Archive for Dick Powell

To the Neon God they prayed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2011 by dcairns

“He’s still talking about editing.”

“Make him stop.”

“I can’t.”

More about editing. Here’s the opening of MURDER, MY SWEET, directed by Edward Dmytryk. In his book On Film Editing, later collected in his bigger book, On Film Making, Dmytryk talks about the scene in Philip Marlowe’s office. Watch the scene. Does anything strike you as odd, or wrong? Continuity, perhaps?

Chance are you haven’t spotted it. If you have, tell me. I’ll know if you’re lying.

Here’s the story: Dmytryk covered the action with all the camera angles he felt he needed, but when he came to cut it together, he saw a problem. The action is partly lit by a blinking neon sign, which gives it classic noir atmos, and also allows for Mike Mazurki‘s appearance as Moose Molloy, reflected in the window, to have an eerie, spectral, now you see it now you don’t effect. But although the light simulating the sign had been faded up and down at regular intervals — three seconds off, three seconds on — it wasn’t precisely synchronized with the performances. This meant that when you cut from a wide shot to a close-up, the sign might blink off prematurely, or it might stay lit too long. Cutting the conversation according to the performances left the blinking neon all out of whack.

So Dmytryk and editor Joseph Noriego tried cutting for continuity. Trouble was, with the neon sign flowing smoothly again, three seconds off, three seconds on, there were now awkward pauses and unmotivated accelerations in the dialogue. The lighting was consistent, but the scene fell on its face.

So Dmytryk made the bold decision to cut for dramatic values and say to Hell with continuity. Now watch the scene and count along with the neon sign. Three seconds off, two seconds on, four seconds off, six seconds on… it’s completely crazy. And at one point it blinks on in an angle on Dick Powell, and then on again in an angle on Mike Mazurki, without ever having gone off. But Dmytryk found that when the scene was cut this way, nobody noticed the strangeness of the light’s behaviour. Cutting solidly for dramatic values put the audience’s attention squarely where it was supposed to be, and they only took particular notice of the light during Mazurki’s first appearance, when they were supposed to notice it.

By this argument, the unusually large number of continuity errors in Martin Scorsese’s films (caused in part, no doubt, by the use of improvisation, which causes each take to differ) can be seen as evidence of the high quality of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s work — the most obtrusive mismatches are permissable, as long as the dramatic flow is maintained. Check the bloodstains on DeNiro’s face during scene three of RAGING BULL, when Pesci hits him with a a fist wrapped in table-cloth. Hard to believe anyone would have the nerve to leave a howler like that in the cut. And that’s a good thing.

On Film Editing

Murder, My Sweet

Blessed Event Horizon

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by dcairns

“What a character!” proclaimed one of my students at the end of the screening of Roy Del Ruth’s BLESSED EVENT. I was hoping it’d affect them that way. Lee Tracy is a hero of mine, and in his first film he’s a dynamite figure. I’m following this movie with a showing of THE BEST MAN, Tracy’s final film, in which he completes his gallery of hucksters, grifters, baloney-merchants and sizzle-salesmen by playing a former president of those there United States of America.

Jenkins sees his future, and it is Dibble.

Also on hand in the movie are long-suffering secretary Ruth Donnelly (always a pleasure); Dick Powell (“He did one thing right,” said a student, “because every time he appeared I really wanted to punch him.”) — I amazed the class by telling them of Powell’s ’40s transformation into a grizzled tough guy; Allen Jenkins, combining the rasping whine of Officer Dibble with the waddle and watery eyes of a doomed chimp; Isabel Jewell (LOST HORIZON) is the emotional heart of the film, but doesn’t even rate a credit; Ned Sparks, the nasal drawl made flesh; Jack La Rue is an incompetent hitman, initially terrifying and ultimately hilarious, a surprisingly adept physical comic (his last big scene mainly requires him to be smacked repeatedly in the face).

“Ya recognize him?” Ned Sparks is asked.

“I won’t if you keep that up.”

La Rue (left) scents blood.

But Tracy is practically the whole show.  A barnstorming comedy turn, swooping around the frame and double-taking nineteen to the dozen, forcing laughs from a startled audience just by soaring up a couple of octaves, or breaking up words by adding vowels to consonants, as in the construction “Puh-lenty!” As I said, it’s interesting that he has a voice like Jiminy Cricket, since his character has no conscience.

Roy Del Ruth directs with the required pace, and a peculiar sense of camera blocking — shot sizes change sometimes at random, sometimes for very clear dramatic reasons. Ned Sparks is shot frontally several times, talking straight at us, but nobody else is. One semi-circular track around Tracy as he does his business on the telephone plays like a hint as to how this kind of thing might get shot thirty or forty years later.

