Archive for January, 2021

Garage Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2021 by dcairns

Trunk item: started writing this ages ago, set it aside. Hope it can withstand daylight.

It’s a film noir axiom that if you’re hiding out from killers, you should go undercover working at a gas station or garage. They’ll find you, but it’ll take a while.

HEAT LIGHTNING may be the first proto-garage noir, with Aline McMahon as a former moll now running a “gas farm.” Then of course we have Burt Lancaster as the boxer-turned-mechanic in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum as former private eye now running an auto shop, and Brian Donlevy as amnesiac-businessman reinventing himself as a car repairman in IMPACT. And the neo-noir reprise comes in LOST HIGHWAY, where jazzman Bill Pullman gets reincarnated on death row into Balthazar Getty, who promptly resumes his apparently continuing life at Richard Pryor’s garage.

Boxing, saxophony and mollwork, or course, are all readily transferable skills that come in useful when you make career change to greasemonkeying.

I thought it would be fun to have a garage noir double feature, with IMPACT, which I’d never seen, and THE KILLERS, which we needed to rewatch for work-related reasons… Hmm, do the various other versions of this story — the Tarkovsky short and the Siegel TV remake — use the garage setting? And has anybody got more examples? Let’s make this a thing!

THE KILLERS holds up brilliantly — uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks. along with Anthony Veiller who has his name on it, adapt Hemingway’s story by turning it into a crimey CITIZEN KANE, with the Thompson character fleshed out into Edmond O’Brien at his most charming. Newcomer Burt Lancaster gets the CF Kane part, dying at the start only to pop up in the flashbacks. Director Robert Siodmak’s rematch with Lancaster, CRISS CROSS, may be even better.

IMPACT is stodgy, despite a lot of actors we like: the plot has some interesting elements but unfolds in a plodding, A-B-C-D fashion. Flashbacks might have helped — jumble the scenes, amp up the intrigue, skip some of the steps. It’s an indie production and I have to think that had it been a studio film, somebody like Harry Cohn would have got an itchy ass and slashed it from 111 minutes to something more nimble.

The dullest part is the romantic idyll. Ella Raines had experience projecting adoration at, you would think, ill-suited mates (Laughton, Sanders, Bracken, that Alan Curtis guy), but Brian Donlevy is required to reveal some tenderness of his own, and that cupboard is bare, baby.

IMPACT stars Quatermass McGinty; Carol “Kansas” Richman; The Honorable Betty Cream; Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman; A Flower of the Orient; Mr. LeBrand; Quigley Quackenbush; President Harry S. Truman; Philo Vance; The Dear One; Saburo Goto; The Gilded Boy; and Roger Bronson.

THE KILLERS stars JJ Hunsecker; Pandora Reynolds; Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock; Dr. Thorkel; Frank D’ Angelo; “Goldie” Locke; Princess Ananka; Philadelphia Tom Zaca; Big Mac; Sebastian Sholes; Herr Kastner; Frank Cannon; Uncle Owen; Wild Bill Hickok; Ming the Merciless; The Blind One; and Mr. Waterbury.

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…