Categories
Mystery/Noir

Phantom Lady

Some Hollywood films today make a painfully self-conscious effort to have a “strong woman” character. The screenwriter gives her some dialogue with the male lead in which she says something cringeworthy like “You don’t have to take care of me, I’m a strong woman!”, the actress mentions in her press interviews that she “was drawn to the chance to play a strong woman”, and the director avows at the awards ceremony that, “as a feminist and ally, I wanted to have a strong woman character for a change”. In film noir, in contrast, women characters were routinely tough, smart, ruthless, lusty, or violent not because anyone was trying to make a statement, break the mold, or virtue signal for critics, but because that’s just the way it was. A fine example of this principle, as well as all the other core elements of classic noir, is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady.

Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, this 1944 film tells the story of an innocent man named Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) who is convicted of murder because his only alibi is a “phantom lady” (Fay Helm). He meets her at a bar, impulsively takes her to the theater, and parts with her afterwards, all of which interaction is witnessed by many people. Yet when Police Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) investigates Henderson’s story, no one remembers her, and Henderson himself says that he never asked her name. Henderson looks guilty and perhaps out of his mind as well, but Carol Richman (Ella Raines) who loves him, believes his story and embarks on a perilous effort to find out the truth. She hits several very dead ends, but then Henderson’s mysterious old friend Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) returns to town and pledges to help find the real killer.

Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 23 | Nitrate  Diva

Ella Raines owns this movie, outshining the male leads with presence and verve (Not to diminish the solid supporting work by Gomez, who was also in another film noir I recommend, Ride the Pink Horse, and by noir staple Elisha Cook Jr.). She’s credibly tough and smart, and in the justifiably famous drumming scene with Cook and a hot jazz combo, sexually potent as well. Raines had a terrific 1944, with five films in theaters, including another excellent Siodmak work (The Suspect with Charles Laughton). She was much in demand until not long after she made another of my recommendations, The Web, in 1947, at which point she transitioned to only occasional movie and TV work. I believe this was because she married and started a family, but from the purely selfish viewpoint of a film fan, it was a loss.

The other key presence here, unsurprisingly, is Siodmak, who with the possible exception of Anthony Mann did the most over his career to define the film noir genre. Siodmak is most remembered for Burt Lancaster’s legendary debut film The Killers, but he made many other excellent films, my favorites being this one and the noirish thriller The Spiral Staircase.

Shelf Life: Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) | Movie Mezzanine | Noir  movie, Old hollywood movies, Film noir

Siodmak’s German Expressionist artistic roots serve him well here, including in his compositions and lighting choices (e.g., of Tone’s hands). I also love his offbeat decision to show Henderson’s murder trial entirely through the reactions of the courtroom audience, with the participants being only off-screen voices.

Siodmak is aided immeasurably in his efforts by cinematographer Elwood “Woody” Bredell, who also worked with him on The Killers. Bredell is not well-known, but he was a key contributor to noir style. Credit for the memorable look of the film should go as well to the art directors (Robert Clatworthy, John B. Goodman) and set decorators (Russell A. Gausman, Leigh Smith), particularly for Marlow’s surrealistic sculpting studio.

Phantom Lady has a few implausible elements in its plot, but they are no match for the assured stylishness of Siodmak’s direction and Raines’ performance. Even in what was a powerhouse year for film noir, Phantom Lady stands out as a must-see of the genre.

Phantom Lady (1944) | Screenshots taken from the film Phanto… | Flickr

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Scandal Sheet

The directors whose work I have praised repeatedly on this site are all household names except for Phil Karlson. He rarely got decent budgets and spent much of his career at studios and in positions that weren’t worthy of his talent. Yet he managed over the years to make some highly compelling movies that conveyed his bleak and brutal perspective on the human condition. I have recommended two of his collaborations with producer Edward Small that starred John Payne Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street. Let me add to those a recommendation of another Karlson-Small collaboration, this one with a bigger budget and a bigger star than the director usually had to hand: The 1952 noir Scandal Sheet.

