Saturday, August 30, 2008

Noir Trifecta

Now that I have written my three reviews for the great blog in its month-long look at classic film noir--Out of the Past, The Big Heat and The Big Combo--I thought it would not be unwarranted to give folks interested in looking at them, either for the first time or anew, the chance of checking them out, both in their M-Z and CCC incarnations, in one basket (this posting).

My contributions at for its month-long look at classic film noir at Movie-Zeal:

Out of the Past

The Big Heat

The Big Combo

The Coleman's Corner in Cinema versions:

Out of the Past

The Big Heat

The Big Combo

Red (2008)

Like a personage belonging to a Sam Peckinpah film, Brian Cox's Avery Ludlow is a man touched and perhaps shaped by violence, and now he finds himself, for no reasonable or logical justification, drawn into a potentially deadly personal battle for revenge against three teenagers, two of whom stood by as the other shot Avery's dog, Red, to death before Avery's very eyes. Directed by Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee, the film is adapted from a novel of Jack Ketchum's by Stephen Susco. Not having read the book, one can only speculate as to how successful an adaptation Red is. Taken solely as a film, it's an interesting throwback of sorts to minimalist revenge storytelling often found in the 1970s. 2007 saw several vengeance-themed pictures contribute to the greater sense that that year's cinematic landscape felt particularly inspired by the films of the decade frequently considered by many “cinephiles” as Hollywood's golden creative renaissance.

What is most refreshing about Red, in many ways, is that it seems to avoid the increasingly trite observation that , “A will become more like B if A pursues revenge on B.” Here Cox's Avery is an old man, living a quiet, docile life with his beloved dog, given to him for his fiftieth birthday by his wife, the love of his life, who died in an abhorrent, unspeakable way only a few years later. A scene in which Avery describes the tragic circumstances of his wife's demise in sickening detail feels like a sequence Ingmar Bergman could have conjured. The static, tight shot that isolates Cox's scraggly, weathered face and all of the attendant pained nuances for the duration of his explanation, his head partly framed by a window, appearing against the background of the blackness of the night, like an incandescently pallid plate being set on a dark tablecloth. It would be hypnotic by itself. With Avery's seemingly endless, chillingly intense description of the events that still haunt him, more than ever in the wake of Red's death.

Though Avery comes to question the judiciousness of his own resolve late in the film, Red remains unique from many a vengeance-minded picture today by not drawing unnecessary and ill-suited comparisons between Avery's escalating demand for some kind of personally achieved justice and the reckless sadism evident in at least one of the three teens. The Greek sophist Thrasymachus defined justice as whatever the strongest decide. Aristotle thoughtfully examined justice as an extension of friendship. The great philosopher was appalled by the prospect of people living together in societies exceeding five hundred citizens. Red, interestingly, takes place in a small rural area in Oregon, and yet its depiction of small-town due process displays a certain betrayal of equity and harmony.

The film is shot in a visually flat manner. Much of it has the look of a movie made for television. Yet despite the ordinariness of its texture, the film is persuasively composed. The shots often have an arid, stationary perspective, providing further intimacy at the expense of fluidity and movement. Harald Gunnar Paalgard's cinematography is solid, and sometimes evocative. His lighting in the woods in and around the town, and inside Avery's home, is especially commendable.

Red was fourteen years old when he was slain; in noting the animal's disheveled and homely appearance, the dog-killing Danny (Noel Fisher) is making a statement about the unworthiness of the aged, and his disregard for anything he considers archaic, naturally extending to the “crazy old man” who finally comes to stalk him after finding that legal justice is completely ineffective in punishing the teenagers for their crimes. The incident that resulted in the dog's death began as a tense “attempted robbery”—which cannot be proven—with Danny aiming his Browning directly at Avery, threatening his very life. Danny's brother, Harold (Kyle Gallner) suffers from a wrecked conscience, but Pete (Shiloh Fernandez) finds Danny's antics equally insane and hilarious, admiringly congratulating Danny for being crazy.

Avery's pursuit of righting this wrong, simply by having the three teenagers admit to their wrongdoing when confronted, runs into a proverbial roadblock when he seeks the assistance of Danny's father, Michael McCormack (Tom Sizemore), a thick-headed, bullying and powerful millionaire endowed with pervasive connections that aid him in blocking Avery's options, legal and otherwise. When confronted directly by Avery, Michael McCormack states that the story the old man tells him seems implausible. After hearing his two sons lie, denying Avery's allegations, he immediately takes their side. “You have the wrong boys,” Michael admonishes Avery. “No, I've got the right boys. I'm afraid it's you who have the wrong boys,” Avery replies. Cox and Sizemore make for a combustible pairing, the former's dignity and austerity contrasted against the latter's tawdriness and insincerity. Unfortunately, Sizemore's part is limited. The screenplay and Diesen and McKee do not probe deeper than is simply necessary, allowing the McCormack clan and Pete to almost abstractly represent the moral and cultural gulf between they and Avery. Pete comes from a poor family, the Dousts, and when Avery approaches them, they too deny their son's involvement. Mr. and Mrs. Doust (Robert Englund and Amanda Plummer), with their garbage-strewn front yard and unsightly home, are distinctly of the lower class, and their place in the film stands partly as yet another contrast to be found, illustrating the corruption of the (phony, as Michael McCormack is known to be a crook who became rich) "high class" as represented by the McCormacks perhaps influencing the moral degeneration of some in the low class.

Avery is indeed a man assailed by the anagogic defilement of violence, when he was young. A war veteran, he informs another character of what he learned. “You have to keep fighting,” he says with resigned but vibrantly mettlesome fury. As a quondam warrior, he is reluctant but courageous, methodical but prepared. His fearlessness provokes greater bravery from his enemies, twisting the prevalent cliché of the hero absorbing traits belonging to the instigators he opposes. As the film reaches a potentially ruinous climax, one could contend that it is actually the baddies who take on the attributes of Avery, more straightforwardly confronting him as they tire of his incessant “troublemaking.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of the picture is how the most tragic incident of Avery's life has found itself echoed by the cretinous figure of the rail-like Danny. His eldest son was mentally unstable, apparently a pathological liar, narcissist and finally a devastatingly destructive fiend, and it is with the deep, immutable scarring brought about by his son and the depravities for which he was responsible, that Avery has had to live with since. In meeting with such wantonness and reprehensibility himself, Avery is cursed with the ghastly opportunity to possibly confront the demons that possessed his son. All he had left because of that son was his dog, Red, and intrinsically the death of his animal calls into question the purpose of his life, yearning for answers, for, as he says, “the truth.” In doing so he may be able to answer lingering questions that bedevil him about his son, his wife, his subsequent reclusive existence and most frighteningly, himself.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Big Combo (1955)

(This is a review for and its month-long look at classic film noir.)

From the abrupt opening note of David Raksin's instantly, perceptibly moony, jazzy score, the viewer becomes aware of The Big Combo's exquisitely composed cinematic mien as the titles play out over shots of an anonymous American city. The year is 1955 and film noir had fully matured into a self-conscious art form. Noir as an artistic style had become salient. Joseph H. Lewis, director of noirs such as My Name is Julia Ross (1945), So Dark the Night (1946), Gun Crazy (1949), The Undercover Man (1949) and A Lady Without Passport (1950), made The Big Combo as primarily a sexual contest. Lewis's work, often marked by a distinct departure from the ordinary, "healthy" sensual impulses of people, with characters pursuing sexual satisfaction from means far from the typical, consuetudinary lifestyles of the more innocent people who occasionally ran into them. Non-noirs by Lewis such as Secrets of a Co-Ed, Duel of Honor, A Young Man's Fancy and his two most famous noirs, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, explore this theme with strenuously gelid intelligence. The Big Combo, however, Lewis's last noir, most definitively and comprehensively inquires the coria of such examinations.

The Big Combo stars Cornel Wilde as Lieutenant Leonard Diamond, a dogged, honest cop with a quixotic, senseless sexual obsession. That sexual obsession centers on his unrequited love for Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), disillusioned girlfriend to the charismatically peccant gangster, known as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), another twisted object of Diamond's neurotic fixations, the man Diamond is determined to bring down at any cost. (Wilde and Wallace married each other four years before the release of the film.) The triangular thematic paradigm links Diamond's professional and carnal conatus, drawing an uncompromisingly sharp mosaic from the chiaroscuro visual schema by master cinematographer John Alton, veteran of noirish black and white, light and shadow painting, in such films as Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) [nominally an Alfred L. Werker feature], Reign of Terror (1949) and Border Incident (1949).

Alton's lighting is probably the most overwhelming factor that points to the film's self-conscious inhabiting of noir. As with his films for Mann, Alton's cinematography, in a rudimentary, literal way, cloaks the cheapness of the production. On a deeper plane, the lighting excellently conveys the hazardous battle of wills, enlivened by Wilde's cop and Conte's hood, and casts that contest in a preternaturally numinous black-and-white netherworld. That cinematographic virtuosity recalls the dreamlike lighting of the noir-horror tale of Raw Deal. That film was accompanied by Paul Sawtell's unsettlingly eerie score; this film's score by Raksin creates a hypnotic repetitiousness that underscores the ceaseless, seemingly winless war waged by Diamond. The almost wailing jazz tune becomes increasingly familiar, and aids the visual cues in communicating the dire situation of the film's narrative.

One of the most succinct and truest moments of playfulness within the genre noted for its perfidy and danger is the first post-titles scene, which finds Wallace's Lowell running down a dark arena corridor, the sounds of a live boxing bout and raucous crowd wafting through the echoing hall. Chased by two thugs named Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman), the audience is allowed to consider the worst--that the apparently scared Lowell may be running for her life. Instead, she is merely attempting to escape the boxing match, and Fante and Mingo only want to keep her in sight and close to Mr. Brown. Symbolically, however, the sequence succeeds terrifically as an expression of Lowell's desires to leave the clutches of her "first love," as she calls Brown later in the film.

