Sunday, April 25, 2010

On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952) -- A-

Going from the glistening streets of classic film noir to the snowy, wide-open country side, On Dangerous Ground epitomizes everything that's wonderful about Nicholas Ray's filmmaking. Nothing ever comes or plays as it should. The characters make interesting or surprising choices. Ray's shot choices dazzle and never settle for "what's expected." The tones clash, but to fascinating rather than ill-conceived effects. His films are symphonies and, as composer, he always has control of them.

The opening sets up his desire to play with the narrative. After the blaring of a fantastic Bernard Hermann score over the credits, we're introduced to three men in three separate scenes. If one's not privy to the actors, it's hard to tell exactly whose story we're getting. It eventually becomes clear that Det. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is the lead, his reckless pursuit for justice colliding with any sense of morality or ethics. He can't control his rage, much like Dix Steele from In a Lonely Place. He beats men for information: "Why do you make me do it?" he asks one of them. Jim takes the job personally, and sacrifices his self for the job.

In pursuit of a killer who has off-ed a few young women, he ventures to the snowy countryside with one of the slain girl's father's (Ward Bond). After crashing their car in a chase, they happen upon the home of a young blind woman named Mary (Ida Lupino). Now the mood turns somber and heightens the melodrama. Hermann's score shifts too, from the blasting horns of noir pathos, to the understated, softly played tune of, perhaps, a "woman's film." It's becomes, as film noir scholar James Naremore says, "male melodrama." Mary softens Jim. The killer's her mentally handicapped brother, who hides in a cellar nearby. There are even intimations of incest between them, that perhaps he's taken advantage of her. These elements would begin to verge on camp were Ray not playing it with such a sincere sense of pain within his characters, each longing for happiness or, at least, a release of the shackles which metaphorically confine them. Yet again, the real narrative is the love story. It may be the least convincing of the three films reviewed so far, but nonetheless powerful. It's the oddest of Ray's early films, a hybrid of genres and themes that compassionately mesh into a congealed whole.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) -- A

As I'm sure all cinephiles would agree, there is a soft spot in our hearts for films about Hollywood, specifically the studio system as a means of demeaning and, above all, dehumanizing those working in it. Yet in all the films known to me about Hollywood insiders, no singular character runs as deeply, as troubling, and as profoundly as Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a soon-to-be washed-up screenwriter, aiming to write his masterpiece.

But that's jumping ahead a bit. The film opens with Steele driving through Beverly Hills. Ray focuses on his rear-view mirror, Steele's eyes cautiously looking at what's behind him. It's a distinctly noir touch, a character who's always looking to the past, longing for the "good-old-days." In what proves to be a tragic irony, Steele hasn't had any good days, now or in the past. His probing look lays an early foundation for his paranoia and ego, his efforts to consistently reinforce his masculine persona, carried out with brute force.

Examples of Steele's short fuse come early; at a stop-light while driving, a male driver demands he quit bothering his wife. Steele wants to have it out with him, right on the street. Later, in a bar, an arrogant producer mocks one of Steele's friends, an aging actor, and Steele takes it upon himself to teach the guy a lesson...with his fists. Yet, as a counter to his rugged side, he waxes poetic to a passing busboy: "There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality." Here's a paradox if there ever was one -- Steele is as alive as any man, ruled completely by his own desires and instincts, but it's these very instincts that prevent him from attaining the happiness he desires.

The narrative places Steele at the heart of a murder investigation: a young woman named Mildred (Martha Stewart), taken home by Steele to summarize a book he's meant to adapt, is killed after leaving his villa. When investigated by police, Steele makes light of her death, answering serious questions with understated sarcasm. Through his seeming indifference, the police chief suspects he's hiding something.

A film this complex requires constant backing up to clarify the layers present. It becomes clear the murder thread of the film is far less important than the impending love story involving Steele's neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, Ray's real-life wife at the time). This concept is presented in microcosm while Mildred briefly summarizes the novel Steele's too tired to read. Mildred's a plain, unimaginative type: "I used to think move stars made up the lines as they went." Steele replies: "When they get to be big stars they usually do." Nevertheless, her telling of the story omits all thematic or emotional depth. She merely hits plot points, beat for beat. She can’t understand why Steele reacts coldly. In a way, Ray is laying out the schema for his own film; he’s saying, if you think like Mildred, with little imagination, you’re not going to get my film. You’re going to be more concerned with the murder angle, where one-dimensional reveals of motivation take precedent over complex and deeply rooted emotions. Mildred wants a movie for the masses. Steele wants to write a movie truly about love. Ray clearly wants his viewer to adopt Steele’s point of view, placing the camera in Steele’s subjectivity for a couple of shots, Mildred speaking directly into the camera. Words cannot do Ray’s level of sophistication justice, since he’s working on half a dozen levels simultaneously.

