Archive for Robert Ryan

Night of the Roberts

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2018 by dcairns

Watching lots of RKO films for a project which may or may not happen, but the research is fun anyway.

If you’re ever caught up in an argument about which is the true auteur, Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur, you can always bamboozle both sides by plumping for Nicholas Musuraca, who shot not only CAT PEOPLE but several other Lewton horrors, as well as OUT OF THE PAST, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, DEADLINE AT DAWN, THE LOCKET and STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (the first film noir?) giving them all the same beautiful, shadowy look.

CROSSFIRE is an interesting one. It’s a sort of knock-down fight between studio boss Dore Schary’s social conscience cinema, Dmytryk and Musuraca’s noir dramatism, and Richard Brooks’ source novel. The novel’s victim was killed because he was gay — a startling story element for the time, which would have surprised readers. The movie’s victim, Sam Levene, is killed because he’s Jewish, and the moment Robert Ryan is heard to say “jewboy,” all pretense of mystery disappears and it becomes incredible that Robert Young doesn’t put two and two together.

Robert Mitchum is the third Robert, and has all the best lines, making me wonder if he wrote them, as he occasionally did at this time (HIS KIND OF WOMAN, THE LUSTY MEN).

But a surprising number of Brooks’ homosexual hints remain, flapping loose ends attached to nothing at either end. Ryan takes special note of Levene talking to his “sensitive artist” friend George Cooper, and it’s made to look like a pick-up, viewed in covert POV across the bar top. The whole set-up, with Levene randomly inviting strangers back to his pad, is slightly odd.

The film benefits from a wild, shape-shifting structure that leaps between viewpoints, so that Mitchum, Young, Cooper, his wife Jacqueline White, and even Ryan take turns as our principal, point-of-view character. The film seems to take its form from the drunken binge that initiates the action, veering about through time and space, doubling back on itself picking up false trails and introducing characters who go nowhere.

Best of these is Paul Kelly, with his face of a cork golem and his body shaped like a sandwich in a suit, staring dead-eyed at Cooper as he wantonly freaks him out with lies and non-sequiturs. Who is he and why is he here? We never quite learn, though “pimp” is the most obvious explanation for his presence in Gloria Grahame’s bijou apartment (the kitchen is a wall behind a curtain). He’s just very strange. If he was Dan Duryea, we’d say “pimp” and shrug it off. But Kelly seems to lack the confidence for that. Even he doesn’t seem to know who he is.

The film’s good-hearted ambitions mean Young has to provide protracted expositions on the evils of antisemitism (but with no mention of the recent Holocaust, strangely enough), which are quite well written (adaptation by John Paxton) but the purpose is better served by Ryan’s pathological hate speech. He’s clearly enough positioned as the heavy so that explaining why is redundant. But the most evocative stuff is the unexplained and unexplainable, the lacunae of Brooks’ deleted story and the walking lacuna that is Paul Kelly.

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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.

Caught — Totally

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by dcairns

Max Ophuls’ film CAUGHT is an interesting film in many ways and in many ways a good one — the Ophuls visual style is restrained but still elegant — until its ending. The movie can be seen as Ophuls’ revenge on Howard Hughes, who had fired him from VENDETTA (as he would later fire Preston Sturges and Stuart Heisler). Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, millionaire Smith Ohlrig*, who sends slimy agents out to recruit girls for him. Barbara Bel Geddes marries him, discovers he’s a monster, and flees. Then she falls in love with James Mason, but discovers she’s pregnant with Ryan’s baby, and goes back to him, like a good Code-obeying wife.

All this is very dramatic and interesting and of course beautifully filmed by Ophuls. Mason is a slum doctor which means he can be saintly and preferable to Ryan in every way, but also a bit stern and domineering in an attractive James Mason kind of way. But now that the film has established its most dramatic problem, it gets just as caught as Barbara, and can’t fight its way out of the plot tangle. Genre convention and Hollywood preference dictates a happy ending — sure, Barbara started out as a bit of a gold-digger, but she’s learned the error of her ways. But the movie can’t bring itself to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E, despite Ryan’s obvious cruelty and abnormality. So he’s going to have to die. And he can’t be killed by any of the sympathetic characters. The only possibilities are to bring in a secondary character with a grudge, bump him off in an accident, or have him expire of natural causes. The movie plumps for the last option, but the trouble is these are all deus ex machina solutions, getting the heroes out of trouble without them having to lift a finger.

The going gets really weird when it comes to Ryan’s unborn child. There seems to be no specific Code ruling to prevent Barbara having her late husband’s child, marrying Mason and raising it. But everybody seems to have felt really uncomfortable about this cuckoo in the nest. So the blameless embryo must perish, a victim of Ryan’s mistreatment of his pregnant wife. This winds up being weirder by far than the extirpation of Joan Fontaine’s child in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, who after all was the product of sex out of wedlock. Despite the evidence of the world’s innumerable thriving bastards, illegitimate offspring under the Code have a tendency to die young.

The miscarriage is actually a more successful part of the plot than Ryan’s convenient collapse, since after all, he had been mistreating Barbara. But now the movie wants to cram its cake into its gaping maw while hugging it simultaneously to its bosom, and so makes an ill-judged attempt to fold the miscarriage into the happy ending. It’s all for the best! A James Mason baby will obviously be cuter than a Robert Ryan baby. And at least slightly smaller! The transports of joy into which Mason persuades his newly bereaved bride-to-be in the back of an ambulance make for an extremely strange and awkward conclusion. Sometimes, there’s just no room to squeeze between the Scilla of Joe Breen and the Charybdis of the Hollywood Ending.

*The name Smith Ohlrig is so preposterous I figured it had to be an anagram, and so it is: of Girlish Moth.