Archive for The Beast of the City

“You have a saboteur’s disposition.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2009 by dcairns

0008

So says Priscilla Lane to Robert Cummings in SABOTEUR, another retread of the 39 STEPS idea, complete with handcuffs, disbelieving blonde, embarrassment versus peril at a social gathering, and adding in the climax on a monument idea which Hitchcock had first developed, aided by the young Michael Powell, in BLACKMAIL.

Digression: watching THE BEAST OF THE CITY, a great pre-code cops and gangsters drama with Walter Huston, we got fascinated by Huston’s family. This being an MGM movie, it dispenses somewhat with the hard-edged proletarian qualities of Warners gangster films, instead endorsing shady and brutal police methods with fascistic relish, and part of the strategy is to celebrate the police chief’s family and home life. First off, a foetal Mickey Rooney plays Huston’s youngest kid, which is distracting enough, but when his twin daughters enter, side by side and carrying a single platter between them, and talking in unison, we wondered for a moment if they weren’t the Hilton sisters, the conjoined twins who appeared in FREAKS (and one other movie, CHAINED BOUND FOR LIFE). But then they exited separately, which pretty much proved that they weren’t. No doubt we were influenced by the fact that it was an MGM movie, like FREAKS, and Huston’s younger brother was played by the guy who played Phroso the clown in that Tod Browning masterpiece.

0417Another thin man.

This pointless anecdote connects to the fact that SABOTEUR also features Siamese twins, but these are fake (real twins, though), and that it’s also the source of a similar case of mistaken identity. When I first saw SABOTEUR as a teenager, I formed the mistaken impression that the actor playing the living skeleton in the same freakshow scene was John Carradine. That mistake stayed in my memory, and I was surprised to find out I was wrong (it’s Pedro de Cordoba, who has a similar seedy elegance and Shakespearian delivery), just as I was about Mel Blanc being in MR AND MRS SMITH. De Cordoba is very good, but I’m still disappointed he’s not Carradine and he’s not a real living skeleton (what, was Miles Mander unavailable?)

Movie begins with the silhouette of the saboteur (Norman Lloyd, later Hitch’s TV producer) leaving the scene of his crime, an image echoed at the end with his tiny figure silhouetted against a movie screen at Radio City Music Hall, smoke from his gun mirroring the black cloud that issues earlier from his act of arson.

The opening scenes are fairly sombre, as Cummings’ pal (a crewmember recruited by Hitchcock for his blue-collar appearance) is killed in the fire. Cummings, a popular whipping-boy among classic film fans, is actually pretty good at the emotional scenes after the death (although it seems to me that it’s this film, and not FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, that’s undercast in its star roles — I’ll take McCrea over Cummings any day. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock originally envisaged Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for this one, but was forced to accept Cummings and Priscilla Lane who had been paired for another project that collapsed).  But the script (Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker) surprisingly squanders a few opportunities for suspense as Cummings is suspected of the crime and forced to go on the run.

0354

They drive by night.

The film repeatedly pulls off a neat trick though, sending Cummings from one scrape or dead end to another, and always managing to provide some slight clue to motivate the next part of the chase. And through the episodic narrative, a romance is nurtured and several themes develop.

One theme connects to Cummings proletarian side: a factory worker, he often finds himself disadvantaged by his lowly social status, although he receives the help of a truck driver who recognises him as a brother, and a blind hermit who seems to have wandered in from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, spouting philosophy like Rock Hudson’s pal in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. Cummings’ greatest enemies are the rancher Toban (a wonderfully oily Otto Kruger) and society lady Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger, no relation).

Another motif is the presentation of the bad guys: Hitchcock gives Tobin a cute little granddaughter, has another speak of his long-haired baby son (a genuinely weird scene — what are they saying here?), while another talks about taking his kid sister out. And a whole coterie of thugs sings Tonight We Love while taking Cummings for a ride. All of which, perversely, doesn’t humanize them in any positive way, it makes their evil all the more chilling. Observing that the enemy love their families too does not mean we shouldn’t hate them: the ability to feel love for a child and then commit acts of murder against strangers is a particularly insidious kind of evil, Hitch seems to be saying.