Announcing the murder plot won’t be his central focus, Ray gives one of the cinema’s greatest romances the screen time it deserves. Give me Bogie and Grahame over Bogie and Bergman, hell, even Bogie and Bacall. Their quick love affair proves imminently believable, each searching for love in, what they think is, the right place. It doesn’t ultimately play that way, however, as Laurel’s suspicions of Steele’s brutality begin to build, first through the recollections of her masseuse, then through her own eyes. After learning of an additional set of questions by the police chief, Steele storms off from a small beach gathering. On the way home, he gets in a scuffle with a UCLA football star, nearly beating him to death. With Mildred’s killer still on the loose, Laurel’s certainty in Steele’s innocence begins to waver. Here, Ray makes a crucial shift. Where earlier in the film we were meant to identify with Steele, at least artistically, now we’re meant to share Laurel’s doubt. Since Mildred’s death occurs during an ellipsis, the viewer cannot be completely certain of his innocence. Perhaps Steele is a murderer after all; his propensity to instantly beat someone to a pulp reinforces her doubt.

But as stated above, the film isn’t about Steele’s guilt at all. It’s about his anger, his potential to commit acts of violence. Ray makes it possible to read his violence as a product of his profession, so detached from actual human beings through his screenwriting, that he can’t distinguish on-screen from real-life violence. No scene better explores this idea than when Steele asks a couple to reenact the way the murder potentially happened. Steele relishes the details, explaining how it might have been with the utmost detachment. Clearly, Steele’s not easily shaken by grisly details.

But to read his actions and profession as having siphoned the life out of him would be misguided, since his love for Laurel is completely engaged and in touch with both his and her desires. Sadly for Steele (and Laurel too), her mistrust of Steele’s innocence, combined with his wildly erratic behavior prevent any potential for long term happiness. Steele sums up their relationship (unbeknownst to him at the time) in a brief passage meant for a goodbye letter at the end of his film: “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me. I lived for a few weeks while she loved me.” Like the bent grapefruit knife he mistakenly fixes while preparing breakfast one morning, Dixon Steele sabotages what was already in proper order. The tragedy is he can’t seem to help it. His rage is an act of self-effacement, one which he seems doomed to repeat.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948) -- A-

The generic effects of Nicholas Ray’s first film They Live by Night (1948), adapted from the 1937 novel Thieves Like Us, are inestimable. Ray takes a noir premise, but adds a genuine romance involving young lovers, naïve both socially and sexually. The source material certainly deserves much credit (Robert Altman would make his own adaptation in 1974, taking the title from the novel), but Ray’s film is the first cinematic example mixing sex and violence. Without it, there wouldn’t be Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Badlands (1971). Even modern classics like Wild at Heart (1990), True Romance (1993), and Natural Born Killers (1994) are indebted. Usually, the first film to do something becomes notable more for historical reasons, while the film itself isn’t as highly regarded. That’s not the case with They Live by Night; it deserves to be in the conversation with any of its successors.

Recently escaped from prison with two other inmates, Bowie (Farley Granger) holes up with some friends away from the prison. There, he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) whose life hasn’t allowed her to travel much beyond the homestead. After the escaped threesome knock over a bank and word spreads of the gang’s proximity, Bowie flees, convincing Keechie to tag along. After a quickie marriage, they’re on their own, determined to break away from a life of crime. But such breaks are never so easy.

Much of the film deals with perceptions of normality, the way “most people act.” Bowie and Keechie are, by all accounts, country bumpkins; they admit it themselves, they don’t know much about love. They definitely don’t know much about sex. After getting hitched, Bowie keeps emphasizing the need to give Keechie “a real honeymoon, the way it should be done.” Their attempt to engage with so-called normality becomes the primary goal. “I don’t know much about kissing,” Keechie admits. “I reckon I don’t either,” says Bowie. She concludes: “I guess we’ll have to learn together.” The idea of togetherness becomes key.

