Friday, November 30, 2007

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Skip McCoy is a sleazy, thieving, smart-ass. He has a gift for the grift and he’s not hesitant to use it on easy and innocent prey. If he has a middle name it may be “recidivism” as he’s been pinched by the police on many occasions for picking pockets and done jail time in three separate stints. Because of his three strikes, one more conviction for Skip and he’s going to the slammer for life. Candy on the other hand is a B-girl who has been “knocked around a lot” and seems to think its status quo for a girl like her. A svelte, good looking dame whose white dress worn in the film is so tight, she may need turpentine at the end of the night to peel it off. Candy gets these taut threads namely from guys with dough who want to see her in them. One could speculate that she most likely does more than simply bat her eyelashes at these same mooks to keep the duds they put her in. Lastly Moe Williams is a sub-contractor stool pigeon to the cops plain and simple. She resents the stoolie label however stating that she, “was brought up to report any injustice to the police authority.” Despite this rationalization, when the price was right she dropped a dime on Skip’s modus operandi and whereabouts to the cops when they were looking for his neck to hang a collar on. It may not seem too strange for a professional canary to sing about a lowly pickpocket, but unusual when one considers Moe has known Skip since he was a kid and genuinely professes to love him. While this triumvirate of two-bit hoods and hustlers may sound like the kind of scene you’d want to avoid at all costs, it’s these same characters you can’t afford to miss in director Sam Fuller’s masterpiece Pickup on South Street.

The film opens on a NYC subway car where Candy (Jean Peters) is carrying an envelope given to her by ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). As a last favor to him she is to deliver the envelope to a man at a rendezvous point and she’ll be done with Joey once and for all. Candy is unaware that the contents inside the envelope (we later learn) are strips of microfilm consisting of classified U.S. government secrets that the Russians are dying to get their pinko paws around. Joey is working for the commies and looking for a big pay day with the delivery of the film. Candy is his unknowing buffer and potential fall-gal in case the deal goes sour. The U.S. government is aware of the breach and G-Men have been following Joey and the people he associates with for six months hoping to land the big players above him. We observe J. Edgar’s agents tailing and keeping a close eye on Candy in the subway car. Unexpectedly, while the car is in motion, they witness a man position himself next to Candy in the crowded car and adroitly pluck the wallet from her purse right under her oblivious nose. Before they can react the thief is off the train at the next stop with Candy’s wallet containing the envelope and microfilm. One of the G-Men continues to tail Candy while the other visits NYC police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) to try and find out who this “cannon” is that lifted the microfilm. To expedite the process of finding out whom the pickpocket’s identity, Captain Tiger calls in one of his informants; a little old lady named Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter). Moe looks like she’s as altruistic as Florence Nightingale, but in reality the only pulse Moe has her finger on is the seedy underbelly of the NYC grifter element. This inside knowledge, coupled with the cops hitting a dead end, allows her to drop a dime on the hoods to earn a dollar. She expertly identifies the pickpocket as Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) by the G-men’s eyewitness description of his uniquely individual thieving technique. Both the G-Men and Captain Tiger’s police force know he has the microfilm and they haul in Skip attempting to pry it out of him. Skip won’t cop to possessing it, as one more conviction, added to his three, will ensure they throw away the key on him. From here on out Candy tries to use Moe to get the microfilm back from Skip. Moe tries to milk Candy’s desperation to find Skip for her own financial gain. Skip discovers the microfilm and tries to grift Candy for a big payday from Joey and the commies. I’m just scratching the surface as the story has more wonderfully crazy angles and twists than an Escher drawing. Fortunately the tale never gets convoluted in its complexity and continues to build toward a gripping third act that stands up to any noir history.

While the screenplay (written by Sam Fuller from a story by Dwight Taylor) is rich in dialogue, narrative, and story, the cast elevates it to a plateau of excellence that few movies in film noir reach. Widmark is outstanding as the anti-hero and gives arguably his best performance from an impressive ‘cannon’ of work. Jean Peters gives a solid performance as the manipulated moll Candy. While she may not have the otherworldly chops of Widmark or Ritter, she sells the part well enough to keep up with her co-stars. Without a doubt though, Thelma Ritter is soul of this film. Her ability to convey the vulnerability, charm, and guile of a complex character like Moe is a feat I can picture no other actress accomplishing the way she did in Pickup. It’s a brilliant performance that belongs in the pantheon of film. Seriously.

Visually there is plenty to appreciate and enjoy with Pickup on South Street but Fuller’s use of the close-up is the visual element that resonates deepest with me. He judiciously uses tight facial framing but maximizes its effectiveness when he does. Each main character gets a notable close-up during points in the film where a significant aspect of their character is revealed and we get a better understanding of the people occupying Fuller’s world. During Thelma Ritter’s introductory scene in Captain Tiger’s office, the camera is kept at bay until Tiger asks Moe about the status of her “kitty” (her savings which is simply a big wad of cash). Moe has been saving up scratch from her legitimate business front of selling men’s neck–ties on the street and also her informant money so she can buy herself a top of the line funeral and all the trimmings. She tells Tiger that she’s almost has enough for the headstone and the exclusive plot on Long Island where you have to be screened before they “let you in there.” Tiger warns her that she better be careful about carrying around such a large wad of cash, especially with the ne’er-do-wells she associates with otherwise she’ll end up in Potter’s Field. Tiger’s words act as a vacuum to the feisty and energetic flame in Moe’s eyes. Her face drains only to be refilled quickly with a grave look of concern that comes over her as the camera gets to an intimate distance with her face. She confides to the police Captain, “Look Tiger, if I was to be buried in Potter’s field… It’d just about kill me.” There are several moments in the film like this where such a small aspect reveals so much about the different character’s desires, fears and motivations.