The plot: Circulation at the New York Express has been soaring since an editor named Mark Chapman (or is he???) converted it into a tabloid full of sensationalist stories, ruffling the feathers of the bluenoses on the board as well as idealistic features writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed). Said editor (Broderick Crawford) is aided in his work by ace newshound Steve McCleary (John Derek), who digs up dirt for his mentor while failing to successfully romance June. But Chapman’s world is upended when a woman from his past re-appears, and he embarks on a series of desperate, violent, actions that McCleary begins to investigate. Noirish themes of moral compromise and inevitable doom ensue.

This film echoes the summit of Crawford’s career, namely the 1949 Best Picture winner All The King’s Men. Again Crawford effectively portrays a domineering yet vulnerable man and again he has a father-son style relationship with a character played by John Derek, although in this case Derek is his mentee rather than literally his son, and the relationship is much warmer. Indeed, the art in Crawford’s performance is how he simultaneously conveys his rising panic that his secrets could come out and his admiration and pride that his protégé is so effectively hunting him down. The other echo of ATKM is the magnificent Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, which combines the look of urban realism (despite this being filmed on the Columbia back lot and using some stock shots of New York City) with a dash of film noir-style camerawork. The opening shot of this movie, as the camera moves over a cluster of fire escapes filled with onlookers and a murder witness, is a clinic by Karlson and Guffey on how to pull an audience in the particular world of a movie right from the first.

John Derek was irresistible to women, but was not a particularly good actor. The quality supporting work here comes instead from Reed, who shows she could do more than be the wholesome All-American mom who serves milk and cookies. Henry O’Neil is also affecting as an unemployed, alcoholic, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist looking for a way back.

Karlson’s serves up a bracing dose of cynicism leavened with glimmers of hope, and manages to maintain tension throughout the story despite the fact that under the conventions of noir, the ending is never really in doubt. The only person who didn’t like Karlson’s adaptation of the 1944 novel The Dark Page was Samuel Fuller, who wrote it. Perhaps it was just vanity that made Fuller resent anyone other than himself adapting his own work, but movie fans were the winner because it inspired him to start making his own films, including classics like Pickup on South Street (my recommendation here).

p.s. Sadly, Crawford’s alcohol addiction kept him from building on his cinematic successes of the late 1940s and early 1950s. But he did have a late-career revival on television, including starring on Highway Patrol and, bizarrely enough, hosting an early episode of Saturday Night Live.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Sweet Smell of Success

Many films deservedly flop at the box office because they simply aren’t any good. But a subset of gems meet the same fate because they are too far ahead of their time, violate audience expectations, or both. On the honorable list of the highest quality box office failures of all time, an unforgettable 1957 movie has a strong argument for top slot: Sweet Smell of Success.

The plot: J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is an all powerful, Walter Winchell-esque columnist who can make or destroy lives and careers at his whim. Every Big Apple press agent wants Hunsecker to boost their clients and spread their gossip, none moreso than the amoral, ambitious Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). But J. J. refuses to carry Falco’s items unless he breaks up the romantic relationship between a clean cut musician (Martin Milner) and J.J.’s sheltered, brow-beaten, younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison). When the young lovers prove determined to stay together, J.J. and Sidney realize that even more ruthless actions will be needed. This comes naturally to both of them, though only Sidney has the self-knowledge to admit it to himself.

sweet-smell-of-success-movie-seven - Vague Visages

Alexander Mackendrick, known for classic Ealing Studio comedies like The Man in the White Suit seems on paper to have been a bizarre directorial choice. But he triumphed with this unfunny, un-British, material including persuading his tempestuous movie star-producer (Lancaster) that the film should end with a confrontation not between the male leads, but between J.J. and his sister Susan, the one person J.J. cared about enough to be damaged by. Mackendrick also cleverly smeared Vaseline on Lancaster’s glasses to prevent him from focusing, giving the actor a terrifying, wall-eyed stare. Lancaster was furious at Mackendrick for the film’s poor box office performance and refused to work with him again, which may have contributed to the rapid decline of the fine director’s career after Sweet Smell of Success. But at least Mackendrick went out on top with his work here.

