Wintergreen: Electra Glide in Blue

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“Loneliness can kill you deader than a .357 Magnum.”

As John Wintergreen, the diminutive motorcycle cop of Electra Glide in Blue, Robert Blake reveals dueling forces of masculine assurance and short man insecurity with such kindhearted peculiarity, you feel both charmed and embarrassed for him. It’s familiar and, yet, curious – off – there’s something different about this guy. And strangely, it feels different because he seems a nice person.  Imagine that? A nice person. Cop. A moral person. It’s almost, oddly, creepy. But it’s lovable and disarming and a little threatening in that specific way that only Robert Blake, the actor, exudes. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.

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Wintergreen is ambitious but he also seems a little lonely, a little sad, frequently sweet, and at times, perceptive when he sees through bullshit. Knowing how tough the world is out there, he also seems, in moments, a little stupid. And all of this is gonna hurt him in the end. Not just because he’s too nice of a cop, but that seems too obvious a reading for this beautifully made, wonderfully idiosyncratic picture (by one-time director James William Guercio). Instead, he just feels doomed.  You look at him riding around the expansive, gorgeous John Ford-Monument Valley and you think… eventually he will fade into this landscape, or he’ll wander the place on his motorcycle, writing up speeding tickets until he’s turned to dust. You feel this before the picture’s unforgettable ending and he feels it – he worries about it. What kind of life is this? How will he leave his mark? As a speck on the landscape hassling motorists, saddled up on two wheels next to his goofy jerk-off partner? He wants to use his brain, to be respected. He also wants to be a big man, he wants to be something like a famous person, he wants to wear the right getup, that big hat, and that fancy suit – he wants to stand out. In the end, he both stands out and fades into the landscape, violently in death – but in a simultaneously ignoble and gorgeous way. Fragility and misunderstanding and cruelty and death in one six-minute reverse tracking shot that’s so moving and so gorgeous, he becomes one with the blacktop and the sky. It’s not the way Wintergreen would want to go, and it is indeed tragic, but it’s one of the most beautiful moments in 1970s cinema – a shot to watch and ponder, your emotions and thoughts moving to mysterious places. Electra Glide in Blue is a picture about the ugliness of human nature, but the beauty of it too, expressively and aesthetically – right down to the glory of Robert Blake’s pint-sized body, zipped up in his motorcycle gear, chomping gun, walking in those boots in the heat, the leather rubbing up against itself – that delicious sound of leather. You can practically hear Lou Reed singing, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather…”

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And Blake (however you feel about him personally -- I am speaking of him in this movie and others) has his own kind of beauty and eccentricity (watch his Perry Smith from In Cold Blood and take in his stirring soulfulness as a child actor, as well as other roles, BustingBaretta oh dear lord, Lost Highway). He can play the tough guy as terrifying, or as a touching act of overcompensation. In Electra Glide in Blue, he’s a tender macho man who uses his stature as a sort of characteristic attraction, a selling point – he tells the pretty ladies about it right away and compares himself to Alan Ladd. As Wintergreen, his introductory scene is all sex and strength. He’s satisfying a woman named Jolene (Jeannine Riley) and she is clearly happy about it. The camera moves to shots of his body – the image lingers on his back while he works out in his underwear. Already in the process of some serious masculine validation, by her and by the camera, he’s all muscled-up; barely breaking a sweat as he performs the pull-ups he likely does every day (or every time he steps into his little abode). He’s proven to be a wonder in the sack and, ever virile, he’s ready to go at it again. No rest for “Big John” (as she calls him). It’s a lot of showboating and swagger and Robert Blake burying his face in a woman’s breasts (he calls them his “Valley of the Dolls”). I watch this and think, this should play so silly, but instead it seems intriguingly amused, self-conscious on purpose, and poignant. Right away one feels Wintergreen needs that validation – it’s not merely the strutting display of a cool ladies' man – it feels deeper than that, thanks to both Blake’s offbeat charm and guilelessness and Conrad Hall’s inimitable, often sexy cinematography that uses Blake’s short stature as part of the picture’s visual style. Electra Glide in Blue is indeed a movie about cops, about the clash between 1970s counterculture with the cop culture, but it has also been called everything from fascist (I'm open to argument -- but I don't think it is) to the anti-Easy Rider (it’s not that either – not really, even when we see Wintergreen target practicing on a poster of Easy Rider). When I watch it, I’m struck by how much it observes masculinity – in all of its toxic, loving, sexual, fetishistic, and friendless manifestations – and how much being emasculated or alone can break one down. And how it can break one down within a close-knit corrupt cop culture -- that doesn't jibe with independent thinkers like Wintergreen. So, Blake’s Wintergreen -- this is a lonely man.

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One very desperate, lonely creature is played by Elisha Cook, Jr. (the king of the emasculated, the double-crossed, the patsy, the recklessly overcompensating), as Crazy Willie, a loony old man, hysterically scuttling through the Arizona heat like a bug about to be smashed. Crazy Willie informs patrolman Wintergreen and his partner Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) of his friend’s death – a suicide. When Wintergreen observes the scene of this dead hermit – his detective skills kick in and he views this not as a guy who offends himself, but as a homicide. He’s adamant about it and maybe a little too overexcited. He’s at first scoffed at – just a dumb patrolman who should stick to his bike and shut up — but the big man, Detective Harve Poole (a fantastic Mitchell Ryan), agrees with Wintergreen’s original supposition. In an amusing scene in which the coroner (Royal Dano) leans over the body, pulling out a .22 bullet from a skull, a cigarette dangling from his mouth (ashes likely dropping into body cavities – eh, he’s dead), an investigation begins. Money is missing from the victim too – $5,000 – who stole it? This could all be left as is, and you sense cases like this often are, but Poole gets on top of it, really, it seems, to fuck with hippies. But Wintergreen doesn’t know this at first – he’s just thrilled he’s been transported to homicide to ride along and observe Poole. And he gets to wear that hat.

That hat. This makes for another standout moment involving attire, mirroring the picture’s credit sequence, which soaks in close-ups and freezes on Blake’s almost fetishistic dressing in leather. We see that beautiful ruffled white shirt laid out on Blake’s bed – Doo Wop music playing in his little house as he dance-dresses into his new important clothes. The ruffled shirt seems a bit much, but Wintergreen clearly loves the flair, and who can blame him? No shame in looking good while using your mind. He puts on his hat, and his head bobs to the music, and places a cigar in his mouth. He’s smiling, so happy that his life means something as defined by these clothes. It’s joyful and ridiculous – poking fun at the male peacocking, but knowing everyone does shit like this. It ends with Robert Blake walking out into the hot night, realizing he’s forgotten to put on his pants. Amused with himself, he dances back inside. It’s a lovely, cool/uncool moment. And endearingly embarrassing.

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But Wintergreen knows this job is about more than his clothes –though he’s not quite prepared with just how awful Poole is. Harassing hippies, without care if they’re innocent, Wintergreen can’t stomach the treatment – he feels more akin to the outsiders (we learn earlier that Wintergreen is also a Vietnam vet) and he observes Poole’s methods with concern and disgust. Why anyone at the time of this picture’s release thought it was pro-cop, I have no idea. Even if it’s pro-good cop (and just the one), that doesn’t mean much of anything either in this film’s existential universe -- up against that kind of system. Being a "good" cop is met with no rewards, nothing, it even seems a bit idiotic, at least in terms of having any kind of a fulfilling life. When you see how Wintergreen’s giggling, numbskull partner Zipper lives (and cracks up), lazing about reading books for a paycheck and then stealing the missing $5,000 to buy a new bike, he just seems insane. Not happy. Is anyone happy in this movie? Crazy Willy is upset his hermit friend was mingling and working with younger people – left out of his friend’s affection and perhaps… love? Everyone else is grimly getting by while Wintergreen’s squareness is so square, he’s actually the most rebellious. It’s not a movie where tough guys gleefully hate hippies, even if, by film's end, two hippies turn vile but… human beings can be vile. The movie does not play as an indictment on the longhaired – it’s more meditative and mysterious than that, more randomly absurd.

What makes sense (it’s not right, it just makes sense considering how important potency is in this picture – two legs straddling a bike, big hats over long hair on men and, of course, girls) is what really gets to Poole, what really breaks up his partnership with Wintergreen: a woman. And his sexual prowess. It all returns back to Wintergreen’s introductory scene and those “Valley of the Dolls.” Jolene.

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Poole wants to introduce Wintergreen to his sexy lady friend – Jolene – the hot number who works in the town’s popular watering hole. But Jolene is more than just a piece of ass – and the picture (scripted by Robert Boris from a story by Boris and Rupert Hitzig) – nicely gives her a big moment in which she proves as much. She also seems to hate Poole, whom she is indeed sleeping with. But as Poole learns (and as we know), she’s also sleeping with Wintergreen. Jolene unleashes not just her rage at Poole, but her anger that all of her dreams as a dancer, of making it in Hollywood or making it anywhere, are done for, and here she is tending bar. She lost a husband because she wanted a career (imagine!) and now she’s stuck. Enflamed with her sexual power over these guys with guns, she can abuse this man (and perhaps, men) by … emasculating him. She’s nasty and sad and sympathetic all at once with Jeannine Riley giving her moment tremendous humanity, even if she’s overacting a bit. She seems like she would really act up this moment – in real life – this bar, with just the two men present after closing time, is her stage. She reveals that she’s not only just fucking Wintergreen, but that he’s better at it than Poole. Far better at it. She shames Poole so much that the two lawmen just sit there awkwardly, stone-faced. And when Poole finally, nearly hits her – she laughs in his face. Wintergreen sits knowingly, understanding it’s over. He’s not rising in the ranks.

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Given the way Robert Blake (the real man) writes about this movie, he’s as disenchanted with so-called bullshit artists and something small (in this case, the picture) not succeeding, as much as Wintergreen is about his position in the police force and the corruption therein. The movie comes with interesting, troubled production history and suffered an overhyped release (the publicity of the film was just too much – both mirroring and opposing the film’s study of masculine overcompensation: “An American Movie by a New Director. James William Guercio” the ads blared – the original New York Times review is as snarky as something from a Gawker column). But whatever happened in terms of the making of the film, Electra Glide in Blue is an extraordinary picture, both of and out of its time, and shot, unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. A merging of a John Ford western – the endless vistas and loneliness of Monument Valley with the personal, at times, kinky details and close-ups of faces, guns, meat, black leather, breasts and Stetsons – it feels old school and experimentally modern. And Robert Blake, a weird kind of square is the perfect protagonist for this kind of vision. All leather-clad and Blake-speak, he’s almost a hipster – he’s something, that’s for sure. But he’s by the book, a square, and yet, anti-authority when authority is proven corrupt, which it seems to always be. He walks through these frames with such a potent combination of vulnerability and morality, and with such weird style, aided by the brilliance of Hall (who had also worked with Blake, exquisitely, in In Cold Blood), that both of them seemingly know they’re breaking rules of expectations. They’re terrifically in unison here. But Blake was heartbroken about the movie. In his autobiography, he devotes an entire chapter, not-so-subtly called, “Electra Glide in Bullshit,” in which he doesn’t hold back with his contempt for Guercio, citing much more directorial credit to Hall and himself. And he ends the chapter like the dying Wintergreen on the road. This is Robert Blake (think what you want) but this shit is personal And lonely: “And as for the character, I played… I love you and goodbye for now. And so long, sweet little film, I’ll see you on the other side.”

originally published at the New Beverly


Quentin at the Castro


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It was a joy having the discussion with Quentin Tarantino on stage at the Castro Theatre this last Monday about his newest book, Cinema Speculation. It was a great, cinephile-heavy evening at a beautiful historic theatre, The Castro.

And read Tarantino's Cinema Speculation -- a fascinating book -- rigorous film study, memoir, insider knowledge, stories, and of course, cinema speculations. And more. It's so smart and unique -- and so entertaining to read. An essential film book--  a one-of-a-kind with the distinctive voice and opinions of Tarantino. I'll write more but for now, thanks for the talk, Quentin! 

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top photo courtesy Castro Theatre 


Falling in Love Again: Woman on the Run

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Norman Foster’s sublime, complex Woman on the Run asks – those marital bonds: What does it do to people? Or, rather, how do people perceive them? And, more specifically, how do women? And for women living in 1950? In San Francisco. In a small apartment. With no kids. And her husband’s pet dog. (Good for her, I say -- she is not doing what is expected of her).

But here, we see, this is a marriage where perhaps the couple is invisible to one another. They have lost their way. They sleepwalk through the motions -- maybe dreaming of another life, floating in some marital netherworld they never anticipated.

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We see this through steely, smart Eleanor (a wonderful Ann Sheridan), who, when the cops come to question her (her husband has bolted from the scene of a crime and they are suspicious as to why -- was he involved?), she walks around her small kitchen and coolly reveals rows of dog food cans. She doesn’t cook much, obviously, and she makes that fact known, almost as a matter of sardonic pride. She’s no Donna Reed type. She also doesn’t see her husband much. He does his own thing (he’s a painter – she shows his work to the detectives, praising some of it), and she does her own thing. It’s quite a modern arrangement, really. It would seem that, in 1950, this was not the norm in movies, especially when the woman will not become an easy “femme fatale”  -- a bitch out to destroy her poor husband. Nothing is unrecognizable in the movie  – people, and relationships, are complex. Humans are human. And odd. And frustrating.

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It’s an unusual, intriguing set-up. After Eleanor’s husband, Frank (Ross Elliott) witnesses a murder, he immediately goes missing. Why? Who cares about the cops, we wonder why? And most importantly, Eleanor wonders why. So, it is not the cops (who try to find him) but Eleanor who winds up the one doing arduous detective work to track down Frank. As said, when you first meet her, she seems to barely care he’s gone. He’s always gone, it seems, and their marriage is so damaged, she’s hardened into grim acceptance. That’s just how it is. Still, she’s no rat (see, she does care about marital bonds –thou shall not rat your husband seems implicit – or maybe that’s just me). But then she isn’t even sure what she would be ratting out – she has no idea what is going on. And then she learns that Frank needs life-saving heart medicine – she didn’t know this about him either.  This concerns her and so she teams up with a reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and scours San Francisco (the film utilizes striking and nicely lived-in locations in the city) to find her missing heart-afflicted husband. It can’t be purely medical that she’s out to restore his heart.

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You’d think the title -- Woman on the Run, a film noir (though it feels a lot more than that – it goes beyond genre) would simply be about a woman fleeing – and as described earlier, fleeing a bad marriage. But it isn’t really about that – this is a woman who is, essentially, fleeing from the nosey, rather sexist interrogations of police detectives who bugging her husband and judging her for her unconventional life. Frank’s the one who has fled, but, now, she is fleeing to figure out what in the hell is going on and where in the hell he is, and, really who is she? She’s fleeing from her own mental prison and it’s a fascinating beautiful thing to watch – and in in the end, incredibly romantic. With style, beautiful grit, and hard-boiled empathy, Woman on the Run dissects the sacred union without any artifice. It’s a tough movie, but damn if you’re not enormously moved by the end.

With that, the picture upends expectations of the cynical wife in this noir landscape – as she searches for him, and talks to locals at bars and various areas in San Francisco, she starts learning how much her husband actually loves her. How much he brought her up to others. She was on his mind. And she starts feeling things again. She starts understanding him more.

Baroquely beautiful, absolutely brimming with style, and even surrealistic at times, Foster’s Woman on the Run still feels firmly grounded in reality. The director’s mentoring and work with Orson Welles (Foster collaborated with Welles on It’s All True and directed Journey Into Fear) is felt throughout (with help by DP Hal Mohr). And marriage is the focal point (with a script by Alan Campbell, who had recently divorced Dorothy Parker, the two got back together after this picture was made, another curiosity). 

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Sheridan (the “Oomph girl!” – a moniker she detested. She once said: “Oomph" is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”) gives one of her greatest, perhaps her greatest performance here: Tough, but vulnerable, jaundiced but sophisticated, she’s able to light up when she really starts to see that her marriage has been muddled by a dreary fog. And they both (she and her husband) let it happen. It’s powerful and disarmingly moving that the picture’s finale occurs on what’s often representational of love: a rollercoaster (up and down and up and down and a lot of screaming and laughing and fear) and Sheridan is so moved to finally see her husband, that she screams his name with fear and love. It’s a beautiful moment.


What’s intriguing about Woman on the Run is that the picture isn’t trying to wag its finger at Sheridan for being such a hard-boiled cynic – a “bad” wife.” She’s presented with empathy and complexity and it’s not all her fault things have stagnated in her marriage. It’s not all her husband’s fault either. They both need to work on things. But this is about the “woman on the run” – Sheridan – and she needs to find her life and resuscitate her marriage, so, after she finds herself running from the police, she eventually will find herself running from the reporter (who reveals his true, evil intentions later in the movie). She can’t trust anyone. Really, she can only trust the one she was so dismissive about from the start – her husband.  

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Sheridan plays a woman who appears to have a hard heart tamped down by disappointment and marital atrophy – but as the movie reveals, she is full of love and understanding once she really opens herself up again. Marriage is viewed through a dreamy, demented landscape here, but it’s part of the institution’s tumultuous journey. A key moment in Woman on the Run occurs when, before Frank flees, he’s asked by an inspector if he’s married. His answer: “In a way.” Yes, in a way. But by the end of the movie, what that really means, romantically, is, it’s their way.


Sugar Torch: Samuel Fuller at Columbia

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From my August 2018 Sight & Sound piece:

Sugar Torch is running – someone wants her dead. It’s terrifying and visceral and, in the end, very sad.