One of my students was startled by the abruption of the film’s ending, which could be seen as leaving a lot of unfinished business: true, the hero has promised to perform a noble deed, but we don’t stick around to see him do it. I explained that the closing clinch is a major Hollywood tradition: the movies exist solely to bring a couple together, so once that’s achieved, any other business gets filed under “Mission Accomplished.”

“Did Warner Brothers also deal in music?” asked one shrewd patron, observing the multiple appearances of Dick Powell in terpsichorean rapture, interrupting the plot and extending one scene until it takes on the aspect of an unending waking nightmare. Yes, they did indeed.

Recently I also ran Lewis Milestone’s film of THE FRONT PAGE. This ought to have been Lee Tracy’s debut movie, since he originated the part of Hildy Johnson on Broadway, but Pat O’Brien, already established in Ho’wood, snagged the role. He does OK with it, but one can’t shake the feeling he’s cribbing from an audio recording of Tracy’s perf, following the timing to the exact millisecond, mimicking all Tracy’s tics and devices. Adolph Menjou is more relaxed as Machiavellian news editor Walter Burns, more charming than Walter Matthau’s version, far less so than Cary Grant’s. (Howard Hawks, uninterested in social commentary, didn’t mind de-fanging the character, but he kept the outrageousness for entertainment’s sake.)

The script suffers from padding produced by a mistaken desire to “open out” the play and illustrate the scenes which are merely described as offstage action in the Hecht-MacArthur play, and having seen these scenes played better in other, slicker versions, I only laughed once, at a fresh bit extrapolated from the play but not seen in any other movie adaptation ~

The escape of Earl Williams. Almost certainly Gustaf Von Seyffertitz’s best comedy moment. For a guy named Seyffertitz, he was surprisingly solemn.

Milestone directs at rapid pace, originating a lot of the fast cutting and overlapping dialogue we tend to credit to Howard Hawks’s remake. And he swings the camera about like a pre-code Scorsese, seriously exceeding the technicians’ ability to maintain stability and fluidity, tracking and panning and circling and swooping — the very first shot is a fast track-back from a gallows that’s being tested with flour sacks — Milestone shoots the camera move at about 12fps so as to create a really startling surge of energy.

Noirathon

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by dcairns

A new Spurious Project for me – because you can never really have too many, can you? I pass my shelves every day, and from those shelves the plaintive cases of DVDs I have bought look out at me, pleading to be watched. I also have stacks and stacks of unwatched discs in folders and drums and drawers, but I didn’t pay for those, so I feel less guilty/stupid. The fact that I shelled out good money for nice pre-recorded DVDs in nice packaging, and then allow them to sit unwatched, for years in many instances, is clearly unsustainably crap. So my new project is to watch all the unwatched movies on the big shelving unit by the kitchen.

MURDER MY SWEET (known in the UK, with our mania for source fidelity, as FAREWELL MY LOVELY) is one that I felt I’d sort of seen, just not all at once or in the right order. It was to correct this that I picked up the Region 1 DVD secondhand when I stumbled upon it. Not having properly watched one of Edward Dmytryk’s top films and one of the key films noir of screen history was too shameful even to admit until now, when I’ve done it at last. Here are my impressions –

I remember a piece about Raymond Chandler where essayist Clive James said part of Chandler’s self-selected authorial problem was to stop Philip Marlowe coming across like too good a writer. The guy’s meant to be a private eye, not Henry James, after all. If Chandler were the terse kind of writer like Hammett, he could no doubt have pulled this off more easily – Hammett is actually the better writer, I’d say, but his terse, no-nonsense prose appears to sound more like a regular Joe yapping. By contrast, Chandler is nearly all nonsense, the wacky similes and figures of speech flying forth in a decidedly non-naturalistic way. So it’s a slight mistake for screenwriter John Paxton to frame their story as a flashback with Marlowe (Dick Powell) throwing out one-liners to an unsympathetic copper — “My bank account was trying to crawl under a duck,” that kind of thing. As Jack Lemmon argues in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody talks like that.” What just about scrapes by as the character’s thoughts or reflections suddenly seems rather florid when recycled as dialogue.

But once you get over the initial awkwardness, and the wit of the lines certainly helps, the story carries you along, with Powell surprisingly effective. When he was being tough or suave I sometimes felt I’d like to see someone else have a crack at it (Chandler’s own preference, Cary Grant, would be interesting – I can’t quite see it, which makes me want to), but where he scores is in the moments of horror and violence. He makes you feel the pain, especially since his tough-guy exterior is allowed to get much more shredded and distressed than would be the case with Bogart, say.

That spooky opening with Marlowe’s eyes bandaged, and the glowing-white tabletop, feels like a seance, calling the rest of the story out of the night. And then comes the great neon-lit scene in Marlowe’s office, with Moose Malloy appearing like a spectre, reflected in the window.

