Archive for Gordon Douglas

The Sunday Intertitle: Following Yonder Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2021 by dcairns

More from THE GOLD RUSH very soon.

On Christmas day we watched the Cukor-Garland-Mason A STAR IS BORN, which I don’t think I’d ever seen all the way through. Brilliant stuff. And with a Christmas scene! So that warrants further discussion.

We also watched two seasonal thrillers. CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is obviously the greatest entry in the tinsel noir micro-sub-genre, but I had been unaware of the existence of MR. SOFT TOUCH (Gordon Douglas & Henry Levin, 1949 — not sure what mishap necessitated two journeyman directors) and COVER UP (Alfred E.Green, same year). Both are OK.

In the first, Glenn Ford is a sympathetic crook, Joe Miracle — back from the war, he’s found the mob have taken over his nightclub and killed his partner. He rips off the joint and hides out in a homeless shelter, where he uses his stack of 100Gs and his underworld acumen to help the indigents and romance Evelyn Keyes. Patterned very much on the JOHNNY O’CLOCK model, it suffers from an awkward, inconclusive ending (happy or sad?) and startling tonal shifts — Ford doing good deeds, and also smashing Roman Bohnen’s knuckles with a crank. Like they couldn’t decide if it was Damon Runyon or THE BIG HEAT.

It has the world’s most beautiful office safe, though. And I’m an Olin Howland completist so it was good seeing him as a skinny Santa (he also turned up in the Cukor).

COVER UP has nifty dialogue — banter between smart insurance man Dennis O’Keefe and smalltown cop William Bendix — as our hero tries to prove murder in a case earmarked by a whole town as suicide. O’Keefe worked on this as writer, under a pseudonym and with a small army of helpers. It has everything but an ending, wrapping up with an anticlimactic discussion which hauls it back from the brink of being an expose of small town corruption — it becomes a sympathetic cover up, in which we get to agree that the reputations of great citizens who commit the odd homicide should be protected for the general good. This rather lets it out of being a proper film noir, which is a shame.

Barbara Britton is very winning, and the very welcome appearance of Hank Worden gives a suggestion of the Twin Peaksian territory it COULD have explored…

Evidently the victim was a golf ball.

MR. SOFT TOUCH stars Dave the Dude; Suellen – Their Daughter; Cherry Valance; Mrs. Bailey; Pa Kettle; Auntie Em; Willy Garzah; Stanislaus ‘Duke’ Covelske; Candy; Kane’s father; Mrs. Hudson; Mrs. Leuchtag – Carl’s Immigrating Friend (uncredited); and Wilbur Strong.

COVER UP stars Buzz Wanchek; Montague L. ‘Monty’ Brewster; Cynthy Waters; President Harry S. Truman; Ceinwen; Inmate, Wilma Lentz; First Lady of the Land (uncredited); Lilith’s Friend in Spode Room (uncredited); and Mose Harper.

Stentorian!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2018 by dcairns

The FBI are watching you neck. But it’s all in the line of duty.

I followed up director Gordon Douglas’s THEM! with director Gordon Douglas’s WALK A CROOKED MILE, released on a box set of Columbia noirs. But it’s an example of that T-MEN school of pseudo-documentary procedural with stentorian voice-over that always strikes me as too authoritarian to qualify as real noir. In noir, there’s a fundamental problem in society or in human nature, which the story exposes. A rather overt example is ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW where, in telling a heist story, the film attempts to deal with racism. But that’s too obvious to be properly in the spirit of noir. What I really mean is the less explicit critiques of human nature implied by THE KILLING, OUT OF THE PAST, LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The proper ending for such stories is downbeat, though there are plenty of noirs with happy endings — it’s a very flexible form, resistant to the kind of prescriptiveness I’m offering right here.

  Raymond Burr is watching you neck! But only for his personal satisfaction.

But WALK A CROOKED MILE situates all the story’s problems outside American society — it’s eastern block spies that are the problem. The film functions as a detailed and somewhat terrifying portrayal of FBI methods in surveilling and apprehending these soviet skunks.

The almost-bellowing VO is part of the film’s pro-American stance. Talking a little too loud, a little too slow, and telling you all sorts of stuff you never asked to hear, it simulates the experience of being cornered by a friendly drunk in a bar, although the film ends before the narrator can declare you his best pal in the world.

Starring Monty Brewster, The Man in the Iron Mask (both of him), Lars Thorwald (in a rather fetching beard), and Dr. Franz Edleman, who had to play a rather colourless US general in THEM! but here has a slightly meatier bad guy role. Plus lots of what are called attractive San Francisco locations.

One sense in which the film seems noirish — nobody turns their lights on. And, with the film’s preponderance of location shooting, this starts to register as an overt stylistic choice and a slight violation or realism, which it never usually does. (We had a similar but different experience seeing SE7EN for the first time — as detectives probe Gluttony’s horrible apartment, we wondered why they don’t turn a light on. Then we realised that multiple lights already WERE on, they just were failing to pierce the Stygian gloom. Dark with something more than the blinds being closed.)

Good work by Gordon Douglas — all the compositions of crisp feds packed into tight rooms are brimming with dynamic tension. The story is by Bertram Millhauser, whose movie-writing career began with THE PERILS OF PAULINE in 1914, and in a sense this isn’t any more sophisticated, the good-guy/bad-guy lines starkly drawn and the verité style excusing any need to go deeper than the surface anywhere.

Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.