Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spring Training

Hey all you regulars checking out my site (Mom, Dad and other McGonagles who stumbled upon this site using Google to find a distant Irish relative from County Donegal while you were simultaneously cross searching for information about Richard Widmark.) It's been months since I've posted to the blog and things are really heating up here at good ole "It's Not The Years, It’s The Mileage." First off I've discovered the most amazing empanada place here in my beloved neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens. It's called "Mira Cali" and their beef empanadas are so amazing, you may consider consuming them as your sole source of sustenance for the rest of your life (as long as that mint green colored spicy sauce is included with each take-out batch.) This reporter has pondered such a life of devouring nothing but their fried deliciousness, a dollar fifty at a time. That said, the discovery credit of the aforementioned empanadas must go to Shaunna, her boyfriend B and their fantastic website “Shaunna Eats Sunnyside.” It's an informative, charming and well written site that does the gustatory fan's legwork for Sunnyside. Here’s hoping those kids get back on their feet and start devouring the fantastic edibles here in Sunnyside as quickly as possible so people like me can use their knowledge for their own taste bud gain.

Time for a little shameless self-promotion. I started writing for a website called a few months ago and I’m enjoying it tremendously. My editor lets me choose and write about the films playing here in the city that are exclusively unique to NYC as opposed to say the mainstream ones playing at the megaplex in Terre Haute, Indiana (sorry latest Adam Sandler vehicle, some other hack blogger will have to cover your amusing cinematic romp that’s rife with fart jokes, Sandler getting a football in the nuts and a touching lesson at the end.) is a great site full of stellar information with fantastic contributors that want to get the word out on events happening here in the greatest city on earth. It's advertised as a New York travel site, but it's not hard to see it's just as geared toward the NYC locals. Aesthetically it may be no great shakes (the candid part of this entry), however, my editor Amy tells me the site is going to be visually re-hauled very soon and that will only buttress the truly solid content of the site. Type in “New York Travel Guide” into Google and comes up second on their list. That’s like a silver medal in the Olympics if I’m not mistaken. Anyway here are just a couple of the links for the pieces I’ve done in the past few months.

Also coming here the second week of March, I will be reviewing Billy Wilder’s classic Ace In the Hole for the Noir of the Week site. The way Kirk Douglas smokes in that movie makes me want to run out and buy a carton right now (Of course I would never do that Mom and distant cousin McGonagle reading this.)


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

The vicious hierarchy of the animal kingdom is sometimes difficult to fully grasp as we humans are thoughtful creatures with characteristics exclusive to humanity such as compunction and empathy. Conversely there is another side to man that may mirror the the bestial ruthlessness of the animal kingdom. This alternate aspect transcends beyond the animal’s savagery to a darker dimension of mercilessness. Where the hostile law of the wild may seem brutal, it is instinctual genetic programming that’s essential for animal survival in such an environment. With humanity, the cruel and inhumane treatment of others are conscious choices made from dark recesses of the mind; often fueled by greed and malice. In Director Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, New York City is the jungle and intoxicating success in the entertainment industry is the game to be hunted and devoured by the kings of this food chain. Only predators with the sharpest teeth, the loudest roar and the greatest cunning will successfully catch and devour their prey, feeding off its fresh carcass till the next warm blooded meal comes along. Sweet Smell of Success follows two such carnivores, one of whom is trying to claw his way to the top, the other making sure he remains leader of the pack and nowhere within the landscape they prowl is clemency found or wanted.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a New York City based entertainment press agent whose success is marginal judging from the cheap sign “Sidney Falco – Publicity” crudely taped to his office door. We first observe Sidney on the streets of New York City anxiously awaiting the latest edition of the fictional New York Globe newspaper. Sidney’s bread and butter comes from his clients garnering favorable PR: the best type being a mention in J.J. Hunsecker’s (Burt Lancaster) nationally syndicated newspaper column titled “The Eyes of Broadway.” From this famous column, and his weekly national radio show, careers are launched, sustained or destroyed due to Hunsecker’s potent influence. For someone in Sidney’s profession, having J.J. Hunsecker bestow some positive words in his column about a client will eventually garner fame, respect and money for publicist and client alike. At one point Sidney did have some favor with Hunsecker, but Sidney’s clients haven’t received one mention in J.J. column for nearly a week (practically years in publicist time.) Sidney had done his best to help out the newspaper columnist with some dirty work involving Hunsecker’s little sister Susan. The young Susan Hunsecker (Susan Harrison) has fallen hard for a promising young jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner.) Her controlling older brother J.J. recently demanded Sidney break the two love bird’s nest in half. Unsuccessful first, the film follows Sidney’s manipulation of a cast of predators to keep the two apart by resorting to pandering, blackmail and character assassination.

Falco manages to get a competing columnist of Hunsecker to smear Dallas’s name in print (which also insulates J.J. Hunsecker from the appearance of having a hand in the deed) by insinuating he’s a marijuana smoking, card carrying commie. The dirty rumor gets Dallas fired from his gig at a prominent night club, but Dallas sniffs the stench of Hunsecker’s lapdog Sidney Falco clandestinely orchestrating the public sullying of his name. He confronts Sidney, who denies any part in the smear, however, Dallas is simply walking into the tiger trap Falco and Hunsecker have laid for him. Hunsecker confronts Susan about Dallas and she belays the truth to her brother that Dallas is none of the things he’s being accused of. In front of Susan, J.J. Hunsecker then calls the night club owner who fired Dallas and wields his influence to get his job back and repair his reputation. This maneuver now puts Dallas in a position of owing Hunsecker, who he despises due to his creepy possessiveness and impossible standards for Susan. Hunsecker knows Dallas’s self-respect and ill feelings toward him will get the best of the young musician. A meeting arranged by Dallas’s agent between the two men right before Hunsecker’s weekly radio program goes poorly as Hunsecker’s integrity is questioned by Dallas in lieu of the obsequious gratitude he is used to receiving from everyone. Hunsecker forbids Susan to see Steve Dallas again and she breaks up with her paramour to protect him from inevitable retaliation by her brother.

When the payoff from Hunsecker’s devious manipulation could have endured, his pride gets the best of him as he decides to ruin Dallas against the advice of Sidney Falco. He orders Sidney to plant marijuana on Dallas and tip off corrupt police detective and Hunsecker goon Harry Kello (Emile Meyer) to arrest Dallas. This subversion of Dallas destroys his reputation while simultaneously alienating Susan from her brother and leaving her in a state of utter despair. She gleans Sidney is somehow behind the plot to tarnish Dallas and she summons Falco to the Hunsecker penthouse where she attempts suicide. Sidney successfully stops her from killing herself, but the scene looks dubious to J.J. as he arrives home to see Sidney with the sobbing Susan sprawled on her bed in a revealing nightgown. J.J. Hunsecker believes Sidney has taken advantage of Susan and when Sidney begs her to tell J.J. what actually happened, she chooses spiteful silence instead. J.J. Hunsecker begins beating Falco who in turn sprays some desperate verbal venom by blurting out to Susan it was her brother who ordered him to plant the pot on Dallas. Sidney flees the penthouse and Hunsecker calls Detective Harry Kello informing him it was Falco who framed Dallas with the marijuana and tells him to arrest Sidney. Susan has dressed and packed a bag while J.J. is making the call and decides to leave her brother for Steve Dallas. Susan tells her brother she pities him and walks out into the street where Sidney has just been roughed up by Kello and arrested.

The film is raw and unmerciful in its depiction of lead characters of Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker. Sidney is a creature that has an insatiable appetite for the type of fame and power that J.J. Hunsecker possesses. Falco is like an animal (even his name sounds awful close to a particular bird of prey) whose eyes are always scanning its surroundings looking for opportunity and danger. “The best of everything is good enough for me” is the inexorable motive for this seemingly instinctual drive of Sidney's and using others to achieve such is done without a trace of remorse or thought to the people's lives he manipulates. His pandering of buxom cigarette girl/former prostitute Rita (Barbara Nichols), who owes him a favor, to the womanizing columnist that will smear the reputation of Dallas quid pro quo is simply a means to advance his place in the food chain. He does so by reminding Rita of her 10 year old son in military school and this being an opportunity for her to indirectly help him. Rita reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, but not before telling Sidney, “You’re a snake Falco.” Sidney is a somewhat clever exploiter and his hunger for success stems from his younger years when he interpreted his confessed pool-hall lackey status as being a “mouse.”

The film is rife with references to animals. From the “dog eat dog” entertainment business they live within, to Steve Dallas telling Sidney (who is sniffing around for information about the relationship status between Dallas and Susan Hunsecker) that if he wants to know he should just ask like a man and not, “scratch for it like a dog.” Even Susan tells Sidney that he resembles a, “trained poodle jumping through flaming hoops” for her older brother. Sidney is at one point assessed as having, “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.” Aside from the numerous inverted anthropomorphic allusions, the film visually captures Sidney as constantly on the prowl. The camera work (beautifully shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe) dexterously tracks him as he quickly moves from one glitzy nightclub hunting ground to the next. Never content to rest for a moment, Sidney seems to be constantly scanning his environment and assessing where his next figurative meal is coming from.

Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is a stoic and commanding presence. Loosely based on famed columnist and entertainment gossip pioneer Walter Winchell, Lancaster plays Hunsecker as an automaton with little indication of humane qualities. His only hint of humanity is his apparent affection for his sister Susan. Even so, this sentiment reads as more of a creepy obsession with her (Hunsecker keeps an unsuitably large framed picture of her on his desk.) J.J. is devoted to protecting the insular world he has contained her within: not unlike a caged bird he wants at his side to look pretty, but never let loose. Hunsecker is the lion king of this show business Serengeti in which every creature respects his power as trumping all others. J.J. is incredibly shrewd in his assessment and dealings with others, yet he only surrounds himself with powerful people looking for scraps from the latest show business carcasses he devoures. In a sense he has penned himself in with his seemingly omnipotent column and radio show as the people he has contact with only respect the power of his media influence and not necessarily the man behind it. J.J. seems okay with that however, and he never lacks insight into the selfish and fame mongering motives of the players that clamor to be in his presence (or better yet his column.) Hunsecker reminds everyone he comes into contact with his position in the entertainment kingdom. From a waiter fussing with his condiments who he tells, “Stop tinkering pal, that horseradish won’t jump a fence,” to a sycophantic U.S. Senator that may become President one day, “My big toe would make a better President” he tells Sidney, J.J. relishes his rule and the environment in which he operates. The jungle of New York City is a harsh one and J.J. Hunsecker affectionately notes, while watching a drunk being kicked out of nightclub on to the street, “I love this dirty town.”

The characters considered weak in the context of this predatory terrain would be Dallas and Susan. Steve Dallas is possibly (and most humorously) one of the least hip jazz musicians ever captured on film. While he has talent in spades, he can’t bring himself to respect the hierarchy of the pack and thereby facilitating his own exile via the influence of J.J. Hunsecker. Dallas has principles, but it smells of frailty and naiveté in the business for which he is trying mark a territory of his own. Sydney describes Dallas as having “Integrity - acute, like indigestion.” Susan Hunsecker is pathetically passive, but like her brother she has a keen enough eye for assessing the motives and capabilities of others; especially J.J. and Sidney. What Susan doesn’t realize is the capacity her brother has for cold malevolence when his integrity is called into question by Dallas.

