Archive for Aline McMahon

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 in OUT OF THE PAST, 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.

Doctor, Lawyer, Beggar Man, Thief

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2020 by dcairns

With a nod to Tom Waits’ Heart Attack and Vine, I conceived the idea of a Warren William Weekend Quadruple Feature — Since pre-code Warner Bros were in the process of producing a Mighty Tapestry of works documenting every aspect of American life, it’s easy to find any of their stars in roles embodying the roles Waits sings of. One could make the same series with William Powell, with a little studio-hopping (THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD, LAWYER MAN, MY MAN GODFREY, JEWEL THIEF), to name one.

Warren W. appears in BEDSIDE, THE MOUTHPIECE, THE MIND READER and THE DARK HORSE — I’ve had to stretch the definition of “beggar man” considerably, though — I would LOVE to see WW playing a shabby-genteel hobo, but I have to settle for a high society psychic, a profession that relates to sideshow charlatanry, but it’s definitely a cheat. On the other hand, for “thief” we could have had any of the LONE WOLF films and several others. The main reason for the exercise was to look at BEDSIDE again in the company of THE MOUTHPIECE, which I’d never seen… My suspicion was that they’d be basically the same film.

David Landau appears in losing hand of cards.

Not so! Although of course both have WW in rogue mode. Both are tales of sinners redeemed. But in BEDSIDE (Robert Florey), he’s so disgustingly corrupt (in a charming way) that his ultimate escape from any consequences for his actions as a phony doc — the medical profession closes ranks to avoid a scandal — comes off (and may have been sneakily intended) as satire. Whereas THE MOUTHPIECE ends on a stunningly ambiguous note — will WW pay the ultimate price for his misdeeds?

It’s hilarious to me that THE MOUTHPIECE shows our perennial rogue quitting the DA’s office in a fit of ethical revulsion after accidentally sending an innocent man to the electric chair, and then becoming, in reaction, a mob lawyer. Corruption awaits him in every direction, he just happens to fall into it. He saves J. Carroll Naish AND Jack La Rue, that’s how bad he is. He also has Aline McMahon as secretary/better angel, which is a sure sign of a man with a troubled conscience — see also FIVE STAR FINAL.

Both films have very good hangover scenes — WW had that slicked back hair — ruffle him, and a shaggy squid wafts loose its tendrils.

I can’t absolutely decide if the daringly open ending of MOUTHPIECE — there are strong indications that our hero will (a) die and (b) live — as the end title fades up he’s a virtual Schrödinger’s shyster — is the result of cunning or fumbling. The film has several writers and two directors (Elliott Nugent and James Flood). Did they all get together and come up with something clever, or all fight each other and come up with something muddled? The result is really interesting, whatever the process.

WW also lawyers up as Perry Mason, four times, and in James Whale’s WIVES UNDER SUSPICION, where his DA has an abacus of little skulls documenting/celebrating each killer he’s sent to the chair.

Auto Camp

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2017 by dcairns

So, I don’t know these things, not being American — is Big Ed’s Gas Farm in Twin Peaks a recognisable kind of thing? Do service stations get called stuff like “gas farms” in the US? In pre-code HEAT LIGHTNING, sisters Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak run an “auto camp” out in the desert, and the characters who pass through (a multifarious bunch) accept the name as if it were an entirely familiar concept. To us, it’s like a service station with a tiny motel out back.

Brilliant film. Part of Warners’ unofficial program to document the full panoply of American life. They had to do an auto camp eventually. I’m a little sad they never got around to making a film based entirely in an automat. I love automats.

McMahon & Dvorak and Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot provide drama, while such interlopers as Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell provide comedy. The balance is spot on. It has the structure of a play, but never seems theatrical, thanks to the WB house style and the atmospheric location shooting.

Something strange and interesting — since the cafe is a central part of the action, and it has big windows, the film features an unusual fluidity between indoors and outdoors. Some scenes are simultaneously both, like a conversation conducted by the sisters through a screen door (in which Mervyn Leroy is guilty of one of his semi-regular confusing line-crosses). Either Warners shot on location at a real auto camp or they built the whole place in situ.

Never do this.

And then a funny thing happens when night falls. Since location night shooting without obvious light sources would be a real headache, and since the story requires lightning bolts to illuminate the sky, the second part of the film switches to the studio. The whole set of buildings is reconstructed in an artificial landscape, with each rock, each joshua tree replaced by an identical replica.  We seem to have relocated, yet not to have moved. The black cyclorama representing the night sky is lit up by quick flashes, and it’s some of the most convincing movie lightning I’ve seen, far better in terms of realism than all those jagged animations, which always wiggle about too long, determined to be appreciated as spectacle.

The slightly uncanny doubling of the film’s sole setting reminded me of another service station, the sinister Convenience Store known as The Dutchman’s, recently seen in Twin Peaks. (We have convenience stores too, sort of, but usually without petrol pumps.) And that in turn reminded Fiona of the fatal service station in Sapphire and Steel, which TP co-creator has surely seen…

The Lynchian conceptual link is cemented by the fact that this seems to be the ur-text of a persistent noir meme, in which a character — McMahon in this case — leaves behind a shady or corrupt life in order to work at a service station — a meme continued by Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Brian Donlevy in IMPACT, and finally (to date, so far as I’m aware) and most strangely, Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY…