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 film noir, she offers no melodrama or glamour to Talman’s psycho – he’s 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?



Mikey & Nicky & May

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Mikey
: You call me “The Echo,” and you tell everybody that I have to say everything twice because I got a tunnel in my head. The second time is the echo.

Nicky: Listen, Mikey, everybody says everything. I mean, what’s the difference? I was kidding. Don’t you ever kid?

Mikey: You make me out a joke to Resnick. Just like you made me out a joke to that girl.

Nicky: Mikey, you’re wrong.

Mikey: And I’d do anything for you. Anything. And unless you’re sick or in trouble, you don’t even know I’m alive.

 

At the beginning of Elaine May’s third, brilliant picture, Mikey and Nicky, John Cassavetes’ Nicky is holed up in a seedy motel room in Philadelphia, terrified and desperate. He’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown and looks like he’s been up for days with his messy, bed-head hair, handsome, haggard face and wrinkled white dress shirt sticking to his thin frame in an angst-filled, ulcer-ridden sweat. He’s stooped on a dingy bed and staring nervously rat-eyed at the dirty, chain-locked door, hoping no one busts through. He’s got a gun. Of course, he’s got a gun. This place is the kind of fleabag hovel where people shoot through filthy locked doors or bribe front desk clerks who’ll look the other way when an offender blasts through those grungy openings and commits whatever bit of unpleasantness that happens on the other side.

The joint is haunted with the lives of those who hide in the rooms, sitting on bed-bugged blankets full of dope and desperate dreams. Nicky isn’t dreaming, his life is a wide-awake-nightmare. But he does have hope – he hopes to stay alive.

He’s got a good reason to be scared – he’s heard there’s a contract out on him. He calls the buddy he’s known since childhood, Mikey (Peter Falk), and begs for help. Nicky knows Mikey’s going to come up, even if Nicky throws down a towel and nearly knocks Mikey with a bottle. You feel for him. Mickey reassures him, spending the entire movie with his pal. Mikey’s an old friend and Nicky can trust him.

Oh… hold on. Can he? Is he on the level? When you eventually learn that Mikey is not – and you don’t catch this right away – but once you realize that the hitman (played by Ned Beatty) on Nicky’s trail is being aided along by Mikey, you start to piece together that this friend isn’t the one Nicky should have called. You’re on Nicky’s side. You think. But keep watching. No, you’re on both of their sides because what kind of hell are these men trapped within? What kind of life is this? Is Mikey really going to deceive Nicky? Is Nicky maybe a sociopath? Well, nothing is easy in this movie, and certainly nothing as easy as being on one person’s side.

As the night wears on and these two talk, fight, hit each other and reveal more and more about themselves and, to May and her actors’ immense credit, your emotions shift all over the place. Whatever alliances you had, whatever charm you’ve felt from these two guys, all that has been dragged around and sullied, dirtied up like that door in Nicky’s dumpy motel room.

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And May shoots it that way, never allowing a glamorous moment to enter the frame (even with gorgeous, through stripped-down cinematography by Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard and Victor J. Kemper), even with these two troubled, charismatic men who have their own kind of coarse glamour – you never forget they are often just real crumbs. She throws you in with these characters; you laugh, you’re nervous, you’re even scared about what on earth will happen next, and thus, crafts a film that’s really not one to fit any kind of genre. I guess it’s a dark buddy comedy? Whatever. It doesn’t need to fit a genre – it’s an Elaine May picture.

It’s tactile. Even the betrayal (you feel this in all of May’s pictures – relationships are fraught with them) feels like you can touch it, and you sense the long night go on and on. You can feel the sweat on their faces. You can practically smell the bars they’re drinking in. And yet, you don’t want to get out of this movie, you don’t want to unlock the door and make a run for it. You like (if that is the right word for it) being stuck with these two small-timers, you’re fascinated and drawn to them, and you wonder where this is all going to end … who is going to make it through the night?

Being stuck with these guys – that is the genius of writer-director May, and her actors Cassavetes and Falk. In one night, in the ghostly urban environ of Philadelphia (a decidedly less romantic place than New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles, or at least May shoots it that way – and it looks gloriously grungy), we tag along with two guys who talk in junky beat-up bars and on city buses or in the streets and we are enlivened, anxious, depressed, disturbed and empathetic. By trusting the chemistry and brilliant interplay between Cassavetes and Falk, May not only shows her subjects as flawed, violent, vulnerable, selfish, guilt-ridden and manipulative men carrying around decades of resentment (as many friends do) but men who are always on the precipice of violence – emotional or literal – and violence ready to do them or someone else in. You feel for them at times, but you also feel jangly and uncomfortable watching them – you are waiting for a shoe or two or three to drop. Maybe on Falk’s head.

There’s nothing noble about these guys, just real. When they stop off at Nicky’s mistress’ apartment, Nicky spouts some hollow “I love you” line so he can be intimate with her (though it doesn’t seem very intimate) on the floor, while Mikey’s hunched over in her depressing kitchen, waiting for them to finish, and for his turn. When Mikey’s rebuffed, he smacks her. It’s a startling, sad moment – May is not going to give these guys and their toxic behavior too many breaks here. Soon after, Mikey accuses Nicky of setting the scene up to embarrass him; to hurt his male ego. Nicky says something that claims she’s a little crazy and that she needs to be coddled with sweet talk before the act… Nicky says a lot of stuff. It’s all over the place and scary and sad and you’re right there on the street with them. And it’s superbly staged.

Headerphoto1763211What the director and actors are doing here – it’s what people call a “high wire act,” and the artists walk it bravely. And it is, at times, astonishing. Too bad many in 1976 didn’t think much of this movie, as far as I know, or even saw it. It came and went in theaters – not given a chance even to be seen enough by audiences – I have to think many audience members who actually saw the movie could have loved it. The picture is absolutely masterful – a movie that now stands as perhaps one of the most underrated works of the 1970s. (I was thrilled to see Criterion had released a fine edition of the film this year).

This was, I believe, considered a darker turn for May (who started out in the theater and then co-created her pioneering comedy act with Mike Nichols), and who, prior to this, had directed the brilliant comedies A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau (which she wrote), and The Heartbreak Kid (screenplay by Neil Simon). Though it’s not like those two films were light comedies. Not in the least. She cast herself as the romantic lead ready to be knocked off by Matthau in A New Leaf, and then, in The Heartbreak Kid, she cast her own daughter (Jeannie Berlin) ready to be cut out by her selfish husband (played by Charles Grodin), after one glimpse of Cybill Shepherd on the beach during their doomed Miami Beach honeymoon.

The darkness of those two films (mixed with the bittersweet – your heart breaks for Berlin and the egg salad sandwich on her face, and for the cold break-up she must endure; you fall in love with May’s heiress/ impassioned botany professor), and Mikey and Nicky is distinctly Elaine May (even with Simon writing The Heartbreak Kid, adapted from the Bruce Jay Friedman story). May looks at this crazy world, these relationships we find ourselves in (or create), our betrayals, and the institutions we march through with a jaundiced yet utterly human eye. And it’s funny. But painful. Lovable and utterly horrible. The ending of The Heartbreak Kid is one of the most depressing endings of any “romantic comedy” I’ve ever seen. Like Mikey and Nicky, I am not even sure who I feel sorry for – Grodin’s selfishness and now likely realization of the life he’s going to lead? The first time I saw the end I was just stunned and thought – god, what has this delusional man done? And what a dreadful family. What a pitiful, lost man. And then the movie closes with Grodin quietly humming The Carpenters’ “Close to You” … is he thinking of his time in the car with his ex-wife, Berlin, happily singing the same song together?

ImagesMay always nails these kind of details with such power and layered meaning. In A New Leaf, there are many moments to discuss, but here’s one I find comic genius: May holding her teacup – that extended moment with the teacup. And the carpet.

When she first meets Matthau who has set his predatory eyes on her as a mousy thing, an easy target – May, sitting at that fancy get-together with that quivering teacup and spilling liquid on that woman’s stupid carpet (you know the scene if you’ve seen the picture), is one, among many moments in which May dissects a detail, whether small, like crumbs rolling off of her dress, or her arm hole/head hole (or large details, like Matthau’s Henry losing all of his money) and, in that, shows us how relationships are messy – quite literally with the tea and the crumbs dribbling all over us. And, maybe, just maybe, Matthau secretly likes that about her (unlike Grodin who is annoyed by everything Berlin does). But we don’t know. It should be easier to know such things but people are prickly and cranky and mean. (I certainly do love that about her in A New Leaf, crumbs and all, but I’m watching a movie).

At the end of the teacup moment, Matthau defends May’s Henrietta about the tea, and it means something to her, even if he’s play-acting (maybe secretly he’s not?). And so, with this, we don’t even know when people actually care, even as we cheer when he tells off at that snooty woman for berating May’s tea sipping and slipping: “Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered.” Maybe he’s truly sticking up for Henrietta, maybe he just enjoys hollering at the snooty hostess.

In Mikey and Nicky – the sequence that begins with the watch – you see the apologies, the pleas of it’s only a joke, and then the violence erupting. Because people are either full of shit or sincere – we can’t always tell – and that is maddening. In all of her work, May ponders this quandary between men and women and men and men – it doesn’t matter if it’s romantic or platonic – that fractured humanity is all there. And, sometimes, all we can do is nervously laugh.

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Mikey and Nicky
 carries a notorious production history that’s been discussed, sometimes more than the movie itself (and, sadly, used against May). In short, May went over budget, reportedly shot more film than Gone with the Wind and, at one point, was said to have hidden reels somewhere in Connecticut. Before that, May also dealt with studio difficulties with A New LeafA New Leaf was even darker and more extended in its original cut, supposedly sheared at the behest of Robert Evans at Paramount, which upset May enough to sue (unsuccessfully) and attempt to remove her name from the film. Either considered too long or too bleak or both, it was cut (and that footage has never been found) leaving a happier ending, however happy you take the conclusion of the picture (Henry almost really does kill her – the last minute change of heart, based on a fern isn’t the strongest indication he’s forever a new man). It’s a testament to May’s genius that the film could work either way.

After Mikey and Nicky, she didn’t direct another film until her vastly underrated, notoriously maligned, but hilarious and smart, at times brilliant Ishtar (starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, written by May) came out in 1987. To discuss Ishtar (also about the relationship of two men) requires a separate essay (here’s a great one from the New Beverly by Garret Mathany), but I will say – I am glad this movie found a cult and is finally not just loved and respected by more viewers and critics than before, but now actually, seen. And this line, uttered by Beatty to a suicidal Hoffman: “Hey, it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age. Don’t you understand that? Yeah, most guys would be ashamed, but you’ve got the guts to just say, ‘The hell with it.’ You say that you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. Understand?” It always makes me laugh and moves my heart, simultaneously.

As Charles Grodin said later about the film (to the Wall Street Journal):

Why should the public be concerned what the budget of a movie is? Coca-Cola financed the movie. It’s not as if Coca-Cola was going to give that money to the people of America rather than spend it. People are very reflexive. You can just say a name and people will laugh or chuckle or snicker or whatever they do. But if all the people who were snickering had seen ‘Ishtar,’ it would’ve been a big hit.”

Indeed. It sure would have.

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The absence of May as a director is something much discussed – and much missed (though she is a successful, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and a still working actress – she recently has been nominated for a Tony for her performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, and in 2016 she directed for television a tribute to Mike Nichols, “American Masters: Mike Nichols”). But the yearning one feels to have some more films directed by Elaine May, brings up questions – and questions relating to sexism in the film industry. Is May not allowed to be exacting or idiosyncratic or whatever she has been called? Male filmmakers are certainly entitled to be just that. Was she punished for Ishtar? A movie that suffered not only bad box office but undeserved, absolutely outsized ridicule (which still baffles me) – that is going to hurt a director. But she should be allowed a failure (in terms of box office) – especially one as actually great as Ishtar.

And she should be judged on the quality, originality, and brilliance of her four directed pictures (which she is, by the plenty of critics and other filmmakers who revere her). It’s a hard business, but from what I’ve read and heard, May does not suffer fools. She’s tough. She’s respected and loved. And four films this excellent – that’s impressive (I can think of filmmakers with much longer resumes and bigger hits who don’t hold a candle to May. Many of us can).

So that tough world of Mikey and Nicky – I was told by an actor/director recently who worked with her, praising her – that was not altogether foreign to her. And that she was damn tough herself. I don’t know if Richard Burton was terrified of her (That he’d fall in love? That she’d outwit him?) when I read this quote from him, it’s stuck with me: “Elaine was too formidable, one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”

God, we always want to see Elaine May again. In anything. In Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (she is the best thing about the film), in later interviews with Mike Nichols, in an AFI tribute to Warren Beatty where she gives a perfectly timed, hilarious and loving speech to Beatty. On the stage.

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Back to the film I’m discussing – Mikey and Nicky ends as you might expect it to and yet, it feels totally surprising – this rush of emotion you feel as Nicky bangs on Mikey’s much nicer door – nicer than the one in his crappy motel room. He’s yelling in misery: “Mikey, you son of a bitch! You bastard! You bastard! Mikey!” His life is nearly over and damn, you really feel it. You believe it. You believe every second of this movie.

