Archive for A Fistful of Dollars

The Laddie and the Lake

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by dcairns

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.

 

Piss and Vinegar

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2015 by dcairns

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For some reason, even for a confused liberal like me, it’s often extremely satisfying to see a policeman protagonist smacking suspects around and GETTING ANSWERS. It’s something that seems to just work in drama, and it can even be amusing, which speaks to something dark and stupid in human nature. Also, maybe it’s pleasing because it acknowledges something we believe goes on, but which isn’t always admitted in reassuring fictions. Still, after the recent massacre in Paris, there was something satisfying about watching both of Claude Chabrol’s Inspector Lavardin films (POULET AU VINAIGRE and INSPECTEUR LAVARDIN), in which glinty, flinty Jean Poiret plays Dominique Roulet’s quirky copper (likes his eggs just so), beating up witnesses, letting killers off on a whim, stitching up those who may not be precisely guilty as charged.

“Life is absurd,” is Lavardin’s philosophy, and the films are charming and entertaining because of not despite their ethical shock factor — it’s liberating to see a character who cares nothing for the accepted rules of his profession and operates entirely according to his own sensibility. The disturbing undercurrent is the certainty that these methods ARE used, and are not so whimsically funny in real life.

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Lavardin is like Kurosawa’s Sanjuro character from YOJIMBO and SANJURO, upsetting the accepted codes of his genre and being so popular doing it that an immediate sequel becomes necessary. While Kurosawa boldly cast the same actor, Tetsuya Nakadai, as Toshiro Mifune’s opponents in both films, killing him off each time, and Sergio Leone repeated this trope with Gian Maria Volonte in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (even though FAFDM has nothing in common with SANJURO except that it’s a sequel to a version of YOJIMBO), Chabrol was not quite so shameless: he waited until Lavardin got his own TV show (Les Dossiers Secret de l’Inspecteur Lavardin) to recast ex-wife Stephane Audran.

The first film enjoys a slow, convoluted set-up, one of those things where one worries that the various dastardly characters, their dysfunctional relationships and covert schemes will never fully become clear, or that one won’t be clever or French enough to understand them. Lavardin enters quite late in the action, because the deaths don’t start until midway. It’s a familiar structure from movies like GREEN FOR DANGER or FARGO or the TV show Columbo or its antecedent, QUAI DES ORFEVRES. Whereas FARGO and Columbo show the elaborate set-up to a crime, concealing nothing, and QUAI DES ORFEVRES pretends to but keeps something up its sleeve, Lavardin’s first case echoes Inspector Cockrill’s (Launder & Gilliat wanted to star Alastair Sim in a whole series of Cockrill adventures after GREEN FOR DANGER, based on Christianna Brand’s delightful whodunnits, but the star refused to repeat himself) — we see and hear plenty, but not enough to fully understand the key elements. Then Lavardin comes along and not only catches up with us in record time despite everyone lying their heads off, he supercedes our understanding and cracks the case (and a few heads).

Enjoyable as this is (with a surprising number of plot elements from PSYCHO — crazy mother in cellar, car winched from ravine), the sequel is even better, starting as it does with a corpse on a beach (the word “PORC” etched on his chubby back). This means Lavardin is on the scene in an instant, and we discover the intricacies of the case through his beady, skeptical, humorous but reptilian eyes.

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I’ve heard it suggested that Chabrol came to despise mankind or at least his characters, but this does not quite seem to me to be true. There’s a bit of Clouzot’s wry affection (seeing mankind at its worst but rather liking it anyway) and there’s also the Coen defense, that these are genre exercises and the people AREN’T REAL. The filmmakers want their rats to not only run a maze, but an obstacle course. It’s all in fun, except when it’s not.

I’ve not quite decided if Chabrol’s latter-day authorial cynicism amounts to full-scale misanthropy. He seems too jocular for that. But if you want to see traditional detective stories reinvigorated by a change of attitude in the central character, Lavardin’s your man.

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To get both films you have to buy two box sets, it seems. But hey, that means more Chabrol.

The Claude Chabrol Collection – Vol. 2 [DVD]

In desperation, the pun “Poulet au Vinaigre” which means Chicken with Vinegar but also “vinegary policeman” has been substituted with the title COP AU VIN, which is easier for Brits to understand except it doesn’t really mean anything.

The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol. 1 (3 disc box set) [DVD]

“Sergeant, get these stains analysed!”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2008 by dcairns

So says Inspector Wim Wenders (not his real name) as he crashes an abandoned shagging palace, hot on the trail of some kind of HIGH-CLASS NONCE RING. For this is the sleazy world of Italian giallo, and in particular the particularly sleazy WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS, directed in brisk yet salacious fashion by Massimo Dalamano, the 1974 follow-up to WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (Between the two entries in the WHAT? series, Dalamano gave us a cop thriller which appears to be called WHO IS A BIGGER BASTARD THAN INSPECTOR CLIFF? Shadowplay salutes him!)

WHYDTS sticks in my mind, years after seeing it, for a scene where a coroner is asked how a young girl has died, and he wordlessly produces an X-ray of her pelvis with a giant kitchen knife sticking up it. Blast of organ music, cut to the grieving parents in church at her funeral. The combination of sex, violence, religion and sheer showbiz vulgarity seemed to encapsulate everything that’s queasily life-denying yet compelling about gialli.

WHTDTYD is similarly compact with grue and deviance, following a series of meat cleaver murders committed to cover up a high school prostitution ring. Of course it’s all handled with the Bressonian subtlety we’ve come to expect of Italian soft-porn psycho-thrillers — the scene where Inspector Wim finds a series of soiled plastic bags packed in the boot of an abandoned car, yanks one out, and sends a severed head spinning across the tarmac is particularly restrained. The victim’s wronged wife, come to identify the body, savagely demands to see the whole thing (meticulously reassembled by forensic nerds) so she can gloat —

But then, when she does see it, she’s NOT KEEN.

Meanwhile, Damano, a former cinematographer (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), prominently features a series of attractive lamps in scene after scene. Cinema is light, he’s telling us. In amongst this squalor and mayhem, there is yet grace and illumination. Then he shows us a schoolgirl pulling her panties on in leering closeup.

The thing is oddly compulsive, with an eccentric score by Stelvio Cipriano (Morricone did the first film, also eccentrically) that’s fast in the slow bits and slow in the fast bits. There’s nice use of wide-angle lens distortion as the killer (motorcycle courier with big chopper) barges about. There’s a peeping tom with an orange face. There’s Farley Granger, slumming it briefly. There’s Mario Adorf as a troubled policeman — he once played a serial killer himself, in a terrific film, Robert Siodmak’s MIDNIGHT AND THE DEVIL COMES — a serial killer in Nazi Germany! And there are quirks: attempting to dismember the glamorous assistant D.A. in an elevator, the ruthless assassin is interrupted by a little old man shouting “Stop that!” and, perhaps suddenly embarrassed about his crime spree, runs away.

It’s stupid little things like that that actually add realism.