Sugar’s plight opens Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono and immediately grabs us. Like a pulpy headline or a Weegee photograph, we are drawn in by a stimulating blend of blatancy and mystery – when something is so in your face that you’re knocked off balance, perplexed but enthralled. We just watched Sugar, the tall blonde gyrating on stage, smiling and winking with a kind of paroxysmal madness, shaking it in a downtown Los Angeles Burlesque House. Her dancing is aggressively sexy and bizarre – we hear but never see the audience. She looks to be performing for darkness, or maybe in a hallucination. The dance is brief, told through jump cuts, making it all the more surreal. She ends her performance, walks back to her dressing room and … gunshot. It then becomes verité – Sugar runs outside clad in her shimmy costume, desperately scared and screaming, quite the sight running down a populated L.A. street at night. The poor woman runs right into traffic and is shot down, collapsing dead between two cars. It’s fast and it’s sad. It’s quintessential Fuller.

“Motion as emotion.” That’s how Martin Scorsese described Fuller’s films in his introduction to Fuller’s fantastic autobiography, A Third Face, and Sugar Torch is certainly that.  Scorsese wrote, “When you respond to a Fuller film, what you're responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller's pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it's being lived with genuine passion.”

It’s a beautiful, perfect description of Fuller, and something we feel and see either writ large, or in glimpses within this box set of Fuller’s films with Columbia – there’s something remarkable even in the pictures he wrote but didn’t direct, and pictures the American maverick wasn’t too happy about when placed in the studio and director’s hands.

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Fuller loved the pulse and rigor of writing – he started out as a 17-year-old crime reporter, tapping out pieces for the New York Evening Graphic, merging real life with sensationalism but always after the truth, words jumping from the page to create their own visual poetry. And he understood people in all of their drama, vulnerability and complexity. When he was working the Upper West Side, he’d phone stories in to his editor from a friendly brothel, where he’d gotten to know the women so well that he didn’t feel any urges toward them – they became friends, people he respected (something he revels with his female characters in many of his films). He listened and observed and surely took notes. At a young age, he defended the marginalized while standing in the thick of a good yarn, something that never left him. When he enlisted in the Army during WW II (and the wartime service that would inform one of his great works – The Big Red One) he wrote that, “fighting-didn't really give me a hard-on. What kept going through my brain was that I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness.”

This Blu-ray set allows us a fascinating look at Fuller’s early beginnings as a screenwriter and, one would suspect, a look at some of the films that, when altered, prompted him to tackle directing himself and made him fiercely independent.

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Fuller was a writer among four (with Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson and Myles Connolly) in the earliest picture in this set, Harry Lachman’s It Happened in Hollywood (1937). Somewhat Reminiscent of A Star is Born (they were released the same year) or Singin’ in the Rain, the story finds a Tom Mix-fashioned cowboy star (played by Richard Dix) struggling to make the transition from silent pictures to talkies. It’s an endearing movie, and often quite smart, and Dix is likable (along with Fay Wray), but we wonder how much further Fuller would have taken this story had he written it himself.

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You wonder the same of D. Ross Lederman’s Adventure in Sahara (1938) the least notable among this set (screenplay by Maxwell Shane from Fuller’s story), but a relatively entertaining and quick (clocked right at an hour) adventure yarn. It’s a revenge tale set in the French Foreign Legion that features a good story and some lovely cinematography by Franz Plane, but moves along without much bite – you strain to find Fuller in this one. It does, however, come with an amusing real-life story: Fuller made the treatment up, on the fly, as he pitched to Columbia, borrowing from Victor Hugo and Mutiny on the Bounty. As Fuller wrote, “See, studio heads back then may have grown up selling furs instead of reading French literature, but they loved a good story. So, thank you, Monsieur Hugo, for saving my ass with your wonderful novel Ninety-Three.”

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It’s easy to discern how Fuller’s own experience must have informed the Power of the Press and the film, directed by Lew Landers and written by Robert Hardy Andrews (from a story by Fuller) has some keen musings about media, isolationism and patriotism, but it’s ultimately disappointing, particularly for such a potentially compelling story. We spend a lot of the time hoping (and perhaps we shouldn’t be hoping) for the picture to explode into full-on Fuller, but, alas, it never does. It’s worth viewing for the story and the actors, however (a principled Guy Kibbee and a villainous Otto Kruger stand out), even if it’s a bit too much speechifying. His next effort would prove to be far more interesting even if not perfect, and in the end, vexing for Fuller.

Directed by Douglas Sirk and written by Fuller, Shockproof is a well-cast, finely modulated thriller/melodrama that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. The story is of Griff Marat, a parole officer (played with passion by Cornel Wilde) inexorably falling in love with his parolee charge, Jenny Marsh (Wilde’s real-life wife Patricia Knight) and losing everything he once held dear as they become first, lovers and then, wanted fugitives. The combination of Fuller’s and Sirk’s sensibilities does mesh in an intriguingly odd way and, is at times, beautiful and powerful (a scene where a parole-breaker jumps to his death rather than risking imprisonment is potently horrifying), and the film exhibits enough visual style to hold the improbable melodrama at its core. Griff’s household, though sweet, is in a way, a variation of the suffocating cells Jenny has spent years in:  all steep expressionist angles and multi-level Victorian woodwork -- there is no escape from institutionalization. Marriage or jail appear to be two forms of doom hanging over her head.

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After the shooting of Jenny’s lover – Harry Wesson, played skillfully by John Baragrev (he manages to make Harry both repellent and suave, cheap and elegant) “The Lovers,” as the tabloid press calls them (also the original title of Fuller’s screenplay), head down the Mexico way, but are ensnared by the authorities. The film is moving straight for an American tragedy and its visual invention keeps up but, then, the tone abruptly changes, and everything is neatly wrapped into an unconvincing happy ending. The tampering of this film (the ending was written by National Velvet’s Helen Deutsch) left both Sirk and Fuller disappointed and was likely a decisive factor in Fuller’s decision to eventually helm and produce his films himself.

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Even though he didn’t write the screenplay, Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson — who directed the terrific, tough-as-nails Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, and The Phenix City Story), is truer to Fuller’s spirit and voice. Not a surprise since it’s adapted from Fuller’s best-selling 1944 novel, The Dark Page (with screenwriters Eugene Ling, James Poe, and Ted Sherdeman). An intense, at times, touching, well-engineered thriller the story looks at a ruthless tabloid editor Mark Chapman (played with mean, barking zeal by Broderick Crawford) who murders his long-estranged wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and has to stay one step ahead of his two ace reporters (played by Donna Reed and John Derek). The film is full of Fullerisms, mostly hollered by Crawford, and not only does it chastise the circulation-chasing tabloid press and unscrupulous investigative techniques, but it also populates the film with skid row characters, Lonely Hearts meet-ups, and assorted urban lowlifes. Chief amongst them is a moving ex-reporter -- down on his luck, played with vulnerable integrity by Henry O’Neill. Derek seems uncomfortable at first, and green on screen, but his character grows on you – he’s not all that he’s puffing himself up to be and his lightweight qualities next to Crawford and Reed start to make sense. But the film rests on Crawford’s tense shoulders— all of his inner turmoil and ambivalence sweating out of him.  He loves Derek’s character like a son and seems compulsively spellbound by the increasing circulation that his own tragedy brings him – even if it means chronicling his own destruction.

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And now back to Sugar Torch (played by Gloria Pall). She’s an important side-player (and one who doesn’t live long) to one of Fuller’s most innovative and daring films, The Crimson Kimono (which Fuller produced, wrote, and directed) but her awful death, though pulpy and loud, presages the quieter troubles and passions the other characters will experience within themselves. After Sugar is murdered, the film cuts right to a close-up of detective Joe (James Shigeta) – the Japanese-American cop who will, with his partner, best friend, and war buddy, Charlie (Glenn Corbett), crack the case of Sugar and a sad love triangle. And then, become involved in a triangle of his own: he falls for Joe’s love, Chris, and she falls for him.

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A rare picture for its time, it examines the struggles of an interracial relationship and Joe’s concerns about how he is perceived in a racist world. And then, how he must come to terms with his friendship to Charlie. Interestingly, Charlie is not shown as intolerant, and though hurt, he handles Joe and Chris’s relationship with maturity. Fuller fought for this more agreeable depiction of Charlie – the studio felt that Chris needed a reason to leave him other than her love for Joe. Fuller felt, no way. Presumably, that would read as insulting to Chris’s attraction to Joe. Chris loves Joe – they have more chemistry and more in common and more of a connection – she doesn’t need a reason to leave beyond that. It’s a complicated, touching approach – modern for its time.

And its modern approach is helped by the Los Angeles Little Tokyo locations – those Fuller stylistics – close-ups that make us almost taste a person’s sweat, and those impressive long takes – including one rather complicated single-shot scene showing Charlie and Joe waking up in their shared apartment that is so naturalistic in style and acting, that we absolutely believe these guys are buddies. The movie feels real.

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And that reality spilled into the filmmaking process as well. After shooting the extremely dangerous Sugar-running-opening, Fuller reflected later about how no one on the street (these were reportedly not paid extras, but real people) gave a damn about this poor woman. In The Third Face Fuller wrote of watching that scene with head of Columbia, Sam Briskin: “When I looked at the rushes with Sam Briskin, we realized that nobody, not even a passing sailor or a homeless drunk-was paying any attention to the big, scantily clad gal running along that downtown street. Nobody gave a damn. ‘What the hell's wrong with this country?’ asked Briskin.”

What the hell is wrong with this country could be asked of Underworld U.S.A. (or what the hell is wrong with everyone?) – a movie where the good guys and the bad guys are all bad. Who knows? The picture showcases some of his most beautifully designed and staged shots while it digs deep into violence and revenge. Fuller’s visual invention and edgy violence feel almost avant-garde here. The morally complex story of retribution showcases many of Fuller’s trademarks: An older woman that knows the ways of the world (think Thelma Ritter in Pick Up on South Street), a woman (named Cuddles – so touchingly played by Dolores Dorn) who would be considered a tramp but is given real pathos and depth (think Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss), a protagonist taking the path of crime to transit into a moral awakening, criminals hiding within the respectability of institutions, stainless steel pulp dialogue and gripping, at times, disturbing violence.

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The film is built around a remarkable Cliff Robertson as Tolly Devlin, whose face is perpetually twisted, his eyes darkened with wrath. He’s got a reason – as a kid (played with impressive aplomb and perfect mimicry by David Kent) he is scarred for life the night he witnesses the deadly beating of his father in a dank alley. Earlier that night in a dispute over a pickpocketed wallet, Tolly had received an injury over his right eye and that scar remains on the adult Tolly, God’s lonely avenger. He will track and terminate each of the killers even if, as shown in a concise, elliptical sequence, it means pursuing increasing prison time. That’s in order to reach one of the murderers, imprisoned in a maximum-security facility.

And so you watch this scarred kid and, then, young man, just keeping going and going and going … Tolly will infiltrate the crime syndicate, playing a dangerous game in which he uses the criminals and the chief of police with the same ruthlessness.

The violence in the film pushed the limits of censorship at the time and Fuller had to make compromises to tone the movie down, and yet it is still hard-hitting. An example: in an impeccably choreographed scene, an All-American-looking contract killer (constantly wearing shades) played to creepy-cool perfection by Richard Rust, runs over the young daughter of a snitch (the shot of her dead returns in a newspaper photo). Fuller uses every resource to deliver the impact of this killing – setting up the unmerciful forces that Tolly will face if found out.

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One of the simplest, most beautiful shots in the film also showcases Tolly walking relentlessly on a mission to end it all, to do the right thing. The camera leads him on, staying ahead of him, in a beautiful, dynamic shot as he faces off the crime boss at a pool where he does business (Fuller liked the idea of these guys spending their time in clean places – he wanted you to practically smell the chlorine). In a bout of fiscal probity, Fuller will powerfully reuse the same rig (likely a crane) to deliver Tully’s final steps out of the place, wounded and faltering, this time, his back to us. Fuller also uses beautifully designed transitions and ellipsis to chronicle the passage of time and its fluid nature in a spare 99 minutes – it works perfectly. At its core, this resource, resolute syntax also makes the decades between Tolly’s youth and his adult age, blurry, fluid, as if hatred has made time irrelevant.

And the film ends on a most symbolic image: Tolly, now dead, acquiescing, but incapable of letting go, dies with a clenched fist. His fist isn’t just about violence, it represents his emotional fight as well, which recalls Fuller discussing in an interview how he preferred “emotional violence.”

As the great man said, “You don’t have to be violent with your fist, a voice can do it as well. One word can cut the hell out of your heart.”

Originally published in August 2018 at Sight & Sound Magazine


Paris Film Series

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June 29-July 2 Guillermo & I will be presenting and discussing films at one of our favorite theaters in Paris -- Christine Cinema -- three movies that, in one way or another, informed our Nightmare Alley. Here are the movies:

Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido

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Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train 

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Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel

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The last night we will present Nightmare Alley

 

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More information here: https://pariscinemaclub.com/news/guillermo-del-toro-2/


I Got a Name: The Last American Hero

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Elroy Jackson Jr.: I don’t want no job, neither. I work for nothin’, take fifty percent of the prize money.

Burton Colt: To begin with, I hire drivers on my terms.

Elroy Jackson Jr.: And end up nowhere.

Burton Colt: Where do you get off being so goddamn snotty?

Elroy Jackson Jr.: I know my potential. So do you.

Junior Jackson has a lot of pressure in his life. It doesn’t seem fair to this young man but … he’s been a little cocky on the roads lately. His daddy, a moonshiner, has just been pinched by the law, the family moonshine still blown up and destroyed. The business is ruined – for now. The reason? Junior, driving his 1968 Mustang fastback full of hooch, tears down the North Carolina country roads, not just whizzing past police officers but knocking them over, laughing and singing along to the bluegrass tune on his car radio. He feels he’s invincible. Of course he’s not. The world is going to come at him one way or another – be it the law, his family or the profession he will find himself in. And yet, there’s something beautiful and innocent and free about all of this, this young man speeding along, his talent and his out-and-out joy of driving. Moonshining is what he grew up with – his daddy got him in this business, it’s all his younger brother knows – but you can see where his passion lies – racing. Speed. Maybe deep down he wants to drive the hell out of this county, out of this business, even as he loves his family so much.

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But when his father is busted, Junior feels guilt and sadness and determination to help him out – and also to give his mother a break. There’s a lot hanging on him. His brother, Wayne, is furious: “It’s your hot doggin’ that put him there!” he hollers at him when he tears up to Junior distressed over their father’s predicament. He also knows Junior is the one who is going to have to fix it. Junior is upset and, in that flash, thinking about the next step – you can see it all register on his face: what the hell is he going to do about this? He’s got to do something. And he feels it’s all his fault. All of that “hot doggin’” in that car. But when Wayne slams his hand down on his Mustang, Junior says to him firmly, “Don’t hit the car, man.”

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It’s a funny little moment, but it’s a truthful one, almost as if Junior knows right then and there that this car (or an even better car) and that law-breaking speed will be his key to success and wealth and, most importantly, his father’s freedom. There’s all kinds of wonderful moments like this in Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero, a movie about racing, yes, but really, more of an absorbing character study of a boy growing into a man and moving beyond his father – a country kid who is navigating through a world that is crooked and corrupt and paid off all over, and becoming tougher and more cognizant in the process. But through the course of the movie, he doesn’t become too hardened by what he experiences, not yet, and that makes the picture, at times, immensely touching. He’s a hothead, and while he’s not stupid, he’s still green in many ways. But even when he states his worth and stands his ground, he has empathy, and that seems to come to him quite naturally, it helps him understand; to put things in perspective. And with that kind of empathy and sweetness, you wonder how everything will turn out for Junior Jackson after the last beautifully frozen frame – is he gonna be OK? Will he harden, become too slick or commercial? He can’t stay the same. What will happen?

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The real Junior Jackson, or rather, Junior Johnson – Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. (whom Tom Wolfe helped immortalize in his famous 1965 Esquire piece – “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” – which the film is based on – script by William Roberts William Kerby) was indeed OK – in terms of his success anyway. He won 50 NASCAR races during his career, he became a NASCAR racing team owner and was pardoned by Ronald Reagan for his past moonshining conviction. In real life Junior Johnson was the one arrested (his dad did serious jail time – a good portion of his life) but his arrest is omitted from this picture, giving the character, in some ways, more to work towards past himself – his daddy’s freedom. The name was also changed from Johnson to Jackson (I’m assuming this was a legal decision, though Junior Johnson was a consultant on the movie). Another revision: Junior Johnson’s driving career started in the 1950s and he retired as a driver by 1966 – here it’s right in the present – right there in the early 1970s with all of those gorgeous American muscle cars prowling the roads.

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The movie doesn’t entirely mimic the appealing, hyperactive zeal of Wolfe’s piece either – a joy to read, like five really good shots of espresso – but that was a wise choice on director Johnson’s part. Johnson instead crafts an understated, personal, beautifully acted and shot (by cinematographer George Silano) and expertly edited picture (by Tom Rolf and Robbe Roberts – Rolf edited The French Connection IIBlue CollarHardcoreJacob’s Ladder and Black Sunday, and was also co-editor on Taxi DriverThe Right Stuff and Heat, among many other pictures. He also had previously edited one of Johnson’s most interesting movies – The McKenzie Break). The picture knows it’s not a by-the-book chronicle of Junior or of stock car racing in general (though the racing scenes are exciting, beautifully textured and obviously carefully researched), and the director, instead, makes a thoughtful Lamont Johnson picture.

