Archive for Miller’s Crossing

The Laddie and the Lake

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by dcairns

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.

 

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Clint and Toshiro in Poisonville

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2008 by dcairns

” I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

The Man With No Name

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is a book with a weird and pervading influence. The only official film adaptation is ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, a 1930 travesty starring Charles Ruggles and Jimmy Durante — which sounds like as good an example of Hollywood lousing up a great book as the preposterous feelgood MOBY DICK of the same year. But despite the dearth of faithful and official versions, Hammett’s grisly pulp nasty has dug its talons deep into cinema history.

Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (THE BODYGUARD) of 1961, is the next step on our journey. Kurosawa borrows the central conceit of Hammett’s book, in which an “operative” (detective for Hammett, samurai for Kurosawa) destroys the competing gangsters of an utterly corrupt no-horse town by hiring himself out to the highest bidder and provoking all-out warfare among the crooks. I’m not aware of A.K. actually acknowledging the source of his material, but what clinches it for me is that one scene of YOJIMBO is swiped not from Red Harvest but from another Hammett, The Glass Key. In fact, I think Kurosawa’s inspiration here derives specifically from the 1942 Stuart Heisler film of Hammett’s novel, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

The Prisoner

Toshiro Mifune / Alan Ladd has been rumbled by one set of mobsters. Beaten to a pulp, he awakens imprisoned in a back room with two gamblers for jailors — one a slimey weasel type guy, the other a hulking pituitary case. Staggering towards the exit, Mifune / Ladd earns himself another skull-rattling haymaker from the watchful colossus.

Thugs with ugly Mugs

Of course, Kurosawa’s framing and blocking (using his usual multiple-camera filming technique, with long lenses and widescreen framing) is not reminiscent of Heisler’s Academy Ratio film noir, chiaroscuro, wide-angle lens approach at all. But the content of the scene is almost identical. The fact that Kurosawa clearly drew on another Hammett source in making YOJIMBO clinches the argument that he was consciously drawing on the American writer’s work. As far as I know this small point is an original observation and I’m branding my initials on it.

It also makes A.K. seem slightly cheeky for suing the makers of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of YOJIMBO, released just three years after the samurai refit. The story goes that Leone’s Italian and German producers were supposed to buy the remake rights but somewhere along the way they just kinda sorta forgot. The movie is certainly a bare-faced retread and some scenes are actual shot-for-shot reconstructions. Leone extradites Hammett’s operative out of Japan and back to the United States (or anyhow the Tex-Mex border as recreated in Spain) but also transports him back in time to the wild west and makes him a gunslinger.

While Kurosawa’s film marks a key moment in the advance of cyncical attitudes into the samurai genre (as Kurosawa began to lose faith in humanity), its jet-black humour resurfaces in slightly milder form in the Leone film and helps give birth to the whole modern action genre. While James Bond had made his big-screen debut two years before Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (known more prosaically in the movie as Joe), the central motif of the action blockbuster — Sudden Violence Followed By A Quip — was cemented into place by Eastwood’s sexual cowboy (whose first quip is a paraphrase of a Mifune line). Not only that, but the whole spaghetti western genre was abruptly inflated from a tiny exploitation ghetto into a genuine INDUSTRY. The hills of Almeria were hotching with imported buckaroos.

One peculiar footnote to the above is that Walter Hill’s updating of the Red Harvest format from Wild West to depression-era dustbowl town, LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis, which enacts Hammett’s story in pretty much Hammett’s original setting, came and went in a blur of sepia-tinged dust and left no lasting impression on anybody.

Another oddity is that the Coen brothers, who derived the title of their first feature, BLOOD SIMPLE, from a line in Hammett’s book, reversed the terms of Kurosawa’s pilferage by unofficially adapting The Glass Key into MILLER’S CROSSING, avoiding a straight plagiarism suit by adding a soupçon of Red Harvest to the stew.

Based on this track record I would argue that Red Harvest is possibly the most influential book never to have been filmed under its original title or with its author’s name attached, except for that first version, ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, on which Hammett is credited, but which bears no resemblance to his book whatsoever…

“Don Willson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

The Wonderful Thing About Chigurh

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2008 by dcairns

Chig

So — am attempting to find something to say about every film I watch, so that puts a little pressure on to react to the Coens’ latest offering, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

There are three broad kinds of reaction folks can have to the Coens’ oevre:

1) Liking the films. I was basically in this camp until INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS, which seemed to mark a colossal decline, and which incidentally were the first films the Coens had made using other people’s source material, a process which has continued with NCFOM, a fairly faithful adaptation, by most accounts, of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. (An earlier adaptation of James “Deliverance” Dickey’s To The White Sea failed to find backing, leading to the present cycle of films.) Previously, I had tended to find that I liked each film a little less than the one before, the decline starting after RAISING ARIZONA. So I am now in category 2 —

