Archive for Stuart Heisler

The Laddie and the Lake

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by dcairns

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.

 

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Bette’s Maps to the Stars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on August 8, 2015 by dcairns

 

From THE STAR. Stuart Heisler’s movie about a fading star is NOT very good — it suffers from galloping conservatism and seems to imagine that Bette giving up her screen career to settle down as a housewife is what we want to see.

But this bit is great camp. I think it’s more or less unconscious, which makes it better. You can see how the writers would think, “She gets drunk and talks to her Oscar, great!” It’s useful for exposition, it all ties in nicely. And Bette fully commits. But I think she knows there’s some humour there. But the thing winds up like the Ultimate Bette Davis Scene, or the Ultimate Bette Davis Impersonation. Great joy.

It’s a very watchable movie. But one of those where you reach the end and it suddenly strikes you how un-good it was — heavy-handed and utterly on the nose, like a punch in the face. Up there with Heisler’s film about Hitler with Richard Basehart, possibly.

The_Star,_1952_film_poster

Afterbirth of a Nation

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 13, 2012 by dcairns

STORM WARNING is a terrific-looking Warner drama that wants to attack the Ku Klux Klan, but is afraid to get into exactly what that organization does and why it’s bad.

At one point prosecutor Ronald Reagan (!) learns that his right-hand man is a former member. He seems just curious, and kind of charmed, by this revelation. The guy tells him he joined because he wanted to do some good — Reagan is fine with this, although it’s about the least convincing explanation for membership I can imagine — then he says he got out because he discovered the thing was a crooked, money-making racket. Yeah, that’s the trouble with the Klan. They were fine before they went kommercial.

So, fashion model Ginger Rogers (!) stops off in this hick town to visit her sister, Doris Day (!) — and stumbles right into a lynching. One of those white-on-white lynchings you hear so much about. Seems the victim was a journalist who got caught trying to write an exposé on the Klan’s nefarious activities — so nefarious that Warners cannot allow us to ever know what they are. I half-suspect Warners of killing the guy, actually.

When Ginger realizes that one of the guilty men, Steve Cochran (no “!” for you, Steve) is her sister’s husband, and sis is pregnant, she does everything she can to avoid testifying — but Reagan is SO insistent. (Did Ron and Ginger sit around between takes plotting world domination, or did they just trade chimp stories? Oh, Ginger hadn’t made MONKEY BUSINESS yet? Well, maybe she did it on Ron’s recommendation. “Bonzo was super, and he didn’t try to bit my face off once.”)

Paul Roen (High Camp) compares this film to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and there’s certainly the bestial caveman thing going on in Cochran’s beetle-browed sweatiness, but there’s no suggestion that Ginger finds him anything but repellant. Doris manages to sell her sympathetic, simple-minded wife/sister role so that she’s moving rather than annoying — aware of the difference between right and wrong but simply unequipped to process what’s going on around her. Ginger is so tough we’re never really concerned for her, despite a rape attempt and a whipping — the film is nothing if not sadistic, in a noir fashion. Cochrane is memorably repellant. Reagan is… quite adequate.

All the sadism is there to torture Ginger for failing to do her civic duty, putting her pregnant sister’s well-being above her legal obligation to testify against Cochran. And this would work fine, is even a story that could be politically compelling while failing to deal with the Klan, but Reagan’s scenes diffuse the tension. His narrative purpose is to tiresomely point out to Ginger her correct course, and he does this well enough, but because he’s a leading man the script also gives him redundant scenes of his own. These are all intended to convince us that lynch mobs don’t face prosecution, despite the efforts of noble authority figures, because the communities protect the guilty. The last part of that statement is true, but we all know that the authorities colluded in the crimes. The movie does semi-implicate a couple of prison guards, but that’s as far as it will go.

The characters occupy such well-defined, stereotypical positions, either all good or all bad, that it must have been hard to get real life into the film, but at some point one of the writers has decided to cram in some strange humour, and a new kind of animation flares up for five minutes. The inquest into the central murder features a radio newscaster wandering the crowd trying to get vox pops from reticent or surly locals (we’re in the South, but nobody has a particularly southern accent), but keeps emitting tetchy whispers to his associate “Don’t step on the cable!” Then, we see the jury sworn in: “Raise your right hand. Your right hand.” A snarky touch — in a movie so anxious not to alienate the southern audience, suddenly suggesting that the average citizen is a moron probably wasn’t wise, but it’s very funny in an “oh dear” kind of way.

Everything I’ve seen from director Stuart Heisler has been good so far — nothing’s been quite great, but I’m certain there’s a masterpiece out there. THE BISCUIT EATER, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, AMONG THE LIVING, THE GLASS KEY, all are recommended — there’s real visual panache and emotional commitment in all of them.