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 (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), and even the deranged female fan of Misery (1990) 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 feminist 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 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 (1941), 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 Wachowskis’ 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 pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening 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 the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), 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 Montoya 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, Montoya, 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 Montoya 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 Montoya 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 (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. 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
When Farran Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren) and I first started talking about doing a fundraising blogathon for film preservation, we didn’t know how much interest we would generate. Our choice of charity to support, the National Film Preservation Foundation, concentrates a great deal of its attention on rescuing the most endangered American films—silent films. And love for silent films is rabid, but not widespread.
Happily, when the blogathon was over, we’d found that a lot of people did indeed love silent films: we raised $30,000 in donations and matching funds and fielded 108 contributions from 81 bloggers. Furthermore, everyone who participated in the blogathon was so excited about our collective accomplishment and receiving credit for saving two important shorts from the 1910s, that we couldn’t not consider having another one.
We’re pleased to announce our second fundraiser, For the Love of Film (Noir), to benefit the Film Noir Foundation. If you’ve been as lucky as I have to attend the FNF’s Noir City, you know they present a terrific line-up, including lesser-known noir films that can’t be seen any other way. This summer, I was thrilled to see a film FNF president Eddie Muller wrote about for the first For the Love of Film blogathon, Cry Danger, as well as City That Never Sleeps, a noir shot in my own hometown, on the only 35mm print known to exist.
While silent films are most in danger, films from every era are being lost as prints disintegrate and disappear. You might be able to find some obscure noir films on an old VHS tape or recorded off TV, the print scratchy, missing scenes, or studded with commercials. That’s no way to treat a film. There is simply nothing like seeing these films the way they were meant to be seen. By helping the FNF, you will be supporting the important preservation and exhibition work they do, not only for American noir films, but also for those produced all over the world.
Last year, we didn’t know what films we would be helping to restore, but this year, we do! In 1950, United Artists released a searing drama called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. The film recounts the same story Fritz Lang told in Fury (1936) and was directed by Cy Endfield, who would run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Its star, Lloyd Bridges, never had a better role, and Eddie told me that when Jeff and Beau Bridges finally saw the film, they were blown away by his performance. 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 hope bloggers far and wide will join in what is bound to be a gigantic party. Once again, we’ll be offering helpful advice and taking suggestions from the film community on the For the Love of Film Facebook fan page, which we’ll be adding to regularly. Become a fan, and take a look around in the coming weeks for suggestions of topics, discussions about the blogathon, information about film preservation, and a lot more. And go to the For the Love of Film blog, where Cinema Styles’ Greg Ferrara has posted the banners he created for use on your own blog and Facebook page to promote participation and awareness.
We’ll have raffle prizes again this year, and perhaps a few more surprises. And seeing as the season of giving is upon us, think about making a donation to the FNF during this tax year. The more we all give, the more films they can preserve and exhibit.
For the love of film . . . please support The Film Preservation Blogathon.l
This is an entry in The John Huston Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies.
Whenever the subject of profoundly underrated movies comes up, John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s legendary novel is one I think of immediately. Melville’s colossal work, with its multifaceted symbols and thickets of Victorian prose, is impossible to condense entirely as a film, and yet Huston managed the ungodly job of reducing that tome to two vigorous, sensual, incantatory hours of cinema. If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, I’d put it ahead of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as my personal choice for Huston’s masterpiece. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time.
Huston wrote the script with Ray Bradbury—now there’s an unexpected partnership for you—and maintained his practise of sticking as close to the letter of a text as possible, which, in the case of Melville’s work, demands adjustment to the sonorous musicality and archaism of the dialogue. It is, of course, adaptation, and yet Huston’s fascination for characters whose private madness manifests as obsessive, self-destructive, but officially aspirational quest, the most consistent of his themes in the first part of his long and ragged career, is immediately personal. He had travelled from the modest symbol of the Maltese Falcon through to the gold dust of the Sierra Madre, the revolution of We Were Strangers (1949), the heist of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952), and later, the psychoanalysis of Freud (1962) and the preaching of Wise Blood (1979). The object of this quest evolved from mere corrosive greed to something deeper, an unquenchable need to control the world through some lens, in his protagonists. Like Lautrec and Treasure’s Fred C. Dobbs, Captain Ahab’s a man degraded in worldly condition who nonetheless tries to prove himself equal to gods in his own way.
Moby Dick came at a fraught time for Huston, who was entering the middle and still rather underregarded phase of his directing career, which extended more or less to 1972’s Fat City. Huston’s epochal run of collaborations with Humphrey Bogart had recently ended with the square flop of his leisurely, self-satirising comedy-thriller Beat the Devil (1954), which lost Bogart a lot of money. If the years to come saw Huston’s oeuvre lose the shape associated with many great directors, his efforts to expand the lexicon of mainstream cinema’s expressive techniques whilst maintaining reverence for good writing didn’t go anywhere.
When Ishmael (Richard Basehart) issues his famous introduction, Huston kicks off a subtly rapturous piece of filmmaking that accompanies his meditations on the mystic gravity of water: Ishmael appears in the frame silhouetted against the sky, and then proceeds downhill, following the paths of cataracts and streams until they lead him to the sea and New Bedford itself. When he arrives there, the patrons of the Spouter Inn, including genial innkeeper Peter Coffin (Joseph Tomelty) and fiercely friendly sailor Stubbs (Harry Andrews), induct Ishmael into the peculiar fellowship of whalers, and then glimpse the ivory-legged Ahab in a flash of lightning, limping by the inn. Huston builds up the presence of Ahab as a being of fear and force with tremendous skill, even though he doesn’t make a proper appearance until more than a half-hour into the film, through the relentless drum of his false leg on the deck of the Pequod and the reactions of other men to his twisted, foreboding form: “His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man,” Quaker agent Peleg (Mervyn Johns) advises Ishmael. When he finally does appear, he’s a gross fusion of the natural and unnatural, stalwart Yankee and shaman, fused with the bone of the whales he decimates and idolises in the most perverse of fashions.
