Archive for Regis Toomey

The Plot Coagulates

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, this time watching THE BIG SLEEP, I decided to keep notes and try to track the plot. And think about to what extent it makes sense and why the audience seems to not care.

Hawks liked to brag about how the story didn’t make sense and even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who did it, and said that afterwards he never worried about plot. What does that mean, and is it true? Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, Hawks was a big fat liar, happy as long as he was telling a good tale. It’s highly likely the fabled phone call to Chandler never happened, isn’t it? Unless someone can point to Chandler acknowledging it…

It’s perfectly true that what THE BIG SLEEP is nominally about — a bunch of offscreen events and characters — isn’t of much importance to the audience. We do need to understand what Bogart is supposed to be doing, so we can be invested in his success. So that, at the end of the film, if some bad guys are punished and Bogart survives and gets the girl, we’ll be happy even if we’re still scratching some small residual part of our collective head.

Truffaut observed to Hitchcock that a lot of movies have scenes where two characters discuss an absent third, and the audience can’t recall what they’re on about, because we don’t remember names as easily as faces, especially at the movies. David Mamet put it more bluntly, and in all-caps: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” I quoted him on Twitter recently to express some frustration with episode 12 of Twin Peaks. (I know think something interesting and conscious was going on with that episode’s cluster of unseen characters, though I still don’t know what.)

Well, THE BIG SLEEP seems to be entirely composed of crocks of shit, by Mamet’s measure. Yet, rather than being undramatic and expositional, it fulfills Hawks’ credo — it gets some fun out of every scene. We enjoy it so much we don’t mind that we have no idea what’s going on. And since every scene is enjoyable, the wrap-up doesn’t have to give us a super-detailed summary of exactly what happened, since that would be a little dry and boring.

It’s worth distinguishing the scene from the backstory — nearly every scene is about trying to figure out what various offscreen characters did in the past. But the movement of the scene itself involves present tense, onscreen characters, and what they get up to provides the entertainment.

Everything’s clear enough at first: we pay attention when Marlowe is given his briefing by the General, because audiences like to know what the story is about. We’re just as happy to have M brief Bond, or have the RAF officer point at a map with a pointer. Only a small amount of decoration is needed to make such stuff mildly amusing — the General’s extremely characterful dialogue provides that. And we’ve already had amusing encounters with his twisted daughter and his butler. The exposition functions the same way as “Once Upon a Time” in a fairy tale: we don’t care about Snow White’s mother, we barely meet her, but we happily submit to being told about her because it’s the way into the story. Once we’re in, we hope to be intrigued and emotionally involved, but we’ll listen for a while to some raw narrative information as long as the indicators are promising.

The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite favourite thing, the way Bogart SNORTS in reply to Betty’s “My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”), and then the bookshop stuff is fantastic — a prime example of Hawks getting some fun out of it, assisted by Bogart’s camping it up. I wish Humph did an entire film as that character. This all adds up to just about the best first half hour of any forties movie, and then a helpful corpse turns up just when one is needed.

This Buddha head camera must be what Robert Montgomery used to photograph THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

I think we start to lose hope of following the story around the time one body disappears and another turns up. If it had been the same body, we’d feel we were getting somewhere. That and the multitude of blackmailers and chauffeurs, each of whom is mentioned before he appears, causing us to wonder if we’re supposed to know the name. One blackmailer and both chauffeurs never really appear at all, except as corpses. We come to feel that keeping track of who did what to whom before the movie began is about as worthwhile as counting the revolvers Bogie collects during the course of the action.

Good use of Regis Toomey, paralleling the good use of Richard Barthelmess in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: both former leading men whose stardom had faded since the early thirties.

I started scribbling questions as the film went on, and soon had enough to convince me that an audience couldn’t be expected to remember them all and still take in new information, which would be the point at which they’d give up and just trust the movie to sort itself out. Sit back and enjoy it. But I kept with my notes, and was able to tick the questions off as they were eventually answered. Though none of that gave me any particular satisfaction. What’s satisfying is when Bogart gets Canino and Eddie Mars killed, the two men responsible for the only onscreen murder of a character we’ve actually met and can therefore care about — inevitable victim Elisha Cook, Jr.

Oh, I guess we met Brody the blackmailer and saw him get killed, too. But we don’t like him. Funny how the guy who kills him kind of looks like Truffaut, without really looking like Truffaut at all.

A really good pair of heavies, Pete and Sidney. “Is he any good?” asks Bogie, re Sidney. “Sidney? Sidney’s company for Pete,” comes the reply. So Pete’s good, but only when he has Sidney for company. Marvelous.

Marlowe seems to quite enjoy Eddie Mars when he first meets him: I guess the two have a Hawksian respect for one another’s professionalism, but Marlowe becomes sterner once he places the guilt for little Elisha’s killing where it belongs. Still, Mars would probably have won if he didn’t have to rely on idiots to do his bidding, and if there weren’t a bunch of other, random idiots gumming up the works.

John Ridgely is Mars and Bob Steele is Canino — not really star players, but very good here. Impressive how Hawks can raise them to the level required. Ridgely’s timing with Bogart is particularly fine. Manny Farber argued that only the first half of the film is really good, and he has a point, sort of — the immortal stuff is all in that first half hour. But there are really good scenes all through it.

It’s a first-person detective story the way THE MALTESE FALCON mainly is (presenting Archer’s murder from outside Spade’s viewpoint just for dramatic impact), but it’s interesting what use this is to Hawks. He uses it to restrict our knowledge to just what Marlowe knows, making this in theory a “fair-play” detective story. we ought to have the same chance of solving the mystery as Marlowe. But since Hawks doesn’t care if we’re keeping up, does that matter? There’s no Agatha Christie surprise to the outcome, in which bad guy Mars turns out to be the bad guy. Or there is, I guess — Carmen Sternwood started the whole thing by bumping off a chauffeur. Or is that two chauffeurs? I’m looking at my notes but I can’t seem to understand them…

One problem of the “closed narrative” can be the plodding effect of following one character around — it’s certainly part of why I find EYES WIDE SHUT kind of pedestrian, even as I also find it fascinatingly peculiar. Ditto THE NINTH GATE. And yet, every time a scene begins with Bogart coming in a door, my heart soars. Those tend to be the really good scenes in this film.

Hawks observed that you need a really good, interesting star to pull off this kind of tale — which is where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp in boring mode are a problem, I guess. Polanski pulls off the closed narrative approach brilliantly in ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the claustrophobic concentration on Rosemary’s viewpoint also allows a build-up of doubt about her sanity and her the accuracy of her perceptions. None of that here: despite being sleep-deprived throughout, as detectives always seem to be, Bogart always seems to be fresh as a daisy and at the top of his game, even if that face would seem tailor-made for insomnia.

(In THE MALTESE FALCON its Spade’s secretary, Effie, who gets the sleepless night. A brilliant character, Effie, who deserves her own book.)

Of course there’s the earlier edit of this movie, with more exposition and less glamour. Hawks told Bogdanovich he made the film very cheaply because he had a contract that would get him a big share of the profits. Since every Hawks anecdote is about his mastery and victory, he neglects to mention that he was forced to shoot new Betty Bacall scenes, which presumably pushed the costs up substantially…

I’m fascinated by Eddie Mars’ casino, which is full of men in evening dress and men and women dressed as cowboys. Almost Lynchian. Or, better, with its cowboys and drapes, like a Glen Baxter cartoon. Is this an accurate portrayal of a forties casino?

And then the ending, which is perfectly satisfying (as opposed to TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’s which is a sublime grace note — I find it impossible to say why it’s so beautiful — or as opposed to Huston’s KEY LARGO, where the action climax is a disappointing shrug after the intensity of the build-up). But personally, I don’t think the doctors are going to be able to help Carmen Sternwood, who strikes me as probably a psychopath. And I can’t see how the Bogie-Bacall thing really has a future: she’s been lying to him all through the picture. Also, she was doing it to protect her sister, but now that that’s failed, she’s suddenly remarkably happy.

It’s a movie ending, in other words, fine for a movie that embraces its movieness as much as this one. If I had to guess, I’d credit it to Jules Furthman, the most movie-ish of the three credited screenwriters. It has nothing to do with Chandler, nothing much to do with the rest of the movie, but respects the audience’s wish that the two delightfully sparring stars should share a final clinch that promises Happy Ever After. We don’t HAVE to believe it any more than we’re required to believe anything here. We’re all sleeping the big sleep, dreaming the big dream of cinema.

Headgear

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2011 by dcairns

“He’s worse with a hat on!” I declared, and Fiona agreed with me.