A line uttered earlier by Mikey is now, not so much funny as more awfully prophetic, circling back to desperate Nicky screaming at his door: “It’s very hard to talk to a dead person. I have nothing in common.” Maybe Mikey’s telling himself that at this anguished moment. Maybe not.

May isn’t going to end this movie easy. While grooving on the very human rhythms of Cassavetes and Falk, May shows their explosions of violence, and sometimes allows it to play as darkly humorous, at least for a moment, until you’re taken aback and saddened by the needlessness of it all. It’s painful and poignant and challenging and funny and finally, heartbreaking. It’s one of Elaine May’s greatest movies. But, then, to me, she doesn’t have a bad one.

From my piece at the New Beverly


You’re on Your Own: Blood Simple

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Blood Simple
is a lonely movie. The movie sweats, cries and bleeds loneliness. The road the two lovers, Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) drive down at night, opening the film, is lonely. Never mind that they are together and about to consummate their union in a hotel room – it’s a lonely road – as remote as Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” as friendless as Tom Neal hitching a ride in Edgar G. Ulmer’s down and dirty Detour. And the hotel doesn’t feel so uniting either – lonely cars rushing past, casting shadows on the wood-paneled walls and dingy white sheets. Is it romantic? Not really. The bar that the cuckolded, perpetually fuming Marty, Abby’s husband (Dan Hedaya), owns and runs is lonely – he seems to live in the back of that place, and only at night, feet up on the tables in the neon-bathed blackness, sweating and stressing, talking to a sleazo PI with contempt. When he attempts, miserably, to woo a pretty patron at the bar, she amusingly tells him to get lost (“Now that I’ve communicated, why don’t you leave?”). No one wants this man. And he knows it. It’s a lonely old world – and we even begin to feel sorry for him, even though we really shouldn’t (he’s going to ask the PI to off his cheating wife and her lover, a bartender he employs).

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And then there’s the constant Four Tops song that nearly bursts out of the bar juke-box in bracing moments – “It’s the Same Old Song”— something that could work to ironic effect (and perhaps does to some viewers) but a tune that serenades the movie with its abandoned refrain: “Now, it's the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone…” That could be Marty’s song, or any of the characters, really, as their fates feel like the repetitions of the tune via the repetition of their mistakes, mistakes that make them even lonelier. The same but different. It’s no surprise that M. Emmet Walsh’s Private Detective Loren Visser opens the film with this voice-over, saying of the film’s setting, the lone star state of Texas: “Down here, you’re on your own.”

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Not that the movie takes the character’s loneliness and murderous predicaments with solemn seriousness – it certainly doesn’t – but it doesn’t mock them or the noir genre either. Lifting our spirits (honestly, the movie’s sheer ingenuity and voice is spirit-lifting, if that is the right way to put it), there is something morbidly funny about how awful this all becomes, in part, because there is something morbidly funny about how many noir twists turn out. Here it’s Marty’s murderous plans double-crossed by Visser, and then characters not knowing what is truly going on or who did what or who is who – it even ends with Visser’s laugh when Abby mistakes him for Ray, Visser deliciously uttering mock-politely as he lies bleeding in the bathroom: “If I see him, I'll sure give him the message.” (That’s all I will say about the plot if you haven’t seen the movie, just watch). It’s this offbeat, mordant, but very human humor mixed with startling bursts of violence and striking, singular style (Barry Sonnenfeld as cinematographer – his first narrative feature film) that makes this 1984 neo-noir directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen (their first movie) still feel so refreshingly alive. Yes, alive, even as almost everyone in this movie is likely gonna die soon (I won’t say who). As some 1980s and 1990s neo-noirs show their age, or feel too soaked in their own style for the sake of style, Blood Simple remains timeless.

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The title is taken from Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”: “This damned burg's getting me. If I don't get away soon I'll be going blood-simple like the natives.” But as frequently stated, the picture is very much inspired by James M. Cain (whom the Coen’s revere – as they’re quoted via Ronald Bergan’s informative “The Coen Brothers”: “We’ve always thought that up at Low Library at Columbia University, where the names are chiseled up there above the columns of stone—Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil—that the fourth one should be Cain.” Bergan says they’re being hyperbolic and he’s probably right but I am not so sure…)

As Bergan states, however, the picture isn’t as sexy as Cain, and he’s right. And this is to the film’s benefit – it’s not trying too hard to be hot, it’s not doling out a bunch of clichés aping pulp and noirs that were very sexy (as Cain could be), that make a few neo-noirs of the 80’s and 90’s now feels silly and forced. Decisions were made here that were smart – the “femme fatale” doesn’t come sashaying into an office gussied up or speaking in sexy low tones, rather, she looks like a normal but very pretty woman. There are no “let’s be noir” saxophone or saxophone-like moments and instead the music, by Carter Burwell (his first, marking a long future collaboration with the Coen’s), is melancholic and haunting. Even the constant sound of the ceiling fan and the neon-bathed bar go beyond just the style and remarks more on the film’s sad beauty, its tension and mood – it is suffocating over sensual. And the final shootout is visually bravura, scary and wonderfully bizarre. And even funny. The filmmakers respect the genre (and continued working within it or in movies that contained element of it  –  among them – Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country For Old Men which brought them back to Texas) but also see how inherently funny and absurd it can become. And without slipping into parody, which, in one early interview, Joel Coen makes a point to clarify: “We never looked at it as a parody though, from our point of view we were always attempting to do sort of a fairly straight-forward thriller, we just wanted it to be as humorous as possible.”   

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There is indeed something humorous about how much these lonely characters will endure and then, something truly exciting about how much they try (and fuck up). Walsh (who is brilliant here – all suited up with that cowboy hat, shit-eating grin, and driving that VW bug) says something that is both resilient and gross, and also hilarious. And also a weirdly beautiful literary line - hard-boiled and Southern Gothic: “Give me a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” In an effectively disgusting way, Walsh’s Visser becomes the least lonely character in the movie. Even if he may die, with those fantastic lines he utters, and that laugh, he will leave something – a memorable trail of slime. That’s not nothing.


Happy Birthday Tuesday Weld: Pretty Poison

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“What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?”

There’s a scene in Noel Black’s 1968 Pretty Poison that’s so unnerving and memorable, it still makes a viewer feel off balance today. Tuesday Weld’s beautiful 17-year-old high school majorette named Sue Ann Stepanek has just bashed some poor night watchman on the side of the head – twice – and he lies on the ground, bleeding, near dead. She and her new boyfriend, disturbed but sensitive Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), have been mucking around at the chemical plant he has been working for (and was fired from) on one of their dates/clandestine “missions.” Dennis is loosening a chute that dumps chemical waste into the town’s water supply and at the same time, filling Sue Ann’s head with lies that he’s a spy for the CIA – she’s excited to help him. She’s really excited.

She loves the intrigue and the mischief, and she loves to rebel. She loathes her mother (when her mother slapped her earlier that night, Sue Ann slapped her right back) and she’s not keen on rules (save for Dennis’s “classified” commands she delights in). And she is her own person. That is for sure. She is, indeed, her own kind of person.

But as Dennis is messing with the chute, the night factory guard, Sam (whom Dennis seems to like), catches him. Dennis stares back terrified – for good reason – he’s recently been released from a mental institution. He’s a man (presumably in his 20s, or early 20s – Perkins was 35 at the time) with a record, a past arsonist who accidentally set his aunt – and her home – on fire (he was 15 then). He’s got a parole officer, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), who is kind and patient with him. But Dennis – playing around with these spy games with this young woman – and now a nice old man’s got his skull bashed with a monkey wrench? He’s got a lot to be scared of.

DownloadSue Ann, on the other hand, does not seem to be scared of anything. In the universe of Pretty Poison, with its tree-lined, white-picket-fenced setting (the film was shot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts) this might seem surprising, that is, if a person were to apply the common standards of how society thinks of young women (and how they likely do in this town). She’s a remarkably beautiful girl with lovely hair (I always think of Nick Cave singing about blonde teenage murderess, Lottie, from “The Curse of Millhaven” – “My hair is yellow and I’m always a-combing, la la-la-la, la la-la-lie. Mama often told me that we all got to die!”). She’s a straight-A student with a bright future ahead of her. So, she, out there at night with her disturbed boyfriend who has led her into this bad scene – she should worry for her future. She should bemoan over why he dragged her into this. But she doesn’t. And she thinks fast. She calmly, deliberately, brains old Sam, blood oozing all over his face. She seems a little proud of herself too. Like she just solved a relatively hard algebra equation.

Sue Ann: I hit him twice. You see he started to go down and then I bopped him on the side of the head. Oh … he sure is bleeding, isn’t he?

Dennis: Yeah…

Sue Ann: The C.I.A. does cover this kind of stuff, doesn’t it? Hmm?

Dennis: Uh … Yeah … sometimes

Sue Ann: Well, what should we do? (Dennis pulls Sue Ann to him to hug her) You’re sweating.

Dennis: You’re cool.

You’re cool. As in her skin temperature. As in her soul. As in he still loves her. It’s all spinning out of control for Dennis, who thought he was in control with her. So… there she goes… Without asking or alerting the freaked-out Dennis, Sue Ann, with all of her sociopathic common sense and know-how, takes the night watchman’s gun out of his pocket (she’ll save that for later), and pushes the dying man’s body into the water. He’s now almost good and dead. And then she sits on his back. To make sure. To drown him.

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This is when the movie, which has already placed us into the unsettling world of Dennis and his problems, his possible craziness, and Sue Ann’s beautiful strangeness (though, before this moment, we didn’t realize just how fucking weird she is), I think, knows it’s perverse. In the black of night, her yellow hair glowing, her pink cardigan and blue and white plaid dress almost sparkling, she sits on top of the dead man’s back, her bare legs splashing in the water – with just a hint of … something, an erotic suggestion. A hint, which is smart because it would seem cheap and exploitative if it were anything else. The hint makes the viewer feel almost as if you imagined it. (We didn’t because later in the film, in a moment of disturbance, Dennis will flash to this same shot, freaked out.) When she’s done drowning the man, she sensibly tells Dennis: “He was dead, Dennis. The chute’s right over him. When it falls down in the morning, they’ll figure that’s what killed him.”

We see her sitting on this poor dead man, smiling, calm. When she makes her way back up to Dennis, she looks down at the body and says smiling, happy: “God, what a night.” When she and Dennis are back in the car after she’s sat in the water on top of the man she just murdered, Sue Ann then pounces on Dennis. She’s excited with blood lust. She wants to make it.

Pretty Poison was Black’s first and best feature (though his Jennifer on My Mind is such a tonally crazy picture, that I’d recommend it for those curious about contending with dead, heroin OD’ed girlfriends; Cover Me Babe is also seriously flawed, yet fascinating. His short, Skaterdater won the Palm D’or at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film in 1966). It has a dark, deadpan wit, scripted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the Batman series, The Parallax ViewThe Drowning PoolThree Days of the Condor) and gorgeous, at times, experimental cinematography by David Quaid (The Swimmer). I love how green the picture looks – so lush and pretty – quaint, but with so much existential dread and angst and dysfunction all around. David Lynch might love this movie.

The daylight exteriors of Sue Ann driving a baby blue convertible, Dennis sitting at the hot dog stand talking about murder, Sue Ann in a green dress looking very pretty as she watches, with binoculars, the night watchman’s body being dragged from the water – the light of the picture makes its dark humor all the more unsettling. The danger and ubiquity of poison all around us – both external and internal rot. Another great moment: The gun Sue Ann stole off of the dead night watchman she murdered – we see it again in her teenage room with flowered wallpaper and a framed picture of ballerinas – it’s in a drawer containing a blue curler, bobby pins, pink beads and other teeny things – a darkly humorous tableau of pretty girly normalcy and female rage. She will shoot her mother, four times, with it – a squinting, focused, intent look on her face and with a twisted smile – tongue protruding from her lips like both a kid and a seasoned pro. And then, everything back to relative calm, considering the circumstances, Sue Ann planning how to get rid of the body (though Azenauer will call soon after and Dennis knows he’s going to eventually be blamed for this). I actually thought Sue Ann might eat the breakfast her mother just made for her (she asked for pancakes) directly after killing her. Instead, she wants to have sex with Dennis, whom she says she wants to marry and run off to Mexico with. She’d been packing her bags and picking out dresses to wear before her mother came home. As her mother lies there dead on the staircase, Sue Ann sits on the bed and hugs Dennis, asking: “What do people do as soon as they’re married?”

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Dennis is (was) an arsonist, and since he accidentally killed his aunt as a teenager, he’s served many years away – and knows a thing or two about trauma. He nervously settles into this new town (his boss is an asshole), and he thinks he’s too smart for his job. His parole officer, Azenauer, agrees about his intelligence – but to stop with the crazy, or play-acting crazy, the jokes, and especially the fantasy. Azenauer warns him at the very beginning of the picture: “Believe me, Dennis, you’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place at all for fantasies.”