Whilst remaining keenly faithful to the book Huston stages Moby Dick as a succession of lengthy and intricate sequences, so that structurally his film is less novelistic than symphonic (the importance of Philip Sainton’s flavourful, frenzied score, amazingly enough his only work for the movies, is inestimable). After Ishmael’s arrival, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple (Orson Welles, in a splendidly judged piece of arch character acting), where Huston’s camera drifts up the centre aisle, passing by the singing congregants engaged in social ritual and religious contract, whilst the wall, sporting the memorial markers for the dozens of men lost at sea engaged in New Bedford’s business, tells its own version of the story of whaling. It’s a shot that welds the communal and the private, the historic, the physical and metaphysical, the emotional and the ironic all together. Mapple himself, preaching his ferocious version of the tale of Jonah and the whale (what sermon does he give every other week?), presents the first visual and thematic correlation between mystic and master, in climbing onto his pulpit fashioned like a ship’s prow. In much the same way, and with an equally fervent but more equivocal, bizarre fashion, Ahab preaches the sermon of the white whale and the necessity of destroying it to his bewitched crew, to annihilate “what mauls and mutilates our race.” Whilst Queequeg (Friedrich Ledebur) is defined as a heathen—in response to the pointed questions of Peleg’s fellow Quaker Bildad (Philip Stainton), he replies by hurling his harpoon with such deadly accuracy all objections are ceased—he and the other non-Caucasian men who form the ship’s trinity of harpooners are the first to recognise Ahab’s cabalistic god.
The first great sequence is the Pequod’s sailing day, a thrumming piece of cinema with precisely outlaid vignettes, from a congregant (Iris Tree) handing out bibles to the crewmen being ignored decisively by Queequeg; the silent chorus of widows and wives watching their menfolk prepare to disappear for three years; first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) waving farewell to his wife (Joan Plowright) and children who keep a more distant vigil; Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter with the ranting seer Elijah (Royal Dano); cabinboy Pip (Tamba Allenby) dancing and beating his tambourine under a flowing Stars and Stripes; the crew raising sails and leaving port whilst singing authentic shanties (taught to the cast by A. L. Bert Lloyd, who leads them on screen); and the final shout of “Around the world!” by the helmsman that echoes about the bay as the ship sails out of the harbour. This is one of the great scenes in cinema, in how it not only offers up precise, heartfelt, rousing detail, but also describes an entire organic world with such depth that it seems torn out of racial memor; the helmsman’s cry resounds with such a sense of space and solitude that the awe of communing with the ocean that the men are embarking upon is in itself a spiritual challenge. This also reveals what Huston had learnt from Don Siegel, who had cut together an embryonic version of the scene for Huston’s 1942 programmer Across the Pacific.
“Captains can’t break the law!” shouts Flask (Seamus Kelly), the Pequod’s hot-headed third mate in riposte to Starbuck’s suggestion that they can topple Ahab from his post: “They is the law, as far as I’m concerned!” But Starbuck, whose “courage was one of the great staples of the ship…there when required, and not to be foolishly wasted,” objects to Ahab’s deification and his quarrel in turn with the “thing behind the mask” that animates the forces of the world and Moby Dick in particular. He suspects Ahab means to tear down god in killing Moby Dick and determines to stop him, and yet Starbuck’s own objectifying Protestantism is blind to the force of nature itself: “Moby Dick’s no monster, he’s a whale! We don’t run from whales, we kill ‘em!” he barks at the Pequod’s crew, thus committing them to the same suicidal mission for which Ahab has already perished. Genn’s terrific performance is worth noting for the way he balances calm with a curious, deeper ardour, particularly in the scene where his nerve fails him and he can’t shoot a suddenly reflective Ahab. Huston’s most cunningly added flourish is to situate Ahab’s anticipated meeting with Moby Dick, plotted from a chart he’s compiled that allows him to follow the movements of whales, at Bikini Atoll, then infamous for being the location of American H-bomb tests: Ahab’s date with the white whale is humankind’s date with annihilation.
Huston’s efforts to infuse the industrialised cinema that had given him his break with a deeper, more fluent realism of look and feel had led him to shoot deep in Mexico and Africa, and for Moby Dick, it led him back to Ireland, where he would live off and on for the rest of his life. To stand in for the old Yankee whaling town of New Bedford, he utilised the historic town of Youghal, and he worked with his director of photography, Oswald Morris, to find a way of diffusing the hitherto overbright and cheery Technicolor so that the film would take on a more incisive, subtle palette. Huston had already experimented with colour effects in Moulin Rouge, and whatever the dramatic weaknesses of that film, it was a successful experiment in mise-en-scène. The look of Moby Dick, with its detailed, yet muted colour, possesses a quality that looks more modern than many ’50s films and yet also captures the look of period daguerreotypes and lithographs. The model work in the whaling scenes is inevitably dated, and Huston edited those scenes furiously to maintain the impression of terrific physicality and interspersed real footage of traditional whaling in the Azores.