And Johnson, throughout his long and varied career, was frequently thoughtful – he was also intelligent, gritty, daring and enlightened. Johnson started out as an actor (he played Ishmael in a 1954 TV movie of Moby Dick, and appeared on stage and in numerous television series, including Alfred Hitchcock PresentsClimax! and Cavalcade of America – he makes an appearance as the hotel desk clerk in The Last American Hero) and, at this point, had directed major and acclaimed work in television – directing episodes of The RiflemanFive FingersThe Richard Boone ShowHave Gun – Will TravelPeter GunnDr. KildareMr. LuckyNaked City and more. He also helmed eight The Twilight Zone episodes that are smart, scary and memorable, especially the Sartre, Pirandello-inspired title, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “Kick the Can” (which was re-made for the Spielberg episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie), the perverse, horrifying moral crusading “Four O Clock,” and “Nothing in the Dark,” (featuring a fantastic Robert Redford as Death). In these, you can really see how excellent he was with staging, and his understanding of complex psychological tension.

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Johnson often delved into social and political themes in his work – progressive ones, including racial issues (like the powerful “Deadlock,” the 1969 pilot for the television series, The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and his 1970 TV movie, My Sweet Charlie) and the blacklist, (the 1975 TV movie Fear on Trial starring William Devane and George C. Scott about the blacklisting of John Henry Faulk), which had to have been personal since Johnson, himself, had been blacklisted during his career. He directed a well-regarded 1972 TV movie, That Certain Summer, about a gay couple (played by Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen), and how a father will come out to his teenage son. It was a relationship and subject not often seen on television, if ever, at that time, and is considered a milestone moment in television history. Two years later, he made what some consider one of the greatest TV movies ever made, the 1974 The Execution of Private Slovik (also starring Sheen) about a real-life WWII American soldier who was executed for desertion.

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At the point of The Last American Hero he had directed some compelling features in what would be a long and fascinating career in film and television – The McKenzie Break (with an excellent Brian Keith), A Gunfight (Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash as aging gunfighters – worth the price of admission for that – they have great chemistry), You’ll Like My Mother (with Patty Duke – a terrifying movie) and the trippy The Groundstar Conspiracy (with George Peppard and Michael Sarrazin). Later on we’d see Cattle Annie and Little Britches (featuring terrific performances by Burt Lancaster and young Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane), One on One (starring Robby Benson) and the much-maligned Lipstick (which is understandably disturbing in its graphic depiction of rape, but also manages to show how sexist the judicial system is, and Margaux Hemingway is a lot better than she’s given credit for – there’s much to discuss about this controversial picture).

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Having been an actor himself, one of his directorial strengths was working with actors – and in casting such excellent players and knowing their strengths – he really allowed his casts to inhabit their characters, make them come alive, feel real and lived-in. In some of his work, Johnson shows that there’s something deeper within the material – and material some viewers might expect to be less insightful, particularly in Johnson’s more “genre” films. The Last American Hero was a race car movie, a moonshining movie, a movie that could have leaned on easy clichés – but it never does. And Jeff Bridges makes this picture something special.

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When Junior really rises up in his field – getting around some untrustworthy characters (like Ned Beatty’s promoter Hackel) – and he’s on his way to becoming not just a hero of stock car racing, but a folk hero in general, (he also goes head to head with his car owner and sponsor, Burton Colt, played by a fantastic Ed Lauter) – we watch Bridges truly feel the inner turmoil this young man is experiencing. On the one hand, he’s proud of himself, he’s full of youthful exuberance and cockiness, but on the other, he’s nervous and a bit of unsure about the world. He wants his freedom to remain independent, but sponsorship and ownership seem increasingly necessary. How long can he outrun that?

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When he starts having feelings for a racing secretary named Marge (a poignant Valerie Perrine who always seemed to possess an overlay of sadness – she’s wonderful) the movie takes the time to actually present this woman as something more than just a groupie. Yes, she’s sleeping with another driver, Kyle Kingman (a terrific, almost humorously macho William Smith), and though he’s not pleased about it, Junior doesn’t stay mad at her, and neither does the movie. When Junior and Marge do have their intimate moment together, she tells him about how she was before she came to her present – in her words not attractive – and she relays a horrifying, sad story about being invited to a pig party by a fraternity. She describes it almost humorously, even though she was the butt of the awful “joke,” and she laughs at the humiliation now. But you can feel the lingering sadness within her. And Junior feels it too. He tells her she’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. And then … she will eventually move on again. What’s refreshing is the movie doesn’t center itself on a typical love story or a by-the-book heartbreak arc – it doesn’t damn her for her decisions, as if Junior has to learn some lesson about the wrong woman (she’s not wrong or right – she just is), and it doesn’t present his loss as a tragedy. It’s just bittersweet. That’s the way of life, it says. It’s lovely.

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And for a fast movie – and it’s fast – the racing sequences are incredibly visceral; you can smell the motor oil, the country air, the fumes, you really feel like you are there – it takes its time presenting Junior’s experiences, and particularly his inner feelings. You get this from the supporting performances as well – Art Lund as Junior’s proud, moonshining father, Geraldine Fitzgerald as his long-suffering mother, and Gary Busey as his younger brother – they help create a more nuanced family portrait. These aren’t simply moonshining stereotypes, and Lund brings a poignancy to the role of what could have been a stock heroic criminal daddy, or simply a terrible father.

What he really wants, in the end, is for his sons to not follow in his footsteps. After they build him a new still when he gets out of prison, they’re thrilled to show him his new set-up. He’s not. He says to Junior: “If you lose a race, you get other chances. If you lose runnin’ liquor you get a prison cell, ’cause boy, they got your number.” When Junior asks him just how he’s going to get money to race his car without working moonshine, his dads asks him what his name is. Junior loudly states: “Elroy Jackson, Jr.” His dad then says – “You’ll find a way.” Meaning, go out on your own, you have the stuff. And, you’re not a kid anymore. Junior is already rumbling with a need for something bigger, while being tied to helping out his father. At this moment, father sets son free. 

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In an extraordinary scene (before his daddy is out of jail), after Junior has dropped Marge off from a party he’s not too keen on (too many strutting peacocks), the young man finds himself wandering around a Kmart at night. That image itself, the fluorescent lights and the Kmart bright colors, is so distinctly American that it catches you off guard with how evocative and, in this case, melancholic it is. He’s lonely. He calls what might be home but no one answers. He then goes into a vinyl recording booth located in the Kmart and records a greeting to his family: “I sure hope you got your stereo fixed, Wayne, so you can play this.” He keeps talking, laughing a bit nervously while trying to put a little showmanship in his message: “This is Elroy talking to you from Hickory where the cars are fast and the women are faster.” He continues with some thoughtful pauses, smiles and lingering sadness:

“Excuse me Mama. Hey, uh, see if you can send this along to Dad, and maybe they’ll let him play it, you know, uh, get that lawyer fella to jerk on some strings. Well, I, uh, I sure been havin’ a fun time here, uh, drivin’ and all .… I don’t know. These us, people out here – they ain’t exactly what you’d call, uh, normal. These drivers – they strut around like they’s damn movie stars or something, laughing all the time, talking too loud… Oh, uh, Mama? I got a real nice motel room. It’s got a color TV and a shower and – uh – And a shower. I mean, the, you know, the color TV ain’t in the shower. I guess the real rich folks get them kind of rooms, huh, Mama? And, uh, Daddy. I just want to say that I’m sorry. And that I love you. And don’t you worry ‘cause I got this plan. So I’m gonna see you real soon. Okay? Okay. Well, goodbye, Mama. Goodbye, Daddy. See you after a while, Wayney. You little suck ass!” 

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It’s a powerful piece of acting, and not easy (it made me think of Montgomery Clift’s brilliant phone booth monologue in John Huston’s The Misfits), and Bridges goes through a multitude of emotions here without any strain – he is layered and so utterly natural – it’s incredible. It’s also a beautifully composed sequence – a long lens composition, it splits the frame 50/50 between Bridges and his own reflection on the stainless-steel recorder faceplate, working almost like a monologue Junior is having with himself. You can see that he’s not sure about this recording – it seems like just something to do on a bored, alienating night, and maybe it’ll be fun. But while recording, he’s possibly revealing how he’s feeling a little in over his head, how he’s vulnerable. He seems anxious, doubtful. Does he want his family to sense this? When he’s done recording he picks up the record and then breaks it right there. He chucks it in the garbage.

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At this point Junior is set to face a lot more in the movie, things he doesn’t know yet. But he must know, somewhere deep down, that things are really going to change for him. There’s something sad in realizing that you’re going to have to let go someday – both to let go of your family, and finally, to let go of some of your independence (he’s going to need a sponsor). You see it all on Bridges’ face, but with such minimalism and mercurial nuance. And Johnson knows how powerful this is. He takes his time with it – unfolding Junior’s feelings with beauty and sensitivity.

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The film’s tender theme song, “I Got a Name,” sung by Jim Croce (written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel), follows Junior Jackson around with a mournful kind of pride. It could feel a bit too on-the-nose, but the way Bridges acts and Johnson directs, it never feels that way. It feels like an elegy. Proud but wistful, claiming yourself, but, maybe, losing something in the process. “Movin' me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway, movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by."

Originally published at the New Beverly 


Martin Scorsese on Nightmare Alley

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From the LA Times

Commentary: Martin Scorsese wants you to watch ‘Nightmare Alley.’ Let him tell you why

An excerpt:
 
"...But the term “noir” has been used so often and in such a cheeky way that it seems more like a flavor than anything else, and it might just lead someone seeking information about the picture in the wrong direction. They might be expecting a noir “pastiche,” of which there have been many. That doesn’t even begin to do justice to Guillermo and Kim Morgan’s adaptation.
 
"The majority of the picture takes place in the ‘30s, and it seems to grow out of the bitterness and despair of the Depression: You can feel it in the images and in the body language of the actors. All the characters in this film are feeling real pain, a sense of spiritual desolation rooted in everyday life. This isn’t just a matter of “style” or “visuals,” exquisite as the film is. It’s a matter of Guillermo’s complete commitment to the material, to bringing his vision to life with his production designer, his costume designer, his DP and his amazing cast, led by Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett. They work together to create a dead-end universe from out of the American past, and they do it inside and out, through and through."
 
Read the entire piece here.

'Rhythms and Moods': Jeremiah Johnson

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It’s a pity Gloria Beatty never met Jeremiah Johnson. They’d have some things to talk about. Gloria and Jeremiah, two characters in Sydney Pollack’s sixth and seventh pictures respectively, were asking similar questions, albeit with slightly different ends. Where can you? Can you ever escape this life? How do you survive? For Jane Fonda’s Gloria in Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the question is answered with a poignant, yet bitterly grim no. No, she cannot. The movie is set up like a trapped life – the dance hall and that endless marathon, where she hangs on to live and to ultimately die – it’s like living inside one’s depressive, claustrophobic self. There’s nature out there during the weeks-long endurance test, and it’s close – the Pacific Ocean is just a stroll away. You watch characters reach to see the sun, hear the waves and feel the water pound underneath the dance floor. The ocean outside is endless and you sense it’s there as the dancers move in a somnambulant state, part masochism, part survival. You start living with them – will you ever see the ocean again? Will you ever be free? Will you even care anymore? Gloria Beatty cares so much that, if this seems possible, she can’t care anymore. But she wants to be free. So does Jeremiah Johnson and, as the narrator of the movie states, he “said goodbye to whatever life was down there below.”

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Though there is, as often the case, a hand-changing production history behind the picture (at one point Lee Marvin was attached, then Sam Peckinpah with Clint Eastwood), Pollack’s exquisite, contemplative Jeremiah Johnson seems a fitting follow up after the entombed lives and one-room dance hall of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The vastness and, at times, heartbreaking beauty of the Rocky Mountains (shot in Utah) is what many of the Horses dancers might have imagined as they draped themselves onto one another. Gloria’s death, her final shot in the head, is met with a fantasy image of her collapsing outside on an expansive soft field. Nature. Freedom. But for a man leaving civilization, Jeremiah Johnson proves that freedom isn’t easy. Or as Gloria might say via Kris Kristofferson: freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. You’re not sure where 1850’s mountain man Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford at his most understated and poetic) falls on that idea — what’s at stake — until he loses everything he finally cares about. But then freedom turns to anger, and vengeance is a trap in itself. He feels so angry at times that he seems angry he’s even alive. Like Gloria.

Johnson is a war veteran who sets out to the mountains to find a new life, a sense of discovery, and a purpose, whatever that may be. An 1850’s dropout, he rejects convention to instead live a hard, solitary life in nature as a trapper – not an easy occupation. One might call him an early hippie, and both then and now, his choice seems an attractive one at first, until you understand how tough the life of a trapper actually was (also see the Hugh Glass inspirations, Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant). This is a mythic story inspired by a real man (John “Liver-Eating” Johnson – with John Milius and Edward Anhalt working from Raymond Thorp and Robert Bunker’s book, “Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson” and Vardis Fisher’s “Mountain Man”) and the movie potently reflects on nature, companionship, violence and death with the same kind of lyrical meditation and visual pull of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Pollack, who is rarely considered a stylistic director and more, a highly intelligent, thoughtful, but glossy (gorgeously glossy) Hollywood filmmaker, once again shows his expressionistic, meditative side, unafraid of both the relentless ballroom “Yowza-Yowza-Yowza” of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the superbly visual, sparsely storied and silent-film-like nature of Jeremiah Johnson. Like Horses source novel, in which Horace McCoy brilliantly blended a hard-boiled style with a poetic stream of consciousness, Jeremiah Johnson takes Milius’s initial script, which Pollack stated was much more violent, and melded that roughness with doses closer to Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalism. The “style and size” of Milius’s script was there, according to Pollack, but the narrative was altered and the film made “out of rhythms and moods and a wonderful performance.”

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And it is a wonderful performance. Much of this film is watching rugged, enchanting Robert Redford – catching fish in a stream, coming across a dead frozen man in the snow (a bracing, strangely beautiful scene), mentoring with Will Geer’s “Bear Claw,” communicating with Native Americans, falling in love with the Native America wife he didn’t ask for and the son he accidentally inherited – and like Pollack’s dancers of Horses, we move along with him, fixing on his face and actions and even refocusing as the changes happen throughout his journey – his journey to… somewhere. We’re not sure where. When he settles down with his wife (she’s a gift from a tribe) and adopted son, he domesticates himself somewhat, builds a cabin, hunts for food, and, for a time, seems content. He wasn’t expecting a family but he rolls with it and feels a connection. This requires little dialogue on Redford’s part, he’s so persuasive – you can see it in his eyes, his understated gestures, and inner turmoil. When he feels attraction for his new wife (whom he’s gentle with), he simply holds her closer. It’s a small moment that’s more romantic than a kiss. When he asks her why her chin is red, she points out his beard – the look on his face tells you what happened, how close they’ve become. It’s a lovely scene. In these tender moments, I thought of Peter Fonda’s also elegiac western, The Hired Hand, and Fonda’s sensitive, skillfully internal performance in which the wandering man returns home to the wife he left behind, only to take a chance and shatter that life again. In Jeremiah Johnson, home finds him. And then his home is destroyed.

When his wife and child are killed by the Crow Indians (against his own warning, he helps the U.S. Army Cavalry save stranded settlers – they travel through a sacred Crow burial ground – and that creates murderous ire), Pollack gives Redford the time to grieve. The movie lingers on his face overpowered by sadness, but with subtly (there is no moment of grandstanding in this performance) and we take in Redford mourning and thinking, the cabin shading from light to dark to light (the picture is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Duke Callaghan). After that melancholic moment, the lonely man has to move on. He walks out of the cabin and burns it to the ground. That life is over. His new life begins, and it’s a violent one. He starts killing.

Is the vengeance so sweet? No, it is not. It is out of survival and anger, and this somewhat peaceful man who once protested undue violence becomes a blood-soaked killer (the liver eater of the inspiration) and quite good at it. He’s both feared and respected, a living myth. It doesn’t come as a surprise that there’s a rampaging murderer inside this man – that’s not the point, we’re all potential killers – and the scenes play out exciting, but also terrifying and cynical (forget any hint of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” nonviolence business). But to Pollack’s credit, how we’re to process this is left for us to deliberate. Bloodlust does not seem to be the answer to anything here. What is the answer? Pollack seems well aware that watching Native Americans slaughtered in movies is not as satisfying nor as easy as some westerns would show, but he also doesn’t flinch from the violence and the momentary satisfaction of killing for vengeance. It’s purposely muddy – he’s not a hero.

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Pollack originally wanted the ending to be more like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – with death. Johnson was to freeze to death. Another way out, another escape — a victim of nature, both spectacular and unforgiving. Instead, the movie settles for something that’s not as tragic – mystery. This is not Gloria, whom, in spite of her death wish, we so want to live. And, so too with Jeremiah Johnson’s murderous death obsession, we want him to survive. But perhaps the picture’s finality is, in fact, scarier because it settles on ambiguity – a big question mark. Johnson and the Crow Chief exchange a respectful, possible moment of peace. How is that going to work out? In this big bad beautiful world? We don’t know. They don’t know. Perhaps we should ask Gloria Beatty.

Originally published at the New Beverly


Frank & Eleanor Perry's Ladybug Ladybug

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Mrs. Forbes (Kathryn Hays) hears the alarm. She sees a letter in a series of squares, and it beeps and lights up. She’s the secretary to the principal of a grade school in a rural area somewhere in America in 1962 – and she’s pregnant. A thin woman well into her pregnancy she moves with ease but, with that child growing inside her, she seems extra vulnerable. Just the vision of that pregnant woman in her dress and the alarm and the light and her concerned face – already we feel creeping dread.

