There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.
The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.
What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”
When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and say, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.
Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.
Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.
In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.
Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat ). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius  with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.
James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.
Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!
On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, isthe powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.
From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.
When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.
One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.
After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.
Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.
Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.
Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.
What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers(1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.
Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.
Director: Graham Cutts
Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Film fans, the day you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! Just a few hours ago, the rediscovered “lost” film that marks the earliest surviving feature for which Alfred Hitchcock received screen credit debuted on the internet.
Although missing its last three reels, The White Shadow, a good-looking melodrama of uncommon richness, has come back to cast its white shadow upon audiences again through the good auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, with restoration work expertly rendered for the New Zealand Film Archive by Park Road Post Production, donated web hosting by Fandor, and a magnificent new score by Michael Mortilla with violinist Nicole Garcia funded by donors to this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon! For the next two months, anyone anywhere in the world can watch this treasure free of charge here, solving one of the biggest problems in film preservation: offering access to films that have long been out of circulation and are not likely to get wide distribution again.
Annette Melville, executive director of the NFPF and the best collaborator Farran, Rod, and I could have had in making the blogathon a success, says this was one of the most significant finds of recent years: “When the film was recovered last year, David Sterritt, who wrote a book on Hitchcock for Cambridge University Press, pointed out that it was quite a find. But a little more research suggests that it is more like ‘the missing link.’ It appears to be the first surviving feature on which he collaborated with his wife Alma as well as the film that established his connection with the Selznick family. Lewis J. Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, was the American distributor, and the film survives as a Selznick distribution print.”
So how does The White Shadow stand up as a film? Actually, very well. The screenplay, which chronicles the fates of identical twins—one good, one “without a soul”—shows that Hitchcock’s lifelong fascination with mistaken identity and personality splits began quite early and tracks with the style of melodrama favored in silent pictures. Betty Compson plays devil-may-care Nancy Brent and her demure twin Georgina, daughters of a wealthy and authoritarian drunk played by A. B. Imeson. Nancy meets American Robin Field (Clive Brook) onboard a ship returning to England from the mainland of Europe, a cutaway to the white cliffs of Dover signaling to Nancy that she is almost returned to her “beloved” Devon. Field is immediately smitten with the vivacious Nancy and turns up on her doorstep just as she is becoming bored and restless with life at home. Her romance with Robin is cut short when she impulsively runs away, followed by a father determined to bring her back. Both go missing and the failure of a final effort to find them kills Mrs. Brent (Daisy Campbell).
Georgina meets up with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) by chance, and the romance is back on, with Georgina pretending to be Nancy to save her sister’s reputation. However, when Louis, a painter who has returned to his home in Paris, spies Nancy drinking and gambling in a bohemian nightspot called The Cat that Laughs, he rushes back to Robin to prevent him from marrying the woman who is not the person she appears to be.
I can’t pretend to know much about Graham Cutts and his directorial style, but I would venture to say that the depth of the portrayal Betty Compson gives to her twin characters may be down to his coaching. I would expect Hitchcock to direct the evil twin as more cold and duplicitous, even this early in his career. Compson acts like neither a cardboard goody-two-shoes nor a wildly amoral sensualist. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Nancy for having her character judged so harshly by the title cards. A woman who wants to travel, have the upper hand in romance, play poker, and smoke—in other words, have a man’s freedom—seems to have the kind of spirit Victorian women like Georgina were straining after; indeed, this tale of good and evil seems outdated even by 1920s standards, belonging more to the vamp era of the 1910s. Of course, Nancy wishing her father would break his neck while horseback riding and then showing up his poor “seat” on a horse is awfully wicked, but we are told Mr. Brent made his wife and family miserable. It’s no wonder Nancy ran away.
If a film has to end in the middle, the shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of the Paris nightclub, gaily unaware that she is about to have a vicious confrontation with Robin, is the perfect place to stop. The synopsis of the rest of the film shows that it veered into a kind of Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul. I prefer to write my own scenario for a film that is filled with some interesting, full-bodied characters who deserved better than to have a moralizing fate determine their lives. Some truly suspenseful moments and occasionally murderous emotions leapt from the screen, perhaps revealing Hitchcock’s touch. A raft of interesting villians, from Uncle Charley and Norman Bates to the cruel death dance of Judy/Madeleine and Scottie, have some ancient echoes in this substantial blast from the past happily restored to the world again. Go watch it!
“In the beginning was the Word.” Atheist Elmer Rice, author of the play Counsellor at Law as well as its screenplay, disagreed with what the Bible said that word was, choosing instead to make all words his god. He made a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, and was lucky enough to find his perfect director in William Wyler. A rarity among Hollywood directors, Wyler respected the words on the page and did little to shape them into an auteuristic vision. His self-described mission was to entertain and make a lot of money, a stance to filmmaking that sent his star plummeting from the skies when the mid-century French critics anointed a canon of auteurs that expressly excluded him.
The fact that Wyler was content to be a showman did not preclude him from having a few expressive tics that show themselves in Counsellor at Law, a stagebound film that nonetheless allowed him to showcase some truly dazzling dialog. Further, sharing a Jewish background with Rice allowed Wyler to coach the badly miscast patrician John Barrymore to a halfway believable performance as a Jewish lawyer whose Lower East Side roots make his marriage to a blueblood with two children a decidely lopsided alliance.
In common with many films of the day, Counsellor at Law has the fast pace and snappy humor of a screwball comedy. Switchboard operator/receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) adopts a rat-a-tat, sing-song style to answer phone calls and greet clients that might have been less grating and more funny if it had been played with more of a Jewish spin to it. A controlled chaos within the office, underlined by Jewell’s manic delivery, conveys the rapid-fire business of the successful law practice of George Simon (Barrymore) and John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). Two Italian clients wait for Tedesco, peppering the dialog with their native language. Several people want to see Mr. Simon, including Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot), whom Simon has just defended successfully in a murder trial; Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein), a friend from the old neighborhood who wants Simon to defend her son Harry (director-to-be Vincent Sherman), who has been roughed up and arrested by the cops for making pro-Communist speeches; and Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Daily), a process server and investigator Simon rescued from a life of crime.
In one of his characteristic flourishes, Wyler teases the audience like another client waiting in line by keeping Simon out of sight; our lead-up to the “reveal” is Barrymore’s hands working the phones on his desk. When Barrymore finally appears, it seems designed to encourage applause, a frequent occurrence in the theatre when the big-name star makes his or her first entrance and a nod to the stage origins of the film. Over-the-shoulder shots with delayed reaction shots, a Wyler staple, also dot Counsellor at Law. The most effective one shows Harry standing, his fist clenched, when he hears Cora’s children disparage the working class. When we finally do see his beaten face wild with anger, Wyler switches to the children and moves slowly in on their frightened faces.
Among the clichés of the script is Simon’s hard-working, ultra-efficient secretary “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful, young woman whose unrequited love for her boss plays out in painful expressions every time she must interact with his snobbish wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) and her repeated rebuffs of law clerk Herbert Wineberg’s (Marvin Kline) too-frequent attempts to ask her out. Wineberg’s persistence is deeply annoying, but Daniels’ beautifully modulated distress and growing agitation make these scenes a somewhat harrowing experience.
Another cliché is Simon’s mother Lena (Clara Langsner), a patient, self-effacing Yiddishe mama who repeatedly answers “I’ve got all the time in the world” when she is kept waiting to see her son. Nonetheless, Wyler keeps Langsner from overdoing it or tipping over into melodrama when she tries to guilt Simon into helping his wastrel brother David out of yet another jam or offering a hurt look when she speaks with Cora and it becomes clear that she has not seen Cora’s children in some time. I got a delightful jolt when Barrymore called his brother a gonif (crook), a beautifully integrated Yiddish expression that almost made me forget Barrymore’s perfect British profile.
The disconnect between Barrymore’s appearance and his character was a serious handicap for me; indeed, I could have seen Melvyn Douglas, who played a rival for Cora’s affection, as a better choice to play George. Yet, Barrymore offered a kind of intensity that stayed kosher, and suggested the avarice of his profession without making it a stereotype of the grasping Jew. When he lathers over a potential $100,000 payday that would compromise a friend of his wife’s, his eyes could light half of Manhattan; however, like the doting Jewish husband, he lets the suit go to please Cora.
George has blinded himself to his real position in his family—Cora’s children from a previous marriage, Dorothy (Barbara Perry) and Richard Dwight (future director Richard Quine), disdain George and proudly declare their father is in Washington, DC, yet George persists in calling himself their father. When he learns that Cora is abandoning him, his despair goes a bit too big, but Wyler achieved the appropriate somberness by keeping Barrymore in the shadows and having Daniels interrupt his intended leap out a window in a very quick scene that doesn’t allow for too much mugging for the camera.
Many small comic moments brighten the film. For example, when the adults who see Dorothy and Richard unfailingly exclaim, “my, how you’ve grown,” or words to that effect, not only does young Richard predict their comments, but he also adds, “What do they expect us to do? Get smaller?” Wise-cracking Bessie insults an inattentive boyfriend with, “Sure I missed you—like Booth missed Lincoln.” Middle-aged, ample secretary Goldie Rindskopf (Angela Jacobs) moves languidly through the office, her broad beam a vision of delight for the two Italians and a thoroughly refreshing, if superficial look at the sex appeal of an older woman.
Rice studied and practiced law for a short while, and his jaundiced view of the profession, from the emotional tricks and fake alibis that help lawyers get criminals acquitted, to the lobbying on behalf of big business and the flexible fees to cover losses, gets a full airing in the actions of George Simon. Class conflict is also well represented in the scenario, but anti-Semitism is only vaguely alluded to. Rice had seen the rise of the Nazis during a trip to Germany in 1932, but with only a few exceptions—most notably, the films of Frank Borzage—the studios stayed far away from the impending calamity; Counsellor at Law is no exception. Nonetheless, George Simon remains a fairly sympathetic character, and the subtext of presumed Aryan superiority represented by Cora and her set gives this film the kind of meat a thorough professional like Wyler could sink his teeth into.
“For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.” —Alfred Hitchcock
I won’t kid you—doing a fundraising blogathon is not a piece of cake. There are months of planning, hours of reading, writing, and linking, moments of great joy and great frustration. In the end, however, these blogathons really are as sweet as German chocolate cake and far more filling for the mind and soul. For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III is over, and everyone who was part of it can sleep the sleep of the righteous. You did good!
We had 208 posts in six days from 112 bloggers. We raised $6,490, which tops last year’s total and helps the National Film Preservation Foundation get a running start on reaching the $15,000 they need to premiere The White Shadow.
I’m going to give it to you straight. According to Annette Melville, the executive director of NFPF, “The NFPF is humbled and very pleased by the outpouring of support from around the world. While this is not enough money for the NFPF to present the web premiere this fall, it is a great start. We can’t host materials that are not ready to present. There is no presentable digital copy of the film now. We have to raise sufficient money to make a digital copy, record the new score, pay the composer and musician, mix the score, and lay it down to the digital copy, in addition to the web hosting. That is why the goal was $15,000. We hope to raise these funds over the next few months but don’t have them now. Plans are afoot but cannot be finalized until we have all the necessary money.”
Because Rod, Farran, and I don’t wish to emulate the endless pledge drives on public television, we will not be asking for any more donations. The blogathon is over, and it was an unqualified success as far as we are concerned. The quality of the posts was unparalleled in blogathon history, a true privilege to link to and read—a job I’m not quite done with. I’m sure, dear readers, you aren’t either, and that’s something we’d really like you to finish. Comment, post to Facebook, tweet, do whatever you feel is appropriate to express your appreciation for the ones you like most. Every donation link will remain live, and with any luck, we’ll get a few more donations from more delighted readers.
Congratulations to the following donors who won our random drawings:
Shannon Fitzpatrick has won an autographed copy of Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself.
Rebecca Naughten will receive an autographed copy of Betty Jo Tucker’s Confessions of a Movie Addict.
Peter Nellhaus is about to be the new owner of the French Notorious poster.
Aurora Bugallo has won the photo of Alfred Hitchcock and the giant telephone.
Treasures DVDs from the NFPF go to Jill Blake, Thomas Bolda, Kenji Fujishima, Catherine Grant, Katherine Kehoe, and Lee Price.
Our thanks to the NFPF, Donna Hill, Betty Jo Tucker, and Roger Ebert for their generous contributions of these raffle prizes.
Finally, to quote from Hitch again, “A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.” I sincerely hope you enjoyed our party and found it worth your time and money.
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III DONATE TODAY!
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
By Paroma Chatterjee
Welcome guest blogger Roma Chatterjee.
“Let me go! Let me go!” screams Lina right at the beginning of the radio play, Suspicion, made barely a year after the film. No introduction, no lead-up to the characters, no sense of place; just a woman shouting frantically at her assailant.
If the play darts straight to its point without wasting a minute, the film saunters along, gazing at the flowers, humming a tune, until it is surprised (repeatedly) by dark shadows on its ambles. We meet Lina and Johnny on a train, at a hunt, at Lina’s house, and on the way to a church, until we get to those climactic words, “Let me go! Let me go!” The first 15 minutes or so of the film read suspiciously like a drawing – room comedy. The characters make small talk, pose for a local photographer, flirt on their way to church until, without the slightest warning, we cut to the top of a hill where a man and a woman seemingly struggle for dear life. Articles of clothing fly off, one after the other, and the fact that none of them denude the woman in the least, takes away nothing from the unexpected violence of the scene. The music, chirpily bucolic until this moment, soars and sustains its pitch, a suitable analogue to the height of the hill, and the goings-on on top of it.
Barely a minute later – nay, less – the struggle is over. The man teases the woman with talk (again, of the small variety). We are back in the realm of light comedy. There is an infinitesimal moment when the comic threatens to shade into something more richly erotic a la Hitchcock, when Lina says that Johnny “need not touch” her “ucipital mapilary”, but the moment is undone no sooner than it begins. Johnny blithely messes with (and messes up) Lina’s hair, and that is that.
Why would Hitchcock, for whom every scene counted, insert such ostensibly superfluous business in this film? Oh, one could argue that each moment, no matter how inconsequential, only adds yet another nuance to Johnny’s superbly insouciant amorality, that each scene goes toward heightening the layers of suspicion that surround and threaten to overwhelm Lina in the second half. And yet the gravity of the “light” episodes in Suspicion are still worth some thought. In no other picture did Hitchcock extend these as much. No other work of his, to my mind, teeters so precariously on the line between mild comedy and full-blown drama.
And, I suggest, that that is part of the very suspense generated by Suspicion. This suspense does not simply consist of us, the audience, wondering with Lina how much farther Johnny will go – whether he’ll cross the milestone from cheating at cards to mercenary seduction, from confidence-trick(st)-ing to embezzlement, from embezzlement to murder. It is also the audience wondering when the cinematic codes capturing each of those misdemeanours will shift, when a melody played by an orchestra will become a tune, whistled nonchalantly – and with a touch of menace – by a feckless young man, when a bland churchyard peopled by worthy parishioners will transform itself into a windswept hill with a couple, fiercely locked, at its summit.
Suspicion reiterates this effect constantly. In the process, it triggers off suspense even in those arenas of life that do not, on the surface, seem to merit it. Right up until Lina elopes with Johnny, suspense resides in whether Johnny will ever call Lina again, if he’ll ever write to her (remark the scene in which Lina keeps asking the postmistress if there’s a letter for her, if it has been misplaced), if he even remembers her. Suspense animates, if in a rather more humorous vein, the story Johnny will come up with to explain the disappearance of those priceless chairs that are Lina’s family heirlooms. There is an interesting and surely deliberate resemblance between this scene and an earlier one in Lina’s father’s study, when Lina and Johnny run away from the ball. When they kiss, the camera moves from their left profile all the way to their right. It doesn’t envelope the lovers completely; it merely offers us both sides of that osculatory exchange. It is the only prolonged kiss between the two in the entire film – a strange phenomenon, as Lina is passionately in love with Johnny in every sense of that word, and Hitch was certainly not one to shy away from exploring erotic obsession. But this picture doesn’t delve deep in that sphere.
There’s a point to that lone, long kiss, nonetheless. When his foolishly amiable friend Beak, goads Johnny into telling him and Lina what happened to those chairs, Johnnie is shown moving from the mantelpiece on the right in a half-sphere toward the left, behind the sofa. It is the other half of the sphere described by the camera during their kiss, its delayed counterpart, if you will. In both cases, Lina and Johnny are accompanied by a third person, even though the dramatic content of the scene involves just the two of them. (In the case of the kiss, they are constantly surveyed by the portrait of Lina’s father in full military regalia.) As Johnny moves, the audience can literally see him trying to decide whether to evade the question of the chairs altogether or whether to come up with a lie so thumpingly good as to be applauded as the truth. This is the cross Johnny bears throughout the picture – he is continuously being put on the spot as a performer. Being a good liar takes skill and patience, after all, for his story must convince.
If Johnny’s persuasive powers (including his innate charm) are constantly put to the test against Lina’s burgeoning suspicions, then Lina herself is measured against her doubts. How well does she bear up under them? What does an ever-thickening mist of suspicion literally do to a person?
In Lina’s case, one cannot help but notice that for all her inner anguish, she looks better for them. Clothes, especially female apparel, was stuff that Hitchcock took seriously. In the second half of Suspicion, Lina looks every bit the belle of the ball. Her clothes get darker (she is in mourning for her father), and her figure is more pronounced. Her evening dress when she puts together the word, “M-U-R-D-E-R-E-R”, is magnificent – simple, sophisticated, and with a very low, very elegant neck. I was tempted to ask upon my fourth or fifth viewing whether Lina deliberately made up this fantasy of a scoundrel-spouse precisely so it would enhance her attractions. It is almost as though Hitch is suggesting that suspense – living with it, responding to its shadows – can make us sexier! Not a bad campaigning point for one whose livelihood was based on it.
