Brute Force

February 12, 2011

Brute Force (1947) is a prison melodrama about a joint filled with guys put there for crimes that were, well, really not so bad.  Just a bunch of guys who made some mistakes, got shafted – all good men really.  A grifter taken by a beautiful babe, a veteran of the Italian campaign in WWII, a clerk who couldn’t help stealing to get that wife the fur coat she knew she deserved…that sort of thing.  Not too realistic, but this film is a dark fable, an allegory of social class oppression, and the guys in stir are everyman-types standing in for the rest of the working stiffs outside who never have a chance.  Add a blood curdling sadistic-fascist power structure, and you have a film that leaves the good guy-bad guy fairy tale way behind as it descends into the darkest depths of film noir.

The reinforced concrete architecture of the penitentiary looks like something from a German expressionist film set, or maybe Loudon, from The Devils.  Like a medieval fortress, the way out is barred by massive gates and a drawbridge.  The impassive guards manning machine guns in towers bring to mind the Nazi death camps.

The associations with the Nazis are focused on the character of Captain Munsey, a sneering, ambitious sadist who fancies himself the bastion of civil society against the criminal animals he guards.  In one of the most blatant and disturbing sequences, he tries to beat some information about an escape plan out of a prisoner.   We first see him cleaning his gun, his shirt off, music – sounded like Wagner to me – playing in the background.  A phonograph, engravings of classic art, the whole deal, and his own portrait in uniform surveys the scene.

Then Munsey gets down to business with his rubber hose, pummeling Louis, who is handcuffed to a chair.  We never actually see the rubber hose hit flesh – the censors insisted that be cut out.

The escape plan is set for the workers on “the drain pipe.”  It’s a giant tunnel, a make-work project, that has no discernible purpose.  The plan is doomed, of course.  Doc warns Collins, but it’s no use.

Munsey is waiting with a machine gun at the escape point, and he tells the guards who seem uncomfortable at the prospect of shooting down unarmed men that there is “no reward for bringing them in alive.”  Collins smokes out the informer by asking his men what position they want to take during the break.  All but one say, “Wherever you put me.” The rat says, “Last, that’s where I can help most.”  The last shall be first – he’s put at the front of the car and is shot by the guards.

The system of oppression victimizes everyone, although not in the same way.  An earlier scene stages a debate on prison policy in which a pompous and impatient official berates the warden for the lax discipline in the joint.  The humane doctor points out that there is not enough opportunity to keep the men employed and that the prison is 100% over capacity.  He accuses the official of blowing hot air just to seem like he’s dealing with the problems, but all he wants is to shove it, and the men, under the rug.  Eventually, the warden, a well-meaning but feeble man, is forced to hand over the place to Munsey, the sadist.

Women figure in this movie only in flashbacks about life outside, and for the most part, they’re just trouble.  One is a sharp cookie who entices and then fleeces and flees.  Another wants nothing but a fur coat out of life, and she’s troubled only momentarily by how her husband finds the dough to buy it…then the knock comes at the door.  Yvonne de Carlo plays an Italian girl in love with a soldier who brings her food.  She kills her fascist father to protect him, but the MP’s pin the killing on him.  Only Collins has an untroubled love that’s pure – he dreams of a pretty young woman dying of cancer, confined to a wheelchair – he just wants to break out and get her the money for the operation that will cure her.

In the end, the guys in cell R17 get out:  they get out the only way one can.  As the doc says, nobody ever really escapes.  And so it is in life too.  We none of us get out of here alive.

Follow your breath

November 16, 2010

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948) goes a lot further than his definitely B-moview flick, Railroaded.  There were times when it dragged, but right from the start, we know we are in for something unique in film noir.  The story is told in flashback narration by a woman, and it’s accompanied by an eerie theramin soundtrack.

Raymond Burr plays Rick, the heavy heavy – He let Joe take the rap for him, and now he’s helping him break out of the joint, knowing that the chances are excellent that Joe will be killed.  That would be convenient.  Rick likes to play with fire, and he likes to use it to make women talk.  Denis O’Keefe plays Joe; he isn’t so bad:  he’s gotten a raw deal in life.  Anne, the cute paralegal who was involved with his case knows, or believes, that deep down he’s good, but he doesn’t give all that much evidence of it.  Then she realizes he’s like something from under a rock – I love that line!  Later, she surrenders to her love for him, regardless of his morals.

