Archive for Out of the Past

Auto Camp

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2017 by dcairns

So, I don’t know these things, not being American — is Big Ed’s Gas Farm in Twin Peaks a recognisable kind of thing? Do service stations get called stuff like “gas farms” in the US? In pre-code HEAT LIGHTNING, sisters Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak run an “auto camp” out in the desert, and the characters who pass through (a multifarious bunch) accept the name as if it were an entirely familiar concept. To us, it’s like a service station with a tiny motel out back.

Brilliant film. Part of Warners’ unofficial program to document the full panoply of American life. They had to do an auto camp eventually. I’m a little sad they never got around to making a film based entirely in an automat. I love automats.

McMahon & Dvorak and Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot provide drama, while such interlopers as Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell provide comedy. The balance is spot on. It has the structure of a play, but never seems theatrical, thanks to the WB house style and the atmospheric location shooting.

Something strange and interesting — since the cafe is a central part of the action, and it has big windows, the film features an unusual fluidity between indoors and outdoors. Some scenes are simultaneously both, like a conversation conducted by the sisters through a screen door (in which Mervyn Leroy is guilty of one of his semi-regular confusing line-crosses). Either Warners shot on location at a real auto camp or they built the whole place in situ.

Never do this.

And then a funny thing happens when night falls. Since location night shooting without obvious light sources would be a real headache, and since the story requires lightning bolts to illuminate the sky, the second part of the film switches to the studio. The whole set of buildings is reconstructed in an artificial landscape, with each rock, each joshua tree replaced by an identical replica.  We seem to have relocated, yet not to have moved. The black cyclorama representing the night sky is lit up by quick flashes, and it’s some of the most convincing movie lightning I’ve seen, far better in terms of realism than all those jagged animations, which always wiggle about too long, determined to be appreciated as spectacle.

The slightly uncanny doubling of the film’s sole setting reminded me of another service station, the sinister Convenience Store known as The Dutchman’s, recently seen in Twin Peaks. (We have convenience stores too, sort of, but usually without petrol pumps.) And that in turn reminded Fiona of the fatal service station in Sapphire and Steel, which TP co-creator has surely seen…

The Lynchian conceptual link is cemented by the fact that this seems to be the ur-text of a persistent noir meme, in which a character — McMahon in this case — leaves behind a shady or corrupt life in order to work at a service station — a meme continued by Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Brian Donlevy in IMPACT, and finally (to date, so far as I’m aware) and most strangely, Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY…

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Pow!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by dcairns

IMPACT isn’t a great noir, indeed bits aren’t much like noir at all, but I wanted to see it because it’s another film to deploy that strange noir meme, the guy who assumes a new identity working in a small town garage — see also Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Lancaster in THE KILLERS, and Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, it’s Brian Donlevy who shucks off a life as married corporate bigshot to become a grease monkey in the employ of Ella Raines, after his wife’s lover attempts to kill him and instead inflicts him with temporary amnesia.

But I found another intriguing aspect to keep me occupied as the film trundled along, not exactly riveting but oddly structured — the bucolic middle section is a very unusual feature, and the sympathetic husband inverts the James M Cain adultery-murder plotline — I detected in this 1949 movie a weird echo of 1941’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

Plotwise, the amnesia gimmick is the obvious connection, but the idea of a powerful rich dude descending to the working classes is another link. As Donlevy staggers along the railway tracks, the movie seems on a convergent line, only to divert ultimately into a not-too-exciting courtroom drama. But the cast is full of Sturges links —

Robert Warwick, a studio exec in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS plays another desk jockey here, a police captain. Most of the rest of the cast have Sturgesian credentials — Donlevy, of course, was McGinty in THE GREAT MCGINTY and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK: Charles Coburn was in THE LADY EVE; and Ella Raines played one of her earliest parts for Sturges in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO.

My old friend Lawrie, who remembered seeing Raines movies in the 40s, once said, “I was always very interested in Ella Raines, because I had heard she was a lesbian, and of course… I had no idea what that meant.”

I have no idea if Ella was a lesbian in reality (she was married twice, once for a long time, and had kids, not that any of that proves anything in this cockeyed carnival) but perhaps anxiety about her sexuality and screen persona influenced the nervousness of the studio bosses at Paramount who told Sturges that his leading lady was unconvincing as a girl next door? The resulting tensions contributed to Sturges’s decision to depart the studio, which ultimately led, alas, to his career plunging into a tailspin.

