All noirfans should life in Los Angeles. Not only are some of the best Film Noir classics set in Los Angeles, but there still are many theatres who show some of the films on the big screen. Nothing beats seeing a film in an actually theatre. When I saw Sunset Boulevard at the Egyptian a couple of months ago, I noticed details in that movie that hadn’t come through in the multiple DVD viewings on my TV.
Anyway, High Sierra! Thursday March 19 at the Egyptian. Classic, terrific early noir. Humphrey Bogart (or God, as I like to think of him) and Ida Lupino. And, don’t forget Pard, the poor terrier that gets blamed for it all. Heists that go awry, selfish pretty young girls, shoot outs in the mountains. It’s got it all!
A week ago, after watching the incomparable Double Indemnity, I become obsessed with the location of Neff and Keye’s office building. I suddenly needed to know if the building where they shot the interiors for the scenes at the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company existed.
My watching companion suggested that perhaps it was the Bradbury Building, that famous downtown LA landmark with the wrought iron walkways featured in Blade Runner. No, but I suppose one can’t see wrought iron and not wonder if it isn’t the Bradbury Building. But of course, the famous atmospheric wrought iron of the Bradbury is in the interior corridors, the spaces between the offices, not the offices themselves. The Pacific All Risk office is open, two stories with offices above overlooking the floor below.
Today, a bit by accident, and let’s face it, whimsy, I was reading the script of Double Indemnity. In the script there are very specific directions to the set designer on how the office should be constructed:
(Note for set-designer: Our Insurance Company occupies the entire eleventh and twelfth floors of the building. On the twelfth floor are the executive offices and claims and sales departments. These all open off a balcony which runs all the way around. From the balcony you see the eleventh floor below: one enormous room filled with desks, typewriters, filing cabinets, business machines, etc.)
I’m a bit disappointed that I couldn’t track down an actual building to go drive by (although the exterior is on Wilshire Blvd), I’m glad to have solved the mystery. I suppose I could go drive to the Quebec Street in the Hollywood Hills to get my Double Indemnity location groove on. This is where the Dietrichsen house (exteriors) still sits.
On a small side note, if you are fan of Double Indemnity, I recommend reading the script. Or, if you are a fan of Raymond Chandler, his dialogue reaches of the pages (or from the screen) and smacks you in the gut. I once saw an interview with Billy Wilder where he described his writing partnership with Chandler as cantakerous. He said he would wear his hat in the writing room and it would irritate Chandler to distraction.
Two people with the same name lie in their respective beds thinking. It’s a sunny day in Philadelphia, but Charles Oakley lies in a darkened room, his arms crossed on his chest like he’s practicing for the coffin as thousand dollar bills tumble carelessly to the soiled rug. Meanwhile his niece Charlie lies on her all-American bed in her all-American house in the all-American town of Santa Rosa. She’s mired in all-American adolescent angst, lamenting the sunny rut her family is in not realizing that just outside that sunny rut the seething darkness of the wicked world is waiting to claim her.
He’s running from the law, she’s looking to shake things up and they both arrive at the same conclusion- that he should come to visit his relatives in Santa Rosa. From this point, they are launched on a trajectory that will kick-start her life and end his – though it very nearly ends up the other way around.
At first glance, Shadow of a Doubt seems like a typical noir film. Moody black and white, desperate man seeking his last chance, the darkness that lurks under the innocent surface of things, the inescapable consequences of moral corruption. On closer inspection, though, things seem off. The desperate man isn’t a likable hustler or petty crook looking for a last big score, he’s a sociopath, superficially charming but lacking all human feeling, driven to kill by a hunger beyond his understanding- more Ted Bundy than Harry Fabian. Then, there is the strange humor, the stogy patriarch of a suburban family joking about murder with the creepy mama’s boy next door, the precocious little sister who knows everything and everyone but is far too occupied with important matters to transcribe a telegraph. On top of that, the visual style is far more refined than your average noir film- light and darkness, ominous shadows forming prison bars, figures silhouetted in darkness engaged in furtive conversation, long tracking shots that land on the small thread that can unravel a man’s entire world. It becomes clear, this is not a noir film, it’s a Hitchcock movie. By virtue of his artistry, output and the sheer length of his career, Hitchcock created a genre of his own with stock characters (Herbie Hawkins is a rough sketch of Norman Bates, little Annie grows up to be Barbara Morton, Charlie could grow up to dye her hair and date Jimmy Stewart) a fixation on all the interesting ways the mind can fracture and unleash havoc, a morbid and ironic sense of humor and an uncanny ability to pry nail-biting suspense from any situation- a library that’s about to close is like a bomb set to go off and the ring on a young girl’s finger is as damning as the most malevolent microfilm. Hitchcock is a noir film maker like Picasso is a cubist- it’s a phase of his career but ultimately his work adheres to it’s own set of conventions more than to any particular style.