And then… a fantasy emerges. In a dizzying sequence, Dennis spies the beautiful Sue Ann Stepanek, first as a drum majorette, and then at a hot dog stand (as we’ll see later, a lot goes down at that hot dog stand). When they first take a drive in her car, she lies and says she’s 18 – but he knows better. OK, she’s in high school and almost 18, she says. He will fall for her – trying to play it cool at first, trying to take control with his games (fantasies), but when he sees her murderous glee, he realizes he’s not driving this relationship anymore. Nevertheless, he can’t leave her.

Dennis continues this routine of both trying to not play by the rules, while also, actually trying to listen to his parole officer. He’s clearly got some unresolved anger and fear going on, and he needs to feel more significant than he actually is. One reason why an impressionable teenage girl would be a target for him. And he really should not be up to this kind of predation. No, she should not.

He’s a broken man, and it’s often quite sad. In an incredible scene, both heartbreaking and then, darkly funny (because of Weld’s brilliant, perfectly timed response ), Perkins’s Dennis reveals to Sue Ann what happened all those years ago with this aunt:

Dennis: I didn’t know she was in the house. I swear I didn’t. See, I’d been playing with some girl next door. Playing doctor or something. Her name was Ursula. And my aunt caught us. [Crying] It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad. My aunt beat me with a pile of sticks. So, I took that pile of sticks into the cellar, and I set fire to them, Sue Ann. But I thought my aunt was out. Oh, that poor fool. She sneaked back into the house after she told me she was going out. I guess she hoped to catch me committing lascivious carriage or something, but I didn’t know it, Sue Ann, I didn’t know she was in the house. You see? You see…

Sue Ann: [Smiling] You’re all sweaty when you were the one with experience in killing people.

Dennis: [Sobbing and slightly laughing] Oh, God. Sue Ann. You say such crazy things. Maybe that’s why I love you.

Sue Ann: Cross your heart? Cross your heart?

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Perkins is so impressive in Pretty Poison – funny and creepy and vulnerable and a bit heart-breaking by the end. It’s a fascinating performance – he’s not really crazy, he’s almost play-acting a paranoid schizophrenic (he listens to radio shows in Russian, and, as said, comes on to Sue Ann through boastful lies about his work with the CIA.), so his actions just leave a question mark, in an intriguing way. As director Black said to writer, Perkins’s biographer, Ronald Bergan in 1994: “He had enormous charm and intelligence, the very qualities I wanted to come through in the role he would be playing. I was looking for the young Tony of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not Psycho, although commentators naturally made the comparison between Norman Bates and the character in Pretty Poison.”

He’s not really like Norman Bates, though there’s a sex-death dysfunction he’s grown up with. But it’s as if he has no other way but to act crazy because that’s what everyone expects of him. But why pretend all this? Because no one ever believed him before? And fantasies aren’t always a bad thing, even if Azenauer  warns him against them. But this world – Azenauer is right – it doesn’t like those indulging in fantasy so much. As Noel Black said (in a Los Angeles Times story), Perkins’s Dennis is “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teeny-bopper Lady Macbeth.”

The act “works” to a certain extent because Sue Ann, likely bored out of her skull from typical boys who’ve romanced her, taken her to dumb dances and copped feels in cars, and who is also clearly damaged herself (her home life is unstable, her mother, doing what she wants, fine, but not necessarily protective, more just repressive to her daughter) is drawn to Dennis. Sue Ann sleeps with the twitchy mystery man (the first guy she’s “made it” with, though, when she brings up a sailor in a photo who creepily looks a lot older than she is, she might be lying – and we wonder if that was something unpleasant for her) and she also falls in love with him.

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Or so she says. We are never sure if she really had any feelings for him. We get the sense that she could have planned a trap this whole time. That she knew, from the very beginning, that he was lying. Or, if she started to catch wind of his lies or got bored, she flipped the switch. The easy read on Sue Ann is that she’s a stone-cold psycho, a bad seed, but she’s also a damaged, enraged young woman with a power and a magnetism all of her own. There’s surely a reason she’s got anger. Yes, she’s mad at her mother, but Dennis becoming her new boyfriend so quickly, thinking he can manipulate her and mold her to what he wants (which will backfire on him in major way – obviously), even if she says she’s in love and wants to run away with him and all that, his attempt to trick her – this probably, deep down, really pisses her off.

Pretty Poison is also tapping into the gorgeous off-center appeal of Weld, while testing our crush on Thalia from Dobie Gillis. She holds so much more – some kind of secret – a joke or a specific knowledge, maybe arcane knowledge, that only she knew but was keeping it to herself. You just try to find out what it is. (Watch other wonderful, complex Weld performances: Soldier in the RainPlay It as It LaysWho’ll Stop the RainLooking for Mr. GoodbarOnce Upon a Time in AmericaThief, and more) Those mysterious eyes, sometimes placid sometimes excited, her curiosity, vulnerability and strength, and beauty mixed with her intelligence and, in Pretty Poison, fascinating wickedness.

Weld was (and still is) cool. You completely get why Sam Shepard, after seeing her on a talk show wrote in “Motel Chronicles:” “Tuesday Weld appeared in bare feet and a full shirt and the interviewer (I think it was David Susskind) spent the whole time putting her down for having bare feet on his show and how this was a strong indication of her neurotic immaturity and need for attention. I fell in love with Tuesday Weld on that show. I thought she was the Marlon Brando of women.”

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She does have that Marlon Brando cool and complexity – but she is a woman and to be the Marlon Brando of women in the 1960s, and particularly the late 50s and early 60s when she was a young woman and in teeny-bopper roles, probably wasn’t always easy (it’s not always easy at any age). And Weld wouldn’t come off as canned, the well trained good little girl. Nor did she appear to be trying too hard, in spite of what David Susskind apparently thought: “Look how crazy I am.” She had been through some heavy shit in her life – between her mother (if you attempt to read it – the strange, questionable “Daughter Dearest” tell-all “If It’s Tuesday….. I Must Be DEAD!” written by Samuel Veta who states that Weld’s mother, Aileen (Yosene) Ker Weld, gave her “blessing” and “narrated” and “supervised” the book, and that “much was taken from her [Ker Weld’s] daily diaries” before Ker Weld died seems only indicative of dysfunction Tuesday Weld must deal with, even beyond her mother – that this was even put out there by Veta), her relationships, her past struggles with alcohol and depression (she had discussed this in earlier interviews – she has for a long time now, remained very private), and her apparent need for freedom – this wasn’t a woman who was just playing a “bad girl.” And she wasn’t just a bad girl; she was going through turmoil.  She also had a rebellious spirit. She likely still does.

Actress Carol Lynley (Blue Denim, Bunny Lake is Missing), went to school with young Tuesday Weld and Sandra Dee – they were her friends. But as she told Dodd Darin in his book “Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee,”  Weld and Dee (a talented actress who also knew darkness and suffered many traumas herself – this could be an entire essay on its own) were very different. Dee and Weld couldn’t really gel as friends. Lynley said: “Mary [Dee’s mother] and Sandy were very much the same type of woman…. They both had full skirts and coiffed hair, and my best friend, Tuesday, and I didn’t get this at all. Tuesday had a switchblade knife when she was ten, to give you some kind of idea.”

By the time of Pretty Poison, Weld had already been presented by the press (and sometimes by herself) as a notorious Lolita figure (even though she was in her 20s by the time of Pretty Poison). George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck had toyed with this in a surprisingly transgressive cashmere orgasm scene involving her laughing-lunatic incest-ready father, Max Showalter (a gloriously insane moment). She’d even turned down Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita saying of her choice, “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”

Famously Weld turned down many roles, including Bonnie and ClydeBob & Carol & Ted & AliceRosemary’s Baby, and more). As she said in a New York Times interview with Guy Flatley, “I may be self-destructive, but I like taking chances with movies. I like challenges, and I also like the particular position I’ve been in all these years, with people wanting to save me from the awful films I’ve been in. I’m happy being a legend. I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing.”

She also said in that same interview, “Do I have hard feelings toward my mother? I hate my mother!”

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Many critics loved Pretty Poison (including Pauline Kael), but the movie made the studio nervous – it was just too strange – and it didn’t do well. Stranger than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde a year before (which Pretty Poison is often compared to). Though Pretty Poison does contain an anti-establishment bent, it doesn’t have the same kind of romance. Bonnie and Clyde came together as equals in many ways, and we could not help but fall for them, their glamour, their mythology, and we wound up rooting for them, no matter what. Pretty Poison more resembles a slight inverse of Terrence Malick’s later Badlands with Weld becoming Martin Sheen (though Weld and Perkins are less romantic, cagier, even as their chemistry is strangely perfect, just as it was later – as damaged friends in Frank Perry’s Play It as It Lays, a movie I love and wrote about here – they are magnificent, brilliant together). Weld’s Sue Ann is a little more of a Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis’s masterful Gun Crazy – she takes over – but, still, there’s no one quite like Sue Ann Stepanek. Last year, J. Hoberman wrote a terrific piece about both Pretty Poison and Gun Crazy, writing, “It’s no surprise that Gun Crazy, like Pretty Poison, attained cult status in the late 1960s when it was said that violence was as American as cherry pie.”

You see this cheery, and, as Hoberman said, “cherry pie,” craziness as Sue Ann, after she killed the night watchman, amped up on adrenaline and excitement, is all over Dennis in her cute blue convertible. But, scary for the couple, two police officers shine a light on them. What’s going on in here? She never seems terribly frightened, which makes her seem all the more dangerous. But she’s, again, taking over.

The police don’t like this guy with this young woman in the car at night and question them. So, Sue Ann drives home on her own (Sue Ann is always doing the driving) while Dennis sits in the back of a police car, downcast. What a night indeed. She’s taking them to her mother’s house – to make the police make sure it’s all OK. Mrs. Stepanek (a terrific, harsh Beverly Garland), who likes to entertain men in her house (which, as said, could be fine – Sue Ann hates it, so we wonder what kind of things she’s has had to put up with, what might stoke her anger), assures the police it’s OK.

But Mrs. Stepanek doesn’t like Dennis and didn’t like Dennis from the get-go. But she clearly doesn’t want the cops sniffing around her house or any extra trouble in her life. She also wants to take care of getting Dennis out of Sue Ann’s life, herself. “You’re one lucky kid, buster,” the cop says, annoyed they can’t bust him on anything. The cop continues, “If I were you, I’d get down on my knees to this woman.” It’s a morbidly amusing moment because, once the police leave, Mrs. Stepanek calls Sue Ann a “dumb little slut.” She looks at Dennis, and after revealing to him that she knows he had fibbed to her earlier, she snarls, “Well, what’s the matter? Don’t you have any nice lies already?” You can’t bullshit this woman. She then demands that he get out. He walks out in the night, and looks back at the house, observing the forms of Sue Ann and her mother near the door. He hears Mrs. Stepanek yell, “Why, you tramp!” She slaps Sue Ann. What does Sue Ann do? Sue Ann laughs.

It all starts rolling down and down and down after that. Almost as if Dennis knows he’s done for, but he’s just going with the dreaded flow – the flow that will land him back in the slammer.

So now Dennis is debris- flotsam – trailing in the wake of Sue Ann’s ship. After killing the guard, and showing rage for her mother, Sue Ann amps up the carnage by shooting mom, point blank, and killing her with glee. This is all too much for Dennis (he cowers in the bathroom), but he loves Sue Ann and agrees to dump the mother’s body. He doesn’t though – he goes to a payphone and calls the police, on himself.  He already knows he is doomed.

And he is right: Sue Ann is picked up and blames it all on him – easily – her lies come without a flinch, as if she’s convinced herself they’re true within minutes.

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But we see in Perkins’s emotional look at Weld – his pained but loving eyes – that Dennis still loves her, even while watching her lie, and he tells her just that as he’s carted away. In some ways it speaks to what the picture satirizes: a predatory man taking on a teenage girl, and his predation turns on him. She’s so far advanced, so much angrier than he is, and she’s likely had to shove it in her whole life, that the idea of this malleable innocent is shattered. But, more pointedly, the movie doesn’t attack Sue Ann for her lack of cliched innocence (and I think – good for her), while it shows empathy for Dennis, but it’s not endorsing him either. He’s indulging in fantasy and that cracks wide open. We wonder if he’ll create a whole fantasy life about Sue Ann when he’s locked away – one in which he’s important again.

And, yet, Dennis also seems to love Sue Ann even more for her darkness – even as he is horrified. She’s clever, her mind constantly working; she’s one step ahead (again, part of Weld’s appeal as an actress: that intelligent, darker interior, her beguiling surprises, she’s so much more and we see that instantly, even before she speaks). But how does he feel about himself loving her so much? There’s a reason why, in a fit of Raskolnikovian guilt and dread, Dennis later flashes back to that image of her splashing in the water on the dead man’s back – he’s terrified and probably a little turned on, and he probably feels guilty for being turned on. That wasn’t fantasy, that moment, that was real.

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In some ways, Weld’s Sue Ann isn’t just pretty poison, she’s what lies underneath America’s heartland – the fantasy, to bring that up again – where pretty, blonde high school girls are supposed to be “good” but were not, are not, and should not have to be.

