Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Asphalt Jungle

There's no honor among thieves and the only luck is bad in director John Huston's heist picture The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Huston, who helped launched the film noir genre with The Maltese Falcon, strips away the glamor and heroism that even a Sam Spade would have provided, leaving behind a bunch of desperate, unlikeable, and irredeemable lowlifes. 

The title proves appropriate. In this unnamed city (apparently within driving distance of Cleveland), as members of the criminal underground plot a jewelry heist with the efficiency and acumen of businessmen, the streets resemble nothing if not an urban wasteland, the strong prey on the weak, corruption runs rampant, and good remains all but helpless in the face of overwhelming evil.

The men responsible for the robbery are easy to describe. Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is the mastermind with the plan, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) is the lawyer who invests in the scheme, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is the "hooligan" needed for muscle, Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is the safecracker, Gus (James Whitmore) is the getaway driver, and Cobby (Marc Lawrence) is the bookie who links them all up.

The plan proves simple to execute. It's the aftermath that proves difficult as the group encounters double crosses, a police manhunt, unexpected developments, paranoia, and just plain bad luck.

The hallmarks of film noir are here: the shadows, the fedoras, the trench coats, the cynicism, the bleakness, the seedy underbelly locations, the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, and an ending that feels less like the triumph of justice and more like the inevitability of fate. No one - good or bad - gets away from destiny.

While we watch the heist play out in more or less real time and it is a splendid sequence, The Asphalt Jungle devotes more time before and afterward, establishing the characters, illustrating their motives, and depicting their home lives. There's no femme fatale leading them on, but we meet a few wives and girlfriends.

Ciavelli is married and has an infant son, Dix has a girl (Jean Hagen) who would do anything for him, and Emmerich has an infirm wife (Dorothy Tree) and a mistress who calls him uncle (Marilyn Monroe).

There's little excitement but a lot of tension. The movie lacks shootouts and chases, focusing more on the waiting game. The heist plays not as a thrilling caper but a nerve-wracking job where every step has to go right. It's a process, step-by-step.

The Asphalt Jungle explores the criminal underground, how it comes together and operates, including some of its more mundane aspects. It is populated with all sorts of creeps and thugs, but the movie does not present them as larger-than-life characters. They are all fairly ordinary people who make their living in crime, trying to survive one way or another in this uncivilized, cruel world.

Just like animals.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Kiss Me Deadly

Oh my god. Oh my god. I can't believe it. It's so shocking. Beyond comprehension. Impossible.

Cloris Leachman was once young. I just assumed she sprouted out of the ground as Frau Bl├╝cher and ran with it. Seeing her playing a terrified, vulnerable young woman is jarring.

Say what you will about Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but they are sweethearts next to Mike Hammer, at least how he's presented in Kiss Me Deadly (1955). All three are hard-boiled private eyes of film noir, but while Marlowe and Spade possess inner moral codes, Hammer is a thug, a jerk with a heart of gold, minus the heart of gold.

As played by Ralph Meeker in director Robert Aldrich's adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel, Hammer is an especially sleazy detective. Plenty of these private dicks work divorce cases, but Hammer sends his "secretary" Velda (Maxine Cooper) to seduce the husbands. Meanwhile, he works over the wives, so he can get paid twice for the same job.

Hammer is also brutal, beating people up and charging his way through the movie like a rampaging bull. Cops warn him away, but naturally, he refuses to listen. His vanity and narcissism not only put friends in danger, they threatens the world.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Kiss Me Deadly opens with Hammer nearly running over Christina (Leachman) one night on a lonely stretch of highway. She's desperate, scared, and wearing only a trench coat. She just broke out of a psychiatric institution, but at a key moment, Hammer shields her from the police.

Soon after, the two are run off the road by another car. Christina is tortured to death while Hammer barely survives, and he becomes obsessed with digging up the truth about who killed her and why. Christina apparently had knowledge of something dangerous, and soon, another potential victim, Christina's roommate Lilly (Gaby Rodgers), is threatened for what she may know. The results are... nuclear.