The day did start out somewhat nice – chatting with another teacher and a little boy already sent to the principal’s office so early – she appears to be starting the morning like any other. Mrs. Forbes is kind to the little boy, Joel (Miles Chapin) who was supposedly bad (he seems more like he’s been picked on), and that makes us like her. One woman (a kitchen worker) gives him a treat before he trudges to the principal’s office. She says: “When you’re in trouble, it helps to have a cookie in your pocket.” How moving that gesture seems before what will unfold, and how extra poignant it is when we walk through the entire movie -- Frank Perry’s Ladybug Ladybug (written by his then-wife, Eleanor Perry, whom he worked with frequently, and adapted from a short story by Lois Dickert).

And we really do walk through the movie – with those kids, with a teacher. So much that, we, too, begin to feel flustered and exhausted and worried. That cookie could offer such comfort – not just for the sweet taste, but for the soothing memory from the adult, the idea that this adult, this person in charge, thought you deserved it, even if you thought you may have done something bad; and especially if you thought something bad was going to happen to you.

But why should these kids feel so guilty or bad or punishable? It’s the adults who create this kind of chaos in the world. They even later vote on it – they don’t want any kind of war.

These kids – with varied levels of worry – some calm, some distraught – suspect something bad is going to happen to them. And it grows and grows and grows….

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So, when the alarm goes off, Mrs. Forbes doesn’t panic; she just isn’t sure if it could be serious. It feels like something. She rushes to Mr. John Calkins (William Daniels), the school principal. He inspects what is going on – and they have to take it seriously. They have to evacuate the school. This could mean … a nuclear attack is about to happen. Given this time period (the film was released in 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis), it’s not paranoia to worry. But, no one totally believes it, right? At least they don’t want to – at first. They round up the kids in groups and select teachers to walk those kids back to their homes (Mrs. Forbes and Mr. Calkins stay at the school).

This begins Ladybug Ladybug. A beautiful, haunting, at times terrifying picture, it’s powerful and all-so-human to this day. This was the second film Frank Perry made with Eleanor Perry after David and Lisa. They then took on The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster), a transfixing, potently allegorical and disturbing adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. The Swimmer was a stressful production. The direction was taken away from Frank (an uncredited Sydney Pollack shot the rest) but what you see is another expression of the couple’s lyricism and cynicism that, through the early 60s and up until 1970, made them two of the most unique and fascinating independent filmmakers of that time. Among their work, they also made Truman Capote’s Trilogy, and the moving and disturbing Last Summer (I wrote about the film here) a complex film about troubled, confused young people, and one that takes place on a leisurely beach, but a weirdly empty beach. Grown-up kids from Ladybird Ladybird?

Their partnership ended with their divorce (Frank went on to make films without Eleanor, notably Doc, Man on a Swing, Rancho Deluxe, the great, incredibly underrated Play It as It Lays (which I wrote about here) starring Tuesday Weld in an incredible performance. He also directed the infamous, and I think, impressive and powerful, Mommie Dearest. Their last film together was one of their very best, Diary of a Mad Housewife, an especially lacerating portrait of matrimony, a dreamlike, almost mentally insane spell of both abuse and masochism.

Probing the sweetness and alienation and/or rot within adolescence and adulthood, or the challenges of childhood – particularly within the supposed stability of regular America or suburbia, or of marriage – you truly feel unsettled watching Ladybug Ladybug. The filmmakers take time with these scenes, they take care with these child actors (all of the actors from kids to adults are spectacular), never talking down to their characters, but never fearing to show how negative, even scary some can be (one in particular).

Ladybug Ladybug, with its stark, black and white cinematography, laced with lovely artful touches (there’s a scene on a hill that recalls Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), feels dreamlike. A nightmare, in fact, but one that works as a direct story of fear (it was based on a real incident), and how the children and adults handle themselves. How quickly the veneer of childhood innocence, of safety, can be shattered. The look of uncertainty and sadness on Mrs. Forbes’ face as she walks through an empty schoolroom, picking up the tiny chairs, organizing the miniature pots and pans on the play stove, placing a tiny man and woman together, staring out the window adorned with paper children, is so beautifully realized, so mysterious, so sincere.

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The woman slowly falling apart is Mrs. Andrews (Nancy Marchand), whom we follow as she leads one group of children to their respective homes in her uncomfortable heels. She walks with the kids behind, feet hurting, her face registering increasing amounts of dread and fear and sadness (when she is all alone, she is picked up by a truck driver who plays music loudly – and she laughs a bit but then settles into a look of absolute dread – she is incredible in this little moment). The kids talk – they wonder if the threat is real, some seem almost casual about it, others horrified. One little girl vomits on the side of the road – the poor thing bolts to her father’s work, and he acts like she’s a hysterical nuisance, then, when home, her mother says she has nothing to worry about. The girl grabs her pet goldfish, hides under her bed, as a dark shadow falls over her face. It’s heart breaking. Another kid goes home to grandma, who is suffering dementia or something like it – and they hide in the basement. He convinces her to come down by telling her it’s all play – “It’s called Hide-From-War-Game,” he says. Two other kids make it home and pray with their religious mom in the cellar – it feels more disturbing than soothing. Another little girl, Sarah (Marilyn Rogers) rushes home but mom’s not there. What to do? She’s got to find the rest of the kids. Where are they?

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The rest of the kids are in bossy Harriet’s (Alice Playten) family bomb shelter, already dealing with Harriet’s demands and orders. We don’t entirely hate Harriet – after all she’s just a little girl – but we don’t trust her at all, we don’t like her, and she shows how inflexible and heartless some can become in moments of crisis.

Of these kids – we really focus on two of the older kids –Steve (Christopher Howard) and Sarah. Two sensitive kids, they are starting to develop a deeper connection, a first love, with one another. As they increasingly believe the world might be ending, their plan to meet next week for a date (she invites him over to listen to music) is something they are holding on to – seriously – and the actors register this in their faces so beautifully. When Sarah runs to the bomb shelter for safe harbor, Harriet won’t let her in, in spite of Steve’s protestations. Sarah is crying and banging on that door, but, nope, Harriet won’t allow entrance. It’s a chilling moment only softened when Steve runs out of the shelter, possibly risking his life to find Sarah.

And here’s the most haunting moment of the film. Nowhere to go, searching around the barren landscape, Sarah finds an abandoned refrigerator in a dumping ground. She climbs inside of it and closes the door. Steve runs right past it. He doesn’t know she’s in there. And we don’t know if Sarah is going to suffocate in that fridge. It’s a scene I will never forget. It’s a scene I watched with a friend who thought he’d never seen this movie before and that moment bubbled up in him, like a repressed memory.

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Characters are trapped in the Perrys’ films, literally, in refrigerators, or swimming pools, or in marriages and affairs giving no profound satisfaction or release. Burt Lancaster banging on the door of his empty house, as if he’s trying to break through to another consciousness or world (one he’ll never reach) while revealing how lonely and empty he feels, is a refrain in the Perrys’ work. Here, he and Eleanor are working more overtly within a trapped landscape – one of uncertainty. Most of the kids don’t know what is really going on and Steve, running to find Sarah, to find somewhere, sees a plane overhead, and, with fist clenched, yells, over and over, “Stop!”

You get the sense it’s not going to stop – the false alarm, yes, this will be known – but the fear of war? That’s going to linger and take those kids into the late 60s when some could be drafted into the Vietnam War, when some will grow up and follow orders or not follow orders, or not trust anything. There’s an interesting conversation that happens while the kids walk:

 

Brian: I wonder how it feels to see a dead person?

 

Harriet: You’ll see plenty if the bomb comes.

 

Sarah: I don’t want to hear about it.

 

Harriet: You have to face facts.

 

Steve: It’s not a fact! The bomb doesn’t have to come.  

 

Sarah: So, there. So, shut up!

 

Harriet: Watch out who you’re telling to shut up!

 

Watch out.

(From my 2019 piece in Criminal)


Richard Fleisher’s Violent Saturday

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Regular small-town American life. Regular small-town American life in the 1950’s. What did that ever mean? The “regular” part? By regular does one mean purse snatching librarians, bank clerk window peepers, cheating wives, drunken husbands and little kids ashamed of their fathers for not serving in the war? Yes, that sounds about regular (it does).

And then Lee Marvin. (That’s not so regular because... who is like Lee Marvin?) But … Lee Marvin. Lee Marvin’s inhaler knocked out of his hand when a kid bumps into him on the street – and then the sharp-suited, blue hat-clad Lee Marvin cruelly presses his shoe on the kid’s hand when the little boy politely attempts to pick up the inhaler for him. “Beat it,” Lee Marvin says to the pained child.

To be fair regarding regular small-town American life and Lee Marvin, Marvin (as Dill), doesn’t live in the Arizona town of Richard Fleisher’s Violent Saturday (1955) – Dill is there for a nice little (violent) bank robbery he’s part of (with his partners, Harper (played by Stephen McNally), and Chapman (played by J. Carrol Naish). But even Dill reveals he’s attempted some kind of domestic normalcy (regular, again, whatever that is) – once. It didn’t take. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Dill wakes up the night before the robbery thinking too much about his life. Perhaps the town (of which we’ve been introduced to in just some of its domestic dysfunction – we’ll see more of it later) is getting to him. He walks (with an intriguing, strange sweetness) into Harper’s room clad in pajamas and talks about his past marriage while, perpetually stuffed up, he’s sniffing his inhaler (presumably, Benzedrine) – a fascinating detail here – that Dill is also likely a drug addict. He says, “I must have the heebie-jeebies or something, I can’t sleep.” After lamenting that their partner Chapman is “mean,” which is a little hilarious given how Dill treats children (later on cool-headed Chapman will give a clearly violence-fascinated kid a candy while he’s robbing the bank), Dill extends Chapman’s meanness to women:

“There’s nothing in this world as mean as a mean woman. You know I got to thinking about all the things that have happened to me on account of women in there when I couldn’t sleep. Boy they can sure ruin you… Remember the broad I married, Harp? Back in Detroit? There was a real dilly for you. When I first married her, I thought she was a real sweepstakes prize. Well, a little on the skinny side, but that’s always how it’s been with me. No meat on ‘em. Just skin and bones. I wonder why I go for skinny broads? Parmalee. That was her name… Left me for an undertaker. No kiddin’, a lousy, two-bit undertaker. To tell you the truth I was half glad to see her go. She had too many bad habits. Got on my nerves. She used to go around the apartment all day in one of them, uh, you know, Chinese housecoats. Practically lived in it. Screwy habits like that. And all winter long she’d have a cold. Boy, she was the world champion when it come to a cold. And every two weeks, I’d catch if from her. (sniffs inhaler) I’ll bet I caught better than 50 colds from that broad. (sniffs inhaler) That’s what started me on this.”

Yes, even Lee Marvin’s Dill got dumped for some regular run-of-the-mill undertaker. After this amusing monologue (beautifully delivered by Marvin), Chapman and Dill hear a noise outside. They check it out. Just a man walking his dog.  Regular American life.

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Not really. Or, yes, really. That dog-walker is the peeper – mild-mannered bank clerk Harry (Tommy Noonan). He’s married, but that doesn’t stop a Peeping Tom, and he’s about to scope pretty nurse Linda (Virginia Leith), hoping to catch her as she undresses with the blinds open. But he bumps into another townsperson who is also up to something no good – Elsie (Sylvia Sidney), the thieving librarian, stuffing a stolen purse in a trash can. Well, Elsie knows what Harry’s up to, and Harry knows what Elsie is up to, and they share a tense conversation. “I just dare you to go to the police,” she says (understandably disgusted by this guy – though she’s mostly concerned about herself). It’s a fascinating, sad scene – extra layered by the dysfunction that came before it. Prior to this, Linda, who is soft on Boyd Fairchild (a terrific Richard Egan), threatened a man’s wife. Well-off Boyd is married to Emily (Margaret Hayes), who is cheating on him with some lady-killer named Gil (Brad Dexter). Boyd gets soused at a bar, and Linda sees Boyd home – she gets him nicely tucked in on his couch. Nothing happens (though the two like each other a lot) and Boyd’s wife comes in – late. “All I want is an excuse to pull the hair right out of your stupid head,” Linda says to Emily.

But the movie, wisely, is not there to hate Emily or to take easy sides. In a moving scene, husband and wife discuss their problems and their hearts – they really do love each other. Emily, upset with herself says: “I’ve read about people like me. They’re sick people. They shouldn’t associate with decent people.” (Who is “decent,” the film seems to be asking and what does decent mean anyway – a good question) Boyd calms her and they plan to make it work. Things will be better by morning.

Well, no, they won’t. Tomorrow is Saturday.

With the town’s own emotional drama building up to such a fever pitch – it seems like the movie is just waiting for an explosion of some kind, and this gives the crime story of the movie a kind of extra punch in the gut to human feeling – feelings that are already bruised, bashed around, violent inside – a mirror. It’s a fascinating hybrid (screenplay by Sydney Boehm from a novel by William L. Heath) as directed by Fleischer (who crafted some great gritty crime pictures – Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin among them) who handles the sunlit melodrama and violence with a palpable tension, and an incredible fluidity (the camera movement is beautiful) – emotions and actions in wonderful unison.

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There’s so much simultaneous repression and out in the open sadness here – even within the most “normal” family – Victor Mature’s Shelley Martin whose kid, Stevie (Billy Chapin – from The Night of the Hunter) is fighting with another kid over his dad not serving in the war. Stevie thinks his dad is a coward. The kid is going to have to think again after Saturday, as Shelley, of course, is the guy nabbed by the bank robbers and dragged out to an Amish farm where peaceful Amish patriarch Stadt (Ernest Borgnine) lives with his family. Shelley and the Amish family are tied up and left in the barn (the vision of everyone tied up is surreal and hyper-real at the same time – particularly in vivid color and Cinemascope – a disturbing moment), while the men rob the bank, and shoot both Harry and Emily in the process. The peeper lives. Emily, who is readying for her marriage-saving vacation with Boyd – dies. Near the end, broken-hearted Boyd says to Linda, “She looked awful, didn’t she? Like she’d never been alive.” My god. What a thing to say.

Saturday gets even more violent. One of Stadt’s kids is shot as Shelley tries to save himself and the family. (The robbery that leads to the showdown at the barn is superb – tense, honestly adult and scary – Fleisher doesn’t even spare violence against children here, as we also saw with the hand-stepping). Shelley, as played by Mature, is supposedly the marquee hero of the story – and his bravery will, by the end, cause his kid to finally respect him (which is a little fucked up). But it is Borgnine’s sweet Stadt who performs the lethal, live-saving blow (I will not reveal, it is too great a moment), going against his values, his religion – making the ending more complex than one might expect. With this – violence had to be done, we suppose, but it doesn’t make that man feel better (even if his kid has been shot – the kid presumably will live – but Stadt still witnessed the horror and he fears for his child). But it makes Stevie feel better. “Boy, you got all of them, didn’t you dad?” Stevie exclaims to his dad recovering in the hospital. Shelley reminds Stevie, “Being scared is only normal and human. No one was every 100 percent a hero.” Stevie doesn’t really listen. He’s just happy his dad is now no longer a coward in his eyes. Meanwhile, poor Stadt and his family will live with how they feel. And an injured child.

As this film shows, being a lot of things is, as Shelley said, normal and human. The picture is both wonderfully melodramatic in the very best way and powerfully down and dirty violent – bizarre, darkly funny at times, and then bitingly real as only our sometimes bizarre, darkly funny lives can be. The robbery feels real, but it also works in a metaphorical manner. A nightmare. But a nightmare some people don’t wake up from. And one that lingers on Boyd’s mind with almost nihilistic reflection. The grief-stricken Boyd spits, “It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.” Pray for a peaceful Sunday. Or never pray again.


Hard Luck: The Hitch-Hiker

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“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”

Sometime in 1951 or 1952, actress,  director and movie star Ida Lupino walked into San Quentin and met a multiple murderer. The murderer was spree killer Billy Cook, a young man who killed six people in the span of 22 days by road and by car, posing as a hitchhiker, holding hostage and/or doing away with a nice mechanic (whom Cook spared), an entire family, and a deputy sheriff. He killed a dog too. That family who kindly picked up the stranger from the side of the road was traveling with their pet, and Cook felt that hound had to go. To be generous (and I'm not sure why I'm thinking so) this was either an act of mercy, or  Cook was even meaner and angrier and more psychotic than he had already proven to be. Not hard to lean towards that.

From what I read -- Cook unloaded their bodies into a mine and went on his homicidal way. He then held two men on a hunting trip hostage and demanded they drive him across the Mexican border to Santa Rosalia. Finally, he was caught. The Santa Rosalia police chief actually walked up to Cook and grabbed his gun, which almost sounds like something from a movie, but reportedly this really happened. Many things read like movies and this often feels wrong and cheap. Real-life should be understood as real life but some things are so horrifying, that we resort to movies – or movie images in our minds. Or nightmares.

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But the other dramatic element was (to use a movie term) Cook’s tragic backstory. As a young kid he was dumped off to die in an abandoned mine cave with his little siblings in tow (surely, this awful memory must have come to him when he disposed of that sad, helpful family and their dog). As a kid, he was discovered by authorities, the children were made wards of the state and set up for adoption. Brothers and sisters all found families. Cook, who had a deformed eye and a strange disposition, did not. The institutional hell Cook endured must have been ghastly and Cook became a young criminal. This is often how these things go. Then he became something beyond a young criminal...