As if the fantastic story isn’t enough, Pickup has many complex and fascinating themes permeating the film. One I discovered on a recent viewing is the interesting dichotomy between reliance on the male dominated world in which Moe and Candy operate to survive and their struggle with maintaining independence and autonomy. Moe needs men to buy her neck-ties and Captain Tiger to help feed her kitty. Candy needs men to earn a living by being the “eye” type of her namesake. The viewer gleans that Candy floats from the arm of one guy to the next but it’s not something she’s particularly proud of. When his tail is on the line and he needs a lead as to who lifted the microfilm from her purse, Joey asks Candy, “You’ve knocked around a lot. You know people who know people.” Candy’s face tenses up and Fuller gives the audience another telling close-up as she snarls, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” Due to the nature of their professions Moe and Candy can’t afford to get too close to anybody, yet simultaneously they have a pragmatic need for connecting with people. But beneath these same necessary connections of survival stirs an emotional longing to unite with others on a human level. Unexpectedly and briefly, Candy and Moe seem to find this commonality with each other via Skip acting as an inadvertent catalyst. It’s an interesting dynamic and brief exploration of such between these two women, especially for the patriarchal and straight-laced era in which the film was made.

There are so many little touches to Pickup on South Street that help make it one of the finest film noirs I’ve ever seen. I love the way a streetwise character named Lightning Louie uses chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant to pocket cash on the table. I adore Moe as she’s working angles as an informer and simultaneously trying to sell her ties or as she calls them “a complete line of personality neck-ware.” I never tire of the scene where Moe deduces that Skip is the microfilm thief by the individual method in which he lifts Candy’s wallet because Moe knows each pickpocket’s methods are as distinct and unique as a fingerprint. I crack up over the way Skip keeps his beer cold in his unconventional hideout and offers a cop one by nearly hurling the bottle at him from across the room. I love it when Candy realizes her wallet has been lifted while she’s inside the lobby of a building and somewhere outside the sound of an alarm goes off. I love the existential acceptance shown by Skip when he realizes that Moe told Candy where he was hiding out and he embraces her being a stool-pigeon by quipping “Moe’s alright, she’s gotta eat.” These are just a few samples of many, many details and nuances in Pickup that make up an aggregate of mesmerizing and near flawless filmmaking. One viewing of Pickup on South Street is not enough to fully appreciate its genius, but one viewing will certainly whet the thirst of any true film-lover enough to continue going back and drink from this refreshing well, again and again.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Red Sox Regular Season Wrap-up

When you end up tied for the best record in baseball it's fair to say you had a pretty good year. Well that's just what the 2007 AL East Champion Boston Red Sox did this season. While things got a little dicey there at the end (sorry Sox fans who got that one, I'm addicted to puns) with the yankmees playing insanely great ball after the all-star break and whittling down the Sox game lead in the east from 14 and a half to just a couple, the old towne team pulled through. We also clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Not too shabby. In fact, one may say it's pissah (if one was a Masshole).

As someone who followed them quite closely, watched about half of their games, and attended half a dozen of them in person, I feel somewhat qualified to state a few observations and thoughts on some of the players this season. Here are the starting nine...

1) Daisuke Matsuzaka - I called it when I told many fellow friends that he would end up with about 15 wins and an ERA around four and a half (15-12 with a 4.40 ERA). I have to pat myself on the back on this prediction as I'm usually mediocre at best in that department. I was at his first game he pitched at Fenway where he had decent stuff but the performance was overshadowed by Felix Hernandez of Seattle throwing a one-hitter in the match-up (the best live pitching performance I've ever seen at the major league level). Dice-K obviously had some serious consistency problems this season as his walks (80) and giving up the long ball (25) seemed to be confined to a particular inning during each start. The rest of the start he would pitch anywhere between pretty well to lights out. I think that the numerous adjustments to pitching in the U.S. (along with the many cultural and language challenges) perhaps had more to do with his numbers than anything else. I believe he also hit a wall at the end of the season where his endurance ran out. He was acclimated to a shorter schedule and six days between games in Japan. That must have played a significant part. The Sox were apparently quite hands off with his physical training and workout regime; the Sox brass allowed him near full autonomy in that department. I imagine that will change next year to prevent the abysmal last month and a half he had (with the exception of the night they clinched the East on Friday the 28th when he went 8 full innings, giving up only two runs). I think he will improve next year, but I don't think he will be an ace or anything more than a solid number three or possibly two starter. Over 200 innings and 15 wins this year is nothing to sneeze at however.

2) Josh Beckett - Should win the Cy Young Award if that tells you anything.

3) Mike Lowell - You'd have to be a serious douche-bag (yes I have a Bachelor's in English) not to love this guy. Not only has he torn the cover off the ball all season long, but especially in the second half quieting the naysayers that expected another late season drop off in production. He's been clutch, a leader, a producer, defensively solid (although with an anomalous year for this former gold glover with 15 errors) and a liaison between the English and Spanish speaking players with his bilingual fluency. Mike Lowell is also a very articulate and class-act. My favorite Mike Lowell moment from this year were his thoughts about the inside-the-park home run Ichiro hit in the All-Star game. A reporter asked him to comment on it and Lowell said something to the effect of "He got out of the box pretty quickly but when he rounded second he really poured it on and was blazing down the paths the rest of the way to home reminded me of a young Mike Lowell." Hilarious. I'm secure enough in my heterosexual masculinity to admit that I have a huge man-crush on the guy.