Kiss Me Deadly matches the brutality of its detective. When goons torture Christina, we don't see what they do (we never see more than her bare feet), but we hear her blood-curling screams. Whatever they did, it was not pretty. Later, Nick (Nick Dennis), a jovial, fast-talking Greek mechanic who helps Hammer,  ends up crushed under a car for his trouble.

Hammer makes a point of being angry that they killed Nick, but when he finds Nick's brother clutching the dead man's hand, the only part of him not trapped under the vehicle, Hammer coldly offers no condolences or emotion. He seems more angry that the villains killed his friend than he is sorry over losing him.

Hammer conducts his fair share of torture, both physical and emotional, and he seems to enjoy it. He beats up a coroner for a piece of evidence, he smashes a prized vinyl record belonging to a witness, and he takes advantage of Velda. She loves him; he uses her, and she knows it. When her comes to her, she knows it's because he's in trouble, but she's happy because he needs her. The more you think about it, the more you realize it's a twisted, almost sadomasochistic relationship.

Kiss Me Deadly, in a way, deconstructs the film noir detective. Not only is Hammer a brute, he's also not especially bright. His actions lead the villains right to the last thing we want them to get their hands on. If he had just listened, if he had just stayed out of the way...

Several common aspects of film noir nestle their way into Kiss Me Deadly. Obviously, the protagonist's sins get him into trouble, but there's also the cruel hand of fate. It's dumb luck that Hammer was driving along the road when he ran into Christina, setting into motion his entire involvement in the plot. His flawed, hard-boiled nature keeps him going, though, and nearly destroys everything.

The nuclear MacGuffin reflects the anxiety of the day. As the Cold War dawned, the world became a dark, scary place, full of doom and despair, and now, we hold in our hand the instrument of our demise, engineered by own hand.

And of course, there's plenty of shadows, dark corners, and slanted camera angles that reflect how warped and threatening this world has become.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Murder, My Sweet

Film noir's most iconic detective makes his debut in Murder, My Sweet (1944), one of the first great entries in the genre.

There had been previous Raymond Chandler adaptations, but Murder, My Sweet (1944) marks the first appearance of Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's most famous character and the archetype for the hard-boiled detective of film noir. A tough private eye with a penchant for hard-drinking and wisecracks, Marlowe frequently gets in over his head and threatened by the scumbags he associates with, but he's no dope and he possesses an inner moral code.

Those traits are celebrated at length in Murder, My Sweet, which is based off Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. The film opens in a dark interrogation room where under a hot light the police grill a blindfolded Marlowe (Dick Powell) about a couple of murders.

This sets up the bulk of the movie as Marlowe explains, via flashback, how hulking Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hired him to locate his girl Velma, whom he has not seen in eight years after a stint in the joint. Marlowe also gets involved with some business involving a stolen jade necklace and other assorted characters: Marriott (Douglas Walton), who hires Marlowe to accompany him to a payoff; Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), the owner of the missing necklace; Mr. Grayle (Miles Mander), Helen's much older, wealthy husband; and Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), much concerned about her father and resentful toward his young wife.

The plot's complicated and sometimes hard to keep track of. I've seen the movie a few times and read the book, and I confess I can't always keep track of the various comings and goings. But the plot ain't important in film noir; it's secondary to the tone, style, and dialogue, and it's in those elements, Murder, My Sweet soars with flying colors.

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Murder, My Sweet is a gorgeously shot film filled with the kind of style that makes film noir so deliciously cool. The shadows are deep and many, cigarette smokes wisps around imposing and seductive faces, and the contrast between light and dark is fully accentuated. At times, the interplay between lights and shadows is almost a conflict itself.

Dmytryk also throws in him some surreal touches that suggest unworldly danger, such as Malloy's first appearance in which he appears like a ghost reflected in a window by the flashing lights from outside. Later, a drugged and beaten Marlowe hallucinates and has horrific visions, including one in which he flees a man with a large syringe through a series of hard-to-open doors.

In the face of threatening conspiracies, double crosses, and constant danger, Marlow retains his sardonic demeanor. He's never at a loss for words. Asked by the police how he feels, he responds, "Like a duck in a shooting gallery." His voiceover narration, another genre hallmark, is filled with wry observations ("She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.") and hardboiled descriptions:

"I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good - like an amputated leg." I can't recall if that's prose straight from Chandler, but it sounds like it, feels like it.

