The Killers

December 16, 2012

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Nothing much to say about The Killers (1946), a Siodmak gem with Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. This picture tells the whole story. He’s remarkable for his strong masculine appearance joined to an aura of total vulnerability and victimhood.

Kitty Collins looks nice even when she’s not being the fatal woman, or trying not to seem like one.

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Drainage Made Him Do It!

December 4, 2012

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Laid low by some sort of virus, Fritz Lang’s House on the River (1950) is just the sort of relatively light-weight confection I needed to keep boredom away.  A low-budget gem to be sure, this gothic-noir features a rich author, Steven Byrne, who is having a bit of writer’s block.  We learn that he has a not-too-healthy relationship with his co-dependent brother, who complains about the thousands of scrapes he’s helped his literary brother escape.  He even lives modestly as a bookkeeper so his brother can have the luxury due to an artiste, all on their joint inheritance.

Steven has a pretty wife and a wandering eye.  He is delightfully twisted, and always speaks with an upper crust calm and suavity, even when he is responding to his wife’s charges that he stays out at night, comes home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume.  “The smell of cheap perfume can be quite exciting, my dear…”  he replies.  Honest to a fault, that Steven.

The plot is set in motion by his desire for the fresh-faced young girl who is the housemaid.  She tells him that the servant’s quarters bath is not yet fixed, and he graciously allows her to use the upstairs one, his wife’s, who is away with friends.  The sound of the bath water sluicing down the pipe is too much for the imaginative Steven – he must have her.  (Pipes in those days were often mounted outside of the walls, as shown here.  The film takes place in the early 20th century.)

Drainage made him do it

click to animate – drainage!

His romantic advances are spurned, they struggle, he kills her, quite by accident of course.  He enlists his mush-brained brother to help him cover it up by dumping the body in the river.  His brother will do anything to avoid disgrace or discomfort for Steven’s wife, whom he secretly loves.

All seems to go well as they dump the body, but then a leaping fish breaks the calm of the night, terrifying Steven.  The image of the leaping fish will come back to haunt him, called up by the sparkles of light on the vanity mirror in his house.

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When Steven’s brother confronts him, the author admits that he feels he gained something from the murder; his writing is so much better now.  His brother tells him he must be very ill to think that way.  Steven (top image) replies, “Ill…?”  Well, it’s a thin line.  

His relationship with his pretty wife seems rather cool, but here, they are in quite a passionate clutch.  Of course, he’s just about to start strangling her.

That’s Fritz all over.
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Big Combo Encore

November 15, 2012

I just watched The Big Combo (1955) again – one of my favorite film noirs.  (I talked about it earlier in this post).  Fantastic cinematography, and a great cast of characters.  It has a rich trove of noir themes, woven together with subtlety and skill.

One reason I like these old B-movies is that they work within a genre, with familiar situations and themes, and we usually aren’t very surprised by the plot developments. (Do we need surprise to enjoy something?)  We’ve seen it all before; we know how it will all end.  It’s familiar.  The repetition of stories and conclusions accumulates to give the latest one the force of myth.  No self-conscious striving after effect or novelty.  Not that the great ones didn’t innovate, but it was within the limits of the genre.

Cornell Wilde plays Lt. Larry Diamond, a man with a mission.  He wants to rid his town of The Big Combo, but the outfit is really just one single man, Mr. Brown.  He’s obsessed with Brown, a cold, murderous accountant turned mob leader (Richard Conte) because Brown has quite a girl – Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a society chick who’s fallen pretty low down.  Diamond is in love with her, from afar; wants to save her, but she tells him there’s no saving her.  She’s lost in a maze, and all paths lead back to Mr. Brown.

She’s a bit of a masochist, this lady, but Mr. Brown also knows how to keep her satisfied.  Pretty explicit for 1955.

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This Diamond fellow, isn’t so pure either, despite his wish to be the knight to rescue Susan.  In fact, he has a problem with women in general.

While he longs for the cool blonde girl who loves classical music, he keeps his needs in check with Rita, a stripper at a club where he hangs out.  She loves him and will do anything for him, but she just ends up getting filled with lead by two thugs who think they’re knocking off Diamond when they break into his darkened apartment.  She was all dressed up and waiting for a big night with him after work… So, he wants the masochist who won’t have him because she represents something beautiful and pure to him even though she’s as deep in the mud as you can get.  And the girl who loves him with a heart of gold, he treats like a worn out bathrobe to throw away when he’s done with it.

