Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: George K. American

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2019 by dcairns

THE BOOB (1926) is a slice of Americana — a product only available in slices, it seems. You never see a whole, unsliced one, even in the work of Norman Rockwell.

We open on a swing, where a city slicker seduces a simple she-bumpkin. Director William Wellman fixes his camera to the swing, so he can frame the couple rock-steady while the bucolic scene behind them lurches seasickeningly up and down. Grand!

George K. Arthur had the damnedest career. I can’t make him out. He first appeared on my radar as star and putative backer of Josef Von Sternberg’s debut film, THE SALVATION HUNTERS. He offered JVS a budget of $$60,000 to make a film that would give him a starring role. Then, according to the director (and I’ve been unable to ascertain how honest the memoir Fun In a Chinese Laundry is, but I’ve pinpointed no definite lies), filming was begun using available locations and cheap talent, and GKA tearfully confessed that the 60K didn’t exist. Jo ploughed on regardless with his own savings, and the film made a name for him. (JVS had an indomitable, triumph-over-adversity side as well as a knack for making everyone hate him: part Horatio Alger, part Alger Hiss.)

It no doubt boosted George’s profile too, though he’d already played some big parts, going by the IMDb (he OUGHT to have had $60,000).

In THE BOOB, Englishman George (the son of a traveling salesman and a department store product demonstrator, so he may have had the right nature and nurture to pull the con on JVS) plays an American yokel, with much pasty-faced gurning. I’m reminded unpleasantly of El Brendel, though here the grimace supplants the smirk.

For the next ten years or so, GKA alternated between biggish supporting roles and uncredited bit parts. He departs Hollywood, or at least his credits die out, in 1935.

But GKA will resurface, in his native England, as producer for Wendy Toye’s excellent short films THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD (1952) and ON THE TWELFTH DAY (1955), and also, uncredited, in the same capacity on Jack Clayton’s THE BESPOKE OVERCOAT (1955), thus kickstarting two more major cinematic careers, whatever his role in Von Sternberg’s origin story.

So I salute you, George K. Arthur! And your little dog, too.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.

 

This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?

 

And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.