Hitchcock’s reaction to an air raid warden’s announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor — “Why was he wearing that funny hat?” — does not suggest a man particularly attuned to world affairs, yet such was the script’s topicality that the declaration of war did not substantially alter it. Perhaps the freakshow scene, in which a bunch of typically atypical Americans have to decide whether to get involved, would have played out more urgently if America were still sitting on the fence, but it’s still an intriguing scene, even if the little fascist is the only guy in it who could have made a living in a real sideshow.

0892Film.

“What do they have in America?” seems to have been the question asked as Cummings and lane traverse the nation, taking in the Hoover Dam, deserts, a ghost town, Radio City and finally the Empire State Building, a fairly wide range of US signifiers. Krohn calls this the first American Hitchcock to take place in America, which is true if we discount MR AND MRS SMITH (but should we?) — so Hitch is busy trying to make the landscape his own. It’s essential preparation for SHADOW OF A DOUBT, a real masterpiece and possibly Hitchcock’s most American film of all.

Script: Joan Harrison turned Hitch’s ideas into a long outline, what we’d call a “scriptment” today, with Viertel (whose father had collaborated with Alma Reville on THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) filling that out into a first draft and Dorothy Parker providing dialogue sparkle. Parker’s work really enlivens the truck driver scenes, the blind philosopher, the sideshow artists scene and those colourful bad guys. Arguably the construction is even more artificial than usual, with Cummings escaping from a locked room simply by setting off a fire alarm. Panic ensues throughout the building — cut to Cummings outside, an all-too-typical smug look on his face. “How did he get out?” wondered Viertel. “They’ll never ask,” smiled Hitchcock.

That interlude within the swank Manhattan hotel is probably the weakest part. The explanation of why Cummings can’t simply walk out isn’t too compelling, and his attempts to enlist the help of party guests lack conviction too. the whole scene is a series of partial escapes from no clearly defined peril: simply exposing Cummings to the bad guys and cutting to him locked in the cupboard would have saved a lot of time (which might have been expended on a more interesting escape) and cost the film little in the way of real suspense. But I do like the way Lane keeps saying “This is like a nightmare!” and “It all seems so unreal!” She’s not wrong. And maybe this is another scene with a pre-war undercurrent, the serene society people waltzing away with the city about to explode around them.

There are two more problematic bits: the Radio City scene has an audience laughing uproariously at a film which doesn’t seem to be even trying to be funny. This can also be chalked up to the dreamlike atmosphere, I guess. Hitch also indulges in his propensity for killing innocent bystanders (see the unfortunate Dutch cyclist of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), which I always find a little upsetting.

Then, the grand finale atop Lady Liberty (and I like the synchronicity of the statue being reopened to the public this week to coincide with my posting this). Ben Hecht reportedly watched the scene where Norman Lloyd’s sleeve ripped off and he falls to his death and dryly remarked, “Should’ve gone to a better tailor.” I suspect this anecdote inspired the scene in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY where Paul Newman dangles from a skyscraper, his fate decided by a series of flashbacks exploring the strength of the stitching in his jacket. “My sleeve…”

0981

Of course, if Norman Lloyd had grabbed the cuff before his arm slid free, he’d have been fine. He seems to have had plenty of time to do so.

I also like the cops shouting “Get a rope!” I’d like to see a short about the cop who runs all the way downstairs and scours Liberty Island for a good length of hemp, finds it, desperately negotiates its purchase, then runs all the way back up to find everybody gone.

But the problem here, as Hitchcock described it, is that it’s the villain who’s in jeopardy, not the hero. Paul Schrader uses the same ending in AMERICAN GIGOLO, in a way, but boosts the drama by having the suspended bad guy be essential to clear the hero. Hitchcock makes a faint stab at this, but Cummings has effectively already been cleared, so it doesn’t really amp up the tension. However, the sequence is so brilliantly put together, including some of the best special effects of the period (by INVISIBLE MAN genius John P Fulton), that considerable suspense, and even terror, is created.

0994

Norman Lloyd’s death fall was photographed from above by a rising crane, with the actor spinning on a rotating saddle.