The first scene with Brown takes place in the the locker room of the losing boxer, Benny, a little later in the evening. Brown and the man who was next in line to run the rackets, Joe McClure, confront the boxer, who has a contract with Brown. Screenwriter Philip Yordan provides the gangster with some of the finest, juiciest lines any Hollywood villain has ever had the opportunity to relish delivering, and Conte makes every single one of them count for all they are worth. His talkatively rat-a-tat way of controlling the people to whom he speaks, hypnotically demanding their unmitigated attention with his acidic words and almost manic delivery, is an overpoweringly logical way to intellectually disarm and defeat those around him, and the speech to Benny introduces the viewer to the characteristic.

"So you lost. Next time you'll win. I'll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I'm his. What's the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it! Now it belongs to me. We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon... Look--same manicure, cufflinks. But we don't get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct." He offers his paramount thought about life: "First is first and second is nobody," saying the line for the first time in the film but not nearly the last. "What makes the difference? Hate. Hate is the word, Benny. Hate the man who tries to kill you. Hate him until you see red and you come out winning the big money. The girls will come tumbling after. You'll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night's sleep." After Brown slaps Benny, he is crushed by the boxer's inaction. "You should have hit back," Brown snarls. "You haven't got the hate. Tear up Benny's contract," Brown orders McClure. "He's no good to me anymore."

Mr. Brown, as written by Yordan, directed by Lewis and performed by Conte, is sangfroid, philosophizing to his henchmen, coolly manipulating everyone. He has a temper, but he keeps it in check and tries to look at things always from the objective perspective of business. Conte's performance is one of the best in the long, celebrated line of the gangster character. His Mr. Brown upholds the double facade, firstly the obvious shielding of his actual criminal activities from the authorities, but the greater and more interesting emphasis he places on having, in the words of the gangsters who came before him in American cinema, "class," with the cufflinks and manicure, nevertheless possessing his celebrated "hate" that always keeps him razor sharp.

In one palpably tense scene with respective tonal components that act as equivalent weights, balancing out the horror and humor (reminiscent of Raoul Walsh's White Heat), Brown mercifully bestows upon an imminent victim the gift of being unable to hear the sound of the bullets that will destroy him. The film replaces the sound of gunfire with silence. Conte seems to interpret his character's act as genuine charity˜the question of the necessity of the person's death is not a question at all. In a full theatre today the scene evokes muted laughter and hushed comments of shock, creating an appreciative rippling response from the audience.

Wilde, of Czech-Hungarian descent, Hungarian-born, with his bulbous, intense dark eyes and imposingly burly frame, was perfectly cast as the obsessive lieutenant. His perpetual glare, the quiet moments with his girlfriend, a burlesque dancer named Rita, played to sweet, sincere perfection by Helene Stanton. They all add up a cop on the edge of burning out, driven by his twin and connected fixations, wondering why everything in his life seems to be backwards. "What is it about a hoodlum that attracts a certain kind of woman?" Diamond asks himself as much as Rita when they are alone, she knowing his mind is controlled by a certain other woman whose very existence grievously hurts him.

Rita's mien and heart is altruistic, accepting her position as Diamond's sexy, accessible avenue of relieving his stress while he bitterly complains about his unrequited love for a gangster's woman. Rita's answer is to the point: "A woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, only how he makes love." Though her role is small, Stanton leaves an indelible impression, mixing earthy desirability with compassion and empathy for her beau, cursed with listening to his pathetic dissatisfaction with her--and himself. Only too late does Diamond realize he has been a selfish user, describing his relationship with the lady of burlesque as similar to a man with cold hands putting on gloves. In many ways, it is Rita who is the true hero of the picture. Diamond's exaltation of Lowell as something of a golden-haired goddess obscures the truth, which is that the physically darker Rita is the more purely an gelic figure in the cop's life.

And the lovemaking of Lewis's film brought him under considerable scrutiny with the production code. In one scene, Brown attempts to silence Lowell as she speaks of her wonderment that she fell for him by physically imposing himself on her, unilaterally initiating foreplay, kissing and licking Lowell's neck and shoulder, gradually moving himself downward. For 1955 especially, this scene seems to take forever, and concludes with a strong implication of oral sexual preliminaries. In the 1995 PBS "American Cinema" special about film noir, Lewis recalls the story of being interrogated by the censors and studio, demanding that the scene be removed. When inquiring why it must go, Lewis was given the answer, "You can't see where Richard Conte goes to. Where does he go?" Lewis smartly tried to play dumb. "I have no idea," Lewis said. "Maybe he went out for lunch," since he becomes obscured for the rest of the scene after descending behind Jean Wallace. Lewis made the point that he had not shown anything, and it was up to the audience to decide where Conte had gone to, allowing the scene to remain uncut.

Other subtle sexual touches include the characters of Fante and Mingo, the homosexual couple who are at Mr. Brown's beck and call. They stay in very close quarters with one another, exhibiting great loyalty and worry. Mingo is on the simple side, but Fante looks out for him in their treacherous dealings. Late in the film, when they are hiding out from the consequent heat created by the plying of their murderous trade, Mingo complains, saying, "I can't swallow no more salami." "It's all we've got," Fante reminds him. Mingo worries about where Brown is located. Fante places his hand on Mingo's neck and shoulder, comforting him about their safeness. A moment later, after being sufficiently cajoled by the more assertive of the pair, Mingo tenderly puts his hand on Fante's arm, talking about a future where the two have managed to escape this world, leaving it behind them and "never com[ing] back," Mingo worries aloud about the police: "The cops will be looking for us in every closet," he bemoans.

Perhaps most psychologically representative of the sexual theme, the act of humiliation and statement of power when Diamond is captured by Brown and his lieutenants. Brown tortures the cop by loudly playing radio music into a hearing aid device lodged in his ear. Yet that is hardly the entirety of Brown's plan. He takes a bottle of hair tonic, 40% alcohol, hoping to create drunkenness, and forces Diamond's mouth open, pouring the liquid down the lieutenant's throat. The torturous oral rape-as-frame job encapsulates the one character's sexual prowess, carnal satisfaction and corporeal superiority at the expense of the other, the dramatic essence of the triangular relationship between the cop, crook and moll.

A pivotal setting that deeply recalls the coda to Casablanca, a foggy airstrip, plays host to the moral choices that make the final act of the film mightily thrilling. The setting allows for Alton to joyously play with the monochromatic palette, and makes the presence of certain lights metaphorically convey the piercing power of the law and truth, penetratingly fighting through the ambiguity of the underworld. In the film's riveting climax, a light indeed cinematically portrays the essential instrument in the cause of good against the seemingly enveloping darkness of masked criminality and corruption.

The Big Combo most clearly represents the confluence of the gangster picture, the noir and the cop movie all in one. American cinema had found the war between the indefatigable policeman and the ruthless crime boss to be of interest to many movie-goers before even The Racket (1928), and the pattern would remain all the way to the present. Yet Lewis's last noir stands apart, touched as it is by the B-movie director's own interests and themes, made into a starkly beautiful black-and-white cinematographic piece of art by Alton, and given full, magnificent life by the actors who take their archetypal roles and infuse them with depths of motivation spawned by the characters' disparate places in the life of their anonymously typical American city, the most fruitful womb of the genre known as film noir.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unconventional Convention: Unity Uber-Alles and Henry Fonda

So the Democratic Convention is ensuing and it's difficult to sift through the infuriating coverage to figure out what is the most frustrating aspect of the whole carnival in Denver. However, no matter what I think of Bill Clinton, I will give him credit: he gave a good, concise speech. As soon as he concluded, the cable news channels bailed, going to commercials as John Kerry began to speak, sending me to C-SPAN (when the cable news channels returned from their breaks, they went to their respective pundits). If a speech occurs at a convention but nobody sees it, did it really happen? And why is it that Kerry began giving interesting speeches practically the moment his candidacy concluded unhappily in 2004? As they say, what's up with that?

On MSNBC only Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan had the fortitude to say that the Democrats have thus far done a rather poor job of supplying their myrmidons with "red meat," vis-a-vis John McCain, though Clinton, Kerry and Joe Biden all took some solid swipes on Wednesday night.

Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann have continually embarrassed themselves with their slavish, party-line coverage. When some complain about the "liberal media," I'm certain they're talking about these two. The hyperbole was off the charts. Olbermann's orgasmic squeal as Hillary concluded her speech the previous night--"Grand slam!!!"--was cringe-inducing. I hate to be one of those people unfashionably stuck in reality, but Hillary never contradicted her own primary-season statement that McCain is certainly prepared to be commander in chief--just like her, of course--whereas Obama just has some silly speech.

Mark Warner's sleep-inducing drivel of a "key-note address" indicates that if Obama loses, he's probably the Democratic #2 frontrunner behind Queen Hillary for 2012. The "key-note address" is simply a spotlight for the "rising star" of the Democrats. For the Republicans, it's the spot reserved for some zany character to emerge like in some soap opera: four years ago, Democrat Zell Miller, this time Rudy Giuliani. Oh, and Joe Lieberman is speaking at the Republican Convention. So much for genuine conservative principles: for the GOP, if you're pro-war, you're one of us!

The truth is, I want to see an unpredictable convention like in the good old days, when parties actually had people in them that fought with one another about ideas and principles. For the most part, the conventions of today are somnolent affairs. We need drama, we need the stakes to be high. What we need, in short, is Henry Fonda.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Boy A (2008)

John Crowley's humanistic drama, Boy A, is such a puissant treatment of an unfledged, terribly troubled youth, impressively buoyed by its central performance, and crafted with such incisive empathy, that it slowly registers as one of the most unshakable films of the year. That central performance is by Andrew Garfield, who faced off against Robert Redford in the actor-director's 2007 Lions for Lambs, quite memorable in a mostly forgettable film, and he evidently had a small role in the early 2008 release, The Other Boleyn Girl, both seen by the author of this blog. Here Garfield is directed by John Crowley, who strips the actor of any possible gimmick or crutch, resulting in one of the finest performances of the year. Yes, naysayers will point to Garfield routinely breaking down and crying in the film, but it remains a mystery how else this performance could have been approached. Garfield's character is a deeply wounded individual, and more than just that, his maturity and development have been stalled by his ten-year incarceration for murdering a girl with his friend, the thuggish Philip Craig (Taylor Doherty).

