31st 08 - 2017 | no comment »

The Aura (El Aura, 2005)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Fabián Bielinsky

By Marilyn Ferdinand

For the ninth iteration of Noir City Chicago, the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) put together a program of heist films that included some classic favorites, like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Kansas City Confidential (1952), and Classe Tous Risque (1960). There was one heist film of uncharacteristically recent vintage, however, that was as revelatory as it was unexpected. The Aura is the second and final feature by Argentinian director Fabián Bielinsky, whose life was cut short at age 47 when he died of a heart attack shortly after completing this film. For noir and crime film fans, “what might have been” is particularly distressing: The Aura and his premiere feature about two con artists peddling counterfeit stamps, Nine Queens (2000), show Bielinsky had a rare and original gift for depicting society’s underbelly.

Our host for the evening’s screening, FNF President Eddie Muller, explained that Bielinsky’s small, but significant output was the result of the long apprenticeships directors serve in Argentina. The polish of Bielinsky’s script and film reveals the benefits of this system; there is a literary quality to the way Bielinsky creates his characters, chooses his settings, and resolves his plot.

The film’s unnamed protagonist (Ricardo Darín) is a taxidermist. With Vivaldi playing on his radio, the camera focuses on his hands as they work on the figure of a fox, preparing the eye sockets with clay, carefully straightening and draping the skin, choosing from a drawerful of glass eyes for the correct pair and sticking them in place. We see the silhouette of a woman who is yelling and banging on the frosted glass of his locked studio door. In response, he reaches over to his radio and cranks the volume.

When he is finished, he brings the figure to the museum that hired him and meets fellow taxidermist Sontag (Alejandro Awada). As the two men wait in the payroll office to be paid, our man indulges his penchant for imagining robberies. He walks Sontag through his plan for the payroll office, with Bielinsky’s camera visualizing the hypothetical blood-free robbery for us. Sontag seems to feel little but contempt for the taxidermist, but nonetheless, asks him to go hunting in place of a friend of his who backed out at the last minute. Our man shrinks from killing animals, but when he goes home and finds that his wife has left him, he calls Sontag and agrees to the trip.

The two men find that Sontag’s regular hotel is completely booked—the belligerent Sontag complains to the hotel manager (Guido D’Albo), “I never needed a reservation before.” To placate his repeat customer, the manager sends him to a remote property of rustic cabins for serious hunters run by a man named Dietrich (Manuel Rodal). When they arrive, a surly teenager named Julio (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) tells them there’s nothing for rent. He is soon contradicted by Diana (Dolores Fonzi), his sister and Dietrich’s much-younger wife. Once ensconced in their cabin, Sontag has our man equipped with a rifle and both get ready for the hunt. What follows is our man’s stark confrontation with what it means to be fully alive.

Like the dead animals he makes over into lifelike mannequins, our man seems to exist at a slight remove from life. His work is isolating, he ignores his wife, and in a macho culture that conflates masculinity with violence, he abhors killing animals or people; his fantasies reflect an intellectual, carefully humane violence.

But he has moments when he feels really alive—his occasional epileptic fits. Epilepsy has long been linked, perhaps erroneously, to religious ecstasy, and the ingenious film The Fits (2015) posits an outbreak of seizures among some teenage girls as a rite of passage into individuality and womanhood. While our man’s epilepsy plays a very crucial role in a climactic scene in The Aura, it’s more than a plot device. When Diana asks him what it’s like, we really understand how the pre-seizure aura and the heightening of all of his senses are delicious and incredibly important to him. This scene gives Darín his longest, most sustained bit of dialogue; it actually feels too long given his abundance of verbal reticence, and the sense that we’d rather not hear all he has to say—there’s something unsettling about how he communicates—is a credit to the masterful creation of this character by a man Muller feels is the greatest actor working today.