One great pleasure of the film is the remarkable depth of actors who dot the landscape, sometimes in the smallest of roles, like Bernard Miles as a Manxman crewman, and Francis de Wolff as the captain of fellow whaling ship the Rachel, glimpsed only in distant long shots and yet still affecting in pleading with Ahab to aid him in searching for his missing son. Basehart was a bit too ripe to be playing Ishmael—at 40, he was two years older than Peck—but it’s certain Huston cast him for his open, yet weathered looks and rich baritone, which makes for a stirring voiceover. The whole cast, even German actor Ledebur as Queequeg, seem chosen with such care they almost seem born for their roles.
It’s an irony then that the most commonly cited weakness of the film is Peck’s performance, which, though by no means bad, is not quite right either. Peck was and is associated with onscreen humanity and decency, and lacks the innate sense of wildness and unswerving authority necessary for Ahab. Peck is more acutely stylised in his performance, straining his mid-century naturalism to approximate the outlandish “supreme lord and dictator.” Huston had originally wanted his own father Walter to play the part when he first came up with the project, and Welles had wanted to make a version himself; both Welles and John Huston himself, as Peck later said, would have made more ideal Ahabs. Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting. His eyes flash in threat and ardour as he explains his motives, his voice swings from low menace to bellowing fury, whipping his men into bloodlust. He eyes Ishmael with strange intent when pronouncing “body” in addressing Ishmael (to Ishmael’s quivering fixation), as if detecting the strange charge between him and “same body” friend Queequeg and appealing to flesh and soul in turning his crew into a cult to hunt down the whale.
In the second extraordinary sequence, the Pequod, stuck becalmed at Bikini, becomes the scene of devolution, as Queequeg, convinced by his soothsaying bones that he’s going to die, sits immobile after paying the carpenter to build him a coffin, and the crew, sweltering in a tropical evening, the moon as hot as a sun, begins to fray. The chipping of the carpenter’s labours and Pip commencing an eerie song and dance provide a strange rhythmic music for the action as Ishmael appeals to his friend to come around, and a bored crew member, testing Queequeg’s resolve, slices long bloody lines in his chest. Huston’s editing here, and the use of sound, is brilliant in creating a stygian mood, and builds to a remarkable, silent tussle as Ishmael tries to save his friend from mutilation, only to be set upon and threatened with murder himself before Queequeg comes around to save him, and the cry of “Thar she blows!” finally breaks the spell. Moby Dick appears like “a great white god,” as Pip describes him, jumping clean over the longboats hunting him, and the Pequod gives chase, ploughing through a storm at Ahab’s behest—he even threatens Starbuck with a lance when he tries to cut rigging. Ahab play-acts a masterstroke of theatre when St. Elmo’s Fire illuminates the ship, taking the last step towards shamanism in snatching fire from the sky and “put(ting) out the last fear.”
All that’s left is for the final, consuming battle with Moby Dick, in which Ahab finishes up straddling his nemesis’s back and stabbing him with fury whilst screaming his curses, before drowning and beckoning in death to his crew. The whale furiously bashes the hull of the Pequod in and crushes the puny humans who taunt him with animalistic rage before succumbing to Ahab’s harpoon wounds. It’s the most ambitious scene of action Huston ever attempted, and it’s brilliantly staged, even if the special effects now look ropy. In compensation, Huston’s cutting manages to be both coherent and yet full of sound and fury, signifying quite a lot indeed, as the great whale’s teeth rake the waters and his tail smashes down on the helpless men, leaving Ishmael to drift clinging to Queequeg’s coffin until rescue by the Rachel, the sole escapee from this annihilating hour. It’s a deeply affecting end to a film ripe for reevaluation, and Huston himself, a man who constantly tried and often failed to keep one foot in a world of macho excess and another in artistic sensitivity, pushed both impulses to a limit in Moby Dick.
UPDATE: Terrific interview with Brian Meacham, the AMPAS scholar who discovered the New Zealand cache.
By now, most of the film world knows about the partnership between the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 75 American motion pictures that no longer survive in the United States. The news broke in the New York Times yesterday and has been all over the media, Twitter, and Facebook. Frankly, Farran (The Self-Styled Siren) and I were a bit miffed. We were told we should not make the announcement until this afternoon, and here comes someone to steal our thunder! But scoops are what newspapers are about, and this was a big one.
Sworn to secrecy out of deference to the New Zealand government, Farran, Greg Ferrara (who did our ads and banners), and I have known since last fall that the New Zealand archive was the next big project for the NFPF, but we had no idea what the nitrate experts would find as they examined the existing footage. The news is amazing! About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Included is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927), a backstage romance involving an aspiring Shakespearean actor and the daring target girl from a knife-throwing act, and a trailer for the director’s lost feature Strong Boy (1929), starring Victor McLaglen. Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow, was found, though afflicted with the “bloom” that signals nitrate deterioration. NFPF got to this film just in time!
We promised the blogathoners a good film, and initially, we were to fund Moonlight Nights, a short comedy featuring child star Gloria Joy. But Annette Melville, the wonderful executive director of NFPF who has been so helpful to us, found a real treasure that helped double our money. The Sergeant is a very important short western that will be included on the Treasures V collection, thus receiving matching funds from the federal government. Here’s why it’s so unique.
The Sergeant is one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.
The western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its action pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearean actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film; Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.
Very little survives from Selig Polyscope, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.
This remarkable film—part western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to our funding, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.
For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.
We also raised enough funds to restore The Better Man, a 1912 film produced by the Vitagraph Company of America. It’s another western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man. The stills look intriguing.
The newly recovered films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF web site.
We extend many thanks to Jamie Lean, Division Director, the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, who said, “Hundreds of American motion pictures from the silent era exist in archives outside the United States. We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded ‘lost’ American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”
Clips of The Sergeant are up on the NFPF website, and you can take a look at a list of some of the other films returning from their long hiatus here. You can also kick in some more money for the rest of the films that need preserving (not to mention shipping: Each reel has to be sent using precautions for hazardous materials!). As Gareth over at the Siren’s place said, “I’ve almost never had a sense of such concrete value coming from a donation.” Amen.