Garfield's character's name before the murder was Eric Wilson, played with glum blankness by child actor Aflie Owen. When he is released, he is given the opportunity by his remarkably supportive uncle Terry (Peter Mullan) to give himself a new name because he's now a new person. Boy A begins quite slowly, in a fairly disorientating manner, as Terry congratulates the twenty-four year old for reaching the end of this specific part of his life, so dramatically altering his being so greatly so as to change his very self. The transitory name for Eric was “Boy A,” Philip being “Boy B,” and Crowley's film, titled as such, seems to suggest that for Eric, the journey from Eric to Boy A to Jack Burridge—the name he settles on—is forever defined by that middle period, one the film only takes occasional looks at, but hints at strongly as being hellishly nightmarish.

Crowley's film works on two main parallel narrative tracks, with the greater focus dedicated to Jack's story of acclimation to the outside world, his struggles with suppressed guilt, pent-up anger, humiliation, self-hatred and his standing as a social pariah. Terry tells Jack that he should never tell anyone about his past; when Jack applies for a job at a delivery agency he informs everyone that his time in prison was the result of his carjacking. The other narrative is propelled by Jack's memories of his life as Eric, befriending Philip after watching Philip fearlessly confronting and beating a group of older bullies who have repeatedly assaulted Eric. A flashback scene concludes with Eric asking Philip, “What's your name?” The cut to a shot of the words on a grave Jack and Terry are looking at on a cemetery lot provides the answer, while allowing the audience to understand that Philip is dead. Terry believes the official story, which has it that Philip committed suicide. Always shoring up Jack's self-esteem and belief in his own value as a person, Terry utilizes this special moment to illustrate the gulf between Jack (Eric) and Philip. “He couldn't live with it,” Terry says. “He couldn't face it, and change. He couldn't handle it. That's the difference between you and him.” Jack, however, believes Philip was murdered. This belief supplies fodder for clammy, eerie dreams of a murder like that which Jack believes befell Philip to finally find him.

Gradually, Jack begins to open up, little by little. Boy A is only 100 minutes and in its greater narrative thread covers approximately only a month of time, but the trip Jack takes is arduous, overwhelming and morally perilous in every imaginable way. His is the loneliest journey—though made marginally less so by his genuine, providential friendship with Terry—and Crowley unerringly displays a certain gravity in conveying that solemn, glacial advancement, almost endlessly marked by pain and despondency, it is primarily only in the little victories early on that Jack can find any solace.

Those small victories are later replaced with greater ones, as Jack befriends a coworker named Chris (Shaun Evans), for whom he intervenes at a most crucial moment. Seeking self-absolution and mindlessness, Jack's yearning for rebirth comes in an ungainly, organic way. Temporarily submitting to the possibilities of losing himself at a nightclub, he partakes in drugs, namely ecstacy, at a party, becoming a solitary figure in the corner, his singular figure haphazardly, hypnotically spiraling and twirling, representing a violent paroxysmal outburst, followed by his instinctive heroics for Chris's sake on the roof of the nightclub. Those heroics are followed later when Jack spots a car that has plowed through a concrete road barrier, running down with Chris to rescue whoever can be saved. A little girl is still alive, and Jack and Chris extract her from the automobile. Can such an act somehow mitigate or possibly even represent a certain commensurate undertaking in the interest of atonement?

Jack becomes sweet on a young lady at the delivery outlet, nicknamed “the White Whale” by the male coworkers due to her considerable largeness. Her name is Michelle (Katie Lyons), and she's sweet on Jack. However, Jack is tepid, drudging away at work, almost cenobitically remaining outside of her orbit as much as possible. Chris finally confronts Jack about his shyness and almost orders him to go ahead and ask Michelle out. The relationship that ignites between he and Michelle is scintillating in its truthfulness and palpably-rendered pathos. Certain scenes between these two are aching in their coupling of sweet delirium and impending lancing, the symmetrically perfect beauty and fleeting miraculousness of it resembling one of the bubbles that floats from the shared bathtub as Jack snaps pictures of Michelle.

Adapted from Jonathan Trigell's novel by Mark O'Rowe, Boy A, both the novel and film, are evidently loosely inspired by the real-life case of two male youths seen carrying away a child on a mall's security video camera, who was later found dead. In an instance of perhaps staying rigorously faithful to the novel and its intentions, O'Rowe and Crowley elect to not actually show the viewer what must have been a hideously revolting scene of wantonly sadistic murder. Only very late in the film does it portray the events leading to the actual murder, and then it cuts away just as the boys are about to go ahead with it. Questions concerning taste and discrimination are valid, but in a film this nakedly, rawly personal, intensely drawn with chilly, overcast hues and addling close-ups and often shaky, verite sequences juxtaposed against conservatively-structured and -composed cinematic lyrics of mise-en-scene, a moment not unlike that of viewing Sean Penn's Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking gleefully and rapaciously exhibiting no quarter to his prey would have made the entire picture greater wholeness. As it stands, Crowley's commendable humanism finds itself saddled with appearing overtly sympathetic—by exercising an uncharacteristic moment of emotional, spiritual and intellectual subterfuge, Crowley's picture allows itself too much, while forfeiting a great deal at exactly the same time. While many will contend that watching Eric and Philip monstrously snuffing the life out of the girl would be going too far, and is not comparable to the actions of an adult like Poncelet, no matter what one's positions on such issues are, the matter remains that the film's encircling honesty finally finds a crack in its circumferential body.

Nevertheless, the psychology behind Philip and Eric is not shallow, nor is it especially detailed. We are given only glimpses of what appears to be an unhappy home life for Eric, whose mother is dying of breast cancer as the film follows his tale. One day, as the two are lying peaceably on a green knoll in the afternoon hours, Philip reveals that his brother sexually molests and rapes him. Philip describes the physical pain of anal rape; the psychological trauma entailed is too vast for his mind to comprehend, and in its own way has contributed to his ceaselessly angry personality. Later Philip and Eric fish together at a creek. Philip has hooked something, which turns out to be a large eel. When he beats it in the head with a nail that has pierced a small plank of wood, is he acting out against an approximate phallic symbol, living and breathing on the ground as he grinningly attacks it?

Boy A is Jack's story, however, and as his life as deliveryman, friend, boyfriend, nephew and parolee becomes threatened, the suspense of the picture becomes frighteningly involuted, the context askew by Crowley's persuasively immediate filmmaking. Garfield's performance is informed by the pathetic reality of his character; while it's rewarding to watch him grow and blossom as he tenaciously fights to discard Eric and leave him in the past, it is also vital to remember just how tragically delayed and weighed-down this person's life has been. As such, it's a tour de force, never striking a false note, always finely tuned and flawlessly compelling.

The passage that brings this film to its harrowing, blisteringly unforgettable conclusion is at first glance an unremittingly dire creation. Yet as this is a tale of soulful reincarnation, Crowley allows the film to finally end with searingly numinous ramifications. Beyond the social issues brought to the fore by this work, the human element shapes it with unmistakably mortal concerns, spurred by nearly irreproachable curiosity and care.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Big Heat (1953)

(This is a review for and its month-long look at classic film noir. It will appear there on Sunday, August 24.)

Why did the “rogue cop” sub-genre within the greater tapestry of film noir reach such a zenith in the 1950s? Two decades earlier Hollywood had tackled the rise and fall of the gangster, that most seductively lawless of creatures. In the 1940s, it was the private-eye and then the dupe who often figured most prominently in the finest noirs. Yet the 1950s, a decade of so many incongruous contradictions—a span of time that saw the ascendancy of the American middle class like never before, greater economic prosperity and the patina of unmatched satisfaction, marked by paranoia, distrust, quietly fermenting alienation and despair—saw Hollywood filmmakers essay the cop. With each decades-long step, the message became clearer: violent criminals were a kind of exotic animal, their inescapably brutal livelihoods making magnetically attractive stories; private-eyes like Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep) navigated their way through the foggy ambiguity of everyday business, usually utilizing the police for their own ends, the relationship between private and public investigators mutually adversarial and beneficial, while everyday dupes like Walter Neff (Double Indemnity), Frank Chambers (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Michael O'Hara (The Lady from Shanghai) found themselves caught in the lustful, heated trap of the gorgeously manipulative femme fatale, a dangerous being Spade, Marlowe and Jeff Markham (Out of the Past), to name three P.I.s, all encountered in the otherwise soul-draining ennui of their occupations. The 1950s, a decade arguably defined by the relationship between symbols of authority and the public in all of its complexities, found turpitude, angst and moral compromise in the shielded figure of the police officer.

Numerous film historians and critics have considered the entire experience of the House of Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklisting of Hollywood filmmakers is what led to a number of screenwriters to look at the excesses of figures of authority. Many left-leaning screenwriters and directors believed the government's actions were egregious, a blatant example of authority misusing its power. A policeman is a perfectly distilled representation of everything an artist can draw out of the sometimes abstract conception of personal sovereign empowerment.

Some of the cops detailed in these pictures became outright crooks with little self-doubt; others were tempted and resisted as resiliently as they believed possible; a significant portion were men beaten down by the horrors of their existence, succumbing to the demonic allure of routinely resorting to violence as a solution to their quandaries, most nakedly their own enveloping malaise. Some cops stayed straight but found the gruesome spectacle of the world they policed unforgiving. The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), The Racket (1951), (which was a remake of the 1928 silent of the same name), The Prowler (1951), On Dangerous Ground (1952), Private Hell 36 (1954), Pushover (1954), Rogue Cop (1954), Shield for Murder (1954), The Big Combo (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958) are just some of the most famous examples of noirs that placed the spotlight on the dilemmas, temptations and lurid tales of perilous quests for justice, always most vitally inner searches. The “rogue cop” sub-genre found its apotheosis in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953).