When J.J. could have let the confrontation with Dallas end at forbidding Susan to see him, she would have obeyed. Afterwards J.J. takes it a step farther and orders Sidney to frame Dallas with the help of his crooked cop Harry Kello. This scene is a revealing apex in the film as both Falco and Hunsecker show their first signs of vulnerability. J.J. lets his integrity being rightfully questioned by Dallas stick in his craw. His pride is agitated due to this lowly Jazz musician rattling his indomitable influence over Susan and the insult Hunsecker sustained from Dallas is too egregious for him to handle. More so, the perceived endangerment of what Steve’s defiance represents is in dangerous opposition to all others who bow before Hunsecker. The thought of anyone disrupting J.J.’s structure of power and respect is too much for him to bear. Sidney understands that going after Dallas further will drive Susan and him back together. He begs J.J. not to pursue crushing Dallas for this reason by catering to Hunsecker’s ego, “Why go after a mosquito with an elephant gun?” he asks J.J., but Hunsecker’s mind is made up and he orders Sidney to put the fix in for Dallas. The weakness Sidney shows is two fold at this crux in the story. Sidney refuses to go along with J.J.’s command of framing Dallas saying it’s going too far. While it may be the only glimmer of humanity we’ve seen from Falco up to this point in the film, it’s incongruous to the savage laws of Hunsecker’s jungle. More likely though, Sidney’s reluctance of doing this dark deed for Hunsecker is derived from fear of his own hide being skinned if the truth ever got out, or as he tells Hunsecker, “It’s one thing to wear your dog collar J.J., when it turns into a noose I’d rather have my freedom.” Sidney vows to J.J. that nothing would make him do this for him, “I swear on my mother’s life, not even if you gave me a column would I do it for you.” Hunsecker slowly cranes his head at Sidney and gives him a Cheshire cat grin at this revealing statement: Falco would in fact do anything for a column of his own like Hunsecker. Sensing this exposed soft spot in Sidney, Hunsecker tells him that he will be taking a three month steamship cruise with the distressed Susan and would need someone to write his column while he’s away. Such an enticing offer is too much for Sidney’s refusal and he gets back in line with the rest of the Hunsecker pack by framing Dallas. The alpha male Hunsecker has reestablished his position with Sidney and the pack, but it’s achieved at the price of exiling his sister and his one possible nook of humaneness.

Sweet Smell of Success is a beautifully photographed film integrating infamous landmarks like The 21 Club to many exterior location scenes shot in the urban wild of New York City. From Flat Iron to 54th Street, Mackendrick and Howe shoot the characters surroundings by adroitly incorporating the architecture, lighting and danger of the streets in which they dwell. Adding to the film’s pedigree is the fantastic score by Elmer Bernstein. Its jazz routed feel and occasional discordant mix of sounds is done deftly and without a heavy hand. Bernstein’s musical and aural choices provide the film with added tension and a distinct sense of its era and urban setting. Another pleasant aspect for jazz aficionados is screen time with the wonderful Chico Hamilton and his quintet. The casting and performances are solid all around with the most notable ones belonging to Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Their malign symbiotic relationship is a dark and gripping pleasure to watch during every frame they share.

The screenplay, by legends Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, is a wonderfully layered and complex piece of writing. Ahead of it’s time, Sweet Smell of Success shows a revealing side to the manipulation of the public through the media and the unscrupulous people who control it by force feeding the flavor of the month to the public’s insatiable maws. The theme mirrors the feral predators of the wild that simply devour one meal only to forget the preciousness of the once living sustenance for the short time their bellies are full - that is until it is time to ravage and consume the next. It’s remarkable that Sweet Smell of Success and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd both came out in the same year with their shared motifs and each depicted so unflinchingly. The standout aspect of the script is the crackerjack dialogue that has more electricity coursing through it than all the lights in Times Square and as many razor sharp teeth as the mouth of a great white shark. At its heart, the script is a dark study of the requisite ruthlessness needed for success in a savage business where people of values and humaneness are perceived as weak yet toothsome sustenance for the strongest predators.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

T - Men (1947)

Director Anthony Mann’s 1947 breakout film T-Men duped me, but that’s what he had in mind. Deception is the theme that resonates throughout the story of Mann’s film and he cleverly delivers that premise of duplicity right into the lap of the audience. Mann sets up the viewer from the opening frames of the film by showing a stern and official statement from the Secretary of the Treasury regarding the money filmed, under their permission, in the movie. Mann then introduces wide shot of the Washington Monument which pans to the Treasury Department building. A narrator gives a brief historical background of the Treasury Department over these images which eventually lead into the office of Elmer Lincoln Irey. Responsible for bringing down Al Capone with Frank J. Wilson and Elliot Ness, Irey was also one of the lead investigators on the Lindberg kidnapping case among other high profile ones in a long illustrious career as a Treasury Agent (T-Man), coordinator of the Treasury Department's law enforcement agency and U.S. Secret Service operation overseer. Filmed sitting at his giant desk with the Washington D.C. skyline in the window behind him, Irey stoically explains that the case we are about to see is a composite of several counterfeiting cases the Treasury Department cracked over the years. With such a beginning we’re set up for all the makings of a by the book documentary style film. T-Men however is a surprisingly gritty and suspenseful work containing some of the most striking and impressive visuals in film noir history.