“Marilyn, in all the time that I’ve been reading and participating in the film blogosphere, this is the most valuable cause I’ve seen them take up. A display of solidarity that is extremely touching. I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”
The above quote is from Ryan Kelly, who offered a post to the blogathon on his estimable blog Medfly Quarantine. As I thought about what I wanted to say to wrap this amazing week up, it seemed that Ryan said it best.
It’s true that Farran Nehme, Greg Ferrara, and I set the wheels in motion, with the enthusiastic support of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s executive director Annette Melville and David Wells, who posted the great pictures and short films on the blogathon’s Facebook fan page. But the truth is as Ryan said: the entire film community embraced this cause. The blogathon ads Greg made were plastered all over the blogosphere, and we got shout-outs from James Wolcott at Vanity Fair, The Auteurs, Lou Lumenick at The New York Post, and Roger Ebert, among many others. We had film students, film bloggers of every stripe, preservationists like Eddie Muller, and scholars like David Bordwell write about preservation. Tinky Weisblat, a food blogger with an interest in film, showed up and turned in a great couple of posts. We had Dennis Nyback, who actually projected nitrate film, tell us about it. And we had people who were willing to open their wallets in these tough times to help. Farran and I were thinking we might raise $10,000. I’m happy to say we did, and a little more to spare.
The NFPF originally planned to use the money to restore a one-reeler; that’s when donations stood at $3,900. Now it’s likely that the blogathoners will be able to save a three-reeler. Details of the massively exciting project to which our funds will be applied will be announced in June. A master list of all the entries and participants will be permanently housed at http://moviepreservation.blogspot.com.
Like Ryan, I’m grateful to have been a part of it. It’s the end of the blogathon and, thanks to everyone who supported it, a new beginning for an old film that otherwise probably would have died. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for showing your love of film.
That’s my gal Colleen Moore in the film that made her one of the icons of the flapper era, Flaming Youth (1923). Moore tried all her life to find copies of the films she worked on, but so many had vanished into time, including all but one reel of Flaming Youth. It’s possible that the complete film did not physically survive, but it’s also possible that it is squirreled away with a private collector or part of an archive that hasn’t got the time or resources to identify it and get to work on saving it. That’s why the work of the National Film Preservation Foundation is so important. Last year, they helped repatriate from Australia a number of films that no longer existed in the United States and turned them over for restoration. To get the full story on the NFPF, I highly recommend a browse through their website. And for more on why The Self-Styled Siren’s Farran Nehme and I are doing this, read here.
Ivan Shreve over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear ponders the short film career of radio comic Fred Allen and the different versions of his best film It’s in the Bag!. I didn’t know Allen made movies!
Film studies student Meredith pays homage to the newly restored Powell/Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, which has been wowing audiences all year, at her blog Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax.
Film scholar Sarah Jane Baker of Flapper Jane tackles the legend and misperceptions of an actress famed in her time who was thought to have none of her works available for viewing: Olive Thomas.
On Home & Amateur, Dwight Swanson has presented our first preserved amateur movie, Think of Me as a Person First, a moving home documentary about a child with Down Syndrome.
Monday, February 15 (Happy Presidents Day, everyone)
Rob Gonsalves takes on Martin Scorsese’s Preservation 101 lesson The Race to Save 100 Years (1997) at Rob’s Movie Vault. Imagine Scorsese choosing to make Raging Bull in B&W because he didn’t want to have a color film fade!
Christopher Snowden at A Silent Movie Blog has some great stills of lost films starring the likes of Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino, and Louise Brooks and provides scavenger hunt clues on where to find them. Great fun and eye-popping images to boot!
Alterdestiny contributor Erik Loomis thanks the NFPF for making films available that help him teach history, specifically, cultural attitudes toward immigrant living conditions in urban areas in The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912).
Tuesday, February 16
Here’s a fun entry from Gordon Dymowski. He pays homage to one of my favorite things, movie serials, by writing about the restoration of the Green Hornet serial on his excellent site, Blog This, Pal!
Blogathon cohost Farran Nehme continues her Why We Fight for Film series with a look at newsreels and the remarkable, brief glimpse of Anne Frank at an window looking into the street in Amsterdam.
My friend Peter Nellhaus has contributed a review of an NFPF/Eastman House rescue, Lon Chaney’s The Penalty at his essential blog, Coffee, coffee, and more coffee.
Kendra Bean from Viv/Larry/Blog is back with her third ode to Criterion, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. A beautiful film.
Paula of Paula’s Movie Blog is back with look at another one of her favorite movies, Where Are My Children (1916), rescued by the NFPF.
Joe Thompson has started his history of nitrate, which includes some great newspaper clippings from the dawn of cinema, on his blog The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion, which focuses, among other things, on obsolete technology. Good stuff, Joe!
Wednesday, February 17
Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies reviews and tackles the difficulties for Kubrick completists in seeing the master’s Fear and Desire (1953).
David Cairns calls Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) “avant-garde, experimental, non-narrative or abstract,” which, had it not been for Criterion, would mean “endangered” in preservations terms.
Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder takes on the newly restored John Barrymore vehicle Sherlock Holmes (1922), which shows Barrymore to be a Holmes for the ages.
Blogathon “art director” and multiblog wizard Greg Ferrarra has a terrific post on C.B. De Mille’s last silent film, 1928’s The Godless Girl at Cinema Styles. This newly restored film shows off De Mille’s flare for the dramatic. Thanks, Greg!