I always enjoy SABOTEUR, but I prefer FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, which has George Sanders and Herbert Marshall and a giant budget. But this later film shows tons of creativity, especially as it was achieved at much lower cost, necessitating many cost-saving devices. Here, Hitchcock’s meticulous preparation was essential, and assistant art director Robert Boyle, who storyboarded the movie, would become an important collaborator on future projects. Hitch was starting to build his team.

They’re Young, They’re in Love, and They Bore People

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2009 by dcairns

public-enemies-poster

Johnny Depp fulfills a lifelong ambition by having his name printed laterally across the shaft of his penis.

Sometimes I wish I were just an ordinary audience member (not that I’m removed from that by anything other than conceit and a WordPress account), so I could look at Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES and just say “Blah… what a tedious film.” For in many ways that would be the correct response, and such is the film’s deadening aspect that one does wonder if any critical analysis can produce anything worthwhile from this flat spectacle.

Johnny Depp is John Dillinger, celebrity bank robber, who says things like “You can either be a live coward or a dead hero,” and “I like baseball, fast cars, whisky and you,” which is nice. But Depp is somewhat muted, the way he was in THE NINTH GATE: an actor dedicated to flamboyance, he’s at sea in Mann’s world of low-talking hard men. And Mann is at sea with the showbiz side of Dillinger. He’s a stranger to gusto.

Here’s one problem: how is this film different from HEAT? If you like HEAT, I guess you won’t care, but for me, both films are long, unexciting films about low-affect thugs who talk a lot about how professional they are, and then act like idiots. In HEAT, DeNiro decides to kill a guy who’s threatening him with exposure, so he attacks the guy very publicly in a car park, using only blunt instruments, such as his fists and wits. One of those situations where I always think, “If a witness shows up and spoils things, I’ll be annoyed. And if a witness doesn’t show up and spoil things, I’ll STILL be annoyed.”

A witness shows up. DeNiro stops kicking the guy, acts innocent (he doesn’t quite rolls his eyes up and hang his mouth open like Harpo Marx looking innocent, but it’s similar) and when the witness (I think maybe a COP CAR) drives off, he gets set to resume the beating, but his prey has somehow crawled off and vanished. Even though he was right there.

public-enemies-promo1

Christian Bale lost 63 pounds, and then put them on again, to play Special Agent Melvin Purvis.

In PUBLIC ENEMIES it’s the Bureau of Investigation guys who do the stupid stuff, disobeying direct orders and getting killed, repeatedly letting Dillinger go by — Christian Bayle’s college-boy agents let him down continuously. So he gets some veterans from Texas, and the ignores their advice. Dillinger escapes again. It’s one of these combat-hardened vets who actually plugs Dillinger at the end, and he’s one of the few good characters in the film: Stephen Lang is steely-eyed and magnetic, and his character is actually competent, amid an ocean of assholes.

Mann could have used the factual catalogue of blunders to poke fun of the formative FBI, or he could have used the scenes of torture and reckless trigger-happy public endangerment to condemn them, but he doesn’t seem to want to say anything. I felt like yelling through the film at him, using it as some kind of Hi-Def ear-trumpet, quoting Graham Crowden in IF… — “Do You Have An OPINION???”

All this might pass if the film had an appealing aesthetic, but I struggled, I really did, to find anything worthwhile about it. Mann has spoken about how he tested the digital cameras for a lark, and found that on film, his test scene looked like a movie set in the ’30s, whereas on digital it looked like he’d gone back in time and was IN the ’30s. Which sounds nice, but it doesn’t play that to me. To me it looks like a YouTube video in fancy dress. Digital has advanced to a point where you often need expertise to tell it from film, but Mann succeeds in making it look fuzzy and dead.

(Full disclosure: my local gigaplex, the Vue Ocean Terminal, underlights its projectors, has disfigured screens, and lets light spill onto the screen from the exit. So the film wasn’t looking its best. But I still think this is one that’ll look better on DVD.)

Mann juggles oddball angles looking up under machine guns at faces, uses handheld shots to create a sick-making motion blur whenever he can, and cuts things into what Roman Polanski has called “that fruit-salad style…” The art deco locations are often dazzling, but the camera is never in synch with their cool splendor.

The “great romance” aspect of the film, not really borne out by history, is shot dead execution-style by the limp playing of Depp and Marion Cotillard (all her concentration is going on not sound too French) and by Mann’s total disinterest in women, which also results in the pathetic wastage of Lilli Taylor. Since Mann, like Cotillard’s character, is completely unconcerned with any moral view of what Dillinger does for a living, you’d think he’d have more identification with her.