The subject of discussion was Regis Toomey, star of the spicy pre-code triumph UNDER 18, which we enjoyed very much. And it was a strange discovery to make. I’d thought I just didn’t much like Toomey, didn’t like his face, like that of a juvenile clown whose makeup has become grafted to his skin; didn’t like his voice, a raspy instrument more suited for frightening cats than human speech. But when I saw him sans chapeau (a rare condition for a male actor in 30s movies), I found him not without a certain vulnerable appeal. Let once a cap, fedora or helmet adorn his brow, however, and repulsion, anger and intolerance made hay with my disposition.

I mean, look at this (UNDER 18) ~

And this (SHE HAD TO SAY YES) ~

And this (THE FINGER POINTS) ~

And normally I like hats. I’ve never found an attractive one that would fit my bulbous, William-Hurt-sized head, but I like them on other people. Normally. It’s just that on Toomey, his pursed, shrunken clown face takes on a new and ghastlier hue when shaded neath the brim of an otherwise inoffensive lid, be it homburg, boater, fedora or Moorish tarboosh.

Still, that aside, Toomey is sympathetic in a difficult role in UNDER 18 (the title is an irrelevance): anybody who has to act cross with Marian Marsh is doing very well to not make the audience hate him. And she does well too — a peaches-and-cream cutie playing a naive ingenue type with big googly eyes, she could easily become punchable, but she holds the film together, aided by Warners Brothers’ typical no-nonsense approach, which hits story points hard and fast, and even manages to deliver sentimentality in a blunt manner.

Case in point: the movie begins with Marsh’s sister getting married (to future director Norman Foster, so we know there’s trouble ahead). Director Archie Mayo holds a long shot on the girls’ dad, as he slowly tears up. It’s sweet and gently funny, but it’s followed by a quick dissolve to the old guy’s gravestone, as we move into the future, the stock market crash, and marital difficulties which for the big sister which soon have Marsh questioning the viability of romance. And when a girl’s in that frame of mind, the arrival of a feckless millionaire played by Warren William is apt to represent a temptation.

WW, who gets to smirkingly emit the line he was born to say — “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay awhile?” — is on very good form, as is Mayo, one of the less distinguished but still damn good Warners directors. Here, his attention to the bit part players is especially commendable.

“Watch your step,” says the elevator operator (Otto Hoffman) to Marian as she alights at Williams’ penthouse fuck pad. And then he drives his double entendre home with a meaningful look.

This delivery boy (name unknown) gets TWO looks, a bored/nosy/dopey one as Marian signs for her delivery, and an obsequious/lecherous one when he makes eye contact. The guy makes his mark.

The movie also finds space for sparky Claire Dodd, cadaverous Clarence Wilson, an unusually camp Edward Van Sloan, and many other attention-grabbing artistes.

And for 1931 this is a remarkably fluid piece of work, with long camera moves and expressive angles unhampered by the demanding microphone. Here, setting up Williams’ shagging palace, Mayo proves himself a regular pre-code Ozu with the three building-block establishing views he uses ~

Of all the pre-code parties, this may be the best, even if the host suffers a near-fatal injury.

For B. Kite.

Man Unwanted

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I’m your… secretary.” David Manners is quick on the draw.

One of the pleasures for the code-literate viewer watching movies from the post-1934 classic Hollywood era is figuring out how the writers are going to come up with an ending which pulls off a dramatic surprise, satisfies viewer requirements (not necessarily a happy ending, but an apt one) and gets by the production code. If the protagonist commits a crime, for instance, morality demands that they be punished, but box office demands they be somewhat sympathetic or anyhow compelling, so there’s a potential conflict of interest.

In pre-codes it’s different. Not only are subjects verboten in later years frequently dealt with or at least hinted at, the films’ attitudes to them are rarely predictable. Some of the movies are shamelessly sexist or racist, others would seem unusually sophistic, nuanced and acute if made today. In MAN WANTED, Kay Francis plays a magazine editor whose playboy husband is always urging her to take it easy, like him. But Kay loves her job. And does she lover her husband? The arrival or male secretary David Manners tests that proposition.

This is one of the slowest pre-codes I’ve seen (well, after we get past the early talkie slump, when everybody was enunciating like classically-trained zombies), but that works for the picture. The general rule seems to have been that rich folks led languid, relaxed lives, and so their stories have an easy-going, meandering approach, whereas the working class were all fast-talking go-getters, so a rambunctious tone and a rat-a-tat pace were compulsory. Here, the working stiff is Manners, who never had much rat-a-tat in him, poor boy, so the overall feel is elegant rather than hectic. Andy Devine rasps comedically in the background. The slow pace suits the story: a gradual creeping-in of illicit sexual attraction allows sympathy to be maintained even as everybody is cheating on everybody else.