One of the most important reasons why The Big Heat is such a landmark feature, whether it be defined as strictly noir, crime drama, “rogue cop” picture or one of Lang's richest examinations of the correlation between criminality and political institutions, like his cerebral German masterpieces such as his Dr. Mabuse series and M, is that it approaches its subject matter and protagonist with subtlety and almost deadpan precision. Glenn Ford plays Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, a strait-laced, singularly certain cop who spouts vitriol and seething hate for those who have poisoned the city he is charged with “serv[ing] and protect[ing],” so certain of his own superiority in the face of such cretinous adversaries that his glare suffices in communicating that belief. He's a very happily married family man with a beautiful wife, Katie (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon) and child, and by nearly every outward standard, his uprightness and bearing is so commendably inflexible as to represent almost the opposite of nearly all other “rogue cops.” Whereas those men were torn and conflicted, captured in the never-ending cycle of arrest and reprisal, suspect-beating and confession, Ford's more garrulous cop openly verbalizes his sedulous application of his position within society—that of uniquely empowered guardian and street-trekking warrior—with unironic earnestness. His most cutting description of his underworld nemeses is the label of “thief.” For Bannion, these repulsive monsters have stolen the promise of his city. Enabled by corrupt politicians and city figures—including Police Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell), no less—these gangsters are Bannion's natural foes. In stark contrast to the majority of cops portrayed by Hollywood at this time, Bannion as played by Ford, under Lang's direction, is astonishingly ascetic. Within a sub-genre defined by its self-contradictions—most pointedly the visage of the rule-bending or -breaking law enforcement officer—most visibly alive in a decade boiling over with its myriad contradictions, Bannion is ultimately the subtlest and truest contradiction to be found.

A fictional American city named Kenport, riddled with widespread corruption, is the setting. Known for his economical narratives, Lang's seminal noir is no different. The first shot of the film is indeed the first shot of the film: the camera looms over a .38 handgun resting on a desk. A man picks it up and shoots himself in the head, falling to the desk, his gun, in hand, pressed against an envelope addressed to the district attorney and a badge. He was a cop, a sergeant, named Tom Duncan. Lang cuts to a long shot from behind the dead man, a flight of stairs comes into view. A shadow emerges against the wall. It is Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan), who immediately and blithely accepts her newfound life as a widow. She grabs the envelope, extracts the papers therein and reads. A moment later she calls up the most notorious hoodlum in the city, the fearsomely powerful Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby). Lagana subsequently calls up his most trusted enforcer, the tempestuously volatile Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), getting instead Stone's woman, Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame). Scourby is solid as the cautious but frightening criminal mastermind who has the city, several of its major politicians, its police commissioner and quite a few cops in his pocket. The up-and-coming Marvin is fiercely, scarily intense, fabulously dressed, his exterior's coolness concealing the sweaty, violent animal no more effectively than the most transparent veil. Grahame's performance is just right. She plays a sassy flirt who isn't truly slutty, but the viewer is convinced she is a woman who has fallen in with the wrong kind of fellow with enough regularity that her shrugging at Stone's brutality about two-thirds into the film while talking up the lucrativeness and luxuriousness of the lifestyle makes perfect sense coming from her.

Cinematographer Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz Lang) lights the early scenes to underscore the dramatic urgency. Yet director Lang largely “naturalizes” and modifies the expressionism, both surprising coming from him and perfectly wise, efficaciously conveying the scabrousness with an almost insidious mastery. This is a drab, ugly world, and Lang's compositions provide copious amounts of detail and information without calling needless attention to themselves. Lang, whose films were such sterling exercises in determinism, psychologically buttressing the motivations for the characters, strives here for something both simpler and more complicated than before. With The Big Heat, Lang made a crime thriller with a protagonist so sure of himself that the audience may be caught off guard when they eventually realize just how deadly his pursuit of justice has been. Monochromatic shots of Venetian blinds capturing the vacantly oval features of Ford's face provide crucial pieces of information in visual shorthand, chronicling Bannion's personal, borderline psychotic quest for justice. And Ford is nothing less than ideal as Bannion, a sweltering cauldron of rage, his epithets thrown in the faces of his enemies always lacerating and pungent. Words such as “thief” and “lice” never sounded as dirty as they do when they exit his lips. Today's R-rated profanity is no match for it.

Bannion first questions the widow, Bertha, about her husband's fatality, during which she acts as though she has been devastated. She contends that her husband Tom was in ill health, telling Bannion a tale about Tom suffering from a pain in his left side and refusing to see anyone about it, therefore explaining his suicidal impulse. Bannion is soon sought by a barfly named Lucy Chapman. She met Tom Duncan a year ago and became his mistress. Bannion is briefly taken aback when Lucy says that she and Tom would swim together at his summer residence, the existence of which would indicate that he was on the take. Lucy contradicts Bertha, claiming that Duncan was in good health and that he would not have killed himself. Moreover, Tom told Lucy he was successful in persuading Bertha to allow him a divorce. Bannion unwisely decides to go back to Bertha, informing her of the dramatic discrepancy between her and Lucy's opinions of Tom's health. He also questions the widow about the details concerning the purchase of the summer home. “Lucy may try to blackmail you,” Bannion remarks. Little does he realize that the blackmailer is Bertha, who has taken the envelope meant for the district attorney and is leveraging Lagana with it.

There are four independent women in The Big Heat but the character closest to being a femme fatale is the male protagonist, Bannion. Through one misjudgment after another, he blindly, unwittingly ensures the deaths of all four women. Unlike many femme fatales, who acknowledge their own culpability in the demises of unfortunate characters, Bannion is too busy to dwell on it, or his role in pushing these women into the pathway of deathly destruction. The first to perish is Lucy, bluntly accused by Bannion of being a probable shakedown artist, who in actuality was the only person telling him the truth about the dead cop. By immediately going back to Bertha, telling her of the stakes involved with Lucy's statement, he fingers her, giving Bertha the opportunity to tell the mob who to rub out so the genuine details that led to Tom's suicide remain closed off from the private. The next morning Bannion is approached by a cop who hands him the report of a woman's murder, which took place outside of Bannion's jurisdiction on a county road. Bannion confirms that it is Lucy, and speaks with the medical examiner. The examiner chillingly describes the probable fate of all unfortunates, generalizing and labeling Lucy as just another barfly in the wrong place, with the wrong people at the wrong time: “Trouble automatically catches up with girls like her. Looks like a sex crime to me... I'd say pretty definitely it was psychopathic. You saw those cigarette burns on her body.” Bannion's burning rage is being fueled. “Yeah, I saw them. Every single one of them,” he snarls through gritted teeth, furiously extinguishing his own cigarette butt. Soon Lieutenant Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) attempts to cajole Bannion, ordering him to “stop pestering the widow,” trying to soften the blow of Lucy's death. “When barflys get killed, it's for any one of a dozen crummy reasons, you know that.” He reminds Bannion that the matter is one for the county authorities to trouble themselves with. A dissolve from this scene brings us into a close-up of a cocktail glass, held by the bartender of the establishment called The Retreat (on this disorienting scale, the glass could be a spaceship aloft in the sky). Bannion is pursuing the case. He questions the bartender, named Tierney (Peter Whitney). Again, Bannion is given the dispiriting explanation of Lucy's fate, which was a result of her not experiencing the stable home life “good women” like Bertha Duncan have. “They come and go like flies,” Tierney says of the “dames” who frequent his establishment. “Outside my place, some of these babes keep some pretty shady company. It figures. They know nobody cares much about what happens to 'em... They're floaters, not much more than a suitcase full of nothin' between them and the gutter.”

After his wife receives a disgusting, threatening phone call from one of Lagana's henchmen, Bannion blows his top and decides to send Lagana a personal message at the mobster's estate. Running into a police officer stationed outside, Lang makes his political point with tremendous impact. As the film is one overwhelming warning to Americans to not allow a fate similar to that of Germany in the 1930s to befall their nation, Lang becomes less shy about making the greater connection. The cop in uniform outside asks for identification from Bannion, and after learning that the man is a sergeant, says he didn't recognize him. Bannion asks the cop how many police officers are guarding Lagana's home. The cop tells him that there are ten cops for a twenty-four hour defense of the estate. Bannion, mutedly nauseated in his trench coat and hat, calculates the expense to the taxpayers, which is one hundred dollars a day. “Do you like this detail?” Bannion asks. “I do what I'm told,” the cop replies. “That's what we're all supposed to do, isn't it?” Lang's message is outstandingly clear: the vulnerability of becoming the “good German” is always pervasive—corruption and tyranny fit together seamlessly. It is ironically Bannion, by disobeying his superiors, who signifies the hope of a man working outside the parameters of the law.

That hope is a recurring one, and it is what gives this feature its sole silver lining. In my reviews of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I compared Christopher Nolan's thematic interests to Lang's. Conversely, The Big Heat approaches the primarily downbeat story in a way that must have helped to inspire Nolan's vision of Batman Begins, which sees the rise of a vigilante confronting a city wallowing in abject corruption and hopelessness. However, as the film may be a precursor to Nolan's work, so too is the character of Bannion such for Nolan's take on Batman: a man afflicted with a deeply scarred psyche, possessed by the unquenchable need for justice.

That deeply scarred psyche is most horribly tortured by the murder of a loved one. Bannion confronts Lagana in his posh house; Lagana's daughter is throwing a party. The bitterly abrasive meeting helps to elucidate Lang's own thoughts on the ceaseless tug-of-war between society and criminality; however, this film expands upon one of Lang's earlier fears, that of the minimized disorder of crime-fighting being necessary to dismantle the immoral order of criminals, whether they be underworld thugs or demagogic chancellors. Bannion represents the law but in a society of any significance that finds itself marinating in the vile cesspool of pandemic disregard for the law, he also personifies a certain disorder. Lagana, however, as criminal despot, must ensure insurgent threats to his power are quashed. After listening to Lagana loquaciously brag about his “immaculate,” pristine home, Bannion angrily denounces his home as a monument to sinfulness: “You know, you couldn't plant enough flowers around here to kill the smell.” Bannion beats one of Lagana's bodyguards in front of him at his home, expressing unmitigated revulsion at the mere reality of Lagana. When Lagana openly threatens him, Bannion counters: “What are you going to do, make another phone call?” The answer comes just a little later, when Bannion's wife dies from the family's car exploding in their driveway.