And that's what it's all about. Murder, My Sweet looks and feels film noir down to its core. It's got everything that makes the genre irresistible. Essential viewing.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Old Soldiers Never Die

Since I'm in a reminiscent mood, I decided to share this short story I wrote in high school. It ran in Janus, the school literary magazine. Click the title below to read it if you're interested.

"Old Soldiers Never Die"

I like the story and how it plays out, but I confess I can't bring myself to read it all the way through without cringing at a lot of it. I think I've improved a lot as a writer since then.

The story began as an English class project. We read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I had the idea of a prisoner held in captivity during some unnamed country's civil war. Every time he was scheduled to be executed, the other side captured the prison, decided our protagonist wasn't loyal enough, and started the whole process to kill him over again. Back and forth, back and forth without end. I meant it as a satirical, absurdist anti-war piece.

Obviously, that's not how the final story turned out. The final story incorporates an element of magical realism, which tied it in better with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, and is a more somber, haunting piece. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory also inspired me some, especially with the execution scene.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tinker Lab: Paper Circuits

Here's another video I made for the library. I'm trying to be Igor.

Bookmark Bonanza

This is the most recent video announcement I made to promote an upcoming program at the library I work at.

For all the years I've been writing this blog and taking shots at other movies, the shoe's on the other foot now.


Detour (1945) gives us a narrator who is either the biggest sap in the world or a liar trying to rationalize every crime he's committed. Take your pick.

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Detour is a crude, pulpy piece of film noir about a man who compounds one mistake after another and makes it worse by getting involved with the genre's most iconic archetype, the femme fatale, and this one is especially heartless, if we take our narrator's word for it.

The sap is Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a New York piano player whose girl leaves for Hollywood. He hitchhikes to join her, and he's picked up by a bookie named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who soon after dies on a lonely stretch of Arizona highway one night during the middle of a rainstorm.  How does he die? Roberts, driving while Haskell sleeps, pulls over to pull the top on the convertible. When Roberts opens the passenger door, Haskell slumps out of the car, smashing his head on a rock.

The cops would never believe Roberts didn't kill Haskell, he tells us. I can accept that reasoning. After all, I don't believe Roberts didn't kill Haskell, and I watched the death scene. I especially don't believe it when Roberts decides not only to hide the body but to take Haskell's money, identification, and car. Convenient for a broke, hungry hitchhiker, wouldn't you say?

Is the movie cheating, showing us something that didn't happen the way it tells us it happen? Not necessarily. Film noir brought a psychological element to the B-move crime picture; warped psyches and distorted points of view reflected in the environment. The world of film noir is a dark one, a nightmarish realm of despair and shadows, and so it is in Detour.

Everything we see that happens in Detour occurs from Roberts' perspective. His words are so full of woe-is-me, blaming fate and luck of the draw on his predicament. He doesn't sound like a man trying to convince others; he sounds like he's trying to convince himself.

That would explain Vera (Ann Savage), the femme fatale. Before he died, Haskell told of a woman he picked up who clawed his hand, and we see the scratches. After he takes Haskell's identity, Roberts picks up a hitchhiker, who lo and behold, is the same woman Haskell warned about, and she knows Roberts ain't Haskell.

Vera betrays no vulnerability or tenderness, unlike some other dames of the genre. She is ruthless and cutting. She blackmails Roberts, keeping him close like a "Siamese twin" and reminding him she's the boss. She initiates everything once she enters the pictures, constantly insults and belittles Roberts, and he meekly, weakly, pathetically goes along with everything she says. I swear, officer. It wasn't my fault. It was all her idea!

Detour was a so-called "Poverty Row" picture, one of those cheaply made B-movies studios churned out in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Detour certainly looks the part: it's not even 70 minutes long, limited locations, lots of closeups, shadows and fogs to hide sparse city streets, hamfisted narrations to cover plot details, and cars with the driver on the wrong side (Ulmer reportedly flipped the negative of the film in those places, so they aren't meant to be English automobiles).

But the movie doesn't feel cheap. It's about people down in the skids, and it hunkers down there with them. It's not glamorous, and it ain't pretty, but Detour gets the job done.