Sue Ann could be read as a reflection of the late 1960s “good” girl turning towards the counter-culture – the good girl going wild or giving the finger to the system. But there’s also direct, real female anger here, thanks to Weld’s performance, who fearlessly, mercurially, plays Sue Ann without trying to make her likable. She gets the humor, and she gets the rage, the madness -sometimes flowing within these emotions in a single scene – and she gets how people are much more terrified by a young woman acting this way. Norman Bates famously said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Sue Ann would agree, shrug, laugh – and then clean up the blood before taking her history exam.

How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?

Originally published at the New Beverly


Lizabeth Scott & Too Late For Tears

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A somewhat short riff on Too Late for Tears... 

“I let you in because, well, housewives can get awfully bored sometimes…”

“What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you.” So asks Arthur Kennedy’s upright husband to Lizabeth Scott’s kinked, cryptic wife in Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, a movie as much about one woman suffering her own private hell (infernal boredom with the late 1940’s bonds of traditional marriage, a disgust with patronizing rich people) as it is about a coveted bag of loot. And of course, murder – murder enacted by this “femme fatale” who hides her new furs in the place her husband wouldn’t look and she likely loathes – the kitchen. (He, in fact, finds them and confronts her, and this is where I wonder if he spends more time in the kitchen than she does – which makes me like him more) But she’s not hiding her luxury pieces because she bought them with just his money. The money, in many ways, is her money. Money that quite literally dropped into her lap (dropped into the back seat of her car). Money he is nervous about. Money he didn’t earn. Money she wants to keep. Money that, for her, means freedom from convention. Money means security and fun. For her. He views it with understandable apprehension. He states: “I just don’t understand you,” and you ask yourself if he ever did.

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The movie opens with Kennedy’s Alan and Scott’s Jane driving to a swanky get together one evening in Los Angeles. Jane, cool and beautiful and at times otherworldly in that distinct and timeless Lizabeth Scott way (she’s both dreamy-eyed and steely, rough voiced and soft, vulnerable and determinedly self-sufficient, smart as hell and spacey), objects to attending. Why? She’s says why. And she's pretty honest about it.

Jane: I... I tried to tell you before we left home. I... I just don't like being patronized, that's all. I... I don't think I can take another evening of it.

Alan: Patronized? Oh, sweetheart, Ralph is one of the nicest guys I...

Jane: You know it isn't Ralph. It's his diamond-studded wife, looking down her nose at me like... like her big ugly house up there looks down on Hollywood. Please. I'm just not going. Slow down and find a place to turn.

Alan: Oh, Jane, you're crazy. Alice likes you.

Jane: Please, Alan. I mean it. I'm just not going.

They don’t go to that "patronizing" party because at that very moment, as Jane physically attempts to get him to turn the car around, a bag of loot is thrown into the back of their car by a mysterious sender. God? The devil? Whoever it is -- of all the good luck. And bad luck. When Jane discovers their devil-god-given bounty, she takes charge in a way that befuddles her husband and delights the viewer (we can’t help it  -- Scott makes her such a strange pleasure). Alan never saw this side of her before? He knows her financial frustrations, but what the hell does he think his wife does all day while he’s at work? Stare at recipes of meatloaf? Gleefully chat with his sister who lives next door? It’s not that you don’t feel for Alan, you do (and especially up to the point where she does him in – in one of those little boats in Westlake Park). And as Alan watches Jane becoming more and more obsessive, you start sensing a fatalism in him too. Not just because of her, but because of what he’s supposed to mean as a man— and as a provider. Or, perhaps, what he’s supposed to mean as a good person. Alan wants to report the money to the police, and Jane wants to keep it. So, when the two return home, managing to get past the real recipients and the cops, they empty out the estimated 100 thousand on the bed. Alan is concerned. Jane is practically orgasmic with all of that green luxuriating on the sheets. Surely, to her, this is a more exciting action than anything she’s ever seen or done on that mattress.

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And then Dan Duryea shows up… Not right then but a few days later. Duryea’s Danny walks into Jane’s apartment and starts asking far too many questions -- but she maintains her cool. He takes in lovely Jane and as he gets to know her (or thinks he gets to know her) and begins gathering information that her husband may be cluelessly unaware of – that this lady is crooked, perhaps evil (maybe discontent?). Danny likes it. It gets him going. But Too Late for Tears (written by Roy Huggins from his serialized Saturday Evening Post novel) doesn’t cook up some rote hot-to-trot attraction between them. Never do we think Jane ever gets off on the bad boy sexuality of Danny, instead, she senses something else in him – weakness, depression, that’s he’s not as much the bad boy as he looks. And he’s not. Danny may come in all Duryea sleazy-cool, rolling his menacing words like a verbal cocked eyebrow, but you wind up feeling heartbroken for him thanks to Duryea’s vulnerable, moving performance. He’s two-bit, desperate, he drinks too much and he’s messed up even before he met Jane. He’s not even that great of a crook. We watch him unravel as he’s bettered by Jane time and again until he collapses, poisoned by her in his crummy little apartment. His female neighbor, maybe sometimes lover (we wonder – she seems to care more about him than anyone else does), doesn’t even assume foul play as the cops question her.  She exclaims: “He killed himself. Oh, God have mercy on him."  She cries. He didn’t kill himself, but in the fatalistic world of Too Late for Tears, he kind of did.

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Which leads us back to Jane. She’s high tailed it to Mexico. I haven’t even mentioned the annoying man following her (played by Don DeFore – the most unlikable “good” guy and no one you care about) who knows her even deeper secret (that she murdered her first husband before Alan). I like to block that guy out because, honestly, you are, at this point, rooting for Jane.  Maybe you're not supposed to, but I think the movie actually knows this, in spite of how bad she is. How many women, especially when this film was released (1949) yearned to run away from home with 100K? And today, the viewer is asking similar questions – wouldn’t we be tempted by dirty money thrown into our car? At least for a second? Jane is murderous, yes, and we take a moment to lament when Alan and especially sad Danny are disposed of, but the remarkable Lizabeth Scott is such an intriguing presence, so diabolical, yet so dazed, so elusive, but so understandably disgruntled – a woman whom men want to mold as either the perfect wife or the perfect femme fatale (Danny coos: “Don't ever change, tiger. I don't think I'd like you with a heart.”) – that we cheer for her to smash all of those male preconceptions she's been saddled with. She’s all herself and she’s all she’s got. And so, in spite of her evil deeds, we want her to make it in Mexico. Seeing her in a nice hotel, in her elegant gown, gorgeous and in charge, with a new gentleman on her arm (she declines any nighttime offer – there is a suitcase of money upstairs after all), we think, for a moment, “Jane has made it! She made it!” We know she's going to eventually suffer for it, so we give ourselves that moment to allow Jane her freedom, even if she's done such terrible things. 

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The picture swirls into a mad melodramatic dreamscape that, to me, becomes a kind of allegory of one housewife’s single-minded attempt to bust out of the binding expectations placed on her. I once compared the picture’s ending to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, in which another damn suitcase aids in the protagonist’s downfall. But Sterling Hayden, watching his money fly all over the tarmac, looks at it and says “Eh, what’s the difference?” Scott, instead, trips over her’s and tumbles off the hotel room terrace. It’s shocking and yet graceful.  She’s not watching the green fly away with the fatalistic acceptance of Hayden – no – she goes down together with it. She goes down with what she loves. At least she went down with that. And even in death, she creates a gorgeous tableau: clad in an evening gown, smashed on the cement, but looking like an angel, there is all of that money, her money, falling around her like snow. What’s the difference? She’s not getting married again, that’s for sure.


Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 

Pynchon:

"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...


Always Try: Jacques Demy's Model Shop

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Originally published at The New Beverly

“He rushed out and rented a white convertible, and he’d drive around L.A. He’d call and say, ‘It’s a dream here!’” – Agnès Varda on her husband Jacques Demy in Los Angeles

In Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old unemployed architect, drives. It’s 1968 in Los Angeles (1969 when the movie was released), and he drives and drives and drives – the movie loves to watch him drive (and some of us love to watch him drive) – he drives all through the city – at day, at night. He listens to classical music, rock, and the news on his car radio, mostly about the Vietnam War. Sometimes he drives silent, only the traffic sounds and the wind in his ears. Sitting at the wheel of his vintage M.G. convertible (on the verge of being repossessed) he’s both running away from and towards … something. Some injurious future – he would like to avoid what he views as possible soul-crushing employment or even death (the draft is hanging over him) – and he would like to experience something fulfilling and new, exciting – love? Creation? Keep driving.

The driving matches his mental state, which is not aimless exactly (though his live-in aspiring actress girlfriend played by Alexandra Hay would probably disagree – she is not happy with him at the beginning of the film and their relationship, understandably, is falling apart). But all of this driving is maybe more like searching, wondering what the hell is going to happen, and at the end, as he says himself, trying. And so, he drives. And within this movie that occurs in 24 hours of this young man’s life – he seems to be driving through half of it. This driving is his mental state, and this is Los Angeles. He is full of undefined longing. As Joan Didion wrote, “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

You get the feeling George is filled with both – exhilaration in bursts (when the geography of the place inspires him) and an amorphous unease – there are young men and women and bright lights and music and sun all around him, but there’s darkness clinging to every inch of it all. Attraction – a beautiful, dream-like woman in white driving a long white convertible – lulls him out of his torpor. She stands stark and elegant and somewhat a bit out of time and place, but there’s something sad about her – you feel it instantly. Does George as well? You get a sense he does, which makes him more intrigued, more magnetized. George, then, reflects more how Didion continued on her thought:  “There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness.”

Yes, there is that. The seductive. The unconnected. But one reason these hours at the wheel of the automobile are so seductive is the yearning to connect the unconnected. There is something about driving in Los Angeles, driving anywhere in the city, that is formless, yet full of stories – stories within nooks and crannies of shuttered movie theaters or old restaurants or old Hollywood haunts and houses and apartments and hopping club venues. Ghosts haunt the city. That can be unsettling and wonderful and sometimes both at the same time.

But also – the others – the passengers and drivers in the other cars: their stories, their stares, and their own loneliness. Some days it seems it’s a city of, mostly, single passenger cars. It’s often a gorgeous, fascinating city. But there are days where it feels – taking in the sunshine and breathing in the air – chemically off – as in your brain chemicals. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly – those certain days that feel strange yet beautiful, light and dark, but listening to L.A.-made music by the band Love (especially 1967’s “Forever Changes”) or the Beach Boys’ 1966’s “Pet Sounds,” sweeps me into that state of haunted beauty, darkness within sunshine, the enigmatic nature of it, the complexity.

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And so, the woman in white, almost spectral at first, carries a lot more with her than he (he being George) or the viewer might have anticipated – she has a past. And for anyone familiar with Demy, her presence is deepened by her backstory – here in the movie and here in Demy’s work – which seem to swirl together in a personal, tender reverie. With much of Demy, we feel a bittersweet heartache, connections made by chance and often, love that was not returned and, of course, waiting. Driving is a lot of waiting. Making movies is a lot of waiting too.

And sometimes – making movies – you don’t get the person you yearned for – in this case, it was Harrison Ford instead of Gary Lockwood (I think Lockwood is really good here). Columbia didn’t see it and felt Lockwood (after his role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001), was more suitable. The movie didn’t do well regardless – and has become either a curio or something of a cult film for either Demy-philes, or those simply intrigued by taking in late 1960s Los Angeles – because you see so much of it, you feel its vibe, and you wish a lot of it was still around. But how different this movie might have been received or regarded with Ford? And what to think of Demy’s possible career in Hollywood? Or Ford’s alternate one? One might assume it would have been different. And would Demy have made his superb Donkey Skin?  We’ll never know. And, so, Harrison Ford is even imprinted on the movie, if you know the backstory to it. As Ford tells it in Agnès Varda’s documentary The World of Jacques Demy, he spent time location scouting with Demy, and he and the director did indeed go to a model shop (on Santa Monica Blvd – the exterior painted DayGlo). According to Ford, Demy recreated the interior quite accurately, as you saw it (but, I’m going to assume, with Demy’s visual flair and added color), and he talked about the long narrow corridor they walked down to meet their model – it was painted black. And that they were both shy.

So, here’s Lola (Anouk Aimée) working at such a place. A French woman in Los Angeles, she doesn’t have her work visa, and can only find employment at one of those model shops – a place where men pay by the quarter half hour or half-hour to take pictures of women scantily clad or, obviously, nude (or maybe more if the price is right). So close and yet, so far-distanced by a machine-possessed only in image, a lens and, in a way, defining the only way Demy could capture and enshrine a mysterious and perhaps confusing kind of love at first sight – via his own camera.

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Lola carries a whole past with her, of course, everyone does, but she also carries an entire Demy movie. Two movies, in fact (three if you want to count where her brooding paramour of 1961 ends up – Cherbourg). The foundational movie is, quite appropriately, Lola, Demy’s sublime first picture released in 1961, starring Aimée as Lola, in which Lola worked singing and dancing at a cabaret in Nantes, France, hoping for her great love (and father to her seven-year-old son) to return.