4) Julian Tavarez - I was not a Tavarez fan before this year. I couldn't stand the guy with his Freddy Kruger rugged looks, psycho temper, and proclivity toward self-destructing (although I didn't mind his punching the dugout phone in 2004). Last year he seemed to blow every game he was put in. However, the first three months of the season this year he really came through with some great wins and strong outings that picked up the club when Beckett had his blister and was out for a couple of weeks. He was 5-5 during those three months with a 4.60 ERA. The Sox were also 3-1 in his no-decisions he pitched in that span giving generally solid outings. His contributions seem to be overlooked because of his 7-11 record with a 5.15 ERA for the season. He took the ball and the mound when asked and was glad to do so. He also made me laugh with his candlepin bowling looking technique of getting the ball to first base for the out on one occasion.

5) Hideki Okajima - Anybody think we should pick up his third year option for less than two million?

6) Jacoby Ellsbury - Hands down the fastest Red Sox player I've ever seen. I believe it was one of his first games he was called up for in the beginning of July against Texas where he singled, stole second, and then scored from second on a wild pitch. Did I mention it was from second base? I was a mouth breather for a minute straight after that play. My boss Sully says that Ellis Burks was the fastest Sox player back when he first debuted in 1987 and before he bulked up. While he has a legit argument there, Ellsbury seems quicker out of the box and around the base paths. Interestingly enough both men were/are Sox centerfielders and have the same birthday of September 11th (I sometimes can retain the most irrelevant of knowledge.)

7) J.D. Drew - Like one more person needs to bitch about this guy. He's been super hot the past several weeks so if he continues to hit like he has in that span, during the still won't make up for this first season in Boston. A walkoff and two dozen RBIs in the playoffs may lessen the sting of his atrocious 1st year with the Sox. The bar has been set J.D.!!!

8) Dustin Pedroia - isn't big, fast, powerful or intimidating. But he can play ball really, really well. He's gutsy and attacks the game with fire and determination. How can you not root for the guy? When I saw the Sox play a few games at Fenway against Kansas City in July, I was sitting pretty close on the first base side and saw Pedroia and David Ortiz stretching and talking next to each other before the game. I haven't seen that kind of size discrepancy side by side since Billy Crystal and Gheorghe Muresan teamed up to not make me laugh. Pedroia has proved everyone wrong his entire life before this season that said a 5'6" guy couldn't play ball . This year was no exception either. He will most likely win the Rookie of the Year with his .317 batting average and great defense. My favorie Pedroia moment of the season was the amazing diving stop and throw to first in the 7th inning during Clay Bucholtz's no-hitter. The play itself was phenomenal; robbing Tejada and saving the no hitter. But I loved the slow-mo replay where they zoomed in on Pedroia when Miggy was called out at first. You didn't have to be a lipreader to see when he got the call, he slapped his glove against his hand and yelled "FUCK YEA!" Fuck yea indeed Dustin.

9) Manny Ramirez - Is he back yet? I'm even more convinced now that Manny is not chewing tobacco but a giant cud of hashish instead. What else would explain him hocking his neighbor's grill on ebay?

More Soxtober comments to come as the playoffs get underway but until then just a few stats to think about...

...Jared Weaver's ERA facing the Sox is 6.97 this year and over 12 at Fenway, and he starts game 3 of the ALDS. The only thing worse if you're an Angels fan is John Lackey is 0-2 against the Sox this season with a 8.38 ERA, and from 2004-2006 he was 1-2 with a 5.60 ERA versus them. Oh, and he's your game 1 starter Fenway. Have fun playing golf next week Angels.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Landscapes and environment were undeniably integral aspects of many classic film noirs. They seemed nearly as important in conveying the crucial noir elements of suspense and dread as the actors starring in them. From the cobblestone streets of Vienna in The Third Man, the seedy underworld of London in Night and the City, the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, and of course the concrete jungle of Manhattan in Scarlett Street, The Naked City and Pickup on South Street are just few of the numerous possible match-ups. These environments breathed aesthetic life into these films and literally set the stage for the players to interact, investigate, pursue, be chased, live and die on their streets.

But what if our film noir protagonist didn’t have the streets of New York City to hide from his pursuers? What if he was a cop, who had no expansive boulevards of Los Angeles to elude the mob trying to rub out his star witness he was assigned to protect? What if our cop and his witness were confined to small, narrow compartments in a passenger train speeding along at 60 mph? What if that same mob had goons, bent on killing the witness, inside that same train and outside keeping pace with them in a car traveling alongside on the highway? If you’re that cop the preceding picture sounds about as appealing as being a diver in a shark cage during a feeding frenzy. Only these sharks are inside the cage with the diver. In The Narrow Margin this scenario comes to life in this expertly executed thriller, with even more twists piled onto the wonderfully contorted premise (warning, spoilers are a comin’).

Our film opens with a pair of L.A. detectives arriving in Chicago with an assignment to protect a widowed mob wife. She’s holding a list of names and the knowledge to put away L.A. Mafia heavies in a graft investigation. The detectives, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive at the Chicago safe house (which is a not so safe, nor private, boarding house) where the mob widow Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is being protected by the local cops. Brown and Forbes must get Mrs. Neall back to L.A. safely so she can deliver the incendiary list of names and testify to the grand jury awaiting her arrival. The transfer goes awry as one of the mob button men kills Forbes and flees before Brown can apprehend him. Brown grabs Mrs. Neall and makes a b-line to the train station with two, one-way tickets to L.A.