From Irey’s office we cut to Los Angeles where a man in a trench coat lurks in black slabs of shadow. Human forms are dwarfed by asymmetrical shots of stark buildings shrouded in the dark of night. A nefarious figure in an alley is uniquely framed by the camera between the legs of a man who guns him down. These sets of dynamic shots are beautifully jarring compared to the formal introduction of the film and also a key indicator that what we are about to watch unfold is certainly not a dry documentary style film. The murdered man, we later learn, was a Treasury Department informant set to turn over a paper sample used by a top counterfeiting ring. This opening sequence sets the stage for our story of a mafia counterfeiting operation and two T-Men going undercover to bust it up before their true identities are discovered and they wind up deader than Presidents on dollar bills.Treasury Agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are put on the case of cracking the major counterfeiting ring that spans between the mob in Los Angeles and Detroit. O’Brien and Genaro are assigned to begin in Detroit where they research the local crime history and create their undercover identities of two hoods from a defunct motor city gang. With their new identities, flashy suits and help from the local police (who “legitimize” their criminality with the local hoods), O’Brien and Genaro sell their parts convincingly enough to get in on the ground floor of the Vantucci mob. This crew directly benefits from the L.A. based counterfitting production among other illegal enterprises.

After getting the lowdown on the Vantucci mob’s operation, O’Brien goes to Los Angeles to track down a man named The Schemer (Wallace Ford) who coordinates the fraudulent currency between L.A. and Detroit while Genaro stays behind keeping tabs on the Vantuccis. O’Brien tracks down The Schemer and infiltrates the counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles with a counterfeit bill of his own supplied by the Treasury Department. The engraving on O’Brien’s phony bill is of the highest quality but the paper is sub par. The Schemer’s counterfeiting connections have aesthetically inferior photoengraved bills but their paper is nearly indistinguishable from real U.S. currency. O’Brien uses these elements to bargain with the counterfeiters: his superior engraved plates coupled with their high quality paper to make the best fake bills possible. O’Brien gets to meet with the higher ups in the ring with their expectations being he will deliver them his superb plates. At that time O’Brien and his fellow T-Men will stop the presses on the fraudulent operation.

O’Brien and Genaro’s undercover operation is jeopardized on several occasions as their true identities are repeatedly on the verge of being discovered by the mob. Both men play their parts well, but The Schemer becomes suspicious after he and Genaro run into the agent’s wife and her friend at the market one day. Genaro and his wife (June Lockhart) awkwardly pretend not to know one another. The Schemer however detects the strange exchange between the two and tells the mob bosses there’s something fishy about Genaro. The Schemer is partially motivated to do so for self preservation as he has somewhat fallen out of favor with the mob and believes they may kill him. His paranoia was also the impetus for him keeping a coded book in which he recorded all the mob’s illegal activities. This book was a potential bargaining chip for The Schemer in case he got into dire straights with the mob or the authorities. Genaro and O’Brien learn of The Schemer’s book and exploit his paranoia in an attempt to get their hands on the book and the invaluable information it contains. The plans however go awry for our undercover T-Men and bodies on both sides of the law start dropping as the stakes increase.

For much of the film Anthony Mann focuses on the characters of O’Brien and Genaro; specifically each embracing their new identities. While deceit and duplicity are necessary means to breaking the case and keeping them alive, O’Brien and Genaro seem to adopt their roles so thoroughly, the viewer begins to question their lives outside of their undercover characters. When we’re first shown O’Brien he’s on an airplane headed to a briefing in Washington D.C. The woman beside him, wearing a feathered hat, falls asleep on his shoulder. The feathers keep tickling his face and a stewardess quietly questions him if he wants her to wake up the woman beside him. O’Brien shakes his head no and humorously pantomimes a request for a pair of scissors to supposedly clip the feathers that are bothering him. Showing an affable side, the brief scene is placed as a stark juxtaposition to the O’Brien we see for the rest of the film. The undercover O’Brien is a tough, streetwise, cunning and violent force. Mann seems to practically deny their humanity outside of their undercover identities. Our introduction to Tony Genaro’s character takes place on a train (heading to the same briefing as O’Brien) as he carefully sets a small standing frame containing a picture of his wife before beginning his paperwork. His wife is not an extension or indicator of Tony’s humanity. She simply becomes a plot device, adding to the sum of duplicity, double-crossing and corruption in the underworld in which they now operate and live. At times Genaro and especially O’Brien seem to relish the perversity of their lives as mobsters. Mann’s purpose in this approach leaves the viewer unsettled, anxious, and feeling hoodwinked without any stock or convenient emotional connections to the protagonists. Mann however keeps the audience off-balance not only by his narrative choices, but his stellar visuals helmed by the director of photography John Alton.

The overall look of the film is the real standout star. John Alton had a true gift for incorporating a tense dichotomy of light and dark in the same frame. His use of shadow often changes men into menacing silhouettes. Alton also integrated daring strokes of light against these black figures giving us just glimpse enough of their eyes, for example, to be reminded of their humanity (or lack of it). Alton was truly a master of the fast fall-off lighting effect. His expertise in this area yields stunning contrasts from the precisely lit characters to the near all-encompassing atmosphere of shadow in which they maneuver. Mann and Alton continue to keep the audience off guard by using oblique and unusual angles to film the action. John Alton excels in framing and positioning characters inside the natural landscapes of the city and other surroundings resulting in dynamic shots. He also had unique ways of creating tension simply by positioning the camera in low and unorthodox angles. One such instance occurs when O’Brien is quickly trying to recover one of the counterfeit plates he’s stashed under a bathroom sink while one of the mob cronies is at the same basin washing up. Time is of the essence as he literally has minutes to recover it, but if the goon sees him grab the plate his cover will be blown. Instead of perhaps a conventional medium shot depicting the action, Alton places the camera at the feet of the men pivoted up to reveal the bottom of the sink. This angle shows the plate’s hiding spot and O’Brien’s hands nervously fumbling to grab the plate while the casual banter between the two is taking place off camera. The anxiety and stress of the situation is exponentially magnified by Alton’s simple yet brilliant decision of camera placement. He also utilizes deep focus shots, reflective surfaces, camera movement and many other techniques masterfully. If someone asked me to choose one example of what film noir looked like, I would likely sit them down and show them T-Men. Aesthetically it’s simply astonishing.