It’s richly rewarding to find all of the inter-connectivity in Demy’s work, so much that you dig for it throughout his movies, afraid you might have missed one reference, one recurring character (and indeed, I may have). It puts you, the viewer, right in his mindset, wondering and longing to assemble what is an intimate fresco of memories or dreams. In Lola, Aimée is much cheerier and more smiling and girlish, while harboring the sadness of waiting for Michel (Jacques Harden). There are imprints of both Michel and young Lola in Aimée’s Lola of Model Shop – she wears a similar white sheath dress, out with a man smitten, here it’s George (in Lola, it’s Roland, played by Marc Michel, who will then fall for Deneuve’s heartbroken and waiting-for-another, Geneviève in Umbrellas of Cherbourg). And then there’s the white convertible she drives. Her beloved Michel opens Lola looking very American in all white clothing including a white Stetson hat and driving a long white convertible Cadillac through Nantes while Lola is not yet aware, he has returned. At the end of Lola, the two reunite and drive off together in that long white Cadillac as lovelorn Roland, sadly walks to a different future.

But as we’ll learn near the end of Model Shop, Lola and Michel will not make it. They will divorce. He’ll fall for another – a gambler in Las Vegas named Jackie Demaistre – from Demy’s second film, Bay of Angels, in which Jackie is played by a tough, but sad-eyed, vulnerable bottled blonde Jeanne Moreau. She, too, is a mother (divorced), going through life at a roulette wheel. Jackie plays with chance, perhaps as a way to control it. In Demy’s universe, chance influences so much of our lives.

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In something like chance, George spies Lola at, of all perfect places within this movie, a parking lot. He’s managed to drive off the repo man for the time being – but only if he can secure 100 dollars to pay off his car loan. He asks a friend who works as a parking attendant for some dough – the friend declines, nicely, since George already owes him money. But there he sees Lola, and follows her (some might view this as creepy), and driving on Sunset he turns to drive up a hill, and finds Lola driving to one of those swanky residences up in the hills – Lola is off to a mysterious meeting or appointment of some kind. She knocks and enters this house. We never know who it is or why or what is happening inside. George sits in his car and then gets out, taking in the view, the sprawling geography of Los Angeles looking beautiful and lonely but full of possibility. He drives away. He picks up a hitchhiker (she rolls a joint – rather expertly as the grass impossibly doesn’t fly out all over the place – and hands it to George for the ride). He deposits her down on Sunset. She walks away – and this being a Demy movie, we almost wonder if she’ll return in some way – she doesn’t. He drives to another friend’s place – the house where the band Spirit practice and live (another imprint of the real invading movie life – this is the actual band who also provide the atmospheric soundtrack for the movie – the gorgeous, melancholic opening tune “Fog” will really stick with you).

These guys are excited about their new record – they have a purpose George doesn’t seem to have, not immediately anyway – and so, here, we see, not burned-out hippies, but men actually creating and achieving. (We wonder what might be in a few more years – the 1970s are upon all of these characters) George sits with Spirit’s lead singer, Jay Ferguson, as he plays a new song on the piano. There’s something really lovely about this moment – watching George listen, and the look on Lockwood’s face is unsmiling but thoughtful – if you really look at him during this scene, you really feel for him. Jay says, “I haven’t got the words down yet. But I know what I want them to do. I’d like them to be sort of a personal testimony: the insanity of this world. I don’t know. It’s really far out. But, if I could just get it down, like it is in my head.” (A relatable creative desire if there ever was one). Jay asks George what he’s up to; if he’s still at his old job. George says he couldn’t take it anymore; it was wasting him and he tells him he’s broke. He asks (he says he feels weird about it) for 100 bucks. Jay generously gives it to him, smiling and telling him not to worry about it because everything is “going great for us” – his band. Jay is really sweet. It’s touching. Jay asks what he’s up to, what’s next for him:

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“I don’t know. I’m not gonna give up architecture really want to create something. I just can’t seem to wait out the 15 or 20 years it takes to establish your reputation and then for what? To design service stations and luxury motels? (laughs) I keep going around in circles I guess, trying to find out what the choices are, wasting a lot of time. Like this morning (laughs) – I did an incredible thing. I was in my car and I started to follow this …  uh nothing. It’s not very interesting.”

Jay presses that it is interesting and to tell him. George says:

“I was driving down Sunset, and I turned on one of those roads that leads up into the hills – and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place; it’s conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city. And to think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then, create something. You know what I mean?”

There is the exhilaration Didion spoke of – and George, rather poignantly, opening up to his friend about it. He really loves the city – he’s not cynical or hardened or beaten down by it yet. He’s not felt the deep darkness via the terrors of 1969 Los Angeles yet (chiefly, Manson), but there’s a lingering dread nonetheless. I suppose some found this scene (as well as others), corny or earnest, or “too European,” but I find it moving, particularly in that George (via Demy) is sticking up for Los Angeles. Already at this point, Los Angeles was a city people professed to hate, smudged with smog and a hollow Hollywood dream (of course there is so much more to Los Angeles than Hollywood – if people and certainly cynical visitors would actually drive around more, and take in neighborhoods – they might understand the city’s history and multi-cultural population). This persists – this tired Alvy Singer thought, that Los Angeles’s only “cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light…” Not true – about the cultural advantage, the right on red is valid and damn crucial if you’ve ever spent time driving in this place.

In the excellent, essential essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen discusses Model Shop and says he took issue with it when he was younger, not for its love of Los Angeles, but for its limited terrain. But, apparently, with time, he came to find the film moving. As he stated, “Jacques Demy loved Los Angeles as only a tourist can, or maybe I should say, as only a French tourist can. I resented Model Shop when it came out because it was a West Side movie. Its vision of the city didn’t extend east of Vine Street. But now I can appreciate an early poignant Los Angeles, a city. It’s totally incoherent, but if you live here, you have to be moved.” As I’ve said, it is moving. And if you don’t live here, you can be moved as well.

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Demy relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a time – and he really got into the place. With the success of his third movie, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (also nominated for four other Oscars – Best Song, Best Original Score, Best Scoring – Adaptation or Treatment and Best Screenplay), Columbia Pictures called, and Demy took it. (Before Model Shop, he had also directed another sublime musical,  The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in 1967 – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture) And so, he, with his wife, the brilliant filmmaker Agnès Varda (Model Shop should also be viewed with Varda’s impressive work made in Los Angeles – among them, 1967’s Uncle Yanco, 1968’s Black Panthers, 1969’s LIONS LOVE (…AND LIES), 1981’s Mur Murs), they found inspiration all over the place – fell hard for it. And like Lockwood’s George, they would drive.

As Varda said, “We had a convertible car. We were playing the game. Then I would drive. I would take Pico and go from the ocean to downtown. I would do Sunset Boulevard that turns a lot. I would do all the streets – Venice Boulevard, etc. I was impressed, absolutely impressed.” Demy spoke of driving as well, and how driving in Los Angeles was in and of itself cinematic: “I learned the city by driving – from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. L.A. has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”

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You see this in Model Shop’s opening shot – set next to George’s Venice Beach home (with an oil rig out front) – Demy films a majestic crane pull back on a camera car as Spirit’s “Fog” plays, and we take in the location and atmosphere of Venice, riding along smoothly with the camera. It’s already automobilized, and it serves a vehicular connection to the opening shots of Lola and Bay of Angels. With Bay of Angels (one can’t help but think, now, as we watch Model Shop, of the City of Angels) the camera executes a vertiginous, virtuoso pull back from Jeanne Moreau walking the boardwalk in Nice, Michel Legrand’s music soaring until we no longer see her, and the city flies by. In Lola, a white Cadillac drives into the frame, a man in white gets out of the car and looks at the sea. He jumps back in, and the camera does a similar crane pullback (albeit much shorter) as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony plays. With Lola, we see the man in white actually driving the car, and the camera is then mounted on the back, we follow the Stetson-hatted man, eyeing his view. All three movies seem to be taking in surroundings via car (in Lola, most directly), and with music, and it’s so beautiful; so, stirring. Demy’s oblique visual rhyming between the three movies deepens the poignancy. He loved camera movement and music and Max Ophuls (Lola is dedicated to the great Ophuls), and he used all of this love in such a personal way. There is such coveting and longing and missing in the cinema of Demy, making vehicles a perfect encapsulation of this notion – cars and people are in some ways, to use the time-worn Longfellow phrase, ships that pass in the night, only there’s much more connection than we may have thought.

George drives back up to that swanky house in the hills and, this time boldly rings the doorbell.  He asks about the woman who was there earlier, this morning, and the response from inside is – there was no woman here: “nobody came.” As if George saw a ghost. He leaves. He drives again, this time stopping to get a hamburger. By coincidence, he sees the woman in white walking down the street – he leaves his hamburger behind and follows her. She walks into the model shop, and he follows. Inside it’s all red velvet wallpaper with pink curtains and violet paint, black and white photos of models on the wall. A blonde woman in a mini skirt and black boots sits on the couch, watching the T.V., barely noticing him. She nicely hands him a photo album – he can pick his girl – and he comes across Lola. He picks her. It’s a bit creepy and sad and all too easy – you feel for Lola and how vulnerable she is. You wonder if he thinks the same, but he’s stone-faced, probably out of nerves, like young Harrison Ford and Jacques Demy before him. He gets the lowdown – you rent the girl 20 dollars for a half hour, 12 dollars for 15 minutes, six exposures of film, camera and film included. He picks 12 dollars (he just borrowed 100 bucks; you are very aware of George’s relationship with dough right now). A guy older than George in a suit and loose tie comes out with his camera, turning it in after his session. He looks more like the type you’d imagine would haunt this kind of place in 1968 – a guy more of the 1950s, an Irving Klaw enthusiast. The place is never presented as sordid, but certainly detached, and not exactly George’s scene. Demy neither romanticizes the place nor insults it or the women there – it’s just work. And when George is alone in the room with Lola, the exchange is realistically awkward, even a bit lifeless.

He doesn’t really attempt to talk to her, he doesn’t really act like a man who is smitten, he seems sour, disappointed even, but he takes all six photos, Lola posing however she likes because he doesn’t care what she does. It’s all very chaste, Lola mostly wrapping herself in her fluffy robe. It feels off seeing either of them in this place – George is more at home in his car and Lola seems like she should be anywhere else, dancing, smiling, not just posing – if we’ve already seen Demy’s Lola, we are wondering about where she lives, where her son is, if she’s happy. What happened to Michel? If we haven’t seen Lola we just find it even more mysterious. When George is down to his last shot, the conversation goes:

Lola:  You have only one left. If you want me to do anything…

George: I like what I’ve got.

Lola: You don’t seem particularly interested in photography.

George: I’m not. I’m more interested in you. Besides, I don’t think the guys who come here give a damn for the art of photography, do they?

Lola: I don’t judge the customers. It’s not my concern.

George: It’s kind of degrading work, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Lola: To make my living… But I don’t like this word, “degrading.” After all, I don’t know what YOU do, to make your living.

George: Me? Nothing, right now.

Lola: Then you don’t run the risk of degrading yourself by working.

George: You’re French.

Lola: As you can hear.

George: I followed you this morning.

Lola: Yes, I know… Good-bye.

George: Good-bye.

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Good-bye. And that is that. He doesn’t reach out to her, doesn’t ask for her number, more about her life, nothing. Part of this seems like a good idea – he shouldn’t bother this woman – he shouldn’t walk in and ask aloud if what she does is degrading. But he’ll learn and he’ll think more. George seems slightly surprised by his actions, albeit in a low key way. Demy shows George leave, driving again, taking the film to the designated place on Selma Ave. He drives to extend his car payments (he needs to pay by that night, or his car will be taken away the next morning). He drives more and then winds up at his friend’s alternative newspaper, where they offer him some work. (His friends are so damn nice) “I got the draft hanging over my head, makes it kind of tough to plan anything,” George says. The men discuss the draft, their status within it, and the Vietnam War, and you think anything “heavy” that is said in this picture, well, it’s understandable with this kind of worry darkening these young men, who are trying to smile and laugh it off as much as they can. But not all of them can. And then George calls home, borrows money from his mother (whom he clearly loves) and learns from his dad (whom he clearly does not relate to) what has been hanging over him – that his draft notice has come.

Will George see Lola again? Indeed, he will, as he ventures back to the model shop and finally asks her out. One of the reasons? One he says, anyway? They both share a love for Los Angeles. Lola says she is leaving, anxious to return to France, but admits she will miss the city, that she loves Los Angeles. George says, “Well, that’s surprising, you know, most people hate it. Well, now, there’s two of us that like it. And that’s a good enough reason to get on out and have a drink, isn’t it? When the two meet in the parking lot, their cars vertical to one another, they share some of their life story. How old they are (or around how old they are), what they’re up to, what they came from, and what they are, or are not looking forward to. George, the dismal draft, and Lola (stage name – her real name is Cecile, she tells him), she yearns to see her son whom she’s not seen in two years. He’s about 14 now. It’s a beautiful scene, all the more affecting that that they open up via car – it jives beautifully with Demy’s vehicular lyricism, and we wonder if they would have only opened up while sitting behind the wheels of their convertibles. It shows how cars are not necessarily disconnecting; there’s a feeling of protection that makes one feel safe to utter things they may not have said. So much so that George tells Lola that he loves her.