The bleak solemnity is piercingly forthright on Lang's part. Bannion, sickened by the pitiful, bloodless condolences and whitewashing by Commissioner Higgins, openly challenges him, disdainfully accusing the commissioner and the lieutenant as being on Lagana's payroll, which results in Bannion's suspension. Bannion hands over his badge but holds on to his gun, which, as he says, “...doesn't belong to the department.” Higgins is dumbstruck, cautioning Bannion against using his weapon. “I won't” use the gun, Bannion vows, “not until I catch up with the people who murdered my wife.” Bannion's home is empty now, and after taking one last look at it from the inside, particularly the kitchen, where he and his wife immeasurably enjoyed one another's nightly company. Detective Gus Burke (Robert Burton) attempts to make Bannion see the folly in his vengefulness but Bannion refuses to listen. “No man's an island, Dave. You can't set yourself up against the world and get away with it.” Bannion coldly shuts the door, visually concluding his once sunny personal life on a note of despondent finality. There is no turning back.

Meanwhile, Lagana harshly scolds his underlings for murdering Bannion's wife. Vince has made a terrible error in using a knucklehead named Larry Gordon (Adam Williams) to dispose of Lucy's body after Vince sadistically murdered her and for lousing up the attempt on Bannion, slaying his wife instead. Here Lang once again illustrates the tumultuous power of the people—a fascination he had always held, and one that informed the breathtaking coda to Metropolis—by looking at it through the other side of the glass. (Glass panes are literally utilized by Lang to frame characters, such as Katie's face through a kitchen cupboard's glass door and a phone booth's glass pane framing Bannion when he gives an encore performance of questioning Tierney.) Whereas Bannion mourns the apparent incorrigibility of the people, seemingly forever behaving like “scared rabbits,” as Gus describes Bannion's outlook, Lagana senses something markedly different. Supporting his cautiousness in dealing with Bannion directly after murdering his wife, Lagana tells Vince when they are alone, “Things are changing in this country, Vince. A man who can't see that hasn't got eyes. Never get the people steamed up. They start doing things.”

Bannion's quest continues ten days after his wife's murder. He has been working his way through a list of mechanics who might have installed the explosives that murdered his wife. At the glumly desolate Victory Auto Wrecking dump, Bannion asks the tight-lipped, fat Mr. Atkins (Dan Seymour) where a certain Raymond “Slim” Farrow, a mechanic who may have installed the explosives, is. Atkins is uncooperative, revealing only that “Slim” died three days earlier due to “a bad ticker.” Bannion eyes him with merciless contempt. “You wouldn't stick your big fat neck out for anybody, would you?” As Bannion walks down the sidewalk, ostensibly defeated, an unlikely ray of hope appears. Selma Parker (Edith Evanson), an elderly, crippled secretary-clerk at Victory Auto Wrecking has overheard Bannion's fruitless conversation with Atkins. One of the starkest pieces of mise-en-scene is the framing of Selma behind the harsh mesh-wire fence that imprisons her. Helpless and vulnerable she nevertheless represents precisely the danger Lagana verbalized to Vince.

After the vicious Vince burns another barfly's hand at The Retreat, resulting in Bannion briefly manhandling him and telling him to “get out while you can still walk,” Debby, feeling as though Vince has left her high and dry, and impressed by Bannion's tenacious bravery, decides to follow Bannion. The recent widower decides to let her come along to his drab hotel room. “I like this. Early nothing!” Debby exclaims. She is thoroughly conditioned now to expect the best in perfumes, dresses, coats, jewelry and manicures. As Vince explains, she shops six days a week and on the seventh she rests. In one of the film's most emotionally naked scenes, Bannion pours ice water over Debby's apparent advances while opportunistically pumping her for information about Lagana. She tries to explain herself to him, why she allows Vince to sometimes treat her poorly. “I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” When she tires of Bannion's questions, he asks her why she came up to his hotel room to begin with. Behaving flirtatiously, propping herself on his bed and accentuating her sexiness with directness she replies, “Well, why don't we call it research or something?” Bannion understands that it is her way of needling Vince, and when she accidentally reminds him of his courting his wife (“Didn't you ever tell a girl pretty things? You know, she's got hair like the west wind, eyes like limpid pools, skin like velvet...?”) he turns into a complete block of ice. Ford's anguished reflection as she leaves his room at his request is overpowering, a portrait of a man consumed by bottomless heartache and pained fury.

Lang's film is brimming with doubles. Psychologically probing the failings of society as part of his greater treatment of crime, punishment, evil, good, injustice and justice, the picture documents the hypocrisies with which those forgotten and forsaken must contend. The “barfly,” Lucy, cries out to Bannion, “The only difference between me and Bertha Duncan is that I work at being a 'B girl,' and she has a wedding ring and a marriage certificate.” In their first scene together, Bannion brags to his wife about them being able to eat steaks for dinner on his salary, something his fellow cops are amazed by. Katie jokingly instructs, “Tell them you married an heiress.” When Debby tries to explain herself to Bannion—why she stays with Vince—she caustically asks, “You think I was born an heiress?” Late in the picture when Debby confronts Bertha, she, like Lucy, sees the relationship between the women. “We're sisters under the mink,” she pointedly remarks as Lang holds a long take on the two in their respective mink coats. The image of a gang of cutthroat gangsters and crooked-as-snakes politicians playing cards, already richly packed with multiple meanings, is given only more dimension when Lang lets the viewer be privy to a card game played by a group of war veterans summoned by Bannion's brother-in-law to protect his child. Debby herself is in her own way a double, forever halfway disfigured after Vince jealously throws a pot of boiling coffee into her face, leaving her countenance divulging the positive and negative aspects of her character.

Bannion is one of the most fascinating characterizations in all of film noir. He is in many ways the Langian protagonist, and all that entails. Not only does he and the film that tells his story represent the apotheosis of the “rogue-cop,” but also lights the lamp for future incarnations of the vigilante/rogue/crooked cop like Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry (1971) or so many other takes such as L.A. Confidential and television's The Shield. He's finally a ruthless figure, his desire to take the city back from the “thieves” almost pathological in its constitution, and he is made wholly possessed by the need of retribution after his wife is murdered. His obsessions and fixations conspire to make him into a nasty, brutish beast. Yet he's also lethally manipulative in a kind of storm-like manner that seems to be derived from severe tunnel vision. He ignores his own doubts about Bertha's credibility and morality at the expense of Lucy's life. He fails to think about the consequences of crashing Lagana's daughter's party, roughing up a bodyguard and directly taunting Lagana, practically daring the crime boss to act against him, after which his beloved wife is murdered. Debby comes to understand just how little this cop cares about her personally when he blindly asks her about Larry Gordon. Entrapping that man, he utilizes Selma to identify Larry, placing her in the way of possible harm, then immediately experiences the pleasurable cathartic satisfaction of beating Larry and nearly strangling him to death. Electing not to actually murder him personally, Bannion deliriously glows as he tells the “thief” that he's going to “spread the word” that he talked. As if that were not enough, Bannion finally places the climactic decision of murdering Bertha—so that all of the information in the envelope is released—in the hands of Debby. Partly wishing that he had murdered Bertha himself, Debby tells him that if he did that there would be little difference between he and Vince. Bannion must preserve his moral superiority for his life to have any meaning left. She, however, is a lost woman, and she gladly takes up the virtual dare on Bannion's part, leaving her a gun after planting the idea in her head. She finally catches up with Vince again and scalds his face with hot coffee. She is shot, fatally, by Vince. Bannion attacks Vince, and corners him. Despite the gangster's pleas for him to shoot, Bannion decides he cannot commit murder himself. His badge must remain untarnished.

The final piece of psychological essaying is the most important in the film, and is why the ending must be discussed. Bannion looks down upon the dying Debby. Earlier he gave a “police description” of his dead wife when she asked; now, however, he opens up and tells Debby about his Katie. In the sharpest “doubling” of the film, Bannion suggests that Debby and Katie would have “gotten along just fine.” As Bannion describes his wife in greater detail than ever before, Debby smiles, saying that she likes her. His memories have found fluent voice, and for the first time since just before his wife's death, his face brightens. It's a twisted scene, however, one that feels like a cousin to Vertigo. The man has both had the life of his woman relived in much lower, baser form and the death, likewise relived. Moreover, it is a scene that can be accurately read in drastically different ways. Some may interpret it as Bannion's most human and finest moment, finally able to let out his true feelings and memories. He grants Debby her dying wish, to hear about his wife, to wish for a life like that of his wife, perhaps in heaven. Debby takes on the avenging angel of the barfly. She has disproved the distasteful disregard voiced by the medical examiner, lieutenant and bartender. Lang's picture speaks to similar societal concerns as his oldest work, and with Debby he was given the opportunity to allow the marginalized and meek, plebeian and powerless, corrupted and culpable, to have their day, their moment of redemption and honor.

The Big Heat is in some ways like the other “rogue cop” noirs, fundamentally political but Lang's concerns always hit harder and more deeply, all at once. He brought a distinctly European existentialism with him to America, and in many ways this film is perhaps more about the European experience than the American experience. However, art, especially art the caliber of Lang's, speaks to civilization entire. It is with startling frequency that the most maturely measured and profoundly uncomfortable art makes the greatest statements about life. Whether its effect is that of a healing analeptic or corrosive toxin is, like the conclusion to Bannion's own story, to be decided. Lang doubtless viewed all of the complexities and dualisms with sober reasoning and increasing pessimism as he aged. As film noir writer and historian Eddie Muller has written, when asked about this picture's blossoming popularity, Lang offered a rare statement of optimism: “...[I]n every human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil. Could it be that people see in [Bannion] a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity and the H-bomb?” Lang closes this picture with Bannion, triumphantly reinstated in the police department, asking that the coffee be kept hot for him as he goes out on another case. On the wall he speedily walks past are the words “Give Blood Now,” a description of the sacrifice that the people—and in this film the women most particularly—must pay in full, for the sake of “good” vanquishing “evil.” And, in The Big Heat, for the sake of “good” remaining “good.”

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that film that falls under the paradoxical heading of being a good, largely well-crafted concoction that is nevertheless remarkably frustrating. It has so much potential, such unquestionable promise, and its standing as a creation by Woody Allen seems to be equal parts blessing and curse, that it can arguably be considered to encapsulate everything you adore and abhor about a certain auteur despite coming away from the experience mostly satisfied. It's that rarest of movies—it's primordially lovable, winning you over while simultaneously disappointing you; most saddening, Vicky Cristina Barcelona illustrates the worst instincts of its creator at the expense of his best instincts. Perhaps more bluntly, it's one of those films that seems to have a film within it that would probably be both different from and most likely better than the final product.

