Archive for RKO

It’s Later Than You Think

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2018 by dcairns

Continuing to explore Irving Reis’s work. The 1940 melo ONE CROWDED NIGHT takes place in an auto farm — my favourite venue! Think HEAT LIGHTNING and THE PETRIFIED FOREST and James M. Cain’s classic short story The Baby in the Icebox. A liminal space that’s gas station, diner and motel all in one. A place of potential drama. It spends most of its runtime stacking subplots atop one another, a game of narrative Buckaroo that’s not as interesting to watch as it must have been to execute, but when the climax is triggered and everything collapses and collides, it’s terribly exciting.

 

There’s plenty evidence the movie was intended to take its title from the prominently and regularly featured sundial constructed from rocks in the dustbowl location — the eventual choice seems designed to alibi the huge scaffolding of wild coincidence upon which the movie is assembled. At this auto farm we have the relatives of a convict, falsely jailed as a getaway driver (he was at gunpoint); then the convict arrives, having broken out, he’s determined to catch the heisters and clear his name; the heisters are also present, in another cabin; so are two detectives, escorting a soldier who went AWOL to see his pregnant wife; so is the wife, who fainted during her bus’s rest stop; so is a defrocked doctor, now running a medicine show; so is the moll of a heister’s associate, now working as the cook. And the convict’s wife is recognized by fellow residents of Duluth (we’re in Arizona) who are Just Passing Through.

Since it’s obvious how these characters are intended to intersect, interest comes from a few neat tricks by Reis (and a few daft ones) and from the unstarry cast. JM Kerrigan as the quack gets a prominent credit, presumably because he had just been in GONE WITH THE WIND. His whole schtick screams “WC Fields was unavailable!” Anne Revere, with her beautiful cliff-face face (Precipice Woman) and hubbie Paul Guilfoyle with his ugly-beautiful loser puss. Gale Storm, a silly stage name appended to a cute teenager. And Harry Shannon, physically unrecognizable as Charles Foster Kane’s future father, but instantly familiar due to that great, muffled voice (like somebody pumped his sinuses full of cotton wool until the whole back of his face was stuffed.

“That’s the train with all the lights on it.”

Though it opens with a striking (and highly atypical for 1940) zoom shot, the movie’s best flourish is saved for the climactic shootout, where one guy falls down, shot, BANG! and SLAP! a newborn is welcomed into the world. Nature balance itself, with a little help from dialectical montage.

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A fabulous speck on the Earth’s surface

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2018 by dcairns

Well, that’s what the opening voice-over tells us MACAO is. Quite why it should want to say that, I’m sure I don’t know. But this is less a Josef Von Sternberg film than it is a Howard Hughes production, with all the mental derangement that implies. The “plot” involves Robert Mitchum being mistaken for a police investigator, who is really William Bendix — but we never really find out who Mitchum is, do we? Nobody in particular, it seems. Then there’s Jane Russell as a lounge singer, and nasty casino owner Brad Dexter, a notably colourless heavy, and crooked local cop Thomas Gomez.

Hughes declared in an internal memo that his films at RKO would be about two things, “fucking and fighting.” But really they all seem to be out convoluted webs of betrayal, usually reaching a point where the hero and heroine should hate each other, but instead end up together as per Hollywood tradition. It all gets extremely convoluted without you caring what happens to anybody in the least. Sternberg’s JET PILOT is an extreme example of this, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh’s “romantic” sparring intensified by the fact that they’re meant to be representatives of the US and USSR military. That movie was greatly compromised by Hughes to the point that by the time it opened, RKO was defunct and all the planes were out of date. MACAO fared even worse: “instead of fingers in that pie,” reported Sternberg, “a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomies in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”

Nicholas Ray was uncredited second director, apparently responsible for a lot of the Gloria Grahame bits (he married her and at least we got IN A LONELY PLACE out of that). He claimed he tried to achieve a Sternberg look, but most of this film is flat and prosaic, despite the exotic sound stage setting. But every ten minutes or so a shot sings out, mostly in the casino, often dreamy tracking shots that aren’t going anywhere in particular. In fact, it seems a rule in this movie that the more beautiful the shot, the less it has to do with its surroundings, the greater the sense of its having been dropped in as a random cutaway. But there’s almost nothing to cut away FROM.

And here is our fragment of cinematic beauty for today: the phantom tombola of Philip Ahn.

Wise Boxes Clever

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2018 by dcairns

Our viewing of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL of course demands a follow-up screening of something or other… I felt in a way less need to investigate this time, as I’ve already seen plenty of Robert Wise films, and even a few movies involving screenwriter Edmund H. North (IN A LONELY PLACE, SINK THE BISMARCK!, DAMN THE DEFIANT! and, ahem, METEOR). I’ve even covered STRANGER FROM VENUS. But THE SET-UP, directed by Wise in 1949, was overdue for a watch…

This one’s scripted by Art Cohn, from a poem (!) by Joseph Moncure March.

It’s alright… Percy’s here…

Really terrific filmmaking — I’m on record saying that Wise’s best cinematic effects usually hinge on editing, his métier, but this one has a lot of gorgeous push-in shots, moving deeper into the urban landscape of the film. The sweaty, shadowy feel of the movie is its best feature, aided by great noir faces — Robert Ryan, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton. Even Darryl Hickman, his fresh-faced appeal like a flower in hell, by which the surrounding inferno appears all the grimmer.

The big gimmick, that the story unfolds in real time, was a cause of frustration for the filmmakers since the audience turned out to be serenely oblivious to this. All those big clocks were for naught. But the excellent sound mix — there’s no score — does have great value, with the cross-cutting between Ryan and Audrey Totter tied together by devices like a streetcar blasting past, close-up for her, distant when we cut to him. The Aristotelian Unities may be quietly helping the film along, even if most of us don’t notice. After all, Hollywood style prided itself on invisibility. Why shouldn’t we consider this, and Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT, with its black-and-white-in-colour aesthetic, be regarded as roaring successes precisely because nobody at the time noticed?

Totter’s walk through town seems to very clearly prefigure what Welles wanted for his opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL, in terms of sound design.

I was genuinely puzzled about how the movie would end, though I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. For a while, it looks to be as bleak as you can get. Bleaker. Audrey Totter has a near-impossible task, spinning the tragic denouement as a triumph, and she pulls all the stops out and then breaks them off and throws them in the air. A little too much, Audrey.

But it’s impressive how RKO got away with a crime story in which the guilty go completely unpunished, and indeed the law is entirely absent.