“You’re very nice. And what you say is very moving. But you don’t know me at all,” a very sweet but tentative Lola says. She wisely understands that he just needs someone – perhaps it’s not just her. He becomes defensive, particularly about the kind of life she lives (she sees this as insulting – it is), but boy, does he not get how much more Lola knows about life and love than he does. But by the time the movie closes, I think he will get it. And he’ll, actually, truly, love her as a person, not as something he needs.

George and Lola will go to Lola’s place and talk more. Here, Aimée is absolutely lovely and heart-rending, showing George pictures of her past (pictures straight out of the movie Lola) – of her ex-husband, Michel, of her former lover, a sailor (also from Lola) whom she intended to catch up with in Chicago, but found out he died in Vietnam. You spy Roland in a photo, but she says nothing of him, but you also see a French magazine with Catherine Deneuve on the cover – Roland’s future. She talks about Michel leaving her for Bay of Angels’ Jackie and how depressed she was. How she has given up on love. It’s such a beautiful performance, and with the imprints of Demy, his movies and Aimee’s Lola (“Lola in L.A.” Varda called in in The World of Jacques Demy) deepening this woman who works at something so simply called a “model shop.” You never know who you might drive up next to in a parking lot in Los Angeles, and George has just found a woman of multitudes. They spend the night together, and George gives her his last bit of dough to help pay for her trip to France. When he returns home, his girlfriend is leaving him (all for the best – even if she is supposedly going to sell out, you don’t not feel for her either) and he’s hoping to see Lola one more time. He calls up her place but her roommate informs him she’s already left. George (and Lockwood especially) is really poignant at this moment. Lola may have given up on love, but she does not believe in giving up on trying, and that really sticks with George. He says to her roommate:

“I just wanted to tell her that I loved her. I just wanted her to know that I wanted to try to begin again. You know what I mean? That I was, I just wanted her to know that I was going to try. Yeah, it sounds stupid, doesn’t it. But, I can, you know. I mean, I personally can. Always try, you know. Yeah, always try. Yeah, always try.”

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Much of Demy’s work is concerned with similar thematic elements: the near misses of love, the aching, longing nature of our solitude and the casual destruction of our destiny by the arbitrary intervention of a superstructure: morals, conventions or the military draft to fight a war that feels alien or downright wrong to us. He seems to really believe in love, or the hope of love or the transforming, musical exaltations of love (and pain), and he believes in trying. Driving forward? Perhaps, within the steel and glass, rolling alongside us in a busy, deceitfully sunny freeway is the very soul that could redeem us from this world and ourselves.

At the end of Model Shop, you see outside of George’s house – his car is, finally, being towed away. And we wonder what George will do now – regarding the draft, regarding his wheels. He takes his freedom very seriously and he loves to drive…  What now? We’re not sure. But we do hope he will drive, again, with his own car, wherever he wants to go. And that he will, indeed, try …. “Yeah, always try.”

From my New Beverly piece.


My Criterion Essay on Jean Arthur

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"She was a nonconformist too . . . a believer in her own intuition. Intuition, that’s what Joan’s voices were. She never killed anybody. She just wanted everybody to go home and mind their own business.” -- Jean Arthur on Joan of Arc

Up now! My Criterion essay on one of my favorite actresses -- the complex, charming, beautiful, funny, serious and seriously smart iconoclastic, Jean Arthur -- a fascinating actress and woman of duality and depth -- for Criterion's Jean Arthur series currently playing on their Channel

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Read my essay here:


Sinatra in a Small Town: Suddenly

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Originally published at The New Beverly

Suddenly is a sleepy little 1950s town that’s a stand-in for any kind of sleepy little 1950s town in the U.S.A.  Not much happens in Suddenly, to the point where residents seem a little bored with life, enough to feel either half-awake or, combustible.

Like any town populated with humans, there’s an underlying threat – often from within themselves: Lust, violence, madness – you feel it creeping – the shadow around the corner on those sunny Anytown, U.S.A. streets. Nothing can be so wholesome and so golly-gee and so clean. Nothing ever is. A little boy wants a cap gun, a sheriff wants love from the little boy’s attractive widowed mother, the widow doesn’t seem to want any of it. That’s pretty normal, but when the widow, still bereft over her husband, who died in the Korean War (hence, her understandable hatred of guns and violence and war movies and men taking up her personal space in the market), denies the sheriff – presumably, a man she’s dating – he states dramatically and rather morbidly: “You’re digging a big black pit and shoving us all down into it.”

When a motorist passes through Suddenly, he asks a police officer about the town’s unique name. He inquires: “Suddenly, what?” as if words need to follow. The police officer, chirpy and wise-cracking enough, tells the man that the town’s name is a “hangover from the old days.” The town once offered excitement – even illicit, violent excitement – and the cop seems a little proud of that. The officer continues: “That’s the way things used to happen here – suddenly. Road agents, gambler, gunfighters …  Things happen so slow now the town council is figuring to change the name to Gradually.”

That exchange happened before we meet the widow, the boy and the sheriff and it’s clearly a portent of things to come in this movie, called Suddenly – things that come not so gradually when a skinny, blue-eyed psycho enters the picture. I wonder if David Lynch saw this movie, what with the corny jokes and the small-town wholesomeness, evil lurking right around the corner. The police officer appears, perhaps, bored with the town, but the sheriff is fixated on the possibility of violence; of dark forces, and how one must combat them. (I kept waiting for the sheriff to utter something Twin Peaks’ Sheriff Harry S. Truman would say: “There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.”)

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The sheriff is Tod Shaw (the great Sterling Hayden – likable and commanding, and just a little wonderfully off, he often appears to know more than what he’s letting on, or grappling with things far more existential than we may realize), whose feelings for widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) are laid out there for God and everyone to see. He simply tells her he’s in love with her. He’s also gone way too far by buying her son, Pidge (Kim Charney), a cap pistol, entirely against her wishes. He’s attempting to push his views on her about boys growing into men and understanding when violence is necessary, when he may need to defend himself, that kind of thing. “You can’t wrap the boy in cellophane.” He urges. A pacifist, she’s not buying any of this, but Tod persists: “When a house is on fire everybody has to help put it out. Because the next time it might be your house!” These officers of the law are practically willing what will happen.

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What will happen, and, soon, is the aforementioned skinny blue-eyed psycho showing up in his impeccable fedora with his thugs, posing as the FBI. It’s a big day in Suddenly among those who know – the President of the United States is riding through on train, stopping off to take a car to his destination – a fishing vacation. Ellen and her father, retired secret service agent, “Pop” Benson (James Gleason) are busy in their house, arguing about how to raise Pidge (Pop thinks she’s overprotective and lectures her, morbidly: “There’s cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can’t make believe they aren’t there. And Pidge has got to learn what is the law and what isn’t the law so he can defend it.”). Another typical day in the Benson house – working on the broken television set and arguing about Pidge’s exposure to the vicious, malevolent world (side note: the television set will become an instrument of violence). And now, this is the second man in Ellen’s life to practically summon the fedora-wearing psycho, John Baron (Frank Sinatra) to invade their home and prove their point.

The Benson house is situated in a place with a terrific vantage point to see the president disembark from the train, and we’ll soon learn that Baron has been hired to assassinate the president (For whom? He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care, he just cares about money. He also enjoys killing). And, so, things get really dark, really fast. After Tod happily drops in with Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey), who is leading the secret service team deployed in Suddenly (Carney used to work with Pop – he wants to say hello), Baron breaks his cover and kills Carney. He injures Tod’s arm and threatens to murder Pidge. He then takes everyone hostage. At this point, well, I think Pidge has now had his exposure to violence. Tod? Pop? Is that enough for you?

But it’s not going to stop there.

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Directed by Lewis Allen, Suddenly is a tense and claustrophobic, and sometimes strange experience (and sometimes questionable – there’s a lot to wonder why Baron wouldn’t just kill everyone right away but, apparently, he enjoys an audience) with a crazy-eyed, grinning Frank Sinatra taking over the movie. It’s a powerful, enthralling performance, one of Sinatra’s best (he really should have played more villains), in which the character’s Napoleon complex insecurities (and bad upbringing – his parents were both drunks) are on full display, weakening him with his need to talk. Creeps like him often need to talk and brag and undo themselves and Hayden’s sheriff smells it the moment Sinatra starts gabbing. Unlike other domestic hostage movies, such as The Desperate Hours or He Ran All the Way, in which Humphrey Bogart has his own kind of appeal and John Garfield is attractive and downright sympathetic, there’s nothing attractive about this guy (aside from Sinatra just looking cool and beautifully tailored), and, even with his hard childhood, there’s very little that’s sympathetic either.

Allen knew that Sinatra would be the center of this picture, not the leading man, but the star, and he lights him and shoots him (alongside cinematographer Charles G. Clarke) with great care – all others staged to revolve around him. It’s an intriguing stylization, both real and dreamlike – Sinatra, much smaller and slighter than Sterling Hayden (which isn’t hard – Hayden was 6’5”), appears, at times, diminutive, all mad dog bark, but he’s got bite. Even if Hayden looks like he could just casually swipe one paw and bump him across the room, Sinatra remains threatening.

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Sinatra also steps up to the camera- right up to the lens, in fact – nearly looking into it – an unsettling, confessional act, almost breaking the fourth wall – it’s stagey but captivating almost as if he’s trying to take it the viewer hostage too (“It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it,” indeed). His nerviness, his suit, his hat (which he takes off maybe only once in the film – when he first enters the house, and then never removes) places a certain style, an big-city menace to the Norman Rockwell-esque America held hostage here – his very presence making the picture more cinematic.

Around this time, movie director Allen was starting with his long career directing television (“Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Route 66,” “Perry Mason,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Detectives” and many, many more, though he was still making movies, A Bullet for Joey, IllegalAnother Time, Another Place and Whirlpool followed Suddenly), and you can see how well-suited he is for the medium. You also see his clear filmic talent and his staging skills, which he acquired in the theater – the place he started from (Suddenly feels adapted from a play even if it wasn’t). Englishman Allen transitioned into movies in the early 1940s, and in 1944 and he directed his first feature film, which is largely considered his greatest film and one of the greatest of the genre – the beautifully crafted and genuinely scary ghost story, The Uninvited. He made some comedies, but his strength, from what I’ve seen, was in suspense and melodrama.

Two of his best pictures, for me, next to The Uninvited, are the blazing technicolor film noir, Desert Fury, starring Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor, and So Evil My Love, a gaslight noir featuring a wicked Ray Milland. Another dark, interesting picture is Appointment with Danger, starring Alan Ladd as a cynical U.S. Postal Inspector who spits misanthropic lines to a nun he’s protecting with almost comedic affect (“When a cop dies they don’t list it as heart failure, it’s a charley horse of the chest,” he says). Whatever drove the director (when discussing his career in a 1997 interview he said, “That was the way of the studios. You took whatever they gave you … From the time I came to Hollywood, I was never out of a job. The William Morris office treated me as one of their pet directors, and there was always a job for me. When they couldn’t get a movie for me, they got TV.”) he excelled in stories featuring seriously dysfunctional relationships, creating a tense, sometimes gorgeously atmospheric setting and getting some fine performances out of actors.

The aesthetics of Suddenly aren’t immediately evident – it could be described as nice-looking and workmanlike – but there are many compositions that are striking – any time Sinatra frames the window or just stands in the middle of the set – actors orbiting around him – the leanness of his scarred face.  Remarkable.

Suddenly falls in the more hard-boiled realm of Appointment with Danger or one of Allen’s later, lean and mean The Rifleman episodes, but it has traces of gaslight noir, even if unintentional, as the men here are all incredibly manipulative towards Ellen (the poor woman hears enough about understanding violence from the sheriff and her pop, and even Sinatra, who at one point, dares her to shoot him with his gun – knowing she won’t… until she has to).

I don’t think that Allen bought the artificial gee-willikers attitude of the town, making the darkness presented here fascinating in terms of Eisenhower America. Though people discussed such things in the 50s and some movies discussed gun violence (like George Stevens’ Shane), the characters are having the kind of arguments one would hear more openly in the 1960s – about pacifism and duty towards your country. That kind of talk makes Ellen, in this world, a traitor, possibly even a communist.  Pop admonishes her peace talk so much that he says her deceased husband would be “ashamed” of her. Jesus, Pop. Ease up.

But of course, the movie ends with a confirmation of everything the men are telling Ellen: That violence is indeed sometimes necessary, even inevitable in life. OK, got it.

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However, this is where Sinatra’s WWII psycho war veteran – who states that he loves to kill people and that the war gave him that opportunity – acts as a counterbalance. A natural born murderer who, in one discussion with Hayden (who also served), weighs in on how it’s legal to murder for your country, but not in civilian life.  Sinatra’s character presents an either intentional or accidental rebuke to the necessity of violence; the acceptance of it.  A man who is drunk on violence, who feels like a god with a gun, who has set up a high-powered sniper rifle to kill the president (Is he possibly working for the communists? The movie never says but you feel red scare paranoia laced within all of this).

There’s no telling that her heroism hasn’t traumatized her for life. Still. It’s not only Ellen that saves everyone, it is Pidge pulling a toy gun switch with the gun Pop has hidden in his drawer (everyone’s so used to that cap gun that Sinatra doesn’t notice) – and that will turn the tables on the villain too. The comfort of 1950s Americana – mom, the television set and the normalcy of a toy gun – that’s what brings down the attempted assassination of the president.

