Archive for Ben Hecht

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.

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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.

The Don’ts

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on October 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, I got an unusual and intriguing invitation to take part in a blogathon — that in itself is fairly unusual, but the NATURE of the blogathon in this case is out of the normal run of things. The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society is running a celebration of Production Code supremo Joe Breen, with the underlying belief that the code was a boon to American movie-making and would transform American culture for the better if it were reinstated today.

I think this is incorrect, but the people at PEPS said they’re happy for me to take a dissenting view, so why not? I did check their opinion of the Code’s infamous sixth commandment, prohibiting “racial miscegenation” — they’re against it. It wasn’t part of the original Code but was added by the studios themselves, as they wanted a provision to keep them from getting into trouble with local censors in the South.

(What the USA needed, post-Civil War, was surely a massive indoctrination campaign equivalent to that which de-Nazified Germany. I don’t know how that was accomplished — convincing people they’ve been on the wrong side isn’t exactly easy — but it seems to have been very successful. Large parts of the South still don’t seem to have learned the rather important lessons of that war. That “War Between The States” stuff needed stamping out.)

So, having established that my genial hosts were not horrible racists, I felt I could do business with them. Because, hopefully, dialogue between different viewpoints is a good thing. (I haven’t asked their opinions on Trump yet.)

One of the suggested gambits for this blogathon is “Breening,” whereby a modern film is reimagined as it would be if produced under the Code. The point of the exercise being to show how it would be improved. I was tempting to choose LOVING, a film which would presumably cease to exist under the Code, or else the whole thing would play on a torpedo boat. But I’ve decided not to Breen anything. Instead, I’m going to start off by considering the provisions of the Code to see what can be said for them.

I don’t think the Pure Entertainment people will be shocked by my views. But we’re coming at things from different perspectives. Charles Grodin recommends that when liberals argue with conservatives, it’s best not to start by assuming the other side is less compassionate. While conservatives worry about the erosion of abstract but deeply-held “values”, liberals worry about “harm.” So I’m looking at the Don’ts in the Code and asking “Who actually gets hurt if we ignore these rules?” and “Who gets hurt if we obey them?”

These Don’ts are actually from the 1927 Code proposed by the industry and accepted by Will Hays. The Breen Code later adapted these somewhat.

One) Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;

I can be a little prudish about “pointed profanity.” I don’t like to hear little kids swearing; I don’t like any loud swearing in public. And swearing in the movies probably does have an influence on real-life use of swears. But it isn’t, in itself, hurting anyone. Even the Bible is only mildly against it. There’s not a Commandment about vulgar language, just about taking the Lord’s name in vain. And do we seriously want a cultural rule that prevents realistic representation of dialogue in order to spare the feelings of one religious group? My rule is, the religious can follow whatever precepts they like, within the law of the land, but they oughtn’t get to prohibit non-adherents from doing or saying what they like, within the law of the land.

Two) Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;

I like how they cover all the bases here. You can’t show a character lecherously noticing the nudity of a character who you also can’t show. In practice, of course, ALL nudity was deemed licentious/suggestive from 1934 until the Code disintegrated, with the exception of dogs, horses etc. Why do they get a pass? Rin Tin Tin spent his whole career gallumphing about starkers with his tongue hanging out, and when he noticed lady dogs I’m not so sure his intentions were pure. Personally, I sometimes enjoy looking at attractive naked humans, and it can be useful to occasionally see less attractive ones so I feel less inferior.

I realise that distinguishing between licentious nudity and the healthy, outdoors kind would have involved a lot of hairsplitting, which is not easy to do while staring at someone’s bottom. And it’s probably safe to assume that most movie nudity has suggestive intent, given the kind of people who make movies. But of all the kinds of god I don’t believe in, the kind I don’t believe in hardest may be the kind who created the human body and then doesn’t want it ever to be seen.