And speaking of sexy, what are we to make of the fact that Lina wears reading glasses? This certainly doesn’t impede Johnny from flirting with her, though she hastily tears them off when he shows up at her house. All through the narrative, when she must read a telegram, a newspaper, or a letter, Lina looks at the piece of paper, adjusts its distance somewhat, then fumbles for her glasses. The few seconds that it takes for Lina’s sense of vision to come through, clear and unobstructed, correspond to the sudden changes of register from the comic to the dramatic that punctuate the entire picture. A telegram turns out to be an entirely unexpected missive from Johnny that draws Lina out of the depths of depression into ecstatic expectancy; an innocuous newspaper sows the seeds of suspicion that Johnny murdered Beaky; a mundane letter from the insurance company convinces Lina that she will be Johnny’s next victim. The reading glasses thus become instruments signaling a series of vital changes in the narrative, never mind if some of the changes they effect are erroneous perceptions on Lina’s part.
Which brings me to the final coup of the film: the ride in the car when Lina fears that Johnny will somehow push her over the precipice. (As a friend of mine commented, the “chaser” and self-proclaimed “chase-ee” occupy the same space and the same shot here, quite cozily, even though one of them is terrified out of her wits). When it comes to these sweeping vistas – the top of the hill, the steep drop to the sea below, the winding roads – Lina doesn’t require her glasses. She isn’t called upon to read anything, though she does, insistently and maniacally. She spins her own narrative parallel to the one that is being played out, reading the various signs her life with Johnny have thrown at her. The original ending, of course, revealed that Lina’s made-up narrative coincided perfectly with the “real-life” narrative, that Johnnie was indeed a merry ladykiller. Although the ending of Suspicion as we know it today is a let-down, I’d suggest that in one (albeit feeble) way, it maintains a marvelous spring of tension: it carries Lina’s obsessive “reading” to the point where she manages, for a few moments, to force the “real life” story to coincide with the one in her head. She actually almost falls out of the car, with no help from Johnny.
What follows are the weakest moments of an otherwise quite brilliant and unexpected narrative. Can the “happy ending” be attributed to yet another twist of the plot? Can we read it as the “ever-after” for Lina and Johnny, the two basking in mutual trust and assistance for the rest of their lives? Or is this a brief hiatus that will transmute into another series of suspicions?
Happy Mother’s Day, blogosphere! After you pick out a nice bunch of flowers for your mom, we’d love to have you join us as we celebrate the biggest mother of a party the Internet has ever known: For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III.
The first Film Preservation Blogathon raised funds to help the National Film Preservation Foundation repatriate and restore The Sergeant and The Better Man, two of the more than 100 silent-era American films found in New Zealand Film Archive. Both films are available on the NFPF Treasures 5: The West box set, which will be among the prizes that will be raffled at random to 10 lucky donors. The second Blogathon raised funds to help the Film Noir Foundation restore blacklisted director Cy Endfield’s 1950 film The Sound of Fury. The restoration will begin in January 2013, and the film will repremiere at NOIR CITY 12 in San Francisco in 2014.
This year’s event has us working with the good people at NFPF again, and the theme this year is ACCESS. Among the trove of films found in New Zealand were three reels of the 1923 melodrama The White Shadow. Directed by Graham Cutts, it was also the first film Alfred Hitchcock had a major role in creating (assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, set decorator). The film was restored in New Zealand and repremiered by AMPAS last September at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. If you weren’t there, you’re probably sitting around hoping some repertory theater near you will book it so you can see it.
Silent film scorer extraordinaire Michael Mortilla
That’s where we come in. NFPF is committed to making many of the films they have rescued available for cost-free viewing by streaming them on their website. But online hosting ain’t cheap. NFPF estimates that it will cost $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months and record the marvelous new score written for it by Michael Mortilla. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice.
And without further ado, that’s exactly what we plan to do for the next six days. I’ll be your host today and tomorrow, and then this floating fundraising festival moves to Farran Smith Nehme’s blog Self-Styled Siren. My esteemed blog partner, Rod Heath, will host the final two days at his solo blog This Island Rod.
Remember, this is a fundraising blogathon. Run around the Internet and read all the amazing posts from the knowledgable film blogathoners who will be participating and DONATE today! Several lucky donors will win some great prizes in our random drawing, including Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself!
I’ve had my morning Coffee, coffee, and more coffee served by Peter Nellhaus as he takes a look at the Korean film M, which may have been inspired by a dream about Hitchcock.
Josh Zyber talks about a famous glass of milk and more at Hi Def Digest. Welcome to the blogathon, Josh. We look forward to reading your afternoon post!
Allan Fish, great champion of early cinema who blogs at Wonders in the Dark, has come up with a truly stellar post on lost films he’d most like to have back, focusing attention on the preservation mission of this blogathon. It’s an honor, Allan.
Sean Gilman has honored us with another post on The End of Cinema. Today, he takes a look at Hitch’s Stage Fright, with a story built on a lie.
The Hitchcock kiss is the subject of Hind Mezaina‘s second contribution. Take a look at her blog The Culturist and enjoy!
Casey Maddren has a very interesting post on the film preservation resources and results in Mexico’s film industry at her blog Reality Is Scary. A very unique and useful post, Casey. Thanks!
Cinema Sight‘s Wesley Lovell, Peter J. Patrick and Tripp Burton are counting down their 10 favorite Hitchcock films all week. Great insight into the tastes of three great film critics!
WB Kelso is back with more Hitch ads on Scenes from the Morgue. Up today are Saboteur and Frenzy, and then a drive-in double-feature of To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Wow!
WB Kelso also graces us with a thoughtful look at Saboteur at Micro-Brewed Reviews, a cool site with a great banner! Check it out.
Leticia at Critica Retro is our first foreign-language contributor. Her Brazil-based blog (with translator button) discusses the film lost-and-found business, including the amazing discovery of missing footage from Metropolis. Le is only 18 years old and interested in silent and classic film. Bravo e obrigado, Le!
Christianne Benedict of Krell Laboratories is back with another great post, this time on the Robert Bloch book that formed the basis for Psycho, and the movie’s own inventions. “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly!”
Danny Miller posts his inaugural contribution to the blogathon at MSN’s Hitlist with a profile of color film pioneer Natalie Kalmus.
Today’s winner of a DVD box set from NFPF is Katherine Kehoe. Thanks for your donation today, Katherine!
Kicking off our blogathon right here on Ferdy on Films is Rod Heath with an amazing post on arguably the best film Alfred Hitchcock ever made: Vertigo.
John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows offers a great rundown of Hitch’s The 39 Steps, with fascinating ads, production styles, and a fabulous production history. Terrific post, John! Thanks!
Darren Mooney at The MOvie Blog goes into Hitch’s television vault to present a truly masterful account of an episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Revenge.” Great stuff, Darren. And in his second post of the day, Darren reviews another Alfred Hitchcock Presents program, “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Our good friend Peter Nellhaus has poured us a great cuppa at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee: a screencap that features a certain director making his usual cameo appearance. Thanks, Peter!
Bob Fergusson at Allure has provided one of my favorite kinds of posts: posters of a number of Hitchcock films in other languages. Check it out!
The marvelous Lee Price is contributing to the cause at his blog 21 Essays with a look at Hitch and another British director you might have heard of, Michael Powell, working on Blackmail.
The great David Cairns at one of my favorite blogs Shadowplay joins the fun with a little bit of Hitch, a little bit of Cutts, and one of silent-era heartthrobs, Ivor Novella. Go see his Sunday Intertitle feature and enjoy!
Ron Deutsch is the Chef du Cinema, and has he cooked up a feast for us. Not one, but three Hitchcocks, with recipes to match! DO try this at home, folks.
Actors responses to taking direction from Hitch. My illustrious blogathon partner Farran Smith Nehme has all the amusing anecdotes at Self-Styled Siren.
Our buddy Larry Aydlette proves that a picture is worth 1,000 words, or that several pictures are worth several 1,000 words in his case, at a tumbler he created especially for the blogathon: Hitchcock: Dial S for Sensuality.
Sean Gilman is spending one week with Hitchcock and us at The End of Cinema. He starts with seven films considered lesser Hitchcock efforts.
Old movies aren’t the only things that need restoration. Hind Mezaina has posted a short video on her Dubai-based The Culturist about restoring old Hitchcock posters!
Hitchcock and Lorre: kind of goes together like ax and murderer. Over at Grand Old Movies is a thorough account of the fruitful collaboration of these two men. Don’t miss it!
John Weagley offers us an amusing vignette on the Hitchcock Blonde. Go enjoy over at Captain Spauling on Skull Island!
Our good friend Pat Perry has graced us with a fine post on Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Go check it out at Doodad Kind of Town!
The generous and talented fellow Valentino fan Donna Hill has graced us with a post on Hitchcock moms this Mother’s Day over at Strictly Vintage Hollywood. Thanks, Donna!
Kirk Jusko has offered us a front row seat at his blog Ancient Celluloid for his look at Rear Window. Welcome to the party, Kirk!
WB Kelso from Scenes from the Morgue (newspaper, that is) is back this year with vintage ads for Rear Window, North by Northwest, and The 39 Steps. Nice to see you again, WB!
Film critic Betty Jo Tucker reminds us that Hitch wasn’t an overnight sensation by discussing some of his early flops at Memosaic. Welcome aboard, Betty Jo!
Jason Hedrick of Ecstatic is thrilled to be a part of his first Film Preservation Blogathon. Show him we appreciate it by reading and commenting on his Instant 3 picks, which include Hitchcock’s early film The Manxman.
Charissa Faire understand the stakes in this blogathon as she talks about her most-coveted lost film 4 Devils, directd by F.W. Murnau. Learn more about film preservation at her terrific blog devoted to silent film, The Loudest Voice.
Sean Axmaker has provided us with a valuable post at MSN/Videodrone on the silent films of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney that, fortunately, have been preserved and are available for viewing. That’s what we hope will happen with more films. Thanks, Sean!
It’s always great to have Buckey Grimm, a man who really knows his film preservation, participating. Take a look at his Mindless Meanderings for more on what preservationists do.
We are absolutely thrilled to have a student film archivist blogging for the blogathon. Kimberlee at the AMIA Student Chapter at UCLA has posted an intriguing essay on fashion designer Carolina Herrara and her work’s connection to Vertigo. This is a unique and fantastic essay you won’t want to miss!
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
By Roderick Heath
It’s a long fall into sonorous places, where fetish and film, love and murder, mind and body, disguise and internal truth are all thrown into an ecstatic flux, even as all seems composed with the finest artistic lucidity. It’s a film seemingly situated directly on the nexus at which cinema ultimately converges, in the taunting image with its charge of elusive sensuality, the obsessive hunt for visual perfection, a reconstructed reality filled with trapped moments of time, overwhelming and always intangible. It’s the height of screen romanticism, a swooning vision of emotion as a world-shaping, and world-warping, force, filled with aching emotional immediacy. It’s a bleak and nasty study in varieties of neurosis, misogyny, and folie-a-deux perversity. It’s a triumph of mythopoeic construction and exposition. It’s a thriller and a mystery that subverts most every familiar imperative of those forms. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s Hitchcock, it’s Vertigo.
Hitchcock’s style and persona had begun generating an increasing number of imitators by 1958, and he was working out his black-witted joker side more thoroughly on TV. Many artists would start to feel thinly stretched at such a time, but for Hitchcock, it seemed to liberate something within him. Vertigo followed one of his occasional shifts of gear, with the impressive but compromised realism of The Wrong Man (1957). Vertigo swung to an opposite pole of pure expression, and represented Hitchcock’s entry into one of the most dizzying runs of cinema in history: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds(1963), and Marnie (1964) followed. Those four films, alternately playful, ruthless, apocalyptic, and homeopathic, all to a certain extent revisit, revise, and contend with the implications of Vertigo, a work essayed in a state of dream-logic. The film that is probably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed work today, if not at the time of release, was based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the bleakly witty duo who had previously provided source material for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1954), the film rights to which Hitchcock had only been beaten out for by a few hours. Whereas Clouzot had turned their patented narrative style, always cunningly morbid and usually sporting a nasty, head-spinning twist, into one his customarily icy, carefully paced studies in moral rot espoused in material terms, Vertigo embraced the mythical element of the novel’s patterning after the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, as well as transforming it into the tale of a psychological haunting. Hitchcock’s volatile, kinky, romantic streak had always been lurking in his films through the ’40s and early ’50s, where characters chain themselves to people they despise or want to possess so thoroughly that they try to exterminate them, in dances of sadomasochistic emotion.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock left himself and his creative process newly exposed: indeed, “exposed” is the word that constantly flitted through my thoughts in my most recent viewing. Hitch offered up his seminal fetish of the chic, aloof, yet tantalisingly sensual blonde as a constructed, crumbling fantasy, and deliberately hacked off familiar and reassuring resolutions for his tale, leaving only its singular, central matter at hand to be played out to the bitterest end. The feeling of exposure is acutely realised as antiheroine Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) awakens stripped nude by a man she doesn’t know in a strange place, an unclothing that precedes a process of creating an artificial version of a presumably real person, a process that rips away a veil and leaves an ugly truth all too visible. The opening, which only sports one superfluous line of dialogue, sees a criminal pursued by two policemen, one in uniform (Fred Graham), the other, Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), across the rooftops high above San Francisco, a flat plane that soon gives way to chasms over which Scottie finds himself dangling by his fingertips. The pursuit of the criminal is left off; the uniformed cop returns to help but plunges accidentally to his death, leaving Scottie still hanging, how he escaped this fate ever unclear. Instead he has his first attack of vertigo, a delirium where the bottom seems to drop out of the world, leaving Scottie transfixed by the spectacle. The film’s circular structure sees these elements repeat in the finale, and the sensation that Scottie never actually escaped, in a sort of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge variation, is neither specifically suggested nor entirely dispelled. The narrative and visualisation return obsessively to the familiar dream-state terror of falling: Scottie’s semi-crucified pose at the end recreates his dream of plummeting into hell.
Set in a San Francisco rendered as eerie and depopulated as Val Lewton’s New York, splayed out as a sharply relieved topographical map of its hero’s terribly cracked mind, Vertigo provoked audiences of the time, and still does, by shifting from an eerie mystery to a patient study in psychopathology. It reveals the destructive flipside to the romantic-idealising cocoon, essayed in the same high Technicolor terms as the contemporaneous works of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli; lush, aestheticized, antirealistic worlds all the better for penetrating the overtaxed 1950s psyche. Working from an uncommonly good script by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor with some help from Maxwell Anderson, Hitchcock, by giving his game away early (not that it’s hard to spot), turns the film into the very opposite of the Shyamalan-style twist, as the moment of realisation is dreaded rather than anticipated, and the trap binds both characters and audience, forcing the latter to fear what its protagonist might do when the truth comes out. As a reversal of expectation, it’s as perturbing as those in Psycho, but subtler in method and effect: just as Psycho jars with rapid alternations of protagonist and forced changes in attitude to them, so, too, does Vertigo take his hero from lost Quixote to crucified dupe to vengeful sadist.
Scottie’s early entrance into the realm of the dead leaves him crippled: physically, yes, but he recovers from that, but also mentally, his vertigo now a powerful impediment and one that demands he give up his former life. He has a pally, gregarious, but faintly uneasy relationship with former fiancé Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), first glimpsed painting ads for brassieres, crouching with pregnant boding over her work as Hitchcock dives in for an electric close-up, redolent of a later deep-focus shot of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds, where the seemingly blasé quality of the subject is charged with painful interior intensity. The cocktail of emotions within Midge is thus encoded in one precise moment: regret over an opportunity thrown away balanced by a probing, cautious appraisal of whether this was a good or bad move, and awareness that the march of time is rendering alternatives increasingly unlikely. Scottie’s status as middle-aged flunk-out sees him facing a future without apparent purpose. He’s ripe in his phobia for the plots of former college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now smoothly ensconced in the plutocracy. Elster wants him to follow his wife Madeleine, who is supposedly haunted by an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, destroyed by passion and misogyny a century before. Madeleine possess the allure of the unknown, of a kind of unobtainable, ethereal sensuality sheathed in an aura of detachment from the present that a man as fundamentally romantic and isolated as Scottie is cannot resist. She’s also everything that Midge, who, with her gawky glasses, her association with a tawdry, commercialised modern version of sexuality, and her curiously maternal way of holding Scottie when he nearly collapses from a bout of vertigo, is not.
Vertigo has its debts, of course: Hitchcock, a cineaste’s cineaste, was surely keeping Lewton’s films, William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jenny (1945), Luis Buñuel’s El (1953), and possibly even the film that made him want to be a moviemaker, Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), in mind. In such progenitors, the preternatural forces of psychological desperation and wilfulness warp reality, and symbols of Freudian fluency multiply. Vertigo seems to tease falsely with promises of the supernatural, from the haze of the otherworldly that hovers around Madeleine in her early cemetery visit to the green light that is the chrysalis for the reborn Madeleine in Judy’s hotel room. One of the most strange and disorienting moments comes when Scottie follows Madeleine from a back alley into an unknown building, a brief trip through a shadowy labyrinth that resolves when Scottie opens a door to catch sight of his quarry in the midst of a flower shop, a commercial space transformed into a sea of impressionistic colour outside of reality, with Madeleine a spindle of spectral grey and platinum amidst a wealth of fecundity. This pretext of the unearthly is nominally in place to pull a fast one for a plot involving very corporeal murder and conspiracy, and yet by the end, the uncanny texture has not dissipated, though the film becomes bruising in its immediacy: the motifs of haunting, possession, unseen forces, of the past’s death grip on the present, of romantic period melodramas of tragic ladies and imperious men, are all revealed, far from being remote, unreal, and storybook, as literal and dangerous.