Since the movie will, later, be viewed with a likely apocryphal story attached – that Sinatra, so upset by the assassination of his friend John F. Kennedy, had this picture withdrawn after he learned Lee Harvey Oswald watched the movie before he killed the president (Sinatra also starred in another plot to assassinate the president – John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate) – it carries a darkness with it that the filmmakers and stars could not have foreseen, even if none of this is likely true.

By the end, order is apparently restored: Ellen is softer on Sheriff Tod (they kiss and promise to go to Church), Tod is less frustrated over Ellen and little Pidge will surely get more of his way regarding toy weaponry. Well OK. After all that horror. So … is this a happy ending? I’m sure it’s supposed to be, and if you are pro-gun, you may love that Ellen has supposedly seen the wrongs of her anti-gun ways (I don’t love that – I want Ellen to keep fighting for her beliefs – she’s admirable up against all of these men hollering at her). But nevertheless, the entertaining movie sticks with you and makes you think, even beyond its more direct message. Is there something more ambiguous here? I wonder. And, so, after a massive body count, answering the near invocations of the men around her, the town seems to have earned its name back.

Funny name for a town, says a motorist, prompting  Sterling Hayden to answer: "Oh, I don’t know about that."


Marriage: Dorothy Arzner's Craig's Wife

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“I did not want an actress the audience loved. They would hate me for making her Mrs. Craig. Rosalind Russell was a bit player at M-G-M, brilliant, clipped, and unknown to movie audiences. She was what I wanted.” – Dorothy Arzner (in a 1974 interview with Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary)

Harriet Craig’s vase. It’s such an obvious object, both literally and symbolically in Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) – but a powerful object and one that we look at time and time again, waiting for that precious, terrible thing to be shattered on the floor. Knowing it will.

That dark, rather mysterious vase is beautiful – so large and precious that it needs to be positioned oh so deliberately, in just the right spot for proper viewing pleasure. That vase is status, of course (How expensive was that vase? Is it a museum-worthy antique?), but it’s also something Harriet needs to touch and feel, seemingly on a daily basis. There is some passion connected to that vase as OCD as she is about it. And that vase seems both totemic and vulnerable, seductive and terrifying. That vase is Mr. and Mrs. Craig’s marriage, yes, of course. But, as you go along with the picture and get to know this marriage and these two individuals, you don’t see it as any kind of tragedy that the thing will break – for either Mr. or Mrs. Craig.

Smash it.

Indeed, the film opens with that vase as housekeeper Mrs. Harold (Jane Darwell) exclaims, in horror, to the other, younger housekeeper, Mazie (Nydia Westman), never to touch the thing: “She’d about lose her mind if she ever thought you laid a finger on it!” scolds Mrs. Harold. She continues: “Never forget! This room is the holy of holies!” She’s being both serious and overly dramatic for comedic effect, since Mrs. Craig is not there (one can imagine what would happen if Mrs. Craig had heard the very likable Mrs. Harold’s tone). But without introducing Mrs. Craig, herself, first, we are introduced to her living room: all classical symmetry and color-control. A little joyless (it doesn’t have to be) but, lovely.

Indeed, Director Arzner shows us that holy room in all of its shimmery glory – the living room becoming a museum hall with that enormous vase on the mantel, a chandelier, a grand piano and a satin chaise lounge in the middle of the room (I think of both a fainting couch and a psychiatrist’s office when I see this piece of furniture – almost as a performative fuck you via Mrs. Craig – there will be no fainting or psychoanalyzing going on in this house – that is not until the end when she really needs to collapse on the thing). There’s also a table and a nice set of chairs likely no one sits at, and statues and busts and candles and other beautiful objects, collected, displayed like one arranges and mounts taxidermy. This is not a critique – this is Harriet’s work of art.

It’s a gorgeous living room, if you could call it a living room, no one seems to live there, however, they do argue a lot in it – feel fear in it – whisper in it…

But her home – it’s Harriet Craig’s pride, dammit. A representation of herself. Presented as uninviting and rather remote and maybe even horrifying to some, but not to Harriet. In her home, she rules – she likes to talk to people in that living room, she holds court there, often while looking in the mirror, right where that beautiful vase is. Double beauty and control reflected, and the danger of everything cracking, all in one shot. As said, this is her art piece, her expression – even she herself is her own creation and she fits in all glamorous and stately with her beautiful pieces. The film’s sets were designed – uncredited – by William Haines (a past MGM star who was ousted from the profession in 1934 for bravely not denying his homosexuality – he became a successful interior designer, working with his life partner Jimmie Shields) and his work here is gorgeous. He understands both the beauty and the remoteness needed to be expressed, but it’s not tacky, it’s both ornate and spare – a paradox. I don’t begrudge Harriet’s obsession with this space because it’s so aesthetically impressive. Honestly, you either love this room, or hate it. I love it. Even if it could be viewed as her mausoleum.

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Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) is married to her very sweet, wealthy husband, Walter Craig (John Boles) and has clearly made the “perfect” home for herself. Underscore herself. We don’t see Harriet right away – we see Walter with his down to earth Aunt, Ellen Austen (Alma Kruger), eating dinner together, seemingly enjoying the night, and a night away from Harriet, who is visiting her sick sister and niece in Albany. At least Aunt Ellen is enjoying Harriet being away. She doesn’t like her. 


Walter, who is very likable and who loves Harriet dearly, probably misses her a little, but is off – giddily – to play poker with his friend, Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell), an activity he rarely does anymore because, well, obviously… Harriet. We wouldn’t suspect anything too controlling about this at first – lots of married couples slow down their social lives independent of their spouse – but that vase has already told us what kind of woman Harriet Craig is. And now we’re already worried about Walter and that poker game.

But the movie kicks things to a different level of intrigue, and concern, as another wife is presented, in some ways, quite the opposite of Harriet (or maybe very much the same, if Harriet didn’t care so much about social norms), who is eager to leave her husband with his poker-playing pals. Walter heads on over to Fergus’s house, and rather than meeting up with a fun-loving Fergus, ready for the game, he sees a tense, angry man, already pissed off that other friends aren’t coming over – what’s wrong with all of these men? We are all, of course, wondering – wives? Do these no-fun wives make them stay in? (Oh, it’s always the wives, right? That’s so unfair, really…) But then the film shows us this – that Fergus is despairing over his wife, Adelaide (Kathleen Burke), who is all gussied up and beautiful – on her way for a night out in town – and does not care about the possible male shenanigans about to happen. Fergus is upset that she’s, well, acting more as a man would.

Fergus, begs her to stay in. He leans over her, looking all sweaty and desperate, as she primps in the mirror (Arzner uses mirror shots many times in this picture to great effect) – pleading for her to stick around. Why? We have our suspicions that will be soon confirmed (another friend spies her with another man). She leaves, of course, and Fergus isn’t just upset, he’s disturbingly upset – a twitching mess. “Run on back to your boyfriend, dear,” she says, as she leaves to meet “Emily” at the theater.

Already, you feel the combustion of this marriage – something is going to break, and soon. And already you see there is something dangerous and creepy about Fergus. This is a terrible marriage and the way Thomas Mitchell powerfully shows how on edge he is – you don’t immediately think it’s all his wife’s fault, even if the knee-jerk reaction would be to think that she’s dishonorable or, a worse word someone else might use. So, what happens when the wife comes home? A violent end.

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If you’ve seen many Dorothy Arzner pictures in which marriage is a central plot, you’ve seen a lot of problems within the institution. For the matter of space, I will not mention all of them made by the pioneering female filmmaker (whose impressive career spanned silent films in the late 1920s, all the way to talkies in the 1940s. She started out typing scripts, became a writer and also an expert, innovative editor, working side-by-side with director James Cruze. She then moved on to directing pictures starring Esther Ralston, Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Russell, Lucille Ball, and more.  She was the first woman to join the DGA, and she later worked in theater, taught film and directed Pepsi commercials for friend Joan Crawford. Read more about Arzner at the  Women’s Pioneer Films Project – you’ll be glad you did).

Here, I am focusing on Craig’s Wife (which showed during this, then, New Beverly triple feature of marital, well, marital hell -- that I was writing about here), but I must speak more of hell, chiefly,  the aptly titled, Merrily We Go to Hell (one of Arzner’s best pictures) – I thought of this one because this is the kind of marriage Harriet Craig could not even fathomMerrily We Go to Hell (1932) features charming, drunken cheater Fredric March marrying wealthy and sweet Sylvia Sidney (who loves him) only to put her through the wringer with all of his problems and dalliances. She decides to try out a “modern marriage” complete with affairs.

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That’s not always a bad idea, but that’s not for everyone, and, in the end, not really for her. (God bless her for trying though). By the end of the picture, she loses a baby and he, apart from her (he goes through a lot of changes himself – financially as well), feels terrible about everything and in spite of her father’s protestations – busts into her room to reconcile – they’re going to make it work, he hopes. March says, quite convincingly and movingly, that he loves her, and she says to him, with sweetness, “Oh, Jerry, my baby.” And then pats his cheek and says again, “my baby.” He’s the baby she’ll have to look after now, even if he’s gotten his shit together, supposedly. She still loves him but will that work? We’re not so sure. This couple has broken many vases, so to speak.

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In the 1930 Sarah and Son (playing in a triple feature  with Craig’s Wife and Honor Among Lovers – what a night  of bad marriages!), poor Ruth Chatterton’s awful husband  (Fuller Mellish Jr.), actually ditches her and sells their child  to a rich couple, and Chatterton (who is fantastic) spends  the movie trying to find the little boy (March also serves as  love interest here – a better man than the horrible  husband  who, in a complex, moving scene, dies in a military hospital). And in Honor Among Lovers (1931), Claudette Colbert does not take up with her rich boss, Fredric March (again), who professes his feelings for her (and they do have chemistry), but then fires her for marrying another man (pretty bad behavior but he will make up for it as the movie goes on – to the point of literally taking a bullet).

In Honor, that “other guy” (played by Monroe Owsley) who maybe on the surface for Colbert (for, like, a second, to me) seems OK, turns into a cheating thief, a guy who even lies and rats out his own innocent wife –  he is ten times worse than March’s Merrily We Go to Hell louse. At least Merrily’s March is actually charming and repentant. There is no appeal with the guy Colbert marries. She made a mistake because … life is complicated that way. (On that note – March did tremendous work with Arzner – he also starred in The Wild Party opposite Clara Bow – seek out all of his movies directed by Arzner.)

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But these movies have somewhat nicer endings. In Merrily, the marriage might be saved, and in Sarah and Son, Chatterton (who is constantly punished throughout this movie – life is such a struggle and we root for her in every moment) will be reunited with her son in an incredibly dramatic manner (by water) and find love with lawyer, March. In the elegant Honor Among Lovers, Colbert ends the relationship (finally – you spend the movie almost in disbelief how devoted she is to such a jerk), going off on a sea cruise with her old boss, March, who never stopped loving her. See, if you find the “right” person, or if you finally do the right thing, a good relationship just might work, or at least be possible – these movies could be saying. However, I don’t think these resolutions, as presented by Arzner, are all that easy. Will these relationships end in good marriages? Should marriage always be the end-game? Arzner is complex with these issues – male/female relationships are not always stabilizing, obviously, and they may not always be the answer either, even if you’re off on a sea cruise with March.

But then comes, Craig’s Wife – Arzner’s full of presage and inexorability.

In Craig’s Wife, Harriet Craig already knows how de-stabilizing marriage and relationships can be. She has vowed – willed herself – to always keep the upper hand: To always maintain control. She knows that people marry for love, sure, but what kind of torment could that lead to? She doesn’t want to be Merrily’s Sylvia Sidney, despairing over March, who can’t even show up to their engagement party on time, or sober. She sure as hell doesn’t want to be anywhere within the vicinity of Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son, with a husband so abusive he actually steals their baby. And no way is she going to allow her husband to lose all of their money – as in Honor Among Lovers. For god’s sake, no one is allowed to even touch her vase. When a man delivers a trunk and drags it, scratching the impeccable flooring, she seems about ready to kill him (to be fair – I was cringing when the guy was scraping the floor with the trunk, as many others would). So, no way is she going to even allow one iota of disorder. Even the roses her sweet neighbor, the widow Mrs. Frazier (a lovely, charming Billie Burke) brings over, are removed. How dare the maid place them in the living/showroom without asking? And besides, petals will drop all over the place. Unacceptable.

I mean, obviously, “lighten up, Harriet,” we think. Well, that’s not Harriet’s way. She’s made herself pretty and tough. We do see that her husband – he is a good man – he is worthy of love, and we grow to care about him; we do want him to finally stand up for himself. But why did he marry her? He didn’t see any of this coming? His Aunt sure did.

And yet, while the movie could present Harriet as a near-monster, this horrible, castrating wife, there’s a human being in there too, and Arzner (and clearly Russell) wants us to see this. As manipulative as she can be, there is feeling inside Harriet, a woman with a troubled past and genuine fears about surviving as a female in such an un-equal, male-rigged world. Though her husband is a loving person, what Harriet might really crave is the love and warmth of female friendship (not that a man can’t be a part of that, again Walter here is good-hearted – but her family of sister and niece offer an interesting dynamic here).