2) Liking some and not others. Since some Coen Bros films have been big box office hits and some have been flops, maybe most of the film-viewing western world is in this category. But it always puzzled me, since the sensibility on display is so consistent. If you liked FARGO, why wouldn’t you like THE BIG LEBOWSKI? (Up until this current release, Coens films with short titles have consistently done better than ones with longer). There is a recognisable Coens attitude (they like to appear smarter than their characters) as well as a set of self-conscious motifs (which the brothers like to point out, helpfully: weird hair, blustering titans, vomiting, fat men screaming) and a self-conscious visual style (toned-down slightly in FARGO and NO COUNTRY). But it’s now clear to me that not only are a couple of the Coens films markedly inferior, compromised works, but that I am becoming slightly less enamoured of the whole Coens vibe, leading my position ALMOST to border on category 3 —

3) Those who don’t like the films. While Coens detractors may admit that the films are well-made, even stylish, and the brothers certainly have some flair for dialogue, the argument against tends to centre on a certain lack of feeling. The Coens like to write about dumb people doing dumb things, often with a high mayhem factor in the outcome. At the same time, the writing-directing-producing-editing team are keen to show off how smart they are, with showy film technique, extravagant dialogue and cultural references — several Coens films are overt pastiches, almost amounting to plagiarism, of the styles and stories of James M. Cain (BLOOD SIMPLE), Dashiell Hammett (MILLER’S CROSSING) and Raymond Chandler (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), while OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fuses various scenes and satiric approaches from Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS onto the narrative of Homer’s Odyssey.

fugitives from a chain gang

This tendency to set themselves up as superior to their characters is quite objectionable to some, but while I detect its presence and admit that’s what’s going on, it never bothered me too much. Whether the Coens have contempt for their characters, or love them, *I* like H.I. and the Dude and Marge, which is enough for me. I also see the Coens as working primarily in a comic register, even in an apparently serious flick like BLOOD SIMPLE or MILLER’S CROSSING, so the use of slightly dopey characters is a genre convention and comedy device that I can’t particularly object to. It’s apt that the Coens finally referenced Preston Sturges, who has a similarly aloof relationship to his characters, although I think it’s clearer that he sympathises with them (and also, he doesn’t inflict gory violence upon any of them, except in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the imaginary sequences of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS — come to think of it, he’s gorier than any contemporaneous comedy director).

Capitalism and Labour destroy each other

Seeing the C-Bros as comedy filmmakers may reduce the obnoxiousness somewhat, but it perhaps becomes a problem in their latest, which isn’t overtly hilarious at any point. Despite its dramatic surface, as David Ehrenstein has argued, the film more or less continuously puts the spectator at an advantage over the characters: we generally know they’re going to die long before they do. Using dramatic irony or poignancy is a standard thriller device, but it’s unusual to see protagonists as continually predictable as this. The film generates surprise more by throwing in random plot developments (a car-crash from out of the blue) and violations of genre and narrative conventions (major characters eliminated off-screen, villains unpunished) than by interesting character psychology.

So, if the film is not consistently funny, what is the point of this God’s-eye view of the characters? The ironic distance seems more a matter of habit or compulsion than a necessary approach to the story. The Coens have never cared for theme, or making a point, or teaching a lesson, or even putting over a world view: their films are too filtered through books and other movies to comment directly on any form of reality. They are interested purely in story, in tall tales which feature surprising twists, tone shifts and genre-bending — the films are fairy tales, devoted to the plot and nothing but the plot.

(Javier Bardem’s unpronounceable psychopath in NO COUNTRY is a near-supernatural monster, implacable and seemingly impervious to pain. Tommy Lee Jones’ dream of his approaching death at the end seems intended to turn the story to some kind of semi-baked allegory, with J.B. as Death Incarnate in a page-boy haircut. The Coens’ fairytale world has made earlier use of such folkloric figures: an angel and demon in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA, and just about everybody in OH BROTHER…?)

snow country

It’s not surprising that NO COUNTRY, like FARGO, comes to centre on a suitcase full of money — the ultimate empty MacGuffin, a motivating object that require no explanation at all, and can disappear from the story once it has inspired enough carnage. The film, like previous Coen Brothers projects, is essentially about nothing.*

SO — if I’m starting to like the Coens less, it’s not because I object to their tone, it’s simply because, with each stylish, empty film, they seem to repeat themselves a little more, and it doesn’t feel like they can become more interesting unless they take a giant step and actually engage with something in the real world that they care about, if such a thing exists.

*

Footnote: Kelly MacDonald is really good in this film. Hardly anybody has mentioned her in reviews, but I think her journey as an actress has been considerable: barely acceptable in TRAINSPOTTING, frequently mis-stressed her lines. Gradually rising to full adequacy, she has now surpassed that status with a rather strong, touching performance. She deserves more recognition for it, since it’s been achieved (after her first lucky break) through sheer hard work. (Plus I’ve met her and she’s really nice.)

*See also: most of John Hodges’ scripts for Danny Boyle. SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING and A LIFE LESS ORDINARY all revolve around cases of cash!