Archive for Dirty Harry

Bart of Darkness

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2011 by dcairns

I actually read Peter Bart’s Infamous Players A Tale of Movies, The Mob (and Sex) thinking that he was Peter Biskind. Then I wrote a review on that basis, before I’d even finished the book. Then I realized that Peter Bart and Peter Biskind are two different men — they have different names, different faces, and one of them has a very different moustache. That should have tipped me off immediately.

Nevertheless, despite realizing my howling error before “going to press,” I am presenting the review unchanged, partly because “Rewriting is censorship” (the beat authors) and partly because  “Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation” (Elliott Gould in CONTAGION) — a description I embrace with enthusiasm though I’m far from certain about the punctuation part. And also, though I fully acknowledge that Peter Bart and Peter Biskind are not the same man, on a deeper, poetic level, they actually are.

Also also, taking Bart to task for faulty fact-checking in a review where I have confused him with another, different man, makes me look like an asshole, which is good for my ego.

Also also also, this review gives you an idea of what film history looks like without any fact-checking, thus saving you the effort of reading Bart’s book.

A DECADE UNDER THE WEATHER

There’s an aphorism I can’t quite recall about returning once too often to the well, and it hangs over Peter Bart’s memoir of his days at Paramount in the 70s, Infamous Players A Tale of Movies, The Mob (and Sex). The whole thing’s pretty tired, covering ground Bart went over more entertainingly in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (“The gossip culture’s revenge on the counter-culture,” as Paul Schrader put it.)

I enjoy gossip, and enjoy hearing that talented people have feet of clay, so I gobbled up Easy Riders shamelessly. Also, I feel a debt of gratitude to Bart because as I finished the book I came down with appendicitis. I was convinced I had food poisoning and believed I’d feel better if I threw up. His description of the murder of Dorothy Stratton at the end of his book helped me to achieve a successful vomiting, allowing me to realize that the problem was elsewhere.

Peter Bart.

The problem with Infamous Players isn’t that the subject is worn out, though there are numerous books about the period (Peter Cowie’s The Godfather Book is a fun one). It’s more like Bart is worn out. And his editor isn’t helping — the Introduction states “I played an integral role in both the success and the chaos,” and then over the page, just seventeen lines later, “I was lucky to be there at a time of great achievement and great confusion, and I managed to contribute to both.”

But then, the book’s title should have warned me: the word “sex” placed in prudish/prurient parenthesis speaks of a fundamentally lousy attitude to words.

Fact-checking is also not the book’s strong point, especially when it comes to plot synopses. Bart apparently thinks the original SCARFACE was about two brothers, one a gangster and one a cop, and he describes PLAY MISTY FOR ME as dealing with a disc jockey who turns violent when a one-night stand won’t date him again.

Peter Biskind.

This is worrying, but not as much as when Bart blithely narrates a series of events and imputes a cause-and-effect relationship that makes no sense. Noting that PLAY MISTY was a box office disappointment, he suggests that Clint Eastwood “wanted the assurance of having his alter ego, Don Siegel, serve as director” on DIRTY HARRY — but in the next sentence he observes that HARRY was released a mere two months after MISTY, which of course means that the earlier film’s box office performance could have played no possible role in Eastwood’s choice of Siegel as director on his next film. If I can catch Bart out like this, it makes me concerned that other stories he tells may be similarly inaccurate, and I won’t have any way of knowing.

Next to this, the disappointing lack of period ambience is a minor quibble. Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture struck me as probably a lattice of self-serving lies, but it reeked of the seventies, because Evans is kind of still in that zone, mentally. You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again likewise benefitted from a strong, albeit vindictive and paranoid, authorial voice. Easy Riders caught a lot of the flavour of the times too, since it was largely an oral history, but this book comes straight from Bart’s defective memories, and its language is pure 21st century journalese, apart from the entertaining moment when Bart gets a makeover to transform from tweedy reporter to hip movie exec: the black amazon saleslady who outfits him is pure Pam Grier. Which is fine: she probably was, and if she wasn’t, this is an improvement.

Frustratingly, Bart portrays himself as pretty square, pretty decent, distancing himself from all of the free love, commercial love, shady mob activity and most of the recreational drug use surrounding him. He’s like Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS, copping to being in the room when a lot of heinous shit went down, but never actually pulling the trigger himself. And of course that may well have been the case. By pointing out Paramount’s ties to the underworld, though, he does weaken his friend Robert Evans’ already unconvincing argument that he was unaware that two of his backers on THE COTTON CLUB were gangsters: it seems Evans has viewed gangsterism as a kind of aphrodisiac for as long as he’s been in business.

Of course, I’m devouring the book as shamelessly as I did its superior predecessors, on a break from Ulysses, which is going to take me a decade to finish at this rate.

***

Bart’s book took me two days. In your face, James Joyce!

Peter Bogdanovich.