Mackendrick also had input into the wood-alcohol cocktail script, which was mainly the work of Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. It’s a endlessly quotable work of art in itself; even without the actors’ fine delivery the lines would be brutally effective. The plotting is equally so, most particularly the hard-to-watch scene in which Sidney pimps out a cocktail waitress who needs a favor and becomes an bargaining chip in his dirty game.

Josh Olson Presents SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS - American Cinematheque

Lancaster is effectively malicious here, both in his dealings with Curtis and also with Harrison as his cringing sister (if Sweet Smell of Success has a weakness, it’s that the relationship between Milner and Harrison is the least interesting one in the movie). But Curtis, viewed at the time as a lightweight pretty boy, is a revelation. In his walk, his physical deference to Lancaster, his furtive looks, his desperate patter, and his surface smoothness over underlying panic, he creates one of cinema’s indelible characters. Grasping ambition has rarely been so vividly captured by a movie performer. Lancaster said that Curtis deserved an Oscar for his performance, but the Academy didn’t even grant him a nomination. More fool them.

There is yet more to praise! Elmer Bernstein contributes an energetic jazz score and the Chico Hamilton Quintet not only sound fantastic in their scenes, but also effectively cover over the fact that Milner couldn’t play guitar at all. But even more than the superb music, this movie will always be remembered for its look.

Picking a favorite cinematographer is tough for any film buff, but for me it’s James Wong Howe, in significant part because New York City has never been shot with such luminous darkness as in Sweet Smell of Success. Howe’s shots crackle with the energy of bustling, anonymous, humanity and bring alive the combined menace and thrill that arrives when night falls on a great city. Howe’s photography here is a genius-level blend of the stylized look of film noir and the more realistic urban photography of such films as The Naked City. Howe and Mackendrick also uses camera positioning expertly to convey character and relationships, for example by using low shots to make the massive Lancaster look even more intimidating or coming in close at just the point when someone sells out morally so that you can see it on their face and right down into their soul (presuming they have one).

Sweet Smell of Success | The Soul of the Plot

Why did such a tremendous work of cinematic art not find an audience? After the financial success of the prior year’s Trapeze, which had Lancaster and Curtis swinging through the air in tights (and screen siren Gina Lollabrigida swinging between them), their fans were expecting a chance to swoon again at their gorgeous heroes. Instead, they got a couple of throughgoing bastards in suits in a dialogue-driven story. Tony Curtis’ female fans haunted the set hoping for a chance to glimpse their idol and can’t have been pleased to see him play a character who treats women like garbage. The unremitting cynicism of the movie may also have turned audiences off in 1957, coming a few years after the post-war film noir boom had faded. In the decades that followed, the magnificence of this movie — including the against-type performances of Lancaster and even moreso Curtis — became widely appreciated, including by inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Instead of the trailer, I will close by posting this “three reasons” promotional film put out by Criterion Collection when they wisely reissued a remastered edition of Sweet Smell of Success. Even at a single minute long, it makes clear why you simply must see this classic movie.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

The Limey

Fresh off his success adapting the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh partnered with screenwriter Lem Dobbs in 1999 to produce another strong film that feels like an Elmore Leonard story: The Limey.

The plot: A greying but tough as nails Cockney career criminal known only as Wilson (Terence Stamp) finishes his latest stay in the Big House and comes to sun-soaked Los Angeles to investigate how his daughter Jennifer died (Melissa George). He is guilt-stricken over his considerable failures as a parent but loved Jennifer intensely, so much so that he can’t accept that her death was really due to an unremarkable automobile accident. Wilson’s charm is considerable, and he soon secures the assistance of two of Jennifer’s friends, an ex-con who’s gone straight (Luis Guzmán) and a modestly successful actress (Leslie Anne Warren). From them he learns that Jennifer was in a relationship with a hot shot record producer named Valentine (Peter Fonda), who has a sleazy side hiding behind his perfect tan and aggressively whitened teeth. As Wilson starts to investigate, he finds himself tangling with Valentine’s head of security (Barry Newman), assorted thugs, and federal agents who are also on Valentine’s trail. A noirish tale of vengeance and regret follows.

Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of 'The Limey' - Rolling Stone

The Limey can be enjoyed simply as a professionally produced and performed rendition of a familiar movie story line. It includes exciting action scenes and some good dramatic moments. There are also some laughs, the biggest of which comes from Stamp’s theatrical Cockney slang-filled speech delivered to a calmly befuddled Bill Duke (the director of one of my recent recommendations, Deep Cover). There’s nothing wrong with making a purely entertaining movie, but many people, including me, see something more in this film.

What is The Limey “really about”? After Gene Siskel died, Roger Ebert tried out a number of co-hosts on his television show At The Movies, my favorite of whom was B. Ruby Rich (who alas, did not get the job permanently). In their discussion here, Rich sees the movie as being a father-daughter story, whereas Ebert says its about the contrast between the genuinely tough central character and soft Californians who think they’re tough, but aren’t. Those are intriguing takes; personally I saw The Limey as being about the lingering remains of the 1960s.

Stamp and Fonda were both 1960s icons, and seeing them duel it out here in their declining years and come to terms with the harm they did along the way, makes a mournful statement on that era, particularly when Valentine says the 1960s “were just 66 and early 67 — that’s all it was”. Newman, of Vanishing Point fame, another cult figure from that era (There was also a scene with sex kitten Ann-Margret that was cut from the final film) adds to the throwback feel, as does Soderbergh splicing in flashback scenes of Stamp from the 1967 film Poor Cow. Stylistically, the adventurous editing, repetition of key images, and violation of linear chronology recalls the experimentalism of cinema in that era (Even though Soderbergh didn’t add all that in until post-production when he saw that a more conventional structure didn’t work). It all gives the film an elegiac meta-theme on top of that of the main story, making it stick with you for much longer than other films of its genre.

p.s. The DVD release of includes in its special features menu an audio commentary track that is legendary among film buffs. Rather than do the usual dull nodding along saying how great each scene and actor was, Soderbergh and Dobbs argue intensely and intelligently about how the film turned out. It’s fascinating both for what it reveals about them as people and also about how directors and screenwriters think.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Deep Cover

Deep Cover | Wonders in the Dark

Many hip-hop music fans know the hit soundtrack of Deep Cover because it featured a pre-mega fame Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. In this recommendation, I want to make a case for Deep Cover as a movie. It was a modest money maker in 1992, but got a bit lost in the avalanche of drugs and crime flicks that Hollywood put out in that era. I re-watched it recently for the first time since in debuted in theaters, and was struck by how it laid to waste its competition in the genre.

Based on a story by accomplished screenwriter Michael Tolkin, the film centers on an apparently straight-laced cop named Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishbourne) whose father was a drug-addicted criminal and met a violent end. A shifty DEA official (Charles Martin Smith) sees in Stevens the ideal personality for an undercover agent in the drug trade. Stevens agrees, and under the name John Hull begins penetrating the seamy, violent underworld of Los Angeles. But he develops doubts not just about whether the investigation is morally justifiable but also about his own nature.

Director Bill Duke (on the right in this photo taken on the set) is one of many talented artists who have a higher profile among Blacks than whites. To the extent white filmgoers know him at all, it’s mainly as a portrayer of fearsome tough guys in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies Predator and Commando. But he’s also a skilled director who has focused his cinema work on Black-centered stories (e.g., A Rage in Harlem, Dark Girls). What he achieves in Deep Cover is unique to my knowledge, namely crossing conventions of 1970s Blaxploitation with mid-20th century film noir. That could have easily crashed and burned because the former genre embraced more traditional morality tales (evidenced here in the parable-like opening sequence with Stevens’ father, Smith’s role as a white-as-rice boss with an dirty agenda, and Clarence Williams III’s role as a righteous cop/pastor blend) and the latter cherished murky gray morality and characters like Russell Stevens Jr.. But Duke mixes these potentially competing cinematic traditions into a potent cocktail with a smooth finish.