Mrs. Neall turns out to be a real firecracker of a shrew. Previously, on the cab ride from the train station to the safe-house, Forbes and Brown wonder what kind of a woman would become a mobster’s wife also adding the crucial (yet implausible) plot element that “nobody’s seen her.” Brown interjects a profile of the unseen moll, speculating that she “is a dish… a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.” Forbes counters with foreshadowing insight that “all kinds” of women could potentially marry a Mafia racketeer, not just the stereotypical portrait Brown has painted. However, Marie Windsor’s Mrs. Neall seems to be closer to Brown’s estimate with her sharp tongue and curvaceous body. After their harrowing escape and during the cab ride to the train station with Brown, Windsor expresses zero sympathy for Forbes and the bullet he just took for her. She even begins to flirt with Brown mere minutes after his partner of six years takes the big one for the team. Brown puts the kibosh on her advances saying that she is just a job in his eyes and she quickly backs off by snarling, “I wouldn’t want any of that nobility to rub off on me.”

Brown gets Windsor on the train unseen but moments later on the platform, is spotted by mob goon Joseph Kemp (David Clarke). Kemp follows Brown on the train and the wheels are set in motion for this claustrophobic cat and mouse chase about to take place on a passenger locomotive. Brown has bought two compartments on the train for him and Mrs. Neall and they initially elude Kemp’s snooping around both rooms. But Kemp knows Brown has her stashed somewhere on the train. In addition to Kemp, a mafia liaison by the name of Vincent Yost is also on the train. He confronts and attempts to bribe Brown for the list and the whereabouts on the train of Mrs. Neall (remember the mafia apparently doesn’t know what she looks like). Brown is momentarily tempted, but he can’t be bought and also can’t arrest Yost as he has a squeaky clean record as a sales executive for one of the mob’s legitimate company fronts. Windsor’s Mrs. Neal eavesdrops at the door from the adjoining compartment to the attempted bribery by Yost. She later tells Brown that he is a sucker for not taking the bribe and tells him that they could split the money and take off. Brown tells Windsor she makes him sick to his stomach to which she replies, “Well use your own sink, and let me know when the target practice starts.”

While the cat and mouse goes on between him and Kemp, Brown keeps bumping into the attractive, Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy around the train. She looks the part of a wholesome woman with a precocious boy who if Ritalin was around in the early 50s, I’m sure he would be receiving the maximum daily dose. It’s no coincidence (kind of) however that Mrs. Sinclair and Brown keep meeting up. As it turns out she is the real Mrs. Neall, traveling clandestinely (as much as one can with a hyperactive eight-year old child and nanny in tow) after the D.A. instructed her to get to the coast undetected. This twist is revealed shockingly after Marie Windsor’s character is finally discovered and bumped off by Kemp and another hit man who boarded the train in Albuquerque named Densel. Equally surprising is Windsor was an internal affairs policewoman, posing as Mrs. Neall and trying to ensnare the seemingly un-bribable Brown in a payoff from the mob.

Now that the tables have been turned the tension is ratcheted up as McGraw’s Detective Brown must protect the real Mrs. Neall (who didn’t know her husband was tied to the mob and turned state’s evidence once she found out), her son Tommy and thwart Kemp and Densel (who we learn is also his partner Forbes’s killer). All of that on a speeding train with the only possible stops left on the line being death or Los Angeles.

While there are some suspect plot holes one could drive a-you-know-what through, director Richard Fleischer keeps the pace moving so quickly that time to dwell on them is not allotted. Clocking in at a lean 71minutes, there isn’t a trace of gristle in this thriller that’s as juicy and satisfying as a thick sirloin steak. Fleischer made a beautiful looking film with near perfect lighting and camera work. The latter aspect comes into play in many scenes but especially the fantastic fistfight between Kemp and Brown in a train washroom. Using a handheld camera (unusual for the time and especially fist fights), the principle actors, low angles and tight shots, make for an amazingly gritty scene of fisticuffs in such a confined, ‘narrow’ space. Fleischer expertly plays with the claustrophobic and restricted space of the train throughout the film and as the tension increases, the shots seem to get tighter and tighter. Another extraordinary aspect and bold choice on Fleischer’s part is the omission of a music soundtrack. In place of a score, Fleischer prominently features the sounds of the train and its workings to audibly add to the mood. From the loud banging together of boxcars forewarning gunplay, to a nice sound match scene transition between Windsor nervously filing her nails and the wheels of the train rhythmically churning, the film is full of these interesting plays of sound and story.

The cast is a well-assembled one, each giving superb performances. Charles McGraw’s Detective Brown is the quintessential hard-nosed cop; played so tough by McGraw he could sleep on kegs and spit nails as my grandfather used to say. He convincingly conveys the fallibility of temptation (when offered the bribe) adding a nice dimension to the role he’s perfectly suited to play. The scene-stealer however is undoubtedly Marie Windsor. Not only is she easy on the eyes, as hers are strictly bedroom, but Windsor executes the role with moxie and flair, without overdoing it. It also helps that she gets the best lines in a dynamite script by Earl Felton from a story by Martin (Detour) Goldsmith. The Narrow Margin isn’t a perfect film but once conductor Fleischer takes your ticket, it’s a trip you won’t regret riding right to the end of the line.

NOTE: “The Narrow Margin” is being shown tomorrow (10/01/07) at 6:45 pm on TCM.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Blog neglect

To those that have asked about it, sorry I haven't posted anything since June but it's been a topsy-turvey summer and I've been slaving away on a ginormous paper for my professor that I just completed. However the blog will have some new entries coming soon (which I may even edit for errors this time) with such exciting subjects as....

1) Five Shows That Should Be Part of Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

2) Film Review: The Narrow Margin

3) Boston Red Sox regular season wrap-up and post-season preview (yea I'm confident about us getting there).

In the mean time enjoy Jerry Lewis's hilarious homophobic comment during this year's MDA telethon...