Jeffrey Goodman, whose directing effort The Last Lullaby was a favorite of mine last year, pays homage to the premiere “preservationist” of the 20th century, Henri Langlois, at his blog The Last Lullaby (and) Peril. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Lou Lumenick joins the blogathon (after giving us a great plug in the The New York Post) discussing the limbo into which a 1933 Shirley Temple/Randolph Scott film called To the Last Man has fallen.
Brian Herrara of Stinky Lulu offers thoughts five thoughts on the “enthralling, often incoherent mix of cinematic high-style” of Who Killed Teddy Bear? that nearly fell down the rabbit hole of cultural memory. There’s a bonus for anyone who mails Brian proof of at least a $20 donation!
Buckey Grimm of Mindless Meanderings is back with part 2 of his preservation series. In this one, he tackles the longest-running film preservation project in film history, the Library of Congress Paper Print collection.
Kendra Bean’s latest entry in her Criterion love series is the classic David Lean melodrama Brief Encounter. This is a beautiful film, made more beautiful by the care of the Criterion label.
Dennis Nyback is back again talking about “two theaters that survived the nitrate era but couldn’t survive the changes in values that made them obsolete before the end of the century:” the Michigan Theater and the Grand Riviera, both in Detroit. See their former glory at Dennis Nyback Films.
Justin Muschong of Brilliant in Context does a very good job of expressing exactly why preservation is so important. Thanks, Justin!
Brent Walker talks about the distribution link in the preservation chain at his blog Mack Sennett. Good stuff!
David Bordwell discusses the intricacies of preserving avant garde films at Observations on Film Art.
Leo Lo, who blogs 365 Films a Year: A Librarian’s Film Journal has given us a wonderful prescription for what academic libraries can do to preserve film images.
Karie Bible of Film Radar tells a sad story of watching a Clara Bow film whose last moments were too degraded to show and then gives a list of the lost films by this charismatic star.
Thursday, February 18
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee, coffee, and more coffee is back with another entry, in his special area of interest of Asian cinema – Wu Yonggang’s debut film The Goddess (1934), saved through the efforts of one man.
Marc Edward Heuck at The Projector Has Been Drinking talks about his own film preservation efforts, particularly his work on 1973’s The Candy Snatchers. This is a really fascinating read!
My awesome blogathon cohost Farran Nehme at The Self-Styled Siren comes through with a fascinating interview with TCM’s Corporate Legal Manager Lee Tsiantis, who talks about how the legal rights tangle that keeps films from viewers.
Jon Marquispays tribute to film archivists over at Thoughts of Stream, particularly James Card, to whom we all owe thank for returned the fabulous Pandora’s Box.
Film collector John McElwee talks about his misadventures with nitrate and his gratitude for to collectors for being “unofficial” film preservationist in his photo-filled entry at Greenbriar Pictures Show.
We got a two-fer from Paula of Paula’s Movie Blog: Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’sLady Windemere’s Fan (1925) and Different from the Others (1919), a landmark film in the portrayal of homosexuality. More great commentary and screencaps!
Greg Ferrara said not to post these, but how can I not! On his wordless screencap blog, Unexplained Cinema, Greg has been posting fantastic screencaps from several rescued films, including The Godless Girl, about which he wrote on Cinema Styles. Go take a look and be awed.
Catherine Grant, the film scholar who provides film enthusiasts with suggestions for self-study on her essential blog Film Studies for Free, offers embedded videos on film preservation for your viewing pleasure.
Tinky Weisblat at In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens offers some great thoughts on pioneering film critic, preservationist, and Museum of Modern Art film curator Iris Barry and a darn good recipe for Film (and Fish) Lovers’ Tea Sandwiches.
Buckey Grimm is back with part 3 of his film preservation tour, this time talking about nitrate testing and storage. I have learned a lot from Buckey.
Our thanks to MovieMan for interrupting his regularly scheduled post on Rossellini’s Stomboli at The Dancing Image to offer it to the blogathon at his other blog The Sun Is Not Yellow.
Shahn at Sixmartinis and the Seventh Art offers some shockingly deteriorated frames from Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) to show us just what is at stake.
Kendra Bean at Viv/Larry/Blog focuses her gaze away from that thrilled couple from Britain to cast her eyes adoringly at the Criterion Collection’s issue of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. The cave scenes were restored to the film a few years ago, and now we have the whole package as only Criterion can do it.
Phil Nugent has thrown his hat in the ring over at The Phil Nugent Experience with a post that appreciates the wide range and age of films that need preservation and pays homage to Henri Langlois.
Friday, February 19
Joe Thompson of The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion finishes his three-part history of nitrate with a look at the Pittsburgh Film Exchange Fire of 1909. This has been a great series, Joe. Thanks!
Sadie Menchen, Trisha Lendo, and Charles Edward Rogers, three members of the student chapter of the Association for Moving Image Archivists at UCLA, have contributed short, personal blogs on preservation on the student chapter site. The future of films past is in good hands!
University of Vermont environmental studies professor Adrian J. Ivakhiv gives us an in-depth look at a film that has been popular during the blogathon, Decasia, on his blog of ecocriticism Immanence.
Justin Muschong at Brilliant in Context has another contribution and it’s a doozy! A short story about film preservation. Bravo!
My own post here on Ferdy on Films, etc. is up. I talk about a big star with a very small body of surviving work: Theda Bara, and the film that made her The Vamp, A Fool There Was (1915).
Lou Lumenick gives us another plug at The New York Post and names two films he would really like to see: the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby (lost) and The Man from Blankley’s (1931) (lost soundtrack). Same here, Lou!