And speaking of underappreciated African-American artists, how did it take so long for Hollywood to give Laurence Fishburne a leading role? His anguished performance as a man trying to atone for his father’s sins while stomaching the rot around him gives Deep Cover psychic weight to accompany its effective action sequences. Fishburne also strikes sparks with Victoria Dillard, who plays an African art dealer who launders drug money on the side (or maybe other way around). In a wonderfully screwy yet scary role, Jeff Goldblum gives Fishburne first-class support, including providing some comic relief in this otherwise tense drama.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Blood and Wine

My endorsement of Twilight should be sufficient warning that I have a weakness for slightly flawed noirs that are rescued by old hands. In that honorable club, I would also place Bob Rafelson’s 1996 movie Blood and Wine.

The plot: Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson) is a failed wine shop owner, serial philanderer and aspiring thief. He is on thin ice with his long-suffering wife (Judy Davis) and has fallen through it entirely in the eyes of his stepson (Stephen Dorff). Alex wants to get back on top by stealing a diamond necklace from one of his wealthy clients with the aid of his beautiful young mistress (Jennifer Lopez) and an ailing professional thief (Michael Caine). But noir being noir, no sooner does Alex get the necklace in his hands than a twisty sinkhole of violence, envy, and betrayal opens up underneath his feet.

Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. Nick Villiers and Allison Cross’ screenplay has too many slow spots (especially at first), Judy Davis is miscast (Mimi Rogers, who was considered for the role, would have been better), Dorff’s performance is only so-so, and while Lopez is undeniably pretty she at this point in her young career didn’t have the acting chops to register like the femme fatales of yore. These weaknesses help explain this film’s poor box office performance and mixed critical reaction. Why then do I recommend it? Let me tell you a story.

By the mid 1990s, the legendary Sir Michael Caine was no longer getting many lead roles, and was contemplating retirement. He bought a restaurant in Miami and stopped reading scripts. But then a fellow aging giant, Jack Nicholson, reached out and said that he should re-invent himself as a character actor, starting with Blood and Wine. That Nicholson was persuasive was fortunate for movie goers more generally, and it was particularly so for this movie.

As soon as Caine comes on screen as a tubercular, bitter, cynical, dangerous, yet somehow sympathetic wreck of a man, Blood and Wine takes off. And Nicholson lights up along with him, allowing the two of them and Judy Davis (strong as usual despite this being an odd role for her) to carry us through this dark and complex tale.

There’s a certain type of ugliness that descends on some people in middle-age when they feel that life has unfairly not abided by their plans. All three of these top-rank actors gives us different shadings on this experience, be it rageful hurt (Davis), moral decay (Nicholson), or some admixture thereof (Caine). It also powers one exciting, extended sequence that ranks with the best in noir history. I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice it to say that it starts with a faked flirtation in a bar room and ends with Nicholson pawing through dying people’s pockets for loot rather than love, utterly reduced to his basest instincts.

The veteran actors’ weaving of gold from straw, coupled with Rafelson’s ability to give the viewer the sense that violence is always just around the corner, surmount the weaknesses of Blood and Wine. It’s a worthy entry in the noir genre, as well as a nice coda to Rafelson and Nicholson’s long cinematic partnership.

p.s. Years after making this movie, Lopez said that Rafelson shot a sex scene with her and Dorff that didn’t make the final edit. Rafelson’s characteristically un-Hollywood decision was a wise one artistically, because it puts the audience in the same emotional spot as Nicholson, being suspicions of a liaison but not really knowing if it happened.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Narrow Margin

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

In an era of hundred-million dollar movies that suck, I increasingly appreciate the craft and inventiveness of filmmakers who quickly turned out high-quality films on a tight budget. To supplement my recommendations of B-movie gems like My Name is Julia Ross and Plunder Road, I hereby endorse a nail-biting noir with a no-name cast that was shot in two breathless weeks in 1950: The Narrow Margin.

Based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, with a screenplay by Earl Fenton, the movie has a simple, much copied plot premise: Police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) has to make a perilous journey while protecting a former gun moll named Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) so that she can testify against the mob. Far from being grateful, she’s mouthy, sleazy, and denigrating…why can’t she be more like the goodly wife and mother in the next train car who catches Brown’s eye (Jacqueline White)? And how will he manage the heavies on board who offer him silver or lead?