When she leaves her sick sister’s bed, early, the scene is incredibly sad (This is your sister, Harriet. She’s suffering.) Harriet doesn’t like suffering, however, of any kind.  She doesn’t like to see it. She avoids chaos and the unexpected. She saw her mother suffer through life; she saw that her father cheated on her. Saw him “mortgaging her house for another woman.” And she saw that her mother died of a “broken heart.” Harriet has hardened herself, and you understand. That is not going to happen to her. No broken hearts. Not for a man.

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When traveling by train back from visiting her sister, Harriet breaks down her marital philosophy to her rather shocked niece, Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) who, one senses, Harriet is molding and manipulating, or at least giving some hardened advice to. Ethel is discussing her fiancée and how much she loves him, and here’s how the conversation goes:

Harriet: Does it ever occur to you Ethel, that love, as you describe it, this feeling you have for this boy, is a liability in marriage?

Ethel: Good heavens, Harriet, what a terrible thing to say! You married Uncle Walter because you loved him, didn’t you?

Harriet: Not with any romantic illusions dear. I saw to it that my marriage was a way towards emancipation for me. I had no private fortune, no special training, so the only road to independence for me was through the man I married. I married to be independent.

Ethel: Well, you don’t mean independent of your husband, too?

Harriet: [Primping her hair in small compact mirror] Independent of everybody.

Craig’s Wife was adapted (by Mary McCall Jr.) from the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George Kelly (Grace Kelly’s uncle) and, according to what I’ve read (chiefly, Judith Mayne’s indispensable biography/critical study, “Directed by Dorothy Arzner” which helped me greatly while researching this piece), Mayne felt that Arzner and Mcall Jr.’s version tweaked the play’s tone towards a more critical take on society rather than just a damnation of Harriet. From Mayne:

“In the play, Harriet is a one-note failure, a woman doomed to a life of bitter loneliness, just like the widowed Mrs. Frazier across the way. Again, Mrs. Frazier represents Harriet’s one last chance for human community, and the film reads less as an indictment of a willful woman than as a critique of the culture in which so few choices are available to a woman like Harriet.”

“So few choices” for sure. As I said, Harriet has seen her mother rely on a bad husband and then, die. Harriet’s exchange with her niece about independence in the movie (I’ve read Kelly’s play and Harriet does discuss independence in the play as well – in a much lengthier, materialistic manner) – it is shrewd, it is cold, but not as simply villainous as one might think. Not if you think about it further. Biographer Mayne felt Arzner’s film wasn’t taking a shot at early feminism: “In Kelly’s play, Harriet’s argument for marriage as a business contract and a home as capital is presented as a caricature of feminism, whereas no such intimation is made in Arzner’s film.”

I agree with Mayne in many aspects when it comes to the film because as you may think you’re about to watch a movie about a controlling monster, and you do feel yourself wishing Harriet would soften a bit (I wish she had more friends, at least!), you also understand the tough world she came from – even if she’s not romantic at all, and in terms of control, seriously overdoing it. And, while a fearful force, and at times, a horrifying one, the brilliant, beautiful Russell is domineering, yes, she’s quick and mean, but even charmingly acerbic at times – you come near liking her in moments. Her “fuck you” laugh as she leaves a room is both unsettling and fascinating.

But this woman Harriet Craig would probably be hard to like, outside of your fascination; she’s intriguing as hell (it really depends on how the actress reads much of these lines, too, her facial expressions, that kind of thing – and Russell is so impressively complex here). We don’t have to like her, however. But we’ll see by the end, that this is a sad, lonely, woman, deep down, and she’s perhaps not as cruel as she seems. She at least doesn’t need to be so cruel, she doesn’t need to be so controlling, as unfair as the world was to her mother. This, she may learn.

But to say Harriet is lonely – she’s not just lonely because her husband leaves her – that will likely wind up a relief for everyone. You don’t get the sense that either one is going to run back into each other’s arms and apologize, or promise to make changes. She seems so lonely, rather, when her sister dies. That is when Harriet completely loses it and collapses on that chaise lounge in that beautiful, pristine living room, in tears. The beautiful room is useful, you see.

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In Arzner films, female relationships can be complex, very real, vital, and in Craig’s Wife, we witness what I feel could be a joyous companionship happening between two characters (this is in the play as well). Later in the movie, when everyone is sick of Harriet, when they can’t stand living there or working with her and are departing (either by being fired or of their own accord, her niece takes off too), beloved housekeeper Mrs. Harold decides to go on a trip around the world with Aunt Ellen. Mrs. Harold is done enduring Mrs. Craig (she’s especially upset after Harriet fires Mazie) and Aunt Ellen has made it known that she not only dislikes Harriet, but is quite unhappy stuck in this gorgeous house. That two unattached women, of different classes, who are now running off together, could be read a couple of ways – romantic or platonic – and in either case, it’s a wonderful moment when Mrs. Harold tells Harriet her plan.

Harriet: Where are you going with Ms. Austen? I didn’t know she planned to keep house.

Mrs. Harold: She don’t. We’re going to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and then we’re going all around the world as soon as she can get the tickets.

Yes. I love that these women are going to travel the world. Talk about independence.

There’s another moment that really stands out in Craig’s Wife. When Mitchell’s Fergus is under obvious suspicion that he murdered his wife before killing himself – the police are sniffing around the Craig household. Harriet presses Walter to not get involved – what would people think? Walter was there that night, quite innocently, witnessing Fergus’s erratic behavior, and he’d like to discuss. But Harriet doesn’t even care about guilt or innocence, she only cares how their social standing could be affected by any sort of scandal. Walter, honorably, argues with her and we get why this would be the breaking point in their marriage. The movie is placed within a short time frame in the life of Harriet Craig so Walter must move from adoring husband to a man who sees the light, pretty quickly. The murder, though quite a dramatic plot device, works. He’s been keeping a lot bottled up, but a close friend’s fatal, violence-ending marriage would obviously, be the thing to shake one up – in every aspect of his life.

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Later on, when Harriet and Walter read in the paper that, indeed, Fergus’s gun shot the bullets, Walter says something that I wasn’t expecting in a movie involving two negative marital situations – really, two negative wives. He, in a way, argues for Fergus’s philandering wife, Adelaide, rather than damn her as just a harlot or femme fatale (and, from what I remember, this is not explicitly stated in the play on behalf of Adelaide – not in this way). As Harriet reads the paper:

Harriet: Oh, so the bullets were from his gun. Murder and suicide. Well, if anyone ever had a good reason for doing a thing like that it was Fergus Passmore.

Walter: You think so?

Harriet:  You know yourself how that woman behaved.

Walter: Yes, I know a lot about Adelaide. She fell in love with Fergus. Something went wrong, he failed her. She couldn’t love him anymore so she fell for another man.

Harriet: Does that seem right to you?

Walter: No, it doesn’t seem right. But I think I can understand it. There was one thing about Adelaide, she wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.

“She wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.” That’s quite an open-minded thing for Walter to say in a film of 1936. You don’t get the sense that he agrees she had it coming; that she should have merely respected her twitching, angry out of control husband. No, as a humanist, he understands her. She needed to love and to be loved in return (as the song goes). And so, does he. As much as we will feel for Harriet by the end, we feel something for Walter as well. Arzner does not oversimplify this.

But back to the vase.

It is at this point when Harriet learns that Walter is the one who smashed her beloved vase. (We know he did, we saw it, and it’s his big defiant act, also a bit terrifying) Fergus, it’s said, murdered his wife and took his own life with him. Walter, rather, murders that vase, leaves the broken pieces for Harriet to see, and then escapes the home and her, in hopes to find, one day, presumably, love. He also leaves Harriet with what she seems to love most – the house.

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So, Harriet has the house – and she can re-adjust the busts on the mantel (we see her do this) as she likely, plans which new vase she’ll purchase and proudly showcase again. But … now Harriet realizes that she does need someone or at least something, but not necessarily her husband. What? And then … she receives a telegram about her sister’s death, she is despondent. She needed her sister. Obviously. She needed to have expressed more love for her. Overcome with grief, trembling with the telegram, her widowed neighbor, Mrs. Frazier (Burke) enters the house again, and with roses. We could read this is as tragedy – Harriet is now all alone with only the widow next door.

We can only imagine what Harriet is thinking as she takes in her surroundings, letting the tragedy and loneliness sink in. She tells Mrs. Frazier her sister has died and that she, Harriet, should have done more. Mrs. Frazier, full of empathy, expresses her sorrow and asks her if there is anything she can do. Harriet is in shock – and says to herself, “I’m all alone in the house now.” Burke’s Mrs. Frazier has now slowly backed away, she is literally walking backwards from Harriet (it’s an incredible moment) full of sadness and really, fear, like … what do I do with this woman? Presumably, Mrs. Frazier wants to give Harriet her space, but it reads deeper than that – and she also looks a little horrified by Harriet’s absolute. truth and raw feeling. Harriet continues, “I’m all alone here so if you wouldn’t mind, I …” And then Harriet turns to look. But Mrs. Frazier is gone.

When Mrs. Frazier leaves – again, this plays more heartbreaking than Harriet’s husband exiting the house. That needed to happen. But Mrs. Frazier with her roses? We don’t want her to leave.

Russell is so magnificent; we are almost leaning in to observe her actions. Will she be defiant? Will she be stoic? Or will she let her emotions flow? In a brilliant moment of pantomime, Harriet rushes to the door, Mrs. Frazier’s roses cradled in her arms – and she sees the door shut. And then Harriet’s hand – it reaches out to … Mrs. Frazier, yes. But her hand is reaching out … to many things. In gorgeous silent moments, the camera fixed on Russell, her house, her living room, her anguished face filled with tears, Harriet is, again, reaching out. Her heart, her hand, her eyes… to the deceased sister, she can no longer touch, to the woman she could possibly be friends with. To that living room that now frightens her as she cowers next to it in the frame – afraid to enter it. It’s an extraordinarily moving ending where, in spite of everything, we hope that Harriet will weather this. We hope she’ll enjoy her living room again – that gorgeous Harriet space. A place where, perhaps, in the future, Mrs. Frazier might actually drop in to actually sit at the table and… talk.

It’s fascinating to watch Craig’s Wife today – and wonder how much Arzner, perhaps, rooted for Harriet – for all women, indeed. The movie had also been made in 1928 (directed by William C. deMille and starring Irene Rich and Warner Baxter) – that picture is now, alas, lost. The movie would be remade again as Harriet Craig in 1950, directing by Vincent Sherman and starring Arzner collaborator Joan Crawford (The Bride Wore Red) and Wendell Corey. For many years, I found the Sherman/Crawford version as equally as great as the Arzner/Russell version (maybe even more focused – and Crawford is superb), but watching Craig’s Wife again, I think there’s a bit more complexity to Arzner’s version. (That being said, watch Harriet Craig as a follow-up to Craig’s Wife if you’ve not done so because Crawford is excellent). Crawford’s take is perhaps better known since that era seems more the time to take on the perfect 50s housewife. And then of course, for better or for worse, the movie has been, through biography and gossip, intertwined with Crawford’s actual personality/persona. To some, it may even feel like a horror movie. But, by the end, I feel for her Harriet as well, as much as she terrifies, even reminds me of people I’ve met in my life.

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But Russell is so commanding, so smart, so stylish, so sly and strong,  that when she is slumped, in tears, when she is allowing such feeling to overwhelm her, you are gobsmacked by her emotion. As stated (and through multiple viewings), I feel obsessive, scary control and then, empathy for Joan in moments of Harriet Craig because Crawford possessed such tremendous vulnerability. But Russell knocks you for a loop at the end – you are not prepared to be that moved by her in the film’s final moments. It’s a tremendous performance.

Playwright Kelly did indeed write Harriet to collapse in tears at the end, the widow does come by, but Harriet does not reach out to her when the door closes. Instead, a very sad Harriet “steps up to the door and clicks the latch.” Harriet’s not happy, but I’m not sure if Arzner’s ending is what he had in mind (and I’m not sure if he ever saw the final picture). As Arzner told Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in an interview later in her life:

“George Kelly had nothing to do with making the picture. I did try to be as faithful to his play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees because Mrs. Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, ‘That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB.’ He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.”

We’re glad he wrote such a fascinating character, of course, to be adapted and played on-screen by three actresses who captivated (Rich, Russell and Crawford). And we’re glad that Arzner and McCall Jr. crafted a powerful, complicated picture, with Russel as star, and one that makes you think about love, marriage, independence, and yes, the meaning of such a beautiful vase.

If we feel for Harriet here, we only hope that Mrs. Frazier will come back. Could they become friends? Relationships – romantic or friendship – are never easy. And surely not with Harriet. But perhaps Mrs. Frazier’s roses can fill Harriet’s beautiful new vase of the future? The two women can look at each other in the mirror (and smile)? And maybe even plan for something to do either together, or on their own – supportive, but without each other. “Independent,” as Harriet stated earlier. Is that too much to hope for?

Originally published at The New Beverly