Bielinsky matches his shooting style to his main character’s personality. He favors tight framing that refuses us a view of actions that occur off the edges of the screen, and elegantly shorthands information in a single moment. For example, our man calls out to his wife when he returns home from the museum and, not receiving an answer, goes into the bedroom, where we see a closet full of empty hangers. He questions a little girl at a middle-of-nowhere establishment called El Eden; when she says something about her mother and the little rooms, we know instantly that El Eden is a brothel. In two related scenes, our man witnesses in long shot Diana arguing with a man in a pick-up truck. She tells him that the man has accused Dietrich’s dog of killing his sheep. “Does he?” our man asks, but gets no answer. Much later, our man, stumbling in the dark with a flashlight, briefly illuminates the dog; its face is covered with blood.

Bielinsky provides subliminal clues about our man’s essence, why such a seemingly ordinary, even sweet man makes us uneasy. It’s not his fantasy life as an armed robber, not even his neglect of his wife—he has a very unpleasant exchange with Sontag over the latter’s physical and emotional abuse of his own wife. It’s the fact that the dog, after earlier growling at him, adopts him when Dietrich fails to return from wherever he’s gone. Our man has crossed a line into a real-life adventure that he is so loathe to give up that he is willing to risk the lives of others to achieve it. Of course, the seminal moment that put him on this path was a blood letting, and every moment after this event is one of our man living by his wits and finally listening to his instincts to survive.

I’m not familiar with Ricardo Darín’s previous work, but I’m inclined to agree with Muller about this man’s talents. There is one scene in which his character is caught having to improvise his way out of a life-threatening situation. Bielinsky moves in on his face, and observes his eyes darting quickly around trying to think his way to a solution. I’ve never seen an actor concentrate so much information into a short series of eye movements. His supporting cast, particularly Pérez Biscayart and Fonzi, provide full-blooded characters with whom he interacts believably; even two stereotypical thugs create a relationship with each other that feels real.

The last scene echoes the first. Our man stuffs a small mammal with a cottony material as the camera shifts to the nameless dog sitting in a corner and closes in on its inscrutable, wild face, the perfect avatar for our man, and by extension, for what’s wild in all of us.

The film can be seen in its entirety here:

16th 01 - 2011 | 12 comments »

Criss Cross (1949)

Director: Robert Siodmak

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past Friday, the hubby and I had the great good fortune of being welcomed as guests of the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller to a screening of Robert Siodmak’s ripping film noir Criss Cross, shown as a part of the Winter Nights series of noir and neo-noir films at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. After a blessedly snow-free drive south and a quick run through some of the museum—including a not-so-quick examination of their special exhibit on photojournalist WeeGee—we joined a packed crowd in the comfortable Toby theatre to listen to native Californian Eddie’s amazement that so many people would come out on a (not very) cold night to listen to him and see Criss Cross.

He needn’t have been surprised. The habits of cold-weather dwellers aside, both he and Criss Cross did not disappoint. Eddie talked about the noir style, influenced by the German diaspora to Hollywood that included director Siodmak; the discovery by the French of these uncharacteristically downbeat American films of the 1940s and ’50s that had not been exported during the war years; and the contributions to Criss Cross of William Bowers, the witty, often uncredited writer every producer in Hollywood wanted to “touch” their scripts made for an interesting introduction to the film. A lively and lengthy Q&A session held after the film revealed even more of interest, including what a huge star the now nearly forgotten Dan Duryea was, how the protagonist in the source book was described as ugly—a far cry from the matinee-idol looks of Burt Lancaster—and (never fear) a plug for the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon prompted when Eddie started talking about the restoration of films for the big screen.