Scottie’s attempts to play the white knight of centred male rationality to save suicidal damsel in distress Madeleine backfires, not simply in leading her to the place where death is predestined to occur, but in his incapacity to discern the way forces beyond the literal and apparent can shape people and events. The notion of individuals acting out not merely parts required for a murder plot but something far more primeval runs into seemingly obvious Freudianisms like Madeleine tracking down Scottie’s apartment thanks to the eternally phallic Coit Tower: just as Madeleine embodies a feminine archetype, so does Scottie as a man—any man, everyman. To learn the truth, Scottie has to repeat the same death-dance that Elster and Madeline, Carlotta and the “rich man” (he has no name: the rich are always with us), and, by implication, a multitude of men and women have repeated over and over, in a tötentanz. Hitchcock’s roots in German Expressionism were showing again, and there’s Wagner in the score, to boot. As the story moves in a circular fashion whilst seeming to move forward, so, too, does time and human identity: both Elster and Scottie step into the role of Carlotta’s husband in their quests, albeit for very different reasons, whilst Carlotta, the real Madeleine, Judy’s false Madeleine and Judy herself all play the maiden dancing before the bulls. When Scottie goes to meet Elster for the first time, the businessman speaks wistfully of an old San Francisco of “color, excitement…power…freedom.” These words sound like the admissions of another romantic nostalgic like Scottie, but they soon turn out to have rather different meanings, as the narrative’s spirit-guide, city folklorist and bookseller Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne) specifically defines the kind of power wielded by men like Elster to be the power to kick a woman aside like refuse.
This is precisely what Elster does to his own wife, the most enigmatic figure in the drama, a woman who only exists for Scottie in a purified, ritualised form, through the approximation filled out by Judy. Mirrors recur constantly throughout the film, not simply evoking the interplay of false surfaces and the act of looking, but, as Jean Cocteau also did in his version of the Orpheus myth, lending the mirrors a numinous power as portals. In one vital scene, in which Scottie spies on Madeleine in the flower shop through a slightly opened door, a mirror on the door places his face in darkness and hers surrounded by riotous blossoms, all contained in the same shot, inviting Scottie to leave behind the busy workaday world he’s just come out of and enter a rarefied realm of beauty and decay—or perhaps the opposite, as Madeleine will stumble into Scottie’s personal underworld. Later, again in a shop, as Judy begins to acquiesce to Scottie’s desire to remake her, the duo appear, locked in a twinning image as each now begins a shift in identity. As Scottie begins his pursuit of Madeleine, he is framed creeping through a graveyard, low-angle shots revealing the church steeples over his head: fate is encaging him already, as Madeleine drifts in Vaseline-infused eeriness. On top of everything else, Vertigo, now the quintessential San Francisco movie, is uniquely cunning in the way it sees Hitchcock’s usual device of using famous locales as settings for suspense here carefully rebuilding the city’s tourist-board tropes—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor—into stations of a private mythology, markers in a tale of desperate wanderings and the search for identity.
Everything becomes charged with a significance in this world, from the paintings that enclose secret meanings and reflect essential, half-sensed truths for the attentive, to Madeleine’s subsequent pause before the waters of the Golden Gate to crumble a bouquet into the bay, perhaps the film’s most famous image, possessing an intangible, atavistic power. Of course, in America there is no boatman for the River Styx, but rather a suspension bridge suddenly transmuted into a totem as weightless and fragile as the equally totemic petals that Madeleine casts into the waters, followed by herself. In a sequoia forest, as silent and reverential as any cathedral, Madeleine tries to measure her “past” life as Carlotta upon the rings of a sequoia cross-section upon which other markers of history passing are fixed—the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence—triumphs of the official version of history, inimical as that often is to subtler truths. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called history the nightmare from which he was trying to wake up, but in Vertigo, the nightmare is ongoing, inescapable. Scottie’s nightmare, which precipitates his total collapse after Madeleine’s death, ends without a sense of awakening, but rather, as Scottie sits up, grief and fear afire in his eyes, it’s plain that the dream has invaded his life.
Just as individuals create chains of behaviour that result in recurring tragedy, contemporary California rests on a colonial background, an older world transposed onto new shores and almost—but not quite—smothered by the modern, still glimmering through the haze, much like the tell-tale sign that is the necklace which finally enlightens Scottie, and the small, preserved Mission San Juan Bautista becomes the crux of colliding past and present. Such motifs evoke not only the secret, mostly subsumed, yet still lingering hints of a past based in invasion and forcible claiming of a foreign land, something that’s not supposed to haunt America but does, and also of spiritual reckonings, as the ghostly black shape that looms out of the darkness that causes the very last ironic tragedy proves not to be a ghost or a killer, but a nun, incarnation of a judgement that falls on everyone.
Vertigo contains scenes that are near-unbearable to sit through, not because of any overt violence, but rather the sense of interpersonal pain and pathos they provoke. Hitchcock always had the gift for creating such moments, and those here are as acute in their understanding of the potential for cruelty that is the flipside of exposing one’s self in affection as the wince-provoking scene in Rebecca (1940) in which Joan Fontaine’s heroine, expecting to delight with her dress copied from an old painting, is instead the figure of revulsion and rage. Midge’s attempt to goad Scottie by placing herself into the painting of Carlotta, an act of Dadaist satire and emotional revenge in the guise of a joke, clearly resembles that scene from Rebecca, and works similarly like nails on a chalkboard for Scottie. Inserting Midge’s clunky glasses into the lush classicism of the painting violates the texture of romanticism and provocative sensuality radiated by the enshrined exotic woman of beauty and calamity with the precise sensation of a desecration. Midge’s self-castigating frenzy after Scottie leaves is dismaying, not simply because it’s so easy to empathise with her sense of losing her last grip on Scottie through a naked, passive-aggressive play for his affection, but also because she had a point: Scottie’s attachment to the ethereal mystery woman will destroy both him and the woman. Whilst Rebecca is often seen as one of Hitchcock’s less personal films because he had producer David Selznick’s foot on his neck, it clearly offered up motifs of inestimable power to Hitchcock, and he essays many of them again here—evocative paintings, borrowed apparel, love objects both conflated and tauntingly dissimilar, vertiginous heights, the mysticism of the coast, and the half-maniacal, half-distraught male protagonist. But whereas Rebecca’s Max de Winter fought tooth and nail to prevent his lower-class, young bride from coming to resemble the deceased former idol who still haunts him, Scottie does the opposite, attempting to effect the perfect recreation, as Orpheus becomes Pygmalion. Judy, however, gives in for the same reason that Fontaine’s heroine did, as the allure and promise of transformation seems to guarantee a love that is elusive and painful, evoking in folkloric terms Hans Anderson’s original Little Mermaid, who, giving up her natural state to join the world of men and play the mate, must live with the constant sensation of knives slicing into her feet.
Similarly difficult to sit through is Midge’s last attempt to reach Scottie in the pit of his psychological collapse, and her exit from the film. The crucial last act as Scottie begins the process of remaking Judy into Madeleine. The essential similarity of this movement to the process of creating a movie star, and even more specifically to Hitchcock’s own attempts to mould a string of starlets into the “Hitchcock Blonde,” gives it a special pungency, but it’s hard to enough to watch without such meta-narrative concerns, in the precise interplay of Scottie’s obsessiveness and Judy’s masochism.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once persuasively reevaluated Novak’s career to point out how conscientious she was, and through her, the filmmakers who utilised her, that her aura of glamour was false, and that she had a working-class Chicago background. She let the audience glimpse the disparity all the time. Novak told a story about her first screen test where the director said to others watching it, “Don’t listen to her, just look.” It’s hard to think of an anecdote that summarises more precisely the contempt for the actual person behind the façade of beauty fetishized by Hollywood, and the tension of this lies behind Novak’s performance here as Hitchcock explores the process. Hitchcock’s later professed dissatisfaction with Novak only solidifies how apt the casting was, for he could not end up with a new Grace Kelly, but rather an actress who makes the audience conscious of her not being Grace Kelly. Robert Aldrich later used Novak in his even more hysterically self-analytical The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), in which a film director moulds her character into a precise recreation of a long-dead movie idol. Novak’s performance here is a masterpiece of behavioural acting, most acute when Judy-as-Judy first enters the film. Novak contrasts the floating movements of Judy-as-Madeleine, so apparently blithe that she can vanish when Scottie looks away, with the tigerish way Judy backs off from Scottie when he penetrates her hotel room for the first time. Novak reveals her alertness to the distinct difference between the Brahmin Madeleine and the plebeian Judy, in her physical vulnerability and the entirely different way of moving, feeling, and sensing this entails. The fatal move Judy makes in returning to Madeleine is in surrendering this sovereign force.
When Scottie takes Judy out to dinner for the first time, returning to the restaurant where he first saw Madeleine to more deeply test the accuracy of Judy’s facsimile of his lost love, the way she gauchely drains her liquor shows she is both aware of and signals her gaucheness and communicates a subtle but lethal observation: Judy can no longer be just Judy because it entails another kind of acting, playing up the pretence of being the shopgirl from the remote wastes of the Midwest, even as Judy longs to be loved by Scottie in and for herself. Now, she will always be two people, a fact finally elucidated as she becomes Madeleine again and all her mannerisms shift. Her decision to risk being found out goes beyond simple willingness to risk her life for her love, for her character has been left as permanently fragmented as Scottie’s. The final revelation that Judy is, in a peculiar way, innocent of murder even though she is complicit, gives the finale its last ingredient for tragedy. Her final rush from Scottie’s arms to ascend the fateful church steeple was a last-minute and hopeless tilt at saving them both by saving the “real” Madeleine, who Elster has already killed before he hurls her body away.
Just as Judy is not entirely guilty, Scottie becomes increasingly less innocent in his subjecting her to the ritual of exorcism by again ascending the tower, hauling her up the stairs with a savage exultancy to his anguish. Novak as Judy lets her capacious breasts hang freely under a sweater whilst her face is overly made-up to lend her a cheap and brassy ring that is nonetheless less far more earthy-seeming; Madeleine’s passively blank façade gives way to the lynx-like tilt Judy’s face offers as she wards off Scottie. Whereas in Rebecca, Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), and later in The Birds and Marnie, Hitchcock was willing to suggest, with differing amplitudes and intentions, a protean sexuality underlying the drama, here, same-sex attractions are kept out of the equation. The tale becomes rather a passion play for the way men see women and women see themselves through men, therefore ironically drawing out even more precisely the element so prized by camp aesthetics—a heightened awareness of the construction of femininity through carefully wrought signifiers.
Stewart’s career-best performance as Scottie is a thing of awful beauty, shifting his character from a neurotic, but avuncular presence in early scenes to an excruciatingly single-minded zombie in the later sequences: even when he’s oppressive and frightening, it’s still all too easy to empathise with Scottie’s sense of howling disillusionment, aggrieved rage, and still-guttering desire for a lost ideal. Like Norman Bates, a much more overtly mad and homicidal antihero, Scottie is an attempt by Hitchcock to explore more deeply a unity of opposites, hero and villain, victim and perpetrator, always constantly lurking under his variations on the “wrong man” tales. Like Norman, the battle sees Scottie reduced to a virtual catatonic, locked like a bodhisattva in a state of profound collapse, personality and perspective in total flux, and like Norman, he engages in an extended act of perverse ventriloquism for a dead woman. Unlike Norman, Scottie emerges from his crisis, but his end is scarcely any better. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in Vertigo is the brief window between Judy’s transformation back in Madeleine, and Scottie’s realisation that she was her all along and the hideous joke that’s been played on him. Scottie is at his most relaxed and good-humoured since the start of the film, and Judy is newly joyous. This idyll lasts about 30 seconds, but the pull it exerts is powerful, as it suggests that both of them have actually found the happiness they sought. Yet here Hitchcock is at his most consciously unremitting: the illusion, however gratifying, most immediately crumbles. As Judy realises where Scottie is taking her, her acute discomfort is well-founded (has anyone done a survey of the many scenes in Hitchcock’s films where people have dramatically telling trips in cars together?), and Scottie, in his moment of exorcism and revelation, becomes the animal, wolfish and savage, Judy now cowering like a rabbit until he exhausts himself and gives in to her entreaty, but fate still has its very last card to pull. Unlike his counterpart in Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, Scottie does not murder Judy to close the circle, but instead puts her in the place of the dead woman, and whilst her death is accidental, Scottie is still irredeemably tethered to Judy’s sad end and can only hover on the edge of oblivion, look upon his own works, and tremble.
Vertigo was released right at the cusp of the emergence of the French New Wave directors who would both make his influence on them a matter of international argument and interest, whilst eating away at the fundamental principles he represented in their films. Yet with Vertigo, Hitchcock created something like a new lexicon for filmmakers who would follow him. The delicate dissolves and camera dollies that tether together the stages of Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine whilst heightening the somnolent mood; the famous zoom-in, pull-back effect that literalises the effect of vertigo; the swirling 360° camera move, complete with an apparent change in setting from Judy’s flat to the stable at San Juan Bautista, as Scottie embraces the reconfigured Madeleine, a flourish that captures the soaring rapture and reality-shattering intensity in finally embracing a lover. All these tricks and more reconfigure the quality in scenes that would usually be expressed through dialogue and performance into the purely expressive imagery, working on both physical and intellectual levels. Thus, Hitchcock finally did something he had tried to achieve throughout his career: he dovetailed narrative interest and the cinematic device into a perfect union. Hitch, for all his brilliance, had often failed to employ such effects within a cohesive whole, one reason why more suspicious and literary-minded viewers had always regarded him as a gimmick-monger. Vertigo, however, is a continent entirely sufficient to itself. Whilst he hit possibly even more powerful heights in Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, where he wrestles profoundly with the schism between his annihilating and redemptive urges, a schism dispatched with pitch-black sarcasm here, those films are all admittedly patchier and less perfect.
Hitchcock had invaluable aid from the technical team that was working like a crack military outfit at this time, especially costumer Edith Head and cinematographer Robert Burks, whose pictures at once absorb the physical reality of his settings and yet transform them into imagistic haiku. Of course, composer Bernard Herrmann also hit the pinnacle of his cinema career here, and his score is the aspect of the film that has arguably sunk most deeply into the pop-cultural landscape. Whilst writing this review, I was listening to a British TV mystery show where a recurring musical motif was baldly copied from it. And why not, when he created a perfect tone for sustaining a sense of spiraling mystery and all-pervading, oneiric fantasy? The recent hoo-hah about the use of a passage from the score in The Artist (2011) simply highlighted its invasive, iconic power.
One last, personal thought: something I’ve found about Vertigo is what a different movie it becomes when revisited at distinct stages of life. For myself, the movie-happy teenager who first saw it after being converted irrevocably into a Hitchcock fan and proper cinephile by a viewing of North by Northwest, I found it a decent, creepy mystery ruined by a plunge into weird melodrama. For the thirty-something haunted by constant sensations of both furtive disconsolation and exultant possibility, it’s a staggering and grueling study in life’s regrets: just about everyone has been Scottie, Judy, Midge, and/or even Madeleine at some time. What will it seem at 40, 50, 60? It’s still a film for anyone who genuinely loves cinema; it’s also a film for anyone who’s been wrung by life, both in their own expectations of it and the shifting perceptions of time.
We are only a few days away from the start of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, our worldwide Internet party to raise funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation. Our project this year is to pay for the online streaming and score recording of the Graham Cutts/Alfred Hitchcock film The White Shadow (1923), the lost-then-found film discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive.
To make this blogathon an enjoyable experience for all concerned, we’ve got a few instructions.
The blogathon starts on Sunday, May 13, 10:00 a.m. ET and ends on Friday, May 18, 10:00 p.m. ET. So, blog posts should go live some time during that week.
All blog posts MUST contain the donate link: https://npo1.networkforgood.org/Donate/Donate.aspx?npoSubscriptionId=1001883&code=Blogathon+2012. If you don’t have the link on your post, it will not be included on the blogathon home page. Feel free to link behind the Donate button that can be found here.
We are doing something a little different this year with the home blogs to save wear and tear on the hosts: we will be rotating home pages.
The home blog on Sunday and Monday will be here at Ferdy on Films. Please let Marilyn know through the comments on the home post when your entry is up, and include the link to your post.
The home blog on Tuesday and Wednesday is Self-Styled Siren. Please let Farran know through the comments on the home post when your entry is up, and include the link to your post.
The home blog on Thursday and Friday is This Island Rod. Please let Rod know through the comments on the home post when your entry is up, and include the link to your post. Also note that Rod is in Australia and will likely be asleep during part of our North American day, so please be patient about having your links updated.
We thank each of you for doing your part for film preservation and hope you will use social media to spread the word about your own posts and the blogathon in general. The more people we reach, the better our chances of reaching our goal of $15,000.
Bloggers, we need to know if you will be participating. I know we asked you before, but now we’re getting ready to tell the media about our project to raise funds to stream The White Shadow at the National Film Preservation Foundation website and record the score by Michael Mortilla. So we need to take names in earnest. Tell us who you are, where you blog (name of blog and location), and what you think you might want to write about. Remember anything to do with Graham Cutts, Alfred Hitchcock, film preservation, film scores, silent films, etc. etc. etc. is fair game. The idea is to provide people with a sense of interest and excitement and get across why this project and film preservation in general are so important.
Just leave the information in the comments section on this post, and we’ll keep a running tally. Get your friends to join in, too. The more people we have spreading the word and displaying the donate link, the more successful we can be. If you know any organization or company that might like to become a sponsor of the blogathon, send them my way, too.
Sorry, Alicia, we can’t help ourselves. We just have to hold another film preservation blogathon. And this may be our best blogathon yet!
Farran Nehme, the erudite hostess with the mostest at Self-Styled Siren, and I agree that raising funds for film preservation is as addictive as the 7% solution and a much longer-lasting high. From May 13-18, we’re pulling out all the stops to take on our most high-profile project yet: director Graham Cutts’ The White Shadow (1923)!
Uh, ok. Let me rephrase that.
Maybe I should have mentioned that not only will Cutts fans be thrilled with our project, but so will the rare and discerning aficionados of a portly guy who dabbled in film a bit—Alfred Hitchcock. Talented chap, deserves to be remembered.
The first For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon raised funds to help the National Film Preservation Foundation repatriate and restore The Sergeant and The Better Man, two of the 85 silent-era American films found moldering in the New Zealand Film Archive. (For inquiring minds who want to know, we raised funds last year to help the Film Noir Foundation restore blacklisted director Cy Endfield’s 1950 film The Sound of Fury.) At the time, the biggest name found among the trove of treasures was John Ford, whose Upstream returned to thrilled audiences wherever it was shown. Only later was it learned that three reels of the first film Alfred Hitchcock had a major role in creating (assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, set decorator) were among the cache. The film was restored in New Zealand and repremiered by AMPAS last September at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. If you weren’t there, you’re probably sitting around hoping some repertory theater near you will book it so you can see it and hear the marvelous new score written for it by Michael Mortilla.