Best of all, without the Production Code’s floor plan, we get lost in the story and have no trail of moralistic breadcrumbs to lead us out. Is divorce occasionally the lesser evil, and do some women like to earn a living outside the home? These conclusions are at least up for discussion in films of this period, and you might guess from my enthusiasm that the movie gets things right, but I don’t want to spoil anything…

“It’s too lovely an evening to wun down womance.” The writers entertain themselves by giving Kay Francis a lot of lines with R in them.

A more problematic, but nevertheless invigorating case is SHE HAD TO SAY YES. Loretta Young is in peril again! How could we say no? That title leers suggestively at you.

A movie which basically preaches that men are all fucked up could be accused of stacking the decks in its favour by casting Regis Toomey and Lyle Talbot in the lead roles, and indeed Toomey, though looking less like a plain-clothes circus clown than usual, is vile and pinched, but Talbot actually achieves sympathetic moments. The premise: young exec Toomey suggests that his firm use girls from the stenography department to “entertain” out-of-town clients. But he doesn’t want his own girl, Loretta, taking any part in that. At least until he starts an affair with office floozy Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn, in mysteriously her only movie role) and then it seems like a good idea to keep Loretta busy. Once Loretta becomes a hit entertainer, the unjust suspicion that she’s going all the way with clients provokes Toomey into breaking up with her, although he’s soon tormented by doubts. He’s the kind of paranoid-jealous type who seemingly NEEDS to believe his lover is cheating.

Meanwhile Loretta has met Talbot, one of the out-of-town clients, who drunkenly paws her. She tells him she doesn’t go for that stuff. “Perhaps you just haven’t been pawed properly! It’s really very nice.” Sober, he apologizes sweetly, and starts to win her heart. Talbot is actually quite good at the vulnerable stuff. God knows, he can’t carry off cockiness without provoking bemusement (“What’s this chump so cocky about?”) The early 30s was a thin time for genuinely attractive leading men, it seems to me. Cary Grant was still learning to act, the young Ray Milland looks like an Yves Tanguy abstract (cloth draped on sticks), and John Wayne’s mouth was still a Pandora’s Box, spoiling everything by opening. David Manners is easy on the eye, but he has a Ken doll’s sexuality.

A glance through Marlene’s roster of screen squeezes illustrates the problem neatly: yes, there was Gary Cooper, who makes up for a lot, but there’s also Victor McLaglan, for whom nobody can possibly atone. Cesar Romero, Clive Brook, Lionel Atwill… possibly Sternberg was just seeing how far he could push a grotesque private joke…

SHE HAD TO SAY YES is a pretty ferocious attack on the kind of man who wants a desirable woman, wants other men to desire her, and becomes psychotically jealous whatever happens next. And it classifies that type of men as ALL MEN. Which may have some degree of truth in it, or at least be a relevant analysis of a certain trend of male-female relations in the early 1930s in America. What it doesn’t lend itself to is the kind of happy ending where the hero gets the girl and the audience feels happy. The screenwriters attempt to be true to the box office formula of boy meets girl and produce an awkward, unconvincing and disturbing finale where Loretta joyously accepts a marriage proposal from Lyle minutes after he has tried to rape her. In between, all he has to do is punch out Regis Toomey to win her over. Admittedly, he earns our eternal gratitude for doing so, but it’s fair to say we don’t quite trust him yet.

Nevertheless, an ending that sits so uncomfortably can’t fail to provoke thought: one thought being that it’s perhaps impossible to make a solidly feminist piece with the underlying assumption that the girl must always end up as half a couple, no matter what. That darkened-bedroom moment, with Lyle Talbot in the throes of fervid lust-hate, wanting to believe Loretta is good so he can love her, but wanting more to believe she’s bad so he can screw her, and Loretta stopping him with the plaintive words, “Is that all you think of me?” is a pretty strong scene. I guess we’re meant to think he’s an OK guy at heart because he’s capable of stopping himself. I’m not convinced this is a sign of the film’s age, I think audiences have always had a higher ideal for their leading men characters than that.

Still, Winnie Lightner is around to provide snappy put-downs, and Hugh Herbert plays things surprisingly straight as a cheating husband, apart from a high-pitched laugh signaling the character’s sexual arousal/anxiety.
MAN WANTED is directed by William Dieterle, with shapely compositions and lots of art deco. SHE HAD TO SAY YES is directed by George Amy, a successful editor who only helmed a few films.