Of course, the main event was the film itself. Boasting a cast that includes not only Lancaster and Duryea, but also Yvonne De Carlo and the unmistakable character actor Percy Helton, a score by Miklós Rózsa, and the primal rhythms of the Esy Morales Latin band, Criss Cross has everything a cinephile could want and more. The film opens with a aerial shot that swoops down on a nightclub parking lot, where a couple in full embrace are caught in the headlights of a car. The woman, Anna (De Carlo), promises the man, Steve Thompson (Lancaster), that when it’s all over, they will be together forever, the way it was always meant to be. Anna moves into the club, where the heart-quickening music of Morales and his band entertains a stuffed room of dancers and drinkers moving in choreographed chaos across the smoke-filled dance floor. Anna is questioned by her suspicious husband, a criminal named Slim Dundee (Duryea), and accompanies him into a back room where his gang is throwing a going-away party for the couple, who are moving from Los Angeles to Detroit.

Thompson (Lancaster) comes into the club searching for Dundee. He is intercepted by his friend, Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), a detective with the LAPD, who tries to dissuade him from breaking into Dundee’s party. Undaunted, Thompson disappears behind the closed door, and soon, a waiter informs Ramirez that Dundee has pulled a knife on Thompson. Eager to put Dundee behind bars before he can slip off to Detroit, Ramirez moves. Too late. Dundee has already dropped the knife; Thompson refuses to press charges, and without cooperating witnesses, Ramirez must admit defeat. When the two men and the members of Dundee’s gang move into an alley to cool off, we learn the fight was staged. The gang and Thompson are actually planning to pull a payroll heist on the company Thompson works for, and the ruse is part of the scheme to succeed at this exceedingly difficult job. Thompson, rueful about the bedfellows he made, thinks about the cause of it all—Anna, his ex-wife. We spend most of the rest of the film in flashback, beginning with Thompson’s return to Los Angeles after months bumming around the country following his divorce from Anna, and his acknowledgment that he came back because he just couldn’t get Anna out of his system.

Siodmak sets up the fatal attraction of Anna and Steve with an iconic scene that captures the essence of the femme fatale. Steve goes back to the night club, a place he and Anna frequented during their contentious marriage, and catches sight of her on the dance floor. The Morales band is playing a number that is almost completely rhythmic, with the only melody coming from a single flute playing a short burst from time to time—an exotic, hypnotic riff. Siodmak and his cinematographer Franz Planer show close-ups of Anna’s face, as she dips, spins, and pulses her shoulders to the music. They intercut these close-ups with close-ups of Steve as he watches her with rapt attention, thus pulling us with Steve under Anna’s spell.

The pair don’t immediately pick up where they left off. Anna is dating Dundee and merely asks Steve to call her some time. Their sizzling mutual attraction escapes no one’s attention; both Dundee and Ramirez want to keep Steve away from Anna. When they start seeing each other again, Ramirez goes behind Steve’s back and warns Anna that he’ll put her behind bars for something or other if she doesn’t stay away from Steve, a rotten ploy that sends her into Dundee’s arms. That would have been the end of it except for that cruel twist of fate that always plagues noir antiheroes—Steve catches sight of Anna in Union Station, wrapped in furs and a long face. She and Steve arrange to meet, and she reveals how Ramirez busted them up and how Dundee beats her, showing him the bruises to back up her story. When Dundee catches the two of them together, Steve spontaneously invents the idea of the payroll heist to keep Dundee from attacking Anna after he’s left. They develop a plan, and the film returns to the present, where the robbery and its aftermath make up the final act of the film.

At 88 minutes, Criss Cross is a fairly short film. But it is so packed with great supporting characters and inventive cinematography and location shooting that it feels much more expansive. Small parts, like Helton’s weasely bartender and a lush (Joan Miller) who seems permanently affixed to the end of the bar, don’t do anything to advance the plot; they simply provide the wonderful color that makes this film such a knockout. A special treat is seeing an uncredited, very young Tony Curtis dancing with De Carlo in the scene described above. Every noir fan’s favorite Los Angeles location, Bunker Hill, gets a great workout in this film. Brilliant is a scene where the conspirators look up an alcoholic crime mastermind (Alan Napier) in a Bunker Hill dive, bribing him with open credit at a liquor store in exchange for a fool-proof plan, with the Angels Flight funicular attactively framed in the window in the background. Cuts in and out, showing more sleeping bodies with each cut, mark the passage of time in the all-night planning session.