(Roger Corman, in BLOODY MAMA and THE ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, both of which I saw recently, is likewise uninterested in preaching or taking sides, but he IS ripping the veil from off the American capitalist dream. You can’t accuse him of not having a point of view. All Mann has is a viewfinder, generally aimed up at somebody from under their armpit.)

Thing about MM is, he has lots of ideas, but they generally work better in his head than on the screen: the jump-cuts in MANHUNTER, the long-lens confusion of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Of course, nobody with Mann’s sense and budget could make this movie without hitting some good points: the phone-tapping room, a constellation of little glowing lights; and Dillinger’s last night with his girl, in a barren moonscape lit by chill morgue-rays — such moments suggest that a ’30s digital movie COULD look beautiful.

And Dillinger’s sly visit to the offices where his case is being investigated — which I assume to be at least partly poetic license, since we never see him tell anyone about it, so how would the screenwriters know it happened? — is a nicely mythic and romantic moment, like Dillinger’s last words… a few moments of this kind impress, late in the day.

Oh, there’s another impressive actor in the thing: Peter Gerety as Dillinger’s lawyer. I wonder if his dialogue in court is straight from the historical record, because he sure talks better than anybody else in this film. Maybe such able thesps as Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Marion Cotillard and Giovanni Ribisi make such little impact because of the weedy dialogue, which is devoid of all period zing (in the zingiest slangiest era in American history!), stranding the cast in a neutral zone of slow, emphatic delivery. (I know pastiche is the last thing on Mann’s mind, but folks in ’30s flicks talk FAST, and that would be a wonderful thing to offer modern audiences.)

Beast of the City, The)_01

Got home and slung an authentic 1930s crime-flick, THE BEAST OF THE CITY, in the old Panasonic, and within minutes was exulting in lines like ~

Cop: Mind if I ask you some questions?
Jean Harlow: Sure, if you don’t ask them in Yiddish.

And ~

Jean Harlow (embracing cop): Are you going to reform me?

Cop: What for?

EVERY line in that film seemed to sparkle and crackle with lust, malice and wanton throwaway wit. By contrast, the verbiage emanating at snail-speed from the kissers of Mann’s barely-dramatis personae cuts about as much mustard as a hash-slinger with hooks for hands. See?

Still, Mann’s usual stumbling-block is music — I recall with rising nausea the synth-pop atrocities of MANHUNTER, the smorgasbord of ethnic stylings in THE INSIDER (“The most heterosexual movie ever made! It’s nothing but angry men shouting into HUGE PHONES!” – Ben Halligan) and the somnolent Tangerine Dream drones of THIEF. Here he does about as badly as you could do in a rich musical decade, but not half as badly as he normally does. The bluesy humming is actually quite nice, although it’s diluted with lots of other effects which don’t mesh into a whole, and every time the radio is on its Billie Holliday, which is fine but limited.

public-enemies-promo6

As in ALI, Man shows an interest in resurrecting history but never illuminates it. Dillinger appears to have escaped from prison in Indiana by carving a gun from a bar of soap, blackening it with shoe-polish, and holding up the guards. Woody Allen parodied this in his first film, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, where Allen’s home-made side-arm dissolves into a lather during a rainstorm. But Mann includes the incident without explaining the fake gun at all. (An alternative theory, from cult author Robert Anton Wilson: Dillinger meditated real hard, and teleported out of his cell. I’d watch THAT movie. Twice!)

Likewise he shows a judge taunting J. Edgar Hoover for never actually arresting anyone, without showing the punchline, which is included in Larry Cohen’s THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER: Hoover stage-managed an arrest and turned up to snap the cuffs into place, a troupe of tame news cameramen in tow. Mann exposes himself as a filmmaker with no sense of humour — or storytelling.

A closing title tells us that (predictably dead-eyed) Christian Bayle’s real-life character resigned from the Bureau a year after Dillinger’s death, and killed himself in 1960. And I wondered, why tell us that? The movie hasn’t done anything to explain such actions, we barely even know this guy, so what’s the point of telling us?