This film is a triumph for then unknown director Richard Fleischer, who pulled off two impressive feats at once. First, no real budget meant no real stars, yet he got strong performances from the cast end to end. Second, despite 90% of the film being set on a train, it’s consistently kinetic and arresting when it could easily have been stagy or dull.

Of the main performers, Marie Windsor, soon to be known as “The Queen of the Bs” makes the strongest impression as a sexy, tough, bad girl. On the surface her character is reminiscent of Vera as played by Ann Savage in another famous low-budget noir that Goldsmith wrote, Detour. But Frankie has more dimensions to her nature than did Vera, as revealed in an intriguing plot development well into the movie. Of the smaller parts, Peter Brocco stands out as a businesslike gangster.

George Diskant masterfully handles the technical challenges of shooting a picture in tight spaces (I also liked his work during the tense opening sequence as Frankie and Walter encounter an assassin before they get on board). Diskant spent his career almost entirely in television and never photographed an A-movie, which is too bad given his fine work here as well as in another well-shot low budget film, Kansas City Confidential (My recommendation here).

After completing this movie so quickly for RKO in 1950, it drove Fleischer crazy that legendary weirdo mogul Howard Hughes became obsessed with it and would not at first release it as shot. Hughes’ proposed changes included reshooting the whole movie over again with bigger stars in the lead parts! He finally relented in 1952. Well-received upon release, The Narrow Margin’s reputation has only grown since, earning the film a place in every discussion of the best movies ever made on a shoestring.

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

p.s. Peter Hyams’ 1990 remake is an above-average film, but still a comedown from the original.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Tightrope

Tightrope (1984) - Moria

Long before Louisiana started offering massive tax credits to attract Hollywood productions, the state was a popular setting for crime dramas. Some played off the haunting atmosphere of the bayous (e.g., the mediocre adaptations of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, Heaven’s Prisoners and In the Electric Mist) whereas others were built around New Orleans’ pervasive corruption (e.g., The pretty good Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin romance/thriller, The Big Easy). The underappreciated 1984 Clint Eastwood vehicle Tightrope effectively exploits (in every sense) a different local cultural feature, namely the sleazier side of the sex trade that has existed in New Orleans long before Storyville because a synonym for a red light district.

The plot: Police detective Wes Block (Clint) has been unmoored since his wife abandoned him and his daughters (Jenny Beck and Clint’s real life daughter, Alison). Loving and attentive with his daughters by day, at night Block has for reasons that he can’t fully understand begun visiting prostitutes that he can sexually dominate. Block’s psychological turmoil takes on new dimensions when he is assigned to catch a serial killer who takes his fetish to deadly extremes. Meanwhile, a strong, intelligent, women’s rights advocate (Geneviève Bujold) pressures Block to respond more effectively to the threat the killer poses, and unnerves him in other ways as well. A brutal crime story and descent into emotional darkness follow.

The “cop in crisis” has been done a million times before, and is usually short-handed in a fashion that will not alienate the audience, most commonly by showing him drinking too much. “We are not so very different, you and I” is another movie staple, for example showing that both the lead police investigator and the master criminal are both smart, obsessive people. If that’s all this film had done, it would have been a serviceable but unremarkable crime drama. What makes Tightrope special is Clint Eastwood’s willingness to challenge his millions of fans by having his character wallow in muck: He’s not just drinking too much, he’s handcuffing prostitutes so that he can control them during sex. And he’s not similar to the killer only because both are smart and obsessive, but because both of their heads are psychosexual snake pits. The only parallel level of risk taking by a major international star I know of along these lines is Sean Connery’s stellar work in another of my recommendations, The Offence.

The legendary William Goldman said that a basic rule of screenwriting was that “stars will not play weak and they will not play blemished.” But every rule has exceptions. Going as far back as the flawed but intriguing 1971 film The Beguiled continuing through the multi-Oscar winning Unforgiven and up to the present day (e.g., Gran Torino, The Mule) Eastwood has never been afraid to “play blemished.” That’s a key reason why his career has been so much more artistically varied and impressive than all those Hollywood actors who only portrayed strong-jawed paladins.

