Archive for Preston Foster

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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Ransom Note

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Never interrupt Ralph Morgan’s embroidery.

Charles Vidor was a very interesting stylist — some of his films are pretty ordinary, but then he’d do slightly mad things. GILDA, his masterpiece, has several eccentric flourishes, including a forced perspective shot with outsize dice as its very first image, and continually makes interesting cutting and framing choices that get more eccentric the more you think about them. His silent short, THE BRIDGE, (which you can see here) is full of striking moments, such as a double exposure of drumsticks beating with the chest of a prisoner about to be executed, making us not only hear but see and feel his pounding heartbeat.

MUSS ‘EM UP is a 1936 thriller based on a pulp detective novel by James Edward Grant (don’t know his work) — it’s faithful enough to the tone and conventions of Black Mask fiction to play like a true film noir, quite a few years early (even more so than Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY). Preston Foster is the hardboiled hero, and the un-starry but capable supporting cast comprise a fine net full of red herrings.

A wealthy man’s dog has been shot and he’s been receiving threatening letters. Gumshoe Tip O’Neil (Foster) moves in to crack the case, and finds that the entire family and staff are sharpshooters, making it tricky to narrow the field of suspects. Then there’s a kidnapping, and this happens ~

Ransom note from David Cairns on Vimeo.

So, Vidor tracks through the wall and on to another room — an Ophulsian trick, almost before Ophuls was doing it. What the roving camera finds in that room is the same group of characters, differently attired, at a different time of day. Again, like Ophuls in his very last films of the fifties, Vidor has TRACKED THROUGH TIME.

The other earliest example of this I can think of is the ambitious but slightly clunky shot in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP — “Forty years ago… forty years ago…” which takes us into flashback in a steam bath. Vidor’s version is earlier and possibly more successful, if less epic/romantic.

He repays watching.

Thundering Beef

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2015 by dcairns

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A religious motto in the background establishes Joel McCrea’s righteousness — as if that were necessary! — as he opposes the villain’s hubris.

The title RAMROD was guaranteed to reduce my inner smutty schoolboy to helpless sniggering, but the re-teaming of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, with Lake’s husband Andre DeToth at the helm, merited more serious attention, clearly. Olive Films have released the picture on a good-looking Blu-ray so serious attention is perfectly possible for anyone with the cash to spare.

The movie begins with a clusterbombing of exposition, characters heaping up without much introduction, so that my sleepy self quickly started to despair of being able to follow things. Also, DeToth’s noir sensibility seemed to be inflecting everything with twistiness and ambivalence — black hats and white hats seemed apt to get swapped at any moment, and usually lovable or at any rate amicable actors were already sliding out of place into shadowy terrain — Veronica Lake seems spoilt and stroppy, Charlie Ruggles is severe and inhumane, Joel McCrea drinks too much, Donald Crisp is a vacillating lawman, Preston Foster is a power-hungry cattle baron and Lloyd Bridges… well, that guy always did a nice turn in psycho hoodlums, so it’s no surprise to find him sneering from the sidelines.

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The exposition was so deep after a few minutes of in media res backbiting that I was expecting a noir flashback to give us a second go at understanding things, but this never happened. In other respects, though, this is far more noir than western. Moral certainty is filled full of lead early on and never rises from its sickbed.

Gradually I perceived the fault lines running through the town and family at the film’s centre — think Mann’s THE FURIES, another western by a noir specialist with ranchers as Borgia-gangsters, fraught father-daughter relationships, violent passions and murderous politicking. McCrea, despite a token alcohol problem and an inability to decide between the two leading ladies, does preserve his righteous image, but it takes a little more of a shaking up than usual.

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Maybe that’s part of why McCrea disliked the film. He also didn’t care for DeToth either personally or professionally — he didn’t like all the beautiful elaborate tracking shots winding through it (“John Ford didn’t need that”) and felt DeToth’s relationship with Lake harmed his ability to direct her. He told Patrick McGilligan, “When you work with the director’s wife, this is for the birds. Because he’s not going to be tough with her, you know, or she’ll kick his ass when he gets home at night.”

Mind you, I saw DeToth in person, and though he was in his nineties at the time, it was hard to imagine anyone kicking this bullet-heated Hungarian cyclops’ ass.

Those snaky tracking shots and crane shots are very gorgeous, animating the scenery (DeToth always liked to seek out less familiar locations for his westerns) and making the environment more than just backdrop. He pulls off some punchy compositions too, frequently boxing Lake in as if he wanted to build a protective house around her.

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It’s a really interesting role for Lake, maybe the only femme fatale she ever got to play? — and the outcome is interesting too, because she’s not punished for her various crimes and manipulations, other than not getting her man at the end. She wins everything else, with an outcome that’s almost a Revenger’s Tragedy until you reflect that a surprising number of nasty characters are still walking around, either partially redeemed or simply judged not important enough to be worthy of Stern Western Justice.

Early on, Lake blows her top at her father, who’s been trying to fix her up with the wealthy cattle king as husband. Her rebellion against him emerges in a startlingly bitter and aggressive tirade, which seems both utterly sympathetic and too real to be just acting. Lake, who had been pushed into movies by her mother, renamed and restyled and boxed in, lets rip at this parental figure who’s trying to plot out her entire life for her with a fury that’s surely authentic. DeToth reported that she hated movie acting, but it sure looks like she’s getting something out of this scene.

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Oh, also, her character name, Connie, is her own real name. Veronica was her mother’s name.

So I loved the hell out of this. A western without the more clichéd visuals and without the cosy moral certainty. Particularly good work from Don DeFore as the most ambiguous character of all, the womanizing cowhand who is loyal yet a traitor, murderous but just, bad but noble. His schismatic nature is magnified across the whole movie. Amazing.

Ramrod [DVD]