Plainly, the Brechtian narration put me off; eventually I came to loathe it. Allen trudges over the same terrain as he has seemingly since he first lensed a movie. Pretentious pseudo-intellectuals are annoying, aggravating and awfully phony. As agreeable as that assessment may be, at a certain point once you have expounded on it for so long, the argument almost succumbs from reverse identity complex, like the boorish lout who bitterly complains about there being nothing on the wasteland known as television while he numbingly, repetitively flips the channels. Christopher Evan Welch's snidely haughty narration is pure, unmitigated Allen; at this point Allen aficionados know the archetypes and the characterizations so well that the moment they show up there is something of a “here we go again” vibe. Allen's pictures are apparently destined to forever have that je ne sais quoi about them derived from the separate but recurring components that are his signature. Unfortunately, Allen, who could have easily killed off the narration after the first ten minutes, relies on it for the entirety of the picture. It's an entirely unnecessary crutch, and one that will feed certain Allen critics some fresh ammunition: it connotes a certain lack of faith in his visual talents, which have been quite considerable since his early days as a director, and it never contributes anything that Allen's compositions and cuts between scenes did not already. To take a radical but important example, late in the picture Allen comically cuts to a screaming couple in the street, a couple whose temperament has been repeatedly noted to be ill and destructive, their fate together an unhappy one. Rather than allow the hilarious but gently melancholic cut to work its full magic on the audience—comedy at its best and most successful flourishes because it has permitted the viewer to work it out and do the heavy lifting of immediately piecing the joke's resonance within the grander framework of the story—Allen partially squashes his own gorgeous portrait with that overwhelming and irksomely pestilential narration, describing the moment. It's a sorrowful sight, witnessing a filmmaker whose control of the medium seems to be underestimated by no one more than himself.

Early on, Vicky Cristina Barcelona truly does recall the “early funny ones” of Allen's, perhaps most notably Manhattan, with Barcelona barely substituting. Whereas Allen's own, tonally wondrous introduction in that film fit his picture like a glove and established the man's undying love for the city serving as a sparkling black-and-white dream world backdrop for the dramas and comedies of the relationships detailed therein, little love for Barcelona is evident beyond the borderline plebeian American tourist cliché embodied by the two titular vacationing young women. However, despite the shortcomings, a scene in which a suave, straightforwardly sensuous Spanish painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, putting a faintly sardonic spin on his tortured artist portrayals in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside, making you forget he ever carried around a cattle gun in No Country for Old Men) approaches Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) as they listlessly drink wine caresses your face like a gust of Mediterranean wind. Allen seems to have found himself again after trying to meld the Bergman with the Hitchcock with the serious half of Crimes and Misdemeanors in Match Point, making one inconsequential stick of cotton candy (Scoop) and a Picasso “blue period” special (Cassandra's Dream) afterwards.

What is most regrettable, then, is that it's in re-finding himself that Allen ostensibly loses something here. Rebecca Hall is quite terrific as Vicky, the most clearly archetypal role in the Allen gallery, the “stable,” secure young American woman, and Johansson acquits herself as the flaky, “terminally dissatisfied” (to borrow a descriptive term from another character) wanderer--she gives the performance Allen desires from her--but as well-etched (if extraordinarily familiar) figures as they are, it's actually the more exotically unfamiliar creations in Allen's newest that attract the greatest degree of interest. Bardem's Juan is a seducer but with self-imposed limits; he is completely without artifice when he tells the two upon meeting them that he would love to take them to Oviedo for the weekend, enjoying delicious wine, exquisite sculptures and the lustful opportunity to “make love.” He is particularly interested in a possible menage a trois, which repulses Vicky, who is engaged to an American named Doug (Chris Messina). Doug may be gifted by Allen with sensing the certain absurdities of Cristina's personality and very being, but he's a wretchedly shallow creature, motivated to undertake adventures like wedding in Barcelona so he can tell his friends about it so they can be impressed; perhaps he and Vicky can tell their children about it as well, he says.

The first act is peppered with with scenes of affection, molded with vest and wit. Allen at seventy-two is more dangerous than ten Judd Apatows—probably because Allen's relation to humanity is still strong and mainly accurate; a certain early twist involving Vicky, Cristina and Juan should have been seen a mile away but because Allen grounds the decisions made by the trio in the always adumbral roads of the human heart, which as every Allen expert knows, wants what it wants. Gradually, though, the momentum of the picture dies down, and narrative seems to go slack. And that is when Allen unveils Maria Elena, the neurotic ex-wife of Juan's, given whirring, authentic and earthy immediacy by Penelope Cruz.

Cruz's presence as Maria Elena is given an anticipatory treatment similar to Orson Welles's Harry Lime in The Third Man. Characters speak of her, almost reverently, and finally she appears. When we first see her she is deceptively broken, apparently having just attempted to end her life. Allen allows her to be a three-dimensional being. Like Meryl Streep's Jill Davis in Manhattan, another feisty ex-wife to an artist on whom she has left an indelible influence, Cruz's Maria is bossy and probably justifiably a bit crazed. Unlike Jill, however, Maria still passionately loves Juan and he loves her, though they know their relationship is doomed. Described as a paradox by Juan, theirs is a match that is both ideal in the abstract and wholly wrong in practice. Cruz's performance is like a lit fuse attached to the film's stick of dynamite, and it's her turn that summons the most humor and pathos, a realization that hits you the hardest in her final powerful scene.

Though she is his newest regular muse, Allen may have--subconsciously or not--at best mixed feelings about Scarlett Johansson. In Match Point she was a failing actress, incapable of following through with her goals. In Scoop she was something of a female stand-in for him. Vicky Cristina Barcelona finds her embodying an inexpressive, untalented artist who describes herself as lacking in talent. Is Allen making a sly suggestion about Johansson that possibly goes over her head? Is it sexism, a study of sexism or the crass stereotyping of the blonde beauty as a worthless but shiny ornament?

Allen films, perhaps especially his relationship comedies, inevitably travel down such beaten paths by now, that describing their plots is less interesting than discussing some of the subtext. A dining scene involving two couples allows the audience to hear the words spoken by one of the foursome, “There's this joke...” Allen lets music play over the rest. The idea of humor is almost enough by itself now. There are still some one-liners, but they are less stale and transparently Allen prerequisites and more organically birthed from the flow of conversations. Maria's commentary about the Chinese language had the audience roaring with laughter. Allen seems to have found, once again, that people are funny not primarily because of what they say but rather how they say it, who they are saying it to and why, and where all of that comes from.

What to make of Allen pointing to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt? Allen's “thrillers,” whether comedic (Manhattan Murder Mystery) or straight (Match Point), have owed pieces and perhaps swathes from the master of suspense. Deeper still, is Allen making a comment pertaining to the supremacy of the auteur as, in Bushian terms, “decider,” of the merit of his own work? It became concretely, almost universally believed that Hitchcock reportedly considered the Joseph Cotten-starrer to be his best film, or at least his personal favorite. (This mythically recurrent "fact" would be contradicted in the book written about the master of suspense by Francois Truffaut.) Allen's own idiosyncratic positions on his own work have frustrated and amused fans and followers; his willingness to disregard the claims of critics pining for a return to Annie Hall almost legendary.

Nevertheless, Allen can generally consider Vicky Cristina Barcelona a success, but oddly enough it's most effective when it averts its gaze from the truly joyless American, Allenesque archetypes and finds visceral pleasure in the fireworks set off by the Juan and Maria pairing given life by the voluptuous Spanish Cruz and Bardem. This may indeed be the breakthrough Allen acolytes have been desiring for so long, but it will have to be retroactively labeled as such in the wake of his future, unforeseen canon: the final frontier for Allen, it seems, may not have much to do with the same old snobbish pseudo-intellectuals who so routinely populate his work but rather the beings that seem more like him, the impassioned but tortured artist, whose scales and measures of triumph and failure are more reasonably set to the corresponding standards imposed by his or herself? Bullets Over Broadway was a tautly calibrated statement about the perils of losing that uncompromising, artistic stubbornness. Allen's own life and career point to this, and with this film he seems to be better than halfway home. That may be an incensing reality in some ways, but it's more progress than most make. Allen, I'm sure, isn't satisfied. He shouldn't be—it would go against his nature—but he has more to hang his proverbial hat on to than nearly all of his peers. One can hope next time he allows himself to get out of his own way. He's a treasure, and he should recognize that without embarrassment or modesty, false or otherwise.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kill the Umpire (1950)

When does benign fanaticism finally go too far? When do the passions and obsessions of the individual become so all-consuming as to constitute destructive irresponsibility? (And how can those passions and obsessions be successfully channeled into productive means and attributes?) Like the compulsive gambler in a casino or the dipsomaniac in a bar, some take contests of sports too far, particularly when they attend such an event. Sometimes the fixation becomes specific, as in Tony Scott's abysmal thriller The Fan, which found Robert DeNiro playing his umpteenth introverted and deplorable psychopath, this time to its least potential. Comedy can often get points across with greater ease than any other genre because deep down most people love laughing at things that are true. So when Drew Barrymore finds herself battling her boyfriend's singularly crazed love for the Boston Red Sox in Fever Pitch, many immediately sympathize and enjoy the symmetry the Farrellys created, basing a romantic-comedy's premise in the widespread, commonly shared experience of wrestling with the extremities of rooting for your home team.

Kill the Umpire, directed by the old Warner Brothers work horse, Lloyd Bacon (working for Columbia at this time), and starring William Bendix, is a film about deceptively simple matters that are actually important; in a similar kind of dichotomy, it's a fundamentally congenial movie that skips across some troubling particulars like the proverbial flat stone across the river, though at times a little awkwardly and haphazardly. Bendix plays Bill Johnson, an insatiable baseball fanatic whose devotion to the great game is so tremendous he routinely skips his duties at work. A man with two daughters, his most personal child is not his own but rather his old girl's boyfriend, who plays baseball, and whose games regularly motivate Johnson to shirk all other matters. It all leads to a confrontational scene over the dinner table, with Bill, his daughters, his wife Betty (Una Merkel) and his wife's father, Jonah Evans (Ray Collins). Betty has reached her limit and is threatening to pack her suitcase and leave her husband. If it weren't a Bendix madcap comedy, and if we weren't conditioned to respond to this as we are, we would probably find the entire scenario at least partially disturbing.

