then we see Slob (Lee Marvin), talking into a cellphone…oops, that’s a shell-phone!  No, he’s just listening to the sea in a shell, with the coastal bluffs as a backdrop.

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Then he swoops onto the woman and kisses her as she violently resists him.  It’s all in “fun,” they know each other, and he’s just giving her a major hard time and tease.  He runs off laughing as she fumes.  When he reaches the porch of the shack where they live and work slinging hash, he takes her underwear off the clothes line and grinds it into the dirt.  This will occasion much talk indoors about how he is now obligated to buy her, Kotty, a new petticoat, the meanie!

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Slob’s faux assault on Kotty prefigures some brutally real violence between them later on, but for now, the movie moves on between comedy, farce, and absurd Cold War espionage.  Slob is part of a spy network, passing on secrets gleaned from fellow travelers at the nuclear research lab up the road.  His boss, George (Keenan Wynn) is not part of the ring.  Nor is George’s friend Eddie, a traumatized WWII vet who can’t get over his experience on D-Day.  The two of them actually have some pretty affecting straight talk about what that’s all about.  Through it all, some mighty strange stuff plays out on stage at the beanery.

George and Slob get into comparing their physiques during a work-out.

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Marvin is all over the place in this film, really hamming it up at times.  Here he reveals to George that what he really desires is a “nice, big neck.”

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They go on to comparing their legs, and ask an impartial judgment. Didn’t that sort of thing start a long war in the old days?

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Kotty knows better than to pick a winner, and besides, nobody has better legs than she does.  That’s that!

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George is determined to get Eddie to beat his fears of blood, violence, adventure, and even killing of fish (!) that the war left him with.  He’s planning a snorkeling adventure in Mexico which they act out in front of everyone present.  Yes, they do look like aliens…

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Meanwhile, Kotty has a romance going on with the professor from the nuke lab.  At first, it seems that he is in with the spies, but of course, that’s a cover.  He tenderly supports Kotty’s ambitions to take a civil service exam so that she can get a desk job in the government doing something important.  Boy, have ideas changed!

Being sort of noir, there’s a mirror, a double-identity.  And that hand! All the passion of Venus is there!

Cut from the love scene to Slob and his courier in the kitchen.  Right after the kiss, the guy shoves a fish at Slob’s mouth.

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Here’s where it get’s pretty weird.  We are definitely into homo-erotic territory here – look at the grins on their faces as they agree to start up their favorite game…

Nothing these guys enjoy more than a little dance with a rag while they take turns pummeling each other.

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About this time, Kotty realizes that something is going on around here. These “truck drivers,” always teasing and coming on to her, have awfully soft hand for working slobs.

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Eventually, she has a confrontation with Slob when he realizes his cover is blown.   Now the violence is for real.  First he threatens her repeatedly with a nasty knife, but she’s tough – she doesn’t blink. Then – incredible! – he throttles her and smashes her head out of the window.  Then he starts garroting her with some underwear!  After all the kooky stuff in this film, this scene is genuinely shocking.

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Of course, the good guys win in the end.  You knew that already, right?


Let us count the dead men: Johnny Guitar

October 26, 2013


Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray.  Joan Crawford… Man, what else can I say?  This western is unlike any other I know.  Martin Scorsese calls it an opera, and he’s right.  That is the only way to make sense of it – the stagey-ness, the set-pieces, the slow paced emotional confrontations, the melodrama of killing, and the claustrophobic sense that there is no real world outside of what’s going on in the frame right in front of us.  Most of the action takes place in one location in town – Three Unities anyone?

You can read many analyses of this film’s political ‘symbolism’ of lynch mobs representing the contemporary HUAC activities. Or the sexual role reversal – all the men are weaklings:  the women do the heavy lifting.  Or the lesbian barely-subtext:  Vienna (Joan Crawford) as a powerful dominatrix, forcing men to cower, and engaging the adolescent love-hate of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).  Vienna wears tight pants, leather, men’s brightly colored shirts and scarves with jeans, and, at one point, confronts the town’s menfolk bent on hanging her while playing a piano wearing a wedding gown – Emma, repressed harpie wears only black and grey.  Read about that elsewhere – I just want to count the men who die for this masculine femme fatale.