J. Cheever Loophole a history and humanities professor who blogs at The Shelf is bullish on preservation for many reasons, including that he uses film “as context, and to help students make a personal connection to the past.”
Stephen Morgan at Screen Addict has an interesting meditation on the difficulty of knowing how true a silent film is to the original intention, using Murnau’s masterpiece The Last Laugh as an example.
Sara Freeman at Today’s Chicago Woman has a terrific appreciation for women in the cinema, and focuses on how grateful she is to have seen Lillian Gish portray Hester Prynne in the 1926 version of The Scarlett Letter.
Over at Medfly Quarantine, my buddy Ryan Kelly gives his home town, Fort Lee, New Jersey, its props as the birthplace of the motion picture industry. Hollywood’s got nuthin’ on the Joisee Palisades!
Sunday, February 21
Over at The Dancing Image, Movie Man has a real feast for the eyes. He has screencaps and posters of films that other bloggers put on their “holy grail” list (including me and The Siren). Take a look and be reminded of why we have such a love for film.
Dennis Nyback has honored us one more time with a touching story of reuniting family members through film, reminding us ” everyone preserved in motion pictures was a real person with a real life.”
DeeDee at Noirish City recaps the importance of the National Film Preservation Foundation and what is at stake. Great job, DeeDee.
Buckey Grimm is back urging us all to keep sounding the call for preservation and praising those who do the hard work every day of rescuing our cultural heritage. Thanks, Buckey. You’re an inspiration.
Noel Vera, the premier blogger on Filipino cinema at Critic After Dark, review Bagong Hari a noirish political film from 1986(!) that is all but lost and laments the tragic state of film preservation in his country, reinforcing the need for a global defense of cinema.
Arthur S. is back with a post on Sam Fuller’s neglected 1957 western Run of the Arrow at his fine blog This Pig’s Alley.
Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns Sunday Intertitle is Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess, with promises of more Lubitsch all week. That sounds like a great week ahead. Thanks, David.
Joshua Range talks about the beauty and importance of the also-rans of moviedom, focusing particular attention on the biopic.
A Spanish-language post from Jaime Grijalba on Exodus 8:2discusses London after Midnight, the sadly lost Tod Browning experience.
Robert Humanick sits in The Projection Booth and shows a personal find of his, the 1910 Frankenstein.
Toby Roan has a fascinating blog called 50 Westerns of the 50s, where he talks of the rescue of a Joel McCrea film Stranger on Horseback. Good to see this, Toby.
Mary Hess, is using her very first post at her new blog, Laughing Willow Letters, to contribute to the blogathon. Make her feel welcome and go read and comment on her tribute to her mentor, preservationist James Card.
The Film Noir Foundation re-premiered its latest preservation project on January 23, 2010 at the NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco. The unjustly rare 1951 noir Cry Danger, starring Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming, has been completely restored in 35-millimeter through the joint efforts of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservationist Nancy Mysel, who last year managed the FNF-funded restoration of the 1951 classic The Prowler, once again supervised the restoration.
Although Cry Danger’s plot is fairly routine—a framed ex-con (Powell) seeks revenge on the crooks who set him up—William Bowers’s witty, well-honed script, Joseph Biroc’s atmospheric location shooting, and the sharply realized performances of the entire cast make Cry Danger a film deserving of more recognition than it has received.
“Cry Danger might be my best work on screen, and it is a personal favorite due to my close friendship with Robert Parrish,” said actor Richard Erdman, who plays Powell’s rummy buddy DeLong. “It was Bobby’s directorial debut, and I was in the first setup that was shot along with Jeanie Porter. Nothing happened for a moment, and then Dick Powell whispered to Parrish that he had to say ‘action’ in order for matters to commence! I am tickled to death that Cry Danger has been restored to its original 35-millimeter glory.”
Actress-philanthropist Rhonda Fleming, Cry Danger’s female lead, was also ecstatic about the news: “Cry Danger has become one of my very favorite films in spite of the pain and heartache I endured while filming it,” she told the Sentinel. “I had an emergency appendectomy, which held up filming for a week, and at the time of the opening in San Francisco, my father, who lived there, suddenly died. Obviously I did not attend the premiere. In fact, I couldn’t bear to look at the film for over a year, and when I was finally able—I loved it! I only wish my father, who would have loved it, too, could have been at the opening.”
Fleming, whose founding of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, among many other charitable works, has made her a philanthropic legend, generously made a financial contribution toward the restoration of Cry Danger.
She notes that Cry Danger, “was filmed in old Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, so it has a historical aspect, as well. Plus the story is strong and catches you off guard at the ending. It’s a perfect film noir.”
In my estimation, it’s also the best of many noirs made by leading man (and uncredited producer) Dick Powell. It was a good movie for first-time director Robert Parrish to cut his teeth on. His leading man doubled as a smart, savvy, and sympathetic producer who didn’t screw around. Powell knew that Bowers’s script was a dynamic balance of revenge drama and smart-ass humor, and he played it that way. But it’s also a pivotal film in certain ways: It shows the embittered noir antihero of the 1940s moving from the darkness into the light, figuratively and literally. It’s sunnier and funnier than most film noir, while still retaining its punch.
It is also, unfortunately, one of the most difficult noirs to see—especially in its original 35-millimeter format. We’ve shown it twice at NOIR CITY festivals, and both times we’ve had to resort to 16-millimeter prints—one of them Dick Powell’s own personal copy, which was deposited long ago at UCLA.
A Twisty History
Tracking the work’s convoluted rights history explains why some films—even ones with great reputations—are at risk of slipping through America’s cultural and commercial cracks.