That’s where we come in. The good people at NFPF are committed to making many of the films they have rescued available for cost-free viewing by streaming them on their website. But online hosting ain’t cheap. NFPF estimates that it will cost $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months and record the score. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice.
This year’s blogathon will be bigger and better as Farran and I pick up a Hitcher, and by that I mean a real Hitchcock maven, to help us host the blogathon and spread the word. My esteemed friend and blog partner Rod Heath will open his solo blog, This Island Rod, to your links. He has also created a wide assortment of banners for you to use to show your pride as a blogathoner and help publicize the event to your readers.
For the first time, we will also be offering sponsor opportunities to businesses interested in supporting NFPF and The White Shadow. We have two levels of support, with benefits that will get your message out to our base of movie-mad readers. So you’ll not only do good, but you’ll also do well by supporting the blogathon. You can find out more by e-mailing me at ferdyonfilms (at) comcast (dot) net.
Once again, we’ll be offering raffle prizes to donors courtesy of NFPF. If anyone else would like to donate a raffle prize, give me a holler. And if you’ve got an itch to spend some money right now, forget the shopping malls and just click here. Operators are standing by to take your tax-deductible donation.
Finally, NFPF web czar David Wells will be posting photos and film clips on our Facebook fan page. If you want to keep up to date on blogathon developments and enjoy some of the information and surprises, be sure to become a fan by clicking here. You will actually help us raise money if you become a fan, so click that little button and ask your friends to join us as well. If you don’t know what a blogathon is, become a fan and read the explanation in the notes section of the fan page.
Let us know if you plan to blog by leaving a note in the comments section of our blogs. You’d be psycho not to! (Couldn’t resist…)
You weren’t dames like Annie Laurie Starr who couldn’t go straight. You were good. You were very good, and the results of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon are proof. We had 132 blogs and more than that number of bloggers offer posts (which I’m still reading). We had Roger Ebert, Lou Lumenick, Dave Kehr, Leonard Maltin, some unknown writer for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and many other high-profile media contribute tweets and articles to publicize our cause. We had blogs all over the world display Greg Ferrara’s banner ads and commercial before and during the blogathon.
And we had almost twice the number of donors as last year, each of you offering whatever you could to help make the restoration of The Sound of Fury possible. Those small and not so small donations added up to $5,697, a marvelous show of support and generosity at a time of great economic hardship for many people. We thank every last one of you from California to New York and all points in between, and from countries all over the world, including but not limited to the United Arab Emirates, The Philippines, Chile, and Spain, who contributed blog posts and money to our cause.
We promised some incredible prizes to several lucky donors, and here are the results of our random drawing:
A full set of NOIR CITY posters goes to Mike Glancy Auction Co.
The brand-new deluxe DVD edition of The Prowler goes to Sam and Lucille Juliano.
A DVD documentary on Eddie Muller called The Czar of Noir and his short film The Grand Inquisitor, starring Marsha Hunt, goes to Jason Civjan.
A set of NOIR CITY SENTINEL annuals goes to John Fitzpatrick.
Programs from NOIR CITY 8 and 9 go to Leanord Moore.
An autographed copy of Eddie Muller’s first novel The Distance goes to Andrew Horbal.
A signed and framed art photo of some of the old Castro Theater seats by noted photographer R. A. McBride, donated by Donna Hill, author of the recently released Rudolph Valentino the Silent Idol, goes to Mary Beth Roney.
The original watercolor of Lloyd Bridges done exclusively for the blogathon by noted artist Steve Brodner, whose works have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Mother Jones, and many, many other publications, goes to Stephanie Chadwick.
Congratulations to all the winners. And congratulations to everyone for making this blogathon a success and inspiration to those of us who love film.
Well, everyone, the blogathon is over. It has been a very, very busy week around the film blogosphere, with more posts that ever, more publicity than ever, and more individual donors than ever. We’ll have all the totals and the winners of our random drawing sometime this week, but I’ll tell you that a rough estimate is that we raised more than $5,000 through our special blogathon link, and that ain’t hay!
Most important to me and Farran, you all showed how much you love film and how willing you are to get involved. Some people say we’ve left the era of togetherness and action behind as we’ve all moved online and can sign a petition with a single click. You have all proven that our online community is engaged, powerful, and generous. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, with a special thanks to my blog partner Rod Heath for pitching in when my energy waned, Greg Ferrara for turning his talents to help with banners and ads, and the best blogathon partner a dame could have, Farran Smith Nehme, certainly a siren, and not just self-styled.
The president of the Film Noir Foundation, Eddie Muller, wanted to thank you as well:
The Film Noir Foundation is immensely gratified by the remarkable response to this year’s film preservation blogathon. The quality of the contributions was exceptional, and conclusively proved that the best contemporary writing on cinema is happening on the Internet. We will eventually thank, personally, every blogger and every donor, but for right now we’ll bestow all our thanks on the two remarkable women who conceived and executed this extraordinary event: Marilyn Ferdinand and Farran Smith Nehme. No finer friends of film exist. Thank you, ladies!
During much of the blogathon I was in Seattle, presenting another NOIR CITY festival by night and visiting a series of colleges on weekdays, screening clips and discussing film noir, cinema history, and cultural preservation. These face-to-face encounters with the next generation always fill me with hope. At every stop I was greeted by eager youngsters—you’ll recognize them in the mirror—who had light in their eyes and questions on their tongue, crackling with the electricity that comes from plugging into the culture’s cinematic circuitry in a meaningful way.
There was some grousing during the blogathon about the lack of “big” donors this year, leaving this year’s final tally below last year’s, even though there were more individual donors. That doesn’t bother me—I’ve lived long enough to learn many things, and one of the essential truths is that folks who can’t afford to be generous are always the first to share. Every donation, whatever amount, is valuable and appreciated. We raised a portion of the total cost of restoring The Sound of Fury, but in truth, it is the spirit with which people rallied in support of the cause—at a difficult time both economically and politically, worldwide—that is even more crucial to our mission than the dollars taken in.
Money is money. You always find it somewhere, somehow. Passion is sacred. Thanks to everyone for sharing their passion this past week. Let’s keep carrying the torch, not only for our favorite art form, but for all the things we cherish and refuse to relinquish.
Farran and I are all gassed up and ready to roll as we proudly host our second film preservation fundraising event, For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. This year, the Film Noir Foundation is our special valentine, and they’ve honored us by earmarking our funds for a very special film: The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me (1950), with blacklisted director Cy Endfield at the helm, and starring Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures, which now owns the film, has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.
I know everyone loves noir, and that noir crosses all borders of time and place. That gives everyone a large choice of topics, and we are looking forward to a some great posts on classic and neo-noir, film preservation, and a great deal more. I heartily recommend you start this blogathon by reading and commenting on the contributions of these wonderful bloggers.
And don’t forget, this is a fundraising blogathon. For the Love of Film, please donate as generously as you can. It’s going to take a lot of scratch to get the job done, and we aren’t going to be eligible for matching funds from the government this year. However, we do encourage you to check with your employer to see if they provide matching contributions for your charitable donations; we got some extra money last year because some of our donors checked. Just click on the Maltese Falcon to go directly to PayPal to make your secure donation online. The url is https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=LAWFPAB4XLHAW. Preserving and restoring films are the stuff our dreams are made of. And can you believe we made the Op-Ed page of The New York Times?! It’s true!
Remember, several lucky donors will be chosen at random to receive some great bonuses, including all nine Noir City posters, the just-released, deluxe DVD of The Prowler, and an illustration of Lloyd Bridges done especially for this blogathon by renowned artist Steve Brodner. Let’s get started!
Monday, February 21
Ed Howard of Only the Cinema returns for one last review, this time, of the film we’re raising money for, The Sound of Fury. The quintessential post for this blogathon.
My post is finally up here at Ferdy on Films. It’s a look at the compelling neo-noir Black Widow.
Gareth at Gareth’s Movie Diary gives us a look at Kathleen Ryan in Odd Man Out and Try and Get Me, where she’s Not Quite a Femme Fatale.
The lovely and talented Hedwig Van Driel sends a post to us from Holland on her blog, Cool As a Fruitstand. The topic is Fritz Lang’s “Bluebeard” film The Secret Beyond the Door.
The folks at U.S. Intellectual History have been providing us with thought-provoking posts all week. Ben Alpers finishes up the blogathon with a really interesting post on noir in a post-alienation world.
The incomparable film scholar Catherine Grant has provided her as-usual invaluable links, on noir, including an interview with Cy Endfield and her own video essay of her favorite noir Gilda. It’s all at Film Studies for Free.
Christianne Benedict of Krell Laboratories has been with us all week, and it has been a real pleasure. She closes out the blogathon with a look at a modern horror/noir from Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island.
One last blogathon limerick from Hilary Barta at Limerwrecks: Moonrise. There was a blogger named Barta / Whose poems were terribly smart(a) / He wrote for the fun / But when he was done / He had fans from Nome to Jakarta.
Lee Price returns to finish up the blogathon with us. At Preserving a Family Collection, he offers us the insights of Snowden Becker, an expert on film preservation, who tells just why it’s expensive to save films like The Sound of Fury. And we get one more message from June and Art: the noir films they might have watched during their courtship. Thanks, Lee, for the memories!
And the posts are still coming. Chilean Clara Fercovic at Via Margutta 51 offers a long list of reasons why people should support our fundraising effort. I’m convinced! How about you?
Mr. Peel at Mr. Peel’s Sardine Liqueur has come through with one of the films that has had an ending restored, to much controversy, Kiss Me Deadly. What do you think about the new old ending?
Gautam Valluri pulls Broken Projector out of the closet to talk about Scarlet Street just for our blogathon. Thanks, Gautam.
Paul F. Etcheverry offers a final plug for us on Way Too Damn Lazy to Write a Blog with a recipe for noir. Thanks, Paul.
Jen Myers devoted her Noir Monday feature on Deliberatepixel to our blogathon. An honor, Jen!
Ben Kenigsberg of Time Out Chicago honors us with a post on one of my favorite set (and shot) in Chicago noirs, City That Never Sleeps. Many thanks, Ben.
Caroline Shapiro at Garbo Laughs offers us one for the road – No Way Out, Sidney Poitier’s screen debut.
Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is back with another splendid post on The Stranger on the Third Floor. Thanks for the 9th inning home run! And he adds another one: the 1974 neo-noir The Outfit.
Ryan Kelly offers a post on one of my favorite films, Brian De Palma’s “post-modern noir” Femme Fatale. Good to see you back, Ryan.
Kenji Fujishima at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second comes in at the last second from a hectic period in his life to contribute a post on why there will always be a place for noir in our collective unconscious, featuring examples and lovely b&w screencaps.
Gloria Porta is Rooting for Laughton, specifically the lost scenes from Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case.
Kevyn Knox wraps us up at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World with a look at Stranger on the Third Floor. Squeaked in, Kevyn, as promised.
Sunday, February 20
Rod Heath posts here at Ferdy on Films a great review of a Brit-noir directed by Cy Endfield while in exile in England, Hell Drivers. All Endfield’s rage against the people who blacklisted him can be found in this film.
Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr offers you all proof positive why you should donate to this cause. Yes, because you’ll remember a time when men wore hats! Yes! I can’t thank you enough for this, Andreas!
John Greco from Twenty Four Frames is back with a review of Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. We’ve been enjoying John’s posts all week. Thanks for sticking with us, John.
A new blogger enters the fray, Tom from the specialty blog Olivia and Joan: Sisters of the Silver Screen. He’s featuring Joan Fontaine today in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Thanks, Tom.
Steve Santos of The Fine Cut offers us our first video essay, on Fritz Lang’s M. Many thanks, Steve!
Paul F. Etcheverry of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write a Blog awakened from his torpor to offer us a favorite around our household: cartoon noir. These cartoons are terrific!
Anuj Malhotra of Floatin’ Zoetropes offers us two very different Jacques Tourneur films: Out of the Past and Nightfall.
Coming to us from Dubai, Hind Mezaina of The Culturist offers a film by the great Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, Cairo Station. If you haven’t experienced Chahine, do yourself a favor and check his work out. Same goes for Hind! Thanks.
John Alton and Anthony Mann made beautiful pictures today. Fredrik Gustafsson shares a few scenes of some of their films on Fredrik on Film.
Cinemaniac‘s David Steece offers an appreciation of underrated cinematographer Leo Tover, whose work influenced the look of Blade Runner. Many wonderful screencaps. Thanks, David!
Christianne Benedict at Krell Laboratories offers up a film she love and that is in sore need of restoration and exposure, Istevan Sekely’s The Scar. I don’t know this film, so I am grateful for the heads-up, Christianne!
David Cairns at Shadowplay dedicates his regular Sunday intertitle to us with Queen Kelly, an excerpt of which appears in Sunset Blvd. Beautiful.
I forgot to link Darren Mooney’s second post from yesterday, so you get a three-fer from The M0vie Blog today: Sin City, Infernal Affairs, and Outrage, by the hubby’s favorite director, Beat Takeshi.
As Bill Wren at Piddleville says, “abuse never looked as beautiful” as it does in Gilda. We quite agree.
Rod and I share an big admiration of Fred Zinnemann with the young and talented blogger Adam Zanzie. He’s made our day by showing some Zinnemann love on Icebox Movies in his essay on Act of Violence, a film I still need to catch up with. Thanks so much, Adam!
Beth Ann Gallagher of Spellbound is back with a neat essay on the bookseller in The Big Sleep. I have always loved Dorothy Malone trying to look mousey and studious and her verbal parries with Bogey. This is a post close to my heart, Beth Ann.
Escape from New York, a film with “a little noir flavor,” is the next contribution from Ariel Schudson at Sinamatic Salve-ation.
Lee Price at June and Art offers us June’s Night and the City evening. These letters are so interesting, Lee.
Director Jeffrey Goodman takes up our cause at The Last Lullaby (and) Peril with a brief statement of what noir means to him.
Jesse Ataide joins us again from Memories of the Future with a look at Bogey and Bacall’s third film together, Dark Passage. Here’s looking at you, Jesse.
Ferdy on Films guest blogger Robert Hornak gives us a tasty post on that distastefully delicious noir Touch of Evil.
Novelist Thomas Burchfield at A Curious Man joins the blogathon with a look at Lee Van Cleef’s film noir moments. Thanks, Thomas.
Hilary Barta’s noirish limerick of the day tells, in pithy fashion, the story of Richard Quine’s Pushover.
W.J. enters the ring with a strong showing assaying the character roles in Born to Kill. You’ve gotta love his opening photo of Esther Howard and Elisha Cook, Jr.!
Our good friend Neil Sarver at The Bleeding Tree couldn’t decide exactly what to write about. So we’ve been treated to some of his favorite noir films, but with an emphasis on Road House.
Ariel Schudson at Sinamatic Salve-ation comes back with just…one…more on Sin City the way stories travel.
True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film joins the party with Lucille Ball in a noir-lite, Lured. Noir loves Lucy? True Classics does!
Welcome to Jaime Christley from Unexamined Essentials with a post on Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear. Where would noir be without Lang, and we’d be the poorer without Jaime’s insights!
We have another vintage article by Richard T. Jameson over at Parallax View on modern noir (modern in the 1970s, that is, when this piece was written), including Gumshoe, The Long Good-bye, and Chinatown.
Everyone knows how much I love Peggy Cummins and Gun Crazy. One of the best writers out there, Sheila O’Malley, shows her appreciation of both at The Sheila Variations.
Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running offered another post a couple of days ago that I missed, on 1947′s Born to Kill. Make sure you don’t miss it:
Imogen Smith at The Chiseler offers a FANTASTIC essay on our film The Sound of Fury with sociological and production information that will tell why we need to help save this film! Super job, Imogen!
Ivan J. Shreve, one of our favorite bloggers, offers a really terrific essay on The Dark Mirror at his must-read blog, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Thanks, Ivan, so much!
Over at Dereliction Row, The Derelict gives us a haiku to Coleen Gray, the good girl of noir. Hey, Hilary, you’ve got some competition in poetry writing!
Brian Doan at Bubblegum Aesthetics has a post on Stephen Sondheim, who cut his teeth working on the noir parody Beat the Devil. If you remember the noir ballet in The Band Wagon, then you’ll know why this entry belongs in the blogathon.
The Flying Maciste Brothers (aka Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr) offer a graphic tribute to Phil Karlson and an examination of The Phenix City Story over at Destructible Man. Screencaps and more galore!
William Wellman’s Yellow Sky is a little-known noir Western. Everyone will know it after reading Vanwall Green’s excellent essay on it at Vanwall Land. They’ll get a great write-up on Winchester ’73 and a few other classic Westerns with a noir flavor in the bargain as well. Thanks, Van the Man!
DeeDee and her friends at Wonders in the Dark have offered something I hoped someone would take up – French noir. Take a look at their 10 Best French Noir Films list. Thanks, guys!
Ed Howard at Only the Cinema devotes his Films I Love series today to Detour and a generous helping of screencaps from that compelling ultra-low-budget noir.
Our daily limerick from Hilary Barta at Limerwrecks is for Stranger on the Third Floor, covered in straight form by David Cairns at Shadowplay. Read them both for a fuller appreciation of the film.
And speaking of David Cairns, he takes on The Sweet Smell of Success by way of Burt Lancaster’s size. “Hunsecker is a Brobdingnagian in Lilliput, a mountain among midgets.” Oh, and he’s gotten into the limerick act, too!
From Darren Mooney, the first of two posts today at The M0vie Blog is a look at Gotham After Dark: Batman in his many incarnations.
David Steece is back from Randomaniac with a post on the film the hubby and I went all the way to Indianapolis to see: Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross. It’s a doozy, folks!