Earlier in the film, after the robbery Bowie’s partner, Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) tells him: “There’s one thing you gotta learn kid. You gotta look and act like other people.” In other words, don’t break the rules, lose your individuality. The union of marriage works as a paradox against Chickamaw’s philosophy; through their marriage, two become one, unifying their desires and triumphing over a society which attempts to strip it from them. Ray’s smart here, not making his young lovers complete victims of their own naïveté’s, nor lambasting the impossible circumstances they face. It is, however, the inescapability of their circumstances which provide the tragedy. Young but forever imprisoned by the inability to escape past deeds, Ray posits an inability to conform as a death warrant, as if the society can only accept its own kind, the “normal” ones.

It’s telling when Bowie and Keechie take a stroll through the park; commenting on the futility of riding horseback for pleasure or playing croquette, Bowie claims: “People sure do act funny.” The irony, of course, is that Bowie and Keechie are funny themselves, and such recreational activities are part of the norm. When they go dancing and have a fancy dinner, they dress nice, like they think they’re supposed to. Their attempt at normalcy, a good time, is eventually thwarted by a drunkard who stumbles into their table. Consistently, their attempts to fit in only make them stick out more.

Ray’s adaptation works on both narrative and thematic levels; some of his shot choices are bizarre and wonderful, especially the uber-brief, fairy tale prologue. He hones in on his characters’ humanity, their pining for a tangible end to their hard pursuits. In doing so, he makes their inevitable tragedy all the more profound. The pair’s love transcends death. In striving to fit in, the society spits them out, but what they retain, and all they could hope to hold onto, is each other. In nearly all cinematic facets, Ray’s first film is an overlooked triumph, a different, more complex breed of noir.

Virginia City (Michael Curtiz, 1940) -- B+

Riding on the heels of the wildly successful Dodge City (1939), Curtiz, Flynn, and company pick up right where they left off with Virginia City, an underappreciated gem that works best through the charm and gravitas of its marvelous cast. Basically, escaped Union officer Bradford (Errol Flynn) travels to Virgina City, NV in 1864 to try and stop Confederate captain Vance (Randolph Scott) from intercepting five million in gold. Also after it is Mexican outlaw John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart) which sets up a climactic showdown, though arguably the weakest of the film's three acts. What works so well are the build up scenes, specifically the face-to-face's between Flynn and Scott; Flynn's mix of grace and rugged masculinity are present, per usual, but it's Scott's Confederate captain which injects dual interest in both sides. Neither side gets caricatured or chopped down, and though a thorough discourse on the human price of blind nationalistic allegiance never quite materializes, what's on-screen serves the cast well enough. The highlight of the entire film is a patriotic dance routine sung by Miriam Hopkins, the Confederate spy playing Flynn against Scott. This particular scene chillingly explicates the conviction from which these sides fought, dedicated not to the self, but a unified whole. These convictions now seem antiquated in a post-Vietnam, post-9/11 world, yet they run much deeper than protest pathos and reveal a time where cynicism and irony weren't an option.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940) -- A-

Raoul Walsh's fantastic 1940 film They Drive by Night seems to go overlooked in the noir canon, likely because it doesn't turn into one until the third act. When it does, Ida Lupino becomes one of the most memorable femme fatale's in any noir from the 1940's. Before that shift in tone, however, the film works brilliantly as an indictment of depression era capitalism, where brothers Joe (George Raft) and Paul (Humphrey Bogart) briefly ascend from obscurity as for-hire truck drivers, then literally "fall" after succumbing to fatigue due to long driving hours, as their truck tumbles off the side of a mountain. The shift makes perfect sense, venturing from the physical injury of Bogart's working-man, to the psychological devastation of Lupino's well-off wife, who decides to kill her husband (Alan Hale) in hopes of luring Raft into a love affair. In both parts of the film, it's the degradation of humanity in the face of economic pursuit that causes the trouble. Lupino's is less overtly stated, but her initial need for financial sustenance conflict's with her sexual desires for a younger, more physically capable man. Both halves embody the conflict of artificial and innate desires. The ending doesn't embrace the devastation as forthrightly as one may wish, but it detracts only slightly from Walsh's impeccable directed hybrid, fleshed out with excellent work by its cast, in particular George Raft, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and Alan Hale.