Archive for Ann Dvorak

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…

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Playboy Criminologist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2014 by dcairns

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As soon as I saw a news headline in THE GAY FALCON describing George Sanders’ character as a “playboy criminologist” I knew that was the job for me. Though I’m not sure — is 46 too old to start in that line of work?

And yes, the film is called THE GAY FALCON and George does say “This seems to be my night for using back doors.” Get your sniggering over with.

Indecisiveness: George just finished playing THE SAINT in a popular RKO series and handed the job over to Hugh Sinclair, and then they create a near-identical series for him about The Falcon, with Wendy Barrie, who was his romantic interest in three Saint movies, playing different characters. Here she seems set to be just a guest star, but the Falcon’s fiancee, Nina Vale, mysteriously dropped out of movies after one appearance so Barrie returned to replace her with not a word of explanation.

This movie sets up Arthur Shields as a dumb Irish cop stereotype, foil to the Falcon, but he’s replaced for two follow-ups by James Gleason (knot together three strands of sinew then stretch to breaking point), who played similar stooges to crime-solvers Barbara Stanwyck (THE MAD MISS MANTON), Edna May Oliver (PENGUIN POOL MURDER and sequels) and William Powell (THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD and TAKE ONE FALSE STEP)  Peggy Ann Garner and pals (HOME, SWEET HOMICIDE) and probably others. If he wasn’t available, Sam Levene would do it and no one would know.

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Dibble by lamplight.

Allen Jenkins becomes the main element of consistency across the Sanders entries in the series, appearing as hapless sidekick “Goldie” Locke each time, but the writers only decide to make him a spectacular malaprop in the later films (“Me and my neck prefer to remain in magneto.”)

The writers are Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, fresh from the Saint films, though for THE FALCON TAKES OVER they adapt Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and change Marlowe into the Falcon.

And apparently Dr. Terwilliker himself, Hans Conried, made such a hit as a police sketch artist in the first film (he’s hilariously bored and aloof) that they brought him back as a hotel desk clerk in the second film and a shady playboy in the third.

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Turhan Bey, an oiled baby with a moustache, plays a jewel thief in the first film and a psychic in the third.

George’s manservant changes from an old Chinese guy to an old English guy, vanishes for an entire film, and then comes back as Keye Luke. And, as in a dream, no one else seems to notice.

In the fourth film, THE FALCON ‘S BROTHER, George meets his screen brother, Tom, played by his real brother, Tom, who the takes over the series for nine more films while George seeks his pleasures elsewhere. Conway is like dilute Sanders: listening to them together is uncanny, they’re so similar, but you notice the edge and the droll lassitude in George, the source of his Georgeness. Tom is theoretically handsome, but he’s like a walking argument against the importance of handsomeness — George, with his big fat head, like an Arcimboldo sausage-face, is a consistent pleasure and wonder to look at, whereas the eye slips off Tom, can find no purchase on his smooth frontage. Tom was nicer, they say, and his blandness fitted him perfectly for Val Lewton films, which thrived on colourless leads, low-key as the lighting.

This FALCON episode is like the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS of the series — not only is George rendered comatose for most of the action while his brother goes investigating (nobody worries, it’s just like “He’ll be fine as soon as he COMES OUT OF HIS COMA.”), but Jenkins and Gleason have been replaced by cheaper, crapper actors playng characters with different names but the exact same attributes and histories and roles.

A guy comes home and finds that everything in his apartment has been stolen and replaced with identical replicas…

Even the writers have been replaced: Root & Fenton wrote delightful material: repetitive, of course, but that’s part of the charm. Their replacements create blotchy carbon copy dialogue that sounds like a distorted echo of the previous films, piped through the lips of wan replicants.

…He asks his flatmate, “What happened here?” …

And still, this is nothing compared to Warner Bros Perry Mason series, where not only the co-stars but the genre (straight mystery or broad, drunken comedy) changed from show to show, with Allen Jenkins playing different characters and Mason’s girl Friday, Della Street being played by a beauty parade of contract starlets — just to confuse things, Ann Dvorak appeared twice, so the series was not even consistent in its inconsistency.

…His flatmate says, “Who are you?”

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Anyhow, the films are slick, fun and forgettable, just like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY only half as long and about ten thousand times cheaper and quieter. Also, nobody wears frocks made from caterpillar tracks, which is either a relief or a disappointment depending on your taste.

Psychobabble vs. Psycho Rabble

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2011 by dcairns

The paralyzed pinkies of Chester Morris clutch at psychoanalytic salvation!

A 1939 proto-noir from Charles (GILDA) Vidor. A home invasion melodrama in the tradition of THE DESPERATE HOURS, but it’s also an early psychoanalysis movie, with a spectacular line in dollarbook Freud and a couple dream/flashbacks that must’ve been hugely influential.

Ralph Bellamy: he looks like that guy in the movies, what’s his name? And Chester Morris, he looks like near-sighted football.

Shrink Ralph Bellamy is entertaining a few guests for the weekend, when his house is taken over by escaped jailbird Chester Morris and his gang (including perennial stooge Marc Lawrence and moll Ann Dvorak). They’re all awaiting the arrival of a getaway boat to take them across the lake (one supposes to Canada), which never comes, for reasons never actually explained.

But never mind the boat, what excites and startles is the dollarbook Freud, laid on thick and stupid with a trowel by pipe-puffing Ralph. See, Chester is a neurotic case, with hysterically paralysed fingers on his left hand (just the pinkie works) and a tormenting dream that recurs every night. After one of his pals is gunned down, Ralph decides to turn the power of analysis against his foe: “I’m going to take apart his mind and show him the pieces,” figuring to cure the guy and thus rob him of his psychopathic power of murderousness.

And it works! Forced to confront his suppressed childhood trauma, Chester regains digital dexterity, but his trigger finger now lacks its previous itchiness, resulting in his becoming a sitting duck when the cops show up. Not sure how this squares with the Hippocratic oath.

But never mind the malpractice, check out Vidor’s expressionist elan — first, the dream, in which Chet gets wet, pursued by rainstorms and forced to shelter ‘neath a leaky umbrella which sprouts imprisoning bars. And all in negative!

Then, the flashback which shows the dream’s true meaning — after turning stoolie and leading the cops to arrest his louse of a dad, young Chester ducks under a bar table. Dad, riddled with bullets, collapses over it, and leaks blood onto his cowering son through a crack in the tabletop, as the cops surround the table, their legs forming a circle of “bars”.

It’s all a goofy melodrama, with distinctly B-list stars (I like Ralph, though, and Chester is appealingly limited, one of those familiar faces which accumulates a certain audience affection just by dangling in front of the camera on so many occasions), but entertaining as heck. Ralph’s explanation of the subconscious should replace Freud’s — he sketches an outline of a head, and divides it into two levels, strongly implying that this is the actual physical structure of the brain. Further, he introduces the idea of the “censor band”, a previously unknown concept, which seems to work like a kind of gastric band for the mind, constricting the circulation of naughty thoughts and thus preventing the contamination of the spotless conscious mind with all those dirty unconscious feelings.

It’s a really lovely idea, this “censor band”, a term with no foundation in analysis that I’m aware of: Hollywood attempts to map the human mind, using as its model… Hollywood!

Film noir is a great American tradition, a triumph of western civilisation, a small high in the history of artistic achievement. I can’t expect each of you to run out and find the lost ending of DOUBLE INDEMNITY or the lost beginning of SUNSET BLVD, but you can do your bit for film history by clicking here and donating to help preserve Cy Endfield’s THE SOUND OF FURY ~

On behalf of the Film Preservation Blogathon, operating out of here and here.