Three) The illegal traffic in drugs;

This one’s just mad, isn’t it? You have to warn kids about drugs, so they won’t think it’s a great idea to accept them when offered (but they’ll probably do it anyway). If you want kids to be aware of the dangers of drugs (including the danger of getting busted and having your life ruined), banning any reference to them from movies is a pretty counter-intuitive move.

Four) Any inference of sex perversion;

Since inference is something done by the audience, this seems to be asking for the moon. How are the studios going to stop the audience inferring whatever it likes? My favourite example of this is Ben Hecht’s suggestion that whenever the screen fades to black, the occupants of the scene we’ve just been watching immediately drop their trousers and begin fornicating in the dark. Such an interpretation of film grammar enlivens the most moribund BOSTON BLACKIE programmer.

But even if we assume the Code meant to say “implication,” I’m against it. This to me is as bad as the miscegenation rule, even though it’s easier to understand in its historical context. However we define “perversion” (the Church has often gone with “anything which adds pleasure to the sexual act/s”), I’m in favour of implying it, inferring it, flat-out portraying it, and doing it, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Public sex should generally be closely contained, but sex or its impersonation on a movie screen certified Adults Only seems harmless to me, in itself.

And since sex is wrapped up in a lot of anxiety, it can do audience members good to see people in movies who are into the same twisted but harmless peculiarities they themselves enjoy.

Five) White slavery;

But Black slavery is fine, apparently. See GONE WITH THE WIND. Both hues of slavery seem like unpleasant facts of life which can and should be dealt with in movies — I would move them to the Be Careful list. Rape is on the Be Careful list. Why this distinction?

Six) Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);

See above. Censorship often draws a sort of diaphanous veil over things we know are there. what are we being protected from? Practically every African-American owes some of their DNA to rape under slavery. “Miscegenation” was driven by the white slave-owning class. It’s proof is in every coffee-coloured face we see. And the proof of sexual intercourse is present in every human being we see. And the proof of sexual perversion is present inside our own minds.

Seven) Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;

Don’t talk about it. It’ll go away.

Eight) Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;

Ditto. And putting these two items in the same column is weird.

Nine) Children’s sex organs;

I don’t have the energy to mount a campaign for More Children’s Sex Organs Now, but isn’t this a strange one to get absolutist about? I think sexualised images of children are worrisome, and they don’t have to involve specific organs. And we want to be careful of providing images that feed pedophile fantasies, even while they might seem innocent enough to normal people. This just seems like an area where more nuance would be useful.

Ten) Ridicule of the clergy;

Nobody should be safe from ridicule. The deeply religious indulge in a strange form of projection which means we all have to follow their rules. Joseph Breen shouldn’t ridicule the clergy because he’s a Catholic. I’m an atheist. Ridiculing the clergy is central to my existence. And when an unbeliever mocks Allah, they’re mocking something they don’t believe is there. That can’t be as bad a sin, surely, as a devout Muslim disrespecting his own deity.

I recall hearing that Prince Charles, over dinner, once argued that the Salman Rushdie fatwa was understandable as he’d offended people’s most deeply held beliefs. I like to think I would reply that MY most deeply held beliefs include the importance of freedom of expression. Do I get to write a counter-fatwa?

Eleven) Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

The eleventh commandment. Breen would have had ten but the studios had to go one better than God. This one’s a nice sentiment, but in theory it includes Satanists, and in practice it included Nazis pre-war, and didn’t really include other races. Except that it’s so hard to tell when offence is willful, sometimes. But this seems like the 1930s version of an injunction against hate speech, and thus not far removed from the kind of thing most of us would endorse today. Banning the incitement of hatred towards a race or creed seems like a better way of getting the desired result. I’m not sure if “nation” means a populace or a leadership, here. Hatred of Germany, as constituted under Hitler, was evidently fine during WWII. Hatred of the Japanese people as a race was also encouraged. So the Breen Office didn’t always follow its own injunctions.

A separate post on the Code’s twenty-five Be Carefuls? And then something on the effect of the Code. Because the funny thing is, I agree with the Purity people that the thirties and forties were a really great time for American cinema. We just disagree a bit about WHY…