T-Men however isn’t flawless. There are a few holes in the plot and I found the narrator’s voice-overs distracting toward the finale just to name a few. Despite some shaky areas in the story, Dennis O’Brien’s standout performance truly helped to compensate for the detractions. Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, director Anthony Mann adroitly stays on task with a nice narrative pace and quality exposition. What puts T-Men in a whole different stratosphere is Alton’s photography. The man had a true gift for visual composition, lighting and of course camerawork. If anything the visuals alone secure T-Men among the elite titles in the film noir cannon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hangover Square (1945)

As I was going down the list in my head to confirm that Hangover Square indeed met the proper criteria to be considered a film noir, on paper it seemed like a sure thing: adequate ice water running through the veins of a prominent femme fatale character – check, male lead character unable to resist devious charms of said femme fatale – check, crazy blackout and flashback sequences – check, murders occurring during said blackout sequences – check, lead character experiencing overwhelming sense of dread from events beyond his control – check, cinematographer being far from stingy with shadows and chiaroscuro lighting – check, detectives on the hunt for a killer - check. Sounds like we got all the fixings for a classic film noir right? Not so fast, Hangover Square isn’t your run of the mill noir. I’d say it’s more like a cousin to the conventional film noir. It contains much of the same DNA, but it’s not in the immediate family. Hangover Square, despite its surface appearance being incongruous to the film noir category, is a beautifully shot and overlooked thriller that merits a view through the noir lens.

George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a dull, sad sack type of figure, but he possesses a bright future as a music composer. He’s on the verge finishing a concerto that carries great potential for international recognition according to his sponsor Lord Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his talented pianist daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe). Things would be looking pretty well for George if it wasn’t for those pesky blackouts he occasionally experiences. When he comes to from them, he has the sneaking suspicion that he has committed some bad deeds under their influence. We know George’s foreboding is valid as contained in the opening scene of the film where George stabs a London shopkeeper in his store and then flees the crime scene after setting it ablaze. George commits these crimes without conscious knowledge, but he has grave concern as to the nature of his blackouts and conveys these anxieties to Barbara. She tells him not to be burdened due to his gentile nature. George however decides to speak to Dr. Allan Middleton (George Sanders), an acquaintance at Scotland Yard who is not a police officer but a psychiatrist figure of sorts. He allays George’s fears after checking out his latest blackout story (he can’t find any evidence to link George to the shopkeeper stabbing and fire) and tells him to relax as the stress of completing his concerto may be triggering these blackouts. These spells don’t cease however and neither does the George Bone blackout violence that ensues as the movie progresses.

To distract himself from his worries, George decides to take in a show at a local beer hall. This is where he first sees dazzling songbird Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) performing a bawdy musical number in front of a bunch of drunken blokes. After the set George goes back stage and tells Longdon he admires her singing. She’s unimpressed with the compliment until her manager, who has heard of George's talents, properly introduces her to him with the intention of George possibly writing some new material for Netta. George spot composes a tune for her, amalgamates her lyrics into it and the result is a very catchy number. It’s so good her manager sells the song for 50 guineas soon after. Netta realizes that with George’s talents at her disposal, he would make an ample stepping stone for her career. George falls hard for the gorgeous Netta and is hopelessly wrapped around her finger. She exploits his affections and musical talents for her career gain and then tries to discard him when he gets wise to her plan. Unfortunately this wisdom came after George had just sprung an engagement ring on her. His moment of clarity, in realizing Netta’s opaque motives, happened after learning of her pending engagement to a successful promoter that could shoot Netta’s star much higher into the stratosphere than George’s talent ever could.

George is devastated at this development. Upon returning to his apartment he furiously throws Netta’s sheet music against the wall where a number of his instruments are leaning up against it. The violins, cymbals and other instruments come crashing down together and the loud discordant sound (we finally learn) is the catalyst for George’s murderous blackout spells. He immediately becomes thrown into a trance and is off to Netta’s place in a state of murderous somnambulism. He strangles Netta and his subsequent disposal of her body leads to the most striking and uncannily creepy scene of the film.

George formulates a clever plan (he’s apparently capable of doing such even under these homicidal spells) to destroy Netta’s fresh corpse out in the open, in front of hundreds of witnesses. Serendipitously the evening he snuffs out Netta is Guy Fawkes Night in England. The ceremonial burning of Guy Fawkes effigies in the center of the neighborhood square happens with a towering bonfire. Before the giant pyre is lit ablaze, people pile on the effigies and George is the last to contribute his own “Guy.” George climbs up the long ladder with Netta’s wrapped body slung over his shoulder and a Guy Fawkes mask over her face. George slowly inches his way up the mammoth mound and simultaneously we see the mask starting to slip off Netta’s face; it’s becoming exposed to the sizable crowd below at the base of the pile. The tension increases as the crowd eggs on George to hurry up. They even begin to light the base of the pile on the opposite side as George climbs down the ladder after depositing Netta at the top. At the very least it’s an extremely suspenseful and powerful scene. Not only is the entire sequence beautifully shot and edited, it concludes with people dancing in a circle around the bonfire. Their huge shadows cast against buildings and streets from the fire’s light makes for chillingly effective cinema. The scene is even more unsettling however when considering Linda Darnell’s real life demise came from a domestic house fire in which she suffered extensive burns and died the next day.