But Susan is otherwise engaged.  Fante and Mingo, Brown’s thugs, always keep an eye on her comings and goings.  At least those two have a loving relationship:  they’d die for one another, but they end up double-crossed by Brown and dying together.  They aren’t effeminate like the flirty thug in Odds Against Tomorrow: their homoerotic bond is thoroughly masculine.  I think the filmmaker uses it to convince us that we really are in the underworld, where such deviant relationships are taken for granted.  Is this retrograde or progressive?  They are totally against the stereotype of homosexuals as weak and unmanly men.

The film makes use of the abuse of hearing aids as an instrument of torture.  Mr. Brown borrows the device from his No. 2 man and shouts and  plays loud music into it to show Diamond who’s boss. (He removes the aid from Mr. No.2’s ears when he kills him.  “I’ll do you a favor; you won’t hear the bullets.”  We see the shooting from the victim’s point of view, without sound.)

First is first, and second is nobody.”  That’s his slogan, and he has nothing but contempt for Diamond whom he describes as steady, intelligent, and with a hankering for a girl he just can’t have.  A nobody.

Yes, that girl.  She’s at a club when she meets her old piano teacher.  The man is delighted to see her again, and eagerly asks how she is progressing with her music.  She has to break the news to him that she has given it up…such a wasted talent!  She asks him to dance with him while Fante and Mingo look on, making sure there’s no funny business.  Suddenly, she starts to swoon.  “I’ve taken some pills…I think I’m going to die!”  There it is, Sex & Death, Eros & Thanatos.  In her attempted suicide she looks just as she did when Mr. Brown was bringing her to an orgasm.

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Odds Against Tomorrow

November 12, 2012

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) out of Harry Belafonte’s own production outfit, and directed by Robert Wise, is a late noir with a black man as a lead.  He’s not just a figure in the background: he’s the hinge of the plot.  Not surprising since it’s Harry’s outfit.

The film is a cool heist story, with a smooth jazzy score, and lots of local NYC atmosphere.  Ed Begley plays Burke, a cop gone bad, looking to score a big one so he can live on Easy Street after getting out of the pen.  He’s staked out an upstate bank in New York that looks like an easy target.  Belafonte is Ingram, a nightclub musician with a bad gambling habit and a big, big debt to a polite but violent loan shark.  One of the man’s thugs is an openly gay guy who flirts with Ingram.  As one of the only club women who’s not trying to make time with him says, “That little boy is in big trouble!”

Rounding out the gang of robbers is Robert Ryan as Slater, a WWII veteran who fears getting old and irrelevant.  Shelly Winters stuck by him while he was in stir for killing a man in a rage, but he can’t stomach living on her wages; it makes him feel like a little boy.  Meanwhile, Gloria Grahame plays the weirdo downstairs who just wants to feel her skin crawl as Slater tells her “how he felt when he did it.”  Slater obliges, and makes her feel a whole lot more…

Slater is an out-and-out racist, and Burke has to hold him in line to keep the heist on track.  His bigoted comments are pretty raw for a 1959 film, and his sarcastic filth keeps the tension high.  When they are setting up the job in the small Hudson Valley town of Melton, NY, Ingram has the bad luck to be standing at the corner when there is a car accident.  A cop stops him and asks if he saw anything.  Later, the three men, all nervous, discuss their plan, and Ingram is afraid the cop might have gotten too good of a look at him.  Slater says, “Don’t flatter yourself, Ingram.  You’re just another black spot in Melton, even if you do wear $20 shoes.”

In the heat of the job, Slater loses control and refuses to give the getaway car keys to Ingram.  Because of this, a cop catches them, and a gunfight ensures.  Burke shoots himself after being downed: he won’t endure another stay in the joint.

Slater and Ingram start fighting with each other:  of course Ingram blames Slater for the debacle.  They race off in the night with the police in pursuit.  Ingram chases Slater into an industrial farm with big fuel tanks that is shown in an eerie light that makes it look like a Charles Sheeler realist Precisionist from the 1930s.  There are lots of odd zoom shots as the men run around, and scale ladders trying to get a shot at one another.  Finally, they face off, and va va va voom!  The whole place blows up.

A sardonic conclusion makes the racial equality point again when the clean up workers examine the charred corpses and remark that you can’t tell one from another.


EC Comics to the Rescue!

