Archive for The Killers

Auto Camp

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2017 by dcairns

So, I don’t know these things, not being American — is Big Ed’s Gas Farm in Twin Peaks a recognisable kind of thing? Do service stations get called stuff like “gas farms” in the US? In pre-code HEAT LIGHTNING, sisters Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak run an “auto camp” out in the desert, and the characters who pass through (a multifarious bunch) accept the name as if it were an entirely familiar concept. To us, it’s like a service station with a tiny motel out back.

Brilliant film. Part of Warners’ unofficial program to document the full panoply of American life. They had to do an auto camp eventually. I’m a little sad they never got around to making a film based entirely in an automat. I love automats.

McMahon & Dvorak and Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot provide drama, while such interlopers as Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell provide comedy. The balance is spot on. It has the structure of a play, but never seems theatrical, thanks to the WB house style and the atmospheric location shooting.

Something strange and interesting — since the cafe is a central part of the action, and it has big windows, the film features an unusual fluidity between indoors and outdoors. Some scenes are simultaneously both, like a conversation conducted by the sisters through a screen door (in which Mervyn Leroy is guilty of one of his semi-regular confusing line-crosses). Either Warners shot on location at a real auto camp or they built the whole place in situ.

Never do this.

And then a funny thing happens when night falls. Since location night shooting without obvious light sources would be a real headache, and since the story requires lightning bolts to illuminate the sky, the second part of the film switches to the studio. The whole set of buildings is reconstructed in an artificial landscape, with each rock, each joshua tree replaced by an identical replica.  We seem to have relocated, yet not to have moved. The black cyclorama representing the night sky is lit up by quick flashes, and it’s some of the most convincing movie lightning I’ve seen, far better in terms of realism than all those jagged animations, which always wiggle about too long, determined to be appreciated as spectacle.

The slightly uncanny doubling of the film’s sole setting reminded me of another service station, the sinister Convenience Store known as The Dutchman’s, recently seen in Twin Peaks. (We have convenience stores too, sort of, but usually without petrol pumps.) And that in turn reminded Fiona of the fatal service station in Sapphire and Steel, which TP co-creator has surely seen…

The Lynchian conceptual link is cemented by the fact that this seems to be the ur-text of a persistent noir meme, in which a character — McMahon in this case — leaves behind a shady or corrupt life in order to work at a service station — a meme continued by Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Brian Donlevy in IMPACT, and finally (to date, so far as I’m aware) and most strangely, Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY…

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No Acting Required

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on July 17, 2017 by dcairns

This is a PARTICULARLY lovely set photograph, I think you’ll agree. It’s from PHANTOM LADY, a Cornell Woolrich adaptation I adore unreasonably. But there’s something cool and mysterious about the way the slate just gives the director’s name, SIODMAK, and an inexplicable number.

Since my source for these, the auction site iOffer.com, was offering exclusively still from Universal, there’s quite a bit of Siodmak on offer. I previously posted images from his SON OF DRACULA, which had curiously been slated under the title DESTINY. Via Facebook, Perry Shields gave the explanation: “This was explained years ago by Greg Mank in his excellent book It’s Alive. The writers would assign a lame title to the horror films (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN was THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW) so that the producers would feel like they made a real contribution by suggesting a more appropriate title.”

Brilliant stuff. Of course, over at RKO the title came first, direct from the front office, so we have CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

My question is, what was going on when Douglas Sirk’s ALL I DESIRE, also at Universal, was retitled THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW?

This train station set is so atmospheric and quasi-believable in the film, it’s fascinating to see off the top of the set.

The phrase No Acting Required, or NRA, is a thespian code-phrase used when the performer is required to simply behave naturally, ie “Just edge along this narrow precipice and try not to fall in the lava.” Whatever the actor’s face does naturally during this activity is likely to work for the scene. I have used the phrase in a different, wrong sense here, to evoke the peculiar quality of movie images without cast.

For some reason, once Siodmak got better known, his slates start listing the name of the film, not just his moniker (pronounced See-Odd-Mack).

SHOCK! A set photo (from Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT, also excellent) with an actor (Ella Raines). You never see any really big stars in set photos, it seems to me. I’ve seen Dorothy Malone in the diner in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, that’s about it. Maybe they were afraid to ask her to move.

Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.