Hangover Square concludes with a distinctly dramatic, but very well filmed scene where George finally gets to have his concerto played in a concert hall with full instrumentation backing him. This finale has some truly impressive sweeping camerawork that’s well coordinated with the stellar soundtrack. The police and Dr. Middleton are on to his uncontrollable homicidal ways at this point in the film. George literally goes down in flames and concludes the films trio of fiery scenes that serve as narrative cruxes for George and the viewer. Tragically, George finally gets to hear his concerto, but the price of the ticket is his descent into all consuming madness. The insanity he once grappled with now totally engulfs him like the flames that claim his body in the timeless, haunting final shot.

Much of this description may sound like a film noir, but the twist to consider is the setting: 1903, turn of the century London. The street lamps are gas powered and not electric as were used to seeing in noir, but cinematographer Joseph LaShelle does a fantastic job with lighting, framing and camera movement. He especially exceeds in choosing some great low and high camera angles along with some textbook noir shots such as George showing up at Netta’s door with new song in hand for her. LaShelle and director John Braham made some clever visual choices along the way. In one sequence near the finale, Dr. Middleton (who now believes George is a killer) questions George (who now knows he’s a killer) in his flat as he prepares for his concerto debut. Braham films Middleton in near darkness while positioning George in well lit areas of the room in a nice contrast to symbolic visual conventions. Another clever touch in the scene is Dr. Middleton querying George about a particular type of knot identified as used upon some of the victims that were strangled while getting plenty of close-ups of George tying the knot on his bow-tie in tandem with all the strangulation chat.
One aspect of Hangover Square that stands out is the fantastic musical score by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. He’s able to deliver a superior suspenseful score for the film, but he also does a very impressive piece of composing with the concerto finale performed at the end. Herrmann did a similar task a decade later with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much by writing a composition that served as the centerpiece of the films dramatic climax. While it doesn’t hinge on something as specific as the cymbal crash in Hitchcock’s film for example, the concerto is a device that drives the plot in the film. Hermann’s concerto piece sounds spectacular and for the story to have some weight, it had to be such. The concerto is what drives and motivates George Henry Bone to potential greatness, but ends up delivering him into actualized madness.

There is a ridiculous aspect to the film that sticks in the logic craw: the inexplicable homicidal trances that George undergoes when hearing loud discordant noises. Not only do we not know how this petite peccadillo began, but also why these types of sounds trigger this behavior in George Harvey Bone. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the William Bendix character in The Blue Dahlia that is driven crazy when he hears jazz “monkey music.” It does serve a purpose in that it facilitates the noir trope of the criminal as sympathetic victim. Its unaccountability is not so unforgivable as to completely undermine the many positives of the film. What bothered me most about the way it was not explained or handled was that John Braham didn’t seem to know how to do so in the first place. There’s a difference between being artfully kept in the dark and feeling like you’ve simply been left behind there.

The casting is strong all around with Laird Cregar turning in a truly fine (albeit slightly over the top during his wild eyed flashbacks) performance. Linda Darnell is fantastic however in the devious femme fatale role of Netta Longdon. Darnell lends enough credibility to Netta by not going overboard and hard selling her character’s selfish motives to the audience. She lets Netta’s self-centered ways show themselves in a seemingly organic fashion and unfold at a believable pace. Darnell’s less than consistent number of appearances in film over the years, before her demise, is a true loss for her fans of which I am certainly one.

While turn of the century gaslight Victorian London may not seem like an obvious setting for a film noir, at the very least it becomes a surprisingly serviceable one under the direction of Braham and the camerawork of LaShelle. The essential film noir elements are there, but more so it’s a well-crafted and finely acted thriller that deserves some recognition and kudos. At the very least it warrants viewing for the combination of Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, the score of Herrmann and those fantastic scenes combining infernos and insanity.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Du rififi chez les hommes a.k.a. Rififi (1955)

Adversity is the touchstone of friendship.

-French Proverb

While not a clear-cut case of art imitating life, director Jules Dassin’s 1955 film Rififi is a strong example of a tumultuous life event serving as muse. Bearing Dassin’s unmatched ingenuity in the study of duplicity and devotion under the guise of a film noir heist movie, this inspiration came from a burdensome and pathos filled experience for Dassin. A talented Hollywood director and writer in the 1940s, Dassin was eventually named as a communist sympathizer to the HUA committee by friend and fellow director Edward Dymtryk in 1952. This led to Hollywood blacklisting for Dassin and eventual exile from the United States. The trauma afforded Jules Dassin the opportunity to understand profound dimensions of loyalty and betrayal. This same understanding remarkably paved the way for Rififi‘s themes to resonate in a manner that still wields power today as it did over fifty years ago.

Rififi’s opening shot is a card table filled with poker chips, cash and hands being played. Through this visual establishment we understand risk, chance and big stakes set the tone of this film. Taking part in this back room game is Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais). Tony is an older Parisian con just out of the joint after a five-year stint in which he took a pinch for his pal Jo le Suedois (Carl Mohner). When a caper they tried to pull went awry, the inexperienced Jo could easily have been the one incarcerated, but Tony was solid and took the fall for his cohort. The time in prison has taken its toll on “Le Stephanois” as he’s known, looking haggard and also nursing a deep malign chest cough. Jo gravely realizes the effects five years on the inside had on Tony; he understandably feels indebted to him because his sacrifice. Not to be discounted there is also a genuine affection between the two men. Jo’s wife Louise (Janine Darcey) and son have also embraced Tony as family, as he was the inspiration for their boy’s name ‘Tonio’ and also serves as the tyke’s Godfather.

Fresh out of prison and Reliant on Jo for money, Tony takes a meeting regarding a job Jo has planned with friend and fellow heist man Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel). Jo and Mario’s plan is to smash and grab some rocks in the window of the infamous Mappin and Webb Ltd. Jewelry store located in the film’s setting of Paris. Tony dismisses the idea and declines the offer by interjecting, “Mappin and Webb, you’re nuts. Why not the bank of France?” adding, “I don’t run so fast anymore.”