Fredrik Gustafsson joins us all the way from Sweden to talk about the elements of noir on his blog Frederik on Film. Thanks for joining the party, Fredrik.
Another archival essay by Richard T. Jameson at Parallax View, this time on the sleazy, corrupt world brought to life in Touch of Evil.
Kelli Marshall offers up a post on sexual tension in noir, with emphasis on Body Heat and Double Indemnity, to our blogathon at Unmuzzled Thoughts.
Ben Alpers at U.S. Intellectual History has broken the blog’s custom of not posting on weekends to give a wonderful plug for our cause and offer a very interesting post on Frank Borzage’s Moonrise. I hope you’ll take part of your weekend to read and show appreciate for Ben’s effort.
MP at idFilm discusses narrative as used in noir films to shape our reactions to them. A thought-provoking piece, MP!
Friday, February 18
The final entry in Peter Nellhaus’ terrific look at noir around the world is The Equation of Love and Death from China. Keep reading Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee after the blogathon for more of the same!
Richard T. Jameson is back at Parallax View with an essay on that delirious, delicious noir The Lady from Shanghai. This is going to be good!
It’s all Ida Lupino in today’s post by Sean Axmaker at MSN Movies Videodrone. Check out his musings on The Man I Love, Road House, and The Hitch-hiker.
Michael C dives into the gritty Phenix City Story at Cinema Ramble. He declares, “But the film is perhaps most appealing as a docu-style traipse through small-city USA in the 1950′s.”
Have you ever heard of a home movie noir? They’re out there! Lee Price takes us to the world of amateur noir – a completely unexplored territory for me! – at Preserving a Family Collection. Meanwhile, June and Art explore their artistic sides, reminding Lee of Scarlet Street.
More great prose and screencaps by Christianne Benedict at Krell Laboratories. This time, she has turned her talents to Andre de Toth’s Crime Wave, “a damn near perfect B-movie.”
Ray Young at Flickhead has turned in a pithy post on a film released in 1981 to “unanimous indifference” – Cutter’s Bone. He’s got a pretty nifty moving banner of Marilyn Monroe to watch, too.
Ariel Schudson has another treat for us today at Sinamatic Salve-ation – The Big Combo by one of our very favorite noir directors Joseph H. Lewis. You KNOW I’ll be reading this over morning coffee!
I’m not a big fan of Billy Wilder, but even I have to admit that Ace in the Hole is a smashing good film. John Greco at Twenty Four Frames gives us a great post explaining why.
Another great post from our great friend Ed Howard at Only the Cinema on Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire.
Bill Wren examines the “self-aware” noir today at Piddleville with his essay on Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown.
Beth Ann Gallagher at Spellbound takes up a discussion Rod and I had after I reviewed this film over the summer: the mechanical man in City that Never Sleeps. I can’t wait to read what she has to say!
David Steece at Randomaniac talks to us about one of his desert island movies, Nightmare Alley. Looking for darkness on a tropical island? Why not!
DeeDee is back at Wonders in the Dark with the elements of noir and a lot of fun polls and posters. Dip into the grab bag of goodies!
Venetian Blond over at Edward Copeland on Movies…and more takes a look at a neonoir that’s quickly turning into a classic, Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005).
Tinky Weisblat returns with a post on Key Largo over at In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens. I always kind of thought Claire Trevor walked off with this picture.
The Projector Has Been Drinking‘s Marc Edward Heuck takes a look at the noir influences in the music videos and films of David Fincher! Very original, Marc.
Time for Hilary Barta’s morning limerick at Limerwrecks. He has the most entertaining and concise summary of The Blue Dahlia I’ve ever seen!
We’ve got a new blogger today of the self-named Lauren Hairston who has dedicated her Friday feature, “Dinner and a Movie” to our blogathon! The movie she’s chosen to go with her recipes is a good one, Witness to Murder.
Another new party heard from is KC of Movie Classics. She’s taken up a favorite director of Farran’s and mine, Frank Borzage, and his 1948 noir Moonrise.
Jacqueline Fitzgerald at Film Noir Blonde has some great anecdotes from Billy Wilder about Double Indemnity, including talk about Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig.
We are joined today by Tom Block at Tom Blog and his look at the 1949 noir The Window. If you want to see Bobby Driscoll get slugged, this is the film for you!
Rob Byrne features a forgotten star of proto-noir, Louise Platt, at Starting Thursday. Louise, you live again today!
We’ve got two from the fabulous David Cairns over at Shadowplay: the British proto-noir On the Night of the Fire and another women in prison film that’s sure to please, Caged.
Another new blogger for our blogathon, Nicholas Pillai, has given us a look at noir and the animator Will Eisner’s character The Spirit at Squeezegut Alley. Really interesting stuff, Nicholas!
Vince Keenan is back with his last post from Noir City Northwest covering Loophole and Crashout. It has been a really great run, Vince. Thanks for sharing it with us!
Darren Mooney has two more for us at The M0vie Blog: the Miami Vice pilot show (and perhaps a tip of the hat to Rod’s review of the movie) and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia (is it better than the Swedish original?).
Academic Jennifer Garlen talks at Virtual Virago about teaching noir to freshmen. It’s great to know future generations will appreciate noir thanks to educators like Jennifer!
Over at the great Wonders in the Dark is a visual and literary stunner, a primer, if you will on noir. Great job as usual, DeeDee and company!
C. Jerry Kutner starts our day with the unremitting darkness of Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds over at Bright Lights After Dark.
Angela Pettys at Hollywood Revue says, “This blogathon is too good for me to only write once.” So she’s back with a crack look at the roots of noir in 1929′s Asphalt. You’re an angel!
We love Robert Wise around here and are very pleased to see his film Born to Kill considered by the great Ed Howard at Only the Cinema.
J.D. takes us to Don Siegel land with a fine consideration of The Lineup over at Edward Copeland on Films…and more.
Bill Wren at Piddleville assays a sassy noir, Anatomy of a Murder. The screencap of Lee Remick says everything you want to know about her character.
We have a new blog today, Scarlett Cinema, hosted by Pamela L. Kerpuis. She surveys a couple of noirs with (dare we say?) happy endings! Take a look at her write-ups of The Woman in the Window and Union Station.
Joshua Ranger at Audiovisual Preservation Solutions has an incredible title for a blogathon post: Noirstalgia. Take a look!
David Cairns returns at Shadowplay with a Cy Endfield/Lloyd Bridges collaboration, The Limping Man, that wasn’t as successful as the film we’re funding.
Our international expert Peter Nellhaus returns with another compelling noir from overseas, this time Korea. Take a look at his fascinating review of A Bittersweet Life.
David Robson of The House of Sparrows (check out the great nameplate!) offers us a fine entry on A Detective Story, an animated film from Shinichiro Watanabe. We’re glad to see animated noir getting its due!
Tim Lacy is our author today over at U.S. Intellectual History with an in-depth look at that grimy bit of brilliance, Touch of Evil.
Donna Hill of Strictly Vintage Hollywood is back with Bogey and Bacall in Dark Passage. She’s also got some great eye candy for the discerning noir lover.
At Java’s Journey, Javabean Rush is thinking of noir. What comes to your mind when you think of noir?
Peter Gutierrez takes a look at Taxi Driver 35 years after its initial release, and that’s always a good idea. You can see what he said over at Tribecafilm.com.
Richard T. Jameson’s archival essay on my favorite noir, Gun Crazy, is up at Parallax View.
Sean Axmaker reviews the Blu-ray of Kansas City Confidential at MSN Movies Videodrone. He calls it “one of the great lean, mean B crime thrillers.”
I love looking at movie marquees, and Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has a bunch of noir-related ones, as well as some newspaper ads for some of our favorite films. This is one fun post!
Larry Aydlette takes us on a tour of the real Florida locations from that sizzling neonoir Body Heat at his personal blog. Verrrry interesting, Larry.
Vince Keenan is back with a double-dose of Robert Ryan from Noir City Northwest: The Woman on the Beach and Beware My Lovely.
Doug Bonner, our favorite globetrotting blogger, has a typically great post up on Edgar Ulmer’s Club Havana. Thanks for another great read, Doug.
Wednesday, February 16
How do we love thee, James Wolcott, let us count the ways! The Vanity Fair columnist comes through with a major plug and information on noir today. Check it out.
Here at Ferdy on Films, Rod Heath takes a look at a modern noir that avoids the usual cliches of neonoir with Michael Mann’s Miami Vice.
Edward Copeland is back at Edward Copeland on Films…and more! with a post on Scarlet Street, the film that inspired one of our great banner ads by Greg Ferrara. He has also just posted a companion piece on Jean Renoir’s La Chienne. This post will inspire you, too!
Over at The Blue Vial, Drew McIntosh has a post on a great noir, The Big Clock. I think it’s time to click through and read it!
Ed Howard of Only the Cinema has a post on the more famous film based on “our” film’s story, Fritz Lang’s Fury. It will be great to compare this great film with the restored version of The Sound of Fury.
One of our favorite bloggers, Michael Guillen at The Evening Class, gives a two-fer in a post that not only links to an index of his coverage of the Noir City Film Festival, which is in its ninth year, but an account of the talk following a showing of the restored Metropolis from the famous San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Eddie Muller and some film experts from Argentina were there to talk about the film and restoration, and that’s what we’re all about.
For our great friend Mike Phillips at Goatdogblog, a “no” is as valuable as a “yes” in history. He’ll tell you why Tomorrow Is Another Day is NOT noir, but why you should see it anyway. Great post, Mike, and we’ll see you tonight as the Northwest Chicago Film Society premieres at the Portage Theatre.
Coming to us from Reading, England, Rob Wickings has a terrific post on the crosspoints between horror and noir, using Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim as reference. Something for everyone, thanks to Rob!
Electra Glide in Blue isn’t neonoir, says Ariel Schudson at Sinamatic Salve-ation. But “it involves politics, nihilism, sexuality, and violence,” at if that’s not noir, she’ll eat her heels!
Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns gives us a proto-noir from Charles (Gilda) Vidor, Blind Alley (1939). Looking at the luscious screencaps, I’m inclined to agree.
One of noir’s great actors, Charles McGraw, gets his due from John Greco at Twenty Four Frames as he assays Roadblock.
WB Kelso of Scenes from the Morgue: Retro-Pulp Movie Ads is having so much fun with the blogathon that he did another great movie ad post, this time on Raw Deal. Believe me, we’re having as much fun with your posts as you are, WB!
I don’t know how Lee Price at June and Art manages to find letters among his parents’ collection that capture an essence of noir, but he does. Here’s his latest, about a wrong man.
Darren Mooney is back at The M0vie Blog with the original and inventive Brick and the film that has divided audiences everywhere, Black Swan. I’ve been enjoying his posts all week, and there’s more to come today, so check back.
Christianne Benedict at Krell Laboratories has a strong entry on Cornell Woolrich and the film No Man of Her Own. Some great history there, Christianne.
Meredith at Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax has a great look at femme fatales, text and screencaps and everything!
Hilary Barta has another fun Limerwreck on Phantom Lady. I’m loving these, Hilary.
Kurt Norton at These Amazing Shadows is back with a post on the classic noir Out of the Past.
Bill Ryan says “a plague on both your houses” in his post on Panic in the Streets and City of Fear at the Kind of Face You Hate.
Susan Doll of Facets Features turns her discerning eye on the neonoir Night Moves, and asks us to appreciate how Arthur Penn played with the elements of noir. Great stuff, Susan!
The ambiguities of capitalism never got a more timeless examination that in Force of Evil, and the film gets an equally timeless consideration by Kevin Olson of the estimable Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.
The great noir Detour gets the royal treatment by David Coursen in an archival article posted on Parallax View.
Sean Axmaker gives us another strong post, this time on The Black Book and The Tall Target on MSN Movies Videodrone.
Jacqueline Fitzgerald, the Film Noir Blonde, takes us through a favorite neonoir of many a film fan, the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. You simply must read what she has to say!
Vince Keenan updates his coverage of Noir City Northwest with a post on The Dark Mirror and Crack-up.
Marc Edward Heuck talks about noir’s influence on the art of music videos at The Projector Has Been Drinking. We love a good music video around here, Marc. Thanks!
Bryce Wilson covers the famous final scene of Kiss Me Deadly at Things that Don’t Suck. Do you like the extended “happy” ending or the old ending? Which is more noir?
Bobby Wise of his self-named Bobby Wise Criticism talks about the semi-documentary noir and two by Anthony Mann. It’s a great scholarly look at this form, and really elevates the discussion of noir. Thanks, Bobby.
Jim Emerson has a completely intriguing post over at Scanners called The Dark Room and using images from Double Indemnity and other noirish films. I can’t really describe it; you’ll have to read it to appreciate it. And you WILL appreciate it. We appreciate your support, Jim.
Jesse Ataide reports on The Woman on the Beach at Memories of the Future. The film screened at Noir City 9, and the post has comments from Eddie Muller, lots of screencaps, and some intriguing production history. Thanks, Jesse, for a fascinating post!
Tuesday, February 15
Movie Morlocks’ R. Emmet Sweeney provides a vital post on the film we’re raising money for: The Sound of Fury. Please read this post-haste to see what all this fuss is all about!
Who doesn’t like a good women in prison film? Not David Cairns. He’s looking at Women’s Prison today at Shadowplay, a follow-up from his post yesterday on Brute Force.
Vanwall Green of Vanwall Land joins the party today with a look at pulp stories and their influence on Western (yes, Western) noir. This is really great stuff, folks.
Jaime Grijalba from Exodus 8:2 has provided our first Spanish-language post on The Great Flamarion. Get Babelfish ready, you’re going to want to read this one!
Over at Spellbound, Beth Ann Gallagher has an unusual Christmas noir on offer, Christmas Holiday. Definitely for those who like their Christmases naughty!
We’ve got another Aussie in the house: Michael C. at Cinema Ramble. He likes what y’all are doing so return the favor and check out his great post on Blast of Silence.
I was hoping someone would highlight The Blue Dahlia and WB Kelso at Scenes from the Morgue: Retro-Pop Movie Adsobliges with another great set of newspaper ads.
Ed Howard from Only the Cinema is back with another typically fine Ed Howard treatment of the classic noir Nightmare Alley. Absolute must-reading.
Dario Loren at What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life? makes the best use of tumblr I’ve seen in a long time. Start with Edward Hopper’s noir art and click the previous arrow to see wonderful screencaps and quotes from noir films. Great stuff, Dario.
Bill Wren is back with another great post, this time on I Wake Up Screaming. Check it out at Piddleville.
Lee Price is back with a little different spin on I Wake Up Screaming over at June and Art. It’s surprising, and delightful!
Darren Mooney is back with day two of his two posts a day for the blogathon at The M0vie Blog. Here’s his take on Se7en and L.A. Confidential.
Peter Nellhaus is keeping us focused with more than Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee. He continues his international offerings with a little giallo love by reviewing the Italian film Le Orme (Footprints), which has many noir elements.
Hilary Barta is back with today’s limerick “Maltese Falcon Crest” at Limerwrecks. Brighten your day with a look.
Edward Copeland at Edward Copeland on Film…and More! enters the blogathon with a thoughtful post on The Woman in the Window, a modified remake of Scarlet Street. Take a look.
Mat Viola has a wonderful tribute to the people who give us those rich blacks and whites that practically define noir: cinematographers. Take a look at his screencaps at Notes of a Film Fanatic.
Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr has a winning post on “one of the blackest noirs” Force of Evil.
Sean Axmaker is back, this time with his MSN Movies gig at Videodrone with a wonderful appreciation of the little-heralded Phil Karlson thriller 99 River Street.
Vince Keenan is back with another dispatch from Noir City Northwest, this time discussing A Double Life and Among the Living.
Kurt at These Amazing Shadows picked a pretty amazing noir to write about: Ida Lupino’s chilling The Hitch-hiker.
Joe Thompson gives us the roots of noir by walking through the life and craft of Dashiell Hammett at The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion.
From Becca (Ms. Zebra) at Germans Like Heavy Makeup comes an unabashed valentine to black-and-white films and television, in general, and noir, in particular. She gets it!
Monday, February 14
Let’s hear from the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, about why we’re doing the blogathon. Farran interviews him at Self-Styled Siren.
Craig Simpson has a fascinating look at lit noir and its connection with film noir at The Man from Porlock. Fantastic post, Craig!
Vince Keenan at Vince Keenan.com is covering Noir City Northwest, which is going on now in Seattle. We’ve got his as-they-happen posts to tell us about the great work we’re funding. Here are the first and second reports from the festival. Here’s the third report, on Angel Face. Thanks, Vince!
Angela Pettys has a great review of the 1950 noir The Damned Don’t Cry at the Hollywood Revue. What a great post!
WB Kelso has a feast for the eyes at Scenes from the Morgue: Retro-Pop Movie Ads. We’ll be seeing collections of great noir ads as often as he can post them this week, so start enjoying! First up is Scarlet Street.
Mr. K at Mr. K’s Geek Cornucopia has a review of the 1943 noir Hangmen Also Die, a Fritz Lang film that Mr. K says has a number of intentional echoes with M. Fascinating stuff!
Christian Esquivan has a perfect post for our blogathon and Valentine’s Day over at Silver Screen Modiste: images of lovers in noir. I’m just loving it!
Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog has a post up on the superb film FNF restored and toured last year: The Prowler. Love the soundtrack, Jacqueline!
Darren Mooney of The M0vie blog offers us a personal look at his relationship to classic film in an ambitious schedule of two posts a day during the blogathon. The second post is on L.A. Confidential. Thanks for all the love, Darren.
Bob Fergusson at Allure offers us some great lines from some classic femme fatales. I could listen to this all day!
Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee comes up with a brilliant post: a look at the First Thai film noir, Prae Dum (Black Silk). Great work, Peter, as always.
Bill Wren gives us a great look at This Gun for Hire over at Piddleville. Bill, we’ll hire you any day!
At Ehrensteinland, David Ehrenstein looks at a classic of the genre, M. No, not the Fritz Lang film, the remake by Joseph Losey.
Our good friend Ed Howard has submitting his first post, on The Big Heat, at his superb blog Only the Cinema.