There isn’t a filmmaker alive who doesn’t like chance meetings happening when a figure moves out of the way to give the main characters a clear view of each other. Siodmak and Planer are no exception, but the way they move Anna and Steve through the crowds at Union Station builds tension until the clerk behind the standalone cigarette counter bends down to get Steve a pack, revealing Anna turning away from the information counter. The voiceover shows Steve’s pain at the fateful series of events that led to this reveal, the if-onlys that could have prevented it. Fat chance in noir, we want to scream at the screen.

The heist itself builds our fear, as the elderly guard Pop’s (Griff Barnett) case of the jitters has us hoping he won’t be killed if the gang screws up—which, of course, they must. The set-up is ingenious, with the gang using tear gas to disable bystanders and cover their actions. When Steve realizes that he, too, has been set up, his grappling with a thug wearing a gas mask seems like something out of science fiction. Losing at this crap game, being called a hero in the newspapers in a heist that got Pop killed, seems to seal his fate. Lancaster’s fear of the inevitable, something he feels he deserves, is heightened when he is left alone in his hospital room, helplessly attached to a traction device that shows him up to be the marionette of all the lowlifes with whom he’s gotten hopelessly entangled.

Seeing this film on the big screen was a major treat. Planer’s expressionistic camerawork is monumentally more impressive than it was during a home viewing. The chance to meet Eddie and participate in the Q&A was an extra bonus, but sharing the movie with other people and chatting about it afterwards is a communal experience I always crave and enjoy. Have a look at this terrific film and please remember to participate in our blogathon February 14-21 to raise money to restore The Sound of Fury (aka, Try and Get Me), another great film that can only improve when it’s ready to be seen as it was intended—larger than life, in crisp black and white.

16th 08 - 2010 | 6 comments »

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

Director: John H. Auer

By Marilyn Ferdinand

An event that only a lucky few in a handful of cities get to enjoy is Noir City. Held by the Film Noir Foundation—and a major source of funds for the work they do to restore noir films and make them available in 35mm format—Noir City began life eight years ago in San Francisco, the home of the FNF. Last year, FNF President Eddie Muller and noir film scholar Foster Hirsch brought Noir City to Chicago for the first time. It was a huge thrill to listen to them, especially Foster Hirsch, whose book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen holds a proud place in my home library, as they introduced the only film I was able to see last year, the superlative The Prowler. Noir City returned to Chicago this past weekend, and I had the great pleasure of listening to FNF cofounder Alan Rode introduce the double bill of Cry Danger and City that Never Sleeps.

Eddie Muller wrote about the rescue of Cry Danger for the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon that I cohosted with Farran Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren. So, it was a particular thrill to see that fantastic noir and to have the chance to announce to the audience that not only are we holding another fundraising blogathon next February, but that the proceeds will benefit the FNF. I’m happy to say that the announcement garnered resounding applause from the noir enthusiasts who filled the historic Music Box Theatre, their appreciation stoked by having just watched City That Never Sleeps. Viewing this rare noir filmed on location in Chicago and at Republic Pictures’ studios was even more special because we saw the only known 35mm print of the film, lent to Noir City by Martin Scorsese from his personal collection. The Chicago audience got a chance to see our city as it was in 1953 and hear a well-rendered script whose authentic recreation of the mental and physical geography of Chicago was itself a rarity to us.

City That Never Sleeps is an unusual picture. Chronicling one night on the mean streets of Chicago, it combines noir with a police procedural like The Naked City, with a voiceover introduction very similiar to the one used in that film. The big difference, however, is that the voice purports to be the Voice of Chicago, and it is played by Chill Wills, an actor better known for playing hicks (was that an intentional jab at our Midwest metropolis?). After introducing us to the streets of Chicago and the main players in our story, Wills shows up as a Clarence-like guardian angel named Joe who rides as the temporary partner of our main character, John Kelly, Jr. (Gig Young). Kelly is a burned-out, married cop who wants to run away to California with Sally (Mala Powers), a beautiful burlesque dancer he has been carrying on with, and find a better-paying line of work that will get him as far from the seedy side of life as possible.