Tightrope (1984) – 80's Movie Guide

The other thing that raises this film about countless other police thrillers are the female characters and the high level at which they are written and performed. Alison Eastwood isn’t just the star’s kid, she’s a fine actress and her scenes with her father have authentic emotional power. They also fill out the character of Wes Block by showing that while he’s not different from the killer in having hostile feelings towards women, he is quite different in also experiencing more tender emotions towards them. Bujold, who appeared in too few films for an actress of her talent, is also excellent here. Because she is strong enough to vulnerable with Block, and sees his own fear of being hurt, she gets under his skin in a way nothing else does. I also love that rather than portraying her as a damsel in distress, the script makes her heroic in her direct confrontation with the killer.

Richard Tuggle’s script has a few missteps here and there but is generally first-rate, putting a fresh spin on the tropes of the genre. He also got the screen credit for director, but this sure looks and feels like an Eastwood film. According to Richard Shickel’s biography of Eastwood, Tuggle had never directed a movie before and was extremely tentative on set, leading Tuggle and Eastwood to amicably work out a co-directing arrangement. Whatever precisely happened in that regard, the result is compelling.

Reaction to Tightrope was mixed when it played in theaters, with some people finding it too seedy and dark (literally and figuratively) but others appreciating the strong acting and neo-noir tone. I am very much in the latter camp, and would put Tightrope up there with Bronco Billy as Eastwood’s best work of the 1980s.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Night Stalker and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde **Double Feature**

The Night Stalker: A tribute to the 1972 TV movie that influenced The  X-Files

I’m a fan of the horror and science fiction work of writer Richard Matheson and Producer/Director Dan Curtis, including films on which they collaborated, like the electrifying Amelia segment of Trilogy of Terror (My recommendation here) Their admirers could argue forever about which of their films were the most entertaining, but purely in terms of enduring impact, the obvious choice is their 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker.

Working from an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, Matheson brilliantly met the two challenges of modern vampire movies, namely doing something new, and, having characters behave in sensible ways given that the characters would themselves have all seen vampire movies. The fresh angle to the story is provided by centering the narrative on a crusty yet charming journalist on a downward career slope: Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, who’s damn near perfect). When bodies of young women drained of blood start littering the streets of Las Vegas, Kolchak and the cops (e.g., a gruff sheriff played by Claude Akins) initially make the assumption that works for modern audiences, namely that a mentally unstable killer thinks he is a vampire. But as the cynical Kolchak investigates the ghoulish crimes and follows the police manhunt, he finds himself believing the seemingly impossible.

There’s much to cherish in the movie, which drew a massive audience and launched a cult TV series whose descendants include The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With seasoned television director John Llewellyn Moxley at the helm, the story unfolds with the right mix of suspense leavened with humor (black humor and horror are cousins, but it still takes artistry to mix them in a fashion that isn’t jarring). Although Kolchak is in a romantic relationship (with a prostitute played by Carol Lynley, because it’s a 1970s film set in Las Vegas) the most dynamic interaction comes between McGaven and Simon Oakland as editor Tony Vincenzo. Together they have the chemistry of an old married couple, with amusing bickering leavened with underlying respect. Film noir fans will also be glad to see Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr again in supporting parts as friends of Kolchak. And props to Barry Atwater, for being suitably unnerving in a part that gave him no lines.

Classic Movie Hub on Twitter: "Born Today, Aug 28, in 1915, Character Actor Simon  Oakland - 145+ roles; lots of TV; I Want to Live, Psycho, Bullitt, West  Side Story... https://t.co/tvpFsloqDl… https://t.co/OPrCcVBPWu"

You have probably heard of The Night Stalker, but you will probably not have heard of another Dan Curtis film which I suggested as a second feature on this double bill: his 1968 adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-filmed tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Curtis produced this version for ABC television, which was directed by Charles Jarrott.