While passing on the prospect of some new business, Tony has the unfinished kind with his old flame Mado les Grand Bras (Marie Sabouret). She quickly hooked up with another underworld player, and nightclub owner, named Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) after Tony was incarcerated. Mado had also pawned all of Tony’s possessions ‘to survive’ before meeting Pierre. As much as Tony feels betrayed by her, Mado is equally surprised when Tony unexpectedly shows up at her door. Mado was unaware of his release and nervously asks about his new freedom. With a foreboding nod to what will happen next Tony tells Mado, “They let me out, for good behavior.” Motivated by Mado moving on with her life while his stagnated in the pen, Tony orders Mado to strip out of her clothing, jewels and furs she claims some of which she earned. Most likely though we glean Pierre provided her with the lion’s share. Tony forces her in the bedroom, grabs a belt off the door and we hear him quickly beat her with it while the camera zooms in on a picture tacked to the wall. The photo shows Mado and Tony in happier times, drinking champagne at a nightclub, looking suave and unaffected; a lifetime away from this present scene of brutality. There seems to be no joy for Tony in giving Mado five belt lashes on her back judging from his wrought look afterward while throwing her clothes back at her. Dassin is sure to interject ambiguity as he consciously contains the act of violence off screen. Tony strongly feels he was not only robbed, but is owed something and leaves the marks on Mado’s back as a violent symbol for Pierre Grutter and Mado to fathom his rancor.

Tony’s acrimonious action functions as a catalyst: immediately he tells Jo that he’s in on the Mappin and Webb caper. “A mans gotta live” he reasons when asked why he changed his mind. Tony agrees to the Mappin and Webb job with Jo and Mario but the conditions must change: he wants the big haul, namely the safe inside the store full of millions in diamond jewelry. For the specialty work the safe requires they call in Mario’s friend Cesar le Milanais (Played by Jules Dassin himself under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) from Italy. Mario concisely attests to Cesar’s strengths and weaknesses by informing Tony and Jo, “They say there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar, and not a woman that Cesar can resist.”

When we are finally introduced to Pierre Grutter at his nightclub, he is smacking around his younger brother Remi, a junkie who is so desperate for heroin he pulls a straight razor on his older brother in a feeble attempt to threaten him for some. A hardened Pierre doesn’t seem fazed at the sight of the blade. Pierre’s unyielding manner stems from having his hands in many nefarious pies; the night club is merely a front for his other lucrative illegal activities. Tony, still carrying a chip on his shoulder for Grutter, goes to his club to confront him. Jo, Mario and even Cesar show up to watch Tony’s back. Anticipating a confrontation with Pierre after leaving his calling card all over Mado’s back, Tony initially scoffs at his three friend’s protectiveness. Mario tells Tony, “He says (Cesar) we should stick together on everything.” Tony calls him a St. Bernard, alluding to his loyalty but ironically foreshadowing Cesar’s eventual betrayal. The confrontation with Pierre is a dud. Pierre is in the dark as to Mado’s whereabouts. Perplexed, Tony learns Mado left town the previous night after being ‘marked’ by Tony and didn’t run to Pierre for protection. At this development Jo states that Tony, “Just learned some women have guts.”

Before the previously described scene unfolds, a musical number by the club’s leading attraction Viviane (Federico Fellini favorite Magali Noel) is performed. Viviane sings about her ne’er-do-well gangster boyfriend being so “rififi” as the song she sings is the basis of the film’s title (the word “rififi” in Parisian slang translates to ‘rough n’ tumble’). She performs the fantastic number in front of a stage of silhouetted figures: noir archetypes in suits, fedoras, brandishing guns, smoking cigarettes, while slapping their molls around and so forth. The number serves not only as a point where an enraptured Cesar falls hard for Viviane, but the accompanying exaggerated visuals to Viviane’s number are a clever meta-noir moment and wink from Dassin.The second act of the film consists of the four men preparing and executing the heist. Our four protagonists manage to get a hold of the same alarm system Mappin and Webb uses in order to study it in their underground ‘workshop.’ The four spend a bit of time testing its limits (slight levels of sound set it off for example) and figuring out how to neutralize it. This scene not only shows their ingenuity, but also gives us a tantalizing idea of how they plan to break into the jewelers and execute the job; the meticulous teamwork we will witness during the heist is being cultivated.

’s infamous heist scene is nothing short of a masterpiece second act for an entire thirty-three dialogue free minutes. Our men break in to the apartment above Mappin and Webb, where Webb himself lives, chloroform him and tie him up. The crew then proceeds to chisel their way down into the jewelry store through the apartment floor. All this is done with near utter silence as to not trip the alarm or alert any outside variables. With the nerve wracking exception of Jo accidentally touching a piano key on the baby grand in Webb’s flat, Dassin opts for sans music during this extended sequence. The effect draws the viewer in closer to the physicality of the heist, as if they were in the room with the thieves themselves. The little touches Dassin incorporates for the robbers to remain stealthy are ingenious (placing a thick sock over a hammer’s head to reduce the clanking between it and the chisel used to go through the floor) and humorous (Dassin’s recherché character Cesar ops for ballet slippers instead of his crew’s preferred tennis sneakers when they clandestinely move about the store). The heist must be seen to be appreciated for not only Dassin’s wonderful choices in filming the process, but the wit in which our larcenous leads execute the robbery. One noteworthy aspect Dassin conveys so well is the amount of physical labor and eventual exhaustion the caper demands from these men. By the end of the sequence the audience feels they too may have sweat a liter and are drained from the amazing pressure they witnessed the protagonists operate under for hours. We, as the audience, bond with Tony, Jo, Mario and Cesar because we’ve shared an extraordinary experience together; like combat or childbirth. We’re all much closer now through their sustained felonious toil.