Lee Price has a truly unique take on this blogathon. His blog June and Art, dedicated to courtship letters between his parents, muses on what noir films June and Art might have seen. The entry also appears on his other blog, Preserving a Family Collection. Now here’s a blogger who really understands preservation! Thanks, Lee.
Tinky Weisblat has a wonderful tribute to Norma Desmond in her entry on Sunset Boulevard at In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens. Not to mention a killer recipe for icebox cake!
Ben Alpers has a terrific essay on film noir and intellectual approaches to it by the likes of Paul Schrader, James Naremore, and James Livingston at his blog U.S. Intellectual History.
John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows starts off a two-part series on Hal Wallis with a look at one of my favorites, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers.
Dr. Mobius of Krell Laboratories offers us some wonderful words and even more wonderful screencaps from the classic noir Out of the Past.
Tony Dayoub explores Ricardo Montalban before he because a pop culture joke with his wonderful post on Mystery Street at Cinema Viewfinder.
Betty Jo Tucker’s review of Charles Pappas’ It’s a Bitter Little World on Memosaic offers up additional great reading itself. Thanks, Betty Jo.
Limerick writer extraordinaire Hilary Barta offers his unique take on noir all week long at Limewrecks. First up is Double Indemnity. What fun!
Philippine film blogger Noel Vera offers a post at Critic After Dark about star Nora Aunor’s performances in three noirs: ‘Merika, Condemned and Bulaklak City Jail. Noir knows no borders.
Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings has a great post up on a favorite of mine, D.O.A. Thanks, Laura!
Kim Morgan has another take on Nightfall at Sunset Gun. I, for one, did not know Maurice Tourneur savaged his son, who turned his sardonic outlook to good advantage in his own films. Morgan, at her other web presence, MSN Movies/The Hit List, is showcasing Barbara Stanwyck all week.
Since Play Misty for Me came on the scene in 1972, numerous contemporary films have explored the horror of the psychotic femme fatale. Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and even the deranged female fan of Misery all want to love their men to death. The one that has stuck with me the longest is Black Widow, in which it appears that Theresa Russell and Debra Winger were more made for each other than for any man, but in which Winger, a federal investigator named Alexandra “Alex” Barnes, tracks Russell, a black widow who marries rich men and kills them.
The film offers no doubt that our black widow, known by many names and in many guises, kills her husbands. Our first real encounter with her is as a Texas-style belle, all blonde and big-haired, with long, red-painted nails, injecting a liquor bottle with something that will make it appear as though her rich husband died of a rare syndrome called Ondine’s Curse. After the funeral, she takes a trip to forget, or rather, a trip from which she never intends to return. She moves to Seattle after carefully investigating the background and habits of another rich man, William McCrory (Nicol Williamson), and adopts another, more studious and refined persona, one that would appeal to McCrory. Once again, she marries, and once again, her husband dies.
Alex insists that these men were murdered. She obtains photos of the dead men and notes that the bride they all have on their arm is the same woman. Unfortunately, her boss (Terry O’Quinn) cannot believe that a woman would be capable of a complex series of seductions and murders. Frustrated, Alex quits her job and follows the black widow’s trail to Hawaii, where she has set her sights on another rich man (Sami Frey) to seduce.
The classic noir structure is in place, one involving murder, a sexy and duplicitous femme fatale, money, and a detective trying to unravel the whole rotten puzzle—indeed, a detective who has to go outside the normal channels to catch the villain. The twist, of course, is that the sparring partners and almost-lovers in this film are both female, and that the femme fatale’s motive for murder doesn’t really seem to be about the money at all. The noirish atmosphere and psychological underpinnings of Black Widow are found more in the characterizations than in an overarching style of expressionistic cinematography and cynical dialogue that typify classic noir. There are some shots that are clearly indebted to noir films’ contrast of beauty and sordidness, for example, a shadow of our femme fatale and her next victim set in a tropical paradise, and one can never go wrong with Conrad Hall behind the camera. Yet, the camerawork doesn’t set the mood—the two lead actors do.
Like classic noir, Black Widow is a critique of its times. Rather than look at the black widow’s money grabs as a hunger after years of wartime deprivation and malaise, or a chance to have power after an era of powerlessness under fascistic oppression, we see instead no easily discernible reason for her actions at all. She seems in thrall to grasping for more money than she could ever waste and afflicted with a restless mobility, both attitudes that infected the 1980s. The bond Russell and Winger form seems post second-wave feminism if it seems like anything. Winger’s boss underestimates women, including Alex, who has been laboring in the trenches for six years with no apparent road being paved to higher responsibility. Russell, calling herself “Linny” when she meets Alex, clearly feels at ease only around women. Alex is the only person we see her drop her guard with; all the men she so calculatingly seduces have no idea who she is or what she’s capable of. Yet, like a classic femme fatale, when cornered, she’ll strike out to survive, even at those she cares about. She nearly drowns Alex when she discovers that Alex is really on her trail—a warning shot across Alex’s bow that, had “Linny” been a little more frightened, would have been fatal.
It’s telling to me that Alex is a career woman with no apparent romantic life and a nickname that could belong to a man. The homoeroticism in her dealings with “Linny” track butch/femme, including sharing a regulator when they both take diving lessons that later finally is realized into a hard, fast kiss at “Linny’s” fourth marriage, with “Linny” still in her wedding dress and flower veil. It’s very easy to see the pair as Sam Spade tangling with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and in many ways, the film plays like The Maltese Falcon, with a sad parting for the women. Alex is pledged to nail a killer—and just like Bogey, her professional life and values are on the line, so she can’t play the sap for Russell—but there’s an air of regret at losing the one person she might truly have loved.
Alex was allowed by “Linny” to “have” the man she had set her sights on for her next conquest, only to have “Linny” coolly steal him back with a nude swim after weeks of denying him sex. Will Alex pick up where she and the man left off—she saves him in a clever ruse—after “Linny” is carted away? Many modern films punt to the triumph of romance, but Black Widow isn’t buying it. Alex, like Russell’s character, has become a black widow, too.
For an interesting companion film, I suggest Paul Verhoeven’s 1983 psychohorror film The Fourth Man, which opens and closes with a spider killing and eating its prey and offers a black widow character in between, though the protagonist is a gay man after sex, not money.
Hank Quinlan is a border town cop bloated by secrets swallowed. Mike Vargas is a Mexican drug enforcement officer riding his career on the momentum of his perceived integrity. A jazzily meandering tracking shot brings them together in the firelight of an official’s exploded car, and together they play out the universal allegory of good versus evil.
Welles lowers his story into the pulpy darkness of hypocrisy, murder, sex, drugs, desperation, and revenge, and never brings it back up for air. It is a claustrophobic world, stinking with death, where the liveliest moments come from a pianola played by no one, where a smug, lurid chuckle barely masks the condescension of institutionalized corruption, where “intuition” is as good as justification, and where even the man for whom all the busy police work is set to avenge (the city elder expended in the opening scene) is himself a brazen philanderer estranged from his family. But Welles does it all with incredible style, upgrading what is, as he even called it, a B-movie into that which cannot be ignored for its visual power and its ever-resonating thematic punch.
The melodrama is as corpulent and sweaty as Quinlan, so thoroughly shot through with dread and dirt, it renders even more disturbing the already blunt dialogue: “An hour ago [he] had this town in his pocket… Now you can strain him through a sieve;” “We don’t like it when innocent people are blown to jelly in our town.” And running underneath, seething racism, all of it subtle. Vargas’s newlywed wife, embarking toward an American motel while Vargas diverts back into Mexico to investigate the explosion: “I’m just going to an American motel for comfort… not for safety.” Quinlan to Vargas: “You people are touchy.” And Vargas’s own reverse racism, contained quietly in his observation that the idea of peace, in the form of a 1,400 mile border without a single machine gun in place, is “corny” to his American bride, as if American hubris is uncomfortable with the idea of going warless for so long.
But the film is also stilted up by the themes of duty and idealism. Quinlan, as few scruples as Falstaff, but none of the fun, orders his world of planted evidence upon a simple and good philosophy: “When a murderer’s loose, I’m supposed to catch him.” And this reasoned exchange with his partner:
MENZIES: You’re a killer.
QUINLAN: I’m a cop… I don’t call [my job] dirty, look at the record. All those convictions.
MENZIES: Convictions, sure. How many did you frame?
QUINLAN: Nobody… nobody that wasn’t guilty.
MENZIES: …Faking evidence –
QUINLAN: Aiding justice, partner.
Evil there, but with good in the balance: the borderline self-righteousness of Vargas. The slow show of Quinlan’s dark deeds often stirs Vargas into sanctimonious diatribes. To Quinlan: “In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law, and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent… A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, Captain. Who’s the boss, the cop or the law?” And to Quinlan’s partner, laying it on thick: “What about all the people [Quinlan] put in the death house. Save your tears for them.” In fact, the greatest fault of the film is that it allows Vargas, the mouthpiece for glib, nickel-plated platitudes, to finally elude the moral griminess of the real world. Though he is touched by evil (or rather, it is his wife who is groped by evil, and he is only threatened by the possibility of being forever associated with evil), he is never fully in its grasp, never made to suffer the crush of evil, the kind of evil that creates the Quinlans of the world. He even makes his exit before Quinlan’s death plunge, falling into his wife’s exonerated arms, speeding away into marital bliss, so that he doesn’t have to personally bear witness to the final, bloody result of his revenge.
Bonus reasons to love the film:
The first image of the movie, fingers twisting a timer on a homemade bomb, feels akin to someone winding up a toy and watching it go.
Quinlan’s pitiful entrance, attempting to pull himself out of his police vehicle with all his tremendous girth holding him back, is a wonderful counter to Harry Lime’s magnetic, stylized hero’s entrance in The Third Man less than a decade before.
Marlene Dietrich’s small role – and enchanting eyes – provide the perhaps unwanted evidence of Quinlan’s former love life… and a great excuse to use chili as a euphemism for sex.
Uncle Joe Grandi, the comic embodiment of inept local power by birth, manifested as a self-important devil on Quinlan’s shoulder, allows for a scene illustrating Quinlan’s heavy, sweating denial of his own capacity for “making deals,” though that is exactly what he’s doing.
The five-and-a-half minute, one-shot scene in the heart of the movie (inside Sanchez’s one-room apartment) that tracks the emotional movement of characters as beautifully as the opening shot tracks physical movement.
The visceral swamp of images in the Grandi death scene.
Despite Pauline Kael’s rebuke, the final Quinlan epitaph, remarked by Dietrich at the close of the film: “What does it matter what you say about people.”
Then, out of nowhere, a political afterthought
There is no escaping the resonance of the film in a post-Bush world. A story of a dirty cop planting evidence in an assumed guilty party’s home and behaving with the cavalier assumption that the act is justified based on intuition of guilt is one that seems tailored to rouse an audience trying to live beyond the Administration that authored the war in Iraq. An interesting, if easily unrecognized, thing happens when viewing Touch of Evil today. The somewhat tacked-on resolution of the Sanchez story (he who blew up the car but maintained his innocence throughout the film) is said to have finally confessed his guilt to Quinlan’s men. This is presumably meant to layer the end with irony, that all of Quinlan’s hunches were correct, and that planting the evidence (and indeed his very death) was unnecessary. But in a media environment saturated with debate on the legality and dependability of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a modern audience is left with an even murkier ending, one that calls to question if the confession drawn out of Sanchez under duress can be trusted to be true, or if he just said what was needed to be said to abate the fists. It is wonderfully, terribly fascinating to consider that, even as often as art influences society, it is also true that society can forever alter the meaning of art. And in this case, the mystery of meaning can make Touch of Evil, to use Welles’s own words, “just exactly a thousand percent more effective.”
My second blogathon entry allows me to write all at once about British film noir, a favourite field for me and one that hasn’t had much attention so far, and about Cy Endfield, one of whose films we’re raising money to restore. Hell Drivers, a far too little-known, rip-roaring gem of a melodrama, is one of the best British films of the 1950s, all the more admirable these days for its galvanising mix of action and realism, and lack of pretension.
Pennsylvania-born Endfield was a magician and inventor who got into filmmaking after impressing Orson Welles with his sleight of hand and being allowed then to watch him make films. His directing career was gaining momentum when the McCarthy era intervened, and after making his last American film, Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952), a final indignity, he took an offer of work in Britain. He made over a half-dozen films and did some TV work in his new homeland, usually under pseudonyms, in the four years after his arrival. Today, Endfield is chiefly remembered for his collaboration with Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island (1961) and his one epic, Zulu (1963), one of the few war films ever made that manages to celebrate courage and dedication without also celebrating militarism and nationalism. Endfield’s mixture of admiration and ambivalence for such qualities is a defining trait of his highly uneven career, which even after he’d reestablished his credibility as a director, continued to be buffeted by the problems of movie financing. His career finally petered out in the late ’60s with De Sade (1969).
Hell Drivers kicked off his five collaborations with Welsh actor-producer Stanley Baker, a rare, bonafide movie star in 1950s British cinema who’s unfortunately not well remembered — look at how Zulu is promoted these days on DVD covers and in commentaries using not Baker, but Michael Caine as the hook. But Baker, who had risen as a star playing scene-stealing louts and villains to become one of the first of a new breed of more explicitly rough-trade British movie star, put a lot of effort into fostering a strand of gritty, punchy, often socially relevant cinema. This made Endfield an ideal collaborator.
1957 was something of a watershed year for British cinema after many uncertain years following World War II, with David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai winning notice for prestige cinema, and Hammer Studio’s breakthrough with The Curse of Frankenstein signaling potential for the more disreputable kind. Meanwhile Brit-noir, under the powerful influence of Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), had percolated through the late ’40s and ’50s, often in very-low-budget thrillers and sometimes edging into war movies, with distinct imagery and themes that developed simultaneously to the American variety. Endfield followed in the tracks of his predecessor Jules Dassin in cross-breeding the two strands. Whilst, like American noir, the British variety had been powerfully influenced by Expressionism and French poetic realism from before the war, it also borrowed the veracity of Humphrey Jennings and John Grierson, documenting the waning days of imperial trade and industry amongst grimy streets, depleted shipyards, bomb sites, lingering austerity, and crummy jobs. Heroes were often relentlessly hounded.
One thing about Hell Drivers that catches the eye from a contemporary perspective is the number of future stars and cult figures in the cast: the first Doctor Who William Hartnell, the first James Bond Sean Connery, Danger Man and The Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, Man from U.N.C.L.E. costar David McCallum and his future wife Jill Ireland, Carry On alumnus Sid James, and Inspector Clouseau foil Herbert Lom. Hell Drivers also maintains a spiritual link to classic Warner Bros. social realism in the guise of punchy genre stuff, especially the likes of Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Manpower (1941). Endfield’s film, adapted by him and John Kruse from Kruse’s short story, commences with defeated and desperate Tom Yately (Baker) looking for a job at Hawletts, a construction company that employs drivers to cart loads of ballast gravel from a nearby quarry. Tom meets the agent who hires and runs the drivers, Cartley (Hartnell), who’s explicitly contemptuous, but seems vaguely impressed by Tom’s grit when he suggests to him, “You’re looking for a sucker, aren’t you?” Cartley is willing to turn a blind eye to Tom’s lack of credentials and self-evident status as a recent jailbird, just as Tom is willing to play the company’s game of driving heavy loads at dangerous speeds along narrow, rough, rural English roads for the sake of unusually high pay. Yately moves into a boarding house run by “Ma” West (Marjorie Rhodes) and is initiated into the circle of Hawlett’s drivers who all live there, too.
The drivers are mostly unruly roughnecks from various walks of the British working class, including Cockney wit Dusty (James), Tinker (Alfie Bass), a Scotsman (Gordon Jackson), Welshman Kates (Connery), and others. This collective is dominated by their pacesetter and foreman, “Red” Redman (McGoohan), a bristling, violent punk who keeps the team moving in the direction he wants with a mixture of physical bullying and showy, aggressively garrulous leadership. The only human amongst the drivers is Emmanuel Rossi (Lom), who, as an Italian, is stuck with the nickname Gino. A former prisoner of war who stuck around in England after the war, his essential decency is the chief reason he’s managed to snare the affections of Lucy (Peggy Cummins), Cartley’s denim-clad secretary who’s inevitably lusted after by all the boys. Once she slaps eyes on Tom, though, her affections transfer irrevocably, and Tom is equally attracted, but he maintains his distance as he becomes good friends with Gino. They form a partnership in an attempt to unseat Red as the pacesetter. There’s a reward in this effort: Red waves a cigarette case worth ₤250 in front of the crew’s noses each night, to be awarded to the man who can make more runs than Red, and Tom’s determined to be the man. With a chip on his shoulder after his prison stay, ostracised by his mother (Beatrice Varley), and hungry for self-respect, Tom wants both the cash and the glory. But he finds the odds against him lengthened when Red and the boys start a brawl at a social dance in the nearby town. Because Tom walks out on them, wishing to avoid trouble with the cops and disdaining that behaviour, Red labels him “Yellow-belly” and he faces relentless sabotage and insults from the team. This builds to a head when Gino convinces Tom to change truck numbers with him so that Gino absorbs the abuse and Tom has a clear field. Tom decides to leave town when Lucy breaks up with Gino and comes on to him, but Gino still goes ahead with the number swap, and is mortally injured when someone rides him off the road.
Hell Drivers is one of those films that feels like the beginning of something that would later gain momentum, with the emphasis on high-speed thrills that would be fulfilled in the car-chase craze of ’60s and ’70s genre films, through to the likes of The Fast and the Furious (2001). And yet it’s also the kind of film that virtually no one seems to be able to make anymore, in that it manages to effortlessly be many kinds of movie at once. It’s a pulp melodrama. It’s a character study. It’s a portrait of group dynamics, social processes, and ethical vices. It’s a neorealist, detail-driven portrait of people who actually work for a living, and those at the very fringes of modern Western society. Endfield’s angry, anti-establishment mood would prove to be the vanguard of a rich, new cultural zeitgeist. Most irresistibly, it’s obviously a vehicle for Endfield to express his outrage and frustration at the conspiracy of ostracism that chased him out of Hollywood. Whilst the story is bound up in a certain required amount of genre cliché, the deep motivations of the film, the emotional force of the underlying anger at being taunted and ridden into the ground by forces that are outrageous enough at first glance but hide an even more malevolent impetus, is palpable. Tom is blacklisted by the drivers for refusing to play along, and indeed by almost everyone else in his life. “For us it’s a life sentence!” his mother spitefully informs him when he returns home to visit her and his brother Jimmy (McCallum), eaten up by the ignominy. Notably, much as Endfield had worked under different names, Tom does, too—he first gives his name is Joe—and so is Gino, who obviously channels Endfield’s exile status.
