Archive for Alan Ladd

Paramount Unimportance

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2019 by dcairns

The title PARAMOUNT ON PARADE was taken.

Watching STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM because it’s an Alan Ladd – Veronica Lake movie is a bad idea — they share no scenes, aren’t in the good bits, and don’t really do the things we like to see them do. It’s moderately good fun to see Lake spoof her image in the Sweater, Sarong & Peekaboo Bang number along with Paulette Goddard (?) and Dorothy Lamour, none of whom can sing terribly pleasingly, and it’s, well, strange to see Ladd take part in a pointless, desultory little sketch set in an expressionist pool hall. But then, none of the sketches in the film is any damn good.

Some of the musical numbers are pretty fine, though —

Stick with this one! It’s all about the Golden Gate Quartette (sic).

There is actually a plot, though the movie is forced to suspend it for large swathes of its runtime. It gets us from one musical sequence to another, shoehorns in a bunch of cameos, and the best of these, for both film-historical and entertainment reasons, are those of C.B. DeMille and Preston Sturges. Sturges does a great trip as he angrily exits a screening room. Not quite up to William Demarest standards, but very funny, especially for his furious look right at the camera department.

George Marshall directs, but it’s no BLUE DAHLIA.

Still in Saigon

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2019 by dcairns

Working my way through the Ladd-Lake catalogue (see here, and here). For some reason, SAIGON (1948), their last collaboration, was only findable on fuzzy ex-VHS, a shame, since you can still see evidence of Paramount’s soft, lambent house style, in the hands of DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s photographer, John Seitz.

Alan Ladd is Major Briggs (it’s tempting to imagine him settling down in Twin Peaks and putting on weight), hanging out in the far east after demob with the two surviving members of his wartime flight crew (Ladd played a lot of “post-war disillusion” roles, which I guess nobody was embarrassed about because he HAD served, even if he got invalided out with ulcers and a double hernia after a few months, poor guy). His youngest buddy, Douglas Dick (ROPE), has some kind of unconvincing war injury that’s going to alluvasudden kill him in a month or two. Rather than telling the kid, Ladd decides to “pack in a hundred years of living, with no rough spots, no bumps in the road” (the film’s best line, repeated a couple times). This requires dough, so he and his pals take on a suspiciously remunerative job flying an oily tycoon to Saigon.

The titan of industry misses his flight due to a shoot-out with local cops — I *knew* this guy was up to no good — but his secretary, Veronica Lake shows up. She and Ladd cordially hate each other on sight but young Dick falls for her. A few balls are now in the air — Ladd at first tries to protect Dick from Lake, who’s no good, in his view — then he blackmails Lake into being nice to Dick, because the kid’s stuck on her and this would give him a couple months happiness. But we know the creepy businessman’s going to turn up looking for the half mill he entrusted to Lake and which Ladd now has. And, once in Indochina, there’s a sinister-seeming local policeman (“Eurasian” Luther Adler, quite good fun) lurking around, determined to nab somebody, anybody, on a money-smuggling rap.

Some of what follows is predictable — we have, after all, been told that one character is doomed — and some pans out in a fairly uninspired way, which is a shame because the leads are so good together, underplaying their socks off. Lake’s thawing is very nicely played. Leslie Fenton directs — he was quite a good actor in the pre-codes — alas, the script doesn’t have enough zingers to put over its surprisingly downbeat conclusion. Deserves a release, though, a Ladd-Lake box-set would be a desirable item, except I suppose they’d have to put STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM on it.

SAIGON stars Jay Gatsby; The Girl (in the picture/with the peekaboo curl); Kenneth; Cotton Valletti; Rudi Janus/Adolf Hitler; Morris Gershwin; and Heinrich Himmler.

Run and Gun

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2019 by dcairns

Humm, thought I’d already published this…

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THIS GUN FOR HIRE is, on the one hand, the first version of Melville’s LE SAMOURAI. It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (retitled This Gun for Hire in America: the credits seek to reinforce this literary connection even as the screenplay departs from the book in key ways). And a star-making turn for Alan Ladd, who is very, very good in it, in a seriously unusual leading man/villain role. Unusual when Delon did it, pretty well unique when Laddie took it on.

Greene was always rather snooty about the film, criticising the decision to make Veronica Lake’s character a singing magician, as if that was too ridiculous for words. But he’s the one who had the girlfriend of the detective hunting a killer happen to get on a train with the killer and end up kidnapped by him. Screenwriters W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar source novels) and Albert Maltz do try to iron that wrinkle out by making Lake also a secret agent, so that both she and Ladd are trailing the same man (lovely Laird Cregar).

But the first ten minutes of the film are worth concentrating on, I think. Director Frank Tuttle, assisted by ace noirmeister John F. Seitz as cameraman, creates a whole succession of iconic images —

Ladd is supposed to have a childhood injury, a badly-healed broken wrist, a good, ugly makeup effect by Wally Westmore. Ladd and Tuttle do everything they possibly can to make you notice the affected limb in this sequence — and none of it works.

It’s very strangely. I think it’s because it’s simply too soon for us to be interested in this man’s wrist. In a wide shot, we notice that Ladd carries his arm oddly, but we don’t perceive the jutting bone. In close-ups of hand action, we notice what his hands are DOING, not what they or their attendant arms are like. Later, a newspaper prints a picture of his arm and we go UGH! And next time we see him, we notice it.