Powell, operating independently of any studio, originally secured financing for Cry Danger from a pair of Midwestern investors, Sam Wiesenthal and W. R. Frank, whose Olympic Productions company has no screen credits beyond this film. Powell set them up with a distribution deal at RKO Radio Pictures; its boss, Howard Hughes, put up the completion guarantee. After the RKO pact ran its course, the film’s reissue rights were sold to Republic Pictures. The studio’s entire library was, in turn, purchased in 1957 by National Telefilm Associates, an independent distribution company that dealt in theatrical re-releases and television syndication packages. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cry Danger could be seen with some regularity, bearing the NTA logo, on daytime and late-night television.
In 1984, NTA formed a home-video division, which it eventually renamed Republic Pictures. It was under this banner that, 19 years ago, a VHS version of Cry Danger was released. (It’s now out of print, with used copies fetching top dollar on the Internet.)
After that, things got complicated. NTA/Republic was bought by Viacom, and all the theatrical rights for its film library were shifted to its subsidiary, Paramount Pictures. However, no 35-millimeter prints, or even preprint elements (negatives, duplicate negatives, soundtracks), survived the three-decade Republic-to-Paramount sojourn, though low-contrast, 16-millimeter, made-for-television prints occasionally surface in the collectors’ market. The only surviving 35-millimeter elements resided with the film’s original distributor, RKO. That entire film library was purchased in 1986 by Turner Broadcasting, and when Turner merged with Time Warner in 1996, the latter corporation’s Warner Bros. subsidiary assumed control of the RKO archive.
Although no 35-millimeter prints of Cry Danger remain in the Warner Bros. archive, the preprint material, fortuitously, was retained. Now noir fans will understand why Cry Danger was never included in Warner Home Video DVD collections, and why it’s not available from Paramount Home Entertainment: one studio (Paramount) claims rights to Cry Danger, and another (Warner Bros.) possesses the only existing physical elements.
That’s where the Film Noir Foundation came in. It fostered a campaign on the film’s behalf that resulted in Warner Bros. agreeing to let the UCLA Film & Television Archive borrow the surviving elements for the project.
“We couldn’t be more thankful to Warner Bros. for its enthusiastic cooperation and access,” added UCLA motion picture archivist Todd Wiener, who spearheaded the transfer process. I heartily concur. The Film Noir Foundation fully funded this restoration, and we can now return Cry Danger to the big screen as part of our NOIR CITY festivals in 2010 and beyond. l
Eddie Muller is a versatile, award-winning author whose works include the well-regarded mystery novel The Distance and Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which he cowrote with the actor. He produces and hosts NOIR CITY: The San Francisco Film Noir Festival, the largest noir retrospective in the world, which now has satellite festivals in four other U.S. cities. As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, he has been instrumental in rescuing America’s noir heritage. In 2011, he will present a month-long series of rare film noir at the Cinematheque Française in Paris.
There are a lot of legendary eyes in the history of film: the impossibly beautiful lines of Greta Garbo’s, the bedroom eyes that won Rudolph Valentino millions of adoring fans, the fathomless blue of Paul Newman’s, and Elizabeth Taylor’s musgravite eyes.
Chicago has only one set of famous movie eyes: the kohl-rimmed orbs of Theda Bara, the cinematic world’s first break-out femme fatale. Her eyes have been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival since its inception, looking back at the audiences that view the latest Ken Nordine CIFF trailer before each screening. The logo, in fact, is ubiquitous, appearing on programs, posters, street banners, and souvenir tee shirts. Would that we had as many frames of the rest of Theda Bara as we do of her eyes. Bara made 44 films, but only six have survived in full or in part, one of the lowest survival rates of any major star. Were it not for the fortunate survival of the film that launched her persona of The Vampire, A Fool There Was—with a crisp DVD transfer from the Killiam Collection print by Kino—we might never have truly understood what she meant to an entire generation of women, or why.
The turn of the 20th century was the vampire’s first crucible moment. Bram Stoker had just published his Dracula, the template for vampire films largely centered on a male vampire for most of the 20th century. Yet, it was a painting Philip Burne-Jones exhibited in 1897 that actually created a rage for female vampires. The painting, The Vampire, shows a rapacious woman in a flowing nightgown leaning over a handsome man sleeping in bed. The raw sexuality of the painting stirred the primal current running beneath Victorian propriety. A play about a vampirish woman called A Fool There Was hit the stage in 1909 and was adapted for the screen. Unknown actress Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati—soon to be redubbed Theda Bara—was chosen to play The Vampire.
Burne-Jones’ painting inspired Rudyard Kipling to write a poem, “The Vampire,” that is recited episodically in title cards throughout the film:
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)
Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand.
A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)
Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned,
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand.
The fool we stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)
And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand.
It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand.
The film illustrates this poem by presenting us with the downfall of one John Schuyler (Edward José), a prominent diplomat shown at the beginning of the film literally enjoying the dawn of a new day with his good wife Kate (Mabel Frenyear) and young daughter (Runa Hodges). Their paths cross briefly with The Vampire (Bara) and her current amour, Reginal Parmalee (Victor Benoit), whom she has just about used up. A fleeting glance passes between John and The Vampire. When we see the sun set on the day, a title card tells us it is also the end of happiness. Reading in the paper that John is about to set sail for Europe on the “Gigantic,” The Vampire decides to sink her fangs into him, a task made all the easier because Kate will be tending to her injured sister (May Allison) instead of sailing with him.
The historical details in this film are fascinating. For example, in one scene, Kate is seen being driven through the streets to John, automobiles intermingling with horse-drawn vehicles. In another, The Vampire begins her seduction by arranging to have John’s deck chair positioned next to hers. Yes, the deck chairs actually had name tags on them, something I did not know before seeing this film. When she flirts with him on deck, she drops a flower that he is obliged to retrieve for her. As he bends down, she raises her skirt just enough for him to see her ankle!