It’s Endfield’s riposte to Elia Kazan’s squealer apologia On the Waterfront (1956) and his harder-driving, rebellious answer to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fatalistic The Wages of Fear (1953). That it was personal for Baker, too, is signaled when his character says he comes from a town in Wales named after a mountain above his own real home town. Climbing to the top of British cinema, which was still grooming its young would-be stars to be proper young gentlemen and ladies, must have indeed felt like climbing a mountain or outracing the bastards to Baker, his friend Richard Burton, and their followers, like Michael Caine and Albert Finney. Baker himself was a committed socialist. The film’s plot is explicitly about the exploitation of workers, a point that deepens when Tom finds out through Lucy that the scheme is a scam run by Red and Cartley, who is hiring fewer drivers than he’s budgeted for and pocketing the difference, and the “competition” Red inspires is to make sure the men make up for the lack of numbers. Red’s domination is due to the fact that he takes a short-cut across a dangerous abandoned quarry, and those who have tried to follow him across have often ended up dead, including Tom’s predecessor, whose “dead man’s shoes” Tom all but literally steps into. Tom’s troubles with Red and the gang commence long before he learns about the scam, however. Red’s first gesture in the film when he appears is to kick the chair upon which Tom sits out from under him. He’s committed the cardinal sin, set up as a vicious joke by the others, of sitting in Red’s place.
Red is embodied by McGoohan with bristling, oversized force. Chewing on cigarettes, sporting a sheepskin jacket when driving, and willing to do anything to maintain his bullish supremacy, McGoohan resembles some variety of Vandal or Viking strayed into the modern world, radiating physical power with his slightly hunched, apish shoulders signaling his perpetual readiness to pummel someone who gets in his road. It’s not a subtle performance, but it is a tremendously energetic, entertaining one that pushes both Yately and the plot along, and there is a truth in its vivid conflation of everything unattractive about the macho bully. Balancing it is Baker’s quietly excellent simplicity, apparent particularly in the scene in which he accepts his mother’s spurning with a momentary contemplation, and then, after a few unfussy words, leaves. He’s great playing a man who picks and chooses the battles he fights with great care, whilst refusing to let his mixture of shame and his desire to assert himself lock him into immobility. His and Red’s differing styles of arch masculinity finally, after endless provocation, erupt into fisticuffs. Yately roundly defeats Red, who puts the victory off onto some imaginary unsporting move of Tom’s. Red needs to maintain the image of the unbeatable man of action to keep the others in line. Gino, running interference for Tom during their efforts to unseat him, parks his truck in front of Red’s at one point: Red gets out and marches over in a rage to haul Gino out, only to open his door and see the huge spanner Gino is holding in readiness. Red gets a big laugh out of this challenge, even if it doesn’t disarm him in the slightest.
Around the central drama is an intricately described world, from Tom picking up a discarded spark plug from the Hawlett’s yard and kissing it like a rosary for luck, to Ma West getting Tom to do up the straps on her spine-supporting corset, to the small Catholic shrine Gino keeps in the vacant room Tom moves into in the boarding house, hiding it from the gaze of those who might laugh at him for it. There’s the seedy diner across the street where Jill (Ireland), Ma’s quiet young daughter, works. Jill’s crush on Tom is dashed when she sees the crackle between him and Lucy. Lucy is defined by an unusually determined independence, which fazes Tom, who hardly expects to be getting the hard word from a woman, least of all one his new best friend wants to marry. She vengefully stalks into the dance hall dressed to the nines and sparking the drivers to act like a pack of howler monkeys. Later, when Lucy breaks up with Gino, she comes to visit him whilst he works on his truck. Their flirtation suddenly combusts in a saucy moment as Tom kisses her neck and fumbles to put away the work lamp he’s holding, plunging them into dark. The dark is then broken, in an inspired and moody scene transition, by Gino’s lighting a match in the pitch darkness of his room in the boarding house: you can feel his solitude and humiliation, as well as the solace of the darkness. The triangle between the three is easily the film’s most superfluous element, but it’s worth noting that Lucy’s love is for Gino, much the same as Red’s cigarette case is for Tom, an illusory spur to a goal always out of reach.
Endfield’s feel for the American tradition is given away by the Western references in the storyline, from some of the occasional transatlantic slang that creeps in and character names, like Dusty and Red, that would pass in a Horse Opera, to the High Noon-ish final joust of Red and Tom. But the diner, the boarding house, the dance hall with its tacky swing band, the ramshackle Hawletts yard and the rural landscape dotted with industrial detritus, all fairly reek of the still-lingering depression and exhaustion of post-war, pre-Beatles England, a milieu that recurs again and again in Brit-noir. It’s not hard to sense why Tom, for all the reasons not to, hurls himself into the high-speed duel with Red and the system to try to win an edge, and the terse, get-on-with-the-job milieu has an unfussy honesty that feels a lot like the war is still being waged psychically. That’s especially telling on the only occasion the “officer” class appears, one of the senior managers of Hawletts, who arrives to break up Red and Tom’s fight. Tom, asked by Lucy if the rumours about his incarceration are true, retorts with refreshing honesty and refusal of pathos: “Yes, it’s true. And I wasn’t framed, and nobody talked me into anything. And the judge didn’t give me a raw deal!”
The kinetic force of Hell Drivers, introduced by a first-person camera charging along the roads in the opening credits, is quite remarkable for a film of the period. Although the under-cranking of the footage to boost the impression of the trucks’ speed gets a bit obvious in places, the pace and sharpness of the editing isn’t to be denied, and it’s also admirable that there isn’t a moment of back-projection in the film. There’s one quickly glimpsed bit of model work, but the rest of the movie is utterly three-dimensional. There’s a particularly riveting sequence early in the film in which Tom is shown the ropes by Hawletts’ old-timer mechanic Ed (Wilfred Lawson), who pulls out his stop-watch to time Tom’s run from the gravel pit to the yard. Even after Tom crashes off the road, forced to swerve by two other oncoming trucks, Ed reminds him the clock’s still ticking. If there’s a major fault with the film, it’s that the subplot about Cartley’s malfeasance and collaboration with Red in screwing over the drivers is introduced too late, and Red’s forcing Cartley to join him in his final attempt to kill Tom whilst he traverses the old quarry is a bit too convenient a way of knocking off both baddies. Also, Lom’s Italian accent is-a bit-a hard-a to take-a.
A key aide to Endfield’s rigorous cinema is cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. With his grandiose work on the likes of The Lion in Winter and 2001: A Space Odyssey still well ahead of him, his work here with Endfield sees VistaVision frames filled with islands of casually brilliant deep-focus photography, capturing shots bustling with actors and variegated source lighting, and interesting levels of action diffusing throughout those frames. When Red first appears, Endfield situates McGoohan not in the rear of a frame, or emerging into the shot, but front and centre in a deeply composed, almost painterly shot in which he lifts his head from a washtub in the back of the diner, with the dining table loaded with the other drivers and Tom seated in Red’s chair in the background and Jill and the diner owner in the mid-ground. Red turns, observes the drivers, Jill eyes Red, speaks a warning to him; Red patronisingly cups her chin and then walks over to Tom. Red’s physical potency and eye on his target are all immediately conveyed. Later, there’s an equally sharp moment in which Tom, fleeing town, stands in a phone booth, calling his brother and making arrangements to contact his old criminal pals again. In the background, Lucy enters and flurries about barely noticed for several seconds before spotting Tom and racing forth to extract him. The use of the focus here is as good as that of Wyler and Mizoguchi, confirms what Endfield had learnt from Welles, and anticipates the intelligence of the widescreen work of Zulu. Another felicitous moment sees Tom and Lucy, waiting for word of Gino’s condition in the hospital; the shot peers along the centre of the corridor, but Tom and Lucy are crowded by their own guilt and worry to one edge of the frame.
Even in the fairly regulation climax, there’s a great little succession of almost throwaway detail: Red doesn’t realise it, but he’s taken Tom’s sabotaged truck to chase him down, for Tom has gone off with Red’s. Red only just realises this a moment before his brakes fail, pitching him and Cartley off the side of a cliff, one of their bodies hurled out the windscreen as the truck hits the bottom in a lovely punitive flourish. The tension doesn’t let up until literally the final moments, as Tom revives within his own smashed truck, which is hanging on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the gravel in the tray to slowly pour out before he scrambles out of the cab. The chains of cause and effect here are both naturalistic yet intricately plotted. Endfield and Baker reunited a year later with Sea Fury (1958), where they tried and failed to repeat the elements of this film, but still came up with a strong action climax. In any event, Hell Drivers is British noir at its gamey best. It’s worth noting, however, that the British Free Cinema, which would soon rise up and displace this sort of melodrama whilst also taking up some aspects of it, would offer up characters like Albert Finney’s in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), who act in ways rather closer to Red than to Tom, starting fights in dance halls and getting wasted, and yet were the heroes.
In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowski brothers’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.
Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high-profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.
Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists, after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.
Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off, and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.
Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.
The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he floors the notion that action is character. The casual shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches gives away a lot, though it also opens yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.
A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and fascism always sharply remembered on the edge of memory), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.
Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects.
Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Mendoza can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive. Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.
What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Mendoza, and even some of the white supremacists.
That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources (no wonder Mann’s been kicking about the notion of shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls). Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Mendoza to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans. The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.
Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.
After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated but with Mendoza having escaped.
Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.
The excitement is building as we are only two weeks away from the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon! Farran and I are getting ready to link like there’s no tomorrow, and my blog partner Rod stands at the ready to work the WordPress Dashboard to take your calls, er, well you know what I mean.
We’ve got a dedicated donation link and commitments to write from
..Leonard Maltin of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy
..Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder
..Ed Howard of Only the Cinema
..Patricia Schneider at The Lady Eve’s Reel Life
..Vanwall Green at Vanwall’s Land
..Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark
..Joshua Ranger of AudioVisual Preservation Solutions
..Donna Hill at Strictly Vintage Hollywood
..Ben Kenigsberg at Time Out Chicago
..David Steece of Randomaniac
..Beth Ann Gallagher at Spellbound
..Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
..Jacqueline Fitzgerald of Film Noir Blonde
..Bill Ryan at The Kind of Face You Hate
..Betty Jo Tucker of Reel Talk Movie Reviews
..R. D. Finch at The Movie Projector
..Peter Gutierrez at Tribeca
..Bob Fergusson at Allure
..Steve-O at Film Noir of the Week and Back Alley Noir
..Brian Darr at Hell on Frisco Bay
..DeeDee at Darkness to Light
..Hilary Barta at Limerwrecks
..Hedwig Van Driel at As Cool as a Fruit Stand
..Paula Vitaris at Paula’s Movie Page
..Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog
..Tinky Weisblat of In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens
..Doug Bonner at PostModern Joan
..Kevin Olson at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
..Gareth at Gareth’s Movie Diary
..Meredith of Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax
..Java Bean Rush
..John Greco of Twenty-Four Frames
..Vince Keenan at VinceKeenan.com
..Ivan G. Shreve of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
..Darren at The Movie Blog
..Brandie of True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film
..Mat Viola of Notes of a Film Fanatic
..Joe Thompson from The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion
..Bill Wren of Piddleville
..Ms. Zebra of Germans Like Heavy Make-Up
..Bryce Wilson of Things That Don’t Suck
..Arthur S. at …this pig’s alley
..Gautam Valluri of The Broken Projector
..Christian Esquevin of Silver Screen Modiste
..Caroline Shapiro at Garbo Laughs
..Neil Sarver of The Bleeding Tree
.. John Weagly of Captain Spaulding on Skull Island
..Hind Mezaina of The Culturist
..Toby Roan of 50 Westerns from the 50s
..David Cairns of Shadowplay
..Craig Simpson of The Man from Porlock
..Edward Copeland on Film
..Laura of Laura’s Misc. Musings
..Machelle Allman of Venetian Blond
..Nicholas Pillai of Squeeze Gut Alley
..Ben Alpers, Ray Haberski, David Sehat, Tim Lacy, and Andrew Hartman of the U.S. Intellectual History Blog
..Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies
..Ryan Kelly at Medfly Quarantine
..Mr. K of Mr. K’s Geek Cornucopia
..The Derelict at Libertas and Dereliction Row
..Noel Vera of Critic After Dark
..Michael Cusdin of Cinema Ramble
..Kristen Sales of Sales on Film
..Trish of I Wake Up Screaming
..Cathy Whitlock at Cinema Style
..R. Emmet Sweeney of Movie Morlocks
..Susan Doll of Facets
..Sean Axmaker and his cohorts at Parallax View and Videodrone
..Dr. Morbius of Krell Laboratories
..Jaime Christley of Unexamined Essentials
..Gordon D of Blog THIS, Pal!
..Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano of These Amazing Shadows Blog
..David Ehrenstein of Fablog
..Kim Morgan of Sunset Gun
..Glenn Kenny of Some Came Running
..Lou Lumenick of the New York Post
..Catherine Grant of Film Studies for Free
..Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule
..The Zoe at Floating Zoetropes
..KC at Classic Movie Blog
..Ariel Schudson at Sinamatic Salve-ation
..Rob at Starts Thursday
..Mk Rath of Project Ehmkay Ultra
..Christa Faust of Deadlier than the Male
..Emma at All About My Movies
More and more bloggers are answering the call; please be one of them and tell us “I’m there” in the comments here, at The Self-Styled Siren, or on our Facebook fan page.
Eddie Muller, the president of the organization we’re funding, the Film Noir Foundation, has been touting the blogathon all through the very successful NOIR CITY 9, which just concluded in San Francisco, and he is promising something very special for our event. He’s pulled together some great raffle prizes, too: full set of all nine NOIR CITY posters, the brand-new deluxe DVD edition of The Prowler; a DVD documentary on Eddie called The Czar of Noir and featuring his short film with Marsha Hunt, The Grand Inquisitor; a set of all 3 NOIR CITY SENTINEL annuals; programs from NOIR CITY 8 and 9; and an autographed copy of Eddie’s first novel The Distance. We’ve also got an original drawing of Lloyd Bridges being done exclusively for our blogathon by renowned illustrator Steve Brodner and a signed and framed art photo of some of the old, unrestored Castro Theater seats from Donna Hill of Strictly Vintage Hollywood by noted photographer R. A. McBride. And we’re working on a few more.
The most exciting new offering we have is a commercial for the blogathon from Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles, who provided the great banner ads for the blogathon that I’ve seen far and wide across the blogosphere. Please feel free to embed the ad on your site or link to it. Greg’s really outdone himself this year.
You can read all the detail at the Siren’s place, and I encourage you to do so so you’ll be ready to roll. For the Love of Film (Noir), let’s make this the biggest event online!
I remember wondering back in the mid ’90s if Steven Spielberg had retired from directing after Schindler’s List (1993), his colossal, uneven holocaust diorama, finally brought him the widespread admiration as a cinema artist he seemed to have been longing for. Four years passed between Schindler’s List and The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997), and that comeback was enough to make many wish he’d stayed away. I recall enjoying the entirely superfluous sequel to his signal 1993 hit rather more than the original, but it was hard to deny it encapsulated many of his least-favourable traits. And yet, as he’s done often throughout his career, he released his moneyspinner in near-tandem with a personal, more archly solemn work—Amistad.
Amistad was the middle film of what I’ve come to think of as his “Historical Conscience” trilogy, with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as its bookends, and it was, for the most part, received coolly and was soon eclipsed by Private Ryan’s orgiastic reception. Amistad neglected the gloriously oversized raptures of his first two dramas, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and much of the self-conscious largesse of its triptych companions. Instead it was, on the face of it, a sober, talky tale that encompasses America’s greatest guilt complex, the transatlantic slave trade, in the form of a courtroom drama. The naked appeals to audience involvement and empathy that rendered Schindler’s List troublesome to some, and his overt efforts to bring a newly visceral, confrontational sense of violence that would find grand consummation in Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening, were both dialed back, and the horrors of the situation at hand explored more tangentially.
I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Yes, seeing perpetual beach bum Matthew McConaughey in the film is actually more distracting now than it was at the time when he was still a fresh-minted star. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of Spielberg’s several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.
Some obvious statements first: Amistad’s a film that aimed to do for the African-American experience, which Spielberg had articulated his sympathy with in The Color Purple, what Schindler’s List had done for his own Jewish identity—to contextualise horrific aspects of its past, and to explicate a new paradigm for it. It’s modern in theme, insomuch as that it’s about nascent multiculturalism and self-empowerment rather than merely showing white guys being so kind as to stop enslaving black people. Or, at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also a film that clearly signals how Spielberg was willing to use his clout as a mainstream cinema hero to make films that push the boundaries of what that mainstream cinema can and should do. Only a few lines of dialogue are translated into English in the film’s first 20 minutes, and that opening relies instead almost purely on visual storytelling; later parts are purely about speaking and listening.
Amistad draws its ironic title from the vessel La Amistad, which is transporting a boatload of illegally enslaved men and women from Mendiland (in present-day Sierra Leone) in 1839. The ship is taken over by those slaves after one of them, Singbe Pieh, renamed Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) by his captors, mounts an escape and leads his fellows in a slaughter of their tormentors. The Mende keep two of the Spanish crew of slavemasters, Ruiz and Calderon (Geno Silva and Tomas Milian), alive to steer them home. But that duo contrives to hug the American coast, and the rebels are captured by a U.S. navy frigate and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut.
