Archive for The Naked City

New York Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by dcairns

Like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, SIDE STREET, shown in Film Forum’s Anthony Mann retrospective, stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, and like that earlier and better film, it begins with an aerial shot, but there the resemblance mostly ends. The problem here seems to be MGM’s ideological antipathy to the true noir spirit, with its shades of gray, its sense of doubt and anxiety about society and human nature, and its commitment to sex and greed as persistent driving forces in human nature. All of which is anathema to Louis B Mayer, despite the fact that he was personally a more loathsome figure than many a noir bad guy.

So Granger and O’Donnell’s tendency to overexpressive sentimentality is fully indulged here, in contrast to the way Nick Ray kept them in check and made them earn the audience’s affection. Anthony Mann, no slouch in the noir stakes, compensates somewhat with shrewd casting and violent, percussive cutting and angles — I lost count of the number of faces thrust savagely into the lens. Although the cops, introduced via a NAKED CITY-lite opening VO, are angelic upholders of order, he casts Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw — the first, a doleful stringbean zombie, the second a granite torpedo with ground-glass-rasping vocal cords. Since Granger is meant to be an innocent man on the run, lovable MGM cops represent a minimal menace, but by this casting Mann reclaims some tension.

The set-up — in a moment of weakness, squeaky-clean mailman Farley steals what turns out to be a huge wad of dirty money, proceeds of a blackmail scheme with murder mixed in. The loot gets swiped before he can repentantly return it, and he hares around the city trying to recover it, pursued by cops and crooks as bodies pile up like pretzels (best body award goes to Jean Hagen, typically luckless in her choice of beau). It’s a very basic premise but it does allow for pleasing cameos and a pacy, crisscross narrative rhythm. Mann himself disliked the film save for the climactic pursuit through a weirdly deserted early morning Manhattan, the concrete canyons making a monolith maze for pursuers and pursued.

Honorable mention to James Craig, finding his level as a stupid brute of a bad guy, and to the two audience members who provided relief from a non-smouldering love scene by getting into a wrestling match over a mobile phone that hadn’t been switched off. I think violence does seem a suitable response to somebody taking a call during a movie… Crime Does NOT Pay!


Happy Birthday Jules Dassin!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2007 by dcairns

I was rooting for Billy Wilder to outlive Leni Riefenstahl but he let me down. 


Director Jules Dassin is 96. Maybe he’ll do it. At any rate, I wish him good health and happiness.

Above is 10.30PM SUMMER, a massively underrated film by Dassin and Marguerite Duras. It’s available on DVD in the U.S. now, you should all get it. Gorgeous crazy lighting by Gábor Pogány that reminds me of Mario Bava, and an aesthetic reminiscent of silent movie melodrama, although I should add that the sound design is awesome. There’s a driving-around-at-night sequence that exactly pre-echoes Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT, and the whole vibe is like an art film from two or even four years later. And given the speed at which cinema was moving in the mid-to-late sixties, that puts J.D. well ahead of the curve.

 Melina being mercurial.

Sadly, it was the last feature from Dassin’s years of peripatetic cinema: I’d love to see what he’d have done next. Back in America he made a “blaxploitation” remake of THE INFORMER called UP TIGHT, which is better than the title and concept suggest. And then he made one of Richard Burton’s last films, with a teenage Tatum O’Neal. No, it’s not very good, but he couldn’t get out of it.

(I heard that on 1984, Burton’s last film, his curiously weak arms had to be puppeteered from below the shot to make him seem alive. A great actor, reduced to the level of Kermit the Frog. This was an aftereffect of an operation to remove crystallized alcohol from the Great Man’s spine…)

There are 8 million stories in this Naked City.

In America in the forties Dassin had made THE NAKED CITY, THIEVES HIGHWAY and BRUTE FORCE, all compelling and poetic films noir.Mark Hellinger, who produced TNC, contributes a world-weary voice-over which smoothly lulls you into the subconscious of New York City, city of eight million stories.

Harry Fabian ~ an artist without an art.

Persecuted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, Dassin headed for Europe, stopping in England to make NIGHT AND THE CITY, a US-style noir with a London setting and American stars. It’s a masterpiece and I hope to write more about it soon.

Then began the roving years. Dassin is undervalued, a bit like Alberto Cavalcanti: both men worked in so many countries, and did great work in all of them, and the people of those countries think, “He’s great, but he didn’t do much.” It’s almost impossible to gather all the films together and see the total achievement. Also, David Thompson’s overview of Dassin’s work in his Biographical Dictionary of Film is a disgrace: so often where DT could do some good by drawing attention to neglected work, he is lazy and bored and just piles on another layer of dust.

The REAL Perlo Vita.

Using the stage name Perlo Vita, Dassin acted in his first French film, the ultimate caper movie, RIFIFI. Using his own name, he starred in NEVER ON SUNDAY in Greece with his wife, the rather overwhelming Melina Mercouri.


She also stars in TOPKAPI, a favourite film of mine. An archivist acquaintance claims it gave him a headache for a week, but never mind, *I* like it. A PINK PANTHER-like international heist comedy with no Americans in it. I like Americans, especially American actors, but there’s something refreshing about their absence here. And I would eschew the Rat Pack anyday to go on a caper with Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff!

Colourful, that's the word for it.

There are still plenty of Dassins I haven’t had the pleasure of: PHAEDRA, THIS MAN MUST DIE, THE REHEARSAL. Hope to see them all soon, and I hope the happy longevity of this sparkling, sharp-eyed filmmaker continues for many more years.