Archive for August, 2008

The Bowery Inferno

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2008 by dcairns

I’d wanted to see Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY for ages, but it’s not easy to come by. I knew it was a big influence on THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, and from the sound of things, an influence on the good bits. I also knew it was racially controversial. I wasn’t quite prepared for how it would feel to watch it.

As with BIRTH OF A NATION, it hurts. You know there’s historical distance, and with a lot of things you can watch with an ironic laugh and think “Thank God we wouldn’t dream of saying THAT anymore,” but some films break right through modern irony, bypass standard-issue offense and land in a very unpleasant place where you just feel a bit ashamed of being human.

Walsh’s film is lots of fun, or nearly, and with one scene removed it might fall into the category of ironically enjoyable political incorrectness, but with that scene, the whole film is poisoned. I don’t suggest censoring it, by the way: as a historical document it’s invaluable. (My copy turns out to come from Channel Four, which means it had an uncensored UK TV screening within the last twenty or so years…

Walsh starts as he means to go on:

But this being a tale of the Naughty/Gay Nineties (inspired by the success of Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG), we can allow this crass but period-accurate detail. Walsh follows this intro with a montage of outrageous behaviour on the streets and in the drinking dives of the Bowery, and it’s energetic, fun stuff. One can see how the creation of a sort of urban wild west influenced Scorsese’s period crime epic.

When Wallace Beery shows up like a big cartoon character with a joke accent — “I takes care o’ dat meself: poisonal!” — we warm to him. When his young ward Jackie Cooper turns up, fleeing a group of “chinks” whose window he’s smashed, it’s possible to take the racial attitudes as belonging to the characters, not the film. B. Kite once observed to me that much of Walsh’s appeal lies in his strange ability to make loutish behaviour appear charming, and he generally manages it. Sometimes the characters go too far, and this adds a bracing tinge of malaise to the fun. But Cooper’s fondness for breaking windows does seem like real racism, rather than an innocent, impish desire to destroy stuff. His ballsy, pugnacious performance, pitched to the same muggish level as Beery’s, is interesting at first, so perhaps judgement is suspended — besides, there’s plenty of time yet for character development. Give the kid a chance.

“It was only a chink’s winder.” “I know, but a winder’s a winder.”

Some good clowning ensues as George Raft turns up and begins sparring with rival Beery. Oddly, this film is the only one I can think of where both stars coincidentally have character names the same as two other stars of a later era: Beery plays Chuck Connors, and George Raft plays Steve Brodie. It has the same discombobulating effect as that bit in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA when Robert DeNiro uses the pseudonym “Robin Williams”.

And now comes the apocalypse from which this film never recovers. A fire breaks out in a Chinese-American tenement, and Beery and Raft’s rival fire teams compete to put it out (this scene was recreated very closely in GANGS, only without the racial element). It turns out Cooper is responsible, his flung rock having smashed a lantern. As Raft and his men arrive, Cooper is sitting on a barrel which he’s positioned to conceal the fire hydrant until Beery’s gang arrive. But when Beery and co get there, the would-be rescue devolves into a riot as the opposing fire teams take to battering each other senseless. Meanwhile distraught “chinks” gesticulate from a high-up window of the blazing building. This is becoming uncomfortable.

Dissolve to later, and both fire teams have been punched unconscious, and the building has been burned to the ground — presumably with everyone inside. It would have been very easy to have shown the denizens escaping the inferno, even if they had to jump onto an awning, or something. I mean, the joke is these firefighters who are more concerned with status than with fighting fires, so the distressed victims make a point — but the joke, for me, is ruined if anybody gets killed, and the central characters totally lose sympathy. The sequence is clearly funnier if we don’t think anybody’s been seriously harmed. But the film thinks so little of these characters — they’re basically not regarded as human beings — that it can’t be bothered with an A-Team style “mercy shot”. Furthermore, Cooper is now a mass-murderer, but this is never addressed. We’re supposed to find him loveable and not be worried about his psychopathic behaviour. Although THE BOWERY has much to commend it, and I love pre-code Hollywood filth and nastiness, I’m afraid I stopped enjoying the film at this point…

Am I losing my sense of humour here?

The Great Duvivier Giveaway

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2008 by dcairns

Yes. In a daring rear-guard action to promote the reputation of defunct French film director Julien Duvivier, Shadowplay is GIVING AWAY DVD-Rs copied from a decomposing late ’80s VHS off-air recording “borrowed” from the Lindsay Anderson Archive in Glasgow. I will personally send a copy to everyone who asks for one. The quality will of the disc be shit. The quality of the film is unspeakably superb.

While I would hope all regular Shadowplayers will jump at this chance, I also want to hear from lurkers and loiterers who don’t usually expose themselves in the Comments section. “Come out in the light and let’s have a look at you!” This is partly just an excuse to involve more of you. This is an open-ended, long-standing offer, until somebody brings out an official release of this movie with subtitles, or hell freezes over, whichever comes first.

By accepting this once-in-a-lifetime lunatic offer you undertake to watch the film, copy the film, recommend the film, distribute the film, and if it becomes possible, by the rights and publish the film on your own DVD label, which you have to call DaViD DVD. Apart from that, there are no obligations. No salesman will call.

What are you getting? LA FIN DU JOUR is a tender, funny, tense and beautiful drama set in a troublous home for retired actors. It stars Victor Francen, Louis Jouvet and Michel Simon. Ironically, while playing characters in their late sixties, the three stars were only in their ’40s or ’50s. Porridge-faced insult to physiognomy Michel Simon was only a few years older than myself — which makes me feel really good.

Although Duvivier practically cultivated the image of anonymous artisan, in fact this is one of his most personal films. An actor in his youth, Duvivier switched to directing after a traumatic incident in which he “dried” and “died” on stage, a scene recreated in this movie. Despite being about oldsters, LA FIN DU JOUR is bristling with action, suspense, suicide attempts, madness, adultery, concussion and grumbling. And it has definite remake possibilities if Hollywood is listening.

The year was 1939 and the French film industry was about to be upset, violently. Duvivier would spend the war years in America, where he made THE GREAT WALTZ, FLESH AND FANTASY and TALES OF MANHATTAN, which are far easier to see than most of his French films. I’d say that if you like the American movies, you’re certainly in for a treat if and when you see the French ones.

A TASTER! But a perverse one: this is the end of the movie, so you might not want to look. (SPOILER ALERT) One of the characters has died. In his will, he explains that he’s written his own funeral oratory, because he wants to know what people say about him after he’s gone. He was an untalented, unsuccessful actor, so this is really his last chance to rewrite his career as a triumph. It falls to his worst enemy to read the vainglorious self-penned elegy…

Isn’t that great? Now let’s be having you.

Now That’s Weird…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on August 29, 2008 by dcairns

I write a birthday piece for Ben Gazzara. In it, I reference the work of science fiction author Ursula K. LeGuin. I suspect I’m the only person in history ever to do this, but there you go. The piece sparks a warm exchange of memories about Gazzara and other members of the John Cassavetes informal repertory company.

Today, one day later, I wander into a second-hand bookshop and find, without looking for it, a LeGuin paperback, City of Illusions.

The main character of this novel is called Falk.



“There’s just one thing that still kinda bothers me…”