Archive for Ben Hecht

Pg.17 #15

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2020 by dcairns

Thus was constituted that terrible trinity whose names are indissolubly associated for all time in the annals of crime. The fate of the three assistants was happier: they were in after life to become those distinguished surgeons, Sir William Fergusson, Thomas Wharton Jones, and Alexander Miller, whose names are yet eminent in the temple of science. It is a strange world.

*

They were all-but forgotten people: the breed that was remembered with a start, or with the unreality of a recrudescent dream. The day of carvings alone brought them into the sunlight and reawakened the memory of former times. For as far back as even Nettel, the octogenarian who lived in the tower above the rusting armoury, could remember, the ceremony had been held. Innumerable carvings had smouldered to ashes in obedience of the law, but the choices were still housed in the Hall of the Bright Carvings.

*

Before then, I’d never been aware of social classes. Suddenly they hit me smack in the face. We lived only a few blocks from some elegant apartment buildings on the Hudson where doormen stood day and night in front of covered entrances helping well-dressed people in and out of their big cars. It struck me for the first time that theirs was a different universe from that of the people who rented cheap rooms or that of my brothers and sisters scurrying to our jobs along with other working-class people.

*

Save existence, they had nothing in common,–came in touch on no single point. Weatherbee was a clerk who had known naught but checking all his life; Cuthfert was a master of arts, a dabbler in oils, and had written not a little. The one was a lower-class man who considered himself a gentleman, and the other was a gentleman who knew himself to be such. From this it may be remarked that a man can be a gentleman without possessing the first instinct of true comradeship. The clerk was as sensuous as the other was aesthetic, and his love adventures, told at great length and chiefly coined from his imagination, affected the supersensitive master of arts in the same way as so many whiffs of sewer gas. He deemed the clerk a filty, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so; and he was reciprocally informed that he was a milk-and-water sissy and a cad. Weatherbee could not have defined “cad” for his life; but it satisfied its purpose, which after all seems the main point in life.

*

He announces who we are. As he talks I amuse myself thinking of the unprecedented shock in his mind. A short while ago he was Professor Jacobi, a famed and aged man still playing like a fanatic child in his laboratory. He wore a skull cap and occasionally addressed an auditorium filled with dignified and obsequious colleagues. The world paused now and then in its Saturnalia of greed to turn its ears to his voice–a voice that promised calmly and authoritatively that new secrets were being wrested from nature; that science was fashioning new toys from life.

*

Two men in shiny brown coats hovered close to Isaac looking for pigeons to feed. Isaac watched the play of their hands. Their pursuit of birds seemed elaborate to him (Isaac couldn’t locate a smear of pigeon shit in the Place des Etats-Unis). The shiny coats belonged to a dip artist and his squire. Isaac appraised this pickpocket team with a cool turn of his mind. They can’t be from South America. The Guzmanns (a tribe of pickpockets out of Peru) would never wear shiny coats. These are locals from Algeria, or Sicily. Starving kids with the soft, beautiful fingers of a girl.

*

From where I am sitting now I can look out the window and see a pigeon being a pigeon on the roof of the Harvard Club. No other thing can be less what it is not than a pigeon can, and Miss Stein, of all people, should understand that simple fact. Behind the pigeon I am looking at, a blank wall or tired grey bricks is stolidly trying to sleep off oblivion; underneath the pigeon the cloistered windows of the Harvard Club are staring in horrified bewilderment at something they have seen across the street. The pigeon is just there on the roof being a pigeon, having been, and being, a pigeon and, what is more, always going to be, too. Nothing could be simpler than that. If you read that sentence aloud you will instantly see what I mean. It is a simple description of a pigeon on a roof. It is only with an effort that I am conscious of the pigeon, but I am acutely aware of a great sulky red iron pipe that is creeping up the side of the building intent on sneaking up on a slightly tipsy chimney which is shouting its head off.

*

Seven bits of page seventeens. There! I knew there had to be a quicker way to say it.

Classic Crimes, by William Roughead; Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake; A Third Face, by Samuel Fuller; The Portable Jack London, edited by Earle Labor, from the story In a Far Country; The Kingdom of Evil by Ben Hecht; Marilyn the Wild, by Jerome Charyn; The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, by James Thurber, from the essay There’s an Owl in My Room.

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.

37 Views of Laird Cregar

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by dcairns

Well, maybe not 37…

Fiona wanted some Technicolor Laird, so we ended up running both THE BLACK SWAN and BLOOD AND SAND. The former, directed by Henry King, is pretty good fun: co-writer Ben Hecht treats it like a gangster movie: the pirate genre gives him license to dispense with moral or sympathetic characters. On first meeting Maureen O’Hara, Tyrone Power forces a kiss on her, gets bitten, punches her unconscious, slings her over one shoulder — then Laird turns up, as Sir Henry Morgan, (“when evil wore a sash,” reads a title card) and he actually throws her away.

It’s all a bit of a rape fantasy, but with a respectable back-and-forth power struggle (O’Hara brains Ty back with a rock) and a conclusion that playfully confirms a relationship based on play, drama, and mutual respect. The filmmakers’ confidence that they can get away with the dicier material is kind of impressive, but of course, it was a different era, the 17th century. They’re really convinced the audience wants to be ravished by Power. He even gets to share a bed with O’Hara, via a complicated bit of censor-circumvention where they have to pretend to be married and their lives depend on it.

Laird’s Morgan is a lovely creation, though George Sanders, unrecognizable in red whiskers and a prosthetic nose, takes some getting used to.

Then there’s —

BLOOD AND SAND, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, is a much more artistic affair, the rich Technicolor starting off surprisingly muted. There’s some weird system in place at Fox where Ray Rennehan, maybe the first DoP to master the medium, gets paired with another, highly regarded cinematographer again and again (I just watched DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, where he works with the great Bert Glennon; here it’s Ernest Palmer. Was it a scheme to get more cameramen trained up in the process?)

Laird plays some kind of matador critic. I guess that must be a thing. Does it pay better than film critic? When I’d seen bits of this on TV, it was always Laird, grinning biggly from the stands while Ty decimates Spain’s bovine populace. But Cregar gets to swirl a cape at one point, too. He moves beautifully — Fiona reports that he once replaced a friend in the chorus and made an effective Chorus Boy of Unusual Size.