What a antiquated cut-up! As atonement I think he should sing "Never Walk Alone" at the conclusion of the NYC gay pride parade next year.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

KISS OF DEATH (1947) - Film Review

As our film begins a narrator speaks over the opening shots of a bustling Manhattan informing us, “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings…for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) a former jail-bird, now trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them because, as we're told, “this is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” At the conclusion of this scene, Nick is mere seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. He is attempting to escape their grasp by running into the crowded streets of New York. But before he is able to make his flight, a cop in pursuit shoots him in the leg, dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. The narrator informs us this event mirrors the fate of Nick’s father who died twenty years earlier with a policeman’s slug in his back. As the sob story goes, the old man was escaping from a robbery he just committed when young Nick witnesses his father’s death and sadly enough it was one of his earliest memories. When the violins die down Nick is looking at plenty jail time but he does have a way out.

Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) is a family man who tells Nick that if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to chirp about his crew. Not even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad does Nick show signs of budging. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and attempts to give him a means to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at this prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo, but Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his beak shut.

Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of assorted woes: Nick in jail, financial hardship, single motherhood and her penchant for hitting the bottle too hard. Upon hearing this news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage with nobody to care for them. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray) a young lady who once nannied his daughters when Nick was on the outside and things weren't quite so grim. Nettie subsequently quit the nanny gig and moved away long before Nick’s wife did herself in by treating her melon like a bundt cake. A minute into her visit with Nick it's obvious that he and Nettie have a connection. Additionally he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters which she agrees to do out of fondness for them, and of course Nick.

Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick is motivated to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before during Nick's sentencing sentenced, winding up in the same holding cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here. Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo proves it later in the film when he silences a potential informer by lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and proceeds to push her tumbling down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition, Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.

Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick "accidentally" bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married, he has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame they try to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.

This movie is entertaining overall but not much else in terms of the film as a whole. I don’t feel like director Henry Hathaway covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and utilizing a quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777. The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending which nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some flair or panache leaving it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer who between them have penned such gems as Notorious, Spellbound, His Girl Friday, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Thing from Another World and Oceans Eleven just to name a few (Even more impressive is Hecht’s uncredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his imdb page and be in awe). All that being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that make this movie stand out from the pack.

Victor Mature is highly effective in his role as Nick Bianco, balancing a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.

If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching this film it’s definitely the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding, as he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir

Monday, May 7, 2007

Rocket in Pinstripes

So Roger Clemens decided to go with a World Series contender (New York's record is 14 and 16 as of 5/8/2007 in the afternoon) and sign with the New York yankees Sunday. Apparently, according to the Rocket, George Steinbrenner whispered something magical in his ear that made him decide to sign with the yankees. My guess as to the aural incantation sounded something like, "We'll pay you 28 million pro-rated Roger." His comeback to the Bronx announcement was done in very anti-climatic fashion during the 7th inning stretch at the stadium Sunday where he made a very uninspired "speech" from Steinbrenner's luxury box (if you haven't seen it, check it out as it was like someone just handed him the mic and told him that he was playing for the yankees 10 seconds before he had it in his hand. My friend Matt, who is a yanks fan, aptly said 'Lou Gehrig he's not'). What was really hilarious was yankee radio color analyst Suzyn Waldman absolute freak-out on air after the announcement, which you have to listen to in order to believe it (she’s from Newton, MA too…shame, shame).

Would I have liked to see Clemens in a Sox uni again? Yes and no. As a Red Sox fan that wants to win another championship I would say yes. An addition to the already solid pitching staff, Clemens would have been a boost that would have translated as some pricey insurance. Do I think we needed him? Absolutely not. Our starting rotation and bullpen have been stellar so far this season and I’m happy with the horses we’re going to war with. Having Clemens would have given us a bit more of a cushion in case a starter gets injured and essentially assure that we would get a fairly decent quality start most times he would take the ball as a fifth starter. Objectively I’d rather see him in a Sox hat mainly to keep him out the yankee’s hands.

All that said let’s look at the numbers (I’ll get to the ‘no’ part of my previous paragraph’s opening later). Roger has pitched in the effete hitting National League central for the past few years since his “retirement” in 2003 (remember that?). That being said we won’t look at his wins and losses because he never got any run support from the Astros. His ERA however was an impressive average of 2.38 between 04’ and 06’ in 55 games. There is a dramatic drop off in the number of innings pitched: in 2004 he pitched 214 innings, in 2005 he pitched 211 and in 2006 he pitched 113. While the amount of games he started dropped off in 2006 the numbers are as follows for average amount of innings pitched per start: 2004 –6.48 IP, 2005 – 6.59 IP, 2006 – 5.94. This is a guy who on average may get you into the 6th inning but most likely will not get you past the 7th. Now if you total up the batting averages and slugging percentage averages of the NL central in 2006 the BA was .256 and SLG was .401. In the AL east where, Clemens will be pitching again, the average BA for the 2006 season for the four teams (I’ve excluded the yankees and Astros in both cases obviously) was .274 and SLG percentage average was .436. So there is a noticeable difference in just those two divisions. As everybody who has an inkling of baseball knowledge is aware the AL bats are much more potent then the NL ones. The last two years the Rocket pitched in the AL in 2002 and 2003 his ERA averaged 4.13. and he was 4 years younger in 2003 (he will turn 45 in August). Clemens will make a little over 20 starts this season and maybe, if he is lucky, he will win 10 of those games. But with the yankees bullpen in absolute shambles I can only imagine what kind of over taxed shape they will be in by August.
However I think he will help the Yankees and will add some spice to the Boston/New York rivalry. It will make it that much more sweet when we beat them in the post season.

