Friday, December 8, 2017

Powerage

I read somewhere (Rolling Stone? AllMusic?) that the surprising thing about AC/DC isn't that they write great riffs; it's how many great riffs they write.

Take any song off their album Powerage. You will find not only a great main guitar riff that drives the whole song, but even the intros, bridges, fillers, and outros, aspects of a songs many bands give less attention to, have memorable, cutting hooks. Angus and Malcolm Young seem to be tossing them off with ease, and their energy is infectious.

Powerage arrived just before AC/DC got real hot with the likes of Highway to Hell and Back in Black, and it kind of got overlooked. Since then, it has gained status among fans. I remember seeing Brian Johnson on That Metal Show calling it the best of the Bon Scott-era albums, and I read somewhere else that it's apparently Keith Richards' favorite AC/DC album.

Powerage has two things going for it that keep me coming back to it. One, no real hits to speak of or at least no songs that are played ad nauseum on the radio, so it always feels fresh when I listen to it. Two, while very much an AC/DC album and encased in their style, it finds the boys stretching their creative muscles and pushing their sound in unexpected directions.

Some songs have a start-stop rhythm; "Kick in the Teeth" alternates back-and-forth between Bon Scott's vocals and the music, like a call-and-response. Others, such as "Riff Raff" and "Up to My Neck in You," once they erupt, blaze ahead and never slow down. Then, there's "Gone Shootin'," about a love lost to heroin, that plays slow and bluesy, almost ballad-like.

The band also throws in a few curveballs. The opener, "Rock n Roll Damnation," a precursor to "Highway to Hell," includes clapping and maracas. "Sin City" gives a bass solo to the debuting Cliff Williams, and honestly, I can't think of another AC/DC song with one.

AC/DC plays as well as they have on this album, and the production by Harry Vanda and George Young highlights their gritty charm. But the real strength is Bon Scott. To hear this man sing on this album is to hear true rock n roll: the blue collar desperation on "Down Payment Blues," the scorned lover on "Gimme a Bullet," the cocky free wheeler in "Sin City," the rebel of "What's Next to the Moon," the charming rogue throughout. 

This guy was the real deal. He shrieks and howls but on a dime can get smooth and sly, and his lyrics offer what I've heard described as "gutter-level poetry." It may be sleazy and kind of raunchy, but you can't help but be impressed by his turn of phrase and wordsmith skills.

I'm living in a nightmare
She's looking like a wet dream
I got myself a Cadillac
But I can't afford the gasoline
I got holes in my shoes
And I'm way overdue
Down payment blues

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Excitable Boy

Sometimes, the crowd gets it right.

Excitable Boy proved to be Warren Zevon's best-selling album, but far from being a bland, mainstream cash-in, the album captures Warren Zevon at his creative best. His rebellious attitude, dark sense of humor, and ability to tell a story through song can be found throughout the album.

"Werewolves of London," probably Zevon's most famous song, appears here, and it's not even the best song on the album. Don't get me wrong; it's a great song, but I'm more partial to "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," the brooding tale of a murdered Norwegian mercenary who hunts down the comrade who betrayed him, and the title track, which, despite its peppy piano and upbeat melody, might be Zevon's darkest and most outrageous tune that you still can't help but laugh at even as its main character descends into insanity

Just as fun, but not as dark, is "Lawyers, Guns and Money," the closing track. It's a big, booming finale about a young gambler who gets caught up in the espionage game because of, what else, a woman. "I went home with a waitress the way I always do. How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?"

Elsewhere, Zevon demonstrates nostalgia on the opening number, "Johnny Strikes Up the Band," a fitting warm up for the album; tenderness on the appropriately titled "Tenderness on the Block;" and loss on the historical "Veracruz," about a family who loses everything when the American navy bombs their city.

Musically, the band plays great, smooth, polished, and driven by Zevon's excellent piano work, which goes from fast and jaunty to slow and emotion-filled. Occasionally, other instruments are highlighted, including the explosive guitar solo on "Werewolves of London" and the funky bass opening on "Nighttime in the Switching Yard."

Overall, it's a cohesive album, built on melodic hooks and irresistible harmony. Zevon recruits dozens of backing musicians and singers to perform with him, and he shapes them to his iconic pop-rock style that combines humor and heartbreak, making for a unified and satisfactory album.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Diamond Dogs

Ziggy Stardust might be my favorite David Bowie album, but Diamond Dogs contains my absolute favorite David Bowie song.

I love "Rebel Rebel." Love it. That guitar riff is one of the most awesome sounds I've ever heard, a strutting, swaggering piece of glam rock that flaunts itself so proudly and defiantly.

The lyrics have a gender-bender thing going on ("You've got your mother in a whirl. She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.") , and the driving beat resembles something the Rolling Stones might have done, but Bowie gives it his own larger-than-life touch. If there's another song that better defines Bowie's appeal in the genre, I don't know it.