Commemorating his lot in life, Billy had the words “HARD LUCK” tattooed on his fingers. There’s something extra chilling about the obviousness of that ink, marking him permanently with his past and his inevitable future, as if he knew that, whatever he did in life, he’d get caught and punished and didn’t care because, to use another obvious saying, he was born to lose. When you’re born to lose you have nothing to lose so, again, who cares? Let me have my revenge on a society that rejected me, even if these people don’t deserve it, and let them catch me, because I’ve got nowhere else to go, and I will fry for this but… as he said when arrested, “I hate everybody's guts, and everybody hates mine.” So, did he care that an actress, film director and movie star came to meet him? It sounds like no, no he did not.

Cook-hard-luck-211x300Ida Lupino wasn’t so keen on Billy either. Set on making a movie inspired by Cook’s horror (she interviewed two of his victims as well) and needing his approval, she entered the prison and who knows how she thought it would go down. People have found themselves sympathetic towards murderers (think of Perry Smith via Truman Capote) or charmed (think of Charles Starkweather), but Lupino expressed her feelings with the bluntness of Billy’s tattoo – she was scared and she wanted to get the hell out of there. As detailed in Mary Ann Anderson's “The Making of The Hitch-Hiker,” Lupino said:

“I was allowed to see Billy Cook briefly for safety issues. I found San Quentin to be cold, dark, and a very scary place inside. In fact, I was told by Collie (Collier Young) not to go; it was not safe. I needed a release from Billy Cook to do our film about him. My company, Filmakers, paid $3,000.00 to his attorney for exclusive rights to his story. I found Billy to be cold and aloof. I was afraid of him. Billy Cook had ‘Hard Luck’ tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a deformed right eyelid that would never close completely. I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin.”

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The resulting film became The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino’s fifth as a director, she was the second woman admitted in the DGA, and long considered the first woman to direct an American film noir), with a script by Robert L. Joseph, Lupino and Collier Young (from a story by Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted and did not receive screen credit). The script was modified so to be less directly about Cook (both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Motion Picture Association forbade movies that were too close to the real crime, actual names and biography not to be included) but many details show up in the movie. The hunters become two guys on a fishing trip (played by Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) and Cook, who becomes the taller, older and more mysterious Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), has that deformed eye. One eye does not shut close – a terrifying abnormality that increases the men’s unease as Myers is always watching them, seemingly, even in sleep.    

The great Lupino, both unflinching and sensitive in her direction, does not give Billy’s stand-in, Emmett, the “Hard Luck” story of the kid’s inspiration. Unlike some cinematic depictions of psychos, she offers no perverse attraction or twisted Tommy Udo-like charisma to Talman’s lunatic – he’s just terrifying in facial features, affect, stature and impenetrable sociopathy. There’s nothing charming about this guy, there are no moments of warmth or even a lazy break on his part towards his captors. He’s pure sadist – almost at times, a lonely, bored sadist, burned out on life – as if he likes tormenting these men because he also needs their company.

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O’Brien and Lovejoy’s hostages remain deathly afraid of this man, angry at him and, in moments, frustrated with each other while stuck in this claustrophobic nightmare. As they’re driving through the Baja desert towards Santa Rosalia, taking awful “breaks” with the lunatic, the two men express moments of fear and sadness in affecting bursts of raw emotion – Lovejoy’s embrace of a young girl at a rest-stop (“Vaya usted con dios,” he says to her, which Talman makes him translate: “Go, you are with God little one.”) or O’Brien yelling, indeed, howling, to a plane for help, which results in nothing. It’s brutal and beautiful as (with the help of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) Lupino focuses on faces and location – close-ups of these differently featured men juxtaposed with the vastness of the desert – the bright sunlight feeling as oppressive, maybe more oppressive, than the blackest shots of night. She also never translates the Spanish spoken in the movie, a bold and modern move, creating even more unknowability and tension for the viewer. What is going to happen? You may know the real-life case, but there are moments you’re not sure both men will make it out alive.

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The Hitch-Hiker
is an upsetting movie. Yes, it’s suspenseful and, as some might say, it’s the oft-used “taut,” but it’s a rough experience that offers no sympathetic backstory for the killer, nor easy resolutions for the victim’s future. You assume that they go home after their ordeal, while the killer (who murdered three early in the film before picking up his captors, as opposed to the real-life six of Billy Cook – production code issues) goes to the electric chair.

But whatever trauma that haunts those two men lingers in our minds after the picture ends, to Lupino and the actor’s immense credit. We don’t know how to feel. Relief? Not exactly. These men will never be the same. They will carry this incident with them. It's as if the victims are, in some ways, marked with Billy Cook’s own ink –  HARD LUCK.


Time Waits for No One: Rumble Fish

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Hours are like diamonds, don't let them waste

Time waits for no one; no favors has he

Time waits for no one, and he won't wait for me – The Rolling Stones

Time. Once you hit the teen mark in life – what a beautiful horrible time that is. Dreamy and crazy and banal and violent – in action or in mind – melodramatic and real and hormonally addled. In the case of Rusty James who is sometimes not the smartest (but not dumb), and oftentimes intensely poetic – we see it in movement, in words, in the way he looks at his surroundings: his drunken dad’s apartment, his girlfriend’s intelligent beautiful face and his older brother’s odd, sad, sleepwalking swagger. And then listening to that older brother even if he doesn't understand half of what he says. And there’s those brightly colored rumble fish in the pet store… 

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish presents and ponders these dreamlike feelings of teenhood as an expressionistic mood piece – a reverie that feels of this world and out of this world but so rooted in an emotional truth that it, at times, feels Shakespearean. It’s a beauty of black and white cinematography (by Stephen H. Burum) as if Orson Welles took over both Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets but infused them with F.W. Murnau and, of course, Coppola. Deep focus, Dutch angles, bold, abstract camera moves, dark wet streets, a rumble so balletic that it was indeed choreographed by San Francisco Ballet director, Michael Smuin – Rumble Fish is a stylistic wonder, but rich with feeling that’s embedded right in that style.  According to Burum (from American Cinematographer):

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"For reference points, the first picture that Francis wanted us to look at was the Anatole Litvak film, Decision Before Dawn… Decision was a picture about spies in postwar Europe and it was actually shot on location in about 1946. What he wanted Dean Tavolouris to see was its images of ruined cities. That was where all the smoke and obscurity in Rumble Fish came from. He wanted to give the feeling that these kids were operating in a wasteland. It was partial destruction with a leanness in the way things looked. In all, it reflects the mental state of the characters and the chaos in their world. Another picture that we looked at was Johnny Belinda that Ted McCord [ASC] shot. We did look at some of the German Expressionist films such as The Last Laugh by F.W. Murnau. Francis showed it to the actors because he wanted more body attitude out of the kids. Emil Jannings’ posture in The Last Laugh becomes more and more forlorn as he is beaten down by life. So Francis was trying to get across to them, especially to Matt Dillon, how important body language was. Even in silent acting, you could project that kind of feeling so strongly. We looked at Viva Zapata and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.”

But, for sure, this is a Coppola film through and through – a masterpiece – there has been no other teen film like Rumble Fish (released in 1983) – before or since. Coppola was so ahead of his time here, so experimental and unafraid, that the film remains timeless (as does the brilliant, evocative percussive-based score by Stewart Copeland).

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And, so, for years, the picture was misunderstood (though it had its defenders – like Roger Ebert – and it’s respected now, with an impressive Criterion edition). But some baffled critics seem to adamantly not understand – as if they resented the filmmaker for making an art film out of a young adult S.E. Hinton novel ("an art film for teenagers," Coppola said). The great S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola and who (of course) also wrote the novel, The Outsiders, which was Coppola’s other Tulsa teen film made before Rumble Fish – both released the same year. What a year, Coppola so suffused with beautiful rebel youth. He dedicated Rumble Fish to his older brother, August. This was personal for him.

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Hinton’s Rusty James was only 14 in her novel, his older brother, Motorcycle Boy was 17. Here, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is in his later teens, and his brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) is 21. That’s old to a teenager. But Motorcycle Boy was an old 17 in Hinton’s novel and he’s an even older 21 in Coppola’s movie – a haunted young man whose hearing comes and goes, who is colorblind, and who has seen and felt more than he says, speaking quietly, and often with literary references that only their book smart but dipsomaniacal father (Dennis Hopper) understands. Rusty James beseeches them to “talk normal” because he feels left out. He wants to be like his brother. He wants to belong, especially after his mother has split and moved to California. But he’s not like his older brother. And probably not like his mother either. As his old man says:

“No, your mother... is not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He's merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river... With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and... findin' nothin' that he wants to do. I mean nothing.”

Wrong side of the river – we first think – wrong side of the tracks – but river feels so much more mythological, so much more symbolic than that – it’s movement, it’s time – and Motorcycle Boy wants to flow. As Rusty James says in Hinton’s novel, “I couldn’t picture the Motorcycle Boy in California, by the ocean. He liked rivers, not oceans.” At the magazine stand in the movie, Rusty James compares Motorcycle Boy to the Pied Piper, that the guys in the town would have followed him anywhere, “Yeah, they’d all follow me to the river, huh?” Motorcycle Boy says, “And jump in?”

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Motorcycle Boy has been gone a few months – in California, he says – but returns when Rusty James rumbles with Biff Wilcox – he returns quite dramatically. Recovering from a fight wound, the brothers hang out, while Rusty James' friend Steve (Vincent Spano) remarks on the older brother’s appearance – as if he can’t hear him: “He looks so old I forget he’s just 21.” Rusty replies, “Yeah, that’s pretty old.”

That is pretty old to a teenager – and Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy does look and seem appropriately older – he’s cool, maybe crazy to others, but also dignified, “Royalty in exile.” It’s as if he’s in on some secret only he understands, and it feels like… the end. You feel a pall of death hanging over him. And you feel it for young Rusty James too – unless he escapes. Will he? Rusty James says: “Man, I feel like I’m wasting my life waiting for something. Waiting for what? I wish I had a reason to leave, man.”

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Rusty James has time ticking all around him – literally conveyed by the ticking score, the clocks spied in different scenes, and a broken old clock hitched up to a truck in town – Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy lean against it as Patterson the Cop (William Smith), with his ominous mustache and sunglasses (he’s the personification of both The Man and institutionalized soul-crushing), picks at Motorcycle Boy, again, as if he’s not standing right there. Rusty James asks him why he hates him so much. “I hate him so much, because you kids think he's something he's not. He's no hero.” Rusty quite reasonably counters with: “Like you are! You're a hero, right?”

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Patterson the Cop is not a hero. He’s more like the Grim Reaper – death is at their door – and he’ll sure as hell be a part of it somehow. Rusty James’ death? His brother’s death? The death of adolescence? The Grim Reaper lays in wait. In a spectacular near-death sequence, Rusty James goes out of body and floats over the town, spying how people would feel if he were dead. Did he mean anything? You wonder if his brother would wonder that. Probably not. He doesn’t seem to care anymore, not what people think, and that makes him “dangerous,” “crazy,” to soul-crushers – he’s in his own world. And it’s Motorcycle Boy who really seems like he’s floating, out of body, near death, throughout the entire movie.

If there’s a Grim Reaper, there’s also a Guardian Angel (as the actor himself, Laurence Fishburne, described himself), and the movie opens with Fishburne’s Midget – dressed in white jacket and white hat –walking into the diner/billiard hall to warn Rusty James: “Biff Wilcox is looking for you … Says he’s gonna kill you.” Death is already waiting. Time is key – it means something to the director. As Coppola described (in “The Making of Rumble Fish”) right after Midget warns Rusty James: “And from that moment until the end, time is running out on this character…”

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And it is. Time is tension in Rumble Fish. The boy’s father may show how long you can hold on as a booze-hound as if old age is forever, but youth? Youth is short, even if your summers feel long. Friends and girlfriends, and the sad junkie Cassandra, and Benny from the diner (actors Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid and Tom Waits– all fantastic here) are there and will likely come and go. But moments mean something – like when Motorcycle Boy rides Rusty James on his bike at night – a loving, gorgeous sequence of brothers just being – two young men feeling like they are anywhere else but there. For some minutes.

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Motorcycle Boy may have been about the river, but, by the end, Rusty James makes it to the ocean. And it’s beautiful to see that he’s gone that far – and on his brother’s motorcycle. The ocean feels like either the end of the line or the beginning of the story – where the river meets the sea – and that’s either life or death for Rusty James. We hope life.

My piece originally published in Ed Brubaker's Criminal


Arrow Release of True Romance

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Happy to be a part of Arrow's new 4K restorations of both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut from the original camera negatives of Tony Scott's True Romance. I wrote one of the accompanying essays in this packed special edition. Loads of special features -- read more about them here. Release date July 19.

Here's the beginning of my essay (extended from a piece I wrote for The New Beverly)

There’s a scene early in Tony Scott’s True Romance in which Patricia Arquette’s Alabama is so full of love and feeling and guilt, that I’m always taken aback by emotion when I see it. She’s just so moving, so sure to prove her ability to “come clean” that you want to reassure her that it’s all going to be OK. And when you first see the movie, you’re worried for her. Will it be OK? It should be, but will it?

She has to clear up something to her date – a date who will soon be her husband. She tells him that she was actually hired for his birthday— that night. She’s upset, she cries, she’s not a “whore,” she’s a “call girl,” she says. “There’s a difference!” she exclaims. 

How will he (Christian Slater’s Clarence) react? Is he going to be angry with her? Upon first viewing, you know these two will be together – this is a movie called True Romance – but what is he going to do first? When he hears this? Do we have to see that scene? One with anger?

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It’s a scene where a macho ego might lash out at a woman who’s, to him, just pretended attraction, romance, and compatibility (though, to her delight and fear, she’s 
not pretending, she realizes). It’s also the kind of scene many critics take for granted because it occurs in what would be termed a pulpy action movie – though it’s much more than that – it’s a brilliant pulpy action movie/love story full of invention and insanity and bright bloody artistry; and also, an influential one, notable for the excellence of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay (his first screenplay).

And though True Romance is a lot more than action and has been praised, and Arquette did indeed receive kudos by many; still, her skill of showing such complex feeling in the picture is, perhaps, not recognized enough. Not in the way a big “important” Oscar-type speech would be praised. 

Well, Alabama has a big, important speech because she’s a woman in a dangerous, looked-down-upon profession. She also wants Clarence to know she’s not a habitual liar or “damaged goods” or a bad person after revealing that their dream date was actually paid for by his boss. And on top of that, she’s now overwhelmed with a passionate purity of feeling – love. And that’s terrifying. Falling in love is scary. So – how will he react? Refreshingly and wonderfully, he’s not mad:

Alabama: I gotta tell you something else. When you said last night – was one of the best times you ever had – did you mean physically?

Clarence: Well, yeah. Yeah, but I’m talking about the whole night. I mean, I never had as much fun with a girl as I had with you in my whole life. It’s true. You like Elvis. You like Janis. You like kung fu movies. You like The Partridge Family. Star Trek…

Alabama: Actually, I don’t like The Partridge Family. That was part of the act. Clarence, and I feel really goofy saying this after only knowing you one night and me being a call girl and all, but… I think I love you.

Ah, but she is quoting The Partridge Family’s greatest song, perhaps without even knowing it. David Cassidy sings: “I think I love you! So what am I so afraid of? I'm afraid that I'm not sure of. A love there is no cure for...”

Read my entire piece on the Arrow release of True Romance.


John Frankenheimer’s The Train

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Christine: Men are such fools. Men want to be heroes and their widows mourn.

Labiche: Perhaps men are fools. There were over a hundred involved in stopping that train. Switchmen, brakemen, yard gangs, stationmasters. God knows how many will be shot, like Jacques. You know what’s on that train? Paintings. That’s right, paintings. Art. The national heritage. The pride of France. Crazy, isn’t it?

The hero is not the first character we see and experience in John Frankenheimer’s The Train. We do not take in Burt Lancaster’s Resistance leader and SNCF railway superintendent, Paul Labiche, admiring famous works of art, those things he will, in brilliantly staged action sequences, risk his life to save from another’s possession and dispersion. Rather, we see Paul Scofield’s Nazi, Colonel Franz von Waldheim gazing, one might interpret, longingly, at the masterpieces. And we watch this all very quietly. It’s nearing the liberation of Paris – early August, 1944 – the 1,511th day of Occupation – and as the movie starts, a car drives up to Paris’s Jeu de Paume Museum with armed Nazis outside. From that driven car arrives von Waldheim, who then walks into the empty museum, removes his hat and coat and places them on the coat rack, as if he does this all the time. He surely does. This appears to be a sanctuary. You don’t see him smile, you don’t see much of his face right away, but by his slow, uniformed, leather, high-booted walk (there’s no score in this scene, just the sound of his boot heels and rubbing leather), you get the sense, immediately, that he has respect for this art based on his almost careful movements. He strides into a hallway, turns on a light, and gazes at the work, the camera finally fixing on his face in close-up as he admires or questions (one is not sure yet) a painting. Is he moved? His eyes are curious – for a second he looks near rapture, or maybe even sad, but then his eyes appear cagy, as if not to allow this emotion. We don’t feel for him, we feel wary and careful, a bit like he does, but for different reasons. We don’t want him to do something terrible in this vulnerable space. It’s a brief, rather brilliant moment and one in which another actor might reveal an overt poignancy or a sighing sort of worship. Not Scofield – he’s admiring and he’s hiding and he’s scheming and then he’s something else that’s too mysterious to define. He backs away from the work, slowly, and we start to understand that there’s reverence there, maybe even a certain type of fear mixed with devious power and selfishness.