The best thing about Hitchcock is his ability to carve profound, suspenseful and fascinating stories out of the dull soap of everyday life. Unfathomable wickedness thrives in small towns, New York apartments, road-side motels. Turn your head a little to the left, look at the stranger next to you too closely, take a step off the narrow sidewalk of your life into the big, bad street and anything could happen. If there is a happy ending, you’re still always going to know all those things about the world that regular people are lucky enough not to and you’ll always be sitting outside the church with your secrets while everyone mourns the loss of a beloved son inside.
Filed under: 40's
This scene is missing from the 1946 film of The Big Sleep, along with much of the novel’s richness and complexity. It was all cleared out to make room for more Bogie and Bacall- more cheesy Hollywood romance and crowd pleasing banter. As a result, instead of a brilliant and scathing look at corruption under the California sun the movie stands as a colossal monument to misguided studio interference. Jack Warner asked for more steamy scenes with the two principals and Howard Hawks served them up with a shovel, sacrificing the coherence of the plot and Marlowe’s essential values in the process. The worst part is, it worked. The movie was a big hit and is a beloved classic for all the wrong reasons. As with all craven publicity hounds, Warner knew his business and deserves credit for knowing just what type of sugary brew to pour into the trough for audiences to lap up in the dark.
Not to say that it’s a bad movie- it just falls far short of the novel and is guided by the wrong priorities. Then again, so do all the films of Chandler’s novels- so maybe it’s just his style- maybe all that narration and description doesn’t translate. Then again, with every new generation of film makers, there is always hope that the cinematic vocabulary and audience’s threshold for dark storytelling might lead to a breakthrough and that elusively brilliant The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye will be made. Perhaps I could send the novels to Paul Thomas Anderson with a basket of muffins and a bottle of rye. I’m always optimistic.
Directed By: Howard Hawks
Written By: William Faulkner & Leigh Brackett
Humphrey Bogart: Philip Marlowe
Lauren Bacall: Vivian Sternwood Rutledge
John Ridgely: Eddie Mars
Martha Vickers: Carmen Sternwood
Dorothy Malone: Acme Bookstore proprietress
Peggy Knudsen: Mona Mars
Regis Toomey: Chief Insp. Bernie Ohls (District Attorney’s Office)
Charles Waldron: Gen. Sternwood
Elisha Cook Jr.: Harry Jones
Louis Jean Heydt: Joe Brody
I saw Key Largo on TCM this past weekend- arguably the best Bogie and Bacall movie because John Huston doesn’t allow the story to be strangled by endless hollow banter. Constrained within the vessels of their characters, their chemistry simmers rather than boiling up uncontrolled and soaking everything in it’s path.
Frank McCloud is a typical Bogart hero- the cynic with the heart of gold pulled into action from his shell of apathy when his loved ones are threatened. The specific arc of Frank, though, is much better defined than Rick in Casablanca or Captain Morgan in To Have and Have Not. Frank left his job as a circulation manager at a newspaper and charged off to war with high ideals only to come home a chump- having risked his life to defend the rights and liberties of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his sleazy pals who stayed rich and comfortable back home. Along the way, almost by accident, he becomes a hero and as much as he tries to shrug off his heroism, the instincts that made him risk his life under fire in Italy are the instincts that drive him to take pity on poor drunk Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) and give her a drink whom Rocco forces to humiliate herself for booze and then denies her.
So, what happens to a hero when they don’t have anything to fight for but keep fighting anyhow because they can’t respond any other way to injustice? With any luck, they wind up happy somewhere, find a home on the edge of the continent with a lonely widow and the heartbroken father of a dead soldier. More likely, they keep fighting until they have nothing left, just themselves and the knowledge in their heart that they’ve done the right thing.