The plot is too familiar to be worth summarizing, so I will concentrate on the unique aspect, which is how the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde is handled. As with the 1973 Curtis/Matheson Dracula I have recommended, the star here is Jack Palance, and he carries the whole film (no disrespect to Denholm Elliott, who is sturdy as his friend, but that part just isn’t as intriguing). Only modest changes in the makeup of literature’s most famous split personality were employed, with the film relying instead on Palance’s acting talent to differentiate the shy, bookish, respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll from the lusty and violent Mr. Hyde. Palance is up to the challenge, including given the audience at least some sympathy with the generally awful Hyde; at least he’s a lot more fun than his stuffy alter ego. The other thing that Curtis fans will appreciate is that the style, settings, tone, and music come straight out of his long-running television series Dark Shadows.

March Hyde Madness: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) |  Monster Movie Kid

The film has some weaknesses. The adapted screenplay was written by Ian McKellan Hunter, perhaps most famous for fronting Dalton Trumbo’s Oscar-winning script of Roman Holiday (If you want to know more about fronting, see my recommendation of, well, The Front). Hunter’s script is okay, but you have to imagine Matheson would have done a better job bringing Stevenson to the screen. Also, the television sized budget shows at times. It’s a bit too obvious that some scenes are shot with a single stationary camera and in the medical school scenes there’s also what looks like not entirely successful rear-screen projection, though it could be a not entirely successful matte work (either way, it’s distracting). All of that puts the film in the good category rather than the all time TV horror classic category in which The Night Stalker belongs.

If you want to learn more about how Dan Curtis made these films, including how his relationship with Matheson evolved, this interview is really worth watching.

Categories
Action/Adventure Musical Mystery/Noir

Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn Theme by Ray Anthony | Daily Doo Wop

I haven’t owned a television for a quarter century, and almost never recommend television shows because I don’t know enough to judge them. But I am happy to make an exception for a trendsetting, utterly fresh, and cool as all get out TV series that ran from 1958-1961: Peter Gunn.

Blake Edwards, prior to his fame for making the Pink Panther movies, 10, Victor Victoria, and other big screen fare, invented Peter Gunn whole cloth. Never before had a detective character been expressly invented for television versus adapted from books, pulp magazines, or radio. And unlike the hard bitten, rumpled PIs of yore, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) was stylish, smooth, and also a romantic, particularly in his flirtatious banter with chanteuse Edie Hart (Lola Albright), his gorgeous girlfriend. Edwards also broke new ground by infusing his love of jazz in every aspect of the show. Gunn works out of a jazz bar, and jazz musicians figure prominently in some of the scripts. It also serves as the default instrumental music, giving the whole series of a midnight to dawn vibe. This is all a credit to Henry Mancini, whose dynamic theme song became one of the most covered in television history.

As Gunn’s police detective friend, Herschel Bernardi gives the best performance of the series, in a part that adds some grit and gravity to what otherwise might have been overly light storytelling. Other recurring actors score with colorful parts reminiscent of Pick Up on South Street, including Billy Barty as a pool shark who knows the word on the street. The film noir look and camerawork of the series — more like what one would see in a movie that a 1950s television show — further accentuates the smoky allure of the proceedings. Also fun: An army of future stars have guest turns on the series, allowing the viewer to play “Hey, isn’t that….?”.

Peter Gunn | Linnet Moss

Yet what impresses me the most about this show is the economy of the scripts. In about 25 minutes, a new mystery is introduced, investigated, and resolved, despite the fact that almost every episode has stand alone jazz numbers or comic/romantic scenes that don’t advance the plot at all. Villains on this show don’t have lengthy trials, they either confess or shoot it out in the final minute, wrapping up each episode as a standalone adventure. On a few occasions, the storytelling is too telegraphic and thereby causes some confusion, but generally it works exceedingly well. I would recommend this show to anyone who aspires to be an screenwriter or editor because it shows how fat-free storytelling can be elevated to an art form with no loss of characterization or entertainment value.

Even though Peter Gunn has been off the air for decades, it’s fairly easy to find in DVD collections, streaming on various channels (e.g., Amazon Prime), or on YouTube. Rather than close this recommendation with a trailer, I instead embed the immortal music of a groundbreaking show. Fun trivia: The piano part on the album was played by “Little Johnny Love Williams” who went on to mega-fame as the composer of the scores of mega-hit movies.