The question as to whether they’re guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas, or whether they are, in fact, merely property to be returned to their owners, is central to the trial, as several parties, including Ruiz and Calderon, the Spanish government, and the American officers who “salvaged” them, contend for the prize. Abolitionist journalists Joadson and Tappan (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) make the defence of the Africans their project. After an aborted effort to convince former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now an embittered and distracted U.S. Senator, to represent their cause, the journalists eventually hire property-rights attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to be the defendants’ advocate. He’s the only local lawyer willing to take the case, but his pragmatic reading of the issues at stake seems rather ignoble for the abolitionists. Yet his notion that merely proving that the slaves are from Africa rather than Cuban plantations will make all other points void proves persuasive; under the hypocritical, but consequential law of the time, the enslavement of free-born people was illegal, and the Africans had every right to commit insurrection in such a circumstance. Baldwin argues this case with the help of a manifest that he and Joadson locate on the La Amistad, which details how the Africans were transported across the Atlantic in an infamous slave ship, the Tecora. But with elections coming up, President Martin Van Buren (a splendidly craven Nigel Hawthorn), fearing loss of votes in Dixie, has his Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) and underling Hammond (Xander Berkeley) begin influencing the case. They have the first judge on the case (Allan Rich) dismissed and replaced by the handpicked Coglin (Jeremy Northam), whom they assume to be malleable because he is both at the start of his career and Catholic, then a handicap.
David Franzoni’s otherwise highly intelligent script leans on some familiar touches for elucidating sympathy and humour, mostly in the transformation of Baldwin from the antebellum equivalent of an ambulance-chasing douchebag into a man with a burgeoning sense of shared humanity, and the wait for Adams to come out swinging like a dry, drawling, legalistic Rocky. But such flourishes are, for me anyway, part of the film’s appeal, partly because they’re not oversold and because they establish the film’s credentials as old-fashioned, melodramatic agitprop. And they’re also part of the texture in a story that’s as much about the potential for noble institutions to be both cyclically corrupted and cleansed, depending of the mettle of the people engaging with them, as it is about the history of slavery. It’s also, of course, a film about humanity and its capacity to be both horrendous and virtuous, sometimes all at once and in fierce, virtually surreal opposition. Amistad is also perhaps Spielberg’s most sophisticated exploration of his most important recurring theme: the difficulties and beauties of communication. Revisiting Amistad to write this piece, it occurred to me that Spielberg’s career unfolded in the wrong direction. If he had made a film like this first, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he would have been congratulated for adapting his serious themes for a larger audience. Instead the cheap shot that’s always been used to attack his dramatic films has been the old “stick to making movies about dinosaurs” line.
Amistad’s opening contains some of the most vivid images of Spielberg’s career, thanks to his great find, the Polish-born cinematographer Kaminski, obscure before he provided Schindler’s List’s monochromatic ferocity. Boiling the film’s metaphysical and corporeal concerns down to a single act, the opening depicts Cinqué’s colossal, sweat-bejewelled brow as he tries to dig a rivet from out of the wooden frame of the hull, his nails scratching at the splinters and caked in blood, the unbearably slow, squeaking slide of the rivet out of its place to pick the lock on his chains. The imagery—the martyred man’s intense self-mortification, the drawing of the great spike—suggests crucifixion in reverse, and the resonances will spread throughout the coming narrative. Cinqué and his fellows emerge into a storm-thrashed night, and the hulking African warrior, every bit as terrifying as the tyrannosaurs that stalked Jurassic Park, roars with inconsolable fury as he slaughters his enemy. Later, when he tries to puzzle out Ruiz and Calderon’s deceptions, he turns the wheel of the boat whilst studying the way it affects the position of the stars: there’s something ineffably primal in the image of the aboriginal man evolving into a Copernican astronomer and seafarer. Cinqué connects to other Spielbergian protagonists who gaze at the night sky—Roy Neary, Quint, Indiana Jones, Elliott—and tried to puzzle out their place in the universe’s scheme. Whilst coming from a less “civilised” civilisation, he’s still a man, and far from stupid; on the contrary, he possesses the capacity to puzzle out a challenging, hostile, bizarre world with relentless ingenuity and determination, and he knows the stars as a map for his own world, too.
Shortly after, the La Amistad drifts past a ship on which a party of ritzy folk are dining. The immediate contrast, of the pretentious gentility of the white westerners and the fearful, frazzled Africans, is easily evident, but the scene echoes on deeper levels. Spielberg stages it with a ghostly aura that’s reminiscent of the way John Carpenter shot the appearance of the phantom ship in The Fog (1980), and like that film, it’s about angry spectres from crimes of profit resurging out of the mystic sea. The brief vision each ship’s parties have of each other seems charged with oppositional mystery and threat, as if neither belongs to the same world, each as unreal as the other. The physical nature of the scene—the dense fog, the creak of the ships’ rigging, the lilting elegance of a string quartet, the bleakly mystified gazes of the Africans and the perturbed returned stares of the whites—makes it seem like a fever dream where wildly disparate versions of humanity are as strange and irreconcilable as any men and monsters in Spielberg’s genre tales. Soon enough, the Mende find themselves locked within not only an alien country, but also an alien system of laws, letters, language, and presumptions that are almost entirely inimical to their own hitherto self-evident identity. When they’re captured, Cinqué’s determination to remain free sees him resort first to trying to swim home, and then to try to drown himself, but his will to live is finally greater.
Communication now becomes imperative, both legally and interpersonally. Amistad is a rare film, especially in modern Hollywood, that privileges words, laws, vision, and oratory on the same level as physical action and heroism. What words mean, and what they’re used for, are profoundly important things in this society, and defeating slavery and injustice is also a matter of defeating a dominant discourse. When the Mende are being escorted into prison, Cinqué and his fellows bellow in outrage and protest, and the guards treat this with contempt. Cinqué has his hand crushed in a gate by a jailer simply to get him to enter a cell. Many confrontations finish up with the hapless Africans shouting incoherently at the jailers and bristling at perceived threats and insults that make no sense to them. The problem of how to make the Africans understand their exact situation and allow them to tell their story—as Adams insists is a prerequisite for winning any case—presses upon their defenders. Here Amistad, whilst not losing its main focus, becomes a kind of screwball comedy of constantly repelled and cross-purpose communicative gambits, with the flustered Baldwin and the bemused, angry Cinqué cast in the functional roles of two potential brothers who need to learn how to speak to each other. The first translator Baldwin digs up, an anthropology professor (Austin Pendleton), fails to understand the Mende dialect and so makes up translations. Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan have to scour the docks reciting words in Mende to dig up a native speaker, finally getting one in the form of James Covey (Ejiofor), a Mende who, after being rescued off a slave ship himself, became a sailor in the navy that saved him—the British navy.
That irony, that the nominal early enemies of American freedom actively fought against slavery in the post-Wilberforce era, is oft-repeated in Amistad. Against this is pitted mordant humour in the spectacle of Spain’s 11-year-old ruler Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) and her patronisingly anti-democratic advisors trying to gain what they see as natural justice out of the trial. During the trial, Peter Firth makes an appearance as Captain Fitzgerald, a British officer who’s working to disrupt the slave trade and whose expert testimony is belittled by the state’s prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite); Fitzgerald’s increasing irritation and disdain are all too obvious under the stiff upper lip, in a scene full of dark foreboding and threatening undercurrents. Covey provides the vital link between the Mende and their defenders, and Cinqué can then tell his story.
Where Amistad makes for a fascinating and intelligent extension to, and auto-critique of, Schindler’s List is in the way Spielberg goes to such lengths to unfold his story. In this way, he places the pain and necessity of remembering, the confusion of witnessing, and the difficulty of proof in a more important position. To win his case, Cinqué must recount the dreadful things that he saw and went through—being kidnapped from his home village, being kept in the slave trading fortress of Lomboko and then transported on the Tecora, and comprehending brutality that seems beyond all understanding. Whippings, rapes, and degradations. Men and women chained together and flung overboard. A woman giving birth in the huddled battery-farmlike lower decks of the ship and then promptly dying as her child is passed over the enchained ranks of slaves to its father. Another woman, suckling the baby, hurls herself and it to their deaths in the sea to escape this nonexistence. It’s a story the meaning of which Cinqué himself can’t comprehend, even as it finally contextualises his mad screams of bloodlust in his revolt. Holabird calls it a “good work of fiction,” even as Fitzgerald calmly explains the reasons for all the apparently incomprehensible acts of carnage as being merely cold pragmatism on the slavers’ part.
This notion that witnessing and testimony are vital in making society face up to shameful things is powerful and ever-relevant. It also allows Spielberg to avoid some of the problems that beset his approach to Holocaust: the fragmented landscape of atrocity in Amistad is selectively recalled and therefore free of any overneat sense of dramatic cause and effect. Cinqué’s subsequent survival and ability to speak about it are as much through chance as anything else, even if his own story is one of heroism and refusal to submit, and he holds on to his experiences like random shards of a nightmare. Overcoming the willful ignorance of a society in which the internet wasn’t even a thought and photography was just being invented, it was all too easy to ignore the truth of such situations, and this proves to be both a key to the trial and the overwhelming problem facing the abolitionists. Identity is a problematic notion. Proving who the Mende are is fraught with difficulty, and yet it’s not limited to them. Joadson, whose nightmarish experience in the La Amistad’s hold conjures his forefathers’ transportation as a perfervid race memory, is trying to come to terms with his own exceptional freeman status, and even Adams, whose own burden, that of his seeming inadequacy after his sire John Adams (“The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name!” Forsyth has previously derided), is reiterated constantly.
The process of what is known in contemporary postcolonial and structuralist studies as the construction of Otherness is seen in many forms in Amistad’s early sections, with the lack of dialogue as the key to the enforced portrait of the Africans as subhuman. There’s an intricate play on structuralist signs at work here, for the first actual subtitled line from one of the Mende is when he mistakes a black slave coachman for a chief because of his apparently exalted position on top of the carriage he steers. The Mende’s sense of the world’s signs are schematic and easily associative, full of direct meaning, which becomes all too apparent later when Covey, during a fraught conversation between Cinqué and Baldwin, explains to the frustrated lawyer that there is no Mende word for “should.” Cinqué’s friend and fellow prisoner Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) first likens Baldwin’s overeager manner to a man who was employed as a dung scraper in their village, and Cinqué murmurs that such a man might actually be what they need. Cinqué is ambivalent about the esteem his fellow Mende hold him in, for he was given preeminence as a warrior in their society for slaying a marauding lion, a feat he accomplished, he confesses to Baldwin, only by the lucky throw of a stone. The echoes of this story are clear—David and Goliath, obviously, but also, more pertinently, the finale of Jaws (1975)—thus clearly constituting Cinqué as one of Spielberg’s monster-slaying Everymen. Baldwin, too, is evolving into a lion slayer, and he has to remind Cinqué of the other lion he slew, the rebellion he led on the La Amistad, to recharge Cinqué’s sense of potency.
Spielberg’s customarily ambivalent take on religion bobs up throughout Amistad, a film which vibrates with echoes of parable. Such is particularly apparent in a lengthy, almost dreamy sequence in which Yamba reads through the bible handed to him by one of the abolitionists, and teases out for Cinqué that narrative he gleans from the engraved plates that tell Christ’s tale. This moment celebrates the power of visual storytelling as well as the potential for the beauty of faith to be easily communicated. But other underpinnings of this scene have already been suggested in moments in which the Africans are bewildered by the severe look of the Quakers who form the core of their abolitionist support that bolsters an otherwise jeering, hateful crowd surrounding the courthouse. Cinqué now sees signifiers of the hitherto mysterious religion of the Americans everywhere, even on the masts of ships, and interprets the Christ tale and the look of the abolitionists as involving a deeply morbid quality that permeates white western society that will sacrifice the Mende as Christ was when the time arrives. “That’s when they will finally kill us,” Cinqué states to Adams, when asked what will happen at the Supreme Court. This suggestion has an aspect of truth. Tappan’s tendency to reduce issues to flowery abstraction proves finally to mask an attitude to the matter at hand that’s less about saving specific lives than crusading on “the battlefield of righteousness,” or self-righteousness. He entertains the notion that the slaves are of more use to the cause dead than alive, which causes Joadson to break with him.
As much as there’s an overwhelming sense of deistic yearning, however playfully concealed, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg’s interest in religion always centers chiefly on how it acts as social cement and form of heritage—as another form of communication for the passing along parables and legends as exemplars and embodiments of values. Cinqué reminds Yamba, “This is just a story,” but the point is that no story is just a story. Yamba’s explication is crosscut with images of Coglin worshipping in church. Far from being a reason to obey Forsyth’s wishes in the case, for Coglin his Catholic conscience is plainly part of the reason he finds in favour of the self-evident truth that the men of La Amistad are freeborn.
I’ve noted before in my commentary on Temple of Doom what an extremely musical director Spielberg can be, and that quality is subtly evident throughout Amistad. That cross-cutting between Yamba’s explication and Coglin’s worship works in a clearly contrapuntal fashion, and the sequence before that is a great example of Spielberg’s capacity to build towards climaxes and then let them fall away, in a fashion that resembles a Bruckner symphony. The scene in which Holabird grills Fitzgerald is staged as the courtroom, mostly illuminated by external ambient light, is filled with the infernal glow of dusk light as the smouldering tension between Fitzgerald and Holabird and their opposing worldviews becomes acute. Cinqué, seated in the dock, begins to silently panic as he reads the room, a plethora of tiny, insignificant details like twiddled cane knobs and the sheen of sweat Fitzgerald’s hand leaves on the wood of the witness bench, suddenly charged with suffocating meaning: he comes now to comprehend that the simple truth he recounted on the stand might still be lost, and now begins to speak his first words in fractured English (“Give us…us free!”) first in a fierce whisper and then in a righteous bellow. It’s corny on one level, but it’s also a sequence built with sublime technical and artistic care. Then it subsides again as if some random moment of humanity has somehow punctured the glaze of legal process. This is also vitally important in that it’s the first time Cinqué can make his sentiments crystal clear to the society now holding him captive. And yet this is only a small example of the many small swells and retreats in the film’s rhythm, which, of course, builds to a literally explosive climax and melancholic diminuendo.
Another aspect of the innate musicality is, as ever, John Williams’ music score, which could actually be the pinnacle of his and Spielberg’s collaboration, and that is saying something. Williams’ music, blending African themes with sweeping Copland-esque Americana, achieves aurally what the film attempts to do thematically—to draw out the common ground of disparate cultures and celebrate humanistic resistance to tyranny—with the recurring theme “Dry Your Tears, Africa” first heard in embryonic form when Adams prods Joadson about the importance of telling stories and rising with expansive heroism in later scenes. Adams finally joins the fight proper when his august expertise becomes necessary. That comes after Coglin finds in favour of the Africans. Van Buren is scared by the glowering auguries of Adams’ former vice president and slavery advocate John Calhoun (a keen cameo by Arliss Howard) that the unfavourable outcome of the case might not only lose Van Buren the election but might add fuel to the budding secessionist cause. So Van Buren has the case referred on to the Supreme Court, of which, Baldwin notes, seven of the nine members are slave-owning southerners.
Amistad was one of two prominent films of 1997—the other being Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—to lead to a climactic argument in front of the Supreme Court. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite once took a sharp jab at Schindler’s List: “After making hundreds of millions of dollars, Spielberg finally decided to make a film with social content: the Nazis were bad! Wow!” In such a light, it’s not a small thing to note that Amistad is Spielberg’s most political film prior to Munich, in the sense that it is a clear assault on conservative readings of a constitution put together by revolutionaries. The nearly 10-minute final summation by Adams, a joyous piece of marathon theatrical showmanship on Hopkins’ part, is more than just a clear nod to such capping scenes in classic films like A Free Soul, Young Mr. Lincoln, Inherit the Wind, and A Man For All Seasons, but also a philosophical exegesis. Adams sets out to establish Cinqué as a man, and an heroic one at that, for both the court and the sake of conservative and phallogenocentric sensibilities that regard the struggles of black men as less immediately worthy of depiction and transmission (“If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about, the great authors of our time would fill books about him!”). But he also channels Cinqué’s cultural understanding of his ancestors as direct aides in his life, in a spiritual sense, into an invocation of the capacity of heroic exemplars of all kinds to be spurs to right action.
Adams, too, learns to embrace such a legacy not as a burden but an inspiration, and a challenge, memorably suggesting that the Declaration of Independence be torn up if Calhoun’s credo is to be taken seriously, and actively pits the idealistic creed of the revolution in opposition to Van Buren’s cynical real politik and Calhoun’s pretentious white supremacy. This is Spielberg casting an eye on the meandering fashion in which the precepts of the American founding documents were used to achieve great breakthroughs in the time of Spielberg’s own youth in resistance to reactionary sentiments, and also another invocation of a sense of community that is larger and grander than the conveniently individualistic. “Who we are is who we were,” Adams reports, meditatively. Such a notion of overarching stories and awareness of culture, the inescapability of the past—and that not necessarily being a bad thing—which enfolds and overlaps with our present, individual selves, also infuses the other films in the Historical Conscience trilogy.
The payoff is Cinqué’s second liberation, the manacles now finally taken off his hands in the courtroom, and then, the consummation of the carefully controlled rhythm, where the film lets slip at last and offers up the rousing thunder, as Fitzgerald’s rifles and cannons smash Lomboko Fortress into rubble, its masters lying with smoking bullet holes in their flesh and their enslaved population flowing to freedom. There’s clear visual affinity there to the kids escaping the Thugee’s caverns in Temple of Doom, the film that first invoked Spielberg’s emancipationist concerns. There’s a bit of license here. Lomboko was wiped out in 1849, eight years after John Forsyth, to whom Fitzgerald dictates a pithy letter once the fortress has been smashed, ceased to be Secretary of State. But the impact of this moment is still colossal. Yet Amistad’s final note is perhaps the most outright tragic Spielberg left off on since The Sugarland Express, with Cinqué, his fellows, and Covey too, making their way back to Africa, where civil war and the decimation of his village awaits, just as it looms in the America he’s left behind. Even those who beat the odds of history must still bow to it. l
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