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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Cry Vengeance

September 21, 2011

Cry Vengeance (oh, those literary sounding titles!) is a noir from 1954, directed by and starring Mark Stevens, who also starred in The Dark Corner.  In both, he plays a guy who’s out of the joint for a crime he didn’t commit, and who’s a little bit crazy.  As Vic Barron, in Vengeance, he’s an ex-cop badly burned on his face from a car bomb that killed his wife and child.  The bomb was set off by Roxie, the platinum blonde psycho hit man who works for a mobster, Rick.  Vic thinks Tito did it and framed him for some unnamed crime.

Tito fled to Alaska to avoid Vic’s wrath before Vic was railroaded to jail.  Why would Tito, a big racketeer be so timid?  No clue, but Vic is one nasty, obsessed guy. Vic gets on Tito’s trail to a small town in Alaska, where he’s reformed, and is living as a good citizen with his little girl.  Vic’s friends try repeatedly to stop him from taking the law into his own hands:  “Can’t you just forget?”  Vic never forgets, and as one hood asks sensibly, would you?

Vic is so obsessed with revenge, and his character is so tightly wound, that we think he might actually kidnap and kill Tito’s little girl to get even.  He surprises her at play, takes out his gun, and gives her a bullet, a present for her dad.  Daddy will get the message.  It’s a very creepy scene.

Although the plot is sort of mechanical, and some of the characters flat and unbelievable (the two mobsters on the lam, in particular) the movie works because of the incredible tension generated by Vic’s monosyllabic conversation, and his smoldering, corrosive, hatred and drive.  Roxie, the ice-cold killer with the dandified looks adds a wonderful sick and sinister note to the show.

I wake up screaming?

May 28, 2011

Not quite sure why I Wake Up Screaming has that title, but I haven’t read the book of the same name from which it is adapted.  It stars Betty Grable, the WWII pin-up queen, and Victor Mature, who later in his career devoted his talents to self-parody.  In this flick, she’s demure, but nubile, and he’s quite a hunk.

The movie has elements of noir – the sicko villain, er…villains, the lighting and angles, but it shares screen time with a fluffy romance, complete with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the soundtrack at the sentimental moments.  It’s the story of Frankie Christopher (né Botticelli) played by Mature, who is a boxing and entertainment promoter.  He ‘discovers’ Vicky, (Carole Landis) a blonde beauty living with her sister, Jill (Betty Grable) working in a diner.  She jumps feet first into Frankie’s world of high society and movie deals, loving every minute of it, while her sister, a regular working girl, frets.  Vicky gets what’s coming to her for her shallow materialism!  She’s found dead, bludgeoned to death.  The police inspector, Cornell, wonderfully played by Laird Cregar, seems determined to see Frankie fry for the crime, no matter what the evidence.

Inspector Cornell obviously has some issues, and Cregar make a great heavy heavy, à la Raymond Burr.  Cregar was great in Gun for Hire too, where he played a less dark,  but equally perverse bad guy.  Elisha Cook delivers once again, as the weirded-out switchboard operator with a secret.

Betty Grable sure was cute, and when the film runs off its noir tracks, the audience gets a big dollop of cheesecake for the men and women fans.


The DA gives Cornell notice that he’d better get results, and the big man is followed out by his big shadow, an example of the noirish tone in much of the film.  Turns out, Cornell had a thing for the dead girl, and devoted an entire special apartment to a shrine to her image.  How many times have we seen that plot element since?

The loving couple makes a great detective team, finding the truth and clearing Frankie’s name, so they can live happily ever after.

Sarrasine’s cynosure

September 13, 2009

La Zambinella performs

“He entered and took a seat in the pit, crowded between two unconscionably stout abbati; but luckily he was quite near the  stage…Suddenly a  whirlwind of applause greeted the appearance of the prima donna.  She  came forward coquettishly to the footlights and curtsied to the  audience with infinite grace.  The brilliant light, the enthusiasm of a  vast multitude, the illusion of the stage, the glamor of a costume  which was most attractive for the time, all conspired in that woman’s  favor.  Sarrasine cried aloud with pleasure.  He saw before him at that  moment the ideal beauty whose perfections he had hitherto sought here  and there in nature, taking from one model, often of humble rank, the  rounded outline of a shapely leg, from another the contour of the  breast; from another her white shoulders; stealing the neck of that  young girl, the hands of this woman, and the polished knees of yonder  child, but never able to find beneath the cold skies of Paris the rich  and satisfying creations of ancient Greece.  La Zambinella displayed in  her single person, intensely alive and delicate beyond words, all  those exquisite proportions of the female form which he had so  ardently longed to behold, and of which a sculptor is the most severe  and at the same time the most passionate judge.  She had an expressive  mouth, eyes instinct with love, flesh of dazzling whiteness.  And add  to these details, which would have filled a painter’s soul with  rapture, all the marvelous charms of the Venuses worshiped and copied  by the chisel of the Greeks.  The artist did not tire of admiring the  inimitable grace with which the arms were attached to the body, the  wonderful roundness of the throat, the graceful curves described by  the eyebrows and the nose, and the perfect oval of the face, the  purity of its clean-cut lines, and the effect of the thick, drooping  lashes which bordered the large and voluptuous eyelids.  She was more  than a woman; she was a masterpiece! In that unhoped-for creation  there was love enough to enrapture all mankind, and beauties  calculated to satisfy the most exacting critic.

“Sarrasine devoured with his eyes what seemed to him Pygmalion’s  statue descended from its pedestal.  When La Zambinella sang, he was  beside himself.


Tip to Toe

September 19, 2008

I’m not what you’d call very fashion conscious, but I’m not unconscious either.  When it comes to clothes, I leave the adventurous stuff to others – I prefer to blend in.  I do have my crotchets, fetishes, or whatever…

It’s all very philosophical you see.  Clothes are the second skin of man.  (Architecture is the third, according to Hundertwasser.) Shoes are the mediator of the critical MAN-EARTH interface, while hats do the same for the MAN-SKY interface.  It’s important to keep one’s brain warm, but the energy of the sun must be moderated.  One must gain and keep one’s footing, and shoes should look the part.  For men, at least.  The cultural signaling of women’s shoes takes the woman-earth interface as a starting point only – they have other fish to fry.

It’s a minor art, this fashion business, and it IS a business, but it’s an art too.