Is this Mike Mazurki’s best ever role? I like to think he got the part of Moose Malloy at least partly for alliterative reasons, and not just because he’s a hulking bruiser, looking something like an Easter Island statue who’s managed to dig himself free after being buried in the sand up to the neck. Moose was the main thing I recalled from the novel, which I read years back, and I have a feeling I almost liked him better in the film. Chandler paints Moose as an innocent giant, and while that’s part of the Mazurki characterisation, he’s also more than a touch psycho, and less appealing but more real because of it. Despite this glaze of psychology, he’s also a lumbering, two-fisted plot function, turning up wherever he’s need to provide some aggro, and oddly able to appear in a room without being noticed by anybody, like Mrs Danvers.  A sort of Moose Ex Machina, if you will.

His first appearance of this kind, revealed in a reflection in Marlowe’s office by a blinking neon sign, is one of his best. Dmytryk apparently found a problem when cutting this scene, though: when he cut back and forth between his two leads, the need to preserve the rhythm of the blinking sign was killing the drama. He was forced to linger on the speaker in order to make the sign stay off or on at a consistent rate, when he really wanted to be cutting to the listener’s reaction. Finally, on a chance, he cut the scene purely for dramatic values, ignoring the continuity issues created. He found the scene played so well that nobody noticed that the sign was now on for two seconds, off for four, on for three, off for two… Now you understand why Scorsese seems to care so little for continuity gaffes.

Dmytryk’s Sixth Rule of film editing:  “Cut for proper values rather than proper ‘matches’.”

Nice scene driving at night, with spooky reflections! And then a weirdly lit scene in the woods with massive light sources beaming through the fog in all directions? A sky-full of moons, or an arboreal disco? Dmytryk’s method at this time was forego niceties and shoot what looked nice and could be achieved quickly. He sought to concentrate his time on rehearsing the actors, not waiting for the lighting to be ready. So this system is a mixture of “simple to achieve” — turn on a few big lights on the rig — and “looks pretty”. The low-key chiaroscuro style came from a similar need for speed.

Along for the ride are the equally euphonious Miles Mander, England’s thinnest thespian, a quavery-voiced monofilament in a suit*, and the smarmy chin that is Otto Kruger, on particularly fine despicable form. Anne Shirley is one of those somewhat interchangeable, sweet young actresses of the era whom I’m always a little sweet on (ah, Joan Leslie!), and the iconic Claire Trevor is hands-down the most fascinating person on view. Sleazy, brazen, mysterious, wicked, aloof, needy, lusty and reeking of nicotine (like everyone else in the show), CT dominates, effortlessly. It helps that she can look cheap as well as beautiful.

What a fine film this is — as is often the case when one watches a classic which had somehow eluded viewing for years, the prevailing feeling is one of silliness: how could I not have seen this before? The secondary feeling is an appreciation of the film’s Gothic attributes, that unspoken air of eeriness, predominant in the nightmare hallucination sequence, but really present throughout.

The goofy nightmare, which kind of sets the tone for 90% of Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, looks to be under the influence of WAXWORKS (Jack the Ripper segment) and somehow finds its way into the dayglo eighties pulp of I, MADMAN! (stalker with syringe) and CRIMEWAVE (line of free-standing doors). The more location-set noir movies would become, the less possibility there would be for this kind of hopped-up carnival atmosphere.

I liked the ending! Up to the moment when the blinded Marlow finishes his story and Ann Shirley mouths a warning to the cops not to reveal her presence, things are looking pretty grim. And indeed, I would have loved that ending, with the bereaved leading lady slipping quietly off and abandoning our poor trodden-on flatfoot. But then a happy romcom ending is gleefully pasted on, and it somehow works. Shirley looks way too happy for someone who’s just lost most of her family, but it’s played with enough wit that, like all the other dicey moments, it winds up an unlikely triumph.

*So thin was Mander that he had a problem registering on celluloid. You’ve heard no doubt, of persons so thin they disappear when they turn sideways. Mander disappeared from all angles and never reappeared, making it necessary for two burly stagehands to grip him by the head and feet while the director strummed the actor’s midriff, causing him to oscillate violently and thereby temporarily occupy enough space to allow him to be captured by photochemical means. The effect was short-lasting, and after three minutes or so, Mander would revert to passing between the raindrops in his usual manner. This affliction resulted in Mander losing a role to Sir Cedric Hardwicke in Hitchcock’s ROPE, after Hitch realised that the actor would simply fade from view one-third of the way through each of the long takes he was planning to use. “Mander was too slender even for the title role,” Hitch quipped.

Buy MURDER MY SWEET from US Amazon –

Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1 (The Asphalt Jungle / Gun Crazy / Murder My Sweet / Out of the Past / The Set-Up)

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