I think the boxy low angles, emphasizing the ceiling, feed directly into Melville’s rather jerky trombone shot which opens LE SAMOURAI, in which Delon’s basement apartment seems to expand and contract. This happens because (a) Melville had decided that his protagonist, “Jeff Costello,” is schizophrenic, and (b) he hasn’t done any actual research about what that means.

Alan Ladd’s character is at least as schizophrenic as Delon’s. In the conventional, incorrect sense of having a divided personality. We’re about to see Delon carry out a hit, and here we see him going over the paperwork and preparing his handgun — and we know he’s a hood because cops don’t live in apartments like this in movies, and who else carries a gun?

Then he tenderly feeds a kitten.

The San Francisco newspaper is a nice scene-setting detail, but do we really notice it in the midst of our “Awwwlookadakitty!”* moment? Doesn’t matter, detail is both good and necessary. Anyway, whenever I use the Pauline Kael “we,” to talk about what does or doesn’t get noticed, remember that on the big screen, “we” would notice a lot more.

Anyway, having the tough, crooked anti-hero give milk/cream to a cat is a Sternberg moment — the Paramount thriller is still, in 1942, indebted to UNDERWORLD, whose screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by this sentimental detail. Sternberg claimed credit for the idea, saying he wanted to show his hero/villain had a good heart, and implying that such broad brushstrokes were essential if you wanted to get through to the mainstream audience. He was sort of contemptuous of the audience and the approach, but not of his own cleverness in manipulating both.

Enter the slattern! A memorable turn by Pamela Blake, later a wide-eyed B-western heroine. Would it be too much to ask for a whole movie about this vulgar bitch-goddess. She enters, is mean to the cat, and Ladd slaps her and tears her top (adding a sexual tinge to his violence which doesn’t mean seem to mean anything, it’s just for titillation).

So we learn that ordinary people are nasty, and that this killer is in a way more sensitive than regular civilians.

Ladd leaves, there’s a quick exterior of his rooming house, the movie resists the impulse to show us Those Damn Hills, and then Ladd has a disturbing encounter with a little disabled girl in the stair of his target.

She’s meant to remind us of him, because of his wrist, but the effect is subtler, pleasingly mysterious, because “we” haven’t noticed his damn wrist.

The target: initially suspicious, then quite friendly. He offers Ladd coffee and cookies. Ladd actually eats the cookie of the man he’s about to snuff! That’s a clear violation of the rules of hospitality. If you’re going to kill a man you have to refuse all cookies.

Unexpectedly, a woman is present: the target’s “secretary.” The headline will read CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED. Ladd is discomfited by this complication, but is able to complete his appointed task when the squeal of the kettle summons the “secretary” away.

*Copyright Glenn Kenny.

It’s another great room. Production design is by an uncredited Lynd Ward according to IMDb, who provide no other credits for this mystery man. Art direction is credited to the usual Hans Dreier & Robert Usher. This is a more salubrious joint than Ladd’s flophouse, but John Seitz’s low-key lighting makes all the settings a bit grubby. Even Veronica Lake’s eventual appearance can’t illuminate every shadow.

Look, the wrist! But I’m telling you, we don’t clock it yet. The blackmailing chemist target asks to be paid, and Ladd reaches in his briefcase, where we saw him put his gun.

This moment is extended for suspense purposes, and we get a little smile from Ladd. He’s enjoying, in a slightly sexy way, the feeling of power and the dramatic irony of this cookie-dispensing chemist smiling in anticipation of getting paid when in reality he’s going to get a slug in the ticker. It’s a VERY unsympathetic bit of characterisation, but of course it positions Ladd right alongside us, the audience, in pleasurable anticipation of a less attractive character’s demise at the hands of a leading man.

The inevitable occurs.

The “secretary” appears in the kitchen doorway.

“They said he’d be alone,” says Ladd. His tone is quite harsh, but the impulse to make such a remark is a sort of apologetic one. An attempt to explain why your regrettable death must now be implemented. It’s like in GROSSE POINTE BLANK. “Why are you doing this?” is answered with “It’s not me.” Which does nothing. It does not reassure. It’s more upsetting than anything else. But the impulse is apologetic, and so the audience notes that in the character’s favour.

The “secretary” retreats to the kitchen, presumably blocks the door with her body, and Ladd shoots her through the door. The fact that we don’t get a shot from inside the kitchen denies us a view of her terror and denies us a little bit of empathy with the “wrong” character.

Ladd forces the door open to check her (unseen) body, with a series of grisly nudges later borrowed by Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE (Mandrake/Ripper sequence).

Ladd’s mission also includes picking up the documents involved in the blackmail scheme he’s just Gordian-unknotted. Hilariously, David Buttolph’s score goes into a kind of Morse Code at this point, because there are dots and dashes in the nonsense chemical formulae.

Ladd leaves, and has another Disturbing Encounter with the little girl. She asks him to retrieve a dropped ball. (What kind of monster gives a disabled child a ball to play with?) He pauses, reaches for his briefcase, then retrieves the ball (religiose music).

So we learn that he has a conscience, or a weakness. He’s wicked enough to CONSIDER killing a little disabled girl, because he knows she’s a witness. But good enough to reject the idea AND give her her ball back. (She’s only going to lose it again.)

Net result: hey, we LIKE this cold-blooded assassin!

That’s how it works, folks.