Diamond Dogs emerged from Bowie's attempts to make a musical based off George Orwell's 1984 but abandoned those plans when the Orwell estate denied him permission. That said, elements of the original idea remain in the songs "1984"  and "Big Brother."

Other songs contain a nightmarish, almost fantastical bend, including the title track, which introduces the Bowie persona Halloween Jack, a "real cool cat" who lives on top of Manhattan Chase and meets a girl with a featureless face, and references Todd Browning's classic horror film Freaks. The song begins with the declaration, "This ain't rock n roll. This is genocide."

"Future Legends," the opening track, begins the album with a building, ominous synthesizer as the lyrics describe the post-apocalyptic Hunger City, which contains "fleas the sizes of rats and rats the size of cats" where the humans "peoploids" are like dogs.

"Rebel Rebel," "Diamond Dogs," and even "1984" have upbeat tempos, and they flat out rock. They contain a defiant spirit, and "1984" even has a funky, disco feel. Other songs have a more mellow, slower-paced feel. Listening to the "Sweet Thing," "Candidate," and "Sweet Thing (Reprise)," I feel like I'm in a beatnik coffeehouse, listening to a poet in sunglasses share a political statement through verse. The backing saxophone and piano tracks adds to the jazzy atmosphere.

Diamond Dogs might be Bowie's darkest, most political album. There's no tenderness or moving gestures like there is on "Space Oddity" or Ziggy Stardust's "Rock n Roll Suicide." The exception may be "Rock n Roll With Me," which, despite its title, is a slower song that offers more of a quiet reprieve than an exciting release.

I don't know if I'd describe it as angry but the music and lyrics cast a cynical eye on a world that has become something monstrously inhuman. The closing track, "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family," ends the album on a spiraling note of gleeful madness.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Please Murder Me!

Raymond Burr is most famous for having played master criminal defense attorney Perry Mason in the long-running TV show of the same name in the 1950s and many TV movies in the 1980s. He took the toughest cases, defending wrongfully accused clients while implicating the real villains.

Please Murder Me! (1956) predates Burr's run as Perry Mason, and his role feels almost like a test run. His final plan to expose the villain of the film, while not exactly getting her to confess on the stand, is especially clever and well orchestrated, if rather morbid and self-punitive.

It's also fitting this is a film noir, since Burr played many villains in the genre, including the sleazy, psychotic P.I. in Pitfall. He also played the murderer in Rear Window, which came out a couple years prior. The whole question of Rear Window was did he or didn't he kill his wife. Now, Burr is asking whether the woman he loves is a murderess.

Burr plays lawyer Craig Carlson. He has fallen in love with Myra (Angela Lansbury), who is married to his friend Joe Leeds (Dick Foran). Joe even saved his life on Iwo Jima, so Craig, ever upstanding and honest, goes right to him at the start of the movie and tells him the truth.

Joe, understandably, does not take the news well, leading to a confrontation on a dark and stormy night between Joe and Myra that ends with Myra shooting and killing him. We do not see the incident, only the point at which Joe slams the door shut. We hear an off-screen shot.

Myra argues he tried to kill her and she fired in self defense. At the trial, Craig acts as her counsel. He wins her acquittal by revealing his love for her during his closing defense (which might be grounds for a mistrial or at least an ethics investigation by the state bar association, but never mind). But soon, he uncovers new evidence and becomes convinced she's played him for the fool.

Please Murder Me! opens like Double Indemnity with Craig, alone in his office, his face hidden in the shadows to the point he looks headless, talking into a tape recorder. As he explains that he will soon be dead, the movie flashes back to show the events he's talking about.

Craig is more noble than we typically see in heroes of film noir. He is honest and believes in the rule of law, but his motivations are familiar. He falls in love with the wrong woman, and when he unwittingly aids an injustice, he becomes wracked with guilt. Myra can't get charged for Joe's murder again because of double jeopardy, but knowing Myra murdered once, he decides he will get her to murder again. In the tradition of the genre, Craig believes both guilty parties must be punished, and so, he plans his own doom.

Please Murder Me! is just over 70 minutes, but even then, it moves slowly. At times, it feels like an episode of a TV show stretched past its running length, and while director Peter Godfrey has a few nice visuals (like the slanted camera angles on the reporters in the newsroom or Joe, clad in a drenched coat and hat looms over Myra as she sits on a bed), other images are rather drab and static. Sometimes, the narrative is rather perfunctory, especially in the courtroom.

The movie picks up steam once Craig begins his plan to bring down Myra. It's where things get twisted and juicy. Please Murder Me! is worth checking out just for this sequence, but it's a shame it couldn't either get to it sooner or make the lead up more compelling.

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 he 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.