Bill's monomania is disturbing, at least in its own way. He becomes embarrassingly drunk on the first day of his new job, which, needless to say, concludes disastrously. His love for baseball has led him to consider umpires to be awful beings, frequently wrong in their on-field judgment calls and generally annoying creatures. His own father-in-law, Jonah, was an umpire. This coupled with the usual in-law grievances ensure that Bill and Jonah are rarely on the same page. Fortunately, the screenplay allows this aspect of the story its due, and proceeds onward. Collins is his usual sturdy, reliably cool self, with that peculiarly authoritative mien he always had, whether in Citizen Kane or episodes of Perry Mason. Betty reasons the one way Bill can provide for his family while somehow partaking in the game of baseball is to become an umpire like her father. For a little while Bill has none of it but he is worn down by his brood.

After an interminable period in which Bill learns how to become an umpire (it is like one of those old army training films made into a baseball umpire picture and played entirely for laughs), the plot becomes superficially more interesting while shifting its focus away from Bill's rather enormous flaws. Bill and his friend have been selected as umpires by the owner of a baseball league in Texas. Soon thuggish gambling operators target Bill, attempting to bribe him so that their team will be victorious in close games. It is here where the plot becomes truly madcap in almost every conceivable way, culminating in a rambunctious chase sequence with unimpressive rear projection.

Bendix's turn is unmistakably charming in that mugging, knowing way that is typically all wrong for any kind of delicate comedy. There are some jokes that work on multiple levels; Bendix sells them for everything he's got. The film heightens Bill's obvious childishness by portraying him as a cuddly buffoon who finds himself most appreciated by a group of children playing sandlot baseball midway through the 78-minute picture. That scene has some quiet poignancy deep within its silliness, even if the script incessantly underlines every thematic point so that everyone even in the vicinity of the movie can completely understand.

Everything about Kill the Umpire is positively cute, harmless and gently endearing, even if it predictably chooses to not follow through with its apparently unintentional early pointedness. Not the most salubrious meal, it's a movie that nonetheless exposes many of the overarching struggles Hollywood has been the unquestionable center of. There is a satirical bite cavernously hidden within the dermis of the work, but it has nothing to do with rote third act mustache-twirling mob villains, no matter how guiltily fun they may be in the most filmically cursory of ways. There's a pain in Merkel's Betty in that dinner scene that is real. Her husband is perpetually immature; he's a pitiable drunk; he's a boorishly inert and rudderless slob when confronting anything outside his precious diamond with its balls and strikes, hits and outs. Comedies are no less comedic because they derive their humor from the corporeal day-to-day lives of people. Bendix makes Bill comprehensively understandable not because of some ungainly (and wholly unnecessary) back-story about the sources of his baseball fervor. Bill is just the way he is because that is who he is. His transformation from ump-loathing baseball nut to the blindfolded symbol of on-field arbiter of justice—a characteristic made all the more lucidly, indeed, overtly, literal with his accidental but self-inflicted temporary condition of seeing double that causes him to make his calls twice over (thus earning the nickname Bill “Two-Call” Johnson)—is rooted in his love of the game, not because he's a changed man. Those kids playing sandlot spell it out for him more than they do for us, and that is why despite the thematic underlining, the dialogue is probably appropriate, at least to a reasonable extent. Bill needed to hear the truth—you need an umpire for the sake of the game. It's obviously a socially applicable truth. Well, for Bill, maybe not so obviously.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Out of the Past (1947)

(This is a review for and its month-long look at classic film noir...)

With Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur crafted the most somberly poetic, unforgettably spellbinding of all American film noirs. Never has the ineluctably rendered force of doom been more palpably, hauntingly captured. Noir at its essence is about people making bad choices, and having to live with the consequences of their actions. Many noirs take place in flashback, meticulously detailing the protagonist's descent into the muck and mire of the grim, harsh world in which he has woefully found himself. Others are linear in presentation, mysteriously and dramatically emphasizing the twists, blind alleys and unforgiving bumps in the road. The metaphysical imperative of Out of the Past's dreamlike narrative—which has an approximately thirty-minute flashback in which the principal lets another character know some dirty secrets before returning to the perpendicular story—is foretold in its title. The protagonist has tried to outrun his past and hide from it, and for a while he succeeds. Yet he cannot escape it. No one ever can.

Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, henceforth Jeff Markham, a role offered to Dick Powell and John Garfield among others. Despite the superficial similarities to other performances by those and other actors, it is impossible to now see anyone as the character but Mitchum. With his performance, he would create his on-screen persona—a dour, laconic, sleepy-eyed inscrutability. That aura could be molded to fit the qualities of probity (as it already had been in his Oscar-nominated performance in the 1945 William A. Wellman war picture, Story of GI Joe) or villainy. Tourneur, the gifted humanist, approaching a genre some insist represents the withering of humanism while others contend it is just a filmically dark mirror held up to humanism, whose astonishing cinematic fluency and melange of emotional and cerebral flourishes enabled him to gracefully delve into the humanity of the inhuman specters of his excellent horror films for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man), opted for the richest course. Markham is merely a man whose meaninglessly factitious and unpleasant life as half of a lowly two-man detective agency (“We called ourselves detectives,” he says with mocking ruefulness) has led him nowhere fast. When he spots a deliriously sensual exit ramp he decides to turn off, all the while knowing that tragedy inevitably awaits him on this new course. Tourneur communicates the intoxicating, ill-fated pull of temptation with immeasurable sensitivity and skill. For Mitchum, the conscious acceptance of his own doom seems to be an innate piece of his entire being, remarkably heightened by the equally scintillating and profound skein of a screenplay written by Daniel Mainwairing (as Geoffrey Homes), based on his novel, “Build My Gallows High” (the title of the film in Great Britain). Markham is not a simplistically pathetic dope who dreams of a bright future that will never be. Out of the Past's extirpation of any hope for Markham is exhaustively mounted but entirely serene, leaving the conditions so that the final effect is like watching a fish resignedly swimming upstream, doomed to be overtaken.

While immediately portraying the emerging threat to Markham's solitude, Out of the Past begins by illustrating the basic, jejune pleasures Markham could forever partake in. He is fishing at a lake with his girlfriend, the gentle, simple Ann (Virginia Huston). He's a man at ease, his knowing guard finally whittled down just a little as he has taken to his new life. He now owns a gasoline station in the small town of Bridgeport, California, near Mono Lake, far away from the gritty, seedy New York City streets of his past. He contentedly flirts with Ann. This opening scene is the happiest and lightest of the picture (both temperamentally and visually). Yet an ominousness is faintly cast upon it. Ann notices that clouds are gathering in the sky above. She continually questions him, and the way he answers her, by slyly dodging the pointedness behind her subtly probing inquiries demonstrates the underlying tension between he and her based on matters unknown to her that relate to his shadowy past. Markham demonstrably does not fit in as he is truly of another, darker world, at least still partly bound to his past. The tragic inevitability of Markham's past revisiting him and pulling him back from this time and place is perhaps the quintessence of film noir. This scene is the moment through which the rest of the story pierces, shattering the idyllic congruence by overturning its basis. That Markham's new life is built on a lie—or, at best, a concealment of the entire truth, primarily from Ann—could have been a cornerstone of many a film's ethical treatise. Yet Tourneur is vastly more mature than that; Out of the Past delicately mourns the unraveling of Markham's well-intentioned impulse to seek refuge, physical, emotional and spiritual, just as surely as it possesses a distinctively, limpidly sober assessment of every character and their tragic turns.

The emerging threat to Markham's possible paradise is a henchman for a powerful, rich gangster named Whit Sterling. Sterling is played by Kirk Douglas in his second film role, his performance honed to perfection, its unctuousness and businesslike gravity conveying mercilessness beneath the collected exterior. Sterling's employee, Joe Stefanos, played by Paul Valentine, who gives a quietly sensitive portrayal in what is usually a shallow role, contacts Markham and instructs him that Sterling wishes to see him. This act, of the past catching up with Markham, propels everything that follows. Markham drives Ann on his way to Sterling's palatial estate overlooking Lake Tahoe, telling her everything about his past life as an unscrupulous gumshoe after warning her that much of it will hurt her. Ann accepts the burden of the truth. Firstly, his real name is Markham, not Bailey. Subsequently, Markham recounts a sordid tale of theft, selfishness, lust, murder and betrayal.

In the first scene of the flashback, we are introduced to Sterling and Markham's partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). Sterling has been shot by his very own woman, who has apparently stolen $40,000 from him. Yet Sterling cares more about possessing the woman than the lost money. Meanwhile, Fisher reckons that Sterling is still alive because, “A dame with a rod is like a guy with a sewing needle.” Words to remember. Sterling wants Markham to find his moll, Kathie Moffat, and “bring her back.” He will pay Markham $10,000, half now, half when she has been brought back to him. Markham thinks it over for a couple of seconds and says, “Okay.”

Eventually Markham, in his hunt for Moffat, finds himself in Acapulco. He's sitting in a little cafe staying cool, positioned so he can watch who enters and exits the establishment. In one of the great iconic shots of noir, Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat almost magically appears, walking in from the oppressive heat, dressed in an ostentatious white outfit and ladies hat. The effect is startling in a plethora of ways. Viewed from Markham's perspective, her pulchritudinous features instantly demand our attention; the contrast between her figure's movements against the cool darkness of the large room is breathtaking; the use of the ceiling light illuminating the table at which she sits brings her into clear focus just as she accentuates her shapeliness by sitting down; between the white dress and the large circular hat, she may look like an angel. She certainly looks like a heaven-sent dream to Markham, who is unable to belie his true reading of Moffat, even to Ann: “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun, and I knew why Whit didn't care about the forty grand.”