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Michael Burnside: Sexual Sniper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2008 by dcairns

THE SNIPER (1952) deals with a psychotic misogynist who takes to shooting women. It comes to us from Stanley Kramer’s production company.

Here’s Paul Mayersberg on Stanley Kramer in Hollywood The Haunted House ~

“In Kramer you can see the real dilemma of the Hollywood director. He wants to be an artist and he wants to be popular. He doesn’t want to be the compleat middlebrow which is what he is, what he is forced to be. Kramer has not come to terms with popular culture in the United States. So where does he stand? Bang in the middle of Reader’s Digest country, but he is no philistine. To be cruel about it, Kramer is Hollywood’s answer to Arthur Miller.”

Far from being cruel, that’s probably the most sympathetic critique of Kramer I’ve read. Though middlebrow reviewers may like some of his films, those who see them as preachy and dull tend to be savage in their dismissal. Mayersberg gets at the root of the problem and shows simply and directly how Kramer’s good intentions make for bad cinema. (Yet when Kramer tried his hand at pure entertainment in IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, the results were even worse. It’s Steven Spielberg’s favourite comedy, and thus we get Spielberg’s own bloated comedy corpse, 1941.)

THE SNIPER is a Kramer production, but it’s directed by Edward Dmytryk and it’s a thriller, so that gives it a slightly schizoid character. Kramer usually saw himself as above genre, which is part of where he goes wrong. As Mayersberg says ~

“Oddly enough, the subtleties of form occur in the genre movies rather than the theme movies, because in genres you are playing variations within certain conventions and you can be more experimental. We may be close to André Gide’s idea that ‘art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.'”

The schizoid nature of THE SNIPER comes from its script, direction and production. The script is at pains to lay everything out, to explain everything over and over, and to make us understand its central theme. A title crawl at the beginning tells us what this theme is. Then we see it nakedly expressed in the action of the plot. The characters discuss it and the psychiatrist character explains it so we can all understand. And the bit-part players keep up a running commentary on events also, so we get to hear what the man in the street thinks. The schism lies between this idiot’s approach to storytelling, and the intelligent and dynamic use of visual storytelling by director Edward Dmytryk.

Dmytryk had a weakness for the big theme too, but at least he liked to express it in visual terms. Maybe making socially conscious films like THE SNIPER was a way to reassure himself that he hadn’t sold out after he became a friendly witness and ratted on his former pals in the Communist Party.

Whatever his politics, Dmytryk didn’t automatically become a bad director when he turned stoolie (that came later). He directs THE SNIPER with flair, using striking deep-focus compositions (although he claimed to hate the use of wide-angle lenses for oncreasing depth of field, preferring to use them for psychological distortion). The great Burnett Guffey is D.O.P. here, making atmospheric use of San Francisco locations, transforming them at night with near-expressionistic lighting.

In an effort to stop his homicidal impulses, our sniper burns his hand on the oven ring, and Dmytryk and Guffey contrive a bizarre low-angle shot with the hot hob casting an implausible glow on the ceiling:

Each bullet from the sniper’s gun is effectively shocking and abrupt. Several of the murders aren’t even shown — Kramer and co are anxious not to make this an exploitation film. Hence all those screeds of verbiage. The insane killer is shown as a victim of his psychological disorder and of an uncaring society. It’s all very liberal and decent, and when Dmytryk is allowed to do his job and tell the story with sound and image it can be effective too.

Adolph Menjou is Detective Frank Kafka (yeah, I laughed too), which is a literary reference with no apparent point. Arthur Franz is attractive and charismatic as the killer. The terrific Marie Windsor appears only briefly, but is as warm and lovely here as she is harsh and brazen in THE NARROW MARGIN. And she has a mouth the size of Charles Durning, which is no bad thing:

Weirdly, the film classes the sniper as a sexual criminal, but the behaviour of the character doesn’t really suggest he gets a sexual charge out of his crimes, although he does kill attractive brunettes, often ones he’s failed to get off with. The police haul in assorted “peepers, rapists and defilers” and have them publicly humiliated in a lineup by a chubby interlocutor with the air of a stand-up comedian.

Then a psychiatrist explains that there’s no crossover in criminal insanity — none of these criminals could turn sniper. Incidentally he’s wrong — the absurdly-named Colin Pitchfork, the first murderer arrested on DNA evidence (read Joseph Wambaugh’s excellent The Blooding for the fascinating story) was a flasher who moved on to rape and murder as an extension of his initial perversion.

In its killer’s M.O. and San Francisco setting, THE SNIPER oddly looks forward to the Scorpio killer and his movie incarnations in DIRTY HARRY and SCORPIO. Where Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY portrayed its killer as a motiveless force of pure malevolence, and David Fincher’s SCORPIO uses him as a kind of defining absence at the story’s heart, the Dmytryk urges compassion and clinical care for the disturbed. It’s a very honourable film. But perhaps best watched with the sound off.