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The place is half dark with a light gleaming like a spotlight or, even more, like a divine beam on the masterwork – the place looks and feels like a black and white cathedral, and the stillness is eerily beautiful, but also nerve-racking. It’s just too quiet. As he continues walking backward, another light switches on and he turns, a bit startled. The film cuts to museum curator Mademoiselle Villard (Suzanne Flon) behind him, now walking towards his turned body. They know each other. They gaze at a Gaugin and she asks, “It was in the Clouvet Collection, wasn’t it?” He answers, “It was.” And then he asks, “Do you like it?” (As Murray Pomerance and R. Barton Palmer state in “A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film,” it’s “striking” the film doesn’t underscore that the art in the Jeu de Paume was looted from Jewish collections and that this scene naming the Clouvet Collection “is as far as The Train goes towards explicitly acknowledging the deportation and dispossession of France’s Jews.”) To her “liking” the collection, she answers rhetorically, “Need you ask?” The conversation continues:

Von Waldheim: As a loyal officer of the Third Reich, I should detest it. I’ve often wondered at the curious conceit that would attempt to determine tastes and ideas by decree.

Villard: Many times over the past four years I have wanted to thank you. For not being what you’d expected? For saving all this. Protecting it … I could have been sent away. Someone else brought in to be in charge of the museum. Perhaps I should thank you. I was foolish. I knew of books being burned. Other things. I was terrified that these would be lost.

Von Waldheim: A book is worth a few francs. We Germans can afford to destroy those. We all may not appreciate artistic merit, but cash value is another matter.

Villard: You won’t convince me that you’re cynical. I know what these paintings mean to you.

Von Waldheim: You are a perceptive woman.

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She is perceptive. More than she knows and beyond what she knows (what do they really mean to him? And in what way?), because after this exchange, the art-loving, venal sophisticate declares the paintings to be seized and loaded on the train. He will take them, convince his superior of their value (despite their imagery as “degenerate”), and to Villard’s horror, attempt to transport the masterworks (including paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Braques, Degas, Matisse and many more) to Germany. Thus, begins a picture that gorgeously synthesizes precision, ingenious camerawork, richly toned beautiful black and white deep-focus cinematography, exciting, unique action (from large scale explosions to smaller, detailed moments), remarkable location shooting, history, performance, personality and art – the art within the film and the art of the filmmaking itself. And of course, those chugging, steaming, beautiful iron beasts – those trains – or, the train. They are works of art in and of themselves.

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The question of saving art while risking too many lives faces off two incredibly willful men who enter this battle for very different reasons. We learn this when we finally meet our hero, or rather, our reluctant hero turned (as Brendan Gill said in The New Yorker) “contemporary Sisyphus,” Lancaster’s Labiche. Unlike von Waldheim, Labiche does not care about art and we presume he knows nothing about it (he values life more), so when Villard and Senior Resistance Leader Spinet (Paul Bonifas) press him for help, he’s not willing. He states, quite reasonably: “This morning we had four men left in this group. Now we are three. One, two, three… We started with 18. Like your paintings, mademoiselle, we couldn’t replace them. For certain things, we take the risk. But I won’t waste lives on paintings.”

His way of thinking changes when his father figure, the petulant, though lovable, older engineer ‘Papa’ Boule (Michel Simon) is killed – and with such casual disregard. In a masterful set of shots (there are so many in this picture), Frankenheimer (and cinematographers Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz) show Boule carted away after he’s caught sabotaging the train with coins – slipping off the oil caps to reveal the franc pieces, tough-as-nails and maybe even crazy Boule states: “Four francs are four francs.” Boule has seen it all and will not kiss Nazi ass – he won’t even plead for mercy – but in a sublime close-up, he looks at Labiche with wearisome, sad eyes. He knows what’s coming. Labiche then pleads for mercy: “Colonel! He slowed up your train for a few hours but he saved it. He took it through the bombs at the risk of his own life. He’s an old man. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’ll get your train through for you. He’s just a foolish old man.” Papa Boule insists that the train is his (it’s a lovely moment, staking claim while insulting Labiche, whom he taught everything, which seems a code for I love you, goodbye, but, also, remember who I am…) and then spits at the Nazis. He is led away. The shot is now Labiche and von Wadlheim facing each other in symmetrical profiles, and Labiche further pleads for Boule’s life. As he begs, Boule is, in our vision and in the peripheral vision of Labiche, gunned down – dead.

It’s heartbreaking and so quick that Lancaster turns to look in the shot – there’s not cut or break here. Papa Boule is gone. When the camera does show Lancaster’s expression in close-up, it registers the loss and the malevolence of the act – his sooted-up face and sorrowful eyes looking on as the scene dissolves to fire – raging. It’s fascinating to learn that this scene was thought up so quickly. Simon had to wrap for another project so Frankenheimer had his character killed. It’s sad to see him go, but so effective because we love Papa Boule – it’s Michel Simon for heaven’s sake. And then, thinking of the real life and history of brilliant, singular Simon, who lived his own way, and with whatever social class or circle he liked; and who worked with, among so many greats, from Jean Vigo to Jean Renoir, just that face and lumbering body is a monument. When Papa Boule remarks earlier about Renoir (as in painter Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir’s father) whom he has little interest in, he says mischievously but rather beautifully, “I used to know a girl who modeled for Renoir. She smelled of paint.” Simon, the man, very well probably had known such a girl.

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We’re past 45 minutes in the picture when Labiche really really finally decides to join up with his resistance compatriots – thought plenty of action has already occurred, including an entire train yard being blown up. No miniatures used, Frankenheimer was given permission to destroy the actual rail yard, which was set for demolition, and the resulting fantasia is a mesmerizing, almost Wagnerian thing of beauty. But when Labiche unleashes his unrelenting drive – when he engages in that Sisyphean struggle – to stop that train and with it, the determination of von Waldheim, the spectacle becomes a reflection of the dueling wills of Lancaster and Scofield’s characters: Lancaster outsmarting the Nazi navigators aboard the train by changing the names of the towns, the thrilling confrontation of machines – an airplane and a train (a scene that almost killed Frankenheimer), Scofield insisting on righting a full derailment with no resources or time left, a frontal collision between steam engines, and then the numerous times 51-year-old Lancaster sprints, jumps, dives, tumbles down hills, and outruns machine gun fire with acrobatic grace. It’s all so inventively beautiful, a thrill to watch, but artful at every turn, at times I was thinking of O. Winston Link’s large-format photographs of trains or of Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail or of Buster Keaton’s The General. But The Train, in style, substance and action, is entirely a John Frankenheimer movie, and one that offers no easy answers as it moves towards its uneasy conclusion.

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Frankenheimer’s picture (his fourth of five with Lancaster –  including The Young Savages and The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in MayThe Gypsy Moths) was, remarkably, an assignment he took over after the original director Arthur Penn was let go due to differences with star and producer, Lancaster. It neither feels like a movie Frankenheimer took over nor a work for hire – it’s so intricately executed, so demanding an exercise, and at such a scale, that even with all the preparation and time in the world, an almost military precision would be needed to deliver. Frankenheimer and Lancaster worked together with such synchronicity, the actor’s movement, athleticism and physical presence, seamlessly blends with the director’s mobile camera – Frankenheimer’s tracking shots, his trademark wide angled compositions, his perfectly timed and dangerous action choreography in which Lancaster does all of his own stunts is an inspired union. It’s as if director and star are doing their own cinematic trapeze act – no nets. So flawless was their timing that without breaking pace, when Lancaster injured his knee (at of all places, a golf course during his leisure time) and worried that it would ruin the rest of the shoot, Frankenhimer proposed to feature a scene in which Labiche is shot in the leg, and proceeded to utilize his very real limp for the duration of the film. It’s a wonderfully affecting solution as watching Labiche, tired and haggard and literally limping to the finish line is as impressively strong as it is poignant and human.

Labiche endures and survives so much (indeed, he has little time to explore a connection with Jeanne Moreau’s sad, brave Christine) and the film’s final moments only allow him a slight reprieve. He’s worn out and sick of it all and, at times, it’s curious why he’s even still at it. Surely, it’s not the art. It’s life – his life to live, his country’s, and his need to prove the odds wrong, and yet, that’s not quite all of it. We don’t how to feel at the end of The Train – it does not end with a tidy, satisfactory conclusion – even when Labiche shoots von Waldheim dead. Frankenheimer chooses not to make the moment a cheering one, like many other pictures, but one of existential futility. In fact, the director believed von Walheim’s final moment was an act of suicide. The confrontation was created more on the spot by Lancaster and Frankenhimer as one version of the script (written by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis with the uncredited Walter Bernstein, Howard Dimsdale and Nedrick Young and very loosely based on “Le front de l’art” by Rose Valland) had a different, less powerful ending. According to Frankenheimer, it was Lancaster who suggested, “Why don’t we have him talk himself to death?”

He does. Facing off with Labiche, von Waldheim, the man who soaked in the paintings at the Jeu de Paume, fell in love with them, likely not just for monetary reasons but for his own, perhaps, selfish obsession with beauty now soaks in machine gun-wielding Labiche. He says:

“Here’s your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Do you feel a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche. A lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.”

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Labiche probably can’t entirely answer why. But that does not mean this malignant man is right in his obsessive, arrogant and selfish death speech, or that Labiche is a lump of flesh – he most certainly is not, who cares if he knows little of art. Labiche shoots him. That’s an answer. As Labiche leaves the scene of destruction – the sound and images working like a metronome of the steam punctuating the images of dead men and abandoned art – we wonder what he wonders or what he will wonder. He is alive. And, not knowing all the answers, he limps on down the road.

Originally published at the New Beverly


Over the Edge

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"Hello there ladies and gentlemen!"

Excited to be a part of this Arrow release -- it's long been one of my favorites -- Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge -- with an Illustrated collector's booklet featuring a new essay I wrote -- Also inside is writing by Henry Blyth, and the original San Francisco Examiner article that inspired the film. There are so many great extras on this one -- check them all out here

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Nightmare Alley Criterion Edition

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"The fool who walks in motley..."

I was thrilled to be a part of this edition.

Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power in one of his best performances (his very best?) came out this week on Criterion in a beautiful edition. Special features include an interview with Imogen Sara Smith, an interview w/ performer and historian Todd Robbins, a 1971 interview with Henry King and my essay on the movie. I dig into the backstory, the filmmakers and cast and the author of the original novel, the fascinating William Lindsay Gresham. Watch the movie and read the novel. 

Read my piece here.

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Wild Boys of the Road

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Eddie: [to judge] I knew all that stuff about you helping us was baloney. I'll tell you why we can't go home—because our folks are poor. They can't get jobs and there isn't enough to eat. What good will it do you to send us home to starve? You say you've got to send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well, that's a lie. You're sending us to jail because you don't want to see us. You want to forget us. But you can't do it because I'm not the only one. There's thousands just like me, and there's more hitting the road every day.

Tommy: You read in the papers about giving people help. The banks get it. The soldiers get it. The breweries get it. And they're always yelling about giving it to the farmers. What about us? We're kids!

These are kids. In William Wellman’s depression-era Wild Boys of the Road – these young people jumping trains, fighting off railway men, scraping and scrapping to survive – are, really, just kids. Not wizened hoboes or street-smart tough guys – kids. In gorgeously-gritty, location-shot scenes with an unflinching documentary feel, they hop trains, quick and nimble, for they are full of life and vigor, but their vulnerability against those hulking steam engines is ever noticeable – they always appear like they could be squashed like bugs – by the merciless machines and, certainly, by society. And, indeed, one of the kids is run over – his leg will be amputated.

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Even as positive and as tough as some of them try to remain, you feel an air of doom for these likable young people, you see their innocence and belief in something brighter on the precipice of fading away. (One of the girls, in a terrifying scene, is raped by a railroad brakeman played by Ward Bond). You see that, in a few years, maybe even a few months, they’re going to become hardened, burned out or turning to full-time lives of crime, mostly out of necessity. And who could blame them? They could become another Tom Powers a la Wellman’s The Public Enemy (in which Wild Boys Frankie Darro played Powers’ childhood buddy) or just a regular down-an-outer petty thief – nothing Cagney-charisma about it – one of those types who may even eventually thieve from the more gullible, from those younger than them – stealing from who they once were. Oh, no. You sure hope they don’t become like that. You sure hope they don’t become mean and cold-hearted.

Wellman’s protagonists – here, chiefly, Darro as Eddie Smith, Edwin Phillips as Tommy Gordon and Dorothy Coonan (later Dorothy Coonan Wellman) as Sally (who dresses like a boy) – are sweet and complex and full of love for each other, and their friendship is heartbreakingly touching. So, when bad things happen to these kids, like Tommy losing his leg – you despair for them. Tommy says, before his leg is amputated, all tough and sad to Eddie: “Shucks, what do I care about an old leg? Just think, from now on, when I get a pair of new shoes, I'll only have to break in one of them.” That’s both trying to harden yourself when you’re terrified and trying to remain optimistic at the same time. It’s an understandable way to live given these kids’ circumstances, but they should be what they are at that moment – kids.

And then there’s the fact that Eddie and Tommy set out on the road because their parents couldn’t find work – the two young teens are first presented as kids going to dances and leading pretty regular lives, albeit with poverty creeping in – until their parents are crushed by the depression. They care about their parents and try what they can to help before embarking on the road (Eddie sells his beloved jalopy to help his dad and pretends he doesn’t care about it – he does care) and as they go through fear and some fun on the road, but mostly a lot of hell, they bond and care even more about each other, and you really, truly care about them. As Wellman clearly did too. This was, according to Wellman’s son, among his favorite films. In William Wellman, Jr.’s biography of his father, “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel,” he that the movie reminded his father “of his own troubled youth.” And he worked hard on the picture  – reportedly went over budget to maintain his on-location, documentary-style vision. It’s a beautifully shot picture (by cinematographer Arthur L. Todd) and, in moments, bracingly real, scary, particularly as it’s addressing direct social issues of the day.

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Tough, grittily realistic and uncompromising (until the end –the ending was changed and softened and feels tacked on) Wild Boys of the Road still astonishes the viewer all these decades later. It’s also exciting, incredibly tender and moving, thanks largely to Darro’s soulful performance and Wellman’s two-fisted sensitivity. Wild Boys was released the same year as Wellman’s other masterful, harrowing pre-coder, Heroes for Sale (1933 was one of those incredibly prolific pre-code years for Wellman, he released six pictures – he also shot seventeen uncredited scenes of the picture, Female) and it takes on the concerns he cared about (also visited in his 1928 picture, Beggars of Life). And taking on the concerns of kids. Again, these are kids, and Frankie Darro (who grew up in the circus with his parents – and who stood five feet three inches tall – he was around 15 here), looks, at times, even younger than he was. In stature. His face, however, is all tough and sensitive – a poignant presence, he’s already got a lot of wisdom in his eyes. But, again, he’s a kid growing up too fast.

And, so, it seems the idea that kids were the protagonists of this depression-era picture was upsetting (which is why this picture is so damn powerful) and, to some keeping tabs on the filmmaking, too upsetting. Wellman was asked to shoot an alternate happy ending. As said, it feels strange and forced, so much so, that the happiness the kids feel at the end, doesn’t seem like it’s going to last. That this was just one of those freak breaks that never happens in life and maybe it won’t even happen – for real. As detailed in William Wellman, Jr.’s biography about his father, this was not what Wellman wanted. The intended ending (after the kids are busted – for something they’re not even guilty of – Eddie was duped into a bad situation) went like this:

“The judge reads the sentencing to the youngsters: ‘Sally Clark. House of Corrections. One year, ten months. Thomas Gordon. County Farm. Eligible for probation in one year. Edward, the law compels me to send you to the State Reformatory. You will be confined there until you reach your twenty-first birthday. I’m sorry to do this—but the law leaves me no other alternative.” The three kids are ushered by an attendant from the courtroom to a waiting police vehicle. As they drive away, the teenagers stare out the window at a world they won’t be seeing for a long time. From an upper window of the court building, the judge watches their departure on the road to incarceration.”

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The ending Jack Warner insisted (as I read in Wellman, Jr.’s book) and what we see in the film now, is all three kids getting a break by a kindly judge (I’ve seen him compared to Roosevelt) who takes pity on them. See, the system isn’t so bad… Well, it’s such a weird ending that it makes Eddie’s little moment of joy upon leaving the courthouse all the more powerful because, once again, we realize that this picture is about the deep bonds of friendship (much like Wellman’s Wings and the superb Other Men’s Women – among many other pictures). Darro – a terrific acrobat (there’s another scene in which he skillfully, and thrillingly jumps into a garbage can to hide) does a series of flips, including backflips and spins on his head. He’s expressing how happy he is that he got a break. And it’s beautifully moving. But then he notices Tommy eyeing him with envy, and Eddie’s eyes fill with empathy – Tommy, with one leg, will never be able to leap and jump and flip like a young man again, his future is even more uncertain than Eddies – and you see how much Eddie, who showed the same eyes for his poor father, feels for his best friend.

No matter what that judge said that’s supposed to make us feel some hope, the world is still an uncertain place for these kids. But their hope in each other – even if the world might and probably will crush them – is enough to make one weep.

As Tommy exclaims, “What about us? We're kids!”