The film has wonderful atmospheric shots, especially the ending, which includes a shootout on the foggy San Francisco docks.  Throughout, there are striking compositions, and one truly amazing audio-visual sequence (see the video at the bottom) that portrays the state of mind of Pat, Joe’s moll.  The level of violence shown in the film was remarkable for 1948, and includes brutal fights, an attack with a broken off bottle, and Rick dumping flaming liquor on a woman.

It all begins with that eerie voice-over as Pat narrates her visit to Joe to tell him of the plan to spring him that night.  The camera shows her point of view as she drives up to the prison gate.  He’s receiving a visit from another woman, Anne, who is there to encourage him to seek parole.  No dice, he wants to breathe!   The ending is a given – she loses him to another girl, and he dies, but he gets his breath of fresh air.

When John Ireland, playing Rick’s henchman, Fantail, prepares to kill Joe, they have a little Zen exchange on following the breath.  A precious thing, breath.  A bit of satori via noir.

Beautiful Decadence

September 9, 2010

click for video

Opinion on The Shanghai Gesture (1941) by Josef von Sternberg seems to be divided in the blogsphere.  Some see it as wonderfully camp, the perfect cult film, while others hail it as a masterpiece of decadent noir.  I enjoyed it mostly for its incredible sensuality, and atmosphere of erotic decadence, and for its outright oddness at times.  Of course, Gene Tierney, my newest cinema hearthrob, was fabulous as the petualnt, spoiled rich girl (alias Poppy Smith) doomed by her bad blood.

When she first comes to Mother Gin Sling’s casino (yes, that’s her name) she is overjoyed to be there.  She tells her nerdy companion that “Every place you’ve taken me before this was like kindergarten…It has such a delicious evil smell…I thought such a place could only exist in my dreams...”  Just watch the video linked to the top image; it’s all there.

The action is set in a casino that seems like a modern recreation of Dante’s circles of hell.  At the lowest point, there is the roulette well, around which people loose their fortunes, their virtue, and sometimes shoot themselves – usually on Saturday nights.

Poppy sets to gambling, saying she can stop anytime she wants, but she can’t.  It doesn’t take much for her to be sucked into the vortex of gambling, sex, and probably drugs.  Although it will seem tame to audiences used to seeing any sort of sex and violence on screen, the film was heavily censored, and still manages to convey a sense of sadism and utter debauchery as Mother Gin Sling manipulates Poppy for her own ends.  Victor Mature, as “Dr.” Omar, is happy to help out, picking up the sexual favors he craves along the way.

The pace of the film is slow, sometimes excruciating.  There are sequences that seem to go on two or three times as long as they need to.  When two old fogeys try to approach Poppy at the bar, they are shooed away by Omar.  The rotate about one another once, twice, three times before they make off…why?

Poppy plays hard to get…for a minute, and the falls hard for Omar, who has nothing to offer her except sexual charisma.  When she begs him for forgiveness after throwing a drink in his face in fit of jealousy, he enfolds her in his cape, looks both ways, and then dives in for the kiss.  (Kisses are simply lips to lips in this censored cinematic realm.)

Much is often made of Mother Gin’s outrageous hair, but I think it suits her.  She just dares anyone to gasp, “What the hell was she thinking..?”  She’s no-nonsense, and all about power and domination.  Her costumes and hair are part of the game, and it has worked well for her.  When she appears on the stage of her casino floor, the soundtrack swells with orchestral music.

Yes, the dialogue is often absurd, the Chinoiserie is ridiculous, but it reeks of opium and sex.  And I must say, the very ending did surprise me.  Mother Gin Sling is quite a gal.

She makes sure that all of her dinner guests have the dishes they need, and she includes an appetizer for the men – a view of girls in cages being bid for in the street during the New Year celebration.  By the time Polly is ushered into the room, disheveled and sullen, swaying a bit unsteadily in a dress that fits like her skin, we can only guess what she’s been through…

The culture clash between the Chinese and the West has its typical Hollywood silliness – Mother Gin Sling and many other Chinese characters are played by Americans and Brits – but a running gag of the film is the fatuous arrogance of the Westerners towards the ‘natives’ of Shanghai.  At one point, a young, handsome Chinese servant delivers a message in perfect English to a group, and one Brit cackles, “Listen to how these Asiatics attempt to imitate the language!”  No one around him is laughing.

And what about that title?  I didn’t hear a clue about its meaning in the film, except for the red herring of when Mother Gin Sling asks if a certain man used a certain gesture, raising his arm to the ceiling, when she was trying to be certain of his identity.  The movie is based on a play of the same name, and according to this book, it’s a very old phrase of uncertain meaning.  Perhaps it is related to the kookie sequence at the dinner from hell when Dixie, the American floozie who finds work at the casino, hams it up, thumbing her nose with a spoon.  This essay by an academic provides a new twist for the meaning of the phrase, and analyses the use of Chinese themes in noir along the way, but it doesn’t explain its original meaning.