I also watched a bunch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, so the whole reluctant hero theme was on my mind. She may be a 16 year old high school girl and not a grizzled WWII veteran, but there is that same reluctant relationship with her moral responsibility, the same sad knowledge that doing the right thing is it’s own paltry reward and that, no matter how much you do, you will always be judged for the moments that you were too slow, too weak or too human to rise to the occasion. For me, these are always the most compelling heroes and their compulsion to do right even when it’s the last thing they want to do make their acts seem even braver than the acts of those with square jaws and clear eyes who never doubt what they’re fighting for and never stop to wonder if their life wouldn’t be better if they could just shut out the pain in the world like everybody else does.
Directed By: John Huston
Written By: Richard Brooks based on the play by Maxwell Anderson
Humphrey Bogart: Frank McCloud
Edward G. Robinson: Johnny Rocco
Lauren Bacall: Nora Temple
Lionel Barrymore: James Temple
Claire Trevor: Gaye Dawn
Thomas Gomez: Richard ‘Curly’ Hoff
Harry Lewis: Edward ‘Toots’ Bass
A couple of days ago, after finding out about Richard Widmark’s death, I wrote about his terrific performance as Harry Fabian in Night and the City. Today, in light of director Jules Dassin’s death, I find myself revisiting the film. I’m hardly an expert on Dassin’s life and career. I’ve seen a few of his movies, and love a couple of them, know a couple of facts about his life, and have a copy of Tokapi on DVD that I haven’t gotten around to watching. Like many people, I mispronounced his name, mistaking him for a French auteur after seeing Rififi. There was no making that mistake, though after watching Night and the City. It’s unmistakably American- even though it takes place in London. The movie is crawling with dreamers, schemers, hustlers, losers and freaks. Everyone is a little bit ugly and hard to like- except maybe the angelic Gene Tierney. The enormous club owner, swollen with greed and sloth, his shrewish wife, determined to steal whatever she can to get away from him, the sleazy wrestling promoter and his father, a quick tempered wrestling legend who’s rage is stronger than his aging heart. But Dassin doesn’t let us sit back and gawk at the grotesquery of the characters. Instead, he pulls us into their world, makes us feel for them as their dreams fall apart- even pulls off one of the most difficult tricks in storytelling- creating empathy for characters on both sides of a conflict so that we gain no easy satisfaction from the triumph of one side over the other, just an escalating tension which resolves itself into sickening inevitability. Everyone twists themselves up in knots trying to get a little bit more than they’re entitled to and, in the end, they lose what they had to start with. Like I said, a quintessentially American movie.
I don’t really know much about Dassin- just that Rififi and Night and the Cityare two of my favorite noir movies and that another great artist of the 20th century has left the world of this new, weird century behind- leaving us with one less person who might be able to explain it to us. The best we can do is look back at the work they left behind and be a little sad they didn’t leave more. I guess this would be the weekend for me to pull Tokapi out of the binder, dust it off and get to know Dassin a little better.
More bad news in the world of noirFAN, I just read that Jules Dassin passed away in Athens today. He was 96 years old. We lose Dassin just days after Richard Widmark, his star in Night and the City. Dassin also notably directed Rififi, one of the best heist movies ever put on film.
One of the best things I’ve ever done in LA was attend a screening a few years ago at the LA County Museum of Art of Rififi. Being a fan of all things black and white and all things Paris, I love the movie Rififi. Because the films I love were all released 50-60 years ago, I try and take every opportunity I can to see them on the big screen. The highlight of the night was a Q&A at the end with Mr. Dassin himself.
Dassin talked about his exile from Hollywood during the height of McCarthyism (he had been a member of the Communist party in Harlem in the 1930’s) which sent him to Paris. He was unemployed for 5 years before someone offered him Rififi. He described living in Paris with limited French language skills and he was given the book Rififi, written in a french dialect that is very difficult to understand. He talked about his choice to cast himself as the Italian safe cracker in the movie. I always thought he gives a charming performance as the lusty crook.
Dassin married Melina Mercouri, a famous Greek actress who later became the Greek Minister of Culture. Her big cause was to get the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens. They won a slight victory when a museum recently opened near the Parthenon holding plaster casts. Melina also starred in a few of Dassin’s films including Never on Sunday.
He told us that after Rififi came out everyone was pronouncing his name as if he were French. He laughed and said: “To me I was always just little Julie Dassin from Middlebury Connecticut.”