Moffat is one of the grandest creations in the lexicon of noir. Surpassing the tropes of the femme fatale while constituting an archetypal breakthrough all at once, she is more powerfully natural and seductively vulnerable than any other temptress the genre has to offer. She is the ne plus ultra of her type. Her crystalline, enigmatically dark and knowing eyes emit an incapacitating nimbus. Her words are often as sweet as nectar, their rhythm a steady, lustful tonic. She is fierce and sexy, girlish and womanly all at once. Her ability to playact is astounding, and the speed with which she is able to morph into something darkly malevolent, intensely unsettling. Not knowing her back-story, we are left to speculate where she comes from and what she genuinely is. Why did she allow herself to become a hoodlum's central fixation? Her maid tells Markham that she was pushed around and beaten by Sterling. Was it this kind of treatment that created the stone-hearted cruelty beneath her beguiling exterior? Or had she been long scheming for an opportune moment in which to brazenly attempt to murder Sterling and steal some of his “dough” for herself? The courting between Markham and Moffat is linearly realistic, yet the filmic technique of Tourneur's, marinating the long flashback in an achingly erotic phantasmagoria of alluring cinematic compositions bathes the entire affair in a heady sultriness. She tests him as women are apt to do, making herself only more irresistible, all the while “sizing him up,” perceptively sensing his identity as a tenacious, professional man Sterling would deploy to find her.

Moffat, while a comprehensively, empathetically drawn character, like every considerable personage in the film, is also the most poisonous and lethal of all femme fatales, her avarice unquenchable, her ruthlessness unsurpassed. Greer is a wonderment, and at her most devastating when using every last ounce of the femme half of femme fatale. Beyond her beauty, Moffat is an especially sinister and effective seductress because she holds a certain power over men, who continually underestimate her, and her emotional pleas and retorts are weaved with the adroitness of a spider spinning its web. Upon seeing her and only barely speaking with her, Mitchum's Markham finds his stoic cynicism melted away by sheer carnality. Their respective outlooks on the world are encapsulated when they go out on the town. She's playing roulette. Markham takes note of her unchecked exuberance, her willingness to put it all on the line and admonishes, “That's not the way to win.” She counters, “Is there a way to win?” “There's a way to lose more slowly,” he notes, explaining his fatalistically droll outlook on life. On a moonlit Mexican beach he becomes wholly lost to her. Much of the sequence is excellently composed against the backdrop of fishing nets, indicating Markham's capture. Moffat attempts to disarm him. “I didn't know what I was doing. I, I didn't know anything except how much I hated him,” she says, speaking of Sterling. With each new word she tilts her bewitching face closer and closer to Markham's. “But I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?” He's already disarmed, and now a goner. “Baby, I don't care.” Their consummation is imminent.

Every character is drawn with enriching compassion. Moffat and Markham enjoy a dizzyingly blithe period similar to that of a “honeymoon”; Moffat's entire demeanor is one of unchecked happiness. Beyond the trappings of cynically using “the dupe,” Moffat seems truly infatuated with Markham, as he is with her. Only when their past catches up with them does she change (revert?) into something far darker and colder. What would have happened had such a situation not presented itself? The past found Markham and Moffat, however, just as it finally finds Markham in the film's first ten minutes. Sterling, though abusive and cruel, understandable in his fits of anger and jealousy when he confronts Markham and Moffat, both of whom have betrayed him. Valentine's Stefanos envies Markham's intelligence, and as such displays surprising depths. He is haunted by an act of violence he commits, shuddering as he recalls it to Moffat.

The chiaroscuro lighting by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who photographed the 1940 Stranger on the Third Floor, often considered the quintessential pre-Maltese Falcon noir) is nothing short of being thoroughly mesmeric. Musuraca superlatively etches complex monochromatic moving paintings, brought to exacting detail exceptionally composed with a gentle fill light. In another case of the film being both a standard-bearer for film noir and a truly transcendent motion picture, Musuraca's fill light allowed Musuraca to play, usually quite subtly, with the key lights, while going against the much more familiar genre convention of casting stark pools of dark and light. The result befits the picture perfectly; the lighting captures the ambidexterity and tonal nuances of the story and all of the dramatic participants.

Evidently, according to Jeff Schwager, who read all versions of the screenplay for Film Comment, Mainwaring's as well as James M. Cain's drafts were largely “lousy” and that the bulk of the dazzling dialogue was written by Frank Fenton, a “B-movie” writer who in 1957 co-wrote John Ford's The Wings of Eagles. The screenplay contains an enormity of lacerating lines of dialogue for all of the main characters, directed at one another, but it is the self-inflicted wounds that cut most deeply. This, before Markham has made love to the black widow: “I went to Pablo's that night. I knew I'd go every night until she showed up. I knew she knew it. I sat there and drank bourbon and I shut my eyes, but I didn't think of a joint on 56th Street,” he recalls after being told by Moffat that Pablo's, adjacent to a cinema, will remind him of a place on 56th Street in New York City. “I knew where I was and what I was doing. What a sucker I was.”

Roy Webb's darkly romantic main theme helps distill the essence of the tale, its loveliness heavily tinged with tragic despondence. Webb's lush score, which he often distills into dissonant chords to underline certain moments of ominousness, helps enable one to more fully comprehend the theme of contrasts. Markham, at separate times, has found himself in two triangles. One, from his past, with a “bad” woman, and her “bad” man, and one in a small California town, with a “good” woman and a “good” man named Jim (Richard Webb), who, as he tells Markham, has known Ann since they were children, when he long ago “fixed her roller skates.” Markham's interventions with one pairing, too awful for him, and with another, too innocent for him, are both underscored by the enchantingly melodious languidness of Webb's evocative score and the contrast is made singularly accurate by the fidelity with which it is associated with Markham. Webb composed terrific horror movie scores for Tourneur's Val Lewton films as well as usually sparse and terse themes for noirs like Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase and Fritz Lang's Clash by Night along with many other films.

The socio-political implications of Tourneur's tapestry are, like the film, subtle but charged with stunning potency. In the wake of the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century, in a time of rampant disillusionment and crushing disappointment, not unlike the common experience that greatly influenced the writings of men in the wake of the Great War in which they had found themselves—Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dos Passos—Tourneur creates a societal commentary. The jubilant licentiousness that Markham finds is in Mexico, outside the borders of America. At this time, without a genuine friend in the world he knows, he latches on to the brightly and burningly lascivious life he believes will be an answer to his life of endless questions and furtive dealings. Postwar discontentment in this way mutates into a vast, sorrowful breeding ground for greater efforts of self-evaluation and highly possible amorality. Tourneur, the son of Maurice Tourneur, seemed to cherish the outdoors and countryside, and as his other film noir, Nightfall (1957) demonstrated, his interpretation of the country, as represented by the harmonic beauty that belonged to it was a natural contrast to the suffocating sprawl, paranoia and unease of the gloomy urban setting. No noir has captured this paradigm as gracefully as this film, however.

Tourneur's command is glorious, his mise-en-scene continuously the art of a master at the absolute height of his powers. Consider one shot, early in the picture, when Markham has opened the car's passenger door for Ann to get in, before he drives her off so he can tell her the entire lurid affair. Tourneur fastidiously composes a powerful shot of Ann sitting in the passenger seat while Markham walks around the car, drops in and positions himself behind the driver's wheel. She is framed precisely so that the passenger side of the window creates a frame around her, and Markham remains outside of it even after he has entered the vehicle. It lasts for ten seconds, and it's Tourneur's incisive way of informing the viewer that this relationship will not conclude on a note of happiness only just seen at the lake five minutes earlier in the film's running time. This plays out partly as a provocatively visual reinforcement of Markham's statement to Ann seconds earlier, when speaking of their relationship, “It's not going to work, is it?”

When Markham exits his car in the morning and walks up to Sterling's estate overlooking Lake Tahoe, watching Ann move into the driver's seat and begin driving away, Tourneur composes a stately, important shot that illustrates Markham's virtual imprisonment. He is shot from behind against the estate driveway's steel gate, looking like a prisoner dwarfed by imposing bars.

The story shifts after Markham meets Sterling again. Sterling has another job for Markham and it involves tax evasion and blackmail. Markham soon discovers that Sterling has taken Moffat back into the fold. In the end she ran back to what she knew. A tense, outstandingly written scene over breakfast finds the three of them attempting to find some kind of civilized ground on which to discuss their current position as relates to one another. Douglas and Tourneur allow the gangster's cruelty to show more, as Sterling plays it into a cutting interlocutory, taking actual digs at Markham while formally complimenting him. Afterwards, Moffat whines that she couldn't help concluding her odyssey back in Sterling's treacherous orbit. “You can never help anything, can you?” Markham states with hurtful anger. “You're like a leaf that blows from one gutter to another.”

When Markham at least nominally goes along with Sterling's assignment (there is no need to rob anyone of the surprises that come with the details) he finds himself in a nightmarishly bizarre urban jungle called San Francisco during one long, labyrinthine night. Important characters and places begin to take particular meanings (the slippery and slimy “Leonard Eels”; the self-absorbed femme fatale doppelganger to Moffat and ephemerally loyal Meta Carson, played by Rhonda Fleming; even the establishment “Teeter's” points to the precariousness of certain fates to be decided). Tourneur and Musuraca display greater fidelity to noirish lighting staples here, but the backdrop is of significant import, as the entire experience is like one elaborate cat-and-mouse game as well as a particularly engrossing charade and slyly sinister simulacrum created by nefarious foes with whom Markham must contend.

Tourneur actually frames Markham during another sequence against a framed picture of Moffat just as the theme of a character being framed is narratively explored. Late in the picture, when it seems Markham and Moffat have, in their own ways, perhaps resigned themselves to a certain ignominious fate together Tourneur shoots Markham in a light foreground while Moffat, appearing completely at peace, reservedly sedate, wearing what oddly resembles a nun's habit, emerges from the depths of the dark shadows behind him. It's a scene of troubling tranquility, ambiguously, abstractedly eerie, fatalism given a pulsating heartbeat.

Out of the Past is the consummate film noir, yet it completely exceeds such designations. It's an elegant crime drama that plays out like a forlorn ballad, with each note leading into the next integral piece of the reverie. Peopled with definitively carved but wholly natural, extensively rounded individuals who encircle one another in an almost predetermined contest with earthly lives and eternal souls on the line, hopelessly doomed, and ostensibly given the worst of burdens: knowing that they are.