The Rebel Rousers & Psych-Out

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“So in ’67, we do this little motorcycle movie, Cameron Mitchell, the group of six, plus Miss Diane. We’ve got a little swagger under our belts. We’ve got ‘The Wild Angels’, which did okay. Jack has already done almost a decade of independent movies on his own, plus working for Roger. I’d been around almost a decade now. I’m a Kazanite, and so is Cameron Mitchell. We’re doing Roger without Roger. Marty Cohen doesn’t have a clue. There are some paying problems on this movie, but I’m standing by because my manager is producing it along with his friend Rex Carlton, who was dubious at best. At the end of the first ten days of shooting, they don’t have money for my actors. I’m going to get my money because my manager is the producer and director. That’s not right.” – Bruce Dern on “The Rebel Rousers”

“It’s just one big plastic hassle.” – Dean Stockwell as Dave in “Psych-Out”

It’s 1967 and everyone looks a little exhausted. Fascinatingly so. I’m talking about the actors in Martin B. Cohen’s The Rebel Rousers and Richard Rush’s Psych-Out, both shot in ’67 – two very different movies, but two that have a similar vibe of … oh, we have done and seen so much already. We’ve been out of the house a long time, kids. But they are all creative – they’re all searching. They are all game – some are even quite powerful, and they seem real in spite of some hokey situations. No one is on auto-pilot. They’re all in their own world, but also, in it together, acting out something that could very well be happening internally, something a little darker, a little more vulnerable, something that’s responding to the 1960s nearing its end, something responding to their careers in a strange spot, to time marching on and time waiting for no one. This seems like a lot to say – especially for a picture that seems as inconsequential as The Rebel Rousers (Psych-Out has more going for it) – but there’s something in both pictures that reverberates beyond the movies themselves. In both, everything feels a bit off. And it’s not off in the way Rebel Rousers biker Jack Nicholson’s striped pants look (which are pretty great, really) or how Psych-Out hippie Jack Nicholson’s ponytail seems pinned on (also pretty great, if odd-looking), and it’s not the loud motorcycles and it’s not the groovy acid. It’s something else.

And, so, the actors’ tiredness feels appropriate, even, at times, moving. A moving bummer. But a kind of bummer that makes both movies infinitely more interesting. Is that the point? Do these actors feel all of this? Something darker going on? As pondered in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice: “Was it possible, that at every gathering – concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever – those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear? ‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’” I dunno. I dunno if these guys know either.

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The Rebel Rousers (or Rebel Rousers) is a biker movie not directed by Roger Corman (The Wild Angels) or Richard Rush (The Savage Seven, Hells Angels on Wheels) but by Bruce Dern’s manager, Martin B. Cohen, his only picture as a director. It doesn’t have the energy of the aforementioned movies; Cohen’s craftsmanship is not at that level. I’m not sure if he knew what he was doing, though he had the benefit of working with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who would also shoot Richard Rush’s Psych-Out), and of course, his excellent cast and, chiefly, Dern whose voice and movements and vocal inflections are transfixing. He can alternate from yelling gleefully to confused to sad to unsure to cocky to absolutely lost – he makes every moment count. But it’s intriguing to watch all of the film’s actors – Dern, Cameron Mitchell, Diane Ladd, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton – they take their roles seriously, volley off of each other, and clearly, at times, improvise (you wonder what percentage of the movie is improvisation – how much script was actually written). As interesting as it is (to me, anyway, as a time capsule of these actors’ careers, as well as some mysterious kind of melancholy), it’s a slow-moving picture for those expecting crazier biker antics. And it contains some flat-footed offensive moments with the Mexican characters living in the town. It does feature a Mexican family (led by Robert Dix – son of famed actor Richard Dix) who eventually help Paul (he is seen frantically searching for help all over town without any success) and who face off against the bikers with pitchforks –  but that doesn’t amount to much in terms of the story. Nicholson and Dern fight in a darkly lit scene (so dark I was wondering who was fighting – the striped pants helped) and Dern will find himself lost and a bit sad on the beach in a nice closing shot.

Here, the biker gang (including Earl Finn, Lou Procopio, Phil Carey and Neil Nephew) go about their wanna-be Wild One business, taking over a town (somewhat) and things get rowdy in a restaurant – they’re dancing on tables, women are taking off their shirts and shimmying in their bras, a guy plays the bongos, and they’re either scaring people or sort of charming them (there’s a moment where bad boy bikers Dern and Nicholson talk to an elderly woman who really looks like she was eating in that joint, I can’t believe she’s an actress and her little moment is kind of great –  “She’s the woman of the year, man!” says Dern as he lifts up her arm triumphantly – she seems only mildly amused and certainly not shocked by them). But their rebellion is lackluster, tired. How many times have they pulled this crap? Aren’t they getting bored with themselves?

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It seems like this is the point. They’re bored. These guys have nothing better to do than to ride in circles on the beach. The free-wheeling 60s spirit and outlaw attitude just seem like an effort here, even as being a biker is a ride-or-die way of life. Going around in circles seems to be the theme of the movie. As in, is that all there is? Had Monte Hellman directed (and he had already directed Nicholson, brilliantly, in two masterful westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and also, earlier, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury), this movie could have been a fascinating existential rumination on … moving, on a road to nowhere (like the title of Hellman’s more recent picture). It’s nowhere near as interesting as anything Hellman would create (and certainly not as beautiful) but that rumination is there, albeit with less cinematic poetry. But, as said, Dern makes for a compelling character, particularly opposite Mitchell. He’s a guy who thinks he’s free but really isn’t. A guy who wants to be an outlaw but also wants to be good. A guy who probably secretly wants to hang it all up and settle down at some point even if he says otherwise. At the end of the picture, Diane Ladd (Dern’s wife at the time – she’s pregnant with their child, Laura) asks his lost biker, after all that has gone down: “Can we help you?” He answers: “No, it’s all right. I can make it myself. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about anyway.” I think he’s right – that is what it’s kind of all about. He thinks. He doesn’t really know for sure. Did Bruce Dern make up that line? It’s a good one.

‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’”

When the movie begins, Dern, as biker leader J.J., and his biker crew (including Nicholson as Bunny, wearing those striped pants, and Stanton as a guy who wears a tricked-out suit – he looks nothing like a biker, which works well for his character in this kind of cool yet ironic attire) have ventured into the small town, ready for mischief. Dern bumps into a guy he played football with in high school in Los Angeles – the architect Paul Collier (Mitchell – who is over 15 years older than Dern, so Dern is either supposed to be in his late 40s or Mitchell in his early 30s – or both of them somewhere in between). Paul is about to have a tense reunion with his pregnant interior decorator girlfriend, Karen (Ladd), who sits nervously in a hotel room. She wears a fur coat and carries a Chanel purse. She’s neither outlaw nor hippie. Dern and Mitchell exchange pleasantries – and they really are being pretty nice to each other, even as Dern is calling Mitchell out as something of a square, albeit, gently, but Mitchell doesn’t seem to care. He’s eager to find Ladd. The two men quickly catch up on what each are doing. Dern says, vaguely, “Oh, I’m around, getting by, finding out where things are at.” He invites Paul to hang out later, and rides off, and Paul goes to the little motel Karen’s staying at. They have a lot to talk about. Chiefly, is she going to keep the baby? Are they going to get married?  It’s a strange centerpiece to the movie – this couple attempting to figure out their lives and maybe bringing a child into the world together, as a biker gang has entered the city and will, in no time, terrorize them.

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And they do terrorize them. As Paul and Karen take a drive to talk, the bikers (sans Dern) jump up on their car and start hassling the couple. Dern breaks it up in his attempts to be a peace-maker, a nice guy (again, he went to high school with this fellow, they played football), and they take the couple down to the beach. It all starts going crazy when Bunny wants Karen for a night and is not taking no for an answer – Dern’s closest pal here is being just too much of a predatory rapist scumbag. So, in both a twisted game and an attempt to stall for time (this way Paul, who has been beat up, can run and get help), a race is proposed to win Karen. This isn’t exactly a comforting scenario for Karen and you do worry about her – there’s very little titillation presented in this scenario. You also feel for Paul (Mitchell has some incredibly believable moments of desperation, he’s a wonderful actor). But there’s something so banal about how these outlaws mess with the couple – but because of that lack of excitement, it feels like how something like this would go down. Nothing cool or exploitative-sexy about it. It’s a bunch of yahoos scaring this poor woman with Dern’s J.J. feeling guilty while being something of a coward himself. We are feeling it – something Dern touched on in his autobiography. He said of the movie:

“There is some pretty goddamn good acting going on where things are flying around and people are into moment-to-moment behavior and everybody’s getting chances to do things with a beginning, a middle, and an end to each character in each scene, and nobody’s getting away with anything. There are no star trips going on. Each one of us threw ego out the window and tried to make a movie that made sense. Out of that came a sense of dignity from me and my character just trying to keep from drowning, holding it all together in front of and behind the camera. It was pretty exciting work when you consider it was total chaos.”

He’s right. But no one releasing the picture was grooving on the film’s slow moving middle-aged story about a couple arguing over a baby and possible marriage while bikers terrorize, no matter how great the acting, and the picture was shelved. It was released three years later in 1970 after Nicholson broke out as a star from his memorable turn in Easy Rider and about a few months before Five Easy Pieces (one of his greatest, most defining roleswas released. If anyone went to see Nicholson, however, they got a lot more Dern and Mitchell (and they are both terrific here), but Nicholson stands out as a goofy crazy sinister guy, clearly ad-libbing a lot of weird dialogue. You can’t take your eyes off him. Nicholson has been around a long time, but he’s incredibly creative – on screen and off. And Nicholson, according to Dern, had a lot going on, personally. This was also a tough, transitional moment for Nicholson, some major life changes had put him in a melancholy mood as he was shooting the picture. From Dern’s autobiography:

“I would walk down the beach when we were shooting at Paradise Cove. Sitting between two huge rocks, frustrated, very touchy, down, sad, and angry, was Jack. Tearful some days. Depressed most days. He was going through a divorce from his wife, Sandra, who was the mother of their daughter, Jennifer, who couldn’t have been more than a year and a half old. Jack could still rise above it all, even though he was terribly wounded. I had a love for him from that time on and would do anything to help him out. He was writing a script, The Trip, with a part that he intended to play himself … I’ll never forget that day, when I saw a wreck of a guy writing that script because of the circumstances in his own life, the emotional grips that were on him, the frailty of the human being. I fell in love with Jack, and I realized what an amazing guy he was. My heart went out to him. Then we turned the switch on ten minutes later, and he was there, take after take after take, rising above his own problems.”

Nicholson did indeed write The Trip, but he didn’t get the role he had written for himself – that went to the guy who felt for him all depressed on the set of Rebel Rousers: Bruce Dern. As discussed in Dennis McDougal’s, “Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Star in Modern Times”: “Jack wrote a part for himself as Fonda’s guide through the psychedelic wilderness, but Corman awarded Bruce Dern the role instead, having lost faith in Jack’s screen charisma. Although Jack was Dern’s acting equal, other directors wouldn’t hire him, and Corman joined their ranks. He began to think of Jack less as an actor and more as a writer. Dern concurred. ‘The original script that he wrote for The Trip was just sensational.’”

Peter Fonda said even more. From McDougal: “’I don’t believe it,’ a weepy Peter Fonda told his wife, so moved was he when he first read Jack’s script. The Trip ranked with the best of Fellini, he said. ‘I don’t believe that I’m really going to have a chance; that I get to be in this movie. This is going to be the greatest film ever made in America.’”

The movie Dern and Fonda read was not the movie that was, in the end, made. What Nicholson wrote in that script changed significantly once Corman got a hold of it, excising entire scenes and storylines. But the movie became a big hit for Corman, leading to Nicholson writing Psych-Out. Nicholson completed the script in May of 1967, with the title Love is a Four Letter Word. According to McDougal, producer Dick Clark didn’t like that title and changed it to The Love Children, and then Samuel Arkoff, didn’t like that one (he thought it sounded like illegitimate children), and so it was changed to Psych-Out – an ode to Psycho, which only makes sense in terms of the re-release of Psycho (at least Clark, I’m assuming, got some great music acts on the soundtrack – among them, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds). The script was changed so much that Nicholson’s name was taken off of it. He did get the lead role, this time, however, as Stoney.

Jack Nicholson in the 1968 film Psych-Out
So here we have Stoney and his rock band, Mumblin’ Jim (with friends and bandmates, Ben, played by Adam Roarke, and Elwood, played by Max Julien) living in Haight-Ashbury, just hanging, getting high, playing music, seducing women. A deaf runaway, Jenny (Susan Strasberg – who was also in The Trip), shows up in their coffee house one day – and Stoney is attracted, or at least wants to sleep with her. There’s already a lot more energy to this movie over those doleful bikers in Rebel Rousers – these guys seem to be having some kind of fun, at least in bursts of pleasure with one another (who knows how long those bursts last), and thanks to the presence of the immediately likable and wonderfully natural actors’ Roarke and Julien. And Richard Rush is a far better director, a guy who understood and discussed being anti-establishment (expressed so much better in his powerful Getting Straight starring Elliott Gould. Rush also directed the great Freebie and the Bean and the masterful The Stunt Man). He also works nicely with Laszlo Kovacs, achieving some beautifully shot moments, and fascinating documentary-style footage of the scene. But, just as in Rebel Rousers there’s an edge of … when is this all going to end? This all can’t last. Stoney and Ben and Elwood are nice to Jenny (even when Stoney tries to prove her deafness to his friends by saying, “Let’s kill her and eat her” – what a line, and with Nicholson uttering it – I can never forget that line) and they hide her from the cops who’ve come in looking for her. She’s ditched home to find her brother Steve (we will learn he is Bruce Dern, crazy-eyed and poignant here  – and he is now a kind of mysterious character known as “The Preacher”).

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So, she shacks up at the communal crash pad where Stoney sleeps (and eventually becomes frustrated by their way of living – no one does the dishes) and follows along with some of these guys’ adventures, observing weirdos, watching mock funerals (where the The Seeds appear and play) and meeting philosophical dudes (chiefly, Dean Stockwell, as Dave) along the way. Henry Jaglom plays an artist who completely freaks out on drugs and tries to cut his hand off with a power saw. He hallucinates Stoney and friends as walking corpses. Jenny asks, somewhat sensibly at that moment (he did try to cut his hand off, after all, but one never knows how a trip will go), “Why does he take that stuff?” Stoney answers: “Don’t judge people, Jenny.” And then another guy starts lecturing her about Nietzsche – she walks off. Her brother is “The Preacher.” She doesn’t need any more of this shit.

Stockwell is Dave (I love how simple that name is), the ex-Mumblin’ Jim band member who dropped out because they were too focused on making it. He doesn’t dig that kind of ambition – that kind of ambition that Stoney has – and Stoney is a rather single-minded guy, but it’s hard to blame him seeing as how some of this scene may end up. Cynically, it’s going to probably get bought up or darker forces will enter the fold, so why not get famous? Maybe he can call the shots then? Maybe. He may sleep around and get high, but he’s got some priorities and organization and, deep down, you sense this guy doesn’t want to crash in a dirty house much longer.

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Everyone seems on the cusp of moving on to something else – not necessarily all for the better. Stoney will maybe become famous, or at least, as said, he’ll be striving for it, make a living from music, and Dave just seems like he’s going to … well, he’s going to, by the end, die, actually. His dying words are quite touching: “Reality is a deadly place. I hope this trip is a good one.” And so Dave, though his heart is in the right place, he’s not going to sell out, he’s going to live life on his own terms. It’s interesting to watch Stockwell – he’s waxing philosophical about everything, and he’s critical, but he seems like walking death throughout the movie because it’s going to be hard to really live like that. Stockwell plays this not like a naïve youngster, but as a guy who has been around the block, a guy who is hanging on to his philosophy before he’s killed off. When Stoney asks Dave to play with their band again, he turns them down. “Truth” is brought up:

Stoney: We need you to play with us.

Dave: You still playin’ games, Stoney?

Stoney: Since when is music a game. Playin’ makes me feel good.

Dave: So does a paycheck.

toney: Oh, yeah. The old bad thing. The root of all evil, right?

Dave: No. Not bad or good. There’s only the truth.

Stoney: The truth. Old black and whitey.

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When Nicholson wrote the script, he was experiencing his own kind of journey, with LSD, with life, with acting, with his creativity, with “New Hollywood” (he would go to direct his impressive directorial debut, Drive, He Said, released in 1971 – read J. Hoberman’s excellent piece about that and BBS productions formed by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blaune, from Criterion) and it would have been interesting to see his original work. From McDougal’s book:

“Jack became a Reich devotee in the late sixties for the same reasons he dabbled in Krishnamurti and LSD: to get to the core of his creativity. In conversations with Strasberg during the filming of ‘Psych-Out,’ Jack admitted that his ‘volatile field of energy’ made him hard to live with. He called himself ‘an existential romantic’ pursuing life, liberty, and orgasmic release … As a result of Reich, ‘I don’t falsify sensuality,’ Jack declared. But neither was he just another horn-dog hedonist. Jack’s evolving beliefs still left plenty of room for monogamous intimacy. ‘You can feel the difference when you make love and there’s love there, and when you make love and there’s not love there,’ he said. ‘I’m not a Victorian, but a fact’s a fact.’”