La Duchesse de Langeais

April 22, 2009


From Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, we have this novel about a coquette noblewoman who goes a bit too far.  She revels in teasing men and making them think she will be theirs, only to dump them and watch them squirm.  She meets her match in the smoldering General Montriveau, an idealized self-portrait of the author.

Once the General realizes that she is only playing with him, he concocts a scheme to teach her a thing or two – he has his men, initiates to the cabal of The Thirteen, abduct her and prepare to scorch her brow with a hot brand.  Talk about scarlet letters!  There is much knotting and unbinding of wrists and ankles as she is led here and there, blindfolded, to undisclosed locations before being deposited back at her party from which she was snatched.  Her footmen are all drunk – part of the plot no doubt.

The General scorns rape as undignified – she falls in love with him, truly, after being totally in his power, power which he disdains to exercise over her.  (He drops the branding idea when she instantaneously, under the influence of her helplessness, goes from ice-queen coquette to passionate adorer of him.)

Balzac is always very discreet, but the overtones of sadism, misogyny, kinky sexual passions, and brutal sexual warfare are quite strong.  My apologies to J. A. D. Ingres for defacing his masterpiece, Madame Contesse D’Hausonville, now hanging in the Frick Collection in New York, one of my favorite museums.

Discomfort of Strangers

January 1, 2009


Time on my hands again, and I’m watching more films I’ve had on my list.  The Comfort of Strangers, with a screenplay by Pinter, is one. Is this title a reference to “The Glass Menagerie,” the kindness of strangers..?  And why is Venice so popular a setting for ominous, creepy stories?  I’m thinking of Mann’s Death in Venice, Roeg’s film, Don’t Look Now, as well as this one.  I’m sure there are others.  Is it a northern European thing?  The seedy useless relic of a defunct empire as symbol of the hollowness and decay of all that is orderly and civilized?  I don’t buy it.

Comfort was, I think, a ridiculous film, saved only by the scenery and the sheer over-the-top quality of Christopher Walken’s performance.  It relies on the old standby of modern entertainment that lacks character motivation, the psychopath.  Any soap opera or TV movie can be made dramatic as long as there’s a killer maniac on the loose, especially if he’s charming.  We don’t deal with Satan anymore, so we have to make do with people twisted by their sadistic upbringing in our dramas.

This film reminds me of Straw Dogs by Peckinpah, another story of male softness and civilized courtesy overwhelmed by the brutal “reality” of life beneath the veneer of culture.  It’s a pretty tired idea, and I wonder why it appeals to writers.  My guess is that it says more about the insecurities of the artist than about the cultural standards it seeks to upset and question.  Showing a wily and unstoppable murderer preying upon innocent tourists brings a frisson, but I found Colin’s character totally unbelievable.  I would expect that any man who appears as he did in the film would not have let Robert punch him in the stomach, and then go to dinner with him.  Are we supposed to believe that he was such a wimp that he wouldn’t even demand of his girfriend that they leave immediately?  I don’t think so…

Deep, deep, deeper…

December 1, 2008


Audition, is a very creepy film by a Japanese director known for creepiness, Takashi Miike.  A middle-aged, middle-class widower wants to remarry, so his cut-up of a friend in the entertainment business suggests they do an audition for a maybe real, maybe phoney show.  He meets the girl of his dreams, an aspiring actress who wants the main part.

Problem is, she’s a bit of a nut case.  The film is a little of Fatal Attraction, Psycho, and a whole lot of other horror films thrown together, but it’s paced surely, and it is actually quite restrained in its use of violence and gore, despite what you may read about it.  I mean, during the final scene when the lovely naif shown above is torturing her victim and severs his foot with a tourniquet wire, they don’t show the foot, blood, or anything.  How’s that for “art?” 

It is rather difficult to watch, but not as disturbing as what you might think from the reviews, just a different arty-Japanese twist on an old theme of the avenging femme fatale.  As she pushes the needles into the paralyzed body she’s tormenting (the drug prevents movement but not the feeling of pain) she says, “Deep, deep, deeper…” But then, maybe I just have a thick skin, heh, heh, heh…

There are all sorts of ways you could interpret this film:  misogynistic, sadistic, subversive of traditional male sexist values, kinky-erotic, whatever.  The director denies them all. 

I was most taken by the portrait of the main character, a regular guy with a little too much of the traditional romantic in him who got sucked in way, way over his head!