November 11, 2012

Entertainment Comics, usually called EC (comics), was a line of, you guessed it, comics, published in the 1950s by William Gaines, later publisher of Mad Magazine.  I just finished a book, Came the Dawnthat features stories from EC drawn by Wallace Wood. They fall into two categories:  horror tales, e.g. those from Tales from the Crypt; and noir-ish social tales, including straight up crime stuff, but also a lot of stories about mob violence, prejudice, and institutional corruption.  They can be surprisingly blunt and hard-hitting, and the fine upstanding citizens of the small towns and cities of American don’t come off all that well in them.

Gaines, shown below in the 50s and in the 70s, was called before the Congressional committee on juvenile delinquency to testify about his productions.  Estes Kefauver, a full-blown FDR liberal didn’t see the use of this sort of freedom of speech.  Legislative pressure and bad publicity forced him to cease publication of his lurid comics, which had been popular, but we got MAD Magazine out of the deal!  Subversive, maybe, but nobody could say it wasn’t in good taste!

The color cover below was the subject of a particularly amusing repartee between Gaines and the congressional inquisitors:  he didn’t give an inch, but the Congress was not having any of it.  He might not be a communist, but he was clearly a danger to society. I have read online that the audio recordings of the hearings are available at various websites.

Chief Counsel Herbert Beaser: Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?
Bill Gaines: No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.
Beaser: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?
Gaines: I don’t believe so.
Beaser: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
Gaines: Only within the bounds of good taste.
Beaser: Your own good taste and saleability?
Gaines: Yes.
Senator Estes Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. [Kefauver is mistakenly referring to Crime Suspenstories #22, cover date May] This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
Gaines: A little.
Kefauver: Here is blood on the axe. I think most adults are shocked by that.

The congressional scrutiny of comics was sparked by a popular book, Seduction of the Innocentby a psychoanalyst, Frederic Wertham.  He was concerned about violence and role models for the young in our society, but just how much of a nincompoop scold, and how much of a thoughtful, but over-zealous crusader against pop entertainment he was, I’m not sure.  The little I have read of him makes him seem more complex than the anti-comics bogey man image, but that’s just Wikipedia talkin’.

The artwork and the stories have a clear relationship with the contemporary film noirs, but the highlighting of social injustice, as injustice, and not just bad luck, and often openly preaching against it, do not.  In the story on the left, a black man is framed and then killed by the chief in a faked escape attempt.  The man on the right is another corrupt chief:  he lets his men beat an innocent man to a pulp to make him confess to a hit-and-run killing he had nothing to do with.  Many of the stories have O’Henry endings:  the black man is killed just after a white man confesses to the crime; the victim of the hit-and-run was the chief’s wife, whom he murdered.

Of course, women, drawn with standard 1950s Playboy fantasy voluptuousness, play a big role in the stories.  I imagine that they kept a lot of readers reading when the social justice themes started to lose their interest, but sometimes they are just plain old noir femme fatales.  In the story below, a seventeen year old piece of  jailbait gives her lover the lowdown so he won’t blow her story about being molested by a harmless old man, killed by a mob led by her hysterical dad.

In the title story, Came the Dawn, we are led to believe that the love bunny is actually a homicidal maniac escaped from a local asylum, but we learn the truth in another one of those surprise endings.  The story does a clever reversal of sex roles, with the man seeming to be the victim and the woman the sexual predator, but she turns out to be really in love after all.

In the panels below, a handsome fellow has just firebombed the house of some Jews who dared to move onto the block, and his wife is horrified.  Worse is coming:  his mother reveals that he was adopted, and that his birth parents were Jews.  Still, that wife is quite a dish!  (The dead Jews weren’t bad looking either…)


How real is real?

September 28, 2012

Bart: … It’s just that everything’s going so fast. It’s all in such high gear, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. Does that make sense?
Laurie:  When do you think all this?
Nights. I wake up sometimes. It’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.
Next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours, and I’m real.
Yes, but you’re the only thing that is, Laurie. The rest is a nightmare.

Those crazy kids from Gun Crazy (1949).

She only shoots people when she gets really scared, but I think she likes it more than she says.


Va va va voom!

September 17, 2012

Angel Face must be added to my list of film noirs featuring ladies with black hair, big eyes, who are out of their minds.  Robert Mitchum, cool, but not so smart, and Jean Simmons (she ain’t doin’ Shakespeare here) weirdly magnetic, do a pas de deux that ends up in reverse.  Not a very compelling storyline, but as the critics all say, Otto Preminger does it very well.  You can’t get that final acceleration out of your mind. 

Everything in their relationship is centered around this sports roadster and the throaty roar of its engine:  their meetings; their lovemaking; their future; his past; and the denouement.