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A fact’s a fact. Old black and whitey… But you get the sense that there was a vibe on set that was seeping into the production. These actors, all of them great actors, have worked so much already, they’re neither young nor old, they are indeed, New Hollywood, and they’ve seen and experienced so much that you can feel the sad cynicism of Easy Rider approaching – and this spirit will seep into even more creative, thoughtful work in the 1970s. Are these guys gonna be free? You see Peter Fonda as Captain America thinking – his ambivalence – while starring in and creating one of the iconic films of the late 60s, and one that is leading us right into the 70s. The shooting of Psych-Out expressed a kind of change-over as well. According to McDougal, there were those in the area who weren’t cool with the production, those that interrupted all of this free and easy peace and love, and director Richard Rush had to turn to a real-life Rebel Rouser for help:

“During filming, Rush again called on Sonny Barger, but this time not for his technical assistance. After panhandlers pulled knives on the cast and crew, Rush hired the Angels to patrol the shoot. The Summer of Love had ended by the time Rush’s cameras rolled in October 1967, and Clark observed that a ‘tougher element’ had taken over the Haight. By the time ‘Psych-Out’ was released in March 1968, peace, love, and understanding had given way to paranoia, lust, and heroin. In the pages of Variety, Clark predicted that hippies would soon fade across America, not just in San Francisco.”

What a bummer. But what an interesting bummer. Because these actors and filmmakers are about to move on to some incredible art and careers, some of the most defining work of the 1970s. But after watching these movies, I’m again thinking of Diane Ladd in Rebel Rousers asking Bruce Dern: “Can we help you?”

“No, it’s all right. I can make it myself. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about anyway.” Kind of.  Because you, everyone, always needs a little help.

Originally published at the New Beverly


One Magical Maggie May Moment

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There's a moment in Heath Ledger's far too short, sometimes brilliant film career that makes me so filled with wistful emotion, that no matter how many times I watch it, I'm still taken aback by its deceptively simple power. It's his final scene in Catherine Hardwicke's great, beautiful, moving Lords of Dogtown, a far too under-discussed picture featuring one of Ledger's most poignant performances.

As Skip Engblom, the crusty, aging uncle/father figure to the kids of Team Zephyr, young Ledger played beyond his years with quirky effortlessness. As in most of his performances, Ledger imbued what could have been a one-note aging stoner dude with sympathy and soul, dignifying Skip with a disarming, surprisingly heart-wrenching end note: Sanding a surfboard in the back of what was once his kingdom, in what could have been an easy, here's-where-he's-at-now scene. Instead, Ledger fills us with a compelling mixture of sadness and a glimmer of hope that Skip will at least survive this life OK. After his boss orders him to finish a surfboard for some kid, the past lord dutifully, but bitterly, complies. Glumly sitting down, Skip slowly perks up to the lovely opening of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." Pounding to that infectious double drum beat preceding Stewart's passionate "Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you," Skip, in a flash of understated joy and release, turns up the radio and sings along. I love that Hardwicke gave us this moment -- such a smart scene, so wonderfully directed. She understood why it was important to see this. 

Sublime Ledger is so in the moment and so naturally bittersweet that in mere seconds, he makes one remember just how much those little things in life can affect you -- those times or sensations that either make you crash hard or for one wonderful, ephemeral moment, lift you higher. And then you sit down. Take a drink. And you're back in your reality. 


Phil Karlson’s Gunman's Walk

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A brief look at Phil Karlson's Gunman's Walk...

“Look, times don’t change in this country where you breed a man soft… without any spirit in him. A man’s like a horse. If you don’t buck the first time you put a saddle on him, he ain’t worth having, you know that!”— Lee Hackett (Van Heflin)

In Phil Karlson’s Gunman ‘s Walk – you wonder how hard old rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) handled his sons. Sure, he probably belted them – he even makes causal reference of it to one of the boys when they return home after a journey on their horses. But anything to do with beatings are mostly said with a laugh. That’s just how things were done back then and the boys are tough and grown up now and why would they question any such thing? Why would they question anything their father espouses? Their father knows all. All.

Physical punishment for kids is awful -- but that's not what is entirely wrong in this family dynamic -- or so far we know. What else? What else did Lee instill or pummel into these boys that made them come out the way they did? (There’s no mother around – we assume Lee is a widower). And why did they come out so differently? 

One, the younger son, Davy (James Darren), is a sensitive sort – in later years (this liberal-minded western came out in 1958 – written by written by Ric Hardman, screenplay by Frank S. Nugent) Davy might be considered a proto-hippie – a peacenik. He doesn’t care much for competition, he’s calm and thoughtful, and he’s not woefully insulted if he’s not the best shot with a gun. He, in fact, doesn’t even like wearing his gun – he sees no use for it save for shooting a horse that’s sick or maybe ridding a threatening rattle snake. So why does he have to wear his holster and gun around town? People think it’s outmoded and, frankly, silly. They stare, he says. His disappointed dad, Lee (both sons call their father “Lee” and not dad), says let ‘em stare. That’s how the Hackett’s built this town, that’s how they kept reign, that’s how it was and how it should stay. Intimidating. To Lee, guns are good, goddammit. You gotta stride around with that gun – it gives you that extra … potency. 

Lee – this is a man who is fearful of getting older, fearful of limpness. Guns are frequently discussed as such (and perhaps too easily at times), but in Gunman’s Walk, yes indeed, the gun really does seem to represent the phallus. In Lee’s eyes – you’re not going to walk the same without one.

With that, Davy weakly shoots some bottles his dad sets up to see how rusty his son has gotten, and we wonder if the son is missing on purpose – if he’s just so sick of this gun business. Is Lee embarrassed of him (is his son gay?). I don’t think Lee suspects this of Davy, but there’s an insinuation that he’s not a real man, which the movie makes sure we never think. Davy, in fact, is more his own person. And he’s a loving young man – he’s not going to poison his dad with too much resentment – nor his older brother. But after we meet that older brother, we wonder how he came out so sweet.

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That older brother, Ed (a fantastic Tab Hunter) is the ace shot. He
likes wearing his gun. He practices his moves in the mirror – something Davy makes gentle fun of him over. Ed seems to enjoy scaring people, and really, he wants to scare his dad. He wants to beat his dad – beat him in every game that father has thrown at him. He’s tall and blonde and handsome and he makes passes at girls (too roughly) and he never seems happy. Never. Even when he’s singing in a saloon, drunk: “So many nights for havin' fun/ So many fights I haven't won/ There's not enough notches on my gun/ I'm a runaway/I'm a runaway…” he seems out of control, not joyful. Vaguely sociopathic. But there’s something sad inside this “bad seed” – something his dad planted. He could snap at any minute. He does. Quite a few times. He's mad at the world but he’s mostly mad at his father.

When Ed rides up to the ranch with his brother, he lets another man brush down his horse. Lee is angry and says:

“Listen son, you let a man do things for you, things you should be doing yourself, and sooner or later he’s gonna get the idea that he’s a better man than you are. Now you remember that.”

A better man. No one should be or even think so. Well, except Lee. Lee is better than everyone, including his sons. Ed, as we see from the get go, is deeply resentful of this. Even hateful. When his dad is setting up a can to shoot – Ed shoots it right out of Lee’s hand, and when Lee’s back is turned. He could have killed his father. Lee is furious. And then … he lets it go. He just lets it go. He laughs a big, somewhat charming, somewhat overcompensating laugh that we’ll see a lot in this movie. Ah, boys will be boys.

In a later, beautifully directed scene, we see Lee at a saloon with his buddies, whooping it up, laughing his amiable/slightly sinister Van Heflin laugh, and Ed sits grim faced, staring at his father’s reflection in the saloon mirror. He then shoots that reflection. It’s a dramatic gesture and should be a warning to Lee – but Lee takes it in stride. Or does he? That reflection is what Ed will later call the “shadow” – he is a shadow compared to his father – and in a way, he is shooting himself too (after all, Lee likes to look in mirrors – there’s another doleful moment in a mirror in the picture). Ed hates Lee but he must love him too. Lee loves Ed – he “loves” him so much that he hires someone to lie when Lee “accidentally” shoves a half-Native American cowboy (Bert Convy) off a cliff on a cattle drive. Ed is after a beautiful white mare and that cowboy got in the way – something (the beautiful white mare stands stark and haunting in this movie— behold a pale horse – Ed is chasing death).

Things just build and build after this. Davy falls in love with Cecily "Clee" Chouard (Kathryn Grant), a half-French, half-Sioux whom both his racist brother and father refer contemptuously to as a “half-breed.” She’s the sister of the dead cowboy and Davy starts siding with the family more than his own… This is unacceptable to Lee. Not a surprise.

And Ed is just going crazier –the more he runs rampant in town, acts his own unhinged way, the angrier at his father he becomes. And himself. This is a young man who hates himself. That he’s a shadow. In the end the shadow must be killed – by the father – it’s a shocking and disarmingly moving ending and makes Gunman’s Walk something of a masterpiece. 

Karlson, who directed some of the great, tough-as-nails noirs (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story) wonders why in hell do these people have to be so violent. Does it solve anything? This is a director questioning authority; looking at how we blindly believe in institutions – one of them being “manhood,” domination. And he gives Heflin, Darren and Hunter plenty to explore here – these are fascinating character studies, both deeply human and symbolic. Gunman_s_Walk-276247508-large
Heflin’s Lee – god knows what he did to his sons and god knows why he is so obsessed with Ed. What is going on there? There’s an inverse to Martin Ritt's Hud here – Heflin’s character puts up with so much with Ed, irritated by his gentler son, while Melvyn Douglas’ righteousness clashes with his bad boy son (whom Douglas does not love – which messes up his son – he’s got to account for that). You get the feeling that Heflin’s Lee would get along well with Hud the cynicism and corruption of Paul Newnan’s Hud. But would Hud hate him too? Probably. 

But to Heflin and Hunter’s immense credit and their brilliant performances (this is one of Hunter’s greatest roles) – we, the audience, don’t hate them. We can’t. We get that they are damaged men – and that there is something about the world, something about what is expected of masculinity, that can twist these two men and turn them crazy. The resulting movie is heartbreaking – Lee is rendered powerless – and that makes him, to the viewer, in some ways, more powerful. More open. More of a human being. And some powerful men were affected by this. 

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One of those powerful men was the fearsome (and hated by many) Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn. According to Karlson (in an interview with Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson), Cohn was moved beyond his own comfortable measure. Said Karlson:

“There was no tougher man in the whole world, and I had the pleasure of seeing this man sit in a projection room, with Freddie Kohlmar and myself, crying at Gunman's Walk. At the end of that picture, he was literally crying. Harry Cohn crying! Freddie Kohlmar got up; he was so embarrassed he walked out… Then I started to get out and he stopped me, Harry Cohn, and he said, ‘Wait a minute.’ He now bawled out the projectionist for turning the lights on, because nobody turns any lights on unless he gives the order, presses the button. He was so moved by that picture because he had two sons and this was a story about a father and two sons. He identified completely with that motion picture and he said to me, ‘You're going to be the biggest director in this business and I'm going to make sure you are.’” 

“Wouldn't you know, that's the last picture he was ever associated with. 

“He went to Phoenix, Arizona, and died.”


New Blood: The Color of Money

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“Life is on the wire; the rest is just waiting.” – Karl Walenda

“On the snap Vincent!”

This is uttered to pool player and obnoxious kid, Vincent Lauria, via his manager girlfriend, Carmen -- almost like a boxing trainer -- in a smoky bar on a regular night of nothing particularly special in the 1980s. Phil Collins' “One More Night” plays on the soundtrack (and presumably jukebox) because that’s what would be playing in a place like this. And there goes Vincent breaking those balls. He breaks them like a “sledgehammer” as the older man observing him from the bar says with a mixture of surprise and discovery. He says this even before really seeing the kid. The older guy is talking to his lady friend bar owner, discussing the liquor he now sells, getting kind of cozy and romantic with her about who made her an omelet and who is going home with her when she gets off (he is going home with her). He’s a strikingly handsome wizened fella, dressed old-school but cool in a beautiful grey suit, sitting in the bar paying half attention to the pool game going on behind him and then…he hears this kid. And then he sees this kid. This weird kid who showboats and hoots and does some kind of wanna-be samurai sword move with this pool cue. And then the weird kid plays a video game during his break from the game. Total ADD and immaturity. What?

But. This kid. He’s got something special and the older guy knows it right away. And, then we hear it again: “Come on! On the snap Vincent!” And then it’s all over after that for the older guy. It’s like falling in love, or finding that thing that will give you a life force, or finding your next victim. 

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This is all happening at the very beginning of Martin Scorsese’s under-discussed
The Color of Money --  the camera reacts to Vincent’s pool skills and that older man reacts and we react -- our senses are heightened, we’re perked up, curious, even on edge a little, and we feel alive. All from faces and pool balls and that cracking sound. The camera does a zoom to that older man at the bar, we see him in beautiful close-up, more than curious, a little spellbound, but without losing his cool, that man just happening to be Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), he of the classic The Hustler (directed by Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, as is The Color of Money, adapted by Richard Price). Former pool hustler Fast Eddie is going to find himself back in the game via this kid, Vince (Tom Cruise) and his intelligent girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and the movie will become less about the discovery and maturation of greenhorn Vince (though it certainly goes there) and more about the simultaneous soul-stirring feelings this kid inspires in his mentor and the vampiric victory that mentor can suck out of him. The victory being – he is simply back to doing what he loves. 

This film has been unfavorably compared, by some critics, to a cheesy perfunctory training film of the 1980s -- as if Martin Scorsese, needing money and working as a director for hire, had directed The Karate Kid (nothing against The Karate Kid), but it’s so much more interior than that, so much less easily heartfelt (in a good way), so much stranger and real-life and haunting.

The nostalgia of Fast Eddie is cagier, there really is no nostalgia to it, and Newman, brilliantly, never plays his character that way. He’s neither a sleaze nor a perfect father figure nor a “let’s all be in awe of this guy” type. He’s like a lot of dads or mentors or lovers – he’s fucked up and selfish but smart and world-weary and maybe was the best at one time and you should listen to him when he’s being wise about things but you also really, really, sometimes, should be wary of this man too. What’s his game anyway?

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Fast Eddie asks Vince and Carmen out for dinner and over not too-long of a time, he starts to get to know both of them. Carmen is a tough customer, she drove the getaway car when her boyfriend robbed Vince’s parent’s house (a real meet cute at the police station), but she’s smart and she actually listens and takes in advice. Vince works in a big anonymous store wearing a tee-shirt that says VINCE on it (he wears it again while playing pool, a nice touch). What does this kid want to do with his life? And what does Carmen want out of it? Fast Eddie had already sized her up the first night in the bar as he says:

“Maybe I'm hustling you, maybe I'm not. You don't know, but you should know. If you know that, you know when to say no.” She says, “What should I say?” His answer: “You should say no. Why? Because it's too much money and I'm an unknown. He should be the unknown. That would be nice. That would be beautiful. You could play around with that. You could control that.”

You could control that. Fast Eddie introduces the pair to a bigger life of pool hustling, which Vince has some issues with (throwing games?!) but soon these three are on their way to a championship in Atlantic city, albeit with a major bump in the road -- a humiliated Fast Eddie is scammed by Amos (Forest Whitaker -- marvelous) and storms out on them. Mentor no more. Fast Eddie is going to start playing himself -- fuck this kid -- even if he’s grown fond of him. 

The movie is so dead and so alive. Almost dead, in the right way, when these characters are out there on the streets, driving in cars, talking in cafes, and it’s supposed to be – life outside the pool hall is just there and the camera (the film was shot by ace Michael Ballhaus -- lot of movement and quick zooms and whip cams – so beautiful and thrilling) reflects it in those moments. Static. But when we go into the pool halls, the choreography works like a musical. Tom Cruise even has a musical number -- set to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London" -- and it’s just so ridiculous and wonderfully embarrassing and like the werewolf’s hair: perfect. Cruise is incredibly human and very strange in the way a kid like this might be – he’s cocky and needy and when he tries hard to be cool, it comes off just… bizarre. Damaged.

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But, Newman. Newman is cool personified -- the coolest motherfucker in the room, in fact. But he’s getting older and he needs his mojo back. Seeing sticks all the time, it’s easy to think of (sorry to be less delicate about it) one in need of getting it up. Tom Cruise is like Viagra for this guy. But it also feels like two gunfighters, two samurais, the young gun and the master facing off, swords for pool cues (and again, Vince and all of his showboating sword-twirling with the stick). And, so, when the film ends and these two are about to duel -- we don’t know what will happen. And that is the best way to end this movie, I don’t care what any critic says. 

When the picture freeze frames on Fast Eddie and he says, “Hey. I’m back!” this could be so corny but … it’s so not.

He is back, not because we’re simply cheering on his glory, but because he’s drunk on the blood. That blood that Vincent provided for him. Eddie was right when he sized up Vincent in the beginning and called him a “character.” Vincent initially takes this as a compliment but Eddie says, “That's not what I said, kid. I said you are a natural character; you're an incredible flake. But that's a gift. Guys spend half their lives inventing that. You walk into a pool room with that go-go-go, the guys'll be killing each other, trying to get to you. You got that... But I'll tell you something, kiddo. You couldn't find Big Time if you had a road map."

Fast Eddie needed that character and he needed that flake to get to where he is by the end of the picture. He’s been one hell of a mentor, and he’s wise and wonderful in many ways, yes, but he also needed to fuel himself. It’s life-affirming sure, but it’s also a little life-sucking and selfish. It's not an inspiring story about two guys learning from each other -- even if they do learn. It's so much more interesting and layered than all that.

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In an interview with Richard Schickel, Scorsese put it: “I wanted it to be a story of an older person who corrupts a young person, like a serpent in the garden of innocence.”

We're mesmerized by this serpent and even if we feel bad for the natural character and flake, we're rooting for the serpent.  Aren't we?