Personally I didn’t want to see Clemens in a Sox uniform again because of a close encounter my friend Dave and I had with Roger in 1990. This story is absolutely true and I will swear on my beloved grandmother's grave to the following. Dave lived near the Fens and we were walking on Boylston St. on a late Sunday afternoon. Clemens had pitched that day and I believe he got shelled. Regardless we were stopped at the crosswalk and sure enough a black Porsche with the vanity license plate “ROCKET” pulls up to the light. Dave and I were all psyched because, well there was THE Roger Clemens. He had already won three Cy Young awards, had the 20 strikeout game and was a legend in Boston. I used to love watching him pitch just like most everyone in Boston and here he was just a few yards away in his sweet ride. Just then two little African-American kids about 9 or 10 years old pull up to the Porsche on their BMX bikes. They started leaning against the car with their hands and also started knocking on the tinted driver side window saying "Roger, Roger can we have your autograph?" a few times over. Still stuck at the red light, Clemens rolls down the electric window and proceeds to tell the kids “Don’t touch the fuckin’ car!” and he then peeled out as the light turned green immediately after uttering those words. It was a movie moment to say the least. The kids, Dave and myself stood there with our jaws on the pavement. I said to one of the kids “He’s a jerk don’t feel bad about it.” One of the kids said trying to be tough, “He’s an asshole.” Yet you could see the disappointment in their eyes. I figured that many celebrity athletes are douche bags but it was one thing to see it firsthand at the expense of those kids. From that day on I never liked Clemens and was secretly happy whenever he got rocked in an outing. It was tough to support the Sox and hate the ace of the staff. I felt I got a real glimpse into his character and that said, 17 years later, he’s a perfect fit for the yankees. See you in Boston the first weekend in June Roger (unless you aren't pitching because you don't have to travel with the rest of your team.)

Monday, April 30, 2007

PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950) - Film Review

In the dark shadows above a dingy restaurant in the French quarter of New Orleans a card game is being played. One of the players is an illegal immigrant, fresh off the boat and riding a winning streak that’s netted him a nice little stack of bills at the table. Now he says he wants out of the game. His unlucky opponent Blackie (Jack Palance) craves a chance to win his money back and is not going to let him go so easily. Oddly enough the player anxious to call it quits doesn’t want to leave the game because he’s up in winnings and wants to walk away with a wad of cash. He is sweating profusely, looks like hell and is complaining of being very ill. He says he’s so sick, that he has to go home to lie down. He breaks away from the game under heavy protest from the other players. Palance, his crony Raymond (Zero Mostel), and another cohort follow this man out into the streets, across a train yard and outside a warehouse, demanding his money (in an amazingly shot, single long-take). The card game winner starts to defend himself from Raymond and the other Blackie henchman but his hand is folded for good with a couple of slugs from the piece of Palance. As his money is pocketed by Blackie, the audience may think that the movie they’re about to watch involves a murder by some street hoods in the Big Easy. However, what is about to unfold is an unconventional noir set in the New Orleans underworld that touches on social and moral issues stemming from the possibility of a global disaster with origins at the microscopic level.

Cut to the next day and our card game winner is fished out of the harbor and brought to the morgue. The man performing the autopsy notices the copious amount of white blood cells coming from this man’s bullet wounds. Something doesn’t look right and he notifies the Feds. Next we see a nice domestic scene with our lead man Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and his son played by Tommy Rettig (“Laaaaasie!”) doing some painting in the front yard. Barbara Bel Geddes (as Widmark’s wife) calls him in to the house to tell him that his boss called and he is needed downtown. Widmark changes into his uniform as we learn his professional identity is Lt. Commander/Dr. Clinton “Clint” Reed, U.S. Public Health Service. While he's changing, Bel Geddes gently prods him that their tab at the local grocery store has become an astronomical 42 dollars. Reed says he’ll figure out a way to pay it and we are made aware that this man is not making a great living as a doctor for the government yet we will also find out he has duties and responsibilities for which no salary may be adequate.

Widmark shows up to the morgue and determines that while the bullets may have killed our unlucky card player, he was infected with pneumonic plague. Whomever has come into contact with the John Doe with will be dead within 48 hours without serum inoculation. While Dr. Reed does a fine job of inoculating everyone who has come into contact with the body including police, morgue workers and so forth, the one man likely carrying the plague they have not discovered is the murderer (Jack Palance) of the dead card player. The tricky part being they have to find the killer without letting anyone know that they are looking for him. The reasoning behind this tact is mentioning the plague could set off a panic in the population as generally the word “plague” seems to put people on edge and take sudden long unexpected vacations. If that wasn’t difficult enough they have yet to identify the body itself. It’s obviously much harder to find a killer when you don’t know who has been bumped-off. The mayor assigns New Orleans police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) to help Widmark find their man to incarcerate a killer and, more importantly, contain a pandemic.

From this point Widmark and Douglas begin an unconventional type of investigation for the noir genre. As it turns out many people have come into contact with the murdered, card playing, plague carrier. Instead of roughing up plague exposed uncooperative suspects, Widmark threatens to hold out inoculating them until they cough up pertinent information about their investigation (is it a Hippocratic suggestion or oath that doctors take?). Eventually they narrow down the investigation and what ensues is a fantastic cat and mouse game between Widmark and Palance to the very end of the film. Within this dynamic exist intriguing moral and social issues brought to the attention of the viewer by the director.