Despite this outward timidity, the film reeks of sex. John, having abandoned his work and family to live with The Vampire in Italy, considers returning. Powell juxtaposes scenes of John’s daughter being tucked into bed after saying her prayers with The Vampire, her long hair reminiscent of the ubiquitous long hair of ghost women in Japanese horror films, sliding down John’s body to lay prone at his feet, her whole body beckoning him to pounce. The longer their affair continues—he returns with her to New York and moves her into his townhouse with him—the more dissipated he becomes. He drinks heavily, his eyes become as kohl-black as hers, and his form becomes stooped and feeble; he really seems to be losing his life essence to her as though she were draining his blood like a proper vampire. Men are powerless to resist her, even when they receive warnings, as Parmalee did from a beggar whom The Vampire had ruined financially, or when offered the comforting arms of wife and child.
The wanton cruelty of The Vampire, shown in the very first image of her picking up two roses and laughingly crushing one blossom in her hand, must have thrilled the Victorian-trained women who first saw it. To be so bad, so sexual, so assertive and domineering over men must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to these disenfranchised, proper ladies. We are meant to sympathize, of course, with the destroyed family and heed the message that Kate readily consented to when contemplating divorce, “Stick, Kate, stick.” But for a whole generation of women confined to domesticity, The Vampire’s parties, lavish wardrobe, and power over men proved irresistible as well. Bara became a star overnight, fetishized by women who wanted to wear what she wore, say what she said, and do what she did. Her run of fame lasted 10 years, until a more modern version of the emancipated woman—the flapper—supplanted the vamp.
Although the vamp seems hopelessly outdated, young women seem to have retreated from the sexual hunger Bara so effectively portrayed. Although clothing styles seem to be hooker-lite these days, the most popular vampire myth for girls today is Twilight, with its utterly chaste and good heroine and her chivalrous vampire lover. Women are consumed, not consuming, on the big screen. Yet, the vamp endures. Turn on a daytime soap opera and feast your eyes on the scheming females through which today’s domestic women fantasize a more exciting, free life.
Well, after all the phone calls, e-mails, planning, and pre-event publicity, For the Love of Film is only two days away. Farran, the folks at the National Film Preservation Foundation, and I have been excited and amazed by the widespread support this event has generated. If you don’t know much about film preservation, this blogathon will fill that gap in your cinematic knowledge pronto!
We’ve got a very full plate of at least 40 bloggers who are going to contribute, including a great contribution by Eddie Muller, prolific author and president of the Film Noir Foundation, “Rescuing Cry Danger: The Story of One Film’s Restoration,” and one from a type of voice many cinephiles don’t hear from too often—Buckey Grimm, a content expert who researched a 1915 U.S. Navy documentary preserved by the NFPF, one of the “orphan” films that few people might think is worth saving. This is our heritage, too, and we are grateful that the NFPF cares about it.
Participants should post the links to their posts in the comments section of the home page for the blogathon at The Self-Styled Siren and here. The home pages will be posted early Sunday morning and remain up until the end of the blogathon. Farran and I will post the links into the main body of the post. We encourage everyone to read the entries and honor each blogger who took the time to post with your comments and appreciation.
Participating bloggers should include the “Donate Link” and may include the below information in your post:
Anyone who knows me knows what a sucker I am for a good cause. I’ve tried to help save the environment, the Uptown Theatre, the mountain gorillas, the medfly (ok, not that one. . . I think). But now it’s my turn to hold my hand out and ask you all to help save something that means something to all us: film.
According to estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1951 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to 85-90 percent. The nitrate film on which nondigital movies are recorded is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. All or parts of thousands of films have burned up, broken down, or ended up in a dumpster.
We can’t do anything to recover those films, but we can all help ensure that not another frame is lost by supporting the work of film preservationists, restorers, and archivists. To that end, Farran Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren) and I dreamed up a fun way to do it. We’re holding a blogathon to shine a light on film preservation and raise funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation. Here is a little information from the NFPF:
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. Growing from a national planning effort led by the Library of Congress, the NFPF began operations in 1997. We work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.
The NFPF raises money, awards grants, and organizes cooperative projects that enable archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, and universities to work together to save American films. Since opening our doors, we have helped preserve more than 1,560 films and assisted organizations in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In 2009, we partnered with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to preserve and make available on the Internet several American silent films that no longer survived in the United States; another such project will be announced later in 2010.
Here’s a brief description of the films NFPF works to save:
A two-year study prepared by the Library’s National Film Preservation Board documented that American films are disintegrating faster than archives can save them. The types of motion pictures most at-risk are documentaries, silent-era films, avant-garde works, ethnic films, newsreels, home movies, and independent works. These are not Hollywood sound features belonging to the film studios, but ‘orphans’ that fall outside the scope of commercial preservation programs and exist as one-of-a-kind copies in archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies.
There have been fundraising blogathons before, but as far as I know, there has never been one held among film bloggers. The NFPF gets its operating funds entirely through donations and grants, so whatever funds we raise through the blogathon will make a real difference.
We’ll be offering helpful advice and taking suggestions from the film community on our very own Facebook Fan Page, which we’ll be adding to regularly. Become a fan, and take a look around in the coming weeks for suggestions of topics, discussions about the blogathon, information about film preservation, and a lot more. And go to the For the Love of Film blog, where Cinema Styles’ Greg Ferrara has posted banners and commercials you can use on your own blog and Facebook page to promote participation and awareness.
For the love of film . . . please support The Film Preservation Blogathon.