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…

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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?


Society’s Children

September 5, 2013

Is not each one us a society’s child?  Society made Eddie a killer, and then crucified him for it.

You Only Live Once (1937) is the second film by Fritz Lang after he came to America, and a pretty bleak job it is.  Yes, I’d call it early noir, but it is also drenched with religious imagery.  Henry Fonda plays Eddie Taylor (E. T. – that’s important in the film) and Sylvia Sydney looks gorgeous playing his faithful, too faithful, wife, Jo.  He’s a good guy who’s gone wrong, and paid for it.  Now, he wants to go straight, Jo waited for him during his three-year stretch in the joint, but society won’t give an ex-con a break. They’re doomed, and you know it.

Jo’s friend is a good-hearted lawyer who gets Eddie a job as a trucker when he’s freed, and he also carries a torch for Jo.  In the film, he seems to be a direct mouthpiece for Lang’s views, sometimes lambasting the authorities for their brutishness and prejudice.  He hopes for the best for Jo, when she and Eddie tie the knot on his release.

Eddie is a romantic, and of course that will screw him up good, but first he and she have a delightful honeymoon at a cozy motel, which has a lovely garden.

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The lovebirds are watched over by two frogs who don’t appear to be mating themselves.  At one point in the story, when Jo believes Eddie is on his way to the chair for a crime he did not commit, she sends him a message – “I still remember the frogs.”  Only Fritz!

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Those impassive guardians of the night watch as Eddie picks her up, kisses her, and mounts the steps to Calvary…oops, I mean their bedroom.  It’s a foreshadowing of the final sequence when he carries Jo through the woods, both of them riddled with bullets, to their final rest.  Pietas come to mind, as well as the finale of Farewell to Arms.

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Eddie is late on a truck run because he makes a detour to take Jo to look at a house, a real fixer-up-er, that he and Jo can live in now that they are married.  Naturally, his boss is not understanding, and he humiliates him with insults when he begs for another chance, telling the boss that his friends tempt him with easy money from safe bank heists, but he wants no more of that. No dice – the boss fires him, after forcing him to wait while he has trivial phone conversations with his wife about social arrangements.  “Straight society sucks,” is the message.  Eddie delivers a knock-out blow to the boss’ chin and says, “And I wanted to go straight!…

That scene is the set-up for one of the most outrageous plots twists I can remember, at least of those that work!  Eddie appears to have caved in, returned to the life of crime because society just won’t give him a break.  Once a con, always a con…  He’s arrested for a deadly bank job in which six men died from poison gas used to incapacitate the armored car guards.  His hat, with his initials, was found on the scene, and was used to identify him since the robber wore a full gas mask.  He is sent up, and sentenced to die.

Jo believes in him, and she carries a heavy load because she urged Eddie to turn himself in, believing he would get off with a fair trial. We figure she is just taken in by Eddie’s lies because she loves him:  so taken by love, that she agrees to smuggle in a gun to him. The plot is foiled by a crude metal detector, but the good Father takes the blame to get Jo off the hook.  He takes her aside and chides her:  that arch looks like it’s ready to crush them with its institutional weight.

We too are taken in, but by Lang’s audacious plot twist that makes us complicit in society’s unfair pre-judgement.  Until it’s too late, we believe Eddie did it.  By then, Eddie, caged like an animal for slaughter, has lost all ability to judge the odds, let alone right and wrong.

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With the aid of a friendly con, he makes a daring escape, using the fog and the all-too-bourgeois prison doctor as a shield.

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Eddie reunites with Jo, who, this time, won’t urge him to turn himself in, not when she learns he shot Father Dolan on the way out.  She figures she’s as guilty as he is because it was she who urged him to surrender in the first place, when he wasn’t guilty! They run for it, like those Gun Crazy kids, like Bonnie and Clyde, and even, maybe, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

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They have a brief rest, before journey’s end.  Idyllic…

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Eddie knows they’re doomed.  How could it be otherwise?  He’s serene, and she loves him.  They’ll go together.

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They hit a roadblock, take some heavy fire from Tommy guns, and crash.  Eddie stumbles into the woods, carrying Jo in his arms.  The trooper lines up his gun with the two in his sights…  Is it just me, or is that not the cross I see there, completed by Eddie?  He is the sacrificial lamb for our social sins.

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Jo, dying, tells him she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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He knows what he must do.  He must kiss her dead lips, and then he will be free.

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He sees the gates to freedom opening before him, and he hears the voice of Father Dolan repeating what he said during the breakout, when Eddie shot him – “You’re free!  The gates are open!”

The title of this post is a reference, of course, to Society’s Child, a hit song from 1965 written by Janis Ian when she was fourteen (!!) and performed live on TV when she was sixteen.  It’s the story of a white girl in love with a black boy, forced to break off with him because of her parents’ disapproval and peer pressure.  She knows it’s all wrong but what can she do? She’s just society’s child.


Lilith Eternal

March 5, 2013


First there was the novel, Nightmare Alley, now available in a new printing from the NYRB.  Then the film, with Helen Walker playing Lilith Ritter, the female psychiatrist with ice water in her veins.  She sucks the life out of Stanton Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, and throws away his deflated husk of a body.  He descends back into the muck from which he came and finishes as a geek, biting the heads off chickens for a living. It’s a faithful adaptation of the book.
   
Then there was Lilith, the uptight dominatrix psychiatrist of the TV sitcom Cheers, played by Bebe Neuwirth.  She has to be channelling Helen Walker!
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After that, came the comic book adaptation of Nightmare Alley by Spain Rodriguez, published by Fantagraphics.
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Lilith has Bebe’s dark hair…


… and is up-front about her needs…  The toe nail painting is a nice noir reference to Scarlett Street, by Fritz Lang.

And finally, we have the nifty neo-noir, Side Effects, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones , as Victoria Seibert, is definitely channelling all of the above.


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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