There’s Turkey, the young boy-outlaw who has a sort of crush on Vienna.  He gets caught by a the posse of men in black, and is terrorized into implicating Vienna in a bank robbery he was part of.  That’s cause to hang ’em both!  The men promise him if he just talks, tells the truth, he won’t hang.  He lies, and says Vienna was in on the heist,  They take them both out to hang, but only Turkey dies, screaming protests at his betrayal.  Ah, just a kid.  What does he know?  Johnny Guitar is in hiding and manages to cut the noose rope that’s around Vienna’s pretty neck:  he couldn’t save them both, could he?  It’s actually a pretty brutal portrayal of mob murder.

Then there’s Old Tom (John Carradine).  When Vienna pays off her staff and tells them to scram before the posse comes for them too, he hides and stays.  When he witnesses the mob trying to drag Vienna off to be lynched, he shoots and is shot.  Dying in her arms, Vienna asks him, “Why, why Tom – why didn’t you go like I told you?”  The men in black crowd around – “Look, everyone is looking at me now.  It’s the first time I ever felt important.”  Vienna has that effect on men.

Then there’s the Dancing Kid and his gang, of whom Turkey was one.  Bart tries to make a deal with Emma to turn in the gang, and he kills one of mates when the guy won’t go along with the plan.  After he plants a knife in the man’s back he says, “Some guys just won’t listen.”  Johnny Guitar, an ex-gunman, kills Bart, the only man he kills in the film.  He really is done with shooting – prefers to sing and play.  That leaves The Dancing Kid, leader of the gang, and Vienna’s main squeeze before Johnny blew into town.  Emma shoots him as he rushes to protect Vienna from Emma in the climactic scene.  He dies, a bullet in his forehead, his arms raised, seeking transcendence as he calls out Vienna’s name.

And then there’s Emma herself, shot by Vienna, but she is a woman, albeit one of confused sexual identity.

Vienna’s scheme is to hold onto her property until the railroad comes through, and then sell out for piles of cash.  She’s in good with the railroad management.  Her saloon is burned down, but she still owns the land, so I guess she and Johnny will have a comfortable retirement.


Fritz Goes West

October 19, 2013

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1940, and in color, Fritz Lang takes on The Western, in The Return of Frank James.  What do you get when the master of M and Metropolis goes west?  A pretty good show, with Henry Fonda being particularly fine.

Lang plays it straight with the genre – how could he do otherwise then?  But at times, he seems to be slipping in some playful self-referential material.  Frank James is the brother of Jesse James, the famous outlaw gunned down by the Ford brothers, supposedly in a cowardly manner in return for their pardons.  When Frank hears they are off the hook for the killing, he vows to get them.

Frank concocts a bit of theater to make it easier to spring a trap on the Fords.  He checks into a fancy hotel and spreads the story by way of his young sidekick that Frank James was actually shot dead in a gunfight in Mexico.  Nobody knows their faces, so the ruse is quite successful.  It attracts the interest of a young, ambitious female reporter, Eleanor, played by Gene Tierney in her first starring role, who is completely taken by the tale.  In the shot below, Clem acts out his “eye witness” account of Frank’s “heroic” death for the benefit of Eleanor and Frank.  He seems to be spoofing the western genre itself as he does so.

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Seems that the Fords are making hay out of their killing of Jesse, reenacting it in another bit of theater.  Frank goes in to take a look at the show, Earlier in the film, there is a bit of dialog in which Frank relates another theatrical experience of his, seeing a great performance by an actor named Booth.   Frank sits in a box  above the stage, but he doesn’t kill anyone at the show, unlike John Wilkes.  When Ford recognizes him from the stage, and hurls a lamp at him, Frank, like John Wilkes Booth, leaps from his box onto the stage, but he doesn’t break his arm…

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Eventually, Frank turns himself in to prevent his farmhand “darky,” innocent of any crime, from being hanged for taking part in one of Frank’s robberies.  The subsequent trial is filled with Civil War politics that results in Frank’s acquittal.  I wonder what Fritz made of it all.

Say, what was the name of that theater, Mrs. Lincoln..?