Sally, an innocent who came to the city to be a ballerina, also wants to wash away the grime of her reduced circumstances, but shows Johnny the door when he makes yet another excuse to avoid leaving his wife. Johnny, feeling trapped and desperate to win Sally back, rings Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold), to say he has reconsidered Biddel’s offer. Biddel, a powerful attorney who has coopted both the high and low elements of society, has offered Johnny $5,000 to take care of a little problem he has—Biddel’s protégé Hayes Stewart (William Talman) has grown too big for his britches and needs to cool his heels in jail for a year or two to think about it. Johnny is to pick up Stewart at Biddel’s office, where Biddel has planted bait that the light-fingered Stewart won’t be able to resist, and drive him to Indiana, where he is wanted on an outstanding warrant.

City That Never Sleeps gives us a lot of action in the long night of Johnny’s soul. The cast of characters that complicate the plot includes Johnny’s cop father, John “Pops” Kelly, Sr. (the engaging Otto Hulett), who pushed Johnny to become a cop; Johnny’s kid brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who idolizes Stewart; Lydia Biddel (the magnificent Marie Windsor), the resentful former hash slinger Penrod married and turned into a society lady; and Greg Warren (Wally Cassell), an actor with a crush on Sally who has been reduced to playing a mechanical man in the display window outside of the nightclub where Sally works. Each of these characters is put in danger by Stewart as he tries to evade capture.

Windsor and Talman are mesmerizing as lovers and coconspirators against the smug molder of souls, Edward Arnold. The confrontation scene between the three of them positively crackles, with Windsor getting the best line after Arnold says he met her when he had an hour to kill at her diner: “Yes, and you used it to murder years of my life!”

Gig Young does bitter quite well, but it is hard to identify with his character; since Johnny is supposed to be more moved by others than self-motivated, he makes a rather pallid hero. Even his determination to sell out to Penrod is pushed by Sally, who threatens to run off with the sweet, dreamy Greg if Johnny doesn’t grow a pair. Nonetheless, the film builds to a thrilling climax that sees Johnny chase Stewart down the middle of the El tracks, with the electrified third rail rather melodramatically inserted before fearful reaction shots by Stewart to emphasize the danger. Despite this exciting chase and the ensuing fist fight—Talman and Young look exhausted and they really were suffering from the location shooting on the tracks in the middle of winter—the cheap looping of the same footage of police cars racing out from lower Wacker Drive to the scene of the fight almost ruins it.

Other continuity mistakes, such as when Pops is supposed to be going to the Continental Hotel and the building clearly says The Angeles above the doorway, reflect the low budget and made me admire even more how much director Auer and the crack cast were able to make this convoluted and gimmicky script—albeit with some great lines—come to life. For example, Johnny answers a call about a pregnant woman about to give birth in a taxi. He leads her carefully behind a wall as a group of passers-by stand near the cab in stony silence. When the baby’s cries are heard, all their faces soften, showing that the hardened city we’ve been watching through most of the picture actually has a heart. Auer’s camera angles in the scene between Stewart, Lydia, and Penrod telegraph the triangle—Lydia is seen in a mirror as Penrod enters the room, and their images switch places as the scene progresses.

One image that my blog partner Rod remembers—and it is indeed memorable—is when Greg sheds a tear as Sally tries to talk him out of the window, where he is a sitting duck for Stewart. As the tears roll down his silver cheeks, his humanity is revealed to the drunken couple who are leering at him from the street. Again, although its beating is weak, the heart of Chicago is glimpsed subtly in this tale of murder and corruption. Perhaps screenwriter Steve Fisher had these words from Nelson Algren’s epic poem Chicago: City on the Make in mind when he wrote this literate script:

Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart.

Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.

Yet knowing it never can love you. l

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