IMPACT also benefits from the presence of Anna May Wong, albeit in a somewhat thankless maid role, and Helen Walker as the scheming wife. Walker’s best noir role is as the scheming shrink in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and her best comedy role was not for Sturges but for Lubitsch, as the Honorable Betty Cream in CLUNY BROWN (see it, you may find it to be one of the best forties comedies of all). Alas, a drunk driving incident, when Walker killed a hitchhiking war veteran she’d picked up, damaged her career. Pow.

It’s a great shame, from a movie as well as a human point of view, because Walker could be dynamite on the screen.

Remember, this Friday is the SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS Film Club — drop by and join the discussion!

“And then I saw her…”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by dcairns

“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun…”

“She waited until it was late… then she walked in, out of the moonlight…”

“…and then I saw her, walking up the road in the headlights…”

OUT OF THE PAST is as near to a perfect film as I can conceive of. Screenplay is credited to Geoffrey Homes, from his novel Build My Gallows High. Homes was really Daniel Mainwaring, who has a slew of credits but nothing that even hints at the excellence of this. I’d like to read his book though. I hear his femme fatale is called Mumsy McGonagall or something though, which doesn’t quite have the soft allure of Cathy Moffat, Jane Greer’s character name in the movie.

Uncredited work was also done by Frank Fenton, who started in England with, among other things, an awful travesty of PG Wodehouse called STEP LIVELY, JEEVES! (where there’s no Bertie Wooster and Jeeves is an idiot) but went on to some reasonable credits including HIS KIND OF WOMAN and RIVER OF NO RETURN. But they have none of the epigrammatic wiz of OOTP’s dialogue. (“I hate surprises, myself.”)

An uncredited James M Cain must surely be responsible for the injection of genius, including, I suspect, the series of entrances from the light by Cathy, which form a kind of refrain. If the other writers managed to get lines in there, by some remarkable alchemy, all the good lines have been preserved and no bad lines taken their  place. Homes can perhaps be credited with the unusual structure, which redeems the stock noir elements by reconfiguring them in an odd shape. How stock are they? Well, Mitchum’s man on a run is discovered working in a gas station by a hood who enters a diner, exactly like in THE KILLERS. There’s no reason why Mitchum, a man on the run and a former private eye, should be able to start a new life as a car mechanic. Where did he get the skills? But it works symbolically — the garage is a little bit of urban grime transported to rural small-town America, so it’s the place where he fits in. (The third “start a new life in a garage” movie is LOST HIGHWAY, where Bill Pullman literally regenerates and rejuvenates from a felon into a grease monkey.)

This particular cliché is amusing and odd, and it isn’t by any means overused (I think Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT trots it out again though, and there may be others — do you know of any?) and as I say, the film’s crazy structure stops any feeling of over-familiarity. In addition to the rural and Mexican idylls, which add an unfamiliar feeling, and the fact that no private eye hero ever fell down on the job as badly as Mitch does here, we have this strange shape: leisurely intro in small town, flashback that eats up half of act one, taking in the first job Mitchum undertakes,the Mexican romance, and a time-lapse leading up to the first murder, then we come out of the flashback at the halfway mark and we get the second job, in San Francisco with a whole new plot and femme fatale (flaming Rhonda Fleming), and then our third act with climax bringing us full circle to the countryside and the original characters. Impressively, it follows the standard proportions of the Hollywood drama without giving you that familiar feeling of knowing where you are in the story.

Plus director Jacques Tourneur, among a hundred thousand felicities, offers this shot —

“The kid” played by Dickie Moore, is a very cool character. Here, the shot is beautiful in itself, and part of its beauty comes from the long lens which softens the background, but also gives us the sense of observing from a distance with Mitchum. It feels very modern when you see it in action.

But ultimately, what’s beautiful about this film goes beyond what can be expressed by talking about individual elements — Tourneur never had such strong material before or since, though I am second to none in my admiration of CAT PEOPLE, NIGHTFALL, NIGHT OF THE DEMON et al. This is the one where his poetic sensitivity rebounded off the material in THE most beautiful way.