The haul is spectacular, netting them millions of francs worth of jewelry which they stash at Mario’s apartment. Of course human fallibility will impede this as Cesar’s Achilles heel is women, namely Viviane. A brilliant diamond ring Cesar noticed earlier while casing the Mappin and Webb store was irresistible. After the loot was obtained, Cesar quickly goes back for the ring unbeknown to the rest of his crew. Post caper, he places the ring on Viviane’s finger as an opulent way of wooing her. A rock worth a million francs is hard to miss however and her boss at the club, Pierre Grutter, is no exception. After asking her some questions about where she obtained such a ring, he learns Viviane is Cesar’s paramour. Pierre also determines Cesar works with Mario who in turn runs with Jo and Tony. As the heist has become all the news in Paris, Pierre realizes the four did the job. Determined to find and keep the jewels for himself, he tortures Cesar and murders Mario and his girlfriend. Mario’s girlfriend Ida (Claude Sylvian) warns Tony just before Pierre snuffs her out that Pierre is on to him and looking for the loot.

The ethics of Rififi’s underworld and the people operating within develops into an integral part of the narrative at this point, transcending the foundation of this theme Dassin had been establishing during the film. Despite the unsavory business these people practice, there is a code of honor between our anti-hero thieves. When Pierre and his goons hold Mario and his girlfriend Ida captive in an attempt to get the diamonds, the scene is heart wrenching as the couple both know that they will die. Their loyalty to Tony however, is paramount over the drowning fear they must have experienced in the fatal moment. They give up their lives instead of the diamonds while simultaneously protecting Tony and Jo with their sacrifice. Tony later recovers the diamonds from Mario’s when the coast is clear and stashes them with Jo. Le Stephanois then heads to Grutter’s nightclub to exact revenge from the man who murdered his friend. The club is empty with the exception of a tied up Cesar who asks Tony about Mario. Tony informs him he’s dead. Cesar’s strained expression tips Tony off: Cesar gave up Mario to Grutter. Pained at this development, Tony explains to Cesar while raising his gun, “I liked you, I really liked you Macaroni, but you know the rules.” In an exceptionally emotional twist due to Dassin casting himself, Cesar (Dassin) barely manages his solemn explanation, “Forgive me. I was afraid” just before Tony backs up and deposits several slugs in him. In an interview on the Criterion edition of the DVD, when describing his thought process while writing this scene, Dassin said, “I was just thinking of all my friends who at that moment during that McCarthy era, betrayed other friends.” Dassin being one of the aforementioned betrayed and playing the betrayer in his film gives the scene an eerie and tangible power.

Meanwhile the tension of this last act is ratcheted up even further as Pierre and little brother Remi kidnap Jo’s son Tonio as ransom for the jewels. The desperation of Jo and his wife Louise mounts as they cannot inform the police of the kidnapping as per Grutter’s instructions (and obviously the fact they have stolen 240 million francs worth of diamonds), but they’re willing to hand over the loot to Pierre. Tony le Stephanois knows better and puts the kibosh on that idea. The kid is a witness and Grutter won’t let him live as soon as they get the jewels. Tony knows the only option is to go after Grutter and his goons to snatch the kid back before they know what hit them. Tony calls upon his network of hoods and their streetwise knowledge to find Grutter’s hideout. Mado eventually returns and plays the most crucial role in helping Tony find and recover little Tonio. Despite what Tony put Mado through, she is faithful to a moral benchmark above her ambivalent feelings toward Tony. Lines of loyalty continue to fortify in this third act as Jo must trust Tony to get back his son even when he has the capability to give up the loot as ransom while Tony is out chasing down leads as to his son’s whereabouts. Solidarity is paramount between these characters and when it is broken (Cesar) chaos ensues and innocence along with weakness is exploited by the morally devoid. These motifs are a wise guy’s credo in the film but also beliefs straight from Dassin’s own heart.

The film ends in a violent flurry and race against time. Dassin conveys this in a beautifully edited, stylistically staccato way that I would bet inspired Godard’s jump cuts when he made Breathless five years later. Visually the conclusion is a departure from the rest of the film where his use of the gorgeous Parisian streets at night and overcast damp sidewalks during the day make for a cohesive and memorable aesthetic. The Director of photography Philippe Agostini also had a knack for framing the wonderful streets, bridges and staircases of Paris in such a way that from the camera’s perspective, produce an elongated effect giving the shots a wonderful stylized depth. The film looks amazing and is assembled in a crisp, intelligent and daring fashion.

Rififi’s cast is very solid overall with Jean Servais as Tony leading the memorable ensemble. His worn and sorrowful look is perfect as he is also able to convey a steely toughness when necessary. The standouts are the actors playing Italians namely Robert Manuel as Mario and I would argue that Dassin nearly steals his own film as Cesar le Milanais. He’s quite good in the role as he is able to mix in humor and sell the dramatic final scene between Cesar and Tony (Dassin however is not as good in a straight man comedic role in his otherwise charming 1960 film Never on Sunday)

Rififi is bold, imaginative and near flawless filmmaking. The exposition and characters are so well crafted that Dassin’s many subtle and daring directorial touches only contribute to the aggregate of an outstanding work of art. Rififi’s heist scene has been copied and imitated repeatedly over the years and is the jump-off point in most discussions regarding the film, but surrounding that brilliant nucleus is a network of wonderful acting, cinematography, music, editing and writing which make the overall cell of Rififi fortified and resilient to time. But beyond the biology of the film its turbulent emotional content of loyalty and betrayal is what makes Rififi truly sing. Like the lyrics from the film’s song declares, “All it means is rough n’ tumble” and you will not want the ride any other way.