Director Elia Kazan was no stranger to making pictures with social messages and moral dilemmas (Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn just to name a few) and Panic in the Streets was no exception. Widmark gives a great speech about this potential epidemic not being just about New Orleans, but the world and how we as humans are all interconnected. May not sound like much today, but this type of progressive speech was uncommon for 1950 I’d wager. The issue of freedom of press vs. public safety is a theme also touched upon as a reporter character named Neff (Double Indemnity nod?) is thwarted by Widmark and Douglas from scooping the story. Their reasoning is they don’t want to cause a panic and also have the killer flee town, but does the public have a right to know about this potential plague to protect their families and themselves? This plague is also a metaphor for crime as a disease and how it poisons principles and may infect many who come into its contact regardless of their moral constitution.

The shining aspects of the film manifest in several areas and the casting and acting are certainly included. Paul Douglas is solid as the police captain who reins it in from his usual comedic relief parts and Barbara Bel Geddes is fine as Widmark’s wholesome wife. She works well in some key, unconventional love scenes with Widmark where they are both longing to be close to one another but she must keep at a physical distance because he may be contaminated. Zero Mostel is perfectly cast as Blackie’s sleazy and degenerate underling and Jack Palance (in his motion picture debut) is fantastic as the heavy. He has just the right balance of menace, and believability as an underworld player who may explode with violence at any moment. This young Palance has a very swarthy, gaunt and creepy look going for him, which adds to his presence as a nefarious element one wouldn’t want to cross. Richard Widmark earns serious kudos in my book for this film, as I believe it may be his finest role. He maintains a balance of controlled distress at the potential cataclysmic events that may unfold and passionate determination in his quest to stop both a human and microscopic killer alike. Dr. Clint Reed comes off in a believable and compelling fashion because Widmark brings so much to the table as an empathetic and tough leading man protagonist that when watching him in Panic in the Streets, one forgets all about Tommy Udo (Kiss of Death), Harry Fabian (Night and the City), Skip McCoy (Pickup on South Street) and his other villain or anti-hero roles for which he is associated.

The aspect of this film that shines the most is Kazan’s use of the camera. In many of the shots characters are constantly moving about in the frame creating an edginess to the scenes but Kazan makes the dance between the actors and the camera seem effortless. He incorporates these amazing long takes that may begin on a group of characters and several minutes later we have moved about them and end on a close up. Many of these extended single takes are sans dialogue and remind me of some of the silent Fritz Lang films in their mastery of telling a story with only the camera. Kazan moves the film’s story along visually in a way that is so impressive it must be seen to be appreciated. This was all photographed under the masterful hand of Joseph McDonald who does a fantastic job of capturing the visual flavor of New Orleans with help from the gritty, authentic locations. He and Kazan also use real New Orleans people as extras and in small parts that give the film a neo-realist quality and genuine look that Hollywood couldn’t replicate.

Panic in the Streets is a true gem that deserves more credit that perhaps it has received over the years. Apparently at the end of his career, Kazan felt it was one of his most well crafted and important films amongst his very impressive body of work. The script (Edward and Edna Anhalt of The Sniper and The Young Lions), filming, acting and direction that comprise Panic in the Streets are of the highest calibers across the board. The ending chase scene through the coffee warehouse is worth the price of admission alone; however, I practically guarantee one viewing will only make you concur with Kazan’s self-appraisal of his stellar film.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


One of my best friends Jefferson informed me several months ago that he and his fiance would be coming to Boston so she could see some friends who live in the hub and Jeffy figured it was a great opportunity to see me. He lives in L.A. so needless to say I never see him. Jefferson is a baseball fan so I managed to get us tickets for the day after opening day at Fenway. My boss Sully later won the ticket buying lottery at, was able to score some tickets for opening day and offered to sell me two of the four he got because he knew my buddy was coming into town. Seeing as though he could have sold the $23 bleacher tickets for $150 a piece (at least, easily), to say it was a very nice gesture would be quite an understatement. So me and my friend were lined up to see opening day April 10th and, as it turned out, the day after which was the debut of the biggest Red Sox acquisition of the off-season: Daisuke Matsuzaka. What we saw during that two day period was entertaining to say the least. The following entry contains notes, observations and commentary about the first day.

Tuesday April 10 2007 : Opening Day at Fenway Park

We had an amusing run-in with a Sox “fan” when we were parking the car before the game. Decided to park on a side street off Beacon St. and St. Mary’s area where Brookline ends and Boston begins. This guy was in his 50s driving a brand spankin’ new Explorer, parks on the street in front of us. He was with his son who was about 11 years old and wearing one of those really nice 2004 World Champion Red Sox all leather jackets that go for about $400 (I’m not exaggerating). Needless to say I don’t think he was worrying about paying the electric bill this month. The guy then asks me if it’s okay to park here. I tell him that the ticket here in the residential area is only $15 which compared to $50 (at the lots next to Fenway) is a deal. He then asks me if I’ve been to “any games so far this year?” Uh…it is opening day dude and I didn’t make the trek to Kansas City or Texas when the Sox were on the road before today so no, I haven’t been to any so far. He then asks me “should we bring jackets to the game?” I tell him maybe it’s not a bad idea because of the temperature and then he says “yea I think it may get pretty cold in the park because of it getting all the wind right off the water.” At this point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he said that a Unicorn collected his toll getting off the Mass Pike because he was so far away from my reality he was sounding crazy as a soup sandwich. Right off the water? Are you thinking San Francisco and not Boston? Are you thinking of the water in the troth urinals in the men's rooms at Fenway? Hardcore fan this guy was not. The sad thing is that these types of people are so much more prevalent at Fenway these days because they have money, connections and the Sox have become such a status event to attend. My girlfriend and I went to a game in 2004 where the group of people in front of us (a bunch male and female “suits”) spent at most an inning actually watching the game and the rest of the time going to get beer, getting up and down, switching seats, talking in the aisles, standing in their seats during non standing moments and my personal favorite; calling everyone they possibly know to tell them (or yell into their cell phones) that they are at the Sox game. To me that’s like going to Paris and spending the entire time in the hotel room. It makes me sad to see this type of thing because I think of the poor blue collar dad living in Charlestown who can’t afford to take his kids to see the Sox yet he’s a truly devoted and loyal fan who was “born into it” and proud as they say. My father grew up in Somerville and told me that my grandfather used to take my dad, uncle and aunt to Sox games when they were kids. Because they were so poor they would all walk to Fenway Park…FROM SOMERVILLE! That' s well over a 3 mile walk. My dad also said my grandfather took turns with each his siblings carrying them on his shoulders during the long trek across town, over the Charles River and into Kenmore square. My dad and my uncle pestered my grandfather about 1000 times, on these walks over to Fenway, about who would hit a home run, Ted Williams or Bobby Doerr (my dad's favorite player). Now that’s devotion and a far cry from the pink hats and people making the “scene” at Fenway instead of watching and rooting for the Boston Red Sox. I’ll hop off the soap box for now.

Went into an Irish bar on Beacon St. for Jeffy to have a few non-ballpark priced beers before the game and a seltzer for myself (I don’t drink anymore after ending a long, ugly and dysfunctional affair with lady liquor). We then headed for the ballpark and got to our seats. They were in the bleachers but we were only a dozen rows back from the visitor bullpen. The wind was blowing our way pretty hard so the potential for David Ortiz sending one our way was good. The first thing I’ll say about the game is it was freakin’ cold, really chilling and windy to boot. That said, I kept warm by dressing appropriately and help from a few choice pharmaceuticals to counter the cold.

Finally got to our seats (which were great) and met up with Sully and his wife Laurie. The opening ceremony was amazing. First we had the unveiling of the huge American flag over the Green Monster and then 4 of the “Green Mountain Boys” Vermont Air National Guard F-16s, did a fly-over directly above us in the bleachers. Still a very cool part of opening day that gives me goose bumps thinking about it. Then Harry Connick Jr. was trotted out and sang “America the Beautiful” which prompted many “Where’s fuckin’ the national anthem?” from Jeffy. I don’t know and I didn’t understand the Connick Jr./Boston Red Sox connection either (many Sox fans in New Orleans?). Is that the best celebrity we could get? I’d rather have a mediocre local celebrity than a more famous national one (I looking at you Gary Cherone). The next part of the opening ceremonies was the highlight. This year marks the 40th anniversary of “The Impossible Dream” Red Sox of 1967 who went from finishing in last place in 1966 to winning the pennant in ’67. All the old players of that amazing team came out on the field in their unis and took their old positions. They all looked much greyer and heavier but Jesus when Yaz came out from the Monster I couldn’t help but scream at the top of my lungs like I was 12 years old which I was when I last saw Captain Carl take the field in person. Not to mention that they brought in THE Robert Goulet who sang “The Impossible Dream” (his signature tune) during the ceremony. Not too shabby at all I’d say. If that didn’t tug on my aortic strings enough, they got yanked when Johnny Pesky was introduced to the crowd, stepped up to the mic and said the true magic words “Play Ball!” Johnny was squeezin' out a few tears at the outpouring of applause and support he received from the fans after his introduction. It was a difficult year for him in which he lost his wife. You’d have to be a fuckin’ robot not to mist up just a little bit. I won’t even get started about MLB kicking Pesky out of the dugout. Way to take a stand, Bud(Selig)!

The game itself was pretty great. The Sox started teeing off the pitching of 2006 World Series darling Jeff Weaver in the first. I won’t go through the entire game but some of the most notable things during the game were as follows: 1) Josh Beckett was absolutely dominating. All his pitches seemed to be working well and most pleasing to me was that he rarely shook off Varitek’s pitch calls (better late than never I guess). Seven innings, one run, 8Ks and only two hits. Speaking of the Captain he had a good game with three hits and three RBIs. I’m hoping this season his bat will be much more potent than last year. 2) J.D. Drew had a good game including his first homer in a Sox uniform and 3 RBIs. He also made a great running catch as well. All in all everyone batting for the Sox looked pretty good with the exception of Coco Crisp. He drove in two RBIs that day, BUT…I’ve been watching him for the past two weeks and he looks so completely lost at the plate. Taking strikes down the middle, swinging at ball fours and having the uncanny ability to hit the ball directly at any one of the infielders when he does make contact. I’m not ready to bring up Ellsbury from AA Portland yet. I think we have to give him (Coco) two or three more weeks (as opposed to the doom and gloom guys that call into WEEI) but boy he better get it going soon (He is batting .111 as of 4/16). As for the bullpen not too bad with the exception of Timlin coming in to pitch the ninth and giving up 2 runs (he left the game with a hearty 18.00 ERA). He just got off the DL so I’m not too worried. I’m also much quicker to forgive him as he and Varitek are the only players who are still sporting the old school look of red socks pulled up high to the knees. I'm a traditionalist at heart. Final score: Red Sox 14 Seattle 3

Left the park and we all went back to the Irish bar which had cleared out considerably since before the game. Still better than waiting a half hour to get into a few of the bars on Brookiline Ave. or Lansdowne St. before the game started (I'm not joking. We checked and I don't wait in lines for a bar, even when I was drinking). I was feeling pretty good after the Sox trouncing of Seattle and was looking forward to Matsuzaka San's start the next day. My first opening day in 12 years was as close to perfect as you can get in 42 degree baseball weather. At least it wasn't rain.